Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Hamlet by William Faulkner

The first part of the Snopes trilogy is really a hodge-podge. The Snopes infiltration is fairly constant of course, and they're always tricking, or making fools of everyone, even VK Ratliff. I just don't know what to do with so many incidents in the story: Mink killing Houston, Ike Snopes and the cow, and Eula Varner Snopes and her inexplicably attractive immobility. There's definitely class consciousness running through the novel (and race seems to drop away again). It's almost like 2 or 3 novellas strung together as one novel.

Dead Man's Folly by Agatha Christie

This mystery just didn't seem as urgent as most do. Hercule Poirot and Ariadne Oliver were great, of course, and the idea of a Murder Hunt gone wrong is great, but there didn't seem to be any pressure to finish the case.

The Novice's Tale by Margaret Frazer

I enjoyed this mystery much more than The Apostate's Tale. This enjoyment comes, I think, partially from being at the beginning, and getting to know the characters, from the presence of a relative of Geoffrey Chaucer, and from a better-constructed mystery. Although it seemed for a moment that the reader was going to be forced to swallow a cat-out-of-the-bag solution, the clues were there all along.

Double Sin and Other Stories by Agatha Christie

This collection of short stories features Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and two "supernatural" stories. The latter are alright, as far as they go, but I really enjoyed the more conventional detective stories better.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

I found this novel very enjoyable. It contained an enjoyable mixture of family history, genealogical digging, and modern life. I thought Ms. Groff's use of different voices and perspectives convincing in tone, although I wonder whether she might have made more effective transitions between the historical voices and the present-day narrator. I liked the idea of something strange, benevolent, and yet dangerous lurking beneath the surface of both the town's and the narrator's personal histories. The idea that Willie's mother would not tell her the name of her father was a bit forced for me. Finally, the vintage illustrations were great and the family trees were quite helpful in keeping track of everyone.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The End by Lemony Snicket

This book is a fitting end to A Series of Unfortunate Events. Ultimately things wrap up in a complicated and ambiguous, but positive way, and I would have expected nothing less from these books. This series is the smartest series for children I've seen in a long time, and I would say it works in ways similar to Jasper Fforde's fiction. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket

In this penultimate volume, all your old friends and enemies gather for hijinks at the Hotel Denouement. There's a great scene about the blindness of justice and some good thoughts about moral culpability.

The Grim Grotto by Lemony Snicket

The eleventh book in this series leaves the children underwater in a submarine, looking for the sugar bowl and on its way to the Hotel Denouement for a VFD meeting. They meet someone who studies fungi and are forced to consider that the world is not easily divided into villains and heroes. There's some good poetry. Finally the book hints that by its end the Baudelaire children have broken out of the cycle in which they've been trapped.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Importance of Feeling English by Leonard Tennenhouse

This book investigates how British literature in America became American literature. Tennenhouse uses a modified diaspora model to posit that Americans were very interested in producing English literature. He investigates trans-Atlantic influences (such as the captivity narrative coming from America to England, and Americans adopting and modifying British models of sentimental fiction and gothic fiction). I found this book very helpful.

Indian Summer of a Forsyte by John Galsworthy

This interlude between two massive volumes of The Forsyte Saga is really beautifully written. It made me love Irene and Old Joleyn even more than before.

The Slippery Slope by Lemony Snicket

I really liked this tenth book, because it showed a lot of moral sophistication. Sunny begins to grow up out of her babyhood, the Baudelaire orphans meet the third Quagmire triplet, Quigley (on whom Violet might have something like a crush), and the children resolve not to fight fire with fire--and despite abandoning their treacherous plot, still manage to survive and escape to search for the Hotel Denouement. For all of Snicket's narrative hand-wringing about how unfortunate the children are, they are really quite lucky. As a final note, Esmé Squalor gets to wear a truely splendid fire dress.

The Carnivorous Carnival by Lemony Snicket

The ninth installment continues to build suspense in the series. I found the "freaks" at the carnival incredibly amusing, especially since some of Olaf's henchmen are even more freakish.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Hostile Hospital by Lemony Snicket

The eighth installment of this series takes things in a slightly different tack. Instead of just hiding from Count Olaf, the Baudelaire orphans must also hide from the police. There are a lot of shout-outs to favorite authors (Clarissa Dalloway's, Emma Bovary's, and Haruki Murakami's names are mentioned) and they discover that one of their parents might have survived. Like the Spiderwick books, I think this series will ultimately have to be judged on its merits.

March by Geraldine Brooks

I expected this book to be intriguing, but I was definitely not prepared for just how good it was. In all fairness, the protagonist was annoying at times--self-righteous, self-centered, and woefully naive, even at forty. Moreover, at times the action seemed a bit heavy-handed and over-dramatic. But in the end, it came together for me as a beautifully-conceived, beautifully-written book about redemption, love, and moving beyond disaster. I can't wait to read Ms. Brooks's other two books.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Black No More by George Schulyer

This humorous novel, in playing out the consequences of an invented process by which black people can permanently turn their skin white, addresses serious questions of race, religion, class, labor, and other cultural formations of the early twentieth century. It demonstrates very clearly the seriousness of racism, not only in itself, but also as a distraction to masses of people. I was particularly interested in the ways that racism remains a distraction when skin color becomes almost entirely uniform, in the ways that racism and religious intolerance often go hand in hand, in the eugenic and genealogical impulses of the white supremacists in the novel, in the connection between race and the conditions of labor and modernity, and in the novel's final twist. Very intriguing.

The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket

In the seventh book in the series, Lemony Snicket heightens tension by introducing his own brother, if only briefly. The Quagmire triplets are rescued, but still don't get to share their information about VFD, and the Baudelaire Orphans are framed for a murder by the end of the novel. This series gets more and more sophisticated as it continues.

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

I thought that this mystery was one of Agatha Christie's particularly good ones. I like the premise of what if you did everything that made you look like a murderer, and indeed wished for the death of the person murdered, and yet, were not guilty. Poirot is marvelous, and just the right number of clues were sprinkled through the story. Top notch.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Ersatz Elevator by Lemony Snicket

The sixth installment of this series continues to develop the suspense and to create a coherent plot. The Baudelaire orphans are sent to stay with Jerome and Esmé Squalor, and they discover that Esmé is in cahoots with Olaf, knew (and resented) Snicket's Beatrice, and lives across from an elevator shaft that connects to a tunnel that opens under the now-burnt-down Baudelaire mansion. Although the Quagmire triplets have discovered something about Count Olaf with the initials VFD, they don't get the chance to tell the Baudelaire orphans what that something is. These novels get curiouser and curiouser.

Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

I liked this mystery, although I would not class it as one of my favorite Christie mysteries (although the ones I like the best are usually Hercule Poirot, so maybe I'm being unfair to Miss Marple). At moments I half-expected a Murder of Roger Ackroyd-type denouement. I would have liked to have seen more of the phony architect.

The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket

The fifth entry in the Series of Unfortunate Events finds the Baudelaire orphans stranded at a boarding school. In this book, they actually make some friends, and a plot begins to develop (with Snicket's involvement) beyond "bad things happen to good children."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

I found this gothic novel to be a very quick read. Indeed, as the first gothic novel, it sets up some of the classic tropes including a creepy, haunted castle with subterranean passages, mistaken identities, revelations of noble birth, Italian settings, religious figures, and lots of violence. Particularly interesting to me was Walpole's dropped attempt to frame the manuscript as found.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Apostate's Tale by Margaret Frazer

I probably shouldn't have started Margaret Frazer's series of mysteries with the latest story. I felt like I was missing a lot of backstory that is probably fleshed out in the beginning of the series. I think the concept of setting murder mysteries in the Middle Ages is quite neat, and I think Ms. Frazer does a fairly good job of bridging the time gap. In this particular mystery, I felt like the text itself was conflicted about Sister Cecely (whose name was not even consistently spelled) and I was having a hard time reconciling myself to the fact that she was "stupid" and a bad mother; the story opens from her perspective, and I felt it hard to shake that sympathy.

The Man of Property by John Galsworthy

I found this novel very moving. The Forsyte family, which initially appears stiff-necked, clannish, and very middle class develops into something else entirely throughout the course of the novel--very humane and ultimately mostly learning from the mistakes of their earlier days. It's a remarkably sad story, but still quite a good one.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Cosmic Race by José Vasconcelos

I'm having trouble figuring out what to make of this essay. It maintains that the time is coming when the four races of the world will merge into a transcendent fifth race. There are religious overtones by the end. On one hand, the author's utopian dream is nothing to be dismissed, but on the other hand, he seems to want both a merging into equality and a superiority for Latin American peoples. I'll definitely need more time to think through this one.

The Unvanquished by William Faulkner

This collection of short stories focuses on the fortunes of the Sartoris family during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Granny Rosa Millard is a fantastic character: she's full of pluck and generosity. Also wonderful is cousin Drusilla, who defies conventions. These stories are Faulkner at his most nostalgic and he evokes a most rosy and unrealistic portrait of the South.

The Miserable Mill by Lemony Snicket

This book, fourth in the series, changes things up a bit by putting the Baudelaire orphans with another most unsatisfactory guardian, whose name we never learn (it's apparently unpronounceable). The children are forced out of their comfort zones (Violet must do research, Klaus must invent, and Sunny fights a duel) and realize that despite the string of bad luck which follows them wherever they go, they really are quite lucky.

The Tuesday Club Murders by Agatha Christie

Although this book is presented in chapters, like a novel, it really contains thirteen short murder mysteries: two sets of six told over dinners, and one which Miss Marple prompts Sir Henry to solve. I particularly liked Miss Helier's story; it had a really unique twist. There's not a lot of action as almost all the stories are retold, but it's very enjoyable, and would be good to read over a period of time as you wouldn't have to remember much from sitting to sitting.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

I loved this murder mystery. The conceit is really quite wonderful: a little old lady watches a murder being committed but can't do anything about it because she's on a different train at the time. Although this novel features Miss Marple, she does less solving than usual (Lucy Eylesbarrow taking on much of the legwork) and is actually on the scene, so it feels a little more like a Hercule Poirot mystery than usual. Of course, there's a wonderful, decaying family home, and the usual limited number of suspects scenario. I really enjoyed this mystery.

The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket

The third installment finds the Baudelaire children by Lake Lachrymose. There are still great literary puns to find, and Aunt Josephine is great--she's afraid of everything and a grammar maven to boot.

The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket

This second novel in the Series of Unfortunate Events carries on the promise of the first. Count Olaf shows up again, ruining what looks like a fun trip to Peru and a developing relationship between the Baudelaire orphans and their Uncle Monty. I could see this series getting repetitive, but it's still innovative.

Night Train to Bolina by Nilo Cruz

This play was intriguing. I was interested by the youth of the protagonists and the magical realism. A short read.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

I found this book very enjoyable. Like the Harry Potter books, it is a children's book written with witty jokes and asides enough to entertain adult readers (although at this point, the story is not nearly so complex). The narrative voice is a very smart construct; the author has written a gothic novel in which (almost) nothing good ever happens for children, and the narrator is very self-aware. I also happen to find Sunny Baudelaire, who asserts her personality by biting and in single word phrases (helpfully translated by the narrator), very amusing.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I found this collection of short stories rather uneven. Some of the stories, like the title story (also the longest story in the collection) are quite creative returns to classic fairy tales. Others seem to lack direction and leave me feeling sort of muddled. The stories are dark and spooky.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins by Mark Twain

I found this book highly enjoyable, if troubling in some aspects. There's an over-indulgence in twinning, and the Italian twins (who started as conjoined twins) seem to retain some vestiges of their conjoined past (for some reason they were circus freaks after their parents died). This book explores carefully both race and identity; while the fingerprints bit is gimmicky, it also affirms individual uniqueness. Although Twain shows how circumstances affect the "white" baby (when he regains his place in society, he's unfit to occupy it), he also makes a point of letting the "black" baby's "natural viciousness" come out. I was also struck by the way that the story explores the limits and bounds of a mother's love. Roxana and Pudd'nhead are the most sympathetic characters in the story. Finally, Pudd'nhead's calendar (the aphorisms from which head each chapter) is fantastic.

Friday, March 7, 2008

William Faulkner: His Tippah County Heritage by Jane Isbell Haynes

This book traces Falkner and Murry family roots in Tippah County, Mississippi. It makes the case that parts of Flags in the Dust and The Sound and the Fury are based more in Ripley than in Oxford. Appended to the end is a memoir by a woman who is part of the family whose son WC Falkner shot before the Civil War. There are great pictures, but overall, only worth reading if you're interested in tracing Faulkner's Mississippi roots.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

This novel surprised me. I expected it to be about Lilia, on whose departure it opens, but it was nothing of the sort. Her family (really, in-laws from her first marriage) is deliciously snobby and prudish, of course, and when her brother- and sister-in-law go to Italy to straighten out the man she married and recover the son she left after she dies, things get tricky. Italy is supposed, of course, to change both Caroline Abbot (Lilia's erstwhile companion, whom they meet down there) and Phillip Herritan (her brother-in-law) for the better; At first I was a little unconvinced by the change, but now that I think about it, both characters seem magnificently drawn. These two created the center of the novel for me, (though who wouldn't like Gino, especially in his second appearance), and of course the painful irony of the end is what teaches Phillip perhaps the most telling lesson of all.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

By my count, this time was my fifth reading this book, and it remains one of my absolute favorites. I love the layers of story-telling, the resonances between Quentin, Shreve, and Henry, and even that demon, Sutpen. In this reading, I noticed many more similarities between Sutpen and his son Charles, the novel's tendency to use economic metaphors to describe transactions of the heart, and the chronological misplacement of Haiti in the narrative. I was also awed by the beautiful structure, which carefully builds up to the novel's awful climax. It's clearly a novel about what it means to tell a story, about perspective, about multiple discourses (including those we can never know), about the South, and about love, friendship, and pride. I don't recommend reading this novel once--read it many times, or never pick it up.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Kingdom of this World by Alejo Carpentier

I enjoyed this novel of the Haitian Revolution and its immediate aftermath. I found the repetition of slavery, despite changing circumstances both telling and moving. I was also intrigued by Henri-Christophe's insistent copying of European and especially French conventions. I think the use of magical realism and voodoo was particularly effective.

The Spiderwick Chronicles in Five Volumes by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black

I read this book because I had seen it recommended as an after Harry Potter book, and because I kept seeing the trailer for the movie. It's got some neat ideas (I like the hidden library that they find through the dumbwaiter), but it doesn't have the same cross-generational appeal as Harry Potter. Also, the first book felt like hardly any story was told at all--I imagine that all five books in the story fit into one arc, and the story is divided into five books in order to make them into manageable sizes for younger readers. At any rate, it was a very quick read.

I finished reading this series because it was a quick and easy read. It's one story split across five books to make it easier for younger readers or to make more money for the publishers (take your pick). It wasn't bad as far as it went, but I didn't find it incredibly compelling.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life by George Washington Cable

George Washington Cable sets this story of creole life in the city of New Orleans at the traumatic moment when Napoleon sold his North American holdings to the United States. With the use of Joseph Frowenfield, a German-American who immigrates to New Orleans and promptly looses all his family to yellow fever, Cable is able to get an outside perspective on the insular creole world of New Orleans and the gothic fall of the house of Grandissime. Aspects of the story I found particularly intriguing included the mixture of languages used both in the text and in the story, the story of Bras Coupé, the awareness of Saint Dominique and the Haitian Revolution, and the doubling, between Aurore and Clotilde Nancanou, and Honoré Grandissime and Honoré Grandissime, f.m.c.. Overall very good.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Juanita: A Real Life Romance of Life in Cuba Fifty Years Ago by Mary Peabody Mann

I found this book intriguing, if rushed at the end. As usual with books set in the Caribbean, I was fascinated by all the languages at play in the story if not the text itself. I was interested in the religious references that were scattered throughout the book; these references became more definite and proselytizing towards the end. I was also intrigued by the trope of good masters being as ensnared in the system of slavery as the slaves themselves. Finally, I thought the position of Helen Wentworth, New England spinster, fascinating. This book might have been an important anti-slavery narrative (though it has its share of racial prejudices) had it been released more promptly (it was based on the author's stay in Cuba from 1833 to 1835 and apparently mostly drafted by the 1850s), but because it was published in 1888, it remains a bit of a historical footnote.