Reader’s Journal: Postcards from the Edge

PostcardsFromEdgeI was just shy of eight years old when Star Wars hit the silver screen in May of 1977. Like millions of young girls, I wanted to be Princess Leia. I spent many an afternoon in my pink room pretending to program an invisible R2-D2 (white beanbag chair) with a secret message for Obi-Wan Kenobi. (“Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi! You’re my only hope!”) What can I say? I was an only child, and I was Star Wars crazed. My obsession only grew with the release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 (which I saw so many times in the theater, I could talk along with the film). By then I was almost eleven, and even though boys were not in the picture yet, Harrison Ford certainly was. “You’re a scoundrel,” I would say to Han Solo (pillow). We would kiss (me and the pillow). It was all quite heady and romantic.

For all that, though, my most vivid memory of Carrie Fisher was at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, 1983. We were enduring a rather soggy (but still wonderful) Simon and Garfunkel concert, being lashed by the tropical rains produced by Hurricane Alicia, when Paul Simon brought his new bride on stage and introduced her to the crowd. It was a lovely, sweet moment. They would be divorced less than a year later.

Published in 1987, Postcards from the Edge, Fisher’s first novel, is semi-autobiographical, following the character of actress Suzanne Vale through a stint at rehab and her first year of recovery. The novel is really more of a series of sketches. It opens with a few postcards from Suzanne to her friends and family, and then moves immediately to her thirty days in rehab, going back and forth between Suzanne’s journal (in first person) and the story of a cocaine addict named Alex (also in first person) who is in the rehab with her. Alex is so unbelievably paranoid, egotistical, and annoying that if you were standing with him near a cliff and he were telling his story in person, you would probably just go ahead and push him off to put you both out of your misery. Suzanne is focused on her recovery, and Alex is mostly focused on Suzanne, the only person in rehab he sees as “cool” as he sees himself, although he can’t work up the nerve to talk to her. The back and forth can be a little disconcerting (I disliked Alex so much, and I kept wanting to get back to Suzanne), but it does a good job I think of showing the mindset(s) of people in rehab, but also how Hollywood makes a fetish of the damaged:

Suzanne: In our culture [Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Lenny Bruce, Janis Joplin, John Belushi] are heroes. There’s something inside of that—a message that killing yourself like that isn’t so bad. All the interesting people do it, the extraordinary ones. A weird, weird message. Most of the people I’ve admired in show business—comedians, writers, actors—are alcoholics or drug addicts or suicides. It’s bizarre. And I get to be in that club now. It’s the one thing I cling to in here: Wow, I’m hip now, like the dead people.

Romancing the stoned.

Alex: This is so Not Hip. I don’t mean everything has to be hip. This is probably good for some people, but …Look at these people. I have nothing on common with any of them, except Suzanne. She’s been here a couple of weeks now. She seems like she’s really into this, but she’s an actress. Actresses can seem like they fit in anywhere. I’m mainly just gonna just talk to her. It would be great if we fell in love. That would show them, if I came back from the drug clinic with Suzanne Vale as my girlfriend.

The next four sections are all in third person, following Suzanne through her life after addiction as she tries to stay sober and navigate Hollywood and the movie business. She dates a sex-addicted producer and visits her therapist; she takes a part in a low-budget buddy cop movie being shot in the desert near her grandmother’s house; she attends a party and then takes to her bed. The reason I mention all this is because it seems like the book is a bit of an experiment–not in an Eco/Calvino/Pynchon postmodern sort of way, but in a new author, not-sure-how-I-want-this-all-to-work-on-the-page sort of way.

It’s a bit uneven, but it’s a first novel. Suzanne is insecure and funny. You like her and root for her all the way through the book. You want her to stay sober, you want her to meet a nice guy, you want someone to offer her the part of a lifetime. Fisher makes Suzanne a very real person in a crazy world that’s bent on make-believe, and it works. It’s like Entourage meets Lorrie Moore—Hollywood through the eyes of someone who has a superb sense of irony, even about herself.

One of my favorite parts is a conversation Suzanne has with her grandmother, basically about who she was when she was little, and what she should be now that she has grown up. Her grandmother calls out the generational differences: in her day, people picked a thing (or a person) and stuck with it; in Suzanne’s day, anything goes. Nobody wants to work hard on anything; they expect things to be easy. This part especially resonated with me:

“I’m one of those people who believe you do whatever you set your mind to,” her grandmother said. “But, that being said, I think some people have an easier time setting their minds down than others do, and your mind seems to hover. Your brother seems to have his head out of the clouds, but yours is right up there in them. You always read too much, always had your nose in a book. A bookworm. You just don’t seem to have a level look on things, and I don’t know if you can get that or not. Maybe you could just live with it. I don’t think it’s such a bad thing. Certainly there’s worse.”

I also liked the section where Suzanne takes to her bed, and eats and watches bad movies on cable. Her best friend Lucy comes over to join her:

“Remember what it was like when you’d be getting ready to jump rope,” she asked, “and two people were turning it, and you were waiting for exactly the right moment to jump in? I feel like that all the time.”
“I keep thinking that we’ll grow out of this,” said Lucy.
“Grow out of it?” said Suzanne. “How much growing do you do all of the sudden after thirty?”
“Maybe it’s a hormonal thing,” Lucy offered.
“Maybe it is food allergies,” said Suzanne. “Maybe my mom’s right. Maybe this is all tuna.”
“Could we be having a nervous breakdown?” Lucy asked. “A controlled nervous breakdown?”
“I don’t know,” Suzanne said doubtfully. “I’m not that nervous, and it’s not really a breakdown. It’s more of a backdown, or a backing off. A pit stop. That’s what we’re having, a nervous pit stop. A not-so-nervous pit stop.”

Overall, this was an entertaining read. Fisher writes dialogue well, and she’s funny. I should note: the book is quite a bit different than the movie. Suzanne’s mother has the tiniest bit part in the book (she offers to send her maid over to clean Suzanne’s house and fix her something to eat), while in the movie the mother-daughter relationship dominates the story. Fisher wrote the screenplay, so it’s interesting how the story changed focus. I haven’t seen the movie since it came out in 1990, but I would be interested in watching it again now that I’ve read the book. I can see why she had to re-work it, because as I said earlier, the book is really more like connected stories or sketches—I just think it’s interesting that Fisher picked a thread for the screen that’s almost non-existent in the book. Beyond that, I definitely plan to pick up another of Fisher’s novels, Surrender the Pink, and perhaps her memoir, Wishful Drinking.

This was my “Letter” pick for the 9 for ’09 challenge. Only two (and a half—I’m halfway through Drinking Coffee Elsewhere) more books to read for that one, and I’m finished!

Reader’s Journal: A Reliable Wife

ReliableWifeThis is my 9 for ’09 challenge pick for Cover, a book that interested you either because the cover is pretty or ugly.

I won’t lie to you: I chose this book for its cover. But I didn’t pick it out for the challenge because of its cover. In fact, I had picked another book altogether, Summer at Tiffany. I decided to switch to this one because it’s true: the cover wouldn’t leave me alone. Every time I saw the image on a book site, I found myself clicking on it. I never could remember what the book was about, actually, even though I read the description more than once. Something about the cover design just pulled me in. Has that ever happened to you, where you find that every time you’re perusing the shelves (either virtually or physically), you find yourself drawn to a particular book time and again because of the cover?

When I realized it was futile for me to resist–that this book would have me, eventually–I gave up and moved it to the top of my wish list, and someone bought it for me for my birthday. I mentioned in last week’s Booking through Thursday post that there was a line in the description that made me pick the book up, and that is true as well, but the cover was my first attraction.

A Reliable Wife is set in Wisconsin at the turn of the Twentieth century. Ralph Truitt, a wealthy business man, has placed an advertisement in the Chicago paper for “a reliable wife.” He is answered by Catherine Land, who tells Truitt she is the daughter of a missionary, a plain religious woman:

I am not a schoolgirl. I have spent my life being a daughter and had long since given up hope of being a wife. I know that it isn’t love you are offering, nor would I seek that, but a home, and I will take what you give because that is all that I want. I say that not meaning to imply that it is a small thing. I mean, in fact, that it is all there is of goodness and kindness to want. It is everything compared to the world I have seen, and if you will have me, I will come.

This is a novel where nothing is as it seems, and people are telling the truth even as they lie. The deceptions begin almost immediately, but in every deceptive act is a kernel of true desire. Desire, in fact, is the heart of this book: sexual desire, the heart’s  desire, desire for a home, desire for peace, desire for redemption and forgiveness. Unfortunately, to discuss much of the plot would be to give too much of the book away. Catherine and Truitt’s relationship intensifies and develops in such a way that even as one deceives the other, they both believe they are getting what they want, or perhaps what they deserve.

The harsh winter landscape of Wisconsin serves both as a backdrop and a metaphor for the cold plains of the heart where Truitt and Catherine reside. Goolrick presents the landscape as both beautiful and harsh, alternately comforting and treacherous in its silence. I’ve always enjoyed books about the plains, about settlers who crossed and made lives all through the Nineteenth and into the Twentieth century. At the end of the book, Goolrick explains that his inspiration was a book by Michael Lesy called Wisconsin Death Trip:

Its collage of words and photographs paint a haunting, cinematic portrait of a small town in Wisconsin at the diseased end of the nineteenth century. We had imagined the cities to be teeming with moral turpitude and industrial madness, and rural America to sleeping in a prosperous innocence, filled with honest and industrious people. Not so. Lesy unlocks the Pandora’s box of country life to show us its dark and ravaged soul.

I have not read Wisconsin Death Trip, although I did go so far as to check to see if the local library has a copy (it does), so I can check it out sometime in the near future. However, even without reading the book that so inspired Goolrick, I feel he has “[unlocked] the Pandora’s box of country life,” given them the layers of complexity they are so often denied.

Some favorite passages (that won’t give anything away!):

In every house they passed, there were lives that were wholly known to him. In these houses, people knew one another; they knew him as well. He had held their babies, been to their weddings, been shocked by their sudden flights into madness and rage. He was and he wasn’t a part of their lives. He was there and he had done what was required of him, what was expected.

They went crazy in the cold; they went deep into the heart of their religion and emerged as lunatics.

She was a lonely woman who answered a personal advertisement in a city paper, a woman who had traveled miles and miles on somebody else’s money. She was neither sweet nor sentimental, neither simple nor honest. She was both desperate and hopeful. She was like all those foolish women whose foolish dreams made her and her friends howl with hopeless derision, except that now she was looking into the face of such a woman it it didn’t seem funny at all.

Love drove people crazy. He saw it every day. He read it every week in the paper. Every week the papers were filled with the barn burnings, the arsenic taken, the babies drowned in wells to keep their names secret, to keep their fathers away from them, to keep them from knowing the craziness of love. To send them home to the holiness of God. He read these stories aloud to Catherine at night, after supper, and she would invent stories about the sad women and the deranged men. She would say their names over and over, until even their names became a kind of derangement.

She spent her afternoons in the public library, its high windows slanting the pale thin winter light down on the long tables where men and women, ladies and gentlemen, the latter mostly young and handsome with glossy hair and ruddy cheeks, sat and passed an afternoon reading novels or the newspaper, or seriously researching things with maps and biographies and dictionaries. She liked these people. She sat among them as one of them, a stranger to them as they were to one another, and she was happy.

9 for ’09: Haunted Ground

HauntedGroundI chose Erin Hart’s Haunted Ground as my pick for my “Strange” book, or a book that was from an unfamiliar genre. Since that time, I’ve read a number of mysteries, but I’m still new enough to the genre to feel like I am discovering something every time I pick up a new mystery.

Haunted Ground is the first in a series that follows Nora Gavin, an American pathologist, and Cormac McGuire, an Irish anthropologist. These two are drawn into mysteries through the work they do at archeological sites–at least on the surface. Nora is haunted by the murder of her sister, while Cormac is haunted by his relationship (or lack thereof) with his father and the death of his late mentor. In every sense, these “hauntings” drive Cormac and Nora through mystery presented to them in Haunted Ground.

At the story’s opening, the McGann brothers are cultivating peat bricks from a bog near their home when they come across an object in the peat:

Working deliberately, Brendan dug around the perimeter of the fibrous mat, probing for its edges, and scraping away loose bits of peat. He knelt on the spngy bank and pulled at the strands that began to emerge from the soaking turf. This was not horsehair; it was tanlged and matted, all right, but it was too long and far too fine to be the rooty material his father called horsehair. Brendan worked his broad fingers into the dense black peat he’d pried loose with the spade. Without warning, the block in his left hand gave way, and he cast it aside.

…Almost touching his knee were the unmistakable and delicate curves of a human ear. It was stained dark tobacco brown, and though the face was not visible, something in the line of the jaw, and the dripping tangle of fine hair above it, told him at once that the ear belonged to a woman.

So begins the mystery of the cailín rua, the red-haired girl. But as Nora and Cormac begin their investigation at the scene, they find that the red-haired girl doesn’t comprise the only mystery in the area. A stranger appears at the site of the dig, afraid that what’s been discovered are the bodies of his wife and son, missing for the last two years. This second mystery turns out to be the obsession of a third investigator, Detective Garrett Devaney, who is convinced of the husband’s guilt.

Hart handles these intertwining mysteries deftly, and through them she manages to intersperse a great deal of information about archeology and pathology, Irish and English politics, religion, class feuds, and local laws and folklore. I had forgotten, until I picked the it up again to write the review, how densely packed this book is. To read it is to feel fully immersed in the country and culture of Ireland, but it’s also a great story. As packed as it is, it moves smoothly along, and it’s difficult to put down. While the mysteries in the book are eventually solved, what haunts Nora and Cormac throughout the novel remains at the end. More than simply setting up the second book in the series, Hart leaves the ending open for these characters because they are more than simple outlines of people who solve crimes: they are both fully-realized characters whose goals in their lives outside of work are sometimes at complete odds, which makes them compelling as partners and people. I will definitely be reading the second book in the series, Lake of Sorrows, and will look forward to The False Mermaid, the third book in the series being published in March 2010.

A few more passages:

Cormac carefully lifted the damp strands and laid them aside, then froze when he saw what lay beneath. The girl’s mouth was clamped tightly shut, her top teeth embedded in the flesh of her lower lip. One eye stared wildly; the other was half closed. Her face seemed distorted with fear, a far cry from the images he’d seen of Iron Age bog men, whose unblemished bodies and tranquil expressions led to theories that they were either drugged, or willing victims of sacrifice. In its brief exposure to the air, the girl’s hair had already begun to dry, and a few strands began to play in the breeze that scooped down into the trench. Something about this tiny movement made it seem, for one surreal instant, that she was alive.

Half-eleven found Cormac and Nora hard at work on the excavation site. Banks of low gray cumulus clouds scudded across the sky from west to east, and a damp breeze from the ocean blew in over the mountains. Resting for a moment on the spade handle, Cormac thought about his own life, and what might remain of it in three hundred, eight hundred, or a thousand years; items he’d lost down the floorboards, or hidden so no one else could find them, until he, too, had lost track of their existence. He identified with the hoarders of earlier ages, burying and protecting their precious possessions, and then–whether through faulty memory, migration, or death–unable to reclaim them.

TSS: Challenges

sunsalon1First, congratulations to everyone who participated the Read-a-thon! I imagine things will be quiet in blogland today…everybody’s asleep!

This past week, I’ve been thinking about the challenges I signed up for earlier in the year, and I decided that with the exception of the two books I already have out of the library (one is for book club), I will dedicate the rest of the year to reading challenge books, and see if I can finish at least one (challenge, that is). I know some people work full time and participate in, like, ninety-six challenges a year. I only signed up for four, mostly because they sounded fun but also, I’ll admit, because I was unemployed and I needed to feel productive. I needed some goals. And, well, I still need goals. Who doesn’t? I am not a terribly disciplined reader, but one must try, no? So here’s what’s on my plate:

9 for ’09

This is the challenge I think I am most likely to be able to complete, mainly because I’ve already read three of the books on the list. My 9 for ’09 Challenge reading list:

  • Long. A book that’s longer than the books you usually read: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke – Completed and reviewed
  • Free. A book recieved as a gift or through a swap or mooch: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer
  • Dusty. A book that’s been on your shelf for three years or more: The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant
  • Used. A book you bought used: The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon (purchased from Powell’s)
  • Letter. A letter from your name, matched to a letter in a book’s title (first letter of my first name, which is “P”): Postcards from The Edge, by Carrie Fisher
  • Strange. A book from an unfamiliar genre: Haunted Ground, by Erin Hart – Completed, needs review
  • Distance. A book by an author whose birthplace is more than 1000 miles away from where you live: Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami. He was born in Kyoto, and I live in Atlanta.
  • Alive or Not. A book by any living author who has won or been nominated for a literary prize, or something by a dead author: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize – Completed, needs review
  • Cover. Pick a book based on its cover–ugliest or prettiest–and explain how the book does or does not live up to its cover: Summer at Tiffany, by Marjorie Hart

Orbis Terrarum

If I finish 9 for ’09, then I’ll move to this challenge next. It’s long, but I think I have a chance of finishing these books. The 1% Well-Read challenge has several longer books. I think The Magic Mountain alone would hang me up not to mention The Ambassadors. My picks for the Orbis Terrarum challenge, where I must read ten books from ten different countries by December 2009:

1. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (Australia) – Completed, needs review
2. 100 Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Columbia)
3. The Savage Detective – Roberto Bolano (Chile)
4. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys (Dominica) – Completed and reviewed
5. One of three choices for Canada: Kamouraska – Anne Hébert; The Road Past Altamont – by Gabrielle Roy; or The Little Country – Charles DeLint
6. Red Mandarin Dress: An Inspector Chen Novel – Qiu Xiaolong (China)
7. Snow – Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)
8. Out Stealing Horses – Per Petterson (Norway). My backup: The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson (Sweden).
9. Something by Kenzaburo Oe (Japan)
10. Sea of Poppies – Amitav Ghosh (India)

1% Well-Read

This challenge actually continues until March 31, 2010, so I’ll keep going after the New Year with this one. Several of these overlap with the Orbis Terrarum challenge, so hopefully I will be in good shape. My 1% Well Read challenge picks are listed below. I’m doing thirteen books from the combined lists, A star (*) indicates a book I already own, and I’ve noted where they overlap with other challenges:

1. *Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro (9 for ’09; dropped from original list) – Completed, needs review
2. *The Plot Against America – Philip Roth (Started, but never finished)
3. *Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon (9 for ’09)
4. *Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood (Dropped from original list)

5. The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano (Orbis Terrarum)
6. 100 Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Orbis Terrarum)

7. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys (Orbis Terrarum) – Completed and reviewed
8. *The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann (Started, but never finished. Note to self: this is not a beach read.)
9. *If on A Winter’s Night A Traveler – Italo Calvino
10. *Suite Francaise – Irene Nemerovsky
11. *The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

12. The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver – Currently reading
13. The Ambassadors – Henry James

World Citizen

I’m afraid this is the challenge I may not complete…although it is somewhat short, and I might be able to get through it. However, given how long Marie Antoinette: The Journey took me (about a month), I imagine Mary, Queen of Scots might hold me up. I don’t read biography as fast as I read fiction.

Major level: read five books from three different categories. The categories are: politics, economics, history, culture/anthropology/sociology, world issues, and memoir/autobiography. I’ve settled on the following books from my shelves:

History Mary Queen of Scots, by Antonia Fraser
World IssuesThe World Is Flat, by Thomas Friedman
Memoir Falling Leaves, by Adeline Yen Mah – Completed and reviewed
Culture/Sociology/AnthroA History of God, by Karen Armstrong; A Perfect Summer, by Juliet Nicholson; How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill

I think I can complete at least those three by March, even if it means shunning all those other wonderful books out there until I am finished! Must….be…..strong…….

9 for ’09 Challenge: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

My first pick for the 9 for ‘09 challenge was in the category Long, which had to be a book longer than the books one usually reads, and for that I chose Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. I remember very well reading the review of this in the New York Times and thinking it sounded intriguing–although not for me. My mother-in-law was an avid reader of the Harry Potter series, so when I saw the headline “Hogwarts for Grown-Ups,” I scribbled down the title and resolved to give this to her as a Christmas present, which I did. And I never heard a word about it until she handed it back to me two years later, in a shopping bag full of books she thought I might want to read. Well.

Now, I myself have no basis for comparison, because–brace yourself–I’ve not read any of the Harry Potter books. Yes. It’s true. About eleven people in the Western world have not read the Harry Potter books, and I am one of them. I resisted them at first because they were too popular (Have I talked about that yet–about how I’ll avoid something just because it’s popular?), and now I resist them because my TBR list is already too long and the commitment seems too daunting. And because they’re still popular, and I am stubborn. I’ve seen the movies, but movies aren’t books, so I’m not going to spend any time comparing the two.

Where was I? Oh, the book!

Giving a summary of this tome seems next to impossible, but I’ll try:

The first part of the book is dedicated to the introduction of Mr. Norrell. Some members of a Yorkshire society of theoretical magicians learn of a great library of rare magical books, all kept by Mr. Norrell. The theoretical magicians would like access to the library, but Mr. Norrell is reluctant. He makes a bet with them: if he can perform an act of practical magic–practical magic had disappeared from England hundreds of years before–then they will retire from their studies and cease to call themselves magicians. Mr. Norrell is successful, and all of the magicians save one are forced to retire. Upon Mr. Norrell’s success, he determines he should go to London, and we learn that Mr. Norrell hopes to use magic to curry favor with the government, and also to help them end the war against France.

Upon arriving in London, although Mr. Norrell is welcomed by society (although they find him rather dull and are disappointed that he refuses to perform any tricks), he finds that the government wants no part of what he has to offer–until, that is, he is able to resurrect the fiancee of a powerful man, Sir Walter Pole. The problem: upon resurrecting the future Lady Pole, he calls forth an evil faerie, the man with the thistle down hair, and is forced to make a bargain with him for Lady Pole’s life. Mr. Norrell offers the faerie half of the next seventy-five years of Lady Pole’s life (assuming that Sir Pole will have passed by then, as he’s quite a bit older than Lady Pole). The faerie agrees, but what Mr. Norrell does not know is that the faerie places her under an enchantment to take her nights (as his half), leaving her like the walking dead during the day.

In the meantime, Mr. Norrell has great success helping the British defeat the French, and all of England celebrates him as a hero. Mr. Norrell, however, finds himself with a real conundrum on his hands, because with every successful magic act he performs, the more curious people become about magic itself, including the practice of magic. Nothing frightens Mr. Norrell more than the idea of other people besides himself–with one exception–practicing magic, because he believes people are incapable of controlling the outcome.

The exception, of course, is Jonathan Strange, who, on his way to propose marriage to his beloved, is stopped along his journey by a man named Vinculus (a shadowy street magician cast out of London by Mr. Norrell) who prophesies that Strange will be one of two great magicians in England:

“Two magicians shall appear in England,” he said.
“The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand…”

Vinculus also gives Strange two spells, and that very evening Strange performs one of them, “One Spell to Discover what My Enemy is doing Presently,” which conjures for him an image of Mr. Norrell:

Well, Henry, you can cease frowning at me. If I am a magician, I am a very indifferent one. Other adepts summon up fairy-spirits and long-dead kings. I appear to have conjured the spirit of a banker.

The second part of the book deals with Strange and his wife, Arabella, moving to London so that Strange can study with Mr. Norrell. Strange’s comment about having conjured a banker sets up the difference between these two, because Strange is more charismatic, more curious and eager to perform spells than simply to study them, as Mr. Norrell does. But this section also sets up the relationship, because Mr. Norrell is eager to have someone with whom he can discuss and share magic. Even without all the fundamental texts–Mr. Norrell keeps the choicest selections of his library at his Yorkshire estate, and never lets Strange see it voluntarily–Strange proves to be a better, more adventurous magician, as we learn as he travels with the British army as they work to defeat Napoleon. He becomes more and more independent of Mr. Norrell, and eventually, he decides to part, for they disagree over one fundamental aspect of English magic and its practice, and that is the summoning of the last King of the North (the “human” King of England ruled the South, or the area around London), a Faerie king named John Uskglass, who was said to have control of all the realms of the world, of Faerie, and even of Hell. Strange believes that they can uncover the spells and the origins of magic by this summons, and Mr. Norrell believes it to be too dangerous, which is the crux of the entire book.

The third part of the book is called “John Uskglass,” and it deals primarily with Strange working to call forth John Uskglass as a means to release Arabella from the same faerie enchantment that grips Lady Pole. I’m oversimplifying this part because it contains all the answers, and only as events unfold does it become clear who is performing what magic and why. Of course I cannot give away the ending, but nothing is revealed until the very last few pages, and Clarke does a terrific job of keeping up the pace, of keeping the reader guessing. Many other characters play a part–a large part, even, but they are too numerous to list here, their stories too involved to tell. Clarke also provides generous footnotes to educate us about the “history” of English magic, and these are both necessary and as interesting as the story they support.

This is a terrifically enjoyable book, and I had a great time reading it. The language is wonderful, and the detail is stunning. Some reviewers seemed to think all the detail detracted from the action (Janet Maslin described it as “[both] action packed and unhurried”), and here I have to disagree. I think the “get to the action already” attitude is a modern one. While I assume that Ms. Maslin would make allowances for “old” books, her annoyance stems mainly from the fact that this is a modern author, but she’s not doing a modern author’s “thing.” In other words, she hasn’t written something literary that could be easily adapted into a screenplay, without having to cut too much of the story. I think it would be next to impossible to make this into a film (although apparently they are trying, and perhaps I‘ll stand corrected), but I also think it would be completely unnecessary to do so: something about the way Clarke tells the story makes it completely visible to the mind’s eye. Her descriptions of places and people are so straightforward that they both reveal the scene and allow the mind to dress it up a bit, as it likes.

Also (and here’s where I geek out completely), I loved the tension between Norrell and Strange, because it reminded me of Plato and Aristotle. Plato believed that writing should not be taught, that people could only do more harm than good for themselves by practicing it, that it could lead them morally astray. Aristotle believed writing was a tool, that poetics (drama) and rhetoric were necessary for man to understand and live life. I’ve no idea if Clarke intended this parallel, but it stuck with me throughout the book.

Finally, even though the book deals with magic and some sections are rather dark, only one part really scared the pants off me. It was the very last sentence on the next to the last page: “This is her first novel.” Terrifying. I can’t wait to see what she does with the next one!

Read an interview with Susanna Clarke here.

*book image from

Reading Challenge: 9 for ’09

The second challenge I decided to enter this year should also help me attack my to-be-read (TBR) pile, and that’s the 9 for ’09 Challenge. I chose this one because the categories seemed fun, and nine books didn’t seem too overwhelming (even though I generally read many more books than that in a year, committing to more just sounds overwhelming). This challenge is hosted by Isabel from Books and Other Stuff, and I found her challenge through A Novel Challenge, which lists just about any and every reading challenge you can possibly imagine. If you’re looking for one to join, that site lists them all.

For this challenge, you pick nine books from your TBR stack, one from each category. I’ve listed the categories and my selections below:

Long. A book that’s longer than the books you usually read. I’ve chosen Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, coming in at a whopping 800 pages. I’m pretty sure that counts as long.
Free. A book recieved as a gift or through a swap or mooch. I chose Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer, which was originally on my Short Story Challenge list last year. My mother swapped for it and then sent it to me, so it was, uh, double-free, in a sense.
Dusty. A book that’s been on your shelf for three years or more. I have plenty of these, but I chose The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. I borrowed this book from my mother-in-law about four years ago. *cringe*
Used. A book you bought used. I buy a lot of used books, so I had plenty to choose from here. I’m going with The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon (purchased from Powell’s), because I am the last “well-read” person in the world who hasn’t read it, and may lose my self-appointed status if I don’t.
Letter. A letter from your name, matched to a letter in a book’s title. I went with the first letter of my first name, which is “P,” and decided to read Postcards from The Edge, by Carrie Fisher.
Strange. A book from an unfamiliar genre. I am trying to branch out, and my mother loves to read mysteries, so she’s sharing some of her books with me. I chose one she loaned me, Haunted Ground, by Erin Hart. I’ve read the first few pages, and it looks great.
Distance. A book by an author whose birthplace is more than 1000 miles away from where you live. I am going to read Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami. He was born in Kyoto, and I live in Atlanta.
Alive or Not. This is a funny one: read a book by any living author who has won or been nominated for a literary prize, or read something by a dead author. I just got a copy of Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize (so the cover tells me), so that’s my pick here.
Cover. This was a tough one: pick a book based on its cover–ugliest or prettiest–and explain how the book does or does not live up to its cover. I went through my stacks of books, and while some covers were more compelling than others, nothing was strikingly pretty or horribly ugly. I chose the memoir Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart because its cover is Tiffany blue and it seems to promise a sweet, carefree story of another time. We’ll see!

As with the other challenge, I’ll be posting my reviews here, so stay tuned.

*image from the 9 for ’09 site, courtesy of Isabel