Review 1310: Classics Club Spin Review! To the Lighthouse

Cover from To the LighthouseWhen the Classics Club Spin chose To the Lighthouse for me from my list, I wasn’t sure how pleased I was. I first read it in college and remembered very little of it except that it wasn’t my favorite. On the other hand, our tastes change as we grow, and I had enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway.

The novel is divided into three sections. The first is about a day in the life of the Ramsey family, as they vacation on the Isle of Skye with their friends. The second is about the house and the passage of time. The third takes place there again ten or eleven years later.

Young James Ramsey has been begging for a trip the next day to the lighthouse, and both he and Mrs. Ramsey are irritated with Mr. Ramsey for so assuredly stating that the weather will be too stormy. The novel revolves around the presence of Mrs. Ramsey, a beautiful, quiet, assured mother of eight. Although we briefly see things from other characters’ points of view, the most prevalent are those of Mrs. Ramsey and of Lily Briscoe, a painter.

Nothing much happens in this part of the novel. The family doesn’t go to the lighthouse; Lily has difficulty with her painting, and although she has insight during dinner, she doesn’t finish it; Minta loses her brooch on the beach and accepts a proposal from Paul; Lily resists Mrs. Ramsey’s old-fashioned idea that she must marry and her attempts to pair her off with William Bankes. The action of the novel isn’t really the point, though, it’s the complex relationships between friends and family.

At times the narrative is a little hard to follow, because Woolf switches time and pronouns so that you don’t always know whether something takes place in the novel’s present or past or who is being referred to. The novel is impressionistic in its approach, both in its descriptions of characters’ thoughts and of the settings. Over everything is the strong presence of Mrs. Ramsey.

Time passes, the war intervenes, and the family does not return for more than 10 years. When it does, things have changed.

I enjoyed reading this novel, although I’m sure I missed a lot. I think it could be food for study and contemplation, but I did not have time to do so.

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Review 1309: The Punishment She Deserves

Cover for The Punishment She DeservesWho is meant by the “she” in the title of The Punishment She Deserves is ambiguous at first. The word may refer to Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, whose superiors, because of her behavior during her previous case, send her on the present case hoping she will mess up so they can transfer her. It may refer to her boss, Isabelle Ardery, whose drinking problem is seriously affecting her life and work. Perhaps it refers to one of the two controlling mothers Barbara and Isabelle encounter in their investigation. Or perhaps someone else.

Isabelle and Barbara are dispatched to look into an investigation of death in custody to see if it was performed correctly. The death in question is the apparent suicide of Ian Druitt, a clergyman who had been arrested after charges of paedophilia. Ludlow’s PCSO Gary Ruddock was dispatched to bring Druitt in to an unmanned station to wait for officers to pick him up for questioning. While Ruddock was making some phone calls, Druitt apparently hanged himself using his stole and a doorknob.

Barbara’s reaction is to investigate whether the death was indeed a suicide, but Ardery tells her their remit is only to determine whether the subsequent investigation was handled correctly. Nevertheless, Barbara uncovers a disturbing fact beyond the one that the allegation against Druitt was made by anonymous phone call. There was a gap of 19 days between the allegation and the order for the arrest, which was said to be urgent.

Barbara includes this fact in the report she writes about the investigation, but Ardery orders her to remove the information because of political reasons. Troubled, Barbara asks Inspector Lynley’s advice. He tells her to leave out the information if she wants to keep her job, but he takes the unedited report and sends it above their boss’s head. The resulting explosion ends with Ardery called on the carpet and Lynley and Havers on their way to Ludlow to investigate thoroughly.

Soon, Lynley and Havers have reason to believe that Druitt’s death was not a suicide. But believing that and proving it or finding the murderer are different things.

This novel finally shows Elizabeth George going back to form, concentrating more on the mystery than on the characters’ private lives and having her protagonists behave more like cops than they have in several of the previous novels. Although the private lives of Lynley and Havers were initially what made this series so interesting, I’ve felt that George has gotten too melodramatic with these plots in the last few books. So, it’s a relief having Barbara worry about tap-dancing class and Lynley concerned about how his relationship with his not very interesting girlfriend is going, but nothing more dramatic.

This mystery is complicated, interesting, and difficult to guess. It involves characters you come to care about. I really enjoyed it. I’m glad about this, because I’ve wondered whether I wanted to continue reading this series, and now I’m looking forward to the next one.

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Top Ten Books for 2018-19!

Cover for The Forty Days of Musa DaghSince it is my blog anniversary today, I follow my tradition of posting my top ten books that I reviewed during the previous year. This year was a difficult one, because I had three books by Dorothy Whipple appearing in my Best of Five series, and my rule is to select only one book by an author in my year’s top ten.

As usual, this is a mixed bag of books, combining one nonfiction and one short story collection with several classic books and only one contemporary one (if you don’t count multigenerational sagas). Historical novels feature quite heavily this year.

So, with no further ado except a comment that this year I decided to list them in backwards order from when they were posted, here are my top ten books for this year:

Cover for The Weight of Ink

  1. The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
  2. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel
  3. They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
  4. Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson
  5. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
  6. In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut
  7. Coming into the Country by John McPhee
  8. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
  9. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
  10. Atonement by Ian McEwan

Review 1308: Notes from a Small Island

Cover for Notes from a Small IslandBill Bryson had been living in England for about 20 years when he and his family decided to move back to the States. Before he left, he decided to take a seven-week trip around England, mostly using public transportation. Notes from a Small Island, published in 1995, details this trip. He interrupts the journey occasionally to tell stories about how he came to England on vacation and stayed.

Bryson is always an entertaining tour guide, because he is voraciously curious about everything and has lots of obscure stories to tell about the places he visits. His sense of humor is sometimes juvenile but often amusing.

In this book, he takes a winding route through the country that includes more obscure or unusual destinations than the common tourist stops. During the trip, he comments on the things he likes and dislikes, particularly his disdain for the number of historical buildings that have been torn down and replaced by ugly modern ones.

I found this a particularly interesting route, because Bryson visits as many places of little distinction as he does others, sometimes spontaneously hopping a train or bus to an out-of-the-way destination. So, we hear about thriving communities as well as those that have not fared as well. This, by the way, is also a hallmark of his later book about traveling in England, The Road to Little Dribbling, in which he revisits some of the same towns and reports on how they have done in the intervening time. In many ways, the books together are sort a of sociological and historical study rather than travel books, but always entertaining.

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Review 1307: The Revolution of Marina M.

Cover for The Revolution of Marina M.The first thing readers should know before plunging into this 800-page novel is that it is the first of at least two books. There was no hint of this in any of the reviews I read of the book. Still, I was such a fan of Janet Fitch’s first novel, White Oleander, that I probably would have read it anyway.

Marina Makarova is at sixteen a child of privilege, the daughter of a member of the Russian Duma. She has a rebellious streak, though, which she exercises with her friend Varvara, who is working toward the revolution. She also begins an affair with Kolya, a dashing young officer.

Marina is sympathetic towards the plight of the working people, especially the starving families of soldiers at the front. So, she gets involved in revolutionary work without regard to what will happen to the bourgeousie, including her family. Soon, she is excited to be witnessing historic events.

In truth, Marina is not very likable. She is a lousy friend and family member. She throws herself into one situation after another, making one bad decision after another, usually swayed by whoever her lover or closest friend is. She marries a proletariat poet, Genya, only to throw him over as soon as Kolya reappears. She snatches Kolya back out of the arms of her friend Mina. Under Varvara’s influence, she betrays her father to the Bolsheviks.

And that’s part of the problem with this novel. Marina is supposed to be a modern, liberated woman, but she is tossed from one situation to another without much control of her own. She goes from schoolgirl to factory worker to sex slave of a criminal, and takes on the disguise of a boy, a photographer’s assistant, lives with a group of elderly astronomers, pretends to be a peasant wife, and then lives in a commune of a cult. The reviewer from the Chicago Tribune questioned the point of all this. I’m not sure if Fitch is presenting us with an adventure odyssey with a female protagonist or maybe trying to show the effect of the revolution on every strata society (or what?). In any case, all of this happens before Marina’s 20th birthday.

The book has some more problems. Sex is extremely important to Marina, and we get to hear about it in excruciating detail, particularly excruciating when she is imprisoned by a sadistic criminal (a situation that she walked right into). The writing is also over-burdened with metaphors—Fitch never uses one when three will do. Then there is the poetry (ala Doctor Zhivago?). There is lots of it. I am no judge, but it doesn’t seem to be very good.

Strangely, however, despite these flaws, the novel kept me interested, even the part about the cult, although I found parts of that boring. Whether it was interesting enough for me to read part two, though, I doubt. Maybe that will depend upon whether its last words are “End of Part 2.”

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Review 1306: The Fortnight in September

Cover for The Fortnight in SeptemberIf you are a reader who needs a novel with a strong plot, The Fortnight in September is not for you. However, if you like to read about ordinary people doing ordinary things, then the novel will probably entertain you.

The Stevens family has vacationed in Bognor Regis every summer since Mr. and Mrs. Stevens’s honeymoon. It is time to go again. Although Mr. Stevens is conscious that this custom may be changing soon—his oldest children, Dick and Mary, are grown now and both working—he hopes that they will continue to vacation together a while longer. Everyone is excited as they sit down the night before to allocate last-minute tasks before they take the train the next morning.

This is a simple story about uncomplicated people doing what they have always done and enjoying it very much. There are hints that the future may not stay the same—for example, Mrs. Huggett’s Seaview House is getting worn and seedy and the Stevens find that she is losing customers. But that doesn’t matter much to them. They think others don’t understand the place.

Each member has his or her concern. Mr. Stevens is worried about some things at work. Dick is unsatisfied with his job at a stationers. Mary has made an attractive friend but feels guilty as the family always spends its time together. Mrs. Stephens doesn’t enjoy the sea very much, but she keeps that to herself, not wanting to mar the enjoyment of the others. Young Ernie is only concerned about bringing his toy yacht.

Sherriff manages to involve us in the thought and activities of these ordinary good people. I found this novel quite charming.

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Review 1305: My Mortal Enemy

Cover for My Mortal EnemyWhen Nellie Birdseye is fifteen, she meets Myra Henshawe, who is a romantic legend in her small town of Parthia, Illinois. Twenty years ago or so, Myra deserted a life of privilege and wealth to run away with Oswald Henshawe, who her uncle had forbidden her to marry. True to his word, her wealthy uncle left his house and all his money to charity.

Nellie is entranced by the charismatic Myra. Following Myra’s visit to Nellie’s Aunt Lydia in Parthia, Nellie and her aunt return the favor with a trip to New York. There, Nellie admires the couple’s somewhat bohemian lifestyle and Myra’s capacity for friendship. Still, Nellie notices that Myra has ambitions for wealth and position that Oswald will never be able to provide, and she doesn’t always treat Oswald as kindly as she does others.

Ten years later, Nellie meets the couple under different circumstances.

Published in 1926, My Mortal Enemy is a character study rather than a story with a plot. It shows from a different angle the results of this love match that the youngsters in her home town thought was so romantic. My only caveat about it was that I didn’t really understand what about Myra made her so fascinating to Nellie. I think it would have been more effective if Cather had been able to make her readers feel this. I read this as part of my Classics Club list.

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