Friday, August 08, 2008

Bram Stoker: Dracula

As mentioned, I re-read this not long ago. I can't remember why though - I think it was because I started humming the Annie Lennox song from the film for no reason, and that put me in mind of the book. We have - we had -two copies of Dracula. One was my old worn paper-back (Wordsworth Classics I think) that was practically falling to bits, and the other is a rather swankier paperback (Penguin Classics) with a fuller introduction by Maurice Hindle. The latter was accquired by mr Bani (who else?). I threw the older one out in the Purge now. One copy will do (but we still have three copies of Jane Eyre. Y'see, one is a love-gift (aaaawww), one is a cool old Penguin paperback, and one is an interesting boxed little thing from the 19th century. So we can sacrifice none of them, and besides Jane Eyre rocks.). Where was I - oh yes, Dracula. Vlad the lad.

I remember reading Dracula years and years ago for the first time, and finding it rather dry. What stuck with me then was the religious fervour, the pure and clean vs. sullied and wanton, the way the men all put Mina Harker on a piedestal. So when I saw the film - marketed as "Bram Stoker's Dracula" as you may recall, no small claims there - I was very surprised. I didn't recognize this sex-obsessed creation at all. Surely there was no sex in Dracula? It was all about God and the evil vampire. And it was not until I re-read it now that I understood where Coppola got all the sex from - which is funny because I must have read it a good few times between then and now. Maybe I was paying better attention this time? Although I don't know how that could be, seeing as how I have had no time to read properly, I was just snatching time while nursing... In any case, I still think Coppola went too far to tout his film as being oh-so-close to the novel. Too much added, plain and simple. I wonder why he felt the need to insist that it was closely based on the novel, surely his own vision was just fine with his name on it. (Not that it turned out all that well.)

I digress again. Back to the book: I enjoy Dracula. It's not really great literature, to be honest. It could have been trimmed down, refined, made more succinct. This was brought home to me even more clearly when I read Hindle's introduction. The more you read about mr Stoker the more you can tick off his hang-ups when reading the book, and the more it starts to come across as some sort of therapy session. But no matter, it's a classic nevertheless. And back to the sex: before I digressed I was saying that the first time I read it I didn't see past the nattering about phonographs and typewriting and mesmerizing. This time I must have had my imagination hooked up properly, and I noticed this scene for the first time:
With his left hand he held both Mrs Harker's hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man's bare breast which was shown by his torn-open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten's nose into a saucer of milk [ ... ] Her face was ghastly, with a pallor which was accentuated by the blood which smeared her lips and cheeks and chin; from her throat trickled a thin stream of blood. Her eyes were mad with terror.

Oo-er. The sexual innuendo is strong with this one. I see what you mean, Francis.

Therefore, my advice to you is: read this. It's historical, it's classic, it's... well, in all honesty not terribly scary for a modern audience, but we can certainly appreciate the effort, and it's The Original. Go for it. (And if you get a copy with the Hindle introduction, read it AFTER you've read the book. But do read it, because it's very enlightening.)

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Joel Rose:The Blackest Bird

As I was reading this book I very frequently thought of Nick Hornby's Believer column Stuff I've Been Reading, the collection of which I wrote about last time. Because this book - he would have thrown it away in disgust, and not been able to write about it then in the column, since they have that No-Snarkiness policy.

I got it from my editor friend E, who got it I think from someone at a bookfair, trying to pitch it to her I suppose. E handed it to me with a shrug, saying she hadn't liked it much but since I liked mysteries.... this was ages ago this, and I had forgotten about the book completely. (Well, not completely. I did have this vague feeling that there should be something readable in the house that I had brought in and not my husband, but I couldn't think what it was.) Now, when we were clearing and de-cluttering and bookburning I came across it. Of course, I was tremendously pleased. A murder mystery based on the tragedy of Mary Roger's death, which is immortilized in Edgar Allan Poe's Marie Rôget story! Set in New York in the 1840s! How fantastic! I read the most prominent blurb on the cover:
"Murder, mystery, historical novel, portal to another time, you'll lose yourself for days on end in the perfectly depicted characters, atmosphere and low life of nineteenth-century New York. The Blackest Bird is a masterpiece."
--Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential and Bone in the Throat


Hang on a minute. Anthony Bourdain, who's he? And then I remember - I've seen the man on BBC Food, haven't I. He's a chef. (And now, reading the blurb, I remember reading about Kitchen Confidential in the papers when it was published. I never connected that with the fella on the telly until now.) And he has a blog and all. Anyway, a chef. Why is his opinion all over the front cover? This is not promising. I mean, I don't expect Harold Bloom endorsements or anything, but come on.

But I get stuck in, and for a good while I'm impressed by the thoroughness shown in writing so consistently in an old-fashioned style, right down to segars instead of cigars. This reviewer says it's newspaper jargon - I'll take his word for it. But. However. There is a reason why this style of writing went out of style. It's quite cumbersome to read. And I should point out that only recently I re-read Bram Stoker's Dracula (oh that reminds me, I forgot to blog about that. Dracula deserves its own blog entry! I'll do that soon then) so I was used to reading dialogue in which people don't hold normal conversations, they lecture at length using convoluted sentences. This is all bearable, providing you have a narrative drive and characters to get involved in. Here, we don't. The story doesn't seem to know who to focus on. Is it a story about High Constable Hays getting slightly obsessed with Mary Roger's murder? Is it a historical novel about New York in the 1840s? Is it a sort of biography of Edgar Allan Poe? Ideally, it should be all these things. Zadie Smith, for example, she can write a novel from many different characters' point of view and bring it off and together to a whole. This book just collapses into a layering of facts and ideas and endless name-dropping of Famous People from New York History, and the whole thing just screams out "I spent 18 years writing this! Look at all the research I did! Look how much I've read! Look at how I've taken snippets that Poe actually wrote and said and worked them into what he says in my novel!" As for the last bit - yes I noticed. Because it's very noticeable and this is a bad thing. To get back to Zadie Smith - in an article in The Believer (God, I know, I keep going on and on about this, but this time it's just coincidence, I've read a grand total of two articles from that magazine and this was one of them) she writes about how to write. Among other things she suggests leaving what you've written in a drawer unread for a few years, and then taking it out and reading it afresh. This novel was 18 years in the working and could have done with 18 years in a drawer, in my opinion. And then it might still have needed a great and ruthless editor.

I think what upsets me most is that it could have been riveting and fantastic. I forced my way through the whole thing, because after the twist at the very end of Special Topics of Calamity Physics I no longer take anything for granted - but I was ready to give up not even half-way through. I have no doubt that Rose has talent, and has done a spectacular amount of research. The problem is it's just not very good the way it is now. What a waste. That said, in the right hands it might make a great film. This is of course another pet peeve of mine: when books appear written solely for the film rights. Ah well.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Nick Hornby: The Polysyllabic Spree

This past year or so mr Bani has been reading The Believer quite often (well, at least copies of the magazine have been turning up here and there in the flat). So it only follows that he would want The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, which is a collection of the columns Nick Hornby wrote for The Believer over a period of two years. So, since I'm a bit of a sucker for Hornby and was in the mood for something easy to read but not stupid, I nabbed it off the shelf, where it was resting atop the other books that had a space in the original row (now that we have de-cluttered it has its own space, three cheers for us!). I've read all Hornby's novels I think (barring maybe one? or two?). I was very pleased with How To Be Good, even though critics seemed to think it was weaker than his previous work - I thought he did a good job of writing from a woman's point of view, and the story was interesting. Well done.

So this compilation turned out to be completely my thing. Hornby's task was to simply write about what he had bought and/or read every month, and in theory, he speculated, this might show if there was a pattern to what he reads. Since the magazine has forbidden snarkiness there are a few instances of "unnamed literary novels" being abandoned half-way through because they're too terrible to finish - which amuses me. Hornby creates a fictitious fight with the Polysyllabic Spree, which is what he calls the people who run The Believer. He describes them as a sort of cult, and it's very funny.
[...] the fifty-five disturbingly rapturous and rapturously disturbing young men and women who edit the Believer [...]
[...]the eighty horribly brainwashed young men and women who control this magazine [...]
[... ]the seventy-eight repellently evangelical young men and women who run the magazine [...]
[...] those teenage white-robed prudes.
Anyway, that's really not very important. What's important is that I want to be like Nick Hornby. This blog was supposed to be more like that book - effortlessly fluently written, witty and clever without really trying. Although we don't always seem to have the same taste in books - Nicky breaks down in tears when attempting science-fiction, for example. I like science-fiction. Nick, I can tell you why you fail at sci-fi: it's because you think you have to understand everything. You don't. It's just there for the period effect, as it where. Hornby complains that he must be dim for the whole column
[...] I haven't felt so stupid since I stopped attending physics lessons aged fourteen.
Although I have a sneaking suspicion that he really thinks that sci-fi is stupid literature, but masks his dislike by putting himself down, so as to con the Polysyllabic Spree. But once or twice I could nod happily, seeing that we enjoyed the same things - admittedly not very often, given my obse... huge interest in crime fiction these past years, a genre Hornby doesn't revel in. I was extra happy then to read him praise Citizen Vince by Jess Walter. Yes Nick, you and me! We could actually, like, hold a conversation!

Why can't I write the way I want to? It's heart-breaking, so it is. This book left me itching to read more, and I'm definitely holding on to it for a good while so I can glean it for tips. Inspiring is the word I'm looking for.

Friday, August 01, 2008


Mr Bani and I are in an organizing frenzy here at casa Bani. As you may or may not know, we live in a two-bedroom apartment with one bathroom, with a total square metrage of just under 70. And there are five of us. So thank God we always resisted the children's desire for a pet, I say. There is a certain amount of compact living going on here, and by that I mean that we have a lot of stuff and it is everywhere. If that's compact, we're it. And 1½-year-olds? They believe in entropy. One spends a frighteningly large amount of time picking up stuff that he has emptied out. And then, finally, not bothering to. I had forgotten (as in repressed) that part about having small kids. Give me teenagers any say. You just say "Hey you, what the hell?" and they pick it up themselves.

So, we decided that we needed to change the furniture around in the livingroom and put the bookshelves on the other wall and in the corner, aso we could put those two cabinets from the Ivar range that have been "temporarily" arranged these past three years on top of one another on top of a semi-antique chest of drawers in our miniscule bedroom alongside that wall and so on. You get the picture - it isn't a tidy one. And where are the wheels we once had screwed on under that second cabinet? We unscrewed them to stack the cabinets and now I only found one set. Arse.

In order to manage this we had to scrap one whole bookshelf. This meant that we first had to have a big clear-out in the cellar so we could move discarded-but-not-unwanted-really books down to the cellar (and said shelf, of course). And since we can never be really structured about these things we end up just throwing things away and not even attempting to sell them - although to be fair, most of it was sort of rubbish anyway. Anyway, so all the course books, representing thousands of dineros (yet with no actual degree to show for it...) are being moved into the cellar, finally, and lots of books are finally being deemed as Not Necessary to Own so we're giving them away to the Christmas flea market at church. BUT, and here comes the explanation for the title of this entry - we've thrown away lots too. Books that were breaking (fair enough), but also just books that we didn't think were worth the trouble of carting off to some other destination than the rubbish room (my English translation of the word soprum...). And since they end up in the burnable bin in the rubbish room - WE ARE BOOKBURNERS, as mr Bani said, with a wince. We ended up becoming less and less ruthless, so the pile that is going to charity is now larger than it would have been if we'd carried on with the sacrilege. See, I'd planned to bookcross a lot of this stuff. I'm a CRAP bookcrosser. I should delete my membership. I haven't had a chance to search for ANY books, and I haven't released any, or even gotten to the point of starting to register one for release. And now I won't be doing any releasing for a long time, since I'm not prepared to let go of the ones I have left. (Yet.)

Among the books I finally got rid of is an old copy of Fanny Herself by Edna Ferber. I've held on to this book for ages because it made an impact on me. Little bits of it often drift to the surface of my thoughts - for example, for a while there Fanny dates a man who keeps volunteering snippets of Useful Information, so she dubs him "Fascinating Facts". So far I'm the only one who gets it when I say "fascinating facts" with irony in reference to people like that. It doesn't seem to be a widely read novel, but I really like it. Fanny grows up in a small town with her mother and brother. Her mother works very hard in her little shop to support them, but ends up being outmanouvered by a new, larger store. When her mother dies Fanny swears to never become like her, working her life away for nothing. She's going places, she is. Connecting her mother's failure to Judaism too, she rejects her entire background and goes off to the big city to make a career for herself. In the end she mellows and reconnects with her past, and the whole thing is quite sentimental (in the best possible way) and lovely. Also, it paints a great picture of a professional woman - actually, of two professional women, if we count Fanny's mother - in the 1910s and before. The Amazon link above states "that Edna Ferber has been called the greatest American woman novelist of her day" and I think that this book is well worth reading, as well worth it as, say, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, which I think is much more widely known. Well, I don't have it anymore. Nor do I have Flickan som inte sa nej by Elsa Nyblom. I've insisted on holding on to this for years, but I'm ready to let go now. This book is so little known I can find no good link to it, only online second-hand book sellers telling me they have it, and one Bookcrossing entry that turned out to be a dud. It's not about much this book, but I quite liked it. I liked how it felt so set in that particular time (1930s, 1940s), and its sort of dreamy quality, even though it deals with real matters. I can hardly remember exactly what it's about any longer, to be honest. The main character is a young girl who is easily influenced (she doesn't say no is the title), so she agrees to be married to a much older man. It's not a depressing story about abuse or anything, but it's about having a sense of self and being able to say what you want for yourself. Her life doesn't turn out badly, but she has to learn to say no. That's it.

It's a bit of a wrench to get rid of these old novels, because I might never be able to get hold of them ever again. I've found them in second-hand stalls and bought them on impulse. My one, sole ambition in life really has been to have a Library. To have bookshelves covering the walls, and to be able to go in there and see my life through the books I've read. It makes me sad that I can't realise this dream. I've wanted to save all those 1940s "young women" novels I'd collected, but I haven't. How will I ever get hold of Flickförbundet Silverkorset by Bertha Clément again - a 1927 story about some young girls who meet at a boarding house during their holidays and form a sort of charity club together. A moralistic little book, to be sure, but it paints an interesting picture of pre-Nazi Germany. I have to hope that Bokmamsell and others like her will remember all those books, because I can't be their custodian right now, and maybe never.

Anyway, St. Lars Catholic Church in Uppsala, during the 1st of Advent weekend - that's the place to be if you want to buy the Bani cast-offs. See you there - I'll be rescuing novels from other broken libraries.