Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review: TRIPS TO THE MOON by Lucian of Samosata

trips to the moon cover
Original Publication Date: c. 150

Genre: comedy

Topics: philosophy, history, satire, adventure

Other titles: True History, A True Story


Lucian of Samosata was a rhetorician in Ancient Rome and, from what I gathered in the introduction to this book, a thorn in the side of everyone he ever met. His modus operandi was to ridicule the practices of other philosophies; in Trips to the Moon, historians are his main victims.

A 2nd-century rhetorical treatise doesn't exactly sound like a laugh riot. The only reason I downloaded Trips to the Moon was because le fabeau Ralph Snelson narrated it. While it wasn't laugh-out-loud funny, it was amusing, and an interesting read.

The book is divided into three parts: first is the introduction from the translator, then "Instructions for Writing History," and finally "True History," which Lucian tells us is completely made-up.

As a disillusioned academic, I have to say I found Lucian's criticisms of historians to be spot-on. Apparently the behavior of over-educated elitists hasn't changed that much in the last 1800 years! Seriously, you put some unimaginative khakis on these guys instead of togas and you've got modern academia in all it's glory, which probably shouldn't surprise me as much as it did.

To boil down his argument, Lucian thinks that historians should only write about things they know from first-hand experience. Obviously, if you're writing about events that happened before you were born, this would be impossible. Thus Lucian argues historians are just using their imaginations to make stuff up, then pretending that what they've written is "fact." Ergo he's going to write the truest history that ever was, by making everything up but being totally honest about what he's doing.

So follows an adventure where Lucian and some companions travel beyond the Straight of Gibraltar and wind up having all sorts of adventures, including being trapped in a giant whale, flying to the sun, meeting gods and goddesses, and traveling to the moon just in time to become embroiled in a war.

Trips to the Moon is categorized as the first science fiction novel and a precursor to Edgar Rice Burroughs and HG Wells, but personally I think that's a total misunderstanding of both Lucian's point and the genre of science fiction. This is a satire of contemporary culture and a story meant to be beyond ridiculous. The appeal of science fiction is that it might happen, which is a conceit Lucian not only doesn't make claim to, but would probably make fun of if he was alive today. Even if you're only passingly familiar with ancient writings, it's easy to see that he's referencing previous works and then upping the ante to make the tales absolutely incredulous.

Also, there are a lot of references in the text that have no purpose other than to mock past and current historians. For instance, Lucian meets Herodotus in the belly of the whale, where he's being eternally tortured for telling lies in his own Histories, and reflects that he's happy he's never told one. Before that Lucian meets Homer, who spends most of his time telling historians who disagree with him to go fuck themselves (in summary).

Overall I found Trips to the Moon very interesting. It does start to drag at the end, but it's very inventive and clever, and occasionally amusing. Every criticism Lucian has of the study of history was and still is completely valid, and I only wish we had our own Lucian to remind academics not to take themselves so seriously.

Read Trips to the Moon at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|Sacred Texts

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Emily Fox-Seton, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Original Publication Date:  1901

Genre:  Romance, Historical Fiction

Topics:  Women, Race

Review:  UGH.  This book disgusted me on so many levels.  I couldn't even get through it because I was so heavily offended by the blatant racism present here.  This is actually an omnibus of two books- The Making of a Marchioness and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst.  The Making of a Marchioness is the better of the two books (better = less offensive), but it's an odd one.  The heroine is described many times as being not very clever, overly naive, and somewhat ridiculous in her enjoyment of doing good turns for other people.  Emily Fox-Seton is far too saint-like for my tastes, and Burnett is none too subtle when describing her.  A few quotes:

"She did not know she was humble-minded and of an angelic contentedness of spirit."  Of course she didn't.  Because when you are ANGELIC, you must be completely blind to the fact.

"In fact, she did not find herself interested in contemplation of her own qualities, but in contemplation of those of other people."  Yes, because if one is a truly good person, she must never once think of herself positively.

I think you get the idea.  The book is liberally littered with phrases and comments like these, in which Emily Fox-Seton is described as being angelic.  But that is not enough.  She is also, of course, absolutely beautiful, even though she is thirty-four years old.  And even though she is poor, she has exquisite manners and dresses so well that no one would ever know that she had no money.

Already, Emily of the last name-dash-other last name was getting on my nerves.  But I persevered through to her happy ending, in which she married, as you can imagine, a very rich and kind (though also not very clever, as Burnett unceasingly points out to us) marquis.  I hope I didn't give too much away there, but quite frankly, the title gives it all away.  Don't be jealous of Emily, though, because the marquis, too, is not particularly clever.  He is described as being not that handsome, not that tall, not that aristocratic, and not very memorable.  He's really just rich and polite.  What made him supremely unattractive to me was the ridiculous habit he had of wearing a monocle that magnified his eye.  In fact, he wore the monocle while he proposed to Emily.  Which makes it impossible to take the man seriously, marquis or not.

So.  The first book was overly saccharine and monocle-infested, but somewhat bearable, if only because it made so starkly clear how difficult life for a single woman could be in the early 20th century.  Emily really did live in daily fear of The Future.  How would she provide for herself in old age?  Who could she depend on?  There was so much she couldn't control, but she always tried to present a cheerful demeanor to others.  I also like that this book was not a romance, exactly.  Emily is grateful to the rich people in her life for being generous towards her, but she holds no illusions about her own life.  She clearly is grateful to the Marquis for saving her from a life of scrimping and saving, but theirs isn't a marriage of passion or extreme feeling- they marry each other for comfort, and Emily feels more gratitude than anything else and seems to view her lover as more a benefactor that she wants to please than anything else.

I am confused by the message that Burnett was trying to share here.  Was she saying that very beautiful, poor (white) women who let everyone else walk all over them and are grateful for it are likely to win the attention of a really rich man in the end?  Because I am not on board with that message.  I think she was trying to convey a theme of "The meek shall inherit the earth," but I think she made Emily a little too perfect and idealized to get that across in a manner that seems realistic to her readers.  Still, I was glad that Emily ended the book content.

BUT THE SECOND BOOK.  My God!  Perhaps I was more sensitive to the racism because I am Indian, and the racism was against Indian people.  But no, I think I would be offended on anyone's behalf because it was just so ignorant and horrible.

First, Burnett refers to Hinduism as an "occult" religion.  All Hindus know spells and apparently use those spells to kill other people.  (Using a more direct method is too obvious for us, I guess.)  This was extremely disturbing for me to read, for obvious reasons.  But I was also upset because it reflects a complete disregard for the culture.  Burnett fell completely into stereotype (and I am not sure which stereotype, or perhaps stereotypes against Indians have changed drastically over the past century).  She didn't give the religion or culture any respect in this novel that features two Hindus as fairly prominent characters- these characters are also, as far as I got (which, admittedly, was not far), pretty horrible and shady, vindictive women.  One is proven to be horrible because, of course, she rejects the offer of a Bible and sticks to her "occult" ways.

The point at which I stopped reading?  When I got to the part in which Emily Fox-Seton's loyal and kind and good (and white) maid tries to warn her kind and forgiving and beautiful (and white) mistress that not everyone has good intentions towards her:  "Ameerah," wailed poor Jane, "White ones have no chance against black!"

Yup.  That's where I stopped.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Dupin Mysteries by Edgar Allan Poe

book cover
Original Publication Date: The Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1841; The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, 1842/43; The Purloined Letter, 1844

Genre: mystery

Topics: intellect versus brutality, morality


Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin stories are said to be the first mysteries, establishing the basic tenants of the genre. So I thought I should read them.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue starts off the trilogy. Since this story "established a genre," I was expecting a lot out of it. It was... okay. A little odd, really. It starts off with a treatise about logic and chess, then introduces Dupin, who is seen through the eyes of the narrator. The narrator is a normal guy (I assume he's American) who moved to Paris and needed to find an apartment. He met Dupin by chance, moved in with him, and the two became fast friends. Sound familiar--like the set-up to, say, A Study in Scarlet? There are even more similarities between Dupin and Sherlock Holmes.

The murder mystery itself deals with two women--one old, one young--who were found brutally murdered in their apartment. What makes the mystery twisty enough to call in Dupin is that several witnesses heard other voices in the room with the two women, even though no one saw anyone leaving their apartment and the door was still locked on the inside. One voice was variously described as having nearly every accent in Europe, so where could the murderer possibly be from?

Dupin is VERY Sherlockholmes-esque (or perhaps we should say Sherlock Holmes is very Dupin-esque). He can extrapolate specific conclusions about people based on the smallest piece of evidence, like a ribbon. Unlike Holmes, however, Dupin isn't a know-it-all. He never claims to have facts--he makes it very clear he's guessing, and his guesses just happen to be correct most of the time. He doesn't take money for his investigations and instead seems to be doing what he's doing for the pure reasons of exercising his intellect in the pursuit of clearing an innocent man's name.

Although The Murders in the Rue Morgue wasn't the greatest, I do have to say I did not see the solution to the mystery coming AT ALL. And monkeys are way scary.

illustration from the mystery of marie roget

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is longer than The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and much worser. At first I thought it was going to be awesome, because there was more of a set-up regarding the victim of the crime--a perfumer clerk who (naturally) is female. After disappearing unexpectedly for about a month, she returns to her job claiming she'd been to visit a sick aunt. A few weeks later, she disappears again, and later her body is found in Seine.

The mystery itself is based on the real-life murder case of Mary Cecelia Rogers, which remains one of the most puzzling unsolved crimes in New York City history. THAT mystery is really interesting; The Mystery of Marie Rogêt--or at least the solving of it--is not. Basically Dupin reads the newspaper accounts aloud, debunks whatever they say, then theorizes what might have happened based on what they say, without ever finding the murderer. It's like a novelist imagining what might have happened to a murder victim, which I suppose is what was actually happening here. But the characters themselves never DO anything; they don't even move from the table. IT IS SO BORING. I honestly didn't think Poe was even capable of writing something this boring. I think it's safe to say that unless you're a hard-core EAPic, you can skip this one.

a doubly purloined letter

The Purloined Letter is the last story in the trilogy, the shortest, and the best. As in the last two stories there's a lot of dialog, but the dialog is more clever, as is the twist at the end.

Dupin and the narrator are hanging out in their apartment one night, when Dupin is visited by the Prefect of Police, a man he obviously thinks is an idiot. The narrator describes the Prefect as having, "a fashion of calling every thing 'odd' that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of 'oddities.'" Oh snap! The Prefect is in search of a letter stolen by a Minister D. that contains compromising information. Try as he might, though, he and his police can't find it anywhere in the minister's rooms.

This mystery is notably different from the last two in several respects: for one, there's no beautiful dead woman. For another, Dupin actually accepts payment for solving the mystery, whereas in the last two mysteries he was simply exercising his intellect. I suppose that makes sense, since finding the letter didn't seem to pose much of a challenge for him. And lastly, Dupin deliberately matches wits with Minister D., whom some have suggested is actually his brother (kind of like Holmes and Mycroft?). I have have to admit that, listening to this on audio, it's easy to confuse D. with Dupin sometimes, because they do share similar personality traits.

For the most part, I really enjoyed Poe's Dupin mysteries (except for The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, that was horrible). Dupin's not a terribly fleshed-out character, and the mysteries are very intellectual and too theoretical sometimes, but overall this was a really fun, short read. I'm happy to finally be familiar with the start of the mystery novel!

You might also enjoy:

Download Poe's short story collections at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Leavenworth Case, by Anna Katharine Green

Original Publication Date:  1878

Genre:  Mystery, Romance?

Topics:  Murder, Fainting, Family Drama

Review:  The Victorians were nothing if not really, really dramatic.  Anna Katharine Green was no exception and her mystery novel, The Leavenworth Case, proves it.  There is Fainting.  There is Swearing Before God.  There are Secret Marriages.  Wild Accusations.  Love at First Sight.  And, of course, 11th Hour Revelations.  A Full Confession.  All those things and many more, and all deserving of mid-sentence capitalization.  And all shared with much more wordiness than necessary.

I must admit that the more I read Victorian literature that was popular with the Victorians, the more I judge them (Yes.  All of them).  They seem, on the whole, a very bizarre bunch prone to monologues and lectures and excessive use of italics and exclamation points.  I find it hard to believe there were many sensible people around in the time period, especially as they all seem to conveniently put their every dastardly thought into writing to be found by someone later on at a key moment.

The Leavenworth Case was not my cup of tea.  It centers around a locked-room murder of a very wealthy man whose name, unsurprisingly, was Leavenworth.  Mr. Leavenworth had two nieces, one of whom would inherit all his money and the other of whom wasn't going to get anything.  There was no real reason for this at all- both nieces were very pretty and seemed very attached to their uncle, but he bizarrely only wanted to give his money to one of them.  What follows is a very complicated (might I say convoluted?) mystery involving many people and a whole lot of partially-burnt pieces of paper (really, you'd think one would be more careful) of trying to determine who killed him.

There were multiple narrative voices in this story:  we have the actual narrator who tells the story, but we also have other characters take on the role of narrator to relate their stories and involvement with the crime.  The thing is, I couldn't tell the difference between any of these narrative voices.  They all sounded the same to me, from dialect to sentence construction to anything else that lends distinction, even though people came from different walks of life and even different countries.  So with that caveat, I was even more lost with the other characters.  It took me a very long time to differentiate between Mr. Leavenworth's nieces, for example.

I also thought the story could do with some editing, but then I often feel that most Victorian novels could do with some editing.  I really dislike the last-minute confession from the villain who then proceeds to tell us his version of the story, explaining every single puzzling detail of the story- it is just sloppily done, in my view, and also seems a bit lazy.  There must be a less bludgeoning way to share the information than that, to integrate it more into the story.  There was also a longer-than-necessary explanation of Mr. Leavenworth's very random hatred of Englishmen.  I don't think this odd characteristic added much at all to the story, and could easily have been tweaked to be taken out without any harm done and at least a few pages removed.  The multiple conversations about and mullings over the exact same clues could have been reduced, too.

I am saying all the bad things, but I do see how this book was engaging to its readers.  The mystery is very complicated and seems to go in many different directions.  Just when you think you've gotten to the end, some other twist comes up.  The detective in the story, Mr. Ebenezer Gryce (was Ebenezer just a really popular name in the Victorian era?!  I don't get it), was also a funny and endearing guy- the only character, really, who stood out to me as an individual.  While I don't think I'll be reading any more of Green's novels, this one was a lesson in patience, and if you are one of those who truly does enjoy Victorian sensibilities and dramatics, then maybe you should give one a go.

Cross-Posted from BookLust

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review: MY MAN JEEVES by PG Wodehouse

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1919

Genre: humor

Topics: class, coming of age


Bertie Wooster is a lovable, wealthy young man who is totally delusional. He wouldn't be able to solve any problem if he didn't have his imaginary friend to help him out in form of Jeeves, a factotum. Basically, Jeeves is like SIRI before there were cell phones. Whenever Bertie or one of his friends is in trouble, they ask "Jeeves," who appears out of nowhere in front of Bertie and tells him and his friend how to solve their problem.

Okay, so maybe Bertie isn't delusional. OR IS HE? You don't know. My Man Jeeves is a collection of short stories in which Bertie runs into a lot of mishaps, mostly involving women, and the djinni-esque Jeeves suggests ways for him to get out it, mostly involving lying. Over half of the stories, however, have a fellow (I have adopted the nomenclature) named Reggie as the protagonist. I'm guessing this is Jeeves before he became Jeeves--otherwise, why have the stories in a book titled My Man Jeeves? These were actually more interesting than Bertie's stories, because Reggie REALLY gets himself into some scrapes.

These stories were soooo much fun. I listened to the audiobook from Librivox (read by Mark Nelson, who did a really excellent job) and giggle-snorted through every single one--which is not comfortable when you're trying to hold a yoga position, fyi.

I classify these stories as coming-of-age because nearly every one involves a member of the older generation--dad, aunt, etc.--standing between a younger person and what they want. In one, a poet wants to hang out in the country and watch bugs all day, but his aunt threatens to cut him out of her will unless he lives in NYC and tells her about the all parties he goes to. In another, a young artist feels stifled by the presence of his father's masterpiece in his house, so his wife arranges to have it stolen. Mainly these situations are played for comedic effect, but there's a definite sense that the characters are only just beginning to figure out who they are and what they want.

If you haven't read these stories yet, you should. They are super-funny and -entertaining. And as a bonus, suddenly everything on the internet makes sense.

Other reviews of My Man Jeeves at PGP: Patty from A Tale of Three Cities
Read My Man Jeeves on Project Gutenberg

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Fortieth Door by Mary Hastings Bradley

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1920

Genre: Adventure

Topics: Forbidden love, hidden identities, marriage customs, Egyptian folklore, harem life

Jack Ryder is an American archaeologist working in Egypt. He’s been persuaded by his friend Jinny to escort her to a costumed ball in Cairo. Jack is reluctant. He has no interest in balls or even women, to the point he nearly thinks girls=cooties. Jinny isn’t one to listen to excuses though, so he borrows his friend Andrew MacLean’s kilt and attends as a highlander. During the ball, he sulks around the outer fringes until his attention is caught by a mysterious girl in black veils. And she’s something else, all dark eyed loveliness and tiny enough to put in his pocket. He spins her around the dance floor a few times. Maybe girls aren’t so yucky after all.

Suddenly she dashes off but Jack is in pursuit. He follows the girl to the gates of a walled house, where he enfolds her in his arms. But wait, this is no costumed party goer! She’s Aimee, the daughter of a prosperous Muslim merchant. She’s not for you, Jack dear. Jack thinks otherwise and persuades her to see him again. Jack doesn’t know it yet but he’s about to get himself in way over his head.

I had my moments with The Fortieth Door. I wanted to see where this was all headed. I knew they’d get together, but how was this going to be accomplished? Very complicatedly. First of all, there are a lot of coincidences in this book. A LOT. I mean, come on. I wasn’t even surprised by anything after awhile. Some of it doesn’t make much sense either (that ending with the mummy? What?!) So prepare to leave your disbelief at the door.

The Fortieth Door was published in 1920 and was made into a silent film in 1924. I can see why, there is plenty of action. When there’s no action though, there’s little to say about the writing. Was Mary Hastings Bradley the Dan Brown of her time? Possibly. Bradley was a well traveled lady and had been to Egypt, which is obvious in her descriptions and some of the cultural references. She certainly chose the right time to write The Fortieth Door. In 1922, King Tut’s tomb was discovered and the Egyptian craze began.

The Fortieth Door has all the intolerance and racism you would expect for the time. All the good guys are white guys (Brits and Americans), and all the bad guys are Egyptian. Pretty much every character who wasn’t white was a baddie. It was ridiculous actually. Then there is Jack who was so irritating at times. He’s been in Egypt for 2 years, you’d think he’d have caught on to how things work. He gets angry with Aimee when she must do what her father tells her to do. Like she’s got much of a choice. Most of the time I liked Aimee. She does some brave stuff. She’s courageous and quick on her feet. It made it even more frustrating to me when Jack refers to her as a little girl or a child. Dude, did you not just see what she did there? She’s a tough cookie!

Jinny and Andrew were my favorite characters by far. Both see Jack as the reckless youth he is. They actually give Jack’s actions some perspective for the reader. Jack can be immature and thoughtless and it’s not just us who knows it. I liked how Andrew was trying to hide things from poor innocent Jinny (as he thought her), while she saw right through him and knew Jack was in deep do-do. The female characters remain strong, even though the men think they can’t handle all this danger. 

The Fortieth Door is fun despite its problems. It’s full of action and adventure. It’s dated, yes, but if you can keep your eyes from rolling out of your head, it’s enjoyable. I’d love to see that film, but it’s considered lost. Maybe someone can remake it since remakes are all the rage now, maybe Ron Howard could direct.

This review is of the LibriVox recording narrated by JM Smallheer. She puts some life in the text and does a good job with the accents. Her pronunciation is also excellent.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Review: The Log Cabin Lady by Anonymous

Original Publication Date:  1922

Genre:  Non-Fiction, Women, Wild West

Topics:  Women, Class System, America, World Wars

Review:  This is a true life account of one woman's difficult transition from frontier girl to society girl.  It really appealed to me because we so often hear about Cinderella stories- beautiful poor, young girls swept off their feet by handsome rich men and go off to live happily ever after in a castle.  And that may be true to an extent, but it ignores the very real difficulties those women faced in needing to learn all of the etiquette, rules and complex interactions that regulated life in high society.  This is the only book that I've encountered that really approaches this issue in an honest and sympathetic way.  Nowadays, most historical romance novels are written with heroines that roll their eyes at convention and are bored by learning how to properly address a Duke and don't care to know how many times one should curtsey in front of the Queen of England.  But those heroines ignore the very real consequences that arise when a person doesn't behave correctly.  This anonymous writer is well aware of those consequences. 

I am not entirely sure why she wrote this short book in the manner that she did.  For example, she doesn't set down all the rules for young girls to follow.  She doesn't give them advice on what to do in certain situations.  She just relates her own early bloopers and then pleads with her readers to teach women how to behave properly in Society.  It's a strange thing to do, I feel, because her writing doesn't actually help any girls that may be in the same situation as her.  She just wants other people to help them.

Because of this, I think The Log Cabin Lady is very dated.  It would be an interesting and useful read if it actually gave specific directions.  I think I would be pretty fascinated to learn exactly what a woman should wear in her presentation to the Queen of England, what topics are appropriate for dinnertime conversation, how you should seat people at dinner, etc.  But none of that is touched upon here, except very peripherally, when our narrator makes a blunder.

So instead, this journal is more a group of vignettes written with the weirdly desperate hope of giving girls etiquette training at home while they're young so that they won't embarrass themselves overseas by doing something as ghastly as asking a general to sit down in the presence of a standing king. 
If any one had told that girl the sacredness of the convention she had ignored, she would have suffered as keenly as I had suffered in my youth. It was such a simple thing to learn; yet who in the middle of a war would think of stopping to run a class in etiquette? The point is that any girl capable of crossing half the world to do a big job and a hard one in a foreign land should have been given the opportunity to learn the rules of social intercourse.
I personally would turn that statement around on its head and say, "Why, in the middle of a war, are you so worried about a girl requesting a general to sit down in a king's presence?"  But perhaps I am not the target audience.

The Log Cabin Lady also gets strangely patriotic- not about America as a whole, but about the Midwest.  As a born and bred Midwesterner, I completely sympathize with her, but it is bizarre because the woman keeps talking about how Americans need to cultivate good manners so that we can impress Europeans, but then on the other hand, she really prides Americans are being down-to-earth and not caring about such things.
It was like a bath for my soul. Brains count out West. Anybody who tries to show off is snubbed.
You must do something to be anything in the Middle West; just to have something doesn't count. You don't list your ancestors as you must in Virginia or the Carolinas, but to feel self-respecting you must do something.
So really... not sure what the Log Cabin Lady wants.  Refined European manners that will make even the most awkward Illinois girl feel comfortable in drawing rooms around the world?  Or good old American honesty and integrity, where class and ancestry don't matter nearly so much as the work you do yourself?  It seemed to me like she wanted both, and her narrative was very winding and misguided because of it.

Also, her rich and handsome diplomat husband seemed like a first-class jerk to me, so I am not sure I trust her taste in all things, anyway.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review: THE LOST STRADIVARIUS by John Meade Falkner

lost Stradivarius book cover
Original Publication Date: 1895

Genre: Gothic, epistolary

Topics: ghosts, evil, temptation

Proposed alternate title: The Devil Went Down to Oxford


John Maltravers is a respectable student at Oxford, until one day he and his V E R Y close friend, Mr. Gaskell, decide to play a Gagliarda, whatever that is. The melody calls up the ghost of a man who is mad, bad, and dangerous to know, and who just happened to have occupied John's rooms a century ago. When the ghost passes on his Stradivarius violin, John sells his soul to the devil to become the greatest fiddle player in all the land, and is soon ignoring his fiancee, familial responsibilities, growing out his hair, acting like a dick rock star, traipsing off to Naples at the drop of a hat, smoking the pot, and spending way too much quality time with nubile Italian boys.

The only reason I downloaded The Lost Stradivarius from Librivox was because a good portion of it is narrated by my man Ralph Snelson, whom I am stalking (only on Librivox, though, don't worry). As always, he does an excellent job. There was one chapter where I started crying because he conveyed the emotions of the narrator so well.

The story itself is narrated, not by Maltravers, but by his sister Sophia, in a letter to his son. Overall I thought John Meade Falkner did a really good job both in choosing Sophia as the narrator and fleshing out her character believably (even though I did have to wonder how she knew so many details about what went on in her brother's life when he was away from home). We need her to be the narrator because Maltravers becomes increasingly unsympathetic as the book goes on, and the story she tells is a thinly veiled metaphor about how she lost her brother to addiction. That's why I don't think of this as a "ghost story"--the ghost in question really has only a minimal amount to do with the central narrative. When Maltravers moves to Italy, the book takes on an unexpectedly Gothic flavor, with abandoned castles, skeletons, and murders mysterious.

maltravers and his Stradivarius
SO WHAT, I'm still a rock star, I got my rock moves, and I don't neeeed youuuuu!

I was actually thinking The Lost Stradivarius was pretty good until the final chapter, which is an addendum by Mr. Gaskell, the "very intimate" university friend of Maltravers. There was some ethnocentrism, and paranoia about the undue influence of pagan (read: classical, read: homosexual) Italian culture on Our Susceptible Young People earlier in the book; but in Gaskell's note it was so over-the-top that I was literally LOLing. Falkner also added a bunch of extraneous plot elements in the final chapter, I have no idea why. Am I supposed to care about the ghost's murder and missing pages from his diary? BECAUSE I DON'T.

Still, even though I found the last chapter ridiculous and annoying, it's very zeitgeist-y in that it reflects the Symbolists' concern with art and beauty and overindulgence. I just wish it had been more subtle and not so much with the xenophobia.

The Lost Stradivarius is an interesting mixture of ghost story, Symbolist writing, and Gothic novel, and for the most part it works. I think it would be a great read around Halloween or for the RIP Challenge.

Find The Lost Stradivarius by John Meade Falkner on Project Gutenberg|Librivox|Gaslight

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Review: The Misses Mallett by E. H. Young

The Misses Mallett - E.H. Young
Original Publication Date: 1922 (Under the title "The Bridge Dividing")

Genre: Fiction, Woman's History, Romance

Topics: Spinsterhood, Single Women, Love, Relationships

Review: I picked up The Misses Mallett (also published under the title The Bridge Dividing) on a whim. I came across the title on a list of "similar reads" while browsing through GoodReads and I could not believe my luck that here was a Virago Modern Classics title available in the public domain. On top of that, the plot promised to revolve around single women, a topic that I love to read about in early twentieth century fiction.

The Misses Mallett is about four single women who live together, all of them keeping to the idea that being single and an inability to commit is a family tradition. The four women consist of three sisters: Caroline, Sophia, and Rose, and the unfortunate child of the sisters' brother who left his wife and child in poverty. The child, Henrietta, moves in with the three sisters when her mother dies. She finds herself in a household that is very different from her previous surroundings; the sisters are reasonably well off and often spend time contemplating which dresses to wear on any of their social calls, while Henrietta is used to helping her landlady in order to keep her mother and herself in reasonable conditions. Henrietta struggles with a balance of the qualities she valued in her mother and her previous life, while she also learns to recognise the similarities to her father (who was known as a little bit of a rascal and had a number of affairs) during her stay with her aunts. 

The story focuses on Rose and Henrietta, while Caroline and Sophia remain more marginal figures. What we do learn is that Caroline likes to reminisce and talk about her past conquests and improprieties, which may not necessarily all be true. Sophia mostly lives in the shadow of Caroline, but every so often comes out to correct Caroline’s stories, especially when she feels they exaggerate her past lack of decorum, or the number of her conquest. Through these commentaries we learn that Sophia might be happy living in Caroline’s shadow in public, but that she privately knows that she received as much male attention as Caroline in her day.

Caroline functions as the matron of the family, and she is sure to remind her family of their upholding the family’s standard, which, rather comically, involves the rule that the Mallett women prosper in spinsterhood:

“The Malletts don't marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We've been terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she hasn't married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.”

Exactly because these books seemed to subvert the social expectations regarding women and marriage, by having spinsterhood be proclaimed an ideal, while marriage was professed to consist of trouble, this book had me interested. Of course, through some of Caroline’s silliness, and the emerging storyline of the longing for love felt by most of the Malletts, society’s ideal is eventually upheld. Nevertheless, the slightly mocking tone made me settle down for an enjoyable read during the first quarter of The Misses Mallett.

I am sorry to say that these expectations did not pay off. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the main storyline soon starts to revolve around Henrietta and Rose. Both Malletts compete for the love of Francis Sales, who is married to an invalid woman who terrorises her husband and the Mallett girls because of suspected infidelity on their part. 

The thing is, while I could sympathise with Rose and Henrietta in their singleness, and while they were somewhat interesting in their contemplations on life separate from Francis Sales, it was their professed love for him, and their obsession with winning his affection, that got tiring very quickly. The only thing that seemed a likely explanation for the way Rose and Henrietta chased him, was that he was, in effect, unavailable. It appears to be the chase that made him desirable, not the person himself. And who could blame the girls for that, because if anyone seems undeserving of their love, it is Francis Sales. I grew tired of his self-pity and “woe is me” quite quickly, and I couldn’t really understand why the Mallett girls persevered in convincing themselves they loved him.

Contrasting Francis Sales with the single man Charles, it is rather obvious to the reader who Henrietta *should* choose. Of course, it takes Henrietta ages to acknowledge this. Charles is one of the more interesting characters in the book (next to Sophia, whom I would have loved to learn more about) in that he is both an astute observationist, but also a dreamy philosopher with a love for music, mixed with a dash of a heroic lover. He might have been a little bit too much of a Romantic for me, but he was certainly the more interesting male lead. The fact that it took Henrietta so long to recognise this made the book feel extra long in the end. I really wish I could have woken the girl up and directed her to him at some point in the narrative. Because, as much as I enjoy the Austenesque setup of a “Mr Wickham” and a “Mr Darcy” (though Francis and Charles really do not compare to these gentleman except for one being the “wrong” and the other being the “right” choice for the girl), somehow E.H. Young’s story did not have the same magic.

Luckily, Simon pointed out that The Misses Mallett is one of the least strong works by Emily Hilda Young that he has read. He recommends her later works William and Miss Mole instead. Unfortunately, these titles are not (yet?) available in the public domain. Her earlier novel Moor Fires is, but what I gather from Simon’s statement that The Misses Mallett is considered to be the novel that connects her mediocre rural novels to her later novels of much higher quality, I am not sure if I should bother to try her earlier books.

The Misses Mallett had some promising aspects and themes going, especially during the first quarter of the novel, but I feel it died down quickly in the rather long parts dedicated to Rose and Henrietta chasing the, in essence unlikeable, Mr. Sales.

The Misses Mallett can be found on The Project Gutenberg here.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Review: THE TRAIL OF CONFLICT by Emilie Loring

the trail of conflict book cover
This is the most accurate cover I have ever seen. The characters really are that wooden.
Original Publication Date: 1922

Genre: Romance

Topics: masculinity, love, independence


Mr. Glamorgan has a dream: to make so much money he can buy his daughters upper-class husbands. To that end, he buys Peter CourtlandT's mortgage and then threatens to foreclose on him if his son, Stephen, doesn't marry Glamorgan's daughter, Geraldine. You can tell the CourtlandTs are fancy because they have a T at the end of their name that makes no linguistic sense. Anyway, Stephen and Jerry marry, but Stephen's not very happy about it, and they don't have *whispers* THE SEX. Then Stephen's Uncle Nick shows up--a hilarious grizzled old guy with a talent for saying the most awkward thing at any given moment and not giving the tiny twitch of a rat's ass. Nick decides that what this couple needs is to eschew all of Glamorgan's money and move out to Wyoming where Stephen can prove he's a man, man (you would have thought being a hero in WWI would have done it, but nope!). So they do. Things happen, they fall in love, blah blah.

I've read more than a few Emilie Loring novels; my mom has a whole stack of them that I would make my way through on summer vacations. The vast majority are not in the public domain (not as far as I know, anyway), and I can see why no one bothered to renew the copyright on The Trail of Conflict. It's not one of her best. The writing is extremely uneven--pretty good one minute, then a lot of tell-not-show the next; narrative inconsistencies (when the novel starts, it's implied the story takes place in England, then suddenly they're in the US); and the plot is way more complicated than it needs to be. That paragraph only describes the set-up for the entire novel; the vast majority of it takes place in Wyoming. And there's even more plot once they move.

But I wouldn't have minded any of this if I had been able to connect to either Jerry or Stephen. Instead, I spent most of the book wondering what the heck was going through their heads. There's too much plot and not enough characterization, and both the main characters just seem to do stuff with no insight into why they are doing it. Is Stephen ever attracted to Jerry? I don't know! I guess it doesn't matter, since they're married anyway. And what glimpses I did get of their train of thought didn't exactly endear me to them. For example, Jerry gets rid of all her money on the way to Wyoming, then is like, "How am I going to survive without money?" Sweetie, you're moving to the home of a millionaire rancher. You're not going to starve. And where are you going to go shopping in the middle of Wyoming, anyway? Stephen, meanwhile was a total dick and kept calling Jerry "little girl." Guys pro-tip: NEVER CALL A WOMAN THAT.

I wanted to like Trail of Conflict, I really did, but I just couldn't spend another moment with the main characters. Loring has plenty of other books that are worth reading (I really like Here Comes the Sun), but none of them are in the public domain. So there you have it.

Find The Trail of Conflict at Project Gutenberg

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


book cover
Original Publication Date: 1888

Genre: fantasy

Topics: lost world, adventure, exploration


This is a really weird book.

Adam More is a sailor on a convict ship. They're making their way back to England (or wherever the heck they're from) via South America, when he and this other guy whose name I forgot decide to go kill a bunch of seals. The captain's like, "Wait. No. Don't do that," but they go ashore anyway, and before you know it the ship's sailed off without them! They try to catch up but quickly become lost in the Antarctic, and eventually stumble upon a lost civilization of Antarctic peoples. Eventually, More writes about his experiences on a leaf (like Bunny Rabbit's Diary!) and some dudes in a boat find it.

I don't want to compare A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder to The Lost World-meets-Robinson Crusoe, because I think that would be an insult to those books; but it definitely has a similar vibe. The book didn't start off well for me because the hero killed baby seals. THEN these two guys behaved like total idiots with zero survival skills. For instance, they eat snow to survive, when everyone knows eating snow only dehydrates you and you end up dying faster. And shouldn't they be freezing to death?

I wanted to give up, but I stuck with it until the Antarctic people showed up. When they finally did, I only got more annoyed. Naturally, the Antarctic people are cannibals who want to eat the European guys. Ah, ye olde cannibalistic natives ploy. Fun fact: the American natives that the Spanish claimed were cannibals were probably not cannibals at all. Shocking, I know. Moving on... the natives are small, dark-skinned, and treated in a very racist manner by Adam, who describes them as the ugliest things he's ever seen. In addition, their societal values are the complete opposite of ours. They value death over life, try to avoid love, believe being rich is a curse, etc. Of course, European society does this to some extent as well, but let's ignore that because James De Mille is using it to "other"-ize these arctic pygmies, mkay?

On some level I realize De Mille is probably commenting on society having a balance of values, but he takes his damn time getting to the point, and in the meanwhile the book is dragging with these unlikable seal-murdering men who are TSTL. Novels like this basically hinge on plausibility, and to me everything in A Strange Manuscript seemed unbelievable. On the other hand, I could see a ten-year-old boy possibly buying into it.

I think A Strange Manuscript is worth checking out if you want to read something REALLY odd, but for me it didn't have any appeal whatsoever.

Read A Strange Manuscript at Librivox|Project Gutenberg

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

Original Publication Date:  1926

Genre:  Young Adult, Romance

Topics:  Coming of Age

Review:  I went into Lucy Maud Montgomery's The Blue Castle thinking that I would absolutely love it.  It's about Valancy Stirling, a 29-year-old single woman (just like me!) who is often nitpicked by her family for being single (just like me!) and has never really rebelled or stood up for herself in her whole life (ok, our similarities end there).  One day, she has a great pain in her chest and learns from her doctor that she has a fatal heart condition, and will live at most one more year.  Valancy looks back on her life and is thoroughly unsatisfied with it.  She firmly decides that, if she's only got one year to live, then she might as well Live it Large, and so sets out to tell people exactly what she thinks and do exactly what she wants to do.

Refreshingly, Valancy is a very nice person.  So when she tells people what she thinks and does as she pleases, it's all quite a lot of positive things.  She finally stands up for herself, points out to her relatives just how absurd they are, and sets off to nurse a dying girl.

I grew up loving L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series, but they are a little... saccharine.  The Blue Castle has characters that gasp when Valancy says "darn," think that jokes about ankles and calves are indelicate, and generally live in a complete bubble.  But The Blue Castle confronts hard realities, too.  There's a woman ostracized by the town because she gave birth to an illegitimate child, and Valancy becomes ostracized, too, by associating with her.  There is alcoholism, though it's presented in a more humorous than dangerous light.  There's the fear of a woman left on her own, confronted by a much larger and angry man.  And there is the more subtle, but just as difficult, reality of being an unmarried woman in a small town that defines women by marital status.  I loved that Montgomery chose to touch upon all of these issues in this novel.  And I loved that Valancy's rebellion was good and kind and very personal, not ridiculously overblown for shock value.  So often, women who rebel in literature are presented as caricatures- as females who are so sick of riding sidesaddle that they buy a man's riding suit and prance through town wearing it, just to piss everyone off.  I hate that.  But Valancy isn't like those women at all.  Everything she does, she does because she wants to, and because it makes her feel better about herself, and I loved her for that.

However, I didn't love this book.  I must say that I thought Valancy was pretty whiny at the beginning.  She wasn't whiny out loud to her family, but she was whiny in her mind.  There is an entire chapter in which she lies in bed, listing out the many grievances she has had in life, from early childhood to her 29th birthday.  I mean, really.  Is someone who remembers all those slights and punishments likely to become an entirely carefree, confidently happy person just 24 hours later?  It seemed unlikely to me.  I understand that all these instances were pointed out to us to show us just how downtrodden and put upon Valancy was in life, but it only served to make me think that she held grudges for a long time.

I also didn't like the very protracted ending of the book.  Really, you know where the book is going, and that it will get there eventually, so I don't understand why Montgomery insisted on drawing out a misunderstanding between Valancy and the Romantic Interest as long as she did.  I think it was supposed to be the point of tension and drama in the book, but I can't imagine that anyone thought the book would ever end differently than it did, and so instead of creating tension, Montgomery just drew out the story too long.  At least, in my opinion.

But overall, this book was fun reading, and I'm sure if I had read it when I was younger, I'd have fallen in love with it.  Valancy is the sort of heroine you cheer for, with beauty from within that makes her much more attractive on the outside, with intelligence, kindness and a great sense of humor, with a go-get-'em attitude that is impossible to resist.  I loved how she went after what she wanted, regardless of the consequences, and made her life.  It's a great story of a woman taking control of her own destiny, rather than being a passive participant in her own life.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Review of The Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons

Original Publication Date: 1793

Genre: Gothic horror

Topics: damsel in distress, incest, murder, kidnapping, family secrets, forgiveness


Spooky castles, damsels in distress, evil villains, murder, seeeeecrets, and even a pirate, these are the gothic elements you'll find in The Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons.

On a dark and stormy night, Matilda stumbles to the Castle of Wolfenbach in search of refuge. The servant there warns her of the ghosts who harass visitors and indeed Matilda hears rattling of chains and moans from another part of the castle. She is unimpressed with these Scooby-Doo antics and next morning investigates these sounds on her own. Lo and behold, she finds a lady and her maid hiding in the abandoned wing. Immediately, they become besties and she tells the lady her tale of woe. Matilda is an orphan raised by her uncle. Everything was kittens and rainbows, until he turns V.C. Andrews and plots with the housekeeper to rape her. Matilda flees with her servant Albert. And the castle is as far as she gets. The lady is sympathetic, she too has a tale of woe, but...she'll tell it another time. In the meantime, she writes to her sister who just happens to be looking for a companion for a trip to England. How serendipitous! Things are really turning around for Matilda.

One morning, Matilda makes a visit to the lady to hear her story only to find her rooms are trashed, her maid murdered, and the lady missing. Oh noes! What happened here?! Matilda does the only thing she knows how to do, she flees. Now she has a destination- the lady's sister in Paris. She'll know what to do! What Matilda doesn't know is that her uncle is hot on her trail.

I had such high hopes for Matilda. I thought she was going to be a kick-ass heroine. I mean, she runs away from her creepy uncle even though she has no place to go. Then she faces the 'ghosts' just like a Velma and helps move a murdered corpse. What can't she do?! Apparently everything, once people are around. I get the feeling if you put Matilda on a deserted island with a coconut and a bowie knife she'd have a raft built in a week. Put a couple of people on the island with her, she'd fall in a hole. Once she gets to Paris, she spends more time crying hysterically or swooning. Boy, she does a lot of swooning. For example, a mean girl at a play gives her a dirty look and she faints. 

She's not the only lady who faints at the drop of a hat. They all do. No wonder they had to wear such pouffy dresses. It was for padding. I suspect Parsons had no idea how to make her ladies express any violent emotion so she made them faint. A lot. It also gets them out of making decisions or doing things. (Note to self: Must try fainting the next time I don't want to make dinner.)

 Of course, fainting is preferable to how the men react to their strong feelings. They get stabby. "I can't have my way?...Everyone dies!" The reasonable solution to all life's problems is to murder the cause of those problems. No? Oh right, that's not how normal people deal with stuff. Pardon me, I was confused. To put a cherry on top, once they confess, all is forgiven. Murdering people is ok, as long as you fess up...eventually. What a great lesson for the reader.

That sort of falls into the moral of the story, because it must have a moral. Forgiveness is part of it. Also trusting in Providence because you're young and pretty and maybe noble and everyone loves you (except those who HATE you) and also the heroine of the a gothic novel. It will all work itself out. And it does!

As for the writing, don't expect introspective characters. Their motives are skin deep and easily discarded. Parsons doesn't do 'show, don't tell' well. Behold the following passage! (the emphasis is mine):

Pierre was already in bed, and Jaqueline preparing to follow, when the trampling of horses was heard, and immediately a loud knocking at the door; they were both alarmed; Pierre listened, Jaqueline trembled; the knocking was repeated with more violence; the peasant threw on his humble garment, and, advancing to the door, demanded who was there? 'Two travellers,' answered a gentle voice, 'overtaken by the storm; pray, friend, afford us shelter." 

I'm giving you the impression that I didn't like The Castle of Wolfenbach and that's not true. I LOVED it. It was so bad it was good. Matilda was so sweet my teeth ached but she had her moments. I wanted to know what was going to happen to her and the lady from the castle. I loved the evil villains. They were so EVILY! And the mean girls, so MEAN! And it's all plot. A fast plot with everything in it but the kitchen sink.

I can see why these type of books were so wildly popular. They were "horrid." Jane Austen's character Isabella Thorpe recommends The Castle of Wolfenbach to to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey. I guess I'm a bit like Catherine. There's nothing wrong with a little danger, as long it's fictional.

So, as long as you don't take The Castle of Wolfenbach too seriously you'll enjoy it.

Originally published on Chrisbookarama.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Short Story Review: The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1843

Genre: horror

Topics: madness, unintended consequences, guilt


The Black Cat is probably Edgar Allan Poe's most famous short story. I know it was one of the two Poe stories that was in my English textbook in middle school (and the fact that I remember it should tell you a lot about what an impression it made upon me as a kid). Basically it's about a guy who's a mean drunk and winds up killing a faithful pet, his cat. He later suspects the cat has come back to life to haunt him and this leads him to make some rather poor decisions.

After re-listening to this on Librivox (read by the boss Ralph Snelson) as an adult, I have to say I didn't really enjoy reading it. It's way cynical, and also a little predictable (I have read it before, but still). It's very well-written, of course, but it's not the type of story you come away from with the thrill of being scared silly--more like the sense that it's time to take a good long look in the mirror. Still, you should read it if you haven't.

And now it's time to play What Is the Cat a Metaphor For?! Here are my ideas:

black cat hanging
Theory #1: Slavery

When the narrator hangs the cat, he says

Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law , merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself - to offer violence to its own nature - to do wrong for the wrong's sake only - that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree; - hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; - hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; - hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin - a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it - if such a thing wore possible - even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God. (excerpt from Literature Network)
The hanging of the cat resembles a lynching in that it's an act of revenge, but not against any wrongdoing on the part of the cat--rather, the cat represents what the narrator should and could have a partnership and friendship with, yet he can't because every time he sees it, he's reminded of what a terrible person he's become, by his own hand. So he lashes out. Even after the cat is dead, the narrator still fears that it will bring a reckoning he knows he deserves.

the black cat by aubrey beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley's illustration of the Black Cat
Theory #2: The Wife

It's probably more likely that the cat is a metaphor for the narrator's wife. She's the one who gets the cat for him, and early on the cat is likened to a witch by the wife herself ("I'm not a witch, I'm your wife!"), which seems to plant the seeds of his later attitude toward the cat. The wife shares his love of animals, and when the narrator starts drinking, he admits to beating both her and their pets. And of course there's the fact that in his attempts to kill the cat--again--the narrator actually ends up killing his wife.

Have you read The Black Cat?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Guest Review: A ROOM WITH A VIEW by E.M. Forster

room with a view cover
Original Publication Date: 1908

Genre: romance?

Topics: love, society, coming of age

Review by Patty from Tale of Three Cities:

Many times, the novels I've read as a teenager seem to lose their appeal when re-reading them as an adult. Others, on the contrary, gain even more allure and highlight new facets to their story.

A Room with a View by EM Forster is one such novel.  Having read it while a teenager (and watching the film about 15+ times...), I was still aware of the main characters and the overall plot, but I could not remember whether it was all that good.  

The first comment I can make on A Room with a View is definitely politically incorrect: I had the impression that I was reading a book written by a woman! I know this is ridiculous, there is no feminine or masculine way of writing, but I honestly found the writing style too focused on petty details, too romantic... too pink!!! (excuse the expression). It didn't make an impression as such, but that made me pay even more attention on the book...

Moving on, Forster presents an array of situations and happenings to showcase comparisons: the two main venues in the book are Italy and England: Italy, the land of freedom, of laughter, of endless meadows with violets, a pure beauty - in sharp contrast with stiff upper-lipped England, full of rules and regulations, with the Church imposing the norms of society, a beauty perhaps only on a first glance... I found the stereotyping very amusing, and mostly spot-on: I believe the intention here was not to shock the audience, but rather  to move across the "sensitive" subjects rather painlessly, while still making the social criticism. Very clever indeed...

Lucy and her warden Charlotte find themselves without rooms with a view in Italy. Such a dramatic event surely cannot be sustained of course, and a respectable complaint starts being heard in the Pensione.  Upon the offer by the Emersons to swap rooms with theirs that do actually have a view, we witness the hardship of  good manners, taking refuge with the vicar, and finally the obedience towards the decision taken by said priest - the fact that this coincides with the original desire of the ladies, need not bother us. First: things are not always what they seem. From the perspective of a woman who knows what her position in society is, but who nevertheless wants to accomplish (tiny) things, the procedure to follow is way too time-consuming and complicated: she has to make everyone think it was their own idea and decision, while she has been plotting the end result since the beginning... 
(the women's) mission was to inspire other to achievement rather than to achieve themselves.
Difficult times... (I really laughed when Charlotte wouldn't give the big room to Lucy because young Emerson had it - that worry for absolute protection is bound to have the opposite results).

This difference between the new generation and the established one is also a main theme in this book. Not only is Lucy rebellious in contrast with her warden Charlotte but also the two Emersons seem to differ immensely - they just don't understand one another. Only novelists are allowed to cross over to the other side, and hence we have the little devil in the story: Miss Lavish. She will inform Charlotte of all possible mischief that can befall Lucy (I believe this is how Charlotte catches Lucy in the meadow and spoils one of the best romantic scenes in literature...) but she is also the source of amusement for Cecil by writing a book on Italy that will inevitably bring George and Lucy together... (I'm starting getting the romance now...)

On to the next set of comparisons, the conservative versus the radical: the Cecils of this world, who will say to whoever will listen how radical they are, how beyond class they've become, only to prove that they keep the status quo and even worse - they are actually misanthropists:
of course, he despised the world as a whole; every thoughtful man should; it is almost a test of refinement.
Fortunately, there are also the Georges and Lucies in this world, who may stray in the beginning, when they're still trying to fit in the norms of society, only to realise that life's too short for "trying": there has to be a rebellion, and it has to be now. Not in the most articulate manner as in Lucy's breaking the engagement off, but all's well that ends well.

Although the novel is full of comparisons / antitheses, it prefers staying on the surface of the matter at the most crucial point - I was surprised when Lucy and Cecil call off their engagement, that the dialogue is plain and civil to the point of being dry - not much information is provided for the inner feelings (or lack thereof) of the two main characters. That was the only point where I felt I wanted more.

In general, I have to say the novel gave me a lot more food for thought. The characters are given much more shine and I got much more information on the main characters: I was surprised, for example, at the very unflattering light Charlotte is portrayed. I had as reference the film, where Charlotte, while a stiff old spinster, is actually a likable stiff old spinster. I did not get that feeling at all with the book. She is to be meaningless, living in a cheerless, loveless world,  
a world of precautions and barriers which may avert evil, but which do not seem to bring good...  
There is only one hint at her good soul at the very end of the book. Interesting to see the difference between writer and filmmaker...

Lucy and Cecil in Florence

For the visual interpretation of this novel, I re-watched the 1985 film by the same name, directed by James Ivory. I have to agree that the film does the novel more than justice - the points where the novel may lack in depth, are compensated by the actors' interpretation.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Review: THE AFTER HOUSE by Mary Roberts Rinehart

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1914

Genre: mystery

Topics: sailing, Germanic horde


Ralph Leslie came down with typhoid only a day after graduating from college. Still weak from illness and with only seven dollars to his name, Leslie's friend sets him up with a summer job on a yacht. There's the forecastle, where the crew (including Leslie) sleep; and the after house, which is where the owner of the yacht and his friends have their rooms. Things seem calm on the surface, but tensions are clearly brewing in the after house, due mainly to the owner's endless drinking.

Then one night, three people on board are murdered, chopped to death by a silent, axe-wielding murderer. Trapped on a small vessel and weeks outside of port, everyone wonders who they can trust and who will be next.

Things I learned from The After House:
  1. Don't trust Germans. They have long names that are difficult to pronounce, are argumentative, and spend too much time philosophizing. I know what you're thinking: Tasha, shouldn't you have already known not to trust Germans from watching EVERY MOVIE EVER MADE? And you're right, I actually did know that, but sometimes I forget because 90% of the people I'm related to are, in fact, German. But still. Argumentative, really?!
  2. There's a reason why people are buried at sea.
  3. Don't be stupid like the hero of this book! At first I had high hopes for Leslie, but he makes one gaff after another, from ordering the blood washed away (evidence, hello! Didn't you go to med school?) to telling the women where exactly they can find the key to where the evidence is kept so they can throw it overboard.
  4. Bad things come to those who drink, especially if you drink whiskey.
Honestly, I have mixed feelings about The After House. For the first half I absolutely loved it. Mary Roberts Rinehart's writing was so sparse and perfect, and I was completely drawn into the story. Then the murders take place and they are SO. CREEPY. First everything is fine, if a little tense; and then all of a sudden there are dead people all over the freaking place in little pieces! Not only that, but no one sees or hears anything, even though they're right next door. It's like Lizzie Borden came back from the dead and is all, "I'm on a boat! *chop chop chop*"

In the second half, though, the pacing started to go off, and inconsistencies in the story began jumping out at me. I expected Leslie to solve the murders on board the ship as they made their way back to port, which would have kept the tension high and offered an elegant conclusion: roll into US waters, show the authorities the culprit, and disembark. Instead, Leslie does very little investigating and moons over a girl, who seems really sketchy. They pull into port with the murders still unsolved, and then everything we already know is retold in court. Basically the story lost all momentum at that point, and the conclusion was riDONculous.

It's still a pretty good book, though, because it's by Mary Roberts Rinehart. I have to wonder if Rinehart herself was a teetotaler; there's a definite presentation in the book about the evils of alcohol, what with the owner of the yacht going into delirium tremens and Leslie dumping all the alcohol overboard. Before that even happens, I was thinking the after house had to be a metaphor for something--either success or the American dream--and Leslie's face is pressed against the glass throughout the entire book. Leslie himself never imbibes, and Rinehart definitely contrasts his behavior with that of the thirstier characters.

The women in this novel are also really interesting. When the murders take place, to me they seemed like the obvious suspects (well, there were some other obvious suspects, but they were TOO obviously obvious, if you know what I mean). The ladies had the opportunity, and come on--people are hacked to death with an axe feet from where they're sleeping and they don't hear anything? Way suspicious. But the men folk never consider one of the women might be the killer, even though they order everyone around, defend themselves with guns and knives, accuse random people of the murders for the sole purpose of throwing suspicion on them, and attempt to destroy evidence. These ladies keep it real, yo. It was extremely frustrating that the thought one of them might be a homicidal maniac never even crossed Leslie's mind.

The After House isn't as good as The Man In Lower Ten (review here), and I probably wouldn't recommend starting with it if you haven't read Rinehart before; but it was pretty damn creepy, and had a deliciously claustrophobic atmosphere, so I think it's worth reading for that.

Read The After House at Project Gutenberg
You might want to know: there are some racial slurs in this book.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Short Story Review: Midnight on Beauchamp Row by Anna Katharine Green

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1895

Genre: "Horror." Kinda.

Topics: trust, marriage, unintended consequences


Letty Chivers is a young bride vaguely dissatisfied with her life, whose husband has some sort of job that requires him to carry large amounts of money around. Whenever the money's in the house, Letty gets nervous, but Ned never leaves her alone with it. Then one night he comes home and says he HAS to do something for work and won't be home until after midnight. In the meantime, he needs to leave the money with her.

Letty wants to go to her friends' house to wait for him, but Ned won't let her because he doesn't like her friends. So, with a "Tata, Little Woman!" Ned rides off into the night. It is then that Letty faces the true horror of her imagination: an uninvited guest.

Most of the time I would stop my summary there, but you guys HAVE to know what happens at the end of Midnight on Beauchamp Row. If you don't want to be spoiled, go here, read the story, then come back. I'll wait.

Are you back? Did you ever leave? It's okay, I'll catch you up.

Lettie's uninvited guest is a vagrant, whom she is SURE wants to steal her husband's money. So, to keep him from getting it, she throws it outside. Fiscal responsibility, folks! Then she feeds him dinner because that's only polite. All the while, though, she's thinking, "Why didn't I poison him? I could have grabbed some arsenic in the kitchen!" At some point she remembers there's a gun in the house and plans to shoot him, but it turns out Ned took the gun when he left. Meanwhile, the crude vagrant who offends all her delicate feminine sensibilities offers to do the dishes, which is pretty damn decent of him.

While he's doing the dishes, ANOTHER vagrant bursts into the house! Except this one is black, so he's extra-dangerous. Vagrant #2 is all, "Where's the money?" and goes straight to the cabinet where Letty put it, except naturally it's not there anymore. Then vagrant #1 comes in from the kitchen and whacks vagrant #2 upside the head. Vagrant #2 goes splat and vagrant #1 observes that he's dead--he knows, since he's killed men before. But it's all good, cuz he was saving Letty from the colored person.

They're going to dump the body outside, but Letty wants to make sure he's dead first (so she can whack him again if he isn't?). It's then that she notices vagrant #2 is not actually black--instead, it's her husband in black face!

David Tennant what

I'm sorry, but... WHAT?! Of all the things I hoped would happen during the course of this story--Letty plotting to steal the money from her hubby and running away, her and the vagrant falling in love and running off together, etc.--her husband stealing the money from her while in black face was noooowhere on the list. Zomg, race should not be the big reveal/plot twist. No no no no no.

Of course, Letty's not terribly upset by this (although more upset than when it was just a homeless person), because she wasn't that happy with her marriage to begin with. She doesn't know why, but I do: her husband's a controlling dick who treats her like she's ten years old. In the brief period of time he's on the page, he calls her "little" twice. AND he leaves her home alone at night all the time. No wonder she's so nice to vagrants, eh? It's the only action she gets in that house!

This is a pretty odd story. Not just the actual events that happen during the course of the tale, but the tone itself is odd. For one, the way Letty is treated is very The Doll's House-ish. Is Anna Katharine Green making a negative comment on how patronizing and controlling Ned is? I don't know. At most points in the story, it seems like this is taken as acceptable, normal behavior. But then he dies, and no one feels bad about it because he's a jerk, so that means... it's bad. Right? And Letty isn't fulfilled in the marriage, so I think Green is saying, "Yo, we have needs and desires, too, boys." But that message isn't terribly clear.

Also, the events of the story have a very comedy-of-errors feeling to them, but the tone of the writing is weirdly dire, so it all comes off as a little stilted. Then the ending is put forward so matter-of-factly and you're like, "Denouement, plz!" I'm still rooting for Letty and vagrant #1 to get married and have fourteen children.

Anna Katharine Green is the first woman to write a mystery novel, which I haven't read. But judging by this short story, I would definitely be interested in seeing what that's all about--because if it's anything like this story, it's some serious wtf.