‘A Great and Terrible Beauty’ by Libba Bray

I’ve been in a bit of a reading lull for much of June after I read The Magicians Trilogy and then Ian Frazier’s excellent Travels in Siberia. I’ve never been struck by Post-Amazing Book Disorder so strongly, so I suspect dashing about preparing for a rather lengthy stretch of travel probably fostered the disease a bit more than usual.

In between panicking and packing throughout June, I haunted more “what to read if you liked The Magicians” lists than I care to admit and came up with nothing terribly inspirational. I roamed my bookshelves hoping to inspired and even pilfered a few volumes from my mother’s bookshelves. I started doing crossword puzzles for the first time in years. In short, I was rather adrift, literarily.

The one book from those post-Magicians lists that seemed at least worth trying was Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, about a British girl shipped back to England from her Indian home after her mother’s death to attend a “proper” finishing school. Amidst this upheaval, said girl also starts to have magical visions into a beautiful alternate reality, haunted by her mother and a hideous black spirit intent upon her destruction.

It’s a promising setup, combining some bits of Hogwartsy boarding school with Victorian notions of spiritualism and magic (the Cottingley Fairies girls spring to mind more than once) plus a dash of “Mean Girls” tossed back a hundred years or so.

Despite these alluring parts, I would not by any stretch say this was a particularly great book. What I liked about it most was its largely female cast — there are only about four male characters of any consequence amid a large cast of starring and supporting women, all with rich personalities and backstories. It is rare to find a book so unabashedly focused on women, particularly one spotlighting a teenage girl that doesn’t veer immediately off into territory which defines her by which boy she has a crush on or which male authority figure is telling her what to do.

A Great and Terrible Beauty focuses instead on the intricacies of female intimacy, power, and friendship. This emphasis is both welcome and unusual. Indeed, in terms of casual feminism, author Libba Bray certainly deserves a polite and ladylike “cheers!” for her efforts. (more…)

July 2, 2015 at 2:48 am Leave a comment

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

madame-bovary-1Supposedly this story of a bored and beautiful doctor’s wife struck such a chord when it was published that many women claimed to be Flaubert’s inspiration. Naturally, the women couldn’t have been exactly like Emma Bovary or they would not have been alive to lay claim to the similarities. But in a larger sense, Madame Bovary speaks to anyone who has ever expected life to be more than it is, and serves as a warning that nothing is as romantic as it appears.

Emma’s life is a series of disappointments. The high point of her life is her wedding near the beginning of the book — a pastoral ideal filled with bountiful food and drink, smiling faces and laughing people. It is absolutely beautiful, and she feels her whole life is ahead of her. She is bored by town life, bored by her husband, constantly wanting more and more money and exhilaration and entertainment. The life lead by Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country would have suited her quite nicely (and, in fact, they are very similar) — but instead, she feels trapped, and conducts a series of affairs that she expects will lift her out of her tedious life. She also spends a lot of money she doesn’t have and cheats her husband out of his state.

Finally, she commits suicide, in a horrible, intentionally drawn-out scene that undermines every romantic ideal Emma ever had. (more…)

June 30, 2015 at 12:56 am Leave a comment

Eyes on You by Kate White

cover-finalEyesOnYou-hc-c-198x300It’s embarrassing that I chose to follow Light in August with Eyes on You by Kate White, but that’s the way it happened. What do you even read after that? It’s a book I couldn’t even do justice to part of, a book so complex you could spend years thinking and talking about it. And yet…I had to move on. So I chose a book recommended by Id8, the e-book service I use through my public library.

Eyes on You tells the story of Robin, the co-anchor of a television show called Pulse, which appears to be an entertainment/news type show. Her co-anchor, Carter something, is a hottie. But someone is scaring Robin in a way that calls up a past she’d rather forget!

Seriously. I mean, Robin is fine. She seems nice, if a little dim. She works hard, and she wants to be good at what she does. This is a book populated by women, written for women, and it passes the Bechdel test on its most basic level. But I think the book suffers from and even perpetuates the mistaken perception that, in a professional (or even personal) setting, women cannot rely on one another — ever.

(more…)

June 30, 2015 at 12:46 am Leave a comment

On Fear: Who will ride the dragons?

63167612Here be dragons. This post contains Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire spoilers through the entire series. Read at your own risk.

At the very beginning of A Game of Thrones, Bran Stark and his father, Ned, have a conversation about fear and bravery. Bran asks, “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?” Ned replies, “That is the only time a man can be brave.”

This is only the first quotable quote from the series, but it introduces a theme that runs throughout. The characters who are the bravest are the ones who are most likely to feel afraid.

Daenerys Targaryen is the first, introduced as a cowed 13-year-old girl who is being physically and emotionally abused by her older brother while the two of them are in exile after their family is deposed from the throne. She is always afraid, and afraid of everything — and yet, her fear forces her to be strong. Because she fears her brother more than anything else, she weds a terrifying Dothraki leader, whose love eventually makes her strong enough to face her brother. Once her brother dies, and once her husband dies, Daenerys is strong enough to know that her fear won’t destroy her.

(more…)

June 25, 2015 at 12:32 am Leave a comment

Light in August by William Faulkner

41dB1aFhyjL._SY355_William Faulkner’s Light in August has been sitting on my shelf for two years. I had no idea what it was about when I picked it up last week to finally, finally get through it.

This is a book about race. It can’t be about anything else. It’s ostensibly about outcasts — a woman pregnant outside of wedlock, a defrocked minister and a man who is half black and half white living in Mississippi. The man, Joe Christmas, is on the run for most of the book because he’s accused of killing a white woman with whom he had a relationship. His story makes up most of the novel, with interludes of other stories. Between the time I started it and when I finished it, a white woman was “outed” as pretending to be black and a white man shot nine people in a historically African-American church.

The first thing that entered my mind when I reached about page 50 was, “this is the type of book the Coeur d’Alene school district wants to ban.” (more…)

June 23, 2015 at 12:24 am 3 comments

‘Travels in Siberia’ by Ian Frazier

When I moved from Nantucket back to upstate New York, I found myself with a long drive featuring an endless parade of fading in-and-out radio stations before me. All NPR wanted to talk about was Palmyra (a worthy topic, surely, but not one I needed to hear about for 8 straight hours) and all the other stations seemed to insist upon the same three Taylor Swift songs interspersed with Coldplay and Walk the Moon’s ubiquitous “Shut Up and Dance.”

My roadtrip companion.

My roadtrip companion.

We stopped overnight in my college town and I knew therein lied my salvation. A quick trip to Turn It Up!, the local used record store, produced a $3 copy the audiobook version of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Sibera. This opus was available on 16 audiodiscs read for your pleasure by the author. In a small audiobook section crammed with thrillers and romance novels, picking up Frazier’s book wasn’t a difficult decision. I love travel narratives, I knew nothing about Siberia, and had just enough interest in general Russian history that it seemed like a safe bet.

And so it was! Not only did discs 1-4 keep me awake and fascinated for the entirety of my trip across New York State, the rest of the book (procured from the library in physical book form the day after I arrived) proved equally gripping. (more…)

June 18, 2015 at 7:44 am 5 comments

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

dark-places-cover-w352It’s sort of stunning to me that Gillian Flynn didn’t really become famous until Gone Girl. Of course, Gone Girl is a masterwork of sorts, beautifully crafted and featuring amazing twists you never see coming. A glamorous disappearance; romance, kinda sorta; a complete takedown of Nancy Grace and exploitative media. It’s funny, twisted, clever and fascinating — the sort of book you stay up way too late reading.

But guess what? Gillian Flynn’s works have been funny, clever, twisted and horror-filled all along. Sharp Objects, her debut novel, is breathtakingly good. Her second book, Dark Places, sets up several themes that will recur in Gone Girl — namely, missing women, unexpected murder and pregnancy as blackmail.

The protagonist of the story is Libby Day, a physically and emotionally damaged young woman who survived what is known as the Kansas Farmhouse Massacre. Her mother and two sisters were brutally murdered, and her teenaged brother was imprisoned as a result. Just as she’s run out of money, she is approached by a young man who, along with many others, want her to get to the bottom of who really killed her family.

(more…)

June 16, 2015 at 12:39 am Leave a comment

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