Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Tropic of Cancer

Every now and then I will give my reading habits a self-educational slant and read a classic I managed to miss in school. I rarely review them because, really, what can I add to the discussion of Madame Bovary, but this time I have a few things to say.

er-tropicofcancerTropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
An American classic, for a while considered too pornographic to be allowed in the USA, Miller describes the adventures of a Henry Miller in Paris in late 1920s. He lives as a bum, with no money and no prospects, sort of working on a book and expertly leeching off people he meets, sleeping with every prostitute he can find.

How I found it:
The first time I heard of Henry Miller was in high school, from my high school teacher who said he was her favorite writer. I mixed him up with Henry James and said I’d read him and found him boring, which really surprised her. Then I did start Miller but did indeed find him boring and only returned to him now as a sort of project to fill some of the gaps in my literary education.

Summary judgment:
I had this category for required reading that I finished because I was a good student but had to make myself finish: a feat of endurance. This wasn’t quite so hard to get through but really didn’t do much for me.

Best things about it:
Miller has a good sense of place. The Paris of his book is not the Paris I know and love (which is a very touristy, very postcardy one) but it lives and his description of the other places he visits are even more lively.

Worst things about it:
In general, I didn’t find particularly good reasons to immerse myself in this unpleasant, (literally) lousy world that Miller creates – other than a (misplaced?) intellectual ambition.
But if I were to choose one thing that was the worst, I would say the philosophizing, which would always turn into indecipherable, “poetic” drivel with nihilistic undertones. Oh, and sometimes when you felt it couldn’t get any muddier he would start describing a dream, which is generally the most useless writerly activity in the world.

Other pluses:
Sometimes when Miller focuses more on the people his character meets than on his insufferable inner monolog, the book flows better and reads faster. Some characters he describes remain fairly memorable, even though that’s usually because of how callously he writes about them.

Other minuses:
✤ It’s been discussed many times and there’s no disputing the fact: Miller’s depiction of women is offensive and heartless (and it doesn’t help much that his depiction of men has little heart as well). It was bad to begin with but it has grown old even worse.
✤ When you’re no longer 13 and sex scenes are not something exciting because you read them on the sly in your parents’ books, you appreciate how boring most sex descriptions are. So when their presence is the main thing that made the book famous, the book doesn’t stand the test of time too well.

How it enriched my life:
I can tick off one more book from the list of unread classics and now I can dislike Miller in an informed way.

Fun fact:
The book was banned as pornography in the USA and Great Britain and only became legally available in the 1960s. You can see why, of course, but the decades that passed since have really made us less sensitive to this kind of thing.

Cover notes:
A classic shot of a naked lady is a safe choice that’s hard to dispute and I could get behind the framed typography, especially that it makes for a recognizable series. But the last frame, with the Cancer, has no outline and rounded corners and this I just can’t approve of because it shows the designer’s helplessness.

Follow-up:
I’m quite happy never to take up another Miller again.

Recommended for:
This book should only be read by two kinds of people: American lit professors who need to know the classics and pretentious teenagers who still think descriptions of sex make a book some kind of revolutionary.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Next time: Wonder Woman

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Hide Me Among the Graves

Sometimes my book finds are so random that for a while I don’t even know what I’m reading.

er-hidemeamongthegravesHide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A vampiric gothic story taking place in Victorian London. Vampires (known as Nephilim here) are prehistoric creatures trying to demolish London with the help of the Rossetti siblings, of all people, and some lesser known poets. This is also a second part in a series, which I didn’t know until later (but it didn’t seem to matter a lot).

How I found it:
Actually, I had it on my to-read list but forgot what kind of book it was and got it mixed up with something more serious. So while reading the prologue I was all set to reading Serious Literature (and actually the writing didn’t set me straight for a while, so good for Powers, I guess) and it was only later that I realized “Wait a minute, it’s vampires in Victorian London, not Big Issues.”

Summary judgment:
For the genre it’s impressively ambitious, if not exactly exciting to read.

Best things about it:
It paints the period quite well and focuses on building the gothic atmosphere, rather than on simple horrorific scares or fantasy adventures. The characters are written carefully, with a lot of attention given to their motivations and dilemmas and the vampires do not turn out to be your usual dark, broody gentlemen.

Worst things about it:
For all its pluses, it remains a bit heavy with all the attention paid to descriptions. It takes quite a lot of reader’s concentration but doesn’t necessarily pay off with such an intricate story that would explain the plethora of details.

Other pluses:
✤ The (literal) underworld of London is memorable and carefully imagined.
✤ If you’re like me, you might enjoy the facts taken from actual history, like the exhumation of Rossetti’s wife and how it becomes a part of the plot.

Other minuses:
✤ At times it becomes repetitive, adding to the great length of the book. Of course, the length is relative to its contents: I read longer books without feeling their wordiness but here I had the sense that the novel would gain much from shortening.
✤ It kept me wondering about the morality of using real people (even if long dead) for this kind of story. Neither Rossetti nor Swinburne are drawn in a very flattering way and while they had their faults, consorting with vampires probably didn’t count among them.

How it enriched my life:
Despite its slowness I enjoyed the book well enough.

Fun fact:
There was a time when I loved Rossetti’s paintings (and I still find them very pleasing) from the moment when I saw a picture in my high school literature book.

Follow-up:
I might give Powers another chance because while this book didn’t necessarily charm me (despite all the ingredients for something to delight me specifically), I appreciate his strengths as a writer, particularly the vividness of his imagination.

Recommended for:
People who enjoy their fantasy slow and historical, with romances and shootouts replaced with character studies and literary references.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: The Tick (Also, if you’re confused about the current scheduling – are you though? – for now we’re down to a weekly review, with Saturday posts on hiatus.)

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Nights at the Circus

Sorry for the skipped week but I’m pregnant and busy and sometimes something has to give. But let’s discuss this rather good book I read last month:

er-nightsatthecircusNights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
Fevvers is a wonderful aerialiste: a woman with wings who charms the circus goers of the entire Europe, now starting her international tour. She tells her story to a sceptical journalist, Walser, who despite his better judgment falls into the thrall of her storytelling and her personality. The historical setting – the turn of the last century – allows Carter to shed light on the more bizarre areas of the Victorian society, while, most of all, proclaiming her love for narrative.

How I found it:
I read about it in How to Read Novels Like a Professor (such a dumb title but a good book) and it sounded interesting (incidentally, that’s also how I found The Poisonwood Bible a while ago).

Summary judgment:
It’s a breath of fresh (linguistic) air to read a more literary book – I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Best things about it:
Like its heroine, it’s a vivacious story that seduces its reader, inviting them to ask the novel’s question: “Is it fact or is it fiction” and eventually to reject it as irrelevant. It confirms Carter’s love for the performative, the marginal. It paints an original, convincing but not too constrained picture of the end of the nineteenth century.

Worst things about it:
Personally I was less interested in the clowns, maybe because (like all reasonable people) I’m not a fan of the profession. However, the role that Carter ascribes them, is interesting and fits with the rest of the narrative.

Other pluses:
✤ Almost goes without saying but Carter is wonderful with language, building another tier to the narrative just with her choice of words. The first scene in Fevvers’ changing room should convince anyone.
✤ I’m always in for another story on storytelling, as long as the story itself remains interesting.
✤ The Siberian, shamanistic part proves Carter’s mettle with how it is both a part of the whole novel and remains separate.

Other minuses:
You know, I’m good. If you buy the concept of the book, you just enjoy the ride.

How it enriched my life:
It enchanted me with its language and setting and made me think about marginal areas of the Victorian world. Also, reading a truly good novel is a different experience to reading a merely interesting novel and I don’t do it nearly often enough these days.

Follow-up:
I think I’ve already read all of Carter that I had a particular interest in but I might return to this one.

Recommended for:
Fans of good historical novels with a strong postmodern tinge. Fans of old-school circus. Lovers of storytelling.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: The latest Avengers

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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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