bloodygranuaile: (gashlycrumb clara)
Another museum weekend; another batch of books procured from museum gift shops. I have a problem, maybe.
 
After visiting several historical sights in Lexington this Saturday, Mom and I popped over to Concord to check out Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott and her family lived for twenty years. In addition to being shamed from beyond the grave for my own lack of creative output, the time at Orchard House reminded me that, while I've read most of Alcott's books for children, the only bit of her adult writing that I've read is A Long Fatal Love Chase, about a woman who marries the devil. (It's an excellent book.) So I picked up a copy of Hospital Sketches, which she'd written during her short and ill-fated time serving as a nurse in the Civil War, and I read it that afternoon. (It's very short.)
 
The first thing I really liked about my copy of Hospital Sketches is that it seems to be a facsimile edition of a very early printing, with the blocky old-fashioned text of a printing press and some slightly batty spacing and punctuation. These things amuse me much more than they probably ought.
 
The second thing I really liked about the book is that, thought it is mostly autobiographical and written in the first person, Alcott gives the viewpoint character's name as "Tribulation Periwinkle," which about the most perfect parody old-school New England name you can come up with. She is variously referred to by other characters as "Old Trib," "Nurse Trib," "Nurse P.," and other charming variants on the charming pseudonym.
 
Alcott's skill with observational humor, and especially her comic accounts of the absurdities and small frustrations of getting anything done properly in this mad old world, means that Hospital Sketches is a very comic little book in tone, although the subject matter is mostly about young people dying of horrible wounds as Nurse Trib overworks herself right into a bout of typhoid pneumonia. The first sketch details her travels down to DC from Massachusetts, and it contains all the things you want in a comic travelogue, such as amusingly mean descriptions of her fellow-travelers, some morbid fantasizing about all the ways traveling on public transit can go horribly wrong, and at least one adventure in getting embarrassingly lost. This last article takes place when she's trying to figure out how to get her free ticket to get from Boston to DC and involves her running around all over downtown Boston, which I personally enjoyed reading about as a resident of that badly planned and opaquely regulated little city.
 
The rest of the sketches are about her time at a facility she calls Hurly-burly House or the Hurly-burly Hotel, a chaotic, badly managed place where it seems like a miracle anyone actually got better at, especially with medicine being what it was in the 1860s. There's a lot of religious and patriotic beatification of various soldiers who die dreadfully, which could easily have been corny, especially considering the tone of arch social satire in so much of the rest of the book, but which do come off as quite touching, probably because Alcott's very earnest about what a tragic waste of human life it is to send a bunch of young people off to get blown up, no matter how glorious or necessary the cause.
 
The cause for the Union army in the case of the Civil War was certainly about as necessary as it gets, being rivaled in moral high ground only by the fight against the Nazis in World War II; however, the 1860s were still the 1860s, and it shows. The Alcott family were diehard abolitionists, and not in the "people ought to be as nice to their slaves as they are to their pets" way (honestly, some anti-slavery literature is mindboggling regressive). But all the terms for people of color that were the polite terms back in 1860 are not the polite terms anymore (the impolite terms are still impolite, only even more so), and the bits where Trib Models Interacting With Black People Nicely For The Benefit Of Readers are well-intentioned but really quite cringey from the vantage point of 150 years later. Fortunately, these bits are short, since the book is short and so all the bits are short.
 
The last sketch (except for a postscript) is an account of Nurse Periwinkle coming down with typhoid pneumonia; this bit is really the opposite of dated, and will ring true to the experience of anyone who has fallen deliriously sick, especially anyone who has fallen deliriously sick in the middle of a work shift. This last sketch also provides a more detailed account of the nurses' quarters, which makes living in a freshman dorm sound clean and orderly.
 
All in all, it's as delightful a look into the hell of Civil War-era medical care as you're going to find, and it's about as readable as contemporary accounts of the subject are going to be, so I definitely recommend it to anyone else who's interested in Alcott, even if you're mostly familiar with her as a children's writer.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Today in "books I was supposed to read for a book club but I didn't make it to book club," I just finished The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Sparks.
The first thing I noticed about this book is that it is pretty short, coming in at 175 pages. A lot of 20th-century lit is pretty short, I think, though I'm not sure why. There is probably research on it somewhere.
The last book I read was also short mid-20th-century women's literature, though a very different genre, but it was still interesting to see what struck me as stylistic similarities, although I guess it is just general mid-century writing that I'm responding to. There are few other similarities. Jackson was American and Sparks was British. Jackson wrote creepy gothic/horror and Spark's book is sort of everyday realism/slice of life, with a slightly comic touch.
The story takes place in 1945, in a boardinghouse in London called the May of Teck Club, for the titular impoverished-but-not-destitute women under thirty. The book has a very strong sense of time and place, with the war and rationing and all that sort of thing shaping everyone's everyday lives to a large degree; at the same time, much of it was very familiar to me as a broke young lady under thirty myself, and one who has lived in shared housing for the past ten years. Some of it is embarrassingly similar to things I see today in detail, such as the party with a bunch of hip young intellectuals drinking beer out of jam jars even though there's no shortage of real cups, and other bits are more painfully familiar in essence even if the details are different, like how freaking irritatingly faux-deep all the oversexed poetic young intellectual dudes are, and the poor young lady who works in publishing staying up late in her room doing freelance work to make ends meet while trying to emotionally subsist off of the vague air of glamour she gets from her peers for working in the "world of books." Shit never changes, does it.
The vignettes about the May of Teck's inhabitants are threaded together with a framing device that is a series of phone calls between the various girls, several years later, passing around the news that the central insufferable young intellectual dude of 1945 has just died in an uprising in Haiti, where he had gone as a missionary. The girl who worked in publishing has grown up to be a gossip columnist, so she is the one mostly trying to spread the news and collect information for an article.
The girls who are featured most often in the vignettes are Jane, the one who works for a shady publisher; Selina, a very beautiful girl with multiple lovers, including the intellectual dude, who she meets by climbing out the bathroom window to sleep with on the roof; and Joanna, who teaches elocution, apparently during every waking minute. There are another half-dozen or so girls who we know by name and with varying degrees of characterization, but Jane, Selina, and Joanna are the most important. At first it seems as if the book doesn't have too much in the way of plot, being mostly a series of darkly witty observations about the follies of young minds that take themselves very seriously, but it does all lead up to a rather explosive ending.
I should probably check out some of Muriel Sparks' other writing; it seems like the sort of thing I really ought to have read in college but didn't. It also makes me want beer in a jam jar, but if I went and poured myself one I'd probably just feel pretentious.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So Andrea decided to reread The Haunting of Hill House for Halloween and suggested on Twitter that this was a cool thing that all the cool kids were doing, rereading The Haunting of Hill House, because clearly it's a fun book that you want to read more than once, so I figured I should be cool too and read it for the first time, especially since I read We Have Always Lived In the Castle for the first time a few years ago and I liked that one.

The Haunting of Hill House is by Shirley Jackson (Ms. Jackson if you're nasty), author of the very famous short story The Lottery and the person the Shirley Jackson Award is given in honor of at Readercon every year. Both The Lottery and We Have Always Lived In the Castle were deeply creepy, but they still did not prepare me for the creepiness of The Haunting of Hill House, which, as you can probably guess from the title, is a haunted house story, and I am highly susceptible to haunted house stories anyway for basically the same reasons that I love wacky old houses, which is that I am an overly sensitive dork.

Even by haunted house story standards, this one is creepy because, while there is definitely something otherworldly living in Hill House, this seems to be the result of the core problem that the house itself is simply fundamentally, unreservedly evil, and has been from the moment it was built, even before it was finished being built. Its very architecture is apparently designed to psychologically torment anyone who looks at it, let alone anyone who spends time in there. It is weirdly imbued with all the psychological unhealthiness of the morbid weirdo who commissioned the thing, and it is dark and all the angles are wrong and it is buried deep in the feet of the hills and none of the doors ever stay open.

Our main characters are four people who go to stay in the house for a three-month study of paranormal phenomena; two of them are women who have experienced paranormal phenomena in the past. Our narrator is a timid, dreamy, somewhat internally spiteful oddity named Eleanor, who is thirty-two years old and reads like she’s eighteen, and I say this as someone who is both younger than thirty-two and continually feels like she’s still a teenager. Eleanor’s sense of stunted, prolonged adultulescence isn’t formed by widespread economic collapse like mine and my peers’ is; it’s instead due largely to having spent most of her adult life shut away caring for her sick and not-just-internally spiteful mother, plus an overbearing sister who treats her like a child. Eleanor basically has to steal the car and run away to get to Hill House, which is totally how functional adult families work.

When Eleanor finally arrives at Hill House, and meets Theodora and Luke and Dr. Montague, and the creepy-ass housekeeper and his creepy-ass wife, things go one of three ways in a series of exquisitely paced and plotted scenes: Sometimes, Hill House is just disorienting and unpleasant, with little supernatural activity and a lot of tilting minor annoyances, like things maybe moving just outside your peripheral vision, or just being oppressively dank and Victorian. Other times, the company and good food and occasional bout of nice weather mean that they actually are having quite a nice time, exploring the brook in the backyard or drinking brandy and playing parlor games, all shut up together in the parlor where they can safely keep an eye on each other. And sometimes, there are the manifestations, which are when shit gets really creepy: writing on the walls that calls out Eleanor by name, blood all over Theo’s room, banging noises and creepy laughter in the hallway. It’s all done in a way that is fantastically, exquisitely chilling, and even now thinking about it I have had to pull my legs to the side where I can see them because they felt unsafe all the way under the desk in the dark, and the heat vent is gently blowing on a wall hanging and the noise is making me jump out of my skin with every taptaptap of the wooden dowel on the wall, a noise that usually becomes quite invisible to me by the end of the first day of having the heat on.

But Hill House has plans for Eleanor, and they are not to scare her into leaving; they are much more sinister than that. And seeing Eleanor’s thought process change and morph as she goes totally Yellow Wallpaper on us is even more terrifying than any of the manifestations Hill House throws at her, except perhaps the one where she’s holding Theo’s hand in the dark while there’s a voice manifesting in the next room and then when the lights go on Theo’s too far away for it to have been her hand. Why that one scared the shit out of me the most I’m not sure; probably because it’s more deceptive than the more cinematic hauntings like the white, white trees against the black, black sky. In unrelated news, I’m going to bug the fuck out next time I try to wear my black shirt with the white tree on it, aren’t I.

Apologies to our beautiful shy cat Amaranth who tried to come in and meow at me in a rare display of friendliness while I was writing this review; I didn’t mean to jump out of my skin and shriek at you, it was just very bad timing. She’s probably going to hide from me for like a month now.

Anyway, I feel like this book certainly has earned its reputation as the scariest ghost story ever told, and I will not be reading it again anytime soon, although Andrea has threatened me with the movie. I don’t know if I’m strong enough.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Hey, I managed to get a hold of this book before the book club it's for actually met! AND I read it!

L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between is an English countryside drama, not as moor-y as Thomas Hardy—more of a Jane Austen-y setting but less comedic. It follows the childlike musings and wanderings of 12-year-old public school boy Leo Colston as he spends his summer holiday at the grand old house of his classmate Marcus. Leo gets recruited as "postman" to run messages between various adult members of the estate, most notably running top-secret messages between Marcus' beautiful older sister Marian and a local farmer named Ted. Leo, with a child's love of secrets and drama and no idea what the hell is actually going on, at first enjoys the responsibility of his secret missions, but obviously everything eventually goes to hell. You can probably guess what the messages were actually about.

Considering the inside jacket flap gave away 90% of the plot, the book was still engaging and held some surprises, which I guess is what makes it Literature. The framing device is simple but executed well—old Leo finds his diary from that year; the diary has the signs of the Zodiac on it and is responsible for two motifs that carry throughout the story: Leo's obsession with the Zodiac, and his reputation—among both himself and his schoolmates—as a magician. There is also some excellent use of foreshadowing regarding the belladonna plant in the outhouse. I had guessed someone would be literally poisoned, but I suppose that would have been too melodramatic for this story.

As a coming-of-age/loss of innocence story it's about as awkward as it gets, and really paints a vivid picture of how simultaneously cynical and sheltered well-bred Victorian children were (the main story takes place in the summer of 1900, which young Leo thinks is very significant. As someone who was about 12 when 2000 happened, I can relate). Leo and his schoolmates bully the everloving shit out of each other, to the point that Leo is not only pleased with himself, but the whole frickin' school is pleased with him when it is believed he gave two other boys concussion (via black magic rather than pummelling them, but still). On the other hand, witnessing what the letters were really about gave him a monthslong illness complete with amnesia.

Leo is likable enough as a protagonist but only because he is 12 so you can't really blame him for being ignorant or making dumb choices; that is, after all, what the whole "innocence" theme really is about. And the long detailed looks into the thought processes of a clueless, slightly romantically-minded 12-year-old should be fairly relatable to anyone who was at all of a self-conscious or romantic turn of mind when they were young and clueless themselves.

The book is not long, but it does, like many Victorian novels, take something of a leisurely approach to pacing.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)

Sometimes, I’m just not up for reading anything of substance or anything that’s going to be too distractingly interesting. The beginning of this month was one of those times, so I picked up P. G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves, a classic in the “utter fluff” genre. This one’s  a novel rather than a series of short stories, although it is a pretty short novel.

Following an eventful trip to Cannes with his Aunt Dahlia and Cousin Angela, Upperclass Twit of the Year Bertie Wooster finds himself entangled in a handful of other people’s plotlines, each of which he manages to bungle fabulously. Bertie is in the middle of a spat with Jeeves about a white mess jacket, so Bertie is determined to solve all his friends’ problems himself, rather than letting Jeeves do all the scheming, to prove that he isn’t dumber than his valet and to show Jeeves who’s boss. Predictably, Bertie is actually a lot dumber than his valet, and Jeeves is functionally the boss.

Plotline number one concerns one Gussie Fink-Nottle, a school friend of Bertie’s who is also a hopeless nerd. Usually quite antisocial and retiring and unable to talk about anything except newts, Gussie has fallen dreadfully in love with Madeline Bassett, a friend of Cousin Angela’s from their trip to Cannes. Gussie is too nervous to bring himself to ask Miss Bassett to marry him.

Plotline number two concerns Cousin Angela, who has broken off her engagement with Bertie’s Drone Club buddy Tuppy Glossop, because Tuppy didn’t believe that a shark had tried to eat Angela in Cannes and kept mansplaining to her how that wasn’t possible and it must have been a flatfish or something. Angela—quite rightly, in my opinion—broke off the engagement and has since been flatly refusing to say a single civil word to Tuppy until he apologizes for not believing about the shark, which is the one thing Tuppy can’t seem to bring himself to do (Tuppy is a bit of an idiot).

Plotlines three and four involve Aunt Dahlia, who lost a lot of money at baccarat in Cannes and now need to figure out how to wheedle another sum out of her husband to print her ladies’ magazines, and who needs somebody to hand out prizes at the local grammar school at the end of the month.

Bertie’s initial plans involve sending Gussie Fink-Nottle to Aunt Dahlia’s house to give out the prizes, in the hopes that living in the same adorable English country manor for weeks will prompt Gussie to speak to Miss Bassett, but instead the whole thing devolves into a complex farce that sort of reminds me of the sillier everyone’s-stuck-in-one-house English murder mysteries, except that the only murder-related mystery is when Aunt Dahlia will actually murder Bertie. People all get engaged to the wrong other people; Aunt Dahlia’s wonderful French cook Anatole quits (this is a BIG DEAL); Gussie gets into more extremely embarrassing scrapes (impressive since he kicked the book off by dressing up in scarlet tights and showing up at a total stranger’s house instead of getting to the fancy-dress party); there is much emotional eating of disgusting-sounding British food.

But as entertaining as all these convoluted plots are, the real high point of this book is its voice, which, the book being a first-person narrative where the person is Bertie Wooster, is that of a high-spirited, eminently dumb, fashionable young man who is hip to all the kickin'est slang in use in England in 1920/30/40-whatever. Bertie as a narrator is in his own way wonderfully observant, his own way being that which is superficially detailed and full of vivid figurative language what would be poetic if it could be taken seriously but instead is jokes. Regardless of circumstance, Bertie thinks and speaks in the what-ho-cheerio register of a certain time period of British public schoolboy, and the closest thing to intellectual stimulation this flufftastic book provides is trying to puzzle out some of the less obvious slang terms. (They're usually pretty easy to gather from context, especially if you're decently familiar with English upper-class-twittery.) There's a running gag where Bertie always refers to his aunt as being "an aunt" rather than a person, woman, being, etc., like aunts are an entirely separate species from any other human demographic--so you get sentences like "She looked like an aunt who has just bitten into a bad oyster" instead of, say, "She looked like she'd just..." or "She looked like someone who had just..." I think I liked that one because it was a bit more understated than most of the other, more blatantly farcical gags. And while it's hard to be as witty as Wodehouse on the spot in terms of actually coming up with hilarious observations, the basic register is easy enough to ape and also quite a lot of fun to engage in! I recommend trying it next time you text someone.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In preparation for our trip to France last year, I raided Project Gutenberg for a load of classic French lit and, in case I wanted something that required less brain, a bunch of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster books (these were on the particular recommendation of a friend who was also part of the France party). Sadly, my Kindle proceeded to die on that trip, leaving me stranded on a trans-Atlantic flight with nothing but the tiny tourist's book from the Comptoire des Catacombs. Now, armed with a new Kindle and plumb out of middle-grade white girl fantasy books, I finally got around to cracking the cover—metaphorically speaking—of Wodehouse's My Man Jeeves short story collection.
I have two minor quibbles about this book; mainly, about half the stories are about Jeeves and Wooster, and another two or three are narrated by another, extremely similar sort of character named Reggie something-or-other, who has a different (and less funny) valet. Secondly, despite only containing about six short stories, quite a number of jokes, tropes, and plot devices have already appeared multiple times, leading me to suspect that the Jeeves and Wooster canon as a whole might be even more repetitive than I had been already warned about. But since they're all quite a load of fun, I don't mind all that much.
As someone with a strong interest in dialect and slang, one of my favorite things about this compendium is the style. Bertie Wooster (and his apparent doppleganger Reggie wossname) is a particular type of guy—chappie, rather—and his diction is quite strongly rooted in his class, ethnicity, time period, and general fatheadedness. Since he is an upper-class English twit from somewhere around the Edwardian era, and the book is written in a chatty first-person POV, the whole book is infused with a slightly drunk, plummy tone that causes you to read it in an accent as thick as Marmite on toast. It's full of "chappies" and "old boys" and "rummys" and expressions like "full of beans" and all sorts of other Edwardian British slang that is just really ridiculously delightful to read. I could really go for a good excuse to read it out loud.
The plots, so far, usually involve Bertie (or Reggie) and/or one of their equally hapless buddies getting into some sort of ridiculous scrape, often involving either engagement or interruption in the flow of money from a rich relative or both, and Jeeves pulling out some brilliant scheme to fix the situation, which appears to go badly off-course at least once, but which further brilliance manages to coax into shape and work out unexpectedly well for everybody. Sometimes, there is a tense subplot in which Bertie does something sartorially offensive to Jeeves, such as wearing a pink tie or growing a moustache, in an attempt to assert his independence, but at the end he always defers to Jeeves' judgment, if only out of gratitude for his help in getting all the "chumps" out of their sticky situation.
I'm quite looking forward to reading the other Jeeves and Wooster books I nabbed from Project Gutenberg, and I may also have to check out the Jeeves and Wooster TV show, if it's still on Netflix.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
It’s October, and October means it’s time for me to read at least one classic vampire novel. I bought Varney the Vampire last year, but it’s intimidatingly ginormous and I don’t have enough spare time right now, plus I don’t want to lug the stupid thing around on the T. So instead I read J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella Carmilla, since it is short and I had it on Kindle.

The main thing I knew about Carmilla is that it involves lesbian vampires, or at least as lesbian a vampire as you could get away with publishing in the 1870s. Which actually turned out to be pretty blatantly lesbian, unless of course you are our terribly sheltered and Victorian narratrix, who has never head of lesbians and wonders if maybe Carmilla is actually a dude in disguise like in some of the old romances she’s read, but then decides she’s not manly enough to be a dude in disguise, and is just TERRIBLY BAFFLED.

In many ways, Carmilla follows the form of the traditional Victorian vampire Gothic, taking place in a secluded old schloss somewhere in Eastern Europe. The main character is Laura, the daughter of a British expat, who lives in the aforementioned giant crumbling castle with her aforementioned father, her old nursemaid, her less-old governess, and a handful of servants who are essentially invisible. Their nearest neighbor is an old German expat who lives in the next schloss twenty miles away.

The story begins when the German neighbor’s niece, who was supposed to come visit so that Laura could have a friend her own age, has to cancel her visit because she is unexpectedly dead. However, a carriage accident on the road brings Laura another visitor instead, a sickly but beautiful young woman named Carmilla. Carmilla’s ailment is ill-defined and mysterious but appears to be some sort of chronic fatigue thing, as Carmilla sleeps for much of the day and is locked in her room all night. In traditional folklore-vampire fashion, peasants start dying, one every couple of weeks, and Laura begins having weird dreams and developing a languor similar to Carmilla’s. Much of the book is dedicated to the odd friendship that grows between Carmilla and Laura, in which Laura is mostly delighted to have a friend her own age and partially irritated with Carmilla’s refusal to talk about her life and some of her weird behavior, including her bouts of rapturous affection, which are pretty gay even by Victorian friendship standards. (Victorians had much more affectionate friendships than modern people usually do.)

The plot comes to a head with the visit of the grieving German neighbor, who thinks he has figured out what killed his niece—it was a mysterious lovely guest she’d been hosting. Then there is the usual telling of long backstories and the fun vampire-killing stuff, much as you would expect, all of which is still a great deal of fun for all that it’s been mimicked too many times to be at all surprising.

One thing I particularly liked about this story is that it’s in epistolary form, but there’s little to indicate who the letters are to, except that they are written several years afterwards, and that Laura is writing to some sort of lady who lives in a city, and so feels the need to apologize and explain a lot about what it’s like living in deep seclusion in a castle in the woods. Since I am a lady who lives in a city, this was pretty cool, as it sounded like Laura was addressing me particularly rather than like I was snooping on somebody’s letters.

One thing I liked somewhat less was that the ebook I picked up was an “illustrated” version, but instead of contemporary illustrations (which were cool; I have seen them elsewhere), they were modern photos of random Goth ladies—very pretty pictures, but that didn’t really seem to fit. But I suppose you get what you pay for when you decide to get the free ebook versions of public-domain classics.

Overall, though, Carmilla was a fun, quick read, and why the hell aren’t there more lesbian vampires? Or lady vampires at all, really—there were a lot of gay vampires back when people still cared about Anne Rice and obviously there have recently been quite a lot of broody heterosexual dude vampires, but the ladies always seem to be secondary characters. More female main vampires, please! Or perhaps I’m just reading the wrong books, in which case, will somebody point me toward the right ones?
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
At this year’s Readercon, the Memorial Guest of Honor is the amazing Mary Shelley—author of Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, daughter of noted freethinker William Godwin and the awesome early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of famed Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and apparently half-auntie to at least one illegitimate child of Lord Byron, although probably so was everyone.

I’ve already read Frankenstein on multiple occasions (and written a number of papers on GOD VICTOR YOU’RE SUCH AN IDIOT), read Daisy Hay’s biography of her and her whole clique, Young Romantics, and read this Kate Beaton comic:


So it was a bit of a challenge to seek out NEW things to read about Mary Shelley in order to prepare for the convention.

Enter stage right, The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece by Roseanne Montillo, shelved unassumingly on the bargain nonfiction table at Brookline Booksmith, waiting for a morbid nerd such as myself to stumble upon it so it could tempt us out of our book-buying hiatus. (I bought three other nonfiction books about dead people that day, too. Le sigh.) I started reading the book in the middle of a thunderstorm because that is clearly the only way to do the thing properly.

The book itself is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster of research, being about numerous distinctly different things, although they all do relate back to Frankenstein sooner or later. All the things are pretty interesting, though. A big chunk of it is biography of Mary Shelley and her whole nutty Romantic set, including her half-sister Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, Dr. Polidori, some English dude who was really into boats, and some other friend that Percy Shelley was trying to get Mary to sleep with so he could feel less bad about the fact that he was banging Claire Clairmont. Guys, these people might have been literary geniuses but they were so fucked up.

Other sections of the book, which I was less familiar with going into, include: the history and habitat of the actual Frankenstein family in Germany. I HAD NO IDEA THERE WAS AN ACTUAL FRANKENSTEIN FAMILY. I wonder if they still exist or if they’ve changed their name (or are all like “FRANKEN-SHTEEN!” about it). There is a bunch of stuff about body-snatching and resurrection men, the murder aspects of which I was fairly familiar with (although I did learn a new nursery rhyme about Burke and Hare!). There is also a hell of a lot more stuff than I’d ever heard before about the actual SCIENCE that all this grave-robbing, body-snatching, and prostitute-murdering was in service of, although if you want some quick funny treatments of the subjects I recommend the Sawbones podcast episodes on “Reanimation” and “Corpse Theft and the Resurrection Men.” We meet such infamous Italians as Luigi Galvani, from whom we get the word “galvanism” (which used to refer specifically to the science of using electricity to make dead things twitch, which was SUPER FUNNY the one or two times the book also used it in its modern sense of “motivated”); his nephew Giovanni Aldini, who did further experiments in galvanism in England, Alessandro Volta, who invented the voltaic battery and did some impressive debunking of galvanist theory; and Humphry Davy, who was high on nitrous oxide. We also travel back in time a bit and meet several interesting alchemists, who are what we had before they got their process down enough to be scientists.

My biggest gripe with this book is that it’s rather poorly edited. The subjects jump around a lot, which would be OK on its own, probably. But there are weird issues with the line editing and confusing word choices, and there are some small bits (a paragraph here, a tangent there) that could really have been scrapped or severely condensed (we don’t need a two-page recap of the plot of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; might as well just go reread the poem). Whoever wrote the captions to the (totally awesome) images appeared to have just dashed them out without proofreading them or deciding if they needed to be in sentence form or not. This bums me out, because the book is well-researched and about awesome things and essentially well-written.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
This. THIS is why I joined my classics book club. BIG FAT OVERWRITTEN NINETEENTH-CENTURY FRENCH NOVELS. I love them but they’re also work enough that I rarely read them if somebody doesn’t make me. My book club doesn’t actually read that many of the really big fat long ones, due to time constraints, but it looks like once every summer we give people a head’s up a few meetings in advance if they want to take up a big psychological doorstopper.

This summer’s brick français was Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, a vaguely satirical novel about a judgy and ambitious young peasant who seeks to obtain worldly success by deliberately adopting all the hypocrisies of Restoration-era France. This mostly seems to involve becoming a priest even though he’s not religious, sleeping with his employers’ female family members, and keeping up an internal running commentary about how much everybody sucks. He is a worshipfully committed Bonapartist, a fact which he constantly has to hide from his rich employers and the rich ladies he has seduced and all their rich friends, while he wows them with his obedient pious little abbé act. His main actual talent lies in memorizing things, closely followed by lying.

The style of this book is peculiarly modern at times and a billiondy trillion percent pure nineteenth century in others. The classical novel habit of describing everybody and everything as “beautiful” or “charming” instead of telling you what it actually bloody looks like is still in full effect, as is the focus on foreheads as a part of the body that one pays a lot of attention to in order to determine how attractive somebody is (foreheads: the cheekbones of the 1800s). People speak and think in long convoluted formal sentences, most of the time, full of oh!s and ah!s and going into “transports”, which can mean anything from ranting to having an orgasm, apparently. Other bits are just… well, snarky is really the only word for it. Stendhal himself is the snarkiest character, frequently breaking the fourth wall to remind us not to get offended at how stupid the characters are because they’re fictional, or to tell us about a fight he had with his publisher about whether or not he should include the actual political discussion going on at the supar sekrit political meeting Julien attends, or just to inform us about how nice he’s being by skipping stuff. The politics we do get are a bit murky and confusing since I am not all that up on my 1830s French political history, but I think I managed to figure out that the Ultras are the monarchical right-wing party and the Liberals are the sort of squishy, conceptually-kinda-leftist-but-still-pretty-elitist bourgeois party—basically, the Liberals are liberal the way the New York Times is liberal? And then I’m not sure how Bonapartism fits into it except that the ultras totally hate it. Even without really understanding the politics, though, the way Stendhal uses political bickering to characterize his petty provincials and smug Parisians is hugely effective, so that even at the distance of nearly two hundred years the reader recognizes That Guy in his various flavors of Oh My God, That Guy, I Hate That Guy-ness.

So, the simple version of the plot is that Julien, a peasant who is the son of a carpenter but who has been graciously taught to read by some old guy, goes to work as the tutor to the children of M. de Renal, the mayor, and has an affair with his wife, Madame de Renal, and then he goes to seminary and has kind of a bad time but is a great student, so then he goes to work as the secretary for a Parisian blue blood named M. de la Mole, and has an affair with his daughter, Mathilde de la Mole. Madame de Renal is basically the only character in the book who’s not a scheming terrible person; Mathilde de la Mole is chronically bored and idealizes medieval heroism in a completely ghoulish, bonkers way that I sort of sympathize with even though it’s also really kind of terrible. Pretty much everyone else is just plain stupid, except for some of the priests. Then everything suddenly gets really action-packed and weird at the end and there is shooting and a trial and everybody dies tragically and I fucking love French novels.

There really is quite a lot to unpack in this novel, despite its seeming silliness and melodrama and generalized griping, and I’m probably going to save the serious unpacking for book club. Oh, how I wish I were still in school and could write a paper on this! There must be some fabulous crit of it out there. Alas, I am not in school and I don’t have the time to find ten secondary sources and craft a six-to-ten page paper by Sunday. But there is a lot of stuff about ambition and opportunity and class, and of the absurdity of Restoration society, and of all the stupid and convoluted feelings and thoughts and drives that aren’t love but that manage to drive people to having affairs anyway. There’s also the accomplishment of having us sympathize with—if not always root for—a thoroughly cranky and ambitious hero who is deliberately hypocritical and often stupid. Julien Sorel is definitely a Special Snowflake Asshole Genius Antihero sort of character, but luckily his author doesn’t take him too seriously and doesn’t really expect us to either, so it’s less obnoxious than that type usually is even today (and specifically I mean that the text isn’t obnoxious; the character is definitely obnoxious).

This book also contains most of the points brought up in The Toast’s excellent Every French Novel Ever post, although not necessarily in the same order.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
There is a bit of a long story about me deciding to reread Cold Comfort Farm right now but the short version involves me excitedly fobbing it off on a friend and then realizing that I don’t remember it half as well as the movie version, since I’d only read it once but I’ve seen the movie a good ten times. This is in part because Cold Comfort Farm is one of the very few stories where the movie adaptation is actually quite as good as the book, largely due to its stellar cast. But it’s an odd thing to have that opinion and yet be unable to remember enough about the book to remember why one has that opinion, so I went to reread it to see if it still stands.

The answer is yes. Cold Comfort Farm, the book, is delightfully silly. It is a bit overwritten at times, mostly on purpose.  The genre it is making fun of has a history of also being dreadfully overwritten, even while a number of them have gotten to be Classic Works of Literature, basically all the ones by Thomas Hardy. The genre in question is nineteenth-century-ish earthy English moor romances, of which I would never recommend reading a single one that isn’t written by Thomas Hardy, and even then, only read one every couple of years.

The basic storyline is such: Miss Flora Poste, a well-educated, neat, and thoroughly modern twenty-year-old, finds herself orphaned and with only a hundred pounds a year. Rather than work, which she suspects she wouldn’t be very good at, Flora decides to live off her relatives, of which she has rather a lot. She winds up living with her aunt Ada Doom’s family, the Starkadders, at a dreary mess of a farm named Cold Comfort, in the town of Howling, Sussex, where everyone and everything has ludicrously dramatic names. They all have what novelists of the time called “rich emotional lives,” which, to Flora, looks very much the same thing as being a bit stupid and unhealthily fixated on very specific ways of being miserable. Flora takes it upon herself to “tidy up,” poking and suggesting and cleaning her relatives into less dysfunctional lifestyles. For a number of them this means getting away from Cold Comfort Farm, an activity which has been strictly forbidden by Aunt Ada Doom, reclusive matriarch of the clan, who had seen something narsty in the woodshed when she was two and pretends to be mad.

While my modern copy-editor’s eye really wants to excise about fifteen or twenty percent of the descriptions for being utterly unnecessary (and I have a high tolerance for worldbuilding and backstory and infodumps and general minute detail), the rest of it is all absurd in the best possible way, featuring painstakingly dramatic use of eye-dialect, some highly judgmental but pretty astute inner dialogue by Flora, and excellently weaponized manners. The secondary characters have a tendency to be distinctly Types, but this is absolutely on purpose, and very effective for comedy. Also, sadly, some Types are not mere tropes invented by novelists, but tend to exist in real life, and it is quite satisfying seeing Flora fob off Mr. Mybug, the epitome of That Weirdly Sexist Pseudo-Intellectual Guy Whose Only Interest In Life Is Sex But He Keeps Trying To Dress It Up In Fancy Language In Order To Make It Sound Like There’s Some Appreciable Difference Between Him And A Mayfly And You Should Pay Attention To Him. (And they really do always insist in falling in love with one and it really is MOST TRYING. Ahem.)

Flora Poste is a literary character very dear to my heart, especially since I have admitted to myself that I am definitely fussy and concerned about doing things Properly, for all that I style myself all subcultural and shit. Her monologue on being bad at lacrosse is one of the single passages in literature that I have most identified with, ever. I aspire to ever be a quarter as socially ept as she is, and her powers of managing people are positively inspiring.

Despite minor flaws with lack of editing, this book gets A+ thumbs up all the stars would read again, and I recommend it and the movie to all human persons with any sense of humor.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Back in January, my Classics book club read La Princesse de Cleves, by Madame de La Fayette. I did not read it at the time, since the meeting was the same weekend as Arisia. Instead, I began reading it in Paris, on the train to Versailles. Sadly, my Kindle died during the plane ride home, so I had to take a break from reading it until I could buy Kyle’s old one off him (thanks, Kyle!). I have finally finished the damn thing.

La Princesse de Cleves (or, in English, The Princess of Cleves) is one of the great French romantic novels, and a very early specimen thereof, having been first published in 1678. It is one of the first, if not arguably the first, psychological novels, most of the page space being dedicated to recording the various characters’ thoughts and emotions, and occasionally dialogue. There is fairly little action, although people do die a lot, mostly of vague illnesses that seem to be brought on by strong emotions.

The story takes place about a hundred years before its publication, in the 1550s, during the reign of Henri II. The French royal court is still based squarely in Paris, at the Louvre. Historical figures such as Diana de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici, and Mary Stuart  run around, although it is frequently difficult to figure this out, since everybody is referred to only by their titles at all times, which is doubly confusing when people’s titles change (at one point, the king dies, and is succeeded by his son, the king). I couldn’t tell you what the hell Catherine de Medici actually does in this book because I can’t remember if she’s the Queen, the other Queen, or the Queen-Dauphin.

As a result… I can’t tell you what our protagonist’s name is. She starts off as the Mademoiselle de Chartres, a superlatively beautiful and sweet and witty young noblewoman in a France predictably full of beautiful sweet witty young noblewomen. (At least Madame de La Fayette doesn’t pull a Tolkien on us and individually introduce every female character as “the most beautiful and with the best hair” like that’s supposed to differentiate them from the others; she just introduces The Court as being a place full of fabulous attractive people, straight up.) Mademoiselle de Chartres catches the attention of pretty much everybody, but the person whose attention she catches first, and who is the only one who pursues her, is the Prince de Cleves. Since her mother had only brought the virginal innocent sixteen-year-old(!) Mademoiselle to the den of vice that (apparently) was the Court in order to make her an advantageous marriage, and since Mademoiselle has no experience fancying people at all and is a little vague on what it’s supposed to be like anyway, but like the Prince perfectly well enough as a friend and a person, the Prince’s suit is rewarded and Mademoiselle de Chartres becomes Madame de Cleves.

The Prince, who is passionately in love with his wife, keeps trying to Win Her Heart, and Madame keeps being like “Sorry? I like you just fine, honey, I’m sorry it’s not more… whatever you’re on about” but other than that things are great until the Duc de Nemours returns from wherever he’d been faffing about, probably something to do with the Italian war. The Duc de Nemours is apparently the ideal man, from  French romantic perspective—in addition to being rich and titled and intelligent and brave and dashing and honored in battle, he is so terribly handsome that everybody falls in love with him, and so terribly kindhearted that he can’t help being kind and sweet and attentive to anybody that wants his attention, and is fond of pretty much everybody, and doesn’t have any macho douchy attitudes about women, instead genuinely liking their company and conversation, with the attendant result that he’s happily a giant slut. There’s enough Duc de Nemours for everybody! At least, there is until he meets his best friend the Prince de Cleves’ new wife.

Predictably, the Duc falls passionately in love with the Princess, and the Princess falls passionately in love with the Duc, which confuses her dreadfully and also makes her feel bad because she’s already married to a kind honorable man who is her very dear friend and who she genuinely holds in quite high esteem. The Duc keeps trying to find ways to see and speak to the Princesse without being obvious about it or compromising her virtue; the Princesse alternates between trying to find ways to see the Duc without being obvious either and deciding to stay away from him in order to get over him. Eventually she confessed to her husband that she’s in love with someone else and feels terrible about it and wants to stay away from Court, but she won’t tell him who it is. The Duc, who is HIDING IN THE GARDEN EAVESDROPPING BECAUSE WHAT THE HELL (apparently in the days before Facebook you had to actually stalk your unrequited crush in order to torture yourself mooning unproductively after their lovely visage, at least until you can steal a copy of their portrait, which you will actually do if you’re the Duc de Nemours), overhears this confession, and is so joyous (and so certain it’s about him) that he runs and wibbles about it to one of his friends, who tells somebody else because nobody in the French court can keep a secret (except Madame de Tournon, who has a subplot that starts with her death), and eventually it gets back to the Prince and Princess, each of whom thinks the other told the Duc. Then there’s some crazy business with a letter that was addressed to somebody other than the Duc but the other dude is trying to get the Duc to pretend it’s his so he doesn’t get into trouble with the Queen or the other Queen or the Queen-Dauphin, I don’t even know. ANYWAY. A bunch of stuff happens, the King dies in a joust, the Duc de Nemours blows off the opportunity to maybe marry Queen Elizabeth of England, one of the French ladies gives the world’s most fucking hilarious summary of the sage of Henry the Eighth and his wives I have ever heard in my life, and a lot of people fake being ill, mostly the Princesse de Cleves.

At some point, the Prince sends his manservant or somebody to follow the Duc de Nemours, and the dude follows the Duc right into the Prince’s garden outside Paris, where the Princess is shut up in an attempt to avoid Court and all its gallantries and nonsense, and to avoid the Duc. While in actuality the Duc is just hangin’ around in the gardens spying on Madame de Cleves like a creeper, the poor woobie Prince thinks that the Duc and the Princesse are sleeping together, and gets so jealous that he falls deathly ill. Madame de Cleves is distraught by this and is very attentive and stuff and eventually they actually talk out what the Prince thinks is going on and what was actually going on, but it’s too late, and the Prince dies. Of jealousy,  apparently. The Princesse is still passionately in love with the Duc de Nemours, but also basically figures that he killed her husband by skulking about in the garden and causing jealousy, instead of keeping the fuck away from her like she’d been trying to keep the fuck away from him, so when the Duc shows up all declaring his love and proposing marriage, she declares her love back but declines the marriage, and moves out to the Pyrenees and joins a convent until she dies. THE END. No happy ending. Just guilt and virtue and overthinking the shit out of everything. The Princesse seriously needed some Captain Awkward in her life. The Duc probably did, too. And the Prince. And… the entire French court, really.
Predictably,  I loved this novel. I always say I’m not super big on love stories, but I make an exception when the psychology is really good (i.e. spelled out every step from first principles for idiots like me who won’t understand it otherwise) and when there’s a shit-ton of drama and intrigue and ridiculousness. This book hits ALL those buttons. Much of it is genuinely moving, and a great psychological portrait of someone who has no idea what’s going on and no idea what to do except to refuse to get involved. It’s also just straight up wacky as hell. The Princess spends like half the book faking being ill and half of what’s left actually being ill, people talk in long involved paragraphs to the point where the conversations seem less like conversations and more like taking turns making speeches,  random scandals pop up and have to be discussed in detail, except that everyone uses vague euphemistic terms for everything so it’s impossible to tell who’s having sex and who’s just making mutual cow eyes at each other. Madame de La Fayette’s method for describing people is the opposite of the modern laundry list of physical characteristics, nobody is ever given a hair or eye color or even so much as a height; they’re just comely and graceful and well-formed and other glittering generalities that tell you absolutely fuck-nothing about what anyone looks like except that you’d totally find them attractive, I promise. Also she tells us a billion times that the Duc de Nemours is a brilliant conversationalist but any time when she actually transcribes his words (like, in quotation marks and that sort of thing) it’s really not all that impressive.

My biggest beef with this book is some weird stuff about the translations; the titles are translated or not translated really haphazardly, so sometimes our protagonist is Madame de Cleves and sometimes the Princesse de Cleves and sometimes the Princess of Cleves, her husband is usually the Prince of Cleves but her love interest is usually the Duc (or Duke) de Nemours, and once I noticed it became really jarring. And there’s a lot of use of “you was,” which is just dated for English; I don’t care what the French was there, you done translated it wrong. This is supposed to be Court French, not gamin argot.

Other than the translation issues, it was glorious. It was everything I love about overwritten old novels. And everything I love about over-everything ancien regime France. I recommend it highly.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
My classics book club decided to dip into one of the genre classics for its meeting last weekend, which I did not attend, because I hadn’t finished the book. This is dumb, because we read Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, which is less than 300 pages long.

It didn’t take me so long to finish Farewell, My Lovely because it was bad! Indeed, it was very good, despite the viewpoint character being an asshole. Farewell, My Lovely is told from the point of view of “hard-boiled” (i.e., casually sexist and racist, alcoholic, kind of an asshole but in a quietly grouchy way that makes you like him better than you should) private detective Philip Marlowe, a man who attracts getting concussions like honey attracts flies.

Oddly, Marlowe first gets enmeshed in plot not due to his actual occupation as a private investigator, but just from hanging around on the street somewhere, where he witnesses a gigantic dude named Malloy, on his first day out of prison after an eight-year stint for bank robbery, wander in a bar looking for his ex-girlfriend and promptly shoot the manager upon not finding her there. The police are cranky about Marlowe doing anything except be a witness, which he initially chafes at, but he is distracted in a timely fashion by being hired to be a bodyguard for a rich playboy named Lindsay Marriott, who is buying some jewels back from the thieves who took them in a stickup. Marlowe thinks something is weird but he doesn’t figure out what it is until he goes to the meeting and gets a concussion, and wakes up to find Marriott murdered.

From then on there is a lot of detective-ing and smoking of cigarettes and having people get mad at him, plus a few more concussions, and some dangerous attractive women, because of course. A lot of it is in really old-school gruff forties detective talk; most of the time I could figure out what they were talking about but about ten percent of it all I heard was “I heard you like noir, so I put some noir in your noir so you could noir while you noir” and then I had a mental image of Humphrey Bogart in a greatcoat and fedora.


You’re not giving me one more damn concussion until Lauren Bacall shows up, okey?

The book is written in first person POV, and the style is really interesting to me—mostly it trundles along in very stark and serviceable prose, sometimes almost police-report-y in its mundanity—“The man did thing X and then thing Y and then thing Z”—and then every now and again a darkly hilarious quip or beautifully apt metaphor suddenly pops up and socks you in the face. It’s a master class in understated, gruff sass.

For all the getting concussed and people dying, this isn’t really a very action-packed book. The middle is a bit, most notably featuring an exciting escape from being drugged and fraudulently imprisoned in a possibly-illegal private rehab clinic, but most of it is Marlowe and various cops and the aforementioned dangerous beautiful women standing around theorizing gruffly and drinking a lot, or questioning old ladies and drinking a lot, or philosophizing about bugs and drinking a lot.

With Marlowe trying to do two things in one novel—the first thing being to look for Malloy’s ex-girlfriend Velma while the cops look for Mallow, and the other is to figure out who killed Lindsay Marriott and why—it is somewhat inevitable that the two cases would wind up being connected, so I was not particularly shocked when this happened, but I admit to finding it quite satisfying and suspenseful figuring out how they were connected. It’s not at all obvious, but it doesn’t rely on hiding important stuff Marlowe knows from the reader until the reveal, either. So I feel it was a structurally sound mystery story.

I will admit that at no point did I get super excited about this book, even though I usually love noiry stuff with gangs and murders and mysteries and drinks, but this may have been a result of me having to read it in tiny drips and drabs of time around a massively increased work schedule and all the prep I needed to do before going to Paris tomorrow (eeeee!). It’s a sharp quiet dark little book about a sharp quiet dark little PI, and I’m glad I read it, although I wish I’d been able to give it the time I suspect it deserves.

 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Today in the wonderful world of “Mark Reads My Entire Childhood,” somebody commissioned Mark to read the first chapter of Patricia C. Wrede’s classic work of fairy tale deconstruction and metahumor, Dealing with Dragons. This first chapter is entitled In Which Cimorene Refuses to be Proper and has a Conversation with a Frog. I have eerily distinct memories of the first time I ever heard this, on audiobook in Pam’s car when we were in second grade. It turned out to be one of those Changed My Life moments because I have literally never stopped being wildly in love with this book.

It turns out that I am not the only person following Mark as he reads Tamora Pierce’s all-the-things and Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted that turned out to be a big The Enchanted Forest Chronicles fan, and next thing I knew, the entire book was commissioned. Mark Reads community, you are truly magical.

So, Dealing with Dragons, the first book in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles quartet, follows the adventures of Princess Cimorene, youngest princess of Linderwall, as she runs away to volunteer to be princess for a dragon in order to escape an arranged marriage to a golden-haired twit named Prince Therandil. Princess Cimorene is one of my favorite protagonists of all time, a rebellious, “improper” princess who doesn’t fall into that sort of “I’m so feisty and sassy, I do what I want!” kind of ham-handed rebelliousness that people who don’t understand feminism or characterization always seem to write when they’re assigned to write Strong Female Characters. Dealing with Dragons has strong elements of a comedy of manners (I’ve heard it called a fantasy of manners) and Cimorene’s characterization more resembles a Jane Austen heroine or my forever homegirl Flora Poste from Cold Comfort Farm. Cimorene has a strong practical streak and tries to keep things sensible and tidy; she’s domestically competent and the thing she hates about princessing is how little useful work it involves, not that it’s coded feminine—for Cimorene, cooking, cleaning, organizing, and other domestic and administrative work is just as much an escape from the uselessness of princessing as fencing, Latin, and magic lessons.

Cimorene is hired by a dry-witted, thoroughly awesome lady dragon named Kazul, and has a grand old time getting the caves in order, sorting treasure, organizing the dragon’s library, and all sorts of cool stuff. Obstacles soon crop up, though—first in the form of a bunch of irritating knights who try to rescue her, then her even more irritating fiancé Therandil who tries to rescue her and will not be dissuaded, then some creepy, condescending wizards who keep sneaking around and seem to be up to something. Also, Cimorene and her fellow princess Alianora are trying to perform a fire-proofing spell, and they can’t seem to find powdered hen’s teeth anywhere.

With the help of Morwen, a no-nonsense witch who lives in the Enchanted Forest, and the Stone Prince, a not-entirely-twitty adventurer burdened with expectations of greatness due to a prophecy (and additionally burdened with having turned into stone), Cimorene and Alianora discover, and manage to foil, a dastardly plot by the wizards and one particularly nasty dragon to seize the role of King of the Dragons. I’m obviously not going to tell you how, but it’s one of those satisfying endings that neatly incorporates elements from a gamut of amusing little subplots and episodes that happened earlier in the book, so everything fits together quite neatly and tidily, which is what you want in a fairy tale.

After nearly twenty years you’d have thought I’d be able to come up with coherent words for talking about how awesome I think this book is, but mostly I just squee and flail a lot. (Morwen would think me very silly.) It takes a good sharp look at a lot of the more silly, sexist, and harmful fairy tale tropes, but it does it with charm and humor and in a simple way that’s easy for small children to grasp. It has all the feel of a delightful fluffy merengue of a Disney movie but there’s some real Valuable Life Lessons, like what fairy tales were invented to teach, buried in there.

Mark is now on to Searching for Dragons, the sequel, so expect a review flailing about how awesome King Mendanbar is sometime in the next few weeks.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was the latest selection for my Classics book club; I only got around to actually reading the text yesterday, but nearly the first thing I did when I saw the book listed was run to Netflix and watch the 1990 movie production with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. I’d seen it once before, many years ago, and I think it was better this time around, possibly because I was somewhat prepared for how utterly weird it was and possibly just because I am older and better able to understand it.

The play, once I got around to reading it, was, as one would expect, pretty much the same as the movie, except that my favorite line was missing. Favorite line in question is the bit where Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz mentions Hamlet’s claim that he “knows a hawk from a handbag” and Tim-Roth-as-Guildenstern looks annoyed and goes “a HANDSAW” and Gary Oldmancrantz is like “…a handsaw.”

If you’re not familiar with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, it’s an absurdist/existentialist tragicomedy sort of thing that follows two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet’s boyhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. SPOILER: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die! Some bits of the text are lifted straight from Hamlet as the two men appear in their proper scenes; when they are not in their on-scene parts from Hamlet, they speak in a more modern style—in prose rather than iambic pentameter—and argue themselves in circles about things like what is death and what are they doing here anyway, and why have they spun a coin and had it come down heads eighty or ninety times in a row. One of the ongoing conceits in the play is the two men seem to have very little identity, as they are unable to remember any of their lives before they are summoned to Elsinore, and also they (and everyone else) keep mixing up which of them is Rosencrantz and which of them is Guildenstern. They do have somewhat distinct personalities, though, with Guildenstern being shrewd, philosophical, and somewhat sharp-tempered, and Rosencrantz being usually more mild and cheerful but also frequently pretty dumb. Like so:

GUIL: And syllogism: One, he has never known anything like it. Two: he has never known anything  to write home about. Three, it's nothing to write home about... Home... What's the first thing you remember?
ROS: Oh, let's see... The first thing that comes into my head, you mean?
GUIL: No - the first thing you remember.
ROS: Ah. (Pause.) No, it's no good, it's gone. It was a long time ago.
GUIL (patient but edged): You don't get my meaning. What is the first thing after all the things you've forgotten?
ROS: Oh. I see. (Pause.) I've forgotten the question.

The whole play is basically like that, except for the bit where they’re on a boat, which is even more like that.

One of the big themes in this play is plays, as not only is it a play about a play, it is also a play that features bits of the other play, including the famous play-within-a-play, and then it’s turtles plays all the way down. The first other people that the two protagonists meet on their way to Elsinore are the troupe of Players that later put on the play-within-a-play, who talk a lot of self-aggrandizing but funny criticism about the state of theater and what it is that they do. The lead Player is egregiously annoying, but it seems fitting, particularly when contrasted against the earnest but constantly bewildered Guil and Ros. The lead Player’s belligerent love of theatrical death sets up a lot of discussion about the reality of death and death in art, although I do think that the best death-related musing in the play is the one between R and G about death possibly or not-possibly being a boat.

There are also many, many, many puns, and allusions to all sorts of famous-things-that-can-be-alluded-to, and double entendres, and other sorts of wordplay. I think this play bears repeated readings (or viewings), if only to untangle all of the jokes.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So, for my Classics books club, I admit I somewhat rushed my way through Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory. As the book club meeting was tonight and I picked it up only last Sunday, I was afraid I wouldn’t finish it on time. Luckily, it’s a relatively short book, only 300 pages (which I suppose is not particularly short; it’s just not particularly long either), and it was much quicker reading than a lot of the other classics we’ve read (I was afraid it would be as dense as Proust, but it’s really, really not).

Speak, Memory mostly covers the earlier parts of Nabokov’s life, up through his time at Trinity College in Cambridge, although it tends to jump around a lot chronologically, and the last chapter is mostly about his son. Nabokov talks a lot about memory itself, the way it works and doesn’t work, the things he remembers and misremembers and forgets, and the way in which he tends to lose his grip on his memories of things when he uses them in his novels—the memory becomes one of his characters’ memories rather than his own. It’s all very self-aware and thought-provoking, and you can see why this is the guy who’s famous for writing with unreliable narrators.

While Nabokov paints poignant and frequently comic sketches about a whole bunch of aspects of his childhood, including portraits of all this tutors and governesses, and the houses where he lived, and his ancestors and family members, the bits I liked best involved his hobbies of catching butterflies and writing poetry. The butterfly stuff I liked largely because it was fabulously written, and it provides a common thread that is worked into many of the subsequent stories, and because the portrayal of young Vladimir with this awesome scientific hobby that none of the adults understand and who are all various flavors of patronizing about it is just really sad.

The poetry bits I liked because they are HOLY GOD SO SPOT ON about the trials and tribulations of writing shitty adolescent poetry. He writes about falling into using disorganized clichés instead of the images in one’s own head because of certain words rhyming, and about how derivative one can be even when one works really hard on every line, and about how pretty much everyone but his mom completely savaged his poetry. I laughed at loud when he said he wrote a poem about “a mistress I had never lost, never loved, and never met, but whom I was entirely prepared to meet, love, and lose”—which I think is derivative adolescent poetry in a nutshell, really.

I admit to rather liking the bits where he complains about how his classmates at Cambridge, while usually very well-educated, liberal, and sensible men, were all complete idiots about Russia, and seemed to have no interest in rectifying their ignorance, and how this drove college-aged Nabokov entirely up a wall. Nabokov, as a character, seems to be a rather judgy and asocial dude, but this is okay, as we are reading a memoir, not hanging out with him at a party, and he’s really quite funny when complaining about people.

I’m afraid I’m rather talked out about this book as I just had a two-hour discussion on it, but I will leave you with one observation: After the text of the book ends, my edition has a one-page “About the Author” section. Does anyone else think this seems a bit stupid? I just read 300 pages about the author. The only information in the About the Author section not covered in the preceding 300 pages is his death, which could quite easily be presented as a single line at the end of the books saying “Vladimir Nabokov died in (place) on (date) of (cause).”
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
My classics book club decided to ease up a little after reading Proust, at least in terms of length. This means I have recently finished reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Eternal Husband, a novella of roughly 200 pages or so. I went with Constance Garnett’s translation since that was cheapest for Kindle.

This was my first experience with Russian literature outside of proofing a few short stories that cropped up in the Prentice Hall Literature anthologies. From this little exposure, I must say that, so far, Russian literature’s reputation for being gloomy and having lots of people dying seems fairly justified.

The Eternal Husband follows Alexei Ivanovitch Velchaninov, a middle-aged man who is struggling with a lawsuit about land that he refuses to leave alone for his lawyer to deal with, and some sort of existential crisis. Velchaninov is kind of a jerk. If he were alive today he would probably have a small cult following for being mean on the Internet.

Velchaninov's moping fit is interrupted one midnight by a knock on the door. His tipsy, nocturnal visitor is Pavel Pavlovitch Trusotsky, a man he had known several years ago when he was living out in the country somewhere. Trusotsky tells Velchaninov that his wife, Nadia had died. Turns out, Velchaninov had had a passionate year-long affair with Nadia back in the day, and now he isn't sure whether Trusotsky knows about it or not. The rest of the novella follows Velchaninov's awkward social dance as he tries to help his drunken acquaintance keep his shit together, and also to help out Nadia and Trusotsky's young daughter Liza, who was born at such a time that Velchaninov is pretty sure she's actually HIS daughter--but again, isn't sure if Trusotsky knows this or not. Velchaninov also gets awkwardly roped into wingmanning for Trusotsky in his attempts to woo a fifteen-year-old girl, the daughter of one of his friends, whose contempt for Trusotsky is obvious to absolutely everybody else.

The central question of "Does he or doesn't he know?" turns all these otherwise fairly mundane dramas of life into a high-tension mystery, and  Dostoevsky's masterfully specific dialogue, tight plotting, dry humor, and deliberate pacing make the work not just a good story that happens to be a little too short for a novel, but a really compact, powerful gem of a story--precisely what a novella ought to be.

It has also had the happy side effect of making me much less scared than I previously was about tackling a full classic Russian novel one of these days. Will I regret it? Stay tuned!
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I joined a book club and the first book we read was Swann's Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Here is the entirety of what I knew about Proust before reading this book:



I didn't even know there was something about madeleines.

Anyway, it turns out Proust is, in fact, pretty awesome! He's much funnier than I expected, largely because his characters are all idle wealthy people who have nothing to do except play absurd status games, and they are specifically nineteenth-century French idle wealthy people and the nineteenth-century French were some of the most batshit people ever. Proust is also very good at following the finer points of overthinking things, including the exact thought and emotional processes of talking oneself into and out of opinions. It's *embarrassingly* psychologically astute. My favorite bit is when the narrator is all like "I read all these awesome deep philosophical books and I wanted to be a writer! A writer of deep philosophical meaningful books! And so I tried to think of a properly philosophical subject for my great literary work, and... I got nothin'." Which is basically exactly how one occasionally goes about not getting ideas for books! Luckily for the narrator, one day he is riding a cart through the countryside and he sees some awesome picturesque steeples, and then he writes a descriptive passage about the steeples and it's pretty good, and the narrator "was so happy... as if I myself were a hen that had just laid an egg", which I think is a fabulous turn of phrase.

Anyway, Swann's Way  is split into three books. The first is Combray, which is the name of the country town the narrator grew up in, and it's essentially a bunch of recollections about his childhood, including his own thoughts and habits and feelings, but also a lot of great little sketches about the people around him--like his bedridden aunt Leonie, the judgy maidservant Francoise, his two other aunts who are so afraid of vulgarity that they never come right out and say anything directly and then nobody knows what they're talking about, his grandmother who likes going out in the rain, and a large collection of neighbors. The second book, Swann in Love, is the most like a regular story with a clear narrative arc, and it tells the story of Swann, the narrator's family friend, and his affair with a woman named Odette, who has a sketchy past and whom Swann doesn't actually seem to like very much or have much in common with but with whom he gets totally obsessed anyway. The third bit, Place-Names: The Name, tells a very short story about the narrator becoming the playmate of Swann's daughter Gilberte and developing an adorable crush on her, and which really does a fascinating job of chronicling all the circular thoughts one has when in the throes of a terrible crush, and particularly all the things that aren't normally very interesting but become SUPER IMPORTANT AND INTRIGUING when they get in the line of fire of crush-feelings.

I read this for a book club and we talked about it for about two hours but now I cannot remember all the things I had to say, or that other people said. Samuel Beckett had a lot to say about Proust, and we read some of it, and one thing he pointed out was that there was a LOT of talk about plants but almost no talk about animals (except chickens, which Beckett seems to have forgotten; there's quite a few references to chickens, namely that line about feeling like he'd laid an egg I already quoted, and there's a weird bit about the maidservant Francoise slaughtering chickens for dinner, where she gets all worked up about it and calls them "Vile creature!" while chopping their heads off). And there are indeed lots and lots of plants! Particularly hawthorns! There's an awesome bit where the narrator had been gotten all dressed up and carefully groomed to have a photograph taken, and then he went outside to hug all the hawthorn trees goodbye before going in to Paris, and messed up all his clothes and hair, and his mom basically thought he was nuts. (It is much more moving when Proust tells it.)

I may have to actually go read the next six books. (Help!)

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