A Book is a Book is a Pirate Chest

Treasure Island,
by the Edinburgh book sculptor
I learned about the Edinburgh mystery book artist a year or so ago. I love that no one knows who she is, other than she is a she and that she loves books and libraries. I love her work, too. She has a gift for transforming books into works of visual art and turning the story into a sculpture. She reminds me of the mystery visitor, the Poe Toaster, that used to visit Poe's grave in Baltimore and leave roses and a bottle of cognac on Poe's birthday.

It's amazing what artists can do with a book that, to librarians and readers, is past its useful life. As a librarian, I have few qualms about removing books from the library when they have no place in the collection any more. I try to place them in new libraries, or send them off to the next stage in their lives--though this is not always possible. It pleases me that artist can turn a book into something new.

By Cara Barer
But I always get a twinge of conscience when I see books cut or otherwise transformed into something that's not a readable book. I can see the beauty, of course, but that twinge I get makes the experience of these artworks a decidedly mixed experience. It's hard to understand what's driving this feeling, other than to say its related to the feeling I get when I learn about the destruction or burning of books.

About a year ago, I watched the movie version of Inkheart with my sister and her kids. There's a scene where books are burned and my sister and I just started cringing. When the kids asked us why we were so emotional about burning books, all we could say is that it's because to destroy a book is beyond the pale. Burning a book is like trying to kill an idea.

I don't want to compare this kind of art to that, of course, because it's not the same thing at all. But the notion of book as the home of an idea and a book as an inert, mass produced object are tangled together and hard to separate. But when I look at these works of art, I have to wonder where the book's idea goes.



Pip and Magwitch,
from Great Expectations
I've been thinking about how books used to be, inspired partially by this article from Sam Sacks about what illustrations contributed to novels in the nineteenth century. Sacks writes that illustrations were used in novels by Dickens, Carroll, Thakerey, and many others to clarify points from the book or to make jokes, not just to show the reader what the characters and settings looked like.

Sacks writes that illustration went away when readers started to look down on them. There's an idea even now that serious books don't have pictures in them. But when you read old illustrated version of Dickens and Conan Doyle, it's easy to feel like you're missing out with modern books.

But then, compared to medieval illuminated texts, even pen and ink illustrations are a bit of a come down.

The other thing that I wish would come back are serial publications. I remember an old story a professor in one of my British literature classes told about Americans asking incoming British ships if Little Nell had died during the publication of Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop because they just couldn't wait for the next episode to come out. I suppose TV shows have replaced the serials. I know Stephen King tried to start a pay-per-view book a while back, but couldn't get enough subscribers to make a go of it. There are comics, which even include comics, but those just don't seem quite the same thing.

Thinking about serials does make me wonder what it would be like if everyone read the same (good*) books, waiting for the next chapter to find out what happens next. With pictures.

* So as to exclude Twilight and its sequels.


Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey
It's really a pity, a true shame, that Anne Brontë didn't live long enough to write more than two books. I loved her work after I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Agnes Grey is just as wonderful. I really wish that it had been longer than novella length because I so enjoyed the time I spent in Agnes' company.

Critics agree--and I have to agree with them, having read Anne's short biography on Wikipedia--that Agnes Grey is a highly autobiographical novella. It details the experiences of Agnes Grey as she becomes a governess and eventually finds love and happiness with a rector. Agnes, like Anne, was the daughter of a clergyman who didn't have the best luck with money. To help the family, Agnes takes work as a governess for two families that have awful children. The first family Agnes works for, the Bloomfields, are the worst. The mother and father are blind to the faults of their children and blame Agnes for their misbehavior. Agnes has no power to discipline the children, so they never improve. The oldest boy is even abusive to animals. Critics and biographers note that the scene in which Agnes kills a nest of birds to save them from being tortured actually happened to Anne. Agnes is fired and takes work with a new family, the Murrays, further away from home.

The Murrays are not as awful as the Bloomfields in that they are probably not budding sociopaths, but they are awfully vain, lazy, and self-centered. A few months after Agnes arrives, she meets Edward Weston--one of the few genuinely good people in this book. She falls in love with him from a distance, then has her heart broken when her oldest charge, Rosalie Murray, decides that she wants to flirt with him and break his heart. Eventually, it works out. Rosalie gets her just desserts and Agnes and Edward Weston marry and live happily ever after*.

What I love most about Anne Brontë's work his how real it is. You don't see the perfect coincidences of Austen here, or the drama of her sisters' work. The characters in Anne's book are human. They make the same kind of mistakes that you or I would. Agnes has a charming habit of being a little rude when surprised, which leads her to say the wrong thing to Weston more than once. That is exactly what I have done a time or two. Further, I really think that Agnes Grey gives you clear idea of what life as a governess was like. It's not the romantic occupation that Charlotte Brontë wrote about in Jane Eyre**. It was a lonely life, in which the governess was caught between the family and the servants. The only people Agnes gets to talk to, at any length, are her charges and her charges make it clear that they view her as a servant. Governesses were powerless, most of the time, and served at the whim of the family. Neither the Bloomfields nor the Murrays have any idea what their children are really like, so they think Agnes is a liar and an incompetent much of the time.

As I read Agnes Grey, I got a sense of just how much anger Anne must have felt. It's as though she took every slight and frustration and put it into this book. It reads, in places, like a change for Anne to get her literary revenge on the families she worked for. Critics of the time noticed it too, apparently. Wikipedia cites Julie Nash and Barbara Suess, who say the contemporary critics found it "coarse" and "vulgar." Those kind of reactions and Anne's writing style make me want to classify her as an early Realist writer. She is so unlike the other writers of her time and place, especially her sisters. I really wish she had lived longer. 

* This book was published in 1847, so hush about spoiler alerts. Yeesh. 
** Jane Eyre is still one of my favorite books, though.

Quintessence, by David Walton

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. This book will be released March 19, 2013.

Well, the author tried. I have to give Walton credit for the premise. But, unfortunately, he couldn't quite pull it off. Don't get me wrong, this was an interesting read and highly imaginative. I enjoyed parts of it. But the characterization and dialog were not good. Not Tom Clancy bad, but bad enough to notice.

Let me get the bad out of the way first, so that I can talk about the good stuff here. Quintessence is set during the brief reign of Edward VI and the beginning of Mary's reign. But for some reason, the characters speak in modern colloquial English (one character who has been injured actually says, "I'm good"). I wasn't expecting characters to exclaim "Zounds" or use "methinks," but I expect at least a little semblance of period authenticity. Otherwise, why set the book during this time and place at all? Second, the villains. I love a good villain. A good villain makes for an exciting, nail-biting read. But when the villains are stock Catholic religious fanatics, I just can't take them seriously because I know what they're going to do. The villains' actions, and even the actions of one of the putative protagonists, in this book defy even the most basic common sense at times. These problems were major enough that I can't wholeheartedly say that I enjoyed this book.

Now that I have the bad parts out of the way, let me get on with it. Quintessence is set partly in 1550s England and partly in a fantastical land that hovers at the edge of the world. In Walton's universe, Earth isn't round. Some magic physics keep the island of Horizon from floating off the edge and endows the creatures that live there with amazing abilities. For instance, there are whale-like creatures that can float above the water and fish that can transform their bones into iron while hunting. Other inhabitants of the island can speak mind to mind. The book opens when a ship from an ill-fated voyage returns to London years after it set out. The crew and captain are either dead or dying when the ship arrives. But Christopher Sinclair, an alchemist, buys the ship and intends to set sail as soon as he can. He believes all the tales about Horizon and thinks he can find something that can bring the dead back to life. He wrangles and manipulates until he has a crew and funds and head out for Horizon. The story is mostly told from the perspective of Stephen Parris, a physician, and his daughter Catherine. Because we don't get Sinclair's point of view, a lot of what he does is simply irrational. At any rate, the expedition arrives in Horizon and sets up shop. Things go fairly well until the party of Spanish and English Catholics, sent after them by Queen Mary, arrive to subject the colonists and scientists to a makeshift Inquisition.

A lot of worldbuilding went into creating Horizon. The best parts of this book are when Walton describes the new animals the expedition encounters. If it hadn't been for the weak characterization and the anachronistic dialog, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. I realize that I might be being picky about the dialog, but one of things I really hate about historical fiction is when the author doesn't bother to keep things accurate. I'm willing to go with authors who write alternate history (it's one of my favorite genres), but I need a least a little verisimilitude.


Well, that sucked

The great thing about reading based on one's whims (apart from the whole reading what you want part) is that, if you know yourself well enough, you rarely come across a bad book. And because there are no deadlines or papers due to force you to see it through to the end. I usually give books a few chapters to hook me and I have few qualms about abandoning books. Since I started reading books for NetGalley, however, I have made myself read a few books that I would ordinarily have given up on because I felt like I owed it to them since they gave me a free copy of a book to borrow.

That and I get more than a little glee from writing reviews of bad books. I know. I have an overdeveloped sense of schadenfreude.

Today I read a very good post over at BookRiot by Elizabeth Bastos about why it's worth it to read hard books. This is different than trying to read bad books. Hard books aren't bad by definition, though you might have to force yourself to get through both. At least a hard book, if it's also good, will reward the effort. I love how Bastos puts it:
Now I think dense, hard, studded with challenge – it’s like trying the pound cakes of different countries, foods of different cultures and finding you like, like really like, Tibetan yak milk tea.
A few weeks ago, I reread The Scarlet Letter. It was a very hard read, but I was rewarded for it. I picked up on so much during this read through, such as the nascent feminism in the text. I plan to keep on reading hard books, classics that I missed during my undergraduate years, because I love to see the books that influenced what we read now.

I'm writing this post, though, because I finished a bad book last night. I'll write more about it on Sunday, because it was a book I got from NetGalley. It had a great premise, but the dialogue and characterization were so awful that they spoiled the whole book. I know that I've read advance praise of this book somewhere, but I can't for the life of me understand what the critics who wrote it were thinking. But then, critics and I rarely agree.


Lost in Translation

I have seen unsettling things in my time, but I don't know if I have ever seen anything as bizarre as Emoji Dick, a version of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick written entirely in animated emoticons. Apparently, this started out as a Kickstarter project. I'm afraid to look for more information about it, because the title looks like a Japanese porn title.

But I don't want to write a rant about why this is a bad idea. (Because it's not.) Emoji Dick makes me think about the future of writing. Language changes over time, of course. But one could almost think about emoji as a return to earlier, more representative versions of writing, like hieroglyphics or pictographs. It's not much of a stretch for me to think about novels in the future being written in emoji or something like it.

EBooks have opened up new possibilities for writing. I've already seen books turned into iPad apps (Alice in Wonderland) and Terry Pratchett recently released a map of Ankh-Morpork as an iPad app. I'm surprised that someone hasn't successfully resurrected Choose Your Own Adventure as an app.

It would mean learning a slightly different language in order to understand. A few weeks ago, I saw emoji used to summarize Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. It was meant as a joke, but I was intrigued to see the amount of information and even nuance in this:

So, even though the title sounds like Japanese porn and even though this book was probably meant more tongue-in-cheek than not, Emoji Dick sounds like a great experiment in the future of writing.

I wonder what they did about the whaling essay chapters, though.


Wicked, by Gregory Maguire

I'll admit, the musical overshadowed the book for me. I stayed away from Gregory Maguire's Wicked, I suppose, because I expected something silly and pointless and that the characters might suddenly burst into song at random intervals. And I've seen The Wizard of Oz more than once, I figured I didn't need to read Wicked, just like I didn't need to read The Wind Done Gone because I've seen Gone With the Wind. But as soon as I finished Wicked, I wanted to carry on reading about Oz with the rest of Maguire's books. Wicked was an incredible read.

Maguire begins Elphaba's story some months before she's actually born in a backwater of Munchkinland. Her father is an itinerant minister and her mother is a lonely woman. Elphaba is born strange, with green skin and animalistic ways. Her mother and Nanny try to teach her to be a little more human, but nothing much works until her sister, Nessarose, is born. Maguire jumps ahead, to Elphaba's school years. She meets Glinda soon after arriving, as they are assigned to be roommates. Elphaba is still an outsider, though she no longer bites people. She doesn't fit into Glinda's snobbish society, though she does eventually make friends. Maguire also starts to drop hints about politics in Oz, as the Wizard starts to become a dictator after ousting the last Queen Ozma. Elphaba starts to champion the cause of the Animals, animals with sentience. She grows to hate the Wizard more and more as she learns about how his policies have destroyed parts of Oz.

The story we know only starts in the last part of this book, but we still get the story from Elphaba's perspective. That's really the whole point of this story, to understand the Wicked Witch's story. After all, in L. Frank Baum's original version, the Witch is a stock villain. She does bad things because she's Evil, that's all. In Wicked, we learn why she wants her sister's shoes and why she wants to take down the Wizard. It's a very impressive story. I loved the detail that Maguire poured into it, building on top of the world Baum created for children to turn Oz into a fully fleshed country, with centuries of history behind it.

And I promise that only one character sings in this book, but only once because she was begged and it only lasts one paragraph.



Earlier this year, I had a conversation with an American literature professor about the earliest examples of science fiction. Then, I helped answer a question on Quora about what the first example of spy stories. And then a week or so ago, I saw this story ("A Multiplicity of Voices: On the Polyphonic Novel") over on The Millions. It all got me to thinking about this urge to find the very first example of something. It's hard to spot when trends begin and end, especially in literature. Every time I think I know when something began, I find an even older example.

For instance, the American literature professor pointed out that you can consider Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "Rappaccini's Daughter," an example of early science fiction. And I think that The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne's big work, could be considered a work of stream of consciousness in a lot of places--predating the modernist movement by a good fifty plus years. And with the article from The Millions, about novels told by a multitude of narrators, well, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights has tons of them. You don't even have to stretch the definition of genre or style or literary device here. 

It is a lot of fun--and dead useful in pub quizzes--to be able to name the first novel or first detective story. But I know that I would probably start an argument (for fun!) about an earlier example. And I know that would evolve in turn into a discussion about what makes a genre a specific genre. Is it a matter of the essence of the story? Or is it a matter of marking off enough checkboxes on a list?

Something to think about.

Scarlet, by Marissa Meyer

I've been waiting (somewhat impatiently) for this book since I read the first entry in the series last fall (Cinder), and I'm happy to report that Marissa Meyer's Scarlet is better than the first book. To catch everyone up with this series quickly, Meyer has turned well-known fairy tales into some very innovative science fiction involving androids, cyborgs, and thought-manipulating humanoids from the moon.

Scarlet picks up right where Cinder left off. (Thankfully, because Cinder ends in a cliffhanger and I hate it when that happens.) But where Cinder was a retelling of Cinderella, Scarlet uses Little Red Riding Hood as its inspiration. Scarlet Benoit, a vegetable farmer who lives with her grandmother in southern France, meets a man who calls himself Wolf and has more than a few similarities to the canine. Scarlet's grandmother has recently been kidnapped, though the police think she wandered off somewhere. With Wolf's help, Scarlet sets off for Paris to find her grandmother. Meanwhile, Cinder escapes from prison in Beijing with the almost inept assistance of a thief.

It takes a while for the two plots to converge, but when they do, much is revealed about Cinder's origins and what her next steps need to be. Both stories are equally interesting and well-written, keeping the story charging forward. I read it in one sitting and now I'm back to where I started, waiting for the next book in the series.


The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter
I'll say first that Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was tough going. I would have been done with it a lot sooner if there hadn't been so many parts that put me to sleep*. But there is so much in this book to think about here that I'm not surprised that it's been a target of scholarly interest for over a century. There are the gender issues, the double standard of adultery, the psychological effects of profound guilt, and the Puritan world view and its lingering affects on the American mindset.

The story, in a nutshell, is that Hester Prynne has an affair with local minister Arthur Dimmesdale. Because she becomes pregnant, she is caught and punished by having to wear a scarlet A on her clothes. Though she is exhorted to do so, Hester does not reveal her lover. Her husband, Roger Chillingworth, arrives in town soon after Hester gives birth to Pearl, and sets about seeking Hester's lover. He suspects Dimmesdale and sets about using his medical skill to make Dimmesdale sicken even more than he already is, as Dimmesdale is suffering some severe physical effects of his guilt about sinning with Hester. Just when you think that Hester and Dimmesdale are going to have a happy ending (in spite of what you might have heard about this book), the minister dies of a heart attack and Hester and Pearl have to carry on without him**.

I read this book a very long time ago, during an American Literature class that went by in a rush because the professor packed the syllabus with too many texts. I don't remember having a chance to digest this book much before we had to move on to the next work. This time through, I got to watch as Hester, in her isolation from the community, got to evolve her thinking about god and the church and how people should live. She becomes a kind of saint, helping the hungry and the poor in spite of how her fellow pilgrims treat her. Among all the other things that Hester represents, Hester becomes a symbol of true goodness. In contrast, Dimmesdale racks himself with guilt because of his "fall" with Hester, torturing himself with the thought that god will condemn him to hell for his actions. He feels a hypocrite because he is revered by his flock, but he feels like the most wretched sinner for not telling them that he is Pearl's father. Chillingworth is an interesting antagonist, but think that he chose an incredible obvious pseudonym. Why didn't he just wear a name tag that said, "Hi! My name is villain"?

Living four hundred years after this book's setting, it's hard to understand the mindset of the Puritan completely. For them, and for generations before them, the supernatural was a tangible part of the world around them. If something good happened, it was divine providence taking a hand. Or it was the devil tempting them. If something bad happened, it was the work of the devil. Or it was god testing them. You can see how easy it was for Dimmesdale to tie himself up in knots about this, to the point where he suffered a fatal heart attack. These people--apart from Hester and Pearl--worried constantly about the state of their immortal soul. By punishing Hester, they were trying to stay in heaven's good books. But Hawthorne demonstrates, time and again, that they are not good people. They think that Pearl is a demon, because she doesn't behave like the other children. They treat Hester like a temptress. And they embrace Chillingworth into the fold because he knows how to behave like he belongs.

This is a very interesting read, a very rich book. I understand why it's required reading across the country. At the same time, though, I can recognize why people have a hard time with it. It's written in Hawthorne's idea of Puritan-speak, which is though going. A lot of the rest of it takes you into the characters' heads as they wrestle with what they should do and feel. It's wearying after a while. But I think it's a worthwhile read because it can tell you so much, I think, about America's conflicted ideas about faith and personal lives.

* Not kidding. I read a twenty page stretch on Wednesday and woke up three hours later.
** This book was published in 1850, so don't even think about calling me out for spoiling the ending.


Little Did I Know

Yesterday, my iPad told me I had an update for the Kindle app. I glanced over the notes and let 'er rip because, well, why not? Today, I saw this article on GalleyCat, "Kindle Books Get Twitter & Facebook Support." This didn't change my mind about using Kindle, but it did get me to wondering if Amazon (and some of the other eBook vendors) don't quite get what reading is for dedicated readers.

I've been seeing a lot of articles lately talking about GoodReads and other social networks arranged around books. GoodReads is apparently the most successful right now, because it provides a place for readers to talk about books. But Amazon and Kindle seem to be trying to bring the social part right into the act of reading. But for me, and for other readers I suspect, the act of reading itself is about getting inside the text, about disappearing into another world for a while. It's not about finding good quotes or thrilling passages to tweet or post to Facebook.

Who Owns a Character?

Earlier this week, I was thinking about character ownership and then, today, I saw this article over on GalleyCat: "Scholar Sues Arthur Conan Doyle Estate Over Sherlock Holmes Copyright." Of course, I was thinking about a more metaphorical kind of ownership, the kind of feeling that develops when a fictional character becomes wildly popular with its readers, not about copyright.

I hope this author wins her case and her point.


In Which I Wonder if I Should Stop Playing Authors We Hate

Yesterday, my brother called and, for some reason, asked what I was up to. The answer was, of course, that I was reading. (The answer is always, "I'm reading." Unless the answer is "I'm at work. Why the hell are you calling me?") When I told him that I was rereading The Scarlet Letter, he told me that he hated that book because an English teacher tortured him with it by making the class elucidate every symbol in the first chapter. This conversation led to me playing Authors We Hate with friends on Twitter and Facebook. I had fun but, after a while, I felt guilty as the lists got longer and longer.

Some of the authors on the list, I have disliked for years. I haven't gone back to read anything by James Joyce or Marcel Proust or Herman Melville. Maybe I was too immature or ignorant to appreciate them at the time. (There are some people who'd say I'm too immature now.) I can remember clearly why I don't like these authors. In the case of Joyce, for example, it's because I'm pretty sure that Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake are literary pranks. When I encountered these authors the first time, they made such a hugely negative impact on me that I'm reluctant to give them a second look.

But should I give these authors a second chance? I'd feel less guilty about ragging on them on Twitter if I fail to get through their works a second time. I'd at least then I could say I tried. I'd be more likely to try if there weren't so many other books out there I really do want to read.

But for the record, I really don't like James Joyce. 


The Blackhouse, by Peter May

The Blackhouse
Peter May's The Blackhouse is an introduction to an exotic and strange world. I picked it up thinking I would be reading a fairly straightforward mystery set in Scotland, on the Isle of Lewis. But what I learned was that the Isle of Lewis is so different that it might as well be a country unto itself. The plot and the protagonist sounded interesting, but when I read the book, I was even more interested in learning about the strange customs (everything is closed on Sunday, even the playgrounds; gannet hunts; etc.) and language and geography.

The book starts on a very melancholy note. Fin Macleod has just lost his son to a hit and run accident and his marriage is over. Then his boss transfers him to Stornoway on Lewis to investigate a murder that shares the same MO as one in Edinburgh. He's reluctant, because he thought he had escaped the island eighteen years before. His parents died there. His old love is there. And there's a whole lot of bad blood there, too. But its either go back or get a new job. When Fin arrives in Stornoway, he learns more about what happened to the people he knew in school than about the murder. No one seems to know anything.

May mixes the story of the investigation with flashbacks to Fin's childhood and adolescence. Curiously, these chapters are told in first person, while the chapters set in the present are in third person. The first time May switched from present to past, I wondered for a sentence or two if there was a second protagonist. This switch makes sense when you get to the end of the book. Until you do, though, it gives the book an off kilter feeling. There's clearly something wrong, but you don't have enough information until much later exactly what that something is.

The ending of this book is rushed, I'll admit. It makes sense for the most part, but everything happens in less than thirty pages or so. And I have to put the for the most part hedge into the last sentences because, to me, I don't feel like May characterized the person who turned out to be the murderer quite the right way. It does make sense once you have all the facts, but the murderer hides his monstrousness so well that all I could detect was more of that offness that I got from the book in general. This isn't a bad book. It's atmospheric and interesting. I want to know more about Fin and what happens to him next, and not just because I want to hang out on the Isle of Lewis some more.   

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

I received a free ebook copy of this book from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released on April 2, 2013.

Life After Life
Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is an intriguing thought experiment. As the novel goes on, we see the main character, Ursula Todd, living her life over and over again. When accident, disease, or misadventure cause her death, we go right back to the snowy night in 1910 when Ursula was born. As her life spins out again, small changes lead her down different paths. It seemed as though Ursula lived every possible life she could have by the time you get to the end of the book (though it's not the end of Ursula's lives).

Ursula, however, doesn't seem to remember the lessons of her previous lives very clearly. As a child, she has episodes of deja vu. Sometimes she will do things, but not be able to explain why she did them. We know why, for example, she pushes the maid down the stairs. If the maid breaks her arm, she might not catch the flu of 1918 and bring it home with her. And if she doesn't bring the flu home, Ursula and her brother won't die. If she knees the very aggressive boy in the crotch, he won't be able to rape her and get her pregnant. If she didn't get pregnant, she wouldn't have become so depressed that she married a man who turned out to be a violently jealous and controlling man. In some of her lives, Ursula is unhappy. In others, she has a good life until World War II turns everyone's life upside down.

It is a little frustrating that Ursula doesn't have clearer memories. It would have been interesting to see her trying to right the wrongs of history. But that's not what I think this book is really about. Once I realized it what this book wasn't, I started to see it as a very in-depth exploration of "What if?" As I read, I couldn't help but mull over the questions of should and meant to be. Do such things exist? It's easy to look at the last 100 years and think that everything that has happened was meant to happen that way, because that's what we know. Anything else would just feel weird. At least until Atkinson shows you the error of your thoughts by showing you how little decisions can have big ramifications.


Okay, but why?

Last week, another top 50 list came out. It's not that I don't like lists. I always get a kick of them (especially the ones on Cracked.com). What I don't like is that a lot of the list creators don't include their reasons for why something is important, or the best, or the greatest, or whatever adjective they're using. And because they don't say why, I always get the urge to immediately start arguing with the author. In the case of Robert McCrum's list, "English Literature's 50 Key Moments from Marlowe to J.K. Rowling," I immediately want to ask why Geoffrey Chaucer isn't at the top of the list. I like Christopher Marlowe a lot, but Chaucer was the first writer to use vernacular English after the Norman invasion in 1066. And why pick Shakespeare's sonnets instead of the plays for a key moment?

See what I mean?

When I don't see an explanation, I start to question why this ranks higher than that. Of course, I know that a lot of it is subjective. But at least one could include a veneer of objectivity. The list that most gets my goat in this regard is the Modern Library's "100 Best Books." It might just be because the first book on their list is James Joyce's Ulysses. I really, really don't like Joyce. Apart from Dubliners, I'm pretty sure he was just messing with people to see how much critics would squirm to try and convince others that they understood Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. Why are the chosen books the best?

I was once asked what the English canon was. They didn't want a definition; they understood the word. What they wanted was a list. I couldn't find a definitive one no matter how hard I looked, and I have very strong Google-fu. When I started to make my own mental list, and started to question why something was or wasn't a part of the canon, all I could think of for a reason was that critics* considered it to be canon.I suspect this is where my skepticism of lists comes from: wondering as an undergraduate in the English program just why we had to read Frankenstein instead of Dracula.

* Similar to "They" from "Well, they say..." I couldn't say who these critics actually are.


Cinnamon and Gunpowder, by Eli Brown

I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released June 4, 2013.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder
Eli Brown's Cinnamon and Gunpowder combines two of my favorite things: food and pirates (the Pirates of the Caribbean kind, not the historically accurate kind). I had a blast reading it, and I wished that this book was longer so that I could hang out with Mad Hannah Mabbot and her crew just that much longer.

The book opens with Owen Wedgwood explaining how he got captured by pirates. Mabbot and her crew invaded the London home of a Pendelton Trading Company leader, killed him, and then absconded with Owen. He is allowed to keep breathing as long as he prepares exquisite meals for Mabbot every Sunday. Owen tries to escape every chance he gets, but something always goes wrong. As he spends more time with the pirates, learning more about what lay behind Pendleton's commercial success (trading in slavery and opium) and learning about Mabbot's motivations in destroying the company's assets, Owen finds that he might be more sympathetic to the pirates than to his former employer's company.

While he's busy having his worldview adjusted, Owen is also kept fairly busy dodging bullets and cannonballs, fighting with locals, trying to not drown, and work out how to cook feasts with stolen foodstuffs in a broken oven. There are no slow parts in this book. And it all leads up to an astounding ending that I was not prepared for. But saying more would ruin it. This book is an incredible read.

Now I'm off to see if I can get my hands on anything else Brown has written.

Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist
I think that most people have a PG conception of Charles Dicken's Oliver Twist in their heads rather than the very adult original, kind of like they do for the Grimm brother's fairy tales and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Even though I haven't seen the musical, I was still expecting something a lot lighter than I found. I've read Dickens before, so I should have known better. Dickens has a reputation for being a social crusader, but I don't think I've seen this side of him as clearly as I did in Oliver Twist. The opening chapters in particular, which describe Oliver's early life at a baby farm and in the workhouse, are absolutely scathing, dripping with sarcasm for the people are supposed to be taking care of the poor and the orphaned.

Doing some background reading about Oliver Twist helped me appreciate it more. Apparently, Dickens favorite books when he was younger were the picaresques of Henry Fielding and others. This goes a long way to explaining why Dickens books are notorious for surprising incidents of extraordinary good and bad luck and amazing coincidences. Even though there are scads of characters, Dickens' books always seem like they're taking place in the proverbial small world because all the named cast keep running into each other or witnessing critical events in the plot. Oliver Twist, of course, is no exception. Unless you read this as a picaresque, you'll spend most of the novel rolling your eyes thinking, "What are the odds?"

I'm sure the beginning of this book is fairly well know. Oliver is born and immediately becomes an orphan. He grows up in extreme poverty. Shortly after being sold to apprentice to an undertaker, Oliver runs away to London, where he falls in with the Artful Dodger and Fagin's small criminal empire. Because Oliver is a preternaturally good child, he resists their attempts to turn him into a pickpocket. After a short run of good luck, Oliver is forced to help the terrifying Bill Sikes rob a house. When it goes wrong, Oliver actually manages to fall in with good people. From there, in spite of numerous plots against him, Oliver's life turns around. Since this book was published in 1839, I don't have any qualms about telling you that Oliver gets a happy ending.

The last 100 pages of this book were my favorite. Even though I knew what Dickens has modeled his story on, it took a long time for me to adjust to the amazing luck (good and bad) of the characters. It also took me a long time to adjust to the lack of subtlety in the characters. Most of the characters are either very, very bad or very, very good. Apparently, Dickens took note of the reaction each time a new part of the book was published and actually adjusted the characters as he went. I could actually see it with Sikes. For most of the book, he is psychopathic. You never know what's going to set him off. But after he murders Nancy, his sense of guilt seems to get the better of him:
He [Sikes] when on doggedly; but as he left the town behind him, and plunged into the solitude and darkness of the road, he felt a dread and awe creeping upon him which shook him to the core. Every object before him, substance or shadow, still or moving, took the semblance of some fearful thing (Chapter XLVIII*)
Sikes grows more and more paranoid and Dickens leaves the exact intent of his death ambiguous, so that we're not sure if his death was accidental or a suicide. For me, this was the climax of the book. Reading about Oliver's happy ending was almost boring after Sikes' death.

All of which makes me think that Oliver is just a flimsy glue to keep the plot together. You wouldn't have to work hard to argue that this book is more about poverty and crime than it is about any single person. The parts of the book that describe the rookeries of  London and the workhouses are the most richly detailed parts of the book. The other parts seem wan in comparison. In later books, Dickens does a much better job of bringing everything, settings and characters, to life. But then Oliver Twist was only his second novel. It's a little strange to look at a master's early works, before they quite knew what they were doing.

* I read the Project Gutenberg version of the book. Who knows what page this quote comes from?


Why You Shouldn't Judge Books By Their Covers. Or Maybe You Should. One of the Two.

This week's tempest in a teapot is Faber's new cover for the fiftieth anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Book covers have come up a lot in the last few months on the book blogs and news sites that I follow. (My favorite take on book covers is Jim Hines' ongoing skewering of sexist book covers, in which the female characters appear with possible scoliosis so that they can show off their breasts and their derrieres.) But back to the main point. Faber's new cover for The Bell Jar has been described as being more appropriate for chick lit books, not for a seminal work of feminist literature. Having looked at the new cover, I can see where the critics are coming from:

Looking at just the cover, would you expect this book to be about a women's incarceration in a mental institution?

Everyone knows the old adage about judging books, but I'm a cover judger from way back. I don't think we can help it. Book covers (when they're done right) clue us in to the tone of the book and the intended audience. (Perhaps Faber is trying to snag readers who wouldn't pick up The Bell Jar under it's more tone-appropriate covers? You can see a few of the other versions in this Google search.)

To be honest, the more I think about that old adage, the less I think it applies to actual books. It's just a metaphor. Book covers are advertisements. Some are clearly more successful than others. I suspect that critics and readers are getting so het up about this cover is because the book is such an important work and having it even remotely associated with chick lit is an insult. (Not to knock chick lit but, you know.) You have to wonder what the art department was trying to achieve with this cover.

I've read blog posts by authors that discuss the cover design process. It's a tricky thing. The artist has to encapsulate the book in just one image. If you're a well known (and living) author, it can be a collaboration. My favorite explanation of the process comes from Chip Kidd, possible the most famous book artist there is:

As usual, I think the critics are overreacting to The Bell Jar's new cover. But the debate does raise some interesting points to ponder. Because I read more ebooks than printed these days, I've found that covers matter less to me now that I make a habit of downloading the samples before I buy. For me, covers are now more of a memory aid than anything else, reminding me of the reviews I read months before in Publishers' Weekly or Library Journal. Because I read on an iPad, bad covers don't bother me as much anymore because I hardly see them. (And because I don't have to worry about people judging me when I'm seen reading books with bad covers.)