Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Winter Haunting by Dan Simmons

This is a solid horror story. Part psychological, part supernatural. It's my first Dan Simmons novel and I'm told it isn't his best, but I enjoyed it. Got creeped out at times. Liked all the literary references. Kept me guessing and worrying about what was going to happen next. Made me happy I don't live alone. Even after finishing it I find myself thinking about its twists and turns.
A once-respected college professor and novelist, Dale Stewart has sabotaged his career and his marriage -- and now darkness is closing in on him. In the last hours of Halloween he has returned to the dying town of Elm Haven, his boyhood home, where he hopes to find peace in isolation. But moving into a long-deserted farmhouse on the far outskirts of town -- the one-time residence of a strange and brilliant friend who lost his young life in a grisly "accident" back in the terrible summer of 1960 -- is only the latest in his long succession of recent mistakes. Because Dale is not alone here. He has been followed to this house of shadows by private demons who are now twisting his reality into horrifying new forms. And a thick, blanketing early snow is starting to fall ....

A Winter Haunting is the second horror novel in a row that I've read that goes beyond just tipping its hat to Henry James. In this book James's short story "The Jolly Corner" (1908) looms large. In the prior horror story I read, The Turning (2012) by Francine Prose, it was "The Turn of the Screw" (1898). Makes me want to read more James.

Another book that's mentioned is James Dickey's Deliverance (1970), which I recently finished and have been digesting. This book is set in rural Illinois, in the central part of the state, and there's a small gang of neo-Nazis involved. Not that there were neo-Nazis in Deliverance, but there was the violence of rural, backwards people and the threat of the wilderness to modern man. Similar things going on here in some ways. There are dozens of other literary references--from The Egyptian Book of the Dead to Beowulf to Proust--so this is a fun book for book nerds. Computer geeks will enjoy the ThinkPad the protagonist uses (DOS is part of the plot!).

As I said, A Winter Haunting is set in Illinois, where I live, so it was the perfect pre-Halloween read for me. I plan on giving it away tomorrow for All Hallow's Read.

A Winter Haunting
Dan Simmons
HaperTorch, 2002
Source: bought it at The Frugal Muse

If any wants to recommend which Dan Simmons novel I should read next, I'm all ears!

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Bone Bed by Patricia Cornwell

Kay Scarpetta is back. We were book buddies for a long time, but I didn't see her for a while. Then a few years ago we caught up again in my car via audiobooks and have been seeing each other annually for the last few years.

I know, I know, some of you out there have quit reading this series, thinking it went down the toilet. I admit it was hard going for a while, but as I've said the last two years, I believe Cornwell is getting back on track. Her plots are always intense, but I read this series for the characters. I'm always curious about what's going on in their lives and what new twists Cornwell will turn.
A woman has vanished while digging a dinosaur bone bed in the remote wilderness of Canada. Somehow, the only evidence has made its way to the inbox of Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta, over two thousand miles away in Boston. She has no idea why. But as events unfold with alarming speed, Scarpetta begins to suspect that the paleontologist’s disappearance is connected to a series of crimes much closer to home: a gruesome murder, inexplicable tortures, and trace evidence from the last living creatures of the dinosaur age.
Cornwell is way out of the closet and sharing much more of her personal life these days, such as in the CBS video that I embedded at the end of this post. I love seeing a writer's work space.

As a participant in Roof Beam Reader's The Literary Others, I've been thinking about the importance of Cornwell's coming out. In the video below Cornwell says that she's probably lost some readers when she came out, but knows that she's gained some, too. I had wondered if some people quit reading her even before she came out, back when her character Lucy first came out.

Personally, I've lost friends when I've come out to them. And to this day certain family members don't ask how my partner of 11+ years is doing when I run into them (yet they'll ask me how my sister's husband is doing), so it takes little imagination to think how easily a writer who comes out might lose readers. Many of us take being out for granted, even if we are still fighting for equality and younger people face extreme harassment at school. We need more people in the limelight to come out and risk the negative repercussions. Thankfully, there are shining examples of celebrity careers thriving after coming out, such as Ellen, but remember how her successful sitcom was yanked when she first came out?

Let's hope that the positive of people coming out only continues to increase over the years. In the case of this one author, I like to think that Cornwell's coming out and increased willingness to talk about her personal life has brought new readers to her books and have made some longtime readers even more enthusiastic about the Scarpetta series. And I do hope that she's helped to enlighten the minds of some readers who may have been homophobic.

Thank you, Patricia Cornwell, for coming out. Now, back to the book:

The Bone Bed is the 20th Kay Scarpetta novel, which means this cast of characters has been together for a long, long time. Some of the old patterns are repeated: Marino gets into trouble, Lucy is secretive, and Scarpetta deals with a disloyal insider. I was okay with Marino's trouble and with Lucy's aloofness, but the disloyal insider stick seemed a little forced this time around. I really like what's going on with Lucy's character in this book (animal rights activism and a blast from the past) and hope these lines are developed in future novels. Benton and Kay are a bit shaky even with the hot morning sex, but we all know sex doesn't necessarily imply a happy relationship. I'm sure we'll see more of their strain in future books. Benton is probably the least interesting character at this point in the series. I've never trusted him since that fake death/Bobby Ewing phase. I no longer get what Scarpetta sees in him.

All of the action takes place over two days in Boston. Unfortunately, there's no archaeological action up in Canada, but Scarpetta suits up and jumps in the Boston Harbor to pull in a body that's been set adrift in a rather diabolical manner. There's a long court room scene that didn't seem all that realistic (would a judge allow an attorney such free reign?) and the final action scene doesn't seem all that suspenseful (we all know Scarpetta won't be murdered, right?), but all-in-all, this is a well-paced thriller where the feelings of anxiety are almost palpable, but not crippling to the characters. Scarpetta is getting back to being more of the confident, yet sensitive woman she was in early novels--more action, less paranoia. I hope that trend continues.

I'm not sure how appealing The Bone Bed will be to readers who are unfamiliar with the series, but I'm one of those hopelessly habitual readers who almost always has to start reading a series with the first book.

Now begins the long wait until next year....

The Bone Bed
Patricia Cornwell
Putnam, October 16, 2012
Source: ebook purchased via Kobo

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Edith Wharton Murders by Lev Raphael

I bought this book at the Gerber/Hart Library's book sale some time ago and wasn't planning to read it just now, but as I was browsing around my office trying to locate Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt, I stumbled upon The Edith Wharton Murders and it sort of lodged in my brain housing group. Apparently I lost my copy of The Price of Salt or perhaps I just imaged that I owned one because I can't find it. So, I decided to read The Edith Wharton Murders instead as it fits in with Roof Beam Reader's The Literary Others, a reading event for October in celebration of LGBT history month (#OthersLitLGBT on Twitter).

Nick Hoffman, desperate to get tenure, has been saddled with a thankless task: coordinating a conference on Edith Wharton that will demonstrate how his department and his university supports women's issues. There's been widespread criticism that SUM is really the State University of Men. Problem is, he's forced to invite two warring Wharton societies, and the conflict between rival scholars escalates from mudslinging to murder. Nick's job and whole career are on the line unless he can help solve the case and salvage the conference.

This is the first novel I've read by Lev Raphael. A few years ago I read his memoir, My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped and fell a little in love with Lev. When I saw The Edith Wharton Murders at the book sale I had to get it.

On the back of the edition I own, Raphael is described as "an escaped academic." His great sense of humor combined with recovering from a love/hate relationship with academic life, specifically English Department Life, rings true for me. And the two warring Wharton societies made me think of Joan Acocella's Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. There's also the issue of how some academics and writers become media darlings while others, who are perhaps more worthy, are neglected.

The mystery itself is a slow unfolding, more like a classic British mystery than a page-turning thriller, but if you like academic satire or books about the writing life, this might be up your alley. I especially enjoyed the swipes taken at various theoretical camps:
Looking like he was ready to throttle Gallup, Van Deegan Jones shouted back, "You're a fraud, an imposer, a charlatan. You jumped on the Wharton bandwagon because she was trendy. And ever since, you've been covering up your lack of knowledge about Wharton with abstruse critical language. You're the last person in the world to talk about original scholarship! You have nothing to say to you hide behind Derrida and Lacan. Derrida is caca, and Lacan is a con! (138).
Or how about this scene, which anyone who has ever attended a literary conference or writers workshop can probably related to:
There weren't questions, except those fake academic conference questions that are thinly disguised speeches, and everyone who stood up to talk had the same spirited distaste for Scorcese's work. There was little or no dispute about any point as the criticism rose and crested (159).
And Raphael takes some shots at popular writers as well. The Stefan mentioned below is Nick Hoffman's partner:
Grace-Dawn Vaughan wrote Big Books with far-fetched plots, shallow but showy characters, and improbable coincidences. I dreaded the way our conference would be transformed in fiction by a woman who could write about a character cutting her wrists after having lived "on the jagged edges of her broken dreams." Stefan had read me that line, howling, after getting one of her books from the SUM library when I told him she'd be attending the conference. Her writing was almost as florid and ungrammatical as David Baldacci's in Absolute Power" (207-208).

These are some of the 'bitchiest' quotes, but they certainly add some realism to the academic setting. I think civilians tend to think of academics as calm, reasoned, and dispassionate, when actually some  can be argumentative, defensive, and completely unwilling to see other points of view or contradictory evidence. Raphael wonderfully captures some of these types.

There's also a funny scene that booksellers will nod in recognition over. A writer tells Nick,
"There are times I've been in bookstores and when I saw her books face out, I turned them so that only the spine was visible. And that's not all. I've slipped her books behind others on a shelf so no one could see them unless they were looking for them" (121-122).
Believe it or not, that happens fairly regularly in bookstores, especially with political books. Once I even had an old lady who counted all the political books on a display table, split them into what she considered conservative and liberal categories, and demanded to know why we had more of one type than the other. I don't miss working in a big box bookstore during election season, that's for sure.

Anyway, The Edith Wharton Murders is a fun academic satire, with a dark underbelly. There are murders, and gay and lesbian academics are dealing with an administration on the verge of being overtaken by the religious right, which threatens more than just their academic freedom.

This is the second book in Raphael's Nick Hoffman Mystery Series. I haven't read the first one, Let's Get Criminal (1996), but I do own and plan on reading the third book, The Death of a Constant Lover (1999).

The Edith Wharton Murders
Lev Raphael
St. Martin's Press, 1997
Source: bought a used copy at the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives

Thanks to Kimba the Caffeinated Book Reviewer for her tips and tricks feature that explained how to add that little colored box.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Shadows on the Rock: Thoughts & Comments

My Thoughts
I was excited and a bit apprehensive about reading this one, my last unread Cather novel. A tale of a young girl and her father, an apothecary, set in Quebec City? In 1697? What would Cather have to say about their relationship? This time period? Why Quebec?

Cather wrote this novel after the death of her own father. I know it's risky business to read biographical detail into a novel, but Cather's feelings of love and respect for her own father do seem to be infused in Shadows on the Rock.

The deep and pure religious feelings of the daughter, Cecile and her young friend Jacques, seem almost a continuation, in some ways, of Death Comes for the Archbishop, even if this is an earlier time period and a radically different landscape. In a visit to Quebec City in 1928 Cather met Abbe Henri Arthur Scott, a scholar of Canadian ecclesiastical history, who obviously captured her imagination. Like some of Cather's other novels, Shadows is also the story of the creation of a new country, one that is also historically accurate in its dismissiveness of the native cultures already in place.

I've read novels and nonfiction accounts about how the early colonists in the New World felt alone and disconnected after the ships returned back to their home ports, but Cather creates a sense of how it must have felt to watch the sails of the last ship slip over the horizon. She made me feel how one's throat may have constricted with emotion at that sight, how belts were tightened over the long Canadian winters, and with what utter excitement the returning ships were greeted in the spring.

And one thing I never imagined was the heart wrenching reality of what it would be like for the last ship in the fall to deliver a letter from one's family that brought news of a loved one's serious illness and how you'd be left to worry about them over the long winter, not knowing until the spring whether or not they recovered or died. Big news could have been sent to the government on ships headed to New York and then over land by messenger further north, but for the average person there would be no news of home for months, until it came on the ships of spring.

One of my favorite scenes is when Cecile returns from her first visit away from her father and the comforts of home. After seeing how others lived with no care of their bodies, bedding, or the food they ate, Cecile is grateful to be home and has a profound realization:
 As she began handling her own things again, it all seemed a little different,--as if she had grown at least two years older in the two nights she had been away. She did not feel like a little girl, doing what she had been taught to do. She was accustomed to think that she did all these things so carefully to please her father, and to carry out her mother's wishes. Now she realized that she did them for herself, quite as much. . . . These coppers, big and little, these brooms and clouts and brushes, were tools; and with them one made, not shoes or cabinet-work, but life itself. One made a climate within a climate; one made the days,--the complexion, the special flavor, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life (159-60).
This scene says so much about Cecile's character and about how old traditions and ways of doing things are maintained and sometimes even thrive in new places. It reveals so much about what the French feel about life and what gives life meaning, or at least how Cather saw it.

Things I've Been Pondering
This fall I'm taking a seminar at the Newberry Library on the history of library architecture. We've been talking and reading about how scrolls, manuscripts, and books were used and stored prior to the advent of libraries and bookshelves as we know them today. We just finished up discussing early monastic and university libraries up to the late 1500s, a hundred years or so from the time period of Shadows. Because of this seminar I was sensitive to the subject and my attention was alerted early on in the novel when a library was mentioned.

I don't know how historically accurate Cather was in depicting how early Quebecois stored their books, but the detail she adds gives the story a nice historic flavor. The first time a library is mentioned Cecile and her father, Euclide Auclair, are taking their evening walk through town and see that,
"The rock-top, blocked off in dark masses that were convents and churches and gardens, was now sunk in sleep. The only lighted windows to be seen were in the Chateau, in the Bishop's Palace, and on the top floor of old Bishop Laval's Seminary, out there on its spur overhanging the river. That top floor, the apothecary told his daughter, was the library, and likely enough some young Canadian-born Seminarians to whom Latin came hard were struggling with the Church Fathers up there" (17-18).
What  a beautiful image. Not only the light of learning burning on top of the hill, but of young men struggling with Latin, as well as ideas. After this I couldn't help but notice the subsequent references to books and libraries.

The next mention of a library is just a few pages after this, when it is said that Euclide, as a younger man, had,
"gone deep into the history of medicine in such old Latin books as were stuffed away in the libraries of Paris. He looked back to the time of Ambroise Pare, and still further back to the thirteenth century, as golden ages in medicine,--and he considered Fagon, the King's physician, a bigoted and heartless quack" (24).
Such is the importance of libraries and the knowledge they hold within. Because of his studies and sense of history, Euclide "was not afraid of new ideas,--or of old ideas that had gone out of fashion because surgeons and doctors were too stupid to see their value" (23). These new doctors not only forget or debase old remedies, they embrace trendy, sometimes risky new ideas such as bleeding patients, which Euclide thinks is questionable. At least his remedies do no harm.

Euclide's philosophy is challenged later by the new Bishop, Saint-Vallier. I enjoyed the exchange below between the two men:
"You are very advanced in your theories of medicine, are you not, Monsieur Auclair?"
"On the contrary, I am very old-fashioned. I think the methods of the last century better than those of the present time."
"Then you do not believe in progress?"
"Change is not always progress, Monseigneur."
This short exchange speaks volumes about each man. Bishop Vallier didn't take the time to observe how things were done in his new surroundings and see what was working and what could benefit from change. He didn't stop to see the needs of the people or the flow of settlements, but rather simply insisted on imposing an old order that was not appropriate to the new conditions. He even goes so far as to remove books from the Seminary to "enrich his new Palace" (98).

But Euclide is not opposed to things just because they are new. Back in Paris he was often called to the Count's personal library where the two men would sit and talk of New France. Euclide comes to see Quebec as a vast and free place, a possible refuge (25).

There are two other scenes when a personal "library" or book collection appear in Shadows. Specifically, book cabinets are mentioned. Prior to bookshelves, books were often kept in cabinets called presses or armariums.
Example of an early press, or book cabinet.

The first mention of a book cabinet is when Father Hector visits. Euclide has been holding his books and asks what he'd like done with them should he return to France before Hector returns again to Quebec:
"Auclair opened a cabinet and pointed to a row of volumes bound in vellum. Father Hector's eyes brightened and he looked at them, but he shook his head.
"No, I shall not take them this time. If you go away, give them to Monseigneur l' Ancien to keep for me. If they could be eaten, or worn on the back, he would give them to the poor, certainly. But Greek and Latin texts will be safe with him" (124).
Euclide's safe keeping says much about the importance of the books and the trust between the two men. Hector's comments are also revealing of Ancien's priorities as well.

The second mention of a book cabinet is when Euclide returns home after having removed the Count's heart after he dies so that it may be sent home to France and buried next to his sister. Euclide carries the heart within a rudely soldered lead box and put is it "in the cabinet where he kept his medical books" (211). Placing a cherished friend and protector's heart where he keeps his books implies the great importance these books have in his life. He honors both his friend and his books by placing them together. This cabinet may be the closest thing to a sacred space in Euclide's home at this time.

Both instances of book cabinets signify the time period and conditions. They also convey the importance of books to the owners and the value placed on books within certain segments of society at the time. These books were not kept lying around, nor did Euclide have just one or two books. He had enough books for a special cabinet.

Cather always includes accurate details that reflect the landscape, location, and time period about which she writes. This time I've noticed them so strongly thanks to the happy coincidence of the seminar I'm taking. These brief mentions of books and libraries show the reader rather than tell us what's important to Euclide and how and why he thinks the way he does (and I didn't even get into his teaching Cecile Latin). They also helped set the tone of the novel and provide information about the importance of books and knowledge in the new country.

Share Your Thoughts!
What do you think of Shadows on the Rock? Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the book, even if it's just a sentence. Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.

If you're interested in reading a contemporary novel set in Quebec, I highly recommend Louise Penny's Bury Your Dead (and the rest of her wonderful mystery series as well). If you're interested in early libraries, check out The Care of Books by John Willis Clark.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Turning by Francine Prose

I don't recall where I saw this book advertised online, but I didn't realize it was categorized as a young adult novel until I was asking for it at the bookstore. The blurb I'd read made it sound creepy and the cover looks somewhat creepy in a Harry Potteresque kind of way, so I bought it. I haven't read any fiction by Francine Prose, but I enjoy her book, Reading Like a Writer. And it is October, time for creepy reads.

The Turning tells the story of Jack, a teen who accepts a summer job living on an isolated island taking care of two kids, Miles and Flora. Jack got the job through his girlfriend's father, a father who supposedly wants Jack away from his daughter. Jack needs to raise money to attend the same college as his girlfriend. Miles and Flora were orphaned when their parents were killed in a train crash in India and are now provided for by their rich uncle who wants nothing to do with them. There's a cook, Linda, who lives year round with the kids who has become a stand-in mother. Linda's husband died on the island. Other people have died on the island as well. There's lots of rumors about bad happenings on the island and in the house. Is the house haunted? What's up with all the significant glances between Miles and Flora? Is Jack seeing people or ghosts? Is his girlfriend cheating on him with her ex? Jack's mind starts to spin.

The story is told through letters written mainly by Jack to his girlfriend and a few to his father. There are some return letters to Jack from the girlfriend and father. This framework doesn't work very convincingly. Epistolary novels are hard to pull off and while Jack sounds like a teenager some of the time, I just don't buy that these are letters he's written--they're much too safe, consistent, and prosy to have been written by a living person, let alone a teen adventurous enough to accept such a job.

And the letters from the girlfriend and father are so obviously designed to move the plot along. Here's an example from the father:

Dear Jack,    
     I'm glad to hear you're doing so well and have adjusted to the island and that you're even having fun. It's hard to believe that three weeks have passed since you left. Sometimes it seems like five minutes, and sometimes like five months. I miss you--even the loud music and the video games and all the stuff I used to complain about.
     You know, Jack, something happened yesterday at work. I can't remember if I told you I got a couple of weeks of cabinet work in a house that this doctor from Boston is renovating. My friend Russ is doing the painting. I hadn't seen Russ for a while, and he asked how you were. I told him about your job on the island. . . . He got a strange look on his face and said he remembered reading about something strange that happened there, something nasty. Or maybe it was something that happened to some people from there. He thought maybe even a murder or a double murder. . . . I had to quit working for a minute and take a deep breath.
     Russ always gets things wrong. He probably meant some other island completely. I figured you'd have heard about it now, if there was anything . . . which I'm sure there isn't.
     Anyhow, keep having fun. Say hello to the kids for me, even though I've never met them. Likewise Linda. I'm sure I'd like her as much as you say I would.
     Your dad  (132-133)
Really? What dad would write something like that?

Leaving the epistolary problems behind, the book is simply flat. It has some curves and turns that seem promising that never develop into anything substantial. And it's also not very creepy, at least not for a young adult novel. I actually thought it read more like a book for middle schoolers. Then again, creepy reading when I was a teen was Stephen King, so perhaps I'm just skewed.

I'd recommend The Turning to middle schoolers and young teens who haven't read much creepy stuff. If they like this, there's certainly more out there to keep them reading. Speaking of which, I'm told The Turning is a retelling of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, which I thought I had read, but apparently have not, so I've added it to my own TBR list.

The Turning
Francine Prose
HarperTeen, 2012
Source: bought it from the Unabridged Bookstore

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Ninth Step by Grant Jerkins

Whenever I think about no longer accepting review copies because they "get in the way" of my own reading list, I think of Grant Jerkins and immediately decide it's better to keep on receiving them. It was by saying yes to a review copy request that I read his first novel in 2010. Now, three books later, Grant Jerkins is one of my favorite writers.

The Ninth Step, Jerkins' third novel, was released last month by Berkley Prime Crime. It's a fantastic read. It will especially freak you out if you're in a twelve step program or have ever worked the steps. Yes, The ninth step of the title refers not to stairs, but to step nine of the big twelve: "Made direct amends to to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

Edgar Woolrich is a happily married high school geometry teacher who collects Japanese puzzle boxes. Helen Patrice is a veterinarian and an alcoholic. When his obsession and her addiction cross paths the result is an intriguing story of who-done-what and who'll-do-what next. I love Jerkins' characters. Even though they are not always likeable, they have a realness and a warmth that makes them seem all so human. And in this case . . . oh, the humanity.

What I like about Jerkins' novels is that they're all so different from one another. I enjoy a good series, but it is also refreshing to read a good crime novelist who can create such solid stand alone novels that you're not left wishing the author had written a book more like the last one.

A Very Simple Crime (2010, my review) was about a down on his luck prosecutor investigating a murder that takes him into the depths of a family's psychological abnormalities. At the End of the Road (2011, my review) goes back in time to the summer of 1976 when a young boy witnesses an accident, tells no one, and what unfolds afterwards for the boy and others. I think of it as a coming of age novel with a creepy, dark core.

I don't want to say that The Ninth Step is his best yet, because that makes it sound like his two previous novels weren't up to snuff. They are. But what I especially admire about The Ninth Step is it's black humor. I often don't enjoy humor mixing with crime because it can seem too forced or too flip or too cruel. Jerkins uses humor in a way that acknowledges the pain of the human condition, but this humor also reveals that our pain is often the result of past choices, as well as showing the reality that we do have choices now, no matter how messed up things seem.

Here's an example from early on in the novel, about Helen:
The self-inspection did not reveal additional damage. Externally, Helen was still quite attractive--her breasts sagged only a little; her ass, while bigger than in the past, had not succumbed to gravity and was plump in a pleasingly feminine way; and the broken capillaries that formed a haphazard Etch A Sketch across her nose and cheeks were easily concealed with modest amounts of makeup. The shell, the facade, was fine. Unfortunately, she was rotting from the inside out. Like the shiny apple that concealed the corruption of the worm deep inside. It occurred to her hungover mind that she was the perfect hybrid of Doctor Dolittle and Dorian Gray (41).
I like this example because it tells you so much about Helen: about her age, her chronic drinking, how she deals with it, her sense of humor, her denial. Her checklist is on the light side, but it hints at the tragic darkness to come. It's avoidable, yet inevitable.

If you like suspense novels that focus on interpersonal relationships, check out The Ninth Step and Jerkins' early novels as well. They'll keep you in their grip and leave you thinking about the story and characters long afterwards.

The Ninth Step
Grant Jerkins
Berkley Crime Time
September 2012
Source: review copy

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Library Nerdvana: Or, Library Architectural History

This fall I'm diving into my  budding love of library architecture by taking a seminar on the history of library architecture at the Newberry Library here in Chicago:

This is the first time the Newberry is running this particular seminar, which is being taught by Diane Dillon. It's part of their 125th anniversary celebration. If you live in the Chicago area and haven't taken an adult education seminar from the Newberry I highly recommend you do! It's been years since I've taken a seminar there, but when I saw this one listed in their fall offerings I immediately knew it was for me.

I won't recap our sessions, but I thought it would be fun to share a little something from each time period that we cover.

First up are libraries left on earth by aliens.

Just kidding.

King Ashurbanipal (source)
First up is ancient libraries. We discussed a half dozen or so seminal ancient libraries, from King Ashurbanipal's library to Roman libraries to the very beginnings of the Vatican library. Among other things, we looked at floor plans, storage techniques for various types of texts, how scrolls were read, and various activities for which libraries were used, as well as who used them.

In ancient times temples and palaces were the repositories of knowledge. There were no free standing libraries as we think of them today. One of the earliest is the records room of King Ashurbanipal, located in modern Iraq, which dates to 640 BCE. This library contained mainly clay tablets. Among it's treasures was The Epic of Gilgamesh, which I highly recommend. Legend has it that upon seeing Ashurbanipal's library Alexander the Great decided to create his own library.

Scholars in the Library of Alexandria (source)
Hence, the Library of Alexandria, which became a major center of scholarship and learning from the third century until 30 BCE. Not that Alexander the Great saw his great library built in his life-time, but it was his vision that got the ball rolling. The Library of Alexandria was located within the palace complex and it included not only texts, mainly papyrus scrolls, but also laboratories to study subjects like anatomy and astronomy.

The Library of Alexandria had an acquisitions department. An acquisitions department with clout: the Ptolomaic Dysnasty, who ruled at the time, really wanted to accumulate world-wide knowledge of every kind and a decree was passed that required all visitors entering Alexandria, including ships landing in her ports, to surrender any and all written texts in their possession. Scribes from the library would copy the information, keep the original, and give the copy back to the "owner."

There were actually two libraries at Alexandria. There's also a library-related rumor about Anthony's wedding present to Cleopatra, but you'll have to look that up on your own.

Mural in Blackstone Library, CT (source)
Which leads us to the Library at Pergamum, located in modern day Turkey. Pergamum was an important library to ancient scholars. Plutarch mentions it. At the time most texts were written on papyrus, which was made in Alexandria. The scribes in Pergamum had to order their papyrus from Alexandria.

But remember how the Ptolomaic Dynasty wanted their library to be THE center for knowledge? Putting an end to any healthy competition between the two libraries, the order came down to simply stop exporting papyrus to Pergamum. Thankfully, the King of Pergamum was not deterred and demanded that a suitable alternative to papyrus scrolls be found. His team came up with parchment paper. Don't think of modern day baking sheets or calligraphy parchment. Parchment "paper" was made out of animal hide that had been thinned, usually from goat or sheep.

The invention of parchment paper radically expanded the spread of knowledge within the Roman Empire. We can thank the Ptolomaic Dynasty for their greed and selfishness and the team in Pergamum for not giving up in their search for an alternative to papyrus. As Plato said, necessity is the mother of all invention.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Literary Others: An LGBT Reading Event

October is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) History Month and to celebrate I'm participating in The Literary Others: An LGBT Reading Event hosted by Adam over at It's also Banned Books Week which is a great time to commit to reading books by LGBT writers and/or books featuring LGBT characters and issues.

About the event:
This is a one-month event focused on all things LGBT, in honor of LGBT History Month (USA).  Reading that will count for this event include any novels, short stories, essays, memoirs, biographies, poetry, plays, etc. written by an author who identifies as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, or Transgendered.  Also, any works written by heterosexual authors, but whose primary plot/characters revolve around LGBT issues will count as well.  See this post for more information and some suggestions.

I'll be reading Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) and Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt (1952). Both books have long been on my personal To Be Read list and I've also included them in my Classic Club reading list. I'll post reviews on both books later this month.

If you'd like to take part in the The Literary Others and read an LGBT book or two or more, click here to head over to the sign-up page for the event and let Adam know you're in. He features some books to consider on the sign-up page itself and then recently posted two lists of 100+ gay and lesbian novels which you can see here.

Here's a list of my top 10 favorite LGBT novels, in no particular order:
  1. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
  2. Scars by Cheryl Rainfield
  3. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
  4. Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
  5. Patience and Sarah by Isabell Miller
  6. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
  7. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
  8. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
  9. Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule
  10. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
What are your favorite LGBT novels?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Vlad by Carlos Fuentes

Dalkey Archive Press cover
If you're looking around for a scary read this Halloween season or a book to give for All Hallow's Read, I highly recommend Vlad by Carlos Fuentes. This is by far one of the best "sequels" to Bram Stoker's Dracula that I've read.

Fuentes pays homage to Dracula but masterfully makes Stoker's original creature all his own. There is no pandering to Hollywood and cheapening of the spirit of Bram Stoker's classic novel in this short work. 

Vlad is an entertaining and well-written horror story. Fuentes' tale brings the legendary vampire to Mexico City, a city populated by 10 million "blood sausages." There are some references and nods to Mexican history and politics that would probably enhance the story for those who are knowledgeable, but nothing is lost for those (like me) who are woefully ignorant on these topics. The story is also a commentary on the socioeconomic blindness of the upper middle class as well as a cautionary tale of blindness in one's own relationships. 

Yves Navarro, the story's narrator and Jonathan Harker-esque character, is the second in command at Eloy Zurinaga's law firm. Mr. Zurinaga is a powerful man in Mexico City, but he's very old and no longer comes into the office. Navarro is in his prime, happily married, secure in his career, and very much a creature of contented habits. He's a lawyer married to a real estate agent: the perfect combination for what Vlad needs to get settled in his new country of choice. A house is found for Vlad and altered to his specifications. The horror begins.

Alfaguara cover
Vlad is a short novel, only 122 pages, and not a word is wasted. The translation seems masterful to me, but I don't read Spanish so have no way of knowing for sure. However, this is the first novel I've read that made me want to learn Spanish so that I could I read it in the original.

Because Vlad is so short, I read it twice. The first time I read with great admiration for Fuentes' ability to convey so much with so few words. I also read with something like relief. Relief that Fuentes was indeed paying homage to Dracula, but I was also heartened that he completely refreshed the story and characters into something scary, contemporary, and believable. The second time around I was able to relax into the story and enjoy how Fuentes sets up Navarro and saw more of what Navarro represents: that smug upper middle class attitude that doesn't really see what's around until something goes terribly wrong.

Carlos Fuentes
Originally published by Alfaguara, Mexico City, 2010
Translated by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger
Dalkey Archive Press, 2012
Source: Library

Monday, October 1, 2012

Shadows on the Rock: Book #10 Intro

Read all 12 of Willa Cather's novels in chronological order of publication, one each month, throughout 2012. For details about the challenge click here.

Our tenth novel of the challenge is Shadows on the Rock. Read it sometime over the next three weeks and we'll start our conversation about it on Monday, October 22nd (this is the 4th Monday of the month, not the third, but with the 1st falling on a Monday and then the holiday on the 8th I thought everyone might appreciate an extra week).

About Shadows on the Rock:
  • It's a historical novel set in early Quebec, Canada. The only home Cather owned was on cottage that she and Edith Lewis had built on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada. They rented other residences.
  • Cather visited Quebec for the first time in June 1928 and started writing Shadows on the Rock in the fall of 1928.
  • She finished writing the novel in the fall of 1930 and it was published in August 1931 by Knopf.
  • There was a 25,000 first edition printing that sold for $2.50. By late December over 160,000 copies were sold.
  • It won the first Prix Femina Americain, a French literary award.
Description from the Vintage Classics paperback:
"Superbly written, with that sensitivity to sunset and afterglow that has always been Miss Cather's." -The New York Times
Willa Cather wrote Shadows on the Rock immediately after her other historical masterpiece, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Like its predecessor, this novel of seventeenth-century Quebec is a luminous evocation of North American origins, and of the men and women who struggled to adapt to that new world even as they clung to the artifacts and manners of the one they left behind.
In 1697, Quebec is an island of French civilization perched on a bare gray rock amid a wilderness of trackless forests. For many of its settlers, Quebec is a place of exile, so remote that an entire winter passes without a word from home. But to twelve-year-old Cècile Auclair, the rock is home, where even the formidable Governor Frontenac entertains children in his palace and beavers lie beside the lambs in a Christmas crèche. As Cather follows this devout and resourceful child over the course of a year, she re-creates the continent as it must have appeared to its first European inhabitants. And she gives us a spellbinding work of historical fiction in which great events occur first as rumors and then as legends-and in which even the most intimate domestic scenes are suffused with a sense of wonder.

  • Not often available at new bookstores, but some larger used bookstores might have a copy. Almost always available at your local library.
  • Support the Willa Cather Foundation and order it online here. Plan ahead and buy a copy of Lucy Gayheart, November's book, while you're at it.
Shadows on the Rock is the only Cather novel that I've not yet read. As I mentioned in the introductory post to the challenge, I've been rationing out Cather's novels because once I read them all, that will be it. No new Cather novel to read. As much as I enjoy re-reading great novels, there's nothing quite like the experience of that first reading. 

First edition (image source)
What I didn't mention in that introductory post is why I decided 2012 would be the year to read the last unread Cather novel. It's because last year I became enthralled by Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, specifically the sixth novel in the series, Bury Your Dead.  

Have you heard of Louise Penny, Cather fans? I think many of you would enjoy the Gamache novels because Penny takes such care in conveying setting, mood, and characters' sensibilities. Bury Your Dead is set in modern day Quebec City and the plot revolves around early Quebec history. I know Shadows of the Rock is a historical novel set in Quebec during its early days and that's the extent of my knowledge. I don't like to know a lot about a book before I start it. 

During my reading of Bury Your Dead I started thinking about Shadows on the Rock and wondered how Cather handled the early history of Quebec. By the time I finished Bury Your Dead I couldn't stop thinking about that unread Cather novel. And so, here we are.

Would Bury Your Dead have led me to Shadows on the Rock if I hadn't already been a Cather fan? Have other readers come to Shadows on the Rock via Bury Your Dead? Would fans of Louise Penny be interested in reading Shadows on the Rock? I don't know. But I'm glad to have read the mystery novel and am really looking forward to reading Shadows. There is, I must admit, the smallest twinge of a feeling that I'm going to lose something with this reading, even though I'm sure much will be gained by it.

What lead you to read Willa Cather? Was it a book by another author that led to you one of her novels? Has one of Cather's novels ever lead you directly to a specific novel by another writer?

I'll share my thoughts on reading Shadows on the Rock in a new post on Monday, October 22nd. At that time let's start our conversation--simply post your thoughts about the novel in the comments section of that post so we can have everyone's thoughts in once place.

Happy Reading! 
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