Review 1661: I Go by Sea, I Go by Land

When I made up my current Classics Club list, I reflected that I had never read a book by P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books. So, I picked this one.

Sabrina is eleven years old when World War II begins worrying her parents. When a bomb comes close to their house in Sussex, her parents decide to send Sabrina and her younger brother James to America to stay with Aunt Harriet.

Sabrina keeps a diary, so she records her thoughts, badly spelled, on their journey by ship to Canada and by plane to New York, and then of their life in the United States. Along with them travels their parents’ friend Pel, a famous writer, and her baby Romulus.

This novel is funny and charming and ultimately touching, as the children experience new things, are homesick, and worry about the situation at home. It does have some slight political incorrectness, given that it was written in 1941. However, I liked it very much.

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Review 1553: Whippoorwills

Full disclosure: Peggy Schimmelman is my cousin’s wife, although I have never met her.

Whippoorwills is primarily an epistolary novel set in the Missouri Ozarks and Northern California. The premise of the novel is that Leigh, in California, wants to write a novel about Rosie’s friend, Chrystal, who disappeared when the girls were in high school. The two women are also linked by Melody, Rosie’s friend and Leigh’s sister, who is now dead.

The story is told in a rambling, folksy way by Rosie in Missouri, as she tries to convey information for the novel to Leigh. Intermittently, we also get a slice of Leigh’s life in California as she struggles with a job she hates and tries to find time to write.

This novel is well written and full of local color, both in its eccentric but likable characters and its vivid colloquial style. For all its expressed premise, it is really about the life of Rosie, whose fundamentalist background and natural naiveté combined with several horrific experiences send her into periodic mental illness.

For patient readers, there is a certain amount of payoff, but you have to embrace its many circumlocutions in Rosie’s eccentric way of expressing herself and just go along for the ride. At first, I wondered if the story of what happened to Chrystal was ever going to get anywhere, but then I realized the story was really about Rosie.

I did feel, though, that the novel was a bit too long and wandering and that the sections about Leigh didn’t add much to it. I enjoyed much of it, though, and found some of it touching.

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Review 1510: The Left Hand of Darkness

Best of Ten!
Genly Ai, an envoy to Gethen from the Ekumen, a league of other worlds, has been waiting for an audience with King Argaven XV of Karhide for two years. Although he does not trust Lord Estraven, Argaven’s prime minister, he has understood the prime minister was supporting his efforts to gain an audience. But during a state parade, Lord Estraven tells him it is not a good time.

Genly’s disappointment makes him doubt that Lord Estraven ever had good intentions. When Lord Estraven hints that Genly should leave the capital, Genly ignores him. Soon, he learns that Lord Estraven has been banished from Karhide upon pain of death.

King Argaven encourages Genly to travel around Karhide, and he does so. The planet of Gethen is an ice planet, formerly called Winter by Ekumen, and Genly is constantly cold. He has trouble understanding the Gethenians, who are androgynous; when they are in heat once a month, they take on whichever sex is opposite to that of their partner. Genly has a hard time adjusting to the feminine side of the Gethenians. For their part, they consider him a pervert for always, as they see it, being in heat.

Eventually, Genly decides to leave the more primitive, indirect Karhides for Orgoreyn, an apparently more civilized and direct country, where he is welcomed. This state is much more authoritarian. Whereas in Karhide his presence was known, in Orgoreyn it is being kept secret from all but the government. Soon, the situation takes a turn he doesn’t expect.

When I first read The Left Hand of Darkness years ago, I thought it was about the best book I had ever read. Reading it again, I see no reason to change my mind except to say that others stand up there with it.

It is written as a set of documents, Genly’s story mixed in with records from other envoys and stories from the myths of various cultures on Gethen. It manages to explore many topics with its theme of light and darkness, including the effects on our lives of different sexual orientations. It’s really a masterpiece.

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Review 1343: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker

Cover for Humphry ClinkerWhen I was making up my latest Classics Club list, I looked for some 18th century fiction to add to it. The result was this peculiar novel by the Scottish author and poet, Tobias Smollett.

Smollett was known for picaresque novels, but I wouldn’t exactly call this novel that. In fact, I don’t know what to call it. The novel it reminds me most of is The Pickwick Papers,  because it is about a group of amusing people on a road trip.

Written in letter form, it starts out as a social satire. Matthew Bramble is a middle-aged hypochondriac who sets off with his family for a tour of the watering holes of England. His travelling companions are his nephew, Jeremy Melford, an Oxonian; his frippery niece, Lydia Melford; and his sister, Tabitha, who is on the hunt for a husband.

The novel begins by poking fun at the characters and the eccentric people they meet as they do the rounds of the watering holes. When they reach London, this becomes political and literary satire as well as social satire, as Jeremy visits literary salons and Matthew looks into politics.

However, the novel changes character when they travel north to Scotland. Through the polemics of a Scots lieutenant they befriend, Mr. Lismahago, we learn about the condition of the Scots peasantry and industry. These letters read almost like textbooks. Meanwhile, Smollett even introduces himself as a very minor character. Later, as the group travels south again, humor returns.

The novel is virtually plotless, the only continuing thread the fate of Lydia’s love affair with a travelling player. Humphry Clinker doesn’t even appear until 100 pages in. It was the contention of an essay I read that this novel is an example of the kind where the servant knows more than the master, but I don’t agree. Actually Humphry is pretty much an idiot.

I had a hard time finishing this novel. The humor didn’t appeal to me, nor was I enough informed about the time and place to understand some of the satire, for example, against certain literary figures who were probably recognizable at the time. The introduction calls the novel a snapshot of the whole of Britain at a time when everything was beginning to change with the onset of the Industrial Age. I have also read it is a commentary about Colonialism, but that only seems to apply to the Scottish section. I guess both of these topics might be interesting to some more informed readers.

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Day 1243: Dear Thief

Cover for Dear ThiefBest of Five
Dear Thief is one of the first books I read specifically for my James Tait Black Prize project, and it is an unusual one. The entire novel consists of a letter that we suspect will never be sent to its recipient.

The unnamed narrator addresses her letter to her friend Nina, whom she has not seen for 18 years. Although not exactly plotless, the novel is concerned with the narrator’s memories of their friendship, imaginings about how Nina is living now, and thoughts about the events that destroyed their friendship and broke up the narrator’s marriage.

Beautifully written, sometimes stunning, the novel is a meditation on memory and on the need for connection. It is an examination of the complexities of relationship, for the narrator both wishes to see Nina again and hopes she will destroy herself.

The focus of the novel is of course on Nina, or Butterfly, as she was named by the narrator’s son when he was small. Harvey makes readers understand Nina’s allure, a beautiful, scarily intelligent woman who seems to be on a path of self-destruction.

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Day 1023: The Second Mrs. Hockaday

Cover for The Second Mrs. HockadayBest Book of the Week!
Shortly after the American Civil War, Placidia Hockaday begins a series of letters to her aunt about the peril she finds herself in. But she refuses to say exactly what happened. While her husband, Major Gryffth Hockaday, was away fighting for the South, Placidia had a child and is being accused of murdering it. But at first, all she wants to talk about in her letters is her first meeting with Major Hockaday and the circumstances of her wedding. She was a naive 18, and he was twice her age and a widower with a baby son. They knew each other all of one day.

Eventually, we learn that Placidia, or Dia, as her family calls her, does not know how her baby died. It seems obvious that her real crime is her pregnancy and her refusal to name the father of her child. All she will say is that she cannot betray someone who helped her. Rumors are rampant.

Susan Rivers is pretty clever about how she spins out her story, although at times I got impatient with Dia’s relatives’ squeamishness in avoiding reading her diary of the time. Her son has found it written on the backs of the pictures in a copy of David Copperfield, and the contrast between the picture captions and the content of Dia’s diary provide a note of irony and a whole other level of information. Nevertheless, we are completely captured by the story of her difficult life during the war, as she slowly and with great suspense works her way to the point.

Dia has been left without enough support on a remote farm in South Carolina after only being married a few days. She soon dismisses the slave woman caring for baby Charlie when she sees her smack him. Eventually, she is left with too little help on a farm that is repeatedly looted by deserters and bandits, as well as undergoing normal threats to agriculture by the weather.

link to NetgalleyThis is a powerful novel. If I have any complaints about it, it is for Dia’s devotion to her husband after he leaves her without word or enough help for several years and then, upon returning home and hearing rumors of her illegitimate child, apparently turns her over to the authorities without even speaking to her. Then she decides not to tell him what happened for his own sake.

Told in a series of letters and diary entries, this story gripped me from the first page. it is a forceful depiction of the vicissitudes of war on the innocent civilians and a great character study of a strong woman.

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Day 883: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Cover for Salmon Fishing in the YemenI enjoyed the movie Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a light romantic comedy, so I picked up the novel. Although most of the same elements are there, the novel is a bit darker and more satirical, the emphasis on government idiocy.

Dr. Alfred Jones is a scientist for the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence. He loves his work but is taken aback when he receives a letter about assisting with a project to establish salmon in the Yemen, to be sponsored by a wealthy sheik. Fred thinks the idea is scientifically absurd and ignores it.

But government officials in the prime minister’s office get wind of the project and see it as a possible source of good publicity about the relationship between the U.K. and the Middle East. The outcome is that Fred is ordered to follow through on the project.

Fred is pleasantly surprised at the apparent competence of the project manager, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, but it is when he meets the sheik that he begins to have an interest in the project. The sheik is a devoted fisherman who has an outlandish but possibly feasible plan for his project.

Fred’s marriage isn’t going smoothly. His no-nonsense wife Mary has accepted a temporary posting to Geneva without consulting him. She is far better paid than he is and is dismissive in her attitudes toward his career, even when a political shift toward the project gets him fired and he is taken on by Harriet’s company at a lot higher salary.

Harriet also has some personal problems. Her fiancé Robert has been posted somewhere in the Middle East, and she is no longer receiving his letters. Nor can she get any information about him from the Marines.

This novel is epistolary, told completely in emails, Fred’s diary entries, letters, transcripts of interviews, and newspaper articles. It is occasionally funny, almost ridiculously satirical, and a little bit sweet. However, if you are hoping for the movie ending, you will be disappointed, because in the movies, the boy always has to get the girl, especially if he’s played by Ewan McGregor. In fiction, things can be more complicated.

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Day 684: Ella Minnow Pea

Cover for Ella Minnow PeaEven though I enjoyed Mark Dunn’s unusual novel Under the Harrow, I avoided Ella Minnow Pea for some time because it sounded too gimmicky. When I finally read it, I found it mildly entertaining, but yes gimmicky, although I can see why it would amuse those with a different sense of humor than mine.

Ella Minnow Pea is a 17-year-old girl living on a fictional island off the coast of South Carolina that is not part of the United States. This island, called Nollop, is named after Nevin Nollop, the supposed author of “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” Nollop is the island’s most eminent native son, and there is a cenotaph containing the sentence in the middle of Nollopton.

This epistolary novel opens with a letter from Ella to her cousin Tassie in Nollopville, in which she relates that the letter z fell off the cenotaph. Soon, the island council announces that the spirit of Nollop has used this way to send the message that the letter z must be removed from all island correspondence and speech. Violation of this statute is punished severely with a third occurrence resulting in banishment. The libraries are soon closed, because no books exist without the letter z. A rebellious youth is banished almost immediately. Conveniently, the procedures for running the government are destroyed, including those for recalling the council, because they contain the banned letter. People make mistakes and are punished or banished. The radio station eventually shuts down and the newspaper struggles, because it is too difficult to avoid the letter.

Then another letter falls, then another.

It is mildly amusing to see how the characters get around the problem of the disappearing letters in their correspondence. Of course, the novel is a statement about tyranny and freedom of expression.

Dunn’s latest novel Ibid, a novel written entirely in footnotes, has good reviews for its originality. Another gimmick, and I’m not sure I’ll try it. Dunn’s interests seem to lie in inventing isolated imaginary places where over-elaborate speech is common, along with made-up words, and where the government can’t be trusted.

Have you read Ibid? What did you think of it?

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Day 604: The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories

Cover for The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost StoriesIn honor of Halloween, I decided to read this collection of 35 ghost stories from Victorian times, when they were very popular. This collection contains stories by well-known writers of the time, such as Charles Dickens, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins, and Rudyard Kipling, as well as those by other less-known writers.

First, I’ll comment that modern audiences probably won’t find them very scary. But I’m not so sure this has anything to do with the period or the ability of the writers. I think it’s very difficult to handle genre fiction successfully in a short story. Short stories seem to me to be more suited for literary fiction somehow. A few years ago, for example, I read a collection of mystery short stories but felt that the form didn’t allow much space to really develop an interesting atmosphere or characters. It merely allowed the author to pose a puzzle and a solution.

The Victorian ghost stories seem to observe a few conventions. Unlike the gothic stories from the preceding years, Victorian ghost stories are more homey and less likely to include oddities, fantastic events, or exotic settings. Many of them are presented as a person telling a story to one or more other people, often as an evening entertainment before the fire. Almost all of them involve haunted houses, which often seem to be leased to unwary renters at a suspiciously low price. (But I shouldn’t mock. I actually have a friend who found himself in precisely this situation.) Another common theme is a haunted object. In most of the stories, the worst thing that happens is that someone sees a ghost, although there are a couple that are a little more gruesome.

I found the story-telling approach a little tiresome after awhile and was refreshed by the ebulliant characters writing the letters in the epistolary story “The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth,” by Rhoda Broughton. “The Romance of Old Clothes” by Henry James and a few others also stood out. The collection even includes one vampire tale.

If you are looking for some chilling reading, you’re not really going to find it here. (Although I’ll suggest that any of these stories may be more successful if read out loud, preferably on a dark and stormy Halloween night.) However, if you are interested in the genre or the time period, you’ll probably find the collection worth dipping into.

Day 552: Dracula

Cover for DraculaHaving experienced other gothic classics of the 18th and 19th century, I was delighted to find Dracula unexpectedly readable. I was also surprised to find how little it resembles its many theatrical and movie productions, even those that attempt to stay closer to the original work.

All versions begin the same, however, with poor Jonathan Harker sent out by his office to Transylvania to complete a property deal with his client, Count Dracula. While staying at Dracula’s castle, he begins to suspect something is badly amiss and eventually fears for his life.

Back in England, his fiancée Mina Murray corresponds with and later stays with her good friend Lucy Westerna at a seaside town. In one day, Lucy has received proposals from three different young men, who all feature strongly in the novel. Dr. Jack Seward is in charge of a local insane asylum. Quincy Morris is a manly, amiable Texan, whom I feared all along was designed for a ghastly death. Lucy’s chosen is Arthur Holmwood, another manly young man who is soon promoted to a lordship by the convenient death of a benefactor. (I don’t think these things work this way, since Arthur is not his benefactor’s relative, but never mind.)

After a freakish storm, a Russian ship arrives unmanned at the port where Mina and Lucy are staying with Mrs. Westerna, who is gravely ill. As it arrives, a large dog jumps off it and runs ashore. Aboard is not a single live human. We horror aficianados know that Dracula has arrived.

While Mina waits for news of Jonathan, Lucy begins sleepwalking and behaving oddly. Dr. Seward makes notes about a patient who eats bugs and babbles about his master. Soon Van Helsing will be needed.

Unlike in most of the spin-offs, except for Jonathan Harker’s experiences at the beginning, Dracula is mostly an unseen menace for much of the novel. I’m guessing that the original readers did not necessarily realize the identity of that bat fluttering outside Lucy’s window.

In any case, the novel covers a lot more ground than does the standard remake. It is epistolary, written entirely as letters and journal entries. It is well written and moves along nicely except for the occasionally long-winded expulsion of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo by Van Helsing or Seward. In the true gothic fashion, it is a classic battle of good versus evil, with the prize the soul of our heroine Mina.

Modern readers may be bothered by the depiction of the two women. Lucy is supposed to be a modern woman—who else would have three suitors at a time? She is both innocent and pure in herself and quite the seductive vamp when under the spell of Count Dracula. The men do a lot of harm to both her and Mina by trying to protect the “little women” from knowledge of what is going on. Again, try to judge the novel’s attitudes by the standards of its own time, when it was simply considered a whomping good tale.