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|