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lexiconLexicon by Max Barry

New York: The Penguin Press, 2013.

Late to the party, as I often am.  This book made a number of “Best Books of 2013″ lists, and Jenny named it winner in the Jolliest Good Fun category, an award that fits this book perfectly.

It was jolly good fun, and I could not put it down.  I suppose calling it a book about books is a bit of a stretch, but when an author names his characters after famous poets, and when those poets can use their words to control people, I think you have to say that this is a thriller that supplies thrills to bibliophiles.

Lexicon engages with multiple tropes from romance and westerns and thrillers, as well as with versions of the myth of Babel.  Barry brings that myth into the twenty-first century using linguistics, psychology, comparative mythology and computer science.  It’s a fascinating fantasy of how the brain and its operations might be compromised by a person in possession of the right words to override the brain’s normal operating system, the right words being a proto-language with enormous power.   A mysterious society of “poets,” led by the nefarious Yeats, recruits people who have a natural gift of persuasion, then trains them in the use of secret words that can control others’ behaviour.  Some of these recruits get out of hand.  Thrills ensue.

Of course, magic words can be a bit of a magic bullet in terms of plotting, and Barry explains away how a lot of the odd events never get investigated because the poets have managed to make reporters and the military and governments (!) believe what they want them to believe.  Whatever.  It’s just greasing the wheels of the story.

I think what I liked best about the book was Barry’s ability to take the myth of Babel and modernize it as a means to satirize our contemporary consumer and popular culture.  I found his use of linguistics and neurology so fun, and while I’m sure experts in these fields would find much to quarrel with in his application of them to this fantasy world, I did not want to quarrel.  Like so many characters in the book are forced to do, I was willing to suspend thought that would impede his goals with words.  I was willing to be enthralled.  Something about the quality of his scientific realism reminded me often of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King and The Magicians, and the descriptions of the school where the recruits are trained was a lot like Grossman’s college of magic.  The books share an ability to ground magic in something plausibly real, they make magic a difficult and often frustrating academic discipline.  I was also reminded of Philip Pullman’s Subtle Knife.  Barry and Pullman both describe a locksmith’s sense of intuiting a precise sliding into place of all the pieces needed to make the magic work.

The magic worked on me.  Jolly good fun.

lateThe Late Scholar, Based on the Characters of Dorothy L. Sayers

Jill Paton Walsh

London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013.

Let me begin by saying that Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night is one of my all-time favourite mysteries and that her Five Red Herrings was one of the worst books through which I’ve ever struggled.  Train timetable mysteries may have been all the rage when she wrote Five Red Herrings, but, like bell bottoms, these are a thing very much better left forgotten.  Alas, it is on the strength of this last book that I have not gone back to read all of her Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane mysteries.  In a way, the fact that they are there waiting for me is a comfort, but I’m also not in a rush to repeat the disappointment of the herrings.

Still and all, when I read Alex’s review of the book and heard about Jill Paton Walsh’s project to revive the late Dorothy Sayers’s detecting duo, it was inducement enough to break one of my usual habits of beginning at the beginning and working chronologically through a writer’s oeuvre.  Not only have I missed some of the originals, but Walsh now has four Wimsey books under her belt, and I’m only just catching on.

No matter, this is a book that can largely stand alone, and, like Gaudy Night, it’s a campus novel.  The mystery plot revolves around an ancient manuscript and the murderer seems to be using Harriet Vane’s own plots to knock off scholars at St. Severin’s College in Oxford.  Campus novel, academic politics, libraries, poison pen book reviews, books and intertextuality–The Late Scholar ticks lots of boxes in my list of things to love.

And this book is palpably a labour of love for Walsh:

In bringing Peter and Harriet back to Oxford it resumes the setting, although not the epoch, of Gaudy Night. And it brings them very nearly into my own epoch; it is set in 1952 and I went up to Oxford in 1955. I am writing them for the first time into a world that I actually knew, my Oxford, as beloved to me as Sayers’ Oxford was to her.  I have had the most tremendous fun doing that. (More here.)

And I had tremendous fun reading it.

 

 

imagesW47MPET5Northanger Abbey

Val McDermid

Toronto: Harper Collins, 2014.

One of the books in The Austen Project, Val McDermid’s reimagining of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a delight.  She has found exactly the right template for reimagining Austen’s take on the gothic novels of her day: vampires!  It’s perfect.  I am a sucker (!) for this kind of thing, always hoping to find in fan fiction something that approximates the joy that the original book gives me.  Northanger Abbey is my favourite of Austen’s novels, not surprisingly, because it is a book about books, and McDermid embraces the metafictional and intertextual aspect of the project wholeheartedly.  The book positively fizzes with it.

Set in Scotland during the Edinburgh Festival, books are everywhere.  Cat Morland’s mother sends her off to Scotland with the Allens, and while they listen to Bram Stoker’s Dracula on audio book in the car on the drive up, her mother “displayed not a sign of concern about what dangers might lurk on the streets of Edinburgh, in spite of having read the crime novels of both Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson” (9).  One of the Fringe Festival plays is a “dramatic adaptation of last year’s bestselling novel about love, zombies and patisserie, Cupcakes to Die For” (43).  You can see how McDermid has her intertextual cake and eats it too: reverence and satire in equal measure.  Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, Harriet the Spy, and even The Gruffalo all make appearances; this book is absolutely saturated in bibliophilic goodness.

She refers frequently to the fact that characters imagine themselves in a Jane Austen costume drama, and by doing so addresses head on the difficulty of reimagining Austen for the modern age.  To my mind, she has done so seamlessly.  There is dancing, of course, but it’s lessons in highland dancing that first bring Cat and Henry Tilney together.  Vampire fiction substitutes for the horrors of Austen’s gothic fiction, and Henry is an avid reader of the page-turners.  And while text messages largely substitute for the letters of the original, real ink and paper make their way into the book as well, with a wit that shows that McDermid can hold her own in the snarky comments department:

“Oh, and this came by hand while we were out.”  He nodded at a thick piece of card tucked into the flap of the sort of heavy white envelope that signals senders with a good opinion of themselves. (22)

 

Of course, the danger of this kind of reading is that it’s difficult to fully immerse yourself in the book when constantly on the look-out for comparisons.  I read Joanna Trollope’s rewriting of Sense and Sensibility with considerably less pleasure.  I think my mistake was to re-read Austen’s book before reading Trollope’s, and it just did not hold up, so I’ll end by recommending McDermid’s book highly and by suggesting that you avoid  (re)reading the original first.

Ramon Monegal, whose Mon Cuir is one of my new beloveds, puts all of his perfumes into bottles shaped like inkwells.

inkwellIt’s like these people know exactly how to make me part with money….

I have recently disappeared down a rabbit hole of reading about, sampling and buying perfumes.  I was already a bit of an addict, but when I hosted my book club last month, we read The Perfect Scent by Chandler Burr, and it took me off on a journey to discover all kinds of new scents.  This is not a cheap habit.  I’ve ordered dozens of samples of fragrances I want to experience.  I’ve discovered new loves.  I’ve bought enough perfume that, believe it or not, I have stopped browsing in book stores because, really, I can only have one obsession in need of an intervention at a time.  Friends have asked me if they should stage an intervention.  Of course not.  I’m not going into bookstores anymore, right?  (Well, there was that quick trip into the Bob Miller….)

Both books and perfumes give me a down to the tips of my toes kind of joy, and it is really wonderful when my obsessions complement each other.  When I read this passage about E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View from the wonderful How to Be  a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, I knew just the perfume to go with the scene.  Here is Ellis:

channelling Helena Bonham-Carter in the luscious Merchant Ivory film, I cultivated bird’s nest hair and set off for a month in Florence, just before my final year [of university].  I was there to learn Italian, but the classes at the fusty stuccoed British Institute were just in the mornings.  The sun-drenched afternoons and the cool, lazy evenings were for awestruck wandering, gazing at frescoes and eating gelato.  I tried to give myself up to beauty, as Forster advises.  He sends Lucy to Santa Croce without her Baedeker guide, and at first she’s frustrated by not knowing which tomb is the most beautiful, which most praised by Ruskin.  The church feels enormous, and cold.  (It is.)  Then suddenly ‘the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.’  … A friend was passing through Florence, and we took the orange bus out to Fiesole, in the hills above the city.  It’s in those hills, covered in violets, that George kisses Lucy.  We made for the Roman amphitheatre and sat on the stage, and read out my play.  He read the boys, I read the girls.  We had the whole arc of honey-coloured stones to ourselves, the whole blue sky.  Later I’d direct it in Cambridge and on the Edinburgh Fringe, but that afternoon in Fiesole was where it startled into life.  At Fiesole, Lucy sees the violets and feels spring, really feels the sun and the flowers blooming and opening, and suddenly feels that she can see the world ‘beautiful and direct’–and then George kisses her.  Because of Lucy, and because of Fiesole, I felt that too: that things were clearing, that I could see. (141-145)

I read that passage and got up to spritz myself with Room with a View by Christopher Brosius for C B I Hate Perfume before reading it again.  Here is Brosius on Room with a View:

This perfume captures the scent of the hills above Florence – the vineyards, the wild grass, the finocchio, the hot dusty Florentine earth.  And of course a torrent of violets.

404_perfume1And it does.  Just as Ellis gets inspiration to write from Lucy and from the setting in which her fictional heroine feels, so, too, did Brosius create from the spring that Forster’s setting provides.  He cites this passage as the inspiration for his perfume:

[Lucy] did not answer.  From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems, collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam.  But never again were they in such profusion; the terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.

Standing at its brink, like a swimmer who prepares, was the good man.  But he was not the good man that she had expected, and he was alone.

George had turned at the sound of her arrival.  For a moment he contemplated her, as one who has fallen out of heaven.  He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves.  The bushes above them closed.  He stepped quickly forward and kissed her.

And there was I, smelling Brosius’s dusty earth and torrent of violets, rejoicing in Ellis’s seeing the world beautiful and direct.

heroineHow to Be a Heroine: Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much

Samantha Ellis

London: Chatto & Windus, 2014.

Was there ever a book so meant for me to read?  It’s been a long time since I’ve finished a book and wanted to get right to the computer to write about it, but this book gave me that wonderful sense of urgency.  I must spread the word.  Others must know how wonderful this book is. 

I heard Samantha Ellis read from and discuss her book on The Guardian books podcast.  I ordered the book right away, but had to wait for its publication date in Canada.  It arrived this week.  I devoured it in a day.

Ellis begins the book on the Yorkshire moors, with her best friend Emma, and they are arguing about who they’d rather be, Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw.  (Emma and I agree; Jane Eyre, of course.)  Ellis is adamant that Cathy Earnshaw is the heroine for her.  Emma has made her think, though, that she should revisit the question.

…. when we reached Top Withins, the skies cleared.  The clouds vanished and the sun shone, as if this was the backdrop for some moment of revelation.  Which it was.  I was wrong.

My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane.

As we leaned against the warm stone, basking–actually basking–in the sun, drinking flasks of tea, I wondered why I’d written Jane off.  She is independent, and brave, and clever, and she really does stay true to herself.  And while Cathy ends up a wandering ghost, Jane ends up happily married.  The brilliant sunshine was very Jane weather, I thought; pleasant, clear and rational.  It would have rained for Cathy, there would have been thunder and lightning.  And (said a small, but firm Jane voice) we would have shivered and eaten soggy sandwiches hunched under the hoods of our waterproofs. …

I decided that when I got back to London, I would dig out my copies of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and read them again, with more scrutiny and less sentiment.  I would find out how I really felt about Cathy and Jane.  But maybe that wouldn’t be the end of it.  After all, if I’d been wrong about Cathy, had I been wrong about my other heroines too?

And so begins 18 months of re-reading and writing about all of her favourite books and heroines.   Ellis begins with fairy tales and works her way through children’s books, racy reads, “the classics” and classics of first and second wave feminism; from The Little Mermaid, to Anne of Green Gables, from Lizzy Bennet and Flora Poste, from Esther Greenwood to Lucy Honeychurch.  She revisits, among many others, Louisa May Alcott, Barbara Pym, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Angela Carter.  Having read and relied on these books and their heroines to shape her growing self, who, she asks, is the heroine she needs today.

The title is a nod to Louis May Alcott’s “She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain,” and this idea of reading spoiling not just one’s eyes and brain, but marriage prospects too, comes up often in the book.  As an Iraqi Jew, whose parents fled to England as refugees, the marriage plot features heavily in Ellis’s own life.  Her parents want her to settle down with a nice Iraqi Jewish boy, but Ellis chafes against the marriage plot both in life and in literature.  She wants adventure, independence, a model for a writing life.  Ellis herself is a playwright, and a huge appeal of her book is that she traces the fates of women writing in fiction.

There is a perfect balance of autobiographical material and discussion of the books on hand.  Ellis is not just well read, she has a genuine desire to right by books and their authors.  She is a generous reader, but totally unafraid of calling herself out or her beloved writers out for failing their own heroines.  I loved her arguments with her younger self and with the authors who let their women writers sacrifice writing to marriage and children.

I loved every minute of reading this book.  It went too quickly.  I gobbled, as I often do, but this book sent me back for seconds, it sent me to my own bookshelves to pull down my own copies of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Cold Comfort Farm, The Bloody Chamber, To the Lighthouse, I Capture the Castle, and and and.  It also sent me looking for books I haven’t yet read: Lolly Willowes and South Riding.  It did, in other words, what all great books about books should do: it gave me the pleasure of revisiting old favourites and the joy of anticipating new reads.

Tbookshophe Bookshop

by Penelope Fitzgerald

London: Flamingo, 1989.

I have to begin by saying that I can’t think of how to write about this book without spoilers.  The ending weighs so heavily on me.  What a delightfully acerbic and dark read this is.  Dark because the forces of evil, in the guise of a woman named Violet, seem to prevail.  Delightful because the world of books, fictional and real, has booksellers like Florence Green, who buys hundreds of silk bookmarks because they are beautiful and hundreds of copies of Lolita because, after taking advice, is assured that regardless of how much money it will make, it is a book worth reading.

Widow Florence Green decides to open a bookshop and buys a haunted, crumbling building in which to sell her wares.  She is all determination and forthrightness.   She is a little unsure of her business decisions, but under the influence of her astonishingly capable 10-year-old shop assistant Christine, Florence hardens a bit.  She is wonderful.  Her nemesis, Violet, decides after Florence has bought the Old House that she wants it for a community arts centre, and schemes and plots to get Florence evicted.  Fitzgerald is remarkably deft in her depiction of the stubbornly stupid bureaucrat, the despotic small-town matriarch.  Her dialogue is crisp and witty.  Her prose is just opaque enough to make you work at filling in a scene, just light enough to make you squint a bit to sort impressions into shape.

Courage is Florence’s primary virtue, and as a book lover it takes some courage to read this book.  Spoiler alert!   The book ends with Florence defeated, “her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.”  Oh, Florence, no!  That’s not it!    That’s not it at all!   The good news is that the Violets of this world will always be skewered by capable pens.  The narrator and we know what poor Florence does not, that Violet schemed mercilessly to ruin her, and there will have to be satisfaction in that knowledge.

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