Frantically, Florally February: Monthly Reading Roundup

I go through a lot of books –  most years, I read at least a hundred and twenty novels. Last year, I hit 162 books, which was a record for me.

Before you ask: of course, I count! I’m so competitive that I can’t help but compete with myself (can I read more than 160 books this year? Or will last-year me win? NEVER). It’s pathetic. But hey, it gets me to read.

Since I consume so many books, there’s no way I can ever review all of them on this blog – or even most of them. Thus, I’m planning on doing a monthly roundup, which will allow me to discuss most of them briefly. And then I can stop feeling guilty that I’m not reviewing all my favorites.

I’m also doing these roundups because I’m a narcissistic, self-obsessed literature student who likes to obsessively document all the books she reads. But we don’t need to go there.

I’m starting with February books, even though it’s March. March isn’t over yet; it’s not too late to talk about February. At least, that’s what I tell myself (allow me my delusions).

The reviews follow the list:

(note: any book that is starred (*) and in italics is one I enjoyed enough to recommend)

1. Dawn by Octavia Butler **
2. Groundings for the Metaphysics of Morals by Kant
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen **
4. The Studhorse Man by Robert Kroescht
5. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins **
6. Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware
7. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton **
8. Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton **
9. Green Grass and Running Water by Thomas King **
10. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen **
11. Genealogy of Morals by Nietzsche **
12. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons  **
13. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzochelli **
14. The Day of the Locust by Nathaneal West
15. Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine **
16. The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaage
17. I Never Liked You by Chester Brown
18. Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey **

Given how busy a month February was, I’m retrospectively shocked by how much I managed to read. Eighteen books? Really?

But most of them are books I read for school – twelve out of eighteen, in fact. If I didn’t have to read for class, this would be quite a sparse list. It’s hard to be a vigilante literature reader… I need some kind of structure.

February was a bit of a low month in terms of quality. I only liked twelve out of the eighteen, which sounds decent, but is far below my personal averages. And a lot of the books I didn’t like, I really didn’t like – The Studhorse Man, for example, was a complete trainwreck for me.

That said, there were a few standouts. Other than the Austens, which are always a treat, I thoroughly enjoyed Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique (nominated for a Nebula in 2012), Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Oliva, David Mazzochelli’s Asterios Polyp and Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water.

My two favorites this month were Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm and Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw. Both are genre-defying, hilarity-inducing mashups with lots and lots of knotty thematic stuff for me to sink my metaphorical teeth into (I assure you, I do not chew books, except when they’re made out of candy).
Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm is a mashup of the highest order. In the book, it’s as if Emma Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma suddenly showed up on the set of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and proceeded to put everyone’s life in order.

With no-nonsense vigor and an arch sense of humor, Flora Post (the Emma Woodhouse lookalike) sends the brooding, woman-hating man of mystery (*cough* HEATHCLIFF *cough* ) off to become a Hollywood movie star. She transforms the imp-like but beautiful young woman (*cough* Catherine Linton *cough*) into a desirable mate for the local aristocrat. She teaches the overly fertile maid the importance of contraception. She deals with Aunt Doom (yes, her name is Aunt Doom), the owner of Cold Comfort Farm, and a woman who has refused to come out of her room for some sixty years, because she saw “something in the woodshed” as a girl.

We all know Healthcliff just wants Fame...

The book also presents some subtle discussions of feminism and the treatment of female authorship. When Flora meets an aspiring author (Mr. Meyerberg), he tries to convince her that the Bronte sister’s entire oeuvre was written by Branwen (their brother).** Mr. Meyerberg pursues Flora romantically, and blames her indifference on sexual frigidity.

The whole story is funny as hell, in a mischievous, high-wire sort of way. I’d be fascinated to read the scholarship on the piece, because there’s so much rich, tangled intertextuality to work through.

Jo Waltons’ Tooth and Claw, meanwhile, is another 19th century parody (what can I say? I love the 19th century. I love parodies). Walton writes a typical Victorian comedy of manners: everyone tries to get married and find their vicarage and display proper conduct all while keeping their clothes in perfec order. But the “everyone” she writes about aren’t humans. They’re dragons.
Yes, you read that right. Every character in the novel is a dragon, from blushing maiden to overbearing aristocrat.

All he needs to be perfectly respectable is a vicarage and a nice cup of tea.

It shouldn’t work, but it does, in large part because of how Walton uses the biological realities of being a dragon to explain the bizarre traditions of Victorian society. For example, we finally understand why victorian girls weren’t allowed around men. When men get too close to virgin dragons, the virgin’s scales “blush” red, and everyone knows they’ve been near a man, bringing on scandal.

Walton explains the perpetual survival of the aristocracy in a similar way.  Aristocratic dragons are allowed the first bite of any dead dragon. They, for example, get to eat the stunted children of their tenants. Dragons grow big depending on the amount of dragon-flesh they eat – and since the size of a dragon determines their ability to survive a fight, aristocrats will always have a physical advantage over their tenants.

In these, and many other examples, Walton cleverly reworks the tropes of two genres (dragon stories and Victorian comedy of manners). It was a fantastic, funny, flaming (sometimes literally) read. And I hold out hope that there might be a sequel someday.

** Cue obligatory Joanna Russ reference. As Russ points out in her non-fiction masterpiece How to Suppress Women’s Writing,  the easiest way to marginalize womens’ writing is to yell “SHE DIDN’T WRITE IT!

Mr. Meyerburg, Joanna is Judging You.

7 Comments on “Frantically, Florally February: Monthly Reading Roundup”

  1. eileeny says:

    What did you like about Santa Olivia? Because I adored Carey’s Kushiel series, but couldn’t get into her other series at all.

    19th century comedies of manners are just eternally delightful, so I shall have to pick up Tooth and Claw.

    • C.D. says:

      Oooh, I adored Carey’s Kushiel series as well. Actually, that’s a lie, since I’ve only read the first book, but I adored that, and I imagine I’ll love the rest of them.
      What other series of hers have you read? Was it the Saints duology? Or another one of her Kushiel world stories?
      I didn’t think Santa Olivia was as good as Kushiel’s Dart – in fact, the only thing the two books have in a common is a shared interest in queer sexualities – but I thought it was a fun, well-written action-adventure type novel with a different take on the werewolf legend and some interesting commentary on the superhero genre.

      • eileeny says:

        I read a little part of Banewreaker, but didn’t like it at all.

        The rest of the Kushiel series is fantastic – I’ve read all but the very last, Naamah’s Blessing. The world unfolds more with each book, and when you look at them as a body of work they’re very much about acceptance and grace, which I very much enjoyed. The fantasy slant of the world starts coming on more strongly the farther you go, which another friend of mine who read them had very mixed feelings about. I rather enjoyed it until the last trilogy, as it was a very natural unfolding: the last trilogy is a fairly sharp departure, but charming in its own way.

      • C.D. says:

        Yeah, I’ve heard fairly poor reviews of Banewreaker. It’s interesting, because Carey is such a chameleon – if I hadn’t known Santa Olivia was by the same author as Kushiel’s Dart, I never would have guessed. The writing style, the plot – everything is so different.
        I’m looking forwards to reading the rest of the Kushiel series. I was really impressed with the first book; I actually read it right after reading George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, and thought Kushiel’s Dart was the better novel of the two. (I did like Game of Thrones quite a bit, in my defense). Of course, I’d bet on preferring Game of Thrones, so I bought the second Martin book, and not the second Carey book… argh! But that’s easily fixed…

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