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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Review: The Essex Serpent

The Essex Serpent
Sarah Perry
Custom House
hardcover, 432 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
Purchase Links:
Harper Collins
Barnes & Noble

     I sank into the world of Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent, never suspecting that I was entering a fictional world that I would not want to leave. Perry has created a late Victorian world that is strikingly like our own: a battle rages between science and faith; the yawning gap between rich and poor begs for compassion--and a solution; women struggle for autonomy and independence.

     Cora Seaborne, the character around whom both the plot and the other characters orbit, is recently widowed. She is tall, untidy, wealthy, and has a vibrant, curious mind. Her husband, Michael, was a cruel and devilish man, and she hardly mourns him. Instead, she feels a sense of relief, and freedom, that is entirely new to her. She leaves her home in London and goes seeking---something. Obsessed with fossils and discoveries, a Darwinian atheist, Cora goes to Essex, bringing with her her son Francis and his nanny (and Cora's friend), Martha. In Essex, Cora goes tramping for miles in a man's coat and boots, listens to the stories of a professional beggar, and hears the tale of a strange, legendary serpent-like creature who has haunted the area. Cora becomes determined to find out the truth about this creature of superstition and legend.

     Along the way, Cora encounters, and is simultaneously attracted to and annoyed by the Reverend William Ransom. The two become close friends--despite their vehement disagreement on matters of faith, and many other things. Will's beautiful, ethereal wife Stella becomes a friend to Cora too, and Cora's son Francis is drawn to Stella too. There are complicated human dynamics at work here; attraction and repulsion, and much unrequited desire (mostly for Cora). Dr. Luke Garrett, the late Michael Seaborne's physician, and a brilliant surgeon fascinated by the workings of the human heart, also goes to Essex: he has diagnosed himself as being in love with Cora, and does not wish to recover.

     Cora Seaborne is an absolutely enchanting character. She's definitely not your typical Victorian heroine: now that she is a widow, she is reveling in her freedom. She is free to not be beautiful, she is free to explore and search for fossils and the mystery of the Essex Serpent, she is free to have a lively friendship with a man, or more than one man. She settles in the village of Aldwinter to be closer to the Ransomes; there the villagers are steeped in superstitious fears, and Will, a freethinker but a believer, thinks perhaps the village is being punished for their sins, their lack of faith. There are just enough mysterious events (a dead man washes up on the shore, a child disappears, Will and Cora see a fantastic illusion along the skyline, just above the river) to create a mood of darkness and possible doom.

     At the same time, this novel, and its main character, are teeming with life. Cora's exhilaration, the intensity of her perceptions, are felt by the reader, making this a novel that teeters between suspenseful darkness, and the transcendent rush of beauty in nature, in life, in feeling. I found myself completely captivated by Cora, and by this book. I truly never wanted it to end.

     This is one of those rare books that left me with no desire to pick up another book. I just wasn't ready to leave the world of this novel. When I finished reading The Essex Serpent, I could still hear the voices of the characters; I couldn't stop thinking about The Essex Serpent, and I felt as though the book was continuing to make meaning in my mind. After reaching the last page, I put the book down, then picked it up again a few hours later to do something I've only done a few times: begin reading the book all over again. I didn't read to the end, but I wanted to hold on to the world of this novel for just a little longer.

     The Essex Serpent is an extraordinary book. It is the best kind of historical fiction: it sheds light not only on an earlier age, but also on our own.  It's harder to say who this book isn't for than to say who will like it: any reader who loves to think and feel? There are Dickensian moments (much about the poor in London, and how to help them--or not) and something of a Sarah Waters feel.Some of the Gothic qualities of Mary Shelley, the mystery of Wilkie Collins....there is a tincture of each of these. But in the end The Essex Serpent strikes me as entirely original, an immersive and brilliant tale of seen and unseen worlds.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Books, dreams, and reading at parties: A morning coffee post

Morning Coffee

     This is almost straight from my journal, not my usual sort of post. We were getting ready to go to a party, and my husband was going through all the stages of grief. He really, really hates going to parties. Until he gets there, and then he is fine.

     So we started out with anger, moved on to denial, then bargaining. He was finally starting to pick out clothes. I was already fully dressed and sitting at my desk, waiting for him and reading a novel. I was at the stage where I knew we were going to have to go to the party, and had accepted it. I was thinking about the dream I'd had just before waking that morning: I was at a lively, crowded party, and scattered around the room I saw several people who were sitting, just quietly reading books. That made me so happy.

     Be totally honest. Did you ever slip a paperback into your bag as you left to go to a party? Somewhere inside you were telling yourself that maybe you would find a way to slip into a corner and curl up with your book.

     Introverts have it tough sometimes. It's just an expectation that everyone enjoys gatherings where people get together for almost no reason at all, and stand or sit around and talk to each other. And really, it's not that bad when you get there.

     I knew that my husband would reach the stage of acceptance. That's when we would be in the car actually on our way to the party.

     It happened just like that, too. We got into the car, drove to the party, and had a pretty good time. I had to drag my husband out of there.

     But silent reading parties are a thing now. See below:

Host a Silent Reading Party in Seven Easy Steps (Book Riot)

Reader's Night Out (New Yorker)

     I'm waiting for someone to break the introversion barrier and make it socially acceptable to curl up anywhere and pull out your book....even at a party. It would be a conversation starter, right?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sunday Salon: Let the Summer Reading Begin

     I'm going to be very honest here. The school year is over. I packed up my entire classroom and moved to another classroom on another floor (again). And now I need to detox. Being a teacher is demanding, stressful, rewarding, amazing. It is a roller-coaster ride of emotions and situations and epic failures and qualified successes. It's exhausting. And at the end of the year, I need some time. I need to sleep until I wake up, at least for a few days. I need to sit down and eat a leisurely lunch (something that never, ever, ever happens during the school year). I need to drink when I am thirsty, without worrying about when I will manage to get a bathroom break. I need to read, purely for pleasure, and at my own whim.

Just now I'm reading Pat Conroy's Beach Music. It is absolutely perfect for me right now. It's set in the fictional town of Waterford, which is actually Beaufort, SC, just a couple of bridges away from where I live. I actually got to meet Pat Conroy, not long before his death of pancreatic cancer. He was one of the most gentle, generous, compassionate men I have ever met. His eyes were sea green, and he had the gift of focusing entirely on whoever he happened to be speaking with, in a way that made you feel that he was genuinely interested in everything about you, and that he had all the time in the world to spend with you. My husband took this picture, and it just makes me happy, even though I look a bit of a wreck (I had taught all day, then waited an hour in line in wilting South Carolina heat). Sadly, I am in pretty good focus, but Conroy is pretty blurry. But this picture captures a moment where I just felt supremely happy. Conroy and I talked about his book The Water is Wide, which related his experience of teaching on Daufuskie Island, called Yamacraw Island in the book.

     I only met Pat Conroy once, but he's the sweetest man in the world to me. He used to go to a certain restaurant in Beaufort, and have lunch on a specific day of the week (I think it was Thursdays). He often invited members of the reading public to join him; it was an open invitation. Whoever showed up would be his lunch companions.

     So this is my time to rest, let some of the toxins escape, and read, read, read. Also write, write, write. This is the summer when I will establish and stick to a writing schedule. I'm letting go of everything else. Nothing else matters.


Friday, June 2, 2017

Review: The View From the Cheap Seats

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction
Neil Gaiman
paperback, 544 pages
William Morrow Paperbacks, reprint edition
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
Purchase Links:
Harper Collins
Barnes & Noble

     Is there any better companion for the cheap seats, or any seats at all, than Neil Gaiman? The answer, my friends, is no.

     Neil Gaiman is like that one high school teacher that made students want to come to class, that one teacher who made school bearable and any topic enthralling. Gaiman takes the most ordinary journalistic task and turns it into a friendly conversation that starts out in one place (books and authors) and ends up in quite another (the urgent need for storytelling in our lives). Carried along by Gaiman's voice, the reader finds a companion who restores faith and hope all by talking about libraries. And who else could get away with a book review that is almost entirely about the color of the book cover (gold) and the fact that the book reviewer has quite accidentally misplaced the review copy of said book?

     You will not find vitriol, venom, or even bile between in The View from the Cheap Seats. Most of the pieces in this volume are appreciations: of authors (Bradbury, Aldiss, Terry Pratchett, and others); of libraries and bookstores; of comics and comic artists; of science fiction and fantasy. If you are a book lover, if you are a true reader, then you are going to find a kindred spirit in Neil Gaiman, and you are going to love this book.

     If you are already a Gaiman fan, then you will find much to please you: the origins and writing of The Graveyard Book and other works, the author's childhood love of books. If you first came to Gaiman through The Sandman, there is much for you in this book. Personally, I discovered Neil Gaiman when my daughter gave me a copy of American Gods. I was and still am gobsmacked. American Gods is unlike anything else I have ever read, and yet it is like every story I ever read that I wanted to keep reading. If you haven't read it yet, go get it. You can thank me later.

     If you are a writer, or secretly wish to be a writer (aren't all readers just one step away from wishing to write or actually writing?) then you will love this book. There is guidance and comfort and advice here.

     In short, you need this book. Keep it on your nightstand. Leaf through it when you are feeling as if you might lose faith in humans or the future or libraries or bookstores. Read it to remind yourself that this is why you read.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sunday Salon: Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson
July 1, 1949-May 24, 2017

     On December 29, 2016, I discovered an overwhelming, urgent, need to purchase Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. This often happens to me. I know the exact date, because I am still using the sales slip as a book mark. This urgent need (99% of the time I obey these epiphanic book desires) might have been because I had recently read Train Dreams (a brief review is here), or it might have just been one of those communications from the great Book World in the sky. I had read "Emergency" numerous times (in Alice La Plante's excellent The Making of a Story). And when I got home with Jesus' Son I did start reading. But at some point I put the book down and went about my life. But when I really, urgently, needed to read Jesus' Son, it was right there for me. Thank you, messages from the Book World in the sky.

     Yesterday I sat down and read Jesus' Son straight through. Cover to cover. Each time I finished a story, I would stop and wonder what kind of ecstatic madman angel wrote these stories. Then I would look at the covers, front and back, and read all the words. The blurbs, the descriptions, they were just mortal faded words. I tried at the end of each story to come up with a sentence, or a phrase even, that might be adequate to express the sheer, pure, shining genius of these stories. Nope. Couldn't do it. Next to the incredible perfection of these stories, there was not a sentence or a phrase that didn't sound hollow.


     That is the only word that approaches an adequate description of the book that has become synonymous with Denis Johnson's name. If you have ever, even once in your life, been ecstatically drunk or high, then you have some sense of the narrative structure of Jesus' Son. Each story is the fragmented yet unified dream vision of a narrator who has sunk so low it is hard to imagine anyone sinking lower and not being in hell.

     Johnson neither deifies nor exaggerates nor demonizes his characters. And yet they see angels. The fact that the angels turn out to be the faces of actors on a drive-in movie screen does not in any way detract from the religious experience.

     If I told you that this book is about junkies and drunks and people who do loathsome things, would that attract or repel you? Neither response is relevant, because Johnson is doing something outside those categories. Something like what Dostoyevsky or William Blake did--offer an ecstatic, visionary, light-filled and spiritual account of all that seems to be the lowest and least spiritual in humankind.

     Now that I've read Jesus' Son (and I will be rereading this book over and over), I'll be starting Tree of Smoke today (yes, I got a message to buy that one too). The other book I've heard about again and again is Fiskadoro--that goes on the list.

     Denis Johnson was a poet as well as a novelist and story writer. Here are some links to his poems:

     Appreciations of Denis Johnson from:

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Review: Concepcion and the Baby Brokers

Concepcion and the Brokers and Other Stories Out of Guatemala
Deborah Clearman
Rain Mountain Press
paperback, 236 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
Purchase Links:
Rain Mountain Press

     Deborah Clearman has a beautiful, engrossing, and enlightening collection of stories in Concepcion and the Baby Brokers. Set primarily in Guatemala, this collection allows the reader to glimpse the daily lives of Todosanteros--the inhabitants of the community of Todos Santos. The opening novella, A Cup of Tears, tells the story of a third-world baby farm, a kidnapping, and a New Jersey couple who come to Guatemala to adopt a toddler. What the couple doesn't know is that the toddler is one of two twin boys who were kidnapped by their wet nurse, Concepcion. In just under one hundred pages, Clearman illuminates the lives of Concepcion, Prudencia, who is complicit in the kidnapping, and who works for a wealthy baby broker, Lala, the inconsolable mother of the kidnapped toddlers, and Sunshine, the New Jersey woman who believes she is offering an orphan a better life. Clearman imbues each of these characters with compassion. The novella is gripping in its depiction of the forces that drive each of the characters--gangs, drugs, poverty, and abuse--but ultimately it is optimistic about the human capacity for love and sacrifice.

     Although each of the stories in this collection stands on its own, I loved the fact that place holds them all together. Whether transplanted to Guatemala City, Washington, D.C., or Michigan, the characters remain Todosanteros, and the connections between the characters and their community bind the stories together. While reading this collection, I learned quite a bit about the customs and daily life of the people of Guatemala--a life that was totally unknown to me. As a reader, I look first and foremost for believable characters, for story, and for that ineffable magic that gifted writers create. But if the story transports me to, and lets me understand, a world previously unknown to me, that's something special. These stories do all of that.

     In "The Race," a young man returns from Michigan to Todos Santos and spends his earnings to impress his father, his community, and the village girls while participating in an annual horse race. The story intertwines the story of the race and the whole history of the young man's life in the village--his victimization by a childhood bully, his abandonment by his father, and his love for a village girl. Clearman is able to do more in the pages of a story than some writers are able to accomplish in a novel.

     The stories in this collection often focus on the interaction between Guatemalans and Americans, whether the Americans are tourists, or those who have come to stay. In "English Lessons" Jorge is married to an American college instructor--but he becomes George in his English lessons, as he navigates living in two worlds, one in which he is happy to speak Spanish and work as a landscaper, and one in which he tries to make his American wife happy by learning English and visiting a fertility clinic. In another story, a transplanted American has become an almost saintly figure, offering advice to people of the village as he recovers from a nearly fatal illness. In this story, "Saints and Sinners," innocence and guilt are not so easily assigned.

     The stories in Concepcion and the Baby Brokers offer no easy solutions to the deeply difficult problems of their characters--but the author offers insight, compassion, and the dignity of beautifully observed and truthful portrayals of the lives and loves of her characters.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sunday Coffee in May

The Month of May

This month is a month of deadlines and distractions. My AP students took their Literature and Composition exam on May 3rd, and my ninth graders will be taking the End-of-Course exam for English 1 in about two weeks. As the school year winds up, there is not much time for reading for pleasure.

But I do it anyway.

Honestly, I don't know how I would survive my job or my life without the consolation of books.

Although this year has been a tough one for my reading life (fewer books finished than normal, lots of books begun and then set aside) here are some of the books that have been sustaining me recently:

Lab Girl, a memoir by scientist and professor Hope Jahren. I've been reading this book mostly at night, about a chapter at a time, but I've picked up the pace recently. I can't begin to explain just how amazing this book is. First of all, Jahren is an astonishingly good writer. I mean GOOD. She is also hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. She makes everything about plants, geology, science, and the workings of a scientific lab absolutely enthralling. And her perspective as a woman in a male-dominated field is riveting.

The Ambassadors by Henry James. When I was an English major in college I loved Henry James. Now, I'm wondering if anyone even reads him anymore--someone must, surely. I picked up The Ambassadors to see whether I still had the focus and ability to concentrate to read James. The reality is that the ability to focus deeply on the type of sentences and precise details you get with Henry James is something that requires practice. My life and my job have left me with fractured attention. But I am slowly making my way.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. This 490 page panoramic historical novel set in Korea and Japan hit the sweet spot for me. It is a beautiful, profound, entrancing book. I was lost, completely immersed, in this story of a Sunja, a young girl who becomes pregnant by a married man. Sunja lives with her widowed mother, who runs a boardinghouse. In a twist of fate, a young Christian minister comes to stay in the boardinghouse, and rescues Sunja from her shameful situation by marrying her and taking her to Japan, where most of the story takes place. I will be posting a full review of this novel, but suffice it to say for now that it is splendid.

As the school year comes to an end, I'm looking forward to reading for pleasure, sheer, pure pleasure, and reading all the time.But even now, when it seems like there is no time for it, I will be reading.

What have you read lately that hit the sweet spot for you? Do you find as life gets more and more busy and stressful, that you need to read more, not less?