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A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

14 Apr

My attempt to grapple with large, looming life decisions as I enter (or maybe just continue upon) the end-of-college-stress-craze has meant a lot of nostalgia recently. That’s good for this blog (which has sometimes been left by the wayside) especially when looking to my young adult years to figure out how exactly I got to where I am. And recently, I’ve been revisiting the always lovely and fascinating Madeleine L’Engle, especially A Wrinkle in Time. It’s a near-perfect science fiction/fantasy in my mind: fun, mysterious, a little bit romantic, setting up a world that’s easy to step inside. I remember being so very taken by this book, and truly being breathless at certain passages.

The book is also totally underrated, especially given the “Doctor Who,” “Battlestar Galactica,” and other sci-fi crazes that’ve been around lately. If you haven’t delved into L’Engle, you should. She truly is amazing.


A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Quick Read?: Yes.

Difficulty: Not very difficult, though it does take place in (an)other dimension(s), so there can be a lot of detail to pick up on.

Synopsis: This book quite literally begins with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Our heroine Meg can’t sleep because of it, and neither can her brother Charles Wallace, her mother, or her strange neighbor, Mrs Whatsit. As they sit around drinking hot chocolate, Mrs Whatsit tells Meg’s mother “there is such thing as a tesseract,” causing Meg’s mother to faint. It turns out Meg’s father, a scientist who went missing, disappeared while trying to find this tesseract. The next day Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s friend-turned-love-interest decide they must go to try and rescue her father with the help of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who, who teach them that a tesseract is a fifth-dimensional way of folding space and time in order to visit different planets and worlds (the “wrinkling” of time). As the children travel with Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who, they learn that the universe is slowly being taken over by The Black Thing, and that they must try to stop it to not only save their planet, but each other as well.

What makes this book awesome?: I’ve always thought A Wrinkle in Time is a perfect marriage of science fiction, fantasy, and actual science. I can’t speak for “real science,” being that science is not one of my strong suits, but the idea of the tesseract comes from principles around “wormholes,” an actual idea in physics. Then there were the elements of science woven into the story, as well as alien planets and societies (I still get nightmares about Camazotz, the last place they visit in the book. It’s incredibly spooky and scary) that feel real, especially given the science L’Engle is working with even though this is primarily fiction. All of this is combined with fantasy too–Charles Wallace has some almost psychic abilities, their absent father becomes a mysterious background figure, and what saves them all in the end (not really a spoiler) is done with the power of love. Sci-fi/fantasy can be tough to differentiate, but L’Engle weaves them all together beautifully.

Similar to other science fiction/fairy tales that were aimed at children, the journey these children take is one that is universal–it’s a quest to see how far love can really go, whether or not love can really conquer all. This can be seen in the Harry Potter series, perhaps even in The Lord of the Rings series, yet there is something about L’Engle where it hits home even harder for me. I’m sure you could chalk this up to my own personal affection for the book, but still. Perhaps fantasy and science fiction is more about where science and emotion meet, and how far they can run together or apart.

Mrs Madeleine "I will write what I please" L'Engle

Some neat-o facts:

  • As I stated above, the idea of the tesseract is based on wormholes as they are known in physics. Maybe if the tesseracts were a little more whimsical, like the TARDIS in “Doctor Who,” people would be as excited about them as they are about traveling through time in a TARDIS.
  • Apparently characters on the TV show “Lost” were seen reading A Wrinkle in Time, prompting a group of avid “Lost” fans to read it. They even got L’Engle to have a discussion with them about the show and the book. Who said being an avid TV fan meant you didn’t read?
  • L’Engle has made it clear that her books are based on her interest in her own Christian faith and modern scientific knowledge. Interestingly, some Christian bookstores felt her books were not “suitable” to be sold and refused to stock them, and the books were even banned in some schools and libraries. Secular readers often panned her works for being “too religious.” I suppose you can’t please everyone.

If you like this, try: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, or Many Waters by L’Engle; the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling; War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

11 Apr

If you missed this past weekend’s big event, it was the 50th anniversary of the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird. And in her second guest post, Izzy Long will be giving us a review of this classic American book. This book is a personal favorite of mine (also, Atticus Finch is my favorite literary crush), and hopefully, if you haven’t read it, it’ll be a new favorite for you too.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful story set in 1950s Alabama in Deep South America, where clear lines are drawn between white and black communities. Themes of prejudice and racism run throughout the plot, along with issues of class, loneliness, courage and a growing understanding of other people’s points of view. It is told through the eyes of seven-year-old Scout; the spirited daughter of lawyer, Atticus Finch, who takes on the defence of an innocent black labourer accused of raping a white girl.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Published: 1960

Quick read? While the plot ticks by at a lively rate, the underlying themes deserve proper concentration and time spent unravelling what the author wanted to get across to her readers. Take the time to understand the novel’s powerful messages.

Difficulty: The plot is action-packed with more than one tense moment, yet it is fairly straightforward and easy to read. The themes of prejudice, racism, loneliness and the loss of innocence add a deeper element that is well worth exploring.

Synopsis: The story follows town lawyer, Atticus Finch and his children: ten-year-old Jem and seven-year-old Jean-Louise (Scout) who live in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. The central plot of the novel is when Atticus defends a black man, Tom Robinson against the charge of raping a young white girl.

Scout tells the story from her point of view, starting from when she and her brother, Jem, together with their friend Dill, become interested in the myth of local recluse Boo Radley during their school summer holidays. Although scared of Boo, Dill encourages the others to join him in trying to make him come out of his imposing house.

Back at school once again, Scout finds herself missing the freedom granted to her over the summer by her father. As she and Jem walk home past Boo Radley’s house one afternoon, they discover gifts left apparently for them in the knothole of a tree. They try to write Boo a note of thanks, but are stopped by Atticus who urges them to consider Boo’s feelings and to think of things from another person’s point of view.

A year later, Atticus has taken on the defence of Tom Robinson, a black labourer accused of raping a white girl. Scout is teased about this at school, but her admiration for her father returns when he shoots a dangerous mad dog in the street with just one shot. Later, Atticus leaves town on business and his stern sister, Alexandra comes to look after the children. Their black nursemaid, Calpurnia takes the children to her black church, but when Alexandra finds out, she bans them from visiting Calpurnia again.

When Atticus returns to Maycomb, a group of local men try to persuade him outside the jail to drop Tom’s defence on the eve of his trial. As more men turn up, intending to lynch Tom, things start to turn nasty, Scout unwittingly diffuses the situation by recognising one of the men as the father of her school friend and asking innocently after his son.

Tom’s trial begins, with the whole town present in the courthouse. As Atticus’ cross examination gets underway, it becomes clear that the girl, and her father, Bob Ewell, are lying and that Tom is innocent. Despite that, he is found guilty by the all-white jury. After the trial, Bob Ewell, knowing that he was badly shown up by Atticus, spits at him, vowing revenge. Later, the news comes that Tom was shot dead by guards as he tried to escape prison.

Back at school, Scout is taught about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, and cannot understand how her fellow townspeople cannot connect that with the racism present in the town. Walking home from a Hallowe’en pageant a few weeks later, Scout and Jem realise they are being followed. Someone tries to squash Scout inside her padded fancy dress costume and breaks Jem’s arm. The children manage to escape and get safely home, thanks to a mystery rescuer dressed in dark clothing. Bob Ewell is found dead with a kitchen knife in his ribs.

At home, Scout tells her story. Slowly, she realises that the person who helped her and Jem must have been Boo Radley, who is now standing shyly in the corner of the room. Atticus realises that Boo must have killed Bob Ewell, but persuades the townspeople to say that Ewell fell on the knife himself to protect the reclusive Boo. Scout leads Boo home, but she never sees him again after that. She finally realises what life must be like for him, putting herself in his shoes and thinking for the first time from other people’s points of view as Atticus had once urged her to do.

Why this book? Harper Lee chose the title of her book as a metaphor for human justice. Mockingbirds do no harm to anyone, so it could be said to be a very great sin to kill one. The long-held attitudes and prejudice held by the various characters in Maycomb are challenged as the plot unfolds, leading to a fascinating exploration of human courage. Racial tensions and prejudices still exist to this day, making To Kill a Mockingbird as relevant to the twenty-first century as it was when it was published in 1960.

Some neat-o facts:

Harper Lee (or perhaps Scout?), all grown up.

  • This was Harper Lee’s first and only book, which won the much-coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1961. It was adapted into both a stage play and a film, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout.
  • The plot was constructed in the context of US race relations, following a long period of slavery, when black people were considered as much of a commodity as USA parcels by the white community. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1865, black people were still, by and large, powerless as white people fought to retain their advantages through the difficult period of the Great Depression and beyond, often through segregation and injustice.

If you like this, try: ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker, about a young African American woman living in rural Georgia in the 1930s. Or ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ – the 1969 autobiography of black writer and poet, Maya Angelou.

Review by Izzy Long. She is a freelance writer, and she can be contacted here.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates

5 Mar

So I may be late to Women’s History Month (it’s March, in case you’re behind too), but it is indeed a month for celebrating women everywhere. In an effort to celebrate a woman I think is pretty damn rad, I’m focusing on a short story by Joyce Carol Oates entitled “Where Are You Going, Where Have you Been?” As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m up to my ears in schoolwork, so a short story/short profile will have to do for now. If you haven’t entered the bizarre, creepy world of Oates before, here’s a good place to start. I may not have a ton of time to blog, but hey, who couldn’t use a good read by a rad writer?

Published: 1966Image

Quick Read: Yes

Difficulty: Not very. Definitely an easy read.

Synopsis: Connie is just your average mid-twentieth century teenage girl–she’s pretty, fixated on her own hair, and thinks her mother and sister are just jealous of her good looks. But Connie is bored, and feels stagnant. So when a well-coiffed stranger named Arnold Friend pulls up to her house while she’s home alone telling her he’ll take her away, he’s in love with her, and he’ll take her away so that they may start their life together. While Connie thinks it sounds like a wonderful, spontaneous plan, until she begins to see Arnold’s real side, and when she does, it may very well be too late.

What makes this (short) story awesome?: Joyce Carol Oates knows how to write a brutal horror story where no blood is shed, but the violence is clearly just beyond the last sentence. Her carefully constructed story starts innocently enough, but the reader knows almost immediately that Connie is doomed. Somehow, someway, Connie is destined for tragedy, and the way Oates goes about conveying that is nothing short of breathtaking.

Oates is a prolific writer, but this short story is certainly one of her best, even if it is one of her earliest published works. It’s short, sweet, and powerful–all the things a short story ought to be. Just one reason why it’s read in many college courses–it’s a nearly perfect piece of short fiction, and a great example of Oates’ dark prose.

Some fun facts about Oates:

  • Oates has written over 50 novels and dozens of short stories, short story collections, and essays. She is quite possibly one of the most prolific writers of the late twentieth century, and honestly, it makes me just want to write write write and never ever stop just to hope I can maybe publish a fraction of what she did. Maybe (probably not).
  • Her books are extremely violent and so graphic that Oates addressed reader’s and critics concerns in a New York Times article entitled “Why Do You Write So Violent?” saying that those who asked this question did not realize its sexist implications. She claimed to be tired of being labelled merely as “women’s literature” and that no male author would be asked that question. What do you guys think? Does she have a point?
  • Oates still teaches at Princeton, but used to live in Detroit, and many of her stories take place in both Michigan and New Jersey. Talk about your depressing American landscape settings.

I went with an older picture because come on. This is pretty gorgeous.

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country & Other Stories by William Gass

24 Jan

I know a number of you have enjoyed reading posts about classic books by authors you may not have heard of before. And that’s to be expected. After all, if you didn’t love James Joyce when you read him in your college freshmen English course, then why would you want to read him now? And today I have a real gem for you. This past fall I fell in love with William Gass and his short story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. He may not be your standard book club pick, but he’s certainly a hidden gem of an author. If you love mid-1900’s literature, have a look at Mr. Gass and his works.


In the Heart of the Heart of the Country & Other Stories by William Gass

Quick Read?: Mostly. What slows it down somewhat is his use of a lot of colloquial language and experimental stylistic elements, but that can easily be adjusted to.

Difficulty: Not too difficult, though the narration can sometimes be hard to pin down.

Synopsis: The five stories included in the collection feature narrators isolated deep within themselves and their surroundings, yearning for ways to reach out to those around him. In “The Pederson Kid,” a young boy tries to assert himself as a man when the men in his life only show themselves to be disappointments. As they try to save a young boy found frostbitten on their farm in the middle of a blizzard, the young narrator joins the men in his family on a trip to the neighbor’s farm that only brings out the darkness amongst them all. In “Order of Insects,” an odd infestation of bugs in a new house allows for a 1950’s housewife to make a mental world of her own for the bugs. She catalogues and researches the bugs, ultimately to allow her to feel like she has some control over her life. And in the title story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” a writer who vows to immortalize his town through his work finds himself unable to shake the memories and influence of a long lost love that has left him unable to actually go out into the world. Each story is unique, but all highlight the loneliness of the twentieth century experience, and the need for love to push a person outside of themselves.

Why read this book? This collection was seen as groundbreaking in the 1960s, and Gass was considered a very influential writer for many who wrote experimental fiction in the 1970s and beyond. His sparse use of language, and his focus on specific things–the strange appearance of a child, weird bugs, a small town in Indiana–beginning to show other essential parts of his characters. It is a book full of subtlety, but also beauty.

Gass was also a philosopher, and his books reflect a lot of his views on humanity and love. He felt that philosophy and language were very much intertwined, and when reading In the Heart, it is clear that he felt philosophy and literature could oftentimes go hand in hand almost seamlessly.

William Gass: making experimental fiction aesthetics look jaunty since 1966.

Some interesting facts:

  • Gass was a philosopher and considered writing to be a side project for himself. He then, however, went on to become one of the most influential writers of the later half of the twentieth century. One of the few times one might say he could have quit his day job! (Though I’m glad he did not).
  • When getting his Ph.D. at Cornell, he studied philosophy of language and metaphor, but then wrote wildly long papers on aesthetics just for fun, since no one there specialized in the philosophy of aesthetics. You can bring the student to school, but I suppose you can’t control how many papers they will write?
  • He called each of his books “experimental constructions” because each played with different elements of style in language, punctuation and syntax. This in turn became inspirational for many experimental writers after him.

If you like this, try: Omensetter’s Luck by Gass; Lolita or Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs; The Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

29 Jul

If any book could be considered a doozy, it’s this one. One Hundred Years of Solitude (originally Cien Anos de Soledad) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of the most unique books of the latter half of the 21st century, but it is not a book to skim. Here Marquez combines fantasy, reality, human history, and tragedy to trace the course of humanity, both past and present. For the ambitious beach reader, here’s a challenge for you, one that’s worth it in the end.

(Also, my apologies for the lack of proper Spanish accents. I’m having difficulty with them today, but I know where they belong, and it’s driving me crazy too, I swear).

Published: 1967 in Spanish (1970 in English)

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Quick Read?: No, but going slow can be a pleasure with this book.

Difficulty: Quite difficult. Not impossible, but Marquez purposefully makes it confusing and difficult at times.

Synopsis: The books opens on the  mysterious town of Macondo, after the Buendia family (the protagonists of the novel) move there from Colombia. The book moves through seven generations of the Buendia family in Macondo, surviving wars, ill weather, ill health, and other misfortunes, many of which they cause for themselves. The family repeats both names and misfortunes as time moves along, and fantastical elements blend with reality to the point where it is hard to know what really happened and what is the stuff of the characters’ imaginations. Th men in the family try to understand their plight, and the plight of all of humanity, by deciphering a code, with no success. The entire story is told much like a myth or oral history, frequently factual but frequently exaggerated as well. Yet when Macondo is nearly wiped out by a storm, all of the family’s cyclical, repeated misfortunes come to light, and a God-like entity shows them their follies.

What makes this book awesome? One Hundred Years of Solitude is known as one of the definitive books in the magical realism genre, where reality and magic blend in a way that isn’t fantastical, but merely accepted as a part of life. This inspired many other famous Hispanic writers, including Borges and others, to write magical realist texts as well. The beauty of magical realism is the way it can lend power and weight to one’s own imagination, faith, and beliefs and how they effect the world around you.

The novel is also an ambitious reflection of human history, especially Central and South American history–for example, when the Buendias find “fire” and the wheel in the beginning of the book, much like the first man did. The talk of conquistadors, imperialism, and disappearances later on mirror the political issues in South America today, and lend them a kind of inevitability that puts emphasis on our flaws as humans–namely, when we repeat history.

Marquez: Too smart to join "Animal House" since the day he was born.

Some neat-o facts:

  • The New York Times Book Review professed that “One Hundred Years of Solitude is the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race. Mr. García Márquez has done nothing less than to create in the reader a sense of all that is profound, meaningful, and meaningless in life.” (William Kennedy). I guess they liked it? But really. What a compliment. How do you move on from a compliment like that?
  • He won the Nobel Prize for Fiction in 1982. He also writes screenplays and continues to write as a journalist, his original profession. I’m assuming writing in those mediums is far less cyclical, but who knows?
  • Marquez claims his penchant for writing magical realist texts was by hearing his grandmother tell him stories passed down through generations.
If you like this, try: Love in the Time of Cholera or No One Writes the Colonel by Marquez; poetry by Borges or poetry by Pablo Neruda.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

10 Jul

It seems like any time this book gets brought up in conversation, it’s that book everyone “has always meant to read.” OK, so maybe this entire blog sort of works that way, but still. Catch-22 is a hilarious gem that can be read over and over again, and is great if you’re looking for a laugh this summer.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Published: 1961

Difficulty: The style of writing is easy to read, though the jumping around to different narrators can, at times, be difficult to deal with.

Quick Read?: Given the fragmented nature of the book, and it’s length, it is not quick, but at times it will feel quick.

Synopsis: Catch-22 opens to the protagonist Yossarian in a military hospital in 1944. World War II is raging on but Yossarian is in the hospital for an ailment they don’t understand and can’t heal though he feels perfectly fine. But this is OK by him–he wants nothing to do with the war, with fighting, with missions, with authority, with anything. He’s not a rebel or bad person at all, just lazy, and irritating to those around him. The book follows his silly antics, ridiculous pranks, and brilliant twists of logic throughout wartime, especially towards his loatheful superior officers, switching between narrators and time periods from chapter to chapter (including characters named Major Major, constantly changing soldier requirements that are impossible to meet, and whores who are more manly than the soldiers themselves). As Yossarian refuses to go on any missions or do any work, no one can stop him but no one can motivate him either. Each character is more absurd and dysfunctional than the next, to the point that even the delinquent Yossarian seems fully functional. The entire book is extremely satirical of the American militant mindset, World War II, and American obedience. It is laugh out loud funny, and truly unforgettable.

What makes this book awesome?: Heller really does write a book that will have you giggling to yourself aloud, even if you find that sort of thing humiliating. I always hated when teachers would say a classic book had timeless humor, because that usually meant it was cheesy, which is not at all the case with Catch-22. It is genuinely funny, and because of that, its moments of seriousness are incredibly moving. It’s a classic book that doesn’t feel like a burden to read, because in all the seriousness of war, we are reminded of the lightheartedness of being human.

Also, considering the war(s?) we are still involved in today, the satire of the military and American government is something refreshing to read today. It may not be the same sort of satire you might see on Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, but it is very smart humor that hits a nerve with you.

Look at Joseph Heller. Clearly a troublemaker with a cause, am I right?

Some neat-o facts: 

  • Yossarian is a bombardier, as was Heller. However, unlike Yossarian, Heller claims to never have had bad experiences with his superior officers. Yeah, OK Heller, sure.
  • Note that there are definite subtle and not-so-subtle stabs at McCarthyism and the other ill side-effects that World War II brought on the U.S. during the 1950’s, when Heller himself wrote the novel.
  • The title, as is explained in the book (not a spoiler), is a reference to having to fulfill or achieve something that can never actually be fulfilled or achieved, which is very much a stab at war itself.
If you like this, try: “M*A*S*H,” All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

6 Jul

Do you love stories of suburban woe? Are you at one with the irony of suburbia? Does this “The Onion” article seem hilarious to you? Well, for Frank and April Wheeler, the doomed protagonists in Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road, they thought they were above all that. They thought they were in on the joke too, together, until tragically, they learn that indeed they were not.

Also, “Mad Men” fans, if you’re missing your weekly dose of Betty Melodrama, this might be your best bet till she’s back on the air sometime next year.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Published: 1961

Difficulty: Not difficult. Unless maybe you just had a bad break-up. Then yeah, this one would be hard.

Quick Read: Yes. Even more so if you have no emotions.

Synopsis: The novel opens as April Wheeler, a mother and wife still somewhat new to the Connecticut suburban lifestyle, goes on stage as the leading lady in a community theater performance. Though she is fulfilling her dream to act, the audience is not enthralled. Even her loving husband Frank tries, but cannot agree that it was a great performance. It in this argument that we see them argue, violently and angrily, on the side of the road. As the novel progresses, we learn that their impassioned relationship hinged on their eventual move to Paris that they had dreamed of as youngsters that never panned out. Frank works for the same company in New York City that his father did, and has assimilated to the commuting life, whereas April is still reckless (and yes, “Mad Men”er’s, she’s not a great mom). As Frank’s gaze begins to wander and April learns she may need to perform an unspeakable act, they try to repair their relationship by attempting to move to Paris, an idea that stuns their friends and neighbors who themselves have strong feelings about the Wheelers themselves. Yet when the trip falls through, it seems that tragedy must inevitably strike the couple and leave them scarred forever.

What makes this book awesome: If that synopsis up there doesn’t do it for you, I’m not sure what will. It certainly capture the feel of the suburban 1950’s/60’s “conformity,” and how much that differed from a young, bohemian, urban life. Seriously, if this era interests you, if you can’t get enough of “Mad Men,” and if you love a good drama, look no further than Revolutionary Road. It packs a punch all around.

The action is slow, in that it is mostly internal, verbal, and emotional. There was a movie made of the book recently, and while it is pretty good, it seems impossible to characterize the Wheelers’ demise in anything but language. Here’s a clip:

It’s hard to see how laden it all is with passion there, because they are just…words. (Though don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad movie) But that’s what makes this book so engrossing–the emotion that it is so full of.

Some neat-o things to know:

  • Yates was quoted as saying that the central theme of this book was “If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.” (This was said in the Boston Review, I believe).
  • Silly as this is, they filmed parts of this in my hometown, and at real Metro North commuter train stations in Connecticut. The state still fits the movie.

Apparently Yates was also the creepy guy in the neighborhood who sat on cars. Makes a lot of sense, I suppose.