Monday 25 April 2011

Curious/Creepy: Gerard Kennedy edition

This installment of Curious/Creepy is brought to you by Canadian MP (Parkdale-High Park) Gerard Kennedy. Well, not really. It just so happens that he was in the subway by my house this morning* and I met him on my way to work. For my non-Canadian friends, yes, we’re having ANOTHER federal election (May 2) and the politicos are out in full force. Well, maybe they are; Kennedy is actually the only politician I’ve ever seen in vote-garnering action. This seemed like a good enough reason to get off my butt and do my first Commuting Curious/Creepy.

 *Ahem. When I wrote this, "this morning" was still "this morning", but now "this morning" is almost two weeks ago.

The commuting curious-creep is a difficult endeavour, friends, for it’s so crowded on the subway car at 8 am that I am physically unable to move around to increase my creeping range. All my spying was confined to what I could see from my cramped square half foot of floor space. I managed to discover some gems both on the way to work and then again on the way home. Let the well-paid and politically inspired creepiness begin!

Tuesday morning

J is for Judgment, Sue Grafton
Ah, murder mysteries for the Sesame Street set! I think there’s nothing better than getting pre-schoolers used to the notion not only that people will die, but also that they will die in horrific ways. I think getting this important bit of understanding ingrained early – while also handily teaching sprogs the alphabet at the same time – will be sure to make our next generation of thinkers both highly literate and great fun at parties.

I hear Grafton is partnering with the ghost of F. Nietzsche to create a new product line for young readers and thinkers more interested in philosophy than in fiction; while I don’t know yet what all the titles will be, I’m certain that J for Juggernaut and D for Despair will be included. I’ll be up at the top of a building somewhere reading if you need me. (This segment of C/C is brought to you by: THE CATASTROPHIZER!)

Six Metres of Pavement, Farzana Doctor
I can’t imagine what this book is about. I think it could just as easily be a murder mystery, a spiritual and sentimental "travel log", or a geography textbook. I don’t care, really; I’m most interested in the author’s name: Farzana Doctor. If your last name was Doctor, would you not feel terribly and irresistibly compelled to become a doctor? A doctor of any sort, but a doctor, just so you could be called Dr. Doctor?

Life would be meta-everything all day, all night AND a song by The Who/UFO/The Thompson Twins/Iron Maiden/Gyroscope/Just Jack would accompany every meta-action you performed. This would be too much awesomeness to handle, especially because of the Thompson Twins, Iron Maiden interface; of course, the world would necessarily explode – so you’d have to be a non-medical Dr. Doctor because making the world explode is not in keeping with the Hypocratic Oath.

Top 10 New York City, Eyewitness Travel Guides
I’ve seen a number of people publicly consulting travel guides not for Canada recently, and you’d think this might make me jealous. Well, it does, actually. I've been reading the travel guide to North York, and it's not exciting reading.

The fact is, owning a bookstore has shown me that a shocking number of people buy travel guides and read them cover to cover like novels – to see if they want to go somewhere, not because they've already decided to do so. But travel guides are designed to make you want to go to the places they describe, regardless of your tastes – so how will reading one actually reveal anything but good marketing and the directions to a particular pension? Perhaps I’m being cynical. The other thing is this: in the internet age, I feel like the only real point of the physical travel guide (and this will change too) is the handy map at the back. When our machines become sophisticated enough to read our minds, my Top 10 New York City “book” will contain maps for the following: 1. Babycakes, 2.The Strand, 3. Babycakes, 4. Central Park, 5. The Strand, 6. The Sixth Borough, 7. Babycakes, 8. Candle 79, 9. Moo Shoes, 10. The Strand.

Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, Sue Gerhardt
Before I realized this book had a sub-title, I was ready to scorn both author and reader for being involved in something both so hokey and self-helpishly oversimplified. The sub-title changes everything, however.

I’m incredibly relieved to see that someone has finally written an owner’s manual for parents trying to make their kids live their own shattered dreams for them, regardless of what said kids might actually desire. Trying to make your kid’s art-shaped brain into a lawyer-shaped brain is something parents haven’t been able to achieve with sufficient skill in the past, and everyone’s suffered for it. No more. Determining the course of your offspring’s life has never been easier or more effective! Please sign this waiver indicating that you agree that we’re not liable, either legally or morally, when your kid snaps and starts killing people at school one day. Thank you.

Heart of the Matter, Emily Griffin
I am thankful that whoever markets these infernal Griffin books makes the covers so recognizable; it makes my job as transit spy much easier. That said, every time I see a highly plucked and manicured lady in high-high heels reading one of these damned things, I despair for the fate of the world. I can’t believe this shit isn’t simply the product of a make-up or lady-purse marketing company and that "Emily Griffin" isn’t a trademarked product name, like Pepsi, Yahoo!, or Glenn Beck.

Never mind Griffin’s place in the nightmare that is our corpocratic future – what would the first wave feminists say about books that celebrate the shallowest of shallow female stereotypes? I fail to see how wearing shoes you can’t either fight or run away in, skirts ditto, and eyebrows so thin they can’t be used to effectively and menacingly glower, constitute gains in the quality of women’s lives.

The morning was bursting with books to spy on; the afternoon was an embarrassment of espied riches!

Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe
This volume was almost certainly in the hands of a student in action, for it’s a rare person indeed who would, without being compelled, read the very long and plot-spoiling introduction in the Norton Critical edition of this play. I’m not knocking him; most students wouldn’t bother with the intro for any reason, if my relatively brief experience as a shaper of undergraduate-age minds is any indication. But that’s beside the point; someone was having their mind blown, perhaps for the first time, by Marlowe’s demonic romp with the doomed doctor. I can’t say how many times I’ve read this play, but its horrors ("Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God / And tasted the eternal joys of heaven, / Am not tormented with ten thousand hells / In being deprived of everlasting bliss?") and its silliness (a detachable leg) never get old. And neither do the extra demons who reputedly danced on stage during the play’s 16th and 17th century performances - eternal damnation was never so jazzily choreographed!

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Another Norton Critical edition, or at least one I’ve seen a lot in university bookstores (I couldn't find the precise cover shot, boo). I think it was probably the copy I read in my own ill-fated Brontes seminar. I don’t love this book even one bit. That it’s self-indulgently melodramatic isn’t the problem – I love Dickens, after all. The problem is, I guess, that it’s just not as good as Charlotte’s best (still Jane Eyre, IMHO) and definitely not nearly as good as Anne’s best – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

If I were a teacher wanting to give my students a taste of the 19th century, I don’t know that this would be the right choice – but it might be the effective choice, as it’s so much more sexualized than other, better books from the same period. And gawd knows, sex is the way to get the kidz to like books and stuff, at least according to outdoor Shakespearean acting companies – how else can one explain how everything in Shakespeare is turned into a leer and a hump? E.g., King Lear (King Leer, ha!): “You do me wrong to take me out o' the grave….*wink, wink, etc.* / Thou art a soul in bliss *lascivious hip motion* but I am bound *pant, pant* upon a wheel of fire *growl naughtily* / That mine own tears *look at crotch* do scald like moulten lead *deadpan*."

Gears of War: Anvil Gate, Karen Traviss
You know what's awesome about this book? No, not the title and its weirdly mixed metaphors. Not that the author has added an extra "s" to her surname to make it more tough and hissy. Not even that video games, like teen flicks in the 1980s, are being novelized. But that I saw this book being read by the same guy this morning! ("This morning" still means "almost two weeks ago.")

Somebody who can math: tell me what the odds of this are based on the fact that the TTC gets approx. 1.5 million riders each day - and that we didn't get either on or off at the same stops. I know! It's impossible. It's like being a gifted enough athlete to play in the NFL, being ridiculously good-looking, having a perfect voice, and being able to act - hilariously. Like getting hit by lightning 30 times in a row while winning the lottery and spontaneously learning to speak Swahili.

Belinda, Maria Edgeworth
This was my last spying victim of the day, and it certainly is a glorious way to conclude. At first, all I could tell was that it was one of those lovely trade paperbacks Oxford World Classics puts out; you know, the ones that are generally a joy to read because of their nice fonts and generous margins, never mind their content? It’s true that I didn’t enjoy the one Edgeworth book I’ve read (Castle Rackrent) but the circs under which I read it (for the worst course of my graduate career, hands down) were not conducive to the formation of fond reading memory. But I’ve wondered over the years if I shouldn’t give her another chance. I'm still wondering, but not very actively.

Because the person reading Belinda was so clearly an office lady and not a student, I’m deeming her the winner of this day’s spyfest. I need to fashion a crown made of recycled books and gold lamme, glued together by dog-eared pages and increasingly poor eyesight. I have no doubt she’d wear it proudly….if it weren’t a creepy-ass book spy presenting it to her, but was instead the soon to be forever lost Prince William.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Hard blows administered by a clenched hand

It seems appropriate to be reading Dickens's serialized and disjointed The Old Curiosity Shop in small, disjointed bursts while commuting to and from work. It also seems appropriate to be writing my impressions as I go along...I have no plan for a holistic consideration of the novel's meaning (yet...?), and perhaps as some disappointed Dickens fans have suggested, neither did Dickens when he wrote the damned thing. This novel is certainly somewhat scattered...but I'm not convinced it's without method. We shall see.

What follows might be considered plot spoilers

So, what are Nell and her granddad doing at this point in my reading? Right now, they’re working for Mrs. Jarley’s travelling waxwork show, barely escaping detection by Quilp et al, and increasingly unsuccessfully managing Granddad’s gambling addiction. Meanwhile, in London, the slow but good-hearted and devoted Kit continues to hope for Nell’s return, and in the meantime is enjoying his first taste of gainful employment with the Garlands. Dick Sniveller is “working” for a legal outfit firmly under the gigantic and ruthless thumb of the diminutive Quilp; Quilp continues to lurk, sneer, laugh maliciously, pinch, taunt, and show up quietly in surprising places; Nell’s brother is either holding his cards close, or Dickens has momentarily forgotten about him; Mrs. Quilp, presumably, continues to feel oppressed and frightened by her husband; the Brass siblings, partners in their law practice, continue to do Quilp’s bidding, keep a mysterious lodger who is intensely but perhaps not malevolently interested in finding Nell, and keep a servant. This servant is very small, frail, female, and exceedingly timid. We don’t know her name, or anything about her family or history. But we know this about her position with the Brass family:
The small servant stood with humility in presence of Miss Sally, and hung her head.

'Are you there?' said Miss Sally.

'Yes, ma'am,' was the answer in a weak voice.

'Go further away from the leg of mutton, or you'll be picking it, I know,' said Miss Sally.

The girl withdrew into a corner, while Miss Brass took a key from her pocket, and opening the safe, brought from it a dreary waste of cold potatoes, looking as eatable as Stonehenge. This she placed before the small servant, ordering her to sit down before it, and then, taking up a great carving-knife, made a mighty show of sharpening it upon the carving-fork.

'Do you see this?' said Miss Brass, slicing off about two square inches of cold mutton, after all this preparation, and holding it out on the point of the fork.

The small servant looked hard enough at it with her hungry eyes to see every shred of it, small as it was, and answered, 'yes.'

'Then don't you ever go and say,' retorted Miss Sally, 'that you hadn't meat here. There, eat it up.'

This was soon done. 'Now, do you want any more?' said Miss Sally.

The hungry creature answered with a faint 'No.' They were evidently going through an established form.

'You've been helped once to meat,' said Miss Brass, summing up the facts; 'you have had as much as you can eat, you're asked if you want any more, and you answer, 'no!' Then don't you ever go and say you were allowanced, mind that.'

With those words, Miss Sally put the meat away and locked the safe, and then drawing near to the small servant, overlooked her while she finished the potatoes.

It was plain that some extraordinary grudge was working in Miss Brass's gentle breast, and that it was that which impelled her, without the smallest present cause, to rap the child with the blade of the knife, now on her hand, now on her head, and now on her back, as if she found it quite impossible to stand so close to her without administering a few slight knocks. But Mr Swiveller was not a little surprised to see his fellow-clerk, after walking slowly backwards towards the door, as if she were trying to withdraw herself from the room but could not accomplish it, dart suddenly forward, and falling on the small servant give her some hard blows with her clenched hand. The victim cried, but in a subdued manner as if she feared to raise her voice, and Miss Sally, comforting herself with a pinch of snuff, ascended the stairs, just as Richard had safely reached the office. (pp. 266-69).
This girl, my god. This is one of the most disturbing passages I’ve ever read. Sally’s brutality is just so…casual. Besides expressing Dickens’s frequent (and proper) outrage at the state of child labour in the London of the 1830s, this scene reminds us all too clearly how precarious Nell’s comfort and success with Mrs. Jarley is. Her grandfather is a broken, selfish old man with extremely poor impulse control; but even having him standing between her and the terrifying void of being without either family or position is better than nothing.

The spectre of the Brass’s servant helps explain why, besides familial devotion and affection, Nell would want to hang on to a grandfather who would go so far as to rob his own apparently beloved grandchild in the middle of the night to get gambling money!!! What’s beyond family is a level of vulnerability surpassing even that discussed in my previous post on Nell as subject of sexual predation. Class, gender, age – the vulnerabilities Nell experiences by being on the wrong side of all these lines would be so much more intensely magnified were she entirely alone; so, Dickens shows us a child, basically imprisoned and half dead, to remind us what is at stake for our young heroine. It’s a crafty move. On the one hand, it softens the blow of revealing that Nell is even more at risk than has already been revealed but not having Nell beaten. On the other, it reminds his gracious readers that Nell’s position (and how much worse that position might soon be!) is not unique.

To further highlight Nell's precarious hold on any comfort or safety whatsoever, Dickens shows us how well Kit and his peer Barbara are doing with the Garlands:
[N]ot only had Mr and Mrs Garland forewarned him that they intended to make no deduction for his outfit from the great amount [of 6 pounds per year], but to pay it him unbroken in all its gigantic grandeur; not only had the unknown gentleman increased the stock by the sum of five shillings, which was a perfect god-send and in itself a fortune; not only had these things come to pass which nobody could have calculated upon, or in their wildest dreams have hoped; but it was Barbara's quarter too--Barbara's quarter, that very day--and Barbara had a half-holiday as well as Kit, and Barbara's mother was going to make one of the party, and to take tea with Kit's mother, and cultivate her acquaintance.
To be sure Kit looked out of his window very early that morning to see which way the clouds were flying, and to be sure Barbara would have been at hers too, if she had not sat up so late over-night, starching and ironing small pieces of muslin, and crimping them into frills, and sewing them on to other pieces to form magnificent wholes for next day's wear. But they were both up very early for all that, and had small appetites for breakfast and less for dinner, and were in a state of great excitement when Barbara's mother came in, with astonishing accounts of the fineness of the weather out of doors (but with a very large umbrella notwithstanding, for people like Barbara's mother seldom make holiday without one), and when the bell rang for them to go up stairs and receive their quarter's money in gold and silver.

Well, wasn't Mr Garland kind when he said 'Christopher, here's your money, and you have earned it well;' and wasn't Mrs Garland kind when she said 'Barbara, here's yours, and I'm much pleased with you;' and didn't Kit sign his name bold to his receipt, and didn't Barbara sign her name all a trembling to hers; and wasn't it beautiful to see how Mrs Garland poured out Barbara's mother a glass of wine; and didn't Barbara's mother speak up when she said 'Here's blessing you, ma'am, as a good lady, and you, sir, as a good gentleman, and Barbara, my love to you, and here's towards you, Mr Christopher;' and wasn't she as long drinking it as if it had been a tumblerful; and didn't she look genteel, standing there with her gloves on; and wasn't there plenty of laughing and talking among them as they reviewed all these things upon the top of the coach, and didn't they pity the people who hadn't got a holiday! (pp. 286-87).
Lovely, yes. A cause for hope? I don’t know, but I’m sceptical. It’s not revealed how Barbara gets her place with this family, but Kit’s hiring is entirely luck-based. It’s random (in the true sense of the word, not the way the kidz these days use it) and can’t be replicated. To be sure, like the equally and improbably fortunate Nicholas Nickleby, Kit earns the blessings bestowed upon him; but it’s still ludicrous and dumb luck that got him those blessings to begin with.

Nell’s ludicrous and dumb luck in finding a place with Mrs. Jarley is somewhat comparable - except that unlike Kit, she is surrounded and pursued by those who have and will do her a variety of irreparable harms to gratify their own greed. Many of Dickens’s female characters are, shall we say, rather flat – but this has never stopped him from acknowledging that being a woman in Victorian England is a very different thing than being a man in Victorian England. Maybe I’m wrong about where I’m imagining this is all heading. But I would be beyond surprised if little Nell survives long enough to either meet a kind man to marry or finds a mysterious fortune to inherit. If she does end up all right, I'll perhaps take direction from the disbelieving Mr. Grimwig in Oliver Twist and eat my own head.

Saturday 16 April 2011

The novel according to Junichiro Tanizaki

Before beginning The Old Curiosity Shop (of which I've now read 200+ pages), I visited an old friend - Junichiro Tanizaki. Specifically, I read a volume containing two of his novellas - The Reed Cutter and Captain Shigemoto's Mother.

The Reed Cutter is more of a short story than the novella it’s labelled as. It’s a memory of a memory, bound up in a dreamlike trip to a moon-viewing on a river…"true" reality is far away, and nothing is more tangible than the past and the longing directed at it. The Reed Cutter is about what isn’t seen or felt or known, and at bottom so is Captain Shigemoto’s Mother.

Captain Shigemoto’s Mother is referred to as a novel but it’s one part literary memoir, one part literary criticism, one part novel, and all parts absence. I normally loathe even the notion of books entitled “So and so’s mother/daughter/other anonymous female figure”, but it actually makes sense here. The Ariwara lady’s face – and wants, and thoughts, and needs – are always hidden, being literally effaced by screens, darkness, and modesty while at the same time figuratively erased by the desires of the male characters around her. She is a repository of desire – but what keeps this from being a proto-feminist critic’s easy A is that she is primarily the repository of unfulfilled literary desire. Hers is a story that simply cannot be known; all the digging has been done, and the multitude of classical literary sources Tanizaki cites reveal almost nothing about her. To say she is beautiful is to say less than nothing, for in the courtly literature of medieval Japan, what courtly lady isn’t?

Tanizaki may be engaging in criticism here about the representation of the female in his country’s literary history. But I think, rather, that what this so-called novel is saying about reading is more interesting – what’s not revealed, what isn’t achieved, what isn’t consummated, what isn’t found, what isn’t satisfied – lack is the source of celebration and painful desire; it is not something to be solved. We don’t read to abate our longing – we read to increase it, to confirm it, to make it more real. In Tanizaki's hands, novel-writing and –reading become nothing less than archaeology - an archaeology not only of text but also of subject, in all senses of the word.

Plot spoilers, of a sort
Captain Shigemoto is separated from his mother when he is very young. She is kidnapped out of his father's house and because she is now someone else's "wife", the young Shigemoto is no longer welcome in her world. He spends 40 years yearning for her, idealizing her, and trying to imagine her face - having seen it only once after she leaves, and then in the dark. When he does finally reunite with her, she is an old lady and he a middle-aged man. During this meeting, Tanizaki's literary dissatisfaction with her strange anonymity in the chronicles and Shigemoto's emotional dissatisfaction with her removal from his life become impossible to differentiate. Her looks seem to be described in the kind of detail found in descriptions of 10th-century Japanese court ladies (and English Renaissance literature, for that matter) - but even at this moment of direct contact, what is being blazoned is what can't be known:
"Mother," said Shigemoto again. Kneeling on the ground, he looked up at his mother and rested his head on her lap. Under the white hood her face was blurred by the light of the moon filtering through the cherry blossoms; sweet and small, it looked as though it were framed by a halo. The memory of that spring day forty years before, when he had been held in her arms behind a curtain stand, came vividly to life, and in an instant he felt as though he had become a child of five or six. In a reverie, he brushed aside the kerria branch she held and pressed his face closer to hers. The fragrance of incense in the sleeves of her black robe recalled to him that lingering scent of long ago, and like a child secure in his mother's love, he wiped his tears again and again with her sleeve. (pp. 179-80)
Her face is blurred by moonlight? No, it's blurred by memories that are more real than this culmination of 40 years of loss. We're told her face is sweet and small, but this tells us nothing - and then her face is obscured by his face. The impossible distances of literary silence, of social separation, of time - those are reinforced, rather than bridged here, by Shigemoto putting himself so close to her that she, as she currently is, can't be seen. That she is no longer a repository of sexual desire doesn't make her any less a repository of filial desire.

Tanizaki is a strange one. I think he's better known in North America for his tendencies towards literary kink but I find his novelization of what most would consider to be more properly criticism or history to be infinitely more compelling. In his works, the lines between memory, books, and human experience are blurred. One is neither more nor less real than any other. And all are both intensely real and impossible to comprehend in the moment.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Dickens's little girls

The similarities (at least so far) between Little Dorrit and Little Nell, the young heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop, are hard to miss – a young girl, possessed of almost supernatural familial devotion and a gift for self-effacement, threatened by increasing poverty and others’ desires for her, regardless of any desires she might have for herself (which she doesn’t, really, of course – except as it relates to those she loves). They seem like ciphers, and I'm not convinced Little Dorrit isn't one; only time will tell with Nelly.

But one difference between the two which I’ve been immediately struck with, in only the first 75 or so pages of The Old Curiosity Shop, is how terrifyingly sexual are the clouds gathering around the naïve, 13-year old Nell. Already she is the subject of two plots to either force or trick her into marriage – by her brother, with his friend, the ever charming Dick Sniveller; and by the rapacious and cruel dwarf Daniel Quilp:
The child uttered a suppressed shriek on beholding this agreeable figure; in their first surprise both she and the old man, not knowing what to say, and half doubting its reality, looked shrinkingly at it. Not at all disconcerted by this reception, Daniel Quilp preserved the same attitude, merely nodding twice or thrice with great condescension. At length, the old man pronounced his name, and inquired how he came there.

'Through the door,' said Quilp pointing over his shoulder with his thumb. 'I'm not quite small enough to get through key-holes. I wish I was. I want to have some talk with you, particularly, and in private. With nobody present, neighbour. Good-bye, little Nelly.'

Nell looked at the old man, who nodded to her to retire, and kissed her cheek.

'Ah!' said the dwarf, smacking his lips, 'what a nice kiss that was-- just upon the rosy part. What a capital kiss!'

Nell was none the slower in going away, for this remark. Quilp looked after her with an admiring leer, and when she had closed the door, fell to complimenting the old man upon her charms.

'Such a fresh, blooming, modest little bud, neighbour,' said Quilp, nursing his short leg, and making his eyes twinkle very much; 'such a chubby, rosy, cosy, little Nell!'

The old man answered by a forced smile, and was plainly struggling with a feeling of the keenest and most exquisite impatience. It was not lost upon Quilp, who delighted in torturing him, or indeed anybody else, when he could.

'She's so,' said Quilp, speaking very slowly, and feigning to be quite absorbed in the subject, 'so small, so compact, so beautifully modelled, so fair, with such blue veins and such a transparent skin, and such little feet, and such winning ways-- but bless me, you're nervous! Why neighbour, what's the matter?' (pp.71-73)
Before reading this and other similar (although somewhat less overtly repellent) scenes in The Old Curiosity Shop, I had been accustomed to a Dickens with, maybe not a gentler touch, but at least a more innocent one. Nelly is as vulnerable as a gothic heroine with white heaving bosoms in a cruel and licentiate lord’s haunted castle, but this isn't one bit hilarious – and her prison is the wide world of London-town and her jailer is her socio-economic vulnerability combined with the defenselessness of being a teenaged girl without family to speak of. There are no supernatural elements to help her out, and the kindly gentleman who began her story, and who expressed interest in contributing to her well-being, has disappeared – having turned his first person narrative over to an impersonal and powerless third person and disappeared from the story!

When I read Our Mutual Friend about two years ago, I was struck by how cynical it was compared to the other Dickens novels I’d read. In retrospect, it was cynical in a literary way, a sort of 17th-century Shakespearean way – it reminded one of the cruel tests to which the Bard put his heroes and heroines in the late, so-called “problem plays”; it was literarily, if not emotionally, challenging. And while I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that The Old Curiosity Shop is also in part literary homage - reading it has been reminding me of Wm. Blake’s most agonizingly bitter images from Songs of Innocence and Experience - the bitterness about Nell’s position seems more sordidly realist than literary homage can possibly allow. She is the subject of sexual predation by men whose souls are viciously mangled whether or not their bodies match; her primary caregiver loves her but is a helpless gambling addict and becoming infirm with age to boot; her friends, those she has, are impossibly weak (Mrs. Quilp) or hopelessly hindered by birth (Poor Kit) or like the novel’s first narrator, given to disappearing without explanation. If help is forthcoming, it won't be coming from quarters with which Nell is already familiar. I will find out later, when there's time to pick up my novel again; until then, I fear for her almost bodily.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

"An interest not wholly free from pain"

This morning, I began my Victorian Literature reading project - not, however, with Dickens's Barnaby Rudge as planned, but rather with The Old Curiosity Shop, published the same year or the year after. Why, you ask? Well, the sad fact is, I couldn't find an even vaguely critical edition of Barnaby Rudge anywhere, and as it's based in an historical moment with which I'm not familiar, I thought I needed at least a good introduction. It turns out anyway that I already owned a copy of the tale of Little Nell, so I decided to go with that.

And it looks like it's going to be a doozy, friends. On page 5 (the novel began on page 3), I read this sentence in the narrator's introductory remarks about finding Little Nell wandering and her childlike trust in him, a stranger: "I love these little people, and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us." 'Oh, so it's going to be that kind of book is it, Chaz!' I thought as I choked on my easily played emotions while trying to read this sentence aloud to my husband.

Dickens is a master of extravagent, but for me nonetheless entirely irresistable, sentimentalism; and this sentence promises a level of the emotion-wringing unseen since I read A Tale of Two Cities about 2.5 years ago. In other words, The Old Curiosity Shop promises some seriously good, if weepy, times.

Friday 8 April 2011

I don't know if I should punch George R. R. Martin dead in the face or thank him - or both

Based on how long it took me to read George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, I'm estimating it'll take me approximately 43 years to complete my as yet un-started Vic Lit project. I think it took me three weeks to read this fat novel, which makes me want to bow my head in shame and maybe even don a hair shirt. I am not a slow reader, and this is a fantasy novel, and this is a very compelling fantasy novel. Under what used to constitute normal circs in my life, it should have taken me approximately 17 minutes to read this 800-page beast.

Now that I am a working person whose job isn't in a bookstore, there appears to be a new normal, and that new normal is, so far, this: The ONLY time I have to read is on the subway to work, and then again on the subway home. That's 40 minutes each way, but 40 minutes of being jostled and harried and standing the entire time. I'm really really really really hoping that I will soon, somehow, begin to find more time for the books, because dammit, they're still my most favourite thing alongside hubby and menagerie of beloved beasties.

But about the book. I said a few weeks ago that A Game of Thrones is like a soap opera, and it is - but a soap opera that is actually quite well written, is full of compelling characters (except that stupid twit Sansa, damn her idiot eyes), and Very Exciting Happenings such as, but not limited to: beheadings, walking dead, incest, murder, non-incestuous sex, magic, dragons, and heads on spikes. I alternated between tearing through the novel and delaying reading it so that it would last longer. All was well, if stressful, for Martin is unrelenting in his unfolding of a world seemingly committed to the destruction of all that is good, beautiful, and just.

But then Martin crossed the line. He killed a character who was absolutely and without question the moral centre of the book, and killed him horribly. All of a sudden, I had no protagonist (I found the real one, in the end, I think - and wow, dragons - but I don't want to give too much away) - and I was steaming mad at him. I vowed to never read another GRRM book again. I thought of writing him a sternly worded but still passive-aggressive anti-fan letter expressing my disapproval. Then I realized - only a really good book can make you react as though the characters aren't characters, but rather that they're people that you love. And then I wondered: if Martin's characters seem this real to me, what was it like for Martin to write this book and the ones that follow? Is he unable to finish this series because his characters seem more real to him than real people? If so...I get it, brother. Don't finish it. Pull a Robert Jordan on the world; we'll understand.

So, in spite of my anger, I will read the rest of this series; I don't think I can help it, frankly. I simply must know what the flying eff is happening north of the Wall, and how Dany will proceed, and what the hell happened to Arya, and...Sigh.

In the meantime, I'm going to permit myself the pleasure of reading a very short, large fonted, wide margined book before I launch into the Victorians - by which time, I really hope working life will have smoothed out enough for me to have returned, even partially, to my regular readerly ways and therefore not take 43 years to read my 43 or so fat 19th century novels.