Reading Challenge #28: A Novel Set During Wartime

891593

Title: Victory of Eagles

Author: Naomi Novik

How it fulfills the challenge: This book takes place during the Napoleonic wars, though the battles that are depicted never actually happened.

Genre: Fantasy

Quick Description: In the 5th book of the Temeraire series, the dragon’s captain, Laurence, has been branded a traitor and Temeraire has been sent to the breeding grounds, no longer in active duty. But as the war comes closer, the reluctant Aerial Corps will have no choice but to call them both back to the front.

Opening Line: The breeding grounds were called Pen Y Fan, after the hard, jagged slash of mountain at their heart, like an ax-blade, rimed with ice along its edge and rising barren over the moorlands: a cold, wet Welsh autumn already, coming on towards winter, and the other dragons were sleep and remote, uninterested in anything but their meals.

We will be our own army, and we will work out tactics for ourselves, not stuff men have invented without bothering to ask us…

Highlights: The Temeraire series is a great choice for anyone who thinks that history is all well and good, but it would be better with dragons in it. Novik does a really good job of capturing the period through both her setting and through her characters. This book in particular was interesting because for the first time we see the story through Temeraire’s perspective as well.

Low Points: Book #5 wasn’t my favorite out of the series so far (I think the 1st and 2nd ones get that honor). The tone was a little more melancholy, bordering on the despondent in some places, and this book in particular was more concerned with battles and troop movements and strategy, which aren’t my favorite things. Still, I’m eager to read the next one.

Goodreads rating: 4 stars. The fifth book is consistent with the rest of the series and was fun to read.

Advertisements

Reading Challenge #20: A Book with Career Advice

20588698

Title: Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”

Author: Lena Dunham

How it fulfills the challenge: This book doesn’t actually give all that much advice in the traditional sense, but the essays are written in such a way that you discover the career lessons for yourself. Namely, listening to your heart and going after the things you want even when it’s uncomfortable.

Genre: Memoir/essays

Quick Description: A book of essays about growing up, discovering who you are, and not being (too) afraid of who you turn out to be.

But ambition is a funny thing: it creeps up on you when you least expect if and keeps you moving, even when you think you want to stay put. I missed making things, the meaning it gave this long march we call life.

Highlights: Dunham’s writing style is warm and chatty. I’m pretty familiar with it because I’m a Lenny newsletter subscriber, and so I already knew I would like her informal writing style. Her stories are interesting and easy to relate to, even though I haven’t experienced a lot of the same things.

Low Points: Non-fiction tends to be aimed at a very specific audience, given that it’s usually written on a pretty narrow topic. You probably won’t like Dunham’s book if you like a more cohesive narrative style, if you don’t identify as a feminist, or if you don’t have an interest in the arts or media.

Goodreads Rating: 4 stars. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, though in parts I wish the writing had been a little closer. A quick, interesting read.

 

Jane Austen Week: Northanger Abbey

588467.jpg

Hamlette is hosting a Jane Austen week, where lots of bloggers are posting on one of our favorite authors. There are discussions of her books and the various adaptations they’ve spawned in film and further. You can find all of the other posts here!

I chose to write about Northanger Abbey, one of the more overlooked Jane Austen books. It’s quite different in tone from Pride & PrejudiceEmma, or Sense & Sensibility. The heroine is a bit more naive, easily excited and frightened, and in the end learns that life isn’t like the Gothic novels she loves to read. It’s still social commentary, but in a very different way. Instead of being a novel of manners and conversation, it tends towards the meta-fictional; it’s a discussion about the nature of writing itself and how the novel and its author fit into the shape of the culture.

Northanger Abbey was the first book Jane Austen completed for publication, but it was not actually published until after she died. She sold the manuscript under a different title to the London bookseller Crosby & Co. They never published it, and eventually sold it back to Jane Austen’s brother. She ended up changing the main character’s name from Susan to Catherine and did some more revision, but ultimately it wasn’t published until six months after her death in 1817.

The story is a fairly simple one. Catherine is invited to stay in Bath with some friends of the family. While she is there she makes some friends, and is ultimately invited to Northanger in the days when “visits” lasted for weeks on end. She has a few anti-climatic adventures, and then is asked to leave, but this is Jane Austen so in the end everyone ends up happily.

At its core, Northanger Abbey is a satire of and confrontation with the popular Gothic novel. These novels, which had very little in them except for the macabre and the sensational, were designed to thrill and titillate. Jane Austen, through this work and her others, sees literature fulfilling a different purpose–that of entertainment and instruction. This goes against the more “serious” writing at the time, which suggested that anything written for entertainment at all was not worth the  paper it was written on and was meant for less serious people. In other words, it was meant for women. Austen pushes back against this idea to straddle the line between the two extremes, and by doing so makes her own monumental contribution to literature.

It’s also a novel about a women who learns how to read, not just the books that she so fancies, but the world around her as well. She has to see through what people say and learn to read their motivations.  It’s about a young woman learning that life isn’t as lurid as books would suggest, and that the truth or core of something is usually more mundane than it looks as well as much less good-natured. Austen suggests that this is a good thing–imagination has its place but being realistic means that you won’t be taken advantage of. This is pure speculation on my part, but I suspect that this is a lesson Austen herself had to learn as a writer and a young woman. The fact that this novel was ready for publication first suggests that it might be something of a manifesto for what Austen would attempt to do as a writer in the future.

Catherine Morland is not exactly the picture of a Gothic heroine, which Jane Austen makes clear from the opening sentence, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her to be born an heroine.” She is missing some of the more essential attributes, namely a dark and dismal past (her family being squarely middle class and still living and her childhood pleasant), a beautiful face (hers is only so-so), and intuition or a sense of fate. In short, she’s exactly the kind of girl who might be fascinated by Gothic novels because they represent the exotic and adventure. As Mr. Tilney tells her, she’s more likely to judge people based on her own good intentions and positive motivations, leaving her unable to understand or sniff out malice or even a lack of candor.

Mr. Tilney is an interesting character who is quite clever and observant. He’s not my favorite Austen leading man because his relationship with Catherine never feels quite as equal as Emma’s and Knightley’s for example or Lizzie’s and Darcy’s. However, he does his best to try and teach Catherine about herself and the world.

Northanger Abbey itself is a particularly intriguing setting for Austen. She often uses great houses as her settings (all of her heroines, no matter their sometimes precarious financial circumstances, live in what I would term a large house and have plenty of servants), but very few of them have the kind of historical weight or Gothic atmosphere that the Abbey does. But Austen does not allow the reader to bask in the romance of the setting, instead she focuses on the prosaic details. Even if Catherine doesn’t realize it at first, Northanger is nothing more than a big house, and is nothing to be in awe of or swoon over.

Catherine Morland wants to find adventures, and surely there is no better way to do so than uncovering secret letters and ancient mysteries. She’s caught spying around the house, of course, invading Mr. Tilney’s deceased mother’s rooms, but the most iconic episode of the book is her discovery of the lists. Catherine gets herself in a tizzy one stormy night and her eyes fall on a cabinet. She simply has to explore it, and she does while the wind howls. Conveniently, the key is in the cabinet, though it takes her several attempts to open the door. She searches every cranny (leaving the locked middle drawer for last)–remembering to check for false bottoms. Then she opens the last drawer and there at the back is a rolled up piece of paper. Before she can read a single word, her candle is promptly extinguished by the wind and she hops into bed, dropping the papers to the floor in her fright. She reads it in the morning, sure that it will contain all kinds of hidden secrets, and find that it contains…a few bills for the laundry and farrier. No episode could more clearly illustrate Austen’s feelings about Gothic novels. After being so scared, after building the episode in her mind up so much, there was nothing there but the trappings of economic privilege.

While Northanger Abbey is not my favorite Jane Austen novel, I think it’s a great one–especially to learn about Austen’s place in the literature of the era and to understand her opinions on novels. Although she’s often lumped together with the Bronte sisters, her goals in writing were very different. She presents herself in this first offering as a witty and independent mind whose goal is to reflect society back to itself, showing how the world has shaped the lives of the women living in it. Catherine may be one of her sillier protagonists, but she still shows the pressures of growing up into womanhood. If you haven’t read this one before, or you haven’t read it in a while, it may be time to pick this book up.

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 of My Favorite Fictional Couples From Literature and Film

IMG_2962

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature brought to you by The Broke and the Bookish.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I hope you are feeling the love today. Valentine’s Day has never been a really big deal to me. My fiance and I tend to do little things. He usually picks up flowers for me, usually some colorful daisies or pretty mums–something cheery–several days early so that I can enjoy them for a while. We like to go pick out chocolates at one of the places around town. Here in Boise our favorite spot to do that is Chocolat Bar, which makes the most amazing truffles. We also cook dinner together. It’s very mellow. Let me know if you have special plans for today in the comments!

Today’s topic is all about romance. So I thought I would share some of my favorite couples with you from literature and film. Here they are:

Literary Couples

  • Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley from Jane Austen’s Emma” I cannot make speeches, Emma. If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me. I have blamed you and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.”

Why they’re great: Knightley calls Emma out when she’s behaving selfishly and forces her to acknowledge what she’s doing. He’s also quick to praise when he approves, and he’s always acting on behalf of others. Emma meanwhile never just accepts Knightley’s opinions at face value and challenges him. This is a couple that will challenge each other to do good for other people. They have good communication established, and their relationship is founded on friendship and mutual respect.

  • Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter:  “Just because it’s taken you three years to notice, Ron, doesn’t mean no one else has spotted I’m a girl!”

Why they’re great: What makes Ron and Hermione good people is what helps to make them a good couple. Ron is loyal, brave, and true, while Hermione is strong, idealistic, and clever. Together they challenge each other. Ron tries to get Hermione to think outside the box and she helps bring him down to earth again. Even though they argue, their relationship is ultimately based on years of friendship that have been strengthened through the trials they’ve gone through together.

  • Arthur and Molly Weasley from Harry Potter“What do you like me to call you when we’re alone together?…Mollywobbles.”

Why they’re great: Arthur and Molly may not have much money, but that hasn’t interfered all that much with their relationship. Each is always concerned with the other’s welfare and takes their thoughts and feelings to heart. They don’t always agree or always understand each other’s position, but they are a united team.

  • Benedict and Beatrice from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing“I do love nothing in the world so well as you- is not that strange?”

Why they’re great: It takes them a while to figure out they’re the perfect couple, but it’s obvious to everyone else. No one can keep up with their wit and intelligence; they’re the best sparring partners. They keep each other on their toes. And in the end, Benedict is able to go beyond talking about his feelings and proves his love, challenging his dearest friend to a duel.

  • Cyrano de Bergerac and Roxanne from Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac“And what is a kiss, specifically? A pledge properly sealed, a promise seasoned to taste, a vow stamped with the immediacy of a lip, a rosy circle drawn around the verb ‘to love.’ A kiss is a message too intimate for the ear, infinity captured in the bee’s brief visit to a flower, secular communication with an aftertaste of heaven, the pulse rising from the heart to utter its name on a lover’s lip: ‘Forever.’”

Why they’re great: Roxanne longs to hear beautiful words and Cyrano longs to tell her them. Though I have to admit the fact that they’re cousins kind of weirds me out, their devotion and intelligence carries them through. The ending is tragic, but it’s so poignant.

Film Couples

  • Lucky Garnett and Penny Carroll in Swing Time“Listen. No one could teach you to dance in a million years. Take my advice and save your money!”

Why they’re great: They’re sometimes at cross purposes, but you know they’re going to get together, which means plenty of dancing and singing. I don’t know of a more wonderful couple than Fred and Ginger in whatever movie they did together. Astaire is full of grace and Rogers is full of fun and together they are amazing.

*I do think that as much as I really like this film I find the “bojangles” scene really racist and disturbing, and I think that’s really important to acknowledge. Even though it was the 1930s, and times were “different,” the caricature is prejudiced and unnecessary.*

  • Wesley and Buttercup in The Princess Bride“This is true love–you think this happens every day?”

Why they’re great: True love. Love deep enough and true enough to never be stopped by anything–not death, not distance, not time, not kings and queens and princes. Nothing.

  • Hubert Hawkins and Jean in The Court Jester: “The real king is on the throne, Jean is my very own, and life couldn’t possibly better be.”

Why they’re great: They’re relationship turns traditional gender roles on their head. Hawkins minds the child, the future King of England, and the Captain is off rallying new recruits, training, and leading them. She’s sharp and warm, he’s eager and funny. Together they show huge amounts of bravery and devotion, both to each other and their cause.

  • Don Lockwood and Cathy Seldon in Singin’ in the Rain: “You were meant for me/ and I was meant for you/ nature patterned you/ and when she was done/ you were all the sweet things/ rolled up in one”

Why they’re great: It may have started off in desperation (Lockwood fleeing from his over-eager fans), but it ends in love. Cathy’s talent, beauty, charisma, and good nature can’t help but win Don over and I think the same qualities are what let her put down her walls and fall for him.

  • Han Solo and Princess Leia in Star Wars“I love you. I know.”

Why they’re great: Both of them are strong characters in their own right, and together they make a pretty impressive pair. These rebels are meant to be together.

From Page to Screen: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Untitled design.jpgI’m totally fascinated by (some might say obsessed with) adaptation. If you believe, as I do, that nothing is truly original, then pretty much every cultural product is some form of adaptation or interpretation. I think of it as an extremely creative process: how to make unfamiliar the familiar (fairy tale adaptation); how to bring someone else’s original world to life in a new way (film adaptation); how to put your unique spin and gifts to an old story so that the old story is barely recognizable (aka pretty much every piece of art).

How people do this, and what is added by adaptation are questions that I’m forever thinking about. So I thought this feature could be kind of fun–a look at how films and literature interact, and about what the film brings to the story. These aren’t traditional reviews about how “well” the movie portrays the book, instead I’ll be looking at what I think are the meaningful deviations and how those changes impact our view of the stories together and separately. At least, that’s the goal.

First, some of the vital statistics on the book and film: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (click the link for the film Wikipedia page, which has a plot summary)

*Spoiler warning–it’s not intentional but is a somewhat essential part of the analysis process, though I do not talk about the ending.*

Book:

  • Written by: Ransom Riggs
  • Published: Quirk Books, June 2011
  • Intended audience: YA
  • Reception: NY Times Best Seller for 70 weeks, made it to #1 slot

Film:

  • Directed by: Tim Burton
  • Released: 20th Century Fox, September 2016
  • Principal actors: Eva Green (Miss Peregrine), Asa Butterfield (Jake), Samuel L. Jackson (Barron)
  • Reception: nominated for a special effects award from the Visual Effects Society Awards, mixed reviews and reception: Rotten Tomatoes: 64%; Meta critic 57/100= mixed/average reviews

Note: I watched the film before I read the book.

The film and the book have several interesting differences, but first I wanted to comment on the importance that visual media plays in the book. The story was largely inspired by old photographs–photography being the author’s primary interest–and for the most part the characters as well as some minor plot points come from these photographs.

These old pictures, which are in themselves strange and interesting, mean that the book had already been informed largely by visual media. This makes the decision to adapt into film a natural one (beyond the fact that most stories translate well to film and that Hollywood has a long and well-established history of borrowing liberally from literature). It’s even more natural that Tim Burton would be the chosen director, given his predilection for the gothic, slightly dark, but ultimately visually appealing aesthetic that he’s famous for.

Interesting Deviations:

The book’s protagonist, Jakob, is much more of a teenager in the text. He is filled with angst, is often sarcastic–he swears–he is much less earnest than his film counterpart. The film makes less of Jakob’s personality than of his character, by which I mean his actions and abilities and his fascination with the other children. This decision ultimately made his transition into their world easier in the film–he still has that sense of wonder and is more childlike (calling to mind characters like Dorothy or Alice), rather than offering more of a contrast to the children in the home. Still, I love the book version, which feels much more authentic to his age.

The old man from the bog. If you haven’t read the book, you probably have no idea what this is, but the old man is a very old and well preserved human sacrifice in the county museum. The museum curator suggests that the man would have been a willing sacrifice, since it meant he would go straight to heaven. The mummy provides an interesting contrast in the book between the children who are preserved in their own time and the preservation that is achieved through death in the bog. This is missing from the film, but the point the film tries to make about the peculiar children is very different from the one the book makes.

In continuation of the above difference, the children in the book often feel quite stuck or trapped in their safe haven, the alternative for most of them (leaving the loop) would mean death. They feel cut off from the world, and often lash out at the villagers. This is only present in a small sense in the film, which is more concerned with making the world of the peculiar children fantastical and immersive, the darkness lurking more in the background.

Differences in characters. 

  • One of my favorite deviations from the book to the film is the character of Miss Peregrine. In the book, she is a capable matron who cares deeply for her charges, but in the film she has a spark all her own. She’s mysterious and mischievous and looks like the falcon she is. She also seems, possibly because of her reduced age, more of a peer with the children rather than an instantly recognizable authority figure.
  • The other fairly big character change is in Emma and Olive’s characters. In both the film and book, Emma entrances and is entranced by Jakob, but in the book her powers and Olive’s are switched. Emma in the book is a fire wielder, while in the film she levitates. This choice has interesting implications. Emma as the fire wielder exerts more control over her surroundings. She is less passive, less at the mercy of the world around her, and so it’s natural that she’s unsatisfied with her safe haven, as her powers are typically associated with destruction and renewal. In the film, there is some work done to give her more agency (she doesn’t simply levitate, she can control the air…), and I think that the switch is done for visual purposes and possibly because her levitation/floating is a more unique than people who can manipulate heat as we’ve seen in other fantasies/comics. It also imparts a softer, less fiery or temperamental quality to Emma.

The eyeball thing. This is largely an aesthetic choice, but it’s too interesting not to comment on. In the book, the wights and hollowgasts kill peculiar children, but they do not feast on people’s eyes in order to get their humanoid form back. This is a rather macabre movie interpretation. Again, I think this decision is largely done for visuals and to give the hollowgasts and wights a firmer and more understandable goal.

The last major change I’ll talk about is the idea of having to repeat certain events in the loops. In the film, there is a sort of daily “chore” schedule that must be completed to keep everyone safe. This gives everyone a sense of responsibility (increasing the children’s agency), but it also makes the world feel different–less safe and more well rounded. In contrast, the book’s loops don’t operate this way. This gives a little more logic to the loops, in my opinion, but it creates the sense that the loops are not really a part of the world, and the safety is a little suffocating and cloying at first.

In summary, there are a lot of things about the book that make it feel more “real,” and slightly more believable. The author is able to make the magical feel mundane. On the other hand, the film is all about creating a new world. It’s supposed to feel fantastical. I enjoyed both the film and the book for different reasons, and I think the film does a good job of condensing the book’s events even though it ends up taking them in a weird direction (probably something that’s talked about in later books, which I have not yet read).

 

What do you think of movie adaptations in general or this one in particular? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

Top Ten Tuesday: A Conversation About What Makes For Good Books

IMG_2962

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature from The Broke and The Bookish.

I’m not going to lie–this week’s topic was really difficult for me. There are sometimes books where I wonder what this would have been like with more female characters, or wished a book had a little more resolution or a different ending. But these feelings are so few and far between, so fleeting, that I wouldn’t even have enough of them to make any sort of cohesive list.

My mom and I were talking about this topic on the phone. I told her I’d given up on this week’s post because I had no idea what to write about. We started talking about books and what makes a book good and what makes a book enjoyable. I wanted to share some of our thoughts with you instead of a normal list-type post. These thoughts aren’t all that organized, so I hope you will excuse my rambling.

In general, I abide by the rule that there is always more to read. So, if I don’t like a book, I don’t sweat it and I just set it aside. But I also know that there is a book for every reader and a reader for every book. If I two-star a book on Goodreads that someone else gave five stars to, does that make either of us a bad reader? I don’t think so. We just have different tastes.

A lot of reading is subjective. What do you enjoy, and how do you find books with those attributes? Everyone has individual preferences. But writing is not just something done for entertainment. It has its “low” and “high” Art sides, but any way you slice it, literature is an art form. Every book is a cultural artifact, striving to teach us something about humanity and our own times or times past.

Sometimes I’ve felt pressure to feel certain ways about books by peers or by professors. Ulysses, for example, is not my favorite book. Not even close. But how do you tell that to a professor who has spent his whole academic career grappling with a single author? I appreciate James Joyce’s brilliance–and I understand he deserves acclaim and readership. He created a masterwork. He’s a Michelangelo of the written word.

But here’s the issue: we can agree Michelangelo was a master and not like his work. Even the not-so-subjective ways we have of judging art (and books) are, in some ways, subjective. We can agree that there are certain things we look for in books: character development, plot, description and narrative style, etc. But there’s no gold standard or formula for great literature, and in the end art is judged individually. Hopefully critics understand the context and are well-versed enough in their area to give a good opinion, but ultimately appreciating art is about values. Do you value characters over plot the way that I do? Do you value experimentation? Description or word play? In other words, what do you put up on a pedestal?

Chances are, the books that you feel are missing something are simply books that don’t value the same things that you do. Not every book can do everything at 100%. In art, some aspects take a back seat to give others emphasis. Whether you agree with those decisions or not decides in a large part whether you’ll like the book.

I think it’s always important to read with an open mind. If we’re always trying to make a book something that it’s not, we miss out on what it is. Sometimes maybe it’s better to miss out, and that’s okay. But I think it’s important to remind ourselves that someone took the time to put those words on paper, to create a part of culture. Whenever I read I try (and this is not always easy) to think not what does this book need, but what does it already offer?

 

What do you think makes a book great? Let me know in the comments.

 

Reading Challenge #49: A Book You Got From a Used Book Sale

1408090

Title: Foundation and Empire

Author: Isaac Asimov

How it fulfills the challenge: Every year our library has two huge book sales put on by the Friends of the Library. I helped run the fall sale, but I went a day early to check out all the books. I ended up with a huge box of books for  both myself and as gifts, including this old copy of Asimov’s book for 50 cents.

Genre: Science-Fiction

Quick Description: In Asimov’s second Foundation book, new forces are set to destroy the fledgling Foundation, which was established at the end of the Empire’s power. The Foundation started as a scientific endeavor to create a giant encyclopedia containing all knowledge to shorten the inevitable chaos that will follow the end of the Empire to 1,000 years instead of 30,000 years. To do this, the Foundation must weather different crises. The first ones are described in the first book, but the new ones threaten to topple everything the Foundation has ever stood for.

Opening Line: The Galactic Empire was falling.

The city was quiet under its conquest and curfew, and the hazy milk of the great Galactic Lens, with here and there a lonely star, dominated the sky of the Foundation.

Highlights: This book series is without a doubt a masterpiece of science fiction. It shows interesting views of all of humanity, since part of the premise is that large bodies of people are predictable, even though individuals are not. The writing is atmospheric and smart, and through the jumps in time and space, Asimov is simultaneously able to make his characters seem individual as well as a part of the bigger picture.

Low points: Like any book, you really have to be in the right mood to read this one in order to keep up with the plotting, the history that’s been set forth, and the political powers at work. It’s a book that demands a lot from the reader, and you have to be into that. I’m not sure this really counts as a low point though… It doesn’t for me.

Goodreads Rating: 4 stars–though it probably deserves something more like 4.5. I find series difficult to award 5 stars to consistently. It definitely feels like this book is set up for more intense galactic struggles to come.