Archive for November, 2009

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Frederica by Georgette Heyer

November 30, 2009

Georgette Heyer books can always be counted on to be uplifting and humorous antidotes to some heavier reads. I was glad to have the delightful Frederica, Alverstoke, and Felix to help distract me from the seemingly mean-spirited brothers Karamazov. Unfortunately, Heyer characters also have a tendency to grab you and not let you go, so of course, I now have roughly 600 pages of Dostoyevsky to read before my book club meeting in two weeks.

The way I describe Heyer to people who have never read any of her books is, “Somewhat like Austen, but with more humor and less social criticism.” Of course, that’s not to say that Heyer books lack any form of social criticism, but it just simply isn’t as predominant as I find it is in Austen’s writing. Some of this may be that Heyer was writing from a much removed time period–the 1930s instead of the 1810s. For more information on Heyer, or for a list of recommended books for first time readers, I would suggest a post called “A Case for Georgette Heyer.” This article is what convinced me to pick up one of her books.

Frederica begins when Frederica, a young woman who finds herself in charge of her family after her father’s death, arrives in London in the hopes of finding a good match for her younger, beautiful sister. But how will they be introduced into polite society after living out in the country for so long? They turn to a distant cousin, Alverstoke, for help, and of course, antics (and love) ensue.

Like many Heyer novels, Frederica is set in the Regency period in England. Unlike the previous Heyer books that I’ve read, however, the main character in Frederica is a male! (Despite the title.) Frederica herself does play a large part in the novel, but it is Alverstoke’s thoughts that we hear most often. This is also one of the first Heyer novels that had many young children play large roles. They provided much comedy, and I often found myself laughing out loud in parts. After reading many of her books, I expect a good Heyer novel to be entertaining and funny, and this one does not disappoint!

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Wilkie Collins Classics Circuit: No Name

November 24, 2009

This post is part of the Wilkie Collins Classics Circuit. You should check out the list of all the stops that Wilkie will be making on his blog tour. There is also a concurrent classics tour with Elizabeth Gaskell, and that tour has been filled with informative posts as well! (This post will be 100% spoiler-free.)

Wilkie Collins may not be as well known as his friend Charles Dickens, but his stories certainly do grab your attention and encourage you to stay up late reading! No Name is no exception. The story opens on a quiet family home in the country. By all appearances, the Vanstones are the ideal Victorian family with a straight-lacedgoverness and charmingly quirky neighbors. There is no lack of foreshadowing however, and you just know that something will go wrong. If you haven’t read the back of the book, you’re kept in suspense until about 150 pages into the novel. I won’t give anything away except to say that the mystery involves peculiarities of Victorian legal code, a woman who makes an excellent actress, and several fake identities.

In a somewhat unusual move for Collins, after the first 150 pages, there are no more “mysteries” that remain to be solved. After that, the book is entirely a standard literary novel, albeit with a few unusual plot turns and truly exceptional characterizations. Collins was actually quite proud of the fact that this book did not rely on secrets–he was hoping to silence his critics who felt that he used too many plot devices. “The only Secret contained in this book, is revealed midway in the first volume,” he insists. In fact, in between writing No Name for serialization and for publication in volumes, he slightly altered one or two paragraphs to make the novel even less “secretive.”

I believe that Collins is correct–No Name does not revolve around “whodunit?” or “who could she be?” Instead, the novel looks at a strong female protagonist and asks, “What would someone in her position, with her characteristics, be forced to do?” It turns out that she would break a lot of rules, do many things that she isn’t proud of, and fight until her body fails her. I loved this aspect of the novel. It isn’t often that we see a woman in Victorian literature with such a strong mind and such a firm determination to do whatever she deems necessary despite society’s disapproval. There are actually two characters like this–Magdalen, the protagonist, and Mrs. Lecount, her rival. The extent to which each succeeds or fails doesn’t seem as important as the cunning and the intellect that they employ to do so.

In No Name, Collins has presented readers with something even more mysterious than the theft of a jewel or the identity of a ghostly woman–he has explored how people react and develop as they confront life’s injustices. And isn’t that a hallmark of great, classic literature? I agree with Wilkie himself–it’s time to give Collins his due as an excellent writer, not just as a superb mystery author. This Classics Circuit seems to be doing just that!


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Another project for next year: The James Family

November 22, 2009

A few posts ago, I mentioned that I was hoping to reread all of Jane Austen’s books in the order in which they were written. Another goal of mine for next year is to complete a project that I had hoped to do this summer–the James family project. Earlier this year, I read a phenomenal biography of William James called William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. It was one of my top ten books of 2009, and I might even say that it changed my life. The spirited way that James lived his life, despite his many mental and physical difficulties, was inspiring.

I also happens that this year I read an old copy of Henry James’s Wings of the Dove. It’s certainly one of the most difficult books that I read this year, but it was worth every minute. James’s insights into human psychology–particularly female psychology–are quite moving. I’m not sure is this is an actual quotation or if it’s just an aphorism, but it is said that “William James wrote psychology like a novelist; Henry James wrote novels like a psychologist.” A truer statement couldn’t be written. These brothers both lived interesting lives and wrote contemplative books.

After I finished the William James biography, I immediately went home and pulled out all the books I have about the family–a surprisingly large amount! Clearly, this was an infatuation in development. Briefly, the books: The Master is a fictional account of the late part of Henry James’s life. The Turn of the Screw is a novella by Henry James that I’ve read twice before but never fully understood. I bought this Norton Critical Edition in the hopes that the surrounding documents in this book will help me. Lions at Lamb House is a fictional account of the actual meeting of three great men at Henry’s house in England: Freud, Henry, and William. Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death is a nonfiction book whose title says it all.

My project next year will be to read all of these books before I forget all of the wonderful information that I gained from reading William James’s biography. I will also supplement the reading with The Ambassadors, the second of “the big three” Henry James novels. (I intend to read The Golden Bowl, the last of the three, next year.) I would also like to read an actual William James book, though I haven’t decided which yet. I am also considering reading Alice James’s diary. So it looks like next year will be the year of James and Austen!

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Upcoming Reading

November 19, 2009

Many book bloggers are posting photos of the books that they plan to read before the year ends or during their holiday vacations. I thought that I’d share the current stack of books that I’m reading. You can probably see bookmarks in all but the top two. My goal isn’t necessarily to finish them all by the end of the year–it’s more that I just need to only read from this stack of books. It’d be nice to have a nice clean slate for the begining of next year, wouldn’t it? I usually don’t worry about bringing many books with me when I go to visit my family around this time of year. Between birthday gifts and Christmas gifts, I usually receive more than enough books to keep me busy for the week I take off of work! And I always like to indulge myself by taking some time on Christmas to read one of my new gifts. But this year, since I’d really like to finish some of the ones in this stack, I may take more than usual on vacation with me!

Here’s what’s up there:

North and South: Even though I won’t be participating in the Gaskell Classics Circuit, I’d still like to read along with everyone else. She’s been an author that I’ve wanted to read for ages, ever since a friend of mine loved Wives and Daughters. (And recommended it to me all the time!) This may be my vacation read.

The Brothers Karamazov: This might not sound like a cheery holiday read, but the translators keep insisting that really, in the original Russian, Dostoyevsky was quite jokey and playful! I guess I’ll find out. I tend to adore Russian literature anyway, so I’m not worried. This is for my real life book club, so I intend to start it this weekend and finish it by December 14.

Frederica: I figure that between finishing the Collins and starting the Dostoyevsky, I’ll need something a bit lighter. I inexplicably started the first 40 pages of this back in the summertime and forgot about it. I love Heyer. This will be a nice break.

Walk the Blue Fields: I’m looking forward to finishing the last two stories in this collection.

The Count of Monte Cristo: Earlier this year I took two 24 hour plane flights; the plan was to only bring one book and finish it. Turns out that when you’re in the air for 24 hours, you’re more likely to read mindless mysteries. (Thank you Tana French, for In the Woods.) I did love this book for the first several hours, though. I’m about halfway through and would love to finish this. Usually Dumas just flies by for me.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood: I really want to read the new Drood book that came out this Summer; I even have a hardcover that I bought the week it came out. Of course, I had to read the original Dickens first, and now I’ve been stuck on this one for forever. Amazon helpfully tells me that the paperback of Drood will be out in February; let’s hope that I can finish the Dickens and the Simmons by then!

The Name of the Rose: This is a fun book, but very slow. I’ve had a hard time picking it up, simply because the other books I’m reading always seem more fun.

The Secret Life of Words: The only nonfiction book in the stack, this might get some read time simply because I am so close to finishing it. Only two chapters away from the end. A very interesting book about the origins of the English language. I haven’t been in much of a nonfiction mood the last several months; perhaps that will change.

Does anyone else try to finish up all their remainders at the end of the year? How successful have you been?

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Teaser Tuesday

November 17, 2009

Rather than inundate this blog with posts about No Name, I thought that I’d choose a different book from my current pile of reading. (Which has gathered a bit of dust the last couple of weeks during my unusually monogamous reading of Wilkie Collins.) This collection of short stories is by Irish writer Claire Keegan, and I’ve been enjoying them immensely. I only have two stories left to read, so I’d really like to finish this before the holidays. I’ve reviewed one of these stories previously. Now, I’d like to tease you with a bit of Keegan’s prose so that you can form a better opinion of her work. This selection comes from one of my favorites in the collection, called The Forester’s Daughter. A few pages into the story, we meet the two main characters: a farmer and his wife, recently married.

That summer her roses bloomed scarlet but long before the wind could blow their heads asunder, Martha realized she had made a mistake. All she had was a husband who hardly spoke now that he’d married her, an empty house and no income of her own. She had married a man she did not love. What had she expected? She had expected it would grow and deepen into love. And now she craved intimacy and the type of conversation that would surpass misunderstanding. She thought about finding a job but it was too late: a child was near ready for the cradle.

This is from Walk the Blue Fields, page 55. I love how Keegan’s simple sentences manage to convey such deep emotion. I can practically see a tired, middle aged woman, sitting in a farmhouse, looking sad and worn-down while thinking these thoughts.

An unrelated link: For those of you who are interested in classic novels but have mostly steered away from any and all Twilight media, here’s an interesting article comparing the Twilight series to Samuel Richardson’s classic “it-may-be-the-first-English-novel” novel, Pamela. I don’t have much to add beyond what I said in my comment on that post, but this article brought up some good points about materialism and class advancement in the two novels. I’ve never been drawn to the Twilight franchise, and this helped me understand some of my own initial misgivings.

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Why do we read Jane Austen?

November 16, 2009

For a while now, I’ve been mulling over a massive reread project of all of Jane Austen’s work. The plan would be to start with her earliest novels and read through the whole set. Of course, along the way, I would also want to supplement the project with some essays and biographies. I just found an excellent article over at Jane Austen’s World about a book called A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen. The first thing I thought is, “Wow, this will definitely need to go on my Austen project list.” After reading the interview, though, I was most impressed by how thoughtful and eloquent the editor is. If you’e ever read and liked any Austen novel, I highly recommend that you go and read it! Her words brought me back to the last time I read through one of Austen’s novels, and it made me so eager to start up my Austen reading! I’m currently thinking that my little “Complete Austen” project will take place over the course of next year. That gives me plenty of time to read her work while also spacing out all of the delightful reading.

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Can’t talk, must read

November 15, 2009

noName.cgiEvery time I sit down to compose a blog post, I get restless and think that I should be off reading. That’s how much I’m loving No Name. I just can’t stop reading it. It’s become one of those books where I feel like I’m living in that world and that real life is just an annoying thing I must get through in order to go back to 19th century England and the characters that I’d find there. I’ll have a more formal review up when it’s my turn for the classics circuit. One of the things that I’ve loved about this circuit so far is that it has really influenced what I think about while reading. A number of the bloggers so far have commented on Collins’s attitude towards women–does his writing show a pro-women’s rights stance? Or do the chauvinistic comments of some of his male (and even female!) characters condone the treatment of women as underlings? Moored at Sea had a thought provoking post (and comments section) about these questions, and they have definitely been in the back of my mind while reading this book. Or, perhaps at the front of my mind, since the novel’s plot is so concerned with women’s rights, or the lack thereof.

Ok, I’m off to go read more about Magdalen.

Edited to add: Here’s the other post at Book Gazing that talks about Collins and women. So much to think about before I write my circuit post!