Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Divine Comedy (Cary’s Translation) by Dante Alighieri: Book review

Drink with this: Campari and soda

Italian to the core of its fiery red depths. An acquired taste, appreciated by the connoisseur. The bitter herby tang of the campari is almost punitive, but stick with it and there are moments of glory.

What's what: 

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct:
Pg 2, Ibid

How to review a 14th century classic, which the venerable Wikipedia describes as “the pre-eminent work of Italian literature, and….one of the greatest works of world literature”? In my case, as flippantly as possible!

Around two pages into the 650 page translation I realised a two-pronged approach would be advisable. First, an initial skirmish, a casual, shallow, skim over the surface. Much, much later – perhaps years  or even decades, who can say -  an in-depth re-reading and analysis, backed up by true scholarly understanding.

Unfortunately I don’t think The Divine Comedy lends itself very well to the 21st C casual reader. There is a wealth of historical and mythological information needed to fully tackle this classic, which in previous centuries would have been inherent to a gentlemanly education. Lacking even in Latin, I didn't muddy the waters by attempting to read any notes as I went along. Instead I read it in the same way I would any other book, in little bursts on the Northern line, straight up and on the rocks, no embellishments to sweeten the experience.

Centuries later, what endures is Alighieri’s command of language. The pain of never-ending sections where for pages I too was lost in the woods of indecipherable verse and convoluted sentence structure were almost eclipsed by the occasional blinding image or evocative phrase. The air in hell is ‘with solid darkness/ Stain’d,’ (pg 11, Ibid) and it’s impossible not to grasp Dante’s meaning when he says of the souls suffering in Inferno:

These of death
No hope may entertain: and their blind
So meanly passes, that all other lots
They envy.
Pg 12

I love the idea of the story as well. Symbolism aside, the premise of an Italian dude lost in the underworld, then on a journey through hell, purgatory and heaven seeking a beautiful woman sounds pretty awesome.

Having said that, much of the plot seemed pretty irrelevant now. Dante’s Odyssey was ultimately very parochial, and at times accompanying him didn't feel much different than walking to the shops of our small town with my gran – everybody was Italian and everybody knew him or at least his family and wanted a bit of a blether. This endless recitation of Italian names heightened the reader’s disconnection, and yes, boredom. I had constant sense of an entire story passing me by because I was too stupid to decipher it beneath the 14th C version of in-jokes.

I'm not a stranger to a bit of classic lit and in years gone by have munched through every Shakespearean sonnet, Ulysses, the majority of Dickens and so on and so forth. But Dante nearly did me in. There were whole pages, reams and reams of text, where I had no clue what was happening and cared less.

O foolish wrath! Who so dost goad us on

In the brief life, and in the eternal then
Thus miserably o’erwhelm us.
Pg 49

The biggest frustration for me was that I somehow had formulated an idea that this whole journey through the underworld was a mission to rescue Beatrice. I was greatly disappointed when she only appeared half-way through, in the form of an untouchable and awfully smug angel goddess oracle. Then her perfection was played up so much I thought (hoped) she was going to turn on Dante and banish him back to the Netherworld. But no, she genuinely was perfection incarnate,

‘with such a smile,
As might have made one blest amid the
Pg 400

There are ideas here which must have been big and revolutionary in their time, but which we are so accustomed to now that they seem commonplace. The image of a man lost in his own life, unsure of the way forward. The idea of purgatory as a never-ending toil up a mountain without end, trying to see through the fog. Heaven as a place of light and beauty where our deepest and most complex questions are explored.

Inferno was the most vivid section, with some of the most powerful imagery, which is no doubt why it is the best known. Purgatory was less impactful but easier to understand – more enjoyable with more of a clear story thread. Here it was actually possible to work out what was happening from one canto to the next. Paradise was densely impenetrable and deeply tedious. Lengthy metaphysical and religious speculations formed the body of this section, with little plot development. 
and that, which next
Befalls me to portray, voice hath not
Nor hath ink written, nor in fantasy
Was e’er conceived.
Pg 508

This was in keeping with the general movement through the work, with the first section dealing with the more base bodily functions (references to sex and excrement) the middle section dealing with prosaic actions such as exhaustion, endless toil, and confusion or other overpowering emotions, while the third section was concerned with the mind and the soul.

The shades Dante meets are all principally concerned with their reputation, and continuation in the world below. Yet throughout it is stressed that renown amongst other men is transient and what is crucial is the eternal life of the soul. Dante tells us that everything else passes while only God’s love remains. 


Wherefore if thou escape this darksome
Returning to behold the radiant stars,
When thou with pleasure shalt retrace the
See that of us thou speak among mankind.
Pg 67


Verdict: How can you evaluate something when you are fully aware that most of it has completely passed you by? There were some powerful phrases and beautiful language but I’m not sure the experience of reading it is one which has much to offer the average modern reader. Thematically powerful with glimpses of enduring brilliance hiding in a thicket of punishing verbiage.
 On the big screen:There are several, none of which I think I’ll ever be able to face. There is also a video game which it turns out follows the plot (rescue Beatrice) I wistfully imagined while reading. All adaptations I’ve discovered seem to focus on the visually stimulating Inferno, with good reason.

Highbrow/lowbrow:  Right up there with the Bible in terms of pedigree, but with a more tedious conceptualisation of heaven. Doesn’t quite live up to Milton with regards to its interpretation of hell, but certainly as reputable.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Never Seduce a Scot by Maya Banks: Book review

Drink with this: shot of Maker’s mark

Ersatz whisky for this faux Scottish historical romance. Even within the bourbon shelves this book would be in the cheap row at the bottom. It lacks the tingling warmth of Jack Daniels, let alone the buzz of oak-aged single malt.

What's what: 

I have no excuse for reading this, and I only have myself to blame for my lack of enjoyment. By all accounts Ms Banks is very well-respected in the historical romance community. But – I wanted trash yes, but I wanted the gourmet hot dog of the historical romance world, not the canned version! (Apologies for the analogy, I spent two hours waiting in line for this place last week and now need to make use of the experience however possible.)

I purchased this novel during a literary rampage through fiction set in Scotland. I envisaged it as a kind of low-rent Outlander. Sadly the plot, such as it was, soon left me longing for a nice, logical time travel romp spanning generations, invoking the power of standing stones and sparkly gems.

Never Seduce a Scot suffers greatly from its lack of any time travel or glittery jewellery whatsoever. Eveline, deaf-mute since a tragic fall from her trusty stead, is forced into a marriage with Graeme, the chieftain of a rival clan in 17th century Scotland. Her family are anxious as they believe her to be sweet but brain-damaged, yet they are powerless to resist as this decree comes from the King.

Of course, eventually the couple find true love in each other’s arms and Eveline’s deafness is miraculously cured also, through the power of an attractive man’s voice!

On to the positive. It was nice to see a deaf-mute character in a historical novel. This premise was part of the draw for me, and it seemed realistic that those around her would struggle to understand her condition.

That said, her recovery was just one of the coincidences in the novel which strained the bounds of credulity. The story had the fatal flaw of both being too ridiculous in its plot contrivances and too dull at the same time. There was a distinct lack of conflict following the marriage of the protagonists and no real tension to sustain the plot.
" 'I love you Eveline,' he whispered, though he knew she could not hear him. 'Somehow, I'll make you hear me and you'll know that I love you as fiercely as it's possible for a man to love a woman.' " pg 308 Never Seduce a Scot 

Sadly there was also a major lack of swoon to act as compensation. For a romance novel this was far from steamy. Graeme was no Jamie (red-headed hero of Gabaldon’s Outlander series) and Eveline was a text-book Mary Sue, winning the hearts and minds of everyone she meets through simpering niceness and good looks alone.

Lastly, the initial draw for me, the Scottish setting, felt pretty tangential to the story. Clearly Banks wanted to exploit the sexy highlander trope but there was absolutely nothing here which characterised this as taking place in 17th C Scotland except for a few token references to kilts and clans.

I get that this was designed to appeal to an international (cough American cough) audience, but would an aye here or a dinnae ken there have hurt?  

Maybe I’m the only reader who wanted a bit of realism along with the miracle healing and unsexy sex. But why can’t we have our romance tightly embraced by vigorous plotting and beautiful writing? 

Verdict: Much too silly even by its own standards. Fails to be entertaining, which is surely unforgivable for a fluffy romance.

On the big screen: Could work either as a deadly sincere made for TV movie which amps up the steamy glances and rain-swept hill shots, or as a 50s style melodrama, with more of the above plus some bonus symbolism.

Highbrow/lowbrow:  The cover says more than I ever could.  

Monday, 29 October 2012

The Fine Art of Truth or Dare by Melissa Jensen: Book review

Drink with this: Diet coke

Slightly too sweet and insipid. No alcoholic kick. Good for a quick caffeine and sweetener buzz but ultimately these are empty calories. 

What's what: 

Manic Pixie Dream girl fancies preppy rich guy, but almost sabotages their relationship due to her own self-loathing. Unfortunately this was a contemporary young-adult romance sadly lacking in the actual romance. 

A criticism levelled by many readers at this novel is that Ella is an irritating and insecure character. Her insecurity didn’t bother me as such, as this was a fairly crucial plot point. Nevertheless I would have liked to see more of a narrative arc going on with her character, with a bit more transition between a state of complete wet blanket-ism to Buffy style ass-kicking. (Not literally, one thing this book is entirely bereft of is any whiff of the supernatural.)
" 'Are you freakin' kidding?' She loomed over me. 'Do you not understand the basic laws of nature? You are nothing. You do not exist.' " pg 333 The Fine Art of Truth or Dare 

A common opinion in Goodreads reviews of the book is that her conversations with Edward, an artist who has been dead for over a hundred years, are more than a little creepy. I actually liked this aspect of the book – I found it believable that a mopey teenage girl would have a romantic fixation with a figure almost completely constructed in her imagination. Ridiculous crushes are a fundamental hallmark of being a teenage girl! This also develops the theme of truth in an interesting way, and the often idealised perception we have of others and their lives. I have to admit though that the Twilight parallels – Ella – dead Edward – unhealthy romance – completely passed me by until I read somebody else’s review, and now I’m finding this slightly sinister….

I really liked Ella’s friends and family, who were all well-drawn characters who added something to the story. Unfortunately this seemed slightly wasted effort on behalf of the author – I felt that a lot of the subplots involving them petered out towards the end. These characters at times seemed there more to add local colour than any real narrative significance. Frankie’s brother Danny falls into this category – I kept expecting him to feature further, and for his storyline to amount to something. When this never happened it definitely felt like the gun being ignored on the mantelpiece. Not that I object to a sexy bad boy with witty repartee, but still - why was he there at all?

The biggest failing in this likeable novel though has to be the relationship between the two lead characters. It just didn’t work. I had more of a sense of who Ella and Edward as a couple were than Ella and Alex. I understood intellectually Alex’s point of view at the book’s central crisis, but his smug behaviour didn’t particularly endear him to me a character. There was a distressing lack of swoon in the book, which sadly the sweet ending (SPOILER!) came too late to salvage.

" 'I don't even know what okay would mean,' he said. 'Okay. We've never been okay. We've been kinda scrambling for it....But Jesus, Ella, I really don't want to feel like I have to constantly be reassuring you of things you should know for yourself.' " pg 353 The Fine Art of Trrth or Dare

Verdict: Enjoyable enough but ultimately unsatisfying.

On the big screen: Could imagine it as a faux indie offbeat romance, in the style of Garden State etc. A screenplay would strip away all the extraneous material, and impose a stricter plot. Not sure if even attractive leads could inject enough chemistry to make this a believable romance though.

Highbrow/lowbrow:  Despite the art history allusions, comfortably lowbrow.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman: Book review

Drink with this: Corpse Reviver #2
An appropriate name is always a good place to start, especially one with a touch of the morbid. A book steeped in fairy tale and myth also deserves a cocktail with a bit of history. The Corpse Reviver #2 was brought to the world’s notice in 1930 in Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book. Originally invented as a hair of the dog cocktail, it’s sadly fallen out of fashion but is more than suitable for a novel where transformations and revivals are hard won but ultimately possible. Corpse Reviver #2 is a drink of layers – floral Lillet, burnt orange Cointeau, tangy lemon, biting absinthe and gin. These overlapping flavours will go well with this tale of powerful complexity. 

What's what: 

The Story Sisters, appropriately enough, is a novel centring around three sisters as they grow up. At the crux of the novel is a terrible event which happened to the oldest sister, Elv, the summer she turned eleven. The rest of the novel ripples out from this one catastrophe, its consequences proving far-reaching and destructive for the whole Story family.

This is the first Alice Hoffman book I've read and perhaps unfairly my perception of her is of a slightly downmarket Barbara Kingsolver. Perhaps a more apt comparison would be Anne Tyler, with a dash of magic and many more adjectives. Like Tyler or Kingsolver, her strength is in her portrayal of family relationships – and their breakdowns.

After reading the novel I learned that Hoffman is associated with magic realism. Perhaps this applies more to her other works – as an avowed hater of magic realism, it didn’t particularly intrude on the story for me this time. There is a fairytale motif running throughout – although that sounds far too cuddly and girly for the dark and demon filled imaginings of the novel. Central to the plot is the fantasy world – Arnelle - the three sisters invented as children, where monsters are real and must be fought and loyalty and bravery are the most important qualities. This world has its own language and is so all-consuming the sisters become isolated from their parents and school friends. As they grow older this world recedes from their lives, but the sense of a barely glimpsed otherworld persists in the novel. Several sections are set in a Paris where demons lurk outside windows, visible only to the venerable old ladies who watch over the girls. The prose is rich and treacly and dripping with imagery – it wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste but it’s completely in keeping with the fantastical content.

"In every fairytale there were always three sisters: the eldest was brave, the middle one was trustworthy, and the youngest had the biggest heart of all. " pg 52 The Story Sisters

The story was a slow-burn, not gripping at first but one I couldn’t stop thinking about afterwards, with deeply imagined and plausible characters and great emotional resonance. I was initially drawn to it because it was about three sisters – but I found Elv difficult to sympathise with for most of the book. Despite this her creation of Arnelle as a coping mechanism and her anger along with all her actions following on from this felt extremely realistic.

One of the saddest parts of this very sad novel was the slow inevitable fading of this invented world from the girls’ lives as they grew older. There was a dark undertone throughout, which was part of the appeal for me and an antidote to a book which otherwise might seem just another fairy story or family saga.  
"What people called the truth seemed worthless to her; what was it but a furtive, bruised story to convince yourself life was worth living." pg 66 The Story Sisters

Verdict: Intense and evocative. Depending on you feel about the premise, either immerse yourself in it or avoid.

On the big screen: This would be an amazing movie! It needs a melodramatic, noir treatment. I imagine the look of Burton but the feel of a classic noir film such as Murder my Sweet or Gilda.

Highbrow/lowbrow:  Lowbrow – this ain’t won any literary prices yet. Not one to be ashamed of though, more in common with Atwood than Picoult.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, Story of the Amulet, : Book review

Drink with this: Shirley Temple.

Classic non-alcoholic cocktail, with overtones of an earlier age of childish simplicity and innocence. Sickly sweet pink grenadine foiled by spicy and mischievous Blytonesque ginger ale.

The deal: Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet are a series of books featuring siblings who encounter various magical objects. As a child reading Nesbit I was gripped by Five Children and It. Re-reading as an adult was a comforting experience, and FCAI would more than hold up for the first-time adult reader too. The second and third novels in the series were in essence reprisals of the first, with ever more plot holes and narrative inconsistencies. If you didn't read these as a child it's probably not worth bothering now.

However this series is a good place to start in familiarising yourself with Nesbit, whose writing still has a lot to offer today. Five Children and It has never been out of print since it's initial publication in 1902 and along with a rollicking plot line, Nesbit's narrative tone has a lot to do with this.

Unusually for the period she was writing in, she engages her reader (assumed to be a child) directly and as an equal. A compact is formed in which it is is given that magic is a literal matter of fact, grown-ups will never get it, and bonds between siblings are sacrosanct. Within the space of the novel, adults are marginal and suffer from both stupidity and an inability to perceive things obvious to children.

Her world is inclusive and timeless, a cosy and nostalgic environment. Misfortune, usually occuring in the form of being sent to bed without supper, is a fact of life but is rarely insurmountable. The Story of the Amulet sees real-life problems insinuate themselves into the plot but thankfully these are easily dispensed with by the end of the novel.

"Manages to make even the modern adult reader feel like a refugee from a childhood filled with magic"

Along with this comes the deep and abiding satisfaction of narrative resolution. Of course we all want to read about children who have the ability to travel through time, or place, or be granted wishes! And then we want to see these wishes unfold, sometimes with dire consequences. It's this underlying pragmatism and prim denial of happy ever afters which stops this series descending into saccharine fairy-tale territory. Wishes don't last forever and usually have a down-side.

Verdict: Holds it own despite being over a century old. Satisfyingly nostalgic after an inital suspension of disbelief. Manages to make even the modern adult reader feel like a refugee from a childhood filled with magic.

On the big screen: Both a film and TV series of FCAI have already been done. I've seen at least one of these but it left only a vague impression. With its absurd elements though, this might be a series of novels which better exist in the imagination. Or maybe I just hate how 90's CGI they made the Psammead look....

Highbrow/lowbrow: As a relic of a bygone era, it has now been elevated to classic status by default. I'm going to go with highbrow, as easy entertainment of its day requires effortful detachment now to enjoy in the same way.