Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Mad Gardener's Song

Lewis Carroll
The Mad Gardener's Song

Nifty little poem from Sylvie and Bruno.  The gardener keeps hallucinating, till he realises that a bar of mottled soap isn't an argument that proves he's the Pope.  Favorite rhyme:  chimney-piece/Sister's Husband's niece/Police.

Overall, I'd say this Carroll collection averages out to a B.

From 18 to 20

1888, original Lippincott edition
Elizabeth Jaudon Sellers
From 18 to 20
Bought used (of course) for $4.00
Amazingly good condition hardcover

I remember buying this book when I was 18, partly because I thought it was cool that when I turned 20 the book would be 100.  And I remember that much more than I remembered anything about this book, other than the heroine getting lost in a cave before being rescued by her "true love."

This is not only the oldest book I own, it's probably the worst.  While Beatrice is in the cave, she burns two "seaside novels" so she'll have a fire to keep warm, and while I don't advocate book-burning, I'd have to say that if they were on the level of this one, they can't have been much loss to the world.  The characterization is remarkably shallow.  To the extent that Beatrice has any personality, it's because she's unpleasant.  She insults a neighbor just because he's not a figure from her romantic daydreams.  She makes lots of snarky comments about women and girls, including how boring and hypocritical they are. 

She's courted by two men, who for no good reason share a first name.  One is rich and too emotional, the other less rich and seemingly more aloof.  It turns out that the latter's fiancee, who conveniently dies and leaves a letter explaining everything, was in a Miss De Bourgh/Darcy situation, where the parents pressured them into the engagement.  But of course he only loves Beatrice.  Since he's the least developed character in the book (other than Beatrice's four out of six siblings that we never even get names of, after being promised to be allowed to judge them for ourselves), it's hard to care.  When he references Isaak Walton, rather than simply saying "I went fishing," at a time that he's supposed to be in the throes of emotion, he becomes less than cardboard.

And since the triangle of Charles J./Beatrice/Charles T. is more slanted than the Twilight saga, it's idiotic that the novel ends on the cliffhanger of the heroine sending two replies to her suitors, one positive, the other negative.   "Did I yield my heart, my life, my all, to Love or Riches?"  Gee, I dunno.  What do you think?

Incredibly, this book is back in print, in case you want to read it.  It's not quite so bad it's good, but it does verge on that.  You'll get a slight sense of the times, like that dance cards are by the 1880s (at least in the U.S.) completely meaningless and you don't have to worry about offending men by dancing with someone else.  Also, apparently a woman can propose to a man all through leap year, and not just on Leap Day.

Looking Backward

1888, 1960 Signet Classic edition
Edward Bellamy
Looking Backward: 2000-1887
Original price $1.95, bought used for $1.50
Frayed paperback

This was one of the most influential books of its time, although it's less well known now.  I liked it less on this reading than I remembered, although I am still amused that Bellamy sort of predicted radio (including radio preachers) and some aspects of modern shopping.  In Bellamy's 21st-century world, money has been abolished and people live on credit cards, often ordering warehouse purchases that are delivered later, but this is all for very different reasons than in the real 21st century.  The introduction by Erich Fromm points out that Bellamy couldn't have predicted what would happen with both capitalism and socialism, or the dangers of a society run by managers, and of course Fromm didn't know what changes the next half century would bring.  (There's also a reference to contemporary "visions of travel to the moon" that would date itself before the end of the 1960s.) 

For my post on More's Utopia, I pointed out that that world wasn't very "utopian," and I doubt More meant it to be ideal.  Bellamy really seemed to think that his is the best possible world.  However, despite Fromm's belief that Bellamy shows "complete equality of the sexes," that's not what I see.  Women's roles are almost an after-thought, and I have no idea what Mrs. and Miss Leete's careers are.  (Dr. Leete is a retired medical doctor.)  Apparently, Bellamy addressed women's rights in the sequel, Equality (1897).

Bellamy does not at any time, however, seem to have thought it odd that this is a world without democracy.  The Presidents rise from the ranks and are chosen in a manner sort of like a republic.  Now admittedly, compared to the political corruption of his day, this might've been an improvement.  But again, I can't believe that Bellamy's imagined society is the best that anyone could come up with even at the time.  I also find the way the "bloodless revolution" happens, through common sense and inevitability, a bit sketchy.  Still, he meant well, and if you can get past these issues, and the somewhat bland characterizations, this book might be worth a read.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Jo's Boys

1886, 1957 Doubleday edition
Louisa May Alcott
Illustrated by Ruth Ives
Jo's Boys, and How They Turned Out
Bought used for $3.95
Hardcover with a bit of mold and the spine starting to break

If Little Women is about submission, then this "positively last appearance" of the March girls and their friends and family is about rebellion.  Other than "Mrs. Jo" herself, this is seen in the most vivid characters:  Teddy (Jo's son), Josie (her niece), and Jo's favorite boy, Dan.  Yes, they all have to learn to control their tempers and/or high spirits, but it's nothing like the breaking of Jo in the first book.

Alcott herself, two years away from death, seems to be growing restless.  She mocks her fans and herself in the chapter "Jo's Last Scrape," the one with the "moral pap" quote, as Mrs. Jo finds that fame is a great annoyance.  In the final chapter, she writes, "It is a strong temptation to the weary historian to close the present tale with an earthquake which should engulf Plumfield and its environs so deeply in the bowels of the earth that no youthful Schliemann could ever find a vestige of it."  This is five years before Arthur Conan Doyle unsuccessfully tosses Holmes into the Reichenbach Falls, but Alcott decides not to be that apocalyptic.  She wraps up everyone's lives in one long paragraph and then has "the curtain fall forever on the March family."

This final book of the trilogy opens ten years later than the middle book, but Alcott's math is bad as ever.  "Baby Josie" of Little Men is now 15, until a few months later, when she turns 14.  There's a reference to the set of Jo's Boys in this novel being her original dozen, and yet there's a "merry little quadroon" in the last chapter of Little Women who never appears in either sequel.

There are as many Dickensian references as ever.  (Imagine reading "Dick Swiveller" out of context, as I originally did.)  And this time we learn that Jo prefers "little Charlotte Brontë" to George Eliot, because the former was a Christian.  I wonder if Alcott had read Daniel Deronda, because the scene where Josie asks a famous actress if she has any talent herself is like a much kinder version of Herr Klesmer dismissing Gwendolen's hopes.  He tells Gwendolen that being a lady would probably be a drawback, while the class of Miss Cameron and Josie is seen as a way to uplift drama.  Josie and her artistic cousin Bess are successful in their careers, quite a contrast to Jo and particularly Amy realizing they're not going to be great creative successes.  And Nan is a happy spinster doctor.  The spirit of "Woman's Rights" is stronger than in the earlier books, although Alcott still emphasizes "womanly arts" like sewing, even for Latin & Greek scholars.

At an early point in the story, "firebrand" Dan says the word "damn."  That's pretty out there for Alcott.  And then later in the novel, he kills a man!  It's in self defense, but it's another sign of how Alcott was torn between sensation and moralizing.  She achieves a balance between them in this novel, even if it means that there's one courtship caused by a donkey and a bicycle, and another by a shipwreck.  It's definitely a flawed book, but I think it's her second best.

It certainly has the best illustrations of any Alcott books that I own.  (Even the ones that don't have illustrations throughout tend to have covers that look wrong, like Rose Campbell's hair being more 1975 than 1875.)  Ives captures the humor and pathos of every scene, and the clothing and furnishings look authentically late Victorian.  It's a shame I can't keep this edition, due to its condition.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

1885, 1987 Signet Classic edition
Mark Twain
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer's Comrade
Probably bought new for $1.75
Very tattered paperback with back cover probably going to come off with another reading or two

Not only isn't this The Great American Novel, it's not even as good as I remember.  I do appreciate the irony of Huck's situation, that he has to do "wrong" to do good, in this case not turning in Miss Watson's "property," the slave Jim.  I also enjoy the "King" and the "Duke," and how Huck reacts to their various scams.  However, I find the descriptions of steering up and down the Mississippi to be very confusing, although there are some nice descriptions of nature.  I also get annoyed with Tom Sawyer showing up in the last part of the book to "free" Jim using a very elaborate scheme, when Huck could release Jim in minutes, and it turns out that Tom knows all along that Miss Watson has already freed Jim.  And after portraying Jim in a more complex and sympathetic way than most of Twain's contemporaries, it's like a slap in a face when we get the simple-minded slave guarding Jim.

Early in the book, there's a section on "Tom Sawyer's Gang," where Tom explains how they'll embark on a life of crime, and it's very similar to the plan in Tom Sawyer, down to not killing the kidnapped women, who'll fall in love with them. Huck comes across as very chivalrous of women and girls in this book, but he does get the name of Tom's girlfriend wrong, "Bessie Thatcher."

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Eligible Apartments

Lewis Carroll
Eligible Apartments

This puzzle story was originally published in a magazine before it was published in book form.  It contains two puzzles, the second of which "The Lodgings," I've never understood, even with Carroll's explanation, so F+ for that.  The other, "The Dinner Party," is more fun as it involves drawing family trees.  If you want to try it yourself, here it is in a nutshell:  "The Governor of Kgovjni wants to give a very small dinner party, and invites his father's brother-in-law, his brother's father-in-law, his father-in-law's brother, and his brother-in-law's father. Find the number of guests."  The correct answer is one, but you have to work out how.  I'd give that puzzle a B.  And a C+ for the story itself, since the funniest thing in it is a mother-in-law joke.  This averages out to a C.

And if you want to see Carroll's answer, this is one site that has it:  http://www.onlinemathlearning.com/tangled-tale-knot2-answer.html

The Way of All Flesh

1884 (see below), undated Classics Club edition
Samuel Butler
The Way of All Flesh
Original price unknown, bought used for $4.75
Surprisingly good condition hardcover

Butler worked on this book from 1872 to 1884 but it wasn't published in his lifetime.  So I'm going with the latter date.  Like Erewhon, it's both a very Victorian book and a very anti-Victorian book.  There seem to be autobiographical elements in the tale of a young man who first gives in to and then rebels against his minister father.  The young man is named Ernest because his mother values earnestness, an attitude that Wilde would parody in guess what play.

I laughed out loud a few times during the first half of the novel, even though it was about how terrible Ernest's parents are.  Like Erewhonian parents, they see children as a burden and make their offspring feel guilty about it.  Of course, there's nothing funny about this in real life, but Butler has a way of bringing out the bitter humour.  In one passage, Butler draws conclusions about the history of British fatherhood based on fiction:  "The violent type of father, as described by Fielding, Richardson, Smollett and Sheridan, is now hardly...likely to find a place in literature...but the type was much too persistent not to have been drawn from nature closely. The parents in Miss Austen's novels are less like savage wild beasts than those of her predecessors, but she evidently looks upon them with suspicion, and an uneasy feeling that le pere de famille est capable de tout makes itself sufficiently apparent throughout the greater part of her writings."

The second half of the novel focuses on Ernest's adulthood and I found it a bit less interesting and less funny.  Butler goes up to "the present," 1882, in order to show that Ernest's own "illegitimate" children, whom he's had poor but (mostly) honest strangers bring up, have turned out well.  This is ironic in light of what's going to be revealed in Erewhon Revisited....

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Egoist

1879, 1979 Penguin English Library edition
George Meredith
The Egoist: A Comedy in Narrative
Original price unknown, bought used for $2.75
Worn paperback but not bad condition for its age

If you thought Anna Karenina had a hard time getting out of a marriage, it's nothing to what Clara Middleton goes through trying to break off her engagement to the title character.  Luckily, this is a comedy and things end well for her, although not so much for Letty Dale, who is "an old woman" in her thirtieth year.  George Meredith has been called "a prose Browning," but I see him as the comedic version of Tolstoy, or George Eliot.  Like Leo and Girl George, Mr. Meredith likes to not just tell us what his characters are up to, but draw conclusions about humanity from this.  Thus what could be a breezy drawing-room farce (with Meredith more proto-Wildean than he was two decades earlier with Richard Feverel) pushes 600 pages.  George Woodcock's introduction calls this Meredith's most intellectual novel, but as with Eliot and Tolstoy, that's a mixed blessing.

It's been a long time since I've read Kate Millett's analysis of this novel, but I remember she dismissed the last portion of the novel as Austenian romantic misunderstandings.  (It was a few years too early for her to compare it to Three's Company.)  I think this is a disservice to both Jane Austen and Meredith.  In Richard Feverel, despite the tragedy, there's hope almost throughout, but here Clara's plight is overly disturbing.  Like Austen's Willoughby, Meredith's Willoughby is self-centred and womanising.  The latter's seductions are off-page but suggested more than once.  The damage that Meredith focuses on is mental and emotional.  Sir Willoughby treats everyone like a possession, but Vernon and the others are allowed some independence.  Clara and then Leticia are to be owned, body and soul.

On the one hand, it's admirable that Meredith exposed the male ego as he did, and in such a way that Willoughby is, as Meredith told a friend, "all of us."  On the other hand, spending so much of the novel with this unsavoury person (so that women, too, must identify with him) is disturbing in a different way than it was participating in Anna Karenina's moral and mental decline.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Anna Karenina

1877, 1988 Bantam Classic edition
Leo Tolstoy, translated by Joel Carmichael
Anna Karenina
Bought new for $3.50
Very tattered paperback, might survive another reading or two.

I first read this novel in high school, maybe four years before this edition came out.  I remember how strange it was for us 1980s Californian teenagers to understand such a different culture, particularly in regards to divorce.  Yet, on reading it now, I find that it's definitely a more familiar world to me than Twain's Missouri.  In fact, that world of gossip and hypocrisy, where a man can sleep around and be cool but a woman who has a love affair is a slut, that world sounds remarkably like high school. 

There's no question that this is an adult novel though, especially with Levin's religious crisis.  He is probably the real main character, as well as being the representative of the author.  This is true even before Anna's suicide.  And yet, it's a novel that's long enough and rich enough that almost everyone becomes the protagonist at least for a moment, even the hunting dogs.  True, the lower classes (from gentry on down) are just lightly sketched, the peasants in particular being "othered."  But Tolstoy does take you into the heads of rivals and estranged spouses, and makes you identify with both sides.  Every act a nobleman or noblewoman would perform, from making tea to going off to war, is represented.

In fact, it can get to be a bit much, when the activities aren't that interesting to me, like hunting.  I admire the realism, but like life, I don't necessarily want to hear every detail.  Similarly, I don't really want to be inside Anna's head when she's tormented by thoughts of jealousy and madness.  In the introduction, Malcolm Cowley points out that Tolstoy's society believed that Anna had to be punished for her sins, but I would've found it more plausible for her and Vronsky to just grow apart.  Their love has always struck me as shallow, particularly since she can't even tell him how much she misses her son. 

This reading, I was most interested in the Oblonskys of the couples.  It's quite clear that after eight or nine children she's lost her looks (although she's still "beautiful"), and he blames her for this, and uses it as an excuse to repeatedly cheat on her.  But I bet he's always been unfaithful because of the type of person he is.  And yet, like the characters, I can't hate him.  Meanwhile, Dolly, whom you'd expect to disapprove of Anna, is actually the best friend Anna has.  Her whole identity is wrapped up in her children, and yet even she thinks they're the worst behaved.  Tolstoy may fall into cliches, as with Kitty at times, and yet part of his realism is an acknowledgment of how complex everyone is.  Well, except for the peasants.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tom Sawyer

1876, 1981 Bantam Classic edition
Mark Twain
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Original and purchase price unknown
Tattered paperback

There's not really anything I relate to in this book, unless it's how when you're a child $100 seems like a lot of money.  (Even more so in 1876 than in 1976.)  Yet, it's an enjoyable read, with lots of small-town adventure.  It is a bit odd that in one chapter there's a picnic and then in another Tom and Huckleberry Finn are trailing murderers, but maybe all adventures are about equal to a boy of that time and place.  I can't tell how old Tom is supposed to be.  He's described as a "small boy," which would make me guess 6 or 7, but he acts more like a preteen.  Wikipedia says Huck would be 12 or 13 in this book, so Tom must be about that.

Tom and Huck are so identified together, it's surprising to relearn that he's a minor character in the first half of the book, and Tom's best friend is Joe Harper, whom no one remembers.  (Maybe if there'd been an Adventures of Joe Harper.)  I remember preferring Huckleberry Finn to this novel, and we'll see if that holds true when I get up to the mid-1880s.

Twain was looking back 30 or 40 years at his own childhood, and idealizing it.  So, as Alfred Kazin notes in the afterword, there's a certain innocence in how, for instance, kissing is presented.  On this reading, I was surprised by the repeated "Sh't" when one boy is "impersonating a steamboat."  Twain was still enough of a mischievous boy to try to get away with that and, like Tom in his scrapes, he did.

After 700 years, I've finally completed one bookcase shelf.  I've gotten rid of the discrete C's and C-s, and the books that were falling apart so much that I don't think they'd stand up to another reading.  I'll buy replacements of Austen and the others, but not anytime soon.  As I told a friend in a dream last night, taking me to a bookstore right now is like trying to fix up somebody who's very happily married.  I've got enough to keep me busy and I'm not shopping around.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Daniel Deronda

1876, 1966 Harper Colophon edition
George Eliot
Daniel Deronda
Original price unknown, bought used for $5.95
Somewhat tattered paperback

Eliot's last novel is a denser, more pain-filled book than Silas Marner or Middlemarch.  I used to own Mill on the Floss and Romola, but I enjoyed them less because they were Eliot at her most earnest.  This is somewhere in between.  I do agree with F. R. Leavis's introduction, that Gwendolyn is an achievement and the "Deronda" parts of the novel are weaker, although I disagree that Daniel himself is unbelievable.  Like Rosamond Vincy, Gwendolyn is a spoiled young beauty with a swan-like, or perhaps serpent-like, neck.  Yet, she's always a sympathetic character, even when we don't like her actions or thoughts.  She is self-centred but capable of devotion to her mother and empathy for Grandcourt's mistress and children.  Even when she thinks murderous thoughts of her husband, she does try to save him from drowning. 

As for the "Deronda" thread, while it's interesting to see Zionism portrayed sympathetically by a Victorian Protestant turned Agnostic, I got tired of Mordecai and everything relating to him.  The part about Daniel's search for his identity, including his parentage, intrigued me more.  But his mother's frustration as a female artist makes it seem like there are no good options for women, Gwendolen and Mirah the singer included.  Indeed, even though the story ends in a wedding, it's not at all a happy ending.  On the other hand, there are points, in the first 100 or so pages in particular, that are closer to Eliot's Middlemarch tone of dryness and social observation.

Ironically, she mocks both Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë indirectly.  On p. 65, she observes, "Some readers of this history will doubtless regard it as incredible that people should construct matrimonial prospects on the mere report that a bachelor of good fortune and possibilities was coming within reach, and will reject the statement as a mere outflow of gall: they will aver that neither they nor their first cousins have minds so unbridled; and that in fact this is not human nature, which would know that such speculations might turn out to be fallacious, and would therefore not entertain them."  This reading I picked up that she was disagreeing that "it's a truth universally acknowledged."  And about 50 pages later she comments on the portrayal of governesses in fiction, clearly invoking Jane Eyre among other works.

This edition has a faux-woodcut look to the front and back covers, so that the people, horses, and manor are filled with circles and straight lines.  It looks very dated, in a 1960s way more than 1870s.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Hunting of the Snark

Lewis Carroll
The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits

Although this contains some of the vocabulary of "Jabberwocky," I wouldn't call it a children's poem.  Take this recurring stanza:
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care
They pursued it with forks and hope
They threatened its life with a railway-share
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

It's much funnier to me at 43 than it would've been 35 years ago.  The absurdism of the poem, including that several professions are on board the ship and then there's a beaver who knits, feels different than the absurdism of the "Alice" stories.  And of course the modern use of "snark," which urbandictionary.com says is a combination of "snide" and "remark" (making it a Carrollian portmanteau), seems more adult or at least adolescent than childish.  The Snark here is a mythical beast who's pursued in Moby Dick fashion but, alas, turns out to be the dreaded Boojum.  As in Wonderland, there's a ridiculous trial, in this case of a pig who turns out to be dead.

The rhymes are delightful, my favorites being in this stanza:
"What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply,
"They are merely conventional signs!"

The poem seems to be begging to be read aloud, and I'd love to hear recommendations of good readings on Youtube and elsewhere.

Eight Cousins

1875, 1976 Grosset & Dunlap edition
Louisa May Alcott
Eight Cousins, or The Aunt-Hill
Bought new for $3.95
A couple food stains (macaroni & cheese?) and tattered bookjacket, otherwise good condition hardcover

I got this book from my aunt for Christmas 1976, as the note on the inside cover tells me.  I remember getting The Wizard of Oz from her on another Christmas, maybe the previous year.  I went on to become a huge Oz fan, but I never took to this book in the same way.  I'm finding that the non-Little-Women children's books by Alcott are pleasant but not as memorable.  For instance, I'd totally forgotten about the way Alcott plays with Chinese stereotypes in this book, so that I'm pretty sure she's mocking them and embracing them at the same time.

As for the main plot, 13-year-old orphan Rose has been living with her great-aunts for a year after the death of her father (her mother having died long ago), but now her Uncle Alec is coming to town to be her guardian.  Meanwhile, she has seven boy cousins that she's somehow not seen much of, although they all live locally and are about to become ubiquitous.  Lessons are learned, including that sensation stories are worse than cigars, and earrings and corsets are bad for health and vanity.  Uncle Alec encourages her to learn both housework and physiology.

So how does this "Rose" compare to the "Rose" of A Long Fatal Love Chase?  Well, Rosamond Vivian "sells her soul" for and gets a year of freedom but then the rest of her short life is spent running from her possessive "husband," until she dies in a boating accident he causes.  Rose Campbell is the subject of Uncle Alec's bet that he can be a good guardian for a year.  During that time, she agrees to trust his judgment but is allowed to tell him if his changes make her unhappy.  She becomes not only happier but healthier and more outgoing.  She also becomes a positive force in the lives of her cousins, and to a lesser degree her aunts.  (She has four regular aunts as well as the two great-aunts.)

In Rose in Bloom (1876), which I've read once or twice but don't own, Rose comes out in society and as a beautiful, rich heiress is sought as a wife, including by two of her cousins.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Around the World in Eighty Days

1873, 1956 Great Illustrated Classics (Dodd, Mead & Company) edition
Jules Verne, translated by George M. Towle
Around the World in Eighty Days
Original and purchase price unknown
Slightly worn hardcover

Not as good as Journey to the Centre of the Earth, although the second half, with its journey across the U.S. and its twist of an ending, is better than the first half, with the detour in India.  As Anthony Boucher notes in the introduction, Verne is "less than accurate in depicting the Hindu or the Mormon religion."  There's definitely a sense of colonialism in the novel, with its celebration of English imperialism and the depiction of both kinds of "Indians" as savages.  (Sioux warriors attack the train and kidnap Passepartout.)  Also, because of the rushed nature of the travels and the unemotional personality of Phileas (not Phineas) Fogg, I feel more removed from the journey than in JttCotE.  I haven't seen a movie adaptation, not even the "major film version" that the introduction says is forthcoming (it would go on to win five Oscars), but I suspect that I would get more sense of the journey if there were a visual element.

As for that twist, it is ironic because Fogg is so precise, particularly about time, and yet he's forgotten that travelling east, the days are getting shorter and he "gains" a day by constantly resetting his watch.  His servant Passepartout keeps his watch on London time (despite being French) and "it would have betrayed this fact, if it had marked the days as well as the hours and minutes."

This book is of course a celebration of then modern technology, although there are times when Fogg and his companions must get around by elephant, sledge, and their own feet.  The journey could now be made in much less than eighty days, but it's still impressive.

This edition has a pleasant, smooth translation, with the charming footnote:  "A somewhat remarkable eccentricity on the part of the London clocks!", when they all strike ten minutes before nine.  There are "biographical illustrations and drawings reproduced from early editions," which add appeal, although it does annoy me that one of them spoils Aouda's fate.  The love interest is India-Indian but fair-skinned and educated like an Englishwoman, so we know it's OK that (spoiler) Fogg marries her.  Like I said, it's a very colonial book, although I guess Fogg and Passepartout are English and French stereotypes respectively.


1872, 1964 Signet Classics edition
George Eliot
Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life
Original and purchase price unknown
Falling apart paperback

The whole time I was reading Shirley, I kept thinking, "Middlemarch did this so much better."  By "this" I meant romance, friendship, family, community, and history of an era about 40 years previous to its time, including both the reaction of workers to the Industrial Revolution and the dilemma of young middle-class women.  Middlemarch is like a very intelligent soap opera, with its interwoven tales of the lives in a slightly pre-Victorian (1829 to 1832) mid-sized Midlands town.  After 800 pages, we know who many of the citizens are, what they think and feel, what they do for a living, who they love and hate, and in some cases what they eat and wear.

I described the two romances in Shirley as "icky."  I can't say that all of the four romances in Middlemarch are appealing, but they're much more complex and believable.  Eliot even musters sympathy for Mr. Casaubon, the dry-as-dust first husband of idealistic Dorothea.  The young widow goes on to fall in love with and marry Will Ladislaw, whom Frank Kermode in his afterword sees as a "failure" by the author.  I remember Kate Millett in Sexual Politics saying that Dorothea deserves a better fate than just being secretary to her husbands.  The thing is, Dorothea doesn't have a lot of options, and she doesn't have the right personality to change the world as she wishes.  She draws plans of housing for the poor, and yet she's never studied architecture.  I'm not crazy about Will either-- it always annoys the heck out of me that he does "Hello, I must be going" for two or three hundred pages-- but he probably is the best option in town, particularly since Dr. Lydgate is taken.

Almost as soon as Lydgate is introduced, he makes a disclaimer to the reader that beautiful but earnest Dorothea isn't his type.  He prefers and marries beautiful but shallow Rosamond.  Since they both have champagne taste on a beer income (or maybe cider?), they get into debt.  She only makes matters worse by trying to get help from the wrong people.  The narrator/Eliot doesn't have much sympathy for her, partly because she has a swan-like neck (more about this when I get up to Daniel Deronda), and even blames her for her miscarriage.  In the end, saintly Dorothea reconciles them, although they're never really a happy couple, as the "Finale" informs us.

On the other hand, Mary and Fred "may be seen in white-haired placidity," even now in 1872.  She's so plain that her mother-in-law Mrs. Vincy is relieved that only one of the three grandsons "favors the Garths."  Mary is also sharp-tongued, like her own mother, who ironically always speaks in favor of the submission of women to men, particularly husbands.  Mary's father though is the easiest-going man in the novel, except for maybe Mr. Cadwallader, the rector.  Even when Mr. Garth quits a job on moral grounds, he's incredibly nice about it.

He quits the job because of the great hypocrisy of Mr. Bulstrode.  In the thread about Bulstrode, and how it affects Lydgate, we see the effect of rumours in a town.  This isn't just the villagers chatting at the pub in Silas Marner.  This is gossip by everyone everywhere, and it can ruin lives.

As for the historical aspect of the novel, Eliot convincingly recreates the world of her preteens.  We see how common people reacted to the coming of the railway.  We see how the upper class reacted to reform.  And we see what law, medicine, and religion were like in rural England.  Amusingly, auctioneers apparently haven't changed in the past two centuries, since Trumbull's patter is instantly recognizable.

I'm also amused that, like Little Women, there's a Mr. Brooks/Brooke and a "Dodo."  While Mr. Brooks is a "poor" tutor turned hard-working businessman, Mr. Brooke is a talkative dilettante who thinks he's an intellectual and a wily politician.  "Dodo" is the name that Jo March's niece and nephew call her by, while here it's Celia's nickname for her sister Dorothea.  Does this imply that both Dodos are of extinct types?  Dorothea's nickname for Celia is "Kitty," which doesn't even come close, like Catherine sort of does.  I think it's more because of Celia's persona, since the narrator compares her to a kitten at one point and she has a "guttural" voice.

This being Signet Classics, there are of course typos, although not as bad as sometimes.  I did notice two instances where a line of text is out of place.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Through the Looking Glass

Lewis Carroll
Illustrated by John Tenniel
Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There

OK, so it turns out that I don't like this sequel as much as the original.  Tenniel is as awesome as ever, and there's wordplay (like a pun on cutting food and cutting [snubbing] acquaintances) and absurdism, but it doesn't jell for me as much as the first "Alice" book.  The chess game gives it more structure, but I've never really understood chess, so some of this may be lost on me.  Some of the poetry is forgettable but I enjoy the multi-titled Knight's poem, the "Welcome Queen Alice" song, and of course "Jabberwocky" and "The Walrus and the Carpenter."

I like that Alice meets some comparatively nice people, like the Knight and the White Queen.  And I've always loved that two-paragraph-long Chapter Ten is followed by a chapter that's one-sentence-long, with Tenniel changing the Red Queen to the black kitten.  (This was before the inspired four-chapter sequence in New Moon where Stephenie Meyer lists months.)  As a child, I pored over the back to back illustrations of Alice halfway through the looking glass.  And yet, it's only on this reading that I realized that the "beamish boy" in the "Jabberwocky" picture looks like an adolescent girl (the figure and the long hair with a ribbon).  Since the warrior has striped stockings, perhaps it's meant to be Alice in a few years.

By the way, it's always a shock that Alice is only 7 1/2, meaning she would've been about 7 in the first book, and she definitely doesn't sound like even the most precocious 7-year-olds I've heard.  It makes me feel like Carroll didn't want us to take "the real world" much more seriously than Wonderland or Looking-Glass-Land.

In many adaptations, the two "Alice" stories are merged, so I sometimes have trouble remembering what happens in which.  This is the one with Humpty Dumpty making words mean what he wants them to mean, an attitude that, like the "backwards" opinions in Erewhon, feels surprisingly contemporary.  Perhaps the modern world is just a mirror image of the Victorian world.

I've now done more posts on the 1800s than any other century.  The 1900s will of course break this record, but it's worth noting, especially as I'm not even done with 1872....


1872, 1927 Modern Library edition
Samuel Butler
Erewhon, or Over the Range
Original price unknown, bought used obviously for $4.00
Surprisingly good condition hardcover

The name of the novel and its land is almost "nowhere" backwards, and some of the other names are similarly reversed, like "Yram" and "Ydgrun."  (The latter is for Mrs. Grundy, the symbol of stodgy, judgmental values.)  Butler did the same thing to the Victorian English culture he knew so well as the son of a clergyman.  He satirized it by sort of reversing its assumptions.  What's odd for a modern reader is not knowing exactly how to take the satire.  For instance, in Erewhon illness is criminal and crime is just a sickness.  Nowadays, there are people who believe that criminals are victims of society, and there are people who believe it's your fault if you're sick, even if you have cancer.  Were these attitudes coming into being as long ago as 140 years?

Lewis Mumford writes in the introduction, "Butler's wildest jokes are nearer to present-day truths than many sober Victorian platitudes.  His straighteners are our psychoanalysts and psychiatrists...."  If this was true in 1927, it's even more true in 2012.  Butler's three chapters from The Book of the Machines, with the fearful discussion of machines becoming more sophisticated and conscious, definitely seems prescient. 

The chapter on "the rights of animals," followed by "the rights of vegetables," takes vegetarianism and veganism to extremes, but the thing is, so do some modern diets.  It's also clear that meat-eating is on one level symbolic of sex, with everyone sneaking some on the side, and "a young man of promising amiable disposition" being told by his doctor to "eat meat, law or no law," yet feeling guilty about it, till "he stole secretly on a dark night into one of those dens in which meat was surreptitiously sold."  He takes it home and cooks it in his bedroom but is filled with "remorse and shame."  He goes back many times, despite guilt, until he's caught by the authorities.  In the end, the "poor boy" hangs himself.

Similarly, as Mumford notes, the Musical Banks are a satire on both modern religion and modern banking, and yet a more modern (post-modern?) reader than the original Modern Library reader is going to see religion and banking in a different way than in the 1920s.

Butler spends too much time explaining how he got to and about in Erewhon (Swift was much better at that sort of thing), but the actual substance of the satire is good.  I remember preferring the sequel, but that wasn't published till 1901, so we've got a long wait till I can compare the two.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Little Men

1871, 1986 Signet Classic edition
Louisa May Alcott
Little Men
Bought new for $4.50
Somewhat worn paperback

This sequel isn't as good as Little Women, but it's not bad.  Alcott still has a Rowlingesque level of math.  (In the very same chapter, the twins are 10 and Meg has been married ten years, when it's established that she was married a year before the double blessing came along.)  The littler women feel like lesser versions of the first batch and are even compared to them.  (Daisy /= Meg, Nan /= Jo, Bess /= guess who?)  The little men include some forgettable members in the dozen or so.  Signet, again showing a talent for typos, miscalls Ned "Neil" at one point, and I almost thought this was a separate boy, because Ned had made so little impression on me.

All that said, it is nice to catch up with "Mrs. Jo" at the age of about 30, as she helps her husband run the school mentioned in the last chapter of Little Women.   Amy and Meg play much lesser parts (Beth is still dead), and John Brooke shows up only to die beloved by everyone he ever met.  "Uncle Teddy" though has made the transition to adulthood in a convincing manner, still loving fun and Jo (you know he's sort of pining for her, it shows in their scenes together), but also a responsible businessman, father, and I guess husband.

This book feels more nakedly didactic than Little Women, sometimes with characters coming right out with asking for or offering moral little stories.  I actually read Jo's Boys before Little Men, of course wondering who all these grown-up "boys" were, but the main spoiler I remember is actually the fault of Anita Loos.  In one of her introductions (to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes maybe), she says something about children in Little Women putting beans up their noses after being told not to.  This actually happens to children in a story Mrs. Jo tells in this novel, and then she tells of putting stones up hers.  Oh, that irrepressible Jo!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

An Old-Fashioned Girl

1870, 1928 Saalfield edition
Louisa May Alcott
Illustrated by Frances Brundage
An Old-Fashioned Girl
Original price unknown, bought very used for $8.20
Poor condition hardcover

I remember reading this when, like Polly, I was an old-fashioned 14-year-old who didn't want to "paint" (wear make-up) or get my ears "bored" (pierced).  Yet I never took to this book like I did to Little Women.  The characters are less appealing and the scrapes they get into less interesting.  I do like the big city (Boston?) setting, with its "ice cream saloons" and its wild plays under the influence of France and "Negroes."  I really like the theme of women earning their own living, even if it's a bit heavy-handed in the chapter "The Sunny Side," which features some career girls, including Kate the writer, who's clearly Alcott's representative.  "Woman's Rights" campaigners get some gentle teasing, but it's clear that Alcott would've identified with some of Wollstonecraft's writings, particularly the part about women not living just to be pretty and frivolous.

The illustrations by Brundage are so-so.  My main complaint is that the characters never look the right age.  This is especially true of Maude in the second part, where she's supposed to be 12 but still looks 6.  Like Laurie, Tom is supposed to have a mustache, but he's clean-shaved until the last picture, where he does have the "whiskers" mentioned in the text.  His suits always looks more 1920s than 1870s.  I do like the picture of Polly sitting before the fire, a cat in her lap, musing.

I have to note that in this blog I mostly try to ignore phrases that have different connotations these days (like Wickham "making love" to the entire Bennet family), but I did snicker at Tom's description of an argument with his fiancee:  "[T]o-day Trix gave it to me hot and heavy, coming home from church."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Little Women

1868, 1990 Dell Yearling Classic edition
Louisa May Alcott
Little Women
Bought new for $3.99
Worn paperback with spine starting to break

Reading Little Women right after Alcott's weak "adult" novel, I appreciate this story more than ever.  Amusingly, there's a passage about the various ethnicities in Nice, including "ugly Russians, meek Jews, free-and-easy Americans," that's lifted right out of A Long Fatal Love Chase.  There's also a servant named Baptiste, although presumably not one who helps his master stalk his estranged "wife."

It is weird to see how Jo is scolded, by her future husband and by the narrator, for writing "sensation stories."  Was Alcott feeling guilty for her own sensation stories?  (Some of them, unlike LFLC, were published at the time.)  Or is this part of the moralizing of what she herself called "moral pap for the young"?  The thing is, Little Women, despite the overt Christianity and the constant urging to be submissive (to God, to your parents, to your husband, to your temper), is a fun, lively, and complex novel.  Alcott and Jo shouldn't have wasted their time on sensation stories when they're so good at the children's fiction.

This is a children's book, despite taking the "little women" from adolescence into adulthood.  There is death (more on that below), but there's nothing inappropriate for a reader above say nine or ten.  The exact number of years covered is fuzzy, because Alcott suddenly loses control of her math skills in Part Second.  Is Amy really away in Europe for three years?  How is Laurie a 21-year-old college graduate a few months before he's 23?  How is it that 6-month-old Demi can walk downstairs and speak in complete (if cutesy) sentences?  Why is Jo suddenly pushing 25 when by my math she's 22?  Of course, Part First has the will that Amy dates 20 November 1861, even though the previous Christmas her father had gone away to the war, and the Civil War broke out in April 1861.

Math aside, there's a realism to this novel that continues to startle.  With Jo in particular, these are believable girls.  Jo uses slang, loses her temper, and is clumsy.  Even saintly Beth (actually called an "angel in the house," which has strong Victorian resonance) has faults.  Heck, even Marmee is "angry every day of her life."

Yet, yes, she urges submission.  To some extent, this makes sense.  There are things you can't change, particularly if you're a girl in the 1860s.  But it does hurt to see all the March girls, and Laurie, give up their dreams.  Even Beth, who wants to just stay at home, do housework, and take care of her pets and dolls, has to give up what she wants because, well, she dies.

Apparently, it has always been a great shock to readers to get up to the part where Beth dies.  That is, unless they got spoiled like I did when I was 12 and read an article on dyslexia, where the writer tells of how her sister accidentally spoiled that plot twist.  This isn't like (forgive me if you didn't know) hearing that Rosebed was the sled.  You can enjoy Citizen Kane with having that McGuffin ruined for you.  But Beth dying, and all the things related to her death, before and after, is central to Little Women.  And yet, I decided to read Little Women anyway.  And here I am reading it for the umpteenth time more than 30 years later.  I know what happens to these characters, but I still care.

The other thing about many readers and this story is that starting at the time the first part was published, Jo/Laurie shippers came into being, much to Alcott's annoyance.  I can't remember ever shipping them myself.  (And remember, I shipped grown-up Heidi/Peter, so it doesn't take much.)  Jo seemed asexual or maybe lesbian, and she didn't love Laurie the right way.  I sort of hoped for Beth/Laurie, if she hadn't died I mean.  They both like music, and he's sweet to her.  But Amy/Laurie, shrug, I don't mind it.  I used to think Mr. Bhaer was too old for Jo, but I guess it's not any worse than Emma/Knightley.

I do remember thinking it weird on the first reading that Laurie doesn't like to be called Theodore, because the fellows call him Dora, so he goes by Laurie Laurence.  Um, Laurie is a girls' name, like Laurie Partridge.  Maybe it wasn't in the 19th century, like Shirley.

There have been several adaptations of Little Women over the years of course.  I like the Katherine Hepburn 1933 one best, although I still need to see the Winona Ryder version.  As far as I know, none of the adaptations has included my favorite sequence, where Amy makes Jo pay calls on the neighbors, and Jo acts inappropriately, including doing a spot-on imitation of a girl they just visited.  Jo's disastrous dinner party is also good but omitted, although the "salt for sugar" mistake has definitely passed into cliche, if it hadn't already at the time.

Since today is Dickens's 200th birthday, I should note that the March girls adore Dickens, and he's referred to as a celebrity that Amy sees in Nice.  I think Alcott owes an equal debt to Austen, conscious or not.  Austen had paved the way in portraying sets of very different but loving sisters, as well as in showing that young women needed to cultivate their hearts and minds.  There are some interesting cultural differences between 1810s England and 1860s America, such as that handshaking is still considered masculine but in a much more negative way.  (It's part of Jo's gauche boyishness, rather than Marianne's gesture of friendship.)  There's more acceptance of women working for a living, even if it's still considered as inferior to keeping the homefires burning.  I was pleased in reading the sequels to see that, even after becoming a wife and mother, Jo didn't give up her writing.  And yes, Little Men and Jo's Boys are on their way, along with less well-known Alcottian pap for the young....

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Long Fatal Love Chase

1866, 1997 Dell (Random House) edition
Louisa May Alcott, edited by Kent Bicknell
A Long Fatal Love Chase
Original price $6.99, bought used for $3.50
Slightly worn paperback

I decided not to use "British" and "American" tags for my posts because almost everything I reread will be one or the other.  This is a very strange first American entry though, for several reasons.

1.  While written in 1866, the novel wasn't published in Alcott's lifetime, in fact not till 1995.
2.  Alcott is of course best known for Little Women and other children's books.
3.  I purchased this copy in the last couple years and have read it only once before, as opposed to Little Women, which I've gone through a few copies of in the last 30 or so years.
4.  The story, instead of being an uplifting tale of family and friendship, is a melodrama about a heartless grandfather, a false marriage, near bigamy, divorce, the ugliest custody battle I've ever heard of, unconsummated love between a non-virginal woman and a priest, stalking across Europe over a few years, murder and faked deaths, and of course the accidental death of the heroine.
5.  It's written in a style and with plotting much clumsier than in Alcott's published works.
6.  Alcott stereotypes nationalities just as much as Charlotte Brontë does, but Brontë definitely never claimed that Englishmen are usually shy and awkward around women.

All that said, it's not a terrible book.  There are moments when it's laughably bad, mostly the one-note cliff-hangers.  "It was Philip Tempest!!!  Again."  However, the story does move along and I liked that so many people were willing to help Rosamond, even if they're no match for devilish Tempest.  I don't get the hype about the novel, particularly that it's supposed to be "erotic," but maybe critics got swept up as Rosamond does.

A note about her name.  She goes by Rosalie for awhile but Philip calls her Rose.  This leads to the fourth chapter "Rose in Bloom," and in 1876 Alcott published Rose in Bloom, the sequel to Eight Cousins.  I've read both but only own Eight Cousins.  It'll be amusing to compare Rosamond Vivian Tempest to Rose Campbell.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Our Mutual Friend

1865, 1973 Penguin English Library edition
Charles Dickens
Our Mutual Friend
Original price unknown, bought used for $3.95
Falling apart, including broken spine

Dickens's last completed novel is my favorite.  The various storylines are interesting and for the most part successfully used.  From the Thackerayan satire of the shallow Veneerings and their innumerable dearest, closest friends (they'd love Facebook!), to the Wrayburn-Lizzie-Headstone tragic triangle, Dickens uses a variety of tones.

As for the "mutual friend" plot, I have mixed feelings.  Topping the two Martin Chuzzlewits, this novel has three John Harmons.  The oldest is a cruel father who disinherits his children, his daughter permanently since she predeceases him, his son John more ambiguously.  The youngest John Harmon is the little boy that the Boffins try to adopt before he dies in poverty.  The Boffins have inherited the Harmon estate, which is made up of dust heaps, a source of wealth in the Victorian period apparently.  The living John Harmon fakes his death in order to see if Bella Wilfer, the young woman whom his father has semi-betrothed him to, would care for him if he weren't rich and if she didn't feel obligated to marry him.  He assumes the name Julius Handford, and then becomes John Rokesmith for most of the novel.  Then Mrs. Boffin, who knew him and loved him as a little boy, discovers who he is, and Rokesmith and the Boffins concoct a scheme in which Mr. Boffin pretends to be mean in the senses of cruel and stingy, in order to bring out the best in spoiled but good-hearted Bella.  When all this is revealed to Bella, who has indeed redeemed herself and married Rokesmith, she seems fine with it, although she expresses some frustration and confusion by using her baby, also named Bella, as a ventriloquist dummy.

As you can see, there are several parts to that main plot.  The faking his death part is kind of contrived but OK.  The Boffins inheriting, and Mr. Boffin pretending to be a miser, relate to the Wegg section and I'm ambivalent about that.  I like Wegg's misquotations of songs, poetry, and plays but I'm not sure if I buy him as the stupidly manipulative villain.  Mr. Boffin's scam is both unpleasant and implausible.  As Stephen Gill notes in the introduction, Boffin's transformation is more believable than the big reveal.  I just can't believe that nice, not very bright people like the Boffins, especially Mrs. Boffin, would deceive Bella for a couple of years without giving themselves away.

I'm not sure how I feel about Bella herself.  In a way, I like her combination of conceit and self-scolding.  She feels real and modern.  But she also has a twee side, as expressed with her Cupid-like father, Rokesmith once they're in love, and her namesake child.  I actually like her kid sister, "irrepressible" Lavvy, better in that she's bluntly honest throughout, even if it makes her obnoxious.

It's a strange novel in that a schoolteacher is the cruelest villain, and his pupil Charley, Lizzie's brother, is the most heartless.  Even more than Martin Chuzzlewit, this story is about selfishness and self-centredness.  I'm not sure I can say I fully liked anyone except for "Jenny Wren," the quirky dolls' dressmaker, and yet I kept reading, wanting to see what happened next to this cast of characters.  As in David Copperfield, there are Dickensian coincidences and reunions (Rokesmith lampshades this in one of the last chapters), but there's much more depth and realism than in that work from 15 years earlier.

The unintentionally funniest moment for a modern reader is when Dickens refers to L.S.D. a few times.  He doesn't mean "Luxury, Sensuality, Dissoluteness," or lysergic acid diethylamide for that matter.  He's using an abbreviation for "librae, solidi, denarii," meaning "pounds, shillings, pence."  It was usually written as "£sd," but was sometimes written and pronounced as L.s.d.

This edition has a number of typos, if not so bad as Villette.  Some of these seem to be typesetting errors, as when there's a white gap where part of a word should be.  The most memorable typo is "lesss."  Yes, sometimes less is more, even with Dickens.

And, hey, three B+s in a row!  This won't last, but it's a pleasant surprise.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll
Illustrated by John Tenniel
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This is one of those books that I can't remember first reading, which isn't true of all the children's books I own.  It's just one of those stories that's always been in my life, and so many other lives.  This is the first time I've read it in the midst of Dickens and all the other mid-1800s authors, so I was more aware of the way that eccentric and/or unpleasant people (and creatures) are presented.  Compared to later children's books, it's striking that Alice doesn't really meet anyone sympathetic.  Dorothy has her posse in Oz, but Alice wanders alone, continuously offending and being offended.  In fact, the only way she gets out of her dream (nightmare) is to tell off a whole court (royal and judicial). 

I can remember not getting all the puns as a child, like the one about the "soles and eels" of shoes.  I like that the king/judge angrily makes the court laugh at his pun.  Some of the wordplay is lost because I didn't grow up with Victorian poetry, although I've always enjoyed Carroll's version of "Father William."

I think the story by itself would only get a B, but the Tenniel drawings remain both beautiful and disturbing.  I remember preferring the text of Through the Looking-Glass to Wonderland, so we'll see if that still holds true. 

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

1864, 1973 Penguin Book edition
Jules Verne
Translated by Robert Baldick
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, originally published as Voyage au Centre de la Terre
No American price listed but $1.50 for Canada, bought used for $1.50 (American)
Roughed up paperback

What a fun page-turner!  I don't read Verne very often, but when I do, I'm always pleasantly surprised at how accessible his fiction is. In this case, part of the secret is the everyman narrator, who gets roped into (sometimes literally) going with his eccentric scientist uncle on the journey of the title.  Nineteen-year-old Axel is understandably skeptical and yet young enough to be swept up in Professor Lidenbrock's enthusiasm at times.  I do have to say that I enjoy the journey to the centre more than the actual arrival, and the escape via a volcano does feel as if Verne wrote the story into a corner (yes, again literally).  I most enjoyed the visit to Iceland, so I'm much looking to Around the World in Eighty Days.

I must note that for a modern reader, the reference to Pluto as a hypothetical "star" is the most dated aspect.  The future ex-planet wouldn't even be discovered till 1930.

And, yes, fewer than 150 years left of this blog.