Book Review: “NW” (2012) by Zadie Smith

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Willesden is the setting of both this book and Smith’s debut novel, “White Teeth.”

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(I wish my rating system allowed for a more nuanced rating, like 3.5 stars. This book is flawed, but still really great. More on that later.)

 

A couple of chapters into NW, I had a revelation. “Mrs Dalloway! If On Beauty was a modern take on Howards End, then this must be Zadie Smith’s spin on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway! I’ve got the ‘hook’ for my review!” One quick Google search later, I sank back into my seat. Turns out the rest of the world had had that same idea when the book first came out in 2012, and that Smith had actually discussed Woolf as a direct influence on her book:

I was just trying to find a way to be adventurous and do something new in the writing while still holding on to the things that I can do well, [...] So [Virginia Woolf is] just a good example of a forward-thinking and yet consistently humane writer, and just a great female modernist. An old inspiration returned to me at the right moment.

Well. So much for my spark of brilliance.

…Anyway.

Major plot spoiler towards the end of the review.

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Reading List: Tricksters

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Painting by Jan Matejko Stańczyk.

The trickster is an archetype that appeared in the myths of many different cultures and is still popular with writers today. These characters are rule-breakers and agents of chaos; they are often animals (e.g. foxes, crows, coyotes), travellers, or even shapeshifters able to cross boundaries between worlds. For this reason they sometimes function as a guide or messenger, like the Greek god Hermes. Characteristically, the trickster is clever and creative. They generally lie to obtain sex, food, or just to get out of something they don’t want to do, using their wit to outsmart of the Man/the Establishment/the gods/what have you.

Since they are so unpredictable and paradoxical, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what the perfect definition of a trickster is. As Lewis Hyde puts it in Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art:

[The] best way to describe trickster is to say simply that the boundary is where he will be found – sometimes drawing the line, sometimes crossing it, sometimes crossing it, sometimes erasing or moving it, but always there, the god of the threshold in all its forms.

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Book Review: “The Night Circus” (2011) by Erin Morgenstern

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Cover art.

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Now that National Novel Writing Month has officially kicked off, I thought it might be nice to take a look at a novel that started out as a NaNoWriMo project and later became an international bestseller. In 2011 Erin Morgenstern wrote in her NaNo pep talk:

The circus was my variation on the wise and ancient NaNo wisdom: when in doubt, just add ninjas. I had this plodding, Edward Gorey-esque thing with mysterious figures in fur coats being mysterious and doing very little else. I got tremendously bored with it because nothing was happening so I sent the otherwise boring characters to a circus. And it worked. I ended up tossing that beginning and focusing purely on the circus. An imaginary location I created out of desperation expanded and changed and became its own story over many non-November months of revisions and more revisions and now it is all grown-up and book-shaped and published and bestselling. And it all started with NaNoWriMo.

Brilliant. Bring on the metaphorical ninjas! Read more

Book Review: “The Sorrows of Young Werther” (1774) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Still from Young Goethe in Love (2010). Note how Goethe is wearing the iconic Werther costume.

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The Sorrows of Young Werther is one of those novels that I had encountered a number of times in my assigned reading for university, but never found the time to read myself. By the time I finally decided to fill in this gap in my literary knowledge, I already knew that the protagonist was basically the quintessential Romantic hero – emotional, artistic, and, of course, desperately in love with a girl he can never have – which meant that this could only end in tears (and probably death).

Werther did not disappoint in that regard… But maybe I kind of wanted it to.

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Book Review: “Where Am I Now?” (2016) by Mara Wilson

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Picture Credit: Huffington Post.

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When I was a little girl, Matilda was my hero. I read the book until it started to fall apart, I had listened to the audio book so many times that I could recite entire paragraphs with the exact intonation the narrator used, and I would watch the movie any time I caught it on TV. Mara Wilson, the girl who played Matilda, was not as scruffy as I had always imagined the character to look when I read the book (too sweet, especially with that ribbon in her perfectly combed hair), but I still sighed with relief every time she got her happy ending.

(I also cried a lot when I listened to the West End cast recording of the Matilda musical for the first time, but that’s a story for another time.)

Years later, Mara Wilson rushed back into my world. She had a hilarious cameo on The Nostalgia Critic’s review of A Simple Wish, became a recurring guest star on Welcome to Night Vale as the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home, and before I knew it I was scrolling through her Facebook feed, laughing at her posts. She’s funny! I’m so glad she’s funny! I found myself wondering why she had disappeared from the public eye all those years ago. One minute she was a star, and the next she was gone. What happened?

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Book Review: “Grief Is The Thing With Feathers” by Max Porter

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Artwork by Kelly Blevins.

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“Grief is the thing with feathers,” eh? I see what you did there.

Read me, he said.

Just because the title grabbed me? I don’t think so. Have you seen my list of books to read? Who wrote you?

Max Porter.

I’ve never heard that name before.

I’m his first book.

Crow is an immaculate conception, a virgin birth (not that Max Porter is a virgin, although he might be, you never know).

I’ve never heard of you and I have no idea what you are. I bought three books this week that I want to read – forget it.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

I can’t. I am crushed by the weight of all the books I haven’t read. Go away.

Rat-a-tat-tat. Knock. Knock.

No.

But I’m really short. Look at me. You could finish me this afternoon if you wanted to.

Stop.

Rat-a-tat-tat. BANG. BANG.

FINE. (I throw my twenty-euro bill on the counter like it has personally offended me.)

No need for that kind of violence.

Shut up.

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Book Review: “Books v. Cigarettes” (2008) by George Orwell

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Books v. Cigarettes is the second volume of essays written by George Orwell in Penguin’s Great Ideas series that I’ve read – the first one being Some Thoughts On the Common Toad (review here). Between the two, Books v. Cigarettes is easily the superior selection. As you would expect of Orwell, there is some talk of politics and totalitarianism, but he also writes about working at a bookstore and his time as a young boy at St Cyprian’s school for boys. …That said, the essay about his school days still ends up being about class differences, snobbery, and indoctrination, because of course it does. Orwell has a lot of feelings about social mobility, you guys.

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Book Review: “Slade House” (2015) by David Mitchell

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Slade House initially seems like a typical horror story: an old house that is located in a place it cannot possibly be, strange disappearances, and a pair of mysterious twins with a horrible secret. However, since this is a horror story written by David Mitchell, there is more to Slade House than meets the eye at first. If you are at all familiar with his work, you know that all of his novels are connected in some way. There is an overlapping mythology, including recurring characters and concepts. Slade House takes place in this shared universe as well; you could even say that it is a missing intermezzo to 2014′s The Bone Clocks. As some of you may remember, I had some issues with that one; it was too long, too baggy, too confusing. Thankfully, it seems that Mitchell has learned from these mistakes; Slade House shines exactly where The Bone Clocks struggled – but it’s not quite there yet.

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