Murky Moonlight: Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg

moonlightMoonlight Palace

Liz Rosenberg

2014.  I read a Kindle edition.  176 pgs.

Other books I’ve read by Rosenberg:  none.  According to Goodreads, Rosenberg is a poet and author of childrens’ books.  I think this latter occupation is demonstrated in Moonlight; I was not quite sure if this was supposed to be a YA book, or adult historical fiction.  The conflict between the two genres results in a bit of discomfort, for me at least.

I wanted a quick break from my Guardian list reading and thought Moonlight Palace looked awesome.  Who could resist:  “a coming of age tale rich with historical detail … set against the backdrop of dazzling 1920s Singapore“?  Except Moonlight Palace doesn’t pull it off.

Moonlight Palace focuses on young Agnes Hussein, a descendent of the sultan who sold Singapore to the British in 1819.  It is now 1920s-something and Agnes lives in the Kampong Glam palace with a colorful crew of family members, boarders and servants.  But the glory days of the sultanate are long over and the little group lives in genteel poverty with the decrepit palace crumbling over their heads.  Agnes’ parents died in the 1918 flu pandemic and she is being brought up by her grandparents and uncle.  One of her relatives, Uncle Chachi, is the last living male heir of the sultanate.  To make matters worse, the whole legal premise behind the Hussein family’s residence in the palace is tenuous — and will certainly be more so when Uncle Chachi passes away.  The palace is actually owned by the British government.

The palace in the book is quite real.  Here is the restored building:  Malay Heritage Centre, Istana Kampong Glam 3, Dec 05CC BY-SA 3.0

The palace in the book is quite real. Here is the restored building: Malay Heritage Centre, Istana Kampong Glam 3, Dec 05 CC BY-SA 3.0 Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Istana_Kampong_Glam

Emerging from childhood, plucky Agnes’ goal is to preserve her palace and keep her little band of misfits, aunties and grandpas together.  Picture A Tree Grows in Brooklyn set in Singapore.  To this end, Agnes forges ahead as a modern woman, taking on various odd jobs to make money, and encountering dark forces that want to take the palace away, political upheavals and other challenges.

The problem is, so much of the plot is murky and confused.  The book touches on the ramifications of the Chinese revolution, but in just a glancing way.  Conflict between Muslims and Hindus are referred to, but I didn’t understand the significance.  The forces that seemed gathering to take the palace away from the Hussein family weren’t explained — was it the British friend of the family?  Unfortunately, I didn’t see much of the “dazzling 1920s Singapore” in the book, at all.  Major characters, such as one of Agnes’ interesting employers, appear and then disappear.  Some characters are very thinly drawn, indeed.  In all, the moonlight obscures, rather than illuminates.

One bright point, I love adorable elderly characters — spunky aunties, lovable uncles and noble grandpas — and Moonlight Palace is stocked full of them.  I wish that Rosenberg had focused more on their interesting histories rather than on Agnes’.  I think that could have made the entire book stronger.

In sum, a murky moonlight palace I’ll soon forget, unfortunately.

 

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Mon ami, Poirot: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

StylesThe Mysterious Affair at Styles

Agatha Christie

Originally published, 1920.  I read a Bantam Books paperback, printed around 1976 (cost $1.75 at that time!).  182 pgs.

Guardian 1,000 novels.  Crime Titles.

Other books I’ve read by Christie:  And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

It’s hard to imagine a world without Hercule Poirot, especially now that I feel I know him a little better.  His rationality, little gray cells, and famous “method” all provide a feeling of safety in the face of the most convoluted, red-herring-ed murder tale.

But Poirot had to be born sometime, and it was in this short novel that Christie introduced him to the world.

It was also Christie’s first published novel.  She wrote it during WWI, while volunteering in a hospital pharmacy.  The novel was supposedly written as the result of a bet to see if she could compose a mystery where the reader would be unable to spot the murderer.  It took Christie five years to find a publisher, and proved to be one of her greatest triumphs; it has never been out of print since 1920.

The novel is set in a great country house, Styles Court, inhabited by the wealthy Cavendish family, their guests and servants.  The domineering, widowed matriarch, Emily, has recently married a much younger man who is beneath her social class.  The misalliance has created a rift in the Cavendish family, many of whom fear the loss of their inheritances.  Then, Emily is poisoned with strychnine — either in her coffee, her evening cocoa, or perhaps in her bedtime tonic.  It’s all incredibly complicated, with dozens of clues, everyone a possible suspect, several medical men with conflicting ideas, lawyers and Scotland Yard on board.

Poirot to the rescue.  Evidently Emily had been responsible for Poirot’s presence in the village:

“…it is by the charity of that good Mrs. Inglethorp that I am here…she had kindly extended hospitality to seven of my countrypeople who, alas, are refugees from their native land.  We Belgians will always remember her gratitude.”

But Poirot is no mere refugee — he is “one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police” — readily identified by young Mr. Hastings, who is recovering from war wounds at Styles Court.  Out of loyalty and gratitude to Emily, Poirot sets out to find her killer.  In his turn, Hastings becomes a kind of factotum and companion to Poirot, and is basically our stand in.  Whenever the mystery becomes incredibly complex and confusing, Hastings voices the readers’ frustration to Poirot:

“I was hardly as clear as I could wish.  I repeated myself several times, and occasionally had to go back to some detail that I had forgotten.  Poirot smiled kindly on me.

“The mind is confused? Is it not so?  Take time, mon ami.  You are agitated, you are excited–it is but natural.  Presently, when we are calmer, we will arrange the facts, neatly, each in his proper place…..”

I have to confess that at times I appreciated, rather than enjoyed, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  I found many of the characters thinly drawn, almost chess pieces moved around on a huge board by a master hand.  Or sometimes I felt like I was inside a puzzle square — the kind you try to move tiles around in a particular order, but are thwarted because you can only move them in particular directions.  If Miss Cavendish was in the library with the cocoa cup at 9:30 then she couldn’t have been the person to burn the incriminating letter in the billiard room at that time, and so forth.

But the characters of Poirot and Hastings are endearing and real.  Poirot is the meticulous detector of truth and lies and Hastings is us, stumbling behind and trying to understand what is going on.  I wonder if Christie came up with these characters and formula in response to the Great War.  Did she feel a need to bring order and meaning to the destruction of a genteel, ordered way of life enjoyed by the English upper class before WWI?  For Poirot soothes the confused, horrified Hastings who represents that class and is reeling from a horrific crime — not necessarily the death of Emily Cavendish-Inglethrop — but a much larger horror.

And no, I wasn’t able to spot the murderer.  Of course we have to leave that to Poirot.

 

Dystopian Days: Divergent

divergentDivergent

Veronica Roth

HarperCollins Publishers.  2013.  487 pgs + bonus materials section.

Other books I’ve read by Roth:  none.  Divergent is the first book of a young adult dystopian trilogy.  The other books in the trilogy are Insurgent and Allegiant.

Well, two things to say:  one, I know I am the last person on earth to read this book and two, I loved it!  That latter statement is not cool to say for a serious reader, I guess.  So I guess I’m not a serious reader –and any way I don’t care.

Just in case I’m not the last person on earth who hasn’t read this, and one of my faithful Livritome readers is….the story line is the following (don’t want to give away everything):

  • Some incredible war (or plague?) has happened and the survivors (at least in Chicago, USA!) have decided to reorganize society into groups that represent the characteristics that may help prevent a future war.
  • The characteristics, or factions are:  Erudite (intelligence), Dauntless (courage), Amity (peacefulness), Abnegation (selflessness), and Candor (honesty).
  • All 16 year-olds complete an aptitude test to help them decide what faction they should chose to spend the rest of their lives in.  This may, or may not, mean leaving their birth families and parents forever (what 16 year old wouldn’t love that??)
  • After choosing, teens train intensely for initiation into their new faction.
  • Some folks may not fit just precisely into one faction, and that is a problem.
  • Some very unlucky folks are factionless — and this is quite a state to be feared.
  • War and unrest are brewing….

The novel follows Beatrice Prior, a girl from Abnegation whose choice of faction has dramatic ramifications for herself, her family, and several other key individuals.  Not only must Beatrice square her choice of faction with the suspicion that her aptitude test results actually point towards a more troubling future choice — but she must prepare herself to take part in a greater world struggle that is lining up outside of her individual concerns.  Along the way, Beatrice meets several other young people who are struggling with their faction choice, which includes a possibility of not being accepted by the faction if they do not pass initiation — a fear Beatrice also shares.

So much has been written about why dystopias are popular.  The attraction seems simple to me, especially for younger readers.  With so many dysfunctions in our current, real world – global warming, terrorism — the possibility of the world we know devolving into some other hideous form seems quite plausible.  Additionally, I think Divergent and the Hunger Games novels resonate as classic coming of age tales.  Leaving your family behind, finding your identity, participating in a mighty struggle — aren’t those themes as primal as fairy tales and legends of the past?  Roth has just added the wrecked Sears Tower and ghostly El trains to the mix.

I also liked the love story in Divergent.  Beatrice’ love-interest turns out to be a anti-hero with a tragic, dark past that only she understands.  How classic is that theme — Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre, anyone?  Albeit with tattoos and a knack for jumping off moving El trains.

I guess it is the presence of these simple, archaic themes that sparked the criticism of Roth’s massive commercial success with Divergent.  Yes, and some of the characters are, to put it mildly, thinly drawn.  Having admitted this, I still would recommend this read.  It moved along briskly, it compelled and it presented a female hero I learned to care about.  For this non-serious reader the judgment’s on the book shelf:  I just bought the second book.

Dystopian City Falling into Ruins.  Photo Credit:  Torley Linden, Creative Commons License.

Dystopian City Falling into Ruins. Photo Credit: Torley Linden, Creative Commons License.

 

Emma, or Truth and Consequences

emmaEmma

Jane Austen

This isn’t the cover of the edition I read, but I thought it was pretty, and reminded me of Emma, herself.  Actually I read a “Borders Classic” edition (poor Borders!) with plain black cover, “copyright 2004 (huh?)”, 386 pgs.

1815

Guardian 1000 Challenge.  Love Titles.

Finally finished the last of the Austens for the Challenge read!  I’ve always had an awareness of this book:  I’ve watched numerous adaptations (love the stunning 2009 version with Romola Garai!) and of course the adorable Clueless.  But digging into the reality of Emma ended up being more of a chore for me than I expected.  That, and the numerous distractions keeping me from my Challenge reading — school, work, life — blah, blah.  Must keep reading!

Anyway, Emma.  The plot:  Emma Woodhouse is a rich and lovely young lady who lives in the quiet Surrey village of Highbury with her hypochondriac and eccentric father.  Her mom died many years ago and her older sister is married and raising a family in London.  Emma’s wealth, high status in the neighborhood, and her indulgent father leaves her plenty of resources, time and energy to meddle in the lives of her neighbors.  She fancies herself the ultimate match-maker, after having overseen the successful courtships of her sister and her beloved governess, Miss Taylor.  With Miss Taylor now married to neighboring Mr. Weston, Emma focuses her energies on a more ambitious effort:  finding a husband for a poor and clueless orphan girl, Harriet Smith.  Emma’s antics in promoting this project will have long-reaching and disastrous consequences affecting the lives of Harriet and many others.  Least of those touched by Emma’s plots will be the handsome and flirtatious Frank Churchill, mysterious and aloof Jane Fairfax and finally, Emma’s nemesis, George Knightley.

I always thought this book was going to be light-hearted and fun.  It actually was quite serious.  It had a lot to do with telling the truth and what happens when people don’t.  From the romantic “riddles” being passed back and forth by Emma and her erstwhile admirer, Mr. Elton, secret engagements, false situations created to try to throw potential lovers together,  illnesses faked to manipulate others — much of the story points to the lesson urged by Mr. Knightley:

“My Emma, does not everything serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?”

Of course, the point of the book is for Emma to learn this lesson for herself.  Also, being Austen, we get a heavy dose of the realities and consequences of adhering to the rules of society.  Finally, Emma is quite a long book and to my taste, doesn’t have the pacing and pep of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility.  Austen really takes a long time to tie all the plot lines together at the end and at one point I felt as bored and trapped as one of the characters playing an endless game of whist or backgammon with Mr. Woodhouse.  Even with that criticism, getting to know Emma was a delight and watching her grow up and embrace the beauty of truth was worth the wait.

Famous Box Hill in Surrey was the scene for the "Box Hill" outing in Emma.  Source:  This image was originally posted to Flickr by lostajy at http://flickr.com/photos/15192926@N00/164896001. It was reviewed on 1 April 2008 by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

Famous Box Hill in Surrey was the scene of the “Box Hill” outing in Emma. Source: This image was originally posted to Flickr by lostajy at http://flickr.com/photos/15192926@N00/164896001. It was reviewed on 1 April 2008 by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

January is for Jane, Part One: Mansfield Park

mansfieldMansfield Park

Jane Austen

Once again, I read a free download from Amazon.  As an aside, electronic access to these public domain works is a real boon to my reading Challenge.  Otherwise, I would be bankrupt and have my shelves overflowing with books!

1814.

According to my newly-discovered bible on all things Austen, the Republic of Pemberley website, Mansfield Park was published between Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and described as solemn and moralistic when compared to the other two works.  This is my penultimate Austen on the Challenge list.  I have already read  Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey.  Only Emma to go.  Yay, I am loving this Austen part of the Challenge!  Or as Jane put it more elegantly:

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book!  — Pride and Prejudice

Guardian 1000 Challenge.  Love Titles.

Mansfield Park, where have you been all my life?  I loved this book.  I got up at about 7:00 am this morning, and had about a quarter of the book left to read.  I could not put it down until I finished it around 11 am.

The rich family at Mansfield Park, the Bertrams, decide to invite their poor niece Fanny Price to live with them.  Fanny’s mother, Lady Bertram’s sister, had disgraced herself by marrying a low-ranked naval officer.  The Bertrams extend the hand of charity to this poor little girl and Fanny is to be raised with the wealthy Bertram children.  As a poor relation, she is treated as a sort of Cinderella character.  The kindest of the cousins, Edmund Bertram, becomes Fanny’s protector and champion.   She grows up to be a shy and self-deprecating girl, albeit with a steadfast and upright character.

When the cousins grow up,  Henry and Mary Crawford, a wealthy and dashing brother and sister,  move into the neighborhood.  Love complications develop quickly for the young people.  Much of the plot is about living within, without or falling from the strict code of conduct of Austen’s day — and what that means for the happiness of the various characters.  For example, brothers Tom and Edmund Bertram serve as counterpoints, one a wastrel and the other a good-natured young man anxious to do his duty.  You don’t need to guess who has the happier end in the story.  Making a good marriage, one that benefits other members of the family, is a priority.  Several selfish characters take it upon themselves to flout the rules to the heartbreak of others and their own eventual downfall.

Along with this “code of conduct” theme there is a wonderful flavor of understated humor in this book.  Several characters, including the lazy Lady Bertram and her busybody sister Mrs. Norris, are really funny.

“It is a very anxious period for her.”  As he said this, each looked towards their mother.  Lady Bertram, sunk back in one corner of the sofa, the picture of health, wealth, ease, and tranquility, was just falling into a gentle doze…

I also found the theme of home — or finding one’s true home or place — to be a interesting one.  One’s true home may not necessarily be the place where you were born, but may be the place where you are most needed or most useful to others.  Several of the more dissolute characters wander from fancy house to fancy estate – but are never at peace or in harmony with others.  Brilliant gardens and grounds may hide empty hearts or minds.

“Varnish and gilding hide many stains.” — Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park.

For those whose hearts are true, who long to love and serve those around them, the instinct to be at home is strong — and I believe this is the final lesson of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.  Poor, humble and once despised, Fanny is the character who is most central and most useful to all the other characters.  The story of Fanny finding her true home and true love is the story of Mansfield Park.

“I trust and hope, and sincerely wish you may never be absent from home so long again.”

E. M. Forster’s Howards End

Howardsend Howards End

E. M. Forster

I read this in a compilation published in 1993 by Gramercy Books, New York, NY.  Also contains:  A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread.  Howards End is approximately 236 pgs.

Originally published in 1910.

Other books I’ve read by Forster:  A Room with a View .  I still need to tackle Forster’s masterpiece, A Passage to India, which is the last Forster I need to read on the Guardian list.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge.  Family and Self Titles.

Forster gives us three families and uses them to illustrate several themes.  The heart of the story revolves around the intellectual and well-off Schlegals.  The Schlegals are comprised of the main character, the steady and clear-sighted Margaret who is the eye of the storm in this book, and her emotional and head-strong sister, Helen.  They have a younger brother, Tibby.  The Schlegals are involved in a variety of warm-hearted and intellectually exciting  pursuits and social circles.  They are also about to lose their London home to a developer and must find a new one.  Surrounded by books, with deep memories of the past both in England and with relatives abroad in Germany, the Schlegals represent the intelligentsia.  Money is plentiful for the Schlegals but they are not really interested in money.  This is a very feminine tribe; brother Tibby is sort of an after-thought.

The second family, the Wilcoxes are up and coming capitalists.  Pater familias Henry Wilcox made his fortune from his investments and business ventures in Africa.  Sons Paul and Charles are following in his footsteps.  His quiet wife, Mrs. Wilcox, is a representative of the older gentry and her family home, Howards End, is the center of key action in the novel.  The Wilcoxes are interested in pursuing money, houses, and cars; they move fast and they represent progress and action.  The Wilcoxes are a masculine, striving group whose feminine members are quietly repressed:  daughter in law Dolly, for example, is depicted as a simpleton and the mysterious Mrs. Wilcox is a cipher and connection to an agricultural past.  Mrs. Wilcox forms an attachment to Margaret Schlegal and her deathbed wish that Margaret inherit Howards End has ramifications that will echo throughout the lives of all the characters.

The last family, Lawrence and Jacky Bast, represent the lower classes.  Lawrence is a clerk in an insurance company and Jacky has an unsavory and questionable past.  They struggle along in a tacky apartment but Lawrence is a quietly striving person who wants more out of life.  Lawrence’s strivings bring him into accidental contact with the Schlegals — and that connection will have catastrophic consequences.  Both Lawrence and Jacky seem lost and disconnected in their world and Forster shorthands poverty for squalor and helplessness.  Jacky, for example, is the slutty “lost” woman who drags down an innocent young man.  Lawrence is weakly gullible and the action he takes based on a thoughtless remark about the stability of his insurance company by Mr. Wilcox —  filtered through the emotionalism of the Schlegals — results in the book’s climax.

Forster weaves the lives of these three disparate families together in a way to illustrate a couple of broad themes:  the loss of the natural life and the encroachment on nature by urban sprawl, second:  the failure of human beings to “connect” and be able to value, help and understand each other in order to realize their true potential and last, the differences between men and women.  It is interesting to see that while women appear to be under the thumbs of their men — Forster actually gives them the upper hand.  For example, Margaret who appears to be a complacent and subservient wife, actually leads all the characters — male and femaile —  towards the book’s resolution.  Even  Jacky, merely by showing up at the right place and time, exerts her own kind of control over imperious Mr. Wilcox.  Finally, the mysterious Mrs. Wilcox, and her doppelganger, Mrs. Avery who insists on making Howards End a living home despite the Wilcox’s vision to close it up lead us to the final realization that nature has the power to heal all wounds and bring us home in the end.  This is the ultimate power of Howards End, as Margaret realizes towards the novel’s conclusion:

She forgot the luggage and the motorcars, and the hurrying men who know so much and connect so little.  She recaptured the sense of space, which is the basis of all earthly beauty, and starting from Howards End, she attempted to realize England….

Realizing England, I believe, was Forster’s shorthand for seeing that all his characters come to grip with a right balance, or connection, between nature and urbanity, and that all of earth’s people are allowed to grow to their full potential.  This “realization” certainly is not achieved in Howards End, but Forster helps us, like Margaret, attempt to reach it.

A great read, which I’m grateful for the Guardian list in pushing me to complete.  What next???

Two by David Lodge: Changing Places and Deaf Sentence

Changing Places:  A Tale of Two Campuses

David Lodge

Penguin Books.  1975.  251 pgs.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  Comedy Titles

This is the story of two very different English professors:  one English and one American, who participate in an exchange program requiring them to switch campuses and teaching duties for a semester.  The English professor, Philip Swallow, is a quiet, repressed sort without a particular drive to succeed in his career, or in his life.  His participation in the exchange program is actually manipulated behind his back through some complex campus political chicanery — actually the poor guy is being screwed out of a promotion and his department head figures he won’t notice while he’s over in America.  The American professor, Morris Zapp, is the antithesis of Swallow.  As Lodge describes him:   “His needs were simple:  a temperate climate, a good library, plenty of inviting ass around the place and enough money to keep him in cigars and liquor….” Zapp’s motivation to switch places with Swallow is his need to get away from his wife, Desiree, who is threatening divorce and getting involved with Women’s Liberation.  Zapp figures his trip to England will provide the cooling-off period he needs to get Desiree under control.  It’s not as though Zapp loves his wife so much, but he doesn’t care to be humiliated by her or have his comfortable life disturbed.

The rest of the book is a funny comparison between the thinly disguised University of Birmingham (U.K.) and University of California, Berkeley, circa 1969.   Both professors have to deal with the madness of campus unrest and social revolution — layered against the funny cultural differences of being an American at a U.K. campus and a Englishman at an American campus.  Throw in a heavy dose of sexual adventures on both sides of the Atlantic and this must have been a very amusing and daring novel when it was published in the mid-1970’s.  There’s a great deal of literary cleverness in it, too.  Prof. Zapp’s specialty is Jane Austin (he named his two children Elizabeth and Darcy) and there are amusing Austin references in the book.  The problem I had with Changing Places is that none of the main characters are particularly likable.  In sum, this was an interesting anachronism that I wouldn’t have read except for the Challenge.

Deaf Sentence

Penguin Books.  2008.  294 pgs. with acknowledgments.

The same author, over 30 years later!  What a difference.  I totally loved this book.  It was not part of the Guardian Challenge, but I think it should have been.

What’s the same:  Lodge is still dealing with academic life — the main character is a retired linguistics professor.

What’s different:  the big themes of mortality and aging.  From what I’ve read, I suspect some of the book is autobiographical.  The main character, Desmond Bates, is struggling painfully with his encroaching deafness — and David Lodge is also dealing with that disability.  In addition, Prof. Bates is acting as care-taker to his feisty, but rapidly disintegrating, elderly father.  The elder Mr Bates — Harry — an unforgettable former band musician, is evidently modeled on Lodge’s own father who was a musician in and around London in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  I’m wondering if the reality of all of this is what gives the book its strong, true and even tender, nuances.

This may all sound a bit depressing.  The pain of deafness is described with heart-breaking reality.  Desmond’s relationship with his wife is difficult due to his depression, the impact of aging on his sexuality and her impatience with his inability, or unwillingness to take action to improve what he can change.  For example:  Desmond hates wearing his hearing aids and when he “forgets” various horrendous — and sometimes funny — mistakes occur.   The sorrow of his Dad’s mental and physical breakdown is described realistically and painfully.   Despite these struggles, the book has an upbeat quality.  In the end, it takes a death, a birth, a “fatal attraction” relationship and a trip to Poland for Desmond to realize that his life has meaning and that happiness is worth striving for.  I found this book touching, lovely and very real.  Unlike Profs. Swallow and Zapp, Prof. Bates will live in my memory for a long time.

There’s another book by David Lodge on the Challenge list:  Nice Work.  A friend is bringing that to me next week so I’ll be reporting on it soon.

“A view? How delightful a view is!” E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View

A Room with a View

E. M. Forster

Originally published in 1908.  One of Forster’s earlier novels, published before his first major success, Howard’s End and well before his masterpiece,  A Passage to India.   I haven’t read either of these yet but they are both on the Guardian list.

The version I read was part of a compilation published in 1993 by Gramercy Books.  It also contains Howard’s End and Where Angels Fear to Tread.  Approximately 150 pages.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  Love Titles.

Phew.  At first I thought I had run into my first Guardian 1,000 reads that I really didn’t like.  The story of a young middle class English girl who almost marries the wrong man is so full of obnoxious characters that I thought I wouldn’t be able to stomach it.

First of all, the girl herself, Lucy Honeychurch,  is so self-centered and clueless that you want to shake her.  She is completely stifled by her conventional and stultified family and friends.  The plot of the story is simple:  Lucy travels to Italy with a hysterically repressed older gentlewoman-cousin.  She meets a variety of equally parochial English folks who are barricaded in their pension hotel and only venture out with the safety of a guide-book or with fellow-English travelers.  These are all people who could travel around the world and never see a thing because their minds and hearts are closed to anyone different from themselves.

But Lucy and her cousin run into two original and free thinking characters:  a father and son, who immediately insist on changing rooms with them because the older gentleman hears the two ladies complaining that their room lacks a view.  This overture throws the chaperone cousin into a tizzy but she accepts despite her horror at this incredibly unconventional offer.

Throughout the rest of the book, the concept of a “view” comes up time and time again to symbolize how open to others, differences and new ways of thought an individual can be.  The father and son have a view but they can give it away happily because they are already in possession of open and generous hearts.  Other characters are blind to the views around them — despite how glorious the sights may be — because of their conventional and bigoted opinions.  Or for others, like Lucy’s mother, the view represents a privileged way of life:

“Very well.  Take your independence and be gone.  Rush up and down and round the world….Despise the house that your father built and the garden that he planted, and our dear view– and then share a flat with another girl.”

Lucy returns from Italy and gets engaged to a horrific prig — Cecil Vyse.  By the way, some of the names in the book are wonderful — Honeychurch elicits thoughts of sweetness and spiritual life.  A kindred spirit who helps Lucy understand herself is Rev. Beebe — and I wondered if he is meant to be the bee to her honey.  The horrible fiance, Vyse, wants to trap Lucy in a vice-like grip of conventionality and mean spiritedness.  Another character who urges Lucy to see and live more sports the surname, Lavish.  Fun stuff.

Coincidentally, the free-thinking father and son return to England and rent the villa near Lucy’s family home.  As Lucy gets closer to the son, she begins to question the view she thought she had of her future life.

So, what view will Lucy choose: the prescribed and unchanging view of her parents, the closed wall of her fiance and his clique, or the free independence of seeing the world anew and being open and loving to the opportunities it presents?  I had a fun time finding out the answer, although I can’t say the ending was a big surprise.  This wasn’t one of my favorite Guardian Challenge titles, but I’m certainly glad I read it and I know it has changed my view as well.

Cranford

Cranford cover

Cranford

Elizabeth Gaskell

Project Gutenberg Ebook transcribed from the 1907 J.M. Dent edition by David Price.  Extra proofing by Margaret Price.

The novel first appeared as a series of stories in 1851 published in Charles Dickens’ journal:  Household Words.  Gaskell had met Dickens a few years earlier and despite some personal differences, they shared a passionate interest in the plight of the poor as well as razor-sharp eyes for social satire.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  State of the Nation titles

Cranford and  North and South are great examples of why I love this Guardian 1,000 challenge.  I had no Elizabeth Gaskell consciousness before this and would have never read these books.  They were fantastic!  There’s about two more Gaskells on the Guardian list so I will be looking forward to those.

Cranford is a bunch of short stories unified by the characters of an eccentric little town especially its two main characters:  the spinster sisters, Miss Matty and Miss Deborah.  I was a little put off at first by the jumping around and shift in various stories; now I understand how it must have appeared in Dickens’ magazine where stringing a bunch of humorous little stories together makes sense.  At some point after the first chapter this abrupt scene-shifting settles down and I was firmly rooted in the narrative of this little community.  I wonder if Gaskell actually wrote Cranford for Household Words — or cut apart an already-fully formed novel.  The University of Buckingham, U.K. has created a wonderful digital repository of Dickens’ journals:  Dickens Journals Online so you could actually see Cranford as it was first published.  Definitely worth a look-see when I have time later.

Miss Matty and Peter from Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Miss_Matty_and_Peter.jpg

Cranford is based on a real town in Cheshire where Gaskill grew up and the stories have a warm patina that I imagine reflected her own memories of a beloved childhood home.  Quite a lot of the stories revolve around the absurdities of social snobbery:  the main characters wondering if it is all right to “receive” a former friend who has come down in the world by … shock!…marrying a local doctor.  A down-and-out military officer isn’t quite considered “nice” because of his non-conformist views but he demonstrates great personal bravery and selflessness in a moment of crisis.  And Cranford has many moments of real pathos:  an orphaned girl denies her own chance at happiness in order to care for her dying sister; a beloved brother runs away from home after his lively and creative impulses are quashed severely by his conformist parents.  One of the stories I loved the most was how a loyal and plucky maid servant schemes to financially support her genteel mistress who has lost her money – without the lady actually understanding what is going on and suffering the social stigma of depending on some working folk.  All the stories are narrated by a mysterious “Miss Mary” ; you don’t know that much about her except she comes back to visit Cranford frequently and from time to time helps resolve various crises.  I think this must be Gaskell, herself — for she is responsible for many wry and on-target observations about the various absurdities and follies of the “genteel ladies” of Cranford.

I loved this book!   And I’m loving this challenge for opening up so many new literary adventures.  I’m ashamed to say how little Dickens I have read so it will be interesting to compare his contemporary, Gaskell,  when I start on the list of Dickens.

But first….some E.M Forster and probably one or two little detours!

Angela Thirkell’s Before Lunch

Before Lunch

Angela Thirkell

Alfred A. Knopf.  1940.  322 pgs.

First of all, this cover art is not for the book I read; it must be for some recent reprint.  One of the fun things about this delightful read was spending time with a very well made, sturdily bound 70 year old book.  Who ever “Portia G. Hamilton” of Phoenix Farm(s) was….and whose fine, firm signature graces the inside cover of this yellow-bound, only slightly mildewed volume….she must have taken care of her books.  I have a friend who loves used book stores as much as I do who recently left Thirkell’s Wild Strawberries on my desk at work with the note:  “Must read!”  As soon as I finished that, I checked and found to my delight that Thirkell’s Before Lunch had scored a spot on the Guardian 1,000 Comedy list.  A quick check with my friend confirmed that she could supply that title as well as any other Thirkell I wanted, and so here we are.

If I wasn’t so behind on my challenge reading I would happily spend more time in the world Thirkell created around the lives of English landed gentry families between the wars, known as the Barsetshire Novels after  their fictional county.  The website devoted to her:  www.angelathirkell.org contains a dictionary of her characters that explains their relationships and what books they inhabit, as well as a listing of plot summaries.  Both of the Thirkell novels I read are Barsetshire stories and part of the fun was bumping into a couple of characters from Wild Strawberries at a dinner party featured in Before Lunch.

Before Lunch features an talkative, older architect and would-be landed gentleman:  Jack Middleton, and his forbearing and lovely younger wife, Catherine.  The Middletons are visited for the summer by his widowed sister, Lilian Stoner and her two adult children, Denis and Daphne.  The plot revolves around several misunderstood love affairs, the threat of a nouveau rich  industrialist building a garage on a beloved plot of meadow, and several subplots involving  a  riot of humorous and well-drawn minor characters.  Thirkell was said to be a genius of the everyday and it does seem as though the plot is built on the characters moving between meals, walks, and country dinners.  There is gentle social satire in the guise of poking fun at various types — the snooty and overbearing family matriarch, the controlling and scheming butler and the confused, deaf lord.  There is some seriousness, too:  the beloved heir who never returned from WWI is remembered sadly and lovingly, albeit briefly  About half way through Before Lunch I started to get a bit tired of the quotidien treadmill …and then the tension in the love affairs built up, all the subplots got intensified and more wild — but more delicious — and then Thirkell pulled all the threads together in a satisfying, although slightly predictable conclusion.

So, are these stories useless anachronisms, museum pieces that we can laugh at or envy…depicting lives with no more worries than out-smarting one’s butler or figuring out who do invite to your next dinner party?  I think the thing I take away the most from Barsetshire is the essential importance of laughing at oneself.  That is useful in any life — imagined or real.  I hope I have time to come back to Barsetshire soon….after cracking down on the Challenge for a while!