There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Review: The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my honours class students were urged to explore various readings of The Odyssey and especially Penelope's place: Does Penelope know Odysseus when he returns in the disguise of a beggar? Both readings are possible, but perhaps the professor's leaning toward the affirmative was influenced by Atwood's Penelopiad. For a first-person telling, Penelope actually gets less on-stage speech than she does in the Odyssey. She's still notable for frequently dissolving into tears, and constantly lives in the insecure shade cast by her cousin Helen's beauty and allure. However, the novel certainly presents alternate readings to the patriarchal narrative of the Odyssey, such as the less supernatural possibilities of Odysseus' legend -- the Cyclops as one-eyed tavern keeper, the palace of Circe as an expensive whorehouse, or Odysseus' "underworld" as an "old cave full of bats". It's the variety of readings Atwood allows for that gives the work power: Penelope as narrator, and the twelve hanged maids as chorus, dance between making this a story of love or lust, female betrayal or solidarity.

Atwood's choice to have Penelope tell this story into modern times makes for some memorable moments, such as when she declares that spirits have "been able to infiltrate the new ethereal-wave system that now encircles the globe, and to travel around that way, looking out at the world through the flat, illuminated surfaces that serve as domestic shrines". Equally disturbing is "The Chorus Line: An Anthropology Lecture, Presented by: The Maids". The argument for the slaughter of the maids as the displacement of the Great Mother cult by a patriarchal figure is interesting, but finishes off suggesting (as does the end of Atwood's Handmaid's Tale) that academia may be a way to not "have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol."

Altogether, this is a disturbingly ambiguous and hence brilliant work of strongly crafted intertextuality. It's not plot-based, and the chorus sections are more about artistry and construction of meanings than about formation of new story. Despite some ambivalence about intellectualism and the distancing power of readings, it's a highly intellectual work that will prove most satisfactory to those who have closely read The Odyssey. Because I give so many works four stars I was going to give this three, but I am forced to give it four and acknowledge that I hope to someday gain much by another and closer reading of this text in conjunction with The Odyssey.

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Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Review: Rilla of Ingleside

Rilla of Ingleside
Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've always remembered Rilla as my least favorite of the "Anne books". Probably because I've learned to love Anne (and even more Emily Byrd Starr) for her literary ambition and talent. The youngest daughter of the determined-student and published author is vain, and unrepentantly unintellectual. She is boy-crazy and frivolous, but somehow reading the novel in my younger years I missed the wonderful transition that makes this a true bildungsroman. Montgomery wrote that it was the only novel she wrote with a purpose, and in some respects it rivals "Anne of Green Gables". As Margaret Atwood has pointed out, Anne Shirley becomes a better cook, learns to talk less, and relinquishes her hatred of Gilbert Blythe, yet overall is the same girl from beginning to end in the narrative. Rilla Blythe, on the other hand, slowly (as in real life) emerges as an unselfish and brave woman through her experiences of the Great War. My one complaint about her story-line is that the Rilla at the end of the novel deserves a more fully developed romantic interest than Ken Ford, whose emotional (and in the final chapter, geographic) distance are never satisfactorily explained.

Quite rightly this novel has received more critical attention in recent years, as it gives a close (although utterly biased) view of female Canadian experiences during The Great War. I've recently been reading about the experiences of Conscientious Objectors in Canada, so it was interesting to experience with the Blythe family the distrust and disdain for pacifists that must have characterized the attitudes even of educated and liberal-minded Canadians (including Montgomery herself).

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Sunday, 15 June 2014

Review: Americanah

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Adichie's vitally important TED talks first brought her on my radar. I decided to read this novel sooner rather than later as I flipped through it in the library and saw that the protagonist was a blogger of the type who taught me about white privilege and the ubiquitous racism in American culture. The blog posts scattered through the novel are a strong scaffolding -- irreverent enough to be entertaining, smart enough to be educational. It is a novel that teaches -- about race, Nigeria, hair, immigration, America, love -- but that's just the skin over a vitally alive body of characters. Flashes of unique characterization show this to be the work of a tremendous talent, yet I finished it dissatisfied. (SPOILERS FOLLOW) While the love between Ifemelu and Obinze often feels beautiful and real, the treatment of infidelity disturbed me. It's not that I don't believe novels should portray it, but that here I sensed an inevitability in the story's swift closure. Obinze's wife, Kosi, is presented as a woman trapping her more intelligent husband by her conventionality, and I couldn't help but co.mpare her to a similar character in Middlemarch. Maybe it's a flaw for me to expect all novelists to treat the inner lives of all characters, and the moral implications of all actions, with the same attention as George Eliot, dead 100 years, did. Nevertheless, the quick wrap-up of a beautifully messy story left me discomfited. I don't want to impose my own morality on a story rooted in a culture that I have no connection to, but Adichie's obvious skill and acuity makes me believe I should be able to expect a little more moral angst and awareness in the end. Not so much despite, but because of these questions, I hope to revisit this novel someday. Rewatching Adichie's TED talk on feminism I'm reminded of her brilliance, and would encourage everyone to run to youtube and listen to her.

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Thursday, 29 May 2014

Review: Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loving "Mere Christianity" is almost a cliche among Christians, isn't it? Well, I guess I love it. Almost two years ago I read the chapter on charity during a drive with a cousin who loves it, and I was delighted by the similarity between Austen's conception of charity. Last spring I started MC, and got side-tracked, eventually reading several Narnia novels and "Till We Have Faces". The apologetics of the book are still what I consider its weakest element.* While my big questions about life do tend to be similar to Lewis'(the foundation and origin of morality), I realize today that atheism and secularism have broadened their objections and questions. Even as a Christian, I find Lewis' jump from the idea of an innate universal morality to the inspiration of the Bible jarring.

However, the sections dealing with Christian conduct and theology were so profound that I think every Christian (or person interested in Christianity) should read them. My copy is underlined and marked with comments: "Amen!", "Perfect explanation" and "Incredibly insightful, beautifully written, and yet painfully convicting." As a conditionalist, pacifist, and egalitarian, I certainly found areas of disagreement with Lewis' references to hell/death, his strong belief in just wars, and his reading of Paul's admonitions to husbands and wives. However, my disagreement simply made me read more closely and highlighted the beauty of the truths presented. Ultimately, the book presented almost no truths with which I was not already familiar, yet my experience of their convicting power was new. To paraphrase John Greenleaf Whittier, that which shares the life of God, with Him is always new.

*Honestly, I'm not sure if I fully believe in apologetics. Right now I tend to believe the most important argument for Christianity is its radical irrationality -- "Christ crucified", "foolishness" to those who rely solely on reason.

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Review: The Invisible Girls: A Memoir

The Invisible Girls: A Memoir
The Invisible Girls: A Memoir by Sarah Thebarge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While reading this book I became afraid to finish it, feeling that other books would feel narrow and unimportant following it. It is a book that contains such a sea of deep feeling and broad experience that it seems to contain everything a book and heart can hold. All this abundance of life is disproportionate with the age of its author. Sarah Thebarge was in her twenties, working on her second graduate degree at Columbia, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her feelings of abandonment by God, family, church, and boyfriend made me realize how quickly one may be cut off from comfort, to disappear in a horizon of pain. Like my favorite play W;t (which also deals with cancer and abandonment) grace comes through kindness, when Sarah meets a Somali family who are just as adrift in an American city as she was in her battle with death. Five rambunctious, foul-mouthed girls who don't know their own birthdays become her sisters. At first the indigent family couldn't seem more different from their Ivy League-educated 'benefactress', but Sarah soon discovers that their shared invisibility as girls in fundamentalist cultures can become a shared story of grace. My only complaint is that the book could have been more detailed. However, this seems to be due to the recent rawness of Thebarge's pain, as well as the fact that she published this book to start a college fund for her new little sisters. Thebarge's exploration of a Christianity freed from the fundamentalism that makes girls and women invisible is a subject dear to my heart, so it was truly serendipitous when my mom chanced upon this exquisite memoir.

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Review: Jane Austen

Jane Austen
Jane Austen by Ian P. Watt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although an old publication, many of the essays contained in this collection are invaluable and seminal. The collection begins with two Must Reads for every student of Austen: C.S. Lewis' "A Note of Jane Austen" and Virginia Woolf's "Jane Austen" (excerpted from The Common Room and an essay in the Nation). They are both simple essays, easily accessible and free from jargon, but getting to the root of Jane Austen's ethics and genius. Ian Watt's "On Sense and Sensibility" is also an insightful work that modifies the simplistic judgments sometimes formed during a first reading of the novel's seeming dualities. Several essays (Alan D. McKillop's "Critical Realism in Northanger Abbey"; Reuben A. Brower's "Light and Bright and Sparkling: Irony and Fiction in Pride and Prejudice"; Marvin Mudrick's "Irony as Discrimination"; and D. W. Harding's "Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen") explore Austen's unique and complex use of irony in narration, structure, and dialogue. I'd wanted to read "Regulated Hatred" for sometime, but it wasn't actually as subversive as I expected (this is an old collection; a modern critical collection might include more politics and feminism). I think Harding's argument has some merit, as it relates to Austen's attachment to individuals to whom she is morally or intellectually superior, but it's liable to a reading that ignores both Austen's moral foundations and sense of fun. "The Humiliation of Emma Woodhouse" by Mark Schorer was another essay I had wanted to read. Overall, it was one of the most fascinating of the essays that were new to me. It gave me several new ways of looking at my favorite Austen novel, although I'll need to reread it again to have a decisive opinion. I particularly enjoyed Arnold Kettle's essay on Emma, reminding us that "We do not 'lose ourselves' in Emma unless we are the kind of people who lose ourselves in life". As someone who considers Austen almost faultless, but occasionally feels a slight twinge about the class hierarchy ensconced at the end of that novel, I found the analysis unshrinking and relevant. Donald J. Greene's "Jane Austen and the Peerage" was a little hard to concentrate on late at night, but presented Austen's verisimilitude convincingly. I've saved the worst for last: As before, Kingsley Amis' "What Became of Jane Austen?" made me want to throw things out of windows.

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Thursday, 8 May 2014

Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is there any greater pleasure than when a book one has harbored high expectations for, actually exceeds those expectations? I expected to like Wolf Hall: Having first learned Tudor history as a child through accounts of the English reformers, I first met Cromwell as a friend to the reformation; I was quite shocked by the caricaturization of him as evil in A Man for All Seasons. Secondly, after reading Mantel's controversial speech on Royal Bodies, I conceived a tremendous respect for her insight, intelligence, and compassion. To be honest, I put off reading Wolf Hall until now because I was reserving it as a special treat.

It didn't disappoint, but it did surprise me. My first surprise was that Cardinal Wolsey (or Cardinal Wolfsey, the Wiley Wolf, as the Tyndale in the first “Tudor-era” book I obsessively read as a child called him) actually had his good points. Yes, Mantel's speech had led me to expect in her this ability to see the depth of even the most hypocritical or shallow characters. I expected a sympathetic Cromwell, yet her portrayal was more than sympathetic, it was broad-ranging, personal, and touching.

At first I found the unclear antecedents before pronouns disconcerting, but after realizing that most instances of the word he referred to Cromwell, I found it added to the claustrophobic sense of his thoughts as the nucleus. One sees Cromwell in varied situations, always changing, yet still somehow the same. After 650 pages of intimacy, one feels that they should know him, but do not. His own acknowledgement that “my workings are hidden from myself” illustrates how he can be simultaneously vulnerable and intimidating, possess the milk of human kindness and still be the consummate politician.

A blurb on the back cover compares the novel to Middlemarch. Last year reading Mantel's wonderful blend of compassion and intelligence about the royals, I'd wondered if she was familiar with Middlemarch. ( ) While I still would rank the latter novel more highly, I recall that it took me a second reading to realize just how fearful and wonderful it is. I'm already hungry for a second reading of Wolf Hall. First, though, must come Bring Up the Bodies (delicious titular reference!). Again, I'm so excited I'm almost frightened to start.

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Thursday, 27 March 2014

Review: The Violent Friendship Of Esther Johnson

The Violent Friendship Of Esther Johnson
The Violent Friendship Of Esther Johnson by Trudy J. Morgan-Cole

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been reading Trudy J. Morgan-Cole's blog for several years. I appreciate both her thoughts on our shared Seventh-day Adventist faith and her eclectic book reviews. Strangely, I have learned about several historical novels that are now favorites from Morgan-Cole's blog before reading any of her novels. She's an acute judge of what makes historical novels work and The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson demonstrates this.

The novel is the story of Jonathan Swift's muse, correspondent, close friend, and possible wife -- the eponymous Esther Johnson. Morgan-Cole has chosen an ideal subject through which to analyze women's lives in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Growing up in a great house as the housekeeper's daughter, Esther associates daily with servants, and occasionally with laborers. Yet under Jonathan Swift's tutelage, she is more educated than most women of her day. Morgan-Cole manages to portray an intelligent and intellectual woman, without making her anachronistic or prodigious. Ultimately she portrays a fully-realized woman; one both proud and needy, timid and courageous, sexual and repressed, guilty and spiritual. Without being strongly plot driven, the book was hard to put down.

The portrait of Jonathan Swift, especially toward the end, is somewhat repulsive. Reading about Swift's Christian Humanist views in the introduction to my volume of his Selected Works, I gained some respect for him that I didn't from this novel. However, the mixture of disgust, disdain and pity that this novel evokes for a great man is consistent with Swift's own dark view of mankind's depravity. Having just read Gulliver's Travels I am tempted to simply reread Esther Johnson which would be the richer for the contrast and comparison. It's a book drafty with the illness, worry, and misogyny endured by the woman Swift transmuted into the Stella of his poetry. Yet it's also a book bright with the loyalty, love and determination of women.

I am eager to read another of Morgan Cole's novels soon. Maybe it will be her one about Jesus' brother James, or perhaps one of her Maritime novels.

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Wednesday, 8 January 2014

My Top Ten (New) Books of 2013

Choosing a Top Ten list is hard for any bibliophile. Fellow-blogger Samantha inspired me to post mine, albeit eight days into the new year. (How she winnowed hers out of the 200 books she read is still a marvel to me.)

I'm tempted to include rereads, since rereading a beloved book is the best kind of reading. I did have some wonderful rereads this year: Hamlet, Richard II, Pride and Prejudice for its bicentennial, Austen's unfinished works, the first four Anne Shirley novels, and (of course) Jane Eyre. However, those works would crowd out most others, so, with one exception, these are all books read for the first time in 2013. The list is evenly split between fiction and non-fiction, but women authors, unsurprisingly, predominate.

Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers

 Sayers is the author whom I read the most this year. I looked forward to Gaudy Night, of which I'd heard many things, as the pinnacle of Sayers' work. It was wonderful, but it was Busman's Honeymoon that shook and affected me. The setting is simple: Lord Peter Wimsey and his new bride, mystery writer Harriet Vane, arrive at a country cottage for their honeymoon. Bodies, however, seem to follow the hobbyist detective and he's soon caught up in an investigation, with the aid of a superintendent almost as interested in identifying Peter's literary quotations as in identifying the murderer.

The novel's real power comes from its portrayal of the pain, vulnerability, and joy of creating a marriage of genuine equality and respect. The epistolary introduction featuring Peter's inimitable mother is hilarious, the many John Donne references are both intelligent and evocative, and the mystery is sufficiently mysterious. 

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman

  Finding Sunne for a dollar in a thrift store --only a month or two after the discover of Richard III's bones had me especially interested, and at a time I needed an absorbing novel to distract me -- was serendipitous. The quintessential Ricardian novel, at almost 1000 pages, reading it is truly an experience. Penman's attempt to create an old speech style has some annoying idiosyncrasies and if you want an unbiased look at England's most controversial king, this is not it. However, if you want to be immersed in a period, fall in love, and cry over dead kings -- this is the historical novel for you. I end up crying whenever I read a page of the last section.

Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues by Sarah Emsley
After reading several of Emsley's articles in Persuasions journal, I desperately wanted to read her book-length dissertation on Austen. My blogging friend Esther lent me the book and it did not disappoint. I converted my numerous pages of notes into posts on each chapter, which led to some wonderful discussions of Austen's faith and philosophy.

The Green Gables Letters: From L.M. Montgomery to Ephraim Weber 1905-1909
 This is probably my favourite nonfiction book of the year, so naturally I don't know where to begin. I reread four of Mongtomery's novels and a book of literary criticism of Anne of Green Gables over the fall, but this surpassed them all. Montgomery's letters to her Alberta pen-pal, Ephraim Weber, are intimate, yet elegant and profound. She easily switches from writing advice to contemplations of immortality. Jokes and anecdotes abound, but do not obscure the daguerreotype of a woman living in the minutiae of her responsibilities. Her frank disavowal of orthodox Protestant doctrines -- from eternal torment to the virgin birth -- does not lessen her joy in the poetry and wisdom of the Bible. In short, Weber and Montgomery were clearly such kindred spirits that she was not, as in some of her novels, constrained by public expectation or judgement. She truly found her sentence and it is lucid and strong. Now I just have to find out if the library will sell me this casket of gems.

Adam Bede by George Eliot

This was the only George Eliot novel I read this year and I admit it shows a few rough edges, easily excused in a firstborn. As in Middlemarch, each character is a part of an intricate web of moral influence. From the Methodist woman field-preaching, to scenes among workmen, Eliot's attention to the lives of "common people" is Wordsworthian. Indeed, the plot as well the descriptions is likely derived from Wordsworth's "The Thorn". Excruciatingly vain and naive Hetty Sorrel is seduced by the young squire of the county. They, and those who care for them, soon learn that "our deeds determine us as much as we dertermine our deeds" and consequences of unthinking moments may plunge us into hellish torments. Eliot's insight, wisdom, humour, and power of creating living characters stayed with me long after I layed the book aside.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

One day I felt a sudden urge to read a dystopian novel and pulled this out of my stacks. It was a painful and draining read, almost without a glimmer of hope. However, it gave me the language to express my horror and fear when I soon after read about the extremes of the Christian Patriarchy movement.

The Magician's Nephew by C. S. Lewis


Coming to C.S. Lewis as an adult, I'm perhaps hampered by analysis. Last week's reading of The Horse and His Boy was made slightly uncomfortable by Lewis' emphasis on skin color and other seemingly-racial characteristics in dividing up the good and bad factions . It could be argued that the allegory of The Magician's Nephew is a bit obvious, but the thrills of joy I experienced watching the creation of a new world, and "meeting" Aslan justify the novel's inclusion on this list.

Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America by David S Reynolds

Uncle Tom's Cabin is quite a flawed novel, yet it had a tremendous influence on public opinion, and some claim helped to launch the Civil War. Reynolds' exploration of the stories behind the novel, and of the novel's subsequent reincarnation in stage and film teaches much about the process of creating literature and its power once made public. I appreciated the book most as a cultural history of race relations, religion, theatre, literature, and story in America over several decades.

The Seventh-day Ox and Other Miracle Stories from Russia by Bradley Booth

Since age eight, it seems I've read a score of books about faithful believers in prison camps. This book stood out for the incredible suffering endured by the pastor in the titular story. For several years he spent ten day stretches confined in a small crate for his refusal to work on the seventh day; when finally allowed to prove to the prison warden that he could accomplish seven days' work in six, a recalcitrant ox made it seem that his trials had just begun. It's a story full of the lows of man's inhumanity to man, the incalculable highs of God's sustaining power, and the lighter highs of the humor animals bring to our lives.

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

My last book is a cheat, since it is a reread. However, I first read it four or five years ago, and maybe I wasn't mature enough for it. This time reading it was pure delight, and I was in constant awe of Woolf's creative and strong thought process. I'm still trying to reconcile her insistence that women should write in their own distinctly female "sentence" with her appropriation of Coleridge's idea that writing of true genius is androgynous. Maybe to fully understand and absorb such a unique work I'll have to do as I once heard Emma Thompson did -- keep it in my purse and pull it out to reread repeatedly.

Some of you are being negligent bloggers, and with less excuse than laptop-less me. :D What were your favourite books of the past year? What are your reading plans for 2014? One of mine is to count by pages read, rather than books completed. This is partially so I'll grant myself the freedom to give up on a badly written or boring book without guilt. I'll also count when I read a magazine straight through, as I often do with one on religious Liberty. Here's to a copious reading year!