Whoa, it's been a long time since I wrote an original post for this blog! I'm still reading my way through stacks of books, or at least trying to with a compressed time schedule, but my inspiration for writing about them has taken a hit because other projects have been calling to me.
Other projects have been calling me, but I've also realized that I had reached a point at which I started feeling obligated to write about books I enjoyed, and that cast at bit of a shadow on my enjoyment of the reading process itself. I had started reading with two minds: pure imagination (which is where the joy of reading lies) and the "what should I say in my next post?" practical side of things.
So, I've decided to take an official hiatus from Too Fond of Books. A couple of months at least, while I think about where this blog should go from here. A couple of months to read without any strings attached. A couple of months to give those other projects time to take me wherever they're going to take me.
I hope you'll still come here and make your way through the archives (as unorganized as they are). Look for me to resurface sometimes in late spring. In the meantime, I'll be more active on the Too Fond of Books Facebook page and you can find me on Twitter at @EmceeReads. You can also check out my recent distraction: a new creative nonfiction blog called Along the Branches.
Happy 2013 to all!
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Friday, November 9, 2012
(This post was first published in November 2009.)
How is it possible, I frequently wondered as I read this 846 page tome, that this is Susanna Clarke's first novel? Wow. This novel is, indeed, a tome. A brilliant, entertaining, humorous epic of a story. This is a November novel, if I ever saw one. I often found myself reading late into the night, hearing the wind lashing rain against the house, burrowing myself deeper into the blankets. On chilly, dark afternoons, I couldn't wait to get a few minutes of magic in before turning to other responsibilities.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell offers proof that some books have seasons to them. I tried to read this novel last year, but couldn't get into it--it was spring. When I picked the novel up again, it was with the caveat that the first 50 pages would have to do it or else. In those 50 pages, on a day of crummy weather, I saw the humor that I had missed the first time around. I discovered that this was a novel that would suck me in and not release me until the end. Huzzah for second chances! (Can you tell that I'm still under its spell?)
I hate to fall into the trap of comparing Clarke's book to the work of other writers, but it's unavoidable. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a 19th-century novel that just happened to be published in 2004. It sometimes reads like Dickens, with oddly named, sometimes silly minor characters; trouble-making fops, imperious matrons, and innocent girls; the villians are cold-hearted and murderous. But even more than Dickens, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell reminded me of John Crowley's Little, Big because they share a similar tradition. Both of these big novels deal with the intersection between the human world and the Land of Fairy. Both depict Fairies as a meddling, dangerous race with a penchant for small evils. Both have characters that attempt to straddle the line between the two worlds.
However, though Clarke's novel and Crowley's have these similarities, they are very different in plot and style. I have mixed feelings about Crowley's novel; I often found it frustrating and confusing. Clarke's novel is brilliantly plotted, has a linear structure, and has a great deal of humor. I followed her every step of the way, even when the storyline necessarily got more and more complex. And though it is never easy to follow a story teller into the Land of Fairy, Clarke manages to keep readers with her even there.
Plot in a nutshell: Magic has been gone from England for about 500 years. Though there are theoretical magicians aplenty--these are gentlemen who study the history of magic from books--it is thought that there are no practical magicians left who can actually cast successful spells. This is until the reclusive magician Mr. Norrell comes out of seclusion and challenges the theoretical magicians. If he can actually perform an astounding feat of magic for them to witness, they will renounce any and all study of magic themselves, leaving Mr. Norrell as the only magician in all of England.
Mr. Norrell's goal is to bring magic back to England, but to control it so that only his approved "brand" of magic will prevail. He is feted and celebrated throughout England until Jonathan Strange, a dashing young magician, comes on the scene. Norrell reluctantly sees an ally in Strange and takes him on as his pupil. Norrell believes they will eventually form a partnership; he expects Strange to unquestioningly follow his lead. But it is not long before the young Strange grows weary of Norrell's conservative grip on magic. He chafes at the safe and modest limits Norrell imposes on the magic they practice, convinced that they are not delving deeply enough into the power that magic, especially with the help of fairies, can wield.
In this novel, not only do we get a classic tale of good versus evil, but also a glimpse of what can happen when we meddle with the natural order of things. When Norrell reluctantly performs a bit of black magic to endear himself with a politician who can help his ambitions, he opens England to a world of harm. Strange, too, courts dangerous forms of magic--all in the name of good, but sometimes a benevolent intent can have terrible consequences.
I hope that you have the patience to give this big book a try. As Michael Dirda put it in his Washinton Post review of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell:
"Many books are to be read, some are to be studied, and a few are meant to be lived in for weeks. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is of this last kind. Clarke reportedly took 10 years to write her novel, and she counts on our willingness to linger over conversational repartee and Gothic hugger-mugger, to attend to the inventiveness of each episode, to slow down and savor the period style...."
It really is worth it.
Saturday, October 27, 2012
Here are three titles in honor of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which is connected to All Souls Day. Dia de los Muertos is a day in Mexican culture that celebrates the lives of loved ones who have died and is set aside to pray for and honor them.
These books do a little of both. Death figures predominantly in all of them and so there is a sense of sadness underlying each one, but they also reveal great beauty, love, and a celebration of life. Christopher Coake, Kevin Brockmeier, and Markus Zusak offer readers what is best about fiction: the imaginative journey through all of life's possibilities.
We're in Trouble by Christopher Coake
I have found it difficult to describe this book of short stories in the past because while the characters in each of them somehow must deal with the idea of death, either through personal loss or vicariously through someone else, the stories rise well above being simply depressing tales of the hardest part of human life. They are worth reading, thinking about, and even cherishing, but I think the following quotation about the book does it more justice than I can:
"Each of the seven stories in this extraordinary debut collection shows love staring at the face of death--an encounter that elicits either the best or the worst in these unforgettable characters....With the complexity, depth, and narrative drive of a novel, these stories show love darkening and persevering as it is tried by the cold fact of death....Christopher Coake makes us feel the truth of his characters' lives and transforms it into cathartic art." Book Jacket
Love is at the heart of these stories, and this is what makes them compelling rather than sensationalized, thoughtful rather than depressing.
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
This novel can be classified as science fiction, because it takes place in the future, but not necessarily one very far removed from our present. The world as we know it is still recognizable and, other than enhanced technology, has not changed all that much. Two stories run parallel to each other in the novel. One is the story of The City, which is the place where those who have died live and work and exist in a rather normal way until the last people who remember them in the land of the living "cross over" to The City themselves. In alternating chapters, we follow the story of Laura Byrd, who is trapped alone in a scientific research station on Antarctica. The connection between the two plot lines becomes clear to the reader relatively early in the novel, though the characters do not see it until closer to the end.
Barbara Hoffert of Library Journal offers a nice, short description of The Brief History of the Dead:
"Inhabitants of the City eat at Jim's sandwich shop and read Luka Sims's mimeographed News & Speculation Sheet--never mind that they are all deceased. They've made the crossing--each person's is uniquely beautiful--and they don't know what happens next. People do disappear, and it is surmised that you remain in the City as long as you remain in the memory of someone left behind. Hence the concern when people start vanishing in droves....Beautifully written and brilliantly realized, this imaginative work from [Kevin Brockmeier] delivers a startling sense of what it really means to be alive. Highly recommended."
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Book Thief is ultimately the tale of Leisel Nenninger, a foster-child of a German couple who live in a small town during height of World War II. Leisel is the book thief of the title. She and her family, like many Germans during that time, are caught up in the politics of war and find themselves performing acts of heroism of which they never, ever would have thought themselves capable.
What makes Leisel's story unusual, however, is the narrator of the novel, who is Death himself. But in Zusak's hands, Death is not a monster or vengeful or necessarily frightening. Death is a being who, as he tells us, is
"in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about th[e] whole topic [of death], though most people find themselves hindered in believing me...Please trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful....Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me."
The reason Death is even telling us the story of Leisel--one of the millions of stories of the Holocaust that could be told--is that every so often he is profoundly struck by one of the many lives he has seen, and he cannot forget it. He says of Leisel, "Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt--an immense leap of an attempt--to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it."
In his review of the novel, Philip Ardagh of the Guardian praises Zusak for this choice because "[i]t gives a unique and compassionate voice to a narrator who can comment on human's inhumanity to human without being ponderous, 'worthy' or even quite understanding us at times." I was so happy to read this description because though I very much loved this novel, it has always been very difficult to describe to other people how a novel narrated by Death could be at all worth reading. Or how I could see this narrator as at all sympathetic.
Death has a dilemma, and it's not one that is so far removed from questions we sometimes ask ourselves. Death wants to understand us: "I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race--that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant." By telling us the wonderous story of the book thief, Death is trying to make sense of it. How can the story of this one little girl offer proof that we, that humans, are worth it? Leisel has a great deal to offer us as we try to answer this question.
Ardagh has the highest praise for this novel:
A number one New York Times bestseller, The Book Thief has been marketed as an older children's book in some countries and as an adult novel in others. It could and - dare I say? - should certainly be read by both. Unsettling, thought-provoking, life-affirming, triumphant and tragic, this is a novel of breathtaking scope, masterfully told. It is an important piece of work, but also a wonderful page-turner. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
In one of my other posts, I said that one of my criteria for a Great Book is that it leaves me thinking about it long after I have turned its last page and that it is a book to which I can return, flip through at random, and find something beautiful on any page. The Brief History of the Dead and The Book Thief are two novels that, for me anyway, fit that definition of Great Books.
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
When I was very small indeed, I had a tiny knitted bear that fit right into the palm of my hot little hand. I wouldn’t go to sleep without Ben and held him so tightly in my hand every night that he got squashed into a small woollen ball. This ball, although no longer Teddy shaped, was still known as Ben.
To this day, I still find myself holding on to squashed up balls of stuff in my pocket. Tissues, paper bags, silver paper, all morph into Ben, a ball about an inch and a half in diameter. It seems to bring a subconscious kind of comfort.
The main character in The Lighthouse is a chap called Futh. He too has an object that brings him comfort. It too fits into his pocket and into the palm of his hand. I won’t tell you what the object is--I’ll let you find that out for yourself.
I found this book fascinating and troubling. I read it in just five days. The story follows a man who decides to clear his head following the end of a relationship. He does so by going on a walking holiday in Germany. The word “holiday” suggests fun. Futh is not good at having fun. He gets things wrong, he miscalculates, and then is left to ruminate. This sort of reflection is something Futh finds himself doing a lot during his holiday, taking us back to instances and moments in his past, key events that have hardwired themselves into his memory and hold sway over him still. At times these moments are so well described that you may begin to think that his memories are yours. Futh is an everyman in some ways, but he is also an odd, isolated figure. A man who so wants to connect, but misses the target.
Memory, its recollection and its dominance are a major theme of the book, as are footsteps. Futh walks from place to place, staying overnight at various cheap and seedy hotels. In one of the hotels are Ester and Bernard. The odd spelling of her name may be a curious joke, a pun on Futh’s day job. Ester and Bernard are a dysfunctional couple, as burdened by their history as Futh is by his. Their stories run in parallel. He starts his walk at their hotel, and all the way through the book you know he is bound to return to it.
Obviously we all take different things from books, depending on our own experiences and aspirations. For me, this book looked at issues close to my heart, the function of memory, and the rhythm of footsteps and their odd habit of triggering thought and reflection. It also highlighted the significance of symbol, of our own personal keepsakes and habits. That object, those shoes, that haircut, that smell. The things that we choose to carry, to travel with us, sometimes hurl us right back in time to events that may be decades in the past.
Philip writes stories, some are fact, some are fiction. His stories can be funny, or they might be sad, and are often about memory and how we are shaped. Find him at www.domesticatedbohemian.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @PhilipDodd.
Friday, October 5, 2012
(This post was first published in October 2010. The Graveyard Book is classified as YA, but as so many YA books are, it is just as entertaining for adults as for kids. There are plenty of references that will sail right over YA's heads that add to the depth of the reading experience for adults.)
After he won The 2008 John Newberry Award for The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman told theNew York Times how he felt about the book once he had finished writing it:
You always have this Platonic beautiful idea of a book in your head, and then you write something which isn't as good as that.... The Graveyard Book is the first time I've had a Platonic ideal of a book and written the thing and looked at the book and said, "You know, I think you're better than the thing I set out to write."
This fits my reaction to The Graveyard Book. I had just read Coraline, which I very much enjoyed, so I assumed I'd have fun reading this one, too. I wasn't prepared, though, for how much I loved this novel. From the moment I opened and read the first page until the last sentence, I was enthralled, intrigued, and entertained by adventures of a boy who has grown up in a graveyard. I truly didn't want it to end. It was much better than my own Platonic ideal of it had been, based as it was on Coraline.
The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens, nicknamed Bod, who is raised from toddlerhood by ghosts and a mysterious guardian who can cross the border between the land of the living and that of the dead. Bod, himself, is a member of the living, but has been taken in by the dead to protect him from the man who has murdered his family. Bod is granted Freedom of the Graveyard, which offers him special powers with which he can protect himself while he is within the confines of the cemetary. However, these powers stop at the gates, so Bod has no protection once he ventures into the dangerous land of the living.
And spending time with the living is very tempting for Bod. He loves the denizens of the graveyard, who are a colorful and humorous group, but he craves closeness to living people, too. In fact, as Bod grows older, his conflict about where he truly belongs grows. It is clear that he can't live his whole life in a graveyard, with only the spirits of the dead as company, but how will he learn enough to blend in with the living? And what about the murderer who is still hunting him?
Bod gets himself into all kinds of scrapes, both within the graveyard and outside of it, and meets all kinds of wonderful and terrifying beings: living, dead, and undead. But rather than being merely a chilling tale of those things we fear most (death, murder, superstition), The Graveyard Book is also a story of family, friendship, and longing. Gaiman makes the cemetary and its inhabitants homey and loveable for us, just as they are for Bod, but he also maintains a discomfort and creepiness just under the surface, so the story remains a delightfully suspenseful adventure.
When I reluctantly finished The Graveyard Book, I was thankful to Gaiman for offering closure for Bod, so the story could end there, and end well. But I also noticed, with a hopeful eye, that Gaiman had also created the potential for Bod's story to continue. I'm torn about this. On the one hand, I really want to read more about Bod and his adventures. But on the other hand, I think (maybe) that a Platonic idea, once realized, should be left alone.
Posted by Mary-Colleen at 7:49 AM
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Some books make it into my memory bank. I can remember when I read each of these tomes and can recall the physical sensation of where I was and how I felt as I read. Always there is something, some character, some theme, or line that sticks with me, speaking to me directly, changing my life in a small way. When I read a book like this I think, yes, this is why I became a writer. Yes, reading books changes lives.
The latest novel to take up space in my overstuffed 42-year-old brain is The World Without You by Joshua Henkin. I read it in one long, delicious gulp, a three-day period that unfortunately ended last night at 11:00. I’ll miss the characters; they feel like people I know well. Henkin manages to draw each character deeply, and that is no small feat, since there are eleven of them:
· Marilyn & David, a married couple, each 70 years old, moving apart due to the death a year ago of their journalist son
· Daughter Clarissa & her husband Nathan who are struggling with infertility
· Daughter Lily & Mitchell, her partner of ten years; she always speaks her mind while he stays behind the scenes
· Daughter Noelle & her husband Amram, Orthodox Jews who live in Israel
· Thisbe, the dead son’s widow, no longer a part of, yet forever part of, this grieving family
· Gretchen, the wealthy grandmother of the adult children
· Leo, the dead son, who comes to life in everyone’s observations regarding him
I hate it when I can’t like something about every person in a novel. But this wasn’t the case with The World Without You. Although aspects of some of the characters were totally unlovable, by the end of the book I knew why each of the characters was the way they were. I could forgive them their human foibles and love some small (or large) part of each of them.
Henkins’s novel is set as an intense four-emotional-days-in-a-row story. He throws the main characters together for a memorial service for their dead son and brother a year after his death. Henkin throws in big plot points for each character, too, and then mixes well and fast. But he also somehow mixes these days slowly. You get what it feels like to be trapped for days with your adult family, how time moves minute by excoriating minute sometimes, that there is no getting away from all of the history you share together.
Of course, I love this novel because each female character is like me, all fire but capable of coldly throwing jagged ice shards at the people around them. It’s interesting to watch the scenes unfold. You know when a sharp piece of cold ice is coming for someone, but Henkin doesn’t throw these out fast. He writes each scene with the details of setting fully formed, and pulls you toward the culminating battle slowly. You wait for the juicy, good stuff, but the ride is as rewarding as the verbal cut marks and the telling details he finally gives to the reader. These moments are so delicious I can’t share them with you. I cannot spoil the read for you. That would not be nice.
I love this novel because I know people like these male characters. They are men who are used to fiery women who always speak their minds; men who temper this living out loud with kindness and calmness and perhaps a well-placed bit of fear. When these men finally speak, I hear their measured tones and appreciate their truths set beside these women they love.
Finally, it’s the writing I adore. It’s always the writing in books that take up space in my memory bank. What is not to love with sentences like this one? “He prefers to be the observer—on most occasions, he’s like to a be a fly on the wall—and it was his misfortune to have his growth spurt take place when he was young, so that when he would have rather been out of sight, hiding under the staircase, simply watching the goings--on, he was always sticking out.” Henkins’s words don’t preen, but precisely describe characters and settings, and his dialogue feels real. Not showy, but true.
When I put this book down with a deep sigh of sadness, since I can never read it again for the first time, I wished what I always wish whenever I read a truly good book by an author who also teaches. If my life were footloose and fancy free and full of extra cash, I’d immediately enroll in the MFA program that Henkin directs at Brooklyn College.
It’s a lovely idea. Instead, I’ll put Henkins’s other novels on hold at the Seattle Public Library.
Nancy Schatz Alton is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. She has written two holistic health care guides: The Healthy Back Book and The Healthy Knees Book. Find her essays at www.withinthewords.com.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Frank Morgan was sitting in the corner playing the accordion music on the radio with his eyebrows.
If you look at that sentence with an educated eye, it is rubbish. If you look at it with your heart and your soul paying attention, it’s funny, descriptive, and captures the gentle spirit of this book beautifully.
I’d never heard of Dermot Healy ‘till I read an interview with him in The Guardian. He came over as a man really doing his thing, not caring much what others might think--just getting it done. So I bought his book.
This little bit of writing about Long Time No See, a novel that came out in 2011, contains no spoilers. I don’t want to talk about the plot much. I don’t want to talk about the ending much. I might not tell you much about the middle, either. You see, I want you to make your own mind up. I want you to buy this book, or get it from the library. Tomorrow, maybe today, if you have an hour to spare.
Healy presents us with a rare cast of characters. Each seems touched with madness, each one of them seems oddly isolated. Yet at the same time, they’re together, the lot of them, bouncing off each other, trying to figure each other out. And there’s love, and kindness, in places you might not expect to see it. Love is to be found in the dust of an old man’s fireplace, in the reclaimed rocks that make a wall, in the gentle cutting of hooves.
This kindness is not expressed in words. Not exactly. The characters in this book speak what I have learnt is known as Hiberno-English. English as spoken by the Irish. It is a different English, a different language, one that has poetry and simplicity in it, but is often terse and minimal. They might as well say, “Well, if you don’t know what I’m thinking, I certainly won’t be spelling it out for you.” There are, however, coded, real expressions of fraternal, maternal, and other sorts of love. There’s a curious thread of affection that winds its way through the book.
Healy’s language has a rhythm of its own that takes a little time to tune into, but once you do you’re carried away to an Ireland that is quite particular. An Ireland of close-knit communities with all the incestuous knowledge, shared history, and legends such places breed and thrive on.
I enjoyed my time spent in JoeJoe’s front room, I smelt the fire lit by Mister Psyche, and the Blackbird is never far from my thoughts. I’m left smiling.
And from then on whenever I put the kettle on and heard the drone of a plane I shot out and was there a plane?
The Blackbird studied the question.
There was none.
There was not.
I thought so.
And what was it do you think?
You have me there.
It was the kettle, I said.
The kettle, by God. That’s a sight.
Damn right, it was, said Granduncle JoeJoe.
It certainly was, agreed the Blackbird.
They bought me a fucking jet to make tay in.
They did. Are we finished the joking now?
Philip Dodd writes stories. Some are fact, some are fiction. His stories can be funny or they might be sad, and are often about memory and how we are shaped. Philip's stories and essay have been published in the literary magazines Toasted Cheese, Friction, and Pygmy Giant, among others. Find him at www.domesticatedbohemian.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @PhilipDodd.
Posted by Mary-Colleen at 8:20 AM