Tag Archive | Fiction

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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Angelmaker

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.

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The Confidant

Hélène Grémillon — Penguin, 2012 — 9780143121565

A quick read, but one that failed to hold my attention and I had to pick it up again after a couple of days. Set in Paris in the 1970s, Camille is just beginning to cope with the death of her mother when she begins to receive letters that seem to reveal mysteries of another woman’s life during WW2. At first she thinks the letters are being sent to her by mistake, but then she comes to realize that her family plays a role in their story. Needless to say there’s a twist, and the twist is obvious from the beginning (as is the twist after the twist). The idea is interesting and I think if the setting and characters were more developed it could have been better. As it stands, I even kept forgetting that the novel was set in the past. The sole reason for the 70s setting was to facilitate the setting of the war-time history; it served no purpose of its own and the writing was too generic to make use of the setting/characters properly. Ultimately, it passed the time.

[#107_10.11.12–10.18.12]

Y

Marjorie Celona — Hamish Hamilton, 2012 — 9780670066377

I’ll be the first to admit that books like this are not usually my cup of tea. But I enjoyed Y, honestly, and think it’s a pretty good debut novel. Longlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Y is the story of Shannon, a baby girl abandoned by her mother on the steps of a YMCA in British Columbia.

Passed around through several foster homes, Shannon finally settles down with Miranda and her daughter; that is, settles down as much as can be said of a tempestuous person whose origin and reason for existence is unknown. The narrative alternates between Shannon as a teen trying to find out who she is, and the experiences of Yula, her mother, that led to Shannon being abandoned. Shannon is a spunky character and I enjoyed the writing enough to keep an eye out for Celona’s next novel, but I can understand why it didn’t make the prize shortlist. While the topic is well suited for the Giller, my overall impression was that the writing was just shy of being great.

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A Wrinkle in Time

Madeleine L’Engle — Square Fish, 2012 — 9781250004675

I think this is a book I would have loved as a child. Meg is sufficiently awkward a protagonist to appeal to many, and Charles Wallace was hilarious at first as the child wonder know-it-all. The idea of travelling through space and time would certainly have appealed to me, and given me lots to ponder.

But I quickly began to grow tired — the storyline seemed to plod along slowly, and the fact that the end was rather obvious made it seem slower still. Not to mention that Charles Wallace, and most of the characters, didn’t really develop they way I thought they would when I started reading. (Although, admittedly, part of that was due to dated gender role concepts — this book was written in the 60s, after all).

As it stands, at my age I wasn’t that into A Wrinkle in Time, but I’d probably recommend it to younger readers. And I did enjoy the additional material supplied in the 50th anniversary edition, including a biography of Madeleine L’Engle as well as the acceptance speech she gave upon winning the Newbery Medal.

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Notes from Underground

Fyodor Dostoevsky — Vintage Classics, 1994 — 9780679734529

I am a sick man … I am a wicked man.

And so begins this classic novella, and my first attempt at Dostoevsky. He’s someone I’ve wanted to read for years but have basically been too scared to tackle. But what better way to start than to ease into it with a short novel? And no, my decision had nothing to do with the recent announcement of a new (and most likely strict) book club.

Notes from Underground is a novella in two parts, and presented as the writing of Underground Man — so called because we never learn his name, and because he can be taken to represent all of us. The first part, “Underground,” presents some of this man’s philosophies and his present situation, and the second part, “Apropos of Wet Snow,” (what a great title!) relates certain scenes from his life to show how he became who he is. It has been called the first existentialist novel and deals with concepts such as the will of the individual as opposed to that of the state (or the will of the individual as compared to what is best for the individual).

The foreword is written by Richard Pevear who, together with his wife Larissa Volokhonsky, are the acclaimed translators not only this edition of Notes from Underground, but also other classic Russian works. The foreword did a nice job of explaining not only the context in which the book was written, but also what Dostoevsky meant in creating such a character. However, I’m glad I left the foreword for the end since, as any specialist is bound to do, Pevear delves into contemporary Russian literary culture a bit more in-depth than I require.

Overall, a pleasant experience — certainly not as complex as I was afraid of — and I look forward to making Crime and Punishment my next Dostoevsky read.

[#97_2.29.12–3.14.12]

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