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(Only for Dr. Who fans! Credits)

If I ever try my hand at writing, this is the kind of book I’d like to write: a rambling, fun story that would work as an homage to all my favorite things.

I’d set it in Victorian England, throw in some science fiction, and for good measure write a few scenes during the London Blitz. The whole thing would probably end up like a sci-fi story written as a Victorian comedy of manners, which, as strange as that may sound, is exactly the brilliant book that Willis wrote.

If I wasn’t already ready to love it because of the concept, there would be other treats to persuade me:

1.
Countless references to one of funniest books I’ve ever read – Three Men in a Boat – and to beloved writers like Christie, Wodehouse, Conan Doyle and Sayers.

Well, it wasn’t exactly the ending of an Agatha Christie mystery, with Hercule Poirot gathering everyone together in the drawing room to reveal the murderer and impress everyone with his astonishing deductive powers. And it definitely wasn’t a Dorothy Sayers, with the detective hero saying to his heroine sidekick, “I say, we make a jolly good detectin’ team. How about makin’ the partnership permanent, eh, what?” and then proposing in Latin.

At some point, Ned (the main character) actually crossed Jerome K. Jerome & Co. as they were traveling on the Thames in opposite directions. It was a priceless scene.

2.
I’ve always been fascinated by Oxford, mostly because of books like Brideshead Revisited, Jude the Obscure and the His Dark Materials series. To Say Nothing of the Dog will add to that list.

One of the characters is an Eccentric Professor (I love eccentric professors in literature – usually great fun), engaged in a life-long debate with another Professor about what shapes history: individuals or grand forces?

3.
There’s a dog! With a personality! And it doesn’t talk! I’m very particular about talking animals in books and movies. Overall I prefer the silent ones that still manage to be funny, like the chameleon in Tangled. Montmorency in Three Men in a Boat is another great example, and clearly the inspiration for the bulldog Cyril in To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Cyril shoved and shoved again, until he had the entire bed and all the covers, and Princess Arjumand [a cat] draped herself across my neck with her full weight on my Adam’s apple. Cyril shoved some more.

(Couldn’t resist: bulldog in a boat! Credits)

4.

The story was wacky and chaotic, but all the literary and historical references made it feel strangely cozy. I suspect Connie Willis and I would get along just fine.

She looked appalled. “You weren’t prepped? Victorian society’s highly mannered. Breaches of etiquette are taken very seriously.” She looked curiously at me. “How have you managed thus far?”

“For the past two days I’ve been on the river with an Oxford don who quotes Herodotus, a lovesick young man who quotes Tennyson, a bulldog, and a cat,” I said. “I played it by ear.”

5.
It’s such a quotable book:

One of the first symptoms of time-lag is a tendency to maudlin sentimentality, like an Irishman in his cups or a Victorian poet cold-sober.

*

One has not lived until one has carried a sixty-pound dog down a sweeping flight of stairs at half-past V in the morning.

*

The reason Victorian society was so restricted and repressed was that it was impossible to move without knocking something over.

On the interest of transparency, I’d like to confess that despite all the above I didn’t give To Say Nothing of the Dog a perfect 5/5. However, the little things that didn’t feel quite right, didn’t ruin the overall delight of the book.

Ned is a likable everyman-type hero, but we never get to know much about him or his personal history before the beginning of the book. Also, although the plot was easy to follow, some twists felt a bit predictable (I knew early on who Mr. C was), and the science part – when Willis describes the problems with continuum, slippage, incongruities, etc. – went  over my head. Finally, although part of the story is set in 2057, it never felt like 2057.

As you see, small stuff compared with the Reasons to Love It: delightful characters, funny dialogues, a good amount of geeky literary references, to say nothing of Cyril…

 

PS: I am the only one to go all dyslexic with the author’s name and call her Wilkie Collins in my mind?

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Other thoughts: things mean a lot, Shelf LoveBook LustThe Written WorldFarm Lane BooksBecky Book Reviews, Books and Movies, Booklover Book Reviews, Killin’ Time ReadingA Good Stopping Point, A Little Reader, Beth Fish Reads, Bookgirl’s nightstand, Gripping Books, Opinions of a Wolf, Stella Matutina, Rat’s Reading, Dogear Diary, Everyday Reading, Dusk Before Dawn, Library Queue, Semicolon, Nose in a Book, Mervi’s Book Reviews,  (yours?)

I know it’s early days, but I’ve had a good first month of 2012 reading resolutions. I’ve started War and Peace (which I’m surprisingly really enjoying), and read my first ever Shakespeare play.

Risa is organizing A Shakespeare Play a Month event and A Midsummer Night’s Dream was elected for January. I’ve never read Shakespeare in school and apart from the usual spin-offs like 10 Things I Hate About You or West Side Story, I’ve only came across the canon by watching Romeo + Juliet at the movies and Macbeth at the theater, and although I got the gist of it, most of the language nuances were lost on me. But way back then I didn’t read much in English, and what I read was mostly modern novels, so clearly I wasn’t ready to face The Bard.

Some friends warned me that Shakespeare is better experienced by listening to it, but I found that reading the book and then watching the movie worked well. I was able to go back, re-read and look online for definitions. I was able to understand turns of phrase such as “a mile without the town” or “come, recreant; come thou child”. If I’d seen it without reading it first, I’d probably miss just how visual and evocative one of my favorite lines really is – Titania describing how she got the little Indian boy:

When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind

It also gave me the opportunity to witness what a marvelous “insulter” Shakespeare was. I had heard rumors, but now I’ve seen it for myself and am very much tempted to use it in my day-to-day (not that I often insult people, but you know, just in case): “You minimus, of hind’ring knot-grass made”, “O me, you juggler, you canker-blossom, you thief of love!”, “Farewell, thou lob of spirits”.

I haven’t said much about the plot because it became a bit secondary when compared to the words. That’s why you have re-reads, right? Next time around I’ll pay more attention to the comments on relationship’s balance of power or the loss of individual identity, but just this once, let me appreciate only the language.

Ay me, for aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth.

Lysander says this to calm Hermia, after her father forbade them to marry and the King threatened her with death if she disobeyed. Lysander’s basically saying that for as long as there has been true love, there have been difficulties, and I found that strangely comforting.

Bottom & Co.’s play: loved it. How very meta-fictional of Shakespeare (or maybe it was a common gimmick at the time and I’m giving him more credit than he deserves), and how funny their keenness to make sure the audience was not scared by the lion (it’s just a man playing a lion!), or of the scene where Pyramus gets killed:

(…) and for the more better assurance, tell them that I Pyramus am not Pyramus but Bottom the weaver: this will put them out of fear.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

Watching the movie adaptation after reading was a good idea. It not only made me better understand the comings and goings of the characters, but it was also fun seeing how often the actors used a tone different from the one I used when reading by myself.

My initial plan was to only join Risa for a couple of the plays, but this one was such a rewarding experience that I think I’ll try to do all 12.

This post is also my contribution for Allie’s Shakespeare Reading Month.

 

 

 

 

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Other thoughts: tale of three cities, Becky’s Book Reviews, things mean a lot,  Educating Petunia, All-Consuming Media, Bloggers [heart] Books, Back to Books, Once Upon A Bookshelf, Trish’s Reading Nook, An Armchair By The Sea (yours?)

Travels with My Aunt opens at a funeral. Henry Puller, a middle-aged retired bank clerk is cremating his mother and meets a relative he hasn’t seen for a long time: his Aunt Augusta. The first thing she says to him is “I was once present at a premature cremation.” and both him and the reader realize they’re not dealing with the average 70-something year-old. Actually, Augusta is the proverbial excentric old Lady that you love to love, she’s even in an intense (and mostly sexual) relationship with a much younger Nigerian she calls Wordsworth.

As expected, Aunt Augusta takes Arthur’s peaceful and oh so boring life by storm. Once he agrees to travel with her, he enters a world of unexpected adventures which go from a tea-leaf reading session in Brighton, to a temporary arrest in South America. You see, Aunt Augusta is not always within the law, but she does it with style! Talking about prison, here’s what Graham Green wrote about Travels with my Aunt:

It is the only book I have written for the fun of it. Although the subject is old age and death – a suitable subject to tackle at the age of sixty-five – and though an excellent Swedish critic described the novel justly as laughter in the shadows of the gallows, I experienced more of the laughter and little of the shadow in writing it.

As with Stamboul Train, the book is filled with memorable characters: there’s Visconti, the Aunt’s Italian lover (think much older moustache guy from NYPD Blue); father and daughter Tooley, he a CIA agent undercover and she a scatterbrained traveller; and many more.

There are scores of coincidences and unlikely events, and apart from the obvious twist, plot is clearly not a top-priority. Henry is. We see him slowly going from the soft, dahlia-growing retiree to someone who first resists and then embraces his Aunt’s self-indulgent and irregular lifestyle. He even realises he cannot marry Ms Keen, probably the closest thing to a love-interest he’s has ever had. Poor Ms Keen, she keeps dropping hints she’d be ready to marry him and return to her beloved England, leaving behind her life in South Africa.  

I liked the book but not as much as I though, especially considering I love stories about people like Aunt Augusta. It took me ages to go through the 6 hours of audiobook, but I can’t really pinpoint why this tepid feeling. Maybe I was just rooting for Ms Keene…

(photo from here)

I’ve been reading a lot of inter-Wars books this year, probably inspired by Nymeth’s 30s Challenge. The Diary of a Provincial Lady has been on my radar for a while now, but decide to buy it recently because a) it was short, so ideal for the Read-a-ton and b) it’s part of India Knight’s list of “ultimate comfort reads” – we seem to have so many in common that I felt sure I’d like the others on the list as well.

Edmée Elizabeth Monica Dashwood (how about that for a name?) aka E. M. Delafield first published Diaries in 1930 in a serial form and it’s considered in great part autobiographical. It was a delightful read: think Bridget Jones married and trying to run a household with a French nanny, Cook and a parlor maid. I was so reminded of Bridget Jones that every time the narrator’s Arch-Enemy spoke I always thought back to that scene in The Edge of Reason’s movie where Bridget is counting her “toxic friend”’s jellyfish bites.

The Diary is all about the day-to-day life of a (nameless) mother-of-two, her servants, her community and her management of a country estate. Around her are a set of great characters, such as the friend who tries to save her from the “slavery” of housewifery. She’s very honest (it’s a Diary after all) and self-deprecating and you can’t help feeling empathy for her struggles.  For instance, on avoiding gossip:

Cook merely repeats that It Is All Over the Village, and that Miss Barbara will quite as like not be married by special licence, and old Mrs. B. is in such a way as never was. Am disconcerted to find that Cook and I have been talking our heads off for the better part of forty minutes before I remember that gossip is both undignified and undesirable.

It’s funny, clever and overall the perfect comfort reading. Very feminine as well, and more feminist than you’d expect from this type of setting, but not so strange considering it was first published in Time and Tide, a feminist paper. E. M. Delafield is not openly revolutionary, but uses humor very astutely to pass on her messages:

Lady B. waves her hand (…) and declares (…) if they could have got husbands they wouldn’t be Feminists. I instantly assert that all have had husbands, and some two or three. This may or may not be true, but have seldom known a stronger homicidal impulse.

What E. M. Delafield does with feminist messages, she also does with social criticism – keeping up appearances is familiar ground for the upper class of any decade. I specially got some LOLs out of the Lady’s constant pressure to talk about books she hasn’t read and exhibitions she hasn’t visited:

Am asked what I think of Harriet Hume but am unable to say, as I have not read it. Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it.

What do you think about the cover? It’s by English designer Cath Kidston. When I was last in London everyone had one of her bags/purses/umbrellas. Her textured floral prints are the perfect fit to this particular book, but I’m sorry this edition doesn’t come with illustrations.


J., George, Harris and fox terrier Montmorency decide to escape the city’s boredom and embark on a boat trip along the Thames. And that’s the plot.

Up the river, we’re treated to a few of their adventures and a lot of musings and remembrances on J’s part (our first-person narrator). Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is part of all “best humor books of all time” and deservedly so. I’m convinced that writing a funny book without it seeming contrived is much harder than writing a tragedy able to make pavement stones cry. Other great examples: Good Omens, The Princess Bride, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… This last one keeps coming to mind even though I’ve read it many many moons ago – in particular, I often find myself telling others about the immortal alien who decided to insult, personally, all the living beings in the universe, in alphabetical order. But I digress.

When Jerome wants to be funny he really is. In the introduction to my edition he swears all episodes are true, he just “coloured” them. There were two in particular that cause me some embarrassing moments of spontaneous public laughter: J. transporting a friend’s cheeses halfway though England and his description of Harris’ enthusiasm for comic song. Harris was my favorite of the three travelers, probably because I identified myself with his non-nonsense attitude. I must admit that, like him, I find a guilty pleasure in cutting others’ poetic musings:

If you were to stand at night by the sea-shore with Harris, and say: “Hark! do you not hear? Is it but the mermaids singing deep below the waving waters; or sad spirits, chanting dirges for white corpses, held by seaweed?”  Harris would take you by the arm, and say:

“I know what it is, old man; you’ve got a chill.  Now, you come along with me.  I know a place round the corner here, where you can get a drop of the finest Scotch whisky you ever tasted – put you right in less than no time.”

I generally enjoyed Three Man, but was somewhat thrown off balance when Jerome suddenly breaks the light tone and force-feed us some moral lesson (e.g. here come our heroes, all fun and games and then suddenly see a woman’s body float by, and later they hear all about her story of un-wedded pregnancy, family rejection and suicide). He also often breaks the narrative to muse on the historical events of certain sites and long sentimental passages about the dark night, green fields or such things. I’m afraid I found them a bit boring and kept waiting for the story to go on.

A special mention to the dog Montmorency. If I ever have a dog, I want it to be like him: with an attitude!

To hang about a stable, and collect a gang of the most disreputable dogs to be found in the town, and lead them out to march round the slums to fight other disreputable dogs, is Montmorency’s idea of “life;” and so, as I before observed, he gave to the suggestion of inns, and pubs., and hotels his most emphatic approbation.

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