Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Homage to Brian Jacques and Redwall

Question(s): What do you think was the saddest character death or best/most satisfying character death (or both!) from a book?

My Answer:

I've had to contemplate a lot of character deaths recently as my class just finished the first book of the children's fantasy series Redwall. The author, Brian Jacques, passed away this year and in fitting tribute to him, we held a memorial service for the dead characters. Rats with magnificent names like Cheesethief (my favorite), Redtooth, Darkclaw, and Mangefur have all bitten the dust along with weasel Scragg and ferret Killconey. With that in mind, the deaths of all the adversaries in this book are particularly satisfying. Cheesethief is mistakenly shot with an arrow while posturing in the clothes of the Rat Chief, Cluny the Scourge. The death of Enemy Number One, Cluny himself, is a resounding example of poetic justice, as the bell which features in his dreams, is cut down by the mouse hero Matthias to crush him. Jacques writes these brilliant death scenes in varied manners that I know bring delight to the heart of little boys and girls. There are also a few sad and affecting deaths on the side of the good Redwall Abbey mice.

However, the saddest death I have encountered in literature remains the death of the dogs in Where the Red Fern Grows. I defy anyone without a heart of stone to read it and not cry. There's something about animals, but particularly dogs, dying, that arouses my (and I think many other people's) sense of injustice to a greater degree than human death does. Human death is more acceptable, because humans can comprehend death and its meaning, as animals cannot. The same applies for children, I suppose. Keep in mind also that I mostly read fiction. I'm sure I'd be more upset by true tales of gruesome and untimely death, but I don't tend to read the types of books that contain that.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Mailbox Monday

I'm trying this out for the first time, I've been meaning to join more book blogging meme groups.

This past week, I received Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisa Peshl in the mail from Bookmooch. It's been on my wishlist for over a year now, and I'm excited to read it along with all my other new books.

In other news, has anyone ever gone on a book-buying binge and then just been too overwhelmed at what to read next? That might be my next question for readers!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Time Traveler's Wife Movie

Last night, I watched the film adaptation of The Time Travelers' Wife. While the actors' appearance and the set of the film were exquisitely appropriate, particularly the meadow and Claire's studio, the film never really captured the emotional tension of the book. As my sister pointed out, the book's real pleasure came from Niffenegger's carefully plotted, non-chronological sequence of events, nearly all of which was missed in the film. The movie instead follows Henry's chronological life (as best it can be followed) with only a couple of flashbacks to Claire's childhood, missing some of the best scenes in the book. Overall, it's not that the movie didn't portray the most important plot points and character background, but mostly that it skipped over the fine details and especially the darker and less palatable ones, that make these characters who they are.

For example (SPOILER ALERT), the movie avoids how Henry really convinces his doctor that he is a time traveler-informing him that his son will be born with Down syndrome. It also translates the loss of Henry's feet to hypothermia into a short stint in a wheelchair. Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams look picture-perfect as Henry and Claire. McAdams' acting is convincing, though she looks too young at times to portray the older Claire. Bana is moody, but not dark enough, as Henry and he never looks convincingly old. These may be more the fault of makeup artists or lack thereof however. But taking away the time Henry beats up a football player who abused Claire not only avoids unseeming darkness, but takes away an important bond between the characters. I do love a statement that McAdams as Claire makes in the movie that I do not believe is in the book, "You impressed yourself upon the mind and heart of a young girl. I never had a choice!" This is cutting to the heart of who Claire and Henry really are, and the trick that time-travel has played on them.

If you've read the book, you don't really need to see the movie. It just isn't as good and has few redeeming qualities. As a movie, it's probably a tearjerker for those who like that sort of thing and enough remains of Niffenegger's plot to be mildly entertaining. The pace seemed to me to be too fast and (ironically) continually skipping ahead in time, but that's probably because I'm aware of how much from the book was missing.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sixteenth Century Italy, Nineteenth Century Style

35. The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

Finally, I've finished The Betrothed, an epic nineteenth century Italian novel that in my version (pictured above) is 720 pages in length. Manzoni, evidently a devoted scholar of sixteenth century Milan, weaves his story into the history of that time and place, including politics, religion, famine, and plague.

Renzo and Lucia are our betrothed couple, and their troubles beset them before their intended wedding day, when the local lord, Don Rodrigo, forbids the parish priest, the cowardly Don Abbondio, to perform their marriage. Renzo and Lucia, along with Lucia's mother Agnese, are poor country folk in Pescarenico, a small town in Lecco, a territory belonging to Milan. Renzo tries to achieve justice as the more powerful townsfolk turn a blind eye. Don Rodrigo prepares to kidnap Lucia. The plot is thwarted, but the lovers must go separately into exile. We begin to meet a wide cast of characters, specifically do-gooders and not-so-good-doers, in regard to our young couple, and also to hear about a series of events that concerns them only marginally. Renzo finds himself in the midst of bread riots in Milan, Agnese is later caught in the path of invading Frenchmen, and all our friends experience the plague, although much less detail is given to their particular sufferings than to the wide-ranging effects and consequences in Milan.

As I described in an earlier post, Manzoni's meta-narrative style amused and pleased me greatly. His descriptions of characters, particularly their thoughts, demonstrated for me a great understanding of humanity. The best examples are Manzoni's forays into the head of Don Abbondio, the consummate coward whose inaction is the cause of the series of events recorded in the novel.

"Through all this conversation, the thing that was most vividly present in his mind was the picture of those bravoes who had threatened him and the reflection that Don Rodrigo was alive and well and would come home again one day or another in all his power and pride, and also in a bad temper. The splendid appearance of his guest, his noble appearance and his eloquent words inspired the cure with confusion and a certain fear; but it was not a fear that mastered him completely, or prevented his mind from formulating objections, because the thought was in his mind that the Cardinal, at least, would never have recourse to bravoes or swords or muskets." (478)

I love this incredibly human portrait of fear, and the type of logic that no one would want to admit to. Manzoni makes it a strong point in this novel to note that evildoers can never get away with their deeds unless frightened bystanders let them. It is those who fear more for their life than their soul who are the real villains in Manzoni's world.

Don Abbondio notwithstanding, the Church in general gets a very respectful treatment, particularly the monks of the Capuchin order. Something of a mentor/hero figure is Father Cristoforo of the Capuchins, whose powerful personal history of forgiveness foreshadows the thread of forgiveness throughout the novel. Other heroes are the aforementioned Cardinal, Federigo Borromeo, and various other priests and monks. For balance, we do meet the slightly corrupt head of the Capuchins, who bends to the political wrangling of Don Rodrigo's uncle to have Father Cristoforo transferred, and a nun known as the Signora, with sins on her head and a tragic past, who betrays Lucia. While many parts of Manzoni's narration appear to be satire, his affection for the Church is serious and constant, especially in contrast with his portrayal of the government as ineffective at best and corrupt at worst. Manzoni makes a joke throughout of the numerous edicts published to ban or promote this or that, none of which are obeyed or enforced except immediately after publication.

One satirical exchange that I enjoyed, definitely a product of Manzoni's perception of the sixteenth century, deals with letter writing. Lucia charges Agenese to write to Renzo with upsetting news. To undertake her duties, Agnese employs a letter writer to whom she dictates. None of our trio are literate. Manzoni describes the process:

"The peasant who cannot write, and needs something written, turns to someone who has learned to use a pen...He tells the man what has gone before, with such clarity and logical order as he can muster, and then tells him, in the same style, what he wants to say. The literate friend understands part of what he says and misunderstands another part; he advises him, suggests a couple of changes, and then says "Leave it to me!" He takes up his pen and puts the first man's thoughts in literary form, as best he can; corrects them or improves them, adds emphasis or takes it away, even leaves bits out, as seems best to him...When such a letter reaches the other correspondent, who is equally ignorant of his ABC, he takes it to a man of the same calibre, who reads it and explains it to him. Then doubts arise over what the letter really means. The interested party, with his knowledge of what has gone before, maintains that certain words must mean one thing; but the man who is doing the reading, from his knowledge of the written language, claims that they must mean something else. In the end the man who cannot write must put himself in the hands of the man who can, and must charge him with the task of replying. The answer will be composed in the same fashion as the first, and will be submitted to the same sort of interpretation." (497)

This amusing interplay is a genius argument for literacy if ever I saw one! I know this is quite long, but I couldn't resist showing how funny and interesting Manzoni can be. If you enjoyed that passage, I absolutely recommend you read The Betrothed. A great project would be to compare this novel with contemporary British novels. Manzoni uses earlier conceits of an "anonymous author" and very nineteenth century moralizing, characterizing, and viewing of the big picture. Of course, I don't know if he was (and guess he was not) unique in this among Italian authors of the time period, another area of research to dive into sometime.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Question: Do you reread a lot? Why (not)? Name a book you have reread many times.

My Answer:


I reread all the time. There are many, many books that I have read more times than I can count. Lately, I've been on a roll with reading new books instead of rereading, and I have so many new books I want to read that that looks far more tempting to me right now. However, the truth of the matter is that I get far more out of a book I read more than once. If I liked it, chances are good I will be reading that book again. If I don't reread a book, it usually means I didn't like it and considered it unworthy of my time. There are books that I initially couldn't get through that I went back and read happily, notably Stephen Hawking's The Theory of Everything, Madeleine L'Engle's A Circle of Quiet , and even Tolkien's The Hobbit.

I think the book that I have read the most is probably A Tangled Web by L.M. Montgomery. There is something about this book that never ceases to interest me, it has a very large and varied cast of characters and each one of their lives and especially the intersections in their lives resonates deeply with me. I haven't quite dug to the root of my interest, but I suspect it has something to do with a personal interest in a large and complicated extended family. The matriarch of the clan, Aunt Becky, is somewhat reminiscent of my own Nana.

I have also reread all of the Harry Potter books, Lord of the Rings books, and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books numerous times. I suppose series leave more scope for characters and plots to develop and it's pleasing to remind myself again of the intricacies involved and make new observations.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Falling Off the Wagon

I've told myself over and over: no buying new books for myself. Library only, at least until I get a full-time job. Then I deposited my summer paycheck. And my mom decided to use the bathroom in the bookstore. And it was all over.

The Damage:

And the coup de grace:

American Wife I've wanted to read for a long time and snagged at a bargain price. Reading Women I read about at Litlove's blog. It sounded like the type of book that would be a good lead-in to feminist reading for me and it wasn't at the library. I had a strong emotional connection to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, so I couldn't miss this new book about the Sisterhood all grown up, even though I'm not sure how I'll feel about it. And I read Game of Thrones and have been watching the HBO TV series, the 4-book set will be a nice birthday treat.

I recently joined Amazon Associates, so the nice links will take you straight to Amazon if you want to read more about the books or snag a little treat for yourself.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Nineteenth Century Narrators

I love narrators in nineteenth century novels. From Northanger Abbey to Belinda, Anna Karenina to The Idiot, the narrator is often my favorite character. I want my stories put in perspective, commented on, mocked. I want my characters brought down to size when they're being melodramatic or not quite honest with themselves. I want to know the story behind the story that they would never admit from a third-person perspective with totally different values. All of this is why I was enchanted with Kenilworth and why I'm now falling head over heels for Alexander Manzoni's The Betrothed.

Like Scott's epic, The Betrothed is a nineteenth century novel with a sixteenth century setting. I'm a bit familiar with the sixteenth century Italians, namely Machiavelli and Castiglione, both of whom get mentions in this book, but I really haven't dabbled much in Italian literature. It's amazing to see how similar the style was to the nineteenth century British writers. Obviously, my version is translated into English, so I'm not getting the actual colloquialisms (since reading side-by-side English and Spanish works, I've gotten a better feel for how far off translation can really be), but the cynical humor and penetrating observations on the nature of humanity must still be there.

Like Scott, Manzoni's not writing a novel, he's writing a portrait of an age not very well disguised with a Romeo and Juliet style plotline. His descriptions of famous men and situations of famine and disease in sixteenth century Milan go on for chapters-and I still love it. Manzoni is a forerunner of William Gold and Lemony Snicket. I hope to finish The Betrothed and have my review up by the end of the week. In the meantime, I'm thinking more Manzoni and more nineteenth century Italian lit has to go on my to-read list.

Bonus Question: How do you feel about third-person narrators that aren't really part of the story, but seem to insert their opinions fairly often, and even move away from the story to discuss topics of more interest to them?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Question: What author do you own the most books by and why?

My Answer:

If I'm counting physical books, I own more Jane Austen books than any other author, but that's counting multiple copies of the same book, as detailed in a former book meme question. Otherwise, it's a close call between C.S. Lewis and L.M. Montgomery, I own 10 of Montgomery's books and 11 of Lewis'. It's not surprising because these are two of my favorite authors and also because they both wrote seven-book series that I love and own in full: The Anne of Green Gables series and the Chronicles of Narnia. I also own Lewis' Space Trilogy books, which are actually much more impressive than the Narnia books, and a book of his essays and stories, Of Other Worlds. In addition to the Anne books, I own the first Emily book, a few standalone novels, and a short story collection of Montgomery's. It's perhaps interesting to note that for both these novelists, while I was initially attracted by their popular series, I'm a much bigger fan of their more obscure works, and I hope to add to both these collections someday!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Fourth of July and Another Question Set

Happy Fourth of July! The Fourth has always been one of my favorite holidays, I have fond camp memories of painting our fingernails red, white, and blue and watching the fireworks. I'm not as patriotic as I used to be, but I'm still very glad that the Declaration of Independence was signed in the American colonies 235 years ago. Hope you enjoy the fireworks tonight if you're in the US!

Question(s): What are your book borrowing habits? Do you use the library? Do you prefer to try before you buy? What about lending your books to friends? Are you a good borrower, do you remember to return books?

My book borrowing habits are perhaps a bit inconsistent. I've used the library fairly often, usually in bursts and spurts, for the past four years. Before that, most of my books were bought and many of them were gifts or came from gift cards. When I was much younger, my mom did used to take me to the library more often, so I was borrowing regularly. To be honest, I'd prefer just to buy tons of books and have them around, but I've tried to be smarter about only buying books I know I really want and trying not to buy books I could get at the library. I do loan books occasionally to friends and my policy with that is I only loan books I wouldn't care about not getting back. I'm often quite happy just to give a book away if I think a friend will enjoy it. And am I a good borrower? I try to be. To my knowledge, I have at this point returned all books I have ever borrowed. But one of my friends can tell you that it did take two years to get her book back...