Thursday, April 23, 2009

Symbolic? Or not?

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Question suggested by Barbara H:

My husband is not an avid reader, and he used to get very frustrated in college when teachers would insist discussing symbolism in a literary work when there didn’t seem to him to be any. He felt that writers often just wrote the story for the story’s sake and other people read symbolism into it.

It does seem like modern fiction just “tells the story” without much symbolism. Is symbolism an older literary device, like excessive description, that is not used much any more? Do you think there was as much symbolism as English teachers seemed to think? What are some examples of symbolism from your reading?

Well, when I was in college, we had a teacher who actually cautioned us not to go too far in foisting symbolic mass upon constructions not built to withstand their weight--sometimes "The Heaven of Animals" is precisely what the title says it is--but I do agree that some teachers are so desperate to have the literal-minded make any kind of association that they succeed in scaring them away from literary works for good. Which, of course, doesn't allow the literal-minded to live a life free of symbols, not at all. How well we function in life has a great deal to do with how adept we are in interpreting the ways we communicate with one another symbolically.

I don't agree that symbolism is a literary device that's fallen out of use. I've been mulling over a symbolic aspect of Reif Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet for a week now. T.S. goes on a journey (and we all know how symbolic journeys are) and at one point unexpectedly travels through a wormhole. T.S. is a cartographer who draws maps and diagrams of everything, but the wormhole is something that defies visual representation. It was only at the end of the book, when T.S. enters into another unmappable region, that I felt I understood the symbolic relevance of the earlier wormhole.

Granted, most of us don't mention symbolism when we're trying to convince someone else to read a book we've enjoyed--plot and character are much bigger draws--but that doesn't mean symbols aren't there, that we don't pick up on a great many of them without consciously thinking "Oh, look! Symbol!" They're just there, an undercurrent of understood meaning that helps move us along. (Remember the Under Toad, as mentioned in another work with a protagonist named T.S.)

Likewise, I suspect most writers focus first on the characters and the plot, the same way readers do, seeding their works organically with material, images and events, that only in later drafts will be seen by the writer as the appropriate little plants to be taken to full symbolic bloom. But to say that symbols are not a part of the intended finished story, but are instead strictly manifestations of the reader, particularly the reader who doesn't want to think about symbols at all, strikes me as an attempt to shut down conversation and thought, not continue it.

Booking Through Thursday

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Diversity in Reading Meme

This is depressing. I'd somehow convinced myself that my reading was quite diverse this year--books written by New Zealanders! Germans! books set in Australia! Korea! Krishnapur! parallel universes and Iceland!--but this meme exposes just how white bread my reading actually is.

1. Name the last book by a female author that you've read.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood. On Sunday.

2. Name the last book by an African or African-American author that you've read.

A Quiet Storm, Rachel Howzell Hall's story of a young woman dealing with her bi-polar sister in California, is the most recent. Before that, Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Rhodesian Lauren Liebenberg, which probably ought not to count since she's white, and Half of a Yellow Sun by Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And Obama's memoir. All last year.

3. Name one from a Latino/a author.

I have a copy of 2666 on hand, but of course I haven't read it. I read Cristina Garcia's
Dreaming in Cuban with the Slaves last spring.

4. How about one from an Asian country or Asian-American?

This is where it really gets shameful. If I count Kazuo Ishiguro, I still have to go back to 2005--further than that to find a Gish Jen or an Amy Tan.

5. What about a GLBT writer?

Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry in January and Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You last summer.

6. Why not name an Israeli/Arab/Turk/Persian writer, if you're feeling lucky?

Orhan Pamuk's Snow in 2004, but I bought Elif Shafak's The Flea Palace a couple weeks back.

7. Any other "marginalized" authors you've read lately?

Afraid not.

(via Reading the Leaves)


Books offer an escape, but it is an escape into something larger, not from something larger; it is an escape into hazard, not from hazard. A dictator escapes not by fleeing into a library, but by a midnight flight to the Dominican Republic.

--Harry Golden

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


JaneGS has given me the One Lovely Blog Award (thank you kindly, Jane!) and posed a question down in the comments of the final readathon post. I thought I would paste her words and put my answer here.

Jane said:

I am all amazement--I love to read, but I can't imagine doing this. You clearly enjoyed the experience (i.e., you said you would do it again), but..but..are there any of the books you wished you didn't have to race through. Or maybe you didn't have a racing feeling, but just a reading for a long time feeling.

I participated in Dewey's very first readathon back in October 2007. I confessed then that I had the tendency to turn into a zombie-brain by 9 pm most nights, that I rarely read for more than two to three hours at a time, but that I still found the idea of a 24-hour reading session downright appealing.

And a 24-hour reading session that's shared with a couple hundred kindred spirits instead of embarked on all by your lonesome, that has cheerleaders for heaven's sake, and prizes and links to the other readers and mini-challenges, to spur you all on through the adventure makes it easy to shrug off the fact that your family and your friends and co-workers find the whole excessive-reading thing quite silly.

Except for one book, all the ones I read this time were short and chances are I would have read them in a single sitting no matter when I read them. The only book I had a sense of racing through was the children's book of Norse myths at the end, and all guilt there was assuaged by adding the Prose Edda to my wishlist before I'd managed to finish it.

The Kate Atkinson was longer and part of the reason I'd not read it before now--she's one of my favorite authors and I bought it last fall--is that I knew I'd want to read it straight through whenever I did read it. I started it Saturday afternoon knowing Atkinson's style and characters would hold my attention for hours on end. I'd intended to read The Behaviour of the Moths, but didn't think it fair to start a book of its length after midnight; better to read something short that I had a chance of finishing before my brain completely closed down for the night.

While I can read fast, I generally don't. I timed myself at some point in the middle of the Atkinson; I was reading at a rate of about 75 pages an hour, which is a respectable speed, I'm sure, but nothing to get excited about. (Maybe I'll get anal in a few days and figure out how many wpm that translates into.)

I think it would be interesting to use the next readathon to read a humongous book like Drood or The Story of Edgar Sawtelle; I read primarily short stories and essays in the first readathon and while I enjoyed doing so, all the stopping and starting kept the total page numbers down and I didn't feel as accomplished at the end as some of participants who'd read double or triple the amount.

Anyway, this is my meandering way of saying that while I read plenty of books throughout the year at a ruminative pace, sometimes taking a day or two off after finishing one before I start another, having a weekend once or twice a year where I don't pause for reflection between them is one lovely experience.

And did I forget to mention the fact that there are cheerleaders?

Monday, April 20, 2009

The dark matter

In our always-connected, everything-linked world, we sometimes forget that books are the dark matter of the information universe. While we now possess terabytes of data at our fingertips, we have nonetheless drifted further and further away from mankind's most valuable archive of knowledge: the tens of millions of books that have been published since Gutenberg's day.

--Steven Johnson, How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write

After reading this article, I no longer feel guilty for using this blog as a commonplace book.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Readathon Final Update

Five books completed for a total of 1,013 pages.

Genesis. Bernard Beckett
The Fire Gospel. Michel Faber
When Will There Be Good News? Kate Atkinson
Great Granny Webster. Caroline Blackwood
D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths. Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire

*Edited to add Final Event Meme

1. Which hour was most daunting for you?

1-2 am, whatever hour that was. Then I gave up and went to bed until 5:30 am.

2. Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year?

The Atkinson, the Faber.

3. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year?

Perhaps have the readathon last a few hours longer so everyone could have some sleep without feeling guilty about it.

4. What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon?


5. How many books did you read?


6. What were the names of the books you read?

Listed above

7. Which book did you enjoy most?

Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News?

8. Which did you enjoy least?

The Norse mythology simply because I was reading at too fast a clip by then so that I could finish it before the readathon ended (finished with one minute to spare).

9. If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year’s Cheerleaders?


10. How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time?

Very likely. Reader

Readathon 23rd Hour Update

I made it to 20 pages from the end of Caroline Blackwood's Great Granny Webster before calling it a night and catching a bit of sleep. I'm awake again, more than a little bleary-eyed, but I've finished the Blackwood and am casting about now for something short and not too taxing to read next.

Readathom 17th Hour Update

When Will There Be Good News? was such a satisfying read that I would be tempted to call it a night and head straight to bed were it not for the fact that killer kittens are now patroling the blogs instead of cheerleaders.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Readathon 11th Hour Update

Mid-Event Survey:1. What are you reading right now?

I'm midway through Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News? I love it. Atkinson's one of my all-time favorite authors.

2. How many books have you read so far?

I've completed two short novels:
Bernard Beckett's Genesis and Michel Faber's The Fire Gospel

3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon?

Poppy Adams' The Behavior of the Moths

4. Did you have to make any special arrangements to free up your whole day?

Not really, but I'm going to have a lot of housework to catch up on tomorrow.

5. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those?

Lots of interruptions this afternoon. Trust me, you don't want to know anything more than that.

6. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far?

This is my third time, so no surprises.

7. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year?


8. What would you do differently, as a Reader or a Cheerleader, if you were to do this again next year?

Plan for it, instead of deciding to do it on the spur of the moment.

9. Are you getting tired yet?

Just a little. But I've had so many interruptions, the last thing I'm tired of is reading.

10. Do you have any tips for other Readers or Cheerleaders, something you think is working well for you that others may not have discovered?

No. I'm sure everyone else already knows the glorious benefits of caffeine.

Readathon Sixth Hour Update

The readathon got a mention last night at Crooks and Liars.

Cool beans.

Finished The Fire Gospel. Memo to self: remember to find out later if Faber was intentionally giving a nod to Tobias Wolff's "Bullet to the Brain" in the later portion of the book.

Readathon Third Hour Update

So I've finished Genesis (didn't see that ending coming, that's for sure), talked to my mother-in-law on the phone about books and manuscripts and next weekend's plans, and intend to start The Fire Gospel next. First I have to start a load of laundry so that for while longer I can keep up the pretense that it's just a normal Saturday, not one in which I intend to read for 24 hours straight. It does help that I started the day with a migraine--it does keep the family's expectations low.

First hour: Introduction Questions

Where are you reading from today?

I'm in Charlotte, North Carolina.

3 facts about me …

I work in a university library.
I had leftover Chinese food for breakfast.
I wish I'd managed to swing by the public library last night to pick up Firmin; it would have made a great read-a-thon selection.

How many books do you have in your TBR pile for the next 24 hours?

I'm starting the readathon with a science fiction novel that showed up in my mail a couple weeks back: Bernard Beckett's Genesis.

Close at hand I have Poppy Adams' The Behavior of the Moths, Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, Michel Faber's The Fire Gospel, and D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths.

Do you have any goals for the read-a-thon (i.e. number of books, number of pages, number of hours, or number of comments on blogs)?

Last year I read 900 pages. I have no goals this year, other than to try to stay up all night--I have a tendency to shut down early.

If you’re a veteran read-a-thoner, Any advice for people doing this for the first time?

This is my third read-a-thon; I skipped the one last October. My advice is to just relax and have a good time.

I'm a Read-a-thon participant!

While I wasn't the last person to sign up for Dewey's 24-Hour-Read-a-Thon, which begins in half an hour, I did come close. I seriously doubt I'll get half the reading in that I did during last summer's read-a-thon, but I am going to give it a try.

Good luck to all the other readers today and a thanks in advance to those cheerleading.

Now, where's my Zyrtec? Where's my eyedrops? Don't tell me the pollen index is only moderate today; I know better.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Booking Through Thursday - Windfall

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Yesterday, April 15th, was Tax Day here in the U.S., which means lots of lucky people will get refunds of over-paid taxes.

Whether you’re one of them or not, what would you spend an unexpected windfall on? Say … $50? How about $500?

(And, this is a reading meme, so by rights the answer should be book-related, but hey, feel free to go wild and splurge on anything you like.)

My book-related answers would be:

If I had $50 today to spend on books I'd order Dorothy Whipple's The Priory from the Book Depository (which, um, I already did this morning, windfall or no) and in addition I'd be placing pre-orders on Robin Hemley's Do-Over and Robert Boswell's Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards at Amazon instead of getting on the waiting list for them at the library.

If I had a $500 windfall, I'd get the Granemo bookcase at Ikea to go in my daughter's old room. Things are way too doublestacked in the study and I'm losing track of books that should be readily accounted for. The new Ikea in town also has the Granemo with glass doors, which would cut down on the need to dust and would raise the price by about a hundred, leaving me, after taxes, with just enough money to buy the books mentioned above.

If used on non-book purchases, an extra $50 to blow would be used for a dinner out (I hate to cook); an extra $500, well, perhaps I could tag along on my daughter's trip to Australia this fall if I could pay my own airfare.

Yeah, right.

Booking Through Thursday

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A rant

Lord love a duck. Have I turned into a pedant or does anyone else have a problem with a publisher's press release containing a factual error--kinda a minor error, but still!-- within its first paragraph? I'll be interested to see how many book reviews in the coming weeks will also include this professional gaffe --you can bet Amazon's Harriet Klausner's will be among them.

Is it really asking too much for someone who's actually read the book to tout it to potential reviewers? I guess I don't understand publishing.

And while I'm in rant mode, has anyone else read Jennie Yabroff's article on Jodi Picoult? Lord love a duck all over again. Anyone who's never spent any time on the literary blogs would come away from this article believing we're all members of a "self-appointed literature police" who never ever do any pleasure reading of our own.

And then there's this: "Picoult sees herself more in the school of so-called literary writers such as Sue Miller, who also writes about domestic topics despite frequent downmarket comparisons, especially to 'Twilight' author Stephenie Meyer." Is Yabroff saying Miller is often compared to Meyer (a quick google search reveals no evidence for that) or that Picoult is often compared to Meyer (because of sales, maybe, or because they share readers?). Is there a comma missing from that sentence that would make Yarbroff's meaning a bit clearer?

And she ends with this: ". . .. equating reading--all reading, from the classics to the tabloids--with pleasure feels radical in this age of government-subsidized municipal book clubs. Maybe if reading wasn't so 'good' for us, we'd do more of it."

I guess Yabroff would regard me--and you, too, no doubt--as a radical glutton. And I'm left yet again with the feeling that a so-called professional did not read the book(s) she was writing about.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Fill in the Gaps Project

I know I said I wasn't going to participate in any challenges this year, but The Fill in the Gaps Project sounds too good to pass up.

The object is to take up to five years to fill in the gaps in one's individual reading from a list of 100 books. A reader is to consider the project a success if she reads 75 percent of the books on her list.

I fudged my list a bit, making it a list of 100 authors instead of books. I listed the classics first, ones owned and left idle on the shelves, then added oh, say a fifth of all those other stockpiled books that I feel especially guilty for not having gotten around to yet. (I may be returning a lot of unread library books next week while the guilt lasts.)

I'm going to give the following list a prominent position on my other blog and bold the books as I complete them.

To be read by April 12, 2014:

Poppy Adams
The Behavior of the Moths
Grant Allen
The Woman Who Did
Isabel Allende
The House of the Spirits
Majgul Axelsson
April Witch
Honore de Balzac
Cousin Betty
Nicola Barker
Sybille Bedford
A Favourite of the Gods
Rosalind Belben
Hound Music
Marcel Benabou
Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books
Caroline Blackwood
Great Granny Webster
Mikhail Bulgakov
The Fatal Eggs
The Master and Margarita
Italo Calvino
if on a winter's night a traveler
Willa Cather
Death Comes for the Archbishop
Anton Chekhov
Collected Stories
Wilkie Collins
The Woman in White
Ivy Compton-Burnett
The House and Its Head
Manservant and Maidservant
Joseph Conrad
The Secret Agent
Jim Crace
The Pesthouse
Richmal Crompton
The Family Roundabout
Ingri and Edgar Perin D'Aulaire
Book of Norse Myths
Robertson Davies
The Cornish Trilogy
Daniel Defoe
Robinson Crusoe
Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Eternal Husband
The Idiot
Theodore Drieser
Sister Carrie
Alexandre Dumas
The Three Musketeers
Daphne Du Maurier
Don't Look Now
George Eliot
Felix Holt
Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man
William Faulkner
Go Down, Moses
The Snopes Trilogy
Rachel Ferguson
Alas, Poor Lady
E.M. Forster
Aspects of the Novel
William Gaddis
The Recognitions
Elizabeth Gaskell
North and South
Amitar Ghosh
Sea of Poppies
George Gissing
Born in Exile
In the Year of Jubilee
Sleeping Fires
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
Graham Greene
The Quiet American
George Grossman
The Diary of a Nobody
Patrick Hamilton
The Slaves of Solitude
Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
Thomas Hardy
Far From the Madding Crowd
The Mayor of Casterbridge
The Woodlanders
L.P. Hartley
The Go-Between
Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Blithedale Romance
Shirley Hazzard
Transit of Venus
The Histories
Janet Hobhouse
The Furies
Vere Hodgson
Few Eggs and No Oranges
Richard Hughes
The Fox in the Attic
In Hazard
The Wooden Shepherdess
Henry James
The Ambassadors
James Joyce
Heinrich von Kleist
The Marquise of O-
D.H. Lawrence
Lady Chatterley's Lover
Women in Love
Halldor Laxness
Independent People
Ursula K. LeGuin
The Left Hand of Darkness
Doris Lessing
The Sweetest Dream
Naguib Mahfouz
Palace Walk
Thomas Mann
Death in Venice
Doctor Faustus
Katherine Mansfield
Collected Stories
Peter Matthiessen
Shadow Country
W. Somerset Maugham
The Magician
The Painted Veil
David McCullough
John Adams
Herman Melville
The Confidence Man
The Piazza Tales
John Milton
Paradise Lost
Drusilla Modjeska
The Orchard
Iris Murdoch
The Book and the Brotherhood
Nuns and Soldiers
The Unicorn
Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire
Irene Nemirovsky
Suite Francaise
Flannery O'Connor
The Habit of Being
Tim O'Brien
The Things They Carried
The Metamorphoses
Amos Oz
A Tale of Love and Darkness
Dawn Powell
A Time to Be Born
Francine Prose
Marcel Proust
The Guermantes Way
Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Ron Rash
Salman Rushdie
The Satanic Verses
Peter Rushforth
Vita Sackville-West
All Passion Spent
Mary Lee Settle
Know Nothing
William Shakespeare
Henry V
Richard III
Ali Smith
The First Person
Girl Meets Boy
The Whole Story and Other Stories
Emma Smith
The Far Cry
Susan Sontag
In America
Christina Stead
House of All Nations
Letty Fox
Salzburg Tales
Wallace Stegner
The Big Rock Candy Mountain
Charterhouse of Parma
William Styron
Sophie's Choice
Betsy Tobin
Ice Land
Anthony Trollope
The Vicar of Bullhampton
The Way We Live Now
Sigrd Undset
Kristin Lavransdatter
Nathaniel West
The Day of the Locust
Rebecca West
This Real Night
Cousin Rosamund
Edith Wharton
The Old Maid
The Reef
Dorothy Whipple
Someone at a Distance
John Williams
Thomas Wolfe
Look Homeward Angel
Viginia Woolf
Night and Day
The Waves
John Wyndam
The Chrysalids
Emile Zola
Stefan Zweig
Beware of Pity
Marie Antoinette

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Lulu in Marrakech

Diane Johnson's Lulu in Marrakech tells the story of a low-level undercover CIA agent who travels to Morocco as much to continue her Kosovo-begun romance with an Englishman as to help trace the network of money finding its way into the hands of suicide bombers and other radical Middle Eastern organizations while ostensibly working to improve female literacy in the country. Primarily a vehicle for bringing a multicultural group together in an exotic land and allowing everyone to play off one another, the book will disappoint anyone expecting/requiring high drama or an actual romance. The further I got in the book the more Lulu (an alias, of course) reminded me of the unnamed narrator in all of Julie Hecht's stories and novel; Lulu isn't neurotic like the Hecht character, but her voice, her behavior, was just judged off enough by the others to make me think I might like to start a reread of Hecht. And read more Johnson--many of the Amazon reviewers make clear this is not the best Johnson by a long shot.

A few readerish excerpts:

Sometimes, fed up with company, I'd go to my room after dinner, leaving Ian to his guests. I would write my e-mails to "Sheila," and I'd read. To tell the truth, I'd never been much of a reader. One reason I never liked to read is that I early discovered that in stories, the female character you were supposed to love and admire was expected to make choices of the heart instead of rational choices. She was supposed to be buffeted by her emotions, and that was what made her lovable and womanly. True, in Little Women you liked Jo, the most intelligent one, though my secret was that I didn't like the little women at all; Jo was only the best among them, but even she, swayed by her emotions, sold out for the ugly, bearded, older professor, a repellent choice for lots of reasons.


"Oh, literacy," said Marina Cotter. "What good does reading do them? I think our project is much more useful. We teach them not to kill their donkeys. They beat them so, they starve them, and then when the creatures die, they bewail their misfortune. They have no conception of humane treatment or that it's in their own best interests to treat their beasts with kindness, for all that the Koran says you ought to treat animals kindly." She and a team of Arabic and Berber speakers travel in the guise of veterinarians, offering to treat sick donkeys, which they do, then they slip in their lessons: "If he is in good health, Mohammed, he will serve you a much longer time."


It was hard to imagine a life without being able to read--the situation for three quarters of women and girls in the rural areas of Morocco. If you couldn't read, you'd have to wait for people to tell you things--how unreliable that would be! The little girls I'd already seen in the city school I'd visited (most aged about ten, wearing head scarves) seemed to be following a more or less modern curriculum. Thinking of the people who disapprove of female reading, I also though of Posy, with her Oxbridge degree and views about water imagery and scansion and the rest, lumbering around, pregnant, waiting, and fretful, and I could imagine what the naysayers might say, that reading was wasted on Posy too, on all women, they should just get on with their baby-having.

Booking Through Thursday - Numbers Game

Some people read one book at a time. Some people have a number of them on the go at any given time, perhaps a reading in bed book, a breakfast table book, a bathroom book, and so on, which leads me to…

Are you currently reading more than one book?
If so, how many books are you currently reading?
Is this normal for you?
Where do you keep your current reads?

These questions come at an interesting time, because I finished up my most recent read, Anthony Trollope's The Warden, right at bedtime last night and I have yet to decide what I'll start next.

Of course, I also have three books in languish mode at the moment - Eudora Welty's Losing Battles, which I haven't picked up in several weeks but fully intend to complete, The Metamorphoses of Ovid, in which I'm maybe 10 pages behind schedule, and Muriel Spark's All the Stories of Muriel Spark, from which I intended to parcel out one story a night but set aside after a major binge the very first night. But since I usually have two or three books that I read from in fits and starts, those don't seem to count: I'm between books right now. Check back later.

These books are all either on the library table by my reading chair or on the chair's ottoman. Whatever book I decide to read next will no doubt be started in that chair, or at the kitchen table if I decide by breakfast, and then will be placed in my tote bag along with my Kindle to accompany me wherever I might go when I leave the house.

Booking Through Thursday

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Tricking of Freya

Freya Morris overhears "a scrap of conversation" at her grandmother's 100th birthday party and realizes that her troubled but beloved aunt Birdie had once had a child. With her parents and her aunt all dead, and her grandmother undoubtedly approaching the end of her own life, Freya becomes obsessed with tracking down the cousin that must have been given up for adoption before she was born.

Written as if it were a letter, a collection of memories and family history to give to the cousin once found, Christina Sunley's The Tricking of Freya introduces the reader to a community of Icelandic emigrants who settle in Manitoba after the eruption of the volcano Askja poisons their farmland with lava. Some adapt quickly to the ways of their new land, while others work to pass down the Icelandic language, traditions and myths to the generations that follow.

Freya's aunt Birdie is one of the latter. Like her father Olafur before her, Birdie is a poet, and she devotes much time during Freya's summer visits to Canada (the rest of the year she lives in boring suburban Connecticut) to instructing her niece in ancient sagas, Norse mythology, and the complexities of Icelandic grammar. Birdie is also strikingly bipolar, and because of her mood swings, Freya is often unsure whether or not she's in her aunt's good graces.

During a manic upsurge the summer Freya is 13, Birdie sets off to Iceland with Freya in tow to search for some family letters. What happens there, and what Birdie does once back in Manitoba, will cause Freya to turn her back on her family and her heritage for years to come. It will take her search for the long-lost cousin to get her to make a return trip to Iceland.

This was supposed to be the summer that we took a family vacation to Iceland, but of course our trip has had to be postponed since L. is losing his job. The Tricking of Freya has really intensified my desire to make the trip once our finances improve; I loved Sunley's descriptions of the glaciers and lava fields and ice caves.

I'll have to console myself in the meantime reading more about the mythology and history of this fabulous land.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Stories never live alone: they are the branches of a family that we have to trace back, and forward.

--Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Romance of a Shop

Last Friday, while I was googling George Gissing, I came across a reference to a writer I'd never before heard mentioned: Amy Levy.

She'd published a novel in 1888 about a family of sisters who open a photography shop, beating Gissing's The Odd Women, a novel about sisters required to make a living outside marriage, by five years.

Intrigued further by her description on Amazon as a second-tier George Eliot, I felt fortunate that the library had a one-volume set of her complete novels --particularly after mentioning her to the Victorian lit professor who came in to look at microfilm that afternoon and learning that he'd never heard of her either.

"Amy Levy was born in Clapham in 1861 and died by charcoal gas inhalation in 1889, two months before her twenty-eighth birthday. In taking her own life, she not only raised numerous questions about the despairs of an educated Jewish woman in late Victorian England but also put an end to a promising literary career. In her twenty-seven years she had been the first Jewish woman admitted to Newnham College, Cambridge; had published three short novels and three slim collections of poetry; and had become a contributor to several major literary magazines, including Temple Bar and The Gentleman's Magazine, as well as to the 'leading and almost universally read weekly newspaper among British Jews,' The Jewish Chronicle. Oscar Wilde's obituary notice in Woman's World (which he founded in 1888, and to which Levy contributed poems, short stories, and essays) took particular notice of this promise cut short. . . ." begins the introduction written by the volume's editor Melvyn New.

The Romance of a Shop does indeed give evidence of promise cut short. Orphaned sisters left "quite poor" following the death of their debt-ridden father set up a photography business rather than do what's expected of women of the time--become governesses or travel to India to find husbands or allow themselves to be taken in by a more prosperous relative or friend. The Lorimers themselves often reminded me of Alcott's March girls, Levy's tone stays light with slangy dialogue and a tendency to merely suggest how straitened the family's conditions are while focusing on the relationships the girls develop with the men with whom their shops brings them in contact.

I'll read another Levy novel most definitely.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Library Loot

Must. stop. checking. out. books. . .

Brad Gooch's Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor. I should have this one finished by the weekend.

Gerald Koplan's Etta. Should be great fun. Maybe I'll follow it up with another viewing of Butch and Sundance.

Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity. Zweig's first novel. Danielle's already reading it.

Matt Bondurant's The Wettest County in the World. I thought I was from the Moonshine Capital of the World, but Bondurant claims that ignomy goes to Franklin County, Va.

Alexander Waugh's The House of Wittgenstein. The Anthony Gottleib review has me eager to read this biography.

Laurie Graham's The Importance of Being Kennedy. Litlove put this on her favorites list last year.

Tom Piazza's City of Refuge. I'd not heard of this before the Tournament of Books.

Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air. A bio of scientist Joseph Priestley, friend of both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.


The Complete Novels and Selected Writings of Amy Levy edited by Melvyn New. I've already read The Romance of a Shop from the collection; a review is to follow.

Library Week

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Suggested by Barbara:

I saw that National Library week is coming up in April, and that led to some questions. How often do you use your public library and how do you use it? Has the coffeehouse/bookstore replaced the library? Did you go to the library as a child? Do you have any particular memories of the library? Do you like sleek, modern, active libraries or the older, darker, quiet, cozy libraries?

Last night I dropped by the public library on my way home from work at the university library to pick up a hold (the newly-published Etta for those interested in that kind of thing). I had to manuever past a library aide adding a cartload of books to the hold shelves who was in conversation with a library patron, but no one was in the self-checkout line, and I fingerpoked in my 14-digit library card number (actual library card is rather fragile, so I don't normally carry it) and was back to my car in a couple of minutes.

And that's usually how my trips to the public library go these days. I place holds online, nowhere near as many as I did before I started at the university library a decade ago, go in to retrieve them, and unless one of my former co-workers is at the circ desk (only one is still at this branch by this point) to catch up with, I'm out of there.

The parking lot is always full, though--I often have to park in the overflow lot--and plenty of people spend more time inside than I do. I usually feel a bit silly leaving one library and driving to another--I always tell myself I ought to wait for the university to get the new books I want (usually a lag of a few weeks, but occasionally several months) and use it only for the books too low-brow for it purchase, but I don't always listen.

Booking Through Thursday

A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...