they must often dream

I'm Savanna. I like to eat, rant, and watch cartoons. I'm 25 and I live in Toronto. This is mostly reblogs.

Bossypants by Tina Fey (★★☆☆☆)

I read Bossypants by Tina Fey because as a quasi publishing professional, I sometimes feel guilty for not reading things I know I’ll hate. I hated it more than I thought I would.

It reeks of I’m-so-special-and-I’ve-struggled-so-hard-because-I’m-an-upper-middle-class-brown-haired-white-woman. I’m an upper middle class brown-haired white woman and I can tell you, no you didn’t.

Also it’s action-packed with the hipstery racism and seemingly naïve ableism, I’m-not-like-other-girls–ism, fatphobia, and I-have-gay-friends-so-it’s-okay-for-me-to-be-homophobic mentalities that white feminism is so very rich in. She identifies as a feminist many times, but excuses sexism throughout and says all women should wear bras and get manicures (but don’t get plastic surgery or dress like a slut).

It’s also full of the tired I’m-a-celebrity-who-looks-down-on-everyone-but-I’m-different-than-every-other-celebrity-and-more-authentic-and-special attitude.

Of course, Fey regularly assures her readers that she’s guilty of none of those things because she went to public school and she’s not blonde and she’s been to bad neighbourhoods—and she just works so damn hard in her lifelong career as an entertainer with a university education.

And on top of being consistently obnoxious in those regards, the book is also boring, trite, and full of bad jokes. The writing itself is mechanically okay—its only redeeming feature.

Book Review: Developmental Editing by Scott Norton (★★★☆☆)

While this book makes some helpful points about developmental editing practices, it’s rather poorly copy-edited and misses the mark in tone and scope.

Throughout each chapter, the writing switches abruptly from Norton’s advice to strangely written “case studies” of fictional developmental editors that seem straight out of a children’s textbook. The overall tone seems to miss the mark, as Norton uses clunky abbreviations and a third-person voice even though the book would be much clearer and more personal if it would just assume it’s addressing actual and prospective developmental editors and write to them directly. While this book could offer an engaging, candid account of Norton’s professional experiences, it’s instead strangely detached and passive, sometimes clumsily dropping a few tangential traces of individuality but completely avoiding relevant anecdotes. Why would Norton spend so much time composing the strange “case studies” of fictional editors rather than just frankly sharing his own experiences? That would certainly have been more helpful. Instead he comes off as dispassionate and aloof.

Moreover, despite occasionally alluding to the importance of compassionate, polite exchanges with publishers and authors, Norton’s example queries are quite blunt, and I got the impression that he’s rather contemptuous of other editorial roles. He often insinuates that copy editors, proofreaders, and typesetters are less skilled and less important than developmental editors. This is particularly off-putting given the overall shortcomings of the book that could have been remedied through better copy editing.

Norton’s guide unfortunately focuses too much on the overall layout of the book and too little on the actual details of refining the writing. Though it does make some helpful points about considerations and approaches for developmental editing and is easy to navigate, it isn’t at all inspiring. Its premise is good, and the book has few competitors, but it’s still poorly executed.

Book Review: Practical Grammar: A Canadian Writer’s Resource by Maxine Ruvinsky (★★★★☆)

This is a great resource for anyone who wants a clearer understanding of English grammar. It also includes helpful general tips on researching, writing, and citing sources.

This book is very well organized. Its chapters are thematic, working logically from the parts of speech and through syntax to punctuation before wrapping up with the final chapters and writing, style, and citations. The writing is clear and accessible without being patronizing, and the explanations are plain and thorough. Each grammar section concludes with helpful exercises, and it’s easy to quickly verify your answers with the answer keys at the end of the book. Ruvinsky concisely and logically describes both basic and complex rules—so it’s a useful book for beginners and experts alike. You can read it cover to cover, and it has a pleasing continuity when you read it this way, but it’s also well indexed and works as an effective reference book to have if you’re ever unsure about a specific grammatical point.

But despite these considerable strengths, like most grammar guides this book sometimes falsely presents an absolute rule for situations that can actually be treated in different ways. It only tangentially acknowledges the different practices of major style guides, and it sometimes explains one practice as the only solution even when the issue is contentious just in Canada—not to mention internationally. Of course, this is “a Canadian’s writer’s resource,” and it makes sense to focus on Canadian conventions, but when so many Canadian writers work for companies beyond our borders, it isn’t helpful not to mention that there are international alternatives. And while the intended audience for Ruvinsky’s guide is writers rather than editors, it isn’t helpful to treat variant practices as absolute grammatical rules. If not for this tendency, I would have given the guide five stars.

All in all, though, I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in English grammar and writing.

Book Review: NW by Zadie Smith (★★★★☆)

I respected this book more than I enjoyed it.

It’s very heavy, depressing, and anxiety-triggering so I took a long time reading it. It’s extremely well written and very perceptive, but I found its style difficult to palate. The narrative structure reminded me of film narration. The sentences are blunt and the syntax straightforward, but the description is poetic and the writing is very artistic. The book cycles through protagonists and tenses, giving it the feel of a series of short, vivid scenes loosely connected.

Through this almost cinematic style, NW presents amazingly vibrant images of a rough London neighbourhood and its residents. It explores themes of class, race, culture, identity, and time through a very realistic yet decidedly tragic lens. The characters are complex, relatable, and badly damaged. It leaves you feeling not so much that you’ve read a cohesive novel but that you’ve explored a series of realistic moments through the eyes of believable characters. 

Through NW, Smith poses many disturbing questions and offers few consoling answers. It’s a difficult read, but it’s very sophisticated.

Book Review: The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin (★★★★★)

The Farthest Shore (the third book in Le Guin’s Earthsea series) is more similar structurally to the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, than it is to the second, The Tombs of Atuan. While it lacks the strong female character dimension of the latter, it shares the wonderfully descriptive yet understated style and the complex characters and institutions of the previous Earthsea books.

The narrative this time focuses on a new character, a prince called Arren with no talent for magic who like Tenar becomes entangled in the adventures of Ged, now an older man and the Archmage at last. Arren, like Ged and Tenar in the previous books, is a fascinating and original protagonist, who is easily corrupted and quick to anger and pride, but who is compassionate and brave. With Ged, he travels to the ends of Earthsea to find a new evil (this time unrelated to the nameless ancient shadows that are the previous books’ antagonists) who has stolen the Old Tongue and its magic from the world. Their quest echoes that of Ged and Vetch in the first book, as it takes them over vast distances to an elusive target.

The story introduces us to new peoples as well, and Le Guin is very talented at creating believable, unique cultures and giving them a considerable impact on her stories in few pages. Like the first book, there are plot points that are impalpable and otherworldly, but Le Guin conveys them masterfully through her writing, and the result is an original and intriguing story that escapes the common fantasy vice of too much description.

Like the first two Earthsea books, themes of coming-of-age, corruption, trust, and friendship are important in The Farthest Shore. But interestingly, the book also offers insights on mortality and the importance of death as part of human life. Like the other books, it can be enjoyed independently, but as it fits so well with the series so far and as the previous books are also excellent, I recommend reading the series in order.

Book Review: The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (★★★★★)

This is perhaps my favourite fantasy novel, and it’s among my favourite books. It shares the brilliant traits of its predecessor in Le Guin’s Earthsea series, A Wizard of Earthsea: originality, complex characters, elaborate yet believable institutions, and a flawed yet deeply sympathetic protagonist. Its execution is equally successful, but it surpasses A Wizard of Earthsea in its imagination.

While Ged, the first book’s protagonist, figures prominently in this book (now in his middle age, after having gone on untold but alluded-to adventures since the first book), The Tombs of Atuan focuses on a very different and to me more appealing protagonist: a girl named Tenar, called Arha, who has been raised to be the high priestess of an ancient, sinister order and made the unwitting servant of the same dark powers Ged struggles with in the first book. She fascinated me as a character, because she is so unlike any other I’ve encountered. She’s vindictive and calculating yet naïve and compassionate, and she’s intensely apprehensive yet incredibly brave. She gives the book a strong feminist appeal, as she completely defies traditional female roles.

Tenar’s story is chilling, and there are much stronger horror elements to this book than there are in the first. Again Le Guin combines a fairy-tale–like third-person narration with evocative yet understated description, bringing to terrible life the vast subterranean labyrinth of the eponymous Tombs of Atuan, of which Tenar is mistress. Fascinatingly, the story fleshes out a mysterious and terrifying religion and its rituals with well-rounded, sympathetic characters. As with the first book, the characters are realistically ambiguous—neither wholly good nor evil—although the same cannot be said for the corrupting dark forces Tenar has been brought up to worship.

The plot is interestingly structured, and although nearly the entire story unfolds in the remote, tiny cloister called only “the Place” and the book is rather short, it’s very fast-paced and intriguing from cover to cover. It echoes the first book’s themes of fear, corruption, and coming-of-age, but it also provides insights on trust. It can be enjoyed independently of the rest of the series, and while I recommend the whole series that I’ve read so far, I recommend this book in particular.

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (★★★★★)

This is a great example of genre fiction with literary finesse. Le Guin is a talented author who writes brilliantly and who also develops a rich, believable, original fantasy world in her Earthsea series.

A Wizard of Earthsea takes an almost myth-like third-person narration, detailing the first adventure in the life of its protagonist, Ged, a hero who we are told goes on to further exploits. The book has an almost fairy-tale–like quality in its narration, and it’s rather short, but it also bears the intricacy and depth of a novel. It’s an interesting approach that is sometimes terribly executed (as in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust) but which Le Guin wields perfectly.

While the book hinges on key fantasy elements like magic, mages, rulers, dragons, and great academies, they are all inventively, refreshingly written. Le Guin takes an interestingly linguistic approach to magic, and the peoples and institutions she fills her world with are complex and well rounded—with none of the black-and-white, good-and-evil blunt duality common to the genre. Her protagonist is likewise imperfect, making him both sympathetic and heroic. Another refreshing aspect of the book is that the hero and most of the peoples in the book are neither white nor Euro-centric.

The structure of the plot is somewhat unusual, as Ged’s first journey is a largely surreal and disjointed one that takes him to strange lands and to the doorsteps of mysterious strangers. But despite the mystifying events, Le Guin pieces together a fluid, well paced narrative that’s difficult to put down. And amazingly, though the book is short and the narration somewhat clipped in that fairy-tale–like style, it’s beautifully descriptive and satisfyingly complete.

A Wizard of Earthsea artfully combines a huge scope with a compact scale. It deals insightfully with themes of coming-of-age, fear, and conceit, and it’s among the best fantasy I’ve read.

Book Review: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (★★★★★)

This is a brilliant collection of evocative, devastating short stories. 

Lahiri’s poignant, understated writing immerses you in each of her brief narratives, steeping you in their dark tones and bitter flavours. She develops impressively well rounded, sympathetic characters given the brevity of each piece. The stories skip across decades and continents suddenly, but they’re so perfectly balanced and expertly paced that the transitions within and between pieces feel natural. The writing is sometimes richly descriptive and at other times more vague, but this dichotomy is also perfectly balanced, evoking the soft disjointedness of memory.

The stories focus on upper-class Bengali-American characters, and they illustrate diverse and all too familiar struggles with love, family, ageing, and independence. Lahiri crystallizes terrible moments of despair and long years of resentment with equal skill—and the result is a frankly depressing but deeply moving, beautiful collection.

Book Review: Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery (★★★★★)

Rilla of Ingleside, the eighth and final book in the Anne series, marks a return to the earlier instalments both in structure and merit. It’s a chilling, sorrowful account of World War I as it was felt in the Canadian Maritimes—but it’s also a beautiful coming-of-age story of a girl who like many was swept up suddenly in bellicose currents and plunged into adulthood.

Unlike its two predecessors, Anne of Ingleside and Rainbow Valley, Rilla of Ingleside is a character study that follows only its protagonist’s perspective. But as the title suggests, Anne is no longer the focus of the narrative; this time our heroine is her youngest daughter, Rilla (named for Marilla Cuthbert of the earlier books). Where teenaged Anne was effervescent and intensely idealistic, Rilla is at first shallow and conceited but then becomes a sober, melancholy, and responsible adult. Montgomery has equal success in bringing both characters to life and writing their engaging stories, which shows her strength as a writer. 

The well-developed secondary characters are also interesting and excellently written, and through her diverse and unconventional characters, Montgomery vividly illustrates the anguish, anxiety, and occasional relief Canadians felt during the war. As ever, I appreciated the strength and diversity of the female characters. Montgomery portrays women of all classes, occupations, and dispositions favourably. And while Anne represents a less conventional ideal of womanhood, Rilla embodies traditional female roles but is nevertheless resolute and independent. Like the other books in the series, Rilla of Ingleside meanders through scenes of everyday life, imbuing daily struggles and joys with passionate significance. As you might expect, this book has considerably more sorrow than the others, and it offers beautiful insights on loss, violence, and fear. There are fewer rosy depictions of nature and more grim passages describing the trenches and empty dining chairs back home, but Montgomery writes both stirringly.

This book is sometimes too heavy-handed in its nationalist propaganda—but then that fits with the mood of the time and the disposition of Anne’s family. Like the other books, it has occasional, unfortunate racist remarks, and it stereotypes atheists and pacifists in too blatant caricature. Its plot is more romantic than realistic, which might displease some readers although it didn’t both me.  

Despite these weaknesses, Rilla of Ingleside is an unexpected but perfect finish to the Anne series. Its theme and protagonist are starkly different from those of the earlier books, but it shares the structure and merit of the overall series while departing from the less well-executed sixth and seventh books.

Book Review: Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery (★★★☆☆)

Rainbow Valley is very similar to its predecessor, Anne of Ingleside, which is to say that it’s very different from the first five books in the Anne series. I found that it also lacks much of the charm of the others, largely because the narrative drifts between several characters instead of focusing on Anne, the former protagonist. And although these characters are quite well-rounded, they nevertheless lack Anne’s sparkle.

The novel leisurely meanders through everyday life, and while this works excellently in the earlier Anne novels, it seems to grow stale in Rainbow Valley. The story becomes too repetitive and predictable, the characters less original and dynamic, and the racist passages increasingly disturbing and equally out of place. Not only does Anne remain a minor character (even more than she was in Anne of Ingleside), but also the story now focuses on the Blythes’ neighbours as well as the Blythe children—so the narrative follows more than ten characters equally although it is average in length. As a result, the detailed character study aspect that I found so well executed in the other Anne books is lacking. It reads more like a series of connected short stories than a cohesive novel, which does not work well with the overall series.

But while the plot is less engaging and more commonplace, and while the narrative structure poorly suits the series since it breaks so completely from the first five books, Montgomery’s style is still clever and delicate. She is a talented writer with a brilliance for imbuing everyday experience with literary significance, and her rich, passionate descriptions of rural Canadian life are exemplary. Still, I found fewer passages stood out as particularly beautiful than in the previous Anne books, and overall I was underwhelmed.

Perhaps I would think more highly of Rainbow Valley if it were a standalone novel, but the reality is that it pales considerably in comparison with the rest of the series and therefore seems poorly executed despite Montgomery’s talent.

Book Review: Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery (★★★☆☆)

Anne of Ingleside is a noted departure from the previous books in the Anne series. While it’s still peppered with beautiful little passages, it seems to lack the vivacity of its predecessors and its more formulaic structure doesn’t suit Montgomery’s storytelling as well.

Although it is still titled after Anne, our beloved protagonist is a more minor character in Anne of Ingleside. The story instead follows Anne and Gilbert’s many children and their life at Ingleside, the house the Blythes moved to at the end of Anne’s House of Dreams. It’s some seven years since they moved in. The children are interesting, and Montgomery’s very skilled at earnestly capturing their irrational little minds and their idealism. But the book reads more as a series of short stories than as a novel, as it follows many brief anecdotes from different characters’ perspectives. It lacks the rich character study and meandering though linear plot of the other Anne books as a result.

The story itself is somewhat diffused—less poignant and more repetitive. While there are still beautiful scenes and unusual characters, both are less creative and less engaging. And while the previous books had an amazing tendency to richly portray houses as characters in themselves, full of personality, Ingleside seemed to lack its own defining soul. I was also disappointed to find that the strength and diversity of female characters that I so enjoyed in the previous books has also faded away. They are much more flat and conventional. It doesn’t bother me at all that Anne chose to take on a traditional, matronly role as stay-at-home-mom, but I wish that Montgomery continued to favourably portray alternatives to this lifestyle. I hope that this was not a deliberate choice to do away with unconventionality now that Anne is wholly an adult. Like the other books in the series, Anne of Ingleside has an obnoxious tendency to stereotype and marginalize atheists, French Canadians, Roma, and fat women.

The book in itself is well written and quite funny, but it pales considerably within the context of the series. It lacks the spark of the previous books, and I wonder whether this is because it no longer focuses on the effervescent protagonist and is obliged to divide its attention among so many characters. I would have preferred to continue experiencing the story through Anne’s perspective even though the children are appealing in their own ways. While I respect Montgomery’s attempt to try out a different narrative style, I think the structure she chose was ill suited to the series.

Book Review: Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery (★★★★★)

I don’t have much to say about this book that I haven’t already said about the series in my reviews for the previous books because it continues all the great themes and powerful, beautiful writing as well as strong, diverse female characters. It struck me as considerably more sad than the others, but it still maintains a good balance of joy and sorrow.

It’s a bit rough that now that Anne is married and moved away from Green Gables for good, the old Avonlea crowd is scarcely mentioned. Likewise her Queens and Redmond pals have moved on, but Montgomery succeeds in conjuring up a whole new batch of interesting characters to populate her fifth instalment of the Anne novels. She also gives us more delicious descriptions of the beautiful scenery in Anne’s new town and acquaints us with new houses and their respective idiosyncrasies. As always, Anne moves through life winning hearts and helping people to an extent that almost challenges credibility. But it is fiction, after all, and moreover there really are such people in the world, fortunately.

Something else I appreciate in the series that I haven’t mentioned yet is how interesting it is historically. Montgomery includes a lot of the commonplace details of everyday life that are too often overlooked in literature. She describes the different fashions of the day and lets us know what kinds of cakes her characters eat, how and where they shop, what medical treatments they receive, and what techniques they use in sewing, knitting, crocheting, and embroidery (all of which I love and practice myself!). This adds to the rich realism and endearing frankness of the novels, but it also provides an interestingly candid glimpse at rural maritime life in Canada a century past.

Book Review: Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery (★★★★★)

I adored this book, and I think it’s my favourite of the Anne series so far. It shares the strengths of the previous books in the series (which, however, are dulled somewhat in Anne of Avonlea) of being beautifully, originally, and descriptively written and of having diverse, very well developed, interesting characters—many of whom are women. It unfortunately also shares the disturbing tendency to occasionally include racism toward Roma people, and this is somewhat more evident in this book. This is its one drawback, and although it’s more common for its time, it’s nevertheless disturbing and moreover out of place with the tone of the series. But Anne of Windy Poplars is very good.

Now that Anne’s finished university in Kingsport (Halifax) and is engaged to Gilbert Blythe, she spends three years before her marriage in Summerside, PEI as the principal of its high school. It’s a sad departure for Anne and readers both from the familiar characters of the previous novels (those who are gone altogether and those who have greatly diminished roles), but Montgomery makes up for it by introducing a host of new ones (virtually all of whom are women) young and old, tragic and hilarious, doting and spiteful. I won’t repeat the points I’ve made about the previous three Anne books that also apply to Anne of Windy Poplars, but feel free to check out my other reviews if you’re curious.

In reading this instalment I came to realize a couple more things I really appreciate in Montgomery’s series. I’ve discussed her gift for developing realistic, touching characters already, but in Anne of Windy Poplars I’ve realized that she likewise brings to life houses. In Montgomery’s novels, houses are not just buildings of various dimensions and styles; they’re lively, disperate creatures with unique personalities of their own. The spirit of Green Gables persists in this book, as Anne returns for her summers and Christmases, but Montgomery also introduces us to Windy Poplars—Anne’s new home, which is as different from Green Gables as Patty’s Place was in Anne of the Island, but which has its own indelible charm. Like the many minor characters, there are other houses that slip in and out of the narrative. One of them is haunted and austere, and it contrasts brilliantly with the warmth of Anne’s beloved homes. This is an interesting quality of the series as a whole, but the house-characters are particularly striking in Anne of Windy Poplars.

The second thing this book has made me notice of the series is that the bittersweetness that so appeals to me stems from Montgomery’s amazingly realistic grasp of time and human life. These books aren’t structured as we conventionally think of novels; their plots meander along sometimes predictably and sometimes shockingly while characters come and go, some leaving more of an impression than others. While Anne & co. enjoy a great deal of luck that sometimes challenges plausibility (as does real life), they also are occasionally thrown into misfortune—and sometimes conclusive resolutions are lacking altogether. This makes the Anne series so nostalgic and stirring in its simplicity, and it strengthens my sense that Montgomery was a very insightful and observant person as well as a talented novelist.

All the strengths of the Anne series are especially palpable in Anne of Windy Poplars, and I look forward to continuing the series and getting even more from it than I already have. Of course I think it’s well worth a read for anyone interested!

Book Review: Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery (★★★★★)

Anne of the Island is as brilliantly written and moving as the first novel in the series, Anne of Green Gables. Unlike the second book, Anne of Avonlea, I found this novel shared the bittersweet, painful elements that so enriched the first book. 

Like its predecessors in the series, Anne of the Island is beautifully written with insightful descriptions and many rich, strong female characters. But like the other books its main strength is the depth and complexity of all the characters—minor and significant—who bring the story to life. As Anne leaves Prince Edward Island for her native Nova Scotia, in the fictionalized version of Halifax called Kingsport at the fictionalized version of Dalhousie University called Redmond, many new characters wind their way into the story. Even those that we glimpse only briefly are remarkably well defined and realistic, which makes the story so immersive. Montgomery displays her talent for bringing places to life as vivaciously as people, and she describes the windy parks and lilting avenues of Kingsport almost as enchantingly as the orchards and shores of Avonlea.

Anne of the Island is very relatable to anyone who has left home and experienced the painful joy of returning and finding they no longer quite belong. It captures the excitement of moving forward as well as the sorrow of old friends growing distant. Montgomery brilliantly evokes the anxiety and independence of university life, which is surprisingly unchanged today from the century before when she penned this novel. And as ever, these experiences are all the more enriched through Montgomery’s beloved protagonist, Anne Shirley, who is both unique yet intimately relatable and through whom Montgomery develops such an original perspective. 

This novel leaves the rosy childhood of the previous books behind, and although it still contains many passages of cheer and humour, it’s also tinged heavily with death, regret, and loss. These elements are intermixed as subtly as they are in reality, and they make Anne of the Island both compelling and enchanting. And the pace of the series is brilliantly achieved, capturing the pleasant monotony of life but punctuating the plot with exciting developments.

Book Review: Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery (★★★★☆)

Anne of Avonlea has nearly all the strengths I described in my review of Anne of Green Gables—which is to say that its characters are richly developed, its setting powerfully immersive, the plot engaging, and Montgomery’s writing style truly gifted. It also continues to portray strong, diverse, independent women and sympathetically eccentric characters. 

This second novel of the Anne series, however, wasn’t quite as brilliant as the first. It’s simply too cheerful, and it lacks the sorrowful elements of the first novel that add depth and contrast to the bittersweet story. Although it’s a real joy to revisit Avonlea and meet new characters as intriguing and relatable as the familiar ones, to me this instalment is almost indulgently optimistic. The lack of tragedy and the steady succession of happy miracles make it less poignant. In the end I’m left feeling that the novel suffers from an imbalance.

Still, it’s a very enjoyable read and contains many beautiful passages. To say it disappoints would be a slight exaggeration, but Anne of Avonlea certainly would have a stronger impact if it continued the thread of sadness woven into Anne of Green Gables. But I very much look forward to continuing to reread the series.