Wednesday, January 25, 2006

BOOKS: A New Ulysses? Do I Need This in My Life?

You think you know somebody, and then they spring on you the fact that they read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell months ago and didn't tell you.

Okay, I knew Rusty was
working at Jonathan Strange, or so I deduced from the book's increasingly abused-looking spine (Rusty's one of those people), but to my discredit, I sort of assumed he wouldn't finish. He's a finicky reader, is Rusty, and if a book doesn't grab him and keep him, he has no compunction about cutting it adrift. Except for his fifteen-year obsession with Ulysses. So I kind of figured that Jonathan Strange was Rusty's new Ulysses.

But no, apparently he finished it ages ago. And he thought it was A-OK, something he stressed when he was pushing the book on me the other day. Well, his
actual words were, "You'll like this. It has all that 19th-century bullshit you like." But you catch the meaning.

Now, here's the thing: I've never really had a hankering to read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. By all accounts, it's tough slogging for the first couple hundred pages, and while I've only eyeballed the book from a distance, I think there are at least a few more pages to read after those. Is it worth it? You tell me. But warn me if I need to change the title of this site to "20 Books", okay?

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

Although this doesn't rank right up there with the all-time stinker, "The Little Friend", by Donna Tartt, I was still looking at the last page and thinking, "That's it?"

mo pie said...

I listened to this on audio and it was enjoyable I suppose, but had so many plot holes that I was ready to tear my hair out. So my advice is enjoy the 19th century bullshit and don't think too hard about the plot holes. The stupid, stupid plotholes.

Gryph said...

I actually made it about 2/3rds of the way through. It took me more than a month to get that far (I am a typically fast reader), and once I got there, I was still wondering what the main plot of the story was going to be, and why I was supposed to care about it, the ideas behind it, and any of the characters at all. So...I would not say it's really worth it, personally.

landismom said...

I read the whole thing, but might not have if I hadn't taken it with me on a work trip. I was like, "damn, I lugged this heavy book on a plane, you KNOW I'm going to finish it." But it was kind of meh.

For better 19th century bullshit, I'd recommend Sarah Waters' _Fingersmith_, if you've never read it.

Beth said...

I was bummed by the ending. It wasn't depressing, it was just...dissatisfying, and felt like there should be another book following it, though God knows that Susanna Clarke probably has no intention of such. That said, time to reverse.

The first section of the book is, unfortunately, a slog, because it is all about Norrell and Norrell is a tedious person. Once Strange appears, things liven up hugely. The prose is great at points, there are some delightfully witty moments, and Clarke does have a great eye for memorable images...but she can drag on a bit or wander and she's maybe a little too much in love with her setting. (There's been a lot of Austen comparisons, but to me, Austen is much more brisk and snappy than Clarke.) It took me a month to get through this book, largely because I was also enduring a ridiculously busy last semester of college (and I admit I ran off to have affairs with other, shorter books as well, a trend which has repeated while reading Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle). I enjoyed it, I was glad to have read it, I relished all the moments of real people showing up (Wellington, Byron, mad King George III), but I don't know that I'll ever bother to go back and read it again.

Anonymous said...

I'm usually a fast reader too, and after a week and a half and like 50 pages I gave up and returned it to the library. Couldn't do it.

Mike said...

For the first half of the book or so, I was thought things like, "I thought this was about magic."

For the last hundred pages or so, I thought, "Awesome! Magic!"

For the last five pages, I thought, "This was all a big setup for a sequel."

As such, I can safely say I had mixed feelings.

Jenny said...

Eh. I tried, but the times between picking it up stretched so long I kept having to go back and re-read so I'd remember what the hell was supposed to be happening (or not happening, as the case may be). I've still got it, so I haven't given up, but...

Same thing happened to me with Life of Pi, though. I know it was supposed to be a great achievement and spellbinding and illuminating of the inner soul and whatnot, but I can't tell you how many times I wanted to pitch it violently against a wall because that would at least have broken the monotony. My mother refuses to speak to me every time she remembers that I didn't like it.

Anonymous said...

Definitely not worth the huge time investment. Was interesting in parts although overall I found it tedious.

The *other* Mike said...

I really enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I assumed I wouldn't, because it's a fantasy and I don't like fantasies: who has that much time for elves? But I started it because it was there and it read a lot like Dickens -- if Dickens was writing about magic.

And that could be the deal killer.

I enjoy Dickens pretty well. I loved Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend is on the list for this year. But a lot of folks don't so much with the Dickens. And that would be my caveat: if you like Dickens, you'll enjoy this book (assuming you don't hate fantasy more than I do). If you hate Dickens, then this book is a nasty ol' pair of Bad Idea Jeans.

I'd say the difference between Strange & Norrell and Fingersmith is that S&N reads like it was written in the 19th century; Fingermith is a book about the 19th century -- or, at least, the author isn't paying as much attention to the cadences and rhythms of that kind of writing.

Kristin said...

Lord. I feel so alone all of a sudden. I really enjoyed this, and while it does take a little while to build up steam, the steam it builds up is pretty remarkable. The odd, ominous magic and uncannily malevolent fairies are brilliant. The end did feel a bit rushed and unsatisfying, but I'd say it's worth it for some of the imagery alone.

--Deb said...

I really wanted to like that book, but honestly? I couldn't stand it. I read 2/3 of the thing and gave up on it. That's unheard of for me--if I've stuck it out that far in any book, I finish it. But when I found myself looking for anything else to do instead of opening the book--things like cleaning the bathroom--I gave it to reality and put the book down. I was really quite proud of myself. What I really wanted to do was throw it across the room. If I had read "Thistle-haired man" one more time, I don't think I could have controlled myself. Ugh.

Cat said...

Well, I have some mixed feelings about the book---what everybody else is saying about the ending is true---but I did enjoy it, generally, and didn't regret making the effort to read it.

And as for time output, I read it on a plane trip from Australia to Vancouver and it got done before the plane set done. It's not that long or slow.

Je Suis said...

Liked it, it was beautiful, the movie will (hopefully) be killer.

Gina said...

I had a week to read it when it was a brand new release from the library, so I rushed a bit, but I thought it was well worth the effort. I didn't *love* the book, but I certainly enjoyed it.

A word of caution: I have a friend who's working on a copy she bought, and the text is very small and light--she can only read in spurts because it gives her a headache. If you're going to invest the time, make sure you have a decent edition.

Nancy D. said...

I listened to the book in the car. Quite overwhelming to look at something like 27 CD's or something!

My "commute" books are held to a lower standard than reading books - but I liked it enough that I recommended it to my husband and he actually listened to the whole thing, too.

I doubt I would have made it all the way through it if I'd been reading instead of listening.

Lizard said...

I liked it very much, but I was wrapped up in her style from the beginning, so here's what I'll say -- pick it up and read the first 50 pages. If you like the style but think it's going a bit slow, keep going -- it picks up. If you aren't a fan of the style, just stop where you are and save yourself some time, 'cause it is a lengthy mofo.

Diablevert said...

I read it, and enjoyed it. It had some good set pieces --- Norrel's first public showing of magic, Childermass' reading the tarot --- and I liked the footnote digressions. Her conception of magic has that strong streak of cruelty and capriciousness, and a lot of the stangeness, that you get in authentic folklore, the kind of stuff the Grimm Brother's and that Golden Bough guy collected, and I liked that about it.

But I kind of blew through it not thinking too hard, and even so it was a bit of a slog --- the kind of reading where you're like "Hunh? Didn't...? Eh, whatever. What happens next?" I think if I'd slowed down and given it my full attention it could have really dragged. And the ending read very strongly to me like the set-up for a sequel or a trilogy. It doesn't feel complete in and of itself.

Logophile said...

I bought this book for me right before Christmas, so it was partly a commute book, partly an "enjoy at home" book. Carrying it to and from work actually hurt my back if I didn't switch my bag halfway through--and that was the paperback. Even still, I was so sad when it ended. I wanted it to keep going. But, and I agree with the *Other Mike*, I like Dickens and Austen and probably some other things a lot of the world finds boring. If you don't like the first two hundred pages, you may not like it at all. It gets a lot better, but her voice is essentially the same throughout.

KT said...

I liked it very much, but I agree with the other Mike. It's similar to reading Dickens because it is long, has a lot of characters and a lot of detail that can be tedious if you aren't into that sort of thing.

I happen to love Dickens and I got very involved in the book. But yeah, I wouldn't torture yourself if you start to read it and find you can't handle the style. There are a lot of footnotes and some of the footnotes are short stories in and of themselves.

It is a fantasy, so there's that, but it's not as formulaic as most fantasy books these days are. There's no young man/woman on a quest who meets elves and dwarves and companions on teh way before finally defeating the uber evil thing. It's quite different from that.

Monty said...

I like it so far, but I'm only about half through and it's taken me several months (because I keep reading other books instead of it). I enjoyed the boring early part with Mr. Norrell a lot more than the "exciting" parts when Jonathon Strange shows up, but that's just me.

It's not only long, it *feels* long. Even though I've enjoyed what I've read, it' still a chore to pull the book down from the shelf and slog through more of it.

eninnej said...

In contrast to the other Mike's opinion, I hate Dickens, and I enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. And my ex, who isn't a big fan of 19th century literature also liked it, although we never did talk about why.

I read it on the plane from DC to Australia, and then for the first few jet-lag recovery days, and I think that being sort of a captive audience did help me get through the first reading. But I've read it again since, and found that it went pretty quickly for a book of its size - I don't think it took me any longer to read than Vanity Fair did, for instance.

So, no, you don't need to change your title to '20 Books' if you take on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. And for what it's worth, from what I recall of your posts last year about the books I'd also read, we seem to have fairly similar reading tastes, so I'd say it's worth a try.

Faville said...

I'm like Rusty in that I can cut a book loose when I'm not enjoying it--although that really annoys me when it happens. Life of Pi I also could not stomach, along with Stephenson's Baroque Cycle--it only took me fourteen pages of Stephenson's overworked similes and ridiculous dialogue for me to toss it. And I tried, twice. Big fat books attract me, too. No problems with Infinite Jest or Mason & Dixon.

Anyway--I found Jonathan Strange very absorbing and very enjoyable. But I read it with no expectations one way or another as a summer vacation read. People in reviews crabbed about it being slow for 200 pages or so, but I found it very interesting from Norrell's first actions with the Society of English Magicians (or whatever their group was called). I was not bothered by the 19th Century style, either (some find it difficult), and my wife is the one who likes all that 19th Century bullshit, for sure. It's very much worth your time.

Marissa said...

I'm with eninnej -- hate Dickens, love Jonathan Strange. I got lost in the world that Clarke created (well, stole from the real world and then tweaked only slightly). The magic was great, the footnotes were awesome, and I found the climax unbelievably satisfying. (The denouement, as others have said, is sort of another matter, but I let it go.) Give it a shot!!

Jilder said...

I adored it. It's easily one of the best first novels I've ever read.

And as for having to downgrade to '20 Books', read it in as the three volume set and count it for what it's worth!

Gwen said...

I've had this book sitting in my to-read pile since the month it was published. The size is just so daunting that I've yet to work up the nerve to start. But after reading the comments above, now my only dilemma is whether I want to read it right away or reread Great Expectations now that I've been reminded of how much I like Dickens. I say you go for it, if for no reason other than I'm curious to hear your review.

tulipano said...

I just finished it last week. I didn't really like it all that much. It wasn't horrible or anything, and every fifty pages or so there was a little comment that made me laugh. But eight or nine laughs per 800 pages isn't that great. And for all the hype, I expected a whole lot more from it. One of the problems is that none of the characters are really all that sympathetic.

nurhuda said...

I slogged through for about 100 pages of it two years ago, and then had to give up. I just couldn't get into it, even when I could focus on reading it all day while on holiday. I plan to go back to it someday - just because I need to see what all the raves are about.

piksea said...

It was okay, not great. I found the footnotes to be kind of annoying. It's a work of fiction, if you have another story to tell, fit it into the narrative, don't add footnotes like that. I think it could have used some editing. In all of its 700 plus pages, I think there was probably a much better 450 page book in there.

Anonymous said...

I read it in a week, non-stop, reading through meals, staying up late, missing favourite soaps... I loved it!

You should definitely try it.

Elizabeth said...

I consider myself a connoisseur of fairy tales, and more than anything else, I really think this book captures the spirit of English folk and fairy tales.

So, if you like that at all, read it. I think the ending that lots have found dissatisfying also fits into that spirit.

Also, every other line has a story in it, or some kind of amazing imagery. I've been rereading it slowly, and not picking it up for weeks, but when I first read it I was totally drawn in.

tuckova said...

It was "mehn" -- GOOD but not great. And the gimmicks (esp. the spelling and the footnotes) - I'm a gimmick lover, and that probably sustained me through the book, but I felt cheated at the end. And also, as deb said above, the more times I read the words "thistle-haired man" the more times I felt the thistles of itchy irritation On My Brain.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit surprised that it took people so long to get through...I read it in three nights, and never had a problem with it at all. It wasn't the best book I've ever read, but I did enjoy it thoroughly. I do agree with the others who've said that the ending was a bit unsatifying, but the actual book was quite good!

Anonymous said...

I found it creepy and wonderful, but not in the ways anyone had led me to expect. The difficulty with talking about it without spoiling plot points is that it's a bit like "Being John Malkovich" in that it's so off-kilter, not using the type of cues that most novels give the reader. One moment, Clarke is tripping along in vaguely Austen-esque descriptions of a historical society's meetings; the next, she's showing history as bleak and terrifying as some of the grimmer Childe ballads. For me, the transitions felt like part of a whole, part of the continuum of British history and folklore, encompassing fairies at the bottom of the garden and the kind of ghost stories that'll make your flesh creep and the maneuvers of the British fleet off Brest during the Napoleonic wars with equal aplomb. The book didn't sweep me off my feet entirely, but it did carry me along; I found myself saying, "Oh, just one more chapter," until about 3 AM for several nights.

The ending...well, I can see why people were discontented with it, and in a way I wish it were different, but I think it's ultimately consistent with the book's messy but engaging view of history. Life rarely has tidy conclusions("We fray into the future, rarely wrought/Save in the tapstries of afterthought"), and in a book so dedicated to complicated lives, it would have been unsatisfying to settle everyone down in a cabinet of happy endings.