Saturday, 30 April 2016

Spenser's Faerie Queene Readalong!

In celebration of Poetry Month for the month of April, several bloggers are participating in reading Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene and despite my recent return, I could not help but jump at the opportunity to  tackle one of the preeminent  literary works to come out of the English Renaissance. While Spenser's epic is unequivocally one of the most challenging poems ever written, reading it with others should prove to be far more rewarding as well as super helpful in making sense of the immense complexities found in this text. My initial approach was to write an in-depth review for each Canto but that seems impractical and doomed to fail, especially considering how daunting such a task would be. Instead, I plan to provide short reviews on only some of the Cantos from each Book while focusing on how the allegory works in the poem.

Before we even jump into Book 1, let us take a closer look at the prefatory letter addressed to Sir Walter Raleigh that provides some insight into how this poem ought to be read according to the author. Spenser describes his work as a "continued allegory, or darke conceit" in which "the generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline." Taking up similar ideas found in Sidney's 'Defense of Poetry,' Spenser claims that his poem functions an allegory to instruct and delight the reader to instill a moral self-fashioning but the actual meaning is hidden within this 'dark conceit.' Incidentally, the letter is also a 'dark conceit' and reveals that the allegory does not function as mere didacticism or sententiousness; one cannot be simply taught a lesson and must work through the text to figure it out.

Spenser always withholds complete understanding, which makes reading this poem increasingly difficult. Not only does he put a fence around meaning with many possibilities of interpretation, the reader must learn how to read allegory properly and must always stay on the quest for meaning. This letter also highlights how allegories can be misinterpreted and this problem has larger implications in the context of the poem, especially in relation to RedCrosse's spiritual journey in Book 1. For Spenser, misreading is the difference between being saved or falling into sin. I intend to explore this concept of the "dark conceit" further and see how Spenser's allegory operates to conceal and reveal meaning simultaneously. 

And so it begins...

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Deal Me in Challenge 2016!


I figured it was time to resurrect this blog from the ashes. I failed to complete the last "Deal Me In Challenge" last year hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis but still enjoyed discovering a lot of great short-stories in the process. Perhaps Round 2 will be different and I certainly won't be overly ambitious and tackle multiple anthologies again. One short story a week is more than reasonable and should help me get back into the groove of writing reviews. Here is how it works:

What is the goal of the project?
To read 52 short stories in 2016 (that’s only one per week)

What do I need?1) Access to at least fifty-two short stories (don’t own any short story collections or anthologies? See links to online resources below) 2) A deck of cards3) An average of perhaps just thirty minutes of reading time each week

Where do I post* about my stories? (*You don’t have to post about every single story, of course, but if you have something to say about the story you read any given week, your fellow participants would love to hear it.)1) On your own blog or website if you have one (I will link to your post at the bottom of my weekly post. I currently plan to do my weekly post on Sundays)2) if you don’t have a blog or website you may comment on my weekly post, sharing thoughts on your own story – or start one at WordPress or blogspot – it’s easy and free to create a basic blog.

How do I pick which stories to read?(The 52 stories themselves are totally up to you.) Before you get start reading, come up with a roster of fifty-two stories (you can use any source) and assign each one to a playing card in a standard deck of cards. It can be fun to use different suits for different types of stories, but that is optional. Each “week,” (if you’re like me, you may occasionally fall a story or two behind) you draw a card at random from your deck and that is the story you will read. There are links to last year’s participants’ rosters here if you want to see some examples.

What if I don’t have time to read a story every single week?Try one of the challenge variations noted below, the Fortnight (or “payday” if you prefer) version is one story every two weeks or the “Full Moon Fever” version with just thirteen stories read or selected on seeing each full moon…

How do I sign up?Leave a comment below with your URL and I will link you. My first wrap-up post of the year (I post weekly, usually Sunday night or Monday morning) will include links to any new Deal Me In posts and a list of the participants with links to their roster of stories. What is the purpose?To have FUN and to be exposed to new authors and stories and maybe get in the habit of reading a short story a week. Isn’t that enough?

Once again, I tweaked my list into categories for organizational purposes and there will definitely be some cross-over from last year with the addition of some new genres, including Poetry. I may choose to review just one poem or several by each writer. I obviously have a lot of catching up to do so let's get this show on the road.

Spades: American Lit
A - Petrified Man by Eudora Welty
2 - Good Country People by Flannery O'Connor
3 - The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
4 - The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell
5 - Separating by John Updike
6 - Good Old Neon by David Foster Wallace
7 - The Bath by Raymond Carver
8 - The Rocking Horse Winner by D.H. Lawrence
9 - The Man Child by James Baldwin
10 - For Esme by J.D. Salinger
J - Winter Dreams by F.Scott Fitzgerald
Q - Uncle Tom's Children by Richard Wright
K - The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Ernest Hemingway

Clubs: Science Fiction
A - The Last Question by Isaac Asimov
2 - Bloodchild by Octavia Butler
3 - Wang's Carpets by Greg Egan
4 - For a Breath I Tarry by Roger Zelazny
5 - I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison
6 - The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula Le Guin
7 - Adam and No Eve by Alfred Bester
8 - All You Zombies by Robert Heinlein
9 - The Gentle Seduction by Marc Steigler
10 - Nekropolis by Maureen McHugh
J - There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury
Q - Baby, You Were Great! by Kate Wilhelm
K - The Star by Arthur C. Clarke

Hearts: Random
A - Dance Me Outside by W.P. Kinsella
2 - One Good Story, That One by Thomas King 
3 - Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut
4 - The Visitor by Roald Dahl
5 - The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges
6 - The Bet by Anton Chekhov
7 - The Ice Wagon Coming Down the Street by Mavis Gallant
8 - Life by Bessie Head
9 - No Sweetness Here by Ama Ata Aidoo
10 - Pastoralia by George Saunders
J - The Happy Man by Jonathan Letham
Q - How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl or Halfie) by Junot Diaz
K - Sexy by Jhumpa Lahiri 

Diamonds: Poetry
A - Langston Hughes
2 - Anne Sexton
3 - Sylvia Plath
4 - Percy Shelley
5 - Wallace Stevens
6 - Derek Walcott
7 - Pat Parker
8 - Audre Lorde
9 - June Jordan 
10 - Nikki Giovanni
J - Stacey-Ann Chinn
Q - Dionne Brand
K - Robert Hayden

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Deal Me In Challenge: Souls Belated by Edith Wharton

Card Drawn: 9 of Diamonds.

So much for my triumphant return in May only to make an appearance 5 months later...

To those few individuals who actually follow my blog, I offer my sincere apologies. It was never my intention to go completely AWOL but I am back for now and that is what counts, right?  Whether or not I will be able to provide new material on a regular basis is anyone's guess. Nonetheless, I figured the best way to ease back into writing reviews would be start off small to reignite my passionate enthusiasm towards literature and gradually build up momentum towards more extensive reviews. The Deal Me in Challenge is a great way to get started again. There still remains a little over two months to finish reading 52 short-stories for the year and I am determined to complete this challenge! 

Let me preface this review by saying that Edith Wharton is one of those highly-acclaimed authors whose writing never appealed to me in the least with a reputation that seemed completely undeserving of merit. In fact, prior to reading Souls Belated, I was quite certain that Wharton, along with her pal Henry James, might just be the two most overrated American writers during this particular time period. Despite its short length, reading Ethan Frome remains one of the most dull and painful reading experiences in recent memory. Both House of Mirth and Age of Innocence produced similar feelings of distaste and extreme boredom, which compelled me toss them aside after the first few chapters without any remorse. Suffice it to say, I approached Wharton with much trepidation, expecting to be  disappointed once more. Consider my surprise then to discover a wonderfully complex and emotionally compelling short-story that made me question my previous assessment of Wharton altogether. I will not go so far as to proclaim a complete change of heart but my resentment towards her as a writer has certainly subsided. I might even consider tackling one of her famous novels again sometime down the road. 

Similar to the many works of Henry James, Wharton adopts an "international theme" and sets her story in Europe rather than America. Lydia and Gannet are an American couple traveling abroad from Milan and elsewhere, all the way to France. When we first meet them on the train to Paris, an undeniable tension is brewing, ready to explode at any possible moment. They find themselves caught between their own sense of morality and the pressures of societal norms--factors which begin to cause a great strain on their relationship. What makes this story fascinating is not so much the actual story but the rich underlying subtext and emotional resonance that reaches its highest point during the climax. Wharton shows complete control of tone, influencing reader response through shifting focalization and ambiguity. The ending is purposefully left open to interpretation, carefully constructed with such vivid and meticulous descriptions that is nothing short of stunning. Rarely have I come across an author who uses the ellipsis in such a lyrical and profound way.

Wharton utilizes subtle nuances, symbolism, foreshadowing and ambiguity to emphasize some of the story's larger thematic concerns. She is critical of marriage as an institution--subverting many conventions associated with the"marriage plot" and is keen to highlight the superficiality of the upper classes. Gender politics, sexuality, male hegemony, paralysis vs. consciousness and hypocrisy are also worth paying attention to in the text. Even as a harsh social critique bound up in heavy drama, spots of ironic humor shine through Wharton's comedy of manners. The title of the story is important as well and loaded with multiple meanings associated with "souls": lost souls, spiritual souls, personal souls, soul mates, death. The standard definition of "belated" referring to lateness or delay of some sort, makes sense within the context of the relationship between Lydia and Gannet. Additionally, the word can also mean "archaic" or "old-fashioned" that further emphasizes Wharton's total disregard for traditional values and norms, which no longer have a place in the so-called "modern world." I may not be completely sold on Wharton yet but this is an excellent short story that contains a great deal of complexity and cleverly defies expectations. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

April in Review (Or How I OD'ed on Romantic Lit and Went on Hiatus)

Bender rules.
For how much longer is anyone's guess.

In retrospect, trying to read The Prelude by William Wordsworth in a single sitting may not have been the wisest decision on my part. I clearly got overzealous in my determination to do a crash-course on the Romantic Period for Fanda's Classic Lit Challenge and paid for it dearly in the end. One can never get enough John Keats and he still remains my favorite poet next to Shakespeare but I must confess: Endymion, Lamia and Hyperion gave me a lot of trouble. Let's just say that I much prefer his shorter poems. The first section of Endymion is actually quite magnificent to behold but falters in quality shortly thereafter, dragging on interminably that nearly put me into a catatonic state. Don't worry Keats, you're still a straight up OG. Afterwards, I decided to delve into the works of some underrated female writers of the period including Charlotte Smith, Hannah More and Anna Letitia Barbauld. All great poets in their own right that deserve to be recognized alongside their male counterparts but at this point in my reading, I was running on fumes. I did manage to write a brief review on Mary Wolfstonecraft's A Vindication for the Rights of Women but it was subpar at best, just barely glossing the surface. Then came Blake, Shelley and Byron, which was enough to burn me out completely. I so much wanted to write extensively on the work of these great poets but struggled immensely to say anything that was even remotely compelling or insightful. Frustrated with my own inadequacies along with the stress associated with work and the myriad of life's challenges, it was time to take that mini-vacation I spoke about at the beginning of April...

And now I'm back. I have plenty of reading challenges to catch up on and the pile of books to review is quite daunting. Not to mention, having to work 40+ hours a week does not leave much time for reading and writing reviews. After coming home from an exhausting shift, sleep takes precedence and blogging is an afterthought. Truth be told, I've been discouraged lately. It also pains me to say this but my interest in writing reviews has been diminishing for quite some time. I used to find it enjoyable and rewarding but now it seems like a chore. Not to mention, I'm not very good at it either. Granted, I have never considered myself a literary critic, just a regular dude with eclectic taste who likes to read. I'd rather leave the critical analysis to the experts and those talented bloggers out there who are capable of writing such compact and intelligent reviews.

I hope to find the time and energy over the next little while to prevent this blog from falling asunder due to neglect but make no promises at this current juncture. My goal for the month of May is to at least read one new novel and write a half-ass review for Virginia Woolf's A Voyage Out. Seems reasonable, right?

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: All Time Favorite Authors

Oh, boy. This is a tough one. It sure would be a lot easier to list my top 10 least favorite authors. I will never be satisfied with this list because it tends to change quite often but as of this April 21, 20015, here are my Top 10 favorite authors. Drum roll, please.

 1. Virginia Woolf: For those who follow my blog, the inclusion of Virginia Woolf at the top of the list should come as no surprise. She gets the edge for having written two of my favorite novels of all time: To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. Will I ever read anything better than these two novels in my life-time? I highly doubt it. Not only was she an astounding novelist, capable of writing some of the most beautiful and mesmerizing prose I have ever encountered, but also a prolific literary scholar and influential feminist who helped to usher in the women's movement during the 1920's. She lived a fascinating but troubled life, battling mental illness which eventually lead to suicide. That reminds me, I recently finished her wonderful first novel The Voyage Out and need to write a review on that one soon.

2. William Shakespeare: The list did not specify that we had to only include novelists. As the most famous writer in the English language, the bard does not need any introduction. I adore his sonnets and his many plays, Hamlet being my all-time favorite. 

3. John Keats: Other than Shakespeare, Keats is my favorite poet so it was inevitable that he would show up on this list. It's fascinating to me that he was able to write some of the most brilliant poetry in the history of literature before his early death at the age of 25! The young man was a genius, hands down. There is no telling what he might have accomplished had he lived longer. As I have mentioned many times before, Ode to a Nightingale is indeed, my favorite poem of all-time but his letters also happen to be some of my favorite pieces of writing as well. The correspondence between himself and Fanny Brawne is breathtaking and probably the most romantic display of writing that I have ever read. ****swoons**** Time to go watch the movie Bright Star again for the 100th time.

4. Philip K. Dick: He may not be the most consistent of writers to appear on my list (some of his novels are pretty bad) but in my eyes, he still reigns supreme as the King of Science-Fiction. He is an ideas man and the concepts he comes up with for his stories are nothing short of mind-blowing. He constantly pushes the boundaries of science-fiction, often leaving readers to question the very fabric of reality. Reading PKD is often like stepping into bizarro world that is unlike anything you have ever encountered in literature before. He was a very prolific writer over the course of his life and while his novels tend to receive a lot of his attention, he tends to be underrated when it comes to short-stories: Check out "The Wub,"We Can Remember it For You Wholesale," "Pay For The Printer,"The Variable Man," "Second Variety." In fact, just get your hands on his volumes of short-stories. They are all great. As far as his novels go, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik and Valis are my favorites.

5. Saul Bellow: Another one of those authors who tends to be hit-or-miss but when Saul Bellow is on his game, there are not many writers who can match his sophistication, wit, and effusive writing style that is simultaneously compelling and challenging. I completely understand if his verbose and overwrought prose tends to drive reader's crazy but when he finds the right balance between heavy-handed philosophical discourse and didacticism, he is an absolute pleasure to read. I am still making my way through all of his writing for my "Saul Bellow Project" featured on this blog and Herzog would easily find its place at the top of all-time favorite novels list, right next to Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. His short-stories and letters have proven to be excellent as well.

6. Ray Bradbury: Everyone's familiar with Fahrenheit 451, which is a great novel in its own right, but Ray Bradbury should be receive a lot more attention for his short-stories. He is the master of the craft in my humble opinion, no one writes better short-stories than him. NOBODY. Don't believe me? Check out his famous collections "The October Country" and "The Illustrated Man." If you are still not convinced, be sure to read some of these stories: "Mars is Heaven!," "The Scythe," "The Lake" or "The Small Assassin." If you are not a convert by then, you might as well give up on Bradbury.  

7. Graham Greene:  I have been on a mission over the years to read everything by Graham Greene and he rarely disappoints. Some of his early works along with those near the end of his long writing career pale in comparison to his middle period when he was at the peak of his creative talents: The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, A Burnt Out Case, The Power and the Glory, The Comedians and Our Man in Havana are all solid. A lot of his novels have been turned into great films as well. I have been thinking about doing a Graham Greene reading event on this blog for a while now but keep putting it off for some reason or another. He's an author I wish more people would read.

8. J.D. Salinger: I still think Franny and Zooey is J.D. Salinger's best work even though it tends to always be overshadowed by The Catcher in the Rye. His short-stories are also fantastic ("A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is absolutely brilliant). Salinger will always remain a personal favorite of mine for igniting my passion for literature.

9. Guy Gavriel Kay: The only author to appear on my list who is still alive. I have even met him once and he was a really cool, um...guy. His sweeping epics offer a unique blend of fantasy and history that are so absorbing, imaginative, richly detailed and beautifully written. I would highly recommend Tigana or The Lions of Al-Rassan.

10. Jane Austen: I am not ashamed to admit that Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors. To claim that her novels only appeal to women is ludicrous--they can be enjoyed by both sexes. I expected to get some odd looks from people while reading Persuasion on the subway but it didn't bother me. Austen is one of those few authors whose works are always a delight and grow in my esteem upon subsequent readings.

To be continued...

So, who are some of your favorite authors? Please let me know in the comments section!

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Vindications of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)

“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” 

If you were a woman living during the 19th century, there were very few options available other than get married at a young age, popping out babies at a steady rate, taking care of the home and raising children. Some feminist critics would argue that not much has really changed since then because gender inequality still thrives today. I am not here to get into the polemics of gender ideologies, since endless volumes of research and critical essays have already been expounded on this subject. I'd much rather leave the debate to the historians and sociologists. My concern is simply with the literature itself, to to see how different writers of the period approached issues of gender. Additionally, I find it fascinating that only male writers of the Romantic period receive the most attention whereas female writers of the time are forgotten or ignored completely. The "big six" are all male: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Blake and Shelley. Why is it that Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah Moore, Anna Laetitia Barbauld or Charlotte Smith are rarely recognized for their contributions to this literary movement? Once again, gender politics. Therefore, I intend to take the opportunity to focus on some of these female writers who have been overshadowed by their male-counterparts.

One of the first and most influential pieces of feminist writing is Mary Wollstonecraft's The Vindications of the Rights of Women. If the last name sounds familiar it is because Mary Wollstonecraft was the mother of Mary Shelley who would go on to write Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft's lengthy treatise is her sophisticated and philosophical way of giving the middle finger to male hegemony. She calls for radical change by rejecting patriarchal interpretations of feminine virtue for being bias, inaccurate and plainly offensive. She champions female equality, passionately supports female independence and is keen to point out that men are either tyrants or sexual deviants who do not have women's best interests at heart. She provides a long and detailed account of the "history of women," highlighting the fallacy of female gender roles that have been promoted by a predominant male society. The first three chapters form the crux of the essay where she makes her main arguments that will be emphasized throughout the rest of the work:  1) Women must be educated. 2) Reason leads to virtue. 3) Marriage and vanity only lead to oppression.  4) Principles of the French Revolution should be applied to women. 5)Women must be restored to the status of human beings instead of being treated like inferior creatures by men. She is pretty harsh towards the male sex but considering the time period in which she lived, do you really blame her?

Mary Wollstonecraft deserves major props for writing such a brave and radical feminist work at a time when women possessed no rights or personal freedoms, their lives dictated entirely by men. When it comes to philosophy or critical essays, my experience is limited and what I have read has been unpleasant to say the least. I find reading this type of literature to be a real chore, dull or downright perplexing (I'm looking at you Mr. Immanuel Kant). Even though Wollstonecraft is prone to didacticism, digressions and extraneous details, she more than makes up for it by writing in an engaging style that is accessible. For those like myself who find a lot of philosophic writing to be convoluted and impenetrable, Wollstonecraft is a breath of fresh air.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Deal Me in Challenge: Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates

Arnold Friend has a thing for pretty young girls.
Card Drawn: Queen of Diamonds.

Such a strange title and an even stranger short-story. Since no character actually asks these two questions, to whom is it addressed? This is one of those short-stories that revels in ambiguity and is open to interpretation. Perhaps I am reading too much into the significance of the title but Joyce Carol Oates must have had her reasons for choosing it. I have come up with a few possible explanations but cannot settle on any definitive answer. My first thought was that the questions are directed towards the reader but that does not make much sense. Then I got to thinking that it must come from the female protagonist of the story, which is a little more plausible but that still feels wrong for some reason. 

Connie is a 15 year old girl going through the confusing and often difficult age of puberty:  hormones are raging, she is obsessed with her self image, enjoys hanging out at the mall with her friends, is discovering boys, likes being flirtatious and even has a rebellious streak going on towards her parents (especially the mother). Connie is discovering her own sexuality is undergoing the transition into womanhood. Even though the story is pulsating with sexual undertones, it is never explicit. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Connie is lounging around the house alone after the rest of her family have left to attend a BBQ and a mysterious car with two passengers suddenly pulls up her driveway. One of them gets out of the car and Connie thinks she recognizes him but can't quite place it. He has has a creepy look about him with shaggy black hair, tight jeans and wearing sunglasses. He introduces himself as Arnold Friend (his last name is clearly meant to come across as ironic), begins to flirt a bit with Connie before quickly going into complete pervert-mode. He wants Connie to take a ride in his car with him, offers declarations of affection, tells her they are destined to be together. At this point she is more than a little freaked out and starts to panic. Arnold Friend may not be so friendly after all. She threatens to call the cops and then...well, things get a little weird. So, going back to my initial hypothesis: is the title of the story supposed to come from Connie? If she is addressing Arnold, it seems unlikely. Such inquiries reveal a sense of personal attachment or general affinity towards the intended recipient, which Connie does not feel towards him. However, what if the title refers to rhetorical or internalized questions she would have liked to asked her parents before they left her home alone and Arnold Friend showed up at her doorstep? Maybe. The problem is, she already knew that they were going to the BBQ, therefore such questions would be irrelevant. Unless...Connie is envisioning an idealized outcome in her head where her parents come home just in the knick of time to save her from Arthur Friend. The first question would not make much sense in this particular scenario but the second one does. She realizes how much she actually misses her family and repents her foolish and insubordinate behavior: "Where Have You Been?...I was so worried. Don't ever leave me home alone again, ok? (embraces her mother). Fade to black.

Still not convinced. Ok, what if the title is spoken or thought of by Arthur Friend instead? See, she desperately wants to get away from him but he knows that he has the upper-hand so he asks her with a mocking grin: Where Are You Going? I cannot think of a valid reason why he would ask the second question unless it was: "Where Have You Been...All My Life? As a possible sex-offender, rapist or murderer, it is conceivable that Arnold Friend would utter something sinister like that. Yes, I am picking at straws at this point. In fact, I give up trying to figure out what the title means and if anyone out there would be so kind as to enlighten me, it would be greatly appreciated. It's bound to be something ridiculously obvious and I am going to come across as a doofus for not figuring it out from the get-go.

Title aside, I am still left with more questions than answers from this bizarre and unsettling story. Joyce Carol Oates dedicates this story to Bob Dylan. Is there any correlation between his music and the story? Arnold tells Connie that the numbers 33, 19 and 17 painted on his car are a "secret code." Of what? Arnold's companion is a weird looking kid name Ellie who also wears sunglasses and carries a portable radio. What is up with this dude? It is suggested that his relationship with Arthur is submissive but his actual significance to the story is inexplicable to me. The best I can come up with is that he is Arthur's partner in crime. They roll around the country seducing young girls, taking turns to rape and murder. Is Arthur supposed to be an homage to the unnamed misfit found in Flannery O'Connor's story "A Good Man is Hard to Find?" Both characters are creepy and twisted in their own way, justifying their obscene actions as moral. The ending is purposefully written to be ambiguous, leaving the reader to ponder Connie's fate. Is Oates making a feminist or anti-feminist statement here? Hollywood even adapted this story into a movie in 1985 starring Laura Dern. How the filmmakers managed to pull this off is beyond me.

Overall, this story left me rather ambivalent. Often anthologized and widely popular amongst readers since its publication in 1966, it surely must have generated a lot of controversy at the time but feels dated, a time-capsule of sorts that is bound to a specific time and place: 1960's America and the sexual revolution. The "show, don't tell" technique is effective enough to generate curiosity in the reader but if Oates was going for heightened suspense, the story misses the mark. The premise is a little too over-the-top to be taken seriously. To my mind, the only way to read this story and get anything out of it is to read it as a parable or allegory. What type exactly, you might ask? That depends entirely on your own interpretation. I am just trying to figure out what that damn title means.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Summer Tree (The Fionavar Tapestry #1) by Guy Gavriel Kay

“We salvage what we can, what truly matters to us, even at the gates of despair.”

Considering how much I adore the writings of Guy Gavriel Kay, it pains me to give his debut novel The Summer Tree a barely passing grade. It is hard to believe that this is the same author who penned such great novels like A Song for Arbonne, Tigana, and The Lions of Al-Rassan. Granted, a first novel rarely shows the author in top form; in most cases, they are still in the process of developing their craft, trying to figure out what they want to accomplish with their writing. This is the case here with The Summer Tree: Guy Gavriel Kay shows only glimpses of his superb talents that will become fully realized later on with his other novels. On the front cover of the Roc edition, Marion Zimmer Bradley praises The Summer Tree as "one of those books that changes your perception of the world forever afterward." This could not be a more hyperbolic and inaccurate statement--she was clearly paid a good deal of money to bestow such high praise upon a novel that is at best, a middling effort at high-fantasy and an innocuous homage to Tolkien. Luckily, the Fionavar Tapestry series was not my first exposure to Guy Gavriel Kay, otherwise it is unlikely that I would have picked up another one of his books.

While not a complete failure, the novel's main strength comes from Kay's exceptional world-building and detailed historical lore found in his imaginative universe of Fionavar. He shows early on of being able to create a vivid world with its unique mythology but it is the weak story and flat archetypal characters that really hurts this novel. As an epic narrative containing many interconnected story-lines and a huge cast of characters, Kay has difficulty balancing all of he different story elements and the end result is a bloated mess. If you are writing in the fantasy genre, the story has to be believable and make sense within its own governing logic. Unfortunately, Kay opts to either leave out key plot details or resorts to long-winded info-dumping where much of the story is a combination of dull and just plain baffling.

The basic premise is so poorly executed, which nearly ruined the entire story for me and other readers who are less forgiving are bound to be even more disconcerted: five students from the University of Toronto (glad to see my school and home town get some love) meet a wizard disguised as a guest speaker at a folklore conference who transports them to the magical realm of Fionavar. As outlandish and cliche as this scenario might be, I am willing to go along with it as long as there is a reasonable explanation. Sadly, Kay's set-up is half-baked and to make matters worse, when the five "chosen ones" get to this new world, there are no immediate protestations whatsoever. They all just shrug it off like it is no big deal to meet a wizard and his dwarf friend who can hurl them across the dimensions of time and space to a fantasy world where magic exists. Come on! At least show one of the characters in distress about their new circumstances, pleading to go home or questioning the Wizard's intentions for bringing them here in the first place. Nope. They just ease into their new roles without any sense of estrangement and soon find themselves entangled in a war against a "Dark Lord" that has awakened from a thousand year imprisonment underneath a mountain who is intent on destroying the land of Fionavar. It does not take long for the story to become silly and contrived with the familiar display of various genre tropes.

Despite these flaws, the story is entertaining enough if one is willing to disband all belief and accept Kay's premise. The Summer Tree is far from groundbreaking within the fantasy genre but one of its few redeeming qualities is Kay's elegant prose, which often contains a lyrical intensity and one gets the sense here that he is on the cusp of maturing into a great writer. The story boasts some interesting story-developments as well that best come through at the end but reaching these revelations is a real slog. It does seem as if Kay has a general idea of where the story is heading with the subsequent novels but whether or not he is capable of pulling it off by greatly improving on this novel remains to be determined. As a devoted fan of Guy Gavriel Kay, I will probably finish reading the series at some point but my expectations are extremely low.

On a side note: What's up with the some of the character names? One of the five friends who time-travels to Fionavar is named Paul Schafer. I kept picturing David Letterman's musical sidekick in the role. Oh, and the dwarf's name is Matt. Really? That is a human name, not a dwarf name. I thought you were well-read in the fantasy genre, Mr Kay! Even Rhioganedd Kinglyrock or Brannan Goldprospector would have been better.

Once Upon a Time IX

Friday, 10 April 2015

Friday Memes: Book Beginnings, Friday 56, Feature and Follow Friday

I have been far too distracted lately, unable to focus my attention for very long on reading or writing reviews. I have lost count as to how many books I have started and tossed aside over the last few weeks. Not to mention the plethora of half-attempted reviews. I think it is time to take a little break away from this blog and re-charge. However, I will be taking several literary works on my mini-vacation including some poetry (collection of Keats), To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (comfort reading) and some other light entertaining beach reads, which will undoubtedly include Elmore Leonard. I do not know how long I will be gone but I hope to at least finish The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton before returning.

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Share the first line or two from the book you are reading and provide some brief impressions:

"The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset. It was built of a bright brick throughout; its sky-line was fantastic, and even its ground plan was wild."

Chesterton sets the scene for his mad-cap thriller with some strong imagery and foreshadowing. One can visualize the endless rows of identical brick houses painted in red. The adjective of "ragged" is interesting; perhaps alluding to a sense of imperfection, something faulty, unstable. I get the sense here that the  author seems to be building up towards something crazy and unexpected. Is he trying to peel back the veneer of suburbia to reveal its ugliness and depravity? Dunno.

Thanks to Freda's Voice for hosting this meme, which works nicely in conjunction with Books Beginnings. All you have to do is grab any book, turn to page 56 (or 56% in your e-reader) and share any sentence. Taken from the same book:  

"Now you must insist, and insist absolutely, on the duel coming off after seven tomorrow, so as to give me the chance of preventing him from catching the 7:45 for Paris."

Pistols at dawn! Hell yeah. I haven't gotten this far yet but color me intrigued. Someone is intent on going straight-up gangsta. 

Thanks to Parajunkee and Alison Can Read
for hosting this blog-hopping meme. Question of the week:

Have you ever read a book you thought you'd hate but loved or vice versa? 

More the latter. I tend to have fairly high expectations for many "classics" but have been disappointed on so many occasions. Most recently, The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Passage to India by E.M. Forster, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. The list goes on...

Catch ya'll on the flip-side.