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?

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!

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?

Book Discussion: Lady Worsley’s Whim by Hallie Rubenhold

This book was recommended to me by a fellow Janeite and it is wonderful if you love history, scandal, and thinking about how the choices we make matter.  Seymour Dorothy Worsley (nee Fleming) was married at 17 to Sir Richard Worsley in 1775. In the decades preceding the beginning of the eighteenth century, life among the gentry was, shall we say, permissive.  As long as no one was hurt and everybody played by the rules, which were that one did not embarrass one’s husband by indiscretion, or at least not publicly. Apparently, the Lords and Ladies mostly had what could be termed open marriages, at least according to Rubenhold, but I did verify this with other sources (see the Duchess of Devonshire and Grace Dalrymple Elliott). Although it appears that mostly it was the men who could sleep around and the women who had to be discreet.  It is perhaps this “role reversal” which makes Lady Worsley’s Whim so entertaining.

Seymour had several affairs, but eloped with George Maurice Bisset, a friend of Sir Richard’s in 1781.  The two lovers holed up in a London hotel and waited to see what Sir Richard would do. Unfortunately, he decided to sue Bisset in court for Criminal Conversation, seeking damages in the amount of £20,000. Sir Richard further decided to go for a “separation of bed and board,” which meant that though the married couple would be legally separated, neither would be eligible to remarry, effectively thwarting any hopes Seymour had of marrying Bisset.

The book goes into glorious detail about the Criminal Conversation trial, one of the most famous of its time, and further follows Sir Richard and Lady Worsley to their deaths. The Criminal Conversation suit was widely covered in the press and lampooned at the time. Though Sir Richard expected to win huge damages (legally, a wife was a husband’s property, and by besmirching her honor adulterous lovers owed the husband damages to his rightful property) Yep, that’s right women as chattel, even wealthy heiresses. When their fathers declined to settle the fortunes on them, A daughter’s marriage settlement belonged to the husband and could only be reclaimed by wives if they survived to widowhood. Still, the Worsley/Bisset case was unusual.  Sir Richard had secrets he should have been more concerned about, mainly that he essentially pimped his wife out. At the very least, he knew about her numerous affairs and at worst he approved and possibly watched. Speculation aside, what is known is that he invited Bisset to view Seymour as she dressed after visiting a bathhouse; the gentlemen having already finished dressing. The jury found in Sir Richard’s favor, but awarded him 1 shilling, or 1/20 of 1£.

Further humiliation soon followed, as Seymour aired their dirty laundry throughout the trial and afterward in the press. She managed to save Bisset from financial ruin, but since she would not be free to marry, the lovers split in 1783, while she was carrying his child. Seymour goes on to a fairly long career as a professional mistress, while Sir Richard retreats into collecting antiquities and art.

Rubenhold’s book reads easily and she explains the legalities in terms that the casual reader can understand. It is accessible to the mass market, while also being historically accurate and making use of various primary sources. If you are interested in 18th century British history, this is a great read. It can be a little harder to find in the United States, but there are copies for sale on Amazon.  A 2015 movie based on the book, entitled The Scandalous Lady W, was made by the BBC, starring Natalie Dormer as Lady Worsley and Shaun Evans as Sir Richard. The book was redistributed to American audiences with a 2015 copyright and under that title as well.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did English laws regarding marriage and divorce contribute to the Worsley Criminal Conversation Case?  What about the laws of coverture (the laws which made a woman’s property her husband’s upon their marriage)?
  2. Why do you think Lady Worsley decided to runaway with Bisset?  Why not stay in her marriage where she had at least tacit permission to continue her extra-marital activities?
  3. In view of the options available to Seymour after her separation from Sir Richard, what do you think of her choices?  What about signing the separation agreement that included a four year banishment from England? How did that affect her later?
  4. What if Sir Richard had divorced Seymour–how would that have changed the outcomes for both of them?
  5. What is your biggest take-away from this book? Does it inspire you to learn more about the Worsleys or about other famous people mentioned?

The Year of Reading Dangerously: The Monk by Matthew Lewis, part 1

The Monk was published in 1796; some critics suspect that it was written, or at least started as early as 1792, during Lewis’s visit to the continent.  Several letters to his mother mention that he is working on a novel, and in a 1794 letter to her, he specifically mentions having written a novel in the style of The Castle of Otranto.  He must have revised his work, though, because it also contains nods to Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, which was published in 1794. Maclachlan writes in the introduction that despite initial favorable reviews, several reviews, especially the February 1797 article by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, were somewhat less than complimentary (ix, x).  The Penguin Classic version I am reading is a reprint of the April 1796 version, which would have been the second edition, to which Lewis attached his name. Interestingly, there is a passage in Chapter V of Volume II in which the writer directly addresses the reader with an aside about book critics, “for though all are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them…one man finds fault with the plan, another with the style, a third with the precept which it strives to inculcate; and they who cannot succeed in finding fault with the book, employ themselves in stigmatizing its author.” (172-173)  It seems Lewis was a little tetchy about some of the reviews of his work.

The Monk is extremely melodramatic and there is much that will be laughable to a modern reader, indeed, one can easily see why Austen enjoyed lampooning the Gothic in Northanger Abbey. Although some critics have sought to credit Lewis with giving women agency, because of the copious and frequent consensual “relations” in The Monk, I would tend to put his depiction of women under the heading of wish fulfillment.  I mean how many women fall madly in love with a middle-aged priest with a God complex?  Or maybe I lead a sheltered life. Also, anyone who makes as many misogynistic asides, such as this gem from chapter 1, “As this is the only instance known of a woman’s ever having done so [hold her tongue], it was judged worthy to be recorded here,” (33) is not interested in portraying women as fully formed humans with the ability to choose their own paths.

Something else to notice about The Monk in relation to British Gothic literature and Northanger Abbey is the setting, which is Catholic Spain.  In Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764-1820, one of Angela Wright’s main arguments is that British writers (and translators) of Gothic fiction had to walk a line between nascent British nationalism, especially in light of the French Revolution, and the standard ingredients in Gothic fiction, such as moody castles with Catholic priests and nuns, as well as an ample helping of the supernatural, which was usually somehow tied to Catholic mysticism. Walpole sidestepped this problem by giving his tale a fake backstory of translation from the Italian, but Lewis goes all in and writes somewhat condescendingly of Catholic rituals, beliefs, and clergy, make it obvious that he and his readers are above all that nonsense without overtly saying so. Interestingly, one of the pivotal moments in Austen’s Northanger Abbey is when Henry realizes what Catherine has supposed and says in chapter 24, “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English…” Austen was as much aware of the settings of the Gothic as her fellow writers and she walked the line right along with them; she uses the expectations of the reader (and Catherine) to full effect by having Henry remind us of the difference between fantasy and reality, at least in the world of Northanger Abbey.

Lewis’s The Monk is written as a story within a frame story, a commonly used device at the time. In chapter 1 we meet Antonia and her Aunt Leonella (the comic relief) along with three cavaliers and Ambrosio, a priest famous for his piety. Chapter 2 goes into the story of Ambrosio and Rosario, who is really Matilda (that name keeps reappearing!) who has disguised herself as a young monk and is about to take her vows, when she unmasks herself to Ambrosio and declares her undying love for him.  During one of their meetings, Ambrosio is bitten by a viper and Matilda sucks the poison out in order to save him, thus dooming herself to die, but not before they do the dirty on the final page of the chapter. The most obvious thing to point out here is the symbolism of the viper in the garden, but in Lewis’s telling, it is the man who is attacked and the woman saves him by sacrificing herself. Interesting. Since Matilda is about to die, they consummate their love, but one wonders what Ambrosio will do when he realizes what he has done.  Stay tuned…

Chapter 3-5 switch to the story of Alphonso (really the Conde de las Cisternas) and Agnes, the sister of Lorenzo–these are 2 or our three cavaliers from chapter one, if you’re keeping up. There are a lot of twists and turns, banditti, disguises, apparently a favorite tool of Lewis’s, and chase scenes. Of course, Agnes and Cisternas are in love, but through a series of miscommunications, she ends up pregnant and in a nunnery, while Cisternas is searching everywhere for her.  He finds her, but not before Ambrosio discovers her secret and rats her out to the Mother Superior and she is tortured and dies. Meanwhile, Lorenzo is pursuing his own crush on Antonia from Chapter 1. We are now about halfway through. The main points to remember as related to Northanger Abbey are the frequent misunderstandings and coincidences that serve to move the plot along. The characters always circle back into the story, just as they do in Northanger Abbey.  We think we’ve seen the last of James Thorpe, but he turns out to be the cause of Catherine’s summary dismissal by General Tilney. We think that Ambrosio has fallen, but I suspect he will make a reappearance in the second half.

The Monk is a great example of what Austen found so humorous about Gothic novels.  It is over the top melodramatic. There are hidden identities, melancholy castles, abbeys, and churches, overwrought clergymen and horse chases galore.  We’ll see what happens to our cast of characters next time when I discuss the second half of The Monk.

Book Discussion: Dracula, My Love by Syrie James

As fan fiction goes, Syrie James’s is some of the best.  I first read her Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen a few years back, and she also wrote The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen.  I lost track of her after that, so I was delighted to find a paperback copy of Dracula, My Love at Half Price Books. Now, let’s be clear, this is a fun, fairly quick read in which James fills in some of the gaps left by Bram Stoker and writes the whole thing from Mina’s point of view.  It is not attempting to provide literary heft, although James’s writing is solid. Mina was always my favorite character besides Quincy Morris. I mean he was a Texan, and he did represent pretty well. 🙂 He also gets to die a hero, so there’s that.

In James’s version, and I don’t think there are any spoilers here given the title, Mina and Dracula carry on a clandestine romance the whole time Van Helsing and the boys are trying to find and kill Dracula. If that seems like it might be a bridge too far, just  go with it. If you are a fan of Stoker’s book (I am) and if you enjoy decent fan fiction ( I sometimes do) then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Mina comes off slightly unsympathetic, but maybe that’s just me. It is interesting to see how James’s Dracula explains all the vile deeds attributed to him by Van Helsing et al. Jonathan becomes a fuller character in James’s telling and the reader is rooting for him all the way to the twist at the end, which the astute reader will see coming a mile off.  That doesn’t make it less satisfying. If you are in the market for something fun with classic ties, give this one a try, I think you’ll like it.

Discussion Questions (in case your book club decides to read it):

  1. How does Dracula appeal to Mina at the beginning?  What do you think is missing at first in her relationship with Jonathan?
  2. Do you believe all of Mr. Wagner/Dracula’s explanations for events, why or why not?
  3. Do you think Mina’s backstory with her parents adds to the book, why or why not?
  4. If you had to get rid of one of the characters, which one would it be and why?
  5. Which decisions of Mina’s would you also have made, and which would you not have?  What about at the end, would you have chosen as Mina did? How do you think Dracula’s supernatural magnetism plays into the choices Mina makes?
  6. If you had eternal youth and life, what would you do?

The Year of Reading Dangerously: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

In Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, he writes that Revolutionary era literature contained a great deal of satire. He further argues that, “Satire as a literary device depends on a comprehending…audience…” (251). If we accept, as many Austen fans do, that Northanger Abbey is a satire of Gothic Romances, then in order to understand the full meaning of the satire, to get the jokes if you will, requires us to look at the stories and novels being satirized.  It is with this idea in mind that I have begun the Year of Reading Dangerously.

Jane Austen added a preface to Northanger Abbey, while preparing it for publication, in order to explain that because it had originally been finished in 1803, “The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.” (Emphasis mine.) Austen herself knew that to enjoy Northanger Abbey fully, it was important to understand the books and opinions (often about books) which were in vogue at the time it was originally written.

This year, I will be reading as many books referenced in Northanger Abbey as possible and writing about those reading adventures here.  I will also be reading and writing about other books, but my major project for this year is The Year of Reading Dangerously. I have started with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.  Though this slim novel is not mentioned in the text of Northanger Abbey as many others are, it is considered to be the first British Gothic novel, having been published in 1764, at least 25 years before Gothic fiction became a popular literary form (Gamer in the introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of The Castle of Otranto). Interestingly, Austen uses the name Isabella for one of her main characters, and that same name is given to one of the heroines in Otranto. Other parallels include the use of a sinister castle, a mistress whom the owner of the castle is trying to be rid of, and a whole host of coincidences which serve to push the narrative along.

In Britain, France and the Gothic 1764-1820: the Import of Terror, Angela Wright lists Gothic tropes as “melancholia, oppressive feudal castles and dreams which foreshadow disastrous outcomes for their protagonists” (39). All of these are found in The Castle of Otranto. The action takes place in and around the titular castle, which contains underground passages, and various rooms which may be used to take refuge in or to hold people against their will. Almost all  the main characters and many of the secondary characters have dreams or supernatural visions, including Manfred, Hippolita, Isabella, Matilda, Father Jerome, and Frederic. The mood of the entire piece is melancholy. Dim passage ways, fog, a supernatural giant knight seeking vengeance, and worst of all, Manfred’s weirdly manic behavior. Once minute, he is grieving his dead son and the next, he’s trying to force his son’s betrothed into a quickie marriage (after he finds a way to have his marriage to the long-suffering Hippolita annulled, of course).

As noted in the introduction, modern readers will most likely find Otranto overwrought and slightly silly, but this in fact adds to the reader’s enjoyment of Northanger Abbey, as undoubtedly, Austen is poking a little fun at Otranto along with other Gothic fiction. In fact, General Tilney bears more than a passing resemblance to Manfred; he is handsome and respected, yet seems a little manic.  Also, just as Manfred oversteps the boundaries of good taste with his plot to marry Isabella and put away Hippolita after Conrad’s death, General Tilney’s designs on Catherine and his head-spinning banishment of her upon discovering her true social and economic standing are similar. Both Manfred and General Tilney are mercurial in their behavior and are trying to insure the continuance of their legacies into the future via nefarious means.

Should you decide to read The Castle of Otranto, here are a few discussion questions to consider:

  1. How do the coincidences move the plot along?  What would happen to the story if they were gone?
  2. Consider the actions of the three female leads.  How were Hippolita, Matilda, and Isabella acting as expected by women of their station?  How were they acting in opposition to expectations?
  3. Reviews of Otranto even from the beginning were mixed. If you were to review it today, what would be your recommendation to readers?
  4. What are some other comparisons between Otranto and Northanger Abbey?
  5. What other characters can you think of from literature who are similar to Manfred? Is he a hero, and anti-hero, a villian?  Why do you think so?

Book Discussion: Educated: a memoir by Tara Westover

My book club met this week and we had read Educated.  Although I found the book interesting and Westover an engaging writer, certain aspects of the book were disappointing.  First, it bears more than a passing resemblance to The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. This is not a reason not to read it, of course, but I wonder a couple of things.  

**How many memoirs by abused/neglected children of poverty in dysfunctional families do we need? This is not to minimize anyone’s suffering, nor to object to a light being shown on aspects of the American experience that need more attention. At what point do we become callused to the horrific stories of the children who managed to escape?

** As has been noticed before, America loves an underdog. We love to read/hear/watch the stories of people who made it against the odds, because it means that anything is possible for anyone in America.  It means that if you have the gumption/grit/intelligence, you, too, can succeed. However, we like to ignore the fact that those who manage to succeed are really outliers. There are plenty of smart, determined people who don’t make it.  They don’t have the lucky break, the mentor, the roommate/sibling/friend who helped them defeat the odds. It is true that the story arc would be more challenging and the ending less neat, but what if someone wrote a memoir about being one of the unlucky ones?  Would it even get published and if it did, would anyone read it?

**Then I saw this article in the NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/opinion/vance-westover-trump.html and I was more than a little insulted.  I live in rural America and I grow weary of East Coast Entitled Intellectual Elites lumping all of us in “flyover country” together as if we were one large basket of dummies.  If we would just be more like Tara and J. D., we would get a clue and our lives would be great. No worries about money, jobs, dying small towns, etc. Newsflash: it isn’t that simple.  Shocker: some of us are actually educated; we aren’t all rubes and survivalists. And some of us are REALLY tired of being condescended to. Life is complicated, and we didn’t all get the brass ring…but I digress. All of rural culture isn’t toxic, and by the way that word is totally overused.

Here are some discussion questions to think about if you or your book club are reading Educated.

  1. How much do you think is left out of the story?  Do you think there was physical abuse of Tara’s mother?  Why or why not?
  2. Why did the family continue to allow Shawn’s obvious abuse and violence? What would have been the price of  speaking up?
  3. When Tara’s father brings home the shearer, one of her brothers refuses to run it before Tara is ordered to do so.  Why did he feel able to refuse their father and Tara did not?
  4. Why do you think Tara was so reluctant to get help once she got to BYU? Why did her professor push her to apply for the program in Cambridge?
  5. Imagine an alternate ending to this story.  What would your alternate ending be?

The Year of Reading Dangerously Begins…

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For 2019, the theme of the Jane Austen Society of North America will be Northanger Abbey.  Since Northanger Abbey is a book largely concerned with reading, and especially a certain type of reading, I have decided to try to read as many of the Gothic and other novels mentioned or referenced in Northanger Abbey as possible, hence The Year of Reading Dangerously: in which I read the Gothic novels referenced in Northanger Abbey and live to tell the tale.

I began my quest by re-reading Northanger Abbey and I enjoyed it immensely. This time through, I found Catherine much more engaging and less silly.  Likewise, Henry grows in my estimation as an Austen hero. I quite like him and his sense of humor. I find his wit droll and I appreciate the fact that he is comfortable enough with his masculinity to discuss textiles authoritatively. Henry’s best asset is his sense of humor.  One of his gems is, “Promised so faithfully!–A faithful promise!–That puzzles me.–I have heard of a faithful performance. But a faithful promise–the fidelity of promising!” (p. 144 in the Oxford World’s Classic edition) I am not ashamed to admit to chuckling whilst reading. I am sure my husband thought I was going mad, but then again probably not.  I re-read Austen regularly and there are other books which have been known to bring up a laugh as well.

To help me on my journey, I have enlisted Angela Wright and her volume, entitled, Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764-1820: the import of terror. I must say that I find it slightly ironic that she has opted out of the Oxford comma in her title,which is published by Cambridge University Press.  Perhaps CUP doesn’t allow the Oxford comma? In any case, I am about halfway through and I am finding the essays insightful and helpful, especially as the first one is about Horace Walpole and The Castle of Otranto.  I am midway through The Castle of Otranto; I chose to read it first after Northanger Abbey, because Walpole’s slim novel is often credited with bringing the Gothic to Britain.  

Feel free to throw caution to the wind, and join me as I read some hair-raising Gothic Stories!

Welcome to Readerly!

photography of blue ceramic coffee cup
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. — Henry James

If you enjoy the company of a great book with a cuppa, you have come to the right place.  Having spent some time on a book selection committee, I have learned that life is too short for terrible books!  Toward that end, I will be exploring well-loved classics and new classics here at Readerly.  I will strive to give you recommendations you can count on–as a librarian, I take reader’s advisory seriously.  I have been reviewing books for over twenty years; my areas of interest include Classics, like Jane Austen and our friend Henry James above, Thrillers, Mysteries, Literary Fiction, Literary Nonfiction, History, True Crime, Baking, and more.

On our journey together, there will be tea…I am an unapologetic Anglophile, so tea is important, as well as “tea things.”  As every teatotaler knows, there is a correct way to prepare tea, and we will adhere to that. I do, however, admit to using lemon rather than milk, mostly because I like lemon.

I hope you will join me in forming a book club for tea drinkers.  Pinkies up!