Day 617: Charles Dickens

21 Nov

Cover for Charles DickensReading this biography of Charles Dickens was very interesting to me after reading The Invisible Woman, about Dickens’ long illicit affair with Nelly Ternan. I have read biographies of Dickens before, but these two were the first I read that were forthright about some of Dickens’ inconsistencies and hypocrisies.

Renowned British actor Simon Callow puts a different spin on this book by examining Dickens’ love of and relationship to the theatre and his audience. Dickens adored the theatre and made quite a few forays into amateur theatrical productions, some of them quite large in scope, before settling on dramatic readings of his novels that were hugely successful.

It was of course during one of these productions, performances of a play he wrote with Wilkie Collins, where Dickens met Ellen Ternan, the young actress who became the focus of his mid-life crisis, which eventually ruined his marriage. She was brought in to replace Dickens’ daughter when a public performance made it improper for a young lady to appear.

This book is written in vivid and humorous style. It is entertaining and provides a view of Dickens’ career from the point of view of a theatrical background. Callow has himself played Charles Dickens more than once, most notably in a one-man performance, and is the author of nine books on theatre.

P. S. This book is sometimes titled Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World.

Day 616: The Rathbones

20 Nov

Cover for The RathbonesThe Rathbones is a strange and wonderful novel, part gothic mystery, part magical realism, about a whaling family in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mercy Rathbone is a girl, the last of a mysterious family. She lives in a massive house only partially built that used to house dozens of people. Now only her aloof mother lives there with her and her cousin Mordecai—who stays in the attic and acts as her tutor—and a few servants.

Mercy has vague memories of a brother that her mother and cousin tell her never existed. She has not seen her father for more than ten years, although packages from him occasionally arrive. She is curious about the family portraits in a gallery, all with the names removed. She knows the names of her mother and father but has no idea who her grandparents were, or how they related to Moses, the patriarch of the family.

One night Mercy is attracted by the sound of a boy singing and ventures into a part of the house where she is not allowed, the widow’s walk where  her mother goes every night. There she witnesses her mother being embraced by a strange man, and that man chases her through the house. She finds refuge with Mordecai, and the two decide to go to sea to find her father. They flee in a little dory, pursued by the strange man.

So begins a wonderous adventure, where they encounter an island occupied only by old ladies; an island of rich, eccentric cousins with a massive collection of furniture and art; an island of birds occupied by a woman who only speaks bird language. At each stop Mercy learns more about the odd and sometimes grotesque history of her family, many of whom have a magical affinity for the sea.

I do not usually enjoy magical realism, but with this novel I loved never knowing where the story would go. It is an odd one, certainly, and probably not for everyone, but it is imaginative and unusual.

Best Book of the Week!

19 Nov

Cover for The 19th WifeThis week’s Best Book is The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff!

Day 615: The Rural Life

18 Nov

Cover for The Rural LifeThe Rural Life is a collection of essays, more like musings by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a writer of the editorial board for the New York Times. Most of the essays were previously published in the Times and are related to his rural life, whether through his family history on an Iowa farm, his own farm in upstate New York, his father’s ranch in the Sierras, or travels to various western states.

I thought this would be an interesting and perhaps informative book, as I plan to be leading the rural life within a couple of years. Certainly many of Klinkenborg’s essays struck a chord with me. I liked best the pieces that do not go far from nature, whether he is discussing the care of bees, the lushness of his farm in the summer, or the beauty of a snow fall. Occasionally, he gets a little more philosophical than I am interested in.

The book is beautifully written. It occasionally confused me because it is ordered in chapters by month, and in the summer months he seems to be hopping back and forth between his farm and Wyoming. It wasn’t until a paragraph at the end that I discovered the book combines essays written over several years.

Day 614: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

17 Nov

Cover for The Bridge of San Luis ReyThe Bridge of San Luis Rey is a moral fable that explores whether there is a purpose in life beyond that of a person’s own will. This theme is not one that interests me, nor do I usually enjoy fables, but I did enjoy Wilder’s rich characterizations in this short novel.

The novel begins in 1714 in Peru, when the bridge of San Luis Rey collapses, killing five people. A monk, Brother Juniper, believes that this event may be his opportunity for scientific proof of the will of God. So, for six years he collects information about the lives of each victim.

What follows is a chapter about each of the lives of the victims, in all their humanness and contradictions. The Marquesa de Montemayor is an ugly, rich old woman who is despised by many for her eccentricity. She obsessively loves her daughter, who has moved to Spain to get away from her, and she writes her rambling but marvelous letters that only her son-in-law reads. With her dies her young maid Pepita.

Esteban is a twin whose brother Manuel recently died. Esteban and Manuel were inseparable until Manuel fell in love with the actress Perichole, who used him to write her love letters. Ever since Manuel’s death, Esteban has been inconsolable.

Uncle Pio was a wanderer who eventually settled down to mentor Perichole, whom he raised from a young barroom singer to become a great actress. But Perichole begins to have ambitions beyond the theatre and eventually throws off Uncle Pio. Uncle Pio has devoted himself only to her, though, and promises to educate her son Jaime.

This novel is beautifully written and touching in its acceptance of the foibles of humanity.


Day 613: Brave New World

14 Nov

Cover for Brave New WorldIt has been many years since I first read Brave New World, and I didn’t remember very much at all of this acid dystopian novel. It takes a bitter, satiric look into the future from 1931, and like the best of futuristic novels, is somewhat prophetic.

Bernard Marx is an unusual misfit in a society structured around the contentment of its people, or contentment as is rigidly defined there. Family units no longer exist. Society is strictly tiered. Everyone is artificially born, and the lower castes are cloned in multiples. Each caste is conditioned chemically and psychologically from before birth to be content with its lot, the mental and physical abilities of the lower castes chemically limited.

Everything is designed around productivity and consumption. People spend their leisure hours in pursuit of pleasure and get their daily dose of the drug soma. The arts are obsolete, supplanted by a very limited science.

At first it seems as though the discontented Bernard will be the hero of this novel, but there actually is none. He likes Lenina Crowne but is afraid to approach her for fear of being rejected. Lenina is a bit attracted to Bernard and is getting flak from her friends for being too exclusive of late, for there is no concept of faithfulness in this society: “everyone belongs to everyone.” So, she agrees to go with Bernard on a trip to New Mexico to view the savages—remnants of society, apparently American natives, who have not been civilized and live within a barbed wire reservation.

Lenina is too conventional a girl to enjoy this trip, horrified by the dirt and squalor of life that is not antiseptic. But Bernard, who has heard his boss’s story of a lost girlfriend in New Mexico years ago, is intrigued to find this woman, Linda, and her son John, actually born of his parent. John is an outcast of his culture, because he is the son of a woman considered a whore for behavior her own culture believes is normal. He has educated himself from Shakespeare’s complete works. Bernard gets permission to bring Linda and John back to London, setting in train unforeseen consequences.

Huxley apparently firmly believed that future societies would be controlled by drugs and psychological conditioning. It is his interest in cloning and the power of propaganda that strikes more modern readers. I’m willing to bet he paid attention to the then-current theories of eugenics that were particularly popular in England and Germany. His choice of Henry Ford as a godlike image for that society is telling not only for Ford’s invention of the assembly lines, clearly a model for Huxley’s vision of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, but also for Ford’s own interest in eugenics.

I couldn’t help comparing Huxley’s vision of sexual freedom with that of Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land, a book I really hated. There are other similarities too, John the Savage almost standing in for Heinlein’s alien-born Messiah, only finally shunning what he views as an immoral society rather than trying to start a religion. I think Huxley’s ideas are much more insightful, though.

That being said, I enjoyed this re-read only moderately. I appreciate Huxley’s deadpan humor, but a late section of the book, where Mustafa Mond explains his choices in life, is a bit too much like a sort of reverse didacticism, by which I mean that Huxley is not trying to make us agree with him, but trying to show us what is wrong with Mond’s ideas (or maybe I’m wrong—I believe Huxley thought that such controls over society were inevitable). In any case, any kind of didacticism in a novel is a good thing to avoid. Still, reading this novel after such a long time was an interesting experience.

Day 612: The 19th Wife

13 Nov

Cover for The 19th WifeThe 19th Wife is actually two interleaved novels, one as interesting as the other. The novel that begins the book is a modern mystery. The novel that dominates the book, however, is historical, about Ann Elizabeth Young, Brigham Young’s 19th wife, whose lectures after she left the Latter-Day Saints were partially responsible for ending the authorized practice of polygamy within the church.

In the modern story, Jordan Scott is a young man who grew up with the Firsts, a fundamentalist Mormon group that still practices polygamy. At the age of 14, Jordan was booted out on his own because he held his stepsister Queenie’s hand. Jordan’s intentions were not amorous, because he is gay, but he realizes that the young men are ejected from the group so that the old men can keep the young girls for themselves.

Jordan is living in California when he reads that his father has been murdered and his mother, Becky Lynn, arrested for it. As his mother is a complete believer who actually dumped him out on the highway herself those years ago, he does not believe she murdered his father. The evidence against her is that another wife saw her coming from their husband’s room looking upset. Jordan’s father was texting someone just before he was killed and remarked that his 19th wife was at the door. That wife is Becky Lynn.

While Jordan tries to find out what happened that night, we read the story of Ann Elizabeth Young, a woman born into the Church of Latter Day Saints but who has always been clear on the evils of the practice of polygamy. This story is told through fictional excerpts from her autobiography, newspaper clippings, statements by Brigham Young, and other documents.

Ann Elizabeth begins with the story of how her own parents, once devoted to each other, were forced into polygamy by Brigham Young, and what pain it caused her mother every time her husband took another wife. This pain was amplified by the hypocritical ruling that the first wife had to accept all future wives into the household before further marriages could take place. Ann Elizabeth’s own first marriage is also marred by threats of polygamy, which her husband uses to manipulate her despite having promised before marriage not to practice it.

Well written and convincingly characterized, this novel is absolutely engrossing. Although I found the modern mystery interesting in its insights into fundamentalist Mormonism as currently practiced, I found the story of Ann Elizabeth’s life even more compelling. Ever since reading Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, I have been fascinated by this subject.


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