Monday, December 28, 2009

Top Tens of 2009

The year's nearly over, and it is so fun to look back and remember all the books I've read -- 133, and counting (might get up to 135 by the end of the week!).  Some great books, some mediocre ones, but overall, a good year.  There's really no fair way to compare say, Steinbeck to Suzanne Collins, so I've taken a cue from Suey and created four different lists.  Since I've read more than 100 books this year, I think it's pretty reasonable.  And how could I narrow it down to just 10 anyhow?

Top 10 Adult Current Fiction/Nonfiction

1. A Very Long Engagment by Sebastien Japrisot -- why did I wait so long to read this book?

2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
3. The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynn -- again, kicking myself for waiting so long.  This book sat on my shelf untouched for about 15 years.  I loved it!
4. When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson
5. This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper -- irreverent, bawdy, hilarious
6. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini -- I was dreading it after The Kite Runner, but I couldn't put it down.
7. The Family Man by Elinor Lipman
8. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
9. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
10. In the Woods by Tana French -- a good thriller, if slightly frustrating.

Top 10 Juvenile/YA
1. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak -- I cried like a baby at the end.
2. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead -- my top pick for the Newbery Award
3. The Hunger Games/Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
4. The Dead and the Gone and Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer -- engrossing and scary.  Made me want to go out and stock up on canned goods and batteries.
5. The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich -- the Native American side to all the Little House books. 
6. Pedro and Me by Judd Winick
7. Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples -- a great feminist YA book, and a great look at life in the Middle East.
8. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis -- made me laugh and cry.
9. The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiminez
10. Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

Top 10 Classics:

1. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell -- the perfect book for the Jane Austen fan.

2.  Bleak House by Charles Dickens -- made me into a Dickens fan.
3.  The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
4.  Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy by Jean Webster -- the book that made me start blogging.  Undeservedly ignored by readers today.
5. Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope  -- still reading it, but I love it already.
6. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton -- not her best, but still a fascinating character study.
7.  Elizabeth in Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
8. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell -- not so much like the miniseries, but gently humorous and endearing.
9. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
10. Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier
11. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins -- the groundbreaking sensational novel of the Victorian era.  Brilliant cliffhangers.  (Sorry, I couldn't stop at just ten!)

Best Rereads of 2009

1. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton -- so bleak and tragic, but I can't stop reading it. 
2. Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones -- give this to all the Harry Potter fans who need a new author to love.
3. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham -- Kitty is another heroine who needs a good sharp slap, but her personal development makes for a great read.
4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier -- poor Mrs. de Winter.  Best Gothic novel, ever.  The great plot twists overshadow some beautiful writing.
5. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
7. Emma by Jane Austen -- I want to smack her, but I still love her.
8. Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (OK, so it's seven books. Forgive me.)
9. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Swag

Wow, I really cleaned up on Christmas!!  NINE new books, all of which are fantastic.  Here's the rundown:

-- Two books by Pearl S. Buck:  Peony and East Wind, West Wind.  Very exciting!!  I loved The Good Earth, and I got to visit Pearl S. Buck's home in Pennsylvania when I was at the JASNA meeting in October -- if you're ever in Bucks County, it is so worth the trip.  Her home and history are fascinating, and I was itching to catalog her library!  Unfortunately the gift shop has very few of her books for sale, but that's easily remedied.

-- More teeny tiny portable editions of Jane Austen:  Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility  -- my three favorites.  Great for putting in a purse or carry-on.  There's no excuse not to read while waiting in the doctor's office, in line at the post office, etc.  And they're illustrated!  And have cute little ribbon bookmarks.  Too cute.

-- The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier.  An Englishman visiting France meets his double, who then steals his identity.  Great concept, with hints of A Tale of Two Cities.  But creepier.

And now for the nonfiction:

-- In Morocco by Edith Wharton -- one of the first, if not THE first, travel books on Morocco.  Edith Wharton, one of my favorite authors, writing about Morocco, a place I've always wanted to visit.  What could be better?

-- Tea With Jane Austen by Kim Wilson -- a great little cookbook with traditional recipes adapted for modern cooks, plus excerpts from Austen's works and letters, etc.  Plus cute illustrations.

And finally. . . A Christmas Carol Keepsake by Dr. Elliot Engel, a Dickens scholar.  It includes the abridged version of A Christmas Carol that Dickens used for his performances of the novel, plus Victorian Christmas recipes, games, crafts, etc., and all kinds of interesting tidbits.  This was a fantastic gift from my mom, who had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Engel speak at her library.  And it's a signed copy!!!  

Plus, my stocking was filled with teeny author puppets from The Unemployed Philosophers Guild. My favorites: Oscar Wilde, Zora Neale Hurston, and Edgar Allen Poe.  And Santa also included The Scream, just because it's funny. 

My biggest problem now:  not enough space on the bookshelves.  Dear Santa, please bring me more bookcases next year!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

Wow, I really needed this book. 

This book has been sitting on my to-read pile for a couple of weeks, and I came thisclose to returning it to the library unread -- it had been on my hold queue for so long, I'd forgotten why I put it on reserve.  Last night, on a whim, I picked it up, and I honestly can't remember the last time I laughed so hard reading a book.  More than a year, I'm sure.  I laughed so hard my kids were staring at me, my husband was staring at me, and I'm pretty sure the dog was staring too.  If I'd been on an airplane I would have been completely embarassed.

Unfortunately, I can't go too much into this book without spoiling it, and that would be so wrong of me.  I'm terrible at repeating jokes, I ruin them without fail.  But I'll give a basic synopsis:  Judd Foxman, his siblings, in-laws, and mother are sitting shiva for his late father, per his dying request (which is ironic because Dad basically didn't believe in God anymore).  Nevertheless, this dysfunctional family is back together for the first week in ages, and it shows.  They really, truly, put the fun in dysfunctional. 

Let's face it, every family has problems.  But the Foxman family, besides the patriarch's slow, painful death from stomach cancer, is dealing with divorce, infidelity, infertility, drug problems, a struggling business. . . stuff that sounds extremely realistic and depressing.  Oh, and did I mention Judd and his wife have been separated since he caught her in an, um, extremely compromising position. . . with his boss?  Plus, the soon-to-be-ex drops a major bombshell on him just before he leaves for the funeral.  Yeah, his life sucks.

Somehow, Tropper manages to intertwine all the family horrors and tragedies with moments of outright hilarity.  Mom is the bestselling author of a beloved parenting manual, which includes the most embarassing anecdotes ever about all four children; Wendy, the oldest, is struggling with three small children and an egotistical fund-manager husband who won't get off the phone; the ne'er-do-well youngest brother Phillip shows up with his life coach/fiancee; middle brother Paul is still bitter about taking over the family business after his sports career was destroyed. . . not to mention colorful neighbors, a rabbi with an R-rated nickname, and various friends and relatives who straggle in to pay their respects to the deceased.  Yet, none of the hilarity descends into farce, and the family's serious problems are dealt with honesty that's never maudlin. 

A warning:  this book is not for those who are easily offended.  It's pretty explicit, especially regarding  Judd's love life and raging libido, plus some drug references and scatalogical humor.  But if this doesn't bother you, it will definitely put your family's problems into perspective -- a great choice for the holidays when most people are stressing and a lot of people are downright depressed. 

According to the book's jacket, This is Where I Leave You is already being adapted into a movie, which doesn't surprise me in the least. As I read this book, it reminded me of two movies: Death at a Funeral, the 2007 black comedy; and A Christmas Tale, a French film starring Catherine Deneuve which has been in my DVD player for about five days -- it's 2 1/2 hours and there's only so much Gallic dysfunction I can take in one sitting. However, isn't nearly as silly as the first and is a whole lot more enjoyable than the second.  I'd recommend reading this book before the Hollywood producers get their hands on it and ruin it.

Friday, December 18, 2009



Oh, joy of joys! My Secret Santa swap arrived, and I love it! It's an ARC of a brand new book, Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict. I am just tickled because a) I am a huge Janeite -- just went to my local JASNA meeting on Sunday, which was great fun -- and b)because I just saw the first book at the library this week! I was drooling over it but decided to restrain myself. It looks very fun -- in the first book, a modern LA girl wakes up in Regency England, so it's the whole fish-out-of-water scenario. I think I'd enjoy this, because I really liked the Regency House miniseries from the BBC that we watched in our Jane Austen book group -- a pretty accurate assessment of what life was really like in Jane Austen's time. And I loved Lost in Austen as well.

This book is the sequel, in which a young lady from Regency England wakes up in 21st century L.A. Now that would be a rude awakening! At any rate, I am delighted to get an early Christmas present -- I just couldn't wait until next week to open it. Thank you, Secret Santa!!!!! And please send me your blog or email address so I can write a proper thank you.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

I’m reviewing this book together with my good friend Amanda of The Zen Leaf.

Synopsis:  Set in the 1920s in England, Hong Kong, and China, The Painted Veil is the story of  Kitty Fane. Young, beautiful, and shallow, she marries Walter Fane after realizing she was running out of time and needed to catch a husband quickly.  After a short courtship, she accompanies Walter to Hong Kong where he is working as a bacteriologist. She soon becomes bored with Walter, and has an affair with a diplomat. Walter discovers her infidelity and decides to punish her by forcing her to accompany him on a dangerous medical mission to a cholera-stricken village in China. Oddly enough the worst circumstances bring out the best in Kitty.
Amanda: Hi Karen! Thanks for buddy-reviewing with me!
I think I want to start out by talking about William Somerset Maugham. I first read one of his books in January 2001 – Mrs. Craddock – and fell in love with it. I’ve since read 12-15 of his books, several of them more than once. He’s one of my favorite classic authors. His books are easy to read and well thought out. The Painted Veil is one of my favorites of his. This is the third time I’ve read it, and I think I love it just a little bit more with each reread! So how did you discover Maugham?
Karen: I discovered Maugham back when I was a freshman in college. I had a huge crush on a boy in my dorm who had read Maugham the year before in a lit class. He insisted on lending me Of Human Bondage to read during the winter break. Of course, since I was crushing on him, I had to read it, and I loved it. It was one of the first classics I read for pleasure. I didn’t read any more Maugham until I met the man who is now my husband, also a Maugham fan — The Razor’s Edge is one of his favorite books. (Obviously, I’m attracted to men with great taste in literature!) So I read Razor’s Edge, and a couple others, but then I didn’t read hardly any more Maugham for quite awhile. Then, in 2008, our classics reading group chose the books for this year, but The Painted Veil wasn’t scheduled for almost a year! I couldn’t wait that long and read it right away. It’s just as good the second time around.
I agree, Maugham’s works are not difficult reads. I’ve been reading quite a few Victorian authors this year, so he’s really a refreshing change. I remember that I was pleasantly surprised at how easy Of Human Bondage was — it’s quite long, more than 600 pages (depending on the edition), yet it’s pretty fast for such a long book. The Painted Veil is much shorter, only about 250 pages, and I could probably read the whole thing in one day.
Amanda: One of the things I find most fascinating about Maugham was how little respected he was amongst his fellow authors. He was a pulp novelist. Often his writing tended more toward the cliche, and his prose was straightforward. With people like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Woolf as contemporaries, he was looked down on for not being experimental like them. He was old fashioned. But really, it was his straightforward, easy prose that hooked me on classics. Without him, I’m not sure what sort of reader I’d be today, or if I’d be a reader at all.
So. The Painted Veil. I loved it. All three times. One of my favorite things about it is the characterization. Each character is so round. None of them are all good or all evil. I personally find Kitty obnoxious, and really sympathize with her husband, but others might find Walter cruel and callous. Personally, I understood him and while I didn’t think he always made the best of judgments, I really admired his dedication to the people he was taking care of. What did you think of the characters?
Karen: There aren’t that many characters, but I agree, they’re well-rounded, especially Kitty. When I started the book, I really wanted to smack her, but I kept on reading — which just shows what a great writer Maugham was. These are seriously flawed people, yet the story is so fascinating that it holds the reader.
Anyway, I’ve really been thinking about some of these flawed characters lately, I’ll probably write a blog entry about it soon. I always think of them as Fascinating Train Wrecks. However, I’m not sure if I’d put Kitty in this category, because she actually makes changes to try and improve the situation. She’s proactive, and as annoying as she was, I actually ended up respecting her. Not that she’s perfect, she still makes mistakes, but you can see at the end that there’s hope for her.
So, Amanda, what did you think of Walter? Did he deserve Kitty?

Amanda: I think the real question is – did Kitty deserve Walter? Taking them back, prior to the affair and him taking her to the cholera epidemic. Walter is smart, hardworking, and sensitive. He has a very hard time relating to other people, and he has no patience for frivolity and social customs. Kitty, on the other hand, is empty-headed, self-centered, and a bit of a bimbo. Why he ever fell in love with her is beyond me – I suppose we can’t always explain why we fall in love with someone – but I think it’s interesting that he went into the whole marriage with his eyes open. He knew what she was. He knew she was like a doll – beautiful but empty. He was willing to put up with that in order to be near her, and he was always very kind. I don’t think Kitty ever realized – not even at the end – how badly she hurt him. She kept thinking it was pride, that her infidelity didn’t matter, shouldn’t matter, but to him, it killed his love.
I do think she became a better person, to a certain degree, but even at the end, she’s still selfish. I hope she’ll be better, and I do like that she plans to have daughters and raise them to be strong and smart, unlike her. That brings up another point, though – I thought this book said a lot of interesting things about the role of women at the time. It seems to take place in a very transitional time when women were gaining some independence but could not entirely be strong. Did you feel Maugham had a feminist slant in mind when he wrote it?
Karen: I think Kitty’s definitely less selfish at the end than at the beginning. Without spoilers, there are several instances when she tries deliberately not to hurt people. And she’s much better at reading people, and reacting to them.
The feminist angle didn’t strike me at all when I read it, but I can see it as a possibility. There are some strong female characters — even the Mother Superior, and Charlie’s wife Dorothy. They’re in traditional roles, nun and wife, but they’re a lot stronger than Charlie and maybe even Walter. I wish Maugham had developed Walter a little more. I think he was the least developed of the main characters. My favorite male character was definitely Waddington, but he was also tragic in his own way. Do you think in general the male characters were as well developed as the female?
Amanda: I actually thought Walter was very well developed, but that might be because of how much I could understand him. He wasn’t traditionally developed – it was just a brushstroke of information spattered here and there throughout the novel, leading to a whole picture. I think about things and feel things in very much the same way he does, so it was easy for me to relate to him and make a full picture of him in my mind, I suppose. I could see other people relating to him less, though, because he’s the sort of personality that many people have trouble relating to in real life. I think Maugham wrote the social awkwardness well.
I have read, though, that Maugham tended to understand women better than men in his own life, so it’s possible that’s why the women characters felt more developed. I loved the Mother Superior. I don’t normally like reading about Catholics, having grown up Catholic, but the Sisters in that convent were so different from traditional Catholics. Take, for example, one of my favorite quotes from the book:
Beauty is also a gift of God, one of the most rare and precious, and we should be thankful if we are happy enough to possess it and thankful, if we are not, that others possess it for our pleasure.
I love this. This goes against most traditional viewpoints of beauty. Most books treat beauty either as a precursor to emptyheadedness, or as a great evil. To hear someone speak this way – especially the head of a Catholic convent – is just amazing. I loved that the Sisters were so open, forgiving, and loving. They were the very picture of charity. Even though normally I don’t like to read much about religion in books, the passages with the Sisters just blew me away and I think they played an integral role in how much Kitty changed. What do you think?
Karen: I completely agree! They’re much more forgiving than Catholics are usually portrayed. It’s no wonder Kitty was really drawn to them. I wish I knew them! And I loved that quote also. I don’t normally make notes when I write, but I think I have to go back with sticky notes and tab all the passages I loved in this book.
One thing that did bother me about this book was the racist way in which the Chinese are portrayed, mostly the way they’re described — ugly, yellow, etc. That’s the one thing that really put me off in this book. But it’s possible that Maugham was merely reflecting the attitude of the British of that time, or Kitty’s attitude. What do you think?
Amanda: I do think that was reflective of Kitty’s attitude. It’s possible there was a certain amount of British superiority to it – I think that’s almost a given in that time period – but the main characters other than Kitty seemed to have compassion for the Chinese. The nuns, Waddington, Walter. They saw past the racial differences and did everything they could to help. The Chinese were just other people to them, not some strange foreign race that repulsed them. Even Kitty tried to get over her prejudice against them once she was surrounded by the children every day. I liked that. I thought it was a good message – that to overcome prejudice, one must spend time with those one is prejudiced against.
Without giving away spoilers, what did you think about the fate of Walter and Kitty’s relationship? Do you think, given the chance, they could have ever come to live together peacefully? Or were they, as Kitty says at one point, “Two little drops in the river that flowed silently towards the unknown; two little drops that to themselves had so much individuality and to the onlooker were but an indistinguishable part of the water?” (That’s my other favorite quote.)

Karen: That’s going to be tough without giving away the ending. I went back and forth as I read the book. Kitty seemed to really be growing and maturing as a person, so I began to feel hopeful, but then I didn’t know if Walter would ever forgive her. It sort of bothered me that Walter was so unforgiving, though he was surrounding by people dying horrible deaths. I would have thought it might have put her transgression in perspective somewhat — but that also relates to him deliberately bringing her into a situation where she might get infected and die, which is so bitter and vengeful. I saw Kitty changing as a person more than Walter, and I began to actually like her better than him.
This book has so many issues that are great for discussion, but it’s really hard without giving away major plot points — and I reaaaallly hate spoilers. I would highly recommend this book for a face-to-face discussion group — not too long, an easy read, a great plot and interesting characters. This was a great choice, and I am so looking forward to reading more by Maugham. There are three more on my to-read bookshelf right now, and I am so tempted to go back and reread Of Human Bondage.
So, I know you’ve read most of the Maugham oeuvre. How does this compare to the others? Is it one of your favorites? Definitely one of mine.
Amanda: Well, I haven’t read his entire works – he was an extremely prolific author. Wikipedia has 54 entries for him under the “Novels, Travel, Criticism, and Assorted Pamphlets” section, plus another 24 plays, 187 periodical contributions, and 123 short stories. I’ve only read a mere glancing of that. I haven’t read a single play or short story, though I hope to fix that next year. Of the novels I’ve read, though, I count The Painted Veil among my favorites, alongside Mrs. Craddock. Some other good ones are The Razor’s Edge, Of Human Bondage, and Theatre. In fact, there have only been two Maugham novels I disliked (The Magician, and The Moon and the Sixpence). I would definitely recommend his books as easy-to-read classics that are fun but also deep.
Thanks again for doing this review with me, Karen! I was having such a hard time figuring out how to review this book, since I love it so much.
Karen: Thank you, Amanda, for inviting me! It was really fun! We’ll have to do it again soon!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Mr. Harrison's Confessions and My Lady Ludlow by Elizabeth Gaskell

Though I feel slightly guilty, while reading and reviewing these two novellas, I can't help but refer to Cranford, the excellent BBC miniseries which aired in the U.S. in 2008. Like many of us here on the Classics Circuit, I fell in love with the charming and quirky residents of this English village and was eager to read the book. As many of us are aware, the series incorporates not only the novella of the title, but other stories as well:  Mr. Harrison's Confessions and  My Lady Ludlow.
The Cranford Chronicles includes all three of the novellas that were the basis for the miniseries.  I had the pleasure of listening to the audio version of Cranford this summer, so I was eager to read the rest of the stories as well.
If you read Cranford, you won't find the hapless doctor who's the center of the village love triangle. (Or quadrangle. . . I can't keep track of how many women fall in love with him. Anyway, it's very humororus.) Nevertheless, if you want to read about poor Mr. Harrison, this is the edition you want.  Essentially, Mr. Harrison is chatting with a visitor, Charles, and reminiscing about his arrival, his early career, and his romantic misadventures. In this case, the town is actually called Duncombe, but it shows strong parallels to Cranford. His medical colleague, Mr. Morgan, points out soon after he arrives:

"You will find it a curious statistical fact, but five-sixths of our householders above a certain rank in Duncombe are women. We have widows and old maids in abundance. In fact, my dear sir, I believe you and I are almost the only gentlemen in the place. . ." which sounds an awful lot like Cranford.  Of course, being one of the only eligible males makes the hapless Mr. Harrison the target of a lot of scheming and speculation. Though he's an excellent doctor, Mr. Harrison makes quite a few social missteps that are nearly his undoing. (Of course it all works out in the end.) Fans of the miniseries will find a few surprises, but it's very close to the the TV production, and in a good way. It's a quick, charming read (only 89 pages), but as with Cranford, not much really happens, just charming sketches of provincial life that will make you laugh and cry.
The final novella of The Cranford Chronicles is My Lady Ludlow, the longest of the three at nearly 200 pages. Sadly, it was my least favorite. It begins with an interesting setup: Margaret Dawson, a young lady of about 17, is one of nine children living with her widowed, impoverished mother when they receive a letter from a distant relative, the rich noblewoman Lady Ludlow.  he has heard of the situation and offers to have Margaret come and live with her as a sort of lady-in-waiting.  Lady Ludlow is the benefactress of several other young ladies in similar situations.Through Margaret's eyes, we get a look into the life of this aristocrat, who seems to be holding on to a former way of life, resisting changes.  
Lady Ludlow, though kindhearted and well-intentioned, is snobbish and elitist. The idea that lower classes should receive any education is absolutely abhorrent to her. Though she petitions to have a poacher released from jail since his wife and children would starve, she completely rejects the suggestion of her estate manager that said poacher's whipsmart son be given any sort of education that could help him later in life --  i.e., pull himself by his bootstraps and not have to steal to survive. Nope, he needs to learn his station and stay there!! Hang around a cow pasture until you die, because that is your lot in life, and you need to accept it. Reminds me an awful lot of how American slave owners kept the slaves in check by keeping them illiterate. 

Lady Ludlow uses this opportunity to tell a long, detailed, drawn-out story about French aristocratic friends and how they suffered tragically during the French revolution because those upstart revolutionaries were such meanies and killed off all the poor, misunderstood aristocrats. Apparently the English aristocrats were terrified the same things would happen to them. This part was really difficult for me to read, since as a librarian, it's the antithesis of everything I believe in. Knowledge is power. 

Besides, this section went on waaaay too long, about 70 pages, and I always find it irritating that characters in books can recall entire conversations and minute details of events years later, when they heard about it second or thirdhand. Riiight. I'm not sorry to admit I skimmed more and more of this section and finally skipped ahead until the poor aristocrats lost their heads. There's a reason this episode was left out of the TV series. 

I very nearly gave up during this section, but finally, Lady Ludlow offers a solution to this freethinking estate manager:  the well-born but poor spinster Miss Galindo will help you with the accounts! This is pretty radical for her, since women have no business doing men's jobs, bu the story picks up again.  After Miss Galindo agrees to take the job, Gaskell includes a great little zinger aimed at her fellow writers. I just love this quote. Miss Galindo is explaining to Lady Ludlow that she once aspired to write a novel:

"Well! I got paper and half-a-hundred pens, a bottle of ink, all ready --" [says Miss Galindo]

"And then --" [asks Lady Ludlow]

"O, it ended in my having nothing to say, when I sat down to write. But sometimes, when I get hold of a book, I wonder why I let such a poor reason stop me. It does not others."

That just made the entire novella worthwhile. It's equally as witty as something Jane Austen would have written. The story really improved after this, and I'm really glad I finished it.  Gaskell combines a great story with some social commentary. The characters are so well drawn, and she does a great job of tying everything together in a delightfully satisfying ending. It's well worth reading.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A House to Let by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins

It seemed serendiptious when Wilkie Collins was chosen for the very first Classics Circuit, as it just so happened that the Classics Book Group to which I belong  had selected The Woman in White for its November discussion.  (This would be the Real People book group, which makes it much harder for me to wiggle out of reading the book in a timely fashion.)  "Aha!" I thought.  Cleverly, I planned to kill two birds with one stone, and I eagerly signed up on the Classics Circuit to review TWiW. 

Foolishly, it did not occur to me that quite a few other people decided to take this opportunity to read and review what is most likely Wilkie Collins' most popular work. What did occur to me, however, that I would most likely be unable to come up with something clever and pithy and insighful that had not been said already.  Oh dear.

But as luck would have it, my generous lending library -- how I love you, SAPL -- is chock-full of other works by Mr. Collins.  Twenty-three of them, to be exact.  However, since most of them are unfortunately available only as downloadable e-books, and as I had just completed the 600+ pages of The Woman in White (you can read my pithy and insightful review here.) I was most intrigued by A House to Let, which lists joint authorship by Mr. Collins and two of my favorite Victorian authors -- Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell -- plus a writer called Adelaide Anne Proctor. I was intrigued -- how interesting to compare some of my favorites on a collaborative novel.  Well, novella, to be exact, since it's a mere 94 pages.  According to The Victorian Web, A House to Let was originally published as a 1958 Christmas edition of the magazine Household Words.

A House To Let is comprised of six chapters: an introductory chapter credited to both Collins and Dickens; then a chapter by each author individually; and a closing chapter, again written by Collins and Dickens (of course, as the editor, Charles Dickens gets top billing). 

Our story begins in the first chapter, "Over the Way," jointly written by Dickens and Collins. An elderly lady named Sophonisba, upon the advice of her physician, rents a house in London for several months.  Her manservant, Trottle, finds the perfect place.  The only drawback is that it is directly opposite a mysterious house, which has stood vacant for many years.  Sophonisba is not put off by this, but soon after moving in, she believes that a mysterious eye is watching her from the vacant house.  She is determined to learn its history, and both Trottle and Sophinisba's old friend and admirer, Jabez Jarber, get to work to trace the previous owners and tenants.

Each subsequent chapter, written by a different author, traces another owner or tenant in the history of the mysterious house.  This was an interesting (and quick) way to compare the styles of the different authors, each of which show some of their personal, typical styles.  The first chapter was fairly light, witty, and easy to read, and I definitely recognized Collins' direct, easy-to-read style. The second chapter, "The Manchester Marriage" is classic Gaskell, a beautifully written, somewhat tragic domestic tale of a couple from Manchester who move into the house.  It is the second marriage for the wife, who was widowed when her first husband was lost at sea. 

However, the third and fourth chapters were nearly my undoing.  I didn't care much for the third story, "Going Into Society," which was the Dickens contribution, about a carnival man and his friend, a dwarf who is desperate to join high society.  One of Dickens' greatest strenghts is his fascinating, quirky, supporting characters.  They're wonderfully colorful when sprinkled throughout his novels, but ten pages straight was a bit much for my taste.  It's written in dialect, which I found difficult to wade through, and besides, I've always found carnival and circus characters a little unnerving.  The fourth chapter was also tough, as it's written as a long narrative poem by Adelaide Anne Procter.  I know next to nothing about poetry, so this was pretty challenging, though it's only ten pages long.

I was glad I stuck with it though -- the Wilkie Collins story, "Trottle's Report," is a standout.  It's spooky and gothic, with creepy, mysterious characters, just as I expected from Collins.  And the final chapter "Let at Last," wraps up the mystery and provides the reader with a happy ending.  Without giving anything away, I'll just say it's exactly what I would have expected from Dickens, very reminiscent of Oliver Twist or Little Dorrit.

This book is a nice introduction to some Victorian writers.  Although the stories are all meant to go together, I could have easily skipped the chapters by Dickens and Procter, which I didn't much care for anyway.  Still, it's a quick respite after some of the lenghty works by these authors.  If you want to try Dickens, Collins, or Gaskell, but you don't have time or energy to attack a 600 page tome, this is a fine place to start.