Category Archives: #CBR5

#CBR5 Review #77: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

My friend S and I are both stressed-out doctoral students who wanted to do some “fun” reading over Christmas break that didn’t involve anything related to our respective research areas. We both enjoy Victorian novels, so we chose The Moonstone. I may or may not be questioning my love of Victorian novels after my experience with Jane Eyre and this novel.

So, in short: greedy colonialist soldier steals sacred (and ginormous) Indian diamond, known as the Moonstone, and wills it to his heirs. It ends up with a no-good scoundrel, whose name I have already forgotten and am too lazy to look up, who decides to leave it to his niece, Rachel Verinder, on her 18th birthday. Rachel is a Mary Sue and oppressingly boring. Rachel’s mother, Lady Julia Verinder, is convinced that the diamond is a curse and is a last middle-finger from her brother’s grave. As the Diamond makes its way to England, we learn from our first of several narrators, that three suspicious-looking men from India are looking around the estate. It must be an omen. Sidenote: I was interested in the story, but Collins’ first narrator (Gabriel Betteredge) is a servant who is absolutely Jonesing for Lady Verinder. It’s so pandering and B.O.R.I.N.G. We get about 190 pages of his absolutely sickening devotion to the family. Dude, we get it. Julian Fellowes probably read your part when he created most of the Downton Abbey servants.

Ahem. Back to the story. The Diamond arrives via Rachel’s cousin, Franklin Blake, who is in love with Rachel. A servant girl, formerly a thief and found in a Reformatory (which means she was probably also a prostitute at one time) is in love with Franklin. On top of these hijinks, Rachel’s other cousin, Geoffrey Ablewhite, arrives and is *also* in love with Rachel. Apparently, England ran out of rich women.

There’s this birthday party, in which Rachel is determined to wear the Moonstone proudly, which makes me think she probably just discovered her boobies and is even more eager to show those off, but I digress. Weird conversations happen, the party is ruined, and Franklin makes a fool out of himself. The next morning, the Moonstone has disappeared from Rachel’s bedroom. And then the mystery begins.

It’s actually a halfway decent mystery, but the setup takes forever, and Gabriel is a profoundly self-important narrator who almost had me quitting the book entirely. The resolution is interesting and not entirely out of the realm of possibility. I just may have reached the limit of my enjoyment of Victorian novels. Or maybe it’s just that I like George Eliot too much to like other Victorian novelists.

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#CBR5 Review #76: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I first read Jane Eyre as a junior in high school–I’d never read anything like it. My reading had previously consisted of a steady diet of Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables, with some Christian romances thrown in for good measure, so scandal and syphilis was deliciously new to me. Now, as a 29-year-old woman, I don’t have quite the same reaction now, but I still had a good time this read-through.

If you’ve never read Jane Eyre, you really should. There are three distinct “phases” of the novel, in my opinion. In the first phase, a young Jane Eyre is a fearless, precocious orphan, living under her grudging and cruel aunt’s care, but then exiled to a sparse boarding school, where she discovers that faith is more than black-and-white, that her aunt, Mrs. Reed, may not actually represent true Christianity, and to find her interiority as a self.

The second phase is the juiciest. In it, Jane is sent to live as a governess to a young French girl who is the ward (and likely illegitimate daughter) of the mysterious Mr. Rochester. Up until this read, I was enthralllled by the Rochester. And with such depictions as these, who wouldn’t be?

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Clearly, Michael Fassbender is way too attractive to play Rochester, but we’re not complaining, are we? No.

Rochester is strangely charismatic, though he is actually too passionate and manipulative for his own good. I used to LOVE HIM. Like, find him delicious and exciting. This time, the magic was gone. Every time the novel got gushy and sentimental, I just sighed huffily and prayed for death to take me.

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Of course, it all goes sideways (inevitably), and it’s all linked to the mystery in the attic. I won’t spoil it, but it involves tertiary syphilis (not mentioned by name). Don’t google it. It’s dis.gus.ting.

So, in Phase 3, Jane runs away and finds herself in a rural village a few hundred miles away, living with the Rivers sisters and their clergyman brother St. John. I didn’t know until I watched the 1997 adaptation that you pronounce his name “Sin-jin.” Anyways, St. John is all about crucifying the flesh for the eternal glory of God. He’s determined to become a missionary in India, and he even goes so far as to snub the beautiful Rosamund because she wouldn’t make a good missionary wife (his words). I mean, this pretty girl is in love with him, and he says no to sex. What a kill.joy.

He is, obviously, a coldly handsome man.

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I mean…

So, naturally, he sets his sights on Jane as a utility for God’s grand mission to India. He even makes her learn Hindustani. And he tries to passively-aggressively force her to marry him. Of course.

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I won’t give it away, but it’s thrilling to see Jane become an individual and stand up for herself as a person worthy of some agency and independence. That, for me is the greatest part of the novel–the story of a young woman who chooses herself above all else.

This read, I found myself intrigued by the binary masculinities Ms. Brontë presents in the figures of Rochester and St. John. They actually reminded me of the poem, “Fire and Ice,” by Robert Frost:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

I think the choice in men is interesting–Rochester is this passionate, sex fiend, while St. John probably doesn’t even believe that sex is for anything except producing more missionaries. Is one choice better or worse than the other? It’s an interesting idea, and I’m not sure what I’d pick, if I was forced to choose.

I also said that the choice of Rochester and St. John reminded me of the Big-or-Aidan fanships on Sex and the City. My husband was not impressed with this comparison.

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#CBR5 Review #75: Passing by Nella Larsen

I just finished this short, powerful book this morning. I am still formulating all the words, so this may not convey accurately just what a punch it packs.

Irene Redfield is a woman of mixed race–black and white. She encounters former school friend Clare Kendry by chance on a return visit to her family in Chicago. She discovers that Clare, also of mixed race, is “passing” as a white woman in her community and is even married to a racist white man. This is obviously a very dangerous thing to do in the 1920s and Irene is very aware of Clare’s predicament. Clare herself seems to have no concern and casually visits Irene in Harlem when her husband is gone, mingling between the worlds of “black” and “white” without any concern for herself. Embedded within the novel are questions of Irene’s own family life, as we get plenty of hints that not all is well with her marriage. There are even hints of sexual orientation, though I did not see some of them in my reading this time.

Passing is still a compelling book today, because though the US has made peace with some of its racial issues, there are still many others that are being brought to the fore (hello, Cheerio commercial, much?). I think this is an excellent book for undergraduates to read, and I very well may add it to my teaching rotation soon.

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#CBR5 Review #74: Bluebeard’s Egg by Margaret Atwood

I’m a huge fan of Ms. Atwood’s novels, and I really enjoy the short story, “Happy Endings.” So I thought it time to read a collection of the short stories. As it turns out, I’m not sure there’s anything Atwood *can’t* do.

Bluebeard’s Egg deconstructs family, love, and marriage in its forms. The story “Bluebeard’s Egg” is startling for the surprise it contains, especially when we’ve set up to believe the husband is a certain kind of character. I won’t say more to spoil the surprise. The stories are haunting and poignant. And, of course, beautifully written.

I like short story collections, because they are fairly simple to read. You can read a story in the evening, and pick the book up the next day. Or, if more ambitious, you can polish off several stories in an evening. I really enjoyed this collection, and if you are a fan of Atwood, then I believe that you will too.

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#CBR5 Review #73: London Fields by Martin Amis

Martin Amis has been accused of being sexist in his life and literature. I can’t speak to how he views women in real life (I know he’s married), but I think London Fields provides an interesting challenge to the idea of how men view women in novels, and how their objectification makes them more and less attainable on print.

The narrator is Samson Young, an American author living in London at author Mark Asprey’s (a stand-in for Amis, as featured in other of Amis’s novels) flat, constructing a novel about the soon-to-happen murder of Nicola Six. He assigns Keith Talent, a petty criminal and local darts champ as the murderer, Guy Clinch, a rich and bored banker, as the foil, and himself as the novelist who interviews Nicola to be updated on the plot. At first, the novel is a darkly funny jaunt into the underworld of London, but it grows more twisted and complex as the anticipated event draws closer. The ending is unexpected and clever, drawing all the pieces of the novel together.

Nicola Six is one of the most interesting anti-heroines I’ve read yet. She has her vanity, but it doesn’t define her. She uses men, but even they cannot control her. She is frustrating, enticing, and utterly interesting, because she cannot be understood. London Fields is considered Amis’s masterpiece, and after reading it, I am inclined to agree. It’s at turns funny, dark, clever, and well-plotted, cutting through swathes of life and ennui in the late 1980s, critiquing the highly materialistic world we have constructed for ourselves. It took me a long time to read, but it was well-worth it. If you want to read Martin Amis, this would be an even better place to start than Money.

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#CBR Review #72: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Everyone’s been reading this book, so I’ll keep this review short. I will say that while this was not my first Neil Gaiman experience (I’ve also read American Gods and The Graveyard Book), I think this was the one that caught my attention the most.

With the unnamed narrator, Gaiman explores the scary terrain of childhood, with  its lurking monsters and shadows, the uncertainty and the terror of being a child in a very adult world. The prose is breathtaking, and there was more than one passage where my eyes remained glued to the page, greedily absorbing the next sentence. I think the sense of time is well-expressed, and I felt the parts where memory, time, and remembrance converge is very accurate–after all, are our memories reliable? Can we recall our childhoods with anything resembling accuracy? How true are the impressions that we retain?

While this is by no means a children’s story, Gaiman retells the travails and pathways of childhood in a way that is poignant, painful and memorable. It is just the kind of tale for someone who looks back on the world with the longing of a child.

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#CBR5 Review #71: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Ack. It seems like I should have been reading more than I have (but London Fields is still in progress, as is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and so help me, I had to put down Allegiant because I was just not feeling it), but at this point in the semester, any reading is good. I read Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin about nine years ago when I was a wee sophomore in college and it just blew.my.mind. My graduate department association voted this as our first book club selection, and I was curious to see how this book held up years later. As it turns out, it’s still one of my favorites.

In brief (not easy, since it’s over 500 pages long): The Blind Assassin is a multi-layered story. The outermost focuses on the ailing and elderly Iris Chase Griffen musing over the course her life has taken, in all its sordid past, regrets, and oppression. She writes down the story of “what really happened” for her absent granddaughter, Sabrina, long estranged. Embedded in that story is the novel The Blind Assassin, written by her sister Laura who drove her car off a bridge just days after World War II ended in Germany. This layer, interspersed with news clippings related to the Chase and Griffen families, tells us of two lovers engaged in an affair, with the man telling the story of the blind assassin who falls in love with a virgin about to be sacrificed in the fictional realm of Sakiel-Norn.

This description might make your head spin–and it sometimes the novel truly does–but all the stories converge in a rather thrilling finish. I love long novels (no, really), and I really enjoyed the way Atwood developed Iris so fully as to make her a rich and complex character. I also really felt that Atwood expertly depicts the sort of mid-twentieth century daring that had to accompany the mere act of writing by women. It’s a beautifully crafted novel, one that satisfied me yet again.

It’s more socially subtle and less politically driven than some of Atwood’s more popular fare, like The Handmaid’s Tale, or her MaddAddam trilogy, but it focuses on the craft of storytelling. And sometimes, that’s really all you need from a novel.

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