Monday, August 25, 2014

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I have been an irregular reader of late. Time seems steadily to slip out of my grasp. Few books hold my attention lately: Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis, which I read in two feverish sittings, tops the list right now. 

Like its gorgeous cover, the book is random pages torn out and stuck together, a collage of a life or two. It is not a novel in the strictest sense. It is a series of incidents fit together in loose chronology.

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis is set in Greenwich Village in the 1970s. Rainey Royal lives with her father, jazz musician Howard Royal and his cult of acolytes, groupies and aspiring musicians. Her mother has left the family to live in an ashram, and under her father's neglect, Rainey fends off advances from his best friend Gordy. She stumbles through life trying to nurture her creative drive, praying to Saint Cath - the patron of temptation, staying barely out of trouble, along with her friends Tina Dial, who secretly loves Howard, and Leah and string of young and old men.

To the world, Rainey Royal is a manipulative bully, a rebel, a criminal even; admirably disturbing, selfish. She's greedy, talented, cruel, ruthless, moody, secretive. She is not likable. But with her art, Rainey is, in every sense of the word, "royal." She can sew memories into people. And as she grows up, Rainey learns to use her art to find a place in the world, getting commissions for making tapestries of dead relatives and lovers. But throughout the book, Rainey's reluctance to vulnerability, her inability to trust herself, her inexperience with love and care - the shadow of her past - hang over her head like a knife ready to sl iceher the moment she lets go of the anger keeping her upright. Rainey Royal is a masterfully crafted character, one you can't bring yourself to care for. She stands somewhere between protagonist and villain, between good and bad and beyond grey.

Like Rainey Royal, the book is beautiful but it's not likable, it's full of emotions but it doesn't touch you, it's passionate but not lively. The tone is pessimistic, there is no solution and no real ending. I did not end up feeling a rush of affection towards Rainey or Tina, I did not wish them well, the story showed me nothing but the unfairness of life and innateness of art, and I left the book convinced that the 1970s of the story might as well have been today.

I don't know if I like this book. Parts of it drip with melancholy beauty and parts make me gag. Sometimes it seems silly and overdone, other times grotesquely profound. Surely, you will like a book which captures how it feels to have that one skill, talent, calling, that makes all the problems of your life whoosh away; but what if its characters make you mad and miserable? Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis is such a book, memorable but I don't know if I can call it good. It's short, so you can read it and decide for yourself. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Magic of Historical Fiction

(There may be many other reasons to love historical fiction, and seeing how it’s so incredibly popular, there must be. I've touched upon a few, so tell me if you agree or have anything to add!)
Image courtesy of Simon Howden at

It took a lot of restraint for me to only pick one Literature course at the university. The first class went on and on about historical fiction and its appeal, in the context of Shakespeare's plays. It's a topic I happen to have been wondering about for a long time now. It's been maybe a year since my obsession with fantasy gravitated completely onto historical fiction.

For the past three months, I have been obsessed (and that is still an understatement) with the Iliad, in its original form and as a retelling and reimagining. I suppose that we cannot call the Iliad strictly history; to have Pallas Athena actively and literally intervening on the side of the Greeks is naturally impossible. But that's the thing about history. None of us (ordinary people) really know what happened, and it is this guesswork and mulling over the true truths and made-up truths that adds its foremost magic to historical fiction.

We all want a taste of the past. I certainly do. Looking through old family photos and imagining the lives of all the generations before is my favourite pastime. I love trinkets - the seashells that my father and I found at the beach, my mother's wedding jewellery, an old greeting card - everything is made up of memories and because memories are rare and easily lost, they are important. A book retelling history makes rare memories accessible. A good historical novel lets you remember a past you never lived and that's a charm that no other fiction possesses.

History, as most of us learn it, is dull. History from museums is fact. History from novels is life. While historical fiction may not mention every political action taken by great leader, it’ll mention his favourite colour. Historical fiction turns boring details into colourful stories. It makes you realize that remembering dates and the names of a myriad treaties is good, but accuracy and origins (as my Shakespeare professor said) are immaterial when placed next to the emotions attached to and invoked by history: these are feelings that we rarely find in an information-oriented classroom setting, feelings too undefined to be taught but worth experiencing. Historical fiction will make you love the past and quite possibly, thank God you live in the present.

In the past, or at least the distant past, life had an altogether different meaning. An incomprehensible simplicity and an unlikely danger. For all the aforementioned sluggishness of text-book history, the past was difficult and exciting! Look at all its pop culture representations if you doubt me, Achilles and Henry VIII and Spartacus. That's the obvious reason to love historical fiction!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro

Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro is a story from the collection Too Much Happiness. This is one of those stories by Munro that you can read in the New Yorker (although the book version is slightly modified and more impactful, so do try to get your hands on the book.) I've been tackling the book fairly slowly, which is a nice idea considering the layered complexity of Munro's stories. The only story from the book I've blogged about before is Fiction, which I read over three months ago.

Wenlock Edge followed a college student, living as a tenant in the attic of an old house, and her new roommate, Nina, a young girl with a terrible past. A series of unfortunate affairs, Nina told the narrator, had led to her making an arrangement with a certain Mr. Purvis. The old gentleman had arranged for Nina to attend college like any other girl on the weekdays and the spend the weekends with him. Nina seemed sincerely grateful to the man, until the narrator noticed that she rarely wrote in her college notebooks and had a black car tailing her at all times. One weekend when Nina was supposed to visit Mr. Purvis, she fell ill and instead, convinced the narrator to accompany him for dinner. That night, at Mr. Purvis's modern house, the narrator discovered the ugly truth of Nina's arrangement.

Somewhere in the story, somewhere in his house, Mr. Purvis made the narrator read to him the poem On Wenlock Edge by A. E. Houseman.

On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;
      His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
      And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
      When Uricon the city stood:
'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
      But then it threshed another wood.

Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman
      At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
      The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
      Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
      Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
      It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
      Are ashes under Uricon.

At first read, the poem didn't make any sense to me, then this analysis, which explained all the vocabulary, helped. A reread made it clearer. The poet says all actions and all feelings are the same and they're all mortal in the end, just as we are. In the context of the story, On Wenlock Edge affected the narrator, it touched the victim in her when Mr. Purvis made her read to him and it haunted her into revenge.

Had he known? Had he known that I would never think of those lines again without feeling the prickle of the upholstery on my bare haunches? The sticky prickly shame. A far greater shame it seemed now than at the time. He had got me, in spite of myself.
I would always be reminded of what I had done. What I had agreed to do. Not been forced, not ordered, not even persuaded. Agreed to do. 
Nina would know. She would be laughing about it. Not cruelly, but just the way she laughed at so many things. She would always remind me.

Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro was atmospheric, melancholy. It was intriguing and engrossing. The subtlety of writing, the gentle choice of words somehow enhanced the obscenity of Mr. Purvis's actions, the emotional abuse. The story showed us two victims, one blaming herself and desperate to shift the blame onto another, the other turned painfully nonchalant and ruthless by her suffering. It showed us how we'll never know what we're capable of, how we can not only surprise but often horrify ourselves, and how we can never really know someone, no matter how well we think we do. The cruelty of the story was not altogether unusual and that's what made it most effective.

I love Munro's writing, how it makes me really dig deep, every line, every word is significant. The flitting timelines make for a punchline which you might not understand at once and which, when you do, will leave you speechless. What makes this whole book most attractive to me is the apparent ease with which Munro constructs her stories; she sews together seeming inconsequentialities into a vast canvas and the big picture thrills and stuns you.

Do you have any Alice Munro favourites you would recommend? And what do you make of this story? I've spent some time dissecting it and would love your thoughts on the poem!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Negative Reviews, Stickers and Other Pet Peeves

Moving to a new city, leaving th comfeort of my home, looking forward (not) to two years of university life made me dig up this old draft about things that make me uncomfortable: my bookish pet peeves. I suppose two years will turn me into a very accommodating person, I can only hope, but you have to admit, finicky obsessions do have their personal touch.

Review / Blogging:

Negative Reviews: Of course, there are whole big complicated annoying discussions about this one. But my problem is not whether negative reviews are morally right or wrong, but simply this: do bad reviews really affect your decision to buy? Ever since I started writing this blog, I have discovered many great authors through rave reviews of their books. Five-star reviews and unending praise do play a part in convincing me to pick up a book. Negative reviews, unless I've already read the book, are kind of pointless. I've never decided to not buy a book because someone thinks it SUCKS -  It's just someone venting their frustration: too subjective. 

Stock Reviews: I suppose I went through this phase too, where all my reviews read the same; the plot is fast-paced/action-packed/slow/meandering. The characters are realistic/fake/blah blah. Reviews that make no real expansion on what the book is reminiscent of, what it makes you feel, the theme, the point of the book are kind of pointless anyway. Pointless overly-commercialized posting is a big problem in the world of blogging, I think.

Book - Appearance:

Book Stickers: I hate stickers on books. They ruin the prettiest cover pictures. The offer stickers (50% off, 3 for 2) are generally easy to remove, but you can't say the same for price or "Oprah's Book Club Read" stickers. When I bought the latest addition to my Rowling collection, I made sure to meticulously and almost fully scratch off the sloppily unimaginative sticker on The Cuckoo's Calling. For those of you who share this pet peeve, but would rather not attack books with your fingernails, the How to Remove Stickers from your Books tutorial is very helpful.

Edge gilding or colouring: This is a new peeve. I have a mystery novel with red coloured edges and my old library had a Philip Pullman book with black edges. Both look preposterous in my opinion. Colouring the edges of books is such a needless waste of... well, colour and money I guess, and I do believe page edges browned and yellowed with colour have a certain finesse that you lose when you colour them artifically, even if with gold leaf.

Book - Content

Slabs of writing with no spaces - Okay, so I understood and appreciated the creative need for this in Jose Saramago's Blindness; the effect the writing had of wading through darkness like a blind person. But then I started reading another of his books that had little to do with losing your sight and it was just the same. I left that book. Reading shouldn't be an effort, should it? What's the fun in that.

That's enough complaining for today, I'd say. Although, this post has given me the idea of posting about things I love to see in books, a much happier post, don't you think? But till then, what don't you like to see in books?