Posts in Books
The Power

I’ve been wanting to read The Power since before it was written. Ever since I lived and traveled abroad for the first time, years ago, and found out how limited I am and how threatening everything is. I can never let down my guard. My only defense is avoiding danger to begin with. 

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I have a bright red trenchcoat. I don’t usually wear bright colors but I got it for free and it’s cute. The number of comments I get from men on the street just about doubles when I wear it, and I remember why I wear black and gray. If I could give those men a bit of a zap, just to let them know that what they’re saying to me is fucked up, to not let them get away with it, that would make a huge difference in my day and in my wardrobe.

I used to think I was alone in this feeling, that I had to explain to people what happened and what it felt like to be harassed on the street. Now, it is known, and things are beginning to change. But to what extent? How much power has lain dormant in women's bodies, yet to be discovered?

The Power did for me what the new Wonder Woman movie did for everyone else. Some people were moved to tears in the first five minutes of the film. I was not. It didn’t strike me that way. She was beautiful and thin, basically wearing a swimsuit the whole time, and a superhero descended from a god.

In The Power, all the women in the word discover that they contain the power of electricity in their bodies. They basically all become superheroes—fully clothed, regular-looking women superheroes.

This book didn’t make me cry. But it made me feel empowered. And then it turned that empowerment on its head. For the first hudered pages or so, it was uber feminist —so much so that some of my freinds (who are feminist) couldn’t get through it. It was too obvious, too cliche. I noticed that, too, but was so thrilled by thought of being filled with power myself, how I would love to walk through the world without fear, that I plowed on, hungry for more zaps.

But, around the hundred page mark, things start to go sour. What do people do when they find themselves suddenly in possession of considerable amounts of power? They use it. They use it to feel safe after being vulnerable for so long. And they can never have enough power, never enough safety.

Reality gets turned on its head. Alderman considers every possible ramification of this power, and the result is that the world is the same, but opposite.

The narrative unfolds masterfully and I was kept guessing—in every scene, I knew there was more going on, more that would happen, and I didn’t know what. Alderman knows what information she is withholding and what information she will bestow upon the reader. She has full command of the story.

In a way, this is the story of The Handmaid’s Tale, but modernized. What seems simple in the beginning is endlessly complicated. That’s how I like my literature: exploring the gray, taking no sides, sharing the best and the worst of all perspectives. And, of course, examining the past and future and how the current narrative nestles in between them.

I could offer criticism, but I think that what the novel achieves is too important for me to want to share anything more than the combination of empowerment and complication I experienced. It's the best book about women's matters that I've ever read.

I can’t find anyone who loves this book as much as I do. If you love it, too, please tell me so I’m not alone.

 

 

 

Old Houses in Novels
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Have you ever been alone in a great old house and felt something? Like maybe the place is haunted, or it’s humming with history. Either something living has been hidden away, or something dead has refused to leave. Even if you live in this place, it’s not yours; you simply get to inhabit it 

Weird stuff happens in these buildings, and people get weird there. Perhaps that's why many of my favorite books take place in old houses. I often write about old houses in my own fiction. There are mysteries and conflicts built into the walls.

I would like to share seven of my favorite old manors, mansions, and castles, and the way they almost become characters in the stories they're a part of. I've also selected some musical accompaniment for you.

 

The Likeness by Tana French

I’ve already gone on about Whitethorn House in my last post, and reading it prompted this one, so I will simply reiterate that this setting is a wise play: who can resist the gothic draw of a young woman entering an old house that is hers to roam and to be haunted by? 

“Around me the house seemed to have tightened and drawn closer, leaning in over my shoulder; watching; focused.”

“...and our footsteps rang and echoed till it sounded like the room was full of dancers, the house calling up all the people who had danced here across centuries of spring evenings, gallant girls seeing gallant boys off to war, old men and women straight-backed while outside their world disintegrated and the new one battered at their doors, all of them bruised and all of them laughing, welcoming us into their long lineage.”

 

 

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Of course, there is the ultimate, the Harry Potter series. We’ve got more magical buildings than we could ever hope to list—don’t get me started on the coolness of 12 Grimmauld Place or The Burrow—so I will focus on Hogwarts. The castle was built in the late Early Middle Ages (c. 993) and consists of seven storeys, according to the Harry Potter Wiki (which fortunately did not exist when I was in middle school, or else I never would have emerged from the ether—even now it’s difficult not to get sucked into the vortex). Hogwarts is quite literally haunted, with ghosts milling about. Pictures don’t appear to be looking at you; they are looking at you. 

It’s built with J.K.'s own brand of altruistic magic. Says Dumbledore, “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” The building itself is sentient and aligns itself with good, which is demonstrated when it locks Dolores Umbridge out of the Headmaster’s Towers. Good castle. It is the ultimate home for orphans, with food appearing on the table and plenty of secret (read: forbidden) places to explore . . . and to hide.

 

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Another icon. The best possible amenity of an old house is a portal to another world. Who didn't spend hours pushing on the backs of closets and cupboards as a child? I personally knew my own home, built in the 1970s, wouldn't have such a thing, but any house over a hundred years old was fair game. 

“It was the sort of house that you never seem to come to the end of, and it was full of unexpected places.”

“And after that—whether it was that they lost their heads, or that Mrs. Macready was trying to catch them, or that some magic in the house had come to life and was chasing them into Narnia—they seemed to find themselves being followed everywhere, until at last Susan said, “Oh, bother those trippers! Here—let’s get into the Wardrobe Room till they’ve passed. No one will follow us in there.”

 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Talk about secrets. Mary Lennox finds her freaking cousin tucked away in the back of Misselthwaite Manor. Also, it seems pretty likely that the uncle’s dead wife is haunting the place. Honestly, I think the garden is overrated compared to this hundred-room house.

"It seemed as if there was no one in all the huge rambling house but her own small self, wandering about up-stairs and down, through narrow passages and wide ones, where it seemed to her that no one but herself had ever walked. Since so many rooms had been built, people must have lived in them, but it all seemed so empty that she could not quite believe it true.”

 

 

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Thinking about I Capture the Castle now, I may just need to reread it. When I first discovered it, I swore to tell no one about it because it felt too personal. I felt that the story was about me. But I’m something resembling a grown-up now and I’m okay with you guys knowing about it. I kind of recognize that other people relate to the story, but I'm pretty sure I'll always love it more than any of you. Not that it's a competition.

Two sisters live with their depressed father and eccentric stepmother in a decaying castle in England. They’ve run out of money since they bought the castle, so their lifestyle is humble and relatable. The heroine, Cassandra, spends her days writing in her notebook and generally hanging out around the castle. She’s left to her own devices and her own imagination, and she makes the most of it. She daydreams about whether it would be better to be Jane Eyre or to be in a Jane Austen novel. She sunbathes naked on the top of the turret without fear of being seen, but she's able to see what’s happening below.

 “I have just remarked to Rose that our situation is really rather romantic - two girls in this strange and lonely house. She replied that she saw nothing romantic about being shut up in a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud. I must admit that our home is an unreasonable place to live in. Yet I love it. The house itself was built in the time of Charles II, but it was grafted on to a fourteenth-century castle that had been damaged by Cromwell. The whole of our east wall was part of the castle; there are two round towers in it. The gatehouse is intact and a stretch of the old walls at their full height joins it to the house. And Belmotte Tower, all that remains of an even older castle, still stands on its mound close by. But I won't attempt to describe our peculiar home fully until I can see more time ahead of me than I do now.”

 

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I've read this book four times and am itching to read it again. I could go on about it forever, but I'll stick to Thornfield Hall.

What is really significant about this house is what it's hiding. Like all good, old houses, there is a forbidden area. Jane is not to go up to the third floor. If somehow you haven’t read Jane Eyre yet, I won’t reveal the secret; the rest of you know what I’m talking about. This secret makes the house itself inherently alive, and sinister. And yet this is the place where Jane finds happiness and love. In a gothic novel like this one, nothing can be purely good. Everything is complicated. And then Thornfield, along with its complication, is destroyed, and the characters start fresh in a new house. I’ve never been fully satisfied with this ending. The new house is gloomy and unfamiliar. I bonded with Thornfield, with the gardens, with the fireplace where Mr. Rochester and Jane had conversations and fell in love.

"All these relics gave . . . Thornfield Hall the aspect of a home of the past: a shrine to memory. I liked the hush, the gloom, the quaintness of these retreats in the day; but I by no means coveted a night's repose on one of those wide and heavy beds: shut in, some of them, with doors of oak; shaded, others, with wrought old-English hangings crusted with thick work, portraying effigies of strange flowers, and stranger birds, and strangest human beings—all which would have looked strange, indeed, by the pallid gleam of moonlight." 

 

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Though a good read in its own right, Rebecca strikes me as a poor man’s Jane Eyre. Young, poor woman marries older man, the first wife is a lurking, lingering presence haunting the home, there is a part of the house where the heroine must not go, and then the house goes up  in the flames. But we love Jane Eyre, we need more Jane Eyre. So I’ll let it go. 

Like many of the authors in this list, du Maurier based Manderley off of an old house she discovered and fell in love with. Then she bought it on impulse. I relate, Daphne. I would've done the same thing.

“The peace of Manderley. The quietude and the grace. Whoever lived within its walls, whatever trouble there was and strife, however much uneasiness and pain, no matter what tears were shed, what sorrows borne, the peace of Manderley could not be broken or the loveliness destroyed . . . It would lie always in its hollow like an enchanted thing, guarded by the woods, safe, secure, while the sea broke and ran and came again in the little shingle bays below.”

 

Of course there are others. Every Jane Austen novel, for example. But I couldn't be bothered to go over Mr. Darcy's Pemberley or any of the others. They don't speak to me.

There are some short stories too that I highly recommend: "The Masque of the Red Death" by Edgar Allen Poe, the fairytale "Bluebeard", "House Taken Over" by Julio Cortázar. What are your favorite fictional houses?

The Likeness

I binged The Likeness in about two and a half days—something I’ve not done in a long time. I couldn’t stop reading. This book, another murder mystery by Tana French, packs in the double-whammy of a whodunnit and the immersive magical experience of a fairytale world. I didn’t expect to want to be in place where a murder had occurred, but I did. I haven’t been this enchanted with a fictional world since I was a child, and this one takes place in the suburbs of Dublin. Theoretically, it could be real.

This is not your typical crime story. It is more of a surreal prose poem, from the very beginning, from the prologue. Looking back, I see that the ending is given away almost from the first page. The story is not about what happened, but why, and how.

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Cassie is a charming, insightful narrator and I wish we could be friends. She plays with language, calls curtains fugly. She says, of being a detective, things that easily apply to a writer, or to an introvert, or to anyone who isn’t living fully because they think they’re not supposed to: “I had always felt that I was an observer, never a participant; that I was watching from behind a thick glass wall as people went about the business of living—and did it with such ease, with a skill that they took for granted and that I had never known.”

This statement is followed by Cassie, after integrating into the house, beginning to feel that she is truly alive. That deeper self that is so seldom awakened is allowed to thrive. Cassie feels she’s returned home, even though she’s never been to Whitethorn House before. I think many of us are homesick for Whitethorn House: to live in a mansion with four kindred spirits who perfectly understand and accept you, to shut out nasty reality and live in the 19th century except with electricity, to discover secrets in the upstairs room, to live in a perpetual summer with endless days that turn into sparkling evenings spent reading in front of a crackling fire. It's similar to the part in Jane Eyre where she conveniently bumps into her awesome cousins and they save her life and everyone gets along great. Idyllic but doomed to temporality.

Each of the four roommates are fully formed and flushed out with the level of detail only a detective would notice: how they carry themselves, how they interact with one another, how much they're hiding. They're complex and enigmatic. No wonder Cassie falls under the spell. No wonder I did.

Not unlike Thelma and Louise, the mythical victim, Lexie Madison, joins the ranks of wild and free women who refuse to be bound by society, by reality. They run for the sake of it, because that’s who they are. Even though this makes no actual sense and in all counts leads to premature death, it is inspiring. Live free or die. Cassie takes something away from living Lexie’s life and begins to live more fully in her own. (I think? It's unclear how much she's actually capable of such a thing.) Good for her, but I’m not modeling myself after a murdered person.

I was a bit suprised by the mixed, leaning-towards-negative reviews. I totally agree, the premise is out-there: Cassie, the former partner of Rob Ryan, main character of In the Woods, goes undercover when she finds that someone who looks exactly like her has been  murdered. That person had assumed Cassie’s undercover name, Lexie Madison. Cassie seamlessly inserts herself into the victim’s life to find the murderer. It just so happens that the victim lives with her four kindred spirits in pastoral, communal bliss. There are obvious issues with this: it’s pretty darn unlikely that you could have a biologically unrelated doppelgänger, and then that you happen to have experience as an undercover cop, and that you could pick up your doppleganger’s life right where they left off.

There’s a lot that doesn’t makes sense. It bothers me but I also don’t care. I’m too busy caring about the characters and wishing I could be the sixth member of their cult.

I’ll go over a few issues I slightly care about so as not to appear a synchophant. A Frenchie, if you will.

There was no reason to turn this murder investigation into an undercover operation. But an undercover agent got involved. If you ask a surgeon what to do, they’ll say surgery; if an undercover gets his way, he’ll say undercover and fight for it to happen. The impulsivity of these cops is scary; we’re at the mercy of their curiosity. The police performed an experiment on real people, and destroyed four lives. This bothers me so much because the characters feel real to me.

The killer—I won’t tell you who—leaves something to be desired. We never get to find out about this person’s backstory, or the reasoning for the murder. Doesn’t the satisfaction of a murder mystery lay in knowing why a killer did what he did? We are deprived an origin story, the ultimate mystery, just as we were in In the Woods. Tana French is a tease.

The Likeness has joined the ranks of my favorite books. I’m not giving it five Goodreads stars because of the above qualms, but it’s a five in my heart. I miss reading this book and wish I had it to read over again. Your turn; go read it.

 

In the Woods

What is it about murder these days?

Detectives are like early Greeks inventing constellationsgathering limited, scattered facts, like stars, together in coherent pattern using only intuition and a bit of imagination. The collection of stars mean nothing if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but the trained eye picks out the shape and draws in the gaps.

It’s an addictive puzzle I’ve only recently discovered. I believe I can trace this back to the holidays and my binge-watching of The Keepers on Netflix. I need to know what happened. I still think about it.

But what I watch and what I read are two different things. I decided to try out In the Woods by Tana French as a vacation book, along with The Golden Compass, which I wrote about last week. It had been highly recommended to me by friends and by podcast critics whose opinions I trust. I barely even knew it was crime fiction, just that it was good.

 I ditched my copy at my BnB in Guatemala. I’m sorry, it feels wrong to me too! But I had overpacked and it was one less thing to carry. Plus I was sending it into the world, most likely to be found be a backpacker trading in one book for another.

I ditched my copy at my BnB in Guatemala. I’m sorry, it feels wrong to me too! But I had overpacked and it was one less thing to carry. Plus I was sending it into the world, most likely to be found be a backpacker trading in one book for another.

And I wasn’t disappointed. What I go for in literature is the beautiful lilt of a sentence that captures a moment or idea in a newer, deeper way. French is a master of this art, applying her lyrical prose to the gritty realities of human nature and modern society.

 

In the Mind

It’s the psychological component that draws me in to crime mysteries. That’s probably what it is for all of us. What happens in the mind of the killer, the victim, the detective? What games do we play with one another and with ourselves? French explores these ideas from the inside.

In the Woods works because the reader is completely in the narrator Rob’s head. You experience his trauma, his addictions, his inability to be honest with himself, and most of all, his attempts to access blocked memories of the moments that tore his life apart. You’re with him as he self-sabotages every aspect of his life. You become as frustrated with him as he is with himself, yet you’re helpless to stop itjust as helpless as he is. Rob’s inner mind is unique; he’s not put into the box of a diagnosis. But if you’re into that sort of thing, there are some interesting explorations of psychopathology. I wish those explorations had gone deeper, but they serve their purpose in the narrative.

French takes on a first person almost-omniscient tone I am exploring in my own writing. Omniscient in the sense that hindsight is *practically* 20/20. The narrator addesses someone (the reader?) from an unknown time in the future. Why does Rob feel the need to tell this story, to make his own confession, so to speak? We are left to speculate. There is a power to this form of narrative, in that the story can be told completely. First person is limiting in obvious ways; the story is skewed by one character’s perception. Third person can be more comprehensive, but lacking the intimacy that draws a reader in. First-person almost-omniscent draws from the best of these two perspectives.

 

The Telling

The two-pronged narrative approach is deadly effective. The novel explores two mysteries that occurred in the titular woods: 1) the murder of a twelve-year-old girl, and 2) the disappearance of two children twenty-some years prior. Two incidents that may or may not be related. When one storyline slowed down, the other one kept me going. There’s nothing like the mystery of a forest filled with supressed memories and potential magic to keep the pages turning.

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There are moments throughout the novel that capture the inherent misoygny ofwhat? The 2000s? Cop culture? Ireland? Our world? Female characters are introduced to every scene first by their physical features and perceived level of attractiveness. What interests me about this is that we have a female author writing from a male perspective. In that scenario, I’d think that the male gaze would not be so accurately captured. I wonder: does this mean that French is incredibly adept at entering the mind of her character, or that she herself is (or was) not entirely feminist? If the former, I wonder that Rob is never reprimanded for his thinking, either indirectly through events or by other characters. What would be the point of such effective execution of sexist thinking, if not to perpetuate this mindset? For this reason, I fear the latter, a slight lack of wokeness. But it really is slight; the female characters, particularly Rob’s partner Cassie, are pretty darn badass.

 

In terms of quality and quantity, Tana French is our era’s Agatha Christie. In fact, think it might be these two rockstars dominating the universe of literary mystery. Has any other era had an Agatha Christie? Can any other author compare? I know little about this genre, so let me know who I’m missing!

In the Woods is the first of French’s Dublin Murder Squad books. While they do not quite constitute a series, they share the same world and the same cast of characters. What changes is the narrator; a different character gets to tell the story in each book. And that’s what French does best. She gets inside the head of a character and takes you with her.

 

The Golden Compass

 

I know, I know—everyone has read this book already. Everyone loves this book already. But I hadn’t, and when faced with a trip to Guatemala involving seven planes and lots of sun, I needed a good travel book. So I scoured Powell’s for a read that would engage me while I was alternately trapped in the iron maiden that is an airplane and lounging by the Lago Atitlán, known as the belly button of the world.

And I found The Golden Compass. As soon as I saw it, displayed proudly on a stack of copies of itself, I knew it was my choice. It’s so endorsed that I was guaranteed not to regret having the extra 1.3 pounds of luggage. For many readers, if His Dark Materials isn't their favorite series, it’s a close runner-up after Harry Potter (which, to my mind, is perfect).

It wasn't until after I finished the book that I learned BBC is going to create a TV series. I love BBC for always doing it up right. I can't help but think the Dust was guiding my decision.

 Guatemala has tons of dogs! This one in particular was very friendly - he came right up to me while I was reading and leaned. I love a good leaner.

Guatemala has tons of dogs! This one in particular was very friendly - he came right up to me while I was reading and leaned. I love a good leaner.

My Thoughts:

The Golden Compass is an enjoyable romp through another world. I haven’t romped in far too long. There is nothing like a solid YA/children’s fantasy to get my mind off the mechanics of life and go to a magical place. And how else would I want to live my life?

I loved the concept of the dæmons—the animal companion to every human, their soul made physical, and furry, and cuddly. I would almost venture to say that the desire to have a constant animal friend, especially one that you can communicate with telepathically, is universal. We would never be lonely!

I cheered on the friendship between Lyra and Roger. Boys and girls being friends at that age is uncommon, and I appreciate Pullman’s rebuke of such an unecessary segregation. Why shouldn’t boys and girls of any age be friends? We’re all just people, after all. Lyra’s total disregard for societal expectations is refreshing, inspiring, and increasingly relevant. Characters like her help us to see what can be imagined, which is the first step to making it possible.

I will say I think I missed the boat on this book. It's meant for a younger audience, and this jaded reader struggled with a few aspects. Spoilers below.

For example, our young protagonist Lyra finds out who her parents are halfway through the book—one of them kidnapped her and the other pretended to be a distant uncle her entire life. Lyra seems pretty cool with it, considering. She doesn’t take any time to absorb the shock and betrayal. She isn’t distracted at all from her mission to save Roger. Heroic of her, yes, but also not very human. But these humans are in a parallel universe, so maybe family ties work a little differently there.

Things just work out. Obstacle: solution. Obstacle: solution. I was never worried when Lyra got into a scrape because she always gets into scrapes and either 1) a magical friend comes along to help or 2) the other character she’s up against isn’t very bright and is easily manipulated by a not quite twelve-year-old kid. I wasn’t even worried about her finding Roger—who is supposedly awesome, although I can’t confirm that, having spent only a couple pages with him at the very beginning—which was the whole point of the book.

But these are my problems, not the book’s. If only I could have read it when I was eleven, I’m sure I would have felt differently. I’m looking forward to reading the next two books, particularly the final installment of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, which won heaps of awards. After that, I believe I’ll more fully understand why His Dark Materials is such a beloved series. And I can't wait to find out what the heck Dust is!