Thursday, June 28, 2012


Original Publication Date: 1848

Genre: Romance

Topics: Love, (abusive) Marriage, Parenthood, Alcoholism, Religion, (Proto)Feminism


Just I had foreseen after reading Agnes Grey earlier this year, after The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne-the-forgotten-sister officially became my favorite Brontë.

The Tenant is the story of Helen, who in her late teens, and against the advice of her family, falls in love and marries a man who apparently is all charm and passion. As time goes by he reveals himself an abusive husband, a gambler, alcoholic and generally a scoundrel. When Helen starts to realize the dangerous influence her husband has on their son, she decided to run away. Her plan is to lead a reclusive life and earn her own money by painting, but the curiosity and malicious gossip of her new neighbors puts her secret, honor and safety in jeopardy.

It's such a surprising book that you have the feeling that if the language was just a bit updated, any modern writer could have written the story in all its sheer crudeness and realism, with very few glimpses of Victorian melodramatics. For instance, in this scene Mr. Huntington (the husband) thinks Helen’s been unfaithful:
Thereupon Mr. Huntingdon, gathering his coat-laps under his arms, and setting his shoulder against the mantel-piece, turned to me, and, addressing me in a low voice, scarcely above his breath, poured forth a volley of the vilest and grossest abuse it was possible for the imagination to conceive or the tongue to utter.
In a modern book we’d actually be able to read the abuse, but for a Victorian novel it’s still very powerful stuff! We’re not talking Austen and Gaskell’s cheeky wit, or the other Bronte sister’s dramatic passion, but descriptions of drunken brawls and open adultery that will make you cringe. At the time, Fraser’s Magazine pronounced it “utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls“. If that doesn’t make you want to read it, I don’t know what will

The book caused so much scandal at the time, that after Anne’s death Charlotte had to justify why a maiden from the moors, daughter of the parson of an isolated village, wrote about physiological abuse and female independence in such terms. Did her years as a governess have such an impact? Charlotte actually prevented a re-publication of The Tenant arguing the book ”hardly seems to me desirable to preserve”. Charlotte wrote:
[Anne] had, in the course of her life, been called on to contemplate near at hand, and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was a naturally sensitive, reserved and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind: it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail (of course, with fictitious characters, incidents and situations), as a warning to others.
These “terrible effects” contemplated “near at hand” were of course the decline into alcoholism of their brother Branwell, which for siblings as close as the Brontës must not have been easy to witness. The Tenant might be a strong warning against vices and the eternal struggle between good and evil, but more or less explicitly it is also an ode to feminism. At a time when the wife had to endure and atone for her husband’s sins, Helen shuts the door of her room in her husband’s drunken face, thus denying him his marital rights. She even advises a friend to resist her family’s desire for a marriage of convenience. Girl power!

Arlene Jackson, a scholar of Anne Brontë commented about The Tenant:
Anne Brontë also answers a question that other novels of her time do not ask: what happens to a marriage and to the innocent partner when one partner (specifically, the male) leads a solipsistic life, where personal pleasures are seen as deserved, where maleness and the role of husband is tied to the freedom to do as one wants, and femaleness and the role of wife is linked to providing service and pleasure not necessarily sexual, but including daily praise and ego-boosting and, quite simply, constant attention.
Although I gave it a 5/5, I still had some problems with the book, in particular the romance between Helen and Gilbert (her new neighbor). It just didn’t convince me. I couldn’t understand what attracted Helen or felt any spark coming out of the pages, which is a shame, because the closing chapters focuses a lot on their relationship. At some point he felt positively stalker-ish and during the rest of the story just simply… meh.

Is this lack of romantic passion why Anne is so underrated compared to her sisters? She just doesn’t seem able to apply her strong feelings against injustice into creating the type of chemistry you see in Jane & Rochester or Catherine & Heathcliff (even if both these relationship have something of the dysfunctional in them…).

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Bab: A Sub-Deb

Original Publication Date:  1916

Genre:  Humor, Coming-of-Age, Romance, America

Topics:  Gilded Age, Debutantes, Lives of the Rich


Bab:  A Sub-Deb is about Barbara Archibald- a beautiful, slightly ditzy, 17-year-old society miss who is quite annoyed that her "barely older" but officially "out" to society sister Leila gets all the attention (and new clothes and party invites) while Bab must suffer through boarding school for two more years before she can become a debutante.  She is, in her own words, a sub-deb, and it's a rough life.  The problem is that Bab is a very pretty girl who draws all sorts of male attention and gets into a ridiculous number of scrapes and then does her very best to get out of them without any help.  She rarely succeeds at this goal, but gosh, it's fun to watch her try.

The result is a terrifically entertaining romp through pre-WWI (and WWI), upper crust America, with good-hearted, naive "naturaly truthful, as far as possible" Bab, who can't spell to save her life, as our rusted tguide.  From the first adventure (making up a fake fiancee who, to her horror, comes to life and into her life) to the last (saving her father's weapons munitions factory from German spies), I was thoroughly and wildly entertained, often laughing out loud and noting down my favorite lines.

The best thing about Bab is that she balances so well between being a very realistic, overly dramatic teenager and being one of the funniest and most endearing narrators you've ever encountered.  I generally hate ditzy girls in books because they are so overblown and ridiculous.  But I love Bab, even though (or perhaps because) she says things like:
"I shall now put down the events of the day, as although the Manual says nothing of keeping a record, I am sure it is always done. Have I not read, again and again, of the Captain's log, which is not wood, as it sounds, but is a journal or Dairy?"  
I think that's because even though Bab is a little naive, you know that she is also a very resourceful and extremely determined girl.  Even as she gets into mishap after hilarious mishap, she always bounces back and does her best.  She also has fantastically clever methods for getting her own way.  "All is going well, unless our Parents refuse, which is not likely, as we intend to purchase the Tent and Unaforms before consulting them.  It is the way of Parents not to care to see money wasted."

I can tell this is a review that will be littered with quotes everywhere, but I really want you to get a feel for just how wonderful Bab is.  For example, here's a scene Bab describes when she feels that her whole family turned on her when she most needed them (spelling errors and capitalizations are original to the text):
Father was the first down.  HE CAME DOWN WHISTLING.
It is perfectly true.  I could not beleive my ears.
He approached me with a smileing face.
"Well, Bab," he said, exactly as if nothing had happened, "have you had a nice day?"  He had the eyes of a bacilisk, that creature of Fable.
"I've had a lovely day, Father," I replied.  I could be bacilisk-ish also.
I love the way Bab interacts with her family, whom she loves even though she doesn't think they understand her.  "It is always thus in my Familey. They joke about the most serious things, and then get terrably serious about nothing at all, such as overshoes on wet days, or not passing in French grammer, or having a friend of the Other Sex, etcetera."  She particularly loves her father, who is her "only Male Parent and very dear."

I also appreciated how Bab, like all 17-year-olds, confronts some universal fears even in the midst of her crazy escapades.  For example, Bab spends a lot of time contemplating whether she has the capacity to love, "not the ordinery atachment between two married people.  I mean Love - the reel thing."  She sometimes feels like she is a cold-hearted woman because she doesn't feel strongly for any man in her acquaintance.  This is a very real worry for her, and it hints at the broader question of how much a beautiful girl of the early 20th century is allowed to flirt with boys without being deemed a flirt or an ice princess.  But Bab makes sure we don't become too philosophical by ending her contemplation of romance in her life with this rejoinder:  "The terrable thought has come to me that I am fickel.  Fickel or polygamus - which?"

My favorite theme of this book, though, was how feminist it became, without losing the humor and consistency of the character.  Honestly, if Rosie the Riveter were to be made flesh and blood, I think she would come to life as Barbara Archibald.  Bab immediately becomes involved in the war effort, leading a group of girls to form a sort of drill team, learning flag signals, practicing target shooting, and pressuring the young men in their lives to enlist in the war.  Mary Roberts Rineheart was very involved in the war effort, actually going to the front as a reporter, so it was very telling to see her take this light-hearted book and infuse it with some very strident patriotism.  This sometimes bordered on disturbing as Bab suspected all immigrants of being anti-American.  For example, she has a heated exchange with a servant who hails from Germany, and says, "The Emblem of my Country, and I trust of yours, for I understand you are naturalized, although if not you'd better be, floating in the breese AFTER SUNSET."

It's a very humorous exchange in which Bab is bested by said naturalized servant, but also quite telling when you know how Americans acted towards foreigners (particularly the Japanese) during the world wars.

But really, these hints of the very true and difficult problems faced by women and immigrants in the United States during the early 20th century only served to reinforce my love of this book.  It is not only thoroughly entertaining and absolutely hilarious, but it also touches on issues and situations that have universal resonance.  I loved every bit of it, and if I could quote the whole book to you here in this review in the hopes of getting you to download it, I would.  But instead, I will leave you with this slightly longer section:
"Mother, were you ever in Love?" "Love! What sort of Love?"
I sat up and stared at her.  "Is there more than one sort?" I demanded.
"There is a very silly, schoolgirl Love," she said, eyeing me, "that people outgrow and blush to look back on."
"Do you?"
"Do I what?"
"Do you blush to look back on it?"
Mother rose and made a sweeping gesture with her right arm.  "I wash my hands of you!" she said. "You are impertanent and indelacate. At your age I was an inocent child, not troubleing with things that did not concern me. As for Love, I had never heard of it until I came out."
"Life must have burst on you like an explosion," I observed. "I suppose you thought that babies——"
"Silense!" mother shreiked..
I highly recommend that you read this book any time you feel the need for a pick-me-up or a big, hearty laugh.  It's so much fun, and I hope you love it as much as I did.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Review: Ten Days in a Mad-House

Original Publication Date:  1887

Genre:  Non-Fiction, History

Topics:  Women as Victims, Mental Illness

Review:  I did a Google search for "Best Librivox recordings" and one of the first suggestions I came across was Nellie Bly's Ten Days in a Mad-House.  It's hard to read that title and not be uber-intrigued, so I downloaded the book immediately and was able to listen to it in just one afternoon.

Nellie Bly  is the pen name of one of those fantastic women who seems to have been lost in history.  She was one of the first female journalists in the US, and this book is an expose of her time working undercover, posing as a patient at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island in New York.  She also took a very fast trip around the world in only 72 days, beating Jules Verne's fictional trip of 80 days.  She married a millionaire 40 years older than her (making him around 70 at the time of their marriage) and became president of Iron Clad, going on to invent items and getting patents in her own name.  Then she went bankrupt and returned to reporting, choosing the topics of World War I's Eastern Front and women's suffrage on which to focus.

Oh, and after writing this book, a grand jury investigation was initiated into the treatment of inmates of insane asylums.  Bly was a key witness who helped increase the budget for the ill by almost $1 million.

Pretty awesome, right?

In the narrative, Bly comes off as an intrepid, determined and very engaging woman.  She manages to fool a lot of people into thinking she's insane to get her into the lunatic asylum, only to find once she is incarcerated that none of the medical staff is inclined to believe that she (or any of the other women) is actually quite sane and should be released.  Bly is clearly horrified by this fact, pointing out that if the doctors are there to help treat patients, then they should run tests and see if their treatments are working so that people can be released.  Bly also spotlights many women in the asylum who were not insane, but somehow ended up there because their families couldn't afford them or their husbands didn't trust them.  She told the story of a very sane German woman who did not know English; the doctors didn't know German and made no attempt to find a translator, so the poor woman was incarcerated with very little hope of ever being released, just because of a language barrier.

The conditions were horrifying- there was no heat, the baths were cold and harsh, the food was miserable, and the doctors seemed to completely ignore the women.  I couldn't help but think about all the women who were quite sane when they arrived at the hospital but probably went slowly insane because of the hopelessness of their situations.  While many of the women did suffer from mental illness, there were many that were incarcerated through the workings of their families, and it was very disturbing to see how little access to help they had.

It feels wrong to say that I enjoyed reading a book about poor women being locked up and slowly driven insane.  But Bly's writing is crisp, she is an excellent investigative reporter, and the Librivox narrator was a very engaging reader.  I am so glad to have learned more about Nellie Bly, too, who sounds like an amazing woman.  Really great historical source on mental illness and how women particularly were made to suffer at the hands of men who had no idea how to diagnose or treat illness (case in point:  Nellie never acted insane while in the asylum, but everyone insisted that she was insane.  She was only there for 10 days, so was able to withstand this onslaught, but what about the women who were told this so many times, for many years?).  This piece resulted in some big, important changes to the system in New York, and we have a lot to thank this amazingly brave woman for!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Review: VANITY FAIR by William Makepeace Thackeray

Original Publication Date: 1847-48

Genre: Satire, parody

Topics: Regency, Napoleonic War, marriage, heroism, vanity


Ah Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?
Imagine a huge painting, the type that blows you away with its intensity and makes you feel tinny. Then you realize, as you get closer, that the larger image is made of tinny details with a life of their own.  The effect is similar to a photographic mosaic but a painting  is closer to my impression of Vanity Fair.

At first you might see only the Epic with its grand scale and over-arching themes, but then you realize that no character is too small to receive Thackeray’s attention. He’s great at building characterization through details: the choice of a hat, a mother’s shopping list, objects in a pocket.

It’s this double macro/micro approach that makes Vanity Fair the zeitgeist novel of its time. There’s the world of the high-born, the social-climbing middle class, the poor and everything is between, as well as glimpses at the cracks starting to show in the rigid structure of the mid-19th century society.

I loved this book for several reasons but one in particular made me appreciate Thackeray’s talent – Vanity Fair is a satire, but doesn’t caricaturize its characters or bend reality to make a point (through forced coincidences, the supernatural, forebodings or invasive analogies). After so many classics where I needed to suspend my disbelief to really enjoy them, this was a breath of fresh air.

Confession: it took me about 4 months to finish it. Not because I wasn’t enjoying myself, but it’s just sooooo big that I got impatient and wanted to be able to finish other books meanwhile. However! Although it would be easy to fall into long moralizing speeches (yes, I’m looking at you Trollope!), Thackeray chose an informal, conversational tone and I couldn’t help imagining I was sitting by the fireplace with him, comfortably sipping tea while he told me a story. At certain points he becomes positively gossipy, but never turns judgmental (Revenge may be wicked, but it’s natural).

For instance, when first introducing Amelia he actually warns us that we might not like her because she’s just so perfect (think Fanny Price). This brought home the point that people even then resisted a goody two-shoes heroine and it made me feel closer to my ancestors :)

The sub-title of the novel is “A Novel without a Hero” and I wondered several times why Thackeray thought so (maybe because there’s no real heroine?), since it’s clear for me that Major Dobbin was da man. He actually entered my list of favorite romantic heroes, right up there with Gilbert Blythe, Rhett, Faramir and Lymond (can Atticus Finch be considered a romantic hero?) – what a strange group these guys make!

I feel I could go on and on about Vanity Fair, there’s so much to talk about – the description of Brussels during the Battle of Waterloo, how all male characters except Dobbin are so spineless, the meaning of names, how I loved Lady Jane – but I’ll spare you and just add a little something on Becky.
If she did not wish to lead a virtuous life, at least she desired to enjoy a character for virtue.
She’s an amazing anti-heroine. Amoral, yes, but with such drive and self-honesty that you can’t help but respect her. After all, who knows what you’d do in a similar situation, right? Apart from the narrator, Becky is the only person in the Fair to know she’s in the Fair and use the rules to gain advantage. If she never truly loved, it was because no man was a match for her and if she failed… well, she played her cards and lost, but what a game!

Still, no matter how much I (not-so-secretly) liked Becky, if she hadn’t given the letter to Amelia at the end I might not have enjoyed the novel as much as I did. With that gesture Thackeray proved what I suspected from the start: he was half in love with Becky himself.


book cover
Original Publication Date: 1900

Genre: comedy

Topics: travel, society, comedy of manners


Penelope is one of three American women living in London. Although they're of different backgrounds and ages, they all share one talent: social faux pas among the British!

Penelope's English Experiences is a collection of very short (think newspaper column-length), humorous essays about the travails of living in England for an American woman. The essays center around things like trying to understand British currency, British humor, and how intimidating English servants are. Kate Douglas Wiggin (of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm fame--which I didn't know until I googled her) pokes gentle fun not so much at the British but at Americans traveling abroad and how they desperately want to be liked by everyone, including the servants.

Mind, when I say "humorous" I don't mean these stories are laugh-out-loud funny. They did make me chortle once or twice (there's a comment Penelope makes about Americans procrastinating that struck me as particularly clever... no idea why, of course ;), but mostly the stories are just cute, and some are pretty obscure.

I suppose you could call Penelope's Experiences Abroad a proto-chick lit novel. It's all about her adventures as a single woman living in London, and is very episodic. Unfortunately I've never been a big fan of chick-lit, and since there wasn't any narrative to speak of, it was easy to get bored during the more obscure columns. Honestly, the only saving grace is that the stories are so short.

I would say Penelope's English Experiences, as unoffensive as it is, is skippable--unless you have a particular interest in turn-of-the-century women living in London, in which case you'll probably get all the jokes and find this book pretty interesting.

Find Penelope's English Experiences at Librivox|Project Gutenberg

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review: Baddeck, and That Sort of Thing

Original Publication Date:  1878

Genre: Travel journal

Topics: Travel, Canada, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, Baddeck, complaining, how to be an ass when travelling in a foreign country.

I was browsing the Project Gutenberg catalogue, like you do, when I had the brilliant idea to plunk in the name of my native province, Nova Scotia, into the search function. Not a lot came up, a couple of reports and one travel journal with the intriguing name of Baddeck and That Sort of Thing by Charles Dudley Warner. Baddeck is not all that far away and since we’re coming into high tourism season here, I thought I’d give this a try. I wondered what travelling in my province before the days of highways were like. I was also curious as to why I had never heard of this book before. Oh my, I was about to learn why this wasn’t hailed as the greatest thing for Nova Scotia tourism since lobster.
Map of Charles Dudley Warner's journey to Baddeck
Charles Dudley Warner and a friend decide to visit Baddeck for the  fishing. They’ve heard some vague stories of the place. For some reason, they insist that they must get there by Saturday, or “why even leave Boston.” Don’t ask me, I don’t know why they’re in a rush. They get themselves to Boston and the belly-aching begins. Boston is just too loud! So they hop on a boat, and after a brief stop in Eastport, Maine (which is “bleak” by the way), they land in Saint John, New Brunswick and begin their travels in Canada. Was Warner suffering from intestinal discomfort or something? There was definitely something wrong with him because, there is absolutely no pleasing this guy. Here is a list of just some of his complaints.
  • Saint John has too many flags. Americans would never fly so many flags, not even on the President’s birthday.
  • The largest tides in the world in the Bay of Fundy are not that great.
  • He despises Halifax, Nova Scotia, our capital city.
  • The beautiful Annapolis Valley is meh.
  • Farmers have no fashion sense!
  • The hotels are awful.
  • The trees are too small, damnit!

A brief respite from the complaining for the reader occurs when he reaches Antigonish, which he declares is “pretty” and “home like.” But there is no time to stop, Saturday is coming! Tick, tock! Warner finds  a driver who apparently pleases him. The driver loves his horses and talks about them the whole trip. There is one in particular he is fond of. This was the first time I was amused by Warner:
“May I never forget the spirited little jade, the off-leader in the third stage, the petted belle of the route, the nervous, coquettish, mincing mare of Marshy Hope. A spoiled beauty she was; you could see that as she took the road with dancing step, tossing her pretty head about, and conscious of her shining black coat and her tail done up "in any simple knot,"—like the back hair of Shelley's Beatrice Cenci. How she ambled and sidled and plumed herself, and now and then let fly her little heels high in air in mere excess of larkish feeling.”
If only the whole journal was so entertaining. They continue on, Cape Breton Island their destination, the driver declaring “Never was on Cape Breton… hope I never shall be. Heard enough about it. Taverns? You’ll find ‘em occupied.” He actually likes the sound of this and is even more pleased when a couple of Cape Bretoners are picked up along the way: a guy who only speaks Gaelic and a fiddler. By Saturday morning, they reach the Strait of Canso, the body of water separating Cape Breton from the mainland. Here they leave their amusing driver for the ferry (we have a causeway now). On the other side, they learn there is another 80 miles before reaching Baddeck. They find some guy who agrees to drop them off on his way to somewhere else. This ride is too fast and bumpy (he spent the first part of this journey complaining about how slow everyone was).
Bras D'Or Lakes
The Bras D'Or from the Iona side
The trip, he declares, is worth it once he sees the Bras D’Or Lakes, which I have to agree, are pretty freaking spectacular. “The Bras d'Or is the most beautiful salt-water lake I have ever seen, and more beautiful than we had imagined a body of salt water could be.” He waxes poetic for a bit until the driver drops him off at an actual honest-to-goodness nice hotel.

The next day being Sunday is a non-fishing day, so Warner and friend entertain themselves by making fun of the local religious practices, public houses, and well, everyone and everything. Monday they fish and then head back to the States.

I realize I have a bias, but Warner annoyed me before he even left the States. The whole purpose of his trip is to ridicule people wherever he might find them. He’s in a hurry to get there and be away from the city but when he gets to Baddeck he complains about how peaceful it is. When this was published, Nova Scotians were a tad upset. Honestly, I don’t think they should have been. Warner comes off as a pompous ass and this says more about him than the people he writes about. Making fun of honest, simple country folk when you’re a cultured rich guy from the city shows how small you really are. And he’s not even that funny; he tries too hard. The sad thing is there was some very nice writing in there too.

When I could ignore his mean spiritedness and his cranky-pants, I found some interesting little tidbits. I recognized places, these are the same places the highway goes through now. I learned that Baddeck has always been a tourist town, that hasn’t changed. I’m not surprised that Warner ran into people who only speak Gaelic, though you won’t find that now. In the 1950s, folklorist Helen Creighton recognized that modernization was creeping across the province and spent the decade collecting old songs and stories in the language before they disappeared as the last people who spoke it died. According to Canada Cool, only about 1000 people in the province still speak Gaelic, though there is a push to revive it.

Warner may have had his laugh but we have the last. Every year city folk spend lots of $$$ to relax and have old fashioned outdoorsy fun in Nova Scotia. It is also possible that Warner’s book caught the attention of another wealthy cultured gentleman, Alexander Graham Bell, who built his summer home, Beinn Bhreagh, in Baddeck in the late 19th century. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Warner. Things have changed since then. Nova Scotia has the TransCanada highway, inns, resorts, and enough fancy restaurants to fill any tourist’s lobster craving, but some things never change: “We received everywhere in the Provinces courtesy and kindness, which were not based upon any expectation that we would invest in mines or railways, for the people are honest, kindly, and hearty by nature.”  These are still the things you will find in “the Provinces.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


sherlock meeting with the king of bohemia

A Scandal in Bohemia

Originally published
: 1891

Found in
: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Librivox|Project Gutenberg)

I wasn't going to write reviews for these short stories, but then the second season of BBC's Sherlock started, and I thought, why not? For those of you who don't watch the show, each episode of the second season of Sherlock was based on the three most popular Sherlock Holmes mysteries: A Scandal in Bohemia, The Hounds of Baskerville, and The Final Problem.

As I've said before in my review of The Sherlockian (Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books), I'm not a big fan of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and it all started with The Hounds of Baskerville. We had to read it in sixth grade English and I was SUPER excited because 1. I'm a dork that way; and 2. I loved mysteries as a kid. And Sherlock is supposed to be the greatest mystery solver of all time, right? So imagine my disappointment when I was kind of bored with the book. There were no interesting female characters, and Sherlock himself was an arrogant ass. I'm aware that that's the entire point of Sherlock, and it wouldn't even have bothered me too much if he'd had one or two redeeming qualities, but he didn't. So I decided 'twas not for me and moved on with my life.

Fast forward a decade or *cough* two, and I've gradually warmed up to Sherlock Holmes. In other people's work--not Arthur Conan Doyle's. Him I'm still prejudiced against. But A Scandal in Bohemia was one of the selections in a Librivox short mystery collection I downloaded, and I thought it wouldn't hurt to give it a try.

A Scandal in Bohemia is famous for marking the appearance of Irene Adler, the only person to have ever bested Sherlock Holmes. The King of Bohemia comes to Holmes asking for help in the return of a set of letters, which detail his affair with Irene, to whom he was engaged but dumped in favor of marrying a princess. Holmes, naturally, has a plan, but Irene Adler is one step ahead of him.

I wasn't expecting much from A Scandal in Bohemia or Irene Adler--I anticipated Conan Doyle would either make her a vamp or a victim, and how much can one build of a character in a single short story anyway? However, I was pleasantly surprised. Holmes starts off being his know-it-all self, but then Irene shows up and things get a helluva lot more interesting. Conan Doyle did a good job of making Irene a believable, feminine character who is admired for her intelligence, not her boobage, and who has her own motivations in the story. She's not just there for the guys to lust after. I loved the end where the King of Bohemia declares, "What a woman!" and in response Sherlock says something to effect of, "Well, you're an idiot and you never deserved her anyway." Aw.

A Scandal in Bohemia definitely challenged my notions about Conan Doyle's writing being chauvinistic, and I now completely understand why the fascination with Adler's character persists. This was a great story!

holmes and moriarty in the final problem

The Final Problem

Originally published: 1893

Found in: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (Librivox|Project Gutenberg)

The Final Problem is famous as the story where Conan Doyle killed off his most beloved character. I decided to read--well, listen to--it after seeing the last episode of Sherlock, "The Reichenbach Fall." Again, as with Scandal in Bohemia, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this short story.

The Final Problem opens with Watson in his medical office. He hasn't seen a lot of Sherlock since he got married, and this gives him the sadness. As if conjured by his thoughts, Sherlock shows up, acting even stranger than usual. It turns out the net is finally closing around his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty; and after receiving a visit from Moriarty at 221 Baker Street, Sherlock has decided he should leave the country until the master criminal is safely behind bars. Of course, Watson's game for an adventure, and soon they're setting out for Switzerland.

This was a very well-written story. Watson--or Conan Doyle, rather--sets us up for Sherlock's death from the first page--and it's a good thing, too, because otherwise his death would be too hard to take. Then we're taken on a fun cat-and-mouse chase through Europe, until the story's tragic conclusion.

I have, on occasion, accused Conan Doyle's writing of being emotionless, but that wasn't the case in The Final Problem. Not that it's sentimental or histrionic--far from it. But I felt so sorry for poor Watson at the end and it was very sad, even knowing that Sherlock isn't "really" dead. I can appreciate Watson's value as a relatable character in this series--we've all had friends we've lost, either permanently or just drifted away from, and The Final Problem resonates with that common experience. For that reason I think this story is one that's accessible to people who people who aren't fans of mysteries or Sherlock Holmes.

What I wonder is, did Conan Doyle plan on bringing Sherlock back at some point? I know the popular opinion is that he hated Sherlock and was happy to be rid of him, but the way he killed the guy off does leave open the possibility of Sherlock's (and Moriarty's, for that matter) return. Maybe the final problem isn't defeating Moriarty, but finding out what happened to Sherlock.

watson sees holmes return from the dead
The Empty House

Originally published: 1903

Found in: The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Librivox|Project Gutenberg)

Ten years after killing Sherlock, Conan Doyle brought him back in The Empty House. It's a bit of mystery--har har--why he did so, but everyone is happy he did; and after the double whammy of The Reichenbach Fall and The Final Problem, I needed a pick-me-up.

Watson is carrying on, when one day Sherlock appears in his office. Watson faints. When he comes to, he's like, "Sherlock, is it really you?" etc. etc. I'm sure you can fill in the conversation for yourselves. Point is, for the last few years, Sherlock has been wandering around Europe, with the assistance of his brother, doing odd jobs and pretending to be dead. But he's been a little bored lately; and since England is the only place where interesting mysteries happen, Sherlock has decided to return.

I honestly could not tell you anything about the mystery in this story, but does it really matter? The point is, Sherlock's back! And he's wearing disguises! And Watson still can't recognize him when he's in a disguise. Seriously, I can't even see Sherlock and I'm still like, HELLOOO, WATSON, THAT'S OBVIOUSLY SHERLOCK IN DISGUISE. And he's tricksing people with his smarts and making wax casts of himself and going, "See what I just did there? No? Sorry, I forgot how slow you are."

The Empty House was not as good as A Scandal in Bohemia and The Final Problem. It seriously felt phoned-in. And Watson seemed to accept Sherlock's return way too easily. After the fainting spell, he's pretty laissez-faire about the whole thing. If one of my friends whom I thought was dead suddenly showed up at my house and was all, "Sorry I didn't write," I'd be PISSED. I'd want to either hug them or punch them in the face, and possibly both. Watson just shrugs it off and goes back to business as usual, as if he finds out dead people are actually alive on a semi-annual basis.

Anyway, The Empty House was okay. I don't think Conan Doyle was as psyched about bringing Sherlock back as he was about killing him off, but maybe it says something that after ten years, it feels like the detective never left.

For the most part, these stories have really improved my opinion of Conan Doyle's mysteries and writing. I'm NOT going to reread The Hounds of Baskerville, but I might consent to read more Holmes mysteries in the future. Do you have any favorites?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Guest Review: ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1911

Genre: tragedy

Topics: class, love, duty

Review by Patti of Tale of Three Cities:

If I wanted to be super-cynical, I could summarise reading Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton as follows: Ethan is an unlucky man, misses out on his opportunity to fulfill his potential, marries out of obligation, meets Mattie and is infatuated with her, has deliberate accident, which leaves Mattie paralysed. Poor Ethan now has to continue his miserable life looking out for both his sickly wife and for Mattie. Of course there is more to the novel, but I found I could connect to none of the characters, and reading was just a nuisance. Finishing was actually a relief but also a puzzle, as I had not understood what the point of the story was.

The story begins with a narrator who comes to Starkfield, wanting to find out about one of the local characters, Ethan Frome, who had a tragic accident about 20 years earlier. The story then goes back to that point in time, and narrates Ethan's life in a secluded, run-down farm. It goes on to describe the triangle between Ethan and his wife Zeena on the one hand, a woman who tried to nurse Ethan's sickly mother, only to become one herself shortly afterwards. She has been "oppressing" Ethan ever since their marriage, and while sickly, it's clear she dominates the household.

Things could start to look rosier when Zeena's cousin, Mattie, the third person in this triangle, arrives to help with the household. Ethan sees in her the spark of youth and unselfishness. He falls helplessly in love with her, but he cannot escape being mastered by the social and moral constraints. On the one night they find themselves alone, they do... nothing! They cannot ever bring themselves to express their affection to one another, and on top of everything else, Zeena's favourite pickle dish is shattered to pieces...

When Zeena announces that she will replace Mattie with a more efficient girl, Ethan's world falls apart. He considers eloping with Mattie but almost immediately realises there's no way society will let him escape his destiny... Ethan decides to bring Mattie himself to the train station - on the way there, they stop at the crest of the village in order to have a sledding adventure - Mattie sees no exit strategy in their situation but a deadly encounter with the elm tree at the end of the  hill. The result is not what they wished for. Fast forward twenty years to present day, and the narrator lodges with a Mrs. Hale, together with whom he mourns the state of "cursed" Ethan Frome, caring for these two women.

The story could provide so much material for ups and downs in the narration. And yet, I could feel no tension while reading, which I would have expected given the miserable circumstances - in fact, I could see no action taking place at all! It was this sense of "inactivity" throughout the book that most probably unnerved me. What is more, the characters of Zeena and Mattie are only partially developed, as Mattie is simply described through the eyes of Ethan and Zeena is just the unsympathetic copy of Ethan's mother. Only Ethan is properly described in depth, and I could see his thoughts, his initial ambitions, the missed opportunities that could have led to a different outcome...

But then, the overall justification for his inactivity is attributed, apart from society's imposed moral conduct, also to the harsh weather conditions, and their effect on the human psyche (Ethan is described as having "been to Starkfield too many winters") - something I cannot agree with (plus, I doubt that Wharton had any experience on the subject and this actually shows in her story-telling). I could see how a sensitive person like Ethan could be overwhelmed by the elements, but I had real difficulty explaining his whole life solely from this fact... All in all, I felt it was not a well narrated story, it left nothing to yearn for and I'm afraid in a few months' time it will have been removed from my memory.

I had read a lot about Edith Wharton, and had long wanted to read her work.  I'm afraid though that reading Ethan Frome as a first novel may not have been the best choice.  It's not often that I feel so uneasy about a book  I've read and I hope it does not happen often...

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Discussion: Racism in Classic Novels

El Filibusterismo

Recently some of us have been encountering issues with race in our public domain novels, which prompted Chris from Bookarama to start a discussion about racism in early twentieth-century novels. To mention it in the review or not to mention it? When do racial stereotypes ruin the book for you?

Chris: I was thinking of something last night and after Aarti's post today (Emily Fox-Seton by Francis Hodgson Burnett) I thought I'd email you guys. I'm having a hard time with Bat Wing by Sax Rohmer. The story is good but there is so much stereotyping and racism. It's so very, very bad! It looks like several of us are encountering that in our public domain picks. Is it me or is worse in early 20th century books? I've come across it in other books before and sometimes there is a purpose for it (Mark Twain, To Kill a Mockingbird) but this is racism for entertainment purposes only. It made me think, "Should I even review this?"

Aarti: Well, now I know to avoid Bat Wing for sure! I completely understand what you mean about the racism popping up a lot in the early 20th century--also the late 19th century. I think because this was when imperialism was at its height, so a lot of authors were writing under the influence of the White Man's Burden or something to that effect. Still really, really upsetting, though.

Chris: I was wondering if that was the case at that time. I'm thinking that authors were writing those books for white people so they fed off the fear of the unknown (foreigners) to keep them interested in the plot. I understand that was the thinking at the time but yikes! It reads terribly now.

And yes, not just a discussion of "racism is wrong" there are so many facets to it. Like do we learn something from these old ways of thinking? Should we bring attention to a book that doesn't appear to have any cultural value? And who decides that? Then there is the emotions of the reader, can you separate your emotions from your reading? It's so complicated.

It does take us away from it somewhat but I feel like I'm going to become a broken record: "Warning! Racism ahead!" whenever I write a review.

Aarti: Ooh, I like those questions! For instance--should Project Gutenberg have "priority" books that it converts digitally, and if so, should these sorts of books be prioritized?

Tasha: It is an issue in a lot of novels (Sax Rohmer's novels really are kinda racist). I don't like excusing it by saying they're a product of their times, but at the same time it seems unfair to take a book from the early 20th century and hold it up to the same standards of political correctness as we have (I'm not sure we can say novels today don't echo bigoted stereotypes in a way that people 100 years from now will find ridiculous).

Do you think the racism is more offensive when it's a big part of the plot, like with Sax Rohmer, instead of just using racist terms like "darkies," etc.?

Chris: Interesting question. I think, for me, the terms are more "oh Grandpa!" moments because they're the words of an old fashioned attitude. I can only imagine what will be offensive to people 100 years from now. But the thing that gets to me most is the dehumanizing. For example, there is a Chinese character and the narrator talks about the "dim look in his eye" and makes comments about his dog-like devotion to another character. Okay, so the guy is loyal to this person but if he was white would the writer used those terms to explain it? Then there is mention of another character, a Cuban of African descent, and even though the guy's name is Jim, the narrator refers to him as "the negro" several times.

It's too bad that Sax's novels are like that because the mystery was so good (there was a twist at the end that was really surprising).

Aarti: I totally get both your points, Tasha, on the "Yes, they're racist, and I'm not excusing them, but they also are reflecting their society at the time." So it's not so much saying, "Hey, that's racist," but maybe really more like what we're doing here--how much does that kind of writing impact a modern person's reading of a book, and is it possible (and worth it) to get past the stereotypes to see other aspects of the work? For example, Burnett didn't just stereotype the Indians in her book, she also really heavily stereotyped working class women (as being wonderful) and upper-class women (as being lazy and petty). So if we consider it not just from the race way but from a "What emotions were most stirred in me during my reading of this book?" it may be a more nuanced perspective than what I wrote up today about not being able to get through the book due to the ridiculousness of its portrayal.

Tasha: Do you two think authors were simply relying on stereotypes (both of class and race) as a narrative device or in the place of experience? Like with Mary Hastings Bradley, The Fortieth Door (see Chris' review here) is full of assumptions about the superiority of European culture to that of Egypt and Islam, but you can also tell there were things she admired about the culture, too. Whereas I'm not sure Sax Rohmer ever traveled to China (does anyone know?).

Chris: I don't think he did, or I can't see that info anywhere. I think a lot of the times it was in place of experience: "everyone believes this so it must be true." Hastings made the Egyptians the bad guys because making the English the bad guys wouldn't have been acceptable to her readers. But I did feel that she liked some things about the culture, like you did, and she at least visited the place. Sax was pretty awful. And it doesn't appear that Frances Hodgson Burnett went to India either. I think the more a writer actively participates in the culture they are writing about the more sympathetic they become. Another book I read recently was Edith Wharton's In Morocco (Bookarama). She had these planned visits with the well-to-do Moroccans where everyone sat around staring at each other and had awkward conversations. She comes off as very superior. Would she have had a different attitude if she had helped make a meal or something? I don't know but maybe she would have seen them as real people not just exhibits. (Though she doesn't seem like the hands-on type anyway.) On the opposite end is someone like Pearl Buck who loved China and the Chinese people.

I'm not sure what conclusion we can come to on this one. Yes, we should read these books knowing the attitudes of the times and despite our own feelings. But also is it always necessary to mention the racism in reviews? What do you think?

Aarti: I also don't know what conclusions we can really draw! I guess that's the thing about discussions around this sort of topic--it's hard for them to end in a way that is satisfying to modern readers.

I don't think that the racism always has to be brought up in books we review. I just had a very visceral reaction to the book I read and had to address it. I don't think it will always be like that. But I think if it strikes you as a component of the book, you can mention it. If it doesn't, then maybe not.

Tasha: I personally like to mention it, just because that's an unpleasant thing to be blindsided by, and I don't like to pretend I didn't notice it. But at the same time concepts of race change all the time and from place to place, so I try not to be all judgy about it (try being the operative word ;).

What about you--do you think it's important to mention racism in reviews?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Review: BARCHESTER TOWERS by Anthony Trollope

Original Publication Date: 1857

Genre: satire, comedy of manners

Topics: Church of England, ambition, religion


Barchester Towers is the second of the "Chronicles of Barsetshire" trilogy. It can be read as a stand-alone, although there are occasional references to previous characters, events and places.

Wikipedia, in all its wisdom, says that Barchester Towers, “among other things satirizes the then raging antipathy in the Church of England between High Church and Evangelical adherents.” The truth is that just by reading this I wouldn't be too tempted by the book, and it would be my loss. As someone raised in a almost 100% roman catholic country, the inner workings of the Church of England, with all its branches, are still a mystery to me, no matter how many British classics I read. It was only during my bookclub's discussion that I realize some subtleties of religious conflict in the book had escaped me completely.

The plot of Barchester Towers in general didn’t do much from me - sleepy cathedral town, old bishop dies, everyone expects his son to succeeds him but someone else gets the post, new and ambitious people arrive, rivalries ensue, some people fall in love, others try to get rich by marriage, lots of misunderstandings. It’s as much a comedy of errors as it is a comedy of manners, and most of it revolves around the fight for primacy in the diocese between the Bishop's wife Mrs. Proudie and his chaplain, Mr. Slope. There's also a somewhat meh romantic story in the background.

What did do it for me was the characterization, social commentary and the wonderful wit. Is there a “satire of manners” genre? If there is, Trollope is its King.

He manages to craft characters that have everything to become caricatures, but still feel like someone you’ve met before. There’s Mr. Slope's shameless ambition and sleazy ways, Mrs. Proudie teeth-gritting bullying of her husband and, best of all, the Stanhope family. Dr. Stanhope, went to Italy to treat a “scratchy throat” and, after 12 years (!) of peacefully fishing on the shores of Lake Como, returns at the command of the new Bishop. One of his daughters is the "Signora Madelina Vesey Neroni" (née Madeline Stanhope) and her daughter, “the last of the Neros”.

Trollope should have written a whole book about the Signora. She's escaping from an abusive marriage who left her crippled and even in England is carried around social occasions by a group of Italian men. She's a great beauty, incredibly intelligent, and a cunning flirt who seems to be seeking revenge on Mankind by breaking the heart of every man she finds in her way:
Mrs. Proudie looked at the Signora as one of the lost. One of those beyond the reach of Christian charity, and was therefore able to enjoy the luxury of hating her without the drawback of eventually wishing her well out of her sins.
(Forgive me for absolutely loving this quote ;))

Trollope writes so wonderfully, so precisely. I'm really only sorry that the plot didn’t capture me more. Your enjoyment of the book will also depend on how much you can tolerate an interfering narrator,that talks to you and comments on what’s happening, like this:
And here the author must beg it to be remembered that Mr. Slope was not in all things a bad man. His motives, like those of most men, were mixed, and though his conduct was generally very different from that which we would wish to praise, it was actuated perhaps as often as that of the majority of the world by a desire to do his duty. He believed in the religion which he taught, harsh, unpalatable, uncharitable as that religion was.
And here again, is another delightful scene, where the meek Bishop decides to finally stand up to his domineering wife:
Now, Bishop, look well to thyself and call up all the manhood that is in thee. (…) Thou thyself hast sought the battle-field: fight out the battle manfully now thou art there. Courage, Bishop, courage! [encourages Trollope]
One of the most intense points of discussion during my bookclub was about why Trollope has become more forgotten (or isn't as popular nowadays as) Austen, the Brontës or Hardy. His writing certainly deserves it, yet Barchester Towers, his most popular novel, only has 2.360 ratings on Goodreads, compared to Tess of the D'Urbervilles’ 49.219, Agnes Grey’s 8.101 and Northanger Abbey’s 63.332. We didn't reach any conclusion, so I'd love to hear your views. Is it the lack of a convincing/passionate romance? Is it the focus on the Church of England issues that limits it?

Another recommendation: BBC's adaptation, with Alan Rickman as Mr. Slope.

Barchester Towers and the full Chronicles of Barsetshire (The Warden and The Last Chronicle of Barchester) are available on Project Gutenberg. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Review: BEASTS, MEN AND GODS by Ferdynand Ossendowski

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1922

Genre: memoir

Topics: Asia, journey, war, Bolshevism, Buddhism


Pursued by Bolshevik Revolutionaries, Ferdynand Ossendowski, a Polish scientist, resolves to return to his family the only way he can: by traveling through Siberia into Mongolia and China, then back into Western Europe via the United States. Along this epic journey he encounters beasts, men, and gods, sometimes within the same person.

I normally don't go for memoirs, but the summary for Beasts, Men and Gods on Librivox described it as, "an epic journey, filled with perils and narrow escapes, in the mold of The Lord of the Rings. The difference is: it’s all true." A TRUE version of Lord of the Rings? This I gotta see. And there better be effing wizards.

While Beasts, Men and Gods isn't exactly Lord of the Rings, it definitely fulfills its promise as an epic journey--a very fascinating, well-told journey over a country Ossendowski calls "the land of mystery and miracles." Ossendowski had an established history of political dissidence opposing the Bolsheviks before this story began, and even spent time in a Russian prison under a death sentence until it was commuted to a "wolf ticket"--basically papers that prevented him from leaving the country or holding down a regular job, which was why he was in Siberia to start off with. He wrote a book about his time in prison called In Human Dust that Leo Tolstoy declared one of his favorites.

ferdinand ossendowski
Ossendowski can and will kick your ass.

You wouldn't know any of that from reading Beasts, Men and Gods, however. Ossendowski doesn't give us backstory as to why the Bolsheviks are after him, just that he's visiting a friend and receives word soldiers have surrounded his house. With no other options, he escapes into the wilderness of Siberia and lives in the woods on his own for at least a year. Forgoing these details was a smart move on Ossendowski's part--it gives the narrative an everyman feel and underscores the horrors of the Bolshevik Revolution more effectively than if he'd turned the book into a political treatise. And Beasts, Men and Gods isn't really about politics, anyway; it's about a struggle to survive against the chaos of war and nature. Ossendowski wants the reader to feel as if all of this could happen to them, whether or not they're involved in politics, and he succeeds.

The first part of the memoir focuses on his time living more or less alone in Sibera, and it's the best part of the book. You know how the 1965 movie Doctor Zhivago has these incredible visuals that burn themselves into your mind, like the train car covered in ice so thick they have to hack their way through it? Beasts, Men and Gods is kind of like that. Ossendowski's description of the spring thaw is incredible, with the breaking of the ice sounding as loud as a roar and chunks of ice the size of boulders flying up from the river and flattening trees when they land. But the ice carries ugly things in its depths:
Watching this glorious withdrawal of the ice, I was filled with terror and revolt at seeing the awful spoils which the Yenisei bore away in this annual retreat. These were the bodies of the executed counter-revolutionaries... Hundreds of these bodies with heads and hands cut off, with mutilated faces and bodies half burned, with broken skulls, floated and mingled with the blocks of ice, looking for their graves; or, turning in the furious whirlpools among the jagged blocks, they were ground and torn to pieces into shapeless masses, which the river, nauseated with its task, vomited out upon the islands and projecting sand bars.
Yikes! It's easy to understand why Ossendowski was against the Bolsheviks, even though he never comes right out and says that he was.

The book slows down considerably in part two, when Ossendowski makes it into Mongolia and tries to travel into Tibet (with the goal of reaching the coast of India, where he can catch a boat back to Europe), only to be blocked by Chinese revolutionaries. Trapped, liked Mongolia herself, between two countries being taken over by communism, Ossendowski travels here and there, meets people, gets into skirmishes, is shot several times, and attempts to catch us up on Chinese-Mongolian politics. I'm not terribly interested in the politics, and the fights Ossendowski and his traveling companions get into start to feel repetitive. I began to wonder what the heck the point of all this was. But! The story picks up considerably in the part three, when Ossendowski meets Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, also known as the Bloody Baron.

Roman Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg
Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, 1921, in a Mongolian deel uniform with the Russian Order of St. George.

The Baron was a German national who became a general for the White Russian army (the royalist side fighting against the Reds, or Bolsheviks), and the guy was CRAY CRAY. He was an excellent general, but known to be ruthlessly violent as well as believing himself to be the reincarnated Mongolian God of War. For serious. The way Ossendowski describes him makes the Baron sound like a blonde Moriarty from BBC's Sherlock--the high-pitched laugh, the faux bonhomie and latent violence. Ossendowki is as frightened of Ungern-Sternberg as anyone, but at their first meeting he tells the Baron off and demands his respect. After that Ungern-Sternberg decides he's trust-worthy and brings him into his inner circle (Ossendowski apparently taught the Baron's troops how to make poisonous gas, but that is not mentioned in the book).

The Baron is a fascinating guy, and Ossendowki is clearly at once repelled and transfixed by him, as is the reader. Knowing what we know now, it's a little spooky at times how the Baron seems to be predicting WWII, a battle between good and evil, as he describes it. He also knows he won't see that battle, anticipating death at the hands of his own commanders, which was exactly what happened.

Ossendowski himself is an interesting guy, too, and he only gets more interesting as his journey goes on. In his normal life he was an academic and scientist, studied under Marie Curie, and taught classes on physics and chemistry at universities in Russia and Poland. As with politics, he never gives us details about his past, but you can tell he's a scientist just by the way he describes things such as the environment and animals in Mongolia. At a few points in the book he comes across strange phenomena or legends and his reaction is, "The locals believe this is caused by evil spirits, but clearly it is a chemical reaction to blahity blah blah." And yet, one gets the impression that there's also a part of him that buys into the mysticism of Mongolia. He believes true prophecies were made about him, and he never attempts to explain Baron von Ungern-Sternberg's belief that he's a god as delusion or narcissism. The last part of the book, which takes place in the palace of the Living Buddha and describes its treasures and prophecies, are the words of someone who's drunk the kool-aid, not a scientist.

And Ossendowski is SMART. I'm not talking book smarts, either, though obviously he is that. He can read people, and that saves his life more than once. He sizes other men up in seconds and then somehow knows what to say or do to get the reaction he wants from them or inspire their trust.

Which leads me to the end of the book, and the reason why I hate memoirs. Because while I don't doubt the veracity of what Ossendowski wrote (I have no reason to--it's absolutely incredible, but people have incredible and unbelievable experiences during war, as I know from stories my own grandparents have told me), he clearly isn't telling us everything. Even if I hadn't Googled him, I'd still know he was being evasive about certain parts of his journey, especially in part four. That's where I started to go, "What the hell?" because he NEVER says how he gets out of Mongolia. One would think that would be a good conclusion to the story, if only just a sentence to mention it, but there's absolutely nothing. Why? According to Wikipedia, he got a position as a diplomatic envoy to Japan, and from there traveled to the US, supposedly hiding treasure he stole from the Bloody Baron along the way. Is that why Ossendowski skips that portion of his journey entirely? I don't like to think that Ossendowski would steal from anyone; but from the start of Beasts, Men and Gods, he edits out certain facts in order to make the impression he wants, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility that things occured in those final days that he decided were best left unsaid--not even glossed over, but skipped entirely.

Why not just write a fictional novel about it, for heaven's sake?

In any case, it seems appropriate that Ossendowski's journey through "the land of mystery" ends with a mystery for the reader. I think this memoir is incredible, thought-provoking, awe-inspiring, and I definitely think it's worth checking out.

Read Beasts, Men and Gods on Project Gutenberg|Librivox (Mark Smith narrates and does a fabulous job)

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1883

Genre: General Fiction

Topics: Coming of Age, Feminism, Religion

Review: Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm is often referred to as one of the earliest feminist novels written in English. It tells the story of three characters growing up together in a farm in South Africa: Lyndall, Waldo, and Em. The novel is loosely divided into three sections and follows the protagonists from childhood into adulthood. Schreiner’s narrative voice is very experimental and dreamlike: it moves freely forwards and backwards in time, it addresses the reader, and it delves into detailed philosophical discussions. This is a novel of ideas rather than a traditional narrative, which makes the plot difficult to summarise. But readers curious about an early feminist’s approach to themes such as religious faith, agnosticism, atheism and existentialism, sexual double standards, marriage and women’s economic dependency, and the social construction of gender roles are likely to find much of interest in this novel.

The Story of an African Farm is a book I felt close to even before I started it: last year I read Letters from a Lost Generation, a collection of WW1 correspondence between Vera Brittain and her brother, her fiancé Roland Leighton, and two close friends. Brittain and Leighton frequently discussed Schreiner’s novel in their letters – the line “a striving, and a striving, and an ending in nothing” became like a metaphor for the futility of WW1 for them. There’s also the fact that The Story of an African Farm was obviously a book that helped shape Brittain’s feminism. Reading it as a woman still puzzling out some of these same questions over a century later made me feel like I was a small part of a large community of readers; of a literary conversation that stretches through time and place.

Lyndall, who functions as a mouthpiece for Schreiner’s feminism, was a particularly interesting character. For much of the novel we see her as an object of desire for the men around her, and the way she’s described (attractive, delicate, nymph-like) conforms to conventional patterns of beauty and femininity. But Schreiner subverts the male gaze by giving readers access to Lyndall’s thoughts, and by making us realise she’s aware of how she’s perceived and of the weight of what’s expected of her as a woman. There’s a long section in which Lyndall passionately exposes her views on gender roles that comes across as considerably aware of its time. Take this excerpt, for example, about the stigma and economic insecurity of unmarried women:
She smiled slightly. “They say that we complain of woman’s being compelled to look upon marriage as a profession; but that she is free to enter upon it or leave it, as she pleases.
“Yes—and a cat set afloat in a pond is free to sit in the tub till it dies there, it is under no obligation to wet its feet; and a drowning man may catch at a straw or not, just as he likes—it is a glorious liberty! Let any man think for five minutes of what old maidenhood means to a woman—and then let him be silent. Is it easy to bear through life a name that in itself signifies defeat? to dwell, as nine out of ten unmarried women must, under the finger of another woman? Is it easy to look forward to an old age without honour, without the reward of useful labour, without love? I wonder how many men there are who would give up everything that is dear in life for the sake of maintaining a high ideal purity.”
Almost as interesting to me was Gregory Rose, a character who embodies modern ideas about the performativity of gender roles in the final section of the novel. I don’t want to give away what happens in case you mind spoilers, but he comes to realise that it’s much easier for him to perform what society deems “women’s work” if he literally disguises himself as a woman.

It was very exciting for me to find these themes in a novel from 1883, and I can only imagine how much more exciting it must have been for someone like Vera Brittain, who was reading it at a time when feminism as we know it today was taking its first steps. I should add, though, that like Eva noted in her review The Story of an African Farm is pretty blatantly racist. It’s quite possible that someone like Schreiner, who is otherwise very progressive, would not have absorbed the troubling attitudes towards race that make their way into this novel if she hasn’t lived in the nineteenth-century – for this reason, I do find it useful to take her historical context into account. But it’s equally useful to bear in mind that the novel’s particular brand of feminism doesn’t give us the full picture, and only champions the rights of one particular group of women. This is common enough in works from this period, and although I still find them interesting and valuable, I also feel the urge to find other sources that can give me an idea of what things were like for the women who are ignored and dehumanised here.

As I said earlier, The Story of an African Farm is primarily a novel of ideas. The ideas it deals with are all ones I’m interested in, which was enough to make it a worthwhile read. However, I must admit that I sometimes felt that the characterisation was sacrificed to Schreiner’s attempt to make everyone into a philosophical spokesperson. Not all of her characters felt like real human beings to me, which was a real pity. In addition to that, her approach is not exactly subtle, and she often tells far more than she shows. When I think of novels such as, say, To The Lighthouse, which combine a focus on ideas (some of the same ideas Schreiner tackles, actually) with subtlety and absolutely masterful characterisation, it becomes obvious that these shortcomings aren’t inevitable.

Then again, The Story of an African Farm was Schreiner’s first novel, so it’s pretty unfair to compare it to one of Woolf’s masterpieces. The good outweighs the bad by far and I really enjoyed it overall – not only for the ideas but also for the lovely writing and sense of place. I own a copy of Schreiner’s later novel Man to Man and I’m really looking forward to reading it sometime soon, as well as to trying some of her non-fiction.

You can download the e-book of The Story of an African Farm for free at Project Gutenberg.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Review: The Window at the White Cat by Mary Roberts Rinehart

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1910

Genre: Mystery

Topics: damsels in distress, crooked politicians, missing relations, stumbling heroes


Yet another LibriVox pick but my first Mary Roberts Rinehart. A dame walks into lawyer Jack Knox’s office and asks for help. Her father Allan  Fleming, a prominent politician, has disappeared. She’s nervous. Her father’s house has been broken into and a mysterious note with the numbers 11-22 left behind. What does it all mean? She begs Jack to find her father and not involve the police. Jack falls instantly for the lovely Margery Fleming and agrees to help her. Unfortunately, she’s engaged but the lucky man seems to be up to his neck in her old man’s dirty business. He knows more than he’s letting on about the missing Mr Fleming.

Things get stickier when Margery’s Aunt Jane disappears along with the family pearls. The stakes just got higher. As Jack starts putting two and two together, everything points in the direction of the political club The White Cat. The White Cat is a place where shady deals are made across poker tables. A man’s career can be made or broken here. It’s also the kind of place a man can lose his life.

I decided the try The Window at the White Cat by Mary Roberts Rinehart story because Aarti and Tasha had success with their selections of the same author. I think I picked the wrong book. The Window at the White Cat had its good points but I wasn’t enamoured with the story. In fact, I found that I would drift off while listening or wonder what exactly was going on. It was the political side of the story that I didn’t care about. Allan Fleming is a crooked politician, I didn’t really care about him or his cronies. Maybe sleazy politicians and their dealings would have interested readers in 1910 but we’ve all done that and bought the t-shirt.  Now Miss Jane on the other hand, that part of the story, a sort of sidebar to Fleming’s story, was much more appealing. What happened to the lady? I wanted to know.

I did like Jack, with his dry sense of humour and his interesting home life. Jack is that artifact of the last century, the sad bachelor. He lives with his brother, sister-in-law, and their kids. He endures their ribbing and his brother’s grumbling. Jack tries to be Margery’s hero by finding her father but most of the time he’s bumping into people or things in the dark. There are a lot of people breaking into houses and tumbling over each other in the dark actually. Jack also suffers from “don’t worry your pretty head” syndrome when it comes to ladies. What is with these guys trying to shelter pretty women from bad news? What are they scared of? Are they afraid they’ll lose their marbles and jump in a lake? So annoying. Anyway… Margery is kind of blah herself. All she has going for her is looks which I guess is all that’s necessary in a love interest. She’s the least interesting of all the characters.

From the looks of other reviews out there, this might be one of Rinehart’s duds. I’m willing to give her another shot. There was potential in The Window at the White Cat but the execution was off. Any suggestions for other books?

This was an LibriVox recording performed by Robert Keiper. He was so good! The voices he did for each character were hilarious. He really livened the story up. I would listen to his other recordings. The Seventh Man looks like a good one.