Review 1648: Joanna Godden

At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to like Joanna very much, in this novel that is essentially a character study. She is large and brash. She likes to wear bright colors and to impress people. She is a fine figure of a woman.

As a young woman, she inherits her father’s sheep farm on Walland Marsh in far southeastern Kent. From the first, she will take no advice. She’ll run her farm the way she wants, and she scandalizes the neighborhood for firing her father’s shepherd of 28 years, for painting her wagons and her house yellow, and for other such offences against tradition.

At first, she makes some costly mistakes in her willingness to experiment. She hires a shepherd just because she likes his looks, but he is too docile and inexperienced to warn her when she’s about to make a big mistake in breeding. She sends her little sister Ellen away to a posh boarding school and gets back a sulky, discontented young woman who thinks she is too good for the farm.

I couldn’t help growing to love this heroine, though. She is bumptious but well-intentioned, pushy but kind. By the end of the novel, I was touched and sorry it was coming to a close. I read it for my Classics Club list and hope to find more by the author.

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Review 1647: The 1936 Club! Jamaica Inn

When Mary Yellan’s mother is dying, she makes Mary promise to go live with her Aunt Patience in Bodmin. However, Aunt Patience’s reply to her letter after her mother’s death tells her that she no longer lives in Bodmin. Her uncle is the landlord of Jamaica Inn out on the moors.

When Mary tells the coach driver her destination, he advises her to stay in Bodmin. Jamaica Inn is a place of ill repute. Mary feels, though, that she must keep her promise to her mother.

She finds Jamaica Inn a ramshackle, brooding inn with no customers. Patience, her mother’s sister, has changed from a vivacious, pretty woman to a terrified drudge. Her uncle, Joss Merlyn, is an overbearing bully with signs of being a habitual drunk.

Days after arriving at the inn, Mary must help serve the most disreputable bunch of men she has ever seen. Later, Joss advises her to stay in her room with her covers over her head. But she looks out the window and sees evidence of smuggling.

But the secrets of Jamaica Inn go far beyond smuggling. Mary looks for a way to safely remove herself and her aunt. In the meantime, she meets and is attracted to Joss’s younger brother, Jem.

It’s been many years since I read this novel, which I reread for the 1936 Club. I found it to be a truly exciting thriller.

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Review 1646: The 1936 Club! The ABC Murders

Of course, you must pick an Agatha Christie for the 1936 Club, and my choice was The ABC Murders. In this novel, it appears at first as if Christie is telling us everything but motive. However, she has some tricks up her sleeve as usual.

Captain Hastings returns from South America to find Hercule Poirot retired but still taking the occasional case. Soon, one arrives in the form of a letter, which challenges Poirot and tells him to look for news from Andover on a particular date. On that date, an old woman named Mrs. Ascher is killed by being bludgeoned over the head. On the counter is an ABC map.

The next letter refers to Bexhill-on-Sea. On the specified date, Betty Barnard is strangled on the beach and an ABC is found underneath her body.

In between entries from Captain Hastings’ journal, we briefly follow a man named Alexander Bonaparte Cust.

Round about page 75, I got an inkling about something that might be happening, and I was right. But the whole picture was more complicated than I guessed.

This wasn’t my favorite Christie. For one thing, the solution was just too complicated. For another, I didn’t feel as if Christie’s characterizations were as rich as usual.

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Classics Club Spin #26

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin. I have been trying to finish my list in time for my deadline, which is coming up at the end of June. I’m not going to make it, but I’ve been scheduling in books that I read months ago to try to get most of the books reviewed by then, and I have been reading like crazy to finish the others. With any luck, I’ll only be a month or so late. That means that my list for this spin is going to be repetitive.

To participate in the spin, you post a numbered list of 20 of the books from your Classics Club list (or in my case, however many books you have left over and over to make a list of 20). The Classics Club picks a number, and that determines the book you’ll read for the spin. So, here is my list! We are posting these lists by April 18th, and the deadline to read the chosen book is May 31.

  1. The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
  2. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
  3. The Viscount de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas
  4. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  5. Evelina by Frances Burney
  6. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
  7. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
  8. The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
  9. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
  10. The Viscount de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas
  11. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  12. Evelina by Frances Burney
  13. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
  14. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
  15. The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
  16. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
  17. The Viscount de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas
  18. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  19. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
  20. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

Review 1645: The 1936 Club! Nightwood

When I looked for books to read for the 1936 Club, I picked a couple of rereads, as I usually do, but also tried to find one I hadn’t read before. That novel was Nightwood, which I had heard of for years.

T. S. Eliot, who wrote the original Introduction and had a great deal to do with its publication, said that it would “appeal primarily to readers of poetry.” That comment struck dread into my heart, because I am not a big poetry reader. And indeed this is a difficult novel.

The plot is relatively slight. Felix, an Austrian Jew and pseudo-baron, marries Robin Vote because he wants a son to pass his heritage to. Robin is an enigma whom we only see through the eyes of those infatuated with her. She is boyish, and the Doctor, an intersex character who is also an enigma, implies that she is also intersex. Robin seems to view motherhood with horror, so she leaves Felix with his son and takes up with Nora, who is madly in love with her and spends most of her time dragging her, dead drunk, out of sleazy Parisian nightclubs. Then Robin dumps Nora for Jenny, a woman who always wants what other people have.

All the characters are distraught.

The novel is most known for its style and language. It is crammed with images and metaphor, but it is difficult to understand what the characters are talking about, especially the Doctor. I felt like I understood him less than half the time.

The novel seems filled with dread, as it might well in pre-World War II Europe, even though its characters’ preoccupations are not political. I found it disturbing, thought-provoking, and astonishing.

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Review 1644: The 1936 Club! August Folly

This week it’s time for the 1936 Club, hosted by Stuck in a Book. For my first book published in 1936, I am delighted to review August Folly by Angela Thirkell. As usual with my first posting for the club, I am also listing the links for the books published in 1936 that I have reviewed previously:

__________________________________

Louise Palmer, who likes to manage things, has decided to put on a Greek play. This endeavor will involve the participation of most of the young people around the village of Worsted, including her summer guests, the Deans. Richard Tebbins, just up from Oxford with a poor third, is at the age when everything his parents do irritates him (although that’s usually earlier, in my experience). However, when he sets eyes on Mrs. Dean, his parents’ contemporary, he falls into puppy love. Mr. Fanshawe, the Deans’ guest, seems to be a confirmed bachelor, but he has always only loved young Helen Dean. However, he fears he is too old for her. These are just a few of the characters and subplots of Angela Thirkell’s fourth Barsetshire novel.

Sometime, I would like to read these novels in order, because although each one concentrates on different characters, they have characters that reappear in different books—presumably also plot lines. However, I used to randomly encounter the novels in bookstores and just picked up whatever I found.

August Folly is one of the more fun books, featuring eccentric academics, delightful children, realistic but absurd romances, and a cat, a donkey, and a bull. It is froth at its best. I was happy to revisit it for the 1936 Club and my Classics Club list.

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Review 1643: Girl, Woman, Other

Readers who prefer traditional narrative styles beware—there are hardly any periods in Girl, Woman, Other. Although I often enjoy more experimental novels, this bothered me at first, because it forces Evaristo to start a new paragraph almost every sentence, if you can call them sentences—many are more like lists. After a while, I got used to it.

Girl, Woman, Other is about the lives of British black women, twelve women who each has her own chapter. The plot, which is minimal, centers around a play about black female warriors named The Last Amazon of Dahomey, written and produced by Amma, a radical feminist gay woman. The novel is divided into four parts, each devoted to the lives of three women who have some type of relationship to each other. But there are more relationships within the book, some of them surprising.

The novel is fresh, the stories interesting, many of the characters justifiably angry. I wasn’t sure how much I liked it, though, until the Epilogue, which was touching.

All-in-all, Booker prize winner or not, I would call this novel of linked stories a semi-successful experiment in form and writing style. It is at times a little didactic through characters’ speeches, but it does tell some powerful stories about the experiences of black women, women’s sexuality, women in general.

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Review 1642: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Gilbert Markham is a young man running a family farm when a new, mysterious person moves into the neighborhood, taking up residence in an old, half-derelict house named Wildfell Hall. She is Mrs. Graham, a beautiful young widow with a five-year-old son, Arthur. She tends to be reclusive, which makes the neighborhood more interested in her. Finally, Gilbert goes with his sister to call and finds that Helen Graham is supporting herself working as an artist.

Gilbert falls in love with Helen, but she will not allow him to express any of his feelings. Then, he hears an ugly rumor about Helen and his friend Mr. Lawrence, Helen’s landlord. Helen has secrets, but they’re not the ones being repeated about her. She finally decides to confide in Gilbert by giving him her diary.

I hadn’t read this novel for many years, so I put it on my Classics Club list. I found the structure of the novel—epistological first because Gilbert is writing a very long letter to a friend, and then the diary—to be cumbersome. It seems as though a straightforward first-person narration would be less artificial for the first part, which must be the longest letter ever written. For the middle, diary portion, I understand why Brontë chose that method of telling her story, which makes up the bulk of the novel, but it seemed a little clumsy and too long.

Finally, there were times when I tired of the self-righteous Helen. It seemed to me that her attitude might have driven a better husband than the one she chose away from her. Of course, he is a scoundrel, so there was probably no attitude she could adopt that would reform him, which makes the ending kind of absurd. I don’t know how to explain it without spoilers, but I thought it might be a sop to the critics of Brontë’s time who would have thought Helen should not have deserted her husband. Either that or she is destined for sainthood.

I am probably being overcritical of this book, which would have been quite shocking for its time because of making a woman who has fled her home with her child its heroine. Although I’ve read a gothic novel or two with the same premise, I’m sure this one was more groundbreaking through the husband’s faults being those of cruelty and dissipation rather than, say, robbery and murder. Here, we see Brontë taking up a feminist viewpoint, and I guess I’m just saying that I found Helen a little too rigidly moral. She spends an awful lot of time being outraged. Jane Eyre is also moral, but somehow from her it doesn’t seem as irritating.

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Review 1641: The Dictionary of Lost Words

After reading The Professor and the Madman, Pip Williams got interested in the ways that gender affected the original edition of the OED. She wrote The Dictionary of Lost Words to honor the women who helped produce the dictionary.

As a little girl, Esme becomes fascinated with the strips of paper used to keep track of different uses of words. Her father is the assistant to Dr. Murray, who is in charge of the OED project, and she spends a lot of time sitting under her father’s desk at the Scriptorium. One day, she finds the strip for the word “bondwoman” and puts it in her pocket. She begins collecting duplicate strips or words that will not be included in the dictionary and puts them in a trunk.

As a young woman, she begins working in the Scriptorium. She becomes fascinated with the idea that some words are not allowed in the dictionary because they don’t have a written source. Many of these words, she notices, are related to the poor and to women—words for women’s body parts, professions, epithets for women. She begins collecting her own words from Lizzie, the Murray’s maid, and from common people in the market.

link to Netgalley

This novel not only reflects the love of words but also the events of the time—the battle for women’s suffrage and eventually World War I. At first, I had difficulty getting into it, but that may in part have had to do with my problems with eBooks. Eventually, I was sucked in and found the novel touching, even though a few plot points are predictable.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review. I had this review already scheduled for posting when I learned that the book made it to the shortlist for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize.

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