31 May 2011

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Anne Bronte often seems like the "other" Bronte sister.  Not as prolific as Charlotte, not as sweepingly Romantic as Emily.  But while we chew our nails and involve ourselves in the swirling stories of Jane and Cathy and Rochester and Heathcliff, Anne takes a different tack in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  She tells the story of Helen and Gilbert and Arthur "straight" and it's subject matter was all the more shocking to Victorian England for that reason.

In short, their story is one that seems entirely contemporary:  a young man meets a mysterious new neighbor - a widowed woman and her little boy - and grows to love her but comes to learn that she is in hiding from an abusive husband.  For us, this is a story for the newsfeeds but for Victorians it was more like rudely airing one's dirty laundry.  Women's rights, spousal abuse, and alcoholism are all brought forth over the course of the novel.  Helen refused to have sex with her husband, an act that a husband was entitled to whenever and wherever he chose

The novel sold out its first printing in six weeks, selling better than Wuthering Heights, even though the critical opinions were mixed.  Several magazines, though, warned women to avoid reading the book because of its fixation on coarse language and scenes of debauchery.  Anne wrote a Preface to the second edition - one in which she states she did not write to amuse but to tell the truth - but Charlotte suppressed further printings after Anne's death.  The precise reasons are unknown but in a letter she though Anne's subject matter poorly chosen.  (I did a great deal of research on the Brontes for a Victorian poetry course, so know most of this first-hand, but the Wikipedia article on the book sums it all up nicely, with references).

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall doesn't flow nearly as well as Jane Eyre or Shirley or Villette having a somewhat convoluted storyline like Wuthering Heights.  The book starts with a letter from Gilbert to his brother-in-law explaining how Gilbert met his wife (the "frame" of the letter gets a bit long in the tooth and we have to assume it is supposed to be multiple letters).  Gilbert's "letter" recounts his life from the time "Mrs. Graham"/Helen moved into the old Wildfell Hall until the point she gives Gilbert her old diary to explain why she can't marry him.  The "letter" proceeds to recount word-for-word the diary of a young woman swept off her feet by a dashing rake she thinks just needs a good wife to reform him.  Bollocks to that.  The diary section of the novel is quite long.  It does get a bit far-fetched when Helen's entries are pages long and contain many conversations but there aren't very many ways to give such a large backstory to the reader.  At the end of the diary pages, the letter reverts back to Gilbert's point-of-view and he finishes out his tale.

Helen is a remarkable character and for her creation during an era when married women were treated more as objects by law it says a great deal about Anne's thoughts on the matter. Gilbert is a somewhat annoying character. His pursuit of Helen begins to border on the obsessive. Arthur, as Helen's drunken rake of a husband, is the kind of dastardly character for whom comeuppance doesn't come nearly soon enough.  I quite liked the book and found it very readable.  Not as moving as Jane Eyre with respect to the actual writing nor as wildly imaginative as Wuthering Heights but an excellent realist Victorian novel.

After I finished the book I watched the 1996 BBC miniseries with Tara FitzGerald (Helen), Toby Stephens (Gilbert), and the always-yummy Rupert Graves as the reprobate Arthur.  A very good adaptation of the book, well-acted and costumed, a good costume-drama as expected from the BBC.

22 May 2011

I think I'm obsessed!

Soooo...I've just read four very long books, like almost 3500 pages, in about three weeks.

I keep checking a television show website and fan pages for clips because I don't get the channel.

I think I'm obsessed with Game of Thrones.

When does the fifth book come out again?  Glad I only have to wait one month because I can totally understand why people have been asking about A Dance with Dragons for years.

21 May 2011

A Feast for Crows

I'll be writing about book four in a series, so be warned I'm going to spoil books one though three.

Pretty sure my eyes bugged out at the end of A Storm of Swords (there's an Epilogue that blows your mind in the second to last paragraph).  Some swearing occured, too, mostly along the lines of "Fuck!"  And then I went and downloaded A Feast for Crows right away so I could keep on reading.

So...Jon is now Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, Arya is roaming about the countryside with Sandor Clegane, Joffrey's dead because he was poisoned in a scheme so complicated it makes my head spin, Tyrion was tried for it - and lost his trial by battle - then Jaime decided to free him only Tyrion killed Lord Tywin while sneaking out of King's Landing with Varys, and Sansa was spirited off to the Vale by Littlefinger wherein he shoved Lysa out the Moon Door.

Shit gets real (after a Prologue that seems to make no sense until the end of the book). 

Everybody and their brother gets POV chapters in AFoC - the first chapter is from the POV of the "The Prophet" aka Damphair aka Aeron Greyjoy, the second "The Captain of Guards" aka Hotah, the Prince Doran's axe-wielding bodyguard (but we get to meet some of Prince Oberyn's daughters and they are a nasty bunch), and in chapter three we finally get a chapter from someone we know.  And it turns out to be Cersei, of all people, and let me tell you that is one unsympathetic character.  Didn't like her to start with, I like her even less by the end of the book.  Other new POV chapters come from Brienne, "The Kraken's Daughter" aka Asha Greyjoy, "The Soiled Knight" (which is a really interesting chapter, due to the turn of events in it), "The Iron Captain", "The Drowned Man", "The Queenmaker", etc. 

I'm not sure why GRRM switched from exclusively proper-named chapters to using more descriptive titles.  With character names as chapter titles, signalling the POV of the chapter, it gave no hint as to the tone of the chapter but something like "The Kraken's Daughter" indicates Asha's stance that she feels she is Balon Greyjoy's heir and should succeed her father on Pyke.  Sharp readers will figure out what's going on in those chapters ahead of time.  Maybe that's the point.

Now, here's the irritating thing about this book: it's only half a book.  GRRM split the narrative into two but he didn't do it chronologially.  He did it geographically.  Say what?  So AFoC follows Arya on Braavos, Samwell (with Maester Aemon and Gilly) on his way around Westeros to Oldtown, Cersei's shennanigans in King's Landing, Jaime trying to win a war without actually fighting one, Brienne (and Pod) looking everywhere for Sansa, Sansa in the Vale, characters in Dorne we've never met before, and the Greyjoys as they do whatever Greyjoys so (which seems to be raping and pillaging).  We don't hear from Jon, Daenerys, Tyrion, Stannis, Davos, &etc., which is worrying because there's a reference to Davos and it doesn't bode well at all.  Their stories will all be in the next book, due out in July, which will run concurrent and then a little past this one as far as chronology.  WTF.  I have to wait until after book five to see what happens to Sansa and Cersei (and I really hope Cersei gets it, too).

*Audiobook slightly disappointing - no Roy Dotrice (sad face).  The narrator was John Lee.  He did a credible job but I missed some of Dotrice's particular voices (although with no Tyrion I did not have to listen to a different Tyrion) but John Lee sounds exactly like Christopher Lee.  Seriously.  I have Wiki'd and Googled and IMDB'd Christopher Lee and he seems to have no sons, only one daughter.  I am strangely disappointed.

18 May 2011

A Storm of Swords

I'll be referring to events that have happened in book 1, A Game of Thrones, and book 2, A Clash of Kings, so you might want to skip this post if you don't want to read any spoilers.

So, instead of opening A Storm of Swords with Jon (captured by wildings), Arya (just having escaped Harrenhal and that pack of homicidal nutters, the Bloody Mummers), Sansa (stuck in King's Landing), Catelyn (who just let Jaime escape Riverrun with Brienne the Beauty and some Lannister), Daenerys (sailing from Qarth after torching some freaky magicians/sorcerers), or even Bran (escaping the ruins of Winterfell with Rickon, Osha, and the kids from Deepwood Motte), we open on a Prologue narrated by a very, very put-upon Brother of the Night's Watch and then get our first real chapter narrated by...Jaime?  The arrogant sister-loving Kingslayer gets his own POV chapters now?  Odd....

This is helpful, actually.  Through Jaime we learn more about Aerys the Mad King and some of Jaime's true motivation behind his act of assassination.  We also learn a little more about why Lannisters act the way they do - which doesn't make him endearing, it just clears the air.  Jaime also develops a sudden weight-loss in the book which makes him a much more sympathetic character and he stops being a arrogant prick.  Some of the time.

Daenerys is, well, still the Mother of Dragons and off in Essos.  Her dragons are a little bigger but instead of heading for Westeros to take back the Iron Throne she somehow progresses to a one-woman abolishionist movement, crushing the cities of Astapor and Mereen (once she's bought and freed some many thousand Unsullied to fight for her - that was a clever trick).  A character we haven't seen since the beginning of ACoK pops back up and that gets pretty interesting.

Sansa really starts to develop in this book and you really feel sorry for her.  She has no one to trust and she's forced to marry Tyrion.  We know Tyrion isn't a bad guy (out of all the Lannisters, he's probably the most decent, well, except for Kevan but we don't get his POV), since we get to read his chapters, but Sansa sees him only as a Lannister.  Those times when she ought to confess the truth of what she's feeling to him all she sees is Lannister crimson and can't trust him.  But she goes on an adventure at the very end - I would love to have a POV chapter for Petyr Baelish.  That man is crafty. 

We catch back up with Davos (who I quite like), Arya's storyline seems unclear, and Sam gets his own POV chapters (poor guy but he has a good heart) but it's Catelyn's last chapter that really sets the tone for what I think will be the remainder of the series.  The Red Wedding sequence proves that no one in this epic has any integrity (except maybe Davos and Jon, we will see).

*Audio by Roy Dotrice, too - excellent, and we get to hear his Walder Frey voice again.

14 May 2011

A Clash of Kings

I'll be referring to events that have happened in book 1, A Game of Thrones, so you might want to skip this post if you don't want to read any spoilers.

So, A Clash of Kings picks up with Jon heading north of the Wall with the Night's Watch (to rout the Others and/or wildings, both of which sound like a bad idea), Arya has been rescued by Yoren and is now disguised as a boy destined for the Wall (but will be dropped off at Winterfell on the way by), Catelyn and Robb are at Riverrun where they have Jaime held prisoner, Sansa is stuck in King's Landing with Cersei and her crazy-inbred son Joffrey, Tyrion has been dispatched to King's Landing to sort out the mess Joffrey caused by beheading Eddard Stark, and Daenerys, well, she's still wandering around Essos but now she has her own tribe and three dragons.

Dragons, holla.  But they are baby dragons and need protecting.  (Oh, and Bran and Rickon are still at Winterfell, boring.)

GRRM's world gets a little bigger and then a little bigger.  We meet ever more characters, learn complicated backstories.  It's impressive and ultimately very, very readable.  Once you have a favorite character (Tyrion, Jon, Sansa - who gets progressively more sympathetic because you have to remember she's only, what, eleven and currently caught in a metaphorical pit of vipers, and a new character, Davos) you have to read madly to find out just what happens to that person in the next chapter (flipping back to the table of contents to see when they might next appear).  The amazing Battle of the Blackwater sequence closes the King's Landing portion (echoed in Jon's fight with the wildings).  Since this is book two of a projected seven, and considering the character everyone thought would last through the end (Eddard) got the chop on the steps of Baelor's sept, it's hard to tell where GRRM is going.  Which is the mark of a master storyteller, in my opinion.

*I have since listend to the audio book, still narrated by Roy Dotrice, and IT IS AMAZING.  Again.

10 May 2011

A Game of Thrones

In the fall of my senior year of high school I took a class called "Contemporary Literature" and it was the easiest class I've ever taken.  We had to read six books greater than 200 pages each published after 1981, write one character bio, one book report, draw one book cover, and do one other thing (that I can't remember anymore).  If we read a book over 600 pages it counted as two books...so guess who read three James Clavells and one Tom Clancy in about two months thus acquiring a permanent pass to the school library for the rest of the semester during the class period?  Me, and I started with the "A"s and read my way through the sci-fi/fantasy section of the library.  Fun, yes, but with the consequence that I binged on fantasy literature so much that I stopped reading the genre when I started college. 

Meaning I never read George RR Martin's A Game of Thrones when it was first released in 1996 (I started college in 1996 so giant, fat hardcovers that I was reading included my biology textbook and very few, if any, novels).  I continued to not read it even after I started working for a bookstore and about about every third week some sad-eyed fantasy fan would come ask if we had a release date for "A Song of Ice and Fire #5" or "George RR Martin's Dragon book" (which we didn't, this being 2007 or later).

However, HBO has got a miniseries up and running based on the series - Game of Thrones.  And it has Sean Bean.  And Lena Headey....and it looks good.  Really good.  So good, in fact, that I stalked the show's website looking at the videos posted there.  I decided that I really ought to at least read the first book in the series.  I don't get HBO (I refuse to pay the insane amount of money it would take for me to get the three channels I want to watch along with the 250 other channels I don't care about) so what do I have to lose?

Only my sanity.  I ordered up A Game of Thrones on my handy-dandy nook and spent all Friday evening, Friday night, and Saturday reading.  Reading, reading, reading.  I couldn't stop.  I couldn't have found a place to stop if I had to (and I didn't need to, so lucky me).

This is a fantasy book that is light on the obvious fantasy elements.  "The Others" live north of a giant Wall of ice that was apparently built by magic centuries ago.  The seasons are irregular, summers and winters last for years.  There is talk of dragons and mages but no one has seen a dragon for hundreds of years (there are dragon skulls in the secret passages of the castle in King's Landing).  The Stark children find direwolves - gigantic, prehistoric-ish wolves that supposedly don't ever live south of the Wall.

Martin structures the book very cleverly.  Each chapter is told through the viewpoint of one character so the narration passes around to the characters unevenly - Bran, Eddard, Jon, Catelyn, Sansa, Arya (all Starks so far), Tyrion (a Lannister), and Daenerys (an exiled Targaryen).  If you have a favorite character *cough* Tyrion *cough* you eagerly wait for the narration to get back to him/her.  The similarity of Westeros to Arthurian/Medieval tales was a big draw for me and I got into the extensive heraldry Martin uses.

Here's where I talk plot points and big cojones (if you haven't read the book and don't want it spoiled for you then quit reading now....ok, henceforth you are forewarned).  GRRM has a set of stones, let me tell you.  Very few authors would be ballsy enough to set up a major moral center for a story (Eddard Stark), give him a fatal flaw (honor), and then BEHEAD HIM in the climax to book one of your seriously epic series.  Seriously.  I started shouting, paging back in my nook, then forward, then back, repeating, "I can't believe...he did...HE DID HE KILLED OFF THE MAIN CHARACTER!!!"  Now who's the good guy?  Are then any good guys?  Also, everyone in this book is young, really young.  As in, Daenerys is thirteen when she gets married off to a horselord (think, nomadic hunter/gatherer tribe) and the gets pregnant and widowed all within about nine months.  And the boys are all supposed to be crazy-good knights by the age of fifteen or so....  I agree with the writing decision of the HBO producers to age everyone by two or three years.  The young ages of the kids works in the book but it is a little icky or improbable...and doubly so if on the television screen.

A Game of Thrones is a book that really reminds me of an old storyteller, sitting by the fire and telling the tallest tales imaginable.  You hang on every word.  So much so, I already bought books two through four and pre-ordered book five for my nook.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go see what happens to Sansa with Cersei's clutches and if Jon turns into ghost chow (haha, made a pun - only if you've read the books).

Addendum:  Have since acquired A Game of Thrones on audio read by the amazing Roy Dotrice.  The man got a Guiness World Record for the number of distinct character voices he creates for this audio book.  It. Is. Amazing.  Love his voices for Tyrion and Walder Frey - fantastic.

06 May 2011


Now, everyone who knows me knows that I'm not a comic book geek.  I can appreciate the work and the artistry that goes into writing graphic novels and comics but I don't get much out of reading them.  Most of my knowledge of the "Thor" series comes from the movie Adventures in Babysitting (one of the kids is a Thor fan).  However, I am a huge Kenneth Branagh fan and that alone (well, OK, the prospect of Anthony Hopkins as Odin helped, too) got me out to the theatre on opening weekend to see Thor.

I can't say much about Thor as a comic book adaptation because I don't know much about the source material.  Only....this does look like a Thor comic, from what I've seen, and the storyline is decently plotted.  There aren't crazy plot jumps or really bad plotholes (like the whole hey-we-have-this-gun-with-adamantium-bullets-and-a-sharpshooter-who-can't-miss-but-we're-not-going-to-give-him-the-gun-to-stop-Logan mess in X-men: Wolverine).  Chris Hemsworth looks like Thor - big, blond, and not very bright, but hotter than hot because he has to be a Norse god.  Anthony Hopkins is Odin - who else would you want as the Allfather?  Natalie Portman is neither here nor there for me - it's kind of a role that any younger actress could pull off easily - but it is nice to see her in a fun popcorn movie in a role where she doesn't look tortured onscreen.

And then there is Kenneth Branagh.  Say what you will about Shakespeare, yadda yadda yadda, because Branagh was a great choice as the director  (and I love all Branagh's Shakespeare adaptations, even As You Like It, right up until the very end when the Happy Japanese Peasants do an English country dance...what's that about?).  This version of Thor is essentially a Shakespearean history play come to life...yup, Henry IV, parts1 and 2 and Henry V.  Thor is an arrogant jerk, disrespects his father, and gets his drinking buddies in trouble by stirring up a war in Jotunheim; Prince Hal is an arrogant jerk, disrespects his father, and gets into trouble at Falstaff's behest.  Thor gets banished to Earth to learn to behave himself and subsequently understands how to be an adult; Prince Hal inherits the throne and decides that he can't rule England if he runs around with drunken lowlifes.  And so on.  Branagh even brings in his long-time composer, Patrick Doyle, who has created a really expansive score for Thor and I've loved his film music since Henry V (Non nobis, anyone?).

Thor is a great movie to watch - the visual effects are stunning.  They shot the Earth sequences on location in New Mexico and the expanse of sky is something you just can't duplicate with CG.  Asgard was designed with this amazing Art Deco/steampunk-ish vibe with vast, sweeping gold buildings and an amazing, breathtaking field of stars that comprise Yggdrasil.  Idris Elba, who plays Heimdall the Guardian, has this amazing gate he uses to open the Bifrost bridge and his costume blends into it in such an amazing way.

I have to really call one performance to the fore and that is Tom Hiddleston as Loki.  It could be really easy to play Loki off as just a goofy trickster like the Joker or the Riddler in Batman.  Hiddleston, though, imbues the part with such a subtle shading of emotions that you're not quite sure where Loki's real motivations lie.  Is he merely jealous?  Spiteful?  Evil?  Overgrown child?  I'm still not sure but I can't wait to see what Joss Wheedon has him do in The Avengers movie coming out next May (Chris Hemsworth, too - Thor does grow on you).

I had so much fun with Thor - can you tell?

(Sorry no previews - I forgot to write myself a note!!  I want to say one was for Xmen: First Class and one was for Conan...but don't quote me on it.)

05 May 2011

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

Three years after her oldest sister died of cancer, Nina Sankovitch began a reading project: she would read a book per day for one year.  The love of books was one she shared with her sister.  Reading in her purple chair - a flea-shop-type find well-loved by children and the family cat - Sankovitch finds both the escape and the space to heal she has been searching for.  Her reading project becomes Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.

As the year passes, Sankovitch weaves together her reading exploits with the memoir of her family, the history of her Polish-Dutch immigrant parents and her relationship with her husband, Jack, and their four boys.  The book is funny, sweet, and sad by turns.

For some reason, I didn't connect with Sankovitch.  I was looking for a book that went from book to book to book, looking at what she read, how she read it, how each book informed the choice of the next.  Instead, this is really a memoir about a woman who learns to accept her life for the joy that is in it and, occasionally, she writes about the books she reads but not all 365 of them - the alphabetized list in the back doesn't really give me a sense of her year of reading.  For me, the books she read blurred together in between the story about her family, her parents, her sister, her children.  Sankovitch is a lovely writer, with good prose and a nice touch to her sentences but I didn't really feel anything solid reading her book.  I get the distinct impression I should have felt...something.  And that really is the worst part - I have no strong feeling about this book so it's very hard to write anything about it.

Dear FTC, I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

03 May 2011

A Jane Austen Education

I never had to read a Jane Austen for school.  At least, not on the first read.  My grandmother gave me an Illustrated Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice when I was eight or nine.  Yes, I read it.  I didn't quite "get it" but I liked the story.  I read an unabridged edition in junior high and fell in love with Jane Austen.  I read Persuasion and fell head-over-heels for Captain Weentworth (that letter can still make me feel like melting through the floorboards).  I read Emma and, yes, I agreed with the Mighty Austen that Emma was a character that really only she would love (I just wanted to slap Miss Woodhouse for being such a snot).  Marianne is bonkers (dudes, if the guy is too good to be true he probably is) but Elinor needs to lighten up.  Fanny is sweet; a door-mat to her evil Aunt Norris but sweet.  Catherine is a loveable book-geek and who hasn't let her imagination run away with her?

William Deresiewicz didn't read an Austen novel until he was in his second year of grad school at the age of twenty-six.  He was a modernist, a reader of Faulkner, Nabokov, Mailer, Kerouac (also, he admits he was a tool, an inconsiderate immature one at that).  Long, preachy nineteenth-century British novels were not high on his reading list.  Boooring.  But then, he had to read Emma in a course on the novel.  At first he didn't like it - boring, nothing happens, Emma's neighbors are all nitwits, her father, too - although he did like Emma herself because she was a big fish in the little pond of Highbury, looking down on her inferiors.  But then...he started to notice that the focus of the novel was on the "minute particulars" of everyday life, that to avoid looking at the little things was to let your life pass you by and that looking at those little things meant your life had weight, that your acquainances meant something to you. 

Deresiewicz started applying Austen's observations to his life: Emma is about appreciating the little things, Pride and Prejudice about learning to be an adult (he provides the best short-hand description of Darcy ever: "haughty as a Siamese cat, practically licking himself clean whenever someone touched him the wrong way"), Northanger Abbey the habit of learning, Mansfield Park learning to be useful to others (the chapter subtitle "being good" is a bit of a misnomer), Persuasion how to be a good friend (he doesn't even touch on the Anne-Frederick romance...not even the letter), and Sense and Sensibility how to love.  Along the way, Deresiewicz brings in letters from Austen and her family to illuminate some of her lessons.  It's a little bit of literary criticism and a little bit of memoir and a lot of JA love all rolled into one.

Deresciewicz and I come at the novels from two different places but we both learned the same things (well, OK, I'm still learning).  We both learned to appreciate people, to avoid emotional drains, to avoid jumping to conclusions, to shut up and listen, to give people the benefit of the doubt, and to trust (I have trouble with the trust thing).  It's the benefit of A Jane Austen Education.

02 May 2011


When I saw a list of new NYRB Classics announcing the publicataion of Jean-Patrick Manchette's Fatale, I briefly didn't care what the book was about.  I wanted it because of the cover design.

Ah-mazing photography by Neil Krug.  I would buy a print but this series, with Joni Alexander as model, is out of my price range as well as, I think, sold out.

However, disappointment in my inability to purchase good art aside, the book is good, too.  If you've ever seen Le Circle Rouge or French New Wave films like The 400 Blows then you'll understand the stylistic nature of Machette's story.  "Aimee" is the ultimate femme fatale, no pun intended.  As the reader, one is never quite sure what her motivation is - contract killer?  Hit woman?  Sociopathic serial killer?  Essentially, she means trouble for a sleepy French town.

Fatale is a short book - a novella, really, clocking in at only 90 pages - but well worth reading.  Go - read it.

01 May 2011

May 2011 at Literature by Women

Please join Literature by Women in May as we read and discuss Anne Bronte's controversial novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  We're taking five weeks for the discussion so it doesn't become too compressed.

In other news, I am the proud possessor of a new piano courtesy of a once-in-a-lifetime deal at West Music.  I love it, LOVE IT!  I can't wait to dig all my piano music out of my parents' basement (although, I'm afraid mom might have appropriated a few due to weddings, etc., and I think a few of my favorite pieces are actually hers...le sigh) and I ordered my first new book of music in fifteen years - Harry Potter!