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 Manybooks.com. 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.