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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Book Review: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love was The Afterword Reading Society book club selection for Nov 26. I stupidly, and for a second time in a row, was not my usual 100% and I missed submitting my information. That said, my untimeliness in no way represents how much I enjoyed this book, nor how much I appreciate receiving a copy of this fine novel.

Alma Whittaker, born Jan 5, 1800, bears witness to the vast changes taking place in science, religion, commerce and class, all without leaving her home White Acre. Ok, she does leave near the end of her life, but what leads her to that point is such a sweeping tale of botany, early childhood education, colonization through cultivation of plants for medicine and food, charity (misplaced or not) and a family lineage that is fearsome in its tenacity. The story is told through Alma’s interactions with a number of visitors who come to White Acre to meet with Alma’s father Henry Whittaker. Henry Whittaker made his fortune travelling the seas as a young lad on behalf of Joseph Banks and the Kew Gardens. He was a swift learner and had few scruples so he quickly used his knowledge of botany and commerce to his advantage. When the time was right, he picked a wife, moved to America, set up a partnership for a profitable pharmaceutical company and continued to add pennies to his pockets through his expeditions.

The story moves from Henry’s travels to London to Peru to Philadelphia, then follows Alma’s trek to Tahiti and Amsterdam. There are beautiful descriptions of orchids, mosses and other botanicals. There’s adventure on the high seas, a retracing of human history, Darwin’s theories of evolution, and the push by abolitionists and adventurers to reconsider the world.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It reminds me of Anna Pavord’s The Tulip, which was a nonfiction look at the cultural baggage this bulb brings with it. The Signature of All Things: A Novel is The Tulip’s fictional counterpart.

Check it out on ElizabethGilbert.com along with the reading group guide and other goodies, including a Signature of All Things cocktail. Yum.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Lev Grossman Makes Me Dream in Magic.


The Magician King by Lev Grossman is hilarious. Following The Magicians, The Magician King picks up where it left off. The Fillorian Kings & Queens, Eliot, Janet, Quentin and Julia, are aimlessly enjoying the riches of Fillory. Quentin in particular is a tad bored by their royal status, which involves lounging, drinking and indulging in reckless games and overeating. This is the problem really. Quentin is bored. He’s looking for an adventure. After two years as king of Fillory, he’s got a little paunch and a bout of kingly aspirations to rule something or conquer the unexpected or to find some thrill in the routine that is now his day.

In case a memory spell has been cast upon you, the quartet are mere mortals who’ve come to rule Fillory via Brakesbill College (for wizardry) and a subsequent series of adventures much like an adult version of The Chronicles of Narnia.

What I love about Grossman’s writing is that it’s fantasy with questions. In Harry Potter and the Narnia books, the characters just accept that this is magic and it is what it is. But Grossman’s characters comment upon it. “Two years as a king of Fillory and he (Quentin) was still shit at horseback riding” ... “The news that real dragons lived in rivers, and didn’t go thundering around the countryside setting trees on fire, had come as a disappointment to him” ... and then journeying to the underworld “it wasn’t a perfect system—every time he got up a decent head of speed he would get stuck and have to scooch again, his butt squeaking loudly in the pitch-black.”

There’s something more real about characters that would comment on the world around them, and the descriptions of magic are visceral. Grossman describes the smell of casting a spell and the wonkiness of magic cast by those untrained, or the differences between old magic and newer magic. Old magic usually had any obvious bugs or loopholes worked out long ago, for example, you could expect that if you had a key that it would fit into an invisible lock even if you were on a moving ship vs. standing still on land.

I hope Lev Grossman continues to write this series. I won’t spoil the ending but I’m left with an intake of breath and wondering “now what?”

Oh, and Grossman’s novels always have me dreaming in magic, just like Harry Potter. It flips a switch in my brain, like when you ski hard all day and then dream of skiing.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Book Review: Three-Day Road by Joseph Boyden


This is another book that I waited on too long to read. Joseph Boyden deserves all the praise this book received.

Three Day Road is about two Cree boys who join the Canadian efforts in World War I. Their bush skills and hunting are easily transposed to the trenches and sniper shooting and both become renowned for their kills.

The novel shifts between present day — Xavier’s Aunt’s visions and efforts to save her nephew from the morphine that is silently killing him while also keeping him alive — and Xavier’s flashbacks of his war days with his boyhood friend Elijah.

Elijah is the talker, the charmer and ultimately the one who is a little too good at killing.

What struck me most was the idea that there are men who are very good at war and when (if) they return to civilian life are unsettling and unsettled. Those who are good at war have difficulty that maybe those who are just lucky don’t have.

One of the characters “Fats” is perhaps lucky whereas Xavier is good. My inference is that Fats’ dumbluck will haunt him differently than the visions of killing that Xavier must contend with in his post-war days.

But the story isn’t about Fats, it’s about Xavier. And that story is very, very good.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Book Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman


The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a novel about a bunch of kids who end up at a magic school—a daring feat (or author death wish) considering the world of Harry Potter hasn’t left our collective consciousness. But Grossman’s intention is to tie into the collective consciousness, in particular to the works of CS Lewis, Ursula LeGuin and JK Rowling. And he pulls it off. Grossman does, afterall, hold degrees in comparative literature from Harvard and Yale, and, based on writing style, is well versed in the traditions of modern fantasy and literary fiction.

Like Harry Potter, we have a couple of trios in the mix. Our main group being intellectually precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater and his best friends James and Julia (who happen to be a couple). Quentin is our Harry, James and Julia our Ron and Hermione. But this trio doesn’t quite work out.

Quentin and James set off for their Princeton interviews. The interviewer turns up dead. The paramedic on scene is a bit odd and tries to give them envelopes with their names on them, and only Quentin accepts. Bonds are broken. Quentin moves to the next level.

The next level being an examination and then acceptance at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Page 23
The test also changed as he took it. The reading-comprehension section showed him a paragraph that vanished as he read it, then quizzed him on its contents. Some new kind of computerized paper—hadn’t he read somewhere that somebody was working on that? Digital ink? Amazing resolution, though. He was asked to draw a rabbit that wouldn’t keepstill as he drew it—as soon as it had paws it scratched itself luxuriously and then went hopping off around the page, nibbling at the other questions, so that he had to chase it with the pencil to finish filling in the fur. He wound up pacifying it with some hastily sketched radishes and then drawing a fence around it to keep it in line.

The eventual threesome--pardon the pun because I mean it in the most virtuous way (for most of the book, anyway)--is Quentin, Alice and Penny. Penny is a punk, bad-ass, too-smart-for-school kind of guy. Alice is beside-herself shy and the smartest of the lot.

Brakebills is a college so these kids are a bit raunchier than the Harry Potter lot, but they are equally naive in the ways of magic. The lessons and structure of this magical world in Book 1 is by far my favourite part of the novel. By Book 2, Quentin and Alice have graduated and are slumming it in Manhattan. This particular section is my least favourite. Quentin turns from being this naive, wizard in training to an overindulged, laissez-faire idiot. (Strong writing, certainly. Q is such an ass that I almost gave up on him and his dumb friends, but Grossman pulled me back in with Book 3 and another round of adventure.)

I don't want to give too much plot away, but if you read CS Lewis, then there are some throwbacks to Narnia here that you'll really enjoy as the characters venture off to other worlds.

(Another of my favourite scenes is a conversation with Quentin and a drunk brown bear.)

Book completed, I'm looking forward to Grossman's next book (a bit unfair to demand more when he's only just finished touring for this one). C'est la vie!

The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Viking)