Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: When Demons Walk

Not everything I read is deep and ambitious. In fact, at least since I gave birth and my reading rates dropped drastically (sad but true), most things probably aren’t. But at least some of those lighter books are very entertaining. Like

er-whendemonswalkWhen Demons Walk by Patricia Briggs

Category: Books

What it is:
A 1998 fantasy novel following Shamera, a magician turned thief who is recruited by a controversial leader of the intruders who invaded her country to stop a series of murders in the castle. Secrets, adventures and predictable romance abound.

How I found it:
Patricia Briggs in an author of another fantasy series about Mercy Thompson, a shapeshifter car mechanic, of which I am a fan despite its ridiculous covers (see below). When I came upon her other fantasy work, I was happy to check it out.

Summary judgment:
Well, it’s not a deep philosophical treatise to change one’s life. But as far as (non-)guilty pleasures go, it’s a fine one.

Best things about it:
It’s extremely entertaining. It reads really fast and keeps one very interested in how the story will unfold and, say what you will about lofty goals of literature, keeping the reader’s interest is the basic thing a book has to do. I’ll fight anyone on that.

Worst things about it:
I guess the title is the worst part because it’s pretty embarrassing and only tangentially appropriate for the story anyway.

Other pluses:
Pleasure reading for me lives or dies by its characters who have to be memorable and strongly drawn and Briggs succeeds with aplomb, not only in her portrais of Sham and Kerim but also of some of the side characters. The theory of magic makes sense, more or less, which I always prefer to when it doesn’t (I love Harry Potter but magic there is ridiculous).

Other minuses:
I might have been reading without enough focus (again, I guess) but I’m not sure why the trunk was open all the time and I expected it to become a significant twist. Speaking of twists, I felt that for the last fifth part of the book it was a bit too obvious who the culprit was, even before the characters realized it (but I guess that’s always a risk of mystery stories: either it’s too simple for the reader to figure it all out or so difficult that they have to be surprised at the end).

How it enriched my life:
It’s been a while since I read a book that I’d be really looking forward to continuing just to find out what happens next. It made several train rides to and from work much more pleasant.

Fun fact:
So the way I came upon Patricia Briggs’ work was through the covers of her books: but not because I thought them good. Once upon a time on the other blog we were writing a series of posts about bad book covers – we don’t do this anymore because it was unnecessarily mean but mostly because it took forever to write and document – and Mercy Thompson series was just hard to resist with the sexy lady seductively embracing a car wrench. Nobody was reading our posts back then but this one managed to attract a bit of attention and most of it came from the fans of the series who didn’t so much defend the covers as claimed that the books were good. So I finally read them, always on the lookout for a new fun series. And what do you know, they were right so thanks, fans.

Follow-up:
Apparently there are other Briggs works set in the same world and I am going to read Masques some time when I need this kind of entertainment again.

Recommended for:
Fans of accessible fantasy, strong female leads, magic mysteries and budding buddy romances.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: What We Do in the Shadows

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Joy Luck Club

As the train ride to Berlin takes 6 hours and the return ride takes another 6 hours, it gave me many hours to read a not-too-long book,

er-joyluckclubThe Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Category: Books

What it is:
A 1989 novel about American-born Chinese women and their mothers who left China to come to the US. It tells histories of four women and their four daughters through a series of connected short stories, each showing a different side of the characters and their relations and illuminating partially the other stories as well.

How I found it:
It’s been on my to-read list for a while. I didn’t find it in any particular way, just the summary sounded interesting and I used to really like books about Chinese history (back when I had way less imagination).

Summary judgment:
I quite enjoyed the book, especially its American side as some fragments of the Chinese stories I found a bit too traumatizing.

Best things about it:
It’s well-written and reads well. It also has a lot of empathy for both generations of women and tries to capture the unique mother-daughter relationship in all its beauty and difficulty.

Worst things about it:
It’s embarrassing but I had a hard time keeping track of which story was by which woman and how they followed one another. I think it took me more than a half of the book to remember them properly though I attribute that partly to reading on the train, not the most concentration-inducing environment.

Other pluses:
The structure of the book is unusual and quite well woven together. I got really interested in Waverly’s story ever since her chess-prodigy introduction. It was quite impressive how the mothers are shown through their own words and then their daughers (unjust) views and then the same is done to the daughters. It also makes the reader question their own relations with people they think they know everything about.

Other minuses:
My goodness, that first story about leaving babies on the road was really hard to read. It almost made me give up on the book altogether but its beauty and powerful images made it hard to drop it and switch to a fantasy story I had as an alternative.

How it enriched my life:
It gave me small bits of information about Chinese history that I’m sure to forget soon. It also reminded me not to take for granted my idea about the story of the people important to me. Like my mother.

Fun fact:
Again, not fun, but as I was reading the first story, definitely the most stressful one of all (though there are a few more which are a bit hard to get through), I was sitting across some guy in the train compartment. He had no book nor anything else to kill time on the train and so instead he was staring at me reading and I’m sure my face must have been like a (very boring) movie as I was going through the dramatic developments.

Follow-up:
Actually, now I’m reading that fantasy story for a little emotional reset.

Recommended for:
Mothers and daughters; people interested in Chinese history or the theme of immigration. People with a good memory for names (or a notepad).

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Beauty and the Beast

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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

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)

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Bookworming

The Shakespeare Project, Part 4 and Final

As you might or might not remember, last year I’ve embarked on a plan to read all Shakespeare plays between the 450th anniversary of his birthday and the 400th anniversary of his death. As the deadline is a few months ahead and I’ve already read them all, I declare the project a grand success. #selfimprovementfordummieshellyeah

Here are the last plays from the list, including some of my favorites that I left for last.

31. As You Like It

Reading: Third

Pluses: I know this is one of the important plays but I mostly like the woods in it.

Minuses: It spends too much time with the fool(s).

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

32. Twelfth Night

Reading: Second

Pluses: There’s something interesting about the female characters.

Minuses: Not terribly interesting though. And I think there’s even more time spent on the fool. I also feel the way Malvolio gets treated is unnecessarily cruel.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

33. Macbeth

Reading: Third

Pluses: This has always been one of my favorites. I like the grotesque witches, atmospheric Scotland, psychological self-torture of the villains. Finally, unlike in most of these plays, this one is actually interesting in the simple sense of “what happens next?”

Minuses: There could be a little less fighting, maybe, but that’s just being picky.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

34. Measure for Measure

Reading: Second

Pluses: This play is positively surprising in how it’s mostly not trying to be funny. I liked when it focused more on moral dilemmas and how sex was viewed as one of them.

Minuses: Sometimes it is trying to be funny.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

35. Antony and Cleopatra

Reading: Second

Pluses: The characters are interesting and the setting around the Roman empire quite ambitious, with the frequent jumps between Egypt and Rome. I think I generally preferred the ancient plays to the Renaissance ones.

Minuses: I still find Cleopatra irritating.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

36. All’s Well That Ends Well

Reading: Second

Pluses: With this one I finished all the comedies. And the title is quite appropriate for that.

Minuses: Seriously, Bertram? What’s up with him? How marrying him can be any idea of a happy ending? I’m not sure there are any other particularly positive characters, for that matter, though I guess the old timers are the most interesting.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

37. Romeo and Juliet

Reading: Fourth?

Pluses: This is simply an interesting play. The events follow swiftly (if, sometimes, hysterically) and the characters are well-differentiated in their tempers and motivations.

Minuses: Not much, but I did enjoy it more when I read it before. I guess it’s like some of those songs that you’ve heard so many times you finally start to wonder what the big deal is and then change the station.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

And that’s it! I actually expected the undertaking to be more troublesome but, in fact, some of the plays surprised me quite positively. It also gave me a deep, meaningless sense of satisfaction to complete mu cultural gaps. And now on to the other part of the project, a design one, but this one I will probably share elsewhere.

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Bookworming

The Shakespeare Project, Part 3

The time’s come to share the third portion of my Shakespearean experience (here’s the first with explanation and the second one). As I’ve decided to start with the lesser plays now I’m slowly moving on to the bigger titles and this definitely makes the journey more interesting.

21. Pericles

Reading: First

Pluses: After all those other plays it’s refreshing, probably because of the cooperation with another writer. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but it reads fast.

Minuses: The characterization of the persons of the play leaves a bit to be desired: Marina is inexplicably perfect, Dionyza irrationally cruel and I won’t even start about all those brothel would-be clients that Marina converts to seeking religious entertainment.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

22. King Lear

Reading: Second

Pluses: Well, this is one of the greats. Even though it’s extremely dark and probably somewhat depressing, it’s got a powerful atmosphere.

Minuses: I guess if you’re looking for an optimistic conclusion this must disappoint.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

23. Henry VIII

Reading: First

Pluses: It’s the first play with any Henry in the title that I actually enjoyed. I particularly liked how it didn’t have any cold-blooded villains, just normal people with various weak spots: that’s definitely more my kind of a story than all those cartoonish murderers and traitors.

Minuses: If I’m nitpicking I could live without the lower classes’ dialogs but there weren’t a lot of them anyway.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

24. Coriolanus

Reading: First

Pluses: I like these ancient stories and this one is fairly interesting, especially at the beginning.

Minuses: It lacks a really positive character to root for and the view of politics is altogether depressing.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

25. The Comedy of Errors

Reading: Second

Pluses: This one was fairy light, if not that exciting.

Minuses: Not exactly a story you believe in, is it. I also disliked the treatment of Adriana.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

26. Timon of Athens

Reading: First

Pluses: Er, I guess if you try really hard you get to imagine ancient Athens?

Minuses: It lacked redeeming features to me, with Timon going from naïve to misanthropic and all the other characters quite despicable.

Hasty judgment: ♥

27. Troilus and Cressida

Reading: First

Pluses: I liked the characterization of some of the Homeric heroes, different from what you might first expect (like for instance Hector). They felt like actual persons.

Minuses: It’s still not the most exciting of the ancient plays and women’s characterization falls on the negative side.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

28. Hamlet

Reading: Third

Pluses: I must admit I didn’t much appreciate Hamlet on my earlier readings. I couldn’t bear his whining and I found the play overhyped. But this time I appreciated the rawness of the setting and conflicts and the truth of Hamlet’s doubts.

Minuses: To make up for criticizing the play before, I’ll say none.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

29. Love’s Labour’s Lost

Reading: Second

Pluses: It takes place in the woods, I guess.

Minuses: This play goes completely nowhere. It ends and you wonder what it was all for.

Hasty judgment: ♥

30. Othello

Reading: Second

Pluses: While it’s not one of those irritating plays, I still find it hard to come up with pluses.

Minuses: Of all the famous tragedies I always found this one the weakest. Not only does it lack exciting setting and atmosphere of a gloomy castle or, well, gloomy woods but also everybody is so easily manipulated by Iago. And I really dislike Iago-like characters.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

Almost there! And actually it’s way ahead of the timeframe I set for myself at the beginning of the enterprise.

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Bookworming

The Shakespeare Project, Part 2

My reading of Shakespeare continues. I bravely soldier on through historical dramas with a breather of a comedy every now and then. Without much ado (get it?) let’s go to the second part of snap judgments, shall we.

11. Henry VI, part 2

Reading: First

Pluses: Alexander Iden is not despicable, I guess?

Minuses: This play would read like a propaganda piece for French revolution, with monarch(s) and aristocrats well worthy of losing their heads, except the lower classes are even worse. Except for one unimportant character who appears in all of two scenes, everybody is simply horrid.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

12. Henry VI, part 3

Reading: First

Pluses: I guess I will finally remember who was red rose and who was white rose. For a while, anyway.

Minuses: Ugh, enough with those kings already. They are impossible to root for.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

13. The Taming of the Shrew

Reading: Third

Pluses: It’s short.

Minuses: It’s basically a story of domestic (mostly psychological) abuse of an emotionally disturbed woman. Which would be fine, except the tone of it is really hard to get behind. This one has not aged gracefully.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

14. Henry VI, part 1

Reading: First

Pluses: I was interested in Joan, despite the complete ideologically motivated character assassination towards the end.

Minuses: Every other character was traditionally awful.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

15. The Winter’s Tale

Reading: Second, I think

Pluses: I sort of liked the description of the spring festival.

Minuses: This one dragged on forever. It might not be very long but I just couldn’t finish it and Leontes’s psychotic jealous outbreak came out of nowhere and looked too much like a plot device.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

16. Richard III

Reading: First

Pluses: It’s more like tragedies than historical dramas, which means it actually has a story that goes somewhere and then ends.

Minuses: I know Richard is supposed to be despicable but why would I want to read about him? I don’t like such one-dimensional villains.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

17. Two Gentlemen of Verona

Reading: Second

Pluses: It has a dog.

Minuses: It’s more like a sketch and both problems and their solutions tend to come out of nowhere.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

18. Cymbeline

Reading: First

Pluses: It’s entertaining, a lot is happening and it has a fairy-tale like atmosphere of “far away and long ago.”

Minuses: Almost all male characters are unbearable. This is understandable in case of Cloten or Giacomo, but with Posthumus it undercuts the story.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

19. King John

Reading: First

Pluses: Um, none.

Minuses: Everything else. I haven’t found one thing I would like about this play.

Hasty judgment: ♥

20. The Merry Wives of Windsor

Reading: Second

Pluses: It has no fake Italians and women actually do something and succeed.

Minuses: Of all the characters in all the plays is really Falstaff the one that needs to reappear again and again? Also, linguistic humor doesn’t age well.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

Well, this wasn’t the most exciting bunch of Shakespeare’s plays but that only means that I’ve left all the really exciting classics for the second half of the challenge so things should get better now.

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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.

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