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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

PsuedoReview: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

There are some books that I find it difficult to admit to having not read. One such book (recently remedied) is Pride and Prejudice. My first encounter with Jane Austen came in a Gothic lit class in college when I was assigned Northanger Abbey, Austen's riff on the genre. I was surprised by how funny Austen is but really that was all, and then her seminal work just kept getting pushed further down my TBR list. Then all of the talk of the 200th anniversary of its publication got me really interested and I sat down to find my way to Pemberly.

Pride and Prejudice is very funny and Mr. Bennet is now one of my favorite fathers in literature (second only to Atticus Finch), but those are really the best things I have to say about the novel. Pride and Prejudice is good, of course it is, one doesn't make it to a 200th anniversary without being so, but it does not speak to me. I never cared about Pemberly in the way I care for Manderlay and, quite frankly, Mr. Darcy doesn't have anything on Mr. Rochester. I get that it takes all kinds to get the literary world spinning and I understand Pride and Prejudice's place in the canon. Like Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice is a novel that I respect for what it is while admitting that it is not exactly for me.

What I think I like more than Pride and Prejudice is the culture surrounding the novel. The things that take the pith and wit of Austen and turn them into small consumables thrill me to no end. Kings among them are Pride and Prejudice themed board books for children and even a Mr. Darcy pillow.
Jane Austen's humor is what has given her work entree into the canon. As Anna Quindlen writes in her introduction to the novel, “Pride and Prejudice is also about that thing that all great novels consider, the search for self. And it is the first great novel to teach us that that search is as surely undertaken in the drawing room making small talk as in the pursuit of a great white whale or the public punishment of adultery.” I believe it is by the basis of her wit that Austen is able to get readers into the drawing room, a place that was before not worthy of literary immortality.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Why I Want to Give Bossypants

Deciding which of the thirty World Book Night titles I wanted to hand out on April 23th seemed much more difficult this year than last year. For one thing, last year's givers (myself included) were asked to suggest books for this year's batch. I made a few suggestions and one of them made it through. I'm sure many, many people suggested Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, it is THE BOOK about the importance of books after all, but I couldn't help but feel special. It was there for me to pass out on this holy Book Night, the night of the Bard's birth. This is the book that I credit with turning me into the reader I am today.

But then I noticed another book...Tina Fey's Bossypants. This book did not change me or make me think of my life in a new way. What it did though, was entertain me. I read Bossypants in a single sitting, laughing my way through an afternoon. Literature has many powers. Powers to inform, to enlighten, to change, as well as the equally noble power to entertain. Bossypants is a great book, maybe not capital 'G' great but great nonetheless, and that's why I'll be passing it out to parents in the pediatric care wing of Women's Hospital. I think that's just the kind of greatness those parents may need.

My original review of Bossypants can be found here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

What struck me most about Les Miserables is just how much of it there is. I don't mean page or word count per se; it is just so much novel. So much plot, so much exposition, so much philosophy, and so so much misery. Victor Hugo intended for this novel to carry weight, and the emotional heft of Les Miserables is more than any novel I have read before. My edition of the novel opens with a note from Hugo that I will print here, in its entirety, because I don't know that there is anything I can say that is more true about this work:

“As long as social damnation exists, through laws and customs, artificially creating hell at the heart of civilization and muddying a destiny that is divine with human calamity; as long as the three problems of the century—man's debasement through the proletariat, woman's demoralization through hunger, the wasting of the child through darkness—are not resolved; as long as social suffocation is possible in certain areas; in other words, and to take an even broader view, as long as ignorance and misery exist in this world, books like the one you are about to read are, perhaps, not entirely useless.”

Not entirely useless... I love that phrasing. The difficulty with a story like the one Hugo is telling, one that is wholly emotional and human, is that it may veer into melodrama. Melodrama is easy to ignore. Because it is so over the top and so full of itself melodrama eclipses its message. With this simple phrase (whether Hugo intended it as irony or it was merely a faux humility) Hugo has taken his reader to task. The novel being “not entirely useless” begs the reader to to insist upon its importance, the place of the novel in alleviating the ails Hugo describes. Art is the lens through which we view our world, and what Hugo has done with Les Miserables is hold up a cracked and dirty mirror that it is difficult to like the looks of.

However, on the reverse of that idea we have the more popular view of the novel (thanks in part to the musical) as an epic love story. This view is somewhat necessary; had the story been an entirely hopeless one I doubt its message would have prevailed, but in my opinion the stage version of the story moves very heavily into melodramatic territory without the context Hugo provides to ground it in the novel. The bulk of Hugo's story is lost in the “love story” version of the musical and heavily abridged versions of the text.

Les Miserables is the story of Jean Valjean's guilt and courage, of Cosette and Marius' love, and of Fontine's tragic circumstances yes, but more than that it is the story of humanity and of Hugo's philosophy regarding such. I may have gotten a little bogged down in hundred page ruminations on sewage and the values of convents, but without them the novel cannot come into itself. The novel is a complete look into Hugo's worldview, one that is both wary and loving. Hugo feels for humanity with a passion that is not often seen; his passion moves through the novel and elevates the reader. You simply cannot read this novel without questioning your place in the world, and as our world continues to suffer from the problems of Hugo's century his novel remains as he claims “not entirely useless.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Year in Review

I read a total of seventy novels last year and I managed to review fifty-three of them. I wanted to dedicate a little bit of space for a few top fives (no particular order, these are just listed as they came to me):

Best All Around:
The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchel
Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy

Best New Release:
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan
The Orphan Master's Son – Adam Johnson
The Fault in Our Stars – John Green
Philida – Andre Brink
Red Thread Sisters – Carol Peacock/Keeping Safe the Stars – Sheila O'Connor (tie)

Best Middle Grade/YA:
The Hunger Games trilogy – Suzanne Collins
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
Because of Winn Dixie – Kate DiCamillo
The Red Thread Sisters – Carol Peacock
The Invention of Hugo Cabret – Brian Selznick

Best World Book Night:
Kindred – Octavia Butler
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
The Things They Carried – Tim O'Brien

And a gratuitous chart of the gender ratio in my reading year, which I think is interesting because while the literary world is said to be male dominated I tend to read pretty evenly along gender line (though I seem to favor female authors over male authors especially in middle grade and young adult lit). World Book Night lines up right along with me as well.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Victoria Reviews: Splintered by A.G. Howard

            "Why is a raven like a writing desk?"
            If you're familiar with this quote, you'll probably love A.G. Howard's debut novel, Splintered, a strange and macabre take on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.
            A short summary of the plot reads thus: Alyssa Gardner, a descendent of Alice Liddell (the inspiration for Carroll's Alice), can speak to bugs and plants. This worries her, since the same ability put her mother in the asylum; she's afraid  she'll end up like her mother and all the women who came before her who also went mad. Gradually, Alyssa starts to realize that this hereditary madness might actually be some sort of curse that descended upon her family when Alice went down the rabbit hole - that's right, Lewis Carroll's children's tales were actually true. However, real Wonderland doesn't exactly resemble the place of wonder and magic that Carroll's books described; it's much darker and more sinister. Alyssa must break the curse on her family by going into Wonderland herself and fixing all the trouble that Alice left behind.
            As a huge Alice fan myself, this book was a deliciously strange take on one of my favorite childhood tales. A.G. Howard says she was inspired by Tim Burton's Alice film, and her descriptions of the "real" Wonderland clearly show this influence. Howard does a beautiful job of describing her version of Wonderland. The picture in my head as I read was very vivid and detailed, and she wove a lovely mix of strange and twisted with beautiful and imaginative. Many Alice character favorites make appearances as well: the Mad Tea Party, the Red and White Queens, the Cheshire Cat, and many more, though don't expect them to be the same characters you know and love from Carroll's books! Howard has made most of them entirely her own.
            Alyssa is a strong character despite being haunted and scarred by her mother's insanity through most of the story. She is clearly a caring and mostly selfless person. I liked her and found her fairly easy to identify with. Alyssa also has two men in her life: her best friend and crush, Jeb, and her mysterious and dark guide to Wonderland, Morpheus, both of whom tug on different heartstrings. Jeb plays the part of the sweet, trustworthy teenage boy-who's-a-friend. Morpheus, on the other hand, is a Wonderland resident from Alyssa's childhood dreams and memories. He's different from anyone else she's ever known, and they seem to have some strange connection as he leads her deeper and deeper into the twisted Wonderland and into the darker corners of her own mind. I think Morpheus would have to be my favorite character. I have a thing for characters with ambiguous loyalties and morals, and Morpheus fits that description perfectly.
            Although the things I've mentioned really make this a great book, it's going on my favorites shelf in large part for another reason: Howard connects her book intricately with Carroll's books, and her story is filled to bursting with recognizable references to the originals. I absolutely adore this, especially in the context of a rich, unique story. She's done a lovely job with this novel.
            I'd definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes Lewis Carroll (as long as you're okay with having the familiar story changed quite a bit…). As the book's cover says, "Welcome to the real Wonderland."


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