February 12, 2007

Poor Things by Alasdair Gray

Alasdair Gray's novel, Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D. Scottish Public Health Officer edited by Alasdair Gray, is one of those great books that I never would have known about if it hadn't come so very recommended by a good friend of mine who happens to have really interesting taste in literature.

The general plot is a little difficult to describe without giving too much away, so I'm going to cheat and quote the blurb on the back of the paperback edition. It reads:

What strange secret made beautiful, tempestuous Bella Baxter irresistible to the poor medical student Archie McCandless? Was it her mysterious origin in the home of his monstrous friend Godwin Baxter, the genius whose voice could perforate eardrums? This story of true love and scientific daring storms through Victorian operating theaters, continental casinos, and a Parisian bordello, reaching an interrupted climax in a Scottish church.

And believe me when I say that's only the beginning.

Gray's style is like the offspring of the most modern post-modernist and the most ardent Victorian Gothic realist - and I'm not even sure if there is such a thing as Victorian Gothic realism. Gray winkingly introduces Poor Things as a book "written" by Archie McCandless and "edited" by himself. In his Introduction, he admits to a certain disagreement over whether or not the book is purely fiction or an amazing account of real occurrences. This sets up one of this book's primary points of interest - it's written in such a way that the reader has no idea which narrative voice he or she can trust. Gray pulls this thread of narrative untrustworthiness all the way through, starting with his introduction and then continuing it through McCandless' book. But then he whollops all of the reader's certainty about McCandless' veracity with a letter from Bella Baxter (now Victoria McCandless), denying the truth of her husband's story and telling her own version of it. Then Gray topples the reader's ability to rely on her testimony with the "historical evidence" he's collected. The reader is left with no clue as to which perspective is the accurate perspective and the distinct impression that they could all be lunatics. I love being kept on my toes and Gray did it without ever making me feel manipulated.

I also loved Gray's ability to play with the English language and his use of that play to chart the development of a brain from childhood to adulthood. But I don't want to say any more about that for those who haven't read it.

I just had so much fun with this daft, terribly clever novel. I never would have heard about it, let alone read it, without a recommendation (particularly because it is pretty post-modern and I don't usually go in for that), but I'm so happy that I did. Therefore, I am heartily recommending it in turn - it's not hard to find and very worth the read, especially if you like Frankenstein, Edgar Allen Poe, H.G.Wells, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalian, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Trilby, Alice Through the Looking-Glass or Rider Haggard's She. Belle Baxter/Victoria McCandless herself claims that her husband filched elements from all of these books and incorporated them in his Poor Things, but I wouldn't necessarily trust her. Just read for yourself....

Dracula on Masterpiece Theater

This doesn't exactly qualify as a review, but last night I watched PBS's presentation of Dracula as done by Masterpiece Theater and I wanted to mention it, since Dracula is one of my favorite books and I tend to love film adaptations of the story, even if they have little to do with the original text. I love the Coppola film version as one that follows Stoker's text pretty faithfully, but I also really like Wes Craven's Dracula 2000, which had little to do with the original text aside from the fact that the vampire's name was Dracula and Abraham Van Helsing tries to stop him. I'm not really a purist, I just like the literary and cultural mythology that's grown up out of Bram Stoker's book

Unfortunately, the Masterpiece Theater version of this often adapted work kind of sucked. Please forgive the pun. I guess they had to fit as much as they could into 1 hour and 45 minutes so they sort of cut and slashed through the story. They fit in new material (like syphilis and a secret cult being the reason for Dracula's arrival on British soil) with some of the tale's more famous elements (like Lucy's sexy death and vampiric resurrection) so haphhazardly that nothing ended up being very well developed.

I can say this though: it does just keep moving. Which I suppose could be considered a good thing, if it weren't so unsatisfying. As the Lemurhubby said last night, "wow, I've definitely heard of a minute feeling like a hour, but not an hour feeling like a minute...at least not in a bad way." It did so much whizzing over both new and familiar territory that you just kind of missed out on any substance. And believe me, Dracula is chock full of substance.

It was sort of breezy, it was sort of pretty. But for my money, check out Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula or Wes Craven's Dracula 2000. Or Bella Lugosi's portrayal for that matter. Or hell, just read the book. Any of those would probably be more satisfying than the Masterpiece Theater version which sort of merrily skipped right over the mark it was trying to hit.

February 5, 2007

The Ladies of Grace Adieu & Other Stories

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke is, quite simply, one of the loveliest short story collections I've read recently. It's beautifully written, charming and witty and even slightly horrifying at times (Susanna Clarke's fairies are not the adorable, flowery creatures made popular in Victorian fairytales - they are sensual and viscious by turns).
The stories are also accompanied by Charles Vess' detailed illustrations and are introduced by Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies at the University of Aberdeen. I really enjoyed that - between her "Professor" and the smattering of footnotes, you really get a sense that Ms. Clarke is a woman who has waded through A Lot of academic texts.
But on to the stories themselves...

As most people know, Susanna Clarke wrote the rather massive Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in which she succesfully sustained a complicated collection of narrative threads through more than 800 pages. She did this so well that when I closed the book on the final page, I still wanted more. So I bothered several people for several days theorizing about various allusions and things that she'd left ambiguous.
The bottom line was that Susanna Clarke had seriously engaged me with her first novel, but I wasn't really sure how her style would translate to a shorter form. After all, I was still left really curious, maybe even a little antsy, after reading 800 pages - would she really be able to arc a short story well enough to be satisfying?

Short answer: Yes.

Little did I know that I'd already read four of Susanna Clarke's short stories in various anthologies and had enjoyed them enough to dog-ear them (yes, I do dog-ear pages and I know I suck for doing it). These stories - "On Lickerish Hill", the excellent "Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower", "Mrs. Mabb" and "Antickes and Frets" stand alone, without reference to the imagined historicity of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. In fact, Ms. Clarke is comfortable enough with her material that her stories possess a beautiful self-contained quality, rather like the small engravings so popular in the early 1800's or a tiny piece of jewel-toned embroidery. They are lovely enough to make you want to continue to the next story, not because you're left unsatisfied with the one you've just read, but because you're curious as to what she'll do next.

This quality of self-contained beauty threads through all of the stories, even the two which directly reference Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell ("The Ladies of Grace Adieu" and "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse"). Several other stories are briefly mentioned in a footnote here and there in the novel, but you really don't need to have read it to fully enjoy each tale for its own considerable merit.

To end, I was going to plug a couple of the stories that I especially enjoyed, but I don't think that I can. I honestly enjoyed them all. A lot. So, all I can say is that whether or not you've read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a treat that I would recommend. Read the stories in order or out, in one sitting or over a month but definitely take a look at this collection.

January 29, 2007

The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere

A very good friend of mine, who happened to have been an English major at a really amazing liberal arts college (I have some serious education envy on this point, but I digress), loaned me Sue Limb's book, The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere and told me that, as a former English major, I absolutely *had* to read it. So I did.

This book charmed me so much that I didn't know what to do with myself. I almost felt like I should thank it for being such a clever, lovely read by treating it to tea and scones at Lovejoy's (SF's yummiest and most Jane Austen approved tea house).

The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere is a sort of gentle parody of some of the most famous poets writing during England's Romantic period. Sue Limb tells her story through Dorothy Wordsmith's journal entries as she and her brother, the great poet William Wordsmith (aka Wordsworth), settle into domestic tranquility at Vole Cottage. Limb gives Dorothy's journal a handwritten look, complete with doodlings in the margins and Freudian scratch-outs (the Wordsworth siblings were apparently rather questionably close and the real Dorothy devoted her life to the service of her brother's towering "organ of the imagination"). It's really, really funny - especially when Limb's interspersed illustrations underscore the parody. My favorite was of Dorothy lifting an armoir while begging her "Beloved Wm" not to strain himself with two books. Limb also gives us bits of William Wordsmith's poetry, most notably "The Withered Turnip" and "The Sod Wall" done in Wordsworth's style (which is admittedly a little on the dry side).

During their stay at the idyllic Vole Cottage, their dear friend and fellow poet, Cholerick (Coleridge), comes to stay with them, bringing with him a little brown bottle of "medicine" and his famously sensitive bowels. Lord Byro (Byron) appears, bringing with him a pregnant Italian woman who proceeds to give birth in the upstairs bedroom while Byro himself seduces every female in sight. I especially liked the bit where a stray lightening bolt strikes Dorothy's stays and corset, zapping them right off of her when Byro enters the room. Also making an appearance are Percy Jelley (Shelley) and his lovely new bride Mary Godwit (Wollstonecraft Godwin) who are being pursued by her irate father because they married, instead of choosing to live together unshackled by matrimony.

The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere is just a really charming and incredibly well-thought-out little book. Sue Limb obviously knows her Romantics and strikes the perfect balance between gentle satire and great storytelling. I think that anyone could really enjoy this book and it's definitely worth finding. If you're a former English major, I'm going to follow my friend's lead and say that you absolutely should read it. But even if you're not, pick it up if you come across it - the illustrations, story and humor will get you even if you never had to take a course on the Age of the Romantics in college!

January 21, 2007

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

I need to preface this post with several admissions:
1. I've been looking forward to reading this book for months and was ready to enjoy it regardless of its quality.
2. This is not a review of the book as a whole. It is a review of the first 100 pages.
3. I have never failed to finish a book because I found it to be unreadably bad. Until now.

I am now finding myself at a loss - for a way to begin and for words succinct and effective enough to make my point without making me sound like a literary hell harpy. So, for lack of a better place, I'll begin at the beginning with the author's own words.
Dahlquist, who is an accomplished playwrite, begins his first novel with the following sentence:

"From her arrival at the docks to the appearance of Roger's letter, written on crisp Ministry paper and signed with his full name, on her maid's silver tray at breakfast, three months had passed".

A little muddy. Forgivable, but a little muddy. He continues:

"On that morning, her poached eggs steaming in their silver bowl (gelatinous, gleaming), Miss Temple had not seen Roger Bascombe for seven days."

A little muddier and featuring some questionable sentence structure. I'm getting a slight sinking feeling in my stomach at this point, but it doesn't matter because I *want* to enjoy this book. It continues on in the vein and all the while, the author indulges in convoluted and unclear sentences meant to convey a Victorian sense of social minutia. Unfortunately he succeeds only in confusing the reader as to what is happening, why and to whom. Then, four pages in I'm stopped short by the following sentence:

"How, if she was with clarity embracing her new sense of loss and redefinition, did nothing - not even an especially cunning lacquered duck - generate interest?"

Ok. At this point I am with no small amount of "clarity", realizing that I'm only four pages into this book and already tired of the author's overly precious and highly contrived sentence structure and narrative style. It's as if he read Dickins once, maybe in college, and vaguely remembered that distinctive, sometimes chatty, Dickensian voice and thought it would be really neat to use it in his story, a story which is vaguely reminicent of Victorian penny-dreadfuls...and not in a good way.

Alright. So the style badly apes Dickens. Style is difficult and trying to make your modern authorial voice speak in a highly embellished Victorian tone would be very, very difficult. It doesn't mean the story (or at least the first 100 pages of it) is bad. Right? The characters could very easily redeem the entire thing and make it quite worth the read. Right? Perhaps...but not this time.

The Characters:
Once again I freely admit that I only read the first 100 pages, so I've only met two of the central characters: Miss Temple and Cardinal Chang. I'll begin with Miss Temple because Dahlquist begins with her. Barring the twisting maze of egregious embellishment, the author describes her as small, grey-eyed and of above average prettiness. Fine. Victorian heroines often are. She is also an heiress. Excellent. Victorian heroines in thrilling stories need money and security if they are going to have an adventure worth reading about. We are told that she is also intelligent, independent, spunky and ruthless. Dahlquist writes:

"it [her island upbringing] had marked her like a whip - though part of that marking was how very immune to whips she was and would, she trusted, remain".

All of these are excellent qualities for a fictitious heroine to have. Unfortunately, while we are *told* and told often that she is all of these things, the behavior that she *displays* led me to the conclusion that she is petty, arrogant, delusional and Stupid. After bumbling herself into a situation that any sane person would see as bloody dangerous for a chaste young woman alone in a sinister place (ie: interogation by beautiful women with knives, stumbling across unconcious bodies and being told to put on crotchless, yet "darling", silk pants) it isn't until she is actually in the process of getting raped (which she avoids through sheer dumb luck and the power of the plot) that she admits to herself that she's in a "dangerous spot" and should possibly "act carefully". I can't say that I was compelled to spend any more time with such an Idiot of a heroine. Luckily I didn't have to because at this point, Dahlquist switches his focus to one of the book's other "heroes".

Moving on to Cardinal Chang. Hmmm.... I bet there's a neat story behind that character's name. Well, there's a story. Cardinal Chang is neither a Cardinal nor Chinese. He is a "brutal assassin", with the "heart of a poet". Fine. I think that an assassin with qualities beyond the ability to kill people in creative ways has the potential to be quite interesting. He got the name "Chang" because when he was very young (though from a family of means) a young aristocrat slashed his face with a riding crop, damaging his vision and giving him scars across the bridge of his nose and eyes that make him appear "oriental". This gives Dahlquist a reason to give him super-sexy glasses with smoked lenses (he's light sensitive and he doesn't see very well. Yet he's an assassin). Chang is called "The Cardinal" because he wears a super-sexy, full length, Red Leather Coat (which he had stolen "from the costume rack of a traveling theater". Of course). A little conspicuous for an assassin you might ask? Well, lest the reader labor on under this misconception, Dahquist explains straight away that Chang feels this to be alright because anyone who wished to find him would, even if he was wearing "the drabbest grey wool". Not bloody likely, but Dahlquist obviously Loved the red leather coat. Finally, Dahlquist, in an effort to render his assassin three-dimentional, often interrupts Chang's thought processes with bits of bad poetry, for although it now hurts Chang to read, before his eyes had been damaged as a "child" he had been a "scholar" and has retained his love for the written word. A child scholar? Amazing! At this point, the sheer force of Dahlquist's contrivances finished me and I put the book down. From what I've read (and it's admittedly only an introduction to the character) Cardinal Chang is the culmination of all the things that a 12 year old boy or a 16 year old girl would think an assassin should be. I've seen more skillfully developed RPG characters.

After only 100 pages, I don't feel that I can speak to plot as I hadn't really seen much of one. The threat of the "sinister cabal" is as vague and muddy as the sentence structure. Items that were clearly meant to create suspense (ie: strange masked balls, private operating theaters and slashed clothing) left me feeling either unsatisfied or confused or incredulous.

Ultimately, I put the book down because it became painfully obvious that Dahlquist didn't know what he was talking about. He clearly did not study the narrative style he tried so hard to emulate. He clearly did not research the reality of being a young woman in a Victorian-type society. He clearly did not research the psychology involved in the adoption of a life as a professional killer or the requirements of such a life. Most damningly, he clearly did not think thoroughly enough to convincingly create the alternative society his readers are supposed to immerse themselves in. The first 100 pages of The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters read like a higly contrived and self indulgent first draft. Self-indulgence in first drafts is acceptable. It is not however, acceptable in anything people have to pay money to read. I simply cannot imagine forcing myself through another 700 pages of the same. Not even during Lent.

January 19, 2007

My Brother Hath a Blog

So, this entry has nothing, strictly speaking, to do with books. However, I am plugging my brother's blog, which is about teaching and the general state of education in California and the United States. He's a second year teacher (history and civics in high school and junior high) and he's starting his Master's in administration. He's also thought a lot about what it is to be effective in the classroom and the politics of education in general. Plus, he's just a pretty interesting and smart guy... :-)
So, check it out!

January 7, 2007

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

I went on a book buying orgy. Thanks to this and Christmas (gift certificates to book stores are Awesome. Period.) I have a fantastical amount of fiction that wants reading. This is very happy and I'm getting a tingle just looking at the ridiculous pile of books that has been quartered off and whose parts are slowly migrating around the house. Sigh of contentment...

So. Where was I?

A yes, a book on reading. So, with all of the books I bought, only one was non-fiction and I decided to start with that one because I'm currently in the middle of "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" (I know, even I can't believe I hadn't read it yet) and as many may know, it's a little on the longish side and wants all of one's attention. I'm one of those people who doesn't like to have their salad on the same plate as their steak for fear of getting a steaky salad or a salady steak. And what does this have to do with anything, one might ask? Well, I'll tell you. I'm the same way with books. Because I'm reading the rather steaky (and yummy by the way) "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" I wanted something seperate and different so as not to make the flavors mush together. So, I picked up Francine Prose's "Reading Like a Writer".

This book is fantastic. Actually I don't think I have a word for how great I think this book is. Prose goes through the basics of close reading - reading not just for content but for characterization, structure, style and voice. She starts with words and moves on to the appreciation of sentences, paragraphs, dialogue and narrative - everything that makes prose effective. I wish my undergraduate classes had been such a comprehensive examination of how fiction functions. I especially appreciate that Prose includes numerous and diverse works as examples of what she very succinctly explores in her text. I'm getting a new taste of works that I've read and loved (Wuthering Heights and Madame Bovary), works that I've read and disliked (Hemingway and Gravity's Rainbow) and works that I wouldn't have thought to pick up but now very much want to. This accounts for a great deal of the migrating pile.

Admittedly, I'm an academically inclined person who is developing my own skills as a writer, so it follows that I would find "Reading Like a Writer" to be completely facinating from a topical perspective. But even if I wasn't looking to have my thoughts provoked, I think that Francine Prose does it in such an engaging way that the process she outlines of reading closely and slowly, maybe even lovingly, would effect me regardless. It's a good thing to slow down, think about what you've read and not just scan for the plot. This is something I've gotten out of the habit of doing after months of marathon reading for my graduate oral exams. It's really nice to get Prose's refresher course and settle back into a richer reading experience than I've been able to enjoy for awhile.