Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sunday Salon: Books within Books and Stories Within Stories

     My full immersion in Frankenstein is coming to an end....sadly. Is there anything more satisfying than just losing yourself in a narrative, and then following all the connections and ideas? I guess that's why being an English teacher is working out for me!

     Frankenstein is not a perfect book, and it has its moments of awkwardness and digression. But as a novel of ideas, a novel of interlocking narratives and themes, it is endlessly fascinating. Just the story of Mary Shelley herself, and then the story of the genesis of the novel, is enough to draw a reader in.

     As many readers probably know, Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Wollstonecraft died just days after Mary's birth, of complications of childbirth. As Mary grew up without a mother (her father did remarry, and the stepmother detested Mary), she communed with her mother the only way she knew how--by extensively reading and rereading her mother's books. As a teenager, she went to her mother's grave in St. Pancras' Churchyard to read and seek communion with her mother. Later her mother's grave was the spot where Mary secretly met with her lover, the married poet Percy Shelley.

     At a very young age, Mary formed a connection between birth and death. After she and Percy ran away to Europe (along with her stepsister, Claire Clairmont), Mary gave birth to a daughter who died within three weeks (the child was never named). She suffered stillbirths and miscarriages; and back in England, Percy's wife Harriet committed suicide by throwing herself into the Serpentine (at the time she was pregnant with another man's child). Is it any wonder that Mary Shelley was obsessed with both birth and death?

     Two things that I wanted to mention about this novel, and then I'll stop (really!). First, I love the story within a story within a story form of the narrative. And each story has an audience: Robert Walton writes letters to his sister in the frame narrative (this is the device for telling the story of Robert Walton's narrative, and the device for recording the two inner narratives). Then Victor Frankenstein tells his tale (to Robert, who writes it down in his letters), then, finally, the creature (or nameless monster) tells his story to Victor Frankenstein, who relates the tale to Walton. The other element I just want to touch on is the prevalence of books in this novel. Victor Frankenstein's fate and ambition are sealed by his choice of the wrong books, and the wrong pursuit of scientific ambition. Then the creature that Frankenstein creates educates himself by reading Paradise Lost (which he takes as a factual history), Plutarch's Lives, and Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther.

     As a book-obsessed reader, I'm always fascinated by the books mentioned within books. Eward P. Jones mentioned the short stories of Mary Lavan in one of his short stories, and I sought out and read the work of this wonderful Irish author. Richard Wright's Black Boy is a reading list in itself (he is a voracious reader, and reads everything from H.L. Mencken to Gertrude Stein in the course of his memoir). And I love John Green for always including a slyly surreptitious reading list into his novels. Books inevitably lead to more books.


     After my intensive reading of Frankenstein (and lots of ancillary reading, research, etc.), I'm ready to read something purely for pleasure. Three books are on my list (of course it can't be just one).

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Wool by Hugh Howey (started reading this in the bookstore....how did I not know about this one?)

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagiaha (this seems to be the book right now)

     What else is out there that I don't know about but is amazing, compelling, immersive?

     Are you led from book to book in some unusual way?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Review: Ginny Gall

Ginny Gall
Charlie Smith
hardcover, 464 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     Charlie Smith is a poet and novelist who has published seven books of poetry and seven novels, including Shine Hawk and Men in Miami Hotels. His latest novel, Ginny Gall, tells the story of Delvin Walker, a tale that begins with Delvin's birth on the back porch of the house--as far as his mother got; the year is 1913, and it is a hot July day exactly fifty years after the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

     Delvin's mother, Cappie, a prostitute, flees police before Delvin is five, and he and his siblings end up in a foundling home. But Devlin is a wise child, a precocious reader--he loves tales of French kings and the plays of William Shakespeare. Delvin is taken in by a prosperous African-American funeral director, Cornelius Oliver. For a while it seems as though Delvin is set to inherit Oliver's business, and the two live in quiet companionship, reading Shakespeare and Walter Scott.  But the terrorism of the Jim Crow South is never far in Ginny Gall, and Delvin is shaken by the death of a lynching victim, followed by a church burning, that sets an ice-cold fear in his belly. Soon he is in trouble, and on the road.

     Smith's writing most closely resembles William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy in style. His writing is lush and filled with rushing sensations--the sensory details sometimes nearly crowding out the sense. But Smith's lyricism is genuine, not forced, and there is real beauty in his prose.

     In subject matter, Ginny Gall is something like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, but Delvin is no Bigger Thomas, and not as lost as Ellison's nameless "Invisible Man." But Delvin, with his penchant for stories and collecting experiences, can't evade the cruelties and the violence of his time. He is falsely accused of rape, along with a group of African-American men, in an episode reminiscent of the Scottsboro Boys.

     Ginny Gall is an important book, one that deserves to find a wide readership. Highly recommended for the fine lyricism of the writing, and for the compelling and important tale of a past that is not entirely past.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sunday Salon: Dystopian Dreams


     Last week I wrote about reading Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It's a book I'd been meaning to read for the longest time, and I'm glad I finally did. I finished the classic science fiction novel on the Monday holiday.  Below is a brief review:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K. Dick
paperback, 244 pages
Ballantine/Del Ray

Philip K. Dick was the author of thirty-six novels and five short story collections. He attended USC Berkeley, but dropped out rather than participate in mandatory ROTC training. He won the 1962 Hugo Award for The Man in the High Castle.

     In the 2021 of  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? humans have already had their World War Terminus. As a result, radioactive dust is constantly falling, men resort to Mountibank Lead Codpieces, and most animals have become extinct. Owls were first, then all of the bird species. Now it is a status symbol to own a single living animal of any kind. Animals are sold out of Sydney's, a kind of mail order catalogue. 

     Rick Deckard is a police officer and bounty hunter: he hunts the androids who secretly escape to the earth from Mars, where the United States has established a colony called New America. As an incentive to emigrate (which most humans have already done), emigrants to Mars are offered their own personal organic androids, which "duplicate the halcyon days of the pre-Civil War Southern states." Through the use of android detection devices, bounty hunters can earn $1,000 per android (which they destroy). Bone marrow tests establish that the androids are not, in fact human. Corporations like Rosen Association in Seattle, have developed highly sophisticated androids nearly impossible to distinguish from humans. Deckard carries a machine, the Voigt-Kampff apparatus, to administer a test before finalizing his kill. The test measures feelings of shame and empathy, two things that are supposed to separate humans from androids.

     Much of the scientific and technological paraphernalia Dick imagines hasn't materialized: we don't fly about in hovercars, keep endangered species on the roofs of buildings as a status symbol, or have a religion called "Mercerism." But Dick does capture some of the flaws that our society continues to exhibit. And what he imagined as the "vidphone" materialized as facetime. The destruction of the planet didn't come about exactly the way Dick imagined, but we still might someday need "Planet B."

     What is most enjoyable about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the way Dick satirizes the culture of his time (and ours). The book also makes the reader ask questions: about our culture, about what we think is important, and about what it means to be human. When Deckard comes face to face with androids who don't even know they are androids, and when he finds himself having romantic feelings for Rachel Rosen, a Nexus-6 android who knows him better than he knows himself, the book gets pretty interesting.

     Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was made into the Hollywood movie Bladerunner, which I last saw years and years ago. I remember liking the movie very much, but I would say it has far fewer subtleties and far more explosions that the book. On the whole I enjoyed the book much more.


     Continuing in my dystopian theme, I'm now reading The Unit by Swedish writer Ninni Holmqvist. In this society, laws have been passed to declare some people as "needed" (those who have children to care for, and those who have important jobs that contribute to society "moving forward." Older people who have never had children, and those who are in jobs that don't contribute to society (according to the world of this novel) are classified as "dispensable." At age fifty for women, and sixty for men (men can reproduce longer), those who are classified as dispensable are transported to a "Unit" where they take part in "humane" scientific experiments, drug testing, and, eventually donate their organs, one by one. When these dispensable humans finally part with indispensable organs, that is their "final donation."

     The Unit follows the character of Dorrit Weger as she leaves behind her life as a not-terribly successful novelist (she is single, and the one responsibility she has had was to her dog, Jock, who she is forced to give up).  Dorrit enters the Unit and finds her life oddly satisfying. She has friends and even a lover, and feels a strange sense of freedom and camaraderie, despite being under constant surveillance, and living, along with all of her friends, under a death sentence.

     I'm about halfway through The Unit, and like the book very much. It reminds me a bit of The Handmaid's Tale.

     How did all you snowbound folks do? Obviously, we didn't have snow here in southern South Carolina (although I did see a couple of flakes on Saturday). Did being snowbound give you time to read lots and lots of books?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Review: The Past

The Past
Tessa Hadley
320 pages
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     The Past is a perfectly gorgeous book of the type I used to just love to lose myself in--a lush. rich, evocative story that feels distinctively British--the kind of novel Margaret Drabble used to turn out so reliably. The Past is rich in nuance, written in prose so lush it is like an English garden in full bloom. It is the story of a family, but it is also so much more than that. It is about the way that the past is always present, the way that individuals and families can be caught up in repetitive patterns without ever knowing it, and it is about the almost mythic undercurrent to life, the rich spiritual and emotional life that goes on just below the surface.

     Most of the story takes place over a three-week summer holiday. Four grown siblings (Harriet, Roland, Alice, and Fran) meet at the summer home where their mother grew up with her parents, a rather stern clergyman and his wife. The (metaphorical) ghosts of the grandparents, and especially of the mother, Jill, who died tragically young from breast cancer, haunt the gathering. Besides the grown siblings, Fran's young (and somewhat troubled) son Arthur and daughter Ivy are present, as well as Kasim, the son of one of Alice's former lovers. And to make things even more complicated, Roland has brought along his nubile sixteen-year-old daughter, Molly, and his new (third) wife, Pilar, an Argentinian lawyer.

     And you thought your family was complicated.

     This is enough drama for a Greek tragedy, and indeed, there are some hints of mythology and Greek drama, although much of what happens is ordinary family bickering. But there are deep wells of intense feeling too, as Kasim and Molly fall into the sensual daze of infatuation, and Arthur and Ivy explore an abandoned cottage, making up their own mythic stories and rituals (somehow ancient girlie magazines found in the cottage become a mythic and somewhat frightening and ominous presence in the inner lives of the children).

     The Past casts an almost hypnotic spell. As I fell deeper into the dream of the novel, I wanted to do nothing more than lay on my bed and read this book.

     One of my favorite aspects of this book was the way the character of Harriet, an introverted and sensible woman, well into middle age, falls into an intoxicating delirium of impossible love. Her passion, a kind of madness, was one of the most touching and pitiful elements of the book.

     The Past is a book that seems to take place almost outside of time. The characters, mostly the younger ones, are constantly trying to get cell phone signals and then giving up. This novel hearkens back to a time when everything important took place in person, between people, or in some distance not navigated by satellite signals. This novel shows how deeply it is possible to know someone, and at the same time, how we are in in some way unknowable. The Past delves into the deepest mysteries of love, and plumbs the depths of secrets that are never told, never unfolded, except to the reader.

     In the center of The Past is a section that literally takes the reader to the past--the time when the siblings were little children, and their mother was alive. I loved the surprise of this section. After getting to know the characters as middle-aged men and women, the reader is suddenly thrust into the childhood of the characters, and the mother, Jill, lost in the past, is now vividly alive.

     Everything that happens in this novel is somehow informed by the past. This is undeniably true for all of us, but it isn't something most of us think of as we go about our daily lives. Tessa Hadley uses the most exquisite artistry to bring both past and present to life in this beautiful and moving novel.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sunday Salon: Reading Three Books at Once

     The luxuriant laziness of the three-day-weekend.... Today was bliss, lolling around, reading, secure in the knowledge that I do not have to get up and put on real clothes and real shoes tomorrow. My seniors are reading Frankenstein now, and between reading for teaching and reading for reviews, I find myself reading three or more books at a time.

     First, there is Frankenstein: I read this for a graduate class, and then reread it at least once. Now I am reading Shelley's highly original novel for the third or fourth time. I love this book for its complexity, for its originality, and also because it is just so thematically and structurally suggestive. I have the Signet Classics paperback, which my students are using, and the Norton Critical Edition, which has critical essays and historical and biographical materials.

     Back when I was in graduate school, I read everything I could get my hands on about Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley. Wollstonecraft was a radical feminist in the 18th century, author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women, among other books. I'm pretty excited to read Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley. I just can't get enough of these two groundbreaking women.

     When my students finish Frankenstein, they will be reading connected novels in book clubs. So I've started reading Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (It was a Hollywood film, Bladeruuner). I'd say I'm about one-third of the way through this science-fiction classic, and I think it will work as a connecting novel for Frankenstein. Some of the same questions raised in Frankenstein about morality, ethics, and what it means to be human, are present in Philip Dick's futuristic tale of a bounty hunter who is pursuing highly realistic androids.

     And finally, on a completely different subject, I spent all of today reading Tessa Hadley's The Past, a gorgeously written novel about an English family. It's really lovely, and I just want to get lost in it.

     What have you been reading this weekend?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Teaching Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

The New Year

We've started a new semester, and I get a chance to start all over again. How many jobs allow you to do that? Right now I'm feeling very optimistic: I like the classes I get to teach this semester, and I love my students. I have two sections of seniors, and one section of sophomores. My task for the sophomores is to do a great job of preparing them for the next level of English, but I really feel the pressure with the seniors. This is the last high school English class these students will have, and I want to make sure they are prepared for college or the workplace.

Here's what I'm doing with the seniors: the overall theme for the class is "Gods, Heroes, and Monsters." We're starting with Frankenstein, which is such a rich text, with so many opportunities for deep conversation, and multiple levels of analysis.

When we finish reading Frankenstein, the students will be reading selected novels in book clubs. I want to give the students books that connect with the themes of Frankenstein. Here is a list of the novels I'm considering. I'm working with our awesome media specialist to add to my list of novels, but this is what we've come up with so far:

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

I want to appeal to a wide variety of students, and really engage them. The novels should trigger conversations, questions, curiosity, and be connected to the themes of Frankenstein. After the novels we will begin working on a research project based on questions and issues brought up by the books they've read (topics like human cloning, genetic engineering, etc.).

If you have any more ideas for me (and for my students), feel free to share in the comments. More on all of this later!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Sunday Salon: Reflecting on My Year in Books

Happy New Year!

Tomorrow I go back to work and reality after a wonderful two week break. I spent time with my family, decorated, shopped, and just generally had fun. I spent almost no time at all on social media. It was great!

Looking back on my year in books, I see a few trends, and feel an overall sense of satisfaction with what and how I read. I read 73 books in 2015 (in 2014 I read 77). But I read a lot of books in 2015 that were over 400, or even over 800 pages. 

I read nine books that could be classified as classics. Among the classics I read:
Black Boy Richard Wright
Native Son Richard Wright
Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy
The Warden Anthony Trollope
Passing Nella Larson

Every one of the books listed above was a re-read for me. I indulged in a lot of rereading this year. I agree with Walter Mosley that if a book is worth reading once it's worth rereading. Blood Meridian was probably the most beautifully written--and the most violent--book that I read this year.

This year I fully realized my love for fantasy and speculative fiction. I read the entire Philip Pullman series His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; and The Amber Spyglass. The Pullman books are completely entrancing.

And, you guys, Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I never wanted this book to end.

Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind Up Girl. Completely brilliant, unlike anything else I have read....And I have The Water Knife on the shelf, waiting for me.

And at the end of the semester, just when I needed a total escape, I finally read Deborah Harkness. I read A Discovery of Witches as I was wrapping up the Fall semester, and Shadow of Night over break. I doubt I'll be able to hold off on The Book of Life, even as a new semester begins. The combination of history, fantasy, and magic is irresistible. She had me at "Bodleian."

Two of my favorite books in 2015 were by Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase. A resolution for 2016: more Murakami!

I read 17 nonfiction books in 2015; two of the best were A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel and The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by Daniel James Brown.

There was an apocalyptic trend in my reading in 2015:
California Eden Lepucki
Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel
Zone One Colson Whitehead
The Wind Up Girl Paolo Bacigalupi
Each of these books presented a word devastated by disease, environmental disaster, and capitalism run amok. I especially loved Station Eleven, which I read in August, and then re-read in November. I love Mandel's writing, and was swept away by the artistry of her book.

2015 was a good year for me, even as my work life threatened to take over my private life. Teaching just gets more demanding every year. But teaching also feeds my reading life: I am constantly handing students books, reading with students or teachers, and, of course, talking about books all the time. There is nothing I love more than introducing a student to a book that will whet their desire for reading. I love sharing my love of reading.

How was your year in books? What books are you looking forward to in 2016?