Friday, November 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

Tale of Two Cities is another of my re-read attempts that I engage in from time to time.  I remember liking the book waaay back in 9th grade, but how would it hold up 30 years later?

It was fantastic.  I'll admit that I was crying at the end.  The writing is beautiful all the way through.  The book is less digressive than most of the other Dickens that I've read; the plot is a fairly straight arc, without a lot of venturing into narrative cul-de-sacs.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Fountain Filled With Blood

I enjoyed A Fountain Filled With Blood, the second novel in Julia Spencer-Fleming's series, just as much as I did the first.  Although it deals with social issues (in this case gay-bashing), she never uses the novel as a soap-box.  Instead, her characters have to face a difficult decision, and they come up with different answers with integrity on each side.

Killer's Wedge

Another early Ed McBain novel, Killer's Wedge shows the beginning of a more interesting voice, with some occasional nice figurative language.  ("The clock on the squadroom wall, white-faced and leering, threw minutes onto the floor where they lay like the ghosts of dead policemen.")

But the plot!  It's hard to believe that it was plausible, even in the 1950s, for one person to hold up a whole squadroom of detectives for a whole day.  The major virtue of this book is that it's so short that before you bother analyzing it, it's over & done with.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

My new long-term project is Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  And it definitely is long-term.  The penguin edition of vol. 1 (of 3) weighs in at 1000 pages, with a 100 pp introduction.

At about 200 pages in, I'm enjoying it.  Gibbon is very detail-oriented, and so there are some good stories in there.  In particular, I was really surprised when, after covering the emperor Pertinax in what seemed like great detail, Gibbon then relates that Pertinax only ruled for a couple of months.

But the story of Pertinax is important for Gibbon, because it shows the extent of the corruption of the Praetorian Guard, whom he blames for the first step down the path of decline.

Killing Floor, Time Traveller's Wife

Two books that I'm about to give up on.

The Killing Floor is the first of Lee Child's Jack Reacher books.  I read a couple of them a long time ago when I desperately needed something escapist, but they got too far-fetched for me (e.g. one book's plot relies on the killer hypnotizing people to commit suicide; the most cursory search will tell you it doesn't work that way).  But I heard that the first was the best, and audible offered it for free, and...  it's still too far-fetched for me.

It's too escapist and too solid at the same time, I think.  Child gives us a long info dump about how cash works in the economy (although his explanation of the danger of counterfeiting feels wrong to me), and that got me thinking about what happens to a small town economy when you dump millions of dollars into it (every business owner gets $1000/week).  You wouldn't end up with a gorgeous town; you'd end up with a town that looks like Weimar Germany, with hyperinflation out the wazoo.  And that gets me thinking, why bother dumping cash into the town?  Why not just threaten anybody who talks?  Or, for that matter, just keep the damn thing a secret, which is what they were doing anyway -- the recipients of the money don't even know why they're getting it.  And the more you think about it, the more it unravels, until the novel stops being fun.

Audrey Niffenegger's Time Traveller's Wife different.  She's a good writer, and I can't really complain about the quality of the book.  But it just squicked me out, so I'm bailing.  Horses for courses, as they say.

Friday, November 16, 2012


Jane Eyre is such a defining book for Charlotte Bronte (though she wrote three others) that it's hard not to read Villette through the lens of Jane Eyre -- how's it like Jane, how's it different, and so on.  So, since this is my own blog with my own rules, I'm going to give in to the temptation.

Firstly, Villette is much harder to like than Jane Eyre.  It's relatively plot-less, and Lucy Snowe, the heroine, is not as likable as Jane.  She's particularly prejudiced against Catholics, as well as continentals in general; Jane is somewhat anti-French as well, but Villette takes place in a fictionalized Belgium, so Lucy's prejudices come up again & again.

Secondly, Villette feels much more modern.  Gone are all the Gothic trappings like the madwoman locked in the attic.  (I don't count the "ghost" for obvious reasons).  There are none of the melodrama that one tends to associate more with 19th century fiction (the house fire, the attempted bigamy, etc).  The whole book feels more muted in every way than Jane Eyre.

So, without viewing it through Jane Eyre, what did I think?  It's a novel that takes a while to get into.  Lucy Snowe starts out so reticent that it's tough to keep going at first.  But this is a novel that amply repaid my time -- the characters feel very fully formed, and I was really drawn into Lucy's world.  Coming right after reading The Moonstone, it felt so much more alive. Villette feels like a novel with no contrivances; characters do what they're going to do, not in order to move the plot forward.  There's no easy morality on display either -- the good doesn't uniformly triumph, nor do the bad necessarily suffer.  On the other hand, Bronte also doesn't have the equally facile nihilism of a Thomas Hardy, where things will always go badly.  Instead, we get a mixture of the two, and in somewhat unexpected ways.

Friday, November 9, 2012


Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford reads like a series of vignettes.  Originally published as a series of short stories in Charles Dickens' magazine, it's hard to even call some of them short stories.  Rather, they're sketches of life in the little town of Cranford, among the shabbily genteel spinsters of the town.

It's a humorous collection with some deeper under-currents, particularly about the way the social structure is changing right under people's feet, but the whole thing feels a bit slight to me.  There's a deep gap between Gaskell's finely drawn characters in North and South and the broader caricatures on display here.  Here, the "disappointing" label is apropos; it's not so much that this is a bad book as that I'd been hoping for better.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Moonstone

Just as The Woman in White is considered one of the first suspense novels, so is Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone considered the first detective novel.  Unfortunately, although I really liked the former, I didn't really like The Moonstone.  Caveat lector: I've only read the first 2/3 of The Moonstone; I didn't like it enough to finish.

Maybe if I had read The Moonstone first, I'd have liked it more.  The epistolary style feels much fresher in The Woman in White than in The Moonstone.  But I'm not sure that's entirely because I read the former first; The Woman in White has more formal innovation, including extracts from a diary, a grave marker, and so on, whereas The Moonstone only has straightforward 1st person narrative.

But I'm not really looking for formal innovation in a Victorian novel.  I think the bigger problem is that The Moonstone doesn't have any really interesting characters, except possibly Detective Cuff, who barely shows up.  Wilkie Collins showed that he could create a strong female character in Marian Holcomb.  But Rachel, who is supposed to be strong-minded in the same way, comes off as merely spoiled.

She knows a good deal about the crime, but won't tell anyone what she knows.  This is bad enough, but Collins has all the other characters (except Cuff) basically shrug and say, "Rachel says that so-and-so is innocent, so that's good enough for me."  I think this is actually pretty patronizing; it's hard to imagine them doing the same for a male character.  More than that, it rings fairly hollow to me -- I would think that in real life, she'd get pressed pretty hard by her family (not to mention the family lawyer) to tell what she knows.

Really, I think that it's not a very good novel.  Instead, it's the sort of book that gave mysteries a bad name for decades -- contrived and plot-driven.