Reading Notes

by Sunita

I know, I can’t believe it either. It’s not a virus post! But as we talked about last post, the days are merging into weeks and I’m managing to read a bit, so let’s talk about that for a change.

I finished The Fellowship of the Ring, which I enjoyed immensely even though I kept seeing the movie actors instead of my own imagined characters. This was fine in some cases (Viggo as Aragorn, Ian McKellen as Gandalf) and not so fine in others (I’ve had enough Sean Astin as Sam to last me several trilogies, and ditto for Elijah Wood as Frodo). But that’s a small complaint. Finally I get to see why TheH always remembers and references Tom Bombadil and I can join him in lamenting Tom’s absence from the films. So far, I find the film’s changes to the books to be not horrible and even understandable, and I’m usually a curmudgeon when it comes to adaptations. Overall I prefer the book characters to the movie characters; they’re less pretty, more complex, and in the case of Merry and Pippin, less ditzy-annoying. But I can understand the changes and they’re not nearly as bad as they could have been.

fellowship 2011 cover

I’ve also been struck by the extent to which the film tracks with the books scenes and language. There are so many verbatim sections of dialogue and Jackson and his team did an amazing job of recreating some of the physical settings. New Zealand feels (and is) much bigger than Tolkien’s world, but it’s like looking at New England mountains and valleys and then the Rockies; they’re different in scale but somehow still part of the same continent.

But what about the book, you’re probably asking? What about my actual read of the actual novel? It was great. Just what I needed. In fact, it was so much more satisfying than I expected it to be. Maybe that’s why it’s a classic and beloved by millions? Heh. But yeah, I was totally swept up into it. I really appreciated that even in this, the more adult story (compared to The Hobbit), the violence is present but the worst bits are played down or fully off-page. It makes me realize how much of the films were devoted to grisly scenes, which when you read the source material you can see were pretty unnecessary from a storytelling point of view. Tolkien’s approach is a reminder that graphic and explicit aren’t necessary to communicate emotional and intellectual material.

The one instance where I preferred the film character to the book is Boromir, and that’s probably because I’m such a Sean Bean fan. Book-Boromir is not as complex as film-Boromir and I had more trouble seeing his admirable qualities.

The book and film don’t end in the same place, so I get to hang with book-Boromir a little longer. I have The Two Towers cued up but I’ll read a couple of other thing before I dive back into the trilogy.

Norfolk mystery UK cover

The next book I finished was nominally a genre mystery, but not exactly. I was looking for more novels set in Norfolk and ran across The Norfolk Mystery by Ian Sansom. Sansom writes reviews and essays for a variety of magazines and newspapers, and I’ve found his reviews in the Guardian to mesh with my tastes (they’re also good reviews apart from that). I read the first few pages of The Norfolk Mystery and decided it was worth reading the whole thing. The narrator is Stephen Sefton, an Oxford-educated veteran of the Spanish Civil War (Republican side, of course) who is rescued from a bad downward spiral by a job as the assistant of Swanton Morley, the “Public’s Professor” and indefatigable writer of an endless series of nonfiction books, encyclopedias, and guides. Morley, who is apparently modeled on Arthur Mee, has decided his next project will be guides to every English county, and they begin in Norfolk. This review’s opening paragraph captures the novel perfectly:

Having read this clever, if infuriating, book twice, I still can’t make up my mind whether Ian Sansom is bidding to create a new cult figure of the super-detective to rival Holmes or whether he is taking a none-too-gentle rise out of what many regard as the golden age of mystery fiction typified by the work of Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. Perhaps it’s a little of both – and for the reader to decide.

I agree that it’s both, and Swanton is, as the reviewer describes, a Marmite figure. I grew so tired of him that I almost abandoned the story halfway, but I persevered and by the end I was ready to read the next installment (they move on to Devon). The mystery takes a while to get started and the tone of the novel shifts regularly. Sefton’s reflections and flashbacks to Spain are poignant and sometimes painful, while Morley’s endless chatter and Latin tags can get to read like fingernails on a blackboard sound. And Morley’s daughter Miriam just barely, eventually, escapes being an annoying stereotype.

But that’s part of the sendup, of course, and by the end of the book I was really impressed with how well Sansom could thread the needle between sendup and seriousness. There are fleeting asides to contemporary issues and the language, especially when discussing minority or socially marginalized people, was hard to read. But they were there for a purpose, and by the end Morley shows depths that I didn’t think he had. Sansom clearly knew what he was doing and I think he pulled it off. But cozy and Golden-Age mystery fans, be warned that this is not your standard historical cozy. The more I think about it, the more I get the feeling Sansom wanted me to be uncomfortable. Hmmm.

The Betrothed Everymans Library cover

Finally, I’m rereading Alessandro Manzoni’s great Italian novel, The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi is the Italian title). I’m a little over one-third of the way through and I’m enjoying it immensely. This time I let the book tell me how to read it, and I realized that it is very 19thC novel-ish, with a huge cast of characters who must all be allowed their own space. The first few chapters describe supporting characters’ lives and backstories in great detail, which I think threw me when I tried to read it before. This time I appreciated these apparent digressions more, because Manzoni is using them to show you the world of 16thC northern Italy.

I’ve just finished the chapters on the Milan bread riots and they are just as good as I was told they were (an Italian colleague suggested the book to me because of my research interests). I could easily assign these sections in my Protest class and use them to illustrate theoretical approaches to collective violence and theories of the mob.

I’m reading from two different translations: the ebook version is the Penguin Classics translation by Bruce Penman and the Everyman’s Library hardback is translated by Archibald Colquhoun. I prefer the Colquhoun, but they both seem very good (I haven’t looked at the original Italian yet). And I wind up reading the Penman more because the ereader is easier to carry around and read in low light.

I still haven’t gotten to the plague of 1630; we’re still in 1628! But it should be a fun ride to get there. This is such an operatic novel, but it’s also witty and insightful. I can see why Italian schoolchildren both love and hate it, given they read it throughout their years of education, and I can also see why it’s considered such a great novel.