Transfigured: a classic double challenge post

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


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!


(*) 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!

Chance literary encounters

My (too short) vacation this year did not have any literary connection. So imagine my surprise when I met this little man:

The first night, then, I went to sleep on the sand, a thousand miles from any human habitation. I was more isolated than a shipwrecked sailor on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Thus you can imagine my amazement, at sunrise, when I was awakened by an odd little voice. It said:
“If you please– draw me a sheep!”
“Draw me a sheep!”
I jumped to my feet, completely thunderstruck. I blinked my eyes hard. I looked carefully all around me. And I saw a most extraordinary small person, who stood there examining me with great seriousness.

Let me back this story by saying that husband and I, while we don’t have “our song”, we do have “our book”, and it’s Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. A couple of weeks ago, we were vacationing in Madeira and we were lucky enough to see our book transformed into wall and door art. All the important details were there. The fox:

“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

The lamplighter:

The fifth planet was very strange. It was the smallest of all. There was just enough room on it for a street lamp and a lamplighter. The little prince was not able to reach any explanation of the use of a street lamp and a lamplighter, somewhere in the heavens, on a planet which had no people, and not one house. But he said to himself, nevertheless: “When he lights his street lamp, it is as if he brought one more star to life, or one flower. When he puts out his lamp, he sends the flower, or the star, to sleep. That is a beautiful occupation. And since it is beautiful, it is truly useful.”

The sheep, the baobab, and the snake:

“Oh! I understand you very well,” said the little prince. “But why do you always speak in riddles?”
“I solve them all,” said the snake.
And they were both silent.

And more still:

The painting was part of an art project transforming walls and doors in historical Funchal into art pieces. You can find more about the project The arT of oPEn doORs here and more pictures of this painting by Francisco J. V. Fernandes and Maria Luisa Freitas Spinola (to be seen at the following address: Travessa do Pimenta, 7) here.

Quotes taken from this online version of The Little Prince (translator not stated).

Books: schools for peculiar children

Alternate title: one topos, three books… and they could not be more different! Oh, except in that they all have a story that cannot be told without giving out too much! So no summary = no spoilers!

The book: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The edition:Italian translation by Paola Novarese, as published by Einaudi, softback, 295 pages

The good: I love Ishiguro’s writing, the detail, the tone, the language. (Or maybe I should say I love Ishiguro’s writing translated, because I never read him in the original.) And this book has a very interesting premise, believable characters, and a lot of potential for discussion.

The bad:the characters felt like they were only playing at emotions, playing at being human, but I’m not sure whether that’s the whole point of the book (as in, showing that they would not have a soul) or an unwanted byproduct. (Or even, an unwanted byproduct of what, at face value, seems a good translation.) Also, the whole premise was a bit far-fetched, and I was disappointed in how such a sensitive and controversial subject was brought up only to be downplayed.

The verdict: I’m very much on the fence about this one.

More: I went online and read many reviews, but there’s not one of them that does not give away the central mystery of this book.


The book: Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta

The edition: American paperback edition by Harperteen, 422 pages.

The good: well, I had read good reviews, but did not expect such a good book. I love the way the story unravels, little by little and mystery by mystery. I love the sense of place, of magic, of the hidden links between characters. I love the enclosed world Marchetta created, its rites and costumes. I love the different characters and how each of them goes on looking for his/her own way to adulthood.

The bad: Taylor’s whining and being something of a stereotype character (on this note: has anyone noticed how Katniss Everdeen is totally copied from her? The my-mother-doesn’t-care-about-me whining, the though attitude, the leading role, the “my name is Taylor/Katniss, I’m 17 years old” mantra, and even the unfriendly and savage cat?)

The verdict: this is why I keep reading YA books. The way the story is told is enough to put this book up in the same circle with some of my most loved ones (The God of Small Things, Goodbye Little Women).

More: this counts for the Aussie Author (although it did not feel very Australian to me), the Classic Double and the Semi-Charmed Summer challenges.


The book: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

The edition: Quirk Books hardback edition, 352 pages

The good: you know how we all craved for adventures when we were 7-8 years old and reading, like, Verne, or Salgari, or whatever adventure book it was at the time? This book makes you feel like that again, and the adventure it brings on is a well-stuffed one.

The bad: I really hoped that this would not turn out to be fantasy, I’d have preferred it that way — but that’s just personal taste. Also, I found the photos a little bit overly unsettling, and I didn’t like the very open ending.

The verdict: a good read for a hot summer day, when you want something different.

More: oh no! I just discovered this is going to be a series! For me, one was enough.

Books: the Hunger Games trilogy

Alternate title: why do I keep reading YA when I couldn’t care less about YA characters? (Beware: I am writing this assuming that most of you have read the books and know what they are about, so beware of spoilers!)

The book: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

The edition: Scholastic paperback, 454 pages, plus author interview

The good: an interesting premise and a compelling (as in: easy and gripping) style. Makes me want to see where it is all headed to.

The bad: I cannot relate to or care about such a snotty little brat as Katniss, and I found all the arena adventures a bit on the boring side.

Wondering about: why all the Latin (Panem, Avox) and Latin-related culture (all those names, from Caesar to Cato; the chariots and the cornucopia)? And don’t tell me it’s just because of the “panem et circenses” reference.

Team Peeta or Team Gale? It’s not like Gale had any screen time up to this book, so Team Peeta it is (oh, wait, does it mean “who gets the lady”? Then I hope neither of them. They are both too good for such a fate)


The book: Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

The edition: Scholastic paperback, 472 pages

The good: an interesting number of twists in the story, and even the arena was more interesting this time around.

The bad: most of the characters. Even Peeta and Gale act silly. And all the oooh- and aaah-ing of Katniss over her feelings — feeling guilty about the people killed in the Games, even though she didn’t really kill almost anybody, and trying to decide who is the boy she loves. I know she’s 17 and acting it, but I can’t stand this kind of thing any longer.

Wondering about: I hope for an explanation of how the Capitol/Districts society came to be. Such an enslaving arrangement only makes sense if the people in control consider themselves different from the rest — if the people in the Capitol were really aliens from another planet — but they aren’t.

Team Peeta or Team Gale? May I say Team Finnick?


The book: Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

The edition: Scholastic paperback, 455 pages, plus acknowledgments

The good: I’m afraid I have little to say here, I felt completely let down. Style is still pretty engaging, though.

The bad: I felt let down, because there was much more promise in the first two than this did deliver. There was room for wonderful plot turns and symbols and explanations, but there weren’t. Instead we get horrible things happening (more than I could stand), more teenage geocentricism, a lot of useless and unheeded deaths, and no real explanation.

Wondering about: how could one life happily ever after with a hijacked husband? How could the former tributes (and Katniss among them) agree to have more Games? And also, all the little threads left hanging unexplained, such as: why did birds stop to listen to Katniss’ father? Why did Madge offer Katniss the pin? Why did Cinna want to stir a rebellion? etc. etc. etc.

Team Peeta or Team Gale? No, my man for this book is Boggs. I’m afraid that I’m showing my age here, by preferring the solid, affectionate adult over the overemotional teenagers, but he’s the only positive male figure in the whole book!


Additional links:

Books: Alice Vieira

Alternate title: if you are looking for Portuguese, look no further

Flor de Mel
Ursula, a maior
Editorial Caminho paperback,
115 pages
Editorial Caminho paperback,
166 pages

Why I read them
It’s all Alex‘s and Nymeth‘s fault, for making me aware of Vieira. And it’s Vieira’s own fault too, for being such a good storyteller that after Os olhos de Ana Marta, I was ready to buy and read all of her books. Especially those that came recommended.

On reading
I won’t say much about the contents, except that both books tell the story of young girls in a difficult familiar situation and how they deal with it. I won’t say more because I’d give away something, and I do think that the way the stories are told, detail by detail and mystery by mystery, is part of what makes these books interesting — again, it’s Vieira’s narrative technique that makes them worthwhile. Yet at the same time these stories are always so sad… that I still feel they’re more suitable for an adult audience.

The Portuguese aspect
When talking about Vieira, Alex and Nymeth wondered why her books have never been translated. Three books in, I am still convinced that they are way too Portuguese to work for a wider audience. It is hard to put my finger on a specific reason, but the society they describe feels different from anything I (as Italian) have experienced in my childhood, and even if no specific places are ever mentioned, it is definitely not a universal setting. I don’t think I could appreciate this books as much if I had never lived in Portugal. Oh, and now that I come to think of it — maybe that sadness is also very Portuguese. Not that the Portuguese I know strike me as particularly sad, but they are famous for fado and saudade, after all…

If you have read Flor de mel, I have a question for you: who is the blond woman? Because I discussed this book with my husband, but we don’t agree on the outcome, and I felt cheated at not having a real answer to the book’s mystery, but maybe I just missed a major detail.