Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: CHIP OF THE FLYING U by BM Bower

book cover Original Publication Date: 1906

Genre: western

Topics: Love, belonging, nature, art

Review by heidenkind:

When Della Whittemore moves to her brother's Montana ranch, The Flying U, Chip and the rest of the hands aren't expecting much. Chip specifically predicts she'll either be a prissy “sweet young thing”, an annoying cowgirl, or an old maid who wants to drag him to church. But Della immediately surprises him and earns the respect of Chip and the other ranch hands with her quick wit and easy-going nature. Now all that's left is for Chip to man up and admit his feelings for her.

I tend to avoid westerns. I read one Louis L'Amour when I was a kid, and the only thing I remember about it is that it was distinctly unmemorable. There are hardly ever any women in westerns, either, and when they are in them they demonstrate an alarming tendency to be kidnapped by Indians. It's just not my thing. But when I asked for romance novel rec's in Melody's Public Domain Google Group, Chip of the Flying U came highly recommended and I decided to give it the barest briefest hint of a try, just in case it didn't suck. Well, it absolutely didn't–Chip of the Flying U grabbed me in the first chapter. It was so much fun that I slowed down reading it when I got near the end, to drag the story out as long as possible.

First of all, BM Bower is a really good writer. She's very much with the show-and-not-tell. For example, by the end of the first chapter we know The Flying U ranch hands have a deep appreciation of irony. Shorty's not short and Happy Jack is morose–something's that inferred through dialog, not exposition.

And speaking of the ranch hands, the real strength of Chip of the Flying U are the quirky western characters, like JG Whittemore's housekeeper, the Countess, who constantly speaks in aphorisms; the pretentious Dunk; and of course the "Little Doctor" herself, Della.

But my favorite character is Chip! He's so well-drawn and layered: a combination of smart, snarky, defensive, and sensitive that's absolutely irresistible. But most of all I loved the fact that he's clearly based off the famous painter, "the cowboy genius" Charles M. Russell. Let's do a quick comparison, shall we?

  • Chip has no formal art training and has always enjoyed sketching. Ditto Charlie Russell.
  • Chip's paintings are based on his life as a ranch hand in Montana. Charlie Russell's paintings were based on his life as a cowboy in Montana.
  • The first painting by Chip that captures public acclaim is titled "The Last Stand," which shows, "A poor, half-starved range cow with her calf which the round-up had overlooked in the fall, stood at bay against a steep cut [snow]bank. Before them squatted five great, gaunt wolves intent upon fresh beef for their supper." The first work by Charlie Russell that captured public attention was "Waiting for a Chinook," which shows an emaciated cow in the snow surrounded by hungry wolves. In both cases, the painting was of something the artist saw himself.
  • Chip's nickname before he came to The Flying U was Kid. Russell's nickname when he was a cowboy was Kid Russell.
  • Chip signs his work with a "brand," or glyph, and his name. Russell famously signed his work with a buffalo head brand and either his initials or his name.
  • Finally, it's Della who pushes Chip to show others his work and sell his paintings because she believes in his talent. Likewise, it was Russell's wife, Nancy, who pushed Russell to charge high prices for his work and managed his career. "[S]uccess came tapping at the [Russells’] door or, rather, Nancy dragged success in, hog-tied and branded," the Russells' nephew once said.

So that was fun! But even without those references, Chip of the Flying U was a really good read. It can be classified as a romance–and the relationship arc between Chip and Della is really well-done–but it's more of a coming of age story for both the main characters. Della grows into her role as a doctor and Chip discovers his true talent. In between, there are round-ups, western dances, ranch hijinks, and a horse named Silver is saved.

I definitely recommend Chip of the Flying U if you're in the mood for a fast, entertaining, and well-written read.

Download Chip of the Flying U by BM Bower at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: The Ladies' Paradise - Emile Zola

Original Publication Date: 1883 Genre: Nineteenth Century Literature Topics: Human behavior, love, shopping (!)

Review by : Liz Inskip-Paulk (

As we’ve been enjoying the PBS Masterpiece series on Sundays featuring “The Paradise”, I picked up Zola’s book upon which this series was based. (To be honest, when I first started reading the original version, it became pretty confusing as there are some significant differences between the book and the TV version [naturellement], but with the names kept the same… I got it sorted out after a bit, but at first, it was really perplexing.) In the end, I decided that the TV series based was based only slightly on the original – there were loads of differences from one to the other, but both are good in different ways.)

This book is a long multi-volume series that Zola wrote about a family (and its offshoots) as it goes through generations in France in the mid-nineteenth century. (However, this volume works well as a good stand-alone story as I hadn’t read any of the original set prior to this.) The plot revolves around a large department store in Paris, and was based on the real Bon Marche store, one of the first department stores in real life at that time. (Previously, most stores only specialized in one thing: umbrellas, bread, tailoring, milliner, butcher etc.) When the Industrial Revolution arrived, it led to factories mass-producing cheaper goods which also contributed to the downfall of these very small shops.

As the book progresses, The Ladies’ Paradise as (the department store is named) is growing with Mouret, the young manager at its helm. Alongside him are his employees, his suppliers, and of course his customers, all of whom intersect and around whom the story evolves. Mouret is deeply ambitious and wants to grow his business as to be as big and successful as he possibly can, often putting business before other considerations (including his love life). In fact, business to Mouret is seen through a parallel lens as others viewed religion:

His creation was producing a new religion; churches…were being deserted by those of wavering faith, were being replaced by his bazaar…”

Mouret often espouses his goal of using his business to reach the end result of “owning Woman” through his strategy of selling almost every product possible that “Woman” would want. This huge selection of wares attracts all classes of women from around Paris and afar, and via the old theory of Supply and Demand, Mouret takes their money whilst still leaving them wanting for more. Perhaps not the newest idea nowadays, but back then, it was legendary and new and this was the first time that the city had seen all these things available for sale under one roof.

Along with Mouret’s desire to be a very successful businessman, his other desire is for women and in particular, one specific woman – Denise Baudu. But can his money and business acumen convince her to love him back?....

Zola was a writer (and the self-proclaimed leader) of the Naturalist school of thought which was all about writing very clearly and realistically about social problems facing people who lived in the city: poverty, slums, filth, sickness… Zola really saw his writing as a focus to bring attention to problems that the typical reader would rather not look at – a verbal written documentary of a kind, you might say.

Despite this serious tone, the plot rattles along with the speed of the train and with the machinations of a soap opera and, if I’m honest, there are places which are terribly overwritten at times. Despite this, the writing seems to work as it could be argued to reflect the gilded extravagance of the shop and the idea of over-the-top luxury it sells as needs to its customers. The description of the store as it grows over time are gloriously detailed (reminded me of Dickens’ writing at times), and, when combined with the drama of the store stuff and that of the local neighborhood inhabitants, makes a very rich story indeed.

So, in case you haven’t picked this up so far, I really enjoyed this read. As mentioned before, this volume is part of a huge long series, but as I’m not a series kinda person for most of the time, that’s not for me. However, I would pick up another stand-alone volume by Zola at some point in the future.

One note: there was a character in this volume called Madame DesFarges which I found *slightly* confusing as the Mme. Desfarges that I kept seeing in my head was the rebellious she from Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities (1859). Zola’s was written in 1883 so he must have been aware of this character.

1789 – French Revolution with storming of the Bastille

1789 – Queen Marie Antoinette gets guillotine

1803 – France sold Louisiana to USA

1804 – Napoleon comes to power

1815 – Battle of Waterloo (marks the start of almost 50 years of peace throughout Europe as there had been loads of wars all over the place up until this point)

1815      Napoleon sent to exile; King Louis XVII comes to power.

1831 -    First clearly defined worker uprising of Industrial Revolution

1848 – French revolution against monarchy à Louis Napoleon Bonaparte starts as President of French Republic

1851 – Louis Napoleon Bonaparte becomes dictator

1863-56 – Crimean War (France and Britain against Russa)

1870 – Franco-Prussian War (start of ongoing war with Russia for ages). Paris captured by Prussian forces à Napoleon outed and goes into exile. Much general unrest due to Republicanism vs. Monarchism parties.

1871 – Riots in Paris streets over resentment against right-wing government à new President (Adolphe Tiers).

1883 – This was when The Ladies Paradise was published. Zola was politically liberal which led him to be against the tough right-wing government.

Download The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola at Project Gutenberg/Unavailable at Librivox.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Leo Tolstoy (1886)

Original Publication Date: 1886
Genre: Fiction, classic, nineteenth century, Russia
Topics: Dying, death, family, doctor, Russia, medicine, illness
Review by: Liz Inskip-Paulk (

I dug this title up as it was mentioned in my recent read of Atul Gawande’s On Mortality book, and I’m all about following down the rabbit holes of different books and topics sometimes. Although somewhat intimidated by Russian authors (although not sure why), I picked this up with trepidation and then relaxed. It was going to be a good read.
Gawande’s reference to this Tolstoy novella meant that I knew that the plot was about a man dying, but the actual details were vague for me (which I was happy about). I opened the book one morning and then finished it that evening and it was a great read. The plot itself is pretty simple: a man works hard in his career, get married with kids, falls off a ladder and gets slightly hurt, and then ends up dead. (And I’m not giving the game away here. This is what the story is famous for, after all.) However, it’s a lot more than that as Tolstoy (via his lead Ivan Ilyich Golovin) ruminates on the process of dying and how it may affect one’s thinking.
Ivan Ilyich feels that he has done all the “right” things in his life: he has worked hard on his career rising in the legal ranks of the municipal court, he has married well, and has a good family. So why is he so uncomfortable dying in this way? And that’s what most of this work is about – how the dying process evolves for both this particular participant and the family around him/her. It’s really quite fascinating especially after that recent read of Gawande’s book (which also focuses on death and dying). Sounds desperately morbid (doesn’t it?) but it’s not. This dying thing happens to everyone, and as with almost anything else, the more you know the better. (At least that is how I’m approaching things).
Using the POV of Ivan Ilyich himself, the story follows his thinking process as his life winds down. His pain in the side (originally triggered by an accidental fall at home) worsens, and as it progressively gets more and more painful, he visits a few doctors trying to get his diagnosis. However, the doctors are unable to agree and give him a final diagnosis (let alone a cure) and so Ivan struggles on, unable to talk about his concerns about dying with no one, not even the medical professionals let alone with his family.
And I find this to be so relevant with attitudes towards death today. In my experience, I've noticed that when one has a difficult illness, people usually don’t mind acknowledging it at first when everything is mostly normal, but as time progresses and one’s prognosis worsens, many people would prefer to talk around it than actually address it face on (a la elephant in the living room). This is how Ivan Ilyich’s family and friends handled the situation, and so the reader learns about the frustrations, struggles and the sheer loneliness of the person who’s doing the dying. I really don’t think that this is an untrue situation for a lot of people, but I wish it wasn’t that way.
Gawande mentioned that this novella was taught in med school in a class about death and dying, but I’m not sure how common that is across the nation. (Anyone know?) However, common or not, I think this is an excellent novella about a very common natural human process which is frequently denied or skirted around as people are uncomfortable with it (for whatever reason).
A provocative read about a pretty ordinary guy who is going through a totally natural process. Although the subject may be dark, this is extremely well written, not maudlin at all, and is a good demonstration of something that happens but most people would prefer not to talk about. It was an excellent read when paired with reading the Gawande book. Recommended.
Download The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy at Project Gutenberg Consortia Center|Librivox|

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review: THE BLACK MOTH by Georgette Heyer

book cover Original Publication Date: 1921

Genre: Historical, adventure

Topics: Love, honor, betrayal, #eighteenthcenturyaristocratproblems

Review by heidenkind:

Several years ago, Jack Carstares took the blame when his brother, Richard, cheated at cards. Now Richard manages the family estates and Jack, exiled in shame from society, roams the roads of England as the most bespoke and gentlemanly highwayman in the land. What earthly force could possibly make Jack leave behind his life of adventure, admit his brother was the actual cheater, and return to the fold? Love of course!

The Black Moth was Georgette Heyer's first novel, and is the only one of her books in the public domain. It's also the first Heyer novel I've managed to read (I tried one or two, but I have to admit my heart wasn't in it and I returned them to the library unfinished), and I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. I was expecting it to be a rather dull romance novel, but it's not—it's an adventure that is SUPER DRAMATIC.

Heyer wrote The Black Moth to entertain her brother during a long illness, and if his taste in books was anything like mine is, she definitely succeeded. The Black Moth has EVERYTHING: kidnapping, highwaymen, cheating, a villain you love to hate because he's the only character with a sense of humor, secret earls, a shrieking harpy of a wife, heiresses, star-crossed lovers, duels, sword fights, fashion, a put-upon manservant/sidekick, love affairs... I could go on. Is it crazy over-the-top? YES. Does it go too far at times? YES. Do I think it's Heyer's best work? I certainly hope not. BUT—did I enjoy the hell out of it? YUP.

My favorite character by far was Tracy Belmanoir, the eponymous "black moth" and brother-in-law to Richard Carstares. It was Tracy who discovered Richard cheating at cards, and he's been using that knowledge to coerce Richard into all sorts of things ever since. It's also Tracy who drives the action through much of the book. He's a boss! He gets all the best lines and mopey Richard hates him so much it's hard not to be fond of the guy.

The way women are presented in The Black Moth is also pretty refreshing. You've got Lavinia, Richard's wife, who's a nitwit and constantly talks in exclamation marks. It's! Very! Annoying! But you also have several women characters who are powerful and smart and get things done, like Lady O'Hara, who's very sexually aggressive and awesome. Diana Beauleigh is the damsel in distress, but she's also willing to press the issue of Jack's affections. Her aunt, Elizabeth, is a super-smart older lady who could give Miss Marple a run for her money.

Is The Black Moth a perfect book? Hells no. But if you can enjoy it for what it is—a fun, silly historical romp—you'll get a kick out of it.

Download The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|University of Pennsylvania Library

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche

Original Publication Date: 1886
 Genre: Nonfiction, Philosophy
 Topics: Philosophy, Religion, Morality
Review by : Becca Lostinbooks
Download Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

“To recognise untruth as a condition of life; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil.”

In this work, Nietzsche lays the foundation for thought that the Christian notion of good and evil is based on a simplified yet hidden slave morality.  Nietzsche, instead, claims that the philosophy of “will to power” (I got tired of this phrase by the end of 158 pages, let me tell you) is all the morality that an individual needs.

Nietzsche talks of good and evil not as opposites, but basically as on a spectrum that all people lay somewhere on and often drift along at different times in their lives because of various experiences.  He also argues that religion is not the basis for morality, an argument that is still being fought today.   The concept of “will to power” is a complex one, but can be simplified as the main driving force in humans, whatever that force may be, because “a living thing seeks above all to discharge its own strength – life itself is will to power.”
He argues who are we to suppose that there is an essential opposition of “true and false”, or good and evil?  “There is no such thing as moral phenomena, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.”  I found myself at turns confused, disagreeing, and nodding along in agreement while reading this.  One thing Nietzsche does is make you think and consider and you will be a deeper person for having read him.

Nietzsche is not easy to read.  I had to take my time, read along with the Librivox recording, and then re-read it again.  I took notes as I read and after finishing the book, I took some time off before going back and re-reading my notes.  It has taken me a long time to even figure out how to write a review of Nietzsche’s philosophy.  The task is as daunting as you would expect.  I recommend just giving him a try because as daunting as Nietzsche is, I feel better for having taken up the challenge.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: Barks and Purrs by Colette

barksandpurrsOriginal Publication Date: 1904

Genre: Dialogue

Topics: Pets, cats, dogs, home, France.





Review by : Chrisbookarama

Ever wonder what goes through your pets’ minds? What do they worry about? What makes them happy?

Colette’s Barks and Purrs (aka Dialogues des Bêtes) translated by Marie Kelly is a delightful series of dialogues that will charm any pet owner. I enjoyed it so much I listened to the audiobook twice, something I never do. I had to make sure I didn’t miss a thing.

Barks and Purrs covers the daily happenings of Toby-Dog (a French bull dog) and Kiki the Demure (a Maltese cat).  He and She (the owners) have small parts to play. Toby-Dog and Kiki must endure such travesties as a late dinner, a storm, a train ride, and the illness of She. These events upset their schedules and cause much devastation for the poor animals. There are times of comfort as well, like resting in front of a warm fire. 

Barks and Purrs could have been twee but this is Colette so it definitely isn’t. The animals aren’t too anthropomorphic. They don’t wear pants or help solve mysteries. They are just pets doing pet things. Colette doesn’t shy away from the realities of nature either. Kiki says:

One bound at exactly the right moment and my feeble prey is panting under me. Oh, the ridiculous effort of a weak animal—its tiny ineffectual claws and pointed wings beating against my face! My jaws will open to the splitting point and my perfect nose wrinkle ferociously, for the joy of holding a living, terrified body. 

The animals’ attitudes toward humans are about what you would expect. Toby-Dog wants to be loved all the time: I love—Her and Him devotedly, with a love that lifts me up to them. It suffices to occupy my time and heart. While Kiki only wants to be worshiped: A cat is a guest in the house, not a plaything.

The dialogues are full of rich descriptive prose.

How beautiful you are, Fire! Out from your ruddy center shoot tatters and shreds of gold, sudden spurts of blue, and smoke that twists upwards and draws queer shapes of beasts ... Oh, but I'm hot! Gently, gently, sovereign Fire, see how my truffle of a nose is drying up and cracking, and my ears—are they not ablaze? I adjure thee with suppliant paw. I groan ... ah ... I can endure it no longer! ... (He turns away.) Nothing is ever perfect. The east wind coming under the door nips my hind-legs. Well, it can't be helped! I'll freeze behind if I must, provided I can adore you face to face.

Who would imagine their dog thinking of fire in such a way? It’s gorgeous!

Now let me tell you about the audio! What an excellent production by Librivox volunteers. The narrator, Sandra, has a lovely accented voice. Bob Gonzalez is Kiki the Demure and his rich, smooth voice is perfectly suited for a spoiled cat. Toby-Dog is played by Troy Bond who has the best playful bark. The other players are excellent as well. I was very impressed. Bravo!

For fun, here is Henri the French Existentialist Cat, who is a lot like Kiki the Demure.

Download Barks and Purrs by Colette at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review: The Grey Woman by Elizabeth Gaskell

Original Publication Date: 1861

Genre: Gothic short story

Topics: Marriage, murder, secrets, on the run, gender bending.

Review by : Chrisbookarama

The Grey Woman is an excellent Gothic story with a Bluebeard twist. There’s a castle, a damsel in distress, and a husband with a secret. However, the hero of this story isn’t a dude on a white horse but a bad ass older woman: Amante.

A traveller visits a mill/coffeehouse in Germany and notices a portrait of a pale lady.
“It was that of a young girl of extreme beauty; evidently of middle rank. There was a sensitive refinement in her face, as if she almost shrank from the gaze which, of necessity, the painter must have fixed upon her.”
The traveller asks to know her story. The owner replies, “Well, it just so happens that she was my great-aunt Anna and she wrote a manuscript explaining how she ended up so white. Here, read it.” As you do. The traveller sets down to read it, then the story is told in The Grey Woman’s own words.

When Anna was a young lass, her father remarried and the new lady of the house was anxious to get rid of her. Instead of marrying a local yokel, Anna accepts an invitation to her rich friend Sophie’s estate where she meets a handsome French stranger. Monsieur de la Tourelle appears to be a gentleman. He has his sights on Anna. She dances with him at parties when he asks. She’s too shy and overcome by his charms to say no.

Anna, you in danger girl!

One day Sophie’s mother tells Anna that she’s written to her father about her impending engagement. Anna is shocked! How could she be getting engaged and not even know it?! She’s informed that it’s too late for protests now. Anna received Monsieur de la Tourelle’s attentions without complaint and that means she’s given herself for life to a perfect stranger. Oh well, what can you do when it’s 1789 and women have no rights. *shrug*

So Anna marries her Frenchman and he ships her off to some castle in the middle of nowhere with no friends or family. He immediately exhibits signs of an abuser. He demands that she keep to only one area of their home where he can keep an eye on her. He’s jealous of even her love of her family and she is never allowed to visit them. Unsurprisingly, she becomes depressed.

In an uncharacteristic act of compassion, Monsieur hires a lady’s maid to keep her company. Amante “tall and handsome, though upwards of forty” instantly takes on the role of Anna’s bodyguard. She runs interference between Anna and the surly servants. Amante is especially helpful now that Anna is pregnant.

Amante discovers that Anna isn’t getting her mail and the two hatch a plan to break into Monsieur’s apartments to retrieve them. In the process, Anna learns her husband’s secret, a secret so terrible that it sends Anna and Amante into hiding!

Amante is The Boss! She’s quick thinking and always one step ahead of the bad guys. She protects her mistress with her life, even changing her identity to protect her. The pair have many hair raising close calls but Amante keeps her head. Talk about a Strong Female Character! Amante is it.

mrs s
Amante: Possible prototype for Mrs S of Orphan Black? 

As for Anna, I’m not sure why she inspires such devotion but the heart wants what the heart wants, I guess. Perhaps it was because of the baby. Amante did love that baby.

Part of why I love blogging for Project Gutenberg Project is discovering long lost gems like this The Grey Woman. Sure, it’s soapy and melodramatic with a Villainous Villain but it’s pure entertainment with some feminism thrown in. Anna and Amante, a disobedient wife and a maid, outwit and outrun ruffians. Courage and cleverness rule the day.

This was another Librivox recording I took in. Jane Greensmith narrates the short story.

Download The Grey Woman by Elizabeth Gaskell at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Friday, August 22, 2014

Review: THE DOCTOR'S WIFE by ME Braddon

book cover Original Publication Date: 1864

Genre: Sensation, kinda.

Topics: books, temptation, good vs. evil, society, love, marriage

Review by heidenkind:

Isabel Sleaford is an usual young girl who reads copious amounts of sentimental poetry and fiction, and rarely cares to venture into society. It is this very quality—and also the fact that she's really pretty—that attracts the attention of George Gilbert, a lower-middle-class country doctor who proposes marriage after he discovers Isabel's father is dead and she's been forced to take up employment as a governess. Isabel doesn't exactly say yes, more like, "Mmm, that doesn't sound too bad." But then she marries George AND IT IS THAT BAD, IT TOTALLY IS. Bored out of her mind, Isabel escapes even deeper into the world of books. Her favorite book of all the times is an obscure collection of (objectively bad) verses titled The Alien, which she thinks are just soooooooooooooooo romantic. I bet you can guess what happens when Isabel meets the author of The Alien, Roland Landsdell, who just happens to be young, brooding, dark, handsome, and exceedingly rich.

It's something like this.

I loved every trashy, soap opera-y minute of Lady Audley's Secret, so I thought The Doctor's Wife would probably offer the same entertainment value. Boy, was I wrong.

The Doctor's Wife is a much different novel from Lady Audley's Secret. It has all the elements of a sensation novel—adultery, criminals, curses, back-stabbing bitches—but they feel like a minor part. Overall, The Doctor's Wife is much more self-consciously literary than one would expect from a sensation novel. According to all the synopses I've read online, this is Mary Elizabeth Braddon's response to Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Perhaps if I'd read Madame Bovary I would appreciate it more, but I haven't and have no intention of doing so in the foreseeable future.

Even aside from The Doctor's Wife literary inspiration, there's a lot of book talk going on in the novel. Isabel an insatiable reader, her and George's mutual friend, Sigismund Smith, writes penny dreadfuls; and Roland is of course a writer. The characters talk and think about books a lot, how books should be and what their ideal book is. Braddon takes pains to show us how the books Isabel reads affect her view of the world, what she expects from life and how she interprets people's actions—if she ever takes a moment from her reading to notice other people, that is.

I actually liked that part of The Doctor's Wife. The novel is also a lot more cynical than Lady Audley's Secret. There are no good guys or bad guys, love doesn't conquer all, and there's no such thing as happily ever after. This is not a romantic novel, either in the literary or genre sense.

I kind of liked that part of The Doctor's Wife, too. As for the characters, Isabel would probably annoy some people, but personally I found her likable and extremely sympathetic. Partly because Braddon spends a considerable amount of time and energy making her so, but also because I recognized a lot of Teenage Me in Isabel, too.

So with all these points in the book's favor, why did I not enjoy The Doctor's Wife that much? First of all, it is WAY too drawn-out for what it is. It is a long walk getting to anyfreakingthing in this novel. For example, we know pretty early on that there's a secret about Isabel's father that she's trying hide (that's the plot, basically), but Braddon kind of forgets all about it until the very very end, when it's employed as a deus-ex-machina to get Roland out of the picture. In the meantime, Braddon's concerned with explaining Isabel's woeful life to us, but here's the thing: I might like and sympathize with Isabel, but she's not terribly interesting. I don't need to spend THAT much time with her to get a good picture of her psychological makeup, you feel me? Even the death scenes were dragged out to the inth degree. Where's the homicidal Lady Audley when you need her??

buffy the vampire slayer death
Just die already, dude.

As for the whole adultery thing, MOST BORING LITERARY LOVE AFFAIR EVER. Like I get that love really isn't the point of this whole exercise, but I would think some sort of emotional resonance or stakes would only help make Braddon's point, not to mention keep me as a reader engaged. Instead, George was a saint and I hated the oblivious bastard, so I didn't care about Isabel betraying him at all. But I also didn't feel like Isabel loved Roland in any substantial way. She loved what he stood for and his lifestyle, but as far as wanting him sexually or even as a friend, no (and speaking of sex, I have my doubts George ever went there. He seems like the type of Victorian guy who would marry a girl and then neglect to mention the whole sex thing because he'd see it as indelicate). Likewise, Roland seemed to "love" Isabel only because she thought he was a literary genius and because she was pretty. Sigh and yawn.

I didn't hate The Doctor's Wife, but it was a bit of a haul with not much of a payoff. If you want to jump into the Victorian sensation genre, I'd recommend starting with Lady Audley's Secret or Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, instead.

Download The Doctor's Wife by ME Braddon at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|Girlebooks

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: Le Petit Nord by Anne Grenfell and Katie Spalding

le petit nordOriginal Publication Date: 1920

Genre: ??? (See my review)

Topics: Newfoundland, travel, orphans, wily missionaries,






Review by : Chrisbookarama

Le Petit Nord is a collection of letters written by an unknown narrator to her British friend Joan during her year as missionary in St Anthony, Newfoundland.

Long before airplanes and the Trans-Canada Highway, travel to the northern parts of Newfoundland was a long and arduous journey. The narrator first sails into St John’s and from there takes a train to Run By Guess as a little diversion before her heading north. The trip does not go well, as soon as she steps outside she is attacked by mosquitos and “the roadbed was not constructed on the principles laid down by the Romans.” This is her first experience on “the Rock.”

After her short vacation, the lady heads to Come By Chance and her journey begins in earnest as she boards a steamer for St Anthony. The little ship avoids ice floes and storms (by the way it’s now the end of June). Though she finds the scenery beautiful, she can’t get used to “the language of the people.” They do not say “How are you?” but “How’s da fish by’?”

When she finally lands in St Anthony, one of her first duties is to feed thirty-six orphaned children with one herring, a feat to put Jesus to shame. By this time, she’s learned not only is the pantry empty but she’s lost her luggage during the trip. She has nothing but it’s still more than what these children have. Many were found in isolated homes where the parents had died or disappeared, often long before the children were discovered; they were dirty, starving, and frightened. Unsurprisingly, the children are difficult and have developmental issues. She loves them all in her own way. She is firm with them but kind. She has lots stories of their shenanigans for Joan!

Speaking of Joan, she must have insulted Newfoundland in a letter, because  the lady takes her to task: “I want to violently controvert your disparaging remarks about this "insignificant little island."” She, in a short time, has come to love St Anthony and its people. They have no school, and the closest hospital is in St John’s. The poverty is extreme but:

When I look about me and see this poverty, the ignorance born of lack of opportunity, the suffering, the dirt, and degradation which are in so large a measure no fault of these poor folk, I am overwhelmed at the wealth of opportunities. Here at least every talent one has to offer counts for double what it would at home.

She greatly admires the women. When a road was needed to be built and the men were away fishing,  they chopped a path through the wilderness for it. In her letters, she speaks of characters like the kitchen maids Senath and Tryphena, a crewman of the ship The Northern Light she calls The Prophet (Prophet of Doom), and a Feminist named Elmira, who “had the courage of her convictions, and did not marry.” Her letters contain the tales and beliefs of the people, including stories of sled dogs, polar bears, and a creature called Yoho.

As for the lady herself, she has many adventures. She witnesses the Aurora Borealis and hears the sounds they make. She weathers a variety of storms, and takes a ‘cruise’ by dog sled. During her final days as missionary, she travels around the other ports of Le Petit Nord onboard The Northern Light and sees puffins, icebergs, whales, and dolphins. Everything you’d expect to find in a Newfoundland and Labrador Travel brochure!

When I first read Le Petit Nord, I was under the impression that these were actual letters written by Anne Grenfell.* However, upon going over the story again for my review, I started to get the feeling something else was going on. First of all, who is Katie Spalding? What does she have to do with this? Anne Grenfell was the American wife of Dr Wilfred Grenfell, the founder of the St Anthony Mission. The narrator never mentions her own name nor does she mention the year. The narrator is English not American, so she can’t be Anne who was born in Chicago. I did some internet digging and found this thesis in Collections Canada that points out that Katie Spalding was the secretary for the Grenfell Association. Both she and Anne created "a collection of pseudo-letters” that was Le Petit Nord. They were writing propaganda to get money out of people in England for the Mission. Ruh-roh! I had fallen for it hook, line and sinker. I am scandalized! I just thought Anne was a really great letter writer.

Of course, even if it is propaganda, it’s entertaining propaganda. The foreword claims that all these events happened, only the names have been changed. Maybe these things did happen, or maybe they didn’t, but even of they did probably not to one person. I found the whole book delightful nonetheless, even if the narrator is Lady Von Fakerson. It’s funny and full of adventure. Any damage it did was well before my reading of it. Wily missionaries.

So, what is the genre? Fictionalized memoir? A epistolary novel?

This was a Librivox recording narrated by a real Newfoundlander, Sean Michael Hogan. Please listen to it, it’s great!

Download Le Petit Nord by Anne Grenfell and Katie Spalding at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

*I had used the name Anne in this review before my discovery, I then changed it to ‘the narrator” or “the lady.”

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Harlot High and Low by Honore de Balzac

book cover Original Publication Date: 1847 French: Splendeurs et miseres de Courtisanes
Genre: suspence. romance, sociological analysis
Topics: mores, price of success, love, prostitution, crime, money and power, Paris
Review by :Bridget/Anachronist @portable pieces of thoughts 


The book is a sequel of “ Illusions perdues” (‘Lost Illusions’) and the last part of ‘ La Comédie Humaine’, a series which forms a cohesive overview of French Parisian and Provincial society during the Restoration and July Monarchy. Like the previous part it features the same main characters: Lucien Chardon /de Rubempré and Vautrin. In order to make it more lucid let me summarize the first part very shortly before progressing to the second.

 Lucien starts off as a young, handsome, talented man from good but impoverished family. He hopes to make his mark as a poet and, in order to do so, he moves from his provincial home to Paris. After being spurned by an aristocratic lover, he is forced to prostitute his talent in different newspapers in order to survive. Things go from bad to worse and Lucien, who had made a lot of foolish mistakes and doesn’t possess a strong character to somehow make up for them, is about to commit suicide. In the last moment he is approached by a sham Jesuit priest (read: devil incarnated), the Abbé Carlos Herrera a.k.a Vautrin, an escaped convict and criminal mastermind. They make a pact in which Lucien agrees to follow Vautrin’s instructions on how to conquer Paris promising to share his future riches and glory.

 Vautrin manages to arrange a very profitable marriage between Lucien and a rich aristocratic heiress named Clotilde de Grandlieu. It revives Lucien’s ambitions and hopes. Clotilde is intelligent but ugly; she fancies Lucien but he prefers his secret lover, a prostitute called Esther Van Gobseck, known as the Torpedo. Esther and Lucien fall truly in love with each other. This fact might have thrown a wrench into Vautrin’s best-laid plans; instead of forcing Lucien to abandon Esther the clever man allows him to continue the affair, secretly making a good use of it.

 Pretending to be a clergyman again, Herrera/Vautrin convinces Esther that, in order to deserve Lucien, she must become a completely different person. He sends her to a convent for a period of time to be taught how to become a proper Catholic girl (Esther is Jewish but it doesn’t matter) and a true lady. She tries her best but she’s a whore at heart; she does what she has to do out of love, though. Once Esther has been turned into an acceptable mistress Herrera allows her and Lucien to continue their affair secretly. For four years Esther remains locked away in a house in Paris, totally secluded, taking walks only at night in a carriage, pretty much breaking any connection to her old Torpedo days. One night, however, the Baron de Nucingen, a rich banker, spots her in a park and falls deeply in love with her.

When Vautrin realizes that Esther became Nucingen’s obsession he decides to use it and advance Lucien’s prospects. The plan is the following: Vautrin and Lucien are 60,000 francs in debt. The luxurious lifestyle that Lucien has had to maintain in order to impress the family and friends of his future wife costs a lot and their creditors are getting impatient. They also need one million francs to buy the old Rubempré land back, so that Lucien can marry Clotilde and settle down like a real aristocrat. Esther out of love for Lucien agrees to become a courtesan again and milk as much money as possible out of the impossibly rich Nucingen.

Things don’t work out as smoothly as Vautrin would have liked – and the ending is very bitter. Still the show goes on for those rich and priviledged.

 What I liked: 

 Balzac explores the artistic life of Paris in 1821-22 and furthermore the nature of the artistic life generally. He does it in a great way. He starts a simple story of a weak young man being helped by an older, more experienced and cunning tutor and then it explodes into a multi-novel epic. The narrative is powerful enough to carry readers past any of the flaws – I wasn’t bored for one single second. The deception, corruption, and trickery, at every level of society are brilliantly displayed, often almost off-hand, in casual conversation because everyone expects nothing different.

There’s a great cast of secondary characters, too, from the maids Herrera uses in his carefully orchestrated plans to various members of high society. I liked this book especially because, although Balzac doesn’t do badly with the romance he builds his novel around, he doesn’t really have much patience for it. He, like me, is not a romantic person at heart, believing in more primal instincts – survival, cunning, logic. Love doesn’t conquer all: no one is ever allowed to forget that Esther is a whore and likes her job, that it’s practically in her blood and that she can be little else, no matter how hard she tries and no matter how much she adores her poor, infatuated, ambitious Lucien.

Criminals are perceived similarly – the author even admires them for being true to themselves and their instincts. Small wonder Vautrin steals the show in every part of his series. Balzac’s writing, even at its messiest, it’s never less than forceful. The best thing about him is that he never offers a didactic or ‘social’ novel (mind you we are dealing here with an 19th century writer - compare that to any Dickens book!), and ultimately it’s for the best that he lets himself get carried away by the nasty criminals so readily. A novel meant to be about prostitution, with a courtesan (or harlot) in the title, manages to dispense with her services for its entire final part: that’s a bit odd but entirely deliberate. Balzac knows where his strengths lie and when Esther (or, especially, Lucien, the weakest link in the chain) no longer serves his narrative purposes the author is quick to brush them aside (by killing them, no mercy) and concentrate on the anti-hero he can have the most fun with.

 What I didn’t like: 

 A Harlot High and Low is part of Balzac’s grand ‘Human Comedy’ series, and like many of his novels it’s one that seems to get out of hand. It seems too long; what’s more the author simply doesn’t have any patience to describe good moments in full – the happy four-year period Lucien and Esther were granted by Herrera occupies…one paragraph.

 And speaking of that period…I do wonder how Esther managed such a long seclusion. During that time she led a life of a vampire and should have succumbed to serious depression – think about vitamin D deficiency among other things. Also the obsession of the rich old banker with a prostitute he just glimpsed once or twice was a bit over the top.Well- different times, different criteria. At last, Balzac’s inability to make Esther and Lucien more forceful heroes, in my opinion prevented A Harlot High and Low from being a great novel; in fact I would love nothing more but them turning the tables on that devilish Vautrin.

 Final verdict: 

 It’s summer so treat yourself with this one, especially as it can be read as a stand-alone. It might not be flawless but still the writing style is superb. If you know French I highly recommend reading it in original version.

 Download A Harlot High and Low Honore de Balzac at Goodreads

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review: Framley Parsonage

Original Publication Date: 1860

Genre: Fiction
Topics: Social standing, romance
Review by: Melissa at Avid Reader's Musings
Framley Parsonage
by Anthony Trollope
There are two main plots in the book; the first revolves around the young impetuous clergyman, Mark Robarts and a shady financial decision. He guarantees a bill for an untrustworthy man, which puts his own future in jeopardy. The second plot regards his sister Lucy and the wealthy Lord Lufton who falls for her. Lufton’s mother is opposed to the marriage and Lucy feels that to accept the Lord without his mother’s approval would be wrong.
The strength of the novel lies in its characters’ sincere struggles. We feel for Lucy as she wrestles with her feelings. Our hearts break for Mark Robarts even though we know he made a stupid mistake. Trollope has built a fascinating world within the Barsetshire society and now four books into the series we recognize characters and remember their stories from previous books.
**A few of my favorite SPOILERY scenes:
When Fanny Robarts finds out about her husband’s financial ruin she is beyond kind and patient. She makes it clear to him that no matter what happens, she is on his side. He already feels ashamed and sick for what he’s done and nothing she could have said would have made him regret his actions more. Choosing to show him love and forgiveness in that situation was such a demonstration of strength and compassion.
I was absolutely giddy over Doctor Thorne’s sweet romance with Martha Dunstable. They were not young, but with the help of his niece they both realized how happy they would be together. His honest-to-a-fault love letter was too funny. It’s never too late to find love.
BOTTOM LINE: I so enjoyed this one, but I will say I couldn’t help comparing it to “Tooth and Claw” throughout the book. Both are great, but adding dragons to the mix adds a special layer of fun. I love that this novel has more depth and a few additional side plots that the retelling skipped. Mark Robarts character was particularly good, since in “Tooth and Claw” he becomes a straightforward villain. After Doctor Thorne I think this is my favorite of the series so far.

Originally posted at Avid Reader's Musings

Download Title by author at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review: Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales & Short Stories, Volume 4

Original Publication Date: 1854-1859
Genre: Classic Fairy Tales and Short Stories
Topics: Fairy Tales, Folk Tales
Review by : Becca Lostinbooks

I have always enjoyed fairy tales and folk tales, and Andersen is arguably the quintessential fairy tale writer.  I had not heard any of the tales on this volume I found on Librivox, so I downloaded it immediately.  From stories about maidens to stories about visits to interesting old men in towers, the stories are mostly delightful.

My favorite stories on this volume were A Leaf from Heaven, Jack the Dullard: A Story Told Anew, and Ole the Tower-Keeper (of which I imagined the GoT wall- ha.)  During each of these I found myself stopping whatever it was I was doing - whether cleaning or drawing - and I became very immersed in the story.

It helps all of my favorite stories also had good narrators.  There were over a dozen different narrators on this volume.  They ranged from really amazing (Jennifer Dorr nailed the sarcasm in Jack the Dullard) to the completely incomprehensible (the narrator's accent on the story, The Money Box, was so thick I wasn't entirely sure at times it was all in English).

So that is the downside of multiple narrators, but the upside is that I got to experience so many to learn whom I liked.  I went and looked up some of the better narrators, like Jennifer Dorr, Zachery Brewster-Geist, and Erin Lottes to see what else they had recorded for Librivox, while I also learned which narrators to avoid.  It is a good way to try out a lot of narrators in one go.

The Marsh King's Daughter, Source: Wikisource

Overall, the collection was great and I recommend listening to it if you enjoy Hans Christian Andersen's stories.

Download Fairy Tales and Short Stories, Volume 4 by Hans Christian Andersen at |Librivox|

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Ethan Frome - Edith Wharton -- An Alternative View

Original Publication
Genre: American, twentieth century, classic
Topics: Early American farming, relationships, family, love/hate

Review by : Liz Inskip-Paulk who writes the book blog Just One More Page.

“Oh, as to that, I guess it’s always Ethan done the caring."

This re-read of Ethan Frome was, to be honest, a perfect read – one of those titles that you pick up and everything about the story blows you away. As mentioned, this was a re-read, and this was a   completely different experience than before. I even immediately started to read it again after I had finished the first time as I wanted to see all the foreshadowing that I’d missed the first time around.  (I would compare it to the re-read experience of The Great Gatsby in terms of how different this time around was.)

Checking on-line, it seems that Ethan Frome can be rather polarizing for reviews, the majority of whom (depending on the site you visit) tending to be pretty negative about it which is a big shame. I do think that age (and life experience) can play a determining role in how you perceive this story, and I would argue that this book is one to read when you’re slightly older (as opposed to high school or junior high school).

I happen to love the writing of Wharton as she is an expert at describing people and locations and at how she pulls phrases together. As I think a lot of people have already read Ethan Frome, I’m going to jump straight into some thoughts that I put together during my own read.

Quite early in the story, Wharton describes the farm house where Ethan has spent his life and she mentions that the “L” part of the house (joining the stable etc. with the main house) had been demolished earlier. The “L” part is called the “center of New England farm life”, “itself the chief sources the sources of warmth and nourishment” and the “actual hearth-stone of the New England farm”, and yet in recent years, Ethan had knocked this integral piece of farming life down. Why, if it was so important to people in that region? Wharton doesn’t actually specify why (or at least I didn’t spot it), which led me to speculating why it was mentioned.

The “L” part of the house is linked with warmth and safety. Perhaps after his mother died, the demolishing reflects how his feeling of safety was eroded once he was alone in his family. The missing “L” not only represented a missing link between his house and his stables (protection for the inhabitants during the harsh winters as they went from hearth to work), but also is an image of the hole in his life (perhaps his heart?) after his mother dies. His old comfortable way of life has ended, and this space represents the gap he feels between his old life and his new, his home and the outside, which suddenly seems unstable and fraught with difficulty now that his mother (his anchor) has gone. (I don’t know – just making this bit up but seems to fit.)
Another reason why it’s referred to as an “L” (aside from its architectural significance) could be that the “L” also refers to “Love” – a comfortable and safe feeling that is forever gone now his parent has died.
There are numerous references and imagery associated with the dichotomy of interior/exterior, inside/outside, insider/outsider relationship. Ethan’s sticky relationship with Zeena: he spends time working (and feeling most comfortable) outside the house in the fields, whilst she (Zeena) spends her time indoors being “sick” and waiting for him to return to pounce on him with demands and questions.
The threshold (i.e. the crossover point between inside/outside) plays a large role as several sentinel events occur over it: the time that Zeena locks Ethan and Maddie outside when they return late from the church dance, for example, and how both Ethan and Maddie can only be authentic with each other when they are outside the confines of the home, out in the fields or walking along lanes. (There’s also this idea of domesticity vs. agriculture/nature and the natural order of things.) This imagery continues when Zeena leaves to visit the out-of-town doctor (so she leaves interior to exterior) which allows Ethan and Maddie to enter the formally hostile interior of the house as it’s now safe.
The threshold (interior/exterior) also plays a role when Ethan and Maddie return from a snowy walk, and enter the house where Zeena is (as always) grumpy. It’s a drafty old house, with the cold continually coming in through the ill-fitting windows and doors (sneaking inside, in a way) and when the couple cross the threshold (to interior) after their walk (exterior), Ethan accidentally brings in some snow that rapidly melts in the dining room and gets scolded by Zeena for making a mess.  It could be argued that nature/exterior (the snow) is overcome by domesticity/interior (heat in the house) in this situation. (Another case of the interplay between interior and exterior, and the reversal of what is usually a haven (inside the house) vs. outside.)
And this balance continues when you consider that most of Ethan’s thoughts are reported (his interior mind) as he keeps the harsh exterior of Zeena in the dark about his real attitude to her and to the marriage.
Another clever image using this dual imagery, this relationship of freedom vs. confinement (interior/exterior) is when Wharton describes the evening when Ethan turns up to escort Maddie home after a church dance. Again, it’s outside (Ethan watching through the windows) whilst Maddie is inside in the warm, and even the church window shadows are described as “bars” on the snow (referring to prison bars) that provide a barrier between Ethan and happiness, between him being included vs him excluded, as an insider vs. outsider…
So, lots to think about here, and I’m so glad that I reread this gem of a novel (or novella). Highly recommended that you undertake another read if you were forced to study this in school.

Download Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Review: Patricia Brent, Spinster – Herbert Jenkins

Original Publication Date: 1908
Genre: 20th century English literature
Topics: Marriage, spinster, domestic, boarding house

Review by : Liz Inskip-Paulk at Just One More Page

Published in 1918 by his own publishing company, Herbert Jenkins’s novel, Patricia Brent, Spinster, was a pretty fast read once it got going. It’s a plot that’s been well used before: an unmarried young woman (about early 20’s) lives in a boarding house with the usual cast of misanthropes and narrow-minded “paying guests” having to eat a rotating menu that never changes (similar to how many of their own lives play out, it seems). Small talk and gossip rule the day, and so young Patricia Brent decides that she can’t take the monotony anymore and invents a fiancé for herself.

As the story continues, Brent leaves the boarding house for dinner with her “fiancé” at a well-known restaurant in London without having the faintest idea of how this will turn out in the end. Fortune smiles on her, and she meets a young army officer who, serendipitously, is also dining alone and willing to play along with her plan. Days and weeks go by and the fake fiancé really ends up falling in love with her, except she decides that she can’t have someone actually fall in love with her and rejects him, despite all his intentions otherwise.
His family become involved, his sister comes up with a strategy to make Patricia become more attracted to her brother (the fiancé) and so it goes. It was an ok read, but Patricia was pretty unreasonable in how she acts with the friendly fake fiancé and rejects him for little reason apart from he likes her (which wasn’t in the plan).
It’s a caper novel, which worked for the most part, although at times, I rolled my eyes at the female protagonist’s immature behavior. However, this was written back in 1918 and it’s pretty true to the times for some people (regardless of gender), I would think. Author Jenkins also owned the publishing company who first started to publish all the P. G. Wodehouse spoofs so I don’t think this volume was intended to be deep and meaningful.
It was not a bad read, by any means, but it was somewhat more superficial than I had thought it was going to be. It was a bit uncomfortable to read at times as it was SO mean towards innocent people at times.

Download Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

book cover Original Publication Date1774

  Genre: epistolary novel, loose autobiography

Topics: unrequired love, commitment, social acceptance and the lack of it, suicide, nature, nurture, sense of existence

 Review by : Bridget/Anachronist@portable pieces of thoughts 


The Sorrows of Young Werther (German, Die Leiden des jungen Werther, originally published as Die Leiden des jungen Werthers)  is comprised, for the most part, of letters written by a hopelessly romantic young man named Werther to a friend named Wilhelm with the addition of editorial notes (those notes try to balance the inveitable drawbacks of first-person narrative).

Werther, a sensitive young man of some means, flees the complexities of life by taking refuge in the countryside. There he indulges his imagination by immersing himself in the idyllic delights of untained nature. His happiness reaches new heights when he meets Lotte, a charming sweet-natured young girl, a daughter of a local town dignitary . Soon he finds out that Lotte is engaged to a likable but unimaginative local official, Albert, currently absent. Werther’s ecstatic love soon tortures both himself and Lotte as it begins to conflict with the norms of polite society. Is Lotte too naive to understand that in Werther she has acquired an ardent admirer, not a friend? Is she aware of his easily-inflamed fascination, or the violent depths of his stifled emotions? Is she oblivious or heartless to his passionate despair once her fiance has returned? Just how long can she juggle two lovers, or even control her own dainty heart–which Goethe chastely and tantalizingly hides from us?

 Werther’s pain eventually becomes so great that he is forced to leave and go to Weimar. While he is away, he makes the acquaintance of Fräulein von B. He suffers a great embarrassment when he forgetfully visits a friend on the day when the entire aristocratic set normally meets there. He returns to Wahlheim after this, where he suffers more than he did before, partially because Lotte and Albert are now married. Every day serves as a torturous reminder that Lotte will never be able to requite his love. Out of pity for her friend and respect for her husband, Lotte comes to the decision that Werther must not visit her so frequently. He visits her one final time, and they are both overcome with emotion after Werther’s recitationof a portion of “Ossian’. Werther had realized even before this incident that one of them — Lotte, Albert or himself — had to die. Unable to hurt anyone else Werther decides to take his own life.

After composing a farewell letter, he writes to Albert asking for his two pistols, under a pretext of going “on a journey”. Lotte receives the request with great emotion but sends the pistols. Werther shoots himself in the head, but dies only 12 hours afterwards. He is buried under a linden tree, a tree he talks about frequently in his letters, and the funeral is not attended by clergymen, Albert or his beloved Lotte.

  My impressions:

 This book not only details Werther’s doomed love for the beautiful Charlotte, it also contains the most beautiful meditations on just about everything important in life: love, beauty, nature, philosophy, art, religion. The opening scenes of the story with their description of landscapes exude the highest philosophical ideals of the time and offers an excellent insight into the workings of the Romantic mind.

 The whole story was based on true events. Goethe himself met a very lovely girl called Charlotte Buff, at a ball in Wetzlar, where he arrived looking for a job after finishing his studies. During the summer of 1772 a close friendship developed between Charlotte, Goethe and Christian Kestner (her fiancé). Charlotte was eventually obliged to tell Goethe plainly that he must not expect her to return his feelings. At seven o’clock on the morning of September 11th Goethe quit the town without warning. Away with friends in Koblencz, Goethe heard of the suicide of his former acquaintance at Wetzlar, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem. In September 1771 Jerusalem had taken a job in Wetzlar as secretary to von Hoefler, an ambassador. He was of an artistic disposition, and had been cold-shouldered by Wetzlar’s high society. Goethe returned to the town to find out the details of Jerusalem’s death. He asked Kestner for a written account, on which he was to base the final pages of his novel. Goethe later described the writing of the work as the business of four weeks, during which time he proceeded with the unconscious certainty of a sleepwalker, and specifically spoke of it as a “confesion”.

 Accordingly Goethe seems to have put a lot of himself into this novel. To love and to have lost someone to death is one thing. To love and to have the beloved betray your love is quite something else. But to love and to know that you can never consummate it, to distance yourself from the very thing you draw life from is unbearable for Werther.

The story itself is simple enough, but the varying degrees of Werther’s pain explore the depths of human depression. Goethe’s insights into human emotion are right on the mark, and he expresses them in haunting and moving language. He shows us the problems inherent in loving and idealizing something a bit too much. The novel is also a sensitive exploration of the psychopathology of a gifted but ill-adjusted young man (no, emos haven’t been invented yesterday). The letter form expresses well one-sided and lonely communication, also interposing an ironic distance between the reader and Werther, which makes this book a work of exhilarating style and insight.

It used to be a very important and influencial novel to a quite modern degree. Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature; he wrote a soliloquy in Goethe's style in his youth and carried Werther with him on his campaigning to Egypt. The book also started the phenomenon known as the "Werther-Fieber" ("Werther Fever") which caused young men throughout Europe to dress in the clothing style described for Werther in the novel. It reputedly also led to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide. Towards the end of Goethe's life a personal visit to Weimar became crucial to any fashionable young man's tour of EuropeI bet any rock star or contemporary celebrity would be so proud of such an effect.

 The primary problems I had with the work were the repetitiveness of Werther’s self-pitying missives and a certain incredulity connected to his state of mind. In the final analysis, a persistent feeling that Werther was a silly and unjustified stalker in his fixation and self-indulgent in wallowing, dulled significantly the impact of his fate. I couldn’t sympathize with Werther falling for a woman who clearly stated that she was already involved with another man. I kept waiting for him to finally shoot himself, and when he did my feeling was, “thank god, no more self-pitying”.

 I think I also struggled against Goethe’s ideal of female perfection – a woman whose biggest asset is the fact that she can act like a mother to her siblings after the death of their mother, sounding all the time really average and dull. To tell you the truth this paragon of feminie virtue appears more sensual and maternal than truly sexual but those were the times and paragons (sigh). Finally the language was a bit too flowery for modern standards.

 Final verdict: 

Highly recommendable. A cornerstone of Romantic literature that inspired many poets, it should be a key text for anyone studying the genre. Short and sweet – perfect for a summer read, but not to those who have recently gone through a rather painful break-up.

 Download The Sorrows of Young Werther by J.W. von Goethe at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|