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nights in blue velvet
literature is a drug
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I really did mean to go to bed at a much more reasonable hour last night but then I made the mistake of reading "a bit of" Farthing by Jo walton before going to sleep and "a bit" ended up being "the whole thing" because I was only on page 8 or so to begin with, and I finished around 7am and went to sleep in this weird sort of sick-with-exhaustion crying state that was mostly the book's ending's fault but also it wouldn't have affected me so much if it hadn't been 7am at that point. Similar to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke), for which I stayed up just as late/early the first time, and for that matter similar to Evening Primrose (musical movie, not the short story), where you're going along expecting the nice clean nearly happy ending one way and then a truck comes and runs you over and you're like wtf, I wasn't even standing in the street, where did that truck come from?!

But it's a very good book. Everyone should go read it. And ps, I think a good argument on behalf of free books, I got this one free/borrowed it, but now I'm extremely likely to go spend money on its sequel, Ha'Penny, and I'd never heard of Jo Walton before, nor would I have spent a cent on her novels if I hadn't read Farthing for free first.

For some reason, though almost all of it wasn't the kind of book you cry at, the mention of "George Orwell's classic 1974" (not a typo) made me kind of gasp & tear up. I think the thing is, up to a point it was just a cutesy idea, a neat little whodunnit set in a what-if along the lines of what plenty of people have what-iffed before, I did just read Making History (Stephen Fry) a few books ago, and this vision of the post-WWII world is nothing new, and for that matter people get offed all the time in mysteries and who gives a crap, but then there was some point where the book just swerved and all of a sudden insisted you care very much about not the dead but the living who have to endure all that hatred and that wasn't very what-iffy anymore, because it was all a bit too real in the light of current events.

So that's my review, go read Farthing by Jo Walton, it's still got me writing a bit like Lucy Kahn.
ennui pale
Nabokov's final literary striptease

From the BBC comes some truly astounding, historical news regarding Vladimir Nabokov's final, unfinished work, The Original of Laura. On his deathbed, Nabokov requested that this unfinished novel (in the form of many index cards, hand-written, as he typically wrote the first drafts of his stories) be consigned to the flames, sight unseen. The responsibility for fulfilling this dying wish was given to his wife, Vera, who agonized over the decision for the rest of her life. She died with the cards containing Laura unburnt and still unread, gathering dust in a bank vault in Switzerland. The onus was passed on to Vera and Vladimir's son, Dmitri Nabokov, who has spent the last several years teasing the literary public with this tempting bait, sometimes implying that he may go against his father's wishes and publish, other times suggesting that he will do no such thing. As long as the cards remained safe in their Swiss vault, the choice could still go either way, and for years it seemed as though Dmitri Nabokov would be as unable to come to a final decision on the matter as was his mother. But now, according to the BBC News, he has decided -- to publish.

The Original of Laura, the last unfinished masterpiece of a true artist, will be published in 2009, against the wishes of its creator, who couldn't bear the idea that something incomplete and unpolished should be seen by the world. That is the argument made by those who are against Dmitri Nabokov's decision to publish his father's work - after all, as Tom Stoppard puts it, "It's perfectly straightforward. Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it."

The unfinished novel is being compared to its predecessor Lolita which had similar plot and thematic elements, and to the Ur-Lolita, the short story called The Enchanter. The plot, according to Dmitri Nabokov, who has actually read it (unlike the rest of us!), concerns a portly academic named Philip Wild and his slim, "wildly promiscuous" young wife, Flora. The BBC notes that "Flora catches Wild's eye because of her resemblance to a young woman he had once been in love with" much like Humbert Humbert recreates his first young love in the nymphet Lolita.

"Wild is preoccupied by his own mortality, and resolves to obliterate himself from the toes upward, through the power of meditation. Death, be it ever so unlikely, is a theme of the book, as it is in so much of Nabokov."

The Original of Laura will be published unfinished, a la The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Of defying his father's request, Dmitri says, "He would have reacted in a sober and less dramatic way if he didn't see death staring him in the face. He certainly would not have wanted it destroyed. He would have finished it."

Well, of course he would have finished it and then published it, had he not been dying. But the fact of the matter was, he was dying, and did die, leaving Laura incomplete. Is it fair to deny the world any part of this great author's genius? Or would be unfair to Vladimir Nabokov himself, to a dying artist and perfectionist who wanted only his completed, polished works read? (To be fair, even Nabokov's inferior or less-polished stories are still gems of brilliance and wit compared to a lot of the trash that makes it through publication, but that's a different matter!)

But the real question here is-- when The Original of Laura is published next year, will those who, like Tom Stoppard, believe that the son is wrong in publishing the work of the father, refuse to read it? Or will they, like the rest of the world, be too tempted by the thought of one more piece of writing by the late great Vladimir Nabokov to pass it up?
There is a quality of Neil Gaiman's writing which I have been struggling to identify for some time now (like, since I started reading his books, really), and finally, after all these years, and through discussing it with my mother, I think I've figured it out.

There is a quality of self-consciousness, an almost emotionless, nonchalant, 'aren't I clever?' sense, to all of his writing - his short stories, his longer works of fiction, his graphic novels, his blog posts, his book-signing-tour talks, his introductions to other people's stories. You can see the construction, the assembly behind it. It's a quality my mother described as arrogant, and I called teenaged -- neither of them meant as an insult (both my mother and I are big Gaiman fans), but both seem to apply. Something about his writing feels a little smug, a little affected. It's kind of a pose, and not in the tongue-in-cheek, wryly ironic way that Stephen Fry or Oscar Wilde are posed and affected, but in an unavoidable way. With Fry or Wilde, you get this feeling that they're in on the joke, and it's all done with a twinkle in the eye or, at least, tongue firmly in slightly cynical cheek. Douglas Adams, too, has a little of this quality, but in his writing it always accompanied by a sort of reckless, wild bitterness that my mother described as him flipping off the world. In all of these cases - Adams, Fry, and Wilde - it's ironic, it's aware of the absurdity. With Neil Gaiman, it just kind of reads as too planned without being meticulous; crafted without being exquisite. You can feel him as Author just behind every word, telling you why he chose that phrase instead of another, pointing you toward the conclusions he wants you to draw, pulling the curtain back from the plot twists he wants you to be amazed at, preening himself a little all the while and saying what a clever writer he is.

Actually, now that I'm thinking more about it, I think this quality can be seen in John Steinbeck and Tad Williams, too. Now there's a random combination. But with Steinbeck, it's intermittent (very much present in East of Eden and The Pearl, and I would say entirely nonexistent in Cannery Row), and even when it's there, it's overshadowed by a vastness, an awed-ness, his own sense of quiet, ayup-esque joy in life. With Williams, it's present in his earlier works and fades away as you continue through his bibliography - with him, it's very much the product of his youth and inexperience early on, and it's delightful to watch him grow out of it, to improve, to learn both how to tighten up and to free his writing. Neil Gaiman, however, hasn't grown out of it - if anything, I would say he's just growing more into it.

But still, I like his stories. But that's just it -- I always say I like Neil Gaiman's stories, never that I like his writing. If he didn't indeed have such clever conceits (my mother may call him arrogant, but he has got something to be arrogant about, at least!), I wouldn't read him. Some authors, I would read anything they'd written, for style alone. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov -- I would read a shopping list they'd written. In the case of Victor Hugo, I'm pretty sure he did include a shopping list or two in Les Miserables. (Really, who else could get you to read a history of the Paris sewage system that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual plot of his novel -- excuse me, tome?)

My point is, some authors I read for aesthetic reasons, for the sheer pleasure of the way they put words together, exquisitely crafted but seemingly effortless, and arising as though the only possible assembly of language for that story, that situation, that character, that moment. You just savor the language, revel in it, and if they have intricate plots and engaging characters to boot, then so much the better. But Neil Gaiman I read solely for the plots.
It's been nearly a year since I began and then promptly abandoned this blog, but let's try this again. I've been inspired by Jezebel's Fine Lines column, which reviews a different YA classic every week or so, mostly 1970s/80s/early 90s chicklit girl power classics by the likes of Judy Blume, Madeleine l'Engle, and Tamora Pierce, and which have the tendency to bring my childhood hurtling back at me (okay, not a very long journey) at ridiculous speeds. The Girl with the Silver Eyes! Then Again, Maybe I Won't! Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself! Oh, nostalgia, it burns us, precious.

I just (finally!) finished Mr. Midshipman Horatio Hornblower, by C.S. Forester, which is one of those books that I've had in my possession for simply ages and yet can't seem to get finished. Except that, now, I have, so that's not quite right anymore. I like it, don't get me wrong - I'm nuts for this Napoleonic Wars-era!British Royal Navy stuff, apparently - and this first (chronologically speaking; not sure of the original order of publication, but I know it's different) of the mildly famous Hornblower series is very fun from that angle. It doesn't quite stand up in comparison to my current addiction, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, which are the same era (by and large -- the first Hornblower takes place somewhat before the first Aubrey-Maturin, and as I'm on Hornblower #1, and A-M #15, well... there's a bit of a jump now. But for all intents and purposes, it's very much the same historical era) and the same topic, officers in England's navy during the Napoleonic wars. Sea battles, shipwrecks, nautical terms, oh my! Maybe it would be different if I'd read Hornblower first -- the Aubrey-Maturin books are so much denser in terms of plot, characters, references, terminology, sea jargon, terms... okay, before I run out of synonyms, what it really boils down to is that if I'd read the Hornblower series first, I would probably have a much better understanding of the naval and nautical words used with haughty abandon in O'Brian's series. Having read them the other way around, it just meant that I got to feel a little bit smug and a little bit gleeful for already knowing the things that C.S. Forester so deftly explains (via a protagonist as ignorant, initially, of these terms as his audience). Which, come to think of it, isn't a bad thing.

It's also fascinating reading such similar types of stories from a vastly different point of view. I am fully aware that, later on in the series (probably by the next book - heck, by the last chapter of the first one!), Mr. Hornblower is going to be just as good a seaman as ever Lucky Jack Aubrey was (and certainly a much better one than Dr. Maturin ever, ever, ever will be, thank heavens -- without such an ignorant landlubber as Stephen Maturin to whom Aubrey and the other sailors can patiently explain, yet again, what 'battening down the hatches' actually means, O'Brian's audience would be lost indeed), but in his first adventure, he's just a young, ignorant lubber, far too old for this to be his first time at sea, who has no clue what's expected of him, who finds it difficult to believe that people really actually truly say "Aye aye cap'n," and who gets seasick at Spithead - a fact which his shipmates find uproariously amusing, and which I, being all smug and gleeful and hopped up on Aubrey-Maturin, get to feel contemptuously amused at as well. So the difference between a rather awkward, ignorant (but quick-learning and hard-working!) young first-timer midshipman, and Captain Aubrey, who starts out his series already both quite experienced and naturally gifted in seamanship (though rather lacking in other areas, perhaps), is really interesting and fun to read.

All in all, Mr. Midshipman Horatio Hornblower reads like a simplified, watered-down, dare I say abridged version of an Aubrey-Maturin adventure. But there are definitely worse comparisons, and I will certainly be continuining the series. Eventually. Maybe after I finish the next Aubrey-Maturin...

...which, speaking of, I'm now onto number 15 in the series, called The Truelove in America but, I believe, Clarissa Oakes elsewhere. I'm something like halfway through it, and I've yet to meet the Truelove of the title, though I'm assuming it'll be a ship (oh yeah, I know the pattern these titles follow!). Also, considering the way the last several books of the series have been named, the Truelove in question probably won't have a lot to do with the plot. Why was number 13 named after The Thirteen Gun Salute, exactly? --Oh, wait, don't answer that! I think I may have just answered my own question.

At any gate, the Aubrey-Maturin books are kind of my crack of the moment. I can't stop reading them, and I whip through them far faster than I'd like, considering there's a finite number of them and I'm rapidly approaching the end. The first book, Master and Commander, was one of those, like the first Hornblower, that I kept picking up and starting, but could never get very far into. It was first recommended to me by mhari (who, I think, wanted me to get a character from it for desperatefans...but that's another story), and since it sounded vaguely interesting, I got it from the library. About seven or eight times.

For some reason, I couldn't get into it, even though I did really like the bit I managed to read over and over again. And it wasn't even too overwhelmingly full of sailor's jargon, yet -- I never even made it onboard a ship. Why, Maturin hadn't even started confusing me with his Latin and his zoology and his diseases, yet! But I knew I wanted to read it, and wanted very much to like it, so eventually I actually paid for it at Barnes and Noble (along with, as I recall, a stack of Nabokov, including my very own lovely copy of Lolita, and amazed it took me so long to possess my own). Forking out cold hard cash for the book seemed to be just the motivation I needed to get it read -- and, by the time I reached the end of it, I had to go back to Barnes and Noble immediately to get Post-Captain.

After eight or nine of these "No, no, I need to buy it now, I can't wait until the library's open!!" trips to Barnes and Noble, each one costing me something like fifteen dollars (seriously, they were all paperbacks, why are these so expensive?? Someone at that store knows just how addictive they are), my mother tactfully suggested that, since I was obviously going to buy the rest of the damn series anyway, maybe I should buy them all at once. And, like, online. At half.com. For about one fifth of the cost. Gee, what an idea.

So now I am the gleefully Gollum-esque possessor of the entire series (except for 21, the uncompleted final novel, which is absurdly expensive, even on half.com, but which I will probably end up buying at full price anyway because I'm thoroughly in need of an intervention), and my addiction has also led me to buy the following: Patrick O'Brian's Man-of-War: Life in Nelson's Navy (a disappointingly slim non-fiction about, well, exactly what it sounds like, and which I accidentally ordered two identical copies of. Hmm. Anyone want to buy one off me?); Nelson by ... I can't remember who, but which is a very thorough biography of the one-armed, one-eared, one-eyed hero; To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, by Arthur Herman and, um, some other people, but which is again non-fiction, very thorough, and almost as overwhelmingly technicaltastic as the A-M series themselves can sometimes be (sidenote: I've read the section on the particular years in which the A-M books are set, but so far have yet to read anything before or after the Napoleonic wars. Guilt trip on); Sharpe's Rifles by Bernard Cornwell on the basis that, hey, sailors fighting Napoleon rock, so soldiers fighting him should be just as cool, right? Not quite right, as it turns out the whole being-at-sea gimmick is really what I love, but I'll give this a second chance, because my parents loved the Masterpiece Theatre series based on it; and, well, Mr. Midshipman Horatio Hornblower itself.

As I was saying, before I got distracted looking up the full title of To Rule the Waves and became slightly lost in a Googled-up discussion of breast backstays and mizzen-jacking (um...yeah...), now that I own the full series, I'm reading them like they're going out of fashion, and that's a pity, because eventually I'll run out and what will I do then? Read them over again, I guess, and I've sort of already gotten started on that. My mother downloaded an audiobook version of Master and Commander, at my recommendation, and although she herself has only just begun it, I've almost finished listening to it. It's slower going than reading the actual print book -- well, slower than it was for me to read it once I actually got into it -- mostly because the reader, whose name I have temporarily forgotten but which I will eventually look up and edit into this post, has a rather slow and pedantic tone which actually works extremely well for the book, but which is, as I say, freakin' slow, man. He does sound absolutely perfect for Maturin in natural philosopher mode, and he does a mean Irish accent (funnily enough, although they make a pretty big point out of Maturin's Irish-ness, it never occurred to me to think his lines in an Irish accent of any sort. Does that make me somehow, like, racist or something?), but he has yet to do any female voice more taxing than the absurd Mercedes and the dismissable Molly Harte, so I'm not sure how I'll feel about his renditions of Diana and Sophie, when (if) I eventually get that far in the audios. (Come to think of it, I don't even know if they've got audios of the rest of the series, much less if the same man reads them. Could be something to look up.) But more than that, I'm a skimmer, in general but especially in the Aubrey-Maturins, which contain list after delightful-yet-rarely-significant list of supplies, stores, parts of the ship, animals which Stephen wants to examine (also, side note, how awesome is it that he's allowed to be an intelligent character, well-educated by the standards of his own time? I'm sick to death of historical novels that just have to let their particular Mary Sue/Marty Sam be somehow, magically, more knowing than the great thinkers around them, and somehow have a miraculous knowledge of the fact that, say, bleeding really isn't a cure-all, and maybe it'd be better not to become addicted to opium or cocaine, and perhaps we shouldn't dissect or eat every cool animal that comes our way because eventually we will run out of the animal in question. Maturin is a very well-educated man, a physician and a naturalist, and he lives in the early 19th century. Consequently, letting an ounce or two of Jack's blood is indeed the best cure he knows for the captain's occasional fits of the blues. And that's such a relief to me), and so on and so forth. Come to think of it, maybe that's why I'm reading them so freaking fast. But anyway, if there's one thing I've learne by trying to listen to audiobooks, it's that skimming is impossible when someone else is doing the reading.

My mother, never much of a skimmer, doesn't seem to mind this, generally, though I suspect it'll be a bit wearing on her the further on she gets into this particular book. So far, I think she'll like it, but she keeps coming to me with baffled questions like, "what the heck's a quarterdeck??" (to which I kind of just want to say "OMG, if it's a quarterdeck that's confusing you, just wait until you get to something genuinely obscure!"). Some books are just really hard to listen to - I think Lolita (read, might I add, by the velvety-voiced, absolutely perfect Jeremy Irons) was the same way, with so many literary references that slip by too quickly when read aloud, and so many French phrases that also went over my mother's head - some books you just need to be able to see the word or phrase written down, to be able to go back to it and look at it once or twice, to see how it's spelled, to be able to set the book aside and Google the term or quotation, and you really can't Google a thing if you don't know how to spell it. Sooo, that may be a problem. But, I also told her that she just needs to accept that she won't get every term or reference, that most of it probably will pass her by, and that she might not even get every plot twist right away ("Oh, you mean he did that on purpose? He was being intelligent and manipulative? There was a point to that scene?") but they can be thoroughly enjoyable books anyway.

And now that I'm reading Master and Commander over again, after having read fourteen and a half of the things, plus several other things about the same subject, I'm pleased as punch to discover how much more I get and comprehend than I did the first time.

...which brings me to a good closing point: re-reading (again and again and again) is vastly underrated. The last time I wrote in this blog, eleven months ago, I was in the middle of a re-read of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke). I've read it a couple of times since then, and I'm now nearly done with it again. I've lost track of how many time I've read it. The same goes for the Harry Potter books, which for some reason people often ask me about. How should I know how many times I've read it? I'm not keeping a running tally! (Although I am, now, actually, and as it turns out, I read the Harry Potter books more than almost anything else...well, I did up until the Aubrey-Maturin addiction kicked in.) Some books are best on a fresh, unspoilt first reading; some are best while you're reading them, some are best to have read and to be able to mull over later. And the best books are best when you're reading them over and over and over again, a thousand times and never growing stale.
the astronomer
In a search for more information on either the movie of or the sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I found a few fan reviews that struck me as rather...odd. For instance-- depressing? "had to put the book down before I started getting suicidal urges"? And someone saying that both story and writing style are better in His Dark Materials? Don't get me wrong, I think the story's interesting, but Jonathan Strange's is more engaging and original, and Philip Pullman's writing just isn't very good. It is entirely the plot and the world that are keeping me plugging through it at all, despite his bad writing and dull characters. ...and to be honest, I've sort of abandoned The Amber Spyglass, so I guess it didn't work too well.

I also happen to disagree with the whole "Harry Potter for adults!" thing, but the reasons these people are giving for why that's a false analogy is making me want to defend the position. You can't say a book is unlike another because "in Harry's world, magic is a secret thing and in Jonathan Strange, it's a part of everyday life." That ... ... is just nonsense.

The Pearl is so short, and yet I can't bring myself to finish it. The back cover calls it a "retelling of a classic fable," but from what I can see, it's just the fable. No retelling about it. What's the point? I know the old fairy tale, I got the moral, and there isn't even any particularly Steinbeckian ambience to give this version flavor. I'll finish it, of course, because it's too short not to, and there might be, as with The Great Gatsby (or East of Eden, for that matter), something at the end that will make me retract everything I've said and put it on the list with Lolita, but. So far, I have my doubts.
in the garden
First, you should know about me that I am always in the middle of several different books at the same time. I can't be reading just one or two. I need a different book for every possible mood or temper. I need one book to read at home in the backyard, one to read in bed to fall asleep, one to read while I'm eating and one to read in the bathroom. I need one completely lightweight book, and one or two "classics" or books with some kind of significance or Importance that I feel like I ought to read. I need the one I've never read before, and the one I've grown up on. I need the one from the library, that I have to read as quickly as possible before the due date, and the one I borrowed from a friend (and which they'll never get back); the one recommended to me by everyone, and the one I'm going around recommending to my friends.

At the moment, the list includes:
The Pearl, by John Steinbeck
Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman
Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman
The Defense, by Vladimir Nabokov
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, by Ann Brashares (reread)
The Stone of Farewell, by Tad Williams (2nd in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, and a reread)
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (mostly listening to this on audio- the audiobook is absolutely fantastic, and on my iPod, it's handy and not as much a strain on my eyes; also a reread)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling (reread! that's right, third time through, yes, I am a geek)
The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman

Books that I have recently read for the very first time include:
Revenge, by Stephen Fry
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman
The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman
Proof, by David Auburn (a play, but I decided to go ahead and count scripts in this blog, since I read a fair amount of them)

And this is really just for my benefit. Aww, Anita Lobel, who basically illustrated my childhood.
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