Archive for October, 2009

h1

No Advantages by Alice Munro

October 28, 2009

hardovermunroI can hardly believe this, but it took me three nights to read this short story. I read it for a few minutes every night before I went to sleep, but it took me three nights! Crazy.

When this book originally came out, I decided to wait for the paperback release because I had just discovered Munro (through the excellent story collection Open Secrets) and I figured that she had dozens of other story collections that I had yet to read. This turned out to be a bad idea, as the cover for the paperback book is horrid and has a headless woman on it. So when I saw this hardcover in the remainders section of my local bookstore, I snatched it up.paperbackmunro

Munro introduces this collection by warning the reader that these stories are different than her typical works based in Canada. Instead, these stories are much more personal and focus on Munro’s research into her family history, going as far back as Scotland in the 1500s. The result, judging only from the first story, is something interesting but also odd. No Advantages felt like reading a blog entry about someone’s genealogy hobby. But still, the writing was excellent and the characters were amusing, even if it felt a bit like a history lesson. I am looking forward to reading more of the stories in this collection, especially because the second half of the book is supposed to focus more on stories that weren’t about family history but simply felt more personal to Munro.

h1

Teaser Tuesday

October 28, 2009

rebeccaTeaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Open the book to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
  • Please avoid spoilers!
  • I felt uncomfortable, a little shy. I did not know why she must speak with such resentment, implying as she did at the same time that this room, where I found myself to be installed, was something inferior, not up to the Manderley standard, a second-rate room, as it were, for a second-rate person.

    From page 76 of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I can’t believe that this quote showed up on a random page, since it encapsulates the exact tone of much of what I’ve read so far

    h1

    The Masterpiece by Emile Zola

    October 26, 2009

    zolaThe Masterpiece is ostensibly about the life of a tortured genius trying to change the world of painting. In reality, it’s much more than that–it’s about friendship, marriage, and art of all kinds. I didn’t even realize how engrossed I was in this book until one day I missed my bus stop while breathlessly reading the last quarter of the novel. At some point, too, I noticed that I was growing sad in my daily life simply because the main characters, Claude and Christine, were going through a hard time. It’s not often that a book grabs hold of me like that. It felt odd, because the people in The Masterpiece were not “my type” of people at all–bohemian egomaniacs who were so blinded by their ambition to revolutionize art (painting, writing, sculpture, music) that they were unable to function in society at a basic level. Yet, as they ranted against the boring art of the period, I must have been taken in, because I grew to love these characters.

    Edouard_Manet_024I read this book as part of a book club. At a previous meeting we had discussed another one of Zola’s many works, Nana. Nana was interesting but featured wholly unrealistic situations and characters. In The Masterpiece, however, Zola seems to be able to paint a perfectly realistic picture because he drew so much of the story and the characters from his own life. Most noticeably, Claude is based on a conglomeration of Zola’s childhood friend Cezanne and an older painter that he knew, Manet. Some of the pictures described in the book are clearly modeled after some of Manet’s actual work, such as the painting Luncheon on the Grass.

    There are times when this book can be very frustrating, when you want to reach through the pages and shake some sense into the characters. But eventually, that’s what made me love this as much as I did–despite their flaws, the characters in The Masterpiece are unforgettable.

    h1

    More thoughts on Dracula

    October 21, 2009
    draculaNote: Please don’t read this if you haven’t read up to the spoiler line given at Infinite Summer. I talk about plot in this post.

    In case it wasn’t obvious from my previous post, I am really enjoying Dracula. At first, I wasn’t so sure about it. I found the main character insipid and the plot rather predictable. Now that I’m further along in the book, I have come to like many of the characters, and I find the plot much scarier than I thought I would. That being said, here are three main things that I’ve been thinking about:

    1. What the heck, boys? Mina basically helps you put together some major clues and now you leave her at home at night while you go off to do the man’s work? Not cool. Also, not smart. While you’re out hunting Dracula, he’s off sucking Mina’s blood. Obviously. Why on Earth would you leave her alone while she sleeps after what happened to Lucy whenever she slept alone? (Also, minor quibble/question: why can Dracula get into Mina’s room? I thought that Van Helsing said that vampires can only enter homes that they are invited into. I was also confused about this with Lucy, but since Drac sucked her blood out in the graveyard first, I figured that he must have had enough power over Lucy that she invited him into her room at night. But Mina certainly never did such a thing. So how does Dracula get in? Does it have something to do with the fact that she’s staying at Dr. Seward’s house, which is attached to the asylum, which is also maybe attached to Drac’s house, so it’s like one big campus?)

    2. I’ve been noticing a lot of anti-science-y rhetoric in the book, some of which is obviously necessary to get some of the main characters in the book to go along with all of the supernatural events. I do find it intriguing, however, that Stoker chose two very scientific characters to do most of the storytelling. What is most striking, and what I think is almost certainly unintentional, is that after a bunch of rhetoric about “keeping an open mind” and not being blinded by science, Van Helsing then essentially uses the scientific method to convince everyone that Lucy really was a vampire. He produces visual evidence to Dr. Seward, who mostly believes but is not fully convinced. In order to get everyone on board, he conducts an experiment.

    Question: Is Lucy a vampire? Hypothesis: YUP! Procedure: Van Helsing shows everyone that Lucy’s not in her grave. He then seals the door with holy communion wafers (control!) and waits for a couple of hours to see if a vampire Lucy will arrive or if nothing will happen and the corpse has just been stolen. Data: Lucy comes back, she’s vampirey, with blood on her teeth, and she can’t get through the door because of the holy wafers. Conclusion: Whoa, Lucy’s a vampire.

    I think that this rather undermines a lot of the anti-science talk that happens in the book, because in the universe of Dracula, vampires are a scientifically provable phenomenon. Stoker actually helps the scientific cause more than he harms it because he simply demonstrates how much scientific reasoning has become ingrained in the public conscience.

    3. I’ve been curious about how much of the vampire lore Stoker invented for this book and how much was simply research on old stories. And how much of this was the first time the lore was available to the typical British reader? I would imagine that there were eastern European myths, stories, and songs about vampires, but how specific were they about the things that we now so closely associate with the basic story: garlic, crucifixes, stakes, bats. How much of that specific story already existed pre-Dracula? How much did the British know about it? I don’t know the answer, but I hope to dig a bit deeper into this.

    h1

    Teaser Tuesday

    October 20, 2009

    draculaTeaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Open the book to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
  • Please avoid spoilers!
  • So this is totally cheating because I didn’t open to a random page, but these are some of my favorite lines yet in Dracula. (I will write more Thoughts about Dracula tomorrow, but for right now I’ll just say that I am loving it more and more.)

    I shall be prepared. I shall get my typewriter this very hour and begin transcribing.

    Isn’t this so wonderfully bookish? “Danger! To the typewriter!” I love it.

    h1

    Year 25

    October 20, 2009

    Look, the first time I read this serious misconception in a review of The Year of the Flood, I sighed and moved on. But then last night, I read the exact same wrong thing, and I literally lost about 25 minutes of sleep over it. I can’t find the first review anymore (I could have sworn it was in the New York Times, but I can’t find it), but the second was in the New York Review of Books. (The article is online, but it’s subscription only.) In the NY Review, Diane Johnson explains that “The narrative alternates between the present story of Toby and that of Ren twenty-five years after the onset of the Waterless Flood, told in flashbacks.”

    I’m going to say it right here: NONE of Atwood’s new book takes place 25 years after the disease that wiped out humanity. Year 25 IS the year of the flood. Year 0 was when the God’s Gardeners were founded. What really gets me is that in the NY Review article, Johnson also makes a crack about how difficult it is to follow the timing, and how it’s not really worth it in the end. It’s not that hard. Atwood explains it, right on page 60:

    Year One, Garden just began; Year Two, still new; Year Three, Pilar started bees; Year Fou, Burt came in the door; Year Five, Toby snatched alive; Year Six, Katuro in the mix; Year Seen, Zeb came to our heaven.

    Given that all of these events took place before the waterless flood, what we know is that Year 25 just happens to occur 25 years after the founding of the Gardeners. The “present day” action that occurs in the book occurs a few months after the flood.

    Plenty of other reviewers have gotten this right, so it just seems so weird to me that two people have gotten this wrong. Also, we meet Jimmy again in this book! At the same state that he was in at the end of Oryx and Crake! Do you really think that he could have survived for twenty-five years? Dude lives in a tree.

    h1

    The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

    October 14, 2009

    Year of the FloodThis is Atwood’s second book in her recent dystopian trilogy, and I loved it even more than Oryx and Crake. The narrative alternates between two women who were both part of a cult-like religion called God’s Gardeners. I particularly liked the structure of the book: every chapter would start out with a homily by the leader of God’s Gardeners, followed by a hymnal. (Songs that seem like they could be surprisingly catchy.) Then, in alternating sequence, each woman narrates her story, beginning with how they each survived the “waterless flood.” The flood is what the Gardeners call the lethal virus that nearly wiped out the human species as described in the previous book. What I love about Atwood’s writing, in this particular book, is that she doesn’t try to make things too black and white. I actually think that this is why The Year of the Flood far outshines her other two famous dystopian novels–The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. In the other two books, I occasionally felt like she would demonize one half of society without question. In The Year of the Flood, however, she shows all of the good and bad parts of the God’s Gardeners group–sure, they were right about a lot of things: they knew that the mega-corporations shouldn’t be trusted, they were skeptical about eating fake food, and they learned about survival skills that would become crucial.  But they were also a little off the deep end and had questionable ideas about matrimony, among many things. The Gardeners were also pretty hypocrtical about technology and power structures. I loved how Atwood was less “preachy” in this book, despite the fact that a large chunk of it consists of actual sermons.

    Frankly, the two women in The Year of the Flood were characterized much more deeply than the men in Oryx and Crake. In the previous book, the main character, Jimmy, seemed so two-dimensional and stereotypical, and the two secondary characters, Oryx and Crake, seemed so distant and unknown. In The Year of the Flood, I felt like I had become close friends with both Ren and Toby. Even though we learn about the childhood and the present lives of all of these numerous characters, the voices of Toby and Ren were just so distinct and interesting. Part of me wonders if Atwood is just more capable of creating believable female characters. The other part of me wonders, though, if I just personally relate to these characters better than others.

    I can’t wait until the third book in the trilogy is released. I actually also can’t wait until the month before it gets released, when I’m sure that I’ll reread The Year of the Flood.