Still, unfortunately, in a bit of a reading and blogging rut. A few updates, however:
Still, unfortunately, in a bit of a reading and blogging rut. A few updates, however:
So… it’s been a while. I haven’t really been reading much because for the last two months I’ve just been absorbed in end-of-the-semester crap–I haven’t really even had much time to keep track of any comments or read other blogs on my list. Sad!
I’m on winter break right now so I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get some reading done in the future and hopefully start updating again, though when I have had a chance to read, I haven’t much felt like writing reviews. I really enjoyed writing this, so I hope I will be able to get back into the swing of things.
Okay, I’ll admit I’m slightly ashamed that my first update in AGES is Tim Gunn’s new book… I feel like I should be breaking a silence or reading rut with something more serious. But unfortunately, this was a quick, breezy book to blow through in between reheating old samosas for dinner and attempting to teach myself Federal Income Tax.
If you don’t know Tim Gunn, you probably don’t watch Project Runway, and probably won’t be terribly interested in this book. Although I GIVE UP on that show after this season, Tim is probably the most appealing thing about it. He serves as the designers’ mentor, go-to advice guy, and general father figure. He comes across on television (and in the book) as just such a genuinely nice, likable person. Gunn’s Golden Rules is a small, slim book centered around his “golden rules” of how to treat people–the book begins with him bemoaning a dearth of manners in the modern world. Each chapter is centered around one of these rules, and fleshed out with his own experiences with people who followed or didn’t follow those rules, little anecdotes about his life (which is really fascinating–the story about the time that, at age 8, he might have met J. Edgar Hoover in full drag regalia is a doozy to be sure), and about his experiences with Project Runway, and the fashion world (best story: Diane von Furstenberg drunkenly demanding a hot dog.)
Gunn, or his ghostwriter, has a conversational style that is enjoyable and easy to read. Of course, it’s not going to win any literary awards–it’s basically just that, a one-sided conversation on paper. But no one’s reading this because they were looking for the next Great American Novel, they’re reading because they’re interested in what Tim has to say. (And I have to say I would have liked a little more Project Runway gossip, but what is in there is interesting if presented in a typically NICE and conciliatory manner.) I’m not a huge fan of the celebrity memoir genre in general, but I have to say that this was a nice palate cleanser in between characteristics of gross income, personal deductions, and capital gains and losses.
It came to Daffy then, how easily the worst in oneself could rise up and strike a blow. How even the most enlightened man had little power over his own darkness.
That quote alone, from the pages of Slammerkin, is a good, succinct summary of the book’s themes: a number of people each affected by their own darknesses. Set in 1763, this book follows the tribulations of Mary Saunders, a young girl whose desire for a red ribbon in a harlot’s hair sends her on a self-destructive path that will wreck her own life and the lives of those around her.
This is the kind of historical novel that I wish I could write. The prose reads both modern and grounded in the past, it flows beautifully, with the smallest observations making sentences so evocative, an unexpected turn of phrase making a reader stop and re-read (“Sometimes words were like glass that broke in her mouth”). And in the book are so many different themes woven in cunningly into the story so that you don’t even notice so much while you’re reading, but only after you have time to consider the book as a whole: freedom of various sorts (Mary’s desire for liberty, while Abi, a slave, considers her not to be a free woman), beauty, ambition… it’s really masterful how Donoghue pulls it off so seamlessly.
It’s obvious that she’s done her historical research though again, the details are woven into the cloth of the story and don’t stand out obnoxiously. Together they give an extremely vivid picture of life in both London and Monmouth: the riotous chaos vs. the more staid but no less treacherous for it. Especially the story of Mary Saunders, based loosely on a real girl’s tragic tale. Mary in the book is a curious character: there’s a selfishness and violence to her, that was there before life turned hard–but one could also argue that even with her mother, life was hard for her. Mary is a girl who longs for beauty, stifled by the drab of her parents’ existence. Even though she has so many unsympathetic qualities, though, Donoghue manages to make her likable and even sympathetic: there but for the grace, etc. And she has a dry wit and an energy that is captivating even on the page. The other characters are, similarly, flawed but with tiny kernels of salvation, that are just ignored.
This is not a happy novel; it’s quite wrenching, but beautiful. I’m seriously envious that she could write a book like this, and also like Room, so totally different in voice and structure but both so beautiful and impressive in their own ways.
So I watched Sky TV’s adaptation of Mark Billingham’s book Sleepyhead but I didn’t like it enough to keep watching, I just wanted to know who the killer was and if I was right in my suspicions (I was). But oh my gosh the book was even worse than the movie, I don’t want to go into too much detail because that’s just mean… I couldn’t even get through the first few pages, it was just so ridiculous, and disappointing! I guess the market saturation of serial killer thrillers means that some crap gets through.
I’m getting back on the reviewing Serious Literature horse once I get around to finishing Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin which is seriously awesome so far (I’m very envious of her ability to switch styles and voices seemingly at will–the fact that she had books like both Room and Slammerkin in her makes me so jealous!) It’s just hard to find the time as the semester goes on. This is my second-to-last semester of law school, so I’ve been trying to get my head around all the deadlines I have for bar exam application and juggle my coursework (I’m writing a short paper for Evidence, and one for my Crime & Community class that only has to be 15 pages, but I already have 46 pages in 10 pt Times New Roman of notes…) and my social life.
It’s so sad, but in weeks like this, I really do miss just being able to relax and curl up in a chair with a cup of tea and a book that isn’t law related without feeling guilty about it.
Three weaknesses in one: English history, mystery novels, and the law. It seemed as though C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels were tailor-made for me, featuring the adventures of the titular character, a hunchbacked lawyer in the employ of Thomas Cromwell.
The first book of the series, Dissolution, is set during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Catholic monasteries from 1536-1540. Shardlake is sent to the monastery at Scarnsea after the commissioner sent to attempt to convince the Abbott to surrender the grounds is murdered most brutally. Once arrived, Shardlake and his assistant, Mark, are plunged into a treacherous atmosphere where the murders continue and anyone in the closed community could be the killer. And Shardlake might be next.
Sansom is another lawyer turned author and of course I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for those guys. I thought generally it was quite a good debut; the historical research was done well and thoroughly, and he certainly had an eye for the small details that make period pieces believable. The mystery, too, was a twisty one, and I’m always pleased when I can’t figure out the killer but after the “reveal,” remember hints that if I’d been paying attention would’ve allowed me to get it. It’s not out of left field but it’s still a satisfying surprise.
It’s obviously a first novel and while the prose was mostly decent there was an obsession with detailing the weather on almost every chapter (sometimes multiple times per chapter) that was a bit of an amusing writing “tic”; similarly, some of the dialogue came across as stilted and somewhat unbelievable. That’s always a fine line to walk with medieval characters, you don’t want to make them sound so ridiculous as to be unbelievable, but using words and phrasing too modern and casual can throw you out of the story. It mostly worked, though there were a few instances where I rolled my eyes just a teeny bit (there were also a few redundancies and awkward descriptions).
What I enjoyed the most about Dissolution (besides the history!) was Shardlake himself. He’s a really interesting hero: flawed both physically and emotionally; introspective but blind to his own faults, and a clever and engaging narrator with a dry sense of humor that the reader can follow alongside. And just as the mystery concluded, Shardlake’s emotional epiphany at the end of the book was equally satisfying.
So while it wasn’t a perfect read I quite enjoyed it, and I’m happy I took out Dark Fire, the next book in the series, at the same time–so I won’t have to wait.
After watching a few episodes of Boardwalk Empire, my interest in Chicago’s violent Prohibition-era past was rekindled. In the process of browsing around on various message boards, Lesy’s book came up as a recommendation and I was duly excited about reading it. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a let down.
The book is a history of murder in the 20s, though not as gang-focused as you might think. Instead, the average person’s romantic entanglements gone awry, their intrigues and violent outbursts. It sounded promising and I was really excited to read it. Once I started, however, I was quite disappointed. The author’s writing style is very choppy but seemingly without rhyme or reason; he would create sentence fragments constantly throughout a paragraph but with little regard for emphasis. It made the reading very rough and occasionally confusing. It didn’t help that the chapters were poorly organized and the subjects chosen without rhyme or reason (yes they were all murders but the order seemed totally arbitrary).
You’d probably be better off just reading newspaper accounts of the incidents in question. Sadly, this was not a good use of my reading time.