Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Magnificent Octopus

Triple-Choice-TuesdayWelcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers and other bookish bods to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is (yet another) Canadian, Isabella from Magnificent Octopus.

I’ve been following Isabella’s blog for at least five years. In fact, we once embarked on a group reading project together — George Eliot’s Middlemarch — although I bailed early due to lack of time. I’ve always been impressed — and a little bit intimidated — by her tastes in books. Who else, for instance, reads Don Quixote for fun? But I’ve always enjoyed following Isabella’s bookish adventures and am really delighted that she’s agreed to share her selections with us today.

Isabella has actually been blogging since 2003 — yes, even longer than me! “Blogging for me at first was
mostly an oasis of sanity amid stay-at-home motherhood,” she tells me. “But it was always pretty clear that I loved writing about books.”

Isabella also deals with words in her working life. After years of copy editing medical journals, she made the switch to the for-profit sector and edits multimedia “educational” promotional programs for pharmaceutical companies. She jokes that this is just another way of saying she’s a drug pusher!

Anyway, without further ado, here’s Isabella’s Triple Choice Tuesday selection:


RazorsEdge A favourite book: The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

A minor classic, but an underrated one. I read this for the first time when I was about 15, and it opened my eyes in a way the books I studied at school never did.

It’s about Larry Darrell, who’s on a kind of spiritual quest. He passes up a good job opportunity and doesn’t put much value in the things society expects of him (in particular the upper-crust Chicago society from which he comes and the Parisian society with which it intersects). Larry’s life ambition is to loaf, he tells other people, but it’s clear that his definition of “loafing” is much richer than most people understand. Larry’s something of an autodidact and he pursues a meaningful experience of the world in his own unconventional way.

I recently read it fairly closely (as part of an annotation project) and it gave me a much deeper appreciation of Maugham’s skill as a writer. The novel is brimming with details regarding its characters — the labels they wear, the restaurants they frequent, the art on their walls, the books they read — that speak volumes about the people they are. Plus it’s marvellously evocative of 1920s-30s Paris.

This book is a comfort read for me. It covers some pretty basic moral philosophy, the stuff we all know deep down, but sometimes I like to be reminded that it’s not what you do, or who you know, or the stuff that you own, or the places you’re seen that bring fulfilment — it’s a question of character.


FirstCentury A book that changed my world: The First Century After Beatrice by Amin Maalouf

Lots of books have changed my world, every book changes my world, but it’s hard to pin down any book as having changed me in an earth-shattering kind of way. I don’t think any book has ever done that (but then, I’m the kind of person who never “strongly agrees” on a Likert scale).
That said, I’ll choose The First Century After Beatrice by Amin Maalouf.

Maalouf is a marvellous storyteller, who excels at evoking faraway times and places (check out his Samarkand for a history of Omar Khayyam, or Ports of Call for a cross-cultural love story amid the political upheaval of the Arab world in the mid-20th century).

The First Century is a bit of a dystopia, and, frankly, I think it’s one of his weaker novels. But! It had such a profound effect on me when I read it in the mid-90s, because it made me sit up and look at the world around me. Since I tend to look to fiction as an escape from the world, even as it gives me a framework through which to understand it, this is quite a feat.
Indeed, every few months a story pops up in the back pages of newspapers about the disparate gender ratio in birth rates in India, and I think about this book, and how this issue is so easily dismissed.

Basically, the book follows this premise, of some cultures preferring male offspring, to a grim conclusion. It covers a lot of gender politics, innate (versus culturally learned) gender roles, and genetic manipulation.
So I give this book credit for making me a little bit political.


Dodecahedron A book that deserves a wider audience: The Dodecahedron, or A Frame for Frames by Paul Glennon

A couple years ago, I would have said (and did say) anything by Patrick Hamilton. But I think he’s been rescued (again) from (relative) obscurity by the timely reissue of a couple of his key books (most recently by NYBR). Today, I’m reading Life A User’s Manual, by Georges Perec, a classic of Oulipo literature, which has tremendous cult standing. Because I’m loving it so much, I’ll recommend a recent book written in the same vein: The Dodecahedron, or A Frame for Frames, by Paul Glennon.

This is a collection of 12 interconnected stories, each written in a different genre, in its own voice. Admittedly, some of these work better than others. But they’re full of a wonder and magic and adventure and golems and bibliophagia and things.

The Dodecahedron was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in English in 2006, which puts it in the fine company of Canada’s best literature, but I’m afraid that it may have been tarnished by being branded “experimental”. The book has a pretty rigid mathematical basis for its structure and the way the stories relate to each other, but that shouldn’t intimidate anyone. Books like this are so much more accessible than their reputation would have you believe.

I’ll champion this book on the basis that it wasn’t written by some dead French guy and because you probably haven’t read anything like it before. I posted an excerpt and some initial thoughts about The Dodecahedron here.

Thanks, Isabella, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!

I’ll admit that I’ve not heard of any of them, but they all sound worthy additions to my wishlist!

What do you think of Isabella’s choices? Have you read any of these books?

13 thoughts on “Triple Choice Tuesday: Magnificent Octopus”

  1. I started following that “reading Middlemarch” blog – I liked the conversations a lot. I’ve followed Magnificent Octopus since – I agree that Isabella’s reading tastes are admirable, far more highbrow than I manage, these days. Seeing her here reminds me that I must try a Patrick Hamilton sometime (I may have read him when young, I forget).
    I have not read the second two of Isabella’s choices but The Razor’s Edge is my favourte Maugham – perhaps because I was young when I read it. (I once set myself a task to read everything he wrote, short stories and all, and completed it!)


  2. I don’t know any of these books and now I want to read them all (especially The First Century After Beatrice). We had to read Of Human Bondage in school and I hated it with a passion. Maybe I wasn’t ready for Maugham yet? A friend recently said that Maugham was his favourite author of all time. I think it’s time to try reading Somerset Maugham again. How does The Razor’s Edge differ from Of Human Bondage?


  3. Thanks for introducing me to ‘Magnificent Octopus’ which I had not heard of. I do take exception to one sentence here. “Who else reads Don Quixote for fun?” The new translation of Don Quixote is probably the most fun I’ve ever had reading a book. It’s been a long time since I read ‘The Razor’s Edge’, but I’ve read and much enjoyed several other Maugham books lately – I may need to re-read ‘The Razor’s Edge’. Amin Maalouf is a writer I’m unfamiliar with but want to read now after this article.


  4. Tony, the Don Q comment was made in jest. I would never denigrate anyones choice of reading matter and, if anything, Im actually very impressed that Isabella has read it. One day I might tackle it myself. But after I have read War and Peace, and Ulysses first! 😉


  5. Another wonderful new blog discovery. Thank you.
    I’ve never read any Maugham either, but really must, ditto Malouf – I have Samarkand on my shelves.


  6. Hi Kimbofo,
    Ulysees and War and Peace are wonderful books, but they are both a lot of work. Don Quixote is just pure light pleasure. Since the new addition is published in two volumes, I counted it as two books. Originally I was going to wait a few months between the volumes, but I was so eager to see what Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were up to, that I returned to Volume II in a matter of days.


  7. Yay for Maugham! I once thought I’d read everything by Maugham, but he turned out to be way more prolific than I could manage. I’m so glad when I find others who love The Razor’s Edge — too often it’s overshadowed by Of Human Bondage.


  8. That’s a really good question, Kinga! Answer: the Razor’s Edge is much shorter 🙂
    I read Bondage once, in my late teens, liked it well enough but I did thing it dragged on. (Maybe I should try it again, with more mature eyes.) But The Razor’s Edge just really spoke to me in my youth about finding my own way, setting my own priorities.
    You may want to try some of his short stories — they show remarkable insight into all manner of human relationships. (Some are available online, but they’re not centralized.)


  9. DQ was much more entertaining than I’d expected, but I have to say, even though it’s apples and oranges, I liked War and Peace better. (I have yet to read Ulysses — maybe next year. I’ll let you know how I think it measures up.)
    Tony, I hope you do check out Maalouf. I find his style to be very exotic, in a seductive way. He’s Lebanese, writing in French, and he worked forever as a journalist, which brings an interesting flavour to what might otherwise be generally labeled historical fiction.


  10. Thanks for the kind words, Kim, and for the opportunity to share some favourites.
    Intimidated!? You know, I think DQ is the first really big, “intimidating” book I ever read. And it turns out they’re just books, and you either like ’em or you don’t.


  11. Thanks for that Isabella! I’ll hunt out one of his short stories and give it a go first. In retrospect, I think I was too immature to appreciate Of Human Bondage and it just seemed to go on forever. But I’ve held that prejudice in my mind for far too long and I no longer have my English teacher standing over me with a sheet of questions for the last 3 chapters. It might be time to (re)discover Maugham.


  12. You’re very welcome, Isabella. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this… I really enjoyed reading about your choices. I’ve not read any Maugham but am encouraged to give him a try now… and maybe, just maybe, I might get around to reading DQ one day!


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