Monday, April 29, 2013

Review: ROAST BEEF, MEDIUM by Edna Ferber

Original Publication Date: 1913

Genre: fiction, adventure

Topics: women, feminist, single mother, independence

Review by : Patty @ A Tale of Three Cities

Roast Beef, Medium by Edna Ferber is simply a great read:  the compelling adventures of an independent woman, out to earn the respect she deserves, single-handedly winning over her male colleagues, while raising  her son on her own.  Simple, little story?  Absolutely not - this is 1913...

While this book could well make the case for being a feminist one, I did not feel this:  there is still a fine line between emerging feminist thoughts and nostalgia for the traditional roles in society expressed by Emma McChesney, our heroine.  I would just say it's a novel way ahead of its time:  Her "adventures" could well have taken place in modern times, which made me wonder:  if these descriptions apply today and the problems are still in existence today, what was the situation back in 1913?  How could Emma, any Emma, survive, when even today women can still fail facing such challenges?

I liked that the book is split in chapters focusing on a type of adventure.  I believe it gets us to know all facets of Emma's life, from the purely professional to the purely personal and all in between.
Emma has been now working for 10 years as a salesperson (to be politically correct) at a firm selling petticoats.  She married young, divorced not too long afterwards and has been left on her own ever since to struggle for herself and her son, Jock.

We follow her as she makes her way across the country (in those days, there was no wireless communication, so everything was carried out on a person-to-person basis...).  Emma has done it all, seen it all - that's why she sticks with a roast beef, medium:  once you have witnessed all of life's ups and downs, you get to appreciate life's staples, the standard values that, though unexciting, will serve you very well and provide a much-needed cushion from the world's troubles.  

"it's all very well to trifle with the little side-dishes at first, but there comes a time when you've got to quit fooling with the minced chicken, and the imitation lamb chops of this world, and settle down to plain, everyday, roast beef, medium. That other stuff may tickle your palate for a while, but sooner or later it will turn on you, and ruin your moral digestion"

The simile is spot-on and I really appreciated the simplicity with which Ferber can make her point.  How many times have I declined the flavour of the month in whichever domain, because I know I can rely to the tried-and-tested values that will remain true for the future?

Emma has to deal with her male competitors, who do not expect her to last long (funny, given she outwits them all...).  She has a "mentor" in her boss, who is the first to see through her and realise the potential she has.  From then, everyone else is an obstacle Emma can surely tackle, over and over again:

"now, a man would -""But I'm not a man", interrupted Emma McChesney. "I'm only doing a man's work and earning a man's salary and demanding to be treated with as much consideration as you'd show a man"

And yes, we're still in 1913, however much this could be said in 2013 as well (the realisation that the novel is 100 years old just hit me - not much progress in this respect, eh?)

There is a favourable disposition vis-a-vis Emma.  However much she's shown to struggle through life's adventures, she always manages to save the day and her composure:  
Long practice had made her perfect in the art.
Her only weakness is her son, but this is a tough love - she's not scared to let him know what the truth is:

Your mother is a working woman, Jock.  You don't like that idea, do yo?  But you don't mind spending the money that the working woman provides you with, do you?

And, of course, among everything else, there is always a suspicion of a love interest... Be it her fellow salespersons who want to just have a good time during their visits to all these remote towns, to her new boss, who could have honest intentions (the ending is not revealed, so the jury's out on this!).  But, Ferber is very good at keeping our interest alive throughout the pages:  she know she has a lonely heroine and she knows we want her to find someone, and at every chance she gets, she just loves to play with this idea:

"Great, ain't it?" said a voice in the darkness. (Nay, reader.  A woman's voice)

Emma will rise up the corporate ladder and ensure the company's future by innovative products - a relatively believable ending, not too exciting but remarkable nevertheless.  This book was a very nice discovery, truly recommended for an insight into the makings of independent women...

Download Roast Beef, medium by Edna Ferber at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|Girlebooks

Friday, April 26, 2013

Review: CHRISTINE by Alice Cholmondeley (pseudonym of Elizabeth von Arnim)

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1917 

Genre: Epistolary Novel, Propaganda 

Topics: World War I, Germany, Propaganda, Love 

Review by Iris on Books

Christine claims to be a collection of letters written by Christine Cholmondeley to her mother Alice during her stay in Germany in 1914, just before the war began. Christine stays in Berlin and its surroundings to train with renowned violin teacher Kloster, as she is a promising talent. Her letters portray her difficult entry into German society, provide a commentary on German people, and feature her personal dealings with a number of people including Kloster and her eventual love interest Bernd. 

However, as the title of my post signals, these were not letters written by Christine to her mother, but instead a fictionalised account written by Elizabeth von Arnim, who made Christine and her mother up. I love Elizabeth von Arnim, and I have had all of the public domain titles of her works loaded on my ereader for years, supplemented when new ones became available. I was a little puzzled by the fact that this was published under a pseudonym, but did not really look into it. A week ago, I selected it as my next bedtime read without knowing much of the particulars about it. Thinking that anything by Von Arnim was bound to be good, so why not this one? Well, there is a reason for that pseudonym. And it is not necessarily one that will convince readers of Von Arnim’s other books. 

By page 30, I was a little puzzled: was this Elizabeth von Arnim? Then what exactly was her aim in publishing these letters as if they were written by someone else? What was she trying to achieve? The answer came through wikipedia: Christine is Von Arnim's contribution to the British war effort, by writing a propaganda-like piece that was apparantly a minor part of an elaborate effort meant to sway the US opinion in favour of joining the war.

You need not read wikipedia to notice the othering that is going on in this story. (Of course, it might be that reading wikipedia sharpened my eye and made it stand out). While in Christine individuals from different classes of the German populations are highlighted, there is a general tendency to use these individuals as depictions of ”the state of mind” of the “German population” (as is mentioned in the preface, purportedly written by Alice Cholmondeley). There is an abundance of distinctions being drawn between Christine and her surroundings as she makes observations on how “they” (the Germans) think, act, and feel. The Germans are portrayed as children, conditioned to want greatness and bloodshed for their by their government, barbaric and uncivilised to some extent denoted by their undemocratic system. At some moments, Christine seems to distinguish between the government as the perpetrators and the people as its victims, but the lines become blurred as she then continues to lament the blood lust that is rife among the people (according to her).

It is really difficult to explain what happens in the text exactly. I think some examples might explain it better. Mind you, these examples can be found on almost every few pages. I am picking some out at random. Playing on British nationalism:
“Dear England. Dear, dear England. To find out how much one loves England all one has to do is to come to Germany.”
On the Germans:
“But you know, darling mother, it makes it easier for me to harden and look ahead with my chin in the air rather than over my shoulder back at you when I see, as I do see all day long, the extreme sentimentality of the Germans. It is very surprising. They’re the oddest mixture of what really is a brutal hardness, the kind of hardness that springs from real fundamental differences from ours in their attitude towards life, and a squashiness that leaves one with one’s mouth open. They can’t bear to let a single thing that has happened to them ever, however many years ago, drop away into oblivion and die decently in its own dust…”
An example of sympathy turned into othering:
“I could hardly not cry. These cheated people! Exploited and cheated, led carefully step by step from babyhood to a certain habit of mind necessary to their exploiters, with certain passions carefully developed and encouraged, certain ancient ideas, anachronisms every one of them, kept continually before their eyes,—why, if they did win in their murderous attack on nations who have done nothing to them, what are they going to get individually? Just wind; the empty wind of big words. They’ll be told, and they’ll read it in the newspapers, that now they’re great, the mightiest people in the world, the one best able to crush and grind other nations. But not a single happiness really will be added to the private life of a single citizen belonging to the vast class that pays the bill. For the rest of their lives this generation will be poorer and sadder, that’s all. Nobody will give them back the money they have sacrificed, or the ruined businesses, and nobody can give them back their dead sons. There’ll be troops of old miserable women everywhere, who were young and content before all the glory set in, and troops of dreary old men who once had children, and troops of cripples who used to look forward and hope. Yes, I too obeyed the Kaiser and went home and prayed; but what I prayed was that Germany should be beaten—so beaten, so punished for this tremendous crime, that she will be jerked by main force into line with modern life, dragged up to date, taught that the world is too grown up now to put up with the smashings and destructions of a greedy and brutal child. It is queer to think of the fear of God having to be kicked into anybody, but I believe with Prussians it’s the only way. They understand kicks. They respect brute strength exercised brutally. I can hear their roar of derision, if Christ were to come among them today with His gentle, “Little children, love one another.”
Read as propaganda, it is really rather a smart book: it takes an almost instantly sympathetic lead character, who is a promising child with what we are given to understand is a big talent, with no reason really to want to give her mother to understand falsehood about “the Germans”, and puts her into situations in which German people are less than sympathetic towards her, and then adds a final tragedy which the mother, in the preface, reveals so as to steer the sympathies of the reader. Moreover, besides the more blatant examples of othering, there are also more subtle ones. Christine, for example, wants and has to make her own way in life, earn her own keep, and in the story the women of Germany are mostly portrayed as servants or mothers. As such, she is instantly put apart from these women, but also examplifies (perhaps?) a broader respect for the abilities of women in Britain (which I think appears often as a trope of othering as an “us” that is more emancipated than “they” are). 

The question is whether this book is still interesting to read for the contemporary reader, and I cannot give a satisfactory answer to that. It might be thought of as an interesting study into propaganda, though I think the reader would benefit from contrasting this story with other materials and/or more biographical information and context to this story. It is certainly something I wished for (are there any good Elizabeth von Arnim biographies out there?). 

There is also the rather puzzling sensation of reading some ideas about “the Germans” in a book about World War I that I mostly associate with World War II (but this might be my Dutch background given that the Netherlands were neutral during World War I and thus we learn mostly about the first war in the context of the second). There is a certain shock to seeing all these observations about a people being drilled to feel and think certain things, to want bloodshed for the greatness of their nation, and the rallying nature of massive get-together around the Kaiser.. Of course, these were Von Arnim’s ideas about the German, but it was interesting to me that apparently these ideas existed in 1917, while I associate it with the picture of Germany painted in the context of the interbellum and World War II. 

However, while these things might be of interest to the reader they did very little to make it an enjoyable read for me. As a fictional book, Christine mostly left me feeling apathetic. The othering got in the way of my enjoyment of the story. It is sad but true. I usually love Von Arnim’s style, gently humorous comfort reading with a sharp edge at times. Here, she is mostly a little too sentimental for my liking, and the sharp edge comes out much too stark on the side of prejudice, propaganda and nationalism. I admit that I was a little touched emotionally by the end of the book, and yet mostly I felt relieved that it was over, that I could put it behind me, and hopefully still read the other books by Elizabeth von Arnim that were not published under a pseudonym and without these ulterior motives, with joy.

To be fair: Christine can also be read in another light. As is noted over here, it might be interpreted as an hommage to Von Arnim's fourth daughter who died in Germany in 1916. I can see parts of that reflected in the story, and I think that, put in this light, the story becomes a little more "humane" and might also explain some of what I deemed too sentimental above; for Christine is constantly expressing so much love when writing to her mother that I quickly felt it might be a little too much to be realistic. I cannot help but keep to the opinion that this book did not exactly work for me, that I cannot read around the opinions about the Germans as they were expressed, because for me they obscure what might have been a more interesting narrative otherwise.

[I want to add that I do not think I necessarily begrudge Von Arnim for writing propaganda (though part of me wishes she hadn’t). It is more a matter of not being able to enjoy this “othering” in the contemporary context as a reader turning to Elizabeth von Arnim for enjoyment and not for a study in propaganda. I hope this makes sense and that I did not offend anyone.]

Download Christine by Alice Cholmondeley at Project Gutenberg|Girlebooks 

*cross-posted to Iris on Books

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

SOME EXPERIENCES OF AN IRISH R.M. - E. O. Somerville and Martin Ross

Original Publication Date: 1899 Genre: Humor Topics: Humor, Ireland, Rural

Review by : Liz Inskip-Paulk (

A light-hearted humorous novel about an ex-British Army officer who becomes appointed to a rural country in Ireland as the Resident Magistrate*, this was quite a fun read. Published at the turn of the century, it’s a very horsey-centered book with tales of the inexperienced young outsider facing the events of a small rural community as the person in charge. (Rather Wodehousian in many ways, I thought.)

This is more a series of short stories all interlinked by common characters more than a straight novel, and reminded me in some ways of James Herriot in regard to “big-city outsider comes to unwelcoming but heart of gold village in the country” situation. It is packed with long descriptions of fox hunts, horse races and village happenings, some of which were rather exciting to read (despite my opposition to fox hunting and animal maltreatment). It was quite hard to read about the rather frequent whippings that the horses and donkeys endured and were obviously par for the course back then. It was true to its time though, even though that doesn’t make it any more acceptable.

The authors were really two women, one called Edith Somerville (the E. O. Somerville person) from England, and the other her cousin Violet Florence Martin (who wrote under Martin Ross) who was from Ireland.  The two were second cousins and shared a great-grandfather between them. The name “Martin Ross” that Violet chose came from her surname and the name of the land that her family owned in West Ireland. Edith and Violet became close partners, and had critical and popular success with their early works which were a variation of the Victorian sensation novels. However, the commercial success of their lighter comical novels (starting with the Irish RM series) convinced them to leave serious novel writing and focus more on what the popular market wanted. 

This book series was also made into a TV series which ran between 1983-1985 on TV in the UK. (I didn’t catch it so can’t vouch for its quality.)

Violet died quite early in 1915 of a brain tumor, and although Edith believed that she would and could never write again after her death, she was persuaded to do so by believing (as were the times) that Violet could communicate with her through spiritualism séances (a la Arthur Conan Doyle et al.) and continued to publish under both her own name and Violet.

·         A Resident Magistrate (RM) was a title for magistrates in locations that were/are governed by the British. Personnel were usually well versed in law and well connected (as they were rather cushy jobs) and were brought into an area from outside to guide the more local lay magistrates.  The “Resident” referred to the requirement that the magistrate had to live in the actual to which he (always he) was assigned.

Download Title by author at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


book cover Original Publication Date: 1934

Genre: fantasy

Topics: (pseudo)historical, magic, love, adventure

Review by heidenkind:

When the King of Vendyha is assassinated by the Black Seers of Yimsha, his sister Devi Yasmina is determined to seek vengeance. To that end, she wants to bribe Conan the Barbarian into hunting the seers down, but Conan ain't having none of that. Instead, he kidnaps the Devi like a boss and plans to use her as a hostage. But with a whole host of other people chasing after the Devi for their own ends, Conan's bound to get mixed up in her problems.

This book is pretty awesome. Basically I love everything about it: I love the cover, Conan, the story, the exotic setting, Yasmina, the over-the-top writing style, and the magic elements. But most of all I really love Conan. Eons back I watched maybe ten minutes' worth of Conan the Barbarian--the one with Arnold Schwarzenegger--and based on that movie I started The People of the Black Circle thinking Conan would be the stupidest, most uninteresting hero since Hercules. He isn't! He's actually really smart and dashing and very alpha-male-a-la-romancelandia. In fact, the whole book reminded me of a really kick-ass romance novel. Conan and Yasmina have some crazy chemistry going on; it's pretty hot. Here's my favorite passage from the book:

His wild blood had been stirred to its uttermost by all that had passed. He caught her to him in a grasp that would have made her wince at another time, and crushed her lips with his. She made no resistance; the Devi was drowned in the elemental woman. She closed her eyes and drank in his fierce, hot, lawless kisses with all the abandon of passionate thirst.

Haha! Okay, that's pretty pulpy. But I totally love it because I just knew that at some point there would be the crushing of lips and the lawless kisses.

Naturally I focus on the romance, but most of the story has to do with all the magicians out to get the Devi, and it is GREAT. There is so much delicious double-crossing and plotting going on. I sometimes get annoyed by stuff like that, but since it all focuses on the Devi, it enhances rather than distracts from the story. Also, Conan, who's very much removed from the court politics driving the plot, serves as a stabilizing force in the book. His needs and wants are pretty straight-forward and simple to understand, which was a much-needed balance to every other character.

So basically I was super-pleasantly surprised by The People of the Black Circle, and have subsequently downloaded ALL the Robert E. Howard books. I haven't been this excited about an author since I read The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart. If you like Edgar Rice Burroughs or romances with alpha heroes, I think you definitely want to read this one. It's really such a blast.

Download The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Monday, April 15, 2013

Review: THIS SIDE OF PARADISE by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Original Publication Date: 1920

Genre: fictional autobiography

Topics: coming of age, status, personal quest

Review by : Patty @ A Tale of Three Cities

Having read The Great Gatsby and fallen in love with Fitzgerlad's story-telling, I couldn't help but wonder whether this was a one-off experience.  
I was so mesmerised by the techniques he used, that I wanted to have more of it - and so chose to read This side of Paradise, Fitzgerald's first novel, semi-autobiographical, and the book that shot him to fame.  

Would I distinguish his brilliance already there? Would I feel the "lost generation" he so eloquently spoke about?
Fitzgerald was in his early 20s when his wrote this book, and used elements from his personal experience to draw the character of Amory Blaine: a well-off, spoilt-rotten mama's boy who grows into a sad, lonely young man, never meant to find happiness...

Having first read the Great Gatsby inevitably puts this book in a stricter, harsher light.  The writer is not yet master of his skill, so the book reads really like a very, very long description - a diary of the main character and everything that happens around him.  This is very analytical and, as it also happens to be autobiographical of Fitzgerald, it was interesting to witness first-hand his character - or lack thereof.

Because Amory is not someone who will have to strive to get ahead in life:  he's from a well-off family, with a father semi-absent and a mother who's just enjoying her personal crises.  I could sense the boredom oozing from every corner of the book and I felt really lucky I did not have such an upbringing:  Blaine cannot escape his destiny.  He's handsome, intelligent and lazy in terms of actually doing something:

"Amory wondered how people could fail to notice that he was a boy marked for glory, and when faces of the throng turned toward him and ambiguous eyes stared into his, he assumed the most romantic of expressions and walked on the air cushions that lie on the asphalts of fourteen"
I was almost ready to dismiss Amory, because I was slightly getting tired about all his "adventures" in prep school.  I could understand his quest to fit in with all the other members of high society, but I was losing interest - fast.  The drama boy was growing into a drama young man:

"I want to be admired"

But, as life proves over and over again, Amory will have to face difficulties in his life - he will eventually lose his great love to money (which, in the meantime, his family has lost), he will fail to find success in work, he will even try to "advocate" Socialism in the hope to profit from an eventual revolution.  Slowly, however, he will realise what his true self is. He's lost everything that would matter in an earlier stage - status, love, money - but now he's come to terms with what really is of essence.  

The book ends with an enigmatic claim Amory makes:  he now knows himself 
"but that is all --"
The dash at the end of that sentence, and not a full stop, is really what marks for me the turning point for Amory.  He's hit bottom, he has accepted his true self, he can no longer hide - and he's now ready to move on...

I would not say I enjoyed This Side of Paradise as much as The Great Gatsby.  While it's not a bad book, I found the inexperience of the pen failed to attract my attention. It is nevertheless a sincere portrayal of Fitzgerald, capturing his youth and his personal quests, and it made me appreciate Gatsby even more...

Download This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Review: PARNASSUS ON WHEELS – Christopher Morley


Original Publication Date: 1922
Genre: American classic
Topics: American, books, gender role, early 20th century

Review by : Liz Inskip-Paulk (

A fun novel about my favoritest of subjects – books and the love of them. Found somewhere on my travels around the interweb, this title popped up on list of fun classics to read. I am not familiar with either the author or the title, but the review looked good and I found it on Project Gutenberg. It’s a quick read, is rather a cross between a novel and novella, I think. Not quite long enough for one, not quite short enough for the other.

The basic plot line is of a sister and brother who both live on a farm in Massachusetts not too far from Boston. Set in the early twentieth century (I think), the siblings get on fine until the brother finds unexpected success as a best-selling author writing about the joys of living on the land. His sister is the one who bakes the bread, cleans and more or less runs the farm as the brother keeps going off on unexpected jaunts to “research” his books. This set up is annoying for the one who is forced to stay at home, and when one day, a mobile book shop – a “caravan of culture” -- shows up, things take a surprising turn. (The mobile bookshop is the “Parnassus on Wheels”, Parnassus being the name of the Greek mountain where the Muses would live).

As the sister ends up going on new adventures further afield and realizing that she has just as of a right of a happy life as selfish authorly bro, the reader can feel the blossoming of her character – of how much more she has to offer the world rather than be skilled at blacking the stove. Over the years, she reckons that she has baked about 15,000 loaves (an “anthology of bread” as she describes it in her bookish way), and so doesn’t feel that guilty about going off and leaving the bro to his own devices on the farm.

Going on this unexpected adventure frees up the sister:  “That’s where I learned that life still held something fresh for me – something better than baking … biscuits for [my brother]…”

Of course, things don’t sit well and the story twists and turns – it’s all very reflective of the burgeoning feminist movement of the time and questioning of gender roles. Very up-to-date issues, really, especially when you consider that it was written by a man in the 1920’s and it’s from the woman’s perspective.

As I mentioned, it’s a quick read and yet it covers a lot of territory the most notable of which was the ongoing adoration of all things literary – books, words, authors, the act of reading… All very suitable subjects for a book nerd such as I am.

It’s also a hopeful and optimistic book for how life can change and looking forward to the future. As the female protagonist reports, “Summer was over, and we neither of us were young, but there were great things ahead of us.”

Good one.

Download Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Review: JUST WILLIAM – Richmal Crompton


Original Publication Date: 1922

Genre: Childhood literature

Topics: English, short story, humorous, 20th century

Review by: Liz Inskip-Paulk  (

If you grew up with Enid Blyton and tales of Mallory Towers and tuck shops and midnight feasts, then you might have read this series of childhood books. If not you, then perhaps your parents did (or even their parents).

William Brown is an 11-year old English school boy who dreams of pirates and robbers and owning a sweet shop and teaching a white rat to dance on command. His family dreams as well, but they dream of different things: William coming home clean and tidy from school, for example. This is how his father describes him one day:
“The human boy is given us as a discipline. I possess one. Though he is my own son, I find it difficult to describe the atmosphere of peace and relief that pervades the house when he is out of it.”
What is not said is that you need to be prepared for when William comes home because then you just don’t know what is going to come through the door… It might be an abandoned dog, it might be a bow and arrow, it might be the local neighborhood kids come to listen to his visiting auntie snore during her nap… You just never know.
William is not a bad person – he is just very enthusiastic about life and extremely honest about things. He reminded me of a puppy – how they just focus on something and then gambol towards it not thinking about consequences or anything. Crompton makes him extremely likable and really funny so this little gem-like collection of short stories was a joy to read.
What’s even better than there are loads of Just William books to wade through, some of which are on Project Gutenberg, so if you’re in the mood for a quick light-hearted read about a slightly naughty boy with a bit of Wodehouse-type humor, this series is for you.
Download Title by author at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Announcing New Contributors!

The Project Gutenberg Project has been live for little over a year, and in that time we've reviewed over 130 books in the public domain! Hopefully we've inspired you all to read a few classics and try out some forgotten books, as well. I (heidenkind here) would like to thank our contributors for doing such a great job and you, our readers, for supporting this blog. You all inspire me to explore and read and write every day.

Anyway, I'm excited to announce that PGP is expanding and we're adding two new contributors! Say hello to Liz from Just One More Page and Patty from A Tale of Three Cities. They've already posted a few reviews here, so please check them out and give them a warm welcome.

Here's to another great year at PGP!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

VERA by Elizabeth von Arnim

book cover Original Publication Date: 1921

Genre: satire/comedy

Topics: love, marriage, feminism, Gothic

By heidenkind

Ten signs you shouldn't marry that guy you're going to marry according to Elizabeth von Arnim:

  • He's old enough to be your father.
  • Your friends hate him. ALL your friends.
  • Your family also hates him; but even worse, he doesn't give a shit if they do or not.
  • When he talks politics, he bears an eerie resemblance to Dick Cheney.
  • His last wife died under mysterious circumstances.
  • The only thing that upsets him about this is it infringes on his schedule.
  • He has absolutely no imagination.
  • Or sense of humor.
  • He reminds you of a two-year-old, but requires even more attention.
  • His library consists entirely of expensive books he bought in bulk, keeps locked behind glass, has never read, and has no intention of ever reading.

Vera is often called a satire of Gothic romance in summaries of the novel, and it is--but not in a silly Airplane! sort of way, more in a here's-what-it-would-really-be-like-bitches sort of way. It's the story of Lucy, a young girl who meets Everard Wemyss literally hours after her father has died, leaving her an orphan. It goes without saying she's in a vulnerable state. Coincidentally, Wemyss himself has recently lost his wife, Vera, under mysterious circumstances. Was it suicide or an accident? No one really knows, but the two deaths pull Everard and Lucy together. It's almost like they're meant to be! But how long will Lucy survive once Everard takes her back to his ominous estate and the site of Vera's death?

What makes Vera different from other Gothic romances--such as, for example, Rebecca--is that Everard really is as awful as he seems. Worse, actually. The man has no redeeming qualities WHATSOEVER. He's a narcissistic, selfish bastard and an emotional vampire. Lucy's constant excuses for his controlling behavior and acceptance of his insults are MIND BOGGLING.

I know right now you're thinking Vera is probably depressing, but weirdly it's not. It is actually funny, if only because Arnim is so clever and takes such delight in making us hate Everard (fun fact: he is supposedly based on her second husband). You also can't help but laugh at Everard because he is so ridiculously awful.

I'm not sure I would recommend Vera to fans of Rebecca, because the purpose of the two books is completely different, despite the similarities in plot. I would definitely recommend it to people who enjoyed The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, found Twilight infuriating, or if the heroes of Gothic romances annoy you with their douchey-ness. It is a really good book.

Download Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim at GirleBooks|Librivox|Project Gutenberg

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Review: THE SYMPOSIUM by Plato

Original Publication Date: 380 b.C.

Genre: philosophy

Topics: love, wisdom

Review by : Patty @ A Tale of Three Cities

The Symposium by Plato is an philosophical essay on the many aspects of love and an insight into the notion of platonic love. The title means something like "a get-together with drinks" which is what DOES NOT happen when several of the main characters meet to eat and be merry (they actually talk of the vice of drinking...oh Dionysus!), and where Socrates will eventually speak of his version of love.

We listen to the description of this feast organised in honour of Agathon through Socrates' companion there, Aristodemus, who recounts the story to Apollodorus, who recounts the story to us.  Complicated, true, but once one gets over these levels of interaction, the story becomes simple enough for us to enjoy...

After a delectable dinner, Phaedrus, one of the participants in this feast, complains that while everyone has at some point made or heard of odes to the various gods, nothing has ever been said about the god of love.  He suggests, therefore, that everyone makes the effort and praise this forgotten god.

There are plenty of speeches that follow, all different, which show how multi-faceted love can be:  from the oldest feeling in the world, to a clear distinction between desire and "heavenly" love.  This love, between an elder man and a boy (women at the point in time were considered just a little bit higher than animals - but that's another story), was in effect an business transaction, where sexual gratification was exchanged for knowledge and wisdom.

Aristophanes, one of the more-known comedy poets of the times takes the floor and comes up with an ode that truly spoke to me:  he suggests that in the beginning of time there were twice the population on Earth - but Zeus got jealous (as always...) and cut everyone in half.  Ever since that incident, people have been searching "for their other half", so that they become whole again...  Not a bad interpretation dating from the 4th century b.C. I would even say I prefer this to any modern outlook on love!

When we come to Socrates, we hear that he's more interested in Love itself, not just the object of love.  He won't be consumed with the practical interpretations that consume everyone else - he's interested in the highest of emotions and wants to find out more about this. To this end, he reveals that a wise woman, Diotima, has cleared matters for him.  Major shock -- a woman who is wise and who consults Socrates! And he's not afraid to admit it!  At this point, I'm simply astonished and amazed a) that Socrates was such a revolutionary and that b) Plato would not try to hide such "heretic" teachings.  Indeed, says Socrates, love is a spirit that flows among us and leads to and derives from reproduction - be this human reproduction or reproduction of ideas, this notion of Beauty should be the central element in our lives .

The entertainment bit in this work comes in the form of Alciviades, totally drunk, who collapses in the middle of the feast, whining of never having managed to seduce Socrates - pity, given he has all the charismatic qualities everyone around him seeks.  But no, Socrates is not interested in physical love -- and here is our introduction to Platonic love, a result (or not) of Socrates' teachings - he's more interested in the ethereal, in the pure form of love, not to be messed up with the "romancing" of everyday life - the highest level of pursuit is the pursuit of wisdom...

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