Category Archives: Reading

25 Books for 2015

My reading list has been growing at an alarming exciting rate lately, so I thought I would share with you some of the books I will definitely be taking out of the library in 2015.

With a total of 25 books on the list, I will need to read just 2 each month (plus an extra one month) to finish them all in one year.

While there are many, many more than 25 books on my regular reading list, I have organized this 2015 must-read list into 5 categories to ensure variety:

  • Classics I’ve Missed: These are famous works by well-known authors that I somehow haven’t gotten around to reading yet.
  • Authors I Need More Of: These are more obscure or more recent works by authors I have read and loved in the past.
  • Contemporary Women: These are contemporary novels by women authors I haven’t read in the past.
  • Essential Nonfiction: These are books I hope will help me be a better human. All of them cover important and relevant topics that I should be thinking more about.
  • Stranger Than Fiction: These are nonfiction stories that will reveal more about this strange and wonderful world we’re living in.

All sections are arranged alphabetically by author.


CLASSICS I’VE MISSED

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  1. Italo Calvino: The Baron in the Trees

    I studied Italian in college, spent a total of 8 months in Italy, and have still managed to never read anything by Italo Calvino (other than If on a winter’s night a traveler in high school – when I was not yet ready to appreciate it – and a few pages of Invisible Cities). Clearly, this needs to change.

  2. Ursula K. Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

    I used to read a lot of science fiction, but while I conquered many of the greats of the genre (Asimov, Adams, Bradbury, Herbert, L’Engle, etc, etc), I somehow missed reading anything by Ursula K. Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness is one of her most iconic novels, so I figured it was as good a place to start as any.

  3. Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation

    I have read bits and pieces of this thought-provoking essay collection over the years, and now I would like to finally read the rest.

  4. David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest

    I spent most of the summer of ‘10 trying to check Infinite Jest out of the Washington University library, entirely without success. Hopefully I will have better luck at the St. Louis Central Library in 2015.

  5. Virginia Woolf: Orlando

    I know, I know. I’ve never read Virginia Woolf, and it’s getting to be embarrassing.


AUTHORS I NEED MORE OF

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  1. Margaret Atwood: The Edible Woman

    Ever since I read The Handmaid’s Tale in middle school, I’ve been a big fan of Atwood. I’ve made it through the major works in her canon, but I’m still far from a completist. Tackling her first novel will bring me one step closer.

  2. Daniel Handler: Adverbs

    One of my favorite library moments is when I found out that Roald Dahl, a favorite author of my childhood, also wrote books and short stories for adults. So, when I recently stumbled upon the fact that Daniel Handler (alias Lemony Snicket) had written a novel composed of interlinked short stories for adults, I was thrilled.

  3. Haruki Murakami: The Strange Library

    Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite authors of all time, and I’ve read as many of his novels as I could get my hands on. When NPR informed me that his illustrated novella The Strange Library had just been released in English, I couldn’t wait to add it to my reading list.

  4. Helen Oyeyemi: White Is for Witching

    I discovered the magic that is Helen Oyeyemi in 2014 with Boy, Snow, Bird and Mr. Fox, and I hope to continue it in 2015 with White Is for Witching. Hopefully I’ll have time for The Icarus Girl and The Opposite House too!

  5. Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch

    I read The Secret History and enjoyed it, so when The Goldfinch was everywhere in 2014, I knew it would eventually end up on my list.


CONTEMPORARY WOMEN

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I’ll let the books in this category – and the following categories – speak for themselves. Since the authors and topics are new to me, I don’t have specific reasons for choosing each book other than the fact that all of them come well reviewed and highly recommended.

  1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah
  2. Aimee Bender: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
  3. Alexis Coe: Alice + Freda Forever
  4. Tayari Jones: Silver Sparrow
  5. Scarlett Thomas: The End of Mr. Y

ESSENTIAL NONFICTION

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  1. Charles Duhigg: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
  2. Marjorie Hillis: Live Alone and Like It: The Classic Guide for the Single Woman
  3. Garrett Keizer: Privacy
  4. Eli Pariser: The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You
  5. Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson: Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

STRANGER THAN FICTION

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  1. Katherine Howe: The Penguin Book of Witches
  2. Jill Lepore: The Secret History of Wonder Woman
  3. Mary S. Lovell: The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family
  4. Daniel Okrent: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
  5. John Safran: God’ll Cut You Down: The Tangled Tale of a White Supremacist, a Black Hustler, a Murder, and How I Lost a Year in Mississippi

What’s on your list this year? Let me know in the comments what you’re most looking forward to reading in 2015.

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Books Worth Reading: Badass Women Edition

There’s something called the rapture of the deep, and it refers to what happens when a deep-sea diver spends too much time at the bottom of the ocean and can’t tell which way is up. When he surfaces, he’s liable to have a condition called the bends, where the body can’t adapt to the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. All this happens to me when I surface from a great book.

– Nora Ephron, I Feel Bad About My Neck

You and me both, Nora.

There is nothing quite like surfacing from a deeply absorbing novel – you feel like you have left a part of yourself behind in its world. Some books you never entirely recover from, and they remain a part of your psyche and shape your worldview long after you have turned the last page (I’m looking at you, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ).

However, I have a tendency to dive into similar works of fiction again and again, so I decided that this installment of Books Worth Reading would explore previously uncharted waters (or at least those I had not previously dipped my toes into).

And with that, I bring you this new selection.

Most of these authors are contemporary; all of them are incredible. Go forth and read.


Jenny Wren: Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Girl

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We begin our jaunt very much within my 19th century comfort zone.

In fact, I’m pretty sure this book was written just for me.

A collection of essays published anonymously (under the pseudonym Jenny Wren) in the 1890s, the book deals with topics that are still relevant to the modern woman, from falling in love and tolerating babies to afternoon tea and slightly rude parlor games.

If this passage doesn’t pique your interest in Jenny’s delightfully biting essays, I don’t know what will:

“For those who have a taste for speaking spitefully of their neighbours, I can suggest an amusing game which was, I believe, started in Oxford. It is called Photograph Whist and is played by four. Two or three dozen photographs are dealt round and each person plays one, he who plays the ugliest portrait taking the trick. The more hideous the photograph, the greater its value as a trump! I have played the game with a man who always keeps his brother to the end and then brings him out with enormous success, the said brother never failing to overtrump any other card in the pack! So you see it is a most amiable game altogether. You must only be careful not to spread your doings abroad, or no one will present you with their portraits ever again.”

19th-Century Twentysomethings — They’re Just Like Us!


Anne Brönte: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

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You may not have heard of Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and you certainly wouldn’t be alone in that. It is not nearly as well known (or as much adapted) as some of the works by the other Brönte sisters, like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

However, its obscurity is not well-deserved.

Because of its unflinching portrayals of alcoholism and escape from spousal abuse, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was so controversial that Charlotte Brönte suppressed its publication after Anne’s death.

But this is a work that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.

One passage about the need for equality in the moral education of boys and girls had me practically cheering, so I thought I would reproduce it here:

“Well, Mr. Markham, you maintain that a boy should not be shielded from evil, but sent out to battle against it, alone and unassisted […] – but would you use the same argument with regard to a girl?’ […] ‘No; you would have her to be tenderly and delicately nurtured, like a hot-house plant – taught to cling to others for direction and support, and guarded, as much as possible, from the very knowledge of evil.

[…] You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters must not even profit by the experience of others. […] I would not send a poor girl into the world, unarmed against her foes, and ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself.”

#feminismbeforeitwascool

Speaking of underappreciated Bröntes, read Charlotte’s Villette. There’s a classic Brönte heroine (who may not be what she seems), a ghostly nun, and a whole lot of 19th century snark.

#postmodernismbeforeitwascool


Susannah Cahalan: Brain on Fire

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I picked this book up at the airport bookstore with no context other than a spontaneous recommendation from a fellow shopper who saw me scanning the back cover.

Two pages in, I was hooked.

This harrowing autobiography chronicles the author’s apparent descent into madness – and eventual recovery due to the diagnosis of a rare autoimmune disease.

While it moves at the pace of a mystery thriller, the story continued to smolder in my mind long after my plane landed and I turned the last page.


Deborah Blum: The Poisoner’s Handbook

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I have a serious weakness for Agatha Christie, secretly enjoy watching forensic procedurals, and am endlessly fascinated with America in the 1920s (Exhibit A).

Since The Poisoner’s Handbook fits perfectly at the intersection between these interests, I was expecting to love it. However, the story of the beginnings of forensic pathology (and particularly poison detection) in New York City in the Jazz Age exceeded even my wildest expectations.

Equal parts political intrigue and corruption, true crime, and chemistry, The Poisoner’s Handbook is a must-read for anyone with an interest in mystery, history, or science.

When you’re done, pick up Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon for even more true stories of scientific achievement. In this case, the subtitle says it all: “True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements.”

Then, pick up Simon Garfield’s Mauve to find out “How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World” and Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman for “A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.”

History is crazy, ya’ll!


Karen Abbott: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

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Speaking of history (and badass women), Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy takes a close look at four female spies during the American Civil War.

  • Belle Boyd is a young Southern firebrand whose complete lack of subtlety is more than made up for by her complete lack of fear. Determined to catch the attention of Stonewall Jackson, Belle brazenly flirts with Union officers while smuggles messages to the Confederates right under their noses.
  • Emma Edmonds enlists in the Union army as Frank Thompson, where she is tapped as a spy and, during several missions, finds herself as a women dressed as a man dressed as a woman.
  • Rose O’Neale Greenhow is a DC socialite turned Confederate spy. Engaging in scandalous affairs with Union officers and high-ranking politicians to gather information, she continued to use her young daughter to gather information and convey coded messages even after she was placed under arrest.
  • Elizabeth Van Lew is a wealthy abolitionist living in the Confederate capital. Disgusted by the politics of slavery and secession, she builds up a wide-ranging spy ring and helps Northern prisoners escape – all while being repeatedly investigated by suspicious rebel detectives.

The courage, resourcefulness, and cool thinking under pressure of all of these women is both inspiring and riveting.


Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries, The Rehearsal

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The Luminaries may be an intimidating 850 pages, but by the time I turned the last I was wishing there were 850 more.

Eleanor Catton’s New Zealand gold rush mining town – and the cast of characters with which it is inhabited – are impeccably wrought, and while the novel is full of murder, prostitution, opium, and (of course) gold, it never slips into the sensational.

The story centers around Walter Moody, a fledgling prospector who ends up unearthing rather more secrets than gold when he unwittingly stumbles into a secret council his first night in town. Layered over this tale of murder and mystery is a celestial structure, wherein each member of the council is associated with one of the signs of the zodiac. Additional characters, including Walter Moody, are associated with the heavenly bodies. Furthermore, the novel is divided into 12 successively shorter sections, mirroring the waning of the moon.

But just as the plot never veers into the sensational, the symbolism manages to avoid seeming gimmicky. In fact, it is subtle enough that you could easily choose to ignore it entirely as you read. In any case, if you enjoyed the first two installments of Amitav Ghosh’s similarly opium-fueled Ibis trilogy (the third has yet to be published), you will love The Luminaries.

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Eleanor Catton’s other novel, The Rehearsal, is something else entirely. An exploration of the aftermath of a high school student’s affair with her music teacher and the local performing arts school’s appropriation of the scandal, the story is alternately seen through the high school student’s younger sister and a first-year drama student. While the plot, the characters, and even the writing style could not be farther from the gold fields of The Luminaries, The Rehearsal is hauntingly absorbing in its own right. If nothing else, it proves Eleanor Catton’s impressive versatility as a writer.

I know I’m looking forward to her next novel, whatever it might be!


Catherine Lacey: Nobody Is Ever Missing

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When Elyria buys a one-way ticket to New Zealand – leaving behind her husband and her middle-class New York life – she is really trying to run away from herself.

The novel’s run-on sentences bear you along through the currents of Elyria’s mind as she hitchhikes alone through an unknown country. But what we find out in the title, she has to learn the hard way: Nobody is ever missing…from themselves.

Here’s a beautiful passage that embodies the mood and tone of much of the novel:

What’s your trouble? He asked me. Tell me your trouble, baby.

I looked back at him like I didn’t have any trouble to tell because that’s my trouble, I thought, not knowing how to tell it, and this is why my favorite thing about airport security is how you can cry the whole way through and they’ll only try to figure out whether you’ll blow up. They’ll still search you if they want to search you. They’ll still try to detect metal on you. They’ll still yell about laptops and liquids and gels and shoes, and no one will ask what’s wrong because everything is already wrong, and they won’t look twice at you because they’re only paid to look once. And for this, sometimes, some people are thankful.

Who hasn’t felt this way in an airport sometime? Who hasn’t at some point felt the urge to run away?

In this passage and throughout, Nobody Is Ever Missing is simultaneously opaque and utterly relatable.


Looking for more? Check out Books Worth Reading, More Books Worth Reading, and Even More Books Worth Reading, the first three installments in this series, for additional thoughts and recommendations.

I would also love to hear your thoughts and recommendations, so please feel free to leave some in the comments!

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Even More Books Worth Reading

One of my absolute favorite parts of being a grown-up remains the ability to take the time to explore new authors and read as much as I want to for pleasure. I have certainly been taking advantage of this opportunity, and have been reading even more this year than I did as a Comparative Literature major back in school (ok – maybe not that much – but it’s certainly close!).

As you will discover in the reviews below, the thread running through my most recent round of literary discovery is fantasy and the surreal with, as usual, a touch of mystery thrown in for good measure. This time around, I also took a brief detour into the world of (surprise!) non-fiction for several fascinating books about the history of the English language.

Here are my quick reviews. I would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations as well!


Haruki Murakami: 1Q84, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, After Dark, & Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Unknownbks-afterdarkthe_windup_bird_chronicle1q84As you can tell from this and the last Books Worth Reading post, I’ve been on quite the Murakami kick lately. With good reason too – if you have not read anything written by this man, drop everything and head to the library (or Kindle store) right now!

All of his books share a haunting sense of semi-surreality and incredibly evocative imagery, and all include at least one awesomely mundane scene where the protagonist whips up a simple (yet delicious!) meal. Murakami, you certainly know how to make me hungry!

Of the four listed above, the one that really stood out for me was 1Q84 (pronounced one-cue-eighty-four in English – in Japanese, the pronunciation for the number 9 and the letter Q are the same). The novel takes place in – surprise, surprise –1984, and begins with the protagonist, Aomame, slipping unknowingly into a dystopian alternate version of reality (the “Q” in the title stands for “question,” as Aomame must figure out where she has ended up and how – and if – she can return). As it progresses, Aomame’s story intertwines with that of Tengo, a ghostwriter who takes on an unusual project – which quickly turns out to be much more than it seems.

The novel is composed of 3 books and runs to nearly 1,000 pages, so any attempt to distill the complex plot to a few sentences is doomed to fail. Suffice it to say that 1Q84 is the most deeply satisfying of Murakami’s novels, and the world it creates is as convincing as the reality we live in.

As for the others, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle explores the increasingly surreal happenings that befall the unemployed protagonist, Toru Okada, after his wife’s cat runs away and she subsequently abandons him. The novel is part detective story, part love story, and part historical fiction as Toru’s investigation unburies secrets from Japan’s forgotten Manchurian campaign during WWII. After Dark was the quickest read and the most forgettable of the four listed above. It takes entirely between the hours of midnight and dawn as an ensemble of odd characters collide in a seedy section of Tokyo. Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World was another one of my favorites. It is split between two narratives – that of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland and that of the End of the World. The two distinctly dystopian narratives gradually converge, and in the process the novel explores the concepts of identity and the unconscious mind.


George R. R. Martin: Song of Ice and Fire series

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After weeks of being the only one at work who couldn’t join in the (many, many) conversations about the HBO series Game of Thrones, I decided to finally break down and actually read the books. Various people have been recommending the Song of Ice and Fire series to me since 2008, and I have been lent the first book in the series, Game of Thrones, on several occasions. As much as I love fantasy novels in general, I had resisted beginning the series for so long because it reminded me too much of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which I had a rather embarrassing level of obsession with in middle school.

Eventually, uncomfortable flashbacks to 7th grade aside, Song of Ice and Fire (or, more accurately, the TV version Game of Thrones) became such a cultural force that I couldn’t ignore it any longer.

And I’m glad.

Flawed as the books may be (excessive rape scenes, female characters who are consistently defined by their appearance, stomach-churning amounts of often superfluous violence), the stories are incredibly well-crafted in their complexity and the characters are horribly and relatably human. Even when I was utterly disgusted, I couldn’t put these books down.

So, if you haven’t already, it’s worth giving these a read. It’s also worth taking some time to consider the role of women in fantasy literature and why “historical accuracy” isn’t much of an excuse for making all your female characters either mothers or sex objects (and why one token “warrior woman” isn’t enough). The articles listed below go a long way towards explaining why even though George R. R. Martin (admirably) said this:

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…his depictions of women and the world that he created can still be considered problematic.

Sexism in Historical Fantasy

Authentic Sexism in Fantasy: Let’s Unpack That

By the way – the books left with absolutely NO desire to see the show. Less complexity and more graphic violence? No thanks.


Carlos Ruiz Zafón: The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, & The Prisoner of Heaven

The-Prisoner-of-Heavenangelthe-shadow-of-the-wind-by-carlos-ruiz-zafonI first discovered Carlos Ruiz Zafón in high school, when I was working retail in Portland, Maine’s scenic Old Port. Summers in Maine are gorgeous, and so I liked to take my half-hour lunch breaks outside, across the street. One day, as I settled down to eat my sandwich on a sculptural bench, I noticed a book seemingly abandoned beside me. The Shadow of the Wind. Picking it up to look, I found a sticker inside the front cover saying that the book was meant to be passed along from person to person – read, and then placed strategically for someone else to find. Intrigued, I began to read.

I was entranced. The first in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series (the three titles above are the only three so far), The Shadow of the Wind take place in post-Civil War Barcelona. In the novel, the young Daniel Sempere comes across a mysterious book by an even more mysterious author. Captivated, he probes into its murky past and uncovers much more than he bargained for.

The other two books likewise center around the Sempere & Sons book store and involve a visit to the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books. In The Angel’s Game, a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind, struggling author of pulp fiction David Martín takes on a suspicious commission from a sinister publisher in hopes that it will allow him to reclaim some part of his shattered life. Although not as strong and satisfying as The Shadow of the Wind – the plot is perhaps overly melodramatic and a shade difficult to follow – The Angel’s Game is still a fascinating read, especially in the context of the series. The Prisoner of Heaven, which again takes up Daniel Sempere’s storyline, is a much stronger effort. Zafón returns from the metaphysical mysteries of The Angel’s Game to the more personal and political drama of The Shadow of the Wind.

All three are thrilling examples of modern Gothic fiction, and the richness of Zafón’s language and characterization ensure that his tales of blood and darkness will captivate even when the plot stretches thin.


Maureen Johnson: The Name of the Star & The Madness Underneath

the-madness-underneath-pic1the-name-of-the-star-by-maureen-johnsonFull disclosure: I LOVE young adult fantasy novels, and in particular young adult fantasy novels featuring strong and spunky female leads.

The first two (and unfortunately as yet only) books in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series certainly fit the bill. I discovered the series (and the author) during a visit to sunny southern California to visit my friend and fellow fantasy-lover Kate. She entrusted to me a copy of The Madness Underneath to bring back to St. Louis as a birthday present for our mutual friend Catie. Intrigued by Kate’s effusive recommendation and the synopsis on the back cover, I ended up downloading the first book – The Name of the Star – on my phone and reading the entire novel on the plane ride back to St. Louis. I followed up with The Madness Underneath and polished off both books before bedtime.

In some ways reminiscent of Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit series (another of my perennial favorites), the books follow American transplant Rory Deveaux’s involvement with the secret ghost police of London.

In The Name of the Star, Rory’s new London boarding school finds itself at the center of a series of brutal murders mimicking the Jack the Ripper killings of more than a century before. The only one to see the prime suspect, Rory races to solve the mystery of the murderer’s identity before it’s too late. Closely following The Name of the Star chronologically, The Madness Underneath tracks Rory’s return to London and the sinister events that follow. Rather than being a self-contained mystery like the first novel, The Madness Underneath is clearly a set-up for the rest of the series.

I can’t wait to see what the next novel – the as yet unpublished Shadow Cabinet – will bring!


Bill Bryson: Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language

Unknown-1Further disclosure: I am an English nerd, and never tire of reading books of pop etymology and linguistics.

This is where my reading takes a sharp turn from the fantastic into the linguistic.

Bill Bryson has been a favorite of mine since I first read A Walk in the Woods back in high school, and I have read practically every work in his oeuvre since (with the notable exception of A Brief History of Nearly Everything – sorry, Joe). Some of my absolute favorites include his forays into the history of English and those who write it. I especially love Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as a Stage and The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.

Recently, I decided it was finally time to dive into the follow-up to The Mother Tongue, which focuses entirely on American English rather than examining the language as a whole. In typically Bill Bryson fashion, the book was hilarious (I’m pretty sure I actually laughed out loud on several occasions), well-researched, and full of fascinating historical trivia (I’m definitely sure that I repeatedly bothered multiple people with all of my head-popping-up “Did you know!?” moments).

As a further bonus, this book will teach you that barely any of the American history you learned in elementary school is actually true as Bryson deconstructs our national creation myths (from the Pilgrim’s to the Founding Father’s to General Motors).

Even if you haven’t any more than a passing interest in words and where they come from, this book is a rollicking read.


John McWhorter: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of the English Language

9781592404940Did I mention that I’m a nerd who loves reading books about English?

When I was picking up Made in America at the library, I couldn’t resist grabbing this slim little volume off the shelf as well (I mean, with a title like that…).

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is a super-quick read (I started the book on the metro as I was heading to a morning doctor’s appointment and finished it up during my lunch break later that day). Not only does the book run to only a brief 200 pages or so, it’s also written in a style that’s incredibly accessible to the non-linguist (McWhorter is no impenetrable Saussure, that’s for sure).

While this read may be most enjoyable for the more serious armchair linguist (its main premise is an argument for Celtic influence on early forms of English), it’s straightforward style and fast pace ensure that it is anything but boring.


Intrigued by anything you read here? Check out Books Worth Reading and More Books Worth Reading, the first two installments in this series of mini-reviews, for even more thoughts and recommendations.

I would also love to hear any of your thoughts and recommendations, so please feel free to leave ‘em in the comments!

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More Books Worth Reading

According to Oscar Wilde,

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.

In an effort to remain someone for whom I can have respect, I have been trying my hardest not to devolve into constantly reading fluff. Even though I’m haven’t yet been quite intrepid enough to pick up the various postmodern novels bound together with those I read in my Comparative Literature classes, I’ve still been trying to stick to things I’m not embarrassed to be seen reading on the Metro.

It’s a diverse and international collection, but the thread through all of the following books is history. From historical fiction to novels written in other eras to books exploring the way the past is inextricably linked to the present, all of these works are well worth a little of your own time.


Haruki Murakami: Dance Dance Dance (Dansu Dansu Dansu)

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Ben Stone recommended that I read anything by Haruki Murakami, so the next time I was at the library I dutifully looked for his name among the fiction shelves. The only book the library had by Murakami was Dance Dance Dance. I was suspicious of the title, but since it seemed interesting enough so I took it home with me.

And I am so glad I did.

The story follows a nameless protagonist who returns to a location from his past in an effort to make sense of what has happened since. The book borders on the surreal, but if you relax, slip into it, and accept that not everything will make sense, it is wonderful. What struck me the most about Dance Dance Dance was the imagery. Murakami certainly has a way with word-pictures. I can only wish that I had been able to experience it in the original Japanese.

This book left me feeling melancholy yet oddly satisfied (or satisfied yet oddly melancholy – I’m still not sure). I highly recommend it, and will certainly be on the lookout for more Murakami novels myself.


Amitav Ghosh: Sea of Poppies & River of Smoke

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These recommendations came from Matt Miller.

These two novels are some of the most richly and meticulously detailed works of historical fiction I have ever read. The first of the two, Sea of Poppies is set in colonial India in 1838, right before the Opium Wars. The aspect of this book that struck me the most was the way in which the dialect of the dialogue instantly immerses the reader in the the world of the story

The second in what will be the Ibis Trilogy (the third book is not yet published) is River of Smoke. When I picked it up I was looking forward to re-immersing myself in the language and locales of Sea of Poppies, but River of Smoke is surprisingly different in scope and feel from the first book. While many of the characters carry over from the first book, is set in primarily Canton as the Opium Wars are beginning in 1839. My disappointment barely lasted beyond the first few pages however, as River of Smoke turned out to be just as arresting and deeply imagined as Sea of Poppies.


Tana French: Faithful Place & Broken Harbor

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Since I loved In the Woods so much when Kate Williamson recommended it to me, I had to track down the rest of the ongoing series. You can find my reviews of In the Woods and The Likeness here. The third and fourth books, Faithful Place and Broken Harbor, were enough like the first two that they were satisfying, yet different enough that they remained unpredictable.

Each book centers around a character who had a supporting role in the preceding story. In the Woods is from a detective’s point of view, The Likeness from his partner’s point of view, Faithful Place from her former boss’s point of view, and Broken Harbor from his old rival’s point of view. I appreciated this device immensely, as it meant that with every succeeding book the worlds of the preceding ones became richer and more detailed as previously unsympathetic or minor characters became more three-dimensional and their personalities and motivations were revealed to be more complex than it initially appeared.

Tana French’s novels also fit extremely well with the theme of history running through this post, as each book examines an event in the central character’s past in terms of how it affects their work and relationships in the present. This focus on motivation and the psyche of the individual takes what would otherwise be ordinary police thrillers and elevates them into something much more compelling.

I would highly recommend the whole series.


Lev Grossman: Codex

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Codex was a fast-paced, gripping read…that was ultimately disappointing. The set-up of the novel was fascinating, yet it did not achieve enough depth to remain so. Furthermore, the ending felt rushed and none of the many puzzle pieces fit together quite as well as they were meant to.

So read Lev Grossman, certainly. Just stick to The Magicians and The Magician King (which I did not review in my first post but probably should have). The first is a work of fantasy that borrows shamelessly from the Harry Potter series and the Chronicles of Narnia (and slyly alludes to many other well-known works of fantasy), yet somehow manages to still stand up in it’s own right. The second takes the story further, to a darker, less Christian, version of Narnia itself. Both are lots of fun (if something so dark can be fun) for avid Fantasy readers. How many references can you catch?


Jane Austen: Everything

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I just went on a Jane Austen binge. I read Persuasion, and then Mansfield Park, and then Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sense & Sensibility, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and finally Pride & Prejudice.

What can I say? They’re all classics for a reason.

The real beauty of Jane Austen novels lies not in the romance, but in the characterizations. Her characterizations are as astute and well-drawn as Dickens’, without crossing the line into caricature (although some do come close – Mr. Collins, anyone?).

So, read these. You too, men.


Alexandre Dumas (Père): The Three Musketeers (Les Trois Mousquetaires) & The Count of Monte Cristo (Le Comte de Monte-Cristo)

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The Three Musketeers was one of my favorite books in high school. In fact, on a somewhat related note, my two best friends and I dressed up as three musketeers in high school. Not the fashionable Parisian guards…the candy bars.

Anyway, revisiting The Three Musketeers lately inspired me to pick up the much longer (although ultimately much more absorbing) Count of Monte Cristo. I had previously tried to read The Three Musketeers once before, but gave it up as a bad job when I realized the reason I suddenly couldn’t figure out who any of the characters were or what was going on halfway through the book because the version I had was not only abridged, but badly so. Reading that version of The Count of Monte Cristo was almost as bad as having the ending to A Tale of Two Cities ruined by the heavily, HEAVILY abridged learn-to-read version that I read in 2nd grade. WHO MAKES A LEARN-TO-READ VERSION OF A TALE OF TWO CITIES FOR CHILDREN? WHO DOES THAT? (But actually, if anyone else has ever heard of this, please let me know. I am trying to find it again because I am so curious. The book would be about the size of your palm and has a pink spine).

Wow, so many sidetracks. SO. The Count of Monte Cristo – I’d be willing to say that it’s one of the best and most epic tales of revenge EVER. Well worth making it through all 1,200 or so pages.


If you’re looking for even more mini book reviews, check out the first installment of “Books Worth Reading”. Please share any recommendations of your own in the comments!

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Books Worth Reading, or How I Spend My Library Card

As you look through the following reading list, you may notice a few patterns.

I have a tendency, when I read books, to become fully immersed in and obsessed with the world of the story. That is why many of the books in this list reveal a sort of progression – of periods, of themes, and of genres – as I try to recover the world that I lost when one story ended by reconstructing pieces of it in another. This tendency toward total immersion is also why I often burn through all (or at least many) books by the same author in a single run, and why I so frequently re-read books.

So, I apologize if you have no especial interest in British fiction, history, magic, mystery, and Romaticism. This list will not hold much interest for you. But, if you – like me – simply cannot get enough of any of these, prepare to find some treasures (and please leave me some recommendations in return, as I am nearly always looking for something new to read!).


Charles Dickens: Bleak House

bleakhouseMuch has already been said about Bleak House, so I’ll keep my comments brief. You know this one.

It’s Dickens, so the characterizations (caricaturizations?) are hilarious yet oddly familiar, and the story is absurd yet painfully realistic and somehow all come together in the end. It’s about a byzantine court case, and has more in common with Kafka’s The Trial than you might think.

There’s also a BBC miniseries. I haven’t watched it all the way through (yet), but it was certainly off to a promising start.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Everything

Complete Sherlock HolmesBeginning last summer, I read every single Sherlock Holmes story every written – the second time through. I love tension in these stories between the fantastic and the mundane, and when you throw in the indomitable logic of Sherlock, Watson’s endearing adoration, and the gritty backdrop of nineteenth-century Britain, there’s no way I can resist.

These stories have been favorites of mine for a long time. If you haven’t already, you should read them. And then you should watch Sherlock, the incredible BBC adaptation that brings the famous consulting detective into the 21st century. Even though I knew whodunit in every episode, I still watched the first two series in three nights (which is not something I usually do). Alas, series 3 will not be appearing until 2014.


Tana French: In the Woods and The Likeness

inthewoods_us_thumbIn the Woods came highly recommended to my by my friend Kate, both by letter and by blog (in fact, you can even read her take on it here – check out #10). The novel is written from the perspective of a Deeply Troubled Irish murder detective With a Past. He is called upon to solve a child murder case from the town where he grew up – the town from where his two childhood best friends disappeared, and from where he almost did. The narrative moves briskly, there are lots of clues, and lots of layers and psychology beyond the simple facts of the case.

likenessThe Likeness is the sequel to In the Woods, this time from the perspective of the first detective’s partner. Previously an undercover agent, she is shocked when a murder victim is discovered to have been inhabiting the identity she abandoned when she left undercover work years before. The only way to solve the crime and discover the girl’s true identity? To resume her former role, of course, and impersonate the impersonator who was impersonating who she once impersonated…

Both In the Woods and The Likeness are beautifully written and hauntingly imagined, with brilliant characterizations and unsettling conclusions. There are also a third and fourth novel in the series, Faithful Place and Broken Harbor, but the library doesn’t have it and I have yet to track it down.


J.K. Rowling: The Casual Vacancy

13497818While J.K. Rowling’s distinctive style was pleasantly familiar from the first, it soon became clear that, far from being a Harry Potter for grown-ups, The Casual Vacancy was deeply depressing, and even more so because of its utter mundanity. The story takes place in a small, insular town in England. The plot is centered around the vicious politics of the older generation on the local town council, as well as the search of the younger generation for something or someone to care about.

There wasn’t a single whiff of magic or adventure the whole way through. However, it was a thoroughly engrossing read, and one that I would highly recommend.


Margaret Atwood: The Year of the Flood and The Penelopiad

the-year-of-the-floodMargaret Atwood’s novels are dystopian, feminist, agnostic, and thoroughly irresistible. I had read (and very much enjoyed) both The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx & Crake, so when I spotted the small Atwood section at the library, I pulled out the two I hadn’t yet encountered.

The Year of the Flood takes place in the same dystopic future rife with genetic experiments and extremist cults as Oryx & Crake, where corporations rule the world and the patriarchy still persists. The novel is gripping and the world it creates profoundly chilling.

atwood_margaret_penelopiadThe Penelopiad re-imagines The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view. Sidelined as the quintessential faithful wife in the original, Atwood gives Penelope a personality and voice of her own. The novel focuses on a throwaway line from The Odyssey, when it is stated that Odysseus hangs twelve of Penelope’s maids in addition to killing her many suitors when he returns from the war and his subsequent extended voyage. The original never makes it clear exactly why those maids were murdered, and this question becomes a central piece of The Penelopiad. In between Penelope’s chapters, the maids themselves form a sort of Greek chorus, finding at least a collective voice. Little novel, lots of heavy themes. Rich and rewarding reading.


Georgette Heyer: Everything

imagesI’ll admit up front that Georgette Heyer novels are one of my guilty pleasures (that I’m not actually that guilty about). While her novels may be classified as Regency romance, it’s totally historical fiction, right? Definitely not romance…right?

Let’s not dwell on classification. Let’s instead consider how finely researched her novels are, and how finely detailed their portraits of society and fashion in Regency England. When I want a light read that will cheer me up (and impart a strong desire to don a muslin gown for a ton party, take a turn about the park in a fashionable barouche, and generally adopt outmoded slang), Georgette Heyer’s HISTORICAL FICTIONS always do the trick.

Ok fine. Romances. Whatever.


Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu

200px-Jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverWhen I finished this novel – which is written as if it were a scholarly history, complete with extensive footnotes citing nonexistent sources – I felt entirely convinced that there is, in fact, a tradition of English magic beginning with the Raven King. I was actually rather surprised that his name had never come up in my AP European History class in high school. After a few minutes of reflection, it occurred to me that magic probably still didn’t exist, and the Raven King’s legacy of English Magic had as much connection to reality as Harry Potter’s.

While the footnotes and citations go a long way towards establishing the faux-credibility of the novel, the dovetailing of the story with actual historical events and figures (the Duke of Wellington is a relatively major character) and the length (around 800 pages) certainly help as well. I was probably also especially susceptible, given that I have been steeping myself in British magic of various varieties since I was a small child (e.g. the works of E. Nesbit, Phillip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, and Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermeyer). In fact, Wrede & Stevermeyer’s novel, Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country (which, by the way, is one of my favorite books ever) and its two sequels even presented a re-imagined British history in which magic exists alongside identifiable historical figures. But I’m becoming sidetracked and verbose, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Storieswhich is never a good idea.

So, I will summarize: Read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell because it is fascinating (for so many reasons!). Read The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a subsequent collection of short stories, as a means to cope with the void left by the end of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Feel it’s inadequacy to fill that void, and reach for another book at least set in the same time period. Which brings me to…


Daisy Hay: Young Romantics: the Shelley’s, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives

YoungRomanticsFeeling let down by the end of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I felt that this book had the potential to fill the gap. While there wouldn’t be any magic, it would at least be set (predominantly) in Britain during and after the Napoleonic Wars. When I read the back of the book, I knew I had to give it a try. Always one to be won over by a feminist slant, I was pleased to read, “The women in this circle have often been portrayed merely as spouses or unknowns; Daisy Hay finally gives them due prominence and a narrative vein of their own.” I was also very much intrigued by the idea of a group biography.

The book did not disappoint. The lack of magic was more than compensated for by the surfeit of drama. Although the work is a non-fiction account of a group of Romantic poets and intellectuals, most of it reads like a novel. In fact, I had a hard time putting the book down at the end of my lunch breaks, as I was so eager to learn what would become of idealistic Shelleys, the perpetually spurned Claire Clairmont, the (frankly obnoxious) Lord Byron, and their ever-extending circle of friends and acquaintances. Full of intrigue, suicide, and pregnancy (I have never been so thankful for birth control), it’s easy to forget that all of this actually happened.

I would highly recommend Young Romantics – even to those who eschew non-fiction and wouldn’t look twice at a volume of Romantic poetry.


Neil Gaiman: Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions

tumblr_l0utn1cPXk1qav9ywo1_400I will preface my comments by saying that I am not usually enamoured of short stories. True, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe are among my favorite works of literature, and I will (and have) happily read through them all in one sitting. But, as a general rule, I tend to prefer more long-form writing.

I picked this volume up because I was beginning to feel that I couldn’t call myself a true fan of books about magic (and, I will admit, young adult fantasy in particular) without having read anything by Neil Gaiman. Since the library presented only one option, short stories it was.

However, while a book of short stories would not have been my first pick had I been given a choice, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed these. While a few tended to the obscure, most of the stories in the volume were phenomenal. The final two – “Murder Mysteries” and “Snow, Glass, Apples” – were the two that really stuck with me. “Murder Mysteries” was a truly original take on the genre (I will say no more, lest I spoil it), and “Snow, Glass, Apples” is one of the most compelling re-imaginings of a fairy tale (in this case, Snow White) I have seen. Gregory Maguire’s got nothing on this.


So know you know how I have been amusing myself lately.

Please leave any other book recommendations you might have in the comments!

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