Bookworming

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

Standard
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

Standard
Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: God Don’t Like Ugly

A lot, if not most, of my reading choices are quite random and one of those was recently

er-goddontlikeuglyGod Don’t Like Ugly by Mary Monroe

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A story of Annette Goode, an African American girl growing up in the 60s in Florida and mostly Ohio. Annette suffers abuse at home and unpopularity at school but her life changes when she meets Rhoda, a rich and perfect girl next door. Slowly, Annette learns to stand up for herself (sort of) and make her own choices. It is also the first book in a series, which turns out significant as I will explain later.

How I found it:
I think the cover and the blurb combined to pick my interest. I didn’t know it was a part of a series though, or I would’ve been more reluctant to invest my time in it.

Summary judgment:
It’s a decent book for what it is but it could have a potential for a greater piece if it had the courage and conviction to remain a standalone.

Best things about it:
Despite the heavy themes it reads really well and the term “page-turner” used on the cover turns out quite true. It’s been a while since I went so fast through a book without any (literal) magic in it.

Worst things about it:
With seriousness of the subject matter one would expect the book to attempt a deeper analysis and character study. It calls for some gravitas, particularly that the tone does not suggest otherwise. However, as the story develops, the author seems to get this idea that this would become a series rather than a standalone book and so she never gives the story a proper structure. I felt it missed a real climax and after – spoiler – the abuser is murdered, the story just flops idly till the end of it. We fail to get a satisfying conclusion for Annette’s tribulations, she just goes from one decision to the next. And so the drama veers into soap opera territory: which, I suppose, is to be expected from a series.

Other pluses:
The writing is not only engaging but quite colorful. It easily transports you into the world of the story and keeps you interested in its flawed characters. Up until the very end I was interested in what was going to happen to the characters – the final lack of satisfaction didn’t take that away from the experience.
I love any story happening in the 60s (up to and including that one episode of Beverly Hills 90210; remember that one? good times) so that always adds a little star in my judgment.
I also quite love the illustrated covers for the series: they have so much character and fit the story well.

Other minuses:
I think I covered most of it: I disliked that the story didn’t have its independent resolution, whatever happens in the future books, and that the second half of it was just a series of loosely connected events that didn’t lead anywhere particularly interesting. If I were to sum it up, I’m afraid the book is neither ambitious nor pleasant enough to be entirely satisfying.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoyed reading it, despite not getting a full payoff for my time investement.

Fun fact:
It’s mostly fun for me, not for you, but for the first time since I was really sick, I guess, I spent most of a Sunday lazing about with this book on a couch – and it was exactly what I needed.

Follow-up:
I considered reading further books in the series for the resolution of the story. But then I started reading about them online and it turns out there are quite a few of those books and they seem to completely accept their sudsy fate so there is no resolution in sight. I didn’t like the characters enough to want to spend so much time with them for so little return.

Recommended for:
People who like family sagas and returning to the characters they’ve already met, while not being put off by (overly?) dramatic events straight from a TV drama.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Nick Carraway Chronicles

Standard
Bookworming, Metarambling

Reviews of Things: North and South

Welcome, my faithful steadfast readers, all three of you. As you can see, I spent almost entire year without blogging and while it’s not been a huge hole in my life, I could use some of the public introspection that blogging provides, particularly as I hate Facebook so I can’t use that most common outlet. But, clearly I just don’t have time for the proper reviews that I meant to be writing here – what with my two jobs, kid and, you know, life. So instead I’m looking for a better formula, one that would allow me to post faster and with more enthusiasm.
Please join me for the test ride of Mildly Enthusiastic Reviews of Things with the first test subject: North and South that I finished lately. I’ll try to post a review every week of something that I found particularly interesting (though in the end if I make it every month that will be still better than my current posting rate; we’ll see though, I aim high).

er-northandsouthNorth and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Classic social and romance novel. Tells the story of Margaret Hale: her perfect hair, staunch morality, bleeding heart, many unfortunate experiences and a few instant conquests. It also describes the difference between the life in the South and in the North of England during the Industrial Revolution in an interestingly unflattering way.

How I found it:
I like to read a Victorian novel every spring and once I went through all Bronte sisters and Austen’s novels, I broadened my net, finding Elizabeth Gaskell. She’s way less exciting than those ladies but she has good points, too.

Summary judgment:
It’s not a masterful work: the story is messy, with uneven tempo and almost entirely dropped storylines. But it’s a decent read for all that.

Best things about it:
I liked John Thornton. I didn’t find him realistic at all but I like a romance story to seduce me with the idealized male character. I don’t like idealized females at all but with the man if I’m to find him attractive, he should be a bit over the top. His mother, on the other hand, was a beautiful portrait in its realism.

Worst things about it:
See above for the idealized females. I couldn’t care much less about Margaret with her unsurpassed beauty, queenly conduct and always proper behavior. Also, the second half of the book is such a rollecoaster of misery that it really tired me by the end of it.

Other pluses:
It had an easy tempo for the most part of it and quite memorable depictions of various places. I liked how Gaskell differentiated between London, Helstone and Milton, all locations drawn with their own distinct colors and scenes. She also managed to keep most of the lesser characters very believable.

Other minuses:
The preaching, with the main characters speechifying about their economic beliefs. It felt like a Christian-Marxist essay put into the story – or like a story written around one.

How it enriched my life:
I guess I’m filling gaps in my English literature knowledge. I’m also tempted to use the name Thornton for a character in a Victorian RPG. It’s a good name.

Fun fact:
As I was finishing the book on a train, a guy riding next to me suddenly stopped flipping through his newspaper and asked me what I was reading – and I couldn’t remember Gaskell’s name. Admittedly, he surprised me and also I was taking breaks from Gaskell to read his newspaper over his shoulder and I think it was just his way of suggesting that I stop? Not sure. Still, that was mildly embarrassing.

Follow-up:
I think I’ll try something else by Gaskell but not any time soon. I’ve got a lovely edition of Penguin Cranford, so that one is most likely.

Recommended for:
Patient people with taste for old-fashioned slow-budding romances or anyone interested in fictionalized history of industry.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Tabletop RPGs (maybe)

Standard
Bookworming

Anthropology of a Teenage Introvert

Books: I had a lot of time to kill recently so I finished King John. So not the best Shakespeare. But I’m well halfway through my Shakespeare re-reading.

Music: Some Tom Waits.

Mood: As evidenced by February’s empty archives, February was a tiresome month that left me not a drop of energy to write. Things are happening but I’m mostly rather tired for now.

er-anrhtopologyofanamericanI read Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann for the first time in December two years ago and immediately decided to read it again, which practically never happens. But this book moved me; so even though I got back to it after a year rather than immediately, this review is born of two readings. It’s a controversial book if you look at Amazon reviews: people either love it or hate it and had I seen the reviews before I started the book, I wouldn’t have picked it up. It sounds like nothing I’d enjoy: little plot, depressing and rambling? No thanks. Except, while you might argue for these things, the book is so much more.

It is a story of a girl, Eveline Auerbach, finishing high school on the threshold of the 80s, falling in love and suffering traumas. Now, I have no 80s nostalgia and the iconic literature of that time to which Anthropology is often compared – all the American Psychos and Bright Lights, Big Cities – is on my shortlist of the scourges of the world, together with head lice. But Hamann, while I suppose true to the spirit of the times, manages to make the 80s universal. She does that through a minute, obsessive vivisection of Eveline, the first-person narrator, who’s extremely introspective and prone to noting every little observation. She’s a visual artist but, as so often happens in novels, a visual artist is just a stand-in for a writer: Eveline seems more interested in words, the subtlety of their meaning, than in images. (To be precise, she’s often shown creating art but it’s the interest in language that colors her narrative.) Her observations, while based on banal everyday occurrences, are poignant and aphoristic. Every chapter holds a few phrasing gems.

The main reason why this book delighted me so is how I related to the heroine – not because I’d ever been a knock-out anorexic beauty to turn all the heads in a room but because of her attempts to put the world into words and to define it with precision. That’s how I used to imagine writing when I was a teenager harboring writerly ambitions: as always looking for striking ways to describe small things. So, while it’s not something I say often (or ever), the poesy of Hamann’s writing is what makes the book such a find.

And one more thing that Hamann captures amazingly is a teenage immature love – not the reality of it (I’m sure such romances never happen) but the concept. Eveline falls for Harrison Rourke, a substitute teacher, actor and boxer. Virile, trustworthy, protective and pretty much flawless, Rourke is not so much a character as an archetype of a man. From my point of view today I see their relationship as peculiar in its complete lack of communication: they learn crucial things about each other exclusively from other people, which often fuels the story’s drama. However, I still remember that when I was a teenager directing steamy dramas in my head, that’s exactly what they based on: the fact that their characters never properly talked to each other, which would have led to too speedy conclusions.

The first part of the love affair, with Evie in high school, admiring Rourke from afar also rang very true: the kind of imaginary relationship in which every look, every exchange grows to mean the whole world. Hamann manages to be both subtle and sexy in those descriptions of first encounters: they have an almost oniric quality. Nothing really happens (yet) but the tension is palpable.

The second half of the novel shows Evie past Rourke and past high school, entangled in a self-destructive, self-punitive relationship with devilish Mark, a true child of Ellis and McInerney. This part is more socially conscious, with the descriptions of the glamorous, empty throng that Evie and Mark hang out with. More happens here but in a way this period of Evie’s life is more of a waiting game than high school, when nothing substantial really happened.

Mark is an evil reflection of Rourke: a man without honor, manipulating the girl with money and position, sexually perverse. There’s also a third friend, Rob, who’s the de-sexualized male companion, taking on the role of a reliable friend (and also a small-time crook involved with Jersey mob). Possibly, it’s not an accident that their names can be combined to form Ro-ark because they embody certain qualities – good or bad – that Rourke lacks. Of course, I might be reading too much into it; this book invites speculation. I should also add that the super-positive image of Rourke is a direct result of the first person narration. We only see him through Evie’s eyes, and to her he’s an enigmatic perfection. I can easily imagine a negative, feminist analysis of Rourke – but I don’t really want to because Evie’s vision seduced me sufficiently to enjoy this specimen of perfect literary manhood.

There’s also a whole – important but not that convincing to me – issue of Evie’s first boyfriend; of her perplexing relationship with her parents; of friendship and betrayal, suicide, drugs, sexual abuse, pregnancy, Reagan’s politics, not to mention boxing: so it’s not a book where nothing happens at all. But the real strength of the novel lies in the subtle texture of its language and in the unapologetic introspection of the main character, which reminded me of what it felt like to be seventeen. Few books about teenage girls manage to be so true to their subject matter.

Standard
Bookworming

Teenagers, Murders and Secret Societies: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

er-specialtopicsEven though I don’t specifically search for stories about high school girls, I find them in the strangest places, my latest one the once-controversial Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.

This début novel tells a story of 17-year-old Blue van Meer in an unapologetically postmodernist fashion, rife with literary allusions and metaphors. Blue travels the country with her father, a professor of political science, to finally settle for her senior year in a mountain town. She gets involved with a mysterious group of pretentious teenagers led by an even more mysterious, and probably insane, teacher. It’s then that life-changing events unravel (they include hanging; and it’s not a spoiler because the book tells you on the first page).

Like a precocious teen, the book can’t decide between its two preoccupations: does it want to be extravagantly fun (as a whodunnit) or seriously ponder life questions. Sometimes it manages to merge these two, but generally it’s better at the page-turning aspect because once the revelations start coming, you can’t put the book down – even though you rightly suspect in the end you’ll be treated to an open ending.

The open ending is interestingly solved, though. The whole novel is structured like a syllabus, each chapter titled with a famous book’s title. Sometimes this casts an important light on the events, sometimes it seems more like playing with the phrase from the title itself (“Things Fall Apart,” “The Trial”). At first I welcomed the game of allusions but after a while you realize that the very amount of books referenced requires a determination of a Bible scholar and you focus less, especially as the events speed up. At any rate, the syllabus ends with a “Final Exam” where all the possible answers to the story are gathered as multiple answers to test questions. This is an interesting and quite effective way to sum up the unanswered mysteries and at least give the reader a selection from which to pick out their favorite ending.

Just like literary allusions multiply beyond reason, metaphors crowd one another. Most of them are surprising and fresh, sometimes also awkward and confusing. I didn’t mind but I only occasionally interpreted them, again overwhelmed by their amount. But not a single one stood out to me as much as this one used by this reviewer: “she seems to think that if you fling enough metaphors at your readers’ heads, their ducking can be interpreted as bows of reverence.” Pessl doesn’t usually reach this level of accuracy in her metaphoric choices.

While the elaborate story leaves us wanting for final answers, another motif gets precedence: how growing up means emancipating from your parents. Blue’s father, professor van Meer, is definitely the most interesting character in the novel that you can’t decide whether to love or to hate. He’s charming, self-assured and intelligent, treats his women like doormats, thinks himself a wonder and refuses to apologize for anything. Obviously for Blue he’s the center of the world. The mysterious teacher, Hannah Schneider, serves as a mother figure and will also turn out a disappointment. In two poignant scenes, Pessl presents them in a similar way, their faces lit orange and monster-like. This emancipation from parents is a fairy-tale motif, very Bruno-Bettelheimian. In the end, in the world devoid of competent adults, Blue will learn to stand on her own and even, despite endless bad examples, form a romantic relationship. This is the true closed ending of the novel and I actually liked it.

Standard
Bookworming

Queer Romance: Tipping the Velvet

er-tippingthevelvetThe first time I heard of Sarah Waters was when Atwood praised her in a review. I made a mental note to check her out and then forgot about it. Some time later I came upon her described as the author of lesbian Victoriana, which is hardly very respectful but still kind of intriguing (I love Victorian stories, did I mention that?). So when I finally got hold of her novel and it turned out to be exactly that (at least on some level), I both enjoyed that fact and wondered what else Ms. Waters had to offer.

Because if you imagine what “lesbian Victoriana” might look like, you’ve probably hit more or less on the story and feel of Tipping the Velvet. Nancy works in an oyster parlor (yes, I’ll get to that) but harbors love for music halls and it is there that she encounters Kitty, who performs dressed as a man. A pretty standard love affair follows, in which one girl joyfully embraces her new homosexual identity while the other refuses to admit to it, which obviously leads to a (quite predictable) clash – and it is only the beginning (or, you know, first half). The story itself is hardly revolutionary but interesting enough. Waters tries her hand at describing a few different environments of Victorian England: wholesome parochial community, bohemian world of music halls, debauched upper classes and poor-yet-working-for-utopia communist intellectuals. I found all these worlds sufficiently different, colorful and memorable. They also catalyze Nancy’s transformations.

Nancy’s story is a rather generic tale of coming to terms with one’s sexuality, complete with a perfect fairy-tale ending, when everyone comes together and Nancy gets to choose her perfect partner. And I’m not sophisticated enough not to love such a closed, happy ending, sorry. But the real literary wonder happens in the language. The whole story is full of seemingly innocent allusions and jokes that reference current LGBT culture. For example, once Nancy joins the act in male clothing and needs a scenic name, she, quite randomly, decides upon King. One of the characters, though not a warrior princess, is called Zena (with a Z, but still). The word queer appears many more times than statistically likely. Even the oyster parlor, though not exactly a word game, is a similar nod to the reader.

This game, however, has a second side. While modern elements of “queer” culture are, seemingly innocently, incorporated into the Victorian tale, the language of the era also appears. Because it is, I assume, meaningless to the modern reader, the appropriate expressions are explained by the characters as Nancy gets to know her new world. This includes most notably the title, which had it used a more recognizable synonym, would jump out to you from a bookshelf as rather risqué (if not downright vulgar). But because it doesn’t function in the language anymore in its Watersian meaning, we only get the joke once it’s explained by one of the characters.* Playing with slang like this is fun in its own way but also it makes an important point: homosexuality is not only a sexual orientation but also a whole culture that changes with time (even if Waters’ heroines are surprisingly modern in some of their behaviors).

I actually enjoyed this book quite a lot and am looking forward to Waters’ next novels. I have no idea how she could continue with more of “lesbian Victoriana” because Tipping the Velvet pretty much covers it all but maybe she found new ways to tell the same stories or even completely different stories to tell. If you can recommend anything, I will surely try to follow.

* Yes, I suppose you can figure out the meaning by yourself but admit, wouldn’t you, like Nancy, think rather it has something to do with the theater?

Standard