Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Lady Audley’s Secret

I still read books. But ever since I’ve had a kid I read less. Instead, I have found at least two ways to listen to books. One is while I exercise (and then it’s mostly bad fantasy). The other is while I work. It doesn’t make for a particularly in-depth read but it does bring up the number of books I read. But since my focus when I listen to books is not as strong as when I read them, I choose things I don’t particularly care to know in every detail. Like

er-ladyaudleyssecretLady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing | and here’s the LibriVox free audiobook I listened to

What it is:
A sensational novel written in 1862, and basically a worse Wilkie Collins. It tells a story of Lady Audley, who comes from nowhere, marries rich and, no duh, has a secret (it’s – spoilers, barely – bigamy; and a son; and possibly madness). The story is mostly told from a point of view of Robert Audley, a perfect (and perfectly useless) gentleman with unexpressed homosexual tendencies and includes a surprising amount of violence.

How I found it:
I searched through LibriVox for something that you can listen to during work.

Summary judgment:
It’s not good, strictly speaking, but it’s fun enough.

Best things about it:
It reads easily and keeps you mildly interested. The characters remain memorable through their quirks.

Worst things about it:
This novel has such a weird structure where the reader is constantly promised secrets and revelations but every answer is obvious pretty much from the beginning. The coincidences are quite ludicrous and sometimes you wonder why the book takes so long to unveil a secret which barely deserves the name.
No, wait! I didn’t guess George was still alive but only because in a better book he wouldn’t have been, I declare.

Other pluses:
Robert is actually, almost, it feels, accidentally, a fascinating character: in turns seductive and infuriating. He incorporates the perfect nonchalance of a gentleman (that only a danger to his beloved friend can sometimes shake). His musings on women are, on the other hand, terrible.

Other minuses:
✤ It’s not so obvious from a modern point of view because social mobility, homosexuality and undomesticated women aren’t very scary to most people any more, but this book based its attraction on stirring Victorian readers’ anxieties. I don’t approve of fear-mongering.
✤ I wish lady Audley was a more complex character. I know a modern critic may easily reinterpret her as a victim of women’s disenfranchisement but, frankly, the book doesn’t care about that. She’s barely more than a ghoul to scare people with.

How it enriched my life:
It kept me good company during many hours of work.

Fun fact:
If you don’t know LibriVox, give it a try. It’s like Project Gutenberg for audiobooks where enthusiasts devote their time to record public domain books for anyone to enjoy. It’s free, it’s uneven, I love it.

Follow-up:
Whatever I find when I’ve got the kind of work that makes it possible to listen to books. But not Braddon, probably.

Recommended for:
Fans of Victorian trash literature, villainous women and gloriously lazy gentlemen.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Pretty in Pink

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Glass Castle

Memoirs are not among my favorite genres but I read one every now and then. Like

er-theglasscastleThe Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional but exciting family. Jeannette and her three siblings are carted around by their extravagant parents: an artistic mother who refuses to make sacrifices and a charismatic drunken father. They live in several states, fiercely independent, but often with nothing to eat and nowhere to wash.

How I found it:
I saw a trailer for the movie adaptation and then heard a casual reference to the book somewhere and it was enough to get me interested.

Summary judgment:
I admire the tone of the book and it reads really well.

Best things about it:
While some facts from Walls’s childhood shock, she manages to recreate a child’s point of view that only slowly grows more judgmental of her parents, replacing perfect trust with disappointment. I read criticism of the dispassionate tone of the book but I actually find it believable and engaging: at some moments you want to shake the parents awake for the children who love them too much to do that.
And even though Walls grows in disillusionment as she matures, the underlying love for her misfit family never disappears, elevating the book from a tearjerker to a head-scratcher: despite everything, there are positive things about the Walls parents values.

Worst things about it:
A few times I found the anecdotal style of the book, with the memories mostly disjoined into separate snippets a bit mechanical. But it’s a minor complaint.

Other pluses:
✤ Walls manages to paint very vivid pictures of the different places where she lived, particularly the desert and Welch. You easily see yourself there.
✤ It bears emphasizing: it would be so easy to presents parents like these as monsters. It’s a testament to a child’s devotion, but also to the strength of human spirit, how Walls never condemns them, even when the reader has, and so makes you see positive things about them: their courage, their optimism, their free spirit.
✤ I found Lori the most interesting of the siblings but all the family members except for the youngest child make such strong characters.

Other minuses:
Of all the places, I found the description of New York least compelling.

How it enriched my life:
Despite everything it’s an enjoyable read and more than that, it makes you wonder about people who choose very different lifestyles.

Fun fact:
I can’t imagine anything less fun than having your grown-up child write a memoir of how you raised them, even if you did your best to strive for perfection. The more do I admire Mrs. Walls for her alleged support for the book.

Follow-up:
I’m interested in Walls’s other book, Half-Broke Horses, about her grandmother.

Recommended for:
People with perfectly (or at least mostly) conventional childhoods curious about different experiences. I have no idea how it might work for people who got traumatized in dysfunctional families themselves.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Back to True Blood

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog

I love Three Men in a Boat. It’s one of my favorite books in the world. It was a revelation the first time I came upon it in my father’s collection and I cherish it still. So when I found a modern book that plays with it, I was more than excited to read it.

er-tosaynothingofthedogTo Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
Such a weird mix of a postmodern pastiche, humorous science fiction and historical novel of manners. Oh, and a mystery novel. Time travel has been invented and lady Schrapnel is rebuilding the Coventry Cathedral, with the help of the brightest Oxford historians – who travel in time to sketch or locate original ornaments, to say nothing of the bishop’s bird stump. I’m not going to summarize the rest of the plot but at least a half of it takes place (time?) in the Victorian era, on the Thames, and Jay Jerome makes a cameo.

How I found it:
I think it’s another book I found on some online list.

Summary judgment:
I loved the story.

Best things about it:
It’s a light, pleasant trip that manages to include a serious philosophical (or theological) message. And many things about it actually made me laugh out loud (which was embarrassing whenever it happened on a train). Willis managed to capture some of the humorous spirit of the original.

Worst things about it:
It tired me how obvious some of the mystery solutions were (particularly the one about Mr C, evident pretty much from the first scene in which he appears) and yet how long the characters took to get there.

Other pluses:
✤ I love how complicated the structure of the book is sometimes: how things mentioned lightly in one chapter return with greater weight in another one. Like the treasures in the attic.
✤ It’s a good approximation of the original novel’s humor: simple at times but still really funny. I appreciated running jokes, like the one with hours on the pocket watch.
✤ Time travel never makes sense in novels but Willis at least attempts to make it consistent. It might be the least nonsensical time travel I’ve read.

Other minuses:
Sometimes I wished Willis trusted that her readers actually read Three Men. I was happy to read about Ned fighting swans because I did remember Harris in that scene. But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t care about it so there was no need to mention Harris explicitly. (Nitpicking.)

How it enriched my life:
I enjoyed the book a lot.

Follow-up:
I will certainly re-read Three Men in a Boat many more times. Right now I’m trying to make my husband read it too. But as for Willis’s novels, the other ones set in the same universe sound a bit too gloomy.

Recommended for:
Fans of Three Men in a Boat or other Victorian stories on the lighter side. It feels like it would be a good beach read, too.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Your Name

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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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