I think I’m a bit young to count any book as “tradition for Christmas” but there are two books and two short stories that I’ve made sure to read as often as I could around the Christmas period. My #1 rule is that the “Holiday Season” doesn’t begin until after Dec 10. Decorating the day right after Halloween is a little unsettling.
Making Christmas all about buying things in high consumerism anxiety, followed by Black Friday videos trending, and making this madness last from November 1 is something that takes away so much magic from Christmas for me. I was recently sent a mini list by Julie Morris, who wrote on the importance of being reflective on the presents you buy for yourself and others around the Christmas period, and the value of reflecting on how those gifts will improve our lives and those of the people around us. Here are some of the recommendations for more thoughtful gifts, if you are looking for ideas. I personally found it to be useful.
- A Yoga Studio Membership. If you’re someone who suffers from stress, yoga is a great way to find relief. Along with easing stress, some of yoga’s benefits include decreased pain, increased strength and weight management. The gift of a studio membership gives you the extra push to get your foot in the door — you’ll be more likely to give it a try when it’s a gift rather than something you bought yourself.
- A Meal Delivery Service. Meal delivery services have become popular in this age of hectic living. According to simplemost.com, meal delivery services are great for those with busy work schedules who may not have time to grocery shop. Meal delivery services are a great option if you want to eat healthy but struggle figuring out what to cook.
- Adult Coloring Books. Adult coloring books are another fad that’s become extremely popular, and for good reason. Adult coloring books have been proven to improve stress and mental health for many people. Don’t forget to ask for a variety of coloring utensils to use in your new books!
- Calendars and Planners. For people who are unorganized and can use some decluttering in their lives, calendars and planners are great options. Planners can help improve time management, increase productivity, and provide enjoyment when you’re able to cross things off your list. Planners are also a great place to put phone numbers, addresses, and emails.
It’s always great to try and improve your life in any way that you can. Asking for gifts that can help, rather than needless knick knacks, is a great way to start on your new resolutions. Consider sharing these ideas to help get your new year on the track.
My #1 Novel for Christmas and favourite depiction of Santa Claus was written by Frank L. Baum: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. This book is amazing. I love the mythological layers added to Santa. In this version he was raised by woodland creatures and fairies. It’s almost a bildungsroman where we get to see how Santa becomes who he is, and how he became immortal. The movie is an excellent adaptation as well.
Then there are these two stories by Hans Christian Andersen
So far I think I’ve read “The Little Match Girl” every year since I was six years old. It’s one of my absolute favourite stories of all time. I love this story so much I started illustrating it:
Then, there’s Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol. Yes, everyone reads it, but it’s pretty darn good. Also, it kind of makes you reflect on the year and the resolutions for the new one. I am the proud owner of many Charles Dickens Christmas stories
Lastly, there are works that are not necessarily Christmas related, but they are personal associations with Christmas. For many, it’s a tradition to watch Harry Potter, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Home Alone, or Elf. Some associate Apple Cider, or Egg Nog with Christmas; particular tastes, and particular smells.
For me personally, Christmas means:
Smells: pine, and oranges
Food: Salata de Beouf (Romanian Dish for Christmas)
Books (non-related to the ones mentioned above): The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Movies I really enjoyed around the Christmas period: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Peter Pan (2003), Little Women, Meet Me in St. Louis and (recently added) Frozen. I also watch adaptations of the three main books/stories mentioned above, or Winnie the Pooh Christmas movies.
Lastly, I absolutely HATE every Christmas song, carol, and/or melody. I think they are so depressing (I’m sorry). I have seen wonderful performers, and family members sing them beautifully, but the melodies themselves put me in such a sad state of mind, I can’ t do it. (Let’s call it a quirk?)
To me, Christmas means the mythology of Santa, the coziness of winter, where the snow is a blanket over dormant parts of nature, and there’s good food, loving family, and a fire place. I want to feel cozy, comfortable, and safe, but I don’t want to experience the layer of sadness that also descends upon Christmas, which comes from the grayness in the atmosphere and from the Christmas songs (for me personally). I know that this is different for everyone and each individual experiences Christmas differently but every year I can’t ignore that there is a general sadness around this time. This feeling turns into optimism and excitement for the new year with plans, hopes, and new dreams. Life is about balance so I guess we need both feelings to get by. I hope that you will have a lovely Christmas time this year and no matter what happens, you get to enjoy at least a great short story!
The Collector by John Fowles is about a man named Frederick Clegg, a lonesome person who recently wins the lottery. He is socially strange, and loves to collect butterflies. He develops an obsession for a young, blonde, beautiful, 20 year-old art student named Miranda. After he stalks her for a while, he decides to buy a cottage in the middle of nowhere preparing everything for her ‘arrival.’ One day he chlorophorms her and actually carries out his fantasy, keeping her a prisoner.
It’s easy to compare this with Lolita, which I will hold off on because I will write a proper analysis comparing Clegg to Humbert, Jean-Baptise Grenouille from Suskind’s Perfume, and to the main character in John Burnside’s The Dumb House. There is a thread running through these works, worthy of a closer look. This novel also made me think that this is what Beauty and the Beast would really look like in real life (perhaps another topic altogether).
Clegg is somewhat scarier than the other men in the novels mentioned above because he doesn’t have sex with his prisoner. In fact, he finds sex dirty, unnecessary, and dishonorable. I know this sounds like a strange thing to say, but I kept thinking of the Oscar Wilde line “everything in this world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” That in itself makes The Collector more perverse.
The interactions between Frederick and Miranda are absolutely chilling. She says to him
“you’ve gone to a lot of trouble…I’m your prisoner, but you want me to be a happy prisoner.”
Later on, she brings up the topic again:
“’There must be something you want to do with me.’ ‘I just want to be with you. All the time.’ ‘In bed?’ ‘I’ve told you no. …I don’t allow myself to think of what I know is wrong, I said. I don’t consider it nice.’”
She tries to sleep with him out of desperation, hoping he would let her go afterwards but he refuses her. One of the many times she tries to escape, he chlorophorms her and carries her upstairs. He writes:
“She looked a sight, the dress all off one shoulder. I don’t know what it was, it got me excited, it gave me ideas, seeing her lying there right out. It was like I’d showed who was really the master…I took off her dress…she looked a real picture…It was my chance I had been waiting for. I got the old camera and took some photos…The photographs, I used to look at them sometimes. I could take my time with them. They didn’t talk back at me.”
The next day he pats himself on the back, congratulating himself for not raping her, as any other man would (according to him). As much as Frederick is disgusted by sexual conduct, he’s very much immersed in it. Miranda tries to show him that being a scientist, and a collector of beautiful things isn’t as honourable as being an artist who dwells in the vices.
“You hoard up all the beauty in these drawers… Do you know that every great thing in the history of art and every beautiful thing in life is actually what you call nasty or has been caused by feelings that you would call nasty?…do you know that?”
“You can change…You can learn. And what have you done? You’ve had a little dream, the sort of dream I suppose little boys have and masturbate about, and you fall over yourself being nice to me so that you won’t have to admit to yourself that the whole business of my being here is nasty, nasty, nasty.”
I will draw a line here. I’ve read a few reviews accusing Fowles and this book of extreme misogyny. What I think is important is to examine how Miranda’s character has been written (by Fowles), and how Frederick’s messed up character views women. Miranda has autonomy. Despite being a prisoner, gagged, chlorophormed, and kept, Miranda is an educated adult. She also becomes quickly aware of the power she has over Frederick. She mockingly calls him Ferdinand (to her Miranda), but more often calls him Caliban. Caliban is so broken, and abused, but I don’t think Frederick gets the references. I think Miranda’s comments go over his head. They are her little inside jokes with us the readers. These references to The Tempest are scattered through the novel. She discusses high art, and in her portions tries to frame narratives from fiction to understand her situation, so that she may cope with being in solitary confinement, and a prisoner. The witty remarks she makes towards Fred shows that she is by far superior to his intellect. At the beginning she tries to understand him, more than to freak out. She even pull out a cigarette and discusses with him the situation like a beatnik art student in a bar discussing existentialism.
Frederick on the other hand does not understand women. He defensively admits that he is not “a queer” as if that thought also offended him, but women to him are these two dimensional characters that he bases on his aunt (who was a piece of work). He built up a fantasy about Miranda and hypnotized by her beauty the same way he is with his butterflies, he keeps her locked up. Once in a while though, Miranda will say something to him that he doesn’t expect from her, and he narrates:
“Her making criticisms like a typical woman … she was just like a woman. Unpredictable. Smiling one minute and spiteful the next.”
These “just like a woman” comments make you ask: what kind of women have you met? How can you possibly think of more than half of Earth’s population this way? But the key distinction here is how Frederick thinks of women versus how Miranda is actually written.
The second half of the novel is shown from Miranda’s point of view and we see how her thinking changes as the days of imprisonment take a toll on her. This half for me was lacking. Mainly because it’s the same plot told from her point of view, and as a reader, I inferred that already. I saw the despair and saw her thinking process without her actually saying it (for another 100 pages).
The ending, which I won’t spoil (regarding Miranda) was slightly disappointing, and a little convenient. The cliff hanger suggests that Frederick will continue to do this with a new woman. While this is the ‘creepy’ element, it made me wonder what he saw in Miranda. His “just like a woman” stabs did not match the fantasy that he made up about Miranda in his head, but that she was still somewhat special to him, that something about her was different. The end had me wondering if it’s just his own fantasy he falls in love with every time, and the girls are just vessels for it, without the girls themselves having a particular quality he likes.
Like I said, something about Clegg is creepier than the other literary kidnapper men, and because he kidnaps beautiful women, and keeps them so that he’s not alone, with no other intent, to me, he is perhaps the creepiest of them all. Like Lolita, I thought this book was by far more intriguing in the first half. While I understand what both authors were trying to achieve in these second halves, I think they both executed it poorly. Still, both really great novels! Should you read this? Yes.
A few days ago, I came across the Macmillan Collector’s Library editions of various classics. I think I’ll try to get all my future classics in this edition. They are small and portable, a pleasure to hold, have gilded edges, and are accompanied by the most beautiful illustrations. It was upon this occasion that I returned to this sci-fi classic (as I did not yet have it in my personal collection). I read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) a really long time ago, and I think I was much too young to appreciate it. This time, I was able to compare it to contemporary science fiction and tease out its ‘Vernian’ elements.
The illustrations in this edition are those completed by Édouard Riou, who worked with Jules Verne on six of his novels and created illustrations for all of them. His illustrations were then engraved by Pannemaker, Gauchard, Maurand (1867).
Simplified Plot: Axel (the narrator) a young man, visits his uncle, Professor Otto Lidenbrock, who is an eccentric academic and adventurer. Lidenbrock has recently purchased a manuscript with Runic inscriptions which he and Axel decipher to be a cryptogram indicating how one can reach the centre of the Earth. Axel is in love with Lidenbrock’s goddaughter Gräuben, who promises to wait for him and marry him if he returns. The two leave and find themselves a guide, Hans Bjelke, who helps them reach their goal. The journey leads them from Germany, to Denmark. In Copenhagen they take a boat for several days which gets them to Iceland where “the centre’s” entryway is located. Walking through the inside tunnels of a volcano the explorers find fossils, interesting rock formations, water, and many other wonders.
The reason I’m writing on classics here, is not really for “a review” as they obviously do not need one, but I would like to use this platform to keep track of things I found interesting.
While the main three characters on an adventure are men, Verne wrote the character of Gräuben in a very interesting way. Gräuben and Axel have been dating for a while because she immediately assumes he came to visit her again. Even though she cares deeply for him, and wants to marry him, Gräuben doesn’t oppose him going on such a journey, which at this point no one really thinks of as dangerous, rather, they look at it as a potentially foolish undertaking. She doesn’t seem controlling, but she still cares deeply. I also like that in the 1800s, Verne portrays a young relationship as a mutual courship, rather than an obligation. We get right away that Otto Lidenbrock is the ‘old guy who is kind of a misogynist and doesn’t understand women,’ but we also see the narrator and/or Axel does not really stand for that. Lidenbrock says:
“Ah! women and young girls, how incomprehensible are your feminine hearts! When you are not the timidest, you are the bravest of creatures. Reason has nothing to do with your actions.”
To which Axel narrates:
“I was disconcerted, and, if I must tell the whole truth, I was ashamed.”
Verne uses Gräuben as a plot device often encountered in adventure stories: the “I’ll wait for you” girl. The way Rosie Cotton is “the girl back home” for Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings, and Penelope for Odysseus, Verne gives Axel a reason, and yearning to return to Hamburg. I think this device is really useful because it doesn’t allow the protagonists to give up hope if things get really bad, or to get too comfortable if the new place is too exciting that they might want to stay there forever.
The Vernian Element
Something that stood out to me reading this sci-fi classic, particularly after diving into many contemporary sci-fi works this year, was how much Verne wanted for everything to make sense, and for it to be believable. Verne didn’t drop you in a random world and hope you pick up clues as you go along, he explained everything with the utmost details in such a way that a skeptic would have scientific and/or academic proof that what he is narrating might actually be true. Then I remembered what Peter S. Beagle mentioned in his introduction to New Voices in Fantasy. He wrote:
“Jules Verne, who always considered himself a scientist, was distinctly put out by the work of the younger writer H.G. Wells. ‘Il a invente!’ the author of From the Earth to the Moon sniffed at the author of The War of the Worlds. ‘He makes things up!’”
Having seen the action-packed adaptation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, I forgot how calm and academic Verne’s prose is. It made me feel safe, and I actually understood what was happening (which was comforting). The first few chapters are full of details on the manuscript and runes. He makes sense of the way Otto and Axel decipher the code. Then, once they embark on this journey everything is planned out realistically. I even looked up how long it takes to get to Iceland from Copenhagen by boat, and it was exactly as long as Verne said it was. The man did his research properly. Once they descend below the Volcano, Verne uses many details from Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology Vol 1. and 2, (which heavily inspired Charles Darwin as he himself read volume one on his Beagle Voyage). There are passages upon passages describing the sediments, the rocks, the way they look, feel, or smell. He takes you on a sensory journey along with the three protagonists.
There were also reminders throughout of the kinds of walkers and adventurers from back in the day, when walking miles daily was no big deal. I have to go out of my way to get at least 7,000 steps on my Fitbit every day. The things they do, and the distances they go by on horse, where Hans chooses to walk–and the character of Hans the guide altogether, was absolutely fascinating. He’s kind of a Thoreauvian or Native figure who knows the land and could walk forever. He is connected to all the elements in ways Otto and Axel are not. He can pick up signals from the land, and signs from the sky, wind, animals. I think this time around, Hans’s character was by far my favorite. I also could appreciate a lot of the references. For instance, upon their descend there are references to Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Inferno, which I probably wouldn’t have picked up on in high school.
I really enjoyed this work, if you haven’t read it, by all means give it a go! I must admit that my favourite Verne remains 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I still have to read a lot of his other works.
Books I read for Reviews (with links)
- Drinks with Dead Poets by Glyn Maxwell. A poet/professor wakes in a town where he must teach a syllabus on dead poets, and the dead poets come to life (To be published in August of 2017)
- Matter & Desire by Andreas Weber. Academic text exploring the relationship between our existence and nature through erotic experience (To be published August 3, 2017)
- The Man Who Loved Libraries by Andrew Larsen. This is a very short children’s book about Andrew Carnegie (to be published August 15)
- Thin Places by Lesley Choyce. Free verse poem telling the story of Declan Lynch who can hear voices and follows them. (To be published July 29, 2017)
- The Excursionist by J.D. Sumner. This is a travel satire with a very grumpy main character (published May 17)
- The New Voices of Fantasy edited by Peter S. Beagle. A collection of new fantasy short stories (to be published August 18, 2017)
- Scion of the Fox by S.M Beiko. Young adult book with magic, battles, family traditions and history, and is very much entwined with the natural realm (out for publication October 17, 2017)
- Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith by Shaun Hume. Pleasant children’s adventure about Ewan Pendle who receives a special education. (published)
- How to Read Nature by Tristan Gooley – book on navigating through nature and reviving the connection between ourselves and the natural realm (out for publication August 22, 2017)
- Of Men and Women by Pearl S. Buck – short essays comparing the American household to that of China, published/written in 1941, currently being republished in a newer, updated eBook edition (out for publication June 27, 2017)
- Ex Libris – Anthology of Sci-fi and Fantasy short stories with Librarians, Libraries, and Lore (out for publication July 11, 2017)
- The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory by Chris Banks – poetry collection (out for publication Sept 5, 2017)
- Hunger by Roxane Gay – a memoir; a history of Roxane Gay’s body and experience with weight gain (out for publication June 13, 2017)
- Up Against Beyond by Jason Holt –Poetry collection (out for publication July 20, 2017)
- Iain M. Banks by Paul Kincaid –academic book, short biography, close analysis/reading of Iain M. Banks and his works published both as ‘Iain M. Banks’ and ‘Iain Banks’ (out for publication May 30, 2017)
Books I read for Myself
I had a great reading month mostly because I had all the time in the world: no work, no school, no exams.
According to my Audible App I also spent about 8 Hours listening. The listening included a variety of dramatizations of classics, or some audiobooks for the things listed below where I would follow along in the text while listening to an audiobook.
I read two short stories:
“The Machine Stops” – by E.M. Forster which already made it onto my ‘favourites’ list. The story is written in 1909 but it’s highly prophetic and describes a time where people are glued to conversation machines and lose touch with the organic. It’s like a “pre-WALLE” critique of our attachment to screens.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe. This story took me a while to get into, mainly because I wasn’t sure what was happening for the first few pages. A man wakes up tied, in a pit, where a pendulum swings above him (one of those with a blade) and he doesn’t know why. He spends the story figuring it out. It didn’t really strike me in any way and it’s not as memorable as “The Black Cat.”
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
I then read my monthly classic. This month I chose The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Again, this didn’t sit with me quite as well as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. What I’m saying is: I can see why it’s important, I can engage in conversation about many aspects of it BUT reading it wasn’t a very exciting experience. Anne looked at domestic abuse and the ways women would put up physical barriers like Wildfell Hall itself. I liked the many perspectives in this work but I had one major issue with this novel and that was the characterization of Gilbert Markham, the first narrator. Gilbert as a first narrator to me was so feminine that I had a hard time imagining this man as a (straight) man. Everything he said was something I could never picturing a man caring about like the way a woman’s eyebrows look like, or the fabric of their clothing. It sucks that in my head I kept comparing Markham to manly Rochester and Heathcliff but one cannot help but lump the Brontes together. I would have no problems with bending gender norms and stereotypes but I think in this case Anne Bronte just didn’t know how to capture a masculine voice. I did enjoy that Helen was a painter and the descriptions of her paintings got to me in a very heartwarming way. Helen’s character is very interesting.
Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
I am not sure how to describe the synopsis without spoilers. I’m going to briefly borrow parts from the synopsis at the back. Rose Franklin falls through the earth when she is a child and ends up in the palm of a giant metal hand. She spends her life studying physics and gets involved with a military/science team in search for other remaining parts of these giant metal giants which are scattered worldwide. The book is written in interview format. Interviews are conducted with Rose connecting her personal experience to the expeditions, with Kara Resnik (a military leader on this mission), and with other members involved in this investigation. I sort of imagined it as someone from the Pentagon interviewing all the people involved or around anything relating to these robot parts showing up all over. There are romances hidden, mysterious components to the robots or “giants” and it’s definitely not boring. I read this book with the text in hand and with the audiobook. It is an experience I recommend mainly because audible has different voices for the different characters and you really experience their presence. Lastly, I couldn’t help but be reminded of A Monster Calls, The Iron Giant, and most of all the giant guardians that are dormant in Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I don’t know if anyone remembers those but as a kid I watched Atlantis so many times and the moment when the giants pop out from the ground to protect the city is a scene forever ingrained in my memory. I don’t know if I’m alone in making this association.
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
This is a small novella that just got published by Tor.com. In the early 20th century America had a plan to import hippos to supplement the meat shortage. The plan was scrapped but Sarah Gailey re-imagines an alternate 1890s where hippos are present in the U.S. It’s a weird hybrid of fantasy and a westerner. This is the story of Winslow Houndstooth who rides his hippo. Every rider in this book has a hippo. Tor.com published an article introducing every hippo by name here. The novella is only 170 pages and a very easy read. The cover art is done by Richard Anderson and designed by Christine Foltzer. I’ll put together a better review for this on Goodreads later tonight.
Concluding Thoughts and Announcement
My favourite reads this month were Drinks with Dead Poets by Glyn Maxwell and Ex Libris: Libraries, Librarians, and Lore. I’ve also been reading Age of Myth by Michael J. Sullivan which I have not yet finished so it will be featured in next month’s wrap-up.
BIG ANNOUNCEMENT! Along with Ennet House I will be reading Infinite Jest from June 1 to September 18 (along other books of course). If you would like to participate there is still time to get the book and join our community. More details on this HERE. Everyone is welcome!