12.07.2009

Review: Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke

Books are not just parchment and ink. Books are not just words strung together, servants of the author's whim. Books are not merely there to teach or even just to be read, but are living, breathing aparati from which any characters may be plucked and drawn into our world, if only in the right hands, by the right tongue. Or so Inkheart will have you believing.

As a child of about 11 or 12 I believed that by reading you saw not only into the author's soul, but into a world secluded, preserved, as if you had dipped your face beneath the surface of a pond to get a better look at the colonies of stones and reeds in the riverbed. I think, perhaps, I got the idea from a passage in The Book of Three where Taran and his friends are crossing The Black Lake and are suddenly sucked into the depths as the lake turns into a swirling black whirlpool and just as Taran thinks he has drowned, he awakens in a grotto where King Eiddileg has his kingdom. Every book was Atlantis to me. But it wasn't just that. There were moments, especially when I started on the Redwall series, that I would come to particularly gruesome or enchantingly beautiful or heartsickeningly romantic passages and I would catch myself, in the darkness of my nightlight, reading aloud as if my toungue could stir the dust into action and project the vivid images of my mind into the air before me.

Childish, perhaps, but I still catch myself doing it. Having read Inkheart I suppose I should count myself lucky to not have the gift of literary manifestation. I first heard about Inkheart when I was watching the previews before another film on dvd. I wasn't entirely keen on the trailer, but Brendan Fraser was in it which made me happy. Then one weekend over the summer I was staying with my aunt and she had rented the film for my cousins. Recalling the trailer, I took time during that dvd's previews to wikipedia it. Turns out not only is it all about books, but it was a book to begin with. Fascinated at the its German origins and the fact that it's the first in a 3-part series, I made a note to seek it out, assuming I liked the film at all.

I did like the film. Quite a bit. And it wasn't just my silly crush on Brendan Fraser, nor my love for Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren. The story was special and very reminiscent of many of my childhood favorites. And then there was Paul Bettany. I felt, on seeing him as Dustfinger, that he was the perfect choice for him -- and this was before I'd read the book, or known much about it. Paul Bettany just pulsed to the tune of "I am your literary vision." And it was Paul Bettany as Dustfinger that made me know I had to read the book. That being said, I finally picked it up, and I can happily say that the film stays true enough to the book that I have no real complaints. There are moments, as in any adaptation, where they've cut corners or elaborated to make the audience get closure or perhaps to visually stimulate a little more. But that's the beauty of the book for me, that it IS so visually stimulating. And I was right. Paul Bettany IS Dustfinger. It's uncanny. I was a little disappointed that they'd gone with the Jim Broadbent end of the spectrum for Fenoglio - while I read it, Fenoglio looked more like Larry David. And I love Helen Mirren, but for one thing she's the victim of one of the elaborations of this particular film, but also she looks perfectly fit and capable whereas Elinor is supposed to look like a book addict. She's supposed to be a little chubby. Not Helen Mirren.

But that's enough of that.

Reading the novel made me realize what it was about watching the film that made me think of my other literary favorites. The film just kind of throws it all at you and hopes you stick along for the ride. The novel guides you. Every chapter is a new quote that almost outlines what will happen. Quotes from Peter Pan, The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, The Jungle Book, books that I've read and books that I relate to. Not only that, but The Neverending Story The Princess Bride and Peter Pan are the backbone of Inkheart's frame. In The Neverending Story, Bastian gradually reads himself into Fantasia (the book, in that case, is far more detailed than the film. In The Princess Bride we've got a multilayer issue of the author addressing us and claiming an elderly grandfather who read this book and blah blah blah it's not really important, but in the film Peter Falk makes it all very realistic for young Fred Savage. Peter Pan is the most directly-addressed book within Inkheart in that Tinkerbell ends up playing a role within the story, but even the original is about fairy tales coming true. Wendy tells the stories to her brothers and on an acid-trip-related note, Peter Pan shows up with his fairy and flies around the room and takes them to Neverland and before we know it Wendy is old and regretting her youth but apparently still doing acid because Peter shows up again.

Inkheart ties all of this together into a beautifully woven story about lost love and about treasuring books which, in the end, is what I'm all about. Books are very very powerful things, often with minds of their own. It is important that you treat them with respect and care, and don't go reading them aloud too loudly. If you happen to read a book out loud and begin to smell the sand and heat eminating from its pages, it's time to take a break and then procede with caution, lest you read out one of your villains and then where shall you be? And who shall have taken that villain's place in the world of the novel?

11.10.2009

Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombie, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Yes.

I think we've established that I'm an avid - uhh - Jane Austen....ite. What can I say? I like 'er. Anyway. What you may NOT realize is that I also like zombies. Maybe not as much as Jane Austen, but I can't make everything my favorite, you know? Anyway. I'm glad I finally got to read this book. Hilarious from the very first second. I'm not even talking about the text - I'm talking about the cover! I hadn't really taken a good look at it before I bought it so when I actually got the book in the mail I was kind of surprised to see this:


when I own a copy of Emma that looks like this:


Hilarious, yes? I thought so.
Anyway. The book is great. It's the original story mashed up with zombies. eewwwww. Yeah. It's a good time and it's a good bit of fluff. There are even some pictures:


I really can't say too much more about it, except that I enjoyed the incorporation of the Shaolin stuff (having gone to see Soul of Shaolin at the Marquis this year) and I wish there had been more drama...more people turning into zombies and such. Also, I wanted Lady Catherine to be a total sham because that would be awesome.

Review: Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia, by Michal Viewegh

This was my first dip in the pond of Czech literature. Again, just one of those books that I picked up at the library. My whole literary life (for some reason) I've been drawn to authors who appear earlier in the alphabetic registry. Austen, Barrie, Bronte, Byatt, Dickens, Dumas, Fitzgerald, Jacques, Kerouac. In recent years, I've dabbled in the McEwans and McCarthys, Pearsons and Vonneguts. So to now have a Viewegh in the bunch is not necessarily new, but it's fresh. I only wish the translation was better.

It's got some great humor, parody, parody of parody, pastiche. On one hand, when you begin the novel, it feels like Viewegh desires a reader with incredible literary prowess. He quotes everyone on everything and uses it as irony, criticism, cliche and fact. If you want to "get it" you should probably know who these people are. That's what I thought. On the other hand, having now finished the novel, and being able see the whole picture, perhaps he's using his quotes to prove who is master holding all of the strings, and who (the reader) is at the end of the strings. The book is like a literary diabolical dynamo that just pulses quotations, generating and regenerating the responses of every reader.

Published in 1994, the book seems like a perfect way for me to incorporate my nonfiction reading on post-1989 Germany and Eastern Europe into fiction. It offers a fairly familiar plot of boy meets girl, but crossing economical, taste, and generational barriers. Viewegh manages to see the world through his narrators eyes which are inevitably wearing the sunglassed filters of the 20-year-old suicider, Beata. We see what the professor sees, but we feel what the 20-year-old dumpee feels. She's a disaster. But the quotes hold her in place, just as Viewegh wants them to.

"The heartbeats of a lover dead" (p. 124) The novel is a like a musical composition notebook. Each quote is the bass line of the next bar. One of my favorite quotes from the book amused me because it was me....and I know that sounds weird, but to be able to identify oneself in an obscure Czech novel is worth some points in my book: "Chvatalova-Sukova... rushed out to the school garden with the glass jar and a U.S. Army retrenching tool. As always, she moved her limbs in time with an inaudible composition playing somewhere beneath the dome of her skull." I think that's the nugget. I think that's what the book is. The quotes - the beat, the pages - the skull. Get it?

11.06.2009

Review: Catharine and Other Writings, Juvenilia by Jane Austen

I’ve been reading Jane Austen for 14 years. I own all of her major works as well as the minor ones (Lady Susan, the unfinished The Watsons, the unfinished Sanditon). I have read Emma and Mansfield Park twice, Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice and Northanger Abbey multiple times, Persuasion about…. 70 times (give or take a few). I’ve read numerous essays and opinions on her work. I’ve read the histories on her life. For a few years now, I’ve owned a published collection of her letters. Unfortunately, there are only so many – Cassandra burned many of them when Jane died. I’ve only ever gotten so far as the introduction to the collection.

Something kept stopping me from reading on. I thought a part of it was that I had let her get into her head so much, I was almost afraid of her letters. After reading Charlotte Brontë’s Unfinished Novels, I decided to take a quick sweep by the letter A in the Fiction section of the library. And there, wedged between Emma and Mansfield Park was Catharine. I knew immediately that this was what I’d been waiting for.

Ever since Patricia Rozema’s 1999 treatment of Mansfield Park, I have craved Austen’s juvenilia. And this was the very first time a copy had been readily available at the library. It’s titled Catharine and Other Writings. Essentially, it’s the transcription of the three notebooks that Jane kept in her adolescence (age 12 to 18). It does for the Austen lover what Charlotte & Branwell’s stories of Angria do for Brontë lovers.

It reminds me very much of when I was younger, playing Barbies with my sister. Making up stupid-ass stories about their families; brushing out Ken-doll John Smith’s hair so he looked like Michael Bolton. There’s such resonant disregard for propriety that you do not see in her novels among the heroes, heroines and admirable side characters. Northanger Abbey is the exception, because she wrote it when she was still quite young. But even there you feel her reining in the silly girls and making them into strong women.

The main characters in these works are the infrastructure for all of her accessory characters. The Bennet sisters, the Musgroves, the Bertrams, the Elliots, Mrs. Elton, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Marianne Dashwood, Lady Susan, General Tilney, Admiral Croft, Willoughby: they are all there. You can feel the wheels turning in her mind as you progress page by page.

This is what I have been missing. This is why I could not move on into her letters. It wasn’t because I was afraid to let her into my head; it was because I didn’t have the foundation. You can read all you want about Jane. You can read every history and every commentary by Deirdre Le Faye, you can read every opinion, every essay, ever finicky and sorely balanced sequel to her novels, you can watch every treatment of her works on film from every angle; still you will not understand.

Her juvenilia from dedications at the beginning of each volume down to every pen stroke that she edited, up to the spot in her prayers where you can feel (without even looking into the notes) the author change from Henry to Jane; every one of these things are hers.

This is the magic of Oxford World’s Classics. I’ve discussed this before in the case of Dumas – why I won’t read translations by other publishers, etc. OWC breathes life back into Jane’s lungs. If you’ve ever seen the Rozema “Mansfield Park”, you’ll know Jane’s “A History of England” (as well as “Love and Freindship (sic)”: “Beware of fainting-fits....Beware of swoons—Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint—“. ) OWC gives you not only what history she’s speaking of, but why she speaks in such a tone; why she was atypical in preferring roman Catholicism; why she characterizes herself as anti-Tudor. It defines every questionable word and motive, and not in a condescending way.

It is as if 16-year-old Jane were sitting next to you in 1792 explaining her word choice. And now I know I can move on, into her letters. Now that I know not what she has written, or been, but who she is.

10.27.2009

Review: Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya

"All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair--
The bees are stirring--birds are on the wing--
And Winter, slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrighten'd, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live."


- (Samuel Taylor Coleridge "Work Without Hope")

I've read a lot of Asian-American and Indian-American literature. My second English class focused quite a bit on "mixed" American writers. Korean-American, Indian-American, Japanese-American, Chinese-American, African-American, and the list, as I remember, goes on. It was an interesting period in my reading because I was reading literature that I would never have picked up on my own. Not to mention, much of it was in the form of short stories which I wouldn't find on my own. A lot of the work was photocopied specifically for the class out of books that I would never go near.

My favorites were the Indian writers. I think I lost my adoration for them a bit when I worked on Dharamvir Bharati's The Blind Age during sophomore year, though. Among these writers were Jhumpa Lahiri and Bharati Mukherjee (my favorite was Mukherjee's short story - "A Father"). Their work is so beautiful and honest and still retain a bit of grit. That being said, I'm very surprised that I never came across Kamala Markandaya. In fact, when I picked it up in the library's fiction section and finally looked to see what it was, my initial reaction was to return it to the shelf because I thought I HAD read it or that I should have, and I was not looking forward to reading something my teacher would have had me read. But then I glanced at the back and decided to check it out anyway.

I'm so glad I did.

It's the kind of novel you have to read the back of. Not because there's something lost in translation or because the story is hard to follow, but because you need to be prepared. I can best describe it as the story of a woman with nothing to lose who loses almost everything. It's sweet, it's damp and dirty, it's about tradition and modernity, it's honest and beautiful, it's tragic and it's wonderful. And even in its sadness, its tragedy, and its dirt, it is hopeful.

Even in its frankness, it is hopeful. In the first 2 pages, you know how it will end. You know all of the tragedies that will happen in this woman's life. And yet you're drawn in. You keep reading even though you know it's going to be a big bad scary path. And you're rewarded for going with her on her journey. The visual quality of Markandaya's writing allows you to escape into that world, pretty or not. Strongly - very strongly - recommended.

10.25.2009

Review: Charlotte Brontë's Unfinished Novels

Up until this point, I had read almost everything by Charlotte Bronte. I read Jane Eyre at age 17 (the perfect time, I think, to read it). I read Villette and Shirley shortly thereafter. I also, over the last 3 years, took it upon myself to read her juvenilia in the form of The Foundling, The Green Dwarf, The Spell, and The Secret as well as The Professor. I have yet to read Ms. Gaskell’s biography of the Charlotte, but I believe there's been some controversy over some of her facts and, to be frank, I hate biographies. In terms of her sisters, I’ve read Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey and was completely bored. I’ve stayed as far away from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as humanly possible. The story makes me want to throw up a little bit. I’ve never seen a film version that’s redeemed it. So no Emily for me, either.

I’m really only interested in Charlotte. Most authors, especially those who passed on before their time, have tidbits and fragments and chapters of work that has gone unfinished. Dickens left us Edwin Drood. Jane Austen left us Sanditon, and Charlotte has left us Emma. In these cases, the authors have died before the narrative could continue. They were not voluntarily abandoned. Included in Pocket Classics’ edition of her unfinished pieces are works that WERE left alone voluntarily: “The Story of Willie Ellin”, “Ashworth”, and “The Moores.”

Perhaps the best way to introduce any discussion of Ms. Brontë’s unfinished works is with a quote from author William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair) that is included in the book as part of the preface to her final piece, Emma:

One evening, at the close of 1854, as Charlotte Nicholls [neé Brontë] sat with her husband by the fire, listening to the howling of the wind about the house, she suddenly said to her husband, ‘If you had not been with me, I must have been writing now.’ She then ran upstairs, and brought down, and read aloud, the beginning of a new tale. When she had finished, her husband remarked, ‘The critics will accuse you of repetition.’ She replied, ‘Oh! I shall alter that. I always begin two or three times before I can please myself.’ But it was not to be. The trembling little hand was to write no more. The heart, newly awakened to love and happiness, and throbbing with maternal hope, was soon to cease to beat; that intrepid outspeaker and champion of truth, that eager impetuous redresser of wrong, was to be called out of the world’s fight and struggle, to lay down the shining arms, and to be removed to a sphere where even a noble indignation cor ulterius nequit lacerare [ from the epitaph of Jonathan Swift, "cannot injure her heart anymore"), and where truth complete, and right triumphant, no longer need to wage war.
(Unfinished Novels, 96)

Emma begins with the aforesaid “repetition.” Like all of her completed novels, it begins in a school. And like all the others, it’s about a young girl in that school although it becomes quickly obvious that Emma is very different from Brontë’s earlier heroines. In fact, it reads even more similar to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (which, it appears, WAS inspired by this or - rather - the original novella titled "Sara Crewe, or What Happened at Miss Minchin's" and Thackeray’s own Vanity Fair, published 7 years earlier (Ms. Brontë wrote this fragment in 1854, and it was published in 1860. Appropriate then, that Thackeray introduces it.

“Emma,” however, is not the longest fragment in the book. It is preceded, first, by a dredgy “The Story of Willie Ellin” which only makes a lot of sense in Charlotte’s voice if you know that she wrote it in the midst of editing sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. It’s much darker than anything else of hers on the page. It’s also pretty lackluster and boring (cough). This is succeeded by “Ashworth,” the longest (45 pages) investment of the collection. This was my favorite piece I think because of its intricacies. It begins as the story of one man and carries on through to the story of his daughter. We assume that, had the novel continued past 45 pages, we would return to Mr. Ashworth (whose wife, by the way, dies after she asks him to pick her up at the window so she could see the sun….Cathy & Heathcliff, anyone??) but we are left in the care of his daughter, Miss Mary, who seems as lovely (though perhaps more sensible than) Mr. Thackeray’s own Amelia Sedley. Oddly enough for "Ashworth", it was handed down among various associates and relations of the Brontës and only “discovered” in the 1980s. Cool.

The third piece is, perhaps, the most interesting of those that Charlotte let go by the wayside. Titled “The Moores,” the focus is on Mr. and Mrs. John Henry Moore and, eventually, their respective relatives. The most markedly interesting aspect of this piece is the way the Mr. and Mrs. treat one another. In what seems like a scene right out of Vanity Fair or, perhaps, Dickens’ Great Expectations, the couple verbally harasses one another, Mrs. Moore ignores her husband and Mr. Moore tears a letter from her hand and burns it in front of her. To escalate matters, when Mr. Moore’s brother arrives and Mrs. Moore’s cousin takes to the piano, the men are narrated into a state of disgust in front of them. This is somewhat reminiscent of Edward Rochester’s playful disinterest in maintaining certain rules of decorum, a trait that makes him realistically and even modernly more endearing than the white-horse-white-glove-decorum-filled Austen heroes. Mr. Moore is, truly, a bit more extreme but his brother has the opportunity to become someone interesting, and it’s a shame that she put him aside.

As for Emma itself, we are cruelly torn away from the narrative right as our Matilda Fitzgibbon is stripped of her fanciful name and façade. Though the intro is somewhat academic and blasé, the world we enter into as the story progresses is terribly promising. It reads like A Little Princess, like The Secret Garden, like Vanity Fair, like Jane Eyre, like Great Expectations, like Mansfield Park and like Les Misérables. The real unfairness lies in our inability to foresee who little Matilda will become. Will she be redubbed as Emma? Will she grow up to be like Austen’s own Emma, who is proud and (unknowingly) cruel? Or will she be like Jane Eyre, subjugated and left to develop her character among those who are cruel or indifferent to her with one clear exception? An authoress by the name of Claire Boylan has completed the story in her own words (Emma Brown), making it into a well-made pastiche of Brontë's completed works. But we'll never really know what Charlotte wanted. In musing on this in relation to an unfinished painting of Titania, the fairy queen Thackeray says:

As I read this little fragmentary sketch, I think of the rest. Is it? And where is it? Will not the leaf be turned some day, and the story be told? Shall the deviser of the tale somewhere perfect the history of little EMMA’S grief and troubles? Shall TITANIA come forth complete with her sportive court, with the flowers at her feet, the forest around her, and all the stars of summer glittering overhead?
(Unfinished Novels, 97)

9.18.2009

Review: The Stars' Tennis Balls, by Stephen Fry


Every time I walk into the Mid-Manhattan Public Library, I walk out with at least one treasure. Sometimes it's something that I've planned and sometimes it's not. Often I'll have books waiting for me, but even then I make sure I stop in the fiction section. I walk into an unassuming row of books and snatch something down from a shelf--whatever catches my eye. I usually don't even check to see what it is until I'm at the check-out counter.

This time, it was Stephen Fry's The Stars' Tennis Balls (published by Hutchinson, a subsidiary of Random House which I thought would end up being some kind of ridiculous romp through Stephen Fry's ever-so-comedic-and-well-timed-mind. In a way, I was right. The prose smells of Fry's sometimes-grotesque humor. But it's also a frighteningly well-written adaptation of (of all things) The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas pére. Now, I could not have known, looking at the color of the book or even the cover, or even reading the first 12 pages, that it was going to be an adaptation of one of the most brilliant pieces of literature ever undertaken (which also happens to be one of my most favored books). And yet, there it is. If I'd glanced at the back of the book, where the Literary Review comments were featured, I would have known immediately. It says right there "A Count of Monte Cristo for the dot.com generation...." But I didn't glance back there. I try to avoid it.

It wasn't until I got to about page 53, where Ned (Edmond) is on his sailboat that things started clicking. Up until that point, it had been a simple page turner. But suddenly I realized what I was wrapped up in. I remember being stuck on page 53 for about 10 minutes while I worked backwards, pulling names out of the text and figuring out where they fit in. If not brilliant, it's next to brilliant. And Fry respects the reader enough to not give him a bullshit ending. Everything happens in its turn and you cannot be dissatisfied with the ending. I'm not very eloquent so you can read someone who is, HERE