Survey: What Is Literature? What Should We Study?

As an English literature student, I am often involved in conversations that ask, “What is literature anyway?”  I am also involved in many (perhaps more judgmental conversations) about what types of books are worth studying at an advanced level–and even what kinds of books are worth reading at all.

I think the contents of Pages Unbound speak a little to what types of books I personally find interesting/worth reading/worth talking about.  (Spoiler: Most books!)  I would, however, like to see what some of our followers and visitors think.  Once the results are in, I’ll write a post outlining my own views on the matter more clearly and summarizing all the responses.

I will close the survey at the end of November and post the results in December. Please feel free to share this survey widely, so we can compiles a variety of answers!

Top Ten Tuesday (91): Books on My Winter TBR List

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s topic is

Top Ten Books on My Winter TBR List

1. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery: I’ve found that there’s a certain amount of time that simply should not be allowed to pass without a Montgomery reread.

2. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri: I’m thinking of making this a yearly read, even if it does take me a couple months to get through it.

3. Daniel Deronda by George Eliot: I need more George Eliot in my life!  So far I’ve only read Middlemarch and Silas Marner.  Tragic, no?

4. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: I’ve heard the sequels aren’t as good, but I’d like to give one a try–but a reread is first necessary.

5. The Fall of Arthur by J. R. R. Tolkien: I haven’t read this yet and, as a Tolkien fan, I am ashamed.

6. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: It must have been sitting on my shelf for over a year.

7. Lmame Brooklyn by Eduardo Lago: Another one sitting on my shelf, shaming me.

8. The Tempest by William Shakespeare: Another reread.  This winter I think will be about returning to the stories I love.

9. Pericles by William Shakespeare: But I haven’t read this one yet and I am a fan of the late romances (at least the two I’ve read)!

10. Cymbeline by William Shakespeare: Gotta collect all the late romances!

“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Wife of Bath's Tale

Summary

It is the reign of King Arthur.  A knight rapes a young maiden, and the country calls for justice.  As a sign of mercy, Queen Guinevere sets the knight a task: he must give her an answer to the question “What do women most desire?” within a year—or else he will die.  The knight scours the countryside seeking the answer, but every woman he asks gives him a different reply.  Finally, the knight finds an old hag who claims she has an answer that will satisfy the queen.  To learn it, all the knight has to do is promise he will grant her the next thing she asks.

Review

SPOILERS (Based on the assumption everyone has read this tale!)

I first read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in high school, and although I am deeply interested in Middle English literature, I have to admit to not having paid it much attention since then.  “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” I figured, is sort of overdone.  Everyone reads it.  Everyone knows it.  One could probably build a mountain out of the scholarship on it.  I moved instead to looking at other “loathly lady tales” (stories where an old hag has a run-in with a man, gives him some sort of choice, and magically becomes beautiful by the end).  I was most captivated by “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle,” a fifteenth century version of the story that most likely used Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” as a source.

The thing about “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle,” although it is an entertaining read, is that much of the critical attention it has received has been to the effect of, “Well, this certainly isn’t as good as Chaucer’s version.  Let’s go read that.”  “The Wedding” is accused of just not being as consistent, as logical, as well-written and put-together as “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.”  Well, after re-reading “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” I am uncertain that is true; it turns out I have a lot of questions about this story, too!

In general, “The Wife of Bath’s” tale does have a nice arc.  The knight rapes a maiden.  He learns that women desire sovereignty.  He puts his lesson into practice by granting his own wife sovereignty. And he wife becomes beautiful and faithful as his reward.  While readers may scratch their heads at that last part (so the rapist gets rewarded???), the story has a nice unity.  The knight’s crime, his task, and his penance all fit together.

But then someone pointed out to me a small detail that indicates that none of this was really planned, at least not within the context of the story itself.  (Chaucer obviously wanted things to go this way.)  When the queen sets the knight his task, she requests “an answere suffisant in this mateere” (an answer sufficient in this matter) (line 910).  When she tells the knight to find out what women most want, it appears she does not know herself!  When he returns and states that the answer is sovereignty, the women of the court basically consult among themselves and decide that sovereignty sounds like a great idea.  There was never a “correct” answer to the question.

Also troubling is the question of whether the knight’s wife (note that none of the characters have names) actually receives the sovereignty the knight supposedly grants her.  The Wife of Bath tells this tale as if to illustrate a case where a woman got the better of her husband and was able to rule her own life.  Yet, immediately after wife receives sovereignty, the narrator reassures the audience that she “obeyed [her husband] in everything that might give him pleasure or enjoyment” (lines 1255-1256).  Perhaps there is something in the fact that the wife can freely choose to be obedient—but her ending still does not read quite like any type of liberation.

“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is one of the more popular stories from The Canterbury Tales with good reason.  It features a fascinating plot, rounder characters than can be found elsewhere, and a dash of magic.  It also raises a lot of questions readers are still interested in today—differences between the sexes, how marriage should work, how one should be punished for one’s crimes.  I am definitely glad I revisited it.

Notes

  • I hope for this review to become part of a Canterbury Tales series, so look out for more tales!
  • If you would like to revisit “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” yourself, Harvard has a useful interlinear translation.
  • The background image for the banner was taken from a photo by Sven Schleger, which was downloaded from Unsplash.

Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab by Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith

NickTesla_9JInformation

Goodreads: Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build Yourself
Series: Nick and Tesla #1
Source: Library
Published: 2013

Summary

When the parents of eleven-year-old twins Nick and Tesla depart unexpectedly to study soy beans across the globe, the siblings anticipate a boring summer spent with their absent-minded uncle Newt.  Instead they find themselves in the house of what seems to be a mad scientist, with his entire laboratory at their disposal.  It’s a good thing, too, because soon the twins are embroiled in a dangerous mystery and, without any responsible adults to take charge, they’ll need to build all sorts of gadgets to solve the crime and save themselves.  Includes instructions so readers can create the same projects as Nick and Tesla.

Review

Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab combines science and literature to introduce readers to burglar alarms made from Christmas lights, tracking devices from highlighters, and more–these are not your typical experiments for children, but more high-tech activities that will require adult supervision and maybe a trip to the hardware store.  Without even trying, the book has an immediate appeal for lovers of sciences or those who like to build things.  The educational aspect, unfortunately, may be the book’s strongest selling point.

The plot itself focuses on the mystery of an old abandoned house and the girl the protagonists see in the window.  Because some vicious “construction workers” are inhabiting the house, Nick and Tesla can only get close to it by building gadgets to distract the workers and their guard dogs.  Most of the story follows them as they go back-and-forth with various devices.  It would be fun to build the “cat rocket” and other objects, but it is not quite as thrilling to watch Nick and Tesla do the back and forth.

Plus, the whole premise seems kind of silly–some adult should have been concerned about why there was a scared girl writing “go away” in her window, but instead they all dismissed her as being one of the construction worker’s daughters.  But construction workers, as even the characters pointed out, don’t typically live in the house they’re working on, right?  The whole scenario was odd and, though I grant that in real life, people try really hard not to get involved in bad situations, it seems an odd message for a children’s book.

Of course, at the end, there’s the expected “twist”–Nick and Tesla’s parents can’t really be studying soy beans.  They’re obviously working for a secret agency (though the twins haven’t gotten quite that far in their thinking yet) and subsequent books seem as if they will follow that plot thread.  I’m just not sure I found this book engaging enough or the characters engaging enough to want to invest more time in the series.

Top Ten Tuesday (90): Sequels I Can’t Wait to Get

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s topic is

Top Ten (or Six) Sequels I Can’t Wait to Get

1. The next Ashtown Burials book by N. D. Wilson: As far as I’m aware, there’s no title and no release date, but I’m ready to continue the adventure.

2. Stolen Magic by Gail Carson Levine: Though I was conflicted about the merits of A Tale of Two Castles, I remain of a fan of Gail Carson Levine’s and I’m ready for the sequel.

3. The Boy Who Lost Fairyland (Fairyland #4) by Catherynne M. Valente: It looks as if the series will diverge from the adventures of September, but I’m sure it’s a great way to keep the books feeling fresh.

4. Lockwood & Co. 3 by Jonathan Stroud: I suppose this will come out in the fall of 2015, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want it now!

5. The Book of Secrets (Mister Max #2) by Cynthia Voigt: The somewhat surprising ending of Mister Max left me wanting more and finally book two is out!

6. The Invasion of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling #2) by Erika Johansen: I thought The Queen of the Tearling a little uneven, but loved the characters, and I’m eager to see what new adventures await.

Audrey (Cow) by Dan Bar-el

AudreyInformation

Goodreads: Audrey (Cow)
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 11 Nov. 2014

Summary

Audrey the cow lives an idyllic life on Bittersweet Farm until the day her mother is taken to be turned into hamburger–and Audrey learns that the same fate awaits her.  Audrey, however, has new fields to graze, new clover to taste.  She even hopes to make it to France, the land of her ancestors.  So, along with the help of her friends, Audrey comes up with a plan for a daring escape.  But can she lead a life in the wild or will the authorities hunt her down?

Review

 Audrey may strike some as “Charlotte’s Web with a cow” or it may seem off-putting when the cover jacket announces that over two dozen animals and humans narrate the story.  To dismiss the book so quickly, however, would be to do it an injustice.  Audrey is its own joyful, uplifting book full of humor, heart, and spunk–and it surprisingly justifies its narrative choice within the first couple pages.  Had you told me before I read it, that I would be enthralled by the journey of a cow, I might not have believed you–but oh how I now wish for a sequel.

The book starts off a bit confusingly, for the perspectives do not switch every chapter or every couple pages, but every paragraph–sometimes sooner.  At first this is slightly annoying.  After all, how can one get to know Madge the cow, much less remember her, if she only gets a few sentences before the dog starts talking?  And who is this dog anyway?  Why is he speaking?  Thoughts like these swirled around my head for awhile, distracting me from the story, but once I became accustomed to the shifts and started to get a feel for the characters, I appreciated the structure.  Dan Bar-el does not use it merely to be different, but really tells the story through it–who tells what part of the story and what they choose to reveal and what they gloss over proves significant.  Furthermore, Bar-el allows the animals and humans to interrupt each other.  Sometimes the interruptions are humorous, but they are always telling.

The characters themselves are nearly all likable, even the cows who gossip and the cougar who has a hankering for beef.  Their narrations reveal a lot about them, from their word choices to the parts of the story they choose to focus on.  Even the animals who appear only briefly make a mark.  And how clever Bar-el is with his characterizations!  From Buster the pig who loves to solve riddles to the rooster who loves to make speeches, all of them are vividly drawn.  Perhaps my favorite secondary characters, however, are the sheep, who make quite a point of noting their intelligence and discussing their sheep articles and how they impose their “collective will” to make statements of principle.  Who knew that the seemingly mindless wanderings of sheep were actually so deep!

The illustrations add a lot to the story, making the characters come alive with through their expressions and attitudes.  Often the pictures are humorous, as when we see Audrey practicing her escape attempts by balancing on a beam.  Sometimes, however, they seem more reflective.  They always add to the story, however; they are not mere decoration.

Audrey is a true treat of a story and I loved following the titular cow on her bold adventure to go where few cows had gone before and to make poetry out of a life doomed to end shortly on the supermarket shelf.  Her tenacity, hope, and kindness drive the story, so that a little something of her zest for life seems to transfer itself to the reader–and help them to see the poetry all around, too.

Atlantia by Ally Condie

AtlantiaInformation

Goodreads: Atlantia
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: Oct. 2014

Summary

Years ago the Earth became inhabitable and, to save at least part of humanity, the great city of Atlantia was built beneath the ocean.  Many were convinced to stay Above and to die young when their children were saved and sent Below.  But now the Above has changed and Rio dreams of the day she can choose to live their herself.  When her twin sister Bay chooses to go Above instead, however, Rio finds herself trapped in Atlantia. To be reunited with her sister, Rio will have to break all the rules, delving into  the mystery surrounding her mother’s death and their city’s past, and maybe, for the first time, revealing her own terrible secret–she is a siren.

Review

Perhaps no book should have to bear the burden of comparison to the titles its author previously wrote, but, as humans, we seem to want to make sense of things with categorizations and comparisons; it is only natural, then, to have certain expectations about Atlantia from previous knowledge about the Matched trilogy.  Even though I read the entire trilogy, I did not think too highly of it.  I was disappointed that the story focused on a somewhat irrational love triangle rather than exploring the issues of freedom and choice that the dystopian society portrayed should have raised.  When I opened Atlantia, I tried to enter its world without preconceived notions (after all, this is a very different work and a standalone title rather than the start of a series).  Still, a nagging voice at the back of my  head kept repeating, “But will this one be good?”

I would be surprised to see Atlantia win any awards, but it proves a fair enough read.  Ally Condie clearly devoted a lot of time to making this work different from her previous work and that shows in the details of her world.  Atlantia, the city beneath the ocean, is a magical, mystical place full of strange gods and manmade beauty–I appreciated that the inhabitants could look with awe and wonder upon the artistic creations around them, rather than scorning them simply because they were made of metal and not “natural”.  Of course the protagonist Rio longs to see real trees, not just sculptures, and she understands that there is a different beauty, perhaps a deeper one, in something that is alive, but she also delights in what she has and does not call it bad just because humans designed it.  Seeing the city through her eyes, noting its decay even in its beauty, is quite simply a treat.

The world building is fairly sound, if not excruciatingly detailed.  For instance, Rio notes that the gods were created by the founders of the city, but does not dwell too long on what that might mean to the people.  Different views towards the gods are expressed–some people believe in them despite knowing their animal forms are arbitrary while others secretly scorn them.  There is no overall comment, however, on whether the government should have created a religion, if the government needs a religion, or if the government should distance itself from religion.  Rio lives in a dystopian society, but seems afraid to look too closely at it, as long as things are still running smoothly.

The character development is fairly sound, as well.  The Matched trilogy never drew me in completely because I could not understand why the protagonist would risk everything for a boy she did not know.  Atlantia solves this problem by making the object of Rio’s quest her twin sister.  Thus, even though sister Bay is absent for the majority of the story, I could believe in Rio’s determination because “twin” is basically used as a shorthand for saying that the two were really close.  It helped that Rio also kept a healthy distance from her love interest, including him in her activities, but not divulging all her secrets at once just because she finds him attractive.  As an aside, though–wouldn’t it be really great if we could have had a story about sisters where the sisters went on a quest together.  That would be true sister power!

Atlantia did not “wow” me, but it proves a pleasant enough read.  Though the plot is not particularly remarkable, the story sets itself apart from other books on the YA market with its elements: sisters driving the narrative instead of a love triangle, a protagonist who works with machinery and is not considered unfeminine, and a love interest who genuinely works for the good of the protagonist and is not around just because “romance sells.”  Also, did I mention there is no love triangle at all?  If Ally Condie keeps bringing these surprises to her work, I will keep reading.

Endgame: The Calling by James Frey and Nils Johnson-Shelton

Endgame 1Information

Goodreads: Endgame: The Calling
Series: Endgame #1
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Summary

Twelve thousand years ago, the sky gods descended and created humanity.  They warned that one day they would return and that they would wipe out the planet.  One chance for survival would be given.  Each of the twelve bloodlines must have a player, a trained killer and puzzle solver, ready to play Endgame.  The winner and their people would be the only ones left after the apocalypse.  Now Endgame has come, but are the players ready?

Review

I picked this book up on a whim, having vaguely skimmed the cover jacket and seen a mention of aliens.  Only after I brought it home did I realize that this book is actually more like The Amazing Race than it is a work of science fiction and only later than that did I realize that one of the co-authors is James Frey.  Since I borrowed the book from the library, however, and did not pay for a copy, I decided to read it anyway and to judge the book on its own merits.  My judgement, unfortunately, is not favorable.

The premise of the book, that twelve contestants are racing around the world to solve a puzzle and thus save the lives of their friends and family, means that the authors have to juggle a fairly large cast of characters.  Some writers are quite capable of this–Downtown Abbey, for example, possesses a huge cast but each of the characters tends to appear in each episode and to have some sort of development, even if it’s small (I say this as someone who has seen scattered episodes).  Endgame: The Calling, however, never really tries to introduce all the players.  Perhaps five of them play a key role in this installment of the series and thus receive the most chapters and the longest.  The others are left to fall by the wayside, randomly returning only to remind readers that they have no idea who these people are and thus really don’t care about them.  One player is even offed at the very beginning, presumably just so the book doesn’t have to bother with him.

The characters who receive the most extended treatment in this book are possibly some of the most unlikable.  Though the end of the world is coming and the players could conceivably choose not to play the game (seriously, without reading the book it’s obvious that the only way to save the world is to band together and not go through this ridiculous charade at the behest of some random entities), the characters essentially all decide that, as tender teenagers, they’re going to act like the trained killers they are and just hunt all their enemies down and create carnage around the globe.  This really is a ridiculous plan, since there is no rule that you have to be the last one standing, only that you have to solve the puzzle.  Yet the majority of the players want to eliminate people who could help them win–after all, what happens if you’re the last player but you can’t solve the code?  Watching all the players go crazy just because someone told them they have to play a game, a game, for the fate of the world is sad and puzzling and even disturbing.  After all, if someone thinks human lives are part of a game, would you trust them?  Some of the characters start to realize something is wrong with this picture, but this comes toward the end and these particular players were never the focus of this book.

The players the book does focus on have their own disturbing stories.  SPOILERS AHEAD. One girl and a guy (I can’t even remember their names) team up together and start, predictably, to have feelings for each other even though the girl has a boyfriend back home she was ready to marry.  Cue the infamous love triangle that sees the girl trailing along two guys  because “she’s in love with two people at once and it’s just so hard”.  Another story follows an emotionally disturbed boy who begins stalking a fellow player because he thinks she can “heal” him and, of course, she falls in love with him after he kidnaps her.  The third main story is less prominent than these, but follows a bloodthirsty boy, the youngest of the twelve, who tortures another player for fun.

If the uneven focus of the story, combined with the terrible writing (all present tense, simple sentences), were not enough to make me decide not to pick up the sequel, the contents of the book would.  Stories can contain danger and pain and fear and make it somehow worthwhile, but this one simply seems to want to see how far it can push the boundaries of disturbing in a YA world.  It’s not a world I want to be in.

Bliss by Kathryn Littlewood

BlissInformation

Goodreads: Bliss
Series: The Bliss Baker #1
Source: Gift
Published: January 1, 2012

Official Summary

Rosemary Bliss’s family has a secret. It’s the Bliss Cookery Booke—an ancient, leather-bound volume of enchanted recipes like Stone Sleep Snickerdoodles and Singing Gingersnaps. Rose and her siblings are supposed to keep the Cookery Booke under lock and whisk-shaped key while their parents are out of town, but then a mysterious stranger shows up. “Aunt” Lily rides a motorcycle, wears purple sequins, and whips up exotic (but delicious) dishes for dinner. Soon boring, nonmagical recipes feel like life before Aunt Lily—a lot less fun.

So Rose and her siblings experi-ment with just a couple of recipes from the forbidden Cookery Booke.

A few Love Muffins and a few dozen Cookies of Truth couldn’t cause too much trouble . . . could they?

Kathryn Littlewood’s culinary caper blends rich emotional flavor with truly magical wit, yielding one heaping portion of hilarious family adventure.

Review

Kathryn Littlewood’s Bliss transports readers to a world where baked goods can literally be magical.  There are many obvious charms to the books: dessert, magic, kids who get to bake magical desserts.  Anyone who enjoys fun and sweet middle grade adventures will probably find something to love in Bliss.  The book’s real strength, however, is that combines fantasy and reality in just the right amounts.

The children do get to be the stars in Bliss, as they dig out their family heirloom magical cookbook and start some experimentations.  However, this is not a story where adult ineptitude allows the children to have their adventures.  The parents do leave on a business trip, but they leave their children with a trusted babysitter, and they call home regularly to check how everything is doing.  If the kids manage to get into a bunch of mischief anyway, well, it’s because kids can be good at that sort of thing.

Each child is also remarkably well-rounded.  The main protagonist is Rose, who, in addition to harboring dreams of running a magical bakery of her own, has some real middle school problems concerning boys, insecurity, and her place in her family.  None of these issues overwhelm the story; instead, they make Rose relatable and real.  Her siblings are equally well-drawn.  Littlewood seems to have all phases of life down pat, ranging from teenagers to toddlers.

As mentioned, the group gets into some wild escapades, but Littlewood never makes anything purely a “magic problem.”  Instead, the siblings must navigate a combination of family relationships, personal issues, and magic in order to get to their end of their journey.  And all this is set in a charmingly quirky town that will appeal to fans of A Snicker of Magic or The Only Thing Worse Than Witches.

Bliss is overall a lovely middle grade book, one that has the right blend of fantasy, family, quirk, and charm.  I am looking forward to reading more of the Bliss family adventures.

The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter

The SwallowInformation

Goodreads: The Swallow: A Ghost Story
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: Sept. 2014

Summary

Polly and Rose live next door, but they lead completely different lives.  Polly’s family is large and boisterous, and all she really wants is to be left alone.  Rose’s family, meanwhile, never speak to her and neither do her classmates or her teachers.  Polly wishes she were invisible, but Rose knows just how much that hurts.  Polly, meanwhile, hopes to find adventures like the ones she reads about–maybe she’ll even see a ghost!  Rose sees ghosts all the time and thinks she’s cursed.  When Polly meets Rose, she thinks her adventure has finally begun.  After all, Rose just doesn’t see ghosts–she may actually be one.

Review

I’ll be the first to admit that, despite the old adage “Never judge a book by it’s cover,” I often do–if it’s as gorgeous as the one for The Swallow.  Something that beautiful, combined with a plot summary about female friendship and the sadness of ghosts, promises one of those delicate, haunting reads.  The kind that cover blurbs like to describe as “lyrical.”  Unfortunately, though The Swallow strives mightily to live up to its cover, the execution lacks the necessary subtlety.  What could have been a truly memorable story is, in the end, nothing truly remarkable.

The story has an admittedly rough start, one that could even be called heavy-handed.  In an effort to juxtapose the lives of the two protagonists Polly and Rose, the author tells the story through their two voices.  The perspectives switch after every other page, sometimes sooner, creating a somewhat jarring effect that takes time to become accustomed to.  Worse, the opening pages are nothing more than exposition, the “telling” kind.  Polly starts off by complaining about her large family.  Rose follows complaining about her absent family.  Polly wishes she were invisible. Rose is invisible.  Polly is overweight.   Rose is underweight.  Polly wants to see a ghost.  Rose sees ghosts all the time.  “THESE GIRLS ARE OPPOSITES!” the story yells.  Why that is so important, I never really found out.  The girls, I think, would have been friends regardless.

Unfortunately, I think the story does think that the juxtaposition is important, but it fails to make its point.  Usually one would expect that their differences would teach the girls to appreciate what they have, or maybe give them strategies to help them make their lives better.  For example, Polly might invite lonely Rose over to visit her family or her example might help Rose to communicate with others more.  Rose might give Polly strategies on how to create a space for herself.  However, their friendship does not ultimately drive the changes in the story.  Instead, the malignant entity in Rose’s house does.  It’s unexpected for a story about friendship.

I wanted to love The Swallow, but the constant switching of perspectives, combined with a plot that often seems slow, made it a bit of a struggle for me to get through the book.  I closed the pages feeling disappointed that this one really didn’t live up to its cover, after all.

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