Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Billed as a combination of Harry Potter and Jane Austen, with some Dickens tossed in, which says more about marketing than anything, but is a start. The plot is about magicians who revive practical magic in early 19th century England, when it had become almost entirely a matter of disputatious theory and fusty history. The two main characters are begin as mentor and protege, but the younger, more romantic, bold, and gregarious character becomes the rival of his more cautious and reclusive mentor.
Like Austen the heart of the book is comedy and satire of manners. Austen’s main topics are marriage and money. The book has a few marriage plots but they are tertiary. Clarke’s emotional themes are vanity and ambition, revenge, betrayal, and loyalty. Two of the best characters are a pair of Norrell’s hangers-on, Drawlight and Lascelles, who make a life and a living from treachery and malicious gossip. An evil fairy enchants two of the characters; he compels them to spend their nights dancing in endless balls in gloomy castles, and sleepy days back in the human world; and he does his best to persuade them that their benefactors in the human world are their betrayors.
The book won’t do much for readers who don’t like fantasy at all, but for readers who can tolerate some of it, the theme can be easily translated to the loss and search for enchantment in the rationalist modern world; the replacement of religious experience with ritual and pedantry, the ascendance of literary theory over storytelling. It’s no coincidence that Strange hangs out with Byron in Italy.
As for me, I really liked Clarke’s vision of an enchanted world — the rambling buildings with extra doors, closets, and starecases; the mirrors and crossroads heading off into alternate universes; the trees, birds, water with a life and language of their own; the music that transports people into a lonely and melancholy place; the Boschian scenes of grisly horror.
Clarke’s magic creates painterly fantastic panoramas and anecdotal miniatures — it is not at all like the Harry Potter rule-based system. The pace is quite slow to get started, but picks up when Strange enters the stage. Unlike Rowling and Neal Stephenson, whose long, 18th century Baroque Cycle is a cousin of “Strange”, Clarke feels no compulsion to add cinematic chase scenes; the dramatic action is fantastical, without extra effort to make it filmable. It will be darn hard to make a good movie or miniseries from the book.
Like Dickens, Austen — and Stephenson — Clarke deals with social marginality and mobility. Two of the characters are talented servants who feel a mixture of dissatisfaction, accomodation with their lot, and loyalty to their masters. The literal enchantment to a fairy king parallels real life bondage, physical and mental, to an aristocratic class structure. In the end (spoiler….) Clarke sets the white character on a path to a more democratic success; the black character has no choice but a fantasy world.
19th century novelists are more firmly within the class structure; they would either engineer the plot so they take their true place among the nobility, or engineer a sorry ending for untoward aspiration. Stephenson’s American, and doesn’t get the mental bonds; his upwardly mobile characters work around their limitations, and don’t feel conflicted about aspiring behind their station.
Like Tolkien, Clarke uses footnotes for backstory. Tolkein’s footnotes convey the impression that there’s a fully realized world and history beyond the story at hand. Clarke’s footnotes have an ironic and pseudoscholarly air, and walk the border between mock-pedantry and just pedantry.
To Peterme, who always asks whether I’d recommend the book — I really liked it, and would recommend it to people who find it appealing after reading this post, and recommend against it to people who think it sounds dull and trivial.

Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible is the Heart of Darkness, 100 years later, reversed, with some inverse Faulkner in the mix.
A missionary family moves to the Congo, just before the end of colonial rule. From the colonial/southern gothic genre, Barbara Kingsolver inherits the trajectory toward doom; the family descends from darkly comic misadventure (birthday cake mix ruined) to escalating disasters, flood, vermin, plague, hunger, madness. Objects of affection are introduced in early chapters, and are destroyed one by one.
But the moral of the gothic classics is inverted. Rather than miscegenation as the dark secret, interracial love is a redemptive force. The tragic outcome isn’t going native, it’s failure to recognize and adapt to a culture that is rich despite physical hunger.
The writing in the different voices of the four female characters is strong, and carries the novel, along with the downward cascade of the plot. The transformation of the main characters in the crucible of African experience is moderately compelling, though somewhat schematic; the submissive wife who finally finds the strength to leave her brutal husband; the pious daughter who finally sees through her father’s illusions; the cynical daughter who learns a bit of hope, the shallow beauty who becomes a tough survivor and irredeemable racist. The women have some complexity; the men are cardboard cutout villains or heroes.
The first two thirds of the book is an agonizing slide toward the dissolution of the family and transformation of the characters over 14 months. The last third rushes through 30 years in cartoon illustration of the author’s politics, and should have been cut by a good editor.
I read Poisonwood Bible at the recommendation of a friend. I think I want to read Achebe next on African tragedy when sufficiently brave. Things Fall Apart is in an Amazon list next to Night.

Vacation Reading #1 – Baudolino

I took Umberto Eco’s Baudolino to Seattle. The plot is like Woody Allen’s Zelig set in 12/13th century Italy and Constantinople. An Italian peasant boy with a gift for languages and colorful lies becomes the protege of Frederick Babarossa, and is the behind-the-scenes creator of grail legends, the canonization of Charlemagne, counterfeit relics, and the mysterious letter from the mythical Prester John, king of a fantastic Eastern Kingdom, promising political support for the Byzantine emperor.
What I liked: lively depiction of the historical period; the beauty and decadence of Constantinople (complete with detailed descriptions of Byzantine recipes, catacombs, and scupltures); the ribald life of Paris students; the crazily shifting politics of 12th c. Italy.
Where I lost patience:
* medieval disputation. The characters engage in long philosophical debates on the existence of a vacuum, the dimensions of Solomon’s temple, the shape of the earth, with creative logic and little evidence. Eco creates a set of characters with convincingly medieval concerns which lose the attention of this modern reader.
* kingdom of Prester John. The last third of the narrative tells the story of a pilgrimage beyond the River Sambatyon to the domain of Prester John, inhabited by unicorns, satyrs, giants, and a variety of other medieval monsters. At this point, the story veers off into allegory, shifting the balance between narrative and idea far enough (for me) to lose the human interest.
Not sure about: a theme of the novel is the relationship between history and fiction, truth and lies. I need to reflect more about the book to decide what I think about Eco’s treatment of the theme.

Vacation Reading #2 – Samurai Boogie

Hard-boiled detective novel set in contemporary depression Japan, by a British expat. Great atmospheric detail of Tokyo streets and lower-middle-class Japanese life. The theme of surface propriety and underlying corruption adapts wonderfully to a Japanese setting. The gender stereotypes of the genre — clueless bourgeoises, canny whores — fit better with Japanese society than with contemporary US.
My favorite aspect of the book: how Mori the detective draws hidden information by using creative disguises and playing on people’s instinctive respect and fear of authority.
Have you read the book? Have you read the book and lived in Japan? What did you think?

Weekend Reading #3: The Nanny Diaries

The Nanny Diaries (you may have read it; I’m probably the last on the planet who hasn’t) is written by two ex-nannies to the Manhattan socialite set.
The novel portrays the struggles of a young nanny who cares for a poor little rich boy who is emotionally abandoned and rigidly programmed by narcissistic parents (the nursery school interviews, latin lessons, the “spatula move” where the mother deflects a hug and keeps the child off her clothing.) The nanny puts up with increasing hours without increasing pay, increasingly baroque shopping errands, and being berated for mistakes like getting the wrong brand of lavender water.
Subplots: the nanny is caught in the middle of the dad’s office affair, and pursues a “Harvard Hottie” of her own.
The Amazon reviews follow one or more of the following paths:

  • glee at watching the very rich act worse than you and me
  • sympathy with the nanny for caring for Grayer though his parents are nasty people and bad employers
  • lack of sympathy with the nanny for accepting said working conditions
  • sympathy for children who grow up that way
  • appreciation for the novel’s satirical comedy
  • disappointment at the unpolished writing style

I enjoyed the picture of the hellish life under pearls and signed original artwork on the Upper East Side. I enjoyed the catty detail about

  • the absurd programmed lives of wealthy preschoolers

    Tuesday: 4-5pm: Swimming lesson at Asphalt Green, 90th Street and East End Avenue. One emaciated woman in a Chanel swimsuit and five nannies in muumuus all pleading with toddlers to “Get in the water.”

  • the absurd lives of wealthy adults

    I’ll need you to start assembling the following items for the gift bags: Annick Goutal soap; Piper Heidseick, small bottoe, Morocco leather travel picture frame, red or green; Mont Blanc pen— small; LAVENDAR WATER
    Have you met Julio? Isn’t he a genius? He is the tree [decorating] expert. You should see what he did at the Egglestons– it was just breathaking
    …the tower of cashmere sweaters, each one wrapped with tissue and individually stored in its own clear drawer…Each pair of panties, every bra, every stocking is individually packed in a Ziplock baggy and labeled: “Bra, Hanro, white,” “Stockings, Fogal, black.

  • The army of paraprofessionals hired to guide the education of toddlers:

    “Do you play the Suzuki tapes?”
    “Only when he takes a bath”
    “Have you been reading to him from the Wall Street Journal? The Economist? The Finanical Times”?
    “What methodology are you following to dress him? And I suppose you are not documenting his choices with him on a closet diagram, nor are you having him translate his color and sizes into the Latin.

The book isn’t great art: I have no complaints about rapid writing, shallow characterization, and minor plot gaps.
But I also felt like the books played rich people for cheap laughs.
In contrast to her employers, our heroine has loving parents (schoolteacher and director of association of battered women’s shelters); a creative, independent, doting grandma.
But heartless parenting, relentless schedules, and narcissistic sex lives are characteristics of the downside of American culture at all income levels. The book lets readers get off the hook by attributing these traits to multi-millionaires.
The nanny is loving and firm and playful with the kids. She also has a lot in common with her employers; she covets designer shoes, drinks too much, spends extra income on clothes and alcohol and then feels stuck in a horrible job for the money.
The Harvard Hottie works for the UN war crimes tribunal at the Hague; he isn’t an investment banker. But he’s obviously a catch for our young upwardly mobile heroine in the way the restaurant-owning son of a fellow nanny is obviously not.
The social x-rays who employ our heroine scheme and sneak to get their men; use the men’s money for status and luxuries; and then are at constant risk of social decline when their men move on to the next trophy. Our heroine may become as dependent on her HH for money and prestige as her employers.