Ramblings

Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Full disclosure.  I am a HUGE fan of Atwood in general and The Handmaid’s Tale specifically, so keep in mind that my comments regarding this work are not unbiased.

First, I love the format. The alternating viewpoints give a full picture of what is happening in Gilead and outside of it, but interestingly, the first person narrator of each point of view still constrains what the reader can know. I know that some readers do not like this, but I find it an interesting format, reminiscent of an epistolary novel, which can be challenging for writers, but fantastic fun for readers. Les Liaisons Dangereuse or Lady Susan anyone?

Spoiler alert:  if you haven’t read the book, stop now.  The following paragraphs will discuss plot and character points that you will not want to know if you have not read the book.

I LOVE that Aunt Lydia turns out to be a resistance fighter!  Plus her character contains many contradictions, just like real people.  She wants to fight the patriarchy, but to do it, she decides that she may do some short term harm.  She enables resistance with her behind the scenes machinations–my favorite instance the one in which she manipulates Aunt Vidalia into doing her bidding. She moves the people around her like pieces on a chessboard and one cannot help but admire her ability to do so, however objectionable she is as a person. There is much fodder for a good book group discussion here, because Lydia raises the age old question–”Is it permissible to do wrong in the short term, if the ultimate goal is right?”  Or, to phrase it more simply, in Machiavellian terms, “do the ends justify the means?” I would argue that they do not, however, I am well aware that there is room for nuance. I would also argue that there is always a way to work for good by doing good; that trying to do good through nefarious means is the lazy way. If I use Aunt Lydia as an example of this–she could have made choices to do good at several turns, but she chose to stay silent and gather power around herself in order to do what she would claim was good in the BIG picture.  I would argue that she could have achieved the same purpose by being willing to sacrifice at some earlier point in the story. She herself acknowledges this when she writes about her early meetings with Commander Judd. She rationalizes her choices by saying she always had working against the system in mind, but is that really true? I am not sure she is a reliable narrator, which is something else to consider.
I also wonder how plausible it is to think that there would be enough resistance to topple a regime as repressive as Gilead in the short amount of time it exists.  I can see that having been used to freedom before, people would be less likely to accept severe limitations, but people in general can be extremely stubborn in defending something that is nonsensical. The question further arises, would there be a large enough number of people willing to make the sacrifice necessary to engage in real resistance, or would the sheeple just follow blindly as long as they were being fed and clothed? Something else to discuss.

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood evokes America’s Puritan past to great effect by taking it to the extreme.  Fifteen years ago, I would have argued that something like Gilead could never happen in the modern world, but I think that recent events have proven me completely incorrect in this judgement. What I see as possible now is a new puritanism of the Left, which is just as unforgiving and inflexible as the religious puritanism of the past. The characters are finely drawn and fabulously imperfect. The suspense about the final outcome for the rulers of Gilead is palpable. I finished The Testaments in 4 days, and it only took that long because I had to go to work.  I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy dystopia, Atwood, or just want to read something infinitely  discussable.  

Below are some discussion questions for your Book Club.  Enjoy!

  1. How long had it been since you read The Handmaid’s Tale?  If it had been a long time or you had never read The Handmaid’s Tale, do you think it hindered your enjoyment of The Testaments?  Why or why not?
  2. Which character was your favorite and why?
  3. If you were casting a movie, who would you cast as Lydia?  As Becka? As Judd? Any of the other characters?
  4. What do you think you would do if you were rounded up as the women were at the beginning of Lydia’s story?  Do you see a way to respond to the situation that would have a better/different outcome to the way she responded?
  5. What parallels do you see between Gilead and modern society in the United States?  What parallels do you see between Gilead and Medieval Europe?
  6. How does intolerance manifest itself in Gilead? How does it manifest itself in modern society?  
  7. What role does the Bible play in Gilead’s society? 
  8. Even though it is not explicitly revealed in either The Handmaid’s Tale or The Testaments, what kinds of events, issues do you imagine led up to the fighting which gave birth to Gilead?
  9. Why do you think Atwood chose the title she did?
  10. If you could give one piece of advice to your favorite character, what would it be?
Austenalia

The Mysteries of Udolpho, the final chapters…

Dear Reader,

I do apologize for taking so long to finish up with Mrs. Radcliffe’s enormous tome.  My goal was to finish it before the JASNA AGM, and I did, but just the day before on the plane, so it was only by a hair’s breadth.  Then the splendour of the AGM temporarily stalled my book reviewing plans. At long last, I will fill you in on what happens to Emily, whether Valencourt wins fair maiden, and what befalls the evil Montoni.

One of the sessions I attended was a talk by Marsha Huff entitled, “The Gothic Key,” in which Ms. Huff read Udolpho so that Janeites wouldn’t have to, as she so eloquently put it.  Many of the points she made were similar to those I have made, so I won’t belabor them. To review–Gothic fiction is very meta (before being meta was a thing!) and self referential–it refers to other Gothic novels, and the same images and tropes are recycled so that the reader knows what to expect, even though she (and it is always a she) is dying to find out what is behind the veil, just like Catherine!

When last we were together, I chose to discuss a few themes.  In this installment, I would like to point out the ways in which Austen explicitly refers to Udolpho in Northanger Abbey and elsewhere. There is one passage in particular, in which Henry goes on at length teasing Catherine about the Abbey. He asks whether she is prepared to “encounter all the horrors” (114) and be led around by an ancient housekeeper named Dorothy (115).  Of course, your footnotes may have told you he is teasing Catherine about one of the most tense series of scenes in Udolpho in which Emily is toured through the old castle by Dorothee and eventually sees what is behind the veil, although the reader must suffer through about 450 more pages before her curiosity is satisfied.  Spoiler: It is a wax work of a corpse–a weird form of penance being suffered by a minor character whose identity and crime is not revealed until the final two pages (I am not kidding) of Udolpho. Radcliffe obviously did not adhere to the “rules of composition” Austen did whilst composing Northanger Abbey (186). But I digress. 

One of Austen’s letters contains another explicit reference to Radcliffe.  In a letter dated Wednesday (March 2, 1814), Austen writes of having finished The Heroine by Eaton Stannard Barrett, which Austen refers to as a “burlesque” of Mrs. Radlciffe’s style.  The Heroine was a parody of the Gothic, and this is an interesting tidbit to file away–Austen admired the book, and one wonders if reading this made her more determined to get the rights to Northanger Abbey back from Richard Crosby. The Heroine was published in 1813 and in 1816 Henry Austen bought back  the copyright for Northanger Abbey on behalf of his sister, Jane. 

In case you are still wondering what happened to our cast of characters from Udolpho…  After much wandering through the countryside, which Mrs. Radcliffe describes in excruciating and minute detail, Emily ends up back at La Vallee. Montoni is killed by banditti, Valencourt is suspected of having led a dissipated life, but is exonerated through the offices of a poor old servant woman he has been supporting. The portrait Emily’s father was carrying around turns out to have been his sister, Emily’s aunt–she is the murdered Marchioness of Dorothee.  So, Emily looks just like her, because she is her niece. Emily and Valencourt are wed, as are Blanche and her love. Ludovico even reappears to Annette’s everlasting joy. All’s well that ends well. 

Radclffe, after making the reader suffer through 672 pages of which only about 250 were necessary, ties everything up in a neat bow in the last few pages, just as Austen does in Northanger Abbey.  Hmmm. Radcliffe’s narrator also gets in a didactic aside, which causes this reader to wonder whether she wasn’t having a laugh at the reviewers who always seemed to like Radcliffe’s Gothic novels, but not anyone else’s…

“O! useful may it be to have shewn, that, though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune.” (672)

Verbose to the last.


I have enjoyed this year of reading dangerously so much, that I am going to continue with the Gothic for a while longer.  I will intersperse my thoughts on the Gothic with reviews and book discussions of other novels as well. I have found much more to explore in the rabbit hole of the Gothic, some of which I will write to you about next time, including the “Terrorist System of Novel Writing” from 1797.

***Photo from the writer’s tour of the Swem Library Rare Book collection at the College of William and Mary

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Oxford UP, New York, 2008.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Oxford UP, New York, 1992.

Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess


I got this book as an e-galley and I was really looking forward to it.  It had rave reviews and the pre-pub buzz was great. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the hype. I should have known better, when I saw the protagonist referred to as a female Philip Roth. Full disclosure–though I have tried many times to read various titles by Philip Roth, I have never made it all the way to the end of one.  Usually I get about a third of the way through, and that is only because I make myself. Call me a Philistine if you want, but he is way too pe— absorbed for me. I have always found him self-consciously literary, and not in a good way. I mean, really, how literary is one man and his constant obsession with sex and his Johnson? Overrated, in my humble opinion…

Our heroine, if we dare call her that, is Eve Rosen, an aspiring writer who works for a small publishing house that really only has one author who makes them any money. Eve is desperate to become a part of the East Coast Literati, mostly snobs who summer in Truro, Massachusetts, summer playground of Boston academic and artistic elite. She leaves her publishing house gig to work as an assistant to one of these literary giants, Henry Grey. What follows is a boringly predictable May/September romance, in which Eve becomes Henry’s willing partner in adultery, brushing aside the much more interesting and actually available Jeremy Grand, who has incidentally written the next great American novel, and whom the Owner of the said small publishing house hopes will save him from bankruptcy and ignominy. Jeremy has an interesting secret, which I will not reveal in case any of you want to read the book.

What Dukess does well is depict the New England Literati as mostly self-absorbed and useless, though I am not sure if that was the point.  The reader wishes Eve were smarter than she is, though she eventually figures out that Henry is not worth her time. I suppose if you like Philip Roth, you might like this book, but for the rest of us (I would guess about 90%), it really isn’t worth spending your time reading it.  I finished it because I was on a plane without a lot of options, having already exhausted my video downloads and the print books I brought with me, if that tells you anything. 

Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: The French Lesson by Hallie Rubenhold

This novel popped up when I was doing an Amazon search for Hallie Rubenhold, because I thoroughly enjoyed her historical account of the Scandalous Lady W. (See my earlier post on that book here.) If you are looking for a fun summer read to keep you company in your beach chair or on your couch, or if you have finished streaming season 2 of The Crown on Netflix and need something else to fill your time with, The French Lesson is a pretty good choice; you could definitely do worse.

Set during the French Revolution, we follow our heroine, Henrietta Lightfoot as she follows her lover to Paris in 1792, against his wishes and advice. Henrietta, I must say, is a little bit annoying in her willful obtuseness.  I would not go so far as to say that she is an unreliable narrator, but she is awfully naive for a courtesan, or at least she pretends to be. I wasn’t sure the whole way through whether she didn’t realize what was going on or she was playing along for reasons of her own, but at the end that will become apparent, dear reader.

Henrietta fails to find her lover, as he is working undercover as a spy–no spoilers here, I promise this is apparent to the reader from the outset–and she takes refuge with Grace Dalrymple Elliot, notorious mistress of the Duc d”Orleans, among others, and spy for Royalists during The Terror. With Grace’s help, Henrietta enters the household of Orleans and befriends his current mistress, Madame de Buffon. 

Adventures and intrigue ensue…

The French Lesson is a quick, easy, and enjoyable read for those who like historical fiction. The characters are fairly well drawn, the plot is fast moving, and in the end everything is tied up rather neatly. My only real complaint is that Henrietta is a little too good to be true, as is her paramour, but that is to be expected in romance fiction. 

If your book club decides to read The French Lesson, here are a few questions for discussion:

  1. Why does Henrietta decide to ignore Allenham’s instructions for her to remain in Brussels?  Do you think she has other reasons than those she states?
  2. Why does Henrietta so easily fall prey to Savill?  Shouldn’t she have been a little more streetwise, considering her time among the demimonde?
  3. A historical truth is that a woman’s wealth was often in her possessions, such as jewelry, clothing, shoes, etc. Why is Henrietta so quick to abandon her only money at the hotel?  Why did she bring it in the first place? Why not leave it in Brussels?
  4. Do you like Henrietta?  Would you be friends with her?  What about Mrs. Elliot? Would you have been friends with her?  Why or why not?
  5. Madame de Buffon is a real historical person, as is Mrs. Elliot and the Duc d”Orleans.  Do you think Rubenhold did a good job weaving her story through the real life events and people?  Why or why not?
  6. Did you see the ending coming?  If you were writing the ending of this book, how would you have worked it out?
Austenalia

Year of Reading Dangerously: The Mysteries of Udolpho, volume I

Originally published in 1794 in four volumes, The Mysteries of Udolpho is probably the prototypical Gothic Novel. Regular readers will know that I did not read it first, though it is of primary importance to Catherine in Northanger Abbey, preferring instead to work my way through Walpole and Lewis in preparation for Udolpho.  I must say I am glad I did.  Walpole had the advantage over Mrs. Radcliffe in brevity and Lewis has it all over her for salaciousness, at least so far.

In Volume the First, we meet our cast of characters and do a little bit of traveling, so that we can endure the picaresque of which Henry insisted on tutoring Catherine. I find it highly improbable that anyone as flighty and fickle as Isabella could possibly have read Udolpho in its entirety.  I think she must have read excerpts at best.

Here is the breakdown of Volume I:

Chapters 1-6 our heroine, Emily manages to lose her mother and meet her beloved, Valencourt. She travels through the countryside with her father, who is in ill-health. There is a mysterious portrait and a supernatural forest. There is a lot of nature and description…

Chapters 7-12  Emily’s father dies, but not before making her promise to burn some papers in a very specific location of his closet–without reading them! Dear reader, you can easily see that this will not go as expected.  Who among us could actually keep such a promise, virtuous though we may be? Emily, now an orphan (I am sure you see a theme here among our heroines.) returns home under the nominal care of her mother’s sister, Madame Cheron, who is, shall we say, less than virtuous. Valencourt reappears in the story and asks permission to court Emily, which Madame Cheron wants to refuse, but then reluctantly gives, when she realizes he is the nephew of someone important to her. Montoni arrives on the scene and it is apparent that he will be the villain.

Chapters 13-14 Emily and Valencourt are engaged and nuptials are being planned, but the evil Montoni elopes with Madame Cheron and announces that the household will be moving to Venice, all the better for Montoni to gain control of Emily, my dear.  Madame Cheron remains clueless and Valencourt is thwarted in his efforts to see Emily or write to her, but they meet by chance and are able to indulge in a tearful farewell. Emily entreats Valencourt to remain calm–she fears he will challenge Montoni to a duel, and reminds him it is only one year until she reaches her majority and will no longer have to abide by Montoni’s will. Gloom, despair and agony on Emily and Valencourt, dear reader. Thus ends Volume I.

There is really so much here, that I will just choose a few themes to discuss as they relate to Northanger Abbey. First, let’s talk tropes. The orphan virgin, the bad chaperone, and the evil foreigner. These three tropes have all been present in the books so far–The Castle of Otranto and The Monk. Emily is so virtuous, she almost gives me a pain, but she is so sweet, you can’t help but like her, at least a little.  By the end of chapter 7, she is orphaned and under the guardianship of the bad chaperone, Madame Cheron. Madame Cheron is a bad chaperone, because she doesn’t care about her charge, she is extremely self-absorbed, and by taking Montoni as her lover first and eloping with him later, she makes it difficult for Emily to maintain her engagement with Valencourt, or indeed with any gentleman. Finally, the evil foreigner, Montoni, embodies the dissipation of the Catholic Church, as interpreted by Protestant Englishmen and women. He is sly, sneaky, and willing to become the lover of Madame Cheron to get to Emily.  He plots, he thwarts, he is the supervillain we love to hate.

Austen uses these same tropes in Northanger Abbey–in fact she engages in literary shorthand with her readers by using the Gothic to fill in the details that are not explicit on the page. Catherine is not an actual orphan, but her trip to Bath with the Allens makes her a pseudo-orphan.  Her connection to home remains through her brother, but it is tenuous–she is left to figure things out mostly for herself, without much guidance. This is why Mrs. Allen is a bad chaperone–she talks incessantly of clothes and muslins, in fact, Henry Tilney charms her by discussing muslin himself-catching her off guard and winning her approval in one stroke. The Allens shouldn’t have let Catherine go riding with Thorpe alone–Mr. Allen doesn’t ask for enough details, and they really probably shouldn’t have let her go to Northanger Abbey without doing more checking. Mrs. Allen is self-absorbed in much the same way as Madame Cheron, minus the illicit love affairs. She is however, apparently somewhat younger than Mr. Allen, which makes one wonder…he very wealthy after all. Finally, the evil foreigner.  The evil foreigner in Northanger Abbey is off page, referred to by Thorpe in conversation with Catherine, and acknowledged by Henry in his “Remember we are English…” speech to Catherine, who is imagining all kinds of things that really would only happen in France, Spain, or Italy (a Catholic country), according to the English. Austen makes her point with tongue firmly in cheek.

Another hallmark of Gothic fiction, and really a lot of early fiction, is the use of books and reading to indicate the traits of the characters. In Udolpho, books are used as messengers to the reader. Valencourt proclaims his love for Emily through the gift of a book. “For some moments she was conscious of being beloved; then, a recollection of all the variations of tone and countenance, with which he had recited these sonnets…she wept over the memorial of his affection.” (58) Emily remembers her father after his death by spending time in his library and reading a book he had been reading, “To her the book appeared sacred and invaluable, she would not have moved it, or closed the page, which he had left open, for the treasures of the Indies.” (95)

As we know, the character depiction and action in Northanger Abbey depend on the reading habits of the players. Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho appears a virtuous reader–she and Valencourt share a love for poetry and reading is a large part of their courtship.

I await further developments in Volume II.

Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

I debated with myself about reading this book, since I had already watched the first 2 seasons of Victoria on Masterpiece/PBS.  I am not going to lie, I did not enjoy this novel as much as I did Goodwin’s earlier works–The Heiress and The Fortune Hunter.  Part of it may have been because I had already seen the series and really, the book doesn’t even get through the whole first season.  I also think that this one just wasn’t as good as the first two, but if I am completely honest, I will have to also say that I don’t find Victoria a compelling character.  In Goodwin’s novel she comes off as spoilt, headstrong, and whiny, not to mention more than a little self-absorbed. I was disappointed to learn from reading the endnotes that Ms. Goodwin spent many years reading Queen Victoria’s journals and letters; I was so hoping her portrayal was highly inaccurate. There are so few strong female leaders to look at from history that I hate to find that I don’t really like Victoria, or what is more important, respect her.  I have a much higher regard for Albert when all is said and done, at least for now. This is the same reaction I have had to the series. I love the costumes and the subplot involving Skerritt and Francatelli. In fact, I wasn’t planning on watching Season 3 until I saw that Laurence Fox is in it. I liked him in Inspector Morse, so I will be persuaded to tune in and at least give it a chance. I see some future nonfiction reading will be necessary to improve my factual knowledge in this area and I am hoping that my impression from the novel is fiction, just like the book. We’ll see…

The front cover of the copy I bought has an emblem which says “Reading Group Gold” from Macmillan. Whilst I am not sure I completely agree with the “gold” assessment, I can see where this would be a fun, easy read for a book group.  Toward that end, here are some discussion questions:

  1. Most of the novel is from Victoria’s point of view and she doesn’t extend her mother much compassion until her own “impossible” love interest in Lord Melbourn comes to a close. Do you think she should have realized sooner that her mother was in a difficult position?  Why was she so oblivious to the way her mother had to negotiate a very narrow path?
  2. Do you think someone like Melbourn would have been interested in Victoria as she was at eighteen and nineteen? What about her makes him love her?
  3. How is Lord Melbourn a tragic figure?  Does he act as if he thinks he is tragic, how or how not?
  4. Albert is characterized as very serious.  The other characters describe him as such and he has a sincere interest in reform and progress and modernity.  How does this contrast with Victoria’s character?
  5. What do you think of Uncle Leopold? Why do so many of the royal characters and others make such a big deal about Belgium being a “made up” country? How do you explain the fact that Victoria in the novel is so set against Uncle Leopold’s plan to marry her to Albert, but then she marries him?  This seems to be a plot hole. Do you think it is adequately explained in the novel, why or why not?
  6. The television series offers a more in depth look below stairs. If you have both seen the show and read the novel, do you think the novel suffers from this absence?  Why or why not?
  7. Can you see a great monarch in the young Victoria as portrayed by Goodwin, why or why not? How do you see Victoria of the novel maturing over time–what does her future self look like?
  8. Are you convinced of Albert’s love for Victoria in the novel?  If yes, what convinces you? If no, given Albert’s seriousness and honesty, how do you explain his decision to marry her?
Austenalia

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Northanger Abbey on Film

I am writing this whilst slogging my way through 672 pages of The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Yes. 672 pages.  I am hoping to have something to write about on this blog when I get to the halfway mark.  Until that delightful day, dear readers, I thought we might pass the time with a discussion of Northanger Abbey on film.  

Naturally, when I decided to embark on this project, I reread Northanger Abbey.  Then I decided that I must watch the film version(s).  I had not yet seen the 2007 version and after reading Bruce Stovel’s article “Northanger Abbey at the Movies,” I felt I really had to see the 1986 (1987) version.  Fortunately both are available on Amazon Prime. Click here for 1986(1987) and here for 2007. Stovel has it right when he declares the 1986 version a “campy…romp.” Indeed it is.  This version stars Peter Firth (brother of Colin) as a Henry Tilney who alternately smirks and simpers his way through the movie. It is hard to believe from this performance that he had been nominated for an Academy Award in 1977 for his work on Equus with Richard Burton, or that he would go on to become the chief Spook on the series of that title, also known as MI5 in the United States, but I digress.  Henry really is probably the best thing about this version, since Catherine is portrayed as weak-willed and already in thrall to Gothic fiction from the opening scene in which she reclines in a large tree reading and imagining herself as the heroine about to be ravished. (!)

One of Stovel’s best points in the article is how the 1986 film version forces the reader to notice what is important in the book that cannot be easily translated to the movie. The Narrator is at the top of the list; “the narrator of Northanger Abbey is the closest Jane Austen comes to Henry Fielding’s obtrusive, poised and witty, wise philosophizing, self-conscious narrator of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews.” (238)  The 2007 version, which we will get to shortly, does attempt to include the narrator, with uneven results. The voice overs are lackluster at best.

In the novel, as I wrote earlier in my post about rereading Northanger Abbey, the reader sees Catherine grow and learn to be discerning, both in selecting her reading and her companions.  However, in both film versions, Catherine is played as a static character, without the roundness of which E. M. Forster was so fond. The cast of the 2007 version includes J.J. Feilds and Felicity Jones, who both sparkle on screen. However, the dialogue, even when taken directly from Austen’s novel, feels stilted.  And Feilds’s Henry seems to smile at inappropriate moments–he’s not as creepy as Peter Firth’s Henry, but he is odd, to say the least, and not just because he knows about muslin….

If you, like me, enjoy the settings and costumes, by all means, watch both, though the 2007 version is probably superior in this regard.  Interestingly, the opening scene of the 2007 version is a near copy of the 1986 opening scene, but the films diverge pretty quickly from there. Carey Mulligan makes an appearance as Isabella, and though she is uber smarmy, she is infinitely superior to her counterpart from 1986. Interestingly, the 2007 version uses numerous references to Lewis’s The Monk, which features prominently in Catherine’s Gothic fantasies (but as Janeites know this is only in the movie).  I had forgotten that it is mentioned once in Northanger Abbey by John Thorpe when he goes on about novels being nonsense.  The only two he has enjoyed are Tom Jones and The Monk.  If you read my previous posts (part 1 and part 2) about The Monk and if you have read Tom Jones, you will no doubt see the humor here.  John mentions two books with plenty of sex and seduction, and a deal of it explicit to someone he is supposed to be courting for marriage.  He betrays his lack of couth and tact, but of course, Catherine, at this point in their relationship, is too innocent to catch the references.  I do not doubt that Austen’s readers caught them and had fair warning, if they needed it, of John’s real character. His reading choices also make his refusal to stop the carriage with Catherine in it more diabolical, and perhaps more meaningful. He intends to keep Catherine from his rival, even by force. Is it a nod to Ambrosio?  I can’t say for sure…

I don’t intend to bash either of these versions, though both are ultimately inadequate.  I think Stovel’s assessment is accurate–that without the witty narrator and without keeping the action from Catherine’s point of view, there is something lost in the translation from novel to film–Northanger Abbey is primarily an interior story, and those are hard to put on film. It is quite possible that in the future someone will find a way to adapt Northanger Abbey by distilling the essence of the novel in a way that neither of these versions does. They are not bad, and if I had to choose, I would prefer the 2007, but they are not instant classics in the way that the 1994 P&P or the 1995 Persuasion are. Even though purists may have their complaints about these adaptations, they are still beloved in a way that neither version of Northanger Abbey has been–though each is still great fun and a fine way to pass an hour or two if you enjoy costume drama with a big steaming helping of “camp.”

Stovel, Bruce. “Northanger Abbey at the Movies.” Persuasions 20 (1998): 236-247.

Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Circe by Madeline Miller

This one has been on my list for a while, so I am happy to be able to say I have finally read it.  All those awards lists and reviewers were right, it is a great book. It is not a quick easy read, but it is worth savoring, because the writing is lyrical and thought provoking.  In case you missed it, Circe tells the story of several Greek myths, in particular The Odyssey, from the point of view of Circe, who was more of a bit player in Homer’s version.  There is also a feminist twist, which I found refreshing.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, the Titan who drives the chariot of the sun every day.  Unfortunately, in Harry Potter parlance, she’s a squib. She doesn’t appear to have power, she is not beautiful, which of course was the currency women were able to trade in most easily, and what’s more, she does not appear to draw much interest from Helios, though she is desperate to earn his approval. All her life, Circe has had an affinity for mortals, unlike most of her kind.

Eventually, she falls in love with one and it is then that she discovers her power.  She is a mistress of Pharmaka, herbs and medicines, and she can use plants to cast spells, charms, etc.  In other words, she’s a witch. She changes her mortal crush into a god, and dear reader, I’ll bet you can guess what happens next.  He never really loved her. In her despair, she changes her rival into a sea monster with dire consequences. Zeus and Helios agree that Circe must be punished.  She is banished to an island, alone. The funny part is that she doesn’t mind all that much. She likes the quiet, and she enjoys learning more about her new power.  Through the visitors to her island, including Hermes, we learn the story of Odysseus and more. Ever wondered why Circe changed all the sailors who stop on her island into pigs?  Read the book!

This novel is beautifully written; it echos the poetry of The Odyssey.  One caveat, readers who are familiar with the Greek myths will enjoy it a lot more than those who are not; a certain amount of familiarity is assumed. I was one of those kids who checked out every mythology book in the junior high library, read them all, and then started over–yes, I was that nerd. (!)  So, I loved this book.

If your book club decides to read it, here are some questions for discussion:

  1. What did you know about Circe before reading this book?  What did you think her character would be like? Were you accurate–why or why not?
  2. Why do you think Circe is so different from her brothers and sister?  They all have the power of witchery, but Circe uses hers in very different ways to her siblings.
  3. Which of her lovers do you think was the love of Circe’s life and why?
  4. How do Circe’s actions with regard to her son compare with modern “snowplow parents?”
  5. Which character would you like to invite to a dinner party and why?
  6. One of the themes Circe refers to is “gods and fear,” in fact her son, Telegonus chides her for her fear.  Why do you think “gods and fear” recurs throughout Circe’s life and the novel?
  7. Would you like to be alone on an island?  What would you pack if you were banished and could only take what you could carry?
  8. Was the character of Penelope what you expected, why or why not?  Between Circe and Penelope, which one do you think you would have the easiest time being friends with and why?
  9. In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses are often portrayed as silly, vain, and mercurial (pun intended). Miller doesn’t really stray from this convention.  Why do you think the Greeks imagined their gods and goddesses this way?
  10. What role does fate play in Circe?  Do you think fate or free will is the guiding force of the plot and why did you choose as you did?
Austenalia

Year of Reading Dangerously: The Monk part II


When last we saw our cast of characters, Ambrosio was locked in Matilda’s illicit embrace, she having saved him from the viper’s poison through witchcraft; we have heard the tale within a tale of Don Raymond’s adventures, and Agnes was presumed dead, although Lorenzo was still searching the convent for her daily. In the second half, The Monk continues to be melodramatic and overwrought, but a lot of fun.  

Ambrosio immediately upon satiation, begins to regret his actions. “He reflected on the scene which had just been acted, and trembled at the consequences of discovery: he looked forward with with horror: his heart was despondent, and became the abode of satiety and disgust: he avoided the eyes of his partner in frailty.” (193)  So, like many modern villains, it is not a true repentance of the act which we find in Ambrosio, rather a fear of getting caught. Interestingly, he moves quickly in the next few pages from frequent and ardent relations with Matilda to using her merely for physical satisfaction. Matilda becomes almost loathsome to him and he blames her, as does Lewis, for his downfall.  Matilda goes from virgin maid pretending to be a monk to be near her beloved to a seductress versed in the dark arts of sorcery. By page 229, Matilda has turned procuress for Ambrosio, whose lust has been excited by the fair Antonia. Matilda not only gives him an enchanted mirror through which he may watch Antonia, but provides him with a specially empowered myrtle branch which will not only allow him entry into any door and thus into Antonia’s private chamber, but will also render her senseless and allow Ambrosio to rape her without consequence. Ambrosio has embraced a Faustian bargain, but one which will only doom Matilda, who has sold her soul to help procure his way with Antonia.  Ambrosio himself doesn’t pay the price for his own debauchery. Lewis uses Ambrosio’s thralldom to his sexual desires to make several misogynistic statements. Matilda condemns him for having a mind “weaker than a woman’s” (230) and Ambrosio chides her with, “Oh! Cease, Matilda! That scoffing tone, that bold and impious language is horrible in every mouth, but most so in a woman’s.” (231) There are more, but you get the idea. It’s all her fault–she seduced him. Not only that, but any weakness in mind or spirit is portrayed as feminine in nature, even when man is the weak one. [sigh]

We leave Ambrosio impatiently waiting to use his magic myrtle after midnight and go to Theodore, Don Raymond’s servant, who alone seems to possess the wherewithal to come up with a plan to find out what happened to Agnes. In a nod to the story of Richard the Lionheart, who, according to legend, was discovered by a minstrel who sang and waited to hear Richard echo him, Theodore sings, but hears nothing.  However, he is able to convince a couple of nuns to come clean and tell him that Agnes had been poisoned by the mother superior. Don Raymond’s hopes dashed, he proceeds to fall into despair.

Meanwhile, Ambrosio enters Antonia’s bedroom without incident. There’s just one problem.  The myrtle branch doesn’t work on Antonia’s mother, who discovers him almost in flagrante and threatens to sound the alarm. Unfortunately, because she knows that no one will believe her story if she doesn’t have another witness (HINT: she’s a woman, who would listen to anything she says or believe her without corroboration?), she ineffectually hangs on his arm and tries to wake the maid. Ambrosio panics and murders her, fleeing the room and returning to Matilda.

As Lorenzo vows to have his revenge on the murderer of his sister Agnes, Ambrosio plots to kidnap Matilda, fake her death, and have her as his prisoner in the catacombs beneath the Abbey. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! These two plots climax in tandem when Raymond inadvertently sets off a riot by unmasking the supposed murderers of Agnes. He chases after some nuns who are running into the tombs and hears cries coming from deep within. Meanwhile, Ambrosio and Matilda have drugged Antonia and faked her death–she lies in a sepulchre and he waits for her to wake so he can take what he wants. Ambrosio rapes Antonia disregarding her pleas for mercy and for him to return to his right mind. Afterward, it isn’t long before they hear the rioters approaching. Ambrosio flees as Lorenzo discovers Antonia.  The lovers are reunited, but she is damaged goods and does the only thing she can–dies after proclaiming her love to Lorenzo. He is suitably heartbroken, but soon has cause for wonder in his discovery of Agnes, still alive! She has been kept prisoner in the catacombs.

The last chapter ties up the loose ends by filling in the backstory of what happened to Anges and finding a new match for Lorenzo of appropriate rank and wealth.  All’s well that ends well.

There is a lot to discuss here, especially in relation to Northanger Abbey. I will just bring out a couple of points.  First, there is a section in which women’s reading is addressed–specifically Bible reading. Elvira, Antonia’s mother, believed that, “unrestricted, no reading more improper could be permitted a young woman.” (223) She had gone so far as to write out a special copy of the Bible in her own hand, altering or omitting the improper parts. (!) This section was removed by Lewis in later editions to avoid charges of blasphemy, but it offers an intriguing window into his view on women, as does his treatment of Matilda–pious virgin turned Satan’s handmaiden. Lewis’s mother was somewhat unconventional and these passages, along with some of his other commentary make one wonder if he had Mommy issues.

Second, there is a section in chapter 9, where Antonia is sitting alone after her mother’s death.  It is late at night, there is a storm, and she is reading the Ballad of Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogene–in which Imogene is faithless to her crusading knight.  He returns as a ghost to haunt her, etc. So, she’s reading a “horrid tale,” it’s a dark and stormy night, the doors are rattling, the wind is howling.  It is now that she sees Ambrosio dressed as a ghost. She tries to call for Flora, her maid…remind you of anyone? Maybe someone named Catherine? “With such a turn of mind.” (273) “Antonia’s heart throbbed with agitation; her eyes wandered fearfully over the objects around her…” (274)  You see what I mean.

Next up:  The Mysteries of Udolpho; I can’t wait!

Book Reviews/Discussions

Guilty Pleasure: Mine: a Novel of Obsession by J. L. Butler

I received an ARC of this last year at the Texas Library Association Annual Conference.  Full disclosure–this is definitely a fun beach/vacation read, not serious literature. Having said that, though, there is a lot to recommend it if you are in the right mood.  

Francine Day is a divorce attorney in London and her most recent client is handsome, wealthy, and extremely attracted to Francine, a feeling she returns with abandon.  This is a problem, because he’s a client. You know that little thing they talk about in law school, called ethics? Well, dear reader, as you and I both know, a suspense writer never lets a little thing like ethical behavior get in the way of an exciting plot. So, before we get to chapter six, the attorney client relationship has turned, shall we say, heated, but not in an angry way…More full disclosure, there is some on page sex, so if you, like me, prefer things like that be left to the imagination, be prepared to skip those parts.  It isn’t super sexed up, but there are several scenes which one might rather were off page.

When Martin’s soon to be X-wife turns up missing the day after he has make-up sex with her under the jealous eye of Francine, who then drinks herself into a blackout episode, things begin to get dicey.  Throw in the creepy neighbor in Francine’s apartment house and Martin’s business partners, a married couple with plenty of motive, and you have yourself a somewhat suspenseful way to pass the time in an airport terminal or on a commuter train.  The astute reader will figure it out before the end, but it is always nice to read through and get confirmation.

While Mine is worthy of an entertainment read, there are a couple of problems with it.  First, Francine seems to have WAY too many problems. She’s bipolar, lonely, appears to have commitment issues, and ,weirdly, is willing to throw her career away, one which she has spent over a decade building, for an affair with a rich client who has at least as many issues as she does. Color me skeptical, but it seems out of character for her, unless she is supposed to be an unreliable narrator, in which case, the novel is even weaker, so let’s stick with option 1.  Also, Martin’s attraction to Francine is never adequately explained. He is going through a messy divorce and trying to keep his half of the business out of his wife’s greedy hands, but he is willing to distract the person he needs to make sure that doesn’t happen? And what about Peter, the creepy neighbor? He’s just an extra complication that we don’t really need. He serves a purpose in the plot, which I will not divulge here because spoilers, but I think there was probably a better way to handle it.

Bottom line:  If you like suspense novels or as they are often called now, domestic noir, this is a passable entry into that category.  Not on par with Gillian Flynn, but it works as a quick read for fun. Enjoy!

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think Francine is willing to begin an affair with her client, given her apparent dedication to her career?
  2. Did you expect what happened with Peter?  Why or why not? How do you think the action could have been propelled forward without him in the story?
  3. What purpose do you think Dominic served in the story?  How was he a stand-in for Martin, to allow Francine to see her own irrational behavior?
  4. What did you think of the ending?  Did you know who the killer was? Why or why not?  Why do you think Francine decided to use herself as bait to catch the killer?
  5. What about the “epilogue?” Did you expect what happened between Francine and Martin?  How would you have ended the book?