Friday, June 26, 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

About ten years ago I belonged to one of those big "book clubs." You know the ones. They send you a brochure every month. You can choose the selection for that month, or order something else from the catalog by sending in the little card that accompanies the brochure.  If you don't send in the little card advising you do NOT want the selection of the month, it is automatically sent to you (and charged to your credit card.)  It is a very successful marketing model since it taps into the fact that so many of us are (a) procrastinators, (b) forgetful, or (c) so disorganized we will lose the little card and never find it before the deadline runs out.  That is how I originally came to own the hardbound version of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.  I had never heard of it, wasn’t interested in it, and lifted it up to a bookshelf where its substantial girth took up considerable real estate.  I looked upon it as another unnecessary financial outlay and resolved to mend my disorganized, forgetful and procrastinating ways.  But then my eldest child came to visit.

He was an early reader, having taught himself (apparently, because I didn’t teach him) at the age of 3.  I used to joke I bought him books by the pound rather than by storyline.  The bigger and heftier the book, the happier my boy.  He saw Jonathan Strange on the shelf, had heard the buzz, and with my blessing took it with him when he left.  I never thought of it again.  Fast forward 9 years. 

There are times when I am absolutely driven to find and read a book.  I usually can’t remember what triggers the obsession.  In the case of Jonathan Strange I may have heard that BBC America was about to unleash a TV series based upon it.  But I’m a little vague on that as well.  In any event, I placed myself in the library queue.  I was first in line and I could have waited.  But when it wasn’t ready by the second day I simply couldn’t stand the suspense any longer.  I ordered the paperback version from Barnes & Noble, which promised to have it delivered within 3 business days – free shipping.  When a book weighs in at over 1000 pages, free shipping clinches the deal to my way of thinking.

I’ve been dragging this doorstop of a book around with me for 11 days.  To the car wash, to the car dealership, to the hair salon, to the bank, to the office.  Wherever and whenever I think I’ll have the slightest minute of downtime.  I’ve left it (reluctantly) behind when I know it would be inexcusably rude to pull it out to read (like at lunch with a friend), or just plain wrong (like church).  But I have to admit, it’s painful. 

I’ve been trying to take it slow; that’s not easy.  It is so completely absorbing I really have to force myself to put it down and step away from it.  I am a little over half-way finished and I’m already feeling a little panicked.  At this rate, it will all be over in another week.  And then what shall I read?  “Will anything ever be this good again?” I ask myself.  When I've read the last page and closed the back cover, I expect it will take a long time to find another book that I can live in.  Oh yes,yes, I know.  I hear you thinking, “Isn’t she being a bit dramatic.”  No.  I am not.  In fact, I will go further.  There are words that have been invented to describe a book like this.  They include “magnificent,” “inventive,” “unique,” “mesmerizing,” intelligent,” “eloquent,” “enchanting,” “meticulous.”  Dear me.  I am slobbering, aren’t I. 

I’ve been having a lot less luck with the TV series.  It airs on Saturday at 10:00 p.m.  I am an early riser who finds it difficult to stay up past 9:00 p.m.  A hopeless wimp to whom New Year’s Eve is the day when people call me at midnight, waking me from peaceful slumber wishing me to be happy and creating the opposite effect.  I made it through about 15 minutes of Episode 1, was completely zonked out before Episode 2 even started, but am determined to put up a fight when Episode 3 rolls around tomorrow.  Hot coffee, sharp objects, an ice bath.  Figuring out whether I get “BBC America On Demand” is another option.  Although the remote scares me.  Or there is always the option of ordering the first season on DVD when made available

How is it that a book of this length seems too short?  The fact that the writing style remains consistent and sharp throughout is in itself a marvel, but it is the imaginative building of the story line –episode by episode - that is truly remarkable.  The novel is peppered with footnotes – some several pages long – which one would think would be terribly distracting when, in fact, they add immeasurably to the back story.  One can say it is a literary alchemy of sorts which, since the book is about magic, is just as it should be.  

I must remember to ask my son if he ever read the book.  The one I wish I’d have hidden under the sofa rather than leave it exposed on the bookshelf to be purloined by a book usurper.  The one I should have grabbed back while growling, “Get your own copy.”  After all, there are limits to the sacrifices a mother must or should make for her children. 


This, my friends, is the book I wish I could have written and I can’t give it higher praise that that.

13 comments:

  1. I found it absorbing, too, when I read it years back, although I have to admit I had no interest in the mini-series. We have to get you a DVR or even a VCR, Grad. I never watch anything on TV when it airs, and it makes my viewing much more pleasant!

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  2. Tinky I found out how to do on demand and both episodes were there. I watched them this morning and the series is excellent...so far. So I can get some sleep!

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  3. Yayyyyy! I read this book when it came out -- I think I got it for my mother for Christmas and swiped her copy to read -- and it's always a delight to me when new people discover how great it is. I admit that its length is daunting, but it's so worth it. I reread it at least once every two years or so. I very luckily happened across an edition that's three paperback volumes in a box, which makes it far easier to carry about in my purse. And only $8 or something, from the overstock shelves at Barnes & Noble!

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  4. Jenny, I understand completely about the excitement one feels when a much-loved book is appreciated by others. This was not normally something I'd have picked up but I am so very happy I did. I can see me re-reading this one for sure. I have less than 400 pages to go and will most certainly miss it. Whatever I choose to read next will have a very tough act to follow!

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  5. I've not read the book but my husband has and he liked it very much. We are currently watching the TV series and enjoying it. Not sure if I will get around to the book or not, there are so many clamoring for my attention. But I am glad you are enjoying it so very much! It is great fun when a book grabs hold like that.

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  6. Stefanie, it certainly takes a commitment due to its length. I was reluctant to start it because I've got such a pile to read, and I knew at over 1000 it would take up most (well, all) of my limited reading time if it was good enough to continue. I haven't found myself skipping over anything and it zips along. Happy to hear Bookman liked it! And continue to enjoy the series. I read a review after it ran in England, and I wish they'd have put in a SPOILER alert! Arrrgh. Oh well.

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  7. Aha! I finally remembered where I became obsessed! Shiny New Books! If you haven't already, please check out this lovely venture. http://shinynewbooks.co.uk/reprints-issue-5/new-jonathan-strange-and-mr-norrell-by-susanna-clarke/

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  8. Alright. Now that I've read this review I must put it on my ridiculously long TBR. But how can I resist such glowing praise? (And you're not the first person I've heard "slobber" over this one.) :)

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  9. bigreadinglife, it's size makes it seem like a commitment, but I predict you will be so engrossed by the story - and the writing - that you will not be wishing it to end. In fact, if I wasn't lending out my copy to a friend, I'd probably have started a re-read almost immediately. Don't miss out on this one!

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  10. This review is about to send me straight to the local Barnes & Noble, hoping to find a copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Morrell on the shelf!

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  11. Bibliophiliac, good luck. I had to order it from Barnes& Noble. But, since the BBC adaptation has made it America, it might be at your local bookstore. Mine didn't have it. Perhaps because it was published over ten years ago. But I do encourage you to get it as soon as you can! I don't think you will be sorry.

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  12. I'm so glad I stumbled upon this post. This is the best Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell review I have read. This was me all along, dying to read ahead and wishing never to stop and wondering how any book would seem worth the effort after this! Thanks for transporting me back to that. :)

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