Completed: The Hound of the Baskervilles

Why must I be so often of late putting off writing about books I’ve finished? I do it, I know, because I’m  not quite sure what I want to write, but then I find myself too far from the book and it only gets more difficult. Sigh. I think I’ve found my New Year’s resolutions, if I ever made any. But what I do remember:

The Hound of the BaskervillesThe Hound of the Baskervilles
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1902, Scotland

A long, low moan, indescribably sad, swept over the moor. It filled the whole air, and yet it was impossible to say whence it came. From a dull murmur it swelled into a deep roar, and then sank back into a melancholy, throbbing murmur once again. (Ch.  7)

About halfway through The Hound of the Baskervilles, I realized, this is why I read The Castle of Otranto. For, as lacking as I found the Horace Walpole novel, it was, in fact the first Gothic novel, and therefore the grandfather of all Gothics to come after. While in some instances, it may be just the atmosphere that harkens back to Otranto, with Baskervilles I was starkly reminded of the central plot of Otranto–that of a familial curse. Apparently, Doyle was inspired by an actual legend, but nonetheless the similarity between the two novels strikes me: there are certain building blocks of Gothic novels that appear again and again. The Hound of the Baskervilles prompts a reminder that it is good to read the founding works, even if they may not be as…appealing…as their descendents.

Now, I started this in October. And I have to say, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a perfect R.I.P. read–deliciously creepy Gothic atmosphere, a dash of horror thrown into the mystery, and it’s even set in October. If only I had finished it then! (I’m so late at writing this, I actually finished in early November.) I can see why so many people consider it their favorite Holmes story–not only is it perfectly Gothic, but the mystery is just strange enough and  the pacing is perfect. I don’t often reread mysteries as it seems that more than half the enjoyment is usually in the mystery itself and trying to work it out ahead of the “official” solving of the crime, but this one is such that I could see returning to it. In an October, of course. There may actually be enough textual evidence (primarily from letters and diary entries)–I’m going on memory here–that a reader could work out exactly which day in October each event in the novella takes place. Reading it “as it happens,” as it were, could be quite fun, I think. A plan for next year?

Completed: As I Lay Dying

As I Lay DyingAs I Lay Dying
William Faulkner
U.S., 1930

I heard that my mother is dead. I wish I had time to let her die. I wish I had time to wish I had. It is because in the wild and outraged earth too soon too soon too soon. It’s not that I wouldn’t and will not it’s that it is too soon too soon too soon.

For the second (maybe third?) time this year I find myself with what I believe is called a book-hangover–that sense on finishing a book that I’ve been wrung through and spat out, that my brain has been worked over mercilessly, that nothing else can be quite adequate for reading just now. (Fortunately this time I have the in-progress Mansfield Park to return to, which is so different that I think this will pass quickly.)  Before, my difficulty was the end of the book–an emotional wringer topped by a sense of pointlessness for the characters. This time, there is perhaps a sense of the pointless, perhaps a sense of sorrow for the events that passed, but also the knowing that the real loss is the book that was at hand but is now done. A real sadness that the last page has been turned, a temptation to turn to the beginning and start over again. Not only does it seem to have briefly spoiled me for books, but I find myself restless with all else–turning to other entertainments does no good.

I knew that As I Lay Dying would be good before I started it, work to read, yes, but worthwhile work, not because of other’s reviews or its spot on “greatest” lists, or not just because of, but because I had previously read Faulkner’s “The Bear” (the short story version, not the Go Down, Moses version) which struck me immediately with its worth. The two are not the same, the literary techniques employed are different, the tone is different, I did not mourn the end of “The Bear.” But they are work of the same hand, so I felt confident of my expectations, if not aware that it would leave me hanging, wanting more.

I did not, this time, not like two years ago when I couldn’t say why I thought Savage Detectives was good, I did not want to fail to articulate what I meant. So I paid better attention. Thought about it more. Why is this so good, why do I like it so much? The story (plot) is…ordinary. But not: death, mourning, a disjointed family are ordinary; carrying a body after 4 days on a multi-day journey by mule-wagon is not. Faulkner has taken (took) the ordinary, skews it a bit, makes it something to pay attention to. It is his prose. No, not just his prose. They way Faulkner gets into each of the characters. Revealing who they are by what they think and say and by what others think and say. We see the characters, so many of them, from so many vantages, so many points of view. It is not like real life, where we see only our view, and perhaps another’s, if they share it with us. We see them all, conflicting thought they may be.

He gets so into each character. But how does he get into their heads, their voices? They each have different voices. I’m not so good a reader as to know, exactly, but I know that Dewey Dell and Vardaman are hard to follow. Darl is easier, although not always; his thoughts seem more grandiose than what a Bundren should be capable of. Tull is right, Darl thinks too much. The non-Bundrens seem the easiest. The plainest. But is that because they are the plainest people, the Bundrens, more…unique? Or because they, the non-Bundrens, are the outsiders? Looking in? I do not think they always see the truth; are they plainer in speech (thought) because they only think they see, or because they are of lesser importance here? But I wander. HOW does Faulkner do it? Get us in their heads? Is it simply the stream-of-conscious (a technique I very much like, at least here, it seems so right to me, so real)? The absence of words, those absent words that make it harder to follow? That we are reading what they are thinking and because they already know what they know and know what they see and wouldn’t describe it to themselves, so they don’t need to say it, so they leave all that out, which makes it harder to follow even though they know exactly what they are thinking and talking about. It is these voices, all these different voices, that pull me in. Into their world of poverty and hardship. I feel still an incompetent reader, though now I can say better why I like this one. I just don’t know how.

It’s only a pity this is the only Faulkner on my Classics Club list. I foresee much more of him in my future.

Completed: Rebecca

Rebecca (Du Maurier)Rebecca
Daphne du Maurier
England, 1938

I have a feeling I’m going against the book-blogger grain here, but truth? This book was a bit of a slog. I finished it–it’s on my Classics Club list, I said I would read it for R.I.P., I try to be a finisher–but it wasn’t easy to get through. Or perhaps more precisely, to get into. If you are looking for a thriller, something with action, nothing much happens until well into the novel. Past the half-way point, if I recall correctly. It does have some of that Gothic atmosphere (Mrs. Danvers!) that I was looking for in a R.I.P. read, but I was surprised both that so much of it is set in the summer (a season I associate with sunny cheer) and that it didn’t feel to me as if the atmosphere pervaded the book as much as I’d hoped or expected. Of course once the story really took off, I was much happier with it, but I’m afraid it shan’t be on my year-end list of favorite reads.

In fact, I’m rather questioning my inclusion of Rebecca as a Classics Club read. My general definition of a classic is to quote Calvino, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” [Note to self–I still need to get back to that essay and post on it…] I’ve also said of “great books” that “I want to be abducted by these books, to have my world-view turned upside down, to lose myself to their seductions.” By these definitions, Rebecca doesn’t cut it for me. It is, I think at heart a thriller. A Gothic thriller, yes. A bit of romance thrown in, yes. Suspense, yes. Decently well written. But. One read seems enough. Of course, I could perhaps make the same argument for the Holmes stories I’ve been reading. So there’s definitely something personal here, too.

I know it’s a personal thing that I’m not enamored of excessive descriptive passages, and Rebecca seems to have plenty such. It seems wordy, verbose. (This is one of the reasons I don’t care for Frankenstein, incidentally.) My attention wanders. Rebecca also suffers for being read closely to other works I’ve been reading lately. After only a few chapters in, I picked up some Faulkner. Given that he’s widely considered one of the greats, it’s probably not fair to compare, but only a few pages into his short story “The Bear”* I was engrossed. Faulkner sets his scene and I’m there. I don’t know how else to explain it, but I was with the protagonist, I could feel the eyes of the titular bear on me, hear the crack of branches underfoot. This, to me, marks a better writer. Faulkner stays on my list, du Maurier drops off.

Then there’s Austen. I’d started a reread of Mansfield Park back in August. The two books are completely different in focus and story but reading Rebecca so close to Mansfield Park does the former no favors. I’m going to enter potential-spoiler territory here (for those who are sensitive to such things) talking about both books, but there is one major similarity between the two: Fanny Price and the second Mrs. de Winter. I’m gonna call foul on anyone who dismisses Mansfield Park simply because they cannot stand Fanny Price for being too timid and shy but who adores Rebecca–our unnamed narrator (who for the sake of convenience I shall refer to as Mrs. 2) is every bit as timid as Miss Price. Actually, I’d say she’s worse–Fanny ultimately proves to have a nice moral backbone, staying 100% true to her own inner compass, but Mrs. 2’s only spine appears when it’s time to stand by her man. Looking at it from a feminist perspective, despite the preference of many of today’s readers of Mansfield Park for the independent Mary Crawford, Fanny Price (predating Mrs. 2 by over 100 years) comes out far ahead of Mrs. 2. Not to say that supporting our loved ones in times of trouble is a bad thing, just that this seems to be Mrs. 2’s ONLY motivation. She is nothing outside of her husband. Fanny, one feels sure, doesn’t need a man to define her. She even turns an eligible proposal down, something unbelievably risky for a woman in her circumstances. Fanny has more depth to her, for a heroine so readily dismissed by 21st century ideals.

As for the story, I found it interesting that for all I’ve heard of Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers being the villains of Rebecca, the real enemies of Maxim de Winter and Mrs. 2 are themselves. Good heavens, why did they bother to marry each other if they don’t even know how to communicate? How long must it take them to figure out that the only real enemy of their happiness is their failure to be honest and open with each other and their tendencies to dwell either on the past or on the imagined? I think here we move towards one reason people keep reading Rebecca, decades after it was first published: there is truth to be found in this book–I’m just not sure it would be newly illuminated in successive reads–this is a book you reread because you like it so much, not for new treasures, I do believe. The impression that I have of the book is that it is usually read for the Gothic thriller side of it, but the more interesting part of it to me is the actions of the non-villain characters. Or the non-actions. That part speaks truth, while on the other hand it’s hard to imagine a real-life Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers.

An interesting read, just not one I could love. (Incidentally, does anyone know if it was considered scandalous when it was first published? I haven’t seen anything to indicate this, but it seems like it should have been…)

I read this for both the Classics Club (supposed to be a Spin read…oops!) and R.I.P. VIII.

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*The version included in the collection Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner, 1997, Vintage International. I believe it is the same as the version published in 1942 in the Saturday Evening Post, but am not certain.

(Completed): A Series of Posts in One

I’ve had a fairly good reading year to date. I haven’t quite managed to get everything read I wanted (especially in anticipated time frames), but I’ve read books I hadn’t planned on as well as some I really wanted to get through. Unfortunately, my blogging activity: not so great. That leaves me with books I don’t remember well enough to write full posts on. (Well, to be fair, I may not have had enough to say on one or two of these in the first place. After all, I’ve managed a full post on Quiet, and I read that one in May.) And a few weeks back (when I actually started writing this) I reached a point when I felt I couldn’t read any more until  So I decided to just clear the deck and write up some brief thoughts here, for my own records if nothing else.  Presented in order of completion:

The Memoirs of Sherlock HolmesThe Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1894, Scotland

Alas, I don’t recall much of my thoughts on this Sherlock Holmes collection. I do remember that I enjoyed it more than I did the similar The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but I think that is more likely due to reading mood than any real difference between the two collections. One thing I found: these stories are just the perfect length for reading at lunch at work. In fact, I probably read more of this book on lunch breaks than any other book this year!

There were two stories I did find memorable: the infamous “The Final Problem” (of course) and “The Yellow Face,” which I noted offered a view of the restrictive life of women in the Victorian era: the client comes to Holmes concerned over what his wife is up to because she wasn’t home when he returned. However, it surprised me in the end, for a completely different social reason. I can’t say why without giving away the end (which I am reluctant to do for a mystery). Suffice it to say, not quite what I expected from a story from the 19th century.

Up next in the series, The Hound of the Baskervilles, which will hopefully be read for this year’s edition of R.I.P.

This book qualifies as a Classics Club selection, as one of my 2013 TBR Challenge selections, and as part of my Mysteries & Detective Fiction project.

outsilentplanetOut of the Silent Planet
C. S. Lewis
1938, Britain

I find myself forced to admit that I find it rather easy to forget that I read Out of the Silent Planet this summer. And that I needed to post on it. So, yes, not really my favorite Lewis. For one thing, it was far more work than I had really expected–trying to picture the environment, keep up with the made-up words. I don’t know if that’s a failing of the book or the reader (I don’t often read books with extensive world-building). That said, I will likely finish out the trilogy at some point.

“Yes,” said Oyarsa, ” but one thing we left behind us on the harandra: fear. And with fear, murder and rebellion. The weakest of my people does not fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end. If you were subjects of Maleldil you would have peace.” (Ch. 20)

This is Lewis’s science fiction. Of course, it is also Lewis, so there is underpinning theology which shapes things, and which, I suspect, is what ultimately causes it to deviate from the expected. On the one hand, it is science fiction in the most expected sense, I think: space flight, alien planet, extraterrestrial beings. But what else we expect–that other is dangerous to man, that man is at the top of the totem pole–that is not necessarily so. Lewis really seems to flip some of the science fiction tropes around*–as well as act as a sort of commentary on British colonialism. (I think. It seems…) Although mention is made of “white man’s burden” and it is clear that villains Weston and Divine want to take the traditional colonizer’s/explorer’s route of raping and plundering a new world, main-character Ransom’s interactions with the “natives” are so radically different. While there may be some hint at the concept of “noble savage” in the inspiration of the three different groups of Malacandra, I think what Lewis really presents is an alternate Earth, one where the Fall (of man) hasn’t happened: Malacandra shows us what might have been. Thus, the hnau are friendly, open, welcoming. They are not innocent, i.e., they have knowledge that evil and darkness exists (something Ransom seems not to recognize at first, as he attempts to shield them from knowledge that there is evil on his home planet), but they are good. I think Lewis’s theology is more subtle here than in the Narnia novels, but it is still present. Indeed, this reminds me more of Tolkien’s Silmarillion than Narnia. (Also, I thought the last chapter, the one that could almost have been left off, the best part.)

*Legitimate question: would Lewis have been writing this before some of the standard SF tropes existed?
The-Raven-BoysThe Raven Boys
Maggie Stiefvater
2012, U.S.

I believe I mentioned earlier this summer that I’ve been experimenting with listening to audiobooks while driving home from work. I know many people love audiobooks for their commutes, but I seem to have a great difficulty with attention paying when listening to books. Which is odd given that my dad read to my brother and I for many years–if we made it through The Lord of the Rings why can’t I listen to a professionally produced audiobook without frequent rewindings as my attention constantly wanders to other things? I’ve found that “easier” books or rereads work a bit better, so I took advantage of a summer series of free YA offerings through audiobooksync.com. I’ve only listened to a couple so far, but it was Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys which really grabbed my attention–so much so that I stopped listening to the audiobook and picked up a paper copy at the library. You can throw your “but audiobooks are real books” at me all you like; I simply can’t listen well enough to stick with an audio version of something I’m enjoying so much. Of course, this means I was next hit with the unfortunate reality that The Raven Boys is the first of a (length unknown to me) series, and the second book didn’t come put until mid-September. Ah yes. I don’t mind waits, it’s remembering the earlier book(s) in the meantime that’s the problem.

The Raven Boys qualifies, I think, as a contemporary fantasy. Maybe. I’m vague on definitions. It’s set in the U.S. south, Virginia specifically, in the present day. The main characters are all high-school students, most of whom attend an elite private school, and all of whom are on a quest for a mythical ley-line, with a few added psychics thrown in for good measure. There is much mention of a Welsh king, Glendower. I am rather reminded of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, which is perhaps the best comparison I know for the type of fantasy this is. (I am rather under-read in fantasy and definite terminology is beyond me.) Oddly though, while reading I was actually more reminded of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Both are set in the south, with…unusual…high school students as the main characters, both have important scenes in the woods. And both give the name “Blue” to the main female character. (Is that a southern name then? Or just a “quirky” girl’s name name?) There’s perhaps not really any reason to compare the two, but I couldn’t help making the connection. It did make me think that perhaps I ought read more U.S. southern lit, as I seem to be fond of it… Also, perhaps mythologies and legends from the British Isles.

I actually don’t have much else to say beyond that I really enjoyed it–I think for both the characters and the atmosphere–I kept listening to Loreena McKennitt’s Celtic influenced music while reading, which seemed completely appropriate. (What? Doesn’t everybody match their playlist to their reading?)

In terms of atmosphere, this seems appropriate for seasonal R.I.P. reading, but as I read it this summer, I’m not including it on my list. Also, if audiobooks are your sort of thing, I thought it very well narrated.

Phew. All caught up. Now I can return to reading guilt-free. Let’s just not let this happen again, shall we?

Completed: The Casual Vacancy

I didn’t mean to take a week off here (I’ve been trying to be well behaved and post about once a week), but I kept holding out hope that I would finish my Classics Spin title on time, or close to the deadline of the first of the month. So….that didn’t happen (I’m almost done though, maybe next week’s post?) However, I have FINALLY finished writing up posts about all my summer reading! That is a weight off my shoulders. I’m kindda bummed that I haven’t finished anything for R.I.P. yet, but the aforementioned Classics Spin title will count as my first, and once I’m done here I think I shall sign up for next weekend’s readathon and knock out another. Actually, it never works for my schedule to even attempt the full 24-hours so maybe I’ll make Friday-through-Sunday as semi-readathon days. We’ll see… Anyways, on to my latest “catch-up” post.

The Casua lVaccancyThe Casual Vacancy
J.K. Rowling
2012, Britain

A few months back (illustrating how long it’s taken me to write this up), I had occasion to, for work, drive through a very ritzy part of NE Ohio. At first I had thought it was a rural community, but then I realized the lawns were too perfectly manicured, the fences too precise, and any horse that might be seen served as lawn ornament. Everything screamed “money.” The township sign confirmed my assessment. The next day, a different project, different location–a declining old manufacturing town. Windows broken out or boarded up, cramped city lots facing on littered, crumbling concrete walks, civic buildings past their “best-by” dates. It was a world apart. How, I thought, could those who knew the one life ever begin to understand the other? Their baselines are so far apart.

They returned to the dining room to find an animated conversation in progress between Kay and Miles, while Gavin sat in silence.
“…offload responsibility for them, which seems to me to be a pretty self-centered and self-satisfied–”
“Well, I think it’s interesting that you use the word ‘responsibility,'” said Miles, “because I think that goes to the very heart of the problem, doesn’t it? The question is, where exactly do we draw the line?”
“Beyond the Fields, apparently.” Kay laughed, with condescension. “You want to draw a line neatly between the home-owning middle classes and the lower–”
“Pagford’s full of working-class people, Kay; the difference is, most of them work. D’you know what proportion of the Fields lives off benefits? Responsibility, you say: what happened to personal responsibility? We’ve had them through the local school for years: kids who haven’t got a single worker in the family; the concept of earning a living is completely foreign to them; generations of non-workers, and we’re expected to subsidize them–”
“So your solution is to shunt off the problem onto Yarvil,” said Kay, “not to engage with any of the underlying–”
“Mississippi mud pie?” called Samantha. (223-224)

I decided then that I wanted a social issue read, so I picked up The Casual Vacancy. The catalyst of Rowling’s first non-Potter novel is a death (first chapter, I’m not spoiling anything here), a death of a man who had bridged such a divide. The story then follows the lives of those affected by his death, and it is clear–these people don’t understand each other. Their experiences are too far apart. This is the crux of the problems in The Casual Vacancy: while on the surface the challenge is the council opening created by Barry Fairbrother’s death, dig deeper and we see that the residents of Pagford, to say nothing of the Fields, don’t understand each other and can only think of their own ugly little lives.

A month or so after I finished The Casual Vacancy, I happened to reread the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), and it became even more starkly clear how ugly most of the residents of Pagford really are. Placing the two stories side-by-side, I find that Rowling’s novel helps me place “who is my neighbor?” in a 21st century context, illuminating for me a very familiar parable. Think too much about it and I begin to squirm. I wonder if those who criticize The Casual Vacancy as “socialist propaganda” are actually just unwilling (or unable) to admit their own failings towards their neighbors.

I am surprised a bit, actually, at how easily I can write about this novel months after having read it. It would seem that Rowling has a knack for writing memorable characters and scenes. I can still recall many pieces of the novel well–and this despite the fact that I found it slow to start and nearly declared it a “DNF” at one point. This one will stick with me. And I think that’s a good thing.