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Archive for August, 2012

Mr. Darcy, Vampyre

I had been planning a blog post about Mr. Darcy, Vampyre since I bought it.  I mean, seriously.  The title lays it all out there for you: Mr. Darcy is a vampyre.  (Not even a boring old vampire, mind you: A vampYre.)  How is this not fodder for this blog?

And then I read Mr. Darcy, Vampyre.  This book, which opens on the wedding day of beloved Pride and Prejudice characters Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, rotates around two main questions: when will Elizabeth figure out that her beloved Darcy is a vampyre?  And will they ever have sex?  Many, many successful books operate on at least one of those two questions, whether the heroine will figure out the hero’s dark secret, and/or when said hero and heroine will hit the sheets.  But there is no tension. Elizabeth and Darcy in this book are Elizabeth and Darcy in name only. Darcy is chatty and popular, going on about Elizabeth’s beauty until he catches a whiff of her blood, and suddenly he’s Edward Cullen. Elizabeth is insecure, willing to talk to pretty much anyone about the fact that she and Darcy haven’t yet consummated their marriage, and decides it’s a good idea to go skinny dipping with her husband while visiting strangers. Neither of them speak as though they are actually living in the Regency era, and Elizabeth’s letters to Jane certainly hold none of the charm or language of a lady of her time. There is nothing to draw you to these sad shadows of characters who share names with some of the most interesting characters in English literature, and you certainly don’t care if they ever get to it. 

Secondly, there is no mystery.  You, the reader, know that Darcy is a vampyre before you even open the book, and the fact that Elizabeth doesn’t figure it out until the end doesn’t make you fear for her, it makes you wonder how dumb she is.  And of all of the character traits that make Austen’s original Elizabeth Bennet who she is, stupidity is not one of them. The not-so-subtle hints the author drops to make you wonder if everyone in the book besides Elizabeth is undead hit you over the head with Vampyre 101 (garlic wreaths, silver, crucifixes, etc.) You can only look in so many mirrors and not see a reflection before the willing suspension of disbelief becomes a suspension of patience.

The book mostly follows Elizabeth and Darcy as they take their wedding tour throughout Europe, making stops fit for any fanfic princess. Darcy changes plans on Elizabeth willy-nilly, and they spend their honeymoon visiting with Darcy’s many relatives and connections and stopping in at his endless hunting lodges and palaces and estates.  His wealth and connections are endless, as are the references to the original Austen the author throws in to make sure you know she read the book. I would hazard that there are more references to Mrs. Bennet’s nerves and Mary’s “moralising” in this book than Jane Austen penned in all the drafts of Pride and Prejudice.

The book goes on and on, meandering through the European continent, hinting at vampyres but never actually introducing them until the very end. There is nothing in this book to fear, nothing to make chills run down your spine. It plays fast and loose with vampire mythology, taking what it wants, ignoring what it doesn’t like, inventing what it needs. And finally, the when the inevitable Love-Conquers-All ending comes around and neatly ties up the action in the course of about three pages, it disappoints, because anything else would be more satisfying than the bad Indiana Jones knockoff that results.

I finished this book on Friday, and the more I thought about it, the madder I got.  Not only did this book completely squander the promise two of English literature’s most famous and beloved characters, not only did this book seem like a cheap exploitation of a classic to appeal to women (anything that involves Mr. Darcy and anything that involves vampires is a sure bet right now), but this book wasted my time.  I wasn’t expecting it to be good, but I was expecting it to be entertaining.

Like most people, I don’t have a lot of free time to read.  What little time I have to read, I carve out of time when I should be doing something else: mundane things like cleaning the house or reorganizing the basement or taming the jungle that is our backyard; intellectual things, like writing more or doing some research for the article I want to write but never seem to get anywhere on; or necessary things, like sleeping.  Every time I sit down with a book I am painfully aware of how many things I am not doing while I have that book open in my lap.  So when I take the time to read, I want it to be worth it.

I’m not saying that everything I read has to be high literature.  I just read Heartburn by Nora Ephron, and while it certainly wasn’t a Pulitzer Prize-winner, I enjoyed it.  I liked it.  I laughed with the heroine.  I recommended it to friends.  I felt like I was justified in taking the time to read it. And that is how I need to judge my reading anymore: by how much enjoyment I get out of it. I don’t have time for books that are a struggle, and I certainly don’t have time for books that are going to make me mad.

I said not too long ago that motherhood and my own limited time are making me rethink how I write.  Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, was the final kick in the pants to make me really and truly rethink how I read.

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We were a sight to be seen. When we discovered we’d left the cord to connect the iPod to the car stereo at home, we found the best solution we could at a rural Wal-mart: $5 portable speakers. With one speaker roughly the size of a peach balanced on Mike’s shoulder and the other balanced on mine, we drove through the night to celebrate Christmas with my family while Tina Fey read us Bossypants.

Tina kept us company and made us laugh, but when we got home, the only advantage I could see to listening to her book over reading it in printed form (aside from the obvious company she provided on a long dark drive) was the inclusion of the audio of perhaps my favorite SNL sketch of all time. Even though we laughed heartily at other points in the book, the absolutely brilliant Amy Poehler/Tina Fey Clinton/Palin sketch got the biggest laughs of the whole drive. Rather than reading it on the page, smiling to myself at “I can see Russia from my house” and moving on, we enjoyed the audio of sketch in all its glory.

So when we set out on a nine-day road trip this summer, I made sure I packed the cord for the iPod and I went to the library to find more audiobooks. Following the success of Bossypants, celebrity memoirs seemed like a good neutral ground between me the history nerd and my husband the computer nerd.

As we headed west, we were accompanied by William Shatner reading his 2008 autobiography Up Till Now; on the trip back east, we had the company of Rob Lowe’s 2011 memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends. Friends, believe me when I say that I would not have enjoyed these books nearly as much on the printed page.

Bill Shatner is known for his overdramatic style, and as you might imagine, he reads an audiobook in the same way he might read anything else. He claims he doesn’t try to do this, it’s just what… comes out of his mouth… when he acts. His lack of consistency in volume makes this tough car listening, and we kept having to adjust the sound to try to catch what he was muttering at the end of a sentence. But Bill’s recounts of his experiences, especially of his post-Star Trek struggle to make ends meet and find meaning in his work, build empathy. Rather than thinking he was a big self-absorbed windbag, I decided he was playing a big self-absorbed windbag who evoked some amount of empathy. Try, just try, to listen to him talk about finding his wife, Nerine, in the bottom of their pool and the ensuing media circus (including the accusations that he had something to do with it) without your heart going out to him. And when he mentions many, many projects that seemed like a good idea at the time (The Transformed Man, “Rocket Man” and stand-up as Captain Kirk who thinks he’s funny but doesn’t know he’s funny, for instance), anyone who’s ever run with an epically bad idea will cringe along.

Shatner has learned the art of telling a joke at his own expense, and all of them play better spoken than written. Like him or not, he is a character, and that character relies heavily on the voice.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends was a little more of a gamble. For us (me especially, who lived until college in something of a pop culture vacuum), Rob Lowe is that super enthusiastic guy on Parks and Rec and, oh yeah, I think he was in St. Elmo’s Fire but I don’t exactly remember because we turned it off halfway through.

So Stories about some guy we barely knew could have been tedious, it wasn’t. Rob Lowe made us want to rent The Outsiders. He made me feel guilty for never reading The Outsiders. We chuckled at his backyard adventures with the Sheen boys and a Super 8 camera. We were riveted as he described his European bodyguard, whose life seemed like something out of a James Bond movie. We listened in stony silence as he recounted how he had been on a plane that had been a 9/11 dry run in early September 2001.

What made this sparkle as an audiobook, however, were Rob Lowe’s completely unexpected talents in the field of celebrity impressions. Cary Grant, Tom Cruise, Michael J. Fox, Andy Warhol, Christopher Walken… the list goes on and on. Rob Lowe’s run-ins with countless famous people would be no more than namedropping in the hands of a less gifted storyteller (and truthfully, the set-ups of “I went to the set of a sci-fi movie in 1976, guess what it was. It was Star Wars” got a little worn out by the end of the 80s), but the accompanying voice talent was the icing, whipped cream, and cherry on the cake. I was only sorry he didn’t get into any stories from Parks and Rec, because I really wanted to hear his impression of Amy Poehler (and I guarantee you he has one).

The rough part of reading autobiography and memoir is wondering how reliable the narrator is, how much the story is skewed. It’s not just wondering if you need to take it with a grain of salt, but deciding how many grains. Rob Lowe (I’m sorry, Rob Lowe has one of those names you just can’t separate) and Bill Shatner take you with them on their journey, make you like them, and make you hope that their story is fair.

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