Review 1561: #1956 Club! Sprig Muslin

Seven years ago, Sir Gareth Ludlow’s fiancée died tragically. Since then, he hasn’t met any woman who would make him forget her. He knows it’s his duty to marry, though, so he decides to propose to his shy friend Lady Hester Theale.

On his way to Lady Hester, he meets a beautiful young lady in some difficulty. He learns that in trying to force her grandfather to let her marry, she has run off with the aim of becoming a governess. When her supposed employer turned her away, she presented herself at the inn where he meets her proposing herself as a chambermaid.

Gareth is afraid that Amanda is too inexperienced to know what dangers she may encounter, but she will not tell him her grandfather’s name, so he takes her to Hester. Hester’s family assumes he has brought along his mistress, and her roué uncle spirits Amanda away the next morning.

Sprig Muslin is Heyer at her most ridiculous and fun, as Amanda’s fibs land her and Sir Gareth into serious trouble, requiring, of course, more and more fibs. As usual, her characters are lovable and her wit engaging. I always love reading Heyer, This one, I reread for the 1956 Club.

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Review 1560: #1956 Club! The Towers of Trebizond

The Towers of Trebizond, which I read for the 1956 Club, is said to be Rose Macaulay’s masterpiece. When I first began reading it, I was surprised at this, for it seemed to be a light comedy about eccentric people traveling in Turkey. To be sure, the narrator, Laurie, is erudite but relates the story in gushes of information, whimsy, and wit. But oh, when Laurie describes the wonders of past civilizations or her love of the rituals of the Anglican (high) church (I’m picking “her,” to discuss later), you see that there is more to this novel than humor.

Laurie and her Aunt Dot are on a trip to Turkey, accompanied by Father Chantry-Pigg. Laurie and Aunt Dot are writing a book about Turkey, Aunt Dot hopes to enlighten Moslem women by converting them to the Anglican church, and Father Chantry-Pigg, whose inappropriate last name becomes a running joke, wants converts. On the way, they pick up Aunt Dot’s friend Dr. Halide, who is also interesting in the liberation of women. Oh, and Aunt Dot brings her camel.

This may not sound funny, but all of the characters except Laurie are so obsessed with their hobby horses that the conversations are delightful. Later, we meet David, who has taken advantage of his ex-lover Charles’s death to steal the material Charles has written about Turkey and publish it under his own name—only Laurie has found Charles’s notebook in his old hotel room.

The central conflict for Laurie is that she is a believer in her church, but she has left it because of a long-lasting affair with Vere, a married man. Her heart yearns for the church, but she feels unable to break with Vere, whom she loves deeply.

This novel is beautifully written, witty, and finally bittersweet. I was unable to follow some of the detail about the church, and being American, I don’t have the classical background to understand all the references Laurie throws in about ancient civilizations. However, I greatly enjoyed this novel, which goes much deeper than it initially seems it will.

I wasn’t aware of this at first, but apparently there is an issue about Laurie’s sex—is she male or female? Perhaps this didn’t occur to me because my illustrated Folio Society edition makes the decision that she’s female. But what does occur to me is this: doesn’t the question imply sexism? That is, I can only imagine this question was raised because Laurie thinks nothing of, say, riding a camel across Syria by herself. But then, neither does Aunt Dot have any problem with walking across the Iron Curtain just to see what it’s like on the other side. I got no sense at all of a masculine personality in Laurie. Finally, Laurie’s bar to returning to the church is adultery, not adultery and homosexuality, and although Macaulay teases us for a while by not revealing Vere’s sex until the end, she finally does so. I think this whole sex issue is just caused by some people’s assumptions that a woman couldn’t be this adventurous in 1956.

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Review 1549: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

Readers Imbibing Peril XV was just announced for books in September and October, and just by coincidence, here is my first entry.

Theodora Goss must really like Victorian and earlier monster stories. In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, she brings together characters inspired from Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker, adding in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Nathaniel Hawthorne for good measure.

Mary Jekyll’s mother has just died, and Mary has been left in near poverty. While going through her father’s papers, she finds that her mother was paying monthly sums for the support of Hyde. Thinking that if Mr. Hyde was alive, he might be responsible for the series of grizzly Jack the Ripper murders, she goes to Sherlock Holmes to find out how she might investigate and claim the reward for solving the case.

Dr. Watson comes with her to the address on the invoices to what turns out to be a home for fallen women. There they find, not Mr. Hyde, but a teenage girl named Diana Hyde, who calls her sister.

When Mary and Diana continue to investigate their father’s papers, they take up with Beatrice Rappachini, whose father changed her to breathe poison; Catherine Moreau, half woman, half panther; and Justine Frankenstein. They all begin working with Holmes and Watson to try to solve the killings.

At first, this seemed like a fun book for light reading. It was written in a jaunty style, with characters interrupting as Catherine writes their story, and it seemed entertaining and clever. By 50 pages in, I felt I had figured out everything important, just not the details. By 100 pages in, the story was beginning to flag. The characters didn’t have discernible personalities. It struck me that Holmes, for example, is described as being full of himself when he hasn’t behaved that way.

I finally stopped about halfway through, because I still had 200 pages to read and I wasn’t enjoying myself. What had started out seeming a clever idea got old and was too over the top.

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Review 1540: The Uninhabited House

Miss Blake is an eccentric figure whose arrival is looked forward to by the clerks in Mr. Craven’s office, including Harry Patterson, the narrator. She only arrives when the tenants have unexpectedly left her niece’s house, which is all too often. For the house has a reputation.

Miss Blake and her ward Helena have been a charge on poor, kind-hearted Mr. Craven since the death of Robert Elmsdale, Helena’s father. Thought to be wealthy, he was found to be in considerable debt when he died. Now, the house in which he died is supposedly haunted. Mr. Craven doesn’t believe in ghosts and supposes someone is trying to keep the house from being occupied.

After a disastrous lawsuit resulting from the early vacancy of the house by a tenant, Miss Blake declares she will pay £50 to anyone who can solve the mystery of the house. Although Miss Blake has never paid any of Mr. Craven’s bills, Mr. Craven is so desperate to relinquish Miss Blake’s account that he vows to pay the money to anyone who can solve the mystery.

Patterson finds himself in need of money, because he has fallen in love with Helena Elmsdale. So, he volunteers to stay in the house and try to discover its secrets.

This is a joyful little novel despite its theme. Patterson tells the story with plenty of gentle, good-natured humor, and his affection for Mr. Craven is very clear. The mystery is perhaps not too confounding, but the book itself is a pleasure to read, with eccentric characters and lots of atmosphere. Is it a ghost story as well as a mystery? I’ll never tell.

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Review 1506: The Broom of the System

We first meet Lenore Beadsman in 1981 as a 15-year-old on a visit to her sister at Mount Holyoke. There, three guys from Amherst invade the girls’ dorm room and more or less sexually assault them, except Lenore, who leaves. The point of this part?

We meet her again working as a receptionist in Cleveland and having an affair with her boss, Rick Vigorous. Her great-grandmother has disappeared from a nursing home along with a substantial number of patients and some staff. The manager of the home, which is owned by Lenore’s wealthy father, has been asked to keep the incident quiet, but he asks Lenore to contact her father. She is unable to reach him, however.

I tried hard to read this novel, which I know is considered brilliant and was recommended by my brother, but I just couldn’t get on the same wavelength with it. Though I know it was considered innovative in its time (1987), it seemed dated to me, both in its bizarre zany humor, which reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces, Tim Robbins, or Richard Brautigan, and in its treatment of women. I read about a quarter of it but saw myself completely lose interest when the cockatiel started spouting break-up lines. The novel just seemed too ridiculous, and I also felt it wasn’t going anywhere. The hyper-intellectual dialogue seemed completely unlikely. It also seemed pretentious.

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Review 1481: You & Me

I’ve got two words for this book. Not funny. Actually, I have two more. Not interesting. In fact, I found it unbearable.

Two guys are sitting on a porch talking. Their conversation wanders among many subjects. This novel is supposed to be a take-off on “Waiting for Godot.” I don’t know why “Waiting for Godot” needs a take-off. It’s sort of a take-off of itself.

I don’t know what the James Tait Black judges were thinking. A parody like this is funny for about two pages, not an entire book.

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Review 1377: Lincoln in the Bardo

The title Lincoln in the Bardo is the first tip-off that this book is unusual, for it refers to a Tibetan concept of immediate life after death. The novel is set in a graveyard after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willy, and is narrated by a host of ghosts who don’t know they are dead and are clinging to their worldly concerns. It is also moved along by quotations, some real, some fictitious, by accounts of the time, letters, and historical accounts.

The ghosts in the graveyard are grotesqueries who physically manifest the obsessions they had in life. The two most important ghosts in the novel, for example, are Hans Vollman, who sports an enormous erect penis because he died before he could consummate his marriage; and Roger Bevins III, whose sensual nature is indicated by his multiple eyes, noses, and hands. Okay, this can be comic. It is certainly an amusing idea. But after a while, I began to miss the subtle humor that seems to have deserted us in recent years.

The thrust of the plot is that children aren’t meant to linger in the Bardo or terrible things happen to them. However, Lincoln arrives early in the novel to visit his son in his grief, and he says he will return. Vollman, Bevins, and their friend, the Reverend Everly Thomas, become determined to help Willy leave, and to do so they must get Lincoln to return to the tomb and release him.

This novel is wildly original. Aside from the characteristics I’ve mentioned, it is written more like a screenplay than a novel. It also resonates deeply in its themes of grief, Lincoln’s worries about the war, and the concerns of life affecting the afterlife. Still, I was repelled by how crude and crass it is at times. I also felt that the novel was much longer than it needed to be. You get the idea about the ghosts fairly quickly, but the supernatural chatter becomes boring after a while.

I read this for my Booker Prize project.

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Review 1374: The Sellout

Really? This book won the Booker Prize? I know my sense of humor is getting to be out of date, and when I read on the blurb that the book was “biting satire,” I just sighed. There’s no subtlety in humor anymore, and this novel is a prime example. Its writing style is broad and hectic, like a really long stand-up comedy routine. I’m guessing you either love it or hate it.

The narrator, a black man whose name is Me, starts out the novel at the Supreme Court, where he is being tried as a slave owner and is getting a lot of hatred because of his race. He proceeds to tell the story of how he got there, spending lots of time getting to the crux of the story.

The beginning of the book, where he satirizes his upbringing as a subject of his father’s childhood development experiments, is over the top but amusing. When he introduces the character of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, his all-on employment of racial stereotypes (to make fun of them, of course) was too much for me. I quit about halfway, after he reluctantly made Hominy his slave.

Be warned that this novel makes extensive use of the N word. I’m not sure, but Beatty’s intent may be to desensitize us to it. If so, it didn’t work.

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Review 1371: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Ottessa Moshfegh is good at creating unappealing characters, and the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is no exception. From a privileged background, pretty and with no need to work, she inwardly mocks everything, including her only friend, Reva. Depressed by the deaths of her cold parents and by being dumped by her cruel boyfriend, Trevor, she decides that she wants to sleep her way into a new life. So, she loads up with a cocktail of prescription drugs, supplied by her batty, pill-pushing psychiatrist.

This novel can be darkly funny, mostly in a cruel poking at Reva’s social ambitions or other characters’ taste, but also poking fun at the modern art scene. Still, I found it both oddly fascinating and distasteful, despite a more positive ending.

This novel is set in the early 2000’s and works its way resolutely to 9/11.

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Review 1350: Nine Perfect Strangers

Cover for Nine Perfect StrangersLiane Moriarty must be reading Carl Hiaasen or something. Her works have changed from being domestic thrillers to almost a satire of the genre. In the latest, it was difficult to get too worried about the characters.

Frances is a romance novelist who has just received her first turn-down of her latest book, after a long career. She has also read a nasty review of one of her older books. Finally, she’s been the victim of a romantic scam. To recover, she signs up for a 10-day cleanse at a health spa.

Masha, the charismatic owner of the spa, is trying out some new techniques on her clients. A powerful executive ten years ago, she changed her life after a stroke and took up the health field with all the determination she showed in her previous life. Only now, she wants her clients to have an experience that will permanently change their lives.

For about half this novel, I wondered where the heck it was going. It seemed more comic than anything else. Masha is a marvelous egoist, but it was also hard to take most of the other characters seriously.

When the novel finally started getting somewhere, the whole idea just seemed kind of silly, as does the section where the characters inadvertently take some illegal drugs, well, not exactly inadvertently, and we have to observe their silly thought processes.

A hmmm for this one.

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