Alias Grace: A Read-Along, Part 1

Today we are posting our general and early impressions of the novel with NO spoilers. So even if you aren't participating in the read-along, feel free to read on!

According to my Goodreads, I have read 51% of this novel so far. If I had to classify this novel from the amount I've read so far, I'd call it part historical fiction, part physiological mystery. Alias Grace follows Grace Marks, a 16-year-old Canadian housemaid who is convicted of the murder of her employer and his mistress. The novel takes place in the mid 1800's and lays out Grace's past and the controversy surrounding her trail; many believed her to be innocent while others vehemently encouraged her incarceration. Grace herself claims to have no memory of the night these murders took place. The story* is told in a double narrative with chapters alternating from Grace's story, to the point of view of Dr. Simon Jordon, the doctor who is interviewing her in hopes of bringing her memories of the crime to the surface.

What struck me from the start was the first person narrative from Grace herself. Atwood rarely writes in a first person narrative and I have to say I am enjoying this departure. Grace's voice is dispassionate, yet compelling. However, I sense that Grace is not a trustworthy narrator, unreliable if you will. Since we aren't giving away spoilers I won't mention the details that led me to this hunch, but suffice it to say there are many suspicions that arise for me a reader.

Another notable aspect of the novel is it's structure. Between chapter sections there are epigraphs that consist of passages, poetry, and historical documents that offer further insight into the historical background of the case and reinforce themes and motifs that are prevalent in the narrative. Most notably, Atwood explores the politics behind cases such as Grace's and the role the media plays in the outcomes of these cases. From the start of the novel details of the case are ambiguous and the reader isn't told what to believe. We are left to make up our own mind, but given little (as of yet) concrete evidence and facts. There aren't many people left whose whereabouts are known with whom Dr. Simon can corroborate Grace's story which means that so far, we haven't been able to find out whether she is telling the truth or lying.

Although the novel is on the darker side and the subject matter quite serious, Atwood injects bits of humor throughout which adds to the fun of reading it. Of course the novel is beautify written, as I have come to expect any Atwood novel to be. Her passages glow with visceral details and eloquent prose.
"All the same, murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it - that word - musky and opressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it to myself: murderess, murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor."
All in all, so far this is a good read. It started off strong, staggered a bit (for me at least), but it's coming back around. The more I read, the more I don't want to put the book down. I hope that by the end of the novel we are given answers, but given the ambitiousness of the first half of the novel, I've got a sneaky feeling we may be left in the dark a bit.

Want to hear more? Visit Bookish Habits and Bookworm Meets Bookworm to read more initial thoughts! We will be posting our final thoughts of the novel Wednesday, May 30th. (I know there are a handful of others participating, so please let me know who you are so I can link you as well.)

*It is worth noting that although this is a work of fiction, there was a case that took place in Canada involving Grace Marks, a young woman tried for the murders of her employers and his mistress.


My favorite book blogs

Before I became a blogger of my own I read a handful of book blogs. Some of these are old favorites and others are blogs I found after I had been blogging for some time. Hopefully with this list you will discover a new blog you haven't read before.

Things Mean A Lot: The first book blog I came across that inspired me to start my own was Nymth's blog. I read her blog regularly for about a year before beginning my own; her reviews are always insightful and incredibly thorough. She also reads a wide variety of genres so there is something for everyone.

Bookworm Meets Bookworm: Beth is one of my favorite book bloggers. Not only are her reviews thoughtful and well-written, but she is also diverse; she posts about crafts and photography from time to time, both of which is is really good at (or at least much better than I am!) I like to think if I knew Beth in real life, we'd be friends. :)

Dog Ear Disks: For some reason blogger doesn't allow me to add this blog to my blogroll, which is really sad because that's where I keep my list of favorites. Anyhow, Dan is another blogger with fantastic reviews and a wide variety of genres. He has introduced me to a handful of books I wouldn't have picked up on my own and has also starting a "read all of Atwood" project which is pretty awesome.

Farm Lane Books: Jackie reads a lot of ARC's and current fiction so when I'm thinking about buying a recently released book, I usually check if she has reviewed it first. She also keeps up with prize winners and closely follows short lists and long lists of the Orange and Booker.

Fat Books & Thin Women: Not only is this blog name one of my favorites, but Ellen can review the hell out of a book. She mostly reads literary fiction and always has unique and well articulated insights with each work she reviews. She is also in the peace corps and I like to follow her volunteer adventures at Ellen in Albania.

What Red Read: Red's blog has been a longtime favorite of mine. She is one of the first bloggers I connected with after I started to blog myself. Her reviews are honest and often funny in a quirky but intelligent way.

Dead End Follies: This is another longtime favorite of mine. Not only does Ben review books, often noir and crime-realted fiction, but he incorporates movie reviews and writes about pop-culture and current events. He has opened me up to genres I may have overlooked if I didn't follow him and he's a fantastic writer himself.

Nomad Reader: Like Jackie at Farm Lane, Nomad Reader reads a lot of current fiction and closely follows literature prizes. Her reviews are concise but careful and also published frequently; she reviews a few titles a week.

Like Fire: This is a fun and offbeat literary blog that covers all things literary from criticism to recommendations to articles that are particularly relevant for readers and writers alike.

Feel free to share some of you favorite book blogs in the comment section!

image via etsy.


Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi

The Complete Persepolis is in my top three favorite graphic memoirs. I think one of the things the makes Satrapi's work so compelling is her ability to articulate her struggles with self-identity in an honest and humerus way. If you haven't read Persepolis, I highly recommend it. However, I am disappointed to report, I didn't not enjoy Chicken With Plums nearly as much as I did her first graphic novel. I felt it lacked the sense of intimacy and emotions her earlier books exuded.

Chicken With Plums follows Satrapi's great-uncle, the famous tar musician Nasser Ali Khan. The novel opens as he discovers his beloved tar is broken and thereby decides he no longer has a reason to go on living. We are then taken from the present to flashbacks and flashforwards, learning more about Nasser and the reasoning for behind decision to give up. I found the end of the novel quite lovely, but I thought the majority was missing something. As always, Satrapi's artwork is beautiful and functions to make the story more personsonal.

At it's core, this is a love story, and a depressing one at that. It offers a portrait of a heartbroken musician who uses his interment as a way of coping with his sadness. It's a testament to the power of imagination and the power of memories to stay with us, dictating how our future selves evolve. Unfortunately, I just couldn't get into the book in the way I hoped I would. Maybe my hopes were too high since I enjoyed Persepolis so much, but I was a little let down by this one.

Publisher: Pantheon, 2004


A reading with Alison Bechdel

On Monday night Alison Bechdel came to Boswell Books, a lovely independent bookseller in Milwaukee, for a reading of her latest graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? I was introduced to Fun Home, her first novel, in an American Women's Writing class. We started with the traditional classics and progressed into contemporaries and then finished with Bechdel's Fun Home. I'm not sure I would have picked this one up on my own; it was my first graphic novel and at that point I didn't consider them "real" books. It turned out to be a longtime favorite that I lent to friends and family. I was quite excited about her new book and even more excited when I found out she was coming my way for a reading! My sister read Fun Home as well, so she joined me for the reading which was awesome since I normally go to these things on my own.

In person, Alison Bechdel is brilliant. She articulates herself so well and precisely that it's just a joy to hear her speak. Her love of books doesn't just come through in her work, rife with countless literary allusions. Prior to the reading, she was browsing the shelves of the bookstore. After she was introduced and before the reading began she discussed her book, telling us that the relationship with her mother was just one of the many strands of the book. It's also about the self and how we think about our own self. The book is preoccupied with Virginia Woolf, who makes an appearance as a character, and her connections between her diary, memoir and writing, and fiction writing. As a whole, Bechdel explains, the novel is internal, recursive, and interior.

When asked during the Q and A what her mother's reaction to the book was, Bechdel said her first response was, "Well, it coheres."

I didn't get any pictures of the actual reading, because no one else was taking pictures or even had their camera out and I didn't want to be that person. So the photo you see above is from a completely different reading at Politics and Prose in DC. But, you know, it's similar. I did manage to snap a stealth photo on my phone while waiting in line to get my book signed. Like the Eugenides reading, I was nervous to meet such a talented writer. I wasn't as nervous as I was for Eugenides, when I was literally shaking.

I'm about halfway through Are You My Mother? and while it's much different from Fun Home, in many ways it's also similar as it focuses on finding one's identity and looking back on the self. If you haven't read any Bechdel, I really recommend you get your hands on Fun Home! I really don't think you'll be disappointed.


Favorite quotes from books

It's been awhile since I participated in Top Ten Tuesday hosted by The Broke and The Bookish and I just couldn't pass this topic up. Below are my top ten favorite quotes from books.

"I believe that theres is one story in the world, and only one... Humans are caught - in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too - in a net of good and evil... there is no other story." - John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.” -Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye

"sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I'm not living." - Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

"and I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in." -Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

"No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.” –George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

"I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur of think at some point, 'if this isn't nice, i don't know what is.'" – Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

"Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing." -Sylvia Plath

"No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and connive and you plan, you're not superior to sex. It's a very risky game. A man wouldn't have two-thirds of the problems he has if he didn't venture off to get fucked. It's sex that disorders our normally ordered lives." - Philip Roth, The Dying Animal

"I regret that it takes a life to learn how to live." - Johnathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

"She wanted a book to take her places that she couldn't get to herself." -Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

photo via nose in a book


Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates

I am not doing well, I think. Or maybe just O.K. I know they are writing reports. But I am not allowed to see. If one of these was a woman I would do better, I feel. They believe you, they are not always watching you. Eye contact has always been my downfall.

This book is not your typical Joyce Carol Oates. Zombie follows Quinton, a psychopath interested in building his own zombie that can function as his personal slave. He aims to make this zombie by lobotomizing a human, thereby leaving an empty shell of a man that Quinton and do with as he likes. According to Quinton, his zombie will enjoy anything his "master" will do to him, simply because he is the master. Echos of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the real-life serial killer Jeffery Dahmer are found throughout the plot. The novella is told in a first-person narrative to bring the reader into the mind of this functioning sociopath. Don't let the petite, soft-spoken image of Joyce Carol Oates fool you; she can get down and dirty. I had no idea she has this in her. We are talking anal raping and ice picks to the face. Needless to say I wasn't able to read this book while eating lunch.

However, the novella isn't sick for the sake of being sick. Rather, it reveals the inner workings of the mind of a sociopath. It explores the way he interacts with others through manipulation, how he depersonalizes his victims, and how his understanding of the outside world is so different from that of a sane human. Oates also seems to be critiquing American medicine and some of its older, cruel practices of drugging and prodding at its mentally unstable patients, creating a form of zombies themselves.
A true ZOMBIE would be mine forever. He would obey every command & whim. Saying "Yes, Master" & "No, Master." He would kneel before me lifting his eyes to me saying, "I love you, Master. There is no one but you, Master." & so it would come to pass, & so it would be. For a true ZOMBIE could not say a thing that was not, only a thing thatwas. His eyes would be open & clear but there would be nothing inside them seeing. & nothing behind themthinking. Nothing passing judgment.
While I did enjoy the book, I have to say I don't prefer it to the other works of hers I've read. Because our narrator was a crazy nut, the prose felt jagged, crude and rushed. Much of the book read as the passage above and while it was fitting to the story as a whole,  I did miss the eloquent, rich writing of which Oates is a master. However, I am now more aware of her diverse talents as an author and appreciate her that much more. If I were to put this next to another first-person psychopath killer novel, I'd chose The Killer Inside Me. It's disturbing and bizarre, but above all, memorable.

I read this for the Smooth Criminals reading challenge, hosted by Ben at Dead End Follies.

Publisher: Dutton Books, 1995


April Reading

April was a slow month for me in terms of reading and blogging, mostly because I've been a little busier with the day-to-day, real life adult stuff as of late. But that didn't hold me back from reading four books.

How to Read the Air by Denaw Mengestu: This novel offers a lot to digest in terms of themes and parallels. For me it was reminiscent of Jhumpa Lairi's The Namesake, as both examine the immigration experience and the sense of isolation it creates, with a focus on the second generation.

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry: It turns out, this is much more than a true crime book. It's also a lens for what happens behind closed doors in eastern culture, like an anthropological look at the darker, hidden aspects of this culture and their obsession with ritual and role play.

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty: As a whole, the book is slow moving but eloquently written. It explores the healing abilities of community, the power of memory, and the dignity of moving on. However, I'm sad to say, I mostly found the novel on the dull side.

Moon Palace by Paul Auster: This is a book that offers unlikely adventure, a bit of mystery, and a whole lot of heartache. As always, the characterization of Auster's main character is incredibly believable, but also unconventional.

Pages read: 1,284
Most popular April post: Tie between People Who Eat Darkness review and Books I'm Excited About

Plans for May: I will be participating in the Alias Grace read-along with Beth and Zeteticat once I finish up my current read, Zombie, either today or tomorrow. I am also super excited to tell you that Alison Bechdel is coming to Boswell Books on May 7th for a reading of her latest book, Are You My Mother? Her first book, Fun Home, was my introduction to graphic memoirs and it still remains my favorite. I can't wait to buy her follow up and meet her! I'll be sure to take pictures and post about the reading. I know there are a handful of you who enjoy her work just as much as I do.

photo via weheartit


Moon Palace by Paul Auster

“It often happens that things are other than what they seem, and you can get yourself into trouble by jumping to conclusions.” 

Marco Stanley Fogg is an orphan, a child of the sixties, a quester tirelessly seeking the key to his past, the answers to the ultimate riddle of his fate. As Marco journeys from the canyons of Manhattan to the deserts of Utah, he encounters a gallery of characters and a series of events as rich and surprising as any in modern fiction. Beginning during the summer that men first walked on the moon, and moving backward and forward in time to span three generations, Moon Palace is propelled by coincidence and memory, and illuminated by marvelous flights of lyricism and wit. Here is the most entertaining and moving novel yet from an author well known for his breathtaking imagination.

Paul Auster is four for four with me. This is the fourth novel of his I've read and once again he delivered. This is a book that offers unlikely adventure, a bit of mystery, and a whole lot of heartache. As always, the characterization of Auster's main character is incredibly believable, but also unconventional. The plethora of characters and events Fogg is met with are whimsical and odd, but also complex and exuberant, making for a fun and intelligent read. 

As the title implies, the moon is a reoccurring symbol throughout the novel. Fogg's story begins with the summer that man first walked on the moon. In his Columbia apartment he can see the Chinese restaurant Moon Palace from his window. (A restaurant that did exist when Auster when attending Columbia.) Marco's Uncle Victor plays in a band called Moon Men and Moonlight Moods. The moon surfaces on a fortune cookie Marco opens that reads "the sun is the past, the earth is the present, the moon is the future." There are endless passages that discuss the moon and it all highlights the idea of constant change, but also constant repetition, the notion of unattainability and absence and an endless searching, for oneself, for meaning, and for a place. It also signifies the passing of time and the continual evolution and development of the self; the person we will be tomorrow may be much different from the one we know today. 
I immediately thought of Uncle Victor and his band, and in that first, irrational moment, my fears lost their hold on me. I had never experienced anything so sudden and absolute. A bare and grubby room had been transformed into a site of inwardness, an intersection point of strange omens and mysterious, arbitrary events. I went on staring at the Moon Palace sign, and little by little I understood that I had come to the right place, that this small apartment was indeed where I was meant to live.
Moon Palace also explores the meaning and implication of "fatherlessness" and the pressures of fatherhood itself. As with most Auster novels, he also examines identity and loss. I think the key to reading Auster is to not read them all at once. I like to keep a steady pace while working my way though his oeuvre. Because his novels are similar in terms of tone, character, and themes, it's best to put some time between his works. Other than that, I really don't have any complaints. This was a great read and Auster is working his way up to become one of my all-time favorite writers.

Publisher: Penguin Ink*, 1990

*This is the first edition Penguin In I've owned and I have to say they are lovely; rough-cut pages, beautiful cover art, and images from the story are incorperated on the inner flaps of the book. One image of a broken umbrella is from my favorite scene of the novel and really, it doesn't get much better than that.