The Death of Bunny Munro

The Death of Bunny Munro was written by Nick Cave, the singer/songwriter/musician who most people know via his band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I suppose that we shouldn't be surprised when certain songwriters turn out to be excellent novel writers -- after all, being a songwriter essentially means one is a type of poet. The type of writing that's being done in a novel, however, is quite different, and I found that my favorite moments of The Death of Bunny Munro weren't necessarily plot-driven, but rather, they were simple observations crafted in beautiful language that reminded me of Nick Cave's poetic talent. Of course, I was given the audiobook of Bunny Munro as a gift and I highly recommend that if you are going to read this book, you should purchase the audiobook version. Not only will you have the supreme delight of hearing Nick Cave read his own work, but he's also added some small sound effects and music that do a great deal in creating tensions and highlighting the particularly surreal parts.

Bunny Munro is a British salesman who peddles high quality beauty products and lotions door-to-door by appointment. He is also a middle-aged seducer of anything vaguely female. Bunny has a wife and a nine-year-old son named Bunny Jr. waiting at home, which is in Brighton, but he is frequently on the road. As the book opens, Bunny is on the phone with his wife, explaining that he'll be home tomorrow morning, which is as soon as he can possibly be there. This is a lie. He is in Brighton motel with a prostitute, across town from his family, and it is this choice to not go home that is the catalyst for all events that follow. Of course, even if he had gone home this time, one gets the feeling that things would have turned out this way sooner or later.

When Bunny does get home in the morning, he finds that his wife has committed suicide, an event she clearly planned for, as she had already purchased suits for her husband and son to wear to her funeral. The novel deals with the aftermath of her suicide as Bunny and Bunny Jr. try to carry on... which mostly consists of Bunny Munro losing his grip on life/his sanity in a steady downward spiral (after all, the book is called The Death of Bunny Munro) and poor Bunny Jr. trying to hold on. Once they've gotten through the funeral (and the funeral "after party" with Bunny's sleazy friends), Bunny brings his son along as he sells products, thinking nothing of keeping Bunny Jr. out of school and abandoning their home. In addition to this, there's a "side" storyline that plays heavily into Bunny's mindset: a rapist/killer is on the loose in Britain, dressing as a devil (bare chested with red face paint, wearing horns), who is repeatedly caught on mall security footage and seems to be making his way down through the country, towards Brighton.

I stick by my initial response to someone when I was asked if I enjoyed this book; that response was "Yyyeessss...?" It's not exactly a book that one enjoys, as the main character is officially a terrible human being and one's heart breaks every other page for poor Bunny Jr., but there's some beautiful language and overall, I found the book to be thought-provoking and interesting. There were even a few moments where I enjoyed the depiction of such a sleazy Lothario, but he really is a horrifying excuse for a man. It isn't even his penchant for screwing every willing (and occasionally unwilling) woman he comes across; it's more that his mindset is so twisted that he sees absolutely nothing wrong with his behavior. At his best, he drives along, honking at lesbians and leering at every woman. He even ogles a baby girl at one point, noting that he isn't someone who wants to have sex with kids, but in a couple of years, that girl would be quite a knock-out... Ugh. About 90% of his conscious thoughts seem to be directed towards sex and getting women to sleep with him (though shockingly, he does not seem to have much trouble in getting them to do just that in the early part of the novel) or simply fantasizing about a woman's vagina (he doesn't really imagine sexual scenarios with women so much as he just pictures a vagina... he even refers to himself as "a vagina man"). Side note: if I was Avril Lavigne, this book would make me insanely uncomfortable. Bunny Munro imagines Avril Lavigne's vagina quite a lot and seems to hold it up as a kind of ideal. Note that I say "it" and not really "her," as he seems rather unconcerned with any of the women themselves in this book, other than figuring out what they want him to say so he can get in their pants.

Poor Bunny Jr. is a smart and good-hearted little boy who has been dealt a crummy hand. He's polite and well-behaved, with an impressive memory. He spends a great deal of time reading his encyclopedia, which his mother gave to him. In addition, he has a small eye disorder that requires him to take drops to soothe his eyes, a fact that Bunny never remembers, and rather than press the issue and remind his father, Bunny Jr. seems content to risk going blind. He clearly adores his father, unaware that Bunny is hardly concerned with his son at all. He parrots out things that his father says, like swear words and "my dad could sell a bicycle to a barracuda." Bunny Jr.'s mother loved him, yes, but she was not strong enough to leave her husband or live with his behavior. Now Bunny Jr. is left alone with an unfit father. After his wife's funeral, Bunny tries to get his her parents to take the boy, but they will not accept him, for they only see Bunny in the child, the man who drove their daughter to suicide.

Nick Cave has a delightfully wicked sense of humor, which makes the story bearable. Even at the darkest moments, we have that. If we didn't, then I have no idea how I could have made it through this depiction of child negligence and family pain. Clearly, Bunny feels some amount of guilt for his wife's death, or he wouldn't be as haunted as he is, and his own deterioration shows how this plays upon him. Bunny Jr., too, has visions of his mother. But beyond this, we have even more surreal elements at play -- I'm sure reading this has a similar effect, but the haunting chords that accompanied Nick Cave's reading in the audiobook felt like they provided great assistance in transporting the reader to an otherworldly place. Of course, it was these surreal moments (particularly a very obvious scene where Bunny "makes peace" with people in his life) that I didn't quite enjoy. They seemed almost too much or not enough... just not right, I suppose. We are building to this ultimate moment of denial and self-absolution with Bunny, but by this point, I was ready for Bunny to receive his comeuppance. As much as I enjoyed the novel, I was pleased that it ended when it did, as I'm not sure how much more heartbreak I could have taken on behalf of poor Bunny Jr.

So if you do decide to read this one, please get the audiobook -- it's well worth it, if only to hear the words from the writer/poet himself.


The Book of Three

Whenever I'm at my parents' home, surrounded by the books of my childhood, I will inevitably pick one up and read. (Especially when I'm supposed to be doing things like reading serious book club books or writing business school application essays.) This time, I selected the first of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles: The Book of Three. If you haven't read Lloyd Alexander at all, then I feel terribly sorry for your sad and empty childhood.

The basic plot should seem quite familiar: a peaceful land threatened by evil and the people who must band together to save it. It's the telling of the story that really makes it unique, though.The Prydain Chronicles consist of five books with an epic fantasy storyline, heavily modeled upon Welsh lore. The first book in the series is The Book of Three, where we are introduced to our key players and get our first taste of the threat to Prydain. The dark lord Arawn is mustering forces in his kingdom of Annuvin, led by his champion the Horned King. For years the Sons of Don, who rule Prydain, have kept Arawn in check, but nevertheless, Arawn appears to be making movements to start a war.

Taran is a young man, hungry for adventure and excitement, though he spends his days working on the farm of Caer Dallben. Of course, it isn't quite a normal farm -- among the animals is Hen Wen (an oracular pig of great fame and importance, though Taran has seen no evidence of her powers) and the owner of the farm is Dallben (a scholar and wizard who is over three hundred years old). Still, Taran wishes to learn swordplay and fight like his hero, Prince Gwydion. When he longs for a title and destiny, Coll (a middle aged farmer that is clearly more than he appears to be) names Taran "Assistant Pig Keeper." So when a disturbance causes the animals to flee and Hen Wen to escape, Taran feels responsible and so he runs after her. Almost immediately, Taran discovers that the animals fled because the Horned King is near and Taran becomes injured. He wakes up to find his hero, Prince Gwydion, caring for his injury. Gwydion had been traveling to learn something from Hen Wen, and so he joins Taran in his search for the pig.

As they search, we meet several important characters along the way. Gurgi, a half-animal/half-human creature, tells them that he saw Hen Wen being pursued by the Horned King. After being captured by some of Arawn's fearsome Cauldron-Born (soulless warriors created from the dead), they meet the evil enchantress Queen Achren, who offers Gwydion the chance to join her and with her help, rule Prydain and overthrow Arawn. When he refuses, she throws him and Taran into separate dungeon cells. Taran then meets Princess Eilonwy, a young enchantress of the House of Llyr who is supposed to be learning from her Aunt Achren (though Eilonwy is not convinced that they're related). Eilonwy helps Taran escape and also manages to free "his companion in the other cell," though once they escape and the castle has somehow collapsed, killing everyone still inside (which we later learn is due to Eilonwy's removing a particular sword of power from the castle as they fled), it's discovered that the man Eilonwy rescued from the other cell is not Gwydion. He is Fflewddur Fflam, a king who has given up his kingdom to be an unofficial bard, though he owes his talent to his magic harp, whose strings snap when Fflewddeur bends the truth -- which is quite often. Believing that Gwydion must be dead, Taran takes it upon himself to travel to Caer Dathyl to warn the House of Don, but he is not alone, as Gurgi, Eilonwy and Fflewddur (not to mention Gwydion's very wise horse Melyngar) insist on accompanying him. After a chance meeting with Medwyn, a healer who protects animals, and an encounter with the Fair Folk adds a dwarf named Doli (who cannot turn invisible, unlike the rest of his family, to his intense irritation) to their party, they ultimately must fight and stand against the Horned King.

Not to worry -- we're just at the beginning of the story, so all ends well (Hen Wen is found! Gwydion isn't dead! The Horned King is defeated!), but it's clear that there is real danger afoot that will enter into future books. I challenge you to try and not fall in love with Taran, a very real young man with a good heart who gets the adventure he wants, yet still comes to understand the importance of home and peace. He learns and matures through lots of errors, but is also capable of making the right decision in the face of pressure. He ultimately prevails in this first challenge with the help of his traveling companions. As with all Lloyd Alexander novels, the best part is the sense of comedy and whimsy. Eilonwy talks a great deal and is quick to take Taran down a few notches whenever he's too uptight. As a princess with red-gold hair, it's not hard to understand why this redhead always loved her, but she is a charming and outspoken girl, an excellent role model for young ladies, as she never shies away from a fight and always speaks her mind. Fflewddeur is charming as he repeatedly exaggerates, causing harp strings to snap. And Gurgi, well... Gurgi is a bit annoying, but he means well, so the reader, like Taran, ultimately decides that Gurgi isn't so bad.

As a kid, I loved these books. They're notable in my past as being responsible for my first (and only) request for an extension on a paper. In sixth grade, I asked for a single day extension on a book report, which was granted, as I was writing about the whole series and not just one book. I rather wish I still had that paper, as I'd be curious to read my initial impressions. I'm sure it touched on my elementary understanding of Welsh mythology, but I seem to remember a lot of summarizing of the books... kind of similar to this. Hm.

So if you know a young reader aged 10-12 and they're not quite ready for Tolkien or other, similar fantasy novels, you might point them in Alexander's direction. A bit of a warning for the kiddies, though: there's frequent violence and people do get hurt. Also a word of warning to parents: if you buy the first book, you might as well just buy the whole series for your kid, as s/he will certainly want to keep reading about Taran, Eilonwy, and their friends. When they've finished those, you can then start buying the rest of Alexander's oeuvre. He wrote many gems (my favorite series being, of course, the Vesper Holly books) and frequently played with mythology. He's a funny and charming writer and whether the reader is young or old, I think everyone can find something compelling and delightful about this series.


The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Whenever books receive a certain amount of acclaim, I always worry that they will not live up to my expectations. It's sad, in a way, that when there's a great amount of buzz about a book, my first impulse is to doubt, but I've had my hopes crushed one too many times. So as much as I looked forward to reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I was a bit hesitant to actually pick it up. In the end, there was no reason to fear. This novel is utterly lovely and quite deserves all the praise it has received.

Muriel Barbery sets her novel in Paris at 7 rue de Grenelle, an upper-class residence of apartments, and the story is told from two perspectives. The first is that of Madame Renée Michel, who has been the concierge at 7 rue de Grenelle for twenty-seven years. Renée is 54, somewhat dumpy and nondescript. She exerts a great amount of effort in keeping up the appearance of the average concierge: gruff and ignorant, with a constantly-blaring television and a very fat cat. But despite this projection, Renée is an incredibly intelligent woman, an avid reader of fine literature and philosophy who is unwilling to be found out and recognized for her proclivities. She distrusts the wealthy and isolates herself into a very predictable existence, with a steady routine and one friend. She believes this is enough. Our other narrator is Paloma Josse, a precociously philosophical twelve-year-old resident of the building. Paloma is an introvert who has a tendency to hide from her family so she can be left alone with her thoughts, which she is recording in a journal, along with observations on the world and assessments of those around her. Since she has been disappointed in life and the people in it, she has come to the conclusion that it's better to die young rather than grow up into the kind of adult she sees around her, and so she is planning to commit suicide on her 13th birthday by setting the apartment on fire and taking a number of sleeping pills.

Both of these narrators are incredibly eloquent; Renée is a more touch formal and Paloma has a tendency to present tidy pieces of wit. The first half of the novel is taken up with their observations of various people in the building and musings on their own lives and reading, without any interaction between the two. About midway through the novel, though, both lives are changed when a new resident moves into the building: Kakuro Ozu is a wealthy and successful Japanese gentleman, which would normally slide him into the dismissible category for both of these narrators. But Kakuro is also an observant and thoughtful man, quickly aware of such unique characters as the intelligent concierge (who lets a Tolstoy reference slip in their first short conversation) and the quiet twelve-year-old (who reads manga and is taking Japanese at school). As Renée and Paloma form their separate friendships with Kakuro, they find a kindred spirit in each other, too. If anything, I wish that this coming together of our two narrators had happened a bit earlier, as I felt we didn't have enough interaction between them.

I must give great credit to the translator, Alison Anderson. Muriel Barbery writes in French, so Ms. Anderson plays a crucial role in this novel's appeal to an English-speaking market. I would recommend this book on the basis of its language alone. Yes, it's lofty and often philosophical, but I find that to be delightful. The ideas are refreshing and never dry (indeed, Renée at one time talks about the value of films such as The Hunt for Red October amidst her musings on Japanese films and philosophers). I frequently re-read passages to savor their charm, and certainly believe this is some of the most exquisite language that I've encountered this year. It's truly remarkable to be able to surrender to a well-formed character's voice taking you along on her thought process. Incredibly simple things become fascinating and you wonder if you could ever express things quite so beautifully as Renée and Paloma. These two ladies are utterly charming and while at times, they were somewhat unbelievable as real people, I found that reservation easy enough to cast off before I was delighting in both Renée and Paloma. Of course, I think that Renée was the one to truly steal my heart. Paloma is sweet, yes, but Renée really steals the show.

Ultimately, the book is wonderfully bittersweet, owed entirely to one's feelings about the characters, and I admit that it's been quite some time since I've cried at the end of a novel -- not just misty eyes, but actual tears. The language and the characters continue to drift into my thoughts. I've gone back to look at a few particularly memorable passages with a smile. So don't let the great reviews throw you -- they're all quite true. It's an elegant novel that quite deserves your attention. C'est magnifique.


The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

My roommate does not really own or even buy books. When she moved in and I offered her a bookcase, she said she just needed two shelves. We both read a great deal; she just tends to read magazines, journals, or newspapers. The point of all this is that on a recent trip to London, she bought me a book, which was a big deal for her. It is one of her favorites and I found it to be quite charming.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice (daughter of lyricist Tim Rice) is told from the perspective of Penelope Wallace, an eighteen-year-old girl in 1950s London. Having grown up during the war, she finds herself part of a generation struggling to be young while they still can, listening to music their parents can't stand, falling in love with singers that embody their youths, and indulging in anything that might have once been rationed.

Penelope's family lives at Milton Magna, a medieval ancestral home that is crumbling around their ears and they can ill afford it. Penelope's father died in the war, leaving his very young widow with two young children and the weight of the house's crushing debt. Talitha, a once famed beauty and still devastatingly pretty, is only thirty-five, but rattles away in the house with only her children for comfort as she worries about their poverty. Penelope herself is rather tall and not quite as lovely as her mother (who is constantly being mistaken for her sister when they go out shopping together). Penelope's brother attends boarding school, returning home once in a while to fill the house with music from records that his mother dislikes.

The book starts with an uncharacteristically impulsive decision on the part of Penelope. While waiting for a bus, a pretty girl in a striking green coat announces that she'd like to split a taxi and Penelope takes her up on it. This is how Penelope meets Charlotte Ferris, a vivacious girl who designs her own clothes and shares Penelope's love of American singer Johnnie Ray. Charlotte whisks Penelope off to tea with her eccentric Aunt Clare (who evidently knew Penelope's family once, though Penelope cannot get her mother to say anything on the matter) and the girls become fast friends. Penelope also is introduced to Aunt Clare's son, Harry Delancey, a magician with different colored eyes. All kinds of things can happen to young women in London, particularly when Johnnie Ray is scheduled to come to town and some newcomer named Elvis Prestley is just starting to create a new sound. In exchange for impossible-to-acquire Johnnie Ray tickets, Harry convinces Penelope to attend the engagement party of his old girlfriend and pose as Harry's new girlfriend so he can inspire enough jealousy in the old girlfriend to win her back. Through Charlotte and Harry, Penelope is introduced to a more social world of smart parties and society types beyond the oppressive walls of Magna while still she and her family struggle with their bond to the stately home.

If you enjoyed I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, then you'll find a kindred novel here, though perhaps this is less concerned with the pains of growing up in quite the same ways. There's a bit more poignancy to Smith's novel, but The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is still quite lovely in its own right. Rice paints an interesting picture of post-war American-English relations, particularly emphasizing the importance of music. The emergence of Elvis Prestley becomes a key moment in the life of Penelope's brother, who has his own musical aspirations. I found the mindset of the younger generation of characters (meaning Penelope, Charlotte, and so forth) to be quite interesting: these young people who grew up during the war and can hardly imagine a world without it, resulting in a somewhat skewed perspective that is attempting to right itself. Items like a new department store dress are incredibly precious and wonderful, which might seem trite, are actually poignant and lovely in a story that isn't beating you over the head with themes of poverty or the Depression.

The characters are charming, though perhaps too many crucial encounters depend on chance. While I found the general plot to be a bit predictable (once all the main players are accounted for, as a few people are introduced a bit late), I was not disappointed a bit. Charlotte and Penelope are very different kinds of girls, though their friendship (despite its odd origin) is believable as they both find something fascinating about the other. It's also pleasant to see a post-war friendship depicted, even in young people, where one of them doesn't do something terrible to the other, as I feel is so often the case in books or films about this period. Someone always seems to be stealing a boyfriend or telling a lie that results in painful loss... it was refreshing to not have such out-of-place drama here, and instead, we're simply dealing with relationships between people. And Rice is certainly more concerned with those relationships, often at the cost of setting descriptions. I should have liked to hear more about London at the time, but then, she has invested all her location description energy in Magna. This looming and historic estate is lovingly presented, evoking both its majesty and decay. The idea of a poor family living in an English estate is not a new concept, nor is the fact that it is such an albatross around the neck of the Wallace family, but Rice is compelling in her portrait of the family's complicated relationship with such a home.

Ultimately, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a very charming novel with some minor flaws that can be easily forgiven. This would be a perfect novel for an afternoon where you might find yourself house-bound due to inclement weather (and be sure to have a cup of tea handy). I'm quite grateful to my roommate for introducing me to Eva Rice and even if there's only one copy of the novel in our apartment, at least I know it's one we're both pleased to see on the shelf.



Somewhere between my beginning Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis and my book club discussion of it (which started about two minutes after I finished reading), the following happened, roughly in this order:

  • About twenty pages in, I feared that it was the most misogynist book I had ever picked up.
  • I mentioned this to my significant other and he took the book from me, opening it at random, and read, "Then I tried to rape her again." He balked and returned the book to me, commenting that he'd be interested in hearing the reaction from my all-female book club.
  • Despite my frequent discomfort, I became aware that there was some utterly beautiful writing in this book.
  • I figured out what the twist at the end of the book would be.
  • Martin Amis writes himself into the book and, surprised by this, I ditched my previous assumption as to how things would turn out and just went along with things for a while.
  • I lost count of the instances of exploitation, physical violence, intended violence, or verbal abuse toward women. But I also realized that the book wasn't misogynist at all. (And even if it had been, I had forgotten that no one beats John Updike for the title of most misogynist writer ever.)
  • Whatever his faults, one had to admit that the narrator was unflinchingly honest.
  • I returned to support my previous prediction of what the ending would be, despite the author being a character in his own novel.
  • I became aware that I was actually feeling sorry for the main character, somewhere around his futile attempts at reform.
  • I snickered at a very self-aware section that talked about the rush of finishing a book.
  • The twist ending sets in, as I predicted.
  • I finished the book.
  • While discussing the book with my book club, I realized that I actually really had enjoyed it.

Money is a first person narrative, told from the perspective of John Self, a director on the verge of making his first major film after creating a name for himself by directing commercials that generally featured busty women in hot pants. He is a hedonist the likes of which you may have never encountered; he seems to live on prostitutes and pornography. Weighing sixteen stone, he consumes copious amounts of fast food and is always either drunk or hungover. He lives in London but makes frequent trips out to New York, where he has started to collaborate with Fielding Goodney, a young film producer, who insists that John should actually be spending more money. Also living in New York is Martina Twain, a "friend" of John's and the most normal person in the narrative. She's married and while John certainly wants her, you don't sense the same kind of filthy thoughts directed her as he seems to direct towards every other woman. Back in London, John has an unfaithful girlfriend named Selina who he knows is only interested in the money and potential security he can provide, though as John repeatedly gives into her demands, one can see that Selina clearly has most of the power in this relationship. John's father, Barry Self, is also in London (his mother died when John was young), though they don't have a fantastic relationship. Barry once invoiced John for the costs of his upbringing, which came to a little under nineteen thousand pounds; John wrote him a check for twenty.

John Self has an idea for a movie, which he originally calls Good Money (though eventually this becomes Bad Money and the obvious significance of this should not be lost on you). He and Goodney are looking to procure a writer for the script and four solid actors, though three of the four have basically been locked down and only the fourth is up for minor discussion by the time the book starts. First we have Lorne Guyland, whose career is waning, though he is unaware that. Slated to play the father, Lorne is constantly suggesting "improvements" to the script, which often feature explicit nudity and sex and the ultimate triumph of his character. Lorne repeatedly takes off his clothing when having conversations with John to make a point. Cast as Lorne's wife is Caduta Massi, who might be childless in real life (and thus seems to compensate for this by surrounding herself with family and children) but she is a strong motherly figure. She refuses to perform any nude scenes or any sex scenes with Lorne... and loathes all scenes with Lorne in general. Sexy Butch Beausoleil will play the younger waitress sleeping with both father and son, but refuses to do any menial chores; she agrees with Lorne that there should be explicit sex, but wants to emphasize that as the young woman, she is giving herself to an old man out of pity. And then Spunk Davis (whose name is intentionally awkward) is the questionable fourth; an intense Christian who doesn't smoke, drink, believe in violence, or have sex, with only one film to his credit. Two of John Self's duties are to try and convince Spunk to change his name and to be okay with a father-son fight. Goodney has also settled on a writer, who produces an excellent script that threatens to ruin the entire film with its incisive honesty into the characters/actors portraying the characters, which doesn't fly with actors who each want to be seen as a shining hero. Oh, and there's also this "Frank the Phone" character, an unknown someone who calls John when he's at his lowest moments and berates him for his behavior.

The majority of the novel is spent in drunken binges, reflections on handjobs, and John's careening between interactions with the people above (which are often drunken and sometimes sexual in nature). The surprise guest (as I mentioned before) is the character of Martin Amis, who appears as a writer that John occasionally sees around his London neighborhood and eventually John speaks to him at a pub. Amis comes into play when John tries to "save" the script by having Amis re-write it to appease the actors. At this point, John's life seems to be working itself out: Selina leaves him after becoming pregnant with Martina's husband's child, Martina kicks her husband out, and John essentially moves in with Martina, resulting in an interesting companionship where John can't seem to perform now that he actually "has" Martina. Of course, it doesn't last.

So why did I actually enjoy this novel? Don't get me wrong, there's a lot that just wasn't up my alley. I would never actually want to know these people or have anything to do with them, but that's the beauty of reading about them in a novel... when you've had your fill, you can set the book down. Of course, with this one, you don't want to set it down; despite the content, it's hard to refute that Martin Amis is quite the wordsmith. I don't know that I've ever encountered a writer who can make me laugh while simultaneously cringing to the same degree as Amis. I certainly don't like John Self as a person, for he's an incredibly unsavory character, but I can't help but be pulled in by his narrative. He's riding the wave of his success, completely binging on cigarettes, women, alcohol, porn and whatever else he can get ahold of. Money is at the root of almost every single interaction and Self appears to be the only one who cannot see that he's in for one heck of a crash should the money dry up. Such satire generally aims to bring about some reformation in the main character, but with the subtitle like "A Suicide Note" and with John's general grasp of the world, it is hard to hope for any true reform... which aids in the creation of an atmosphere of such tragedy and devastation while everything is still terribly funny. Self is only bringing all of this upon... well... himself.

Martin Amis, as you may well know, is the son of writer Kingsley Amis, who famously took little notice of his son's work. Evidently he once complained of his son's writing that all he's doing is, "Breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, [and:] drawing attention to himself." Martin Amis attended many schools (and like John Self, he was familiar with both England and New Jersey), but ultimately he graduated from my college at Oxford University, Exeter College. He has been cited as "the Bad Boy" of English fiction (mostly because of his chosen topics for his novels), but I prefer the description the NY Times has used, which says Amis is simply at the forefront of "the new unpleasantness" style.

His comic talent lies simply in describing things as they are in the postmodern world and he is firmly rooted to this time period, describing it for all the energy and chaos it embodies. It might not be an obvious comparison, but it's actually somewhat clear to me that he found Jane Austen to be an influence upon his work, given the unflinching honesty and biting wit that he uses to describe characters. Perhaps that's why I ultimately found this to be quite an impressive novel. Of course, the fantastic sentence construction, shockingly beautiful prose and great comedic insight had to help.

I might not recommend this novel to the squeamish (and indeed, I'm not sure I'd ever actually *give* this novel to anyone, because I'm not sure what kind of message that would send), but if you're able to move beyond the unpleasantness, it's quite a compelling read. Would I wish to live in this world of selfishness, manipulation, and obscenity? Heavens no. But will I be reading more Martin Amis in the future? Fuck yeah.


Rebel Angels

So, remember how I said I wouldn't continue reading this series unless I stumbled upon a used copy of the next books? Well, I found one of Rebel Angels, the second in the series by Libba Bray, and I also had an afternoon where all I wanted was something easy to read that I could finish quickly. This fit the bill.

Of course, that doesn't mean that I liked the second novel any more than the first. I actually preferred the first, because this seemed to fall victim to the usual muddled second novel problems.

It is shortly before Christmas at Spence, a finishing school for girls in England, and everyone is getting ready to return to their homes for the holidays. Gemma is scheduled to head to London for Christmas with her grandmother, father, and brother; Felicity will also be in London with her father the Admiral and her mother, who is hosting the most popular ball of the Christmas season; and poor, orphaned Ann will be staying at Spence with the servants. It's been nearly two months since the girls learned about the Order, visited the Realms, and had their terrible encounter with Circe. This resulted in the death of their friend Pippa, who chose to remain in the Realms rather than face a loveless marriage and continue keeping her epilepsy a secret. While Felicity, Gemma and Ann miss her dearly, Gemma is unwilling to enter the Realms again for fear of what she'll find there, after having smashed the stones that kept the magic from flowing freely. It is only after a visit from Kartik (the young Indian man ordered to watch Gemma in the last novel by his own sect, the Rakshana) where he urges her to enter the Realms again to bind the magic in the Temple that Gemma and her friends attempt to return. Of course, what Gemma doesn't know is that Kartik has been ordered to help her find the Temple, bind the magic to the Rakshana instead of the Order, and then kill her. Kartik has mixed feelings on this last bit, seeing as he seems as conflictingly smitten with Gemma as she is with him.

Rather than separate the girls for the course of the narrative (which takes place entirely during the Christmas break), Felicity uncharacteristically invites Ann home with her for the holidays with the plan of spreading the rumor that Ann is really descended from Russian royalty. Before Gemma even makes it home from the train station, she meets Simon, a young aristocrat of good breeding. He's rumored to have a bit of a reputation as a ladies' man, but he seems rather open in his courtship of her. There are a number of other details that all come into play in terms of the narrative: Gemma's brother is desperately trying to break their father's addiction to laudanum (and later, opium) while home from his duties as a doctor at Bethlam Bedlam insane asylum; Gemma learns of a girl at Bethlam who might also have access to the Realms and know where to find the temple; there's concern over a new teacher at Spence who might know more than she lets on; Gemma meets up once again with Miss Moore, their old art teacher from Spence who lost her job as a result of Gemma and her friends; Felicity's family has taken on a new ward which irritates Felicity, though perhaps not for entirely selfish reasons; and while it might be nice to see Pippa again, Gemma is uncertain whether Pippa can be trusted, as souls in the Realms who do not cross over are usually corrupted. Of all these, the last is the most interesting, as Bray seems to have no problem turning beautiful Pippa into a rather terrifying creature before the book is over.

So as you can see, there's a lot of balls in the air and Bray tries her best to keep them all going. I found that there were a few too many scenes that didn't seem that necessary. One of which involved Gemma dressing up as a boy to pull her father out of an opium den. Perhaps the most irritating scene of all, though, took place at a ball when Simon persuades Gemma and her friends into trying absinthe... which unsurprisingly has a bad effect on Gemma, who already sees visions of ghostly things without any aid from substances. Exactly why we needed a scene where she starts screaming and Simon tries to calm her down, under the belief that she's screaming because of his rather forward behavior, I do not know. Nor do I know why Simon seems totally fine with her afterward, as I would imagine he'd be a little put off. Ultimately, however, I suppose the worst sin is that despite being a fantasy novel, I found that once again, I simply didn't find myself captivated by the Realms. All the fantasy and magic seemed too vague and not quite interesting for me. Ann is annoying, Felicity is a bit too brazen (though really, she's the one I mind least), and Gemma still doesn't seem like she's a heroine who is capable of bringing any kind of resolution to the Realms and the Order. She's not terribly bright and I still can't imagine her as being a proper redhead. And as if that wouldn't make her stand out enough, she has the whole childhood in India thing going for her and she still manages to be this shrinking violet. Ugh.

Despite all this, we know perfectly well that I'll finish the series, but I wish that I could hope for something better than the first two novels. Ah well.


The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri

The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri is a rich and incredibly sensuous story about books, love, and the equations that make up our lives.

Philip Masryk is a brilliant mathematician/investment consultant who often finds himself scribbling mathematical formulas to represent the interactions and events around him. While he finds this to generally be a helpful way of viewing the world, people often become variables that are hard to predict. He's been married twice and has two ex-step-children, in whose lives he still plays a very minor role, but the only constant in his life has been his friend and lover, a book-binder named Irma Arcuri. The book opens as Philip is notified of her disappearance and the fact that she has bequeathed to him her collection of 351 books, all of which she had bound herself and a few of which she has written. No one seems to believe that Irma is actually dead, simply that she has chosen to disappear from her life and perhaps embark on some other adventure, but Philip wants to find her and believes that the secret to doing so lies within his newly inherited library.

Philip's search spans literature and continents, though many of his revelations are found within the people that make up Philip's life. The narrative goes back and forth in time, concerned not only with Philip and Irma's relationship but with Philip and Irma's individual relationships with others... such as Philip's two ex-wives, his best friend, Philip's two ex-step-children, and perhaps even a woman Philip meets in a bar after Irma has already disappeared. Philip, who has not read much of anything contained within Irma's library, selects which book to read next in a very calculated manner, believing that Irma has planned this.

The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri is clearly an homage to literature and the role it plays in our lives. Bajo chooses a very intriguing mix of titles to highlight here (including Borges, Cervantes, Camus, Sebald, and others), and makes things all the more interesting when Philip realizes that in re-binding these books, Irma may have made adjustments to the text within, too. In addition to presenting something that treats books as precious touchstones in our lives, Bajo has also captured the sensual experience surrounding literature and the intimacy of sharing stories with another. This is a very sexual book and Bajo doesn't shy away from dealing with sex quite directly. I never found it to be too ridiculous, though... just quite prevalent. (It was so very sensual, in fact, that even though I usually pass books along to my mother, I told her that this was unsuitable for parents and if she wanted a copy, she'd have to go and get one herself. My significant other, however, has already been told to move this up to the top of his list.)

For a true book lover, it's hard to not find something deeply seductive about the allure of books. And when you add a beautiful and sexy woman into the mix... well... let's just say that I would have crumbled just as easily as any other of Irma's conquests. There are some truly beautiful passages and ideas being expressed... in addition to the steamy sex scenes mentioned above. There were a few flaws within the narrative and I'm not entirely sure that the ending left me satisfied, but as I believe this is Bajo's first novel, I consider myself quite impressed. Selections from Philip's reading have the habit of flowing into the text without too much notation, so the reader must keep on his or her toes to understand just which writer is responsible for what he/she is reading. There were moments when it came to Philip's relationship with his ex-step-children where I wasn't convinced of the storyline's necessity, or at least of its prominence, but nothing too severe. The only thing that truly irked me with this book was the fact that nearly all of the characters in the novel are runners... and Philip seems to run so often that I was convinced his heart would burst. Is it possible for someone to run that often every day and still stand? Let alone participate in all those sex scenes? Sure, he was raised by steeplechaser parents, but even so! I felt like quite a sedentary creature as Philip sprinted through towns in multiple countries, no matter his occasional complaints about getting older. It seemed excessive.

On the whole, I loved this novel -- when you find yourself as a reader being seduced by the main characters, it's hard not to connect with it. If you're looking for a luscious read and you're up to being challenged by a twisting and turning storyline, then I sincerely recommend a comfy chair beside a fire, a glass of wine, and this novel. You'll find it to be a pleasurable experience.


The Magicians

Before I say anything, I want to thank Lev Grossman for being generous with his time and visiting my book club to discuss his book, The Magicians. He was open to all questions, insisted that we should pull no punches, and a lot of the stories he shared about writing the book were great. We were very excited about having an author there to discuss his book, and the fact that he spent two hours with us was a testament to his willingness to chat with readers.

That said, The Magicians is not without a few flaws and because I want to discuss everything in depth, this review has two parts to it. The first part is my usual review -- a general overview of the book and my overall reaction. The second part is a bit weird, because it's more or less a bunch of individual topics of discussion from the book, which means there are spoilers galore. BUT the second part ALSO has more to do with the visit that Grossman paid to my book club, so feel free to make your own decision about how much you read.

To start, if you heard this book described as "Harry Potter for adults" and you're looking for a magical book that could in any way merit the term "fantasy," this is not the book for you. If you are looking for a fiction book that deals with magic as though it is brought into our existing world for a select few as another facet of life, but there is a distinct lack of joy and wonderment, then your search is at an end.

I've had mixed feelings about The Magicians from the moment I read its description in a review, and those mixed feelings continue even now, after I've gotten to speak with the author and ask some lingering questions. I was initially intrigued by the idea, but had already decided to wait for paperback when my book club selected it, with the tantalizing potential of actually having Lev Grossman come to talk to us through the contacts of one of the members. I bought it; I took off the slipcover so it wouldn't be damaged as it knocked about in my purse; and I was immediately annoyed by the embossed "L.G." on the front cover. I like pretentiousness, don't get me wrong, but seriously? I should have taken this as a sign of things to come.

Those embossed initials don't even come close to the tone of the novel in general and the main character in particular. And not in a good "this is a really fascinating character" kind of way. I have so rarely wanted to punch a fictional person as much as I wanted to punch Quentin Clearwater, our protagonist. I'm a pacifist and I dislike violence, but it was a visceral reaction that would surge through me, forcing me to set the book down and take a deep breath before I could pick it up again. This annoyance would abate, and there were moments of pleasure and amusement, but through it all, I couldn't help but think that if I could just get in one solid punch, I'd be able to feel better about everything. Of course, Quentin does get punched at one point, and while I was pleased by that scene, I can't say that it really made me feel better, so perhaps I'm wrong about the therapeutic punching. (Note: despite the fact that Quentin is very closely aligned with the author in tone, this pugilistic impulse never focused on the author, thankfully. Though perhaps it helped that a month passed between my reading the book and discussing the book with the author and my book club.)

The basic storyline is this. Quentin Clearwater has grown up in Brooklyn with a penchant for magic tricks, an obsession with a series of children's books set in a land called Fillory, and a very acute awareness of his own incredible intelligence. He's always been advanced, he's always been an A-student, yet now that he's applying to and interviewing for colleges, he somehow feels a bit nervous. But when he shows up for his interview, he discover the body of his interviewer, dead of seemingly natural causes. A rather out-of-place and attractive paramedic offers Quentin a folder that might or might not have belonged to the dead interviewer and Quentin takes it, despite his friend cautioning otherwise. When Quentin inspects the contents, a slip of paper is blown away and in chasing it, he finds himself entering what appears to be an alternate world. Of course, it's not an alternate world but it might as well be; it's upstate New York and Quentin has arrived/been summoned to take an entrance exam for an elite school -- and once passing, he learns that the school is a school for magic. Instead of college, he will attend Brakebills and learn how to be a magician. Magic is real. His world is forever changed, but whether it's for the better or worse is up for debate.

Sound familiar? It should. (Well, at least up until the the better or worse bit.) It's the plot of countless fantasy novels where a young person is spirited away from a boring or painful existence and exposed to a world of magic. It is impossible not to think of Harry Potter (though Grossman insists that he conceived of the idea of this novel before The Boy Who Lived entered our lives). What makes The Magicians different is that it includes a few things that other similar novels do not (notably, lots of sex, alcohol, and swearing) and it ventures to pose some questions left unimagined in Narnia or Hogwarts. Instead of staying in school for the duration of the novel, these magicians continue on, into the world, and are left to ask "what's the point?" If you can cast a spell, can you ever really grow up? And if magic cannot make you happy, can anything?

A few words of assessment before I launch into spoiler-land. First of all, I am glad that I read this book. And I'm glad that it was written. I'm just not sure that Grossman was the best one to do it. It was very hard not to associate Quentin with Grossman (and Grossman himself admitted to being quite closely aligned with Quentin when he discussed the novel with my book club) and I think we get too bogged down with Quentin to really explore the more interesting questions about magic that the book touches upon. I did, however, like the book more after speaking with Grossman. Sure, it was nice to have a few suspicions validated, but it also reminded me that books are written by imperfect people with original ideas, and I'd rather have them attempt to bring those ideas into the world than leave them to languish in their minds.

For fantasy-lovers, I urge a bit of caution in reading this novel. True, the book is riddled with touchstones and nods to other works (Fillory is quite obviously Narnia and jokes are made at one time about Quidditch)... but perhaps the biggest issue that I had with The Magicians is that the tone of the novel felt calculated. It was as though Grossman (being a fantasy reader himself) knew his market well -- and to win over the readers with a sense of being "in" on things, he left these nods to other stories so readers could go, "hey, I know where he got that idea!" or "look at that joke about this other book!" But instead of feeling like there was camaraderie between reader and writer in this recognition, there was a touch of disdain. Even as Grossman tried to lure the readers in by presenting himself as one of them, it felt as though he looked down on their love of these other works. Quentin is never really happy (and indeed, my book club unanimously agreed that without medication, he was incapable of happiness), and so I had the distinct impression that if I took delight in those other fantasy novels and expressed happiness, then I was being seen as a bit childish. The novel judges fantasy as a genre for never dealing with deeper issues, and so similarly, the reader, too, feels judged. Grossman himself didn't give this impression in person, and insisted that he's always loved fantasy (though he does have some HP issues). Perhaps it was simply my own misreading, but this seemed to be a book with a lack of respect for lighter fantasy, save as a medium through which to tell people that they're indulging in escapism. If you can be happy, then you can't possibly have it in you to tackle the bigger questions of magic. Magic was discussed without any spark of belief or wonder or joy... and so I found it very hard to see any appeal in the worlds that Grossman conjured, or feel any concern for the characters who populated them. All of this doesn't stop the book from being very interesting and having some excellent moments that made me laugh or feel deeply for the characters. There are some delightful scenes that I re-read with relish. But on the whole, I had serious doubts about how honest Grossman was being, with the readers and himself, as it pertained to his relationship with fantasy writing.

From this point on, I warn you that I will give things away. If you want to read the book and don't want any plot points spoiled, stop now. If you have read the book already, don't think you will, or don't think that knowing things about the ending of the book will stop you, then by all means, keep reading and feel free to initiate discussion on any of the topics that I raise. If nothing else, this was a great book for raising discussion questions, both about the book itself and the fantasy genre as a whole. My formal review ends here. Now it's just summaries and interesting discussion topics.


Here's the quick summary of the rest of the book. The major bulk of the novel is spent in "Book One," where Quentin attends Brakebills and learns magic. The most shocking incident occurs when somehow, a magic force (referred to as "the Beast") "hacks" into Brakebills and seems to do nothing except freeze a class in place and devour a student, departing after a few hours of keeping the class frozen in place. The encounter with the Beast alerts us to the reality of other "dimensions" of existence. As for the rest of the magical education, there are a few interesting parts (the most notable being a semester where the students are transformed into geese, fly to Antarctica, and then spend the semester mostly in silence and practical application of the rudiments of magic in every possible condition) but otherwise it's not terribly memorable. Quentin acquires a girlfriend (Alice), as well as a few other friends, mostly by virtue of their being thrown together in their studies: Eliot (gay, cruel, and somehow Quentin's closest friend after Alice), Janet (self-obsessed and a bit promiscuous), Josh (lazy and skirting along), and Penny (detached, brilliant, though not quite a friend as punches Quentin fairly early on). When Quentin and Alice enter the real world (Book Two), they become lost as to what they should be doing (or at least Quentin does), and only gain direction (perhaps too late, though, as Quentin has cheated on Alice by having a threesome with Eliot and Janet) when Penny discovers that Fillory is real. (Now, if the reader is looking at a hardcover edition of this book, s/he would probably assume that we go to Fillory at some point, because there are maps. But we don't get to Fillory until we're already SEVENTY PERCENT THROUGH THE BOOK. So you'd be forgiven if you were surprised when we actually do go, because I had almost given up on ever getting to actual Fillory.) They do, indeed, go to Fillory (Book Three) and take upon themselves the quest of finding the guardians of Fillory who seem to have disappeared and left the land a bit lawless. Naturally, this goes horribly wrong as they're confronted with true violence and they discover that the Beast is actually one of the children who appeared in the Fillory books that was left behind and learned how to manipulate magic for his own purposes. Alice dies in destroying the Beast, and Quentin nearly dies as well. He revives, mends, and finds his way back to "the real world," (Book Four) where he gives up magic for a time, but when given the opportunity to re-join his friends and return to Fillory... he chooses Fillory once more.

Now, here are a few "fun facts" that my book club learned from Lev Grossman.

1. Grossman based the structure of the novel on Brideshead Revisited, which is one of his favorite novels. As strange as this might sound, consider the basic arch -- a rather idyllic beginning in an elite college atmosphere followed with an abrupt (and alcohol-sodden) entry into the "real world" where the characters find it hard to cope.

2. Grossman claims that he thought of the idea for this novel in the mid-90s, "before Harry Potter" as a result of his exposure to authors like Ursula K. Le Guin (with whom Grossman is now acquainted and on a first-name basis) and other fantasy literature that featured students schooled in magic.

3. There's no getting away from the comparison that Fillory is startlingly like Narnia. It's foolish to suggest otherwise. And in fact, Grossman told us that the first draft of The Magicians actually was set in Narnia, with Aslan and CS Lewis as characters. Of course, he then spoke with some intellectual property lawyers and friends who told him that sure, it's possible, he could go ahead with a book set in Narnia, but the legal issues would put him up against the CS Lewis estate and Walt Disney Pictures... so you're also up against unlimited money to fund a legal battle that could drag on. So the idea of immediately being set in Narnia was abandoned and Fillory was born.

4. In talking with Grossman, one inevitably finds that he tends to name drop. He's a journalist who does a great deal of interviews and he wrote a book that draws heavily on other novels, so it's easily forgiveable. He admits to constantly adding in things that serve as nods to other works of fiction. You'd be right in your guess that the whole turning-into-geese thing is a nod to TH White's The Sword in the Stone and that the cacodemons imprisoned in the backs of Brakebills graduates are inspired from Larry Niven. Another one that I might add to this (which wasn't explicitly mentioned, though Grossman did mention this author as an inspiration) is Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. In this series, you find that a lot of power and magic is invested in children and when they grow up, their daemons stabilize -- and indeed, "growing up" might simply be synonymous with having sex. Grossman made a point of insisting that fantasy tends to see sex as the end of magic, whereas he believed that "sex isn't the end of magic, it's the beginning." I found this to be a great viewpoint, though the sex that occurs in The Magicians isn't always magical. On the whole, though, Grossman tended to say "I don't know if any of you have read [insert author/book]" quite a lot, as he must be fairly used to addressing audiences that wouldn't know his more obscure influences. Quite proudly, I can say that there wasn't a single reference to a book or author that he made which at least one of my book club members hadn't read.

5. Grossman repeatedly mentioned that one of the issues he had with Harry Potter (and there were several) was with the character of Dudley Dursley. When Grossman interviewed JK Rowling, he even left some of his limited interview time to address the question of Dudley. Rowling insists that Dudley is simply an unimaginative child who has no interest in magic, but Grossman believes that he would. A child on the fringe of a magical world without any interest in it whatsoever? It rubbed him the wrong way. Julia (a girl Quentin grew up with and ends up dating his best friend while Quentin pines for her) is Grossman's answer to Dudley. Quentin thinks he sees Julia at the exam, then is confronted by her at a later date, when she's completely lost it -- she's a person driven mad by the limited exposure to this magical world and then denied access. Grossman's other issue with Harry Potter is with the fact that Harry is too much of a jock and never seems to pick up a book for the duration of his magical education. Clearly, Quentin's obsession with fantasy books is correcting what Grossman believed should have been a trait of Harry. Jokingly, he even called Harry "a bit of a douchebag." Of course, he also said that he was a fan of Rowling's series, "in the limited way on can be a Harry Potter fan."

6. As far as his alignment with Quentin is concerned, Grossman admitted, "Quentin is very much like me at his age... he's very much like I was at 34" (the age at which he started writing the book). He also noted that his own battle with depression certainly found its way into Quentin's character as well, along with his somewhat distant relationship with his parents.

7. The most surprising revelation of the evening, however, was when Grossman told us that originally, it was Janet and not Alice that was supposed to die. If you search the book, you'll notice that there's a great amount of foreshadowing that points to this. (Indeed, while reading the book, I was of the opinion that Janet would get it in the end... after all, she's one of the first to admit to sex and it's always the girl who has sex that ends up dying in the horror movie.) Eventually, an intervention was performed by his editor who sat him down and explained that Janet must be given a reprieve and Alice is the one who has to be sacrificed. This surprised me greatly, as I always rather assumed Alice would have to die, too, (after all, in the first scene with Alice, the breaking of the glass animal seemed to suggest that she'd be similarly shattered in the end). When I asked how on earth the book would end with Alice alive, Lev started to explain, stopped and smirked. "No, it really wouldn't have worked at all well, would it?" (I'll talk more about Grossman's use of female characters in the novel later.)

8. Yes, there will be a sequel, and as of now, Lev Grossman is planning for a trilogy. (One of our group adamantly insisted that he simply couldn't plan a trilogy as it didn't have a chance of working well. Instead, she suggested, he should write a sequel and if things go well, then go for the third, but if he plans for three, he'll fail miserably. Lev took this in stride.)

I found a lot of what Grossman had to offer in our book club discussion to be fantastic. While I might have been the only one to come with a list of questions (it's just how I function, and hence why I have a ridiculous number of individual discussion points about the book), we always had things to ask and we spent nearly three hours in discussion. So from here on out, I'm basically just noting certain topics of conversation about the book (particular scenes or themes).

The epigraph. The book begins with a selection from Shakespeare's The Tempest. It's from act five, where Prospero is telling the audience that he's going to give up magic once he's back in the real world. In addition, when Quentin is taking the entrance exam for Brakebills, part of the exam asks him to read a passage from The Tempest and translate it into a made-up language. Clearly The Tempest means something to Grossman here -- which is not surprising in terms of the main character/author link. Prospero is frequently aligned with Shakespeare as an aging "magician" speaking directly to the audience as he spins his tales and controls the fates of those on stage. It doesn’t seem out of line that Grossman is making a nod to himself as Quentin – a dissatisfied creature who expects more from himself than what can be given. But I wanted to know why Grossman had selected this particular epigraph, as the idea of Quentin giving up magic is kind of ridiculous and Grossman seems to know that. Once exposed to magic, there's no going back. So when it looks like Quentin has "given up" magic at the end of the novel, I never believed for a moment that this would hold true. Grossman nodded and said that at the end of many fantasy novels (particularly Narnia, which was a huge influence here), everyone seems to get kicked out of the magical land and then return to the nonmagical one without too much fuss. They renounce magic and seem okay with it. Of course, it's not like they have to go back to their exact lives, but it's kind of a "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here" kind of thing. Grossman also said that he thought some people might have been fooled into believing that Quentin really was giving up on magic, though if they did, then they didn't quite understand what he was doing with much of this book.

The Brooklyn joke. Throughout the book, Grossman kind of beats this joke to death -- the idea that once he's gotten to Brakebills, Quentin hates Brooklyn and would rather die than return to it. Granted, I think this can stand for the larger idea of being banished to one's previous existence after having one's eyes opened to a bigger world than that which we knew. After all, no college student is totally comfortable when they return home for the holidays and find themselves in under his/her parent's roof and rules once more. Grossman himself lives in Brooklyn, so one must assume that he has some fondness for it, but he said that while he was writing this book, "I was living in Brooklyn over the Bagel Delight ... Brooklyn just seemed like the most unmagical place." (And yes, that would be in Park Slope, mere blocks from my apartment.) I suppose I fault Grossman's lack of imagination here, or perhaps it was simply a darker point of life that led him to believe there was no magic in the real world at all, and Brooklyn was the one to bear the weight of that accusation. Needless to say, though, the joke was overused and irritated this Brooklynite.

The idea of games in novels. In reading The Magicians one might easily come away with the idea that Grossman believed a magical game to be a staple of fantasy, something one must include but he didn't seem very pleased about doing so. Welters is somewhat based on chess because Grossman wanted there to be some measure of intellectual strategy (he did not reference the giant chess game from HP in his explanation), but during the game, Quentin essentially throws in the towel and suggests that the game is pointless. To me, this seems like pretty clear criticism. Grossman, however, said that he loves novels with games in them. Thus, I felt a huge disconnect in what the novel seemed to be saying about games and what Grossman seemed to suggest about his own feelings.

The issue of his female characters. For a bunch of feminists, this was a big topic for us. Grossman's female characters are simply not as developed as his male characters. Granted, no one is as well-developed as Quentin, but the female characters like Julia, Alice, and Janet tend to be vehicles for larger ideas rather than characters in their own rights. One of the suggestions that Grossman said he receives from people is to re-write The Magicians from the perspective of Julia, the girl who didn't make it into Brakebills and essentially loses it as a result. Julia tracks down Quentin and accosts him, pathetically showing him the magic that he assumes she learned off of an internet site. Of course, by the end of the novel, Julia is a hedgewitch with enough of a grasp on magic that Janet and Eliot seem to think she's an acceptable addition to their party which will return to Fillory. Janet is a girl of uncertain motivation, which is most likely the result of the drastic destiny change. Originally Grossman planned to kill her off, but instead, she survives to make us all wonder what her purpose might have been throughout the novel if not to serve as a casualty in the fight against the Beast, aside from sleeping with several other characters. Well, that and foolishly (and irrationally, I think) unleashing the cacodemon imprisoned in her back the night after she receives it because she feels sorry for it. And then there's Alice. Alice, whose brother died at Brakebills, turning into a niffin after performing a spell for a girl than went wrong. Alice is smart, loving, and sympathetic... yet she's still defined through her relationship with Quentin. Despite coming off as the best and brightest of her class, she's evidently content to do nothing in her first year out of Brakebills, contrary to her own impulses, simply because that's what Quentin wishes to do. It's natural that her depiction should be limited when viewed through the eyes of another, but I feel that Alice definitely got the short end of the stick here, because she could have been much more than simply the one who could see and do the things that Quentin could not.

The "fox rape" scene. When in Antarctica, the professor in charge turns the students into foxes for a while -- and in this baser state, without human inhibitions, Quentin and Alice have sex for the first time. In the scene, it's a little uncertain how willing Alice is in the situation, though it's noted that her eyes rolled with pleasure (and later she mentions that it was nice). What is clearly written is that these instincts simply took over them. While I referred to this as the "fox rape" scene in my head (and another of the girls in book club definitely saw this as a rape scene), I don't necessarily think this was a rape against Alice -- I kind of thought that both Quentin and Alice were violated when they were forced into this state where they had no control over the fact that they were attracted to each other. I'm also not outraged or upset with the scene's inclusion, though. I actually thought it was an interesting event, given the context of their whole world where they give themselves over to the judgment of their teachers. I would have been irritated if this event had suddenly opened them up to a real relationship, but instead, it was treated as this awkward thing that neither of them knew how to deal with. I was more skeptical about the detached orgies that seemed to happen when the students were in Antarctica (Grossman evidently was remembering Adams House at Harvard, which was called the sex dorm).

Very precise details that may or may not have a purpose. Now, fantasy novels are usually chock full of lovely details that often serve a purpose. Small, seemingly random, things are noted -- and chances are, you'll see them have meaning within the larger whole of the book. Oftentimes, we come across something early on that plays an important role later in the book. True for lots of fantasy and certainly true for J.K. Rowling, who always seemed to have something like this pop up in a book. There are a few things like that in The Magicians... and a few things that should have been tied in a whole lot better. In fact, a lot of things that should have been tied in. There was a great amount of detail that felt wasted to me... detail for the sake of detail, which is just poor writing.

An example of a good tie-in: When the paramedic (who we later learn was Jane Chatwin, the youngest of the children who went to Fillory) is introduced, it's noted that she has a single button that's different from the other buttons. Later, we're told that in the last Fillory book, the children are given buttons that would allow them to go to Fillory any time they wanted, but one of the older children hides them, insisting that it's not right that they should have that ability. The idea is that the buttons were lost forever, but in fantasy, few things are ever lost forever. An astute reader might put the button clues together early on, but it's not necessary. Penny finds a button and gets them to Fillory and we meet Jane later on. This was a great detail that slipped in and then had a purpose later on.

This, however, was one of the few things like that. There were many many other details that popped up and had no value. They only served as points of annoyance, because it was meaningless detail. (1) Quentin evidently calls Alice "Vix" as a term of endearment as a result of their foxy beginning... once. Or rather, it's mentioned that he called her this, but that's the only time we ever see it used. Chances are, this came up again in some draft, so really, it's poor editing to leave it in. (2) At the beginning of their magical education, the students spend night and day with a marble each -- and this marble is the focus for much of their initial experimentation. Quentin names his marble "Martin" (the name of the child who becomes "The Beast"). After such focus on the marbles, you'd think something might come up again later. All I can come up with is that this is hinting to the reader that the real Martin is much more important than we might realize, as he comes back as the Beast, but I feel like I'm just forcing meaning into that one. (3) Disciplines... everyone goes through the idea of having a Discipline but Quentin never tests into one... and then it hardly seems to matter! The only purpose seems to be to get Alice and Quentin closer to "the Physical Kids" -- Janet, Eliot and Josh -- but then the concept of Disciplines gets rather abandoned. It was rather annoying to introduce this structure and then never have anything come of it. It felt like the desire to "sort" people in an HP way. (4) The silver statue of the bird that is in Fogg's office. It's a partially transformed metal bird, serving perhaps as a reminder about magic that doesn't quite work. I asked Grossman if this was the weathervane that Richard was drunkenly convinced he could transform into a real bird. Grossman smiled and said he hadn't thought of that.

I could keep going, but I'll stop here. There wasn't any indication that these things would come back in future novels, but perhaps I'll be pleasantly surprised. (Well, except that Alice is dead, so we can't call her Vix. And we've moved beyond marbles. And Disciplines. So that leaves the silver bird.)

Alice and Quentin skip a year. A Brakebills education is supposed to last five years, but rather randomly, Quentin, Alice, and Penny are approached in their second year by faculty who suggest that they should take an exam to see if they're ready to skip a year. There's no purpose this, aside from banding them together and then breaking them apart. (This little threesome will be an important focal point later on, too, when Alice sleeps with Penny to get back at Quentin for his Janet/Eliot threesome.) When we asked him about this, he admitted that five years started to seem a little long, and this was an easy way to create the Alice-Quentin-Penny tension. I'm not quite sure that's enough for me, but ah well.

Slipping out of character. Grossman allows his characters to slip out of character when the mood suits or it’s good for a laugh. Pretentious and articulate young people are suddenly baffled when one of them has a somewhat complicated conversation with an adult; Quentin’s parents are first seen as concerned and then brushed off quite easily and find themselves surprised when he’s in the house and home on breaks; it’s suggested that Quentin has never called anyone “sir” before. It was irritating to see that it was easy to break out of character to have a laugh.

The stand-out sentences. Perhaps it's not a criticism of the book, but of Grossman's style. He has certain sentences that pop-out painfully. They're probably intended to be clever or beautiful and poetic... but really, they just seemed dreadfully out of place. They didn't even feel like Grossman, really, so I half-wondered if they were sentences or phrases that he had gotten from other places or people. Some examples: “That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog. To tell you the truth, I’m kind of glad he hit you.” and “Just then, for an instant, the film of reality slipped off the spokes of its projector.”

Of course, there were some great things that Grossman included, which I feel a need to list out here, as I know the overall tone of these points are fairly negative. (1) After talking about annoying lines, I'll start with a line that I really enjoyed. When Alice has just died and the Beast/Martin has been defeated: “Quentin either fainted or died, he didn’t know which.” (2) When the students are transformed into geese to fly off to Antarctica, I thought that Grossman did a great job of presenting a very single-focus perspective. I also liked the reality of things here; as when Quentin is tossed off the tower by a teacher and he “shat on her feet in panic.” (3) It was predictable, but I liked the fact that Quentin and Alice were the only ones to embark on the optional Antarctica survival trial. (4) The swearing. Sure, sometimes it's over-the-top, but it's nice to recognize that young adults swear a great deal, and certainly would in some of these situations. It was also interesting how Grossman would very consciously seem to make a stance on certain swearing... for instance, when the phrase "howling cunt" is used, he writes that "howling" was a big word at Brakebills that year. (5) My favorite scene of the book is when Quentin and Alice have split and Quentin loses it when he realizes that Alice has slept with Penny. Unable to do anything else, he seizes ahold of his anger and becomes a cheerleader for their departure for Fillory, which everyone has been consciously/unconsciously putting off. For once, Quentin becomes the one to actually *do* something. (6) And finally, here's a big one. I didn't so much appreciate the explicitness of certain things when it came to Quentin's opinion on magic, but if he was going to do it, I liked how he phrased it when Alice talks to Quentin: “That’s what makes you different from the rest of us, Quentin. You actually believe in magic. You do realize, right, that nobody else does? I mean, we all know magic is real. But you really believe in it. Don’t you.” Quentin *believes* in magic magic, he doesn’t just trust it as a type of science. Of course, this is also part of the fact that he believes magic can make him happy, which he slowly comes to realize is not the case.

And last but not least... the whole unhappiness issue. It pervades the entire book. I would have preferred this to be a bit subtler, but nope. From the very beginning, Quentin is unhappy. Indeed, it almost appears as though he blames books for his unhappiness, or at least for giving him a vision of happiness that he cannot achieve: “In Fillory, things mattered in a way they didn’t in this world. In Fillory you felt the appropriate emotion when things happened. Happiness was a real, actual, achievable possibility. It came when you called. Or no, it never left you in the first place.” Grossman has pointed out in interviews that he wrote The Magicians while struggling with his own depression, so he certainly channeled his own experience to craft that of Quentin's. Indeed, Grossman noted at our book club that he thinks Quentin's depression clouded his abilities -- that he was on the cusp of not making it into Brakebills because it blinded him to certain things, and so he required the extra push from Fogg to get out of the haze to recognize what he was capable of doing. Even when he makes it into Brakebills, Quentin "experiments" with being happy... laughing out loud and toying with the idea, but it doesn't suggest that anything is genuinely felt. At one point, Quentin wonders, “Wasn’t there a spell for making yourself happy? Somebody must have invented one. How could he have missed it? Why didn’t they teach it?” The only surprising thing here is that to recognize his unhappiness suggests that he had somehow broken out of it for a time. Prior to the obsessive studying required for skipping up a year, Quentin doesn't seem happy, but he must not have been quite as down, for he notices a difference as he slides: “He recognized the irritable, unpleasant, unhappy person he was becoming: he looked strangely like the Quentin he thought he’d left behind in Brooklyn.” Of course, Quentin feels terribly alone in his unhappiness (and Grossman has said that he was definitely wrestling with his own depression while writing part of The Magicians, but not a single one of the magicians seem happy and each one of them has different ways of dealing with this. When asked why most people can’t do magic, Eliot says: “One, it’s very hard, and they’re not smart enough. Two, it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to get it right.” He continues with points, but this second point is perhaps the most telling. Shortly after that, there's a scene where Quentin and Eliot are on the river, looking at the eight-woman skull out of West Point -- it's beautiful summer weather for Quentin and Eliot, but it's cold and gray for the women, who are described as grim. Quentin and Eliot know that the enchantment on Brakebills locks the women out of the beautiful summer weather that Quentin and Eliot got to experience. But really, it’s Quentin and Eliot who are the miserable ones, it simply has nothing to do with the weather. I rather enjoyed the dark and twisted Fogg who takes the graduates into the cellar where they're forced to have a cacodemon imprisoned in their backs. Fogg (who seems to have given the unhappiness issue even more thought than the students) asks them, “Can a man who can cast a spell every really grow up? ... I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy.” He twists this into something positive, that magicians can use the pain, but he doesn’t seem to make a terribly convincing case here. Indeed, when we see adult magicians, we see Alice's eccentric parents who seem to live separate lives. Later, when Alice and Quentin are having sex in her parents’ house, Alice makes Quentin promise her that they’ll be happy, and she says it as though they’re arguing. The novel says that Quentin wouldn’t have disagreed with her in the throes of sex, but it doesn’t explicitly say that he promised, and indeed, if he had, that's a promise he would have broken. I'm not sure if Lev Grossman was all that surprised when my book club unanimously agreed that, without medication, Quentin has no chance of ever being happy. And even with medication, I'm a little skeptical. (Side note: the effects of medication mixed with magic... this was never touched upon in the book and I was a little surprised. Perhaps in the sequel.) Clearly, the question of whether these unsatisfied people can ever be happy is a main question of the book, and indeed, the book seems to suggest that the best one can hope for is simply to be invested in a project. Or at least that seems to be the best Quentin can hope for.

So... that was a very long review/discussion topic post. Sorry about that. I did a lot of studying of this book to make sure we were prepared to meet the author, and on top of that, this really was an interesting book in the commentary it make about magic and fantasy. I didn't like the main character and the book felt like it could have achieved so much more with the material, but ultimately, it was a really great book for discussion and one has to give Grossman credit for bringing this idea into the market.


The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Not to be trite, but The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is one of the tastiest reads that I've devoured this year. It's one of those rare books where you'll fret over your desire to gobble it down versus savoring it in small bites. It's a delicious-- okay, I'll stop now. But seriously, it's a great book, you should read it.

The setting is Bishop's Lacey, a small, sleepy English town in 1950. Flavia Sabina Dolores de Luce, eleven, is better at chemistry than most of us can probably ever hope to be. (And the Dolores is a lie. She sometimes fabricates things.) She is our narrator and when asked what her passion is in life, Flavia unhesitatingly says chemistry. She even has her own lab which was originally created by a great-uncle and then used by her mother, who died in Tibet when Flavia was still a baby. It's her sanctuary in her her family's sprawling and somewhat dilapidated manor house where Flavia lives with her reclusive father (Colonel de Luce), two sisters (Ophelia and Daphne, whom she loathes), and Dogger (Colonel de Luce's once-manservant/driver and now gardener with a loose grip on the day-to-day, as he came back from the war a bit shattered).

The novel starts on a seemingly normal day (after a fight with Ophelia, Flavia stole her lipstick, melted it down to mix with the essential oil of poison ivy leaves, and reformed the lipstick using a .45 caliber slug) and then something peculiar happens. The housekeeper opens the kitchen door to discover a dead jack snipe with a stamp impaled on its beak. Flavia's father is visibly shaken and later, Flavia eavesdrops at the keyhole of his study to see and hear him argue with a redheaded man Flavia has never seen in her life. For her quiet philatelist of a father, this is uncommon behavior -- but perhaps more uncommon is when Flavia walks through the cucumber patch in the pre-dawn hours and discovers a body. It is the redheaded man with whom her father had been arguing and he breaths his last word into Flavia's face: "Vale!" Unlike most eleven-year-olds, Flavia does not run in fear: "I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the opposite. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life."

Well, I think you can guess by this point that Flavia is not the kind of girl to simply leave this matter to the authorities, particularly when she calls them and once arriving, they tell her to run along. While the police conduct their investigation (in which her father is the prime suspect), Flavia does some sleuthing of her own. The result is a fantastic journey into her father's less-than-innocent school days, priceless stamps, and magic tricks that go horribly right.

By far, the most delightful part of this novel is the refreshing voice of Flavia, whose steadfast determination and piercing intelligence might be characteristic of a mystery novel detective, but her charm and occasional childish whimsy make for something original and fresh. With her knowledge of poisons and capacity for revenge, she is certainly a dangerous force; though despite her vast knowledge of chemistry and her very adult means of analysis, she is still a child wrapped up in fights with her sisters and desperate to clear her somewhat distant father, for he is the only parent she has left. Flavia also knows something adults tend to forget, which is that the best way to get information is to ask someone, and in a small town, certain people will always know everyone's business. Her search for information takes her all over Bishop's Lacy (on her trusty bicycle, Gladys) and as a result, we are exposed to a delightful cast of small-town characters, who might not always be as smitten with Flavia as the reader, but certainly understand that this is a remarkable young girl who sees far more than anyone else.

When I finished the novel, I rather lamented the fact that the story is so wrapped up in Flavia's family history that a second might be a difficult thing to pull off -- but evidently, Alan Bradley is working on a another Flavia de Luce novel, for which I can only be thankful. Bradley himself is retired from a career in media and television, and this is his first novel (though he did co-author a Sherlock Holmes work). He won the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger Award for this particular tale, so mystery lovers should take note. And even if you are not a mystery lover, I heartily recommend The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I don't think that you'll be disappointed with the remarkably enchanting Flavia de Luce -- and if you love books, I recommend buying this in hardcover, as it's a beautiful little volume, compact and elegant without a dustjacket. Though really, if you're a friend of mine with whom I exchange presents at the holidays, forget everything you've read here -- you'll be getting this novel soon enough as a gift.


Sense and Sensibility - Read Aloud

Loving Austen's work as I do, it would take me months to write a real review of Sense and Sensibility that would encompass my emotional and intellectual reactions to the novel and its place in Austen's oeuvre, so the only thing I'll be "reviewing" here pertains to my latest reading of the book that spans April to September of 2009. My significant other and I read aloud to each other. (Yes, it's sickeningly adorable, we know.) It started as a project of reading the other our favorite novels. Since he had already read my actual favorite, Persuasion (at my encouragement the year before), I selected Pride and Prejudice and to continue the Austen education (as we're still muddling through his selection of Moby Dick), he requested Sense and Sensibility.

Reading a novel aloud, you might guess, makes for an interesting experience, particularly when it's a novel that you're quite familiar with... because somehow, you stumble upon things you never noticed. Words that you might have skipped over in a quick read or never knew how to pronounce are brought into the spotlight as definitions are requested or pronunciation corrections given. In addition, to read a novel aloud to someone means that reading is no longer this solitary communion between reader and novel. With an additional participant, there's an added dimension of dialogue and discussion. We try not to get "teacher-y" with leading questions, as obviously one of us knows how the story will turn out while the other is being exposed to everything for the first time. I also tried not to let my Austen research seep in too much as side commentary, but I couldn't always help myself. Some things, like how the novel was originally titled "Elinor and Marianne" or that it was originally published without Austen's name, but rather it was listed as "By a Lady"... well those things are harmless. Telling him that in the Ang Lee version, Emma Thompson plays Elinor and in real life, she married Willoughby... well, that got a little confusing for him.

So, my listener and I might summarize the basic plot of the novel as such: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are two sisters with very different means of expression. Both are thoughtful and feeling young women, but Elinor tends to keep things to herself whereas Marianne sees no reason to hide emotions. Their father dies and their family (including mom and a little sister that we basically ignore) moves into a cottage owned by their mother's cousin, but not before Elinor develops an attachment to her half-brother's wife's brother Edward Ferras, who is considered out of her league in terms of fortune by his family. Once they move to Devonshire, Marianne falls head over heels for the dashing Mr. Willoughby, though she also inspires a quiet love in the older Colonel Brandon, who has a somewhat complicated past. Austen originally intended to show "sense" triumph over "sensibility," but as she wrote the novel, her feelings wavered on whether one should entirely discount "sensibility."

My own love for Sense and Sensibility aside, I was a little surprised at certain of his reactions to particular sections... and then quickly realized that, as an intelligent reader, he did have some points. Whenever he complained about Elinor being a bit of a wet blanket... well... he's kind of right. And yes, Marianne is incredibly selfish. And it's not terribly easy to remember all the names and family connections. (I made him a character list/family tree chart that he would occasionally consult as I read.) But it was comforting to know that a surprise at the end of the novel was just as much of a surprise for him as a first-time reader as it was for my pre-teen adolescent self when I first read it. And even more so, I was pleased that he found this to be a delightful and interesting plot-point rather than something ridiculous that reflected poor planning on the author's part.

I might adore the novel, but even I can admit that it certainly reflects Austen as a younger, less developed writer. Sense and Sensibility is a very different novel from Pride and Prejudice, but it's impossible to not make certain comparisons as both novels focus on two sisters who are not wealthy. And while S&S might have been written and published first, it's a much sadder novel than P&P, and actually a little more complex when it comes to how Austen feels about her characters. This is not to say that there are more complex characters here, it's just that this is a more interesting novel to study in terms of an author's complicated relationship with her characters. Austen might align herself with Elinor, but we must admit that there's the touch of the Marianne about her.

I've discussed Sense and Sensibility with people any times before, but never in a situation where our reading at the same pace allows us to address immediate scenes and actions. As a result, we often discussed particular phrases as it pertained to her writing style, making comparisons with P&P or Persuasion. We spent a lot of time talking about some of the supporting characters (and why their voices are so much more fun to do than the main characters'), why Austen considered certain scenes to be necessary in the general arch of the story, and where we saw clear foreshadowings of particular scenes or characters in P&P.

Overall, if you're looking to read an Austen novel to your significant other, I would recommend Pride and Prejudice over this one, unless you're prepared to handle a few outbursts. ("Yes! We get it! Elinor is bottling it all inside! But can't she just punch Lucy in the nose just once?" or "Wait a minute. That was a duel. There was a duel in an Austen novel and we don't even get to see it?! And they both miss?! That's utterly ridiculous!") We had a great time, though, and it was a quick read for us. It's a beautiful, fantastic novel that any real literature fan should experience -- preferably before the Ang Lee version, though I consider it to be one of the best Austen movie adaptations out there.

Next up for our reading? Wuthering Heights. But we're still disemboweling whales on his side, so I might try to make it through a bit more of that before we start to tackle Heathcliff and the moors.