Thursday, August 2, 2012

Bray Dickens Eliot Farmer Fisher Wodehouse

The Sweet Far Thing
by Libba Bray
Recommended Ages: 14+

My usual process, when reading a trilogy, is to read the first book first, the second book second, and the last book last. Nevertheless, when I found an audiobook edition of this third novel in the Gemma Doyle trilogy, I decided not to wait until I had read A Great and Terrible Beauty and The Rebel Angels. Luckily, the third book summarizes enough of what happened in the previous two that it stands on its own. The downside is that I'll already know how the series ends before I start the first two books. The upside is that I got to listen to the amazing Josephine Bailey channeling all of the characters with her versatile voice, as convincing with male characters as female, and effortlessly slipping between any number of English, Scottish, Indian, and American accents, from East End urchins to Maggie Smithesque schoolmarms. I was going to write that Ms. Bailey should perform the entire cast of an animated film sometime—but with vocal talent like hers, who needs pictures?

Central to this book and to the trilogy named for her is a young lady named Gemma Doyle, who could be described as exactly what Harry Potter would be if he were a girl attending not Hogwarts but a Victorian girls' finishing school called Spence. Instead of both her parents being murdered by a dark lord, Gemma lost her mother only, to a dark lady who later turned up in disguise as one of Gemma's teachers at Spence. So she still has a father (whose consumptive condition is evident to the reader long before Gemma guesses it), a grandmother (whose ambition is to see Gemma curtsy daintily to Queen Victoria) and even an older brother (who is somewhat of a prat).

Also like Harry, Gemma has two friends who share in her magical adventures: the unconventional Felicity, whose inheritance hangs by a thread and is her only hope of escaping the life her abusive father has planned out for her; and the unassertive Anne, who unlike the other Spence girls is destined not for a debutante season but for a thankless career as a nanny, at the beck and call of her obnoxious nouveau riche relatives. Felicity dreams of being a bohemian artist in Paris; Anne, of finding fame on the dramatic stage. Gemma, for reasons best learned by reading the first two books in the trilogy, personally holds All the Magic; and her dream, after helping her friends achieve theirs and then restoring the magic to the Realms to which it belongs, is to be able to chart her own course in life.

Luckily, before the story collapses under the weight of its feminist baggage, things start happening that makes all this even more complicated. Gemma figures out how to open a way into the Realms, but she is not so successful at getting the tribes of magical beings to form an alliance before she returns the magic. On the contrary, they are so suspicious of each other and resentful of Gemma's hesitation that open conflict breaks out. Meanwhile, the groups that previously safeguarded the magic, working on our world's side of the gateway, demand it back and are willing to threaten everyone Gemma cares about. And at the same time, the dark forces of the Winterlands are gathering strength to take all the power for themselves in a plan involving Gemma as the victim of a great sacrifice. That can't be good. And nor can the fact that the only person whose advice Gemma trusts is the villain from the previous books, while a school chum who was lost forever in the Realms exerts an increasingly sinister influence on Felicity.

To say more would be to spoil too much of an adventure in which Gemma's mistakes teach her heartbreaking lessons about the moral responsibility that comes with great power. Let it be enough to know that Gemma experiences love and loss, strange visions and creepy mysteries, daring capers and horrors in the night, battles in our world between undead ghouls and inanimate objects come to life, and a great final battle to decide the fate of the magic, the Realms, and our world as well. So, pretty much what you would expect from Harry Potter in a corset.

Bleak House
by Charles Dickens
Recommended Ages: 12+

I have been a big fan of Dickens since I started reading his books, and I have loved most of them from the first time I read them. And yet for some reason, I was always too intimidated by this book to attempt reading it, until I found an audio-CD of it at the library. Why that should be so now escapes me. Perhaps it has something to do with the forbidding ring of the title, which suggests something unrelentingly and perhaps boringly serious. Or perhaps it was the discouraging prospect (glimpsed through the blurb on the back cover of either the Oxford or the Penguin edition) of a novel satirically skewering the long-drawn-out, ruinously expensive lawsuits before the English court of Chancery, also known as Equity, when I understood neither word and didn't care about the injustice of a system that has long since been dismantled. But thanks once again to the miracle of audiobooks, I can now take my literary medicine and be happy about it too. For I have learned that nothing beguiles a long commute to and from work like a book that takes 29 hours to read aloud. Be it ever so dull a book, it must be far less obnoxious than listening to the same radio commercials twice driving each way, every day. And to my delight (I should not have been surprised), this book turned out not to be dull at all.

The first thing to know about this novel, if you're going to judge whether it is worth the time and effort of reading, is that it is by Dickens. It was first published in monthly installments from 1852 to 1853, roughly the middle of his career. So, understandably, it is typical of Dickens's books in many ways. As such, you should expect it to be full of bustling life and humor, wicked puns worked into the names of characters, and many characters (wicked and otherwise) worked into a complex web of relationships and story threads. If you're a Harry Potter fan like me, you'll soon discover that Dickens is the author J. K. Rowling most takes after.

The second thing to realize is that Bleak House is also atypical in several diverting ways. For example, the book's point of view goes back and forth between a first-person, past-tense account by an earnest young woman named Esther Summerson and an omniscient, present-tense narrator. If I had realized this was allowed, and that it could be pulled off with something like literary success, I wouldn't have burnt the manuscript of the last novel I attempted to write and buried the ashes at the crossroads. Another highlight (since we're speaking of ashes) is that the story contains a case of Spontaneous Human Combustion, which ought to make the ears of 35 percent of 12-year-old boys perk up. Then there's the fact that the heroine receives a total of four proposals of marriage, although two of them come from the same repulsive character, while the man she really loves proposes only after she has consented to marry someone else; and yet these love affairs reach their final, happy issue without anyone being obliged to knock anyone else on the head. All this happens in spite of the fact that Esther, in flagrant disregard of romantic novel conventions, loses her good looks to a bout with smallpox halfway through the book. And for a final example, I'm starting to imitate Dickens's writing style unconsciously. I spent the weekend of my fortieth birthday immersed in this book, and thus it has left a water-mark in me.

The third thing to realize is that it is hopeless to attempt a synopsis of this book within the targeted length of this review. I could go on for five or six long paragraphs just hitting the highlights, and to do less would be to omit something crucial. Inevitably, my summary would be far too boring to serve the purpose of persuading you to read this book, or at least to listen to it. If you, too, find yourself intimidated by its thickness, the lengths of the paragraphs and sentences in it, the smallness of the type and the narrowness of the margins, and the odious chore of looking up end-notes at the back of the book to explain cultural references and archaic terms, your anxiety won't be relieved by a bunch of spoilers that, as a super-condensed version of the book, lack the original's charm and depth. You're better off just making a plan for how to get through it without losing heart, such as reading one chapter a night or, if you're feeling up to a bit more, one of the twenty "numbers" into which the book was originally divided. Meanwhile, all you will want to hear from me at this point is enough of a hint at what's in this book to keep it distinct in your mind from all the other books that you feel guilty about not having read, but will enjoy reading more than you expect.

So what can I say to make this book stand out in your memory? Well, maybe I can explain those words that I mentioned earlier, which I had to look up as I started to enjoy this book. Chancery, or Equity, was a system of justice in the U.K. that existed alongside Common Law. It was mainly concerned with civil suits relating to wills, trusts, property, and guardianship. Chancery was originally supposed to move faster than Common Law courts, providing swifter and more humane justice. Ironically, by Dickens's time, it had become quite the reverse. In some notorious cases, disputes over the disposition of a will dragged on and on until the original parties to the suit were dead, and their heirs were helplessly entangled in a conflict they didn't understand, until court costs wiped out the entire estate and everybody involved—excepting, of course, the court and its lawyers—was ruined.

Such a case is Jarndyce v Jarndyce, depicted in this book: a legal morass in which the hopes and ambitions of generations have been sunk. Because of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, one man blew his brains out; another, a likely young fellow who becomes addicted to the tantalizing delusion that someday the case will be brought to a verdict, squanders all his opportunities to develop a career of his own while waiting for this result. Tragically, the evil influence of this case leads this youngster (the interesting but disappointing Richard Carstone) to mess things up badly with his family, including a pretty cousin named Ada, the endearingly gruff but wise John Jarndyce, and sometime narrator Esther. Meanwhile, the scandalous secret of Esther's birth comes home to roost at a Lincolnshire manor house where a glacially bored lady of fashion conceals a secret (more tragedy!) that could ruin her stuffy, bigoted, but basically loving and devoted husband.

Meanwhile (still more tragedy!) one of the first detectives ever to grace the pages of a novel investigates several suspicious deaths and missing-persons cases, from an opium overdose to a murder for which the wrong suspect is initially arrested. Mixed up in all these things are a variety of characters, ranging from starving children to a despicably childlike and cheerful sponger, from a narcoleptic serving-girl to a philanthropic matron who shows heroic charity towards Africa while neglecting common charity at home, from a ludicrously jealous shrew of a wife to the master of deportment who lets his dependents work themselves to death so he can show himself in fashionable society, from a batty old lady whose mania for the law could make you either weep or chuckle to a paralytic old moneylender who, in spite of his greed and cruelty, often made me laugh aloud. If I were to direct a film adaptation of this novel, I would cast a ventriloquist's dummy of the Jeff Dunham persuasion, or perhaps a Jim Henson Muppet, in this role. But then I would want Barry Humphries to play both Mr. Turveydrop and Mrs. Jellyby, and he has already done a double Dickens role (cf. Nicholas Nickleby). In short, Bleak House is anything but bleak. It's a warm, rich, teeming cornucopia of vitally interesting characters that will wring tears of both laughter and sorrow out of you, if only you get past the intimidating cover. As with the case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, once you sign on, you'll be hooked until the whole, tangled case is told... Only, you will end up the richer for it.

Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe
by George Eliot
Recommended Ages: 13+

After a youth misspent (some would argue) paddling amid the pools of science fiction and fantasy, I have come embarrassingly late to the headwaters of the English novel. And so it happens that book nut with thousands of reviews under his belt may manage to avoid cracking a single book by George Eliot until the eve of his fortieth birthday. After listening to a six-CD audiobook of Andrew Sachs reading Silas Marner all in one day, I am at a loss to explain why I was too intimidated to dip my toe into Eliot's work before now. Obviously it wasn't the length of the book, if it can be read aloud in six hours. Maybe it was the supposed seriousness of the book, though I have long since learned not to fear Austen, Brontë, Hardy, and other giants of the 19th century novel. But part of my mission in The Book Trolley is to provide evidence that books like Harry Potter can be a gateway to reading not only other books like Harry Potter, but good books in general. And so I screwed up my courage, bit the bullet, and gave myself over to Silas Marner. But I was in for a delightful surprise.

For all that it is the work of one of the great English novelists of the late 1800s, and is named on most reputable lists of the books you should force yourself to endure before you die so that you can make your miserable life seem longer than it is, it's not bad. In fact, my impression as I listened to the book was that it was probably the most intelligent piece of literature I have taken in since forever. That didn't stop me being so interested in it, after one round trip in my daily commute, that I couldn't put it down. I took it indoors with me and sat in the glow of my TV while the rest of the book played in the DVD player. My upstairs neighbor probably gained IQ points from the vibrations alone.

What makes this an unputdownable classic? Well, besides the fact that it's short enough to read aloud in one day, it's a very simple tale, told with great directness and economy of scene, character, and word. To be sure, there are several characters who lend a lot of local color to the story, but they add much more than that. The author's scrupulous descriptiveness and unsparing examination of the psychological motives of all that the characters say and do seems to account for a large part of the length of the story, and yet the telling is never bogged down in tedious detail. While the characters in the local tap room do double duty as comic relief and as serious character studies of country folk, most of the space is devoted to the tightly intertwined interests of a quite small group of people.

On the one hand, there is the title character. Silas Marner, a funny-looking shrimp of a man, first comes to Raveloe after a betrayal by his best friend and an unjust accusation of theft causes him to lose his fiancée and to be driven out of their religious sect. Disillusioned of God and man, Marner takes up a hermit-like lifestyle, weaving cloth for his Raveloe neighbors and otherwise keeping to himself. Because of his odd looks, his occasional cataleptic fits, his abstinence from churchgoing, among other things, Marner gains a reputation as an eccentric character. He pours all his love into the heap of gold that he accumulates during fifteen years of solitary labor on his loom, and then one night that gold is stolen from his cottage in a crime that goes unsolved for over sixteen years. Out of this devastating loss, however, comes something unexpected and wonderful.

On the other side of the coin is Godfrey Cass, the eldest son of the local squire, whose essentially good-natured character becomes a fertile ground for evil when his hopes of marrying the lovely Nancy Lammeter are blighted by the blackmailing, sponging, deceiving, and stealing ways of his brother Dunstan—well, all that plus his secret marriage to an opium addict and his unacknowledged fatherhood of a tiny little girl. When the old ball-and-chain drops dead on Silas Marner's doorstep, Godfrey makes a compromise with his conscience and allows Marner to raise his daughter rather than admit to being her father, so that he can marry Nancy. The final question, after a couple of really uncomfortable scenes in which the identities of both the thief and young Eppie's father are revealed, is: Who will have true happiness: the rich squire or the melancholy outcast?

While this novel explores the consequences of a burglary, a man's disappearance, a shameful secret, a child's abandonment, and a man's advancement through perjury and betrayal, Silas Marner comes across as a closely woven piece of work, cut and pieced together along the cleanest of lines, and fitted snug to its purpose. It takes thought-provoking pokes at religious faith, social hierarchies and prejudices, the industrial revolution, and the mixed nature of beings who (with perhaps one exception in this novel) have both a bad and a good side to them. It is a story brightened by the transforming presence of the angelic Eppie, and shadowed by the dark character and even darker fate of Dunstan Cass. And it is neither oppressively weighty nor tiresomely paced, like a reading assignment rightly to be feared. Instead, it is lightly, quickly, and enjoyably read, with a direct appeal both to one's mind and heart.

George Eliot was the pen-name of Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans, an unconventional woman who lived from 1819 to 1880 and set out to prove that novels by women didn't need to be full of fluff and vapors. Her half-dozen other novels include Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda, and Middlemarch, which Virginia Woolf called "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people" (source: Wikipedia). I don't know why we still call her George when "Currer Bell" has gone back to being just plain Charlotte Brontë, but there it is. And as soon as one of Eliot's other books becomes available at my friendly local library, there I will be.

The House of the Scorpion
by Nancy Farmer
Recommended Ages: 14+

In a grim but possible future world, a unique boy named Matt experiences a unique childhood, made of equal parts privilege and horror, leading to a unique opportunity to change his world. And in this National Book Award winning novel by the author of the Sea of Trolls series, you get to go along for the ride.

In Matt's world, the United States and Mexico have found the winning answer to the problems of illegal immigration and illegal drugs. They have created a buffer country between them, a country called Opium, ruled by a group of "farmers" who are really drug lords, and policed by a "farm patrol" that is really a bunch of mercenaries. Hashish, cocaine, and opium are cultivated, officially not to be sold in the U.S. or Mexico, but for the overseas market. People trying to run from what used to be Mexico (now a Marxist dystopia called Aztlán) to the U.S., or from the U.S. to Mexico, must now risk being captured by the Farm Patrol and implanted with a microchip that turns them into "eejits"—zombie-like slaves who are then worked to death in the poppy fields.

The biggest and baddest of the farmers is the 150-year-old Matteo Alacrán, whose name appropriately means "scorpion," but who is usually called El Patrón. Behind his back, his bodyguards call him "the old vampire," which is just barely a figure of speech. Although Matt seems like a nice boy, he's actually a clone of the evil El Patrón. Unique among clones, because El Patrón has the power to break the rules, Matt has been allowed to enjoy as nearly normal a childhood as possible, given that he is the protegé of the richest and most ruthless man in the world, enjoys the luxuries of a mansion modeled on the lifestyle of a century ago, and is nevertheless considered by most people to be no better than cattle. Matt is unique even as clones go, because all other clones are required by law to have their minds destroyed and to live like the animals they are thought to be. As Matt learns with an infuriating slowness that must be put down to willful self-deception, he is just like all other clones in one respect: he exists to provide transplant organs to extend the life of the original, the old vampire himself.

How Matt discovers this, how he escapes, what he experiences in the equally horrifying Aztlán, and what happens when he returns home, are the matter of this book and make it well worth reading. It is a story of love and heartbreak, terror and courage, loneliness and camraderie. Above all it is a story about slavery and the struggle for freedom. The possibility that border control problems, the drug trade, advances in technology, and utopian ideology could combine to form such a dreadful future may be uncomfortable to consider, but this book makes a convincing case that such a potential is there. Even if there are good people in our world like Matt, his friends Maria and Fidelito and Ton Ton, and antislavery crusader Esperanza Mendoza, this book warns us to guard against the many darker realities that we can also recognize in our world. A few small steps would be enough to change the world as we know it into the world as Matt knows it. And that, perhaps, is why this sometimes hopeful, sometimes tender book is also, and above all, so very scary.

This book was a runner-up for the Newbery Medal, Michael A. Printz, Locus, and Mythopoeic awards, in addition to several other honors. It has been recorded as an audio book by at least two different narrators, of whom I heard Robert Ramirez: an actor with a youthful American voice that slips with equal fluency into Spanish cadences and the Scottish lilt of Tam Lin. Meanwhile, Nancy Farmer is also the author of A Girl Named Disaster and The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm.

by Catherine Fisher
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to Incareceron, former prisoner Finn—the first to escape from the prison-world of Incarceron since the legendary Sapphique—struggles to accept the new identity that has been thrust upon him. The Warden's daugther Claudia thinks Finn may be Prince Giles, heir to the throne of the Realm and her own betrothed, and that his supposed death at age 15 was meant to cover up a conspiracy between Queen Sia (Giles' stepmother) and the Warden to trap the Prince in Incareron and replace him with Sia's odious son Caspar. But Finn only has a few fragmentary memories of his life before the prison, and even he isn't sure that he is (or was) Giles. He had better be, though. Because a Pretender has stepped forward, claiming to be the real Giles, and his patter is so convincing that Finn himself half believes him. And if the trial to decide which is the real Giles is decided against him, Finn will be executed—and Claudia with him.

Meanwhile, back in the prison, Incarceron itself has developed a personality, and that person (like everybody else in the prison) wants to escape from itself. To do that, it plays on the hopes and ambitions of Finn's friends Keiro and Attia, the madness of a stage magician named Rix, and the temptation of a dragonskin glove (complete with claws) said to have belonged to Sapphique himself. While this group makes its way to the heart of Incarceron, facing spectacular dangers and the savagery of several weird groups of prisoners, the prison's plans are either helped or hindered (one isn't sure which) by the former Warden, who is now a prisoner himself. And back in the realm, a gravely ill sapient named Jared shows a surprising knack for survival as he races to get the secret of opening the door to Incarceron to his beloved Claudia before the Queen's siege of the Wardenry cuts off all access.

This is a complex story with many moving parts, many of them moving by feints and deceptions, so that the reader is kept guessing as to what is going on and how (or if) it will all work out. Its flawed characters all have their own selfish motivations, so that at times one may question whether any of them are worth caring for; and yet in spite of it all they care about each other. The world-within-a-world of Incarceron remains a place of scenic marvels, mysteries, and horrors, while the Realm outside—the "real world" that has been frozen in time by an amazing sci-fi concept called Protocol—turns out to be even more unreal that you might expect. And the challenges facing the main characters at the end are so great that one might dare to hope that this will become a trilogy. Even if it does not, fans of Incarceron will be glad to know that Welsh author Catherine Fisher has started a new series titled "The Island of the Mighty," whose first book is The Cat With Iron Claws.

My Man Jeeves
by P. G. Wodehouse
Recommended Ages: 12+

One of my fellow audio-book enthusiasts put me on the scent of the hilarious series collectively known as "Jeeves and Wooster." These are a series of novels and short stories poking satirical fun at an idle rich young Englishman named Bertie Wooster, whose valet Jeeves leads him around by the nose but makes it worthwhile by always knowing what to do in any awkward situation. These stories were published in book form starting in 1917, though some of them had appeared in magazines as far back as 1911. The series continued all the way to 1974, a year before the author's death. And so Jeeves and Wooster lived a full life in real time! That's a long time for one author to be writing stories about the same characters, what?

This 1919 book, in particular, contains four of the earliest Jeeves-and-Wooster stories, together with four stories featuring a character named Reggie Pepper. While Pepper's antics take place in England and his valet isn't especially important, and Bertie is a British expatriate living it up in New York City, they have a similar goofball appeal. Each story is narrated in the first person in the sporting lingo of a British public-schoolboy of limited brains and ambition combined with unlimited wealth, preoccupied with gentlemanly leisure pursuits and given to meddling in the problems of men in his social set. These problems, ranging from romantic trouble to keeping themselves in favor with rich aunts and uncles who provide them with the means to live well, always prove fertile ground for humorous complications and droll remarks; and especially when Jeeves is around, there are always surprise twists.

The paradox of this type of satire is that you can look on the characters as kindly or as unkindly as you choose. Being narrated by the main characters, they are understandably gentle in poking fun at the thoughtlessness, idleness, and wastefulness of the playboy lifestyle; some readers may even get caught up in the fantasy of having such a difficult-to-attain level of privilege handed to one without merit or desert. On the other hand, reading between the lines, you could also read the stories as the remorseless confessions of a sociopath so oblivious to the harm he is doing to himself and others that he thinks of it as a humorous anecdote to dine out on. Depending on your interpretation, these stories could be read as either harmless little whimsies or chilling tales of irony and horror. But it would be hard to remain horrified for very long when either Bertie or Reggie is never many seconds away from saying something so disarmingly silly that you have to laugh out loud, and when everything works out all right in the end.

I listened to this book as read on four CDs by Jonathan Cecil, an actor whose voice brought out all the characters with a wonderful, light touch. Unfortunately, four disks accounted for only two days' worth of commuting. So I plan to look up as many of the other Jeeves-and-Wooster books as may be floating around the County Library system, regardless of where they stand in order of publication. This, for instance, is my first Jeeves experience, but the second (1919) book in the series; the first, if you must start at the beginning, was 1917's The Man With Two Left Feet. And yes, it was Wodehouse's Jeeves who lent his name to the internet search engine Ask Jeeves. If nothing else, that's a measure of Jeeves' reputation for having the answer to everything. And if each answer comes with as many laughs as the ones in this set, I foresee many fun road trips ahead of me.

No comments: