Matilda Reviews: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

17 Aug

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Wow, it’s been a while since I reviewed a book. My life for the past month has been a series of ups and downs, so reading has unfortunately fallen by the wayside. I did, however, manage to steadily (albeit slowly) plug away at the second installment in Lev Grossman’s Magician series, The Magician King. (I recently read and reviewed the first book, The Magicians.)

In The Magician King, the not-quite-lovable Quentin is back in the magical land of Fillory, this time joining fellow Brakebills graduates Janet and Eliot, along with his high school friend Julia, as rulers. Disappointingly, it turns out that being king of Fillory is not the most exciting of careers, so Quentin, being Quentin, decides to go off in search of a new Quest and a chance to become a Hero.

His Quest leads him on the search for seven golden keys—keys to what, he doesn’t know—but he trusts that they’re important because this is Fillory after all. After he and Julia open an invisible door with one key, they are disappointingly transported back to Earth, where they meet up with some of Quentin’s old friends and attempt desperately to find a portal back to Fillory, seeing as they’ve lost the magic buttons that normally allow them to jump between worlds.

Meanwhile on Earth, we learn much more about Julia’s past—Julia, who was rejected after taking the Brakebills entrance exam and who hit rock bottom before discovering unofficial “schools” of magic on the street, is absolutely brilliant. She masters hundreds of spells before working her way up to a (very traumatic) breakthrough of sorts when she manages to communicate with a god via magic.

When Quentin and Julia do find their way back to Fillory—after only three days on Earth, a year has passed in Fillory—they learn that the gods have decided to take magic back from humans. After a brief period of total devastation at the thought of having to live like normal non-magical humans do, they realize that the seven golden keys may be able to save magic.

I liked this book even more than I liked The Magicians. Yes, it’s all over the place, and yes, a million things happen before everything finally starts to make sense, but that’s all part of what makes it so well crafted. The story is rich and intricate, the characters are interesting and complex, and the entire thing is absolutely hilarious. I don’t know what it is about Grossman’s writing, but I found myself snorting throughout the entire book.

I know that these stories are often compared to Harry Potter, but the more I think about it, the less I feel the two can be compared. They have very different scopes, and each series is wonderful in its own way. I think what I like most about the Magicians series is that the magic is so serious. In these books, magic can get you into deep shit. Magic can teach you things about time and space that you can barely wrap your mind around. Magic is woven into the divine.

The only word she could think of to describe this magic was grave. There was nothing light or playful about it: it was dead fucking sober magic. Serious as a heart attack. Where was the line between a spell and a miracle? Turning moonlight into silver coins wasn’t exactly parting the Red Sea, but the effortlessness with which it was accomplished spoke of much larger possibilities. It was a minor effect running off an enormous power source.

I highly recommend this series. And now I’m off to reserve the third book, The Magician’s Land (which was just published this month!) at my library.

Matilda Reviews: Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp

9 Jul

Genre: Memoir
Published: 1996

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I recently read and reviewed Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship. It was about Caldwell’s friendship with Caroline Knapp—the author of Drinking: A Love Story. Naturally, after that I had to read Caroline’s book, so here we are … and even though I loved it, I think I’ll be taking a break from addiction memoirs for a while now. (I’m counting Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted as one.)

Caroline Knapp (now deceased) was a high-functioning alcoholic. Born into an upper-middle-class New England family, she graduated from Brown University with honors and went on to have a successful career as a respected journalist. What most people didn’t know was that she was harboring a secret: she drank. A lot.

Caroline describes the twenty-odd years of her alcoholism as a love affair with booze. From an early age, she learned to lean on alcohol. She was shy and self-conscious, and alcohol was there like an outgoing friend: there to break her out of her shell at parties, to ease her depression, to allow her to communicate with her father.

But then the wine came, one glass and then a second glass. And somewhere during that second drink, the switch was flipped. The wine gave me a melting feeling, a warm light sensation in my head, and I felt like safety itself had arrived in that glass, poured out from the bottle and allowed to spill out between us.

Many people, especially quiet people, can understand this phenomenon. But with Caroline, alcohol became more than a way to relax and have fun; it become an integral part of her everyday life. Soon she was drinking with coworkers every evening after work, as well as at dinner and alone at her house, needing more and more alcohol to achieve the same effect. She hid bottles of Cognac around her boyfriend’s home. She blacked out, slept with strangers, and lost her car. She began dating two men at the same time and maintained these two relationships, secretly and separately, for years. She could not go a day without getting drunk.

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Caroline Knapp

When she finally admits herself to rehab, it comes as a huge relief. Addiction memoirs, like addictions themselves, can be terribly repetitive and frustrating: I drank; a bad thing happened; I continued to drink; more bad things happened; still I continued to drink. But Caroline offers melancholy bits of wisdom and hope in her own way; she doesn’t sugarcoat recovery, but neither does she pity herself excessively. Caroline faces her post-alcohol life with acceptance and a brave, honest face.

Caroline’s memoir is candid and honest, although it is lacking in humor and self-forgiveness. Caroline has spent much of her life being hard on herself—from the anorexia of her twenties to the alcoholism of her twenties and thirties, she runs from, punishes, and dislikes the person that she is.

Whether you’re an alcoholic or a teetotaler, Drinking: A Love Story is worth checking out. It imparts some hard-earned truths about what it means to face the life you’ve been given.

Matilda Reviews: Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher

4 Jul

Genre: Memoir
Published: 1998

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Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted, one of the most well known eating disorder memoirs out there, has been praised as a very honest account of one woman’s decade-long struggle with the devastating effects of anorexia and bulimia. It probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that its honesty is what makes it a difficult and very gruesome read.

The memoir begins with Marya’s childhood, which is not a particularly unusual one: her mother’s and grandmother’s preoccupation with food and weight; her own mood swings; their strange family dynamics, in which Marya serves as something of a lynchpin in her parents’ troubled marriage. Self-conscious about her (normal) weight, she begins throwing up at age nine and continues to do so throughout adolescence. Of course, what begins as an occasional thing becomes an obsession: she can’t eat anything at all without thinking about where and when she will throw it up.

Fast forward a few years, and Marya is fourteen and extremely troubled, having unsafe sex with random boys, drinking, using drugs, and honing her bulimic behaviors. She goes off to Interlochen, a boarding school for the arts in Michigan, where she decides that bulimia is disgusting and becomes, instead, an anoretic, paring down her diet until she is subsisting on rice and mustard. (Although she uses the term “bulimic” in reference to herself, she insists on describing herself as “an anoretic” as opposed to “anorexic.”)

Marya is hospitalized for her eating disorders no less than four times, one such hospitalization even leading to a long-term stint in a children’s psychiatric ward. In addition to her severe EDs, I was struck by how incredibly manic she was. (She was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.) She writes about how she would stay up all night at Interlochen to write, fueled by an intense drive to make something of herself. Later, as a young adult, she works as many as sixty hours a week, eating next to nothing and dropping pounds left and right, until she finally checks herself into a hospital with a weight of fifty-two pounds and begins her long and arduous recovery.

Marya describes her eating disorder as an illness, a conscious choice and an addiction and vacillates between wanting to blame herself, her parents and her circumstances. When she finally decides to commit to recovery, to give up her behaviors completely, she realizes she has no idea how to live healthfully; she has, after all, been sick since age nine. She hates herself, and she both loves and hates her eating disorder. As a reader, it’s frustrating: I wanted her to get help, of course, but I was disgusted by her continuous lack of commitment to recovery. (Although, to be fair, she isn’t wholeheartedly encouraged by her parents—upon leaving the hospital the first time, her mother informs her that she “wouldn’t call [Marya] ‘thin'”.) Marya is so smug in her thinness, so proud to report the extreme lengths to which she goes to achieve it. Although she professes to have written her memoir in order to help others with EDs, which is undoubtedly true, it also seems like a way for her to hold onto or brag about her illness. Even the use of the noun “anoretic” as opposed to the adjective “anorexic” feels like a boast.

Wasted was originally published in 1998. I read the newest edition, which includes a new afterword by Marya. The afterword serves as an update on her health, and it also implores readers who may be struggling with an ED to commit to recovery. The memoir as a whole, though, is not a satisfying illness-to-rock-bottom-to-recovery story. At the end, Marya is uncertain in her health, believes she’ll die young, and remains tormented by her nearly constant desire to purge and/or starve herself.

I wonder how Wasted would read if Marya had waited ten years (or more) to write it, instead of writing it fresh out of treatment in her early twenties. One of the strengths of Wasted is its immediateness, but on the other hand, the lack of perspective is a little bit unfortunate. Marya writes like a troubled twenty-something who is still processing the whole ordeal. The memoir reads like a journal entry or counseling session; Marya circles around and around in her writing, babbling about the vaguest possible “reasons” for everything, overanalyzing the tiniest details of her life, repeating points over and over. One entire section is inexplicably written in second-person. The book is peppered with quotes from random works of literature. Wasted would have benefited from a serious editor and a few years’ perspective.

If you’re newly in recovery, or if you’re easily triggered, I would suggest that you not read this book. But if you’re interested in learning more about what it’s like to have an eating disorder, then Wasted might be a good place to start. Just keep in mind that Marya is, sadly, not entirely likeable, and does not write from the perspective of recovery.

Friday Favorites: LGBTQ Books

27 Jun

As soon as my coworker arrives with our rental van this morning, we’ll be heading to Toronto for a weekend at World Pride! It’s going to be an exciting, gay adventure, and I can’t wait. I was hoping to be able to write my review of Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia before leaving, but alas, time has run short. (Seriously, though, I can’t wait to review that book.)

In honor of June being Pride Month here in the U.S., and in honor of World Pride Toronto, I’ve decided to make a quick post about some of my favorite LGBTQ books! (Click on the books to read about them on Goodreads.)

kyasKeeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters

This is one of my favorite YA books about a high school senior, happily boyfriended, who falls in love with the new girl in her class. She has to navigate coming out—to herself, to her friends, and to her mom as well.

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The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

This is a YA book about a young girl in Montana who has to navigate coming out to her evangelical Christian family. She is eventually sent away to a special school, where she is supposed to learn how to become straight. It’s really an excellent book that treats the subject of religion and sexuality with sensitivity.

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Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

A classic in LGBT literature, this is the story of a stone butch who is subjected to discrimination and violence throughout her life simply because of her gender presentation. It’s a powerful read.

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Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is a masterful storyteller, and Fingersmith is one of her best works. It reads like lesbian Dickens—full of plot twists and seedy characters. It’s quite an adventure of a read.

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Since My Last Confession by Scott Pomfret

This is a hilarious memoir by a very Catholic man who writes gay romance novels on the side. For the gay Catholics out there, this book definitely hits home, and it’s chock-full of my favorite thing ever: Catholic humor.

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Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers by Cris Beam

This is an amazing memoir by a woman who works closely with young, poor transwomen and who also “took in” one struggling young woman. It really opened my eyes to some of the struggles that transwomen face. Highly recommended.


Do you read LGBTQ books? What are some of your favorites? How are you celebrating Pride month?

Matilda Reviews: The Giver by Lois Lowry

26 Jun

Genre: Young Adult Fiction/Dystopia
Published: 1993

giverWhen I was in 5th grade, it seemed like all of a sudden everyone was checking out The Giver from our school library. I remember it distinctly because of the cover: that grayscale photograph of the old man with the beard, floating next to the shiny gold Newbery Medal. Who wants to read a book about an old man? I thought. The answer, apparently, was everyone.

Being ever curious about books, and figuring it must be something special if even the kids who professed to hate reading were reading it, I checked it out—and I’m really glad I did. I bought a copy for myself and, over the next several years, I read it over and over again.

With the movie version coming out later this summer, I recently decided to reread The Giver for the first time in years. I even read it to my girlfriend, who had never (!) read it before.

The story takes place in a perfectly sheltered community devoid of emotion, color, weather, pain and choice. The Giver was my first foray into dystopian fiction all those years ago, and my fifth-grade self was shocked by the community. Citizens there do not choose their jobs or even their own spouses. Couples may apply for children and are allowed one boy and one girl, who are presented to them as toddlers. They do not feel love, fear, pain or physical attraction. They have never experienced snow, rain or sunshine. They are not allowed to read books. Their lives are literally black and white, governed by countless rules. If these rules are broken, or if an individual’s behavior is less than conducive to the functioning of the community, he or she is mysteriously Released.

The citizens of the community are content with their lives.

The story revolves around twelve-year-old Jonas, who is given the extremely revered and rare assignment of Receiver. Every day after school, Jonas receives memories of what life was like before the community was formed. These memories—transmitted to him by the Giver—introduce Jonas to many new things: wonderful things like animals, love and sled rides; and terrible things like war, starvation and loneliness.

Of course, with his new knowledge, Jonas begins to find the artificial way of life in the community unbearable, and he and the Giver decide that drastic action must be taken.

The Giver is a unique story that holds simple truths: It’s more important to be independent than to be controlled. It is better to make mistakes and to learn from them than to be so cautious that you barely live. It is better to feel pain than to feel nothing at all. Jonas learns these truths nearly all at once. In order to be true to his own knowledge and experience, he must question what he has always known and trusted—and that’s an experience to which many people can relate.

When I was ten, I didn’t realize that societies very similar to Jonas’s community actually exist; that in some countries, people have no freedom. The Giver introduced to me a society in which people have no control over their own lives. It seems silly, but The Giver made me proud to be a human being who makes choices and experiences emotions and pain. It also made me painfully aware of my own ignorance and lack of experience.

Even years later, The Giver is an excellent read. This book is a terribly human—and therefore timeless—story, and definitely worth a read.

The Very Inspiring Blogger Award

24 Jun

Today I was surprised and flattered to be nominated for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award, by one of my favorite book bloggers, Annette at booknerderie! Thanks so much, Annette! (Seriously, her blog is awesome, and her reviews are very entertaining. Go check it out!)

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Here are the rules for this blogger award:

1. Thank and link the amazing person who nominated you.
2. List the rules and display the award.
3. Share seven facts about yourself.
4. Nominate 15 other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated.
5. Optional: Proudly display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you.

Seven facts about me:

1. I love to journal. I’ve been journaling since I was eleven. I think this has fed into my propensity for creative nonfiction writing. I also love to read published journals; they’re so inspiring.

2. I grew up in a tiny, tiny town in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest. There were only a few hundred people who lived there, and I’m pretty sure I knew most of them personally.

3. I’m obsessed with Ireland.

4. I’d rather live near woods than water.

5. In high school I played tenor sax in the marching band. (I played it in college, too, but not while marching.)

6. I’m going to World Pride in Toronto this weekend, and I’m super excited. I’ve never been to Toronto.

7. I very rarely consume caffeine.

My nominations:

Erin @ The In-Between Place

Rachel @ lifeofafemalebibliophile

Sarah @ Glass Typewriter

Matilda Reviews: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

23 Jun

Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2009

 

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Lev Grossman’s The Magicians has been described as Harry Potter plus The Chronicles of Narnia for adults, and in a way, that’s a fair assessment. But The Magicians is also something entirely its own. It has a vastly different feel than the Harry Potter books: grittier, more sordid. It seems to be at once more and less magical than Harry Potter or Narnia—more technical, but less wondrous.

Our protagonist is Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant young man who also happens to be a pretty self-absorbed downer. I did not hate Quentin, but nor did I care very much about his well-being. Having a semi-unlikeable character at the center of the story is, I believe, intentional on Grossman’s part: the whole “point” of the book seems to be that magic would actually impact real life and real, flawed people in a much less exciting and more dangerous way than we would like to believe.

In fact, Quentin himself has been led to believe that magic, if it exists, would make life much more, well, magical. He, like millions of real-life Harry Potter and Narnia fans, reads and re-reads a children’s fantasy series about a magical world named Fillory, which is reminiscent of Narnia in that a group of siblings accesses this magical land via one particular grandfather clock.

Obsessed with magic tricks and the Fillory books, Quentin one day stumbles upon (really, he’s “invited” to) a boarding school for magicians, the prestigious Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. He passes the entrance exam and is enrolled at the five-year school. It seems that his wildest, most improbable dreams have come true: magic is real, and he can perform it! Unfortunately, magic also turns out to be extremely challenging. (There is no foolish wand waving at Brakebills; rather, magic is performed with the hands and is much, much more difficult to learn than it is at Hogwarts.) So Quentin experiences life as a student of magic in much the same way as college students do today, complete with lots of studying, sex and copious amounts of alcohol.

Unfortunately, Quentin finds that simply being a magician does not make him Happy or Fulfilled; nor do his friends or his (totally awesome and brilliant) girlfriend. And when Quentin and his friends find out that Fillory actually exists—and manage to find their way there in search of a quest, like the ones they’ve read about—they realize that even that magical world is a disappointment; it’s nothing like Quentin’s favorite books have led him to believe. In Fillory, there is real danger around every corner.

I found the pacing of The Magicians to be annoyingly varied. The novel is divided into books, and some of them were much more exciting than others. The first (very long) book details Quentin’s years at Brakebills, during which nothing much happens. Sure, we get to know the characters better, and a big plot point or two makes an appearance, but for the most part these plot points are there are and gone in a flash, barely understood and not to be returned to until much later on in the book. I was interested in the magical world that was being set up, but I kept wondering,Where’s the plot? When is something going to happen?

The last third of The Magicians is where the real action takes place, and in my opinion, it made up for the lack of action in the first two thirds. Questions were answered; everything fit perfectly into place like a puzzle, which I appreciated. There are real, scary moments in this book—moments where magic goes awry, where terrifying creatures appear—which I absolutely loved. I understand what The Magicians is trying to say: that magic is not all fun and games and childish fantasy, but that didn’t stop me from falling in love with Fillory.

For the most part, this book was well done. There were a few rough spots; for example, at one point it seemed as though Grossman was attempting to ask serious existential/religious questions, but he never really followed through on that. But despite its slow beginning and whiny protagonist, this book is definitely worth a read. I liked that even though The Magicians was in many ways similar to Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, the magic was so different. I think it’s a world (or worlds) worth exploring.

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