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Monthly Archives: January 2014
This is the second week of the read-along in which we discuss Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Vishy and I are co-hosting this event, and we are joined by several bloggers who decided to share this experience with us. I will add the links to their reviews as soon as I get them.
The second volume of the story begins with Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus going on a trip, three years later from when the events in volume one started. It is now 1809 and the two magicians (one of them now only a theoretical magician) make plans to visit a haunted place called Shadow House. There they meet Mr Strange and being told that he was looking for books of magic, they encourage him to become Norrell’s pupil.
This is the start of a partnership between the two magicians. Under Mr Norrell’s tutelage, Strange begins to learn more about magic, even though the best books on the subject are still kept away from him by his tutor. It was quite funny to read about the first time Mr Norrell actually gave his pupil a book.
Humor laced with irony is one of the best things about reading this book and it intensifies in this volume. From descriptions of magic, which apparently has its side effects, like moving whole cities and not putting them back or changing the course of a river, or making a bridge that disappears faster than it should, to the Fairy which had helped bring Mrs Pole back to life and who is now an important part of the story.
The Fairy has told Stephen Black (Mr Pole’s butler) that he will be the king of England and offered his help in achieving what he calls “his destiny”. Stephen is under the influence of the Fairy even though he does not want it, and he finds himself repeatedly taken from his master’s house to strange lands where he has no choice but to keep his abductor company.
Little did Norrell know that the deal he made for saving Mrs Pole’s life would have such unimaginable consequences for the young lady. Like Stephen, she is also abducted at night and taken to a strange mansion where beautiful ladies and handsome gentlemen dance until dawn, whether they wish it or not. This brought to mind the name of a Brothers Grimm fairy-tale, The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes, in which twelve princesses go away to a magic castle and dance until dawn. I wonder who’s going to break the spell.
Both Stephen and Mrs Pole have tried to tell other people what is happening to them, in an attempt to free themselves from the magic that forced them away from their home. Neither succeeded, because as soon as they started talking, some bizarre tales came from their lips, while the words they truly wanted to say never made it out.
The Fairy goes as far as to abduct the king of England who is mad, and even to make plans to add Mrs Strange to his nightly gatherings by taking her away from her husband.
The partnership of the two magicians goes well at first, and together they are able to render their services to the British government. Norrell is still the insufferable selfish old man but this carefully built appearance cracks when Strange decides to go his own way. Drawlight also disappears from the story, and I could not help but feel pity for him, in spite of the trouble he got himself into.
The pace has picked up in this volume and I am enjoying the book a lot more. Also, small changes in the language like sopha and headach give the story a certain aura, like reading something that was written long ago. It is obvious that the author had gone to great lengths and probably a lot of research to write a book in which the language feels in accordance with the times.
As for the characters, there is a lot more about Mr Strange and his adventures in this volume, and even if he is constantly with his head in a book, I could not help but smile at his absentmindedness.
There are also many references to The Raven King, or John Uskglass, the first and most important of English magicians, and while Norrell does everything in his power to banish the memory of him from England, Strange is fascinated with the man and begins writing a book which includes the magician’s name.
This volume ends quite unexpectedly, with a death.
I hope the last volume will bring the answers to some questions, like what happened to Vinculus, and if Stephen Black does become the king of England and if Mrs Pole will ever be free from the Fairy’s influence. And most of all, what part does The Raven King play in the story.
I leave you with some of my favorite passages:
His lordship was in really excellent spirits that summer and he greeted Strange almost affectionately. “Ah, Merlin! There you are! Here is our problem! We are on this side of the river and the French are on the other side, and it would suit me much better if the positions were reversed.”
When he awoke it was dawn. Or something like dawn. The light was watery, dim and incomparably sad. Vast, grey, gloomy hills rose up all around them and in between the hills there was a wide expanse of black bog. Stephen had never seen a landscape so calculated to reduce the onlooker to utter despair in an instant.
“This is one of your kingdoms, I suppose, sir?” he said.
“My kingdoms?” exclaimed the gentleman in surprise. “Oh, no! This is Scotland!”
Henry tried again. “Well, surely, you will agree that a great improvement could be made simply by cutting down those trees that crowd about the house so much and darken every room? They grow just as they please – just where the acorn or seed fell, I suppose.”
“What?” asked Strange, whose eyes had wandered back to his book during the latter part of the conversation.
“The trees,” said Henry.
“Those,” said Henry, pointing out of the window to a whole host of ancient and magnificent oaks, ashes and beech trees.
“As far as neighbours go, those trees are quite exemplary. They mind their own affairs and have never troubled me. I rather think that I will return the compliment.”
“But they are blocking the light.”
“So are you, Henry, but I have not yet taken an axe to you.”
“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”
Here are the links to the other participants’ reviews of Volume II:
She cups her tea in both hands, fingers wrapping around the cup and meeting on the other side.
I’ve read this in a review on Vishy’s blog and I felt instantly moved. I can’t quite explain why, but perhaps it was the feeling of intimacy and loneliness that the image conveyed, and ever since then I’ve wanted to read this book. A few months later, and here I am, the book read, my thoughts ready.
Glaciers is a novel about a young woman, Isabel, who spends her days working in a library and her free time collecting vintage postcards and photographs, and shopping for vintage dresses. Told in short chapters, her story alternates between past and present, a movement which creates a constant shift in the narrative, quite like a wave. One moment we see what the city of Portland looks like in the morning when she makes her way to work, and the next we are taken back in time to her childhood spent in Alaska – a trip on a ferry and seeing an iceberg break from a glacier. Between the swirl of leaves in the crisp air and the coldness of the dying glaciers, the author reveals details about Isabel’s world – her longing for faraway places – Amsterdam is one of them – the stories she imagines about people whose names she finds on the back of postcards, her love for books – she works in the preservation and conservation department at the library, where she spends her days taking care of damaged books, the wounded.
The solitude of printed words, the quiet companionship of her cat, and the short conversations she has with Spoke, her co-worker whom she secretly has a crush on, make for a nice routine. Spoke has been to Afghanistan as a soldier, is well-liked at work, and he is quiet, just like Isabel. The attraction between them is palpable but repressed, their conversations apparently mundane. It may have gone on like this for a while, but when Spoke has to leave, Isabel suddenly realizes time is running short. Soon, he will be a memory, a moment in time, just like the postcards she collects. Her fondness for things that belonged to other people and damaged books can be a reason why she is attracted to Spoke in the first place. They are both quiet, enjoy their routine, and are marked by a past they can’t seem to shake.
I started the book and read a few pages, then put it away for a few days until this past weekend. Then I picked it up again and read it in one sitting. At just under 180 pages, the book is nicely paced and the writing easy to read. Its melancholy tone and beautiful writing convey a sense of fragility that is both compelling and profoundly marked by sadness. It’s almost as if we know something dramatic is going to happen while at the same time we can’t hope but wish that Isabel finds the happiness she deserves. There is, however, a ray of light at the end of this tunnel of melancholy in the final pages, when the story comes full circle and brings about the hope of a new start. Tell us a story about longing, her friend Michael asks her at a party, and Isabel finds herself talking about her dreams and in doing so, breaks free of the past she has long been a captive of.
I loved this book for its ability to shift between sadness and hope, between a melancholy past and the possibility of a better future. It wasn’t love at first sight, but it suddenly hit me while reading about the child Isabel (whom her father calls Belly) going on a trip to a Salvation Army Thrift Store with her father.
“There are treasures everywhere”, her father says, and Belly is still too young to understand the meaning of the word “treasure”.
“Belly, he said,…, it’s a treasure if you love it. It doesn’t matter how much it costs, or whether anyone else wants it. If you love it, you will treasure it, does that make sense?”
Literary references, such as Giovanni’s Room (1956) by James Baldwin brought back to mind John Irving’s In One Person, where this book is also mentioned, and I was wondering why it came up here as well, then I got the answer when the writer introduces Isabel’s best friend, Leo, who is gay, and has a penchant for writing his name on books he borrows from the library. Other literary references include Our Lady of the Flowers (1943) by French author Jean Genet, Apartment in Athens (1945) by American writer Glenway Wescott, and The Good Soldier (1915) by English novelist Ford Madox Ford.
In one chapter called “Architecture”, Isabel describes a visit to her aunt and uncle’s house. As I read the first few lines where the nine-year-old Isabel talks about the smell of a particular incense, nag champa, I had to smile, because I got a box of it a couple of weeks ago as a gift from someone who visited India, and now I could smell it and know exactly what the author was talking about. This is yet another little detail that helped me make a connection with the book.
Even though this is not a diary, it felt like one to me. Perhaps it’s the smallness of the book, the way the pages don’t align when it’s closed, and the intimate tone of the story. For some reason, while reading it I had a sudden urge to start drawing in it, the way one might draw in a diary, around the words. But I didn’t, because to write in books feels to me like some sort of abomination, an intrusion on someone else’s work.
Some of my favorite passages:
Like other great creatures before them, the glaciers were dying, and their death, so distant and unimaginable, was a spectacle not to be missed. The ferry slowed where a massive glacier met the ocean; a long, low cracking announced the rupture of ice from glacier; then came the slow lunge of the ice into the sea. This is calving – when part of a glacier breaks free and becomes an iceberg – a kind of birth. The calving sent waves, rocking the ferry. Hands gripped railings and feet separated on gridded steel. There were shouts of appreciation and fear, but nothing like grief, not even ordinary sadness.
It’s never the wedding dresses, you know. We keep those, too, but only because they’re so blooming expensive. No. I’ve seen enough old ladies’ closets to know what we really hold on to. Not the till-death-do-us-part dresses. It’s those first lovely dresses: the slow dance dresses, the good-night-kiss dresses. It’s those first pangs we hold on to.
My rating: 4/5 stars
*Read in January 2014
It seems like I’m starting this year’s reading with books about magic. The first one I read, The Night Circus, was a nice introduction to the subject of magic, complete with amazing spells and a love story worthy of Shakespeare. This time, romance gets a back seat and instead of Romeo and Juliet, we get Mr Norrell and Mr Strange, two magicians who couldn’t be more different.
He hardly ever spoke of magic, and when he did it was like a history lesson and no one could bear to listen to him.
So begins Susanna Clarke’s tale of magic, but even though the words above would perfectly describe one of the two magicians in the book, he does not appear in the story right away.
The story begins with an introduction of some respectable gentlemen who got together once a month, in the city of York in the year 1808. These gentlemen would talk about magic, without ever actually attempting any magical spell. Indeed the slightly ironical tone of the narrator indicates that discussing this subject is a gentlemanly endeavor, while actually putting the knowledge into practice would be out of the question. Into this gathering comes John Segundus, who is of a different opinion. He causes quite a stir when he asks the others why nobody is attempting to bring magic back to Britain, and this very pertinent question brings discord among the men present. Most of the gentlemen do not approve of the question but one Mr Honeyfoot befriends Segundus and together they decide to look for a magician. Segundus talks about a “street magician, a vagabonding, yellow curtain sort of fellow with a strange disfiguration” who, in exchange for a considerable amount of money, told him that magic would be restored in Britain by two magicians. Alas, he was told he was not one of them.
Their quest for a magician prove to be fruitful in the end, as they follow up a rumor that an old magician was living secluded on his estate, spending his time studying magic in his amazing library stocked with wonderful and quite ancient books on magic. Segundus writes a letter inviting him to join their society, and after he and Mr Honeyfoot travel to meet the reclusive magician, who is of a not so friendly nature, they ask him the same question that Segundus asked the gentlemen-magicians: Why is no more magic done in England? Mr Norrell, the old magician, replies that he is in fact “quite a tolerable practical magician”, which astounds the two visiting gentlemen, who bring back the news to the other magicians. In the end, Mr Norrell receives a letter in which his claim to practical magic is doubted and this would bring about a most interesting challenge. He is willing to prove the Learned Society of York Magicians his magical abilities in exchange for the said society to disband and give up any claim to the title of magician. All agree except Segundus, and Mr Norrell accepts the challenge. On the day decided for the experiment to take place, the gentlemen magicians convene at the appointed place, a cathedral, where Mr Norrell proves his claim to the status of magician was well founded.
This is but a first step into bringing Mr Norrell out of his secluded estate and into the world, and he decides to move to London and use his magic powers to aid Britain in the war with Napoleon’s troupes. In spite of his willingness to use his powers in the war against the French, nobody is quite prepared to believe him but with the help of Mr Drawlight and Mr Lascelles he gradually finds his way into the English nobility and after innumerable dinner parties an occasion presents itself for Mr Norrell to show his magical powers.
By bringing back to life the young future wife of a prominent member of Parliament, Mr Norrell finds the opportunity he was looking for. Mr Walter Pole shows his gratitude by introducing the magician to the other politicians and he finally has the chance to prove himself by performing an ingenious piece of magic that helps his country considerably.
Mr Norrell’s second act of magic has unexpected repercussions, as the spell he cast to bring back the future Mrs Pole could not be done without a Fairy, a being of an unusual appearance who causes all kinds of disturbances among the servants of the young lady. He goes so far as to insinuate himself in the life of Stephen Black, butler of Mr Pole, who begins to see things he shouldn’t see and to hear things he shouldn’t hear. Not only him, but the other servants as well. The melancholy sound of a bell plague some, while others actually meet the Fairy (a gentleman with silver hair) while in the house, and begin to talk of spirits and ghost-like apparitions. Mrs Pole, who was the very picture of health after her revival, lapses into a comatose state, to the despair of her husband.
Meanwhile, Mr Norrell is anxious that no other magicians exist to dispute his claim of being the only magician in Britain and by a series of actions contrives to drive away any who boast magical powers. Vinculus is one of them, and with the help of his valet, Childermass, Mr Norrell is able to drive the vagabond magician out of London. While in the countryside, Vinculus meets Jonathan Strange, a gentleman who had just lost his father and who was on his way to see a young lady he hoped to convince of being his wife. Vinculus claims that Strange is a magician, and a famous one, to the amusement of the said gentleman, who, in an attempt to impress Miss Arabella Woodhope, his love interest, tells her that very evening that he intends to study magic. He proves his intentions by casting a spell which Vinculus had given him written on a piece of paper, and conjures up the image of none other than Mr Norrell at work in his study.
It took me a while to get immersed into the nineteen century England, and the story was slow going at first. The omniscient narrator adds a lot of detail, and a somewhat annoying amount of lengthy fictitious footnotes which I read because I did not want to miss any detail that may come up in the story later on (I do like the explanations but preferred they were somehow integrated into the story itself). One can feel immersed in the time period, the language does a very good job of conveying the atmosphere, down to the Dickensian cast of characters very aptly named: Vinculus (from Latin vinculum – bond, link), Honeyfoot – a very amiable gentleman; Drawlight – a gentleman of low means but quick wit, an opportunist; Stephen Black – a black valet, tall, handsome, and well-educated; Jonathan Strange who is, well, strange, and the list goes on.
Mr Norrell is not an agreeable person. He rather brings to mind Scrooge, by his attitude to people in general and his selfish, morose, and utterly boring ways. His library is extensive and he had made sure no other man could claim the title of magician but him. If we are to believe the hints dropped here and there, Mr Norrell is actually responsible for the demise of a number of magicians. His hope is that he is the only magician in Britain, and the glory is his alone. His conversations are more like lectures on the subject of magic, and he doesn’t bother to hide his low opinion of other people. Fortunately for him and his reputation as a great magician, Drawlight and Lascelles more than make up for the magician’s rigid views and somber disposition. They become Norrell’s eyes and ears in the English society, as they know the proper etiquette (and the right flattering words) so much better than the old magician. To read about them was quite entertaining – their intentions are based on nothing but self interest and they are determined to profit from their connection with the magician.
Women play a decisive role in reviving the magic in Britain. First Mrs Pole, whose resurrection causes quite a commotion and establishes Mr Norrell’s reputation as a practicing magician, and Miss Woodhope, the woman whom Jonathan Strange tries to impress by declaring he will study magic.
The distinction between social classes is also portrayed, and we find out the difference between a country servant and a London servant, and the tricks they played on each other. So far, the story mixes actual events and fiction in an ingenious matter, down to the glum winter days and the embellished speech of the characters.
The pace of the novel felt quite slow at times but on a story of this size and with so many details woven in, I guess it is to be expected. Towards the end of Volume I, an account of Jonathan Strange’s life is given, which serves to pave the way for the next volume, named after this gentleman.
Looking forward to see what happens next. I’m not a big fan of Norrell, whom I think a rather dull and not so nice character but perhaps there will be something in the next volumes that will change my opinion. I find him and Vinculus to be the most intriguing characters so far.
If you are taking part in this read-along, feel free to comment and leave a link to your review of the first volume. I am curious to see what you think about the story up to this point and if there’s something you liked or disliked in particular.
Update: Links to the blogs of the other participants and their opinions about Volume I:
A fantastical adventure complete with magic, love, kittens and lots of delicious things to eat, The Night Circus seemed like a promising story. Not only is the setting a perfect playground for any possibilities, but the characters are mysterious and the magic is real, even if the action is a bit on the slow side.
Two old rival magicians make a pact. They will each train a student in the magic arts with the ultimate goal of pitting them against one another in a competition to the death. Apparently this was done before so each of them know exactly what they are doing. Or so they think. Prospero the Enchanter, or Hector Bowen by his real name, and Alexander, the mysterious man in the grey suit, each choose a student. Prospero chooses his daughter, Celia, whom he calls Miranda (a nod to Shakespeare), and Alexander picks an orphan boy whom he decides to train as a magician.
The setting is a magical circus designed specifically for this purpose, Le Cirque des Reves (The Circus of Dreams) complete with acrobats, tents in black and white, wonderful snacks and a clock that is nothing short of extraordinary. The circus comes and goes without warning, but its followers, called reveurs, seem to know exactly where it’s going. The two opponent magicians, Marco and Celia, trained from childhood and now all grown up, find themselves thrust into a challenge none of them want to complete, especially since love gets in the way and they can’t accept the fact that in order for one of them to win, the other has to die, and the circus is nothing more than the arena of their challenge.
I really liked the idea the book is based on – two rivals, a competition, complications, magic, but in spite of all that something felt a bit odd. The competing magicians are perfect, they have no flaws (beautiful, young, etc.), their impossible love (the Romeo and Juliet kind) too predictable and unreal (he was actually with somebody else for quite a while), and the ending too happily-ever-after.
There are no true villains, unless one considers Alexander a villain – he is cold, detached and uninterested in his apprentice beyond pushing him to read or occasionally taking him out to see magic plays or visit museums, or Prospero – for selfishly putting his ambitions first and teaching Celia how to heal herself by repeatedly slicing open her fingers. There are no consequences to their acts, and the two lovers do not fight back.
What I liked was the description of magic – the wishing tree with its candles symbolizing wishes, the ice garden, the ability of the magicians to change their looks and their clothes, and the description of delicious food which made me google “chocolate mice”. I enjoyed this book but felt it came short of its promise of an exciting adventure and a fight to the death. It’s entertaining, easy to read, and the writing is delicate like a sugar confection, but I wish there was more to it than that.
My rating: 3/5 (based on the Goodreads system).
*Read in January 2014
Today marks the beginning of the Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell read-along. I am really excited to start this project and would like to thank the bloggers who are joining Vishy and I for this reading adventure. If you want to take part in this read-along, all you have to do is leave a comment and start reading, and if you have a blog, provide a link to your review. You can also do a post about the start of the read-along, but this is entirely optional. So here we go.
Looking forward to reading your review of Volume I next Saturday.
Every once in a while I come across a book that sounds like a lot of fun but the size makes me question my willingness to get involved in reading it. Such a book was Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell which I got in a book exchange at my book club. The edition I have also has tiny writing – yet another minus, but in spite of that, the premise sounded too good to pass by: the action happens in the 1800s and there are magicians involved. Also, Vishy, a friend from the blogosphere, came up with the idea of a read-along and the odds shifted significantly in favor of reading this book. After all, it’s always easier and a lot more fun when other people come along for the adventure. If you’d like to be one of these people, grab a copy of the book and come join us.
Here are the rules:
1. The read-along starts on 11th January (this coming Saturday)
2. The book is divided into three volumes, so the read-along will take place across three weeks:
• Volume I: Mr Norrell (261 pages) – review to be posted on 18th January
• Volume II: Jonathan Strange (368 pages) – review to be posted on 25th January
• Volume III: John Uskglass (369 pages) – review to be posted on 1st of February
3. If you’d like to participate, write in the comments (here or on Vishy’s blog, or both if you like) and link back to your blog. This way I can add your review to the weekly post. You can also join at any time during the read-along.
The first chapter can be read online HERE
2013 was a good year for books. Not as great as the previous couple of years but still okay. Out of the thirty books I’ve read, these are the ones I enjoyed the most.
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume II by Arthur Conan Doyle
Although I’m not a great fan of detective stories, I love Conan Doyle’s most famous character and his trusted sidekick. The fact that the action is set during the Victorian period also contributed a lot to making me like this book. Hopefully I’ll get to read volume I this year. And everything else Sherlock Holmes.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
I have wanted to read this book for a long time and when I did it was amazing. Gothic horror novel, three impossible words to resist. It is very likely that I will read it again.
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
As short stories go, this one is a treasure of a book. I particularly liked Other People because the end was perfection and unexpected. All I can say is that it starts with a demon and it’s not a happy story. Also the poem The Day the Saucers Came, which is not about saucers but something else entirely, left me in a melancholy state. There are also notes about how Gaiman got the idea for each story. I’ve always liked those.
Give Me Your Heart: Tales of Mystery and Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates
My first Joyce Carol Oates book, and it was a pleasure to read. Love gone wrong, suspicions, murder, all blend together in these tales that shine a light into the darkest corners of the human heart. I will definitely read more books by this author, perhaps The Accursed although it’s a huge book and I’m not particularly fond of huge books. Unless they’re written by Stephen King.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
This is a book that melted my heart. Gaiman’s story of a childhood revisited is nothing short of wonderful – there’s magic, a great friend, and a black kitten. I loved that kitten.
In One Person by John Irving
It took me a while to get used to Irving’s slow pace – this book taught me patience and given its subject, the journey of a man who tries to come to terms with his sexuality, it was an interesting read. I also liked A Widow for One Year, maybe a little bit better. I think A Prayer for Owen Meany should be next on my list.
The Observations by Jane Harris
A Victorian adventure imbued with humour, wit, and secrets, Bessy’s tale is nothing short of entertaining, while her distinctive voice gives the book a truly Victorian feel. One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.
The Road Home by Rose Tremain
The story of Lev, an East European trying to find a better life in London grabbed me from the first page. It brought back memories, and it’s one of the things I loved this book for. A bitter-sweet tale about fighting for your dreams. Inspirational.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The best book I have read last year. The kind that breaks your heart but you love it anyway. The kind that makes you want to start re-reading again because you just can’t accept the fact that it’s over. It combines a heart breaking story with incredible story-telling and superb writing. And stories within stories. And the narrator is Death, how amazing is that?
Zusak’s tale of an orphan girl trying to survive during World War II is not just a story of survival but one of love, and an ode to books everywhere. If you liked Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 you’re going to love this. I stopped many times and just stared at the words and marked the pages which had the most beautiful paragraphs. And I put those beautiful words together. I call it “The Book Thief Poem”.
What amazing books did you read in 2013?