Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Completed: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Dear Jenny,

Well, as I have been whining about for the past 3 weeks... this book was looong. And, apparently, I cannot stop reading a book. I guess I kept at it because I kept wanting it to "get good." And things did get going in the last 100 pages. But... that's a lot to slog through before getting to the good stuff.

I have just read a bunch of reviews to see what others have to say and people seem divided between "I love this book! [because I love Dickens, Austen, the Victorians, etc.]" and "This book was too long." Obviously, I side with the latter camp.

The story was interesting but could have been even more so: the basic premise is that these two magicians start off as allies (Strange is Norrell's student), disagree about the study of magic, and split ways, each to his own magical pursuit. But there was zero bite in this fight: They weren't at odds so much as they just wandered away from one another. In the end, when they have to join forces again, it's like, "Oh, yeah. We're back together." (yawn) and then... what they intended to do together was actually done for them by someone else, but they don't even realize it. What?!

It just felt like there could have been waaaay more excitement infused into the writing of this story: there are fairies and enchantments, places get moved around, people are raised from the dead, etc. That's some good meat! But it's overcooked and slogging through the surrounding... er... potatoes (?) was wearing.

Oh, yeah. And there was a crapload of endnotes, which I stopped reading almost immediately. I guess, if I was into the book and the style, I would find the fake endnotes (referencing text that does not actually exist) charming. And might even enjoy the misspellings of "chuse" for "choose," "surprize" for "surprise," and... weirdly, "shew" for "show" (the first two examples sound the same, but that last one is bizarre... maybe with an English accent...? I don't know.) But instead, it was just more work.

In my review reviewing, I did see some of that "Harry Potter for adults" comparison that you mentioned hearing when this book came out and I'm gonna say... No. Both involve magic, but that's where the similarity ends. In fact, I would love some more HP infusion in this book (and there were opportunities for it — several individuals sign up to be Strange's students and there is even a failed attempt at a School for Magic — but none of that gains any traction. Of course.) but the story is not nearly as exciting as an HP story!

I guess, if a person is "into" this sort of prose, this book would be good for them. I am not. Sometimes, the slowness reminded me of Tess (set in the same enormous time period generally classified as "Victorian") but I honestly thought the story of Tess (while also slow) was far more engaging and far more beautiful. This book left me feeling like, "That's it?" Which is, of course, a big bummer.

The good news is that I pretty much burned through it (I'm not nearly as fast of a reader as you are. Covering 846 pages of a book I'm not that interested in in 3 weeks is speedy for me!) I will also admit that the book might have suffered because I listened to two other completely engrossing audiobooks this month while reading it (The Fault in Our Stars and Gone Girl), so I did wish that it was more like those (that is to say: holding my interest...)

Oh, yeah! I also highlighted (highlit?) a couple of interesting quotes, so this isn't a total bag-athon:

From Norrell to Strange, as he takes him on as a pupil — I love this commentary on England: "You must argue and publish and practise your magic and you must learn to live as I do — in the face of constant criticism, opposition and censure. That, sir, is the English way.” [483]

Insightful observation on the problem of having two magicians in England:
“I mean that two of any thing is a most uncomfortable number. One may do as he pleases. Six may get along well enough. But two must always struggle for mastery. Two must always watch each other. The eyes of all the world will be on two, uncertain which of them to follow." [455]

And this made me laugh right out loud, as I have both known travelers and been a traveler myself — so true! “Oh! I shall not spare you. It is the right of a traveller to vent their frustration at every minor inconvenience by writing of it to their friends. Expect long descriptions of everything.” [598]

Overall, a good idea for a story, but way too slow. My next book is going to have to be a page-turner (sorry for the pressure, next book!)



  1. Kelly,

    I'm glad you were able to finish, but sad that it was so plodding. It's always so disappointing when a great premise is made boring. I didn't realize you had given up entirely on the fake footnotes---probably a good call.

    I did like the quotes you put at the end. Something about it makes me remember that quote from Edward Gorey about what happens when you have too many cats. Hah.

    The Harry Potter for adults angle seems so promising, and yet it's never really been done successfully. I know you said you liked The Night Circus, though. There was also a good movie about warring magicians I liked called The Prestige. Harry Potter just is better than we give it credit for, I think. I was talking to (the other) Kelly last week. It seems so easy to duplicate, but it's far more complex and *good* than its given credit for.

    If you want a page turner for you next book, probably best to avoid 1Q84.

  2. Also, on a non-related follow-up. I was talking at lunch today about the book Traffic and how much I enjoyed it. Turns out that last year, the author wrote a series of articles about the importance of walking! I knew you'd enjoy this:

  3. I just read all of those articles -- super interesting, yes! Our house has a Walk Score of 95 ("Walker's Paradise") Interestingly, our general zip code only has a score of 6 ("Car-dependent") -- because, of course, the entire zip includes the miles and miles (and miles!) of subdivisions.

    In those articles, the photo of the girl being driven to the school bus w/ her house visible right behind them just *killed* me. I just mapped out a walk I used to do as a kid (6 and 7 years old) every morning and it was .6 miles. Come ON. /old lady rant

    I do love to walk. Especially if I've got a good audiobook to listen to -- when I was young, I would walk and read pBooks at the same time. The aBook is a waaay safer way to handle that multi-tasking activity. Just have to be extra super careful when crossing the street.

  4. The driving to the gym part was pretty funny, too. I mean, living in a cold weather place, I get it.

    We currently don't belong to a gym because of the treadmill, but last summer we joined the University athletic center, and I'd do it again next summer. They have a fantastic pool (even though it's indoors) with lots of family swim time. But the best part about it was riding our bikes there, or walking back and forth! In the winter, that's way harder and far more time consuming.

    A walk score of 95! Yay for the new neighborhood!

  5. Yes, of course -- weather is a huge factor. We drove to a bar the other night that is 1 mile away. In CA, we totally would have walked. But it was 20F and snowing. So... we drove. (I look forward to walking there in the spring and fall, though!)

    I just google mapped a normal walk I take to run errands in the freezing cold and snow -- 1/2 mile. Sooo... half a mile seems to be my shitty weather walking limit (1 mile, roundtrip). Fortunately, there's a lot of stuff within half a mile of my house!

    In the photo of the girl at the bus stop, though... she was wearing capri pants and a short sleeved shirt. It's a little foggy, so you know it's not too hot. Sure, if you want to have your kid sit in the car while it's freezing and snowing (or boiling, on the other end) outside, I get it. But this is insane.

  6. Funny -- I just realized after I published that that I will be *far* less likely to walk that 1/2 mile in the brutal heat of summer. Maybe once the sun goes down, but that's pretty late here in summer so... we'll see how that gets handled.

  7. You're going to need a variety of sun hats. You'd be surprised at how cooling they can be.