Day 1162: Classics Club Spin! Letters from Egypt

Cover for Letters from EgyptLetters from Egypt is the book I drew for the latest Classics Club spin! A book like this one is hard for me to evaluate. Lucie Duff Gordon was an English gentlewoman suffering from consumption who spent the last seven years of her life in Egypt, hoping the climate would help her. The book of her letters is heralded as a first to deal with the Egyptian people rather than the scenery and monuments. She was by all accounts beloved by the people she lived among in Luxor from 1862 to 1869.

I try to judge books as best I can by the standards of their own time, but sometimes with this book that was a struggle for me. Duff Gordon is known for being kind to the people she met, particularly the Arab fellaheen, who by all accounts were the despised of Egypt. Certainly, she was loved by them and is careful to follow their customs, but she does patronize them in just about every word of her letters. She also takes pleasure in telling stories about how much they love her and what courtesies they exchanged. She adopts their customs and learns to speak Arabic, all very laudable. However, it seems to me that she takes their part to the point of perversity, for example, sprinkling Arabic words into her letters to friends and so participating in their customs that she speaks casually of such things as buying slaves (for herself), always for their own good, thirty years after England outlawed slavery. Further, she favors the Arabs by putting down other groups, like the Copts, the Jews (even though she meets hardly any), and some of the Turks but not all, even though the Turks would seem to be to blame for the dire state of the country.

If you are feeling politically correct, you may not appreciate her frequent use of the N word, and her constant mention of the color of the various people she meets, although that is clearly a difference in the standards of the time.

The book does have descriptions of various ceremonies and customs, which are interesting. And Duff Gordon’s behavior toward the people was clearly better than that of most “Franks.” Another slight issue is that she tends to use Arabic and Egyptian words without always explaining what they mean, which can be confusing.

I want to compare this book to West with the Night, which was written 90 years later. Beryl Markham was raised with Masai playmates in what was British East Africa. Never does she treat her native friends condescendingly. Not only that, but her book provides a better sense of the landscape and society of Africa, although admittedly more oriented toward the European. Another contrast is Tales from the Queen of the Desert, in which Gertrude Bell ventures into even more remote corners of the Arab world while not once patronizing anyone.

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Day 1161: A Little Life

Cover for A Little LifeFor me, anyway, it often happens that a novel gets a lot of hype, with reviewers raving about it, and when I finally read it, it is unable to live up to its reputation. Such is not the case, however, with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I found it to be thoroughly absorbing, all 800+ pages of it.

It begins with four young men who all roomed together in college—Willem, Jude, J.B., and Malcolm. The novel, which covers roughly thirty years, begins when they are all struggling to make their way in New York City. Willem and Jude still share a tiny apartment while Willem works as a waiter and auditions for acting parts, and Jude works as a lawyer for the district attorney’s office. Malcolm is poorly paid and given boring work in the office of a prestigious architectural firm, and J.B. is working on his art.

In at first a very subtle way, though, the novel centers around Jude. For some time, Jude remains a mysterious presence in the novel. He was severely injured when he was young, but he never speaks of that incident or any other in his past. But Jude’s life, we eventually find, is ruled by his past, during which he was repeatedly abused.

Since college, Jude believes that he has been pretending to be a different person than he is, and that if his friends found out who he really is, they would leave him. He is full of self-hatred.

This novel is extremely powerful and deals with some heavy issues. But it is beautifully and empathetically written. It makes us love some of the characters, and the others seem fully realized. I may not have read it if it hadn’t been on my Booker Prize project list, but I’m glad I did.

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Day 1160: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories

Cover for The Mistletoe MurderThe Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories is a short collection of four previously uncollected stories by P. D. James. Two of them are set at Christmas, and two feature Adam Dalgliesh, one when he was a newly made sergeant.

“The Mistletoe Murder” is written as a reminiscence, as if it really happened, and P. D. James herself is a character (or the unnamed narrator is a mystery writer). A war widow, she is invited for Christmas at her grandmother’s house, after years of a family feud. There she spends almost all of Christmas Day with her cousin Paul. Another guest is Rowland Maybrick, who has been invited to value a coin collection and whom the narrator finds unappealing. The next morning, he is found with his head smashed in.

“A Very Commonplace Murder” is about an unpleasant man, Ernest Gabriel, and his memory of a murder. Having sneaked into the office at night to view a pornography collection owned by his deceased employer, Gabriel witnesses an illicit love affair going on next door. When the woman is murdered, Gabriel knows her young lover did not do it, but will he give evidence?

In “The Boxdale Inheritance,” Adam Dalgliesh’s godfather, Canon Hubert Boxdale, receives an inheritance from his stepgrandmother. But 67 years ago, Allie Boxdale was famously tried for the murder of her elderly husband. Although she was not found guilty, the Canon asks Dalgliesh to help determine whether she was or not before he can accept the legacy.

Finally, in “The Twelve Clues of Christmas,” young Sergeant Dalgliesh is flagged down on the road to his aunt’s house in Suffolk by Helmut Harkerville, who wants to report his uncle’s suicide and says his phone is out of order. Adam takes him to a phone box but then brings him home to inspect the scene. There he spots 12 clues that tell him this was a murder and the identity of the murderer.

In general, I don’t much enjoy crime short stories because they don’t allow time to develop a plot or characters so must rely on tricks. These stories, though, were a little more clever and interesting than the usual. I only guessed the solution to the second story, and I think some of the clues in the last were not fairly revealed. But the first and third stories held surprises. Overall, this was a set of entertaining mystery stories, much lighter than James’s usual fare.

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Day 1159: A Christmas Party

Cover for A Christmas PartyThis is the second time recently that I’ve thought a new book by Georgette Heyer has been published, only to find it has not. instead, some of her existing work is being republished under different titles. In this case, Envious Casca, one of her mysteries, has been republished as A Christmas Party.

Fortunately, I always enjoy Heyer, and I read Envious Casca so long ago that I didn’t remember it. However, I didn’t really need a second copy of the novel, so here’s a warning to you.

Wealthy curmudgeon Nathaniel Herriard has no interest in Christmas, but his brother Joseph thinks it would be nice to have an old-fashioned Christmas house party. In an inept attempt to heal family rifts, he invites his nephew, Stephen, whose fianceé Nathaniel disapproves of, and that fianceé, Valerie. He also invites his niece, Paula, who has been badgering Nathaniel to back a play she wants to star in, and Paula brings the playwright, Willoughby Roydon. Also attending is Nathaniel’s business partner, Mr. Mottisfont, who has been arguing with Nathaniel about something. Mathilda Clare, Stephen and Paula’s cousin, has arrived uninvited, and of course Joseph’s placid wife, Maud, is present.

On Christmas Eve, after several tiffs with the various guests, Nathaniel is found dead in his locked bedroom, having been stabbed. Inspector Hemingway cannot find any way that the murderer could have entered or left the room. That being said, things don’t look good for Stephen, who is Nathaniel’s heir.

I was immediately suspicious of one character, and my instincts proved right, but I still couldn’t figure out how the murder was committed. There was a broad hint about that, however, in something trivial that keeps being mentioned. I knew it was a hint but was too lazy to look it up. I don’t really think, though, that the puzzle is the point with Heyer’s mysteries. Instead, it is her entertaining characters and her wit. I enjoyed this mystery, and Inspector Hemingway seems to be a worthy successor to Inspector Hannasyde.

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Day 1158: Mrs. Engels

Cover for Mrs. EngelsLately, I’ve realized that the novels I enjoy most have a strong narrative voice or sense of character. Mrs. Engels, the debut novel of Irish writer Gavin McCrea, is one of these. I had the fortune to read it as part of my Walter Scott Prize Project.

Lizzie Burns is the Irish mistress of Frederick Engels, long accepted as Mrs. Engels. She has a lot to put up with. Although Engels supports Karl Marx’s entire household, liberally, so that Marx can work on his book, he is very careful about what is spent on his own household. Further, Lizzy suspects him of yearning for her sister, Mary, who was his mistress before she died. And Lizzy is aware that Frederick is not faithful. Finally, he is completely devoted to a Communist revolution, so he often opens the house to his comrades or sends Lizzy on errands for the cause.

Mrs. Engels is a vivid imagining of Lizzy’s life, beginning in 1870 and looking backward to the past. A poor worker in Engels’s cloth mill, she leads a penurious life until Mary takes up with Frederick Engels. She becomes involved with the Fenian movement through her lover, Moss Óg. All in all, she’s a strong presence, funny and putting up with no nonsense. As she becomes more involved with the Marx family after she and Engels move to London, she begins to learn more about Frederick and what he will do for the cause, which to him means Marx.

This novel is beguiling, drawing me, at least, into a topic that I wasn’t much interested in. It tells Lizzy’s story with wit and creates a wonderfully realized setting and character.

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Day 1157: This Is a Poem That Heals Fish

Cover for This Is a Poem That Heals FishI read about This Is a Poem That Heals Fish on Brain Pickings and had to have it for my great nephew. It was difficult to find a copy (but no longer is).

Lolo at the bicycle shop

The book has a simple story. Arthur’s fish Leon is bored almost to death. When Arthur asks his mother what to do, she says, “Hurry, give him a poem!”

So, Arthur spends the rest of the book trying to find out what a poem is, getting advice from various people and animals in the neighborhood. For example, Lolo at the bicycle shop says “A poem, Arthur, is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.” From everyone’s comments, Arthur makes his own poem at the end of the book.

This is a lovely book, with beautiful, modern illustrations and ideas that make you ponder. Although I am giving it to a four-year-old, I think it could be appreciated by any age.

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