Review: Arcadia, Tom Stoppard

There is a particular sort of novel of which I always profess to be passionately fond: the sort with one plotline in the olden days with people doing their olden-day thing, and one in the present with eager scholars researching the very olden-day events in the other plotline.  (Is there a word for this sort of book?  Can there be one?)  If you have ever reviewed a book like this on your blog, I have probably commented to say something like, “Love this sort of book!  Adore!  Worship!  Cannot imagine my life without!” and added it to my reading list straight away.

When pressed, though*, I can only think of one such novel that I would recommend to a friend, and then only if I knew the friend in question didn’t mind extreme wordiness.  (A.S. Byatt’s Possession.  I should read that again.  It’s been years.)  More often I am disappointed on an epic scale by the author’s failure to live up to some arbitrary and impossibly high standard for this kind of novel.

*By me.  Much as I would like to live the sort of life where book lovers from all over the nation are constantly bashing at my door trying to get my opinion on Important Literary Matters, I am not yet at that place in my life.  Give it time.

For reasons far too complicated** to go into here, I am binging on Tom Stoppard right now.  I started with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, moved on to The Invention of Love, the result of which you saw, and just finished the play I normally claim as my favorite, ArcadiaArcadia goes back and forth between Byron-times, when a thirteen-year-old girl called Thomasina contemplates Latin translations and carnal embrace under the instruction of her tutor Septimus Hodge (that sounds much dirtier than it is), and present times, when scholars research Thomasina’s family and try to work out whether Byron ever shot a poet at their house.

**And awesome.  I would tell you what they are, except that I’m afraid that if I did, my sister’s boyfriend would no longer be able to write that treatise on Tom Stoppard and the nature of art that I expect he is currently planning, and also that Tom Stoppard’s people (I’m assuming he has people.  He’s Tom Stoppard.) would find this post, take umbrage at my flippant tone, and decline to allow Tom Stoppard to be interviewed by anyone ever again.  Better safe than sorry, right?

No wonder other books of this type have failed to satisfy me!  I have been comparing them all this time against Tom Stoppard!  It is hardly fair.  Especially when you consider that Billy Crudup, on whom I have a massive crush from Charlotte Gray and Almost Famous, played Septimus at one point in his career; and Bill Nighy, on whom I have a massive man-crush*** from, well, everything, was the original Bernard; and both of them are playing those roles in my head when I read Arcadia.  It’s like saying, Oh hey, I traveled back in time and saw the original production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe with William Shakespeare playing Oberon, so WHY CAN’T YOU MEASURE UP, NEIL GAIMAN?****

***My little sister and I got fed up with having no word to describe our feelings for male actors we adore but don’t have crushes on.  We can say “crush” to describe how we feel about Ben Barnes, and “girl-crush” to describe how we feel about Carey Mulligan and Helen Mirren, but there is no word for how we feel about Nathan Fillion and Johnny Depp.  So we decided to say “man-crush”.  It is officially the most useful word I coined in the 2009 holiday season (with “snuddle” a close if nauseating second).

****Confession: Before I ever saw a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I read Susan Cooper’s heart-wrenching King of Shadows, in which a lonely orphan boy travels back to Shakespeare times to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Shakespeare takes care of him.  While playing Oberon.  I think that may actually be why I have never seen a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that satisfied me.  That, or the Royal Shakespeare Company is massively overrated.

Arcadia gives us alternating scenes in past and present, gradually unfolding the little drama that took place in the old days between a poet called Chater and another called Byron.  Stoppard manages to maintain intellectual and emotional suspense while exploring chaos theory, the intersection of science and humanities, and the limits of human knowledge.  While, also, being very funny:

Thomasina: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?

Septimus: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.

Thomasina: Is that all?

Septimus: No…a shoulder of mutton, a haunch of venison well-hugged, an embrace of grouse…caro, carnis, feminine: flesh.

Thomasina: Is it a sin?

Septimus: Not necessarily, my lady, but when carnal embrace is sinful it is a sin of the flesh.  QED.  We had caro in our Gaulic Wars: ‘The Britons live on milk and meat’ – ‘lacte et carne vivunt’.  I am sorry the seed fell on stony ground.

Thomasina: That was the sin of Onan, wasn’t it, Septimus?

Septimus: Yes.  He was giving his brother’s wife a Latin lesson and she was hardly the wiser after it than before.

Phew.  Dizzy from all the wordplay.

Tom Stoppard, y’all.  Arcadia.  I almost got to see it in London but then did not, and I really wished I had organized my schedule better.  It’s a magnificent example of the above-mentioned double-plotline sort of story, the standard to which all others of this type should aspire.

Arcadia gives us alternating scenes in past and present, gradually unfolding the little drama that took place in the old days between a poet called Chater and another called Byron.  Stoppard manages to maintain intellectual and emotional suspense while exploring chaos theory, the intersection of science and humanities, and the limits of human knowledge.  While, also, being very funny:

Fellowship, Finished

I am so late writing this post!  But the Lord of the Rings Readalong is continuing, and I am combining the end-of-Fellowship questions from Clare and the start-of-Towers questions from Teresa all in one post.  I can do that.

Since we’re dealing with the first third of a novel, instead of the first novel in a series, do you find anything different?

The pacing would be sort of whack if this were the first novel in the series.  Book 1 of Fellowship spends all this time being hobbits and getting the hobbits out of the Shire, and then in Book 2 they go lickety-split through Rivendell and Moria and Lothlorien, and then Frodo and Sam ditch everyone else, and you have no clue what the rest of the Fellowship is doing while Frodo and Sam are ditching them (fighting Orcs, it turns out, or if you are Boromir, getting shot repeatedly while redeeming yourself for your previous naughty behavior).  I think the film of Fellowship found a pace that was far more first-in-a-series than first-third.

Do Books One and Two have significant differences to you?

Book Two went much faster, but I enjoyed Book One more (apart from horrible, horrible Tom Bombadil).  To me, the time the characters spend in places-not-the-Shire is ridiculously short, compared with the time they spend in the Shire.  I kept thinking, Sheesh, slow down, people.  Moria’s not that bad.  It’s atmospheric.  Enjoy it. So Book 2 felt rushed in a way that Book 1 didn’t.

Who’s your favorite character so far into the novel?

I actually felt very fond of Bilbo in this book.  I know he’s not around much, but he’s a darling.  The bit in the Council of Elrond where he offers to take the ring to Mordor is the sweetest moment.  After Bilbo I love Sam, of course, who could fail to love Sam, and I like Boromir a lot.

What surprised you the most?

DID Y’ALL KNOW that Legolas is one of those MEAN ELVES?  Remember those MEAN ELVES from The Hobbit, those elves from Mirkwood that were MEAN and they imprisoned the gang and Bilbo had to pull a cunning trick with his ring and some barrels in order to get them out?  Legolas is one of those MEAN ELVES!  Those elves, they are not only MEAN, but they are also incompetent, because they first let thirteen dwarves walk out of their prisons, and then they lost Gollum.  Nice going, mean incompetent Mirkwood elves.  Elrond should have sent a Rivendell elf for the Fellowship.  Mirkwood elves are plainly no good.

What was your favorite scene?

I always enjoy Bilbo’s birthday party.  The Council of Elrond, maybe my favorite scene in the Fellowship movie, is super boring in the book, apart from the mind-blowing revelation (seriously, I was so surprised) that Legolas is Legolas Mirkwood of the Mean Elf Mirkwoods.

So much for Fellowship.  On to Two Towers.

What’s your past experience with The Two Towers?  If you’re rereading, how does it stack up against the other books?

Last time I read Lord of the Rings, which was in high school or early college so it’s been, ah,  a few years, I liked The Two Towers best.  I love it the best, including the fact that it ends on a wretchedly despairing note.  I like The Empire Strikes Back best out of the Star Wars movies too.  That is just my taste.  I am hoping The Two Towers lives up to my memory.

If you’re a rereader, what are you most looking forward to?

Frodo and Sam in Mordor.  I love those parts.  Love.  I cannot wait for Gollum to show up.

What about the movie?  If you’ve seen it, what did you think of it, and how much do you think it will color your experience with the book?

I liked Fellowship of the Ring best of the films, though it’s my least favorite of the books.  I don’t know whether this is, in fact, an accurate reflection of the respective merits of film and book, or a prejudiced assessment based on my encountering the film of Fellowship before the book, and the books of the other two before the films.  Whatever the case, The Two Towers is not my favorite of the films.  I hate what they did to Faramir, and I do not like the guy they got for Wormtongue, and that foolishness with Aragorn and the Warg and the horse was just totally unnecessary.  On the other hand, Eomer is wonderful (nice teeth on the man), Aragorn continues to be amazing, I love the actor who plays Faramir, and Rohan is bloody gorgeous and so its is violin theme song.  Oh, and I cry every time at the end of the film during the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

There!  Finally!  I managed this post at last.  Now to start reading The Two Towers.

Review: Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones

So Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of the ballad “Tam Lin”, but it incorporates elements from a dozen other fairy tales, myths, and legends.  I read this article one time that Diana Wynne Jones wrote, about the process of writing Fire and Hemlock and all the different strands of stories she used, which was quite, quite interesting.  The story begins with a young woman called Polly, who is packing her things for Oxford and has come across a book that she remembers being quite different to what it is now.  This leads her to the realization that she has two sets of memories, one perfectly ordinary and one – not quite.  She begins to remember a man called Tom Lynn, whom she befriended when she was ten years old, and with whom she created an imaginary, heroic world, the contents of which developed an alarming habit of coming (more or less) true.

You know what I love the most about this book?  The fact that even when they have lost touch he continues to send her books all the time, and she always reads them.  I have written something a bit like this into a story of mine because I love the idea so much.  How brilliant to have somebody with the same taste in books as you, constantly sending you wonderful things to read.  Wouldn’t it be good to have a book dealer like that?  Sending you books?

Okay, I’ll shut up about that.  There are other things in this book that are better and more relevant than just the book-sending.  These are a bunch of excellent characters and a set of true relationships – Polly’s fascination with Nina as a child and her developing a deeper friendship with Fiona; the okay-fine-then relationship she has with Seb; Ivy’s ways of moping and clinging.  As well as being a good fantasy story, this is one of the better growing up and figuring yourself out stories I’ve ever read.  You can see the influences everybody is having over Polly throughout her life (Nina, Ivy, Granny, Fiona, Tom), and it’s so interesting to see her noticing them and sorting out what she wants to do about them.  Because that’s just how it does work: You figure out what bits of other people have blended into you, and you decide whether it’s bits you want to keep.

Then of course this is also a book that produces an excellent mixture of myths and real life, funny and serious, endearing and creepy.  The family of Leroy, which has its hooks into Tom in some way Polly can’t quite figure out, is thoroughly unpleasant, and they spy on her and make whirling men out of garbage and scary living robot things.  Ick.  I love the idea of someone having two sets of memories, because that is cool.

And um – I am squirming with embarrassment as I bring this up – there’s this one bit where Polly spends a massive amount of time and energy writing a long book about the adventures of the fictional versions of herself and Tom, the hero personas she has made up for them, and – and – and, you know, she’s young and she’s in the throes of having written a whole book all by herself, and Tom writes back to her Sentimental drivel and then writes an even longer letter about how stupid this one particular scene is (what a mean, mean, mean meanie!  She’s fourteen years old!).  Oh, God, I hate that part of the book.  Polly reads back over the book she wrote, and she realizes it’s awful, and every single bit of it makes her cringe.  I read Fire and Hemlock to my little sister a few years ago, and I could hardly manage to read this section out loud.  I know exactly how she feels.  Poor little sausage.

Fire and Hemlock. Better than all of Diana Wynne Jones’s other books, and withdrawal from which is responsible for my spending a very pleasant afternoon sitting outside in the cool sunny weather and reading Tam Lin straight through from beginning to end.  Thank you, Pamela Dean, for writing a book to keep me from the agonies of Fire and Hemlock withdrawal.

Other people’s reviews:

Tales of the Reading Room
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog (my friend Jane was squicked out by the end, by the way, but it didn’t bother me at all – everything had been leading up to it, I thought)
Dog Ear Diary
things mean a lot
Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf
Book Nut
Valentina’s Room
Fiddle-Dee-Dee’s Not English
everyday reads
Rhinoa’s Ramblings

Tell me if I missed yours!

Writing swear words in the margins (Review: Deep Secret, Diana Wynne Jones)

I was trying to figure out, earlier today, what year it would have been that I started reading to my little sister.  I have read her scads of books over the years, but I’m pretty sure the first one was Half Magic, and I’m pretty sure that after finishing it, we went straight on to Magic by the Lake, which means I must have had them both at the time.  I have definite proof that I got Magic by the Lake for Christmas of 1995.

Let’s say I started reading to Social Sister early in 1996.  That was fourteen years ago now.  We read a lot of books together.  I mean we shared a room in our childhood!  It’s not like either of us had to make any big effort to get together and do some reading.  Plus, my family had a big car trip every summer to Maine, which meant three solid days of driving to get there, and three solid days of driving to get back.  That is a lot of time to read.  There are times when we got strapped for books to read next.

I mention this because I wouldn’t have bought Deep Secret if I had had some easy alternative of what to read Social Sister instead.  I had decided to read it to her in the time between finally deciding I liked it, and actually buying a copy.  I liked it easily well enough to buy it, but the one they had in the YA section at Bongs & Noodles had a stupid-looking cover:

The back cover blurb is stupid too!  I didn’t want to buy that stupid book.  I was just going to read to Social Sister from our oldest sister Anna’s copy, but there were pages missing out of the front of that copy.  So I sighed heavily to make sure Anna knew how severely she was inconveniencing me by having a damaged book; and also to impress upon Social Sister the painful and difficult nature of the sacrifices I had to make on her behalf; and I bought the stupid copy of Deep Secret and resigned myself.

(I always wanted Social Sister to be pretty clear on how kind I was being to read to her at all.  When I finished a chapter, and was willing to go on and read another chapter, I would start to close the book very slowly while keeping my place with my finger, and I’d say, “And maybe next time—” which was Social Sister’s cue to start howling and begging for me to continue.  She’d screech and plead and grovel, and after several minutes of this I’d sigh and say grudgingly, “Well – okay”.  It was sort of control-freaky.  I AM NOT PROUD.)

It turned out that in addition to having a stupid cover and a back-cover blurb made out of fail, this copy of Deep Secret had been censored to make it more kid-friendly.  All the swear words had been changed into less sweary words (except the ones that hadn’t – it was very inconsistent), and anything that would have implied that anyone, anywhere, was thinking about having sex (mind you, this book is set at a fantasy fiction convention) had also been removed.  They left in all the violence though – some pretty violent violence!  It was an idiotic way of doing it.

I didn’t appreciate it.  I so much didn’t appreciate it that I read out of the stupid copy to Social Sister with a pen and Anna’s old copy in my other hand, and I checked the versions against each other and made corrections in the margins of the stupid copy.  I did it straight through.  Here is a sample (I chose these pages as an extreme example – in most of the book it’s just a few swear words here and there) (and sorry about the fuzzy edges – I was trying to scan these without cracking the book’s spine):

So reading it was sort of like this:

I apologized – (Brace yourself, Social Sister, there’s a bother coming up, and I suspect not naturally).  One of the six said, Bother – oh, for heaven’s sake!  Bother!  I mean they didn’t mind us seeing that kid get executed at the beginning, or all the business with the sticky drippy blood a little while ago, but they can’t bear the idea that we might read the word Damn in a book marked as appropriate for ages 12 and up.  Social Sister, don’t you feel that a majority of kids ages 12 and up know the word Damn already?  There, I’ve fixed it.  One of the six said Damn, and Social Sister, let’s be clear, one of the six said damn, damn, damn, and before that they said damn the convention and damn the centaur-”

“I like the centaur,” said Social Sister.

“Nobody cares what you like!” I howled.  “I am on a mission to restore the smut to desmutted books!  And this part says, One of the six said Damn, and everyone is having an orgy in the stairwell, and if they didn’t like the way she wrote the damn book in the first place then they shouldn’t have published it!  This asinine bowdlerization is an insult to the intelligence of every person ages twelve and up!”

Luckily there was a heat wave in London when I was there in 2005, which forced me to spend all my time in the air-conditioned bookshops on Charing Cross Road, and while I was there, I found an undesmutted copy of Deep Secret with, moreover, a rather cool and understated cover that does not embarrass me when I am out in public with it.

So I need never worry about that ridiculous copy again.  I have given it to Social Sister, who professes to be madly fond of it.

I have posted this pocket drama of sisterhood and smuttiness rather than reviewing Deep Secret because – well, mostly because I think it is funny.  Also because if you do not believe me by now that Diana Wynne Jones is an amazing writer, indeed that she is just everything that is great about being great, then you never will.  If you do believe me, and just haven’t read Deep Secret, I highly recommend it.  It starts out a bit boring, and you don’t think you’re going to love the characters, but if you push past that, the characters all end up at a fantasy convention and are totally lovable.  WORTH IT.

(The Guardian and Orson Scott Card both rhapsodize rhapsodically about Diana Wynne Jones and her varied ways of being amazing.)

Do you choose your reading material for public places (trains, waiting rooms, classes at university) based on how unembarrassing the covers are?  I’d like to say that I don’t but honesty compels me to admit that it is a consideration.

Reviews of Deep Secret:

Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
Books and Other Thoughts
Bart’s Bookshelf

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

What do you know?  Life sends such unexpected blessings (and this review contains lots of spoilers).  I reread The Hobbit for the first time since I was small, and didn’t want to stab anybody in the eyes.

Except for the dwarves in the beginning; and then Gandalf throughout because, frankly, who made him the king of the world?  He just gets to decide that Bilbo would be good on an adventure and risk his whole life to get a couple of bags of gold?  When it all works out, Gandalf nods and winks and makes wry comments about how good Bilbo was, but, dude, things could have gone another way.  Bilbo pisses off Smaug rather than intriguing him, you’ve got a dead hobbit on your hands.  I bet Gandalf wouldn’t have done so much wry commenting and winking if that had happened!

The Hobbit is about a little hobbit called Bilbo who mostly likes to sit at home comfortably in his hobbit-hole and drink wine and eat cheese; but he is descended from the family of Took, and the Took in him yearns for adventure.  Gandalf the Wizard senses this (for my feelings on that, see above) and sends him off on an adventure with a pack of dwarves who are questing to take back Thorin the Dwarf’s ancestor’s treasure from Smaug the Dragon, who lives in the Lonely Mountain.  On the way, Bilbo becomes intrepid and brave and clever, and he and the dwarves have all sorts of adventures with spiders and Wargs and Gollum.

The thing about episodic books, of which The Hobbit is one, is that each episode has to really grab you in order to keep you engaged.  Many of the events of The Hobbit don’t matter to the overarching plot, killing the dragon and getting the treasure, except insofar as they all contribute to making Bilbo a little braver.  I like Gollum; I like it when Bilbo cleverly helps his friends to escape the wood-elves; and I like it when Bilbo is chatting to Smaug.  I am neutral on Elrond and the spiders, and on Bilbo’s handling of the Arkenstone.  I do not care for the trolls, the goblin tunnels, the Warg fighting, or the fact that, dude, some random human guy shows up and gets to kill Smaug!

The best thing, to me, was definitely Bilbo himself.  He grows as a character, getting braver and more sure of himself, and ultimately being considered the leader of the expedition, but whatever happens, he is always most interested in getting back to his comfy hobbit-hole.  Towards the end he even kinda sells out Thorin to get himself home faster, which, you know, I understand the sentiment, but I’m not sure I applaud the action.  I am curious to see how he changes between the end of The Hobbit and the start of Lord of the Rings, though.  Having read Lord of the Rings a good seven to eight years after The Hobbit, I remember being confused by references to Bilbo’s backstory.

The Lord of the Rings Readalong continues apace!  Loving the Lord of the Rings Readalong!

Review: Witch Week, Diana Wynne Jones

I am selectively craving Diana Wynne Jones right now.  Diana Wynne Jones is so great that I’ve devoted nearly half of the spinning bookshelf my father made me to her books alone.  (The spinning bookshelf denotes great favoritism and also contains Martin Millar, J.K. Rowling, and Rumer Godden.)  (Er, just so we’re clear, it doesn’t spin perpetually, like those spinny restaurants.  It’s more like spinning earring racks at gift shops, except bigger and wooden and it has books on it rather than accessories.)

Does anyone else take great notice of words whose letters are all standards, which is to say, letters that neither stretch tall (like t) nor drop low (like g)?  All-standard words include scarecrows, savannas, and renascence; if you are willing to fudge a bit and include the letter i (like I am), you can have reconnaissance and accessories, which is what brought this to mind in the first place.  What’s also fun (if you are a total dork already) is to find words that are all standards and can be typed with only one hand, like scare and raze and verses.  Continuing on the assumption that you are a total dork, it might please you to know that the bottom row of your keyboard has six standards, the middle two, and the top six again; that the bottom row has the fewest non-standards (only one); and that the top row has a pleasing and palindromic (if you count i as standard) pattern of non-standard, standard standard standard, non-standard non-standard, standard standard standard, non-standard.

But, Witch Week.  It’s set in an alternate world quite like ours, except there is magic there, and the magic is illegal.  If a witch is caught, she or he is burned straightaway.  Mr. Crossley, the English teacher of Class 6B at the Larwood House boarding school, is dismayed, therefore, to find an anonymous note amongst his textbooks accusing someone in 6B of being a witch.  Is it plump, unpopular Nan Pilgrim, descended from the famous Archwitch Dulcinea Wilkes?  Is it perpetual victim Brian Wentworth, the deputy headmaster’s son?  Charles Morgan with the evil stare and the encoded journal?

(Not telling.)

I’ve said I like Diana Wynne Jones because her characters tend to move from selfishness to self-awareness; I also like her because her nicest characters have flaws (which they learn to work around), and her nastiest ones have virtues (which sometimes get lost in their pursuit of – well, whatever it is).  Her books do not look kindly on small-mindedness or selfishness, in the villains or the heroes.  The day gets saved when people overcome their fear and selfishness and act like their best selves.  Not in a moralizing way.  Just in a, sort of, look how good humans can be sort of way.

Spoilers in this paragraph only!  And if you have read Witch Week already, please tell me what you think about this.  I ordinarily come away from a Diana Wynne Jones book feeling absolutely satisfied with the ending, even if it’s a quite sad ending (Homeward Bounders breaks my heart every time); with Witch Week I never feel this way.  Their whole world disappears at the end!  It is less than ideal!  And sure, they end up with a nicer version, but they don’t get to be witches anymore!  Plus, how come the unpleasant boys – Dan Smith & Simon Silverson – get to stay at Larwood, and even be friends with the sympathetic characters, while the unpleasant girls – Theresa and her lot – all get shipped off to the other school?  Hmph.

It took me several tries to like Witch Week, which is typical of my relationship with Diana Wynne Jones’s writing, but now it’s one of my favorites.  Whereas my little sister, to whom I read many DWJ books aloud in our youth, has never warmed to it.  If you are thinking of reading it, I’d suggest reading Charmed Life first, just because – well, mainly because I like Chrestomanci, and I feel you will appreciate him more as a character in Witch Week if you are already familiar with him and his awesomeness.

(awesomeness – all standards.)

I have not said enough about Diana Wynne Jones on this blog.  The extent of my love for her is not adequately reflected here.  But all that’s going to change, my friends.  I love Diana Wynne Jones and I am totally in the mood to reread all the Chrestomanci books, and the Dalemark Quartet, and the books with the Magids, and the books with Howl; and I suspect I am in the mood to give those of her books that I haven’t been mad about in the past another chance.  I am counting 23 of her books that I could totally go for right now.

Other reviews:

the stacks my destination
Puss Reboots
Rhinoa’s Ramblings

Let me know if I missed yours!

Two more short reviews

Sheesh, I just can’t get it together to write proper reviews this month.  So here are two unproper ones.

One Perfect Day, Rebecca Mead

I love the title of this book, but it wasn’t as SHOCKING as I had hoped.  I was anticipating lots of SHOCKING anecdotes about the SHOCKING American tendency towards excess in weddings.  And there was a bit of that, sure, but the book is properly called One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, and it is indeed mainly focused on the selling and marketing of weddings.  Mead talks about many aspects of the marketing – popular wedding locations like Vegas, selling of dresses, wedding planners, and bridal magazines.  The wedding industry is very industrious, but not very SHOCKING.  I want to read more about weddings, with hopefully more SHOCKING stuff, and more about the wedding participants versus the wedding industry people.  Thanks to Schatzi for the recommendation!

Power of Three, Diana Wynne Jones

And now for something completely different: one of the very few books by Diana Wynne Jones that I truly loved the first time I read it. Power of Three is about three races of people that live on a Moor – regular people, who live in mounds under the Moor; Dorig, who live in the water; and Giants, who are – you know – us.  The titular Three are the three races, or else the three Powers (Sun for the regular people, Earth for the Giants, and Moon for the Dorig), or else the three siblings – Ceri and Ayna and Gair.  There are many groups of three in the book, lots of sets of three powers coming together.

Diana Wynne Jones always writes a disconnect between how characters perceive themselves, and how others see them, and their emotional journeys always lead to self-awareness.  Hooray for self-awareness, perhaps the personal quality most valued by me in myself and other people.  The “regular people”, Ayna and Gair and Ceri, understand the world in one way at the start of the book – they are people, and the Dorig and Giants are enemies to be feared – and they gradually find that they’re all, essentially, the same.  It’s nice.

Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

House of Leaves put me in the mood for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I can’t account for because they are two wildly dissimilar books.  House of Leaves is terribly modern and American and all sort of up in your face, and Jonathan Strange is set in early nineteenth-century England (alternate England, but still) and is much with the fairies and book-learning and wry gentility.  Anyway I fetched out my convenient three-volume box set of paperbacks, and I read it starting in 2009 and finished in 2010.  There should really be a word for a book you start one year and finish the next year so go invent one!

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is all about magic coming back to England.  In the Napoleonic War times, it is widely known that there are no practical magicians in England at all, only theoretical ones who read about magic in books and don’t do any themselves.  Except that a practical magician turns up hoarding books in Yorkshire, a selfish, querulous old man called Mr. Norrell who is determined to bring magic back to England.  Good magic, which in Mr. Norrell’s opinions means nothing to do with the fairy realms and absolutely nothing to do with England’s magical, legendary king, John Uskglass.  Then a wealthy, idle young man called Jonathan Strange, in an attempt to impress the girl he wishes to marry, decides to be a magician too (and is good at it – calling him wealthy and idle gives the wrong idea about his magical abilities).  Things go on from there.  They help to defeat the French by using magic.  A slave called Stephen is helped (or persecuted) by a mysterious fairy gentleman with thistle-down hair.

The nice thing about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is it’s long?   But you don’t have to feel daunted by it, because you can probably tell in about five chapters whether it’s your sort of book or not; if not, you can stop reading; if it is, then hooray, there’s tons of it ahead!  The first five chapters – the first chapter by itself, really – gives you an excellent idea of how the book is going to go.  Some drastic things happen, but not without a lot of explanation; there are a lot of footnotes; the writing is amusing but probably won’t make you laugh out loud.  I knew straight away I was going to love it.  The footnotes don’t tend to be germane to the story, but they’re full of backstory and – I don’t know, sidestory? – and tidbits from the history of this alternate England.

I read this in early 2006, and since then I managed to forget nearly every significant plot point.  I remembered Jonathan Strange going off and becoming Wellington’s useful magician; I remembered the business with Lady Pole’s finger; I remembered whole sentences verbatim that the gentleman with the thistle-down hair says to Stephen Black.  But I had it in my mind that Childermass was the Raven King all along, and that Mr. Norrell ended up going to live with the King of England, and I’d completely forgotten whole plotlines (like the Greysteels – they showed up and I was all, who are these fools?).  Reading it again was like reading it for the first time.  A perfect book for the holidays.

Review: The Seagulls Woke Me, Mary Stolz

I usually read The Seagulls Woke Me when I have just finished Greensleeves and cannot bear to leave it absolutely behind right away; they are both books about girls who get away from (or find?) themselves.  The Seagulls Woke Me is a good transition from Greensleeves to, you know, regular life.  It helps me to be less disappointed in other books.  I am always pleased when I find a book that makes this nice transition for me.  Tam Lin for Fire and Hemlock; Rebecca for Jane Eyre; if I ever find one for The Book Thief, that will be a good day.

(I just reread The Book Thief.  Blown away once again by how good it is.  I started it, and immediately went to find my mother to pester her to read it.  “It’s not that sad,” I said.  “It’s sad but it’s really great, and it’s not like, you know, it’s all sad at once, so you could still enjoy it most of the way through,” and then when I got to the place where it gets really sad (around when they start using the bomb shelters), I had to go back and tell her that no, actually, it is that sad, it is the saddest book in the whole world and I cry like a baby every time I read it.  My little sister just read it and loved it, of course, though she also cried and cried.)

The Seagulls Woke Me is about a sixteen-year-old girl called Jean who is shy and socially awkward, and can never seem to say the right things, and her mother smothers her, and one day she goes off to spend the summer on a Maine island with her uncle and aunt.  Where she finds herself a perfectly viable person, after all.

I like this sort of book because I like the idea that you can go off to a new place and be a better version of yourself.  Greensleeves has a slightly harder time of it, but I suppose that’s because she dislikes herself more to start with.  The Seagulls Woke Me is a gentle, peaceful sort of book – it’s set on a sea island, and it reminds me of the sea itself.  Jean cuts her hair, and makes new friends, and learns to assess people with more – what? – acuity maybe?  I don’t know.  She grows up a lot over the course of the book without seeming too mature for sixteen, and when the book ends I always imagine good things for her future.

Do you have any books like this, that you enjoy reading straight away after another book?  Do you enjoy books where people reinvent themselves?  Any favorites you want to share?

Some books I have read before

REREADING IS AMAZING.  Sometimes I forget how many amazing books I have already read, because I am busy reading new books, which are also (sometimes) amazing.  But this is what I’ve been reading lately.

Magician’s Ward, Patricia C. Wrede

Much like Mairelon the Magician.  Too many names of people, but I don’t care because I am more interested in Kim’s learning magic and having a Season and Coming Out at a ball and having Offers of Marriage to turn down.  In pretty dresses.  Can there be more pretty dresses?  And God, pretty shoes?  I need new shoes so much.  My favorite shoes are all reaching the end of their lives – the pink ones that go with all my red-toned tops; the adorable tan strappy sandals that I wore all over the place and I love them and I don’t want them to go; and the little black ones I wore to prom (I KNOW I HAVE TO LET THEM GO) and then forgot about for several years and then rediscovered, with the sweet little kitten heel.  Sigh.

Sorcery and Cecelia, Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

I love Sorcery and Cecelia.  Know why?  Because the two authors wrote it using the letter game!  The letter game!  They really did!  Kate has gone to London to have her Season, and poor Cecelia is stuck at home in Essex.  They have all sorts of fun with a marquis and a magical chocolate pot, and a wicked witch called Miranda, and beautiful friends and relations.

Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. Wrede are obviously having fun here, and they manage a plot that hangs together really well over two locations and considering they were making it up as they went along.  Reading this again for the first time in a while, I am extra triple curious about what they changed when they decided to get it published.  I would think to play the letter game, you’d have to be quite attentive to minor details in the other person’s letter, and also be flexible enough to ditch elements of the plot you had planned if the other person said something that messed it up.  Tricky!  But it sounds so fun.  One of these days…

Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth Peters

Amelia Peabody makes me laugh.  I don’t necessarily read this series for the mysteries, though I recall finding some of them quite satisfying.  I really read them for the characters – Amelia is so determined and brilliant, and Evelyn is sweet without being sweety-sweet (usually, and when she is sweety-sweet it just makes me laugh, and she’s all There is an image enshrined in my heart – oh, Elizabeth Peters, why are you so funny all the time?); and the Emersons are charming.

Elizabeth Peters has a wicked sense of humor, and as many times as I’ve read her books, they always make me laugh.  Well-done her for giving her detective a family without making her boring – and carrying on adding family members and not forgetting them in subsequent books.  She does make oodles of good characters, though at a certain point there are too many all at once.

But I’ve strayed from the point.  Um, yes, Crocodile on the Sandbank.  Did I say, it’s set in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century?  There are pyramids all over the place, and the characters all have sumptuous fun complaining about the treatment of antiquities (it is really shocking, to be fair – it makes me want to cry even when the antiquities in question are fictional). Plus, whenever silly characters show up, everyone makes fun of them!  Hooray!

What are some books you return to repeatedly?  If you like them so much perhaps I will like them too…