Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Guest Review: MY MAN JEEVES by PG Wodehouse

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1919

Genre: mystery, humor

Topics: class, coming of age

Review by Patty from A Tale of Three Cities:

I hadn't realised that one of my favourite great TV series I've watched over and over again, Jeeves and Wooster, was actually based on the books by PG WodehouseMy Man Jeeves would be my first in this collection to devour and feel good about it.

This is a collection of  short stories that starts with the known couple of Wooster and his butler extraordinaire Jeeves.  Primarily describing their adventures in the US, the stories capture the caricatures of the ever so slightly neurotic Wooster on the one hand and of the charismatic and suave Jeeves, trying desperately to get and keep his master out of trouble.

There is an expected template of story--once you get to understand the steps to it, all other stories are in the same format.  Not that repetition takes away anything from the pure enjoyment, far from it!  Wodehouse gets us back to the early 20th century at the upper-class establishments, where the young (nobility, but of a lesser importance) adults take advantage of their station and get into all types of mischief - getting into girl trouble, depending on the relative's financial contribution, trying to make it into the world as a professional -  there is always something for every taste.

The stories are written in a style as if the narrator (in most of the stories Wooster) is a pal of ours and he's talking to us about his misfortunes--the language is very simple and slightly slang, with a quick tempo so as to ensure an easy and comfortable reading--ideal for when tired, but more so when under the weather. Together with a nice hot cup of tea (and some cookies), these stories are bound to cheer me up any time!

I particularly enjoyed those situations where Wooster tries to by-pass Jeeves' recommendations.  This will cause a strain in the relationship and lead to farcical circumstances -- but in the end, and in appreciation of Jeeves' solving yet another direful case, Wooster will succumb to Jeeves' original recommendation.

The character of Wooster is developed to resemble a teenager, having a go at criticising everyone and everything, but always in a good-natured manner.  He's still naive, tries to do the "honourable" thing and help his friends in need.  To that he almost always relies on the help of Jeeves, whom he clearly admires:
"There is no doubt that Jeeves is in a class of his own. In the matter of brain and resource I don't think I have ever met a chappie so supremely like mother made"

The stories also reminded me of the so-called "screwball comedies" during the 1930's and 1940's--there as here, the storyline is light but not silly, fast-paced, and the situation will inevitably lead to a happy end (after many, many intermediate steps, of course). 

I would say that Wodehouse has managed to capture the essence of the avant-garde (of mischievous youngsters) of his generation and give a faithful description of  challenges they faced.  This, together with the inimitable style of tempo, caricature and empathy, he has established himself in this genre even in our times...

Monday, March 26, 2012

Short Story Review: The Mysterious Mummy by Sax Rohmer

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1903

Genre: mystery

Topics: honor among thieves, capers


In the Great Portland Square Museum, the fabulously expensive Rienzi Vase goes missing. Does its theft have anything to do with a mysterious mummy that seemed to appear out of nowhere and disappear just as suddenly the night of the theft? And why would a mummy steal a vase?

I decided to try out some short story collections from Librivox, and hit upon a delightful one of short mysteries. The title and start of The Mysterious Mummy are something of a red herring, as the story doesn't have anything to do with mummies, but really focuses on the theft of the vase--obviously a mummy didn't steal anything, but how does it fit into the theft? There's a How To Steal a Million-esque twist in the middle that really made this story fun.

I found it interesting that Sax Rohmer draws a parallel between theft and museums in this story--not just theft from museums, but the theft museums perpetrate. The Great Portland Square Museum is filled with valuable objects looted from Egypt, Italy, and Asia. The fact that the museum owes something but refuses to pay up makes the theft of the Rienzi Vase seem a tale of heroism rather than misdemeanor.

I think if you haven't read Rohmer before, this is a good place to start--the Fu Manchu novels, which he's most famous for, are fun, but pretty racist. At six pages or so, this little brain puzzle is more of a amuse bouche than a mystery, but it's worth checking out if you enjoy stories like To Catch a Thief and The Thomas Crown Affair.

The Mysterious Mummy is readily available on the interwebs, including at Arthur's Classic Novels.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Review: The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Original Publication Date: 1913

Genre: Fiction

Topics: women, marriage, society, social status, social climbing, old money, noveau riche, old New York

Review: I don't know why The Custom of the Country isn't a more popular Edith Wharton novel. Oh wait, I do: Undine Spragg. I could see why Undine might turn off readers. She makes Scarlett O'Hara look like Mother Theresa. I love a good b..., um, witchy character and she is that through and through.

The story starts with Undine Spragg dragging her socially awkward parents around New York. Undine's father is a very wealthy man after a series of successful financial deals in their hometown of Apex. Undine is determined to climb the social ladder of New York. She uses her beauty to entice a member of one of the Old Families of New York, Ralph Marvell, into marrying her. She's on top.

The trouble with Undine is that she is never satisfied. Once she gets what she wants, she no longer wants it. Life with Ralph isn't what she thought it would be. He has his own ideas about family and propriety. On top of that, Ralph is poor by Undine's standards. To keep up with Undine's ridiculous overspending, Ralph works like a dog, yet combined with a generous allowance from her father, it's not enough. Undine manages to convince Ralph that she must go to Paris, alone, and like an idiot, he lets her. While in Europe, Undine lives the high life and sends the bills home. Then she starts getting ideas and sets her sights on European aristocracy.

Undine is the type of person that could fall into poo and come out smelling like a rose. She has the most incredible luck. In fact, she is the complete opposite of another Wharton character Lily Bart from The House of Mirth. Just when I thought it was all over for her, something would just fall into her lap! It's almost admirable how she can size up a situation and figure out how it can benefit her. She has a lot of her father in her and if she had been a man, she'd easily be a millionaire. However, Undine is a cold-hearted, selfish, shallow person. She has no feelings for anyone but herself. She doesn't care what pain her actions cause other people, from her parents to her husband to her son. She leaves a trail of bodies in her wake. Though I believe that if someone told Undine this, she'd be genuinely surprised.

The Custom of the Country is a story for the 21st century as well as the 20th. Anyone who has seen an episode of My Super Sweet 16 has seen a Undine in the making. She's never been told no by her parents and won't take no for an answer from anyone else. Everything she wants or owns has to be better than what anyone else has. She's a victim of her upbringing. At times, I felt that if Undine had been expected to be more than an accessory to a man she would have been a better person. A character named Charles Bowen, who considers himself an amateur sociologist, makes this observation to a friend:
"I want to get a general view of the whole problem of American marriages."
Mrs. Fairford dropped into her arm-chair with a sigh. “If that’s what you want you must make haste! Most of them don’t last long enough to be classified.”
"I grant you it takes an active mind. But the weak point is so frequently the same that after a time one knows where to look for it.” 
“What do you call the weak point?”

He paused. “The fact that the average American looks down on his wife.”

Mrs. Fairford was up with a spring. “If that’s where paradox lands you!”

Bowen mildly stood his ground. “Well–doesn’t he prove it? How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? Take Ralph for instance–you say his wife’s extravagance forces him to work too hard; but that’s not what’s wrong. It’s normal for a man to work hard for a woman–what’s abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it.”

“To tell Undine? She’d be bored to death if he did!”

“Just so; she’d even feel aggrieved. But why? Because it’s against the custom of the country. And whose fault is that? The man’s again–I don’t mean Ralph I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus. Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in THEM.”

Charles has a point but Undine has no interest in Ralph's affairs. She's interested in her own. Undine treats her marriages like business deals; it's not personal. The men are useful until they outlive their purpose, then they are discarded and she's onto the next one. In a way you can't blame her, it's the only career she can have.

The Custom of the Country is a feminist novel in a way but it's also a satirical look at wealth: the rising nouveau riche of America and the fading old families of New York and Europe. They are all subject to their own follies.

I could go on more but I'll stop there. This is now my favorite Edith Wharton novel. It's entertaining and even shocking.

Highly recommended

I read this free edition of The Custom of the Country from girlebooks.

This review was originally published on Chrisbookarama.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Random Wednesday: BUNNY RABBIT'S DIARY by Mary Frances Blaisdell

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1915

Genre: children's book

Topics: anthropomorphizing, adventure


In the interest of reading more obscure books for this blog, I decided to randomly select a few books and highlight them in a feature called Random Wednesday! To select the book, I randomly chose a letter of the alphabet, went to the Project Gutenberg page with all the author names starting with that letter, divided the page in to eighths and randomly chose a section, and then selected a book based on the title.

My first choice was Bunny Rabbit's Diary by Mary Frances Blaisdell, because I like bunnies (yes, I am THAT much of a grown-up). It's an illustrated children's book basically in the style of Wind in the Willows or Peter Rabbit. I'm not a huge fan of either, to be honest, but they're both a damn sight better than this book, which is snoregastic.

For a present, Bunny Rabbit received a journal made out of leaves and wrote down all his adventures with the other animals. Then he stuck it in a tree, where the author found it and transcribed it. How did Blaisdell read the tiny rabbit writing? I don't know.

The problem is, as Bunny Rabbit himself observed, he doesn't know how to write stories (also: why is he writing his own stories in the third person? Another mystery). All the stories are good beginnings, but they never go anywhere. For example, one time Bunny Rabbit and his other bunny friend are hanging out in a tree, when they see two humans. The humans want to cut down a tree! Bunny Rabbit wonders why, and a sparrow tells him it's for Christmas, and explains what a Christmas tree is. Bunny Rabbit is intrigued, so he follows the humans to their house to see a Christmas tree for himself.

bunny rabbit seeing a christmas tree

The end.

See what I mean? This is the START of a story. In any other decent book I can think of, this would be the set up for a series of hi-larious hijinks undoubtedly involving either a cat or dog, trashcans, being chased around the kitchen by a knife-wielding cook, and the children wanting to adopt him as a pet. In Bunny Rabbit's Diary, it's THE ENTIRE STORY.

I was also less than impressed with the illustrations.

So, if you're in the mood to read a book about a rabbit, I'd stick with Peter Rabbit.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Review: Letters on an Elk Hunt

Letters on an Elk Hunt
Original Publication Date:  1914

Genre:  History, Memoirs

Topics:  American History, Wild West, Women

I read Letters of a Woman Homesteader last year and really, really enjoyed it.  I fell in love with Elinore Pruitt Stewart (except for the disturbing, lightly-treated racism she sometimes had a tendency to display) and her ability to find humor in so many of life's everyday situations.  Also, the woman is able to shoot her own dinner and ride into a snowstorm on her horse, which is pretty amazing.

Letters on an Elk Hunt is a sequel to Letters of a Woman Homesteader.  It's a series of letters written in 1914 from Elinore Stewart to her lifelong friend.  This book is much shorter, though, as it only describes Elinore's life over a span of several weeks relating to the build-up to, experience of and falling action after an elk hunt.

I mentioned in my previous review that I wasn't sure how much of the story Elinore related was fact and how much was fiction.  This came even more to the fore in Letters on an Elk Hunt, just because every single story arc that Elinore introduced was completed very neatly in the span of the book.  For example, there is one mysterious but very kind girl that travels with the hunting team for quite a while.  Everyone likes her but knows very little about her (a fact that Elinore sets up very well in early letters).  But then, conveniently, just before this girl is to leave them, she takes Elinore and another woman aside and spills her guts to them, telling her about why she came west, what she hopes to do and who she hopes to find.  And then, the next day, all her wishes come true.  It is a lovely story and I hope that it's true, but even if it is, I can't imagine that it occurred in such a perfect story arc as in the manner that Elinore presented it.

I didn't enjoy this book as much as I did the first volume of letters, but I think that's mainly because the book is much shorter.  The narrative style is just as engaging, the humor just as light and easy to catch, and the characters just as interesting.  And once again, I was just so struck by how different the lifestyle for homesteaders was.  For example, this entire hunting party of probably five people descended on a complete stranger's home.  This man was getting ready for his mother to come from the East Coast to live with him, and so he left the hunting party alone in his home to go to town (a trip of two or three days) to pick her up.  The hunting party then set to work completely cleaning his house, redecorating, sewing bonnets and knitting blankets for the mother, and even putting together two chests of drawers for the bedrooms.  All in two days.  For a man they had just met, who had trusted them enough to leave them alone in his home.  It was just absolutely amazing to me, and I couldn't help but feel wistful and sad that those sorts of communities don't exist any more.  It's not even a community, really- it seems more to be this mindset of, "We're all out in this difficult, remote area of the world together and we've got to help each other out."  Reading this book, it felt so much less isolated than living alone in a big city.

I'm sure that Elinore was idealizing her life a lot and it's very possible that she embellished her stories, too.  She makes very brief mention of World War I, but it hardly touches her life (granted, it barely touched any American's life in 1914).  But I so enjoyed reading her letters and learning about what life was like just 100 years ago.  Now I've gone and downloaded a ridiculous number of memoirs that describe life on the American frontier!  So... get ready for many more reviews on this topic over the coming months :-)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Wishlist: The First Mysteries

illustration from murder in the rue morgue
1876 illustration from Murder In the Rue Morgue

Trying to figure out what constitutes the earliest mystery novel can be like trying to dig a hole in the sand: no matter how deeply you go, you never seem to reach the bottom. Part of the problem is, what does one really mean by "mystery novel"? Detective fiction, crime fiction, a novel in which a mystery is solved? Depending on how you define the genre, early mysteries might include Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, "The Three Apples" from Arabian Nights, or Chinese gong an stories.

However, mystery novels as most of us understand them today more or less started in the 19th century. Some very early examples:

  • Mademoiselle de Scuderi by ETA Hoffmann (1819)--A poetess discovers who is murdering people and stealing their jewelry in this Louis XIV-era novella. However, Mlle Scuderi doesn't exactly solve the murders, so whether or not this can be really be called a detective novel is debatable. [available to read online here]
  • The Rector of Veilbye by Steen Steensen Blicher (1829)--A Danish novella based on a true murder case. [can be found in this mystery compendium at Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
  • Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe (1841)--This is usually considered THE very first detective mystery. Poe established the formula for the mystery genre, as well as created a memorable detective, C. Auguste Dupin (who was based on Eugène François Vidocq, real-life director of the Sûreté Nationale, the founder of the first private detective agency, and the father of modern criminology as well as the French police). Dupin also appeared in The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Purloined Letter. However, since these stories are short, can they really be called "novels"? [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
  • Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (1862)--This serialized mystery appears to be the first British detective novel. It centers around an insurance investigator who believes a baron killed his wife. Fun fact: Daphne du Maurier's grandfather illustrated the story. [available to read in original serialized format at Internet Archive]
  • Monsieur Lecoq by Emile Gaboriau (1868)--This is often cited as the first French mystery novel, with a detective who was also based on Vidocq. Like his real-life counterpart, Lecoq is adept at disguises and applies the scientific method in unraveling crimes. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
  • The Woman in White (1858) and The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins--Although more properly classified as a sensational novel, in my opinion, The Woman in White has a central mystery and is usually cited as one of the first British mysteries. The Moonstone is more of a proper mystery and contains plot elements like red herrings, a locked room, false suspects, and a professional investigator. TS Eliot called it, "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels," and Dorothy L. Sayers called it, "probably the very finest detective story ever written." [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
  • The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green (1878)--As far as I've been able to find, this is the first detective novel by a female writer. The detective, a Mr. Gryce, attempts to figure out who shot the wealthy Mr. Leavenworth in the back of the head. [Project Gutenberg|GirleBooks|Librivox]
Have you read any of these early mystery novels? What did you think of them?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Short Story Review: Xingu by Edith Wharton

Original Publication Date: 1916

Genre: Humorous short story

Topics: Society, manners, ladies' clubs, book clubs, authors,

Review: Guess what? Edith Wharton is funny! Not slap you in the face with a fish funny, but funny.

In the short story Xingu, six society ladies get together regularly to broaden their minds. It's a culture club they've named the Lunch Club. You can't just show up to a meeting and become a member, oh no, you must be recommended by someone important. While each lady has issues with one or more of the other members, they universally agree that Mrs Roby was a mistake. And she came so highly recommended, by a professor no less. Tsk-tsk.

Occasionally, they have in experts to give talks and contribute to the discussion. The ladies are all a-twitter over their next guest, author of The Wings of Death, Osric Dane. Mrs Ballinger will play hostess to the great lady, even though Mrs Plinth has a superior house (with a footman, thank you very much). The big day comes and the author arrives but she looks down her nose at the group leaving the ladies at a loss for words. They don't know what to do, until Mrs Roby starts talking about Xingu.

So what is Xingu? Don't Google it! (like I did) Really, don't. You'll find out what it is eventually. It's a lot of fun reading how the ladies bluff their way through the discussion. It reminds me of those people who lie about reading Ulysses to impress others. Not one of those women know what Xingu is, Mrs Rory excepted, but they are trying hard to convince each other they know exactly what it is.

I've always thought that Edith Wharton was part author, part sociologist. I can imagine her sitting in the background during a party with a notebook murmuring, "Interesting..." to herself as she scribbled notes about all the guests. She has the group dynamic down. Mrs Plinth is the bully, she likes to have her own way. Mrs Ballinger, founder of the Lunch Club, is her biggest competition, even though she only has two parlour-maids. Mrs Leveret will change her opinion to suit her audience, and Miss Van Vluyck and Laura Glade make the remainder of the group. The outsider is Mrs Roby.

Clearly Mrs Roby is the Cady Heron within this group of Mean Girls. However, she has enough confidence in herself to say what's on her mind. When Mrs Plinth tells her "No one reads Trollope now." She replies that she's just started and he amuses her. "Amusement," said Mrs Plinth,"is hardly what I look for in my choice of books." Mrs Plinth would not make a very good book blogger as she "so much disliked being asked her opinion of a book. Books were written to be read; if one read them what more could be expected?" That line made me laugh. I can't help but think that Edith Wharton had personal experience with a Mrs Plinth.

As for Osric Dane, she's one of those insufferable literati who think everyone else is an idiot- think Franzen and Oprah's Book Club. For a moment I was totally in the Lunch Club's corner. Then Mrs Roby has her revenge at last once the topic turns to Xingu.

Xingu is not the usual heavy fare from Edith Wharton and it's a nice change. I recommend it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Third Miss Symons by Flora Macdonald Mayor

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1913

Genre: Fiction, Women's History

Topics: Spinsterhood, Relationships, Women


I came across The Third Miss Symons by accident. I was browsing GoodReads for similar reads to The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim and came across a list of Virago Modern Classics which I thought might be available in the public domain. One of the books that was available was this short novel by Flora Macdonald Mayor. As I instantly trust Virago Modern Classics as an imprint of books that usually interest me, I couldn’t resist picking up the Project Gutenberg version of this novella. Since then, I found out it has also been released as a Girlebook (of which the cover is shown on the left).
The Third Miss Symons is a short book of 88 pages, in which Mayor sets out the life of Miss Henrietta Symons, the third daughter of parents who dislike their children and the effort they require. Especially Etta, or Henrietta, is disliked by them. They quickly give up on making an effort on the social market for her, as she is plain in comparison to the other daughters. Henrietta remains single her whole life, looking on from the sidelines while her other 3 sisters marry (not necessarily happy marriages) and fulfil their role as women as wives and mothers. Etta is spared the faith of some single women in that she has enough money to live a comfortable life, and we follow her on trips to the continent and visits to her family. However, Henrietta is never really happy, she feels lost in social situations and often becomes disagreeable. If people show the slightest bit of interest in her, she clings to them for affection, and ends up suffocating their relationship. And most of all, she’s searching for a goal in life now that the path of motherhood remains closed to her.
This book reminded me a lot of Consequences by E.M. Delafield and what I expect to find in Rachel Ferguson’s Alas Poor Lady. It tells of the fate of single women at the beginning of the twentieth century, of their being viewed as aimless and awkward, and often a burden to the people around them. Like Alex Clare in Consequences, Henrietta is socially awkward and yet always longs for affection. However, Henrietta is more difficult to like than Alex, since Etta often lashes out at the people who try to help her in their own faulty ways. For part of the book Henrietta is painted in a negative light to such an extent that I wondered what exactly Mayor was trying to tell us: that women who are single and consequently unhappy, only have themselves to blame? However, having finished the book, I do not think that was Mayor’s intention at all. Yes, she does blame Henrietta for situations in which she was at her most disagreeable, but she also asks sympathy for Etta’s situation of social isolation, in which everyone she cares even a little about is too caught up in their own lives to pay much attention to her. In the end, Henrietta reforms, and tries to do better on the social front, and slowly, at least one of her sisters learns to understand Etta’s pain:
“But if she had had the chance she wouldn’t have been unlovable. She was capable of greater love than any of us, and she never had the chance. If there is any justice and mercy in the world how can they allow a poor, weak human creature to have so few opportunities, such hard temptations, and when it yields to temptation to suffer so cruelly? And now I am to go back, and be happy with Herbert and the boys, and to feel quite truly that I did everything I could, I can’t bear it.”
I am sad to say I didn’t love this book as I did others on the same topic. Henrietta is a little too unlikeable, and the story a little too short, to care as deeply for her as I did for Alex Clare, for example. I would recommend Consequences over The Third Miss Symons. But, as a companion read this works really well, and I cannot wait to discover more novels from this time period about “spinsters”.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Guest Review: THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1905

Genre: Adventure, historical fiction

Topics: the French Revolution, trust, rule of law

Review by Kay of Kay's Bookshelf:

Summary: A novel about a brave and noble Englishman who, together with his little group of faithful friends, repeatedly risked his life saving French aristocrats from the guillotine. The success of their enterprise is based on the fact that no one knows the identity of the leader. Now, however, a French agent knows just the way to unmask him: he makes one of the ladies at the English court an offer she cannot refuse — either she finds out who the famed hero is, or her brother dies.

General impression: I don’t know what to make of this. I feel like it has this great potential and yet all the interesting parts are missing.

Setting: The year is 1792, a short while after the French revolution. Beheadings happen every day, as the people, drunk on their new-found freedom, are also thirsty for revenge on their former oppressors. On the other side of the channel, the English are horrified at the news of the bloodshed. The King, the Prince of Wales, and the rest of the political leaders are as yet undecided whether they should openly condemn France’s behavior or just keep quiet, not to risk a conflict. However, a bunch of English young people have decided to do more that just decry the situation: they spend their time working up schemes to smuggle the unfortunate “aristos” from their now hostile motherland to the safety of the British soil. Their leader, who calls himself The Scarlet Pimpernel (after a humble little red roadside flower), is a paragon of resourcefulness and a master of disguise — which is how he managed to keep his identity hidden for so long.

It is obvious that the author herself is firmly on the aristocrats’ side, being openly against the ‘regular people’. The former are gracious, well bred, and the ones we root for; the latter are dirty and mean. The reason for that became obvious when I read about the author’s early life: of noble descent herself (her father was a Baron, her mother a Countess), she and her family left her native Hungary in 1868 as they were afraid of a peasants’ revolution.

Characters: As a sidenote, the dialogue was awfully sprinkled with interjections. It felt like there hardly ever was a sentence without a “Lud!” or “Zooks!” or “Bah!” or “Odd’s fish!” or something such. While at times there was indeed the need to show someone’s surprise, or Marguerite’s pretend flippancy, having basically every character exclaim something every few minutes became tiring after a while.

As for the characters, I felt them more cardboard-y than anything else. Marguerite St. Just/Blakeney, for example, is not only a very beautiful woman but is also considered the wittiest in Europe(!). Alas, this last part remains unproven, although we spend about half the book reading her inner thoughts. All she thinks about is the fact that she loves the hero, and oh, how she betrayed him — but she loves him so much! More and more every passing minute! And to think she has betrayed him! Him whom she loves so much! — and so on and so forth. Surely, she does show courage (or is it merely recklessness?) when she follows the love of her life straight to France, where it wasn’t safe for her, but then, other than following the soldiers she does absolutely nothing to actually help. This is one of the missing parts I complained about in the beginning — the fact that we, the readers, are not actually shown the rescue operation — which happens to be the most interesting part of the book, as the Pimpernel has pledged his honor to rescue some French aristocrat, and he does not know that the area is surrounded with soldiers. The pages that should deal with that are dedicated to Marguerite’s thoughts, and as she follows the soldiers she can only see what they see — which is naturally nothing, else the rescue would not have taken place. We only find out about what happened near the very end, in a few sentences, as the brave rescuer explains to Marguerite how he accomplished the feat. But I would have liked to see it myself, to hold my breath and keep my fingers crossed all throughout :(

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a very romantic, dashing hero: a noble, mysterious man who risks his life in order to save others’. He also possesses an insurmountable pride, that sometimes gets the best of him, an intensity of feeling of the kind one sees only in books1, a presence of mind that never betrays him and a rather superhuman physical strength. Oh, and of course he’s good looking too. And a good actor with a gift for accents, which is how he manages to fool the French police for so long. There isn’t anything this guy can’t do, which is why after a point he stops being an actual person, becoming a sort of parody instead. A male Mary Sue, if you wish. And to think that, for all his perfection, we didn’t get to see him being a hero. I imagine the book would have been so much interesting had it been told from his POV. *sigh*

As a bit of trivia, the villain, the French agent that spares no efforts in his hunt for the Scarlet Pimpernel is actually a real-life character, although the author is said to have stretched history around him quite a bit.

Relationships: Ah, yet another one of those parts I found sorely lacking. As the book opens, Marguerite St. Just has been Lady Blakeney for about a year. She despises her husband, which she finds dull and incapable of passion. This despite the fact that his intense passion for her was the very reason she married him in the first place (in short, he was very much in love with her, but she had some secret and he judged her for it, and she was too proud to explain her reasoning to him, so apparently he stopped loving her, just like that). I would have liked to see their courtship, to see them as a couple, as when the book opens they are very much apart.

And then one evening all of a sudden Marguerite talks to her husband (had they never talked before?). And his behavior gives away the fact that he still loves her, and all of a sudden Marguerite realizes that, wait, she loves him too! Despite the fact that up until then she barely looked at him, and that she mocked him on every occasion. Despite the fact that a bit earlier we’re told how she married him because she thought that he loved her so much she could grow to love him in return. And now she realizes she had loved him all this while? This would have been easier to believe if I had seen her ever caring for him before — in a scene before their marriage, perhaps — but as it were it seemed somewhat of a stretch.

Thoughts on the ending: I was particularly amused by one of the last few sentences:

But it is on record that at the brilliant wedding of Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, Bart., with Mlle. Suzanne de Tournay de Basserive, a function at which H. R. H. the Prince of Wales and all the ELITE of fashionable society were present, the most beautiful woman there was unquestionably Lady Blakeney, whilst the clothes of [The Scarlet Pimpernel] were the talk of the JEUNESSE DOREE of London for many days.

The Scarlet Pimpernel has many manly qualities, probably all of them. He has a soft spot however, and that is his love for expensive clothes. As such, a truly happy ending for him could not have existed without everyone’s admiring his clothes, right? :)

Other than that everything’s pretty textbook stuff, the good and the brave are rewarded, the evil plans are foiled. I don’t think anyone expected otherwise. :)

Recommend it to? People interested in the classics, I guess. It has a 4.05 rating on Goodreads, so the vast majority of people seems to have liked it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Review: THE MAN IN LOWER TEN by Mary Roberts Rinehart

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1906

Genre: Mystery

Topics: trains, lawyers, femme fatale, wrong man


Oh my gosh, you guyyyyys. I loved this book!

Lawrence (Lollie to his friends) Blakely is an attorney in Washington, DC. His bestie and law partner, Richie McKnight, wants to see a girl over the weekend, so he asks Lollie to travel to Pittsburgh in his stead and pick up some important documents for a case they're working on. The trip back turns into the Titanic of train travel--first, someone's sleeping in Lawrence's bunk, lower ten, so the porter makes him sleep in a different bunk. Then he wakes up to find he's been robbed of everything, including the important documents he was carrying. At this point Lawrence is pretty annoyed and yelling at everyone, but things only get worse when they discover the man taking up his bunk in lower ten has been murrrrrdered, and the conductor accuses Lawrence of the crime. AND THEN the train crashes, killing practically everyone. And that's just the beginning! Now Lawrence is being followed by the police, who think he's a murderer, as well as some unscrupulous people who think he still has the documents. Everything hinges on him finding out who killed the man in lower ten.

I first heard about The Man in Lower Ten from Melody at Edwardian Promenade. The first chapter was little rocky for me, as Lawrence appeared to be yet another Edwardian bourgeois male hero. I don't have anything against bourgeois male heroes in theory, but come on. There's only so much a girl can take. But then one of the characters mentioned the Cubs, and how can you not like a book where the characters talk about the Cubbies? You can't. Not, that is.

I'm glad I stuck with The Man in Lower Ten, because there's a lot to love in this novel, and it only gets better as you keep reading. First of all, I love the characters. Lawrence is clever, but not smooth at all, and Richie is the bestest. These are two people I'd love to hang out with. You know that thing where you start thinking about characters like they're actual people, to the point where you're worrying about them if they seem upset? YEAH. Was totally doing that here.

The novel is also insanely twisty and fast-paced, with great, snappy dialog. Even if you're not a fan of mystery novels per se, I think if you enjoy olde timey movies such as Alfred Hitchcock's lighter suspense films, you'll enjoy this book. There are several elements in The Man in Lower Ten that are very common in Hitchcock films: for one, there's a MacGuffin, the documents Lollie picks up in Pittsburgh. There's also an amateur sleuth named Hotchkiss who just happens to be in the Pullman car when Lawrence is accused of murder, and applies the investigative techniques of Conan Doyle and Poe to real-life crimes (Lollie's reaction to this: "I nodded tolerantly. Most of us have hobbies"). And there's a "wrong man" element in the story, as Lollie is misidentified as the person who not only stole the documents, but killed the man in lower ten.

There's also a romantic sub-plot with a beautiful woman whom apparently alllll the men in the mid-Atlantic states are in love with, and who is very definitely involved in the murder somehow. Just how far can she be trusted? I think I worried over this a lot more than Lawrence did.

Of course, enjoying all of this requires a definite suspension of disbelief, and there are a few UnPC Moments (calling the porters "darkies," for instance); but despite being written over a hundred years ago, The Man in Lower Ten feels surprisingly modern, and is as much fun to read as any mystery novel I've ever come across. I now want to read ALL THE MARY ROBERTS RINEHART NOVELS. She's called the American Agatha Christie, but personally I think it'd be more accurate to call her the American Female Hitchcock. Definitely recommended!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Review: Daddy-Long-Legs & Dear Enemy by Jean Webster

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1912 and 1915

Genre: romance, epistolary

Topics: love, relationships, letters, education

Review: This review is cross-posted from the original at things mean a lot.

I am so in love with this book! Thank you, Jenny and raidergirl3, for bringing it to my attention. I can’t believe I lived for over a quarter of a century without it. I needed it in my life, even if I didn’t know I did until a few days ago. But let me begin at the beginning:

Daddy-Long-Legs is an epistolary novel first published in 1912. It’s about an orphan, Jerusha Abbot (later known as Judy), who one day is told that one of the orphanage’s trustees will sponsor her university education. This philanthropist, who prefers to remain anonymous, only requests that in exchange Judy write him monthly letters about the progress of her education. They are to be addressed to Mr John Smith, and Judy is not to expect any response. All the same, she is to keep writing. Judy catches a glimpse of this man the day the deal is made, and because he’s tall with skinny arms and legs, she renames him Daddy-Long-Legs:
Before leaving yesterday morning, Mrs. Lippett and I had a very serious talk. She told me how to behave all the rest of my life, and especially how to behave towards the kind gentleman who is doing so much for me. I must take care to be Very Respectful.
But how can one be very respectful to a person who wishes to be called John Smith? Why couldn't you have picked out a name with a little personality? I might as well write letters to Dear Hitching-Post or Dear Clothes-Prop.
I have been thinking about you a great deal this summer; having somebody take an interest in me after all these years makes me feel as though I had found a sort of family. It seems as though I belonged to somebody now, and it's a very comfortable sensation. I must say, however, that when I think about you, my imagination has very little to work upon. There are just three things that I know:
I. You are tall.
II. You are rich.
III. You hate girls.
I suppose I might call you Dear Mr. Girl-Hater. Only that's rather insulting to me. Or Dear Mr. Rich-Man, but that's insulting to you, as though money were the only important thing about you. Besides, being rich is such a very external quality. Maybe you won't stay rich all your life; lots of very clever men get smashed up in Wall Street. But at least you will stay tall all your life! So I've decided to call you Dear Daddy-Long-Legs. I hope you won't mind. It's just a private pet name we won't tell Mrs. Lippett.
And this is only the first of four year’s worth of charming, spirited and funny letters. I confess that I was perhaps naturally predisposed to love this book, because it’s both an epistolary novel and a novel from the early twentieth-century that argues for women’s education. But really, what made me fall in love with Daddy-Long-Legs was Judy’s voice. She reminded me a bit of Anne Shirley – both are orphans, unconventional, lively, and aspiring writers – and yet she’s still very much herself. I can’t understand why this book is not as popular as Anne of Green Gables. (Or is it, and I live under a rock?) I also can’t possibly convey what a delight Judy is, so let me give you a few more examples instead:
I forgot to post this yesterday, so I will add an indignant postscript. We had a bishop this morning, and WHAT DO YOU THINK HE SAID? 'The most beneficent promise made us in the Bible is this, "The poor ye have always with you." They were put here in order to keep us charitable.' The poor, please observe, being a sort of useful domestic animal. If I hadn't grown into such a perfect lady, I should have gone up after service and told him what I thought.

Should you mind, just for a little while, pretending you are my grandmother? Sallie has one and Julia and Leonora each two, and they were all comparing them tonight. I can't think of anything I'd rather have; it's such a respectable relationship. So, if you really don't object—When I went into town yesterday, I saw the sweetest cap of Cluny lace trimmed with lavender ribbon. I am going to make you a present of it on your eighty-third birthday.
! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !
That's the clock in the chapel tower striking twelve. I believe I am sleepy after all.
Good night, Granny.
I love you dearly.

That's the way with everybody. I don't agree with the theory that adversity and sorrow and disappointment develop moral strength. The happy people are the ones who are bubbling over with kindliness. I have no faith in misanthropes. (Fine word! Just learned it.) You are not a misanthrope are you, Daddy?

You know, Daddy, I think that the most necessary quality for any person to have is imagination. It makes people able to put themselves in other people's places. It makes them kind and sympathetic and understanding. It ought to be cultivated in children. But the John Grier Home instantly stamped out the slightest flicker that appeared. Duty was the one quality that was encouraged. I don't think children ought to know the meaning of the word; it's odious, detestable. They ought to do everything from love.
Oh Judy, I love you! Can you tell how smart and funny she is? Also, I don’t want to say that her greatest charm is her naivety, because that would be doing her a great disservice, but… she spent the first eighteen years of her life at the John Griers Home, where she was sheltered from most of the experiences young girls her age had gone through. To watch her experience things for the first time and approach the world as if it entirely were new was enchanting. She’s so…earnest, in the best possible sense of the word. And so eager to experience, well, everything. Including literature! I loved seeing her discover classics for the first time - Jane Eyre, Hamlet, Little Women, Treasure Island, and so on.

You should all read Daddy-Long-Legs right now. Did I mention that it’s (unfortunately) very short, and that you could read it in only about two hours? And that it will fill you with happiness and make you smile for the rest of the day? Also, that it’s not just a collection of charming letters – it has a Real Plot and everything? A clever plot too, even if easy to see coming. (Possibly spoiler-ish: any misgivings I might have had about certain, er, white lies were mostly erased by the fact that the characters’ ties just seem so genuine. Also, the power dynamics didn’t alarm me, which was a pleasant surprise. Also, aww. But let me shut up before I say too much.) As I was saying, go read it right now!

Dear Enemy, the not-sequel, was published in 1915. I’m calling it a not-sequel because this is the best way to approach it. I started it as soon as I finished Daddy Long-Legs because I wanted more of it, which is not what Dear Enemy is. However, once I got over my disappointment over the fact that I wasn’t reading more of Daddy-Long-Legs, I was able to love it for what it is.

What it is, then, is a collection of letters sent by Judy’s college friend Sallie to several correspondents, including Judy herself. In them, she retells her experiences as the new superintendent of the John Griers Home, the orphanage where Judy grew up. Sallie’s voice is not Judy’s, but it’s charming in its own right. And the book, while not as delightful and satisfying, is actually a bit meatier than Daddy Long-Legs. It deals with new theories concerning education and child-rearing, with the value of women’s work, and with other themes central to first wave feminism. One of the main things Sallie learns is that no, she doesn’t have to settle for the domestic sphere and live a life of suffocation; and yes, she’s just as entitled to pursue something that satisfies her as a man is, and just as capable. And her work is worth just as much.

Unfortunately, one of the new social theories that were popular at the time was eugenics, as evidenced by passages such as this:
It seems that feeblemindedness is a very hereditary quality, and science isn't able to overcome it. No operation has been discovered for introducing brains into the head of a child who didn't start with them. And the child grows up with, say, a nine-year brain in a thirty-year body, and becomes an easy tool for any criminal he meets. Our prisons are one-third full of feeble-minded convicts. Society ought to segregate them on feeble-minded farms, where they can earn their livings in peaceful menial pursuits, and not have children. Then in a generation or so we might be able to wipe them out.
NO, SALLIE, NO! This is interesting as an historical document, I suppose, but it still made me cringe. And it made me sad, too, because I liked Sallie a lot—because she was so kind in so many ways, and yet here she was, accepting a patronising and appalling form of cruelty so casually. But that's the early 20th century for you. And, in not entirely dissimilar ways, the early 21st too. That’s just people for you, I guess. The good news is that later on, her actual experience with these children causes her to doubt the Doom and Gloom social theories she was exposed to.

I urged you to read Daddy-Long-Legs, and I’m going to tell you to go ahead and read Dear Enemy too—but keep in mind that it won’t be more of the same. Still, Sallie is most definitely worth getting to know.

Some more interesting bits:
Sandy has two passions in life: one is for cod-liver oil and the other for spinach, neither popular in our nursery. Some time ago—before I came, in fact—he had ordered cod-liver oil for all {aenemic} of the{ }—Heavens! there's that word again! {aneamic} —children, and had given instructions as to its application to Miss Snaith. Yesterday, in his suspicious Scotch fashion, he began nosing about to find out why the poor little rats weren't fattening up as fast as he thought they ought, and he unearthed a hideous scandal. They haven't received a whiff of cod-liver oil for three whole weeks! At that point he exploded, and all was joy and excitement and hysterics.

The Hon. Cy was awfully impressed with the new dining room, especially when he heard that Betsy had put on those rabbits with her own lily-white hands. Stenciling rabbits on walls, he allows, is a fitting pursuit for a woman, but an executive position like mine is a trifle out of her sphere. He thinks it would be far wiser if Mr. Pendleton did not give me such free scope in the spending of his money.

I must tell you the joke about my enemy—not the Hon. Cy, but my first, my original enemy. He has undertaken a new field of endeavor. He says quite soberly (everything he does is sober; he has never smiled yet) that he has been watching me closely since my arrival, and though I am untrained and foolish and flippant (sic), he doesn't think that I am really so superficial as I at first appeared. I have an almost masculine ability of grasping the whole of a question and going straight to the point. Aren't men funny? When they want to pay you the greatest compliment in their power, they naively tell you that you have a masculine mind. There is one compliment, incidentally, that I shall never be paying him. I cannot honestly say that he has a quickness of perception almost feminine.

I can't tell you how pleased I am that Betsy's salary is to be raised, and that we are to keep her permanently. But the Hon. Cy Wykoff deprecates the step. He has been making inquiries, and he finds that her people are perfectly able to take care of her without any salary.
"You don't furnish legal advice for nothing," say I to him. "Why should she furnish her trained services for nothing?"
"This is charitable work."
"Then work which is undertaken for your own good should be paid, but work which is undertaken for the public good should not be paid?"
"Fiddlesticks!" says he. "She's a woman, and her family ought to support her."
(At which point both Sallie and I rolled our eyes.)