October 29, 2013

R.I.P. VIII Wrap-Up

This year's R.I.P. event is at an end, and although I was not as successful in it as I hoped back in August, I've done the minimum program. I was planning to read the following books:
  1. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  2. Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
  3. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe
  4. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
  5. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
As you see, I have read four of them, and really enjoyed three (you guess yourself which one is left out :) ). As for The Mysteries of Udolpho, it has turned out to be a very long and tedious book, so I'm not even half-way through yet... If the right mood strikes me, I may finish it by the end of the year, but that's already two months past the event finish line :)

There was also one book I didn't really expect to turn out creepy, as I didn't know what to expect of it at all, but as it's Gaiman, surely enough it turned out to be the creepiest of all :)

    6.  The Ocean At The End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

So I've done Peril the First level, as it requires only 4 books, and I've read five. It was my first time participating, and I really enjoyed it, as it made me pick up books I've put aside for too long, and some of them I really loved!

Looking forward to the next year! :)

The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius (Review)

Title: The Golden Ass
Author: Lucius Apuleius
First published: 158
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Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

If you are not a literature major, don't read this book! It's a repulsive mix of Decameron, myths, witch stories and religious preaching. The only beautiful part in The Golden Ass is the story of Cupid and Psyche, which is so unlike everything else, that I suspect Apuleius has stolen it from some earlier source. So if you can, try to find this story separately and enjoy it without its miserable surroundings.

The plot is quite well-known: a curious protagonist Lucius, who is very interested in witchcraft, tries some magic ointment and turns into an ass. He has to live in this form for around a year, and the novel is composed of his misfortunes while serving different masters and various stories he has heard during this year. Goddess Isid finally saves him, and the last part of the book is the glorification of her and her cult. Doesn't sound too bad, eh? But it is! This canvas is filled with violence, repulsive sex (yes, incest and intercourse with animals (I don't remember the correct English name for this and am afraid to google) included), lavatorial humour, and so on... I soooo did not expect this from such a renowned classic. And you don't get any warnings about this anywhere. So now I warn you, and if you are bothered by the above mentioned topics, as I am, avoid this book.

This is a short review, but that's just all I have to say about it :)

In my book:

October 28, 2013

Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman (Review)

Title: Here Be Dragons
Author: Sharon Kay Penman
First published: 1985
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Rating: ★★★★☆

I treated myself to this beautiful book while in Vancouver, which has HUGE bookshops, all in English, where I spent hours. I call it a treat because it was ridiculously expensive. Sometimes I think that people who buy "real" paper books must be millionaires. But I just felt like buying a nice book, you know, and I was not disappointed! Recently I have noticed that I feel more invested in the "real" books, either because I choose so well or because I've already paid so much money for this - psychology in action! But I think I would have loved this book in any format.

The list of things I love about Here Be Dragons begins with the title.You know, this is the phrase that was written over unknown territories on old maps. I ADORE old maps, and the cool thing here is that the book is about Wales, and not only was it completely misunderstood by England, they also have a dragon on their flag. Clever, eh? The next cool thing is the setting: the story unfolds between 1183 and 1234 which means it covers the end of Henry Plantagenet's rule, his children's rivalries, the rules of Richard Lionheart and John Lackland and ends with the beginning of Henry III's rule. Rather epic, right? But the story is focused on Wales, where at this time Llywelyn the Great rose to power and more or less united his country against the unceasing England's conquest. While I knew quite a lot about English kings and the situation between England and France at this time, I was completely ignorant about what was happening in Wales. All we got in the textbooks was that the castles were built there at this time as part of the conquest and some beautiful pictures. So the story is really interesting from the historical point of view, especially because it's very well researched and is true to the remaining historical sources.

I wouldn't have liked the story so much if it was purely historical, but it is also a very good romance. The main heroine is Joanna, an illegitimate daughter of John Lackland, who was married to Llewelyn as part of the treaty with Wales. It was horrible for her to go to another country with different language, where everybody saw her as a foe. And she was only 14 then! She loved her father and she came to love her husband, but needless to say the treaty between them didn't live long. Torn between the two men she loved, she played an important role as an ambassador of peace between England and Wales and her entreaties to her father not once saved quite some Welsh lives, including her husband's. She, John and Llevelyn are all very interesting and well-developed characters, and I was really involved in their relationships. There are some rather graphic scenes of Joanna and Llewelyn's private life that I found rather indecent and out of place, but that really didn't bother me that much. I guess this was done for certain public that needs to know EXACTLY how well they got on sometimes :) Well, that doesn't include me! However, this is just a fly in the ointment.

The description of everyday life (mostly Norman everyday life, of course) was not romanticized at all, which I also liked very much. The realities were very harsh back then, with horrible medicine, childbirth and life conditions. All this is shown very well in the book. What never fails to shock me most, although it's a well-known fact, is the disposal of women as part of treaties and alliances, no matter what age they are. It was a usual thing to marry off a daughter at twelve and expect a husband to consummate the marriage immediately. Of course, some men were kind enough to wait, but they were in minority. Moreover, married life in itself was very harsh for women. When in Wales, Joanna was surprised at finding out that, unlike in England and France, a wife could divorce or request compensation if she found her husband unfair to her (shock!!) and that husbands were not accustomed to beating their wives (unheard of!). So, well, welsh women were rather lucky, but that was certainly an exception.

In my book:
It is a very engaging historical fiction and romance, so I would definitely recommend it to anybody who is interested in either of the genres. It will keep you up late at night, I promise :)

October 22, 2013

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Review)

Title: Cat's Cradle
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
First published: 1963
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Rating: ★★☆☆☆

I don't seem to be very lucky in this autumn's book choices. But it's mainly my own fault. Take Cat's Cradle: Slaughterhouse Five might have given me the idea of how little I would enjoy another Vonnegut's book, but I resisted my own intuition and succumbed to public opinion, which praises this book as the most wonderful piece of writing ever. Result - frustration.

I don't want to say that there's nothing appealing in this book. I gave it 2 stars for some really interesting ideas. Like religion which admits that it is lies or "ice-nine" (although there are some technical problems with this). These ideas are very powerful, but I totally hate the way they were integrated into the narrative, if it can be called narrative in the first place. The plot line, the characters, the dialogues - all is ridiculous and hard to comprehend, let alone get connected to. The style also adds to the picture, making the book even more irritating for me. Vonnegut apparently wants to be funny, but although I see the places where he takes pains to joke, they totally fail to get me. There's also quite a few "philosophical thoughts" packed in the novel, which are rather obtrusive and sometimes weird.

In my book:
Maybe that's I that is a problem in our relationship, not Vonnegut, but we clearly don't get on very well. Sorry, Kurt!

October 9, 2013

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (Review)

Title: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Author: Washington Irving
First published: 1820
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Rating: ★★★★★

All of you native English speakers probably don't need any plot summary of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, because, as I've heard, it's included in nearly every school program. Even for me the story felt very familiar, although I don't remember actually reading it. I guess it's already in the domain of collective unconscious. What I consciously knew about it, however, is just that it had a headless specter in it. So, naturally, I expected it to be this normal creepy ghost story. What I didn't expect at all is that it would be so funny!

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is not in the least about something paranormal, it instead deals with people's beliefs and superstitions and how they influence their everyday lives. Nothing assuredly unnatural actually happens, but in a small village like Sleepy Hollow, superstitions flower in uneducated minds of people to such extent that they explain many things with ghosts, and it's not surprising that they tend to start seeing them :)

The main character, Ichabod, is a school teacher, but he can't be called particularly enlightened. He enjoys sitting in front of a hearth with older ladies and share ghost stories, and when he is alone he imagines supernatural things all around him. But that doesn't prevent him from having a practical mind, and so he enters an open competition for the hand of a rich farmer's daughter with the village's most reckless youth Brom Bones. It would be stupid of Bones not to use Ichabod's inclination to superstitions to his own benefit, and Bones is not stupid :)

I find characters in the story to be very lively and Irving's kind mockery of them really endearing. I was smiling a lot and sometimes even laughed at the descriptions of Ichabod's courting and then of his misfortunes. There is only one problem with this story: I intended it to count for RIPVIII event, but now that I know it's not scary, I'm not so sure :) But I'm very glad I read it anyway :) 

In my book:
A very well written, funny and entertaining story. Definitely recommended to anybody who hasn't yet had the pleasure of discovering it for himself :)

October 3, 2013

The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov (Review)

Title: The Three Sisters
Author: Anton Chekhov
First published: 1900
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Rating: ★★★★☆

I really like Chekhov. He somehow manages to speak about very complicated things without complicating his writing and making it pretentious and pathetic. All his characters are very easily imaginable by the way they speak, and there's no need in descriptions or commentaries whatsoever. And what's most important, you can really believe that that's exactly how people of their position and disposition would speak. Nothing is feigned.

The Three Sisters shows a family of a brother and three sisters living in Russian countryside. They are too educated and refined for their surroundings, and this discrepancy is torturing them. They dream of going back to Moscow, but this is not going to happen, and their accomplishments will be wasted on people who can't appreciate them. I can totally relate to their feelings. Fortunately, I'm now always among my equals in education and intellect, but there were periods in my life when I felt myself as a "f***ing genius", and it was horrible, mainly because I still had to behave civilly towards everybody who annoyed me so much. The sisters' situation becomes even worse when their brilliant brother marries a simple country girl, has two children, forgets his scientific career and becomes a clerk. But they still hope to escape this horrible place, to go to Moscow and to start leading a meaningful life.

There is of course a wonderfully vivid set of supporting characters, most of them representing some aspect of intellectual degradation, and they would have been really funny if the whole situation was not so sad. The Three Sisters is characteristic of Chekhov's style, but I must say I liked The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard more, although we were deconstructing the latter at school, and it usually spoils everything.

In my book:
As all Chekhov's plays, a wonderful piece of drama. Very close to five stars, but not quite there, at least for me.

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