Long ago, I made it my mission to read every Neil Gaiman book I could find. So when I saw the first trailer for the Starz adaptation of American Gods, I knew it was way past the time when I should have read the book. Luckily, I was able to read it through before beginning the show, and now, it’s a definite must read for everyone interested in Americana, fantasy, mythology, and just plain good literature.
Hey all! Today I’m talking about a book I’d wanted to read for years. It’s called The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, and it was on a list of bestsellers/must-read books for the year of 2012, which was a hell of a lot of time ago. It had been on my Amazon list for years, and I just received it as a Christmas present.
Anyone who has read this blog before knows I am obsessed with historical fiction. It may be my favorite genre ever, and one that I have been reading since I was in eighth grade. I think that good, accurate historical fiction is the best way to learn history, and is also one of the most entertaining kind of novels because you learn more than you would from textbooks, and anyway, the romantic in me absolutely loves imagining and reading about previous eras. Who doesn’t?
And in keeping with this year’s resolution to shop a whole lot less, read more, and most important, read the books I already have, when I was given a whole, lazy Saturday at home one weekend, I reached into my shelves and drew out a book I bought in 2012, one that I hadn’t ever opened before, and one that is by one of my favorite authors: Anya Seton.
Anya Seton was a successful, bestselling historical fiction novelist in the 1950s, known best for her works Katherine and The Winthrop Woman. But she also wrote a slimmer, young-adult novel named The Mistletoe and Sword. At 250 pages, this book was the perfect size to devour in a day. Here’s what it’s about.
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Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.
Thus ends William Makepeace Thackeray’s saucy, sarcastic, insightful novel about the citizens of Vanity Fair, a place of appearances, wealth, social status, and hypocrisy. The denizens of this part of Vanity Fair are the incorrigible Becky Sharp, the naive and kind Amelia Sedley, the steadfast and honorable William Dobbin, the vain Joseph Sedley, scoundrel George Osborne, and the dim-witted gambler Rawdon Crawley—among a host of others, a whole cast of vivid characters that the narrator, himself a character in the novel, eviscerates at every turn. I’ve written briefly before about my first impressions starting this novel, and now that I’ve finished, I have to say my biggest takeaway is my varying loyalties and sympathies to the two female characters in the book, who are extreme opposites: Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley.
Rebecca Sharp is the ultimate female anti-hero: a social climber, manipulative, dishonest by default, a terrible mother, a gambler, and a cheat. Her most famous description/line is:
…Though Miss Rebecca Sharp has twice had occasion to thank Heaven, it has been, in the first place, for ridding her of some person whom she hated, and secondly, for enabling her to bring her enemies to some sort of perplexity or confusion; neither of which are very amiable motives for religious gratitude…Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist…This is certain, that if the world neglected Miss Sharp, she never was known to have done a good action in behalf of anybody…”
My second big bad classic that I’ll be audio-reading on my hellish commute is Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray. I attempted to read this book once before, when I was a junior in high school, and I’ve seen the movie half a dozen times, so I know the rough sketches of the characters, and I know (vaguely, since the movie changed bits) how it ends. So this book was sort of the perfect choice for my next audiobook, because despite the size of the book and the language, I can pay attention to it easily. Yay for multitasking!
In case you don’t know much about Vanity Fair, it was written in the 1860s and set in the Regency period. It’s a funny, sarcastic, critical, and scathing look at social norms and social politics at the time. At the center of the story are two women: the angelic and generous Amelia Sedley from a merchant’s family, and the shrewd and calculating Becky Sharp, a governess and social climber. Thackeray named this book the “novel without a hero” because every single one of his characters is ridiculous in some way, and their flaws are expounded upon and laughed at for chapters at a time.
But the thing I’ve found most striking about this novel so far is that even though Becky can be deplorable, he treats her with understanding and a sort of grudging respect. The narrator explains that Becky has had to be an adult since she was eight years old, and as an orphan, has to break societal norms in order to build the life she wants.
Ho boy. This book was surely the perfect one to read to pull me out of a reading rut. This is my third Neil Gaiman novel, and the first that truly chilled me to the bone. It’s much more serious and much less whimsical than his other stories I’ve read, but no less magical. The Ocean at the End of the Lane sparks some interesting questions about memory, childhood, and how adulthood morphs all of us. I would recommend this book to people of all ages.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins on a somber note: a middle-aged, divorced man returns to his Sussex home to attend a funeral, and in between the service and the luncheon, he finds himself driving to a spot he doesn’t realize until he gets there: an old farmhouse he used to know when he was a very small boy.
He sits by a pond at the edge of the land, and as he does, he remembers repressed memories from when he was seven years old, when an 11-year-old girl named Lettie Hempstock, whose family owned the farm, saved him from a dark, supernatural evil. His memories are triggered by the fact that Lettie called the small pond an “ocean.”
Through the eyes of the narrator, we get to know him as a shy, sensitive seven-year-old who uses books and stories to escape from everyday life. But the whole of the narrative is dominated by the (nameless) main character’s experience dealing with an evil being, who calls herself Ursula Monkton. He first comes into contact with the being when he wakes up choking on a coin, and learns from his enigmatic new friend Lettie Hempstock that a supernatural, devious force is trying to “give people what they want” and is doing it in a way that’ll harm humans.
In my quest to learn about the insular world of ballet, I picked up a few books that were included on a list of the best books about ballet. This one by Toni Bentley was not on it, and that is a travesty.
The book is called Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal. It isn’t a novel; it’s more of a memoir/diary hybrid. Toni Bentley was a dancer in the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet in the 80s, and so she gave a firsthand look at the world of ballet that I found so much more enriching than any novel could be.
This book is much different from the previous ballet book I’d read about the “inside life” of a professional NYC ballerina because this one was less dramatized and sentimental—understandable considering it was not a novel at all, but a journal.
In the beginning of the book, Bentley begins by describing how anguished and torn she was about dedicating her life to ballet, because that much dedication to a difficult craft means having to sacrifice most of the things normal people enjoy, things like an education and a social life, not to mention decent health and relative freedom from the imminent threat of injury. Oh, and financial security and job skills, two things that most professional dancers don’t have.
My diary bore witness to the opposite, far more prevalent scenario: the transient joys—doing thirty-two fouettés ending with a double, finding the perfect pair of toe shoes, living in a world saturated with classical music—and the endless angst of not being a star, of realizing I probably never would be a solo dancer despite having talent, opportunity, and that haunting dark shadow called potential. I felt deeply committed, and yet totally powerless, to actualize my dream—which was never to be a star per se, just to be intoxicatingly beautiful as a dancer, for my passion to physically manifest. No small feat, but every dancer’s challenge.
Through the very poetic words of Toni Bentley’s nighttime, often post-performance musings, the New York City Ballet company in the 80s comes to vivid life. Balanchine himself, called the father of American ballet, is a “character” in the narrative, appearing as a benefactor, father figure, and a god. Balanchine’s vision was the one that Bentley and all her colleagues and contemporaries served, perhaps too blindly.
Through Toni’s eyes, we learn about the inner workings of the ballet world, and the narrative is free of the ballet cliches that so often riddle pop culture stories. It’s clear how much Bentley loves ballet, it’s almost as if she has sacrificed her identity, her agency, and her happiness to serve it. At one point, she compares herself to a brush that choreographers like Balanchine use to “paint” their ballet. For the art, she’s willing to let herself be used (and discarded) like a tool. But she does it because she loves it so desperately.
Truly, this book brought ballet to life before my eyes like no other book had done before. I learned that there is a stark, vivid, almost ironic contrast between the beauty we see onstage during a ballet, and the immense physical pain dancers can endure. Inside those pointe shoes are often bleeding, mangled feet, and the rest of a dancer’s body takes a hell of a beating, too. But all of that, to a dancer, is a sacrifice to the art. At one point in the book Bentley writes simply, “Dancing is a commitment that refutes real life.”
And perhaps that’s why I’m so interested in ballet—because dancers occupy a very different reality than we do, lead lives that would be unrecognizable to “pedestrians,” and they do it all with the stoicism and dedication of a monk (a very injured monk). And then, what we see onstage looks utterly perfect to the observer, and their life’s work has been accomplished. Maybe.
The book Lair of Dreams, the sequel to The Diviners by Libba Bray, was a long time coming. But since I’ve been reading Libba Bray since I was 12 all the way back in 2003, I knew her penchant for pushing back deadlines and making fans really earn the next installment in a series/trilogy. But this one, like her others, was worth the wait.
Libba Bray is the author of a book series that changed my life when I was a young teenager: A Great and Terrible Beauty and its two sequels, books set in Victorian England and featuring a female character with connections to a supernatural world of power that she can control. Bray’s new series follows along the same lines.
Set in 1920s New York, a world of flappers and speakeasies, the Harlem Renaissance and Ziegfeld girls, The Diviners is about a group of teenagers who have psychic or supernatural abilities. The second installment follows eight different main characters, each with a rich backstory, strong characterizations, a different “ability,” and distinct voices.
There’s Evie O’Neill, the quintessential flapper and an object reader. She loves the high life, and she loves being the famous Sweetheart Seer, her radio personality. There’s Theta Knight, a sultry Ziegfeld girl with a dark past. Henry DuBois, a dreamwalker looking for his lost love, a boy named Louis he left behind in New Orleans. Memphis Campbell, a poet from Harlem who can heal with one touch. Ling Chan, a resident of Chinatown and a victim of polio who finds solace in her dream world, where she can do anything she likes.
And more…each unique, each interesting. It’s truly a feat to have such a varied cast, all of them main characters, all of them with a different voice, all of them as interesting as the last. As episodic as the book is, it never feels fragmented, and I never was annoyed to turn the page and find that this or that character was now the focus. I liked them all.
Oh, and these books are also literally the scariest books I’ve ever read. They’re horror stories at heart, so in the last one there was a ghostly murderer killing people and stealing body parts so he could build himself a body. I didn’t sleep for the entire time I read it.
This installment is slightly less horrifying, but just as gruesome. When the earliest (shut down) subway station in New York is accidentally discovered by a trio of workmen deep in the bowels of New York, a ghost is awakened who enters the dreams of its victims, showing them their deepest desires and then using that dream to sap their life force. The “sleeping sickness,” as the terrified New Yorkers call it, causes its victims to enter into an unending sleep while they burn from the inside out. Scorch marks appear on their bodies as they dream and dream—until they die.
Oh, and the ghost is also snatching people and turning them into monsters with razor-like teeth, horrifying howls and screams, and jaws that unhinge to attack their victims. Imagine Gollum but ten times scarier.
Despite its horror, this book is still very much character driven. Evie especially is a character who goes through many “growth spurts,” and each character has to face an inner demon as important as the physical ones that threaten to kill them and everyone they love. Memphis struggles to be a poet and has to deal with racism in 1920s New York. Ling Chan lives in Chinatown during the height of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and also faces racism. Theta deals with her murky and violent past, Henry copes with hiding and also accepting his homosexuality, and so on. The book is so rich, steeped in history and social issues, and the characterization is never sacrificed for the sensational.
I’m seriously impressed with the writing, as well. Since 2003, Libba Bray has become a truly talented wordsmith, even more so than she was.
“Every city is a ghost.
New buildings rise upon the bones of the old so that each shiny steel beam, each tower of brick carries within it the memories of what has gone before, an architectural haunting. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of these former incarnations in the awkward angle of a street or filigreed gate, an old oak door peeking out from a new facade, the plaque commemorating the spot that was once a battleground, which became a saloon and is now a park.”
At the heart of this book is New York, a rich tapestry that becomes a character in and of itself. New York fiction is perhaps my favorite “genre.”
I really don’t have much criticism of this YA novel. I think it’s a must read, for all ages. It’s epic, important, full of truth and beauty, and just as striking as the first book I read by Bray, about 12 years ago.
Like so many others who aren’t esconced in the world of ballet, I was first introduced to Misty Copeland when her Under Armour commercial aired. I was always fascinated with ballet, and I was mesmerized by Misty’s elegance and strength in that video. I didn’t know anything else about her, but a quick Google search as a result of seeing that video made it clear that she was a force to be reckoned with in the world of ballet.
So when I found myself getting more and more interested in learning about ballet, one of the first books I bought was her memoir, Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.
You probably know the headlines of Misty’s life: that she was one of only three black ballerinas ever promoted to soloist in the American Ballet Theatre, and that as of June 30 of this year, the first black ballerina to be promoted to principal, a huge achievement that has made her a star.
But the memoir gives readers a in-depth look at the inner life of this larger-than-life ballet rock star, to her anxiety-filled childhood, her relationships with her five brothers and sisters, the many men who played the role of father in her life, and the people who discovered that at 13, she was a ballet prodigy. Seriously—she stood en pointe after only eight weeks in training. It takes most dancers years, and they have to start at, like, 3 years old.
The most notable thing about this book is Misty’s voice. She has faced unimaginable adversity in her life. When she was a child, her mother would pick up and move her large family every few years, always running away from a bad marriage or a bad boyfriend. They moved from husband’s house to husband’s house, finally settling down into a shabby motel when Misty was a teenager.
When she was 13-15, she lived with the director of her ballet school, because her mother wanted her to stop ballet, and Misty refused. But at 15, when Misty filed for emancipation, her mother took Misty’s guardians to court and the little girl who loved to dance and hated attention was on display for the world to know her secrets.
And that’s not even touching upon the difficulties Misty faced as one of the only African American members of one of the world’s most prestigious dance companies, as well as her many painful injuries. Throughout the book, I read about Misty’s life in her own voice, and it’s always graceful, loving, compassionate, and forgiving. Even though so many people failed her, insulted her, and rejected her, she never shows an ounce of the bitterness I know I probably would have had in her situation. Misty came off as truly indomitable.
And she achieved her dream, as a principal dancer with ABT. I hope that one day soon I’ll be able to go to a ballet starring Misty. I live in the suburbs of New York, after all. 🙂
Check out her memoir even if you’re not at all interested in ballet, because you’ll probably be totally in love with Misty Copeland by the end.
second photo links to source