Tristram Shandy: Review

IMG_3367.jpegI’ve been feeling like my review for Tristram Shandy is going to have to go one of two ways: I share what I liked about the book, or I write a 7,000 word academic essay. Fortunately for you, I don’t have time for the latter. So this might be a bit more casual of a review than normal.

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a tricky book to review, anyway, because it doesn’t really have a plot. It was published as nine volumes over nine years, between 1758 and 1767, but this publication doesn’t have much to do with the meandering, digressive, and episodic form; plenty of books were published over multiple years, and they all had plots.

Okay, I admit, I’m still a little salty about the lack of plot. (Is salty still slang? Or have kids these days moved on?)

That’s my own fault, though, because I knew next to nothing going into the novel. In fact, I picked it up because last spring I worked on an early 19th-century diary written by a young American man who happened to love Tristram, and I was curious as to why he liked it so much.

Like my young diarist discovered more than two hundred years ago, it’s the novel’s very absurdity that makes it so charming. It invites us to laugh at the world, to see its comic aspects, to recognize that life is far too complex and random and strange to portray accurately in a traditional novel. And yet, it also refrains from descending into bitterness, instead remaining cheerful (but not saccharine) throughout. And once I realized that the plot was not simply forestalled but never arriving (and on purpose), I was able to enjoy Tristram much more. So don’t expect a plot. Just enjoy the journey.

The novel is not actually about Tristram, despite the very misleading title. While Tristram, as the vocal and active narrator, is kind of a character, we see very little of his life or opinions in the novel, and he almost never appears in the narrative. He isn’t even born until volume iv!

46201c899bc0e45596f544a6667444341514141.jpgInstead, the main  characters are Walter Shandy, Tristram’s father, Toby Shandy, Tristram’s uncle, and Trim, Toby’s butler/valet.  These three men are delightfully quirky characters, and are drawn with wonderful complexity. Walter has strange opinions about noses and names, Toby was invalided out of the army and now researches battles by building models in his garden, and Trim is a kind, loyal, soft-hearted former subordinate officer and valet and friend who also happens to know more about the world than surprisingly innocent Toby. For example, Toby (my favorite character), despite his near-obsession with military campaigns, cannot bear to kill even a fly.

I should note that while the characters are complex, they are not necessarily realisticTristram is a comic, even satiric novel, belonging to the same family tree as Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and, later, Alice in Wonderland. Don’t expect Dickens or Richardson.

So, the characters are delightful, and if you let the narrator take you on a journey, you will find yourself delighted. Just don’t look for a plot.

Despite the seeming nonsense of the book, even a little contemplation of it will reveal that it has been very deliberately written and that Sterne knew full well what he was doing, even if Tristram doesn’t. It is bristling with literary allusions, allusions to (and quotations from) Sterne’s sermons, and a sharp awareness that this is a novel. Indeed, a lot of the book’s absurdity comes from Sterne showing us the limits of the novel form, which, it must be remembered, was still just a few decades old in the English tradition. One can try, like Henry Fielding does in Tom Jones, to be as realistic as possible, but a novel is still a written thing; its plot and characters imaginary.

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Tied to this awareness of the limitations of the novel is a parallel awareness of the novel as an object. Sterne constantly reminds us that we are reading a book. His book is filled with quotations and paraphrases and copies of parts of books (real and made up). And Sterne will often use creative textual methods to make a point. When somebody dies, early in the book, there are two black pages following, which serve as mourning. Later, Tristram rips out a chapter he has written, and there is a corresponding blank page in the book. The font changes in the chapter headings to make a point. I found all of this fascinating, and would like to dig more deeply into that aspect of the book (but not here).

So, while I struggled a bit at the beginning, simply because Tristram was a creature I was not expecting, I ended up really loving it. I’ve used “delight” several times in this review already, but I’ll use it one more time, because that’s what Tristram Shandy is: delightful. It ended up being a pleasure to read, and left me with some rich material to ponder in the days to come. What more could you want?

Video review, in which I explore some of these ideas in more detail, here: https://youtu.be/JnClOiiIM7Y

 

 

The Woman in White: Review

Book: The Woman in White5890
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Novel, Mystery
Period: mid-Victorian
Rating: 4/5 stars

I participated in the last Classics Club spin (#20) and it chose Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. This is my second Classics Club read. For more about the Classics Club, go here, for the background about the spin, here.

The Woman in White was published in 1860 after first being serialized the year before. It is kind of a mystery, and has strong gothic vibes. I say kind of, because unlike in Collins’ later work The Moonstone, which is trying to uncover a jewel theft, this novel begins by exploring mysterious circumstances and only really deals with solving A Mystery in the last third. The gothic vibes come from a gloomy estate home called Blackwater Park, mistaken identities, mysterious disappearances, and even more mysterious deaths, among other things.

Walking home in London from visiting his mother late one night, Walter Hartright helps a  young woman, dressed all in white, who has just escaped from an insane asylum, and where, she claims, she has been falsely imprisoned. He helps the woman to a cab and does not become further involved, but the encounter lingers in his mind, especially because the woman mentions Limmeridge House, and Hartright happens to be leaving the next day to become the drawing tutor for the ladies who currently live at Limmeridge. When he arrives in the country, Hartright asks one of the young women, Marian Halcombe, to help him try to identify the mysterious woman, and finds himself drawn into a mystery that involves not only the woman, but Marian’s half sister, Laura, and Hartright himself. There are secrets to uncover, lies to counter, lives to save. It’s hard to say more without spoiling things, but the story was very eventful and entertaining. I read about 300 pages in one sitting, over the middle of the book, because I just wanted to read “one more chapter.” You know how it goes.

Although I was eventually sucked in, I was glad to have a deadline while reading this book because it took me quite a while to get into the story. Very early on, Walter falls in love with Laura Fairlie, and she is of course blonde and beautiful and fresh and innocent and it had me rolling my eyes. Laura is engaged to someone else, however, and the story really gets going after she is married to Sir Perceval Glyde, one of the novel’s villains. Once I got to this part of the story, about 200 pages in, I was hooked.

Despite my initial hesitation, I ended up enjoying the major characters a lot. Laura actually demonstrated that she was a perceptive, strong woman, which I appreciated. Marian, her half sister, is another strong woman, loyal, brave, determined, resourceful, and clever, and I’m so glad I met her. Walter also improves on acquaintance. His loyalty to Laura and Marian and his determination to do whatever he can to help them, even if there is no gain for him, helped me get over his predictable love interest. The villains are excellent, particularly Count Fosco, who I will remember for a long time. He was actually very charming and likable, which made his villainy all the more terrible, and it was great.

The story is told in as a compiled narrative, with various characters narrating the portion of the story about which they had the most experience. The frame is that after everything was over, Walter wanted to tell the truth, so gathered material from those who were involved and then wrote about his own experiences and arranged everything chronologically. So, while Walter begins the story, when he is not with Marian and Laura, Marian’s journal continues the story. There are also letters and other memoranda that are used to give various perspectives and details. It’s kind of like a dossier. Collins also does this in The Moonstone, but there is more movement between voices in The Woman in White, and I think I enjoyed that better.

While I mostly read The Woman in White for entertainment, and wasn’t looking for themes, it does raise some interesting questions about mental illness, and particularly around the lack of freedom women had when it came to being committed by their male relatives. I just spent last semester taking a course on 19th century American representations of mental illness, so these themes really stood out to me. Also, after finding out that Dickens tried to have his wife Catherine committed during their very nasty break-up in 1858 (the family doctor/friend told him “Don’t you dare!”), this felt a little like Collins was digging at Dickens with the “false imprisonment” plotline. I don’t really have anything profound to reflect on, although if I were to ever revisit works that feature mental illness for a writing project, this book would be on the list.

Overall, The Woman in White was a great book. I would recommend it to those who like mysteries, Victorian fiction, Dickens’s novels, a good plot, or who want a lot of action in their classics (just be aware that it’s action heavy for a Victorian novel; there’s still a lot of talking).

 

Oresteia: Review

51C7XYdMalL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI’ve been meaning to read this trilogy of ancient Greek plays, by Aeschylus, for ages, and I was delighted when one of my classes this semester forced me to actually do it. This is one of the books on my Classics Club list; the first one I’ve completed! Click the link to see the whole list of classics I’ve committed to read in the next five years.

Aeschylus is the oldest example of Greek drama (and therefore western drama) that we have. His plays are quite different from contemporary ones, or even early modern ones, so I recommend finding an edition that has an introduction which discusses the ancient Greek theatrical tradition. Basically, these plays were written for a festival in honor of Dionysus.

The Oresteia is about the death of Agamemnon at his return from the Trojan War and the events that follow. Is it spoilery if I summarize the whole plot of a 2500 year old story based on an even older myth? Actually, I think this is one of those cases where knowing the story beforehand is helpful. If you don’t want to know anything, skip to below the line for my thoughts.

On his way to Troy, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to ensure safe passage and his wife, Clytemnestra, is understandably angry. While Agamemnon is gone for ten years, she starts an affair, and when Agamemnon returns, she murders him. Play 1, Agamemnon, focuses on Agamemnon and Clytemenestra’s, erm, marital problems, and ends with his murder.

6917129-M.jpgIn play 2, The Libation Bearers, Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, comes home from the foreign country where he’d been for a while, and meets his sister, Electra, at their father’s funeral and decides to avenge his father’s murder by killing his mother, even though this will bring the Furies, the ancient goddesses of justice, on his head for killing blood. Apollo has commanded him to do so, and promised protection. [side note, Orestes is where the name of the trilogy comes from]

In play 3, The Furies, Orestes flees to Athens and asks for a trial, defended by Apollo and arbitrated by Athena herself. Athena wins (of course) and the Furies become the Erinyes, the Kindly Ones, protectors of Athens.

On the surface, this play can seem very sparse. Each installment is short, about 40 pages of verse in my edition, and there’s a lot of talking and not a lot of action. Digging deeper, with the help of footnotes and good introductions, shows that there’s a lot of complex questions about justice, politics, and religion being discussed. The “eye-for-an-eye” revenge cycle represented by Clytemnestra and the Furies is the “old way,” which is remade into the new way of justice by fair trial.

9780199537815.jpegSomething else I found very interesting was the way Aeschylus used his chorus. If you’ve ever studied ancient Greek drama, you probably learned that the chorus is  supposed to be some anomalous group like “the people” or “the elders,” and this is how Sophocles (Oedipus Rex and Antigone) uses them. But Aeschylus uses his chorus much more complexly. They are the “elders” in play 1, but in play 2 they become the Libation Bearers of the title, and in play 3 they become the Furies. This shift from old men to old women to goddesses is very interesting to follow, especially when you factor in that these plays were performed on the same day, with the same group of people (all men, probably). Essentially, the chorus moves from being that more traditional group of commentators to being a major group of characters by the last play. It is also interesting to see how much power, both good and bad, women are afforded in this trilogy. While Agamemnon and Orestes are the main characters, their lives are both intensely shaped and influenced by the women around them.

Like a lot of Greek drama, the Oresteia has a lot to say about big topics that makes it still feel relevant today. It’s a pretty quick read for an ancient classic, and I definitely recommend it.

Recommended editions: Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, Hackett

Update 5/29: I now have a video review up, where I go more in-depth into the history and backstory of the trilogy. Check it out at https://youtu.be/RSoZJDU9MAU

Adam Bede: Review

Adam Bede by George Eliot
4 stars

It is our habit to say that while the lower nature can never understand the higher, the higher nature commands a complete view of the lower. But I think the higher nature has to learn this comprehension, as we learn the art of vision, by a good deal of hard experience, often with bruises and gashes incurred in taking things up by the wrong end, and fancying our space wider than it is.

AdamBede1-420x620.pngThis story follows Adam Bede, a young carpenter who lives in rural northern England, and the people who form his community in this village where he lives. Adam is a diligent worker and a good friend, who often judges too harshly and responds to the faults in others with anger instead of mercy. As the story opens, he is working for a local business owner and is admired and respected by his community, but several circumstances in his life are preventing him from doing all he wishes to do. One of the things he wants to do is marry a girl named Hetty Sorrel, but he doesn’t feel like he has enough financial stability to do so. While Adam is working through his own life circumstances, Hetty meets and falls for Arthur Donnethorne, the young squire who is a friend of Adam’s. Conflict ensues.

This is not a story about a love triangle; Eliot is too complex for that, even in this, her first novel. Instead, this is ultimately a story about sin and sorrow. While a weaker work than Middlemarch, the things that I love about Eliot are still evident in Adam Bede. Her focus is always on character. What makes people tick? What are their flaws? How do those flaws impact their actions?

In Adam Bede Eliot is exploring the impact other people have on our lives. While in stories the main character tends to have to address problems that are due to their actions, Adam must work through problems that are caused by the actions of Arthur and Hetty. This is a less common kind of story, but a common human experience. If the people around you deeply wound you, how do you respond? And more importantly, how ought you respond? Adam’s initial responses are unhealthy (ahem, literal fistfight, actual hatred), but eventually, with the help of some friends, he shapes his heart towards forgiveness, and in doing so, helps Hetty and Arthur find repentance and forgiveness, too.

19426099176.jpgI continue to be amazed how well Eliot draws characters, how vivid and life-like they are. Even the minor characters, like Mr. Irwine or Bartle Massey, are so real. I do think the characters, generally, and Hetty, especially, aren’t as multi-dimensional as, for example, Rosamond Vincy or other figures later in Eliot’s career, but still excellently done. In addition, the plot was a little unevenly paced, and the action got rather dramatic at times. But as I want to emphasize, these are really only flaws in comparison to Middlemarch, which I think is one of the best English novels full stop, so they are minor flaws. As a first novel, especially, it’s marvelous. Eliot is a mature writer who rewards mature and attentive readers with an enormous feast of richness and truth.

As is happening more and more with classics, at first it took me a little bit to get into this book, and I read it casually around other things for a couple of weeks. I enjoyed it, but was okay with putting it down for a few days. And then I read the last 150 or 200 pages in one sitting. I kept telling myself “one more chapter” until I realized I was just going to finish the book. I think classics in general invite a longer settling in, they spend more time introducing and developing characters before diving into the plot. And the result, at least here, is that afore-mentioned richness.

Related to that reaction of mine, another aspect of the book I loved is that although we neither see or are told about some of the central actions in the book, Eliot manages to make us aware that they’re happening anyway, through small details that I think make those actions feel weightier (the little pink handkerchief — !!). Her choice to withhold details creates tension and a sense of dread in a very subtle and sophisticated way. There was a moment near the end where I actually gasped out loud, and then realized I’d been holding my breath, because the tension in that moment was so acute and so subtle. I thought I knew what was going to happen and had accepted it; turns out I hadn’t.

I identified a lot with Adam, being similarly good at doing the right thing, but sometimes struggling to be merciful when people don’t meet my own standards. The next time I read the book, I’ll be paying more careful attention to his development, because I know I’ll be able to learn a great deal from him. However, of all the major characters, it’s Hetty that I think about the most. I do think Eliot was right to name the book after Adam, because the book is ultimately about him, but Hetty plays a large role. Poor girl.

51UfiU57zXL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg(The next paragraphs flirt with some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know more, look away!). Eliot shows us that Hetty is a vain, selfish, and empty-headed young woman. She wants nothing more than to be admired and liked, but doesn’t actually like or care about other people very much. She literally spends hours in her bedroom looking at herself in the mirror and daydreaming about getting pretty dresses and basking in the attention she gets from men.

This shallowness of character means she can’t really imagine how others think or feel, or see the world in a perspective outside of her own very limited one. And she can’t think complexly enough to anticipate potential consequences of her actions, or to recognize social realities that might deflate her daydreams. She really doesn’t see why Arthur will never consider her seriously as a potential wife. I compared her to Rosamond Vincy earlier because I think she is an early version of the kind of character Rosamond is, too. But while Rosamond has some redeeming moments, Hetty really doesn’t, although she does have a moment of repentance. Her poor character leads her to make bad decisions (it’s true her experience is not only her fault, but she’s certainly not a victim, and definitely makes things worse than they could have been), and then to not know how to deal with the consequences, leading to even worse decisions. While there were plenty of people from whom she could have sought help, and indeed who invite her to come to them if she needs help, her desire to be liked is stronger than anything, and so she is too proud and not imaginative enough to see these avenues that are open to her. And this leads to some pretty tragic consequences.

One of the reasons I wanted to think about Hetty more in this space is because I think her plot and character arc are one of those circumstances where it is all too easy to read with modern eyes and miss what the author is trying to say. Would things have been different for Hetty now? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that she would have had a better story; she would simply have made different kinds of mistakes, because it’s her character that Eliot is concerned with.

What Hetty has to learn is that her actions have consequences, not only for her, but for those around her who care about her: her cousin, Dinah, her aunt and uncle, and Adam, who loves her. This ripple effect also offers Adam the opportunity to grow; he realizes he didn’t know Hetty like he thought, and must work through his anger towards forgiveness. I think the fact that Adam has enough depth to recognize his flaws and choose to do the difficult personal work required to become a better person (and it is genuinely difficult – he suffers) is what makes him the protagonist of the story.

I definitely recommend reading Adam Bede, although I think it wouldn’t be the best introduction to Eliot — start with Middlemarch or Silas Marner. In addition to being a little weak (for Eliot), the country folks speak in a dialect that takes a little getting used to.

But as a discussion of sin, sorrow, anger and forgiveness, I think it’s a marvelous book and one I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

As a side note, while searching for the images I’ve included here, I stumbled on a very excellent analysis and discussion of Adam Bede. I recommend reading it.

May 2018 Favorites

Hello friends!

I haven’t been writing much lately, because I’ve been busy with school, and also because I started a BookTube channel (that’s YouTube about books)! Right now I’m mostly posting random content while I discover the shape of the thing I want it to be, but I’d love if you checked it out: WithTheClassics

I read 14 books in May, and loved many of them, so I thought I’d share my favorites with you here. I did a full wrap-up that will be on my channel in a few days, and I talk about all of these books in various May videos, so if you’d like more of my thoughts, check them out.

In the order I read them:

The Bedlam Stacks | Natasha Pulley

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Merrick Tremayne is an ex-East India Co smuggler, trapped at home in England by an injury. He’s recruited to travel to Peru to help steal cuttings of the tree that produces quinine, the only treatment for malaria. He is asked because of his smuggling experience, his hobby as an amateur botanist, and his family’s history in that particular part of Peru. But once he arrives in New Bethlehem, he realizes that things are not what they seem.

This book is historical fiction with *just* a touch of magical realism, and it’s a lovely mix. It is a lyrical, beautiful book, the kind that burrows into your heart and then declares its staying forever. Although action-packed, the focus is on Merrick and the choices he makes as he learns more about the unique place his grandfather and father had come to love, and that action-packed plot is quite character-driven. It left me with warm, fuzzy feelings and everyone should go read it.

Circe | Madeline Miller 

35959740.jpgI feel like people have been slow to pick this new release up, and they need to get a move on! Circe is about the titan goddess by that name, the one whose best known for being a witch and turning men into pigs in the Odyssey. Beginning with the circumstances of her birth, Circe narrates her life for us, telling both a fascinating tale and contemplating her choices and actions. It’s a wonderful, unique retelling.

This book was so refreshing to read after all the YA retellings I’ve experienced lately. Not that I’m knocking them, but this one, being literary fiction in addition to a myth retelling, had a lyricism and depth the YA ones don’t. Circe is a fascinating, complex woman, and Miller doesn’t hesitate to show the heroic and problematic aspects of other mythological characters; Circe lives a long life and meets a lot of people and gods along the way. But aside from the tour through mythology, it is Circe herself, and her struggle to understand her long life and to find meaning in it that makes this such a wonderful read.

City of Brass | S.A. Chakraborty 

32718027.jpgAn adult fantasy that (nearly) avoided any kind of romance (*insert clapping hands emoji*). City of Brass then gets even better by being rooted in Middle Eastern mythology. Here be Genies, although they’re called, more accurately, Djinn or Daeva. Nahri is a thief living on the streets of Cairo in the early 1800s when she accidentally summons one of those Djinn. He realizes that she’s more than just a street thief, and takes her to Daevabad, the titular City of Brass. The only thing is, Daevabad is in the middle of its own political problems, and the arrival of the last surviving member of one of their most powerful families, accompanied by one of the most feared and hated Djinn in thousands of years, does not improve things.

City of Brass is an essentially political novel, which I liked. It was a nice change from the sweeping epics I’ve read lately. The magic system is well-done, and not dumbed down. The characters who are magic do magic; they don’t run around and explain everything. My favorite aspect of this novel is the characterization. Every major character has his or her own desires, and the conflict arises from the clash of those desires. It works brilliantly, especially because everybody’s actions make sense. There are no villains here, just people trying to do their best. My only issue with the book is that it IS a trilogy, and definitely reads like a part I. There’s no awful cliffhanger, but the plot and character arcs feel unfinished.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay | Michael Chabon

12679626.jpgJoe Kavalier escapes Prague in 1939 by the skin of his teeth and comes to live with his cousin, Sam Clay, in Brooklyn. When Sam realizes Joe can draw, he pitches a comic book to his boss, and the rest is history. Told over 15 years, and against the backdrop of the early days of WWII, mostly, and of the Golden Age of comic books, this thick novel is nevertheless surprisingly intimate. It remains focused on Joe and Sam, who both have strong, well-drawn and dynamic characters.

Basically, I loved everything about this book, and it is one of my favorites now. Funny in a lot of places, sad in a few, really sad in another few, poignant, thoughtful, and all-around entertaining, it feels like an heir to the great Victorian novelists. It’s the kind of story I think modern literary fiction is lacking sorely. To try to say more would force me to be spoilery, and coherent, so just pick it up while you’re grabbing The Bedlam Stacks.

Now excuse me, I’m going to go read everything Chabon has ever written, and throw Natasha Pulley’s other book in the pile while I’m at it.

On Stress-Reading and Some Recommendations

IMG_0367.jpgI don’t know about you, but I definitely stress-read.

I mean, I read all the time, and when I’m REALLY stressed, I do tend to watch Netflix instead of reading, but a step below that is stress-reading.

This is what I do when I’m at the end of a semester, usually. Books that fit this category are usually re-reads, or familiar authors. It’s like eating comfort food, but with books.

I noticed this semester that I actually turn to a particular genre, as well: detective fiction. In particular, I binge- read Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, although I’m non-discriminatory in my author choices–new, old, I’ll take anyone. As long as it’s not thrillers or horror. Those are NOT relaxing.

For example, at the moment I’m listening to a full cast adaptation of seven of the Hercule Poirot stories. I’m also reading Still Waters by Vivica Stein, a contemporary Swedish novel featured in Amazon’s translated books series.

It seemed odd to me that I turn to detective fiction at the end of the year (I find murder relaxing? Is that a problem?), at least, until I thought about it for a little while.

Although Dorothy Sayers is a little bit of an exception, generally detective stories are focused entirely on the plot, and aside from wondering “whodunnit?” there’s not much else. That is, these books don’t really have highly rounded characters (though they certainly may be enjoyable ones), or even the most perfect prose. Thus, they offer the perfect solution to the words-weary English-grad mind: compelling stories that take little mental effort to read. You can try to figure out the mystery, of course, but you don’t have to expend a lot of energy on it. Also, you know how the story will end, in that you are very sure that the murderer will be caught and everything will be explained. When I’m frantically writing analytic essays and am worried about grades and due dates, this easy, assured reading is, indeed, relaxing.

So I thought, in light of this discovery, here are a few recommendations of classic murder mysteries, ones I love enough to re-read because they’re just so much fun.

Agatha Christie:

Unknown.jpegMurder on the Orient Express. I mean, if you haven’t read this yet, what have you been doing? The Orient Express gets stuck in a snowdrift and one of the passengers is murdered. Only one of the twelve other passengers in the first-class cars could have done it, but who? The twists and turns of this novel keep me going even after I know the murderer; it’s marvelous. THE classic.

And then There Were None. Ten people are invited to a remote house on an otherwise deserted island. Their hosts never show. Then people start dying.

Apparently Christie set out to create the most perfect, watertight crime in this novel, and it is so good she had to reveal the murderer in a (kind of hokey) epilogue. The slightly horror vibe here is great, and again, the reveal is stunning.

The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd. What’s brilliant about this novel is you’re really sure it’s one of Christie’s typical “murder in the English Countryside” novels until it’s absolutely different from all the others. I’m not even going to say anything else. This was so genius.

Dorothy Sayers:

isbn9781444797435.jpgWhose Body? The first of her Lord Peter mysteries. A middle-class man finds a dead body in his bathtub, and at first it’s thought he’s the missing Levy. Except he’s not. So who is the dead body, and where’s Levy?

Introducing Lord Peter, this is, in my opinion, the most typical of Sayers’ mysteries, but start with this one because they only get better from here.

Murder Must Advertise. An ad man is killed, and Lord Peter is invited by the owner of the agency to go undercover and solve the mystery. I love this one because Sayers had previously worked in advertising, and aside from a compelling mystery, she gently satirizes advertising, a satire which is surprisingly relevant today. Apparently the ethos of ads hasn’t changed much from the 1920s. Also, the agency employees are delightful characters.

Finally, in case you’re wondering, I’m enjoying Still Waters. I was a little annoyed with the prose until the mystery got going, and now I don’t mind it as much. It is very much a typical Swedish detective story; the main detective is ruggedly handsome with a sad past and all the ladies want him but he doesn’t notice them…. you know. That kind of book.

How about you? Do you turn to a particular genre or particular authors when you’re stressed? What’s your book comfort food?

March Wrap-Up

Hello everyone! March was a crazy month, and even though I read a bunch of books, I didn’t do quite so well on my reading challenge. That’s okay. I’ll double up in the summer or something.

Here are some of the books I did finish:

Classic: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

337107.jpgHazel Motes is vehemently against religion, so much so that he founds the Church without Christ and starts preaching on the streets. In doing so, Hazel comes into contact with Enoch Emery, a strange and lonely young man with a mystical outlook, and sham preacher Asa Hawks and his daughter Lily Sabbath. The four characters and their four different perspectives on the world and meaning get tangled up together in O’Connor’s typically jarring and grotesque way.

I sort of liked this book. O’Connor’s work always requires me to engage in some deep and lengthy thinking before I can reconcile myself to them. Wise Blood is really about how you cannot escape Christ, no matter how hard you try. The characters are outlandish and ridiculous, as is typical of O’Connor, and the book leaves you feeling jarred and unsettled, which is exactly what she wants. This is my first O’Connor novel, and also her first novel, and I definitely felt that it wasn’t as well done as some of her later short stories. I would be interested to read another novel, to see if the flaw is the form or the timing.

Literary Fiction Contemporary: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

20170404.jpgWhile I was initially wary of this book–I cared for the main character and the Traveling Symphony and didn’t know if this was going to be a violent book–I ended up loving it. Spoiler: it’s not violent. (phew!).

Arthur Leander, a famous actor, dies of a heart attack while onstage performing King Lear. It turns out that that’s the beginning of the end of the world, as a virulent flu spreads quickly and decimates everywhere. The book also follows Kristen Raymonde who, as a young girl, was in that fateful performance of King Lear and now lives and works with the Traveling Symphony, a theater and orchestra troupe which travels to the new settlements in this post-apocalyptic reality to bring some culture and fun to the people. On a routine stop in a town called St. Deborah on the Water, the troupe finds that the town has recently been taken over by the Prophet and his followers, a cult that has a firm grip on the town. It was this part which concerned me, but the novel actually spends only a little time with the Prophet. It jumps back and forth through time, looking at the life of Arthur, his friend, and his first wife, and forward to Kristen’s life.

I loved this book, by the end. All of the characters were very interesting, and part of the fun of the story was wondering how it would all come together in the end. As you start to see the pieces connect, it turns into a lovely contemplation of the inevitable interconnectedness of people, and a celebration of community.

I planned to read Othello, but didn’t quite get there.

Three other books I read and loved:

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi.

28110143.jpgThis is a middle grade fantasy about Alice, a girl who is born into a world where color is the most important thing. But, except for her eyes, Alice is completely colorless. When the story opens, Alice’s father has been missing for three years, and together with Oliver, a boy from her town, she travels to another magical region called Furthermore to try to find him.

This story was just so deeply charming. The narrator has a strong voice, and lots of comments and asides about the characters and events. Alice and Oliver were lovely and flawed characters who had to learn to work together and master their weaknesses to succeed in their quest. And the writing was lyrical and lovely. I read this book at the beginning of the month, and I’m still thinking about it.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

35411685.jpgTom Hazard was born in the 1500s. He has a disease that causes him to age incredibly slowly, meaning that he may be 400, but he only looks 40. In the present day, he is helped by the Albatross Society, an organization which finds and protects people like him. The Society’s biggest rule is to not fall in love, but when Tom moves back to London after centuries away, and begins to teach history at a high school, he finds himself attracted to the lovely French teacher. These three events – the move, teaching history, falling in love – lead Tom to reflect on his past life experiences, some truly tragic, others beautiful, and reconsider the necessity of the Albatross Society. But the society doesn’t want to let him go . . .

This book, too, jumps back and forth through time. I really enjoy books like that, actually. One of my favorite books ever is The Night Circus, which uses that narrative technique. I don’t know it How to Stop Time will become a top-list favorite, but I really enjoyed it. The book is more thoughtful than the dust-jacket description makes it sound, although there are plenty of happenings. In the end, it’s focused on Tom’s journey to make sense of his long life so far, and his learning How to Stop Time. I did feel like the ending was a bit rushed, but otherwise, a great book.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor 

28449207.jpgIn this fantasy world, there is a city that no-one has ever been allowed to visit, from which impossible marvels have emanated, until they abruptly ceased two hundred years ago. And when Lazlo Strange is a boy, the name of this city suddenly disappears from the world. Nobody can remember it’s original name, so they call it Weep. Lazlo, an orphan boy raised by monks, later becomes an apprentice librarian with a deep fascination of Weep. Then, one day, an emissary arrives from Weep, the first anyone has heard of the city in two hundred years. Because of his deep knowledge of the city, Lazlo joins a delegation collected by the Godslayer to perform a mysterious task. To say any more would be spoilers.

Oh, my, this book is magic. The fantasy world is rich and detailed, the plot fascinating, Lazlo darling. I love that he’s an awkward, unattractive nerd with a heart of gold. The mystery surrounding Weep slowly unravels, and as it does, the book’s themes of hate and love, bitterness and forgiveness, blindness and understanding also unravel. It’s a rare YA fantasy that is not just a good story, but a meaningful one, and Strange the Dreamer is certainly that. This IS on my short-list favorites, and I can’t wait for the sequel (Muse of Nightmares), which comes out in October, I think.

So! Those were some of the books I read in March. How was your reading month?