Friday, July 29, 2016

When a Man Marries by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Isn't it fun to discover a whole new author just waiting to thrill you? I had this experience the other day digging into my very first Mary Roberts Rinehart book. I'd heard of her before, but I'll be honest with you: my expectations weren't particularly high. Consequently, When a Man Marries, an outrageous vintage farce, was a very pleasant surprise.

Kit McNair may have refused to marry Jimmy Wilson back when he was an unattached bachelor, but she still considers him a close friend, and when she finds him in the dumps on the second anniversary of his wife's departure, she determines that what he needs to cheer him up is a dinner party. Things go quickly awry, however, when Jimmy's rich aunt arrives in town expecting to find him still married. Kit agrees to impersonate the missing Mrs Wilson, but an evening's deception quickly turns into an intricate imbroglio when a case of smallpox results in the whole dinner party being quarantined on the premises. Add police and reporters watching the house for escapees, Jimmy's ex-wife Bella lurking in the basement, a jewel theft to solve, the irascible Aunt Selina to hoodwink, and the love of Kit's life choosing to turn up at the exact moment she's impersonating someone else's wife, and When a Man Marries has all the ingredients for a classic screwball comedy.

This book was, quite frankly, a party. I say this with full cognizance of its shortcomings. This was not a deep book, or a very tightly-plotted one. There's a little harmless satire at the expense of the socialites who, quarantined after the servants have fled, find themselves almost completely incapable of surviving without them; but eventually I felt this theme was dropped and never really resolved. The jewel thefts, too, turn out to have a rather off-the-wall solution, and sometimes Kit doesn't even seem to be trying to keep up her impersonation of Bella. Suffice it to say that if you are the kind of person to whom the internal logic of a story world is immensely important, this book will probably drive you crackers.

That said, I don't think I've ever noticed a book's flaws less while reading it. Rinehart writes with a splendid comic sensibility, inventing ridiculous situations almost as handily as PG Wodehouse at the top of his form. Her style, and the narrator voice, was also a delight--witty and knowing and constantly teasing us with unspecified awfulnesses lurking in the future. From the moment I looked at the first page, I knew I was in for a treat.

If you're in the mood for a fluffy, silly comic read, then give this book a try. I'll certainly be trying another Rinehart next time I am!

Find When a Man Marries on Project Gutenberg, Librivox, The Book Depository, or Amazon.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Poem: The Mewlips by JRR Tolkien

I've been re-reading The Hobbit, preparatory to tackling The Lord of the Rings. And this is rather a special occasion for me. I have, of course, read both books more times than I can count. Eventually, I found that I had read them so much that I had begun to remember everything about them. So I decided to take ten years off.

I'm now whittling slowly through The Hobbit, enjoying it terrifically and recording my thoughts for posterity on Twitter - click this link to see them, or follow the hashtag #JRRTandMe. It's been huge fun, because having let the book "rest" for ten years means I've come back to it with a fresh perspective.



For example, the other night, while enjoying the famous "Riddles in the Dark" chapter, I thought I spotted some imaginative kinship between Gollum and the Mewlips from an obscure Tolkien poem collected in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil...

The Mewlips
by JRR Tolkien

The shadows where the Mewlips dwell
Are dark and wet as ink,
And slow and softly rings their bell,
As in the slime you sink.

You sink into the slime, who dare
To knock upon their door,
While down the grinning gargoyles stare
And noisome waters pour.

Beside the rotting river-strand
The drooping willows weep,
And gloomily the gorcrows stand
Croaking in their sleep.

Over the Merlock Mountains a long and weary way,
In a mouldy valley where the trees are grey,
By a dark pool's borders without wind or tide,
Moonless and sunless, the Mewlips hide.

The cellars where the Mewlips sit
Are deep and dank and cold
With single sickly candle lit;
And there they count their gold.

Their walls are wet, their ceilings drip;
Their feet upon the floor
Go softly with a squish-flap-flip,
As they sidle to the door.

They peep out slyly; through a crack
Their feeling fingers creep,
And when they've finished, in a sack
Your bones they take to keep.

Beyond the Merlock Mountains, a long and lonely road,
Through the spider-shadows and the marsh of Tode,
And through the wood of hanging trees and the gallows-weed,
You go to find the Mewlips--and the Mewlips feed.

Cheerful, isn't it?! I must say I've never liked it myself, but revisiting it, it does seem rather an early template for something like Gollum. What do you think?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Journey for a Princess by Margaret Leighton

Last month, I spent a few weeks in Tasmania, on assignment in a house full of little girls. As you might imagine, this involved proportionately large quantities of dolls, tutus, and books about princesses.

Real, historical princesses.

Like this classic (1960) young adult novel by Margaret Leighton. Journey for a Princess is the story of Elstrid (or Aelfthrith), youngest daughter of Alfred the Great, growing up under the shadow of her elder and more successful siblings at the Wessex court. But when a Viking noble on a diplomatic mission to Alfred's court asks for her hand in marriage, the king buys time by sending Elstrid on pilgrimage to Rome with her aunt--via Flanders, where the Countess Judith has some matrimonial plans of her own. As Elstrid's journey continues, she finds that as Alfred's daughter she has much more danger and duty to face than she ever imagined.

I didn't know anything about the historical Elstrid when I began reading this book, so about halfway through I realised I had no idea how the story was going to end! I enjoyed the suspense that added to the book, and I loved seeing Elstrid's ninth-century world, from Wessex to Flanders to Rome, through her eyes. I don't know what Margaret Leighton was like as a scholar, but she certainly showed a detailed familiarity with the people, places, and everyday life of Western Europe at the time, which makes the story very vivid and immersive.

On the other hand, I thought the first half of the book was a little slack. This pays off in the final quarter, which is a really fun (though probably not historically accurate) blend of romance and adventure as open rivalry breaks out for Elstrid's hand and the alliance with Wessex.

I'd also note a reservation about the worldview of the story, which is pretty pro-Rome--Elstrid and her aunt accompany the payment of the Peter's Pence tax from Wessex to Rome, which is seen as an unequivocally good and proper thing in the story, for example. No doubt that's a historically accurate attitude for the characters to have, but it wasn't one that was widespread at the time (the rest of Europe wasn't paying Peter's Pence at that point) and I thought this and other elements betrayed the author's pro-Roman perspective. Protestant readers will probably want to look out for that.

Otherwise, there was lots to love in this story. Like much young adult fiction, this is a story about a girl reaching adulthood, with the responsibilities and new experiences that come with growing up. Unlike a lot of YA, however, Journey for a Princess is about living up to real standards of maturity, rather than asserting a right to immaturity. Elstrid's journey requires her to take more and more responsibility for more and more areas of her life. As a princess in ninth-century Europe, she must learn that her foolish decisions may cost lives--and that the wise choice she doesn't want to make may carry its own happiness with it.

Journey for a Princess is not just a vivid look at a little-known period of European history; it's also an inspiring picture of faithful and feminine strength. It's good enough to be a rewarding read at any age, but I would particularly recommend it for girls between 8 and 15.

Sadly, Journey for a Princess is currently out of print, but it is available on the Open Library.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

By and large, I agree with Terry Pratchett's no-nonsense heroine Susan Sto Helit: I hate literature. I'd much prefer to read a good book. Right or wrong, that attitude usually keeps me from reading literary fiction, especially twentieth-century stuff.

Jorge Luis Borges's odd and marvellous short stories are a notable exception.

Labyrinths is a collection of the Argentinian author's most well-known stories, as well as some essays and brief parables, translated from the Spanish by a number of different people, but all bearing the same unmistakeable voice. Beyond that, it's difficult to describe them. All of them are dreamlike: Borges writes at a great distance, sounding muffled and detached even when he writes in the first person, and his stories are filled with an alien logic, with paradox, symbolism, and fantasy. Most of them show a wonderful speculative-fiction imagination at work; but where a modern author, having the same idea (a national lottery that determines the events of all men's lives; a city full of immortals; a mysterious land that exists only in one entry of one edition of an encyclopaedia?) would have written a swashbuckling series of science-fiction novels, Borges simply jots down a short story.

Or yet more infuriatingly, jots down his outline for the short story, discussing potential endings with the reader.

And this, of course, is a large part of the point. In The Lottery in Babylon, the narrator describes a world apparently ruled by chance, administered by a secret society; at the end of the story, he admits that one school of thought maintains that there is no secret society, only the abstract workings of chance. In The Circular Ruins, a man dreams another man into existence; at the end of the story he realises, in shock, that he himself is also the product of another's dream. In The Library of Babel, librarians wander the endless galleries of an infinite library, the volumes of which contain every permutation of letters and words and sentences that can possibly exist; it's certain that some of them contain the story of one's future life or the answer to the meaning of the cosmos, but since the books are infinite in number and most of them are either gibberish or false, there's no knowing which of them is true.

What is truth? Even if it exists, could we know it? What is real and what is not? Are we real? Is there meaning in life? Is anyone in control? Are you really you, or are you misleading me about your identity? Borges writes his stories as a series of dreamlike thought experiments, enriched with a startling imagination. I do not pretend to understand everything in them (he is clearly much better read and much cleverer than I am), but I do understand what all this philosophising is in aid of.

In Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, for instance, Borges writes a mock-serious work of literary criticism concerning a (fictional) author who sets out to rewrite the Don Quixote - word-for-word with the original. The critic "Borges" writing the essay fulminates at length on the strange and subtle differences between the Cervantes book and the Menard book. The books may be identical, but in the context of their different authors and different times, they mean something quite different... It's a classic postmodern argument that says that "texts" can never be read on their own, but must be understood in the context of their author and their times.

Despite my skepticism on this matter, the essays in the second part of this collection do go a long way toward making some of Borges's intentions a little clearer! The essay A New Refutation of Time (the title is intentionally paradoxical) provides a helpful overview of the philosophy of idealism to which Borges apparently subscribed. According to Borges's explanation in the essay, there is no self or subject, just a neverending stream of perceptions and impressions: quoting Hume, "We are a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity." The material world is basically illusory; the real thing is our impressions of it. The short story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius basically presents Borges's arguments in story form: it concerns the discovery of a country no one has ever heard of in an encyclopaedia entry, which gradually begins to come into existence the more folks learn about it and think about it.
"The greatest magician (Novalis has memorably written) would be the one who would cast over himself a spell so complete that he would take his own phantasmagorias as autonomous appearances. Would not this be our case?" I conjecture that this is so. We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false."
This seems to be Borges's philosophical conclusion; in hindsight, it's easy to see this underlying all his stories, even the ones I'm still not sure I understand (what on earth is The Garden of Forking Paths about?). Of course, it's not a philosophy I subscribe to or recommend. But in all its logical madness, Jorge Luis Borges's Labyrinths provides an undeniably fascinating explanation of postmodernism and idealism.

Find Labyrinths on Amazon or The Book Depository

Friday, July 1, 2016

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

There was a time when I tried to like Daphne du Maurier's books. In my late teens I read The King's General, but it left me with a sour taste in my mouth and a sense of moral outrage. Then I read Frenchman's Creek, with its delicious premise - pirate romance on the Cornish coast - and was once again repulsed; I could find no sympathy with the romance, since the main character was married to someone else. By that point I really should have known, but I went and read Rule Britannia anyway, since it seemed a fun alternate-universe romp about one clever woman leading a resistance against an invasion of Britain. And I actually don't remember anything about that book except hating it in a bored sort of way.

So, realising that Daphne du Maurier and I did not get on, I simply didn't read anymore. Not till this year, when a friend started raving about Rebecca. Oddly enough, I'd often heard of Rebecca as being du Maurier's magnumopus, and I'd occasionally toyed with the idea of reading it. A gothic romance (I love gothic romances) with a famous twist (I like a good plot twist), Rebecca seemed to have sunk into the cultural consciousness.

Maybe du Maurier had written one worthwhile book.

And after all, it was years since I'd touched her work. Maybe, now that I was older, I'd appreciate it more. So I decided I'd read Rebecca.

The first thing that surprised me about the book was how rich and evocative the writing was, and how rather unabashedly romantic and suspenseful it was in a mid-century way. Young, shy, and awkward, our first-person narrator meets the older and more sophisticated Maxim de Winter during a holiday on the Continent--and to everyone's surprise, is swept off her feet. Before she knows it, our heroine is Mrs de Winter.

The second Mrs de Winter.

Maxim takes his wife home to Manderly--the beautiful, overgrown estate on England's south coast where he once lived with his first wife, Rebecca. Though Rebecca is dead--lost in an accident at sea--the new Mrs de Winter feels overshadowed and oppressed by her memory. Servants, faithful to the previous mistress, who take every opportunity to maker her feel inferior. Rooms and schedules that Rebecca arranged. The neighbours and family who leave her in no doubt about Rebecca's beauty, charm, vivacity, and capability.

Can our shy and awkward heroine ever hope to fill Rebecca's shoes? Is Maxim too much in love with his first wife to make a place in his heart for his second?

Or does Manderly conceal a much darker secret than the second Mrs de Winter can guess?

In some ways this was a brilliant novel. The atmosphere of brooding suspense, the hot, almost jungle-like atmosphere of Manderly, the slowly building mystery, the aching romance, the shocking twists and turns in the second half of the plot--this novel, despite its lit-fic pretensions, does the gothic/romantic suspense thing tremendously well, straddling the transition from Charlotte Bronte to Mary Stewart in one unforgettable story.

Rebecca's literary pretensions were evident in the narrator's stream-of-consciousness style (which I thought worked very well to weave an atmosphere of suspense) and the rather slower, meanderingly-plotted, character-driven first half of the novel, as well as the ending, which (depending on how you look at it) might range from bittersweet to sombre to downright tragic. I thought all of these choices worked very well in the story; it was a little more than just another romantic potboiler with a neat happy ending.

In other words, I would have really enjoyed this novel. If it wasn't for one thing.

The shocking plot twist comes at about the three-quarter mark, when we learn the big secret that Manderly has been hiding. Like everything else in this book, it's a very well-done twist: you never expect it, but all the clues are definitely there. Sadly, though, this twist falls into the pitfall of originality: to be perfectly blunt, it's shocking because of its amorality, not because of its cleverness.

Reading the last quarter of Rebecca, I was once again reminded why Daphne du Maurier has always so repulsed me. Her amorality--perhaps a better term would be immorality--crops up in all the novels of hers I've read, and it's no surprise to see it cropping up in her own life as well. After a superficial look at her personal life, the reader would be pardoned for wondering if the three most prominent women in Rebecca--both Mrs de Winters and the ominous housekeeper Mrs Danvers--with their jealousy, obsession, and secrets--may have all been autobiographical to some degree.

So, in the end, I have to shelve Rebecca with all the other morally repugnant Daphne du Maurier books I've ever read. I know this won't be popular with some readers, especially those who loved the book. I want to be honest with you--I think it's brilliant, and I think a mature and tough Christian could read it for the good art with little ill effect. But it's foolish to believe that that a book this brilliant, this memorable and moving, will leave no impression on the reader.

Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is an immersive, magnificently atmospheric apologia for moral relativism. But I don't recommend it. If it doesn't offend you deeply, you aren't ready to read it. And if it does, you won't enjoy it.

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