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Book Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

A woman dressed in white posing for a portrait.Summary:
Originally serialized in 1859 to 1860 then published in book form in 1860 this epistolary novel is considered one of the first mystery novels. Walter Hartright is an artist who gets hired to be a drawing master for two half-sisters Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe. He and Laura soon fall in love, but they cannot be together due to class differences and Laura’s prior promise to her now deceased father to marry Lord Percival Glyde. A mysterious woman dressed all in white warns Laura against her marriage, calling Lord Glyde evil. However, Laura is reluctant to renege on her final promise to her father and proceeds with her marriage, sending herself, Marian, and Walter into a spiral of intrigue and danger.

Review:
I love slow-moving, epistolary novels, particularly gothic ones read on a long, hot summer day.  One of my finest reading memories is of enjoying Dracula while working on a summer internship at a national park on a peninsula with four beaches.  So I came to this gothic, mysterious, epistolary novel with high expectations.  At first they were met, but as the plot proceeded I came more and more to want to smack Collins upside the head.

Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that the slowly building tension indicates a truly serious infraction on Lord Percival Glyde’s part that turns out to be not particularly shocking at all.  At least to my American mind.  Suffice it to say, it revolves around title holding, something which I find baffling and laughable.  Why should anyone care if Laura is Mrs. Glyde or Lady Glyde?  Her life seems more boring than the servants’ anyway.  I thought I would be reading a novel that was more about revealing the treachery and debauchery of the upper class.  Instead I got a book about bourgeois problems, which, I’ve indicated elsewhere on this blog, I simply cannot relate to and find completely annoying.  I get it that some people enjoy that, but the desire to maintain a tense, mysterious illusion around the book led me to believe it’s something it wasn’t.  That is frustrating, to say the least.

Beyond the disappointing mystery there’s of course the typical problems found in early 1800s literature.  The sexism comes from Marian’s own mouth, which is surprising given that she is a depicted as a strong woman.  She often will lament the short-comings of “her sex.”  Actually, the entire situation between Walter, Marian, and Laura is baffling.  Laura is a weak, foolish girl who Walter falls and stays head over heels in love with.  I cannot fathom why that would be when he spends an equal amount of time with Marian, who is a strong, thoughtful, intelligent woman.  Laura is described as beautiful, whereas Marian is described as possessing a beautiful body but an unfortunately masculine face.  This leads me to believe Walter is rather shallow, as I see no reason beyond Laura’s beauty for his devotion to her.  I know sexism is to be expected in older novels, but I would at least hope for a hero who loves the heroine for something beyond her beauty.

That said, the novel certainly gives modern women a new appreciation for our current situation.  The women in The Woman in White are constantly downtrodden by the men around them who believe it is entirely within their right to dictate to them everything about how they should behave, speak, dress, etc…  It appears that the only thing the women have control over is when to leave the men to their wine after dinner.  In fact the couple presented as the happiest and most well-functioning is that of Count Fosco and his wife, and they only function well due to the fact that she obeys his every command.  Mrs. Fosco is described as a woman who prior to meeting the Count was loud, obnoxious, and always yammering on about women’s rights.  Count Fosco, apparently, “fixed all that,” and she is now such a pleasant woman to deal with.  The only woman who does not base her entire existence around a man is Marian, and that is due to her bizarre, near worshipful devotion to Laura.  It makes me shudder to think if those had been my options as a woman–existing purely for the whims of a man, downtrodden and outcast, or pure devotion to a sister.  Yeesh.

I did enjoy listening to the book.  It felt a bit like listening to an old-time radio program, which I’m sure is due to its origin as a serial novel.  Those who enjoy the slower pace of older novels and can relate to the bourgeoisie will probably enjoy it.  If either of those elements turns you off, however, you should look elsewhere.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Librivox recording via the Audiobooks app for the iTouch and iPhone

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Book Review: Love Among the Chickens by P. G. Wodehouse

Old book cover with man chasing chickens.Summary:
Jeremy Garnet, a novelist, is living a relatively quiet bachelor life in London when his old school friend Stanley Ukridge shows up.  Ukridge is starting a chicken farm with his wife, Millie, and wants “Garnie old boy” to come stay with them.  He’ll get to write in the country in exchange for a few hours of work a day.  In spite of the fact that Ukridge is planning to run the chicken farm without any prior knowledge or studying “the better for innovation, my boy,” Garnie takes him up on it.  Of course, life with the eccentric Ukridge surrounded by chickens isn’t quite the quiet writing environment Garnie was planning on.  Not to mention the Irish professor neighbor’s lovely daughter that Garnie can’t quite get out of his head.

Review:
There’s no doubt about it.  Wodehouse is pleasantly droll.  It was, however, necessary for me to remind myself a few times of the time period this was written in as certain portions had the feminist in me going “Whaaaat?!”

Ukridge and Millie are a delightful couple.  He’s got zany ideas; she’s endlessly supportive.  He clearly is madly in love with her and vice versa.  They’re exactly the sort of people I would want as neighbors, because you’d never get bored with them around.  Ukridge doesn’t mean to do wrong by anybody.  He just doesn’t get how society thinks it should function.  He does everything his own way, and Millie is along for the ride.

Wodehouse also manages to actually create personalities in the animals that are around from Bob the dog to Edwin the cat to Aunt Elizabeth the evil chicken (named after the aunt that didn’t want Millie to marry Ukridge).  The animals are a part of everything that is going on.  The characters actually talk to them, interact with them, and the animals respond.  It’s something that happens in my own life, but that I don’t usually see in books, so I was delighted to see it here.

On the other hand, chickens are only half of the title, and I must say, I was not fond of the love half.  Garnie’s relationship with Phyllis just hit all the wrong notes for me.  First, Garnie claims to have fallen in love with her at first sight upon seeing her on the train, yet at that portion of the book all he talks about is how lovely her eyes are.  Sounds more like lust to me.  Then there’s the fact that Phyllis’s personality stinks.  She’s dull, boring, and frankly rude.  She’s square under her egotistical father’s thumb too.  I don’t see what Garnie sees in her.  Then of course there’s the fact that Garnie pretty much stalks her for a portion of the book.  He goes to her father’s farm every night after dusk, sits in the bushes, and listens to her sing.  That’s creepy, but when he tells her later, she laughs and is delighted.  People!  Stalking is not romantic.   Gah!

I wish Wodehouse had simply written about Ukridge and Millie, as they are clearly the couple that is actually interesting.  In spite of the fact that he didn’t do that though, I really liked this book.  People who appreciate a book for the scenes in it and not the overarching plot will like it as well.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Librivox recording by Mark Nelson via the Audible app for the iTouch and iPhone

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Book Review: The Collected Public Domain Works of H. P. Lovecraft

April 14, 2010 2 comments

Hand emerging from a coffin drawing a line of blood.Summary:
Lovecraft was an American author of horror living during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He has a bit of a cult following, largely due to a creature featured in some of his stories known as Cthulu.  (I’d link, but your experience will be much more amusing if you google “cthulu”).  Some common themes in his horror include eerie things coming from ocean depths, scientific reanimation of corpses, human-like apes, the dreamworld, and ancient myths being fact.  This collection includes 24 short stories–The Alchemist, The Beast in the Cave, Beyond the Wall of Sleep, The Cats of Ulthar, Celephais, The Crawling Chaos, Dagon, The Doom that Came to Sarnath, Ex Oblivione, Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family, Herbert West: Reanimator, Memory, The Music of Erich Zann, The Nameless City, Nyarlathotep, The Picture in the House, Polaris, A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Jackson, The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Street, The Terrible Old Man, The Tomb, The Tree, and The White Ship.

Review:
I decided I needed to actually read some Lovecraft after getting swept up in the Cthulu subculture last December through Cthulumas hosted on Tor.com.  So I searched Librivox via the Audible app and found this collection.  Unfortunately, there was no Cthulu in it.  Also unfortunately, I wasn’t too impressed by most of the stories.

I think the main issue is that a lot of the horror just didn’t age well.  Lovecraft’s stories depend largely on the unknown, only a lot of what was unknown in his time is known now.  For instance one of his stories focuses around the mystery of the North Star, which isn’t so mysterious anymore.  They also depend on unexplored territories on the continents, whereas now it’s space that is unexplored.  I can’t get into the character’s mindset of fear when he reads simply as naive and uneducated.

His stories that center around the hypothetical reanimation of the dead are some of the best ones.  They read like a mix of zombie and Frankenstein, and it works because we still don’t know what happens after death.  Herbert West: Reanimator was one of the only stories to give me the actual chills.

I would be amiss not to mention the racism evident in his stories.  Any that feature Africa talk of a pervasive fear of what lies in the depths of the continent and repeatedly mention apes mixing with men.  Even if he was unaware that he was harboring racism, these read at the very least as being anti-miscegenation.  It’s hard to listen to stories whose horror centers around fear of what people look like as opposed to what they may be capable of doing.

Similarly, he read as being anti-science.  Any scientists in his short stories are portrayed as sticking their noses where they don’t belong.  Apparently, we can never fathom the universe, so we better not.  It’ll hurt us if we try.  I found myself rolling my eyes at the sleep stories.  They were all so ridiculous when I know doctors and researchers studying sleep.  It’s really not this dangerous other-world he presents it to be.

Where Lovecraft is at his strongest is when he veers from his typical themes.  My loyal readers probably won’t be surprised at all that one of the most pleasurable reads to me was The Cats of Ulthar, which basically presents animals as sentient and capable as humans.

I can only hope that the Cthulu stories fall more in the category of Herbert West: Reanimator and The Cats of Ulthar.  The rest wrought a decided “meh” reaction from me.  I’d recommend them only if you have no issue reading horror centering around unknowns that are now known.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Librivox recording via Audible app for the iTouch and iPhone

Book Review: The Thing from the Lake By Eleanor M. Ingram

March 25, 2010 3 comments

Brown paper cover with read lettering.Summary:
In the 1920s Roger Locke is a composer living in New York City.  He buys a house by a lake in Connecticut as a country retreat and appoints his cousin, Phyllida, and her husband, Ethan Veer, as caretakers of the property.  His first night on the property, he meets a woman–whether spirit or alive, he can’t tell–and is promptly intrigued by her.  His visits quickly turn sinister, though, as a dark force based in the lake comes at night to threaten Roger away from the woman.  What is the thing in the lake?  Who is this woman?  Can Roger defeat the dark force thereby returning himself and his cousins to their idyllic lifestyle?

Review:
I had a feeling I was going to like The Thing from the Lake when I discovered that every chapter started with a relevant quote pulled from the classics of the western canon, and I was right.  Ingram weaves a complex tale, filled with surprising twists and turns.  Just when you think you know what the overarching point is, or where the story is going to go next, you find out that you were wrong.

Ingram artfully goes back and forth between the daytime where the story is more period piece and the nighttime, which is all horror.  It is a very New England tale, featuring small farmers, big city dreams, references to the Puritans, and quirky, drawling neighbors.  While Phyllida and Ethan are believable and infinitely likeable, Roger’s immediate infatuation with the woman is a bit suspect.  It seems shallow how infatuated with her hair and her scent he is, but I think he later proves himself.  Sometimes people just know when they meet, so I’m willing to give Roger the benefit of the doubt.

Ingram leaves it up to the reader whether to believe the scientific or the supernatural explanation for the goings on at the lake.  It reminded me of my class on the Salem Witch Trials a bit, and I’d be willing to bet that Ingram was at least partially inspired by them.  It’s not easy to make both answers to a mystery equally plausible, but she pulls it off wonderfully.

The only thing holding me back from completely raving about the book is that there are parts that smack of historic misogyny.  I’m not blaming Ingram.  For her time period, many of her thoughts were quite progressive, and I’m sure Roger is an accurate representation of many men of that time period.  However, when he speaks about how his “plain cousin” Phyllida is so much more comely when she’s doing “womanly” household chores, it makes me cringe, and not in the good horror way.  Thankfully, these instances are not that frequent, so they’re easy enough to glide over.

The Thing from the Lake is a surprisingly thought-provoking book.  I highly recommend it to everyone, but particularly to those who enjoy New England literature or light horror.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Librivox recording by Roger Melin via the Audiobooks app for the iTouch

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