Welcome friends! I have started this entry in the global technosphere because I have been in love with books since the age of 2. Among the busy business of being a new teacher, this is my outlet for sharing thoughts on a love of reading a wide variety of books. My inspiration can be summed up with a yearbook quote from a teacher written when I was 8: "To the only girl at recess I see reading a book. Good for you!"
My blog title is quoted from a classmate who asked me this once. Believe it or not, I've also heard it as a teacher :D

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Harking Back...Part III: University (Year 4)- The Last Frontier

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend
The end
~ The Doors, "The End"

As the song says, this is the end of my university reading career and the last post on the series "Harking Back" in which I recount & review books from the courses that, for the most part, I felt privileged to be a part of.  So, here's the last of them:

17th Century Literature
We mostly read poetry and I grew to love Ben Jonson. The only book we read is below.

Paradise Lost- John Milton
Considered the most long-winded poem in literary history! Being an agnostic, it’s difficult for me to weigh in on this. Let’s just say most people who read it sympathize with the devil, who has much more fun (as the saying goes) and Milton’s god is highly vengeful, Old Testament style. Interesting that the movie The Devil’s Advocate, which has some killer special effects & a great end twist was inspired & very, very loosely adapted from PL. So while I read this, I had Al Pacino in mind as the devil all the way through…if I finished this, that is. Which I probably didn’t.

Rate: (C)- Just Okay

Modern British Literature
Very few books on the reading list, which left a lot of room for discussion and less scrambling to finish them on time for the lectures!

A Room With a View- E.M. Forster
Forster creates pleasant, if hilariously dull, characters amid quaint, delicate Italian surroundings in this enjoyable novel that was his first foray into the early 20th century British literary canon. Room is like Jane Austen meets Oscar Wilde: a cherubic romance embedded in social satire and laced with opinionated views of upper class society. His follow-ups, Howards End and A Passage to India are perhaps more popular & recognizable, but Room is like the appetizer before the entrée: it services the meal by allowing you to enjoy a small but tasty introduction to the chef. I’m sorry to end this with a clichéd conclusion, but I can’t resist: bon appetit.

Rate: (A)- Highly recommend

Brighton Rock- Graham Greene
Firstly, the cover is rather striking—it seems appropriate & yet somehow out of place. The portrait of the protagonist, Pinkie (wow, unintentional alliteration…try saying that 5x fast!) is drawn like a cartoon, but look closer: ragged scratches on his skin, oversized ears, and especially his muddy eyes with the evil, pinprick gaze. Despite the odd style choice that makes him appear like a caricature (but then again, aren’t all characters a caricature?), this is Pinkie, the darkest fictional reflection of a dictator figure I’ve ever read. You cannot possibly sympathize with him, and you become used to that. Like the character of Col. Hans Landa (brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz) in Inglourious Basterds, he is cold, calculated, and the most interesting character in the story (to explain the reference, I have just recently seen the movie and noticed the connection).

It’s hard for me to recount the events of the story, as its mystery is as complex as a Raymond Chandler yarn and even makes a number of references to these types of films, as well as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. The reasons for Pinkie’s disturbing behaviour are a mix of alienation, misogyny, distrust, and downright hatred of any living being, including himself, and especially of women. As mentioned earlier, it sounds difficult to read from the perspective of such a despicable character, but it is highly possible to become absorbed by Graham Greene’s rich language and inventive dialogue.

I highly recommend trying it (at least). If you start to think twice about continuing, I urge you to keep at it. If you’ve read Greene before, you won’t be disappointed by (arguably) his greatest novel.

Rank: (A+)- Excellent

Regeneration- Pat Barker
This novel is the first in Barker’s historical fiction trilogy about shellshocked British soldiers during WWI being treated by psychiatrists at an Edinburgh hospital. Many characters are based closely on real people, however like most novels of this nature, events are altered for optimal artistic integrity. Barker’s writing is sharp, sometimes bitter, especially with regards to the public’s misconception of psychological damage caused by warfare to soldiers, often young men whose mental health is compromised to the breaking point. I haven’t read the two follow-up novels, but from my perspective, Regeneration stands alone as the best novel about the detrimental effects of war since All Quiet on the Western Front.

Rank: (A)- Highly recommend

Contemporary Fiction
A terrific book-per-week seminar that unfortunately I couldn’t keep up with, except to read two for my seminar & essay assignments. There are several I haven’t yet read but kept for interest’s sake, and I’ve listed them below. I welcome any insights on these books for those that have read them.

Flaubert’s Parrot- Julian Barnes
I absolutely love this novel. It is unbearably unique, in that there isn’t a single piece of work I’ve read or even heard of that resembles it. I remember in the seminar I gave on the novel that it borrows from a number of genres, making it impossible to bracket it into any one category. A Flaubert scholar vainly explores museums in France to find a stuffed parrot that was an inspirational symbol during the writing of Un Coeur Simple. It sounds preposterous, but the story is embedded with facts, anecdotes, and biographical tidbits on Flaubert, who is defended and admired unconditionally by the protagonist. I knew absolutely nothing about Flaubert when I read this novel (and I still don’t have much knowledge about him that stuck with me since reading this), but I admired the character’s appreciation for him and sympathized with his quest to learn an impossibly hidden truth. I highly, highly recommend reading this, even if you are far from a Flaubert aficionado.

Rank: (A+)- A must-read!

Funny Boy- Shyam Selvadurai
Here’s a sad fact: I read this in a week just in time to call in sick on the one day that our class would be discussing this. My immune system’s lack of timing could not have been worse, because I spent a lot of my commute to school during the week reading this over all my other course materials, only to miss discussing it. The author’s debut novel is a coming-of-age tale (a genre I really enjoy reading & experienced quite a lot of in university English courses) set in Sri Lanka through the eyes of a young, privileged Tamil boy maturing and recognizing his gay sexual identity amidst parental discouragement in the few years prior to the 1983 riots against the Sinhalese in the capital of Colombo. The novel is somewhat based (it’s always hard to know how much in these types of novels) on Selvadurai’s childhood & his family’s eventual immigration to Canada.

Rank: (A)- Highly recommend

Balzac & the Little Chinese Seamstress- Dai Sijie
A coming-of-age story with a gentle, gradually developing plot that changes in point-of-view between two boys growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution (Mao Zedong dictatorship) where they are “re-educated” in the Phoenix mountainside and fall in love with a treasure trove of classic (translated) literature, which they share with their competing love for the tailor’s daughter. There are many visually impressive moments that translate well to the film version, directed by Dai, who made films before novels. His own experiences with “re-education,” in which professionals, such as businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, and teachers, were sent to a form of rural prison camp where they did hard labor in farming, mining, and other such industries, are represented semi-autobiographically. Dai doesn’t shirk from posing tough historically-based questions about the political climate of China and experiences during the Cultural Revolution, which ended only to be followed by the Tiananmen Square massacre.The novel is a gem, weaving romance, literary culture, mysticism, medicine, and theatre/film performance.

Rank: (A+)- A must-read!

These are the unread novels from the course that are currently on my TBR shelf. Please let me know if you’ve read any & how you felt about them.

Tales From Firozsha Baag- Rohinton Mistry

The Woman Warrior- Maxine Hong Kingston

The White Hotel- D.M. Thomas

Moon Palace- Paul Auster

Small Island- Andrea Levy

Canadian Literature
Huge reading list, but insightful (albeit short) discussions on a variety of works over a broad history.

Wild Geese- Martha Ostenso
Told through the perspective of a visiting teacher staying with a farming family during the 1920s in the Manitoba prairies, this stark, absorbing tale of complex relationships against the backdrop of peaceful simplicity broke away from overly sappy popular literature of the time with themes of blackmail, familial detachment, fiery sexual awakening, growing into adulthood, shirking forced responsibility, and ultimately being freed from burdensome chains that withhold necessary truths to be spoken. I found the depth of Ostenso’s language breathtaking, to the point where I was so taken with the novel, not a single page was underlined or highlighted—in hindsight, I think that is the sign of not overanalyzing what is read, but simply enjoying the experience of it.

There is an amazingly vivid scene in which the oldest daughter Judith, a maturing, fiercely independent young woman, who I should note is so anti-stereotypical that I was impressed by the complexity & realistic (yet still interesting nature) of the character (whew…that’s a run-on sentence if ever I wrote one, LOL!), makes love to Sven amidst a small oasis of reeds, blooming flowers, and rushing water. While I’ve probably made it sound like an atypical scene from a romance novel, I have never read a better love scene, or even watched a better movie love scene as I had pictured in my mind when reading this novel.

Rank: (A+)- A must-read!

Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder- James De Mille
Oof…this one was an old clunker, somewhat out of place in the course as most of our reading selections were modern. It even seems to precede its published date (1888) in style & language. It was serialized, which would have made the book more digestible as it’s quite a read at nearly 300 pages (keep in the mind that the font is small & white space is limited). The concept is a story within a story: a shipwrecked sailor finds & begins narrating a [insert title here]. I was never sure if the story was meant as a Tolkienian fantasy or, as most critics see it, a satirical adventure tale reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe, yet after a fantastic voyage excitedly written, the tale falls flat and I could not be seduced to finish it. It’s been taught & re-taught according to my alma mater’s course calendar, but it’s not a quintessentially Canadian work, so why it seems to be a favourite text is beyond me. It was only one of two texts in this course that I didn’t like, so that’s an impressive batting average.

Rank: (DNF)- Did not finish, Don’t Recommend

Roughing it in the Bush- Susanna Moodie
Here’s the other text I couldn’t get into. Moodie is a Canadian pioneer novelist who wrote several diaries that translated into several novels and memoirs about adjusting to the culture of Canada. Moodie comes across as privileged and often snooty in her observations of Native culture in what she calls “the bush,” echoing reflections of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is hard to swallow her writing when she makes harsh comments about a race she barely knows or has been exposed to. Ironically, she seems to think less of them than the Natives do of her, but like Conrad, her perspective is the only one presented. Unlike Strange Manuscript, Moodie is not out of place in the course, but was the equivalent of reading Heart of Darkness in my postcolonial lit course: somewhat disturbing & quite one-sided.

Rank: (DNF)- Did not finish, Don’t Recommend

Obasan- Joy Kogawa
Part epistolary novel, part semi-fictional memoir, and part children’s book, this is the story of Naomi, a young Japanese-Canadian girl separated from her mother during WWII as she is imprisoned in an internment camp, remembering that time now as an adult. The events are recalled through a box of letters & diary entries where Naomi learns some sad truths about her mother’s death as she cares for her ailing aunt after the death of the uncle who helped raise her.

Rank: (A)- Very good

The Diviners- Margaret Laurence
The beautiful opening line “The river flowed both ways” is a metaphor for the ebbs & tides experienced by the 1st person protagonist, Morag Gunn, a writer approaching a calm period of her life, contemplating how to address her autobiographical novel, much like Laurence did while writing this one, and piecing together a sketchy past in order to set the story she wants to tell.

There are so many themes in this novel that intertwine seamlessly: family history & genealogy, Native culture, self-identity, marriage, and coming to terms with change at all stages of life. Supporting characters play pivotal roles in Morag’s life and reappear either in person or mind at various turning points—the garbage “scavenger” who adopts & raises her, a Metis lover whom she cannot admit to truly loving, the runaway daughter also trying to find a sense of identity, a patriarchal husband, neighbours devastated by a tragic fire, and a roommate with a pet python (!). All become the partial subjects of three semi-autobiographical novels (within the novel), a living that Morag uses as the medium to both express & ultimately pinpoint her self-identity with forays into Montreal for college and Scotland for family history searching, but finding her home is the diverse rural town of Manawaka, Manitoba.

Reading a nearly 500 page novel in my honours year when I was overloaded on English courses wasn’t the most practical time to finish it, but I was adamant to, because I had never been so absorbed by a story that told so much about a single person. This was Laurence’s final novel, often a sacrificial lamb at the stake of Canadian censors who banned the book from many high school libraries for being “obscene” and “vulgar” (likely due to one sex scene that is tame by even older standards). I, for one, could not have appreciated this book in high school and will need a long period of time if I decide to reread it, but it is a remarkable, involved journey that took Laurence a lifetime to experience and four years to set on paper. It is a work that any author would wish to finish their career with writing.

Rank: (A+)- Instant favourite

In the Skin of a Lion- Michael Ondaatje
There is no doubt that Ondaatje is a fascinating writer, telling novels as if they were extended poems and creating unforgettable images. The plots are often mazes that even a strong reader can get lost in, but Ondaatje gives us permission to. Perhaps it’s even his wish. Set in Toronto during the 1920s & 1930s, a number of characters, the most stunning being Patrick, the anti-hero protagonist. Ondaatje presents a criticism of the city’s development and how the minority builders who contributed to its construction were eliminated from the history books. Patrick’s work as a dynamiter offers amazing descriptions of his work, coupled with a lingering sadness of his father’s death and memories of the logging & milling workers he witnessed in his youth. I’m finding it difficult to recount the story precisely, but the symbolic imagery of the story will stay with you long after reading.

Rank: (A)- Highly recommend

Truth & Bright Water- Thomas King
Had to skip reading this, but kept my copy so it’s TBR.  Any experiences with this one, readers?

My Best Friend is White- Klyde Broox
Odds are you haven’t heard of this one. Broox is a Jamaican-born “dub poet,” who writes, rhymes, and performs like a politically, racially & culturally-charged material in the style of Bob Marley meets Allen Ginsberg. My Best Friend is White is a compilation of dub poems that ring even truer in performance with his smooth voice and exciting tempo. I had the privilege of seeing him perform in university, and got his autograph on my copy, with the cool inscription: “To Megan, Your name rhymes with ‘vibration.’ Keep the vibes flowing!” Broox, being a former teacher, was also generous enough to perform for a class of grade 7 & 8 students in my student teaching practice, and even taught a poetry workshop with them! We had read & practiced “A View Beneath a Hard Hat,” a poem that I felt they would best relate to about the tiring effect constant hard labour has on “hard hat” workers. But seeing & hearing him perform in person captivated the students, and made me feel like I had provided them with an experience they had never seen or felt before. Broox made that happen & I could not thank him more for it.

Rank: (A)- Highly recommend

Children’s Literature
A disappointing, harsh lecturer but you can't complain about this list of classics.

Anne of Green Gables- L.M. Montgomery
Every young reader, especially girls, have heard of this book for many generations. If you’ve never read it, it is a timeless classic that still creates a feeling of nostalgia for childhood. That being said, reading the series as a child is very different from reading it as an adult. Anne Shirley was my favourite literary character, forever pictured in my mind as Megan Follows who played Anne in the equally adored Canadian TV movie adaptation. Additional characters, such as Rachel Lynde and Marilla Cuthbert, were supporting players in the Canadian TV series Road to Avonlea, which expanded further into the Ontario town, often through the eyes & experiences of young Sara Stanley, who is similar in nature to Anne.

My favourite memories of the story are Anne’s imaginative naming of the fields surrounding Green Gables, her defensive reaction to Mrs. Lynde’s initial judgment, her dress with puffed sleeves, and breaking the slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head.  This beloved classic makes me proud to be Canadian :o)

Rank: (A+)- A must-read!

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn- Mark Twain
An epic adventure of childhood escapism and an unwillingness to grow up in the late 19th century American south. Mark Twain is a classic humourist and social satirist who has an accurate read for childhood hopes, dreams & fears. The plot is not too important—the characters are the story, especially young Huck’s tense, tested relationship with the slave Jim and their travels along the Mississippi river on an idyllically pictured raft on the glowing front cover of the Bantam edition. This is a relaxing read that will allow you to escape right with the characters. If you were wondering, I haven’t read the follow-up, Tom Sawyer, yet, but it’s on my TBR list.

Rank: (A)- Highly recommend

House on Mango Street- Sandra Cisneros
A series of short vignettes set in a poor Latino neighbourhood told by a young girl witnessing & experiencing a number of hardships as she learns the truth of growing up, persevering & coming to terms with one’s home turf. It’s a short, digestible read that broke ground for Cisneros and other Latin-American writers who were grossly underrepresented in the literary world.

Rank: (B)- Recommend

Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang- Mordecai Richler
An often hilarious, always honest portrayal of childhood as an adventure in which stereotypes of villains are turned on their head and revealed as simply misunderstood people who can be reformed if the right person charms them. I had never read this book as a child and the TV movie version was too scary for me (I was very averse to even the mildest form of fright), but I fell in love with this cute story and I have saved my copy to read to my class some day.

Rank: (A)- Highly recommend

The Giving Tree- Shel Silverstein
A classic children’s book written by Silverstein, the king of kid lit who makes poetry fun and less intimidating. The black-and-white pictures (who someone in this class brilliantly suggested may be deliberately blank so children may colour them in to become the illustrator) frame a simple morality tale of true love, sacrifice, childhood innocence, adult greed & selfishness, and even environmentalism that children of all ages can relate to, appreciate, and see beyond to the bigger message. Read & reread this to your children, your grandchildren, and yourself—you won’t regret a second of it.

Rank: (A+)- A must-read!

The Oprah Effect
Yes, that Oprah (who else?). This seminar covered some novels from Oprah’s book club and academic criticism about her show, her image, and her effect on pop culture, business, journalism (is she even considered one anymore?), media, and self-help therapy. This course was far more challenging than the content it suggests, but because everyone has heard of her, it was impossible to not contribute to the discussions.

Song of Solomon- Toni Morrison
Like many postmodern novels, this book is written with a loose structure, focusing instead on character development and descriptive language, allowing the cards to fall where they may. Morrison, known for writing themes of black identity and post-slavery dysfunction, pens a story about a family with (sometimes ironic) Biblical names and the oldest son’s struggle to identify himself amidst the violence between his parents, an obsessive great-niece, and a best friend jealous of a hidden family fortune that promises him freedom. It was a tangled read, full of mysterious characters and messy truths. It may not be for everyone, but I suggest attempting it, especially if you have read Morrison’s novels before (I haven’t, by the way), such as Beloved and The Bluest Eye.

Rank: (B)- Recommend

The Corrections- Jonathan Franzen
It’s hard to like a book with such unlikable characters, but it is proven possible. I feel uneasy ranking this book as merely “okay,” because it is an impressive tome that Franzen and some of his male counterparts deemed too good for Oprah’s book club (granted, they were probably right as Oprah’s choices are popular but rarely the critical best of contemporary literature). It portrays family dysfunction in the queasiest of details that often made me physically squirm in my seat. Judging by its press releases, Franzen’s hopes of reaching a male audience were successful as the women of the story had a certain offbeat tone that can subsequently be attributed to a male author (arguably repeated in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina). It has been some time since I read this novel, so my arguments may not be wholly justified (and without a copy, even backed up…ahem), but I am merely recanting my feelings at the time of reading this novel for the course.

Rank: (C)- Just okay

A Million Little Pieces- James Frey
There was a lot of intrigue about this novel, but frankly, I didn’t catch onto it. It’s (ironically) addictive to read, much like watching a bad movie, but needing to know how it ends. This was only half that experience as I didn’t finish it. The style was jarring and very scattered, which perhaps was deliberate, but The Basketball Diaries covered a similar experience coherently, didn’t it?

Frey received a lot of flak (mostly from Oprah) for his dishonesty surrounding how much of this memoir actually happened to him. To me, it doesn’t really matter. Lots of memoirs tell falsehoods or hyperbolize about events that weren’t as significant as the author writes. On the same note, lots of fiction comes off as autobiographical when it scarcely is. Okay, so he lied. But, you might counter, he lied to Oprah. Well, so did Mike Tyson, but she didn’t have him back to say “shame on you.” Does the follow-up make Frey’s novel any worse? If anything, it draws more publicity to it. And to Oprah.

Rank: (DNF)- Did Not Finish, Don’t Recommend


  1. Hi there, you asked if anyone has read any of the books on your tbr list. I have read Small Island- Andrea Levy and I loved it and would highly recommend it.


  2. Thanks for the note! I'll give it a try when I can get to it :oD

  3. SO many books. I will have a look through them all when I have the chance.

    I did like your comment on A Room with A View. It captured the book perfectly. Definitely worth reading, but not something to prioritise reading above all else unless you are a big Forster fan