Friday, August 30, 2013

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

Tess of the d'UrbervillesOn an evening in the latter part of May a middle-aged man was walking homeward from Shaston to the village of Marlott, in the adjoining Vale of Blakemore or Blackmoor. The pair of legs that carried him were rickety, and there was a bias in his gait which inclined him somewhat to the left of a straight line.

"Young Tess Durbeyfield attempts to restore her family's fortunes by claiming their connection with the aristocratic d'Urbervilles. But Alec d'Urberville is a rich wastrel who seduces her and makes her life miserable. When Tess meets Angel Clare, she is offered true love and happiness, but her past catches up with her and she faces an agonizing moral choice."

I'm not quite sure what to think of this one. The writing was good, once I got into it, but Tess herself kind of annoyed me. The story was quite bleak, but it was a good one. The two main men in Tess's life (other than her father) are Alec D'Urberville and Angel Clare. I disliked both of them. Alec ruins her life, basically, but he's not entirely bad; just thoughtless and stupid. Angel and Tess love one another, and yet stupid, stupid Angel can't look past her past. It was frustrating, especially since Angel had just confessed doing the same thing to her right before. She's ready enough to forgive him, but he just can't do it. I've often noted the stupid Victorian double standard, and this novel is all about that. Angel can make big mistakes, and he'll be forgiven, but not Tess, because she's a woman.  Still, the writing was pretty good. 

I really loved the portrayal of the four milkmaids all in love with Angel Clare in the middle of the book; despite everything, Hardy seemed to know exactly how to write those scenes and describe how painful and pleasurable the sensation is at the same time. 

I did like Angel Clare at first, but like every male in Victorian society he is blind and prejudiced. One of the main messages of Tess of the D'Urbervilles is, in fact, that men can be brutes. Just like in Corelli's Mandolin, the main male character is really likable; he just can't look past the fact that Tess is not a virgin, or in Corelli's case, that Pelagia might have been raped by a soldier. Clare was also kind of condescending to Tess, as if she couldn't possibly have had any experiences at all, when in fact she has (although much of her innocence is maintained). 

The beginning of the book was a bit slow; it opens with the parson telling John Durbeyfield, Tess's father, that he is related to the now extinct noble family of the D'Urbervilles. If the parson hadn't made that disclosure, none of the rest of the story would have happened. So it was a good beginning, the action that started everything. I was just afraid that the whole book would be very overwritten. But it wasn't very, only slightly as one might expect. 

The way Tess basically worshipped Clare also annoyed me. Marriage should be an equal partnership; of course, in Victorian times it was not seen that way. The problem, I think, with Jane Austen is that her novels don't show a clear picture of reality and social issues (that's not really what she's most interested in). In her stories, the heroine gets married and lives happily ever after. Tess of the D'Urbervilles was probably more true to life; it was a very grim story. 

I was also annoyed with Tess; sometimes I wished she could be less weak and unknowing; of course, none of what happens at the beginning of the book is her fault, but later, she should have told Angel Clare to begin with, or not at all, rather than waiting so long. 

I'm trying to think what the book reminded me of...There was something.

Anyway, I certainly didn't love Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but it had its points. I was really looking forward to it though, and it was something of a disappointment. I don't know if I'll be reading more of Thomas Hardy's work.

420 pages.

Rating: ***

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling, Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

From the prologue: The buzz in the street was like the humming of flies. Photographers stood massed behind barriers patrolled by police, their long-snouted cameras poised, their breath rising like steam. Snow fell steadily on to hats and shoulders; gloved fingers wiped lenses clear. From time to time there came outbursts of desultory clicking, as the watchers filled the waiting time by snapping the white canvas tent in the middle of the road, the entrance to the tall red-brick apartment block behind it, and the balcony on the top floor from which the body had fallen.

"After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office. Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man. You may think you know detectives, but you've never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you've never seen them under an investigation like this."

This was quite a publicity stunt that was pulled by Mulholland Books. The Cuckoo’s Calling was published in late April, and in July, it was revealed that the author is actually J.K. Rowling. The result of this is that the book got both critical acclaim when it came out, and is now also an instant bestseller due to its author’s fame.  The stunt worked on me, but I must say that the book actually is really good, much better than The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s other adult book. The mystery is compelling, and the writing is wonderful.

I think the key to reading The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s Calling is not to compare them to Harry Potter because they are not similar to it at all in plot. Instead, enjoy these two as their own books. I made that mistake with The Casual Vacancy, and my enjoyment of it suffered for that. Also, though, I think The Cuckoo’s Calling is a better book.

When Bristow comes to Strike’s office, Strike believes that he just has a dangerous obsession with his sister’s death, that of course Lula committed suicide. He takes the case on only because he has some serious financial problems, and (I would like to think), he wants to convince Bristow that the death was indeed suicide, and end the whole thing.

There were some marvelous descriptions of London in The Cuckoo’s Calling, in all its beauty and ugliness.  Here’s one passage: “It was nearly eight before he returned to the office. This was the hour when he found London most lovable; the working day over, her pubs were warm and jewel-like, her streets thrummed with life, and the indefatigable permanence of her aged buildings, softened by the street lights, became strangely reassuring. We have seen plenty like you, they seemed to murmur soothingly, as he limped along Oxford Street carrying a boxed-up camp bed. Seven and a half million hearts were beating in close proximity in this heaving old city, and many, after all, would be aching far worse than his. Walking wearily past closing shops, while the heavens turned indigo above him, Strike found solace in vastness and anonymity.” (pg. 48).  I love that passage; it really seems to convey the weariness and the beauty of London, as well as trike’s predicaments.

There are also amazing descriptions of the glittering, alien society of “multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers” that Strike finds himself plunged into.  Lula Landry had so many “friends” from so many different circles, and it’s hard to know why anyone would have killed her. But according to Strike, opportunity is more important than motive, and it seems utterly impossible that someone could have snuck into her apartment and escaped, given the details of the situation. Still, Bristow is convinced, and there’s a whole host of crazed witnesses claiming to have heard something through sound-proof glass.

Like The Casual Vacancy, there are many different threads of the plot, and many characters who are connected. For example, there’s Robin who becomes Strike’s secretary  and starts off Chapter 1, even though she’s not the main character. Nevertheless, her life is also delved into beside the main mystery; she’s just become engaged, etc. etc. But The Cuckoo’s Calling fit together much, much better than The Casual Vacancy; it was much more cohesive and I loved it. I realize, of course, that Rowling’s two adult novels are very different, in different genres. But still, The Cuckoo’s Calling was much better crafted.

It was also incredibly suspenseful. I was reading it late at night in the Albuquerque airport, and I basically read the first 100 pages in one sitting. At 1 AM on the airplane I was still reading it. Although eventually I had to put it down then, I probably would have finished it one sitting if it wasn't so late (early). I really wanted to find out what exactly had happened that night at Lula’s flat. The interesting thing is that there aren't a whole lot of clues to help the reader figure out whether it was a murder; there’s just the testimony. It’s not like Agatha Christie’s novels, where theoretically the reader could figure out everything about the murder. The Cuckoo’s Calling is also in the vein of hard-boiled detective novels  - British ones. I've definitely read a few American hard-boiled mysteries (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man), but never a British one. It was interesting.
I absolutely loved The Cuckoo’s Calling, truth be told more than I was expecting to. It was a wonderful mystery and a compelling story, which I would highly recommend. It both followed the vein of classic detective novels, and did new and interesting things.

455 pages.

Rating: *****

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Victoria, Knut Hamsun

VictoriaThe miller's son was walking around, thinking. He was a husky fellow of fourteen, tanned with sun and wind and full of all sorts of ideas. 

"When it first appeared in 1898, this fourth novel by celebrated Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun captured instant acclaim for its poetic, psychologically intense portrayal of love’s predicament in a class-bound society. Set in a coastal village of late nineteenth-century Norway, Victoria follows two doomed lovers through their thwarted lifelong romance. Johannes, the son of a miller, finds inspiration for his writing in his passionate devotion to Victoria, an impoverished aristocrat constrained by family loyalty. Separated by class barriers and social pressure, the fated pair parts ways, only to realize—too late—the grave misfortune of their lost opportunity."

This was a great find, by a Norwegian author I had never heard of before who was fairly famous in his day. Victoria is a slim but lovely little book. It has a beautiful but tragic story in its midst, and along the way a lot of really nice description and intriguing stylistic choices. Being late 19th century, the book isn't overwritten at all, although it is written in an older-sounding style.  The book is certainly psychologically intense; the love that Johannes feels for Victoria is ultimately self-destructive and the couple is doomed right from the very beginning. There are so many things in the way: their difference in class, the fact that Victoria is engaged to an officer, and also the fact that Victoria is kind of fickle. Maybe it's just me, but I found her kind of similar (although not as bad) as Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby. Daisy is really a rotten person; I wouldn't say Victoria is that; more like she is fickle and flighty. She clearly loves Johannes, but she doesn't have the guts to do something about it. Or does she truly love him? 

There are so many of the best elements in this novel: ladies, gentleman, millers and their sons, and great descriptions of the wealthy and the poor in the late nineteenth century in Norway. The book was kind of dreamlike also, and it wasn't so grounded in a historical period. In the middle section, Johannes is living in the city, and right after he meets Victoria again, he goes walking in a kind of trance through the town, and what he sees there is masterfully described. 

Another thing that was interesting the book was that it would switch from past tense to present tense and back again all in a few sentences. At first that was interesting stylistically, but it started to get annoying after a while, especially when one comes across such passages as "The speech was nice and long and was received with a great deal of noisy cheer...Johannes emptied his glass. A few minutes later his agitation is gone, his composure has returned; the champagne burns with a low flame in his veins...He casts a glance to where Victoria is sitting; she's pale, seems anguished, and doesn't look up. Camilla, however, nods to him and smiles, and he nods back." (pg. 48). I don't just felt kind of awkward to me, that sudden transition between past and present, although it certainly was interesting, and I'd have to read more criticism to understand that choice. 

I really enjoyed Victoria; it was a great find. The writing was excellent, and so was the story. It's a very, very short book, but it doesn't take as quick as you might think to read it. Still, I probably read it in a few hours total, although broken up since I was traveling. Victoria really should be more well known than it is, and I recommend it. I might also read some of Knut Hamsun's other works. 

82 pages. 

Rating: ****

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf

A Room of One's Own
But, you may ask, we asked you to speak about women and fiction - what has that got to do with a room of one's own? I will try to explain.

"In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf imagines that Shakespeare had a sister—a sister equal to Shakespeare in talent, and equal in genius, but whose legacy is radica
lly different. This imaginary woman never writes a word and dies by her own hand, her genius unexpressed. If only she had found the means to create, argues Woolf, she would have reached the same heights as her immortal sibling. In this classic essay, she takes on the establishment, using her gift of language to dissect the world around her and give voice to those who are without. Her message is a simple one: women must have a fixed income and a room of their own in order to have the freedom to create."

How is one such as me supposed to write about this book? Oh, look, I sound British. Anyway, this is such an important work for feminism and "women and fiction", whatever that's supposed to mean. When you think about the fact that this work was written in the 1920's, it's really quite remarkable. The writing is slightly dense, but entertaining, witty, and thoughtful. It's a slim book, but it takes a long time to read and appreciate it - even going slowly I didn't completely "get" the book. It needs rereading, that's for sure, many, many times. The basic argument of the book, that a woman in order to write, needs money, and a privacy, a room of her own, is correct, certainly in that time period, and still to this day. A place to write is very important, and so is the means. It is, after all, very difficult to make a living just out of writing, although it has been done.

A Room With One's Own is definitely one of the most challenging books I've read recently, and I'm not sure that I can, you know, actually write a good review of it. Read Elizabeth's excellent review on Goodreads; it talks about the book well, and captures how radical it was for the time. I also, like Elizabeth, got a lot of good book recommendations from A Room of One's Own.

The book might seem dry sometimes, but those sections are few and far between, and most of the book is both interesting and entertaining. It's obviously not an entertainment though; it's art, and very beautiful. The book is based on several lectures given by Woolf that were lengthened, but it also has novel elements to it, in both senses of the word "novel". The first person narrator styles herself as "Mary" and relates several experiences she has a couple of days before the scheduled lecture, such as not being allowed into a college library because she's a woman. There are, surprisingly, some great descriptions of food in A Room of One's Own which I enjoyed reading. What happens at that banquet, however, is more important; she sees a tailless Manx cat and starts to think about things, and how a woman's banquet is inferior to a men's.

She also points out that a woman with lots of children can't write; she has no privacy, and must constantly take care of the kids. Privacy, and independence, basically, are what Woolf argues for. And she argues very well. One of Woolf's key points is imagining if Shakespeare had a sister who had just as much genius and drive to write as he did. It's a sad story, because such a woman in Elizabethan England would inevitably end up mocked if she tried to write, and depressed if she couldn't, with lack of experiences, and no freedom at all.

My favorite section was that on 19th century female writers: Austen, the Brontes, and George Eliot, even though they're really very different. I'm most interested in them, although I did enjoy reading about female Elizabethan poets. It was interesting that Wolff thought that Charlotte Bronte had more true "genius" than Austen, but squandered it by being too angry and talking about her own feelings rather than that of the character's. Although I would argue that Jane Eyre's feelings are one and the same with the author's. But Woolf doesn't like that, saying , "that the woman who wrote those {Jane Eyre's} pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters." (Italics mine). I don't necessarily agree with that, but I do definitely prefer Austen to Bronte like Virginia Woolf. I think, though, that of course your protagonist's feelings will be colored by your own; that's kind of inevitable, and not necessarily a bad thing.

Interestingly enough, Virginia Woolf is concerned not with the common woman's struggle, but with the woman of genius struggling to create. It was a bit snobbish actually, but one can still tell that Woolf really cares about what she's writing about. Her route, rather than one of political action, is to give women financial security, time, and privacy. Political action is all very well, she seems to say, but these things are more important.

Here's one passage in the book that I really liked: "And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are "important"; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes "trivial". And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop - everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists." War is life and death, but drawing room conversations are much more subtle. I loved this passage; it was quite thought-provoking, and it's a good come-back to those who think Austen's novels "trivial" and "frivolous".

I loved A Room of One's Own much more than I was expecting. It was challenging, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable, and I loved the writing. It's such a short book, but it conveys so much. I would highly recommend it; it's certainly one of my favorites now, and it merits rereading again and again. I also want to read some of Virginia Woolf's novels, such as Mrs. Dalloway.

114 pages.

Rating: *****

Monday, August 26, 2013

Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1)The Ellsworths of Long Parkmead had the regard of their neighbors in every respect.

"Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men. Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right--and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own. This debut novel from an award-winning talent scratches a literary itch you never knew you had. Like wandering onto a secret picnic attended by Pride and Prejudice and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Shades of Milk and Honey is precisely the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen…if only she had been a fantasy writer."

Shades of Milk and Honey really did feel like Jane Austen; in fact, it was almost too unoriginal. So many elements of the book are borrowed not just from Regency society, but from Austen's novels. As in Pride and Prejudice, there is an entail, and a silly mother. Mr. Vincent, Lady FitzCameron's new glamourist, highly resembles Mr. Darcy; he's proud, inscrutable, and seems indifferent to everything but his art. Jane herself is accomplished as a glamourist, and she can't really make anything of him. As in Emma, there is a strawberry picking party. There are all the elements of Austen's novels; proud, silent men, gay officers (in the old sense of the word), entails, and young ladies trying to find rich husbands. Miss Dunkirk was also very like Miss Darcy in more ways than one. She has a secret relating to love, and she's painfully shy until Jane draws her out. There was only the addition of lovely magic. I will say that the magic wasn't quite explained enough to my taste, but as one of the blurbs says, I found myself struggling to imagine a Regency England without magic after I read the book. And as Mr. Vincent suggests,  perhaps it doesn't do too good to look deeper into the craft of the glamour.

The first part of the book was very Austen-esque; mellow, and not very dramatic. The second half, however, read more like what I would imagine a Radcliffe novel, with lots of action. I liked that, though the change was a bit abrupt. The first section was dull, and the second section made the book more interesting, and added the mystery element to Shades of Milk and Honey that I was expecting, having read the summary of the most recent book in the series. The first big events happen really not until after 120 pages or so, but after that the book picked up. If the early sections didn't have enough action, then perhaps the later ones had too much. Everything moved really, really, quickly at the end. It was quite sensational, though still entertaining. What I was confused about was the title; it was very strange, and I couldn't see how it fit the book. It was pretty weird, and the climax, resolution, and ending felt way too rushed. 

One thing that was problematic while I was reading was that I already knew who Jane was going to end up with, having read the summary of the third book, Without Summer which is recently out from Tor. Still, I enjoyed reading about both Mr. Dunkirk and Mr. Vincent, even if I knew who Jane would marry. Really, if you have read Pride and Prejudice, you can guess. 

I really loved all of the characters, especially Jane, who although plain, is adept at glamour, and very intelligent in other respects. She's very similar to Elizabeth, except for the fact that she is not particularly pretty in the traditional sense. That, I think, was the main problem with the book. Jane was so similar to Elizabeth, Mrs. Ellsworth so like Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Ellsworth so like Mrs. Bennet, and Vincent so like Darcy. There were some characters like Jane's sister Melody who were different, but a lot of them were so, so similar to P&P characters that it got kind of annoying. I appreciate that the book is really trying to imitate Austen plus magic, but a slightly different set-up would have been good. Still, I think the book really succeeded in imitating Austen's writing and capturing the spirit; I was interested in the characters despite their strong resemblance to others. I wanted to know what would happen to them. The writing was good, and so was the story; the book wasn't overwritten and did have its own character unique from Austen, although I think it could have shone through more. I did like how the glamour took energy, the same as running up a hill or any physical exertion.

Overall, Shades of Milk and Honey was a bit predictable and uneventful at first, but I ended up liking it for its magic and for its wit. Austen fans who also like fantasy and aren't absolute purists will definitely enjoy the book; others, I'm not so sure. Still, I would recommend it, and I've heard that the series gets better. I'm definitely planning to try the second book, Glamour in Glass, although I have a feeling that one gets tired of this kind of book pretty quickly.

302 pages.

Rating: 3.5 stars.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

My Life Next Door, Huntley Fitzpatrick

My Life Next DoorThe Garretts were forbidden from the start. But that's not why they were important.

"The Garretts are everything the Reeds are not. Loud, numerous, messy, affectionate. And every day from her balcony perch, seventeen-year-old Samantha Reed wishes she was one of them . . . until one summer evening, Jase Garrett climbs her terrace and changes everything. As the two fall fiercely in love, Jase's family makes Samantha one of their own. Then in an instant, the bottom drops out of her world and she is suddenly faced with an impossible decision. Which perfect family will save her? Or is it time she saved herself?"

This is most certainly a guilty pleasure for me. It's YA romance, and it's not worth anything in a literary sense. At all. But it was entertaining, and I'm glad that I won the Goodreads First Reads giveaway. My Life Next Door certainly is a perfect read for the summer; something light and entertaining. It was a very quick read too; I read a lot of it on the flight to Albuquerque; I probably would have finished the whole thing then, but I wanted to save some for later. The writing overall was pretty solid (first person, present tense as one might expect), although in the later middle sections, it was kind of a bit shaky, as if either the author or the copy editor had forgotten to proofread it. That was just a few pages though.

I really did like the romance, although I found myself hiding the cover while reading this book in public. It's not that it's bad; in fact, it's a very pretty cover for this kind of book, and it portrays the book well. It just screams junky teenage romance. Which is exactly what it is. I don't think I'm going to keep My Life Next Door, as it's unlikely that I would reread it.

I was enjoying the book and then as I was reading, it struck me: what the heck is the point of all this? Samantha does things, and has doubts about her mom and her best friend, and it's really very dreamy, an idyll, even if Samantha does quarrel with her conservative, overprotective mom. But really, Samantha's problems are miniscule; she's beautiful, smart, and her mom is rich. But then the thing happened. Sam's mom is a state senator, and she's running for re-election. So when she accidently does something that would ruin her career, she conceals it, runs away. Even though it's life-threatening to many others. That seemed realistic, and it was actually a pretty good plot twist. I just kind of wished that it came earlier in the book or that some of the middle parts were cut out. There was a whole section when not a whole lot happened. And frankly, a thought that has recently come to me while reading fiction is what's the point in reading about someone else's romance if there's nothing thought-provoking in it? Any answers? I realize it's kind of entertaining, but at a certain point, you just realize that it's shallow and fairly uninteresting.

Still, despite my doubts, the romance is very good, and both Sam and Jase actually behave like responsible people.  And all the other people in the story seem real; Sam's mom and her new manager aren't evil per se; they're just way too focused on reelection at the expense of everything else that matters. Like morals. There were moments when Sam's mom seemed good; she's just struggling to do what's right (a cliche, I know).

I loved how all of the many kids in the Garrett family were developed; from the baby George all the way up to Joel and Alice, the two eldest siblings. They each have their own problems and fears which they're trying to surmount. Well, maybe George not so much, but still.

Anyway, this is a good summer read, though I wouldn't say that it's worth buying. It's smart, pretty well-written, and in some ways it attempts to be more than just a fluffy romance, with its depictions of the Garrett family's financial struggles, and Sam's own struggles with her friends and family. I would certainly recommend it for the summer or the winter for that matter, to cheer you up when it's cold and gloomy. Perhaps the summer is the time for reading dark books, since the weather is so nice. If you read dark books during the winter, you're liable to get depressed (at least where I live). Anyway, My Life Next Door was pretty good (I originally rated it 4 stars but switched my rating to 3 because of its shallowness).

394 pages.

Rating: ***

Friday, August 23, 2013

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler

Z: A Novel of Zelda FitzgeraldPicture a late-May morning in 1918, a time when Montgomery wore her prettiest spring dress and finest floral perfume—same as I would wear that evening.

"Thus begins the story of beautiful, reckless, seventeen-year-old Zelda Sayre on the day she meets Lieutenant Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald at a country club dance. Fitzgerald isn’t rich or settled; no one knows his people; and he wants, of all things, to be a writer in New York. No matter how wildly in love they may be, Zelda’s father firmly opposes the match. But when Scott finally sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, Zelda defies her parents to board a train to New York and marry him in the vestry of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Life is a sudden whirl of glamour and excitement: Everyone wants to meet the dashing young author of the scandalous novel—and his beautiful, perhaps even more scandalous wife. Zelda bobs her hair, trades in her provincial finery for daring dresses, and plunges into the endless party that welcomes the darlings of the literary world to New York, then Paris and the French Riviera. It is the Jazz Age, when everything seems new and possible—except that dazzling success does not always last. Surrounded by a thrilling array of magnificent hosts and mercurial geniuses—including Sara and Gerald Murphy, Gertrude Stein, and the great and terrible Ernest Hemingway—Zelda and Scott find the future both grander and stranger than they could have ever imagined."

This novel was so much better than The Paris Wife, in which the portrayal of Hemingway and Hadley seemed kind of untrue and made me uneasy. The writing was much more compelling and absorbing, and it seemed to me that the two Fitzgeralds were portrayed really, really well. I was certainly drawn into the book and was entertained while learning a lot about Zelda's life.

In films like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, Zelda is usually portrayed as someone who hurts Fitzgerald's writing ambitions and is reckless. She is reckless, but in Z there is a more sympathetic, comprehensive, and probably true-to-life portrait of who she is. Hemingway hated her, but I really liked reading about her. She just has some mental problems. As Allison at The Book Wheel puts it, "In reality, scholars debate whether Zelda’s medical condition and desire for independence ruined Fitzgerald or that Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and relationship with Ernest Hemingway ruined Zelda." Read her full review hereZ gives time to both opinions of the matter, although I do think that the author is understandably more sympathetic to Zelda, her subject. 

Even though a fair amount of disturbing things happen in the book, it was kind of a peaceful read. I didn't feel any need to rush through it because it was suspenseful; I just enjoyed the excellent writing and read about the Fitzgeralds' tumultuous lives. They certainly make a lot of bad choices. The book is also kind of dreamy, just like the set that the Fitzgeralds fall in with, dreamy because they're intoxicated a lot of the time. 

That said, this was a comparatively light book to be talking about Zelda's life, which was very dark. I enjoyed the fact that it wasn't too heavy, but it probably would have been even more realistic if it was way more serious. The book also doesn't talk much about Zelda's life before the age of seventeen, when she meets Scott, and after his death. It's really only about her relationship with him. 

I think all of the characters were portrayed in a realistic manner, and they weren't cardboard characters. Another reader might have sympathy for Hemingway and Fitzgerald instead of Zelda. The historical element was also really well done; as one reviewer puts it perfectly, "Fowler takes us back in time and lets us hang out with these people and see the challenges and temptations they faced as products of their era. The author has a real flair for dialogue, and a wonderful ability to create a sense of time and place using just the right amount of period detail. If you love historical fiction that never gets boring, you're going to love this novel." That's about right. I really loved the dialogue, and all of the settings seemed just right, especially the South at the very beginning. There's just enough detail that the world comes to life. Really, Scott and Zelda's life was like one of his novels - two characters, both beautiful and damned. 

I just loved this novel, more than I was expecting to. I thought it would be at best a 4 star read; it was a 5. Z was rich in detail and full of lush descriptions. It was understated and elegant, and a book that I would highly recommend. Perhaps it doesn't do complete justice to Zelda's flamboyant lifestyle, as The New York Times Book Review suggests. But it certainly comes close. Thanks to St. Martin's for providing me with a review copy of this book. 

367 pages. 

Rating: *****

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rereading The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen

The Vanishing ActIt was snowing the morning I found the dead boy. The island with its two houses and one church was covered in a layer of snow.

Here is what I said in my original review of The Vanishing Act: "It was Erin Morgenstern's blurb (she's the author of The Night Circus, one of my favorite books) which got me interested in this book. This is what she says: "This book is a precious thing. I want to keep it in a painted box with a raven feather and sea-polished stones, taking it out when I feel the need to visit Minou on her island again. The best stories change you. I am not the same after The Vanishing Act as I was before."

I don't think I loved it that much, but I certainly did enjoy it, and it's a very enchanting book. It's the story of Minou, who lives on a tiny snow-covered island with her philosopher Papa. The other inhabitants of the island are Boxman the magician, No-Name, his dog, and Priest the priest. A year before the story begins, Minou's mother disappeared. Minou knows that she isn't dead, despite her shoe being found washed up. Then one day, Minou finds a dead boy washed up on the beach. Her father lays him in her mother's room. Can Minou's mother's disappearance be explained by him? Minou will not accept that her mother is dead and using Descartes, is determined to find out what happened.

I thought this was a very interesting one, with an interesting premise. I love stories like this; however I didn't love this one, though I really liked it. I thought Minou's parents were interesting: her father is a philosopher-type, and he's interested in proofing everything with logic and reason, whereas her mother is more interested in the imagination. Two very different people, and then you have Minou, who tends more to reasoning and logic, but also the imagination.

This book definitely feels like a fable, and I'm very glad that I got it from W.W. Norton. I didn't love the writing style, but it was sweet and simple. Not nearly as good as Erin Morgenstern's writing style though. Still, I would definitely recommend it. I've included both the US and UK covers, as well as the Australian (original) cover. I think I like the British one best (the one on the left)."

The first time I read the book I think I kind of rushed through it to get to the end, because I wanted to finish it quickly and read other things. And I didn't enjoy the book as much because of it. I still don't think it's an amazing book, but I did like it more reading it a second time. As with most characters who are around my age, I felt that the narration was a little simplistic, as if Minou wasn't really twelve. She seemed more like ten or so, and there's nothing wrong with that. She sees things happening around her very clearly, without understanding a lot of their implications. She just writes them down. But we, the reader, can presumably understand them a bit more than her, and that is what makes the book moving. There's so much tension on the island that Minou cannot sense but doesn't really understand. 

The Vanishing Act is a very under-appreciated novel; it was first published in Australia, and maybe Americans just aren't interested enough in this sort of thing. All I know is that on Amazon, the hardcover edition was $2.10 and is now $7.50, as opposed to the original price of $23.95. That's disgraceful. And it's not even a bargain book! It's just the original hardcover edition. You can take advantage of that low price though. The book can be bought here, and even though the paperback edition is out, the hardcover is way cheaper. 

Anyway, why am I talking about this mundane stuff? The Vanishing Act is set in a dreamy world between fantasy and reality; in other words, it is magic realism, one of my favorite genres as long as the book is not too surreal. And The Vanishing Act is in some ways, but not too much. 

This is a beautiful little tale, and I'm certainly glad I reread it. It's really worth reading, and it should have gotten a little more attention than it did on its release in the United States. Mette Jakobsen's imagination is prodigious, and the descriptions in the book are gorgeous, touching, and vivid. 

217 pages. 

Rating: ****

Rereading The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

The Tale of DespereauxThis story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse. A small mouse. The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive.

"This is the story of Despereaux Tilling, a mouse who is in love with music, stories, and a princess named Pea. It is also the story of a rat called Roscuro, who lives in the darkness and covets a world filled with light. And it is the story of Miggery Sow, a slow-witted serving girl who harbors a simple, impossible wish. These three characters are about to embark on a journey that will lead them down into a horrible dungeon, up into a glittering castle, and, ultimately, into each other's lives. What happens then? As Kate DiCamillo would say: Reader, it is your destiny to find out." 

This is a beautiful, simple fable, full of all the best things: forgiveness, light, love and soup, as Booklist puts it. I remembered enjoying it when I read it four or five years ago, but this time around, I loved it. I can see why some would find its style pretentious, as if the author was trying to hard to be beautiful and simple. But I didn't. The way that the author speaks directly to the reader, asking them questions, is brilliant, and especially good for the younger readers that this book is aimed at. But really, anyone could read the book and enjoy it. A lot of middle grade novels now feel simplistic and forced to me. The Tale of Despereaux, along with only a few others like Walk Two Moons, When You Reach Me, and Savvy, doesn't. Maybe that's the point of the Newbery award (four of those books have won it), to select middle grade books that people of all ages can enjoy. 

Beautiful or gorgeous or something to that effect and simple are really the two best words to describe the book's story, message, and writing. But the simplicity isn't overdone; to me it didn't seem forced, although I'm sure plenty of other people think differently. After all, of my Goodreads friends who've read it, two out of five rated it two stars. The other three rated it five stars. I guess it's one of those books that you absolutely love or one where you just don't get why everyone raves about it. I belong to the former category, although only upon rereading it. 

There are so many amazing parts of the story that just come together perfectly, like a perfect blend of ingredients into a soup. There are many seemingly unrelated plot-lines, but it never gets confusing and it fits together realistically. I loved how the first part ended, with the small mouse who has discovered love telling a story to the jailer who hasn't seen the light of day for years so that his life can be saved. It was a beautiful image. And then the story moved on to a rat who was not always evil but became so. 

This is an amazing story with an unlikely hero, a small mouse with too big ears who sees and hears more than the other mice. He hears music, and reader, he can read. And he can love. He wants more from life than the fairly joyless existence that the other mice lead. 

I love fairy tales and fables, and this is a perfect one. It has all the good things mentioned above, as well as a princess, a castle, a servant girl, and people yearning for something more. It kind of reminded me of The Castle Corona a bit, although it was much better. 

The copy I have is also beautifully designed, with the gold Newbery medal on the cover and the rough-cut pages that feel so nice to the touch. See, this is what one loses with e-books; the texture and the joy of it. I can't imagine enjoying The Tale of Despereaux nearly as much on a Kindle. 

I'll close with some quotes: “There is nothing sweeter in this sad world than the sound of someone you love calling your name.” 

“Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light.” 

“Love, as we have already discussed, is a powerful, wonderful, ridiculous thing, capable of moving mountains. And spools of thread.” 

“There are those hearts, reader, that never mend again once they are broken. Or if they do mend, they heal themselves in a crooked and lopsided way, as if sewn together by a careless craftsman. Such was the fate of Chiaroscuro. His heart was broken. Picking up the spoon and placing it on his head, speaking of revenge, these things helped him to put his heart together again. But it was, alas, put together wrong.” 

“Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.” 

"Despereaux marveled at his own bravery. He admired his own defiance. And then, reader, he fainted.” 

271 pages. 

Rating: *****