Delicious Foods, by James HannahanTotally recommend. Gripping, moving, occasionally a little surreal, and does some mind-bending things with the narration.
Sleepless in Manhattan, by Sarah MorganA fun contemporary romance novel, the start of a set. May have to look up the others – Morgan created a compelling cast of characters.
Anything for You, by Kristin HigginsMerely okay – kept reading, and got a few laughs, but mostly a rather predictable romance novel with predictable character types. Middle of a series.
Paradise Lodge, by Nina Stibbe (releases 7/12/16)Persistently quirky, but amusing. Imagine the main character from Louise Rennison’s books having an actual brain, a conscience, and living on shaky financial ground in 1970s Leicester.
I’m Still Here (Je Suis La), by Clelie Avit & translated by Lucy Foster (releases 8/23/16)LOVED THIS. Finished it in under two hours – couldn’t step away from it for long, and I was so engrossed while reading it on the train home that I almost missed my stop. Simple story, but breathtaking.
The Thousandth Floor, by Katharine McGee (releases 8/30/16)It’s GOSSIP GIRL in the 22nd century. Seriously. If you like that show, you’ll like this. Apparently it’s already been optioned for television.
Secrets of Nanreath Hall, by Alix Rickloff (releases 8/2/16)Enjoyed this tremendously. Has “feature film” written all over it, and I mean that in the best possible way. I’d love to see this interpreted onscreen.
The Secrets She Kept, by Brenda Novak (releases 8/2016)Okay. Good enough to keep my interest, and they do well with the red herrings for the mystery part, but somehow it seems a little pat. But then, I’m used to Lord Peter Wimsey, so perhaps other mysteries pale in comparison.
Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett (releases 9/2016Apparently semi-autobiographical. Gripping and well-told. Longlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
The Life She Wants, by Robyn Carr (releases 9/27/16)Meh. Not terribly engaged in this one.
The Bookshop on the Corner, by Jenny O’Colgan (releases 9/2016)One of those books in which the end is a bit predictable, but the route to get there is not. Sweet and charming.
Monticello, by Sally Cabot Gunning (releases 9/2016)Neither an easy nor a quick read, but an interesting one. Fascinating perspective on familiar historical events and people.
The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst (releases 9/2016)THIS IS FABULOUS. Like fantasy? Forests? Magic? Strong women? READ THIS.
- Just Fine With Caroline, by Annie England Noblin (releases 10/2016)
- Winter Storms, by Elin Hilderbrand (releases 10/4/16)
- IQ, by Joe Ide (releases 10/18/16)
- The Rift: Uprising, by Amy S. Foster (releases 10/2016)
- Long Way Gone, by Charles Martin (releases 10/4/16)
- Goldenhand, by Garth Nix (releases 10/11/16)
- Mister Monkey, by Francine Prose (releases 10/2016) Longlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
- The Comet Seekers, by Helen Sedgwick (releases 10/2016)
Orphans of the Carnival, by Carol Birch (11/2016)Another one I couldn’t put down. Based on a real woman’s life, and one of the best-written ARCs I’ve had yet.
- A Portrait of Emily Price, by Katherine Reay (releases 11/1/16)
Butter: a Rich History, by Elena Khosrova (releases 11/15/16)Given as a gift to my brother.
- The Second Mrs. Hockaday, by Susan Rivers (releases 1/10/17)
- Little Deaths, by Emma Flint (releases 1/17/17)
- The Young Widower’s Handbook, by Tom McAllister (releases 2/7/17)
- The Orphan’s Tale, by Pam Jenoff (releases 2/28/17)
- The Daughters, by Adrienne Celt (left over from previous haul, released August 2015)
- Words Without Music, by Philip Glass (left over from previous haul, released April 2015)
- She Came from Beyond!, by Nadine Darling (left over from previous haul, released October 2015)
There is something thrilling about the sound of an orchestra tuning. It’s a sound that announces the beginning of something magical. It draws me in, somehow simultaneously settling my mind and making my heart race.
I have yet to find anyone who agrees with me on this, but I stand by it. The ritual of dimmed lights, applause for the conductor, and then the sound of first the strings finding their A, then the other instruments joining in – it’s beautiful and intoxicating.
On Saturday, I went to the Lamplighters Musical Theatre’s performance of their reworked “Mikado,” titled “The NEW Mikado,” at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. This production makes a valiant and largely successful attempt at retaining the musical and narrative structure of the original operetta while addressing the racial and ethnic aspects of the original that are uncomfortable and distasteful to a modern audience. Their solution? Remove the entire story from the setting of the fictional and highly stylized setting of the Japanese town of Titipu, and place it instead in a fictional and highly stylized town called Tirmisu in the fifteenth-century duchy of Milan.
And you know what? It works. It really, really works. I loved it.
But as I sat in the darkened theater, listening to the orchestra tune and then play the familiar melodies of the late Victorian operetta, my mind couldn’t stop wandering to my own past.
“The Mikado” is incredibly important to me. Every time I have seen it or been involved with a production of it in any way, it leaves ripples of impact in my life.
In 1997 or 1998, my mother took me to see a production of “The Mikado” put on at Stanford University by their Gilbert and Sullivan Society, The Stanford Savoyards. I remember sitting enthralled through it, and still have snapshot memories of the two act finales. After that, we went to several of the Savoyards’ productions until in early 2002, I decided to audition to join the chorus myself. I was fifteen at the time, and the production staff made it clear that I was an exception to their usual rules about the age of participants. But that audition, and then being in the production, introduced me to a new part of myself. It was the most daring thing I had ever done, I felt, and took me to a world of magic and camaraderie that opened my eyes.
I won’t deny that I enjoyed being the petted youngest member of the company. It’s always nice to feel special. But more than that, I was treated as an equal member of the effort to bring the show to the stage. And really, I was only two or three years younger than some of the others, who were freshmen at Stanford.
It’s hard for me to explain the impact of those few months of rehearsal and performance. Desperate for approval and encouragement in my singing attempts, longing to feel like a valued member of a community engaged in a shared endeavor, I really think that joining the Savoyards in 2002 was a pivotal moment for me. The weeks I spent in rehearsal, performance, and social interaction with the Stanford students in the company proved to me that even without a 4.0 GPA, I could keep up with these students I viewed with some awe.
Being in “Mikado” in 2002 (and “The Sorcerer” that fall, and “The Gondoliers” in the spring of 2003) gave me the courage to apply to Stanford.
As I listened to the familiar music on Saturday, my mind kept going back to May of 2002, as I’d wait backstage for the entrance of the women’s chorus. We’d all bustle about, putting finishing touches to wigs, makeup, and costumes, and occasionally pausing to listen intently to the faint strains of music and dialogue coming through the backstage PA system, praying that the tenor and the trumpet were both having good nights as they approached the high notes.
I remember the movements backstage as a sort of dance, as we knew exactly when to step aside for Ed’s manic sprint offstage at one side and re-entrance on the other side for the next verse, or to make our way to the exact spots for our entrance. At times I remember some people quietly dancing in the wings, compelled to move by music and adrenaline.
In 1997, “Mikado” planted a spark of interest in trying the stage for myself. In 2002, it showed me that I could, in fact, belong at Stanford and find a community there. In 2005, it woke me up to the fact that I was no longer enjoying the theater experience.
And now, in 2016? I have only rarely gone near Gilbert & Sullivan in the past eleven years. The memory of the overwhelming and frightening rage and loss I felt as I saw my time with the Savoyards ending has to some extent tainted the memories of the magic and passionate love I had for the experience. I’ve even flinched away from the music itself.
Perhaps it’s been long enough now that I can start reclaiming that music. I feel no desire to get back onstage, and the only thing I regret about my decision to leave the Savoyards is how long it took me to accept the end of the era for me. It was a life lesson in “leave before you hate it.”
Except for those moments when I hear an orchestra tune. During those moments, as the lights dim and the familiar combination of instruments all seek harmony on their A, I find myself briefly in the velvet darkness of the wings, or the yellow light of the cramped, crowded dressing rooms in Dinkelspiel Auditorium. And for a moment, I miss it. But just for a moment. Then I let myself float away into the magic of theater.
books, Edith Nesbit, entertainment, Frances Hodgson Burnett, James Thurber, knowledge gaps, literature, movies, nerds, NPR, npr pchh, pop culture happy hour, popular culture, popular music, thinking, whimsy
My laptop died in December. For the past three months, I have been enjoying the benefits of having a laptop that isn’t ancient. For instance, I can now consistently open PDFs.
Even better, I can once again access the iTunes store, with its glorious array of free and bank-draining possibilities.
I can finally act on the repeated recommendation from a friend to check out a podcast from NPR called “Pop Culture Happy Hour.” And oh boy, do I love it.
Now, due to a quirk resulting from some kind of change to the technical aspects of NPR’s podcast distribution in the past few months, most of my NPR podcasts suddenly decided to download all or most of the past few years’ archives. That was a bit annoying when it came to Fresh Air (I enjoy it well enough, but not THAT much), but when it came to PCHH, it’s great fun.
One of the things I like about it is that they theme the episodes, which are usually divided into three acts. The final act is always the same – “What’s Making Us Happy This Week” – but the first two are sometimes both discussions, and sometimes one is a discussion and the second is a funny quiz.
Anyway, some of the archived episodes I’ve been listening to have me thinking about the subject of popular culture knowledge gaps.
There are things we take for granted, assuming that everyone knows them as well as we do. Often it’s heavily dependent on what popular culture we’re exposed to as children, and at some level, we are still those kids who think that this is what everyone sees, reads, and listens to, and then we’re startled when we encounter someone who doesn’t know those songs, stories, and characters.
In my way of thinking, these gaps fall into a few overlapping categories.
1. Lack of knowledge
If you simply aren’t aware of something, you will naturally have that as a gap. That happened (and still happens) to me a lot. I didn’t grow up in a tv-watching household, so when my friends talked about Nickelodeon, the Siimpsons, South Park, Friends, or Buffy (to name a few), I usually either stared blankly or went off into my happy place until they finished. There was a guy who sat near me in eighth grade history, though, who used to love to recount the entire plot of each week’s Simpsons episode to me in spite of my demonstrated lack of interest. Which leads me to…
2. Lack of interest
This manifests at a lot of levels. Sometimes it’s as simple as an individual production by an artist, or sometimes it’s the artist’s entire body of work. Sometimes it’s a genre or an entire category. For instance, keeping up with popular music has never been of particular interest to me. So I don’t. If I encounter a song that I like, I listen to it, but I don’t put any effort into finding new music. There’s so much entertainment and popular cultural works out there that it’s impossible to consume more than the tiniest fraction in our lifetimes – why spend your time and energy on something that just doesn’t capture your interest?
3. Lack of access
Sometimes there are things you would follow if you could, but maybe you don’t have the right channels on your TV, or the funds to expend on pursuing the cultural thread in question, or the rules of your family don’t allow it, like Lane Kim on Gilmore Girls being forbidden to listen to rock music. Then again, maybe that’s not a good example, because she finds a way to listen anyway.
4. Lack of time
Like I said earlier, there’s so much out there in the popular culture realm, created before, during, and likely to be produced after our lifetimes. Even if you spent all your time reading, you’d never read all the books in the world. Same goes for movies, or tv, or comics, or sporting events, or music, or live performances. We all have to pick and choose and accept the fact that we’re barely going to graze the surface of what’s out there.
The kinds of gaps I’m describing here are interlocking. For instance, my lack of interest in pursuing popular music means I have a distinct lack of knowledge in the area.
Here are some of my gaps, other than popular music, of which I am aware. At the moment, I’d say mostly my choices are determined by category 2 – most of my gaps are simply due to lack of interest. For the same reason, I am rarely able to categorize my interests by genre. I follow what interests me.
1. Superman franchise
2. Batman franchise
3. Basically anything from the DC Comics universe. I’ve got some on Marvel, thanks to the past decade’s films, but I never really got into comics.
6. Most sports. I get a kick out of watching the Olympics (winter and summer) and sometimes watching bits of the World Series, but the rest of it just doesn’t hold my attention.
7. Most in the paranormal/supernatural area of stories
Some gaps I’ve discovered in others that brought me up short, and that help me to understand my own quirks:
1. Dickens novels
2. 1930s/1940s Hollywood classics/memorable actors and their roles
3. James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks (nobody EVER gets my references, and it makes me sad)
4. Tudor history
5. Classic English children’s literature from around 100 years ago (think Frances Hodgson Burnett, Edith Nesbit, etc.)
6. Original literature versions of things Disney has mangled into syrupy, sanitized animations
7. Lord of the Rings
Wednesday, October 17, 1981
…Give the manager one of my complimentary tickets to Mel Brooks’ History of the World, which is having a glossy preview at 11.30.
Find myself sitting next to Harold Evans, editor of the Times. He seems to be very anxious to please asking me what I’m doing, as if he knows me. Make some jokes about the SDP, then he admits that he does think they are a very sensible lot. This, together with a propensity to do the right thing by clapping whenever Mel Brooks appears on the screen, makes me suspect him. Surely Times editors should be made of harder stuff?
The film is dreadful. Having dispensed early on with any claim to historical accuracy or authenticity and any exceptional attention to visual detail, the whole thing depends on the quality of the gags. And the quality is poor. It’s like a huge, expensive, grotesquely-inflated stand-up act. A night club act with elephantiasis.
I return from my book reporting hiatus to tell you a little about the first 200 pages of the book I’ve chosen to start 2015. Halfway to Hollywood: Michael Palin’s Diaries, 1980-1988 is exactly what it sounds like.
Comedian, writer, actor, and traveler extraordinaire Michael Palin has, over the last few years, started publishing (presumably edited) collections of his diaries from different parts of his life. I own the first section, which covers the bulk of the Monty Python years, but hadn’t realized more were available until a search for something else at my local library brought this up by accident.
The diaries aren’t scandalous, and the gossip is actually kept to a relatively low level. In the first volume of his diaries, Palin records that he took up a daily diary entry as one way of helping himself break a smoking habit not long before filming of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” began. And these really have a daily diary kind of feel – he often records when he got up, where he went on his daily running excursions, and how various meetings with colleagues, business managers, and medical professionals went. A lot of it is very everyday information, which reassures me that he hasn’t done much, or any, after-the-fact editing to hype up the excitement level.
When I was in middle school, “Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail” was the cool movie. Some kids had their favorite member of a band, or a favorite member of a sports team. I had a favorite Python.
I thought John Cleese was screamingly funny. I was fascinated by his seeming ability to flip a switch and go from calm, even supercilious, to apoplectic fury in an instant. I loved his look-down-one’s-nose biting sarcasm.
I still like Cleese’s style, and indeed I can’t really say I dislike any of the Pythons (though I also can’t say I’ve ever really “gotten” Terry Gilliam’s bizarre cartoons). The older I get, though, the more I find I prefer the gentler style of Michael Palin.
When I think over the “Flying Circus” show, most of the sketches I like best involve Palin, from the Argument Clinic to Blackmail. I like his subsequent work, too, especially the travel shows.
I think one of the reasons I enjoy Palin’s diaries so much is because I like getting a view into the process of entertainment, the gears and cogs that work behind the scenes to make what we enjoy. I’m up to the middle of 1982 in this volume, and Palin has just finished filming “The Missionary,” a quirky film for which he wrote the screenplay AND filled the lead role (Maggie Smith, of all people, plays the female lead). I think it’s interesting to get a peek at how a movie gets made, from initial idea to presentation in cinemas. Of course this is an extremely simplified view, but it’s still interesting.
The diaries read a little like those travel shows’ narrations, actually. Palin is factual and interested in everything. He genuinely enjoys himself and is sorry to leave a place or a project, but he’s also eager to see what’s coming around the bend. And I like his sense of humor, which is quirky and rarely offends, but has an occasional bite to it. And I like that he seems to slip it in there and move quickly on to the next thing, before you’ve entirely realized the depth of the joke.
It’s no wonder that some people call him “Britain’s Nicest Man.” Of all the Pythons, he seems like someone who’d be genuinely fun and not at all stressful to know.
And as regards the above quotation, I have to say I feel totally vindicated. I didn’t much like “History of the World, Part One” either.
Okay, okay, I know that these illuminations aren’t of Henry V, but IS ANYONE ELSE SEEING THIS?! Tom Hiddleston could have stepped straight out of any one of these drawings!
So as it turns out, Worlds of Arthur was about as exciting as reading a poorly annotated bibliography, so I ditched it after 80 pages and I’m working on Lisa Hilton’s Queens Consort right now. More on that another time, when I’ve read more than one chapter.
In other news, there’s been some discontent expressed online with the release of images of Johnny Depp in character as the Wolf in the upcoming film version of “Into the Woods.”
It’s not how I’d have designed the character, but I didn’t exactly expect them to recreate the Anatomically Explicit Wolf costume from the stage play. And yes, it’s meant to be skeevy that he’s hitting on a teenage girl. That’s the whole point of the scene, not to mention the Red Riding Hood story. In its existence from the Grimm brothers onward it’s not exactly subtle as a morality story about female virtue.
But in general, my reaction to the hullabaloo about the design of the Wolf for the film is “Really? THAT’s what you have a problem with?”
The makers of the film are reportedly being so squeamish about the darker aspects of the story that they’re taking all the bite out of it. The whole point of the story is what happens AFTER happily ever after, and the consequences of events put in motion – no story actually ends with happily ever after.
I’ve heard through the grapevine that they’ve decided to delete the “Moments in the Woods” scene between the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella’s Prince, and that the whole thing with Rapunzel being stepped on by a nearsighted giantess has also been omitted. The latter is mostly twisted humor, but it plays into why the Witch snaps – for all her questionable parenting decisions, she adores Rapunzel.
The omission of the “Moments in the Woods” is more upsetting. It’s not an easy scene, and over fifteen years after I first saw the play, I’m still working on understanding it and its consequences. I mean, I know what happens onstage and offstage within the story there, but I’m working on understanding it more deeply. And it sets up the Baker’s Wife’s end, as well as the climax of the whole storyline. It’s the Baker’s Wife we’ve followed and empathized most with throughout the story, after all. Sondheim and Lapine direct our attention to her, and it’s her determination and mind that drive the quest which weaves all the tangential stories together.
Going off the articles I’ve seen on the subject, here are the major changes from stage to screen.
1. The relationship between the Wolf and Red Riding Hood is completely nonsexual (by which I think they mean the Wolf’s costume does not involve visible genitalia, because in the stage version it’s all suggested rather than acted upon. It’s SUPPOSED to be seduction!).
2. Rapunzel doesn’t die.
3. The Baker’s Wife does not have a “moment in the woods” with Cinderella’s Prince.
Since those have been announced, further statements say it’s a faithful adaptation, the affair is back in, “Any Moment” is still in, Rapunzel’s end is “different” but still “dark,” and the act 2 opener, “Ever After” is now instrumental (stupid choice, it sets things up, but whatever).
So the moral of the story is, I’m confused and feel yanked around by entertainment reporters. And I’m still a little disappointed that they aren’t double-casting Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf or the Narrator and the Mysterious Man (Narrator’s been completely cut, it seems). It’s Symbolism! Stop wrecking the Symbolism, producers!
Also, Meryl Streep is all kinds of awesome, but nobody can beat Bernadette Peters as the Witch.
In a clause of the treaty which mentions the dispensation of the Pope, it is stated that the princess Katherine consummated her marriage with Prince Arthur. The fact, however, is, that although they were wedded, Prince Arthur and Princess Katherine never consummated the marriage. It is well known in England that the Princess is still a virgin. But as the English are much disposed to cavil, it has seemed to be more prudent to provide for the case as though the marriage had been consummated…
What an impact a single word can make.
Thanks to the popular fictional representations of Tudor history presented by the Showtime series The Tudors and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, many people have at least a vague idea of the story of Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to his longtime love Anne Boleyn. There are many ways in which the situation has been oversimplified and exaggerated in popular imagination – rumors of Henry having syphilis, cynical assumptions that his split from the church of Rome was simply for sexual gratification, that Katherine was a dour old religious fanatic – I could write extensive arguments on each of these subjects.
I am quite pleased, though not surprised, that Julia Fox looks in detail at the wording of the Papal dispensation allowing the widowed Katherine to marry her brother-in-law Henry. Her previous work examining the marriage contract of Jane Parker to George Boleyn showed her skill in dissecting the details and ramifications of sixteenth-century legal documents. In spite of what critics may think of the work as a whole – Fox’s style tends towards excessive speculation about motives and emotions that cannot be proven at this distance of time – the examination of documents is impressive.
In a nutshell, the situation of Katherine of Aragon, a widow at sixteen: The youngest child of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Katherine was brought up to consider herself destined to be Queen of England. She was betrothed to Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII of England and his wife, Elizabeth of York, when both were still toddlers. At fifteen, they married and went to Arthur’s princely seat at Ludlow Castle in the Welsh Marches. After five months, Arthur became ill and died. When it became clear that Katherine would not give birth to a posthumous child, her parents and her parents-in-law set about arguing over her person and her dowry – the Spanish monarchs wanted Katherine to marry Arthur’s younger brother Henry. The English monarchs thought that they could perhaps do better, especially once Katherine’s formidable mother Isabella died and the unification of Aragon and Castile fell apart. However, Katherine and Henry were betrothed with the blessing of a Papal dispensation allowing for siblings-in-law to wed.
The issue that plagued Katherine again when the matter of the legality of her marriage to Henry came up in the 1520s, when Henry’s distress over not having a male heir led him to doubt his marriage and wish to form a new alliance with the woman who was seemingly the love of his life, was the question of whether her brief marriage to Arthur had ever been consummated. If it had, as Henry argued, their subsequent marriage was not legal. Katherine held to the line that though she and Arthur had on several occasions slept in the same bed, she came to Henry a virgin. This was the argument when the dispensation was originally sought, too.
Ferdinand, a notoriously wily political operator, was willing to shrug his shoulders and allow a dispensation that assumed consummation had taken place, in spite of Katherine’s (and some of her most trusted household staff’s) vigorous assertions that it had not. Eventually the document included the word “forsitan” – perhaps. The marriage had perhaps been consummated. The passage I quoted at the start of this post is Ferdinand’s own words on the subject, in a message to his ambassador in Rome.
We still don’t know. The only people who knew were Arthur and Katherine – Katherine always asserted it had not been consummated, and Arthur’s teenage boastings about being “this night in the midst of Spain” may simply be the result of a teenage boy’s pride. Or perhaps Katherine was her parents’ daughter, wise to the ways of politics and determined to fulfill the role God called her to – Queen of England, wife to the King of England, no matter what dissembling was required of her in order to achieve her destiny.
Many point to the many historical instances when a single vote has determined the course of events. Less attention is given to the impact of a single word inserted into a document or mis-heard.
In Sarah Vowell’s essay collection The Partly Cloudy Patriot, she writes about a visit then-Presidential-Candidate Al Gore made to a middle school. A student got up and asked how citizens of their age could get more involved, and he told a story about a girl who wrote a letter from western Tennessee about how the water tasted funny and people were getting sick at an alarming rate. He said investigations found the water was contaminated, and that they then remembered similar occurrences in a place called Love Canal. But the letter from the girl, he said – that was the one that started it all.
Reporters present at the event misquoted Vice President Gore by one word. Soon the story went viral, showing Gore’s habit of taking far too much credit had struck once again. “I was the one that started it all,” the reporters quoted him as saying.
Vowell argues that reporters and citizens alike are too prone to projecting the character and story we expect from each given candidate onto them, at the expense of paying properly close attention. Gore had a habit of taking credit for things – he said he invented the Internet, that he was the inspiration for the movie Love Story – so the exhausted reporters following the candidate on his campaign trail automatically assumed he was once again taking credit, this time for exposing the environmental contamination at Love Canal, New York and Toone, Tennessee.
Just one word misquoted in a story that is actually inspirational – a candidate spoke to an audience, answered a good question with a relevant anecdote, and the audience really listened. The misquotation turned it into a joke.
One word was inserted into the dispensation allowing Katherine and Henry to marry. Five hundred years later and we’re still debating what that “perhaps” means.
Ah, yes, I was talking about Luigi Ricci. Well, he studied music and started composing. The first crap he wrote – oh, I’m sorry, that just slipped out – anyway, his first compositions, for whatever reason, were very successful. Theatres all over Italy wanted him, from Rome to Naples to Parma to Turin to Milan. And, since he couldn’t manage to keep up with all the music they were asking him to write, he started copying stuff wherever he could find it, the way some of my pupils do. There’s one, in fact, who seems to take his lessons from the devil himself. You know wheat he does, when I give them Latin dictation? He goes… Where does he go? But what’s this got to do with anything? Ah, yes, Luigi Ricci.
Once again, I’m behind the schedule I’ve arbitrarily set for myself. But luckily for me, I’m the only one who notices.
So, The Brewer of Preston, by Andrea Camilleri, who also wrote the Inspector Montalbano series. This book is actually set in the same town of Vigata in Sicily, set in the 1870s. The unification of Italy and the difficulties in merging such disparate regions and cultures are overarching plot points in the story.
If you’ve seen a Wes Anderson film like The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, you’ve got a sense of what The Brewer of Preston is like. It is eccentric. It is determinedly, insistently eccentric. It is full of colors that are just slightly too bright, characters that are fiercely peculiar, and situations that are so odd that they’ve moved beyond implausible into a range that’s so unlikely that you find yourself taking each new revelation in stride.
There are two difficulties with this book. First, it’s a translation from the original Italian, and a lot of the humor is based on what I can only imagine is a detailed cultural knowledge of Italian regional differences. It’s not hard to see that a lot is lost in translation.
The second challenge is the presentation of the story. It’s as if each of chapters was put into a hat and then drawn out at random to create a chapter order. To say it is not in chronological order is an understatement, and it’s not until a postscript at the end of the author’s note at the very end of the book – a postscript which is on its own page, I might add – that you find out it’s intentionally disjointed, and that Camilleri encourages you to read in whatever order you want. If you ask me, that should have been put as a disclaimer at the start.
I don’t know if I’ll ever feel a need to read this again, but it’s an amusing and short diversion, so if aggressively quirky stories are something you enjoy, look it up when it’s released this winter.
Next up is Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile but I’m taking a short break from book-blogging to read Randall Munroe‘s What If? book. Because science can be funny, but I don’t want to ruin it for you all.
By the way, that poll in my last post proved useless. It doesn’t help me if you choose “other” without offering a suggestion, people.
If some parts of his conduct made Captain Dobbin exceedingly grave and cool, of what use was it to tell George that though his whiskers were large, and his own opinion of his knowingness great, he was as green as a schoolboy? that Rawdon was making a victim of him as he had done of many before, and as soon as he had used him would fling him off with scorn? He would not listen: and so, as Dobbin, upon those days when he visited the Osborne house, seldom had the advantage of meeting his old friend, much painful and unavailing talk between them was spared. Our friend George was in the full career of the pleasures of Vanity Fair.
I keep intending to post once a week, but I also want to have made it through a certain amount of the book of the moment between my posts.
I’m not liking Vanity Fair as much as I’d hoped to. Generally speaking, there are two reasons for continuing to read a book that wasn’t assigned in a class. You either like the characters and feel invested in their eventual successes, or you hate the characters and feel invested in witnessing their deserved downfall.
It’s hard to explain, but it’s almost as though we, the audience, aren’t spending enough time with the primary characters to know if we like them or hate them. Except we do spend a lot of time – it’s just through the narration, which has a very removed-from-the-scene feel to it. The narration reads like someone reporting second- or third-hand, rather than in the moment, which is weird, of course, given the text is delivered in the third person past tense. It naturally SHOULD feel removed from the moment, except it’s somehow more so than usual. It’s like he’s describing some other book he read, perhaps.
I suppose it suffices to say that I’m finding it difficult to stay engaged in the story for more than very short bursts. The chapters about Brussels and the Battle of Waterloo were gripping, but then he dropped it suddenly, shifted forward by a year within the course of a paragraph, and started talking about the elderly Miss Crawley’s will. AGAIN.
I’m accustomed to the fact that nineteenth-century novels take a while to build their momentum, but even the notoriously verbose Dickens hooks you in by halfway through the book. I’m going to stick with it, because I’ve read that Vanity Fair is infamous for starting slowly, but I’m halfway through the book. It’s been 400 pages. Surely that’s a little too slow!