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A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I thought I was so behind in reading this novel or collection of linked short stories that reviewers have been raving about but when I finally got around to it, I realized that three of the first four chapters had been published as short stories in The New Yorker, so I wasn’t as behind as I had thought. Anyway, the feeling of being behind is a good way to come to the book, which is all about the passage of time — growing up, growing old, gaining perspective, losing your touch, falling behind, looking ahead.

You probably heard that A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan won the National Book Critics Circle Award this month.  If you haven’t read it already, why not?

In case your reasons for not reading it yet are the same as mine, here’s why they shouldn’t keep you from making the same mistake as me, i.e. not reading this right away:

  1. The title: If I had known that A Visit from the Goon Squad was a reference to an Elvis Costello song, the title would have been more appealing. Instead it made me think Mafia, and put me off.
  2. The theme: A Visit from the Goon Squad was described as about the “music industry“, a “rock and roll novel“, and as having lots of references to songs and artists that I figured I wouldn’t get. I probably did miss a lot of musical references but that’s OK. The story was about a lot more than music. And I did happen to grow up in the same musical era as the author, which was nice.
  3. The cover: i.e. a picture of a guitar. See #2 above.
  4. The form: Since the author herself admits in interviews that a novel’s being described as experimental doesn’t make her want to run out and read it immediately, I don’t feel so bad that I didn’t put A Visit from the Goon Squad at the top of my list because it was referred to as experimental so often.

Some other bloggers’ recent opinions:
Book-Drunk
Books I Done Read

Hungry Like the Woolf

The New York Times review of A Visit from the Goon Squad
The Washington Post review of A Visit from the Goon Squad

Becoming Jane Eyre

OK, there’s a new Jane Eyre movie out, and I’ve finally realized that I’ve never actually read Jane Eyre. It’s just that I’ve heard so often about Jane Eyre, the governess who falls in love with cold, old Mr. Rochester and discovers he has a mad wife hidden in the attic that it feels like I’ve read it. In fact, I had trouble remembering which Bronte sister wrote Jane Eyre and which, Wuthering Heights. One was by Charlotte and one by Emily, but which was which? (Poor Anne, the third sister — hardly anyone remembers her.)
But no more, because I’ve just read Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler, a short novel about Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte. The three Bronte sisters — rather plain, with little hope of marriage, and knowing they only had a monthly income as long as their father lived — send out their manuscripts of novels, stories, and poems to publisher after publisher under male pseudonyms. Despite their feverish writing and rewriting, the women’s hope of earning a living for themselves and their unemployable younger brother through their writing weakens with every rejection, until Charlotte’s success with Jane Eyre makes it seem suddenly possible but not wholly desirable.
Was it because my high school English teachers were all male that my impression of Jane Eyre was that it was essentially a Gothic romance and could be skipped?
I don’t plan on seeing Jane Eyre at the movies, although it does have Judi Dench in it, but I do plan on finally reading Jane Eyre, after reading about these literate women in Becoming Jane Eyre. Reading Becoming Jane Eyre isn’t like watching a period movie like Jane Eyre or a PBS mini-series about 19th-century women, so I don’t know how much lovers of historical fiction will like it; it’s more like a psychological, anatomy-of-a-writer-style docudrama.

Read The New York Times review of Becoming Jane Eyre here.
Read about Becoming Jane Eyre on other book blogs here:
As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves
Love Letters to the Library

Among Others by Jo Walton

Like many readers, I keep a list of books I eventually want to get to, but author Jo Walton mentions so many intriguing titles in Among Others, a novel in diary form, that they threaten to completely overwhelm my list.
Fifteen-year-old Morwenna, the narrator of Among Others, a novel in diary form, is an avid reader of novels, mostly science fiction and fantasy, but also historical ones set in Ancient Greece or Rome. With all the shout-outs to 1960s and 70s’ science fiction authors, like Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany, Among Others at times seems less like reading someone else’s diary, than like reading someone else’s reading diary. (If that still sounds interesting, then please keep reading this blog post. Otherwise, you can forget about Among Others, but you’ll miss out on a quasi-magical, quietly memorable coming-of-age story, if you do.)
While Morwenna, or Mor or Mori, as she is known, is grieving the death of her twin sister in an accident that she herself survived (with a badly injured leg), she runs away from her mother and is sent to live with her father and his older sisters — all strangers to her. Her father left when Mori was very young; he was removed from all of the wedding pictures and never spoken of by the family. Now, in the fall of 1979, Mori is so far removed from her childhood in Wales that when she says “You’re very English” to her three English aunts, they take it as a compliment.
Her aunts pack this strange, prickly, adolescent niece with her odd-sounding Welsh accent straight off to an all-girls English boarding school where everyone likes sports and no one except the school librarian reads anything beyond what is assigned. But Mori is even more strange than her limp and her reading addiction make her seem, because a.) she can see fairies; b.) her mother (crazy? a witch?) scares her half to death; and c.) she believes she can perform magic. Here’s Mori looking back on her childhood years with her twin sister:

It wasn’t that we didn’t know history. Even if you only count the real world, we knew more history than most people. We’d been taught about cavemen and Normans and Tudors. We knew about Greeks and Romans. We knew masses of personal stories about World War II. We even knew quite a lot of family history. It just didn’t connect to the landscape. And it was the landscape that formed us, that made us who we were as we grew in it, that affected everything. We thought we were living in a fantasy landscape when actually we were living in a science fictional one. In ignorance, we played our way through what the elves and giants had left us, taking the fairies’ possession for ownership. I named the dramroads after places in The Lord of the Rings when I should have recognised that they were from The Chrysalids.

When I saw Among Others reviewed on the things mean a lot blog, I added it to my to-read list, because it was a realistic novel with fantasy elements which appeals to me (see my post about The Magicians by Lev Grossman), because the things mean a lot librarian-blogger seems to like a lot of authors I also like (e.g. Connie Willis), and because she says: “This is a very quiet and understated novel, and it’s perhaps more about reading than about anything else.” It is quiet and understated; it’s also slow to build, with occasional short bursts of action and a lot of deliberately loose ends. (Also, a heads-up to potential male readers — however geeky, Mori is still a 15-year-old girl writing about her life, so you’ll have to deal with that.)
So, should you read Among Others or not? Maybe fantasy author Robin Hobb‘s blurb for the book says it best: “If you love science fiction and fantasy, if reading it formed your teen years, if you remember the magic you used to do, if you remember the absolute joy of first discovering those books, then read this.”

WWW Wednesdays

WWW: Wednesdays is hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

To play along just answer the following three questions in the comments or on your own blog:
*What are you currently reading?
*What did you just recently finish reading?
*What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently: I’m reading Among Others by Jo Walton. It’s a bookish book where the young schoolgirl telling the story mentions all the science fiction and fantasy books she’s reading while taking the magical elements in her own life for granted. I saw this mentioned on another blog; I’m not sure, but it might have been Sea of Books.

Recently Finished: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. This one’s bookish in a different sense, explaining how a illuminated Hebrew manuscript survived through wars and neglect from 15th-century Spain to present-day Sarajevo.

Reading Next: Planning to goof off a bit and relax over the weekend with Changeless, Gail Carriger‘s next book after Soulless. Vampires and werewolves mingle with polite London society. Funny and fun to read.

Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton

Some of the marketing of Mr. Toppit, a darkly comic first novel by an English author, led me to expect an element of fantasy in this story of Luke Hayman, a boy coming of age in the public eye as the alter-ego of Luke Hayseed, the intrepid young hero of his father’s children’s books who takes on the shadowy evil figure who rules the vast Darkwood looming behind Luke’s house. But this story is creepy in a non-supernatural way, with just about every dysfunctional human behavior — from celebrity worship and obsession with fantasy worlds to the more common substance abuse and forms of self-injury — making an appearance. Mr. Toppit will appeal more to readers of The Magicians by Lew Grossman, than to the readers of Harry Potter it seems to be marketed to. (For the creepiness of a ghost story, try The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.)
Luke’s father, Arthur Hayman, dies suddenly before finishing The Hayseed Chronicles. The Hayseed Chronicles is a series of relatively unknown children’s novels published by a struggling company in England run by an old family friend when word of mouth, helped by the American publicity machine, turn the books into a literary phenomenon and merchandising juggernaut much like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. At the end of Book 5, Mr. Toppit has emerged from the Darkwood for the first time, leaving readers speculating, writing academic papers, and obsessing over about the true nature of Mr. Toppit and the true meaning of why he comes. (The last sentence of Book 5 and the first sentence of Mr. Toppit: “And out of the Darkwood Mr. Toppit comes, and he comes not for you, or for me, but for all of us.”)
Like The Hayseed Chronicles, Mr. Toppit ends abruptly and leaves much for readers to speculate about. We learn little about Arthur Hayman, for example, and what he would have thought about the psychological damage he (unintentionally?) committed by using Luke as a character in his books and by leaving his daughter Rachel out completely. The father/author is as shadowy a figure as Mr. Toppit himself.

Read the November 19, 2010 New York Times review of Mr. Toppit here.

Brockton Public Library Reader’s Advisory has moved.

The Brockton Public Library Reader’s Advisory blog has become the Bay State Reader’s Advisory blog. Please move over with us to talk about books and audiobooks.

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