jueves, 29 de mayo de 2014

Greenery Street - Denis Mackail

Summary (from Persephone):

PG Wodehouse described this novel as 'so good that it makes one feel that it's the only possible way of writing a book, to take an ordinary couple and just tell the reader all about them.' Greenery Street can be read on two levels - it is a touching description of a young couple's first year together in London, but it is also a homage - something rare in fiction - to happy married life.

Ian and Felicity Foster are shown as they arrive at 23 Greenery Street, an undisguised and still unchanged Walpole Street in Chelsea. Their uneventful but always interesting everyday life is the main subject of a novel that evokes the charmingly contented and timeless while managing to be both funny and profound about human relations.

This novel is a delightful account of the first year of a newlywed couple, Ian and Felicity, living together for the first time. It has been said that this is a rare gem in literature, since there aren't many stories out there about happy married couples. I guess their lives aren't exactly full of action and emotion, or not enough to pen rivers of novels about them. However, Denis Mackail turned this notion on its head with Greenery Street, and wrote a funny and endearing story based on his own years as a newly married man living on Walpole Street.

The voice of the narrator helps with the pace of the story - part third-person omniscient, part stage director, it adds to the charm of story, treating the characters with the right amount of tenderness and irony. But the narrator never makes fun of the characters - only of the situations. A great example of the care with which the characters are treated (and one of the most hilarious vignettes at the same time) is the conversation that takes place between Ian and Humphrey (Felicity's father), when Ian is supposed to ask permission to marry Felicity. The awkwardness of both men makes them skirt round the important matter, and they end up discussing college rowing teams instead of marriage.

I really enjoyed the happy couple dynamics, but I also enjoyed the contrast offered by Bruce and Daphne, Felicity's sister. Their marriage is not as happy as that of Ian and Felicity, and they have grown distant with time. While they never get the sole focus, the greatest conflict of the story stems from their unhappiness. I don't want to spoil it, so I won't say much about it, but it really sheds light on the views on marriage of the early twentieth century.

Greenery Street is as much of a character as the people who populate it. A fictional version of Walpole Street, it shared many things with the latter: young couples got their first house there, but abandoned it as soon as they had their first child, since the five-story houses couldn't accommodate the couple, the children and the servants. Denis Mackail described it as always having pantechnicon vans full of family furniture cared for by the newlyweds, young women with perambulators giving instructions to the pantechnicon men, and young couples talking to builders and estate agents. Nowadays, some aspects of the novel seem dated. Who would deem a five-story house too small? And what kind of middle-class young married couple could afford a cook and a housemaid? Despite that, Greenery Street feels decidedly modern on the whole. After all, some things never change, and couples still have to adjust to a shared life with everything that it entails: getting used to "odd" habits, defining personal space, paying off debts and whatnots.

The humour in this novel hit close to home, and I appreciated Greenery Street even more because of that. I definitely plan on reading more by Mackail. The good news? Some of his novels can be found (for free!) on the Internet Archive.

Have you read this book? Please, leave a link to your review in the comments and I will link you here!

jueves, 15 de mayo de 2014

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - Frank Miller

Summary (from Goodreads):

Together with inker Klaus Janson and colorist Lynn Varley, writer/artist Frank Miller completely reinvents the legend of Batman in his saga of a near-future Gotham City gone to rot, ten years after the Dark Knight's retirement. Crime runs rampant in the streets, and the man who was Batman is still tortured by the memories of his parents' murders. As civil society crumbles around him, Bruce Wayne's long-suppressed vigilante side finally breaks free of its self-imposed shackles. 

The Dark Knight returns in a blaze of fury, taking on a whole new generation of criminals and matching their level of violence. He is soon joined by this generation's Robin — a girl named Carrie Kelley, who proves to be just as invaluable as her predecessors. But can Batman and Robin deal with the threat posed by their deadliest enemies, after years of incarceration have made them into perfect psychopaths? And more important, can anyone survive the coming fallout of an undeclared war between the superpowers - or a clash of what were once the world's greatest superheroes?

Over fifteen years after its debut, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns remains an undisputed classic and one of the most influential stories ever told in the comics medium.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is a comic book classic I had longed to read for quite some time. Frank Miller is one of the great names one associates with superhero comics, since he helped establish the genre after the decline in the 70s. (Unfortunately, he is aware of this.) He is doubly famous because of the recent movie adaptations of his work - Sin City and 300.

The Batman we see in The Dark Knight Returns is old, bitter and sad. He has added Jason Todd, a former Robin, to the ghosts who haunt him, and is now trying to ammend his life by subsidizing the recovery of the Arkham Asylum interns. Rampant crime plagues Gotham, free of its vigilante. When Harvey Dent goes back to his former habits the moment he sets his foot outside Arkham, Bruce Wayne decides he has to embrace his masked identity and put a stop to all the madness. First as a background and then as the overarching storyline, a nuclear war looms in Gotham, giving depth to the grittiness and darkness of this world. In a magistral turn of the screw, this apocalyptic atmosphere is starkly contrasted with the vacuity of day-to-day life, represented by vapid news anchors.

I enjoyed the appearances/name-dropping of other comic-book characters, such as Superman, Selina Kyle (Catwoman), Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) and Diana (Wonder Woman). But I truly hated what he has done to the women portrayed - I had trouble recognizing Lana Lang, and Selina has been turned to an old, fat and sad prostitue in charge of a brothel. I know Catwoman isn't characterized exactly by a strict moral code, but I think that is downright out-of-character. Miller has written either whores, damsels or dykes, and is thouroughly incapable of understanding that women are human, too. I've heard that Miller's Robin (Carrie Kelley) is the only exception, but is it, really? She kicks ass because she has to, but has the depth of a piece of paper. We never get to know her motives, or any kind of background, or any personality trait, for that matter.

The main conflict is a product of the 80s - nuclear war, the tension between the USSR and the US, and the preoccupation with mass media consumption. It really couldn't have been written in a different decade. However, it isn't atemporal as a great classic should be. While Watchmen (another comic which deals with similar concerns) has succeeded, The Dark Knight Returns is dated. Ultimately, the story is only entertaining and not life-changing or moving. On the other hand, this bitter and twisted Batman was definitely a good departure from the campy character of the older comics. It cleared the way for modern superhero comics, featuring more mature and complex characters. In fact, the lauded Batman trilogy directed by Nolan owes a lot to Miller's vision.

I also didn't enjoy this from a technical point of view. This is a personal preference, but I think that while Miller's penciler skills worked wonders in Sin City, they don't look good in Batman and even drag out the pace. In contrast, Varley is flawless and the color seriously improves the artwork. The narrative was subpar as well - the sentences were repetitive and over-the-top, very juvenile in a way. I'm just glad I've read this because of its status and its importance, but I think it just hasn't stood the test of time.

Have you read this book? Please, leave a link to your review in the comments and I will link you here!

jueves, 8 de mayo de 2014

Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue - Kathryn J. Atwood

Summary (from Goodreads):

Organized by country, this historical exploration includes stories of girls and women from across Europe and the United States who risked their lives to perform extremely dangerous acts against the Nazis during World War II. The 26 profiles bring to life courageous women such as Noor Inayat Khan, a radio operator who parachuted into occupied France and transferred crucial messages; Johtje Vos, the Dutch housewife who hid Jews in her home and was repeatedly interrogated by the Gestapo; and Hannie Schaft, a Dutch law student who became involved in the most dangerous resistance work--sabotage, weapons transference, and assassinations. The profiles are written using dialogue, direct quotes, and document excerpts to lend authenticity and immediacy. Each profile includes one or more informative sidebars and is followed by a list of relevant books, websites, and films, making it an attractive resource for teachers, parents, and libraries.

I read this in March to celebrate Women's History Month, but real life and my own laziness have delayed this review. World War II is a topic that I never get tired of exploring, so this title instantly caught my eye when I saw it on my library's WHM display. I've read quite a bit about the role of women on the Home Front, but was completely clueless about their role on the actual frontline. Women Heroes of World War II filled that gap nicely.

This short non-fiction book is divided in sections, grouping the women geographically. Every section starts with a short overview of the state of the affairs in each country, and is followed by a brief profiling of these World War II heroes. It includes a great range of women - from teenagers to mature ladies, from all over Europe and the US, and from all social strata, so it should be easy to find someone to get the reader's interest. The accounts are really concise, since they are intended to serve as an introduction to these women. For this reason, the author has decided to include "Learn More" sections and additional bibliography, which really come in handy when you want to explore the subject in more depth. My only quibble with Women Heroes of World War II is that the voice was a bit juvenile at times, although always compelling and no-nonsense, but I guess this is because of the intended YA reader audience.

I especially enjoyed the focus on the impact that being a women had on each of their roles during WWII: their gender helped them escape situations that would have meant death for a man, or allowed them to go incognito because of the perception of women as too meek to have an important part in the Resistance. In a way, it was easier for them to be spies for the SOE/OSS or other organizations. On the other hand, they had less freedom to travel around and their willingness was often doubted. They definitely could do things men couldn't, and Kathryn Atwood has chosen to celebrate this in her book. At the same time, it doesn't detract from the inherent difficulties of their mission - I'm really happy with the results.

I loved learning about each of these great women, but I have to admit that I have two favorites: Martha Gellhorn, who had a powerful and engaging voice, and led a most interesting life as a war correspondent, and Noor Inayat Kahn, who sadly died during the war. She had been brought up among luxuries and had been given the best education, but when the time came, she was tougher than most. Somehow the vision of this willowy, wispy woman trying to escape the Nazi officials by hoping from roof to roof is endearing. She failed the fake-torture that was part of her training, but standed the real interrogations with more aplomb than many others. I guess I identify with stubborn women who approach the world on their own terms.

I'm conflicted about Hannie Schaft, though. The more I've read about her, the more I've realized that she is a symbol of Resistance in the Netherlands, but I have conflicted feelings about her. Unlike the other heroes included in this book, Schaft's mission was killing dangerous targets, many of whom were civilians affiliated to the Netherlander equivalent of the Nazi Party or collaborationist people (policemen, politicians, whatever). It's true she never went in for unjustified killing and even reported those of the RVV who did, but her role is a stark contrast with the more pacific ones of the rest of the women featured in the book. I'm also uncomfortable with her decision of not reporting herself to the Nazi Party when her parents were captured as hostages and sent to a Concentration Camp. Even though they were unharmed, she really didn't know whether everything would be right at the end. I'm aware that this uneasiness with labeling Hannie Schaft as a hero stems from my pacifist ideology, so it isn't a problem of the book, but mine. And I'm also aware that the Nazis weren't defeated without violence, but I wish it had been so.

All in all, this is a great introductory book that I cannot recommend enough. Unfortunately, my edition (by Spanish publishing house EDAF) was a mess from start to finish. The translation is terribly poor and it gave me the feeling of having been edited way too fast and carelessly. There were lots of repeated/missing words, and mistakes with homophones and similar words, that at times changed the whole meaning of the sentence. I'm sad Jorge Rus and his editor/s did such a poor work - it is a real disservice to a really good book.

Have you read this book? Please, leave a link to your review in the comments and I will link you here!

This book counts for the Nonfiction category of the Reading Outside the Box Challenge 2014 that I'm participating in.

martes, 6 de mayo de 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Covers I'd Frame As Pieces of Art

Top Ten Tuesday is an original weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week they will post a new Top Ten list that anyone can answer. All you have to do is link back to The Broke and the Bookish on your own Top Ten Tuesday post and add it to the Linky widget.

Top Ten Book Covers I'd Frame As Pieces of Art