Tag Archive: novel

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

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.


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

The Silence of God

“The Japanese are not able to think of God completely divorced from man; the Japanese cannot think of an existence that transcends the human.”

This evening I finished Shusaku Endo’s Silence.  Endo, as the translator notes in his preface, is sometimes described as the Japanese Graham Greene, and as I read the story I did notice some similarities to Greene’s The Power and the Glory.  Set in 17th century Japan, the novel follows the story of a Portuguese Christian missionary, Sebastian Rodrigues, who heads for the island with a companion despite the recent outlawing of Christianity and accompanying persecutions.

Endo paints a vivid and stark picture of the perils these missionaries and others like them faced.  To reach the island, they have to sail ashore on a beach rather than at a harbor and under the cover of dark.  The missionaries hide in a small hut in the mountains during the day and minister to the underground Christians only at night.  Travel to another underground Christian village is fraught with danger of discovery and imprisonment.  Moreover, the Japanese government offers a generous reward to those who turn in Christians – an understandable temptation to peasants living on next to nothing.  Less than half way through the novel, Rodrigues is captured, betrayed (unsurprisingly) by the very man who brought him to the island, a Japanese Christian who regularly renounces his faith to save his skin.  The rest of the novel describes how the priest wrestles with his faith, particularly in light of the suffering his arrival has brought upon the Christian peasants of Japan.

The silence of the title refers primarily to the silence of God in the face of the horrific suffering the Japanese Christians endure: some are tied to stakes in the ocean and left to die over the course of several days; others are bound and thrown into the sea to drown; another is beheaded by a samurai; and still others are tortured in “the pit,” the gruesome details of which I’d rather not go into here.  Faced with this horrific suffering, Rodrigues regularly asks God why he remains silent.  Ought he not show himself the Lord of the universe when his chosen ones are suffering at the hands of his enemies?  At the same time, the priest frequently meditates on the face of Christ, the one who also experienced the silence of God and whose beautiful face the Japanese rulers want Rodrigues to trample in an act of apostasy.  In his better moments, he sees his own suffering and that of the tiny flock in his charge as a participation in Christ’s own sufferings, but it is clear throughout the novel that his courage and conviction are challenged by his experience.  Add to this experience the weakness of his betrayer and of another Portuguese missionary, Ferreira (an actual historical figure), who apostatized and chose to collaborate with the Japanese, and the temptation to follow suit becomes practically overwhelming.

Silence is a complex, moving, and challenging novel.  As I read it, I felt torn in two directions.  On the one hand, as Rodrigues continually asked God why he remained silent, I wondered how well he had learned the gospel and counted the cost before he set out on his mission.  Jesus never said following him would be easy – on the contrary, those who would follow him can expect the same kind of treatment he received, and last I checked, crucifixion isn’t a walk in the park.  But then I asked myself, how would I have responded in the same situation?  It’s easy to accept suffering when it amounts to an annoying student here, a tedious meeting there.  If I were to witness first hand the kind of horror that Rodrigues faces, could I look it in the eye and remain strong?  I hope so, but I don’t know.

One more theme the book emphasizes is the seeming incompatibility between Christianity and Japan.  The Japanese rulers insist that Japan is a “swamp” in which the sapling of Christianity cannot grow.  William Johnston notes in the preface that Silence caused quite a stir among some contemporary Japanese Christians, who would contest this claim.  Yet I wonder if the voice of the Japanese rulers represents Endo’s own voice.  He himself was a Christian, and he portrays many of the Japanese Christians in heroic ways.  I suppose the ambiguity is one of the things I found compelling about the novel – despite its simplicity of style, the thrust of the story is not necessarily as straightforward as it seems.

If you have any interest in 17th century Japan, the interface of Christianity with foreign cultures, or issues of faith, doubt, and apostasy, then I highly recommend Silence.

Five down, (at least) forty-seven to go.


Women who hate men who hate women….

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Today’s Book review will be the second part of the Steig Larsson trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire

Before I get to the review I just want to say hello to all our new readers and welcome! We are very excited to have you along on our reading journey. After J’s review of  Carr’s book we got a lot of thoughtful feedback, and we really appreciate it. There is one thing I want to address–a  lot of people mused on the issue of how one can get children to engage with books when they have so many other distractions in the world. I can tell you from experience, that kids won’t read if their parents don’t set the example for them. I grew up with a mother who loved to read. Reading is what she did in her spare time. Although I grew up in the pre-internet age, we did, of course, have a TV and there were other distractions around like Nintendo (Duck Hunt anyone?). My parents never forbade these sorts of things, but by example they made it clear that it was better to read. I received books as gifts, books for good grades, books all the time- and because of their encouragement I loved to read. So if you want to help a young person love books you have to walk the walk, so to speak.

Okay onto my review. Larsson’s second book is difficult to review because you cannot sum up the plot. It is too complicated, plus that would spoil the fun of the book. The Lis Salander trilogy is extraordinarily popular, and much has been written about it by loftier critics than I, so I have decided that I will only address a few themes of the book in this review and then deal with the rest with my review of the third book of the trilogy (which I am reading right now.)

First of all, Larsson’s Sweden is not an Ikea-furnished utopia. It is a dark and dangerous world, and while this outlook was probably born from Larsson’s own perception of his home country it is  something I find intriguing. His descriptions of places in the book are spare, and in your mind’s eye you cannot help envisioning a cold, grey, place, thick with intrigue. I am sure this is intentional–it is also what helps with the pace and atmosphere in the book. Everything is urgent, interconnected, a web– and nothing, chief of all the main character, is as it seems.

Ah the title character, Lisbeth Salander– she’s one of the more original characters to come out of fiction in a long time. I actually plan to dedicate much of my next blog post on Lisbeth, because I just cannot shake her from my mind. But anyway, Lisbeth is a woman, who in Larsson’s words ” hates men who hate women.” And I think that  statement is one of the keys to Larsson’s main themes. In the world of this book, and perhaps in Larsson’s mind, many men hate women, and treat them despicably. The issues of abuse, rape and sex trafficking come up in this book (and in the other books in the trilogy) time and time again. Clearly, Larsson believes that many men  hold misogynistic ideas about women. While Larsson’s books are extreme in one aspect, they aren’t in another. The fact of it is that around 1/4 of all women in the US have been sexually assaulted. Think about that number. One in four. That means you likely know someone who has. And many of the assaults (both sexual and physical) are at the hands of men that they know-boyfriends, lovers, husbands, family members. Sorry to be such a downer, but one truth from these books is that women often do suffer at the hands of men– and especially at the hands of men who were supposed to protect and love them (as does the protagonist Lisbeth Salander.)

Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but I do think that is the main message of Larsson’s book. That we live in a world that is dangerous, especially if you are a woman, and I do think that in some aspect he is true. It is correct to say that women’s lives have become markedly better, that women have come to achieve so much in the recent decades, but I also think that it is no mistake that Larsson’s books are set in Sweden, which is not only his home country, but a country that is regarded as having the most equality of the sexes. I think that Larsson is taking a swipe at this vision of Sweden with his books.

As to the book itself, it is fast-paced, violent, and intriguing. The heroine, Lisbeth Salander is both infuriating and brilliant. When you read this book you really cannot put it down, so consider yourself warned–you need to make sure you have plenty of time to read it, or you will risk a “reading hangover” like I did, furiously reading at the wee hours to finish and only have a few hours to sleep before you wake up and go to work. I think that everyone will react differently to these books, but there is a reason why they are bestsellers.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C