Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens

Original Publication Date: 1861

Topics: Coming of age, class, family, ambition, crime, guilt

Genre: Victorian Fiction


Even if you haven’t read Great Expectations, chances are you know the story, either from the adaptations (there's even a South Park episode based on it) or by the many cultural references going around.

So shortly: Pip is a young orphan living with his sister and her blacksmith husband. One day he is invited by local-eccentric Miss Havisham to visit her home – Satis House – and become a companion for her adopted daughter – the beautiful Estella – with whom our hero promptly falls in love. Miss Havisham was left at the altar many years before and since then she and her house remain frozen time. More than that, she is training Esther to break men’s hearts and avenge her. Some time after his first visit, Pip starts receiving money through a London lawyer but from an unknown source, so he immediately assumes Miss Havisham is his benefactor. The rest of the book is about how Pip deals with his new-found wealth, the people he meets in London and the discovery of the true origin of his “great expectations” (connected to a childhood secret).

This was my second Dickens after reading Oliver Twist and I've come to the conclusion that… he’s not for me. He’s very readable, and can be really funny at times, but the Mexican soap opera plot twists, and the way he turns everything he touches to bleakness just puts me off. Not to mention his inability to create female characters I can relate to (capital offense!).

I still have Our Mutual Friend on the TBR shelf and will read it eventually since 1) it’s my favorite Dickens adaptation and 2) because of Desmond, from the TV series Lost. You see, Desmond has read all other Dickens except Our Mutual Friend, which he is intending to read only when he feels death is near. I heart Desmond – he understands the unique experience of reading for the first time a book you’ll love. I'm also determined to read A Christmas Carol this December, so maybe not all hope is lost.

Anywhoo, I feel that everything that could possibly be said about Great Expectations has been said before, so I’ll just compile some random thoughts:

  • The whole story felt like a fairy tale and you should take it just like that – a spoon full of sugar will help the freaky coincidences go down!
  • Who cares about Pip?! The most interesting part of the novel was Satis House with it’s stopped clocks, rotting wedding cake and Miss Havisham’s plan to build her own version of Frankenstein’s monster. I found the conversation between her and Estella by the fireplace one of the highlights of the book and can’t help wishing for a prequel about their lives together. During that exchange, we have a rare glimps into the  Estella’s mind… and you can almost hear Miss Havisham scream “I’ve created a MONSTER!”. But as the Monster, I feel she is misunderstood and completely right in feeling that Miss H. cannot expect her to be different from what she was programmed for. I know a lot of people feel Estella is two-dimensional, but for me she’s one of those characters that has a life – and a mind! – beyond the will of the author.
  • I LOLed several times during Pip’s early life, when he’s still living with his sister and Joe. They are perfect examples of Dickens’ British sense of humor:
“Mrs. Joe was a very clean housekeeper, but had an exquisite art of making her cleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable than dirt itself.”
 “Some medical beast had revived tar-water in those days as a fine medicine, and Mrs. Joe always kept a supply of it in the cupboard; having a belief in its virtues correspondent to its nastiness. At the best of times, so much of this elixir was administered to me as a choice restorative, that I was conscious of going about, smelling like a new fence.”
I know that Dickens has a huge following and I hope this post didn't discourage you to try it - it's a great gift to have all his works available on Project GutenbergAs Jane Austen wisely said, "One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


book cover
Original Publication Date: 1922

Genre: mystery, in the loosest sense of the word

Topics: politics, gender, society


Henry Beechtree is a reporter for the British Bolshevist, an early-twentieth century version of Fox News. He's in Geneva covering the meeting of the League of Nations, but delegates keep disappearing. Who could be responsible? Henry thinks he knows.

Mystery at Geneva was not at all what I was expecting. Rose Macaulay opens the novel by stating,
As I have observed among readers and critics a tendency to discern satire where none is intended, I should like to say that this book is simply a straightforward mystery story, devoid of irony, moral or meaning. It has for its setting an imaginary session of the League of Nations Assembly, but it is in no sense a study of, still less a skit on, actual conditions at Geneva, of which indeed I know little, the only connection I have ever had with the League being membership of its Union.
She then proceeds to spend the next 280-ish pages ridiculing nationalism, gender assumptions, religion, politics, reporting, and other aspects of European society, as well as going into extreme detail describing the League of Nations and how it's like a high school full of cliques and hypocrisy.

As for plot, it wouldn't be accurate to say there isn't one, but if you're reading it you will wonder if there is. Only about 10% of the book has anything to do with an actual mystery. This is not a novel of international intrigue; it's a book where guys sit around discussing subjects in such a way as to highlight how ridiculous they are. Occasionally a League delegate disappears and people are like, "Hey, that's upsetting. We should figure out what happened," then they go right back to pointless talking. Metaphor much?

This sounds exactly like the sort of thing that would normally drive me crazy--I HATE mysteries that aren't mysterious--yet somehow I actually enjoyed myself. Macaulay is funny, and it's kind of fascinating to me how the more things change, the more they stay the same. She could just as easily be pointing out the failings of the UN and modern journalism. Plus, her tangents against gender assumptions are pretty awesome. Here's one passage I thought was interesting:
It may be observed that there are in this world mental females, mental males, and mental neutrals. You may know them by their conversation. The mental females, or womanly women, are apt to talk about clothes, children, domestics, the prices of household commodities, love affairs, or personal gossip. Theirs is rather a difficult type of conversation to join in, as it is above one's head. Mental males, or manly men, talk about sport, finance, business, animals, crops, or how things are made. Theirs is also a difficult type of conversation to join in, being also above one's head. Male men as a rule, like female women, and vice versa; they do not converse, but each supplies the other with something they lack, so they gravitate together and make happy marriages. In between these is the No-Man's Land, filled with mental neutrals of both sexes. They talk about all the other things, such as books, jokes, politics, love (as distinct from love affairs), people, places, religion (in which, though they talk more about it, they do not, as a rule, believe so unquestioningly as do the males and the females, who have never thought about it and are rather shocked if it is mentioned), plays, music, current fads and scandals, public persons and events, newspapers, life, and anything else which turns up. Their conversation is easy to join in, as it is not above one's head.
Wow, that was a long thought! Now you have an idea of what I mean about the characters going on and on about things. Here's another excerpt that I liked:
Deeply Henry, going about his secret and private business, intent and absorbed, pondered this question of News, what it is and what it is not. Crime is News; divorce is News; girl mothers are News; fabric gloves and dolls' eyes are, for some unaccountable reason, News; centenaries of famous men are, for some still stranger reason, News; railway accidents are News; the wrong-doing of clergymen is News; strangest of all, women are, inherently and with no activities on their part, News, in a way that men are not... To be News in oneself, without taking any preliminary action—that was very exciting for women... All sorts of articles and letters appear in the papers about women. Profound questions are raised concerning them. Should they smoke? Should they work? Vote? Take Orders? Marry? Exist?
All this discussion about gender becomes very pertinent by the end of the book, and The Mystery at Geneva has an ending I honestly didn't see coming. On one hand, I thought it was a great twist. On the other, I'm not sure it effectively supports the point Macaulay was trying to make about gender definitions being total bull crap.

Mystery at Geneva is no Riddle of the Sands (review here)--this is not an international spy thriller. It's social commentary. If I had been reading it, I might have started to lose patience; but since I was listening to it on audio, I kind of just let it go and enjoyed the exquisite irony of Macaulay's writing. That being said, I can see why this novel is a forgotten classic: it's obscure, a bit preachy, long-winded, and the plot is literally a joke. But weirdly I had fun with it.

Get Mystery at Geneva: An Improbable Tale of Singular Happenings by Dame Rose Macaulay at Librivox|Project Gutenberg|Internet Archive

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Random Wednesday: The House of the Vampire by George Sylvester Viereck

Original Publication Date: 1907

Genre: Horror

Topics: Psychic vampires, bisexuality (sort of), art, the artistic life, New York

Reginald Clarke is not your average vampire, in fact, he takes exception to that word. He doesn’t suck the blood from your body; he steals the ideas from your mind. Any bright young thing with talent that crosses his path is a target. Clarke’s latest victim is Ernest Fielding, a New York playwright. He’s taken young Ernest under his wing and into his home. Poor Ernest has no idea how his play, one he had only dreamed up recently, ended up onstage as Clarke’s latest masterpiece. Is he losing his marbles?

I chose to listen to The House of the Vampire simply because of the title. Doesn’t it sound like a Roger Corman film starring Vincent Price? Well, it’s not really all that scary. I mean, yes, someone stealing your creativity sounds unpleasant (though when I think of some of the TV plots of series out there now, I can’t help but wish someone had sucked that idea right out of the writer’s head), but there’s no bloodshed. Clarke is creepy, in an icky uncle kind of way. He’s charming though and manages to get all these young people to live with him. Perhaps they believe he can advance their careers.

Man with book sitting in chair

I can haz ideas?

The House of the Vampire gets artsy in places and sometimes reads like a college essay. The characters discuss what is art and question whether or not there are any original ideas or do artists steal from one another all the time. Clarke just takes it to another level. I had to wonder if Viereck had a specific person in mind when he was writing Clarke. Who are the figurative vampires of artists?
The House of the Vampire is touted as the first gay vampire story. I don’t know about that. It’s all pretty vague. Obviously, Ernest is bisexual. He has relationships with both men and women throughout the story. The heterosexual relationship he has is the only one where talk of ‘making love,’ in the Victorian sense (“May I hold your hand? Oh, that’s nice!”), is referred. The men have “friendships.” Clarke’s sexuality, in my opinion, is neither here not there, since he’s an equal opportunist idea thief. If he wants your ideas, he doesn’t care what’s in your pants. I was impressed by the female character, Ethel, she’s no dummy. She doesn’t faint or need to be rescued. She is the only one with any sense, actually. I loved her. It did bother me that she kept calling Ernest “child.” She’s “near thirty,” seriously, she’s not an old biddy. But yay! for older ladies!! You go, girl!
Viereck prose does get purply; voluptuous is his favorite word. It’s a mercifully short book, so you don’t have to put up with it for too long. Although I dozed off a couple of times, I thought for the most part it was enjoyable and don’t feel like I wasted a day listening to it. The premise was interesting and the ending was unexpected. The setting of New York at the turn of the last century, with its electric lights and exciting cultural life where anyone could put on a play, made me want to go there. I just need a time machine. As long as you aren’t anticipating a traditional vampire tale, I think you’ll enjoy it too.
This was a LibriVox recording at just over 5 hours long. The narrator is Elizabeth Klett. She did a lovely job. Nice soothing voice. I suspect she changed venues during recording, or something, because a strange hiss appears during some sections and not in others. I didn’t mind this much though.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

PEARL by The Gawain Poet

book cover
Original Publication Date: late 14th century

Genre: poem

Topics: allegory, elegy


I hesitate to call this a "review," because honestly I understood very little of what was going on in this poem.

Pearl is by the same poet who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (or so the experts say), often called the Gawain Poet or the Pearl Poet. I read and loved Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (see my review at Medieval Bookworm), so I thought Pearl would be similarly enjoyable. It definitely is not a bad poem, just kind of impenetrable.

Pearl has been called one of the most complex poems in the English language, and no one really understands what it means. On the surface it's an elegy for the poet's daughter, but it's also an allegory with multiple layers of symbolism and intricate mathematical and alliterative patterns. Which sounds FASCINATING, and I can see why scholars would totally geek out over it; but as far as entertainment value to a typical modern reader? There's not much to latch onto here. Allegory isn't terribly popular these days; and while Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Faerie Queene (review here) both had allegory, at least they also had a story to keep one interested. Pearl mainly relies on a personification of spiritual and religious purity. Sigh. Of all allegorical devices, personification is quite possibly the worst.

As for Pearl being an elegy about the poet's dead daughter, I have my doubts about that. If it is about a real person, it's only in the most superficial way. Pearl is definitely a symbol, sometimes similar to the Virgin Mary, sometimes reminding me of Petrarch's Laura. If you're expecting some sort of emotional resonance, in other words, you're going to be disappointed.

If you read Dante's Divine Comedy and enjoyed the third book, Paradiso, then you'll probably get into Pearl. The two works share several elements, except Pearl is much shorter (possibly its only saving grace). For the average person, though, I think this poem is of limited interest. But you probably figured that out as soon as I said, "one of the most complex poems in the English language and no one really understands what it means," didn't you?

Read Pearl by the Gawain Poet on Librivox|Project Gutenberg

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Guest Review: PETER PAN by JM Barrie

book cover
Also known as Peter and Wendy and Peter Pan and Wendy.

Original Publication Date: 1911

Genre: fantasy

Topics: children, civilization versus savagery

Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk:

Happened upon the title of classic children’s lit, Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie (1904) and thought I would read and see how it was. Having grown up (along with thousands of others) on the Disney version, I was surprised by how dark and violent the original story really was. It’s still classified as children’s literature, but wow – it’s a bit rough around the edges.

Some of the new information for me that differed from the Disney version:
  • Captain Hook was “black”
  • The crocodile who bit off Cap’n Hook’s hand (and thus gave him the moniker) was a female and had eaten a clock. So long as Captain Hook could hear the ticking of the clock, he would know where this murderous crocodile was, but the minute it stopped ticking… “Ay…That’s the fear that haunts me…”
  • Peter was the cause of Captain Hook’s hook hand and it was he (Peter) who gave the bitten-off hand to the crocodile. (Not sure why it was bitten off in the first place though…)
  • Tinker Bell is actually really mean, jealous and spiteful – none of this little gentle flickering light fluttering around….
  • The “Pan” mentioned in the title refers (I think) to the Pan, the god of Nature etc., he who played the pipes and danced around. This god was a common image in lit for about the fifty years between late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In fact, one of the chapter titles in “The Wind in the Willows” is called something to do with Pan…
Assuming you know the basic story, I was really intrigued by all the details of the story and how the characters behaved. The group of Lost Boys who follow (and worship) Peter Pan have some serious psychological issues with regard to mothers (and thus Wendy), and the boys rely far too much on Peter’s direction when it is actually a case of “the blind leading the blind”… They are all a case of extremely arrested development, and can only remember snippets of their lives before Neverland, so using this spotty knowledge only gets them into more trouble.

There is a lot of violent murder on the island: at least a murder a day (done by the Lost Boys or the Indian tribe on the island, the pirates or maybe a mermaid or two), but the population doesn’t seem to shrink – ever. They never seem to run out of people to kill.

The fairies are over-indulgent and greedy, limping home after having an orgy (presumably with the definition of eating/drinking too much as opposed to otherwise, although who knows with this book?)… Mermaids, who had always before had a pretty benign reputation with me, were actually rude and bullies, especially for poor old Wendy. (Wendy regretted that she “had never had a civil word from one of them” the entire time she was on the island.)

And speaking of Wendy, I had no idea that the English phrase of “Wendy House” (referring to a child’s play house) was related to this (although it seems obvious in hindsight). The Lost Boys built a house around Wendy when she arrived and was unconscious, so it was a Wendy House. I even think the play school my siblings and I attended was called the Wendy House, but that might be wrong.

And the misery doesn’t even end when they Darling/human children return home to their parents. Mother agrees to let Wendy go back with Peter for one week a year to do his Spring Cleaning. (Yeah for parenting skills!)  And then, years later, when Peter comes back, un-aged as he is, he sweeps up Wendy’s kids and future kids “as long as children are gay and innocent and heartless”…  And apparently this is ok with everyone.

wendy darling

So – the author J. M. Barrie (Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet). Who was the guy with this twisted imagination? (Or is it me looking with unreasonable 21st century eyes?)  He lived from 1860-1937 and was a playwright and author. He wrote Peter Pan, Or the Boy who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904, calling it a “fairy play” and although he had other work, this was the play that made him famous. (It also popularized the name Wendy as that was unusual before this play was published.)

Barrie’s childhood was not an easy one, being the ninth of ten children, and on the accidental death of his next oldest brother, Barrie tried to help his mother’s grief by wearing the dead brother’s clothing and whistling like he used. (Psychological problem #1.) Along with this came the idea of a boy who would never get old (a la Peter Pan) as the brother who died was only 14 when the accident occurred. (Psychological problem #2.)  This big dead brother’s influence would continue on for years, even affecting the career choice his parents wanted for Barrie. He wanted to be a writer, but his parents told him that his dead brother would have been a minister and so that’s what he should do as well. They eventually reached a compromise. (Psychological problem #3.)

Additionally, Barrie was exceptionally small in stature for his family reaching only about five feet tall at adulthood. This led to other problems for him. However, as an adult and writer, he moved in elite literary circles: Robert Louis Stephenson, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, Jerome K. Jerome... he told stories to the young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Barrie also made friends with Antarctica explorer Robert Falcon Scott, and Scott, when his expedition was falling apart, wrote one of his last letters to Barrie asking him to look after his wife and son if he could not get home…

Linked with friendship is the fact that in 1897, Barrie was in London’s Kensington Gardens when he came across five young boys, all brothers and called the Llewelyn Davies family. “Uncle Jim” (as Barrie became known to the family) was a frequent visitor to the boys’ home and would entertain them with stories during his visits, and it is thought that he based the story of Peter Pan on these young boys. The boys’ father died in 1907 and their mother in 1910, Barrie (in a somewhat bizarre manner) ended up being the boys’ guardian for the rest of their lives (though most of them wouldn’t live too long). It’s all rather strange and Wiki has the details here (as true as Wiki can be):

Before Barrie’s death, he gave the rights to the Peter Pan works to Great Ormond Street Hospital, the children’s hospital, which, if you saw the London Olympic Games opening ceremony the other day, was referenced frequently (sometimes as GOSH). This was the first hospital in the English-speaking world to provide in-patient beds for children and was supported by several royals, including Queen Victoria and Princess Diana (who acted as President for a while).

It seems that Barrie was basically a good guy, but any good psychologist would have had a field day with him. (But then who is to say who is normal and who is not? :)

Find Peter Pan by JM Barrie at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Review: Queen Lucia

Queen Lucia is the first book in E.F. Benson's Lucia and Mapp series that chronicles the lives of the upper crust in rural England.  It was originally published in 1920.  I really loved Benson's Mrs. Ames, so I was excited to start his most famous series.

I read Queen Lucia as an audiobook.  I don't think I've quite mastered the art of listening to audiobooks, and I admit that sometimes my mind would wander and I'd come back to the book and be a little lost.  But I just kept going, rather than deal with the difficulty of finding the last place that I remembered best.

I didn't love Queen Lucia quite as much as I loved Mrs. Ames, but I have a feeling that's because I read Mrs. Ames first.  Queen Lucia is really just as funny.  Benson shows all the foibles of the upper class.  Lucia is the head of society, but no one really knows how she got there and they all want to dethrone her.  Another character falls for all the latest trends - she used to be into Christian Science, but then she falls in love with yoga, and then when Lucia steals her guru, she is all about spritualism and seances.  The main male character, Georgie, is Lucia's best friend, but he feels like she doesn't truly appreciate him and his devotion.

The problems the characters in this book face are hilarious.  It's fascinating to think of people who spend all day being rich.  Lucia practices the piano, plans garden parties, gossips with her friends, learns yoga and delivers witty insults to her friends and followers.  I think the reason I didn't like this book as much as Mrs. Ames is because Lucia is not as sympathetic or vulnerable a character.  Mrs. Ames was trying to keep up the appearance of being a leader of society while her income decreased, her husband strayed, and her life fell apart around her.  Lucia, on the other hand, is someone I would quite happily see toppled.  She also is a fan of baby talk in regular conversation, saying things like "Me no likey" and other absolutely ridiculous and highly irritating phrases.  I don't understand what is with the English upper class and using baby talk - I remember that Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was known for doing the same.  WHY???? I don't understand.

This was a fun, light book that I think would be a great beach or plane read.  It will make you giggle and smile and feel superior, which is always nice :-)  Definitely looking forward to reading the rest of this series!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Review: SCARAMOUCHE by Rafael Sabatini

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1921

Genre: historical fiction

Topics: adventure, revenge, coming of age, French Revolution


"He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."
--kick-ass opening sentence of Scaramouche
On the brink of the French Revolution, Andre-Louis Moreau is a cynical lawyer living in Brittany who doesn't care about politics AT ALL. His bestie, Philippe, does however, and is very involved with the political reformers of the literary cabinet. One night, the highest-ranking noble in the area, the Marquis de la Tour d'Azyr, provokes the egalitarian Philippe into a duel and kills him because he possesses a "dangerous gift of eloquence." After witnessing the murder, Andre-Louis swears to speak with the voice of his dead friend and seek justice through the destruction of the Marquis and his entire class. But how far will he go in his quest for vengeance?

I love Scaramouche! I really want to live in this novel. It's full of fabulous characters, adventure, romance, and it is definitely unputdownable. If you like reading about theater, history, men with gigantic feathered hats who bow over a lady's hand, sword fights, revenge tales, anything by Alexandre Dumas--The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, etc.--or a great story, you should definitely pick this book up. Even if you don't, I still think you should read it.

Maurice Sand as Scaramouche by Michel Levy Freres, 1860

What is a Scaramouche? you might be asking. Scaramouche is an olde-timey stock character from the Comedie Italienne, kind of like Harlequin. After Andre-Louis stirs things up in Rennes and Nantes, he has to get away from the local heat for a while; so he joins a troupe of players, where he takes on the role and the name of Scaramouche. What makes it a good name for him is that, as soon as he sets out to get justice for Philippe, Andre-Louis is playing a role--that of his friend, of Scaramouche, of a politician, etc. This is definitely an all-the-world's-a-stage sort of book, and Andre-Louis is pressed by necessity into taking on these roles; but there's also a sense that he doesn't know who he is (literally or figuratively) or what he wants until the end of the novel.

There's also a lot of conflict between generations in Scaramouche, which makes the Revolution the perfect setting for the story. Wherever Andre-Louis goes, he meets old men who are like, "Listen to your elders, young sir! That's not the way we do things around here. *huffle huffle huffle*" But Andre-Louis has his own ideas of the way things should be done (which are naturally much better than the old guys'), and the energy to put those ideas into the practice. In the same way Andre-Louis is inevitably going to get his way, France is going to fall to the force revolution.

But all that is just happening in the background. The center of the story is Andre-Louis, who tends to do bad things for the right reasons, and always seems to land on his feet. He's a strange mix of opposites--sarcastic and earnest, canny and dense, idealistic and unforgiving--but always likable and sympathetic. Rafael Sabatini takes every opportunity of making light of the people Andre-Louis meets--judges, politicians, writers, actors, academics--and it really is funny. You don't need to know anything about the French Revolution or the 18th century to recognize these characters and the humor and irony in Sabatini's prose.

As for the female characters, they wouldn't pass the Bechdel Test--this is definitely a male-centric book, and all the women fill the role of either mother, saint, or whore (in fact, that perfectly summarizes the three major female characters in this book)--but I did like all of them. They're all women who behave true to their class, but with their own motivations, and are pretty independent.

Basically, Scaramouche has everything you could possibly ever want in a novel. Have I mentioned you should most definitely read this book? You should.

You might also be interested in Alex's review of Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini here.
Find Scaramouche on Librivox|Project Gutenberg