Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), Jerome K. Jerome

I’m sure someone told me about this book – probably a number of someones, as it is old and famous – but I haven’t got the faintest idea who. It is also an impossible book to review; so I will just say, It was very funny (as it intended to be), and I enjoyed it a lot. Here is an excerpt. The whole thing is like this:

The selfishness of the riparian proprietor grows with every year. If these men had their way they would close the River Thames altogether. They actually do this along the minor tributary streams and in the backwaters. They drive posts into the bed of the stream, and draw chains across from bank to bank, and nail huge notice-boards on every tree. The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered: “Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.”

I was vexed to hear Harris go on in this bloodthirsty strain. We never ought to allow our instincts of justice to degenerate into mere vindictiveness. It was a long while before I could get Harris to take a more Christian view of the subject, but I succeeded at last, and he promised me that he would spare the friends and relations at all events, and would not sing comic songs on the ruins.

The Semi-Detached House, Emily Eden

Which can be read here, as it is out of copyright, and also this website is brilliant and I am all in favor of celebrating women writers.

Recommended by: Box of Books (whom I owe an apology)

I am sorry for griping abut The Semi-Attached Couple and its unbitchy nature.  Emily Eden is very amusing, and in many ways she is quite like Jane Austen but bitchier.  So I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions even though Helen in The Semi-Attached Couple was very annoying.  Now I have just finished The Semi-Detached House, and it was completely charming.  Everyone in it was so endearing, and they had such pleasant conversations, and everything worked out so neatly, although frankly I was hoping that a certain person and another certain person wouldn’t get engaged, and I thought briefly that Emily Eden was going to dare to leave one of the women single.  But she didn’t.  Oh well.

Here is what the sweet old mother says that made me laugh while I was waiting in line at the post office to send an envelope that will Decide My Future:

Lord Chester and Doctor Ayscough said such clever things about poisons; I thought I would remember them for fear of accidents; but I am not quite certain whether I have not forgotten part.  However, I know it is not wholesome to take strychnine in any great quantity, so mind that, girls; arsenic, which is very apt to get into puddings and gruel, should be avoided, and you should take something after it, if you do swallow any – but I forget what.  It was really very interesting, and I like a good murder that can’t be found out; that is, of course, it is very shocking, but I like to hear about it.

Awww.  She’s cute.  Whenever anyone says “shocking” now, I think of that adorable BBC adaptation of Northanger Abbey (which has already come on Masterpiece Theatre, so you’ve missed it if you didn’t see it) and adorable Felicity Whatsit who plays Catherine, with her big wide eyes and Isabella telling her “It is the most shocking and horrid thing in all the world!”  Oh, and also, the sweet old mother has two daughters, and one time they are talking to a girl who is in some difficulties, and

They were induced to adopt their usual resource, and to call to mamma to come and satisfy the disastrous state of Miss Monteneros’s existence.

Story of my LIFE.  And here is a description of a boat called an outrigger which I don’t know what that is, but the description sounds exactly like my views of kayaks:

It may be necessary to explain that [it is] an apology for a boat, and, apparently, a feeble imitation of a plank – that the individual who hazards his own life in it is happily prevented, by its absurd form, from making any other person a sharer in his danger – that he is liable to be overset by any passing steamer, or by the slightest change of his own posture – that it is difficult to conceive how he ever got into such a thing, or how he is ever to get out of it again, and that the effect he produces on an unprejudiced spectator is that of an aquatic mouse caught in a boat-trap, from which he will never emerge alive, notwithstanding the continual struggle he appears to keep up.

I just have to say

I’m in the middle of The Semi-Detached House, and I’m definitely much more charmed by it than I was by The Semi-Attached Couple. I like Blanche so far much more than I did Helen, and I am now definitely feeling the Jane-Austen-esque but bitchier thing. Behold:

“Are you going to this concert, Baroness?”

“No; it seems odd, but we are not asked this time,” said the Baroness, with an air of modest pride. “I suspect we are out of favour at Court, but a Drawing-Room is my aversion, and I have been sadly remiss this year; absolutely neglected the Birthday, which was very naughty of me, and so I am left out of this party.”

As that had been invariably her fate with regard to all parties at the Palace, the resignation she evinced had probably become a matter of habit; but she hinted an intention of bringing the Queen to her senses by staying away from the next Drawing-Room too.

The End of Mr. Y, Scarlett Thomas

Recommended by: Bride of the Book God

I’ve been reading The End of Mr. Y for untold ages (perhaps an entire fortnight), with numerous little vacations in which I read other books for purposes of duty and leisure. This is because The End of Mr. Y didn’t really grab me – I wasn’t so much uninterested in this book as I was much more interested in others.

It’s about a Ph.D. student called Ariel Manto who is studying (among other things) Victorian author Thomas Lumas, whose book The End of Mr. Y is supposed to be cursed, so that anyone who reads it dies. Happily for the world, only one known copy exists, and it is in a German bank vault. However, Ariel, that lucky duck, happens upon a copy at a used bookstore and reads it joyously. She discovers that it contains instructions on how to get to a place called the Troposphere, which can put you inside other people’s minds and all kinds of crazy shit. Hijinks ensue.

As a thought experiment it was extremely interesting; as a story it was also quite interesting, and I enjoyed it in both capacities. Though I will say that in its capacity as a story (leaving out its thought-experiment-ness), the longish expository segment with Ariel and Lura and Burlem was very – well. Longish. And very very expository. Distressingly so. I used up a lot of my brain paying attention to it and forgot all about the story with Project Starlight and Adam and that lot, so it was jarring for me when they showed back up.

I also get rapidly impatient with books in which the narrator struggles for words to describe the bizarre and foreign universe(s) in which s/he finds him- or herself, or the bizarre and foreign sensations s/he experiences as a result of the bizarre and foreign circumstances s/he is undergoing. Without wanting to be nasty to people who do this, and I include Robin McKinley and Diana Wynne Jones, both of whom I love, in this category…get a damn grip. If I wanted to hear people groping helplessly for self-expression I’d just attend my classes. Especially Symbolic Logic. Yes, okay, I can see the point – if it were a normal experience there would be no problem for the narrator; his/her difficulty in finding viable words indicates that the phenomenon s/he is attempting to describe is outside of ordinary human experience. Don’t care. Take two seconds to explain that the words you’re using are only approximations, and then forge ahead bravely. Embrace the inadequacy of the English language.

(I ♥ the English language and its copious profusion of available words. So this may be a knee-jerk defensive reaction – Oh yeah? Can’t describe it? You got something to say about my language? What’s wrong with English, huh? Huh? – rather than a valid stylistic criticism.)

One brief remark:

There is something a bit weird about how Ms. Thomas addressed the issue of sex in this book. Ariel repeatedly refers to her “transgressive” sex habits, and calls herself a slut and makes nasty comments straight along about her sexual life, which involves things like being tied up with ropes and sleeping with married guys, and she just several times describes all this as being nasty and dirty and bad. And then when she and Adam have finally had nice, good, missionary position sex (which is glorious for them both) and declared their love for each other, there is this passage, which I actually find rather disturbing:

“Why don’t you hate me?” I say, even though I already know the answer.

“What do you mean?”…

“Well, you know everything [about me] now. All the sex. All the…everything.”

Where all the [bad] sex is evidently a specific thing for which Ariel requires forgiveness from Adam (former priest and virgin until a few minutes ago). I’m probably overthinking this, and the self-loathing is just a facet of Ariel’s character, but honestly the whole question of sex in this book is set up in a way that seems quite creepy and antifeminist.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

Seven.

You roll and watch it coming, realizing completely that this is no regular die.  You claim it to be bad luck, but you’ve known all along that it had to come.  You brought it into the room.  The table could smell it on your breath.  The Jew was sticking out of your pocket from the outset.  He’s smeared to your lapel, and the moment you roll, you know it’s a seven – the one thing that somehow finds a way to hurt you.  It lands.  It stares you in each eye, miraculous and loathsome, and you turn away with it feeding on your chest.

Just bad luck.

That’s what you say.

Of no consequence.

That’s what you make yourself believe – because deep down, you know that this small piece of changing fortune is a signal of things to come.  You hide a Jew.  You pay.  Somehow or other, you must.

I saw The Book Thief first when I was in England, staying in London with my family over New Year’s, and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted it or not (I wish I’d bought it then because it would have been more expensive BUT it had a nice cover and was hardback), so I picked it up and glanced at it, and something the sales person said led me to believe it was in translation.  So since I didn’t really have any spare money for a book that might not be good and was in translation anyway, and since I definitely didn’t have any spare space in my luggage, I didn’t get it.

What with one thing and another I checked it out of the library this past summer and read it almost all in one go, lying on my couch at home.  It made me cry.  So I didn’t read it again, and I didn’t buy it, and by the time I noticed that I was pining for it, it was too late and the Official Christmas Buying Embargo was on, and when I didn’t get it for Christmas (I got many other things though!), I went round to Bongs & Noodles and bought it with my Christmas gift card money.

(Yay!)

Seriously, honestly, this book is as good as you’ve heard.  It is one of the best books I have ever read.  Markus Zusak, yay for you.  It’s about a little German girl who steals books and has a foster family and hides a Jew in her basement.  And yes, okay, the book is narrated by Death, and I know that might not be a draw for some people, but this book is just gorgeously written, and it’s extremely moving, and I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.

But sad.  So if you have serious objections to bits of story that involve dead children and mums crying about it, and if those objections are serious enough that you actually cannot see past them, then okay, this book might not be for you.  For everyone else in the whole world though.  Yup.  Damn good book.  It made me cry, and although I tear up extremely easily, it is a much better trick to make actual tears actually fall out of my eyes, which is what The Book Thief has done both times I’ve read it.

Although I ordinarily cannot deal with Holocaust books at all, which I know this officially isn’t one of, but it kind of is.  And still I liked The Book Thief a lot.

The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly

When David slept he dreamed more often of the creature he had named the Crooked Man, who walked through forests very like the one beyond David’s window.  The Crooked Man would advance to the edge of the tree line, staring out at an expanse of green lawn to where a house just like Rose’s stood.  He would speak to David in his dreams.

I picked this up almost completely at random. My dad said “What else can we get Mom for Christmas?” and I said “Oh, I know. This.”, and grabbed The Book of Lost Things, which I had been eying for a while, so he got it for her, and – um, well, before she had a chance to read it I swiped it and read it myself. So that was randomish. However, A High and Hidden Place also said it was good.

Before I get started with the reviewing, I have to quote this because it slays me.  I don’t usually read Amazon reviews until after I’ve written my own (then the study would be tainted), but for some reason I did in this case, and here is what someone on Amazon says about The Book of Lost Things (s/he (?) didn’t like it):

Repugnant and odious!

Don’t even THINK about allowing a child to read this – or even a teen lost in his own “goth” moment. Connolly has reached far into the earth and pulled up homosexuality, erotic thoughts, murder, gore – any evil thing possible to put a poll of black around the reader and then has the nerve to charge $16.00 for his own perversion. It’s been said that if an irishman was a boomerang he wouldn’t come home, he would just cry and whine and write stories about why he wanted to come home. This is what this melancholy, dark soul has done in this book. My advice to you is “don’t read” and my advice to Connolly is “seek help immediately” — what a distasteful, loathsome tome!

Seek help immediately. And charging $16.00 for his own perversion! The nerve! But it’s okay, because this review was referring to the hardback edition – I read the paperback, and it was free for me because I swiped it from my mother, so I got John Connolly’s Tome O’ Perversion at no cost to myself!

I enjoyed this book, although I think it would have been more cool if there had been more interaction between the fantasy world and the real world – like Pan’s Labyrinth which was very dark but very cool.  As it was I ended up liking the bits in the real world better, and it was good when things overlapped somewhat, like when David could hear the books whispering and when he saw the Crooked Man in his bedroom, and like that.  Once he got to the other place, there was a lot of subverting of fairy tales that sometimes seemed to be happening just for its own sake, like John Connolly’s all, Hey, what if Snow White was a bitch?  What about THAT, eh? but then forgets to take it anywhere, plot-wise.

Not absolutely wildly original (but some nasty corpses, also).  Not perverted.  Not a tome either, either in the “one volume of several” sense or the “scholarly and ponderous” sense.  But an excellent cover.  Really.  Excellent.

Atonement, by Ian McEwan

Cecilia went to the kitchen to fill the vase, and carried it up to her bedroom to retrieve the flowers from the handbasin. When she dropped them in they once again refused to fall into the artful disorder she preferred, and instead swung round in the water into a willful neatness, with the taller stalks evenly distributed around the rim. She lifted the flowers and let them drop again, and they fell into another orderly pattern. Still, it hardly mattered. It was difficult to imagine this Mr. Marshall complaining that the flowers by his bedside were too symmetrically displayed. She took the arrangement up to the second floor, along the creaking corridors to what was known as Auntie Venus’s room, and set the vase on a chest of drawers by a four-poster bed, thus completing the little commission her mother had set her that morning, eight hours before.

Actually, a good while ago I did pick this book up at random, when I was baby-sitting once and the kids had gone to bed, and I hadn’t brought any of my own books, and I was not very impressed by it then. But that was a long time ago, and I was much younger than I am now. So in spite of the dramatic failure of Saturday, I decided to read Atonement. This is because I thought the movie was quite good, and also because I was sure that Atonement had a good story; and I thought that this good-story aspect would immediately put it head and shoulders above Saturday, which about a quarter of the way through had still not got started with any story.

Let me preface this by saying that I am the kind of person who thinks a lot. It has been suggested to me on at least two occasions (maybe a few more than two) that I overthink things. This is brutal on standardized tests, especially the reading comprehension sections which I always do well on but which take me loads of time because I am contemplating how each of the four possible answers might be seen to make sense. I mention this because I don’t want there to be any confusion about my primary complaint with Atonement.

HOLY MOTHER OF GOD, is it even remotely possible for these people to quit THINKING IN THEIR BRAINS a lot of long-ass thoughts about all the BORING SHIT THEY ARE DOING when it is all wholly irrelevant and just GET ON WITH IT? And by “it” of course I mean having sex in libraries and telling nasty lies about people and hallucinating at Dunkirk. (Dunkirk!)

(I turn into fifth-book Harry Potter when confronted with annoyingness of Ian McEwan calibre.)

It’s such a shame because I really do think Atonement has an excellent premise, and the book just absolutely destroys anything that might be remotely interesting about it by going on and on and on and on and on and on and on in a prose style which is – I’m sorry, Ian McEwan! – simply not elegant or original enough to be its own raison d’être. This book is no Lolita or Midnight’s Children; it is not even I Capture the Castle or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – the writing is neither extremely beautiful nor extremely charming and endearing, and the reader (I refer here to myself) is not content to carry on reading it even when nothing much is happening. WHICH IS ALWAYS.

I mean almost always. But it felt like always. And if I hadn’t known that there were going to be brief but interesting spurts of Things Happening, I would not have had sufficient stamina to finish it. And as it was I skipped long chunks of Nothing Happening. Like this:

Not long after lunch, once she was assured that her sister’s children and Briony had eaten sensibly and would keep their promise to stay away from the pool for at least two hours, Emily Tallis had withdrawn from the white glare of the afternoon’s heat to a cool and darkened bedroom. She was not in pain, not yet, but she was retreating before its threat. There were illuminated points in her vision, little pinpricks, as though the worn fabric of the visible world was being held up against a far brighter light. She felt in the top right corner of her brain a heaviness, the inert body weight of some curled and sleeping animal; but when she touched her head and pressed, the presence disappeared from the coordinates of actual space. Now it was in the top right corner of her mind, and in her imagination she could stand on tiptoe and raise her right hand to it. It was important, however, not to provoke it; once this lazy creature moved from the peripheries to the center, then the knifing pains would obliterate all thought, and there would be no chance of dining with Leon and the family tonight.

OH MY GOD.

That wasn’t even the whole bit. That was just all I could bear to copy. Actually that passage goes on for a while. She spends a long damn time thinking about her headache, and then she thinks about her children and tells us all the things we have already observed about Briony and Cecilia because we have seen them interacting with people, and it goes on and on and on and on and on. And the only interesting thing that happens is she overhears Lola being molested by the chocolate magnate but she thinks they’re just playing a game. And in case you’re wondering, her headaches never bear any relation to the plot, and neither does she much. And obviously when Ian McEwan was a lad in writing school somebody told him that the “show, don’t tell” stricture was nonsense and you must just do exactly as you please; and Ian McEwan took it dramatically to heart.

I would also say that the book seems basically insincere, so it was impossible for me to engage with it, and furthermore he used nauseous wrong, which I absolutely hate. He did it twice. The word is nauseated. Not nauseous. Nauseated. If something is nauseous, it makes you feel nauseated; you are not nauseous unless, I suppose, you have been brutally tortured and had your limbs ripped off.

Anyway, if the above samples of Atonement do not annoy you (they annoy me SO MUCH), then you might enjoy it, but otherwise you will be screaming GET TO THE POINT as Ian McEwan goes on for two pages about the phenomenon of making each other laugh by glancing over at each other when something is funny (everyone knows about that, Ian McEwan! I don’t need to read the entire history of Leon and Cecilia’s relationship to make me believe that a brother and a sister might have a similar sense of humor!); and then when your flatmates start having an argument in the kitchen you will not be at your peacemaking best and might say something imprudent that will completely irritate one of them.

(I didn’t, though. I was the essence of grace and calm.)

The Semi-Attached Couple, Emily Eden

“Don’t you think Reginald Stuart very much out of spirits?” said Lady Portmore, when she was lingering over the breakfast-table, after the other ladies had withdrawn and Lord Teviot and Stuart had gone out shooting.”Yes, I think he is,” said Ernest, “rather out of spirits, and very much out of cash, I suspect; the old story of cause and effect.”

Recommended by: Box of Books

Now, if I recall correctly (as of course I unfailingly do), the recommending book blog said that Emily Eden was a lot like Jane Austen but bitchier, and I am not particularly finding that. I think her characterization is a little less delicate, and there are some passages that are quite satisfyingly bitchy – like when Mrs. Douglas snubs Lady Portmore, which I wished would happen on every single page because it was hilarious – but not particularly more satisfyingly bitchy than when, for instance, Elizabeth Bennet sorts out Lady Catherine de Bourgh, or (I’m sorry to be so mean but I can’t help it and I felt bad for laughing but oh my God Miss Bates was so damn annoying) Emma is rude to Miss Bates. So I don’t find the more bitchy thing to be true, and I think Emily Eden is not as fantastic as Jane Austen.

However, if I were doing book reviews based on who is better than Jane Austen, I would not have very many positive ones. And I quite enjoyed The Semi-Attached Couple, and I will shortly read The Semi-Detached House, which I have also obtained from the library. I read this book in fits and starts, on account of having about three dozen books in my room and wanting to read them all but actually having time for none, because of classes and work (dem those classes! dem them!), and so it seems to have taken untold ages to read but anyway I have just read it.

It’s about a girl called Helen who is very devoted to her family and has always been the pet, and anyway she becomes engaged to Lord Teviot, realizes she doesn’t love him that much, marries him anyway, and proceeds to have all kinds of domestic unfelicity and Lord Teviot gets cross about everything – I was getting bored with them at this point – and then, happily, they have a big bunch of people come to their house, and things started picking up beautifully. Lady Portmore is, actually, extremely funny, and Ernest Beaufort makes me smile against my will.

The only thing was, and dude, it totally took me by surprise, the book was carrying on, la la la, very Jane Austeny, dee dee dee, everyone’s in love, there’s problems, bitches and cads, hum de dum, lovely innocent girls and their sweet innocent amours, all very well, doop de doop de doop de doo –

And then BAM. There’s an ELECTION. That the characters are INVOLVED IN.   Like they are HARDCORE INVOLVED IN IT.  I was totally not prepared for it. I was left sitting staring at the book like, Hey! You were supposed to be a bitchier Jane Austen! Why are you suddenly a political novel, you slumbitch book?

Which is all part of my averseness to change, especially sudden startling unexpected change of genre in books I am reading, which is one reason I didn’t like Lizst’s Kiss and the reason I was so dismayed by Special Topics in Calamity Physics which I thought was a coming-of-age novel but was actually a mystery.

Happily the election went away pretty promptly, but then it was back to wrapping things up extremely tidily, and I found the ending unsatisfying, and my stars, how boring was Helen when Lord Teviot was sick?  But otherwise I enjoyed it a lot, and I will probably never ever read it again.

The English Governess at the Siamese Court, Anna Leonowens

Okay, the truth comes out.  You won’t believe it, but Anna Leonowens did not, in fact, have a hot but platonic romance with the King of Siam; or if she did, she kept remarkably quiet about it in her book.  Although I’m not ruling out the possibility that all the late-night “translating” she was doing for the king was actually sexual favors.  Because, you know, she acts like a proper Victorian lady but who knows?

Seriously, though, I feel that this memoir (travelogue) lacked a certain something.  Taking into account the prejudices of her time, she was still kind of a bitch about a lot of stuff, and I think she was rude to tell all the ladies of the harem that she’d rather be boiled in oil a hundred times over than even think for a single second about marrying their vile pagan king.  And believe me, Mrs. Leonowens, we got the point the first time that you were an agent of mercy and tolerance, helping all the pathetic hapless Siamese people to get their way whenever they came to you with weeping petitions.

Okay, I feel really mean now.  I’m sure she was just as helpful as she says and saved many a harem lass from being beaten or imprisoned for a very long time.  She’s probably up in heaven looking downcast and telling her best friend “Why’s that girl being so mean about me?  I was doing the best I could” in a small voice while her friend comforts her and shakes her fist at me.  Or else she’s running to tattle to God, and he’s making a little note for when I die and they play me an IMAX film of all the nasty and uncharitable acts I committed during my life.

Well anyway – no fun subplot of Tuptim and her lover being brutally beaten and murdered, so that’s a bummer; but actually a quite touching speech from the King upon Mrs. Leonowen’s departure.  She does not, incidentally, change her mind at the last moment and decide to stay, but goes heartlessly back to England to look after her health and her son.  Whatever.

Saturday, by Ian McEwan

Okay, I didn’t pick this up wholly at random, but it was the only Ian McEwan book at the library although I actually wanted Atonement to see how different it was to the movie, so that’s why I decided to read this one.  Anyway I didn’t finish.  I have a massive big stack of library books to read, and this one wasn’t impressing me at all, and I was way way in and still waiting for something to happen, and I hate those books where a dude wakes up in the morning and starts to think all about his entire life in massive detail, so I was like, Well, shit, life’s too short, I’m going to read something that I find interesting or well-written.

But maybe I was just in the wrong mood for this book.  So perhaps I’ll try it again someday (probably not though).  Definitely I will try another Ian McEwan book sometime – I hate it when someone’s a highly acclaimed writer who has written a number of books and I really, really, really want to love them because that would be exciting and open up new vistas of joy for me but then I hate their books.  That’s why I never read Joyce Carol Oates, because I’m afraid of that very thing happening.