Wednesday, August 01, 2012

A Victorian Celebration: Wrapping Up

Despite what the absence of posts related to this summer's Victorian Celebration might suggest, I did actually read for this event. In fact, I was so preoccupied with my nineteenth-century reading that I opted to stick my nose between the pages rather than sit down to write on my silly little blog. 

The Victorian period is my golden age, my belle epoque. So I truly appreciated Allie giving me an excuse to revel in this beloved era. I've read some fantastic literature, some old and some new (to me). A summary of what I got up to over the past several weeks is just ahead. But first...

 London 1888 -- I adore Victorian photography!

And now we return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde: This play has more gravitas than The Importance of Being Earnest, but I loved what Wilde had to say about the hypocrisy of polite society in late Victorian England.

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon: My reading provided me with yet another fascinating Lady. How I would like to be a Lady! But to the point...this nineteenth-century mystery is full of murder, deception and madness. I can't wait to read more from this genre.

Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: In a word, stunning! This collection of poems Barrett Browning wrote for her husband, fellow poet Robert Browning, are passionate and poignant. I read some of the letters this literary couple wrote to one another for my MA research, so I'm somewhat familiar with the details of their courtship and marriage. It was fun tracing biographical elements in these sonnets.

The Professor by Charlotte Bronte: I have now read every Bronte novel. Wahoo! This isn't Charlotte's finest work. I struggled through the first chunk of the novel, but its strong second half made the effort worthwhile. Now that I've finished all the Bronte novels, I'll be moving on to biographies and juvenilia. 

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool: Not yet finished, but I've been reading small doses of this intriguing work of non-fiction here and there. Pool's book elucidates all those little details of nineteenth-century life present in Victorian fiction that, over the years, have become enigmatic to the majority of twenty-first-century readers. Some of the information is a refresher course in what I already know and some sections are enlightening. I'm looking forward to discovering what else this text has in store for me.

Increasing my breadth of reading was a New Year's resolution of mine, so I'm proud of the range I managed --even when sticking within the parameters of the Victorian period. Two novels, one play, one collection of poetry and one work of non-fiction. Success! I'll be sharing more about these texts in future posts.

Although the Victorian event has concluded, I won't be straying too far from it in the immediate future. My dad, sister and I will be reading Bleak House together. The truth: I'm a wee bit nervous about it. I'll also be participating in Adam's Austen in August event. Austen + The Victorians = Fantastic Summer!

What have you been reading? Any tips on how best to approach a beast like Bleak House?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Happy Birthday Emily Brontë!

Emily Brontë, 
as depicted by her brother Branwell

Today is my beloved Emily's 194th birthday! May she be just as loved and venerated for the next 194. On this occasion, the final stanza of her poem 'No Coward Soul Is Mine' comes to mind...

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Since thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

According to Charlotte, Emily wrote these words shortly before she died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty. Although Wuthering Heights caused quite the uproar in Victorian society during her lifetime, I wonder if she had any idea that so many years later her words would continue to inspire readers the world over. For through her words, she is immortal.

Today I will be perusing some of my favourite Emily passages, dipping into the iconic biography on this literary family and fancying that Emily's spirit is wandering the moors where she felt most at home.  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Victorian Artists: Sir Edwin Landseer

Dignity and Impudence 1839

I wrote my MA dissertation on dogs in nineteenth-century literature, and since then animals seem to pop up everywhere in my reading. Actually, they were most likely always there, but now I take notice of them. 

Throughout the Victorian Celebration, this trend has continued. Animals act as symbols that signify the wider themes in Lady Audley's Secret and The Professor. A labrador is an important character in the Sarah Waters novel I just finished earlier this evening (not Victorian, but still), while Sonnets from the Portuguese brings to mind the affectionate relationship Elizabeth Barrett Browning had with her spaniel Flush and how that's mirrored in her poetry.

So, I obeyed the sudden inclination to look through some Landseer artwork.

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873) produced an incredible array of paintings featuring domestic animals and wildlife during the Victorian period -- in fact, he was commissioned to paint several portraits of Queen Victoria and the rest of the royal family, pets included. Although he is best remembered today for his lion sculptures that adorn Trafalgar Square, it's his portraits of animal that are, to me, the most poignant. 

Some of his representations are rather fanciful and anthropomorphic by twenty-first century standards (and some are disturbingly violent), but I feel he truly captured the spirit and individuality of animals. Landseer's work transcends the portrayal of animals as mere accessories to their aristocratic masters. I'm looking forward to finding out more about him and other nineteenth-century artists as I continue my fascinating research on the Victorians.

Here's a small sample of his paintings...

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert 
at Home at Windsor Castle in Berkshire, England 1843

The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner 1837

The Arab Tent 1866

 Laying Down the Law 1840

 The Monkey Who Had Seen the World 1827

And this last one makes me smile. It reminds me of my own terrier who is always begging for food with a similar pleading expression. It's as if he's saying, 'Please, sir, I want some more.' 

Macaw, Love Birds, Terrier, and Spaniel Puppies
Belonging to Her Majesty 1839

P.S. Just scouted out this book containing Landseer's private drawings. I want it!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Library Loot, Vol. II

Wow, this blog has really fallen by the wayside. In recent posts I've complained (ad nauseum, I'm sure) about a dreaded reading rut that was plaguing my literary pursuits. I'm pleased as punch to report that I am back to my usual reading habits. I'm devouring fiction and non-fiction, classics and contemporary texts alike.

Reading fever is in full swing, to the point that any distraction from my books -- blogging included -- is not particularly welcome. Meanwhile, a stack of finished titles about which I'd like to share some thoughts and insights is quickly growing like Jack's fabled beanstalk.

This summer's resolution: keep up with my blog! Right, moving on...

On Saturday I meandered over to my tiny local library in search of the selection for next month's book club meeting. The library doesn't carry what I went looking for, but that didn't stop me from coming away with a few new titles tucked under my arm.

I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron

As my mother is settling into middle age, she constantly occasionally complains that she can't remember anything these days. So when I came across Nora Ephron's last book (still so sad that she's passed on), I couldn't resist picking this up for her. She didn't find the joke to be very funny, but I think she'd agree with me when I say that Ephron is indisputably hilarious. Having already begun this short, breezy memoir, I can confidently recommend I Remember Nothing to fellow Ephron fans.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I've never read Sarah Waters before; in fact, it's only relatively recently that she's been brought to my attention. Hearing some fellow students discuss their research on her work piqued my interest, and The Little Stranger promises to be both literary and terrifyingly Gothic.

Any Sarah Waters fans out there? Is this a good place to start, or should I begin with Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet?

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

This novel is the first in the Flavia de Luce mystery series, which centers on an eleven-year-old detective with a proclivity for the sciences. I've read some great reviews by fellow bloggers, and the publisher's description reminds me greatly of a young, female Sherlock Holmes (can I call her Sherlockina?). My hopes are high that this is as entertaining as I think it will be.

Hopefully, I'll find the time for these texts as I continue to consume nineteenth-century literature for the Victorian Celebration. What have you picked up from your local library? Anything you'd recommend?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reading Habits

The Shelves of a Charing Cross Road Bookstore

As a reader I'm always eager to hear about how other bibliophiles engage in the act of reading. When people love literature, they quickly fall into a routine in their 'relationship' with books. Here's a post digging deeper into some of those reading habits, inspired by Jillian and Becca.

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack:
Anything with sugar! I don't like to eat anything that will steal my focus from the book, so reading edibles are limited to non-messy finger foods that I can mindlessly munch. Candy and biscuits, unfortunately, fit the bill. Cinnamon-flavored sweets are often kept on the nightstand for such purposes, and I'm sure I eat more of them than I realize. Oops.

What is your favorite drink while reading?
I drink more water than anything else -- it's my go-to beverage -- but there's nothing I love more than curling up with an impulsively readable story while sipping on a cup of tea or hot chocolate on a chilly evening. 

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
I usually highlight the significant passages that speak to me, a star bestowed upon bits I deem to be especially brilliant, but interrupting a narrative with my own words slows things down for me. I'm such an impatient reader! In theory, I don't object to writing in books, I just don't do it myself. 

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?
Dog-ears are a huge no-no in my book (no pun intended). The book is a vessel of brilliance. Respect it. Preserve it well for the next reader...and the reader after that. Laying a book flat open damages the spine, particularly if the text in question is a paperback, so I avoid that as well.

This leaves bookmarks, but I'm especially skilled at losing anything designed to mark one's spot, so I've given up on the institution as a whole. Old receipts, spare bits of paper and sticky notes most frequently find themselves wedged between pages in my library. And sometimes there's nothing to be found when searching for a substitute bookmark, so I make a mental note of the page number and hope I remember once the book is picked up again. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.

Fiction, non-fiction, or both?
I'm sorry to say I read almost exclusively from the former category. In times past, non-fiction I perused pertained to the fiction I was reading: author biographies, history about my field, criticism. An awareness that in avoiding the non-fiction section of a bookstore I'm missing out on countless literary gems is beginning to creep up on me. I'm slowly discovering the incredible world of non-fiction. It's a slow journey, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. 

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere?
Breaking at the end of a chapter is my decided preference. Since we all know chapters often conclude in a way that urges one to read on, this doesn't always happen. I like to pick up a book whenever a spare moment presents itself: at a bus stop, while waiting at a doctor's office, on the train, etc., etc. The downside of this practice is that I'm compelled to stop in the middle of chapters whether I want to or not.

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?
Guilty! It only happened on one occasion, but still. I was wading through a trilogy I didn't like all that much yet wanted to see through to the end. When the only likable character was permanently turned into a tree at the climax, I promptly dissolved into tears and chucked the book to the other side of my bed. What a waste of time.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?
No. [Hangs head in shame.] I don't have much tolerance for anything that interrupts the flow of the narrative. I've attempted this a few times and inevitably abandon the practice after a few chapters.

What I do instead: try to glean a vague definition of the word based on its usage and pretend this as ascertaining the meaning from the dictionary. This sometimes results in dropping a word into conversation incorrectly and looking like an ignorant fool. It's such an Anne Shirley thing to do! Remember the time she tells Diana, 'I think I've been rendered unconscious'? Yeah, it goes something like that.

What are you currently reading?
I just finished up The Road to Coorain by Jill Ker Conway -- it rocked my world! At the moment, I'm in the middle of Lady Windermere's Fan (Oscar Wilde) and What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew (Daniel Pool). Both are fantastic reads so far!

What is the last book you bought?
 This is London and This is Paris by Miroslav Sasek. They're part of a series of fabulous travel/picture books for children that I gave to a dear friend for her baby shower. These books make great gifts for expectant parents and inquisitive children.

Are you the type of person that reads one book at a time, or can you read more than one?
Whoever said multi-tasking is an inherently female ability was lying through their teeth! I like to focus on one thing at a time, and this philosophy extends to literature. Sometimes I read two books simultaneously, particularly if they're generically different, but for the most part I stick to one text.

Do you have a favorite time/place to read?
I love to read somewhere with ample cushioning, like the couch or my bed, wrapped up in blankets. Reading at night when everything is quiet allows me to immerse myself in a story free from external distractions. 

When I try to read early in the morning I fall asleep 99.9% of the time, unless I've stayed up all night to finish a book I simply couldn't put down. Does this happen to anybody else?

Do you prefer series books or stand alones?
Stand alone books, for sure. Investing in a series is a gamble. Sometimes the later installments fail to maintain the quality of their predecessors. Nothing is more disappointing that arriving at the end of a lengthy series only to conclude it would have been better next to begin (see above). Obviously there are series I count as favorites, but I think twice before buying a book I know to be the first of four volumes.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?
The Tenant of Wildfell and Cranford are classics I recommend again and again. In the case of the former, the enduring popularity of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre has led to the unfortunate neglect of 'The Other Bronte' Anne. No doubt about it, her sisters are deservedly remembered for their fantastic contributions to literature. But Anne holds her own splendidly, thank you very much.

I also recommend P.G. Wodehouse all. the. time. The fact that friends thank me for introducing them to his delightfully droll fiction only encourages me repeat this suggestion.

How do you organize your books?
I have a very specific breakdown for the organization of classics. Titles are first displayed alphabetically by publisher, then format (leatherbound down to paperback), alphabetically by author and alphabetically by title. Does that make sense? This system makes my shelves look fantastic! I'll have to post pictures. (I don't exhibit the slightest symptom of OCD. How dare you even suggest it!)

This concludes the peek into my literary quirks. What are your reading habits? I'd love to hear!

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Love to See on the Big Screen

This week the lovelies at The Broke and the Bookish have encouraged us to share our picks for any previous Top Ten post, and it was such fun mulling this topic over. Books make the best movies. Just ask anyone in Hollywood (all their good ideas come from literature). Yes, the book is always better than the film. Yes, watching a beloved novel butchered on the big screen is like a dagger to the heart. 

But when an adaptation gets it right...

Oh the joy! The thrill of seeing characters whom you love and identify with brought to life is...well, it's like coming home. I gladly admit to crying during the opening credits of an adaptation. I sat there in the darkened cinema with a bit of apprehension (adaptations are always a bit of a gamble), but when that treasured author's name flashed across the screen I felt the tears well up. I knew these characters and this world so well, had enjoyed them on the page so often, and now here they all were before my eyes. 

Sometimes an adaptation portrays things just as I had imagined them, and it feels as though the filmmakers had plucked my thoughts from my brain and plastered it onto the screen. Sometimes an adaptation challenges me to consider a novel in a way I never had before And sometimes, it is pure magic.

So, without further ado, here are ten novels I hope to see translated to film.

Evelina by Frances Burney

 Frances Burney
by Edward Francisco Burney

People go nuts for Jane Austen adaptations/biopics/etc. -- and for good reason. Why then, do filmmakers ignore the novels of Fanny Burney, a writer whom many identify as a key influence on Austen? This story, about a young girl's entrance into London society after a rural upbringing, is one that would instantly appeal to period film fanatics. It has humor and a bit of romance. The settings and costumes would be sumptuous onscreen: ballgowns, parties, London streets, country estates. And the wigs! I get giddy just thinking about it.

And we thought 80s hair was over the top

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

This Newbery Honor-winning novel about a community of young girls who are groomed and trained to compete for the Prince's hand in marriage completely surprised me. I expected a run-of-the-mill fairy tale and was ecstatic to find instead a story that encourages education and independence in young women. Wouldn't it be a wonderful film for impressionable young girls? Hollywood is slowly moving away from the standard damsel-in-distress heroine presented to children, but more can be done in this arena. Hale's charming text offers a fantastic blueprint for filmmakers to follow.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Plath's autobiographical novel wouldn't be easy to watch on the big screen. Esther Greenwood's devastating struggle with depression is raw, painful and vividly depicted. But an adaptation, if done well, would provide some searing performances that would knock a viewer's socks off. Stigma around mental illness still persists in contemporary society, and nobody conveys the experience better than Sylvia Plath.

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights have been adapted to a visual format ad nauseum, but nobody seems to care to share Anne's novels with a larger audience. Such a pity! This simple yet sweet tale of a Victorian governess's experiences could make a wonderful film. Its characters are memorable, and since it's a relatively short novel narrative butchering could be kept to a minimum. Nothing is worse than seeing a favorite text chopped to bits before your eyes!

 The author, by her sister Charlotte

The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe

All right, this is a tricky one. Conventions of Gothic fiction definitely wouldn't appeal to the average moviegoer. Everything is melodramatic, over the top and fainting fits abound. But this is precisely what I would love to see onscreen. If filmmakers embraced the cheesiness and theatricality of Radcliffe's novel, the results could be hilarious. Can't the BBC help us out with this one?

Pigs Have Wings by P.G. Wodehouse

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. P.G. Wodehouse cures all ills. I love him. While Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie brought the Jeeves novels to life, I'm dying to see some Blandings Castle stories given the same honor. Imagine a farcical, so-funny-your-sides-hurt Downton Abbey. That's what you get with Wodehouse. Who isn't on board with that? In Pigs Have Wings two country gentleman are at war, each bound and determined that their Berkshire sow will reign supreme at the Shropshire Agricultural Show. A diet supplement called Slimmo threatens to make its way into the feeding trough. Pigs are lost and found (pignapped?). Lovers quarrel. Lovers reunite. I've enjoyed every Wodehouse novel I've thus far had the pleasure to read, but this is a highlight!

(I posted a hilarious excerpt from a P.G. Wodehouse novel here. Have a peek if you're curious about this underrated author!)

 A Berkshire pig like unto the Empress of Blandings
Cornell University Library

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

This novel is included on the list precisely because I didn't love it. I enjoyed it. Always a sucker for literary vampires (Dracula rules!), I thought Kostova's historical approach -- her vampire is Vlad the Impaler, not just inspired by the legends surrounding this figure -- was original and intriguing. Unfortunately, Kostova's execution was a disappointment. Whole chunks of the novel dragged. A movie could fix that. By taking the author's fascinating ideas and eliminating the weaknesses with pacing, the result might be a film that surpasses the quality of its source material.

Frederica by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer is the author I turn to when I crave the splendour of Regency England but am (temporarily) bored with Lizzy, Emma, Elinor and Marianne. I would love to see filmmakers provide Austen fans with some adaptations of Heyer texts instead of the umpteenth version of Pride and Prejudice. Heyer narratives are familiar yet fresh. The humour and heart in Frederica could make a charming film.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Inspired by Kipling's The Jungle Book, this Newbery winner centers around a boy who is raised by the supernatural residents of a cemetery after the tragic death of his human, living family. It provides readers with both depth and escapism, and a skilfully adapted movie would offer viewers the same. Can you imagine what a good cinematographer could do with the Gothic cemetery setting? An adaptation is reportedly in the works. I just hope it does the book justice!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

One of the most enchanting novels I've read in years, I could immediately picture the charming characters depicted by Shaffer and Barrows. When I closed its pages, they had become dear friends. At turns hilarious and heartbreaking, the epistolary novel provides a fresh perspective on the German occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II. The characters are not defined by the war but by the sense of community they share with one another and the literature that solaces them.

Even as I was absorbed by the narrative, I frequently paused to think what a wonderful movie this could be. Imagine my elation, then, when I discovered that Kenneth Branagh will be directing an adaptation, for which filming is scheduled to begin later this year. Most of the casting has yet to be determined, but Kate Winslet has signed on to play the protagonist. I must admit to harboring high hopes for this one!

Are there any books you would like to see adapted for the big screen, or do you prefer for your favorite texts to remain untarnished? Have you ever seen a film translation outshine its source material? I would love to hear!

Monday, June 04, 2012

A Victorian Celebration: Commencement

It's here! It's here! Graciously hosted by Allie, A Victorian Celebration is a two-month reading event focusing on the era that I love best. As I've slowly been recovering from the horrid reading rut, the arrival of the Victorian Celebration couldn't have had better timing. Bring on the Dickens, the Eliot, the Wilde!

There are loads of tidbits I'm hoping to share with you during the next two months: why I adore the Victorians, some fantastic authors that have been largely forgotten by the reading public in recent years, fantastic film adaptations set during Victoria's reign, the cultural legacy of Victorians outside of literacy and more.

I love the passion of Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens's gift for caricature and the brilliant witticisms of the incomparable Oscar Wilde. I can't read too much about repressed sexuality and the griminess of nineteenth-century London. But there's so much more to the Victorians than this small handful of authors and hackneyed stereotypes. The Victorians provide a veritable goldmine of intriguing knowledge: the deeper one digs for treasure, the more gems one finds. I'm excited to share parts of my Victorian journey here -- a journey that I think will last a lifetime.

Meanwhile, I wanted to document some of the texts I'm hoping to dig into for the event. I may not get to all of these, or I may simply change my mind about what I want to read. Nor will I be exclusively reading from this time period for the next two months either. Still, a list will hopefully help me to stay focused when every Victorian book on my shelf calls to me -- they dominate my humble little library and it's easy to become a bit confused when trying to decide on just one

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

Margaret Oliphant is a prime example of a Victorian author who has fallen by the wayside. A prolific writer, she was reportedly a favorite of Queen Victoria. This novel about a young girl who sweeps into her father's house to rule the roost (and, by extension, the community itself) after he mother passes away is a book I've been wanting to read for a while.

Plays by Oscar Wilde

Hail to the master of the epigram! 

Oscar Wilde plays just glow, in my opinion. He somehow convinces me that all of life's difficulties can be resolved in two hours if one would just make the effort. The parties, romance and humor don't hurt either. Having read his two most popular plays, I want to read Lady Windermere's Fan and/or A Woman of No Importance.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

People tend to characterize Victorian fiction by its lengthy tangents (read, 800-plus pages) on poverty, suffering and death. But the truth is the Victorians fully embraced stories of fantastic adventure, particularly in the later years of the century. I've read (and loved!) such texts by H. Rider Haggard, but I haven't yet experienced the more popular tale of life on the high seas by Haggard's contemporary Robert Louis Stevenson.

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

In sensation fiction, deliberately provocative subjects such as adultery, madness, bigamy, murder, etc. receive a melodramatic treatment -- as if the subject matter itself wasn't dramatic enough! Although books in the genre were bestsellers during the Victorian period (especially in the 60s and 70s), critics condemned many of these texts as literary tripe. Only recently have Lady Audley's Secret, novels by Wilkie Collins and others been introduced to the canon.

Short Fiction by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell rocks. She just does. Though they are drastically different, both North and South and Cranford are included among my exclusive list of favorites. But I'm dying to explore the mass of short fiction she left behind. From novellas and short stories to her Gothic Tales, Gaskell produced a vast array of literature beyond her novels.

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool

I'll be perusing these insights on nineteenth-century life as I read my selected works of fiction. Contextualizing the literature by gaining a better understanding of the times always enhances the reading experience for me. 

 I think that's more than enough to get me started on this long-awaited event. Now where to start? That's the tricky part. Which Victorians will you be reading during June and July? How's it going so far?

If you'd like to join the fun, go here for details. Happy Reading!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Flower Fever


I might be jumping the gun by saying this, but I think I'm finally emerging from this horrid reading rut. Suffice it to say, I can't wait to see the end of it. In the meantime, I thought I'd share some photos of the lovely additions we've been adding to the garden over the past few weeks. Toiling, tilling and planting has been a welcome distraction from my literary woes -- channeling Mary Lennox has been great fun. Here are some of the results...

Calla Lily
Purple Alyssum-- Percy couldn't resist peeing on this
I have no idea what these purple flowers are called
But they're pretty
White Alyssum
 More Snapdragons
 Wearing my trusty bonnet
Don't laugh -- it's great sun protection
and it made me feel like Lizzy Bennet

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reading Rut

Woman Reading in a Landscape
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

I'm in a reading rut. 

There's no doubt about it, a reading rut sucks. You know those times when no book, no matter how brilliant it is, can hold your attention for more than thirty seconds? When you pick up one book after another (after another) hoping that something, anything will suck you into its fictional world? When you gaze upon your bookshelves with a longing envy, because even though books are patiently waiting to be plucked from the dusty confines of the top shelf, you simply can't do much about it? When not even that cheesy escapist novel with a fifth-grade reading level can compel you to bury yourself in the intoxicating smell of the printed page? These are the horrible symptoms of a reading rut, and all apply to my current feelings for anything literary.

I've experienced the dreaded reading rut enough times in my life to know that it's best if I just wait out the storm. But, oh, how I wish I were reading -- not only for the joy that literature inevitably brings to my life, but also so that I could share wonderful discoveries with you. Unfortunately, it's difficult to blog when you struggle to make it through a single chapter of the simplest text! 

Hopefully I will soon return to a reading frenzy, racing through pages because I simply can't. get enough. Then I will tell you how this author brought me to tears with the beauty of her words and how that book compelled me to stay up all night until I reached its blissful conclusion.

In the meantime I have been keeping myself occupied with the following:

Still trying to find a career. Oh, the joy!

Exercising. Perhaps this is due to the impending arrival of summer, but suddenly I've felt the need to get in shape. The evening weather is perfectly suited to speed walks with chubby dogs.

Gardening. Wholly unaccustomed to yard work of any kind, this year I've suddenly become my mother's assistant outside. Armed with sunscreen and shades, I've pulled weeds, planned out the placement of new shubbery, and planted flowers. Oh, I also managed to kill off whole sections of grass in the attempt to root out dandelions. Whoops.

Do you have any sure-fire methods of emerging from a reading rut? If so, please share your tips!

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Curse of The Woman in White

I'm beginning to think a curse has descended upon my strained relationship with The Woman in White. Every time I try to get to know this iconic Victorian text, literary disaster strikes. Let's recap, shall we?

Reading Attempt No. One: I made my way through the first few chapters before aborting the mission. Fail.

Reading Attempt No. Two: Much closer this time. I got through half of the novel before jumping ship. Fail.

Reading Attempt No. Three: Didn't even crack the book open. Epic fail.

Allow me to emphasize that that three failed attempts have nothing to do with the novel -- I always find it engaging and intriguing. But man, every time I pick it up (or, in this case, resolve to pick it up), life always gets in the way. April would naturally be the month of terrifying interviews, reading ruts and an existential crisis that would smash my determination to finally read The Woman in White to smithereens.

Does the universe throw deliberately throw obstacles in my path each time I eye this book as it sits idly on my shelves? Are we literary star-crossed lovers, doomed to be kept apart despite my best efforts?

Yes, I'm slightly indulging in melodrama here, but frustration is building as I face another failed reading of Wilkie Collins's most popular novel. Has anybody ever faced a similar experience with a novel you just know you'll love yet can't seem to finish? Any suggestions for getting over such a literary hurdle?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: A Percy Post

It's hard work being a chubby, cuddly dog of the manor
(especially when people rather rudely interrupt nap time)
but someone's gotta do it!

Her Fearful Symmetry: When a Setting Steals the Show

'What is more basic than the need to be known? It is the entirety of intimacy, the elixir of love, this knowing.'

Betting on Audrey Niffenegger's second novel was a gamble. Readers whose taste and judgment I admire both loved and loathed Her Fearful Symmetry. In the end, the pull of a Neo-Victorian ghost story set in and around a historical London cemetery was too strong for me to resist.

Unfortunately this gamble didn't pay off. Oh, I wanted so badly to like it, to love it even, to sing its praises to readers all around. I tried, I really tried, but Her Fearful Symmetry left me feeling cold and indifferent.

As seen in the author's wildly popular debut novel The Time Traveler's Wife, Niffenegger's writing has a mystical quality. It draws you in and almost makes you feel as though you're floating about the narrative, just as Elspeth's ghost flits around the London flat she's left to her twin nieces, and every once in a while I'd come across a phrase that stunned me (see above).

But a novel needs more than pretty prose to work as a whole. It needs compelling characters, and in this aspect Niffenegger failed to live up to her authorial potential. The Time Traveler's Wife had me rooting for its protagonists within moments of opening the pages. With all their strengths and flaws, I fell in love with Clare and Henry as quickly as they fell in love with each other. Full engagement with a single character in Her Fearful Symmetry eluded me.

Somewhere I heard the novel described as a testament to the enduring power of love. If by love one means supreme selfishness, deceit and possession, then yes, love abounds in the world of Her Fearful Symmetry. Every relationship, both familial and romantic, seemed twisted and warped to such an extent that it put me off the text as a whole. The majority of the characters chased after the travesty of intimacy. The semblance of love masked the dishonesty and secrecy that underpinned the narrative. That any character professed to have captured this intangible 'knowing' left me baffled. The so-called twists, which any observant reader will see coming a mile away, only enhanced my antipathy. All in all, Her Fearful Symmetry left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Highgate Cemetery is the saving grace in this novel. Established in 1839, the North London cemetery houses the graves of several notable figures: George Eliot, George Henry Lewes, Karl Marx, Ellen Wood, Stella Gibbons, and many members of the Rossetti and Dickens families, among others.

Niffenegger did her research on Highgate Cemetery -- she volunteered as a tour guide in preparation for the novel -- and it shows. For a place that houses the dead, Highgate is teeming with life. The vivid descriptions of this famous Victorian site, infused with a Gothic atmosphere, make Highgate Cemetery a character in its own right. Indeed, it's the star of the show. The sections in which the author takes the reader on a virtual tour, providing an informative and engrossing history of Highgate, were far and away my favorite bits of Her Fearful Symmetry. If only Niffenegger had given Highgate Cemetery its own story and cast aside these unsavory characters! Still, Highgate's presence made the writer's sophomore effort worth reading for me and were almost enough to make me enjoy the text as a whole.


Methinks I see a visit to Highgate Cemetery in my future, and I'm also keen to read up on its fascinating history. I'll be sure to stop by the next time I'm in London. It's wonderful to see so many work to preserve this site of Victorian cultural significance!