Monday, December 10, 2018

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

Title: Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day
Author: Winifred Watson
Published: 1938
Preface: Henrietta Twycross-Martin, 2000
Illustrations: Mary Thomson, 1938
Publisher: Persephone Books
Number of Pages: 234

'This,' thought Miss Pettigrew, 'is Life
I have never lived before.'

I was so enchanted with this book! I wanted to devour it as fast as I devoured Gone Girl, but the enchantment was so complete that I decided to savor it slowly. I read only one or two chapters a day and finished it late last night (staying up past my bedtime to do so). Once I came to the ending I had to gobble it up quickly to find out how Miss Pettigrew's and Miss LaFosse's story ended.

My favorite part of the story was near the end. Miss Pettigrew and Miss LaFosse are at the nightclub where Miss LaFosse performs. Nick, the owner of the nightclub, lover of Miss LaFosse and bad guy of the story, is trying to pull Miss LaFosse away from her date and the man she loves, Michael. Miss Pettigrew, with her newfound assertiveness, hisses at Michael to sock Nick; so he does. Then everyone at their table makes a run for the door.
Michael grabbed Miss La Fosse's arm and towed her towards the door. She went. Tony grabbed Miss Dubarry, Julian grabbed Rosie, Martin grabbed Peggie, George made hay while the sun shone and grabbed Angela. General Pettigrew [Miss Pettigrew] urged on the troops. Joe rumbled behind her, 'Never did like the fellow.'
Hilarious! I laughed so much I thought I was going to wake my husband, who was sleeping in the next room!

If you're a woman whose looking for a few good friends for a day or two, then Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is definitely for you. If you're a fast reader, you can read it in one day. However, I would recommend saving it for an under the weather day, or a rainy day. Miss Pettigrew and Miss LaFosse are sure to cheer you up when you're feeling down.

Bang went all Miss Pettigrew's cherished beliefs: scattered her naive imaginings that only the men dreaded the altar: gone for ever her former unsophisticated outlook. 'I've lived too secluded a life,' thought Miss Pettigrew. 'I've not appreciated how my own sex has advanced. It's time I realized it.'

Miss Pettigrew: "It's no use, we women just can't help ourselves. When it comes to love we're born adventurers."

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Gone Girl

Title: Gone Girl
Author: Gillian Flynn
Published: 2012
Publisher: Crown Publishers
Number of Pages: 422

My reading life has been hard this year. I've been stuck. I've been discouraged. I've become deflated about my reading goals. It just hasn't interested me as much as I wanted it to. So, I haven't read as much as I usually do and I have felt that absence in my life in a big way. Reading is my main source of relaxation. It is my go-to when I'm feeling down or under the weather or just having a crappy day. But when I read difficult things, things that require lots of concentration and analysis, it isn't relaxing any more. This year I have felt... tense and always "on." Never, ever relaxed. Which has started to affect my health and has led to me having to make some lifestyle changes (after several discussions with my doctor when medicine failed to help) to deal with the specific health problems confronting me. Rest is important and when you never feel rested, it makes life much more difficult than it needs to be. I need a break from the difficult and that's what I'm going to do.

Two days ago I visited my local library. Something I like to do on Sundays so my husband can watch football at a loud volume, yell and cheer, without having to worry about disturbing me. I love going to the library and just sitting and reading, or listening to music, or (my favorite) walk the stacks slowly, picking out books and reading their covers, hoping to find something interesting to read. I came home with Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (a book I knew by its reviews, and the movie - which I have never seen, but which I intend to watch now); Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson (which I knew by the movie I watched late one night when I had insomnia - an unfortunate side effect from one of the medications my doctor had me try) (loved the movie! Frances McDormand: such a good actor and Amy Adams: so cute!); Mama Makes Up Her Mind by Bailey White (a nonfiction book written by a Southern storyteller who once spun her yarns on NPR); and Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells (a book I read around fifteen years ago and laughed so hard while reading it that I had difficulty continuing to read it through the tears from laughing so much!) (hope that made sense, it may not have; just know the book is funny and sad at the same time).

I devoured Gone Girl in two days. I could not put it down! The book is un-put-down-able! Don't try to read it unless you have lots of time to yourself with no outside obligations. I kept reading because I had to know what came next. What the heck was happening? What really happened? And then, Could someone really be this much of a sociopath? Could someone really be this extreme? And the last part, What the bleep? (Seriously, it went through my head like that. I don't really curse, so when I think things, my mind inserts a "bleep" instead of the curse word.)

The book may be a psychological whodunnit/what just happened thriller, but it is really about marriage. About how two people make up a marriage, how everything that has happened in their life comes into the marriage, how things that happen inside the marriage shapes that marriage. About: how did this marriage get here from where we started? That's the question that drives the whole novel. The question that is asked by everyone in the novel. In this case, deep mental problems is why this marriage developed and ended up the way it did. The end left me... down and depressed.

But it also made me more grateful for the marriage I have. Saturday night I sat across from my best friend at a sports bar eating tacos and thinking, It is so great to just hang-out and laugh with my best friend! Then it hit me: This isn't just my best friend, this is my husband! I married him and I get to go home with him and laugh some more! So maybe the novel didn't just depress me, it made me grateful for what God gave me.

Amy: "To be kissed on the lips by your husband is the most decadent thing."

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Dracula's Guest and Other Weird Stories

Title: Dracula's Guest and Other Weird Stories
Author: Bram Stoker
Published: 1914
Introduction and Notes: Kate Hebblethwaite, 2006
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Number of Pages: 150

I'm finally done with this collection of nine short stories. With the exception of "Dracula's Guest" and "The Judge's House" it was a snooze fest. To be blunt, if you want to read Stoker stick with his novels.

Stoker's widow, Florence, published this collection of short stories in 1914, two years after the author's death. She claimed that the short story "Dracula's Guest" was "an hitherto unpublished episode from Dracula... originally excised owing to the length of the book." However, I remain skeptical about that assertion. The story is not written in the same style as the novel and the narrator is never named.

Now that I've read The Lair of the White Worm and this collection of stories, I'm planning on sticking with Dracula (1897). Although after reading a small description of another novel of his, The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), I might read it at another time.

From "The Burial of the Rats":
The psychic faculties are often the sentries of the intellect; and when they sound alarm the reason begins to act, although perhaps not consciously.

In moments of great excitement and of great danger, which is excitement, the mind works very quickly, and the keenness of the faculties which depend on the mind grows in proportion.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Lair of the White Worm

Title: The Lair of the White Worm
Author: Bram Stoker
Published: 1911
Introduction and Notes: Kate Hebblethwaite, 2006
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Number of Pages: 257

If you read my last review you know that I threatened to burn The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila because of my frustration with reading it. Well, I ended up not burning it. It went into my giveaway box and the next trip I take to the second-hand bookshop it will be sold.

Reading The Lair of the White Worm was much easier than Teresa's Life. It was slow going at first, but around the halfway point the action picked up and the conclusion arrived at quickly. Almost too quickly. I felt the conclusion needed expanding. I felt the whole novel itself needed to be enlarged and better developed. If I were a writer I would have considered this a first draft that needed extensive revisions.

Stoker wrote this novel only a year before he died. While doing some research on the novel after I read it I came across several websites that mentioned that scholars once thought this novel was the result of Stoker's syphilitic fever. One theory of his death was that he died from syphilis, although it has never been proven. I'm not convinced this is true, although it would explain the novel's intense condemnation of strong women. BUT, it would not explain Stoker's lifelong condemnation of strong women. The Introduction put it this way:
Bram Stoker's uneasy relationship with the women of his texts has been a matter of considerable debate. In depicting a world of male camaraderie and homosocial salvation, his stories consistently work to demonize the oversexed independent female, whilst praising and advancing the meek woman who displays deference to her male overlords. In Dracula, the ultimately biddable Mina Harker is saved from the vampire's kiss whilst Lucy Westenra, desirous of three husbands in life, is transformed into a noxious sexual predator in death, finally finding 'salvation' through the phallic penetration of a wooden stake through her heart.
Illustration by Pamela Colman Smith
My opinion, though, is that Stoker's "uneasy relationship with the women of his texts" is strongest in The Lair of the White Worm. The iconographies used are strongly, strongly sexual. There were even times when the images Stoker used made me squirm, especially when Lady Arabella, a very aggressive female - the villain, shows her true form.
In spite of her veneer of female respectability, Lady Arabella's ruthlessness and ambition are revealed when she assumes her true form: a 'tall white shaft' that rises from the bushy tangle of the 'trees which lay between' (Chapter XXVIII). Just as she confuses the male/female divide in her forward conduct, the enormous white penis that Lady Arabella effectively becomes in her ophidian form is the physical representation of her departure from received and acceptable womanhood. (From the Introduction)

Female gender prejudice aside, the novel, at best, is inconsistent - plot-threads are pulled and then dropped - yet it seems to have had been carefully researched, especially where it concerns myth and science. The story is set in the early 1900's in a part of England that was once the ancient kingdom of Mercia. Stoker pulls a lot of history into the story, connecting the past and the present. I found the ancient myths interesting to read, but the science parts lost me.
In thrall to the abiding power of myth and legend, yet also attuned to contemporary scientific ideas, the novel crosses borders between the logical and the illogical, the old and the new, the impulsive and the considered, whilst also being thematically engaged in the transgression of boundaries between male and female, human and animal, right and wrong. Simultaneously displaying both irrational flights of imagination and careful research, unconscious impulses and measured ideas, it is Stoker's most inaccessible yet his most revealing work. Like the man himself, The Lair of the White Worm is a complex amalgam of self-possession and passion that defies any ready definition. (From the Introduction)
I found the idea of the novel to be original, but the execution lacking. I'm not sure if Stoker meant this to be his final edition; it was published the year before his death. Maybe he decided to publish it the way it was because he had been ill for so long and didn't have the energy to revise. Perhaps he thought that it was good and right just the way it was. But history has found the novel much the way I have: sometimes in thrall to it, sometimes unable to be understood. It would have been a thrilling read if the kinks and inconsistencies had been ironed out.

I recommend this book, even if it is sometimes slow and inconsistent. However, I recommend finding an unedited version. For many years it could only be found highly edited, containing only twenty-eight chapters instead of the original forty, and published under the title The Garden of Evil. Penguin Classics, in this edition combined with Dracula's Guest and Other Weird Stories (1914), has printed it in its original form.

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself

Title: The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by Herself
Author: Teresa of Ávila
Published: 1588
Translated by: J.M. Cohen, 1957
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Number of Pages: 316

"... it was quite clear to me 
that I was moved by two contrary feelings."
- Teresa

I was so frustrated with this book that when I finished it I asked my husband if we could take it out in the yard and burn it when I was finished with my blog post. He said we could. There might be a small bonfire tonight. It would look good with our Halloween lights glowing in the background. (Just a note here: I do not approve of burning books. My intention would not be to take away others right to read, merely my expression of deep frustration.)

You might think bad of me because I feel this way about an innocent woman who is no longer living, but my frustration with Teresa and her prevarications (so infuriating!) were endless. It got to the point where just the sight of the book would make me break out in hives; I didn't want to go near it. Yet, I wanted to finish it (I don't like giving up on books, after all), and I pushed myself so hard at the end that I exhausted myself (or should I say Teresa exhausted me?).

I'm thinking, seriously, about not reading any more autobiographies for the rest of the year. I want to take a break and maybe start it again after the new year. That's how badly this one affected me. The first four autobiographies on The Well-Educated Mind's Autobiography list have exhausted me and I have no desire to continue to exhaust myself without reward.

All divine things gave me great pleasure; 
yet those of the world held me prisoner.

Teresa's Life is full of opposites: she loved the Lord, but loved the things of the world almost as much. This dichotomy of thought characterized practically her entire life. She often discusses the daily struggles to keep her mind focused on God and ignore the afflictions of the human condition.
How she gained strength to combat her own waywardness, and gradually grew, almost unaided by her ignorant confessors, to understand and assess the spiritual experiences that befell her, is the central theme of her book.
Her book covers Teresa's life up to the age of fifty and is thought to have been begun seven or eight years before she was asked for it. It is believed that she was asked to write it around the time that she began to arrange the opening of a convent, called St. Joseph's, that was to be more "enclosed" than the one she currently resided in.
The saint herself states that it was composed in the first place at the request of her confessors, who required some account of her rare experiences to be circulated among those religious of a like bent, and who needed it also, in a day when accusations of heresy were frequent, as proof positive of her complete orthodoxy and utter obedience to the teachings and dictates of the Church.
This autobiography was published, along with other works by Teresa in 1588 and quickly became the second most read book, after Don Quixote. She died in 1577 and in 1622, forty-five years after her death, Teresa was officially declared a saint.

The translator mentioned something strange surrounding her death: "the incorruptibility of her body."
... the fragrance that surrounded her uncorrupted body led to most disgraceful results. In the wild rush to acquire sacred relics, various of her limbs were torn from her corpse. Her old friend Father Gracián, who had only lately so disappointed her by failing to accompany her on a journey, inaugurated her dismemberment by cutting off one of her hands.
In the text itself there were times when I didn't exactly understand what Teresa was trying to say. She would talk about a situation without providing specifics, so I was never entirely sure what her lesson was in writing about that situation.

For instance, in Chapter 7 she states:
So, when I began to indulge in these conversations, seeing that they were customary, it did not seem to me that they would bring the harm and distraction to my soul that I afterwards found such behaviour to entail. As the receiving of visitors is such a common practice in many convents, I did not think that it would hurt me any more than it hurt the others, who were, as I saw, good women. I did not realize that they were much better than I, and that what was a danger to me was not so dangerous to others. Yet I have no doubt that there was always some harm in it, if only because it was a waste of time.
She talks about "these conversations" without referring to what "these conversations" were. I kept thinking: what were the contents of those conversations? She states they did harm to her without explaining what was said in them. Since she makes a great deal in the next pages about the harmful effects of "these conversations," her point could have been better made by examples of what harmful talk was indulged in.

In her defense, I later read in another chapter that she refrained from using specifics because she knew that who she was sending this to might want to publish it.
That is why I mention neither myself nor anyone else by name and have done my best to write in such a way as not to be recognized.
And I wasn't the only one who noticed the vagueness of her writing. The translator himself made a note at the beginning of Chapter 18 to this effect: "This chapter must be read with great care, since the argument is most subtle..."

Again, I will state that Teresa's dichotomy of thought was the thing that drove me crazy about this book. She seems to have been unable to either express herself clearly or unable to clarify what it was she was feeling. Often, she would express that two extremes were true in herself at the same time.

What I found the most difficult about her book was the constant condemnation of herself, her nature, her thoughts, her sex, and her life. Nothing, it seemed (in her words), was good about her. Nothing in her that should make God love her. I guess she was unable to recall this passage in Genesis: "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." She constantly, constantly, worried about offending God: "There is nothing in myself that can be relied on." She offended me by stating her beliefs about women: "... the mere thought that I am a woman is enough to make my wings droop. How much more then the thought that I am not only a woman but wicked!" I shouldn't be surprised by this belief, she was only expressing the beliefs of her time.

I am glad to be done with Teresa and I am disappointed that I cannot write here everything I feel about the doctrine of her beliefs. I took eight pages of notes while reading and so much of it is good stuff, but too much to be included in a blog post. Besides, a post like that would be incredibly boring and not useful for anyone to read.

From Chapter 12:
To occupy the powers of the mind and at the same time to imagine that we can keep them quiet is folly.

From Chapter 18:
What virtues there are in obedience, which can do everything!

From Chapter 25:
... the proof that something comes from God lies in its conformity to Holy Scripture.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Skeleton Crew

Title: Skeleton Crew
Author: Stephen King
Published: 1985
Publisher: Pocket Books
Number of Pages: 760

Personal Note:
I checked this book out at the library the first week of September on a whim. My husband and I were taking a weekend trip to southern California and I needed something that I could read without a pen or highlighter (or even paper) close by. That weekend trip turned into an even longer trip when we decided to drive to Las Vegas on the way back and take in Michael Jackson's One at Mandalay Bay Casino. It was my first time in Vegas; I was blown away by the show (awesome!) but disgusted by all the rampant consumerism on The Strip. (As someone who practices simplicity I was astounded by what people could possibly need so bad that there had to be a whole strip to promote it!) The book went unread or even started since my extended family took up my time in southern California and my husband and I were constantly on the go in Vegas.

I read my first Stephen King book, Firestarter (1980), when I was nine years old. In fact, it was the first grown-up novel I read. I used a dictionary, quite heavily, since at nine years old I didn't know a lot of grown-up words. This time, for Skeleton Crew, I didn't have to rely on a dictionary, although I did have to look up all of three words (thanatotic, concatenation, and nostrum; thanatotic I had to look up on the internet since my dictionary didn't have it).

The first time I read Skeleton Crew, which is a collection of twenty-two short stories, was in 1985. I was in middle school and when done for the day I would walk across the street to the church my parents and I attended and wait in a Sunday School room for a couple of hours until my mother picked me up on her way home from work. I vividly remember laying on the floor, my feet planted on the wall and reading "The Mist," the first short story. Each afternoon, after school, I devoured another - or several - short stories, becoming so absorbed that I would sometimes forget to go outside at the time I knew my mom would be driving up, forcing her to come inside and find me.

What I Liked:
My favorite stories in this collection are "The Mist" - it was the first short story I read by King, but also, it's just a really good story; it pulls you in and you just have to continue reading to find out what comes next; "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" - which I was delighted to find out was based on King's wife (as he stated in the Notes section at the end of the book); "The Raft" - which I remembered from the movie Creepshow (1982); and "Uncle Otto's Truck" - mainly because of King's descriptions of the landscape (a big red truck sitting in a field, white mountains behind it).

The best thing about the collection, though, would be the Notes at the end. In this section King describes the origins of a selection of the stories. This is where I learned that his wife, Tabitha, was the inspiration for "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" and a story his brother-in-law told him became "The Reach."

What I Didn't Like:
Sorry Mr. King, but I just didn't like "Survivor Type." An awful, awful story. And quite gross. Maybe it was the subject matter, self-cannibalism, that turned me off. Whatever the reason, I didn't like it and it was the only story I had a strong negative reaction to.

From "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet":
The editor: "A detailed plot synopsis would only be boring."

Concluding Note:
It was nice to read a book and not have to worry about analyzing it! When I don't have to have my brain "on" I can sit back and get absorbed in what I'm reading, which I find very relaxing. So, thank you, Mr. King, for giving me some good stories to read and some much needed relaxation.

Friday, August 31, 2018

North and South

Title: North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Published: 1855
Introduction and Notes: Patricia Ingham, 1995
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Number of Pages: 451

Personal Note:
So I struggled reading this book. I started reading it in May, but didn't make the big push to finish it until two weeks ago. The story was good, but the writing - the style, the grammar - was terrible. There were times I was left scratching my head, wondering what the author said or meant to say in a sentence or even a paragraph. That constant aggravation was a barrier to enjoying the book and even a barrier to completing it.

One reason, possibly, for my problems with the style of the novel may have been because it was originally a serial, written for Charles Dickens' Household Words, and published from September 1854 through January 1855. For its publication in novel form in 1855, new chapters were added. Gaskell adds a Note at the beginning of the novel to explain:
On its first appearance in 'Household Words', this tale was obliged to conform to the conditions imposed by the requirements of a weekly publication... Although these conditions were made as light as they well could be, the author found it impossible to develope the story in the manner originally intended, and, more especially, was compelled to hurry on events with an improbable rapidity towards the close. In some degree to remedy this obvious defect, various short passages have been inserted, and several new chapters added...
What remains in published form is not something I would have been proud to publish myself. I would have been embarrassed by the bad grammar and sentence structure.

In the Introduction (which I wish I had read first and not last), Patricia Ingham explains what the North is and what the South is:
'The North' in mid-Victorian fiction is not merely a place but a figure for capitalistic value for which Manchester [an industrial town in England] was often the symbol... 'The South' on the other hand was, in industrial novels, another country: not only physically distant but unrelated. It was merely the natural location of the educated and comfortable middle-class.
The author, Gaskell, is contrasting these two extremes: the manufacturing towns of the North and the middle-class as well as the landed gentry - the gentlemen and ladies - of the South.

Patricia Ingham goes on to succinctly state the novels premise:
... Gaskell takes a heroine from the 'unmercantile' South - educated, refined, with a taste for virtue, beauty (and comfort) - thrusts her into the ugliness and conflict of the North, and allows her to go native... Margaret Hale... is transformed by her life in Milton into a different person both as an individual and as a woman... She embodies the unbreakable link between southern prosperity and northern misery. She is now both South and North.

What I Liked:
I'm sorry to say this, but the only thing I liked about this novel was the Glossary. I had a hard time understanding the working class' use of words. When I discovered the Glossary in the back of the book, which defined the words used, it became easier for me to understand them. For instance, 'hoo' meant 'her,' and 'clem' meant 'to starve.'

What I Didn't Like:
I found out right away that the End Notes gave away too much information. I had to be careful how I read them. I tried only to read the information I needed right away and not read anything that might give the plot away.

Another thing I found quite disconcerting was the author's misuse of pronouns. For example, in chapter XXII, there are three women and one man appearing in the action. In the example I am using here, the last woman referred to was Mrs. Thornton. So one paragraph down, when the author refers to a "she" I thought it was to Mrs. Thornton. I was wrong, and subsequently confused. The "she" referred to was Margaret Hale, who had not been named or referred to for the last three paragraphs.

Character development was poor. Elizabeth Gaskell may not be Jane Austen (who is superb at character development - possibly the best in history!), but if I cared about my characters as much as she obviously did about Margaret and Mr. Thornton, I would have spent some time on them, fleshed them out, presented them to my reader and the other characters appearing in the book as more... established... at least in my own mind. Did she not know who they were, deep down, before she began writing her story?

From Chapter XLIX: Breathing Tranquility:
But she [Margaret Hale] had learnt, in those solemn hours of thought, that she herself must one day answer for her own life, and what she had done with it; and she tried to settle that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.

Concluding Note:
In spite of my problems in reading this book, I do recommend it to others. If you do read this version printed by Penguin Classics, I would recommend reading the Introduction first. It doesn't give away too many details of the plot and it helps the reader set up ideas of what North and South is. I'm an American, not English, so I would not understand what those parts of the country stood for in the mid-nineteenth century. Patricia Ingham, who wrote the Intro and Notes, kept bringing up two other industrial novels that might be helpful to also read: Hard Times (1854) by Charles Dickens and Shirley (1849) by Charlotte Brontë. These are already on my reading list. Once I get over Villette (1853) by Charlotte Brontë, which I read earlier this year, I might read another novel by her. I also hope to one day read Wives and Daughters (1864) by Elizabeth Gaskell. I can only hope that her grammar usage had improved in the intervening years.