Transfigured: a classic double challenge post

Or: of To Kill a Mockingbird, of Jellicoe Road, and of the awesomeness of reading them both.

classic_double

When I first saw the Classic Double Challenge, hosted by Melissa @ One Librarian’s Book Reviews, I thought it was a great idea. Read a classic and a book that is a retelling or in any other way connected to that classic? Count me in. (*) And yet, I only had a very vague idea of what I would read.

Then I read Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. Which is awesome.

In Jellicoe Road [JRoad], two girls have to study To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee [TKaM] in school, and because one of them is ill, the other helps her out. In thanking her friend, the first girl says something like “If you ever need me, I’ll be Jem for your Mrs Dubose.” I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil JRoad for you, but I ended the book more interested than ever to read TKaM — no, I had never read it before, but keep in mind I’m not American, so that’s the main reason why. Later this year I found a copy and read it.

And BAM!, I knew I had my couple of books for this challenge.

(By the way, To Kill a Mockingbird is awesome too!)

JRoad is not a retelling, strictly speaking. It’s more like TKaM is transfigured in it. The story it tells is completely different. The themes it touches upon are other.

But it has the same way of dealing with difficult subjects without ever bringing them to the forefront. In TKaM it’s mental health and racism (among other things), but everything is seen through Scout’s eyes. To me, it felt like those ethereal things that you can only see without looking directly at them (I think Tolkien describes the elves in that way somewhere, but I may be misremembering. It happens with smaller stars, to me at least). In JRoad the narrator is 17, not a child anymore, but still the feeling is the same: domestic violence, drug addiction, the story is a way of dealing with harsh themes, without ever looking at them directly.

Also, they share the same great storytelling (which may be why they both manage to deal with those themes so well).

And they share a reflection on the absence of parental figures. (By the way, can anyone point me towards something that explains the figure of Atticus Finch? A strange character, that one. Genial and lovable, but strange.)

And more than everything, JRoad is TKaM transfigured because it takes single elements from the classic and uses them to build its own story: the friend only coming over for summer, the shooting at tins, the big fire, the tree… maybe the only thing that does not make an appearance is Scout’s ham costume!

Bottom line: this was a fun challenge to do, and both these books great, but taken together they are pure awesomeness!

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(*) If you like the idea of the Classic Double Challenge, it will be on again in 2013. Also, don’t miss the Retell Me A Story event, on January 13th-19th! See you there!

Books: Gibraltar reading (part 2)

(Part one is here.)

The book: Scruffy, by Paul Gallico

The edition: Penguin paperback, 288 pages

About the book: a fictional account of ape history in Gibraltar during World War Two, of the people who cared for them, and of the efforts made to safeguard them. Includes an extremely misbehaved ape, a love story, two births, several deaths, a drunken pilot and a very big firework. (Can’t say more without spoilers, but hope it’s enough to pick your interest.)

My thoughts: hilarious. Probably the funniest book I read this year. No, really, you may think “it’s just an ape story, nothing much”, but it is a jewel! And it does something strange: it has characters that are at once stock figures, and very lively. I cannot explain it, because they are all mostly stereotypes, but still they really come to life through the page. Recommended? Definitely yes, go check it out this minute!

The covers you can find online are less pretty than the ones I have. Too bad the picture quality here is so bad 😦

The book: The Rock, by John Masters

The edition: Sphere paperback, 383 pages, including bibliography

About the book: this book is strange in format and hard to define: half history, half fiction. Each chapter includes historical information about a period of Gibraltarian history, followed by a fictional episode set in that period. The narrative is not continuous, although there are elements (especially families and their histories) that return again and again.

My thoughts: such a peculiar format is hard to make right. I don’t think the level is the same throughout the book, there are some parts that stick better than the rest, and I do have a small doubt about the accuracy of the non-fiction part. Still, as a whole it works very well, the author is a good narrator and history makes sense in his stories. Recommended.

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Bottom line: two authors I want to read more from. If you know them, can you recommend any titles?

Antonio Tabucchi week: two books and a movie

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Antonio Tabucchi was. When I first read (and loved) Pereira Maintains, he was already famous because of it. It was his one famous book, and the only one I knew, and I loved it.

But I didn’t know the first thing about Portugal, and I had a feeling that you needed to see those places to understand, truly, not so much the book as the author himself. How can you appreciate The Woman of Porto Pim if you have never been to Porto Pim in the first place?

OK, so this was only an excuse to show you a picture of our honeymoon to the Azores…

Except, I may be wrong. On rereading Pereira Maintains earlier this year, with all my newly-gained knowledge of all not enough things Portuguese, I liked it not nearly as much.

Pereira Maintains
Italian edition
as published by La Biblioteca di Repubblica, 190 pages
with a note by the author

Don’t get me wrong, I still did like it. As before, I liked the story of a middle-aged man suddenly revolutionizing (and risking) his life because he was fascinated by the love between a young couple. And more than before I loved the clean, no-frills style: it touched me as a well-balanced marriage between the principles stated by Calvino and the realism searched by Saramago.

But it felt too shallow. Now that I know a little about the Salazar dictatorship, I wish the book was stronger in denouncing it. Of course, this was written well after the facts (Tabucchi wrote that the whole idea of the novel came to him after he attended the funeral of a journalist who had to flee Lisbon because of the regime, and who had returned to Lisbon later, only to end his life completely ignored). And yet, it feels like Pereira Maintains dances over the historical situation without really dealing with it.

“According to Pereira”,
a movie by Roberto Faenza,
with Marcello Mastroianni (Pereira), Joaquim de Almeida (Manuel), Daniel Auteuil (Dr. Cardoso), Stefano Dionisi (Monteiro Rossi) and Nicoletta Braschi (Marta)

After re-reading the novel, I also re-watched the movie, and it was beautiful. I’m not an expert in cinema and I cannot really comment, but I always like a good Mastroianni interpretation! And I did feel that the movie filled up whatever was lacking in the book: I felt the social commentary much stronger here, and I was less annoyed by Pereira’s endless chewing over his soul.

I know, I know, I just showed my ignorance. Pereira’s reflections on his soul was one of the pillars of the book. And a key element in Tabucchi’s work. I know. (It’s just not for me.) And if I didn’t know, it was made clear when I read another novel by Tabucchi recently, Requiem.

Requiem: A Hallucination
Portuguese (original) edition
as published by Dom Quixote, 154 pages
with a note by the author translated by Pedro Tamen

As I was saying before, I don’t know nearly enough to appreciate this book for all its literary references. (Beware, because this is a novel for very cultivated people to appreciate!) But I was interested in its peculiarity: the language. This is the one book Tabucchi didn’t write in Italian but in Portuguese.

I have always been fascinated by people deciding to use a language other than their own. (Did you know that Mozart and his sister wrote to each other in Italian? There is a technical word in linguistics for this phenomenon, but I can’t recall it right now and I don’t have my linguistics texts with me — if anyone knows, I’d like to hear from you!) And I was completely, utterly taken in by Tabucchi explaining how he dreamt a dream in Portuguese, how he began to jot down notes about it in Portuguese, and how this book, stemming from that dream, could only be written in Portuguese. Because Portuguese was the language of his heart. Because he was redefining the concept of maternal language.

I feel like I am liking Tabucchi’s work for all the wrong reasons, but that’s fine with me 🙂

I wrote this post (although a bit late)
for the Antonio Tabucchi Week,
hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

Please check her blog for more Tabucchi content from other participants.

Book: A Feast for Crows

Alternate title: when bad expectations turn a book into better than you’d think

The book: A Feast for Crows, by George R.R. Martin

The edition: Harper Voyager paperback, 852 pages, with Appendix

The story: fourth installment of the Song of Ice and Fire series, not really possible to summarize without spoiling the rest of the series.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I had heard that this was the worst in the series so far, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it better written and more interesting than the previous ones. Maybe the fact that one character’s storyline (Daenerys’) is completely dropped helped, as I find her to be extremely boring. All in all it was still a book to suffer through, and I’m in no hurry to get the next one, but it was better than I expected.

What I liked: I have to admit some admiration at how Martin can manage so many characters and storylines: up to book 3 I was convinced he made up the story by and by, not really knowing where it would lead, and I still can’t point out what was different here, but something clicked and I can trust the author knows where he’s leading us. I also believe he found a better balance with the dress descriptions, which didn’t feel as gratuitous and annoying as in the previous volumes.

What I didn’t like: I still can’t stand the way Martin always goes for the most controversial possible choice, always. I still hate the way he tricks me into reading more, by way of shocking twists and continuous cliffhangers. I still find all the politics endlessly boring. I still don’t like the series as a whole and everything it represents.

Counts as: Antonym Challenge (Bonus book); Chunkster Challenge (750+); Semi-Charmed Challenge (a book about which you’ve heard bad things)

Book: The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend

The book: The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, by David Gemmell

The edition: Orbit mass market paperback, 346 pages

The story: in previous Gemmell books, Druss was the Deathwalker, the Legend, the sung hero of past renown. This is the story of how he became that hero: powerfully strong from a young age, he only finds peace with his wife Rowena, and when she is stolen by slavers, he’ll do anything it takes to save her and bring her back. Druss’ search for Rowena goes through brawls, long voyages, magic interventions and unending wars, in an adventure that continuously grows.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: whoever wrote the cover blurbs for Gemmell didn’t know what they were doing: none of the covers ever sparked the least interest in me, and some even scared me off. But because husband likes them [ETA: the books, I mean, not the covers or the cover blurbs as such] (and because I was looking for a book with “first” in the title for two challenges, and we had this one at home) I finally gave it a try. And wasn’t it a pleasant discovery!
A fantasy world where chivalry is still a moral principle to follow is refreshing after the kind of fantasy I have been reading lately (cough, cough… ASOIAF… cough), and I liked that the Drenai world is not so different from our own, you don’t need to understand a completely new society. In this setting acts a whole cast of characters of all kinds, and the only one I had issues with is Druss himself, because we never really get to see what moves him and what makes him the way he is — but the rest of the cast, from the loving wife to the mad grandfather to the ironic friend to the knight in shining armor, they all had me hooked to their stories.
On the other hand, I have to say that this book feels a bit rough, as if it was rushed through somehow and it had more potential that what was actually developed. The narrative is somewhat episodic, and because of that, a page was added (I suppose by the editor, not the author), summarizing what happened in between — and I have very strong issues with that, because it even spelled the characters’ names wrong! But that is the only negative thing I can really say about it, and I am now curious to follow with Gemmell’s more famous (and hopefully better-developed) works.

What I liked: traditional high fantasy that delivers exactly what it promises, and interesting and well developed characters.

What I didn’t like: the lack of reference maps.

Language and writing: kudos to a style that gives a feeling of high prose without ever using obscure words (not even one WWW find for me here!)

Read this if: if you liked the Shannara books

Counts as: Antonym challenge, Semi-charmed summer challenge