Review: Gypsy, Gypsy, Rumer Godden

Okay, I’m going to ruin the whole plot of this book for your sake to save you from reading it yourself and possibly judging Rumer Godden based on this book which you should not, she is actually wonderful. She just is not wonderful here.

Gypsy Gypsy is about this girl called Henrietta who lives with her mean aunt Barbe. Yes, the lady’s name is Barbe, and she’s very sarcastic to everybody. It is a trifle on the nose, and I’d like to make some excuse for Rumer Godden like she was only 33 when this book was published, but you know what, Alexander had conquered the whole Mediterranean by the time he was 33, so no pass for Rumer Godden! Henrietta has a boyfriend but inexplicably refuses to marry him because she — I don’t know why, this is never explained. I guess she isn’t yet ready to leave her life of weird, awkward servitude to her amoral aunt Barbe. Aunt Barbe owns a fancy mansion and all the peasant folk hate her. You keep thinking they’re going to rebel against her and come raid the mansion Beauty and the Beast style, but they never do and this plot point doesn’t really come to anything.

Aunt Barbe is a sour old cow, and one day over dinner she tells Henrietta how in the olden days they thought that having sex with a virgin would cure you of diseases, and Barbe has the brilliant idea that maybe you could apply this same basic principle to a diseased soul. She figures if she can corrupt a purely innocent soul, she’ll be clean again, instead of being a miserable bitch that everyone hates. So she starts being really nice to this gypsy family that she lets move onto her land, and everyone’s like, “Hey, no, don’t invite gypsies here, they’re bad news!” Aunt Barbe gives the gypsy kids candy and plays stupid games with them, but because she’s doing this from a malicious motive, it ends up ruining their lives. Henrietta keeps fluttering about going “They were happy before! Stop giving them candy!” but nobody listens to Henrietta because she’s a cipher of fluttery nothing. Then Aunt Barbe shames the gypsy father about his poverty, and he stabs Aunt Barbe’s old Nanny in the neck (yeah, she still has a Nanny. I know, right?), but they all work really hard to get him off the murder charge. Nobody ever hesitates about helping a guy who stabbed an old lady in the neck get off a murder charge. He gets convicted of a lesser charge, and everyone’s unhappy about everything. The end.

I will start by saying, because I love Rumer Godden and I want you to think well of her, that she wrote a book called The Diddakoi later in her life, about a little gypsy orphan girl. The Diddakoi is pretty merciless to the characters who are prejudiced against gypsies. So I know that Rumer Godden does not really think that gypsies are a) pure innocent souls in the wilderness of the world or b) dirty scum of the earth thieves.

Next I will say that when Rumer Godden got the idea for a book about a woman who tries the spiritual version of deflowering a virgin to get rid of disease, Oscar Wilde stood on the edge of heaven and screamed and lamented for two straight years because he had not thought of it first. This is such an Oscar Wilde idea in a Rumer Godden book, and that — though I love them both dearly — is not a recipe for success. I mean Aunt Barbe is basically a less lazy, female Sir Henry Wotton. Oscar Wilde would have done this book much better than Rumer Godden, but he didn’t have the chance because he died at forty-six and never was able to have this idea and write it into a book that would have been much better that Rumer Godden’s rotten book.

And finally, I will say what I was thinking this whole book long, which is, What the hell, Rumer Godden?

Never read Gypsy Gypsy. It’s awful, and it doesn’t even have the compensatory positive of being written in that excellent, distinctive style that Rumer Godden has. Traces of her style are visible, but they’re hidden behind a black cloud of smoggy awfulness.

Review: Habibi, Craig Thompson

Nyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyynnnnnnnnggggg. Come on, dude.

Is what I was saying throughout most of Habibi. I wanted to be saying what I was saying throughout most of Thompson’s previous book, Blankets, which was nothing actually because I was so breathless from the beauty of the story and the illustrations. I wanted that to be the case with Habibi, and occasionally it was, like when the characters were telling each other stories from Muslim traditions. Craig Thompson never didn’t succeed at making his stories beautiful. If he had stuck to this, we’d be having a very different review right now.

Let me back up. Described by Thompson as a fairy tale, Habibi is set in the fictional country of Wanatolia, an Arabian Nightsy place complete with harems and sultans and deserts. Dodola is raising a small boy named Zam, whom she rescued from slavers, on an abandoned ship in the middle of the desert. This is all very nice for Zam, up to a point (that point being the point at which he discovers how Dodola procures rations for them both), but then Dodola is taken away to be part of the sultan’s harem, and then a bunch of depressing stuff happens to both of them, and eventually (spoilers) they are reunited.

Basically, the book starts out lovely, but then gets super rapey. I do not like super rapey books. And here’s what it is: If your book is about real life, and you are careful, you can have a super rapey book. I might not want to read it, but I am far less likely to say “Come on dude” to you. If your book is a fairy tale and it’s super rapey, then that tends to fall into the realm of the unnecessary (as a rule! not always!). If you’re going to show sexual abuse, be prepared to deal with the emotional consequences for your characters. Don’t toss it in there because you need your characters to undergo many trials. When you do it that way, it makes me feel icky. It’s not that I’m trying to hide from the fact that rape is a real thing, it’s that I need books to treat it like a real thing, and give it the weight it deserves.

Leaving out the questionable way Thompson deals with rape in this book, the misery the characters go through was just too much misery. It was too much misery in too episodic and haphazard a way. They bounced from one miserable life to another miserable life, steady being miserable, that shorthand thing of making characters sympathetic by inflicting misery on them. There’s something to be said for putting your characters through hell, and I’m all for it, I really am, I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer as much as the next geeky girl, but you still have to make them recognizable people whose experiences change them. I didn’t feel anything for Dodola and Zam, I just sort of wanted the book to be over.

Boo. I was so excited for this book and I ended up not liking it at all and sort of wanting to give Craig Thompson the look of squinty-eyed wrath at which my family excels. I wish it had been one huge long book of stories from Muslim tradition. That would have been gorgeous and exciting and wonderful. Instead it was occasionally gorgeous and exciting and wonderful, but overwhelmingly unawesome. I’m going to go reread Blankets and make myself love Craig Thompson again.

But don’t take my word for it!

Review: Falling Together, Marisa de los Santos

I love Marisa de los Santos, LOVE HER. Love Walked In and Belong to Me were two books I didn’t expect to like but have become regulars in my permanent rotation of books that captivate me no matter how many times I reread them (the Harriet Vane books also feature prominently, along with I Capture the Castle and The Chosen). As you may imagine, I was thrilled to hear that she was writing a new book. I wrote a begging letter to HarperCollins asking for a review copy, and they obliged. I shrieked out loud with joy when my book arrived, and I started reading it straight away.

(Stop me if you’ve heard this one.) I was a little disappointed.

Let me back up. The protagonist of Falling Together is Pen, a single mother of a five-year-old daughter, Augusta. Pen is still grieving the two-years-past death of her father, and she lives with her brother since the collapse of her relationship with Augusta’s father. She has never stopped missing her college friends Will and Cat; their unbreakable friendship trio broke up for unspecified reasons, and she hasn’t seen them since. When she receives an email from Cat asking her to come to their college reunion, she leaps at the opportunity. Off somewhere else in the country (I forget where), Will does likewise.

The source of my disappointment was not that the writing was worse than in previous books, because it wasn’t. Marisa de los Santos is a lovely writer. She doesn’t overwrite, it’s not showy, but she writes in such a way that I am conscious, while reading, that I am enjoying her writing style. She has, also, a gift for capturing the magic in everyday moments without lapsing into the realm of the saccharine. These are all reasons that I would not necessarily have minded the paper-thin plot, which felt more like an excuse to put all her characters in the same room for extended periods of time, than a plot qua plot.

Actually, since I bring it up, it seemed like Marisa de los Santos was far more interested in the characters’ pasts than their presents, and that that was the book she was wanting to write, but instead she was writing this book. Cat is (um, spoilers, I guess?) absent for most of the book, and even though it’s clear that Pen and Will are crazy about her, and Marisa de los Santos is crazy about her, I never got to be, because I hardly saw her. It was hard to be invested in her, and hard to buy into the strength of the other characters’ investment. There was a lot of talk about how important these three people all were to each other, but I couldn’t see it in their personalities, the way I could with Cordelia and Teo in Love Walked In, or Cordelia and Clare in Belong to Me.

But the real source of my disappointment was this: I loved how self-aware Cordelia was in the other two books. That is a trait I really admire, and I thought Cordelia was exceptionally self-aware and thus pleasant to spend time with. Pen did not really possess that trait. The other characters spent a lot of time telling her what she was like, and, you know, I believe them because they know her, but I didn’t get that excellent click of recognition that happens when Flavian yells at Christopher in The Lives of Christopher Chant. I never felt like I knew her, so it was hard for me to sympathize when she felt sorry for herself. Which is, like, A LOT. A LOT of the time. I spent a lot of the book wishing she would put on her big girl panties and deal with it.

Hence, one of the primary joys of reading Marisa de los Santos, which is her ability to stick the landing in moments of high emotion, was not present when reading Falling Together. I direct you instead to Love Walked In and Belong to Me, inveterate emotional-moment landing-stickers, and then we can all settle down together to wait for Marisa de los Santos’s next book, which I faithfully believe will be awesome once more.

Thanks to HarperCollins for sending me this book for review!

Review: Shalimar the Clown, Salman Rushdie

My lovely Legal Sister bought me Shalimar the Clown at a book sale last year and gave it to me when she GRADUATED SISTER GRADUATED WOOOO YAY FOR SISTERS. Legal Sister reports that the family has a policy whereby we all give each other books we got at book sales and do not have to pay each other back. I am not sure this is a real policy, but I’m delighted to acknowledge it as if it were. Shalimar the Clown is one of the two fiction books by Salman Rushdie I had yet to read (not counting Grimus and Shame, which I started and loathed and never finished; and not counting Luka and the Fire of Life, which I’m not sure about because I didn’t love Haroun and the Sea of Stories), the other being The Moor’s Last Sigh, so I was glad to have the chance to read it. I suspected I would like it okay but not as much as The Moor’s Last Sigh. But we’ll see.

Teresa and I were talking last week about Salman Rushdie and how his gifts as a writer do not necessarily run to constructing coherent plotlines. He is a genius with wordplay, and he makes magical realism, a genre I customarily detest, startlingly unloathsome. He has some set pieces that are marvelously executed, nicely set up, elegantly internally paralleled, and tidily finished. But if you are after a coherent narrative, Salman Rushdie is perhaps not your guy. Teresa said that this was the reason she liked Shalimar the Clown best of Rushdie’s books, because it is a well-ordered, narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Digressive it certainly is, or it wouldn’t be Rushdie, but it’s all building up to something, and once it builds up to the thing, there’s a climax, a denouement, and then the book ends. I can absolutely see Teresa’s point on this.

However, Shalimar the Clown didn’t do it for me. The plot is basically that there is this American diplomat with an illegitimate daughter called India, and he gets brutally murdered by his driver, a Kashmiri fellow called Shalimar the Clown. Subsequently the narrative flashes back to Shalimar’s childhood in Kashmir and the love of his life, a girl named Boonyi, and all the terrible things that happened to Boonyi and Shalimar and Kashmir, and how it’s all led up to this brutal murder by Shalimar of the American diplomat. In Rushdie-relative rather than absolute terms, this plot is tight as a drum.

But, eh, I don’t know. It all felt heavy-handed.

(I just paused from writing this post because my friend sent me a link to the film trailer for Breaking Dawn. Now I feel silly calling anything else in the entire world heavy-handed. But on I bloodily stagger.)

As I was saying, it all felt heavy-handed. There were parts of the book that talked about the bloodshed in Kashmir, and when you’re talking about something as horrible as what Rushdie’s talking about,  you really don’t need to sell it much because the impact on the readers happens just from the events. The writing doesn’t need to fall all over itself reminding you how terrible and senseless it is. I was also bothered (I am increasingly bothered by this in Salman Rushdie’s books!) by the genders of the characters. As is often the case with Rushdie, the momentum in the book (broadly speaking) tends to belong to the male characters, while the women are more reactive than active.

(Actually, that last complaint could be about the Twilight series too. HA HA, Salman Rushdie would probably not appreciate this comparison. Sorry, Salman Rushdie. You are far cleverer than Stephenie Meyer.)

So that’s it for Shalimar the Clown. I’m going to go watch the trailer for Harry Potter again now. Have I mentioned I miss Harry Potter?

Who else read it:

Asylum
Literarily Speaking
Lotus Reads
Books, Time, and Silence
Largehearted Boy

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare

They cut my head off in Titus Andronicus.  When I write plays, they’ll be like Titus…I liked it when they cut heads off, and the daughter mutilated with knives.  Plenty of blood.  That’s the only writing.
–John Webster character in Shakespeare in Love

Oh, Tom Stoppard.  You are so great.  I wish you would write screenplays for thousands of movies.  I wish you would have your own television show, and it would be called Tom Stoppard Is Not Ha-Ha-Funny But Everybody Loves Him Anyway, and on it, you could make wry comments about hermits who read newspapers and John Webster and the history of aviation.

Why am I talking about Tom Stoppard when I am meant to be talking about Titus Andronicus?  Because ever since I started this project of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order, I have thought a lot about the chats Shakespeare and I are going to have in heaven; and I am afraid that I have been too negative about him as a young writer, and he will remember it and be upset with me.

Me: But you were young!  The pressures of being a writer for the Elizabethan stage were many!  You had to give the people what they wanted!
Shakespeare: Those considerations didn’t deter you from employing the phrase “racist, poorly plotted, bloodbathy crap”!
Me: Bloodbathy isn’t even a word!
Shakespeare: It would be if I had used it.  Now run along and bother somebody else.

Or maybe he’ll say, I didn’t write it!, and we can spend a happy hour abusing its real authors as well as the fools who ascribed it to him.  That’s the better outcome.  Either way, like apocryphal George Washington, I cannot tell a lie.  Titus Andronicus is racist, poorly plotted, bloodybathy, and crap.  All the characters are perfectly hateful, though none is as hateful as – can you guess? – the black guy!  Aaron the Moor likes his son, but his only regret as he is led off to be executed, is that he hasn’t done ten thousand more wicked deeds than the deeds he actually did.  His soul, you see, it is as black as his skin.

Dreadful.  Absolutely no excuse for it.

Have you ever seen Titus performed?  Is there any excuse for it?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Review: The Comedy of Errors, William Shakespeare

Here’s what you should understand before reading Comedy of Errors.  My boy Shakespeare, he’s funny.  He’s all about being funny; he’s got funny down pat.  If you don’t believe me, I can only assume that it’s because you have never seen one of Shakespeare’s plays performed by actors with any hint of comedic timing.  He can do it in many different ways – he can do slapsticky visual gags, he can do puns, he can do wry little digs and situational irony and gallows humor.

And when he’s not being funny, he’s still being clever.  Nearly always!  He makes his words work hard for their money – if a word has a double meaning, Shakespeare will not let it pass unnoticed.  If two people are arguing, they’re not doing a half-assed job of it.  Read Richard III and you will find that Shakespeare could already, at the age of 27, crank out some whip-smart stichomythia that would make Aaron Sorkin cry like a little girl.

By the way, I just sat here for ten minutes conducting major excavations in my memory for the word stichomythia, and I eventually dug it out without the aid of the internet, and I am rather proud of that fact.  I took eight years of Latin and majored in English literature, and the result is that I have lots of dorky love for literary devices.  Like litotes?  I am not unfond of litotes (see what I did there?).  Cicero used them to great effect in his First Catilinarian Oration.  I like zeugma too because the word sounds exactly like the sound Ad-Aware makes when it’s finished finding bad files on your computer.  Chiasmus and transferred epithet and ascending tricolon, each in its own particular way is dear to my heart; and though it caused me some difficulties in Latin translations, I admire the elegance of periodic structure.

But back to Comedy of Errors.  It is not wholly without merit.  It has many funny lines; the two Dromios and the two Antipholuses get a couple of good riffs going between them.  The reason I have just spent some time defending Shakespeare and his ability to write comedy is that Errors is not his finest hour, plotwise.  It’s about two sets of twins (a set of master twins called Antipholus and a set of servant twins called Dromio) who were separated in a shipwreck, and as coincidence would have it, one of each set took his twin’s name as an homage.  Now the set that lived in Syracuse has come to Ephesus (risking death, because nobody from Ephesus can visit Syracuse and vice versa).  People in Ephesus get the twins mixed up.  That’s the whole plot.  It gets old after a while.  Mistaken identity humor is the kind of humor that’s difficult to sustain.  I am interested to inspect the ways in which Shakespeare manages his mistaken identity humor over the years.

Seriously, though.  I cannot wait for Twelfth Night.  That whole thing with Malvolio?  CLASSIC.  Do you have a favorite Shakespeare comedy moment?