Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book 5 – Sense and Sensibility

By Jane Austen

Other than Pride & Prejudice, this is the only other Austen novel I’ve ever read. At the time she wrote P & P, Jane Austen wondered whether it was perhaps a little 'too light and bright and sparkling'. Though it also had its share of wit and satire, I found Sense & Sensibility to be sharper and more critical than P&P.

Of S & S, Wikipedia mentions that “the novel displays Austen's subtle irony at its best, with many outstanding comic passages about the Middletons, the Palmers, Mrs Jennings, and Lucy Steele.” But I found the best comical passages involved Marianne, the most passionate of the Dashwood sisters (the eldest sister Elinor is the rational one). Even though Austen supposedly modeled the character of Marianne after herself while basing the tactful and self-disciplined Elinor on her older sister Cassandra, she had no bones about making fun of Marianne’s self-indulgent and overblown romanticism:

When breakfast was over she walked out by herself, and wandered about the village of Allenham, indulging the recollection of past enjoyment and crying over the present reverse for the chief of the morning.

The evening passed off in the equal indulgence of feeling. She played over every favourite song that she had been used to play to Willoughby, every air in which their voices had been oftenest joined, and sat at the instrument gazing on every line of music that he had written out for her, till her heart was so heavy that no farther sadness could be gained; and this nourishment of grief was every day applied. She spend whole hours at the piano-forté alternately singing and crying; her voice often totally suspended by her tears. In books too, as well as in music, she courted the misery which a contrast between the past and present was certain of giving. She read nothing but what they had been used to read together.

Such violence of affliction indeed could not be supported for ever; it sunk within a few days into a calmer melancholy; but these employments, to which she daily recurred, her solitary walks and silent meditations, still produced occasional effusions of sorrow as lively as ever.

The novel is full of such wonderfully written passages, and neglectful family members who are too busy being obsessed with status cannot escape Austen’s satirical gaze either. John and Fanny Dashwood -- who break a promise to financially look after John’s stepmother Mrs Dashwood and her daughters -- are prime targets:

The dinner was a grand one, the servants were numerous, and everything bespoke the Mistress's inclination for shew, and the Master's ability to support it. In spite of the improvements and additions which were making to the Norland estate, and in spite of its owner having once been within some thousand pounds of being obliged to sell out at a loss, nothing gave any symptom of that indigence which he had tried to infer from it; no poverty of any kind, except a conversation, appeared-- but there, the deficiency was considerable. John Dashwood had not much to say for himself that was worth hearing and his wife had still less. But there was no peculiar disgrace in this, for it was very much the case with the chief of their visitors, who almost all laboured under one or other of these disqualifications for being agreeable--want of essence, either natural or improved want of elegance--want of spirit or want of temper.

Even though the most unlikable characters, such as John and Fanny Dashwood, Mrs Ferras and Lucy Steele never get their comeuppance, Marianne learns a valuable lesson and Elinor gains a valuable friend in Mrs Jennings, who at first comes across as intrusive and embarrassing, but turns out to be as generous and principled as the well-respected Colonel Brandon. Though S&S does not have the fairy-tale ending of P&P, Marianne and Elinor find some measure of happiness in the end. Not as satisfying perhaps, but in other ways, makes it more emotionally resonant. And I mean this in the most rational way ;-)

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Book 4 – Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day

By Winifred Watson

I discovered this smart looking book at my local thrift shop. It’s one of those Euro-style trade paperbacks with a thick cover flap and nicely printed paper. Upon closer examination, the inner jacket explains that Persephone Books is a UK company that reprints neglected classics by 20th century (mostly women) writers.

“They appeal to the discerning reader who prefers books that are neither too literary nor too commercial, and are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget.”

Well, that had me sold! And $3 for a book that used to go for Can $18, it was a steal.

Miss Pettigrew proved to be a very readable as well as a charmingly delightful story about a down-on-her-luck middle-aged spinster nanny in pre-WWII London who strikes an unlikely friendship with a glamourous nightclub singer. Adventure and capers ensue. Over the course of 24 hours, Miss Pettigrew discovers things about herself that she never thought possible. I would not say that the story is especially thought-provoking as it’s basically a contemporary update of Cinderella, but it does have a lot of heart and comedic appeal.

Here is a lovely review that does MPLFaD more justice than I.

Moreover, I enjoyed the book so much, I even rented the 2008 film adaptation a couple of days later, which stars Frances McDormand as the titular character and Amy Adams as Delysia LaFosse. But I thought Shirley Henderson as Edythe Dubarry really stole the show. A very enjoyable movie too.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Book 3 – Strangers On a Train

By Patricia Highsmith

Another Highsmith book down the hatch. Another enjoyable read by a writer who's quickly becoming a favourite of mine (thanks to Olman).

If you’ve seen or heard of the Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation (which I haven’t seen yet), then you’ll get an idea of the plot. Anyway, Partricia Highsmith is well-known for her psychological thrillers and her favourite thingof all is to write through the eyes of a murderer. This novel is titled Strangers On a Train - it doesn’t take a Sherlock to figure out what kind of story this is going to be!

What’s more, SOaT is funny, in a very black, wicked kind of way. The humour almost always involve Charles Bruno, the disturbed twenty-five year old mama’s boy who convinces budding architect Guy Haines to murder his father. When Guy first meets Charles (or rather Bruno, as he’s mostly referred as) on a train, there’s a huge protruding pimple on Bruno’s forehead. It’s a great image, since as their journey progresses, Guy grows more and more uncomfortable as Bruno gets a little too excited over the idea of murdering his father, and he can’t help but fixate on the glistening pimple as Bruno’s face gets shiny with sweat. Delightful!

And later on when Bruno stalks Guy’s estranged wife, his cutting thoughts made me LOL:

She was cute in a plump college-girl sort of way, but definitely second-rate, Bruno judged. The red socks with the red sandals infuriated him. How could Guy have married such a thing!

No wonder Olman enjoys Highsmith so!

How poor Guy Haines becomes gradually tortured by remorse was also done well to a fault - his guilt was always boiling under the surface, not spoiled by cheap gestures, like hand-wringing, though there were some nightmares and overwrought touches. But there were also little details, like Guy afflicted with “a slight case of diarrhoea”. Ah, only Highsmith can write about pimples and diarrhoea with such elegance and humour. Guy’s repressed guilt and Bruno’s mental deterioration reminded me a lot of what Raskolnikov underwent in Crime and Punishment. A peak in Wikipedia revealed that Dostoevsky as a major influences in her work.

The protagonists in many of Highsmith's novels are either morally compromised by circumstance or actively flouting the law. Many of her antiheroes, often emotionally unstable young men, commit murder in fits of passion, or simply to extricate themselves from a bad situation. They are just as likely to escape justice as to receive it. The works of Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoevsky played a significant part in her own novels.

Though this is only my third Highsmith novel, I’ll admit that SOaT is not my favourite novel of hers so far, mainly because some of the portrayals of mental deterioration and torture by guilt were overwrought at times. And she was wearing Dostoevsky on her sleeve a little too obviously. But my main concern was that I wasn’t entirely convinced of the quick-bonding relationship between Guy and Charles (the obsessive man-crush/homosexual undercurrent seems trite now, but it was the 1950’s after all √° la Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven), though each made for fascinating character study. In her later novels I found the characters’ motivations more believable when they lose it and commit heinous crimes. But SOaT was her first novel, published in 1950 when she was 29. The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I greatly admire, was her fourth novel, published five years later, and there she was already refining her own voice and style.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Book 2 – Fragile Things

By Neil Gaiman

Since this is a collection of short horror, sci-fi and dark fantasy stories and poems that have been previously published from various sources (magazines, anthologies, even a Tori Amos song lyric), the result was a very mixed bag o’ treats. I must say I was set up for major disappointment after a stunning start with the Nebula award-winning "A Study in Emerald" - a Sherlock Holmes/Cthulhu Mythos pastiche which left me excited to dip into the next story (I didn’t bother much with the poems). However, nothing really came close to that first story.

The next interesting tale wasn’t until several stories later, almost halfway thru the book. “Other People” was only a few pages but it was effective and memorable. The next promising story “Keepsakes and Treasures”, had me flipping thru a few pages to remember what it was about. An interesting enough premise at first: a young man exacts revenge for his mother who was raped by several men while committed in an asylum, then comes under the radar of a mysterious but powerful Mr. Alice. But sadly, what promised to be an exciting adventure for this anti-hero fizzled out at the end with a lame pseudo-myth about the most beautiful male youth in the world.

Other tales I enjoyed were "Harlequin Valentine" (but like “Keepsakes and Treasures” had a 'hard' start but 'soft' ending), "Feeders and Eaters" (traditional yet effective horror story), "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" (playful twist on the hot alien females preying on teenaged boys idea), "Sunbird" about a group of gourmands called The Epicurean Club who get a real treat when they feast on a rare Egyptian bird (quite a good fantasy story but is it because Gaiman was emulating another writer? R. A. Lafferty supposedly) and the novella The Monarch of the Glen, which is supposedly a sequel to American Gods (which I remember one of the 50-bookers was meh about – was it Print is Dead?).

At the start of the story, I was surprised to see that Gaiman name-checks Angela Carter with a quote from her short “The Lady of the House of Love”. Yes, it makes sense, as I can see Carter’s influence on Gaiman. But again, none of the stories matched "A Study in Emerald" in story crafting. It seems the stories that have won recognition were ones which involved Gaiman emulating other writers. Hmm, I’m just saying….

Gaiman explains the title Fragile Things: "Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds' eggs and human hearts and dreams, are fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks." I have to say I agree, as his stories tend to be very vague and fleeting, like gossamer threads. I tend toward short stories that are tightly structured with a concrete idea. But this fragile take on writing made many of the stories feel rather half-baked.

Gaiman is a good writer who can spin a good yarn when he wants to, but there seems to be something missing. Carter was known for writing about dark fantastic things seething beneath ordinary reality and had a dreamy, feverish prose style, but she also had a way of concretizing her worlds which Gaiman seems to have more difficulty doing. Perhaps this is the problem. Amusing like a flight of fancy, if you're in the right mood, but nothing to really sink your teeth into. In any case, the overall result was meh, and I’m in no hurry to read any more Gaiman for now.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Book 1 – Maus: A Survivor's Tale

By Art Spiegelman

A Christmas gift from my brother in which Volume 1 and 11 came in a nice box set. It was a perfect gift as I hadn’t yet read the Pulitzer winning graphic novel and had been meaning to for some time, but was in no hurry. I guess like most people who have never experienced war or its ramifications, it seems like the past few decades there has been an over-saturation of media pertaining to WWII, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Maus seemed like one of many. I think there was an interview where even Spiegelman was wondering at some point while creating Maus, whether we needed another Holocaust survivor story. After reading Maus, the answer was a resounding yes. And yes for the obvious reasons, one being an important personal document about surviving the horror of war.

I only started reading Maus right away because its comic format was more appealing than having to read another vague Neil Gaiman short story (see Fragile Things). At first, I was dubious about using different animal species to represent the various races: mice for the Jews, cats for the Germans, pigs for the Polish, etc. I was thinking, wouldn’t using people’s faces be more realistic and impactful? But after a while, I got used to it and realized later that this device did work in a surreal (and yes, symbolic) way that got under your skin. And then the very human life story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, was incredibly absorbing and moving.

One evening, after taking my parents out for New Year’s dinner at an upscale Chinese restaurant in Richmond, I had trouble sleeping, which always happens when I over-indulge on rich food the evening before. I didn’t want to wake Olman so I went to the living room to finish reading the last volume of Maus. It quickly dawned on me that reading Maus with a belly full of lobster in foie gras sauce felt like a weirdly uncomfortable contradiction. But as a consummate consumer, I had to finish it. Afterwards, my sleep was still fitful and images of Nazi felines and terrified mice haunted me for the rest of the night! I guess that served me right. Still, Spiegelman's expressive artwork lingers and his father's story is something that won't be easily forgotten.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Year End Wrap Up!

34 books - a new record where I'm closer to 50 than ever before!

It helps having settled down into marriage, and not having kids (yet?). I have also discovered that our local and mostly francophone thrift shop has a pretty good English book section, and I have found a few more while perusing new and used book shops in Berkeley, San Francisco, Toronto, Amsterdam, Seattle and Vancouver. I now have a shitload of books on my on deck shelf to get through for 2011, like at least 20-25!

I don't know if I'll surpass 34 this year, but I already have three down for 2011.

Looking forward to reading more and more and seeing a few long dormant 50-bookers coming out of hibernation!