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Do you remember Advent with Austen? We (myself, Ana, Iris and our master of ceremonies Yvann) had so much fun organizing it, that we decided to do it again this year with Margaret Atwood. Even the name continues to ring perfectly, it’s a sign!

So look in your bookshelves for something by her, and post about it anytime in December. Yvann will host a The Blind Assassin read-along (exactly the one I had in the TBR, hurrah!) and we’ll probably also organize a joint viewing of The Handmaid’s Tale on Twitter, watch this space.

Hope you’ll be able to join us!

So I read War and Peace. It really felt like an accomplishment.

I think I’ve read more complex books and if not longer, not much shorter, but there seems to be a whole rite of passage associated with W&P. You feel you must prepare for it like you prepare a camping trip in the wilderness: you decide to do it and carefully plan a route and what to pack.

So from the height of my experience, let me give you some advice for a successful W&P reading:

1) Go to Wikipedia and read a bit on the Napoleonic Wars and the invasion of Russia.

2) Make it a read-along. At first my friend and I decided to make it a year-long project and read only 200 pages a month, but we were so surprised by how easily we were getting along that we sped it up to 400 pages/month. It was really good to have someone to discuss the book with every 15 days or so: it motivated me in the slow bits, made me notice things I’d missed and helped clear most doubts.

3) Read it in a digital format, not only because of the weight, it also helps if you’re able to quickly look-up names and places mentioned on page 43 and that you’ve forgotten by page 967.

W&P‘s story follows the events just before, during and just after the French invasion of Russia, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families. We get to know them during the peaceful times and once war strikes the narrative splits into following the men at the front and the lives of those left behind.

For lack of better words: I really liked it. It surprised me how much, really, but I do admit to a prejudice against The Russians. In fact, if it wasn’t for that last third it could have been one of the best of year. Taken by themselves, those last chapters should have been called “Setting the Record Straight” or “How Historians Got it Wrong”.

It might have been Tolstoy’s agenda from the start, but at the end of W&P it became much more obvious that he wanted to myth-bust some of the accepted truths about the Napoleonic invasion. And he has no qualms blaming historians for the misconceptions:

“C’est grand!” say the historians, and there no longer exists either good or evil but only “grand” and “not grand.”

History (or what is called by that name) (…)

All that strange contradiction now difficult to understand between the facts and the historical accounts only arises because the historians dealing with the matter have written the history of the beautiful words and sentiments of various generals, and not the history of the events.

Yet Napoleon, that greatest of all geniuses, who the historians declare had control of the army, took none of these steps.

Tolstoy’s biggest qualm with the established History as it teaches us that all major changes happen because of  the will of great men like Napoleon of Czar Alexander II. He was a firm believer that at  what really mattered was the movement of the masses.

To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and study the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved.

It’s a great argument, and he presented powerful arguments, but by the end of the book his wish to bring this point home (often in a repetitive way) is done at the cost of the characters he made us care about. At some point the parts about the families become very rare and most pages were filled with long essays on What Really Happened.

Credits: Theresa McCracken, CartoonStock

This being said, it was a great ride to accompany the fortunes and misfortunes of these characters. The balls, the intrigues, the romance, the innocent and the cunning, the hangers-on and the intellectual wanna-bes. It was very easy to imagine the St Petersburg’s salons illuminated by hundreds of candles, or the patriotic fever that possesses the young gentlemen at the front, still romanticizing the idea of fighting for their country and soon to have the reality-check of their lives.

As Claire (The Captive Reader) very well put it,

In Anna Reid’s history of the siege of Leningrad, she mentions that War and Peace was a popular reading choice during the first deadly winter of the siege, when half a million civilians died. I can completely understand why Leningraders, starving, freezing, and watching civilisation disintegrate around them, sought to escape their surroundings with this massive, enthralling novel.

I can also easily understand. There is some extraordinarily compelling about these characters and their lives. Every one of them is so layered that you can never easily tag him or her as the villain of the good guy. What you can’t help is immediately chose a favorite.

In my case (as it happens with almost everyone), Natasha got me at hello. She’s full of life and really stands out among the other, less spontaneous, characters. Natasha seems to live without great concern for what society might think so this is why,

*spoiler*

I felt a bit cheated about how we see her at the end, tamed by marriage. Her personality is diluted and she thinks and acts only as she thinks Pierre would wish her to. Am I being too harsh or did I miss Tolstoy’s real intention with this Married Natasha?

* end spoiler*

Another character that fascinated me (and this will probably only make sense to those who read the book) was Helene.

Do you believe there are characters that escape their creators? That become more than what the authors meant for them to be? I always did and Helene is a great example. Tolstoy keeps telling us how stupid she is, but look at her actions: she quickly becomes the leader of one of Moscow’s leading intellectual salons and it’s hard to believe that she did it being as dumb as Tolstoy wants us to believe. To me she’s a very smart social strategist, ambitious and cunning. A great example is,

*spoiler*

how she ensured that society would go along with her idea of divorce. She started carefully spreading the idea here and there and then planted it in the mind of her confessor. Brilliant!

* end spoiler*

My friend and I spent a long time discussing the book (and made a bet about who would marry Natasha… I now owe her a package of good tea) so I know there’s a LOT more that could be said, but I’ll stop here. I’m glad I read it and finally understand the fascination of generations with War & Peace. If any book has the right to be called an epic, this is it.

By the way, I read Project Gutenberg‘s edition and was really surprised at the quality of the translation. Highly recommended.

Act I of The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde Read-Along, organize by Wallace.

It’s not often that my underlining pen is used this often. From the first few moments this play has been a delight and on every other sentence I’m stumbling into one of Wilde’s immortal maxims – “More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”

I suspect that for the single purpose of showing off his wit, Wilde creates a completely unrealistic plot and characters that talk like no normal person would, but contrary to what would usually happen, I’m ok with his smart-assery. He’s very clever, he’s funny, he’s cheeky, he wants to entertain me, and I’m more than willing to be thus entertained.

Although I loved the mischievous Algernon (this is only the second time in my life I’ve seen the name used, the first being in Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon), I’m not so sure about Jack. While Algernon’s Mr. Bunbury sounds like a bit of naughty fun, Jack’s secret is more sinister. He’s creating an imaginary brother to be able to be morally lax in town while being the epitaph of rectitude in the country. It’s a bit creepy, if you really think about it. At least Algernon is openly mischievous!

My favorite part in the Act was how cleverly Algernon trapped Jack into disclosing the truth behind the cigarette case. Slowly and surely. Poor Jack never had a chance. Did you notice that by reading the play you get a bit of spoilers because although Jack is introduced as Ernest, the text still says “Jack:“?

Favorite quotes:

The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!” – Wilde making a bit of fun of himself and his ludicrous plot.

The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.”

My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist. It produces false impression.

Third week of the Red Seas Under Red Skies Read-along.

Photo credits – Secret Kingdom (part of my Pinterest board on boats).

1. Locke and Jean’s ability to find themselves at the center of a serious mess seems unparalleled. At this point, do you think that Stragos will get the return he expects on his investment in them?

During these chapters Locke and Jean completely lose control over their lives, nearly die, are saved, begin to enjoy that lack of control and then, as said in the last question, the Thorn of Camorr is back. I was ready to believe that from that point on they’d start planning how to con the Priory and the Spire. But then they have the argument.

I’m hoping Locke will find a way to get revenge with the help of the Poison Orchid, not over their dead bodies.

2. Merrain’s activities after our boys leave Windward Rock are interesting. What do you think her plans are?

Sneaky, sneaky! It’s still possible that she’s doing it at the command of the Priory. It might be all part of the Archon’s plan to hit the magi and get rid of evidence (i.e. Locke and Jean).

3. Does anyone know why having cats aboard the ship is so important?

The Ship’s Cat tradition/superstition goes way back, so in that, Lynch mirrored our world. Where he twisted the rules was in the one about women. Many seamen even today believe that having a woman on board the ship makes the seas angry and is an omen of bad luck for everyone aboard.

4. The word “mutiny” creates a lot of mental pictures. Were you surprised? Why or why not?

I have to admit I was surprised. Even after Caldris’ death, I thought Locke would be able to talk his way out of everything. I guess no women and no cats onboard really is bad luck!

5. Ah, the Poison Orchid. So many surprises there, not the least of which were the captain’s children. Did you find the young children a natural part of the story?

I figured that as of the moment women are accepted and even required to be at sea, the rules of life on board need to be adjusted to accomodate them, including the presence of children. I’m sure there’s even some sort of day-care system in bigger boats.

I was more surprised about not seeing more children aboard the Poison Orchid.

6. Jean is developing more and more as a character as we get further in to the book. Ezri makes the comment to him that “Out here, the past is a currency, Jerome. Sometimes it’s the only one we have.” I think several interesting possibilities are coming into play regarding Jean and Ezri. What about you?

Last week I was asking for a romantic interest for Jean and voilá! It’s great they started bonding over books and fighting techniques. She’s a way for Jean to come into his own and for that he needed a bit of perspective away from Locke. No matter how great their friendship is, Jean has always been the “shadow”. A good example is how, because of his knowledge, he should have been the Captain of the Red Messenger (imho) – as far as we know, no one even considered that option.

I’ll do them both good.

I think that, even without Ezri, Jean would have rebelled against Locke’s willingness to sacrifice the crew for his revenge.

7. As we close down this week’s reading, the Thorn of Camorr is back! I love it, even with all the conflict. Several things from their Camorri background have come back up. Do you think we will see more Camorri characters?

I’d say no. They’re being saved for the third book.

Random thoughts:

  • My favorite chapters so far. Maybe because of female characters that aren’t brilliant-but-evil?
  • I’m hoping that part of the next books will be set in the Captain’s home-land. It sounded interesting!

“I suspect that drink has made you impulsive.”
“Drink makes me feel funny; the gods made me impulsive.”

Just like I knew that it was just a matter of time before The Song of Ice and Fire and The Hunger Games exploded and became main-stream, I’m also looking forward to the time when the world discovers The Gentleman Bastards. I know there’s a big chance it’ll only happen when a big studio or HBO realizes its potential…

The first of the series, The Lies of Locke Lamora, was my favorite audiobook of 2011, when I discovered Michael Page and why he made it to my list of favorite narrators. For a while now I’ve been waiting for the Read-Along organized by The Little Red Reviewer, Dark CargoLynn’s Book Blog and SFSignal to get through the first book so I could join the bandwagon in the second, Red Seas Under Red Skies.

The Read-Along started today and will last for the next five weeks. I’m once again listening to the audiobook version – am I the only one of the participants? This week’s questions come from My Awful Reviews.

1. The Sinspire. It looks like our heroes (can they really be called that?) find themselves in search of a way into an unbeatable vault. Do you think they have what it takes to make it happen?

The Sinspire. Was that a good opening or what?! The foul language, the wit, the Weird Sisters, the alcoholic roulette, the mysterious figure watching them, the challenge of a casino heist. One chapter in and I’m already irrevocably hooked. I’m ready to bet they’re going to make it to the Sinspire’s top-level, but once there, everything will go haywire, as is traditional for the Gentleman Bastards.

2. Anyone want to guess how they’re going to make it happen?

Probably with variations of what they did on Level 5: carefully observing the players and finding their weak spots.

3. It’s a little different this time around, with us just being focused on Locke and Jean. Is anyone else missing the rest of the Bastards as much as I am?

Yes! I like the idea of a team of bandits, each with their own specialty, Mission Impossible-style (or Ocean’s Eleven?). Can you be a gang if you’re just two? Still, I have high-hopes for the group that Jean… er… recruited.

4. I love the section where Jean starts to build a new guild of thieves. It really shows just how well trained and tough he is. Do you think the Bastards will end up training others along the way again like Bug?

I have several questions about the new guild: at some point it’s said that Jean does it because they need a source of income, does that mean they’re not going to use them in the plan? Even so, they’ll come in hand further on. The new guild can become Locke and Jean’s hidden card.

Will both of them go back to Camorr at some point, and if they do, what will happen to the new guild? Maybe by that time they’ll be so well trained it’s worth it to expat them all 🙂

5. For those of you looking for Sabetha, we still haven’t spotted her yet. Anyone else chomping at the bit to see the love of Locke’s life?

I’ve read somewhere that unfortunately Sabetha only makes an appearance in Book 3. She deserves a whole book set around her (and with this much build-up, I hope she doesn’t disappoint. No pressure Mr. Lynch!). I’m expecting to at least get to know more about their story in this one.

6. It’s early on, but the Bastards are already caught up in plots that they didn’t expect. How do you think their new “employer” is going to make use of them (The Archon, that is)?

Just a few last random remarks: Scott Lynch is a fantastic world-builder. Just like Camorr, the descriptions of Tal Verrar just made my mind’s eye go wild (get out of my brain!). Also, maybe it worked better in audio, but the market scene was wonderfully creepy.

And finally about Selendri: I’m hoping to see more of her, or at least othergood female characters, just to make things interesting while Sabetha doesn’t make her grand entry. Hopefully they’ll put him in a boat 🙂 I’m looking forward for the sea-faring part of the story to start!

Image: The Spire by Les Edwards

(credits: Kate Beaton at Hark, a Vagrant!)

How exactly do you “review” Macbeth? Especially if it’s only the second Shakespeare play you’ve ever read? Surely every original thought about it must have already been published, built-upon, attacked and defended.

Now that I’ve read it, I can finally understand the fuss. If you just want a good story you’ll take great pleasure in the spooky atmosphere and the bloody scenes, if you’re a philosopher you can revel in the Grand Issues like free will, ambition and leadership and if you’re a language buff  there’s lots of passages to underline.

Just like with A Midsummer’s Night Dream, I took great pleasure in the words, even though they were more archaic and harder to follow (it’s after all a historical play, set in the 11th century). Here are some great examples, the kind you want to memorize and use to impress people at parties:

Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky
And fan our people cold

I have begun to plant thee, and will labor
To make thee full of growing

Start, hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires

Infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets

Macbeth is the story of a great and respected warrior that once upon a time comes across three witches that give him a vision of the future: he will be King! Macbeth believes them and starts making sure that history bends to this prophecy. Thus begins a bloody chain of events, which starts with regicide, but certainly doesn’t end there.

(credits: Kate Beaton at Hark, a Vagrant!)

It’s so spooky that it became a sort of theater-Voldemort: in the acting business it’s only referred to as “the Scottish play”, never by its name, which is said to be CURSED *cue high-pitched violins*.

The play also has the potential to sparkle great conversations, the type I remember having with friends after watching Donny Darko: would have Macbeth been King, if he didn’t take matters in his own hands? Why didn’t he just sit and wait for the crown to fall on his lap? Was the prophecy just an excuse to bring out everything that was mad and evil in him? What about the Lady Macbeth, another Eve figure, that tempts her man into sin?

Lady Macbeth is an interesting one. She’d also like to be Queen, but knows she doesn’t have the cold blood that’s needed to kill those in her path. And she’s right, because shortly after helping to cover Macbeth’s crime, she rapidly descends into madness and commits suicide. Still, she has the best speeches, my favorite being the creepy scene where she asks the spirits to maker stronger, colder… and less womanly:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts! unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top full
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it!

(credits: Kate Beaton at Hark, a Vagrant!)

As Macbeth himself becomes insane and more brutal, his speeches also become more frantic, and even more spectacular:

I have almost forgot the taste of fears:
The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
To hear a night-shriek

There weren’t as many insults as in Midsummer’s Night Dream (only “rump-fed ronyon”, “shag-haar’d villain” and “lily-liver’d boy”), but there were many little expressions that I immediately recognize. It was such a great experience to think “So that’s where it comes from!” Examples:

that shalt be king hereafter

King Hereafter” is the name of a novel by Dorothy Dunnett, about the life of the Scottish King that lightly influenced Macbeth’s story.

To wear a heart so white

A Heart so White”, is a novel by Javier Marias, which my bookclub read a few years ago.

The weird sisters, hand in hand

The Weird Sisters”, recent and very popular novel by Eleanor Brown

Something wicked this way comes

Same title as a Ray Bradbury novel.

One last thought (and a question): I thought it was very cleaver the way Shakespeare made the prophecy make sense. It’s certainly the same level as most Hollywood twists. Was he the first one to use a “literary quibble“?

This play, as well as all others by Shakespeare are available for free on Project Gutenberg and on LibriVox and Wired for Books (both in audio). This post will also be published at the Project Gutenberg Project.
xx

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I’ve read Macbeth for Risa’s A Play a Month Project. Next month: Henry V.

***

Other thoughts: Joy’s Book Blog, Becky’s Book Reviews, Rebecca Reads, A Literary Odyssey, A Room of One’s Own (yours?)


I’m making Sleepless Reader history: my first joint-review-cum-chat!

Shannon from Giraffe Days and I noticed we both had Tea With Mr. Rochester by Francis Towers in our TBRs, so we decided to read it at the same time and then exchange thoughts on it. It was great fun and I hope to do this again in the future, with her or other follow bloggers. If you have time, drop by her blog and say hi.

(Isn’t book blogging fabulous? Shannon’s in Canada, I’m in Belgium and here we are, connecting over books!)

Tea With Mr. Rochester is published by Persephone and was the only book ever written by Francis Towers: a collection of 10 short-stories that became my first (and so far only) 5/5 of the year. Now without further ado…

Alex: This was my first “off the beaten track” Persephone, having so far gone for hits like Miss Pettigrew. It was a solid 4.5 but might become my first five stars of the year (this conversation will help me decide). I was pleasantly surprise by Towers’ writing style: delicate but ironic, poetic but not sentimental. It was a very distinctive voice, didn’t you think? Probably why all the stories somehow felt similar, like they were the same tale told in different ways. Or maybe it’s because she uses recurrent characters: the Literary Daughter, the Older-Wiser-and-Darker Woman, the Mysterious Man, etc. 

Either way, I think the similarities of the individual stories gave the book as a whole a nice individuality.  What was your favorite of the ten?

Shannon: This was my first Persephone book, and I normally love books from this era but I struggled to connect with these stories, due to the writing style. While I loved the delicate, ironic, poetic prose (great choice of words!), I found myself constantly distracted by the effort of figuring out which character was being referred to, what a line meant etc. The narrative seemed to – not jump around but have bits missing, for me. I think it’s a book that benefits from being read more than once and with fewer distractions and interruptions than I had! So the prose was both frustrating and at times beautiful, for me.

But I agree that the similarities between the stories gave it continuity. The downside is that they became more predictable the further along you went. I don’t know if I have a favourite, exactly, but I think the two stories I resonated with and liked the most were “Tea with Mr Rochester” and “Don Juan and the Lily”. You?

Alex: I know what you mean about the not knowing who was being referred to. I had that difficulty in the first stories especially. It also didn’t help that she uses “one” so often (“One dries up when people think their thoughts are above one’s head“), but after a while it became sort of charming. I loved “Tea with Mr. Rochester” as well (do you think they chose it as a title for marketing reasons? Just like anything that says “Austen” sells better?). “The Little Willow” made me all teary, but my favorite was “The Rose in the Picture“. Possibly because there’s more dialogue between the couple and the man’s personality is more fleshed out. Also, I’m always a sucker for stories about the neglected wallflower who’s finally noticed.

However, the story that came to mind more often after I finished it was “The Spade Man From Over the Water”. There is a tension there that you’d expect in thrillers and even ghost-stories. What do you think happened there? The perfect husband wasn’t so perfect after all, right?

Shannon: I KNOW they chose the title they did because of that, because it worked on me!! As soon as I heard the title I just had to get this book. Titles, covers, those tricks work on me all the time! I found that one the story I connected with the most, because of imaginative little Prissy who falls in love with Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, and in looking for a real-life counterpart finds herself attaching the characteristics of Rochester to one of her teachers, Mr Considine. Not only her love for the book – and Mr Rochester – appealed to me, but also there were lines in it that totally clicked with me. Like here: “Prissy felt a little cheated; as one does, for instance, when someone in a book goes out at a door on the right, whereas in one’s mind the door has been all the time on the left.” (p.32) That happens to me all the time! And also her daydreams, and her changing perception of Mr Considine.

The Little Willow” was very sad, I agree. The stories seem to be a mix of sweet and sad, with a whiff of the supernatural here and there – like in “Violet“, “Lucinda” and even “The Spade Man From Over the Sea” – it definitely had the feel of something dark and even vindictive, lurking in the shadows. My thought, regarding plot, while reading it was that Mrs Asher’s lost husband was now young Mrs Penny’s husband, because she clearly had a “moment” when she saw his picture, but I also think that the darker tone of the story, whenever Mrs Penny thought of Rupert, as well as that line at the end, “Treachery! … But whose?” – I had to stop and think, am I reading too much into it, and adding melodrama that isn’t really there? But how else am I to take the line about treachery – unless all it really refers to is the end of their friendship because of the return of a husband. Maybe Mrs Penny is just feeling guilty…? But why, then, Mrs Asher’s reaction to the photo? See, I’m a bit lost but I actually enjoyed the ambiguous nature of this story! The not-knowing is part of the fun!

Alex: That quote about feeling cheated was great, also had it marked 🙂 I also felt he was the “lost husband.” Maybe he wasn’t a lost husband at all, but just a lover who abandoned her with her children. Treachery because her friend, who she was beginning to love, left without a goodbye and treachery from her husband (she definitely suspected!).

Lots of food for though in that story, reminds me of The Turn of the Screw in it similarly vague ending.

Most stories are filled with literary references. Towers’ love of Charles Lamb reminded me of the narrator of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, who’s constantly mentioning him as well(I feel the Universe is telling me to give him a try him) She also clearly loved Shakespeare and Chekhov, as they also appear in several of the stories. Other recurring things: roses, Spanish coffers, people who look like people in paintings, aunts. Do you think Towers was aware of this or was it just her subconscious working?

Shannon: I haven’t read any Charles Lamb either – I’m not even familiar with any of his titles! Shame on me. But I loved all the literary and artistic references. I thought of the recurring motifs as an overall connection between the stories – while the stories themselves don’t link in terms of recurring characters etc., they feel connected via all the recurring motifs and themes. It gives them a similar voice even when the tone changes, which was a nice touch. Whether it was deliberate of not I’ve no idea! It was interesting to me, though, that even with all the lovely flowers, the stories still had that air of a funeral about them (or maybe the flowers added to that!). Do you know what I mean? 

As far as I know, she wrote these after WWII, and I can’t help but think that the war influenced all writers in the 40s and 50s, in different ways: with Towers, I was actually mildly surprised at the tone of – not defeat, but quiet resignation, that seemed to be present in most of the stories. What I mean is, there wasn’t much energy, not like after WWI. In the week or so since I finished reading it, that’s the sense that lingers. You’ve got stories of lovers lost in the war, of ghosts, of women keeping each other company in the absence of men. I don’t mean that the stories are all sad or anything, just… quietly accepting. Am I projecting too much?

Alex: Very good points! I know exactly what you mean about funerals. There’s this… subdued feeling about the stories. Like people whispering and flowers that are lovely but on the verge of wilting. The home environments she describes so well also come off as sort of stifling and somehow outside reality. I think someone like Hitchcock would have loved to film Violet for Twilight Zone.

It was a real accomplishment of Towers to pull off atmospheres that cause such a (lingering) impression. It’s a book that I’d like to revisit at some point. I wonder what visions it will inspire then.

Shannon: I was thinking much the same thing: some of the stories, like “Violet” and “Lucinda” and even the Spade Man story we were discussing earlier, would make great creepy films! Especially with that slightly morbid atmosphere. I can’t help but think that Towers was actually aiming for something really positive and hopeful and uplifting with these stories – but I don’t think WWII was so easily escaped.

You’ve certainly given me a more positive impression of this book, Alex! I still don’t love it, but it was such a healthy discussion in terms of helping me focus on its good points! It was lots of fun. 🙂

The Devil in the White City has to be one of the most reviewed non-fiction books in the book blogosphere.  I can see why – it reads like a novel. So much so that I hear Leonardo DiCaprio bought the rights and is planning to play H.H. Holmes himself.

The book is divided into two alternated (and practically independent) stories: the history of the Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and that of H. H. Holmes, America’s first documented serial-killer.  The slim connection between the two is that Holmes lived in Chicago during the Fair and used the influx of strangers to get away with many murderers.

The first chapters mostly deal with the pre-Exposition events, when architects were hired, committees formed and blueprints drawn. The mission of this impressive group of men was to make the event the greater, larger, more magnificent thing ever seen, especially greater, larger, more magnificent than the recent Paris Expo. I’m sure Freud had a thing of two to say about this desire to “out-Eiffel Eiffel“.

Almost 120 years later, you can tell Larson also fell for the Fair’s spell, but I must confess I often thought “Columbian who?”. Excuse me my ignorance, but I had never heard of the Chicago Exposition before. I did know about the St. Louis one, but then again, there was Judy Garland singing “Meet me in St. Louis“ – not that makes an event last!.

(Talking about marketing, although I liked the book, I felt a bit cheated by the way it was promoted. I was not “murder, magic and madness at the Fair that changed America“. I was more “group of men try to become immortal by organizing a humongous Fair, while in another part of Chicago a serial-killer is on the loose, and in yet another part of the city – because it’s also an interesting story so why not put it in? – a madman kills the mayor”. From the way it was promoted, and from Larson’s introduction, I thought Holmes actually killed (or at least met his victims) at the Fair).

Larson chose his topics well and would be hard pressed to make them sound boring. He tells delicious anecdotes about Helen Keller, Buffalo Bill, Tesla and Susan B. Anthony, but the best part were the micro-stories. They made the Fair come alive: the couples who wanted to marry in the Ferris Wheel, the firemen wounded and killed, the Women Committee’s political battles. My favorite was the one about a Ferris Wheel passenger who had panic attack and another passenger’s drastic measurements to control him:

A woman disrobing in public, a man with a skirt over his head – the marvels of the fair seemed endless.

I looked at many photos of the Fair while reading the book and have to agree with the critics that said that by choosing a neo-classic style, the architects might have lost the opportunity to create something truly ground-breaking and memorable. Because let’s face it, the Ferris Wheel is great, but did it really revolutionized world architecture the way the Eiffel Tower did?

But no matter how exciting a World Fair is, it’s almost impossible to compete with a well-told story about a serial-killer. I wouldn’t be surprised if this part was included after Larson’s editor said something like, “Well Erik, the Fair is a fine idea, great potential, but why not er… spice it up a bit? How about including a serial killer? I’m sure there were some around.

There were moments during the audiobook (read by Scott Brick), where I got goose-bumps, especially with the graphic descriptions of Holmes’ evil deeds. It made it extra hard to go back to the Fair part of the story.

I must have spent hours on Wikipedia navigating between articles about Daniel Burnham, the Flatiron Building, Graceland Cemetery, the zipperCracker Jacks and the Titanic. I always have great respect for books that pique my curiosity (that’s why I’m not a Da Vinci Code nay-sayer) and this was a perfect example.

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?)

Happy experiences lay ahead, fellow audacious readers! Yesterday Kinna announced the kick-off of the much-anticipated Africa Reading Challenge.

The simple rule is that all participants must read at least five books. My plan is to focus on Portuguese-speaking countries, and since there’s five of them, I’ll read a book from each. I’ve read loads of Brazilian authors, but Lusophone Africa is still a shameless desert in my literary landscape.

I’ve  compiled a draft list to share with you, but I’m aware it’ll all depend very much on the books’ availability. Kinna already warned participants that classic African literature in particular can be hard to find. Let me know if you have any other recommendations.

Here’s the plan – all links go to sites in English:

Angola

First choice

  • Lueji (O Nascimento de um Império) by Pepetela

Other possibilities

Cape Verde

First choice

Other possibilities

Guinea-Bissau

First choice

  • As Orações de Mansat by Abdulai Silá (play inspired by Macbeth)

Other possibilities

  • Mistida by Abdulai Silá
  • Corte Geral by Carlos Lopes
  • Tiara by Filomena Embaló

Mozambique

First choice

Other possibilities

São Tomé and Príncipe

First choice

Other possibility

  • Versos by Caetano da Costa Alegre (poetry)