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, July 6, 2017

Reading Trollope: Phineas Finn

Phineas Finn
Anthony Trollope
Oxford World's Classics
paperback, 383 pages

     I just spent several days immersed in a world created by Anthony Trollope, a world of Victorian England, of Parliament, Lords, entails, and endless marriage plots. Everything I know about the British Parliament and system of government comes from Victorian novels, mainly Trollope. In Phineas Finn, I re-entered a familiar world, the world of the Palliser novels. It's a place I've been before, and this is the second time I've read Phineas Finn. By now I know the characters well, and I understand the interconnecting web of political, familial, and romantic relationships. In fact, I knew from the start the basic shape of the plot, and most of what was to come (I had forgotten some minor details). I even remember what will come in Trollope's fourth Palliser novel, Phineas Redux.

     You might wonder, why? Why read Trollope at all, and why read him more than once?

     I've asked myself those same questions. I'm a twenty-first century woman, a feminist I read diversely and I care about social justice. Why then do I enjoy immersing myself in this ancient world of power and privilege? Why am I so beguiled by a bearded Victorian novelist, one who was unquestionably burdened with many of the biases and prejudices of his time?

     The only answer I can come up with is that something in Trollope's books answers questions I have about being human and living life. Isn't that funny?

     Trollope wrote at a time when women had practically no autonomy, no rights, and little control over the most important decisions of their lives. I mean, I get nauseous when I think about the movement-limiting clothing they had to wear. And, amazingly, Trollope gets that. He clearly feels enormous sympathy toward his female characters (all of whom are, of course, amazingly privileged compared to impoverished women of the time). Despite their lack of power, these women long to do something useful in the world. And if they can't do that, they'd at least like to marry someone who will do useful work in the world.

     Glencora Palliser, Alice Vavasor, Violet Effingham, and most of all, Madame Max Goesler: these are women of passion and intelligence. Often they are far more intelligent than their male counterparts.

     So there's that.

     But that's just a part of Trollope's appeal. His writing is my no means beautiful; it is serviceable most of the time and no more than that. But he creates a vast canvas, an entire social world, and he peoples it with characters who have life and breath. He shows the reader how politics works, why a Parliament man must vote with his party and not his conscience. He brings the reader deep inside the craven and mercenary world of Victorian marriage. And he shows us good old human nature, which hasn't changed very much.

     Phineas Finn is a young Irishman who has trained in the law, but through luck and circumstance, ends up getting a seat in Parliament. Phineas is young, inexperienced, and callow. He is a gentleman, but he doesn't have much money (none, really, except for what his father provides). He is exceedingly pleasant, and very handsome (Trollope makes quite a point of this). Throughout the course of Phineas Finn, the hero tries to make his way in the world of politics, and falls in love several times. His actions and behavior are not always admirable, but the way Trollope writes the character, the reader forgives him.

     Phineas Finn is about the two big questions of life: work and love. Phineas has triumphs, setbacks, and catastrophes (or near catastrophes) in both work and love.

     I think we can all relate to the two big questions: what kind of work should I do, and with whom do I want to spend my life (or at least part of it). Finding the right answers to these questions can make the difference between happiness and misery. Trollope shows some of the ways people can find the right answers, and many more of the ways they can find the wrong answers. And he does this in the context of politics and the lives of both privileged and ordinary Victorians--the people of his age.

     There are six novels in Trollope's Palliser series. If you are interested in reading and discussing the novels, Audrey at books as food and JoAnn at Lakeside Musing have created #PalliserParty. It's easy and fun--we just read along at roughly the same pace and chat a bit on twitter. The next novel up in the series is The Eustace Diamonds.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Review: Pachinko

Min Jin Lee
Grand Central Publishing
hardcover, 490 pages
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher

     I read voraciously, and mostly I read what I like. If I don't like a book, I put it down. I've gotten pretty good at choosing books that I know will appeal to me. So good reading experiences are my norm. But every once in a while I pick up a book and am completely gobsmacked. I fall in love with the world of the book, with its characters, and I don't want to leave that world. At the end of such a book, I feel a real physical sensation in the vicinity of my heart, a sensation that stays with me and makes picking up any other book impossible. I'm in a relationship with a book, and I can't move on.

     That's how I feel about Min Jin Lee's newest novel, Pachinko. My love for this book is real; this book is everything.

     If I tell you that George Eliot's Middlemarch is my favorite novel, that I have read it again and again and again, you might get a sense of the personal reading schema that leads me to love Pachinko.

     Pachinko is an ambitious, panoramic novel that tells a big story about ordinary people from an omniscient point of view. The novel encompasses history, geography, and culture through meticulously created characters who live and breathe on the page.

     The first sentence of the novel is this: "History has failed us, but no matter." Then begins a tale that almost reads like a fable. The reader is taken to Busan, Korea, in 1910 when Japan annexed Korea. We are introduced to characters living on the very edge of poverty, almost starvation, coming up against the brutality of history. The family that produces Hoonie, who marries Yangjin, leads to the birth of Sunja--an adored only daughter. It is Sunja and her problematic out-of-wedlock pregnancy who launches the narrative, and Sunja remains at the center of the novel. By the end of Pachinko I was thoroughly in love with this illiterate, innocent, persevering woman.

     Min Jin Lee has said that the genesis of this novel was a story she heard in Japan, of a young Korean boy who, bullied mercilessly about his Korean origins, committed suicide by leaping from the top of a building. Due to legal and social discrimination against Koreans in Japan, Koreans, even ethnic Koreans born in Japan cannot be said to be at home in Japan. Even for those of Korean descent who are born in Japan, Japanese citizenship is not automatic; in fact it is very difficult for Koreans to gain Japanese citizenship. When Sunja emigrates to Japan during her pregnancy, she escapes the shame of having an out-of-wedlock child in her village. But she enters a world that cannot truly be home, and she spends the rest of her life in that world.

     Sunja and her family encounter discrimination, poverty, and hardship. Min Jin Lee shows a Dickensian delight in creating a multiplicity of characters. Because of the scope of Pachinko, the inner lives and stories of even minor characters enliven the novel. These characters are caught within the arc of history, but they live their lives and experience joy and triumph as well as hardship and catastrophe.

     The title of the novel comes from a kind of game (similar to pinball) which is played in gaming parlors in Japan. Because ethnic Koreans are shut out of many professions, Sunja's second son Mozasu goes to work in the somewhat shady world of the Pachinko parlors. Her older son, Noa, is studious, and ends up reading English novel after English novel. The two sons take very divergent paths, and each son has his own story. There is both deep love and enormous rivalry between the two, and intimate secrets that divide them.

     I can't even begin to summarize the events of Pachinko, and it seems pointless to even try. The novel encompasses so much of history, including World War II and the Korean War, and yet the story stays both intimate and large. I loved the characters because they are real ordinary people facing struggles that are Biblical in scope: deception, secrets, rivalries, hidden love. The intimate struggles of the characters are played out against the backdrop of a history that is indifferent to their daily lives. I came to this novel with almost no knowledge at all of Korea or the history of Koreans in Japan. I feel grateful that the author dedicated herself to telling this story. Pachinko is a real achievement, and I cannot do justice to the complexity and beauty of the novel--the best that I can do is to urge readers to dive into this spectacular book.

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: