Reread: The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hounder of the Baskervilles 1st Edition CoverThe Hound of the Baskervilles
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1902, Scotland

But it was not the sight of her body, nor yet was it that of the body of Hugo Baskerville lying near her, which raised the hair upon the heads of these three daredevil roysterers, but it was that, standing over Hugo, and plucking at his throat, there stood a foul thing, a great, black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon. (Ch. 2)

When I first read The Hound of the Baskervilles last fall, I couldn’t help but compare it to The Castle of Otranto, the grandfather of the Gothic novel. This year, at a further remove from my reading of Otranto, it is less that specific novel that I am reminded of and more of the general idea of “ghost story.” Certainly, at least, the legend of the Baskerville family–that of a diabolical hound that killed the blackguard Hugo Baskerville–would all on its own be a perfect campfire story.

The deliciously spine-tingling atmosphere of the Baskerville legend continues throughout the short mystery, with a gloomy, autumnal setting in the moors; eerie, unexplained sounds filling the air; and an escaped convict just to complicate things. It is only a little too bad that this is a Holmes mystery and so therefore the end seems a bit of a sharp contrast–all must be explained by light of day in Holmes’s stark logic. And really, for being a mystery, it is the atmosphere that keeps me returning. Although I don’t foresee myself rereading again next year, it does seem that visits with some of the movie adaptations may perhaps be in order.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is my third read for this year’s R.I.P. Although several people expressed interest in reading it with me a while back, the only post I’ve seen so far is Christine’s at The Moonlight Reader – let me know if I missed any!

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Completed: Death Masks (#5 of Dresden Files)

Cover: Death Masks by Jim Butcher
Death Masks
Jim Butcher
2003, U.S.

I had hoped to have The Hound of the Baskervilles finished by now for the readalong (if you’re participating, share the link to your thoughts on the RAL post by the end of the week–I’ll be done by then, promise!), but lacking that, some quick notes on my latest completed read.

Death Masks is the 5th of the Dresden Files, a series that is part mystery, part urban fantasy–and thus perfect for R.I.P. I’ve been (very slowly) making my way through the series in order, and by this point I think it’s safe to say that they pretty much follow the same formula: Harry Dresden, Wizard and P.I., finds himself entangled in a mess usually partly of his own making and partly as a result of an investigation he has been hired to solve (and/or to consult on for the Chicago PD). The action is nonstop, there’s pretty much a guarantee that a)Harry won’t get enough sleep b)he will completely miss an obvious clue because of either his tiredness or (more likely) a pretty lady c) he will face down a creature more powerful than himself but d) you know he will win in the end because 1) the good guys always do, especially when they’re the narrators and 2) he’s not so good that he’s above cheating. So pretty standard stuff, and really not too much to think about past the first book or two (beyond maybe looking up the traditional stories about some of the creatures/legends Harry encounters). However, probably because of all the blogging/tweeting I’ve seen about diverse books and diverse characters this year, it finally dawned on me–the Dresden Files novels have a really diverse set of characters. I don’t spend much time with fantasy-type novels (Tolkien and children’s lit aside), but my understanding this a diverse cast of characters is not exactly common in the genre.

I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess

Completed: Raven Black (Shetland Island Series)

Cover: Raven Black by Ann CleevesRaven Black
Ann Cleeves
2006, UK

Twenty past one in the morning on New Year’s Day. Magnus knew the time because of the fat clock, his mother’s clock, which squatted on the shelf over the fire. In the corner the raven in the wicker cage muttered and croaked in its sleep. Magnus waited. The room was prepared for visitors, the fire banked with peat and on the table a bottle of whiskey and the ginger cake he’d bought in Safeway’s the last time he was in Lerwick. He could feel himself dozing but he didn’t want to go to bed in case someone should call at the house. If there was a light at the window someone might come, full of laughter and drams and stories. For eight years nobody had visited to wish him happy new year, but he still waited just in case.

Outside it was completely silent. There was no sound of wind. In Shetland when there was no wind it was shocking. People strained their ears and wondered what was missing. Earlier in the day there has been a dusting of snow, then with dusk this was covered by a sheet of frost, every crystal flashing and hard as diamond in the last of the light, and even when it got dark, in the beam from the lighthouse. The cold was another reason for Magnus staying where he was. In the bedroom the ice would be thick on the inside of the window and the sheets would feel chill and damp.  (Opening)

I believe I first heard of Ann Cleeves’s Shetland mysteries by way of knitting. While that may sound a bit odd, there is a distinct style of lace knitting that originates in the Shetland Islands (and Fair Isle, known for its knitted color-work is between Shetland and the Scottish mainland). One Shetland topic–lace–led to another–mysteries–but it was finally an NPR interview with author Ann Cleeves this summer that prompted me to pick up the first in her Shetland series.

I guess it’s been a while since I’ve read any contemporary mysteries (mysteries, not thrillers). A few years at least. I say (write) this because I was about halfway through Raven Black when my oh-so-intellectual thought process became “Oh! Duh! Mysteries have conventions!” Right. In this instance, the convention of a rather small cast of characters that form the entire list of suspects. Of course, for a novel set in a small town in  remote Shetland, a small cast of characters is perhaps also realistic.

Actually, it was a certain sense of realism that I think kept me in part from remembering the mystery conventions. This is a mystery that seems plausible–the victim, the community, their motivations. Even the activities of the police seem grounded in reality–the early mornings, late nights, little to go on, waiting, waiting, questioning, listening. No grand revelations. (That said, the end did feel a bit rushed, but I so often feel that way, that I wonder if it’s me speeding up.) It is the story of a murdered girl, Catherine Ross, 16, an outsider, yet at first there seems no reason anyone should wish her dead. Which is why suspicion immediately–and naturally–falls on the lonely old man who was questioned, but never charged in the disappearance of a little girl some years previous.

The story is told from the points of view of four characters: Magnus Tait, the man suspected; Jimmy Perez, the local detective; Fran Hunter, who discovered the body; and Sally Henry, the victim’s neighbor and friend. While I didn’t notice that their voices (with the exception of Magnus) were distinct, their perspectives–what they know, what they are thinking, who they meet and talk to, their motivations–are decidedly so. It was a method of storytelling I really liked (at least here)–the different perspectives, the way it moved the narrative forward. I don’t think I would necessarily call it a “fast-paced” novel, yet I found it difficult to put down.

Of course, I think I must also be a terrible mystery reader. I never work out “who done it.” Sigh.

I’ve never been to Shetland (or Scotland, or any of the U.K.), so I don’t really know how accurate Cleeve’s portrait of the islands is, but it felt real: The descriptions of the landscape, of the town, the sprinkling in of local words (such as “peerie”), the insights on a small town. Cleeves is not from Shetland, but has been there many times, and in her NPR interview, she takes the reporter to meet some Shetland friends who review her novels for accuracy before they are published. There is a remote feel that I would expect from settlements so far from the bustling cities and easy access to–everything. (It is amazing to me to know, actually, that during the Victorian era, English women would purchase fine–ultra-fine, actually–knit lace shawls from Shetland and send them back to be washed and blocked as needed–in an era when the islands were even more remote!) It is a setting I will be happy to return to with her later books.

Raven Black is my first R.I.P. read this autumn.

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Week’s End Notes (5)

Autumn Color November 2013It’s a beautiful autumn day today–chilly, yes, but the sky is that cloud-specked brilliant blue I most associate with fall. We’re probably only a few days past peak tree color, which seems to be a bit late this year, no doubt thanks to the warm temperatures we had well into October.

I had hoped to finish and post on my final contribution to this year’s R.I.P., The Hound of the Baskervilles by the end of October, but I got in my own way. When I wasn’t being too lazy to read, I was finding excuses why I shouldn’t read just then. Which is a pity, as The Hound of the Baskervilles is a perfect R.I.P. read. I’m about halfway through, so maybe I’ll finally finish this week!

Speaking of R.I.P., I did manage to read Rebecca as my one official selection. I probably could have counted The Dream Thieves as well, but since I didn’t write a full post on that I didn’t. So it wasn’t a terrible R.I.P season for me, just not quite as good as I’d hoped. As always, a big thank you to Carl for hosting again this year! It was fun as always.

With November now underway, it appears that we’re beginning to enter 2014 planning season. I’ve already mentioned that I’m planning on hosting another Children’s Classics Event in January. Right now I’m tentatively planning on either The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or The Jungle Book as optional readalong titles. More information to follow soon, but the event will likely follow the same format as last year.

Then there’s my “local” reading project I’ve planned that will likely fill up most of the rest of 2014, with room for impulse choices. So many books I’m looking forward to, and–teaser alert–one of them is on my Classics Club list. I think there may also be some field trip opportunities with this project, for some added fun. I also want to do some research to see if there are any books that could count both as Children’s Classics and a local read. (I know of one more recent children’s author who lived in Ohio for a time, but not yet of any from decades ago.)

Of course, today I discovered a little wrinkle. Richard of Caravana de Recuredos is planning a lot of Iberian Peninsula and Hispanophone/Lusophone-America reading for 2014. And he’s invited others to read along with him on twelve different titles. That is so tempting. Especially the doorstops he has bookending his year. Query: can I somehow manage to magically double my waking hours so that I have time to read the books on my list AND his? (This is all made worse by the fact that I wouldn’t even have to go to any effort to locate most of the titles on his list. See: overflowing bookshelves.)

So perhaps I’d better get started now. To do list for the rest of the year: organize a reading event; plan a reading project; finish all the books currently on my nightstand; jump-start on 2014 reading. Oh and fit the holidays in somewhere…

May your schedule be less full than mine with much happy reading!

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.