Friday, March 6, 2015

Three Brief Reviews of Three Brief Books

Hello! Apologies for my long absence. In mid-February, I was off the grid on a week-long vacation; and for the past two weeks, I've been trying to recover from a lingering head cold.

On my vacation, I stayed at the literary-themed Sylvia Beach Hotel on the Oregon coast, in the Virginia Woolf and J.K. Rowling rooms -- so naturally, I found myself reading the books that were on hand there.

I'm also participating in a year-long book-reading contest with some friends, and every little bit counts...

Virginia WoolfVirginia Woolf by Mary Ann Caws
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In this short bio, Mary Ann Caws depicts Virginia Woolf as an enthusiastic, thoughtful woman who cherished her friends -- counter-balancing the stereotypical image of Woolf as depressed and suicidal. But in so doing, Caws neglects Woolf's work as a novelist and essayist, which, after all, is what made her famous and why we still care about her. If I recall correctly, this book mentions Mrs. Dalloway only in passing and doesn't discuss A Room of One's Own at all, and those are two of Woolf's most notable works. Instead, it feels like most of the book describes the bohemian habits and complicated relationships of the Bloomsbury Group. One perk of this book is that it's lavishly illustrated with vintage photos of all of the people it mentions. But ultimately, it gives you a much better sense of Woolf's milieu than of her own life or her writing.

The Tales of Beedle the BardThe Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As literary fairy tales, the five Tales of Beedle the Bard are far from the most interesting ones I've ever read -- some of them wear their influences too obviously, e.g. "Babbitty Rabbitty" is clearly modeled on "The Emperor's New Clothes." But it's always charming to spend time in the Wizarding World, especially in the company of the beloved Albus Dumbledore, who provides criticism and commentary on each of the five tales. The most interesting element of this book is the "Postmodernism for Kids" aspect of it: it is presented as being written hundreds of years ago by Beedle the Bard, translated recently by Hermione Granger, with Dumbledore's commentary, an introduction by J.K. Rowling, and footnotes by both Dumbledore and Rowling. If I ever have children, I might want to give them this book as an introduction to concepts like intertextuality, literary criticism, subtext, metafiction, etc.

Now All We Need is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That WayNow All We Need is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way by André Bernard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Did you know that John Steinbeck originally wanted to give Of Mice and Men the laughably bad title Something That Happened? Or that both Dorothy Parker and Dashiell Hammett's publisher thought that The Maltese Falcon was a terrible title? Those pieces of title-related trivia, and many more, can be found in this little compendium. One can see how this kind of book would be more useful before the Internet existed (nowadays this would be a Buzzfeed list, not a book), and it feels like the publisher had to pad it out to even get it to be over 100 pages, but it's nice to be reminded that while certain famous book titles may sound inevitable to us now, some of them were anything but.

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