Bookworming

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

If you wondered why there’ve been no book reviews for a while (you weren’t, were you), it’s because one book took all my reading time:

er-jonathanstrangeandmrnorrellJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Clarke’s debut from 2004, a massive novel and, quite possibly, a masterpiece. In three volumes it tells the story of two magicians destined to bring back English magic who take up the task during the Napoleonic wars. It’s alternative history at its best, with the style resembling the classics of 19th-century English novels and the tempo I can only describe as gentlemanly. If there ever was fantasy for adults, this is it (and not a single sex scene in this one, it’s not what I meant).

How I found it:
This was actually my second meeting with the book. First time I found it in a library soon after it was published – and I only finished the first volume. Apparently, as my notes tell me, I found the tone jarring but I suspect it must have been the translation. I’m certainly glad I gave it another try.

Summary judgment:
What a lovely beauty this one is, and unlike anything else I know. Also, definitely my favorite read of the year so far.

Best things about it:
It’s complex. It’s impressive. It knows exactly what it wants to be and adeptly goes about it. The portrayal of the two magicians is magnificent, both in their strengths and weaknesses. I rooted for Strange because he was so likeable but I really understood Norrell (who was anything but) and in the moment when, against his character, Norrell takes Strange on as a student, I realized the book was more than I’d expected.

Worst things about it:
There’s only one thing: I read it for two months (honestly, it’s embarrassing) and it completely ruined my reading statistics for the year. Yes, it’s a long book (and I don’t have nearly enough time for reading these days). But then again, when it’s over you wish it was longer.

Other pluses:
✤ I like the idea of fairies as borderline mad by human standards. The whole supernatural part of the book is so poetic and convincing.
✤ The footnotes work great. I read that some people didn’t like the idea but it’s the right touch and I loved all the semi-historical, semi-anecdotal stories they tell.
✤ The pastiche feels just right to me: not a direct copy of older novels’ style, more of a reverential nod.

Other minuses:
I’m good. No complaints.

How it enriched my life:
It delighted me so much. It shows the value that a slightly older debutante writer brings into their work. It inspires all sorts of Victorian fantasies.

Fun fact:
Yes, I do have reading statistics. They got less impressive in the last two years though.

Follow-up:
I am re-reading this one for sure. Now that I know the story I will be able to focus on closer reading and I’m sure it will reveal many interesting things I overlooked. There’s only one more book by Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and I’m going to read that one too. I wish there were more though.

Recommended for:
Me. Or, more precisely, anyone who’s into similar stuff, like Regency/Victorian literature, fantasy, postmodern twists on literary classics… Also, if it’s you, give me a call and let’s hang out.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: The wonder of Penelope

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Moonstone

As you know – or don’t, but you should ’cause I say it all the time – when the sun is bright and the leaves are green I like to immerse myself in a novel of Victorian society and green English countryside. This year came the turn of

er-themoonstoneThe Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A second-best known novel by Wilkie Collins (after The Woman in White) thought to be the first (or one of the first, literary historians rarely agree on anything) modern detective story in English language. It tells a story of a diamond stolen from India and taken to Britain but (justly) pursued by the original owners. The thief bestows the diamond to his niece Rachel but it is promptly stolen and the entire book focuses on the search for the jewel. It is told through multiple narratives of various witnesses to parts of the story, as commissioned by Franklin Blake, a gentleman deeply involved in the whole drama and determined to find the diamond.

How I found it:
A couple years ago I read The Woman in White and it quite enchanted me: it proved so much more than I’d expected. So I decided to read more of Collins some time and when the time came to choose this season’s Victorian novel, The Moonstone it was.

Summary judgment:
I enjoyed the story, more for the atmosphere and the narrative experiments than for the mystery itself.

Best things about it:
It goes beyond what you would expect from a mystery story, particularly in its use of different narrations. It gets less visible towards the end but the first two narratives: by Betteredge and, to a lesser extent, by Miss Clack shine with understated humor and credible character quirks.

Worst things about it:
This is hardly the novel’s fault but detective stories, with the single exception of Sherlock Holmes, don’t excite me too much. At least this one is not about a grisly murder.

Other pluses:
I liked its leisurely, you could even say: gentlemanly, atmosphere.
Even though you could object to certain elements of representation – of women, of the Hindu culture – from today’s point of view, for Victorian standards the novel has quite progressive aspects in the depiction of servants, sometimes of Rachel, of social outcasts and even in its criticism of colonialism.
It takes care to focus on different social classes and does justice to the complexity of Victorian society.
Betteredge’s narrative is quite a delight, a whole level higher than the rest of the novel. It sparkles with humorous observations and boasts a distinct, believable voice. I particularly liked the fragment in which he notes how hard ladies and gentlemen of leisure have to work to find anything to fill their time with.

Other minuses:
I felt the picture of Miss Clack lacked the compassion that other characters enjoyed from the author and the satire became a little too thick. Perhaps Collins had his own grudge against single-minded evangelizers but I found it a little grating.

How it enriched my life:
Well, it’s another classic to tick off on my never-ending list, and one somewhat significant from a historical point of view. I also quite enjoyed it, particularly the portraits of the varied characters.

Fun fact:
This time something about the book, not about me: Collins was an opium addict and so he manages to introduce the addiction into the story. Interestingly, opium addiction as he presents it is neither demonized nor glorified.

Follow-up:
Even though I’ve now read the most admired Collins’ novels, he wrote quite a few more and I might check them out in the future because I enjoy his writing.

Recommended for:
Fans of Victorian literature and/or of detective novels (but not those kinds with a lot of thriller-y tension). Fans of the English countryside. Fans of Robinson Crusoe (it makes sense when you read it).

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Fantastic Beasts, maybe. But also, as the new academic year is upon us with its teaching duties, one-update-a-week weeks may happen more often now than during holidays. Just roll with it – as I know you will.

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Bookworming, Metarambling

Reviews of Things: North and South

Welcome, my faithful steadfast readers, all three of you. As you can see, I spent almost entire year without blogging and while it’s not been a huge hole in my life, I could use some of the public introspection that blogging provides, particularly as I hate Facebook so I can’t use that most common outlet. But, clearly I just don’t have time for the proper reviews that I meant to be writing here – what with my two jobs, kid and, you know, life. So instead I’m looking for a better formula, one that would allow me to post faster and with more enthusiasm.
Please join me for the test ride of Mildly Enthusiastic Reviews of Things with the first test subject: North and South that I finished lately. I’ll try to post a review every week of something that I found particularly interesting (though in the end if I make it every month that will be still better than my current posting rate; we’ll see though, I aim high).

er-northandsouthNorth and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Classic social and romance novel. Tells the story of Margaret Hale: her perfect hair, staunch morality, bleeding heart, many unfortunate experiences and a few instant conquests. It also describes the difference between the life in the South and in the North of England during the Industrial Revolution in an interestingly unflattering way.

How I found it:
I like to read a Victorian novel every spring and once I went through all Bronte sisters and Austen’s novels, I broadened my net, finding Elizabeth Gaskell. She’s way less exciting than those ladies but she has good points, too.

Summary judgment:
It’s not a masterful work: the story is messy, with uneven tempo and almost entirely dropped storylines. But it’s a decent read for all that.

Best things about it:
I liked John Thornton. I didn’t find him realistic at all but I like a romance story to seduce me with the idealized male character. I don’t like idealized females at all but with the man if I’m to find him attractive, he should be a bit over the top. His mother, on the other hand, was a beautiful portrait in its realism.

Worst things about it:
See above for the idealized females. I couldn’t care much less about Margaret with her unsurpassed beauty, queenly conduct and always proper behavior. Also, the second half of the book is such a rollecoaster of misery that it really tired me by the end of it.

Other pluses:
It had an easy tempo for the most part of it and quite memorable depictions of various places. I liked how Gaskell differentiated between London, Helstone and Milton, all locations drawn with their own distinct colors and scenes. She also managed to keep most of the lesser characters very believable.

Other minuses:
The preaching, with the main characters speechifying about their economic beliefs. It felt like a Christian-Marxist essay put into the story – or like a story written around one.

How it enriched my life:
I guess I’m filling gaps in my English literature knowledge. I’m also tempted to use the name Thornton for a character in a Victorian RPG. It’s a good name.

Fun fact:
As I was finishing the book on a train, a guy riding next to me suddenly stopped flipping through his newspaper and asked me what I was reading – and I couldn’t remember Gaskell’s name. Admittedly, he surprised me and also I was taking breaks from Gaskell to read his newspaper over his shoulder and I think it was just his way of suggesting that I stop? Not sure. Still, that was mildly embarrassing.

Follow-up:
I think I’ll try something else by Gaskell but not any time soon. I’ve got a lovely edition of Penguin Cranford, so that one is most likely.

Recommended for:
Patient people with taste for old-fashioned slow-budding romances or anyone interested in fictionalized history of industry.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Tabletop RPGs (maybe)

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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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