I’ve been keeping busy here out in the prairies. Work and children and the ever-evolving news cycle, which is so horrific at this point that I’m not even going to make vague references to prove the fact that I am a qualifiably Engaged Person, and you’ll just have to trust me that I’m reading the news and yes it’s destroying my soul in the appropriate proportion.

But I’ve also been reading. More than usual because, well, what can you do?

And I’m missing the library. Let’s clarify something: “browsing” the “shelves” of your library app is not the same thing as browsing real library shelves. And while I am fairly open minded about what constitutes “literature” or even “books” I will never think of an app as having the ability to mimic that magical feeling of coming across a binding that jumps out at you IRL.

I’m not sure we’ve proven the existence of actual human pheromones, but book pheromones I’m totally on board with.

So the “shelves” of the “library” (ie: Libby) is where I spend a lot of my mind-numbing phone time lately, and it has not been a wholly satisfying experience.

I’ve come across some interesting reads, and a lot of “oh, wait, haven’t I heard about her somewhere?” finds, but I have yet to form that kind of love-at-first-pageturn connection that comes with the real library.

Case in point: The Themes Files (Sleeping Gods, Waking Gods, Only Human) by Quebec writer Sylvain Neuvel. These books all centre around a massive robot, which turns out to have been left on Earth, in pieces spread throughout the planet, by an alien species over three thousand years ago. The story follows the characters who assemble her–Themis is a massive lady robot with major potential as a weapon of mass destruction–and learn how she works. However–as one might expect–this discovery sets off a fateful chain of events that leads to, essentially, the end of the world as we know it.

Yes, it was an odd series to read, during “the times”…

The fact that I found a) the storyline and concept both to be strong, b) the project to be fairly well researched as a whole, and c) some of the philosophical questions posed to be compelling, yet d) did not like these books very much, is perhaps an issue of format, more than anything. I wish I had listened to the audio versions, instead of reading the ebooks, because nearly the entirety of all three novels are written as dialogue, with a few journal entries and news articles spread throughout. They would be fabulous as radio plays, and actually reminded me a lot of my beloved Dr. Who radio dramas.

They’re going to make amazing action movies. Maybe by a smaller independent studio who can figure out a way to keep the artistic integrity, and ditch a few of the big alien robot battles in favour of some of the more intimate spaces–labs, bedrooms, robot interiors.

Francine Prose, Mister Monkey;
HarperCollins, 2016

My Francine Prose kick continues with Mister Monkey, which was fantastic. In this quirky novel, told through multiple perspectives, Mister Monkey is the titular character of a children’s book-turned-off-off-off-off-Broadway musical. Each chapter of the book follows someone who is somehow connected to the production–either its actors, director, or audience members. If I had to sum up one general theme of the book, it is the wide gap between who you think people are and who they really are.

NO! scratch that. It’s kind of that, but it’s more that people are exactly the way you think they are, but that they have some very compelling reasons for being this way. And also that they themselves never quite understand how others see them.
So actually–as with A Changed Man–the main theme is really the disconnect between oneself and the world.

Margot, for example, who begins the book, is an aging actress who is feeling really glum about how she went from being an award-winning young actress playing some of

Chekhov’s greatest characters to being a farcically attired attorney for a primate. She has no idea that she is actually kind of beautiful. But she does know that many other people don’t like her. The disconnect is that she thinks they don’t like her for the same reasons she doesn’t like herself, when in fact, they have entirely different reasons, that have more to do with their own insecurities.

Anyway, it’s also an absolutely hilarious book, and never not for one moment boring. The love and care that Prose has for her characters is astounding. She’s the kind of author that you can tell is not just a “keen observer of the human condition” but a fully fledged and passionate participant in humanity.

Which, if I’m being honest, is a refreshing change from all the detachment that is so common in this generation of literary writers. Compare this to, say, a Sally Rooney, (which is my closest-to-hand comparison, since I just read a couple of hers) whose detachment and almost clinical observation of her characters is so striking. It’s the intellectualization of humans vs. the deep understanding that can come with great intellect.

Magic for Liars, Sarah Gailey; MacMillan, 2019

I also listened to Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, which was super entertaining. Ivy Gamble is contracted to solve a murder that occurred on the campus of the magic school where her sister Tabitha is a well-respected instructor. This assignment brings out all the unresolved tensions of their relationship that mainly revolve around the fact that Tabitha is magic, while Ivy is “normal” and that their mother died when they were teenagers and Ivy bore the brunt of that loss within the family.

The audiobook presented me with the opposite of my Themis Files problem, in that I should have read this as a book. An actual book with pages and such. Despite the narrator being perfectly well cast, my ears could not get on board with the Bogey-influenced Private Investigator voice. The whole “a dame walked into my office as I was guzzling down the last dregs of the bottle” tone worked super well at the beginning of the story, and I was really into the portrayal of a woman PI, which in some ways embraces and in some ways subverts the established “private dick” tropes. But once Ivy reached the grounds of the elite magical high school, and then starts up a relationship with one of the other teachers, it didn’t really fit her anymore.

Oh, this book did make me realize a super cool trick that writers do when they’re following a detective who is solving a case, but they also need said detective–supposedly, a brilliant mind with keen powers of observation–to NOT know something. And it is this: they establish very specific character-driven blind spots so that we, the readers, can know things that the detective cannot. This happens a lot in Sherlock Holmes, and obviously it’s up to Watson to have that second pair of eyes. But in this book, the way it played out was that Ivy kept missing fairly basic things, that the reader would probably be able to figure out, and then later would facepalm and think, “Ohhh, that’s because my issues with my sister and our dead mother. Riiiiiiiiiiiight. Stuuupid.”

Ok, as a little bonus, I gotta include the video of this CRAZYPANTS art installation / stop motion animation that I ran across while researching something totally different. This film is apparently a tale of male friendship, told over many years (I am fascinated by male friendship–how do you dudes even function?) and is so strange and eery. So, voilà, with no comment at all, because I have not processed it or thought about it in the least, Graeme Patterson’s SECRET CITADEL:

But if you, reader, have any thoughts, PLEASE SHARE. Would love to discuss. What’s going on here?

Review: The Rules of Magic

hoffman rules of magic
Simon & Schuster, October 2017

To begin, I was wary, as one often is when an author revisits a beloved book so many years later. But let me say up front, for those of you who might also be a bit hesitant about going back to the Owens family two decades after Practical Magic, that Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, The Rules of Magic, a prequel to her mid-90’s hit, is stunning. In fact, it is probably better than the original. (Though, I should interject here and say maybe I’m not the most best person to make that claim, since I always secretly preferred the movie version of Practical Magic already, based, if nothing else, on the phenomenal casting and the addition of a fantastic lady-powered-PTA-turned-makeshift-coven scene at the end.)

The Rules of Magic follows sisters Franny and Jet (who turn into “the aunts” of Practical Magic) as well as their brother Vincent, romping through New York City of the 1960’s and 70’s, discovering their family’s long-hidden secrets and creating a few skeletons of their own for the Owen’s closet. The novel deals quite closely with the famous “curse” explored in the earlier novel, this being that no Owens woman can fall in love, or the man she loves will soon be tragically (and usually quickly) killed. The source of this curse, as family legend has it, was their ancestor Maria Owens, who was burned as a witch by the man she loved and whose child she bore, none other than (actual person) John Hathorne, notoriously sadistic witch hunter of Salem circa the beginning of the 18th century.

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Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent

BigGreenTent_F15.inddUsually, I cannot abide the claim that a book is “like a love letter to” another book. The expression rarely makes any real sense. And it strikes me as an unnecessarily flowery way to say that one book is like another, or influenced by another, or otherwise responding to another book in some way.

But in this case, there is absolutely no other way to describe The Big Green Tent, the latest novel of contemporary Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya, than as a love letter to Russian literature. It is exactly that. It is wonderfully, whimsically, beautifully that.

To read this book is to be stricken around every turn by the ghosts of great writers haunting the pages. It’s as if, in every punctuated pause in the prose, you can hear the whispers of an entire tradition. It is Tolstoy. It is Pasternak. It is Brodsky. If that sounds very masculine, that’s because part of what Ulitskaya is dealing with here is the overall maleness of Russia’s literary history. But there is quite a bit of Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva here as well. And her female characters are, in part, a response to the lack of convincing women in the pages of classic Russian literature. (Not only in this book but particularly in previous works like 2002’s Medea and Her Children, one of my absolute favorite books.)

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Motherhood: A Reading List

Appropriately, a helpful list of books covering the subject of motherhood was published the other day…on my due date, in fact… (Which has now past. Clock is ticking people. And seriously, don’t get me started…) I was in the middle of drafting my own list (assuming I am blessed with the kind of magic baby that sleeps every once in a while so that I can keep up with my current pile of novels…) and though there was some overlap, I wasn’t terribly interested in non-fiction. To be fair, I am very rarely interested in the world of non-fiction as it is. But it’s also worth considering how little motherhood makes it into fiction, in any way that is not purely metaphoric. The Oedipal relationship, the Ogresse in the woods, the Wicked Step-Mother, the GoodKindMother who is usually killed off fairly soon…

Very few people seem to really explore things like ambivalence, terror, passion, yearning… That is to say, things that mothers themselves feel rather than things that mothers represent to everyone around them.

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what is an ‘invention’ ?

I’m still here, working away at the Bach Two-Part Inventions in a race against the baby clock.

And the other day, while trudging through # 5 in E min (which, okay, is kind of difficult…ugh…stay in a *&^% key, Bach!), I realized that I had never encountered ‘invention’ as a musical term anywhere except in reference to this specific collection of short pieces. It did not, as far as I knew, designate a particular form, although, loosely, there seemed to contain an exposition of a melody and then short variations on that theme following two/three different trains of thought, and then a recap at the end.

(Recaps are the Baroque equivalent of a mic drop.)

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Time in Two Parts

two part time

“I’ve recently started to finish learning Bach’s Two-Part Inventions.”

This awkward sentence nudged itself into some of my written correspondence this morning, and I gagged a little when I reread it before sending. My first impulse was to emphatically land my finger on the delete key, and to retype something a bit more polished sounding. I’m revisiting the Bach Inventions, in the hope of finally learning them all. Nice, right?*

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Isidore Okpewho’s Myth in Africa (1983)

Some more Okpewho for you today…no introduction needed…

photo (6)

Myth in Africa

Isidore Okpewho

London: Cambridge, 1983


Here, Okpewho takes the opportunity to drive in the point that he concentrated on in the previous work The Epic in Africa (1979), which is that the practices of oral literature are not solely related to religious ritual. He cites well known and respected anthropologist Ruth Finnegan, who has done quite a bit of work in Africa but, according to Okpewho, still gets it wrong. (And I gotta say, I’m starting to have some stray thoughts of possible misogyny in Okpewho’s work. How are there NO WOMEN in this whole book, despite the fact that Harold Scheub’s extremely influential work concentrates HUGELY on women storytellers in South Africa…? Here we have the ONE female scholar cited, and she is swiftly dismissed. Just saying…it’s something to think about…) Anyway, this beginning put a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, because he seems here to be setting Finnegan up as a kind of straw (wo)man. In fact, these words he seems to feed her are not even her words. The statement she makes, which Okpewho finds so objectionable, is actually someone else’s, with whom Finnegan is only tentatively disagreeing.

Why am I mentioning this? Because I think we don’t often enough take the time to really consider the prejudices and the blind spots of our authors. (And by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’…)

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Isidore Okpewho’s The Epic in Africa (1979)

After a fair bit of study during my undergrad and MA (the latter with Harold Scheub who has recently retired), I had almost entirely forgotten the fascinating body of work dedicated to African oral literature.

Oral? Literature? Did I hear you right?

Yes. Yes you did. Because despite not being written down, this rich body of tales, legends, myths, epics, folktales and fables are considered “texts” by those who study them.

Cool thing about oral literature? It has no definitive edition. So it’s like the difference between reading Constance Garnett’s Anna Karenin and Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Anna Karenina. (I prefer Garnett, to be totally honest, if for nothing else than the way she translates Russian peasant speech into London cockney.) Except instead of a different word or phrase here and there that leave academics in fisticuffs, vast swaths of the story can change. There are people who spend oodles of their time (like entire academic careers) comparing these different versions of a story. Frankly, that is not my thing. That is far too frustrating. But I do find the questions arising from these different oral texts fascinating.

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self-imposed leisure reading

Okay, I did it.

I wrote a dissertation prospectus and passed the defense, which means that in order to be crowned DOCTOR, I have but one tiny, little, no-big-deal hoop to jump through called ‘writing a dissertation’…

I also survived the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association in New York City. (ACLANYC2014) These are some things I learned…

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this week in books: histoire du Sénégal

This week was largely devoted to brushing up on my Senegalese history. I’m revising an article – crossing my t’s and dotting my i’s (as well as changing most of my which’s to that’s…good lord did I not go to middle school?) and I realized that while the literary premises were sound, the paper was really lacking context. (And by “I realized” I mean “my adviser – the fiercest editor I’ve ever met – suggested that I needed to put all the literary pish-posh into some kind of cohesive historical framework”…) So I went about kicking myself for the thousandth time since I began working on my ‘dissertation project’ proper for having wasted my intellectual youth coming up with clever ideas instead of cracking open a dang history book, and then I hit the library.

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