Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Review of 'The Thirteenth Tale'

Alright well, let's see:

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

How much of a review can I give of this Book without giving away the secrets? Well, it's going to be hard to do, so if you don't want the book ruined for you, perhaps you'd better not read any further.
With that in mind...

Imagine that Catherine Earnshaw sat down one dark and stormy night to tell her life story to Jane Eyre, and that Jane is going to make this story into a book. And then imagine that at the end of the story, after everything we've learned about Cathy's life, it turns out that Cathy isn't Cathy - she's Heathcliff in disguise. Hard to get your mind around? Yeah, so is this book. But that's ok.

Mixing elements of Romantic Gothic literature, plot elements of the Bronte's novels, and a good dose of modern psychology of siblings, Diane Setterfield has created a novel that is a heck of a lot of fun to read. The prose is a bit stilted now and then (could it be the modern urge to turn every little feeling into a metaphor? Or maybe the language comes from reading one too many Victorian novels...) but regardless, the book - by virtue of its structure - is as much fun as a rubic's cube.

We begin with an old writer (the iconic Story Teller/Witch figure) who narrates a twisted life story ('the truth') to a mousy antique book seller (a.k.a. stereotypical librarian) biographer. The story begins with Twins, a pair of girls born of the incestuous liason between the brother and sister of a deranged, delapidated family (Hello, Catherine and Heathcliff). The twins are raised by a Housekeeper (Mrs. Fairfax, is that you?) and a Gardner (why, I do believe that cantankerous caretaker may have gone by the name of Ben in the Secret Garden), and are later taken in hand by the governess (no, it's not Jane Eyre; closer to the unamed governess of The Turn of the Screw) who, along with the Doctor (Holmes cameo?) use the girls as a science experiment. A few things go wrong, the virtuous governess disappears (literally), and the twins lose their Uncle/father as well. (Their aunt/mother had already died in a lunatic asylum.) Then the Housekeeper passes away. Are the deaths accidental, natural, murder? Who knows - but something weird is going on - and it's up to the emotional ice-berg of a biographer to uncover the mystery behind our (semi) reliable narrator, as the mystery of the Twins relates to her own mystery.

This book draws on many elements of Victorian/Gothic/Romantic literature to tell its story: a dilapidated house, an isolated estate, a pair of weird children who may be possessed by something sinister, incest, suicide, arson, mad people being kept in attics, numerous suspicious deaths and accidents, governesses having affairs, orphans, mirrors, ghosts, etc... all of it done very well through the agency of fautly narration. But there are some things that don't quite work for me:

First, it's one thing to borrow from the classics (that's why they're classic) but enough is enough, and sometimes too much. The reason Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, The Lady in White, The Secret Garden, Christabel, Porphyria's Lover, The Moonstone, Carmilla, (for me, anyway) is because there is one unified secret we are trying to get at (not thirty!) Now, I'm not saying there aren't mysteries within mysteries (there certainly are), but the books manage to stick to one idea very well. I suppose there might, arguably, be one central mystery to The Thirteenth Tale (i.e. that the twins aren't twins, but triplets) - but with the complication of the biographer's mystery (and the time shifts), the novel becomes increasingly difficult to follow. At least, by classic standards. This sifts it into the unenviable realm of Walpole's Castle of Otranto - and we don't want to go there....

My second beef with this book is more theoretical than structural. Perhaps it's just me, but I continue to see a certain symbolism in the angry/mad twin that harkens to Bertha Mason. Now, I have never read Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, (and admittedly I am an ardent Jane suporter - so bite me) but I cannot get over this current notion that the Mad Woman in the Attic needs our sympathy and restoration. She's mad. That doesn't make her evil, but it does make her a murder none-the-less, and therefore dangerous - why do we need to rescue her from the fire that she set? I know that sounds harsh - I suppose the ardent feminist in me argues that Bertha is a representation of everything passionate and powerful about the female that males fear and so she has to be locked up in the attic - yadayadayada... But still. Really? Why do we insist on this? Mad men get locked up too - I don't think it's the feminine - I think it's the madness that's at issue here. I liked the fact that the third girl wanted to rescue the good twin (are we supposed to read latent lesbianism here? I wasn't sure...) and let the bad twin burn. It doesn't bother me. But then, the mad one lives (?)...argh.

Alright. And for the sake of having three things:

The ending. Ok, so it doesn't technically break the rule of good mystery literature (i.e. that the murder can't be someone we've never met before - deus ex machina murder, heheh) but the narrator being the third girl and bastard offspring of the brother?....that made me a little ansty. It's not unfeasible. I was expecting that third person to be their mother, perhaps. To me this seems more feasible than a character who hasn't really been introduced before (technically yes, but not really). It seemed too out of left field. But maybe I was just reading with too many preconcieved notions.

Overall, I really enjoyed it. I give it 4 stars!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dombey and Son and Bleak House - Review

Domeby and Son - Charles Dickens
Stars: 4.9 of 5
Rating: PG
Fun: 5 of 5

So it's a Dickens day (since that's what I've been reading for Grad School). I love me some Dickens and this one is no exception. Dombey and Son is, in the words of my professor, 'perhaps Dickens only feminist novel..' and I think he's possibly right. Throughout this weird book that at times reminds me of Alice in Wonderland (though not as much as the Old Curiosity Shop might), there are some truly interesting, strong heroines driving the action despite the status quo.

Like most Dicken's novels, D and S has several different plots going on at once: there's the sucession of Dombeys for the House (little Paul and his sister Florence being the offspring of Mr. Dombey and expected to uphold the family business and name); there's also the rambunctious and ridiculous next-door neighbors, Walter Gay, his unlce Sol, and their buffoonish friend Captain Cuttle; and there's the general London populace of hack teachers, stuffy little old ladies, evil crones, criminals, and deviant (as well as devious) socialites.

Interestingly, Florence is the main hero of the book (not Son), and the book mostly chronicles the strained and unnatural relationship between her and her estranged father. How it all turns out, I won't say, but rest assured that Edith Domeby is a character you don't want to miss out on if you like to read about amazing women. Think Sidney Carlton as a woman, with a little Mr. Darcy thrown in, and you've got Edith Dombey - aloof, clever, fascinating, sarcastic, devious, cynical, intelligent, powerful, nurturing, and pissed off. I love it. Also, Mr. Carker, a truly creeptastic villain, is not to be missed.

Bleak House
Stats: 5 of 5
Rating: PG
Fun: 4 of 5

Bleak House is possibly my favorite Dickens novel of all time. (If Edith Domeby could visit Bleak House, it would be perfect.) This book has everything and somehow managed to keep it all together. And I mean everything. We start off with three orphans, two who are wards in Chancery (no money cause it's tied up in an unmercifully entangled law suit). Their guardian adopts the third ward, an illegitimate young woman named Esther. Of course they all become friends (two of them, the wards in Chancery, fall in love with each other, of course), and all is well thus far...if only Rick (one of the Chancery wards) would grow up and get a job.

The second plot thread is what occurs at Chesney Wold, the ancient estate of Lord and Lady Dedlock. (What great names!) There we get the feeling that Lady Dedlock might be keeping a secret from her husband about her past - and so does her evil solicitor (the villain is a lawyer!) and he decides to investigate. What he finds out is quite surprising.

I won't say anymore about the plot in general, because it's so much more fun to read along. But I will say this for the book: Bleak House is famous for a lot of interesting quirks, the first being that is has one of the first out-standing detectives in fiction, Mr. Bucket; second, it has a very strong message about social responsibility as well as a wonderfully harsh criticism of Christian Missionaries and charity; third, Lady Dedlock is amazing, even when all she can say is that she is 'bored to death'; fourth, it has a very revolting study of 'artistic and aesthetic philosphy'; and fifth, it is perilously close to being an un-Dicken's like unhappy ending.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

An interesting movie/book review....

This is from it intrigued me to want to see the movie and read the book.  Just thought I'd share.

"The Heart of Me
 opens on the London of 1934, a bleak time if there ever was one. The first World War has been over for some time but the second one lingers on the horizon. [Olivia] Williams portrays a stiff and proper society woman named Madeleine who is married to the wealthy Ricky (the always great Paul Bettany). When Madeleine's father dies, she and Ricky take in her eccentric bohemian sister Dinah (Helena Bonham Carter). Soon Ricky and Dinah are drawn to each other like star-crossed magnets and find themselves in a disastrous affair. Madeleine wants it to stop of course, but not so much because she loves Ricky as because she wants her life to maintain its status quo. At first glance, it seems obvious where this story is headed: Madeleine is the evil wife who prevents true love from blossoming. But what is so defining about the film, directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan and deftly adapted by screenwriter Lucinda Coxon from the Rosamond Lehmann novel The Echoing Grove, is that there are no “good” or “bad” characters in the story. Madeleine takes some devious steps to disrupt the romance, but you will also come away from the film feeling great sympathy for her. The illicit lovers Ricky and Dinah will commit some despicable acts as well, ensuring that you won't necessarily be rooting for their love to succeed. Symbolic of the way the film views humanity is the bracelet that Ricky makes for Dinah - it’s engraved with a line from her favorite Blake poem which reads, "And throughout all eternity, I forgive you, you forgive me." By film's end, all the characters may not have quite forgiven each other, but we the audience will have. Or at the very least, we understand why they did what they did."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

In the Forests of Serre - Review....
Rating: PG
Stars: 4.9 out of 5
Fun: 5 of 5

So, another fantasy book - but this one is quite awesome. If you love fairytales, legends, and folklore, and also poetic prose, you will love this book. It's written by Patricia McKillip who is very talented at delivering a story with a lot of rich metaphor and gorgeous descriptions. Her books often feel like dreams and have been described aptly as "Picasso-like fairytales".

The story is fairly simple (as far as her stories go!): While riding through the forests of Serre one day, prince Rolan gallops over the favorite chicken of the Mother of all Witches. And that is a paraphrase of the book's first sentence.Rolan, having lost his wife and child, has also lost his desire to live - his father, an oppressive tyrant, and his mother, a retiring shadow of a woman, give him encouragement in the form of an arranged marriage with a neighboring country's princess.

But Rolan doesn't return home, because Brome (a witch who folklore lovers will immediately recognize as Baba Yaga, complete with house made of bones and chicken legs) is determined to make Rolan pay. Refusing to enter her house, he instead runs across the enthralling Firebird and is instantly comsumed with the desire to chase the bird until he captures it or dies.

Meanwhile, in the neighboring country, the princess, a spunky little thing, isn't exactly happy with the idea of an arranged marriage, but she goes willingly to her fate, along with a young magician who has a lot of problems of his own, mostly involving a mysterious monster and his old master.Of course, everyone eventually gets lost in the woods. Through a series of complications, the characters discover exactly what a human heart is worth (literally, Brome wants one!) and also how they can become monsters without realizing it.

There is so much amazing metaphor and sybolism in this book - I just loved it. One of my favorite things about this author is that she gives you a mystery that is also, like a good fairytale, a piece of advice - but you don't realize it while you're reading it. Also, she has a singular ability to withhold definite detail, so you are sometimes unsure if the things you're reading are actually happening or have only taken place in one of the character's imaginations. Which is what gives it the dream like quality. Besides all of this, it's just beautiful. Read it if you like this kind of thing, and read it if you don't - because you'll still enjoy it. And any of her other books, of which there are many!


Twilight Review...
Rating: PG13
Stars: 2 out of 5
Fun: 3 out of 5

For those of you who are interested in vampire fiction and teen fiction, this book is definitely for you. If, however, you have been fed a steady diet of Anne Rice or Bram Stoker, you may want to read with trepidation.As a first book, Twilight isn't bad - I have read much, much worse. The plot is not entirely original - it borrows a great deal from Romeo and Juliet - (and we all know how angsty teens in love can be!) - however, it gives credit where credit is due and never tries to pretend to be something it isn't. Which is refreshing.

The writing is average but colorful - you won't find anything remotely frightening or even disturbing, unlike a Rice novel - and there isn't a lot of mystery. The characters are perhaps the book's greatest strength and their relationships provide the book's greatest attraction for a reader. Bella, the hero, is an average girl who isn't even interested in the occult and isn't strong in the imagination department, but what she lacks in weirdness she makes up for in common sense. Most of the time. On going to a new school she meets a strange boy who turns out to be, (you guessed it), a vampire. A very tortured, melancholic, handsome, suave, emo vegetarian vampire named Edward. Are you with me so far?

Edward belongs to a family of vampires who all forgo the usual diet of human blood and eat animals instead, though it is admittedly terribly difficult for them. At first, Bella and Edward do not like each other, but then eventually, of course, fall in love and try to figure out how to make it work. That is pretty much the point of the whole book.

You wouldn't think it would be that interesting, but Meyer has a good ear for teen voices that don't make you want gag - and she is also adept at creating fun situations for her characters where things don't always go as planned. I have to admit, however, that my favorite parts of the book remain the first five or so chapters when Bella stands up to a blood-thirsty, snobby vampire boy with only sarcasm as a weapon. She loses some of her strength when she falls in love, and personally I've never found the 'symbolism' behind the human-vampire relationship to be at all appealing. But I don't really think this is intended. There is the same obsessiveness we see in Romeo and Juliet, which in their case becomes its own funeral pyre, but for Edward and Bella we glimpse that somehow they will make it out alive and together. Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after? Sure, why not?

To sum up, Twilight as a whole was the best book of the series, and perhaps should have been the only book in the series...hint, hint...but then, where would the Book Publishers be? With a few innovations on the vampire legend, it stands out as the most cohesive of the books with only a few of those random glitches in plot or tid-bits that continue to stick out, that seem so abundant in the later books. Also, it is relatively free of the deus-ex-machina tendency of the later books, and also the genre-jumping 'fan' inspired plots that keep a story that is already concluded in the first book going strong in the second, third and oh-so-unnecessary fourth. But, if you've read Rice, you won't be out of your league for the coming weirdness should you pursue the next three books. In conclusion, I think Meyer is not a bad writer - she is certainly imaginative - but she'll never catch J.K. Rowling as far as unity of plot goes, or development of minor characters. Still, she is very enjoyable if you're looking for something fun and easy to read. (And if you think vampires are just a little sexy.)

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Voting is Over!!!!!

(If you haven't voted, then sorry. You are too late! Muahahaha.)

1. The Thirteenth Tale
by Diane Setterfield
You can purchase it from Amazon:
Or borrow it from a public library, a friend, or the bargain bin at your favorite used book store.
Or, if there is a movie version out - get that. Slackers.

Reading Dates:
(August 8th - October 8th)

2. The Hunting of the Snark
by Lewis Carroll
I have two copies (one of which no man may borrow!), but usually you can find it in any Alice anthology. Or buy it - it is small, and you'll probably want to keep it. (If for nothing else than the illustrations.) - Amazon link.

(October 13th - October 31st)

3. Grendel
by John Gardner - here's the Amazon link.
This one you can probably find in high school libraries - or if you have a teaching buddy, they might be able to help you get your hands on one. As always, look in the libraries - it's free!!!

(November 4th - December 24th)

4. How the Irish Saved Civilization
by Thomas Cahill

Here is the Amazon link:
This one shouldn't be too hard to find. (You can always ask for it as a Christmas present.)

(January 8th - March 8th) St. Patrick's Day Celebration!

5. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien Anos de Soledad)
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Gregory Rabassa - translation) - This is a link to the English version on Amazon.
That's the Spanish version.
Feel free to read both, either, just read at least one of them.

(March 19th - April 25th)

And those are our pics for Fall/Winter/Spring of 08-09. And if we last that long, we'll have another round. In the meantime, if you have the time, try picking a few of the books on our list that weren't chosen. Read them and write a review for us here on the blogg (I've already put one up for Twilight as an example at the bottom of the page.)
Closer to time, I will start organizing where and when we will have our first meeting. Probably at my house. Ok, if you have problems with any of this, let me know.
Let me know what you all think! Ciao.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Whatcha readin' NOW?

Here, I have a question: what are you reading this week?

I'm reading -- and re-reading -- brain candy while I try to write.

Case in point:
FEARLESS FOURTEEN, by Janet Evanovich
THE UNFINISHED CLUE by Georgette Heyer
NO WIND OF BLAME, by Georgette Heyer
ESSAYS ON TYA, by Moses Goldberg.

And I'm about to startNICK OF TIME by Ted Bell.

There, that's what I'm reading this week, and you?