In her Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, author Fay Weldon calls the Regency era “by our standards, a horrible time to be alive.” She als...moreIn her Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, author Fay Weldon calls the Regency era “by our standards, a horrible time to be alive.” She also writes that the class society was “fair enough if you were Jane Austen, but supposing you were the maid?” That is what Jo Baker’s Longbourn does: supposes you were the maid. And it does the supposing brilliantly. For me, this was one of those books where the reading experience is so emotionally magnificent, it seems like a waste to read anything else for a while afterwards: they’re just bound to pale in comparison.
Longbourn is of course the home for Lizzie, Jane, their sisters, and parents, The Bennet’s, whose lives and romantic entanglements are mapped in Jane Austen’s “light, and bright, and sparkling” Pride and Prejudice. Those adjectives could not be more ill fitting to describe Longbourn where we follow the folks downstairs, instead of upstairs. In other words, Baker has imagined lives and romantic entanglements for the servants who bring Bennet’s their letters, keep them fed, mend their clothes, hear their worries, and empty their chamber-pots. The servants do rather demonstrate the terribleness of the times. They toil in back-breaking labor, subject to the whims and capriciousness of their “betters”, and even then they’re the lucky ones, not starving, not sleeping outdoors.
The lives of Sarah, Polly and Mrs. and Mr. Hill begin to change when Mr. Bennet hires a new valet, the mysterious, half-starved James Smith. Quite frankly, it’s immediately obvious who and what James really is, but that little bit of predictability doesn’t much lessen the quality of the book. The plot doesn’t have to leave you gasping in astonishment, since Baker’s true strength, where she really shines, is character building. All the servants have rich inner lives, their own hopes and dreams. And even though seen from the servants’ perspective, the Bennet’s may appear a touch less sympathetic than in P&P, they’re not really villains. Longbourn is not interested in that kind of simplification. There’s on villain though, and his name is George Wickham.
What I loved most about this book, was the sense of bitter-sweetness that permeates it. The characters long for better, but there’s an inevitable loss to even the happiest of endings.
The next part of this review is just a note of some recurring themes that fascinated me during reading. Feel free to skip them.
Sugar. The sweet stuff comes up again and again in the pages of Longbourn. It’s offered with bread and milk to a half-starved Sarah when she comes to the house as a child. Polly and Lydia crave it. It and the slaves that grow it form the bases of Bingleys’ wealth. James sails a ships that brings sugar from New World to Old. And so on.
Blood. Sarah and Polly’s hands bleed after washing. The clothes stained with period blood soak in the corner of the kitchen. Sarah leaves a little pinprick of blood behind when she leaves Pemberley. And of course the blood of war. So when blood and blood stains are mentioned so frequently, it becomes noticeable when the narrator keeps silent about them. And that’s in relation to sex.
Water. Water is heavy to carry, but also necessary, it’s needed constantly. The servants carry it up and down, they ruin their hands in it. But it also offers comfort and sustenance for James.
All in all, a very successful look behind the scenes of one of my favorite novels, and highly recommended. A book hasn’t managed to make me cry in a good long while, but this one did, and every one of those tears was richly earned.(less)
Melko sujuvasti kirjoitettu ja mielenkiintoinen sukellus varsinaissuomalaisten elämään 1100-luvulla. Pari asiaa jäi vain tökkimään: 1. juoni lähtee ku...moreMelko sujuvasti kirjoitettu ja mielenkiintoinen sukellus varsinaissuomalaisten elämään 1100-luvulla. Pari asiaa jäi vain tökkimään: 1. juoni lähtee kunnolla liikkelle vasta kirjan loppupuolella ja 2. teksti toistaa itseään, mikä on aina rasittavaa.(less)
**spoiler alert** It's a house party book, with turn of the century English lingo, ghosts, and a pony that ends up indoors. So there was never any dan...more**spoiler alert** It's a house party book, with turn of the century English lingo, ghosts, and a pony that ends up indoors. So there was never any danger of me not enjoying it at least a little. Still, on the whole not the most memorable or dazzling novel ever. Competently written and fun to read, yes. A timeless masterpiece, no. But not every book needs to be.(less)
In Cassandra (1984), German writer Christa Wolf retells the familiar Greek myth of the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the seer and prophet who was doom...moreIn Cassandra (1984), German writer Christa Wolf retells the familiar Greek myth of the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the seer and prophet who was doomed to know the future and have everyone not believe her. Wolf’s novel takes place during the last few hours of Cassandra’s life, as she’s being taken in a carriage towards her death in Argos, after Troy has fallen. During that last trip, Cassandra remembers her life, and tells it in a very conversational style, going back and forth in time as the associations take her.
Wolf plays with different aspects of the mythology quite deftly. Those who are familiar with the stories of the Trojan war, will recognize many elements. But Wolf also takes aspects of not just Greek but Roman and even Medieval traditions to draft characters such as Briseis. Her own imagination gets to play too, for example in the relationship between Cassandra and Aeneas, or the character of Anchises, father of Aeneas.
As a novel, Cassandra is a character study of a mythological figure, and it works as the popular feminist gesture of giving a voice to the mostly voiceless. It’s also an allegory. It’s not apparent at first, but once the reader finds out what really happened to Helena in Egypt, the parallels and patterns start to emerge. Wolf is vicious and viciously accurate, in tracing the process of enemy-creation, of propaganda and fear-mongering. Well, she lived in East-Germany. She knows how it’s done.
As far as allegories go, Cassandra is among the better ones, because the characters truly live, or at least Cassandra does. She doesn't exist just to illustrate a point about East-German politics and state terrorism, although she does that beautifully. But she also talks about her life in such a way that it almost feels like you can hear her speak trough the Millennia to tell her own truth.
This is one of the best books I've read so far this year, but I’m docking a star and giving it four instead of five for two reasons: some parts of the sexual morals Wolf gives the Greeks and the Trojans ring false to me. And much as I admire Wolf’s skill in creating a believable prehistoric Troy, I’m not sure I can get completely on board with all the demythologizing. This world has no gods, nothing supernatural. Everything is explained rationally. It’s a neat trick, but I do so like my gods and monsters.(less)
Falling in love with a work of fiction or a fictional character can be a tricky business, and in many ways it resembles and reflects the experience of...moreFalling in love with a work of fiction or a fictional character can be a tricky business, and in many ways it resembles and reflects the experience of falling in love with a so called real person.
When you fall in love, you go trough certain stages, and this is true whether the object of your adoration is flesh and blood or not. There’s the first, heady period where everything they do seems beyond wonderful to you. You’re obsessed, you want to mention their name in every conversation you have, and it’s difficult to think of anything else. Veronica and I went trough that period late last summer. I saw her get the better of a motorcycle gang, the sheriff’s department and a shell necklace wearing bully without breaking a sweat, and I knew it was love.
Of course, the first stage never lasts. You might start noticing some less than perfect qualities in your adored one, or maybe you just grow apart. I will admit that the third season of Veronica Mars has its fair share of blemishes. But I will never not love the character of Veronica herself. She’s one of the most fascinating creations of all time to me, her smarts, her flaws, her combination of toughness and vulnerability being endlessly endearing to me. And the thing is, this is still new love to me. I’m not yet at the point where I can encounter her, but not crave for more.
Which is all a very long-winded way to say a simple thing: I don’t know if I like the Veronica Mars movie and now this book because they’re good works of fiction, or simply because they give me more Veronica. I suspect it’s a little bit of both. But trying to look at them as objectively as possible, the book is better.
For one thing, it’s not as rushed. At just over 300 pages, it’s not leisurely, but the pacing works. There’s more time for character development, and for secondary characters. Wallace and Mac especially shine. There’s a scene which explores the friendship between V and Wallace in a way that brought tears to my eyes. Unfortunately, the complaint often heard against the last season and now the movie still applies: not nearly enough Weevil. Let’s hope this is rectified in the second novel in the series.
This is very much a book about Veronica. About her coming to terms about who she is, and what she wants to do with her life. This leads to some conflict with her father, which is beautifully realized, as per usual. A character from Veronica’s past also makes an appearance, leading to more self-reflection on her part.
The mystery concerns two young girls who have gone missing from Neptune’s spring break festivities. It’s compelling and competently written enough, but doesn’t come close to the high stakes, the intricacies and the impact of the Lilly Kane murder investigation. Then again, not much does.
From the cover art to the title, it’s obvious that Thomas and Graham are paying attention the series’ noir and pulp fiction roots. The writing also reflects that. I do think they could have gotten away with a little less description though. Veronica does not walk into many rooms without the narrator noting the color of the walls, for example. But it does work, for the most part. The descriptions create a contrast between the bright California sun, the glittering sea, and the ugly, dirty seediness of Neptune.
On that note, I was hoping and even expecting the book to be narrated by Veronica herself in first person. It would have made sense, her being the granddaughter of Philip Marlowe via V.I. Warshawski, after all. But there’s enough of her inner monologue to almost satisfy the need.
Team Not-Logan should probably like this book well-enough, seeing as he’s hardly in it. Team Logan Always, All Day Every Day will complain about the same. For me, it struck a pretty good balance between being first and foremost about Veronica, and still acknowledging the new old relationship. Okay fine, I’ll admit it. A little bit of more Logan wouldn’t have hurt. But I’m happy with what we got.
All in all, a very satisfying reading experience. Even though I don’t reread books much anymore (the time’s winged chariot always telling me that every minute I have less and less time to read new books), I anticipate getting back to this one from time to time. Because I still love Veronica, and want to spend more time with her. Bring on the next book, movie, anything. I’ll eat it up.(less)
Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (yes, it’s a mouthfull) is a fantastic children’s novel. Va...moreCatherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (yes, it’s a mouthfull) is a fantastic children’s novel. Valente knows, as does Neil Gaiman on his best days, that to make a something new and interesting of fairy-tales (their setting or narrative conventions, if not specific tales themselves), it’s not enough to just add more (and more explicit) sex and violence. You need to approach the story from a different angle, look at it in a new way. And that’s what Valente did. The book keeps the odd, alien atmosphere and logic of fairy-tales and uses it to tell something wholly its own.
The second book in the series, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland, etc. is not as good as the first, but it’s still pretty damn good. Valente’s inventiveness is as evident as ever, and the people and places that make her world are a marvel to read. The Fairyland books combine dark and threatening with cute and whimsical in a way that absolutely delights me. They’re books that Jess from New Girl could write, if she was somehow also Death from Sandman. And all of Death’s siblings too.
When September returns to Fairyland this time, she must confront her own shadow, and find out why all the shadows are leaving Fairyland for the Fairyland Below. The story follows roughly the same paths as the first one. Once again there’s a realm to save and some harsh truths to face along the way. Fans of fantasy and horror and myth will probably find at least something to like in the way Valente handles the shadow motif and the theme of everyone and everything needing a dark side, the night, the shadow self to be whole.
Alas, this one does have couple of strikes against it. First one is the villain of the piece. In the first book, the Marquess might have deserved at least some sympathy, even pity, but she was never pitiful. She was malicious and formidable. Halloween is a much lesser antagonist, a bit of a paper tiger.
The second strike is the ending. I won’t go into details, but if you’re allergic to even the vaguest of spoilers, now’s the time to stop reading. Okay, here we go. The ending is quite a bit too convenient. There’s the deux ex machina nature of it, but also the fact that everyone gets more or less everything they want, and they don’t really have to pay for it. This goes directly against the very rules set for Fairyland, and it’s boring besides.(less)
For a while this fall I read hardly anything, due to the fact that a teen-age detective million times better than Nancy Drew had stolen all my heart,...moreFor a while this fall I read hardly anything, due to the fact that a teen-age detective million times better than Nancy Drew had stolen all my heart, and most of my free time was spent with her. I'm of course talking about Veronica Mars, the best high-school PI Neptune California has ever seen. But now that Netflix has cruelly taken down VM from streaming, and my DVD's haven't arrived yet, I've had turn to books again. What to do when you're deprived of an ass-kicking, snarky private eye of the female persuasion? Well, if you're me, you turn to V.I. Warshawski, wondering why it took you this long to find her. She's a delight.(less)