Bookworming

Bulk Review: Victorians and More Victorians (Faux-Victorians, Though)

Welcome to round two of speedy book reviews. It seems my reading choices have become a bit monothematic lately.

The French Lieutanant’s Woman

By John Fowles

What it is
One of early postmodern novels (written in 1969), it tells a classic Victorian story of a misalliance but with a twist, the twist being that you shouldn’t take your stories too literally.

Best things about it
It’s undoubtedly well-written and reads great. The first time I read it, in college, it delighted me so much. Fowles shows honest interest in Victorian mind and philosophy and his analysis of those tends to be the most interesting part of the book, once you know not to focus on the story too much. It teaches you a bunch of rare words, too.

Worst things about it
This isn’t so much a criticism of this particular book as the whole bunch of those postmodern novels: all the winking and nudging gets old really fast. It becomes boring to be constantly reminded that you’re only dealing with a construct and not to take anything too seriously and stops you from getting involved in the story. As a result, it left me somewhat cold (and this is the easily digested kind of postmodernism, too).

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Wide Sargasso Sea

By Jean Rhys

What it is
This, on the other hand, written three years earlier, shows how you can do a similar thing with heart and for a good reason. Rhys writes a story of Edward Rochester’s (of Jean Eyre) first wife, the mad woman in the attic. She focuses not on the events known from Bronte’s novel but on Bertha’s past (though it’s not even her name here), creating a study of colonialism and misogyny.

Best things about it
First time I read this book I was freshly awed by the original Jane Eyre and I suppose I expected a kind of fan fiction, only better written, so I actually disliked the Sea. This time it awed me with its subtlety, with the strength of creating a world that is completely different from that of Bronte’s novel and yet so convincing, and especially with the searing (but only implied, because subtlety) criticism of Victorian English society.

Worst things about it
It’s not a criticism but feel warned that it’s one of those books you need to grow up to.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Night Circus

By Erin Morgenstern

What it is
Let’s finish with a light version of Victorian fascination. This is a story that happens during Victorian era (but mostly only nominally) and tells of two magicians locked in a mysterious contest (and in love), all happening in a strange circus. I suppose you could classify it as young adult literature, though it’s less obvious than most books of this genre.

Best things about it
It creates the world of the story with attention to detail and a sense of poetry. The magic in the novel is not flashy, impressionistic rather than Harry Potter-esque. The focus remains on the emotions of the characters. Even though it slows down sometimes, it remains a pleasant read.

Worst things about it
I wish the book tried harder to pay homage to the Victorian period it choses to represent – if not in the way the characters act, then at least in some of the language (at the very least in dialogs). Otherwise, why set it in this time at all? Except for the lack of modern technology, very little in the story feels like it’s actually happening when it’s supposed to be happening.
Also, Bailey takes up too much time with nothing to hook the reader up to his story.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

 

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Bookworming

Bulk Review: Victorians, Goblins and Dominicans

I don’t have time to write proper reviews but I still manage to read some interesting books, thanks mostly to nursing, so here’s a summary of a few recent reads.

No Name

By Wilkie Collins

What it is
A Victorian psychological and social drama showing the ruinous consequences for two daughters when their parents die without leaving a will.

Best things about it
Collins is one of my favorite Victorian writers and every time I read him, his skill surprises me. This, though long, flows nicely, populated by an array of vivid, somewhat theatrical characters. The author’s, and readers’, special love was clearly reserved for the drifter uncle.

Worst things about it
I enjoyed all of it.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Goblin Emperor

By Katherine Addison

What it is
A psychological fantasy which holds back on all the usual thrills of fantasy: there’s very little magic and a lot of world building (if by world you mean an emperor’s court).

Best things about it
This is a shockingly original thing unlike any fantasy I read. It focuses thoroughly on politics and its effects on the main character. It does so unapologetically, only developing those elements of the story which serve this theme, but developing them strongly, up to coming up with a social and diplomatic grammar.

Worst things about it
I have no qualms.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

By Junot Díaz

What it is
A Pullitzer Prize winner, a story of nerdery tangled with Dominican history.

Best things about it
The lively language which confidently mixes nerd references, Spanish and postmodern devices, with mixed up styles, genres and points of view. I’m all for that.

Worst things about it
It reads fast but except for the course in Dominican history it doesn’t give one much to engage with. Not to mention that South American history leans to the depressing side.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

I’ll be back with more, promise.

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Wicked + The Divine

I’ve been reading through a list of best comics and while most of them leave me mildly entertained at best, I found something more engrossing:

er-thewickedthedivineThe Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

Category: Comics

Find it on: LibraryThing (link for vol. 1)

What it is:
In the universe of the story, gods reincarnate every 90 years as artsy teenagers / young adults who live for only two years – but before they die, they get to be famous, loved and hated. In 2010s they are pop stars. If it sounds Gaimanian, it’s because it is, broadly speaking.

How I found it:
Through the NPR list of best comics. But also once I started reading the other comics, this kept popping up in various recommendations.

Summary judgment:
Of all those comic experiences so far, this has been not the deepest but the most engrossing.

Best things about it:
Its slowly-developing-but-not-too-confusing mystery keeps you wanting to learn more. The action never overwhelms the story, as it often does in other comics. I didn’t find the characters very relatable but still quite interesting and differentiated.

Worst things about it:
It is actually rather hard to put into words but I feel the story doesn’t quite have the depth and, hm, gravitas? I would expect from something so Sandman– and American Gods-like in concept. It seems more interested in music stardom than mythology, which I find a slightly missed opportunity.

Other pluses:
✤ Clear art and quite lovely colors.
✤ It’s fun to figure out which gods are inspired by which musicians (and in specials by which other artists) but I was only good with some writers and didn’t get many beyond the most basic pop stars. I’m not good with pop music, guys.

Other minuses:
✤ I saw that people find further volumes confusing and directionless but it wasn’t exactly my impression. I feel the level is even enough.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoyed the story a lot and brushed up on some lesser known mythologies (not in any particular detail, though).

Fun fact:
In addition to the regular story, the authors occasionally publish extra volumes that show pantheons of different eras and I love that they’re nothing as boring as musicians in the historical appearances. The 19th century pantheon is composed of writers and the 20th’s of modernists (how cool is that? so cool).

Follow-up:
I’m there for the last planned arc and some time when I forget the story once it’s all out I’m planning on re-reading all of it.

Recommended for:
Fans of Sandman (though with slightly lowered expectations) and of similar stories.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: The Americans

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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: Marvels

er-marvelsMarvels by Kurt Busiek

Category: Comics

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A 1994 comic by Kurt Busiek, illustrated (or, precisely, painted) by Alex Ross. It describes the emergence of superheroes in the Marvel Universe from the point of view of a very much not superpowered newspaper photographer who tries to deal with the fact that regular human beings are no longer the top of the food chain. It shows classic events from the history of superheroes like Namor, X-Men, Spider-Man et al. as seen by someone who doesn’t really know what and why is going on.

How I found it:
I don’t even know. It’s been on my reading list for a while and I even started it twice before but I never got past the first issue then.

Summary judgment:
The art is wonderful, the story is okay.

Best things about it:
Definitely the art, it’s freaking amazing. I love watercolors in most appearances but this shows such mastery of the medium and Ross uses the style to create a fresh re-telling of old stories that has its unique flavor.
And I like the concept itself, it’s always interesting to think what superhero-infested world feels like for people who have to live in it and someone actually wrote a book about it.

Worst things about it:
After a while I got tired with how gloomy-doomy everything felt. I know it fit with the story but I wish there were more small superhero moments like X-Men anonymously viewing Alicia Masters’ exhibition while people talk trash about them.

Other pluses:
The moments like that one, most of all. Also, and expectedly, I like the X-Men storyline and how Busiek tries to explain why people in the MU accept other superheroes and hate mutants – I actually buy his explanation. The story of Spider-Man accused of murder also worked for me: basically, anything that wasn’t too grand-scale.
Personally, I love stories that redefine recognizable characters (that’s why X-Men: Evolution and 1602 are some of my favorite things ever) and this new look on old comic stories definitely speaks to me. I only wished I knew more about the original Marvel characters to recognize most allusions, especially the ones happening in the background.

Other minuses:
I didn’t very much like Phil Sheldon as a character.
Also, that zero issue is definitely skippable.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoyed the comic and it kept me company during a very unpleasant day I had to spend in bed.

Fun fact:
This is just a fact I feel the responsibility to mention: what I’ve been calling watercolors might rather be gouache, so a different kind of water paints but I imagine it doesn’t really matter to most of you.

Follow-up:
For a while I’ve been meaning to return to 1602 and I will.

Recommended for:
Fans of Marvel and/or watercolors.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Mousquetaires du Roy

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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

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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