Monday Mailbox #8

I have a couple of books this week, gleaned from the library at work:

The Somnambulist, by Jonathan Barnes

Supposed to be a somewhat humorous detective/horror novel. I just liked the title font. 

Under the Boardwalk, by Carly Phillips

This one definitely not chosen for its annoying title font...mostly I just needed another beach read.

Review: A Truth Universally Acknowledged - 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, Edited by Susannah Carson

Why do I - why do we - read Jane Austen over and over and over? In this collection, edited by Susannah Carson, thirty-three writers try to figure it out. And some of them hit in on the head, and others really...really do not.

I approached this book, post-its and pen in-hand, like I would a text book or maybe a thesis paper. I wanted to learn from it, to have a conversation with it, with the writers. I wanted the validation of thought and passion that literary critics can sometimes give.

The problem I encountered, though, is that it lacks organization. What attempts to be an organic flow of information, opinions, criticism and thoughts jumps back and forth (as you move from one writer to the next) between focuses. They don't seem grouped in any particular way - and maybe this is supposed to be a comment on just how universal Austen is, but it doesn't work. On top of that, we are given author biographies in the back, but there's no context for the essays with the essays. With some, you can guess - we know when C.S. Lewis and Virginia Woolf lived/wrote, but some of the (for me) more obscure authors seem to float in time with no reference to the period in which they were written, and that can be very problematic. Especially when an author is writing about film adaptations with no reference past the 1980s. Or when another author makes reference to the way a class is taught that seems right out of the sixties.

Like Austen, each author comes with temporal and emotional baggage that can affect their vision. For instance, an author writing about Austen and modernism in 1920 is going to have a very different vision than the one writing about turning Emma into "Clueless."

That aside, I did enjoy the way some of these authors seemed to manage to put my feelings about Austen's works into words and theories that actually make more sense, almost as much as I enjoyed arguing with my pen in the margins. Did it make me want to hop up and immediately re-read Mansfield Park and Emma? Not really. But it definitely made me look forward to reading them again, new information and theories in-hand.


Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - Dawn of the Dreadfuls, by Steve Hockensmith

Another delightfully quick read from Quick Classics and Steve Hockensmith, Dawn of the Dreadfuls serves as the introduction to the Pride & Prejudice and Zombies world. Recently, I read the end of the trilogy, and found Hockensmith's work both dedicated to the inspiration, as well as original in its execution (tee hee, execution).

I think I enjoyed this one of the three the best partly because I'd read the subsequent books and therefore knew how certain things would turn out, but also because this is really a world all Hockensmith's own. Sure, he has to make the story abut the exposition of Pride & Prejudice and Zombies but aside from that, he can pretty much do whatever he wants - create and kill whatever characters he wants, because they'll be of little consequence once the story is complete. Yet still this author retains a whimsy dedicated to the canon characters.

This, like its friends, is not a book for the faint of heart. I would also argue that, unlike its temporal successors (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Dreadfully Ever After), this one is not necessarily for the Janeites. Staunch believers in Jane Austen's word as holy grail will find the character development in this book to somewhat eclipse the natural order of things from the original. There is affection where there wouldn't be, and there is a kinship that shouldn't be. For this series, it works. But for anyone who identifies strongly with Austen characters as-written, not so much.

But that said, it is quite funny and very enjoyable. And while some will argue that book series are meant to be read in the author's order, I would argue that the dramatic irony retained by having read the 2nd and 3rd books prior to the first is actually worth it.


Review: Meowmorphosis, by Franz Kafka and Coleridge Cook

The Meowmorphosis
by Franz Kafka & Coleridge Cook
Quirk Classics
May 10, 2011
208 pgs
Anyone familiar with Kafka's original tale of a man who one day wakes up and finds himself transformed into an insect-like creature will see the irony of that same man being transformed into an adorable kitten instead. But for an imprint like Quirk Classics that has given us stories of robots, zombies, and sea monsters (as toppings to the classics), that irony seems somewhat out of place. 

In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa is locked up and shunned by his family because he's been transformed into an ugly, multi-legged, black shiny beetle-looking thing. For Coleridge Cook to change it in The Meowmorphosis to an (albeit large) kitten and still retain the familial reactions of the original makes this less of a mash-up novel and more of a what-if novel that happens to yield the same results. I mean let's be honest - kittens are adorable. The reaction of his family should have been the opposite of that which they had to the bug. It should be their love and affection for him that kills him rather than their disinterest and/or hatred. The suffocation of love would make for an interesting quirk. Not changing the story really does not. 

Really the most interesting thing Mr. Cook does is insert 72 pages that weren't there before which tell the story of Kafka's The Trial, changing Josef K. from being the accused to being the accuser, and then making Gregor the accused. Without this addition, The Meowmorphosis would be a slim volume of little interest. With the addition, it's the story of a man-turned-cat who suffers at the hands of both his family in the human world, and the overly bureaucratic cat world. Neither version is particularly enticing. If Quirk wants to keep selling books I recommend they stay away from depressing writers like Kafka and stick with the horror mash-ups. Is there maybe a Vanity Fair & Vampires.... maybe Vampire Fair in the future? Hmm? I would read it. 


Monday Mailbox #7

Just the one this week, I'm afraid. Got this one (along, again, with their spectacular press packet) from Quirk via LibraryThing.com. It is - you guessed it - Kafka's Metamorphosis (classic story of a man who wakes up to find himself now a bug - though the translation of the word as bug is heavily debated) only Gregor Samsa has been turned into an adorable kitten. Review to follow in a day or two. 


Monday Mailbox #6

Monday Mailbox is a weekly segment wherein I cover my most recent acquisitions, whether via purchase, library, early reviewers, Librarything.com Member Givaway Program or gift.
 A friend of mine gave me a B&N gift card for my birthday last week. It burned a hole in my pocket like no one's business. Fortunately, there was a B&N relatively close by, and I was able to save the rest of the pocket. I bought two books (and still have like $5 left to spend on a future purchase):

I should have bought Rebecca ages ago. Like 15 years ago. I happen to love the film--it's part of a long-running inside joke with my mother and my grandmother. It wasn't until I got to college that I realized the way in which du Maurier was attempting to pawn off some Charlotte Brontë as her own, but I kind of don't even care. Sure, Edward Rochester and Maxim de Winter are shades of the same character, but so what? It's a good time.

The Jungle Books (comprising of The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book) is a collection of stories that I've also been meaning to read for some time, and is just one of those things that I feel like every collection needs.

This may be it for me buying books for myself for a little while. I have a whole large shelf of books that need to be read, and every time I buy a new book I wish I was going to read it before all of the others. Best to curb that, if only for a short while.
On a special note, one of my co-workers found a copy of Dawn of the Dreadfuls in his laundry room, and has been reading it. At first he didn't think he would, but he picked it up on a whim, and found it to be "very very funny." He has offered to lend it to me, as he finished reading it this weekend. Having already read the two books that follow Dawn of the Dreadfuls in the Pride and Prejudice & Zombies series, I look forward to bringing it to a close, albeit a backwards one.


Review: Pemberley Ranch, by Jack Caldwell

Jack Caldwell's Civil War romance Pemberley Ranch is one of those books that proves, sans zombies, just how adaptable Jane Austen can be.

Set at the end of the American Civil War, Beth Bennet's family makes the decision to move from their Northern home in Ohio to a new and more promising homestead in the South. Still reeling from the death of her brother in the war, Beth vows to never forgive the rebellious South for her loss. But in a small town like Rosings, Texas neighbors will quickly become friends. Once Beth's older sister Jane marries Doc Bingley, the family circle quickly expands to include rancher Will Darcy... and things go... just as you might think they would go.

Described on the cover as "Pride & Prejudice meets Gone With the Wind," I would argue that it's much more like John Jakes' North & South than Gone With the Wind. The dynamics are closer. And as such, it's not only a lesson in literary adaptation, but a Civil War history lesson as well. This being the 150th Anniversary year of the start of the Civil War, the resulting reflection is appropriate.

This is obviously not quite a direct adaptation (Charlotte Lucas lacks a brood of younger siblings, one is able to muster some sympathy for Caroline Bingley, and the Hursts and the Gardiners are present in name only), but it nests comfortably astride both the worlds of Austen and of mid-19th century Texas, utilizing the somewhat less stringent societal rules of the South, but still making use of a decent amount of Austen's original text.

Caldwell even brings in characters from her other books including Henry Tilney (Northanger Abbey), Edmund Bertram (Mansfield Park), Mr. Knightley & Mr. Elton (Emma) and a mention of a Miss Dashwood (Sense & Sensibility). At first I was surprised at the exclusion of a Willoughby or a Crawford, the likes of whom would fit perfectly into the ranks of (Kid) Denny and George Whitehead (this version's Wickham), but perhaps that would be too easy. In the end George, Denny, (Billy) Collins, and even Elton, were villainous enough on their own, thanks to Caldwell's fantastic transformation of the story into something very different and pretty special.


Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - Dreadfully Ever After, by Steve Hockensmith

Quirk Classics has performed a task that only a handful of women would generally commit to: create an Austen "what-if" novel (with a pretty polarizing "if"), and then write bookends: a prequel and then a sequel to that text. Now the first part of that task was relatively simple: Seth Grahame-Smith used the story and much of the original dialogue from Austen's Pride & Prejudice and put it all in a world riddled 
with zombies.

Like W. Bill Czolgosz's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim, the dreadful reanimation is caused by a cholera of unknown origin and, unlike in Czolgosz's novel, many of the living have gotten the necessary training (based in Asian culture) to defend themselves. That's all explained in Steve Hockensmith's prequel Dawn of the Dreadfuls, which I haven't yet read. But given the source material, a prequel would I think be relatively simple: throw together what you know about the canon characters, 
and what you know about the added "if" and give them a plot line to follow to those ends. Done.

A sequel on the other hand, is decidedly more difficult. Not only do you have to master the pre-written characters and be able to carry them forward in Austenesque fashion, and not only are you mixing the Austen plot with Seth Grahame Smith's plot and then adding the pieces from Dawn of the Dreadfuls, but you are also challenging the assumptions of every young woman (or, for argument's sake, young man) who has read the original, and who has invented the rest of the story. Tales do not always end just because the author has said "the end." No, these stories continue in the minds of the reader - a type of post-literary fantasy. It's where fanfiction comes from. It's where all of those Pride & Prejudice sequels following the lustful lives of the newly wedded Mr. & Mrs. Darcy come from.

It is in the spirit of curiosity that Steve Hockensmith has created the finale to the Pride & Prejudice and Zombies trilogy in Dreadfully Ever After. The story goes that after 4 years of marriage, Mr. Darcy is bitten by a Dreadful (don't worry, I promise Elizabeth notices... not like in that idiotic Mr. Darcy, where it took Lizzy 239 pages to figure it out...). All hope seems lost until Lady Catherine, still as hateful as ever of Elizabeth, concocts a shameful plan (let's just say it's something Jane could have easily written in her youth) for his salvation. Of course, given the zombie addition, there are endless parades of zombies 
and ninjas in the way of success, but those Bennet girls are wily - trust 'em to find success eventually.

The story is well executed and definitely makes for a quick read, especially if you can't bring yourself to read the gorier parts - it's not exactly for the faint of heart. But I have to say, for something written so specifically for the blood and gore, I actually enjoyed it. It stays true to all accountable versions of our beloved Austen characters, and even introduces some original flavor in Sir Angus and Bunny, and it's always nice to see an Austen villain get her comeuppance now and again.


Review: The Pumpkin Eater, by Penelope Mortimer

NYRB Classics
New Introduction by
Daphne Merkin
Penelope Mortimer, or should I say the character of Mrs. Armitage, is an illustration of a woman in chaos, the smudged pencil sketch or what the sound of "din" looks like. She's going through a breakdown and "The Pumpkin Eater" is her therapy, Mortimer's therapy. There can be no doubting that this brutally honest and amusing tale is, in a great part, autobiographical. And yet, Mortimer wields each word like a nocked arrow, making it touching, but without an ounce of sentimentality.

The mother (but not the caretaker) of countless children, the narrator seems lost in a world of "...orange squash, blackcurrant syrup, tins of soup or beans or salmon, disinfectant or instant coffee...", trapped in her mind like she's trapped in the glass tower her husband built for her. This dream-castle serves as both physical barrier (not to mention the Freudian implications of a large, fragile phallus in the middle of the countryside)  and delusional whimsy. Her husband's transgressions are unhidden, transparent, testimony for his wife's mental trials.

In all the chaos, you might think it would be difficult to find a thru-line, a string tied to a life preserver, tossed into an unforgiving sea. But it's there, in the form of the Armitages' daughter, Dinah. Insignificant at first, indistinguishable from the circus of little ones, Dinah's importance grows, and it is in her mother's awareness of this growth that the chaos finally subsides.

This tide-like narrative is somewhat reminiscent of another woman's chaotic semi-autobiographical novel: Zelda Fitzgerald's Save Me the Waltz. If Zelda had been a little less delusional, a little more honest, a little less oppressed, a little more depressed, a little less vivacious, and a little more prolific (okay maybe a lot more prolific), she might have been Penelope Mortimer or her literary twin, Mrs. Armitage.

But compared to Save Me the Waltz, Armitage's break is more present. The writer is more aware of herself, and there's an element of the story actually being composed, rather than lived--you really notice this in her treatment of Ireen, and in the way the character seems to ironically haunt the rest of the story. It's the kind of thing where you can hear the writer, amidst the depression and the victimizing) and pick out her victorious laughter in the midst of the din.                                                      


Monday Mailbox #5

Monday Mailbox is a weekly segment wherein I cover my most recent acquisitions, whether via purchase, library, early reviewers, Librarything.com Member Givaway Program or gift.

I recently purchased (from Ikea) some new book shelves. My first set of adult book shelves. Before, my books lived on a collection of thrift store or curbside shelves that a) were not cutting it and b) were hideous. So now I have new shelves and they are gorgeous. 

Perhaps the most interesting thing, though, about having new, expansive (not to mention expensive) shelves, is that there's SO much ROOM! I mean my collection is not small... it's not very large, but small it definitely is not. But on my previous shelves, there was negative room for anything. Volumes piled on top of volumes, squeezed into tiny corners, I mean it was a mess. But now... now I have so much space...and I find that I need more books! So getting some new books this week definitely brought me some good cheer, that I now share with you!

Quirk's publicity packets
are decidedly impressive.
First off, I must share that part of my faith in humanity has been restored. No, I still haven't located whatever book got misplaced by the construction workers next door, BUT Quirk finally sent me the conclusion to the PPZ series, Dreadfully Ever After. I had just marked that one as a lost cause and BAM there it was at my door. A really nice surprise, that. 

For my birthday, my sister had planned on buying me something while we were in the Disney parks. But the thing was I didn't really see anything that I wanted. The fact is we grew up in Orlando. For us, going to Disney wasn't a privilege or a special treat... sure, we had special times(!!) but going to Disney was more like a right to us. So it doesn't have the same novel appeal (ha, novel) for me as it does for others. 

So after the parks, we went to Barnes & Noble where Rory had a gift card to spend (I also got one this week, and it's burning such a hole in my pocket!)... so I let her buy me a book (she also bought me soda, and got me into the parks, and got me a birthday pie later... it was a good birthday). She ended up buying A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book which has been on my to-read and to-purchase lists since it was published 2 years ago. I've been dragging my feet, mostly because I was debating whether or not I wanted the cover with the dragonfly on it. But in the end, I've got the paperback now, and I'm excited to dig into its 879 pages.

That same day, I purchased myself a copy of Jack Caldwell's Pemberley Ranch. When I showed it to Rory, she looked at me askance. I told her to trust me, that I had raised both eyebrows at myself, but the fact is that Laurie and Christina over at AustenProse liked it, and it's actually supposed to be good. So I figured I'd give it a shot. Because why the hell not?

And finally, I also purchased a journal (not a book, I know)... which I didn't realllly have the extra $10 to spend, but just had to because it is so goddamned cute. It's made by Chronicle Books, and the design is by Catherine Head. It's called their "Animals Around the 

World" journal, and when I was at B&N they only had one in stock and, according to the Chronicle Books website, it's currently out of stock. Probably because it's so adorable. I stopped journaling some time ago, but I'm actually using this thing. Again, probably because it's so EFFING adorable.