Tag Archive | Books

Bartleby the Scrivener

Herman Melville — Melville House, 2004 — 9780974607801

A novella published by Melville in 1853, this is a tale about a lawyer who hires a new scrivener named Bartleby. While at first appearing to be a hard worker, Bartleby shocks his unnamed employer by one day replying, when asked to perform a task, “I would prefer not to.”

It’s been a while since I read an older book, and the sound of the mid-19th century language was a pleasant change (despite it taking a while for me to get used to). But what I enjoyed most was the way this antiquated language contrasted with what is indubitably a modern story. While there are many different analyses of the novella, the one that rings true for me concerns free will. Beginning with one small action, Bartleby does what he pleases without consideration for the demands of his job or the conventions of his time. It’s something to be admired, no matter how drastic the consequences.

And yes, I bought the bag.


Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief

Lawrence Wright — Knopf, 2013 — 9780307700667

After going to the trouble of ordering this book from the US since a last-minute change by the publisher meant it wasn’t going to be published in Canada (at least for the time being), I had to put it down. Nothing against the book exactly — it’s just that having read a Scientology expose last year, and since much of the content is inevitably similar, I found I had no drive to push through the book since I knew where it was headed.

That being said, I enjoyed Wright’s reporting and analysis (and extensive endnotes) much more than Janet Reitman’s. In fact, I happened to stop reading at a rather interesting spot: his description of mind-control projects like MKUltra, and the debate concerning the extent to which individuals can be brain washed.

I’ll gladly jump back into this book one day, when I’m in the right (or perhaps Wright!) mood.


The Fairy-Tale Princess

Su Blackwell & Wendy Jones — Thames & Hudson, 2012 — 9780500650066

Classic fairy tales illustrated with wonderful book art by Su Blackwell. The re-tellings are stilted, but the detailed illustrations make up for the lack of storytelling.


Speaking From Among the Bones

Alan Bradley — Doubleday, 2013 — 9780385668125

Oh Flavia! How I’ve missed you. Looking back at my post about the previous novel in the series, I realize my recollection of it now is quite different. I remember it as feeling rushed, as though it needed to be published in winter to reflect the holiday theme, but the story just wasn’t quite there.

Not so with this fifth book. How great it is to have Flavia back! She’s as witty, as precocious, as cloyingly-acquiescent yet silently indignant as always. Her observations on English country village life are like warm cocoa with fluffy marshmallows on top and a hidden kick of chili spice deep within on a cold, rainy day.

I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never be able to solve the mysteries Flavia encounters myself. Indeed, I think the author may have hinted at this fact with a wink, at least a bit more obviously than in his previous books. And I was a little astounded to read that she’s still only 11 years old — mainly because that means all 5 novels have taken place in the span of one year. Is it just me, or is that a lot of murders for a quaint country village?!

But the life of Flavia progresses well — or, as well as can be for a family that is about to lose its ancestral home. Much like Flavia herself, I can’t imagine her and her family living anywhere else. But the family is changing, after all, with Feely about to be married. Still, there are plot twists to the very end with this book, right up until the last page. (If you haven’t read it yet, don’t peek ahead! If you have read it, all I have to say it, “I knew it!”)

And as always, I’m left wanting more. No word on when the sixth book will be published (end of this year, or early next?), but until then we can cross our fingers that Sam Mendes will do Flavia justice in the upcoming tv series.


The Psychopath Test

Jon Ronson — Riverhead, 2012 — 9781594485756

A quick and fun read. Never having read Ronson before I was unsure what to expect. An interesting look at various aspects of modern-day mental health issues, though ultimately light fare. I was a little annoyed with how easily swayed the author was, though probably because I’m easily swayed myself and prefer (expect?) the author to know better. But I admire how Ronson seems to meet the craziest (no pun intended) characters, and will probably give Lost At Sea a try one day soon.


The Shadow of the Wind

Carlos Ruiz Zafón — The Penguin Press, 2004 — 9781594200106

Oh how I love this book! I first read it in 2004, and waited 9 years to re-read it because I was worried it wouldn’t be as good the second time around. Thankfully, it did not disappoint.

Daniel, living in post-Civil War and -WW2 Barcelona, is taken by his grieving widower father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There, Daniel picks out one book that he is to guard and care for; he selects The Shadow of the Wind by someone named Julian Carax. He reads the book and falls in love with it, and in searching for other novels by the author discovers that someone has been destroying all the copies of Carax’s books, as if to erase any trace of the author. Over many years Daniel searches for clues about the author, and in doing so unravels a romantic yet tragic tale that resounds in his own life.

Where to begin with what I love? Any novel with a book as a central focus of the plot speaks to me. The atmosphere is very Gothic, equal measures romance and horror, aided by a foggy, rainy city in a country under a new dictatorship regime. But what I most enjoy is that this is the first book I read where the language spoke to me, causing me to pay attention to it and admire the author’s descriptions of and insights to the human psyche. I think Zafón’s phrasing is beautiful, and it’s all the more impressive since this is a translation from the Spanish. Lucinda Graves, the translator, has done a wonderful job.

Now that I’ve conquered re-reading this book, I can move on to reading the other two in the series (with one more apparently still to come).



Nick Harkaway — Vintage, 2012 — 9780307743626

How to describe this one? Fantastic, quirky, and a great read, for sure. Hilarious, without a doubt. But as for the actual plot?

Joe, an anachronistic London clockwork mechanic with an outlaw family history, becomes swept up in a quest to stop a complex, mechanical doomsday device that he unwittingly activated. We meet Edie, the sly former secret agent who was there when the device was built, and follow her through the years to learn why she threw Joe into the thick of things. Along the way we encounter Ruskinites, originally followers of Ruskin and proponents of artisanal craftsmanship as opposed to mass production, but now a more sinister group. There is also a cruel foreign despot, a mysterious and alarmingly-unofficial branch of the British government, a serial killer, a guild of undertakers, cunning lawyers, and a nefarious yet loveable underworld of thieves.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, but Harkaway pulls it all together nicely. The writing is very humourous, very British, and yet also very insightful and touching at times.

[Joe] has no great hatred of modern technology—he just mistrusts the effortless, textureless surfaces and the ease with which it trains you to do things in the way most convenient to the machine. Above all, he mistrusts duplication. A rare thing becomes a commonplace thing. A skill becomes a feature. The end is more important than the means. The child of the soul gives place to a product of the system.

[He was] a heart of books with the skin of a tramp.

To sum it up briefly, I’d say it’s a wonderful mix of science fiction meets steampunk meets John le Carré who, incidentally, is Harkaway’s father.


Are You My Mother?

Alison Bechdel — Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012 — 9780618982509

And so ended 2012, with my book club reading this graphic novel memoir. In Are You My Mother?, Bechdel recounts her relationship with, you guessed it, her mother. It’s a follow-up to her previous memoir (that I haven’t read), Fun Home, where she talks about her relationship with her father, and how she and her family reacted to his coming out and subsequent suicide.

This book covers Bechdel’s entire life including her childhood, her mother’s reaction to her being gay, and her mother’s reaction to her writing the two memoirs. It jumps around in time and as a result can be a bit awkward to follow, but along the way we meet people who have had a lasting impact on Bechdel’s life. This includes a few past girlfriends as well as two previous psychiatrists (both of whom looked almost identical to me, adding to the confusion).

Through it all, Bechdel looks to literature (specifically, Virginia Woolf) and psychoanalysis (the work of Donald Winnicott) for ideas and theories to help her deal with her past experiences. These external sources lend a poignancy to the memoir, and the way in which Bechdel incorporates them into the visual narrative is elegant and thoughtful. But they (especially the psychoanalysis) also highlight just how, for lack of a better term, messed up Bechdel’s relationship with her mother is. Still, a personal and interesting book.


A Calm Place to Think

…a good performer — good reader — is one with a lot of range, and the only way to develop that range is to perform as many different kinds of stories as possible.

[via The Millions]

Book, book, goose!

This is what has been missing in my life. The ability to wander through the (often ridiculous) virtual stacks of Amazon and discover random titles as I would in a bookstore.

Great work, Hilary Mason.


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