September 29, 2013

The Castle of Otranto Non-Review + General Ramblings

I haven't been here for a long time, and, as usual, I apologize. I'm always wondering how people can post every day and not get tired, especially if something is happening offline? As for me, 2 things have been happening which distracted me from blogging:

1) The semester started on Monday! I have 6 subjects, and it's 50/50: half of them are OK, and another half is total crap. Well, at least it's better than the previous winter semester :) First week is always crazy, because you need to get signed for everything you want, and it involves either queuing at the students department or participating in "clicking battles" during online sign-ups. Very nervous, all of this.

2) I had another fit of Heroes of Might and Magic V. This doesn't cease to surprise me, but every half a year of so I spend around a week playing it nearly non-stop. The game is like 2 boyfriends old, but seriously, have you seen how cool it is?

Meanwhile, I have 3 books that I've read and not reviewed, and they are The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. I'm going to write a proper review for the last two (and hopefully soon!), but Otranto is not something I'd like to spend much time on, so here is a non-review in just one paragraph:

The Castle of Otranto is a weird book, with no logic, where "gothic" things just happen one after another without any connection. It features enough women in distress, noble gentlemen, rude villains, superstitions, fainting, deaths, lost sons etc... That's pretty much all that can be said about it, and if it was not so short (less than 100 pages) I'm not sure I would have finished it. But if you are in the right sarcastic mood, it can be really funny. Last year Jean posted about it and it made me smile a lot, although I haven't read it then. Now I understand, although sometimes I wish I didn't! :)

I'll finish with a picture that gives you some clue as to what is happening in The Castle of Otranto. See?

September 23, 2013

The Thousand and One Nights (Review)

Yeah, Boromir knows what he's talking about :) I've read a full academical edition of One Thousand and One Nights, which is 3624 pages long, around 600 of them comprising the commentary section. The photo below shows how the edition I read looks like in print:

See, it's much more than one book! :) Luckily, it has been scanned and made into an ebook, otherwise I wouldn't be able to get hold of it. Anyway, I'm so proud of myself, that I simply had to boast! Applause, please! :) I started last spring, so it took me a year and a half to finish this, as reading it non-stop is not something you'd want to do. So I read a tale or two each time I finished a book, which made the Nights rather entertaining instead of boring. I have no idea how to write a proper review for such a giant as One Thousand and One Nights, so I'll just write some random thoughts about it in no particular order.

1) Contrary to what many people (probably after reading some adapted edition) think, these tales are NOT for children. There's a lot of sex descriptions (including some really perverse things), cheesy and weird euphemisms, rudeness and violence, Muslim propaganda and war scenes. These are tales for adults, and adults who are not easily shocked.

2) Ali-Baba and Aladdin tales are NOT in the collection. They are "orphan" tales and made it to the book somewhere on the long way from Asia to Europe the text has travelled. Sindbad however IS in the collection, and his journeys are as numerous and adventurous as I had imagined them.

3) Tales is the most important thing in the world of One Thousand and One Nights. By telling a suitable story you can convince somebody of something, save somebody's life, pay for something and bring the bounty of the Sultan on you and your family. There are tales inside tales inside tales in this collection, and it's easy to get lost in all this complexity.

4) There's a lot of poetry in the stories, sometimes even too much. Some stories even look like they were devised only as a frame for poetry. The verses are difficult to understand and relate to, probably because we now read them from a page and not hear a harem beauty singing them while accompanying herself on a lute.

5) The ideal of a man in the book is very feminine. They cry and faint all the time, get compared with a moon, have soft skin and thin waist, use perfume, etc. One of the favourite plot devices in the stories is dressing a man as a woman or a woman as a man, and nobody notices!

7) The tales share much with the European canon. Most of them are essential marriage plots and feature journeys, coming of age, weathering difficulties and different kinds of magic creatures and devices. Women, however, not always play a passive role and sometimes apply their cunning to get what they want. I have an impression that women had all the power in the Arabian Nights world, and just let the men think they are in charge. Not surprising, considering the stories are told by a woman! :)

6) There are different types of the stories. First, I would distinguish shortish fables. They are usually a night long and feature animals. Sounds familiar, right? I usually fail to get the moral though, because they thought so differently. Second type is the stories about lower people who make their way to fortune through guile and Allah's favour. The third one is heroic stories, featuring princes and kings, that usually tell either of vast conquests and political issues or are moralistic and show how a ruler can and can't behave. Although there are a lot of repetitive elements in the collection, each story a bit different, so it's difficult to have a definitive classification.

7) Religion is very important in the book. It is a reason for conflict and friendship, luck and misery... well, for everything. The characters believe that Allah governs their lives and display the most unbearable fatalism I've ever seen in literature :) It seems that at that time Islam was competing with idolatry and Christianity, so violence against the representatives of both is very frequent.

Well, these are some general thoughts about this huge story collection. Of course, there's much more to say, but this post is already too big and I'm afraid not very exciting for those who haven't read the tales or are not going to read them someday :) Was reading them worth it? Well, yes. This is the kind of book which has influenced TONS of media around the world, and getting to know the primary source is always interesting. But I can't help wishing it was shorter and less repetitive. So if you are not like me and reading an adapted and shortened version doesn't drive you crazy, this may actually be a good thing to do :)

By my favourite Bilibin

September 19, 2013

Things I Have Learned Since I Started Blogging

I've successfully missed my 1st blogging anniversary. Last August I was taking Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction course, and some amazing discussions were happening on personal blogs, because course forums were sometimes not very friendly. I wanted to be part of it, so I started a blog and began posting miscellaneous things about books we read for the course. I made some friends and I liked it so much that I stayed and here I am a year later still writing stuff about books I read :)

A lot has changed in this year, not only online, but today I was thinking about things I got to know through blogging, and there happens to be a lot!

1) There are blogs out there that are not about politics/author's misery and loneliness/author's numerous kids or cats. Who would have thought?

2) TBR. YA. NA. BEA. SEO. It took me some time to figure out what all this stuff means. Moreover, I had never had a TBR pile before. How did I choose books? Oh, I don't remember. Somehow.

3) Read-a-thon. Read-a-long. Bloggiesta. Blogoversary. These are more self-explanatory, but they drive my spellchecker crazy.

4) There are such things as young adult, new adult, paranormal, dystopian and many more. The term literary fiction still kills me. Before I thought books were just books. Of course I made distinction between children's and adult books and between Fantasy/Sci-Fi and all the others, but that's pretty much all! If somebody told me he was reading mainly YA paranormal, I wouldn't have understood. Besides, I thought "mystery" meant something paranormal, not detective. My fault.

5) The lists! Soooo many bookish lists I haven't heard of. And the challenges! I've learned that I'm a hopeless addict of both.

6) Twitter and Google pages. Discovered them through one Bloggiesta challenge. I use them only for sharing though.

7) HTML. Blogger compose is sometimes driving me crazy, and then I open some guide and write the bloody HTML code myself. Comparing with different programming languages, it's surprisingly easy.

8) USA people are just more religious than Europeans. So if a blogger mentions God and blessings in his posts, or starts his "about" page with a statement that he's a Christian, this doesn't necessarily mean he's a crazy religious fanatic. In fact, he can be a really nice and interesting person. BTW, Christian fiction is another type of literature that I would have never guessed exists.

9) Homeschooling. I was wondering for some time, and then Jean explained it to me. I thought one can only avoid going to school if he/she has a condition.

10) There are places where seasons change on the 21st of each month. I've seen it on some blog very recently and I still need somebody to explain it to me. Volunteers? :)

11) Book promotion: tours, interviews, even book trailers!! I never thought books needed any promotion at all and was never exposed to any.

12) There are people who are actually interested in your thoughts about a book. My BF is very well read (and no surprise, considering how fast he reads!), but he usually becomes bored when I start talking about books unless we've had some alcohol before :) People at work are too busy to read a lot, my parents wear glasses and so also shun from straining their eyes, and friends are too distracted by the Internet and also don't read enough to make a bookish conversation interesting for me. Knowing that there are people for whom reading is as important as for me makes me feel less a freak :)

I guess there are much more things I learned through blogging, but that's all that came to my mind today. I'm thankful for the blogging experience, and I must also thank everybody around here for enhancing it! Thank you! :)

September 17, 2013

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (Review)

Title: Brideshead Revisited
Author: Evelyn Waugh
First published: 1945
Add it: Goodreads, The Book Depository
Rating: ★★★★★

Waugh is a very clever writer. He can be hilariously funny and in the next moment really heartbreaking. And then both at the same time. Brideshead Revisited is a mourning for pre-war high society life in England, which was swept away by the calamities of the early 1940th. The protagonist, Charles Ryder, who is now an infantry commander, finds his platoon relocated to a big country house, which happens to belong to a family he had a lot of connections with and where he has spent some of the most memorable moments of his life.

The first part of the novel tells about the happier days in Oxford, full of parties, drinking and friendly feelings. Charles gets close with Sebastian Flyte, whose family resides in Brideshead, and so his visits there begin. Sebastian's family can't be called ideal: his mother and his father live separately, children feel oppressed, and all these problems are aggravated with religious discord. Religion is much discussed in the novel, and although I usually don't like plunging into this controversial topic, Waugh made it interesting and avoided preaching. Over time, Charles meets all the members of this curious family and is able to observe how family influence and personal decisions collapse in each of them to form their futures.

Comparing with Decline and Fall, which we read at the University, Brideshead Revisited is much darker and much more philosophical. War has irrevocably changed English society, and this of course has in its turn changed Waugh's writing dramatically. But I think I liked Brideshead even more for its seriousness and melancholy. Its mood is unforgettable, and I really enjoyed it.

In my book:
A true classic of the 20. century British literature. I'm not sure if I can say anything which can surpass this.

September 12, 2013

The Ocean At The End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (Review)

Title: The Ocean At The End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
First published: 2013
Add it: Goodreads, The Book Depository
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Everybody seems to be crazy about The Ocean At The End of the Lane, so I feel a little uncomfortable writing a 3-star review for this new Neil Gaiman novel. I hope nobody will hate me for this :)

Let's start with the positive, anyway. Gaiman's language is awesome, there is no doubt to it. So the writing is what I really enjoyed. I also liked the beginning: a middle-aged man comes to the village where he grew up and remembers the time when he was 7. The child's perspective is very believable, which is a rare virtue in books, and some of the fears and anxieties the young protagonist is experiencing are very familiar and easily recognizable. I think I'm one of many readers who can really identify with the boy.

So the beginning, dealing with life of a normal 7-year-old boy, is wonderful, but then... Then the weird stuff starts to happen. Don't get me wrong: I like weird stuff, especially if it's Gaiman-written, but in this novel it just didn't work for me. I guess the main problem was that it was not subtle enough. Spooky flying ragged things? Meh. Scary black birds tearing reality apart? Again, not very impressive. So in the end I wished this book to be less obviously paranormal and the events to be less cumbersome. Evil housemaid, for example, was good, really good. Her wickedness could be a child's imagination, or she could really be some evil creature. What is real and what is an imagination of a child who is too fond of books? More of this kind of suspense could have worked much better than the ragged things.

In my book:
It is an good book, but most of the fantastic things didn't work for me. The writing is awesome, though, and makes it worth reading anyway.

P.S. We'll have a discussion of The Ocean At The End of the Lane at Coursera Fantasy and Sci Fi book club this weekend. It's gonna be fun!

September 11, 2013

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (Review)

Title: Titus Groan
Author: Mervyn Peake
First published: 1946
Add it: Goodreads, The Book Depository
Rating: ★★★★★

I was hesitant to write this review, because the book is so magnificent that I just don't feel equal to reviewing it as it deserves. Reading it was a unique experience: for a week I could think of nothing else than the world of Gormenghast. I dreamed of it at night, and kept the book nearby during the day when I couldn't read. And when I could, everything else just stopped existing.

There is only one rule to reading Titus Groan: you don't rush it. You observe and remember every stone of the gloomy and monstrous castle, you inhale its dusty air, you respect its sacred ancient traditions and you behave properly. You do not look for action or change. It is so inappropriate! And if things do happen, it takes them all the time they need to unfold in all their minuteness. If you rush, you just miss everything worth reading it for. I made this mistake in the beginning, as I always read fast, and when I understood I was doing it wrong, I re-read the first 20 pages or so, devouring every word. I was rewarded by the most vivid images black characters on white paper can create. Just listen to it:
"Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping arch, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow."

Now that you've had a glimpse of the magnificent writing, I'll give you an idea of the plot. The novel revolves around the birth of an heir to the castle: an event influencing everybody from the Earl to the last Scrubber in the kitchen. But more happens on this day, something not noticed by anybody, but which will result in the most dramatic events in the future: Steerpike, a boy from the kitchens, starts his long and unscrupulous way to the power by escaping his confinement through the window to the roofs of the castle. His Machiavellian notions and wonderful ability to influence people and make the best of every situation will change the life in the castle drastically and for ever.

In my book:
Titus Groan is dark, disturbing and magical. This is fantasy that becomes really real in the mind of the reader thanks to its spellbinding writing. How could I put it off for such a long time? I don't know.

September 9, 2013

Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire (Review)

Title: Paris Spleen
Author: Charles Baudelaire
First published: 1851
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Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Reviews here are getting shorter and shorter as I'm more and more engulfed in Titus Groan. But sometimes I need to make breaks and fit in other stuff, as for example this book of Baudelaire's "poetry" for The Modern and the Postmodern course. The reason for putting "poetry" in quotation marks is that these short writings are called "poems in prose", which means they are just short sketches with some philosophical motive.

The author is killing his time strolling through Paris, making encounters, drinking, smoking, philosophizing and writing it all down. The result is somewhat weird, somewhat enraging and very wacky. I couldn't help wishing the author being put to some medical treatment, because he is not only self-destructive, but also dangerous for others. Baudelaire's embrace of life in all its manifestations resulted in his death of syphilis, by the way. Very predictable.

In my book:
I'm not a fan of "weird french stuff", and this collection was beside the mark. The author could have benefited from more flogging in his childhood.

September 5, 2013

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (Review)

Title: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
Author: Jonas Jonasson
First published: 2009
Add it: Goodreads, The Book Depository 
Rating: ★★★☆☆

This book may be an "international publishing sensation", but the premise is anything but new. A disrespectful attitude to historical personae and an impudent handling of history in general are the same as in My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl, and a suitcase full of money and an adventurous elder seem to be both taken directly from Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene. And unfortunately Jonas Jonasson doesn't have as much talent as any of the above mentioned writers :) I may seem too strict and this search for similarities may seem unnecessary, but read all three of them and you'll see that they are so alike that making comparisons is totally inevitable :)

This said, I rather enjoyed the book, as I like such hilarious and unbelievable plots. The novel is cute, but I had expected more of it. The book is positioned as humorous, but I didn't actually laugh once. I'd say it's just a relaxing and amusing read, nothing more. I was reading it while recovering after an operation, and it fitted the day of lying on my back and not moving perfectly, which means it kept me occupied and distracted, but it's not great literature by any means :)

In my book:
An amusing holiday read, but Dahl and Green did it better :)

September 3, 2013

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (Review)

Title: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Author: Ransom Riggs
First published: 2011
Add it: Goodreads, The Book Depository
Rating: ★★★★☆

I wasn't expecting much of this book, because it's not what I usually read. It's YA, paranormal, and pictures creepy children. Not really my cup of tea. But I have learned to trust the taste of guys in Coursera Fantasy and Sci Fi book club, and it was chosen for reading this March. I must say I was pleasantly surprised with this novel, and quite enjoyed reading it, at least in the beginning.

The main innovative idea of the book is to use vintage photography as a part of the narrative. I think everybody have seen at least some of those strange pre-photoshop photos showing headless people and other creepy stuff. Well, the author is exploring what would the models look like, is the photos were not modified. In the beginning the photos even fit smoothly in the narrative, and the first third of the book is rather amazing. Then it suddenly turns into some weird mix of Harry Potter and X-Men, the photos become less beautiful and fitting, and the novel drags a bit. It finishes well, however, with the promise of some time loop jumping in the next book, which I'm not sure I'll read though.

In my book:
A surprisingly well-written work of its type, but I would cut short some of the middle part and make some of the last part less YA. But the beginning and the idea is great!

September 1, 2013

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (Review)

Title: Wives and Daughters
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
First published: 1865
Add it: Goodreads, The Book Depository
Rating: ★★★★☆

I was reading Wives and Daughters through the whole summer along with Unputdownables read-a-long. Not many people survived until the end, because the book is over 700 pages long and drags a bit in the middle, but I'm happy I read it to the end, because what happens on the last 150-200 pages is simply amazing. This is my first Gaskell, and I'm sure it will not be the last!

The novel tells about Molly Gibson, a straightforward, good girl, brought up by her father, a country doctor, alone, following her mother's death. Molly and her father have a wonderful trusting relationship, and are very happy together, until one day Mr. Gibson intercepts a letter from his student to Molly and realizes that she is already in an interesting age, and it's dangerous to leave her without a mother. So he marries again to Mrs. Kirkpatrick, also a widow, and with a daughter of Molly's age. The only problem is that the two families are so different in their moral principles and ways of life, that their new life together is bound to become... interesting.

But the reader not only has one house to peep into, the whole town of Hollingford is inhabited with curious characters, who constitute the social life of the Gibsons. There are the reach Cumnors in the Towers, who is looked up to by everybody and answer it with shameless interference in the private life of the townspeople. There is an old family at Hamley hall: squire Hamley, being a strict and harsh master and father, his weak and refined wife and his two sons, so different and sometimes troublesome to him. There is a wide variety of townspeople spending their days gossiping, playing cards in the evening, making visits and going to a local ball once in three years. And all this is written with such skill and loving care, that Hollingford becomes frightfully real for the reader.

What I liked most in the book is the characters. Molly is a darling, and her father is the best father ever, so it's easy to love them, but it is amazing how well Gaskell writes negative characters. The new Mrs. Gibson is such a wonderful hypocrite and schemer, who is always thinking only about herself, but pretends to be caring and helpful, that I wanted to kick her hard for the whole book, and I like it when I feel strongly about the characters. Her daughter Cynthia is also remarkable for her thoughtless flirtations, lack of character and down-to-earth view of the future.

For those who like good adaptations, I'd recommend watching 1999 BBC mini-series called Wives and Daughters, which is very close to the book and have a wonderful cast.

In my book:
It's an intricate and complex book in the best traditions of a 19th century novel. Gaskell writes masterfully, and although a bit too long in some places, the novel is a wonderful and unforgettable read.

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