Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

book cover Original Publication Date: 1905

Genre: Fiction; Women's History

Topics: Spinsterhood, Relationships, Women, Social History

Review by : Iris on Books

There are qualities to The House of Mirth that reminded me of other books around the theme of single women at the turn of the century, such as Thank Heaven FastingConsequencesThe Third Miss SymonsHow do you survive as a girl who is unmarried, and yet brought up for the exact purpose of marriage and nothing else? How to navigate the world of social conventions, of dos and don’ts for women? And how to deal by the time you are relegated to the sidelines of society because you are considered of unmarriageable age or reputation?
Some might call these books bleak. Others might complain about the lack of power in these girls and the unlikeability of the main characters. For me, the themes, characterisation, the painful realism are what made me love Thank Heaven Fasting and Consequences. It is what made me raise my hopes for The House of Mirth to, perhaps, unrealistic heights. I had a more complicated relationship with Wharton’s novel, and with its main character Lily Bart than I had with the books by E.M. Delafield, although it far outranks The Third Miss Symons. Look, perhaps Delafield style just suits me a little better. Perhaps I treated The House of Mirth unfairly by constantly comparing it to the books I had previously read. It is not that I did not enjoy The House of Mirth, or that I did not absolutely love parts of it. By the end it had wholly convinced me. It is just that it would be unfair not to mention my complicated relationship with other parts of the book.
Lily Bart does not lack agency like some might complain Alex Clare and Monica Ingram lack it. She does not subdue to circumstances, or at least, she holds out a little longer. She makes a lot of choices, for herself,for what she believes are her own best interests. Perhaps this is where Lily became a complicated character to like for me. So often she makes decisions that you, as a reader, realise are not for her own good, that at times it becomes hard to believe in her naivety, and to not fall into the trap of condemning her like the society surrounding her might (but which is also always from hindsight, knowing more than Lily does because you have seen this type of story before). The story is written in a way that, for a long time, makes you question whether or not Wharton is condemning her as a “silly” girl, that shouldn’t have been allowed to make these decisions in the first place.. Of course, deep down there were challenges to that socially condemning narrative, and possibly the fact that it makes the reader uncomfortable to be – almost – pushed into the camp of society is what is meant to happen. The fact is: I did not always feel sympathetic towards Lily. And I wanted to feel more sympathetic towards her. Which for part of the story just left me feeling very very conflicted.
On top of that, I felt the story dragged a little in the middle part. In part, this might have been due to my own circumstances, as I had a very difficult time reading anything beyond 10 pages a night at the time when I read The House of Mirth. When I finally settled down and made myself read more than those 10 pages, I quickly fell into the pace of the story again. Nevertheless, I do think it was not all me. Some episodes of circumstances, of choices made that might have been better left undone, were a bit heavy on the details, might have been just a tad shorter to my taste.
But then the latter third of the story happened. And it shook me so deeply. I do not think I will be giving away much when I say that this is a tragic story. Because of that tragedy, being witness to the disintegration of Lily’s life out of prejudice, circumstance, unforgivingness.. my feelings of empathy suddenly leaped and made up for what I had felt was lacking through parts of the story. It cast The House of Mirth in a very different light for me. And whereas previously I feared having to come on here and proclaim to the online world that I knew I should have loved The House of Mirth, but couldn’t, I knew that I might face a much more difficult task: namely admitting that I couldn’t like parts of it, but that I irrevocably loved the ending, and that that ending made me reconsider much of what I felt had been lacking in some other parts. I can see how perhaps the very ending might turn others of (too melodramatic for some, perhaps?), but for me, the last third made the book.
I know, this post lacks any coherent exploration of themes, or any meaningful criticism. But I think Edith Wharton is famous enough, and probably discussed in many a high school, that I need not bother doing that (or perhaps I dare not? – I feel bad enough about saying that I felt some parts of the book dragged a little). If the themes in the first paragraph interest you, if fiction exploring the position of women at the beginning of the twentieth century is of interest to you, if you like books that critique social circumstances, I think you should probably read this. I won’t say you’ll definitely like it, because I know my own feelings about it are all over the place, but I definitely think it is worth a try.
* Cross-posted to Iris on Books.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review: THE GREEN RUST by Edgar Wallace

book cover Original Publication Date: 1919

Genre: science fiction

Topics: Germanic horde, WMDs

Review by heidenkind:

What is the green rust? I don't know. No one knows! It's the McGuffin, okay? It's a bad thing that will destroy THE WORLD, and the nasty Dr. Van Heerden is determined to unleash it... just as soon as he marries Oliva Cresswell. But will Oliva chose him or the mysterious Mr. Beale? Questions!

The Green Rust is the first book I've read by Edgar Wallace, who I take it was the James Patterson of his time (wrote tons of books, was worth millions of dollars). It was soooo pulpy, you guys. If Wallace can find a way to go for shock value, even if it makes no sense in the context of the story, he will do it. For example, the first few chapters run like this: Chapter one, an old billionaire struggles to share his final words, but dies just before he can get them out. But does he die? No, he was murrrrderrred! Chapter two: evil dude is evil and like five guys break into Oliva Cresswell's apartment, why? Who knows. But one of them shows her the green rust!
"What is the Green Rust—what can it do? she asked in bewilderment.
"I hope we shall never know," he said, and in his clear eyes was a hint of terror.

Dun dun dun! Chapter three: Oliva goes to work as normal, because that's what you do when your apartment has been broken into multiple times in one night and you've been shown the green rust, whatever it is--and is fired for no reason! Then three people accost her on the street and offer her jobs involving very little work and double her last salary. Wut?

And you know how Stephen King once said the road the hell is paved with adverbs? Well, if that's true I think Wallace might at the very least be in purgatory, because The Green Rust is flush with adverbs along the lines of, '"Gross!" Oliva exclaimed disgustedly.' Oh, she's disgusted? Wouldn't have guessed that one just from the dialog, thanks.

All that being said, though, I really enjoyed this novel. It's totally cheesy and predictable, but it's also super fun. It has the same sensibility as Scooby Doo or Flash Gordon. Yeah, maybe the writing isn't the best, but the characters are likable: Beale is such an appealing hero, even showing suggestions of being a feminist by referring to Oliva as a partner and saying he never thought of her as a victim. And Van Heerden is so over-the-top evil I couldn't help but warm up to him. Like a German Grumpy Cat (technically he's Dutch, by the way, but hey, close enough).

After Oliva escapes Van Heerden, the book became all about Beale finding the green rust and putting a stop to it, or something, and the story slowed down to a crawl because I didn't really care about the green rust. Other than that, though, I thoroughly enjoyed The Green Rust for what it was, which is over-the-top pulpy entertainment. Worth the read if that sort of thing appeals to you, I think.

Download The Green Rust by Edgar Wallace at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Guest Post: THE AMERICAN WOMAN'S HOME by Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe

book cover
Subtitle: Being a Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful and Christian Homes and dedicated to the women of America in who hands rest the real destinies of the Republic*

Original Publication Date: 1869

Genre: non-fiction

Topics: cooking, housekeeping, health

Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk (

The wise woman seeks a home…, she will aim to secure a house so planned that it will provide in the best manner for health, industry, and economy, those cardinal requisites of domestic enjoyment and success.

Meet the original Martha Stewarts…

This was a mid-Victorian American best seller of domestic advice and was a successful collaboration between two sisters, Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (younger sister of the two). Their mother died when Catharine was 16 and Harriet was five, and Catharine took over the running of the house then. She became a teacher during her 20’s and was engaged to be married but her fiancé died at sea before that could happen. Instead, she started a school for girls which included a more rigorous “male” education than usual. Catharine was instrumental in promoting schools out west in the US pioneer territories.

Interestingly, Catharine did not believe that women should have the vote, but then so did a lot of other people at that point in time. (The National Woman Suffrage Association was founded in 1869, and Wyoming was the very first state to give women the vote, so it was an ongoing political battle at that point.)

Younger sister Harriet was a mover and a shaker in the abolitionist world (especially for the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and the U. S. Civil War had only just finished a few years ago before this was published, and would be fresh in the cultural memory. Also, the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment were recent historical events as well.

Harriet was the seventh of 13 children (including six brothers who all became ministers), and was lucky enough to be educated in the school that her older sister founded (see above). She married a preacher/theologist and moved to northern Florida where she started one of the first integrated schools in the country. Both Harriet and her hubby were involved in the Underground Railroad at times.

This particular book is very detailed on many levels with the aim of elevating “housekeeping” to a domestic science, and admittedly, there is a lot of science talked about here – serious science as well on a variety of topics ranging from heat conduction/convection, how we breathe, how furnaces and stoves work, how cells form in the human body, the different chemical elements in the human body (wrt nutrition etc.). It’s really interesting to see how the sisters matched domesticity with hard scientific fact here, and it’s clear how hard they had both worked to make this a serious reference book for women in the domestic sphere (and out) – perhaps trying to elevate the humble art of making a home?

Loaded with such intricate details to help inexperienced wives or housekeepers with few servants (if any), this is a pretty comprehensive handbook. Details are included to help readers make their own furniture or house down to the type of nails and what should match with what… how wide the shelves should be in the kitchen… The kitchen sink was designed to be very shallow compared with today’s sinks (three inches deep was recommended with three feet wide)… Plumbing was important (as it still is today) and “must be well done or much annoyance will ensue”…

The physical health of the family, especially for a family far removed from urban resources, was vital, and this volume does not shy from the technicalities of the human body functions. It goes into some depth about human breathing and heart and the importance of fresh air (especially in crowded houses in winter) – The authors state that “they are informed by medical writers that defective ventilation is one great cause of diseased joints, as well as of diseases of the eyes, ears, and skin…”

It’s important for women to know how to care for the health of her family: To a woman of age and experience, these duties often involve a measure of trial and difficulty at times deemed almost insupportable; how hard, then, must they press on the heart of the young and inexperienced!

Watch out for too much learning as “the thinking portion of the brain may be so overworked as to drain the nervous fluid for other portions which become debilitated by the loss… the overworked portion may be diseased or paralyzed by the excess…” Victorians would also believe that education negatively affected a woman’s uterus and fertility so watch out for that…

This also holds for staying busy by being active: “the heavenly pleasure secured by virtuous industry and benevolence, while it satisfies at the time, awakens fresh desires for the continuance of so ennobling a good”… Getting up early is a very important trait (as seen in the aristocracy in England, it seems) and it’s important the young America avoids this “aristocratic folly”… (It’s also, for reasons unknown, portrayed as more patriotic to get up early in this land of ours.)

Having a beautiful home “contributes much to the education of the entire household in refinement, intellectual development, and moral sensibility”… It even offers lists of art to buy and maintains that having a beautiful house is also important for the ongoing education of the children of the establishment: The educating influence of these works of art can hardly be over-estimated. Surrounded by such suggestions of the beautiful, and such reminders of history and art, children are constantly trained to correctness of tote and refinement of thought, and stimulated…

Such sly-witted opinions are put in subtly every now and then: (with reference to the practice of growing ferns in the house to add color) - “we have been into rooms which…have been made to have an air so poetical and attractive that they seemed more like a nymph’s case than any thing in the real world…” (Watch out for greenhouse ferns as they are expensive and “often great cheats … and die on your hands in the most reckless and shameless manner…”

As for the quality of food, as the authors state, “the American table, taken as a whole, is inferior to that of England or France”… chortle. Yorkshire pudding for all! (French people and their cooking (their niceties and French whim-whams!) are described (for unknown reasons) as “seemingly thoughtless people” – what brought that comment about? Rather different perspective than Julia Childs, methinks… But no recipes were included which was curious. Perhaps the authors didn’t want to venture into that “women’s” territory with this project.

And I liked this bit: “Yet in England,… their perfect cooking is as absolute a certainty as the rising of the sun…”

American cookery books get a bit bashed here: “Half of the recipes in our cook-books are mere murder to such constitutions and stomachs as we grow here…” so it’s perfectly OK to swipe tips from other countries (notably France and UK, it seems). Curiously enough, the authors are very conscious of being American and try extra hard to show that America (young as the country was) still had its own merits. They are quite concerned about being “as good as” other countries (notably in Europe).

Back to the kitchen…. Beware of using pepper, mustard and spices – they “quicken the labors of the internal organs” … “a person who thus keeps the body working under an unnatural excitement [using such spices], *live faster* than Nature designed, and the constitution is worn out just so much the sooner…” At the same time, beware of cold foods (such as ice cream) as the stomach needs to have a certain degree of warmth or it “ceases to act….” And if you’re going to eat whale oil, add sawdust to give it heft.

Despite its age, the book offers some very valid advice though, still applicable today: The fewer mixtures there are in cooking, the more healthful is the food likely to be… the idea of growing local (of course since transport was difficult), and eating for appetite and due to exercise etc. as opposed to just sitting down at the table and gobbling everything there is. Lots of fruit and veggies etc. but watch out for the evil potato as it belongs to a “family suspected of very dangerous traits…” (i.e. deadly nightshade et al.)

As for serving cold bread, the authors report: “the unknown horrors of dyspepsia from bad bread are a topic over which we willingly draw a veil…”

Healthy drinking choices were also covered, including the hazards of using stimulants (alcohol, opium mixtures, tobacco, tea and coffee). This habit often goes to “such an extreme that the passion is perfectly uncontrollable, and mind and body perish under this baleful habit…” (Chapter 10.) Tea is not left out either: Drinking hot tea can lead to loss of teeth (as a study from Mexico demonstrated – drinking tea at almost boiling point was the chief cause of the “almost entire want of teeth in that country..and it cannot be much doubted that much evil is done in this way by hot drinks”…

However, a later chapter reports really positively on drinking tea with the following: “The first article of … faith is, that the water must not merely be hot, not merely have boiled a few moments since, but be actually boiling at the moment it touches the tea. Hence, though servants in England are vastly better trained than with us, this delicate mystery is seldom left to their hands. Tea-making belongs to the drawing-room, and high-born ladies preside at "the bubbling and loud hissing urn," and see that all due rites and solemnities are properly performed—that the cups are hot, and that the infused tea waits the exact time before the libations commence.”

Fashion - according to the authors, wearing tight corsets may lead to dreadful ulcers and cancers… In fact, the authors conclude that “the horrible torments inflicted by savage Indians or cruel inquisitors on their victims or the protracted agonies that result from [using confining corsets etc.] sometime the former would be a merciful exchange… and tender parents are unconsciously leading their lovely and hapless daughters to this awful doom…”

I do think that quite a lot of people would benefit from reading chapter Fifteen (about manners). What’s interesting is that both the Beechers argue that people in America are too repressive in their expression of feelings, and they need to loosen up a bit, but I think that that’s been overcome by people now. J

The Beechers also make rather a radical point for the time: that husbands need to honor the wishes and happiness of wives as of equal value of his own – I’m not sure how popular that sentiment would have been with the Average Guy back then.

Related to being polite to people is also a whole chapter on keeping your temper when you’re a housekeeper – “There is nothing which has a more abiding influence on the happiness of a family than the preservation of equable and cheerful temper and tones in the housekeeper.” So you remember that as you’re cooking dinner for ten on an unpredictable stove in a far outpost on the Pioneer Trail in a dust storm….

And on the handbook goes – principles and advice about almost everything from giving to charity, saving time, taking care of infants and the “aged”, what to do if someone gets struck by lightning, lighting a fire, propagating plants, how to build and maintain an “earth closet and its excrementitious matter”… (That’s not a typo there…)

I think this book must have been HUGE to hold and read (or published in multi-volumes) as it has so much info in it. This was a fascinating journey into the housekeeping world of the nineteenth century of Victorian America, and if you are remotely curious about how earlier generations of women maintained their houses, this is for you. Great to dip in and out of….

* “dedicated to the women of America in who hands rest the real destinies of the Republic” – this reference is very striking as it seriously undermines the current thinking of that time (i.e. that women could not be smart/powerful/involved in politics). By phrasing this “in whose hands rest…”, the Beechers smartly make a point without sounding too “aggressive” for the people who were threatened by increased female involvement in society. Nice tricky touch by the sisters there.

Download The American Woman's Home by Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe at Project Gutenberg|The Historic American Cookbook Project

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Guest Review: OF STUDIES by Francis Bacon

book cover Original Publication Date: 1597

Genre: non-fiction, essay

Topics: learning

Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk (

One in a long series of very short essays (is there a name for a short essay like “novella” for novel?) Francis Bacon was a politician during the sixteenth century in England, and although he himself was not above scandal, he did have some good points about being a good person/leading a good life in his numerous essays.

This particular short essay discusses studies and learning: who should do it, how they should do it, and what they should do with the end results. It’s all very down-to-earth and pragmatic about it, and there is a lot which I agree with and that just makes sense. It’s not the easiest essay to read, but it is packed with points with which I just nodded my head and said “yup” to. I’m not sure why he wrote this huge series of short essays – they were initially packaged into a series of ten and published in 1597, but then revised about ten years later.

He was also a strong writer, and although doesn’t seem to have a big fan of paragraphs (!), he did make good use of parallel sentence construction to emphasize a point (see below). I had seem some of these sayings referred to before reading this, but didn’t know it was Bacon who was the author. He seems to have been enamored of reading as much as I am…

  • STUDIES serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment and disposition of business.
  • To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar.
  • Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
  • Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

Just a delight to read (and I don’t say that very often about sixteenth century writing!)

Download "Of Studies" by Francis Bacon at Project Gutenberg|

Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

book cover Original Publication Date: 1777

Genre: play

Topics: comedy, aristocracy, gossip, love

Review by heidenkind:

Lord Peter Teazle suspects his wife is having an affair with Charles Surface, a charming ne'er-do-well who's in dire financial straights. She's not; Charles is actually pursuing Lord Peter's ward, Maria, and so is his brother, Joseph (who is also a ne'er-do-well, but seen as respectable because he has money). Hurt by her husband's accusations, Lady Teazle decides to behave in accordance to his suspicions and considers an affair with Joseph. All of this drama is brought to you by the scheming Lady Sneerwell and her friend, Snake. Will Lord Peter realize his wife really does love him, and will Charles pull himself out of debt so he can marry Maria?

The School for Scandal is a fun play. It kind of reminded me of Dangerous Liaisons, if Dangerous Liaisons was meant to be a comedy and was about English aristocrats instead of French ones (read: there's a lot less sex). In both you have two aristocratic characters, a man and woman, who make a pact to manipulate people they know for their own amusement. The major difference between The School for Scandal and Dangerous Liaisons, and what makes the former a comedy, is that Lady Sneerwell and Joseph aren't the central characters--that honor goes to the much more likable Lord Peter, Lady Teazle, and Charles Surface.

A teaser from a 1959 BBC production of The School for Scandal

The central story about Lord Peter and Lady Teazle is actually kind of sweet, because Lord Peter really does love and adore his wife. For some reason he just can't believe she would have married him for anything other than his money. Charles Surface also turns out to be a good guy, if a roguish one, with genuine respect for Maria and affection for his uncle. I would have liked a stronger emotional conclusion to Lord Peter and Lady Teasle's story, but these two storylines definitely qualifies The School for Scandal as a proto-romcom in my mind. The play also has some great lines in it. My favorite was, "They murder characters to kill time," but Lady Teazle also gets some good comebacks in when she's arguing with Lord Peter.

The School for Scandal is definitely worth reading, especially if you're a fan of the 18th century and/or romantic comedies where misunderstanding is piled upon calculation and the clever lines come quick and fast (something along the lines of Down With Love). Listening to it performed by a cast in the Librivox version was especially fun.

Download The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Guest Review: CAMILLE or LA DAME AUX CAMELIAS by Alexandre Dumas fils

book cover Original Publication Date: 1848

Genre: tragedy

Topics: love, society, bourgeoisie

Review by Ash G. (

Camille was first published in 1848 and later converted to plays which have gained popularity over the novel. The novel’s well-written introduction proves to be a valuable guide and sets context on the contents and timeline of this novel. The author Alexander Dumas fils makes references to the tale of Manon Lescaut and Chevalier Des Greiux highlighting the contrasts between the characters and lifestyles of the 2 courtesans as well as their lovers.

Narrated by an unknown person, the novel begins with the death of Marguerite and the auctioning of her personal possessions by her creditors. It is followed by the arrival of Armand Duval in Paris, and the narrator goes on to describe Duval’s efforts to exhume and re-bury Marguerite all of which adds a macabre twist to the story. Afterwards the chapters are narrated by Armand as he divulges his past to the unknown narrator and the story goes thus -

Marguerite is a well known courtesan in Paris and is, both admired and feared by men and women alike. Dumas attributes this to Marguerite’s strong yet sensitive spirit which akin to the delicacy of the Camellias creates an alluring persona. And Armand like many others before him falls hopelessly in love with Marguerite.

Dumas depicts Marguarite in a favorable light comparing her persona and presence to the light and delicate nature of the camellias yet she is shown to possess a strong spirit that is pure…untainted by her profession. And just as the camellias wither in a day, so is Marguerite’s death depicted…a result of her enduring suffering from tuberculosis. And in a bid to pacify the astonished audience and to leave no doubt of his disapproval of a Courtesan’s life, Dumas smartly attributes Marguerite’s suffering to God’s will…the final judgement perhaps. The novel when taken without this allegory is a beauty in itself but takes on a heavy note once you start to ponder. The only exception to Armand’s character is that unlike the others before him, he proves his unwavering love by admitting his shortcomings freely and tracing Marguarite’s last moments until the very end.

Camille is also notable for its brilliantly detailed depiction of the parisian life and the world of courtesans during the 19th century in France. The book by itself is quite descriptive but it may also help to read it with the aid of a guide. Camille is definitely well worth the read and an addition to the personal collection!

Further reading:

Download Camille by Alexandre Dumas fils from Librivox or Project Gutenberg FRENCH|ENGLISH

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review: WHOSE BODY? by Dorothy L. Sayers

book cover
A $2 mystery for 25 cents?! That's a bargain right there.
Original Publication Date: 1923

Genre: mystery

Topics: amateur sleuth

Review by heidenkind:

Mr. Thipps is shocked when he goes to take a bath one morning and finds a body in his tub. Whose Body?! Har har. Private investigator Lord Peter Wimsey is fascinated with the case and sets out to prove Mr. Thipps is innocent of any crime.

This is my first Dorothy L. Sayers novel, and I can understand why people enjoy them. I loved Lord Peter! He has the charm of Bertie Wooster, but with Jeeves's deductive reasoning and a Tortured Soul (WWI, etc.). The tone of Whose Body? is also similar to a PG Wodehouse story--very quick-witted, light, and fun. Except for the dead people, of course.

That being said, I'm not sure these are the types of novels that work for me. I did really like Sayers's writing style, but unfortunately as far as the story was concerned, I really did not care who killed who or why (and the why explanation was kind of thin, anyway). Around the 25% mark I wanted Lord Peter to either solve the case and start a new one--because the novelty factor of this one was closing fast--or for something else to happen to move the story forward. Instead nothing happened and the book felt like it went on FOREVER, and it's a pretty short book. A short book that feels like it could give A Discovery of Witches a run for its money in page count, seriously.

Also, as much as I like Sayers's writing, there is A LOT of dialog going on in Whose Body? I found myself wondering why she didn't just write a play and call it a day. While I approve of lots of dialog, after a while I was just exhausted from being chattered at CONSTANTLY.

If I'd been able to read this book in one sitting, I think I probably would have enjoyed it more; but let's face it, that's not going to happen. And I consider myself reasonably capable of retaining information, but every time I picked up Whose Body? I had no idea what was going on. I would go back a few pages thinking I'd accidentally advanced in the book, only to realize I hadn't and I just totally forgot everything that happened. It was kind of like math class: I don't hate math, or even find it difficult, but I really don't consider it interesting at all. Ergo I would forget everything that happened in math class as soon as summer vacation started. My specific amnesia in regards to Whose Body? reminded me of that.

In short, I didn't care about any of these characters aside from Lord Peter; and while he was interesting there wasn't a whole lot of character development happening with him. I'm really not sure Sayers and I are reader-writer compatible at this point. But I'm willing to give her another shot.

Download Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers at Librivox|UPenn Library

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Wishlist: A Victorian Sensation!

a Victorian supper

Sensation novels were the drama TV shows of the Victorian Era. They were published in serial format, usually in "penny dreadfuls" or cheap magazines, and relied on sensationalistic plot elements to keep their readers coming back for more every week. Murder? Check. Greed? Yes. Scandalous love affairs? You know it. In 1863 H. L. Mansel said Sensation novels "preach[ed] to the nerves instead of the judgment." Suffice it to say they were pretty low-brow.

Because Victorian Sensation novels were all about cheap thrills, they can be some of the most fun classics to read--as long as you don't mind chunksters and pot-boilers. Below is a list some of the most famous Sensation novelists of their time. Please tell us what Sensation novels you've enjoyed in the comments!

  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859)--Arguably the first Sensation novel, or at the very least the one that started a craze for Sensational fiction. Collins' combination of realism and romanticism, normally antithetical in literature, captured the Victorian public's imagination.
  • East Lynne by Ellen Wood (1861)--A woman leaves her husband and child for an aristocratic luvarh, only to be abandoned by him and bear an illegitimate child.
  • The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade (1861)--This is a historical novel set in the 15th century that follows the life of an illustrator and scribe named Gerard. The Sensational aspect comes from Gerard's star-crossed love for his wife, Margaret. This one actually looks pretty good.
  • Lady Audley's Secret by ME Braddon (1862)--This is an insanely fun, soapy novel about a woman with a dark past who may be Up To Something. Having read this one, I 100% recommend it; it has a surprisingly modern sensibility to it.

Other authors you might want to try:

  • Ouida, aka Marie Louise de la Ramée--Ouida's novels have been described as a hybrid of Victorian Sensation and proto-adventure novels. Jack London cited her as a major influence.
  • William Black--Black's works are often compared to that of Anthony Trollope. He was very popular during his lifetime and instrumental in fighting for copyright protection for authors in the US.
  • Edmund Yates--Yates was very good friends with Charles Dickens (Dickens' letter about the Ellen Ternan "scandal" was published in Household Words, the newspaper Yates edited). He also wrote stuff.
  • Henry Kingsley--Immigrated to Australia from England in the early 1860s and wrote adventure novels set in the bush.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Guest Review: THE CHERRY ORCHARD by Anton Chekhov

book cover Original Publication Date: 1904

Genre: play

Topics: society, class

Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk (

Having absolutely no familiarity with Chekhov (except for his namesake Chekov in Star Trek), I was curious to read some of his work. I am not that familiar with reading plays – I love to attend good ones locally, but I have found that reading a play and watching a play can be two very different experiences.

So – trawled around the ‘net for a while and decided on “The Cherry Orchard” as my first foray into his work. Having finished it, I am not quite sure what has made this work so famous. It seemed pretty ordinary to me (although I do expect to get harpooned by avid fans when I say this). What is the big deal about this?

The play is set in Russia (naturally, as Chekhov was Russian), and focuses on a family of the aristocracy and the return of the matriarch after having lived overseas for quite some time. Essentially, the family estate (which includes a large and famous cherry orchard) is faced with foreclosure due to unpaid debts and they have to decide what to do with this: do they sell the orchard and their grounds to another family? Do they sell it to a real estate developer (equivalent) and see it sectioned off into holiday cottages and the orchard dug up?

cherry orchard scene
Scene from first production of The Cherry Orchard at Moscow Art Theater.

So, as a reader, it would seem appropriate to expect some kind of settlement by the end of the play, but this is not to be. I am very open to Po-Mo endings, Po-Mo anything really, but this particular version just struck me as pointless – absolutely nothing happens. There are endless conversations about what various people think should happen, but after all that build-up, there is nada. As mentioned before, I am not a reader who necessarily needs a story to have the ending all wrapped up and in a pretty bow, but at least make it have a point in some way. (Unless I am missing something?)

There are some obvious themes throughout the story -- the changing roles of class in Russian society, the theme of identity (and changing identity) -- which were interesting when you link them back to what was happening to Chekhov personally: his family ended up in poverty and having to sell their own house to cover costs, Chekhov himself refurbished a house later in his life (complete with orchard and pond) upon which he lavished care and in the words of his brother, “look[ed] after… as though they were his children,” the play has a physician and Chekhov was a physician etc…

Chekhov died of TB just after this play came out, and one apocryphal anecdote has it that his body was transported to Moscow in a refrigerated railway care for fresh oysters…

In further researching this, it was noted in numerous sources that most producers are not sure how to show the play – is it a tragedy? Is it a comedy? And I think that here is the crux of the whole problem – because the play does not commit itself to one or the other, I wonder that it becomes less than either.

As mentioned in the introduction, I am not a Chekhov expert by any means, not am I an experienced dramatist or reader of plays, so it might well be that I am missing something vital here in my interpretation of The Cherry Orchard. Can anyone enlighten me?

Download The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov at Project Gutenberg|Librivox