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    Book Club in a Bag

    Fifty Shades of Grey, a bedtime story for adults

    by Jasna - 5 Comment(s)

    If you didn’t like E. L. James’ book, don’t worry, everything’s fine with you. You’re not alone; it happened to many of us…

    If you read it and happened to like it, that’s fine too. In this you are certainly not alone...

    After hearing so many controversial comments about the book that is selling millions of copies, I wanted to form my own opinion re: Fifty Shades.

    The book jacket says: “Erotic, amusing, and deeply moving, the Fifty Shades Trilogy is a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever."

    Hmm, I thought, using – coincidentally – the Fifty Shades heroine’s favourite expression for just about any situation (even when she means Mmmm, as in ‘tastes good’), I love books that are obsessive, possessive and especially those that decide to stay with me until death do us apart.

    So, a few days ago I went to Walmart, bought the whole trilogy, 30% off, sent my kids to bed early and curled into my bed with my newest ‘guilty pleasure’ acquisition, the book that’s not only on everybody’s lips, but on so many bestseller lists as well.

    I won’t say I fell asleep. After 115 pages, and few peeks toward the end of the novel, I put Fifty Shades down, went to my book shelves and pulled out the newest Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ novel. Soon, I giggled and laughed, turning page after page of The Great Escape, following the adventures of Lucy Jorik, a smart, funny girl who might not know what she wants, but she surely knows what she doesn’t, especially in a man.

    What went so wrong within these first chapters of this most recent cultural phenomenon that made me abandon it so quickly?

    I randomly picked a few examples (feel free to disagree with me):

    Present tense narrative (historical present): On such short notice, I can recollect only two books where present tense narrative was masterfully used: The Notebook by Agota Kristof (which is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful novels of the twentieth century) and, more recently, April and Oliver, Tess Callahan’s debut novel (2009). Combined with the main character’s inner dialogue and first person narrative, historical present makes Fifty Shades a laborious read.

    The main character: Anastasia Steele is an English Literature student, a young girl described as happiest in her own company, curled up with the English classics, yet her vocabulary is on the level of a high school drop-out and her thoughts are monosyllabic. I personally didn’t bother, but somebody actually counted all those craps, holy craps, hmmms, oh mys, ohs and ahs Anastasia uses page after page, paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence. She raises her eyebrows, frowns, grins wickedly, stops breathing, smirks, narrows her eyes and turns red, crimson, scarlet, and puce (!?), flushes and blushes so much that the book could have easily be called “Fifty Shades of Red”… Should I mention a ghost of a smile that doesn’t reach his lips used several times within first few chapters?

    Secondary characters, e. g. her BFF, Kate Kavanagh, who alternatively advises Anna she should keep seeing Christian (“He likes you, Anna!”) and should stop seeing him (“He’s a dangerous man, Anna!). The same pattern repeats several times. Ms. Kavanagh reasons? For you should – Christian is rich; for you shouldn’t – well, he’s a reserved and private person…

    Description of Anna and Christian’s physical appearance or, rather, the lack, of it. I simply can’t visualize them. I know she had problematic hair, blue eyes too big for her face, we know her age and height… I still can’t picture her with any more success than I can put a real, human face on a mannequin in a department store. Same goes for Christian. We have to take Ana’s word that he is oh so handsome. Well, he is, if your idea of masculinity is reduced to long, manicured fingers and grey eyes. I need more. I need Lord John Grey, for example. Those long fingers and smoky eyes do not sing the epitome of male beauty to me, and they’re not nearly enough to make Christian Grey possible and alive in my imagination.

    I doubt anybody had the similar problem picturing Grey’s literary predecessor, Edward Cullen, but throwing Twilight into this article would open another Pandora’s Box, so I’ll leave it for some other time.

    As I continued navigating through the book the next day, I easily recognized another Fifty Shades’ literary ancestor: a 1954 erotic novel Story of O, by French author Pauline Reage. O is a young photographer; Rene is a rich nobleman. He takes her to his castle, where she is, in the name of love, subjected to sexual submission.

    Fifty Shades of Grey is by no means a literary upgrade of its French prototype. Yet, Story of O has stayed where it belongs - in the shady zone of cheap erotica. Fifty Shades turned soft, unconvincing erotica into mainstream fiction.

    My question is: what is so terribly missing from our lives that make us women flock to online and traditional bookstores and Walmarts to buy millions of copies of this book? Reverse feminism? An overdose of gender equality that, aside from all its benefits, somehow took a part out of our femininity? Loneliness? A chance to take a bite of forbidden fruit without risks and guilt associated with unfiltered Internet search and back rooms of specialized magazine stores?

    Or is the Fifty Shades trilogy simply a colossal mix-up followed by a collective hallucination: E. L James actually wrote an erotic parody of Twilight, it somehow got misunderstood for real fiction, E. L. James said, okay, fine with me, and voila…

    The previous cultural phenomenon of this magnitude was Da Vinci Code. Stephpen King called it ‘intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese”, but it was relatively easy to identify some of the major reasons of Da Vinci Code’s global success in controversies surrounding the Catholic Church, and our undeniable attraction to conspiracy theories.

    Is it possible to explain popularity of E. L. James’ books with our dark curiosity when it comes to sexual taboos and pseudo-taboos?

    Being a linguist, a former literary fiction editor and an eclectic reader doesn’t qualify me to even guess the answers, although I would love to know them.

    Maybe Ana Steele will find them for me, before the end of her love affair with Christian Grey.

    In meantime, if you like erotic fiction, here are plenty of novels and authors in our collection you might enjoy reading (This time, I not even going to hit you with the classics such as Henry Miller or Vladimir Nabokov.)

    Luisa Burton and her Hidden Grotto novels (In the Garden of Sins; Bound in Moolight, Whispers of the Flesh and House of Dark Delights)

    Jaci Burton (Riding Temptation; The Perfect Play)

    Lora Leigh (pretty much everything she wrote; for extra-hot, try Dangerous Pleasure from her "Bound Hearts series)

    Robin Schone (Scandalous Lovers, Private Places, Cry for Passion).

    Back to the beginning of the article, if you want a book that will indeed stay with you forever, find Ana, Sorror, a novella about passionate love between brother and sister (erotica plus a taboo plus first-rate literature), or Memoirs of Hadrian, both by Marguerite Yourcenar.

    If you feel you need a quick antidote of pure art, read Shandor Marai’s Embers. This one is a good candidate to stay for you forever.

    J. F.

    P.S. I won’t say there's absolutely nothing I liked about Fifty Shades of Grey. I like the title and I think the cover's cool. There is also something touchingly honest and naïve in Fifty Shades that I have hard time to explain. I’m quite sure the author didn’t have profit in mind when she wrote it. It seems that she simply wanted to share her story with us, for better or worse.

    P.P. S. As I mention, this article is based on Volume One, and doesn’t talk about the rest of the trilogy. If I find reasons to change my opinion down the road, I’ll let you know.

    The Story of Jesus

    by Jasna - 0 Comment(s)

    In celebration of the Easter season, we've put together a list of timely fiction reads about biblical times and figures. A wealth of authors have used the bible as inspiration for works from various perspectives. Happy Easter, and happy reading!

    The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

    Acclaimed Irish novelist submits a novelization of the later years of a figure less historical than symbolic that is readable in one sitting, which brings its brilliance into even finer focus. Mary, the mother of Jesus, sits in uncooperative silence in the ancient biblical town of Ephesus as she is hounded by her son’s apostles, who are desperate for memories she can share with them to aid in their intention to write about Jesus’ life (in what will become the four Gospels of the New Testament). Mary insists that she remembers nothing. The truth is, she is flooded by memories, and with great articulation and introspection, she supplies us with a first-person narrative that will surprise and fascinate readers used to a more traditionally kind and gentle Virgin Mary.

    The Liar's Gospel by Naomi Alderman (Forthcoming)

    An award-winning author describes the life of Jesus Christ as told by the four people who were closest to him before his death: his mother, his friend Iehuda, the High Priest of the Temple and a rebel named Bar-Avo.

    The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

    Set in Italy in 1497, the story is related by Father Agostino Leyre, an inquisitor for the Holy See. Anonymous messages arriving in Rome suggest that something suspicious is going on in Milan, where Leonard da Vinci is finishing The Last Supper. When Leyre arrives in Milan, he is shocked to find blasphemous messages embedded in the artwork: Simon Peter is holding a knife; there's no Eucharist; none of the apostles has a halo. Clearly, Leonardo is incorporating a message into his masterpiece, but what is it? Using various points of view, McCarry dispenses information slowly, and the excitement comes in fits and starts. The primary problems are the lengthy cast of characters and the extensive religious background--especially regarding the Cathar heresy--necessary to understand the story's subtleties. Still, the appetite for religious thrillers continues unabated, and this formidable offering will satisfy more-erudite readers not overly concerned with fast pacing.

    Ben Hur by Lew Wallace

    Judah Ben-Hur faces a life in the galleys after being falsely accused of trying to assassinate the governor of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus.

    John's Story: the last eyewitness by Tim LaHaye

    (Jesus Chronicles, book 1; see also: Mark's Story: the Gospel according to Peter, Luke's story and Matthew's Story: from sinner to saint)

    Ninety-year-old John, the last surviving apostle, remembers his broken life before befriending Jesus and is called upon to write a gospel that definitively establishes Jesus as the Son of God.

    Memoirs of Pontius Pilate by James R. Mills

    Ten years after the Crucifixion, history tells us, Pontius Pilate was accused of murder and found guilty by the emperor Caligula. What happened after that is less certain, but Mills has Pilate living out his final days in a relatively comfortable exile. Widowed and lonely, Pilate researches and writes The Memoirs of Pontius Pilate, quite effectively laying out the dilemmas of a Roman provincial ruler dealing with political strife and internecine battles among the Jews, but also offering an account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Mills is rigorous about staying inside Pilate's head as he relates a feisty, entertaining fifth gospel that is a kind of commentary on the other four.

    Mary, Called Magdalene by Margaret George

    Born to a well-to-do, religiously strict Jewish family, Mary is a seeker of knowledge. At seven, she finds an idol, and by keeping it, she opens herself to demonic possession. By the time she is married and a mother, she is so tortured by her demons that she flees to the wilderness, where she finds Jesus, who cures her. Mary becomes his disciple, but a married women traveling in a company of men is so shocking that her husband abandons her and her daughter is lost to her for the rest of her life--the sacrifice she must make to be among the kingdom of believers.

    The Power of Fiction

    by Jasna - 0 Comment(s)

    We've gotten so many responses about your favourite characters, both male and female, that we have another list of recommendations. Happy reading!

    SARAH: Kinsey Milhone and Jim Qwilleran

    I love Kinsey Milhone (from the Sue Grafton series). She’s a strong woman who can take care of herself, and she’s got quirks that I love (every time I read one of the books I start craving McDonalds and I start running again…)

    I also love Jim Qwilleran (from the Cat Who series by Lilian Jackson Braun). He’s such a kindly character who loves his cats so much (which makes him quite quirky…)

    JULIA: Jane Eyre and Thomas Cromwell

    The story of formation of a strong and independent female protagonist, a nineteenth-century feminist, light-years ahead of its time. Society claimed Jane Eyre lacked charm, beauty, and grace, but Charlotte Bronte trusted her readers to see beneath the surface to Jane’s integrity, intelligence, imagination, individualism, and generosity. With a heroine full of yearning, the dangerous secrets she encounters, and the choices she finally makes, Charlotte Bronte's innovative and enduring romantic novel continues to engage and provoke readers.

    Thomas Cromwell (advisor to Henry VIII) – Wolf Hall (and Bring Up the Bodies) by Hilary Mantel.

    Tudor England. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is charged with securing his divorce. Into this atmosphere of distrust comes Thomas Cromwell (advisor to Henry VIII from Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel) - a man as ruthlessly ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.

    PAT: Amelia Peabody and Edgewick Lamplighter

    One of my favourite female characters is Amelia Peabody in the mystery series by Elizabeth Peters. Amelia was a woman ahead of her time, always willing to forge her own path. She would move fearlessly into dangerous situations, steel-tipped parasol in hand, if her family or friends were threatened. She was loyal, kind true to herself. What more could one look for in a memorable female?

    For a favourite male character, I would pick Wick (Edgewick Lamplighter) in the fantasy series, The Rover, by Mel Odom. Wick is a Halfling, a humble librarian, thrown out into the cold, cruel world, who rises to the life-threatening challenges which arise and finds himself and his courage.


    Last week Phil and Brent talked about memorable females from fiction (Aomame from Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 and Helen of Troy from the Iliad). Here are their favourite male characters:


    "Dionisio Vivo from Louis de Bernieres' Latin American trilogy (The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman). A philosophy lecturer who grows into a national hero, a magical 'brujo' taking on some seriously evil drug lords wrecking his stress-free existence. Señor Vivo's strength seems to come from never letting anything bother him and falling madly in love, which turns out to be an incredibly dangerous combination."


    "I always liked reading about Oedipus, known for solving the riddle of the Sphynx. Although his story had a tragic ending, he was a very brave and smart character." (Sophocles' tragedies Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus)

    Female Power II: More Favourite Female Characters

    by Jasna - 0 Comment(s)

    Thank you for your comments on last week's blog post about strong female characters! We had so many great suggestions that we've put together another list for futher reading. And stay tuned: coming up is a post on favourite male characters--so leave your suggestions in the comments!

    Arya Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin

    "She is my most recent favourite female character. Nervy, resolute and resourceful, she is a true survivor in an ongoing, cruel adult game that easily destroys many bigger, stronger, and more experienced players.

    If the always unpredictable George R. R. Martin lets her survive, it’s easy to imagine this exceptional child becoming an even more remarkable woman." (JT)

    Scarlet O'Hara (Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell)

    "In addition to being ruthless, selfish and self-centered, she is also beautiful, powerful, intelligent and well ahead of her time, which is notable in her knack for business and her marital endeavors..." (Patti)

    Helen of Troy (Homer's Iliad)

    "I’ve always like Helen of Troy from classical literature. She was the daughter of Zeus and brought about the Trojan War by being abducted by Paris. I always liked the idea that the beauty of her face launched 1000 ships." (Brent)

    Alanna of Trebond from The Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce

    "The novels from Tamora Pierce also have great female main characters. I read her Song Of The Lioness quartet when I was younger. Have read all her Tortal books since then. Really great reads!" (Krysta)

    Aomame from Haruki Murakami's 1Q84

    "Aomame is a trained killer who eliminates abusive husbands with the single stroke of needle-like ice pick to top of the spine. To unwind, she prefers to have sex with bald men. As she faces her most daunting task to take out the leader of a powerful, untouchable religious cult, she must also deal with a second moon which has suddenly appeared in the sky, right next to the usual moon." (Phil)

    Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill (real people) Sisters in the Wilderness by Charlotte Grey

    "I have recently read two books about strong women in Canada: Sisters in the Wilderness and Nellie McClung, both by Charlotte Grey. Excellent books!" (Carole)

    Female Power: Remarkable Girls and Women in Fiction

    by Sonya - 3 Comment(s)

    In honor of International Women's Day, March 8th, we thought it would be fun to do a feature on memorable girls and women from the pages of novels. Although most of them aren't real historical figures, these characters have been written well enough to inspire, entertain, and most of all take on a life of their own in our imaginations! We've come up with a pair of great characters, youthful and fully-grown, in each of a few themed categories.


    Enola Holmes

    The Case of the Missing Marquess is the first book in the series by Nancy Springer

    14-year-old Enola Holmes is the feisty, much-younger sister of Sherlock Holmes. Like her brother, she has a keen mind and a persistent curiousity, which comes in handy in her investigations into missing person cases. Unfortunately, unlike her brother, as a girl, there are many societal expectations and limitations she must contend with while following her mystery-solving instincts. In the first book of the series, Enola's mother disappears, so Enola sets off to London to investigate (thereby escaping the plans of her brothers to send her off to finishing school). It's easy to relate to Enola and fun to hear her take on life as a female in the 19th century: corsets, anyone? Not if you have mysteries to solve! She refuses to live the life that her society and class have predetermined for her, instead making her own way and living as she chooses.

    Precious Ramotswe (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective agency series by Alexander McCall Smith)

    “Why don't we sit down and have some tea, and you can tell me all about this difficult matter.”

    With these exact words Precious Ramotswe, first -- and only -- female detective in Botswana, launches her cases, which are, rather than being true crimes, investigations of various aspects of human nature, conducted with her unique methods of detection.

    Mma Ramotswe, the larger-than life heroine of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and (so far) twelve sequels, is so well created that she seems to be more a real-life person than a fictional character. She is strong-willed, independent, with her own set of beliefs and unique value system. She has known great love and joy, as well as great loss and sadness in her life. She gets angry and frustrated, she fusses over unimportant things, she has weaknesses she tries to hide, makes mistakes, and often questions the rightness of her decisions. Yet above all, she has deep humanity, inner wisdom and an understanding of human nature.


    Lisbeth Salander, the protagonist of the Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattooo,The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

    Lisbeth Salander is a survivor of a traumatic childhood, introverted and antisocial. She’s unable to conform to social norms, but possesses a unique and fanatical sense of justice. She is highly intelligent, has an eidetic memory and she’s a world class computer hacker… Unconventional, dark, full of rage, an anti-heroine and a superhero at the same time, the girl with a dragon tattooed on her shoulder is also one of the most compelling characters in contemporary popular fiction.

    Pipi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

    In the interviews with the press, Larsson admitted that American and British crime fiction writers such as Sara Paretsky, Agatha Christie, Val McDermid, Dorothy Sayers and Enid Blyton significantly influenced his work. A great inspiration for his unforgettable heroine comes from one of the best beloved characters in Swedish juvenile literature: Pippi Longstocking, the main character of a series of children’s books by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. Unconventional, assertive and in possession of superhuman physical strength, Pippi Friendly is kind to those she likes, but can be angry and even vengeful in dealing with bullies. Pippi has no proper manners, and very little formal education, but she compensates for it with remarkable survival skills.

    Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking had given a voice and encouragement to many repressed children, especially girls. Stieg Larsson believed Pippi would not have functioned in modern society and would have been likely diagnosed with all sorts of physiological/behavioral disorders, so he let Pippi walk into the present as Lisbeth. Tattooed and pierced, armed with her incredible intellect and logical thinking, she fights the system – giving voice to the most vulnerable members of society - and transforms herself from a victim to a victor.


    Katniss Everdeen

    The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins

    Since the movie has come out, many of us are familiar with Katniss--an accidental revolutionary, drawn in to defiance of the oppressive Panem regime when her younger sister Prim is selected as an "tribute" for the brutal, televised fight-to-the-death Hunger Games. In this dystopian near-future world, Katniss does whatever it takes not only to survive but to protect those close to her. But underneath the surface of day-to-day survival, she's very much still a typical teenager, trying to figure out herself and her relationships, trying to maintain her identity and her humanity in impossible situations. As we get to know Katniss better, we wonder: if I were living in her world, how would I cope? Could I survive?


    In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker is the first of The Company series

    Mendoza is a botanist, a young woman in love... and she's also been genetically altered to be a semi-immortal time-travelling operative by The Company. Rescued from the Inquisition by Company recruiters and trained as a botanist, her mission in the first novel is to find and preserve a rare species of holly which will later be threatened with extinction and will provide a cure for cancer. But her main mission is sidetracked when she falls in love. This first novel introduces Mendoza as a character who, despite her extraordinary circumstances, is fully real and believable. The premise of this series is fascinating, but it is the connection readers form with the characters that drives the narrative. As for how Mendoza becomes a revolutionary... you'll have to read the series to find out!


    Flavia de Luce

    The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan C. Bradley is the first in the series

    Flavia de Luce is a chemist. She has a passion for all things chemical, but most especially for poisons. She is often to be found in her lab carrying out scientific inquiry through chemical experimentation, and is not above seeking revenge by the same means. She's 11 years old, has two awful older sisters who torment her constantly, and finds herself becoming an amateur criminal investigator in the first novel in the series. Although she's already busy enough with her experiments and with fending off her sisters, she's drawn into solving the murder which has taken place on the grounds of her family's decaying English mansion when her father becomes the prime suspect.

    Mary Anning

    Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

    This historically-based novel set in early-1800s England is about fossil hunter Mary Anning. Mary has grown up collecting "curies" (curiosities) on the beaches of Lyme Regis to sell to tourists, making enough money for her family to get by. She meets Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-aged spinster (also a historical figure), who has been exiled to the area with her sisters upon her brother's marriage, and the two become friends. Elizabeth has the education to introduce Mary to the scientific names of the fossils, and tries to protect her friend from the male scientific community who try to take credit when Mary makes a major fossil discovery. By bringing to life these historical women who were the first to make a major contribution to the male domain of paleontology, Chevalier also brings to light the lives of women at the margins of scientific and upper-class society in a tale about friendship and scientific discovery.

    We hope you'll enjoy meeting some of our favourite women in fiction, and we'd love to hear about some of yours! Leave a comment with a remarkable girl or woman you've met in the pages of a novel.

    Off the Shelf: This is Not the End of the Book;

    by Jasna - 0 Comment(s)

    Listen in as two men of letters begin with speculating on digital media ending the book and then drift delightfully through collecting books, censorship, accidental and purposeful destruction of libraries, plus oddities that attract them personally. Umberto Eco is the celebrated author of The Name of the Rose, and Jean-Claude Carrière is a prolific cinéphile in France. Both love books, writing, reading, collecting and conversing.

    The first few chapters of This is Not the End of the Book; could be considered predictable, although the wit employed by the conversationalists keeps the ideas from being bland. The form of the book is not really important. Readers for ebooks have advantages. The internet can be dastardly or helpful. Reading poetry and novels is different than reading legal documents.

    When Eco and Carrière start taking about internet filters, the conversation veers uncontrollably off the path. Filters come in many flavours and weights. Internet filters are only the most recent manifestation. Book publishers grossly filter with their infamous “slush piles” of unsolicited and unread manuscripts. The internet has gone around that barrier by making self-publishing much easier. Librarians of necessity buy certain books and not others. Governments ban materials, for reasons usually attributed to security of some sort. Before the era of printing, manuscripts were literally those that were laboriously copied by hand, mostly in religious communities.

    Astonishingly, both writers enjoy bad writing, stupidity, and deceptive texts. Claiming that these reveal as much about a society as brilliant art, they display a wondrous grasp of unworthy books through the ages.

    By the time I reached the chapters on destruction by fire, my spirit was in mourning for all that has been lost, suppressed, self-censored and ignored. Thus, the recent destruction of the great documents in Timbuktu harkened to This is Not the End of the Book; and our reverence for the written word.

    Judith Umbach