Monday, December 10, 2012

In which I fulfill my contractual obligations

Bel Canto easily wins the prize for the book I have most often put in my suitcase or purse with the intention of reading it, but then not reading it, and even buying other books to read instead. I threw it into my box at the Open Books warehouse sale with Alice because she said she liked it and the box was one flat price. Since then it's done a lot of traveling. But I have finally, at last, read it, and I thought it was therefore appropriate to make it the book post that breaks my not-posting spell, even though I have four (I know, I KNOW) other books that I could potentially write about. (The other ridiculous thing about the non-posting spell is that I made a special effort to post even when I was travelling for two weeks, and then promptly dropped the ball as soon as I got back home.)

So, Bel Canto is a focused sort of book. An opera singer, a Japanese businessman, and a hodge-podge of international guests are taken hostage in an unnamed Latin American country. As the days and weeks go by, relationships start to break down barriers and suddenly potential for life and happiness is everywhere despite the outwardly desperate circumstances. In the end, the "crisis" is more like an unreal, almost magical, moment outside of time -- although, of course, it has to end eventually, in a sudden burst of tragedy.

"Telling detail" is a difficult thing to achieve in writing -- everyone wants to be able to throw in that one little action or trait, wrapped in the perfect bit of language, that will instantly transmit the author's vision to the reader. Patchett is very good at using detail to convey a lot of information, and her descriptions of characters and events and motivations really sucked me in. Every character is distinctly, recognizably a person (well, except for the thirty or so hostages who pretty much don't get mentioned, but that seems inevitable). Once I started the book, it was very easy to keep going to the end. This is really good fiction: enjoyable, engrossing; not overly serious but full of enough humanity to feel worthwhile in some deeper sense.

Ugh, that was so many words that I had to type with my poor little fingers. Is there something else I'm supposed to put in a post? Whatever. Here, it's broadly opera: a bit of The Messiah.

MUSIC, feel its POWER.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Debt = bad, love = good

Let's talk about another Trollope novel! I know how you don't love those, and I don't care.

This is another pleasant little Barsetshire book, with lots going on. There's some politics, there's some love, there's some social awkwardness, a little of everything. Plenty of characters, and a few of those awful political chapters where Trollope just spins himself into a satirical tizzy about Victorian politicians that no one really cares that much about anymore. Boo, back to the romance.

One of the main plotlines has to do with the dangers of credit and debt. Trollope goes into great detail about the emotional consequences as well and material and social when a young clergyman, Mark Robarts, foolishly helps a friend borrow money from a shady lender (anti-Semitism, ahoy) and then ends up on the hook for more money than he makes in a year. I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction (like, any) but a plot that warns about the dangers of debt seems sort of old-fashioned, and yet -- let's get topical -- it seems almost timely. Maybe our society would benefit from a little more horror of owing money. It is a little eerie that the dissolute spendthrift friend, who doesn't much care about who gets ruined along with him, is the one who sees borrowing money as completely normal and unproblematic.

The storyline raises a lot of questions about the proper lifestyles of clergy, and the specific customs and remuneration of Anglican clergy, but ultimately this is a rather uncomfortable corner for Trollope, I think, and nothing is really resolved. Trollope likes to see his clergy living genteel, comfortable lives and being jolly with their genteel neighbors, and on the whole I think he likes the inconsistencies that come with an old system of parishes and livings; but this doesn't do much for those who get the wrong end of the stick -- and it doesn't provide any disincentive whatsoever for men to become "sporting parsons". The debt plot lets him hold forth on the proper distance a man of the cloth ought to have from Worldly Ways, but I don't think he really solves all the problems he raises.

Miss Dunstable returns in this book, which is exciting except her character has been modified since the last book. Trollope makes her older by about a decade, and whereas the last time we saw her she was very shrewd and capable, here she's more bowed down and jaded and Trollope marries her off in a sort of tying-up-loose-ends way. It's not impossible for her character to have evolved along these lines, but Trollope doesn't (I don't think) have her change so much as he just retroactively retools the character.

And so I haven't really said anything about Lucy Robarts and Lord Lufton. This is one of those relationships like Frank Gresham and Mary Thorne, or Luke Whatever and Rachel Ray, where you know they're going to end up together from fairly early on but it's just a matter of working out the details. Trollope's heroes and heroines don't have to do much changing to win their loves; mostly the men just have to be persistent. My inclination is to say that this is more evidence of Jane Austen's superiority, as I think she likes to have her heroes and heroines learn and change and grow, rather than having their parents learn and change and grow enough to stop opposing the match (or just having a big bag o' money fall from the sky to make things possible). If I'm wrong about this don't tell me. I like Trollope but Austen is a god(ess).

Monday, October 8, 2012

More marriage-in-crisis literature

So the book in the last post was about a marriage on the rocks in interwar Britain, and this one... well, only broadly and for the sake of pithy blog post openings could one describe A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym as being about a marriage on the rocks in 1950s Britain, but there it is.

Really, there is an enormous difference between Pym and Waugh. Waugh takes his story to the ends of the earth in a way; his book is a worst case scenario. Pym on the other hand is supremely realistic. Something I liked about both Excellent Women and Glass of Blessings is the way she captures how life is sometimes poorly plotted. You get very excited for something and then it doesn't happen for weeks and when it does happen you don't really care anymore, or it's not really what you had expected in the first place. Or you meet someone and sparks fly and it all seems very significant, and then nothing happens but maybe you run into them a year later at the grocery store or something. Pym manages to capture this without being totally boring about it.

The title is a reference to the way the novel concludes (so, "spoilers" I guess, although this is more a slice-of-life novel than a nail-biter). Wilmet Forsyth is the main character, essentially a woman of leisure. She doesn't regret not having children but she feels vaguely dissatisfied and fears that her life is empty and aimless. When she meets her best friend's handsome brother, and that same friend's husband starts hitting on her, Wilmet starts to think maybe she needs to get out of a rut. Meanwhile she is deepening her friendship with a very pious unmarried woman, whose charity and goodness make Wilmet uncomfortable. Lots of things happen, but at the end Wilmet decides that she shouldn't think of her life as a boring rut but as richly blessed: why should she feel guilty and unhappy because she has been provided for? It's an interesting way to conclude the novel, and I like the way the title interacts with the story and the reading experience.

The book features a gay character who is apparently So Gay that everyone who meets him goes, "oh, so that's what's going on!" Of course, you the reader can't see him so it's kind of hilarious. The one cue in the narration on his first introduction is that he is engaged in the supremely domestic activities of grocery shopping and cleaning the flat. It reminded me a bit of the way Ron Santo (God rest him), the very colorful radio commentator for the Cubs, would sometimes start laughing about some sign in the crowd without actually telling the radio audience what it said. Anyway, one nice touch is that the young man is employed as a waiter and a model for knitting patterns -- and when Wilmet gets home, she opens up a knitting magazine and there he is. Meanwhile, there is another character who is really obviously So Gay, at least to the 21st century reader, and no one makes any comment. If you're doing that LGBT reading challenge, you might want to have a look at this book.

I'm on the road this week so I don't have the book to hand to give you any funny quotes, but I really enjoyed this one. It's a fun book that manages to capture the "feel" of real life without being dull.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Waugh, I get it now

This book reminded me of nothing so much as An Evening of Long Goodbyes, even though I can't remember many of the details about that book, and since AEoLG obviously is much more recent I suppose it's more appropriate to say that Paul Murray's book takes after Evelyn Waugh's -- but guys. You guys. You know you have to lower your expectations when you come to this blog.

This book is hilarious and it is brutal. I think I really get why Waugh is such a respected writer now. Reading this, more than anything else, gives me a genuine desire to (re-)read Brideshead Revisited. See, Brideshead is one of those Important Modern Classic kind of books that people tell you to read, but I generally try not to read things unless they have a real emotional appeal to me in the moment, as opposed to a theoretical appeal. Also, I read Brideshead when I was in high school and my "I am above all your childish teenage books" phase and I did not get it at all. It's sort of humorous the way I will see a reference to some important theme or character or event in Brideshead and have no idea that was even in there.

Anyway, back to the book I did read.

Tony Last is a deeply unfashionable person: he is in love with his life as a country squire, with his historic house, with his family's history and traditions. What he loves most of all is a quiet Sunday at home: he goes to the service at the village church more out of respect for the ritual than any personal religious feeling, and on the way home he picks a flower for his wife. He's a simple person with simply, old-fashioned pleasures. His wife Brenda, is a former London beauty who regards this lifestyle as a kind of role-playing game -- until John Beaver comes to stay a weekend with them. Beaver is a sophisticated mooch who is a kind of professional social straphanger, mostly getting invited to parties at the last minute to balance out the genders. Brenda and Beaver start an affair -- the urbane London people of course have no problem with this as a matter of principle; of course Brenda would want to escape that boring life in the country, although Beaver is a comical person for her to latch onto. Then something unforgivable happens. By the end of the novel, everything is in pieces, not that society knows or cares.

And all for nothing seems to be Waugh's point. It's perfectly acceptable, even laudable, to the fashionable set that Brenda has her affair -- it's also unsurprising when the affair peters out, after Tony and Brenda's marriage is irreparably ruined. No one gets anything they want, except for the bored society ladies who get a few years of juicy gossip, and both Tony and Brenda lose everything they had ever enjoyed. Although Tony's humble, good-hearted relatives end up with the historic house and the good country lifestyle, so there is some goodness to the ending, although it's a bit like seeing plants in the ruins of a building.

There are all kinds of cliche book-review words that spring to mind: "unflinching" "savage" etc. This is not a happy book, but it is good, and it's also very funny. One of my favorite jokes was the priest in the village church, an old man who spent much of his life ministering to the army in India. Since he's so old and senile he just reuses all his old sermons indiscriminately...
The vicar preached his Christmas sermon. It was one to which the villagers were particularly attached. "How difficult it is for us," he began, blandly surveying his congregation, who coughed into their mufflers and chafed their chilblains under their woollen gloves, "to realize that this is indeed Christmas. Instead of the glowing log fire and windows tight shuttered against the drifting snow, we have only the harsh glare of the alien sun; instead of the happy circle of loved faces, of home and family, we have the uncomprehending stares of the subjugated, though no doubt grateful, heathen."
A Handful of Dust reminded me of An Evening of Long Goodbyes in the way it combined wickedly funny writing with a sad and even disturbing story. Both books go from a darkly fun beginning to a much darker ending, although unsurprisingly I think Waugh is clearly the master here.

Incidentally, one of the creepier stories in the collected volume I read earlier this year makes a reappearance here as the fate of Tony Last. I was a little sad about that because as soon as I got to that section, of course, I pretty much knew how it was going to play out. Another argument against reading short stories and/or "collected works"!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

And what do YOU think?

Alice talked me into going to Open Books a few weeks ago when I was in Chicago for a wedding. I tried to say no, in my defense. And then I wasn't going to buy anything and then I found something I wanted, and then I bought a whole stack of things (= three) because it's Just Wrong to put $5 on a credit card... although then it turned out I had cash. But I bought all the things anyway.

Reference not intended, but I'll take it
So what set me off on this downward spiral? Well, it was a fairly snazzy purple copy of The Book of the Courtier. I'd just come down from an informal reunion at my alma mater so I was feeling susceptible to purple. And then it was nice and new -- there's a post-it note with a few series of page numbers stuck in the front, and lo! there are no books so pristine as those bought by slacker college students.

Why this rando when there's actually an extant portrait of the author?

The Book of the Courtier -- and I suppose there's some deep scholarly reason why Norton has the author's name spelled "Baldasar" and not "Baldassare" -- is what I think of as a Social Studies book. It's something I've mostly encountered for its historical* value and have probably even had as an ID at some point along the line. I took almost no literature classes in college, but I would assume it probably gets discussed in that context too.

I was rather pleasantly surprised with how well the text flows. The format is a kind of courtly debate or discussion: as a "game", the gentlemen of the court are directed to propose and then debate the various skills and qualities that would be possessed by a hypothetical Perfect Courtier. Of course this is all very formal and stylized, and nothing like what we would now call "natural", but Castiglione is very successful at portraying the give and take of a conversation, and the different ways that people express their opinions.

Probably my least favorite aspect of the book was the real estate devoted to "examples" of funny stories. Humor: it doesn't translate across languages or time periods very well. But of course even I can see how this book has a lot to tell us about the culture that produced it. If anything, this historical angle was even a little distracting.

I didn't read the articles in the back because, who's gonna make me?, but I did skim through the one by the improbably named Amedeo Quondam about the origin of the text, and learned how well documented the writing process is. Like, they have the rough drafts and have been able to identify different people's handwriting in the margins. Pretty cool, to say the least.

If I were Alice I would throw in some kind of random GIF here to close this out but... I'm not... so I'm just going to back away awkwardly...

Another post in the books.

*Bah, I really had to stop myself typing "world-historical" there.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Feeling voyeuristic?

When I worked at a library, lo these many years ago, I remember at some point of my training the conversation drifting off into what kinds of records the library kept about what people checked out and to whom those records had to be surrendered. This had nothing to do with my job -- I was working in reference and had nothing to do with circulation -- but all that Patriot Act stuff was fairly new at the time, the library had recently changed some of its policies for dealing with law enforcement, and so I guess it was on people's minds. Anyway, I just remember the librarian stressing that, as library employees, the ethical thing was for us to respect patrons' privacy and not notice or comment on what they were checking out.

Phew, I thought; as if I were in there every day checking out The Art of Sexually Pleasing Your Black Man or Embarrassing Medical Conditions and How to Manage Them or Basic Principles of Pipe Bombs or whatever. I have very straight-and-narrow reading tastes (as you'll have noticed) but I appreciate the principle.

That being said: I just placed an order at The Book Depository (.com) and they have this "live" feature that pops up books people have bought on a map. Oho, so someone in Ireland likes Manga do they? Someone in Australia's buying Roald Dahl books, and someone in Canada must be taking an accounting class! Ah, the thrill of it!

I feel like maybe I've posted about this feature before; but that would imply that I knew about it; but when I saw it I was surprised by it; and whatever, who cares if I'm losing my mind. It's Saturday.

ETA: This seems like a really strange book for someone in Australia to be buying. Ex-pats?

ETA2: Eee! My order just popped up! I'm famous, anonymously!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

No EVOO necessary

Hmm, you say to yourself as you pick up this book.

Is this the heartwarming tale of a brash young woman who wins her true love through tasty Italian-inspired cooking and learning not to shout so much, all against the background of a feud between high and low churchmen? Or perhaps it's a cookbook of 30-minute recipes inspired by a certain nineteenth century British Civil Servant and novelist?

No, it's neither of those things. Rachel Ray is the heroine, living with her weak-willed widowed mother and strong-willed (and very Evangelical) widowed sister. Rachel is modest and good, and willing to be obedient to her mother, but totally unwilling to be bossed around by her sister. The hero is Luke Rowan, a headstrong gentleman-entrepreneur who wants to become a brewer in Rachel's small town. They fall in love, of course; he gets embroiled in a business dispute; her mother and sister try to convince her that her little romance is sinful; there's a local election; it all works out. I liked Rachel and Luke, and I liked the book.

I think it's a mark of the book having been written by a man that Luke starts out as kind of a jerk and ends up as a jerk vindicated. He figures he has every right to do as he pleases, and hurt feelings will shake out later. Luke inherits a partnership in a brewery, and when the current brewer refuses to let him act as a true partner or take any of his suggestions, Luke decides he'll either offer a settlement that involves the old brewer leaving, or he'll just take his money and start his own brewery on the other side of town. His impetuousness is what gets him in trouble with Rachel and her family too, since he's quite straightforward about calling her "Rachel" and paying her "particular attentions" which scares her a bit and her mother and sister a lot. He doesn't seem to have any notion of what their objections or worries might be, nor does he feel any particular need, it seems, to find out. We, the readers, know he's well-intentioned and so on, but it's hard not to sympathize with his enemies. I kept thinking that Jane Austen wouldn't let him get away with it. If Luke Rowan were an Austen hero, he have learned by the end to be less arrogant in pursuing his rights.

There's a parliamentary election in the story, and the two candidates are a rich Jewish tailor from London and the son of the local squire and Hoo Boy. Indeed, the title of this plotline could be "Anti-Semitism in Action". This bit is saved from being totally unreadable by virtue of Trollope's close attention to all the many ignorant reasons various voters have for disliking the Jewish candidate. He's always interested, I think, in satirizing the way two people can hold the same strong opinion but for opposite reasons. So, for instance, Luke's mother and his spurned boss's wife visit Rachel in order to break them up; the boss's wife because she thinks Luke is worthless, and Luke's mother because she thinks he's too good for her; so the two women are just on the edge of insulting each other even as they pursue their common cause. I think that same dynamic is in evidence in the election passages: Trollope likes showing how the small town voters' professions to hate or love the Jewish candidate based on some noble principle actually boil down to some petty local rivalry or ignorant superstition, and therefore people's attachment to "noble principles" is pretty thin. That being said in defense: yeah, it's kind of a yucky subplot, and it's unpleasant to have your various characters taking part. For me, at least, given when the book was written and given what I wrote above and given that of course Trollope is going to like the local squire, it wasn't a book-ruiner.

Hilariously, according to the introduction, Rachel Ray was originally supposed to be published as a serial in an Evangelical magazine, but the magazine cancelled their contract after a couple of installments. Hm! Mysterious! Perhaps because the book is unrelentingly negative about Evangelicals?? Oh Trollope, what were you thinking?

Let's have some quotes. A long one, since this book is available on Project Gutenberg:
I venture to assert that each liberal elector there would have got a better dinner at home, and would have been served with greater comfort; but a public dinner at an inn is the recognized relaxation of a middle-class Englishman in the provinces. Did he not attend such banquets his neighbours would conceive him to be constrained by domestic tyranny. Others go to them, and therefore he goes also. He is bored frightfully by every speech to which he listens. He is driven to the lowest depths of dismay by every speech which he is called upon to make. He is thoroughly disgusted when he is called on to make no speech. He has no point of sympathy with the neighbours between whom he sits. The wine is bad. The hot water is brought to him cold. His seat is hard and crowded. No attempt is made at the pleasures of conversation. He is continually called upon to stand up that he may pretend to drink a toast in honour of some person or institution for which he cares nothing; for the hero of the evening, as to whom he is probably indifferent; for the church, which perhaps he never enters; the army, which he regards as a hotbed of aristocratic insolence; or for the Queen, whom he reveres and loves by reason of his nature as an Englishman, but against whose fulsome praises as repeated to him ad nauseam in the chairman's speech his very soul unconsciously revolts. It is all a bore, trouble, ennui, nastiness, and discomfort. But yet he goes again and again,—because it is the relaxation natural to an Englishman. The Frenchman who sits for three hours tilted on the hind legs of a little chair with his back against the window-sill of the cafĂ©, with first a cup of coffee before him and then a glass of sugar and water, is perhaps as much to be pitied as regards his immediate misery; but the liquids which he imbibes are not so injurious to him.
Here's the nasty Evangelical sister:
"I've taken tea, thank you, two hours ago;" and she spoke as though there were much virtue in the distance of time at which she had eaten and drunk, as compared with the existing rakish and dissipated appearance of her mother's tea-table. Tea-things about at eight o'clock! It was all of a piece together.
This made me aww. Rachel goes to Mrs Sturt, the farmer's wife next door, for comfort when her mother, in consultation with Mr Comfort, her pastor, forbids her to correspond with Luke.
     "It's little I think of what clergymen says, unless it be out of the pulpit or the like of that. What does they know about lads and lasses?"
     "He's a very old friend of mamma's."
     "Old friends is always best, I'll not deny that. But, look thee here, my girl; my man's an old friend too. He's know'd thee since he lifted thee in his arms to pull the plums off that bough yonder; and he's seen thee these ten years a deal oftener than Mr. Comfort. If they say anything wrong of thy joe there, tell me, and Sturt 'll find out whether it be true or no. Don't let ere a parson in Devonshire rob thee of thy sweetheart. It's passing sweet, when true hearts meet. But it breaks the heart, when true hearts part." With the salutary advice contained in these ancient local lines Mrs. Sturt put her arms round Rachel, and having kissed her, bade her go.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Quick-n-dirty wrapup

Is it bad that I felt just sliiiiightly underwhelmed by the end of The Moonstone? I mean, none of the characters in this book live up to Fosco, much less Marian.

1. When Bruff told Franklin Blake that Sergeant Cuff "has retired from the police. It's useless to expect the Sergeant to help you," I thought -- well, you know what I thought; I'm pretty sure if you were writing a movie nowadays and put a line in there you would be guilty of a misdemeanor if Sergeant Cuff didn't then sweep in and solve the thing. But Wilkie cannot be contained by your storytelling cliches, and the Sergeant's subsequent involvement was fairly minimal, I thought, on the whole.

2. Also, I like that Bruff considers Blake's idea of interviewing all the attendees of the dinner as "something too purely fanciful to be seriously discussed". What! Asking all the witnesses if they noticed anything unusual! What are you, crazy!

A rich old lady--highly respected at the Mothers' Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society, and a great friend of Miss Clack's (to whom she left nothing but a mourning ring)--had bequeathed to the admirable and meritorious Godfrey a legacy of five thousand pounds.
It's official, I can't help it: I know Wilkie thinks it's hilarious and karmic and whatnot, but I can't laugh at an old spinster who gets the shaft from the few people she might hope for some help from.

4. Ahhhh, opium. The "all-potent and all-merciful drug". And another thing to add to the list of Things that are Totally Normal in Wilkieland that are Totally Bonkers in the Real World: tricking your patients into taking opium.
Every medical man commits that act of treachery, Mr Blake, in the course of his practice. The ignorant distrust of opium (in England) is by no means confined to the lower and less cultivated classes. Every doctor in large practice finds himself, every now and then, obliged to deceive his patients, as Mr Candy deceived you.
Haha. Oh Wilkie you old drug addict, tell us more about how misunderstood your favorite substance is.

YOU assume that the Hindoo conspirators could by no possibility commit a mistake. The Indians went to Mr Luker's house after the Diamond -- and, therefore, in Mr Luker's possession the Diamond must be! Have you any evidence to prove that the Moonstone was taken to London at all?
HEY. GOOD POINT. Although it did turn out to be true that the diamond was pawned to Luker. Still.

6. Mrs Merridew and the "explosion" -- an easy joke but a good one.

7. From the suggestion that Candy could have drugged Blake to the completion of the experiment was kind of a lot of pages and kind of not much happening... no?

8. Really, the one lone element of Shocking Shock in this final portion of the book was Bad Ol' Godfrey Ablewhite. That was some classic Wilkie. Sergeant Cuff was all
"He's pulling off his wig!"
and then he was all
"Read the name, Mr Blake, that I have written inside."

SO! It turns out that Godfrey Ablewhite was ABLE to WHITEwash his filthy, filthy lies, or something.
The side kept hidden from the general notice, exhibited this same gentleman in the totally different character of a man of pleasure, with a villa in the suburbs which was not taken in his own name, and with a lady in the villa, who was not taken in his own name, either.
Wait, so his secret life was "in the suburbs"? I think you missed a trick there, Wilks. This would all have been much weirder, and dare I say more believable, if his Sin Villa had been in France or something.

9. And then we close with Murthwaite disguised as a "Hindoo-Boodhist" (LOL spelling) testifying that the diamond has made its way back to the idol. Ooh, spooky.

Sigh. Well, that's another readalong in the books. I guess now I have to... read alone? Boo hoo. Hugs to all my fellow reader-alongers!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

We need to talk about Rachel

I will get to my usual numbered points in a minute, but whoa you guys.

Everyone in this book has gone on and on about how Rachel couldn't possibly be guilty of stealing her own diamond -- "if you knew our Rachel" blah blah blah. There were some serious crimes of Telling Not Showing being committed in this book. And all the while, Rachel was acting guilty like sin.

AND THEN, Wilkie drops the bomb. I NEVER saw this coming; I would never have guessed that she saw Franklin take it (oops, spoiler). Insanity. And it totally explains all her behavior, which I really could not make sense of.

Get yours! Be a cool kid!

And once again, I'm left thinking that Wilkie has used "bad writing" (or just dull/cliche writing) deliberately as a red herring. "Once again" because in Woman in White I had a similar reaction once the craziness broke loose of Walter "Boring" Hartright's initial narration.

Well, well, well.

1. How tempted was I to change the name of this blog to "Rampant Spinster"? Most excellent.

For a week I and my people waited, encamped on the borders of a desert.
Once again, Wilkie sends his heartbroken hero out on some sort of ludicrously adventurous quest in order to forget his lady love. REAL TALK: Franklin Blake and Walter Hartright, in reality, would have just spent several months moping around their mothers' basements. But no, Wilks sends them to the ends of the earth.

3. Oh, Betteredge.
"Facts?" he repeated. "Take a drop more grog, Mr. Franklin, and you'll get over the weakness of believing in facts!"

4. I thought Rosanna's letter was fairly harrowing, myself. Maybe because it was so incredibly long? Girl held nothing back. Her bitterness about Miss Rachel not being all that pretty...

"By-the-bye, Mr Franklin, you will be sorry to hear that the little doctor has never recovered that illness he caught, going home from the birthday dinner. He's pretty well in health; but he lost his memory in the fever, and he has never recovered more than the wreck of it since. The work all falls on his assistant. Not much of it now, except among the poor. THEY can't help themselves, you know. THEY must put up with the man with the piebald hair, and the gipsy complexion--or they would get no doctoring at all."
Setting aside the fact that this is OBVIOUSLY going to be become significant (could a South Asian complexion be mistaken for "gipsy" in WilkieWorld?) how ridiculous is this? How is Mr Candy still a doctor?

6. Also, on what planet is "Ezra Jennings" an ugly name? Oh Wilkie.

7. I can't even comment on the ridiculous characterizations of Indians in this book. Victorians: so special. And racist.

8. Also, LOL women.
But women, as you may have observed, have no principles. My family don't feel my pangs of conscience. The end being to bring you and Rachel together again, my wife and daughters pass over the means employed to gain it, as composedly as if they were Jesuits.
Somehow, whenever Wilkie writes this kind of thing, he manages to do it in such a way that it sounds like he's teasing his female readers: you know, throwing something really outrageous out there to ruffle some feathers and see what happens.

After the lapse of a minute, I roused my manhood, and opened the door.
That's FILTHY.

I saw her, and heard her, no more.

Just pretend it says "next week" instead of "manana".

Friday, August 17, 2012

Another crackpot idea becomes real thanks to the internet

Make Custom Gifts at CafePress

If you feel the need to advertise your love of the author of The Moonstone and Woman in White publicly (albeit slightly cryptically), you can now get the "official" (?) Wilkie Collins readalong shirt from CafePress. There's one design up with a quote on the back, and of course I can put one up with whatever you want, if only you will tell me.

 I suppose I should add that this is only for fun and to gratify the people of Twitter who liked the idea; it's not my intention to make any money off of this (or in life generally, really, or so it sometimes seems). They don't make it easy but I have tried to set the markup to $0 across the shop.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Paper and ink versus words and ideas

Regretsy once again has set out to make us cry:

Yeah, it's "a great way to display vintage books" if by "books" you mean "part of books". "The part that makes the actual valuable part of the book possible".

The offensive stupidity of this craft project being given, I have to say I am not the hugest fan of old books these days. When I was a young lass I was an enthusiastic buyer of crumbling old books and had a "collection" of items I had gathered up at library book sales. But there's a fine line between "delightful old book smell" and "gross moldy stank" just as there is between "quirky old stories" and "boring stuff that probably isn't worth reading anymore." Once upon a time I was all about the romance of decrepit old used book stores, and now, I gotta be honest, dust and brittle pages are just not worth it for me 99% of the time. The content of some old books can be better conveyed through digital copies, frankly. While I am all in favor of libraries and archives preserving the past, I also recognize that some specimens are maybe... superfluous, whether because there are already versions of the book available for those who need them, or because an individual copy is beyond help.

Not that I don't own and delight in plenty of gross offenders on all these points. Alice got me an old etiquette book for Christmas last year that leaks some sort of charcoal-like black powder from its broken-down spine; but it has hilarious old-timey advice and endpapers, and I absolutely love it even if I do have to wash my hands after handling.

Is it maybe okay if some books get chopped up for "craft projects"? I feel like that's where I'm working around to here, but I just can't go there. As my mother said so many times as I was growing up, That's not how we treat our books.

Maybe what I dislike most is this notion that such crafts are "giving old books new life" as the subtitle of this manual of horrors book suggests. If you want to give an old book new life, read it, write about it, tell people about it. That's the only way to give it "new life". Otherwise you're just recycling the paper. Which I guess I'm okay with, if the book, for whatever reason, is in fact trash.

I think my bottom line is, if you want to admire the beauty of books, then admire some freaking books, not parts of books that have been reassembled into decorative items. It's ridiculous to destroy a book in order to "repurpose" it into something supposedly celebrating your great love of books.

Still and all, I do love those endtables shaped like a giant stack of books. Classic.

Update: Lemony Snicket says: "It has always been my belief that people who spend too much time with my work end up as lost souls, drained of reason, who lead lives of raving emptiness and occasional lunatic violence. What a relief it is to see this documented."

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Moonstonier and moonstonier

Here we are, in week two of the readalong! I wanted to thank you all for your wonderful and frequently hilarious comments last week. I am the absolute worst at replying to comments at the best of times, and I've somehow been even worse -- yes, worse than worst -- this past week. But I love you all, and you're all awesome and so on.


1. I can't quite remember where we left off (Kindllle!) but I think it was before Rosanna killed herself? My first thought was that maybe someone had engineered this to make it seem like she had killed herself, but in fact she was still alive somewhere. Oh sure, that sounds crazy, but this is a Wilkie Collins novel. I think she's really dead though.

2. Sergeant Cuff describes himself as having spent his career "employed in cases of family scandal, acting in the capacity of confidential man." Confidential man like... con man? (LOL, fun with evolving language.) Remember in Woman in White when Laura gets an anonymous letter warning her about Percy Glyde, and everyone's like, "oh, one of those"? In this novel, having someone in your family run up an enormous secret debt and then engineer an elaborate fraud in order to pay it off is just part of life.

3. I don't buy the brilliant Sergeant Cuff's explanation though. He's being safe and unimaginative with this "debt" nonsense. Think crazier, man!

"I have several worthy ambitions, Betteredge; but what am I to do with them now? I am full of dormant good qualities, if Rachel would only have helped me to bring them out!"
AHAHAHAHA! Hilarious.


On Friday, nothing happened -- except that one of the dogs showed signs of a breaking out behind the ears. I gave him a dose of syrup of buckthorn, and put him on a diet of pot-liquor and vegetables till further orders. Excuse my mentioning this. It has slipped in somehow.

6. Miss Clack, of course, fills us in at length (and, as it turns out, more than once) about the parameters she is supposed to stick to in her account. Does Collins think this is more authentic? Does he generally think we're too stupid to get it? It doesn't bother me, but it bothers me, y'know?

7. Miss Clack lives in "a Patmos amid the howling ocean of popery" of France. Rad.

8. Genuine question here: Miss Clack says "my aunt and her daughter (I really cannot call her my cousin!) had arrived". W-why can't she call her "cousin"? Did I miss something, or is this foreshadowing about the True Character of Rachel?

9. Wilkie "The Wilk Master" Collins is absolutely in his element in coming up with the names of the various "good works" of Miss Clack and her ilk. A tract titled "A Word With You On Your Cap-Ribbons"? The Mothers' Small Clothes Conversion Society? "Satan under the Tea Table"? The British Ladies' Servants' Sunday Sweetheart Supervision Society?

Clack Tract
10. What's really fascinating in all this is what Wilks has done to Mr Godfrey. When he was introduced, he was sort of a golden boy, with his Ladies' Societies: maybe a little bit suave and even unmanly, but nothing especially special. A guy who spends all his free time helping the administrative end of charities might be a little boring and goody-two-shoes, but whatever. Now, though, Wilkie shows us what he really thinks: that these Ladies' Societies are risible and useless, and that Godfrey is toadying up to pathetic old ladies.

I looked through the window, and saw the World, the Flesh, and the Devil waiting before the house--as typified in a carriage and three horses, a powdered footman, and three of the most audaciously dressed women I ever beheld in my life.
I really want an opportunity to say "You look like the World, the Flesh, and the Devil in that dress!"

12. I can't help but be genuinely sad that Miss Clack didn't get anything in Lady Verinder's will, and she missed out on the gift she was promised. Sure, she's maybe not the most lovable character, but gee.

We've been given a lot of information in this section, and yet it is still completely unclear what the heck is going on. Why is Rachel acting so crazy, and what has she done? And what has Godfrey done? What did Lady Verinder know? Why have I totally passed over the weird kidnapping thing? Who can say!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Aww yeah. You thought I was out of it, didn't you? You thought I wasn't participating in the Wilkie Collins Moonstone read-along hosted by Alice, and all because I missed the first post. "She couldn't get it together to even write a throw-away introduction post," you said. "She's finished." NOPE. I was sick and things last week, WHATEVER. I am following my dreams, and reaching for the stars, and in it to win it like a Chinese race walker.


1. So apparently the "moonstone" is not in fact a moonstone but a yellow diamond?

I feel like he's doing this just to be annoying.

2. Once again we have the "various narratives" thing along with the "laborious explanation of the various narratives" thing.
I beg it to be understood that what I write here about my cousin (unless some necessity should arise for making it public) is for the information of the family only.
How titillating must this have been for a society that was so precise about who was allowed to know and communicate what types of information to and about whom.

Powerless to recover their lost treasure by open force, the three guardian priests followed and watched it in disguise. The generations succeeded each other; the warrior who had committed the sacrilege perished miserably; the Moonstone passed (carrying its curse with it) from one lawless Mohammedan hand to another; and still, through all chances and changes, the successors of the three guardian priests kept their watch, waiting the day when the will of Vishnu the Preserver should restore to them their sacred gem.
Wait, you mean like

4. This bit kinda made me happy:
He brought the invaluable faculty, called common sense, to bear on the Colonel's letter. The whole thing, he declared, was simply absurd. Somewhere in his Indian wanderings, the Colonel had picked up with some wretched crystal which he took for a diamond. As for the danger of his being murdered, and the precautions devised to preserve his life and his piece of crystal, this was the nineteenth century, and any man in his senses had only to apply to the police.

5. We find out that the Moonstone is "as large, or nearly, as a plover's egg!" Setting aside the fact that "a plover's egg" is not a particularly helpful unit of measurement, Wilkie, this was disappointing to me because I had been picturing it as the size of a bar of soap. Yeah, I know that's not very realistic, but I was also picturing it as a moonstone rather than a yellow diamond. So... basically a shiny opalescent soap-like rock.

Here is an equally unhelpful visual aid. "Oh, so it's less than half the size of a swan egg!"

6. Wilkie, Wilkie, Wilkie. Where other authors describe women as "plain" or whatever, Wilkie's just all Daaaayyymn, that girl was ugg-lee!
"It isn't very likely, with her personal appearance, that she has got a lover."
The ugly women have a bad time of it in this world; let's hope it will be made up to them in another.
Rosanna doesn't seem likely to be quite as awesome as Marian, though. In fact, I don't see a lot of especially strong women so far in this book at all; although we keep being told that Lady V is so awesome, and Penelope isn't too shabby.

7. "Sergeant Cuff"? There is one thing Dickens does better, and Collins needs to stop trying to compete.

8. What happened to us in the 20th century that we lost so much type-setting awesomeness?
"Can you guess yet," inquired Mr Franklin, "who has stolen the Diamond?"
     "NOBODY HAS STOLEN THE DIAMOND," answered Sergeant Cuff.
C'mon, that's fantastic.

(NOTA BENE - I translate Mrs Yolland out of the Yorkshire language into the English language.)
Amen/thank you.

The biggest question mark floating over my head right now is whether the diamond will actually turn out to have a curse on it, or whether Wilkie will debunk all the supernatural stuff. My inclination is toward the latter but I'm looking forward to seeing how he does it. After the Woman in White read-along, I think we all know the depths of insanity to which this author is willing to go (goodie goodie).

I also can't wait to get on to another narrator. I have a vague memory that Walter Hartright did go on this long at first but still, the fun really begins when we get a new viewpoint SO...

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ha --- hm!

I guess I have some things in common with Ron Swanson. Not many; I'm not quite so enthused about guns, wood working, or whiskey. But I like breakfast foods. And I like Patrick O'Brian novels.

Pretty sure my parents have that lawnchair.
So imagine my intrigued-ness (keep moving) when good ol' Alice gave me two Horatio Hornblower novels.

Beat to Quarters is the first Hornblower book of a series which we might possibly be more familiar with as a TV show. (I first became aware of Hornblower via discussions of Sharpe on a Lord of the Rings message board Way Back When.)

Three Hobbit movies is such a bald grab for ticket money but FINE.
I found Forester's writing style sort of simple, although I'm not entirely sure of what I mean by that. One odd feature is that the narrator occasionally jumps in to remind us that we're in the past, for instance when Hornblower finds Lady Barbara tending the wounded after a battle:
It was a shock to Hornblower to see her engaged thus. The day was yet to come when Florence Nightingale was to make nursing a profession in which women could engage. No man of taste could bear the thought of a woman occupied with the filthy work of a hospital.
Perhaps the best evidence I can give of the "simple" style of writing is that these kind of interventions aren't totally jarring. It's a very narrated book. O'Brian, of course, has that knack of completely impressing you with the difference between modern and historical attitudes without spelling things out.

Oh yeah, there's a LADY on board the ship. They pick her up pretty early on. She's pretty and classy and rich and so on, with the charm to make friends of everyone while putting them at their ease blah blah. Also she's unmarried and like 27 with famous brothers and a title yadda yadda. The last portion of the book is all SEXUAL TENSION between Hornblower and Lady Barbara, culminating in a little making out which Hornblower ends because he realizes it's undignified. Oh right! And also he's married. His wife is super frumpy though, but then again she did take care of their kids before they died in some sort of plague. When Hornblower decides that a quick game of Blow the Horn in her cabin (OH GOSH THAT TURNED OUT MUCH DIRTIER THAN I MEANT IT I'M SO SORRY) is unbecoming of his status as the captain* (*also, married), Lady Barbara gets all offended and huffy and leaves the ship in a very wrapped-in-her-dignity state. Meanwhile, the narrator seems to be pretty much pro-adultery, basically regretting that they didn't have more time left in the journey to work things out. Classy.

This being a book written in the 1930s about the early 1800s, there is also a fair bit of racist language and so on. The worst of this is definitely Lady Barbara, who has a black maid I almost can't tell you about. Let's say she likes men and gets some bad treatment from Lady B. What makes this especially bad is that the maid is barely mentioned -- her stereotyped-ness and bad treatment is just a footnote. Somehow the casual nature of this bit of racism is much worse than the sailors' attitudes toward Spaniards and native South Americans. It manages to come across less as "that's how people were then" and more like "that's just what stupid black women get". Ugh.

So the pro-adultery stance and racism toward maids (and we all know how bad that is) were two very unfortunate drawbacks.

The boaty portion of the book focuses on a crazy South American rebel/dictator who believes he's an Aztec god and sentences those to displease him to die of thirst. In the story, the bigger picture of political alliances and rivalries between Britain and Spain shift the picture around under Hornblower's feet so that while at first he has to help the crazy torturer, then he has to help the Spanish fight against him, and finally the Spanish send him packing as an interfering foreigner. So obviously the book is interested in moral complexity (kind of), although I don't think it's ultimately very successful. Lots of battles though.

Shall we drag this post out further and talk about Hornblower as a character? No, I think I shall save that so that I can post this now and go do Actual Work.

Beat to Quarters is an entertaining, lightweight sort of book, full of plot. Events follow on events, and there is plenty of battle and maneuvering for your reading pleasure. As a historical novel it does an adequate, although not particularly engrossing, job of setting the stage and portraying another time. Its moral compass does seem a little muddled, and perhaps because Hornblower doesn't seem to think about the Right and Wrong of situations. He might be uncomfortable with helping a deranged and brutal tyrant, but apparently more because he's concerned for his ship's safety than because he feels he's collaborating with evil. I don't ask that he necessarily do the right thing, by his lights or mine, mind you; but I didn't think the book did much to show us what his lights are, which seemed odd when dealing with the theme of how rapidly-changing political boundaries can be, and how duty to one's country can mean opposite things from one day to the next as a result. But anyhow, it was an enjoyable book -- and I'll be back to talk a little about Captain Hornblower himself at some point.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The engrossing tale of two coats on a coat rack

I picked up Major Pettigrew's Last Stand for $1.50 at our local St Vincent de Paul store. Yes indeed, they had marked the price up quite a bit, no doubt because it was in hardback. I was pleasantly surprised at how thin it was (although maybe that's the norm now? I dunno, I still expect a "proper" novel to have three volumes) and I remembered it being popular whenever it came out, so I decided to give it a go.

This has got to be the most geriatric novel ever. "Well duh," you say, "the protagonist is a man in his sixties." Yeah yeah, smart guy. What I mean is that the world portrayed in the novel is basically the worst. Everyone cares about money nowadays, no one actually cares about tradition. Except for Muslims, but they're just holding onto horrible oppressive traditions. Also, everyone's super racist, and classist, and worst of all, they have American friends. (The stereotypically rich-and-arrogant American characters in this book prompted me to look at the author profile, and while Ms Simonson grew up in England she wrote the book from her home in Brooklyn. Mmhm.)

The story is rather lightweight. For some reason absolutely everyone is strongly opposed to the Major and Mrs Ali getting together. Maybe I'm being naive, but really? I know, I know, everyone's racist and/or classist and OH NOES the white guy's going to marry that Pakistani shopkeeper but it makes for kind of a boring novel. There's a lot else going on besides the love story, including drama in Mrs Ali's family surrounding an unwed mother, and drama in the Pettigrew family surrounding a pair of loved but extremely valuable shotguns. Meanwhile, there's a supervillain-worthy plot to build a luxury development in their village that will only house snooty old families. Yes: people who come from old landed/titled families but who can't afford to keep up their estates will move into these densely packed McMansions, while the villagers will be trained as craftsmen and servants and boutique shopkeepers. THAT SOUNDS TOTALLY VIABLE. You know what would make this plan better? If instead of being in an English village it were on an island. Or under a volcano!

I pass over the utterly ludicrous cliff's edge showdown that forms the climax of the book. As another character points out, there is an interesting parallel/connection between the Major, a man of old-school honor, and a nephew of Mrs Ali's, who is intensely attached to a rigid sort of Islam. But nothing really comes of this. Nothing ever comes of the Major's relationship with his dickish yuppie son, Roger. Roger is the purest distillation of materialist assholery you're likely to come across; everything, and I mean everything, comes down to social climbing or business advantage. The Major gets angry with him basically every time he talks to him, and rightly so because Roger is effing offensive, but although he sort of tries to rebuke him now and then, at no point does he actually attempt to really get Roger's attention or put him in his place. Blah blah blah, a father's love, but for serious Major. Roger disrespects and insults, consciously and unconsciously, to his father's face, basically everything the Major holds dear. And he is exactly the same at the end of the novel as at the beginning. It just seemed deeply unlikely to me that a retired Army officer, the son of an Army officer, someone professionally acquainted with the concepts of discipline and respect, would not do something about this fool. Or maybe I'm just bitter that we didn't get a "Roger finally gets slapped" scene.

So yeah, this was not a life-changing novel for me. That said it wasn't all that bad. It was fairly entertaining, and certainly quick-moving. It jumps straight into the story, with the Major and Mrs Ali meeting on page one, and by about page five it's already obvious that they're a totally cute couple. I think for me, though, and I know this sounds just terrible, the cover art might still be my favorite part.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

In which I ramble my way across a book

It's a major pet peeve of mine when Jane Austen gets referred to as a "Victorian" novelist. It's one of those line-in-the-sand things, like referring to Obama as a "socialist": either you know what those words mean or you don't. (Oooh, edgy!)

Jane (reporting from this rad mug) and I are unimpressed by poor periodization skills

But, y'know, I can sort of understand the inclination. Austen is not only super-famous, she sort of stands apart, time-wise. It's been ages since I've taken an English Lit class, so maybe I'm off base, but who else from the early nineteenth century do we still really read, eh? Scott, maybe. Burney's earlier and only nerds know about her. Radcliffe if you're a suicidal nerd. There are the Romantic poets, but they're poets. Mary Shelley gets treated as a genre author. For all the Austen family's novel-reading it doesn't seem like there are a whole lot of survivals from the period.

Well, here's a book to help round out that picture: Marriage, by Susan Edmonstone Ferrier, published in 1818. I downloaded this for freeeee through This is the Project Gutenberg edition, which obviously gets the job done but is slightly annoying in various ways. There's a fairly extensive Victorian introduction that has all kinds of background about Ferrier and the novel, but the lack of formatting obliterates the footnotes and block quotes and makes it sort of a headache. So I skipped it, although probably I would enjoy it if I made an effort. (Bah, effort.)

This is clearly a didactic novel, meant to illustrate good and bad approaches to girls' education and how these lead to success or misery in marriage. At the center are twin baby girls and their three mother-figures. Their birth mother, Lady Juliana, is a spoiled, air-headed London beauty who elopes with her Scottish suitor in the name of love; she keeps one of the twin girls with her when she returns to London from Scotland. The other twin girl is adopted by a saintly aunt by marriage (mother figure #2), Alicia Douglas, who is also English but thoroughly intelligent and virtuous. The third potential mother figure is Aunt Jacky, a spinster aunt who represents the other end of the bad mothering spectrum, being completely small-minded and ultimately almost as empty-headed as the birth mother despite being more useful around the house. Ferrier is pretty scathing about Miss Jacky and her brand of "sensible woman":
Miss Jacky, the senior of the trio, was what is reckoned a very sensible woman--which generally means, a very disagreeable, obstinate, illiberal director of all men, women and children--a sort of superintendent of all actions, time, and place--with unquestioned authority to arraign judge, and condemn upon the statutes of her own supposed sense... At home her supremacy in all matters of sense was perfectly established; and thence the infection, like other superstitions, had spread over the whole neighbourhood. As sensible woman she regulated the family, which she took care to let everybody see; she was conductor of her nieces' education, which she took care to let everybody hear; she was a sort of postmistress general--a detector of all abuses and impositions; and deemed it her prerogative to be consulted about all the useful and useless things which everybody else could have done as well. She was liberal of her advice to the poor, always enforcing on them the iniquity of idleness, but doing nothing for them in the way of employment--strict economy being one of the many points in which she was particularly sensible. The consequence was, while she was lecturing half the poor women in the parish for their idleness, the bread was kept out of their mouths by the incessant carding of wool and knitting of stockings, and spinning, and reeling, and winding, and pirning, that went on amongst the ladies themselves. And, by-the-bye, Miss Jacky is not the only sensible woman who thinks she is acting a meritorious part when she converts what ought to be the portion of the poor into the employment of the affluent.
I thought that economic point was rather interesting. The contrast is that Alicia pays the boys and girls of her neighborhood to take care of her garden rather than doing it herself.

Ferrier is an entertaining writer, and so even though most of her characters represent some precisely mapped combination of [good/bad] nature and [good/bad] nurture, they're still interesting personalities. Plus it's just fascinating to see what she saw as plausible "types" of her day. For instance, saintly aunt Alicia, we are told, was a poor cousin raised in a well-bred family, and when she and her titled cousin fell in love -- you know the fall out here, right? The two are separated, forbidden to marry, etc etc. But! Alicia, though heart-broken, accepts that this is totally reasonable, that her high-born aunt has every right to forbid her son to marry a poor cousin, and steels herself to get over him. When he's super-persistent, she marries the nicest of her suitors and goes to live with him in Scotland, and is very happy with this. Contrast this with her sister-in-law Lady Juliana, and you get the feeling that Ferrier has some doubts about this whole "love match" business.

Aside from historical perspectives on education and marriage, Marriage also paints a delightfully nineteenth century picture of Scotland. The contrast between the Scottish highlands and London's highlife (eh, eh? see what I did there?) provides a geographical contrast as background to the moral/intellectual contrasts in the book. Plus it offers lots of colorful scenery and characters.
"It's impossible the bagpipe could frighten anybody," said Miss Jacky, in a high key; "nobody with common sense could be frightened at a bagpipe."
On descending to the dining-parlour he found his father seated at the window, carefully perusing a pamphlet written to illustrate the principle, Let nothing be lost, and containing many sage and erudite directions for the composition and dimensions of that ornament to a gentleman's farmyard, and a cottager's front door, ycleped, in the language of the country a midden--with the signification of which we would not, for the world, shock the more refined feelings of our southern readers.
If you like historical fashions, this book is worth looking at: there are plenty of intriguingly detailed descriptions of the Scottish women's practical clothing as compared to Lady Juliana's finery. For instance, one highland lady arrives at the house with her skirt "carefully drawn through the pocket-holes" and wearing "a faded red cloth jacket, which bore evident marks of having been severed from its native skirts, [and] now acted in the capacity of a spencer."

In re education, "true religion" seems to be the magic bullet. Here is Alicia summing up the take-home lesson:
"Oh, what an awful responsibility do those parents incur," she would mentally exclaim, "who thus neglect or corrupt the noble deposit of an immortal soul! And who, alas! can tell where the mischief may end? This unfortunate will herself become a mother; yet wholly ignorant of the duties, incapable of the self-denial of that sacred office, she will bring into the world creatures to whom she can only transmit her errors and her weaknesses!"
I'm only halfway through; the twin raised by Alicia has just arrived in London to meet her sister and her mother, and that's going about as well as you could expect. I'm considering not finishing, just because I'm a little frustrated with how long I've been reading this already. It's not the book's fault; I no longer have a daily commute which means I have to figure out some other way to get reading time into my day. So I rate this: Worthwhile, if you like old books.

(There's no reason for that to be there, but I think you'll agree, it had to go somewhere.)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Things things things things

If for some reason you were expecting book-things on this blog, don't bother with the rest of this, and go read this post at the Foyle's blog by a PhD student in English Lit whose feelings I recognize entirely: I actually find that I now prefer non-fiction; I recently told my thesis supervisor that I would rather read a biography of Dickens than a Dickens' novel and he looked at me approvingly. But to me it's an almost painful admission because, ironically, the very love of literature which drove me to its study, also forced much of the joy of reading out of me. So you go on, and I'll just be here making use of my favorite blog label: "blah".

As I contemplate the cruel realities of volume and mass, and pack my suitcases, I thought I would procrastinate a little further through the venerable art of list-making. So here are five favorite places, or secret places, or whatever.

1. Diwana Indian buffet, Drummond Street
Drummond Street is sort of behind/next to Euston Station, which can be a convenient location depending on what you're doing. Diwana is one of several little Indian places back here - it's the only one I've eaten at which is the only reason it's the one I'm recommending. Anyway, it's vegetarian, the lunch buffet currently costs only £7, and the staff isn't sullen about just bringing you tap water if you want to keep your costs down. It gets enough lunch traffic that the buffet is relatively fresh, and there must be ten hot options and six cold options on average, plus bread-type things, samosas, and fruits for dessert. All in all, a good choice.

2. Laveli, next to Acton Central Overground
There's no reason on earth to come to Acton for this reason, but if you're in Acton for some reason, this is a great place. It's an family-run, baked-in-house, bakery/cafe right next to the Overground station. There are several cafes near the station, but this is my absolute go-to. Sure, it's sometimes a little rough around the edges; in particular some days the pastries are a little... overdone... but the coffee is good, and these might be my favorite croissants of anywhere. They're flaky, they're buttery, I love them. They also have sandwiches, various hot and cold salads (in the British sense of "side dishes containing vegetables"), some fancy little cakes and tarts, and gelato.

3. The best reading spot in South Kensington or possibly anywhere
The newly renovated Medieval galleries at the V&A have their own oval staircase and glass elev- I mean, lift. If you go in through the main entrance on Cromwell Road, turn right and go down the steps into the Medieval gallery; you'll find the staircase on your left across from the Palm Sunday procession case. You go up two levels to a curved area where there are two very large, multi-storey wooden objects hung: a 17th century wooden facade of a house, and a set of stairs and balconies from France. If you go over to look at these more closely, you will find a whole set of built-in cushioned seats. If you sit there and crane your neck you'll notice that the roof of this area is glass. That's right: natural light. Perfection. Even on a very busy weekend, this area was relatively quiet, with a steady stream of visitors but very few people sitting down.

4. Harrods food halls, half an hour before close
They mark things down half-price at the end of the day. I'm not sure that all of the perishables get marked down (specifically, I'm not sure about the salads in the deli cases), so look out for the red signs/labels, but you can get some delicious things. I particularly like the breads/patisserie area; this stuff is pretty fairly priced to begin with, all things considered, so it qualifies as a bona fide bargain. Worth battling the freaking tourists.

5. Royal Festival Hall/Southbank Centre, with or without concert tickets
If you like music and performing art and whatnot, it's worth your time to see what's on at the Southbank Centre during a visit to London; they do a lot of festival/exhibit type things too. But you know what? I have a soft spot for just sort of hanging out. There's free wifi, and it's actually worked when I've been there. There are lots of windows and natural light; couches and tables and chairs; seating areas that seem big and spacious and others that feel more cozy. There's a cafe and a bar on the main level, and lots of restaurants in the complex, plus a Foyle's bookstore and a store that sells art/design type stuff. For certain types of work I like to bring my laptop out somewhere I can have coffee and not be cooped up at home, and while I like a cozy cafe as much as anyone, I haaaaate dragging my laptop around trying to find one that actually has a seat open. Royal Festival Hall is, in my experience, a pretty good bet.

Let's pretend that most of those aren't food related and add:

Two Sugar-themed Honorable Mentions: 

Rose and violet flavored things, various places
These are not flavors that one comes across in the US, and I have become obsessed with them. Rose is slightly more common: you can get rose tea by Twinings or several other brands. Rose and violet chocolates seem popular; rose cremes and violet cremes can be found in the cases at Harrods and Fortnum and Mason, or pre-boxed from Prestat and Charbonnel et Walker. Fortnum and Mason also sells a £5 rose and violet chocolate bar. Rococo Chocolates has rose and violet cremes, chocolate bars, chocolate wafers, and hard candies. La Fromagerie, a gourmet store (guess the specialty) just off Marylebone High Street has the biggest range of violet non-chocolate I've come across: violet black tea, violet green tea, violet hard candies, and even a violet syrup they suggest mixing with champagne. Finally, if you want to be super girly about it, Laduree in Harrods serves both rose and violet teas, and has at least two rose flavored pastries in their line-up, in addition to rose and blackcurrant-violet macarons. You can buy their teas loose-leaf, and get the pastries packaged to take away, but I think it's worth a splurge to eat in. Rose perfumes are obviously everywhere; but for violet perfume, go to Penhaligon's and weep over the price tag on the to-die-for Violetta.

Grown-Up Chocolate Company's Crunchy Praline Wonder Bar
There is a lot of gourmet chocolate out there (there's a lot of gourmet everything out there). The wonderfully named and branded Grown-Up Chocolate Company makes a series of chocolate bars are are presented as sophisticated gourmet spins on mainstream candy bar types. I'm no gourmand, but the instant I put this in my mouth, I knew this was quality. It's rich and good and luxurious in a really enjoyable way that had even me -- even me -- wanting to eat more slowly and savor the experience. The only place I've seen these for sale is at the Sourced Market in St Pancras International Rail Station, where they are £2.50. Worth it.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Spark of life

Strangely enough, I have more short fiction to share with you today. I guess these are what would be called "novellas": The Driver's Seat and The Finishing School, both by Muriel Spark.

If I were at all smart, I would not be talking about two books in one post. It should be pretty obvious that I need all the material I can get these days; with my return to the US looming in the very near future, I've been reading more scholarly stuff and spending my time on the trains staring at the ads fretting (and frankly the future forecast looks like more of the same). The highlight of my bookly life lately has been recommending a book to The Manolo (!).

But it's best for you the reader if I talk about these two short books together, and I am all about you the reader and that's why you love me. Ahem.

The Driver's Seat is a creepy, creepy little story: there's a lot that's off and unsettling but I couldn't quite put it all together until the very end. Whereas...

The Finishing School is lower-key, featuring two characters who are obsessed with each other, and how their obsession grows and impacts the rest of the community. The Driver's Seat was first published in 1970, and The Finishing School in 2004. The Finishing School understandably has that little bit of unreality about the way it portrays its young adult characters. It's hard to put a finger on any particular scene or detail that's wrong; although the characters have cell phones and laptops it just doesn't quite feel organic. Really the effect is to make the time frame of the novel feel vague, which is not such a bad thing.

Reading these two novels... novellas... really brought out an interesting characteristic of Sparks' writing, which is the way she plays with the timeline and with what you know and don't know. For example, in The Driver's Seat, she states fairly early on that Lise will soon be found murdered. She doesn't hint; she states; it's not so much foreshadowing as foretelling. She does this in The Finishing School as well, and there she also will abruptly move into a scene with two characters discussing something whom you wouldn't expect together. Then the camera moves back, so to speak, and Sparks tells you that they're discussing the matter in bed, and they've been sleeping together for the last several weeks. It's an interesting technique, and I think it helped keep both these shortish stories moving.

The Driver's Seat is part of the Penguin "Modern Classics" series and has an introduction -- which is actually really good. Or maybe I'm just saying that because the author tells you to stop reading at a certain point if you don't know the story already. Thanks, introduction writer! It was one of the hard lessons I had to learn at some point in my grown-up reading career, that "introductions" despite the name are rarely any good for someone reading the book for the first time. Ok, maybe that's an exaggeration. But it's an exaggeration I stand by.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Oh hey, it's a book I read

I find it orders of magnitude more difficult to pick a book to read when I'm not currently reading something. Or maybe I should turn that around and say, when I'm in the middle of something I have no trouble at all queueing up three more books with a sense of enthusiasm. My favorite theory (of the five minutes I've spent thinking about it) is that it has to do with a perceived level of difficulty. When I'm currently reading something I'm aware that it doesn't actually take me that long to read a book, and I don't feel like I'm condemning myself to a potentially boring week every time I set a book on the stack. Whereas when my hands are empty, I'm picking something for right now, and right now I want something good. At such moments I am particularly susceptible to recommendations; the possibility of blaming someone else if the book turns out to be a stinker is always attractive...

As you may have guessed, I have recent experience with this dilemma. I got back from Paris (lovely if damp and intimidating) having finished the scholarly Women, Business and Finance in Nineteenth-Century Europe (predictably uneven and ultimately disappointing, although containing invaluable insights into national histories usually overlooked in the English literature). What to read, what to read. Nothing on my Amazon wish list looked any good of course. Finally a blog I read mentioned Evelyn Waugh's Scoop in a recommending kind of way, and off I went.

Sadly there is very little Waugh available on Kindle. As long as I'm complaining about this, I'll note also that Amazon has volumes 2-4 of Sigrid Undset's Master of Hestviken for Kindle... yes, 2-4. This is the kind of moment that makes me feel impatient with "OMG e-readers are killing books" articles. Don't worry, people; the sellers of e-readers are not in danger of making the experience too attractive. But: Waugh's complete stories are available, and for the sake of getting on with something, I bought it.

Now, short stories are not my favorite thing. The format lends itself to more insinuation and ambiguity than I usually like. Furthermore, I tend to think that collections of a novelist's short stories are a bit more for the completist or literary scholar than for Jane Reader. But although that latter assumption was more or less borne out, I did enjoy this quite a lot.

There are some really wicked little stories here, in which people are the victims of monumental irony. There are a couple are are simply howls of rage against contemporary social trends. There are also two chapters of an unfinished novel that are so good I was sad to remember it was unfinished. The sad thing about the Kindle is that it's difficult for me to go back and tell you anything more specific about the stories; but I enjoyed the collection.

After the unfinished/fragmentary works comes the juvenilia -- if there is a better argument against becoming a famous author than the possibility of having your juvenilia published, I don't know it. For the most part this stuff is not particularly good reading, although there is a pretty awesome introductory letter in which the (teenage?) Waugh congratulates himself on overcoming the handicap of a literary family to write a novel. There are no notes or anything on these pieces to indicate when they were written or how old he was when he wrote them, which I thought was disappointing. Sure, maybe there aren't dates attached to the manuscripts but surely some scholar out there has a theory and it would be better for the average reader to offer something rather than nothing.

So there we are; back on the book-horse. Although all this rain is really putting a cramp in my reading-on-train-platforms style.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

I will never be the same

I was at the Royal Opera House tonight, and I had great seats (thank you student ticket offers), right in the center section. And as I sat there thinking, "wow, this is cool" it struck me: was I sitting where Fosco was sitting when he was spotted by Walter and Pesca?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Historical fiction I didn't hate!

I can best describe this book as a successful version of Clara and Mr Tiffany, which longtime readers will remember I disliked.

The story is framed as a sort of pseudo-memoir, but functionally it's more just a first-person story. Sira, the main character and narrator, is a seamstress in Madrid, engaged to an ordinary guy, living with her mother in a poor neighborhood, when she's swept off her feet by a sexy typewriter salesman. A very sexy typewriter salesman, the sexy typewriter salesman of your sexiest dreams. When he leaves her destitute in Morocco, she has to start again from scratch, reinventing herself as a high-class dressmaker. This mixes her up with influential people and she eventually returns to Franco's Madrid as a haute couturier and British spy.

Maybe it's a matter of reading the book in translation, but I thought Sira's character was a little disappointing given the dramatic twists and turns her life takes and how successfully she handles them. She comes across as a little flat somehow; you'd expect her to be a little livelier and more confident or something. Despite all the changes in her circumstances I had a hard time seeing how her perspective or personality was changing. It's very possible that this is just me, though. The scene where Sira is confronted by her old fiance was genuinely gripping, even though I thought the book gave that phase of her life short shrift.

One of the main aims of this book is, of course, to tell the story of early 20th century Spain, particularly the Civil War and the Second World War, and more precisely to tell the story of Juan Luis Beigbeider and his English lover Rosalind Fox. Yes, there are some clumsy fact-dump conversations, but they have the benefit of being about things I'm unfamiliar with and therefore inclined to give a pass. On the whole I'd say the history aspect is well-balanced with the novel's plot.

Not to say that the book didn't share some of Clara and Mr Tiffany's quirks. If I hadn't been reading this on the Kindle, I would go back and calculate how many of the chapters end with something like this:
But for that we had to wait a few weeks yet, six or seven. And over that time, things happened that--yet again--transformed the course of my life forever.
My estimate is that something like 40-50% of chapters ended with "little did I know that my life was about to change yet again." But the good news, and the #1 thing that differentiates this book from Clara and Mr Tiffany, is that this only happens once:
     I hadn't yet finished my fruit but I accepted. He filled the cups, having first unscrewed the top part of a metallic receptacle. Miraculously the liquid came out hot. I had no idea what it was, this machine that could pour out the coffee that had been there for at least an hour as though it had just been prepared.
     "A thermos, a great invention," he said, noticing my curiosity.
I always assume that translated books must be good, but in honesty I have to think this one was translated largely because English people feature so prominently as Good Guys. But overall it was an enjoyable read and worth picking up if the history appeals to you.

One final detail: in this book, like Mysterious Benedict Society, the spies communicate using Morse code. Why do authors do this? It's not like they have to work out an actual code, they just have to write "I encoded the message". In this book, the rationale is presented as "the Germans keep breaking our codes, so we'll use Morse" -- i.e., since they keep figuring out our codes anyway, we'll just save them time and use one we know they know! In France, I'm pretty sure SOE used book codes, but maybe -- and I have to bow to the author on this -- in Spain they just used Morse. Anyway, I warn you now that the next book I read that features Morse code as a super-secure top secret method of communication will probably get laughed at more than it deserves.