Reading Challenge Update

I have participated in six reading challenges this year. This late in the game, I probably won’t be adding more unless they run over in to 2011.

Crossed out challenges and books have been completed.

You know, I would really like to host a reading challenge next year, so I need to think of an idea for one.

* Technically finished at the level I committed, but if I read one more book, I can move up a level in the challenge.

The Meaning of Night

The Meaning of Night: A ConfessionThe story of the writing of Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night is an interesting one. Diagnosed with a rare cancer, Cox began to lose his sight. He had begun the novel in the 1970’s, but cancer gave Cox a new sense of urgency. He finished the book, which in my paperback version stretches to nearly 700 pages.

The Meaning of Night is the story of Edward Glyver’s quest for revenge against Phoebus Daunt, who robbed him not only of his Eton education, but all he holds most dear. The book begins memorably as Glyver kills an innocent man to be sure that he will have the resolve to murder Phoebus Daunt when he has the opportunity: “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.” Following his account of killing this stranger, Glyver tells the story of his childhood, including his expulsion from Eton, his employment with Christopher Tredgold, and his infatuation with the beautiful Miss Emily Carteret, the daughter of the 25th Baron Tansor’s first cousin and employee, Paul Carteret. Glyver uncovers the truth of his parentage and reveals his motive for wanting to kill Phoebus Daunt.

I read this book at the recommendation of my husband, and while I enjoyed parts of it, I had some major problems with it. First, I could find no characters to like. I didn’t feel much sympathy for Edward Glyver. He’s unlikeable in the extreme. He values the wrong things in life, and he spends his days in dissolution, feeling sorry for himself. He was indeed treated unfairly, but he certainly meted out the same sort of treatment to other undeserving and innocent parties. Another issue I had with the book was its length. The story moves at a slow pace, and I found it difficult to plow through the beginning of the book, particularly as Edward Glyver had given me no reason to be interested in or care about what happened to him. I am not sure what should have been cut, but I hate investing so much time in a book this long for so little reward. The story turns on coincidence, which normally I don’t mind and have actually used in my own writing, but for some reason in this novel it bothered me. It seems Alastair Sooke and I are in agreement on our reviews. What Cox does very well in this book is capture a sort of seedy underbelly of Victorian society and the sharp divisions between classes.

Cox succumbed to cancer on March 31, 2009 after finishing The Glass of Time, a companion to The Meaning of Night.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

This book is my eighth book for the Typically British Challenge, bringing me to the highest level of the challenge: Cream Crackered. Looks like I have finished this one.

The Little Stranger

The Little StrangerI have never read anything written by Sarah Waters before. I had no expectations going into this book. The art teacher at my school said I would like it, and that the last page was a doozy. If what I think happened is what happened, then she’s right.

The Little Stranger is the story of Dr. Faraday and his long-standing obsession with Hundreds Hall, the home of the Ayres family. He first encounters the family as a small child when he visits the estate as part of an Empire Day celebration. Taken with the charm of the house, its grandness, its stateliness, he prizes a small acorn decoration from a plaster border in one of the passages in the house. The next time Dr. Faraday enters the house about thirty years later, it is to treat the Ayres family’s maid Betty. Dr. Faraday gradually becomes closer to the Ayres family and even becomes indispensable. Strange things start to happen around the house: a girl is badly bitten by the otherwise docile Gyp, the Ayres family dog. Strange marks begin to appear on the walls and ceilings. Objects move. Is it the ghost of poor little Susan Ayres who died before her younger sister and brother were born? Or is it something even stranger and more mysterious?

The book is as much a gothic ghost story as it is the story of the waning of the British class system, perfectly encapsulated by Mrs. Ayres as quoted by her daughter, “She said families like ours, they had a—a responsibility, they had to set an example. She said, if we couldn’t do that, if we couldn’t be better and braver than ordinary people, then what was the point of us?” In the post-WWII setting of the novel, many of the old gentry like the Ayres family are rapidly losing their money and are unable to keep up their grand estates. Course, nouveau-riche families like the Baker-Hydes are moving into the nearby estates. Keeping Hundreds Hall going occupies all of Roderick Ayres’s time (nice touch with the literary allusion in that name). Meanwhile, Dr. Faraday has risen from a humble background as the son of a shopkeeper and former Hundreds Hall servant to become a doctor. Even as the last vestiges of the class system seem to be dying away, some parts of it hang on with a frustrating tenacity that prevents Faraday from truly advancing in the ways he hopes to.

This book has some genuinely creepy parts. I was a little spooked reading it at night. One portion late in the book concerning the haunting of Mrs. Ayres was actually scary. Readers who like a definitive ending instead of one you have to mull over and determine what you think happened—because Waters does leave it up to your interpretation—might not enjoy this book. It is slow to start, but parts of it are gripping and will keep you turning the pages. I am knocking off a star for the plodding pace in portions of this book and the fact that I didn’t like the characters very much (with perhaps the exceptions of Betty and Mrs. Ayres). It’s been a long time since I read a really good ghost story, and I enjoyed this book a great deal. I know I’ve enjoyed a book when I close it and wish I could write one like it. If you enjoy spooky ghost stories like The Turn of the Screw, Rebecca, and The Ghost Writer by John Harwood, you’ll like this book. I’ve read it is also a cousin of The Haunting of Hill House, but I haven’t read that one yet.

Rating: ★★★★☆

This book is my seventh book in the Typically British Reading Challenge. One more book and I will meet the challenge’s highest level: Cream Crackered.

Remarkable Creatures

Remarkable CreaturesWhen I was a little girl, I loved dinosaurs. It might be I don’t remember things correctly, but I don’t remember dinosaurs being all that cool when I was a kid. Mrs. Jones taught us about the Trachodon in first grade, the first day of our unit on dinosaurs. I was hooked. The first “chapter” book I ever read was called Prehistoric Monsters Did the Strangest Things. As an accurate dinosaur book, it probably wasn’t very good, but I was fascinated by it. The book was part of a series on animals. I remember clearly that the chapter about Mary Anning’s discovery was titled “What Mary Found.” She wore a pink dress and a white mob cap over her blond curls. I was entranced by the idea of finding a real fossil, just like Mary Anning. Many years later, I still remember much of what I learned, and while my fascination with dinosaurs waned with time, I couldn’t resist picking up a novel about Mary Anning.

Remarkable Creatures is the story of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, women who paved the way for a great deal of scientific discovery in an age when women weren’t even allowed to join the scientific societies that celebrated their discoveries. Mary and Elizabeth come from two very different classes: Mary’s family is poor, working class, while Elizabeth is solidly middle class. Theirs is an unlikely friendship established over their shared fascination with fossils of the remarkable creatures they find on the beach at Lyme Regis. The novel explores their complicated relationship with each other and with the men of science who take credit for their discoveries.

Chevalier brought the setting of Lyme Regis alive, the beaches teeming with fossil ammonites and belemnites. The reader can feel the sea spray and the hard rock holding the fossils fast until they are released by Mary’s skilled hands. Her attention to detail is precise. I could see the layout of Morley Cottage, where the three Philpot sisters lived as well as if I had been there. If you’ve read Girl with a Pearl Earring or Chevalier’s other books, you know she’s a thorough researcher. Chevalier managed to bring these fossil hunters alive for me—they are my kindred spirits. Some of the male characters seem to run together, and I found them hard to distinguish from one another and perhaps not as fully realized, but I think that was most likely Chevalier’s aim.

I am not sure this book qualifies for the Typically British Challenge, as Chevalier is an American living in England and writing about England, but not an English writer herself, so I’ve elected not to count it. I am, however, tagging the post with my Jane Austen tag because the book mentions her and her visit to Lyme Regis as well as Persuasion, which is set there.

Rating: ★★★★★

Good Omens

Good Omens (audio)Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens examines the apocalypse with a sense of humor. I have not previously read any Terry Pratchett, but Neil Gaiman’s books, especially The Graveyard Book, have been favorites. So… exactly what would happen if the Antichrist wasn’t terribly invested in making Armageddon happen?

The novel begins with an introduction of Crawly (later Crowley), a demon, and Aziraphale, an angel—unlikely friends present at the fall of man (Crowley was the serpent) who remain on earth until the fulfillment of God’s ineffable plan. The thing is, they like it a little too much and make an unlikely team as they try to prevent the apocalypse. Meanwhile, Adam Young grows up in the small English town of Tadfield, the leader of a small gang of children, not knowing his destiny is to bring about the end of times. His neighbor, Anathema Device, is the descendant of Agnes Nutter, a witch whose prophecies are so accurate they’re very nearly useless, moves to Tadfield to be in place as Armageddon unfolds. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—Death, War, Famine, and Pollution (Pestilence retired, muttering something about penicillin)—descend on Tadfield.

I found the book entertaining, and Martin Jarvis is a good narrator. The book seemed to go fast. It was funny—some moments of genuine laugh-out-loud humor. I particularly liked the characterization of Death as being technologically illiterate. The characters are likable, especially Crowley and Aziraphale. In the end, however, the book felt more like a snack than a meal—light fun, but ultimately not terribly memorable.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Typically British Challenge

This book brings me one book closer to meeting the “Bob’s Your Uncle” level (six books) for the Typically British Reading Challenge.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. NorrellSusanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell breaks all the rules. It’s over 800 pages long. One of the title characters isn’t properly introduced until over 200 pages into the novel. Clarke develops the history of her world largely through incorporation of 185 footnotes. Generally any one of these things would cause me to gripe about a book, never mind all three. However, I’m not the first reviewer to say the novel, even at over 800 pages, seems too short—I wanted more. The late introduction of the charismatic Jonathan Strange serves only to further develop the mystery surrounding him and to establish the character of his counterpart—his teacher and rival—Mr. Norrell. And finally, the footnotes establish Clarke’s alternate history England as a world rich in magic and still every bit as real as our own world.

“Two magicians shall appear in England…”

The Learned Society of York Magicians, theoretical magicians, mind, not practical magicians, is confronted by Gilbert Norrell and forced to disband. Norrell, who has led a reclusive life of study in his library at Hurtfew Abbey in York, is suddenly thrust into London society. Eager to be of assistance to the government in the war against France, he makes an unwise alliance. Eventually, he gains a pupil in Jonathan Strange, but the two magicians part ways. Jonathan Strange delves into darker and more dangerous magic, while Norrell is unable to to see the dangers right under his own nose.

The book ties each strand of its storylines together in the ending, which will not satisfy all readers, but which I liked—the door is open for a sequel, or not, as Clarke wishes. Clarke evokes the characterization of Dickens, the storytelling of Austen, and the Romantic sensibilities of Byron (who appears as a character himself), all of which combine to create a book that seems wholly new and fresh—certainly unlike anything I’ve ever read before. This novel is obviously a commitment, but it pays off well in the end.

I listened to this book on audio, and Simon Prebble’s narration is wonderful. I love the distinct voices he gives to the characters. If I have any complaint, it is only that he changes the voice of Christopher Drawlight near the end and mispronounces the word sidhe. Minor quibbles in an excellent audio adaptation.

I read this novel for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, but it also makes the fifth book for the Typically British Reading Challenge.

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and PrejudiceI first read Pride and Prejudice during my first year teaching (which was 1997-1998, and I know it was 1998 when I read the novel). I fell in love with Jane Austen that year. Despite my affection for Ms. Austen, I had not re-read any of her novels, though I have watched adaptations in film. I decided I was overdue for a re-read of Pride and Prejudice, and this annotated version of the novel appealed to the scholar in me. I had hoped to learn some new interesting things or gain new insights from the David Shapard’s annotations, and I was not disappointed.

In some cases, the annotations were repetitive (for example, for each reference to “town,” Shapard reminds the reader that “town” refers to London). However, learning the differences between the different types of carriages, gaining insight into the conventions of the day, and so much more that I can’t possibly list it all here really enhanced my enjoyment of the book. I am currently listening to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and I find that the annotations in Pride and Prejudice have enhanced my enjoyment of that novel, too—after all, it owes a great deal to Jane Austen. A sojourn in Jane Austen’s novels is always rewarding, and I wonder if it’s possible to feel homesick for a place you’ve never even been except in books.

If you haven’t seen the new blog Following Jane, you might want to check it out. It’s interesting to read the perspectives of man dedicating himself to reading all of Jane Austen’s novels and blogging about his experiences. In a recent post written before he started Northanger Abbey, his first selection, he mentioned he was anxious to finish the book he had been reading at the time so that he could start reading Austen. I know that feeling. As I reach the end of the book, my thoughts are turning toward my next read, which will be A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro. All the talk about Shapiro’s new book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, has inspired quite a lot of quick reviews of A Year in the Life, which I have on my shelf and haven’t read. Austen and Shakespeare, my two favorite authors. How I’d love to sit down and have tea with them both.

Typically British Challenge

Pride and Prejudice is my fourth selection for the Typically British Challenge, and concludes the “Gordon Bennett” level of four novels that I committed to read. I may read other British authors over the course of the year (the challenge expires on December 31), but I can claim for the first time ever that I actually finished a reading challenge.

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels

Thursday Next: First Among SequelsThe fifth book in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, Thursday Next: First Among Sequels, begins more than a decade after its predecessor, Something Rotten. Thursday’s son Friday is now a teenager whose thoughts seem to revolve more around his favorite group Strontium Goat than on joining the ChronoGuard—something he must do, and soon, or the world might end. And that’s the least of Thursday’s problems. She also has to deal with the two book versions of Thursday Next, a reappearance of old nemeses Aornis Hades and Felix8, and Goliath Corporation’s machinations. Worst of all, the stupidity surplus is at an all-time high, and in order to get rid of it, the government has decided to turn Pride and Prejudice into a reality show called The Bennets. It’s up to Thursday to put all things to rights.

I think this book is one of the stronger in the series. As full of literature jokes as the others, it’s also folded upon itself as Thursday has by this time had books written about her, which have spawned BookWorld Thursdays that don’t resemble herself at all—or do they? My favorite parts were some speculation that Harry Potter himself might turn up for a meeting (I won’t give it away), and a passage in which Fforde shares his own feelings about literature (I know this because he shared them at his book signing, too):

I’d been trying to explain to them just what form the BookWorld takes, which was a bit odd, as it was really only my interpretation of it, and I had a feeling that if they actually accepted my way, it would become the way, so I was careful not to describe anything that might be problematical later.

I found that passage to be a beautiful metaphor for the interpretation of literature, and it made me wonder what I might see if I traveled to the BookWorld. I am thinking a lot of squashy places to curl up and read, rain-spattered windows, and books, books, books.

I highly recommend this entire series to book lovers. The jacket blurbs recommend it to fans of Harry Potter, and it has a bit of that charm, but really it’s not like that series. It’s silly, bookish, and full of in-jokes for the well-read. You won’t be able to put them down. I can’t wait for the next Thursday Next.

So… what do you think the BookWorld looks like?

Bibliophilic Books Challenge Typically British Book Challenge

This novel is the second selection for the Bibliophilic Books Challenge and the third for the Typically British Reading Challenge. My next excursion is a trip back to Meryton to visit the Bennets of Longbourn. I haven’t been back for some time.

Typically British Book Challenge

Typically British Reading Challenge

Typically British Book ChallengeYes! I found a new book challenge that’s right up my alley. I’m an Anglophile, I teach British literature, and most of the reading I’ve done lately is British authors, so the Typically British Reading Challenge is perfect for me. I can’t yet tell what books I will read for this challenge (I need to think about it and peruse my shelves), but I do intend to commit to “Gordon Bennett” Level and read four “typically British” books this upcoming year.

Some early contenders for this challenge are Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next: First Among Sequels, and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which I planned to re-read for another challenge and also because I’m teaching it this year. Aside from these two books, I’ll have to think about it.

You know, at some point, I need to come up with an idea for a Book Challenge, too. I find them to be fun ways to participate in the book blogging community (even though I don’t finish them all that often).