Disregard the reviews on the inside pages, which say that Life of Pi is a "modern day Calvin and Hobbes" and other comments that seem to indicate thisDisregard the reviews on the inside pages, which say that Life of Pi is a "modern day Calvin and Hobbes" and other comments that seem to indicate this is a cute, heartwarming story of a boy and a tiger beating the odds. It is a harrowing tale of survival, often extremely gory or just plain revolting, which, while it certainly rings true of gritty survival tales, is simply not how the book is marketed, packaged, or presented. Be prepared for every disturbing aspect of extreme survival situations: murder, cannibalism, relentless killing of animals large and small, with lots of detailed descriptions of such (for example, the description of the zebra's violent, bloody death goes on for about four pages).
Such is nature, I suppose, including man. And perhaps it is suitable for a survival story. I just think the publisher could have scattered a few clues on the book jacket description, maybe words like "harrowing" or even an allusion to "will to survive" so I'd have some clue.
That said, it's still a gripping read; I wish I could have given it five stars but I really did think the gore was a bit gratuitous and more suited to, say, a Stephen King horror novel.
The first 100 pages are slow going; we are introduced to Piscine Patel, a boy who was named after the pool where a family friend taught him to swim. Pi lives in Pondicherry, India, where is father is a zookeeper. Given the pages devoted to swimming, I thought it'd play a more crucial role in the rest of the story, but nope, it is almost irrelevant. The key thing is that Pi is a zookeeper's son, and that is what saves his life during the surreal events that follow.
Pi is extremely religious, attending services as a mosque and a church as well as being a devout Hindu, to the dismay of his parents, who think he should choose one religion. That part was a little trite - as if Martel was attempting to insist to the readers that three major world religions are not incompatible and that their devotees can get along if they simply love each other and God. Thousands of years of bloody warfare have clearly contradicted that. Yet religion does play a crucial role, as in so many survival stories, Pi's faith helps him not only during his ordeal, but later in his life, when his troubled memories haunt him.
After the first 100 pages of exposition, which are a bit slow going, the rest of the story is a gripping read. The family decides to move to Canada, bringing along several of their animals which will be sold to Canadian zoos. They travel by a Japanese cargo steamship, in rough quarters as the ship is not intended for passengers, much less for zoo animals. Without further ado the ship sinks. There hardly any description of their boarding the ship or how long they travelled, just as Pi's exact age is omitted. Martel is not too keen on providing crucial facts about the characters or the plot; he seems prefer to ramble on for pages about trivial details. Fortunately, this works quite well once Pi ends up in the unenviable position of being on a lifeboat with a hyena, orangutan, zebra, and Bengal tiger, the sole survivors of the ship that sunk in mere minutes.
It's impossible to go into further details without giving away too much of the plot, but suffice to say that Pi is a clever, determined narrator, and the details on zoo animals, their habits and psychology, and how humans tame them, are fascinating. And of course, the very idea of a small boy and an enormous tiger trapped on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean is, in an of itself, a brilliantly original concept. Overall an excellent read, but if you are squeamish, be prepared to skip over a few pages of gore. ...more
This is a rare behind-the-scenes account of the life of a gentleman's servant in the 19th century that should correct many misconceptions about 19th cThis is a rare behind-the-scenes account of the life of a gentleman's servant in the 19th century that should correct many misconceptions about 19th century servants. Eric Horne was a butler or valet for over 50 years, and was employed in some of the grandest houses in Great Britain. In addition to providing many fascinating details of daily life, he also describes a dramatic change in the role of British servants, the last holdouts of the ancient feudal tradition of lords and their vassals. He begins his tale with regrets as to the fading of the old aristocratic traditions, when servants were loyal retainers as much as employees. That was especially true of the upper class of servants, which generally included the valet, lady's maid, butler, housekeeper, and sometimes the footmen and tutor or governess. Those staff interacted directly with the family, and typically had some education (reading and writing and keeping accounts were necessary skills for the butler and housekeeper) while the rest of them were rarely even seen by the family. The butler was the highest-ranking servant, the lady's maid was often as much of a companion as a servant to the lady, and the valet belonged to that class of trusted "body servants" with direct access to the aristocrat employer's actual person - a holdover from early feudal days, when important men were heavily guarded and the body servant was the only one who could enter the master's quarters unannounced.
Horne makes a clear distinction between the nouveau rich and ill-behaved gentry of the late 19th- and early 20th centuries, and the noblesse oblige of the early to mid-19th century. This is apparent in his descriptions of the various families for whom he worked. The actual wealth of his employers had little to do with their behaviour, with some of his richest bosses also being among the stingiest. He describes working for several difficult cases. One man swore relentlessly and terrorized all his valets, all of whom departed in a few months, except Horne, who lasted two years. He clearly explains why he stayed with the bad-tempered aristocrat. In every other way, the aristocrat was fair and reasonable, his wages were generous, the household was well-run, the food was good and the lodgings comfortable. Despite his frightful language, the master was not overly strict, and servants caught giggling with the housemaids, being drunk on the job, and even poaching game were yelled out, but not dismissed (Horne describes other places at which servants were dismissed for the slightest imaginary transgression, and poachers were often shot on sight, whereas his master merely seized the poached rabbit, beat the unfortunate poacher about the head with it, then flung it down with a gold coin - presumably payment for the inconvenience of being beaten with a dead rabbit. The poacher came off for the better with both rabbit and coin). Getting this man dressed in the morning sounds hellish, but obviously it was more important to Horne that the working conditions were good. He describes another aristocratic family whose master was somewhat similar, sometimes losing his temper and throwing objects at servants. And yet, that was also a well-run household. He mentions that anyone delivering a package or a letter to the great house would be given bread, cheese, and beer, and that the servants' meals were wholesome and generous.
Horne describes another longstanding tradition of British gentry - an annual feast for the entire village. In two different sections of the book, he describes in loving detail the enormous spread laid out for all who cared to partake, the jugs of beer and whiskey and joints of meat and pies and cakes, as well as how the common people of the village were shy at first, but greatly encouraged to sit down and dine alongside the gentry.
It really is surprising to read of a valet and butler having enough spare time for fishing excursions, for photography lessons, for hunting rabbits, playing the violin, and various forms of recreation I assumed would never be an option for a servant. Another surprise was how often he changed positions, especially as he acquired more experience and character references. Horne often left a job merely because he was bored with it, and always found another place. We tend to regard Victorian servants as the most unfortunate people, forced into the only job for which they qualified, but over and over again Horne describes how he and his fellow servants were advanced within the same household, so that the groom of the chambers might one day be the butler. In fact domestic servitude in a good country house with a decent family was considered one of the better 19th century jobs. The workday was long and hard, but probably not any harder than working in a factory or selling paper flowers on the street. It also included room and board, and very often these were a better class that the servants would have gotten at home, particularly children of large families. Parents were eager to place them where they would be sure to be fed and lodged, as that was not something the desperately poor could guarantee to their own children.
Of course I am not saying that the life of a servant was an easy nor desirable one, just that it might not have been quite as bad as we generally assume. Horne does describe working for several mean-spirited, stingy men. And working for a Russian princess who went broke, but was so kind to her servants that he stayed an entire year without wages, hoping she would recover her fortune. And sadly, he also writes that he considers his entire life to have been wasted in servitude, since he never created nor produced anything, never had his own business, and had nothing to show for it but his character references. Nevertheless he managed to support himself and his wife and child through his butler jobs. The hard times began during and after World War I. The grand country houses with their armies of servants were quickly becoming obsolete, and places were harder and harder to find. In desperation Horne begins training as a taxi driver, a course of learning that cost him hundreds of pounds and in the end, he went back into service anyway. I was glad to read that he retired with a pension from a former employer, so presumably ended his days in relative comfort.
The book is filled with charmingly obscure expressions and turns of speech. It appears to be virtually unedited, so there are some spelling inconsistencies. And it suffers a little bit from lack of organization, again this is probably due to being unedited. Horne will describe a minor detail, such as packing for his master's London journey, for pages and pages, but breeze right over getting married and having a child. He doesn't even give his wife's name nor describe how they met. After their child was born, his wife declined to move around any more, and remained in Hampstead, while he worked all over Great Britain. Presumably he did not see her or his son very often. His wife eventually went blind and she died of influenza, which the entire family contracted after a cold bus ride. Again he does not offer too many words on his wife's death. Nearly the entire book is about the daily life of a butler. I would have liked a few more personal details, as he does describe his youth and schooling very well, but perhaps that is a reflection of how rarely he saw his wife, and his statement that butlers and valets were better off not marrying. ...more
This is an important and valuable book. That is not to say I agree with its entire contents, but it's very well-written and the arguments are clearlyThis is an important and valuable book. That is not to say I agree with its entire contents, but it's very well-written and the arguments are clearly stated. Bawer focuses on identity studies, an academic discipline that arose from the ashes of 1960s activism. And therein lies the problem - academic disciplines that pretend to be about intellectual research, criticism, and analysis, are really just thinly-disguised systems of political indoctrination. That would be fine for a community-based organization, but it's shameful that political indoctrination is a key aspect of identity studies. Even worse, some of these academic departments were formed in direct response to violent protests from students, who destroyed property, barricaded themselves in university buildings, and even beat up fellows students until their demand for a new department was met. Particularly shocking was the history of the formation of Black Studies and Chicano Studies departments at various universities. Violent strong-arming is no way to to establish an academic department, but the universities were so terrified of being labelled bigots that they caved to student demands.
Bower covers the four major identity studies taught at American universities: Women's Studies, Black Studies, Queer Studies, and Chicano Studies. Of course they all go by various names, as changing the names of these academic disciplines seems to be an essential part of the disciplines themselves. He describes the rather appalling bitterness towards men prevalent in Women's Studies, which all too often values lesbian students more highly than heterosexual or bisexual female students. It's depressing to read about the students in those programs shamefully admitting that the dream of falling in love with a man, as if that's a horrible thing for a young woman to hope for. The way women are encouraged to view themselves as victims, to view men as the oppressors, and most especially, to equate regretting a sexual encounter with rape should be a cause of concern for women everywhere. Bower also questions why feminists refuse to confront the oppression of women in Islamic countries. Very real issues of honor killings, genital mutiliation, forced marriage, and other civil rights abuses of women are brushed aside, because feminists see any criticism of Islamic countries as "Islamaphobia" and politically incorrect. Therefore, the very real depriviation of women's rights in non-Western countries is utterly ignored, as they consider the real enemy of women to be the United States, a country where, incidentally, honor killings, genital mutilation, and forced marriages are against the law.
Bower is equally hard on Black Studies, describing the shocking tolerance for violence and racism and for hateful statements about Jews, white women, and homosexuals. He does not spare Chicano Studies, either, questioning why important Latino artists are utterly ignored and why the curriculum focuses so heavily on Marxism and left-leaning political writings. It's an interesting question: how could anyone get a PhD in Chicano studies without reading great authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a host of others? Or learning about the many great Latino artists who have influenced American culture?
Perhaps his softest criticism is for Queer Studies, although he does disparage the fact that it's very often a division of the Women's Studies department and therefore, not always inclusive of gay men. But he does acknowledge that Queer Studies is a legitimate academic field, even though he'd rather it was called Gay Studies. He's dismissive of the idea that "queer" means "different" and is not necessarily associated with being gay. Thus many heterosexual scholars consider themselves "queer" which admittedly, doesn't make much sense. But unlike the other disciplines, Bawer takes the time to describe the history of gay studies, starting with German scientists in the late 19th century. He bemoans the fact that what was once a scientific pursuit has become yet another politicized means of establishing victimhood status.
One of the final chapters briefly covers the other niche identity studies - Men's Studies, Disability Studies, Fat Studies, and so forth. Throughout the book he is quick to call out academics for shoddy writing, careless research, and apparent lack of real credentials. At times he seems to be mocking them, but when he describes their half-witted writing, some of which is used for textbooks although it would not yield a passing grade in Comp 101, he's quick to follow up with a list of honors, awards, and grants obtained. It's quite shocking to consider that people who can barely write are collecting six-figure salaries at the nation's top schools, and that they have earned millions in prizes and grants. Bawer doesn't really explain how this was possible, except that white guilt and eagerness not to be perceived as "bigoted" has led to a great deal of resources allotted to some of the most useless college majors around.
The book has its flaws. Bawer spends too much time on physical descriptions, and I'm not sure why it matters that Andrew Dworkin is morbidly obese or Cornel West has a beard and wears tight suits. He does not single anyone out, consistently describing the appearance of key figures, but it seems unecessary. And at least one of his statements is quite untrue: that many women struggle with math and science. The breakdown of men and women in college majors doesn't support this notion - but when statistics are cited, certain science field are arbitrarily overlooked. Health sciences, for example, aren't consider real science for tallying the breakdown of men and women, nor is agricultural science.
Perhaps the major flaw of the book is Bawer's omission of the fact that many of these identity studies can be actual disciplines, and have been in the past. Black Studies has a long and important history in this country, even though it's been co-opted by radicals, that doesn't mean contributions from early scholars like Booker T. Washington or WEB DuBois are unimportant. Bawer does give them their due, and says that if the professors teaching identity studies were drawn from history, literature, and language departments, they'd be better off. Yet he does not seem to accept the possibility that the identity studies in some other non-political form can be valid academic disciplines. For example, Latin American Studies that requires history, language, and literature courses - there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Only because identity studies are so highly politicized, so eager to indoctrinate students that they are being oppressed by men, by whites, by the American system itself, have they become worthless.
He also decries the loss of a traditional liberal arts education, which once focussed on the very same Western civilization that it is now so eager to dismiss. Being a former English major, I well remember being perplexed about why so many works in translation were assigned. I had assumed that I'd be studying books by British or at least English-speaking authors, but England was of course the great oppressor and even an English major could not expect to study English authors.
The final chapter is quite inspiring. Bawer correctly identifies what most college students take for granted: that life has always been comfortable for minorities, women, and gays, and that their pressing issues have always been as trivial as Barbie's figure or the lack of gay characters in popular television, and that the majority of young people have always had the opportunity to attend university. He astutely points out that, only a generation ago, spending four years earning a college degree would have been an unimaginable luxury. What a shame that so many students not only take this opportunity for granted, they use it as a means of identifying their own victimhood status, completely oblivious to the fact that their very presence in a college classroom is evidence of their good fortune and the opportunities afforded to them. ...more
I was curious about this book because my grandparents lived in Sag Harbor for over 50 years and I don't recall ever seeing any black people there, cerI was curious about this book because my grandparents lived in Sag Harbor for over 50 years and I don't recall ever seeing any black people there, certainly not entire enclaves of upper-class black families as Whitehead describes in his semi-autobiographical novel. I had heard that there was a poor part of town where the maids and gardeners of rich people lived, but I never saw it myself, and my grandparents weren't quite that wealthy. I asked my mom about it and she said they were black enclaves but "they didn't exactly stroll down Main Street." Whitehead describes the black families keeping more or less to their own beaches, aside from the kids' summer jobs and occasional forays to the ocean.
I was also interested because, coincidentally, my brother's name is Ben, just like the protagonist, and my grandfather was a podiatrist, just like the protaganist's father. I very much enjoyed this glimpse of Sag Harbor in the 80s, just as it was starting to transform from a sleepy former whaling town to a destination for the ultra-wealthy. It was never as fashionable as the Hamptons, and being nestled on the island of North Haven, between the forks, it doesn't have any ocean frontage. This could be why black families were able to purchase the land, I guess it must have been in the 50s or 60s. Of course nowadays celebrities like Martha Stewart and Puff Daddy live in Sag Harbor. I guess the rich folk ran out of land to buy on the forks.
Whitehead reveals a fascinating world that is totally unknown to me: upper-class black families with beach houses. Although he describes his fictional family as middle-class, I would put them more in the upper-class category, with two Ivy-educated parents, a doctor and a lawyer, kids in private school, seven-room pre-war apartment in the city, and the Sag Harbor beach house. By my standards, that's affluence.
The novel revolves around teenage Benji, who summers in Sag Harbor with his brother Reggie, largely unsupervised except for weekend visits from his parents, who don't make it out every weekend. The book covers the standard teenage experience: jobs, girlfriends, cars, music, fashion, and so forth. Interestingly, it is only in Sag Harbor that Benji has a group of black friends. In the city, in his upscale private school, most of his fellow students are white. I wish Whitehead had written more about the city life and how Benji differs in the two environments. Did he tone down his speech among his white friends to exclude the "signifying" and other aspects of Black English? Did he feel more like his true self in Sag Harbor, or the other way around?
Whitehead describes some interesting aspects of being a "black boy with a beach house," which was unfathomable in the 80s. Being white myself, I really enjoyed these parts of the novel as many things had never occurred to me due to my own perspective. For example, I can eat a watermelon and it doesn't signify anything in particular. Whitehead describes how no black person would ever carry a watermelon down Main Street. It'd be like a walking stereotype. That's the sort of thing that a white person just doesn't really ever consider.
The novel brushes with more serious topics, such as Benji's father being sort of an abusive jerk, hitting Benjy for not standing up to a student who made a racist remark, being extremely mean to his mother because she bought the wrong kind of paper plates. Of course, anyone who remembers the 80s remembers that women were not only expected to work outside the home but also to do all the cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Liberation ended up saddling women with twice as much work in the name of equality. The idea of a dad doing any sort of parenting was so hilariously unreal that a comedy flick was made about it - Mr. Mom. A dad changing diapers - hilarious! Of course it's now commonplace and unremarkable, but not so in the 80s.
The problem with the book is that it only brushes over what might be serious conflict, such as Benjie's abusive father, his kissing his pal's girlfriend, his friend's mother's accidental use of the "n-word" - tossed around casually by the teens in the book, but a harsh slur to me, reading the book through my own perspective. Quite a few plot points are left unexplored - the BB lodged above his eye in an ill-fated BB-gun fight, him intentionally leaving the freezer door open at his ice cream parlor job, his friends whose parents divorce, forcing the moms to live in Sag Harbor full-time, the families of bigamists, the mysterious troublemaking teen who shows up at the very end, presumed to be someone's cousin, but is related to no one. Even little things, like why his father, described as a master griller, burns the chicken, are left unexplained. I just think there could have been a little more depth. It reads like a very entertaining YA novel about "how I spent my summer vacation." Not necessarily a bad thing, but given that the subject matter of affluent black families in the 80s is one that is quite unknown to many white readers, I think there is a missed opportunity here to give the topic a little more weight. ...more
Perhaps I took the title too literally, but this book is about disputations, not duels. And some of those disputations are simply murders. Others realPerhaps I took the title too literally, but this book is about disputations, not duels. And some of those disputations are simply murders. Others really press the very idea of "duels." Two angry dads fighting over a doll in a toy store at Christmas time? A couple squabbling in a therapist's office? Two musicians trading riffs? Was St. George and the Dragon, not to mention John Henry vs. the steam drill, really a "duel"? There are a few bona fide duels included, such as the famous Burr-Hamilton duel. But mostly the author uses the term "duel" very loosely to include not only cold-blooded murder, petty and decidely non-lethal squabbles, and mere challenges and struggles. But the "authentic" dialect is quite distracting. I often felt as if I was reading Lil' Abner cartoon strip. The author would have been better off writing in plain English than trying to capture regional dialects.
I am probably not being very fair to the author because I believe this is considered a work of fiction, whereas I was expecting non-fiction. I guess it'd be considered historical fiction with a fair dose of alternate reality? Perhaps if it had a bit more style and readability, I'd have stuck with it despite the somewhat ridiculous notion of what constitutes a duel, but ultimately I couldn't get past the awkward verbiage and gave up after a few chapters. ...more
This is a rousing good adventure story in the tradition of 19th century boys' serials. The novel is based on short stories featuring the same characteThis is a rousing good adventure story in the tradition of 19th century boys' serials. The novel is based on short stories featuring the same characters, published in the Oxford Annual for Boys. Derrick, whose parents were missionaries, is orphaned at some indistinct age, probably early teens. He is taken aboard his uncle Sullivan's schooner while they figure out what exactly to do with him. After meeting up with his much older cousin, Professor Ayrton, a respected archaeologist, they decide Derrick should be educated and sent away to school. Naturally enough, this is devastating to Derrick, but his uncle agrees to one last journey with the professor before Derrick is shipped off.
His uncle, the professor, and three of the crew of the schooner embark on a expedition to Uzbekistan via the "road to Samarcand" aka the Silk Road. They meet with many adventures along the way - encounters with local Mongols and Tibetans, espionage behind enemy lines, dangerous glacier crossings, and they even meet the infamous "abominable snowman." Having been raised in China, Derrick speaks the language fluently, as well as a few other local languages and dialects. He is a resourceful young man, fighting bravely in their various conflicts, persisting stoically in extreme survival situations.
This book illustrates O'Brian's mastery of characterization but, unlike the Aubreyad, the pace is always kept at a fast clip. O'Brian stated in interviews that he was only concerned with the "day to day" life of Aubrey and Maturin and the plot was entirely secondary. The Road To Samarcand reverses those priorities. It is a real page-turner and the plot bubbles along with nary a dull point. Even though you figure they will probably escape in the end, the final scene in which they outwit the terrifyingly violent Buddhist monks is a real nail-biter. ...more
In my opinon, Donna Tartt is the best of the literary Brat Pack that swept the scene in the 80s and 90s. Bolstered largely by youth, privileged backgrIn my opinon, Donna Tartt is the best of the literary Brat Pack that swept the scene in the 80s and 90s. Bolstered largely by youth, privileged backgrounds, and the strange otherness of the out-of-towner, they were irresistible to NYC publishers. The Little Friend is one of three lengthy, page-turner novels she's written, and although it's my least favorite of her work, I still found it impossible to put down. There may be some slight spoilers below so be forewarned.
Tartt's style is reminiscent of Southern Gothic. There is beautiful prose and many lovely paragraphs, but also murder and corruption. The Little Friend takes place in Mississippi and as with all her novels, the era is uncertain. It seems to be the 1970s, based on the lingering racism and occasional pop culture reference, to rock music, or Wacky Packs stickers. The subject is a grim one: the death of a beloved child, the son of a respectable old Southern family who lost their grand country home to financial mismanagement. Even worse, the little boy was found hanging in the yard on Mother's Day, surrounded by family members, with his two little sisters right there in the yard with him. No one saw anything suspicious, and Robin was a happy child. The unsolved murder looms darkly over the family. The loss of young Robin drives his mother Charlotte into a drugged depression, while his father Dixon moves to Nashville, supposedly to take a bank job, but really simply to get away from the gloom. Young Harriet, her older sister Allison are mainly raised by their housekeeper Ida Rhew, their grandmother Edie, and a bevy of great-aunts, while their mother hardly leaves her bedroom. Harriet takes it upon herself to punish the person who killed her little brother, and arbitrarily decides that Robin's friend Danny Ratcliff, now a dangerous ex-con and drug dealer, must be responsible for his death.
Most of the novel revolves around Harriet's efforts to spy on Danny and exact her revenge. There is a sly nod to Harriet the Spy, another little girl who meddled in grown-up affairs. The scene in which Ida Rhew is fired particularly reminded me of Harriet the Spy, who also lost her beloved nanny at the age at which she really didn't need her any more. The big difference, of course, is that The Little Friend is not a children's story, although it is mainly about children. It's actually somewhat frightening and often depressing - Harriet and her sister are neglected by their mother, their home becomes increasingly squalid once Ida Rhew departs, Harriet's little friend Hely, who loves her madly, eventually loses interest in chasing Danny and becomes distracted with band camp, and, worst of all, the Ratcliff family are dangerous criminals and Harriet's surveillance is far from discreet. Danny is after Harriet just as surely as she is after him.
The casual racism and social snobbery of the 1970s is quite fascinating, at least to this Yankee reader. We don't really have the idea of "white trash" in New York - poor is poor. But in Mississippi of the 70s, respectable blacks and whites alike looked down on poor white rednecks and hillbillies, living in trailers, or in remote rural poverty, even more than they looked down upon blacks living in shantytown, who at least had the "accident of birth" to blame for their poverty. And yet even the poorest "white trash" families such as the Ratcliffs sent their children to private school to maintain segregation. A particularly disturbing scene describes the Ratcliff clan shooting at hapless black fisherman and picnickers.
Tartt uses third-person narration, unlike her other two novels. She also employs an ensemble cast of characters, switching point of view periodically among a wide array of them, and eventually settling for alternating between Harriet and Danny's narration. This is a challenging style for a writer and Tartt pulls it off beautifully. But the novel does not have a particularly satisfying ending. The murder of little Robin is never solved. The bizarre recurring thread of mysterious hats appearing out of nowhere is never explained, though Tartt dangles it temptingly, as if it might have something to do with the murder, ultimately the hats are just a random occurrence. The Ratcliffs are unfortunate, yet they are also despicable. Edie and the great-aunts are lovely, but they are ancient enough to recall the turn of the century; clearly they are not long for this world. Tartt marks a point in the novel at which Harriet would never again be even remotely happy, and yet she is only 11 or 12 years old - but thus the story ends, with a lifetime of misery for Harriet, and the dreadful scar of her brother's murder forever destroying her family.
Not exactly a cheery read, but nonetheless a page-turner with some real gripping moments and a fascinating insight into the cast of characters.
This is a fairly well-written piece of historical fiction about cholera epidemic in the early 19th century. The story unfolds largely from the point oThis is a fairly well-written piece of historical fiction about cholera epidemic in the early 19th century. The story unfolds largely from the point of view of Gustine, a young prostitute, the "dress lodger" of the title, who is paid by her landlord to solicit men in stunning blue gown he owns, thereby representing herself as a much higher social class than she actually is. Gustine also works in a local pottery during the day, struggling with her two jobs to provide for herself and her child, who was born with a bizarre malady - his heart is located outside his body, covered by a thin layer of skin. The local surgeon Henry Chiver is new in town, fresh from a "resurrection man" scandal in which he was accused of murdering the poor to provide bodies for his anatomical dissections. He and Gustine form an uneasy alliance - she will help him find fresh dead bodies, with the hope that he will, in gratitude, help her infant survive his freakish medical condition.
Historical fiction about the poor is much like historical fiction about the rich - the authors cannot resist stuffing their novels with as much period detail as possible. It is not enough to describe a wealthy character; every last ripple of watered moire silk, every succulent bite of terrapin, must be elaborately outlined. And like most historical novels describing the very poor, Holman ensures that we never forget that Gustine is only 15, shockingly young to be a mother and a prostitute and a potter's assistant, that she lives in squalor with one change of clothing and only two diapers for the infant, that her fellow lodgers are even more unfortunate, and that her days and nights are filled with drudgery, hunger, discomfort, backbreaking labor at the pottery, soul-crushing labor with unsavoury men in back alleys, and always watched by a fellow lodger, a creepy one-eyed woman assigned to ensure she does not run away with her landlord's blue dress.
In some ways this is a poor man's Crimson Petal and the White, the usual "whore with the heart of gold, who's also smart and kind" tale that writers of Victorian fiction love to tell and re-tell. Its more interesting theme is the cholera epidemic and the rise of anatomical study and post-mortems. It was exceedingly difficult for surgeons to dissect the dead; they were legally permitted to dissect only executed criminals with no family or friends to claim them. This was a dark period in medical history, during which the public and the politicians demanded cures and answers for the many contagious diseases, but autopsies were regarded as akin to murder.
Ultimately I feel it would have been a better story without Gustine. The intrusive narrator who directly addresses the reader also detracted from the quality of the novel. It worked very well for Bronte, but not every novel is Jane Eyre. The meandering point of view is also an annoying affectation. The story is slow to kick in because of these distractions, whereas if the author had just restricted herself to either Gustine or Chiver's point of view, the story would not have unfolded any differently. Finally, Holman has a good eye for the dreary details of early 19th century life, her language is sometimes distractingly modern. In 1831, "ass" did not have the same meaning it does today. They might have said "bum" or "arse" or even "bottom" but "ass" usually meant either a donkey, or a very foolish person.
Despite my criticism, it's a fairly entertaining read, and the early 19th-century setting in a small industrial town sets it apart from the countless "London in the late 19th century" historical novels. I just think Holman needed a better editor to tighten it up and correct a few minor flaws. But overall, not a bad read, not bad at all. Not great, but mostly entertaining, if a bit too grim for my tastes. ...more
This is only a review of novella The Duel, which I read in a nice little standalone edition published by Melville House, that I cannot find on GoodreaThis is only a review of novella The Duel, which I read in a nice little standalone edition published by Melville House, that I cannot find on Goodreads. It is historical fiction - a late 19th century author writing about the Napoleonic Wars. The quarrel between the two French officers D'Hubert and Feraud lasts for decades, initially spurred by the trivial incident of the one officer ordered to fetch the other from a courtesan's house. D'Hubert, being more level-headed and apparently more skilled with blade and pistol, prevails in each of their duels, yet Feraud never attains satisfaction, challenging his enemy again and again, during assorted Napoleonic campaigns, the fragile peace, the royal restorations, and the aftermath. During the brutal retreat from Russia, the two men assist each other; they are, after all, comrades. But aside from official military duties, Feraud swears eternal vengeance on D'Hubert, even after the initial trespass is long forgotten. And even after yet another humiliating defeat, and the most chivalrous overtures from D'Hubert to put all past grievances aside, Feraud will not be appeased. His bitterness at living under the restored monarchy, and at the Grand Armee veterans' lowly social status, is so wrapped up in his hatred with D'Hubert that you can't help but dislike him. The quarrel is so irrational as to be ridiculous, and Conrad does not shy away from a sly humour and gentle digs at the military officers' notion of honour. But as so often with lifelong enemies, the relationship of the two duellists is closer than friendship. D'Hubert cannot help but be concerned for the welfare of Feraud, and their shared experience on the battlefield also makes him express far more sympathy than expected towards the man who so ardently wishes to kill him. The twist ending makes this short, breezy novella a uniquely satisfying read.
Had I been assigned this book to read in school instead of Heart of Darkness, I certainly would sought out Conrad's other works, but like most teachers, mine carefully chose the most depressing and dreary works from the classics of English literature, dismissing anything even remotely humourous and certainly avoided any book with a happy ending. Fortunately it is never too late to reform, and I look forward to reading more works by Conrad. ...more
I very much enjoyed this pastiche, which features the boxing prowess of Sherlock Holmes that Conan Doyle referred to in several stories. The boxing scI very much enjoyed this pastiche, which features the boxing prowess of Sherlock Holmes that Conan Doyle referred to in several stories. The boxing scenes were certainly the highlight with well-drawn tension about the outcomes. The Watsonian voice of the narrator is convincing and better than the average SH pastiche (that first-person narration in an authentic Victorian style that also captures Watson's personality eludes many writers). Being an amateur historian familiar with 19th century vernacular, I did not find the slang distracting (I should note that my paperback edition did not include the glossary). I liked that both Holmes and Watson were sometimes impatient with each other, and at one point Watson even attempts to physically restrain Holmes, to no avail, of course. I imagine the stress of working on life-or-death cases would have sometimes resulted in arguments or even physical altercations between the two friends (and roommates, of course), although of course no such thing was ever described by ACD.
The author incorporates citations of off-page events involving Holmes from the Sign of Four and The Empty House, as well as the general boxing expertise depicted in the bar fight described in The Solitary Cyclist. I got the sense that he has a good knowledge of the Canon and of 19th century history as well as, of course, 19th century pugilism of both the thuggish prize-fighter and the gentlemanly "scientific" varieties. I did think the mystery plot suffered from a bit too much complexity, which is typical of pastiche. In the original ACD stories, the crimes and suspects are much simpler - frequently, the issue is that someone is missing, has been murdered, or something has been stolen. There might be a red herring, and one or two obvious suspects, but nothing that requires a mental flow chart to keep track of what's what. Salmon's tale involves not only the expected murder or two but also counterfeiting, poisoning, domestic violence, inheritance, and far too many subplots and characters for me to keep track. Kind of like when you walk into a party and the host introduces you to 10 people, and try as you might, you cannot remember more than 4 or 5 names, tops? Well, reading complex mystery plots involving scores of characters is kind of the same way. The reader can only keep track of a handful of additional characters outside the principals.
However, I didn't read this book for the mystery. I read it for the boxing scenes, which didn't fail to disappoint. I also enjoyed the jujutsu tactics featured in the final fight, and the name-check for Edward William Barton-Wright who taught Holmes "baritsu" or as we now know it was actually called, "Bartitsu."
Whether or not this would be equally engaging for a Holmes fan uninterested in boxing, I am not sure. It is published by Fight Card books, after all, and they specialize in nouveau pulps in the boxing/MMA genre. But if you do like boxing or martial arts as well as Sherlock Holmes, this is a solidly entertaining read. ...more
Let me just start off by refuting the official summary, which states that "Gay men in turn-of-the-century Paris wore green carnations in their buttonhLet me just start off by refuting the official summary, which states that "Gay men in turn-of-the-century Paris wore green carnations in their buttonholes." Wilde wore a green carnation and encouraged his devotees to wear them on at least one occasion, but it was never a widespread practice and its connotations with homosexuality were established long afterwards. It is tempting to regard Wilde as a prototype gay activist, proudly queer, suffering prison rather than deny his true nature, but like most 19th century homosexuals, Wilde did not make his nature widely known. In fact he perjured himself in his eagerness to deny his homosexuality, and was "outed" by his prison sentence. No one can blame him for lying in a court of law; two years of hard labour was very often fatal, and his friends did not expect him to live more than six months in jail.
Back to the novella. It is a straight-out parody of the Aesthetic Movement and of Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Douglas aka Bosie in particular. No doubt it was more hilarious to the 19th-century reader, much the way today's barbs about hipsters or emo kids will be meaningless in 100 years. But in their day, the Aesthetics were much mocked, and satirical cartoons of Wilde and dismissive reviews of his lectures were published in many newspapers.
The plot is fairly flimsy; the elder society man Esme Amarinth has corrupted young Reggie Hastings until he, too, is intolerable - daring in his wit, sometimes amusing, yet also petulant and shallow and extremely vain about his handsome appearance, which he bolsters with all the care afforded to a young aristocrat. Reggie meets Lady Locke at a country house party; she becomes superficially enchanted with his good looks, but ultimately dissuaded by his shallowness and rejects him.
Hitchens' writing seems to suggest that Hastings was not such a bad sort until he fell in with the degenerate Amarinth. This is somewhat a reversal of the real-life Wilde and Bosie, for, although the former was much older, it was the latter whose lured Wilde into increasingly dangerous waters; "feasting with panthers," as Wilde described his sexual liasons with valets and boot blacks and the lower class of rent boy. Amarinth's dialogue is so derivative of Wilde's quips that he is clearly a parody of the great writer, but unlike Hastings, Bosie was already thoroughly corrupted when he met Wilde and began their famous affair.
There may be some coded references to homosexual but nothing terribly overt, probably more recognizable to the 19th century reader than to the modern one, but the idea of a louche, libertine older man corrupting a fresh-faced younger one is certainly a Victorian trope with strong underpinnings of homosexual threat.
Never averse to a bit of free publicity, Wilde appeared to take the publication of The Green Carnation in good stride, even sending a congratulatory telegram to the young Hitchens. But once disaster struck and Wilde was on trial, Hitchens withdrew the novella immediately, appalled that it might be used to cause further damage to Wilde's reputation. Because of the trial and imprisonment, and what we know today of Wilde's life, The Green Carnation is hopelessly dated. We can never return to that time when the brilliant young Aesthetic Wilde was mocked for his long hair and love of beauty and any hints that he was a "Mary Ann" were mostly harmless. We can't read this book the way it was intended to resonate; inevitably we'll think of Wilde's trial and imprisonment that ensured he died a young but broken man. For that reason, I recommend this for Wilde fans, or scholars of the Aesthetic movement, and not for fans of 19th century fiction. ...more
It's hard to review such a perennial classic, but it's certainly a rousing good yarn for anyone who likes adventure stories. I'll probably read a fewIt's hard to review such a perennial classic, but it's certainly a rousing good yarn for anyone who likes adventure stories. I'll probably read a few more RLS because I enjoyed this one so much (formerly, I had only read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as his poems for children when I was a wee lass). Along with Howard Pyle and Robert Newton, RLS is largely responsible for the modern perception of pirates, although his band of amoral buccaneers in Treasure Island are a lot less appealing than, say, the ragtag crew of The Black Pearl. But we have RLS to thank for phrases like "Yo ho ho" and "Pieces of eight!"
Treasure Island is a classic good guys vs. bad guys tale, with Long John Silver operating somewhere in the murky in-between we now call the "anti hero." He's the leader of the bloodthirsty gang of "gentleman of fortune" who care only about finding the lost treasure, but he's also a relatively decent chap, as long as said treasure is not within eye-sight. The narrator, cabin boy Jim Hawkins, alternates between dread and admiration of the one-legged John. Even though he's just as evil as the rest of the lot, he's a lot more gracious and well-spoken, and lacking in the blind superstition and downright idiocy the others display. You can't help but root for Long John to avoid swinging for his crimes.
Dr. Livesey is another unforgettable character, displaying all the best qualities of 19th century medicos. He cheerfully walks into the pirate camp on Treasure Island to treat the sick and injured men, who take their doses meekly, despite the bloodthirsty shoot-out that occurred between the pirates and the good guys just hours earlier. He is happy to preserve their bodies for "King George's gallows" in a bit of black humour. Likewise Captain Smollett is a staunch fellow and manages to get the ship's owners safely home again without being too much of an "I-told-you-so," given that he anticipated from the get-go that the hired crew for the expedition were mutineers and not minding their duties as honest seamen ought to.
I can't think of a single reason why any literate person should not read this fine adventure tale!...more
I thoroughly enjoyed this juvenile fantasy tale of an eccentric young noblewoman in the fictional Republic of Califa. Flora Fyrdracca is the daughterI thoroughly enjoyed this juvenile fantasy tale of an eccentric young noblewoman in the fictional Republic of Califa. Flora Fyrdracca is the daughter of two legendary military leaders, her mother the general (de facto commander-in-chief of Califa's military) and her father, formerly of the legendary "Skinner" unit of soldiers. The Fyrdraccas are one of the great houses of Califa, and as such, they live in an enormous enchanted house with thousands of rooms, formerly maintained by a magical butler who was banished by General Fyrdracca. Since the banishment, the house is impossible to maintain, and despite its grandiose scale, the Fyrdraccas live meanly in just a few rooms. Well, Flora does - her mother is often away on military matters, while her father, driven crazy by a stint as a prisoner-of-war, rarely descends from his attic. Flora's older sister Idden is away on military matters, since all Fyrdraccas are expected to join the military (and therefore, abstain from practicing magic). Flora is left to manage the household on her own, which makes her seem older than her years - I was surprised when it was finally revealed she is only 13. She must do all the cooking and cleaning and care for the family's dogs and horses, on top of her schoolwork - and all because her mother banished the magical butler who would normally handle such tasks. Flora manages to discover this magical creature hiding in the library, and seeks to restore him, but of course, things go awry. She is helped out by her best friend Udo, a dandyish young man who is sympathetic to her desire to become a Ranger, a kind of roaming spy from Califa's history, free to practice magic and stealth. The only problem is that the Rangers were disbanded some years ago, and of course, Flora's familial duty may compel her to join the military in the Fyrdracca tradition.
This isn't one of those fantasy books in which people wave magic wands and all the dirty dishes are cleared away instantly. Even Califans well-versed in magic still ride horses to get from place-to-place. Califa itself seems a bit like 18th century Europe combined with aspects of feudalism and pre-Columbian South America. Courtesy is highly valued and well-bred people know all the various kinds of bows and curtseys appropriate for different social classes. Everyone wears kilts, although Udo likes to spruce up his appearance with nail varnish and eyeliner. Flora's schoolwork includes embroidery, sewing, dancing, penmanship, and the like. A curious bird-human hybrid people have a presence as conquerors of Califa, although it's also described as a client-kingship of the "birdies" with its own ruler, the Warlord. Overall Califa reminds me of 17th or 18th century Spain. Thay may be due to author Wilce's background as a military historian. Curious customs such as "mensur" - a kind of German sword-play that generally results in scarring to the face - or the wearing of godets, or elaborate rituals at military headquarters involving "returning the colours," all suggest that Wilce's extensive military expertise has made its way into her novel.
The pace is lively, the conflicts well-realized, and the author keeps you turning the pages, eager to find out what happens next. I am looking forward to reading the other two in the series, along with anything else by Wilce. ...more
Harris is awfully slow to build the plot, and his protagonist, the WWII cryptologist Tom Jericho, is too dull to make his inner musings anything moreHarris is awfully slow to build the plot, and his protagonist, the WWII cryptologist Tom Jericho, is too dull to make his inner musings anything more than a chore for the first two thirds of the book, yet there is a superb payoff in the thrilling edge-of-the-seat action of the last third of the book. We are given to understand Tom had a nervous breakdown, brought on either by his incredibly stressful contributions to the war effort, or by being rejected by a a mysterious and beautiful woman, a fellow worker at Bletchley Park, the former stately home that was transformed into code-breaking headquarters for their fierce battle between the Enigma, the nearly unbreakable German encrypting machine, and the slew of British mathematicians who cracked it.
The novel opens when Jericho, a Turing-like figure, has been summoned back to work from his rooms at Cambridge, where he had been recovering. The demand for his mathematical genius is too great as the war at home rages on, and he is dispatched once again to Bletchley Park to work on the Engima. The work is gruelling, and when a American convoy meets up with a German wolf-pack, it becomes critical. The loss of life they failed to prevent is a dreadful stress on the Bletchley team. Harris does convey very well the burden of Jericho's having to work through exhaustion, propped up with amphetamines, hardly leaving the same chair for 36 hours while struggling to decipher Enigma, because he is too brilliant for his supervisor to allow him to be dismissed while there is a chance he can crack the Enigma code and save the convoy.
A secondary plot is the romantic angle and Jericho's somewhat wearisome mooning after a coworker. Through flashbacks we learn of his brief fling with Claire, a woman whose disappearance from her work detail at Bletchley triggers a military investigation. Jericho teams up with Claire's roommate to find out what happened to her, at great risk to themselves, for both are in love with her. The problem is that Tom and Claire aren't very interesting as characters. I wonder if this is intentional, as all the secondary characters are well-drawn, but Tom and Claire, despite their top secret work, just seem like boring rich people playing at a vocation while the war is on. We're told that Tom loved cryptography from the moment he was taught it, but he barely shows any emotion at his work, not even relief, except when it brings him closer to the discovery of Claire's whereabouts which seems to resonate with Tom far more than the thousands of lives in peril in the American convoy. Claire, at least, has a secret that makes her lack of depth more forgiveable on Harris' part, but I'm afraid Tom is just a dull bulb.
There are plenty of well-realized historical details, what Harris calls the "petty humiliations" of WWII, the strict rationing, the unappetizing alternative food sources, the lack of soap, tobacco, matches, or any small decency. Also the history of Bletchley is carefully detailed, from its beginnings as a grand country home into which the most brilliant of young Oxbridge aristocrats were recruited to deciper German codes in an almost leisurely fashion, to its eventual fate as a massive military complex of uncomfortable and heavily sentried wooden huts.
The excitement of the conclusion of the action and the mystery of Claire's disappearance do make for an exciting finish, but overall I found it a bit too plodding in the beginning to recommend without reservation. ...more
A charming tale written by one of the last of Britain's "boy seamen." Until 1965, teenage boys as young as 15 could join the Royal Navy, get trained aA charming tale written by one of the last of Britain's "boy seamen." Until 1965, teenage boys as young as 15 could join the Royal Navy, get trained as sailors, collect modest wages as well as room and board, and once they turned 17.5 years of age, be rated as "seamen." This tradition lasted centuries, although the exact status of sailor boys varied depending on the decade. Part of the appeal of this book is that Mr. Phillipson was not a cadet, a "young gentleman", or a boy heading towards becoming a sea officer. He was just an ordinary working class boy, starry-eyed with dreams of Trafalgar when Britain ruled the waves. The journals and documents he quotes were also written by ordinary ship's boys or young deck hands, which makes this book unique. Much has been written about midshipman being groomed to become sea officers, and even aristocratic boys were sent to sea as captain's servants, but the ordinary ship's boys worked odd jobs, most famously as powder monkeys, and because many of them were illiterate or simply poor, little documentation of their lives remain.
Mr. Phillipson describes his own experience at the training establishment HMS Ganges with gentle humour and sly notes of how little changed from the Victorian era. Even the famous rum ration barrels (of which he was too young to partake) were originally marked "The King God Bless Him" and he could see where "King" had been etched out to read "Queen" - a hallmark of exactly how old those barrels were. Everything from the training routine to the unsweetened cocoa and the amount of money a boy could legally carry in his pockets was strikingly similar to the way it was in the 19th century. One difference was mandatory swimming lessons, naturally these were conducted in an ice-cold swimming bath, but the modern Royal Navy, unlike its 19th- and 18th-century counterpart, insisted that every sailor know how to swim.
The photos reveal a handsome youth who was evidently proud to wear the Royal Navy uniform. We are lucky that he took the time to keep a diary, and to collect his reminiscences along with earlier boy seamen's notes and journals in this charming volume.