Plot Junkie: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon (Part 1, The Escape Artist)

I read way too fast. That sounds like a humblebrag (hashtag humblebrag), but isn’t meant that way. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading fast. I read for plot, pure and simple. It’s not the most cultured approach to literature–while I’m occasionally gob-smacked by the beauty of a sentence or the perfection of an expressed emotion, really, it’s about the plot. Just tell me happens next.

I’m a plot junkie, pure and simple.

And I don’t really have a problem with this. The first time I read The Crimson Petal and the White, I finished it in an 18 hour marathon. At the end, I was exhausted and exhilarated, and would have had trouble relating any but the broadest strokes of the plot. (Except for the tumor lurking behind Agnes’s eye. Jesus, that stuck with me.) However, I still had fun, and that’s the point of reading, no? And the second and third times I read it, I got more. Still at a break-neck pace, but more.

I’ve combated this whole speed-reader problem in the past with restrictions on my reading. In 2012, there was my whole 12 in 12 plan. I decided that I was only reading one book per month, and so I picked twelve tomes of literature that I’d been avoiding–Les MiserablesAnna Karenina, The Count of Monte Cristo  and each week reviewed the portion of the book that I’d finished. And I’m great at making plans, but not so good at the follow through: I ended up just starting each month with the chosen book, tearing through that at my usual pace, and then adding everything else I wanted to read after. I  made it all the way to the third week of January before I cracked, and tore through The Crimson Petal and the White in a day and a half.

ANYWAY. Sidetracked, sorry. So I read too fast. It’s great, it’s fun, but I miss a lot. So (here’s my train of thought again) when I find a book that is truly excellent, I try to make a conscious effort to slow down and enjoy. You know, chew your food, don’t just inhale.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay promises to be just such a worth-savoring book. I’m hardly the first to recognize this, I realize. The book won the Pulitzer, for god’s sake. But books that receive such acclaim kind of hover in the periphery for me–I imagine (or have seen, who knows at this point), tables of publishers’ remainders at deeply discounted prices, stocked with the highly-lauded: Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers. And I assume they will be excellent, but life is short and books are long, and if I read everything popular, well, I’ll have no time for all of those impossibly obscure gems from the late nineteenth century. But in the past few weeks of graduation celebration, several people whose opinion I respect raved about this book. And so my boyfriend (who is solely responsible for the recent influx of books: my graduation gift basically cleared out my Amazon book wishlist) (yay!) ordered it.

And I’m seriously loving this book.

Part 1, The Escape Artist

Part 1 begins with the meeting of Samuel Louis Klayman and Josef Kavalier in 1939 in Sammy’s Brooklyn bedroom.

Houdini was a hero to little men, city boys, and Jews: Samuel Louis Klayman was all three. He was seventeen when the adventures began: bigmouthed, perhaps not quite as quick on his feet as he liked to imagine, and tending to be, like many optimists, a little excitable. He was not, in  any conventional way, handsome. His face was an inverted triangle, brow large, chin pointed, with pouting lips and a blunt, quarrelsome nose. He slouched, and wore clothes badly: he always looked as though he had just been jumped for his lunch money.

Josef Kavalier was thrust through the door of Sammy’s bedroom late one October night by Sammy’s mother, who introduced the apparently expected guest as one of their Czech cousins, just arrived in New York from San Francisco. Kavalier is the escape artist of the title–in Czechoslovakia in 1939 it is increasingly dangerous to be Jewish, and incredibly difficult to leave. His escape to America involves centuries of rabbinical tradition, magic tricks, diversion, dunking,  and the theft of a giant’s suit. Really and truly excellent.

What are you reading? (And Happy Memorial Day!)

Monday.readingThe thing I look forward to most in summer–in any break from school, really–is the chance to spend long, lovely, lazy days in long, lovely novels. I know, I know. The beach, the concerts, the… whatever. The books! And while a weekly reading roundup might be slightly depressing during the school year (we’ll see how it goes), the next few months promise to be chock-full of new favorites, old friends, and probably a few complete misses. And since there’s nothing more fun than talking about books… let’s chat!

Here’s what I’ve been reading this week:

Finished: 

  • The Glass of Time, Michael Cox   Review here
  • This House is Haunted, John Boyne  Review to come

Currently Reading: 

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon   Review(s) to come
  • Queer Phenomenoloy: Orientations, Objects, Others, Sara Ahmed*
  • The Online Writing Conference: A Guide for Teachers and Tutors, Beth L. Hewett**
  • Why Race and Gender Still Matter: An Intersectional Approach, Ed. Namita Goswami, et. al.***

* This is a leftover from the semester. Through an unexpected confluence of events, a presentation that I was scheduled to do on this text was bumped due to time constraints. Instead, we decided to have a “conversation” about it after the semester’s end. I really should be farther along on it than I am, but I keep getting pulled into those lovely long novels.

** This is for one of my summer jobs. I’m developing and implementing an online component to our writing center (where I worked for the first three semester’s at AU.) There are so many concerns: how not to lose the conversational structure of a writing center conference is the most primary, but I’m also deciding on and experimenting with various web-based platforms. It’s all incredibly exciting. In my personal and humble.

*** This is for another of my summer jobs–how lucky am I that my summer jobs will actually help my career? I guess at this point in my education they are supposed to, but I am continually grateful that I’m not working at a grocery store. You know, like I was this time 2 years ago.–Anyway. Pollyanna moment over. I’m TAing for a summer course named (wait for it) Gender, Body, and Society. I KNOW! Amazing. The first several readings in the class talked about the problematics of online writing (how to convey tone, the built-in biases) (which will be immeasurably helpful as I’m writing the articles about the online writing center project); later readings have been talking about gender in the Cartesian split (the still-prevalent division and prioritization of mind and body) which I’ve been mildly obsessed with since reading Nancy Mairs’ Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer. Fascinating stuff. Love it all. If only I could tear myself away from Kavalier and Clay….

So that’s what I’ve been working on this week–how bout you?

And Happy Memorial Day!

Today I’m thinking of my grandfathers (now deceased) both of whom served in the Navy in World War 2.

David TeVault - WWII

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Plot Junkie: Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night and The Glass of Time

These were both so good, that I’m having trouble being done with them. It is just possible that I’m going to go back and reread ’em both in a week or so. (I’ll let you know, and probably have more to say about them, if that happens.)

Now, I’m relatively familiar with the neo-Victorian genre. Possession is my favorite book, I’ve read it at least 15 times, likely more. I love The Crimson Petal and the White, and intend to reread it as soon as Mount TBR is a little less daunting. Sarah Waters will have space in my bookshelf as long as I have a bookshelf. I just finished Rustication and loved it. I’ve slogged through Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell four or five times, (though I have to admit a preference for The Ladies of Grace Adieu). Carole Nelson Douglas’s Irene Adler books comprise one of the few series that have made it through the last 15 years of bookshelf purges. I’ve returned to and given up on Anne Perry’s series so frequently that it’s practically a routine.  And I’m familiar with the originals as well–most of what I do is in the 19th century. I know the big hitters, I know the minor works. So I have very. strong. opinions. about what works and what doesn’t in a Victorian novel. I know and am picky about all of the structures and tropes that Cox is using, and holy mother, is he doing it well.

 “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.” So begins the “enthralling” (Booklist, starred review) and “ingenious” (Boston Globe) story of Edward Glyver, booklover, scholar, and murderer. A chance discovery convinces Glyver that greatness awaits him. His path to win back what is rightfully his leads him to Evenwood, one of England’s most enchanting country houses, and a woman who will become his obsession.” (review from the publisher’s website)

There’s something about a book with a first person narrator that is almost claustrophobic. The voice is just so insistent, constantly whispering in your ear, trying to convince you of a point of view and system of beliefs that may or may not be correct or accurate, but is all that this person can see. You, as the reader, are forced into another’s perspective. You can doubt their truth, you can doubt their sanity, but–if you want to know the story–you can’t get away. Edward Glyver, the protagonist and narrator of The Meaning of Night, is dreadful. He’s monomaniacal on the subject of his inheritance, he has no trouble using any and all–old friends, lovers, employers–to further his ends, he seems to have no limits at which he will stop to achieve his purpose.

And yet. Even as I was resisting his narrative voice (I disliked and distrusted him from the beginning, as was intended) I still couldn’t stop listening. The story is seriously captivating. Every time you think you have something figured out (or maybe just every time things are looking up) something happens and bam! everything you thought you knew, everything he thought he knew, turns out to have been just wrong enough to change everything.

This reminded me so much of The Count of Monte Cristo. If, you know, Dantes had been a little mad [edited to add: and who are we kidding? revenge is not really a life goal of the sane.] And now that I think about it, that might be on purpose– Glyver’s real name is Edward Dupont, sharing initials, as well as monomaniacal focus on revenge, with Edmond Dantes.

 

I tore through The Meaning of Night, loved it, but (contrary to how I generally feel about sequels) The Glass of Time was even better. You could  read it alone, and you’d be great for about 3/4 of the book, but then all of these allusions to things past start showing up and you’d be confused. So read them in order. While you might be able to predict a few things that otherwise would be a surprise, you need the first for the conclusion of this to have weight.

The author’s first novel, The Meaning of Night (2006), set in London in 1854, was told from the viewpoint of a scholar turned murderer, but this sequel, set some 20 years later, is narrated by an innocent, 19-year-old Esperanza Gorst. Orphaned as a child, she has been raised in relative luxury in Paris by her guardian and given an excellent education by her tutor. However, her world is upended when they inform her that she is to leave for England in two months, where she will be employed as a lady’s maid by the widowed Baroness Tansor on the vast estate of Evenwood. It is to be the first step in what they call the Great Task, but Esperanza’s ultimate goal will only be revealed to her in phases. Although she appears far too refined for her occupation, Esperanza is immediately embraced by the family, but Lady Tansor proves to be a difficult employer, given to hysterics due to her tragic past—the love of her life, the pretentious poet Phoebus Daunt, was murdered by an old friend. Great period atmosphere, a cunning plot, and an intelligent narrator make this one a special treat. (review from the publisher’s website) 

This book reminded me of so many of my favorites, but in a “doing the era well” way, not in a knock-off way.Anyway, it reminded me of Alcott’s Behind a Mask (probably primarily because I just finished reading it, but definite thematic similarities), so so much of  Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (as anyone slightly familiar with that book will be able to note from the above publisher’s review), reviewers on Amazon found similarities to Jane Eyre and several of Wilkie Collins’ novels.

Both of these are very highly recommended. They are absolutely the best books I’ve read in ages–these were walk-into-a-wall-while-reading books.

 

A dialectic of dark and light—and magnolias blossoming like afterthought

Somewhere, deep in a comprehensive exam prep period this semester, hopped upon caffeine and too much sugar and too little sleep and overwhelmed with stress about the upcoming test and the repercussions of failing, a phrase from Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard jumped up and grabbed me by the throat.

I returned to a stand of pines,
                            bone-thin phalanx
flanking the roadside, tangle
                            of understory—a dialectic of dark
and light—and magnolias blossoming
                            like afterthought: each flower
a surrender, white flags draped
                            among the branches.
                                   –“South”  Natasha Trethewey
I was first struck by the ‘dialectic of dark and light’–I was in the middle of both Paradise Lost and The Republic,and had just finished Spring and All,  so I was thinking about conflicts and contrasts and everything that can be summed up in the binary opposites of “dark and light”.
But then.
magnolias blossoming like afterthought. Afterthought. Not perhaps considered as important as the dialectic, but somehow serving as the extra, the excess, that makes the dialectic ok. That makes everything ok. The dialectic of light and dark is structure and repression and rules for behavior and so much restriction and requirements–but life and spring and rebirth and regeneration and magnolias somehow redeem it all.

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My walks in spring are constantly interrupted by my need to record all of the beauty around. I never seem to tire of the flowers–these are a few of my favorites from the past few weeks.

Queer Time: Alberto Manguel’s “The Library at Night”

 The starting point is a question.

Outside theology and fantastic literature, few can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose. And yet, with bewildering optimism, we continue to assemble whatever scraps of information we can gather in scrolls and books and computer chips, on shelf after library shelf, whether material, virtual or otherwise, pathetically intent on lending the world a semblance of sense and order, while knowing perfectly well that, however much we’d like to believe the contrary, our pursuits are doomed to failure.

Why then do we do it?

For the past several years, Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night has been my bedtime book. I don’t read it every night, I’m often either too busy or deep in a book that I can’t possibly put down. Months pass in which I don’t  pick it up, but it’s always within arm’s reach for the odd wakeful moment.

I’ve never been much of a sleeper. I’m basically still a toddler when it comes to bedtime–I know I have to go, but I’m going to resist it as long as possible. There are chapters to read. There are sequels to start. Hell, there are websites to browse. Something is always going on in the world, and if I’m sleeping, I’m going to miss it. Also, in a weird way, being exhausted is kind of proof that you’re working hard enough, that you’re doing enough with your life, that you’re sucking the pith and marrow. Millay’s candle, burning at both ends. Let me be clear, this isn’t about insomnia. I imagine insomnia as a sense of powerlessness–you can’t make your body do what it needs to do. Staying up all night is more about a sense of power. It’s a choice, my choice, a privileging of the private over the public, of queer time over straight time, of immediate gratification over tomorrow’s practicalities.

I’ve gotten afield of my starting point, which, as Manguel points out, is a question. His book tackles subjects as diverse as why we categorize our books the way we do, why we store them the way we do, and what those decisions entail; great libraries in the past and what they contained and how they were housed; libraries with organizing principles and magpie libraries; and the difference that the time of day makes to his conception of his own library.

Manguel talks about his library during the day and at night: during the day, his library is ordered and methodical, each in its category, each in its space. At night, though, in the dim light and quiet, he says that his library comes alive in a different way, as story calls to story and idea to idea, across genre and shelf and period.  The established categories disappear with the day and new groupings–and so new ideas–are possible.

Love it.

Plot Junkie: Rustication, Charles Palliser

Richard Shenstone arrives at Herriard House a little too early–he should still be completing his semester at Cambridge, and then he was supposed to tour the Continent with friends during the holidays–his mother clearly wasn’t expecting him (she called him William when she first saw his shape in the doorway) and his sister, Euphenia, was obviously horrified to see him. Perhaps their dismay is merely because the house is not fit for habitation: Richard is surprised to see his formerly comfortable family removed to a remote, crumbling estate, far from their social circle… just as he was surprised, weeks earlier, to hear of his father’s death through a newspaper article. No one will answer his questions, and he has plenty.

Of course, Richard might not be the one to confide in, even if there are answers to his many questions: his primary concern at being separated from his trunk is how long he’ll be separated from his supply of opium; the circumstances under which he left Cambridge seem to be mysterious if not absolutely criminal; and (most importantly, at least to me) wow, is he bad around women. Every, I mean every, young woman/girl he meets becomes the object of explicit fantasies. These fantasies seem to be his most real connection with the outside world– he’s pretty vague otherwise– which is troubling because the neighborhood is in turmoil too.

Things at Herriad House are secretive and shadowed, and events in the neighborhood are no better: people have been receiving the most vile anonymous letters, accusing of all manner of sexual depravities; animals are being mutilated in particularly disgusting ways. All of this is told through Richard’s journal–a considerably less than reliable source–which has been found in a rural records office years after the related events.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, though there were times when I wished I were reading, not listening to an audiobook (Richard’s fantasies are a little disturbing when whispered through earbuds). Definitely not for the squeamish, but very very good. I’d give it 4 out of 5 in the genre: not quite as good as The Crimson Petal and the White, or Fingersmith, but loads better than many I’ve been unable to finish (and whose names, now, completely escape me.)