Monday, June 3, 2013

New Books

This is the stack of new books that I got at my used bookshop a few weeks ago, on a visit with an old childhood friend that had come to stay for the weekend.

I don't usually find so many books here, and rarely does this particular store have any good non-fiction. This time, however, I found a variety of different genres.

So, going down the stacks...

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith - I've heard a lot of good things about this book, and it's sometimes compared to We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, which I loved. This particular copy had a stamp from a library in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher

Light in August by William Faulkner

The Works of Voltaire - While browsing through the classics section, the eccentric bookshop owner, Mike, came over and, in the midst of enthusiastically acting out scenes from Anne of Green Gables, pointed out this book and said that either of us could adopt it for free, as it was in too bad a shape for him to sell. I thought that it was beautiful. It has a pretty red leather cover and was published by Walter J. Black in 1927.

The Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh - You can never have enough Evelyn Waugh.

The Man Behind the Book by Louis Auchincloss - A book about books and literary writers. Certainly my type of reading.

The Arabian Nights - I already owned a Penguin edition of this, but I just love the gorgeous Modern Library editions, so I bought this one as a replacement.

Persian Nights by Diane Johnson - To keep Arabian Nights company.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Toole - One of my friend's top recommendations was this book, and she told me about how her favorite author, Walker Percy, had published it. While we were at the bookshop, we went searching for a copy. They had only one in stock, which we laughed over, as the cover is pretty ridiculous. She called it "the worst cover I've ever seen for this book," but bought it for me and encouraged me to read it.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey - I bought this book warily. Will the Duchess of Carnarvon prove to be a great writer, unlike the writers of the latest season of Downton Abbey? I suppose I'll have to find out. And even if Downton Abbey is a bit... messy... there is no denying that the setting is just breathtaking.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif - Arabic literature

The Reckoning by Sharon Kay Penman - Penman is my absolute favorite writer of historical fiction. This is the third book in her "Welsh Trilogy." I also own the 2nd book, Falls the Shadow, but so far, I haven't come across the first book! And so, I am left with these no doubt amazing Penman volumes sitting on my shelves but unavailable for reading.

Indiscretions of Archie by P.G. Wodehouse - I recently discovered Wodehouse, and fell in love. He is hilarious, oh-so-British, and just perfect. This one, I believe, is a stand-alone book not in the Jeeves series. It's also a reproduction of the original, first editions of Wodehouse's books.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann - I just read this a few months ago, and was fascinated. I haven't been that excited about a book in a long time. I was elated to find my own copy.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters - I loved Fingersmith by the same author, and I love her for popularizing lesbian fiction. This one, I've heard, is even more naughty...

Baudolino by Umberto Eco - I already owned a translated copy of this book, but this one is the original first edition in Italian, also in perfect, crispy new condition. Eco is one of my top three favorite authors of all time, so I was pretty excited about this find.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking - I love Hawking, and this book, but I've strangely never owned a copy before this one.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: The Stranger by Albert Camus

Title: The Stranger
Author: Albert Camus
Genre: Literature
Publisher: Vintage
Published: 1942 (as L'Étranger)
Pages: 155

Rating: 7 out of 10

This philosophical piece of French literature opens with the main character, Meursalt, announcing frankly to the reader that his mother is dead. While at the funeral, he seems to find stirring his coffee or observing those in attendance far more interesting than his deceased family member.
The next day, he meets a beautiful girl named Marie, and immediately, a mutual attraction between them flares up. When Marie learns that Meursalt attended his mother's funeral just one day before they were having fun at the movies and in bed, she is slightly put off, but they remain together.
While on the beach one day in French Algeria, Meursalt, feeling mildly annoyed at present circumstances because the sun is in his eyes, takes out a gun and repeatedly shoots an Arab man who is laying on the sand.
He appears surprised that he is actually arrested and now finds himself being shuffled between police stations and lawyer's offices. He does not view his crime as serious, and seems to be puzzled as to why anyone else would.
He is tried for the crime, and given the death sentence.

This book was so interesting to read. Even though it is well known that Camus rejected the popular association he was given with existentialism, I can see how the label stuck to him. The book touches into other areas of philosophy as well, and I liked picking them out as I read.

Meursalt is a fascinating character study. There are a lot of small details in things he says, or thinks, that would probably be very easy to miss. He mentions things so passingly and quickly, never with emphasis or passion, that they appear automatically unimportant. I passed over many of them without thought, but stopped to wonder about them after finishing the book.
Whenever anyone asks or consoles him about his mother's death, Meursalt always feels that he must say "It wasn't my fault," though most of the time this statement is irrelevant.
When he and Marie witness a crime in the streets, Marie urges him to call the police. He declines, because he "doesn't like police."
And what is his connection with sunlight about? It is mentioned a few times earlier in the book, but of course it stands out most memorably in the terrible murder scene, where his main motive actually does seem to be "the sun was in my eyes," as he later testifies in court.
Why would he be so baffled at being arrested for his crime? He seems to be aware that murder in general is morally wrong, but he never sees his own crime as being the same type of thing.
Up until the very end - literally the last few lines - of the book, Meursalt appears to be void of all emotions, simply existing rather than really living, and so he was difficult to figure out.

Even though I knew it was coming, I was still shocked at the murder scene. Not because it was bloody and graphic (it wasn't), but because it was so utterly pointless.
No background story about the Arab man is given, and he had not been involved in the story or with any of the characters beforehand. We know nothing about him, but even so, I found myself wondering what his life was like, if he had a wife or children, and exactly how old he was. Meursalt himself wonders none of these things, acting as if shooting a breathing human being is as unremarkable as casually firing at a random target. His indifference and disregard for human life made me feel all the more sad over the man's death.
I was not expecting the murder scene to be so beautiful, either. For such terrible events, the language and writing Camus used to illustrate the scene was dark and lovely. It has a building rush of momentum and furious eloquence, which feels all the more dramatic compared to the bland preceding chapters.
I thought to myself that it was the first time Meursalt had actually seemed alive.
And indeed, this shock of vivacity is likened by the main character himself to a beginning, as a door. He says of the four shots he fires into the man: "It was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness." (page 59).

During his trial, attorneys pounce on the discovery of Meursalt's detachment from life and common, normal emotions. They paint him as a depraved, cold villain, which greatly sways the severity of his sentence.
Are they right, or has he been misunderstood and twisted into something that he's not? It's hard to say.

Close to the end of the book, as he awaits his execution, a chaplain visits Meursalt's cell and speaks with him about God, urging him to repent and believe. Meursalt rejects in no uncertain terms, and reveals himself to be an atheist (if he must be labeled). Although I didn't find this shocking, readers in the 40's would have found it a bit more controversial. After the rejected chaplain leaves, Meursalt thinks about God and religions and beliefs and life. His pondering was, again, interesting to read.

All in all, this was a fascinating book about a seemingly emotionless man, a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, and about life itself.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

Title: The Sealed Letter
Author: Emma Donoghue
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Mariner Books
Published: 2009
Pages: 416

Rating: 5 out of 10

In Victorian London, Emily "Fido" Faithfull randomly runs into Helen Codrington on the street one day. Years before, the two were inseparable best friends, but their close relationship faded away when Helen's military husband was deployed overseas, and Fido's letters were met with no answer. Now, Fido has grown up into a respected female publisher, and Helen is still the same married woman. After their chance encounter, the two begin their friendship where it left off, which had Helen unhappily married and Fido caught in the middle of the distressed couple.
Things turn out not to have changed much, because soon enough Helen reveals that she has a lover and is still unhappy with her husband. When Helen begins drawing Fido into the affair, Fido struggles between being a good friend and with doing the right thing. Eventually, things culminate into a messy, very public divorce proceeding, which Fido is also unwillingly drawn into when Helen reveals a devastating secret.

A snippet review I found online said that this book was about "British Law in the 1800's." For some reason, I thought that that sounded fascinating. I pictured musty courtrooms and piles of papers piled on desks, about to fall over. It made me think of meticulous detail and political maneuvering.
However, this book was much more lightly written than I anticipated, and while it isn't chick-lit, it can get 'fluffy' at times.

Within the first few pages, I was struck by the immaturity of the characters. Two grown women meet on the street after years of separation, and Fido snottily asks Helen who has "taken her place" as a best friend. This feeling continued through-out the book. I cannot recall exactly how old the characters were, but I know that it was closer to 25 than 15. That didn't stop them from behaving like silly little girls. Helen was supposed to act this way, as that is the way she was written, but Fido seemed juvenile to me as well. She is portrayed as the more sensible, mature of the two, which for the most part she is. But she sometimes broke out of character to do something silly, which ruined any chance of her becoming believable.

As this book is about early divorces, and women's legal rights in court, I was expecting a strong book about strong women. But rather than a book with brave female characters making their way through a man's world of both publishing and law, I got more a feeling of two silly girls running about bashing men.
Fido runs a printing press that publishes material aimed toward women, a revolutionary thing in her day and age. Fido runs her business with an iron hand, and the author seems to want us to think of her as a 19th Century businesswoman. I thought it suspicious that the few male employees Fido had were all either stupid and useless, or conniving and evil.

One thing I did like about the book was Helen. I wouldn't call her well written, but she was entertaining reading material. I rolled my eyes at her swooning over Anderson - it is pointedly obvious that all he wants from her is sex, but she is too naive to realize it. Helen is extremely selfish, and in the few scenes where we see her interacting with her two daughters, she seems to concern herself only vaguely with them, and in turn the two little girls treat their mother with an offhanded dismissal that Mommy is too "distracted" or "stupid" to bother with.
Helen's abuse of Fido's friendship was appalling. She comes by her friend's house and then says that she has invited Anderson over (without asking). At Fido's horrified objections, Helen makes up a lie that she is planning to break up with him. Reluctantly, Fido agrees, but then she hears the two of them having sex in her parlor. When she furiously confronts Helen about it later, Helen leads Fido to believe that she was forced. Later, when things escalate and she is found out, Helen blames Fido, saying that if she had only let her keep meeting Anderson in her parlor (snicker), her husband would never have found out. You have to admit, Helen hasn't many scruples, and it admittedly does make for entertaining reading.
I was truly shocked at how low Helen sinks in her lies to Fido during the trial. She truly would have said anything and hurt anyone - even her best friend - in order to get what she wanted.

*Mild spoilers - you can just skip to the next paragraph* I was annoyed at the revelation toward the end of the book that Helen and Fido had had a sexual relationship in the past. It was utterly pointless to the story, and to me it just seemed like a gratuitous, exaggerated furthering the not-quite-right feminist leanings this book had. Already written man-hating, hearty women who always seem to outsmart every male in the book? Looking to go further? Why not randomly throw in the fact that these women are also lesbian at the end! Sigh.
Feminism isn't about being lesbian or how stupid men are.

I like when characters refer to period books that they are reading, and here, Emily and Fido discuss their reads together. It was a fun, tiny little piece of their conversation, but I was annoyed at a small bit of inaccuracy. Helen says that her favorite scene in Lady Audley's Secret was when a woman pushes her husband down a well. However, there is certainly no such scene. I know this and I read the very same book only a few months ago.
On the other hand, besides the tiny mistake, it gave me a good feeling to hear Victorian Londoners talking about reading the same books that I read today, and the characters mentioned a book that I hadn't heard of called East Lynne. I thought that it sounded very good, and was pleased to find it was a real book when I looked it up. If nothing else, I'll have gained some new Victorian reading material.

In short, though, this book never impressed me. It was alright, I suppose, and the legal proceedings that took up the second half of the book were intriguing and not such light page turning as hearing about Helen's reckless secret meetings with her flippant lover. Average, I suppose.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review: One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

Title: One Thousand White Women
Author: Jim Fergus
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Published: 1999
Pages: 320

Rating: 5 out of 10

In the 1870's, a Cheyenne chief traveled to Washington to make a proposition to Ulysses S. Grant himself: allow the Cheyenne a 'gift' of white women for them to marry, in order to integrate their cultures together. The request was, of course, denied, but what if it hadn't been? This is the idea that One Thousand White Women embellishes upon. It is the supposedly recovered journal of May Dodd, a young woman who has been unjustly imprisoned in a mental hospital by her own family. When she hears about the 'Brides for Indians' program, she jumps at the chance to escape her dismal existence and travel into a new life. Accompanied by an eclectic group of women also hoping to begin afresh, May becomes a part of the Cheyenne tribe. Though she can see herself enjoying this new lifestyle, the peace she has found in the prairie is interrupted by the spell new alcohol has cast over the Indian braves, and by the way May has been drawn to a handsome army Captain.

I just loved the new, fresh idea of this book. I have read books where white women marry or fall in love with Native Americans of course, but this one had a new twist.
I enjoyed it, but unfortunately, there were an array of things wrong with it, making it neutral for me.

Fergus was skilled at writing endearing characterizations, quaint and charmingly heartwarming in a style that reminded me of Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie. He takes on quite a few different accents to go with certain characters. At first they annoyed me, but after I got used to them, they added to the characterization. However, though his first-impression caricatures were very nice, most of the time they weren't able to carry through the rest of the book. Little quirks of physical characteristics seem to define most of the characters, and by the time the book is nearly over, Fergus has come to lean on them very heavily. For example, Gretchen is strong-armed and tough, Phemie is "graceful," Narcissa is strictly religious.
Our main character are narrator, May, was perhaps too modern, but overall, she was okay. The author never gave her any of the familiarizing little quirks that he gave so many of the other women, and I didn't like her as much as other, less important characters. May's ideas seemed a bit too suspiciously ahead of her time, such as her lack of religion, her feminist ideas, and other minor things such as her skill at horseback riding, and not sidesaddle!

Sometimes, a lack of thorough editing emerges. When remembering assaults at the mental hospital, May says "I prayed to kill him..." as the event was taking place. So... she is praying that God will kill the man? That God will let her kill him? That God will kill him later?
Another clunky sentence was: "When her part in the deception was discovered, as it surely would be, Martha knew that she faced..." Wait, has her 'part in the deception' been discovered yet or not? Because it "was" discovered, and then it "would be" discovered, and then Martha "faced..." instead of "would face..."
At another point, May says that her female companions "all know by now the reason of my incarceration." But how would they ever be able to find this out?

I also found quite a few disturbing aspects to this book. The author took up an armful of stereotypes and ran with them.
Gretchen, a German woman, was incredibly stereotypical. Because aren't all German women brutishly large in size, crass, blunt, strong-armed, and fond of beating up their poor husbands?
Phemie, the only African American woman in the group, could hardly be mentioned without having our attention called to her "black skin," her "lithe grace." At one point, another character even says that black people are fast runners. And look at that - it's true! Phemie is the fastest runner of them all! Another later says that all black people have natural rhythm. And would you believe it, there Phemie is dancing and swaying to the Indian music with the grace of a born dancer. It is also remarked that African Americans have good voices, and sure enough, you guessed it, Phemie has a beautiful, rich voice.
The religious woman, Narcissa, is the typical Bible-pounding conservative, offensive and annoying, that we see portrayed in so many other volumes.
A genteel lady from the deep South is given the obvious character of a self-righteous, extremely racist, whiskey-swilling prude.
Really, couldn't the author have been more inventive, and realized that many of his characterizations were in fact teetering on the edge of "typical" and falling into "offensive?"

Another disturbing thing I found was that very bad scenes in the book were later brushed off casually, without repercussions.
There is a horrific, drunken night, in which the Indian braves become intoxicated on liquor given to them by white men, and go about terrorizing the camp - beating wives, setting things afire, and raping women). A particular girl named Daisy is raped multiple times by a group of men. In another scene, a man assaults May and attempts to rape her. Another character later dies, and a man is at one point discovered of "buggering" little children.
All of these things are terrible - obviously.
Does the author see it this way?
Perhaps as he is writing them, but after that, they seem to vanish from his (and the character's) minds.
Most of these events happen and that is the end of them. A few paragraphs later, they are forgotten, without anything ever coming as a result of them. I couldn't believe it once I noticed the pattern.

Thirdly, I was disturbed by May's past being erased. She was placed into a mental hospital by her parents, for having children out of wedlock and living with a man to whom she was not married. Her children and lover are taken away, never to be seen again.
Though she tells us that she misses her children a couple times, I never quite believed her. Of course she misses them, but what kind of mother would just forget about her own children? Her parents do not live on the ends of the earth - they are still right there, in Chicago. Couldn't May have made some sort of effort to get back, or even visit, her children? Wouldn't she have placed seeing her children over everything else? I thought that in the end, they would be re-united. But just as the author erases his character's minds of other things, he so erases the memory of May's children from her memory, and from the story. This just struck me as sad, and wrong.

And lastly, I was a bit disquieted by the fact that May, while still mourning the loss of her partner/boyfriend, has sex with a man she has known for 2 days, while engaged (technically) to another man (one of the Indians she is traveling to wed). I rolled my eyes when May convinces herself that she is now in love with this man. Then she has sex with her husband, once she marries him, passionately and with much enjoyment. But is still in love with someone else. It just annoyed me a bit - mostly the fact that May thinks herself and the Captain a couple after two days in each other's company.

Many improbabilities, stretching the imagination just a bit too far, popped up through-out the story. To name a few, the author randomly places a black man in the Indian tribe (wow - so probable!) for Phemie to marry, because I suppose it would be so unthinkable for her to marry interracially. I can't imagine why, or how this could be considered likely, but it happens. Even worse is that two twins, Maggie and Susan, are married off to twin Indians. Well, of course! And May herself, our main character, is matched with the chief of the tribe.

So if there were so very many problems with One Thousand White Women, why did I still manage to enjoy it? Well, it was easy to get through. It was good light reading, while still maintaining that historical atmosphere that can often mask shallowness to being virtually undetectable. And despite all the racist and stereotypical characters, many of them were quite endearing, and I always sympathized with them and wished them all the best. There were some warm, funny scenes, and the author is admittedly quite good at making the reader like his characters. The pictures of the wild, beautiful prairie were well done.

In short, this is a book that should have been marvelous, but is reduced to average: and that's only if you can get past the uneasily glossed over offensive aspects of it.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Review: Othello by William Shakespeare

Title: Othello
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Classics / Plays
First published: 1622

Rating: 7 out of 10

This tragic play by Shakespeare is one that I read as a child, but didn't quite understand. So last night in Barnes & Noble's, I decided to re-read it.

This is the story of a Venetian nobleman named Othello, a Moor from Northern Africa, who made his way from slavery to wealth and power. His sad story and noble character inspire Desdemona, a beautiful young woman, to fall in love with him. The two hastily marry in secret, to the disapproval of many. Othello's personal attendant, a man named Iago, is meanwhile hunting for a way to bring about his master's ruin. Iago feels that Othello promoted another man to a higher position that should have been his, and dwells on a rumor that Othello slept with his wife. For this, he actively and purposefully sets out to usher in Othello's destruction. He plants doubts in Othello's mind about his wife's faithfulness, and goes to great lengths to set up an entire story of her alleged affair.
Though Othello believes his wife to be loyal, he eventually allows the smallest doubt to creep into his mind, which Iago coaxes into certainty with his clever words and twisting of events.
Eventually, Othello decides that he must kill Desdemona and her supposed lover.

This play was, indeed, very tragic and sad. I would even go so far as to say that it is the saddest Shakespeare play I have ever read. For some reason, the idea of a perfect couple being torn apart by an outsider seemed even more horrible than the Romeo and Juliet plot line.

I thought at one point in the story: Poor Othello, poor Desdemona, poor Cassio! Really, all of the characters played out a very unfortunate story, and met an equally unfortunate end, all because of one scheming man.

This man is Iago, who everyone believes to be a loyal, mostly good individual, even if he does have a negative view on women, as is witnessed by his wife and Desdemona.
Iago has heard rumors that Othello slept with his wife, Emilia. He has no proof, and he never tells us where exactly he heard these rumors. In fact, he seems more interested in picturing his wife cheating than actually trying to discover if the rumors are true or not.
With this already in his mind, he takes the advancement of Cassio as the last straw. Cassio is a younger, less experienced man, who has just been promoted in the army. Iago feels that he deserves the job, and that it was wrong of Othello to forget him.
Though he never voices this like his other complaints, Iago also seems to have a racist grudge against Othello, who is black. At the time, serving under a black man would have been unusual and controversial, and Iago makes a few snide remarks in the beginning that pertain to Othello's race, mostly in the form of name-calling.
So Iago does not like Othello.
But he takes it much farther than a simple dislike toward someone. He truly hates the man, he loathes him, he obsesses day and night over how to bring about his ruin. This is not done over just a few days, and nor does Iago simply come up with one plan and go through with it.
Iago's plans are complex and extremely involved, taking enormous effort. Because his plans are so complicated and rely heavily on how others react to them, Iago's plots must adapt constantly, and require much quick-thinking.
Iago has a way with words. Simple everyday acts like greeting someone politely, laughing, walking, or making a new friend are twisted into terrible acts of wickedness by his silver tongue.
Shakespeare uses Iago's character to do what he does best: clever dialogue, which no can do quite like him, still to this day.
An example of this is the scene in which Iago tells Othello to listen to him speak to Cassio (who is supposedly cheating with Desdemona, Othello's wife). Iago asks Cassio about his whore, knowing that Cassio will assume he is referring to Bianca, who actually is a whore and can thus be accurately referred to as one. Iago also knows that Othello, listening, will assume that Iago is referring to Desdemona, who is not a whore, and thus is being insulted. Cassio speaks lightly of her, laughing, just as men normally do when speaking of their latest conquest. However, Othello takes this to mean that Cassio is shameless and thinks that cheating with his master's wife is a joke.
Scenes like this are scattered through-out the play, and if the topic at hand weren't so grave, they would be extremely funny in how witty they are.

Othello is a Moor (meaning that he is from northern Africa) who is honorable, respectful, and logical. He does not seem like a jealous man, and at first is doubtful that Iago can possibly be right about Desdemona's unfaithfulness. However, I believe that even a trusting man married to an angel would have eventually grown suspicious with Iago's tricky words leading him on.
Othello also shows himself, farther on in the story, to be very passionate, which was actually what made Desdemona attracted to him in the first place. Yet another sad little fact: The thing that made her fall in love with her husband is also what ruins their relationship. Othello becomes utterly enraged by the idea of another man touching his wife, and the thought consumes him as he does his best to dismiss it. By the time Iago is done, Othello completely believes the story he has been told, and is driven even to murder.

Cassio, yet another of Iago's victims, is another character whose life is ruined simply by Iago's word choice. One day, he is a handsome, charismatic young ladies man who has just been promoted to a prestigious new title. But the next day, he has been falsely labeled a drunkard and a brawler, is thought to be an adulterer, and has two men scheming out how to murder him.

Iago's third victim would be Desdemona, a pretty young rich girl who fell in love with Othello despite the public opinion that they were an ill match. She risks and endures her father's disownment of her just to be with Othello, only to have her romance torn apart by Iago's lies. The injustice of it all is a sense that is strongly felt through-out the play, particularly in the scenes involving Desdemona, due to her innocence.
Desdemona is completely unaware of the schemes being plotted against her, and the suspicions that her husband is needlessly drawing up about her.
She struck me as naive, angelic, and very sweet. This cherubic character only served to make the audience pity her even more.
At the end, when Othello voices his thoughts about her cheating, she remains devoted to him, a touching and heartbreaking scene.

I think that every single character in this play suffers in some way (mostly in a very large way) due to Iago.
Jealousy is a prominent theme here. Iago is jealous of almost everyone, seeing himself as deserving of whatever pleasures they may have. He uses other men's admiration of Desdemona's beauty to prod them into jealousy over Othello (who is certainly sleeping with her, since he is her husband) or of Cassio (who is allegedly sleeping with her just because Iago says so). Understanding jealousy inside and out and being an apparent expert on the subject, Iago skillfully weaves other men's jealousy into yet another way of getting what he wants.

Though the entire play is about jealousy and cheating, it appears that none of the characters actually ever cheat.
The first woman who is accused of cheating by Iago is his wife, Emilia, but this is presumably not true. No evidence to it being true is ever even hinted at.
The next is, of course, Desdemona, who is unquestionably innocent.

This is a sad play that sets off Shakespeare's style and abilities perfectly. I would recommend it highly.

Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Title: The Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Genre: Classics / Gothic
First published: 1898

Rating: 9 out of 10

I chose this chilling short story by Henry James as the 2nd of my three annual Halloween Reads for 2012.

It is the story of a young governess who is hired to take care of two orphaned children, Miles and Flora, at a large manor house in the Essex countryside. The children have been handed over to their estranged uncle, who wants little to do with them or any contact with them. The governess whom he hires is more than happy to adopt the two innocent youngsters as her own, and grows to love them dearly. However, she begins to see strange things happening about the house where she now lives, and continually sees a mysterious man and woman lingering about the estate. Both the man and woman have a horrifying, terrible expression and atmosphere to them, and when she describes them to her friend Mrs. Grose, the woman recognizes them instantly. They were lovers who once lived at the house, and they both died a few years ago, though no one knows how. The governess becomes convinced that the ghost couple is after little Flora and Miles, though she can't understand why. The children insist that they do not to see the ghosts, but the governess is convinced that they are lying due to how frightened they appear whenever she questions they about it. The harder that the governess tries to protect her charges, the farther distanced from her they become.

I very much enjoyed this brief, chilly tale, and I loved the antiquated way that it was written, which really gave it a cold, "ghost story" air that more modern writing simply cannot capture.

In the beginning of the story, it didn't occur to me that the governess' ghosts may not be real, but by the middle of the book, I was convinced that they were simply figments of her imagination. However, at the very end, I didn't know what to think.
I love stories that end just when the plot isn't quite closed out yet, leaving the reader to wonder - what happened?
This story was certainly one of those, and I still can't decide if the heroine was crazy, or if the "horrors," as she called them, were really there. Perhaps they were, only they were real flesh and blood people who she wanted to think of as ghosts.

Miles and Flora play their part well as the innocent, helpless little children who are very in need of protection as they drift obliviously toward horrific danger.
Nowadays, every horror movie seems to cast an obligatory child, but when Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw, such themes weren't yet common.
I especially loved Miles, who is a more filled out character than his younger sister Flora. He is a charming boy, who wants very badly to be "bad," in spite of how good he is. He even stages an event where he goes outdoors at night, and schemes at how to get the governess to witness his little crime, in an attempt to show her how "bad" he is.
However, Miles is also very wise. Even though he never exactly tells his governess anything - he is always frustratingly vague - his little hints at deep, perceptive topics make him even more interesting.

The unnamed main character was a bit annoying, and I felt that she was at times contradictory. She is normally terrified of the ghosts she is seeing (which is understandable), while at other times she speaks of them lightly and does things that make it seem as if she doesn't fear them at all.
Her fierce protection of Miles and Flora was touching, and I couldn't help but wonder what made her care for them so much and so quickly, as if they really are her own family. Was she abandoned as a child? Did she always want children, but never married?

Speaking of speculation - there is much of it to be done within James' short story. There is, of course, the matter of the alleged ghosts. Are they imaginary? Real people mistaken as spirits? Or are they ghosts, after all? I think that everyone will ask these questions, but there are so many more to wondered about, if you look deeper.

For instance, it seems apparent by the end that Miles and Flora are extremely afraid of (or even hateful toward) the governess herself. The governess seems to think that this is because the ghosts are controlling the children's minds, while Mrs. Grose hints that it is because the children have been influenced by an evil presence. But what if the evil presence is actually the governess, and she simply doesn't know it? Perhaps this is a bit too M. Night Shyalman, but could the governess have been a ghost herself?
All of Miles' vague speeches, in which he is always saying things to the governess such as "you know what I mean..." could also be hints of this. Maybe she doesn't know what he means, and they are both talking about completely different things.
In the middle of the story, I even thought that Miles had a schoolboy crush on his guardian, which was what he kept referring to, even though the governess assumed he was speaking about ghosts. If you read their conversation with this possibility in mind, it would actually fit quite well, though toward the end I had mostly dismissed this idea.

All in all, I believe that I will keep wondering about The Turn of the Screw for a long while, and being so short, I know I will re-read it again in hopes of unlocking further clues that may help me solve the mysteries I found there.

This was a great Halloween read, though I would highly recommend it for anytime of the year.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: Elsie Dinsore by Martha Finley

Title: Elsie Dinsmore
Author: Martha Finley
Genre: Children's / Religion
First published: 1867

Rating: 1 out of 10

The Elsie Dinsmore books must be some of the most ridiculous that I have ever read.
Everything is very over done and dramatic, but worse than that is an overarching sense of self-righteousness, both from the author and from Elsie herself.

Dinsmore introduces Elsie, her heroine, as the impossibly perfect, prim, innocent-of-all-wrongs little Christian girl. Elsie is strictly devout in her faith, and the author seems to delight in casting her as a martyr of sorts. Her secular cousins and relations are always belittling her for her religion, and Finley revels in it. I can imagine the author as a little girl, wallowing in self pity, and cheering herself up by telling herself how heroic she is.

Really, the morals of this book become more and more disgraceful the deeper you examine them.
Not because Elsie ever embraces anything inappropriate - oh no, far from it! Rather the opposite. She is simply too perfect. I find it hard to believe that any girl could honestly say that she could relate to Elsie when reading these books.

Elsie is tortured by guilt after she plays in a field that her father told her not to enter, and it is made into such an enormous drama that you'd think Elsie had gone and committed murder or something.

When a coach careens off the road while Elsie and her cousins are inside, her cousins marvel in awe at how calm Elsie is. Elsie jumps at the chance to impart her gratingly irritating wisdom to them: She isn't afraid of death, because she knows she will go to Heaven. Indeed, she practically says that she wishes the carriage had crashed, because then she'd be dead and with the angels.

Though the religious aspect of her little speech glosses it over, little eight year old Elsie has basically just told the reader that she wishes to die, all in very cheerful, casual tones.
This can't possibly be right.

Another quite memorable scene is when Elsie refuses to play a song on the piano, which her father asks her to play.
What! Little perfect Elsie, disobeying her father? How can this be?
Well, actually, Elsie decides that it would be an even greater sin to play the song. Why? Because it is the Sabbath, and the song is not a christian one.
Now, I cannot remember exactly what song her father asked her to play, but I sincerely doubt that he was requesting songs about drugs and sex. It was probably more along the lines of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Harmless, in other words.
But can Elsie play it? No. Absolutely. Not.
Her father tells her she will sit at the piano until she produces the supposedly evil song. Elsie is determined not to do anything of the sort, and so she sits there piously, pitying herself and praying.
I really could hardly bear to continue the book at this point. Of all the characters that I have ever, ever read in any book of any sort - Elsie Dinsmore without a doubt takes the place as my ultimate most hated.
Her stubborn, disgusting self-righteous attitude is bad enough, but the way that she (and the author) defend it as an admirable way of pleasing God, and the martyr attitude that they both cling to, is sickening.
The scenario escalates when Elsie, fatigued from sitting at the piano (wow, such hard work), faints and hits her head.
Again, furthering the martyr feeling.

I had to ask myself if Martha Finley was actually serious at many points in this book.
If Elsie is the example that mothers want to set before their little girls, I hope that they are prepared to raise girls who aspire to be spoiled, prudish, arrogant, self-pitying, and impossibly self-righteous little things who twist religion into a way of feeling sorry for themselves.

Review: Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

Title: Empress Orchid
Author: Anchee Min
Publisher: Mariner Books
Published: 2005
Pages: 368

Rating: 8 out of 10

Empress Orchid, which combines the stories of a powerful empire crumbling and a powerful empress rising, transported me back in time to 1852 China, and provided sharp insight into the life of Empress Dowager Cixi.

Orchid is just an ordinary girl in China, dreading her upcoming arranged marriage, until she makes it into a very selective group of girls who will have a chance to become royal concubines, or perhaps even Empress. After passing, Orchid's life changes forever. She learns that beneath the mask of beauty in the Forbidden City lies treachery and betrayal. As she makes her way in and out of danger, Orchid observes and takes part in the politics of her country, and finds herself rising to power.

This book was absolutely fascinating - one of my favorite books that I have ever read on historical China. I knew little of the infamous empress Cixi, so I came away from this feeling like I had learned much.

Anchee Min describes the setting of the Forbidden City, which is present-day Beijing, in wondrous, lush detail. I felt that I could picture the gardens Orchid walks in, the fat koi in her ponds, the chambers filled with unimaginable wealth. I also felt the dark undertone to such ostentatious beauty as Orchid learns about the complex, unforgiving undercurrent of her new home. Betrayal, deceit, and spies are everywhere.

The customs of the Chinese people at this time were very interesting to me as well. There is a sense of honor to some, arrogance to others, and utter frivolity to others. Min truly gives you a sense of the culture, and she takes the time to explain customs that would no doubt seem confusing or pointless to modern Western readers.

And besides a setting and a culture, the author also weaves strong, memorable characters for us.
There is the emperor, of course, a blatantly proud and spoiled man who has been handed an entire nation when he is so entirely undeserving of such power. He exercises his absolute influence with harsh punishments and decrees, but we see through Orchid's eyes that he is in fact simply a frightened, simple, and altogether weak man. Even though the author did not delve into his story all that much, she did a good job of making the reader both hate and sympathize with him.
Niuhuru (spelled Nuharoo in the book, which is how her name is pronounced) was a character that I also found interesting. She is the beautiful, high born queen, the first chosen of the emperor, and therefore a rank above Orchid. She is stunningly beautiful, and while for most of the story she was a sweet, compassionate, and timid creature, there is a dark side to her as well. For example, a day after she speaks jealously with Orchid, Orchid's beloved cat is murdered. She schemes to take the Emperor away from Orchid, and she even attempts to have Orchid whipped while pregnant, which would most certainly have resulted in the unborn child's death. I wondered how much Niuhuru pretended, and what her nature truly was.
And then there was An-te-hai, Orchid's forever faithful eunuch and personal attendant. His unwavering, selfless loyalty to his mistress is touching and at times heartbreaking, and the relationship between them is a very well written one. They depend on each other, and they love each other. Toward the end, when he tells Orchid about his dreams, we see further into his pain. He was a well written character without having to be mentioned all that much.

There were other strong characters as well, but above them all stands our narrator, Orchid herself. She is a strong, intelligent, and insightful woman who at time seems wiser than all of the other governors and advisers and emperors.
The phases of her life were recounted eloquently - her adjustment to the new wealth of being a royal concubine, her agonizing wait longing to be noticed by her husband, her love and loss of a king, her painful love for her son even after he is taken from her and raised to be everything she despises, and her desperate longing for someone to love her. I felt, by the end of the book, that I knew her. She will not be a character that I will soon forget, and Min's story has inspired me to research Empress Cixi in greater detail.

This is a lovely, epic tale of China, through the eyes of one woman who ruled it.

Highly, highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Title: The Thirty-Nine Steps
Author: John Buchan
Genre: Classics
First published: 1915

Rating: 5 out of 10

Richard Hannay is an engineer who has traveled the world, and now finds himself living in London. He also finds himself bored with life with nothing to do. Conveniently, that very night, a mysterious little man named Scudder appears at his doorstep, and tells him a tale of spies, running from the German secret service, faked suicides, and codes. Hannay agrees to help the man by hiding him in his apartment, but on returning home the next day, he finds Scudder murdered and his home ransacked. After investigating a bit, he finds a black book that belonged to his late house-guest, filled with an illegible code. Knowing this to be what the killers were searching his home for, he assumes that they will be after him next. He also assumes that the London police will find evidence enough to convince everyone that it was he who murdered Scudder. Believing himself to have no choice, he leaps aboard a train to Scotland. He journeys about the countryside on foot, in disguises, on bicycles, and in stolen expensive cars, all the while deciphering the code in Scudder's black book and unraveling the mystery of what is going on around him.

Knowing absolutely nothing of the genre, I was curious to read this book, which even I know is famous for inspiring the spy / thriller genre. Minus the hot girl on our heroe's arm, I certainly could find a lot of similarities to other spy movies I've seen (I have to limit my knowledge to movies, as I haven't read nearly enough books to make comparisons).

This was a lot dryer than what I expected, and there was never any tone of desperation or stress, like I would expect from a man running from two formidable enemies. Even when he is captured, Richard seems to look upon all of the events with a collected, factual state of mind.

This book was very unrealistic - and I know that spy stories always are, but this was different.
Such as, wouldn't it have been better for Richard to disappear in London (where he already was) instead of head for the country? He is always bemoaning the fact that there is nowhere to hide there, while in London, this would certainly not have been the case.
Also, a suspiciously high number of absolute strangers were willing to help, and sometimes take risks for Richard. This was, of course, highly unlikely, but the main character never seemed to see anything odd in it.
Little things like this really took my mind away from the story, and annoyed me. There is a difference between probable (boring) and believable (well written).

At first, this book started off at a racing pace. Within just a few pages, Scudder has appeared at Richard's door, with tales of spies and intrigue, and a few pages later, he is murdered and Richard goes on the run. I absolutely loved it. It was Victorian with a dash of James Bond.
However, after this point, the book got progressively more and more boring up until the very end. The middle is all just about Richard traveling, and besides the stolen cars, most often not in very glamorous or "thrilling" ways. At one point, he is even riding a bicycle.
I actually wondered, after Richard had been traveling for awhile, if the author was tricking us, and the spies didn't exist at all. In fact, I found myself surprised when the spies finally materialized later, and proved themselves to be, indeed, real.

Scudder was the very best part of this book, and I fervently wish that he had lived, and gone traveling with Richard. That would have been interesting, as the man got to know his traveling companion without revealing too much, keeping Richard and the reader in constant suspense.

Though it did not lend itself to the "fleeing" scenes (code here for peaceful bicycle rides in the charming countryside), the British writing was a good combination in the more exciting scenes. Again, the beginning was the best portion of this little book, and though I loved the tone and overall feeling of the writing style, I wouldn't call this a "great book."

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Title: Bel Canto
Author: Ann Patchett
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Published: 2005
Pages: 352

Rating: 8 out of 10

A country somewhere in South America is throwing a birthday party for the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa, in hopes of convincing him to do business with them. While he has no intentions of doing so, Mr. Hosokawa is convinced to attend when they offer to book Roxanne Coss, a famous opera singer, for the event. But just as Miss Coss finishes singing, a group of gun-wielding terrorists bursts into the building, planning to take the President hostage. Upon finding that the President is not in attendance, they decide to simply take everyone at the party as hostages, until they figure out what their next course of action is to be. People from countries and cultures all over the world are now trapped together in a mansion, united by a translator and an opera singer with whom everyone is fascinated with. As the weeks slip by and they are still not released, the hostages gradually begin to relate with and even befriend their captors, as the beauty of music unites them.

This dazzling story was amazing, and is one of my favorite books of the year. It was simply gorgeous.

Ann Patchett has a tender, poetic way of writing that I would indeed call musical. Whenever she wrote about music in this story, I felt moved, just as the characters themselves did when they heard it.
Although the events in this story are quite dramatic, Patchett's writing was firmly believable. Never for a moment did I say to myself "That wouldn't really happen..."

Every character is stitched together carefully and emotionally.
I loved Mr. Hosokawa, who is a rich and powerful man, but is also quiet and shy. Unlike most businessmen, he is enamored with music, opera in particular. He has always made time to listen to his opera, and Roxanne Coss is his favorite soprano.
Roxanne, who is perhaps the most memorable presence of this story, is an opera star who travels the world touring. She is glamorous and just a tiny bit haughty, in an elegant sort of way. I pictured her as Emmy Rossum, which I am probably getting from the Phantom of the Opera movie. Roxanne shows herself on numerous occasions to be strong willed, passionate, and caring. I very much admired her character.
Gen, the translator, was another favorite. He has a gift for languages, and Patchett often compares his talent for translating with musical abilities. Gen's own thoughts and opinions often become lost, as he is too busy telling other people what other people have to say. His skills make him the most useful of the hostages, both amongst them and to the terrorists.
Carmen, one of the two young female terrorists, falls in love with Gen. She is a passionate, intelligent girl (and also very beautiful). I pictured her as a young Keira Knightley.
There were others - there was the vice President, Ruben Iglesias, who gets through the captivity in his own home by pretending he is hosting an event and must keep the place orderly. Or the accompanist, who is so in love with Roxanne that he is willing to die for her. Or the boy who learns he has a talent for singing, inspired by Roxanne.
Every character was beautiful, both terrorists and hostages.

The lines between the terrorists and the hostages are clear at the beginning of the story, but by the end, the line has blurred considerably. Even in the beginning, the captors are obviously not looking for bloodshed. They see no need to kill anyone, and yet they are trapped. If they simply let everyone go, they will lose everything they have worked for. The hostages are their only way out, even though it was never their intention to have more than one, much less hundreds.
Later in the story, Gen expresses to a negotiator a desire for his life here, trapped in the mansion with the terrorists, to never end. He says that he thinks everyone would be happy. As Gen is a highly intelligent, logical man, I doubt that he truly thought that this wish could be. Yet, there was such a sadness to his words. A few chapters ago, he had also forced himself to acknowledge the fact that Carmen, the girl he'd fallen in love with, was a terrorist. Perhaps in captivity, their romance was alright, but how would it ever be able to exist in the real world?
In this way, their captivity has created a sort of idyllic, flawed paradise for many of the captives.

I loved the subtle romance of this book, and I loved the relationship between Roxanne and her lover (I won't say who it is). Everyone in the place was in love with Miss Coss, in varying degrees. One man even boldly goes up to her and professes undying love to her, telling her his life's story as if all of his days were leading him to this moment.

The ending made me cry, and I don't think that I will ever forget how strongly the horrific scene played out in my mind as I read it. The epilogue, which is far more happy, nevertheless left me dissatisfied. Two characters from the story are brought back, years later. However, I was confused, and then outraged. It did not seem like a fitting ending whatsoever. I can't say more without giving it away, but I wish that it had been a particular different character in the epilogue.

Bel Canto is a lovely, lushly written, powerful story that I will now be recommending to all of my friends. It is stitched together as intricately and beautifully as the character's relationships within the story.

A wonderful book, and very highly recommended.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Cheri and Last of Cheri by Colette

Title: Cheri / Last of Cheri
Author: Colette
Genre: Classics
Publisher: Penguin Classics
First published: 1920
Pages: 247

Rating: 8 out of 10

This is a combination of two individual books, usually paired together in one volume, which I will review here separately.

The first, Chéri, introduces us to a stunningly beautiful, conceited young man named Frank Peloux, otherwise known as Chéri. At twenty-five, he is having a love affair with the sophisticated Léa de Lonval, a courtesan twice his age. When Chéri must marry a young heiress, Léa reluctantly decides that they must end the relationship. Chéri pretends indifference, but finds himself haunted by the one person he has ever cared about - Léa.

Though the plot a bit was blurry, I found the characters complex and thought provoking, with realistic and interesting characters.

Chéri and Léa's relationship intrigued me. Why does Léa stay with the selfish, arrogant Chéri? Why does a young man who has every young beauty in Paris falling at his feet choose a woman in her late forties as his lover?
As someone in a relationship with someone well over twice my age, I always find age differences fascinating to read about.

Chéri, the main character, was someone who I found myself hating intensely and sympathizing with all at once. He is far from admirable, being closer to evil than good. I was infuriated by his flippant arrogance, his self proclaimed malice and selfishness, and the way that he referred to his wife, Edmée.
Some of the things that he says so shamelessly are truly shocking. One of the first was early on the book, where he tells Léa about his fiancee:

"Oh! She won't be allowed to have a say in anything. She's going to be my wife, isn't she? Let her kiss the sacred ground I tread on, and thank her lucky stars for the privilege. And that will be that."

Surely he is joking! However, as we read further into the story, we see that he was completely serious.
Among his other horrifying statements is that he actually wants Léa to mourn him and die of grief once they are parted.
He is honest, you have to give him that.

However, we see another side of this monster as well. We see that despite his pretense of being cold and unfeeling, he is truly in love with a woman who he cannot have. His fanatic longing and weary outlook on life is realistic, and sharply felt.
Chéri is a well written, complicated mix of hero and villain.

His lover Léa is mentioned constantly, though she is not physically present in very much of the story. She is a mature, sensible woman who took Chéri on as her last affair. And who better than a far younger man with the looks of a Greek god, she asks us?
Léa is fashionable, she is sophisticated, she is regal. I pictured her a woman with an ageless sort of grace that is often more beautiful than a pretty face.
But, as with her young lover, there is another side to her as well.
It does not take the reader very long to figure out that Léa's staged attitude of wanting Chéri for his looks are as false as Chéri's own indifference. She is just as in love with him as he is with her, and is almost surprised to find herself distraught enough to run away from Paris after his marriage.

Then there are other characters that are not quite as memorable, but still very well written. There is the young Edmée, who at first thinks herself lucky to be engaged to the gorgeous Chéri. But she is in fact destined to live an unhappy life with him as her spiteful husband. She was another interesting character - she hates Chéri, and yet she cannot help but love him as well. Her mother and Chéri's mother, Madame Charlotte Peloux, were also well written minor characters.

The only thing that I disliked was a minor quibble. I was annoyed at how Chéri's beauty was constantly being pointed out. I know that that was a large part of his character, but it was a bit aggravating to hear about his perfection from absolutely every character (even himself!). And how exactly can a man's knees be gorgeous?

Now for the second volume, The Last of Chéri. This sequel opens with a changed Chéri. He is somewhere between ten to twenty years older, and in between the two books he was a soldier in the war, and has continued to live an unfulfilled life with his wife Edmée, whom he has never been able to love. He is very much sobered, not quite so carefree and arrogant. And yet, we still see some shocking behavior from him, such as his thoughts of striking Edmée for no apparent reason, or his vindictive dwelling on the knowledge that he knows how to hurt his wife mentally.

Chéri has attempted to forget about Léa, plainly because her memory is too painful, and he would have always wondered what could have been.

Edmée's character is more developed, thought the author never completely lets us into her head like we see into Chéri's. She became far more interesting though - and I was impressed by her. She has coped with her marriage by obeying everything her husband says meekly, while keeping her head and never allowing herself to sink into drama and despair. By the end, I couldn't decide between two possible characters for her. Was she a spineless, stupid girl too scared of her husband to do anything about the relationship? Or had she grown into a strong, enduring woman who was only trying to get through life the best way she knew how? I have a feeling that it was the second one.

And no, Léa is not gone from this book. Like in the first book, she is not physically present except for one scene, but through-out the story, we feel her overwhelming influence. Chéri goes to see her, after years of staying away. I found it a bit sad that he found her now truly old, no longer beautiful, and a dulled woman compared to the bright, sharp spirit she had once been. But, it was inevitable, as she is about sixty now, and has obviously changed in more than just appearance.

The underlying story that follows Chéri's visit was heartbreaking. He has gone through his marriage wishing that he were married to Léa, the love of his life, instead. But their love could never be. They have been born at the wrong times - she is now an old woman, and the Léa that he loves no longer exists.
I didn't like the sad ending, even though there really wouldn't be any other conclusion that would completely fit. It wasn't what I wanted to read right before I closed the book, but I'll admit that it did make sense.

A thoughtful, memorable story.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Review: Look Back in Anger by John Osborne

Title: Look Back in Anger
Author: John Osborne
Genre: Plays / Literature
Publisher: Penguin
First performed: May 8, 1956
First published: 1957

Rating: 7 out of 10

Today is this thought-provoking play's 57th anniversary, and even though I read it years ago, it is one that I vividly remember as if I just finished the last page yesterday.

Look Back in Anger is a play centrally focused on Jimmy Porter, a spiteful, hateful man who seems intent on destroying everything that he loves. He lives with his wife, Alison, and his best friend, Cliff. Alison and Jimmy's relationship is one of hurt and abuse, as Jimmy does everything he can, night after night, to provoke Alison into rage. Cliff, the tired mediator, generally stands by and watches, making feeble attempts to calm everyone down whenever things get especially chaotic.
This is the routine that the three miserably go through, until a guest interrupts things. Helena, an old friend of Alison, comes to stay.
She is horrified at Jimmy's vindictive treatment of his wife, and rises to his every insult, defending her and dealing out quite a few insults of her own. Through an outsider's eyes, Alison realizes just how much of a let down her married life has become, and decides to go away for a few days.
In the first night of her absence, Jimmy and Helena, whose violent arguments have awoken a sexual desire in both of them, fall into each others arms.

This play never changed scenes, and there were a total of only five characters in the entire thing (one of which is only featured in a few pages).

However, it is not a simple story. The characters are without a doubt the strength of it, because they are complex and well drawn. Jimmy is the prominent one, which is probable because he is characterized by mad outbursts, angry speeches, and bewildering mood swings. He reminded me of Stanley in "A Streetcar Named Desire," which this play very closely resembles.
Alison was also quite well done - the sad, timid, and abused little wife who forces herself to believe that she still loves her husband.
Cliff seemed to be quite a dull man, but I couldn't help but wonder what he hid behind his blase personality.
Helena was also complex. She vehemently fights against Jimmy, for the sake of Alison's honor, it seems. She advises Alison against staying with Jimmy, and seems to be the strong voice of reason. However, as soon as her friend is out the door, she is in bed with Alison's husband. Did Helena just advise Alison to leave because she wanted Jimmy for herself?

The character study made the story, but beyond that, I would find it hard to think of something that actually happened, beyond ironing boards falling onto people.
Great characters.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review: Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

Title: Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Author: Richard Bach
Genre: Literary
Photographer: Russell Munson
Publisher: Scribner
First published: 1970

Rating - 3 out of 10

I approached this book expecting to be astounded and moved by its aforementioned lyrical beauty. Perhaps my expectations had been built up too high, but I was very disappointed.

The first half of this book, which was about Jonathan Seagull learning to fly, and subsequent banishment from his flock, was good. I liked the picture that Bach put in your mind, his descriptions, and the factual yet simplistically graceful way that he wrote.

However, I was incredulous at the complete turn-around this book makes in the second half of the story. Abruptly, this book turns from poetic literature to mystical sci-fi.

An old seagull, who is apparently 1,000 years old, begins training Jonathan Seagull how to disappear and re-appear anywhere on earth, or even on other earths. Jonathan stands on the beach for days, trying to train his mind to be able to do it.
The scene heavily reminded me of Yoda training Luke to do magical / force stuff with his mind in the swamp.
And of course, eventually Jonathan (or, might I say, his Jedi mind tricks) succeed. He opens his eyes and is suddenly on another planet with three green moons!
I laughed a loud here, thinking "What?!"

The rest of the book tries to combine the earlier beautiful writing style with this new plot, besides (if you can believe it) including yet another outlandish plot.

Jonathan Seagull becomes a teacher himself, teaching other young birds that flying involves love, and a certain mindset. This part reminded me of yoga classes.

I was even further amused when the author began introducing a Christian allegory into the story. Jonathan gathers followers (he is their teacher), including one in particular that is close to him (Peter). He goes back to his old flock to teach the birds how to fly. Some join him, but most criticize him. Rumors begin that he is the Son of the Great God. By the way, this 'Great God' had never been mentioned anywhere else in the book, and conveniently pop up in the flock's culture out of nowhere.
Eventually, the flock tries to kill him. Afterward, he preaches to his followers that they must go on, and continue loving the flock, even if they did just turn murderous. And he disappears - just like Jesus.

I feel as if the author had three completely different book ideas here. A poetic, simplistic inspiring book about seagulls, the wind, and the ocean. A very nice idea!
But wait, I've always wanted to write a science fiction book.
Or how about, a book about Jesus - except he is a seagull?
How about all three?!

As you can probably assume, I did not like this book. Even the photographs disappointed me. Many of them seemed to be the exact same as previous ones, or even the exact same as on the page before.

I couldn't enjoy this strange little book.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Review: Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

Title: Brokeback Mountain
Author: Annie Proulx
Genre: Literary
Publisher: Scribner
Published: 2005
Pages: 64

Rating - 7 out of 10

I have wanted to see the movie fashioned after this book for awhile, but put it off until I read the book.
Now, years later, I came across this slim little volume while browsing the shelves of a used bookstore.
I read it in about half an hour, but was surprised that such a little amount of time had gone by.
At a mere 64 pages, "Brokeback Mountain," which is actually a short story, doesn't look like a laborious read. I began reading it flippantly, skeptical about the idea of an epic romance being contained in under 100 pages.
However, this book wasn't what I expected.
First of all, it wasn't an "epic romance." I had imagined it being much like a man version of "Titanic."
And secondly, I certainly didn't see Proulx's powerful writing coming.
In such a small amount of paper, the author covers 20 years, and pulls it off more than successfully. "Brokeback Mountain" may be a short story, but it impacts the reader like a full-fledged novel that you've been reading and loving for weeks.
Sure, Proulx could have written this tale as a detailed, long, volume. But her writing clearly points out for itself that she doesn't need to.
Her simplistic, to the point prose was a bit hard to get used to, but after a few pages, I was thanking her for it. She includes minor little "supporting" details without ever going into them, giving you a picture of a character in a sentence when other writers would take a chapter. Her writing is short and sweet - or, better put - short and bitter.
Because if there is a word that does not describe this book, it is sweet. Annie Proulx writes with unabashed, realistic, often dirty prose. Her tale is straight black coffee - cowboys didn't have fancy espresso machines, whipped cream, and sugary sprinkles, after all.
I was impressed at the way she handled the two main character's relationship. There was no "gazing into his beautiful brown eyes" business. There was no romanticizing it, no beautification. It was a solid, honest story about two men. Their relationship begins with unromantic, unfeeling sex, for example. Not passionate sex, or a sex scene that belongs in a Harlequin. Just sex. The feelings come later, but still without touching up, without airbrushing.
There was no epic here - it could very believably have been labeled a true story. And if it had been, it wouldn't have been the dramatic, popular story that the Titanic became. Because, fundamentally, this book is quite normal. Jack and Ennis are everyday men with ordinary, average lives. One would probably be inclined to say, in fact, that their lives were more than a bit mundane.
But underneath this violent, hardened world that the reader is drawn into, lies, somewhere, a love story.
It is not an obvious love story, or an amazing love story - it is simply a love story.
Does it need to be anything else?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why James Franco Should Visit My Library

I recently signed up for an account on Twitter, Tweeter, Twiddling Thumbs, whatever-it's-called. I also started a blog about my books.
These are all things that a few months ago I would have said I had a 0.01% chance of doing.

Well, I am enjoying myself. Perhaps it's because I feel almost as if my library has gained another dimension. And with my dreams of starting a private university, I have always felt that my books are meant to be appreciated by other people, not just me.

On Twilight in Winter (I just can't bear to type that I was on Twitter), handy little suggestions pop up helpfully in your browser. I hadn't heard of any of them, until a familiar face came up: James Franco.
I've always loved James Franco, but not for the usual reasons. I haven't seen many of his movies, except for "Howl" and "Milk," less mainstream ones that I adored. My favorite piece of film that I saw him in wasn't a movie, but a short clip by the New York Times called 14 Actors Acting where he kisses himself in a mirror. It was like Borges and Kundera had made a beautiful collaboration on film.
But to me, James Franco isn't primarily an actor, he's a professor, a poet, an intellectual, a reader of Ulysses. And who else is all that?

So, James.

Here's why you should come and visit my library.

1. Because I live in Miami. And, as Tweeting Bird so cleverly informed me, you are currently in Miami.

2. You're not only in Miami, you're here for the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. I'm not exactly gay, and I'm not lesbian, but I'm not really straight, and there is probably some sort of connection to something there, but basically, that's a great reason to visit a city.

3. Because intellectuals belong in libraries, and my books belong with intellectuals. Living in Miami, they don't get such company very often.

4. You can sign my copy of "Palo Alto," but more importantly, you can sign my California book. I try to collect books about every place on earth, and whenever I meet someone from there, I have them sign the book. Care for your signature to join the names of a beautiful copy-editor raised in a cult, a literal rocket scientist, a cheating ex, and a surfer who was afraid of water?

5. Because I want to know all about everyone's books. What books have you brought on planes? Found in strange places? What books were written just for you? Which poets make you want to write something important? Which books make you feel like you should have written that?

6. Because none of my 3,000 books care about Twittering Sparrows and social media and pop culture and paparazzi. Some of them know about movies, but they consider "the book to be better." Most of the time they're right. None of my books have ever heard of you. They really have no idea who you are, except an intellectual who knows about Kafka and Ginsberg (so probably Kerouac, too) and such people, and about the beauty of poetry and art.

Where Are All the Books?

When I think of Miami, I see flashing neon signs streaked across the hot night air, of crowded beaches choked with tourists, houses in offensive shades of pink and horrid lime green, and people in plastic flip-flops with bleached hair appropriately tousled by the ocean breeze. Humid, sticky, exorbitant, shallow.
I don't like Miami. Or, to put it better, I know that it isn't where I want to live for the rest of my life. It can be beautiful, and I do love the ocean (even though I never go, I just look at it from my balcony). The sense of wild, uninhibited freedom there is, at times, liberating. And being one of those people that's shivering and wearing a coat when it's 75°, I like the weather. 

When I moved here, I had just emerged from a nearly 700 mile walkabout inspired by Kerouac and Christopher McCandless, freshly inspired and idealistic, my worldview forever changed (more on that in another post). And before that, I had left behind Charlottesville, my lost intellectual utopia, where I lived next-door to two bookshops with dozens more within a 20 minute walk.
Coming to Florida was a bit of a culture shock.

In Miami, I immediately set out to answer that all-important question I ask of every new place I find myself in: Where are all the books? 

Not a book in sight

 The question went disturbingly unanswered for a few months. I found a chain bookstore at the mall, but they had a limited selection, and I was put off by the fast paced, mainstream atmosphere. There weren't any chairs to sit and read, the bookshop clerks were talking about watching trashy reality shows, and if you stayed longer than half an hour they slipped you suspicious glares.
I looked up used bookshops online, and embarked on a 30 min. drive to a beaten down bookstore attended to by one elderly woman who looked as if she had stepped out of the 1950's. This was more like it! 
Or not. A cursory glance around the place told me that it was packed with cheap romance novels. A deeper investigation turned up a single shelf of "Classics," containing about 20 books. I purchased an overpriced copy of Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge," and the woman gave me a funny look. "Why would you buy this?" she asked. "School, I guess."
"No," I said. "Hardy is one of my favorite authors."
She looked at me as if I had just informed her that one of my favorite pastimes was hammering splinters into my fingernails.

Further searches turned up much of the same, and at one point, I had actually read all the books that I owned. For any reader / book collector, you know how unthinkable this is.

In horror, I considered the possibility that there just aren't any places to buy books in Miami. Of course, there is always the option of buying online, but that can't compare to sifting through used bookshops, never sure what you'll come across, finding books that you've never heard of but suddenly can't imagine your library being without. 

What to do?

Now, after living in Miami for about four years, I'm intimately acquainted with all of the places that books are hiding. It took some searching, but I found them.

A particularly good day of book-buying!

Because of this, I think that almost anyone can find books, and lots of them, almost anywhere.

1. Abandon any and all qualms against thrift stores and secondhand shops. They are probably the best places to buy books in the absence of used bookshops, and most of the time, they're a lot cheaper, too. Many used bookshops sell their selections for half of the cover price, which is normally about $5 - $15. Thrift shops sells books for about $1 - $4. Besides being ridiculously low priced, stores like these aren't likely to know anything about the books that they're selling, so if there's a treasure hidden in the shelves, they aren't going to know it. I've found a 1st edition Tolkien, Toni Morrison, and a signed 1st edition of Nabokov's "Ada" in thrift shops, among many others.
I really started finding a ton of books after I had located every Goodwill, Salvation Army, and secondhand shop in the area. And often, your money is going toward a good cause, too.

2. Go to the library. Visit multiple libraries, especially your county's main library. Nearly every library has a discards section, where they sell discarded library copies or donations. Some of these discard sections are so large that they're the size of bookstores, and some libraries call them ongoing "Book Sales." If you can believe it, libraries normally sell books for even less than thrift stores, from $0.10 - $3.

3. Of course, find your local independent and used bookshops. And befriend the people behind the counter! I have found that people working in small, more obscure bookshops are voracious readers themselves 99% of the time. I've also had a lot of them give me generous "best customer" discounts, and when I gave one of them my phone number, he called me with books he thought I'd like and offered to hold them for me until my next visit.

4. Sometimes, I post on Craigslist that I will take unwanted books off people's hands. I always get a ton of replies, which I hadn't expected when I put up my first ad. Likewise, people sometimes post books for sale on Craigslist. Posts like "Tons of Books!" or "Hundreds of Boxes of Books, Must Go," are the best! 
When planning to go to someone's home for books, I always ask them for a snapshot of their shelves and what types of books they have. Hopefully, they send a photo with visible titles, so that I can get an idea of the selection. Asking them what books they have generally isn't much good. They say "Literature" and they mean Reader's Digest. They say "vintage" and mean 1980's. But if they say "No clue, they were my grandmother's," then I always, always go. 
I also bring my boyfriend along with me on such visits. I'd like to think that everyone on the internet is an honest person, but Craigslist isn't exactly the most legitimate place of business.

5. I made a sort of deal with myself that I would purchase one book online every two weeks. I don't like buying books online, and this post is kind of about finding books without using the internet, but for new releases or books on specific topics, it's often the best way to get something that used bookshops aren't likely to have. I highly recommend AbeBooks for this.

 6. Find book friends, swap books, and ask where they find things to read. I'll admit, I haven't accomplished this here, but I had lots of fellow reading friends back in Virginia, and was introduced to many of my favorite books and authors through them.

7. Here I'm going to recommend something that isn't typical of my world of books in any way. First of all, it's on the internet, and secondly, it involves eBooks (in other words, files disguised as books). However, is one of my favorite websites. It offers "copies" of upcoming releases available through publishers for you to review. They have a great selection and I'm always reading something that I received through them.

Sound familiar?

Guess what this description refers to...

There is a simple farm boy who lives with his uncle, because his father was supposedly killed, and his mother is dead. He has a normal, happy life until he finds a mysterious object. A princess in trouble leaves something behind for him to discover. Confused, he consults an old, wise man who is his friend. He comes back to his farm to find that it has been set on fire, and his uncle is now dead. He leaves with an old man who is his friend, and discovers that the old man has hidden, amazing abilities. The old man gives him a very special weapon and trains him how to use it. They go on an adventurous journey and the boy learns to fly and fight. He finds the princess who had left him a message, and befriends her.
He meets another young man whom he really dislikes at first, but gradually they become friends. The mysterious old man who taught him how to be a warrior is tragically killed. He must defeat the evil villain - who turns out to actually be his father of someone in the group.

No, it isn't Star Wars, it's Eragon!

Review: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

Title: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Author: Thornton Wilder
Genre: Literary
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: 1927
Pages: 160

Rating - 7 out of 10

In 1714 Lima, Peru, a bridge breaks, and five people crossing it at the time fall to their deaths. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk just seconds away from being on the bridge himself, witnesses the event in horror, and begins to ask questions that no one can answer. Why did he arrive a few moments later? Why did those five people die? Was it a coincidence, or did God himself choose that the bridge should break, and choose which people should die?

Brother Juniper begins an investigation into the backgrounds of each person, and the book is divided into parts with their stories. The first individual is María, Marquesa de Montemayor, a woman whose passionate love for her daughter eventually drives her away as she seeks independence. María writes essay-like, eloquent letters to her daughter, in which Wilder's simplistically delicate prose became a bit heavier, a bit more ornate, to fit the voice of his character.
Also traveling with her is a servant girl, perhaps an attempted replacement for her daughter.

The second part is about Esteban, whose story involved his twin and a secret invented language, all fractured when one of them falls in love. It was a dramatic story made completely believable.

Lastly is the story of Pio and Jamie. Pio, a well traveled man with an eclectic past, takes a little girl singing in a coffee shop under his wing, and over the years, she develops under his guidance into a beautiful, famed actress. Pio watches her ascent and descent, and one day persuades her to let him teach her son, Jamie, as he taught her. They leave for Lima and are on the bridge when it falls.

The way that Wilder gives us glimpses into these character's lives, in a short story sort of writing style, was lovely. He chronicles both commonplace and extraordinary events, and with each twist, we see their stories heading steadily toward the bridge where they will die. I hadn't been expecting Wilder to remind me so strongly of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but the types of stories that he told were very similar.

I don't normally say this, but I liked the quiet spirituality of this book. Rather than blindly refuse to ask questions of God, Brother Juniper devotes himself to doing so. He never seems to actually question his faith, but rather asks questions about it, seeking understanding. He approaches things philosophically and inquisitively.

Following the September 11th attacks, Tony Blair read the last sentences of this book in New York:

"...But soon we will die, and all memories of those five will have left earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love. The only survival, the only meaning."

This little book was subtle, insightful, and pretty. Few books can searchingly approach the topic of death in a such a meaningful way, but this one did.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Review: The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot

Title: The Waste Land and Other Poems
Author: T.S. Eliot
Genre: Poetry
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Published: 1922 (The Waste Land)

Rating - 10 out of 10

T.S. Eliot is a true master with words. His style of dark, depressing prose, gorgeous description, veiled hidden meanings shrouded in mystery, and sharply satiric wit is awing.
While some of my favorite poets have earned my respect for their pretty, delicate writing, T.S. Eliot twists blackness, madness, and desperation into shining beacons of lyrical beauty.
I also love how Eliot so frequently references other literary characters, especially Shakespeare. He also shows echoes of Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Marlowe, Emerson, the Bible, Arthurian Legend, Classical Greek, Shelley, Chopin, and others. These reflected acknowledgments to his heroes influence his writing deeply, and make it seem far more literary and relevant.
The satiric elements are clear and intelligent. I admired his short poem The Hippopotamus, in which he compared the animal to the Roman Catholic Church. Hilarious, biting, and clever. But of course, of course, the true gem in this collection of epics is The Waste Land itself.
One of my favorite poets and thinkers of all time.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

 Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy / Literary
Publisher: Bloomsbury
First Published: September 8, 2004
Pages: 864

Rating - 9 out of 10

How to write a review of a book so expansive, so epic, and so complex as "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell?" I have been putting it off, and while I am not entirely sure that I'll be able to do it justice, I have so very many thoughts on it that it simply wouldn't be right to neglect reviewing it altogether.

First of all, the storyline. In an alternate 1800's England, magic was once an integral part of battle, politics, and royalty, but died out hundreds of years ago. Now, the only people who care about such things any longer are men who study magic but never actually perform any. That is, until an eccentric, hermit-like man named Mr. Norrell comes along. Formerly known only as a man with a large library, Norrell is thrust into the public eye when he performs a public bit of magic in a Yorkshire cathedral. His hopes are to become a political figure and help fight the Napoleonic Wars with his spells, but instead, he is viewed more as a curiosity to London society.
When a man's beautiful young fiancee unexpectedly passes away, Norrell is called upon for help. Norrell agrees, and raises her from death with the help of a fairy. Fairies practiced magic alongside humans hundreds of years ago, but they were never trusted, and have not reappeared in the land for hundreds of years. Norrell himself views the race as treacherous and dangerous, and yet, he secretly agrees to the fairy man's terms in return for Lady Pole's life.
In another part of the country, a younger man named Jonathan Strange has a random encounter with Vinculus, a fraudulent street magician with a massively important secret.
The event leads Strange to move to London and seek out Mr. Norrell, establishing his place as the second magician in England. Norrell takes Strange on as his pupil, and at first, the relationship between them is a grudging friendship.
Strange's role in the public eye is quite different from his tutor's, and as he is younger, far more personable, and irresistibly stylish, he inevitably gains more popularity than Norrell could ever have managed.
Strange becomes caught up in the Napoleonic Wars, aiding the army and actually going into battle with the soldiers and scheming with the generals.
During the years he is away, back in London the fairy who helped Norrell lurks over Lady Pole's life, constructing a dark, murky, and eerily enchanting world of dances and balls that he uses to suck in unsuspecting mortals.
When Jonathan does return to London, he finds his relationship with Norrell changed forever, as their magical ethics, ideas, and practices have drifted too far apart to exist alongside each other.
As they battle with each other in the form of books, newspaper printings, and slights, Jonathan's own wife is unknowingly becoming involved with the perilous fairy world that her friend Lady Pole is already enslaved to.
Mrs. Strange isn't the only one spiraling into darkness, however: Jonathan's open-minded approach to new types of magic is leading him deeper and deeper into blacker and blacker spells.
Norrell is perhaps the only one who realizes the seriousness of his former pupil's situation, and is perhaps the only one capable of coming to his aid, despite the fact that the two magicians of England are locked in a war against each other.

As long as the above paragraphs are, they can only encompass the merest sliver of what this massive book is truly about. JS & MN could easily have been drawn out into a long series of ten books or more, or at the least a trilogy or quartet.
I absolutely loved the complexity of this book. It is like a well structured, weaving and winding maze. There are far, far too many corridors, deceptive tunnels, twisting back streets, and prominent passages to possibly keep them all going in your mind at once.
There are many, many characters - it may be advisable to keep track of them by noting their names on a card and referring back to it as needed - but every one of them have their part to play in the story, and no one is added unnecessarily.
While I am aware that the very noticeable complexity of this huge novel may drive some readers crazy, I embraced this aspect of it joyously.
Clarke has created an entirely new world that is woven seamlessly with actual history. While most authors set up the scenery and then work on (hopefully) realistic characters and events, Clarke takes this idea a few levels further. Indeed, I believe that my idea of a vivid setting will now always be forever changed, as Clarke has certainly raised the bar here.
Like Tolkien, Clarke has invented an entire world, complete with culture, history, lore, rumors, customs, fads, politics, historical figures, and back stories.
Many of these points are told in her footnotes at the bottom of many of the pages, which may give a mere sentence of explanation or go on for pages and pages, giving you entire stories about people, places, or events in a news reporter, unbiased and factual manner.
I cannot express how much I loved these footnotes. They may have even elevated my rating an entire star. Whenever I saw one at the bottom of an upcoming page, I could hardly wait to read it.
Everyone in this book has a story. Minor characters that are not mentioned very many times still manage to be deep vignettes that you wonder about. If Clarke wrote a separate book on every single minor character, I do believe that every single one of them would be fascinating, even if they all related only events that already happened in "JS & MN."
The result of such finely detailed imagining is a world that Clarke ingrains within every page of this masterpiece. You sink into her world, and even after you finish the last page, you still look at the real world a bit differently after such a vivid immersion.

The characters are all exceedingly well done, even if they are a bit distanced. Readers must be aware that Clarke's writing style isn't one that gives you a thought-by-thought description of individual's minds. Her style of writing is closer to Jane Austen than to J.K. Rowling.

Mr. Gilbert Norrell, who takes over most of the first half of the story, is not exactly a lovable character that you wish existed in real life. In fact, I would say that it is far more likely that you will take a disliking to Mr. Norrell, perhaps even a rather strong disliking.
He is stuffy, arrogant, and prudish, and believes himself to be The (yes, with a capital T) end and beginning of magical knowledge. His ideas are law, in his own mind, and anyone who contradicts them is immediately dismissed as an insufferable imbecile. Though he eventually agrees to tutor Strange in magic, he is still unwilling to fully impart limitless knowledge, shown most through his refusal of admitting Jonathan into his library. It is only toward the end of the book that Norrell at last offers to give Jonathan a free pass to his books, and then, only as a bribe.
Norrell buys every single magical book in the entire country, and in other countries as well. When there is an auction of five or so magical manuscripts, Norrell rushes to buy them all, at any cost, and he is famous for buying out entire stores that are attempting to sell spell books.
He wants no one else in the entire world to have access to books on magic, even bringing politics and laws into this unofficial ban. See page 360.
This obsessive and shockingly assumptive aspect of Mr. Norrell reminded me of how the church did not allow commoners to read the Bible in medieval times.

Our second magician, Jonathan Strange, is far more likable, though he may in fact be less 'good' than his rival.
From the very first time that we meet him, he reveals himself to be an impressionable man, which may perhaps hint that he isn't quite as strong as he ought to be. In his meeting with Vinculus, he is told that he is meant to be a magician. From that moment onward, he is. Yes, yes, it was fate and all that... But really, now.
Jonathan has a much more personable nature, which results in his popularity in London. Originally, it was Norrell's greatest wish that his magic be involved with politics and war, and while it is Norrell who starts off the trend, it is Strange who actually travels alongside the army, helps draw up battle strategies, and battles the French face to face.
Though we know that he is a talented magician, we are also well aware that Strange is inexperienced, and there are quite a few near disasters. In many instances (speaking to dead enemy spies, creating a water-man to put out a fire, etc) his spells are helpful at the time but result in more long-term negativity.
Jonathan is more boyish and relateable than Norrell, and I think it is pretty near inevitable that most readers will side with him.
Even as he slips into the darker realms of magic, we sympathize with him. I wanted to plunge into the darkness with him and drag him out, as his descent was horrifying to witness. It was gradual, so that one day, everything is fine, and then a few hundred pages later, we realize that our beloved character has become almost... evil. What has happened to him?

There are other characters that fascinated me, but to list them all would simply take up far too much room, and this is already a very long review.
Norrell's devoted servant Childermass was one of my favorites. He very much reminded me of a Dickens character. Page 49, when he is first described in detail, contains a few insightful paragraphs about him. Childermass could, in fact, be viewed as the true second magician of England. He reveals toward the end of the book that he has known spells and magic for years. After all, he is Norrell's closest confidante, and it likely was impossible for him not to. Always in the shadows, Childermass provides a strong backbone to the more public figures of his master and Strange, and much relies on him, no matter how little his acknowledged.
Lady Pole is a Gothic, eerily beautiful character. She is child-like, and despite her acidic bitterness toward the world around her, a certain innocence pervades her every action, and her story was extremely sad. If Norrell had not raised her from the dead, it would probably have been the better for her.

Clarke's approach to magic in this story was also extremely interesting. I wanted to take just a little peek into some of Norrell's books of magic, to see what secrets they held.
The magic is approached as a very literary, philosophical, scientific, almost theological thing.
There are no waving wands or silly sounding spells here. The magic is, like everything else here, complex.
Every spell has a history and a consequence, and a back-story.
And no matter how much of an expert Norrell professes to be, the truth is that neither magician truly understands the magic completely.
Norrell does his best to banish the Raven King (the most famous magician of all time, and former king of England) from modern magic, while Strange reminds everyone that it was the Raven King who practically invented magic. Without him, would there be any magic at all?
A sense of confusion exists through-out the story, as two men do their best to master forces that are far beyond what a single human can handle on his own.
The fairies seem to have a better grip on magic, and yet they twist it to their own ends. The fairies found here are no pretty Tinkerbells. They are dangerously intelligent, deceptive, and darkly evil creatures that are best avoided (as we certainly see quite soon in the story). Perhaps, the reader may think to himself, it isn't the fairies who twist magic into darkness, but the magic that twists the fairies into ethereal, ruined beings.

I absolutely loved this book, and I spent more time with it than I have with any other book in a long while. Though I am a fast reader, I slowed down my speed considerably as I went through this one. It just seemed right - this is a book to be savored.
I rarely ever re-read books. Even my 5 star books are hardly ever revisited. Perhaps the only books I have ever read more than once (besides childhood books from when I was very young) are Tolkien.
However, I have a suspicion that I'll be coming back to Clarke, and I also have a feeling that I will appreciate and enjoy this classic even more the second time around. That's just the type of work that this is.

I have wished a few times that I could find an author who wrote new, modern books in the style of the classics.Well, I have found her.
Though, I may not have many other books to choose from for quite some time, because she took ten years on JS & MN.
Clarke's writing style is magnificently classic, and I couldn't believe how close she sounded to Jane Austen.

Though it is certainly not for every reader, I cannot think of a single flaw in this epic story. I loved every detail here, and this is truly a masterpiece.
I hope that this review inspires you to read this very impressive volume. It is a book to be appreciated and revered, and hopefully in 100 years time, this book will still have well-earned place on many shelves.

Brava, Susanna Clarke. I am beyond impressed.