TERESA’S BOOKSHELF – “CHICK LIT” EDITION: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Book: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004)

Author: Susanna Clarke

Chosen because: Female author; female illustrator – Portia Rosenberg

Finally, after almost three years of picking it up and putting it down again (and I know when I started reading it, because I was using my ticket stub from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway in 2011 as a bookmark), I finished it!

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke…I have BEATEN YOU.

It’s the story of two magicians in 19th Century England. Mr. Norrell is an old fogey who thinks that being a magician is an elite thing that requires decades of study, tons of books, and isolation. Jonathan Strange is a handsome, younger man who becomes one of Mr. Norrell’s best pupils, and thinks that magic should be more accessible to everyone and that Mr. Norrell is totally unfairly hoarding his knowledge (not to mention all the books in his kick-ass library!). Wackiness – including several people being stolen away to Faerie, travel and war, and one instance of a severed finger – ensues.

A large part of me enjoyed the hell out of this book. It was as if Jane Austen wrote a Tolkien novel. There’s tons of humor, well-rounded characters, and a seemingly huge knowledge of genre. Clarke clearly knows and loves English fantasy literature. Also, I’m a sucker for books for adults that have illustrations, and Portia Rosenberg’s illustrations do a great job of  evoking the magical environment of Clarke’s 19th Century England.

So, why did it take me three years to finish it?

Well, at 846 pages, it’s long, and not an easy “Harry Potter long.” It’s a dense book with even denser footnotes from alternate-history books that don’t even exist. The actual plot, though it involves a bunch of characters, is actually really simple and straightforward, but it often feels bogged down (and lost) in world-building. You could probably cut 200 pages from this book and have it be the same book, so that made it a bit of a slog. The parts I loved, I loved because they were more Austen than Tolkien, because of the commentary on humanity, manners, and our relationship to magic and stories. The parts that lost me – or rather, the parts during which I found myself distracted by other, shinier books – were the in-depth passages that dissected the faux history of magic in England.

I know, for many of you that’s probably exactly what you loved about the book. Fine. That’s why you’re you, and I’m me. 🙂

I have a thing about footnotes, too. If you’re going to build a world, you should be able to weave it seamlessly into the narrative. Footnotes, to me, scream The story doesn’t actually have anything to do with any of these details, but AREN’T THEY COOL? No, not really. I’d much rather get back to what the characters are doing, thanks.

Not that all the characters were great. There were entire swaths of characters – like the entire Greysteele family, for instance – who only seemed to exist to do this one thing, and I was all Couldn’t you just cut this whole stupid, boring family out and have one of the other characters do this one thing? Cause this family takes up a lot of prime real estate and they’re SO BORING.

The thing is, I kept coming back to the book, because much of it was well-written, and fun. Most of the characters also kept me coming back. It’s a testament to Clarke’s writing that I enjoyed getting to know these people, and I found myself wanting to get back to them. In addition to the titular magicians, the black servant, Stephen, was fascinating as he struggled between escaping from Faerie and going back to an England that looks down on people with his skin color. Strange’s wife, Arabella, was also interesting, and I found myself thinking that she could’ve done a lot better than Jonathan; and Norrell’s mysterious servant, Childermass has an intriguing journey from monosyllabic toughie to magic enthusiast.

This is Clarke’s first novel, and it’s a doozy. It’s really ambitious, and she’s clearly a talented writer. I just wish that she would’ve gotten out of her own way a bit, and trusted the fact that her story was good enough without all the superfluous footnotes and alternate history. The ending of the novel made it seem like we haven’t seen the last of these characters, and I feel like there must be a sequel in the works (there’s also a BBC mini-series in the works). I’m looking forward to it, and I hope that Clarke will go back to basics, keeping the magic, but losing the world-building for its own sake.

TERESA’S BOOKSHELF: Mockingjay and Wild Nights!: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway

Welcome back to Teresa’s Bookshelf! It’s been a while since this has been a regular feature. But just because I haven’t been writing about it doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. At the end of my last post, I mentioned that “up next” on The Bookshelf was Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, and that I was “currently reading” Wild Nights!: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway by Joyce Carol Oates. I’ve read those SO long ago that I couldn’t do a proper review at this point. However, here’s the short version of what I thought of those books, just in case anyone’s keeping track. 🙂

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins – I thought this was a harrowing, inevitable, and completely appropriate ending to The Hunger Games trilogy. What impressed me most about the entire series, culminating in this book, is that Collins never gives her characters what’s easy or palatable. Everything Katniss goes through is eerily close to how something like her situation might play out in real life, warts and all. The deaths and injuries that occur are not merely for shock value, but are integral to the kind of story this is, and deeply meaningful to Katniss. I love that Mockingjay doesn’t give Katniss a happy ending or a sad ending. Or an ending at all. It gives her a new chapter as an adult, a clean slate, to do with as she pleases.

Wild Nights!: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway by Joyce Carol Oates – To be completely honest, I prefer Joyce Carol Oates the short story author to Joyce Carol Oates the novelist. I’ve only read two of her many novels, and while I enjoyed them intellectually, for their craft, I didn’t enjoy them in that soft squishy place in my heart where books are beloved. Whenever I read her short stories, however, be they in The New Yorker, or in a collection, they always make me feel something. Wild Nights! is not only some of her best short work, but it’s one of my favorite short story collections of all time. Each story shows us each author in a completely honest (albeit fictional) way. They are none of them canonized or demonized. Oates is wonderful at wearing these writers’ voices and showing us the good and the bad, making us feel for the characters she’s created. I think that if any of these writers were still alive, they would choose these stories as their eulogies for themselves! Wild Nights! also contains one of my favorite sci-fi stories ever, “EDickinsonRepliluxe,” which tells the story of Emily Dickinson as A.I. years in the future; a future where people can have cylon-like dead celebrities live with them in their own homes. I don’t usually read books more than once – why reread things when there are so many other books I haven’t read yet? – but this one will be getting a reread in a couple of years. The stories are that good.

Well, that’s it for now! I’ll be playing catch-up with my reviews for a while, but from the next Bookshelf post on, each will be getting its own review. Hopefully, you’ll encounter a title that interests you and give it a read yourself! I hope so. And if you do, do me a favor and buy a copy from an indie bookstore, won’t you? Support your local bookshops. They need you.

Next on Teresa’s Bookshelf: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Currently Reading: Embassytown by China Miéville and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke

Clean-Up, Catch-Up, and Intros

Hey there, loyal readers! (all ten of you) You might have noticed that I’ve been a little ayzy-lay in the ogging-blay epartment-day. The past month’s been a little insane. Lots that I’ve tried to accomplish (but haven’t), financial insecurities, and by the way, I’m moving again! 🙂 My third time in nine months. Nothing horrible, mind you. Just time for me to move on. At this rate, I’ll have had quite the grand tour of Los Angeles before my L.A. Year One comes to a close!

However, even though I haven’t been posting much of substance this past month (save my response to Moviefone and this post about Girls), I’ve been sprucing the place up little by little. You might have noticed some new tabs up top – like **MERCHANDISE** and **PRESS** and **SPEAKING.** Check them out!

Also, I’m hoping to get back to some regular features here. Some new, some that I’ve done before and miss doing. I’m hoping to do more with the following old features:

Pop Goes Teresa – wherein I talk about pop music intelligently, because I don’t automatically equate “pop” with “bad” or “unimportant.” (check out one of my posts on Lady Gaga)

Teresa’s Bookshelf – wherein I review books I’ve read and make recommendations! (check out my most recent reviews HERE)

The Fray Project – wherein I challenge myself to be better. Yes, I’m still doing this, and starting next week, I’m getting back into the swing of daily posting on that. (Read all about the project HERE)

There will also be a new feature I’m calling MINORITY REPORT, wherein I will highlight awesome work/projects/progress made by women, racial/ethnic minorities, and LGBT folks in the media. There will be some critical stuff, too, but it’s important to me not only to complain about what’s wrong, but celebrate what’s right. This will be my space for that. And when I say “media,” I mean TV, Film, and Comics. 🙂

I also plan on doing more at my other blogs, The Gender Blender and Geek Girl Traveler, and I will be linking all that content here as it posts.

So, thank you for popping in and giving my words a gander. I hope you’ll come back to hang out and have a chat! I’ve got lots more chatter in store! 🙂

TERESA’S BOOKSHELF: Fables Vol. 3 – Storybook Love

When I read Volumes 1 and 2 of Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham’s Fables, I fell in love. I loved this irreverent, modern look at classic fairy tales. I also loved the idea of the fables that live on The Farm are at odds with the fables who can pass for “mundys” in the city. Such an interesting idea! Rose Red is a great character, and watching her go from Snow White’s bratty little sister to caretaker of the Farm was an interesting journey. And Goldilocks as a lefty political agitator? Awesome.

After I read Volume 2, I picked up Volume 3: Storybook Love immediately with the full intention of reading it. Then life got in the way, as did other books and comics. It sat on my “to be read” shelf for over a year…

And in that time, I grew annoyed with the trend of “retelling” fairy tales. From Gregory Maguire books (and the Broadway musicals based on them), to Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, to just about every SyFy movie (Red, Tin Man, Alice in Wonderland…), the constant barrage of retellings was getting on my nerves. Where are OUR fairy tales? I wondered. What happened to people inventing new characters and making up stories about THEM?!

And I think this weariness of fairy tale retellings affected my reading of Storybook Love. I found myself rolling my eyes at everything, because despite several interesting things happening with the characters, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was simply tired of this kind of story. My reaction wasn’t helped by a story that too often focused characters I never gave a crap about in the first place.

Storybook Love is divided into two parts, the first of which focuses on Bigby (ie: Big Bad Wolf, who is also the sheriff) leading an effort against a mundy (regular human) reporter who threatens to expose the fables as…vampires. (Yet another trend that’s long overstayed its welcome) The second part focuses on Bluebeard’s attempt to assassinate Snow White (deputy mayor of Fabletown) and Bigby by sending them into the woods under a spell, and sending Goldilocks after them with a gun. The first story, “A Sharp Operation,” fell flat for me. It was too clever for its own good, from the reporter thinking these immortal fables vampires, to using Briar Rose’s sleep enchantment to break into a building. Despite the supposed gravity of their situation, it all seemed so…cute.

The second half of the volume, the titular “Storybook Love,” was better, as Snow White and Bigby got closer as they fled for their lives. Goldilocks continues to be an intriguing character, and Snow and Bigby do have great chemistry. The twist with them at the end also makes me curious enough to continue the series. However, so much time was spent on Bluebeard and Prince Charming, two of the least interesting characters in the whole thing, that I found myself getting bored every time they appeared. Prince Charming’s desire for power means nothing to me, because I don’t care about him. And the attempt to “humanize” Bluebeard by making him upset about being a coward seemed forced.

The best part of the volume are the two one-offs that bookend the story arcs. The first issue, a one-off about Jack Horner (of Beanstalk fame) called “Bag O’ Bones,” is loosely based on the American “Mountain Jack” folktales, and tells the story of how Jack comes across a beautiful dying woman, captures death just so she can stay alive and he can have sex with her, then realizes that maybe a world where nothing dies isn’t the best idea ever. This issue is a perfect combination of humor and gravity, and I think what I liked most about it is that there was no discussion about Jack’s origins or references to beanstalks. He was just an unthinking trickster in an odd situation.The last issue in the volume, “Barleycorn Brides,” is cute in a good way, telling the story of how the tradition among young Lilliputian men to steal magic barleycorns came to be. It is both a rare glimpse of Bigby being charming and warm, and a fun story.

Overall, what bothers me about Fables sometimes, and what bothers me in general about the trend of retelling fairy tales is that there’s only so many times you can be self-referential. How many cute references to mirrors and apples can Snow White make? How often can Briar Rose mention her aversion to needles? It’s so rare that, in stories like this, the characters get to be characters in their own right in a new story without constantly referring back to the original source material. Fables gets it right a lot of the time, which makes it particularly disheartening when it gets it wrong.

Next on Teresa’s Bookshelf: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Currently Reading: Wild Nights! by Joyce Carol Oates

TERESA’S BOOKSHELF: Great House by Nicole Krauss

There’s something about Nicole Krauss that, while I like her work, bothers me.

I’ve enjoyed Nicole Krauss’ writing ever since I read her first novel, Man Walks Into A Room. I was fascinated by her insights into memory loss and what that does to a relationship, because I’d seen what Alzheimer’s Disease had done to my family at the time, and while her novel was about memory loss of a different sort, many of the repercussions were the same. I loved that book, and immediately fantasized about being the one allowed to adapt it into a screenplay. 🙂

I enjoyed her second novel, A History of Love, too. But this story had less of an impact on me because of the voice and style she chose to tell it. Perhaps it was because I was used to her husband Jonathan Safran Foer’s style, and it seemed very much like him (making the reading experience visual by using things like lists and charts as part of the narrative, etc), but I felt like she was doing a ventriloquist act. While I enjoyed the characters (particularly the brother, who I thought was underused), and appreciated the story she was trying to tell, it didn’t feel like a natural progression from Man Walks Into a Room, nor did it sound like her voice from what I’d gathered from short stories of hers I’d read.

So, I recently picked up her latest novel, Great House, because I respect her talent as a writer, and was hoping that this book would be more her own. Great House tells the stories of three groups of people that are all connected by an old desk. Once again, Krauss is adept at capturing certain emotional situations – getting older, memory loss, life as a writer – with precision and elegance. There were passages where I recognized myself in what she was describing so much that I had to put the book down, because my heart was racing. The problem I have with this book, though, is that it’s told from the point of view of three different characters, but they all pretty much sound the same, and they all sound “literary.” Rather than have distinct voices with the distinct cadences that come with being at different stages in life, or different education levels, they all sound the same level of poetic and have the same self-awareness.

What’s strange is that, looking back, her first novel was probably really rough. But it also seemed to be a book that wasn’t trying so hard. It was telling an interesting story in an insightful way with characters I cared about, and I loved it. It seems, though, that once that book did so well, her subsequent novels seem to be trying so hard to be art that they forget to be stories. In A History of Love, all the characters are bound together by a manuscript they have in common. In Great House, there’s the desk. She seems to be settling into a formula where story doesn’t matter (There’ll be this central thing that unites the characters, which will allow me to tell the story Magnolia-style, being really insightful about characters and emotions, but not having anything actually happen except that someone, you know, ends up with this thing). Which is interesting, considering that Man Walks Into a Room told a story that was also insightful, and her short story, “Future Emergencies”, managed to tell a story that was bigger than her characters – it was about the post-9/11 world.

Thing is, I really do love Nicole Krauss’ writing. I just wish she put it to better use. I wish she would get out of her comfort zone a little more and risk sounding a little less polished. I’ll probably pick up her next novel, too, but if it’s about a disparate group of people bound together by a central object, I quit.

Next on Teresa’s Bookshelf: Fables Vol. 3: Storybook Love by Bill Willingham, art by Mark Buckingham

Currently Reading: Wild Nights! by Joyce Carol Oates, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Teresa’s Bookshelf: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I have been preaching the gospel of The Hunger Games since I started reading the series recently, recommending it to everyone I know (even one person I didn’t know!). Catching Fire is the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, and I bought it while I was still reading the first book, because I knew I’d want it immediately. However, after The Hunger Games, I read My Sister’s Keeper first, because I didn’t want to rush the series. Now, I’m down to one book left, and I already miss it. It’s been a long while since a book has affected me like this.

Catching Fire focuses on Katniss Everdeen’s post-Hunger Games life, and the changing political climate in Panem. The “catching fire” of the title refers to Katniss having been a spark for revolution in the first book, and the idea for revolution now spreading like a brush fire across the country. Catching Fire was a slower, but more thoughtful read than the first. Whereas The Hunger Games sped along, because there was suspense in whether or not Katniss and her friends/family would survive, Catching Fire was more about exploring ideas and fleshing out relationships. It also raised the political stakes, and forces you to ask yourself what you would do in Katniss’ place. Would you stand up against oppression, or would you keep your head down and worry only about your own survival? The answers aren’t simple, and Katniss isn’t a cookie-cutter heroine who is a paragon of activism. She’s a strong girl, but she is also scared and more experienced with taking care of herself than she is with worrying about the larger picture. She is learning to think beyond day-to-day survivial to the kind of world she’d like to grow old in and raise children in.

I also love what Collins has done with Peeta, who matches Katniss in complexity. Honestly, I don’t understand the appeal with Gale. I sort of imagine him as Katniss’ Jordan Catalano – like, yeah he looks great leaning up against a locker…but he can’t read, you know? Granted, he’s a bit more than that, and they’ve been best friends forever, but still.  I’m Team Peeta.

There are also some wonderful new characters in this book. Finnick Odair and Johanna Mason are both deceptively shallow at first, but stick with them. They are intriguing additions to the world of the Hunger Games.

The world of this trilogy gets more complex and mature in this book, and the slow simmer of most of the book gives way to a huge boil at the end when the stakes are raised even higher for everyone.

Collins has amazed me once again with Catching Fire, and I can’t get Panem and its inhabitants out of my head. I’ll be reading another book before reading the final installment, Mockingjay, because I’m just not ready for this story to end!

Currently Reading: Great House by Nicole Krauss

Teresa’s Bookshelf: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

This is me caught up, and I’m back to the original Teresa’s Bookshelf format: one book per post! Let’s see if we can’t keep it this way!

I’ve had this book on my shelf for several years. It was one of those things where when it came out, the book was really popular and everyone was talking about it so I picked it up with every intention of reading it only to have it get lost on my To Be Read bookshelves. After a healthy diet of sci-fi/fantasy-related stuff (and a token “chick lit” book for good measure), I decided I needed to get back to some good ol’, normal contemporary fiction.

Leave it to me to choose the contemporary novel off my shelf that is science fiction in the truest sense – fiction that incorporates current scientific advancements.

I was fascinated by the topic brought up in My Sister’s Keeper: do parents have the right to concieve a child in a test tube for the sole purpose of being a tissue match for a sick child they already have? And if so, do they have the right to continue to expect that the new child continue to donate organs and marrow and platelets without being asked? Does the child have the right to say no if it means the death of their sick sibling? Anna, the 13 year old protagonist of the book (the “designer baby”conceived to be a match for her sister, Kate, who has a rare form of leukemia), thinks that she should, and so she goes to a lawyer and sues her parents for medical emancipation.

Jodi Picoult does an amazing job of examining all sides of this issue by skillfully creating her cast of characters. She allows each character to narrate different chapters in the novel, and each has a distinct, lived-in voice. From 13-year-old Anna, to her mother Sara (40s), to her sarcastic lawyer Campbell, to her older brother Jesse, Picoult pulls off a hell of a ventriloquist act as she careens her characters through a desperate chain of events in which Kate’s life and Anna’s freedom hang in the balance.

In addition to the strength of the characters, Picoult brings the events of the book to a logical conclusion without it being at all predictable. In fact, the ending of the book slapped me in the face! I didn’t see it coming in quite the way it did. Yet, when it happened, I realized that it couldn’t have happened any other way.

My Sister’s Keeper is a book that had me crying as I read the ending on the subway, and had me thinking about it long after I put it down. If you’re looking for a book that will make you examine your own moral and ethical compass as well as make you feel deeply for the characters involved, I’d highly recommend this one.

Currently Reading: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins