Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Dud Avocado

Today’s book is an almost forgotten classic which remains cherished by some. I never heard of it before I found it randomly but I’m glad I did find it.

er-thedudavocadoThe Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A not-so-well-known classic from 1950s. Sally Jay Gorce is spending her carefree time in Paris thanks to generosity of an uncle. She gets mixed up with the bohème, aristocratic elites, diplomats and some shady characters but will face everything with vivacity and wild hair colors.

How I found it:
It was on the list of Greta Gerwig’s favorite books. When I read that it was about Paris I read a few first pages of an online preview and fell in love.

Summary judgment:
It doesn’t entirely live up to the spectacular beginning but I still really liked it.

Best things about it:
Everything I loved best about the book is already there in the first scene: Sally’s joie de vivre, her perfect carelessness, spontaneity, all of them spilling through to the language itself. Her voice is very well-defined and seductive. Oh, and Paris.

Worst things about it:
I feel like in the second part of the book, as Sally leaves Paris, the book loses some of its focus. The discovery about Larry seems slightly too intense for the tone of the rest of the story.

Other pluses:
However, it also speaks to Sally’s resilience that she can take the darkest side of life with bravado (except for that short panic mode) and with the same carelessness that makes her endearing…

Other minuses:
✤ …Even if it makes her either unrealistic or callous.
✤ On an unrelated note, south of France is not shown with the same level of devotion as Paris and the characters related to the movie-making didn’t strike me as very interesting or convincing.
✤ I sort of liked the fairy tale romance at the end, if only because the photographer was so enticing, but it did come out of nowhere.
✤ Maybe the best part of this reading experience is that it gives you all the fun of a trashy novel with the veneer of a much better language and style.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoyed reading it on trains and it made me want to go to Paris again.

Fun fact:
It seems (from the foreword) that Elaine Dundy was quite a character herself.

Follow-up:
I’m not sure I’m planning to read any more of Dundy on the strength of the Avocado alone but if I come across something, I’ll give it a try. I might also re-read this one in the future.

Recommended for:
Americans in 1950s Paris or those who wish they could be them.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Song of the Sea

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Lady Audley’s Secret

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

er-ladyaudleyssecretLady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Category: Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Pretty in Pink

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog

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

er-tosaynothingofthedogTo Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

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

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

Summary judgment:
I loved the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Your Name

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Bookworming

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: 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

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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.

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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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