Thursday, December 30, 2010

the woman in white

I have recently finished Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, which was published in 1860. It's been my summer-days-lying-in-a-hammock-while-celebrating-Christmas novel. I would definitely recommend it for this type of reading - it's gripping, and rather fun, and definitely not a difficult read at all. I expected it to be about ghosts and was pleased it was a novel of detection instead.

Having said that, there were moments in which I could not contain my frustration with the author. Marian Halcombe could have been a fantastic heroine if we weren't constantly reminded how "unwomanly" she is. The section narrated by her is wonderful, but we hear no more directly from her after that, even when she is still taking an active role - a huge pity. Laura Fairlie could have been much more interesting if she wasn't so utterly helpless, although of course she needed to be insipidly fragile in order to inspire love and devotion (about which I think my last blog post complained). I feel that this tale could have been much more subversive than it actually was. The situation in which Laura finds herself is so entirely wrong. She is a casualty of a world that is run by men for men, but the author hardly questions the society that allows this to happen. Of course, he was a man himself, but that shouldn't have to mean he props up societal conventions even as he shows their flaws.

The big unexpected twist in the middle of the novel (I don't want to spoil it so I can't expand) is a relief, but after that I expected many more unlikely things which did not happen. The number of coincidences applied to the story (such as the importance of Professor Pesca at the end) also seem a little too much. The villains did not ring quite true to me. Then, the plot, which had promised so much at the beginning, began to lose momentum.

All the same, I did enjoy this novel. It has a spark of something. It made me want to keep reading, even when I could see all its flaws. It's a fun book! It slides between the different narrators reasonably fluidly, it pulls out the absurdities of characters and laughs at them, it doesn't take itself too seriously. It does manage to create a very appealing character in Marian Halcombe - I only wish she could speak for herself a little more. Maybe someone should write some fanfiction!!

I give it three stars. It is a good book, it is a fun book, but it is flawed.

Monday, December 27, 2010

lessons I have learned

A few years ago, I blogged about the lessons I have learned from literature, over the years. I was reminded of this recently when a blogging friend, Stacy, re-posted her own version of this meme, and so I thought I'd have another go at this for your edification. These are valuable life lessons, after all. (Some are repeats of last time, most are new. Some contain spoilers):

If something seems too good to be true, distrust it. It is probably run by the Mafia.
John Grisham, The Firm.

If you see your lover holding a baby, do not assume that she went and got pregnant to someone else while you were unavoidably detained. Before you disappear for another forty-odd years, just ask if the baby is hers.
Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

If you are in dire, inescapable financial trouble that could ruin your marriage: dance the tarantella.
Henrik Ibsen, The Doll's House.

In her own words – “I leave it to be settled, by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.”
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey.

Avoid listening to men who tell you spellbinding stories. You will fall in love with them, and then they will probably murder you or drive you to suicide.
Virgil, The Aeneid, and Shakespeare, Othello.

You may, one day, come across a woman sleeping in a room full of garlic with the windows bolted. As stuffy and uncomfortable as this may appear, do not try to help her by airing out the room.
Bram Stoker, Dracula.

Never marry someone without checking up on their family mental history.
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre.

The best way to get rid of writer's block is to get someone to lock you in a tower.
Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle.

If you want a man to fall in love with you and/or want to marry you, be completely helpless and fragile. A fortune wouldn’t go astray, either.
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White. (To be fair, this is also the lesson of most 19th century novels authored by men.)

If a man smokes cigars, don’t trust him – even if he started out okay. He does not want women to subvert society’s expectations.
Kate Chopin, The Awakening.

Even if it appears to everyone that the good guy has been pushed off a cliff by his nemesis, he is probably still alive somewhere, biding his time.
Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes.

In a similar vein – Never assume the good guy is dead, unless you have actually seen his body.
Homer, The Odyssey.

Scratch that - even if you have seen the body, never assume the good guy is dead.
J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Avoid flying places. Especially with small boys.
William Golding, Lord of the Flies.

Monday, December 20, 2010

chasing the devil

I've never read a single thing about West Africa before. I watched Blood Diamond but unfortunately the fact that it was set in Sierra Leone is one thing that I completely missed. I've heard the name Charles Taylor somewhere. What I'm trying to say: When I started reading Tim Butcher's new book, Chasing the Devil, I didn't have a clue what I was going to find.

Chasing the Devil is the record of the trek Butcher took through Sierra Leone and Liberia, following the same path that the author Graham Greene took in 1935 with his cousin Barbara. Greene's book Journey Without Maps is about this trip. When the Greenes went on their journey, Sierra Leone was still run by the British colonial powers, and Liberia was still run by the African-American elite. It was before any of the coups, before the civil wars, before the upheaval, before the unbelievable violence that has taken place over the last thirty years or so. So in many ways it was a very different place. But in many ways it is the same.

The book is not only a record of the expedition. Before Butcher and his travel companion David Poraj-Wilczynski even got going on their long walk, I felt I was given a brief, sophisticated overview of all the crucial facts about the history of these two countries. It didn't feel like I was reading a dry history book, but a racy, action-packed story of tragedy and hope and more tragedy. I became acquainted with Butcher's career as a journalist for the Daily Telegraph and his past experience in this area of the world, covering the end of the Charles Taylor regime and a whole bunch of other things too. I admit to wondering as I began reading this if the trek was ever going to happen, but as the book went on it became very clear that everything needed to be there.

It's also a book that is about books. Butcher really brings the Greenes to life. He delves into a number of other books, too, which have been produced over the last few centuries by other European travellers to West Africa. One of my favourites, and one which I have already put a request on in the local library, is described here:
Perhaps my favourite early Liberian explorer was an adventurous aristocratic Englishwoman, Lady Dorothy Mills, who completed an impressively arduous trek in the mid-1920s, described in her book Through Liberia. It is full of the effortless insouciance of the early white outsider in Africa.
'The climate of Liberia is . . . quite healthy as long as you have a well proofed and ventilated house, and do not go out in the heat of the day, and do not take a stroke of unnecessary exercise except in the very early morning, maybe, or during the hour before sundown to give you zest for your cocktail and cold bath,' she wrote after being carried by hammock for hundreds of miles through the jungle.
In spite of this occasional gaucheness, she was clearly a formidable traveller. She lost her last cigarette papers in a swamp and took to rolling her tobacco in pages torn from her notebook, making roll-ups that would burn so fast they singed her lips. When she ran out of dried biscuits, she ate foie gras with banana, and when she irreparably damaged her sun umbrella by bashing one of her hammock bearers over the head, she took to stuffing the back of her blouse with banana leaf fronds that were so large they would reach above her head to cast shade.
However, it is really about Butcher's trip through the African jungle, following the Greenes, and the trip is absolutely fascinating. Encounters with corrupt officials, encounters with village people, encounters with dancing "devils", encounters with isolated mission workers, encounters with the sinister local spiritualism which has such a firm grip on the Liberian interior... As he writes and as I read, I could almost feel the intense heat the small party of travellers had to deal with, and all their exhaustion.

Butcher writes with humour and grace. This is definitely an enjoyable read, much of the time. But it is also a discussion of some of the darkest, most gruesome deeds that have taken place, whether in the political conflict across both countries or in the much less well-known but equally real ritualised murders taking place in the background.

It's a discussion about the formidable weight of history on these countries, the horror of which is very, very fresh. And I can't say I finished the book with any great sense of optimism (although I'm not saying I came out of it weighed down with depression) - so it surprises me that there is a commendation on the back by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Chasing the Devil shows the power of good to prevail over evil. Where once there was cruelty and conflict in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Tim Butcher finds grounds for hope. An inspirational account of humanity's wonderful spirit to survive.
As much as I would love to feel the same way, I find myself, with the author, nervous about the future of these two countries. This doesn't mean there is no hope. West Africa has clearly come a long way. Many of the individuals who appear in the book are strong, clever, promising, driven people it's impossible not to like. Any country would be lucky to have them. But the divisions which produced conflict are still there, the strength of the spiritualist leaders remains undiminshed, and corruption pervades the administration.

I don't think I'm selling this book very well. I don't think I can reproduce in one review all the features which I loved. All I can say, to finish up, is that this is the most intriguing book I've read in a while. A really, really wonderful book, about fascinating things. I would absolutely recommend this to anyone. If you're stuck, unable to think of a present for that difficult family member - this is it. (It would also be a great Christmas present for the family members who aren't difficult too!)

I give it four stars. I know I haven't been writing this blog for very long, so you will be unacquainted with my standards, but I assure you that I am determined to give ratings that high only to very good books. Loved it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

furnishing our break room

Yesterday, some friends and I went to a book giveaway at the central library on campus. Sadly, it was mostly old business and psychology books, and at first we wandered the tables glumly. Then: we realised! We have a break room on our floor! So far there are only old copies of the New York Review. They have hilarious personals ads in the back, but, even so, our reading material is sadly lacking. What a great opportunity to find the most ridiculous books we possibly can for our reading pleasure during lunch breaks!

Our break room is now the proud owner of:

1. Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation, by Craig MacAndrew and Robert B. Edgerton. This should be helpful for us students, becoming acquainted with such a foreign concept.

2. Economic Systems: Analysis and Comparison, by Vaclav Holesovsky.
This actually looks slightly useful for anyone studying economic history. For everyone else, perhaps it will drive us back to our normal work more highly motivated than ever before?

3. Distinguished Young Americans. I'm not sure when this was written, but some sort of indicator should be the presence of Martin Luther King, Jr. One black man who "eschews radicalism" (in the book's words). One white woman who sings. Isn't it nice to see?

4. Power Atlas of India. This fascinating book could grace any coffee table. It contains a number of graphs detailing the distribution of different types of power across India. My friend Ben picked this up, and was asked soon after by the librarian supervising the giveaway: "Excuse me, would you mind telling me what you're studying? I just didn't think anybody would pick this up."
I have no idea why.

5. Русская Расовая Теория до 1917 Года. Apparently this means 'Russian Racial Theory Until 1917'. We can't read it because it's all in Russian but the script is so pretty, and there are many pictures of bearded men!

6. A Network of Dissolving Threads, by Richard von Sturmer. We chose this because we all agreed that that is how we feel about our theses.

7. Ten Weeks with Chinese Bandits, by Harvey J. Howard, M.D. I like this because it sounds racy and exciting, and also because I was intrigued by the inclusion of M.D. after his name. I wonder: why need someone be a M.D. to be kidnapped by Chinese bandits? Are Chinese bandits so discerning that they only kidnap highly qualified professionals?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dawn of the Dreadfuls

Being a rather huge fan of Jane Austen, and newly interested in Zombie Stuff, the following video makes me want to read this upcoming book, a prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, after reading that one too! (Warning - this includes a little bit of gore!)


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

zombie romance

The December issue of Halfway Down the Stairs is out! HDtS is a quarterly e-zine which I help edit, and this time around I decided to review Isaac Marion's very new novel, Warm Bodies. This is a novel about a zombie who falls in love with a girl.

As you will see if you read the review, I didn't expect much from it. And there were a few small issues with it that I felt I had to mention. All the same, I ended up loving it and I don't think the issues mattered that much by the end - a surprising experience for me. The sum of this book was more than its parts (although it has some lovely parts).

Definitely check this book out if it's available on bookstore shelves near you. I am no fan of zombie stuff in general, but it's one of those genre books that is accessible to a wider audience than its genre normally commands. It's a fun read, a thoughtful read, and ultimately quite a sweet (though suitably grisly) read. I give it three and a half stars.

It's not coming out in the US until March next year but is already being sold in the UK (and obviously New Zealand, since I got a review copy).