Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Age of Wonder

I don’t read non-fiction as often as I perhaps should because I always miss fiction when I do that. But non-fiction, and particularly history of something else than wars and battles, always gives me this pleasant feeling of accomplishment.

er-ageofwonderThe Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A history of British science in the time of Romanticism, focusing on the biographies and achievements of several great scientists, like William Herschel, Humphry Davy and Joseph Banks. It aims to find connections between Romantic science and Romantic art (mainly poetry).

How I found it:
It was among a batch of historical books I’ve once marked for future reading. But I read non-fiction rarely and it took me a while to get to it.

Summary judgment:
It is more interesting that it has any business being.

Best things about it:
It reads almost like a novel, focusing on anecdotal details from the lives of the greats of British science, making them human and memorable. I didn’t know about any of them too well and now the facts are vivid in my memory.

Worst things about it:
I feel like the book doesn’t offer a clear enough thesis about the relationship between Romantic thought and its practical applications. The attempts to relate them mostly get limited to quotes from poetry without a more theoretical, maybe even more spiritual analysis of the contemporary ideas and when they do get mentioned (like Vitalism), they are not particularly well explained.

Other pluses:
I appreciate the effort put into emphasizing the role of women who participated in the discoveries, or at least William Herschel’s sister, Caroline. It feels like the author felt a particular mission to re-establish her well-earned position.

Other minuses:
Despite its length the book didn’t bore me, but I feel it could be shortened and thus become even livelier.

How it enriched my life:
I actually learned a lot about people I only knew vaguely or not at all and gained a clearer idea about various early-19th century scientific discoveries.

Cover notes:
I will always appreciate a cover which uses an old engraving, especially with such a whimsical, subtle use of color. This one conveys well the mix of playfulness and academic seriousness, which Holmes manages to create.

Follow-up:
It gave me a desire to read more non-fiction about explorers because I found those the most exciting chapters in the entire book (and explorers never interested me much before).

Recommended for:
Science and history buffs who appreciate lively writing.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Nashville farewell

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Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Lovesick

You might remember I have a curiosity about romantic comedies which usually leaves me disappointed. But this experience wasn’t too bad, actually.

er-lovesickLovesick (seasons 1–3)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
A British show centering on Dylan (played by Johnny Flynn, who I’d only known as a good folk singer before) and his two friends, Luke and Evie. Dylan discovers he’s contracted chlamydia, which prompts him to get in touch with all his exes (so many of them) and this becomes a quest for true love and for the answer why it’s so hard for him to find it.

How I found it:
I’m not sure but I think it was on a list of best British TV shows.

Summary judgment:
It’s an enjoyable little pastime, without great depths but no great flaws either.

Best things about it:
It’s a charming little story about three (and then four) imperfect friends guaranteed not to depress you. The gimmicky storytelling works (for me, at least, but I like this kind of thing; give me flashbacks and cold opens and whatever professional TV critics frown upon). Even though Dylan as a character irritates, Johnny Flynn sells him with such unquestionable charm that you have to like him.

Worst things about it:
Personally, I never got behind Evie, which becomes a problem with the main romantic interest. I found almost every other character, including most minor ones, more interesting and definitely rooted more for Abigail (who was great and probably deserved better than Dylan anyway).

Other pluses:
✤ Even when the minor characters come close to caricatures, they usually remain a bit more than that and keep you at least mildly interested in their stories.
✤ How side characters grow on you when they get bigger roles (particularly Angus).
✤ The flashbacks related to the titles of episodes intrigue because you start wondering who each new girl will be (and sometimes the answers turn out surprising).

Other minuses:
✤ As I said, I liked the gimmick for the show’s structure in the first two seasons: Dylan going after all his exes and re-living his romantic life in flashbacks. In fact, when the convention changes in the third season, it becomes less interesting. But sometimes I got really confused as to what happened before what. Probably my fault though and it didn’t really matter all that much.
✤ As, I find, is true of most romantic comedies, it’s not really a laugh-out-loud kind of comedy. It’s still fairly cheerful.

How it enriched my life:
This was a perfect evening watch, letting me go to sleep in a better mood. Too few shows manage to do this.

Fun fact:
So the alternative – or original – title for this show is actually Scrotal Recall. Another proof of how you shouldn’t always go for a pun just because you came up with one (note to self, as well).
Fun fact no 2: the poster doesn’t have a scrawl on it but my son caught my drawing before I scanned it and decided to color it (with the same color so I couldn’t edit it out, not without a lot of hassle). It might look better now though.

Follow-up:
As I understand, the show is over but I think it ran just long enough. I might get back to it one day.

Recommended for:
People who enjoy modern comedies of manners (of sorts, if by manners you mean modes of interpersonal behavior, which I do) and who like their romantic comedies with a large dose of promiscuity. Oh, and fans of the British accent.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: An Invisible Sign of My Own

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Show Case

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: Pride and Prejudice

It’s becoming my new Christmas tradition (I did it for the second time this year, that is) to watch BBC’s Pride and Prejudice over the Christmas break. And this time I even made my husband watch it with me (and he loved it, or so he said).

er-bbcprideandprejudicePride and Prejudice by BBC

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
The most classic adaptation of the novel made in 1995. It has Colin Firth, who plays Darcy, who, for some reason, jumps into the lake. It’s the one you probably heard of even if  you never watched it: even Veronica Mars watched this one.

How I found it:
It’s a part of common cultural knowledge. But I decided to watch it last year after listening to a podcast about the novel.

Summary judgment:
It’s close to perfect, definitely my favorite among the many Pride and Prejudice-adjacent works I saw.

Best things about it:
It takes its time to tell the whole story, rather than just butchering it like shorter adaptations have to do. Thus, it manages to retain the atmosphere and the tone of the novel. It looks charming and does justice to many of the classic characters: these are my definitive Darcy and Lizzie but e.g. the Bingleys work great, too.

Worst things about it:
Sometimes it doesn’t trust the viewer enough. The characters make theatrical asides and see other people’s faces when they look into mirrors or at the landscape, which becomes humorous rather than dramatic and is entirely unnecessary for understanding the story.

Other pluses:
✤ I like the pacing of the story: it neither rushes nor drags.
✤ The first failed proposal of Darcy shall remain one of my favorite dramatic moments on TV.
✤ I like how Lydia is not vilified in this version but you still get to see her as destructive.

Other minuses:
✤ I don’t get all those scenes with wet Darcy. Is it just a female gaze thing? ‘Cause he looks plenty fine with his clothes on, too.
✤ Mrs. Bennet is a caricature. In fact, when my husband heard me watching the show last year, he kept remarking that he thought these were Monty Python guys pretending to be women whenever the actress monologued and, you know, I see where he was coming from.
✤ And this is not the adaptation’s fault because the situation remains the same in the book but it always irritates me so much that I can hardly focus on anything else: Mr. Bennet! What a perfect villain of the story, with his indifference, laziness and withholding affection from everyone but one chosen daughter. Seriously, I can’t do justice to my disgust at Mr. Bennet (and at how the story tries to make him likeable).

How it enriched my life:
It brings the book to life and, I think, it actually made me like the book more. Believe it or not, I wasn’t actually such a huge fan of it to begin with.

Fun fact:
Not fun, just me going on and on about Mr. Bennet (I’m such fun at parties, guys). It struck me this time how he hurts all his daughters but none more than Mary. Just think about it: he keeps saying how his two eldest daughters are smart and the rest is silly. But Mary, the third daughter and so the first deemed silly by her father, tries so hard to be smart, with her reading and her quotes. It loses her Mrs. Bennet’s interest, which the other two silly daughters have, but Mr. Bennet, whom she’s trying to impress, still groups her with the uninteresting part of the family. Poor Mary, irritating as she is.

Follow-up:
I’m already planning to re-watch it next Christmas. I might also revisit Keira Knightley’s film some time in the future.

Recommended for:
Fans of Pride and Prejudice and of solid, British costume dramas. Fans of Colin Firth, too.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: To Say Nothing of the Dog

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Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Bridget Jones’s Diary

Looking for a sort of Christmassy, light and meaningless movie to watch before Christmas, I re-stumbled upon

er-bridgetjonesdiaryBridget Jones’s Diary

Category: Movies

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
An adaptation of a once-popular British book about a woman who’s so weak-willed and disorganized that just about anyone can identify with her (?). Very loosely inspired by Pride and Prejudice, mostly in that one guy is a cad and the other is called Darcy, it tells a story of Bridget, who can’t do anything right but will end up with the perfect man anyway, to make every woman in the world feel better about her romantic chances.

How I found it:
The first time I saw it was in a theater: I was in high school and my friends were going and at the time it sounded like nothing I would enjoy because I scoffed at romantic comedies and at enjoying myself when watching a movie. I was all about Bergman and boredom back then.

Summary judgment:
For what it is, it’s a competent movie that I can enjoy at least for Colin Firth’s performance.

Best things about it:
It’s light and mostly unpretentious. Colin Firth gets to revisit and play with his classic performance as Mister Darcy Proper and he’s quite charming in this role.

Worst things about it:
I wish Bridget had one good quality. One would be plenty, really. But instead she’s a complete failure: a (Hollywood-)fat, messy smoker without interests or self-esteem. It saddens me that the producers of this film think a female character has to be so pathetic to make women like her. And why-oh-why would Darcy ever be interested in Bridget? When did she ever do anything to attract him?

Other pluses:
✤ I enjoyed seeing James Callis as Bridget’s friend, Tom: I’ll forever love him for Sex, Chips and Rock’n’Roll, my Favorite Show Ever (TM).
✤ I never really got Hugh Grant’s attraction but at least as a villain he convinces me more than as a straight romantic interest.
✤ It is a good-looking movie and I’d take Daniel’s apartment any day.

Other minuses:
✤ The cutesy humor doesn’t usually work for me, though I understand why it would work for people less critical of Bridget’s character.
✤ This time around I actually felt sorry for Natasha. Apparently intellect and competence stand for nothing.
✤ Have the writers of this movie ever been out in the snow? You can’t run in it in your underpants, period.

How it enriched my life:
Most Christmas movies are not that great and I like having one more that I can watch around this time of year, even if it’s not a masterpiece.

Fun fact:
The only thing I remember from that first time I watched this movie in a theater was the song “It’s Raining Men” and how I didn’t like it. But, guys, I was way too young to appreciate the attractiveness of a Darcyesque character then.

Follow-up:
I will be coming back to this one. See the scarcity of watchable Christmas movies.

Recommended for:
Fans of romantic comedies and incompetent women who only pretend to be fat.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (yes, we’re still at it)

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Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Lost in Austen

In this year that unexpectedly seems to happen under the banner of Pride and Prejudice, here’s another thing for (non-orthodox) fans of the book, a miniseries called

er-lostinaustenLost in Austen

Category: TV shows

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A 2008 4-part miniseries about Amanda Price, a lover of Pride and Prejudice, who discovers the door to the Bennets’ house in her own bathroom (yep) and changes places with Elizabeth. While Amanda tries to save the story she loves, she’s doing a perplexingly bad job of it and changes everybody’s fate, including her own. (She marries Darcy, guys – spoiler.)

How I found it:
I don’t remember. I watched it for the first time many years ago, sick in bed, if I recall.

Summary judgment:
I can see why it rubs some Austen fans the wrong way but I enjoy it: it’s modern and cheeky.

Best things about it:
It captures some of the magic of the original, while remaining quite irreverent. It reinterprets all the characters, giving them different motivations and it also looks good. And it’s simply fun to watch.

Worst things about it:
There is actually only one thing that doesn’t work for me in the story: Amanda. For someone who obsessively re-reads Pride and Prejudice she seems inexplicably unaware of the taboos of Regency society (or, really, any pre-modern society) and insists on behaving in a vulgar way. The way she looks doesn’t help: I wish she had slightly more natural hair and didn’t wear make-up when living with the Bennets (how does she even do that?). It’s hard to suspend disbelief and understand how someone who must look like a prostitute to the locals would be received in society.
And you know, I see the attraction of clashing Austenian society with someone who brings with her twentieth-century values, maybe even showing Amanda that her idealization of Elizabeth’s world was excessive… But for all of that to work Amanda would have to be smarter and subtler. It seems like a wasted opportunity.

Other pluses:
Wickham as a decent person, Caroline as a lesbian, Mrs. Bennet as someone much more skilled at the game of husband-hunting… I like all these tweaks. I even like Lizzie as a modern woman.

Other minuses:
✤ While I like most of the ideas for changes in the characters, I can’t get behind this Darcy. Yes, he looks fine, except for the bad wig. He looks even finer in the wet shirt. But what a mess he is! I don’t understand his sudden attraction to the vulgar girl who comes out of nowhere – it’s as if he preferred Lydia to Lizzie in the book. Most of his decisions make no sense and the love affair seems to happen only because it needs to in every proper fan fiction ever, which this show is, after all.
✤ On that note, everything could have been salvaged with another ending: Amanda chooses Wickham or even to return to her world. But this forced “will they, won’t they” culminating in a weird marriage didn’t work for me.

How it enriched my life:
It’s an entertaining piece of entertainment to entertain one and it also makes me think whether I’d do any better in Regency England but I would probably be too horrified at the lack of dental hygiene. Also, I can’t curtsy, let alone ballroom-dance.

Fun fact:
So yes, I didn’t know people used to rub chalk across their teeth to clean them and whatever else Amanda was brought. Though I do know other things people used (or still use), including salt, baking soda and some kinds of tree twigs. History of hygiene is a fascinating subject, actually, and reveals how much stuff we take for granted though we shouldn’t.

Follow-up:
I will probably re-watch this show some time because it’s fun. I would also watch any similar thing though it would likely disappoint me.

Recommended for:
Jane Austen fans who are not too hung up on the original. People who didn’t read the book at all but think it’s a funny concept to transport a modern character into a book.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Speaking of books, I Am Charlotte Simmons

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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

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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