Thursday, February 25, 2010
After finishing David Copperfield last year, I was a little burned out on Dickens. Okay, let's be honest -- it was a Dickens OD! In twelve months, I had completed five major works, four of which were more than 800 pages. That's. A lot. Of. Dickens. Anyway, after a break, I returned to my online Dickens group, which recently decided to start reading the books in order of publication. Though I'd read Oliver Twist just a couple of years ago, I enjoyed it just as much the second time around.
For those of you who are not familiar with the basic plot, here it is in a nutshell: Poor Oliver Twist is born in the workhouse to a mysterious woman who dies in childbirth. After nine years in a wretched orphanage, he's sent to the back to the workhouse to start earning a living, and one fateful day, he has the nerve to request a second helping of food: "Please sir, I want some more." After even more mistreatment, Oliver runs away from an apprenticeship and makes his way to London. En route he meets up with a boy nicknamed the Artful Dodger. Oliver, grateful for food and guidance, unwittingly follows the Dodger and joins a band of thieves run by the malevolent Fagin, who is in league with the evil Bill Sikes. But will Oliver's inherent goodness prevent him from falling under their evil influence? Will Oliver fall into a downward spiral and a life of crime, like so many other poor children?
More than anything, I think Dickens' strength is his ability to create fantastic, cliff-hanging plots and memorable characters. It was twenty years between my first and second readings of Great Expectations, yet I vividly remembered Pip, Joe, and the creepy Miss Havisham. Every Dickens work I have read includes several memorable characters -- it would take too long to list them all here. But I think everyone has heard of poor little Oliver begging for more gruel; the Artful Dodger, and of course the sinister Fagin. Honestly, Dickens writes the best villians in Victorian literature (with apologies to all you Wilkie Collins fans); maybe even the best villains ever. Bill Sikes? Madame LeFarge? Mr. Tulkinghorn? Completely evil, completely memorable. To read Dickens is to remember it forever, in my humble opinion.
[The workhouse board] contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays. . . . For the first six months after Oliver Twist was removed, the system was in full operation. It was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase in the undertaker's bill, and the necessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, which fluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms, afer a week or two's gruel. But the number of workhouse inmates got thin as well as the paupers; and the board were in ecstasies.
I must also admit that Oliver, the character, is sometimes really annoying -- he is so perfect, so sweet, that I sometimes get a little nauseated. I do find that Dickens' good characters tend to be on the bland side, not nearly as well-developed as the villains. And I'm sure some readers may also put off by the blatant anti-Semitism in the novel. Fagin, a grotesque, devilish villain, is referred to over and over again as "the Jew," which is definitely off-putting. I'm not sure if Dickens was simply of product of his times, or if he was truly anti-Semitic; but like many excellent works of literature, I don't think Oliver Twist should be ignored entirely because of only one of its elements. I have heard that Dickens later regretted his terrible portrayal, and tried to atone for it somewhat by creating a much more admirable Jewish character in one of his later novels, Our Mutual Friend.
Currently, I've read about half of Dickens' major works, and I hope to complete two or three more by the end of the year. I belong to a great online Dickens discussion group, The Inimitable Boz, and if I assume correctly the next two books are The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge. I'm pretty excited about these as they are among the less popular works and I know so little about them.
So share with me, bloggers! Do you have a favorite Dickens? Is Bill Sikes the scariest villain ever? Is Oliver a sweet boy or just really annoying? I'd love to hear your opinons.
This counts as my third book for Our Mutual Read Challenge -- only nine left to go!
Friday, February 19, 2010
To Didi and Sherrie, my librarian friends: I thank you, and silently curse you. But in the nicest possible way, because now I am completely hooked on Anne Perry.
I was looking for a good neo-Victorian mystery when Perry's Inspector Monk series was recommended. The Face of a Stranger is the first in the series, and it grabbed me right away. Circa 1860, a mysterious, anonymous man awakens in pain in a terrible place -- a jail? The workhouse? It turns out he is in a horrible Victorian hospital, and he does not know his own name, nor how he came to be there. It turns out he has been there three weeks after his carriage overturned, but he has no memory of the accident or anything about himself. He does have one visitor -- a police detective named Runcorn, who tells the man his name is William Monk, and that before the accident he was also a police detective.
Poor Mr. Monk slowly recovers but cannot recall any of his memory. However, he must attempt to continue working as a policeman despite his loss, since he has no other resources. He returns to work and is given a case -- the brutal murder of a gentleman named Joscelin Grey, who was beaten to death in his apartment. Mr. Grey, a veteran of the Crimean war, was the third son of a wealthy family. While trying to determine the facts of his own life, Monk also encounters a tragic beauty, and it appears that before his accident, he was attempting to solve a mystery for her as well. Inspector Monk must try to solve both case while trying to make sense of his own life and history, without revealing to anyone that he is practically amnesiac.
Perry does a great job of bringing the characters and the Victorian era to life. Not only does this book include three potential mysteries, Perry makes a lot of points about the British class system and snobbery -- the aristocrats are extremely rude and condescending to the police -- plus the roles of women, while including background about the Crimean War, about which I knew nothing, but if you're interested, click here. Apparently, the Crimean War was a battle between the west and Russia over control of the Middle East . It sounds even worse than the wars going on right now, with terrible medical conditions. According to Wikipedia, about 5,000 British soldiers died as result of wounds and in action, and another 16,000 died of diseases. This book was written in 1990, but it's surprisingly relevant if you think about it.
Anyhow, besides a cracking good mystery -- I had a few ideas, but there are some pretty good twists and turns before the murder is revealed. Perry does tend to repeat some points -- I get it, the Crimea was terrible, the aristocrats had no idea what the rest of the world was going through, and women were treated like crap back then. However, I still really enjoyed this book and I'm looking forward to the next book in the series. Of which there are sixteen at present.
I have a love/hate thing with series mysteries. They are dangerous, ruinous to one's reading list. I'm just a girl who can't say no -- when I find a mystery writer I love, I will get completely obsessed and read the entire series. It's like a bag of Ruffles, you can't eat just one. In my youth, I read all of Agatha Christie; later, I moved on to Ruth Rendell (including the Barbara Vine novels, still my favorite); the late, great Dick Francis, may he rest in peace; P. D. James, Peter Lovesey. . . I just noticed they're all British.
Anyway, now that I am all into Anne Perry I will have to read the entire Monk series, plus the Christmas novellas (well, maybe I'll save those for December). And the Pitt series. . . oh, this is bad news. I have just added another fortysome books to my to-read list. I just know I'll never read them all before I die. Sigh. Well, to quote Borges, "I have always imagined Paradise to be a kind of library." Let's hope they have a good selection of mysteries.
I read this book as part of Our Mutual Read challenge.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale
If you have any interest at all in Victorian sensational or detective fiction, or in the neo-Victorian detective fiction, this book will probably interest you as much as it did me. Mr. Whicher gives great insight into the Victorian frenzied fascination with crimes and detection. Summerscale shows the influences of this case, as well as other Victorian true crimes, on such famous novelists as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Henry James, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
This book explores a sensational case that mesmerized the British public in 1860. The real-life detective, Mr. Whicher, was the inspiration for several fictional detectives, including one my personal favorites, Inspector Bucket in Charles Dickens' Bleak House. As I read the book, I couldn't help but picture Mr. Whicher looking exactly like Alun Armstrong, the actor who portrayed Inspector Bucket so perfectly in the 2005 BBC adaptation.
In the early hours of June 29, 1860, a terrible crime occurred in the town of Road, Wiltshire County. After the entire household was shut up tight, Francis Saville Kent, not quite four years old, was taken from his bed while still asleep in the dead of night and brutally murdered. His absence was discovered the following morning and not long afterward his small body was found in the servants' privy.
After several days of investigations by the local police, the media had caused such an uproar that the entire country was riveted on the case, and a Scotland Yard detective was called in: Mr. Whicher. This case became a media circus. If you think the paparazzi and the media are bad now, it was just as awful 150 years ago. This case tore the family apart, exposing all their quirks, and secrets. The case revealed some oddities; first, that the late Mrs. Kent had been considered mentally ill before her deat; that the second Mrs. Kent had been the family governmess, who was in control of the household while the first Mrs. Kent was ill; that the oldest Kent children, from the first marriage, lived on the third floor, on the same level as the servants. This raised some very interesting questions -- had Mr. Kent had an affair with the governess while the first wife was alive? Was the first Mrs. Kent truly mentally ill, or were Mr. Kent and the governess simply trying to get her out of the way? Were the older children badly treated by their stepmother? And was Mr. Kent having an affair with the nursemaid? The speculation by the media, the public, and the police were overwhelming and went on for years until the mystery was finally solved.
This book is both well-written and well-researched. Summerscale pored over original documents, and the book includes diagrams, illustrations, and photos of the family and the house -- and an extremely useful note on currency conversions. It's both fascinating and creepy. I've read a lot of mysteries, but hardly any true crime. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher also explores the Victorian fascination with detectives and fantastic popularity of detective fiction and sensational novels. If you've read Bleak House, The Moonstone, or The Turn of the Screw, you may recognize elements from this case. It also inspired many other "locked house" and "country estate" murder mysteries. The creepy part is that it's all true.
This book counts as my first book in the Our Mutual Read Challenge. This blog entry is also posted at Our Mutual Read.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
That is my first reaction to this book. I've tried my best to avoid spoilers, but if nothing else, I will say that this is one of the most shocking, horrifying books I've read. I wanted to stop reading it, but I couldn't. I had to find out what was going to happen to Bigger Thomas, who must be one of the most famous train wrecks in literary history, and deservedly so.
A short setup: Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man, is scraping out a miserable existence as a criminal in 1930s Chicago. He lives in a rat-infested one-room tenement with his mother, brother, and sister, and has no job. On the first day of our novel he is trying to decide whether he should commit an armed robbery, not his first. His mother is pushing him to accept a job to get the family off welfare -- a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, who ironically own the overpriced tenement in which they live. Bigger decides not to commit the robbery and go for the job, so for a few pages it's almost hopeful that he'll break the cycle and lead a better life. Sadly, before he finishes his first day on the new job, Bigger commits a horrible (though possibly accidental) crime that leads to a downward spiral of deceit and crime. Native Son has no chapters, but it's divided into three books: Fear, Flight, and Fate. The first book is largely centered around the development of Bigger's character and his crime. The second book concerns his attempts to escape; and the third is his trial and judgement.
I was really surprised that Bigger was such a horrible character. I won't sugar-coat it, Bigger is really unpleasant. For a protagonist, I could not find one redeeming quality in him. He is mean, devious, and completely self-centered. Apparently author Richard Wright didn't want to create someone who people could find sympathetic and cry over, then forget about. Believe me, you will not forget about Bigger. But Wright turns the tables and uses Bigger to make some really important and uncomfortable points about racism and race relations.
This book has been on my to-read list since 2005, when I decided to read the entire Modern Library list of the top 100 novels. (This brings me to 45 completed on that list, 55 on the Radcliffe Top 100). There's a lot of debate about what makes something a "best" novel, but I have finally decided that these two lists aren't necessarily the best novels of the 20th century, but really the most important, the most groundbreaking, because most of them have achieved something noteworthy that hadn't been done before. Though I can't really say I liked this novel, I can respect and appreciate its importance in the literary canon. In a way I'm sorry I took so long to read it, but I'm glad that I waited since I was able to discuss it with real people in our February book group meeting. My good friend Amanda at The Zen Leaf is also a member, and you can read her thoughts about Native Son here.
This book is not for everyone -- not for the squeamish or easily offended. It's one of those riveting stories that are just horrible, but the writing is so good I wanted to finish it. I'll admit, the book is very intense and several times I had to put the book down and step away. I did read this book in just a few days, so despite its length (430 pages of text in my paperback edition, plus lots of extra stuff) it's a really fast read.
I can't say it's one of the best books I've ever read -- the third book in particular has some very long speeches in which Wright gets up on his literary soapbox, and I'll admit I skimmed parts of this -- but certainly, it is a book that I will never forget. I have no desire to read it again, but I'm glad I read it.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Welcome to the second week of the Harlem Renaissance on the Classics Circuit! Today's review is Nella Larsen's Passing. Set in the late 1920s, it's the story of a young upper-class woman, Irene and her childhood friend Clare. Both are light-skinned African American women, both can pass for white. The protagonist, Irene, does so when it's convenient for her -- for example, to enjoy the luxuries of a whites-only restaurant or hotel.
The story begins on a hot, sultry day in Chicago. Irene, who is happily married to a successful African-American doctor, lives in New York and is visiting her. While enjoying an iced tea on rooftop cafe, she notices a beautiful white woman staring at her. At first, she's concerned that the woman knows she's "passing" at the whites-only restaurant, but then she realizes that it's her childhood friend Clare. Clare is not only also passing for white, but has completely adopted a white identity, going so far as to marry a white man who is a complete and utter bigot -- and a wealthy, international businessman. Clare is enjoying the benefits of an upscale lifestyle, but after her chance meeting with Irene, Clare finds she is drawn more and more to her own race. Despite the risks, she continues to spend more time with Irene's African-American community in Harlem, disrupting her own life and Irene's as well.
Nella Larsen knew the subject material well. She was the child of a mixed marriage -- her mother was Danish and her father from the Danish Virgin Islands -- though from what I've read she couldn't or didn't try to pass for white. She was born in 1891 and attended historically black schools including the Tuskeegee Institute and a black nursing school. After nursing school she became a librarian and worked at the New York Public Library in Harlem. She began writing during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, but after her marriage failed and she was accused of plagiarism, she stopped writing and died in relative obscurity.
I'd like to say I enjoyed this book, but more than anything, I found it to be distrubing and sad. I simply cannot imagine the awfulness of having to hide such an important piece of your identity, to spend your life living a lie. And this isn't the first time I've heard about racism within races, but it's still unsettling to read about it.
Here's a short quote from the novel:
She said: "It's funny about 'passing.' We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it."
I actually thought that this book would focus primarily on the racism issue, but a lot of time is spent on the relationshiop between Clare and Irene -- Clare pretends to be Irene's friend, but she's really just worming her way into Irene's life and she can't get rid of her. I think this aspect of the novella is really universal, and most people could relate to that. This book is really short, just about 100 pages, so it's a quick read. But there's a lot packed in here, about race, identity, loyalty, relationships, jealousy. This would be a great book for a discussion group -- I really wish I had someone to discuss this with, especially the ending. I know other upcoming reviewers will be discussing this book, and Larsen's other works, so I look forward to reading them and seeing other opinions.
Monday, February 8, 2010
Oh, how I love the Victorians. Ever since I started getting into Dickens I've been more and more interested in that period of history, its wonderful (and sometimes lengthy) literature. And seeing the fantastic movie, The Young Victoria piqued my interest even further. So whilst perusing the book blogs, I was delighted to discover Our Mutual Read challenge. I've signed up for Level 2, eight novels in a year. Half of them shall be written during the Victorian period, 1837-1901, and the other half can be non-fiction or neo-Victorian -- that is, modern novels set during that period. I'm sure I can complete level 2 and maybe even level 3, which is 12 novels in a year. Last year I read 13 Victorian novels plus a nonfiction book about Dickens, so 12 should be no problem -- I've already completed one non-fiction and I'm almost halfway through Oliver Twist for an online book group. There are also two mini-challenges: Period films (six Victorian-themed movies) and Short Stories (12 short stories written or set during the period).
ere's a list of potential books and movies I'm hoping to read and watch:
Actual Victorian Books:
The Old Curiosity Shop
Lady Audley's Secret
The Invisible Man
The Importance of Being Earnest (okay, it's a play, but I'm think it will qualify)
The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley
Movies & Miniseries:
Angels and Insects
The Four Feathers
So, book bloggers, what do you think? Any must-reads or must-sees on the list? Anything I should skip? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Unfortunately, I am pretty ambivalent about it. Here's the set up: Maggie, a forty-year-old food writer, is grieving over the loss of her husband, who died suddenly in an accident. She gets the shock of her life when one of her husband's colleagues calls from China, with some upsetting news: apparently her husband, who visited China frequently for work, had an affair with a Chinese woman, who has now named her late husband in a paternity suit! She only has a few weeks before the Chinese courts will rule, so she has to move fast to find out if there's any truth to it.
Maggie calls her editor and explains that she will need some time off for this trip. No problem, says her boss, who then offers her a great assignment: interview a Chinese-American chef who has moved to Beijing to open a fantastic, Imperial-style Chinese restaurant. The chef, Sam Liang, comes from a long line of chefs -- his grandfather wrote a well-respected book on Chinese cooking, which he is attempting to translate into English. Maggie agrees. Turns out the restaurant has hit a snag, but said chef is about to enter a cooking competition, sort of the Olympics of Chinese cuisine. He agrees to be interviewed about the competition instead.
So, we then have two intertwining stories: Maggie dealing with the knowledge that her beloved husband may have had a secret life, and this child who may or may not be his; and chef Sam, who is struggling with his Chinese family, including his estranged fatherl about his cooking style, his family history, and the competition. Of course, since they are both single, attractive, damaged adults, a romance is also involved -- will they or won't they?
As much as I wanted to love this book, I just couldn't. First of all, it's short, only 288 pages, and it's also one of those hardbacks that are on the small side, which I think is the publisher's sneaky way of making the book look longer than it is. Not that there's anything wrong with short books, but somehow this book seemed unfinished to me. There's a lot going on in this story which could have been really interesting, but there are quite a few threads in this book that sort of went nowhere, or seemed unresolved. Also, some characters were introduced that seemed unnecessary to the plot, and their presence seemed sort of forced and unnatural to the story. And after reading the book, I still didn't feel like Maggie's character was that well developed. I would have liked to learn more about her back story -- and Sam's, too, for that matter. We know he grew up in America, his mother was Jewish, he hasn't been lucky in love, etc., but not much else. It seemed to cut right to his time in China as though he suddenly appeared there.
There is a ton of great food writing in this book, which is one of its strong points. If you have any desire to read about authentic Chinese cuisine, and the history of Chinese cooking, or what happened to all the fantastic chefs during the cultural revolution -- this book is great. However, there were some aspects about the cooking that I found unrealistic. This guy, a foreigner, has only been cooking Chinese food for four years and is now ready for this major competition? The book points out how he slaved at his uncles' restaurants, but it also constantly points out how intricate and complex the food and cooking styles are -- it seems to me that's something that takes decades to learn, not something that you pick up that quickly. And he only has a week to prepare for this dinner -- he spends an AWFUL lot of time chatting with this writer for someone so busy. I did actually work in several kitchens during high-volume and high-pressure situations, and I honestly don't see a chef wanting to be interviewed when he's under so much stress.
Also, though Maggie has been a food writer for years, she can't cook. At all. Can't even boil water. This to me was the MOST unbelievable thing about this book. Now, I'm not saying that all food writers should be gourmets, or have worked in kitchens, or gone to school, but seriously, if you are a food writer, you are writing and thinking about food an awful lot of the time, which indicates that you are really, really, into it. I find it extremely hard to believe that someone who has making a living as a food writer, who needs to write about chefs, techniques, ingredients, has observed -- as she keeps reminding us how writers are good observers -- and she can't even make a salad or roast a chicken?
Maybe I am just nitpicky. I do know that Nicole Mones IS a food writer -- she wrote for Gourmet, and you can't get much more prestigious than that -- and lived in China, so she has the background and she knows what she's talking about. I did love all the food writing, and the history -- she gives some back story on Sam's father about why he refuses to cook or return to China, which is just fascinating. Opulent cuisine was not appreciated during the cultural revolution, to put it mildly. I would have loved an entire book about him and his story.
The descriptions of the food and cooking are just fantastic, and make me want to go back to China -- I'll admit many of the restaurants I visited were probably not as authentic as those in the book. (Mones thoughtfully provides recipes and restaurant recommendations on her website.) If you are interested in China, or fascinated by food, you might enjoy this book. I just wish the plot and character development were as delicious as the cuisine in this book.
Monday, February 1, 2010
Imagine if one of Jane Austen's heroines lived about 120 years in the future -- the early 1930s, to be exact -- and that she is married, with two children, running a country household somewhere in Devon. Or, basically, a 1930s version of Bridget Jones' Diary -- the fun, witty bits, but without all the weight issues and smoking. That's the best way I can describe the delightful Diary of a Provincial Lady.
E. M. Delafield wrote this thinly veiled fictional diary about her life in 1930, and according to Wikipedia, it has never gone out of print and spawned four sequels. And with good reason -- it's a really fun read. It's witty and charming, and the diary format makes it easy to pick up at an odd moment. I am a complete Anglophile, and I'm particularly fond of British literature from the early 20th century, especially the satirical novels of the 1920s and 1930s (I recommend Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate and Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall.) This is definitely in a similar vein, though more narrowly focused on the minutiae of life in a country village -- dealing with the cook, the French governess, Women's Institute Meetings (of which I am only familiar from the movie Calendar Girls starring Helen Mirren); also quirky characters like the vicar's wife and the local snobby aristocrat. How I wish I lived in a small English country village! Of course it would probably just be annoying if it was in my neighborhood. The neighbors must always be quirkier and more entertaining on the other side of the fence. Or the Atlantic.
Here's an example of an entry:
Here's an example of an entry:
November 14 -- Arrival of Book of the Month choice, and am disappointed. History of a place I am not interested in, by an author I do not like. Put it back into its wrapper again and make fresh choice from Recommended List. Find, on reading small literary bulletin enclosed with book, that exactly this course of procedure has been anticipated, and that it is described as being "the mistake of a lifetime." Am much annoyed, although not so much at having made (possibly) mistake of a lifetime, as at depressing thought of all our being so much alike that intelligent writers can apparently predict our behaviour with perfect accuracy.
Decide not to mention any of this to Lady B., always so tiresomely superior about Book of the Month as it is, taking up attitude that she does not require to be told what to read. (Should like to think of a good repartee to this.)
So. Witty, charming, easy to read -- a perfect respite from, say, weightier books like Dickens and Trollope, or even lighter works like Austen. But how is it possible I had never heard of this until recently? Here, I must give credit to the JASNA coordinator for South Texas, the clever and charming Lynda, who was kind enough to recommend it. Lynda, I thank you again -- though of course I am now compelled to read all four of the sequels: The Provincial Lady in London, Provincial Lady in America, I Visit the Soviets: The Provincial Lady in Russia; and finally, The Provincial Lady in Wartime, which, sadly, is out of print. Luckily, my library has a copy, though I'm going to have to purchase two volumes before I read that, if I want to read them in order, as I am loathe to incur any costs to my public library with ILLs.
I must point my one complaint: the page layout, which has such enormous margins I was actually compelled to find a ruler and measure them. Seriously. Each of the 388 pages in this paperback book is 5 x 8 inches, with only a mere 3 1/2 x 4 inch block of text!! I am no math whiz, but, basically, half the page is blank -- and the type is double-spaced. A quick count showed less than 200 words on a page. Now, that's just ridiculous -- how dumb does the publisher think we are? Why not just print more words on less pages and save a few trees?
I am sure the Provincial Lady would be appalled at the waste.