Saturday, 29 October 2011

Review: Dante's Inferno (Group Read)

I read this for the Group Read being hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey.

I'm still sorting my thoughts on this poem - I only read Inferno, so there may be things that happen later in The Divine Comedy which would affect my current opinion but which I don't yet know about.  I finished at midnight last night after a few glasses of wine, which may be why I was underlining anything that was also referenced in Assassin's Creed 2 (or maybe I'm just a colossal geek) and getting annoyed with Dante for being all smug about leaving someone with their eyes frozen over.  I think the easiest way to do this may be in a list.

1) I am so glad I'm a classicist.  I was looking up quite a few notes in the back of my edition anyway - mostly to do with Florentine history and who some of the sinners were - but if I'd also been looking up the mythological references the poem would have taken even longer to read.  The only one I didn't recognise properly was Electra: I thought it was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and got a little hacked off that she was being treated nicely.  Turns out, it was someone tied into the whole Aeneas-founded-Rome thing.

2) Moving on from the first point, though, is the fact that I've always preferred Greek to Latin, especially when it comes to poetry.  The Aeneid does my head in a little, especially the end and Turnus and I'm sorry, I'm supposed to admire Aeneas because no, not happening, and don't even get me started on Dido - because at least none of Odysseus's ladies topped themselves when he left, whatever Dante may be saying about him in Inferno.  There is a note in my edition that states that Dante had no Greek and that Homer's work existed only in fragments or commentaries at the time, so he was drawing on those for his information, but still.  I was angry - as the above rant possibly suggests.

3) Also a follow on: the style of the poem.  I don't think I've ever seen so many Homeric similes in one place before.  They're everywhere.  And better done than Virgil, who does occasionally seem to be labouring the point.  The trip to Hell is also a clear imitation of the trip to the Underworld in The Aeneid, which is in turn based on Odysseus's journey there in The Odyssey.  I wonder what it would have been like had all of Homer been extant at the time of Dante's writing.

4) Did Dante like anyone besides himself, Beatrice and Virgil?  Because a lot of this read like Chaucer in A Knight's Tale threatening to immortalise his enemies in poetry.  This may change as he moves up to heaven - I'm guessing there will be examples of good people there - but in Inferno it seems like everyone who has ever pissed him off is suffering agonies.  He claims to have respect for the office of the Pope but is happy to have several late Pontiffs buried upside down in pits with their feet on fire.  And he even devises a way for people he likes who are still alive at the time of the poem to be suffering merrily away: your sin makes you lose your soul, which descends to Hell, and a demon takes your body (like a vampire in Buffy).

5) I'm not sure if the point is that Dante is human and therefore fallible, but he doesn't come off particularly well during his journey.  Not only does he swoon as much as Pamela, but he's smug and he lies and he's generally annoying.  Again, this may change when he gets to Purgatory and Heaven, but he didn't behave particularly well in Hell (they have a code of conduct down there, you know).

6) Some of the punishments were utterly grotesque - which may be why so many TV serial killers use them on their victims - but the one that scared me the most was in the desert at the beginning, full of people who had achieved nothing of good or evil.  Their lives had been blanks; they had done nothing and could go nowhere.

I feel like this should have some sort of conclusion, but I'm not sure what it could be - and I'm aware that this has been a bit ranty (I am clearly one of the wrathful).  I did enjoy the poem - as much as something that horrific can be enjoyed - and when I got into the rhythm of it the stanzas flew by.  I also want to read the rest of the comedy, and read up the history of Florence at the time because it sounds fascinating and faction-full.  Maybe that's the highest praise I can give it: I want more now.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker (Group Read)

Published: 1897
My Edition: Penguin Classics, 2003
Group Read: Hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey; main link post is here.

Review: I have 9 1/2 sides of A4 full of notes I made while rereading Dracula; some are serious, some are downright silly and there's an entire essay on gender and sexuality buried in there somewhere.  My main thoughts on rereading were that this is not the book I remember, or which seems to exist in the popular imagination - the horror is less about Dracula and more about people's reactions to him.

Not that I can't see the origins of just about every vampire story in the book.  Pages 254-5 of my edition lay down almost all the rules of vampires.  The main rule 'missing' is the harmed-by-sunlight thing (which originated in Nosferatu) as Dracula is merely prevented from using his full powers during the day time.  And a major difference from modern fiction *cough*Twilight*cough* is that Dracula is not an attractive vampire - though the three sisters are beautiful and voluptuous (that is their main descriptor) - and he gets younger as he drinks more blood, rather than being a fixed age.  There are all sorts of elements that can be dragged out and changed to keep the vampire myth going.

In that sense, Dracula is as it is perceived, but the main concerns of the book seem to be less about vampires and more about gender, sexuality and madness.  It's not just Renfield: almost every character seems to be haunted by the idea that they're insane for believing in vampires despite the strange occurrences happening around them, and that they may even be imagining what's happening.  Jonathan Harker has brain fever (of course, you can't be in a Victorian novel without it) and thinks the things at the Castle can't possibly have happened.  Mina's dreams are put down to her mind being too active and troubled.  They even consider how they're going to explain to the police about the burglary and murder they're going to have to commit to rid the world of the Count - because "oh, this foreign dude we just stabbed in the heart and decapitated is a vampire, officer" doesn't really cut it.  There's even an acknowledgement of how weird everything is, when Seward says "I sometimes think that we must all be mad and that we shall wake to sanity in strait-waistcoats" (292).

I'm actually finding this review a bit difficult to write, because I almost want to turn it into an essay and because a lot of the things I want to say are better expressed here by Cleolinda (as she says, Van Helsing talks like a lolcat; my personal favourite of his many bizarre speeches is "he fear time, he fear want!  For if not, why he hurry so?  His very tone betray him, or my ears deceive" (327)).  It is a horror novel and there are some absolutely terrifying bits - I had forgotten about the wolf breaking into Lucy's window and then her lying under her mother's corpse all night - but I think the greatest fear the characters feel is sexual, both the changes that will occur in the pure women if they become vampires, and in Dracula's own interest in Jonathan Harker.  The first four chapters in the castle are very homoerotic, and if the book hadn't been written in 1897 it could easily go another way. 

Which makes me wonder what it would have been like to read the book when it was first published.  Reading it now, not only am I reading subtexts into it that may not have been picked up on*, but I know Dracula is a vampire - and even if I didn't I know enough of the rules (laid down by this very book, if that isn't too circular a thought) that that I can spot what he is as soon as it turns out that he doesn't have mirrors in his house and all the locals are crossing themselves and giving Jonathan Harker rosaries to protect him.  But to read the book without any of that foreknowledge, to just think that the Count is a slightly eccentric foreigner...that could be interesting.

Rating: 8/10

* Although I think it's more blatant than The Picture of Dorian Gray and Victorians evidently found something there they didn't like.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Re-Readathon: 18th-20th November

Signing up for the Re-Readathon being hosted by The Perpetual Page-Turner.  There is a long, long list of books I want to reread, either for blogging purposes or just for fun.  Some of them from this year, others from a while ago that I haven't touched for ages (hello there, my Terry Pratchetts and Antonia Forests, how I've missed you).  As I semi-mentioned in this post, I want to go back over some of the books from earlier this year with an eye to reviewing them.  There are also a few books I'd like to reread to get a different perspective on them - Gaudy Night and Dracula are both completely different to how I remembered them - and I want to try and start a regular feature on this blog where I reread my favourite books and review them.

Basically, this weekend has a lot riding on it.

I'll do a proper list of books nearer the time - will have to juggle quick reads and those I really want to delve back into - but this is me stating that, yes, I am going to do this.  I haven't had a weekend of reading for a while, so it will be nice to do nothing but sit around reading and drinking coffee.  I hardly ever do that.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Group Read: Dracula - Pre-reread Post

I've decided to do the Dracula Group Read which is being hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey, mostly because I don't need an excuse to reread the novel - although it has been a while since I read it all the way through.  This post is, as the title suggests, a chance for me to share my thoughts about Dracula before I start my reread; I think it will be interesting to see if my opinion of the novel changes as a result of a new reading.

Please note: potential spoilers below for anyone who hasn't read the book.  I do talk about bits I remember really liking, which are things that may not be as well known about the novel as certain elements (primarily: vampires!).

I first read Dracula at university; not for a course but for the fun of the thing.  I've since bought the absolutely gorgeous annotated edition, which does occasionally frustrate me with the suggestions that it's all real and Bram Stoker is reporting facts - the same is true of my annotated Sherlock Holmes; I get that people like to pretend it's all real and that's fine but eurgh, it bugs me - but has some fascinating notes and all sorts of awesome pictures.  Sadly, I couldn't get that on the train with me as it is a veritable brick, so I'm using my slightly battered Penguin Classics edition (as pictured).  I can at least read it without needing to prop it on my knees or hurting my arms.

So, what do I remember about Dracula?  I have reread the beginning a few times and that's (currently) my favourite part.  The end doesn't interest me as much, though that may be because I've only really read it once.  The whole book is a bit mad, and suffers from the usual Victorian problem of a lack of copy editing as Stoker forgets how long journeys took and changes what people do and don't know/can and can't do for the sake of the plot.  As far as I recall it also features some fun sexism and big strong men being utterly stupid, which may contribute to my feelings of annoyance.  All that stuff about Mina having the gentleness of a woman and the brains/courage of a man is a bit too close to all that nonsense about Marian being almost as a good as a man in The Woman in White.  Heaven forbid women are strong without it being a manly characteristic.

What I mostly remember about Dracula - other than the utter homoeroticism of the Count laying claim to Jonathan Harker as his own (am now just thinking of Vampire!Bill and his entire "Sookie is miiiiine" thing) - are the creepy set pieces.  There are a lot of these, mostly in the beginning before people figure out what's going on, primarily:

- Jonathan's attempts to escape from the castle after he's found the coffins
- Dracula crawling down the wall
- the dog on the beach after the wreck of the Demeter
- Mina's nightmarish rush across Whitby to find Lucy (probably the most surreal and fantastic bit of the book)
- my utter fury with Lucy's mother for opening the windows and removing the garlic; it's not that she was prompted by Dracula, it's that she was officious idiot
- all of the stuff with Lucy and the escaped wolves and the children.

In fact, there are a lot of set pieces I can remember.  I don't think it is a book made up primarily of 'moments', but those are the things that stick with you.  Listing all of these is really making me want to reread it, though, although I'm not sure how I'll feel about the end when I get to it.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

I Think This Post's Mostly Filler

Gaudy Night (Lord Peter Wimsey, #12)
As I briefly mentioned in my In My Mailbox post, I have missed blogging for a while.  I had all sorts of plans and then life intruded.  I had little access to the Internet and was at my parents' house where there is the benefit of all the books I can't cart around the country with me but also not much time for blogging.  So, this post is mostly to have something here before I do a new review/something because I want to create at least a semblance of this blog being live (which it is).  Though this will primarily be a list, because I like them.

- Am rereading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers - I'd forgotten what a weird book it is.  It's a detective novel without a murder (fairly rare for the Golden Age of Crime) but that's not what I find weird: it's how much of Sayers' own thoughts and beliefs are on the page.  She's addressing her own concerns about writing, feminism, honesty and relationships, and there are lines which Harriet thinks which are clearly Sayers talking about her own work.  It's bizarre but fascinating.  I will have to do a full review of it, just because it is so odd but also brilliant.

- Have decided to do both Group Reads for October at A Literary Odyssey: Dracula and Dante's Inferno (sign up post is here for anyone interested).  I've read Dracula before but haven't read it all the way through for ages; I usually just read the fantastic bit at the beginning with Jonathan Harker trapped in the castle because that is so creepy.  I've never read Inferno but it's one of those books I know bits about, mostly thanks to crime dramas in which the serial killer is recreating elements of the poem with their murders in an effort at originality (it's always Dante or the Bible, televisual killers often lack creativity).

- Doctor Zhivago is still looming at me as the last challenge book I have to read this year.  It scares me a little, and I think I may have to photocopy the cast list at the front so I can keep all the Russian names straight.

- I really want to read more Dickens, and that is something I never thought I'd say.  Am unsure whether to do it chronologically (though am not overly fussed about Pickwick Papers) or start with the books I want to read - although that may means I never get to the ones I'm not sure about.  Mostly, I want to read Bleak House.  And reread Oliver Twist

That's about it, really (I hate it when a post runs to an end).  I do have plans, and am undecided about whether to keep reading new books quickly or to go back and reread slowly for the sake of reviewing.  I will definitely be doing the Group Reads, though, so that is something to give me structure for the month.

In My Mailbox #4

In My Mailbox is a weekly meme hosted by The Story Siren.  I am not only late with this week's but also missed last time, which sucks as I had many shiny new books to show off blog about.  The last fortnight has abounded with the arrival of pre-orders (except my special edition of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, boo!) and the kind of lucky finds in second hand bookshops that make me happy.  One book I've been looking for for ages is a treat; two is positively lucky.


Lola and the Boy Next DoorThe Name of the Star (Shades of London #1)

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins.  Reason: I loved Anna and the French Kiss so there was no way I wasn't pre-ordering Lola and then devouring it in one day (which I did).
The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson.  Reason: It's MJ, it's set in London, it's Jack the Ripper - and I pre-ordered from Waterstone's so I got a signed edition, yay!

Bought - normal store (not sure what else to call it)

The Eagle of the Ninth

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff.  Reason: One of my favourite books of this year so I had to own a copy.  Am going to reread and review soon (she says optimistically).

Bought - second hand (the god of second hand bookshops smiles upon me)

Glass Houses (The Morganville Vampires, #1)Lord of Misrule (The Morganville Vampires, #5)Last Sacrifice (Vampire Academy #6)

Glass Houses by Rachel Caine.  Reason: Borrowed it from the library earlier this year and enjoyed it, so when I saw it for £1 I figured why not.  Also, this way I can reread and review properly.
Lord of Misrule by Rachel Caine.  Reason: I have three more books to read before I get to this one, but I figured I might as well buy it and free up a library slot.
Last Sacrifice by Richelle Mead.  Reason: Again, I have three books to go before I get to this book and I bought it to free up a library space.  I am really enjoying this series though.

IronsideLayer Cake

Ironside by Holly Black.  Reason: I've wanted this book for ages and there it was on a second hand bookshelf.  I bought very quickly.
Layer Cake by J.J. Connolly.  Reason: I have been after this book for a while and couldn't find it anywhere - I was starting to think it didn't exist.  Then, ta da, there it was in an Oxfam bookshop (I love Oxfam bookshops).

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Month in Review: September 2011

September seems to have lasted forever, so much so that I when I came to compile the list below I didn't think I'd read some of the books this month.  This is not good.  I'm reading things so quickly I'm not really taking them in, so that I'll find myself wondering which book I read so-and-so in and be annoyed that I can't be certain.  Think I'm going to need to slow down and do some rereads of books from earlier this year, although it's my birthday this month which means a Book Buying Binge of grand proportions.  Still, I tend to read more books from the library than books I own, so maybe that will slow me down a little.

Books Read in September 2011
099. The Masqueraders - Georgette Heyer
100. The Treasure Map of Boys - E Lockhart
101. The Princess Diaries: Take Two - Meg Cabot
102. Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - Andrew Graham-Dixon
103. Guyaholic - Carolyn Mackler
104. The Princess Diaries: Third Time Lucky - Meg Cabot
105. The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things - Carolyn Mackler
106. The Vanishing of Katharina Linden - Helen Grant
107. The Riddle of the Poisoned Monk - Sarah Matthias
108. Feeling Sorry For Celia - Jaclyn Moriarty
109. Tom Fletcher and the Angel of Death - Sarah Matthias
110. And That's When it Fell off in My Hand - Louise Rennison
111. Hex Hall - Rachel Hawkins
112. The Glass Demon - Helen Grant
113. You Know Where To Find Me - Rachel Cohn
114. The Silver Branch - Rosemary Sutcliff
115. Lola and the Boy Next Door - Stephanie Perkins
116. Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers - Louise Rennison
117. Startled by His Furry Shorts - Louise Rennison
118. Ripley's Game - Patricia Highsmith
119. The Thieves of Ostia - Caroline Lawrence
120. Luuurve is a Many Trousered Thing - Louise Rennison

Total = 22
Total pages = 5861
Average book length = 266
Most Read Author = Louise Rennison (4 books).

Nicest Covers of the Month
The Vanishing of Katharina LindenMichelangelo and the Sistine ChapelThe Masqueraders

Top Ten Books of the Month
01. The Treasure Map of Boys
02. Lola and the Boy Next Door
03. The Vanishing of Katharina Linden
04. The Glass Demon
05. The Silver Branch
06. The Masqueraders
07. Hex Hall
08. Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel 
09. You Know Where To Find Me
10. The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things
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