Death Comes to Pemberley

death comes to pemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James

Can I make a confession here? I would like to think that this blog is a safe space, where I can open up and be honest with you. So here it goes:

I have never really loved Jane Austen.

It feels good to get that off my chest. I know that she’s a wonderful author. I know that I should love her. As a well read, well-educated feminist woman of a certain race and socioeconomic status, it’s practically required. And it’s not that I dislike her. She’s fine. And of the Austen books, Pride and Prejudice is definitely my favorite, and one I’ve grown to appreciate more. It’s just, well, British Victorian books and comedies of manners and all that aren’t exactly my thing. I tend to get frustrated and want to yell at everyone to just say what they’re thinking. And the excruciating politeness of it all just seems exhausting;^ I do not think I would enjoy living in that particular place and time.

Unfortunately, it’s not just that Jane Austen is a beloved author and her books are classics. For some reason, a bunch of culture, especially high-brow women’s culture, in recent years is now centered around Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice. Finding Mr. Darcy. The song “Oh Mr. Darcy.” This entire Etsy page. The book is everywhere. (Oddly enough focused far too often on how wonderful Mr. Darcy is, whose main qualification is that he realized he was being a jerk and liked Elizabeth. There should really be more feminist self-help on how to be Elizabeth than how to find Mr. Darcy.) Enter Death Comes to Pemberley, by acclaimed mystery novelist P.D. James.

Death Comes to Pemberley follows the Darcies a few years out from their marriage and the end of Pride and Prejudice. They are established and happily married, although Darcy’s relations still do not entirely approve. A ball is in the works, two suitors are vying for the hand of Darcy’s sister, Georgina, and they have two young boys. Their life is thrown into disarray, however, when Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia, shows up in a state, screaming that her husband, Darcy’s former friend George Wickham, has been killed in the woods. Instead, after a search party is mounted, they find Wickham covered in blood, dragging his friend, Captain Martin Denny, and saying that he killed his only friend. From there the mystery proceeds.

I thought the book was fun enough, and I do enjoy a good old fashioned British mystery. James captured the style of Austen quite well, and clearly did a great deal of research, or was already familiar with, the legal systems of Victorian Britain. I don’t remember Pride and Prejudice well enough to say how accurate it was in terms of all the relationships, but James has enough attention to detail that I assume all of that is correct. I will say that whether or not it was accurate or true to the original, I very much enjoyed all of the character work in Death Comes to Pemberly. Not just Elizabeth and Darcy, who have the sort of amicable and respectful marriage that I imagine most of the fans dream of for them, but the household staff, other magistrates, and even the most incidental characters seem to have clear personalities, motivations and a thought-out purpose. I do enjoy that sort of attention in a book.

I am sure that a hardcore Pride and Prejudice fan would get far more out of this book than I did. As I mentioned, I didn’t get all of the allusions to the actual story, and I am still frustrated by everyone in Victorian England who won’t just say what they mean. I still greatly enjoyed this book, though, even being only vaguely familiar with the story. James is a talented writer, and an excellent story teller. I definitely recommend, for Austen fans and mystery fans alike.

*As long as I’m confessing all the ways I’m betraying my race, socioeconomic status and womanhood, you know what else I don’t love? La La Land. It was fine, better than not doing anything, I suppose. But that’s it. It was kind of boring!°

°I don’t want to give the impression I’m some brave countercultural independent thinker, though. I still enjoy British crime dramas, drinking white wine during the day, brunch, mommy bloggers, and all the other things you’d expect.

^And yes, I know I was just full of praise for a different Victorian novel. Honestly, part of the reason I was so gushing there is because it is rare that I would so thoroughly enjoy one.

Advertisements

The Circle

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)The Circle, Dave Eggers

I read this a while ago, and hadn’t quite gotten around to writing the review. But since the movie is coming out soon, this seems as good as time as any to catalogue my thoughts. So let’s begin, shall we?

The Circle is Dave Eggers attempt at a cautionary tale. The story chronicles Meg, the stand in for all of us, fresh out of college and with a serious lack of confidence and yearning to prove herself. Her college roommate, Amanda, who is gorgeous, rich, athletic, brilliant, and generally better at everything than Meg or any of us, is employed in the upper echelons of the Circle, a bit of a Google/Apple hybrid, and gets Meg a job there, too. The Circle has a giant campus, controls social media, online shopping, entertainment, biometrics, artificial intelligence, technology hardware, and so on and so forth. It has pioneered TruID, a program to ensure people are posting and purchasing things under their own names, which revolutionized the internet and also made The Circle the gatekeepers for most things online. They are prestigious, and a dream company to work for. They only want what’s best for all of us, and are our benevolent overlords, or would be if we would only let them. I’m sure you can intuit where this is going.

I am generally a fan of Dave Eggers, who, for all his faults, I find to be an engaging writer. So let’s start with what I liked. I, well, loved is the wrong term, but I thought the oppressive concern The Circle had for their employees, the yearning for them to be a part of The Circle for everything, for the company to be a family, made me cringe. The Circle is all of the worst of Silicon Valley on steroids. They have dorms for employees to sleep at in case they stay at work too late. They have numerous social groups that they require invite their employees to join. They have happy hours or social outings or team building events almost every night. They have rec rooms and gyms and cafeterias for all the employees to use, so why wouldn’t you?

Early on in the book Meg is invited to speak with her boss and chastised on a few occasions for going home on the weekends, for not having a high ‘social ranking’ (for interaction with her Facebook and Twitter stand ins), for not joining any of the social groups. These conversations are all too realistic and were legitimately squirm inducing for an introvert and anti-forced-fun individual like myself. Imagine the flair scene from Office Space times 1000 and even more uncomfortable because the boss sincerely believes what he’s selling. *shudders*

The other thing that he nails, at least from my limited experience, is the bizarre psychology of rating everything and everyone all the time. This is a weird thing we do these days, right? And we’re obsessed with it! Not just obsessed with the chance to rate everything constantly, but also that anything less that CONSTANT PERFECTION is terrible, and anything less than total love means that we’re failures. And there are many disruptors who think this is good! There’s even a couple of tech bros who now want to replace tips with a rating system in their app that will pay out ‘tips’ based on your rating that you can basically only spend in-app. *shudders* This is so terrible for so many reasons. But psychologically, it means we are now obsessed with either our publicity* or our popularity, and expect constant approbation. At one point, Meg is debuting a new feature and The Circle administration does an instant poll asking, “Is Meg just the best?” And she ends up obsessing over the 6% or so (I can’t remember the exact number) who said no, thinking constantly about how 6% of the employees hate her. And, yeah, that’s about what all of this does to us.

Okay, now that I’ve explained some of the things Eggers absolutely got right, I will admit that I still didn’t care for the book. My first complaint is, admittedly, rather nitpicky. But I think it’s an important nit to pick. The introduction to the book explains how one of the ways that The Circle had managed to capture almost all of the internet was through the TruID program, which wouldn’t let anyone post or comment or buy things without authentication of their real self. This cut down on trolling and online bullying, and made everyone love The Circle. Throughout the book, this is a major theme. That part of the way The Circle is able to get everyone to love the and the work they do—because by being transparent, and making sure people can’t hide behind pseudonyms and anonymity they’ve ended this online cruelty and will make people behave better. This is, quite frankly, the type of thing that people who didn’t use the internet much said back when blogs were first a thing. In reality, though, verified checks and getting people to use their names is not such a check on cruelty. That’s just, really, really not how the whole thing works and it makes me think that anyone who says it is doesn’t actually know that much about social media and the internet.

And then there’s how Meg is kind of a wuss of an audience stand in. She’s supposed to be all of us, hesitant about some of this and then embracing it quickly. Okay, yeah, that happens, but she doesn’t really put up a fight at all. Come on. Let’s make the audience stand in a little less easily manipulated.

But the real issue for me is what is always the cardinal sin of a book. Giving your message with a sledge hammer. Remember how I said you could see where everything was going from the set up? Yeah, we know everything that is going to happen. Maybe not the details, but definitely the broad strokes. And we know how we’re supposed to feel.  There is actually, literally, a shark discovered by The Circle’s science expeditions that viciously devours anything it comes in contact with, even if the shark isn’t hungry, and no animal can stand a chance against it. Yeah, that happens. Can you guess what it represents? Here is an actual video taken of me at the exact moment I read that part of the book.

I do not like being told what to think, and I do not like heavy handed metaphors! They are even more irksome than the somewhat irritating sex scenes, and some of the more poorly thought out plot points. (Listen, the problem with there being absolutely no privacy isn’t that there are major skeletons in everyone’s closet. It’s that all the little things can be twisted and that no none is perfect and also that then there’s no privacy).

So, overall, I have to rate the book only a three out of five stars. There were some really good points. But overall, it was just too obvious, and too uncomfortable, and too heavy handed in too many sections for me to, in good faith, rate it higher.

*I have had both Facebook and Twitter let me know which of my posts on my personal account are doing well and also let me know how to pay to boost them. Like I need to be doing A/B testing on my random thoughts on the podcast I’m listening to? Like I should keep track of the pictures of which of my kids gets the most interaction? This is so, so, bizarre.

La’s Orchestra Saves the World

La's Orchestra Saves the World

La’s Orchestra Saves the World

La’s Orchestra Saves the World, Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is known for his series, such as the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, the 44 Scotland Street books, and the Sunday Philosophy Club Series.  I’ve picked up one or two from the others, but my mother and I particularly enjoy and share the 44 Scotland Street series with each other, which I first started reading when I was on maternity leave with my first child.  For the most part I enjoy McCall Smith, his books offering little slice of life vignettes, and providing light, pleasurable and easy reading.  I especially appreciate the way that he can sketch out a character with just a few lines, using just a brief spotlight on their activity or thoughts to provide an insight into who they are and allowing you to fully appreciate the person.  An author who is skilled with characters is a treat to read, and can often tell a whole story within a paragraph.

Unfortunately, I don’t think La’s Orchestra Saves the World, a rare stand alone piece from McCall Smith, plays to his strengths.  In the story, Lavender (La) goes to college in the years before World War II, where she is pursued by and quickly marries a man who soon runs off with another woman.  His family, embarrassed, takes care of La and sets her up in their country home, where she lives throughout the War helping with a local farm, meeting a Polish refugee, and creating an amateur orchestra from the community that brings people together and saves the world.  Near the end of the book, the Cuban missile crisis has recently ended and, with the Cold War in full swing and the threat of nuclear war hanging over everything, she reconvenes the orchestra with a concert for peace.

My mom loved this book and recommended it to me since I play violin and piano and am generally in favor of concerts for peace and other corny things like that.  However, this book just didn’t work for me.  I rather enjoyed the beginning of it, which was mostly painting a picture of La as a smart woman who wants to accomplish things but is not particularly driven to break from the mold in the 30s, which I found a rather poignant portrait indeed.  However, once she moves to the country, once the war breaks out and the story begins, it rather drifted away from me.

For one thing, the book felt slight.  McCall Smith’s books are, to a great extent, slight, little appetizers that you might read before digging in to a meatier novel.  But while that is suitable in something like a 44 Scotland Street novel, it didn’t seem to work in a book about war and peace and love where we never get below those surface sketches of the characters.  On a similar line, there really wasn’t much of a story.  The orchestra takes its time in getting there, and then doesn’t do much.  The number of characters in the book is low, and then there are suddenly these many, many people who play in the orchestra and turn up for its reunion concert when nothing has really been done to show how this has impacted the community before.  There are people referencing the orchestra throughout the book, for sure, but the old maxim of show don’t tell holds here as well as in most story telling endeavors.

La’s Orchestra Saves the World is pleasant enough, but I felt like it was floating above the surface of a story without ever settling in.  I never understood how the orchestra saved the world, or even just the small corner of it that it was meant to affect, and i just never felt the there there.  I suppose I’ll stick with the series from here on out.

Hyperbole and a Half

Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh

  I must admit, it feels a little silly to write a review for Hyperbole and a Half, since if you’re online you’re probably familiar with Brosh’s fantastic weblog/comics.  And it’s not as if the world is lacking for reviews of this book.  But I have to write reviews of all the books I’ve read this year as a bit of mental discipline, and so write them I shall!  I am a woman of my word, even if no one but me knows I have made this pledge.  Also, I’ve been stuck on this review for several months and it’s led to a bit of a backlog.  So, allons-y!

Hyperbole and a Half is brilliant and hilarious and you should go and read it immediately.  That’s really all you need to know, but I suppose I”ll flesh this out a bit.  Her stories, illustrated with comics done in MS Paint, are funny and insightful and capture eternal truths about childhood, procrastination and dogs, but are so crazy that they barely seem like they can be true.  It’s difficult to explain why they are so funny–they just are.  To paraphrase something said before about John Hodgman, Brosh’s words and pictures are funnier than they have any right to be.

 

The book overall was a big hit with my family.  I had gotten it for my brother, for Christmas, and it quickly made it’s way around the family.  I read half of it there, but my brother selfishly wanted to keep his present, and so I had to purchase an entirely new copy when I got back.  My husband thought this was a poor investment since I read it so quickly, but it is almost infinitely re-readable.  Plus, it’s necessarily to have the book on hand to share the best stories with others, so they’ll know to buy the book, too.

In addition to the humorous–which seems an understatement–stories, are intensely personal stories about depression and anxiety.  Others online, including those who suffer from depression, have repeatedly said that Brosh’s accounts are some of the most accurate descriptions of depression they’ve ever seen.  I don’t suffer from depression, and fortunate in my mental health, so I can’t speak to that.  I can say, though, that more than almost anything else I’ve seen, this comic made me feel like I could understand what depression actually was.  It was a truly eye-opening account.

The fact is, Allie Brosh is an incredibly gifted storyteller and communicator, and one of the funniest people on the planet.  This review, and every other you’ll find online, are just ways to pad out the only review you really need, what I started out with: Hyperbole and a Half is brilliant and hilarious.  You should go read it.  Immediately.

Dad is Fat

Dad is Fat, Jim Gaffigan
Dad is Fat Book CoverI noticed that I got a few followers from my review of Queen Leona.  Thank you!  This will be a slightly less intellectual review.

My thoughts when starting to blog again this year were that it would make me start to write again, which I very much want to do, and would be good practice in starting–and finishing–small pieces.  My other thought was to catalog and review the books I’ve read this year.  This is a project I’ve considered for the past few years, but have never quite been able to follow up on.  I blame the kids.  I have a few from this year already to get through, and will continue to write reviews as I read throughout the year.  Many of these will be pretentious tomes like philosophy classics, and books by Eco.  But some not.  This one is not.

I’m a very big fan of Jim Gaffigan.  Although, really, who isn’t?  His “Hot Pockets” bit is the stuff of legend after all.  If you haven’t seen it, you should watch.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  Anyway, it’s funny, right?  And that’s why my husband got me this book for Christmas

This is a perfectly cromulant book as these things go.  It pulls heavily from his most recent comedy special, Mr. Universe, and focuses on the trials and tribulations of raising five (!!) kids in Manhattan.  The title of the book comes from the first sentence that one of his children wrote.  The book has some parts that made me chuckle out loud, but mostly it just passed the time.  It’s a very easy read, so it’s not as if it’s a major commitment to finish the book, it’s just not particularly engaging.

The problem with it is something I’ve noticed in other books by stand-up comedians, such as Lewis Black.  They’re just used to writing for a different medium.  The brief essays in the book would have been better being turned into stand up bits and jokes, and in fact the book is much funnier if you are familiar enough with Gaffigan to pretend he’s saying all of this instead of having it written.  The bits are very short, which does make the book convenient to read a few pages of at a time while you’re nursing a baby, which is mostly how I read it.  But it’s nothing too special.  The time would probably be better spent watching Gaffigan on netflix or youtube instead.