Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

salem along teethAll month I’ve been reading Salem’s Lot by Stephen King as part of the #SalemAlong—a group read hosted by Melissa, Trish, and Care. It has been a blast! The book is an addictive page-turner, but also I’ve loved seeing everyone’s comments and reactions as they read via twitter.

It’s not too late if you want to join in. It’s fast read, and #SalemAlong runs through Halloween. But beware this post has spoilers—something I usually try to avoid. So, *spoiler alert!*

FYI, per the page numbers: I bought the Anchor Books mass market paperback, because pulpy seems to fit Stephen King.

NOTE: You do not need to have read Dracula, The Haunting of Hill House, or any vampire lore, as King gives the reader all the needed clues and info—though one character is saved by a deep knowledge of monster comics.

p. 15 “ ‘Salem’s Lot” is short for Jerusalem’s lot. Nice ironic touch.

p. 21 Already hooked. The prologue was a spooky tease, but by the third page of the first chapter, I know I’m in for the haul. No surprise or sudden cliffhanger. It’s just that King’s writing is so darn readable.

p. 25 The creepy the Marsten house looms large!

p. 26 I’m invested in Ben—another likable guy in the vein of Barbie and Rusty from Under the Dome and Jake from 11/22/63.

p. 64 Chapter 3: The Lot (I). My favorite chapter follows a day in the Salem’s Lot, introducing the reader to different characters and to the rhythms of small-town life. I was fascinated by how different things were in Maine back in 1975. For example, Susan left an order on the door overnight for the milkman, who arrived each morning straight from the nearby dairy.

I would’ve been quite happy to read along and have no vampires. I felt the same way at the beginning of Under the Dome.

p. 101 “Barlow and Straker” This made me thing of Bram Stoker. Maybe that’s a stretch, but I got that connotation each time I read the names.

p. 106 “between then [next week] and October 30.” King likes to remind us that Halloween is on the horizon. This book starts late Sept and runs into October. (Under the Dome also took place in October.)

p. 188-122 Vintage King! Here he takes something ostensibly trite (being afraid of shadows while walking through the woods) and makes it terrifying! Instead of feeling that I had read or seen this before (which of course we all have), I was truly, palpably scared along with the two little boys.

p. 201 “That year the first day of fall (real fall as opposed to calendar fall) was September 28” Now the days start to get shorter and the nights get longer.

p. 223 “Understand death? Sure. That was when the monsters got you.” Foreshadowing from the mind of 12-year-old Mark Petrie.

p. 242 “Say, these kids aren’t going to eat me, are they?” Ben asks Matt the school teacher, in another little foreshadowing zinger.

p. 371 I got up and made sure to shut and lock all the windows of my house. No more reading this book at night!

SalemAlong buttonp. 422-435 Ok. I’m shouting at the book here. Just as King managed to make the overused spooky woods motif fresh and horrifying, inversely this scene seems so played … like it came out of a Scary Movie sequel. Why, why would anyone go to the vampire’s house at dusk?! Especially, why would a kid who had earlier proven so savvy in vampire knowledge? This whole scene annoyed me. Susan, who I had liked before, seemed really stupid here. I hate it when girls/women are stupid victims … and here is where I lost sympathy for Susan. Um, Darwin Award.

I don’t think this is the prevailing opinion, as there were lots of sighs and gasps for Susan on twitter. #SalemAlong

p. 473 “Sunset on Sunday, October 5, 1975, at 7:02 pm, sunrise on Monday, October 6 1975, at 6:49 am.”

This is a nice device with the countdown to sunset which King uses at times to remind the reader that sunset is getting earlier and daybreak later—longer nights! This especially resonated with me because I’ve also been watching the sunrise creep later and later. I hate dark mornings, and I’m counting the days until daylight savings begins on Nov 1.

p. 512 I would’ve grabbed a couple of bottles of the Médoc on my way out of the Marsten House.

Also, I liked this plot twist here, by touching on the myth that vampires can anticipate the future. The cat-and-mouse game with Barley ups the suspense/thriller aspect of the book. King keeps us hooked by integrating this with the horror story.

p. 520 “In the fall, night comes like this in the Lot:
The sun loses its thin grip on the air first, turning it cold, making it remember that winter is coming and winter will be long. Thin clouds form, and the shadows lengthen out. They have no breadth, as summer shadows have; there are no leaves on the trees or fat clouds in the sky to make them thick. They are gaunt, mean shadows that bite the ground like teeth.”

p. 576 So what happened to Father Callahan? Did he end up at a rave in the East Village?

p. 628 Wow. The “dissolution” scene reads like blow-by-blow a description of what happens to the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m wondering if this is just a coincidence? Or if Steven Spielberg had read Salem’s Lot (which came out six years before his movie) and was inspired either subconsciously or consciously. I’m not suggesting plagiarism, but more like a cinematic allusion, much the way rappers sample other music.

p. 652 October 1972 – June 1975

I always like the way King put the dates he spent writing each novel on the last page. I’ve noticed that the writing times are much shorter for his more recent books, like Under the Dome and 11/22/63, which each took about a year even though they are much longer. So he is picking up speed!

Overall, I highly recommend this read—especially fun during the run up to Halloween. It wasn’t as scary for me as The Shining (the movie … I have not yet braved the book). But I will confess that I tried not to read it at night. When I did, I was frightened enough to lock all my windows and wear my cross around my neck.

A thank you shout-out to readalong hosts Melissa, Trish, and Care. They are most welcoming, and there is still a week left if you want to join the #SalemAlong!

Next up for me is a sunny, fluffy read. The Diamond Caper, by Peter Mayle, takes place on the French Riviera—a perfect antidote to Stephen King!

Mayle antidote

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Village School Miss Read LGI’ve been curious about the Miss Read books and was so pleased when Village School was lucky number #5 on my Classics Club Spin List. It tells the story of the small village of Fairacre, England, as narrated by the school mistress of the local, two-room elementary school, aka “Miss Read”.

Set right after World War II, the book begins on the first day of school with all the anticipation and excitement felt by the two teachers and their students. The story unwinds in a series of slice-of-life vignettes that follow the school year. Miss Read has a knack for creating evanescent moments: children making straw bunches for the harvest festival; strained conversation while drinking tea in a dusty sitting room; an evening of skating on the local pond lit up by a farmer’s lorry (truck) headlights.

Throughout the book I had that wistful feeling of the passing of time, for example this lovely summer afternoon:

“We were disposed at the edge of the half-cut field under the elm trees’ shade. The air was murmurous with the noise of the distant cutter and with myriads of small insects. Far away the downs shimmered in the heat, and little blue chalk butterflies hovered about us … the children sat or lay in the grass with their books propped before them. Some read avidly … But others lay on their stomachs, legs undulating, with their eyes fixed dreamily on the view before them, a grass between their lips, and eternity before them. … When these boys and girls are old and look back to their childhood, it is the brightest hours that they will remember. This is one of those golden days to lay up as a treasure for the future, I told myself, excusing our general idleness.”

The author, whose real name is Dora Jessie Saint, taught school for many years, and the Fairacre novels are fictionalizations of her own experiences—much like James Herriot’s books.

Village School is a delightful, cosy, and relaxed read. That’s not to say that it is sugar-coated. The thatched cottages look pretty, but inside they are dark and damp, with no plumbing or drainage. Likewise the narrative touches on difficulties such as a drunkard father, a boy who has no dinner (lunch) money, and the formidable test that decides the educational fate of 11-year-olds. Miss Read empathizes with her students and neighbors, especially the grubby but beguiling Joseph Coggs. Overall, however, the book is upbeat and highlights the charm of village life. The school janitor (who has laid out all the courses) has a role of prominence at the summer sports day, walking about in a blue serge suit with the vicar.

My one serious complaint is that the “n-word” jumped off page 135, which was shocking and, honestly, somewhat horrifying. Miss Read uses it to describe how hard one of her students is studying. This was especially jarring given the comforting cadence of the prose.

Back in 1939, Agatha Christie had a book with the “n-word” in its title, although when it was released the next year in the U.S., the title was changed to And Then There Were None. The UK version adopted the latter title by the 1980s. Village School was published in 1955, and my edition was reissued in 2001. So it seems even more egregious that this has not been addressed.

That aside, I found this a charming book, and I think the many Fairacre sequels will be perfect reading for cold winter nights by the fire with a cup of tea.

Our Classics ClubTo read other reviews from this CC Spin, check out @ourclassicsclub or #ccspin on twitter.  Why not join us in the next Classics Club Spin?

My Classics Club Spin #10 Reading List

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Our Classics ClubHere’s my Classics Spin #10 list. The Spin is hosted by The Classics Club who pick a number between 1-20 and that is the book that all participants have to read.

Once again, I dodged a bullet and got a book I was hoping to read: Village School, by Miss Read. Last time I lucked out with The Murder at the Vicarage, by Agatha Christie.  I’m pretty sure this means next time I will get Bleak House!

This list includes old and newer classics (see The Classics Club for ideas on what they consider “classics”) and a few rereads.

#ccspin and @ourclassicsclub on twitter

Lucky Spin Number: 5

I will be reading: Village School, by Miss Read

1.) War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

2.) Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson

3.) The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

4.) Greenvoe, by George Mackay Brown

5.) Village School, by Miss Read

6.) Frenchman’s Creek, by Daphne du Maurier

7.) The Small House at Allington, by Anthony Trollope

8.) Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brien

9.) Adam Bede, by George Eliot

10.) Blandings Castle, by P.G. Wodehouse

11.) Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

12.) Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery

13.) North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

14.) The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe

15.) Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

16.) Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

17.) Under the Greenwood Tree, by Thomas Hardy

18.) In Search of a Character, by Graham Greene

19.) One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez

20.) Anil’s Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje

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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.

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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

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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.”

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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.

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