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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Show Case

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

I talked a while ago about my soft spot for vlog adaptations of classic literature and I figured it was time to return to the one that started it all:

er-thelizziebennetdiariesThe Lizzie Bennet Diaries by Pemberton Digital

Category: Web series

Find it on: YouTube

What it is:
An adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the form of vlogs recorded by Lizzie Bennet. Her sisters, particularly Lydia, and some other characters also star. Lizzie is a communications student who works on her diploma, Jane is a fashion designer and Lydia is… Lydia, of course. Bing Lee and William Darcy arrive and shenanigans ensue, all more or less as Ms. Austen had planned.

How I found it:
Do you know that I don’t even remember? When I came upon it for the first time, the series wasn’t even finished yet though it was already in its last, less interesting, stage. I remember watching it (like, regularly watching rather than just having it play in the background; good times) around Christmas and devouring it very fast.

Summary judgment:
It’s surprisingly good. It keeps the spirit of the story fresh while – mostly – successfully adapting it to new realities.

Best things about it:
It’s really well-acted. Lizzie and Lydia are pretty amazing: not only do they know how to act (which is less frequent in these things than you’d expect), they also interpret Bennet sisters for the modern age. It has drama, emotions and humor, all the while remaining faithful to the original.

Worst things about it:
Weeeell, okay, this is not my Darcy. And I’m saying this in the nicest possible way because the actor seems like a fun guy and this character is almost impossible to pull off (defnitely up there with Gatsby) and also costuming doesn’t do him any favors… but no, that’s not a believable Darcy.

Other pluses:
It’s quite entertaining and while it doesn’t exactly keep you surprised (the story is preeeeetty well-known) it certainly keeps you interested.
The actors have some fun with playing their characters pretending to be other characters (it makes sense if you watch it) and I’m a sucker for this (let’s talk Orphan Black when I catch up).
The romances mostly hold up but the aspect of sisterly relations is particularly well developed, perhaps more so than in the novel itself.

Other minuses:
Eh, this costume theater thing is a bit too cutesy for me. I get what it does and it gives the actors the chance to have fun (and the producers to save some money) but it becomes too celebrated within the narrative itself and then it irritates me even more.

How it enriched my life:
It opened my life to the rich world of vlog adaptations of literature, but we already talked about it, I think.

Fun fact:
I was once listening to a podcast about various adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and the author claimed The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to be the best adaptation out there. Well, it doesn’t beat the 1995 BBC one, in my opinion, but it really is pretty good.

Follow-up:
I’m sure more vlogs await though I don’t currently have a specific list.

Recommended for:
Jane Austen fans. People who like a good story with relatively low production values and don’t take their entertainment too seriously – and conventionally.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Old Friends and New Fancies (yes, still Austen)

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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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Bookworming

The Shakespeare Project, Part 1

In between the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday and 400th anniversary of his death (that is between April 2014 and 2016) I have embarked on a self-improvement project I’ve excitingly called The Shakespeare Project, because my life is one big roller-coaster ride. I’m reading all the plays: those I already read and those I always managed to avoid. As I finished 10 plays already, let me share some reflections and hasty judgments.

1. The Tempest

Reading: Third

Pluses: The philosophy of intelligent design, as it were, how the play suggests everything happens for a reason, even if we don’t immediately see it (true, you have to read pretty deep for that and I’m sure there are other viable interpretations but I like this one). The parallelism between the high plot and the low plot of slaves’ rebellion is an interesting structural device. Prospero is interestingly ambiguous as a character.

Minuses: Some of the worst comic reliefs ever. We may as well get it out of the way immediately: I detest Shakespeare’s punning humor, his clowns and all the nonsense that happens between the good stuff. I will be berating it constantly, just saying. Also, boring romantic leads.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ (out of five)

2. The Merchant of Venice

Reading: Second

Pluses: As I didn’t remember anything out of my first reading, I really felt like I was catching up on some culturally relevant references, including “pound of flesh.” Women versus men tricks are mildly entertaining. Shylock’s character gives itself to various conflicting interpretations and is particularly challenging in the era of political correctness. I like all the interpretations stressing the role of the oppressed, including Antonio’s possible homosexuality.

Minuses: Nobody is particularly likable (nope, neither Shylock, nor the good guys). Various plots are disjoint and only come together at an effort.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

3. Midsummer Night’s Dream

Reading: Second

Pluses: This is actually one of my favorites. The first time I read it it surprised my to no end with the fact that play-making imbeciles are actually sort of funny (which goes against anything I believe, as you may imagine). I like the setting in the woods, the conflict between the two girls and the fantastic world and its never-ending cultural relevance (remember them in Sandman? Things like that).

Minuses: Shakespeare’s Athens seems like the worst place to live. That’s all.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

4. Titus Andronicus

Reading: First

Pluses: The Rome from this Roman Horror Story is an interesting intellectual proposition.

Minuses: It’s not a proposition that would appeal to me very much, though. I dislike the cartoonish violence, absurd villains and the lack of at least one likeable character.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

5. Henry IV, part 1

Reading: First. I’m particularly behind in historical dramas because they always seemed so opaque with all the mixable names of English provinces that are really people

Pluses: You can mostly tell living characters from dead ones. I guess the contrast between the high world of the court and the low one of taverns is interesting. In theory.

Minuses: Well, it is mostly boring. Prince Harry and particularly his companions are thoroughly detestable. I know we’re supposed to like Falstaff but I truly can’t fathom why.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

6. Henry IV, part 2

Reading: First

Pluses: Well, the prince’s transformation and his relationship with his father. These are pretty much the only moving moments of this play.

Minuses: Every. Single. Damn. Tavern. Scene. They had me groaning and pouring tears of boredom. We get it, there are many things which sound like penis! Seriously, it’s like talking to a 13-year-old in the middle of hormonal storm.

Hasty judgment: ♥

7. Richard II

Reading: First

Pluses: It is very elegantly written, with some subtle imagery and epic gloomness. A perfect lack of comic reliefs is truly perfect. Richard is quite impressively complex.

Minuses: Well, the central conflict is not that exciting or, frankly, relevant past the era of God-appointed kings. Sure, you can look for analogies with other political systems but the truth remains: it’s a play about whether you can depose the king.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

8. Much Ado About Nothing

Reading: Second

Pluses: It’s quite a breezy one, without the heaviness of even some of Shakespeare’s comedies (not to mention tragedies). Beatrice and Benedick’s affair is somewhat original, too.

Minuses: It’s really not much about anything and poor Hero is so will-free you just want to kick her.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

9. Henry V

Reading: First

Pluses: It’s almost pleasurable how detestable Henry has become. You really get the kick out of hating him. I admit the play is rather well-written, with its mixture of tones and languages.

Minuses: I guess if you’re English you might read it differently? But this is really a play about a hypocritical, war-mongering aggressor who’s almost proud of all the violence he’s about to unleash on another country. Shakespeare tries to make him heroic (or, at best, ambivalent) but there are really few saving graces here. And his romantic suit at the end makes one sorry for Catherine.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

10. Julius Caesar

Reading: First

Pluses: This one is quite a beauty. It doesn’t get bogged down with too much exposition (or comic reliefs), things happen swiftly, characters make bold and stupid decisions and everything unfurls into the undoing of all but Mark Antony and Octavius. Brutus and Caesar’s dilemmas are palpable and character’s flaws make them human, not paper.

Minuses: It gets slightly more messy in the second half but the first one, up to the speeches over Caesar’s body, makes up for it.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

That’s it for now. I’ll be back with the next portion once I’ve read it. I still don’t find myself a die-hard Shakespeare fan but there certainly are fairly impressive parts to his oeuvre.

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Bookworming, Everydailiness

In the Meantime

While I’m writing my PhD, which I’ve been sort of doing for a while but only actually started doing yesterday, I don’t expect to write many other things so, as usual, bear with me. In the meantime, here’s a list of things I’ve recently read but won’t probably get down to reviewing as by the time I have, well, time, I will have forgotten most of my impressions.

Here goes: Kazan’s Acts of Love (my third reading and I still like it), Liza Dalby’s Geisha (I still prefer the less realistic but oh-so-lovely Memoirs of a Geisha), Bright Lights, Big City (pretty awful, ammarite?), The Giver (so, so awful; seriously I know it’s for kids, but it was still awful), iZombie (fun, actually), Persuasion (my last unread Austen, really liked it), Broke Heart Blues (not great, but so far haven’t found anything by Oates that I’d love). I’m also in the middle of what I’m pretentiously calling The Shakespeare Project, which means I’m reading (or re-reading, I’m not that uneducated actually) all of Shakespeare’s plays by 2016. I could do it faster, but it’s better with breaks. So far I’ve read five, I guess, but I’m optimistic. (Self-improvement for dummies.)

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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?

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