The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth TaleDiane Setterfield’s debut novel The Thirteenth Tale has generated quite a buzz in literary circles. I first heard about the book while browsing Barnes and Nobel’s website, shopping for birthday books with the gift certificate my parents had sent me. One has to admit the cover itself is gorgeous, and despite the old axiom, readers often do judge books by their covers. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been tricked into buying a book I ultimately didn’t like because it had a gorgeous cover (one example that comes to mind is Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman).

The Thirteenth Tale, however, is not such a book. Its gorgeous cover contains a true reader’s book. Setterfield’s own love for books is conveyed through her characters Margaret Lea and the mysterious writer, Vida Winter. Simon and Shuster’s website notes the novel “is a love letter to reading, a book for the feral reader in all of us, a return to that rich vein of storytelling that our parents loved and that we loved as children.” Ultimately, one of the book’s messages is that we all have our stories, and we find joy in other stories because they touch that which is familiar in our own stories.

The strangeness of the story immediately draws the reader in. There is an element of the great gothic Victorian in Setterfield’s story. She carefully lays the groundwork for her mystery, deliberately leaving gaps, until the ending ties together all the loose ends and reader says, “Of course! Why didn’t I see that?” Yet, there is never the idea that Setterfield somehow cheated. She gives the reader enough material to solve the mystery — if the reader will only pay attention.

The characters are well-drawn. I effortlessly called forth images of Vida Winter, Margaret, and the others. In a few lines, Setterfield can create real people on the page and convince you that you know exactly what they look like and how they move. It is a rare gift. In fact, the mark of a good book for me lately seems to be how much I wish I had written it — sort of a strange feeling to have, I suppose, but I won’t apologize. And I desperately wish I had written this.

One of my favorite passages is something of a tangent from the story Vida Winter is telling Margaret, but by the end of the novel, the reader comes to understand it was no tangent at all — if Margaret had only realized, she might have uncovered Vida Winter’s secret at that moment:

“Picture a conveyor belt, a huge conveyor belt, and at the end of it a massive furnace. And on the conveyor belt are books. Every copy in the world of every book you’ve ever loved. All lined up. Jane Eyre, Villette, The Woman in White.”

Middlemarch,” I supplied.

“Thank you. Middlemarch. And imagine a lever with two labels, On and Off. At the moment the lever is off. And next to it is a human being, with his hand on the lever. About to turn it on. And you can stop it. You have a gun to your hand. All you have to do is pull the trigger. What do you do?”

“No, that’s silly.”

“He turns the lever to On. The conveyor belt has started.”

“But it’s too extreme, it’s hypthetical.”

“First of all, Shirley goes over the edge.”

“I don’t like games like this.”

“Now George Sand starts to go up in flames.”

I sighed and closed my eyes.

Wuthering Heights coming up. Going to let that burn, are you?”

I couldn’t help myself. I saw the books, saw their steady process to the mouth of the furnace, and flinched.

“Suit yourself. In it goes. Same for Jane Eyre?”

Jane Eyre. I was suddenly dry-mouthed.

“All you have to do is shoot. I won’t tell. No one ever need know.” She waited. “They’ve started to fall. Just the first few. But there are a lot of copies. You have a moment to make up your mind.”

I rubbed my thumb nervously against a rough edge of nail on my middle finger.

“They’re falling faster now.”

She did not remove her gaze from me.

“Half of them gone. Think, Margaret. All of Jane Eyre will soon have disappeared forever. Think.”

Miss Winter blinked.

“Two thirds gone. Just one person, Margaret. Just one tiny, insignificant little person.”

I blinked.

“Still time, but only just. Remember, this person burns books. Does he really deserve to live?”

Blink. Blink.

“Last chance.”

Blink. Blink. Blink.

Jane Eyre was no more.

Margaret!” Miss Winter’s face twisted in vexation as she spoke. (240-241)

As I read this passage, I too could not help but be caught up in Vida Winter’s “game.” I saw the books, too. I wanted it to stop. I asked myself which title would it be, Dana, that would make you shoot the man with his hand on that lever?

What about you?

Me Talk Pretty One Day

Me Talk Pretty One DayI don’t read much nonfiction, but I decided to check out David Sedaris on the advice of a colleage, and I’m really glad I did. I chose Me Talk Pretty One Day because some of the essays focused on language, and frankly, I wondered if there might not be fodder for my classroom. I don’t think I’ll use any of the essays for my students, but I sincerely enjoyed them, nonetheless. In an early essay, Sedaris waxes humorous about childhood speech therapy for a lisp. He went to great lengths to avoid making “s” sounds, including avoiding plurals. Later, as a student of the French language, confused about gendered nouns, he decides that pluralizing everything makes it much easier. I think my favorite essays involved stories about his sister, Amy Sedaris. I have seen Strangers With Candy a few times, but I will admit I’ve never gone out of my way to catch Amy Sedaris on anything. It isn’t that I don’t like her — I was just ambivalent. However, she sounds like a real stitch, as we say in this neck of the woods. I loved David’s description of a joke Amy played on their father involving half a fat suit. She seems like the kind of person who will say or do just about anything if it will get a laugh, and David’s affection for this trait of hers was obvious in his various essays.

Parts of the book were so funny, I found myself laughing out loud, insisting upon reading aloud to my husband. Sedaris is truly funny, and I can’t wait to read more. Meanwhile, here is a clip of Sedaris reading an essay from another of his books on David Letterman’s show:

Madame Bovary’s Ovaries

Madame Bovary's OvariesI found Madame Bovary’s Ovaries, which I finished last night, to be a very entertaining and enlightening read. I will be the first one to admit that I never saw much of a connection between science and literature. Yes, I had often spun that yarn about how literature is essentially about the human condition, and how better to learn about ourselves than to study our literature, but I always saw this statement in terms of psychology, not biology. What David and Nanelle Barash accomplish is showing the reader how to look at literature through the lens of Darwinism. While I think the actions of some characters do fit patterns, there are others that seem to go against their evolutionary nature, and the Barashes are quick to note in their epilogue that this method of interpreting literature is but one of many.

In this book, the Barashes break down their dissection of literature into categories:

  • Othello and Other Angry Fellows: Male Sexual Jealousy
  • The Key to Jane Austen’s Heart: What Women Want and Why
  • How to Make Rhett Give a Damn: What Men Want and Why
  • Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: The Biology of Adultery
  • Wisdom from The Godfather: Kin Selection, or the Enduring Importance of Being Family
  • The Cinderella Syndrome: Regarding the Struggles of Stepchildren
  • On the Complaints of Portnoy, Caulfield, and Others: Parent-Offspring Conflict
  • Of Musketeers and Mice and Men and Wrath and Reciprocity and Friendship: In Steinbeck Country and Elsewhere

I do think that the authors make a convincing argument that long before Darwin even cooked up his Theory of Evolution, writers were creating characters that obeyed Darwin’s biological observations.

Of the chapters, I found the one on Reciprocity and Friendship the most difficult. I felt that it was in this chapter that the writers strained themselves the most to make what I felt were tenuous connections to biological instincts toward reciprocity. However, I found the chapters on adultery and what men and women want very enlightening. The chapter on stepchildren was also very interesting (and mentioned my favorite boy wizard).

In all, I would recommend this book highly to folks interested in either literature or science (or both), especially if they don’t see a connection between the two. I found the writers’ style engaging and very easy to follow, so those of us who haven’t been in a biology classroom in 20 years or so need not be intimidated by the prospect of scientific jargon. Cleary the writers’ goal was to bring an understanding of biology to the layman.

As much as I have become used to the notion of studying literature in order to understand the human condition, I found it interesting in this instance to study the human condition in order to understand literature.


HolesLast night I finished reading Louis Sachar’s children’s book Holes. My daughter had told me it was good, and I have been carefully avoiding the Disney movie based on the book so I could read it. I had heard glowing reviews. Daniel Radcliffe said, for instance, that he didn’t like reading much until he read this book and, of course, the Harry Potter series. I borrowed the book from a colleague (it belongs to her son). While I was in the hallway, a male student stopped me in and raved about the book. Hmm… I thought. This is a book boys love. I can’t tell you how hard it is to find books like that; in my experience as an educator, boys just do not read as much as girls do, and it is harder to find books they will like. If this were not a problem, then programs like this one wouldn’t be necessary.

That said, I found it a charming story. Stanley Yelnats has nothing but bad luck, and it’s all on account of his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather, Elya Yelnats. Stanley is accused of stealing a pair of shoes; no one believes him when he tries to tell them they fell out of the sky. Stanley is presented with a choice. He can go to Camp Green Lake, a sort of juvenile work farm, or jail. Stanley picks Camp Green Lake.

Camp Green Lake has no lake. The guiding philosophy of those who run the camp is, “If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy.” So Stanley and the other “campers” dig holes, five feet deep and five feet wide in all directions. After a while, it becomes clear to Stanley that the camp’s warden has the boys dig holes because she’s looking for something.

The storyline is well-plotted and holds the reader’s interest. We are introduced to Stanley’s parents and learn about the Yelnats curse that prevents the family from catching a break. Along the way, we meet Stanley’s no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and his poor great-grandfather, who was robbed by Kissin’ Kate Barlow. Stanley even meets the descendent of Madame Zeroni, who placed the curse on the Yelnats family, and is able to fulfill a destiny that four generations of his family have been oppressed under.

One thing I didn’t understand about the story was the character Mr. Pendanski, the camp counselor. He seems, on the one hand, sympathetic to the boys. He does a small part to make their lives a bit easier, and he shows them respect by addressing them by their given names instead of the nicknames they have all chosen or been assigned by the campers. Except for Zero. Mr. Pendanski treats Zero with nothing but contempt, and the reason why is never really brought to light or resolved. Zero is actually a pretty nice kid, and he has had the roughest life you can imagine, so it seems doubly hard to believe that a counselor would try to make it any rougher. I would have liked to have discovered the reason for Mr. Pendanski’s contempt for Zero.

Aside from this snag, I thought the story was great, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Poe Shadow

The Poe ShadowI have just completed The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl. It was enjoyable, and I think Poe enthusiasts in particular will find it interesting. I found the writing style Pearl used in this novel reminded me of that of Poe — not so much in the subject matter, but in the type of language used. I am fairly certain this was intentional, and if it were not Poe that Pearl was after imitating, it certainly must have been the typical writer of the Victorian age.

The plot revolves around Quentin Clark, a (rare) fan of Poe and defender of his character who seeks to discover the true circumstances behind Poe’s death. His quest mystifies his foster brother/law partner and fiancée, as well as almost everyone else he meets. He believes he will be unable to solve the case without the help of the man who was the model for Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. After some time, he determines a likely candidate for Dupin and asks for his help. The only problem is, another man also claims to be “Dupin” and decides to “help” whether Quentin likes it or not.

I feel that Pearl is an excellent historical writer when it comes to evoking the time period in which he writes. His characters are likable, believable characters. In his quest to discover the circumstances of Poe’s death, Quentin finds himself in some dangerous positions that might otherwise look like pure fantasy; however, in Pearl’s hands, they seem to be the logical conclusions of his quest.

I am not as familiar with Poe’s Dupin tales as I should have been; therefore, I would advise readers of The Poe Shadow to brush up on those stories before reading this novel. Pearl has conveniently written an introduction to a new collection of Poe’s Dupin stories, The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

I don’t think this is the kind of book that will enthrall folks who are nonreaders. If you enjoy reading, I think you will have the patience necessary to dedicate to a book like this. It is not difficult to comprehend, but it is not set in the present with references the average person living today would immediately understand. I don’t think it will challenge the ordinary person who likes to read, but I wouldn’t put it in the hand of someone who hates books. Actually, I don’t want to know anyone who hates books, but I have to work with all kinds as a teacher.

At his book reading/discussion here in Atlanta back in June, Pearl noted that some cut chapters from The Poe Shadow appear at his website. You can find many other interesting things there, including maps of Baltimore and a gallery of pictures, as well as a dossier of documents related to Poe’s death. You can also be Quentin Clark’s friend on MySpace if you have an account. As more writers and other artists start using MySpace, I see it has a huge potential to get the word out.

Surf through the website and MySpace, and if that, plus my little review, don’t have you intrigued enough to read it, then I give up: you’re hopeless.


Codex by Lev GrossmanI suppose that since I’m something of an amateur medievalist, a book like Codex would have an obvious appeal.

Edward Wozny, an investment banker, is hired by clients, the Wents, to do a “special” job. When he finds out the job is cataloguing the Wents’ library, he is insulted, but something draws him to the books. He wants to learn more about the Codex, A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians written by 14th century medieval monk Gervase of Langford. He goes to the library and runs into an expert on Gervase — Margaret Napier, who just happens to be writing her dissertation on Gervase.

At the same time Edward’s friend Zeph introduces him a hot game called MOMUS that has taken the geek world by storm. Edward is sucked into the game. Over time, he realizes it has eerie similarities to the storyline of the Viage as Margaret has explained to him. Obsessed with finding the Codex and figuring out how to win MOMUS, Edward checks out of his normal routine and places a new position with his company in London in jeopardy. The ending is something of a twist, leaving Edward wondering just how much of the last month or so of his life was real and what will happen in the future.

I almost liked this book. It certainly kept my interest, and I didn’t put it down. What bothered me, however, was how quickly it spun out after Edward discovered why the game, MOMUS, had so many resemblances to his own quest for the Viage. In fact, it was too coincidental. Even Edward seems to realize this, frequently alluding to the fact that he feels like he is in a convoluted spy thriller movie or something.

The relationship between Margaret and Edward was pat and predictable. The reader only needs to wonder when they will kiss rather than if. On the other hand, I think the reader kind of wants the two to get together in some way, for Margaret’s sake. The twist alluded to in the end in the summary above was somewhat of a surprise, but it was nothing that careful reading might not have helped a reader discover.

I became concerned for Edward pouring his existence into this quest for the book and spending all his spare time playing MOMUS. He was wasting his life with the game, which, if you’ve ever obsessively played any game, you can relate to. I think mine was The Secret of Mana on the old SNES.

I don’t imagine this book would be entertaining for too many people if Edward’s search for the Codex delved too much into the medievalist aspect of it, but since that was one of the reasons I picked it up in the first place, I was disappointed.

I do think Grossman has a feel for those of us who grew up playing video games and still play them as thirty-something adults. He references an old Atari 2600 game called Adventure twice in the book, and it took me a minute, but then I remembered I had that game and tried to play it, too. The description of MOMUS sounds like any number of popular games created in the 1990s, namely Myst, although perhaps more interactive and realistic even. That side of the novel was interesting.

Would I read it again? Probably not. I don’t feel I wasted time in reading it, but it didn’t really grab me the way books such as The Dante Club have done. Upon reflection, however, I don’t think it was meant to.


LostI finished Gregory Maguire’s Lost last night.  It’s a weird book.  I can’t really say that I liked it, because I found the ending flat and unsatisfying.  There were parts of it that I did like, but ultimately I found it somewhat confusing and convoluted.  It was not as good as Wicked, and it’s sad, because there was the germ of a great idea behind this book.

Winnie Rudge is descended from Ozias Rudge, who believed himself to be the model for Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.  Rudge regaled youngsters with tales of being haunted by a specter, and he later surmises one of them must have been young Master Dickens, who is known to have been in Hampstead during his youth.

The book opens with a jarring car accident Winnie witnesses while on her way to a Forever Families adoption group meeting.  For much of the book, Winnie’s purpose in going is completely unclear.  She books a flight to England to visit her cousin and friend, John Comester, who lives in Rudge House, the ancestral home of the Rudges, and who is missing when she arrives to find workmen at Rudge House.

Don’t read further if you plan to read the book.

John is actually being a jerk and avoiding Winnie.  Winnie is weird, no doubt, but I still can’t figure out why most of the people she encounters in the book treat her so shabbily.

The book slows way down around the middle, and it was hard for me to finish, but dammit, when I dedicate so much time to a book, I feel bad putting it down.  So I slogged through it.

I think Maguire has had some really good ideas for stories, and I enjoyed Wicked very much.  Steer clear of this one.  In the words of an Amazon review I found by Terry Mesnard (and can’t figure out how to link directly to):

The bookstore was out of Wicked but they did have Lost. I almost wish they didn’t. Not just because I didn’t like the book but because it made me almost not want to read Wicked.

The problem for me was that Maguire seemed to gloss over everything. He keeps the reader distanced from the characters. Not once did I feel like I got to know Winnie. On one hand this was partially intentional as Winnie herself is a very distanced character who retreats into her writing when faced with a situation she doesn’t want to acknowledge. Ironically enough, the one area that Winnie was a bit too revealing involves a “plot twist” I guess. I hate to call it so because it is the ONLY thing that was concretely and blatantly obvious.

The end result to me was such a wishy-washy mess that when all of the story threads “came together” I didn’t care. The last third of the novel I read to have a conclusion and get it over with, not because I genuinely cared. It’s hard to care about a character you don’t ever get to know. The end result is that I should have listened to the reviews here instead of the critical praises saying “A brilliant, perceptive, and deeply moving fable about loss…”. I’d recommend you do the same. Here’s hoping Wicked is much better.

Terry, Wicked was much better, and I hope you still checked it out.


WickedGregory Maguire has done something really different with his series of “twisted” fairy tales, hasn’t he? Wicked is my first foray into Maguire’s writing. I really enjoyed it.

Was the Wicked Witch of the West really ever wicked at all? This question is central to the novel. Elphaba, the name Maguire gives to Dorothy’s nemesis, wonders herself. Early in the novel in a conversation with her college roommate Galinda, who later became Glinda the “Good” Witch of the North, Elphaba wonders, “Do you think evil really exists?” Near the end of the novel, Elphaba’s friend Boq asserts, “You’re not wicked.” She replies, “How do you know?” Boq theorizes that “it’s people who claim that they’re good, or anyway better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of.” I found this to be the most important passage in the novel — it a manner, it is an answer to Elphaba’s question to Glinda. Yes, there is evil — in the form of people who refuse to admit that they are, well, evil.

Let me explain.

I think this book can be read on many levels, but one thing I took away from it was a sort of moral or political message. There are multiple points of view, and depending on yours, you see others as good or evil. However, it is that group of people that seek to impose their definition of good upon others that are dangerous — the extremists on the left and right.

I also found it interesting that Elphaba felt herself to be a failure, that she fell into her role as the Wicked Witch of the West, and that she had spent so much of her life seeking absolution that she would never receive.

I will admit to being confused at times. I had to re-read passages. There are portions of the book that I found difficult to follow. However, I have to highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed The Wizard of Oz. This revisionist version of the story will cause you to question what’s real. It was enjoyable fantasy — different from anything I think I’ve ever read before.