Plot Junkie: Glances at Missed Books (Part 1)

In looking over the list of the books I’ve completed this year, I realize I kind of stopped reviewing them somewhere in mid-June. I began again in August, but in the mean time, I didn’t talk about some really fantastic books. To rectify this shocking oversight, I’m condensing my usual ridiculously wordy critiques a bit, to, well, speed the plow. These all deserve extensive discussion, but alas, it is not to be.

And here, comprising the first installation of this catch-up project, for your illumination and elucidation…

The Paris Wife, Paula McLain
 The Paris Wife is a fictional account of the life of Hadley Richardson, more commonly known as Mrs. Hemingway the first. (She was followed by a Mrs. H 2, 3 and 4.) They were married from 1921 to 1926, and spent most of that time living in Paris. Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, was published in 1925: The Paris Wife primarily tells of the time before his fame and the assurance of his greatness.

Hemingway’s increasing emotional unavailability to his first wife, who appears rather naïve and provincial surrounded by Parisian artistic community, makes her seem incredibly insecure. The portrayal of the expat community in Paris and Pamplona was fascinating, but it was all seen with longing from the outside, from the eyes of the girl who didn’t quite make it into the party. It seemed to me like McLain’s Hadley just wasn’t as witty or brilliant; she just didn’t though it was her story, it seemed more the story of her interaction with the “important” people–those who did great work and talked about great things–while the little women talked in the corner. Hadley articulates this, saying she and Alice Toklas were relegated to the “wife” role, while Ernest and Gertrude seemed to operate on a different plane. McLain doesn’t really present any renegotiation of the situation, instead she just presents it. And Hadley seemed so drab and insecure, by the end I was ready to have an affair to get rid of her, too. I don’t think that was precisely the author’s intention, but it was all rather excruciating. I really just wanted her to leave the sorry bastard, to strike out on her own and have a fabulous life. 

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
Sue Trinder is a “fingersmith,” a thief in mid-nineteenth century London. She is contracted by Gentleman, a crook aiming to marry a fortune, to take a post as a lady’s maid and to forward his courtship of her soon-to-be mistress whenever possible. Once the lady is won and wealth achieved, the lady is to be deposited in the nearest madhouse, and Sue will be given all of her gowns and jewels, as well as three thousand pounds. The lady is Maud, she works as her uncle’s secretary in a remote country estate, and she seems strangely ambivalent regarding the attentions of Gentleman. As Maud and Sue become closer, and the date for the implementation of Gentleman’s plan begins looming, Sue begins to wonder if she’s capable of the grand betrayal that is required of her. Betrayals ensue, but not quite the ones foreseen.  

Mother-of-god this was a good book. One of the best I’ve read in ages. It’s divided into sections (Book 1, Book 2, etc.), I was reading at midnight and bound and determined to make it to the end of the first section before I put the book down like a good college student and get some sleep. Ahem. Didn’t happen. I don’t want to ruin any surprises, so I’m going to stop babbling. Instead, I’ll just restate the previous: You have to read this book. So so freaking well done. It’s kind of an homage to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (which if you haven’t read yet, you’re in for quite at treat when you finally do), and several of the Victorian Gothic elements of that novel show up here: two women in a lonely house, a young art teacher, falsely aristocratic husband merely after the young wife’s money, the asylum as a repository for unwanted women, actual madness, decidedly odd caretakers and less than truthful mothers. But Sarah Waters does something with the story that Collins never did—Collins’ heroines fade away into a conventional and strained domesticity, both apparently content to serve the honorable hero, one as friend and confident and the other as love. Fingersmith’s heroines aren’t quite as ready to embrace conventional domesticity. (Can I say I loved this book one more time? Yep, it’s my blog. I loved this book.) 

The School of Essential Ingredients, Erica Bauermeister
I enjoyed this book, but objectively I can see that it wasn’t really all that great. Honestly, it was one of those semi-forgettable collections of vignettes about a group of random people connected by one random thing, and then by the end we find out that we’re all just human underneath, even the ones that look like they’ve got it all together. Sigh. I’ve read that book. Several times. Think The Jane Austen Book Club, but with olive oil. 

That said, there was a short story about an elderly woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s that was extremely well done. Her memories are trickling away, but different smells and textures in the kitchen bring back flashes of the past. I thought Bauermeister did a great job of both showing an all-too-understandable terror of rootlessness and framing her character just in those little glimpses of memory.

See Jane’s View: Greenwitch, by Susan Cooper

Today I’m returning to Cornwall, but with Susan Cooper instead of Daphne du Maurier. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series is one of my favorites: it has kept its place on my bookshelves through multiple library purges and I reread it frequently. I’ve recently been skimming through Greenwitch, the third novel in the series.

Greenwitch brings together the characters from the first novel, Over Sea, Under Stone, (Paul, Simon and Jane Drew) and the second, The Dark is Rising, (Will Stanton) in order to… well, you know, defeat Evil and stuff. (Evil with a capital “E”, of course.) Throughout the entire series Evil and Good collide in a series of escalating conflicts… lots of showdowns, lots of crises, Merlin shows up, it’s all quite enjoyable.

My favorite in the series is the second: The Dark is Rising. Will Stanton turns eleven on a snow-muffled day in late November, and learns his responsibilities as the seventh son of a seventh son. Cooper does such a wonderful job of describing the deep and awe-inspiring silence of a heavy snowfall and linking that silence to a sense of the immense age of the English countryside. A perfect November read, and one I return to on a near-annual basis.

Anyway, the third novel in the series, Greenwitch is the only which features a female protagonist. By virtue of her gender, Jane Drew is allowed to attend the strictly female ritual of the making of the Greenwitch. The Greenwitch is a straw figure that is built and imbued with a sort of Cornish cultural magic during a ceremony, then thrown into the sea as an offering. Jane later dreams of a conscious Greenwitch, mournful in the face of the inexorable pull of the sea as the structure is drawn out into the deeps.

Of course, Jane saves the day by performing to gender type: she empathetically just “knows” the emotions of the Greenwitch, she becomes the caretaker and takes responsibility for those emotions… but even though she is acting through those stereotypical tropes, she still is allowed to be an actor in the drama rather than an adoring onlooker.

That dream is the pivotal point in the book: the primary action occurs while Jane is asleep, safely ensconced in her bedroom.

At the beginning of the book, Jane’s uncle takes her to the bedroom that she is to occupy while they’re in Cornwall, saying that the room is “very small, but the view’s good.”

“Oh!” said Jane in delight. The room was painted white, with gay yellow curtains, and a yellow quilt on the bed. The ceiling sloped down so that the wall on one side was only half the height of the wall on the other, and there was a space only for a bed, a dressing-table and a chair. But the little room seemed full of sunshine, even though the sky outside the curtains was grey. Jane stood looking out, while her great uncle went on to show the boys their room, and she thought that the picture she could see from the window was the best thing of all.

She was high up on the side of the harbour, overlooking the boats and jetties, the wharf piled with boxes and lobster-pots, and the little canning factory. All the life of the busy harbour was thrumming there below her, and out to the left, beyond the harbour wall and the dark arm of land called Kemare Head, lay the sea It was a grey sea now, speckled with white. Jane’s gaze moved in again from the flat ocean horizon, and she looked straight across to the sloping road on the opposite side of the harbour, and saw the tall narrow house in which they had stayed the summer before. The Grey House. Everything had begun there.

Simon tapped on the door and put his head round. “Hey, that’s a super view you’ve got. Ours hasn’t any, but it’s a nice room…

Greenwitch is a “girl’s book”, just as The Dark is Rising is a “boy’s book.” (Please note the campy quotes. I’m not painting the world blue and pink here, I’m reporting the colors.) The Dark is Rising goes into beautiful and exquisite detail to describe the old roads and the forest–all of the out-of-doors adventures that Will gets into while his family is sleeping that enchanted, deep sleep. Greenwitch does the same… for the bedroom. And the view, oddly enough. When Jane is actually outside in that beautiful scenery, it isn’t as gorgeous. The rocks are menacing, the cliffs too steep… but from within her bedroom, looking out onto the scenery, safely sequestered, all is lovely.

It isn’t just Susan Cooper who is at fault here–I love her books and I’m not really aiming at her. Re-read Nancy Drew, or Francis Hodges Burnett, any L. M. Montgomery’s novels, or even (gasp) Louisa May Alcott. The amount of meticulous and loving detail that goes into describing the bedrooms–and that which can be seen from the bedroom–is truly astounding.


(The above pictures are from a special exhibit at the Met that is running through July 4 entitled Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.)

Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience…

Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book. –Anonymous

Why do we read? To become someone else. Mint Vinetu, a Lithuanian bookshop, invokes this idea of identity escape in a series of ads.

A good book should leave you slightly exhausted at the end.  You live several lives while reading it.  ~William Styron

Lord! when you sell a man a book you don’t sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life.  Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night – there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book.  ~Christopher Morley

To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations – such is a pleasure beyond compare.  ~Kenko Yoshida

Photos from Mint Vinetu.

And some other book stuff that I love:

I’ve been lusting over these gorgeous editions of classics from Penguin for more than a year. I want them all. It doesn’t matter that I already have copies of nearly all of these, multiples in some case.

I think Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is my favorite–the dodo birds make me smile.

These pictures from PosterText create an illustration from various novels using the text and white space. Love ’em. So clever.

Pride and Prejudice, using the first 35 chapters of the novel

And a few beautiful things from Etsy to conclude (click to see the listing):

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train. –Oscar Wilde 

Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else. –Gloria Steinem

Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience:  this is the ideal life.  ~Mark Twain

Babbling about books: March

At the end of last month I decided to integrate my reading catalog from LibraryThing here. I’m slightly ashamed about the amount of reading I completed–I’ve been stressing like crazy about how much I have to do, but apparently I’ve still been reading quite a bit. And so, without further ado…

March 2011
25. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
26. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
27. Beauty, Robin McKinley
28. The African Queen, C. S. Forester
29. Old Lady Mary, Margaret Oliphant
30. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
31. The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Susanna Clarke
32. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewyck
33. March, Geraldine Brooks
34. The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber
35. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
36. Henry VI (2), William Shakespeare

Favorite books of the month: This is difficult- I enjoyed most of what I read this month.

  • March, by Geraldine Brooks was great, I’ve already babbled about that;
  • The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber was enormously long (944 pgs) and kept me totally entranced for the two days or so that I lived in it. It tells the story of a Victorian-era prostitute who ascends the ranks of society–and about the various characters in that society. The ‘mad wife’ with the undiagnosed tumor (which will always remain undiagnosed, as the nameless postmodern narrator tells us) was possibly my favorite character; the way the household works around her ‘quirks’ was meticulously detailed and fascinating.
  • Best first line: “Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade…” from A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka

I loved nearly all of these, and on a different day I certainly would have chosen different favorites (Rebecca!) (and Old Lady Mary!) (and even, problematic elements aside, Beauty!) – check out my opinions on the rest, if you’re interested, here.

No Future: Lucy Maud Montgomery and Jack Halberstam (with a little Queen Latifah in there too)

downloadFull disclosure: I spent the evening crocheting and watching The Last Holiday. I know, you didn’t think I was such a party animal. Truthfully, although the movie is somewhat horrible, I heartily enjoy the sentiment—the “why am I waiting and what am I waiting for” sentiment, when the things you are putting off in life (travel, family, free time)  seem ever so much more important than the reasons you are postponing them (education, career).

Last weekend, I seriously considered selling my somewhat meager belongings and moving to Italy. (I was reading Frances Mayes. I’m susceptible.) I still wish I could move, and the fact that I backed down seems less a triumph of common sense over recklessness than a cowardly taking of the safe track. I need a safety net and a five year plan- I hate it, but that is, apparently, who I am.

All of that goes to establishing mindset. This is why I was watching Last Holiday, a movie I’ve seen before and judged really crappy somewhat substandard then, LL Cool J notwithstanding. In case you don’t remember (and why would you?) Queen Latifah is a hardworking employee/drone, trying to protect her future by postponing all joy: terrible job? not important, it pays. cute boy? not right now, must work. And so on and so forth. Then she gets a terminal diagnosis and moves to a fancy hotel in Europe to blow through her savings and live it up while there’s time. I feel like there are a few other movies out there with a similar plot, but can’t think of them right now.

Ok, the movie is kind of terrible. I don’t remember the rest– I think LL Cool J (the aforementioned love interest) shows up in Europe to sweep her off her feet, the diagnosis was wrong, and I guess she doesn’t regret her wasted savings. Whatever. As I said, not a great cinematic masterpiece.

And honestly, I’m not interested in it because of some abstract (whatever that is) value. but I’m fascinated by the burn down the world, grab it all freedom– the impulsivity that is officially allowed (by whom? I’m not sure…society at large? community? common sense? the last, of course, is just the internalization of the former’s judgments… they- the ever-threatening “they”-catch us coming and going) when the longevity question- the planning for tomorrow bit- is taken off the table. (I’m reminded, as I so frequently am, of Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: who would I be, what would my life look like, if I weren’t so pre-occupied with my own futurity? )

In the elimination of the idea of the future in Last Holiday– and in The Blue Castle, which is what I actually want to talk about– the protagonists are given the freedom to travel, to speak their minds, to quit crap jobs, to be—truly be—in the moment.

God, that sounds hokey, but it seems to resonate, at least with me. I live so much of my life in anticipation: when my education is done, when I get a job I like, when I… whatever, that the present seems to escape me. My mother is right (gasp!)–I’m wishing my life away.

Those are problems for another time. What I am reading, however, is a reflection of those fat bubbles of unrest that are rolling to the top of my psyche. The Blue Castle has long been my favorite of L. M. Montgomery’s books; it’s just so absolutely flat-out romantic. Its premise is actually quite a bit like Last Holiday, which is why I began with the confession of my late-night TV watching: incredibly repressed woman gets a negative heath report, and decides (poster-type quote ahead) “to live before she dies.” Queen Latifah goes to some skiing resort;Valancy Stirling meets a mountain man and asks him to marry her.

Wonderful stuff…  (plot spoilers ahead)

Valancy Stirling is a skinny, sallow spinster who lives the most depressing life imaginable with her overbearing mother, sniffling aunt, and interfering, patronizing extended family. (Think Bette Davis in Now, Voyager.) After suffering a worse-than-usual chest pain, Valancy secretly goes to a specialist, who tells her that she has a serious heart condition and will die within the year. Valancy rebels at the idea of “dying before she’s lived,” and starts speaking her mind at family gatherings, leading the elderly patriarchs of the family to murmur, aghast, while her mother has hysterics.

She eventually tells her story to the town ruffian, a “sparkly-eyed backwoods man” (direct quote) who smokes a foul smelling pipe and drives the oldest car imaginable. She then proposes to, marries, and moves in with this backwoods man, the euphoniously named Barney Snaith. After several months of the most perfect health and glorious happiness, she begins to wonder about the doctor’s diagnosis–and what that might mean to her marriage.

This has been my favorite L. M. Montgomery since I was about 16–I think I identified much too strongly with that crazy family! But I’ve always thought of this as kind of a fairytale; an uncomplicated trajectory from misery to happy ending. (I realize that all those who have studied fairy tales in any depth just gasped. Shush.) I still think the story is a little simplistic, but this time I noticed (was looking for) something else kind of nonfairytaley: Valancy saves herself. She doesn’t wait for a prince to rescue her–she leaves home, she throws off convention, she proposes to Barney, she essentially creates her own Eden–or at least her own entry into Eden. She isn’t an all round strong female character–she begins quite weak and then nobly returns home “with the grey face…of a creature that has been struck a mortal blow” when she fears that Barney will feel tricked when it looks like he will get a life of marriage instead of the originally planned year. In that, I suppose, Lucy Maud has Barney play the ever-loving hero, as of course, he comes to retrieve her. (And in such a frustrating way! These books that have the male lead tenderly swearing at the blockhead who won’t believe herself loved… the “Dear little fool!” exchanges…make me a bit tired.) But still, I do appreciate that Valancy didn’t gaze out the parlor window until Prince Charming rode up. In fact, she becomes weak again when she imagines herself to have a future. Wouldn’t it be interesting to examine someone as, dare I say it, staid as Lucy Maud in light of ideas of queer temporality? Lucy Maud, meet Jack.