Sunday, December 30, 2012

Guest Review: UNDER THE GREENWOOD TREE by Thomas Hardy

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Original Publication Date: 1872

Genre: social novel

Topics: pastoral life, love, society

Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk (

Dick wondered how it was that when people were married they could be so blind to romance; and was quite certain that if he ever took to wife that dear impossible Fancy, he and she would never be so dreadfully practical and undemonstrative of the Passion as his father and mother were. The most extraordinary thing was that all the fathers and mothers he knew were just as undemonstrative as his own.
This is a book of gentle humor and loving description of country life in an English small village – quite idyllic and a big comparison with his later much bleaker published works. This reminded me of E. F.  Benson, Miss Read, and Angela Thirkell, except written from a Victorian mindset and using the vocabulary of the day.

It also covers a few more serious issues - gender roles, the changing times of agriculture – but it has plenty of levity and wit in its gorgeous descriptions of countryside and the people who inhabit the village. The female protagonist is a headstrong and educated village school teacher who, of course, is who a lot of the village men (and women) talk about. She’s not a shrinking violet, by any means, and the end of the book could be seen as moralistic or shocking, depending on your viewpoint.

…wives be such a provoking class o’ society, because though they be never right, they be never more than half wrong.

The book starts off with a section introducing the reader to the members of the Mellstock Quire (or Choir) and I would have been perfectly happy if the whole book had revolved around these fairly funny guys. It was still a good read when Hardy takes the narrative off into other worlds, but honestly, it would have worked just fine to stick with these early characters.  (They reminded me of the old BBC comedy, “Last of the Summer Wine”…)

Divided into sections to represent the changing seasons (plus a conclusion), this was a fast read with quite a few snappy one-liners in it (not what you’d expect from an author with such a gloomy reputation) and there is plenty of satire and irony scattered throughout the story.  However, despite this humor, there are loads of pastoral paradise descriptions as well – it was a beautiful reading experience and just sucked me in. I could really see some of what he was describing in my head.

…hanging of bacon, which were cloaked with long shreds of soot, floating on the draught like the tattered banners on the walls of ancient aisles…

So – there’s the twisting winding love story, the interloping of an unwanted new organist which upsets the balance of things, and a new vicar who wants to “modernize” things. There’s a funny group of old grumpy men and a country wedding, and lovely descriptions in between. I don’t think this is a particularly deep and meaningful book, but as a good read, it checks all the markers for me. I am now rather curious to read his later work to see the contrast between this rather happy story and his other more tragic takes on life.

There’s also a 2006 TV production of Under the Greenwood Tree which I’d like to track down at some point.

  • Written in 1872 when Hardy was 32 – grew up in a small village in Dorset with a stonemason father and a reading mother. Mostly taught himself from the books he found in Dorchester, the nearby town, and was an apprentice to an architect when he turned 16. Specialised in restoring old houses and churches and after living in London for a few years, returned to Dorchester to be a professional restorer of church there.
  • First novel he wrote was rejected and then he burned the manuscript, but then Under Greenwood got published (under an anon name at first). Also serialized (similar to Dickens et al.)
  • Work reflects his idea of rural life in his fictional county of Wessex, although got bleaker as time progressed
  • Also quite forward thinking with regard to role of Victorian women and the novels Tess of D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure were eviscerated in the press enough to stop Hardy writing novels and concentrate on poetry
  • Died in 1928, and it seems (according to legend) that his heart was to be buried in Stinsford, his birthplace. All went according to plan until a cat belonging to the Hardy’s sister snatched the heart from the kitchen (where it was being temporarily kept) and disappeared into the woods with it. Yikes.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review: DEATH AT THE EXCELSIOR by PG Wodehouse

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Original Publication Date: 1914

Genre: mystery

Topics: locked room, murder

Review by heidenkind:

When a sea captain dies mysteriously at a boarding house, The Excelsior, the owner asks private detective Paul Snyder to investigate. The sea captain died from the bite of a cobra, in a locked room with no snake in the room! Was he actually killed by a snake, or was it murrrrrrrrrrrrrderrrrrrrrrr?

Death at the Excelsior is the first, and only, PI mystery PG Wodehouse wrote. While it's not as amusing and laugh-out-loud funny as the Jeeves stories, I did enjoy it. I liked the set-up of the older detective sending one of his younger employees, Elliot Oakes, to solve the case in the hopes that the cocky detective would learn a lesson by not being able to solve the mystery. I also thought the mystery itself was kind of interesting, even though this isn't the type of story you read for the mystery. I'm a sucker for locked room mysteries, and the snake bite element was just ridiculous enough that there was an element of comedy.

I also love Mrs. Pickett, the boarding house owner who shows up both Snyder and Oakes. Old ladies FTW!

This probably isn't Wodehouse's best work, but it is a decent short story that you shouldn't hesitate to check out if you're interested.

Download Death at the Excelsior by PG Wodehouse at Librivox|Project Gutenberg

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Guest Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens

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Original Publication Date: 1843

Genre: holiday

Topics: kindness, love, redemption

Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk:

First published on Dec. 17 1843 which was the early Victorian era. Prince Albert (who had quite recently married Queen Victoria in 1841) bought custom of Christmas trees to UK, and it was fashionable to have one, and so story is a mix of several traditions out and new reflected in this novella.

The First Christmas card is believed to have been sent in 1843, carol singing also became more popular and this novella is divided into “staves” as opposed to chapters (“staves” being also a verse or stanza or a poem or song thus the link with Christmas music). This volume was instrumental in bringing the secular celebratory aspects of Christmas to the fore for Victorians: the plentiful rich food, family gatherings, and the other festive bits of the season.

The novella came out of Dickens’ concern for the working poor children linked with his own experience of having to leave school at age of 12 and working in a blacking (boot polish) factory where he obviously didn’t fit in, class-wise, and where the other workers called him the “young gentleman”. He was strongly concerned with child poverty for the remainder of his life.

Several sources argue that the dichotomy of Scrooge could be linked to be the polarized feelings that Dickens felt for his father – he both loved him and hated him. (Bit of a psychological stretch for me, but you know lit crit.) The cycle of Scrooge developing from mean and hateful to a sweet and loving man could also reflect the changing of the seasons throughout the year, and how nature grows and changes. (Again, this might be a bit of ridiculous stretch in some ways.) And then I suppose one could argue that the redemptive aspect of the story could reflect the over-arching theme of the Nativity story in Christianity.

Christmas Carol took six weeks to write and due to the poor sales of Dickens’ previous book, he decided to take a percentage of profits from the publisher instead of one lump sum hoping to earn more money. However, this was a risk that did not pan out for him financially, although it ended up being a best seller and a critical success in both the UK and the US. (This was actually in wide circulation by the end of the American Civil War. It’s been argued that the sense of regeneration for Scrooge reflected the hope for regeneration for the US after the battles it had just been fighting.)

Although it wasn’t a tremendous money-making success, the book did sell loads of copies, so it was a popular story. Thought to have an influence on both Capra’s movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – but haven’t there always been stories of regeneration and redemption? Point to ponder, methinks.

Its narrative plot was also used as a template for the later Dickens’ Christmas books (which I haven’t read). I did see a strong push by a US manufacturer to convince unsuspecting US shoppers that having a cricket on the heart was a long-standing English holiday tradition. (Not that I know of. At least it wasn’t in our house, and I had not heard of it until a few years ago in the stores.)

By 1849, Dickens was busy with other projects and decided that the best way to maintain public interest in the story (and its message) was through public readings, and according to Wiki, he completed more than 120 readings before his death. Portions of this book were part of his funeral address apparently.

Of course, there are the numerous stage and media productions of this, the most painful of which to experience would surely have to be the BBC production of the story in mime.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review: THE YELLOW WALLPAPER by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Original Publication Date: 1892

Genre: short story

Topics: feminism, madness

Review by heidenkind:


A young wife is sentenced to forced inactivity by her husband and doctor because she has a predilection for hysterics. Left alone in a room with incredibly ugly wallpaper, she gradually goes mad.

For the longest time I was under the impression The Yellow Wallpaper was a novel--so much has been written about it, much more than the actual story itself, which is actually pretty short. But The Yellow Wallpaper definitely packs a punch. I don't know about y'all, but if I was trapped in a room all day, I'd definitely go crazy, with or without ugly wallpaper. Although the wallpaper certainly wouldn't help.

yellow wallpaper comic

The wallpaper, of course, is a metaphor. Personally I think it represents the outside world. At first the narrator wants to change the wallpaper, but her hubby is like, "If we change the wallpaper in here, then we'll have to change in it the kitchen, and the living room, and the dining room [strange that he assumes she'll want to redecorate rooms she's not allowed to go into]; besides, we're just renting this house! Can't you deal with the wallpaper for a little while longer?" No one give this guy a copy of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, he'd go crazy with it. Since his wife can't exercise any control over her own small sphere and change the wallpaper that she hates, she retreats into her own mind.

I also found the role of Jennie really interesting in this story. Apparently she's the housekeeper or some sort of servant, but she's allowed much more leeway than the narrator is. Was Charlotte Perkins Gilman making some sort of statement about class and the oppression of women? If she was saying lower class women enjoyed more freedom than upper-class women, I'd have to say that's patently ridiculous. However, Gilman might simply be making a statement about the importance of women contributing to society through work.

This was a very well-written story that fostered a feeling of paranoia and reminded me a lot of The Bell Jar, which I read in high school. It has a Gothic feeling to it, what with the untrustworthy servants and suspicious husband, and ominous house. I kind of wish we'd read this in high school instead of The Bell Jar.

Download The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman at Librivox|Project Gutenberg

Monday, December 10, 2012

Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST by Marie Leprince de Beaumont

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Original Publication Date: 1756

Genre: fairy tale

Topics: beauty, morality

Review by heidenkind

Beauty is selfless and sweet, but when her dad steals from a beast in a castle, she happily leaves her two annoying sisters to go live with the beast in her father's place.

Marie Leprince de Beaumont was a French governess living in England, who later became a popular children's author. Her version of Beauty and the Beast is often credited as the original, but in fact it's simply an abridged, edited version of the original story by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. One gets the sense from reading Beaumont's version that she was into moralistic tales.

First of all, Belle is the perfect daughter--from the perspective of a parent. She never starts fights with her sisters or complains, and she sacrifices herself for the good of her family. RME Then there's the Beast, whose main claim to monstrosity seems to be social awkwardness. "...every evening Beast paid her a visit, and talked to her during supper, very rationally, with plain good common sense, but never with what the world calls wit." Beauty, by the definition of this story, consists not just of physical attractiveness but charm and cleverness and social gracies, none of which the Beast has to tempt Belle. Eventually she gives him the dreaded You're a Good Friend speech.

All of this would be fine if I didn't feel as if, in the end, Beaumont's Beauty and the Beast ends up supporting the idea that beauty is important. Sure, Beauty eventually falls in love with the Beast--AFTER he transforms into a charming prince. Before that he was good enough to be her "friend" (read: lapdog), but not good enough to marry. It's like those make-over movies I hate where the guy doesn't notice the girl is attractive until after she puts on make-up. Maybe if we'd gotten a peek into Belle's thoughts and knew her motivations for refusing the Beast, it wouldn't be so bad; but as it is, the takeaway message seems to be: yeah, you'd better be good-looking and fashionable and charming, or you're just not worthy of love.

This was a quick read, but definitely not my favorite version of Beauty and the Beast. I am curious to read Villeneuve's version now, though.

Download Beauty and the Beast by Marie Leprince de Beaumont at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Guest Review: THE ART OF TRAVEL by Francis Galton

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Original Publication Date: 1854

Genre: non-fiction

Topics: travel, how-to, adventure

Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk:

Subtitle: Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries

A how-to manual of how to explore countries back in the Victorian days.  Incredibly detailed and was THE go-to book for beginning explorers at the time.

Who should explore?

Qualifications for a Traveller [sic].--If you have health, a great craving for adventure, at least a moderate fortune, and can set your heart on a definite object, which old travellers [sic] do not think impracticable, then--travel by all means. If, in addition to these qualifications, you have scientific taste and knowledge, I believe that no career, in time of peace, can offer to you more advantages than that of a traveller [sic]. If you have not independent means, you may still turn travelling to excellent account; for experience shows it often leads to promotion, nay, some men support themselves by travel. They explore pasture land in Australia, they hunt for ivory in Africa, they collect specimens of natural history for sale, or they wander as artists.
In addition, the explorer does not necessarily need to be powerful – “it is rather those who take the most interest in their work that succeed the best…”.  Additionally, he needs to have Good Temper (as “tedious journeys are apt to make companions irritable”) and as for the problem of Reluctant Servants: “leaders should make great allowance for the reluctant co-operation of servants; they have infinitely less interest in the success of the expedition than their leaders…”

“Neither sleepy nor deaf men are fit to travel quite alone.”  (You need to have good hearing and be alert.)

If natives want to bring their wives, it’s fine as well:  “a woman will endure a long journey nearly as well as a man, and certainly better than a horse or bullock”… “It is in the nature of women to be fond of carrying weights; you may see them in omnibuses and carriages, always preferring to hold their baskets or their babies on their knees, to setting them down on the seats by their sides.”

Equipment suggestions range from large (rafts and pontoons for 1-2 men) to small (sealing wax and pens for writing letters). (Triple H pencils are the best tool though – less smudging when damp.) Don’t forget to take a small table or two and a stool, and do remember your protractor and your iron. (Unwrinkled clothes are important in the bush.)  A hare’s foot comes in handy for cleaning lenses and you can easily make your writing ink if need be from burnt sticks and a bit of milk. (Milk is always handy when you’re exploring, I think. :)

Pay for help from the locals in beads, but don’t forget that “there is infinite fastidiousness shown by savages in selecting beads…” The following colors are the most popular ones: dull white, dark blue, and vermilion red, all of a small size.

Food stores need to include an ass, a small mule, a horse, an ox and a camel but note that it is “very inconvenient” to take more than six pack animals that whenever one gets loose, the progress of the overall exhibition is seriously slowed.  This volume also contained copious information of the “theory of tea-making” including using a make-shift teapot (of course, since it’s English).

Huge detail down to how to label your medicine tins – always label the bottom of the tins as the lids can get mixed up.  A handy emetic is a “charge of gunpowder in a tumblerful  of warm water of soapsuds…” Satisfy your thirst by drinking water with a teaspoon – just as effective as drinking glassfuls and will “disorder the digestion very considerably less”…  Mercury (mixed with chewed up old tea leaves and added with spit) can make a good lice repellent when worn in a bag of material as a necklace, but only lasts about one month until it needs to be renewed.  Blisters in new boots can be prevented by putting raw egg into the boot to soften the leather. Oh, and cats can’t stand high altitude and it can be fatal for them (according to one Dr. Tschudi).

Oh, and if someone ends up being half-drowned, don’t hang them upside-down by their feet for the water to come out of their mouths. That’s ineffective.

An artery cut might be able to be stopped if you pour boiling grease into it (ouch), but this is a “barbarous treatment, and its success is uncertain…”

With regard to transporting fragile research instruments, Galton recommends entrusting them to “some respectable old savage, whose infirmities compel him to walk steadily. He will be delighted at the prospect of picking up a living by such easy service…”
Everything is included: how to measure how far your expedition has traveled (whether by wagon or a cantering horse), the lunar measurements of the night sky, the best way to climb trees or go down a cliff (but remember – “it is nervous work going over the edge of a cliff for the first time”), what size and shape to make an axe blade…”

It seems that almost everything (if not everything) has been covered in this book.  Make your own snow glasses using a piece of soft wood with a slit cut into it (a la Esquimaux [sic]).  Holding a horse’s tail as they walk ahead of you can help you up steep hillsides.  Bite a cow’s tail to make him/her stand up from lying position. 

An explorer traveling and making notes noted this about asses:

The instincts of the mulish heart form an interesting study to the traveller [sic] in the mountains. I would (were the comparison not too ungallant) liken it to a woman's; for it is quite as uncertain in its sympathies, bestowing its affections when least expected, and, when bestowed, quite as constant, so long as the object is not taken away.
And don’t, for God’s sake, wear linen. (It is “by universal consent a dangerous dress wherever there is a chance of much perspiration, for it strikes cold upon the skin when wet. The terror of Swiss guides…and of Italians…is largely due to their wearing linen shirts.” If you need a pith helmet, you can buy them in London under the Opera Colonnade in Pall Mall, and a dressing gown never goes unused. (“It is a relief to put it on in the evening…”)

If you’re stuck out in the cold without shelter, it’s recommended that you creep within the warm and reeking carcass of a recently-dead horse (a la Bear Grylls, although this particular case is referenced to Napoleon’s troops).  Speaking of animals, Galton also tells you how to avoid on-rushing animals attacking you (except a buffalo who “regularly hunts man, and is therefore peculiarly dangerous”...) Instructions are also included for crocodile-shooting. (You never know…)

And if you’re traveling to a “rich but imperfectly civilized country”, one option for making certain that you always have a small capital to fall back on to bury jewels in your flesh (the left arm is recommended at the spot chosen for vaccinations). You make a gash, put the jewel(s) in and allow the flesh to grow over them as it would a bullet. (You could also put the jewels into a small silver tube which might be less irritable to your body as it heals.)  Good idea if you’re concerned about robbery.

So – I bet you get the idea. This is THE manual for exploring for Victorian explorers. With so many topics and such detail, I don’t think it was a small book but I bet if you weren’t the poor person carrying it, that would be ok.  A fascinating read.

Don’t forget your pith helmet when you leave the house today.

Download The Art of Travel by Francis Galton from Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: EIGHT COUSINS by Louisa May Alcott

Original Publication Date: 1875

Genre: Young Adults

Topics: Growing up, Morals, Child-reading, Happiness, Health


Eight Cousins” is about Rose Campbell, a 13-year-old who shortly after becoming an orphan is put under the guardianship of  her Uncle Alec. He’s a doctor and temporarily away at sea, so until he returns Rose goes to live in “Aunt Hill”, the home of many aunts, great-aunts and seven male cousins. When we first meet her, Rose is treated by the Aunts as the frail and delicate creature every young woman of the should be, but when Uncle Alec comes back, he begins a long process towards a happier and healthier Rose, using very unorthodox methods (he was ready to burn her corset!).

I was already 30 pages in when I realized I’d already read “Eight Cousins”, many, many moons ago. I vividly remember two scenes in particular, but in my mind they became part of ”A Little Princess” (I confused my orphans…): the scene where Uncle Alec creates placebo pills from brown bread, and when he put together Rose’s room, full of exotic objects from his travels. Why these two in particular in a book full of other events? No idea.

The story is pure Alcott in it’s gentleness and focus on strong messages for young people, but it felt rather more outdated than “Little Women” and its sequels. In those more famous works, she seem to be writing for both adults and children, but this one comes across as more infantile. The moralizing and sentimentality in “Eight Cousins” (full of “little dears” that go to “little beds”, with ”little cups of broth”) become too much Tell and not enough Show. Here’s when the kinder of the Aunts tries to dissuade her sons from reading “popular stories”:
”A boot-black mustn’t use good grammar, and a newsboy must swear a little, or he wouldn't be natural,” explained Geordie, both boys ready to fight gallantly for their favourites. 
“But my sons are neither boot-blacks nor newsboys, and I object to hearing them use such words as ‘screamer,’ ‘bully,’ and ‘buster.’ In fact, I fail to see the advantage of writing books about such people unless it is done in a very different way. I cannot think they will help to refine the ragamuffins if they read them, and I’m sure they can do no good to the better class of boys, who through these books are introduced to police courts, counterfeiters’ dens, gambling houses, drinking saloons, and all sorts of low life.”
Still, Uncle Alec’s theories about what a young girl should eat, dress and be taught were radical for the time, and still refreshing now. He forbade corsets and tight belts, he recommended lots of fresh air and exercise, and defended that every girl should be educated on how to handle her financial affairs and (gasp) how her body works.
“Do you think that is a good sort of thing for her to be poking over? She is a nervous child, and I’m afraid it will be bad for her,” said Aunt Myra, watching Rose as she counted vertebrae, and waggled a hip-joint in its socket with an inquiring expression.
“An excellent study, for she enjoys it, and I mean to teach her how to manage her nerves so that they won’t be a curse to her, as many a woman’s become through ignorance or want of thought. To make a mystery or terror of these things is a mistake, and I mean Rose shall understand and respect her body so well that she won’t dare to trifle with it as most women do.”
 I've added “Rose in Bloom”, the sequel to “Eight Cousins”, to the wishlist. They are both available on Project Gutenberg.

Sunday, December 2, 2012


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Original Publication Date: 1900

Genre: Children's fantasy

Topics: journey, psychology, magic

Review by heidenkind:

Dorothy is a little girl who lives in the gray and depressing land of Kansas. But one day a tornado takes her to a magical land, where she makes friends with a scarecrow, a tin woodsman, and a cowardly lion. They all decide to accompany Dorothy to the Emerald City, where she wants to ask the Great and Powerful Oz to help her get home. Why she wants to go back to Kansas I don't know, but she does. Along the way they have many marvelous adventures.

Almost everyone is familiar with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz thanks to the movie, but I imagine not many people have read the book--which is a shame. Although the movie streamlines Dorothy's adventures so that the narrative is smoother--okay, it tells the story better; they actually did a REALLY good job adapting the book to the screen--there's a lot to recommend the book by L. Frank Baum. In fact, I think I enjoyed the book a lot more.

off to see the wizard

First of all, the characters. I LOVE the Tin Man. He's so sweet, I just want to hug him. The Scarecrow is always full of good ideas and the Cowardly Lion always does things even though he'd afraid. Baum actually presents a cogent study of human motivation with these characters--as one of my professors used to say, there's always a push and pull. Dorothy and her friends travel to the Emerald City because they're pushed from their homes by what they fear (for example, the Scarecrow is afraid of fire), and pulled toward the Emerald City because of what they want. Since they perceive certain things to be their weaknesses, they spend a lot of time trying to make up for them by overcompensating--the Tin Man (love him), who thinks he doesn't have a heart, always looks where he's walking, because if he steps on a bug he feels so bad he starts to cry.

Of course, they learn during the course of their journey that they are actually brave, smart, etc. In a lot of ways the voyage of Dorothy and her friends in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz reminded me of going to college. You do miss your home, but at the same time being away from your home allows you find things about yourself that you wouldn't otherwise. By going on the journey to get what they want, the characters in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz become what they want to be. Really kind of an inspirational story!

I would definitely recommend this book for people of all ages. It's short, sweet, fun, and smart. By the way, I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Anne Hathaway, and she did a great job, even though she was clearly drawing from the film.

Get The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Guest Review: THE ODD WOMEN by George Gissing

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Original Publication Date: 1893

Genre: fiction

Topics: marriage, society, women

Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk:

Another provocative read from Victorian writer George Gissing, this one focused on the role of women in society and the push-and-pull of the early feminist movement. The title comes from a phrase that one of the female characters says in the middle of the book:

My work and thought are for the women who do not marry – the “odd women” I call them. They alone interest me.

(Speaking is Rhoda Nunn who runs a typewriting/business school for middle class women who don’t want to/can’t get married and will need to work.)

As is the trend in Victorian novels, there is a dichotomy set up in the structure of the book: the group (mostly women) who believe that women should have more choices for their lives than just getting married, and then characters (such as Mr. Widdowson – a real pain) who believe that women should do what’s expected of them (i.e. what men expect them to do), and this age-old battle is a constant thread throughout the plot.

Here is an example of Widdowson’s (misogynistic) PoV:

Women’s sphere is in the home, Monica (name of wife). Unfortunately, girls are often obliged to go out and earn their living, but this is unnatural, a necessity which advanced civilization will altogether abolish.

Basically, the plot concerns three groups of people: two women who are business partners in the women-focused business school (neither married), a family of sisters, and a few men who stray into the obits of these folks. A lot of the action revolves around the machinations and stratagies for the women to get married (or not married) to the right people (or not). It gets quite complicated in places, rather like a Venn diagram in terms of worlds colliding and overlapping with each other, but it’s realistic in that in the confining world of Victorian times, your friends and family did interact with each other a lot, primarily because that was who you met back then (due to convention, transport limitations, individual freedom etc.)

As mentioned, the story revolves around relationships and cultural expectations for gender: who should get married to whom, when… Monica, the youngest of the group of sisters in the novel, ends up choosing to marry an older widow (Mr. Widdowson of the quotation above) who ends up being a jealous and controlling husband for her. (Not a real shocker there, as he more or less stalked her during his “courtship” of her and eventually browbeat her into submission and marriage. Not a good start to a lifelong relationship, I’m afraid.)

There’s a rakish cousin involved “with a past”, and there’s scandals of the Victorian type, such as babies out of wedlock, “women of the street”, and substance abuse. Again, this novel is close to being a sensation novel, but just stays on the serious side of things most of the time. It’s well written, certainly, and representative of its time. After all the complex action that occurs throughout the novel, the ending was a bit of a disappointment, but those Victorians could be a bit heavy-handed with their moralism every now and then.

Gissing was a promising student in the late 1800’s, and won a prestigious scholarship to a forerunner of University of Manchester. However, he focused on more than just his studies (as people do), and ended up falling in love with an unsuitable orphan prostitute called Nell. He gave her money to keep her off the streets, and when his funds ran out, Gissing stole from his fellow students which didn’t go over well.

Gissing was expelled, and sentenced to a month’s hard labor in Belle Vue Gaol in Manchester in 1876.

He left for a year to move to the States, but was not successful so decamped back to England after a year or so. (This experience was influential in his novel, New Grub Street.)

Nell was still around, and they married a few years later. There’s a discussion about how true Gissing’s literary tales of his poverty are, but even if he himself didn’t actually live them, they seem to be accurate so perhaps it was through observation of others.

Eventually, Nell died of alcohol-related disease, and Gissing went on to marry another “unsuitable” working class woman who ended up in an asylum. (Not sure what role Gissing played in her being ill. He sounds like he was a lazy work-avoiding layabout to me.) And when the second wife was indisposed, there was a third woman who came into Gissing’s life and took care of the kids. (Gissing, it seems, was too busy being “scholastic” to help much with his family life.)

One interesting overlap is Gissing was friends with J. M. Barrie (he of Peter Pan fame) among others, and as Barrie himself had somewhat of a weird life, perhaps it enabled Gissing to see his lack of involvement as normal.

Despite my misgivings about Gissing as a responsible human being, he was a prolific writer and ended up published twenty-plus novels and short stories over his time.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Review: CARMILLA by J. Sheridan le Fanu

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Original Publication Date: 1872

Genre: Gothic

Topics: vampires, homosexuality


Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Laura who lived in a beautiful castle in the middle of a vast and enchanted forest. Even though she had everything she could possibly want, she was very lonely, for her mother had died when she was a baby and she had only her father and governess to keep her company. Then one day there was a carriage accident in front of the castle, and a young woman named Carmilla came to stay with them, and Laura was happy--until Carmilla started sucking her blood.

Carmilla is the third Victorian vampire novel I've read in the space of a month, and wow... I really need a break. Not that Carmilla is bad, mind--I actually enjoyed it a lot more than either Dracula (review here) or Varney the Vampire (review here). For one thing, it was a lot shorter than either of those two novels. For another, it was also a lot creepier. But there's only so much sexual double-speak a girl can take. And I thought Dracula was bad! Take a gander at this paragraph from early in the story:
Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever".
Uh, yeah. How's it going, female Edward Cullen? Naturally, since Laura is a clueless innocent wergin, she's just like, "Welllllll, that was weird," and then moves on. One gets the sense that if she knew ANY OTHER females her own age, she'd be avoiding Carmilla. But the suggestion of lesbianism is pretty outre in Carmilla, way more so than in Dracula between Lucy and Mina. The excessive framing was also a little trying.

Aside from that, though, there's a fairy tale tone to Carmilla that makes it particularly creepy. Perhaps because it gives the impression of being targeted toward young girls, or maybe J. Sheridan le Fanu was simply better at setting a scene than Bram Stoker was; either way, Carmilla definitely conveys the sense of a romantic tale gone wrong.

Overall I think Carmilla is definitely worth checking out, especially if you've read Dracula. You can definitely see where Stoker "drew inspiration from" this book (Stoker was totally the EL James of his time). I kind of wish I'd read it before Dracula; but in any case it was pretty good, even though it lost me at the end with the vampire-detecting doctor.

Download Carmilla by J. Sheridan le Fanu from Librivox|Project Gutenberg

Monday, November 19, 2012

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things

Original Publication Date:  1904

Genre:  Mystery, Folk Tales 

Topics:  Ghosts, Spirits, Japanese Culture

Review:  I spent a lot of time scouring Librivox before settling on Kwaidan.  I was looking for books about non-Western countries that were written in English so that I could add some multi-cultural action to this blog!  I found two books that qualified in my first search, Kwaidan being one of them.  While it's not written by a Japanese author, Lafcadio Hearn did read a lot of Japanese texts and spend a good amount of time in Japan.  He also was a completely fascinating person in his own right.

Kwaidan is a collection of many short stories, fables, and folk tales from Japan.  One of the best parts of reading folk tales is seeing the similarities and differences that exist between cultures.  For example, many folk tales from around the world seem to address the cross-over from living to dead.  In this collection, the story of Hoichi the Earless is the one that most stood out - Hoichi is a blind monk who is a master musician and every evening, he is called to play for a lively lord.  But Hoichi soon learns that he has been led to the graveyard every night and that his life is in great danger unless he can outwit the ghosts that haunt him.

Another story I really enjoyed in this collection was "The Dream of Akinosuke," which reminded me a little bit of The Life of Pi, mainly because readers are brought back to reality near the end of a beautiful and lovely story and are left mystified as to what really happened.

I tend not to remember the details and intricacies of folk tales very well.  I always enjoy the act of reading them, but I don't remember much about them after the fact.  Even now, the stories shared in this collection are fading from my mind.  But they were a treat to read, and the narrators for the stories were good at telling their tales.

One thing that was a little odd about this book was that the last three chapters were not really folk tales - instead, they were about insects (butterflies, ants, and mosquitoes).  Hearn gives some context as to the superstitions around these insects and then goes off into somewhat random tangents on his thoughts about each of them.  I'm sure I would have appreciated this in a book on natural history or science or, well, insects, but in a collection of folk tales, it felt a little out of place.

Overall, though, I am quite happy with this selection - it was fun to read about things that go bump in the night in Japan and listen to stories that were quite foreign to me.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: DRACULA by Bram Stoker

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1897

Genre: horror

Topics: vampires, gothic, sex

October 17th, Ad:
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Starting October 18th, @heidenkind's Twitter stream:

October 20th, Blog post:
Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books: Weekend Cooking: Food in DRACULA: "I don't drink... wine." It's not that I pay particular attention to food mentions in books (honest), but in some novels...

October 21st, @heidenkind's Twitter stream, continued:

November 5th, Blog post:
Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books: Mina Harker and Dr. Seward: So In Love.: Warning: there is going to be a lot of capslocksia going on in this post. Sometimes, when I'm reading a book or watching a TV show, my b...

November 5th, @heidenkind's Twitter stream, continued:

November 5th, GoodReads review:
DraculaDracula by Bram Stoker

Unexpectedly light on the vampires, I have to say.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: The Third Miss Symons

Original Publication Date:  1913

Genre:  Moral Tales

Topics:  Single Women, The Importance of Good Cheer, Family, Societal Norms

Review:  This is one of those books that seems to have been written to serve as a Dire Warning against certain types of behavior.  F. M. Mayor writes about Henrietta Symons, an awkward girl who grows into a hard-edged young woman who in turn becomes a querulous middle-aged woman who becomes an isolated old woman.  Henrietta has had a bad temper her whole life, and this clearly has disastrous implications on her whole life.

If this had been the whole point of the story, it would have been depressing enough to read, but it probably wouldn't have made it into the line of Virago Modern Classics.  But Mayor used Henrietta to comment on many aspects of Victorian life, particularly about the lives of women.  Henrietta grew up in a very comfortable home where she never had to worry about money.  Thus, she went to school and had no real hobbies, studied without learning much of anything, and then... not much else.  She never married, but she was never in need of a job.  She had a lot of time, but she had no interests.  She could manage a household if she needed to, but no one needed her to do so.  She could visit friends, but she had none.  Henrietta's life devolved into one of isolation and emptiness, mostly because she wasn't good at anything and had no ambition to try to be better.

Early in the story, Mayor points out that most Victorian women in their late teens and early 20s  graduated from school and then spent a few years doing nothing but worrying about clothes and attending parties (I find it hard to believe that all Victorian women were that vapid, but let's ignore that for now).  And then they got married and settled into their lives as wives, mothers and homemakers and things progressed according to their natural order.  But that didn't happen for Henrietta, and so when the party invites stopped coming and it became clear she wasn't going to marry, there was nowhere for her to go.  There was no contingency plan.  There were just years of emptiness before her, and she had to find ways to fill them.

In some ways this book was refreshing because Henrietta didn't seem like she really wanted to be married for much of it, she just wasn't sure what other options were available to her.  And her family didn't tell her that she was useless or unnatural for not having a husband and children.  But all of that was implied, really - Henrietta was unmarried because she was unlikeable.  If she had been just a little bit nicer, she would have been married and life would have been much better for her.  Never mind the fact that her married sisters all had sorrows and troubles of their own - they were obviously much better off.

This was a tough read, obviously.  Lots of subtle commentary about the state of the world and a woman's role in society.  Luckily, the narrator for this one was excellent and the story is very short, so I didn't have any trouble finishing it.  Think I will steer clear of the heavy-handed Victorians for a little while, though!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Review: CRANFORD by Elizabeth Gaskell

Original Publication Date: 1851

Genre: Literary fiction

Topics: English village life, domesticity, gossip, friendship, community


Without melodrama, without even an actual plot, Cranford develops at the gentle pace you’d expect from an early-Victorian small town. Elizabeth Gaskell is the Queen of Domestic Life and from page 1 the reader is immediately involved in the small pains and pleasures of a group of middle-aged genteel women. With just a few anecdotes, she is able to build distinct individuals and I was often left with the vague impression I actually knew someone who, as Miss Matty and her candles, is obsessed about saving something or other, or who would defend his/hers favorite author as devotedly as Miss Jenkins’ did her Dr. Jenkyns (the dialogue in that scene is priceless).

I also found the narrator delightful. She’s the outsider looking in and has just the right amount of clever irony, like asking the readers if they would find some of Cranford’s eccentricities in London. My favorite:

The greatest event was, that Miss Jenkyns had purchased a new carpet for the drawing-room.  Oh, the busy work Miss Matty and I had in chasing the sunbeams, as they fell in an afternoon right down on this carpet through the blindless window!  (…) We were very busy, too, one whole morning, before Miss Jenkyns gave her party, in following her directions, and in cutting out and stitching together pieces of newspaper so as to form little paths to every chair set for the expected visitors, lest their shoes might dirty or defile the purity of the carpet.  Do you make paper paths for every guest to walk upon in London?

What a great image, I’m sorry they didn't use that in the series!

Cranford is my fourth Gaskell after North & South, Wives & Daughters and The Life of Charlotte Brontë. In comparison it’s much lighter and I can easily imagine Gaskell having fun writing it. She avoided the major social convulsions and deep moral dilemmas of the others, but her recurrent theme of tradition vs. progress is still very much present in Cranford. Change in this village does not come through the arrival of rail line or a factory, but is more subtle. Almost every chapter is about how these women gently adapt to the developments around them, especially after the death of Miss Jenkins, the village’s bastion of tradition. Sucking oranges in company, burning old letters (why didn't the narrator offer to take care of them?!) had the scale of revolutions in the quite life of Miss Matty.

Don’t you sometimes wish that a separate story would be written about another book’s secondary characters? I get that a lot – the one that comes to mind immediately is Faramir from Lord of the Rings (one of my biggest literary crushes!). I got that same feeling about “Mr. Thomas Holbrook, yeoman”, my favorite character in the first half of the book. I would have liked to know more about his daily life, what he reads, his relationship with tenants and servants, but most of all, I’d have liked to see Paris through his eyes. I was very sorry to see him go so soon.

I had fun during my stay at Cranford. Not only was it a gentle book, full of characters you’d like to know in real life, but it also confirmed my belief that no one tops BBC when if comes to adapting classics. I still have the “Return to Cranford” DVD waiting for me on the shelf. I've been saving it for a rainy day.

Cranford and Mrs. Gaskell's other books are available at Project Gunteberg.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Curiosities: CAMILLE

Camille is a tragic love story about a courtesan living in Paris who falls in love with Armand Duval, an ambitious young man. This movie is based on La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas (which was first written in the 1850s), but is set in 1920s Paris and stars Rudolph Valentino as Armand. The sets and costumes are AWESOME. Definitely a must-watch if you're interested in Art Deco.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


book cover
Original Publication Date: 1920

Genre: Mystery

Topics: detective, marriage,


Lt. Hastings is mooching on his friend John Cavendish by staying in his mother-in-law's house, Styles, for a reeeeally long time. Naturally something horrible happens. John's mother-in-law is poisoned! But who did it? Her new husband, whom everyone hates? One of her stepsons? Or one of her desperate dependents? Fortunately, Hastings' friend, Monsieur Hercule Poirot, just happens to be staying in the nearby village and just happens to be the world's greatest detective. So that was poor planning on the killer's part.

I had no idea that Agatha Christie's first novel also introduced Hercule Poirot to the world until I read Memory's review of The Mysterious Affair at Styles at Stella Matutina. I happen to love the TV show with David Suchet, and it's impossible not to picture him as Poirot while reading. But the book version of Poirot is even more awesome than the screen version! He's more bouncy and quirky and snarky.

what are you doing?

As for Hastings, he's worse on the page than he is on screen. He's petty, jealous, myopic, and he has the hots for his bestie's wife. That's just rude. Of course The Mysterious Affair at Styles is told from his perspective, so the reader never knows what's going on.

The only other Christie book I've read (so far) is Murder on the Orient Express; The Mysterious Affair at Styles is not as good as that book. There were some boring parts that seriously put me to sleep. But there were also really good parts, and the mystery was delightfully twisty. Poirot gathers everyone together in the drawing room at the end to reveal the killer, and I LOVE THAT.

Overall I think The Mysterious Affair at Styles evens out to an okay novel, especially if you like intellectual puzzle type-mysteries. Worth checking out for a mystery fan.

Download The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie from Project Gutenberg

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Guest Review: DEATH IN VENICE by Thomas Mann

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1912

Genre: novella

Topics: philosophy, obsession, logic versus passion

Review by Patty S.

I regard Thomas Mann as one of the more esteemed German writers of his era. He has provided enough material to mark his place in German literature, and his works are almost always taught at university. It was hight time, therefore, to read one of his better-known novelas, Death in Venice (I read it in the original, available through Project Gutenberg).

I knew of the plot of the book so I was ready to dive into a whirl of emotions. No - this is not how Mann writes. We follow the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a middle-aged man who is at the height of recognition as an artist and basically on the verge of going downhill. He tries to find inspiration anywhere, and this has to be Venice. From the beginning, I could not sympathise with him. Because the story is told by an unknown third person, I find there is too much distance between myself and the main character. While I can read about his struggle, it felt like reading a report on some unknown soldier in a far-away land. How much more impressive it would have been had I been reading Gustav's own thoughts and fears and expectations! That was a point I was really astonished with and it triggered a bit of research into Mann's point of view: It turns out that the story of this book is based on Mann's own experience. This put everything into a new perspective: did Mann deliberately want to "tone down" the connection between Gustav and himself? Was he afraid that if he had the protagonist talk for himself, he might have revealed more than he was comfortable with? And why should he be uncomfortable?

This is the second point: I see the despair of an man who has gained recognition by nurture when he sees a naturally beautiful boy. To me, this goes beyond an older man trying to find the youth elixir in the young boy - it's more of the feeling of insecurity that keeps us from feeling safe. We will always run the risk of being "exposed" because we don't feel at ease in our skin. We've accomplished great things with the respective effort, but we feel that it's all fake. It is when we witness someone who embodies all the qualities we would have liked to see in ourselves, that we lose our grasp of reality. Gustav has all the qualities that other people admire, yet he's not happy. He's searching for inspiration, he can find none, and resorts to moving to and from places, just to escape this feeling of convention.

This is the third point: while I said I would have preferred Gustav to talk for himself, I appreciate the insinuations the reader provides as to social convention. The story unfolds at a time where society imposed a number of guidelines as to how one should live. We can a glimpse from the Polish family, where the girls are made to look like nuns, while the boy is free to do as he pleases. While growing up, of course, he will also succumb to the pressure of society and will probably end up like Gustav. Gustav, who has "profited" from society, but who now realises that he has made a pact that can no longer be sustained. He sees how pointless all this masquerade is, and he escapes - only in spirit - by obsessing about the young boy.

How I wish that escapes of this kind were the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of those who need it. But there, even Mann knows the outcome: harsh and definite, he shows that there is no escape - once we get into acting our lives, we will keep on acting until the end. A challenging book, great in interpretation, but it left me wondering how Gustav really felt - how Mann really felt ...

Find Death In Venice by Thomas Mann at Project Gutenberg (German)|Internet Archive (English)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Review: VARNEY THE VAMPIRE by Thomas Preskett Prest

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1845-47

Genre: Victorian sensation

Topics: vampires, fainting



I DARE you guys to read this book.

The Bannerworths are a wealthy English family. Then the daughter, Flora, is attacked by a creature she swears is a vampire. Quelle horreur! Meanwhile, a wealthy and mysterious stranger has moved into the neighborhood by the name of Sir Francis Varney. Could these two events be connected?

Varney the Vampire by Thomas Preskett Prest (sometimes attributed to James Malcolm Rymer, I don't know why) is basically your typical Victorian sensation novel, except with vampires. It reminded me of Lady Audley's Secret (review here), but it's worse. Soooooo much worse. There are conversations that run pointlessly in circles, endless scenes where nothing happens, action scenes with no purpose, and a lot of repetition and histrionics. It's absolutely terrible and SO DANG FUNNY. I think the nonsensical conversations between the Bannerworth brothers, which basically boil down to, "You don't know what you're talking about so shut it!" were my favorite. But the constantly repetitious dialog was also highly entertaining, as were statements like, "Even if I did see a vampire, and he bit me in the neck, I'd still tell him to his face he didn't exist!" Oooh la la, that guy is asking for it.

first page illustration of Varney the vampire
Um, do you think there might be some sexual connotations here?

Something you should know: this is a long-ass book. Just to give you an idea, the audio for Bram Stoker's Dracula is about 16 hours. Varney the Vampire is about 60 hours. Les Misérables is 63 hours. So basically this book is almost as long as Les Mis. But on the plus side, you can probably skim through more than half of it and be fine. Also, it's great to listen to on audiobook, because if your mind wanders, you don't have to worry about being too lost!

The problem is that even though this is a long-ass book, there are a lot of things that never pan out in it. For example, at the beginning of Varney, the characters think he's one of their long-dead ancestors, Marmaduke. But then it turns out he's Sir Francis Varney, and that storyline just kind of drops with no explanation. The author sets us up for scenes or events (see "If I did see a vampire," above), and these never come to anything, either. It's really kind of a mess.

As for the characters, they're all pretty stupid except for Varney. The poor guy! If he had any sense of self-preservation he'd stay away from the Bannerworths; but it's pretty obvious that he doesn't. Ye Olde Tortured Vampire.

Varney the Vampire is almost exactly like Dracula. Or perhaps I should say Dracula is almost exactly like Varney, since Varney predates Dracula by almost fifty years. I'm not saying Varney is the better book, buuuuuuuuuuuut Dracula's kind of a rip-off. As is Dark Shadows. Basically if you enjoy vampire fiction at all, you owe it to yourself to read this book, because it establishes all the tropes of the genre and it is HILARIOUS.

You might also be interested in:

Download Varney the Vampire by Thomas Preskett Prest at Librivox|Project Gutenberg