Month in Review: November 2015


This month was all about Witch Week for me, so do please check out the wrap-up post to see if you missed anything. I’m so grateful to everyone who participated, and looking forward already to next year.

I was excited to announce a new challenge I’m hosting for 2016: Reading New England. I hope you’ll consider joining, even if you only read one book. There are so many wonderful books and authors from this region out there, that shouldn’t be a hardship for anyone. The official signup post will go up on December 1.

Other events were German Literature Month, Nonfiction November, and The 1924 Club, all of which I managed to wedge in somehow.

I’m letting two books share the Book of the Month honors this time, both concerned with young people growing up in a culture of violence, and with the power of education. I’m still thinking about both of them and wondering how we can make a better world for our children, one in which no one has to be afraid to go to school.


Books of the Month

                                WhyDoOnly  Malala


Other Books Read

  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb – For the Nonfiction November readalong
  • A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett – Tiffany Aching reread
  • Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett – Tiffany Aching reread
  • I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett – Tiffany Aching reread
  • The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown – for Nonfiction November
  • The Gipsy in the Parlour by Margery Sharp – Review to come
  • Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed – for Nonfiction November

Other Features and Events

Shared in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer and the Monthly Wrap-up Round-up hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction

Defense against the Dark Arts: Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill

Otfried Preussler, Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill (1971)

KrabatMy second German Literature month pick was a classic fantasy from the splendid-as-always New York Review Children’s Collection. I found it a fascinating and highly skillful variation on the themes of traditional folklore, playing with motifs of power, entrapment, love, sacrifice, and freedom.

Krabat is an urchin plucked out of a miserable life to become a miller’s apprentice. At first he’s delighted with his new home — he has to work hard but gets plenty to eat, and finds new friends among the journeymen — but soon he begins to learn disquieting things about his master and the mill. Who is the mysterious client who comes on the night of every new moon, and what is he grinding? Why are there unmarked graves in a nearby field? What does it mean for him to swear eternal service to his strange master? As Krabat starts to unravel some disquieting answers, he starts to wonder whether there can be a happier end to the story for him than for his unfortunate predecessors.

Though it’s enacted within a fairy-tale world of transformation and magic, Krabat’s dilemma is also a very familiar one. We can all become trapped in delusive dreams of power and selfish comfort, only to find that the end of such a path is spiritual death. Preussler tells his fabulous story quite plainly, letting events and images speak for themselves, but it’s all the more powerful for that. A compelling, chilling, and ultimately redemptive tale, perfect for long winter nights.


Pictures in the Mind: Country Boy

Richard Hillyer, Country Boy (1966)

SFE-country-boyWith their small size and brightly colored cloth covers, Slightly Foxed Editions resemble jewels in book form, a literary treasure chest. And here is treasure indeed. Each book contains a memoir of a singular individual, revealing many facets of human nature in all its richness and complexity. Most are reprints, revived from the archives of the past for a new generation of discerning readers. While some are attached to well-known names like Rosemary Sutcliff and Graham Greene, many are from authors who have lapsed into obscurity.

In the latter category is Country Boy, a moving yet supremely unsentimental account of a boy’s life within an English farm laborer’s family just over a century ago. Deep feeling and clear-eyed observation merge to create a memorable, distinct picture of that vanished world and of the brave, struggling souls who inhabited it. The country life is neither idealized as a pastoral Arcadia, as we tend to see it today, nor demonized as a hotbed of vice and squalor, as certain novelists would have it. Both the beauties and the drawbacks of traditional rural life are described in calm, measured prose that brings a place and people vividly before us, with few judgments but many telling details.

The Hop Gardens of England – Source

Most memorable to me were the passages in which the author describes his longing for something different, a way into the wider world revealed to him by the scraps of literature he was able to pick up within his outwardly impoverished existence. How he treasured and sought and ultimately used these to grow into something more than the fate he was born to forms a narrative as gripping as that as any novel. For those of us who value reading above nearly all other pleasures and benefits of life, he articulates experiences and feelings that we can share no matter what the circumstances of our birth or upbringing.

The coloured words flashed out and entranced my fancy. They drew pictures in my mind. Words became magical, incantations, abracadabra which called up spirits. My dormant imagination opened like a flower in the sun. Life at home was drab and colorless, with nothing to light up the dull monotony of the unchanging days. Here in books was a limitless world that I could have for my own. It was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time.

Country Boy is a real gem, one I’m sure I’ll return to often for its wisdom, insight, and compassion. I do wish that the story could have been continued; this was the author’s only memoir, and it breaks off at a very exciting point. But he didn’t set out to chronicle his whole life, only to capture a certain bygone time, and that he does to perfection.


Living in the Mystery: The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

Jack Zipes, editor/translator, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (1995)

HesseFTWhile Witch Week was going on, I was reading a collection of Hermann Hesse’s short fiction that in some way references the fairy tale tradition (doing double duty for German Literature Month). I loved The Glass Bead Game when I read it years ago, and remembered it as having a fairy-tale quality in its powerful language and haunting images, so I was interested to see what Hesse would do with the shorter form.

I found that translator/editor Jack Zipes had gathered many different sorts of tales, originally published between 1904 and 1918: early Gothic-style romances like “The Dwarf,” pieces that mimic traditional folklore like “The Three Linden Trees,” several surreal dream narratives, anti-war satires like “If the War Continues,” and symbolic quest stories like “Iris.” Few are retellings or variants of traditional tales, but they share the heightened, concentrated language and rich array of symbols that come to us from our fairy-tale heritage. As well as drawing on the past, they point toward the future: several of them struck me as reminiscent of science-fiction themes and ideas, and I wondered if Hesse had some influence on authors in that nascent genre.

There are wonderful flights of the imagination here: A poet whose poems have no words and cannot be written down; a mysterious stranger who comes to a city and grants everyone one wish, with surprising results; an isolated forest dweller who quests toward the mysterious world “outside.” Most of the stories were written under the shadow of the Great War, and in manifold ways they cry out for human beings to fight the forces of oppression and mechanization by cultivating the living forces within. Some are more polished, others more like sketches or preliminary drafts for more substantial works, but all offer a fascinating window into the soul of an artist striving to articulate his deepest feelings and thoughts in a turbulent time.

In the last story of the collection, “Iris,” I found a statement that could easily apply to the purpose and meaning of these very stories:

All children, as long as they still live in the mystery, are continuously occupied in their souls with the only thing that is important, which is themselves and their enigmatic relationship to the world around them. Seekers and wise people return to these preoccupations as they mature. Most people, however, forget and leave forever this inner world of the truly significant very early in their lives. Like lost souls they wander about for their entire lives in the multicolored maze of worries, wishes, and goals, none of which dwells in their innermost being and none of which leads them to their innermost core and home.

Hesse’s fairy tales are meant to remind us of what dwells in our innermost being and to guide us home. Close to 100 years after their original publication, it’s a message we still urgently need to listen to, and I’m glad this collection is here to help us.

Classics Club List #35
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation


Link Love: November 2015


The-Middle-WindowReview of the Month: The Middle Window

My favorite review this month had to be the one in which Simon of Stuck in a Book fought his “natural aversion to historical fiction” to find at least partial pleasure in a novel most readers — even fans of the author — detest. I love it when our reading expectations are turned upside down!

More of my favorite posts and articles this month:

Halloween Fun


List Love


Food for Thought

  • Girl With Her Head in a Book points out some of the painful questions that can arise around books and friends. What if you don’t love your friend’s favorite book — or vice versa?
  • Reading and Race: On Slavery and Fiction shares some honest reflections from a white reader, through The Millions
  • A teaching observation prompts some thoughts about how we all experience being observed in life, at Dolce Bellezza
  • At the Bookwyrm’s Hoard, musings about the cost of books and reading speed; are we making the most of our “entertainment hours”?


Getting Visual


Image of the Month

SmithBedtimeReading in Bed by Jessie Wilcox Smith, found here

Shared in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer

In Brief: Fabulous Fall Releases

All right, I’m a little late in the game since December is almost upon us, but I couldn’t let the year end without recommending some of the new releases I’ve read in the last few months. Whether you’re in the mood for a fast-paced tale of wolves and adventure for young readers, a genre-bending fantasy romp, a historical novel that will immerse you in the ancient world, or a diary chronicling a literary life within both the theater and academia, I hope you’ll find something to beguile you during the long winter nights to come.

WolfWilderThe Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell
A wolf wilder is the opposite of an animal tamer: someone who takes in wolves that have been living in captivity and fits them for life in the wild again. In this brief novel set in pre-Revolutionary Russia, young Feo’s world is turned upside down when angry soldiers command her mother to stop “wilding” the wolves that are hunting down the Tsar’s game. I loved the parts of the book that dealt with Feo and the wolves, but was not so enamored with the rather muddled chase sequences and the improbable, violent resolution. I’ll definitely be looking for more by Rundell, though; I like her way of turning a phrase and her perceptive eye on the natural world.
August 25, 2015 from Simon and Schuster
Find The Wolf Wilder at Powell’s City of Books

sorcerer_front mech.inddSorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
I was not as enchanted by this Regency-era fantasy as many other reviewers, but I did enjoy it on the whole. It’s extremely difficult to do something original in this genre by now without undue strain, but Cho’s contribution does bring something new to the party with the titular sorcerer, a former slave who’s been vaulted by circumstance into the highest magical post of the realm. Even more fun is the apprentice who forces himself upon him, a mixed-race orphan who’s trying to escape from a life of drudgery and unfold her magical powers (which as a mere female she’s supposed to keep strictly under wraps). In spite of the appealing verve and energy of the writing, there were some derivative echoes of Temeraire and Strange & Norrell, and times when the author’s narrative skills didn’t keep pace with her ideas. I hope that as she matures as a writer we may find the sequels an improvement.
• September 1, 2015 from Ace
Sorcerer to the Crown at Powell’s City of Books

SecretChord copyThe Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
An acclaimed historical novelist gives us yet another beautifully told story drawn from history and legend, this one based around the Biblical figure of King David. She grounds and humanizes the myth in vividly imagined portraits of the people who surrounded David, making her central character the prophet Natan. As Natan strives to understand and reconcile his own perceptions and memories of David’s conflicted nature, other voices also come to life, most memorably the women whose lives were touched and sometimes broken by David’s powerful divine mission. As these fell away in the latter part of the book, I found that it lost focus somewhat, but I was still absorbed in the rich, complex portrayal of a man with a destiny that was sometimes greater than he could bear.
• October 6, 2015 from Viking
The Secret Chord at Powell’s City of Books


CelticTempA Celtic Temperament: Robertson Davies as Diarist, edited by Jennifer Surridge and Ramsay Derry
And for something completely different, here’s the latest posthumous publication from one of my all time favorite novelists and essayists, the Canadian literary magus Robertson Davies. Davies was a voluminous diarist who kept multiple journals of his private and working life, and to publish them all would be a massive task (an online version is in the works). In this volume the editors have selected and interleaved about half of his output for the years 1959 to 1963. This was an important period of his life that included both a major failure — his play “Love and Libel” flopped in New York — and a significant new step — his appointment as Master of the new Massey College of the University of Toronto, and his involvement in its founding and construction. As opposed to the retrospective view of a memoirist or autobiographer, the diarist doesn’t know what is coming next in his story, and this gives it an immediacy that is very engaging. Though I was personally more interested in the theater portions of the diary than in the details of college funding and furnishing, I still read it from cover to cover with great appreciation for this glimpse into the life of one of the most intellectually stimulating writers I know.
• October 6, 2015 from McClelland and Stewart

An advance reading copy of The Secret Chord and a finished copy of A Celtic Temperament were received from the publishers for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Teaching Lessons: Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens?

Ilana Garon, Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens? Teaching Lessons from the Bronx (2014)

WhyDoOnlyAfter receiving Ilana Garon’s book in a giveaway courtesy of the author and River City Reading earlier this year, I flipped through it and then put it back on the shelf. When I finally picked it up again, I raced through it in less than 24 hours. Do yourself a favor and don’t wait so long to read this memoir of four years spent in two tough high schools in one of the toughest areas of the country. It will open your eyes to some of the painful realities of our broken educational system, yet it’s also a joyful testament to the bond between teacher and student that is one of our most universal human experiences.

Ilana (I can’t think of her as “Miss Garon”) writes in a voice that is honest and searching and real. She focuses each chapter on one or two of her students, portraying them with all their endearing and infuriating qualities intact. Her love for them is powerful but unsentimental, and she doesn’t paint herself as their savior. As she makes clear, the lessons of teaching go both ways. There are big problems in her school and its neighborhood — drugs, gangs, abuse, teen pregnancy — and her achievements may seem tiny in comparison. But even small victories, for both teacher and student, gain significance when the stakes are so high. The failures are also real, and discouraging, but no teacher can survive long without finding a way to move through through them, and it is these lessons that have the most impact.

Interspersed with these fairly traditional character/relationship studies are journal entries that Ilana sent to her friends and family while undergoing some of her most harrowing and frustrating teaching moments. These are presented in email format, complete with subject lines like “Weapons of mass destruction” and “Can’t we please get through ninth period without a race riot?” It’s an unusual and effective way to bring some immediate, raw experiences into the more consciously crafted and reflective chapters. (I’m including this review in the “Nontraditional Nonfiction” category of Nonfiction November for this reason.) Frequently dealing with violent and explosive situations, they don’t necessarily try to impose order or meaning upon them, but just tell us “this is what is happening to me right now,” giving an intimate window into the writer’s world.

Ilana is modest about her own qualities, but clearly she has a core of strength and enthusiasm that’s enabled her to carry on with a task that has felled many lesser mortals. (After taking two years off to do a graduate degree, she returned to teaching and also writes an “Urban Teacher” blog for Education Week.) I hope she’ll share more of her experiences with us, as I for one would welcome more “teaching lessons” from this talented writer and dedicated teacher.


Review and Giveaway: The Folio Book of Ghost Stories

Congratulations to the winners of the Witch Week giveaway, Nicole (Bitter Greens) and Fadi (The Bloody Chamber)! I know you will love these wonderful books and am so grateful to the publishers for making it possible to send them to you.

Illustration from The Folio Book of Ghost Stories © David McConochie 2015

And I’m even more grateful that The Folio Society is making it possible for me to offer another giveaway of one of their gorgeous editions, this time open internationally. The Folio Book of Ghost Stories is a very appropriate choice for this time of year; as the light wanes and the night deepens, it’s a traditional time to tell stories of ghosts and supernatural visitations. Folio has gathered nineteen classic and contemporary stories and added atmopsheric illustrations by David McConochie, creating a collection that will delight any aficionado of creepy fiction, as well as lovers of beautiful design and typography.

Seldom do we get to see a book that is so meticulously designed in accord with its contents. From the haunting image on the cover, to the subtly off-kilter type on the spine, to the iridescent green endpapers, to the faint smudges on the binding, it shows us what to expect within: stories about what lies the edge of our perception, discomforting and sometimes terrifying.

I especially love the font choices — a vertically elongated display font with calligraphic touches that manages to give a faint sense of unease, and a classic yet slightly spiky serif font for text, which adds an undercurrent of menace. Setting the author names in small caps is also effective, just as a whisper can be louder than a shout.

Illustration from The Folio Book of Ghost Stories © David McConochie 2015

The actual contents of the stories are no less stellar. Great writers including Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Bowen, Vladimir Nabokov, and A.S. Byatt are represented, along with lesser known masters of the genre. The stories are arranged mostly in chronological order, and if read straight through show a development from artfully rendered yet fairly straightforward thrills in the Victorian tales, to greater psychological complexity in the modern stories.

Or you can just skip around and pick and choose your favorites. Mine would include the classic “Be careful what you wish for” tale “The Monkey’s Paw,” Edith Wharton’s slow-burning suspense story of a country house with a mysterious guardian, “Mr. Jones,” and Shirley Jackson’s relentlessly disorienting account of another house and its residents in “A Visit.”

The mixed-media illustrations, which come from the winner of an annual competition sponsored by The Folio Society and The House of Illustration, give us glimpses of things half-seen, beautiful landscapes that contain a twist of something not quite right, monsters that can’t be fully grasped with the senses. And as if all this weren’t enough, a brief but insightful introduction by journalist and historian Kathryn Hughes helps to orient us within the literary tradition.

I do hope I’ve enticed you to want this book in your hands, with all its deliciously spooky pleasures. Enter using the Rafflecopter widget below…if you dare.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Goddesses in Every Woman: The Constant Nymph

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph (1924)

ConstantNymphLast month saw the birth of a wonderful event called The 1924 Club, which encouraged reading and posting about books published in that year. The result was a marvelous mix of titles familiar and obscure, from many different genres, giving an eclectic and sometimes eccentric snapshot of the literary life at the time. You can read the round up at the link above, and watch for more such events in the future; I do hope they will become a regular occurrence.

Just before the launch of the Club I had coincidentally just bought a copy of The Constant Nymph, a bestseller in 1924 and an enduring favorite since its reissue by Virago Modern Classics, so that became my reading for the event (although I wasn’t able to write my review till now). It was my introduction to Margaret Kennedy, an author I’ve been interested in for some time, and I’m sure I’ll be looking for more of her work. This was her second novel and her most complete commercial success, as it was adapted into no less than two plays and three film versions.

I found the novel a fascinating window into a time when the world had been shaken by one war but was not yet foreseeing the next, when social and artistic certainties were being questioned in all sorts of ways. The main characters belong to a Bohemian artistic circle centered around an expatriate English composer living in the Alps, and the first part of the book introduces us to his extremely unconventional menage, including a brood of children by various wives and mistresses. The “nymph” of the title is one of these, Teresa (known as Tessa), a waif type who suffers from a silent passion for a younger composer-friend of her father’s, Lewis Dodd. Lewis loves her as well but doesn’t yet realize she is his perfect mate — she’s only fourteen!

When her father dies, Tessa’s comfortably unkempt and eccentric world is invaded by the forces of conventionality and good breeding in the form of her cousin Florence, who comes to rescue the children and take them away to be properly educated. When she takes Lewis as well, though, the trouble begins. Back in England, the children can’t be forced into the mold of proper society, and Lewis starts to feel the prison bars closing in too. A startling denouement left me with the feeling that Kennedy didn’t quite know how to finish off the situation she had gotten her characters into. I could have wished for a more complex conclusion to a work that started off in such a promising way.

Charles Boyer as Lewis and Joan Fontaine as Tessa in the 1943 film. Source

Just before things unraveled so unsatisfyingly, there were interesting intimations that the struggle between Tessa and Florence reflected a larger, almost mythic battle. Stories have always been woven about the conflict between the forces of nature and spontaneity, life-giving but formless, and the civilizing, domesticating impulse that is meant to channel those forces in a positive way, but which threatens to harden into a deadening mania for control. The Constant Nymph shows how the tales of nubile nymphs and enraged goddess-wives live on in our own times, as those ancient forces still slumber within us all. How do we deal with them in the modern world? It’s an interesting question, but one that Kennedy didn’t quite answer.

I’m interested now in seeing a film or stage version — Kennedy’s characters remained a bit remote for me somehow, and though she described them in a stage-direction-like way, I had trouble fully picturing their qualities. These could be filled out by a good actor who would enliven the role with personality. In a story largely occupied with music and composers, it would also be wonderful to hear some music — the Eric Korngold score for the 1943 film seems quite highly acclaimed. Has anyone seen this version? I’m curious to know of your experience, if you have.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic by a woman author


Nonfiction November: Book Pairings


Whew! It’s been intense hosting the second annual Witch Week, which you can read all about here in case you missed it. And now it’s already the second week of Nonfiction November, which for the second year in a row is being hosted by the lovely bloggers at Doing Dewey, Sophisticated Dorkiness, I’m Lost in Books and Regular Ruminations. They have wonderful weekly discussion topics, post link-ups, and a readalong on offer. I hope you’ll join in!

This week’s topic is Fiction/Nonfiction Book Pairings, and I had a great time putting some recommendations together for you. All of these are from books I’ve read within the past year, and I was surprised at how many perfect pairings I found from that limited selection. If you think nonfiction is not your thing, try some of these! You might find that it complements your fictional reading better than you had imagined. (Likewise, if you’re not interested in fiction, some of these might change your mind.) My review, if I did one, is linked from the book title.


Fish  Hat

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos
The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

Bellos’s book was one of my favorite finds from last year’s Nonfiction November. Witty, entertaining, and thought-provoking, it illuminates the importance of translation and how it extends into many different aspects of our lives. For a practical application, see how the English translation of Laurain’s brief novel used three different translators to interpret the diverse narrative voices that emerge as an iconic black felt hat makes a roundabout journey through France, changing lives along the way.


Devil  Grace

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Larson reconstructs the chilling career of an early serial killer against the backdrop of the incredible achievements of the builders of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, a turning point in American cultural history. Atwood takes a real murder case as the starting point for a sly and subversive narrative that brings up many questions about gender, mind, and identity, but gives us few answers.


Duke  Armadale

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse: An Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Mystery and Intrigue by Piu Marie Atwell
Armadale by Wilkie Collins

As I read about a real-life melodrama in Piu Marie Eatwell’s stranger-than-fiction saga, I kept thinking “This would be a perfect plot for a Wilkie Collins novel.” So why not pair it with one of Collins’s deliciously over-the-top sensation novels, in which a strangely sympathetic villainness plots to get her own back through marriage — or murder.


Reba_9780385682848_jkt_all_r3.indd  Hollow

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks
The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam

An account of a modern-day shepherd’s life in the beautiful, stark country of England’s Lake District is perfectly complemented by Jane Gardam’s quietly hilarious linked stories of a native-born Cumbrian family and the visitors who come to love the place as much as they do.


Royal  Wolves

A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of George III by Janice Hadlow
The Wolves Chronicles by Joan Aiken

Janice Hadlow’s biography reveals that King George III tried to break his family’s cycle of parent/child oppression and misunderstanding…but he didn’t do very well. Pair that with Joan Aiken’s fantastic adventure stories of an alternate England governed by the Stuarts instead of the Hanoverians (with supporters of Bonnie Prince Georgie lurking in the wings). Bad history, perhaps, but great fun.


Victorian  Sibyl

How To Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman
Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker

Ruth Goodman’s meticulous research — which includes not washing with water for four months and making historically accurate condoms — gives a fascinating glimpse into what Victorian life was really like. Follow it up with Patricia Duncker’s neo-Victorian pastiche of love and publishing in nineteenth century Berlin, centered around the literary giant George Eliot and her great, late works.

What nonfiction/fiction pairings do you have to suggest — from this year’s reading, or any other?