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Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Has it ever happened to you that a book is so understated you’re certain you’ll forget it easily, only to have it haunt you often? Have you ever went thought a slow re-evaluation of a book over time? I can only remember feeling it once before, with Gillespie and I, which I initially dismissed as too long and slow, but was still ardently discussing months afterwards.

I’m going through that process with Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. It’s a collection of short-stories about unimportant people with unimpressive lives and initially I just couldn’t understand the purpose of it all. It’s all about the details in this book, but it’s about them I’m still thinking about.

You could just as easily argue that little or nothing happens in these stories, or that too much happens, and I’m inclined to think that it take a great writer to pull that off successfully. The seemingly mundane events that Munro focuses on can seem very inconsequential when you first read about them, and yet they are the same events that make your own world turn: small-town pasts often comes back to haunt new cosmopolitans, a one-night stand could become the biggest single memory of a life, it’s hard when the partner of a good friend is a jerk, etc.

Munro is an expert at capturing the small lives that she writes about, but in this case small lives do not equal  sweetness or fluff, on the contrary, most stories leave a bitter taste in your mouth. There’s a vaguely melancholic feel about all of them, a sense of disappointment and disillusionment. It’s only now, almost 3 weeks after I finished the book that I recognise just how complex each story was. It reminds me of Austen’s quote about her bits of ivory.

Just a small shout-out to the last story in the book, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain“, the basis of the movie “Away From Her“, and probably my favorite story of the nine. You can read it in The New Yorker online.

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Other thoughts: A Book A WeekSteph & Tony Investigate (yours?)


I’m making Sleepless Reader history: my first joint-review-cum-chat!

Shannon from Giraffe Days and I noticed we both had Tea With Mr. Rochester by Francis Towers in our TBRs, so we decided to read it at the same time and then exchange thoughts on it. It was great fun and I hope to do this again in the future, with her or other follow bloggers. If you have time, drop by her blog and say hi.

(Isn’t book blogging fabulous? Shannon’s in Canada, I’m in Belgium and here we are, connecting over books!)

Tea With Mr. Rochester is published by Persephone and was the only book ever written by Francis Towers: a collection of 10 short-stories that became my first (and so far only) 5/5 of the year. Now without further ado…

Alex: This was my first “off the beaten track” Persephone, having so far gone for hits like Miss Pettigrew. It was a solid 4.5 but might become my first five stars of the year (this conversation will help me decide). I was pleasantly surprise by Towers’ writing style: delicate but ironic, poetic but not sentimental. It was a very distinctive voice, didn’t you think? Probably why all the stories somehow felt similar, like they were the same tale told in different ways. Or maybe it’s because she uses recurrent characters: the Literary Daughter, the Older-Wiser-and-Darker Woman, the Mysterious Man, etc. 

Either way, I think the similarities of the individual stories gave the book as a whole a nice individuality.  What was your favorite of the ten?

Shannon: This was my first Persephone book, and I normally love books from this era but I struggled to connect with these stories, due to the writing style. While I loved the delicate, ironic, poetic prose (great choice of words!), I found myself constantly distracted by the effort of figuring out which character was being referred to, what a line meant etc. The narrative seemed to – not jump around but have bits missing, for me. I think it’s a book that benefits from being read more than once and with fewer distractions and interruptions than I had! So the prose was both frustrating and at times beautiful, for me.

But I agree that the similarities between the stories gave it continuity. The downside is that they became more predictable the further along you went. I don’t know if I have a favourite, exactly, but I think the two stories I resonated with and liked the most were “Tea with Mr Rochester” and “Don Juan and the Lily”. You?

Alex: I know what you mean about the not knowing who was being referred to. I had that difficulty in the first stories especially. It also didn’t help that she uses “one” so often (“One dries up when people think their thoughts are above one’s head“), but after a while it became sort of charming. I loved “Tea with Mr. Rochester” as well (do you think they chose it as a title for marketing reasons? Just like anything that says “Austen” sells better?). “The Little Willow” made me all teary, but my favorite was “The Rose in the Picture“. Possibly because there’s more dialogue between the couple and the man’s personality is more fleshed out. Also, I’m always a sucker for stories about the neglected wallflower who’s finally noticed.

However, the story that came to mind more often after I finished it was “The Spade Man From Over the Water”. There is a tension there that you’d expect in thrillers and even ghost-stories. What do you think happened there? The perfect husband wasn’t so perfect after all, right?

Shannon: I KNOW they chose the title they did because of that, because it worked on me!! As soon as I heard the title I just had to get this book. Titles, covers, those tricks work on me all the time! I found that one the story I connected with the most, because of imaginative little Prissy who falls in love with Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, and in looking for a real-life counterpart finds herself attaching the characteristics of Rochester to one of her teachers, Mr Considine. Not only her love for the book – and Mr Rochester – appealed to me, but also there were lines in it that totally clicked with me. Like here: “Prissy felt a little cheated; as one does, for instance, when someone in a book goes out at a door on the right, whereas in one’s mind the door has been all the time on the left.” (p.32) That happens to me all the time! And also her daydreams, and her changing perception of Mr Considine.

The Little Willow” was very sad, I agree. The stories seem to be a mix of sweet and sad, with a whiff of the supernatural here and there – like in “Violet“, “Lucinda” and even “The Spade Man From Over the Sea” – it definitely had the feel of something dark and even vindictive, lurking in the shadows. My thought, regarding plot, while reading it was that Mrs Asher’s lost husband was now young Mrs Penny’s husband, because she clearly had a “moment” when she saw his picture, but I also think that the darker tone of the story, whenever Mrs Penny thought of Rupert, as well as that line at the end, “Treachery! … But whose?” – I had to stop and think, am I reading too much into it, and adding melodrama that isn’t really there? But how else am I to take the line about treachery – unless all it really refers to is the end of their friendship because of the return of a husband. Maybe Mrs Penny is just feeling guilty…? But why, then, Mrs Asher’s reaction to the photo? See, I’m a bit lost but I actually enjoyed the ambiguous nature of this story! The not-knowing is part of the fun!

Alex: That quote about feeling cheated was great, also had it marked 🙂 I also felt he was the “lost husband.” Maybe he wasn’t a lost husband at all, but just a lover who abandoned her with her children. Treachery because her friend, who she was beginning to love, left without a goodbye and treachery from her husband (she definitely suspected!).

Lots of food for though in that story, reminds me of The Turn of the Screw in it similarly vague ending.

Most stories are filled with literary references. Towers’ love of Charles Lamb reminded me of the narrator of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, who’s constantly mentioning him as well(I feel the Universe is telling me to give him a try him) She also clearly loved Shakespeare and Chekhov, as they also appear in several of the stories. Other recurring things: roses, Spanish coffers, people who look like people in paintings, aunts. Do you think Towers was aware of this or was it just her subconscious working?

Shannon: I haven’t read any Charles Lamb either – I’m not even familiar with any of his titles! Shame on me. But I loved all the literary and artistic references. I thought of the recurring motifs as an overall connection between the stories – while the stories themselves don’t link in terms of recurring characters etc., they feel connected via all the recurring motifs and themes. It gives them a similar voice even when the tone changes, which was a nice touch. Whether it was deliberate of not I’ve no idea! It was interesting to me, though, that even with all the lovely flowers, the stories still had that air of a funeral about them (or maybe the flowers added to that!). Do you know what I mean? 

As far as I know, she wrote these after WWII, and I can’t help but think that the war influenced all writers in the 40s and 50s, in different ways: with Towers, I was actually mildly surprised at the tone of – not defeat, but quiet resignation, that seemed to be present in most of the stories. What I mean is, there wasn’t much energy, not like after WWI. In the week or so since I finished reading it, that’s the sense that lingers. You’ve got stories of lovers lost in the war, of ghosts, of women keeping each other company in the absence of men. I don’t mean that the stories are all sad or anything, just… quietly accepting. Am I projecting too much?

Alex: Very good points! I know exactly what you mean about funerals. There’s this… subdued feeling about the stories. Like people whispering and flowers that are lovely but on the verge of wilting. The home environments she describes so well also come off as sort of stifling and somehow outside reality. I think someone like Hitchcock would have loved to film Violet for Twilight Zone.

It was a real accomplishment of Towers to pull off atmospheres that cause such a (lingering) impression. It’s a book that I’d like to revisit at some point. I wonder what visions it will inspire then.

Shannon: I was thinking much the same thing: some of the stories, like “Violet” and “Lucinda” and even the Spade Man story we were discussing earlier, would make great creepy films! Especially with that slightly morbid atmosphere. I can’t help but think that Towers was actually aiming for something really positive and hopeful and uplifting with these stories – but I don’t think WWII was so easily escaped.

You’ve certainly given me a more positive impression of this book, Alex! I still don’t love it, but it was such a healthy discussion in terms of helping me focus on its good points! It was lots of fun. 🙂


Whenever I think “hype victim” Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norris always comes to mind. Remember when the book took the world by storm? When Gaiman was saying it was the best thing since bread came sliced? 10-years in the making yady bla. It’s hard to live up to all those expectations, but the book put up a good fight. Despite it all I liked it and at the time gave it a 4/5. It’s obvious Clarke’s a talented writer, but the real thing could never be as good as the book in my head. I ended up admiring it for its execution, but it didn’t steal my heart.

Or maybe I just got a bit hurt by the way she described Portugal and its natives.

In any case, for me the jury is still out on Susanna Clarke until her next novel, so while waiting I’ve read The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, a collection of eight short stories, all but one set in the same world as JS & MN. I was still delighted by her version of a past England where real magic is part of everyday life and influences history. She once again put footnotes to good use and got off to a good start with an introduction by fictional Professor James Sutherland, the present-day Director of Sidhe studies at the University of Aberdeen and editor of the collection:

The sad truth is that nowadays – as at all periods of our history – misinformation about Faerie assails us from every side. It is through stories such as these that the serious student of Sidhe culture may make a window for herself into Faerie and snatch a glimpse of its complexity, its contradictions and its fascinations.

One of the reasons I’m still looking for a satisfying Austen prequel, sequel or spin-off is that the ones I’ve read so far don’t sound authentic. But this book confirms a suspicion I’ve had since JS & MN: Susanna Clarke’s 19th century English is close to perfection. As a Janeite I especially appreciated the homage-story Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower. If you’ve read Pride & Prejudice (or watched the 1995 adaptation) you can’t miss the similarities with Mr. Darcy’s letter. Clarke’s version begins like this:

Madam,

I shall not try your patience by a repetition of those arguments with which I earlier tried to convince you of my innocence. When I left you this afternoon I told you that it was in my power to place in your hands written evidence that would absolve me from every charge which you have seen fit to heap upon my head and in fulfillment of that promise I enclose my journal.

My favorite story was set in the same world as Gaiman’s Stardust and it’s called The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse. The Duke of Wellington chases his horse beyond the Wall and has to use all his wits to be able to return. It involves the Duke’s attempts at embroidery – so funny.

The reason why I bought the book in the first place was the wonderful edition and its illustrations by Charles Vess. It was just the thing to add to my collection of Penguin’s hardcover classics.

If you’re a fan of JS & MN, you’ll like The Ladies of Grace Adieu, if you felt intimidated by JS & MN’s size and extensive historical notes, this might be a good introduction. Actually, everyone who welcomes a good world-building should recognize Clarke as one of the best.

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Other thoughts: ProSe, The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader (and yours?)

“Really it is very wholesome exercise, this trying to make one’s words represent one’s thoughts, instead of merely looking to their effect on others.”
E. Gaskell, Cousin Phillis

Welcome to the 12th stop on the Elizabeth Gaskell 200th Anniversary Blog Tour! I chose to dive into Mrs. Gaskell’s novellas, so after some online search and a lot of indecision I decided to review three of them (a bit ambitious, I know, but I just couldn’t choose): Mr. Harrison’s Confessions (1851) and Lady Ludlow (1959), both part of the Cranford Chronicles, and Cousin Phillis (1964), which according to the Literary Encyclopedia, “has been called the most perfect story in English”. They can all be read online for free. Please also note that there will be some spoilers in the reviews.

You’ll be happy to know that one lucky commenter will win a copy of an unabridged edition of North and South by Naxos AudioBooks read by Clare Willie. Deadline to leave your 2-cents is midnight US Pacific-time on 7 October. The winner will be drawn from names from all the posts in the Tour on 8 October (CD shipments to US and Canada, download for all other countries). Good luck to all of The Sleepless Reader’s commenters, I’m rooting for you!

Enjoy and Happy Gaskell anniversary :)

My Lady Ludlow (1959)

I am an old woman now, and things are very different to what they were in my youth. Then we, who travelled, travelled in coaches, carrying six inside, and making a two days’ journey out of what people now go over in a couple of hours with a whizz and a flash, and a screaming whistle, enough to deafen one.

Isn’t it scary how this type of reminiscence can still be heard nowadays? Only now it’s about what kids learn at school or how no one knows where peas come from.

Just like Austen is still so popular today because the mechanics of relationships don’t change, Gaskell’s stories about the inevitability of progress and how we adapt is the hot-topic of the digital revolution. Of the three novellas, Lady Ludlow is the one that more directly deals with a rapidly changing world and how the old elite deal faces it.

The story it told by Margaret Dawson, is one of the nine young ladies and children living with and being cared for by the widowed Lady Ludlow and her companion Miss Galindo. The plot is also related to Lady Ludlow’s estate manager, Mr Horner, who is providing for the education of Harry Gregson, a poacher’s son.

Through Margaret’s eyes, herself from an impoverished background, we get a look into the life of this aristocrat, how she resists change with all her might, but also how through the people around her she learns to accept the inevitable.

Lady Ludlow’s views of Harry Gregson’s education are set in stone: she simply cannot understand why the lower classes should be educated. Actually, she believes it was this education nonsense that caused all the tragic, innocent aristocratic deaths during the French Revolution. We don’t want the same thing to happen in England, do we? Lady Ludlow’s reminiscence of the suffering of her French friends takes about 70 pages of the book and at this point my interest waned a bit.

Luckily, it was also after this memoir that things really start to get interesting. Lady Ludlow arranges for Miss Galindo to help Mr Horner with his accounts in an attempt to calm his revolutionary ways.  This is a definite glimpse of her capacity to accept (and even actively bring about) change, after all, this decision implies a Lady doing menial work, and a manly work to top.

There is a good amount of social commentary in My Lady Ludlow and although I was prepared to look down upon her fears and snobbish ways, I also realized that at the pace things are going I’ll probably become a Lady Ludlow myself – the Lady Ludlow of paper books, the last person on Earth to have a physical bookshelf 🙂

And before moving on to Cousin Phillis, take a look at this pearl of witticism that Gaskell directed at her fellow writers.

(Once upon a time Miss Galindo wanted to write and she explains to Lady Ludlow…)

“Well! I got paper and half-a-hundred pens, a bottle of ink, all ready –”

“And then –”

“O, it ended in my having nothing to say, when I sat down to write.  But sometimes, when I get hold of a book, I wonder why I let such a poor reason stop me.  It does not others.”

Touché, Mrs Gaskell!

*****   *****   *****

Follow this link to the next review on the Elizabeth Gaskell Bicenterary Blog Tour, my  thoughts on Cousin Phillis.

Biography

Novels/Biography

Novellas – me!

Resources

  • 14.) Your Gaskell Library – Links to MP3′s, ebooks, audio books, other downloads and reading resources available online: Janeite Deb – Jane Austen in Vermont
  • 15.) Plymouth Grove – A Visit to Elizabeth Gaskell’s home in Manchester: Tony Grant – London Calling

“Really it is very wholesome exercise, this trying to make one’s words represent one’s thoughts, instead of merely looking to their effect on others.”
E. Gaskell, Cousin Phillis

Welcome to the 11th stop on the Elizabeth Gaskell 200th Anniversary Blog Tour! I chose to dive into Mrs. Gaskell’s novellas, so after some online search and a lot of indecision I decided to review three of them (a bit ambitious, I know, but I just couldn’t choose): Mr. Harrison’s Confessions (1851) and Lady Ludlow (1959), both part of the Cranford Chronicles, and Cousin Phillis (1964), which according to the Literary Encyclopedia, “has been called the most perfect story in English”. They can all be read online for free. Please also note that there will be some spoilers in the reviews.

You’ll be happy to know that one lucky commenter will win a copy of an unabridged edition of North and South by Naxos AudioBooks read by Clare Willie. Deadline to leave your 2-cents is midnight US Pacific-time on 7 October. The winner will be drawn from names from all the posts in the Tour on 8 October (CD shipments to US and Canada, download for all other countries). Good luck to all of The Sleepless Reader’s commenters, I’m rooting for you!

Enjoy and Happy Gaskell anniversary 🙂

Mr Harrison’s Confessions (1851)

I think Gaskell had fun writing this one. You can just imagine her stopping for a minute to chuckle contentedly and even sharing the joke with her husband, who raising his head from the newspaper asks “what’s so funny?” or better, “pray my dear, what amuses you so?”

In the opening scene, Mr. Harrison is enjoying the quiet comforts of his home with a visiting friend. When Mrs Harrison leaves for bed, his friend asks him the secret to “wooing and winning” such a wife and Mr. Harrison readily agrees to tell his story.

After his studies, Mr. Harrison accepts a proposal of partnership from a country doctor who has been supporting his career, so he moves to the small village of Duncombe. The long-term objective is for Mr. Harrison to take over the practice completely once Mr. Morgan is ready to retire. In Duncombe our hero plays the part of the proverbial inexperienced and single gentleman trapped in a village ruled by middle-aged women. These ladies’ enthusiasm and skills at matchmaking rival those of Emma Woodhouse, so what follows is a delightful comedy of errors. It is wickedly funny to see poor Mr. Harrison innocently trying to conquer the woman he truly loves while a web is being weaved around him. At some point and for reasons beyond his control he finds himself engaged to three different women in the village, while shunned by the lovely Sophy.

Gaskell develops her story in a way that allows us to clearly see what is about to befall the young hero and so creates an atmosphere of amused complicity between author and reader.

Mr. Harrison’s Confessions is a quick, charming read, but as with Cranford, don’t expect a lot of plot. What you can expect are some fine examples of what Gaskell does better than anyone: images of domestic scenes. Here is Mr. Harrison description of Sophy’s home:

There were books and work about, and tokens of employment; there was a child’s plaything on the floor, and against the sea green walls there hung a likeness or two, done in water colours (…). The chairs an sofa were covered with chintz, the same as the curtains – a little pretty red rose on white ground. I don’t know where the crimson came from, I’m sure there was crimson somewhere; perhaps in the carpet. There was a glass door besides the window, and you went up a step to get into the garden.

I want to be there, in that room, or at least I want my own home to have the same feeling of coziness.

*****   *****   *****

Follow this link to the next review on the Elizabeth Gaskell Bicenterary Blog Tour, my  thoughts on My Lady Ludlow.

The other stops on the Tour:

Biography

Novels/Biography

Novellas – me!

Resources

  • 14.) Your Gaskell Library – Links to MP3′s, ebooks, audio books, other downloads and reading resources available online: Janeite Deb – Jane Austen in Vermont
  • 15.) Plymouth Grove – A Visit to Elizabeth Gaskell’s home in Manchester: Tony Grant – London Calling

If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” I won’t be able to participate in Dewey’s Read-a-ton after all, a friend is visiting right on that weekend 😦 It will be lovely to see her again, but what a disappointment, I was so looking forward to the sleepless night! Now I’ll have to wait until April for the next edition. Leeswammes, I hope you’ll find someone else on this time zone who can support you.

On the other hand, I’m still a part of the Blog Tour to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Elizabeth Gaskell’s birth. One lucky commenter will win a copy of an unabridged edition of North and South by Naxos AudioBooks read by Clare Willie. The winner will be selected among all the people who during that day comment on the participants’ blogs. Full list here.

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Chekhov: hummm I don’t know… Russian literature is not really my thing.

But!

Fry: he could read the phone book and it would still be interesting.

So I gave it a try and was agreeably surprised. Fry’s characterful narration is the perfect complement to Chekhov’s bitter-sweet stories. The Russian melancholy and introspection was there but the language was beautiful and surprisingly accessible – translator Constance Garnet did a great job. Stephen Fry is my favorite reader and listening to him now made me want to go through the Harry Potter audiobooks all over again. I know that in the States they were read by Jim Dale (he was great on Pushing Daisies and on the Around the World in 80 Days audiobook), but I cannot imagine Hagrid with any voice other than the one Fry gives him.

For this Chekhov compilation, Fry chose these 7 stories:

An Avenger (my favorite)
Fyodor Fyodorovitch Sigaev plans to kill his adulterous wife and goes into Schmuck and Co.’s (lol!), the gunsmiths, to select a suitable revolver. He is determined, he is unmovable, but an extraordinary conversation with the shop keeper slowly makes him change his plan. For the fellow Janeites out there: do you remember that brilliant conversation in Sense & Sensibility between the Dashwoods’ brother and his wife about how much income he would give them? An Avenge is like that, but with a good dose of Russian black humour.

A Blunder
A mother and father plan to bust into a private conversation between their daughter and one of her suitors. They will wave an icon above the couple’s heads and the suitor will have no way to escape a marriage thus blessed. You won’t be able to keep a straight face when you know the results…

Boys
I’m ready to bet money that this story really happened and that Chekhov was the main protagonist. Velodya returns to his family home from school and brings a friend. While enjoying the warm welcome, the two boys are plotting to run away from home to join California’s Gold Rush.

The Huntsman
This story is one single conversation between the rascal Yeagor Vlasic and a peasant woman he was forced to marry many years ago. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s griping. According to Wikipedia, Dmitry Grigorovich, a celebrated Russian writer of the day, wrote to Chekhov after reading this story: “You have real talent—a talent which places you in the front rank among writers in the new generation.”

The Lady and the Dog
The longest story is a love story. Gurov, a middle-aged Moscovite, does not love his wife and has constant affairs. While in Yalta he meets Anna Sergeyevna. He seduces her, makes her love him but when they part he’s already ready to move on. However, Anna unexpectedly keeps hunting his thoughts and dreams – he simply can’t stop thinking about her. He then realises something extraordinary: for the first time in his life, he’s in love.. and he needs to see her again.

My favorite thing about reading short-stories is how they produce such powerful endings. If it’s well made, they can give you an emotional hit that make you stand quietly for a while to absorb it. This story’s ending was exactly like that.

Misery
A cabman called Iona is mourning for his son who die a week ago. He’s sad and trying to cope, he wants to speak about it desperately, but no one around him listens. The story is about Eona trying to find empathy and solace among his clients. This was also one of my favorites.

“Cabman, are you married?” asks one of the tall ones.

“I? He he! Me-er-ry gentlemen. The only wife for me now is the damp earth. . . . He-ho-ho!. . . .The grave that is! . . . Here my son’s dead and I am alive. . . . It’s a strange thing, death has come in at the wrong door. . . . Instead of coming for me it went for my son. . . .”

And Iona turns round to tell them how his son died, but at that point the hunchback gives a faint sigh and announces that, thank God! they have arrived at last.

Oyster
And to end on a happy note – not! – the starving 8-year-old son of a beggar is standing at the door of a restaurant and sees a sign saying ‘Oysters’. He asks his father what they are and immediately starts fantasizing about what it would be like to eat them. Passers-by hear him and decide to take him into the restaurant and feed him real oysters. Again, unexpected results follow.

It was a great introduction to Chekhov and Fry does not disappoint. I might check out Chekhov’s plays next. It you know someone who, like me, is Russian-lit-resistant, these short-stories are a great way to make them re-think their attitude  🙂