Category: Novels

Jane Austen Would Mind

I need to get better about blogging. In some ways the blogging has almost become an obligatory book report. I have been reading but not blogging about what I am reading because I have been busy reading.

Okay today’s post is about two books- both Jane Austen spinoffs.  My friend the Awesome S had warned me to stay away from the spinoffs, because most are badly written– with the exception of Pamela Aidan’s series of Pride and Prejudice from Darcy’s point of view (which she says is the best of the bunch, and now having read a few other spin-offs, I concur), but I just couldn’t resist. So one weekend when I was trying to avoid grading papers I read two of the spin-offs and came away feeling, well, unsatisfied. S had warned me. I should have known better.

I started with Maria Hamilton’s Mr Darcy and the Secret of Becoming a Gentleman mainly because it was highly reviewed by other readers on Amazon. The book has an interesting set-up— what would happen if Darcy had pursued Elizabeth Bennet back to her home right after she initially refused him? What sort of chaos would erupt within the Bennett family, and what sort of misunderstandings would follow? At first I enjoyed the book- I felt like the author had captured the mood and spirit of Austen’s world and had managed to put an original spin on it– but then the last third of the book. Oh man. It devolved into a bad romance novel.  Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy would have never gotten it on before the wedding night, such actions were incredibly untrue to their characters (especially with Darcy’s sense of honor and Elizabeth’s own sense of propriety), all this does is turn an interesting book into a bad, really bad,  romance novel.  Plus the ending turns Elizabeth Bennett into a completely uninteresting character– something that I never thought possible. (And I have no problem with romance novels– the thing is there is such a thing as truth in advertising. I had hoped this would be true to the spirit of Austen’s original work. Compared to when one reads a romance novel, you expect for the hunky hero to save the damsel in distress and other high jinks to ensue.)

So the ending of the book ruined it to me. Instead of being a clever re-working of Austen’s comedy of manners it turns into a bad romance novel. Ick.

The second Austen spin-off that I read was Charlotte Collins: A Continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice  by Jennifer Becton. So this one was quite a bit better. What Becton did was take a minor character (Charlotte Lucas) and built a story around her. In this telling Charlotte Collins has become a widow rather suddenly– the odious Mr Collins has died unexpectedly, and Charlotte is left a poor, young widow. To add to that, she becomes responsible for her younger sister Maria, who moves in with Charlotte in order to be properly chaperoned on the “catch a husband” circuit, as their parents are now too old. Well Maria and Charlotte enter into society and all sorts of misunderstandings and fun ensue. What I liked about this book is that it stayed close to the Austen style– in fact it pays homage to Sense and Sensibility as much as it does to Pride and Prejudice. And there are no bad romance-novel scenes. This is a short little book, easily read in a night and enjoyable.

So a mixed bag, but I do think that Jane Austen would mind that all the fan fiction turns her smoldering hero Mr. Darcy into some bodice-ripping Englishman. Because what I think is so wonderful about the Darcy character is that he is left so mysterious, and that the reader can assign to him the qualities that they want— and I think he is better left that way.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

19th century fortune hunting

One of my favorite books of all time is The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton. I am a big fan of Wharton, although I do tend to find her books depressing at times, and The Buccaneers is my favorite book, despite the fact that it is an unfinished work. (It was released after having being finished by another author who followed Wharton’s notes.) Anyway the story is a rich young American woman from new money who goes to England looking to marry “up” and ends up with a Duke. The marriage fails, there is scandal and she runs off with one of the landed gentry who lives near the Duke. Sounds juicy, right? Wharton’s book is a masterwork commentary of class, money, social status and gender, plus her main characters are deeply compelling.

So about a month ago I saw that a new book was coming out by Daisy Goodwin, titled The American Heiress, about a young, rich American in the 19th century who goes off to marry a Duke and ends up in a difficult marriage… sound familiar eh? So of course it is really hard not to compare Wharton to Goodwin (which is probably unfair to Goodwin),  but I was intrigued and read the book.

So Goodwin’s protagonist is the aptly named Cora Cash, a wealthy new money American who has one of the most fiercely social-climbing mothers (and mother-in-law, the hysterically noted “Double Duchess,” but that comes later) depicted in literature. As far as Mrs. Cash is concerned, Cora is just a vehicle for her own social advancement, and she whisks her away to England to go title-hunting. With Cora is her free black maid, Bertha, whose light skin almost (but not quite) allows her to pass. Bertha is devoted to her mistress, and as a ladies maid occupies a rather high tier in the pecking order of household servants. (For those who have not seen enough Upstairs Downstairs, a ladies maid is only under the head housekeeper and butler. Governesses and tutors don’t count as ‘real’ help, although they are, in a sense, but their education elevates them above the rank of servant.)

Core, who is despite her wealth is rather naive, has an accident while out hunting and is rescued by a handsome, brooding Duke.  He is mysterious throughout the book, both volatile and charming, and he makes an offer to Cora. Of course, being a Duchess is something she cannot refuse, so she accepts. And then the story really gets going. We follow Cora trying to make her way through the intricacies of British society, and trying to grapple with the consequences of her marriage.

So after reading this book I thought long and hard about it. The good parts include Goodwin’s language– she is a very fine descriptive writer (as she is also a poet this should not be surprising) and her turn a deft phrase is delightful. The character of Bertha is compelling, in fact, the exploration of race and class that surrounds this light-skinned ladies maid is intriguing and I wish Goodwin had done more with it. The Duke is a brooding character, in fact, maybe too much so– you never really understand why he married Cora (aside from needing her money) and I found him too much to be like a more classic romance novel character, without the fun and self-deprecation that romance novelists bring to the pages. Mr Darcy, he is not. Cora herself is also not terribly well developed as a character, about half-way through the book I wanted to reach into the pages and shake her for being a stupid girl, for caring too much about what people thought, and for her acceptance of this stifling society.

Goodwin’s emphasis on the vulgarity of wealth in the late 19th century is intriguing. In some sense, I felt like it was as much a commentary on the ultra-rich now as on the characters set in the past. Some of the things that they buy and do are insane. You often find yourself thinking “how could anyone have this much money?” Goodwin seems to be encouraging her readers to laugh at the empty, shallow lives of the superrich.

While the plot was interesting and sucked me in, I found the ending really unsatisfactory. This is more of a glimpse into a particular world than a well-told narrative, because the ending does nothing for the book. (I don’t think all endings need to tie up all the loose ends, but I think there needs to be some satisfaction within them.)

Wharton’s Buccaneers it is not, but I have a sense that Goodwin was trying to do something different. But what, I am unsure. This book is a light, frothy read, and is sure to keep one busy while at the beach or traveling. Goodwin’s writing is beautiful, but I think she needs to work more on her characters, to make them more fully human.

One thing is for sure, I am glad that as a woman, that I was not born into this sort of society. Granted the world was not very nice to women in the 19th century in general (life as a farmer or rancher’s wife was terribly hard too–which likely would have been the lot of someone like me back then) but there is something especially vulgar about these rich daughters being married off strategically for their money and connections.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

An Unconventional Love Story: Part I

I’ve decided to triple dip with my next few posts.  Technically the three books I’ll be blogging form one story, Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Unset.  But seeing as how the story runs over 1,000 pages, and my March/April dry spell has me just barely on pace to meet the goal, I’ve decided to count each of the three books within Kristin Lavransdatter as one post, and I don’t feel too bad about this.  I would do the same thing with The Lord of the Rings, which, contrary to popular opinion, is not a trilogy – Tolkien intended it as one story in three books/six parts.  At any rate, enough hemming and hawing and rationalizing my blogging practices – it’s my blog (well, partly) and I can do with it what I want. 😛

I remember years ago, shortly after I graduated from college, seeing a reference to Kristin Lavransdatter.  The book sounded intriguing – a relatively unknown work by a Danish-born Norwegian convert to Catholicism plumbing the depths of questions about love, marriage, desire, and shame.  Though I was intrigued, as with so many other books, I filed it away and never got back to it.  But the prompting of my co-blogger, along with other factors, led me finally to pick it up (on Kindle, thank God – much lighter than the physical book 😉 ).  I just finished the first part, The Bridal Wreath, last night, and all I can say is: wow, thanks, C!  This is one of the most profound books I have read this year, perhaps in my life, and I’m only through the first part.

The story centers on the title character, Kristin Lavransdatter, the daughter of a medieval Norwegian farmer, Lavrans (medieval Norwegian last names were not especially creative, consisting of the father’s name followed by sohn [son] or datter [daughter]).  We meet Kristin at a young age, and the first part of the story follows her growth up to her wedding night.  The path toward this night is anything but simple, though.  In her early maidenhood, her father Lavrans finds a fitting match and arranges a betrothal.  Though she wants to follow her father’s will, it pains Kristin, as she has deep affection for her childhood friend Arne.  A series of mishaps leads Kristin to ask her father to delay the betrothal ceremony so that she can spend a year in a convent.  During this year Kristin meets and falls in love with a gentleman (and I use the term loosely) named Erlend.  Unbeknownst to Kristin when she first falls for him, Erlend has already sired two children in an adulterous relationship.  One can easily imagine how this goes over in medieval society.  Nevertheless, even once she has learned this information, Kristin remains firm in her desire for and love of Erlend, to the point of breaking off the betrothal her father had arranged despite the pain it causes him.  The first book ends on Kristin’s wedding night, which turns out to be anything but the storybook wedding she had longed for.

I’ve deliberately left some of the story’s details vague so as not to give away too many spoilers (though it’ll be hard to keep this up as I post on the next two parts of the story).  Suffice it to say that Unset’s novel is one of the most profound meditations on the nature of love, marriage, desire, shame, guilt, and family loyalty, among other themes, that I have ever read.  The time of arranged marriages in western civilization is long past – most people today, at least in the west, choose their spouses, and usually do so out of love.  Unset’s story explores how the nature of desire sometimes clashed with the practice of arranged marriages in medieval society.  In the process, she suggests that marrying for love in terms of affection is not necessarily the best recipe for success.  There is no doubt throughout the story that Kristin has deep affection for Erlend, even after his past catches up with him and impinges on both of them.  Several characters in the story wonder aloud whether the love Kristin and Erlend have for one another can overcome his track record.  Though I’ll have to wait to read the next two parts to see for certain, the early indications are not promising.  But Kristin Lavransdatter is not simply about Kristin and Erlend.  Unset also masterfully shows the effect of this relationship on Kristin’s other relationships.  Whereas Kristin enjoyed a deep and tender relationship with her father during her childhood years, her decision to break off the betrothal he had arranged, and particularly for an adulterer who has sired two children out of wedlock, puts an intense strain on her relationship with Lavrans.  Perhaps most intriguingly, this is not because of some antiquated commitment to arranged marriages.  At one point in the story, Lavrans tells his daughter that, had Arne asked for her hand, Lavrans would have approved.  Indeed, Lavrans himself wrestles with the circumstances of his own marriage to Kristin’s mother, as each of them had affections for someone else.  Nevertheless, they both followed through with their parents’ commitment, and managed to sustain a successful marriage.

On a purely thematic level, then, this is a powerful book (so far, though I doubt the rest of the tale will disappoint), and this is to say nothing of Unset’s prose, which goes down like a nice glass of Pinot Grigio.  I wish I could say more, but this post is already approaching my (arbitrary) limit, and so, until I read the next part, I will simply say: read The Bridal Wreath.  It will give you much food for thought on one of the most important questions we all face, and it just might challenge the way you think about love and marriage.

Twenty-seven down, (at least) twenty-five to go.


Puritan Popery

When I decided to join my co-blogger on this New Year’s resolution, one of the ideas I had was to re-read some of the books I read in high school but didn’t understand or didn’t appreciate because of crappy English teachers.  Last week I finally got around to this task and picked up Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter for the first time since junior year in high school.

I won’t bother to give a plot summary, as most people who took English in high school are familiar with the basic story of Hester Prynne and her tryst with the young Puritan minister in 17th century Boston.  While not the most uplifting book, it is a well-crafted tale that touches on far more themes than one can adequately address in a brief blog post, from shame and ostracism to the nature of temptation to vengeance to penitence to historical aspects of life in the colonies.  Though I wouldn’t pretend to have grasped these themes anywhere near completely, reading the book nearly twenty years after my first time I certainly appreciated it more.  (I’m sure it helps that this time I didn’t have to listen to my annoying high school English teacher prattle on about it.)

At any rate, while there is much that could be discussed, the thing that struck me most this time around was the odd fascination with and simultaneous revulsion toward Catholicism.  This ambiguous relationship is manifested in a number of ways, both great and small.  Hawthorne often refers to the Rev. Dimmesdale as a “priest”; as an act of penitence for his sins, Dimmesdale takes of the “papist” practice of the discipline; and of course, one of the overarching themes throughout the novel is the question of the effectiveness of penitence.  Can Arthur and Hester ever atone sufficiently for their sin?  Does one act of passion automatically consign one to the fires of hell?  Or can the shame that Hester bears outwardly and the inner weight of Dimmesdale’s guilt act as a kind of purgatorial fire to absolve them of their sin?  In the end, it seems that the latter is the case, though this purgation is not without its challenges and temptations.

It is a relatively little known fact that Hawthorne’s daughter Rose converted to Catholicism later in life, and after the death of her husband founded a community of Dominican Sisters who care for patients with terminal cancer.  It may be that the seeds of Rose’s conversion were, perhaps a bit ironically, planted by her father.

At any rate, I’m glad I decided to pick up The Scarlet Letter one more time, and I will most likely come back to it again some day.

Twenty-five down, (at least) twenty-seven to go.


A Requiem for the Towers

My best friend recommended this book.  She said to me, “it is a book about 9/11 that’s not about 9/11.”  My response was “huh?” And she just said back to me, “read it, it is brilliant.” So I did, and she was (of course) right. The book is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, and it is a stunning, just stunning work that explores the lives of people in New York City, set in August 1974.

What happened in August 1974? Well that was when the tightrope walker Philippe Petite threw a cable across the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and practically danced across it, in a feat so daring that the whole city paused to take it in. Below Petite are the ordinary people of New York who observe or experience his walk in different ways all while their lives intersect together. In the foreground are the towers themselves– brash monuments to capitalism, innovation and the confidence of a city–no one knew at that moment that they would become a place of so much tragedy and heartache, instead they were new, shiny, and in many ways, hopeful.

The book is incredibly stylized, and while the plot interweaves with surprising deftness, it is the writing that shines. Essentially it is almost a series of short stories, that tell of the lives of a variety of New Yorkers– a radical monk, a nurse, a hooker, an artist, a judge, a grieving Park Ave mother (whose son died in Vietnam), a foster parent, etc. Each chapter has a  voice that is distinct to the character (the most stunning is the rendering of the hooker– heartbreaking) and the characters move back and forth into each others lives, tragedies, and stories. Multiple themes abound, but the chief ones that stood out to me were grace and redemption. Grief and death shadow the characters, as does war (Vietnam.)  All of this goes on under the actions of the tightrope walker, who is the thread that holds the stories together– he stands for the miraculous, the golden moment, the astounding, while the rest of the city lurches along in its dirty, grinding life.

It is a stunning book because in many ways it reminds us that history is cyclical. With the destruction of the towers would eventually come more war, more grief and more people looking for their own personal grace as New Yorkers. Although these events are never directly indicated, they are alluded to, a constant foreshadowing, a constant play of darkness and light, birth and death, the building of new ideas, and destruction because of certain ideals.  The Towers in some way were birthed in a hopefulness, a brash defiance, and they came down in a two horrifying and unbelievable moments. But this book reminds you that the towers should not be defined just by their destruction, and that neither should New Yorkers.

This book was fantastic. It is one of the few books from this year that I will buy and re-read, and will no doubt grow richer with each re-reading.  Sections of it just left me stunned and the writing– the writing is enormously exquisite. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that this book won the National Book Award, and it richly deserved it.  I will say no more as the book was so rich I have been thinking about it for several days (always the sign of a good book.) All I will say is go out and read it. This is truly one of the finest and most artistic books that I have read in years.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Two cultures and a New World

One thing that has changed for me since I began this project is that I am more aware of what is being published. I often go through book reviews or recommended lists and see what looks interesting, and then put in a request with my local library  for the book. That is how I discovered Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks– it was recommended by Amazon, and given the subject matter I was intrigued, so once I had the book I sat down to read and could not stop until I finished. It took me two days to complete, only because I forced myself to pause in order to absorb the themes of the story.

Caleb’s Crossing is a fictionalized account of a young Wampanoag Indian who was given the Christian name Caleb, and became the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. Little is known of his actual history, but by using the historical circumstances of his time period, and rich research of Wampanoag and Puritan culture, Brooks manages to craft an enigmatic, yet powerful character in her narrative.

The story is actually told from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Puritan minister who settled on the island that would become  known as Martha’s Vineyard in order to preach the gospel to the “savages” that inhabited it. Bethia is an entirely fictional character (as the author relates in her afterword), yet her circumstances were modeled on fact– Martha’s Vineyard was indeed  settled by missionaries intent on converting the local native peoples. Bethia is an unusual girl for her time in place (in this regard, she strikes me as a more modern construct, although the Puritans had plenty of “meddlesome women” in their midst– Anne Hutchinson, I am talking about you my friend.) Her father indulged her and she learned to read and write, and also obtained some knowledge of the classical languages, and also learned the local native tongues.  She runs a bit wild on the island and befriends a local Wampanoag boy, who she christians “Caleb.”   As children often do, they share their worlds with each other– she teaches him english and basic Calvinist theology and he teaches her the mysteries of the island– its animals, plants and natural rhythms. In some sense, they both undertake a “crossing” that will forever change their lives: Bethia never views her world through a purely Puritan lens again, and Caleb is forever changed by his encounters with the minister’s daughter.

The story  is told in a non-linear fashion through Bethia’s spiritual diary– a common practice in Puritan New England, and in the early years, she worries about God’s judgement on her for dabbling with “evil” (that is, native cultures and understandings.) Huge woes befall her family, indeed much of the book is a catalog of intense sadness, but again, this is true to the era– people died easily and often in early New England, and Brooks does a great job capturing how grief shaped the early settlers’ worldview.

Caleb eventually leaves his people and comes to be tutored by Bethia’s father to prepare for entrance to Harvard. His education continues in Cambridge at a preparatory school, and Bethia follows him as an indentured servant to pay for her brother’s (who is not too bright) preparation. The characters then progress onwards to Harvard, and their fates.

I will tell no more of the plot, but instead will address some of the themes of the book. The most obvious is “crossing” or cultural exchange. The Wampanoag, or “People of the First Light” lost much in this exchange, yet this story is not just a story of that grief, but it also shows that some Native people chose to engage European culture, in the hopes of understanding it or protecting their people. This is an age-old theme in Native studies– scholars know that Native peoples had autonomy and often used it in order to try to deal with the onslaught of a different peoples and cultures. Yet it would be imprudent to not think that European culture had been unchanged by its interactions with Native peoples, and Bethia’s character  shows this particular impact. Both she and Caleb were outsiders in their own societies (Caleb as an educated Native, Bethia as an educated woman who wished for more than to “be silent”) and for that reason they understood each other as almost no one else could.

Other themes also color the book: religion being one, and the power of an education being the other. But an education is often more than just books, as Bethia wisely notes in her narration. Caleb faces the prejudice of the other young men at Harvard because he is a “savage” and has to completely “cross-over” into a culture that is not his own, and that never will be his own, no matter how well he fits in. Bethia is defined by her longing for an education, a longing for knowledge, and a longing for her own rightful place in a world that is defined by men.

The book is beautifully written– evocative and Brooks’s language is striking and lyrical. You can smell the salty air of Martha’s Vineyard just as well as the putrid, close stench of Cambridge. Her characters are carefully crafted and they grow as the book unfolds. Some might say that the story does not focus on Caleb as much as Bethia, and some may ask why the story  of Caleb needs to be recounted through Bethia. I think that Brooks did this to reflect a particularity of the early American era: Native peoples were always seen through the prism of European culture; never through Native cultures themselves because Europeans had no capacity for understanding Native cultures through a wholly Native worldview.  So in many ways, Bethia  stands in as a more sympathetic early American narrator, but one heavily influenced by European, Calvinistic, culture.

In the American imagination, Harvard has a sort of mythological status as a great center of learning and innovation, even now.  The history that emanates from there is palpable: I remember standing in the Emerson chapel of the Divinity school as a master’s student, imagining Emerson giving his great “Divinity School Address” where he chastised the young ministers who sat before him. Staring out the window, I tried to imagined the fields and the verdant, transcendental vision that he outlined in the beginning of the sermon, but it is hard to do when the chapel now overlooks a nuclear cyclotron and is so near the hum of the science buildings (that will break the spell for you.) All the same, it is still the same chapel that Emerson preached in, tiny, wood-paneled and dark, and you can feel the history there. The book transported me to Harvard and Cambridge’s early days, and in some ways, it felt oddly familiar in only the way a place can when you imagine it centuries before you stepped foot there.

Brooks’s book is a wonderful glimpse into the cultural battles that faced the early settlers and into the world of the “crossings” that those who stand with a foot in two different cultures face. It is beautifully written and evocative, and will leave you thinking about its characters for a long time afterwards. I highly recommend it.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

NOLA State of Mind

Continuing with the Catholic novel theme, this past weekend I read Walker Percy’s first novel, The Moviegoer.  Set in Louisiana, where Percy spent much of his adult life, the story centers on John Bolling, the eponymous moviegoer of the title.   As I sat down to write this blog post, I happened upon the epigraph of the novel from Søren Kierkegaard: “… the specific character of despair is this: it is unaware of being despair.”  Being the brilliant literary critic that I am (/sarcasm), I quickly realized that this epigraph epitomizes John Bolling.

Bolling, aka Binx, is a man with no clear direction in life.  A veteran of the Korean War, he now works as a stockbroker in Gentilly, LA and finds what little meaning he can at the movies.  The novel describes, at times beautifully and often meanderingly, Binx’s “search.”  “What is the nature of the search? you ask. … The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”  Though most people associate the notion of a search with a quest for God, Binx is reticent to identify the object of his search.  Though he identifies himself with the 2% of Americans who are atheists or agnostics, he leaves open the possibility that the 98% who believe in God may be right – he simply doesn’t know.

Despite his fascination with the movies, Binx does not look to them for a proper understanding of the search.  On his reading, the movies screw the search up: “The search always ends in despair.”  Binx’s definition of despair is not, however, the typical definition: the protagonist in the movies inevitably marries and settles down and “In two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead.”

Given this understanding of despair, it is hardly surprising that Binx spends his life doing anything but settle down – his self-avowed goal is to avoid everydayness.  Unable to develop or maintain meaningful relationships, Binx periodically has flings with his secretaries, with only minor qualms about mixing business and pleasure.  The only escape he can hold on to is one that, somewhat oddly, he shares with his fourteen-year-old half-brother Lonnie.  In many ways Lonnie is the polar opposite of Binx: confined to a wheelchair, Lonnie is a devout Catholic who wonders about things like habitual dispositions.  In a rare moment of vulnerability, Binx tells the reader that he envies Lonnie’s ability to offer up his suffering to Christ.  Despite their differences, there is a deep affection between the two, which plays a vital element in the stories denouement.  Indeed, it is a combination of this relationship and Binx’s relationship with Kate, another main character in the story, that leads to the surprising end of his search.

As with the other existentialist novel with which I began this project, I’m sure there’s more to The Moviegoer than I caught on the first read through.  The search is clearly a central theme of the book, and yet I don’t think I’ve quite gotten it.  Even the title is a tantalizing riddle.  At one point Binx says of another character in the story that he, too, was a moviegoer, even though he didn’t watch movies.  There’s something there that I’d like to get, but it would take at least a second read through for me to begin to figure it out.  Alas, such is not the nature of this project.  Regardless, The Moviegoer is a great introduction to Percy and an interesting window onto the Louisiana of the 1950s.

Nineteen down, (at least) thirty-three to go.


A Curious Book

This evening I finished Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, recommended to me by a good friend.  I can honestly say it’s unlike any other book I’ve ever read, and in a good way.  Haddon tells the story from the perspective of Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15-year-old boy with autism (actually, the book doesn’t specify what his behavioral problem is), which makes for an unusual and fascinating style: lots of stream-of-consciousness, lots of digressions, lots of literalism.

The story begins with a murder – well, to Christopher’s mind it’s a murder.   To others it’s simply the unfortunate killing of a dog, specifically the neighbor’s pet poodle Wellington.  Puzzled by the incident and fascinated with Sherlock Holmes, Christopher takes up the role of detective to discover who killed poor Wellington.  At first, the book seems like an unconventional murder mystery.  The reader is lead to believe that the point of the book is for Christopher to solve the mystery, and the first half of the story lives up to this expectation.  Christopher investigates (as best he can given his condition and his fear of strangers), looks for clues, and makes deductions, often with airtight logic.

Eventually Christopher’s father discovers his extracurricular activity and orders him to stop his investigation.  At this point the story takes an unexpected turn, as Christopher discovers information that throws him into confusion and calls into question his trust in his father.  Too frightened to stay at home, he sneaks out of the house in search of a new place to live.  His search sets him on a daunting journey longer than any he has ever taken by himself.  The trek involves overcoming some of his greatest fears: crowded places, loud noises, talking to strangers, using public toilets.  Through it all he perseveres and reaches his goal, only to find his new home is no better or safer than the one he left in fear.  Without giving away the ending, I will say that it is a happy one without lapsing into sentimentality.

Curious Incident is a remarkable book.  The (authoritative and always reliable) Wikipedia notes that Haddon did no research on autism or Asperger’s syndrome for the book, nor does he consider himself an expert on the subject.  In fact, he regrets that the term “Asperger’s syndrome” appeared on the cover.  Nevertheless, the book paints a vivid and realistic picture of the mind of an autistic child, at least based on the very little experience I have had with the condition.  Christopher fixates on things most people ignore, which makes him much more aware of his surroundings, but at the same time makes his life much more complicated.  He is uncomfortable with human contact, to the point of screaming if a stranger touches him.  Because of his fixation, however, he can also do things that baffle most “ordinary” people.  He knows all the prime numbers up to 7,057.  He can solve complex math problems – he even prepares to take the A levels math exam, an important element in the story.  He can beat most people at chess and quickly calculate the probabilities of various outcomes in a game of chance.

Another interesting aspect of the story is Christopher’s reflections on language.  He doesn’t like metaphors because they are “lies,” whereas similes are acceptable.  He doesn’t completely understand why words like “spazzer” are unacceptable, when kids can make the accurate word “special needs” into an insult.  An apocryphal story is simply a lie, because it describes something that didn’t happen.  His perspective on the world is strictly black and white, making it difficult, bordering on impossible, for him to lie.

The book also opens a window onto the difficulties of raising a special needs child.  Despite his mistakes, Christopher’s father comes across as a patient and loving father.  The responsibility has clearly taken a toll on his life (as it did on his marriage), but he cares deeply for his son and does whatever he can to protect him, to a fault, as the reader discovers.

Curious Incident was a fun read and certainly one I would like to come back to at some point (but not this year :)).  If you’d like to learn more about the book, I recommend this interview with Haddon at Powell’s Books.

Twelve down, (at least) forty to go.


An unexpected late-in-life love affair…

Today’s book is Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Having read way too many thick tomes in the last few weeks I decided that I needed something lighter and with a happy ending, and I was delighted to find that in Simonson’s book. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a delightful British comedy of manners that realistically depicts love between two mature adults and all of the difficulties of old age (including petulant adult children, the death of one’s peers, etc.)

Major Pettigrew is a retired British army officer who comes from a long line of officers who served the Empire (back when there was an Empire.) He is a man of fastidious good manners, taste, and who has a penchant for dry one-liners. He is rooted in tradition and propriety, and the world around him often offends him with its lack of these essential qualities. The story gets started with the death of the Major’s brother, which in a turn of events, leads to his friendship with the widowed neighborhood Pakistani shopkeeper, Mrs. Ali. The Major, a widower himself, takes to Mrs. Ali immediately, as he find her a woman of incredible taste who shares his love of books and a friendship (and possibly more) begins to take form.

The Major, however, has an unfortunately self-centered adult son, while Mrs. Ali shares her shop with her quiet, more religiously-minded nephew. This is all set in a small British town, which quickly begins to notice the affection between the old Major and Mrs. Ali, and hilarity (and some sadness) ensues.

Both extended  families (of Mrs. Ali and the Major) are portrayed with just enough comedy and human frailty to make them seem very real. The gossipy nature of the town and the townspeople is also authentically portrayed.  Simonson’s humor rounds out the Major’s dry, curmudgeonly nature perfectly. As a main character he is loveable in that crusty old man sort of way, but what is also amazing is how deftly the author portrays love between two mature characters.

Mrs. Ali and the Major are not young people who can just abandon convention and the expectations of their families to the wind. They come from different cultures, and Simonson deftly portrays the British uneasiness about the Southeast Asian immigrants in their midst. Yet the book comes across as not political, but honest in its portrayal, and throughout it all you cannot help rooting for the Major– a man who loves his country, his tea, and his right to shoot the ducks on the neighboring Lord’s manor– but a man who is good and honorable, and is able to see beyond the surface issues that the town (and his son) set their tongues wagging about.

Twists and turns happen. Hearts are broken, and a favored antique gun (gifted by a Maharaja no less) meets an untimely end, but the book has a happy ending. As sweet as it is, it is not conventional or saccharine. Instead it is honest, and very, very funny and wise.  In Simonson’s world, true love is not for the young, but for the old, who have finally sorted things out. This little passage between the Major and Mrs. Ali’s nephew Abdul Wahid pretty much sums it up.

“You are a wise man, Major, and I will consider your advice with great care and humility.” He finished his tea and rose from the table to go to his room. “But I must ask you, do you really know what it means to be in love with an unsuitable woman?”

“My dear boy,” said the Major. “Is there really any other kind?”

A sage observation from the Major. Love is funny that way– how it often comes from nowhere and hits you between the eyes and wrecks havoc on a life that you thought you had well-planned out. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a book of gentle humor, wisdom and love. I throughly enjoyed it.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Its a Crewel, Crewel World.

Today’s book is Crewel World by Monica Ferris, The first in the “Patterns of Murder” Needlecraft mysteries.

Okay, a word as to how I got to a mystery series that involves the needlecrafting world. J knows this about me, but even as a good friend, I doubt he knows the depths of my obsession. Anyway when I am not reading I knit, crochet, needlepoint and cross-stitch. I like to keep my hands busy. So this week was a rough one for me, with some dental work having gone awry, and as anyone knows, it can be really hard to function when you are in pain. So the week left me tired, in a haze and feeling like a limp noodle, so at the week’s end I finally got myself off the sofa and to my cross-stitch group.

Once there, my friend L came rolling in with a huge tote bag full of books. “For you” she said (she knows about the blog project) “This is stuff you can read without too much effort while your jaw heals up.”  The bag contained mostly mystery novels, and one of them was Crewel World, which I set out to read immediately.

So the setup of the book is that a woman named Margot owns a needlepoint/yarn shop in a small town in Minnesota. Her sister, Betsy, comes to live with her after her college professor husband runs off on her with a student. Margot is one of those pillars of the community that so many small towns have, a widow who is deeply involved and well liked, and Betsy is regarded by the members of the town as an oddity that Margot has to take care of out of sisterly obligation. That is until Margot is murdered in her needlecraft shop one night, leaving Betsy to try to solve the murder, keep the shop running, and deal with small town life.

I won’t go further in terms of details because that would spoil the fun. I will say that Ferris has a sharp eye for very funny one-liners and draws convincing and very human characters. I lived in a small town in the Midwest for a year, while on an academic fellowship, and Ferris’ descriptions of how everyone knows everyone’s business in a small town are spot on. Small rural towns are odd that way, and I remember being shocked myself about how much people knew about my comings and goings when I lived in one. (My dog had a surgery that year and I remember that when I would walk very slowly with her while she was recovering people would stop me as say “Is that the little dog that Dr So-and-So operated on? I hear she is walking again and that he did a great job!” These would be people I did not know and it sort of amazed me how the ENTIRE TOWN of 5000 people  knew that my dog had knee surgery-I grew up in a huge city, so small town life was very different to me. Actually, at times it could be a shock.) Ferris also picks up on the small, petty feuds that develop over time in a small town and how the needlecraft shop served as one of the centers of gossip and activity in the town itself (and yes the town I lived in for that year had a needlecraft shop. And yes it was always bustling with gossip and people, as everyone would sit with their doughnuts and knitting and talk about who died, who was divorcing who, who had a baby, etc.) Also my guess is that Ferris must have modeled her book’s shop on one of the massive and frankly, awesome, needlecraft shops in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. I know this because I was up in the area this past summer and stopped at a few of the shops.  Let me tell you, Minnesota does yarn shops right. Really, I have never seen so many  amazing shops in one general area.

The plot is a bit pat, but the depictions of small-town life, the knowledge of the crafts and the well drawn characters more than make up for it in this book. A pleasant and comforting read for anyone in the needlearts, plus its fun to see if you can guess who the murderer is.  It was, as L had suggested, exactly the kind of book to read when one is feeling crummy and the brain is a bit mushy. Recommended for lovers of mysteries, especially those involving the needlearts.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

P.S. For those of you who don’t know, “Crewel” is a form of embroidery done with wool.