Monday, November 29, 2010

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Amazon Link for better plot summary and reviews:

Basic rundown of the plot:
Quentin, a high school student, is swept into a hidden world and attends a school for magic (it is for five years and the students are, for the most part, adults). He is delighted to be there because he finds out that magic is real, just like he always hoped when he read books about the "imaginary" Fillory world (and the Chatwin children who have adventures there). After graduation, he and his friends (I guess you would call them friends) end up in Fillory where they face off against evil. Tragedy and victory are the outcomes.

Vague? Yes...intentionally so. And, as I will state again, this is NOT a children's novel. It is very adult and explicit.

I have been trying to decide what to write about this novel for a couple of days. I can't decide if Grossman is doing something important in this book or if he is being clever and unintentionally doing something important. Yes, it does interact with Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia (references to both are in the novel, with two--that I remember, anyway--specifically mentioning incidents in Harry Potter). Some say that this is the adult version of Harry Potter. I wonder if this is what Harry Potter would have looked like had it been written by Americans. So, I am going to be optimistic here and give you my impression of the book as something interacting with popular children's fantasy on an interesting (and important, perhaps) level.

Now, going in: this is a very adult and explicit novel. The school of magic in this book is for college-aged students and, therefore, college-type language/activities/incidents take place. So, if you are easily offended or don't want to read about a lurid version of Rowling...well, don't read this book. So, even though it is interacting with children's literature, it is important to note that this is not a children's book.

That being said, the fact that we have characters functioning as adult versions of the Harry Potter characters, living in a school of magic for part of the novel and then leaving after graduation to engage in more useless laziness and lurid activity spawned from boredom, speaks to something important about this very American book. (Note: will probably have lots of people slam me for the following comments, but this is my, as I have said before, deal with it.) I think American writers (just in general and in what is mass-produced...certainly not everyone) are good at plot and immediate gratification on a sensual level. As my friend Kelly said as we were discussing this book, it is why we place such emphasis on special effects. The movie Avatar was terrible if you just consider the story line. Same crap Cameron always does. We can't slow ourselves down long enough to think about our own lives much less the lives of a character in a book or a movie. If they aren't constantly moving or shooting or something "action-based," then most Americans complain. It takes effort to think and analyze and feel...and why do that in a world where we can instantaneously get most things that we want? Hmmm...and magic can, once you learn it, give you exactly that. Food for thought.

I read through some complaints about the book on Amazon (very divided by the way...about half love it and half hate it). Some of the complaints mentioned that the book was just boring or that the reviewer hated the protagonist and couldn't feel anything for him (Quentin is the main character). I don't agree that the book is boring. There is a plot, but the plot is overridden by the idea that the characters--especially Quentin--are so jaded and living in a world that is unimpressive...even though they are going to a school of magic.

People also don't like the book because Quentin isn't a sympathetic character: he barely works, his relationships are distant at best for most of the novel (and perhaps even at the end), he engages in immoral behavior and feels little remorse at times...and even when he does, he is too immature to move forward as an adult. All true. He is unsympathetic. But I think that is the point. Here is an American Harry Potter: jaded, unimpressed, and not moved to do much because there isn't a need. There was one point, toward the end, where I thought that he was changing, but by the very end of the so much.

As to how this interacts with children's literature in general:
A very peculiar thing happens as you read. In the beginning, at least, you imagine the characters to be much younger than they really are (at least I did, anyway). This is unsettling because of what these characters actually do and say. It is like a perversion of the youthful hero and heroine in classic children's literature.

As I said, I am still trying to figure this one out, but I will try to do so through other responses...

Famous authors and publications have reviewed this novel. Here are a few of their comments and my response to those comments:

From George R. R. Martin (A Game of Thrones author): "The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea."
My response: Um, George, I love your books and all, but what the heck were you smoking when you wrote this? No. This is a book that, I think, brutally commentates on Americans and American society, but in no way does that make it a better novel. It makes it an interesting and sad commentary, useful for comparison and critical thought, but is not a classic in the way Harry Potter is a classic.

From The New Yorker: "[The Magicians is] an unexpectedly moving coming-of-age story."
My response: It may be a uniquely American "coming-of-age story" that speaks to our society and how we interact with one another...but "moving" it isn't...and I hope that what it captures is ephemeral.

From The Washington Post: "The Magicians is a great fairy tale, written for grown-ups but appealing to our most basic desires for stories to bring about some re-enchantment with the world, where monsters lurk but where a young man with a little magic may prevail."
My response: What the hell were you reading? Quentin does NOT prevail. The Hermione equivalent saves the day...even though it kills her. Quentin, as he watches her die, wants to go to sleep. Give me a break. Also, it may begin with the intent to give us some kind of nostalgic "re-enchantment"...but that quickly fades. Quentin realizes the difference between his child's imagination and reality, yet the worst part is that he can't carry any of the good from his childish encounter with the fairy tale into his adult life. It also bothers me that we should even think about being "re-enchanted" with something about childhood through this novel. This novel isn't mean to "enchant"...or, at least, I hope it isn't.

So, yes, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that this book is important. Lots of critical work waits to be done using this book and Rowling's work (and Lewis and Tolkien, etc.). But--and this is a big "BUT"--it is not positive. It is not a book that has redemption. It is not a book that has a moral. It is a book with an anti-hero (another common complaint on Amazon)...but these are things that reign in American cinema and television. Hey--I watch Weeds and love it...definitely anti-heroes with no morals in that series. But, when you combine this with children's literature and all that comes with that (the emotion, the symbolism, etc), well, something very surreal happens...and not surreal in a good way.

Do I like the book? Yes and no. I am easily drawn into books that do what this one did: it explores a culture in a slow and methodical way (probably why some didn't like it). It isn't necessarily exciting until the end (and, because it does get exciting, it loses something in the process). But the book is ephemeral...and important because it is so. It isn't, in my meager opinion, a classic (as many reviewers have suggested). But it comments on the classics in a very important way (even if the author didn't intend it...but I think he did).

So, if you are a literature geek like me and love the children's literature, you should at least thumb through it. I had been debating about it for over a year. But I found it marked down to $3.49 at Books-a-Million and thought that I could risk the investment. It certainly won't be for everyone and it won't leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. But, read through a few pages and see what you think. After all, in the end, reading is a personal experience and it doesn't really matter what I think. :)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving Fun!

Well, Thanksgiving 2010 has come and gone. It was a fun night and I know that I ate way too much! Still, what is the point if you don't, right? Here is a little photo coverage of the evening...

Pre-feast, everyone ran around the kitchen, talking, drinking, and just having fun in general!

We all ate too much...including hacking into this cake that I made the day before. It is a pumpkin spice cake with cream cheese icing (with pecans, golden raisins, and cranberries). The cake was huge! I couldn't put the glass cake dish top on it when I was finished icing it. It is considerably smaller now. :)

After dinner, Jessica and my mom enjoy coffee and conversation in the den with Ginny (Jess's mom), Ron (Jessica's dad), and Grandma. But...

...even though Jeff was also in the room, he had passed out by this time. Too much to eat, Jeff?

The only thing missing? My dad's oldest sister and her family! We missed the Wells family! Maybe next year?

We also had our first Christmas charity drawing. Usually, on Thanksgiving, we draw names for Christmas presents. This year, however, my cousin Laura suggested that we not give presents and instead donate as a family to a charity. I was all for it, and so was the rest of the family. So, we all wrote down a charity on a piece of paper, put it into a bowl, and grandma drew one. We are donating to a charity that contributes to autism support and research! It was the charity I had put in, so next year, I will not submit a charity. That way, we all have equal opportunity for our charity to be chosen! It is a good plan and one that alleviates holiday stress and materialism. Kudos to Laura for coming up with the idea!

For those of you who want more Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton trivia... is an excellent article about the places the couple rented or owned during their time together: Daily Mail article.

Some interesting trivia and several photos!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I know that this can't be the first time that this has happened, but I came across this book today and nearly jumped for joy when I saw that a black man and a white woman were paired on the cover of a romance novel. I mean, like I said, I am sure that this has been done, but I haven't seen it...and I sure haven't seen a cover like this for a sort-of historical romance novel. But, really...if this is the first time, don't you wonder why it didn't happen until 2010? I can imagine that many contemporary romance covers might have multi-racial pairings depicted (and even in historicals you see Arab, Latino and Spanish, and other ethnicities...but usually not African American and/or Asian men paired with white/Caucasian women).

The second best part of this image is the steampunky-Victorian details. So, I decided that I must read this series. You know me...I love it all. I will read just about anything. Stranger is the fourth of Zoe Archer's novels and I think that they will be great! As I make my way through them, I will let you know. (The order: Warrior, Scoundrel, Rebel, and Stranger.)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Chapter 2 (at least the draft) of my dissertation is complete!!! I am officially taking two days off. Thanksgiving is upon us and I will be enacting my inner-Victorian feminine side (ha,ha) as I help prepare Thanksgiving dinner.

As a preview, I am also about half-way through Lev Grossman's The Magicians:

Review to come...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

If I could rename this film (though it would be inappropriate considering how little we see Snape), I would call it Harry Potter and Snape's Billowing Robes. 'Cause that scene as he entered Malfoy Manor really did something for me. (Yes, I am insane.) Anyway, my slight insanity has to do with the fact that I am taking cold medicine and I can't breathe all that well...lack of oxygen makes you think crazy things...

Anyway, on to the REAL review (and not my fantasy world)...though I use the word "review" lightly...nothing scholarly here:

Wow! I have to say that the movie is wonderful and that everyone involved completely redeemed themselves after the travesty that was the last film. (I really didn't like the sixth movie...Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is my favorite book. They completely made it into a joke and left out EVERYTHING important.)

AND...whoever avoided the curse of 9 million pages about Harry, Ron, and Hermione camping in the woods and instead turned it into a fast-paced, intensely rich and personal film...well, that person is a GENIUS.

Best of all, and as will be acknowledged by Snape fans around the globe, is that the filmmakers finally did justice to Severus--at least in this film. Usually (cough...all of the Harry Potter movies...cough...especially Half-Blood Prince...cough), the directors/writers/powers-that-be snuff Snape out. I heart Snape. I have loved his character since the beginning. I am still praying to see a bit of "Severus as headmaster" material, but I am not optimistic, especially as it never really appeared in the book either.

Best scenes of the characters I care about:

Harry: Though I know there were more important scenes, I really thought that his reaction to Dobby's death was excellent. I also liked the dance scene between he and Hermione. Of course, the scene where he sees his parents' grave is excellent as well.
Ron: Well...I guess Ron's shining moment for me happens when he helps Harry and the others escape from the dungeon at Malfoy Manor.

Hermione: The very first scene that she is in...when she erases her parents' memory. Very well done, even if it wasn't in the book. Again, the dancing scene with Harry. Also, she was very convincing in the torture screams.

I really like Malfoy...not as a person, necessarily, but as a character. He is so conflicted. That side of him really comes out in this film. I think his role in the sixth movie was the best role in the film (other than Snape...who they nearly left out spite of the fact that he is the FREAKING HALF-BLOOD PRINCE). Malfoy's non-verbal communication with Harry in this film was excellent.

We didn't get much of him, but I nearly cried when I saw the doe patronus. The billowing of the robes as he entered Malfoy Manor was excellent. Also, the expression in Rickman's eyes as he noticed the "Muggle Studies" professor hanging over the table. His reaction, and Draco's, when Voldemort finally murders her is amazing. "Always."

Poor Dobby. Even in the book, he is the character I cried for when he died--and I rarely cry. He is so noble and good. I loved him. R.I.P. dear Dobby.
On the other hand, I was totally okay with Hedwig biting the dust. I was never that attached to the owl. (Mean, I know...but I don't really like things that fly...they are okay from a distance, but birds and owls freak me out.)

I also enjoyed seeing the Weasleys again.

There are, of course, so many other characters to discuss, but my brain is swimming from being sick and taking cold medicine. Helena Bonham-Carter is amazing--as always, as are the other villains. The new villains are incredible as well.

Overall, this film is amazingly well done. Very mature. Very dark. It is stunning to watch and the actors/directors/writers/everyone else involved did Rowling proud.

Oh, yes, is coming... review of HP7 will be posted tonight!!! I see it in under an hour!

"An Inconvenient Wife" by Megan Chance

Recently, I read an incredibly fast-paced and intriguing novel titled An Inconvenient Wife (by Megan Chance). The book takes place in 1880s New York, and follows the story of Lucy, a high society woman, who has "fits" symptomatic of hysteria (basically, a mental disorder singularly exhibited in women due to malfunctioning or deformed reproductive organs). Lucy's husband, William, is the typical nineteenth-century American husband in high society: rich and chauvinistic. He expects his wife to be the "angel of the house," demure to all of his decisions, and, most importantly, endure her once-in-a-while sexual couplings with him--because God knows that women shouldn't feel sexual desire at all.

As a last resort, William accepts the treatment offered to Lucy by a hypnotist (often referred to as a neurologist in this novel), Victor Seth. From this point forward, one never knows if decisions are being made by Lucy, William, or Victor--and the outcome is deadly.

The novel is important as a historical novel because it delves into uncomfortable territory. So many arguments are made about gender, sexuality, power, perception, reality, illusion, etc. It is fascinating. You never really know how you feel about any of these flawed human beings; and, even at the end, you don't know what is reality. Chance also describes the often brutal and/or degrading treatments offered for hysteria, always pointing out that the woman is on display. The way she does this is subtle but makes the reader feel humiliation right along with Lucy.

The secondary characters are fascinatingly drawn as well, from Lucy's high society friends to William's real family and the servants. It is a fascinating novel that compelled me to want to read it even though I had other things that I wanted to be working on! To me, if I carry the story with me beyond the page and into my thoughts throughout the day, I know that the book is good. This book did that for me.

So, if you aren't easily freaked out by late-nineteenth century medical practices and you want a book that will keep you wondering even on the last page (because I don't really buy that the last words are totally truthful), then read this book!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Two more days!!!


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Weeds Finale...

What will happen next?? Personally, I think that it isn't the end for Nancy and Esteban...but we have to wait a whole year to find out! NOOOOO!!!!!

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Today was the "Quidditch on the Quad" event on campus. I had to go check it out, of course...and it was soooo much fun! I wish that I could have stayed longer, but, alas, responsibility calls.

By the way, if you don't know what Quidditch is...well, I am worried. But, you can remedy that by reading the Harry Potter books or you can take the easy way out: Wikipedia.

I finally found the Slytherin field and watched the "Australia" team win by taking the Golden Snitch! It was brutal! A guy ended up with a broken nose and the boy who was the Golden Snitch was almost choked. It was amazing! (Not that I am condoning violence or anything.)

Anyway, here are some photos. Unfortunately, my camera died before I got a picture of the Golden Snitch!

It was a great beginning to what will surely be an awesome Harry Potter week! I didn't know anyone out there, though it turns out a good friend of mine was there. But, it didn't matter because Harry Potter fans are awesome and we all talk without knowing one another anyway! It was great to see so many people enjoying something that came from...dare I say it?...a book. made me really want to go to another conference!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Only in the South

The other night, I had the privilege of teaming up with an old co-worker of mine (and close friend), Nancy. She had an extra ticket to hear Pat Conroy speak at the Birmingham Sheraton (benefiting the Children's Hospital in Birmingham). I have read Prince of Tides (long ago), and I was so excited when Nancy asked me to go with her.

We had a great dinner and then made our way downtown to hear Mr. Conroy. Everything was uneventful until we left the hotel. And that was when we had an experience that is only possible in the south.

We were waiting for the cross-walk sign to light up so that we could cross the street just next to the hotel (Nancy's car was parked under the bridge there). Anyway, the sign on our side kept beeping at us, so Nancy started laughing and asked if she was supposed to press the button. So, we did...and then the craziest thing...

Rather than just silencing the beeping, a woman's voice -- a VERY SOUTHERN woman's voice -- comes out of the pole (I am sure there was a speaker, but I prefer to think of the voice just magically appearing), saying: "Please wait for the crosswalk." (or something to that effect...honestly, I can't remember anything past the "please wait" because when it came out, it sounded like "Puhlease wayyitt fuh the cross wawwk").

Yes, I guess a sound clip would be nice, but I am not that tech savvy and don't carry anything to record. Maybe you had to be there, but it was just too funny to have that happen right after hearing one of the top southern writers speak to us about the south.


Monday, November 08, 2010

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Mill on the Floss

I first read George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss about ten years ago (wow...can't believe it was that long ago) in Tuman's class. I remember really enjoying the reading experience and being fascinated with Maggie Tulliver. I decided to use the novel in my dissertation, but upon rereading it...well, I don't like it so much anymore. I don't even want to write about it, in fact. I am hoping that I can be convinced or energized with some discussion about it, because it really could be used productively in my work. Still, I almost wrote to my director today and told him that I was completely frustrated with the book. I know that I should at least try to use it. do I make myself excited about something that I just want to throw against the wall??? to make myself resigned to George Eliot's narrative voice when I just want to say, "Bite me, Mary Ann."

Yes...this would be George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans. Just look at that smirk. YOU ARE KILLING ME!!!

Ah...the joys of dissertation writing. It is a never-ending road of confusion and frustration.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Taming of the Shrew

Ah, yes. A classic. And, finally, I am back to posting about Shakespeare. :)

So, I finally have a chance to sit down and think about this play after reading it once more. It isn't my favorite play because it seems to begin so interestingly and end so abruptly. I have read The Taming of the Shrew many times, but, to make it more interesting this time around, I decided to approach it with a question in mind: Why, oh why, is Kate a shrew?

I know that people have discussed this at length. But, remember: I am not in a Shakespeare class and I don't have any professional training in this area (other than a few classes that I have taken YEARS ago) so I am just going with my own thoughts. This question came to me as I watched the Taylor/Burton version on DVD.

As one person put it (and not in these exact words), Elizabeth Taylor comes off as being more than slightly unhinged in the production. And, indeed, many people just play the part that way.

But I never bought that Kate was just a shrew for no reason at all. I wondered more and more about this as I indulged my Taylor/Burton obsession over the summer. In that production, there is so much emphasis on materialism and money, and I started to think about the role of those things in the play. Many people have commented on how the Taylor/Burton production highlights the public fascination of the tremendous fights between the Burtons and their lavish lifestyle. As I watched it, though, it seemed that there could be another meaning behind materialism/money in the play in general.

So, I reread the play recently, and here is what I think: I think that Katharina has very definite reasons for being a "Shrew". Kate, to put it bluntly, is angry. She is angry that she has always been considered an item for trade--and a trade in which she likely (she believes) will not profit.

Her first words are harsh, and they are spoken to her father. He is trying to get rid of her by marrying her off before her younger sister. To this, she responds, "I pray you, sir, is it your will/To make a stale of me amongst these mates?" (1.1.57-58) Her words and her absolute knowledge of what is happening indicate to me that she has known for a very long time the position her father sees her in. He has probably always been very open about what purpose his daughters should serve and she knows that she is at the mercy of a man's bargaining. (Note that the same happens in the Sly plot.)

This message is confirmed, in my opinion, by Act 2, Scene 1. Now, in the Taylor/Burton version, this is the first scene in which we see Taylor as Kate. She is chasing Bianca around, seemingly without reason, and beating her. It just makes Kate look mean and spoiled and, yes, shrewish. But the play's language indicates something different. Building on the brief words mentioned from Act 1, Kate really reveals her issues clearly in her outburst against Bianca in Act 2. Her anger at Bianca has a purpose, I think, in this scene: she wants Bianca to wake up and understand what is really going on--that their father is using them and willing to barter them off to the highest bidder.

Bianca opens the scene by saying that if Kate will just untie her hands, she will give all of her possessions to Kate. Kate tells Bianca that she "fancies riches" (2.1.16). By keeping Bianca's hands tied and talking about riches/material goods constantly, Kate seems to be equating marriage based on a material exchange with imprisonment. Perhaps, by binding Bianca, Kate is trying to force her to see the danger of such an arrangement.

Baptista comes into the scene and says, "Why, how now, dame? Whence grows this insolence?" (2.1.24) He, obviously, doesn't get it. Kate's reply is that Bianca's "silence flouts me, and I'll be revenged" (2.1.29). In my opinion, this response confirms to me that Kate has a purpose in her actions: she wants a response from Bianca. She wants Bianca to realize the truth of their situation!

When Baptista sends Bianca inside, away from Kate, Kate says to Baptista: "Nay, now I see/She is your treasure" (2.1.32) Now, this is not a moment of jealously. I see Kate, instead, saying this disgustedly. She knows that Bianca--even golden child Bianca--is nothing to him. The same type of statement is made in King Lear. King Lear also sees his girls and their "love" as equated with treasure (and says so through his actions)--yet he is seeing their position in the wrong way...and it causes his downfall. We don't get anything so horrible here, but I think that Kate is just so angry that her father cannot love her as a human of worth and value not related to money.

Petruchio's willingness (and need) to use business language allows him to succeed with Baptista, but he knows such language will never work with Katharina...who he insists on calling "Kate." This moment is significant, of course, because he is dominating her through language--not through money or physical force. Baptista continues to "play a merchant's part," but Petruchio knows that he will only win out over Kate by taking away all material goods and talk of money (2.1.329). He makes clear that he will own her, perhaps in seriousness or perhaps in jest, when he says: "I will be master of what is mine own:/She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house,/My household stuff, my field, my barn,/My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything,/And here she stands, touch her whoever dare" (3.2.225-229). Well, yes. She is all of those things because it is the money she brings that will keep all of those things. But, the words are meant to imply ownership on a whole new level...and it is this that leads to how Kate plays the lines at the end of the play (oh, you know them...the whole placing of the wife's hand under the husband's foot thing).

There is a big debate about those final lines, of course. Is Kate really serious? Is she being sarcastic? Has she been tamed to a "household Kate" by Petruchio? In my opinion, yes--as much as can be expected. I totally buy Elizabeth Taylor's sincere reading of those lines. (Of course, the taming in that version had to do with taming a spoiled brat rather than a logically angry woman.) I don't think there is much sarcasm in them, especially in light of how I am reading her "shrewness." Petruchio, as much as I don't like him, has done one thing right. Even though he needs her money Petruchio is not throwing it in her face all of the time. Instead, he only wants her in the role of wife. I don't think that she minds it. She expects him to be like her father (a man incapable of seeing her as a daughter but only seeing her as a good to be traded). When Petruchio appears as just any other husband expecting wifely obedience (as much as I hate that theme, it must be acknowledged), I think Kate really is okay with it all.

Now, as a side note (and I can't remember if I have mentioned this on the blog before), I am using the Royal Shakespeare Company edition of this play (and a few others). I like these editions because they include interviews and notes about stage productions (including photos). However, interestingly, I disagree with most of the commentary included. For example, Fiona Shaw states that Kate falls for Petruchio because he "genuinely wants her." As she says, "It may only be for her money or services...but at least she will be valued for something" (137). I don't agree with the idea that Kate is excited about being valued for her "money or services"...that is exactly what she has been running from during the play.

A comment that I agree with a bit more is this one by Gregory Doran. He says:

"Kate isn't a stereotype, she's an accurate portrait of a woman of low self-esteem, forced to think of herself in the mercantile world of the play as a devalued chattel, until she meets a man with similar problems in his life and they recognize a like spirit." (148)

I agree with everything he says EXCEPT the part about Kate having "low self-esteem." I think he must be reading lines like the "treasure" line as Kate expressing jealously. But, as I said, I don't think that at all. I do think that his acknowledgment of Kate and Petruchio coming to a real understanding is dead accurate. Kate is a woman of intelligence, but she is frustrated and angry. It is only through seeing herself differently in a relationship with a man that she can actually change. It is a profound thing...but not always portrayed in a profound way.

In any case, this is the reading that I have of The Taming of the Shrew. I am mostly satisfied with it, but I still don't like the play. It feels so incomplete to me and I don't think Shakespeare had much to do with the writing of it or had help or just based it off of well-known sources so familiar that he wasn't as careful as he would be in later plays (some of this I read in the intro...and that makes complete sense to me).