Tag Archives: rereads

In the Presence of the Enemy and With No One As Witness, by Elizabeth George

I am always taken aback when I remember that Elizabeth George is American. She seems (to my American but Anglophilic mind) very tuned in to British speech patterns, class structures, and cultures. This is important in the Lynley series (for lack of a better name), because it’s incredibly multi-cultural, multi-class, and British.

Take, for example, In the Presence of the Enemy. The mystery itself (the kidnapping of a MP’s daughter) is incredibly grounded in British politics – not necessarily contemporary British politics in a way that would make it seem dated in just a couple of months (although the IRA does merit a mention) – but in the way British politics work. The main conflict (apart from, you know, the kidnapping) is the relationship between politicians and the press: how very biased (and proudly so) certain newspapers are, the way that issues that have nothing to do with policy can bring down a career or a Government. It’s particularly resonant now, as the fallout from the Murdoch/News of the World scandal continues. The newspapers in the book may not have tapped people’s phones or knowingly interfered with a police investigation (that still makes me so sick, in real life), but they don’t see their subjects as human, and personal considerations are not given as much weight as trying to promote scandal (the more sex-related, the better).

The devastating part of In the Presence of the Enemy is the resolution of the case. The kidnapper/murderer is caught, of course, but the whole thing was based around a misunderstanding and a lie. It’s so incredibly unnecessary, and pathetic in its delusion. It also brings me back to one of my main tenets in life: You are not doing something FOR someone when they have NEVER ASKED YOU TO DO IT. Don’t break up with your girlfriend “for” someone. Don’t change yourself “for” someone. And for the love of God, DO NOT KIDNAP AND MURDER SOMEONE “FOR” SOMEONE ELSE.

 

With No One As Witness is just as devastating, but while the case is horrific and sad (serial killings of primarily mixed-race boys), the truly heartbreaking part has nothing to do with the case: it’s the shooting of Lynley’s wife. Elizabeth George does an absolutely amazing job of portraying Lynley’s devastation, heartbreak, and paralysis in the face of catastrophe. He has to make an impossible choice, and you just know that he’ll never completely recover from it. And Havers and Nkata are partially there with him, not knowing what to do with themselves or for him, but also knowing that the case has to be solved, that the rest of the world isn’t put on hold. And the case is solved, Havers saves the day, but nothing will ever be right again.

 

I have two more Elizabeth George books on my shelves: A Great Deliverance, which is the first Lynley book, and Careless in Red, the follow-on from With No One As Witness. (It’s not the next one in that world; that’s What Came Before He Shot Her, which follows the 12-year-old shooter in the days leading up to it, and which I should probably read at some point since one of the secondary characters is named Kendra, but right now I don’t want him to be humanised, I just want to mourn for Helen. Yes, I know she is fictional. Shut up. Anyway, Careless in Red is the next one to feature Lynley.) I have read most of the others at various points in my life, but sometime (possibly soon) I’ll want to reread most of them to remember the personal backstories of everyone, beyond the recaps that are so smoothly incorporated for new readers.

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How do we read?

There was an article in the New York Times about the way people read and the way they share (or not) their reading experiences. Basically it’s an argument between “social” readers who use book clubs and social networking, and private readers, who…don’t.  The article starts with a quotation from the latest Newbery book (which I don’t know anything about, really – I am intrigued) comparing someone else reading your favourite book to an invasion of privacy, and kind of continues that line through the rest of the article.

Reading is, of course, a solitary action for most of us. There are ways, of course, to make it less solitary, by reading out loud or listening to audiobooks, but mostly reading is a solitary activity. Experiencing books, on the other hand, is not a solitary activity. Even if you don’t want to share your reading experience, you form a connection with the characters, the storylines. Even non-fiction, unless it’s an encyclopaedia, has characters and storylines that the reader forms an emotional connection with.

And the books that we love help us to form connections with other people. We feel a sense of ownership of our favourite books, sure, so I can see where they are coming from, those people who don’t want to share their favourite books.  But I also know that humans are social creatures, who wither without some point of connection with others.  You can tell a lot about people because of their reaction to books: both their favourites (and least favourites) and what they think of your favourites. I knew that one of my colleagues and I weren’t going to have a lot in common when she said that her favourite book was Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook because it was so well-written, for example. And I became close to one of my friends in Slovakia because of our shared love of Jane Austen (and Jane Austen adaptations).

Anyway, experiencing books is not a solitary activity. Despite what the article may imply, reading has never been a purely private pursuit.  18th and 19th century novels are filled with people reading in company, or sharing books, or passing around letters. Today, there are organized ways of sharing the books – like book clubs and social networking and literature classes – and there are casual ways – like a friend recommending a book and enthusing about their favourite parts.

For me, at least, reading is – and should be – both a solitary and a social activity. I have intimate relationships with books – I defy anyone to say the contrary – but like most intimate relationships, I find it difficult to put that relationship into words. So when I talk about those books, I don’t necessarily talk about the emotions of it, except to close friends.  I talk about the comic relief, or the plot points, or the weaknesses.  Just like when I fall in love – I don’t usually talk about the depth of my feelings, except to close friends. I talk about what we do, or what is annoying me about him, or when I’m going to see him again.

And just because someone else enjoys the same books that you do, that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – diminish your own relationship with the book. It’s still yours, as much as a book belongs to any reader (which is a philosophical question in and of itself). The laws of this universe, so far as we know, mean that you will not run into people from this world in your book. You read it again, and it’s your own private place just as much as it always was.

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Great Expectations

I’m teaching Great Expectations with one of my classes right now. I recognize the irony of having to teach Great Expectations very soon after saying I was giving up on Dickens. Luckily it’s one of the ones that I’ve read before, so I’m not totally starting from scratch.

I’d forgotten how ironic Dickens can be in his writing. There were times when I actually laughed out loud at how blind Pip was being. It’s so much better, and more action-filled, than books like Bleak House.

The other thing I’d forgotten is how overwhelmingly unpleasant almost all of the characters are. There are a few exceptions: Herbert is lovely, if a bit dim. Joe and Biddy are sweet. Wemmick is a good and loyal friend, even if he is a bit secretive. They are, I think, the only “good” characters in the whole book.

Women, especially don’t come off well. Mrs. Joe is abusive. She resents Pip for no apparent reason apart from his mere existence. Miss Havisham is insane. She attempted to freeze time around her and is trapped in the most horrible moment of her life – and when she realises her mistake, she dies in a most horrible way. It’s like she can’t exist outside of her need for pity and revenge. Estella is, to put it mildly, a bitch. She is by her own admission cold-hearted and emotionless, the living embodiment of Miss Havisham’s revenge on mankind.

The men aren’t much better. Magwitch is a violent criminal. Orlick is evil – evil with a motivation of jealousy and envy, but still evil. Jaggers is officious, secretive, and probably corrupt. Uncle Pumblechook is overbearing and a liar who blatantly makes up tales (such as his relationship with Pip) to improve his status.

And then there’s Pip. Pip is an idiot. He falls in love with someone who treats him like dirt or worse, simply because she is pretty. At even the word “gentleman” he completely abandons his old life and old friends, treating them the way Estella treats him. He is the most horrible snob who only cares about the appearance of gentility. He seizes on anything that reinforces his misconceptions, while completely ignoring any information that contradicts them. His only redeeming factor is that, by the end of the book, he realizes his mistakes and works to correct them. That doesn’t change the fact that through most of the action, he is one of the most irritating protagonists I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

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Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie

This is one of my favourite romance novels of all time. Actually, no, scratch that. This is one of my favourite novels of all time.  I have other favourites, as well: A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster; Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean; Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy; whatever other ones I have listed on my facebook page. But Bet Me is definitely on the list of ‘comfort books’, books that stay with me.  It’s not just that the story stays with me. Every so often, specific scenes and specific passages pop into my head, and then I want to (have to) reread the book.  It’s kind of like when you get a song stuck in your head, and then you listen to the song in the hope that it will get the song out of your head. That never works for me with songs, but I consistently try it anyway.

 (Note: One definition of insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.’ God, I need therapy.)

Anyway. Bet Me. It’s one of those dangerous books for me to read, because it gives me hope that one day I will find an all-consuming, intense love like Min and Cal’s. 99% of the time I’m cynical about love but there’s that 1% of hope, that longing for someone to break through my cynicism, and books like Bet Me (and movies like When Harry Met Sally) feed that 1%. I would be so much calmer if I could get rid of that 1%.It is an incredible book, though. I love Jennifer Crusie’s writing (I read her blog, too, although I don’t comment there – I don’t comment on most of the blogs that I read because I am afraid of coming across as a crazy stalker) but some of her books are breathless and intense because of frustrating situations. This one is breathless and intense because of the relationship and the way that people are dealing with it. Which, for me, is better.

Some of the scenes that stick with me are kind of pivotal scenes. Hopefully without spoiling anything too much, they include the scene in the movie theatre (especially the silent walk home) and the scenes where the universe is hurting them, especially Cal’s. The fight after he sings might end up in my head next time, too.

Other things I love about Bet Me: the strong female friendships (I miss my sister and my best friends – I hope the Three-Year Plan works out), Cal’s support for Min’s body type even in the face of her mother’s insistence that skinny = keeping a man, the variety of romantic relationships (Bonnie and her fairy tale, Min and Cal and fighting it, Liza and her casualness, Diana and her search), and most of all I love that sex does not automatically equal pregnancy. I love that having kids isn’t even a part of Min’s fairy tale. In so many romance novels, the heroine gets pregnant either the first time that she has sex or the first time she has unprotected sex, and at the very least the book ends with a pregnancy announcement. As someone who doesn’t necessarily see kids (or even marriage) in her future, it’s so nice to have a heroine who also doesn’t rely on the ‘typical’ family for her dream of happiness.

There are so many good things about Bet Me that it’s impossible to list them all here. It’s one of the books that I turn to when I’m having a bad anything: day, week, month, love life, etc. It’s a book where I want to take the main character as my role model in so many things.  It’s a book that reassures me even as it gives me (false) hope. It’s a book that everyone who likes ‘chick-lit’ should definitely read, and it’s possibly a book that will change the minds of people who look  down on ‘chick-lit’.  It’s that good.

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Ain’t She Sweet, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

This is a re-read for me. I was scanning through my e-reader looking for Anna Karenina and saw this title and couldn’t remember which one it was. I knew I’d read it before, because I’ve read all the SEP books that I have, but I couldn’t remember which one it was.

 Once I started reading it, I remembered it but by that point I was back into the book and had to finish it.  It’s a book I enjoy, with good messages about not judging people by who they used to be, forgiveness, and the importance of family. And, of course, a fast-moving romance.

 The one thing that bothered me this time, more than I remember being bothered by it before, was the way the main couple got together. Obviously there was an attraction there, even though both of them were denying that there was one and that there had been one in their history, but the first time they kiss is while they’re fighting. Now I understand that fighting is foreplay for many people, but this particular incident sort of comes out of nowhere, and is quite aggressive on the guy’s side. It’s not rape, but he also doesn’t really give her a chance to say no, and this time through it made me quite uncomfortable.  Not uncomfortable enough to stop reading, of course, and the way that the relationship progressed was fine, but uncomfortable nonetheless.

 I do really enjoy the relationships in this book, though – Colin and Sugar Beth are the main one, but I also really enjoy Gigi and Winnie and Sugar Beth and the family triangle that they form as well. It’s fast, because it has to be contained within the length of the novel, but the transition from ‘I hate you’ to ‘We’re family’ is effective and organic.

 And the other thing that this book does for me is re-inspire me to write myself – to lock myself away for a week or so and just force myself through the mental pain until I get stuff done. Of course, I have learned through long experience that that technique doesn’t really work so well for me (at least, not when I am also going through romantic troubles of my own) but I still keep wanting to try it, hoping that this time, this idea, will be the one that fully feeds the obsession.  I’ll get there someday.

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Dissertation texts

I am writing my MA dissertation on the role of musicians in Middle English poetry. I am starting to reach the point where, even though it’s nowhere near where I want it to be and nothing works the way I thought it would in my head, I may just have to call it done.

One of the good things, though, is that all of the texts I am working on are available online. So, if anyone’s interested….

Sir Orfeo – This was the poem that inspired the dissertation topic.

Orpheus and Eurydice – Another Orpheus story, but very different than the above.

Sir Cleges – A Christmas story, sort of.

Sir Tristrem – A Middle English version of the Tristan story

Bits of Confessio Amantis – There are a few stories in here that feature musicians, although it is probably the text that I am weakest on.

My deadline is Monday…..I will post again and talk more about these texts, maybe, after I’ve finished and turned it in.

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Harry Potter

When I saw Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the first time, it had been a while – probably a year – since I’d read the book. I have the audiobook on my hard drive, so in order to refresh my memory (after the fact) of the details they’d left out and things they’d changed, I listened to it. Then I went to go see it again.

And then I went crazy and became obsessed with not just the books but the movies. In the last four days I have reread all the books (except Half-Blood Prince, since I listened to it) and rewatched all the movies. The movies several times. (I can’t concentrate in silence – I have to have something going on in the background. I know. I’m weird. I have, however, passed 10K words on my dissertation so I’m not being totally obsessive and academically useless.)

I know that Harry Potter is not the ‘best’ series in a literary sense, and that it tends to overshadow other children’s and young adult literature that is just as worthy of consideration. But it is a fun series nonetheless, and one of the things I am most impressed by is the world-building. Granted, there are things that are inconsistent – website after website has, I am sure, pointed them out. I don’t care. To maintain the level of detail that she has across seven books and however many years of writing takes incredible imagination, planning, organization, and memory. Seemingly insignificant details come back later, giving the books a richness and depth that is only fully obvious on a reread/relisten. It is something that I aspire to as a writer, and something that I look for as a reader. [I enjoy fantasy, but only really world-building type fantasy – I’m not really into the paranormal (vampires especially) unless they are a part of a bigger mythos as they are here.]

The obsession seems to fading now that I have actually gotten through all of the books – even Order of the Phoenix which I don’t think I’d reread since its movie came out. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to do something different. At least, until the next time this particular obsession hits.

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