**spoiler alert** Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands (not to be confused with Geoffrey Knight's The Riddle of the Sands) is an odd Edwardian**spoiler alert** Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands (not to be confused with Geoffrey Knight's The Riddle of the Sands) is an odd Edwardian book that can't really be classified as non-fiction, but doesn't read much like novel, either. Childers himself wanted it that way; had it not been for the publisher, even the weak love plot would have been stripped away entirely, and the book mostly would have consisted of maps of the German coastline and log entries such as "wind WNW, steered ENE, fifty knots." Riveting stuff, of course. One gets the impression that even the spy plot itself is a concession to an uninterested British public that would only take notice of its maritime weaknesses if presented under the thin guise of a detective/spy thriller. And I use the term "thriller" loosely. The major crux of the novel is, of course, the discovery of a German plot to invade England. For myself, however, the most engaging element of the book is witnessing these two young Edwardian men struggle to find places for themselves in the modern world. Childers's not-so-subtle plea for young men to give up dandified ways of life in favor of roughing it in the North Sea comes off a bit heavy-handed at times, but on the whole he handles the transformations of Carruthers and Davies quite skillfully.
Fans of Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin series will probably salivate over a book like The Riddle of the Sands, with its incredibly detailed descriptions of buoys, rigging lines, and oilcloths. Not to mention, of course, the four maps of the Frisian coast (complete with soundings). The rest of us, though, will spend our time wading (ha!) through unfamiliar language that often inhibits both an understanding of the enormity of the crisis and a basic grasp of the difficulties encountered by the heroes Carruthers and Davies. For all that, though, there's something charming about reading a novel that takes itself so seriously and refuses so adamantly to be considered a novel. If you've just finished Anthony Hope's romp through Ruritania and want something equally entertaining, then this isn't the novel you're looking for. On the other hand, if you're ensconced in a lighthouse somewhere off the coast of Norway and know what a fathom is, then by all means enjoy! ...more
**spoiler alert** Miss Mole can be summed up pretty easily: Mary Poppins for adults.
E. H. Young was one of those best selling authors whose works are**spoiler alert** Miss Mole can be summed up pretty easily: Mary Poppins for adults.
E. H. Young was one of those best selling authors whose works are now found mostly in "Friends of the Library" book sales. If you do come across a copy, though, snap it up and save it for one of those dreary winter evenings when you need the book equivalent of a cup of hot cocoa (and read it while drinking real, actual hot cocoa).
The novel's premise is fairly simple--it is a classic governess tale, complete with shrewish, snobby female relative, clueless bachelor love-interest, and horrible, spoiled kids. To be fair, Miss Mole is not precisely a governess--she's employed as a housekeeper for Mr. Robert Corder's somewhat unconventional family. But if she is hired to look after his children and make sure dinner gets put on the table, she seems to spend most of her time babysitting the adult population of the town of Radstowe.
In this respect, Miss Mole is a fairly conventional story--perky governess/housekeeper whips everyone around her into shape with a combination of clever tricks, charisma, and refreshing candor. You only need to read once, for example, that her employer is a minister to know that he's going to turn out to be the worst kind of hypocritical preacher--blind to his own faults, judgmental of others, and completely lacking in compassion. But if many of the figures and situations in Miss Mole are familiar and well-trodden, the character of Miss Mole herself is a creation wholly grounded in the 1920s and 30s. She's a late Victorian woman struggling in the interwar period with the changing demands of feminism, gender stereotyping, and sexual desire. If she shares some similarities with her literary forbearer, Jane Eyre (another Victorian governess), well, let's just say it's hard to imagine Jane Eyre making jokes about muffins or buying fancy shoes. Rather, Hannah is "stuck"; she was raised in one century and has to cope with existence in another. She's pretty well equipped in many ways to deal with her situation--she has a vibrant sense of humor and resiliency. But for all the story's wit and comedy, Miss Mole strikes me as a bittersweet tale, covered over with a Happily Ever After. For every one Hannah Mole, who triumphs over the evil-ish Robert Corder and the snobby cousin Lilla, there were hundreds of Miss Moles who faced lifelong fiscal and emotional vulnerability to the whims of others (especially other married women). To put it bluntly--Miss Mole is a window into a generation of women who were completely unprepared for the radical social changes of the twentieth century. They were raised to be dependent and pushed into a world where dependence was no longer an option.
Rather than simply papering over the complexities of the 20s and 30s for women, the novel confronts them head on. This isn't a lost classic--E. H. Young could have, at times, benefited from tighter editing, for example--but for all that, it is a hidden little gem of a book--sparkling and thoughtful at the same time. ...more
**spoiler alert** I sometimes get asked for book recommendations and to be honest I rarely have a good response. I don't mind recommending books if I**spoiler alert** I sometimes get asked for book recommendations and to be honest I rarely have a good response. I don't mind recommending books if I know what people like, but there's a wide range of tastes out there and what works for me might not work for someone else. That said, I do have a very short list of books that I would, without hesitation, recommend to anyone who loves reading, regardless of what genres he/she prefers. And Cloud Atlas is on it. It's one of those books that you wish someone had told you about years ago.
Mitchell's books get talked about a lot for how ground-breaking they are in terms of structure (Tom Bissell, I'm looking at you!). I'll agree with you, Tom, that not so many novelists choose to break up a story and spread it over a 1000 year time span and six different narrators. But at the point when you claim that Mitchell's innovative structure makes us wonder "to what end things are being moved," you and I have to part ways, I'm afraid. For myself, at least, there doesn't really need to be a point to innovative narrative structure. It's just interesting to see what happens, I think, when a novelist disrupts the way we typically process a narrative. And it's even more interesting to see what happens when a novelist makes innovative narrative structures seem more compelling and enjoyable than anything else out on the market.
It is telling, I think, that Cloud Atlas is a novel in which a reader is simultaneously being constantly reminded of the very act of reading, even while the narratives themselves work to make the reader forget reading as a process. Each of the narratives nests within the others, and each one highlights or emphasizes reading repeatedly. The first story is a diary, the second story is a series of letters, the third is a manuscript, the fourth is a journal (in which the manuscript from story three is read) . . . you simply cannot get away from determined acts of reading in this novel. Every where you turn, practically, someone is reading. But for all that, it becomes very, very easy to forget that you are, in fact, reading a series of nested stories and to become completely lost in each new voice Mitchell presents. While enjoying the misadventures of Timothy Cavendish, the diary of Adam Ewing slips away, forgotten. And ditto for Timonthy Cavendish once Somni 451 begins her own tale. By the time you reach Zachry, it's downright difficult to remember this is a work of fiction.
Cloud Atlas isn't necessarily a book for everyone--it's a little bit Bertie Wooster, a smidgen of Blade Runner, and a pinch of M is for Murder. There's even something in there for fans of slapstick retirement home humor/One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. It's an odd mix of stories that undoubtedly won't appeal to a quite a lot of consumers. But for people who delight in the sheer joy of reading, Cloud Atlas should be at the top of the list. ...more
**spoiler alert** Ugh. This feels like a novel with such potential--its a story about Chinese factory women in 1926. There's so much that could be exp**spoiler alert** Ugh. This feels like a novel with such potential--its a story about Chinese factory women in 1926. There's so much that could be explored here about conflicts between family responsibility and individual choice, or the development of modern life versus tradition. Or even of working conditions in China during WWII. The book definitely talks about those things . . . but that's about all this book does--talk at the reader. The narrator simply finds it easier to tell the reader all about Pei, rather than come up with situations, events, or other characters that will demonstrate genuine emotional responses. As an example:
"The first few months were miserable for Pei. She missed her family terribly. Sometimes, after everyone was asleep, she let her tears flow freely, her face pressed into her pillow. She often fell asleep exhausted by grief."
Meh. This novel is incredibly dependent on this type of narration, in which the narrator generalizes Pei's actions and simply tells the reader how to read and respond to each scene. So boring. I'd be much, much more interested in this novel if Tsukiyama could have come up with some other ways of expressing Pei's grief beyond telling me "she often fell asleep exhausted by grief."
There are all kinds of other problems--gender relations are horribly romanticized, for example, with Auntie Yee's establishment and the silk sisterhood being figured as oases of femininity and female empowerment. Auntie Yee is incredibly understanding and humane, as compared with the villainous Chung who runs the silk factory. Pei's father never says a word and gives her away, while Pei's mother wastes away in self-imposed but passively rebellious silence.
I dislike this type of narration because it seems disrespectful to the reader, although I don't think that's why Tsukiyama writes this way. This kind of narration--in which the narrator tells the reader everything, in which events are predictable, and in which characters are barely sketched out--seems as though it simply doesn't trust the reader to be able to read "correctly." It seems especially problematic that a novel about female empowerment deliberately dumbs itself down for a female reader.
I'm sure other people have really enjoyed this novel and perhaps with good reason. The bits about the silk factory are really interesting and I wish Tsukiyama had explored that further. But this novel really didn't work for me. I even liked the concept enough to give the sequel a try, but gave up after three pages. Too bad....more