Tag Archives: classic

Review: My Cousin Rachel

It’s been almost TWO YEARS since I read and loved Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a book that left me suspecting I’d found a new (to me) favorite author, so it was beyond time to try another of her books and seal the deal. This month, I picked up my second-ever du Maurier novel, My Cousin Rachel, in a lovely buddy read with Melanie (@ Grab the Lapels). Fortunately, we both loved it! I’ve linked to her review.

mycousinrachelIn the novel, Philip resides on his uncle’s estate, of which he is the sole heir. When he was orphaned as a baby, this uncle took him in; they are each other’s closest family, and remarkably similar in appearance, opinion, and habit. For his health, the uncle has recently begun wintering away from the property at Cornwall, where much to his surprise Philip one day receives a letter stating that his uncle has married their cousin Rachel and will not be returning home as early as planned. Before long more letters start to arrive- mysterious, accusatory letters, begging Philip to come quickly- which he does, but not before his uncle is pronounced dead. Angry and disbelieving of the supposed cause of death, Philip invites Rachel to stay with him in Cornwall, intending to punish her for whatever role she may have played in his uncle’s demise. But when she arrives, nothing goes quite the way he thought it would.

My Cousin Rachel is a gothic novel with an air of mystery, though ultimately it’s du Maurier’s insightful characterization and atmosphere that drive the reader onward. The ever-present question of whether Rachel had anything to do with her husband’s sudden death is never far from the reader’s mind, though so much else is happening in the foreground that it’s impossible to call this novel anything other than a masterful, layered work.

The entire novel is narrated from Philip’s perspective, which I found immensely interesting as there’s also quite a bit of commentary on- or at least implication surrounding-  the unfairness of traditional gender roles and stereotypes. It seems to have been written with a female audience in mind, as the criticisms lie mainly in understood but unspoken motivations and undercurrents in dialogue, rather than bold statements. Nevertheless, the hint of feminism is no less exciting for its subtlety. Perhaps moreso for the fact that it is apparent through the lens of a self-entitled young man.

” ‘Louise isn’t a woman,’ I said, ‘she’s younger than myself, and I have known her since she ran around in petticoats.’ “

Of course, Philip isn’t the only interesting character; the framing of the novel around his perspective is apparent even in the title, but he is not the titular character. Rachel herself is vibrant and enigmatic; she’s polite, ladylike, and impeccably behaved on the surface, but it’s clear from the start that she’s intelligent and secretive, and won’t take anyone else’s word for who she should be and what she should do. She is entirely worthy of the mystery revolving around her. Additionally, the handful of secondary characters each have their own unique angle into the story, each a necessary cog that keeps the central wheel spinning.

As for the mystery, it plays out perfectly. A slow setup of the situation in the opening chapters allows readers a chance to meet all of the key players and acquaint themselves with the central conflict- the debate over whether or not Rachel is guilty of murder- which begins to wind ever tighter as soon as Rachel arrives on the page. From there, the tension and pacing gradually increase as these disparate personalities bounce off of one another in lieu of much real plot; relationships become increasingly nuanced and disaster looms. The final clues aren’t distributed until the very end of the novel, keeping the reader hooked and questing for answers up to the very last page- and beyond. This is a book that stays with the reader, that keeps asking questions after the cover is closed, and that promises a rich reread as well.

But, despite everything that I loved about this reading experience, there were a couple of elements to it that didn’t quite win me over. (I believe they worked better for Melanie, so be sure to check out her review for another opinion!)

The first is Philip. I’ve already mentioned being impressed with some of what was accomplished with his characterization, so clearly he was a double-edged sword for me. He’s an engaging and readable narrator, and the perfect perspective from which to view this series of tragedies as a mystery, but he’s also not the most likeable character; in itself, that wouldn’t bother me as long as his characterization serves a narrative purpose, but I’m not convinced Philip’s mildly selfish, spoiled personality ever does. It’s not strong enough for me to hate him, nor for me to pity him. He’s single and childless, and his uncle is already dead, so the reader must care about Philip for his own sake, which I never quite did. I found the matter of Rachel’s potential crimes against his family an intellectual curiosity at most, and unfortunately was never emotionally invested in Philip’s fate.

” ‘You have grown up ignorant of women, and if you ever marry it will be hard on your wife. I was saying so to Louise at breakfast.’ / He broke off then, looking – if my godfather could look such a thing – a little uncomfortable, as if he said more than he meant. / ‘That’s all right,’ I said, ‘my wife can take care of all the difficulties when the time comes.’ “

I also found myself frustrated over the murkiness of a few of the characters’ loyalties, especially those of Rachel’s friend/lawyer, and those of Philip’s godfather. I was never quite clear on whether their actions stemmed from genuine feelings, or whether they were merely following the letter of the law and came across as a bit suspicious only because it fed into the pull of the main mystery. I don’t think a bit more clarity on their motives would have hurt the story at all, and so I was disappointed not to have it.

And last but not least, though I did find plenty of surprises in the plot, I also found some aspects very predictable, which is not necessarily a fault of the book but probably inevitable 70 years after a mystery publication with the level of popularity du Maurier’s work has always seen. Though I enjoyed all of it, I saw through some of it, which made me impatient at points. Not a big deal at all, and I can’t be more specific without spoiling things, but I wanted to mention a bit of potential predictability for mystery fans.

” ‘Sometimes,’ she said slowly, ‘you are so like him that I become afraid. I see your eyes, with that same expression, turned upon me; and it is as though, after all, he had not died, and everything that was endured must be endured once more.’ “

Ultimately, My Cousin Rachel lacked for me that sense of everything falling perfectly into place (such as I found in Rebecca), though I did appreciate most of the lingering ambiguity. At the end of the story, there’s still a major choice of belief left up to the reader, narrowed down to a simple yes or no question that even a strong opinion one way or the other will not banish uncertainty from. It’s cleverly crafted and fun from start to finish, entirely worth the read.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was really close to a 5 star rating, and even though it didn’t quite make it for me, the experience has cemented du Maurier as one of my favorite authors, and leaves me determined to read the rest of her work. Next up for me (though I’m not sure when I’ll get to it) will probably be The House on the Strand. I’ll also be watching the film adaptation for My Cousin Rachel as soon as possible.

Have you read or seen this one?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (novel and film)

I’ve enjoyed both The Haunting of Hill House and The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson in the past, but neither could have prepared me for quite how much I loved Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Immediately after finishing, I turned on the 2019 film adaptation, currently available on Netflix (US).

wehavealwayslivedinthecastleIn the novel, 18 year-old “Merricat” lives in Blackwood manor with her older sister, Constance, and their ailing uncle. The rest of the family perished in an event that further ostracized the remaining Blackwoods from the nearby villagers. Merricat is the only one of the three who still ventures into town, and does so as infrequently as possible to avoid the blatant rudeness and derision of the village folk. Isolation suits Merricat well, but Constance is easily charmed by an estranged cousin who appears unexpectedly and she begins to believe that she’s been a coward to lock herself inside the manor and tolerate her family’s eccentricities. Conflict divides what’s left of the family, which incites further tragedy.

” ‘I’ve been hiding here,’ Constance said slowly, as though she were not at all sure of the correct order of the words.”

This is a psychological horror story set in 1960s Vermont. It’s creepy and bizarre from start to finish, and disturbingly human. Though the eeriness comes mainly from the gothic tone, the woodsy, secluded setting, and the violent mob-mentality of the villagers, it’s the characterization that makes this story so utterly convincing. Constance’s unceasing optimism, Uncle Julian’s fixation on the family’s demise, Cousin Charles’s selfishness and obsession with money, Merricat’s whimsy and dark determination. Even though Constance stood accused of murder, the family remains close, expressing no regret or sentimentality over the lost family members or suspicion over those deaths. It’s haunting, and yet each of them are so clear that it’s impossible to dismiss them as mad fictions. (Don’t we all just want our bullies to leave us alone?)

With the focus so heavy on characters, there’s not much plot at the foreground, and what little there is is presented as a mystery. When the story opens, we know only that these sisters and their uncle have been alone in Blackwood manor for six years, and that the villagers have hated them all this time. Gradually, what has happened to the family is revealed, the how and why of it saved for later or left to vague hints. There’s plenty to ponder, and anyone who’s not willing to do the mental work of piecing the puzzle together is likely to find We Have Always Lived in the Castle a confusing bore. But whatever you make of it (there is a bit of ambiguity, even once the main mystery is solved), the themes of otherness and conversely, of unquestioning love, stand out at the forefront of this story.

“The people of the village have always hated us.”

All in all, it’s a disturbing delight to read, perfect for Halloween, and I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates a good psychological puzzle. Bonus points: it’s a quick little read, weighing in at less than 150 pages.

Image result for we have always lived in the castleIn the film, we see a very faithful adaptation that doesn’t contradict the novel in any major way. Some of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book, many of the scenes are the same, there is no difference in cast or characterization.

There are only a few small changes worth noting at all, the main one being that the ending is wrapped up a bit more quickly and definitively in the film, and the book’s biggest “twist” is saved for this final scene, whereas the novel introduces it a bit earlier and then slowly spins to a halt. The other point I want to compare is that the how and why of the first family tragedy is hinted at a bit more directly in the film; this new evidence follows the same direction of the assumptions I made based on the novel’s hints, but there’s less left to the audience’s imagination in the film. If you’re just looking for a quick, spooky diversion and don’t want to do the mental work of sorting out who did what and why, skipping straight to the film would be a great choice.

But, though it’s generally easier to watch a film than read a book, and this one does excellent service to its original text, Jackson’s writing in the novel really is exquisite and compulsively readable. It’s really not to be missed, if you’re a fan of classic horror!

” ‘It used to be a lovely old house, I hear,’ said the woman sitting on our grass. ‘I’ve heard that it was quite a local landmark at one time.’ “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. For both formats. I was hooked within the first paragraph of the novel- nay, the first sentence- and loved every bit of it. The film grabbed my attention instantly as well; I adored its colors and the quality of the light, which, as a words person, isn’t usually something I even notice, but I did here. I can see how readers/watchers who like plotty stories might not get along with this one, but both formats were just a perfect fit for me.

Have you read or watched We Have Always Lived in the Castle? Plan to?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Odyssey

I’ve had  a bind-up of The Iliad and The Odyssey on my currently-reading shelf for over a year, and I’ve finally reached the end of the book! I’ve recently set a goal for myself to complete bookish projects that I started oh so many moons ago, and the first objective is to clear off the books that’ve been hanging around on my currently-reading shelf for months. My focus for February was crossing Homer off of that list.

theiliadandtheodysseyAbout the book: After ten years of fighting in the Trojan War, Odysseus sails for home along with the rest of the Argives. But in his journey, he angers Poseidon, who dooms Odysseus to ten years of hardship at sea while his family suffers in Ithaca, unsure whether he is alive or dead. Finally Athena decides it is time to help redirect his course, and in the last stretch of his travels Odysseus describes the troubles he’s encountered at sea. Ithaca faces its own troubles as a mass of “suitors” attempt to squander Odysseus’s estate in his absence, eliminate his son, and marry his wife.

“I have traveled much, and have had much to do with heroes, but I have never seen such another man as Odysseus.”

I’ve read long excerpts from The Odyssey both in high school and college, but I didn’t know how very much of The Odyssey I’d already read until I managed it cover to cover this month. I recognized at least 16 of the 24 chapters of this volume from my previous readings.

But through the familiar and the unfamiliar, I struggled far less with this book than I did with The Iliad. Since I’ve already complained about my dislike of this translation in my review of The Iliad, I won’t go into all of that again here. I’ll say only that the translator of my edition, Samuel Butler (whose introductions to these epic poems are dated in the 1890s), used a very literal translation style that transformed Homer’s epic poems into rather flat English prose.

Fortunately, despite Butler’s style, I found The Odyssey much more readable. There is far less repetition in this story than The Iliad, and fewer lists of names and lineages that hold little interest for the casual reader. Battle scenes are brief and contained, and further the plot of this book. Though The Iliad seems to me the more accomplished and perhaps more memorable of these ancient texts, The Odyssey was far more fun and engaging to read.

Odysseus is known as a very wise man who can trick others easily. For this reason, a plot centered around Odysseus makes for a story full of puzzles and deceit. He must scheme his way past the obstacles that the gods set before him. This is a rather episodic journey, but we spend much more time with these main characters than with those of The Iliad simply because there are fewer of import. But as in The Iliad, we still witness the gods’ manipulations in the lives of the mortals; stories from mythology (The Odyssey included) balance gods so well, in some cases using them to explain what many today would probably consider acts of fate or science (weather, illness, personal strengths and weaknesses) but also presenting them as characters with physical presence. Of course, mythologies are interesting not only because of the stories they tell on the surface, but for the glimpse into historical cultures that they afford. Though we may harbor different beliefs today, there is still a timeless human connection in these ancient stories that can be found in the artist’s efforts to moralize and explain.

“Men live but for a little season; if they are hard, and deal hardly, people wish them ill so long as they are alive, and speak contemptuously of them when they are dead, but he that is righteous and deals righteously, the people tell of his praise among all lands, and many shall call him blessed.”

It was also interesting for me to read The Odyssey after picking up CirceThe Iliad, and The Silence of the Girls all within the last year. I love classic retellings, but the first step to appreciating them is to familiarize oneself with the original text. I made myself finish The Iliad before picking up Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, but I did let myself read Miller’s Circe before completing The Odyssey. She doesn’t see much page-time in The Odyssey, so I was glad to have Miller’s exploration of her character in mind as I went through that part of the classic. With The Iliad behind me also, I was more aware of the character and plot references related to the Trojan War that crop up in The Odyssey than I had been while reading stand-alone excerpts in the past. And after reading The Silence of the Girls, I was more aware of the women in this story, few though they are, and could more easily see the unspoken hardships that they faced.

“She screams aloud and flings her arms about him as he lies gasping for breath and dying, but her enemies beat her from behind about the back and shoulders, and carry her off into slavery, to a life of labor and sorrow, and the beauty fades from her cheeks.”

I think the order in which I read these related books improved my experience with The Odyssey, though they certainly aren’t mandatory prerequisites.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can see why this story has survived so long, and will continue to do so. I’ll definitely want to reread both The Iliad and The Odyssey in other translations that are at least more reminiscent of the original poetic form; I’m sure that I could enjoy the actual reading process of both these stories more if I could find a style better suited to me.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Time Machine

One of the gaps I’ve spotted in my reading life is classic sci-fi. I tend to like science fiction when I do pick it up, but I’ve noticed that I don’t read very much of it, and when I do I gravitate toward newer releases. So this year I’m hoping to read more YA sci-fi, more sci-fi from female writers, and more classic sci-fi. So I turned to H. G. Wells, to start. Specifically, to Wells’ The Time Machine.

thetimemachineAbout the book: an unnamed scientist, referred to throughout the book as the Time Traveler, hosts a dinner party with a range of notable guests to reveal his latest invention: a device that moves through space’s fourth dimension: time. What he shows them is a prototype, too small to carry a human. But when the narrator returns for another meal with the Time Traveler, the scientist barges in late and in disarray, with a wild tale about the future of Earth and humanity that none are quite sure whether or not to believe.

“There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

Published in the 1890s, The Time Traveler was Wells’s first science fiction novel(la), and one of the first printed stories about the possibility of travelling unchronologically through time.

There are two storytellers within this book. Our main narrator is an observer at the Time Traveler’s dinner party and a witness to his presumed return from the future. He notes facts and suppositions objectively, leaving the reader to make up his or her own mind about the truth of affairs. The middle part of the novel is narrated by the Time Traveler himself, as he speaks in a long, uninterrupted monologue about his experiences with the time machine. He leaves less room for interpretation, though he does admit when he’s deduced something rather than seen it proven firsthand. The Point of the novel seems to be to start a discussion about what is possible rather than forcing the reader to adopt a certain stance about what the future holds for our world.

I do not remember all I did as the moon crept up the sky. I suppose it was the unexpected nature of my loss that maddened me. I felt hopelessly cut off from my own kind- a strange animal in an unknown world.”

There’s an impression of reading fantasy when one gets to the Time Traveler’s exploration of the far future, but one of the reasons this book has stood the test of time so well seems to be that even the most bizarre details within are grounded with rationalization. Wells draws on real research and opinions of the time to create his narrative, and he takes the Time Traveler far enough into the future that the scope of the story does not become outdated as the novel ages. The Time Traveler considers the entire future of our race and planet, which is just as unproven today as in 1893. The Time Traveler doesn’t just meet the Eloi and Morlocks (the humans of the distant future) and wonder at their strangeness- he considers how their society functions, and speculates on the path that humanity has taken to reach such a point and where its behaviors will take it next.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the premise is that the Time Traveler does not find super intelligence and world peace ahead for humanity; though there are bright spots in the darkness, the creatures he finds past year 800,000 AD are not a hopeful omen for humankind. It really puts things in perspective to think about how little some things will matter in the grand scheme of so many years, and yet, each person alive is helping to drive the planet toward its real inevitable end, good or bad.

“I must have raved to and fro, screaming and crying upon God and Fate. I have a memory of horrible fatigue, as the long night of despair wore away; of looking in this impossible place and that; of groping among moonlit ruins and touching strange creatures in the black shadows; at last, of lying on the ground near the sphinx and weeping with absolute wretchedness. I had nothing left but misery.”

But Wells doesn’t stray too far into the philosophical. Instead, he speculates openly and leaves the reader to decide what to do with the story’s implications, right up to The Time Machine’s ambiguous end.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a short, worthwhile read that’s great for anyone just starting out in the science fiction genre and seasoned pros alike. It’s very readable for a 120+ year-old classic, and Wells’ bio is equally fascinating (the edition I read seems to contain about as many pages of introductions and notes as the story itself takes up). I definitely want to read more of his work, and more science fiction in general. I think there’s still so much of this genre that I haven’t even glimpsed yet, and I’m looking forward to delving deeper.

Further recommendations:

  • For more classic sci-fi, you can’t miss Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This is a novel about a scientist attempting to bring life back to the human body after death; his creation doesn’t turn out the way he expected, but the monster of the story isn’t who you think. Even more than science, this is a book about morality and showing acceptance/kindness toward people you don’t understand.

What’s a genre you want to explore more thoroughly in 2019?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Iliad

I had been meaning to read Homer’s The Iliad for YEARS. I read long excerpts for class and on my own, but I never actually made it through. Until now! It wasn’t the most enjoyable experience (more on that in a sec), but it’s an incredible story.

theiliadAbout the book: Paris has taken Helen to be his wife in Troy; she was Menelaus’s wife first, and he raises an army against Troy at the injustice of having her stolen from him. Heroes on both sides fight for honor, though Paris plays little part in the fighting, leaving the battle against the Greeks to his more capable brother, Hector. At the opening of the book, two of the chief Greeks are at odds with one another: Agamemnon has slighted Achilles, who then refuses to fight though he could turn the tide of the war. But even as Achilles holds himself apart from the battle, he does not remain untouched by it– he sends his closest companion into danger alone, and learns of his own impending fate at Troy.

There were two things about this book that combined to make finishing difficult for me: 1) I was already 100% familiar with the story so no part of it was at all unexpected, and 2) I disliked the edition I read. It seems to be a very literal translation (by Samuel Butler), which in theory is where I would’ve wanted to start and it is the copy I own. But the grammar and wording is clunky in places, and it felt like some of the artistry of the story is lost in trying to match the language so directly. None of the other excerpts I’ve read from other authors have been this awkward to read, and I was pretty close to giving up.

“On this, with fell intent he made towards the city, and as the winning horse in a chariot race strains every nerve when he is flying over the plain, even so fast and furiously did the limbs of Achilles bear him onwards.”

What worked for me in the end was to read only a couple of chapters at a time. I do plan to pick up a more liberal translation at some point with the hope of enjoying the telling of the story more, as opposed to just appreciating its bones.

What I did love about The Iliad is the duality to the story, the way that the men are fighting the war, but also the Gods are fighting the war; in some ways the players remain separate, but ultimately they’re all playing off of each other to the point where it’s hard to tell who’s really in control of events. I also find it so easy to root for both Hector and Achilles, even though they oppose each other. Both sides are humanized and compelling.

“No man may fight Achilles, for one of the gods is always with him as his guardian angel, and even were it not so, his weapon flies ever straight, and fails not to pierce the flesh of him who is against him.”

I’ve also noticed a personal change in my reading of this story. I was such a naïve reader when I first tried picking this story up; I would follow any character or any narrator anywhere, taking everything at face value. Now that I’m a smarter reader, and especially lately as retellings are being published with stronger female leads, I’ve been paying more attention to characters like Helen and Briseis, and respecting the role that the women play in such a man’s story. The Iliad is about war, a man’s occupation– the women only cry for their husbands in the background, or are offered as prizes in competitions. Even so, they have fascinating stories between the lines. A big part of the reason I pushed myself to finish The Iliad this month is that I’m looking forward to reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls within the month as well, a retelling of the Trojan war from Briseis’s point of view. (I’ll probably be reviewing it early next week.)

I know that Greek stories like The Iliad were originally meant to be sung from memory, not written and read. And I do think it’s impressive that such a long and detailed account could have been narrated this way. But I am not a listener of epic poems in ancient Greece, I am a reader in 2018. And there is something that doesn’t work for me in reading this book: the level of detail. I am very much a reader who likes to hold every detail in my head as I go, but there are so many specifics in The Iliad that no matter how many times I read it I will never keep every minor character distinct in my mind, which made this a frustrating read at times. There are 10 pages (in my copy) devoted entirely to listing the names of principal fighters on both sides of the battle. 10 whole pages. That was the hardest part of the book for me to get through.

Even after the naming of the fighters, there are a lot of individual skirmishes that occur during the battles in which the narrator describes each blow dealt by this lesser character to that lesser character, going from pair to pair, none of whom matter much on an individual basis in the grand scheme of the plot. I want to appreciate this level of detail, the way Homer shows which side is winning or losing by showing each man that stands or falls, but it’s an overwhelming amount of names.

In the end, though this wasn’t the translation for me, I was reminded of how much I love The Iliad‘s bones– the politics, the emotion, the mythology, the grit. It’s no wonder this tragic story has survived thousands of years, and is still captivating new readers all the time.

“For all our grief we will hide our sorrows in our hearts, for weeping will not avail us. The immortals know no care, yet the lot they spin for man is full of sorrow.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a great story, and undoubtedly well-crafted. I was sad to feel during this read that some of the magic had been lost in this translation, but I loved the story anyway and look forward to reading it again someday in a more artistic rendering. I’m also planning to finish The Odyssey within the year (because I read Circe a few months ago and because Goodreads won’t count this toward my 2018 reading unless I finish both books in this bind-up); it’s translated by the same person so I’m a bit wary, but I feel like I’m on a roll so I might just keep it going in the background.

Further recommendations:

  • Virgil’s The Aeneid also looks at the Trojan War (though mainly the aftermath), including the best surviving description of the Trojan Horse scheme. I actually rated The Aeneid higher, but that might come down again to translation. They’re both great stories, though while The Iliad is Greek, The Aeneid features the (mythologized) account of the birth of Rome.

Are you a fan of any particular mythologies or ancient cultures?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: In Cold Blood

I’m expanding my reading horizons: this time by trying out the true crime genre. The only thing close that I’ve read before is Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, which I loved though it isn’t entirely focused on crime. So this week I picked up Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a classic nonfiction book focused on the solved case of four murders in Kansas history.

incoldbloodAbout the book: Four members of the Clutter family lived an ordinary day in mid-November, 1959. They were tucked into their beds in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, when their house was entered, searched, and forever stained by murder. At first it seems like a perfect crime: no worthwhile evidence, no apparent motive, and no witnesses. Months pass with neighbors suspicious of each other and everyone in town afraid to sleep, fearing that they might be the next targets. But eventually the scant pieces do start coming together, though the truth they reveal may be no less disturbing that the mystery was.

“One old man sitting here that Sunday, he put his finger right on it, the reason nobody can sleep; he said, ‘All we’ve got here are our friends. There isn’t anything else.’ In a way, that’s the worst part of the crime. What a terrible thing when neighbors can’t look at each other without kind of wondering!”

I didn’t think the Clutter murders would bother me much more than fictional murders, but they did. Even though following the family through their last day seemed like such an obvious tactic to manipulate the reader into *feeling things* about their deaths, the murders still hit pretty hard. The worst is the senselessness of it– even where grislier details appear in fiction, there’s usually some way to understand the crime, some motive or gain or viciousness about it that at least explains why people have been killed. In real life, apparently people don’t need much of a reason to kill, and the possibility that any innocent person can be victimized at any time is concerning, to say the least. Is that human nature?

The thing about In Cold Blood these days is that it’s becoming dated. It may have been the first true crime book, the first nonfiction novel, a new form of journalism. It will probably always be significant for those reasons. But this book was first published in 1965, and the world of literature (and the world itself) has changed. I went into this book expecting to learn the truths behind a real-life murder mystery, but I also expected In Cold Blood to tell me why this story matters. I don’t mean to be callous– of course every human death matters. But so many people die in horrible ways all the time– why should I read about this particular case? Unfortunately, In Cold Blood didn’t offer much of an answer, and what it did provide I didn’t much like.

In my opinion, and I believe increasingly in public opinion these days, the focus of a murder should lie with the victims rather than the killers. It is better to mourn who is lost than to give renown to the person/people who ended those lives. The fact that the Clutters were such an ordinary family, just regular townspeople with the quirks anyone might have had, was the most shocking aspect of their deaths. The first part of this book follows the Clutters on their last days and examines their lives– but after that section, they fade out of their own story. The killers are given so much more attention than their victims. The lead detective on the Clutter case states:

“The real thing is I’ve come to feel I know Herb and the family better than they ever knew themselves. I’m haunted by them. I guess I always will be. Until I know what happened.”

I didn’t feel that I knew the Clutters particularly well from reading this book. I knew just enough to be sad about their deaths when that part of the book came. But I want to be haunted. I read horrifying nonfiction about deaths and wars and crimes because the possibility of the world’s suffering going unrecognized terrifies me, not because I’m morbidly curious in a way that can be tucked away when I have the answers.

“This is a sad commentary on the state of crime in our nation. Since the four members of the Clutter family were killed last fall, several other such multiple murders have occurred in various parts of the country. Just during the few days leading up to this trial at least three mass murder cases broke into the headlines. As a result, this crime and trial are just one of many such cases people have read about and forgotten…”

Stylistically, this book is masterfully done. For the first of its kind, it boasts an excellent attention to detail, to chronology, and to special additions: the dialogue and excerpts from actual documents added flair and reality to what might otherwise have seemed like a list of lifeless facts.  I especially liked the moments where certain character statements disagree with each other, and Capote is able to leave the reader certain of which side is right, without risking the credibility of the text with speculation. There were a few places where I questioned the choice of detail: does the reader really need to know the personal histories and fates of the unrelated prisoners in the neighboring cells to the Clutter killers? And what happened to all those townspeople who slept with their lights on, or didn’t sleep at all? How long were they afraid of each other? Who eventually moved into the Clutter house, and why? But ultimately, the level of detail layered into In Cold Blood is astonishing, and I can see exactly why Capote has received such high praise for his work on assembling and making sense of this story.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad that I’ve read this book, but I don’t see myself ever wanting to pick it up again. I might try another Capote book someday, but I didn’t feel like I got much out of this one other than a few afternoons of entertainment, which wasn’t my intention going in. But here’s a fun fact: my copy of In Cold Blood is wonky. It was assembled wrong. The cover was attached upside down and backwards to the rest of the book, which was somewhat disorienting. At first I was disappointed that I got a bad copy, but I’ll just shelve it next to my copy of Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats, which is randomly missing thirty pages in the exact middle. Maybe someday I’ll have a whole collection of misfit books. Is that a thing?

Further recommendations:

  • Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is half true crime, and half Chicago history. It follows the construction of the World’s Fair in Chicago at the end of the 19th century, in the midst of which an infamous serial killer hid and flourished. It’s a fascinating piece of American history that encompasses both great achievements and horrifying secrets.
  • The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh is a fictional novel, but it does share a few similarities with In Cold Blood. When a murder happens in a small community– in this case, a closed community– the suspicion lies with one’s neighbors. In the Blinds, every resident is a criminal; if you liked learning about the Clutter killers, you might also enjoy this whodunnit mystery that takes a close look at motives and psychology, and the consequences of crime.

Do you have a favorite true crime novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Rebecca

Reading Jane Eyre at about this time last year brought my interest in Gothic literature back to the surface. I bought a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a classic Gothic tale from the 1930’s, but sadly I kept putting it off. This year I made sure to add Rebecca toward the top of my classics list for 2018 because I knew I would love it, and sure enough…

rebeccaAbout the book: Our unnamed narrator is living a bland but tolerable life as the paid companion of a snobby woman vacationing in Monte Carlo. Everything changes when the two women meet the infamous Mr. de Winter at their hotel just before the narrator’s employer falls ill. As she convalesces, the narrator forms a friendship with the odd but endearing Mr. de Winter; though he does not mention love, he does offer marriage when the sudden end of the vacation threatens to separate him from the young woman he’s been entertaining. Without knowing much about Mr. de Winter beyond popular rumor and the memory of a pretty postcard of his estate (called Manderley), the narrator agrees to the match and leaves Monte Carlo abruptly to become the new Mrs. de Winter. She learns quickly upon arriving at Manderley that there’s an intense but secretive history surrounding the fate of the first Mrs. de Winter, and the end of that marriage might also mean the doom of her own.

“Happiness is not a possession to be prized, it is a quality of thought, a state of mind. Of course we have our moments of depression; but there are other moments too, when time, unmeasured by the clock, runs on into eternity and, catching his smile, I know we are together, we march in unison, no clash of thought or of opinion makes a barrier between us.”

There is some romance in this book, but I would not call Rebecca a romance novel. Despite its ties to Jane Eyre, I would not classify Rebecca in the same category as Bronte’s classic. Ultimately, I would say it’s a tragedy. It’s psychological and character-driven, mysterious and macabre. There are underlying messages about female power, especially in a marriage (particularly in a marriage of the 1930’s. Things have changed a bit, though I think the lessons still apply). Rebecca is a lot of things, but foremost it’s a masterpiece.

My favorite aspect of Rebecca is the way the late and present Mrs. de Winters are reflected against each other. On the surface, Rebecca and our narrator are opposite in every way, though under their differences there is an unmistakable similarity between them. Even as the narrator ruminates over her predecessor’s personality, noting all the things that were perfect about Rebecca that are not about the new Mrs. de Winter, she’s emulating Rebecca. She’s becoming her, in some ways. The two are at once so far apart, and yet they present like different sides of the same person.

“She’s the real Mrs. de Winter, not you. It’s you that’s the shadow and the ghost. It’s you that’s forgotten and not wanted and pushed aside.”

The characterization/perspective is wonderful. Mrs. de Winter is so full of daydreams and assumptions that the reader has a clear sense of Manderley and all of its characters, while remembering that these are only Mrs. de Winter’s ideas of them, rather than facts. These pictures she spins of the various characters and locations are as much a reflection of our narrator as of the characters themselves, which leaves plenty of room for surprise as secrets are revealed throughout the course of the book.

But perhaps the most interesting detail is that Mr. and Mrs. de Winter are presented as the “heroes” of the book, though we know from the very first chapter that neither of them are winners in this tale. The irony of Rebecca is that there is no escaping the horrors of the past without losing the potential of a pleasant future. The events of Mr. and Mrs. de Winter’s star-crossed marriage have been in motion since Mr. de Winter first married Rebecca, and there is little any of them can do to come out ahead. The marriage they salvage is a farce at best, an empty display. That future is laid out in the first chapters of the novel, before the narrator goes back to explain how the de Winters fell into that fate. It’s pieced together beautifully, and in the end it reads more as a commentary on marriage and female agency than love.

“As I sipped my cold tea I thought with a tired biter feeling of despair that I would be content to live in one corner of Manderley and Maxim in the other so long as the outside world should never know. If he had no more tenderness for me, never kissed me again, did not speak to me except on matters of necessity, I believed I could bear it if I were certain that nobody knew of this but our two selves. If we could bribe servants not to tell, play our part before relations, before Beatrice, and then when we were alone sit apart in our separate rooms, leading our separate lives.”

The edition that I read also includes an afterword by Sally Beauman, who wrote a sequel to Rebecca in 2000 (I think). I don’t think I’m interested in reading a sequel by anyone other than du Maurier at this point, but I did enjoy Beauman’s afterword. I agreed with a lot of her points, and even when I didn’t they were certainly thought-provoking and engaged the text in an interesting way. I would recommend reading that afterword if you like Rebecca.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book, from chapter 2 onward. I wasn’t sold on chapter one (I don’t like plot-less descriptions of scenery, no matter how beautiful, or conveniently true-to-life dreams; both of these techniques appear in chapter 1), but in the end I saw that it had its place in the narrative and I appreciated the whole book. It all fits together so perfectly. I’m planning to pick up Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel sometime in the not-too-distant future because I think it will deliver more of the elements I loved from Rebecca.

Further recommendations:

  • Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is worth the read for fans of Gothic literature. Though there is a heavier romantic plot line, the book also focuses on a doomed marriage and its secret aftermath, which unravel in a psychological and creepy sort of way.
  • If you read Gothic books for the atmosphere and horror, try Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, in which a spooky old mansion slowly drives the narrator down an irreversible path toward tragedy.
  • And if the psychology and the superbly written structure of Rebecca is what you’re interested in, try Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a close look at the life of a woman who is increasingly disturbed even as she her life seems to be steadily improving from outward appearances.

Do you have a favorite Gothic novel? This is exactly my brand of creepy literature, so I’m open to all suggestions!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Emma

Jane Austen’s Emma was supposed to be my January classic of the month, but I ended up reading this classic romance around Valentine’s Day instead. It’s the fourth Austen novel I’ve read now, but even after experiencing three others I was unprepared for the unique masterpiece that is Emma.

emmaAbout the book: Emma Woodhouse is the highest-standing woman in Highbury’s society. She’s twenty years old, the mistress of her ailing father’s grand house, and the whole town dotes on her. She’s got reasonable talent and insight, but not enough worldly understanding yet as her governess moves out to be married and leaves Emma to her own devices. Confident that the marriage of her governess and close friend was partially her own doing, Emma sets out to make matches for others– first and foremost, a young lady of unknown parentage that Emma longs to befriend and raise in society. Unfortunately, after pulling Harriet from a promising marriage that Emma deems beneath her, Emma learns through a series of unfortunate events that she may not be as wise and helpful as she thought. Along the way, she also discovers the truths of her own heart just in time to worry that she’s lost the man she didn’t realize she’s been in love with from the start.

“Dear Papa, you cannot think that I will leave off match-making!”

While I’ve enjoyed every Jane Austen novel I’ve read thus far, it’s always been the content that impressed me most.  Although Austen’s style of writing and the charming details of bygone days are lovely to read, it’s generally the plots that stay with me in the end.

Not so with Emma. Although amusingly plotted, it’s the master crafting of this novel that stands out. Indeed, most of the plot will not surprise the reader at all because Austen allows the reader to know these characters better and sooner than they know themselves. Much of the novel consists of dialogue that reveals the characters’ secrets, motives, and duplicity. The reader is shown the disparity between thoughts and actions, between words spoken to one party and words spoken to another. The pleasure of the novel exists not in the matches being made, but in observing the various characters as they fall into their own blunders and attempt to grow out of them. Before they find their proper relationships, they must first discover themselves.

“A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.”

The power of the writing is such that the characters’ growth remains interesting to the reader even when the characters themselves are unpleasant. The novel opens on Emma as a spoiled girl with unreasonably high opinions of herself as she first enters society as an adult. Her errors in judgment are almost immediately obvious, between crediting herself with a marriage that she no more than guessed at, and pulling Harriet out of what would obviously have been a happy life befitting her station. Mr. Knightley just as blatantly refuses to accept that any opinions but his own may be valid. Mr. Elton is selfish and petulant, Frank Churchill careless and rash, Jane Fairfax suspiciously secretive, Harriet shockingly suggestible, and so on. The reader sees the characters’ faults, knows when their choices will backfire, predicts who will be to blame for the various scenarios, and yet can’t help reading onward to watch it all play out.

“A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter.”

That said, this novel may not appeal to all of Austen’s fans. With the plot more transparent, the commentary on personality and perfecting oneself makes this book a heavier read than some of Austen’s other works. The reader must be interested in the multi-faceted conversations and nuances of perspective more than on which gentlemen will end up with which lady. Emma is, invariably, a romance, but it is so much more than that. Personally, I found the dialogue and the little ironies completely engrossing, but a reader who lives for plot will probably not be as entertained.

A side note: the beautiful vintage classics edition that I read (pictured above), which looks so nice on the shelf and is such a pleasant shape and size to admire while the covers are closed, was surprisingly hard to actually read. The spine is so stiff (and I didn’t want to crack it, obviously) and the book is thick enough that it’s a two-hand read all the way through; even then it was uncomfortable to hold and difficult to manage at times. I was disappointed that this copy wasn’t as functional as it was decorative, so if you’re looking for a good copy to read, be aware that this edition is better to look at, though reading it wasn’t completely impossible.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I wish Austen had found a way to keep the powerful writing techniques she utilizes in Emma without pairing it with transparent plotting. I never considered DNF-ing this book, but there were times when I was growing a bit bored of knowing what was coming. That’s the only thing that holds me back from giving this book 5 stars, because in all other regards the writing of this book provided me with a new level of respect for Austen’s works. While none of the novels I’ve read from her so far have seemed frivolous, this one definitely seemed more serious and mature. It’s the last book Austen saw published in her lifetime, and the experience with writing and understading her world shows more clearly in this novel than in the others that I’ve read. I’ll definitely be reading the two novels of Austen’s that I haven’t yet (Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility), though I’m not in too big a hurry because I already know how sad I’m going to be when my first experience with each of Austen’s books is behind me.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like a classic romance that also turns an eye to personal growth, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is an obvious but rewarding choice. Jane’s strength of character is steadfast and inspiring, and the love between two wise but unfortunate people is delightfully dramatic.
  2. My current favorite Austen novel is Persuasion,  a lovely reminder that matters of the heart must be decided upon first and foremost by the couple who will be most affected by them. It’s a beautiful book about making one’s own choices.

Do you have a favorite Jane Austen novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Another Year of Classics

In my 2017 Wrap-Up I mentioned meeting my goal of reading at least 12 classics throughout that year. (Check out A Year of Classics for last year’s titles.) I want to do the same for 2018.

In 2017, I read 15 of 12 classics, although I only read 10.3 of the classics I originally designated. Nevertheless, having a classic planned for each month did help me reach that goal of 12, even if I did make some changes to it as the year progressed. So I’m here to designate another 12 classics for the months of 2018.

Here are the titles I’m hoping to read this year:

January- Emma by Jane Austen. (I read two of Austen’s books last year and loved them. Now I’m on a quest to read the rest of Austen’s novels– not too fast, because I want to savor them, but Austen is the only author with two books on this list.)

February- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. (My enjoyment of Jane Eyre last year sent me in the direction of this mysterious Gothic romance. It sounds like exactly the sort of intrigue I like to read to get me through the long tail-end of winter.)

March- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide by Robert Louis Stevenson.
(I read Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and it wasn’t my favorite, but I did enjoy the plot enough that I wanted to try another of his books. I’m hoping that I’ll like this one better.)

April- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. (A Christmas Carol was the first and only Dickens novel I’ve ever read, but even though I knew the plot going in, the writing and the characters drew me in and made it such a fun experience– especially during the holiday season. I have no excuse to put off trying another Dickens title this year.)

May- The Odyssey by Homer. (I haven’t finished The Iliad yet, so putting The Odyssey in the top half of this list is meant to encourage me to keep working at it in a timely manner. I always intended to read the two of these close enough together that The Iliad is still fresh in my mind when I read The Odyssey, so I’m aiming to wrap up the whole endeavor in 2018.)

June- The Waves by Virginia Woolf. (There are several Woolf titles on my long-term TBR, and while I’ve read lots of excerpts and shorter pieces of Woolf’s, I’ve never read any of her full-length books. If this one goes well, I’ll probably pick up more of them in the future.)

July- The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (It’s been years since I read The Great Gatsby, and I still haven’t picked up any of Fitzgerald’s other works. My opinion of The Great Gatsby has fluctuated over the years, so I’m not sure what to expect from picking up another of Fitzgerald’s novels, but I’m ready to find out.)

August- The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. (I switched this one out of my classics list last year because I was starting A Game of Thrones again that month and didn’t want to read two really long books in a row. That’s a poor excuse and “epic revenge story” still sounds pretty fantastic, so I’m more determined to actually read this one this year.)

September- Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. (My knowledge of Sherlock Holmes is vague at best. I have yet to read any of Doyle’s stories, which means I also haven’t watched any corresponding films or TV shows or read any retellings. It’s time to change that, I think. From what I’ve heard, Sherlock sounds like someone I’d be very interested in reading about, so that’s what I’m going to do.)

October- Dracula by Bram Stoker. (This is the other title I switched out of last year’s classics list, and if I’m honest, I’ve been meaning to read it for several Octobers in a row now and always procrastinated until it’s too late. I don’t know why, but here’s to giving it another go.)

November- Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. (As noted above, this is my second Austen title of the year, which will leave only one of her novels for me to read in 2019. I like the idea of spacing them out a bit, to keep the stories and characters from melding together in my mind and also because it’s so sad when there can’t be forthcoming novels by an author you appreciate– I don’t want my first experiences with Austen’s books to be over too soon.)

December- King Lear by Shakespeare. (I wanted a short classic for the end of the year, in case I’m busy trying to wrap up other reading endeavors. It should prevent me from shirking on my classics. I picked this one specifically because it was recommended to me multiple times after I posted my review for Macbeth last month. I’m still on the hunt for my favorite Shakespeare play, and I’m hoping this one will be a contender.)

classics 2018

(p.s I know it’s Macbeth in the picture instead of King Lear. I haven’t bought my copy of King Lear yet but I’m planning to do that later in the year.)

I love classics, but I know I don’t reach for them as readily as I do modern works. A challenge like this helps me to pick up books that might take a little longer to read but will (hopefully) be worth the time they take in the end. I tried to assemble a good mix of genres and authors for 2018 while also selecting books that I genuinely believe I will enjoy. I’m looking forward to reading these, and I hope I’ll have just as much success (or more) with this challenge as I did last year.

Do you read classics? Do you see any favorites on this list?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Mini-Review: A Christmas Carol

I have not read a Christmas story at Christmastime since childhood. For some reason, Christmas traditions have never really crossed into my reading life. But picking up Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol this year is really making me rethink what I should be reading around the end-of-year holidays, just as surely as it’s reminding me to embrace the Christmas spirit this season.

achristmascarolAbout the book: “Bah. Humbug!” is what Ebeneezer Scrooge thinks of Christmas. He has devoted his life to making money– and hoarding it. He is not interested in spending time with the remaining family he has left, and as for sharing his wealth with them, or with anyone– why shouldn’t they earn their own fortunes, as Scrooge has earned his? He frowns upon all those who take an entire day off of productive pursuits to celebrate Christmas. So he closes his office on Christmas Eve, determined to be unhappy all through the holiday. But that night, he is visited by the ghost of his late business partner, who laments his choices in life and offers Scrooge another chance. To avoid his partner’s gruesome fate, Scrooge must accept the visits of three Spirits, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. He must learn their lessons, before it is too late!

“Scrooge went to bed again, and thought, and thought, and thought it over and over and over, and could make nothing of it. The more he thought, the more perplexed he was; and the more he endeavored not to think, the more he thought.”

If I were to voice any complaint about this story, I would say only that it’s predictable. But I should also acknowledge in that case that time and the book’s status as a classic are probably the greatest contributors to its predictability. I knew going in which ghosts Ebeneezer Scrooge would see, and what effect they would have on him. But again, I think that comes down to the fact that this is such a well-known Christmas story. I remember seeing the Mickey Mouse version of it, with Donald Duck starring as Scrooge, several times in my younger years; and that wasn’t the only adaptation I encountered, though it stands strongest in my memory.

And then again, the predictability of the story also helps demonstrate what I believe to be the greatest strength of the book: that even for readers who know exactly what to expect from the plot, Dickens captivates readers with his prose and his characters’ heartfelt emotions so thoroughly that the story is still worth reading. It was not only Scrooge’s transformation that held my attention, but poor Tiny Tim’s plight, the fate of Scrooge’s wife, and the games at his nephew’s Christmas party (and the guest with a crush on the niece’s sister). A Christmas Carol is packed with smaller stories inside the main plot that run through quite a range of emotions.

Best of all is the narrative style with which Dickens presents his story. He writes easily and informally, as though telling a story to a close friend. He’s often addressing the reader directly, emphasizing the fact that the story is going on in some window that only the writer can see, and the writer is pulling the reader closer to let him/her in on the secret. It’s a great balance that gives the story a sort of raw, honest feel, though it’s also begging to be shared, or shouted from the rooftops. No film adaptation I’ve seen of this same story has interested me so thoroughly or promised to stick with me as well as the book will– and that is because no one tells it better than Dickens. If you’ve ever been intrigued about A Christmas Carol, let me tell you, reading the book is worth it (and it’s a short book, so really you have no excuse).

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I will charlesdickensdefinitely be reading more from Charles Dickens in 2018. I will be especially interested to see if the narrative voice I found in A Christmas Carol will be apparent in his other works, or if his style changes across novels. I think I’m less familiar with his other books, classics though they all are, so I’m excited to start fresh. I’m thinking either A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations will be in my plans for 2018.

Coming up Next: I’m just starting Some Luck by Jane Smiley. I’ve been having a surprising amount of fun with the dregs of my 2017 reading challenge– all the books I put off all year are finally being read, and they’ve been great. I don’t know why I’ve been putting off the titles I have, because I’ve particularly enjoyed reading them this month. I hope the trend continues with Smiley’s novel, which is the first book in a family saga trilogy that takes place in Iowa. One of the blurbs on the cover states that her writing is very Dickensian, which makes me hopeful after my experience with A Christmas Carol.

What seasonal reads are you checking out this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant