Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: I Am Charlotte Simmons

er-iamcharlottesimmonsI Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Tom Wolfe takes on an American model of toxic masculinity as it shows itself in Ivy League colleges. Through the story of Charlotte Simmons, a prodigy from a small mountain town with a scholarship to Dupont, a fictional college, Wolfe examines the superficiality of college culture and its lack of moral grounding. He also makes a few jabs at college sports through a story of Jojo, a basketball star, and at fraternities through sociopathic Hoyt.

How I found it:
I probably liked the blurb because college stories are second best to high school stories in my world.

Summary judgment:
It didn’t bore me but didn’t particularly enrich my life either.

Best things about it:
It reads really well. I stayed curious as to what was going to happen and all the dramatic turns made me read greedily.
Also, with the quasi-scientific introduction and the first two chapters you think you know where the story is going and at first it feels like waiting for a train-wreck which really shouldn’t need so many pages. But that train-wreck never exactly happens and Wolfe manages to draw something more from the premise.

Worst things about it:
It’s true I am reading this book at a specific moment when toxic masculinity is very much a part of everyday’s discourse and that makes me focus entirely on this aspect of the novel. But with this laser-sharp focus I also notice that while Wolfe tells us that the vision of masculinity that his characters cherish doesn’t work, he doesn’t really give us any alternative or positive role models.
That ties in with the fact that you can’t root for any of the characters. In fact, the sociopathic frat boy, Hoyt, at least doesn’t vie for the reader’s sympathy at all and you feel good disliking him, while Charlotte and Adam, who should be more nuanced, seem maybe even more repelling in their superficiality and egotism.

Other pluses:
✤ Jojo is the only character I actually sort of liked but his progress remains somewhat mechanical and his storyline marginal to the main narrative.
✤ The campus seems like a real (albeit gloomy) place.
✤ Millenial Mutants works as a term.
✤ I learned a few new words from this book because it insists on choosing very sophisticated vocabulary.

Other minuses:
✤ However, the big words are used in all situations, without much differentiation and while they work fine in Charlotte’s or Adam’s stories, in other cases they sometimes sound false.
✤ I am so done with anti-heroes. I wish Charlotte had one good quality. One. (Other than the virginal status written apparently on her forehead so that everyone immediately saw it and fell in love.)
✤ I find it hard to believe that no students in top colleges show interest in anything other than clothes and sex. Call me an idealist.

How it enriched my life:
It introduced me to a new author and gave me a vision of college very different from either the one I know or the one I read about in other campus novels.

Fun fact:
One of the words I didn’t know was “cenacle.

Follow-up:
I’m sort of interested in Wolfe’s biggest novel, The Bonfire of Vanities, but with reservations because 1980s novels often put me off.

Recommended for:
People who want to tell themselves that it’s good they didn’t get into the Ivy League. Anyone who hates students and wants arguments why. People who want to read a soapy drama with a veneer of a serious book.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: The Good Place

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Bookworming

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

If you wondered why there’ve been no book reviews for a while (you weren’t, were you), it’s because one book took all my reading time:

er-jonathanstrangeandmrnorrellJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Clarke’s debut from 2004, a massive novel and, quite possibly, a masterpiece. In three volumes it tells the story of two magicians destined to bring back English magic who take up the task during the Napoleonic wars. It’s alternative history at its best, with the style resembling the classics of 19th-century English novels and the tempo I can only describe as gentlemanly. If there ever was fantasy for adults, this is it (and not a single sex scene in this one, it’s not what I meant).

How I found it:
This was actually my second meeting with the book. First time I found it in a library soon after it was published – and I only finished the first volume. Apparently, as my notes tell me, I found the tone jarring but I suspect it must have been the translation. I’m certainly glad I gave it another try.

Summary judgment:
What a lovely beauty this one is, and unlike anything else I know. Also, definitely my favorite read of the year so far.

Best things about it:
It’s complex. It’s impressive. It knows exactly what it wants to be and adeptly goes about it. The portrayal of the two magicians is magnificent, both in their strengths and weaknesses. I rooted for Strange because he was so likeable but I really understood Norrell (who was anything but) and in the moment when, against his character, Norrell takes Strange on as a student, I realized the book was more than I’d expected.

Worst things about it:
There’s only one thing: I read it for two months (honestly, it’s embarrassing) and it completely ruined my reading statistics for the year. Yes, it’s a long book (and I don’t have nearly enough time for reading these days). But then again, when it’s over you wish it was longer.

Other pluses:
✤ I like the idea of fairies as borderline mad by human standards. The whole supernatural part of the book is so poetic and convincing.
✤ The footnotes work great. I read that some people didn’t like the idea but it’s the right touch and I loved all the semi-historical, semi-anecdotal stories they tell.
✤ The pastiche feels just right to me: not a direct copy of older novels’ style, more of a reverential nod.

Other minuses:
I’m good. No complaints.

How it enriched my life:
It delighted me so much. It shows the value that a slightly older debutante writer brings into their work. It inspires all sorts of Victorian fantasies.

Fun fact:
Yes, I do have reading statistics. They got less impressive in the last two years though.

Follow-up:
I am re-reading this one for sure. Now that I know the story I will be able to focus on closer reading and I’m sure it will reveal many interesting things I overlooked. There’s only one more book by Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and I’m going to read that one too. I wish there were more though.

Recommended for:
Me. Or, more precisely, anyone who’s into similar stuff, like Regency/Victorian literature, fantasy, postmodern twists on literary classics… Also, if it’s you, give me a call and let’s hang out.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: The wonder of Penelope

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Bookworming

Literary Nobel Prize

Congratulations to Kazuo Ishiguro.

Can’t say I read, or enjoyed, much of his fiction but if you want to get really depressed about human condition, try Never Let Me Go. I read it at the end of my pregnancy and then wished I hadn’t – but not because it’s a bad book (it isn’t), but because it makes you feel existential in the unpleasant way. I know people who dig this feeling.

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Moonstone

As you know – or don’t, but you should ’cause I say it all the time – when the sun is bright and the leaves are green I like to immerse myself in a novel of Victorian society and green English countryside. This year came the turn of

er-themoonstoneThe Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A second-best known novel by Wilkie Collins (after The Woman in White) thought to be the first (or one of the first, literary historians rarely agree on anything) modern detective story in English language. It tells a story of a diamond stolen from India and taken to Britain but (justly) pursued by the original owners. The thief bestows the diamond to his niece Rachel but it is promptly stolen and the entire book focuses on the search for the jewel. It is told through multiple narratives of various witnesses to parts of the story, as commissioned by Franklin Blake, a gentleman deeply involved in the whole drama and determined to find the diamond.

How I found it:
A couple years ago I read The Woman in White and it quite enchanted me: it proved so much more than I’d expected. So I decided to read more of Collins some time and when the time came to choose this season’s Victorian novel, The Moonstone it was.

Summary judgment:
I enjoyed the story, more for the atmosphere and the narrative experiments than for the mystery itself.

Best things about it:
It goes beyond what you would expect from a mystery story, particularly in its use of different narrations. It gets less visible towards the end but the first two narratives: by Betteredge and, to a lesser extent, by Miss Clack shine with understated humor and credible character quirks.

Worst things about it:
This is hardly the novel’s fault but detective stories, with the single exception of Sherlock Holmes, don’t excite me too much. At least this one is not about a grisly murder.

Other pluses:
I liked its leisurely, you could even say: gentlemanly, atmosphere.
Even though you could object to certain elements of representation – of women, of the Hindu culture – from today’s point of view, for Victorian standards the novel has quite progressive aspects in the depiction of servants, sometimes of Rachel, of social outcasts and even in its criticism of colonialism.
It takes care to focus on different social classes and does justice to the complexity of Victorian society.
Betteredge’s narrative is quite a delight, a whole level higher than the rest of the novel. It sparkles with humorous observations and boasts a distinct, believable voice. I particularly liked the fragment in which he notes how hard ladies and gentlemen of leisure have to work to find anything to fill their time with.

Other minuses:
I felt the picture of Miss Clack lacked the compassion that other characters enjoyed from the author and the satire became a little too thick. Perhaps Collins had his own grudge against single-minded evangelizers but I found it a little grating.

How it enriched my life:
Well, it’s another classic to tick off on my never-ending list, and one somewhat significant from a historical point of view. I also quite enjoyed it, particularly the portraits of the varied characters.

Fun fact:
This time something about the book, not about me: Collins was an opium addict and so he manages to introduce the addiction into the story. Interestingly, opium addiction as he presents it is neither demonized nor glorified.

Follow-up:
Even though I’ve now read the most admired Collins’ novels, he wrote quite a few more and I might check them out in the future because I enjoy his writing.

Recommended for:
Fans of Victorian literature and/or of detective novels (but not those kinds with a lot of thriller-y tension). Fans of the English countryside. Fans of Robinson Crusoe (it makes sense when you read it).

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Fantastic Beasts, maybe. But also, as the new academic year is upon us with its teaching duties, one-update-a-week weeks may happen more often now than during holidays. Just roll with it – as I know you will.

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Marvels

er-marvelsMarvels by Kurt Busiek

Category: Comics

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A 1994 comic by Kurt Busiek, illustrated (or, precisely, painted) by Alex Ross. It describes the emergence of superheroes in the Marvel Universe from the point of view of a very much not superpowered newspaper photographer who tries to deal with the fact that regular human beings are no longer the top of the food chain. It shows classic events from the history of superheroes like Namor, X-Men, Spider-Man et al. as seen by someone who doesn’t really know what and why is going on.

How I found it:
I don’t even know. It’s been on my reading list for a while and I even started it twice before but I never got past the first issue then.

Summary judgment:
The art is wonderful, the story is okay.

Best things about it:
Definitely the art, it’s freaking amazing. I love watercolors in most appearances but this shows such mastery of the medium and Ross uses the style to create a fresh re-telling of old stories that has its unique flavor.
And I like the concept itself, it’s always interesting to think what superhero-infested world feels like for people who have to live in it and someone actually wrote a book about it.

Worst things about it:
After a while I got tired with how gloomy-doomy everything felt. I know it fit with the story but I wish there were more small superhero moments like X-Men anonymously viewing Alicia Masters’ exhibition while people talk trash about them.

Other pluses:
The moments like that one, most of all. Also, and expectedly, I like the X-Men storyline and how Busiek tries to explain why people in the MU accept other superheroes and hate mutants – I actually buy his explanation. The story of Spider-Man accused of murder also worked for me: basically, anything that wasn’t too grand-scale.
Personally, I love stories that redefine recognizable characters (that’s why X-Men: Evolution and 1602 are some of my favorite things ever) and this new look on old comic stories definitely speaks to me. I only wished I knew more about the original Marvel characters to recognize most allusions, especially the ones happening in the background.

Other minuses:
I didn’t very much like Phil Sheldon as a character.
Also, that zero issue is definitely skippable.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoyed the comic and it kept me company during a very unpleasant day I had to spend in bed.

Fun fact:
This is just a fact I feel the responsibility to mention: what I’ve been calling watercolors might rather be gouache, so a different kind of water paints but I imagine it doesn’t really matter to most of you.

Follow-up:
For a while I’ve been meaning to return to 1602 and I will.

Recommended for:
Fans of Marvel and/or watercolors.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Mousquetaires du Roy

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Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales

Just so you know, I’m not only reading Regency England romances (in fact, contrary to the impression the last few posts might have made, I’m not reading a lot of them at all).  And so today let me share a pretty different work, even if it does come broadly from the same island.

er-scottishfolkandfairytalesScottish Folk and Fairy Tales edited by Gordon Jarvie

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Published in Penguin Popular Classics series, it is what it says: a collection of Scottish folk stories.

How I found it:
I spotted it lying on my friend Z’s table. At the time I was reading Tam Lin by Pamela Dean and was interested to read the original tale – which I did on the spot. A few months later when Z was done with the book, I borrowed it because since then I started looking for stories on fairies and this seemed like a good source.

Summary judgment:
I liked it. It reminded me of how I used to read collections of folk fairy tales as a kid (and how many of them were pretty inappropriate for a kid, to think back on it).

Best things about it:
I like how varied it is. Pretty much every story is of a different character, even a different genre. They seem to come from different periods and focus on different functions of a folk tale.

Worst things about it:
Of course, that means some of them fell flat for me.
Also, I have a soft spot for Penguin Popular Classics but such collections, which contain sometimes opaque elements, would benefit from some introduction and the editor’s notes and this series simply does not include those.

Other pluses:
Here go my favorite stories: “The Seal Catcher and the Merman” – it has a clear image of selkies and even an ecological message. “The Magic Walking-stick” – it was completely different than what I expected, a Victorian short story rather than a folk tale, and it had very well drawn setting. “The Lonely Giant” – well-crafted story with a memorable protagonist. “Through the Veil” – Conan Doyle rarely disappoints and while this is very much a Victorian short story, it’s a good one.

Other minuses:
Some stories simply failed to interest me at all, like “The Milk-white Doo” (not a great introduction to the book) or “Adam Bell.”

How it enriched my life:
I learned about a selkie palace and who Thomas Rymer was.

Fun fact:
Penguin Popular Classics were the first books in English I ever owned. I got two Alices by Carroll and one Conan Doyle (I think The Hound) for Christmas and then kept getting them for various occasions when I discovered, to my delight, that my English was good enough to read them. So I know there are better Penguin series but this one will always have a soft spot in my heart. Also, they are dirt-cheap, which is always nice.

Follow-up:
It made me want to re-read The Golden Bough so I have to dig it up because I know I have it somewhere.

Recommended for:
Anyone interested in fairy tales or Scottish folklore, of course, but not inquisitive enough to need additional editorial notes.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Younger

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Old Friends and New Fancies

Yes, this seems to be the year when I grow a bit obsessed with Jane Austen. Well, not truly, because I still don’t remember anything that happened in Mansfield Park (I seriously need to re-read it and see if it’s as bad as I remember) but here’s another thing inspired by the great Jane and written by someone much more obsessed than me:

er-oldfriendsandnewfanciesOld Friends and New Fancies by Sybil G. Brinton

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon if you want it in a pretty book format. Or you can download a free copy from Project Gutenberg.

What it is:
The first published Austen fan fiction! In 1913 Ms. Brinton wrote a story in which characters from Austen’s novels interact and continue to fall in love and be talked down to by lady Catherine de Bourgh. It focuses particularly on three couplings and the obstacles they face (mostly obstacles of unsuccessful communication): Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mary Crawford, Georgiana Darcy and William Price and Kitty Bennet and James Morland.

How I found it:
This one was less random than my usual book finds: I found it on two different lists of books recommended for people who like Jane Austen.

Summary judgment:
It is exactly what it claims to be: a work of overflowing love for the originals. It’s not written with as much talent as the six novels (which I never expected it to be) but it’s entertaining enough.

Best things about it:
It is skillful enough at recreating the characters and the atmosphere of the originals. The story keeps you mildly interested and some of the characters get more space than they did in the original books.

Worst things about it:
I guess it’s not exactly exciting reading? It didn’t bore me but I can see it being difficult for some people. Then again, you can say the same about Jane Austen.

Other pluses:
I liked the appearance of some of my favorites, like Elizabeth and Darcy and Mr. Knightley. Nature and places play an important part and are well recreated.

Other minuses:
Some characters were hard to bear. I don’t really remember the original Mary Crawford but for a positive heroine I found her obnoxious. Kitty didn’t get her due either: Austen tell us in Pride and Prejudice that Kitty got more serious and respectable after Lydia’s removal but Brinton chooses to ignore that. Oh, and poor Emma.
But most of all, as is, sadly, too common in romances, male characters are rather bland and unexciting.

How it enriched my life:
I liked how it put more life into Georgiana than she ever had. It also reminded me that I need to re-read at least three of Austen books.

Fun fact:
Brinton really dislikes Emma. She only seems to see the Emma from the first half of the novel, who tries to matchmake people with little thought or concern for anything. But you know, I never found Emma as annoying as most people do, maybe because my first contact with her was through Gwyneth Paltrow’s version and I quite liked her.

Follow-up:
This: Longbourn (another fan fiction, sort of). Mansfield Park. Persuasion. Sense and Sensibility. And then some other things from that list of recommendations. But it will take a while because I like to mix up my reading and not spend a few months in Regency England.

Recommended for:
If anything I wrote in the “What It Is” section sounds interesting, go for it. But it’s for pretty hardcore Austen fans or people who really like this mostly carefree, slow atmosphere.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Zootopia

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