27 July 2008

Um, I gotta book...

^ That's one Buffy line that I've never actually been too sure of... either she means that she has to go sort out her library issues (which is plausible) or it's valley girl for 'go'. According to Stephen Fry 'book' has become textspeak for 'cool', since the young folk are too lazy to deal with the errors of predictive texting.

'Book' was also the name of one of my favourite Firefly characters. Maybe I should just say that he was one of the characters, since I can't really think of anyone on Firefly who wasn't one of my favourites, including the SpJew.

Anyway, I felt like doing a round-up post about what I've been reading in the last month or so.

I'll start with the book I was reading up to my flight out, Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot. I'd actually read it before, but years ago and I couldn't really remember much of it. My ailing memory is a bit of a problem! There's quite a lot of classics that I feel that way about, plus I don't think that I fully appreciated what was going on when I read them as a tween, like with Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I added a few books like this that I thought were in need of a re-read to my 'to read' shelf, and I'd just happened to have got up to Scenes by the time I was leaving. I had intended to bring the next few with me, which I think included Gone With the Wind, but due to my incredibly overweight bag I had to leave them behind. The package that my mother attempted to send to me included them I think, but it was intercepted because of the deodorant and she's waiting for me to have a settled abode before she makes a second attempt.

Scenes of Clerical Life is basically a collection of three, very slightly related, short stories. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with short stories. I think that in the right hands (such as the paws of Daphne du Maurier, Roald Dahl, Philip K Dick or Andrew Davies, and if I can include novellas like St Mawr and The Virgin and the Gypsy in my definition of 'a short story' then I'd like to add DH Lawrence to that list) they can be excellent, and provide satisfying 'bite size' fiction. However, I've experienced quite a lot of fairly rubbish short stories that just make me feel as if I'm wasting my time. I think it can be quite hard for something so short to draw you in and actually make you interested in what's happening. I definitely prefer reading a load of short stories by one author together rather than a collection of tales from different writers (even if they are on a similar theme) because you at least become acclimatised to the author's rhythm and style. Also sometimes you get those nice links between the stories which just gives you a little something extra and makes it feel as if the stories are more than just these 'shorts'. I like that kind of thing anyway, the subtle nod to the careful reader- like in Sharon Creech's teenage fiction for example, all her books (or at least the ones that I read) have a different female protagonist, but they're all somehow linked together even if they don't know it, and there's a small mention of one of them in each book (perhaps the heroine's aunt mentions a girl she might get on with, for example).

As far as short stories go I found Scenes to be a good collection. I suppose it helped that they weren't particularly short either, they felt meaty enough. The first two stories, 'The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton' and Mr Gilful's Love Story' were both fairly enjoyable and showcased Eliot's wit and storytelling ability. Whilst they were often funny, they did both have sad (and kind of abrupt) endings. The third and final part, 'Janet's Repentance' is much, much darker, being about an alcoholic, abused wife. It isn't really a subject matter that lends itself to humour, but then again Juno was an excellent comedy about teenage pregnancy. I certainly thought that 'Janet's Repentance' was well written and touching, but I found certain parts of it a bit hard to swallow- namely the emphasis on how to be (and how one should be) a dutiful wife. Overall I didn't feel that this book was necessarily a masterpiece, but nor did I expect it to be- I think that it's an especially accessible 'in' to Eliot's work and I'm glad that I took the time to re-read it. I certainly want to re-read The Mill on the Floss (I couldn't find my copy at home anyway but I'm sure I can buy one out here) and maybe eventually actually get around to reading Adam Bede!

I don't think I need to say too much about my experience of reading Everything is Illuminated for the second time since I've already babbled a fair bit about it. Suffice to say that I obviously enjoyed it immensely again, and it still managed to make me sob like a small child. I came away from it with the sense that maybe it wasn't the slice of perfection I had thought when I first read it though, and that sometimes the ever-so-postmodern literary techniques were a little bit forced. Wikipedia tells me that I'm not the only one who feels like this by a long shot (scroll down to the 'Criticism' section), so I don't feel like a traitor! I'd quite like to get around to reading The Time Traveller's Wife as well to compare how that feels the second time around, as it (like Everything is Illuminated) is a book that I read fairly recently and was just utterly in love with. Both were initally lent to me by Spires incidentally, who generally has good taste in books, although I wasn't overly enamoured with The Consolations of Philosophy or The Aquariums of Pyongyang.

The next book I got around to reading was Stardust, my going away present from Naomi. I'd already watched the film, which is a bad, bad way to go around doing things and I heartily disapprove of myself for it. I preferred the book to the film, although I still think that the film is definitely enjoyable and actually rather different from the book (I rewatched it on Sunday in a DVD-bang while scoffing down tasty ice cream, and it was an excellent hangover cure). Neil Gaiman is an author that I've always known I'd adore and yet I haven't read all that much by him; I read Coraline several years ago which was enjoyable enough and had some excellent one-liners, but it is a book aimed at a younger audience and I adore Good Omens which he co-wrote with my beloved Terry Pratchett. I've also watched the entirety of Neverwhere which is excellent and comes highly recommended from me (and it's alright to watch that before reading it, which I will get around to one day, since it was a television show first so ha) even though it does of course look incredibly dated. I'm really glad that I read (and watched) Stardust, and hopefully it will encourage me to read more Gaiman stuff. It was just a really fun and whimsical book, and I'm very glad that it wasn't just a cut and dry fairy tale with a happy ending, and even though it isn't a major detail I really liked that Tristan's mother wasn't particularly motherly and was instead kind of harsh, proud and cunning.

After that I got into my first batch of book binges (from the seven storey Tesco's bookshop), starting with The Picture of Dorian Gray. I enjoyed it and I'm glad that I've finally read it, it was certainly fun to find so many Wilde-isms in their original habitat. I feel a little weird that so many of his characters' sayings get attributed to him as a person, obviously they originate from him and often they may very well express his feelings entirely (possibly proven by the fact that he recycled them and put them in the mouths of other characters), I just feel that when people are quoting his characters they ought to at least parenthetically point that out! Reading Dorian Gray was a little uncomfortable for me because although Lord Henry is the obvious avatar of Wilde, I think there was also a lot of him in Basil, and it's so sad to read about Basil's obsession with Dorian, and feel how eerily it foreshadows Wilde's own devastating love for Bosie. I could not help myself from imagining Dorian as looking an awful lot like Jude Law playing Bosie in Wilde as a result. The actual story of Dorian Gray is fairly simplistic (and I wasn't aware of just how common it was at the time) but it's a very well-written and well-executed book. I liked the insights provided by the introduction in my copy (although I really think that these analytical introductions ought to be shunted to the end of the book because I never read them first since I don't want to be spoiled!), although I think that counting the amount of times the word "wild" was used and trying to use that as evidence of Wilde's egotism was stretching things a little far.

My copy also included some very well-written short stories, in fact I think I'd be happy to add Oscar Wilde to my list of favourite short-story authors! 'The Happy Prince' was a sweet tale (although I felt a slight objection the almost jarring religious twist at the end), 'The Birthday of the Infanta' was enjoyable with a sudden twist at the end, and 'Lord Arthur Savile's Crime' was brilliant and darkly hilarious. I'd definitely recommend checking out some of his lesser known shorter works like these to anyone who likes short stories and/or his better known stuff, and I would certainly like to read more of his fairy tales.

Next I (finally!) read The Catcher in the Rye. I guess it's one of those books that everyone feels that they ought to read, but I've never acted on that impulse (probably because I never found a copy of it in the house). I kind of wish that I had done, because I feel that if I'd read it at the right time in my life I might have enjoyed it a lot more, as it was I could see its merits but it just didn't do much for me. I can't personally really understand why people rave about it. It isn't a bad book at all and it did have some amusing observations but it just wasn't saying anything particularly earth shattering. It does an excellent job of capturing an annoyed teenager's voice, but that isn't enough to make it amazing, and quite frankly it isn't the most interesting point of view in the world (unless we're talking about Gossip Girl, natch). I think that I have a bit of bias against fiction written in the first person as well, which probably doesn't help. The fact that I was a little underwhelmed by The Catcher in the Rye has led me to accept a difficult truth about myself that I'm finding a little hard to cope with: I am not a fourteen year old boy. It's pretty sad.

Although The Great Gatsby was also written in the first person, I enjoyed it a lot more than The Catcher in the Rye. I've always had a complete misconception about The Great Gatsby, I think it's because I read a (much longer) book as a kid called 'The Great...' something, maybe it was 'The Great Grey'? I'm fairly certain that it was alliterative. So they've sort of been vaguely connected in my psyche, giving me the impression that The Great Gatsby had something to do with chases, and possibly mystical creatures of some kind. Those impressions have now been properly debunked and I'm happy to announce that I think it's a great, and tragic, book. It's a very touching story, and Nick makes an excellent dry, detached narrator. My interest in J2 AU fic began at about the same time as I was reading this, and it was kind of weird that I was reading this at the same time (please be warned that there's an awful lot of gay sex, drugs, meanness and prostitution if you click on that link), which although completely different from The Great Gatsby had one very similar element: the idea of a person being completely besotted with someone, and holding on to that for so long instead of moving on. I often find that when I become interested in something, such as a book, I find similarities with it everywhere though, and I'm sure that that happens to other people too.

My trio of first person novels was completed by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and I definitely feel that it's a form that I could do without reading for a little while. Like The Catcher in the Rye, I feel that this book is a little overrated. It is an interesting view point and I think that mostly Mark Haddon writes well, but (again like The Catcher in the Rye) it feels a little 'light' and fluffy, it kind of reminded me of Tuesdays with Morrie as well. I think that it's lazy writing to just create a scenario where your audience is going to feel sympathy for your character/s, I want something more, I don't know how to define what exactly it is but it makes a book resonate 'deeply'. I also felt a bit weird about Haddon's choice to write from the point of view of an autistic boy (especially as it isn't actually explained in the book that he is autistic, unless you count the blurb), whilst I suppose that it is awareness raising I felt as if he was somewhat exploiting his first hand experience of working with autistic people. I'd really love to force my parents to read this book and get their impressions of it, since they both have experience of working with autistic children (my mother mostly with very young children and my father more with teens). I also felt that the ending wasn't very satisfying. Overall I thought that it was an interesting and ambitious idea for a book, but it just wasn't something amazing and not really my type of book, though I can appreciate what other people find likable about it without completely judging them.

I did however feel rather let down when I read Dead Poets Society. Being as I'm not much of a film person it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that I've never actually seen the film, so when I saw the book I figured that it would be a great idea to read it. Too late I discovered that the film isn't based on the book, but the other way around- the book is inspired by the film. When I realised that I didn't expect it to be particularly great, even so I wasn't expecting it to be so bad. It's especially irritating because it could be good, yet doesn't deliver. I'd still be interested in watching the film because I can imagine a lot of the ideas that don't quite work in the book being realised successfully on screen, and it's a little annoying that if and when I do watch it I'm already going to know exactly what's going to happen! I'm kind of pissed at this book for not being good enough to like, since it does have elements which I really could enjoy- I like passion for writing, and I really like Walt Whitman! It probably doesn't help that I'm not the biggest fan of poetry though. I certainly think that if this book were fleshed out more and didn't feel quite so rushed it might be more enjoyable, and I'd definitely veto idiotic teenage boys claiming they're in love with a girl after meeting her for about 30 seconds, along with idiotic teenage boys running around a cave whooping 'like savages' if I'd been in charge. I suppose I really must come to the conclusion that I'm definitely not a teenage boy, and just stick to reading smutty school boy fic.

Once I'd finished that book I began with the spoils of my Kyobo trip. The Kyobo book store is really awesome, and huuuge- although the English language section obviously doesn't take up the majority of the store. It was still pretty sizable and impressive though. I've started with Atlas Shrugged and from the looks of things I might be reading it for a while, it's over a thousand pages and I'm only about three quarters of the way through. To be fair though I haven't really been reading it much at home, mostly just when I'm on the train (which is kind of funny because while it isn't actually about trains, a lot of the time it's about trains) or sometimes when there's been a lull at work. It's a pretty long book though, about equivalent to The Lord of the Rings, and that's kind of a trilogy, even if it isn't supposed to be read separately, and anyway that's stuffed full of appendices which fill up a lot of the pages. I don't have a problem with it being long, but I wish it wasn't so bloody big, it takes up most of my handbag all by itself!

I don't want to write too much about it, because I've resolved to reserve judgement until I've actually finished it, plus I haven't really researched (or even wikipedia'd) because I really don't want to be spoiled, but I'm just going to share my impressions so far. First off, I like it. More than I thought I would, if I'm honest. Mostly I think that it's well-written (although there's the odd sentence that makes me roll my eyes and wish it had been better edited...and the mere fact of the book's length makes me think that an editor could definitely have been useful) and very thoughtful. It consists of well constructed arguments, and it demands that you think out your objections and counter-arguments carefully rather than going with an vague, intuitive feeling about something. I don't think that I necessarily agree with Rand's arguments, but that doesn't matter. It's nice to just read and consider well argued theory. I do feel a little weird about the fact that I'm reading fiction (that isn't simply an allegory or a satire) that seems to have been explicitly created, at least in part, to promote an ideology but I also know that if that doctrine sat further to the left I'd probably find it a little easier to swallow, so I probably shouldn't complain about it.

I certainly feel that it's often less of a defence of selfishness than it thinks it is. Maybe that's just my personal interpretation because I think that 'selfishness' still has a negative gloss to it, in the way that a defence of egotism or self-interest probably wouldn't to me. Even so, I don't really buy the idea that these characters are necessarily all that selfish. They're well rounded composite characters rather than caricatures, which is definitely a good thing, but they're also just incredibly noble most of the time. They demonstrate time and time again that they subscribe to a higher morality, to certain ideas of what is inherently right- and it doesn't just happen as a by-product of their selfishness at all.

I'm glad that the novel doesn't hide from just how American it is, although I would like it to at least acknowledge that this 'selfishness' that it lauds is a value (if indeed it is one) which applies uniquely to a very specific context. I think the idea that Capitalism arose in the States as a rejection of the idea of slavery is an interesting one (merely mentioned as a throwaway comment thus far, but I'd love to see it expanded on), but I'd also like the book to maybe at least touch on America's history of genocide and slavery. I think it paints a very skewed version of American history, not only in largely omitting these very obvious points, but also comitting the common sin of completely ignoring the importance of collectivist ideas, and yes even socialist ones, on the early history of the USA.

It does definitely strike a chord with me. It has these beautiful ideals, which I can appreciate even if I don't necessarily agree with. I started off rolling my eyes a little at the ideas it was presenting. I was thinking "sure, I'd love to go and live in a wood cabin (with wireless) and ignore everyone", but I didn't think that the book was going to actually create this awesome enclave (hidden by some hilarious comic book style technology) where the 'deserters' could live happily apart from the rest of the world. The plot is doing nothing less than embodying everything wonderful about anarchism, and crucially it isn't only the (primarily American) individualist strand (embodied by Thoreau) but definitely also contains ideas that resonate with Proudhon's, Tolstoy's and even the good parts of syndicalism.

The abject hatred towards Marxism (and indeed the word 'contradiction'!) expressed in the book makes me a little sad. I don't think that Rand's vibrant support of the free market is necessarily entirely at odds with socialism, especially that of a strongly anarchist bent- like Benjamin Tucker's theories for example. Obviously I can understand Rand's outrage and disgust at the way she saw 'Communism' being implemented in her life time, but I don't think that that should lead to an outright dismissal of Marx. I think that their theories have some common ground, he too wanted the best of the best! In fact I can imagine Karl Marx as actually fitting in quite well with a lot of her characters (although I don't think she would have liked Engels very much)...

I definitely have some problems with the way that she writes about women. Dagny is a very strong and likable female character (who clearly looks an awful lot like Felicity Huffman in the Sports Night days, she even dresses like her) but I really hate a lot of her romantic and sexual relationships. Although Rand creates an eloquent defence of pleasure seeking, arguing against allowing sex to be tainted by guilt, I can't stand the way Dagny is constantly submitting and giving herself to be 'used' by her lovers. Sometimes the male characters seem to be submitting too, but it is to passion, rather than to a woman. I find it to be incredibly grating. Also, the most 'evil' character book appears to be Dagny's opposite, Hank's wife Lilian (I'm not entirely convinced that the 'Lil-' name is unintentional either). She's definitely a despicable person, but I'm not sure that she deserves to be painted as the absolute worst character in the book simply because she's "not-Dagny". I hope at least that the motives for her behaviour are explored.

Earlier I felt that part of the novel was basically a love story between Francisco and Hank, now it feels more like one between Francisco and John. I suppose I can just hold out hope that the free love angle gets pursued, and that there's a better orgy than in the Perfume movie (the one in the book was just dandy) in the offing. I also desperately need some respite from the fact that no less than four of the main characters are now in love with Dagny, and I wouldn't be entirely surprised if that toll grew a little. I don't know if this is a brand of Mary Sue-ism, but it's certainly irritating.

I so knew that as soon as I claimed I wasn't going to write much about this book right now I was doomed to fail. I'll probably write more when I've finished it.

I've also been entertaining myself with this awesome blog which allows you to read comics online. I'm not all that much of a comic fan, although I really adore X-Men for example, I'm much more au fait with the cartoon than the actual comics (and also the first two films which were great, and check out this fantastic review for some of the reasons I hated the third one). Even though I obviously utterly adore all things Whedonesque, I've never actually read any of the Buffy, Angel or Firefly comics, or even Astonishing X-Men. Even when I found out that Joss himself was taking them helm for a Buffy season 8 in comic form I debated whether I wanted to get invested. Silly, silly me. Scroll down to the bottom of this page if you want to check out season 8, which I do recommend doing (although I've only just started episode 5 myself).

I was also giggling at the woobie trope post. I especially loved that for both Buffy and Supernatural a blanket statement was needed to explain how much trauma pretty much all the characters face. I really don't understand how Mulder didn't make the cut though, there's a boy who seems like he could really use a hug.

A fairly tenuous leap (which might make a smidge more sense in a sec) brings me to something that I've been pondering: is there a term for a love of Jews? Cos if there isn't, can I please suggest that the word Semiphilia needs to come into effect, like now? Especially so I can describe Kristin Chenowith as a Semiphiliac. This picspam goes a way to proving it, if her love of Aaron Sorkin wasn't enough to do that anyway. (Did you know that they're back together? Maybe his overly-revealing, highly disturbing analysis of their relationship and subsequent break up as portrayed by Matt and Harriet in Studio 60 somehow won her back, or maybe she agreed to give him another chance if he swore to never, ever do something like that again. Who knows.) The picspam mentions a lot of the reasons why I adore Kristin Chenowith, but I figure that they can handle being restated a few times: she was Glinda (and that's just awesome), she's great in Pushing Daisies, she somehow wasn't annoying in The West Wing even though she should have been, it is almost impossible to believe that her and Allison Janney are the same species and, yes, her breasts. Since David Duchovny somehow managed to make his way into said picspam (for reasons that I don't entirely understand), I'm prompted to ask if there's such a thing as Demisemiphilia? Can I be in charge of all the words now please world?

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