The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

“The passage ended, and they stepped into a cave, and there a wondrous sight met the farmer’s eyes–a hundred and forty knights in silver armor, and by the side of all but one a milk white mare.

‘Here they lie in enchanted sleep,’ said the wizard, ‘until the day will come–and it will–when England will be in direst peril, and England’s mothers weep. Then out from the hill these must ride, and in a battle thrice lost, thrice won, upon the plain, drive the enemy into the sea.'”

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is in the minority: a favorite from childhood that I’ve never reread. I was a bit nervous that Alan Garner’s marvelous tale would fall short of my expectations after so much time, but I found it just as enchanting.

The wizard Cadellin keeps guard over these slumbering knights, with the powerful magic of the Weirdstone to prevent them from aging. But when the stone is lost evil forces begin gathering to find and destroy it. Young Colin and Susan become caught up in the adventure upon discovering the Weirdstone, and soon must undertake a harrowing journey with the help of dwarfs to ensure that the proper balance is restored.

This is the kind of fantasy I love. Sometimes I have trouble accepting complex new worlds, but here Garner takes modern day Great Britain and draws on ancient myths. Even they are stories, they almost ring true because they are the type of story that has been told for centuries. The similarities to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and especially Tolkien’s stories are probably due to this common folklore–wizards as wise old men, sprawling dwarf mines, creatures of evil that move by night, and ancient prophesies and magic. Though classified as a children/YA book because younger readers will appreciate it (I was 11), it appeals to fans of all ages and relies on depth, not sugar-coating.

The immediacy of the plot is especially compelling. You can feel the fear of Susan and Colin as they flee the goblin-like svarts, the amazement at being drawn into this unknown world, the urgency of the quest for the stone. While I was reading I could picture everything in my mind as Garner described the twists and turns of the tunnels, or the crackle of brush in the woods.

My only complaint is the ending, because compared to the detail of everything else it felt rushed (which is probably how it seemed to the characters after their endless journey). I read it and thought, okay what just happened? I don’t like when fantasy books have a big let-down at the end of the adventure, especially like The Return of the King, but this seemed to much the other extreme.

Garner did later write a second Tale of Alderly, The Moon of Gomrath, which has the same characters but a mostly unrelated plot.

Published in: on September 27, 2009 at 8:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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Aaand Library Again

Another Saturday where I worked a double shift, so I hopped over to the library for some reading in between and couldn’t walk away empty handed.

library-lootUsed and Rare: Travels in the Book World, by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. I’ve been in the mood for some non-fiction, and books about books are the best kind.

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. This is one of the TBR books I’ve been treasuring, saving it up because I know it will be such a treat. But all the books I was looking for were checked out so I suddenly decided to splurge.

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, by Laura Viera Rigler. For the Everything Austen Challenge.

Ranma 1/2, Vol. 1 and Ranma 1/2, Vol. 2 by Rumiko Takahashi. I’m in a manga mood, and this well-loved “gender bending, kung fu comedy” seems to be just the right thing.

At least I only have two left from the last trip, plus the books on my own shelves that I should be reading…

Published in: on September 26, 2009 at 11:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Talented Mr. Ripley

“He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them like a clown, feeling incompetent and incapable of doing anything with himself except entertaining people for minutes at a time.”

“His stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them.”

It’s not necessarily unusual for a character with dubious morality to be the focus of the story, but what sets The Talented Mr. Ripley apart is the nature of Patricia Highsmith’s crime and criminal.

Tom Ripley is dissatisfied with his life and jumps at the chance when Mr. Greenleaf offers him a trip to Italy to coax his son back home. He hopes that Europe will give him a chance to start over and live like he always dreamed. Tom becomes fascinated with sophisticated Dickie Greenleaf and will do anything to prevent losing his esteem, molding himself after Dickie. So when Marge Sherwood threatens to pull Dickie away from the friendship for good, Tom uses his skills at impersonation to take matters into his own hands. Once he starts, however, the job becomes much more complicated than he ever expected.

That’s not my best summary, but as the title suggests The Talented Mr. Ripley is driven by character just as much as plot. Tom is an extremely complex and gifted young man whose downfalls are boredom and despondency. He had a troubled childhood under the watch of a stern aunt; his biggest goal, it seems sometimes, is just for people to like him. He suffers from a crushing lack of self-esteem except for the confidence he gains when taking thrilling risks. As a reader I found myself drawn to Tom, pitying and therefore liking him. At the same time, however, there must be something in him that dispels other characters, perhaps his occasional latent distaste for humanity.

Because we come to understand Tom’s character and see things from his perspective, the events of the book seem almost a natural progression. This isn’t quite a mystery but definitely suspense. I was shocked to find myself rooting for Tom, worriedly scanning his facade for any potential cracks. In any other investigation I would be praying for the police to make that last miraculous leap of logic to save the day, but here was quite the opposite. The main reason for this is Highsmith’s talent. Tom muses that “he didn’t want to be a murderer. Sometimes he could absolutely forget that he had murdered.” I kept hoping that if everything blew over he would have gained the confidence to hold his head high and put this behind him, even though the existence of sequels suggests the opposite.

I think the other equally important reason was how much I respected Tom’s talent and planning. His acting is so comprehensive that no one seems suspect a thing. As mystery lovers we are shown repeatedly that every perfect crime has a misstep, but just as sleuths such as Holmes enjoyed their adversaries we can admire a man with the chance to beat the odds for success.

I almost feel as if I’ve been psychologically manipulated after reading this, and it’s an odd feeling. I admire Highsmith just as much as I do Ripley, but I think I need to wait a bit before considering one of the sequels or else I’ll start advocating crime.

This is another one in the crime category for the Guardian Challenge; it’s also on the 1001 Books list, and in my opinion deservedly so.

Published in: on September 25, 2009 at 10:17 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Fairy Tale Detectives (Sisters Grimm)

“Congratulations, you found a leaf in the middle of all these trees,” Charming scoffed. “I bet if you could bring out the forensics team you might find a twig, or even an acorn!”

“It looks a lot like a leaf from a beanstalk,” the old woman replied.

I was interested in Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm series way back when the first book The Fairy Tale Detectives came out in 2005, but for one reason or another I forgot all about out until this similar series Jennie posted about reminded me of it.

When their parents disappear, Sabrina and Daphne Grimm are claimed by their grandmother Relda–who they had been told was dead. Granny is an odd creature who cooks with strange ingredients, talks to her house, and pals around with morose Mr. Canis. What’s more, she tells the girls that they are descendants of the Brothers Grimm, those famous…historians? Apparently Ferry Port, NY is where fairy tale characters have been kept in confined society for decades, with the Grimm family as keepers of peace and records. Sabrina isn’t buying any of this, until a giant shows up on the scene and the girls have to discover who summoned him.

I love stories that play around with existing characters, especially fairy tales because there is such a wealth of possibility. Buckley takes full advantage of this by playing with our preconceived notions of the characters. Prince Charming as a self-centered, power-hungry mayor? Check. Pixies that bite? Check. Jack-the giant-killer as a jailbird? Only when he’s not working at the local Big And Tall.

The writing is obviously aimed at a younger audience, but it’s full of wry humor. Buckley clearly is having fun with this. As Sabrina is older the story is from her perspective, though we get to know Daphne as well. Sabrina’s big-sister mentality and almost-twelve skepticism are very realistic; most readers, though closer in age to Daphne, can probably relate to no longer believing in fairy tales.

My biggest complaint is that the beginning of the story felt a bit overdone. Sabrina and Daphne have apparently experienced the worst possible foster homes under the eye of a social security worker who despises them. While this is meant to explain Sabrina’s wariness of Granny it came across to me as a rip-off of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Also I’m not sure how I feel about the inclusion of characters from other works such as The Wizard of Oz and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They’re not really fairy tales, but it allows for more possibilities in later books.

Overall it’s an enjoyable start to the series for younger readers, and I’m surprised it doesn’t seem to have the popularity of other similar books. Perhaps because it’s such an odd niche–the books have a definite mystery bent but might not come across that way.

Published in: on September 24, 2009 at 7:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Booksale Bargains

The booksale on Saturday was an all-around win: I found some great bargains, limited myself to under twenty dollars, and had a chance to catch up with the head librarian, whom I haven’t seen since before college.

I picked up some series books for my collection: some Nancy Drew digest paperbacks, a couple Hardy Boys, and a late Bobbsey Twins I was missing. I also found one of the McGurk mysteries and two Mandie books, both series I loved when I was younger and hope to pass on some day.

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I also found the following adult mysteries:

  • Letter From Home by Carolyn Hart: From the author of the Dead on Demand series, featuring a teen-age girl during WWII
  • Postmortem, by Patricia Cornwell: I’ve been considering trying her books; this is the first in the Kay Scarpetta series
  • Withering Heights, by Dorothy Cannell: In addition to featuring amateur sleuth Ellie Haskell, these books never fail to make me laugh along
  • Irish Gold: A Nuala Anne McGrail Novel, by Andrew M. Greeley: the series gets trite later on, but the first ones are quite interesting and I know I’ll want to reread them
  • Silent In The Grave, by Deanna Rayburn; I think I’ve read the first chapter online about three times, so now I can finally see what happens!

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And some regular fiction as well:

And my camera cooperated for pictures. A good day all around!

Published in: on September 23, 2009 at 8:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Return to Corduroy Mansions

Ever since the end of Corduroy Mansions I’ve been waiting for the inevitable sequel. Luckily the irrepressible inhabitants are back in Alexander McCall Smith’s new online novel The Dog Who Came in from the Cold.

As before new chapters are added daily to the Telegraph website, with the first appearing yesterday morning. Last time around it was a gave me something to look forward to every lunch break, with weekends feeling just a little empty. I’m guessing the habit will quickly resume!

On a related note, a while ago my aunt won a little journal from AMS’s newsletter and gave it to me as a gift. The top of each page features cover and quote from one of his books. I’m almost tempted not to write in it at all.

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Published in: on September 22, 2009 at 9:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Case of the Missing Books

“He’d been a bookish child, right from the off, the youngest of four, the kind of child who seemed to start reading without anyone realising or noticing, who enjoyed books without his parents’ insistence, […] and who as a result had matured into an intelligent, shy, passionate, sensitive soul, full of dreams and ideas, a wide-ranging vocabulary, and just about no earthly good to anyone.

Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books is a mystery, about books, that at first glance promised quirky charm. Librarian Israel Armstrong has just uprooted himself to Northern Ireland when he discovers that the district has chosen instead to reopen the mobile library. Yet during this time of transition, all the books have mysteriously vanished.

One review compared the book to Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Technically in some ways this is true, as the people and locale are given much more attention than the actual mystery, but it lacks the appealing grace and insight. Instead of being distinctive Israel is just pathetic. As a Jewish vegetarian he is already at odds with the meat-and-potatoes Methodists, and his London ears can’t decipher the dialect.

In fact, the more applicable cover blurb is “acute sense of the absurd.” Israel goes through more tribulations than might seem possible in a few short weeks. He’s been uprooted and suckered into a job he doesn’t want, he’s blamed for the missing books he has no idea how to find, he has numerous encounters with animal dung, he injures practically every inch of himself, and he has an uncanny ability to stick his foot in his mouth and jump to false conclusions. It drove me crazy. Half of this is his own fault and half the ridiculousness of those around him, but I constantly wanted to scream in frustration and throw the book across the room.

The final blow was a sentence calling Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince “a work of thick, dense, self-indulgent children’s fantasy” (one of the scarce references to an actual book). I’m such a forgiving soul that the excerpt in the back tempted me for the sequel, but I convinced myself that it’s not worth the time and frustration.

If you read it and liked it let me know–just because it wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. After all, it’s earned the status of series.

Published in: on September 21, 2009 at 7:32 pm  Comments (1)  
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Chekhov: The Major Plays

“I love my country and its people, I feel that if I am a writer it is my duty to write about them, about their sufferings, their future, and to write about science, the rights of man, and so on…”

~The Sea Gull

“On the whole I love life, but our narrow provincial Russian life…I cannot endure.”

~Uncle Vanya

This is one of those books where I kept jotting down things I wanted to mention in my comments, which is perhaps why I’ve delayed posting about it (I finished Tuesday). How to synthesize all the major issues (which overlap a fair amount) without neglecting the individual identities of the plays?

My knowledge of Russian literature is relatively sparse–The Brothers Karamazov, A Doll’s House, and I think a Chekhov short story (“The Lady and the Dog”?) of which I have very little memory. But the culture seems to have produced a certain outlook of which Chekhov and his characters are already aware. The Major Plays includes his five full length works (his others are one-acts).

Ivanov centers around the growing despair of the titular character, and was to me by far the flattest of the plays. There seemed to be little actual development, and I couldn’t bring myself to care about the characters. The Sea Gull tentatively explores the lure and reality of fame, both writing and acting. Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters, though ostensibly about love and family, expand more fully on his earlier theme about the role of work. Finally, The Cherry Orchard reflects on the changing landscape and way of live in Russia as evident in one family.

Despite the distinctions of  “comedy” and “drama” all five have a pervading sense of–well, not necessarily tragedy, but strife. The characters feel the acute threat of poverty even though for the most part they are middle-class landowners rather than peasants. There is death, suicide, and more than enough unrequited love to go around. Personally I couldn’t help drawing occasional parallels to Shakespeare’s tragedies. Ivanov compares himself to Hamlet, and The Sea Gull also has many minor elements in common with it–an angry young man, a play within a play, a mother with a roving eye, a girlfriend driven mad. In the later plays the secondary characters such as servants are fleshed out more, giving the works much greater depth.

Unlike Shakespeare, however, Chekhov draws his characters and scenes from everyday life. Each of the plays centers on a small middle-class family and the characters who revolve around them–learned men, young beautiful women, doctors. They all have similar hopes, and instead face similar realities. By the end of the play everyone is jaded, forced to accept their lot. One character in The Cherry Orchard philosophizes that this suffering is their necessary penance for their families’ having spent so long enslaving serfs.

Fittingly, any non-romantic suffering centers around work. Many characters are plagued by a sense of listlessness; Irena  in The Three Sisters seeks the antidote in a career but find no fulfillment because her work lacks meaning. Others like Vanya see the labor as something that has consumed them, a lifetime of effort with little reward. For his niece Masha, young but already hardened, work is a way to escape the sorrows of an empty personal life. Another character blends these thoughts in his own outlook, that work must be endured in the hope that it will one day bring to descendants the happiness that has eluded him.

Work is by far his most pervasive theme, but Chekhov’s characters philosophize on various other topics as well. They look to the past, and see how they have succeeded in destroying the beautiful landscapes and the fortunes of their fathers. They look to the future, in the hope that their efforts at improvement are not in vain. And they look to themselves, displaying outbursts and depth of feeling that have built over a lifetime and come to a head during the events of the plays.

I saved the introduction to let myself formulate my own thoughts first, so I’m interested to see what the experts have to say about him. At some point I should look for more of his short stories, as well.

This is for the “Strange” category of the 9 for 09 Challenge, as I don’t often read plays (though I’m not sure why). It’s also a classic and a translated work (this edition by Ann Dunnigan), though I’m not using it for either of those challenges.

Published in: on September 20, 2009 at 5:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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‘Tis the Season

I finished my book of Chekhov plays and really should be doing a post on that, but the baseball game is too much of a distraction for me to properly collect my thoughts.

Anyway, tomorrow is the annual book sale at one of our two local libraries, the smaller closer branch. I tend to frequent the other because it’s next to the mall where I work, but have many fond memories of both since childhood.

It’s been several years since I’ve been around to go to either, and I tried to talk myself out of it but of course that was unsuccessful! I have set myself a limit, however, as I am not  really supposed to be spending money frivolously. We’ll see how that works.

Anyhow, wish me luck and look for the Chekhov tomorrow hopefully!

Published in: on September 18, 2009 at 9:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

High Fidelity

“Maybe we all live life at too high a pitch, those of us who absorb emotional things all day, and as a consequence we can never feel merely content: we have to be unhappy, or ecstatically, head-over-heels happy, and those states are difficult to achieve within a stable, solid relationship.”

It seems that pretty much every book Nick Hornby writes has earned him a film contract, though the only one I’ve ever come in contact with is the Americanized Fever Pitch. High Fidelity is no exception, though I’m not sure how they managed to capture the introspective tone. To me it seemed part Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, part An Abundance of Katherines, and the rest full-fledged adulthood with all that entails.

Rob is a thirty-five year old record store owner whose live-in girlfriend of several years, Laura, has just left him to “find herself” with a neighbor. The breakup plunges him into a whirlpool of freedom and rejection. He begins a new relationship with recording artist Marie LaSalle, but also feels the need to reconnect with all the girls who have broken his heart in the past. Most importantly to himself, he turns once again to the pop songs that have guided him on the road to love, along with his buddies from the record store. In the end, however, Rob must decide whether he wants to continue floating aimlessly through live or seek out once more the things that ultimately ground him.

The book isn’t graphic but it’s definitely very frank about all aspects of a relationship, more so than is my usual taste. On the other hand it also has substance and insight. High Fidelity is a very honest look at a man’s struggles with insecurity and stagnancy in both relationships and life, a far cry from the sugar-coated romance à la Nicholas Sparks. (Don’t get me wrong, The Notebook makes me cry every time but I certainly wouldn’t call it realistic.)

A lot of the time Rob comes across as desperate, needy, or dumb, so that if I was another character I might have disliked him but instead you just feel kind of sorry for him and hope at some point he’ll pull his life together.To be fair, this is because we only see him in a time of selfish crisis. Also, for most of the book I wasn’t even sure if I wanted Laura and Rob to get back together, except for the fact that it seemed to have worked for so long. But that’s the point that Hornby seems to be trying to make. Love isn’t the conflagration of passion and feeling that pop songs make it out to be. Instead it means sticking together when times are tough, becoming so connected to each other’s lives that it’s easier to be together than apart. It’s not the most romantic picture, but it some ways it also makes sense.

Thanks to my dad and brothers I have a pretty fair knowledge of “classic” pop and rock and was able to get most of the references. A deep understanding isn’t necessary, however, as the main focus is Rob’s personal connection with music. In many ways it’s similar to a bibliophile’s appreciation of books: Make lists of favorites for fun? Check. Recall particular works to fit a specific mood? Check. Reorganize the record collection when stressed? Switching around shelves always makes me smile. Even the lesson is the same, as life is certainly not a romance novel. But are books fun nevertheless? You betcha!

This books is from the Comedy portion of the list for the Guardian Challenge.

Published in: on September 16, 2009 at 4:32 pm  Comments (1)  
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