Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris

It is almost embarrassing to review this book.   Not what I'd call great literature, by a long shot.  I got sucked into reading the entire Sookie Stackhouse series last summer after I got hooked on watching True Blood (which I find infinitely superior to the books).  It's like a bag of potato chips -- I can't eat just one.

I give Charlaine Harris credit for writing a series that makes me want to read every book, no matter how ridiculous the plots and how annoying the characters have become. But the writing is honestly not good.  I think Harris believes that endless descriptions of Sookie's outfits and personal hygiene counts as good writing (I reeeallly don't need to know what nightshirt she's wearing today, or the fact that she shaved her legs.  Too. Much. Information!!)

And speaking of too much information, I think the books are just getting jammed with too many plots and too many characters.  Not every single character has to be in every single book.  Every subsequent book keeps adding plot and characters, and so much time is spent explaining backstory, that there's no time for the story to move forward.  It's the tenth in the series, and we already have vampires, werewolves, telepaths, shape-shifters, and now fairies;  also politics, wars between supernaturals, history, new babies, and Sookie's distant cousins that have come a-calling.  Seriously, how much can Harris cram into one 311-page volume?  I got through book 10 but afterward my head was spinning.  Each season of the TV series, which has already digressed significantly from the books, is broken up into several weeks, so it's somehow easier to digest.  Plus the writing is so much better, there's absolutely no comparison. [And Alexander Skarsgard, below.  Just sayin'].

I do realize this is a light fluffy read, and I shouldn't expect too much. I've already suspended disbelief with this story about vampires and other supernaturals who have come out of the closet, so to speak.  But the junk food analogy got me thinking:  this series is sort of like a a banana split at an all-you-can-eat ice cream buffet.  It started out nicely with some ice cream, fruit, syrup, and whipped cream.  But now there's waaaaay too much stuff on top -- there are so many sprinkles, gummi bears, chopped nuts, M&Ms, and cookie crumbles that I can't remember what's on the bottom.  It's just a huge gooey mishmash, and I forgot what the point was.  I'll probably keep reading the Sookie Stackhouse books, but I'll feel a little sick to my stomach afterwards.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Wowza.  I don't think I have ever read a 600 page book so fast.  I know there are lots of glowing reviews of this novel on the blogosphere, and they are all true.  This is an amazing, brilliant book.  Why did I wait so long to read it???

I must disclose that I actually saw the BBC movie first -- which is nearly as good as the book, if that's possible.  The movie is wonderful, and when I saw the book at the library book sale, I bought it and it's been waiting patiently for me to read it ever since.  I actually thought I'd try another Sarah Waters novel first, since I already knew the story.  However, my good friend Amanda at The Zen Leaf is also reviewing it, so I was inspired to read it also.

Sarah Waters must be the best writer of neo-Victorian fiction, ever.  If you've ever been intimidated or turned off by the idea of Victorian novels, this could be the place to start -- it keeps the essence of the Victorians, but with less of the flowerly language and convoluted plots.

I can't say too much about the plot of Fingersmith, because, honestly, that would spoil it.  One of the best things about this book is the fantastic plot, which has some pretty jaw-dropping twists.  Basically, it's about a young woman, Sue Trinder, an orphan who's raised in a den of thieves in Victorian London.  I'm guessing in the 1860s since there's a mention of mourning for Prince Albert (who died in 1861).   Young Sue, who's been raised by a loving foster mother (unlike most literary orphans) is persuaded to pose as a ladies' maid and help swindle a young heiress out of a fortune.   However, things don't turn out as planned.  I'll stop there, because I could go on and on, and I don't want to ruin it for anyone.  It's very Dickensian, and the whole orphan/den of thieves motif is very reminiscent of Oliver Twist -- a very R-rated Oliver Twist, with a female protagonist (there's a little shout-out to Dickens in the beginning of the book, which I loved).

However, this isn't any kind of Dickens fan fiction or remake.  I'm not a big fan of literary sequels and remakes, and the comparison to Dickens pretty much ends there.  Oliver Twist is one of my favorite Victorian novels, but I've always found little Oliver to be a cloyingly perfect, and I'm not a big fan of Dickens' female characters.  They're frequently evil, or bland angels, or bad mothers.  In Waters' novel, the women take the center stage, and they are very three-dimensional.  They're far from perfect, but they're still sympathetic.   It takes a really talented author to make unlikeable characters interesting and compelling, and I found myself fascinated by these characters and sympathetic to their situation.  Women in Victorian times had so few choices, and poor women were worst off of all -- not much chance for education, not many jobs, and no rights.  It made me think about how so often people are products of their environment.

As much as I liked the movie, in a way I wish I hadn't seen it before reading the book simply because there were no surprises.  Yet it did not lessen my enjoyment of this novel one iota.  I still stayed up late at night reading it, and when I woke up early one morning, I could not wait to pick it up and finish it.

And the movie is fantastic.  The acting, the sets, the costumes are all wonderful.  I honestly don't know how they could have made it any better.  They did make a few minor changes, but I think that was mostly just to clarify plot points that are a bit more subtle in the book.  And of course, you miss the wonderful narration by the main character.  A movie can't possibly describe what's going on inside her head.  But it is absolutely wonderful, especially Sally Hawkins as Sue.  Lots of other great actors as well.

Now that I've finished this, I want to watch the miniseries all over again.  And I have a conundrum:  Sarah Waters has written four other novels -- do I rush out and read them all in a row, or ration them out to make them last longer?  It's a tough choice that I face whenever I find a new author I love.

This counts as book #8 for Our Mutual Read Challenge.  This review is cross-posted at Our Mutual Read

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Night in the Cemetery: And Other Stories of Crime and Suspense by Anton Chekhov

So many of the lists of "best" and "must read"books include Russians.  Sadly, my knowledge of Russian literature is pretty limited.  I'm generally pretty intimidated by Russian classics.  But I really did want to participate in this month's Classic Circuit.  Chekhov was the perfect solution -- an easy introduction to Russian lit for the intimidated.  Though he's best known for his plays, he was a master of the short story.  There are many different collections available, and I finally settled on A Night in the Cemetery: And Other Stories of Crime and Suspense, a collection of some of Chekhov's earliest stories.  As the title suggests, each of the 42 stories somehow relates to a mystery, crime, or death.

Though some of the stories are tragic, many of them are funny, or have ironic twists, a bit like Saki or Roald Dahl, but mostly less macabre.  Several of the tales had characters who were doctors or medical people, or the coroner, which makes sense if you remember that Chekhov began writing while in medical school.  He was so successful he paid for school with his earnings, and was able to support his family as well.  According to the introduction, many of these tales have rarely or never been translated into English.  These are some of his earliest stories, and some of them were published under pseudonyms.

A few of the stories are available in other collections.  Since I was waffling at first and couldn't decide which volume of stories to read, I also began reading Forty Stories, which was translated in 1963 by Robert Payne, who also wrote the volume's introduction.  (The introduction itself is great reading if you're interested in Russian writers, and now I have to finish that collection as well.)  Anyhow, both of the collections include "Death of a Government Clerk," so I was able to compare the translations.    Here's the first paragraph from the version in A Night at the Cemetery, which is translated in this volume as Death of an Office Worker:

One wonderful evening, an office gofer, Mr. Ivan Dmitrievich Worm, sat in the second row of a theater, watching the play Bells of Cornville.  He watched the play and felt himself at the height of bliss.  But suddenly. . . . Many stories have that phrase, "but suddenly."  Authors are right: life is filled with unexpected turns of events.  But suddenly, he scowled, rolled his eyes upward, stopped breathing for a while, averted his gaze from his binoculars, bent his body, and, and then, "Achoo!" he sneezed, as you see. 

Now, here's the other version, from the Payne translation:

On a beautiful night the no less beautiful government clerk Ivan Dmitrich Chervyakov [a footnote explains Chervyakov means "worm"] sat in the second row of the stalls watching Les Cloches de Corneville through opera glasses.  He was watching the stage and thinking himself the most blessed among mortals when suddenly. . . (Very often in stories you come upon this word "suddenly," and all this is very proper, since authors must always concern themselves with the unexpectedness of life.)  Suddenly, then, his face puckered up, he rolled his eyes, his breathing stopped, the opera glasses fell from his eyes, he collapsed into his seat, and . . . at-choo!  As the reader has observed, he sneezed.

I freely admit I am no expert on Russian literature, and the only words in the Russian language I know are "nyet" and "glasnost."  But I find the second translation much more beautiful and interesting -- to me it seems like something someone would have actually said back in the 19th century.  Also, I occasionally found the translation a little jarring.  Some of the stories in this collection include modern vernacular English such as "wow" and "guys," and so on, which I found incongruous to the stories, since they were all published in the 1880s or 1890s.  Chekhov sometimes gave his characters names which were comical or unflattering, such as Mr. Worm or Inspector Schmuck, and in this translator changed them to English.  I would have preferred the original Russian names with a footnote, since it seemed so anachronistic.  And I'm pretty sure that 19th century Russians were not nicknamed Mike or Tim, which also appeared in one of the stories.   I understand the translator may have been trying to make it more accessible, but I just found it distracting.

And I was very annoyed to realize that the final story, The Drama at the Hunt, is actually a very abridged version of The Shooting Party, which was one of my other choices for this posting! AFTER I'd finished it, so I know how it ends!!  And it's abridged from 180 pages TO FORTY.   Now, I am the first to admit that some of the Russians could use some editing (Anna Karenina springs to mind) but seriously,  to cut out two thirds of the book?  I found that irritating.

But I can't blame my irritation on Chekhov, just the editor and publisher.  My advice:  if you're interested in Russian lit, but you're intimidated by the sheer volume of some of the works, I do recommend Chekhov's stories.  This is a pretty good introduction, though it contains hardly any of his most famous works.  However, skip the last story if you have even the slightest interest in reading The Shooting Party, or it will completely be spoiled for you.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors; and short stories, which are great for summertime reading.  However, I do find them a little challenging to review, since I don't want to go into too much detail because I don't want any spoilers, yet I can't really explain the plot and characters as I would with a novel.  But here goes.

First, I must disclose that I'm not a huge fantasy/science fiction fan.  Maybe I am just lazy, but I have little patience for entire new worlds with an entirely new vocabulary -- I have enough trouble keeping multiple characters straight in a murder mystery, let alone having to learn new definitions of magical creatures/aliens/worlds/powers/locations, etc.  (This is why I prefer low fantasy, which are stories in which regular human characters are somehow placed in fantasy settings or situations.  See, I did learn something in my children's lit classes!).

This stories in this anthology have a great mix of styles.  I'd categorize them all as fantasy, generally, but tWe've got some horror, some sci-fi, and includes some retellings of classic myths and stories, recurring characters, and a great neo-Victorian mashup.  It starts out with a bang -- the first story, A Study in Emerald, is a great twist on Sherlock Holmes (the title had to be a giveaway, didn't it?).  I don't want to give too many details for fear of spoilers.  This book was a delight to me because it had so many surprises.

I also love how Gaiman interweaves some of his characters and themes from other works.  Shadow from American Gods (which begat Anansi Boys, one of my all-time favorite novels) makes an appearance in Monarch of the Glen, the final story; that story also includes Mr. Alice, a character in an earlier work in the collection.  The October in the Chair includes a story-within-a-story, and one of the characters reminded me strongly of Bod from The Graveyard Book (which is expanded from a story in M is for Magic).  I love watching how Gaiman's themes and characters have evolved.

Without giving a complete synopsis of every story, I'll just name a few of my favorites:  besides A Study in Emerald, my favorites included The Problem of Susan; Sunbird (about a group of gourmets who are on a quest for the rarest foods); and October in the Chair.  Some of them are really creepy and disturbing, like the story within the story of October. Two of the other creepy ones that have really stuck with me are Closing Time and Feeders and Eaters.

This collection includes 23 stories and 8 poems, but I have to admit I really only skimmed the poems.  Sadly, I'm just not a poetry fan.  They're mostly free verse, and I should really just get over myself and reread them and pretend they're just short stories printed oddly.

Other than the Sandman graphic novels, I think I've now read nearly everything by Gaiman.  His short stories are some of my favorites (for an alternate vision of Snow White, I highly recommend Snow, Glass, Apples from another of his short story collections, Smoke and Mirrors.  But please note that it is NOT for children!)  It never ceases to amaze me how Gaiman can successfully write brilliant novels, short stories, graphic novels, and great works for children, including juvenile novels and picture books.  I also like that Gaiman recognizes some of his best works are enjoyable to everyone -- several of his short stories, in this volume and in Smoke and Mirrors, make appearances in his juvenile-marketed story collection, M is for Magic.  Maybe the publisher just wanted a longer book, so they were filling with previously published materials; I prefer to think that they're just great stories and can be appreciated by all ages.

I read this volume in the traditional book form, but apparently it's also available in audio, narrated by Mr. Gaiman himself.  I've never listened to his narration but I've heard it's well worth it.  I may check this out from my library and listen to my favorites all over again, so I can hear the author's reading.  How cool is that?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Short vs. Long Books

Lately, I've been beginning to wonder if my brain is shrinking.  Well, not my brain exactly, just my attention span.  It seems like I can't focus on any book longer than 300 pages.  I don't know if it's just a phase, or a summertime thing (though I didn't have any heavy reading in the two classes I took this spring), or just Victorian overload.  But for the past couple of months I've just shied away from anything that looks long or heavy or the least bit challenging.  I keep hearing about how the Internet is causing everyone to have shorter attention spans.  I've been reading Chekhov stories for my upcoming Classics Circuit posting, and I can't even read more than a few of those in one sitting.  I am concerned.

I looked at my Goodreads list of the books I read in 2009, and it includes  some real whoppers:  Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby, Vanity Fair, Wives and Daughters, David Copperfield, An American Tragedy, The Woman in White.  Plus several long contemporary books, like The Book Thief.  This year so far I've only  read two books longer than 500 pages, Native Son by Richard Wright and American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld.  Both of them were actually really fast reads.  The longest Victorian I've read this year is Oliver Twist, and that's less than 450, and I did a lot of it on audio -- and it was a reread.

I've noticed this years' reading includes a lot of juvenile books (mostly award winners), short stories, and novellas.  Is this just a phase, or should I be worried?  I have a separate tag on Goodreads for Big Fat Books, and more than half of the books on that list are unread -- more than 50!  My own to-read bookshelf has quite a few chunky books, mostly Victorians.  I have several Dickens still unread, and almost a whole shelf full of Trollope.  (Trollope published more than 40 works in his lifetime, so I'm not holding my breath to finish his entire oeuvre. )  And there are all of those Russians waiting to be read -- I haven't even touched Dostoevsky.  I'm not even thinking about Proust, or A Dance to the Music A of Time, which is close to 3000 pages over four volumes.  

It's not as if I've never read any long books.  Some of the longer works I've read include Roots, Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, and Anna Karenina. Heck, I've even finished War and Peace.  (Okay, I admit it -- that was for college, and it was basically the entire reading list for my Tolstoy class.  And, um, I never did read the last 50 pages.  In my defense, the actual novel is over, and that's really a sort of afterword.)

So, is it just me?  Is it just a phase, or should I give up and just read graphic novels for the rest of my life?     Maybe I'm just getting myself intimidated, and I should blindly choose something and just stick to it until it's done.  Or else just give up and read long trashy books instead.  One of my online book groups just selected The Brothers Karamazov for the July read.  I've heard it's very good, and a group read might actually behoove me to finish it.  Maybe I should just start Moby Dick, which has more than 100 chapters, which are very short.  Ships! Whaling! Ahab!  What could be more different than being landlocked in Texas during a broiling hot summer?  Depressed Russians and lots of snow, or an insane ship's captain?

Bloggers, help me out.  What big fat books do you recommend for summer?  Alternatively, what's a good fast summer read?  I need suggestions, and encouragement.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

Anyone who says Victorian literature is boring has obviously never read Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog).  If you haven't, you need to get thee to the library or bookstore, and read it, fast.  Seriously, this is one of the funniest books I have ever read.  This book was written more than 100 years ago, and it still cracks me up, even after multiple readings.

Basically, this is a satire about three pompous, silly young men who take a fortnight's boat trip down the Thames, circa 1889.   I've often compared it to Jeeves and Wooster.   Imagine if Wooster went on a boat trip with two equally clueless friends, but left Jeeves behind.  And brought a fox terrier.  That pretty much sums this book up in a nutshell.

There's not much plot to speak of -- the book is really a collection of vignettes and essays.  The narrator, J (i.e., the author, Jerome K. Jerome) frequently digresses and waxes philosophically about the beauty of the countryside, history, women's fashion, you name it.  In fact, most of the book is just an excuse to weave funny stories together.  We were listening in the car and my daughter (aged 9) finally said to me, "When are they going to get on the boat?  He's really birdwalking, isn't he?"  [I found her use of birdwalking, her third-grade teacher's term for digressing, particularly apt in this instance.]

I nearly always have at least one audio book in the car, even if I'm just running errands around town.  Three Men, my latest audiobook, is perfect for absorbing in little bits and pieces.  I highly recommend the version pictured above, the Naxos Audiobook narrated by Martin Jarvis.  His comic timing is impeccable, and his voice and accent are reminiscent of Hugh Laurie (who played Wooster in the BBC adaptation of Jeeves and Wooster, which fits perfectly).   This book would be an excellent choice for a long car trip, and it's appropriate for listeners of all ages.  My children loved it when they were in elementary school.  I can't think of many Victorian novels that fit that description. 

Though the story does have a few slow spots, most of the book is hilarious.  Many of my favorite bits are about food -- shopping for it, packing it, and of course the party's attempts at cooking while camping out.  There's a very funny story about smelly cheeses, and one of my favorite bits in the whole book concerns a tin of pineapple.  It's a bit long, so I've abridged it somewhat:

. . . when George drew out a tin of pineapple from the bottom of the hamper, and rolled it into the middle of the boat, we felt that life was worth living after all.   We are very fond of pineapple, all three of us.  We looked at the picture on the tin; we thought of the juice.  We smiled at one another, and Harris got a spoon ready. 

Then we looked for the knife to open the tin with.  We turned out everything in the hamper.  We turned out the bags.  We pulled up the boards at the bottom of the boat.  We took everything out on to the bank and shook it.  there was no tin-opener to be found. 

Then Harris tried to open the tin with a pocket-knife, and broke the knife and cut himself badly; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out.  While they were dressing their wounds, I tried to make a hole in the thing with the spiky end of the hitcher, and the hitcher slipped and jerked me out between the boat and the bank into two feet of muddy water, and the tin rolled over, uninjured, and broke a teacup. 

Then we all got mad . . . [this continues as they try to beat the tin into submission].   We beat it out flat; we beat it back square; we battered it into every form known to geometry -- but we could not make a hole in it.  Then George went at it, and knocked it into a shape, so strange, so weird, so unearthly in its wild hideousness, that he got frightened. . . . Then we all three sat round it on the grass and looked at it.  

There was one great dent across the top that had the appearance of a mocking grin, and it drove us furious, so that Harris rushed at the thing, and caught it up, and flung it far into the middle of the river, and as it sank we hurled our curses at it, and we got into the boat and rowed away from the spot, and never paused until we reached Maidenhead.

Several editions of the book include the sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, in which the three hapless travelers reunite on a bicycling tour of Germany.   I haven't read it yet but I think it'll be perfect summer reading.

This is Book #7 for Our Mutual Read

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout

I've been a mystery lover since my mom took me to see Murder on the Orient Express, which is still one of my all-time favorite movies. (This should have scarred me for life, as I was only eight, but oddly enough it didn't.  And I showed it to my girls when they were eight and twelve.  Didn't hurt them any either)  Anyway, this started my love affair with Christie -- I've read everyone one of her mysteries, including the plays and short stories.

For this Classics Circuit, I decided to branch out, and at first I was  disappointed.  Maybe Christie has spoiled me for other authors.  First, on a librarian friend's recommendation, I tried The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr, supposedly the quintessential locked room mystery, but I was totally bored with it.  I switched to Dorothy Sayers, whom I've never read, and decided to start with her first Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Whose Body?   Again, I just couldn't get excited about it -- Lord Peter seemed so contrived and unreal.  Neither of these authors was able to get me hooked like Christie.

Finally, I returned to this side of the pond, and picked up Rex Stout's Fer-de-Lance, the first mystery starring the enigmatic Nero Wolfe and his narrator sidekick, Archie Goodwin.  First published in 1935, this classic Depression-era mystery is complete with hardboiled private eyes, roadsters, dames, and snappy dialogue.  It's a bit like a cross between a cozy mystery and a Sam Spade classic detective story -- genius Nero Wolfe never leaves his beautiful apartment, filled with his beloved orchids, so his intrepid helper Archie does all the leg work and provides all the clever asides and quips.

As entertaining as this book was, I will admit it started out a little slowly.   The first third of the book consist of setting the story, but the reader doesn't get that much background about Archie or Nero, and  we don't even meet the primary suspects until more than 100 pages had passed.  Even then, it's not so much a whodunit as a "how did they do it?"  Unlike Agatha Christie or many other authors, there was no great "aha!" moment, in which the clever detective decides which of the many suspects was the culprit.  There are some surprises and an interesting little twist at the end, but it's very unlike many of the British cozies I've read.

I think the great appeal of this book was the character of Archie.  Nero himself doesn't get a lot of exposure -- he's a recluse, an eccentric genius who never leaves the house and has a strict schedule.  Archie and his snappy dialogue, and the 1930s setting are the real appeal of this book, in my humble opinion.   Here's one of my favorite paragraphs from the book:

If I ever kill anybody I'm pretty sure it will be a woman. I've seen a lot of stubborn men, a lot of men who knew something I wanted to know and didn't intend to tell me, and in a quite a few cases I couldn't make him tell no matter what I tried; but in spite of how stubborn they were they always stayed human.  They always gave me a feeling that if only I hit on the right lever I could pry it out of them.  But I've seen women that not only wouldn't turn loose; you knew damn well they wouldn't.  They can get a look on their faces that would drive you crazy, and I think some of them do it on purpose.  The look on a man's face says that he'll die before he'll tell you, and you think you may bust that up; a woman's look says that she would just as soon tell you as not, only she isn't going to.

I can just imagine Humphrey Bogart or someone of that era delivering Archie's lines.  It almost makes me wish I lived back then, just so I could hear if people really talked like that.  Great stuff!

I have found that with mystery series the first one isn't usually the best.  Fer-de-Lance is pretty good, though I didn't find it a real page turner.  I may give Nero Wolfe another try to see if the later books are an improvement.  It was worth exploring though -- if you're looking for a change from classic British detective fiction it's a lot of fun.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

My knowledge of classic plays is woefully lacking.  Aside from Shakespeare in college, I can't remember the last play I read.  And I hardly ever go to the theater.  I think the combination of spending a little too much time hanging around the drama club in high school, plus a work/study job in a small theater company in college, led to a kind of overdose of theater in college.  And I wasn't even a theater or English major!

I am lucky enough, however, to belong to a Real Life Classic Book Group. (Face to face!  With Real People!  How lucky am I?)  this year we have two classic plays on the reading schedule:  In December we're reading A Doll's House by Ibsen, and we had a quick and enjoyable read this month:  The Importance of being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.  Our fearless leader, my good friend Amanda, is a huge Wilde fan, so I know we're going to have a great discussion next Saturday.

Basically, Earnest is a delightful, satirical romp about Victorian courtship.  Two young men, Jack and Algernon, are basically wealthy ne'er-do-wells.   But Jack has a little secret: he has an alternate identity, Earnest.  He calls himself Earnest in London, but on his country estate, he uses his real name, Jack, to appear respectable for his young ward Cecily.  Algernon is equally sneaky, using a fictional friend Bunbury to escape social obligations -- for example, Bunbury is conveniently ill whenever Algernon would prefer to avoid unpleasant relatives, etc.

Jack is in love with Gwendolen, Algernon's cousin, and intends to marry her; however, he is foiled by her formidable mother, Lady Fairfax, who is unimpressed by Jack's family history -- it seems he was a foundling adopted by a rich man after he was discovered in a train station luggage room.

Basically, the entire three act play is a farce with mistaken identities and misunderstandings, resolved by amazing plot contrivances and coincidences.  If it was meant seriously, it would just be ridiculous, but since it's all a joke it's hilarious.  Above all, it's the snappy dialogue that make this play a hoot.   Almost the entire play is worth quoting, but here's a sample.  In Act 2, Cecily, Jack's ward, is writing in her diary, and Algernon wants to know what she's writing.  [Algernon is pretending to be Jack's libertine brother Ernest].

Algernon: Do you really keep a diary?  I'd give anything to look at it.  May I?

Cecily: Oh, no. [Puts her hand over it].  You see, it is simply a very young girl's record of her thoughts and impressions,and consequently meant for publication.  When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy.  But pray, Ernest, don't stop.  I delight in taking down from dictation.  I have reached "absolute perfection." You can go on, I'm quite ready for more.

Algernon: [somewhat taken aback].  Ahem! Ahem!

Cecily: Oh, don't cough, Ernest.  When one is dictation one should speak fluently and not cough.  Besides, I don't know how to spell cough.

Though I rarely go to the theater, I do admit to watching film adaptation of plays, especially when they are chock-full of my favorite British actors.  Yes, there was an excellent adaptation several years ago, starring . . . Colin Firth, Judi Dench, Frances O'Connor . . . pretty much everyone who's ever been in a BBC production of anything.  And Reese Witherspoon.  The casting was brilliant, well  worth watching, if nothing else but for the dialogue.

Sadly, The Importance of Being Earnest was his final play; it closed after only 83 performances due to his scandalous legal problems.   A couple of months ago I also watched the excellent biopic Wilde, about Oscar Wilde's tragic downfall.  After reading this play, it makes me even sadder and angrier that such a talented person was ruined because of his personal life.   I highly recommend both movies and I look forward to reading more of his plays, and may even branch out to more classic playwrights.  The Russians are visiting The Classics Circuit in June, so hopefully it will inspire me to try more Chekhov.

This is book #6 for Our Mutual Read Challenge.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

I'm finally back blogging!  After more than two weeks of packing and moving (hellish), I am finally calm enough to post coherent thoughts.   Honestly, moving sucked so much out of me I could hardly read anything more challenging than Agatha Christie (more on that next week when I post for the Classics Circuit).

During the past couple of weeks, I did find an excellent read for stressful times.  My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell is a delightful, light read, perfect for any time you need something humorous that's not too taxing, like traveling or vacation.  This would be an excellent beach read as well.

And it's a true story!  Well, as true as one's childhood memories can be.  When he was ten years old, Gerald Durrell, the celebrated British naturalist and younger brother of novelist Lawrence Durrell, moved with his entire family to a villa on the island of Corfu in the early 1930s.  The book is filled with his reminisces of his eccentric family, quirky locals, including various tutors, and fascinating descriptions of his nature studies which were his lifelong passion.

This book is short (a plus for summer reading), and it's not a novel, so there's not a lot of plot. It's basically just a series of short chapters of funny and interesting things that Durrell remembers from his childhood.  And it is really funny -- I found myself laughing out loud quite a few times.  I don't know if he's merely exaggerating, or if some if these stories are actually true, but either way they're a hoot.  For example, one summer the family realize they've invited far too many friends to come and stay from abroad (to avoid the dreary English climate, which is why the Durrells left in the first place).  Instead of simply rescheduling or cancelling some of their visitors, they settle on the obvious solution -- moving to a larger villa!!  Later, to avoid an unpleasant relative who propose an extended visit, they move to a smaller villa.

And because young Gerry is fascinated by nature, the villa is full of various creatures he brings home, including lizards, tortoises, baby owls, magpies, snakes in the bath, et cetera.  Hilarity ensues.  Quite frankly, it sounds like a fantastic childhood.  What could be better than growing up on a Greek island surrounded by all that nature?  Honestly, sometimes I'd like to get my children away from technology and civilization.  (Though I'd need modern plumbing).

My Family and Other Animals is full of extensive descriptions of nature, including bugs, reptiles, flowers, etc., so if this bores you, you might not enjoy this book.  I found them wonderful -- I know I couldn't write anything as interesting as this:

It was no half-hearted spring, this: the whole island vibrated with it as though a great, ringing chord had been struck.  Everyone and everything heard it and responded.  It was apparent in the gleam of flower petals, the flash of bird wings and the sparkle in the dark, liquid eyes of the peasant girls.  In the water-filled ditches the frogs that looked newly enamelled snored a rapturous chorus in the lush weeds.  In the village coffee shops the wine seemed redder.  Blunt, work-calloused fingers plucked at guitar strings with strange gentleness, and rich voices rose in lilting, haunting song.

This book spawned several sequels, not because Durrell enjoyed writing, but to help finance his zoological endeavors.  It was also adapted into a BBC series in the 1980s and again as a movie in 2005.  My library has a copy and I hope to watch it this week.   I'm also hoping to begin reading The Alexandria Quartet, which was written by Gerry's brother Lawrence Durrell.  Modern Library included it in its 100 Best Novels, and I'm always trying to read those, so I've moved it up on my summer reading list.   Bloggers, have any of you read anything else by the Durrells?  I'd love to hear your opinions.