Reading: Old School Edition

As an English major, I’ve had to face reading a lot of old school period reads. As an English major, I think I may be about to utter a sentence punishable by death if certain  professors of mine get wind of this. Sometimes those old petticoat skirt and funny hair dramas are far from a good or easy read. Sometimes, you’ll be up late reading a book and trying not to lose track of everyone’s name because that might be on the exam and wondering why the author took break from anything to do with the actual plot to take up two chapters describing the architectural history and landscape development of a building  that’s not mentioned more than twice in passing afterwards, because this will most certainly not be on the exam.

This entrance is by no means me saying all old books are boring or terrible. There are loads of classic books and writers I cannot recommend enough. That being said, there are plenty of books that don’t read as enjoyably to modern eyes, and I totally have to read all of those anyway because of my aforementioned major. I recognize this as an obstacle many besides myself will have to face, and so I’m offering up my experience, so you can benefit and I can vent. Here are some tips for getting through difficult classics without turning to SparkNotes, (or turning to SparkNotes less than usual) and without tearing your hair out in frustration.

What does any of this have to do with anything?!

So old novels in general tend to have longer word counts. Normal language and style just had people using more words than they do now, and you may not understand all these words. This will only heighten your frustration when you find yourself reading ridiculously long dialogues, or those previously mentioned dreadfully long and dry descriptions of peripheral settings. You could research period dialects and become a historical expert of the different reasons a man would wear this or that cravat in the 19th century, or you could role with the punches a bit. See if you can just get a general feel for the meaning of what’s being said. Oh, good guy so-and-so knows that Lady Whatever loves Lord-Kind-of-a-Prick.

The thematic undertones of good vs. evil or slightly abstract social commentary are the important bits when it comes to getting a feeling for the book anyway. If a simple farmer is earnestly speaking his mind to the lady of the house, then maybe they’re saying something about the virtue of the simple honest folk or knowing the land. Descriptive passages also thematically set up atmospheres and maybe even provide little moralizing asides for the author, but if they get really ridiculous  I usually just snort in frustration and skip ahead. That’s how I was able to get through half of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame in only six months before rage quitting at yet another aside about the architectural history of the Notre Dame Cathedral. There really was a Gypsy lady with an adorable goat side kick in that original story and he buries that lead with judgmental descriptions of interior design. Hmph.

Okay, but who are all these people?!

What, you don’t remember that Count Villdore d’Gassi is the son of that one slightly more important Lord Hodorn d’Gassi from the novel’s first part? He was totally mentioned as being present in that one party in chapter fifteen! Plenty of old books have fancy graphics or family trees in appendixes meant to clear up who everyone is related to and why we should care about this person’s romantic intentions towards that person and so on. Those can get complicated, so I recommend naming the characters like the dwarfs in Snow White, simple names that reveal their predominant character traits,  ” Nice Rich Guy,” “Mean Rich Guy” “Mean Rich Guy jr,” “Virgin Love Interest.” Really, depending on the classic, you won’t need to get much more complicated than that to sum up the whole of the book’s meaning. “Good Rich Guy beats Mean Rich Guy, marries Virgin Love Interest.” Boom. There, just summarized over half of the period romances you’ll ever read, classic or otherwise. Take notice of what vices or virtues they represent, “Good Rich Guy is honest. Mean Rich Guy is mean. Mean Rich Guy jr. likes to gamble. Virgin Love Interest is a hot virgin who just can’t make up her mind because she’s so fine and pure.” and you are ready to write a collegiate level paper about that book, once you fluff up the language and add some filler.

When’s the freaking ending?!

You’ll know you’ve reached close enough to the ending when the two unlikely lovers are about to get married, or everyone is mostly dead and ruined, depending on how sunny a disposition your book’s author has. Usually, everyone from Lord d’Gassi to that one stable boy in chapter three have to be given a resolution fitting their personality and character. That old relative or family friend that approved of the young protagonist’s love and helped them when no one else would? They’re dead, probably looking down on them from heaven or whatever. Lady so-and-so is in an unhappy marriage with whats-his-face because she had the audacity to tell the heroine not to follow her dreams in love. It turns out the stable boy in chapter three is that aging rich widow’s heir. That one dude killed himself for unrequited love. Everything usually has to have a fitting bow on it, with no fewer than three people revealing or discovering they are actually rich and related to/ married into a good bloodline. This excludes the bad guys, who are usually dead, publicly shamed, or in prison by the end.

The ending is the final point for the author to very obviously finish up the perfectly composed moral to the story, so skip right to this part if the plot seems slow and you just need to get straight to the “big picture” point for a book report or whatever.

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Well, this entry has gone on for a good long while, but I have piles of 18th century literature to get through and writing this helped enough that I think I can get through this without resorting to self harm and a coffee overdose. Best of luck to everyone else reading a book filled with more flowery prose and petticoats than common sense.

How to Recommend a Book to Anyone

So I’m reading a fabulous book by an author I’ve discussed on this blog before, Gail Carriger. This one is the conclusion of her Finishing School series, Manners and Mutiny. The cover shows a young lady in a Victorian gown holding a crossbow, up against a yellow wallpaper of grappling hooks. That alone should make it very easy to recommend. Trying to explain the plot to someone asking the old “Whatcha reading, random stranger?” though, gets weird.

“Well, you see, there’s this school that can float in the sky because it’s attached to these balloons, and its a finishing school for girls, but actually its training them to become assassins, finishing people off, a finishing school get it? The pun? Right, and also there are these mad scientists, and bandits  that call themselves Picklemen, and also werewolves and vampires and ghosts are all real, and there’s international intrigue and it’s all really funny and steampunk of course. I, wait, where are you going?”

Yeah, they usually look at me with weary eyes and start backing away at this point, silently deciding this “reading thing” is for people  with mushier heads than their own. Manners and Mutiny, like all of Carriger’s books, is wonderful yet difficult to explain in a few words, especially to people unfamiliar with the steampunk genre. Saying the words “werewolves and vampires” in conjunction with young adult literature makes some people nervous. Those people have not read enough Gail Carriger.

Plenty more books besides Manners and Mutiny are hard to explain so quickly, and therefore difficult to recommend. I’m going to use Manners and Mutiny here as a case study, a way to show you  how any book can be spun anyway into a recommendation to intrigue anyone. That’s the way you’ve got to do it. Know the audience you’re approaching, and make sure to mention what I know will hook them. Like so:

A Total Stranger:

This book, why yes I’d definitely recommend it. The author’s got a great sense of humor, and its a really original story. You see, this girl is enrolled in a finishing school that actually trains spies to finish off enemies of the British empire. Lots of intrigue, cool fight scenes, some romance. If you’re familiar with steampunk, it’s a very solid contribution to that genre

A Sci-fi and Fantasy Fan

Yeah, it’s a great steampunk read. She’s got a wicked wit, and wow does she know how to build a crazy detailed universe, really looking into how all this crazy stuff effects the budding modern world. There’s loads of great action too. These girls know how to wield bladed fans,  and all those fancy steampunk classics. The main character has a little mechanical robot dog she carries around disguised as a purse. Need I say more?

Someone Sick of YA Vampires

This is the furthest thing from Twilight though, I can tell you that. These aren’t sad sappy romance figures with fangs and fur. It’s all handled very tongue in cheek, and more than anything they add to the sort of satire created about class and societal structure in England during the Victorian period, in between all the tea parties and spy stuff, of course.

Some of my Fancy English Major Chums

Yes, I know it sounds strange, but I’d compare Carriger’s insightful knowledge of the period’s societal mores and brilliant sense of humor with none other than the likes of P.G. Wodehouse, and  Jane Austen also, for sure, because with that similar sort of witty breakdown of British society being served with a healthy but always well played taste of romance. It’s some of the best Victorian writing out there, I assure you.

A Friend with Similar Tastes to Mine

Dude, reeeeeeeaaaaaad this stuff, like now. It’s frickin’ amazing and funny and fast. I just need someone else to geek out with over this, please. I swear if you don’t I’m gonna cry. It’s got the coolest hot air balloon chase scenes and kick ass steampunk ladies smooching werewolves I’ve ever seen. Do it!

And there you have it, the many ways a master bibliophile can recommend just one brilliant book to many different people, and more likely than not get a positive response. You are welcome. Now, some one go read Manners and Mutiny before I cry. Do it!

What to do When They Teach Your Favorite Book in Class

If you’re enough of a book nerd, it’s definitely happened to you before. I, only just recently, found myself in a poetry class that involved reading and discussing Mary Oliver poems. I had to keep my cool and not let on that I love Mary Oliver so much, I’m trying to make one of those full body pillows with her face on it to cuddle with before bed. That sort of intensity and blind emotional devotion is not conducive to an academic discussion. If you find yourself in the classroom with your favorite book, and no one else is looking nearly as excited by or as familiar with the work as you, you’re going to have to get a handle on yourself so you don’t weird everyone out.

Sometimes, even having read a book before makes sitting through a classroom discussion of it impossible. When people start to talk about or debate the qualities of characters before they have all the info, it can be annoying. Sometimes, like I did when my class read The Fault in Our Stars, you have to practically bite your tongue off while people wonder whether this or that character is really going to die. It is very much like keeping quiet about spoilers for Game of Thrones or Star Wars while your friends talk about where they are in the series, but there’s a teacher carefully watching everything you say and grading you. Why isn’t she saying more? Why does that weird twitch always happen when she bring up that character who dies right at the end scene? I don’t know. She seems unstable. I think I’ll give her a C minus.

It can also be very hard to have a book or poem that you’ve read a thousand times with a burning literary passion in your heart stumbled over and butchered by people reading it for the first time. When a work has expansive metaphors and an experimental style, or old-fashioned language, like dear old Shakespeare, people can just decide they hate the book, collection, etc. and that the writer was an idiot clearly trying to torment them and lower their GPA. Teachers are trained to deal with this sort of attitude about a text they’ve certainly read before, but you have not. You can only sit and smolder while people completely stumble over an especially eloquent passage and wonder what the freaking point of this is? Will it be on the test? The teacher may have a helpful response to this, but you can only bite back a scathing speech involving an in depth analysis of the passage they got wrong and several hypotheses about how low their IQs and disgusting their souls have to be to so callously disregard such a beauteous and obviously ground-breaking moment in literature. In all likelihood, that use of “rhetoric” could singe the eyebrows off of the people that leave racist comments under YouTube videos of baby monkeys, but it will not earn you any extra credit points, or help your standing among your now newly fearful peers. There’s nothing scarier tan a rabid teacher’s pet that even the teacher wants to put down.

Basically, there’s a thousand different ways your bibliophile passion can lead to awkward point where you alienate yourself from the rest of the class, on a “teacher’s pet nerd must’ve read ahead” level or the even worse “crazy student, crazy student, back away…” level. As long as I’ve been in this awkward book nerd game, and that’s been quite a while, there’s been only one way to combat that raging nerd passion, besides playing on your phone and ignoring everyone. Teachers don’t like that one, as effective as it is.

Basically, you just gotta go zen. Meditate, right in the middle of class, taking deep breaths in and out and focusing on an inoffensive point of the room, (NOT, I repeat, NOT, another student’s face,) and remember this mantra:

“Ohm, this is learning time, not flipping out about my favorite book time, ohm. People who don’t like the book are only bad mouthing it because they’re scared for their GPA, ohm. Their opinions are irrelevant, ohmmmmmm.”

Repeat that silently, and maybe find away to comment in a scholarly way that doesn’t get too teacher’s pet like or reveal the crazy eyes you get thinking about this book late at night. No one needs to know about needs to know about that secret Shakespeare body pillow chilling in your bed.

Starting Sandman Decades Later

Well, I’m back from my holiday break. I got many wonderful reads for Christmas, but none were quite as beautiful as The Sandman Overture by Neil Gaiman. I almost didn’t ask for this book from dear old Santa because I knew I’d have to wait until Christmas to read it. However, I knew that if I’d just gone out and bought it as soon as I could find it, I realistically wouldn’t get the chance to read it until Christmas break anyway, and so I waited.

I was truly glad I did have such patience, because on break, I truly got to sit down and simply enjoy the book. With artwork by J.H. Williams III, that often meant I would literally just keep staring at pages for a long time, until a relative came up and asked me if I was looking at one of those magic eye 3-D pictures, and I would look up suddenly and answer, “What? Oh, no, these pages are just freaking beautiful.” You know they’re very beautiful If we’re this far into a post about a Neil Gaiman book and I haven’t even started gushing about his writing.

Neil Gaiman’s writing though! Amazing.This story, as is explained before the book begins, is actually what happened right before the start of the Sandman series. Gaiman apparently always wanted to write that story, but never fulfilled that wish until just recently, roughly thirty years after the Sandman series first debuted. This book provides the perfect point to start exploring the series, as I personally hope many new readers do. The series may have started years before I was born, (not enough years, though, that he’s a fancy British guy I have to learn about in school,) but I still read and loved the series.

For me, this is another crowning jewel in an amazing series. My entry point was the original starting volume of the series, Preludes and Nocturnes. I simply started reading the series one day in high school, as my Gaiman fanaticism grew larger and larger and I couldn’t justify not having read the series any longer.

It is a beautiful series exploring dreams and other things essential to the fabric of existence, told in only the strange and ethereal yet utterly real sense that you can get from a master of fantasy, with so many memorable  characters you’ll fall in love with and the art, the story, and… and… Wow. I can’t believe I ever thought I could fit every aspect I love about the series, every reason its a comic classic, into one blog entry coherently. I’m starting to get some foaming spittle at my mouth just trying to get all the words out here.

I suppose all I can really say is I can’t recommend the series enough, including all it’s weird offshoots and cousins, which certainly includes Overture. I recommend this and all Sandman books to people that love brilliant fantasy, art, writing, comics,etc. Also, anyone who claims to even have a human soul. Read these things. Read them now.