**spoiler alert** "Buster had suggested fedoras and rumpled suits, unfiltered cigarettes, tie clips. Annie thought perhaps matching black suits and Lo**spoiler alert** "Buster had suggested fedoras and rumpled suits, unfiltered cigarettes, tie clips. Annie thought perhaps matching black suits and Lone Ranger masks,crushed-up amphetamines, manicured fingernails. Buster, it seemed, wanted to be a detective and Annie wanted to be a superhero. They finally agreed that they needed something that would not draw attention to them, understated but still uniform in some way. Buster donned a white dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up past his elbows, a pair of dark blue jeans, and black leather sneakers. Annie wore a white V-neck T-shirt, dark blue jeans, and black leather flats. On their wrists, they wore the kind of watches that scuba divers swear by, heavy and solid and waterproof, synchronized and precise. In their pockets, a heavy wad of cash, pens that were half the size of regular pens - for surreptitious note-taking - a handful of Red Hots to keep them sharp, and the address for Hobart Waxman, their best, their only, chance at finding their missing parents."
Caleb and Camille Fang have spent their life making art performed in a public sphere that takes people out of themselves. The art is in the act, in taking common people and shaking up their lives in some bizarre and strange new way. Whether it's a father on fire calmly walking through a mall cradling his infant son or their two children playing the leads in a school production of Romeo and Juliet to add additional meaning and a new dialogue to what Shakespeare wrote. Their children, Child A and Child B, Annie and Buster, have been integral to their success. But their children aren't grateful. Annie's movie career is unraveling and Buster's writing failed before it really had a chance to succeed. They both need to find a place to recover and lick their wounds. For some reason they decide to both go home. Their parents are glad of their return until they realize they aren't getting the band back together. This isn't some new performance, this is their children reaching out to them for the first time ever. So Caleb and Camille do what they think is natural. They disappear. But is it a new piece or did something really happen to them?
Wes Anderson captivated me in 1998 when I went to our local "art house" cinema at Westgate Mall and saw Rushmore. I remember after the movie my friend and I drove to several different stores in an attempt to find the soundtrack to the film which left an indelible impression on us. Two years later I fell even harder for The Royal Tenenbaums as I spent a late Sunday night watching the movie in a cold theater on little Christmas. Wes Anderson's storytelling and artistic sensibilities and aesthetic became a way of life for me. In fact my library is painted the same pink hue as the Tenenbaum residence. To find a book thought of as the spiritual successor to The Royal Tenenbaums and touted as the next big thing made me rush to the bookstore to pick up The Family Fang. As with many books I purchase it has spent some time languishing on my shelves waiting to be picked up.
This book had so much potential, and much like Child A and B just prior to their parent's disappearance, it was squandered and wasted. The book does one thing right, and that's parody the art world, everything else veers between schlocky predictability and trying too had to actually be Wes Anderson. It's like Wilson never even tries to find his own voice but is trying too hard to be everything other then what it is. And when he just apes Anderson, see the excerpt above that proves my point, it's a sad echo of true artistry. Also, I am not even going in depth on all the continuity errors that add to the half-baked nature of the book. But the fatal flaw in this book is that it is not a book for an empathetic person to read. I couldn't distance myself from the pain that Caleb and Camille inflicted on their children. I was unable to move past this to embrace the wry dark humor. In those last few pages I developed such anger towards the adult Fangs that I could not contain it. I literally had to set the book down and walk away for awhile. How could anyone be so cruel and callous?
The fault with the Fangs, Caleb and Camille, is that they are shallow and cold-hearted people. They have long believed that children ruin art and while you'd think this attitude changed with how they incorporated their children into their art, you'd be wrong. Their children are nothing more or less to them then living props. They are their possessions. Extra ironic because so many of their pieces were staged in malls, the home of those who worship consumerism and possessiveness. When Annie is born Caleb only sees her as the destruction of his career until he is able to turn her to his advantage with "A Christmas Carol: 1977." When one of their performances with an infant Buster is described wherein Caleb is on fire walking with Buster in his arms I couldn't help think of Brian Eno's song "Baby's On Fire." The lyrics I think are more then apt for this book:
"Photographers snip snap Take your time, she's only burning This kind of experience Is necessary for her learning"
The baby in that song is reduced to ash and Caleb and Camille are the idiots in the song who don't even see the damage they are doing to the baby, or in this case, their own offspring. And if they did I doubt they'd care. They never think of their children's emotions or well being, even willing to force incestuous situations in order to help their art. Then their children return to them broken and in need of help and what do they do? They leave them. Their children left their lives the day they decided that they didn't want to participate anymore so why help them? They just up and disappear. And to disappear in such a manner? It makes it even harder for Annie and Buster because they know it's a trick but their parents are too clever by half. The reveal at the end. That is where my anger stems from. To see what their parents never let them have, never gave them, to see everything is just art and their is no love there. Heartbreaking.
This emotional reveal would have had even more impact if the characters of Annie and Buster had been more then cookie cutter characters in the "present" scenes. They, quite literally, are just Child A and Child B, nothing more then simple simulacra of real children. You develop an affinity for Buster as the sad sack who really took the brunt of the performances as a child, but only within the context of the performance art. In the present he's very flat and one dimensional as a failed author. But nothing can compare to Annie. She's like a stereotypical failed actress. Lindsay Lohan at the beginning of her fall. Annie leaves her boyfriend, who is Eli Cash from The Royal Tenenbaums, she poses nude, sleeps with a few of the wrong sort of people and experiments with lesbianism before taking to drinking and going home. OK, there's nothing there that gives me depth or makes me care. Horrid parents with cardboard children, yeah, this is so a book I want to read again.
Yet for all the many wrongs this book inflicted on me I have to say Kevin Wilson knows how to parody the art world. I had to take two classes in undergrad that were entirely focused on modern and post modern artists. Performers from William Wegman to Chris Burden. I've never really been a fan of this type of art. There are those artists who fit within these categories who have actual talent, but by and large they are poseurs, much like my teacher for the class, who went in for shallow sensation and reveling in their own genius. Caleb and Camille Fang fit PERFECTLY into this group. Their work is exactly the type of sensation that would have been taught in this class and made my teacher drone on and on about their genius. If The Family Fang had stuck to these vignettes and was made more out of the performances then the dissolution of a family I think it could have been brilliant. This though isn't brilliant.
But the book did make me think more about post modern performance art. In it's way I think this book could be qualified as post modern, deconstructing the novel and rebuilding it in a way that doesn't work but comments on society. Back to performance art though. The type of "happenings" that the Fangs staged, especially the one where they shot their professor, couldn't survive in today's culture. These acts in a post 9-11 world would be viewed as too incendiary by the world at large. Yes, Caleb and Camille would love being labelled as terrorists, but the art itself, it just wouldn't work. They would be viewed as a threat and in this vigilant society I don't think they could ever get to the point of the art happening without being stopped. Perhaps that's the real reason they disappear. It's not that they can't do their art without their children, it's that the place in the world where they and their art fit no longer exists and they have become superfluous, much like this entire book.
Lily Hayes didn't know that deciding to do a semester abroad in Argentina would be the end of the life she knew. Lily thought it would take her out ofLily Hayes didn't know that deciding to do a semester abroad in Argentina would be the end of the life she knew. Lily thought it would take her out of her comfort zone, give her a greater view of the world. Instead she's in a prison cell accused of murdering her roommate Katy. As her family comes to her aid, the life Lily really lead in Buenos Aires starts to take shape. The drugs, the men, the conflicts with her host family and her roommate. Everything starts to take shape proving Lily's guilt, which the media devours like a hungry animal. DNA, timelines, secrets, lies, can Lily actually return to the life she had or will her life ever be tainted by what happened to Katy and that cartwheel she did while being interrogated?
When this book was drawn out of the hat at book club (yes, we do trust the caprice of fate for our next reading selection) I was actually intrigued. Despite being another book fictionalizing actual events, the second in a row for book club, I thought that this book could give me something I've been craving, closure. Cartwheel is based on the Amanda Knox trial. Loosely based. Though it should be noted, hitting all the important details of the case from bar owners to feces. Oddly in my family the Amanda Knox trial is a source of contention. Why would this be? Well, my father and I both strongly believe in Amanda's guilt. Everything I've heard and seen makes me certain of this fact. It doesn't mean this is true, this is what I believe to be true. My mother strongly disagrees with my father and I having such a blanket statement of her guilt. So anytime the subject comes up my mother gets exasperated with us for condemning this innocent young girl (innocent my ass is what I usually reply with.) Therefore, subject on contention.
I was hoping that Cartwheel would give me some kind of closure so that I could move on and get to a stage where I didn't feel the need to bring up the Knox case and keep the strife alive. Because dammit, she's guilty and if this book could give me this proof, even ersatz proof, then I could quite literally close the book on all this. But this is just what made me seethe with rage at Jennifer duBois. Life doesn't give us clear cut answers, that's why we turn to books. Life is easier in books. You have a question, you get an answer. Straight forward and easy, hence why many people would rather live in books. She had the chance to write a what-if answer, an ending. An ending that we will probably never get in real life and she blew it. There was no ending, there was no conclusion. To you, Jennifer duBois, I say fuck you.
Yet the ending, or lack thereof, isn't the only gripe I have with this book, not by a long shot. Having a book with multiple narrators is tricky. There has to be balance and variety to keep the book's forward momentum. A bad narrator is the kiss of death, the reader will just check right out of the book. Cartwheel suffers because the book is hard to get into because the narration of Lily's father is mind numbingly dull. Logistics about being there for Lily, money worries, lawyers blah blah blah. I don't care about police policies or the legal system, get to the murder, get to the juicy bits, don't drag the opening to breaking point so that the average reader will just toss the book aside. If I didn't have the hard and fast rule that I finish what I start, and I definitely finish what's for book club, well, this book would have been flung out a window shortly into starting it.
The only bearable narrator was Lily herself. She gave you the first person, though unreliable, narration that was needed. Seeing things through her eyes made the story temporarily work. Where the book really failed is that once the arrest happens we abandon Lily and her thoughts. She's just a person in a box. We get no insight, no revelations. The "ending" sneaks up on us and it's muddled and ill conceived and what really happened!?! We lose Lily's voice and then everything falls apart and there's no more pages. WTF!?! Really, just give us the whatever ending? It's like Jennifer duBois got to the end and threw up her hands and just gave up. Could she really not make up an ending? Isn't that what writers do? I invested time and energy in this book, I deserve closure!
In fact, here's how the book should have ended. Tie everything together and make it interesting. Eduardo the lawyer and his weird wife, make them no longer peripheral, make his crazy wife's return a ploy to distract him from his work because she's being paid to help the case for Lily. Just an idea, because, really, what other purpose do these two characters have otherwise? But what I think would have solved all my issues with wasted opportunities would have been if we had one final narrator at the end, and that narrator was Katy. To get the truth from her point of view, to have her speak from "beyond the grave" and tell us what really happened. Why can't writers just get it right sometimes? Because getting it wrong, well, it hurts us all.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been convicted of killing her lover and employer, Natan Ketilsson. She has been scheduled to be executed. Agnes is sent to an iAgnes Magnúsdóttir has been convicted of killing her lover and employer, Natan Ketilsson. She has been scheduled to be executed. Agnes is sent to an isolated farm at Kornsa, near where she grew up, to await her execution. The family of four living in the croft at Kornsa must allow Agnes into their lives for the duration because of the will of the District Commissioner, Björn Blöndal. Divided by prejudices, most the family doesn't trust the murderess, but over time, slowly, they do get to know Agnes, and she is far from what they expected. With the counsel of a local Reverend, Tóti, Agnes tells her story, knowing that nothing can stop her impending death.
Books based on actual events are tricky. My main problem with them is you know what's going to happen. Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last execution in Iceland. Therefore Agnes is going to die. No matter how much you love or hate her this will not change the fact that the end of her story is a fixed point, she can not live. As for her imagined life, in some regards I was at an advantage and in some regards I was at a disadvantage. I knew nothing about Agnes and the legend that has grown up around her seeing as I'm not familiar with Icelandic history or urban legends or even Iceland when I started this book. This gave me a clean slate. I could view her story with no preconceptions. Yet Hannah Kent was obviously out to change these preconceptions. So how could I fully understand what she was trying to do without being fully aware?
What I felt this book lacked was a coda that showed how maligned Agnes was in her time. Some historical context after the fact that would have shown us exactly what the preconceptions were that Hannah was working against in writing this book. The national museum still has the axe and the chopping block used in Agnes's execution on display. Is this because of it being the last capital punishment, or the triumph over evil, or to remind them of a wrong they did as a country? The problem of trying to find out the folklore surrounding Agnes now, the wanton witch, is that the web is populated with Hannah's story of setting things to right, or at least giving us an unbiased view. So while we won't know the truth, I'd at least like a glimpse into the mindset of the times.
Burial Rites does suffer because Hannah is a first time author. The book lacks a polish that would smooth over the rough patches and the literary tricks she pulls out of her bag. I think that literary tricks are the bane of first time writers. They go to school, learn all these concepts and narrative techniques, and then decide to use them all in their first endeavor as a writer. The key to writing a good book is to let the story tell you what it needs, not to shoehorn in things just to show you can do it. I know at least one of my fellow book club members would agree with me that Hannah's annoying preference for "Head-Hopping" is something that needed to be worked on to avoid the disjointed nature it brings to the narrative.
For those of you who don't know the term, or have never experienced this technique in writing, "Head-Hopping" is when an author switches the point-of-view character in a single scene. One second you're in Agnes's head, the next you're in Tóti's head, and on and on. While it gives you a more direct connection to the characters then omniscient narration, it can be confusing at times and feel contrived. But then again, I've never been a fan of literary tricks. Nothing has or even will annoy me more then in John Scalzi's Redshirts that his first, second, and third coda were written in first, second, and third person respectively. That's just a writer being indulgent. Seriously, ask yourself does it benefit the story? If the answer is no, it benefits my ego, then cut it.
Yet I was able to look beyond these initial flaws because underneath there was a fascinating story that transported me to another place and time. Plus, seriously, if you're feeling bad about your life, it's not as bad as it could be, and this novel is here to prove it. Though it was looking from Iceland to the greater world view of the time that staggered me. Iceland is a country above the tree line, the use of wood in buildings at this time is rare and used only for the wealthy or places of importance. The country is bleak and dark and filled with mud, lots and lots of mud. Houses are sod with sheep bladders as the membranous windows through which the little light sneaks in. Summer days are spent preparing for the long winter days to come when all you do is stay indoors and knit.
If someone was to tell you that this was 1830 you might be in shock, I know I was. At this time Jane Austen had already come and gone. Queen Victoria would be on the throne of England in only seven more years. Napoleon had already stirred up France, bugged off to Egypt, been incarcerated, escaped, and died. The Revolutionary War in America was almost fifty years prior! If we think of these times do we think of an advanced country like Iceland, a country where one in ten people have written a book, and think, mud huts filled with knitters? NO! This just blows my mind. To think of this greater world view through the eyes of this story and this time just astonishes me. Sure, I could tell you you should read Burial Rites it because it's like Icelandic Brontës, but in truth it is so much more amazing.
Patrick Bateman and his friends are the epitome of yuppiedom. Young, highly successful investment bankers, they wear the right designer labels, they aPatrick Bateman and his friends are the epitome of yuppiedom. Young, highly successful investment bankers, they wear the right designer labels, they are seen at the right restaurants, and they drink the right bottled water. Bateman could be any one of them, only he harbors something darker behind the veneer that is the true depth of those around him. He satisfies a violent blood lust killing women and men. They might have offended him, they might have merely looked at him the wrong way, or they might have a better business card. As Bateman fuels this dark need his desire to kill comes sooner and sooner. But with everyone living in their own hermetically sealed bubble who would even notice his crimes?
American Psycho is one of those books that everyone knows about. Like classics that people brag about reading, I'm not sure how many of those people have actually read this book. The bookseller at Barnes and Noble who checked me out and who has literally never said more then a few words to me ever (even more impressive when you think how often I go to the bookstore) got all gushy about this book and Bret Easton Ellis, but with the caveat that it is violent. He wasn't wrong. This book is not an easy read. The violence and culture of the time make it hard to swallow. Yet there's something about the underlying message lambasting our culture that calls to us and makes the book still relevant. Why else would there not only be a movie but a musical, which actually makes more sense then you'd think, and a contemporary television show about an older Bateman in the works? Because Patrick Bateman is the zeitgeist of the late 80s in New York, whose afterimage can sadly still be seen today.
There's a thin line between camp and horror that Ellis walks in the book. American Psycho succeeds when it's subtle. Before we witness Bateman kill firsthand it's scenes like the one at the laundromat when he's trying to explain through belligerence and a language barrier the importance of getting his sheets whiter then white. Of course the sheets bear the hallmarks of the previous night's killing, but having not seen the killing the interaction is laced with dark humor. Not to mention my favorite scene where he decides his colleague must be killed for having a nicer business card. Being suggestive works far more then being graphic, and it's not long before Ellis is graphic. This is when the book shifts, and in my mind, starts to fall apart. Our imagination can be pretty horrific with just implying what happened, but Ellis, he is one sick fellow for some of the imagery he conjures, especially what happens to Bateman's ex from college.
Yet one does wonder how deliberate this downward spiral is. It's clear that Bateman's killing spree is ramping up, and therefore it does make sense to go gorier and grosser as he unravels, but it makes for a less readable story. The unraveling raises the question of how much of this is real? Was Bateman so sick that he hallucinated it all? How else would Paul Owen be seen after Bateman killed him? I have a theory about Paul, but that will hold for a minute. It's the questioning of Owen still being alive as well as his seeming ability to get away with it all that makes one think perhaps it didn't happen. With the amount of drugs Bateman takes and looking to scenes like the chase with the helicopter, one can see how the "it's all in his mind" theory is plausible. And is it any less horrific to know that these are just his thoughts? For my money, I think he was a murderer, but I do like the ambiguity.
Going back to the zeitgeist and Bateman's mindset, I think American Psycho is a scathing attack on our culture during the late 80s. It's a flawed attack, but it gets it's point across admirably. One of the reasons it's hard to get into this book is the sheer number of designer brands Bateman lists. Every article of clothing in the whole book from Bateman's own wardrobe to everyone else he encounters is stripped down to their socks and shoes. After awhile you think that perhaps Ellis could lighten it up because he's gotten the point across, but he doesn't. I think that the fact that he doesn't give it up shows even stronger the relentless consumerism in our society. But it's not just the buying of more and more designer labels, it's also the lifestyle that goes with the designer labels, the physique that must be maintained, the music you listen to, everything is detailed to the nth degree and it shows how vapid and shallow our culture can be at it's very worse.
But not only does American Psycho attack our habits, it attacks what these habits make of us. Throughout the book Bateman is again and again mistaken for other investment bankers. He is interchangeable with his colleagues. Indistinguishable. Hence Paul Owen also being interchangeable and being able to be seen from beyond the grave. The only thing that really separates Bateman is his blood lust. He is just a cog in the machine that is our culture. When he finally confesses his crimes they are viewed as a joke. Not only that, but the man he confesses to doesn't even realize he is Bateman! Once again he could be anyone. Everyone is only concerned about themselves and their problems, nothing else is relevant or even absorbed into their consciousness. This anonymity gives Bateman great freedom in being able to commit his crimes, but reflected back on us, this interchangeability means that Bateman might not be the "American Psycho" of the title. What do you see when you look in the mirror?
John has spent yet another holiday in France walking the history that is his passion and his reason for living. As he gets ready to return to England to teach yet another term at school he looks at all the people and wonders how apart he is from them and if his life of no connections is really a failed life. In the crowd he sees one face he didn't expect to see. His own. The two men, John and Jean, strike up a conversation based on their eerie similarities. They are true doppelgangers. The night is spent drinking and talking and come morning Jean is gone with John's identity, leaving the lonely Englishman an encumbered life filled with family and a failing business. Without really knowing what drives him to it John takes on Jean's life. The bachelor now has a pregnant wife, a daughter, a mother, mistresses, and a complicated life. But soon John doesn't want to leave this new life and if Jean were to decide to return, what would happen?
Daphne Du Maurier has always employed doubling and duality in her writing, but never so obviously as in The Scapegoat. Here she openly embraces the trope of people who have switched places. Though in lighter fare it is done willingly or comedically, as in The Prince and the Pauper, The Parent Trap, and Moon Over Parador. Here it is a situation thrust on John, combining the switching with a case of mistaken identity. Though in any other case mistaken identity would be easier to prove if you weren't the doppelganger of the man they think you are. By combining these two plot devices into one Du Maurier is able to delve into the darker aspects of who we are and what would happen if we tried to escape our life by taking up the mantle of someone else's.
By having the opportunity of becoming someone else, someone known, what would you do? Seeing as Jean is the one who thrust this situation on John, it's pretty clear that he does this just to amuse himself, a humorous what if. But John, John is more complicated. By going along with Jean he is made complicit in this scheme he doesn't want. Yet being put in a situation where the repercussions fall on another's head means that for the first time in his life John is free of responsibility and guilt and is allowed to make mistakes and be taciturn or angry or whomever he chooses to think Jean is.
John's first embracing of the situation is the fact that he can't be held accountable. Du Maurier here is bringing up the darker nature of humans. What would we do if we could get away with it? For some people it would be anything and everything, theft to murder. Putting someone in this situation is testing their mettle. Given a free pass what would you do? It shows the goodness of John that after the initially heady response of being able to say what he really feels that he tries to better the lives of Jean's family. His deepest desires aren't dark and perverted, his deepest desires are to have connections, to have people to care for and love. At the start of his journey he can't come to terms with his driftless life. He wonders what does he do with failure. After spending time in the shoes of Jean he wonders what do you do with love.
John's question has changed, but the search for an answer is still there. That is what it is to be human. To always be questioning and searching. While John spends his time as Jean picturing him as this evil man who viewed the demands of family as the demands of his "captors" life is never this black and white. People aren't just good or evil, they are filled with grey areas. We have spent so much time with John that we see the world through his eyes now but it isn't till the end, that slight shift in perspective that makes us realize, John's point of view isn't the only one. Life is complicated and messy and we are left with questions, but it is never just black and white.
Speaking of someone living in the grey areas, Du Maurier spent most of her life, and a significant amount of her writing, not just dealing with these weighty issues of the nature of man but as an extended therapy session for herself. She viewed herself as two energies, male and female, which understandably makes her obsession with duality make sense. But there is another force that ruled her life and her work, and that is her father, the actor Sir Gerald Du Maurier. The relationship between Jean and his daughter Marie-Noel is a loving, yet odd and at times downright disturbing relationship. The scene where Marie-Noel asks her father to whip her... I defy you to find a more disturbing image then a grown man being asked by a small ten year old to be whipped for her imagined sins.
The question one is left with is how much did Daphne put of herself in her books? Her father was a dynamic and possessive man. They had a love hate relationship and he often wished that Daphne had been a boy, perhaps starting her duality issues. Incest was often hinted at. It is even believed that perhaps they shared a lover, Gertrude Lawrence. Whatever is and isn't true, one thing is certain, the creepy dynamic that they had is shared with Jean and Marie-Noel, further fanning the flames of what was real in Du Maurier's world and what was play acting.
Philip Ashley is raised in the all male environs of his cousin Ambrose Ashley's estate. He grows up the consummate bachelor, the two of them reveling in the fact that they have no women to answer to or scold their slovenly ways. For his health Ambrose reluctantly leaves his Cornish home and Philip and goes to the continent to winter. On his second winter abroad he goes to Italy and meets a distant cousin of theirs, Rachel. Philip is shocked when he gets a letter that the two have married. He cannot believe that Ambrose has given up his bachelor lifestyle to chain himself to a woman, who while having similar interests, is still a weight around his neck. Philip and Ambrose's correspondence suffers and Philip starts to worry for his cousin. The most recent missive hinting at Rachel poisoning him arrives too late, as Philip arrives in Florence to find Ambrose dead and Rachel gone. Returning home Philip finds that Rachel has arrived in Cornwall. He begrudgingly allows his enemy shelter. But will his vow to avenge Ambrose be thwarted by his own heart?
One day I'm going to write a companion book for My Cousin Rachel and it's going to be called Just Rachel. Because if I read one more time "my cousin" before Rachel's name I'm going to scream. I know Du Maurier is showing the possessiveness of Philip in regards to Rachel, but there's making a point and belaboring a point. This is belaboring. By these two simple words Du Maurier is able to repeatedly bring home the fact that culturally, and very specifically in Philip's case, women are not worth anything, they are at best possessions, at worst objects of hate and derision. These two words are what is wrong with this book. It's not that Du Maurier does a bad job showing human frailties and prejudices, it's that Philip is so unlikable that I couldn't stand to read his thoughts.
Philip is problematic in many ways. He's an unreliable narrator, a trope that can be fun, but in this instance just leads to a few omissions that make him an even bigger douche. The main issue though is that he is an unlikable narrator. He was raised by Ambrose to be the consummate bachelor, able to cuss his way through the alphabet but unable to treat a lady right. But it's not just that Philip doesn't know how to treat a woman, I think he has an underlying fear of them. Women are a foreign concept to him, and a foreign woman, well, he has know idea what to do with this. So he mistrusts anything he doesn't understand. He is xenophobic in the extreme, besides being misogynistic. This rears it's head when he decides that Rachel must have poisoned Ambrose and is now poisoning himself, through her tisanes. Any reader of Agatha Christie knows the continental love of tisanes. But to Philip this must be viewed as the vehicle through which she promotes death because it is foreign to him.
Oh, Philip. You know nothing Philip Ashley. Why would Rachel try to kill you when if you die she looses everything? It's Philip's motives, not Rachel's, that should be what is in question here. While it seems he's being nice to his cousin, look closer, he's just trying to possess her. Never once does he see how precarious her situation is or how their relationship might be viewed by outsiders. He is oblivious to everything but his own needs and desires. With so many books being written exploring Du Maurier's other mysterious woman, Rebecca, I wonder why more hasn't been written about Rachel. She's far more sympathetic, and as for her ambiguous pastime of perhaps poisoning people with her tisanes... well, Philip could use a good dose of poison.
Yet beyond the narrative issues, so much of My Cousin Rachel just feels as if it's a retread of something Du Maurier has written before. The review pull quote on the back of my edition says "From the first page... the reader is back in the moody, brooding atmosphere of Rebecca." Well duh. Du Maurier had an obsession with Cornwall, and in particular a house there called Menabilly. This house, which she was lucky enough to life in for a few years, became Manderley in Rebecca. But it also became the Ashley estate, and was also used in her book The King's General. By using this place so much you just start comparing it to the other times she's used it. It's Menabilly in all it's forms. I know she loved this place, but seriously, another book set here? It looses the magic of the place by being able to be the home of so many stories. She immortalized it with Rebecca, and then she overstayed her welcome.
But we must never discount the timelessness Du Maurier was able to evoke with Rebecca and some of her other novels, they are today as fresh as the day they were written. Now I don't know if Du Maurier was aiming for the timelessness with My Cousin Rachel as the introduction by Sally Beauman attests, but if so, I feel it really failed in this instance. Timelessness to me means that a book taps into something universally human and can reach across time and still be relevant. So while some of Du Maurier's books, like Jamaica Inn and The Scapegoat, have a time period, they still have a timelessness. But not here. Not My Cousin Rachel. It doesn't work here.
By trying to be ambiguous it makes the time period somehow more relevant. Sure, Du Maurier doesn't come flat out and tell us when this was set, but from what happens in the book it's obviously early Victorian, when Albert helped bring in Germanic Christmas traditions and moved festivities away from Twelfth Night, but prior to his death because the mourning customs weren't as strict. So yes, this was just another mystery that Du Maurier threw in, and in fact was the only one that could be solved to some extent. She does like her ambiguity... but perhaps with everything in this book she took it a little too far?...more
The Turn of the Screw Date I read this book: September 12th, 2014 ★
On Christmas Eve ghost stories are being told around the fire and Douglas says his wiThe Turn of the Screw Date I read this book: September 12th, 2014 ★
On Christmas Eve ghost stories are being told around the fire and Douglas says his will chill them to their very bones, but he will only tell it in the words of his friend, who at the time was a young governess. Douglas sends away for her journal, which she gave to him for safe keeping after her death, and when it arrives he begins the story. The young governess is hired by the attractive uncle of two children, Miles and Flora. He has them ensconced in the country at his estate in Essex and has no desire to be bothered in any aspect of their upbringing. Upon her arrival at Bly the governess is taken in by the angelic beauty of Flora, just as she will be by Miles when he is expelled from his boarding school and returned to Bly, an occurrence she cannot understand, due to his apparent perfection.
But soon their idyllic life is shattered by the appearance of two people. This man and woman seem to come and go as they will. After discussing them with the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, she learns the female spectre is none other then her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and the male is Peter Quint, Miss Jessel's lover and another former employee. Only both of them are dead. The young governess is convinced they want the children and will do anything to achieve their nefarious goals from beyond the grave. But even if this is what is really happening can she stop them?
Much like the young heroine in The Turn of the Screw I had my head turned by a hansom man and visions of romance. Many many years ago my friends Matt and Becky and I were walking to the video store, you remember those, you could rent physical movies on these large clunky tapes that could get easily damaged and had to be rewound before returning. We were in the trashier section of our college campus and we found $40 on the ground. Knowing it was probably a drunken frat boy who had lost said money we pocketed it and used it to rent some movies.
After looking for ages we decided on two movies, the new Hamlet staring Ethan Hawke and The Turn of the Screw, because, well, Colin Firth. There was one thing all three of us could agree on, and that was Colin Firth is hot. Also the movie not sounding too much like a period piece, Matt agreed, and again, Colin Firth is hot. We lasted only about twenty minutes into Hamlet before we gave up, yes, it was that bad. But we did watch all of The Turn of the Screw... after this both my friends said I should pay them for having to watch the two movies because I had suggested them in the first place. We compromised by making me return them to the video store.
I was left with two thoughts after watching the movie, one, false advertising, you put Colin Firth's name as a star he should be in more then five minutes, and two, evil wins!?! No matter what your interpretation of events, it's evil, in some form, that is victorious. And as evil took root, I waited for Colin to reappear, and he never did. I fell for the same bait and switch as that young governess. Of course she was unwilling to ask him for aid in a time of need to show her reliability and fortitude, whereas I was all like, Colin, come back! Since then the BBC has made another version, this time with several stars from Downton Abbey, which again left me unsatisfied. For so many years I have been under this impression that The Turn of the Screw was this amazing classic that was being done an injustice by bad adaptation after bad adaptation. I now know that that isn't the case. The Turn of the Screw is just a badly written story with enough wiggle room to allow for many interpretations of the text.
In the final analysis the question isn't was the governess insane or were there supernatural forces at work, the question is, is this even readable? The answer is no. The writing in this book verges on the indecipherable. James took a lot of flack for his overwriting stories, and, I can see why. He has a tendency to not only write too much but write sentences that seem to turn back in on themselves so he talks himself out of his original idea. These long sentences with too many commas have a tendency to be the length of paragraphs, and in a few rare instances, pages long, always ending up in an entirely different place then where they started and becoming increasingly incoherent in the process.
If James can't be bothered to maintain a train of thought in a sentence it's no wonder the book is all over the place and ripe for adaptations that can take as many liberties as they want, because, let's face it, even James didn't know where his story was going. If it wasn't for the fact I knew the plot, well, I wouldn't have been able to figure it out by just reading it. I spent more time fighting to grasp onto the text and try to get some sense out of this book then any other book I've ever read. In the end I gave up to the inevitable and just let the text wash over me as my eyes glazed over and I prayed for the end.
But the inability of James to write coherently is nothing to his structural issues and his unsympathetic characters. Firstly, there is no suspense in this story. I'm not sure if this derives from his inability to set the stage or just the fact that I didn't care if all the characters died horrifically, but there was no jeopardy that made me want to keep reading. A ghost story should at the very least have some suspense, some ability to have the hair on your next rise up and question the sudden chill in the room. Now to the aspect that annoyed me most. James uses the "framing" device of having a group of friends sitting around the fire telling each other ghost stories on Christmas Eve. I have no problem with this, what I do have a problem with is that this "framing" device was left unfinished and in the end was more of a prologue.
To frame a story you need it at the beginning and the end, not just the beginning! I get that he might have wanted to end with the "shock value" of what happened to the insufferable Miles, but, well, the governess's story went on, she somehow got another job and came to meet Douglas and impart this story to him. How the hell did she get another job? Just, gaw! She was THE WORST GOVERNESS EVER and someone else employed her after this? Something shouldn't be labelled a classic because of the time you can spend discussing the text and delving into the deeper meanings, sometimes you're just thrusting your own ideas and meanings onto a text that doesn't deserve to be cherished, but deserves to be forgotten in the mists of time... or the mists that hide the spurious phantasms around Bly....more
Marta has lived her married life to her older husband Hector quite literally by the book. She has learned How To Be a Good Wife. Though the book doesnMarta has lived her married life to her older husband Hector quite literally by the book. She has learned How To Be a Good Wife. Though the book doesn't tell you want to do when your son goes off to college and your life becomes meaningless. Marta starts to unravel. She drinks, she cleans, she takes her meds, she doesn't take her meds, she starts to remember, but are her memories real? She remembers a room under the house and being held captive and brainwashed till she was the wife Hector wanted. She tries to tell her son, Kylan, but he has his own life now. She is unhinged, she is a danger to herself. She is not the Marta that they remember, but did that Marta ever truly exist?
If you have a book with an unreliable narrator there has to be some kind of revelation, an inside or outside force that is able to give some kind of resolution to the unfolding drama, even if it is a dissatisfying resolution, re Agatha Christie's Endless Night. To be left without any closure makes for a disgruntled reading experience. But then again, being in Marta's brain for even the short amount of time it took to read this book had already alienated me against her and her antics, so what's one more nail in the book's coffin eh? Marta is scatterbrained, obsessive about the weirdest things, her dinner party for her son is such a disaster it makes the Christmas dinner in The Ref look like the best party in the world. She's unstable, unlikable, and, well, selfish. Why did I read this book again? Oh yeah, book club.
The question though remains, did or didn't Hector create this wife? My mind thinks no. Because it's just too outlandish. If he had done it his own mother would have been complicit, something I don't think she'd ever have done. Plus, let's look at it this way. If Hector was making the perfect wife, after all these years of brainwashing why would she crack? Yes, empty nest syndrome, but this is a major psychotic break. And her meds wouldn't make her more compliant, after all this time she'd totally be in the thrall of Stockholm Syndrome, so drugs wouldn't be needed. Whereas if she's just crazy, going off her meds would do something. They'd make her go back to her natural crazy state. But in the end I don't care. No, seriously, I hated each character so much there was no sympathy and well, fuck the lot of them.
With Marta we are given a woman who is neurotic and self-destructive as well as more then a little dumb. Instead of doing anything logical she runs around like a chicken with her head cut off. If she had just sat down and laid out her thoughts and provided proof of her delusion, perhaps someone would have believed her. Instead of making it seem like her illness was responsible for her inability to tell her suspicions Chapman made Marta's failings feel like an idiotic character flaw of the greatest order, total dumb blond syndrome. Perhaps her decision making is completely impaired, but for some reason I just don't think so. I have this feeling that Marta has a very fixed view of the world and her place in it and when things don't go her way she acts out. This seems to be supported by how everyone treats and coddles her. She's a selfish woman who may have issues, but in the end it's her selfishness that defines her. How else would you categorize the fact that she kills herself on the day of her son's wedding? She's making the happiest day of his life all about her.
Chapman is obviously trying to explore the themes of PTSD and what it does to us knowingly or unknowingly, after all if you didn't get it she talks all about it in her afterword. But the problem is we don't know if Marta is suffering from PTSD or is just run of the mill crazy. Either way Marta is not a sympathetic character so whether she was always crazy or became crazy signifies very little to the book itself. But I think if I was a sufferer of PTSD that this would signify very much to me if I was reading this book, which I wouldn't recommend anyone to do. Because How To Be a Good Wife doesn't exactly portray PTSD in a flattering light. In fact the book kind of makes sufferers of PTSD get lumped in with people with severe mental illnesses. Now, while PTSD is a mental illness, well, it's a different kind and to have it lumped in with the psychotics, this is doing the sufferers of this disease an injustice. In fact everything about this book should offend anyone with any kind of mental instability, because Chapman obviously doesn't get it and doesn't have the compassion to render their fight with compassion and honesty.
Roland Michell is an academic with very limited options. He's toiling away researching the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash while living off his girlfriend, who he doesn't much care for, in a cat pee soaked apartment, when everything changes. Roland finds an unknown letter that Ash wrote to a female that might just be Roland's lucky break. He traces the correspondence to a Christabel LaMotte, who was an almost unknown female poet at the same time as Ash, and who is the darling of feminist academia. Roland approaches the preeminent scholar on LaMotte, Maud Bailey, directly, circumventing his own department in some odd impulse to keep his discovery to himself. What the two of them find is rather interesting and will change the presumed histories of the two poets drastically. Everyone has always assumed that Ash was happily married, though sadly childless, and that LaMotte was a lesbian living with the painter Blanche Glover. But their letters to each other prove that this is anything but the case. Slowly unravelling the past while trying to keep the present at bay, Roland and Maud are gripped by a fever to find the truth of what really happened to two people over a hundred years ago.
Most people who know me now are shocked to discover that I wasn't always a reader. I didn't read much, I didn't like school and was a bad student, and I mainly watched movies. Somewhere along the way that completely reversed itself. This has had the effect that I always feel like I'm playing catchup. I'm always trying to read what others consider "standard" or "classic" books. In fact I only heard about A.S. Byatt because of the movie version of Possession. While I have said before that I have this inbuilt need to read the book before seeing the movie, in the early days of my discovering authors, a movie adaptation would help to introduce me to authors I might never have found on my own. Hence me and Possession. I too have the copy with The Beguiling of Merlin by Burne-Jones on the cover but with that lovely "Soon to be a Major Motion Picture" sticker firmly planted above Merlin's head.
I had no expectations going into this book the first time, but I was sorely disappointed. I've never been the biggest fan of poetry, and that is a bit of an issue when reading a book about poets. To paraphrase Possessions own words, poetry is a love of words where prose is a love of story, of narration. I have always loved stories, if the words are well chosen, then it adds something more, but I do not rhapsodize or wax nostalgic over the rhythm and flow of words. The epic poems of Ash and LaMotte where just sections to be read hastily for clues before the plot resumed. All this and more meant I just didn't connect and was left dissatisfied. I remember finishing the book on a warm Sunday in May and feeling this need to do something to alleviate this want in me. I met my friend Sara and we went to a movie, but all the while I was thinking about how Possession had let me down. I had that itch under my skin when you've spent so much time on something and it just doesn't work out in the end. It's a dissatisfaction on such a huge scale that it's almost like having a panic attack. Later that summer after seeing the disastrous movie adaptation with my most hated of actors, Aaron Eckhart, I knew the book could have been far worse, in the way that I knew I would come back one day to this book and try to find the connection that I had felt wanting the first time.
Possession the second time around was a far better read. I understood more what Byatt was trying to do and more of her literary allusions weren't over my head. But more importantly, I feel like I now possess the language to say why it was the book left me cold in the first place. I can now identify and name that itch under my skin and relieve it through critique. Possession starts with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne's preface to his book The House of Seven Gables asking for clemency for his book's adherence to the standards and tropes of the Romance genre. He begs the reader to allow latitude in his predictability and lack of realism. By using this quote Byatt is also asking us to forgive her using the same tropes of the Romance genre, with a capital "R". There are two problems inherent in this "confession". Firstly, as an artist I was taught that you never make excuses or apologize for your work. As far as the viewer, or reader in Byatt's case, is concerned, this is the best freakin' thing that has ever been done and you need to sell it as such. If you start out with an apology you are basically telling someone that there is a flaw in the work and it is human nature to search out that flaw.
This is a flawed book, it is by no means perfect. The predictability of the story with the absurd ending that you could see a mile off was my second and main problem with Possession. Going back to the Hawthorne quote I wonder if Byatt chose this quote not to give a historic literary connection between her and Hawthorne, but to apologize for her work, by writing the quote Hawthorne himself has thankfully already apologized for the abysmal The House of Seven Gables. As I've said before, no excuses, no apology, even if you really need to make one, giving one makes you look weak. You can't justify your work being subpar by saying it's the genre that made me do it. Was it the genre that made the book have unlikable passionless characters was connection and attraction is initially based on the mind but devolves into a physical passion that still has this weird cold and unfeeling vibe? No, that was you who did that. That was your writing, not the genre. As for the rapidity of time making things obsolete... well, that's no one's fault. This book feels dated, more so then when I read it twelve years ago, and it's not just the lack of computers and the prevalence of copy machines, but the very change in the nature and meaning of language. Glory Holes have a far far different universal connotation now... I'm hoping Byatt was aware of this then lesser used definition when she was writing the book in the eighties...
But for everything that this book does wrong, it does get things right. I love the Victorian time period, and in specific I love seances. I like both the idea that they could possibly be real, but also the intricacies of chicanery that the false mediums created in order to fool their marks. I even went to a photography exhibition years ago at the MET that was supposed proof from the time of the veracity of spirits... let's but it this way, they had the original Cottingley Fairies, so, that's the level of truth in these photographs. But what interested me in Possession was that it was posited that these seances are in some way a replacement for storytelling. The beginning of the beloved television show The Storyteller was right in that "people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, [and] foretold the future with stories." Stories were a faith. Mythology and folktales are part of us. But in Victorian England, so much advancement in such a little time was stripping away the foundations of faith. Such searching and questioning changed the world. People needed a new way to search for the meaning of life, and for some that came in the form of seances. They needed to know that life had meaning and they were searching for it beyond the vale. Ash and LaMotte are both curious and questioning individuals, it makes sense that they, as artists, would not only embrace the old ways but also the new. These two ways, through language and planchette, unite the very human needs across the generations to quench the thirst for knowledge, a thirst that is then taken up in the "present" by Roland and Maud and unifies the book not only in it's own narratives but to our own lives....more
Wildfell Hall has a new resident. A mysterious widow and her young son who want nothing to do with the outside world. The outside world disagrees. The nosey neighbors must know everything they can about the mysterious Mrs. Graham. Young Gilbert Markham wants to know everything but for a very different reason, he is inexorably drawn to the young widow and cannot understand why she remains aloof and detached, craving solitude over companionship and love. But soon Helen Graham realizes that her feelings for Gilbert mean that she must disclose her past so that he can move on and realize their love is doomed, and not just because her husband isn't dead.
Mrs. Helen Graham is really Mrs. Helen Huntington, the wife of a cruel man who has more vices then she could enumerate. She has fled her husband because he was trying to imprint their your son with his own dubious morals. Helen could have suffered anything if it was just herself that was the target of Huntongton's malice, she stubornly married him after all, but their son is another matter. After years of feeling trapped and hunted in her own home, can she remake her life, or will the old one haunt her?
Sometimes I am a very contrary person, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a case in point. Instead of reading the book before watching the miniseries I decided to watch the miniseries first which then put me off the book. For some reason I view the steadfast rule of reading the book first not applying to the Brontes. I had seen so many adaptations of their books prior to ever picking one up that they are grandfathered into my weird reading habits with this clause. Yet I still question how an adaptation with Toby Stephens and James Purefoy, not to mention Rupert Graves, Pam Ferris, and Paloma Baeza, could be so bad. It was dull and lifeless and I remember barely being able to finish it.
The miniseries turned me off the book and because of this the book has languished for years waiting for the time when I would pick it up and love it. I seriously can not think of any reasonable excuse why it took me this long to read it. I was under so many misconceptions about this book that I should have just trusted to my gut which tells me that Anne Bronte is awesome. I am serious when I say that I think Anne might just be my favorite Bronte. This isn't just me routing for the underdog, though she is the least embraced of the sisters, this is totally to do with how awesome her books are.
There's a part of me that knows Anne's desire for "truth" in this novel comes from a desire to counter the pro bad boy image her sisters had created in their works. But there's a deeper part of me that wonders if she's not just messing with Charlotte and Emily a little. Who, given the chance, wouldn't try to mess with their siblings a little? Her sisters did everything to make this bad boy redeemable by love trope and then in comes Anne and blasts them out of the water. Huntington is a bad boy to equal Heathcliff and Rochester, but love is unable to sway him. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an opus to the irredeemable. I can just picture the sisters sitting around their fireplace on a cold night in Haworth talking about their dream men and Anne just looking askance at them and plotting how to prove them wrong, preferably in three volumes, she was, after all, a silent plotter. I don't think anyone has ever summed this up better then Kate Beaton in her "Hark, a Vagrant" comic, "Dude Watchin' with The Brontes" so I won't attempt to and move onto other things.
So, other things! What I find amazing in this book, and in fact all the work by the Brontes, is how they were able to capture an entire world from outside their cloistered lives and put it on the page. It just goes to show that sometimes writing what you know isn't the only answer, but writing what you feel is. Over a hundred and fifty years later this book pulses with life. It was criticized at the time for being too repulsive and scandalous, but that is why it resonates till this day. It is the truth of human nature and fallibility that Anne sought out to capture and did. Infidelity, adultery, drugs, drink, games of chance, everything not written about in literature of it's day that still causes so much heartbreak.
The degraded life that Helen lives made me connect to her because, not only did I pity her, I worried that she wouldn't make it out of this situation, ironic because having watched the miniseries I knew the outcome, but still I worried. But as to the debauchery, one problem I have always had and mentioned repeatedly in literature set during this time is the overuse of the Hellfire Club. It seems if you are debauched during the Regency or early Victorian eras you therefore have to belong to some incarnation of said Hellfire Club. But here I make an exception. Usually the Hellfire Club is just a trope used by modern writers, as in those still currently writing. Think of the spunk it took for a little ex governess to allude to the Hellfire Club in a book written in 1848! You Anne Bronte are the exception that proves the rule! When you wrote those few lines alluding to fire and brimstone it was not yet hackneyed, it was controversial. I wish I could tell you how much you mean to me and literature, this poorly written review will have to suffice. ...more
Kate Clegg dreams of no longer being trapped in a job whose prospects are ever dwindling in her small hometown of Slackmucklethwaite. The local newspaper she works for, The Mercury, has been nicknamed "The Mockery" since it was bought out by a dubious businessman and now concentrates it's energies on advertising and flattering puff pieces. But Kate's horrid new boss has a sexy son, Nat, who is to work alongside her and before long she's lying between the sheets with Nat and spilling her dreams of being a world class journalist covering the Cannes Film Festival while also writing racy romances on the side. Nat claims that he can get his dad to agree to Cannes if she will only pay for the two of them to go, he of course in first class and she in cattle class. Wiping out her savings they head to Cannes where she looses Nat and realizes that he didn't arrange anything and it was all a ruse for her to cough up the money for the plane ticket. Without a job to go back to or any savings or even hope, Kate finds that she's relying on the new people she's met in the small town of Ste. Jeanne, from the displaced wife of a tabloid columnist, to the taciturn staff at her hotel, to the elegant octogenarian Odile, to the dipsomaniac reporter Crichton, to the talented and sexy artist Fabien, she might have more then she thought she had.
I remember back when I first started picking up Chick Lit books at Barnes and Noble that Wendy Holden's books seemed to saturate the shelves with her mildly witty titles like Farm Fatale and Azure Like It. Looking at the shelves nowadays she is noticeably absent and after reading Azur Like It after it languished on my shelves for almost ten years I can say I am not in the least surprised that this and many of her other books are out of print, that's if this one is anything to go by. It wasn't just that the book goes for the cheap laugh or that I had no way to connect to any of the characters, it's mainly that Wendy Holden doesn't grasp that a book needs to be definable not such a mish mash of genres that you want to shake it to see if it can somehow be knocked into shape. But predominately the lead was so unlikable that I wouldn't have minded if she had had an accident on those lovely hairpin turns that litter the south of France.
Let me start with Kate's stupid and hateful nature. There's stupid and then there's stupid. Kate just might actually be so stupid that she is beyond this scale and in her own "special" category. How can someone be so naive and dumb, she's a gorram idiot! Firstly, the fact that she is in bed with her boss's unlikable son within five minutes of meeting him and then, despite the fact that he's supposedly rich, is gladly giving him money for him to head to Cannes... how, just how!?! Angry, rage, building in me. If she was someone I knew I'd drown her out of the goodness of my heart. How does she not see through Nat. No seriously, how!?! He says he can't call her because his father took his phone and then he's always texting in front of her? Say what? That lie right there should have triggered all her warning bells, which she obviously doesn't have. Then there's the whole, she lost her job because of him, because she blindly trusted someone for no reason other then he's hot. WTF! Then there's her dream of wanting to go to the Cannes Film Festival but once there her complete ignorance of anything to do with the festival. Seriously, what was the author thinking?
At first I might have felt a little, tiny, gnat sized iota of sympathy for Kate, because attraction and sex make us do stupid things, but then I realized she's just a hateful person. She blindly trusted Nat and I don't know if this made her hate everyone or if Nat was some aberration, but she is downright cruel to nice people. She thinks Odile is crazy and deluded and could never have been a beauty, whereas Odile has had a stroke so therefore her appearance has changed. The there's Ken, she treats him like garbage despite his always being nice and taking care of her friend. Also the cruel nicknames she gives people make me want to punch her. Kate is a hateful little bitch who just distrusts and dislikes everyone and I just want her to die. I'm not sure I've actually wanted to harm someone so much who is the heroine of a book in all my years of reading. Needless to say this book is quickly being sold, it would be burned in a ceremonial pyre, but I don't believe in book burning.
Then there's the genre issue. Yes, books can mix and mash genres. Genres aren't a hard and fast rule, but when you start throwing in so many that it makes the book bloated and convoluted, well, you have a problem. The genres that I was able to pick out where: romance, expose, celebrity parody, roman à clef, thriller, Gothic horror, and espionage... in fact, Chick Lit seems to not even be in there. It tries to be everything and ends up being nothing. But the straw that broke the camels back was when it decided to go into Gothic horror. When Kate is in bed and sees a hooded monk with a skull head she seriously just hides under the covers? Firstly, this isn't scary or funny, secondly, why did she never connect the skull to the skull in pretty boy's studio upstairs? Well, that's just her stupidity again and I just realized she's pissing me off so much I'm making exasperated hand gestures while writing this review. And why wouldn't you tell anyone about seeing a scary skull monk? It doesn't fit with anything before or after and is just a stupid plot device, like everything else in this book.
In summarizing this book that is not surprisingly out of print I have to just touch on the plethora of stupidity that fills it's pages. Kate is obsessed with condoms. Any person in this day and age who doesn't practice safe sex is an idiot but the fact that the safe sex is laboriously pointed out... um, no, and ew, in fact ew to all the sex in this book. Next, Celia, she says she deserved being beaten by her husband? WHAT!?! Ok, there is a victim's mentality, but no one should ever say they deserved this, especially in a book I picked up to be a fun and light read, just dropping in the fact that domestic abuse is ok, well, that's par for the stupidity of this book. The Bond jokes, including the title of the book are just groan worthy. And finally the painting! Fabien had painted a portrait of Kate years before he met her. Say what? Did he see her somewhere, have a vision quest, have an old picture of Kate's grandmother from during the war? Anything would have been better then no explanation and it just emphasizes the laziness of the writing in this book. Just one more thing to chalk up against this book which I shall now stop talking or writing about because it's making me cranky. Where's my old person stick to wave a whippersnappers?...more
Sophie Apperly is the odd one out in her family. They are all academic and artistic, whereas she's more of a homebody who likes to upscale thrift store finds into interesting creations. Therefore as far as her family are concerned she's a bit dumb and a bit of a dogsbody. To that end they volunteer her to take care of their Uncle Eric in the hope that this little gesture will make the horrid old man remember them in his will. Of course things don't go to plan in that Sophie and Eric get on like a house on fire and she finds out about a lost family trust to do with an oil well. Sophie decides to try to help her ever skint family by investigating this trust and to that end she gets a short term job in New York and goes to visit one of her two best friends. It's Sophie's dream come true, she's always wanted to go to New York, so when the job falls through, well, it's sad, but then there's more time to play the tourist on her very restricted budget.
At a gallery opening the helpful Sophie comes to the aid of the elderly Matilda. They instantly hit it off and soon Sophie is going to Connecticut to spend Thanksgiving with Matilda, who's grandson, Luke, looks on Sophie as a gold digger. Matilda and Luke himself are both rather wealthy. Yet Sophie has a heart of gold and, though she may be almost flat broke, she would never take advantage of this situation fate has landed her in. A situation that might help both her and Matilda, as Matilda sends Sophie back to England with a request, to find the house Matilda spent her holidays in as a youth. This might seem like a wild goose chase, but it's quite fun, and with Luke coming along for the ride, maybe something more then an old house will be found?
Three years ago I picked up my first Katie Fforde book and it was instant dislike. Love Letters struck all the wrong chords in me and made me swear off Katie Fforde. Of course I am a fickle person and I felt bad for having sworn off an author with only reading one of their books. I mean, shouldn't I at least give that author a second chance? Therefore I could look back without regrets having given said author the benefit of the doubt. As it so happens A Perfect Proposal had electronic galleys through Net Galley and I thought, if they approve my request, here is the perfect opportunity as it where to see if my first impressions were wrong. I thank the stars, and the e-galley gods, that I gave Katie Fforde a second chance. A Perfect Proposal was just the book I needed to brighten my days during a bleak time. This book is funny and witty with characters I connected to. I am hoping that Love Letters was the aberration in Fforde's writing career and not A Perfect Proposal so that I have tons of new books to look forward to. It's just such a wonderful surprise to find an author that you feel you can embrace.
You know how in some books they just drop everything in your lap from page one, here is everything and everyone, wham, girl, guy, situation, lots of complications till they are together, the end, or till they go at it, whichever comes first. A Perfect Proposal though does the exact opposite. We meet Sophie and are given the time to connect to her. We learn about her quirky dreams about customizing vintage and thrift clothing. How she's always loved the ocean. We feel for her because her family takes her for granted and think her a little daft, and who amongst us can't relate to that? There was a wonderful luxury in getting to know someone before they were thrust into this romantic situation. Not only that, but how often is it that someone so fundamentally good is the heroine? She has flaws, but she has such a big heart, she helps people who need it, is willing to give back without taking, has morals and is virtuous, but not in a goody two-shoes way. This lent the whole book a Jane Austen vibe in my opinion. There was the good poor girl who we've come to love and then her helpfulness puts her in the path of the aloof rich boy whose heart she will eventually melt by her sweetness. A modern Lizzy and Darcy if Lady Catherine decided to play matchmaker instead of heartbreaker. Sigh. I kind of wish the book hadn't ended so I was still in this world.
But no book is 100% perfect, there is always the things the niggle me, even in my most favorite of novels. The first is I didn't feel like the author had ever actually been to the United States. First that people from Maine were picking Sophie up in New York... um... I've driven that distance... it's like ten hours, not a short little jaunt. For Sophie not to know this it's excusable, but for the people she works for not having her fly there, that's weird. Sophie never using the internet, that's just odd. But New York being all wrong really got to me. Firstly, not knowing how big New York state is, forgivable, messing up distances within New York City, no way! She did a full days walk in weird opposite directions in hours, and then there's The Frick. I have been to The Frick many a time, and well, it's small, so easy to see everything in a short amount of time, an hour would do you easy, but Matilda makes it sound like it's the size of the MET! Also, the timezones are all off, England is five hours ahead of New York, no more, no less. Just little things an editor should have picked up on... which looking at my review of Love Letters, that was my main complaint, a lack of an editor...
Yet what I really want to know is what is up with this trope of Chick Lit and holidays? So I did inadvertently do Chick Lit month around Easter, chicks, see, it's funny right? But so many Chick Lit books throw in holidays. Bridget Jones's Diary is all about the holidays, bonfire night, Christmas... same with Confessions of a Shopaholic, oh, and Going Home which I just read too was all about Christmas. And that's not even taking into account girly movies like The Holiday and Love Actually, which I actually really hate. Is there an unwritten rule that makes holidays a must for declarations of love and hookups? Personally I think it's a little tacky, but that's just me....more
Anna Madrigal senses her time is coming. She has lived a long and blessed life and has surrounded herself with her logical family, but it might be timAnna Madrigal senses her time is coming. She has lived a long and blessed life and has surrounded herself with her logical family, but it might be time to leave them soon. Though there is something in her past, out there in the shadows of the whorehouse where she grew up a he, out in Winnemucca that must be laid to rest before she is. The mass exodus of San Francisco to Nevada takes the disparate souls in different directions. Michael, Ben, Shawna, Jake, and a few surprising others are head to Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert, while Brian, his new wife Wren, and Anna are headed to Winnemucca. Will their journeys be transformative? Anything might happen in a world where we just follow the road laid out before us to the life we're meant to lead.
Even though Barbary Lane is long gone, sold off by Anna Madrigal, returning to the Tales of the City books is like checking in with long lost friends. They might have moved, they might have aged, but they are still your family. While I didn't really discover these books till recent years, I feel like I have known the characters all my life... so it was hard to say goodbye. The truth is, I really don't want to let them go, but I will always admire an author who decides when to end a series properly versus having the decision forced on him by time or circumstances. That being said, I didn't really like the ending because it wasn't really an ending at all. I get that Maupin is trying to mirror life and life doesn't have neat little endings tied up with a bow. But despite the roman à clef nature of these books, they are books. I personally like a little bit of bow tying in my books. Just a little...
Anna Madrigal, that mysterious anagram, has always been the locus of this rag tag group. With her getting ready to go it makes sense that now is the time to let go gracefully, and thankfully for us she gets ready to go in style, unlike the medical crises that marred the endings of the previous two books. We learn more about Anna's past then we ever could have hoped for. She has always been an enigma, little bits and pieces of her life hinted at here and there. While the picture is not complete, there is a feeling that we know all the secrets that she is willing to part with. Also, I love how Maupin handled the infamous anagram. In a strange twist of fate "Anna Madrigal" can be rearranged to form "a man and a girl." This was unintentional on Maupin's part, and while I liked this little take on happenstance giving us an answer, I never thought that this was the real reason for Anna choosing this name. While it might have been felicitous, it never felt like the truth, just another half truth from Mrs. Madrigal's lips. Finding the truth out after all this time... it was satisfying. Perhaps that was my bow...
But what has always made these books appealing to me is that the characters feel like family that are giving you a glimpse of a different life to your own, a chance to connect with different people and experiences, and vicariously live through them, and yes, they do satisfy a deep seeded need of mine to go back to San Francisco. In particular regard to this newest book I'm actually not talking about San Francisco, I'm talking about Burning Man. Sometime when I was in college I first heard about Burning Man, mainly because my friend Orelia was going one year and I vaguely remembered a TA of mine talking about it as well. Seemed like an interesting concept, didn't really leave much impact on me other then I knew a few people who went and loved it. Years have gone by and even more people I know have gone, so, I'm a little more interested, but that's about all, I have a vague idea of what goes on, but other then that, it's peripheral to my life, I'm interested in blog posts about outfits people are making, but, whatever.
Enter The Days of Anna Madrigal. For the first time in my life I get it, I understand Burning Man. Maupin placed me there on the playa with the alkali flats and the dust swirling around me so that I can't even see. I can see why it would appeal to him and how the world created there has the same twists of fate and bizarre coincidences that his world in Tales of the City has always embodied. I also love that it is an event that celebrates creation and makers. Art that is made just to be made, it's the act that is important, not the finished product. This experience I was vicariously living showed me just how opposite this world is to my own. I try to live in a very organized, clean, structured world that relies more on the end result of my labors then the labor itself. I have tried to open myself up to other experiences, art forms, like letterpress, wherein the act of creating is just as important as what you create. But at the end of the day, I liked having this experience from a distance. This is an experience I realized I can do without in my life, much like Michael learned. But am I different from learning about it? Yes I am. But you can call me Couch Lady....more
The Christmas pudding at Cold Comfort Farm will foretell the doom that is to happen in the coming year. Just pray you don't get the coffin nail. In siThe Christmas pudding at Cold Comfort Farm will foretell the doom that is to happen in the coming year. Just pray you don't get the coffin nail. In sixteen stories staring everyone from the Starkadders to a young rich girl obsessed with a dancer, to a librarian who thinks she's in love with a writer who happens to be not what she thinks, to people with double standards who ruin the lives of others, Stella Gibbons's short stories are sweet but insightful and thankfully back in print. Fans of Cold Comfort Farm will revel in this chance to finally read some of her other writing and read the long unattainable Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm.
There is nothing more frustrating to a book addict like myself but to completely fall in love with an author and then find out that basically everything else they've ever written is out of print. Also note, that if you're an Anglophile, this is far more common then you'd think. Almost all of Dodie Smith is out of print stateside, unless you really want to read 101 Dalmatians, and you'd think by her shelves at bookstores and libraries that Daphne Du Maurier only wrote two books, Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. Usually Amazon UK can rectify these problems, but not always. Some authors are out of print across the board. I read Cold Comfort Farm so long ago that I quite literally don't remember when, but I knew I instantly wanted to read more by Stella Gibbons. Was this likely to happen? No.
I pined to read the two follow up books. How dare there be sequels, yes, plural, to Cold Comfort Farm that I couldn't get my hands on! I would literally do anything to get my hands on Conference at Cold Comfort Farm and Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, but neither trolling the used stores or the internet yielded me results. When I finally went to college the main library had a copy of Conference at Cold Comfort Farm so part of my dreams came true. I was able to read and enjoy the story but I had to return it sadly. Interesting fact, I forgot to return it on time and had a $200 fine levied against me and my grades for the fall semester held because I had totally forgot to return it... luckily I called the library, begged forgiveness and they had the book that night.
Yes, they had the book, I didn't... but quite some time later on abe books I finally found a reasonably priced copy of Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, and at least that book was now accounted for. That only left Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm. I would never ever see this listed anywhere for months and then a copy would come up for sale for about $300 and then disappear the same day into the library of a collector with deep pockets. All this leads to the joyous day when Penguin Books decided to re-release Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm.
It was around the time of this announcement that I first realized that it was not a full book but a collection of short stories. This made me actually really happy that even if I had had deep pockets that I hadn't splurged on this book. Collections of short stories are a mixed bag. When I finally picked this book up over the holidays to get into the festive mood I was even more grateful for my discretion. The truth of the matter is that the story "Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm" was a dud. I did not like it one bit. Well, maybe one bit, and that bit was the Reverend visiting on the first page, after that, straight downhill.
And now you're thinking, she hated the story and yet four stars... the reason being the mixed bag theory. The story I most looked forward to was a big letdown, all the rest I had no expectations for and while all entertained, there were a few that were so sublime, so perfect, they should be up there with some of the finest short stories of Daphne Du Maurier. While some of the overtones of the stories are a little anti-feminist for today's readers, seeing that a home and a man is what makes your life settled, they still have a depth that is surprising for sure short tales and it really gets you thinking.
Yet the story that just blew me away was "The Murder Mark" about two men in a town who get together and talk. One of them is a chemist and is running a failing business and happens to be obsessed with palmistry (yeah, Gibbons's characters do tend to be an obsessive lot), the other is a writer of crime fiction. The two are talking over a horrid crime that happened recently across the street and discussing the theory that murderers always come back to the scene of the crime. With a wink and a nod to crime writers and overtones of Jack the Ripper, this story made me stay up way past my bedtime to finish the tale. I would recommend you buy it just to read this one story... seriously, it is that good. "Golden Vanity" though is a strong contender for second place! Nom de plume shenanigans! But check your copy before you buy it, mine had a whole bunch of pages fall out near the end of the book. Bad Penguin, bad! You should know how to do binding right!...more
One Fifth Avenue is a residence unlike any other. The people who live there love the building more then they do their spouses, children, or lovers. The older residents represent a golden bohemian age of New York with famous writers, gossip columnists, actresses, and old socialites. When the building's oldest resident dies her three story penthouse becomes a focal point for all the residents. Mindy Gooch, the head of the building's board and denizen of the worst apartment in the building dreams of dividing up the unit and claiming the top floor ballroom as her own. But seeing as Mindy doesn't have the money she will thwart the plans of others who want to break up the apartment, notably the author Philip Oakland's Aunt Enid, who wants one of the floors for him to expand his apartment. Mindy therefore strong arms a young couple with new money obtained dubiously through hedge funds to buy the apartment and what ensues could easily be considered war. Paul Rice views that if he paid $20 million for an apartment, well, everyone in the building should do as he says. They should let him have the one parking space and unsightly air conditioners. They should bow down to his every wish. At least his wife is likable. But the Rice's arrival signals a time of trials for One Fifth which they will all hopefully survive, Enid at least has newly lowered expectations and hopes to get the twenty two year old Lola out of her nephew's bed and Philip back with the lovely age appropriate actress Schiffer Diamond. But the hearts and "heads" of men might be harder to control then the fate of a beloved building.
No one can doubt the place Sex and the City has carved out for itself in our cultural zeitgeist. It has reshaped New York City for young women in such a way that I actually know someone whose ambition in life was to be a Sex and the City tour guide. This for her was the ultimate dream, the highest aspiration of her life. I was never on this bandwagon. Yes I knew about the show because I had watched one or two episodes back in 1998 with my mom to see what it was all about, but we both agreed rather quickly that this just wasn't our type of show, we're more into someone being murdered with a shoe versus a discussion of the shoe being Louboutin or Manolo Blahnik. Even Candace Bushnell has jumped on her own bandwagon being self-referential and meta with the character of Lola being obsessed with Sex and the City. Therefore when looking through my shelves to see how to round out my Chick Lit reading for the month I thought perhaps I should include an American author to try to get some kind of balance to this British dominated genre. So that's how I finally picked up a Candace Bushnell book thinking that I'd get some American Chick Lit... boy was I wrong. One Fifth Avenue is not Chick Lit, it's like a New York version of Maupin's Tales of the City where all the characters are unlikable with oddly graphic sex interspersed throughout the text. In other words, not what I was expecting. But I was willing to give the book the benefit of the doubt only to have it repeatedly dig itself into a deeper and deeper hole.
Firstly I want to address the issue of Lola. Lola is the wet dream of all middle aged men. She's perfect in body, with lipo and breast augmentation. Her libido is insatiable and she's willing to do most anything to get her way, sexual favors for cash is fine by her. And while she might not have Daddy issues she likes her men older so they can be her sugar daddies. I have issues with this trend. There's a part of me that knows this does happen, there is truth in this situation that Bushnell is writing about. Also Lola isn't the most likable character so I do wonder, is Bushnell taking the piss a little, but it's not enough. The problem I have is she is perpetuating this "manchild" dream that come midlife crisis there's a hot bodied twentysomething for every man out there. I get why the male dominated media wants to continue this trend, when they reach middle age they want this dream for themselves. I see it again and again in movies and television shows and books, but these are written, produced, and directed by men! Candace Bushnell is a woman. How about some women's lib? How about breaking free of the sexual fantasies of older males and writing something different, something new? There can be no change in this trend if even female writers are willing to accept the status quo.
Yet Lola is just one of a plethora of unlikable characters. There is not one character who you can latch onto as good or appealing. I've said it what seems like a thousand times before and what I bet will be a thousand times more; you need at least a likable character, someone to give you an entre into this book world. If you're going to play the antihero card, which you can do, look to Thackery and Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, at least have a plot with interest, instead of having me read hundreds of pages about vapid lives of people who think they are entitled. There's a part of me that really thinks that this book would not fly off the shelves in 2014 as it did in 2008. Back in 2008 there was more hope in the world, we, as a society, might have found a glimpse into this elite world as titillating and interesting. Since then things have kind of gone to hell and the 1% that is represented by all the characters in this book, they have not fared well among us lower classes. Such wealth and excess isn't escapist for us, it's aggravating. I couldn't find any humor in a man spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on fish. There wasn't any wry chuckling and me thinking "oh those crazy rich bastards, what will they do next?" There was me going, can a burn this building to the ground with all these indulgent whiners trapped inside? You'd think that the "poorer" people in the book would be sympathetic, but no, they are even more annoying then the already affluent because of their money grubbing tendencies. I just want to wash my brain out after reading this book.
If, as the blurbs say, Bushnell is the modern day Wharton with a little of F. Scott Fitzgerald thrown in, chronicling New York and it's never changing passions and desires, well I weep for our modern age. She is no Wharton, she is no James, she is no Fitzgerald. Bushnell is a vapid and shallow storyteller that gives us no insight, no depth. This book aggravated, annoyed, and insulted me on almost every page. There was a romance and a vibrancy in Wharton's Gilded Age and even Fitzgerald's Jazz Age, a world you wanted to go to. When I first visited Washington Square Park these thoughts crossed my mind, I was walking in the steps of greatness. I'm going back to New York this summer and I will once again be walking in that park, I can only hope that by then I will have removed this book fully from my memory because as I walk through the arc up fifth avenue I don't want to being thinking about the people at One Fifth, I want to be thinking about the world as it was in bygone days, not this world of Bushnell's, never this world of hers. But perhaps I should look on Bushnell with pity. This book might be a cry to be a part of this world. Perhaps my friend who said Candace Bushnell had one good idea was right. She captured something with Sex and the City and she will never be able to get that kind of buzz again. She's scrabbling to stay a part of this world. Why else would she be now writing prequels except to cash in on her own previous success? Maybe Philip is Bushnell? Never able to recapture what she once had. That actually makes me a little bit smug and gleeful....more
Albert Gates has been in Paris making a name for himself as an artist. He is only returning to England, the land of creative blocks, because he has a show opening in the fall and he wishes to see his dear friends Walter and Sally Monteath. Turns out Walter and Sally are having a cash flow problem due to Walter's impecunious nature wherein he doesn't feel a lack of money should impact his good time. Doesn't help that his occupation is a poet, so there's not much cash coming in at all. Walter is trying to convince Sally and Albert to go on vacation to the Lido, an expense Sally says they can do without when Sally is given a great opportunity.
Sally's Aunt Madge and Uncle Craig Craigdalloch, the Lord and Lady of Dulloch Castle, spend every August at said Castle entertaining a hunting and shooting party. But sadly Uncle Craig has been asked to go to Rhodesia and they are desperate to have someone host the house party, because cancelling it is out of the question. Sally agrees to play hostess, mainly because by living in Scotland for a few months her and Walter's outlay will be nothing, and by inviting Albert to entertain Walter and her friend Jane Dacre to entertain herself, it will be a jolly holiday. The bright young things don't quite mesh with the old horse and hounds military folk and their wives, but they do have quite a time making fun of them. Plus, to an artist and Victorian fanatic like Albert, the attics of the castle are strewn with fascinating relics that he can't wait to discover, of course with the help of the lovely Jane Dacre. It is quite a fun time in Scotland till the house starts on fire, but no one could have guessed that that would be the result of this jaunty trip.
After reading so much about the Mitford sisters and their diverse and odd lives I felt a profound relief in sinking back into what brought them to my attention in the first place, Nancy's writing. In her writing, Nancy has taken the bones of her life and made it into humorous fodder. Her writing is a light and breezy roman à clef. There is a bite to her wit, but there isn't a depressing darker side, there aren't sad family separations or miscarriages, just people jaunting about a castle in Scotland and watching men throw cabers, but viewed with a jaundiced eye. The highlands were part of Nancy's growing up. Being shipped off to Scotland during various time in her life for holidays and hunts to sit in damp locals waiting for the guns to go off. While Nancy was born and raised a country girl, she really loved the glittering world of London into which she emerged after what must have felt like years of exile with her family. She was a bright young thing, and bright young things have a humorous take on this other life they are a part of, this horse and hounds set. Mockery is easiest to achieve with something that you love or have loved, hence teasing your family is so easy. Highland Fling is a loving tease of all that is Scotland, and it lightened my heart and made me wonder, once again, why so many of Nancy's books have been out of print for so long in the United States.
My favorite part of this book is a poem about the history of the tower that is part of Dulloch Castle called "The Lament of Lady Muscatel." Of course, the poetic history of Scotland is in the hands of Robbie Burns. Everybody knows Robbie Burns even if they don't realize it. The phrase "the best laid plans of mice and men/often go awry" is a modernization from Burns's poem "To a Mouse" which said "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft agley." Don't believe? Just go ask Eddie Izzard. Well, I have a love hate relationship with Robbie Burns. Back in 2005 I had this kind of weird experience where I felt I was being stalked by Robbie Burns, and in the end it kind of relates back to Eddie Izzard.
During the spring on 2005 I was travelling on the east coast, New York to Halifax. For some reason poetry was in the air, we wrote an ode to the town across the harbor from Halifax, Dartmouth, because of a lost wallet. This must have somehow summoned forth Robbie, because from then on out he was everywhere. One rainy day I was wandering around Halifax with my friend Orelia and we found a statue to him in Victoria Gardens. On the drive back to New York we listened to The Proclaimers, and there were Burns references in their songs... then on the poets walk in New York, Burns again! The final appearance of Burns was on the drive home while listening to every Eddie Izzard live show available and Burns reared his mousy head. Needless to say, I was a little sick of Robbie and have never quite forgiven him for haunting my every move. Therefore, Nancy, taking the piss out of him with her refrain "The pibroch i' the glen is boony/But waley, waley, wheer's ma Ronnie?" brought tears of joy and laughter to me. Also, the word waley entertains me to no end. But I think the fact that the poem is actually well done helps maintain that tease just right with a little love on one end and a little hate on the other.
The other aspect of the book I found fascinating is that the younger generation is obsessed with the Victoriana of their parents generation, ie the tat their parents hate. Albert is so obsessed with the Victorian clutter that has been hidden away in Dulloch Castle that he goes about assembling everything he can lay his hands on from the dusty attics in the billiards room so he can document and photograph it for a little pamphlet he's writing. While this book was written in the thirties, it has a universal truth. The fact is style and taste is cyclical. When I was younger I remember loving sixties fashion, which my parents just hated, because they had had to live through it. I had a similar reaction when the eighties came back. There's a nostalgia for the near past that we ourselves didn't live through. I personally had never thought much on this, thinking it was more a recent trend, but Nancy shows, without a doubt, this is something that has probably always been going on. And from a personal point of view we have to really feel for Lady Craigdalloch who views the destruction of the house as a good thing because at least all the horrid old Victorian tat is gone... she is not well pleased when she learns that Albert saved it all, instead of what was valuable to her....more
Bridget Jones's life might just be getting a little better. Things have been hard since her husband Mark Darcy died. Being left a single parent was something she never thought she'd be faced with. Her kids have no father and she has lost the love of her life. Yet after a few years of just trying to do her best she realizes that perhaps her friends are right, perhaps she needs to get back out in the dating world. Thanks to modern technology, aka Twitter, she soon as a young boy toy, Roxster, who is just about to turn thirty and loves Bridget's "experience." She's back in the game and the envy of her friends. But can someone so much younger then her be willing to be with her as she gets older? Or is the delectable Mr. Wallaker, her son's PE teacher, a better option? Whatever happens, it could only happen to Bridget.
When the initial reviews started pouring in I was more then my fair share of nervous. Bridget had been off the scene for years, and while Helen Fielding may have started this subgenre, she has some stiff competition these days. Thankfully all my doubts were cast aside and Helen Fielding threw down the gauntlet and showed me that not only has she still got it, but there's a reason all other authors want to emulate and be her. She is the queen of Chick Lit, long may she reign! She has obviously grown and matured as an author, her dialogue is wittier, if sometimes a bit crasser, but priceless when the children speak, her situations more humorous, I now rate everything in my life by the standard of, if I haven't eaten a page of grated cheese for a meal, my life is good, and she made a book that switched up Bridget's life but evolved her while still being the same girl we loved. Though I won't forgive Helen Fielding for all the head lice in this book, my scalp is still itching!
Now to tackle the elephant in the room. The spoiler that broke and had fangirls weeping and angrily taking to twitter. Mark Darcy is dead. When I heard this I was willing to hold my comments till I had actually read the book. I remember years back when the second Bridget Jones movie came out, yes, the atrocious one that makes me cringe to even think about it, and they asked Colin Firth about the possibility of a third movie. His comment was perhaps the germ that planted Darcy's death in Helen Fielding's mind. He said that "really puncturing the fairy tale completely might be a way to take it." Not having things work out, not having a happily ever after per se for Bridget and Mark is how Colin saw success for the franchise, and you know what? He was right. Bridget and Mark as a couple would have been a book that wasn't true to Bridget. He was her rock, her center, her everything. Bridget was a different person with Mark. But take Mark away... and we have the Bridget we've always known and loved. A little sadder, a little older, but still Bridget. This could not have been possible without Mark's death. Darcy had to die.
Though the death of Darcy has led to one issue I do have with the book. Everyone in Bridget's life feels so bad for her because of Mark's death that they've kind of let her slide as a parent. Bridget really is an atrocious mother. Me judging her is, I know, a bit hypocritical, because a) I don't have kids and b) all parents are just making it up as they go along, like everyone with their own life, only parents have more lives to manage. Oddly enough the humor factor and the joy I got out of this took the sting out of her bad parenting, I'm just glad that she isn't my mother or like any of my friends who are mothers.
I think that is why the ultimate love interest works, because Mr. Wallaker constructively helps and knows, because of his own suffering, that Bridget can get through this. As for the happily ever after, while I still find it a little odd that the HEA was pulled off at the last minute, much like the first book, and they haven't spent much time together, much like the first book, and they are in love out of nowhere and it's Christmas and it's the end, much like the first book... it all works out. I really hope that this is Bridget Jones's final happily ever after. It ended well, it ended right, and I don't really want to see Bridget Jones the geriatric years... though if this book has taught me anything it's not to doubt Helen Fielding. Though if they do make this into a movie, don't cast Daniel Craig as Mr. Wallaker... that just seemed like too much wishful thinking that was placed in the book specifically for when it hits the big screen... because obviously Bond can replace Darcy... not in my book. Get someone like Philip Glenister, that would make my day. Sigh....more
Christmas Pudding Date I read this book: December 19th, 2013 ★★★
Paul Fotheringay is gutted. His first book Crazy Capers is an unrivaled success. Most authors would be pleased with this development, but not Paul. He poured his heart and soul into his book that he hoped would be heralded as a literary masterpiece only to have everyone think it is a comedy. Not just that, but the funniest book they have ever read. His tragedy is a laughing matter. In fact his whole life is rather tragic at the moment. His friend Amabelle, a rather notorious woman, tells Paul that the only hope he has now of being taken seriously is to follow up his first book with an in depth biography, something no one could mistake as farcical. He decides that the only possible subject for his masterpiece is the Victorian poetess Lady Maria Bobbin. Paul writes an impassioned letter to the family imploring Lady Bobbin to allow him access to Maria's diaries and ephemera. Lady Bobbin, being more concerned with hoof and mouth and when she'll be able to return to the hunt swiftly denies Paul and his life becomes even bleaker.
If Paul had only consulted Amabelle before approaching Lady Bobbin things could have been easily solved because, as it happens, Amabelle is good friends with Lady Bobbin's son and heir, Sir Roderick Bobbin, and Paul actually knows Bobby too! But instead of a straight forward plea to see the diaries which Paul's letter to Lady Bobbin makes impossible, they come up with an elaborate scheme wherein Paul is pretending to be Bobby's tutor over the winter holidays, so while Bobby sleeps in in the mornings, Paul spends his time immersed in Lady Maria's writings, and then they spend the afternoons "taking exercise" at Lady Bobbin's request. Of course, the "exercise" isn't really what Lady Bobbin expects, because it's really playing cards and gossiping at a nearby farm Amabelle has let for Christmas and is sharing with her friends the Monteaths. Things get even more out of hand when Amabelle's amorous suitor returns from Egypt but falls for Bobby's sister, whom Paul is also falling for. Add to that more relatives then you can possibly imagine descending on Compton Bobbin, and things are about to get real sticky.
Nancy Mitford, while perhaps best known for her witty writing, also seems to have an interesting secondary agenda of addressing the foibles of humans in love, one might even say a primary objective given her later books. While I wouldn't call her view jaundiced, it's more like she can pick up on the folly of those who see their love through rose colored glasses. Love is not put on a pedestal, yet there is true love. Love is viewed more realistically and handled in a way that makes it more true to life then other writers. She has handled this in every book of hers that I've read, though some more successfully then others it must be said. Christmas Pudding is only her second novel and you can easily see that this is the case. While her themes are there she hasn't yet gotten the cohesiveness that will mark her more famous novels. Instead of a well plotted book infused with humor, we get great one liners, wordplay that you will want to quote all day and all night, but her youthfulness in going for the bon mot versus the long game with a constructed storyline makes this book not as memorable.
This isn't to say that you won't have a good read, Nancy has this way of capturing the conflict between the horse and hounds set versus the bright young things that will leave you wanting more. The conflict I think probably accurately depicts the life she lived. Known to mine the personalities of those around her, you can easily see her parents in those who would rather live in their big drafty old house and shoot things, while she is the young girl longing to be amongst the bright lights in the big city while simultaneously being a bright young thing. Because Nancy has been both. She was trapped in the country and ill educated for so many years that when she did go to London she sparkled as a wit of the day. This dynamic of the two opposite mentalities clashing is what brings some of the heartiest laughs. Yet I think it's Nancy's willingness to make fun of herself foremost that makes this book stand out.
With Paul Fotheringay, we have a character who is very much taking the piss out of writers and therefore Nancy herself. I can just see Nancy chuckling as she wrote Paul's dilemma. Having only written Highland Fling, a well received comedy, she probably thought it would be hysterical if she had meant it as one thing and everyone took it as another. Could you imagine Nancy being viewed as anything but a classic comic writer? But one also wonders if there isn't more then a little truth here. Nancy was great at blending fact and fiction into her works. So what if she wanted to be considered a serious writer? I'm not saying that at the time Christmas Pudding was written she had this ambition, but it is odd that she ending up going the same was as Paul. What do I mean? Well, she did take to writing biographies... now her subjects weren't as satire worthy as the great Lady Maria Bobbin, but we can't ignore the fact that Nancy's biographies are popular. Was this her way of trying to legitimize herself? Because having a character like Amabelle who is obviously a parody of Madame de Pompadour, and then some twenty years later actually writing a biography of Madame de Pompadour... we're getting into a whole other level of meta and it makes me want to sit down with Nancy and have a little chat. What did she mean by this? Did she want to be known for her scholarly books more then her comedic prose? Looking back, is Paul, in the end, a tragic figure to her?
Pigeon Pie Date I read this book: March 7th, 2014 ★★
Sophia Garfield has had this fixed and glamorous image of what the outbreak of war would be like. Needless to say she is very let down when it doesn't live up to any of her expectations. Her husband is busy with his mistress, who is now living under the same roof as Sophia, not that she really minds, seeing as her own lover is there as well. Sophia is more put out because she sent her dog to the country for safety and is missing the little brute. The war is looking as if it's going to be very dull. Where are the spies and the romantic secret agents? And she's not talking about her friends who are pretending to be secret agents, but the real kind. Sophia does her duty though and starts work at a First Aid Post, which holds more dull drudgery in spades. She thinks it all might be more interesting if the war were to actually start in earnest, but little does she know that she's about to wind up in the middle of a giant German conspiracy. Her godfather, Sir Ivor King, is about to help Britain launch a musical campaign to bring the Germans to their knees when he is apparently murdered. This is just the first event in a series of odd occurrences that might just help Sophia get the excitement she wanted out of the war.
Sometimes you're reading a book and you can see exactly what the author was trying to do. You know what their intent was. In fact, they are trying so hard it's almost a little painful to read. But in the end their efforts fall flatter then flat and it's not that the book is bad, it's just that it's almost a nonentity. You could take or leave the book and it wouldn't matter one whit. This is exactly how I felt reading Pigeon Pie. There was one instance when I was almost drawn in, when Sir Ivor King was murdered, but that moment of shock had no follow through. The book just went back to it's standard level of blah. This is the first of Nancy Mitford's books to leave no impression on me. On the whole I have enjoyed everything she has written, except Don't Tell Alfred, but there I felt Nancy was trying to be too much and too modern while cashing in on her previous successes with the Radlett family. I have been mulling over as to why I feel this way and I think I have stumbled on an answer. While the basic framework of working in a First Aid Post is drawn from Nancy's own experiences, the farcical spies are pure imagination and just don't work. I think Nancy is one of those writers who excel at writing what she knows. I mean, what's the basic advice to beginning writers: write what you know. Nancy is amazing at this. She turns her jaded eye on the society she was raised in and with witty quips writes books that are a delight to all. Throw in something out of her milieu, and, well, you get Pigeon Pie.
In fairness to Nancy, it's hard to make spying funny in a wartime situation. Even the masters of movie comedies, the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrams, failed atrociously with Top Secret! Which, for whatever reason I still keep watching... ah, young Val Kilmer, I can't look away, old Val Kilmer, make it stop. On a side note, Jim Abrams was the speaker for my graduation from the UW-Madison, I mention it for no reason at all, other then it was kinda cool. Yet there is one other movie to which I kept comparing this book and thinking, yes, that is what Nancy was trying to do. That movie is The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming. While set during the Cold War not WWII, it's pure farce with Russians running around New England and the comedic geniuses of Jonathan Winters, Alan Arkin, and Carl Reiner. Apparently I'm not the only one who thought it was pure genius when I watched it as a little kid because looking it up now it was nominated for best picture at the Oscars. This movie has the "comedic chaos" that I think Nancy was aiming for with the Germans taking over the aid post and doing all sorts of dirty deeds under the eyes of the British Government. She just didn't get it. Her Germans pretending to be zealot Americans just made me want to put the book down, walk away, and watch some Russians invading New England.
Yet Nancy might, just might, have been able to overcome her lack of first hand experience with secret agents if she had written a single likable character. Yes, as a rule, she doesn't have the most likable characters. They are more caricatures to be laughed at and made fun of. Though, on the whole, they usually have some redeeming aspect that makes you like them, or at least one character you can side with. Not here. Every character was so unlikable I kind of wanted the Germans to succeed in destroying them. In Nancy's other books which are peopled with vapid, amoral characters, we can laugh at them and feel for them, but not love them. That's why Nancy usually has a balance by having someone like Fanny in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, who is good and true and is the moral compass. We need someone like us looking in on this world where husbands and wives live under the same roof as a couple but with their lovers as well and cast them a gimlet eye; a conduit into the book where we can see Nancy is hopefully making fun of the society she's living in with lovers in the house, instead of it coming across as a fact that make all the characters unlikable. Couple this with in jokes Nancy shared with her sister Diana about golden buttery wigs that make me think of old episodes of Doctor Who for some reason and you can see why Vintage decided to lump this slim volume in with the far better Christmas Pudding, because otherwise no one but the true Mitford devotee would buy it....more
Bridget Jones might finally have the man of her dreams, but Bridget is still Bridget and a happily ever after ending is hard to achieve when you are very good at self sabotage. Quickly loosing Mark Darcy and one again becoming a love pariah is exactly what you'd expect Bridget to do, and she does it with style. But luckily while her love life might be taking a hit... was that the evil Rebecca with Mark? Bridget's job prospects might be on the rise with a potential interview with none other then the "real" Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth! In Italy of all places! Well... he does live in Italy, but still, it seems so romantic and surely once he's met Bridget he will see that he has found his soul mate... now if Bridget could just get his shirt moistened. Though a vacation that turns into an international scandal might be just what's needed to get Bridget and Mark back together again.
Back to that fateful weekend when I started to devour the Bridget Jones oeuvre (read previous review for the background). I remember driving to Borders to pick up the book and having a run in with the manager. I had had the shit kicked out of me by Samuel Beckett and the manager there, well, he was a pompus jackass if ever their was one and I wasn't going to take his shit. The only joy I get out of Borders going out of business is seeing him sometimes around town in menial positions far below his "highness" at Borders and smiling... yes, sometimes right at him. The fight was a fight I had been having with him for awhile. It's corporate policy and city policy that non-service dogs can't be in stores that sell food, like Borders does with it's cafe. I should note that I have nothing against dogs, aside from severe allergies, but when you're in a bookstore and want to get that copy of Edge of Reason and there's a guy with his dog with a bag of dog poop in one hand and a book in the other... well, you complain. And then you storm out without getting the book... and yeah, things escalate quickly. So besides having the shit repeatedly kicked out of me, getting a copy of this book was an adventure in itself. There were tears.
Bridget herself had an ill advised adventure in Edge of Reason too. That first time I read this book the whole Bridget being arrested for drug possession in Thailand and then becoming queen of the prison overshadowed everything. Well, that and the fact that in the book it says that MI-5 helped Mark... well, MI-5 is for domestic not international disputes, so, this error really really annoyed me. In fact, this scene, which upon re-reading is so short and brief, I can't come to terms as to why it bothered me so much. Maybe it's just the quintessential Britishness of Bridget and her being in Thailand seemed out of place. Or over the years the mildly related second movie has so eclipsed the book in it's badness that upon picking up the book again I realized how fresh and funny it was, unlike the movie which just might be the worst film ever made. It also helps if you are trying to avoid reading the worst Doctor Who book ever written, just saying...
Taking it's plot from Jane Austen's Persuasion, the misunderstandings and the reconciliations hang off this basic spine, but it's the little things I love. The battle with the construction worker, and who hasn't had a worker show up and destroy your house and then disappear into the aether? That Colin Firth interview, seriously, that would be me interviewing Colin Firth! Also, the movie he's promoting isn't actually that bad, a little weird and it was renamed My Life So Far if you want to check it out, you'll learn a lot about curling and sphagnum moss. But it's Bridget's just, well, not obtuseness, but, she's a romantic, so she lives in hope but it is in fact her hopelessness that makes this book such a fun read. Also the whole taking self help books as spiritualism... it really is quite clever and it is a new religion. Long live Bridget Jones, the girl able to turn her problems into a system of belief. ...more
Bridget Jones lives the typical life of a singleton. She drinks too much, eats too much, smokes too much, worries about dying alone, worries about notBridget Jones lives the typical life of a singleton. She drinks too much, eats too much, smokes too much, worries about dying alone, worries about not having a boyfriend, has smug married friends who are no help at all in the self esteem department, and parents that are forever causing issues. If she could just get her act together and find a nice sensible boyfriend. Though that hardly looks to be the case for this year as she has just started seeing her boss, Daniel Cleaver, who is the exact person she meant to stop fantasizing about this year... then there's Mark Darcy, the man her parents wish she would start dating. A man she finds quite odd and off putting, at least at first. With emotional ups and downs like her yo-yoing weight, Bridget has her year cut out for her.
Back in 2001 things for me were rough. They were going to get far worse that summer, but at the time I didn't know that. I really needed an escape and Colin Firth was about to show me the way. The movie Bridget Jones's Diary might not have ever registered on my radar if not for Mr. Darcy. Knowing that it was based on a book, and you all being familiar with my tendencies, I just had to read it and picked up the tie-in. The book sat languishing for a little while. I was in the middle of a theatre production of Endgame that was about to end very dramatically with the Beckett estate shutting it down and confiscating the playbills, photographs, scripts... you see, Beckett has some very sticky rules that you have to abide by his vision, so no cross gender casting, no "interpretations," it's as he wrote it or you'll find yourself never getting to see your name in a playbill as "properties master" for the first time. The weekend that was to be our big opening instead became a bit of a wake and I needed something, anything, to distract me. I picked up Bridget Jones's Diary.
I powered through the first book, ran to Borders, powered through the second book and then took to the internet to learn more about this new genre I had just stumbled on, Chick Lit. It was kind of an avalanche after that, with me ordering Helen Fielding's other books, looking at the Amazon recommendations, finding other authors, you get the picture. Helen Fielding, besides being deemed the progenitor of this literary subgenre by others, was quite literally the starting point for me as well. If you don't view Helen Fielding as the doyenne of Chick Lit, we might just as well stop talking right now. With the newest installment of Bridget's adventures about to hit shelves this past fall I knew that it was time to reacquaint myself with Miss Jones. What's interesting is that, well, I didn't love it as much as I did. Perhaps it's just that others have taken off from where she started and done bigger and better since, so therefore this was a bit flat. Also, is it just me or is Daniel Cleaver a real dick? I wonder if somehow over time Hugh Grant and his ability to be a letch with also still being cute has worked it's way so far into my mind that I forgot the truth of the book. Daniel Cleaver is a dick.
I think in fact that the movie is the more successful of the two incarnations of this story, which is the exact opposite for the second. The movie hammered out issues and some of the unrealistic situations. That is what strikes me most as annoying in the book, things that are unrealistic, but not funnily so. Bridget's mum and her men. Bridget and her unrealistic weight issues. Now here I want to be clear, it's not the struggle with her weight I object to, nor her horrific eating habits, but the fact that using a BMI index, Bridget would have to be shorter then 5'4" (which is oddly how tall Renee Zellweger is) to be fat for the weight listed... do I think she's that short? No. I think that Helen Fielding needed to do her research here a little better. That or she totally has some sort of eating disorder herself and has bizarre expectations, which I think is best summed up when Tom asks Bridget that doesn't she need 2,000 calories a day to live?
Also, the deus ex machina of Bridget and Mark. They barely have contact or talk in the book and at the end he swoops in, fixes everything and they whisk off to a hotel and declare their love for each other. Excuse me? I know this whisking of to a hotel and happily ever after is kind of a trope of the genre, it even happens in the first Shopaholic book by Sophie Kinsella... but there needs to be some development to get to that point. Sure we KNOW they are destined to be together, that doesn't mean that you just put them together at the end because it's the end... sigh. I think I'm going to go watch the movie again instead of thinking about this anymore.
Actually, one more thing... the graphic designer in me CAN NOT be silenced. I bought this lovely Penguin edition, because, I mean, seriously, this is a lovely cover, even if Bridget is a little too svelte in my mind. But there's a big problem with how the front flap's illustration looks when you're reading. A picture is worth a thousand words... so here's a picture...
Here's the cute illustration, love the banner of "No Emotional Fuckwittage."
Now here's what you see when you're reading... yes, it does look like a boob is starring at you. It's very off putting. Now I have nothing wrong with boobs, I have two of them. But do I want one starring at me while I'm trying to read? No thank you. Also, now my mom won't stop laughing after I showed her this as the definition of bad illustration placement......more
Johnny Truant comes into possession of a very odd manuscript written by a man named Zampano. Zampano had spent his life assembling the definitive studJohnny Truant comes into possession of a very odd manuscript written by a man named Zampano. Zampano had spent his life assembling the definitive study of the documentary film The Navidson Record, about the Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Will Navidson and his companion Karen Green who move into a house on Ash Tree Lane with their two young children. The film deals with the startling realization that their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. At first it's just little discrepancies, but soon a door appears. Behind the door is a large and every changing labyrinth thats size is incalculable. They soon start to film their discoveries and even mount a expedition into the depths of the house. The assembled footage is what makes up The Navidson Record.
Only Johnny Truant finds that The Navidson Record apparently doesn't exist. Johnny soon becomes obsessed with finishing Zampano's work, but at the same time he is descending into the same madness that claimed the old man. Johnny is attaching tape measures to the floors and walls of his apartment to make sure they don't move. He rarely ventures out anymore. He is a man obsessed. He finds that above all, he needs to find the house. Finding the house might solve everything.
This book has been logically categorized as if The Blair Witch Project was a book. That is about the quickest way to sum up this book without driving your listener insane. The book is a weird post-modernist twist on literature wherein all the narrators are unreliable and some of them might not even be real. This leads me to the question that is of paramount importance to me, is House of Leaves a parody or is it deadly serious? Are all the copious and minuscule footnotes a parody on academic writing? Is the layout meant to be fun, interactive, and slightly off putting? These two diametrically opposed opinions make the book either good or bad. Because if it's parody it's genius, but if it's deadly seriously, I want to cut the author. It's a dense book that is a slow read because there is so much going on with at least four stories being told simultaneously, and of those I really only like one of them. From a design standpoint it's amazingly done, but design alone doesn't make a book work.
This book is insanely layered and nuanced, meaning, the more you read, the more you find. But the problem I had was that the only storyline I wanted to follow was The Navidson Record. I didn't care about Johnny and his lifestyle of dissipation, or of Zampano, who, let's face it, is seriously just a figment of Johnny's imagination. I don't come by that theory lightly. If you skip ahead and read the letters to Johnny from his institutionalized mother who always believes in the power of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary and marking letters that haven't been tampered with with a check mark and then go back to earlier in the book, there's an entry where Zampano quotes directly from the COED and in the lower corner... is that a check mark? Basically proving beyond a shadow of doubt in my mind that Johnny is writing all Zampano's stuff because he is Zampano.
But narrative aside, I don't think this book was good for my health. You know how there are some books that make you feel what it's like to be insane, to be in the shoes of the character, the thing is, I think this book was actually setting out to make me insane and scarily enough succeeding. Hundreds of pages of tiny footnotes just listing photographers or artists or architectural styles gets to you... and yes, I did read them all. Also, all those architectural styles listed to laboriously drill home and prove that the house wasn't like any other architecture but then having the stairs have a banister and the doors frames... that's contradictory... and yes, this are the little things that seeped into my head in the small hours. Seriously, how long before the cardboard and tinfoil and egg cartoons start decorating my room... Not to even mention how the design made you feel like you had fallen into the book and were trapped in some weird Lewis Carroll world and you where never going to get out and you where never going to be free... I got into some bleak trains of thought with this book, none of them good.
Yet the design of this book is meticulous. If it wasn't for the design you wouldn't have that vertiginous sensation that you were falling into the book. Of course the previous one hundred pages of dense type that softened up your mind to fully lose it was more likely to be affected by stretches of blank pages where there was sometimes only a word per page. One week I would only get through a hundred pages and then the next day I'd get through one hundred and fifty more because of the design. The different fonts to identify authorship made it easy to distinguish whose voice I was listening to and did help to make the book less obtuse. Plus, the subtle blue at every use of the word house and all the minotaur references being in red was pretty darn awesome. But as I said above, design doesn't make a book, unless it's a design book I should point out... the design should support a quality narrative not surpass it. They need to be equal and go hand in glove. I shouldn't be giving a full star to the design and the other star just to the one plot line I liked. This book could have been amazing. Could have been is the key for me. Instead I think I'm a little more off balance then before.
On New Year's Eve 1974 Archie Jones sets out to kill himself but ends up being unsuccessful, yet like a butterfly leaving the cocoon, he leaves that gOn New Year's Eve 1974 Archie Jones sets out to kill himself but ends up being unsuccessful, yet like a butterfly leaving the cocoon, he leaves that gas filled car a new man. A new life and a new wife await him! His old army buddy Samad Iqbal has been saying to him for awhile that what he needs is a new young wife, like his own Alsana. That night Archie meets Clara Bowden and by Valentine's Day they are man and wife. Archie is escaping the life left in that car and Clara is escaping her mother, Hortense, whose religious beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness have stifled Clara's life. It isn't long before the middle aged men are fathers. Archie has a lovely daughter, Irie, and Samad has twins boys, Magid and Millat, who couldn't be more different.
It is 1984 and now Samad's life is about to change forever. He falls hard for his son's music teacher, Poppy Burt-Jones. The lust stirred in Samad has him questioning everything. But the attraction is mutual, and soon he has a new outlet for his lust. Yet his religious beliefs and the sin he is committing because, as he claims, the lure of the Western world has seduced him, leads him to do something that his wife will never forgive him for. He feels that if he could be degraded in this way, his sons are in even worse danger. He wants to send them back to Bangladesh, but only has the financial resources to send one of them. Magid and Millat are separated and Alsana can never forgive him until Magid is returned to her.
The 90s have come and Irie is grown up and in love with Millat. Millat has indeed fallen prey to the lure of the West as his father feared. He sleeps around, does drugs, gets into fights, and is still somehow the object of Irie's affection, which he doesn't return. One day at school Irie is confronting Millat near resident nerd Josh Chalfen when there is a drugs bust. The three of them get brought before the principal for Millat's marijuana. In the hope that Josh and his illustrious family, his mother Joyce is an author, his father Marcus is a genetic engineer, will be a good influence on Irie and Millat, they are to go to the Chalfens once a week and have Josh tutor them. Soon it's everyday. Joyce takes an extreme interest in Millat while Irie starts to work for Marcus as an assistant. Even Magid, back in Bangladesh, befriends Marcus and decides to return to England. But the life of Chalfenism is divisive, and soon Josh has joined an animals rights group, FATE, to protest his father's genetic engineering of FutureMouse, while Millat has joined a fundamentalist Islamic group, KEVIN, to turn his back on his old life and the fact that Marcus prefers Magid. On the eve of the new millennium, everyone gathers to herald the arrival of FutureMouse... most with differing ideas as to how the evening will go.
From the little blurb I have assembled above you might be drawn to the false conclusion that this book actually has a plot. It doesn't. Well... it kind of does at the very end where Zadie Smith apparently realized she needed one and just threw in a handful of new characters and a whole bunch of organizations with stupid acronyms and built to an unsatisfying conclusion with guns and Nazis and genetically engineered mice. That is right, she brought in Nazis. And I think that's the problem, she brought in whatever she wanted randomly and then just threw it aside when she got bored. Though she never seemed to get bored of slightly tweaking the reader with little asides in some random post modern moments of incomprehensibility. So the book actually feels like a bunch of interconnected short stories, some of which might have been good if they hadn't been thrown in with the morass of crap and depravity that makes up the majority of this book.
Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend and she asked me if I had read Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I replied that I had, mainly because it was a loosely, if failed, reimagining of Howards End, and was mentioned on The Vicar of Dibley. She was wondering if I was put off by the very detailed descriptions of one of the character's nipples. I honestly said that I had no recollection of this, most likely I had blocked it from my memory. I can honestly say though, after reading White Teeth, I will never forget Zadie Smith's obsession with nipples ever again. In fact, this book can be summed up as very boring with a veneer of eww. If I wasn't bored senseless I was quite literally wanting to throw up. Thirty pages of a 57 year old man masturbating (another friend claims it might have been more, perhaps I'm preemptively blocking this out). Domestic abuse, where the children are placing bets on their parents. Teenagers marrying men in their 40s (proving Smith has daddy issues). A father of Irie's classmate calling her a big black goddess and ruminating about her breasts, when she's only what, fourteen! The aforementioned nipples, except for multiple characters, not just one. I wanted to wash my brain after reading this book.
Now, you're thinking that I missed the point, that the book wasn't about these accumulated repugnant and repulsive moments. I totally get that the book is about heritage and ancestry and genetics and what limitations we are burdened with, nature, nurture, fate. The second generation versus the first generation. You would have to be blind to miss this, especially once we get to FutureMouse. But the truth is, I can't, I couldn't, give a tinker's damn. It doesn't matter if you set out to write the most amazing, most profound story, if your characters are not only unlikeable, but reprehensible, then there is no way I will care. With all this ick as I will pejoratively call everything in this book, there wasn't a redeemable character or any reason to even finish reading this book except for the fact that I am incapable of leaving a book unfinished. So I finished. I read ever last work she wrote and I hated it. Mine is an educated hate, you can't say fairer then that!
James Halliday is the creator of the OASIS. In all immersive MMO that allows everyone on Earth to escape the horrors of what has become of the world iJames Halliday is the creator of the OASIS. In all immersive MMO that allows everyone on Earth to escape the horrors of what has become of the world in the near future and go to school, party, or just explore and level their avatar. Halliday was the biggest geek there was and he wanted his passions to be your passions, and his main passion was the 1980s, the time when he was a teenager. When he died he left no heirs and created a treasure hunt within the OASIS to decide who would be worthy of being his successor. His Willy Wonka test was neigh on indecipherable with a little video he made which ended up being nicknamed Anorak's Invitation, after his Avatar, Anorak. Soon a culture of hunters, called gunters, form with the sole purpose of memorizing the minutiae of Halliday and the 80s and finding Halliday's fortune.
Wade Watts is a gunter with the handle Parzival. He has spent five years of his life learning everything there is to know about James Halliday. For five long years no one has made the least bit of headway with the quest until Parzival stumbles on the answer while sitting in his virtual classroom. Within hours two people have passed through the first of three gates that lead to Halliday's egg. It soon becomes clear to Parzival that this is going to end sooner then anyone thought, with more dangers then he could imagine. Now that the first hurtle is passed, it won't be long before things come to a head. While Parzival has troubles trusting the other gunters he's come to view as his friends, the real danger is IOI, a rival organization who wants to win the game, not to win, but to control the OASIS.
As many people have started their review with "this book was written just for my generation and me in particular," well, I figure, I will reiterate that sentiment. Yes, this book was written for me. I was born in 1978, so a little younger then Halliday, and Cline himself, but of the same generation, so to speak. I will not go on and then say that this book is just wonderful and marvelous and just spoke to me, because, well, it just didn't. You know, it actually kind of enrages me that this book is so well regarded and lauded. It isn't the book itself you can be in love with, it just can't be, with it's bland prose riddled with errors, and it's dry clinical writing style, making it almost like a history book, though written by someone with an ego who is very self impressed that they have all this knowledge at their fingertips.
You're in love with the memories this book evokes, the connection it forges using emotional cues from your past. You say "Pac-Man" and I'm a little kid again down at the Brat and Brau feeding quarters into their "Ms. Pac-Man" machine in the few spare minutes I had before the food arrived and my grandmother started piling the A-1 on her dinner. That dark and dingy little restaurant that had the cliched wooden panelling that my basement had and made the restaurant part rathskeller, part sports bar. Side note, I didn't need to read a whole chapter on every level of "Pac-Man" and how the final screen is only half there, I knew that, move on. Cline has taped into the zeitgeist of an era and has just info dumped on us, using touchstones like the Whedonverse to make little geeks and wannabes sqwee with joy. There is nothing that it makes me think of more then the episode of Community "Regional Holiday Music" which they did as a skewering of Glee. One of the songs, to entice Pierce to enter into the singing spirit, was called "Baby Boomer Santa." As Annie said in the episode "Pierce, they're just trying to pander to your demographics documented historical vanity. Resist!" The song is nothing more then a list of things that would appeal to Pierce, from Coca-Cola to The Beatles, Woodstock to Vietnam. This is what Ready Player One does! It just lists things from the 80s that we connect to from Galaga to WarGames and all the hipsters and 80s geeks and everyone is sucked in. To that I echo Annie Edison! RESIST!
This info dump mentality makes the book like the carrion of literature displaying the largest lack of imagination I have seen in a book. Ready Player One is part Willy Wonka, part Ender's Game with John Hughes doing the adaptation. I defy you to find something actually original in this book. All the humor and originality is directly lifted from other sources. Why is the final battle Parzival faces so funny? Because he's in Monty Python and the Holy Grail! The entire action, the entire everything is Monty Python's genius, NOT Ernest Cline's! This happens again and again throughout the book. And then there's Halliday and Morrow. Let's talk about James Halliday and Ogden Morrow, or as they really are, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Even if Cline hadn't laboriously pointed that the "fictitious characters" had been compared to these two real men, there is no grey area here. They are 100% these two men. Halliday even dies! Add to that the fact that Ready Player One goes into Phone Phreaking a lot, and Wozniak was part of this phenomenon, and they just get more and more similar. Then, in the, really, you really had to do that, bash my head against the wall, make me want to light the book on fire, there's the fact that the Wozniak character, Ogden, had the nickname Og, like Wozniak with Woz. Seriously? I mean seriously? It's not funny, it's a joke that is flat. Also, let's keep in mind that everyone knows that Woz is the one who was more, how shall I say, fun and relaxed of the two, so he wouldn't be litigious, even though he's spinning tunes as a DJ in a glass bubble before shooting lightning out of his fingers (yes, this seriously happens, and if it was me, I'd have my lawyer on speed dial). This is just degrading to me and in my mind to him, a man I very much admire. Sure he was on Dancing with the Stars, but you know what, he had a choice in that. I have a strong feeling, that while Halliday is never depicted negatively, if Jobs hadn't been on his deathbed, there might have been some serious legal action on this book.
If I where to just talk about Cline's writing, I would have to go back to the major flaw in this book in that Cline NEVER sticks to his own internal rules he has created. One minute there's never been a game like the WarGames simulation in the first gate, the next second Wade is on a date with Art3mis and they're in a Goonies rendition that is exactly like the simulation no one had ever thought of. When he's getting ready to clear the first gate, it's a Thursday night, clearly stated as Thursday, because he says he only has one more day of school before the weekend. Because of clearing the gate he sleeps through school, but then gets up bright and early the next day and goes to school... on a Saturday? Then the stupid Fyndoro whatever can only be used once in 24 hours, and then they use it like 6 hours later? Um,if you're going to phone in half your book by ripping other, better, people off, the least, the very very least you could do is get your own writing right. To step further away from all the things that are like or ripped off from other sources, let's talk about the part of the book that is Cline's. It's like he doesn't know what he wants his world to be. Is it dystopian, well yes, but then he drastically shifts away from this interesting study of the poor Wade and his living in "the stacks" and goes 180 and it becomes about this "affluent" kid that Wade has become, lured by the gadgets money has bought him. Which takes the soul out of the book. And then it just becomes the typical "Big Brother" story about a company trying to take control of the OASIS at any cost, deaths allowed. So, now the book is a thriller with corporate espionage? Really, Cline, you needed to keep a similar feel and a through line through this book. Instead you made Wade a douche and then I almost wanted the bad guys to win. And in the end, what was the moral? Stop playing games and get a real life? Because, Halliday just had these gunters waste SIX YEARS of their lives to learn that lesson. Douche Halliday. Also, you kind of made me never want to go near a computer again. And what fantasy world is this where a company would actually keep your information private, cause it's not ours? Now that is pure fiction.
To finalize what I refer to now as my ranty rant. There are just so many books and movies and music that Cline has mined, all of which are more original and better, so just go and give credit to the original, not the wannabe. Also, if you want something that actually captures the feeling I think Cline was aiming for, go read or watch Scott Pilgrim. As I read in another review among those fellow haters, I think Sissyneck on goodreads summed it up perfectly. "In a nice manifestation of the novel's lack of self-awareness, Cline at one point derides the villains of the book for simply using "Johnny 5" style robots from Short Circuit instead [of] coming up with their own design. This appropriation, he explains, demonstrates "a lack of imagination," a valid criticism that only too accurately applies to the ostensible heroes of the book, as well as to Cline himself." Right on Sissyneck! And here's a little Pierce Hawthrone to sing us out...
Funny little guide to being a human written by Isabel Spellman. Very funny, it's like reading lots of the footnotes for one of Lutz's Spellman books,Funny little guide to being a human written by Isabel Spellman. Very funny, it's like reading lots of the footnotes for one of Lutz's Spellman books, also, some of the points are right on. Also has sneak peek of new Spellman book to, which was awesome btw (full book and sneak peek)....more
The Rapture has happened. Or at least an event that looks so much like the rapture that it makes no difference, except to those who are offended by thThe Rapture has happened. Or at least an event that looks so much like the rapture that it makes no difference, except to those who are offended by the choices made as to those taken. How could they take the idolaters and not the true believers? Yet one thing is certain, with so many people now gone, everyones life has changed. Kevin Garvey's wife has left him to go and be a part of the new cult The Guilty Remnant, where she keeps silent and smokes all day while accusing her fellow citizens with her mere presence. Their daughter Jill has sunk into sex and drugs with her sexy new friend Aimee who walks around the Garvey house in almost nothing. Their son has joined another cult, the Healing Hug Movement, that seems to put a lot of stock into their holy leader, Wayne. Yet Nora Durst is the one suffering most, as she lost her husband and her children. While the town gathers to mourn those who have left, each of these people will continue on their own painful journey while the world seems to be in limbo, allowing grief to rule the day years later. Yet their journeys will cross, and in those brief moments, maybe they can try to move on.
The concept of this book is genius, the execution is another thing. Instead of finding the humor in his topic, Perrotta seems to have thought the book was an excuse to wallow in a midlife crisis and dwell overly long on grief. Add to that characters that are so shallow they verge on being less then one dimensional, especially the women, whose only way to deal with grief or their emotional traumas is to do something to their hair. Because obviously, all women are superficial and only skin deep. Whereas the male lead, Kevin Garvey, is living, in my opinion, Perrotta's dream life. His family has all deserted him, he has his daughter's hot friend living in the house, obviously every woman wants him because he has power as the mayor, and therefore his life is good. If Perrotta had been skewering this perception of male wish fulfilment, that might have been something, but it appears to be in earnest.
That's the whole problem in the book. It's earnest. Instead of lampooning weird end of days cults and the new mentality of the human race, we get people who have been given an excuse to wallow in their grief. Hundreds of pages of shallow wallowing. Because nothing is ever analysed, it just is. Nora Durst lost her family, so here's a hundred pages of her riding a bike and not thinking about the tragedy. Jill ditches school and does some tame drugs, oh, now that's a totally revolutionary way for a teenager to revolt now isn't it? This book is so shallow that if I were to throw it into the deep end of a pool it would come out without even moisture on it.
The Guilty Remnant and Holy Wayne with his Healing Hug Movement seemed to have potential, but instead it's basically Jim Jones and his "Kool-Aid" at work. Though there is no analysis of the parallels, no plugging into the zeitgeist that makes such organizations form. Everything is just surface. If you actually want humor and Jim Jones, go read Armistead Maupin's third Tales of the City book, Further Tales of the City. In fact, thinking of Maupin has now made me sadder, because there is a true comedic American writer and I'm sure given the same basic plot of this book he could have written a satire that pierced the American way of life while also tackling grief.
Needless to say this will be the first and last book by Perrotta that I ever read. He is mostly known for the book the classic Reese Witherspoon movie Election is based on, a fact that he himself is mighty proud of in his Q&A at the end of the book. Well Mr. Perrotta, you shouldn't be that full of yourself. You wrote a superficial little novel that reads as a pathetic roman a clef of yourself. I've seen into you and you are a trifling writer of meagre and bland talents and you have wasted my time with a book that was unable to deliver on it's premise. Also, just as a final note, if you only "rapture" up a small number of the population of the earth, there really can't be that many people missing from one small town in New Jersey now can there? Just saying, basic math!...more
Noel Foster has come into some money. So, he decides to get his money to work for him. He will set himself up as a rich bachelor in order to entice an heiress his way. Therefore, the money just needs to hold out until his hoped for nuptials. Unfortunately, he has asked for the help of his friend Jasper Aspect, who is quite good at parting Noel from his money and making it disappear at a prodigious rate. So they remove themselves from London to Chalford, where the heiress Eugenia Malmain lives. Of course, she's a bit odd... in that she is a fanatic fascist and will convert anyone to the cause. Noel and Jasper quickly sign up in the hopes that it will bring them closer to the goal of Noel marrying Eugenia, his targeted heiress. Though soon the town has a rather wealthy lady on the run from her wedding day along with her best friend Poppy, who rather thinks Jasper is nicer then her own husband, as well as a few Private Eyes. If only Noel could fall for Eugenia and tie everything up, but sadly, he falls for the local beauty who is under the mistaken assumption that Noel is deposed royalty. In true British fashion, everything goes haywire and then ends with a fete. Yet, what are the fates of those involved?
When perusing Lauren Willig's list of books that inspired The Ashford Affair, I saw this little, long out of print book by Nancy Mitford among the other tomes. I turned around and looked at the little volume sitting on my shelf and it spoke to me. In fact, all the Nancy Mitford books got so chatty that I ended up doing my long thought of "Mitford March" because of their insistence. Also, as Lauren and Nancy have said, if I hadn't I would have probably been "too too shame-making" and my Mitford books would have run away. Oddly enough the book that inspired this idea ended up being the last read on my Mitford binge. Wigs on the Green is an interesting book, not just for the humor and the sly pokes at Nancy's family, but because of the controversy surrounding it. Because it deals with Fascism (in a humorous way) and pokes fun not only at Nancy's sister Unity, but also her sister Diana, and Diana's husband to be, Walter Mosley, the three darlings of Hitler. The book understandably infuriated quite a few members of her family and resulted in some long and awkward silences. Therefore, when her publisher requested the rights to reprint, Nancy denied them. Whether this was for her families sensibilities and a desire to restore the calm, or whether it was because she truly believed that Hitler's atrocities were so serious and horrid, that it was no longer a laughing matter, we will not know.
Thankfully when Nancy's back catalog was being re-released, Wigs on the Green was among those selected. I personally believe that it must have been family pressure that resulted in this books long absence, because I don't think that her excuse of not laughing at Hitler is valid. Yes, he was pure evil, yes, it wasn't a laughing matter... but the way to take away someone's power is to laugh at them, and Nancy loved to tease and everything was a laughing matter to her. Look to Harry Potter, and yes, it's an odd digression I admit. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Lupin has the students face a boggart, which is a shape-shifter that takes the form of your worst nightmare. The spell that destroys the boggart, Riddikulus, forces the nightmare to take on a humorous form and is then destroyed by laughter. Proving, in the most simplest of terms, that by laughing at something or someone, you take away their power. This book should have been widely distributed to soldiers everywhere, so, her publisher was right on that count. Everyone needs a laugh, and a laugh at the enemies expense is all the better.
As for the laughing. This book was seriously funny, especially if you know a little British history. The send up of the Blackshirts with the Union Jackshirts with their absurd outfits and laughable fervor. I think that Eugenia is probably the only earnest believer in Fascism, while all the rest are just joining the bandwagon, and the fact that Eugenia has been so sheltered, her fervent belief is to be laughed at like that one friend you had in high school who spent all their time lecturing you on why Pepsi was evil because of various civil rights infringements that they could never explain properly to you, but insisted you join their boycott. And that is where the humor really lies, in the personality types Nancy is teasing. We have all known the oddly fervent and political, likewise, the ones who pretend to be to get in with them, those who would do anything for money, even marrying odd heiresses, those who revel in making merry hell for their friends, those who get the wrong end of the stick, and those who are totally potty... though perhaps not to the extent of living up a tree... Sure she was making fun of her family, but it wasn't just them, it's the personality they typified. We are all amusing, Nancy just had a way of making it apparent....more
Fanny's life is being turned upside down. She has spent a quiet life in Oxford with her husband, raising her boys. They are now gone from home, two ouFanny's life is being turned upside down. She has spent a quiet life in Oxford with her husband, raising her boys. They are now gone from home, two out of school and two at Eton. What is Fanny to do? Settle into middle age and just wait for death? Sounds fine to her. Then she receives a shocking blow, her husband has been named Ambassador to France, making her Ambassadress. They are to uproot their lives and start hosting cocktail parties and dealing with foreign crises in a large mansion in France. Never before has Fanny had to personally deal with family problems being fodder for the gutter press. Nor did she think that the former Ambassadress secretly living in the Embassy would threaten Alfred's tenure as the new Ambassador. Such little things, like her sons showing up unexpectedly, or her mother remarrying, become not little incidents to be dealt with, but calamities to hide from their dinner guests. Fanny is sure she shall fail, and miserably. Luckily she does have some people on her side, and the ace up her sleeve is her father figure Davey. When in doubt, get Davey. He can do anything, even smoke out former Ambassadresses from the woodwork!
I remember being on Lauren Willig's blog one day and she was talking about heading out to Paris on a research trip and how that had inspired a need to re-read Nancy Mitford's Don't Tell Alfred. At this time I had already read The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, being the two books of Nancy's that you could actually get stateside, so I was interested in this book of hers I'd not heard of. So I went to Wikipedia and looked it up. Where I read "it is the third in a trilogy centered around an upper-class English family, and takes place twenty years after the events of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate." I instantly went WHAT!?! (But say it in your head as David Walliams does it so well on Little Britain playing Sebastian, the PM's assistant, WOT!?!) So many thoughts went through my head, mainly, wait, there's a third book followed closely by, but I have an omnibus, omnibuses aren't supposed to leave out books in the series. Then very quickly, "I MUST FIND THIS BOOK!" superseded all other thoughts. Luckily it was around the time of Deborah's 90th birthday when the publishing Gods decided to re-release Nancy's back catalog, so finding the book proved a lot easier then I thought it would, you can't say the same for Highland Fling, Christmas Pudding or Pigeon Pie. Of course I had to find time to re-read the first two first... which proved rather difficult... until now!
And oh, how I wanted to love it, or even like it, but seriously... it was horrid. I can see why the critics ripped it to shreds. In fact, because of critics, she never wrote fiction again. Personally, if you where going just by this volume, I am with the critics, I would have been begging Nancy to forever put down the pen. My main gripe? Well, seeing as this is a gaggle of characters that are not only known and loved but revered by some, I wanted them to stay IN CHARACTER. I mean, it's like everyone had a full frontal lobotamy and personality transplant. Uncle Matthew loving cocktail parties and he WILLINGLY went to France!?! This was the man who refused to eat under any roof but his own and hated foreigners. The entrenching tool being his weapon of choice against them, not witty dialogue... thankfully Nancy doesn't push it THAT far, seeing as he only goes to the cocktail parties for the food. Also, Aunt Sadie, her and Matthew were insperable, and here they are, sperated. Alfred actually leaving his cloistered life as an Oxford don to be an Ambassador? No. And then there's Fanny. I don't know what happened to the down to earth Fanny who had her life together, but obviously, she's gone, replaced with a twit who cares more about clothes and bungling parties then anything else. Also blithly killing people off in assides and not telling us why in most cases, goodbye Aunt Emily, Lady Montdore, Lord Montdore, two of Matthew's three boys... I'm sure there are more, but I can't think through all the eliptical carnage.
Besides changing every personality trait of the characters I loved, Nancy added too many new characters I couldn't care about at all, let alone distinguish one from the other. There where lots of French people, lots of non French people. The only person I kind of liked was her cousin Lousia's daughter Northey, who was basically Linda mac two, though Scottish. She even had Linda's badger obsession. If they ever decide to make this into a movie, if they don't case Karen Gillan from Doctor Who as Northey it will be the biggest wasted opportunity ever. On top of the lack of who all these characters are, the writing is confusing so that you never know who is talking. There can be pages and pages of dialogue, with no attribution, no "Fanny said" no "Northey said" no nothing. And you know what? The dialogue was so boring, I didn't even bother trying to figure out who said what. Yes Nancy, you bored me.
Yet what was the biggest bore and drain? Politics! I'm guessing the two main things that where being debated in the book was some rocks/islands and the forming of a European Army... someone else who has read this I would love confirmation as to this being the case. Politics in general bore me, made up French politics put me into a coma. I'm sorry Nancy, just because you where in love with a Frenchman who worked for de Gaulle, doesn't mean that instantly all his boring politics and life become interesting to the rest of us. Plus, it was more you in love with him and his world, he really couldn't care about you... so, why did you torture us with this book? Really!?! It was like you where purposefully destroying all the lovely memories I have of the previous two volumes. It no longer surprises me why this was out of print....more
**spoiler alert** There is a secret organization that lovingly cares for and protects rare and old books. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books has a tradit**spoiler alert** There is a secret organization that lovingly cares for and protects rare and old books. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books has a tradition, that when you are first brought to the labyrinthine structure you must pick one book among the thousand of thousands and protect it for life. When young Daniel Sempere is taken their by his father he picks up a book by Julián Carax called The Shadow of the Wind. Daniel devours the book from cover to cover and has a fire burning inside him to know more about Julián Carax. But there are no other books by Julián Carax anymore. A man who has taken his moniker from the devil in Carax's book, Laín Coubert, has slowly been finding every copy of all Carax's titles and burning them. Daniel, along with his sidekick Fermín, start to unravel the mysterious life of Julián Carax and why anyone would want to remove his literary oeuvre from history. It is a journey that is dangerous and dark, with a twisted secret at the center of it.
Ever since I first watched The Neverending Story I thought how wonderful it would be to find a book that was truly magical. To wander into a shop filled with shelves and shelves of stories and have one call out to me and ask me to be the bearer of it's secrets. I think this is a dream that all bibliophiles hold deep in their hearts, that there is a story out there just for them and it will change the course of their lives. It seemed to me that Daniel Sempere, much like Bastian before him, had inadvertently stumbled into this dream. Devouring this book over the course of a few short days I realized that not every dream is satisfactory, and in the hands of the wrong author, can be dull, predictable, and at times insipid. And I would like it noted I devoured this book because I had a book club meeting fast approaching and it had nothing to do with the book itself. And to all those people who lauded this book I seriously want to ask you why!?!
Firstly, let's talk about incest. This has become, in recent years, the most overused trope I can possibly think of. I mean they even used it on a CW show! If a trope has trickled all the way down to be acceptable by the brainless teenagers who actually watch this station then it's time to get a new trope. From Flowers in the Attic to A Game of Thrones, seriously, is this supposed to shock us anymore? Sure, once it was a great taboo, and in actuality, it still is, but fictionally, nope. To have the big reveal of what destroyed Julian Carax's life was his love of Penélope Aldaya, whom he didn't know was his sister was laughable. All this build up, all these leads that Daniel Sempere searched and hunted through all the streets of Barcelona to come to this? Oh please. It's not like they knew they were siblings. Sigh, what some people find as a shocking reveal can be shockingly flat.
The predictability of The Shadow of the Wind might just be the biggest flaw. I saw the incest coming a mile off, just one scene with Penélope's father and Julian's mother and that's that. Of course it takes the characters hundreds of pages to get to this reveal which leads to my other main gripe, the lack of forward momentum. You'd think that a man hunting you down through the streets to destroy a book you are bound to protect all while trying to find out his reasoning would be a headlong rush with adrenaline pounding in your veins. You'd be wrong. It plods and limps through the streets of Barcelona occasionally even going back on it's self to retell things that were boring the first time. Oh, and the stupidity of the characters! Just wow. The height of this is when Nuria Monfort tells her side of the story, which was basically her retelling the whole book from her point of view! Almost a hundred pages of her being repetitive. Also, what really annoyed me, she supposedly wrote this all out by hand when what was her job? A secretary who could type really fast! And what did Daniel mention seeing in her apartment the first time he was there? A typewriter! Oh, for fucks sack. They all deserved to die.
But let's move to the bigger picture now. At the time directly preceding the action of Daniel Sempere the Spanish Civil War happened. Yeah, the war mentioned so subtly you could miss it wasn't World War II, because Spain remained neutral during that specific war. And despite what Wikipedia might try to convince you, the war is just the subtlest of afterthoughts and is in no way as important as it should have been. I'm not sure if this omission to not discuss the Spanish Civil War was accidental or on purpose. The book was written by a Spanish author so maybe he just assumed that this backdrop was common knowledge. Well, it isn't. A good editor when bringing this book to market in the US should have asked for something more to be slipped in, but then again, I don't really think it was well translated and well, in the end, I really didn't care.
What was interesting though was the discussion this book brought about in my book club as to what defines a book as Gothic. Luckily The Guardian has recently come out with a nice infographic to help you decide, Gothic or Not it. The villain could have been scarier, but the fact that he destroyed things by fire, that could be considered Gothic. The hero had a family AND a sidekick, this is definitely NOT Gothic. Was there spooky locations that might just be haunted... not really. It takes place in slightly olden days in a foreign country, so it's got that. There's snow and some rain and fog, but overall the weather isn't as oppressive as it should be. Overall, it didn't feel Gothic. Because to me, Gothic is a feeling more then anything else. A spookiness you feel in your bones that makes you keep reading late into the night out of sheer terror for what will happen to the hero or heroine next as they are cut off from the world and facing the horrors on their own. In other words, if you actually want Gothic, go read Rebecca or The Monk and stay clear of The Shadow of the Wind.
Cal was born Callie. There was no surgery, there was no accident. There was just a fluke of genes and a lack of knowledge. Cal tells us his story. TheCal was born Callie. There was no surgery, there was no accident. There was just a fluke of genes and a lack of knowledge. Cal tells us his story. The journey from female to male. The fact that being a hermaphrodite, while he has male genes, being raised female, has influenced him greatly, but not as greatly as he told the eminent Dr. Luce. Yet, to tell his tale, we must travel back in time. How was he formed? What where the confluence of genes that led to him. Desdemona and her brother Lefty, his paternal grandparents. They fled Greece in the onslaught of the Turkish. They also fled the fact that they where siblings, as well as third cousins. It was a very small village they came from, a village where sometimes, babies where born who where neither one thing or another.
Resettling in Detroit, they started a new life with their cousin Lina and her husband of convenience Zizmo. Lina likes the girls rather more than the boys, so is quite shocked when she and Desdemona both become pregnant, damn that arousing play they went to see. These two children will one day be Cal's parents. Spanning generations, the book shows how hard it is to live between two worlds. Male and female, Greek and American, child and adult. Is it genes that make us, environment, or something else entirely? Is it our choice?
I can see why this book won the Pulitzer. It's really well written, thought provoking, and an interesting and daring subject (hello again incest! You thought I was going to say hermaphrodite didn't you?), and literally made for book club dissection, which I will be doing. Yet, while enjoying the read, I never really felt that invested in the book or that enamoured of the characters. Middlesex is really at least six books in one; memoir, historical fiction, romance, coming of age, disillusioned youth, drifter in the vein of Holden Caulfield, and finally a weird John Waters Midnight Cowboy camp mash-up worthy of David Lynch.
The generational structure, which was necessary, because it showed how Callie became Cal, had the downside of me growing to really care about a character only to have Eugenides speed up the narrative and push them aside for the newer character to take the stage. He also had the tendency to not only marginalize the previous characters, but to demonize them in some fashion. Lefty and Desdemona's taboo love was turned sour, Milton and Tessie and their budding romance, turned into upper middle class boredom. While it shows that, indeed, life goes on and changes, it changed my feelings so much over the course of the narrative, that I began to marginalize the characters in my own mind before the author did it for me. We even seemed to be in sync when Dr. Luce came around, because after all that build up, he was there marginally for two weeks and then gone. With trying to cover so much historical ground, I hate to say this because I felt this book was overly long anyway and spent most of it's time stringing us along, but he should have made it an even bigger epic, so that the rush to end a tale and begin another tale was omitted and we could still care for those we had been previously reading about. Shift the focus, don't eliminate the previous characters as much. And don't put Desdemona in the guest house and only remember her after 100 pages to add a nice cyclical feeling at the end.
Other things that bothered me where quite nit-picky. Sometimes the language was overly written, this superfluous verbosity made me want to smack Eugenides from time to time, just as you probably wanted to do to me for using the phrase superfluous verbosity. This tendency in fact reminded me very much of Michael Chabon's The Final Solution, wherein I felt that Chabon wrote the book with a thesaurus full of obscure words just to drive me slightly insane. While Eugenides doesn't reach Cabon's heights of undesirable loquaciousness, he did have me shaking my fist and looking for a dictionary every once in a while.
Eugenides has a deft hand for humor, often leading to me laughing out loud, but occasionally he took the humor too far and it became a parody that didn't work. For example, the midnight car chase, started out funny, with it basically being the most sedate car chase ever, but then, it went over the top, and almost became a scene from one of Matt Damon's Bourne movies, but with an odd out-of-body coda. This, this was too much. As was the peep show in San Francisco. I'm not saying that this didn't work, I'm saying, it was more John Waters or David Lynch than any other part of the book and therefore did not feel like it was a part of this book.
String us along for hundreds of pages, at least Eugenides delivered where it mattered most. Callie. While parts of "her" own story I didn't like, such as the lecherous older men when she was younger and her slightly pervy brother, once she became a teenager the book soared. All teenagers have the feeling that something is wrong with them, that they are different. While, with Callie, this is indeed the case, it was still a struggle anyone can identify with, we didn't all start out as adults. The feelings for the Obscure Object, could be any crush or first love. But what I was really struck by was how well a male writer could capture the beginning of womanhood, to use a cliched phrase. All girls go through the waiting game of when they will start to develop. When will they need a bra, when can they start shaving, when do they need deodorant. When will they start to menstruate. In Callie's case, it is a futile waiting game, yet it's the fact that "she" doesn't know that it's futile like we readers do, that makes it that much more poignant. For me it recaptured that time in my life. I felt all these emotions that I had forgotten about all over again. For me it took me back to the summer of 1991 and how my golden birthday was ruined by the arrival of the bane of womanhood. Yet this book made me grateful. Made me realize how lucky I was. Middlesex cast a golden light on my own development and made me happy that I could re-experience that time in my life. Recapture the uncertainty and, like Callie when she becomes Cal, know the feeling of what it's like to realize who you are and start on the path to becoming who you will be. ...more