Sunday, December 30, 2012

Guest Review: UNDER THE GREENWOOD TREE by Thomas Hardy

book cover

Original Publication Date: 1872

Genre: social novel

Topics: pastoral life, love, society

Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk (

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review: DEATH AT THE EXCELSIOR by PG Wodehouse

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1914

Genre: mystery

Topics: locked room, murder

Review by heidenkind:

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Guest Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1843

Genre: holiday

Topics: kindness, love, redemption

Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review: THE YELLOW WALLPAPER by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1892

Genre: short story

Topics: feminism, madness

Review by heidenkind:


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

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

yellow wallpaper comic

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 10, 2012

Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST by Marie Leprince de Beaumont

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1756

Genre: fairy tale

Topics: beauty, morality

Review by heidenkind

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Guest Review: THE ART OF TRAVEL by Francis Galton

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1854

Genre: non-fiction

Topics: travel, how-to, adventure

Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk:

Subtitle: Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries

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

Who should explore?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An explorer traveling and making notes noted this about asses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: EIGHT COUSINS by Louisa May Alcott

Original Publication Date: 1875

Genre: Young Adults

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


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

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

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

Sunday, December 2, 2012


book cover
Original Publication Date: 1900

Genre: Children's fantasy

Topics: journey, psychology, magic

Review by heidenkind:

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

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

off to see the wizard

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

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

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

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