30 September 2009

Book Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Banned Books Challenge

On the deck of a ship moored in the Thames, Marlow regales his companions with another of his rambling stories. This one tells of how he signed up with a Belgian company to venture into the jungles of the Congo. Having heard much of a trader named Kurtz, he makes his way upriver to the trading station, only to find that the dark continent has brought out something very dark in Kurtz.

I closed this book feeling as if I needed a dozen extra IQ points in order to properly digest all that I had just read. Much of its significance was lost in Marlow’s torrent of words, and I don’t know whether I’m more annoyed with Conrad or myself. Is he not clear enough, or am I not smart enough? And my confusion is all the greater because I’m sure that if I try to write about it I’ll only end up confusing everyone else.

Bafflement aside, I did enjoy it, particularly the sense of unease and anticipation created as Marlow inched his way along the river. I was getting quite impatient for Kurtz’s arrival well before he showed up, which in a novella of under a hundred pages is quite an achievement. On finally meeting him I didn’t find him as compelling as I had expected, or as Marlow did. The most interesting thing about him was the sense that he should have meant more to me than he did. It’s a book that cries out for a re-reading in a few years, when I can give it the time and attention it needs to reveal itself properly.

As for it being challenged/banned on grounds of racism, so far as I could see all that means is that Marlow held, to an extent, the opinions of his times and the word “savages” was used. It was the powers that be in the company, not Marlow, who despised and exploited the Africans, and they weren’t portrayed flatteringly for doing so. Even those who merely failed to understand local life were shown as fools. And I got the impression that Kurtz would have lost it in any situation where he was so isolated from Western civilisation and mores for so long; that it was something within himself, not the “savagery” of Africa that affected him.

Rating: B

24 September 2009

Book Review: The Figure in the Carpet and other stories by Henry James

The Figure in the Carpet In “The Author of Beltraffio” a young man secures an opportunity to visit an author he greatly admires. Mark Ambient’s seemingly idyllic home contains a family strained by tension. When his guest attempts a well-meaning intervention, something finally gives. A house party allows Paul Overt to get close to his literary hero in “The Lesson of the Master.” As well as Henry St George, he also meets Miss Marian Fancourt. But Paul’s new mentor has his own opinions on the place of women - even intelligent ones - in a writer’s life. On a holiday in Switzerland in “The Private Life” actress Blanche Adney sets out to persuade Clarence Vawdrey to write her the role of a lifetime. Clarence is curiously vague on the subject of his writing, even claiming to have been working on a new piece when his fellow guests know he wasn’t anywhere near pen and paper. But if Clarence is odd, Lord Mellifont might be odder still.

In “The Middle Years” a novelist who suspects his own years are coming to an end is meets a young doctor who has to choose between tending to his new friend and the chance of wealth. Another novelist passes away in “The Death of the Lion,” leaving a magazine journalist in an awkward predicament. He had appointed himself a kind of guard dog to Neil Paraday, preserving the peace of his final months. Now he wants to oversee the publication of Paraday’s last work - but there’s a catch. In “The Next Time” Mrs Highmore and her brother-in-law Ralph Limbert are writers with opposite problems. She has made a successful career out of writing, but longs for a splendid failure to make her reputation. He needs the money a best-selling novel would bring, but can never manage to produce anything but brilliant works that no one buys. A journalist wants to know the deeper meaning in the collected works of Hugh Vereker - the unifying pattern, “The Figure in the Carpet.” Trying to find it unleashes a comedy of errors. Another journalist is drawn into a battle of wills with the editor of the Cynosure over an article on the late author “John Delavoy,” with the dead man’s sister caught in the middle.

Yes, there is a theme here - writers, writing, and the literary life. And on these topics Mr James and I shall have to disagree. His characters and their works are all so highbrow and serious. Personally I read for entertainment and information, not an intellectual uplifting; and my own literary aspiration is to be an escape from, not a reflection of the highest truth of, real life. There is, of course, a place for erudite literature; it just doesn’t happen to be in my reading neighbourhood. So “The Next Time,” where quantity of sales and quality of work don’t - can’t - coexist, irked me, as well as seeming snobbish.

Although the collection is built around “The Figure in the Carpet” my favourite by far was “The Author of Beltraffio.” The smallest words and actions carry a wealth of significance and speak volumes about the characters. It’s suspenseful, laden with a sense of impending doom - it’s so clearly a situation that is too tense to remain static - and ranks among the top short stories I’ve read. “The Private Life” I think I’ve met before, in a collection with The Turn of the Screw; I enjoyed the chance to re-read it while focussing on the literary rather than the eerie aspect. (On the whole I prefer the latter.)

Several of the remaining stories - “The Lesson of the Master,” “The Figure in the Carpet,” and especially “The Death of the Lion” carried a final twist that livened them up considerably. In fact if the beginnings and middles had been more interesting (and in the case of “The Lesson of the Master,” shorter) they could have been highly amusing. (And if the narrator of “The Death of the Lion” hadn’t struck me as arrogant for taking it upon himself to organise Paraday’s life.) But together with “The Middle Years” and “John Delavoy” they reminded me of a long-ago family road trip which included the opal-mining town of Lightning Ridge. There might be a gem waiting for you at the end - or not. Either way, you have to go through some pretty barren country to get there.

Rating: C

22 September 2009

Book Review: Nana by Émile Zola

Nana At the Variétés Theatre, a new star is about to be launched upon the stage. Nana can't sing and isn't much of an actress, but she has some indefinable something else - something men can’t resist. Tired of having to keep the appointments made for her by a local procuress, Nana sets out to live life on her own terms, in a succession of guises - actress, live-in girlfriend, mistress, courtesan. Men throw themselves at her, women look down at her, servants fleece her, and her new lives never quite work out. Her avaricious longing for attention, and for money and the things it can buy, see to that.

In a way it’s inapt that the play in which Nana first appeared was set on Mount Olympus; she would have made a better Kali (Hindu goddess of destruction) than a Venus, judging by the trail of financial catastrophe she left behind her. The book’s opening, set at the play’s opening night, is brilliant; Zola pulls the same trick on the reader as theater manager Bordenave does on his audience, dropping hints and stirring up curiosity about this new sensation and deferring her appearance as long as possible. When Nana did show up I was underwhelmed, but then I’m not male. And it’s not easy to forget that this is a book written by a man, with a male audience in mind. There are numerous overblown descriptions of Nana’s good looks, lush flesh, and various states of undress, and when she spends time in a abusive relationship the beatings only make her more beautiful (a major “What the -?” moment).

I’ve long known I have little patience with fictional women who make idiots of themselves over the wrong men; now I know I have just as little when the genders are reversed. At the height of her career men are queuing up for the privilege of being ruined by her, happily throwing away everything they possess in terms both of money and common sense. And I despised them for it. I didn’t think much of Nana either; whenever I got close to liking her she behaved like a spoiled brat, or did something spectacularly spendthrift, or neglected her son, and I went right back to being annoyed by her.

Fortunately for my patience, this is more than just a story. The early description of a newspaper piece makes that clear, telling the tale of a fly that rises from the gutter to spread filth and corruption amongst the respectable folk. (Subtle as a sledgehammer, really.) I could almost pity Zola; what a cynical view of society he must have had to write such a condemnation of it. Men make fools of themselves, wives betray or dominate their husbands, and only the whores are likeable. My favourite, though, was Rose Mignon, a married actress who carried on profitable affairs with her husband’s consent; she could have made a more interesting protagonist. But less symbolic.

Rating: C+

It’s Tuesday, Where Are You? / Teaser Tuesdays

It's Tuesday, Where Are You?

I’m treading the streets of Soho in 1854, hunting the source of a violent outbreak of cholera. The scientific establishment is convinced that epidemics are caused by miasma - bad air - but I hope to find evidence to prove my theory that cholera is carried in the water.

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

As Snow and Whitehead made their calculations that Wednesday, they were still thinking in double-digit figures. They would soon discover that those numbers were shockingly optimistic.

Both from The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, p. 155.

17 September 2009

Book Review: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and other tales of terror by Robert Louis Stevenson

R.I.P. IV Challenge #1

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde The lawyer Mr Utterson is worried about the will of one of his clients, which specifies that in the case of his death - or disappearance - everything is to go to a man of whom Utterson knows nothing. His concern grows when his cousin relates a tale of witnessing the callous behaviour of the beneficiary, plus evidence to suggest that the despicable Edward Hyde has some kind of hold over the respectable Dr Henry Jekyll. Utterson, fearing blackmail or worse, begins to make enquiries and finds himself investigating murder, disappearance, and a man who has apparently died of horror....

Based on the illicit activities of Burke and Hare, “The Body Snatcher” tells of a young man’s entanglement in the world of resurrection-men and murder. Already on the wrong side of law due to his own part in the corpse trade, Fettes has no choice but to overlook any doubts as to the provenance of the merchandise delivered to the anatomy rooms. But even when you’re used to handling criminals, corpses, and killers, there are some things that can still terrify you.

And in “Olalla” a wounded English soldier travels deep into the Spanish mountains to recover his health. His strange new landlady has extracted an agreement that he will keep to himself and let the family do the same, but curiosity about the residencia’s peculiar inhabitants overcomes prudence. Especially when he sees Olalla, who seems to be the only sane member of a family that’s long since gone mad.

It’s ironic that the passing of the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” into the vernacular, to describe any person with a double life or two sides to their personality, has both ensured the story’s continued fame and wrecked the suspense. There’s no mystery, no shock on discovering that Jekyll and Hyde are one; the only thing in question is how it will end. (And how it is that, at times, Jekyll’s mind manages to function in Hyde’s body.) What I found most interesting was the psychological aspect - the need to balance those facets of one’s personality which contradict each other, and the consequences of letting either one take over; and whether evil can ever truly be suppressed.

“The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” carries the stamp of the nineteenth century as clearly as the face of Edward Hyde does the taint of evil. The instinctive revulsion people feel for him just by looking at him reminded me of the long-dead theory that one could identify a crook from appearance alone; that criminality would betray itself in the face. (Which in turn reminds me of the anecdote I once read of a scientist who created numerous composite photographs of jailbirds in the hope identifying the distinguishing characteristics of the criminal face. Unfortunately for him, the closer to the mathematical average a face is, the more attractive it is perceived to be; hence he was constantly frustrated by the fact that the “average” criminal was far too good-looking!) The description of Hyde as“ape-like” and his degradation as something primitive - the suggestion that evil is incompatible with true civilisation - dates it. It’s also an unflattering portrait of Victorian morality. By his own admission, the darker side of Jekyll’s nature never led him to do anything bad, merely “undignified.” It was his own too-close adherence to the prudery of the day which led him to create Hyde and precipitate all which followed.

“The Body Snatcher” made me briefly nostalgic for the ghost stories I devoured fifteen or so years ago; the beginning and the end particularly were just as conventional as those of the tales I read as a child. But the story of Fettes’s long-ago encounter with the unearthly has a good eeriness to it; and I have to confess to a morbid fascination with the history of the resurrectionists. Wave the words “Burke and Hare” under my nose and I’ll jump to read what’s on offer. And I liked this, even if Burke and Hare didn’t appear, their customer Dr Knox was only mentioned in passing, and my interest was chiefly historical.

There’s an abundance of Gothic strangeness in “Olalla” - a crumbling fortress-style house in a remote part of a foreign country, a once-great family fallen into ruin, madness, locked doors, strange noises, even the obligatory dark and stormy night. To the doctor’s generalised account of the family’s oddity, concrete facts are added one by one as the narrator meets his hosts and explores the residencia and grounds as much as he dares. This story also deals with the concepts of being able to tell evil by its face, and an evil nature being a throwback to some long-past generation. Olalla’s vision of herself was more unnerving than the plot; and it’s not something I’ll soon forget.

Rating: B-

15 September 2009

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

The squire was put out; and when he was put out he had a trick of placing his hands on his knees and whistling softly to himself. Molly knew this phase of his displeasure, and only hoped he would confine himself to this wordless expression of annoyance.

From Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell, p. 261.

14 September 2009

Banned Books Challenge

Banned Books Challenge

I didn’t say “no more challenges” after signing up for R.I.P. IV ... but I should have. However, I’m a just little annoyed (read: incensed) at the moment with those who would dare to think that, because they don’t like something, it shouldn’t be available to anyone else. (And with spineless politicians ... and Queensland wonders why southerners see it as a behind-the-times backwater....)

Ahem ... *steps down from soapbox* ... so I’m in the mood to flout the Moral Majority by reading a banned book.

Yes, you did read that correctly: a banned book. With so much other reading to do I have - for once - taken the prudent course and elected to read only one, slim, book that I’m bound to read this month anyway:

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
... courtesy of the Banned and Challenged Classics list; contested on grounds of racism.

05 September 2009

Book Review: Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

Death of a Red Heroine When the body of a strangled woman is pulled from a disused canal, the investigation falls to the Shanghai Police Bureau’s special case squad by accident - one of its members is the only detective available to take the call. When he learns what has happened, Chief Inspector Chen Cao decides to postpone handing the case over to another squad. After all, his promotion over the heads of older men has ruffled a few feathers, and what better way to prove oneself in the Homicide Division than by actually solving a murder?

The victim is soon identified as Guan Hongying, a national model worker who seemingly lived for her job and the Communist Party. Commissar Zhang, who’s acting as adviser (meaning he’s past retirement age but too high-ranking to be obliged to exist on a pension) insists that the case is political, but Chief Inspector Chen is not convinced. He and his assistant, Detective Yu - with some suitable prodding from the women in their lives - go digging for the private life that surely existed. What they find leads straight to a prime suspect with connections in the highest echelons of Shanghai politics, and a lack of obvious motive. When word gets out he and Yu find themselves suddenly required elsewhere - like out-of-town conferences and traffic control. And Internal Security is already watching Chen, thanks to concerns as to whether some of the poetry he’s published might be ideologically ambiguous. But Chen has acquired a sense of kinship with Guan Hongying, and he’s not about to let political considerations get in the way of bringing her killer to justice.

Having, some weeks ago, been unimpressed by the amount of armchair travelling I’ve done, especially in Asia, seeing a crime novel set in 1990 China was far too good an opportunity to pass up. As I read it I could almost smell the pork buns and pollution; for one average-size novel it opened an extraordinary window through which to observe all things Chinese: Traditional culture, Communism, the emerging free market, history, legends, food, crowded urban life, and gorgeous poetry of all eras. It was impossible not to be impressed by the vibrancy of a city where most people had barely a few square metres to call their own and the state could exert an unnerving amount of control. Which could include assigning people to jobs regardless of location or qualifications ... which is how Chen ended up in the police. What I loved about him was his determination to do the best job he could, regardless of whether or not he liked it, and keep his love of literature alive by moonlighting as a poet and mystery-novel translator (an example there for all of us who’ve chosen careers for practicality rather than preference).

It says a lot about the quality of the characters that I was left with a soft spot for even Commissar Zhang and Party Secretary Li, with their emphasis on politics (and political expediency) and solving crimes by relying on the people. Watching their interactions and inner dilemmas was just as rewarding as seeing the murder being solved. The case changes them; they change each other; and they don’t always make the easy or expected decisions. (And I do love it when male police officers need a woman or two to explain the workings of the female mind and nudge them in the right direction. It’s sort of endearing, that they can’t understand us sufficiently on their own.) I’m delighted that this is the first in a series, because I want to read about them again.

All this, and a great mystery, too. Although she hardly appears except as a corpse or a photograph, Guan has as strong a presence in the novel as any of the living characters. Largely this is due to Chen’s identification with her; you can see her life through his, and through the differences between them. The pace doesn’t flag as the case shifts from a dead end, to an active investigation, to a circumstantial case with no motive, to a case where the only loose end is what might happen. (When the good of the Party is prone to trumping everything else, things are unlikely to end as neatly as they do in Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham.) It’s a felony perfectly fitted to its place and time, and its resolution comes with a good dose of irony.

There was only one thing I didn’t like, and that was having to set the book aside and go mentally rummaging through my home town. At one point Chen renewed contact with a certain lovely librarian he’d known in his university days, and who, alas, left the country for a temporary position at the Canberra Library. Uh ... might one possibly mean the National Library? That’s the only candidate I could think of, and I’m quite sure there are no archives I’ve forgotten. Though I’ll grant that the overwhelming majority of readers would be blissfully unaware that any mistake had been made; it’s just bad luck that this particular reader/reviewer happens to be a native of that particular city.

Rating: A-

04 September 2009

Book Review: A Start in Life by Anita Brookner

A Start in Life Ruth Weiss’s life revolves around books - the ones she lectures on, the ones she reads, and the one she’s writing about the female characters in Balzac’s novels. Towards the end of another day, the same as all her others, she begins to reflect on how she has come to lead a life ruined by literature, and to remember a time when things still had the potential to turn out differently....

What follows is almost more an interlocking set of character portraits than a story. There is a progression of events moving forward in time, but it’s all very low-key and concerned mostly with the natures of Ruth, her bookseller father George and actress mother Helen, their housekeeper Mrs Cutler, and various other people who enter their orbits. And for what it is, it’s good. They may not do much, but those characters are the sort to linger in your imagination well after the last page. (How much I’ll remember about their actions is another matter.)

Yet whenever I needed time for something other than reading, this book was always the first of my current reads to be laid aside, and the last to be picked up. For a mere 176 pages it took an inordinately long time to finish. One reason was the lack of tension - you know from the start how Ruth’s life is going to turn out. Another was that it failed to provide any of the three main things I look for in a book - closer acquaintance with the classics; information; or escapism. I strongly suspect I would be entirely content in the confines of academia (preferably a historical archive somewhere). I also suspect that if that were possible, my studies would absorb as much of my existence as Ruth’s did of hers. So I read about Ruth and her small quiet life, and thought There but for the fact I studied science go I.

And speaking of literature - I’m sure an acquaintance with Balzac would have helped. On the up side, he’s now on my vague list of authors to read one day.

Rating: B-

R.I.P IV Challenge

R.I.P. IV Challenge

There was a heatwave here recently - Monday last week it was 35oC. I think it fried my brain. Why else would I be signing up for another challenge when I have several going already, and eleven books out from the library, and a heap of reviews to write, and I’ve just started a book with over 900 pages that will take me several weeks to finish?

Book mad, me. Although ... given that my NaNo project this year is a gothic, doesn’t it make perfect sense to get in the right mood with all literary things eerie?

There - I’ve justified it!

I have - of course - gone for Peril the First: Read Four books of any length, from any subgenre of scary stories that you choose. Since I’ve got two out from the library to be read this month, I’m sure I can do it!

My reading pool:

The Panic Hand - Jonathan Carroll
The Mist in the Mirror - Susan Hill
The Secret Woman - Victoria Holt
The Mysteries of Udolpho - Ann Radcliffe
A Sicilian Romance - Ann Radcliffe
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and other tales of terror - Robert Louis Stevenson
The Angel’s Game - Carlos Ruiz Zafón
And anything else apt that makes its way into my library bag during the next two months.

Is there a Reading Challenge-holics Anonymous anywhere out there?

Fractal Friday: Festival


03 September 2009

Library Loot

Library Loot

Behold, Here's Poison
The Figure in the Carpet
The Good Mayor
Death of a Red Heroine
The Mysteries of Udolpho
Naked in Death
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
The Keys of Egypt
The Ghost Map
Georgette Heyer's Regency World

Behold, Here's Poison - Georgette Heyer
The Figure in the Carpet and other stories - Henry James
The Good Mayor - Andrew Nicoll
Death of a Red Heroine - Qiu Xiaolong
The Mysteries of Udolpho - Ann Radcliffe
Naked in Death - J. D. Robb
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and other tales of terror - Robert Louis Stevenson
The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs - Lesley and Roy Adkins
The Ghost Map - Steven Johnson
Georgette Heyer's Regency World - Jennifer Kloester

And one re-loot, due to my being a little otherwise occupied this month:

Nana - Émile Zola

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Marg.

Mohawk Trail (a.k.a. Blatant Showing Off)

Yes, it's been a little quiet around here lately ... it was my mother's birthday earlier this week (she was 48 again - if she keeps that up much longer I'll have to start lying about my age!) Anyway, I decided to whip up a replacement for a woefully shabby cushion cover, and displayed my usual impeccable judgement by falling in love with a fabulously complicated pattern, with lots of curves and 176 little triangles.

Hence it took every moment I could spare and quite a few I couldn't, because did I mention that I prefer my patchwork by hand? (Hmm ... as I write this I'm beginning to have a few doubts about my sanity!) On the bright side, I did get it done on time, and without once sitting up all night, dozing off during the day, or accidentally sewing it to my clothes. And the end result is gorgeous ... so much so that I couldn't resist blogging about it:

Mohawk Trail cushion cover

Not bad for only the second bit of quilting I've ever done! Needless to say, Mum loved it.

Booking Through Thursday: Recent Big

What’s the biggest book you’ve read recently?

(Feel free to think “big” as size, or as popularity, or in any other way you care to interpret.)

To take the first interpretation, the biggest book I’ve read recently is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. At long last! Loved it, loved it, loved it, and really must find the time to review it.

As for the second ... I’ve barely started it, but I have to mention Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. All 914 pages of it! That book is going to keep me happy for weeks to come.

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776