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Marriage PlotI was surprised at how much I laughed reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. At least the first part, which lampoons life as an English major at Brown, had me in stitches. Jeffrey Eugenides (who studied English there in the early 1980s) pokes fun at the “hard-up blinky people” poring over Beowulf or Restoration drama in favor of proto-hipsters in black jeans who had discovered “the new imperium of Derrida.”

Still, he also takes aim at these oh-so-earnest semiotics students. I cracked up when one says the “idea of social introductions is so problematized.” That is the word—problematize—to toss about in seminars on literary deconstruction.

This remark also struck me because Eugenides spends the first pages of this novel introducing a literary hit list—Jane Austen, the Brontës, John Cheever, Collette, Charles Dickens, Theodore Dreiser, George Eliot, James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Longfellow, Anthony Trollope, John Updike, Edith Wharton, Tennessee Williams, William Wordsworth—only to follow this with a novel that intentionally challenges tradition. We know, of course, that he is questioning “the marriage plot” as a device, but Eugenides does not seem to offer up much plot wise in its place. Instead, this book feels as if it’s really about the writing. Much like a student in the Semiotics 211 seminar, I was less concerned with the storyline than with the words themselves. I found myself pausing to appreciate the masterful sentences, with little regard to their meaning.

There is a love triangle starring Madeline Hanna, who is doing her thesis on “the marriage plot.” She falls for Leonard Bankhead, who eerily seems to resemble David Foster Wallace—though Eugenides denies this. The third wheel is Mitchell Grammaticus, a sort of variant of Eugenides himself in this roman à clef. Even readers who know little about literary theory can easily make a link between Mitchell’s surname and Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, which the students revere as sacred text (ironic, given that Derrida argued text is meaningless). The novel follows these three from graduation at Brown through their first year in the real world—a literary Reality Bites.

marriage plot paper backWhile the first half of the book reminded me of Lucky Jim or David Lodge’s satiric novels on academia, the second half seems to mirror Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther—another canonical work that Eugenides spotlights. Like Werther, Mitchell suffers painfully from unrequited love as he searches to define himself. However, I grew impatient with Mitchell and his angst (just as I had done with Werther), especially in contrast to the real demons that haunted Leonard (and by proxy Madeline) in the form of mental illness. As such, Eugenides really brought to life Leonard’s torment and his daily struggles.

Some readers have taken issue with this book’s conclusion which (spoiler alert) seems to suggest the “friends-with-benefits plot.” But, for me, the ending worked, both lyrically and literally. The last sentence seems to offer possibilities—especially for Madeleine. Unlike predecessors such as Sister Carrie or Lily Bart, she is not ruined by her associations with men. Nor is her fate sealed by marriage, like Dorothea Brooke or Isabel Archer. Madeleine escapes all of this despite the fact that she chooses to become a Victorianist (haha, good one Eugenides). Likewise, Mitchell escapes young Werther’s fate, though it is unclear whether Leonard does.

In the end, both Madeleine and Mitchell stand on equal, if uncertain, footing. While this may not serve as the postmodern solution to the marriage trope quandary, it is certainly a refreshing plot twist.

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

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TheNightCircus lgSome children are afraid of clowns, I was afraid of magicians.

For me, The Night Circus called up those dark, menacing aspects of magic. I thought I was in for a bit of whimsy—since the book was hyped as “the next Harry Potter”—but I found this book to be much darker than I expected.

From nearly the first page, I had a claustrophobic feeling of being trapped, which I think speaks to Erin Morgenstern’s talents as a writer because that sense of limitation certainly plays into the plot. I don’t want to give away the storyline, because I found it clever and original.

When she wants to, Morgenstern can create wonder with her sentences: “The building is as grey as the pavement below and the sky above, appearing as impermanent as the clouds, as though it could vanish into the air without notice.” But she also has descriptions like, “the air itself is magical,” which jarred and disappointed me because I knew she could do better.

I enjoyed the allusions to Prospero of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which like “Le Cirque des Rêves,” is set in an enchanted realm run by a sort of overlord, puppet master. (Shakespeare scholars, apologies for that simplification.) But, for me, this made for a bait-and-switch because The Tempest is ultimately a comedy.

I confess that I didn’t love this book, because it was so disquieting and put me on edge. (For similar reasons, I did not enjoy Gone Girl, so perhaps that’s not a good barometer.) Again, I’m creeped out by magicians. Many of the book bloggers I follow have gushed about this novel—it is truly beloved.

That, of course, is one of the best kinds of magic.

When You Don’t Like the “It” Book

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

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Very Long EngagementI greatly enjoyed A Very Long Engagement by Sébastien Japrisot, but for me it was a bit of a bait-and-switch book. It starts off very much like a suspense novel, with tension and mounting dread. I found myself completely riveted by the first chapter in which French soldiers are marching through one of the First World War’s infamous trenches.

“Watch out for the wire.”

Indeed, Japrisot is known for his crime writing and has been nicknamed the “Graham Greene of France.”

But then, the novel takes on a more quiet and reflective tone—somewhat the inverse of say, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which begins with more reserved prose and moves to breathless action at Dunkirk.

I had a little trouble shifting gears with Japrisot. I flew through the opening scene, and then it took me a while to get into the rhythm of the rest of the book. This is not a subway read but is best enjoyed if you can spend some time sinking into it.

Overall, I found A Very Long Engagement to be rewarding, moving, and thought-provoking—somewhat reminiscent of a Marcel Pagnol novel in the sense that it offers a glimpse into this fleeting, evolving moment in France. The characters are trying to put their lives back together while dealing with grief, hardship, and the aftershocks of the Great War. This novel feels especially resonant as we head into the 100th anniversary of the start of that conflict this July.

Now I am eager to see the film.

Now, I am eager to see the film.

A thread of mystery pulls us through the story, as the heroine Mathilde searches to find out what happened to her fiancé Manech, who has been reported “killed in the line of duty.” She goes on a scavenger hunt, sifting through a tangle of clues gleaned by word-of-mouth, letters from survivors, ads placed in newspapers, and the work of a private detective. I won’t offer any other plot details, except to say that the ending offered a satisfying resolution that was not predictable.

I went back to reread the first chapter and found that I had missed this lovely, layered transition from the trenches to Mathilde, which also somewhat encapsulates the essence of this book:

“There was still that wire, mended whenever it broke with whatever came to hand, a wire that snaked its way through all the trenches, through all the winters, now up at the top, now down at the bottom, across all the lines …

Mathilde has seized hold of it. She holds it still. It guides her into the labyrinth from which Manech has not returned.”

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

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I just loved the cover!

I picked Arabian Nights & Days by Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz to start off the Dewey’s Readathon in April, which fell on a drizzly, cheerless morning. As I love to travel to exotic and faraway places via books, I thought a trip to medieval Arabia would offer a nice antidote to such a rainy day.

Mahfouz wrote this as both a sequel and a tribute to the classic One Thousand and One Nights, and the book picks up the day after Shahrzad has told her last story. Though billed as novel, it’s really a collection of interwoven short stories that feature many of the same characters as the original fables. I do suggest reading them in order as there are a progression of subplots.

Though the stories are told as episodic vignettes, I found myself invested in the fates of the characters—particularly of the families of both Sannaan al-Gamali and Gamasa al-Bulti—as they continued to make cameos. I would’ve liked to have seen more of Shahrzad and her sister, Dunyazad, the only two female characters that are even remotely developed.

Despite the enchanting prose, the magical realism of his setting, and familiar characters like Aladdin and Sinbad, these stories feature somewhat dark and jarring plotlines. It felt a bit like the jolt one might get by turning to Grimm’s Fairy Tales after seeing the sugar-coated Disney versions of Snow White and Cinderella (and Aladdin for that matter).

Except for one charming love story, Mahfouz uses his allegorical world to spotlight modern-day problems such as police corruption, dirty politics, unjust rulers, greedy power struggles, assassinations, and the misfortunes of the downtrodden. Genies here do not seem to grant wishes but rather wreak havoc on feckless humans, forcing them to do things against their will.

“We love what you love, but between us and people is a barrier of destinies,” explains the genie Singam.

I’m sure there are many layers and allusions that I missed because I am not versed in One Thousand and One Nights—so I would especially recommend this book to readers who have an appreciation for that classic. Still, I enjoyed being transported by Mahfouz’s alluring prose to the fragrant courtyard of the Café of Emirs, to eavesdrop on conversations and people-watch vicariously.

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

Dewey’s Read-a-thon April 2014

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classics readathon 18:15 am ish Books down for now. Feeling rejuvenated by my classics read-in, though I did not make it 24 hours. Still, as the forecast is freezing rain today, I’m hoping to channel the #ccreadathon with more Wharton this afternoon.

7:17 am Picked up Jane Austen, Game Theorist by Michael Suk-Young Chwe to reread the sections about Mansfield Park. I’m not sure if this counts (pub’d in 2012), but he has some new and very interesting insights into the character of Fanny. Resisted the urge to go online, so as to maximize last hour of #ccreadathon time.

11ish pm Fell asleep reading Edith Wharton. Barely remember flicking off the light.

8:30 pm Finished MP and now completely absorbed by The New York Stories of Edith Wharton. Reading about Old New York is almost like time travel.

6:55 pm Got slightly sidetracked looking at all the fun readathon updates at #ccreadathon and @ourclassicsclub on twitter. Back on the couch and nearly finished with Mansfield Park!

4:05 pm Had a lovely afternoon of reading with the sun streaming in through the windows. It’s fading now, and I must break to brave the crepuscular chill as the doggie is eager to go out before dark. #shortwinterdays

1:45 pm Took a break to walk the dog during the sunniest part of the day. The cold, hardened snowscape has me thinking I should be reading Ethan Frome, but I’m most content with Mansfield Park.

11:00 am Posting this response to the Classics Club Readathon Starting Post. Now back to Fanny Bertram… (Egad, spoiler alert, just realizing I wrote Fanny Bertram not Fanny Price!)

9:51 am Looked up from Mansfield Park to peruse #ccreadathon and @ourclassicsclub on twitter. Lots of great ideas for my target classics list.

8:17 am  Ah, coffee and Jane Austen … I should start every weekend morning like this!

7:58 am  Gasp. Rolled over to realize I’d slept in! Grabbed Mansfield Park off nightstand and flipped on the coffee.

Classics Club Readathon Intro Questions:

1.) Name and Blog: Sarah at WordHits

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Coffee, chocolate, and a classic.

2.) Snacks/Beverages of Choice: My readathon fuel will be Nespresso coffee (yes, pods, but so unbelievably delish!), Lady Grey Tea, and dark chocolate.

3.) Where are you reading from today? Frozen, snowbound Connecticut. It’s 14°F outside! Perfect day to spend reading.

4.) What books are you planning on reading? Am starting with Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Also on deck: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, and What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy. Here’s a bit more on my book choices.

5.) Are you excited? Yes! Well, inversely. I am excited to do nothing exciting but relax and read. I love that “this is a laid back, zero pressure readathon.” I always enjoy the @ourclassicsclub tweets about the Classics Spin and other classics memes. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to get involved!

WordHits: Cosy Up for the 2nd Annual Classics Club Readathon

Classics Club Readathon Official Starting Post #ccreadathon

The 2nd Annual Classics Club Readathon

Readathon Sign-Up

#ccreadathon hosted by @ourclassicsclub on Twitter

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2 book bricksWhen 11/22/63 landed with a thud on my doorstep, I knew I was in for a hefty brick of a read. As I pulled the nearly one-pound beast out of the oversized shipping box … it loomed.

At 842 pages, however, this book is more than 200 pages shorter than the last Stephen King novel I read, Under the Dome, which is 1072 pages.

I decided to size them up together, and in this light, 11/22/63 does look much more manageable.

Still, I find it most ironic that King took a jibe at the length of Donna Tartt’s The GoldFinch, which clocks in at a mere 784 pages. “Don’t drop it on your foot,” he joked at the end of his review for The New York Times Book Review (in which he mostly gushed with enthusiasm).

I will keep that foot precaution in mind as I dig into 11/22/63 in anticipation of this Friday, Nov. 22nd, the 50th anniversary of that infamous date.

Even better, I am reading this as part of the #112263Along organized by Kristin of My Little Heart Melodies, and I love seeing all the tweets and posts from other readers.

The readalong goes for another month through Sunday 12/22 (did I mention it was a long book?) so please join us!

Click here to sign up via Mr Linky!

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More on the 11/22/63 by Stephen King Readalong

Sign up for the 11/22/63 Readalong via Mr. Linky

#112263Along on Twitter

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Halloween Bats Full MoonThis month, I have been gearing up for Halloween by reading books about Murder, Monsters & Mayhem, a spookfest from Jenn’s Bookshelves.

Here are some scary book suggestions for after the trick-or-treating. And don’t forget to give a book for #AllHallowsRead!

The First Books That Terrified Me

Join the Readalong of 11/22/63 by Stephen King

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Death in the City of Light by David King

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Two Brilliant, Haunting Short Shorts

Give a BOO-k for All Hallow’s Read!

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