The Courtly Charms of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

As soon as Susanna Clarke‘s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell became available in local bookstores, I immediately shifted to active search mode. Its hefty price and sheer weight (which can be hard on your wrist) gave me some pause at first, but after reading several glowing reviews I threw caution to the wind and bought a hardbound copy.

So was it worth the hassle? You bet. In spades.

I was barely halfway into the first chapter when I realized that I was truly ensnared with no hope of turning back. I raced through that 782-page book like a hound on a scent mission. After finishing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in 1 and 1/2 days (I still had to report for work), I went through it again. This time, I savored every page and sniffed every meandering twist and turn of the fantasy tale — yes, even the footnotes.

I’d been trying to convince a lot of people since then to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but except for a couple of sci-fi/fantasy geeks it didn’t really catch on among my friends and colleagues. Oddly enough, only a few people seemed to appreciate its charms. I think the book’s sheer length and weight, as well as Susanna Clarke’s writing style (which mirrors the style and conventions adopted by many authors of that era — particularly Jane Austen) must have put them off.

This, of course, baffled me. After I had raved about it for weeks, a friend finally asked me why I liked it so much. For some reason, that question floored me for a few seconds. I mean, how do you explain why you like something without sounding like an obsessive nutcase? I finally replied, “Just read it.”

I could have told him several things: Susanna Clarke’s storytelling gifts, the elegant way she paints a scene (which would normally take lesser authors many paragraphs to convey and many years to perfect), and her beguiling way of convincing you that such things are actually possible.

The thing about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is that Ms. Clarke unfolds her tale with a deceptively reasonable and gently (and at other times, sly) teasing tone, it makes you want to believe these remarkable events with frightening ease. It’s like being invited into a parlor and ushered into a comfortable chair facing a nice, warm fireplace; before long, you just want to settle in and not ever want to leave. The story feels alien and comfortingly familiar at the same time.

I suppose that my fondness for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell can be partly traced to my lingering affection for Jane Austen’s books (well, some of them at least) and the fact that I like fantasy/sci-fi books in general. I have also devoured Georgette Heyer’s books, which are an excellent source of social vignettes and humor during the Regency period. In addition, Ms. Clarke managed to infuse her tale with some of the period’s famous historical figures, which is always an excellent way of grounding a story (despite the fact that it’s a revisionist tale).

I wish there were more books like this. Which reminds me, Susanna Clarke’s latest book, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a collection of short stories relating to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’s story line, is also out. (Naturally, I have a copy of that, too.)

 

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Wordplay

I love wordplay — you know, things like puns and witty punch lines and classic comebacks that wrench wry smiles and spontaneous laughter out of you.

Being hopelessly inept at it only highlights the fact that I am inordinately impressed whenever I hear somebody press home a point with a succinct, hit-the-nail-on-its-head idiomatic phrase. In gatherings or social affairs, you won’t be hard-pressed to find the life of the party or the social wit — more often than not, it’s the individual who rolls off clever remarks at a drop of a hat, and who leaves the audience chuckling, nodding in agreement, and inwardly wondering if they’ve somehow missed the point.

I am forever waiting for that opportune moment when I, too, could be blessed with such smooth, rapier-like timing and say something slick like, “The eleventh pun always gets a laugh, even if no pun in ten (10) did.” Or at least a just tiny fraction of Piers Anthony’s fertile punny concoctions for his Xanth novels (e.g., Centaur AisleAir Apparent, the perennially late character Justin Thyme).

Although it pains me to say it, I have to admit I just don’t have it. More often than not I’d be hampered by slow mental processes (umm, slow on the uptake?), sloppy timing, inarticulateness, and occasionally, consideration for certain people. Usually, by the time some sleek repartee comes to mind, the moment to make my point has already passed and everybody else has jumped on to a new topic. If ever I blurt out anything remotely clever and funny at the same time, it’s more of an accident than by design.

Sometimes it makes me wish I had Adam Sandler’s remote control (remember the movie Click?) to make time stop while I reach for my dictionary or scroll down a handy “List of Witty Things to Say for Every Occasion”. That sure would make things simpler, except that it could spoil the momentum of things (spontaneity?).

I guess that’s one reason why I take refuge in writing. Collecting witticisms and devising ways in which they can be delivered with perfect timing and the right amount of careless panache isn’t all that hard when you have full control of the situation and the characters. Moreover, when it’s your story, you can always rewrite or dispatch certain characters if you think they’re getting too big for their britches. Or too incoherent… or something.

While I’m floundering around for a nice clincher to round off this brief note (*thinking hard*) umm… uh, okay, I give up. I haven’t thought of anything yet, but I’ll get back to you on that as soon as I’ve come up with something subtle or sublimely witty.

 

The Add-on Value of Journal Keeping

diary

I remember trying my hand at keeping a journal during my first year in high school. Like most of my half-baked ideas, it started out on a high note. I had this tiny diary on which I wrote my impressions for the day. The quality of my handwriting reflected my enthusiasm: at first, the entries were written carefully and easy to read, then degenerated to half-legible scribbles. In time, the gaps between the dates of my entries lengthened until I eventually grew tired of the whole thing and forgot all about it.

A few years later, when I came home for a short vacation I found my small diary among my old books. Without meaning to, I started reading and promptly became absorbed in my scribbled entries. I was not exactly sure what I was expecting but after giggling (and wincing) at my adolescent absurdities, I was surprised at what I had found. Notwithstanding the numerous spelling and grammar lapses, it was like sharing thoughts with somebody strange and familiar at the same time.

Suddenly I was reliving those days again, and since I had practically forgotten most of the details, it was like reading about somebody else’s life — only, its more vivid because they are accompanied by memories. It also elicited a rush of emotions (amusement, sadness, chagrin, remorse, bafflement, etc.) as I began to remember other details. No, there were no extraordinary events detailed in those pages, no life-altering confessions, no earth-shattering secrets — just a series small, everyday things that seemed so important to me at the time.

I have not made any further attempts of keeping a journal or a diary since then, but I feel grateful to my younger self for having the sense to crystallize those days in a way only teenagers can. Your adolescent viewpoint may not be as coherent or as sensible as you wish it could be, but you do begin to understand why things looked the way they did to you back then.

I guess in a way maintaining a blog (albeit at a more sporadic pace) is a continuation of that effort, as explained in a New York Times article by K.J. Dell’Antonia (The Surprising Value of Journaling an Ordinary Day). Another NYT article also notes, “new research suggests that recording our run-of-the-mill, daily experiences rather than just our highs and lows, could bring us unexpected joy.”

Yes, I suppose it does. Although I will probably be more certain about this in a few years’ time (hopefully by that time this blog will still be alive and kicking so I can blog more about it).

 

The Allure of Books

girl reading a book

The first gift I ever treasured while I was growing up was a hardbound book (a Nancy Drew mystery, The Spider Sapphire Mystery; Carolyn Keene) from my aunt who used to work in a bookshop — definitely a huge deal for a young impressionable girl whose reading materials mainly consisted of magazines, comic books, textbooks, and other school-related materials.

I remember tearing through the wrapping with mounting excitement and had this foolish grin plastered on my face. It made me feel like I had grown up in some way — or at least old enough to be given something different that was mine alone. I began reading that book and did not let go until it was time for supper (my parents had this strict rule about not missing dinner for frivolous reasons hehehe).

It hardly mattered that I could barely understand half of the book’s content (with my limited English vocabulary). I was too wrapped up in the story and the exciting potential that this new activity presented. Up until then, the only outlet I could find for my fertile imagination was the endless stream of pencil sketches I drew that used to exasperate my mother (because of the litter it left behind). Suddenly, my world had expanded in ways I had never imagined.

And so began my lifelong affair with books and reading (for which I have my aunt to thank).

book giftMany years and books later, I can still remember that exact moment when I began to realize that with books, my world need not be bound within four walls, and that there were countless others who obviously felt the same way I did (with millions of books borrowed, exchanged, sold, and re-sold throughout these years, who could doubt it?). To me, books (and reading) would always represent an escape and a refuge, a place where I can lose myself, expand my horizons, and “experience” things vicariously.

And that Nancy Drew book? It is still in our house, nestled in the old bookcase that my mother could not bear to part with when we moved to a bigger place. It looks battered and dog-eared in several places, and the pages have turned yellow and somewhat brittle, but it remains in place with some of my childhood books. I remember digging it out gingerly the last time I went home for a short vacation. It looked like a slight shove could easily it break apart, but I just could not bring myself to throw it away.

Maybe in a few years, my niece (who they say is a lot like me) would feel its irresistible pull as I once did. Or maybe she won’t. Most likely by that time e-books would be a better option, or perhaps she would prefer other books. For now, it stays where it is — a living memento of my childhood days and a silent witness to my love for books and reading.