literature

End of the Year | Reflection

2017

First of all, if you are currently reading this, thank you! A many great thanks to readers who have stuck with me this year, and commented on, or read my reading experience. I really appreciate your bookish company and academic contributions. Also, thank you if you’ve recommended books, audiobooks, podcasts, or stories to me, because you contributed to my reading experience, and honestly, that is the greatest gift.

This year was a very strange year for me, mainly because it’s been a “transition” year. In March I officially started this review/reading journal blog which for the first time held me accountable for my personal reading reflections. I also started to get ARCs for reviews which was exciting at first, but became overwhelming very fast. The truth about early editions for review, is that, as exciting as it is to receive a present in exchange for an honest review, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s a good book. As an early reviewer I have no idea what the book will be like, and because I have promised to give a review, I can’t in all honesty review something unless I’ve fully read it. I chose not to post about any book I didn’t like, which is why you are unlikely to find my negative rants anywhere here (except for monthly wrap-ups). Nonetheless, it means I’ve given hours and hours of my time to books that I didn’t necessarily enjoy all that much. While I was compiling this end of year list, I realized that only one book I got for early review actually made it on the fiction list, which was Ex Libris.

In May I finished University (6 years and 2 degrees later) which led to four months of being on pins and needles trying to get a job in a library. After getting a job in September I then had to move houses three times which was really quite unnerving. Lugging books back and forth, trying to keep my reading going, and at the same time being released from “reading for school” in April to “reading for myself” was very confusing after six years. Sometimes I feel like maybe I enjoyed getting ARCs because they were like school assignments again and that has become my comfort zone. That said, my eye for which books I request as ARCs has also become better. I can see already that books I’m currently reading (to be released in 2018) are far more interesting and right up my alley regarding reading preference. I’m really enjoying Simon Garfield’s Timekeepers: How the World became Obsessed with Time, and Christian Davenport’s The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. Although I have not yet reviewed them, I can tell that they will become favourites. I have a long list of fiction as well, which I think I will enjoy much more than what I previously requested.

On my top lists I will count the books which I’ve personally read in 2017 (which were not necessarily published in 2017). I will also not count re-reads, which I obviously enjoyed before if I’ve returned to them. I did however start reading some books that I enjoyed so much but for some reason they coincided with a stressful time and I couldn’t accord them the attention they deserved, so I’ve temporarily put them aside (even though I predict 4-5 star ratings).

If the title of any of the books below is “clickable” it means I wrote an in-depth review/reflection on it (if you want to read it).

Reading Statistics 

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  • I read a total of  111 books
  • Of these books (42 of them) or 38% were written by female authors, (5) 4% by mixed (particularly short story collections) and (64 books) 58% male authors.
  • Categories are: Nonfiction (34 books, 31%), Plays (2 books, 2%), Scifi and Fantasy (22 books, 20%), Academic (10 books, 9%), Poetry (14 books, 13%), Classics (12 books, 11%), General Contemporary Fiction 15%. See pie chart
  • Of these initially, 70 of them were bought from Indigo, Amazon, and second hand bookstores. 36 of them were free (friends, ARCs, presents), and only 5 of them were from the library….which we should all realize it’s really shameful (I’m a librarian). Bad Andreea! You can already guess my new year’s resolutions.
  • From these books 42 were Digital (Kindle/Overdrive), 69 of them were physical copies, and 18 of them were Audiobooks.
  • From the whole 32/111 were ARCs (Advance Reader Copies).
  • There are a few cross-overs, and I definitely bought WAY more than 70 books this year. By cross-overs I mean: although 18 were Audiobooks from Audible (which I bought), there’s a chance I also bought the physical copy to follow along and annotate. I also bought books that I haven’t read yet (many, MANY of them). Also, sometimes a book was free like an ARC, library loan, or from Overdrive, and I loved it so much I bought a copy anyway. The things I listed in the breakdown were in the “initial encounter” with the book.
  • But Andreea, you may say, the year is not over yet. True. I know my schedule ahead for the next two weeks, and I’m currently in the middle of three really large books. I don’t think I’m going to finish them all this year, just based on my plans for the next two weeks, so I will not be counting them towards the 2017 calculations…also there’s no way I’m redoing all these calculations. It took a while.

Books I re-read this year were (No Particular Order):

  1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  2. Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  3. Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
  4. Odd Type Writers, by Celia Blue Johnson
  5. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  6. Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire
  7. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  8. The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky       

Top 5 Non-Fiction (In Order of How much I enjoyed them) 

  1. bookLore by Aaron Mahnke. I spend two continuous months with Mahnke by means of his audiobook, podast, and text. He made the autumn season glorious for me, and this whole experience was just perfect. I gave him five stars. My long review is linked in the title. Definitely my #1 Non-Fiction Read.
  2. The Readers’ Advisory Service in North American Public Libraries, 1870-2005: A History and Critical Analysis by Juris Dilevko. This book was perhaps the most comprehensive “history of the library” book I’ve yet encountered, and I really enjoyed it.
  3. The Hermit’s Cookbook: Monks, Food, and Fasting in the Middle Ages by Andrew Jotischky. Exactly what it sounds like: an academic book on monks and food. I loved it.
  4. The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff. A comprehensive, well-researched non-fiction work on the history of the Salem Witch Trials.
  5. Dark Angel: Mary Ann Cotton by Martin Connolly. The historical account of the “first” female serial killer in Britain.

Bonus: (book I’m currently reading and not really counting in the statistics above, but am REALLY enjoying)

Vampyres: Genesis and Resurrection: From Count Dracula to Vampirella by Christopher Frayling. This work is half non-fiction history of Vampires in literature and mainstream culture, and half anthology of fictional works containing vampires. It is very well put together, and I am enjoying all the non-fiction bits just as much as the fiction.

Top 10 Fiction (In Order of How much I enjoyed them) 

  1. 18892522The Collector by John Fowles
  2. Ex Libris Stories of Librarians, Libraries, and Lore
  3. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss 
  4. The Dumb House by John Burnside
  5. Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier
  6. Central Station by Lavie Tidhar
  7. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
  8. The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman
  9. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
  10. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Things I learned about Myself:

  • I am really bad at maintaining a TBR or participating in Read-alongs. I didn’t read 2/4 books I announced I would for Victober, and I didn’t read 3/4 books I announced I would read for Nonfiction November. I hardly contributed conversations on the Reddit Thread for Infinite Jest, even though it was the only reason I re-read it. I still read Victorian Literature in October, and Nonfiction in November….I just didn’t stick to the list I had prepared. I got very easily distracted by different books. I also find it very hard to read on someone else’s schedule. I tried participating in a few “Goodreads book clubs” and I ended up being unable to do it at either too slow, or too fast a pace (depending on the book).
  • I am very much a “mood reader.” This is the reason I buy a lot of my books, even though I’m a librarian. I like to have the foundational texts always around because some days I feel like Tolkien, the next I may feel like it’s a Sherlock kind of day….and I need to have them on hand.
  • Some books really upset me (for pretentiousness) and bored me while I was reading them but then I found I couldn’t stop thinking about them after I put them down (Lincoln in the Bardo and Infinite Jest were such examples)

Posts I enjoyed Writing 

In the meantime I may still squeeze in a few posts until the year is out, including of course my NEW YEAR RESOLUTIONS in terms of what I hope to achieve with my reading goals next year. I hope you all have a wonderful time in these last two weeks before the New Year! Happy Holidays, and thanks again for reading 🙂

 

Christmastime and Books

Reflection

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. That is, other than books of course. Feel free to email me or comment if you are looking for book recommendations for someone (perhaps with a brief summary of what they’ve liked in the past). I would love to help!

Books

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:

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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

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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

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The smells of Christmas

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!

holidays

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

29430716Manjula Martin collected essays by contemporary writers claiming to shed some light on what it means to struggle as an artist. Each writer approaches the topic in a different way. Some, like the more famous Cheryl Strayed, Jonathan Franzen, and Roxanne Gay offer their thoughts in interview format, whereas others take creative liberties to capture their history as a writer, their journey, and relationship with books. The overarching topic is: money. How much money do artists get and what does it mean? For instance, Cheryl Strayed explains that even though she received a large sum of money as an advance for Wild, it was given to her in installments. She had so much credit card debt, student loans to pay, and two small children. The art world is the only case in which sometimes people expect you to work for free in hopes that “the love of the public” and “followers” is enough compensation, as if you owe the gallery and the publishing house for being published, rather than being paid for your labour and hard work. It’s the only time when you could wake up one morning and think: today I could make zero dollars, or get a $50,000 advance, we’ll never know. It’s hard to imagine that while being on book tour, Strayed’s check bounced when trying to pay the rent.

The opening essay by Julia Fierro for instance focused on the ways in which she felt inferior to her classmates in university as well as at the Iowa Writers’ workshop. How she started hoarding and collecting books she couldn’t afford so she could stay in the ranks of her classmates, and how subsequently this resulted in her avoiding reading altogether for a while. She writes:

“My loan money moved from my bank account to my bookshelf, and not once did I stop myself, look around my apartment at the stacks of unread books–several lifetimes’ worth–and think of Jay Gatsby and his library of pristine uncut books. My fear was too loud. Fear that I was inauthentic, undeserving of a place among my mostly Ivy League–educated classmates who, it seemed, were more well-read than even the gray-haired authors who were our professors.”

Colin Dickey wrote a very interesting essay that was more historical and academic in nature. He cites a lot of Karl Marx, but begins his essay with the way in which Charles Dickens’s work got immediately tainted for him the day he found out he was paid by installment. He writes:

“once we’d been introduced to the economy of writing, everything was tainted….how to trust each word from that point on…money taints everything, why not writing too”

Roxanne Gay discusses how she remains in academic circles at universities, and teaches classes, just because they offer her a steady salary and health insurance. When she broke down her income, she discloses that less than 30% of her income comes from her writing.

I also found that this collection poked at a strange can of worms regarding the Jonathan Franzen-Oprah Winfrey conflict, back in 2001. When it comes up in the interview, and reminds readers about the conflict, some women are referenced (like Jennifer Weiner) who used social media to point out that critics rarely pay the same attention to women authors, as they do to Jonathan Franzen back when this conflict was happening. Franzen responds here with:

“well, I am a male animal, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t stop writing and disappear just because someone chooses to project onto me her grievance with a million years of sexist human history”

What I found strange was that Jennifer Weiner is also one of the essays in here, and it’s written in essay/memoir format whereas Franzen’s is in interview format with the editor. The interview is by far the longest and I felt as if the editor was swooning over Franzen whereas Weiner was “left alone” as it were. In her essay, Weiner writes conversations she never thought she would have to have with herself like

“big-name critics will call your work ‘subliterary,’ and big-deal writers will sneer at the notion that your books deserve even a smidgen of attention in the New York Times…History ought to give me some context. Women’s work has always been devalued, seen as less. ‘commercial’ she asks for what she doesn’t deserve, says the privileged white man, who gets both sales and respect–as if privileged white men haven’t always been the ones to make those judgement, and those judgement haven’t always been in their favor.”

It’s an interesting fight/argument (which let’s face it, it’s about posterity), but it wasn’t why I bought this book.

As a reader interested in the “nitty-gritty of the writing profession” which is what I came to this book for, I did not find those answers here. For one Cheryl Strayed, Roxanne Gay,  Jennifer Weiner, and Jonathan Franzen are all best sellers who made money, got film deals, and some reached critical acclaim. The Franzen-Weiner “fight” was kind of central to me when I looked back.

My favourite by far was Colin Dickey. His essay actually focused on the topic. Cheryl Strayed’s article got my attention because of her success, but everyone else kind of fell through the cracks. For one, I didn’t find myself caring about authors I haven’t heard of, but if I did, I would have liked them to discuss the struggle more, rather than the details of biography. This was Spinster all over again, I got biographies I never asked for. I came to this collection looking for financial struggles, what did it mean, how much? What fees did you have to pay? Where did you live? How did you manage? One Goodreads reviewer put it best:

“the essayists tiptoe around pragmatic questions of money to instead navel-gaze about issues of privilege and class. Several of them explicitly repeat the problem this book was supposed to solve: they flatly refuse to discuss specific financial details.” – Amy Rogers 

Beowulf: Grendel’s Mother

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Incipit page for Beowulf section in MS Cotton Vitellius A XV

After watching a few adaptations of Beowulf, I couldn’t help but wonder if it made sense for Angelina Jolie to play Grendel’s mother in the latest interpretation. It didn’t seem right. I went back to the Old English text to see if it makes any sense. Turns out I was wrong.

Beowulf has been fully translated by sixty-five (and counting) translators, has been adapted into four films (including an animated and a post-apocalyptic version), two shorter animated films, a rock-opera with music by Dave Malloy, it has been incorporated in various comic books and graphic novels and has made its way into smaller independent short clips on YouTube (and children’s shows) in addition to being referenced and parodied within contemporary comedy. With all the representations and adaptations, despite some characters being omitted (such as Wiglaf in Gunnarsson’s 2005 film) Beowulf has remained portrayed as a strong, muscular male, Grendel as a hideous monster and King Hrothgar and his wife as a middle aged couple worn by time and troubles. Grendel’s mother however, differs from the rest due to her shape-shifting portrayal throughout the adaptations. Her monstrosity and destructive powers are bent; yet from a demonic beast, to an Amazon-like figure, to a sexually appealing seductress, Grendel’s mother remains successful in destroying Hrothgar’s peace and bringing Beowulf to her cave. In the original text we are told that:

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Grendel’s mother in online depiction

“widcuþ werum   þætte wreccend þa gyt

Lifde æfter laþum       lange þrage

Æfter guðceare    Grendles modor

Ides aglaecwif   yrmþe gemunde

se þe wæteregesan   wunian scolde”

[widely known by men / that an avenger still / lived after the misfortunes, for a long time / after the hostile one, Grendel’s mother / lad troll-wife, remembered misery / she who had to inhabit the dreadful water] (Beowulf, 1253-1261a)

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Second online depiction

The word “wrecend” resonates as a masculine quality, one highly valued by the Anglo-Saxons, yet pertaining to male warriors thus making Grendel’s mother an Amazon-like figure. The idea of avenging the murder of a dead one is a recurrent theme in Anglo-Saxon literature, but the poet of Beowulf adds a few lines emphasizing the “troll’s” motherly role:

“…ond his modor þa gyt

Gifre ond galgmond   gegan wolde

Sorhfulne sið      sunnu deað wrecan”

[and his mother even now / greedy and gloomy-hearted / wished to go forth / on a sorrowful journey to avenge her son’s death] (Beowulf 1276-8)

Burton Raffel adds more sensitivity in his translation of this passage translating it as “His mother’s sad heart, and her greed, drove her from her den on the dangerous pathway of revenge” creating a dynamic to this character. A monster who first appears repulsive and masculine in her heroic return to avenge her son (the act of avenge as one commendable by Anglo-Saxon standards) is now presented to us in feminine form, as a mother. This alone makes her action of kidnapping and killing Hrothgar’s kinsman Æschere completely justified. Though as readers we may not be on her side, we understand her actions.

Grendel’s mother is perhaps one of the first females in Anglo-Saxon literature with feminist qualities. She is not only like an Amazon in her warrior nature, but also like the Greek Goddess Athena, seeker of justice (in her quest to settle an equal ransom for her son’s death by taking only one victim) and strong in battle searing for equality based on merit in a man-dominated society. The poet writes:

“                            waes se gryre laessaraffel

Efne swa micle      swa bið mæg þa cræft

Wiggryre wifes      bewaepned men

Þonne heoru bunden    hamere geþuren

Sweord swate fah   swin over helme

Ecgum dyhttig      andweard scireð”

[The horror was less / by even so much as is maid’s strength / the war-violence of woman from an armed man / when adorned blade by hammer forged / sword stained with blood the boar-crest / by edges firm the opposing is sheared] (Beowulf, 1282-5)

Interestingly enough, in Seamus Heaney’s translation of this same passage he writes “her onslaught was less only by as much as an Amazon warrior’s strength.” The key word being “Amazon” since it is absent in the Old English text, yet Heaney too detects that Grendel’s mother’s characteristics resonate with previously encountered female warriors in Greek epic poetry.

What sets Grendel’s mother apart from an Amazon-figure in a somewhat strange way is the fact that she has a son. Between lines 1354 and 1356 Hrothgar says “if he [Grendel] had a father no one knew him” suggesting Grendel’s mother could have been sexually involved with a man, since Grendel resembles men in his physical characteristics (only with more strength). This raises the question of Grendel’s mother’s appearance and it is with this detail that her portrayal becomes diverse as one may wonder if a man was attracted to this woman or if she truly is an anthropomorphic beast. When it comes to description this monster is left to the mercy of the translators and adapters.51cofDOKunL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

For instance, when describing her kidnapping to Æschere in line 1295 which in Old English appears to be “fæste befangen,” Burton Raffel uses words like “dripping claws” where Heaney simply writes “tight hold” with no mention of “claw.” “Claw” implies a hideous beast with animal features whereas “tight hold” simply emphasizes strength.

Even upon explaining the mother and son Raffel only says that “one of the devils was a female creature…they named the huge one Grendel: if he had a father no one knew him” whereas Heaney writes “one…looks like a woman; the other…an unnatural birth called Grendel…they are fatherless creatures…and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts.” The difference between the two is huge as one implies Grendel was from his mother’s womb and may have had a father, whereas the other implies they are demonic, fatherless creatures.

In his book Beowulf and Grendel, John Grigsby writes:

“since the poet makes it clear that Grendel and his mother are amongst such fiends [descendants of Cain] it can be deduced that this pair of monsters were originally divinities too—namely the fertility God and his lover/mother of ancient Denmark. She’s referred to as ‘cursed spirits,’ ‘demons,’ ‘monster of the deep,’ and ‘water-witch.’”

Simply by working with text and translation, Grendel’s mother obtains a dynamic through her actions as feminist, warrior, avenger, and mother. In description we do not know if she is as hideous as Grendel or not. Stepping aside from the text for a moment we can observe how modern artists have envisioned Grendel’s mother.

In Graham Baker’s post-apocalyptic film in 1999, various comic books, and Gareth Hinds’s graphic novel, she takes the form of an alien-like figure. Face and body, she does not resemble humans in any characteristics and her role is miniscule, having no impact on the rest of the plot. Her interference is minor as the main focus is on the Dragon and Grendel, thus diminishing the female warrior presence.

51TCWCPKJFL._SY445_       In Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 film, some choices were made in this regard, though not plot-altering. We first see Grendel’s mother as an arm grabbing for the warriors on a boat from beneath the waters, where she becomes a mysterious faceless figure, until she finally has her revenge where she has a human body (though bluish in colour) and a beast-like face with sharp teeth. What makes this portrayal interesting is that, at the beginning of the film the audience sees Grendel’s “father” who we do not encounter in the original text. Though in the fil he appears a strong, tall man, he is a man nonetheless and Grendel then becomes a product of the copulation between the tall nameless man and the monstrous nameless woman. In this movie, Grendel himself is avenging his father’s death (which as the director interprets he was killed by Hrothgar) giving him the role his mother has in the text (that of the avenger).

Lastly, and perhaps the boldest interpretation of Grendel’s mother was carried out by Robert Zemeckis in 2007 (written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery). Using the motion-capture process, Zemeckis models Grendel’s mother after Angelina Jolie, famous for her beauty (the simulation replicating the actress’s looks onto the animation panel). This adaptation makes Grendel’s mother a main character and Grendel a mere pawn in her larger game. Her power is not warrior-like; rather she use her sexuality as a weapon—a female weapon. The movie implies that Grendel’s mother seduced Hrothgar years before, and Grendel was not only his son, but the curse she set upon Hrothgar for being weak and giving in to her seductive powers. This, putting a strain on Hrothgar’s marriage, made him want to rid of Grendel and ultimately Grendel’s mother. She is in fact portrayed as Hrothgar’s burden. When Beowulf descends to her lair, Zemeckis’s film implies that Beowulf too gives in to the siren’s seductive powers and the moment he does so, the burden is no longer on Hrothgar but it is transferred to Beowulf. Hrothgar’s ‘freedom’ is portrayed by him committing suicide and Beowulf replacing him on the throne.p-beowulf-grendels-mother

What is interesting of this sexual siren representation of Grendel’s mother, is that the original text allows it to exist. Her description in the text, as previously examined, allows for her looks to be charming and only her character to be beastly and vengeful, as Zemeckis showed her in his film. Interestingly enough, after Beowulf’s burial, the ending of the film is Grendel’s mother waking up from the waters looking in the eyes of her next victim. Although in the original text Beowulf successfully kills her, this film makes Grendel’s mother appear immortal. Her cyclical seducing, torturous and murderous activity can perhaps symbolize the way Beowulf as a text has charmed audiences in Anglo-Saxon England and continues to do so each generation, making us all its slaves, unable to resist the charm that lies in the Old English poetry.

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I still have to read Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf — recently published by his son, and I’m a bit hesitant because Tolkien himself didn’t release it in his lifetime which makes me believe it wasn’t a finished product, or something he was comfortable publishing. We do owe Tolkien a lot for bringing Beowulf out of the darkness. Perhaps I will write a post sometime soon on the history of the Beowulf portion of the MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, and how its popularity increased after Tolkien’s 1936 lecture “Beowulf the Monsters and the Critics” which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

Mary Ann Cotton — Dark Angel

31290822I recently got immersed in the world of Mary Ann Cotton, branded as “Britain’s first female serial killer.” Although Cotton being “the first” is disputed as there might have been many others before her, she is fascinating nonetheless. Martin Connolly wrote a short booklet on the town he lived in, titled The Potted History of West Auckland. After reading his work, many requested that he write a book about Mary Ann Cotton. Who was she? What do we know about her? Connolly decided to go to all of the possible sources to find out as much information as he can on Mary Ann Cotton. Connolly writes in the introduction:

“When I had brought together all my material and thoughts, I then turned to see what books on Mary Ann Cotton were being recommended. In this, two stood out, Mary Annn Cotton –Her Story and Trial by Arthur Appleton and Mary Ann cotton Dead, But not Forgotten by Tony Whitehead. Arthur’s account has some factual and date errors, but was a good read. It was on reading tony Whitehead’s book that I had a moment of wishing I had started with that particular book. In it, he had amassed a large number of images of birth, death and baptismal records. It would have saved me a great deal of time, energy and money.”

What I enjoy about Connolly’s book is that he frames the structure of Mary Ann Cotton’s life chronologically and in each sequence he tells us what we can know from the facts without interference. He doesn’t make assumptions or tell us what to believe. He collected so many pictures, certificates, and documents simply presenting them to us as images with a brief explanation of where he acquired them. After laying down the entirety of Cotton’s documented life, he presents to us her trial, documents from the trial, letters to and from Mary Ann Cotton whilst she was in jail, and accounts of the day she was hanged with all the details (including how long her body convulsed upon being hanged). After, Connolly tells us who survived Mary Ann Cotton (from people she knew and lived with), and subsequent rural stories that circulated about potential ghost sightings of Cotton. She entered English folklore for quite some time. He also gathered medical recordings of how the doctor examined the corpses to indicate that it was in fact Arsenic poisoning—which was used as ‘proof’ of her guilt. Connolly even covers a brief biography of all the men and women involved in her trial, doctor supporting evidence, and police officers involved in her arrest.arsenic

On one hand I liked being presented with facts/proof around Mary Ann Cotton’s life without biographer interference or flowery language. On the other hand, I found this work lacking in setting the atmosphere. Although Connolly makes a brief mention at the beginning that she came from a mining village with low wages, and death was aplenty; he didn’t quite set the atmosphere of the time. He jumps from one section of her life to the next without much more introduction. I would have appreciated a sensory experience, an induction into this Victorian life to try and understand. Connolly concludes with:

“was she guilty of murders? I struggle to answer this question. It would be anachronistic to try and look at the situation with a modern mind. In that period, many things were black and white in legal terms…to judge her then is difficult…I suppose I arrive at a place where I would bring in the Scottish legal judgment of ‘not proven.’”

That is a pretty dark note to end on (considering the woman was hanged).

DarkAngel_MasterpieceI read the book at the same time as watching the PBS three-episode miniseries called Dark Angel featuring Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton. The show helped me with what the book was lacking which was atmosphere. The imagery, and the details in costumes and setting really put things in perspective.

What the show focused more on was Cotton’s seduction abilities. They presented her sexuality as being far more overt than any Victorian character I’ve encountered thus far, which made me think they appropriated a slightly modern take. The book tells us to assume she was at least charming because she managed to lock down four husbands but her seductive abilities weren’t notorious. Something missing from the show though, was the ambiguity and potential innocence that Connolly presented to us in the book. In the television program they pretty much show her carrying spoon-fulls of Arsenic into everyone’s tea, including her four husbands, lover, several step-children, her mother, and best friend. If you ‘judge’ her based on the show you ‘know’ she murdered everyone, whereas if you look at the documents and transcripts of what we actually can know….it’s pretty ambiguous, and certainly doesn’t make the case for a death penalty.

Both the book and miniseries kind of gloss over something kind of important. Mary Ann Cotton gave birth to 13 children, 11 of which died. I recently read The Light Between Oceans showing how much damage can be done to a woman’s psyche after losing a single living child, or even experience a miscarriage. To have lost eleven children she gave birth to is so much proof to me that Cotton was certainly not mentally stable. Postpartum depression alone will mess you up, let alone burying so many children of your own. The show and book gloss over it as if it was no big deal, as if it’s to be expected of the time; but even in the Victorian period the death of a child was not so simple. We have records of how much Dickens, and Darwin grieved over the loss of a single child (as fathers). Skipping over this concept to me, is kind of missing the point. I think when people read books on “serial killers” they are intrigued by character and the how they got to be that way. Skipping over the grieving process, and the bodily damage from each pregnancy and subsequent burial of tiny bodies completely hides from the readers and audience what messed this woman up so much (IF she was guilty at all). The presentation of economic circumstances of women at the time and their dependency on men really placed a contemporary feminist angle of how difficult it must have been to lack autonomy and how desperate things can really get.

So if you embark on this grim adventure I recommend reading something about the Victorian period first, and perhaps read the book alongside watching the miniseries so you have a full picture of Mary Ann Cotton. I really did enjoy this narrative altogether. The book is published by Pen and Sword, and the miniseries by PBS.

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Ah, now I get that line from Chicago

The Collector by John Fowles

18892522The 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.

November Wrap-up

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I came across this beautiful line by Emily Dickinson early in the month, and something about it feels right. November is somewhat peaceful and (at least in Canada) holiday-less, which makes it just a calm month. It’s not brutally cold, it doesn’t snow yet, but it’s also not too colourful like early fall, or as vibrant as the summer/spring months. Since October I’ve been feeling the morbid reads and I didn’t feel the need for them to end just because Halloween is over. I kind of like the theme year-round. I tried to read Nonfiction for this month’s Nonfiction challenge, plays, and poetry with less full fictional novels than usual. This month I was lost in the Podcast LIMETOWN.

Books I read for Review

Books I read for Myself

Endgame & Act Without Words by Samuel Beckett 

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Maybe I just didn’t have the patience for this…which sucks because I really love Samuel Beckett. I find that an artist has failed in some ways at times when people reading it (according to Goodreads reviews) ask questions like “I’m not sure I get it,” “it’s the same recycled material from his most famous work,” and “I know this is important, but I’m not sure how….I don’t get it.” To which others retort: “you just don’t understand him because your ignorance is showing….*high brow laugh…” Reading it, I felt a little exasperated. I know that it’s what Beckett wants, but it’s not what I want to get out of my reading experience. Maybe he’s one of those people whose intensity comes across from heated discussion, or watching his works be performed live and feeling a tension between the physical presence of the actors, with time to think about it all in your seat because that is your only choice in that time and enclosed space….feeling the grayness of it all. But sitting here in MY space, trying to READ this play was agonizing. …for a person who keeps reminding you life has no point and beginnings and endings are cyclical, it really makes you think: do I want to spend the little time I have on this Earth reading this play?. I just wish it wasn’t so much like Waiting for Godot…I wish it had a different point. Not my favorite….not the worst either. I stand by: Beckett’s plays should be an experience whilst watching them be performed….rather than be read. I think I gave it 3/5 stars if that matters (it doesn’t). 

Origins of a Story by Jake Grogan

34466512This book is amazing! I honestly wish it existed long ago. I’ve read many books varying on writer’s hobbies, habits, and odd sources of inspiration but this tiny book covers 202 of them. I liked that Grogan was succinct. He didn’t go on and on for any specific author. If inspiration for some authors took longer, it only goes on for a page an a half. He gets to the essential part and focuses on his thesis which is: where the inspiration came from. He doesn’t take it further than that….like how they wrote, where they wrote etc. For some authors that is a shame because I wish I knew more, but I was content with how he approached this topic.
My favourite story of inspiration that I didn’t know about what Margaret Mitchell for Gone with the Wind. Apparently her husband was so tired of carrying books to and from the library for her and one day snapped and said: “For God’s sake, Peggy, can’t you write a book instead of reading thousands of them?”
The truth is… the people most likely to pick this up are bibliophiles who have read many novels, love many authors, and know a lot of these stories. For more famous cases you’ll find yourself patting yourself on the back going: “already knew that, 10 points Ravenclaw!”

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty 

19486412I loved this book so much. I felt the need to elaborate on it further, so I wrote a review mixed in with discussion. You can find a link to it HERE.  It has one of those plots that is so intricate and there’s so much to discuss that it either takes some time to properly explain plot and then discuss….or just read it. It’s one of those books perfect for a book club.

Key words for it would be: motherhood, thriller, murder

I would totally recommend this.

House of Fiction by Phyllis Richardson

32938129I read this for Non-fiction November and I received a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This book is very well-researched, though a little dry in parts. It was presented to me as a “reference work” so I anticipated a broader overview of many literary houses with starting points. This is actually an academic work and has a lot of depth/detail on FEW literary houses. Phyllis Richardson takes a few houses that were significant as either the birthplace or writing place of authors, or like the one in Virginia Woolf’s case, the location in which several authors gathered (Bloomsbury group). Richardson discusses several aspects of “the house.” How it looked, what it was like, how the author/writer made use of it, who visited it, and the subsequent artworks that came out of it. There are several interesting chapters that had my attention throughout. I thought there would be more obscure writers, but this author chose big names like The Brontes, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Hardy, Woolf. The reason I’m pointing it out, is because nowadays, people who are a fan of the ‘big book squad’ like the people mentioned would most likely have already seen at least one biopic, one documentary, or one picture of their house. So in that respect I wish less covered artists would have been featured. Needless to say the book is Anglo-centric, but it is called Great “BRITISH” houses, so it’s fair. It’s well-researched.

The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff

28449076A lot of people have recommended Stacy Schiff’s works to me, and I now understand why. I loved this book so much. I started reading this at the same time in October when I was binge-listening to the LORE podcast. It was a great compliment to it. The work looks at the Salem witch trials in an academic/historical way, but written in such an accessible way that it makes you feel like you’re actually there. I loved the accumulation of references made along the way to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and many other works that refer to the Salem Witch Trials without being completely rooted in truth. She debunks a lot of myths around the stories relating to the Salem ‘witches’ and explains step by step how everything happened. I was surprised to find that even two dogs were killed for being ‘pendle witches.’ I really enjoyed it. It took me two months to read, but I put it down and picked it up on and off. I do recommend this, if the topic interests you.

Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks 

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I was introduced to Terry Brooks via Ted Talk, and it was such a pleasure to hear him talk. I will certainly give the first three books of Shannara a try. I listened to the audio-book of Sometimes the Magic Works, and it did not quite live up to the standards I had for it. I thought it would resemble his talk and go deeper into some of the themes he touched on. I wanted to learn about how he wrote, why he wrote what he did, the process, the feelings, etc. Instead, this was a sort of post-success story. The first hour or so he keeps on repeating how everyone hailed his work as the equal of Lord of the Rings, and how it rivaled Middle Earth. He kind of takes us through the process of talking to his publishers etc. What I couldn’t stand about this book was the comparison with LOTR (every five minutes), and the way Brooks sees himself as some sort of genius that is lost in this other world which somehow justifies him being “out of it.”  I’ve seen many male authors do this thing where they are like: oh I had to ignore my wife and she wouldn’t understand that I was trapped in this other world…I was busy creating…I am so complicated. Guess what? J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien managed to create complex worlds beyond this one with depth and wonderful characters and they weren’t rude to the people around them, especially the ones they are meant to love and be close to. When Brooks talks about the way his wife would talk to him about news or anything and he’d just ignore her….blaming it on the craft….that’s when I was done. There are better books out there on writing, and you don’t have to be some outcast, or completely check out in conversations with people. You CAN be a decent human being. I don’t know why this bothered me so much, but I am not going to hold Brooks’s fiction far because of it. Maybe this was just slightly off. I mean again, I’ll give Shannara a try, because I think it probably is a good series, but this particular book was not for me.

2001; A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

70535I’ve been meaning to read this Sci-fi classic for quite some time. Earlier this year, I read Rendezvous with Rama, and I really enjoyed it. Clarke wrote a short story called “Sentinel” in 1948 which was published as “The Sentinel of Eternity” in 1951. Stanley Kubrick really liked the story and wanted to collaborate with Clarke and make the 2001: A Space Odyssey movie script. Clarke had been working on the book and wanted to publish it before the movie, but the movie was released first, and people saw the book as mere novelization of a film. The work remains a classic nonetheless in the realm of science fiction. I listened to this work on Audio rather than reading the text.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne 

9781509827886journey to the centre of the earth_2_jpg_247_400I had to return to this sci-fi classic when I realized I didn’t own a copy and came across a beautiful edition of it from Macmillan. I wrote an in-depth review of it HERE. Axel (the narrator and main character) 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 Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman

imagesThis book was a wonderful experience. I actually spent two months reading it in a personal book club with someone very special to me, and it was the first time in a long time that I read a book at such a slow pace (five chapters per week). The book follows Tom and Isabel who have a difficult past because of the War (WWI) and they fall in love, and move on an isolated island where they take care of a Lighthouse for the Commonwealth. Isabel has three miscarriages and one day, a boat washes up on shore, with a dead body and a living baby. I wrote a much more detailed review HERE. 

 

The Collector by John Fowles 

18892522The Collector (1963) is so far my #1 read of the year. I love love love it. It was a weird hybrid of John Burnside’s The Dumb House (1997) and Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) both works I enjoyed immensely in the past. The previous two works mentioned had a few things which made them lacking. The first was the amount of “coincidences” that were almost too convenient, and the second were the several homicides…which were also too convenient. Lolita was a child (though cringe-worthy, her age had its literary devices and significance), and Burnside’s woman lead was already abused by so many, that she almost appeared in the story to conveniently produce the main character’s linguistic experiment. Fowles works in this novel with a woman who is a capable adult, and shows us her point of view, as well as that of her kidnapper/oppressor. The plot, if you have not inferred from my rambles, is: a man kidnaps woman who fascinates him and keeps her in a cabin in the woods. It deals with the depths that make men like Humbert Humbert and Clegg the way they are, and why they do the things they do, but without the completion of the sexual act, which makes it ten times creepier for some reason.  There is a lot of complexity to this novel and I will write a proper review very soon. This book deserves a proper analysis. I promise I will be a lot more coherent in my review. It’s already entered my all-time favourites, and I am looking for Fowles’s backlist.