Montreal, Quebec, Canada | Member Since 2011
I found out after finishing this book, as I listened to a short NPR interview with Emma Donoghue, that she'd based her latest story on a true crime that took place in California in 1876: "On the very outskirts of San Francisco, in a grimy bar, a lot of bullets came through a window and they killed one woman in the room, Jenny Bonnet, who was a professional frog catcher. And they left the other woman, Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer, unharmed", she told the interviewer. Basing herself on numerous court transcripts and newspaper articles, she found material which was too good to make up; the city was in the middle of a major heatwave and a devastating smallpox epidemic; the victim Jenny Bonnet was a professional frog-catcher who sold her goods to local restaurants and liked to wear men's clothes, which was a punishable offence in the city of San Francisco and landed her in jail numerous times. The other woman, Blanche Beunon was a French immigrant who made her living as a burlesque dancer and prostitute. These two women, along with the city of San Francisco itself, a ramshackle place quickly thrown together by "miners, restaurateurs and prostitutes" are Donoghue's main characters, from which she fleshed out her story, creating plausible lives for the two women and imagining how the two might have crossed paths and come to be in that room together on the fatal night.
The main character is Blanche, who at first is content with her life, making men drool and throw money at her feet with her naughty stage acts and 'michetons', the rich customers she charges healthy fees for sexual favours. But when Jenny Bonnet literally slams into her with her outlandish machine, in the form of a large front-wheel bicycle, and the two unconventional women start developing a friendship, questions raised by Jenny force Blanche to look at her life from a new perspective. Donoghue, while not condoning or condemning prositution, raises question about how it affects women's lives in the larger picture. In this case, Blanche has had a baby by her French boyfriend, who abhors the 'Bourgeois' but has no qualms comfortably living off her earnings, and who had arranged for the newborn to be farmed out to "Angel Makers", a form of childcare for desperate parents known as such because the children likely to die from neglect. Up until her encounter with Jenny, Blanche had conveniently put the whole matter out of her mind and never visited the place where her child was kept, imagining, as she was led to believe, that the child lived in the fresh air of a country farm, away from city pollution and dirt. But from the sudden shocking awareness of what Petit's living conditions have actually been for the first year of his life, a mother's love will force her to make difficult choices which will have repercussions on many lives.
I read Donoghue's Slammerkin many years ago, and must say I haven't had the courage to broach Room yet, but in this new novel, she returns in good form to one of my favourite genres and delivers a historical novel that crackles with life and realistic details and characters, and makes for a really great yarn from beginning to end, for what is a basically an unputdownable read.
I've listened to Khristine Hvam narrate other books before and while she is a good narrator, my beef with her is that she seems to have just one cookie-cutter foreign accent which I've heard her use for both Czech and French accents most unconvincingly. Of course, in my case, being a fluent French speaker, a bad French accent is bound to grate on the ears, and in this case, since the main protagonist is French, there is a lot of grating to be endured, but to Hvam's credit, the delivery was good enough for this to be a minor quibble and didn't take away from my overall enjoyment of this audiobook. Definitely recommended.
I finished All the Pretty Horses last night and really loved revisiting this book after several years. I’ve been wanting to complete McCarthy's Border Trilogy for a long while, but let too much time pass since I read the first book and felt I needed to refresh my memory before moving on. The audio version worked very well, with Frank Muller giving lots of colour to these characters. Not only that, but he gave such a sensitive reading that he made the gorgeous passages describing the cinematography, scenery, lighting and supporting characters and 'extras' very vivid. I use movie jargon quite on purpose because there's something about McCarthy's prose that brings up clear images in my mind of what he's describing, very much like a cinematic experience, and I say this as someone who has not seen the movie version, and also as someone who rarely can imagine the scenes described in books, which might be surprising given I'm a visual artist, but so it is. I also couldn't help but feel this story was closely connected with another beloved Western story, Brokeback Mountain, because of how attune we are to these young boys even though we are never told how they are feeling or processing events, and rather shown with, in the case of John Grady Cole, rather less than more dialogue. Though of course being shown rather than told is the mark of a good writer. The other connection to that other book was that I have seen the movie version of Brokeback Mountain and kept imagining our young hero John Grady as Heath Ledger and the way he portrayed Ennis del Mar, with a similar kind of reserve and perhaps similar looks as well, very attractive, but not in the last self-consciously so and a bit of a scamp.
For those who are not familiar with the story, it is about two boys, ostensibly cousins, both sixteen, sometime in the late 40s leaving home on horseback from their impoverished Texas lives, and in John Grady Cole's case, a broken home, to make their way to Mexico to seek work. On their way there, he and Rawlins are joined by a young boy who claims his name is Jimmy Blevins (the name of a radio personality). He also claims to be sixteen but is probably no more than thirteen and riding atop a huge bay horse which seems much too fine a specimen to belong to him, and they suspect the boy has stolen him and will probably only bring trouble, so want nothing to do with him. But Blevins follows them doggedly until they are forced to accept him as a travel companion. Eventually the boys lose Blevins along the way (to reveal more would be a big spoiler) and find employment on a large ranch owned by a wealthy, old money, and therefore powerful family. He falls in love at first sight with the owner's daughter, and his love is very much requited, so that the two quickly become lovers. The girl's great-aunt holds the reins in the family and soon warns off John Grady, though in a most civilized way, by first inviting him to play a game of chess during which she tells him part of her life story, of having been educated in France and being a thinking woman, difficult to accept in society in her days. Of course, he doesn't heed her warning and soon enough the boys are arrested under a charge of horse theft and sent to the worst kind of Mexican penitentiary, where they are forced to rely on their survival skills.
I hadn't been as conscious of how much of the story rides on the aunt in the first reading, when I was concentrating on the story from the boy's point of view and mostly saw Jimmy Blevins as the pivot to the all the major events, but now I see clearly he and the aunt are the two poles in this world, both pulling and pushing our two young friends along difficult paths. Another thing I noticed this time is how almost unbelievably clever and accomplished John Grady is, which is something I took completed for granted on first reading. He's skilled with horses, which he has a great affinity for, and knows how to break and earn the trust of even the wildest creatures in record time, to the admiration of all the ranch workers and locals who congregate to watch him at work, which in itself is believable enough. But when comes time for him to defend himself and survive against the worst kinds of odds, he almost turns into a Western version of James Bond, which is of course a slight exaggeration since there are no gadgets or tricks or explosions or superhuman villains, but at the same time the feats he manages to accomplish against the direst of circumstances seem almost miraculous. Though of course in the deft hands of McCarthy, it is all very much in the realm of possibility, if one assumes that the boy is probably blessed with an good dose of intelligence and above average common sense when faced with immediate danger, along with the love of a young and beautiful woman. I would also throw in he's probably got a good star watching over him, to make up for his raging hormones. Such things do happen and usually make for great stories, as evidenced by some the best mythological tales, which must have their roots in actual occurrences and almost, but not quite superhuman heroes, whose fates rest on the wills of the gods.
I remember reading from a softcover edition the first time and at first being a little bit daunted by McCarthy's stream of consciousness style*, featuring very little punctuation as that style tends to do, but after the first couple of initial pages, which I read over more than once to get used to the tone and rhythm, it flowed very naturally and it was easy enough to let oneself float along in his stream and let the story take hold of the imagination. Does it sound like I loved this novel? That's because I did, and I'm very happy I revisited it before moving on to the next book in the Border Trilogy, which I hope to do in near future while this one stays relatively fresh in my unreliable-at-best memory.
* And speaking of my unreliable-at-best memory, as an afterthought and just before hitting 'publish' for this post, I thought I might search my now 7-year old blog to see if I'd written anything about this novel before, and sure enough, I did, which I'd obviously completely forgotten about. Seems it took me more than 'a couple' of pages to get into the flow of things and I was in fact practically about to give up about 40 pages in. One thing's for sure, my complaints about the writing style don't hold at all for the audiobook version, where the narrator makes everything perfectly clear by giving each character his own speech mannerisms.
Dashing off a quick review after finish this book. I did not like it at all. I'm giving it a three-star overall rating though because it's a well told story, but the topic of sex and adultery is one that doesn't appeal to me in the least and I found the story very grim and depressing. A respected researcher and scientist, Yvonne Carmichael, is happily married and with grown children when she meets a strange man wearing a snazzy suit one day while at the house of commons. He takes her down to the crypt to the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft (I did not know there was a church in the house of commons), where they have quick sex in a broom closet. From there they begin a sordid love affair, sordid because her unnamed lover is addicted to risky sex in unlikely places. This is supposed to be a smart woman in love with her husband and with everything to lose, and she nearly does when a work colleague rapes her when she gets drunk at a university party, which lead to even more dreadful consequences. I almost dropped it toward the beginning, but then stuck to it only because it was one of my favourites, Juliet Stevenson narrating, and I knew things were bound to get interesting since it's a thriller. But I almost wish I hadn't read it, because I feel dirtied by it now. Wondering whether I should ask Audible for my credit back. I would certainly be in my rights, but then I guess it wouldn't be morally acceptable for me to publish a negative review in such a case, would it? I got this originally because of the narrator, as not infrequently buy books I know nothing about when they are read by someone I really like, and also because none other than Hilary Mantel and Helen Dunmore were among those who gave it rave reviews. I'm sure others who aren't turned off the topic of sex like I am will find it quite good. I blame the antidepressants for preventing me from fully enjoying it, but then I would need antidepressants anyway after finishing the book, so it all evens out in the end.
One of my reading goals this year is to mark the centenary and include at least one book per month on the theme of Word War I, in a mix of genres and approaches. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning work of non-fiction, Barbara Tuchman set out to describe the events which led up to the onset of the Great War and walk us through that first month, during August 1914. Focusing primarily on the heads of state and government, she describes what the dynamics were in the early years of the 20th century, in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war from which Germany emerged victorious and hungered for world domination. Until reading this book, I had always believed that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914 was the spark that suddenly started it all. I had also been under the impression that the war could have been averted, but the picture Tuchman paints of those years leading up to August 1914 seems to show that the Germans were bent on invasion and domination and in effect forcibly provoked it’s enemies to retaliate. I had not known the history of Belgium, nor that it was, up till the German invasion in August 1914, a neutral country as determined by a treaty which had been signed by Prussia in 1839. Tuchman describes how the Germans deliberately invaded Belgium and proceeded to brutalize the local population with the excuse that they were meeting violent resistance from the civilians, in what came to be known as the Rape of Belgium. Here, the assassination of Ferdinand is barely mentioned. In this version of events, it seems that the allied forced of France and Britain on the Western front, and Russia on the Eastern front, had no choice but to retaliate to stop the German forces from proceeding on to their targeted invasion of France and onward.
I can’t say this is the kind of book I normally gravitate to. It’s focus is on the military strategies, plans of action and commands, which is an aspect of war which is not of great interest to me. I am more interested in the human element, which is usually to be found in fictional novels, or stories about individual experiences, but it seemed to me important to read about the major forces which led to the onset of war so I could gain a bit more understanding of the political aspects which influenced an entire generation and were then responsible for tens of millions of casualties in that other war just a couple of decades later. I was quite fascinated with the first chapter, describing the pomp and ceremony of the Funeral procession of King Edward VII in May 1910, which presents all the major world-wide players of the day, at what was reportedly one of the largest gatherings of European royalty ever to take place, and one of the last before many royal families were deposed in World War I and its aftermath. Later on, I was much less enthused with the focus remaining on strategy and troupe movements, but instead of abandoning ship (so to speak) as I was tempted to do, decided to keep listening in a similar spirit in which I would have continued attending a lecture series in hopes of bettering my general knowledge, even if this meant listening distractedly at best though long bouts of the narrative.
It’s hard for me to say whether Tuchman’s is a biased view of events or not, as I have not yet read anything else comparable about WWI, but I did get the strong impression that the blame as to who was responsible for causing the war lay strongly on German powers. There followed detailed descriptions of decisions by the allied forces which might have turned things around, so the blame does not solely rest on the Germans, but one can hardly read this book and walk away feeling much sympathy for them, and for this reason I think I will have to make a point of reading works where the focus is quite different so I can form a more balanced view. As it is, I walk away quite angry, thinking that all this massacre could have been avoided had the Keiser and some of the ‘great German intellectuals’ not been obsessed with world domination. In other words, my prejudices are more or less intact thus far.
This is a rare case when I’ve decided to rate the book more on it’s own merit than to reflect my private appreciation of it. As a history course, I think it is to be highly recommended. Those who tend to read non-fiction regularly and are comfortable in the realm of power plays and politics will definitely find full satisfaction here. For those like me who only occasionally read non-fiction and prefer to read about the day-to-day realities of living through war, this may seem too dry, but then there is a time and place for everything, and I thought 2014 was a good year to make room for reading the kinds of books about war I would not normally gravitate to. A last note about this particular audio version; I was very annoyed with John Lee, who insisted on adopting the various accents of whoever was being quoted. He is no Meryl Streep and his accents were far from convincing, besides which it took away from the serious tone of the work and was not at all appropriate. I know there is another audio version narrated by Nadia May, though I do not know whether or not she puts in a similar type of performance.
Here, another melodramatic gothic extravaganza like I've come to love them. Might this be my 'comfort reading' region? There's historical fiction which tends to put me in a compliant mood, and then there's classic fiction, which also seems to agree with me on the whole. I usually steer clear of abridgements because if I wanted summaries of stories I'd get a Reader's Digest subscription. As a creative, I respect the author's original work too much to take those shortcuts, but in this case, I'd read the original (well, listening to it that time too, but in complete and unabridged form), so I thought refreshing my memory with the truncated version as narrated by my beloved Juliet Stevenson—who has soothed my frayed nerves many a time and over again—might be just the thing on a day when my reading life seemed to get away from me and not give me the peace of mind I've come to expect from that quarter.
The action takes place in England, in the mid-19th century. Lady Audley, formerly simply known as Lucy Graham, has married up in the world. Renown for her exquisite doll-like blonde beauty, she was formerly employed by Mr Dawson, the local doctor, as a governess, which somehow put her in the way of meeting the much older and very wealthy widower Sir Michael Audley, Baronet, who must have her as lady of his Audley manor.
Sir Michael's nephew Robert Audley, a barrister who likes to put comfort before duty, meets with his old and very good friend George Talboys upon the latter's return to England after some years of gold prospecting in Australia. Talboys is expecting to return to a wife and infant son whom he left behind to seek a great fortune, so that he might give his beloved spouse the life of luxury she deserves. But shortly after disembarking from his ship, he learns that Helen Talboys has perished from a grave illness just shortly before his arrival. He is of course completely stricken, to the point where he does not see the point of living on. George is determined to leave at once for Australia and makes Robert his little son's guardian, a son who is to receive 20,000 pounds upon his father's decease. His plan is thwarted when it transpires he has missed the ship and must wait another month for the next voyage to the antipodes.
Back at the manor, Lady Audley's erstwhile devoted maid Phoebe is about to marry her cousin Luke Marks. She brings him to her employer's home to show him the luxury she's been surrounded by, and while her lady is away, shows him the jewelry box which Lady Audley normally keeps safely locked, though on this occasion she has forgotten to take the key with her. While Luke and Phoebe are looking through the splendid jewels, her husband to be encourages his cousin to take a precious diamond necklace, but the young woman instead chooses to take a lock of hair which has been carefully wrapped and hidden away, feeling sure they can parlay this small secret into even greater wealth.
Meanwhile, Robert Audley has brought his grieving friend George to an inn near Audley manor so they can take advantage of the fishing and hunting, and in hopes of being received by his uncle to meet the new Mrs Audley, of whom the barrister has heard a great deal. But the lady repeatedly relays excuses to the two young men, in effect preventing them from meeting her in person. Not long after, George disappears without a trace, leaving no word to his friend. Robert must of course find out what happened to him. Is he still alive or dead? And why was his friend so struck by Lady Audley's portrait?
I had fun revisiting this story, though of course the abridgement leaves many gaps, where the complete novel provides great detail. There is mention that Robert is lazy and complacent of a sudden, quite late in the story, as if this is a given, when there's been no indication of this before, though I recall the novel describing his character in full. Here we must be contented with the major lines and those details that push the narrative forward. In a way, it was rather satisfying to go from the first few clues, to the fully fledged crime, to almost immediate resolution in such a short time. Still, I would advise newcomers to Braddon's novel take time to savour the complete work, a must for lovers of classic mysteries and fans of authors such as [[Wilkie Collins]]. But Juliet Stevenson does make for a splendid introduction, come to that.
When I picked up this book on Monday, I thought I might be in the mood for just this sort of thing, having seen glowing comments about it on a book site I frequent, and then the book summary itself convincing me completely I was in for a good time. The narrator Aaliya Saleh is a 72 year-old Lebanese woman who's lived all her life in Beirut. Though she was married off at 16 'to the first unsuitable suitor who came along', she ended up divorced by her impotent husband and childless 4 years later, rejected by her family and all but friendless, but always sustained by her great passion for literature, which also led her to develop a passion for music. The novel is told as a kind of memoir where she holds a long meandering monologue about herself, her youth, the civil war years, her current situation, the books she's read, the music she's listened to, and explains why she's spent the better part of her life translating 37 foreign-language books into Arabic starting from French or English translations (translations of translations), then putting the finished text in a box and sealing it away. On the day she starts her narration, her oldest half brother has just dropped by with their elderly insane mother, demanding that Aaliya take her in, a task she narrowly escapes, but an incident that leaves he shaken nonetheless.
From the outset, the book had all the elements which should have made for a very appealing reading experience, but very early on, I found myself repelled for all kinds of reasons which I am not sure I can detail without sounding petty. I started listening to the audio version, and found that narrated out loud, Aaliya came off sounding like an insufferable literary snob, with continual quotes from books and philosophers (which should have appealed, but didn't) and a strong tendency to complain about everything and everybody. I though if I switched to paper or an ebook edition, I might find her interesting rather than disdainful and annoying, and probably take lots of notes along the way about all these great books I should add to my wishlist and tbr.
So I switched to the kindle version, but still could not get comfortable with the novel. For one thing, I wasn't buying Aaliya at all as a character, and just seemed to hear the author's voice coming through loudly, very much a male voice to me. For another, I was displeased with the narrator's conversational tone, in which she constantly addresses the reader directly ('don't you think that's annoying? I certainly do') and makes too many apologies for veering off course. In short, I was too annoyed to enjoy the ride, and decided life was too short to spend it with an unlikeable 72 year-old trying very hard to be ornery like some of her favourite authors. Unconvincing, and pointless is what kept beeping in my head, and I dropped it. I know beyond a doubt that most lovers of great literature will find satisfaction here. I felt sure I would love this book, and it certainly had all the right ingredients, but ultimately I think Alameddine and I would not have a good time having tea together. For one thing, I happen to like putting milk in my excellent Earl Grey blends (a reference you will understand once you've read the book). I'm okay with the fact I'll probably be among a very small minority that is not completely won over by this one.
This is the first book of the Cazalet Chronicles, a family saga about the Cazalet family clan living very comfortably thanks to a family business—this prompting me to think of them henceforward as another set of Forsytes (see The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy), another family clan living comfortably from the fruit of their trade. It starts in the late 1930s while Europe is on the brink of WWII. Most of the actions takes place during two consecutive summer family vacations, when the whole clan are gathered at their Sussex family home. There are three generations of Cazalets, with spouses and their families plus the servants and various employees to keep track of, and while I usually have quite a bit of trouble remembering who is who when there are more than a handful of characters, this was more or less easily done here, as each of the characters is very well drawn and has a unique individual story.
The children are busy at their games and worries; about going back to school and attendant bullying for the boys, while the girls are dreaming up their future career options given the minimal education they are offered; acting, being a nun, nursing are a few possibilities. Their elderly impoverished teacher with a face like a toad and a heart of gold was a personal favourite. Their fathers, three Cazalet siblings, are all veterans from WWI. The eldest is badly affected by his war wounds and suffers from debilitating headaches (how I empathized with him!), the second is an inveterate womanizer who descends into downright disgusting lechery, while the third and youngest (and comparatively poor) brother has married a very young girl who seems to offer nothing but her beauty, after tragically losing his first wife, and badly failing to establish his painting career. Their unmarried sister meanwhile is charged with caring for her elderly father who is slowly losing his eyesight but not ready to relinquish his post of command, while she is also involved in a chaste love affair more or less sanctioned by the family.
These are innocent times, when the menace of oncoming war seems more like a fictional possibility than a real threat, though by the second summer, in 1938, when the German annexation of Czechoslovakia seems inevitable and before the signing of the Munich agreement, preparations for an assault are underway at the Cazalet compound just in case Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler doesn’t go so well and London must be evacuated. All in all, a very satisfying piece of historical fiction seen through a modern writer’s eye, so that things which would have been left unsaid by a contemporary writer are here fully revealed. This very much brought to mind another favourite female British author’s work, The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley, which was also written in the late 20th century; it too is about a large family clan, with the story beginning during innocent pre-war summer holidays, here taking place in Cornwall. The fifth book in the Cazalet Chronicles was published recently and I will almost certainly make my way to it with time. Thanks to Suzanne and Heather on LibraryThing for strongly recommending this series of novels. I should also mention that the narration by Jill Balcon was delightful.
The Garden of Evening Mists is a novel I would unreservedly recommend it to everyone, except readers who prefer to avoid difficult, disturbing topics, as a good portion of it deals with the brutality the Malayans had to suffer under the Japanese invasion during WWII. A fascinating story and exquisite writing carried me away and I both badly wanted to devour the whole thing and be done with it while at the same time not wanting it to end.
The story is told by Yun Ling Teoh, a woman of Chinese descent born in Malaysia. When we meet her on the first page of the book, she is poised to go into retirement two years early from her position as a justice of the peace. She is suffering from a mysterious brain condition which threatens to strip her of the capacity for expressing herself or understanding language, and this prompts her to write her life story before she loses the ability to convey her memories. To take on this task, she has returned to a former residence in the Cameron Highlands, where the Garden of Evening Mists of the title lays in need of much repair.
In 1951, Yun Ling found herself to be the sole survivor of a Japanese internment camp and decided she wanted to create a Japanese garden in memory of her sister, who kept them both alive by retreating to an imaginary garden through the worst of the treatment they suffered while in captivity. We are not to learn till late in the story what circumstances led to the death of this beloved sister, but we know Yun Ling has decided to devote the rest of her life to honouring her memory. There is a Japanese gardener, Aritomo, living in the Highlands; he is the exiled former gardener of the emperor of Japan, whom Yun Ling approaches to ask him to create a garden for her sister. This she does despite her strong reservations; she has developed a visceral hatred for the Japanese after the treatment she suffered during the internment in camps which, according to what we know and what is told in the course of the novel, had a lot in common with the dehumanizing brutality the Nazi Germans showed in the concentration camps of Europe.
We learn that Aritomo didn't accept to create this memorial garden, but offered instead to take her on as his apprentice, and Yun Ling accepted in hopes she would later be equipped to create that garden herself. The novel travels back and forth in time, from the present—with the aging Yun Ling telling her story and trying to get the long-neglected garden back into it's original shape—to 1951, the year she worked on Aritomo's 'Garden of Evening Mists'. During that time, Communist rebels were terrorizing the land, and Yun Ling's life was endangered as she had pronounced judgments to convict and deport some of these rebels. Eventually, she takes us back to the internment camp during the war, whose location has always remained a mystery, and where we know Yun Ling lost two fingers and her beloved sister. The Yun Ling of 1951 and the narrator of the 'present' incarnation (sometime in the 80s) is embittered by her experiences in the war and weighed down by hatred for her former tormentors, but her daily contact with the garden and Aritomo, and her wish to leave behind a legacy in her sister's name, help her to revisit her past and try to cast it in a new light.
There are mysteries and complexities at the heart of the novel which are only revealed when Yun Ling the author is ready to unearth them. It is a visually lush experience, with exquisite writing which had me rewinding the audiobook constantly, just for the pleasure of 'rereading' sections filled with gorgeous imagery. In some rare cases when I've listened to an audiobook, I feel compelled to also buy the book in a print edition, and this is one such case. That being said, I was completely satisfied with the audiobook and found the narration by Anna Bentinck truly excellent. She has a facility with accents, which she renders in a subtle way, and also adjusted her voice so that it was easy to follow whether we were hearing the older, or the younger Yun Ling, situating us in time with no further markers. But I want to get a paperback copy of this novel so I can do something I never allow myself usually, which is to underline all the little moments of pure poetry so I may savour them at my own pace. This novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 would definitely have deserved to win, and might have done so if it hadn't had the bad luck of being nominated in the same year as Hilary Mantel's equally excellent Bring Up the Bodies. I'll be looking out for whatever else Tan Twan Eng puts his hand to.
As I mentioned recently somewhere, the more I read Edith Wharton the more I love her, which is saying a lot since I was instantly smitten when I started reading my first book by her, The House of Mirth. I’ve read a couple of her novels and some of her shorter works since, but this is the first short story I've read of hers so far, and I can see why she was considered a master of the form. This story is included in the Old New York collection and I'm counting is as an individual work since I got it as an audiobook and am shamelessly making up the numbers to reach 150 books this year. Set in the 1850s, and I should specify in Edith Wharton's 50s, that is to say, the Old New York of the top of the upper crust of distinguished family names, splendour, old money and stifling social conventions, it tells the story of two cousins, one pretty and married, the other rather plain and unwed and mother to an illegitimate little girl. Charlotte, who is about to be married into the same respectable family as her cousin Mrs. Deliah Ralston, confides to her cousin and begs for her help, as she fears that her marriage will separate her from her secret love child Tina forever. Deliah, whose first loyalty goes to her family by marriage, ensures that the wedding plans are cancelled to prevent the scandal from attaching itself to the too respectable Ralstons, though she promises to take care of Tina herself. Years go by, Deliah is widowed, the cousins live together, and Tina is now a very attractive girl of marriageable age. Charlotte is known to the girl as 'Aunt Charlotte the old maid', and she affectionately considers Deliah to be her mother, and of course the secret of her real origins are unknown to her. The two older women have found this to be the best compromise, but there are unexpressed jealousies and resentments seething under the surface, which suddenly erupt when a young man starts making too frequent visits to the house. When Wharton wrote this story, it was already relegated to historical fiction, describing mores that had been long out of fashion, but the core of the tale is timeless, telling of love and passion and the mysteries of motherly love and the bonds that unify women. I couldn't help but shed a sentimental tear or two at the end, and perhaps it is a sentimental story, but they should all be so well told.
Finished Fathers and Sons yesterday, another quickly devoured novel. Don't think I'll take the time to properly review it, but I will say that while I worried I wouldn't be thrilled by a novel in which one of the main characters is an unpleasant Nihilist with an attitude to match, I was on the contrary pleasantly surprised to find this novel touch on a variety of other subjects I ended up finding quite engrossing indeed, so that even Bazarov, the unpleasant proponent of Nihilism in question became, if not appealing exactly, essential to a masterful whole. Some of the topics broached are the major shift going on in Russia during the mid-19th century, with landowners 'freeing' their serfs and allowing them to become paid tenants and the attendant class conflicts; the concept or what makes up a true Russian identity; the generation gap and how the old guard is always relegated to obsolescence by the young. In other words, social conflicts seem to be at the heart of this novel, but these subjects became all the more interesting to me thanks to the deft hand of Turgeniev, who presents these from the unique standpoints of young student Arkady Nikolaevich Kirsanov, who brings his friend and Nihilistic hero Yevgeny Vasilyevich Bazarov on a visit to his family farm to meet his father and uncle. Arkady Nikolaevich's father Nikolai Petrovich is excited to get together with his grown son again, looking forward to a forging a close friendship with him based on intellectual equality, and thinks himself to be 'with the times' by embracing modern socioeconomic concerns (having among other things recently emancipated his serfs and removed himself to a smaller house with few paid servants) and keeping up with all the latest authors (but at heart a great lover of the Romantic Old Guard Pushkin). However, his hopes are fairly dashed when Bazarov is introduced into the household with his uncouth, brusque manners and disdain for art, tradition, and sentimentality. Arkady has become Bazarov's disciple and parrots his older friend's ideas, though all the while he is made uneasy by Bazarov's repeated critical sallies and generally disrespectful attitude toward his beloved father and his uncle Pavel Petrovich, a gallant aristocrat very much attached to tradition and keeping up appearances, which Arkady nevertheless sees as a tragic hero. Through this prism we see a whole nation shifting toward what laid the ground for the inevitable Russian Revolution and the Communist USSR, though again, Turgeniev, far from making his protagonists all black or all white, lets them evolve throughout the novel and experience conflicting emotions and motivations. Here, together with a large dose of philosophical doctrine, there is also love and romance and it's deceptions, there is even an unlikely duel which ends rather unexpectedly. In other words, it is a mix of intellectual ideas and romantic concerns and for this reason, still feels incredibly modern and shows us once again that human nature never really changes much.
So much for NOT writing a review. :-)
A note on the narration: I should say that I wasn't overly fond of Sean Runnette as a narrator for this specific title in the beginning. I've become used to listening to 19th century Russian novels delivered by British narrators, and Runnette's American pronunciation felt a bit strange at first to my Anglophile ears. I would initially have preferred David Horovitch, who also recorded a version of this book and who became one of my favourite narrators after listening to him in Anna Karenina and The Age of Innocence, but because I obtained this book at the bargain price of $2.99 (when purchased with the inexpensive Kindle edition), stuck to it. I discovered along the way that a "New World" accent worked very well here, since the main protagonist is far from being an aristocrat and rejects all traditional ideas. That being said, I'm sure most North American listeners won't have any issues of the sort to begin with and I'm sorry if I come across sounding like a snob.
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