Saturday, December 31, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

** A word before the review: happy almost 2012, all! Sometime soon, I'll post the full list of what I read in 2011, as well as highlighting some of my favorite reads. **

The Book:
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (The Karla Trilogy, #1)

The Author: John le Carre

How I Found It: The movie had quite a few British actors I love; there was no way I wasn't seeing it! I decided, as I almost always do, to read the book first.

The Review: George Smiley is retired from MI6, known here as "the Circus." He worked on the top floor, the right hand man of the eternally and unfortunately paranoid Control. Control, as it turns out, was right to be suspicious: one of five men could be a mole for the Soviets, and all of those men are on the top floor. There's Percy Alleline, Control's successor ("Tinker"); Bill Haydon, charming and duplicitous ("Tailor"); Roy Bland and Toby Esterhase, always together ("Soldier" and "Poor Man") . Even Smiley ("Beggar Man") is not above Control's suspicions.

No one's supposed to know about the potential mole, but as it turns out, someone does: a woman in Russia named Irina, a woman Circus agent Ricki Tarr wants to protect. He returns to England to reveal what he knows, the explosive truth that Irina has told him. Smiley, as a retiree, is well-placed to look into the conspiracy, whether or not he wants to, and recruits a fellow retiree named Mendel and a younger agent, Peter Guillam, to help him.

As Smiley digs deeper and deeper into the mystery, he learns that Control wasn't the only one with suspicions--a now-retired researcher, Connie, had grown suspicious of a supposed Russian cultural attache and subsequently got harshly warned off his tail; Jerry Westerby, a reporter, learned some suspicious truths about the shooting of Jim Prideaux, another Circus agent; and Prideaux's shooting might not be as unconnected to the search for the mole as it may seem. Smiley and his associates are treading on dangerous ground, looking into something some people would really prefer they not look into. If they find the mole, the security of an entire nation will once more be safe--but what will happen to the Circus, and to all the men involved?

When I started reading this one, I got the feeling that I was out of my depth just a bit. I don't know overmuch about the Cold War; I don't know much about British intelligence agencies (I don't even have that much of an acquaintance with James Bond); and I don't believe I'd ever read a proper spy novel. The jargon confused me (bless my mother for finding a promotional thing for the movie that gave pictures, names, and biographies of all the important characters and a glossary for said jargon!) and some of the period language was lost on me. Even with all of those difficulties, though, I found myself with a feeling I hadn't had in a while. I read the first chapter and I started wondering about how it would fit in with the rest of the book. What did a schoolteacher at a boys' school have to do with a book about spies? These days, as can be seen here, I tend to stick with books like Jane Austen or Doctor Who, where I know the characters and can usually guess where the plot is going, but I had no idea here. I was drawn in by that mystery, and I think that helped me stick it out even past the confusion.

Though the book took me longer than average to get through, and I found that I had to take it slowly in order to comprehend it and not get frustrated, I found that I really did enjoy it, and since I finished it and have started reading other things, I've found myself missing le Carre's style of language and plotting! What first made me like it was the characters. I instantly fell for Jim Prideaux; his kindnesses to the boys at the school he works at endeared him to me, and I was curious to know more about him. George Smiley won my sympathies right off; his philandering wife and the descriptions of his day-to-day routine made him feel real to me, and I wanted to see if he was indeed as good as Control had believed.

I was stunned, as I read it, that this had been made into a successful miniseries and a then-pending release film. There's really no action sequences in the book at all, and the majority of the information we get comes from flashbacks and reading files. I couldn't imagine how such a cerebral, silent story would transition to film. This wasn't like any spy story that I could think of, although I'll reiterate that my experience with that field is narrow. There's no gadgets; there's not a huge amount of shooting guns and other dirty work. This felt realistic, and I know that was le Carre's goal. (As I write this review, I've been back for a few hours from a viewing of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and I walked out grumbling that it felt too unrealistic so soon after I read and saw Tinker, Tailor.) Even if I was stunned by how little action there was, I was amazed at how well the suspense worked. I'm pretty sure I jumped and mumbled a few curses during a tense scene where Peter Guillam steals a file for Smiley, and there's a fantastically eerie sequence where Prideaux recounts the realization that he was being followed while on a mission. Like I said, there's no true action sequences, but damn if I wasn't sold by le Carre's mastery of suspense.

I realized, after all, that I really did like the way le Carre did it--the reader comes to know about each suspect as Smiley digs into their pasts, serving as a reminder to him and an introduction to us. Information is given to the reader naturally--for example, as Smiley reads the files, or as he tells the story of his prior encounters with Karla to Guillam, who's younger and thus doesn't know the story--and it never felt clunky or like it was just a ton of exposition that had to be gotten out of the way. I'm planning on reading the rest of the trilogy, and possibly other classics by le Carre, based solely on how expertly he relayed the information and how he kept me guessing (I thought for sure I'd figured out who the mole was; I was half-right, in a way, but surprised ultimately at who it turned out to be!). The book was well-structured and certainly different than any other mystery or suspense novel I'd read before.

As for the movie, I was pleasantly surprised, even with my misgivings about how the story would transition to film. I've not yet seen the miniseries (that is coming in future), but I was lucky enough to see the film. Like the book, it is very slowly paced (something many British critics had a problem with, and a few people in my theater fell asleep), but if you're willing to stick it out, it's an adaptation that, while not entirely faithful (spoilers ahoy, but if you want a point-by-point list written by a very brutal reviewer, go here), is really worth seeing for the talent involved and to see how such an internalized story made its way on screen.

The men who brought the story to life were all known to me from prior productions, and all of them were outstanding. Gary Oldman managed to convey so much with his silences and calm, contemplative stares; one critic was keen to point out that he doesn't even speak a word until eighteen minutes in. His confrontations and oddly calm interrogations were almost chilling to watch--Smiley is so very mild-mannered, but he has a way of being quietly forceful that Oldman played brilliantly. Colin Firth, as Bill Haydon, was appropriately charismatic and shifty; the other three men (Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik) were threatening shadows in the background.

After Atonement and Sherlock, I didn't need to be convinced about Benedict Cumberbatch's abilities, but his interpretation of Peter Guillam was probably my favorite performance to watch. I felt the same tension during the file stealing scene that I did in the book, and the filmmakers made one crucial change to his character that made me feel really deeply for him. Just behind Cumberbatch's Guillam in my estimation was Mark Strong's take on Prideaux. I worried about him in this role, as I've mostly seen him in villainous roles (and, oddly, as Mr. Knightley in Emma) and I wasn't sure if I'd be able to believe him as a decent guy. But he played his scenes with Bill Roach, the young boy he takes under his wing, exceptionally well, bringing to life the Prideaux from the book that I'd loved right away, and flashbacks to his ordeals and certain subtexts the filmmakers added made me feel very sad for him indeed.

Some things are definitely trimmed (we don't get much of anything about the backstories of any of the suspects, unlike in the book; some characters become composites due to time constraints), but I felt the adaptation hit all the important points of the story, and there was nothing I greatly missed, something I can't say about most adaptations of books I loved. The score was excellent and added a sense of foreboding to the narrative, and the gorgeous locales and snippets of different languages (Russian! Hungarian!) added the foreign flavor that was sometimes difficult for me to visualize as I read, not having much familiarity with those areas. The film certainly helped me make sense of some of the more labyrinthine aspects of the story, and if the book gets to be too much for a person to follow, I would recommend perhaps giving the film a shot beforehand.

This book and the accompanying film was an entirely new experience for me, and one I greatly enjoyed. I'm definitely sold on reading more le Carre (one of my holiday giftcards is going towards The Honourable Schoolboy, the second book of the trilogy), and I'd really like to see if other film(s) in the series come to fruition. If you're curious to read a classic of the spy genre or you just want to see what story has attracted so many talented British men, give this one a try!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'A Darcy Christmas'

The Book: A Darcy Christmas

The Authors: Carolyn Eberhart, Amanda Grange, and Sharon Lathan

How I Found It: This was last year's Christmas-themed Austen release from Sourcebooks; this year, I decided it was time to check it out from my local library.

The Review: I'm not normally one for seasonal reads, due to how crunched I am for time between finals and shopping season, but this book was my break from cooking, studying, shopping, and packing, and it did make the time pass a little faster! While I think I'm not quite suited to seeing Austen characters in novella form--I always want more time with them!--I did enjoy this book for what it was: a sweet, holiday-themed glimpse into the lives of Lizzy and Darcy. As I do with short story collections, I'll review each novella individually.

"Mr. Darcy's Christmas Carol" by Carolyn Eberhart: This anthology was Ms. Eberhart's debut, and I believe that as of yet she's still not come out with a full-length novel. I wish she would! This story was really delightful and, while there was a bit of hyperbole I wasn't sure worked, I enjoyed the clever twists and seeing how characters from Pride & Prejudice fit in the beloved tale of A Christmas Carol.

This story deviates from canon a slight bit by having Darcy alone the Christmas after he's resolved the Wickham/Lydia affair and Jane and Bingley have said their vows and gotten married. Since then, he and Elizabeth have only had an awkward encounter when they stood up together as best man and maid of honor at the wedding, and on Christmas Eve, Darcy is alone save for Georgiana, and not in a very festive mood. When he goes out to join some friends at a club, Darcy gets uncharacteristically drunk--and, upon his return, sees the ghost of his dead father!

Old Mr. Darcy has a message for his son: he must change his ways and overcome his pride, or he will have a restless afterlife where he will observe the spirits of people he could have helped and didn't. His goodwill towards the citizens of Pemberley has him standing in some good stead, but it won't be enough to save him. If he wants a chance at true salvation, he will have to look at Christmases of past, present, and future... and reexamine his feelings for Elizabeth, before it's too late.

I'll confess that I've not read the original A Christmas Carol (and that is loaded onto TARDIS, waiting to be read), but I've seen numerous adaptations enough times to recognize the dialogue and important scenes from the original, and everything that mattered was present here. The choices for the spirits--key players in Darcy's life--were inspired, and it was touching to see Darcy's remembrances of childhood Christmases, for the past, and Christmases abroad for the present (including a delightful appearance from another Austen couple, though I won't say who!). The Christmas future was a bit... unbelievable, I will say that. I highly doubt that Elizabeth's rejection would be the path to Darcy making a supremely loveless marriage, basically disowning Georgiana and leaving her son to grow up in poverty, and then dying alone. But the rest of the tale was superb, so I'll let it slide.

There's not too much of Darcy and Elizabeth interacting, as the tale is focused heavily on Darcy's self-improvement, but his reconciliation scene with Elizabeth was a clever reworking of their final scenes in the original, and probably my favorite rendering of that reconciliation in any variation thus far (the snow! the mistletoe!). This story was my favorite of the three, and I hope that Ms. Eberhart comes out with a full-length novel in the future: I'd read it!

"Christmas Present" by Amanda Grange: The shortest of the three novellas, more of a short story, this story involves Darcy and Elizabeth expecting their first child, and Darcy's anxieties about the process of childbirth. Bingley and Jane have just had their own child, and Elizabeth wishes to see the child and the Bingleys' new home. Darcy is worried the journey will be too much for her, as she is close to giving birth, but Elizabeth assures him she'll be fine, and they make the trip.

Upon arriving at the new house, they find Bingley and Jane quite happy with their new arrival--and Caroline Bingley quite happy with running the household while Jane is indisposed. She has arranged a ball, and the Bennets are to come, as are Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins--and, Mrs. Bennet has heard, Mr. Collins' brother. Mrs. Bennet has a scheme: marrying Kitty off to said brother so that when both Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins die, Longbourn will be theirs again. This Christmas will be marked by matchmaking and new arrivals, and no one will ever forget it.

This one definitely made me laugh the most: it's hard not to laugh when you've got the Bennets, Lady Catherine, and Caroline Bingley in one household. Caroline would invite herself and take on the planning for parties and house-buying Charles and Jane aren't even sure they want. Mr. Bennet would be snarking in the background. And Lady Catherine's complaining from outside upon her arrival would be audible indoors.

I think I liked this one for the insight into Darcy's anxieties. Georgiana's birth years earlier and his mother's subsequent decline has left him with a great fear of childbirth and what it might do to Elizabeth, and it was almost heartbreaking to see him agonizing about how childbirth might deprive Elizabeth of her favorite activities, like walking and dancing. I'm also a great fan of Darcy and Bingley's friendship, and it was sweet to see them commiserating over their fears. (An amusing passage recounts Bingley's reaction upon hearing his child cry for the first time, and it was certainly true to form.)

I wish Ms. Grange would follow this one up with a full novel or another story or two: I want to learn more about Kitty's delightful suitor! This was a sweet story that could have done with just a few extra pages, but otherwise, it was a nice glimpse into a holiday with the whole clan.

"A Darcy Christmas" by Sharon Lathan: This was the most wide-ranging of all the stories: Ms. Lathan shows us several Christmases with the Darcy family, over a period of about twenty-five years. It begins with Darcy reflecting on his loneliness at Christmas and wondering if he has indeed fallen for Elizabeth Bennet, before showing their honeymoon and, later, subsequent Christmases as their family grows and, once, loses a beloved member. We see the children receiving their gifts, engaging in sibling rivalry, getting stuck away from home as a result of a carriage accident, and eventually, establishing new traditions. Through it all, Darcy and Elizabeth endure together.

I wasn't expecting the Darcys to have quite so many children--I had to keep flipping back to keep track of them--but it was cute to see the differences in their personalities and, eventually for a few of them, their rapport with their chosen matches. Their antics on various Christmases--listening to Darcy read various holiday stories, receiving tons of presents, and overall just antagonizing each other as siblings should--were fun to read about and just what I expected of the Darcy children. My favorite chapter, though, was the most somber of all, when the resurfacing of a childhood memento causes Elizabeth to finally grieve for a recent loss, and needs Darcy for emotional support. It was true to form for Elizabeth--not wanting her grief to drag down the holiday for the others--and for Darcy, who waits for the dam to break with concern and, eventually, a tender sharing of his own experiences with loss and how to get past it.

Some details did become slightly repetitive--Elizabeth's numerous pregnancies, the number of times some characters grunt in assent to some statement--and the descriptions were sometimes too lavish, but it was nice, overall, to have a picture of the Darcys as their married life advanced and their family grew in number.

While the anthology was a sweet holiday treat, I did find that it lacked the balance customary in a full-length novel: it is, like Pride & Prejudice, "light, bright, and sparkling," and I found that I wanted a bit more conflict and a bit more drama. As a diversion, however, the stories were a nice seasonal treat, and I did enjoy them for the short glimpses into the lives of one of my favorite literary couples. Recommended for those who want a glimpse at the Darcy family holidays, or even those who might want a taste of winter when it's out of season!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Doctor Who: Touched by an Angel'

The Book: Doctor Who: Touched by an Angel

The Author: Jonathan Morris

How I Found It: I was really curious to see how a book featuring the Weeping Angels would go, as they're such visual monsters that I wasn't sure they'd come across on a page. A fellow Whovian was kind enough to loan it to me; many thanks!

For those who don't know (although I can't imagine this review is going to mean much to you if you don't know Doctor Who!), the Weeping Angels are one of the more well-known creations of the newest incarnation of Doctor Who. They can only move when you're not looking at them, but they move fast, and if they touch you, you get sent very far back in the past. Basically, don't blink. More information can be found here.

The Review: In 2003, Rebecca Whitaker, married to her husband Mark for only two years, dies in a car accident. In 2011, her husband Mark is still grieving, still stuck, and... being pursued by the image of an angel statue in whichever TVs he passes. Mark is starting to get freaked out, but that's nothing compared to how freaked out he'll be when a man in a tweed suit and a bowtie shows up with his two companions and a device that helps him detect when time's gone "wibbly."

Mark, as it turns out, can't stick around long--because soon enough he's been touched by a Weeping Angel, and off he goes into the past (1994, to be precise), never to return to his present. But wait--only 1994? That isn't right. The Weeping Angels are supposed to send you to a point much further back in time, so they can feed off of hundreds of years worth of potential energy, and why would they send you back on your own timeline... oh. This means the Doctor, Amy, and Rory are fighting a new brand of Weeping Angel, smarter and more dangerous than before.

As the Doctor, Amy, and Rory scramble to stop Mark from interfering in his own timeline and thus causing the collapse of the universe, Mark has an agenda of his own. He's in 1994 and still carrying a letter he received before he got zapped. It's in his own handwriting, and it's an entire list of instructions for the next seven years, 1994 to 2001. And the last line of the letter? You can save her. Mark would do anything to save Rebecca's life... and he's going to try.

This book really surprised me, I have to say. I'd heard it was good, but I truly wasn't expecting it to be this good. Of all the Who novels I've read this far, I think this one is the best, hands down--and that's saying something, considering the ones I've read to this point have been really excellent. But Morris got it all down: characterization, plot, side characters, emotional impact, everything.

I really wish this could have been a two or even three-parter for the show proper: it's brilliantly done, and Morris has made the Weeping Angels and their dastardly new plan scarier than what we saw on TV. When I realized what the deal was with sending someone back to a time they'd actually lived in, I had a mini-freakout and then just had to keep turning the pages. It's brilliant. Many people didn't like the "improvements" made to the Angels in the two-parter, feeling that they eliminated the scare factor, and while I had to agree there, this development truly was scary. The Weeping Angels are the ultimate chessmasters. They don't really have to pursue Mark. They just have to send him back to 1994 and wait for him to run into himself and screw up. They just have to wait for him to blink.

I had an inkling that I would like this book early on, the minute the Doctor showed up. Eleven's really becoming my favorite Doctor, and I really hoped Morris would get his characterization right. And the kicker with Doctor Who is that you don't only have to get the Doctor right: you have to get how he works with the companions right alongside that. I needn't have feared. I knew right off that I had a winner when I reached this exchange:
The Doctor dusted down his jacket and trousers. ‘Or maybe this is a new type of Weeping Angel.’

‘You mean they come in different varieties now? Oh,
great!’ [Amy said.]

‘It must’ve been drawn to its prey… like a moth to a flame.’ The Doctor’s eyes widened in delight. ‘Hang on! That analogy made sense! My analogies
never make sense! I must write it down. Rory, write it down for me!’

‘I’m not your secretary, Doctor,’ said Rory patiently.

‘No? Only there
is a vacancy, yours if you want it.’ (28-9)
I had to giggle here: there it was. The Doctor being excited, in the midst of all the danger, that one of his analogies finally made sense (he would). Amy not losing sight of the danger and really just being annoyed that even after facing the Weeping Angels and nearly losing her life to them, they've not seen it all. Rory being endlessly patient and giving the Doctor a reminder that no, he's not his secretary (again, the Doctor would assume Rory's his secretary). I read with eagerness from there on, and the book didn't disappoint. Morris clearly knows his Who even past the characterizations: there's fun nods to each of the Weeping Angels episodes (Series 3's "Blink" and Series 5's "The Time of Angels" / "Flesh and Stone") and even a sly reference to one of the Tenth Doctor's companions (I won't spoil who, but it was wonderful to see).

The most affecting thing here, I felt, was how well Morris developed Mark and Rebecca's story. Theirs is a not-quite-linear love story, since really, for us, it starts after Rebecca is dead. We get the story through a series of flashbacks to both the good and the bad, which really conveys a sense of Mark having thought these memories over endlessly since Rebecca's death. Morris developed a completely convincing and absorbing love story in very little space, and for that, I applaud him. I was crying at the end because I could feel Mark's devotion--I could feel how badly he wanted to save Rebecca, and I was rooting for him. I like the side characters in Doctor Who, but I don't usually find myself feeling strongly for them save for a few rare exceptions. So it stunned me that I felt so deeply for this one.

The pacing was fast, which pleased me: some of the other Who books I've read have been a teensy bit slow to start and really get into the meat of things, but here we knew right off that the Weeping Angels were after Mark, that these Weeping Angels were a new and more dangerous kind, and that Mark had a goal he wanted to achieve. I read this one in two protracted sittings and never wanted to put it down. It hurtles right along to a surprising and emotional ending, and I'd gladly take the ride again sometime.

For anyone who finds themselves missing the most recent Team TARDIS, this book is a winner. You've got the Doctor at his brilliant but occasionally manipulative best, you've got Amy following right alongside and ready for action, and you've got Rory getting to be gloriously competent and having actual things to do (joy of all joys!). New and improved monsters, great pacing, a well-told love story, and an emotional ending all add up to a wonderful book. Recommended to Whovians who want to see a different take on certain tropes (a paradoxical love story, the scare factor of the Weeping Angels) that they might have felt weren't done right in the recent two series, and really, anyone who just wants to spend more time with the Doctor.

In Which Trai Reviews 'A Wife for Mr. Darcy'

The Book: A Wife for Mr. Darcy

The Author: Mary Lydon Simonsen

How I Found It: I have an interest in Pride & Prejudice variations, and this one's plot summary intrigued me. As a sidenote, this was one of the last purchases I made at my late, lamented local Borders.

The Review: Fitzwilliam Darcy has come to Longbourn to do something he has never done before: apologize to a lady. Upon realizing that his "tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me" remark was overheard by more than a few people in attendance at the local ball, Darcy goes to apologize in person to Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth accepts his apology, but then lightly spars with him, engaging him in conversation and teasing like no other woman has done before.

Despite his growing interest in Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy has other matters to think of--mostly, his family title. The Darcys are a line stretching back to the Conquerors and Darcy must make an advantageous match with a rich woman if Georgiana is to have any future prospects at all. Elizabeth is far below his station; she would never be a suitable match for him. So Darcy embarks on a courtship with Letitia Montford, who might not be quite so well-suited for him as Georgiana and others believe. Soon enough, Darcy is entangled in a courtship with one woman and in love with another, with seemingly no way of getting out of either. And that's only the beginning of his troubles.

I have to say I was a little intimidated by this one at first--the lengthy discussions of Darcy's ancestors and their respective positions in society baffled me just a bit (can I get a diagram, please?) and I found myself wondering a few times if we hadn't already been over this issue in enough depth. Once I got past that obstacle of understanding, I found that this variation worked on several levels, that it didn't ignore the side characters just because they're not Lizzy and Darcy, and that I was laughing aloud and in public at several parts I particularly enjoyed. This variation did one better on the others I've read, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it in the end.

One thing many reviewers take issue with in variations is the tendency to work in passages from Austen's original, which some think feels forced or just off (we've read the original; we know how it goes), but I found myself smiling at how Simonsen worked in the bits I most remembered, often with a sort of clever twist. I remember smiling at my book when I read Darcy and Lizzy's first conversation in the Bennet parlor:
"Whether it be Meryton or London, I hear the same conversations. A lady will comment on the number of couples in attendance at a dance, and the gentleman will respond by mentioning the size of the ballroom. And what, pray tell, do we learn from that exchange? One party is good with measurements, and the other can count."

Now Lizzy laughed openly. "Sir, you mistake the purpose of such an exchange. It is certainly not about the dimensions of the room or the number of couples. The parties are merely trying to sketch each other's character so that they might discover if this is a person they would like to get to know better..." (3)
This was a funny variation on Lizzy and Darcy's conversation whilst dancing at the Netherfield ball in the original ("It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy--I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples."). I have occasionally found myself wincing at the forced inclusion of the original's dialogue in some variations, but this was a clever twist on a well-known conversation, and it never felt as though Simonsen were forcing words into Lizzy and Darcy's mouths just to get in that little nod to the text.

As I said above, one of the things I liked most about the book was the inclusion of the side characters. Jane gets a fun subplot as she tries to wrangle Bingley's unruly young nieces and nephews into submission, and it's even shown that Jane has more of a backbone than outsides think, an angle that I loved. Darcy's family quickly recognizes what a predicament Darcy is in and how much he loves Elizabeth, and the entire cavalry works together to solve his problem (an especial tip of the hat to Lord Fitzwilliam, who was outrageously funny and who deserves a book all his own). Darcy and Georgiana's relationship especially was explored to my satisfaction; Darcy is shown to be dealing with Georgiana being older and able to express opinions of her own to him now that she is almost out in society, and they have a teasing, fun relationship that was fun to read about. One of the things I liked best about the 2005 film adaptation of P&P was the attention given to Darcy and Georgiana's bond, and that was definitely carried off here. I had to snicker when Darcy figures out a plot of Georgiana's and she casually tells him it's not as bad as he thinks and to "please unfurrow [his] brow." Atta girl.

As many side characters as there are, they never take away from Lizzy and Darcy, who remain as the main thrust of the book. As many complications as their courtship is fraught with, Lizzy and Darcy still maintain a fun, somewhat flirty dynamic, and there's several entertaining scenes where they realize the difficulty of getting a moment alone in so many overcrowded households. I really looked forward to those fun scenes, but as much as I knew there'd probably be a happy ending for my beloved couple, I found myself really feeling for the pair in the more dramatic scenes. I knew exactly why Darcy couldn't explain much of anything, but I also knew why Lizzy was so frustrated and wanted answers. If I occasionally want to give either of them a frustrated shake or a comforting hug through the book, that's a good sign.

There was one level to the variation I was sometimes slightly uncomfortable with: yes, this is an Austen variation written in 2011, and yes, there's talk of sex. (My usual buyer beware goes out to parents who might be shopping for young Austen enthusiasts; there's no explicit scenes, but there is frank talk.) It did make sense that Lizzy would be slightly more open about talk of a sexual nature, and that she'd talk about those things with Jane, but there's still that feeling that "oh, God, you're Elizabeth Bennet; you're not supposed to know those things!" It did add some humor to the book, though, and not in an explicit way, so it fit in somewhat gracefully with the rest of the tone.

Overall, this was a many-layered but still very interesting variation on the familiar story, and definitely a standout of the crop I've read so far. The various subplots--and the main plot of how Darcy will manage to get out of his courtship with Miss Montford--were handled with grace, humor, and just a touch of drama, and I cheered as ever for the characters I love so well. For someone who wants a variation they can really sink their teeth into, one that's got a bit of everything, go for it!

Monday, December 12, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Ultimate Daredevil & Elektra'

The Book: Ultimate Daredevil & Elektra

The Author and The Artists: Greg Rucka (author); Salvador Larroca, Danny Miki, etc. (artists)

How I Found It: Spider-Man may have been the great superhero love of my childhood, but Daredevil was the movie that got me loving superheroes in the first place, and the Daredevil/Elektra love story was always one of my favorite parts. Once browsing Daredevil comics told me this existed, I had to go for it.

The Review: Elektra Natchios is 17 and arriving at Colombia University for her freshman year of college. Her father is a businessman who owns a small dry cleaning chain in Queens; her mother died of breast cancer when she was young. Elektra's a normal girl in all but one respect: she's been extensively trained in martial arts, and she can defend herself quite well if need be--which is a good thing, considering the events of the year to come.

There's good and there's bad: good, she hits it off with Phoebe, her roommate, and a fellow student, Melissa. Bad, Melissa has attracted the negative attention of Calvin Langstrom the Third, known around campus as "Trey." Good, Elektra's set her sights on Matt Murdock, an attractive pre-law student whose physical abilities rival her own, and who also happens to be blind. Bad... Trey rapes Melissa. Even more bad: the police won't take action, due to Trey's family's status. Elektra might have to take matters into her own hands--except that Matt, who has a secret or two of his own, might not let her get away with it.

I really like the conceit behind Ultimate Marvel--younger, more contemporary reimaginings of Marvel heroes and heroines. This is my first acquaintance with the line, and I'm definitely curious now to try more--I like that the line reworks characters and storylines from the originals and doesn't try to confuse new readers with the complex history of the original imprint. I know just enough of the original Daredevil and Elektra characters to make sense of what's been changed here: Elektra's family is more middle-class, rather than rich; Elektra's mother's death was pinned down to a specific cause rather than left negligible; Matt and Elektra meet in college, instead of when they're older. I liked this idea of Matt and Elektra as college students: reading about kids my age, in an environment like the one I live in now, made this story easy to relate to, current, and compelling.

The art was really excellent; I think this is the most impressed I've been with any of the Marvel comics I've read so far. Sometimes Marvel women--even women like Aunt May!--look too much like supermodels for me to take them seriously, but Elektra, Phoebe, and Mel looked like normal girls, the type of girls I would see around my campus. Elektra's outfit was made into something more practical, the type of thing that a teenage girl--yes, even a teenage girl taking up secret vigliante work--would wear. Same with Matt's costume, although like many reviewers, yes, I did find it hard to believe that all Matt needed was a strip of cloth over his eyes and the top of his head to keep Elektra and others from realizing it was him.

Admittedly, part of the reason I found this story so compelling was that yes, I like to occasionally read something where a rapist gets what's coming to them. When I assembled my list of Top 10 Villians last year, I realized that most of mine were rapists. It's one of those crimes I can't forgive. So when Lisbeth Salander tattoos Bjurman, or when Tess Durbeyfield slams Alec's hand in a window casement, yep, I cheer. Rape on college campuses is a sad reality, and I was glad to see it addressed here and taken seriously--it wasn't sensationalized just because it was part of a superhero comic. Harsh reality is presented here--the police being hesitant to press charges, because of how prominent Trey's family is; Elektra being not-so-subtly told that Melissa might have to stay silent; Trey's family exerting pressure on the legal system and taking revenge on Elektra and her father.

Matt and Elektra's romance is intertwined with the vigilante subplot, and although it moves a bit too fast, I blame that on the arc only being four issues. The story skips ahead months at a time, at least in the beginning. It basically ends up being love after a few dates, which I'm never too fond of in fiction. But I liked their dynamic nonetheless. Matt tries desperately to keep Elektra from heading down the dark path of revenge and even murder. Elektra gets the feeling she doesn't know quite as much about him as she thought she did. Despite all the deceit and desperation, Matt and Elektra are still, when it comes down to it, a teenage couple--they get physical at some slightly inappropriate times, Elektra dishes with Phoebe once the date ends, and so on. The romance was fairly light compared to the darker themes of sexual crimes and dirty politics, and provided a nice contrast. I do think that the story could have been expanded and fleshed out--we don't get to see much of Matt outside his scenes with Elektra, and his backstory is left out entirely--but nonetheless, I enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to checking out the sequel, Ultimate Elektra: Devil's Due.

Overall, this was a graphic novel that wowed me visually and one that was easy for me to relate to, and I was willing to overlook the minor flaws in pacing and character development because of that. Recommended for older teenagers (15 and up, I'd say), especially girls who liked the movies and might be intimidated about where to start in trying the comics.

In Which Trai Reviews 'Doctor Who: The Stone Rose'

The Book: The Stone Rose

The Author: Jacqueline Rayner

How I Found It: The Doctor and Rose's dynamic was my first and my favorite, and this was allegedly the best book featuring them, according to several people whose opinions I trusted. Thanks, girls! :) This was also the first book I read in my first-ever readathon, sponsored by Reading the Chunksters over at Goodreads. Yay!

The Review: Mickey has called the Doctor and Rose back to Earth with a surprise: he's found a statue in the British Museum, something that wouldn't normally be odd... except that this statue is an exact replica of Rose. In order to prevent a paradox, the Doctor and Rose have to rush off to ancient Rome, wanting to learn the truth about the statue and Rose's potential future as an artist's model.

Upon their arrival in Rome, they run into Gracilis, a local nobleman whose son has recently gone missing. A supposed psychic named Vanessa could help the Doctor, Rose, and Gracilis find the boy--but is she really psychic, or is there more to her than meets the eye? Why do the statues that proliferate Rome, all the work of one fledgling sculptor, so closely resemble their real life counterparts? Most importantly, when the air has cleared following a nearly fatal conflict, where, exactly, is Rose?

This was a wonderfully fast read for a Saturday morning, and it was just what I wanted from a book involving my favorite characters: some laughter, some tears, and the overall feeling that I'd just gotten to spend a bit more time with the dearly departed. I even got a little bit of insight into a character I'd previously written off a tad. All in all, it was a great bargain.

To start with: if you like timey wimey, gosh, is this the book for you. There's lots of paradoxical comings and goings, and a lot of things that don't quite make sense until the very end. It can be tough to figure out, but reading it straight through seemed to help me keep the timeline straight. I saw some reviewers that criticized the book for being too hard to follow on this front, but I had to just laugh the shenanigans off after a time: it was funny to see the Doctor and others have to work out how exactly not to cause a paradox.

Jacqueline Rayner's characterizations were spot-on. Jackie only makes a brief appearance in the beginning, but it matches up to what we see of her in early Series 2. Mickey's a bit more prominent, and he was the one I got insight into. I'd previously felt Mickey and Rose's relationship was predominantly sexual (given the number of innuendos Mickey makes in the pilot, and the subsequent instance in "Boomtown" when he suggests they could get a hotel room), but here it's suggested that Mickey does genuinely care for and love Rose, in a moving speech that had me reevaluating my previous opinions.
'... I mean, I was angry when she went off with you. Angry with you, but angry with her too, angry that she'd seen through me at last. Realised I was a loser and she was a winner. But I didn't mind, not in the end. Because she deserved more than me. She deserved someone who could give her the whole universe.' The sorrow in his voice turned to anger. 'But you got her killed.'

'I know,' said the Doctor, and it was as if he hated himself.


Mickey stood up and yelled, 'You should have taken better care of her!'

The Doctor shouted back, 'I know!' (152)
That exchange encapsulated so powerfully the dichotomy that was always present between the Doctor and Rose's family: they recognized what a great thing it was for Rose to see the universe, while at the same time remaining extremely worried for her well-being and unsure if they could trust this brilliant man who'd whisked her away. Rayner had it down pat.

Now, the most important thing for me is how well the dynamic between the Doctor and the companion is captured. I do so love the chemistry between the Doctor and Rose, that humorous banter with a hint of sexual tension, and I love to see them enjoying themselves. There were plenty of funny moments like this one:
‘Way to go for the detective work,’ she said.

‘Hercule Poirot could solve any case just by sitting back and thinking,’ he told her.

‘You with a twirly moustache!’ She laughed. ‘Go with the sideburns, that would.’

‘I expect it would make me look even more sophisticated,’ he said haughtily.

Rose grinned. ‘Go on, then. Grow a twirly moustache. I dare you.’

‘Fine!’ he said, gesturing at his upper lip. ‘I’m growing one now. Look!’

She peered closely, pretending to believe him, but collapsed in a gale of laughter after a moment, and the Doctor joined her. ‘Maybe not,’ he said.
There were some sweet moments, too, like the Doctor calling Rose his equivalent of a good luck charm, or telling a statue of the figure Rose is supposed to be modeling for that Rose is prettier. It was a bit more overtly romantic than the show, but in my eyes, that wasn't a bad thing; it more clearly illustrated the feelings the Doctor and Rose clearly had for each other. All the while as I read it, I could hear the voices of the characters in my head, and that added to my enjoyment greatly. All the dynamics were there, well-represented.

There were some hilarious action sequences I would have loved to see on screen, including the Doctor facing off against various wild animals armed only with the sonic screwdriver (and quickly realizing that he probably doesn't know as many of those helpful settings as he should). I don't normally read these books for the plot, but this one's plot was fun and kept me guessing: where were the characters going? Who was behind everything? Yes, the eventual sci-fi explanation was a tiny bit juvenile, but Doctor Who is a family show (or was, until recently).

Not only was the book fun to read, it was also slightly educational: I definitely learned some things about ancient Rome that were new to me! (From what I understand, Rayner has a degree in ancient history; it shows.) For someone that might want to learn a little something whilst reading a funny, fairly romantic story about the Doctor and Rose, this one's definitely recommended!

In Which Trai Reviews 'Ethan Frome'

The Book: Ethan Frome

The Author: Edith Wharton

How I Found It: I quickly became a Wharton fan following this summer's reading of The House of Mirth, and wanted to read this short book after becoming curious about the premise. This was my second experiment with Dailylit.

The Review: An unnamed visitor arrives in Starkfield, Massachusetts, and finds his otherwise chatty neighbors oddly reticent about one subject--the past of Ethan Frome, a badly disfigured man who interacts with few and who the townspeople interact with even less. When the visitor hires Frome as his driver for a time, he realizes that Ethan has dreams even he wouldn't have guessed--he's interested in science, for one, and once had an opportunity to leave oppressively wintry Starkfield behind and go to Florida. So why didn't he take it?

Eventually, the visitor has the story "bit by bit, from various people," and the reader learns said story through an extended flashback. Years earlier, Ethan was a healthy young man living in a house with two women: his sickly wife, Zeena, and Zeena's cousin, Mattie Silver, who's been acting as the hired help Zeena needs. Ethan has long since grown weary of Zeena's perhaps faked ailments, and is fighting an attraction to Mattie--one that Mattie apparently reciprocates. When Zeena announces that she will leave for a night to see a new doctor in an adjacent town, Ethan and Mattie are faced with a night alone that might see them acknowledging their feelings--or that could set the course for a great tragedy.

Edith Wharton is one of those writers who simultaneously makes me want to worship her skills and cry at my lack of talent. Just like The House of Mirth, so many passages here arrested me with their beauty and romanticism. I loved this one in particular: "Ethan felt confusedly that there were many things he ought to think about, but through his tingling veins and tired brain only one sensation throbbed: the warmth of Mattie's shoulder against his. Why had he not kissed her when he held her there? A few hours earlier he would not have asked himself the question. Even a few minutes earlier, when they had stood alone outside the house, he would not have dared to think of kissing her. But since he had seen her lips in the lamplight he felt that they were his." There's so much restrained desire there, just in those little images--Mattie's shoulder pressing against his, or the glimpse of her lips in the lamplight. There's passion here, sure, but it's controlled and nothing overtly steamy. Needless to say, I doubt something like this would get written today.

Like in The House of Mirth, I really felt for Wharton's characters and wanted to see them succeed or, alternatively, fail. I was excited for Ethan and Mattie to get a night together without Zeena. I may or may not have been hoping for some terrible fate to befall the frigid Zeena. I wished the townspeople could help out Ethan somehow, even knowing they couldn't. It was amazing to me that in such a short book, Wharton gave every major character a backstory and developed them fully. I knew how Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie got from Point A to Point B. I'm sure that for most this makes the book slow-moving--the plot is often intercut with backstory--but I tend to enjoy quiet, character-driven stories, and this was one of them.

I was actually surprised this was by the same woman who wrote Mirth, while simultaneously not surprised at all. This isn't a book like that one, where there's a great overarching plot held together by many tiny details and instances. This is a fairly slight book that mainly follows only a few days in the life of three people. There's no glamorous parties on yachts or gambling at cards; there is bad snow and harder times than even Lily Bart would know. There might not be all that much of a plot--it's a character study more than anything--but there's the same depth of feeling and character that made me love The House of Mirth, and that was exactly what didn't surprise me.

I watched the 1993 film adaptation on the merits of its stellar cast--Liam Neeson (Ethan), Patricia Arquette (Mattie), Joan Allen (Zeena), and Tate Donovan (the visitor, here named Rev. Smith). I've really liked their work in other things, and I was curious to see them all together.

While the film does some things for the sake of what it presumes the audience would want (hi, sex scene, mildly confused to see you here), it did other things quite well. The smash-up was bloodier than I anticipated and pretty horrific, all told, and actually seeing how badly Ethan's body was wrecked (well-played by Liam Neeson) made the story even more heartbreaking. Patricia Arquette and Liam Neeson were believable as Ethan and Mattie, even if the accents got a little distracting at times! Certain things did get overdramatic (I think I understood Mattie's desperation towards the end well enough without her trying to poison herself), but most other elements of the core Ethan/Mattie plot were nicely done.

Joan Allen and Tate Donovan both did well with smaller roles (Zeena's actually not too small a role, but it's still not much compared to Ethan or Mattie). I liked the choice to show bits and pieces of Ethan and Zeena's younger days, before Zeena's illnesses set in; that was clever and a good way to show what Ethan once saw in her. Tate Donovan didn't have much to do other than righteous indignation at the treatment of the Fromes, but he and Katharine Houghton made the final scene really chilling and sad.

The film was overall a pretty good adaptation, but I don't think it quite matches the book in my mind. It's a nice supplement, but not an absolute must-see. The book, on the other hand, is marvelous, if depressing. Best not to be read in winter! If you want to give Edith Wharton a spin, this one is short and easy to read. See you on the other side!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

In Which Trai Lists Some Books That Have Been Sitting On Her Shelves

I haven't done one of these in nearly a year! I like the topic for this one: Top Ten Books That Have Been On My Shelf For The Longest But I've Never Read. Maybe listing them out will finally motivate me to get around to them! :)

1) The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, Syrie James: I've had this one for at least a few years now and I've never gotten around to it despite the great reviews I've seen! I'm saving it for a rainy, Jane-craving day, I suppose.

2) Rebecca, Daphne duMaurier: It's been so long since I got this one that I honestly don't even remember what prompted me to want to read it! I think I probably got it around the time I read Jane Eyre.

3) The Book Thief, Markus Zusak: A ton of people have told me to read this one, ever since my sophomore year of high school, but I've shied away from it knowing how upsetting it apparently is!

4) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte: I'm really, really interested in this one--one of the first novels to deal with domestic abuse and alcoholism, I believe--but I think I've let it sit because I liked Agnes Grey so much that Anne became my favorite of the Bronte women, and I'm reluctant to read the second and last of Anne's novels!

5) Mr. Darcy's Diary, Amanda Grange: There's actually a few Darcy-centric books I'd like to get around to, but I'd have to space them out. I've read another Grange book (Colonel Brandon's Diary, two summers ago), but none of her others just yet.

6) Skin Deep, et. al., Christopher Golden: I loved the Jenna Blake books when I was in high school! Jenna is a mildly squeamish college student who works as an assistant for the local medical examiner, and I really liked her personality and how she and the team at the morgue responded to all kinds of suspicious deaths. I have a feeling I could relate to them a bit more now that I'm in college myself, and I'll have to pick up the remaining half or so of the series soon.

7) Wives & Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell: Gaskell in general is one I've been trying to acquaint myself with slowly. I got sidetracked on this one during high school and never managed to pick it up again, and I'm wending my way back towards North & South, which I was reading prior to moving in this semester. Gaskell and I will meet someday!

8) The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood: One of my favorite high school teachers recommended this to me, and I know it's one of those dystopians I just need to read!

9) Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides: The Virgin Suicides is one of my favorite books, and I've always been curious about Eugenides' second book. It's been staring at me for at least four years now.

10) Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins: So... yeah. I read Catching Fire in September of last year, bought Mockingjay shortly after... and haven't touched it since, probably because I've heard how depressing it is. Oops. I have, however, remained unspoiled.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Left Bank Gang'

The Book: The Left Bank Gang

The Author and Artist: Jason (colored by Hubert)

How I Found It: My Graphic Lit professor passed it around in class and was kind enough to let me borrow it when I expressed interest. Thanks!

The Review: In the world Jason presents, the most valuable art isn't books--it's comics. In Paris' Latin Quarter in the 1920s, struggling artists F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingay, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce are fighting against artistic blocks and marital problems.

Scott is trying to deal with Zelda's fits of instability and infidelity. Ernest doesn't have the money to support his family. With this in mind, Ernest proposes a radical scheme for how they can get money. The scheme doesn't exactly go off without a hitch, and it's only seeing it from everyone's perspectives that helps the reader come to understand what really happened.

Having just finished discussing Pound, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway in my American Lit survey, I thought this would be an interesting read. What did it have to say about art, and what did it have to say about the artists? How would the artists, real people of the period, come across on page? I'd seen fictional representations of these people before (this summer's Midnight in Paris was lovely), and though I only have a passing acquaintance with the work of most of these artists, I'm very much interested in them. After reading this, I'm certainly curious to finally dig in to Tender is the Night and A Moveable Feast, to get glimpses of the truth behind their lives.

The choices Jason made were really interesting to me. I can't say I think I fully understand it all, but I'm certainly willing to think about it. The characters are represented by anthropomorphized dogs, which I see now is a trademark of Jason's style. I don't think he does it for the same reasons as Spiegelman did in Maus, say, but I found myself thinking about the reasons anyway. Each character is only distinguished by a color--Fitzgerald is a white dog in a red suit; Hemingway wears orange; Pound wears green. By having the protagonists look so similar, was Jason raising a point--were the members of the Lost Generation really all treading the same path, essentially the same person? (Given what I've read of hers, I think Gertrude Stein would say they were.)

I found myself taking particular notice of the silent panels. Silent panels are probably one of the things I've most enjoyed learning about in the course of my studies this semester, and there are several that have really made me think (a tragic escape from an illegal party in Persepolis, a closeup on a Rorschach inkblot that resembles an abyss in Watchmen), and this book added several more. Scott, alone and devastated, sits contemplating the bottle of alcohol next to him. Hemingway feeds a pigeon and then stealthily kills it, desperate for food for his family. Pound draws a fellow customer at the coffee shop and seems to wonder about her. Often, these sequences carried on for several panels, with characters whose capacity for emotional expression was limited by how they were represented, but I never lost sight of what their thoughts were or what was going on. I give Jason a lot of credit for that.

I really appreciated and enjoyed the commentary on the writers-turned-artists--Tolstoy is criticized because all his characters "look the same." Zelda used to help Scott with his artwork; from what I can remember, Zelda helped him with his writing at times. Gertrude Stein offers the young Hemingway some harsh but helpful advice. The choice to have everyone be comic book artists rather than writers was another thing that made me think. Was Jason positing the idea that comics are something to be valued as highly as we value novels? Was he being ironic?

Perhaps my favorite part of the book was the shifting perspectives towards the end. I've said before that I'm a sucker for multiple narrators or perspective shifts (only when done well, though), and it worked perfectly here. Nothing truly fits together until you see that final piece, and even if parts of what went on were obvious, I was captivated by how minute shifts of perspective made all the difference.

I couldn't find anything at all to dislike in this book, and I'd even like to own a copy someday. It's a fast read, but one subtle enough that I'd like to return to it a few more times--knowing more about Jason, about Fitzgerald and Hemingway, about the other artists mentioned, or just to appreciate the craft and skill that went into it. Recommended to fans of the Lost Generation!

In Which Trai Reviews 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles'

The Book: Tess of the d'Urbervilles

The Author: Thomas Hardy

How I Found It: Years ago, when I was but a junior in high school studying for the English Literature AP exam, I had this one down as a possible choice to read in preparation for the exam, in time for the miniseries to air on Masterpiece Theatre. I never did get there and instead read it this year. This was my first book read via Dailylit.

The Review: "O mother, my mother!" cried the agonized girl, turning passionately upon her parent as if her poor heart would break. "How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn't you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn't you warn me?"

There are some books you read only to wish you'd read them earlier. Me, I'm quite glad I read this one exactly when I did, at nearly 21, instead of at 17, as was the initial plan. I think I would have sworn off men for life.

One night in Marlott, an English village, the local parson tells Jack Durbeyfield something interesting--he is not just "plain Jack Durbeyfield, the haggler" as he believes, but the descendant of one of the greatest old families, the d'Urbervilles. Jack gets it in his head that this means something grand, and he and his wife hatch a plot to "claim kin" with a wealthy d'Urberville living not far from Marlott. Tess, the beautiful eldest Durbeyfield child, has far more sense than her parents and would prefer they not get wrapped up in such nonsense. Circumstances soon necessitate it when a horrific accident--partly Tess' fault--fells Prince, the family horse, leaving the Durbeyfields on the edge of poverty, and Tess finally agrees to go and claim kin.

This acquaints Tess with the charming, but conniving Alec d'Urberville, her alleged cousin, who is really anything but. Alec is perhaps a bit too interested in Tess, and takes advantage when he sees the chance. This event and its tragic outcome will define Tess for the rest of her life, haunting her subsequent associations with nearly everyone she meets--including, a few years later, Angel Clare, a kindly farmer and scholar who becomes smitten with Tess. Will Tess finally find happiness with Alec, or will she end up paying for a sin that was never her own?

Entirely unintentionally, this year has become the "Trai acquaints herself with the great female protagonists of literature" year. First Moll, now Tess. I wonder that some of the frankest portrayals of female sexuality I've ever read were written by men! It's funny, too, that Moll and Tess were two completely opposite sides of the coin--Moll truly owns her sexuality and is unashamed of her crimes, whereas Tess is ashamed of a "sin not of [her] own seeking" and tries to swear off all contact with men because of it. Reading both novels within a month or two of each other was certainly interesting.

This is one hell of a depressing story--tears were shed at the last few chapters--but an important one. I think Hardy pushed a lot of boundaries by writing such a sexually-charged story, and by pointing out the flaws inherent in the "system" of religion, morality, what have you. That doesn't mean it wasn't still frustrating to read at times, from a modern perspective--when Alec kept going on about Tess tempting him just by looking the way she did, I wanted to shake him and yell at him that it's his fault for being tempted, not hers for having the body she does--but it did mean I could engage with the text more fully and find its views fascinating. These flaws and contradictions are still happening today--in the same vein of the Alec example I mentioned above are the recent hypocritical tweets by a hockey player that many took issue with. The player first asked women to cover up so that they wouldn't tempt their male brethren... and then went on to tell men that they've got nobody but themselves to blame if they are tempted. Huh?

I felt the three main characters--Tess, Alec, and Angel--and their relationships were well-drawn and convincing. I felt for Tess and hoped she would be able to find some happiness, or at least some gainful employment, during her difficulties. Alec made my skin crawl, but I could see why Tess would, at first, find him charming--the strawberry scene is going to stay with me for quite a while; I adore the Vintage cover (above) for evoking that so simply. Angel made me love him and then made me hate him, but I rooted for him nonetheless because of how tenderly he treated Tess as he fell in love with her--a marked contrast from Alec. (I think this book might have earned the distinction of one of my favorite kisses in literature--as Tess and Angel work together to break up curds for cheese-making, Angel leans down and kisses the underside of Tess' arm, despite its being covered in curds. That's love, folks.)

It was one of those books that had me appreciating the side characters as much as the leads--there's the early image of Jack Durbeyfield drunkenly riding along and chanting about his family vault at Kingsbere, Joan Durbeyfield worriedly realizing she should have ascertained if Alec was a good man before sending Tess to him, Marian eventually turning to drinking but still managing to stay quite pleasant and supportive of Tess. (Continuing my happiness at positive depictions of women in love triangles, this book had a lovely one--all the dairymaids are in love with Angel and resent Tess for a short time, but quickly become her steadfast friends once they realize Tess does not wish to be their rival.) The plot the characters were involved in was slow at times, undoubtedly, but slow enough that it made me think and have the time to really consider where things were going and how I felt about that.

I decided to watch the 2008 BBC miniseries adaptation on the strength of good reviews and its being the most recent adaptation, and because David Nicholls (One Day) was the screenwriter. I expected to like it, as I do most BBC adaptations--what I didn't expect was to love it, and for it to become my all-time favorite BBC adaptation. It was beautifully shot and incredibly well-acted.

Certain things really chilled me--the final shot of Tess that ends Part One, where the viewer is finally given the truth of what Alec's violation has left her with; Tess huddled in the rain, desperate and kissing her wedding ring; the choice to have Tess and Alec framed by the bars of a tomb during one confrontation, symbolizing how Tess is trapped with no other option but to obey him. The soundtrack was sorrowful and insistent, almost like a warning, and the echoing strains of "The snow, it melts the soonest..." were haunting.

Gemma Arterton really impressed me--I'd only ever seen her as a Bond girl and a goddess in Clash of the Titans, so I wasn't expecting her to pull it off, but she had me at the indignation Tess displays in her opening scene: who among us hasn't scoffed and rolled our eyes at embarrassing relatives? She perfectly played Tess' indifference and numbness in her goodbye to Alec in Part One, and her anger and sorrow at Angel in Part Three. Hans Matheson captured Alec exactly, the charm and the slime. Eddie Redmayne, Angel, was a bit flat at times, but I really felt the connection between him and Gemma's Tess, and the kiss I mentioned before was just as I imagined it. (A special shoutout to the woman who played Marian; she was all I'd imagined and more.) All the emotional scenes were well-played--I cried at the speech I opened this post with, and at the end--and Nicholls' screenplay was outstanding.

This story has left quite an impact on me, and I look forward to exploring it further both in my research for a paper and as I view two other adaptations: Roman Polanski's Tess, and an earlier miniseries version starring Justine Waddell of Wives & Daughters fame. Most definitely recommended to anyone who'd like to read a classic or to anyone interested in portrayals of female sexuality in literature.

(I mentioned above that I read this via Dailylit; I highly recommend it! The site delivers small installments [the length of your average email] of public domain books into your inbox on a schedule of your choosing, and it worked quite splendidly for me.)

Monday, November 7, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Complete Persepolis'

The Book: The Complete Persepolis

The Author and Artist: Marjane Satrapi

How I Found It: I saw the film in theatres upon its release, but didn't get to read the graphic novel until it was assigned for my course.

The Review: I'm sure I'm not the only one to have seen a movie long ago, not having read the book first, only to read the book years later, realize it's amazing, and then find the movie doesn't quite measure up to it. I had that experience with this book and its movie. I vividly remembered loving the movie and being outraged that it didn't win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature that year, even when I knew that as an animated film, Ratatouille far outclassed it. I loved the book just as much as I remembered loving the film, fortunately, and was more than pleased to talk about it in class.

Persepolis is the story of Marjane Satrapi's girlhood and then her teenage years, all taking place during the tumultuous years of the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Her parents are somewhat more modern than their countrymen, and Marjane grows up surrounded by rock music, forbidden parties, and a certain knowledge about what's really going on in the country, contrary to the filtered version given to her by teachers and even the television.

Marjane grows up among the horrors of war; before she is even fourteen, she will see her friend's dead body following an explosion, learn some painful truths about class differences, and eventually have to leave Iran to live in Austria, when her parents decide she could have a better and brighter life ahead of her. In Austria, Marjane is faced with unraveling the complexities of her identity: in Austria, she is too Iranian; in Iran, she is too Western. Not only that, but she must begin to make sense of boys, politics, and her emerging artistic sense.

There are just certain things, I've realized now, that can only be conveyed by a graphic novel, by words and images combined. Silent panels, as I will mention in a forthcoming review of another graphic novel, have been the thing that most captivated me thus far in my coursework. There's a few here that really strike me: Marjane's horror upon seeing her friend's body in the rubble, or the silent chaos of a party interrupted by the guardians of the revolution. There's nothing that can match a series of wordless panels, frozen images of terror or nothingness, in emotional power or intellectual stimulation. Satrapi uses the graphic novel format to great effect.

It's one thing to have a recurring motif in a novel; it's another to have a visual motif in a graphic novel, so that the reader can see the repetition of certain images and how they change over time. The raised fist, the all-seeing eye, a farewell at an airport--all of these images are repeated more than once, and the meaning is different each time. That was another thing I found worked better in a graphic novel than straight prose. Even the color scheme was effective--the black and white color scheme meant, to me, not to get hung up on the details of what someone looked like, what that might mean for their nationality, and to instead look at the characters as people.

Technical considerations aside, Marjane's story was an emotional ride and an eye opener, one I'm not sorry to have read. Marjane's parents explain the truth behind the Shah's rule to her, but it also serves as an insight for Western readers, a look into what went on "behind the scenes," so to speak, the things that occurred in Iran that didn't make it to the Western news-watching public. This isn't always about the grand narrative of the revolution--it's about the lives of the individual people caught up in it. Marjane's parents, who risk their lives several times by protesting. Marjane's grandmother, full of wisdom and often helping the young Marjane on her path to self-discovery. Marjane's Uncle Anoosh, a former political prisoner Marjane becomes attached to. It's clear how much Marjane cares about these people, and how much we should care, and as a reader, I became emotionally invested fast. I cried several times as Marjane lost friends and family members, or came to some sort of revelation about herself or her country.

There are several incidents that will really stay with me--Marjane learning about class differences as she sees that poor young men are being sent to war (99-100), her grandmother's life advice (150), Marjane telling off some guardians (301), Marjane's mother's reaction to her impending marriage (317). Even if the story was painful at times, it was still an unflinching look at growing up, one that I could even relate to at times, despite not having gone through nearly as much as Marjane had. I'll certainly want to reread this in the future.

The movie was a good representation of the story, for sure, but so much was condensed or cut out entirely that it just didn't stack up in my mind. There's none of the graphic novel's insight into the ideology of the veil, and we barely see anything of Marjane evolving into an artist, which perhaps the most fascinating section, to me. Moments like the lineup in the second volume, where we see the hair and clothes each girl has under her veil, highlighting her individuality, are gone, and I felt that a good portion of the story's meaning went with it.

This graphic novel is an especially good choice for teenage girls as well as older women, and educational to boot. If someone is hesitant to read it, I'd say show them the movie first and see how they react--if they like it, be sure they read the graphic novel to get the full story. If there's a teenage girl in your life who might not appreciate graphic novels just yet (or a boy who's interested in history, or vice versa!), I'd say give them this one and see what happens.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

In Which Trai Mini-Reviews 'Spider-Man: The Death of Captain Stacy' and 'Spider-Man: Reign'

Hi, all! I'm short on time and still have a backlog to get through, so in the interest of time, I'm doing two Spider-Man mini-reviews in one post! This month has been a bit graphic novel-heavy due to my coursework and slight obsession with Spider-Man, but there will be more diversity on this blog soon, I promise!

The Am
azing Spider-Man: The Death of Captain Stacy, by Stan Lee (author), Gil Kane with John Romita (artists): Before Gwen Stacy met her demise at the hands of the Green Goblin, her father was killed trying to save a child in the path of a battle between Doctor Octopus and Spider-Man. Unbeknownst to Peter, Captain Stacy had known for quite some time that Peter was Spider-Man, and, with his dying breath, made Peter swear to protect Gwen. Peter swears he will, but that might be a problem--believing the accounts of the passerby who thought Spider-Man taking Stacy's body away from the crowd meant he went to finish him off, and with Peter unable to tell her his side of the story, Gwen swears that she hates Spider-Man, and joins forces with a corrupt D.A. candidate who wants to stop Spider-Man for good.

Having read the Gwen's death story arc earlier this year (review here), I wanted to read the issues where her father died, to see a bit more of Peter and Gwen's relationship as well as Peter's mentor/mentoree relationship with Stacy. I don't think this arc did as much for me, emotionally and as a story, as that arc did, but it was still touching, and still had some very worthy moments. One of them: Doctor Octopus is a very menacing villain; I can see why he was picked for the second film adaptation. It's tough to beat titanium tentacles that basically keep fighting no matter what. It was nice to see a glimpse of one of Spidey's most famous foes.

Another: Stacy's death scene is very touching. "Be good to her, son! Be good to her... she loves you--so very much..." Knowing Gwen's eventual fate compounded the emotional impact. There wasn't as much direct interaction between Peter and the Stacys as I thought there would be, but there's a cute scene where Peter collapses from overexhaustion and Stacy has Gwen take care of him at their home. The art was somber when it needed to be, like when Peter is cradling Stacy's body, but bright and colorful during the battle scenes.

The subplot involving the smear campaign against Spider-Man by the D.A. candidate just didn't do it for me. I didn't care about the guy's political maneuverings. I did, however, like seeing more of Robbie, Peter's only ally at the Daily Bugle--he gets a lot to do, and it was so awesome to see who my research tells me was the first major supporting black characters in comics. I also really enjoyed the last issue, where the X-Men's Iceman first thinks that Spider-Man is the enemy, but then comes to realize he's the good guy, leading to their teamup. The two of them taking down the bad guys together was fun to see.

I'm going to be interested to see how the Stacy family dynamic is handled in the 2012 reboot, and to see if Stacy's death will make it on screen. I was a bit bored by the smear campaign subplot and didn't see enough of Stacy to get too attached to him, but this one is worth reading if you want to see some of Doctor Octopus, or if you want to learn a little more about Peter and the Stacys.

Spider-Man: Reign, by Kaare Andrews (author and artist) with Jose Villarrubia (artist): In the future, New York City has outlawed vigilante activities. Masks are forbidden and citizens are cowed and controlled by a brutal police force known as the Reign. Print media is tightly regulated. Peter Parker is an aging man working as a flower seller and haunted by the ghost of Mary Jane, deceased for quite some time.

J. Jonah Jameson shows up on Peter's doorstep on the eve of a new program, the Webb, being initiated that would contain the City in a sort of electrified bubble, preventing the intrusion of criminals from other areas. He wants Peter to become Spider-Man again and fight the government, but Peter refuses. One spark, though, is all that's needed to light a fire, and when Peter dons the costume again, he becomes the City's only chance at salvation.

There was some influence from Watchmen here, with the outlawed superheroes and the perpetual night, and I've heard that this is apparently heavily influenced by the classic Batman graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which I've not yet read. I was curious to read this because I've never really seen the concept of a very elderly superhero played with before, and because I wanted to see how the impact of Mary Jane's death on Peter would be handled.

In that regard, this book made me weep. Not as hard as Gwen's death, not as hard as Blue, but it made me realize how much Mary Jane means to Peter in a way I hadn't before considered, even when I read the major points in their history. Sebastian Mercer over at SpiderFan puts it eloquently: "Peter's religion is his wife." Mary Jane's death is the big symbol here; losing her makes Peter lose his faith, and it symbolizes the downfall of the City. Yeah, there were things I could have done without, and Peter cradling Mary Jane's long-dead corpse was one of them, but there are some truly beautiful scenes where Peter imagines conversations with Mary Jane, or when he remembers sitting by her bedside as she died, that really touched me. "I remember the day we met. You already knew it and you told me. I hit the jackpot. Your face was so beautiful… the sky cracked like ice. And I could feel the sun pour down on me like rain. It was all I could do to stop staring. You were so… my chest was too small for what you did to my heart. I wanted to tell you so much, but words didn’t have enough. So I tried to show you. But just when you meant the most. Just when I thought I could do it. I screwed up." That passage alone really made me feel how badly Peter needed the faith and love Mary Jane gave him.

As for the elderly superhero angle... well. I was a bit nonplussed. Elderly Peter fights with far too much ease. I kept expecting the scene from Up where Carl and the villain duke it out, only to be thwarted by their backs going out. Instead I got a Peter who basically had every bit of strength and agility the young Peter had, with wrinkles. I guess you could chalk that up to super strength, but I don't know if it should work like that. If you're in your sixties or seventies and haven't been a superhero for quite some time, I don't think it should come as easily as it did here. I'm also not quite sure how Jonah was still kicking, but he had an awesome role here and he was probably my favorite of all the side characters. He can be a jerk in the original continuity, sure, but there seems to be some good in him.

I admittedly don't think I knew quite enough about old Spidey villains to keep track of what was going on here. The art was a bit dark and it made me muddled at times. I was deeply confused and wondering what the hell was going on at one point; that might have been because I hadn't paid enough attention to some things, as reading the recaps on SpiderFan cleared me up. (In one of the few parts I could keep track of, Peter's joint taking down of Hydro-Man and Electro is priceless, and his knocking out Mysterio was applause-worthy.) I've seen people say there's some post-9/11 commentary in here, what with the panopticism going on and the control on the press. I don't really look for politics in what I read, so I couldn't say, but having just reread Watchmen recently, I caught a hint of that same political commentary and that who watches the watchmen? attitude.

Overall, as a Peter/Mary Jane fan, it was touching and exactly what I wanted to see of a graphic novel exploring the impact of her death on Peter. On the other hand, without as much knowledge of Spider-Man villains as I'd thought, I was often confused and needed a plot synopsis to help me keep track of the action. Despite that, I was really moved and haunted by some of the imagery of a city in chaos and the people who rise up to try and fight that, and I'm glad I read it.

In Which Trai Reviews 'Daredevil: Yellow'

The Book: Daredevil: Yellow

The Author and The Artist: Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

How I Found It: My love for Spider-Man: Blue (review here) and a nostalgic fondness for Daredevil made me seek this one out; big ups as ever to my local library.

The Review: "Dear Karen, I'm afraid... Just when I think it is all going to get easier, I close my eyes and I see you in my arms. It's as if a hole were torn open in the center of my chest. After a while, it starts to close up and... something has a laugh that sounds like you or wears a perfume that smells like you and... it tears the hole wide open again."

Matt Murdock is a man defined by loss. The loss of his father spurred the creation of his vigilante persona Daredevil, and as this volume posits, Karen Page is the one who inspired Matt to change his costume from yellow to red. These two losses have shaped Matt into a deeply remorseful man, and it is this remorse we get a glimpse of in this chronicle of Daredevil's early outings.

Matt's father, Battling Jack Murdock, was a boxer seeking to regain some of his former glory. It's just unfortunate he went to the wrong man looking for it--a manager whose name is Sweeney but whose nickname is "The Fixer." As Matt says in his voiceover, "A fight manager named 'The Fixer' and my Dad, over the hill when he was forty, kept winning. I can't imagine which one of us was more blind." When Jack is murdered by the Fixer and his associate Slade after he refuses to throw a fixed fight, a crime they get away with, Matt sews his father's old yellow boxing robe into a costume and takes on the nickname childhood bullies used to taunt him with--"Daredevil". He "had seen how the law--which [he] still steadfastly believed in--wasn't always the same as justice." So justice he became.

Even as Matt is busy seeking justice for his father's murder, his professional life is beginning to shape up. His best friend and partner, Franklin "Foggy" Nelson, has established a law office and is looking for a secretary. Just when the search seems fruitless, in walks Karen Page--young, blonde, and beautiful, understanding exactly what the rigors of the job will be. Foggy's smitten. Soon enough, so is Matt. But there's nothing New York's villains love more than a pretty girl, and when Karen is drawn into danger, protecting her becomes Matt's job.

I will admit that I preferred Spider-Man: Blue to this volume, although this one does still have its merits. Blue was more of a romance, the story of Peter, Gwen, and Mary Jane. Yellow, to my surprise, seemed to lean far more on Matt's relationship with his father, despite the framing device of Matt's letters to the now-deceased Karen. It was an interesting change, but given that I went into this expecting what I got in Blue--a better understanding of Matt and Karen, like the one I attained for Peter and Gwen--a tiny bit disappointing.

I did, however, like that this comic focused on Matt's relationship with his father as well. I felt the scenes immediately following Matt's father's death were the best, the most affecting. I teared up as Matt says a belated "I love you" to his father's corpse. You can feel Matt's desperation as he tears down the fire escape and runs through the city blocks all the way to the site of his father's murder--no mean feat, as Matt is blind, and this one act could expose his abilities (every other sense is extremely heightened, to compensate for his blindness). You can practically smell the aftershave and talcum powder as he digs Jack's robe out from his footlocker. You can hear the subway approaching as Matt contemplates how to kill the Fixer. Atmospheric is the word here.

Matt's relationship with Karen, as well as his friendship with Foggy, were perhaps not quite as fleshed out as Peter's relationships with Gwen, Mary Jane, and Harry were in Blue, but there were scenes here I found more memorable. My particular favorite was Matt, Foggy, and Karen's night out at a local bar. Foggy challenges some college kids to a game of pool, and the kids make a few ill-advised cracks about Matt being blind, including one of those ever-popular Helen Keller jokes. Matt tells Foggy to rack the balls--and proceeds to win the entire game with just a shot or two due to his heightened senses, cracking Helen Keller jokes all the while because, as Foggy says, he's "heard them all in Braille before." I was delighted by this scene and even surprised at the fairly subtle condemnation of ableism.

Another striking scene is Matt's rescue of Karen after she's abducted by a client of theirs known as the Owl. Tim Sale gives us a stunning, almost full-page panel wherein Daredevil stands atop a spire on a city skyscraper, looking out over the entire city and listening for Karen's voice. Not even the bright yellow of Daredevil's costume is visible; the choice to have Daredevil in shadow against such a dark night, in front of such a landscape, made the panel breathtaking. The colors really pop off the page here. When Matt tries to drown the Owl, when he attacks the Purple Man who's abducted Karen, the colors are so vivid and gorgeous to look at.

The "voiceover," as it were, here is our main insight into Matt's relationship with Karen. The love triangle between Matt, Karen, and Foggy never felt overdone and was done so subtly; I really do applaud Jeph Loeb's skill at writing things like this (I gushed over his handling of the Gwen/Peter/Mary Jane triangle last time). That one scene where Foggy quietly turns around and throws out the bouquet he had in hand is entirely silent on Foggy's part, but gets the point across so eloquently. And it really is easy to see why both Foggy and Matt fall for Karen. She's hard-working (taking down dictation even while distracted), lively (she's thrilled by Daredevil's antics), and very beautiful. Her banter with Daredevil during one of his rescues of her, while she's unaware he's her boss, was so much fun to read. I'd like to see more of their relationship, for sure--a gripe I had with this volume was that it cuts off so abruptly. In Blue, it was made pretty clear what and who led to Gwen's death. Here, there's an oblique reference or two and that's it. If I hadn't read up about Karen on the Marvel wiki, I would've had no idea what led to her death or how her and Matt's relationship ultimately ended up.

Overall, though the story didn't have the focus I was expecting and the villains seemed to take a sideline to the story of Matt, his father, and Karen (there's only the Fixer, Slade, the Owl, and the Purple Man), I did enjoy the graphic novel and felt it was a good companion piece to Blue, if not quite its equal. It certainly reminded me what I loved about Daredevil, whose film adaptation was the movie that got me loving superheroes. Matt is an unconventional superhero--a blind man, a man with a great deal of faith... but what makes him a superhero is his unyielding search for justice. If you'd like a glimpse into the life and loved ones of the Man Without Fear, I feel this is a good place to start.