Tuesday 29 January 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Frustrating Characters

This is the first Top Ten Tuesday post I've written for a while, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to rant about those characters who make me want to dive into a book for the sole reason of giving them a good shaking.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.
I had planned to include pictures in this post, but could not find a way of doing so without wanting to punch the computer screen.

In no particular order:

1. Dolores Umbridge, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. There are villains you love to hate, and then there are villains so unpleasant that they make the book in which they feature less enjoyable to read. The Umbridge Woman, as she is often called, is the latter. I always feel a sense of relief as I come towards the end of the fifth volume in an otherwise fantastically enjoyable series.

2. Angel Clare, Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Don't let his name fool you; Angel Clare is a nasty piece of work indeed, causing more hatred in my heart than the actual villain of the piece. Minutes after confessing and being forgiven for his pre-marital indiscretions, Angel abandons his bride for not being the pure maiden he believed her to be - never mind that this was probably not through her choice! Such audacious hypocrisy makes me wish Tess had dealt him the same fate she did Alec D'urberville.

3. Mary Lou Trelawney, The Chalet School series. Mary Lou starts out all right, a spirited, gobby little girl, but by the age of fifteen or so, from the way others talked about her, you'd think that she excreted rainbows! In book after book, a new girl with Issues comes to the school, and the task falls to Mary Lou to solve everything. She talks to the staff the same way she speaks to her classmates, but "it's not cheek, it's just Mary Lou." And yet with every honour or award, she is always surprised. "What? Me? No, surely not!" In one notable book, this happens twice in as many chapters. Sickening.

4. Cersei Lannister, A Song of Ice and Fire - particularly in A Feast For Crows. About as unlike Mary Lou as you can get, Cersei schemes and manipulates her way into power over the seven kingdoms of Westeros - but when she gets onto the throne in all but name, she is utterly clueless. This is understandable: being a woman in a highly sexist society, she was never expected to get into power, and therefore never trained for the role. Instead she spends all her time in her obsession to bring about the destruction of somebody she has got into her head is a danger to her. It is clear that she will bring about her own downfall in her desperation to prevent it.

5. Mr Brocklehurst, Jane Eyre. There are a lot of characters in this book that I would like to punch, but the cruel schoolmaster at Lowood heads the list, singling out children for punishment for imagined sins, such as having red, curly hair.

6. Thorin Oakenshield, The Hobbit. For the most part of the book, Thorin is a surly but respectable exiled Dwarven King. But when the gold-fever strikes him, he turns into a callous, avaricious jerk. He redeems himself, in the end, but while he is under the dragonish influence of the gold, he needs a stern talking-to with violence. It'll be interesting to see how the film copes with the most un-heroic traits of this majestic figure.

7. Aunt Elizabeth, Emily of New Moon. Always stern and with no understanding of raising children, Aunt Elizabeth raises Emily out of duty rather than love, and it is a rather austere childhood. But what pushes Aunt Elizabeth onto this list is her utter disapproval of Emily's writing, actually forbidding her to write stories for a number of years. Can any writer imagine something worse?

8. Aunt Norris, Mansfield Park. (What is it about maiden or widowed aunts in classic fiction?) Aunt Norris gives Fanny Price no illusions about her role in the Bertram family: she is a charity case, and the lowest of the low. As if shy, rather insipid Fanny needed any more lessons in humility!

9. On a similar note, Miss Minchin in A Little Princess. A pre-teen schoolgirl in her care becomes an orphan on her birthday, and her only thought is, "Who's going to pay the bills?" The way she treats young Sara Crewe is an absolute disgrace, using a girl who had been trusted into her care as the lowest servant, without the pay, food or decent lodgings that the regular staff would have been entitled to, forcing her to work on an empty stomach and sleep in a drafty attic. At least this one got her comeuppance in the end!

10. Romeo Montague, Romeo and Juliet. I can't be havin' with any of these drippy love-at-first-sight so-called love interests and it's hard work picking out just one, but we might as well go to the original. I love Shakespeare's plays, especially the tragedies, but Romeo and Juliet is the exception. When we first meet Romeo, he's moping about the love of his life, Rosaline, as if his life will never be complete without her. Then he meets Juliet, and BOOM, he's found another new love of his life. We all know how well that goes. I'd be curious to see how things might have turned out for them had they, y'know, not killed themselves. The greatest romance of all time - or two empty-headed teenagers whose brains have been replaced with hormones?

Sunday 27 January 2013

American Gods, Shakespeare's Sonnets, Les Miserables, Game of Thrones

It's been a long time since my last update, but this is not because I haven't been reading. I've been dabbling, with four books on the go at once. A lot of people say to me, "I can't do that. Don't you get confused?" Well, no, not when one is a weird sprawling fantasy, one is poetry, one is an enormous classic and the other a thriller, or a book of geek wisdom. I tend not to read more than one book in each genre at a time, but of course it takes longer to finish any one of these books.

The main book that has taken up my attention the last couple of weeks is my third reading of American Gods. As I may have mentioned before, I rather love Neil Gaiman as a storyteller, as well as a master of the English language. American Gods, being a messy sprawling epic, takes several reads to fully appreciate, and on my first attempt I confess I only liked it, didn't love it. It's complicated, with a lot going on, and it makes more sense every time. When you know what's going on in the overall shape of the plot, you can pick up on details that made no sense or impression the first time around. 

It was only on my most recent reading of American Gods that I noticed the character who just does not stick in the memory. Just as Shadow will look away from him and forget what he looks like, I would think, "that's odd - I expect his identity will be cleared up later," turn the page and not notice when the book provides no answer - his memory-erasing powers coming off the page and affecting even this reader. Now I've noticed his presence, I want to know who he is. I feel I ought to know, but the internet provides no answers, only pet theories.

Also, when I knew what Mister Wednesday's overall intentions are, I found myself looking out for the moments when events digress from his plan, wondering just how different American Gods could have been had Shadow made different choices along the way. 

I recently found an excellent Complete Oxford Shakespeare in three volumes second-hand in a charity shop in Hythe. Each volume is a reasonable sized book, and what's more unusual for a Complete Shakespeare, the print is a good size, fond and clarity for actually reading! I decided to read through all of the sonnets in order and have just passed #100. Everybody knows the famous ones - #18 and #130, and #116 if you're a fan of the Sense and Sensibility movie with Kate Winslet - but it's a different experience to read in sequence. I don't know if the order the sonnets are published in is Shakespeare's or someone else's, but they read rather as one long poem in many verses than individual poems. Sonnets in the sequence share themes and imagery, and sometimes don't even stand alone well, following on from the previous sonnet with a "So" or a "But" or an "Or."

 It might not be common knowledge that only sonnets #127-154 are written about a woman, and even these are far from traditional love poems ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," indeed!) The majority of the sequence, including "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" are actually addressed to a beautiful young man. Whether or not the poems are autobiographical, the nature of the relationship and the identity of the "fair youth" are, as most details about Shakespeare's life, all unknown, but the sonnets chart the complexities of love, the ups and downs of human relationships over a stretch of time, and perhaps the unhealthy power of infatuation - let me reiterate that Shakespeare wrote 126 sonnets to this chap! (There's an idea for a scholarly essay!)

I'm one of those people who likes to insist upon reading a book before seeing a film or TV adaptation based upon it, but I did not manage to read more than a few chapters of Les Miserables before seeing the film of the stage musical. Nor had I been to see the stage show, so all I knew was that Jean Valjean was on the run from the law after having spent many years imprisoned for stealing bread, that it is set during the French Revolution (This turned out to be incorrect. The Paris Uprising or June Rebellion was a major part of the plot, however.) and that a lot of characters die. I also, of course, knew several of the songs reasonably well. I know the rest of them now, having listened to the soundtrack on Spotify a couple of times - although it is a travesty that on Highlights of Les Miserables, the song I felt to be the highight, "Do you hear the people sing?" was missing. Of course, there are other versions available, from various London and Broadway soundtracks. 

The performances were fantastic, with an excellent cast of actors with decent singing skills - although I preferred the chorus numbers to the solos, probably because of the harmonies and the power in a crowd of voices. I understand that the songs were recorded live on set rather than overdubbed in a studio later, which was a brave decision and added a level of authenticity to the film. Anne Hathaway's raw, anguished rendition of "I dreamed a dream" was haunting. The song is often used to show off a strong voice, while the movie took a different approach. Film acting and singing requires different things to acting and singing in a theatre. On the stage, actors have to make their emotions and words as big and clear as possible so as to fill the entire theatre and leave no one in any doubt about what is going on. The camera, on the other hand, gets right in close to the actors, allowing for more subtlety of expression, and I defy you to find many classically-trained singers who can hold a tune (especially that long "shame" in "I dreamed a dream") while a blubbering, snotty mess. 

Where Les Mis fell down a little was, I felt, a result of compressing a 1200-page brick of a book into two and a half hours. The film rushed through some of the characters who would have benefitted from more screen time - Hathaway's "Fantine" is hardly in it, although the time she does spend on the screen is incredible. Some plot points could benefit from more elaboration, and I loathed the romance, if you can call it that, between Marius and Cosette. They see each other twice, speak once, and all of a sudden, they have found the reason for living and can't bear to be apart. I'm sure the novel will have handled it better - it had better, with 1200 pages. In the film, the love story felt forced and was particularly jarring when in the middle of the student protest-planning-meeting, 
("Red! The blood of angry men. 
Black! The dark of ages past.
Red! The world about to dawn.
Black! The night that ends at last.")
Marius would go off all mushy about his "love." 
"Red! I feel my world on fire.
Black! My world if she's not there.
Red! The colour of desire!
Black! The colour of despair."
You don't even know her! There is a time and a place, son, and this is not it - let's see if you survive your protest on the barricade before deciding to live happily ever after with this girl you saw this afternoon.

I wish them a long, long life together.

This bit contains a Season one/A Game of Thrones spoiler

After reading George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series last year, I have debated with myself whether or not to watch the HBO series, Game of Thrones. Eventually I borrowed the first season from a friend, but even as I put on the first DVD, I wasn't sure whether or not I would want to watch it. I had images in my mind of how the characters and places should look, and also I was a bit anxious about getting caught up in that story world for a second time. It is one of those stories that grabs the imagination and doesn't let go, which is both exhilarating and sometimes a bit scary when it comes to be time to face the real world again.

These doubts were gone before the first set of credits after the prologue.

It was interesting to relive the beginning of the story knowing what was to come. Reading the book, I had liked Eddard Stark, set up to be the hero, well enough - he's a decent chap with honour and values, but not the most exciting character in literature. But Sean Bean excels in the role, and I felt that Ned was an admirable, solid man, a good egg in a basket of bad apples - sorry for the mixed metaphor! - who held the world of Westeros together. It is, after all, after his death that everything starts to fall apart. I also started noticing the number of times one character would say "We will speak about X subject when we meet again." Of course, this is a guarantee that they will never meet again.

Putting faces to names changed the way I viewed some of the characters. Many of the worst villains of the book actually evoked some pity in me, notably Queen Cersei and even the ghastly Joffrey. On the other hand, designated heroes irritated me when on screen, notably Jon Snow. I had expected Daenerys Targaryen to have that effect, but in fact she grew on me as her character evolved. 

Sunday 6 January 2013

Mini-reviews: Miranda, The Land of Decoration, The Fault In Our Stars

I always find it exciting to start a new year in Storyland, venturing out into the uncharted lands of new books, TV and film, without any idea about which stories will become home to one's heart and mind. I've read three books so far in 2013: two for the first time and one reread, and so far all three have satisfied.

1. Is It Just Me? - Miranda Hart

One of the biggest selling hardbacks of the Christmas season was comedian Miranda's book - not so much an autobiography, but a "Miran-ual" of ponderings on life generally. Written as a dialogue between adult Miranda and her eighteen-year-old self, Is it Just Me? is packed full of reflections on being big and clumsy, of the joys of stationery and spontaneity, and whether carrying one's personal effects in a battered old rucksack rather than a tiny handbag really means that one is not "taking oneself seriously as a woman." (Spoiler: no.)

Is it Just Me? is an absolute joy to read, especially as someone who cannot leave a room without crashing into the doorpost. I mentally read the book in Miranda's own plummy tones - helped by her addressing the reader as "My Dear Reader Chum" (MDRC for short.) I howled with laughter at some of her escapades - although I did wonder how many had been embellished just the teensiest bit. Her recollections of an embarrassing picnic brought to my mind the memory of a disastrous incident with a barbecue burger bagel I battled in Cardiff with plastic cutlery. I won't go into details. Just imagine anything that could go wrong with these things and you probably wouldn't be far off. It was mortifying. But back to Miranda: I left this book feeling admiration for this woman who could be so confident in her goofiness and unwillingness to be a decorous grown up that she can not only laugh at herself and not care, but star in a sitcom about her life. Is It Just Me? is a funny and feel-good read that was just what I needed to get me through my annual Christmas Lurgy (although it is not good when you have a cough.) I originally bought it as a gift for my best friend, who lent it straight back to me. Now it's my mother's turn to read it.

2. The Land of Decoration - Grace McCleen

Ten-year-old Judith is an unusual child. Brought up by her strict widowed father and bullied at school, she finds refuge in the creation of a miniature world in her room which she calls "The Land of Decoration." Desperate not to have to go back to school, Judith makes snow for the Land of Decoration, and sure enough, it snows in the night, closing the school. Judith becomes convinced that she has miraculous powers, and tries to use these to make life better. But then things start to go wrong. Very wrong indeed.

Grace McCleen leaves it up to the reader to interpret what is going on here. Is Judith really having mystical experiences - and if so, are they benign or malevolent? Alternatively, is she simply over-imaginative, or even mentally troubled? Judith's narration is only reliable to a certain extent, revealing more to an adult reader than the child would understand, and it is unclear how literal we are to take her "visions." I am as yet undecided where I stand, but inclined towards her having a vivid imagination, shaped by her skewed religious upbringing.

At the heart of The Land of Decoration is the relationship between Judith and her strict father. Judith matter-of-factly says that she knows her father doesn't love her, because of her mother's death from complications giving birth to her, and because he always seems so angry. The discerning reader will understand that the truth is far more complicated than this. McCleen's portrayal of the grieving father trying to find his way as a single dad in a difficult world is all the more poignant for being described by someone too young to really understand.

The Land of Decoration is an extraordinary book, strange, challenging and often dark. It took a few pages to hook me, but once it got my attention, I could not put it down. A masterpiece from a new author.

3. The Fault in Our Stars - John Green

It hasn't been long since I read The Fault in Our Stars the first time around and my every intention was to pick up one of the many other books in the staff room library, but somehow this little blue paperback fell into my hands instead. The Fault In Our Stars is an incredible book, marketed at teenagers but one which should be read by people of all ages. I didn't have much to say about it the first time around and can't really add to it today, either. Just go out and read it. Buy, borrow, steal a copy. (Don't steal, kids, it's bad.) I always love John Green's characters: they are so funny and sarcastic and smart and angry, and reading about Hazel and Augustus actually hurt. The Fault in Our Stars hit home even harder the second time around, knowing what was coming. I recommend it whole-heartedly; it is a fiction full of truth and heart - but beware. You will need tissues.

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