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!

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: little to say about these

Alternate title: it’s mini-review time!

The book: Lisbon – What the Tourist Should See by Fernando Pessoa

The edition: Italian translation by Luca Merlini, 65 pages, as published by Einaudi with an essay on modern-day Lisbon by Maria Teresa Bonafede and pictures by Gianmario Marras, total page count 115

My thoughts:  while it opened my eyes to a couple of things in Lisbon that I had never noticed before, this is nothing more than a dated guidebook. From such an author as Pessoa was, I expected something more, some poetic commentary or some inside knowledge or some social satire. Nothing of the kind.


The book: Stabat Mater by Tiziano Scarpa

The edition: Italian (original) edition as published by Einaudi, paperback, 144 pages, with a note by the author

My thoughts: you may have heard me praise Scarpa’s love song to Venice in Venice is a Fish, but that was the one and only book I had ever read by him up to now; this one, also a winner of a prestigious Italian award, was supposed to be at least as good. But I’m afraid I cannot say so. It is supposed to be a homage to the musical tradition of Venice, and especially to Vivaldi, but all I could see was the pointless and sometimes horrific meanderings of a man’s mind trying to come to terms with the female body. I mean, this is supposed to be the story of a girl on the brink of womanhood, but all the details of her dealing with this change and her body either made me laugh for how improbable they were (think: a girl having a nightmare about water and waking up to find her legs covered in blood from her first period — I have lost count of the male authors believing this is how it happens!) or made me sick with disgust (think: comparing the belly of a woman giving birth and the bubbles exploding in boiling water — and this is just the least example).


The book: The Sacred Night, by Tahar Ben Jelloun

The edition: French (original) edition, as published by Seuil, Points paperback, 189 pages

My thoughts: I read this for the Africa challenge, and because I hope to visit Morocco, and Ben Jelloun is said to be the author to start from. I’m afraid I have to say this one went right over my head, and I understood nothing of it. I guess it is intended to raise the subject of gender, and of identity, but it does so in a way that is completely different from anything I had read before. It’s a kind of magical realism, but full of symbols, and dreamlike details and events that may or may not be symbols, and I can’t say I know what most of them stand for. If you have read this and can help me understand, I’d really like to hear from you!


The book: Fables 11 – War and Pieces, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Niko Henrichon and Andrew Pepoy

The edition: Vertigo edition, 191 pages

My thoughts: this is the closing book for a cycle of the series, with most threads coming to an end. I already mentioned that I did not like the way this particular story (i.e. the Adversary) was being developed, and this may be the one book I liked the least. It read like some war movie, and that’s not a compliment. The series is still great, and I love it to pieces, but I’d have chosen another angle and another story altogether. Now that that is closed, I’m curious to read where the authors will bring us next!

Book: Last Night in Twisted River

The book: Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving

The edition: Black Swan paperback, 667 pages, with author’s note

The story: wherein we read about a cook and his son, on the run after the 12-year-old accidentally killed a woman mistaking her for a bear, and we follow their story over five decades and two countries as the boy grows up and becomes a writer.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: in the author’s note, Irving writes of a woman who told him “even your conversation has plot” and he goes on to state that he represents “the long, plotted novel” and adds: “thats what I do.” I mention this because I think it points out exactly why I fell in love with John Irving’s writing when I read The Cider House Rules: good storytelling, taking the form of good plot. But Irving is more than that, his storytelling is good because he creates interesting characters, and even the most irrelevant ones come with a full story.
And this is a good thing. Because here, I found the plot to be weaker, the story going round and round… but still I enjoyed the novel so very much. It’s not only the touches of “you still have something to discover” that kept me reading. It’s the story, or rather, the stories, the details, life jumping out of the page. I think that, by wanting to write about the writer’s experience, Irving shifted the focus away from plot, but the book has plenty of other saving graces.

What I liked: characters with a big heart, especially Ketchum.

What I didn’t like: the way sex is treated. I don’t want to be a prude, but none of the representations of sex here is healthy, and some are positively sick.

In the author’s own words: I love the idea of negative autobiography Irving states in the author’s note:

What I did not give Danny was my life, which has been largely happy and very lucky. I gave Daniel Bagicalupo the unluckiest life I could imagine. I gave Danny the life I am afraid f having — the life I hope I never have. Maybe that’s autobiographical, too — in a deeper, more meaningful, certainly more psychological way. (When you write about what you fear, about what you hope never happens to you or to anyone you love — surely that’s a little autobiographical.)

Read this if: if you liked previous works by Irving, you’ll probably appreciate this one too.

Counts as: What’s in a Name Challenge (Topographical Feature); Antonym Challenge (Last/First); Chunkster Challenge (551-750)

Book: Wayfarers


The book: Wayfarers, by Knut Hamsun

The edition: English translation by James McFarlane, Condor Books paperback (British edition), 460 pages

The story: how Norwegian traditional society changed around the turn of the century (19th to 20th, that is), as seen through the eyes of Edevart, a young man in search of fortune (and love) and a perpetual wanderer. Also, Edevart’s own coming of age, from innocent child to a man “who knows the ways of the world”.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I had never heard of Hamsun before I went to Norway and found his works on the “local fiction” shelves of a bookshop. I cannot really tell why I chose this one over other books, they all seemed to be dealing somehow with the same subject of modern life coming to the Norwegian countryside. It was good to read about the way of life that I had learned about in the local museums.

Unfortunately, I cannot say I liked it. Basically, this is the story of Edevart, but even more basically, this is no story at all, and this is the thing that bothers me most. Things happen, yes, people get rich and poor and rich again… but there is no story arch and no plot. I get this is often the case with Realism works, just photographing a reality, not focusing on the story. But to me, a good book needs a storyline, a reason why you choose to tell the story of that period, starting with a given fact and ending at a given point in time. A unity of some kind. This is completely lacking here. There is a kind of starting point, but there is no ending, and any other point in the story could have been chosen to be the finishing point. So what’s the point in telling this story at all?

Now, I know, the study of society, the photography of a moment in time that would mean a lot to the country’s development. OK. Fine. That’s not enough for me. (Apparently that’s enough for the Nobel prize commission, though. Of course there is something valuable in this book. It’s just not for me.)

Language & translation: I would be a fool to try and judge a translation in a language that is not my own, but there were a few points that made me wonder. For instance, the word dram. Why use a Scottish word? *puzzled* But then again, a translation always bears the mark of the translator, and I have to say that this one worked fine!

In the author’s own words: I liked finding this scene, because when I was in Norway, I was told that children in coastal towns would do this thing as a coming-of-age rite of passage:

One dinnertime, when work had stopped and they were all sitting, eating, there was a commotion on the drying grounds. People shouted and pointed! In heaven’s name — look! It was Ezra up aloft aboard the ship. He was already perilously high. He had let go the final rope and was holding on to the bare mast at the top. He clambered higher, shinning up with his hands and feet. The people ashore kept silent. One or two small girls threw themselves face down on the rocks. Then Ezra pretended to be turning the weathervane. He was climbing higher, the fool! Oh, what he needs is a good thrashing! He passes the weathervane, is above it, and now he’s high enough to reach up with one hand to the masthead and hold on there and take a rest. […] Ezra hauled himself up inch by inch, hanging like a monkey on that slender mast and making it bend. Then he stood there in the air, his body from the waist up above the top of the mast. Several people moaned. “Be quiet! Be quiet!” others hissed between clenched teeth. Ezra had reached his goal. Slowly he bent his body forward and balanced on his belly on the masthead. There he stayed.

Read this if: if you are into literary fiction and care nothing for plot.

Counts as: Travel with books – Norway