But it is boring. Not fond of the style, not interested in the story, more than apathetic about the characters. Abandoned.
I’ve heard a great deal about the audio books of (most of) the Dresden Files, read by James Marsters. Really, there is absolutely no need to sell me on the man who was Captain John Harper and – especially, and always – Spike. No need at all. Given the crankiness of the car, I also had no problem justifying the joining of audible.com, and so I downloaded Storm Front for $7.49 (such a deal!) (no, really!) and put it on my iPod.
Marsters doesn’t just read the story. He is Harry Dresden, telling me what happened to him late that summer. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s first person – which is hereby my new favorite book format: first person audio.) He gives as much attention to the details of making Harry real as he ever did for any onscreen character. I love it. During a fight his voice went low and fast, describing the action with intensity – and then made me laugh when he read a line of Harry’s outraged-at-an-uncalled-for-attack dialogue. Beautiful. Just beautiful.
And his Bob is just … dreamy. Not something I ever thought I’d say.
To my surprise, I’ve seen a lot of negativity – mostly from women – about Harry’s deeply ingrained chivalry – called by many chauvinism. Who the hell does he think he is to protect Murphy the way he does, she’s a grown woman and a cop for *!’s sake and she can take care of herself how dare he?? As I said, it took me by surprise; it’s not something that ever troubled me. It’s probably not something best addressed after reading just Storm Front again; it becomes a real problem later in the series, for some. Here’s my thinking on it after this first book, pseudo-psychology (for which I apologize) and all; there may be minor spoilers for Harry’s background.
My surprise comes from the fact that … well, he is what he is. He is tall, he is dark, he is powerful, he has a strongly developed sense of justice, and a perhaps over-developed sense of chivalry. It is what it is. When he meets with her here, Bianca observes that Harry is a gentleman, a charmingly passé thing to be. He pulls out her chair for her – before and again after she tries to kill him – and politely declines to comment on the change in her appearance when the human façade drops. Even if it wasn’t gauche to a deadly degree to comment, Harry wouldn’t; it would be rudeness to a(n apparent) woman.
(“I was passing polite to her” – *hugs Harry/Jim Butcher for using the word “passing” in this context*)
Harry doesn’t have much experience with women, either in a romantic sense or, really, any other. He’s not celibate, but he’s not nearly so un-celibate as he’d like. He could be rather more active, but he’s not, for many reasons. His mother died – was killed – when he was very young. The extensive Criminal Minds training I’ve received chimes in right there with the comment that this alone could account for his having an idealized image of Woman: he never had the chance to learn his mother had any ordinary human flaws, and therefore even as an adult, knowing she wasn’t perfect, he still has lodged deep within him that ideal image. And since he hasn’t known so many other women well, by extension that perfect image has not had too many strikes against it. He hasn’t had so very many romantic liaisons (one of the many reasons I hated the tv show, that error), he has never had a sister, and Murphy – particularly in the beginning – isn’t quite a friend; he doesn’t seem to have very many female friends, if any. Women are a race apart.
And let’s face it. Karrin Murphy aside, how many women are there – realistically – who could defend themselves in the sorts of situations Harry finds himself in? How many people, for that matter, male or female? I don’t find it at all unreasonable for Harry’s first instinct to be protect, without taking the extra moment to process the additional data: “Wait, it’s Murphy. She might be able to handle the demon by herself.” For him it’s emergency = reaction; I find it difficult to believe that people expect him to hesitate to try to protect anyone who happens to be nearby, female or not, in the situations he finds himself in. And in truth, no amount of martial arts expertise or firearms proficiency is going to help much against a summoned demon or a PO’d vampire.
I don’t accept the interpretation that Harry thinks women are in any way weak. He’s not stupid. He has a great deal of respect for women. For him, being a gentleman, that old-fashioned role, is the way that respect is expressed. When he takes risks to protect, say, Murphy, it isn’t a result of stepping back and thinking “Geez, Murph can’t handle this. She’s all little and female and all. I’d better do it.” It doesn’t matter who the person beside Harry is, if they’re not another wizard. It’s instinctual: if it’s something paranormal, he has the skills to handle it, and he will. He can’t help it. He shouldn’t help it.
While reading I never really noticed that every time Harry encounters a woman, the detailed description of her includes her makeup. It’s another complaint I’ve heard about the books: every time, we the readers find out what a woman is wearing in clothes and cosmetics. I did notice it more in the audio, probably because my nose was rubbed in it prior to listening. On the one hand, I get it – Butcher really, really wants his reader to see the characters. But on the other hand I admit it’s a little odd. But on the other hand it does make sense – he’s a PI and a wizard, both of which callings require strong observational skills. Where most men might take notice of too much or too little makeup, Harry – not unlike Holmes, in other recent reading – sees more. Clothing and cosmetics indicate quite a bit about a woman: economic status, personality, sometimes intent. A woman in full war paint wearing Jimmy Choos is probably going to be very different in reaction and conversation from a woman in lip gloss and Nikes, or no makeup and Birkenstocks; it’s self defense to make note of the appearance a woman presents to the world. And, on the other hand, he makes note of similar details about everyone – it doesn’t bother me.
In other words, I can and will find excuses for any perceived flaw in Harry or the books. They’re just that good.
Storm Front was never my favorite Dresden, though way back when it was more than enough to thoroughly hook me on the series. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is that I don’t like about it; I love so many of the elements: the introductions to many of the major characters we’ll be spending the series with; the carefully stingy doling out of information on Harry’s past, promising further exploration later (I admire Jim Butcher’s skill at doling out the information – about Harry’s past, his present, and everything else); the three-dimensionality of the second-tier characters like Monica and Johnny
Marcone and Mac. The story is well told and solid, and given that it’s a first person narrative from the hero’s point of view I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that in the end good triumphs over evil in a big way. So I don’t know where the visceral reluctance is toward the book; it could be simply that the murders that begin the book are so brutal and sexually charged. I’m not fond of the cases Harry is dragged into. It’s a heck of a beginning when the big strong hero loses his lunch over a crime scene.
Membership to audible.com: $7.49 a month for the first three months, $14.95 a month thereafter. Storm Front download: one credit. James Marsters reading the line “You may think you know something about vampires” and then talking about a character named Spike … Priceless.
Probably two and a half stars, with a dash of generosity. I might change my mind. Never been so glad to finish a recreational book. Ever.
This will be, as often happens with me, long and a little spoilery, though I have retained most of the spoilers for my blog post. Still, please read at your own risk if you haven't read (or listened to) the book.
First of all, Wil Wheaton. I chose the audiobook largely because of him. I mean, okay, I never cared for Wesley Crusher (okay, I couldn't stand him) (okay, I hated his precocious guts), but Wil himself is king of the geeks (or president, at least). Wil's narration of this book is very nicely done – and it totally doesn't hurt that he gets to read the occasional (not frequent enough, IMO) Star Trek reference. Or Wil Wheaton reference. However … I can't help but wonder if, for me at least, it might have improved my opinion if I had read it, words on paper. I'll come back to that.
The idea of the book is a beauty. It picks up on something nearly everyone knows about (DVD and, apparently, video game Easter eggs) and on something everyone has at least a tiny seed of a dream about (winning lots and lots of money), and on a tried-and-true enjoyable gimmick (the treasure hunt), and blends it all together with real or pseudo (depending on the reader's age) nostalgia, a completely plausible excuse to get mileage out of all that time spent in front of TV and video game screens.
But I was disappointed. In some places, very disappointed.
Every review and blurb I've seen about the book celebrates the nostalgia, and to a certain degree that's valid for me. I never memorized WarGames, but this made me want to see it again. I've been watching a lot of 80's sitcoms on DVD lately - TV really was better then, in a lot of ways. And yes, I did indeed play D&D, and so the moment at the end of Halliday's video that echoed a certain manual cover made me smile. Nothing else in the book made me as happy as: "Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Kodan Armada" - ! Yes, I did indeed say it along with him.
Keeping in mind, of course, that this story was a derivation of one man's 80's – Halliday's, heavily based, I presume, on Ernest Cline's – a good many things which were props and mainstays of my 80's are glanced at or missing entirely. ST:TNG was barely mentioned, and I thought it was the biggest geek Thing of the decade. Except for one thing: Princess Bride. Which was completely absent. Really? Are you joking? To my knowledge I've never, ever, met anyone in geek circles who can't (and doesn't) quote at least a quarter of the screenplay. Inconc- er, "ridiculous". Overall: nostalgia? Meh.
The writing … "Infodump" is what happens when plot is brought to a dead halt for a period of explanation – like traffic being held up at an intersection while a really boring parade passes by. The idea is to, whenever possible, weave necessary information seamlessly into the action and dialogue so that the reader knows what's going on without being bored out of her mind. Ernest Cline? Not great at this. The beginning was pretty solid. Unfortunately, the smile that lingered on my face from the D&D and especially the Last Starfighter references Chapter Zero, refreshed briefly by the sardonic tone at the beginning of "what they should have told me", was wiped away by a ham-handed diatribe against organized religion (my attitude: you and your characters can believe whatever you want, just don't shove it up my nose) and – there it is. Big fat infodump, with the extra detraction of a jarringly bitter tone. The whole "life sucks" section put me off enough that I walked away from the book for several days.
After two full commutes spent listening to yet more info being dumped ... if this had been in a different audio format I'd have been seriously tempted to chuck this particular CD or tape out the car window. It was around then that I decided that for every painful instance of egregious infodump I was taking off half a star from the rating I'd be giving this.
Another exasperating habit Cline has is Reality Show Recapping. Having Wade watching a blow-by-blow recap of the situation on the news - I know. I was there. Don't tell me again. *headmeetdesk* Where was the man's editor? The repetitiveness might not have been so grating on the page, but aloud it was just one headbanger after another. Hearing the whole damned scoreboard read out again and again and yet again was worse than listening to someone chomp on ice cubes. (I hate that.) In a table on a page it could be skimmed for relevant information.
Another problem I had: despite the fact that I'm not one of those who reads mystery novels to figure out the killer before the detective, and actually almost never do manage to do so, still – I was about two steps ahead of a lot of this book's plot developments. Where Wade should look for the copper key? Aech's secret? I called it. That's not good. Yes, there were some surprises, but even they, in retrospect, were thoroughly telegraphed.
The characters were not built to become favorites of mine. Of themselves, they were entertaining, but my interest was almost academic, watching to see just what their challenges would be rather than how they would overcome them, much less whether. There was never much of a doubt as to whether, never much doubt about who would win (and even in what order). It was the writing that failed them, or me, or both. The "High Five" were in their late teens and early twenties, and acted like it – most of the time. They messed about and used foul language and were otherwise as un-endearing as the species is capable of … except when the plot demanded they speak or behave with more maturity and wherewithal (other than financial) than anything before made probable or believable.
And, obviously, I have no respect for someone who blows off a Shakespeare quote.
One last note: Art3emis's female-shaped robot fired from its breasts?! Oh. My. God. Seriously, how many psychological connotations does that have?
The spoiler-free short version: The Count of Monte Cristo is an extraordinary, long, complex (as in, takes a large chart to keep relationships straight) work with a very simple story idea: a young man is horribly wronged, emerges from prison with a new life and a vast fortune, and uses that plus his very good mind to wreak vengeance on the people who ruined his life. It's fantastic, in every meaning of the word; it's different from what I expected and from nearly everything I've read before; it's a great adventure yarn with a lovely little romance thrown in (almost entirely counterbalanced by wrecked relationships, but still lovely) … In fact …
"Has it got any sports in it?"
"Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles..."
The giants and monsters are figurative in The Count, but they're in there – they are in there. There's actually very little fencing or fighting, and the torture is almost all mental, but … yeah. It's all there.
The story is, at its heart, very simple. A strong and handsome and capable young man is well on his way to having a golden life, complete with the girl he loves, until jealousy in those around him has him sent to prison on false charges. There he sits for seventeen years as the world spins on without him, his only relief from the dark solitude a fellow prisoner who takes him on a mad journey to escape, teaching him everything he could ever need to know about everything while they work at it. When he finally does escape, he embarks on a mad quest of his own, to have a subtle, vicious revenge on everyone who harmed him.
My review of said story isn't as simple. I began listening to the book almost a year ago (!), but this thing never coalesced. So, finally, here's what I've got, somewhat disjointed – more a collection of random scattered thoughts I jotted down during the read than what I'd actually call a review. Beware of spoilers.
I listened to the Audible audiobook read by Bill Homewood, and had a wonderful time – he made 52 hours and 45 minutes seem like only four days.
No, I kid – he gave a magnificent performance. The audio book I chose for a Goodreads Buddy Read is in 6 parts, totaling 52 hours & 45 minutes. In other words, two days, four hours, and forty-five minutes. Funnily enough, other versions were of wildly varying lengths – unabridged editions run between 45 hours and the one I picked, 52 hours and 45 minutes. There were also several abridged editions – from a dramatic presentation lasting an hour (how??) to a 17 hour abridgement – but despite its being the longest out there I liked the sample of this, and I think it was a good choice: Mr. Homewood is an excellent companion. I can only assume some translations were more succinct than others, or that where Mr. Homewood uses a different (extremely well done) voice for each character (resulting in different cadences), and gives each line its full dramatic weight, someone reading in one level tone might get through the material more quickly. For me a big part of the enjoyment was listening to the performance – he went all out on it, conveying real emotion and suspense and humor and dread in a magnificent one-man show. He deserves an award. Most actors' performances are one character in some fraction of a film or play or tv episode between one and three hours; this was 100% of nearly 53 hours, and fantastic. (I spent no little time marveling at how he kept the voices straight. I would be doing constant re-takes after reading Danglars's lines in Villefort's voice or some such.) (Not to mention the occasional cut to edit out my frustrated exclamations of "Wait, who the *&$! is THIS, now??")
From the beginning I was surprised at the sense of humor that pervades the book. If I had taken a good look at the portrait Wikipedia uses for M. Dumas, I might not have been – the humor in that face is wonderful. But I suppose despite so much evidence to the contrary I still retain the expectation, formed in high school, for literature more than a hundred years old to be dull and stodgy, especially the Victorians. It isn't fair – it's not the books, but the teachers, who (present company excepted, as applicable) do the damage to Dickens and Shakespeare and company. But, still, even knowing that M. Dumas buckled the ultimate swash in The Three Musketeers, I thought the language would be dense and impenetrable.
Which is so very much not the case.
It all depends on the translation, of course, and in the case of an audiobook on the reader. The translation I listened to was colloquial – often feeling very modern and oddly British (the character of Albert in particular was hilarious, and in many ways – especially given Bill Homewood's reading of him – verged on Bertie Wooster) - and casual (everyone, in every situation, says "Thanks", never "Thank you") – and much, much more fun than I expected. Yes, there are moments that made me smile inappropriately, such as after several minutes of strenuous detail followed by the rather unnecessary summing up of "Dantès was free" or "The Abbé was dead"; it's a style quirk that always vexes me, just a little.
Apart from that, this couldn't have been more accessible.
(Another little vexation: I am tempted to find an online source for The Count and do a search for the word "Well". I would want to discount any with the meaning of "place to fetch water" or "good" or such, and just count the ones that begin sentences. At first I thought it was just Caderousse who started every single sentence with "Well!" – but then I came to entire conversations where sentence after sentence began the same way. (What word translated to that, I wonder?))
Humans are strange creatures. Early on – before Dantès's arrest but after the plot against him has been conceived, if not born – M. Morrel turns to Danglars and repeats to him what Edmond had said about him: nothing bad, by any means; in fact, remarkably generous. Ah, I thought – he's going to feel a pang here, even though it might be short-lived: Dantès has nothing against him, or at the very least he said nothing against him to the owner. But no: his only response is to internally exclaim "Hypocrite!" I already knew he was a thorough Bad Guy – that was when I knew he was very far gone indeed.
And Dantès … Hope keeps welling up in Dantès, at every opportunity. He plunges to the depths of despair – but any time there is the least hint of light he throws his entire self at it and clings till long past the point when it's actually dead. And then at the very bottom of the depths of despair he finds – if not hope, then peace; the knowledge that he has the power to take his own life at any time he wishes gives him strength to carry on.
I wonder how different things would have been if one person besides the Abbé had held out a hand – at least, done so with Dantès' knowledge. His despair and the hardness that grew out of it hinged on the fact that he had been forgotten, that no one on earth knew or cared where he was. The second jailer did try to do something for him, but was thwarted; it seems he never told Dantès (wise, as it would have gotten hopes up fruitlessly). M. Morrel was constantly (until the final overthrow of Napoleon) trying to do something for him. But the gestures were ineffective and unknown to Dantès, and so his eventual escape is almost entirely his own doing. If a solitary person had aided him in any way, perhaps his determination on vengeance would not have been so hard and unyielding.
I thought it was a bit remarkable that Dantès should sit at the deathbed of the Abbé and think about killing himself – possibly committing "suicide by cop" – so as to follow after his friend and find him in the afterlife. Dantès, apparently, received little Christian education; it's a basic tenet that, without very good justification in terms of mental illness (and even then, in your stricter periods), suicides go to hell. There would be no reunion with the Abbé. I wonder if that was a blind spot in Dumas or in Dantès.
Except for one, the people of M. Dumas's world seem to fall into perhaps three categories: the good, the bad, and the weak. The good are unimpeachable – the Abbé, M. Morrel and his family, Edmond's father, Valentine; they are honest and long-suffering, would never take any unfair advantage to better their own lot. The bad are irredeemable – Danglars, Fernand, Villefort; they are fixed on their singular goal, and no young prodigy is going to get in their way. The weak, such as Caderousse and Mercédès, can be considered friends – but only trusted so far. They are slender reeds. Not much can be expected of them, so when they do their weak best it is to be rewarded. But in the end Caderousse reverts to form (I'll come back to him) and Mercédès is broken by her experiences and caught up in her misery (I'll come back to her too); any rewards they've received are squandered or outweighed.
And then there's that one exception: Dantès. He is not purely good or bad, and certainly not weak; his thirst for revenge is understandable given what was done to him without provocation. But Abbé Faria did advise him to put vengeance aside … and Dantès was unable to do so, even eager as he was to please his friend. Before long he seems to have forgotten that the Abbé ever said anything of the sort to him, or even, it seems at times, that he ever existed. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, and Dantès takes upon himself not only that aspect of the power of God but the omniscient omnipotent rewarding of good as well. Toward the end he shocked me by saying outright, and in all apparent seriousness, "God needed me". Forsooth. He sees himself as the infallible arbiter of right and wrong – until his nose is forcibly rubbed in the unintended consequences of his actions.
At one point he required Morrel (Jr.) to remember that he is talking to someone who "never uttered a falsehood and cannot be deceived." Forsooth. That's the sort of remark that makes me want to comb through the text to locate every lie and deception perpetrated by and on him.
Money may not bring happiness, but lack of it breeds fear and uncertainty. To an extent, I loved the mindset with which Dantès approaches wealth: he is changing lives. For the worse, where deserved: Danglars and Fernand and Villefort were marked men from the moment Dantès left the Isle D'If – but also, markedly, for the better. Those who were able to help him, all unknowing, in his quest for information were more than generously rewarded; even small actions were richly rewarded. And I will say for him that the money stolen by Danglars (did we really need that much confirmation that he was an evil SOB?) from the widows and orphans (five million!) was restored to them.
It's a little annoying that some 40% of the way into the story references are made that are – for me, at least, playing without an organizational chart or even an easily searchable hard copy of the book – obscure at best. (A chart of who is who and married to whom and killed by/the killer of whom does exist, but is, obviously, filled with spoilers.) I didn't realize, for example, that Franz, met at the Festival alongside Albert, is the son of the man killed by the father of Villefort. Albert's identity came clear a lot sooner on its own, but even there there was certainly no immediate lightbulb. And I kept getting Morcerf and Morrel mixed up, because Morcerf kept not ringing the Fernand bell.
The manipulations of the cast of characters are kind of wonderful. At any point, any of his enemies could have redeemed himself. Caderousse was given yard after yard of rope, and not only hanged himself with it, he hog-tied himself too; Madame de Villefort was merely provided with a phial and a piece of information, and people around her started dropping like flies. I do wonder what Monte Cristo would have done had anyone failed to live down to his expectations. Would he have been pleased that someone was a better person than he expected, or would he have been vexed? He can read a person's character almost instantly, and can judge just the temptation to put into their path like an unattended, booby-trapped bundle of catnip for an unsuspecting tabby.
Morrel (Maximilien, that is) runs full tilt from what appears to be Valentine's deathbed to plead with Monte Cristo for help – and then takes two minutes by the iPod counter nattering away before he even asks to send Baptistan to check on her, and then insists on relating the whole story to Monte Cristo with more regard, it seems, for whether he should go to the police than to, as I expected, ask Monte Cristo to try and save the girl. I just don't know.
The evolution, if I can call it that, of Caderousse is strange. He is introduced as an acquaintance, a neighbor, whom Dantès knows to be not quite trustworthy (he takes steps to protect the money). It's a terrible first impression – he is an obvious enemy from the beginning, with no real reason – jealousy because Dantès is young and handsome and beloved? Later, though, he is stricken with remorse, and doesn't like what is proposed for Dantès. He doesn't do anything to stop it or come forward once it's done, but he doesn't like it. When he is revisited later he is a hard-luck case, bitter and almost sympathetic – until abruptly he not only reverts to the initial bad impression but turns out to actually be one of the nastiest pieces of work I've read about in a while, and I felt like a sucker for believing he wasn't so bad.
The "death" of Valentine … first, even knowing how cold and purged of feeling Monte Cristo was, I was shocked at his casualness over whoever was dying. Ah well, I've been watching gleefully as they fall one by one – who now, Noirtier? So what? Valentine? Oh well!
Then the cruelty with which he tricks both Noirtier and Maximilien – was that absolutely necessary? Especially the pain he caused Max, one of the family on whom he was committed to the opposite of revenge. He breaks into Morrel's room – what, about seven minutes before he was about to eat his gun? It was obvious from Max's frantic visit to Casa Cristo how much in love he was with Val – How could MC not say to him, and say "here's the thing. I gave Valentine an elixir to feign death, so that I could flush out her killer and get all sorts of revenge on her father. She's ok. She's not really dead. If you can't hide that, please stay put in your rooms until she comes back to life, 'kay? I don't want to screw this up." But no. He just 'killed' her off, let Noirtier suffer abominably – a complete paralytic whose only joy in life, his only pleasure, really, was this girl, with no guarantee that the boy who loved her would ever even think of him again once she was gone? That's abominable. And letting Morrel suffer, stopping off at Danglars's office to rob him blind, dropping in at the burial and only then hunting up his little friend. Gosh, he's upset. Oops. I'll let him go off, though – oh no, he's headed for a bridge -! Oh, ok. And then he busts in at the house and literally busts into Max's room – and what if he had been further delayed? What if there had been traffic, or a line at the bank?
I ... don't know. I was glad he began to see some light toward the end, began to become a little more human for a bit - and then he went back to the Chateau d'If, and where I would have hoped he would remember the Abbé's dismay at his thirst for revenge (ah, you remember the Abbé, Edmond? That good man who saved your life, saved your soul, and provided everything you now have? That man who hadn't been mentioned in a few hundred pages?), he hardened back up again and went after Danglars with blood in his eye. Which he had to do – Danglars deserved a comeuppance, and it was fun, I have to say – and he did let him live, sane and hopefully a better man for the experience (doubtful). But ... I just don't know. I don't think he actually forgave Mercédès - he continued to call her faithless to the very end; that whole aspect of the story bothered me a little.
And I don't think he ever recovered from the grandiose view of himself as God's instrument of retribution. I think in the end he was every bit as self-absorbed as he was in the middle there; maybe a little less confident in his infallibility, but he did manage to shrug off a lot of responsibility that belonged to him. I can't remember his exact words, but it was along the lines that the Villefort poisoner was entirely on her own - when in fact she might not have ever had the courage and foundation to do what she did without his advice and his gift of a really awesome, irresistible poison. She might - but she might not. He seemed to acknowledge that his interference helped bring about Edouard's death (no loss, but still, he was just a little boy), but not that that same interference almost killed Valentine. And I'm just not happy with leaving Maximilien in misery for months. Was that some sort of test? If you're really still miserable on this date then I'll give you back your beloved? If not, if Max had shown up and said "Nope, I'm good!" - then what?
That's exactly why it fell a little flat at the end for me. Monte Cristo leaves a string of broken and ended lives, with the exceptions of the Morrels and Valentine (and Noirtier, though it's almost accidental that he made it), and sails off with his young slave/former slave... It's a great story, but ... I guess, especially given the period when it was written, I was expecting a moral to the story. The only one I can come up with is "If someone wrongs you, take them down hard; collateral damage may occur, but there are very few people worth saving anyway". In the end it left a sort of empty feeling. It's an adventure, a huge sprawling rarely-dull tale … but I guess that just wasn't the ending I felt it needed.
James Herriot's books are, for me, the ultimate in comfort books. Which is odd, it occurred to me while listening to this audiobook; there's blood and gore and uterine explorations and knackerings and death and cruelty… There is casual mention of deeds and practices which would turn PETA's collective hair white. But I've been reading these books since I was about ten. (Which, considering the language, is surprising. Them Yorkshire farmers were salty, mind.) And then there was the wonderful tv series.
That last is what made the audiobook ideal: the reader is Christopher Timothy, who played James in the series (alongside my beloved Peter Davison as Tristan). I think he's one of those I'll follow anywhere, listen to anything he reads. He's perfect. Not just because I know him so well in the role already – he is a warm, funny, compassionate reader, wonderful at the accents and natural in his delivery.
Just like Alf Wight, better known as James Herriot. The things I mentioned before – well, they were simply a part of life on a Yorkshire farm, in a Yorkshire veterinary practice in the first half of the 20th century. It was as it was, there were no better treatments than some of the medieval remedies used, and for the most part animals were well kept because they were vital to the livelihood of their owners. There is a surprising lack of sentiment overall, whether the animal in question is a pig or a puppy, a horse or a heifer.
Which isn't to say the stories are strictly cool and clinical – not by a long mark. Tricki Woo is the perfect embodiment of the series as a whole. The pampered Pekingese "son" of a rich widow, he is a good-natured little furball whose ailments tend to stem mainly from that pampering. And when he goes flop-bott or shows other symptoms which alarm his Mrs. Pumphrey, "Uncle Herriot" is summoned on to the scene at once. The reward for James's promptitude is baskets from London at Christmas (I can't even fathom how expensive that would be, sent all the way to the Yorkshire Dales in the 1930's) along with other periodic delicacies – so James, naturally, has a mercenary fondness for the Peke. But he is also genuinely fond of the dog for his own self, as a personality, and of Mrs. Pumphrey as well. And balancing it all out like a splash of lemon juice is Mrs. Pumphrey's chauffeur, responsible for the spasmodic bouts of exercise she penitently orders, along with the role of body servant to the dog, and he loathes Tricki with a deep and burning passion. (And when the pig Nugent comes along, there is much hilarity.)
So, yes, there is some cringing as we visit the knacker's yard, or when some archaic remedy is brought out. But it merely acts in the same lemon juice fashion on the warmth found in the daily interactions with the farmers and peers and kids with their goldfish, the dogs and cats and horses and pigs and cows and sheep, the slowly disappearing way of life of the Dales farmers. The madness that is the Farnon brothers; the surely-hopeless love James has for a client's daughter – eccentric as it all can be, it still rings true, and that's the key. The book is, to co-opt what they might say about a particularly nice cob, as sound as a bell.
So, whether it should be a comfort book or not, it got me through a particularly bad night recently. The very definition of a comfort book. I love these stories.
I don't usually read others' reviews before writing my own; I don't want to be influenced. With this book, though, I was having trouble putting my thoughts in order. A look through Goodreads shows a wide variety of reactions, with very strongly held and expressed opinions on both ends of the spectrum. (One single star review begins "This book is nothing other than a flight-of-fancy on the part of the author." Well… yes. Aren't all novels?) My opinion is positive, though not rabidly so. I do wonder how I would feel about the book if I'd held it in my hands – but I listened to an audiobook, and this is what came of it.
The narration took a little getting used to. A stretch of the first several chapters is first person POV Tomasu/Takeo, read by Kevin Gray in a dry, light voice. What called for adjustments for me was the faint trace of an accent he used (or which he has); there was some part of me that was not quite convinced by it. This part of me became a bit bigger when a few chapters in the point of view switched to the third person to tell of Lady Shirakawa, Kaede, as narrated by Aiko Nakasone – whose name, however, certainly seems to support the accent; part of my resistance there might simply have been that I didn't want a change of voice. I did get used to it, and was very much enjoying both narrators by the end. Kevin Gray's reading of emotional moments was moving, and I loved the characters he gave voice to.
As for the book… A major, major drawback was the not-infrequent use of foreshadowing. One major character, a favorite of mine, was basically dispensed with a bit more than halfway through the book with a casual line about an omen of a grim future. (Exact quotes are difficult with audiobooks…I have enough trouble keeping my place.) I'm not happy about this. Maybe it's a good thing to be able to read something like that and know to start detaching myself from a character I've liked – but, really? I hate foreshadowing. The character was all but dead (dead man walking) long before the killing, and part of the story would have been much more gripping if I had had no idea whether things would work out or not. Then there was another character's "sudden but inevitable betrayal" – it was built up to, and telegraphed, and I think would have been far more effective as a shock.
In reviews, one of the divisive factors of this book is the use of culture. It's almost, but not quite, feudal Japan; it resembles feudal Japan. It isn't feudal Japan. (Which does make it odd that, among other things, an actual historical figure, the artist Sesshu, is referenced…) There are plenty of people out there who fancy themselves experts on the period who are jumping up and down in their reviews, the book made them so angry. (As well as people who are put out because the author is not Japanese…) I know next to nothing, so I'm untroubled – except by small, random things like words which in my experience belong to other countries entirely. "Palanquin", used frequently, is one which irked me every time it was said: to me, the word brings up images of India and elephants, and does not fit. There were others, but, again, audiobooks and exact quotes. I do wonder, though, where the line was drawn between historical novel and pure fantasy, and why. Hagi is a real place. Sesshu was a real person. But so much else was changed, names and histories; it's curious.
There is a strong undercurrent of brutality throughout the story, so despite the stated youth of the two main characters this doesn't work, I don't think, as a young adult novel – at least, it's not my idea of YA. I was surprised to see people refer to Nightingale Floor as such. The two main characters are very young, but there is no real "coming of age" story here; they have been forced into life as adults from the moment we meet them. Takeo is plucked from the life he has lived since birth and dropped into another, takes to it well, and there you are. Kaede has more of an arc, but her story could almost be that of any highborn female in any patriarchal culture; she could have been 25 rather than 15 and little would have changed, except for family worries that she was an old maid. Both of them could have been any age, and the story would have still worked. In fact, Takeo generally presents as much older, particularly with the level of skill he shows in just about everything – I kept forgetting he was supposed to be just 16. That is actually another drawback in the book: Takeo is just so incredibly good at nearly everything. There is very little learning curve for him once he discovers his skills – drawing, the tribal skills, even riding and writing once it clicks with him – everything but the sword, I think, and even with that it seems like his plateau is reached quickly. He is 16, and has never trained in art or martial skills before, but he is abruptly a master at most of what he attempts. Not good.
The romance is something else that is both loved and hated in reviews, and something else that is not quite what it could be. It begins with something like love at first sight, and I wish more had been done with that. The element of magic is so strong throughout the story that it would have made sense to bring it in here, as I expected, but it turns out to be just another case of L@FS. It seemed fairly obvious before the two ever met that they would, and that there would be romance: the two characters featured in the narration, of an age, and set to converge? Done deal.
There were parts of it I really liked. There were a couple of parts I hated. I probably will read (or listen to) at least the next book, just to find out what happens next, but I'm in no rush.
This is one of those classics I was never able to get very far into. The first time I got the whole gist of the story was watching the Olivier-Oberon film some time back, which surprised me with how much I disliked every single soul in the story.
Last year I finally got determined to crack the shell of this thing and listen to the audiobook. Heck, I thought, I listened to one of my most-hated-books-ever, Tess of the Durbervilles, and ended up appreciating it; surely it would work with Wuthering Heights.
Which is nothing against the narrator. Anne Flosnik was the only good thing about the experience: she was excellent.
But the book made me want to bang my head against a wall until it was over. I am glad I finally completed it. It's a good thing to have under my belt. But the one-word review I posted when I was done was, quite simply, "Phew". it was my expression of amazement at how awful it was - and, more, my relief at being through. Put it this way: there was a very high body count in this book – it was one grim death after another. But I didn't mind so much in WH because, as in the long-ago-seen movie, I hated every single character. They were either so weak that a mouse sneeze would knock them over, or strong in the way that a serial killing psychopath is strong. So there was me listening to the book thinking “Yes! Die! Die! Die!”
I honestly don't know if I've read and enjoyed a book where I've been unable to like anyone involved. And here it was beyond simply not liking anyone – this was a pulsating loathing. I don't know if I'd be able to like this one even if some of the characters were more amiable – there was another big factor in my loathing of this book: the utterly impenetrable dialect. Now, I can usually manage accents, especially British accents of all types. I love 'em. But my lord. A random sample that I pulled out: 'Ony books that yah leave, I shall tak' into th' hahse,' said Joseph, 'and it'll be mitch if yah find 'em agean; soa, yah may plase yerseln!' On paper, I can read that without such a problem. Aloud? It might as well have been Bantu.
Kind of thought it might be now and then.
But no. Hateful characters and impenetrable accents aside, this thing was just so unremittingly bleak, so grim and ugly … Heathcliff hanged Isabella’s dog. As a warning. And now if someone could explain to me why he’s considered (from Wikipedia): “an archetype of the tortured romantic hero”...
There is more to the word “romantic” than the common usage. I know that. What frightens me is the people who don’t know that, and still call Heathcliff a romantic hero. I would as soon call Ted Bundy a romantic hero.
I know. I know. One star?? A swashbuckling adventure novel beloved for a couple of centuries? Yeah, well.
I've tried to read this before. It had "me" written all over it: aforementioned buckling of swashes, romance and derring-do and so forth. But I never penetrated very far. There was a tone – perhaps to the particular translation I tried, perhaps to the work itself – that just put me off, exemplified by the instance of D'Artagnan selling the yellow horse after his father impressed upon him how he must never do so, and he promised faithfully that he would not. It was such a dishonorable, dishonest, ugly thing to do, in a book I had expected to be dripping with honor – and it was just the beginning.
Last year I finally went with the audiobook, on the theory that classics that have not held a huge amount of interest for me go down better read aloud. I hold the reader, John Lee, responsible for my being able to finish it with as much tolerance as I did; if I’d been just reading words on a page I think it would have ended up in the trash by page 200. I hated this. I truly, deeply hated this. I’ve seen at least a couple of movie versions; I’ve enjoyed them, somewhat, as frothy swashbucklers, of course. I always expected the book to be better, though.
One of my two Goodreads comments on the book was:
"These people are all horrible - honorless, slutty morons. And this is a classic, beloved by schoolboys for - what, over 200 years? God help us."
And that’s my biggest problem with the book. Perhaps it was supposed to be ironic, some kind of commentary on honor and courage and standards and morality through the depiction of noble swordsmen who were actually men you wouldn’t trust alone with a coin or a woman. I don’t remember ever coming across that take on it, though.
Athos, Porthos, Aramis, D'Artagnan. These are the heroes I wanted to read about. The brave and loyal soldiers, the champions of right and defenders of womanhood and of France … I have no idea where my ideas came from – the movies, perhaps? What I found as I listened to the book was that Athos was a hypocritical prig, Aramis was a hypocritical pseudo-religious, Porthos was a gluttonous gambling dandy, and D'Artagnan a cocky young jackass. They were all four drunkards, given any opportunity; they were all womanizers, cuckolding widely and wildly, dropping whatever girl they had been bedding to move on without a pause or juggling as many as possible simultaneously. And the much-vaunted all-for-one loyalty? I didn't see it. Every single one of them was as likely to throw his buddies under the 18th century equivalent of a bus as to support them, or to leave them in assorted lurches. Then get a good laugh out of it. And the interactions between these four and the man-servants they could barely afford but NEEDED made The Comedy of Errors seem like a shining illustration of workplace harmony. It was depressing.
D'Artagnan in particular was a letdown. The whole situation of swiving the maid in the room adjacent to her mistress, and vice versa – I wanted to throttle him. A lot. For one thing – seriously? They've let prepubescent boys read this for centuries? Oh, that’s just awesome. So, buckling of swashes, romance and derring-do and so forth? The swashes were askew at best; the romance was not the way Anne Shirley defines it (nor me), the doing wasn’t so derring. I only made it through the whole thing because it was an audiobook with a good narrator, and because I gritted my teeth in determination to see it all the way through. It was a deep disappointment, and I hated it.
My other Goodreads comment:
“Chapter 67: Conclusion
Oh, thank God.”
Quiet kicks off with the tale of Rosa Parks. The author imagined – and maybe I did too – that Miss Parks was a stately woman with a bold personality who could stand off against a bus full of people, an irate driver, and the police, and win – but she wasn't. She was small, and quiet, and tired, and simply refused – quietly – on that particular evening to comply with a stupid rule. And the author asks "How could you be shy and courageous?" This surprised me. Aren't the shy inherently courageous? What extroverts do without thinking – from asking questions in meetings or class to going to parties – introverts see as hurdles to be got over. Extroverts have to be brave in extraordinary circumstances. The shy have to be brave every damn day.
This sets the stage for the book. I learned quite a lot, but questioned some of the conclusions and directions the author went with, and in the end I can't say I feel the power the subtitle mentions. It's possible, and I see how – but it's a hard row to hoe, and all the other metaphors in "Hard Knock Life".
I should say, before I begin to maunder and meander about the book, that Kathe Mazur does a lovely job of the reading. She maintains a mostly neutral tone, so that her voice merges with the work; she disappears into the narration, for the most part. I'm curious about how her style would work with fiction; with non-fiction it's perfect.
I scored 19 out of 20 in the evaluation quiz in this book's first chapter; my only diversion from pure introversion (sorry 'bout that) is that I do like to multitask. I don't like to just watch tv – I'll be on the computer at the same time, or sewing, or something, anything. I hate driving with just the radio on now – if I don't have an audiobook in my ear I feel like I'm wasting valuable time. But even this might be a result of living in an extroverted world; I've had to learn how to multitask in my jobs, and it's sloshed over into life.
Being an introvert (with the addition of shyness, which, I find, is not the same thing – just shoot me now) … For me, that means that almost every morning when it came time to go to school I would feel sick. I had a ridiculously high absentee rate, because in general school was hell for me. I liked the classes, loved the way the world opened up a little every day, even kind of liked homework sometimes. But being expected to participate, being called on whether or not I raised my hand, having to participate in the group projects and readings-aloud and other torments teachers love to devise … Having to cope with my classmates, even those I considered friends… When I was in my mid teens I saw Dead Poets Society for the first time, and I was shattered. I was, I am Todd Anderson (only with much better parents). The wonderful, fictional Mr. Keating recognized Todd's limits, and knew how to move him past them. I never met the teacher who cared to do that – I never had a Mr. Keating, or even a Neil. (If you don't know what I'm talking about go watch the movie. Yawp.)
In elementary school, in high school, in art school, had I been outspoken, had I been outgoing, had I at least been able to speak up and say "Oy! Over here!" – things might have been different. I wasn't able. Knowing that without a drastically different setting things I couldn't have been able – that alone made this a worthwhile read. "At school you might have been prodded to come 'out of your shell'—that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter". Well, yeah. And prying a snail out of its shell will have disastrous results for the snail.
And then there's work. The same thought processes go on in the average manager's minds as in the average teacher's: reward the ones who successfully walk the line between conformism and aggression, and pay attention to the ones who make you pay attention. Three words: "Team-building exercises"… the mere phrases makes me queasy. Why don't managers realize that the reason these things build camaraderie is because it unites everyone in their absolute loathing of the moronic and grating waste of time that they are? How does anyone think they're a good thing? Or, at least, that they're a good thing for everyone?
There is a section of the book which focuses on the Harvard Business School, and everything this author says about the school makes exquisite sense in terms of W's attendance there. For me, for introverts in general and those poor buggers who matriculate their introversion, it's another circle of hell. The title of an article from the HSB newspaper is quoted: "Arrogant, or Simply Confident?" Er. If you have to ask … Heh. If you have to ask, you might be an introvert.
A bit of an aside, from this section: "'It is approximately 2:30 PM, October 5th,' the students are told, 'and you have just crash-landed in a float place on the east shore of Laura Lake, in the subarctic region of the northern Quebec-Newfoundland border.' Um … huh? Newfoundland is an island, and so doesn't exactly share a border with any province; Quebec borders the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Also, this furthers a stupid stereotype that Newfoundland is glacial and filled with walruses and igloos. It's really not. Perhaps they meant Labrador? Also, Google Maps shows the lake is something like 13 hours from the coast. What idiot wrote this scenario?
Part of what helps make people successful, or perhaps simply a characteristic of successful people, is in their speech patterns. "Verbal fluency and sociability are the two most important predictors of success, according to a Stanford Business School study." Also, talking fast is seen as a good thing. Well, as the Mythbusters say, there's your problem. When I talk fast it's obviously nerves, not aggression or confidence. And, sadly, I'm one of those who waits for an opening to speak. I despise people who begin talking before I've finished a sentence – shockingly, customer service reps do it all the time; I've gotten into the habit of just finishing anyway. For me, it doesn't matter if the person I'm speaking to has just said something moronic (for instance, that Lake Laura is on the border of Newfoundland) or brilliant or anything in between that requires a response from me, I will wait for a pause before I interject. It's what I was brought up to call "politeness", and also ties into my own reserve. Apparently, what I see as basic manners is actually a hindrance to my success. Oh dear.
I unfortunately did not make note of who said it, but here's a quote that's sending me (and this review) on another tangent: "I'm sure Our Lord was [an extrovert]"… Really? How odd. I suppose every group tries to claim Jesus as one of their own, but I've never thought of Him as an extrovert. Charismatic, certainly; not shy, by any means; confident – well, sure, with God on His side… but extraverted? I really hesitate to class Christ in with some of the huckster evangelists making millions off his name.
Okay. Anyway. Another quote:
"Embarrassment reveals how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us to one another. … It's better to mind too much than to mind too little."
That's interesting. And it's true – the ones who are never embarrassed are the ones you have to be wary of. My sociopathic ex-boss was never embarrassed.
It suggests … that sensitive types think in an unusually complex fashion. It may also help explain why they're so bored by small talk. If you're thinking in more complicated ways … then talking about the weather, or where you went for the holidays, is not quite as interesting as talking about values or morality. The other thing Aaron found about sensitive people is that sometimes they are highly empathic. It's as if they have thinner boundaries, separating them from other people's emotions, and from the tragedies and cruelties of the world. They tend to have unusually strong consciences. They avoid violent movies and tv shows. They're acutely aware of the consequences of a lapse in their own behavior. In social settings they often focus on subjects like personal problems which others consider "too heavy"….
"The description of such characters as "thin-skinned" is meant metaphorically, but it turns out it is actually quite literal … skin conductance tests … High-reactive introverts sweat more."
Fabulous. Shoot me now. Yup, this book is all about me. (Except I love Criminal Minds, and when I spent a solid week a while back catching up on Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones I tended to walk away from my computer dazed at the enormous body count.)
I've gone through my life saying – or at least thinking – Don't you see that? Don't you hear that? Well, now I know – they, whoever they are at any given moment, might not see or hear – or feel or understand – whatever it is I do. I've said elsewhere that my sociopathic ex-boss loved to refer to me on every possible occasion as the office's "bleeding heart liberal". And here I learn that that hasn't been entirely a choice with me. I am wired to cry at Hallmark commercials and well up when someone else – even a complete stranger on tv – cries.
Yay. Bloody amygdala. Bloody pain in the arse amygdala.
How nice – how calm and unstressful and unteary – it must be to function at a lower level of empathy and heart-bleeding.
I loved the tidbits about the "Griselda moods" of Eleanor Roosevelt – "named for a princess in a medieval legend who retreated into silence". Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt – having two such standouts among "my people" makes it all seem a little less dreadful.
I loved the example of "The Bus to Abilene": "about a family sitting on a porch in Texas on a hot summer day and somebody says, 'I am bored. Why don't we go to Abilene?' When they get to Abilene, somebody says, 'You know, I didn't really want to go'. And the next person says, 'I didn't want to go – I thought you wanted to go' and so on…. The Bus to Abilene anecdote reveals our tendency to follow those who initiate an action – any action." The ones who speak up control the actions of the rest – especially those of us who hesitate to express an opinion.
This was a fascinating book; it was enlightening; it was clarifying. As I said at some point earlier, it is good in a way to know that, for the most part, I couldn't have handled a great many situations in my life very much differently. I’m wired to behave as I do. Also … knowing I'm not alone in this is, I suppose, also good. The introverts are the ones who don't network and make a splash, which means you can be in a room with ten introverts and two extraverts and it's the latter pair you – and the introverts – will remember later. Whereas each of those ten introverts will go away thinking they were the only ones who were uncomfortable and itching to get out. What a shame. If those ten introverts could get together, they might have a better time. Then again, getting together is antithetical to their nature, so … basically? The upshot? It sucks to be an introvert.
On the whole, though, I'm not sure what reading this accomplishes. It's startling to read (listen to) a really damned accurate description of my own personality, and to learn that there have been scientific studies done on people exactly like me to find out why we are like me.
It's nice to have confirmation that there are scientific reasons why to me the word "party" does not mean happy times, and that there are plenty of other people who feel the same way.
I think I understand better now why some people love Bosch and death metal and bull fights, when I prefer Vermeer and Billy Joel and the Puppy Bowl.
But I don't really need validation. I'm old(ish). I've (finally) reached a point in my life where I know my limits, know when I can push them and when I'd be better off not, know how to fake it when I have no choice. "Power"? In a world which disregards those who don't push themselves forward? No.
Had to give up. Impossible to listen to. A year-long (or felt like it, at least) discussion on how not to sound old, and Oberon read as Scooby bloody Doo. Shoot me now.
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