Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)

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“We are in Transylvania; and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.”

 

Reading Dracula was like reading Little Women. Steeped in the film versions, I thought I knew what I would find in the books. Both were a surprise, even though I know films always change things and leave out a lot. When will I learn not to judge a book by a film?

Dracula is told entirely through the journals of four of the six principal players: Mina Murray, whose best friend Lucy Westenra has become mysteriously sick; Johnathan Harker, Mina’s fiancé then husband; the psychiatrist Dr. Seward, who runs a mental institute and Professor Van Helsing of Amsterdam, Seward’s former professor who is an “obscure diseases” specialist. Lucy’s two suitors, Arthur Holmwood, later Lord Godalming and the American Quincey Morris, make up the final six.

There is literally no straight narrative in the structure of the book. Stoker uses detailed journal entries, newspaper clippings, letters, bills of lading to tell the story. I found this to be extremely effective, because by keeping things in the first person, the story has immediacy and suspense as one ‘scene’ cuts away to another and we see how each experience is seen and interpreted in multiple ways. While this device is sometimes distracting or hard to follow here, each character has a distinct and unique voice, which makes it easy to know which character is writing.

Because I am used to film and popular culture portrayals of Dracula I was shocked at how little Count Dracula personally features in the book. In addition to his human persona he shape-shifts into various creatures, but is mostly absent. The book is really about the quest to find and kill him. It is the lore around vampires, the ancient curse that shows up in the superstitious townspeople, the effect of vampire bites on Lucy and Mina and the knowledge Professor Van Helsing has that forms the story.

In film versions, the suave and charming Count is afforded lots of screen time with special effects liberally showcasing his pointed teeth, lips dripping with blood, the (Bela Lugosi’s) famous accent, the bat persona and the abundance of mist whenever he is about to appear. While in these versions he is sometimes portrayed as a sympathetic character in the book he is an evil creature without any redeeming qualities living only to satisfy his evil desires without regard to the human cost.

I was struck by the technological inventions Stoker makes use of that existed at the end of the 19th century.  They remind me of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and seem to fit right in with today’s Steampunk subculture.

  1. Blood transfusions are given to Lucy as Dracula’s fatal bite causes her body to waste away. Dr. Seward transfuses her with Arthur, Quincey, Van Helsing and himself (without knowledge of blood type?) with limited results.
  2. The typewriter: When it is discovered that Mina is an expert typist, she types up everyone’s journal, in copies, so as to give a cohesive structure as to what each is experiencing; she also types up the notes of their planning meetings.
  3. The dictaphone: Dr. Seward speaks his journal into this machine that records on a record player, which Mina types up.
  4. The London Underground and train schedules: Mina is obsessed with the train schedules of the Underground and suburban/cross country trains and has their timetables memorized.
  5. Hypnotism: In an effort to find the whereabouts of Dracula Professor Van Helsing hypnotizes Mina frequently at sunrise and sunset.

When Dracula flees London for his hometown in Romania, the six follow him knowing they must ritually kill him by stabbing him through the heart and cutting off his head. This is the only way to stop a vampiric future and to save Mina, who although has not ‘changed’ yet, is exhibiting some debilitating symptoms.

As they plan and prepare for their journey in Dr. Seward’s living room, Mina makes a disturbing, but necessary request, of which they all must swear. If she becomes so changed that she poses a threat to herself or to them, they must “drive a stake through me and cut off my head.” And in a scene reminiscent of something out of a Medieval romance where knights on a quest pledge their honor to their lady, the men faithfully drop to their knees one by one and swear, as (“Lady”) Mina asks, to kill her if they are unable to ritually rid the world of Dracula so her soul may rest.

Quincey was the first…He knelt down before her and taking her hand in his said solemnly, “ I am only a rough fellow…but I swear to you by all that I hold sacred and dear that, should the time ever come, I shall not flinch from the duty that you have set us.” And each in turn makes the same vow.

Mention should be made here of Mina. She disparages the ‘New Woman,’ of their independence, their call to buck social convention. Yet, she herself is the prime example of such a woman: smart, intelligent, technologically savvy whose work is key in organizing and pursuing the search for Dracula. It is Mina whose facility with a typewriter and organizational skills, her intelligence and coping mechanism in the face of the horror that is happening to her, her obsession with train schedules that basically saves the day. And apparently, she is also an expert on the the criminal mind through the work of Max Nordau, which Stoker, in a bizarre “show and tell” scene, has her recite his philosophy about criminals in reference to Dracula’s own criminality. The irony of this anti-New Woman aspect about Mina is probably not lost on most readers, so it is curious.

The last quarter of the book does feel to me like knights on a sacred quest to rid the world of evil like Arthur and his knights, or Harry, Ron and Hermione against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and of all the films and books where ordinary people band together against the darkness that would overcome humanity.

Sadly, unlike the notoriety of these epic stories, this particular one will forever stay with the six, because it is too fantastical. No one would ever believe them.

When we got home we got to talking of the old time—which we could all look back upon without despair… I took the papers from the safe where they have been ever since our return so long ago. We were struck with the fact, that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document; nothing but a mass of type-writing, except the later notebooks of Mina and Seward and myself, and Van Helsing’s memorandum. We could hardly ask anyone, even did we wish to, to accept these as proofs of so wild a story.

I didn’t find Dracula scary. I found it hopeful and encouraging. And nothing like the films….

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My Edition
Title: Dracula
Author: Bram Stoker
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1897
Pages: 400
Full plot summary

Challenges: Mount TBR, Classics Club, Back to the Classics, #RIPXII

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Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible, Mrs. George Sheldon Downs (1908)

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Prison bars are not the only barriers to man’s freedom, there is a bondage that is far more intolerable—the bondage of one’s own evil passions and self-will.

 

The Dime Novel

Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible is considered an American ‘dime novel’ for working and middle class women. Dime novels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were usually serialized weekly in inexpensive pamphlets or printed in magazines.

In fact, I came to find out the author, Mrs. George Sheldon Downs (Sarah Elizabeth Forbush), was an extremely popular writer of serial romances for Theodore Dreiser and his Smith’s Magazine. She serialized 47 romances between 1880-1889 and Dreiser considered her one of the most popular writers in the world.

The Fall of Gertrude Elliot. And Everyone Else
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“Gertrude! How can I ever atone for what I have done?”

Gertrude Elliot has just been informed by Daniel Dexter, an old friend of her late father who is handling her estate, that all her money is gone. He used it to pay off his son’s debts and lost the rest in bad investments trying to recoup the money he stole. Her mother’s terminal illness strained the finances to the extent that Gertrude is now destitute and must sell her house to make a good show of faith to the creditors.

Gertrude was told by her father that she would inherit a large sum of money and the family home and is mortified over what Mr. Dexter has revealed. He is humiliated at what he has done to her and tells her he is prepared to be arrested for fraud and robbery. But the shock of humiliating him further by sending to jail her father’s longtime friend is too much and she refuses to call the police. Dexter is humbled at this show of generosity and is resolved to pay her back. When his son, Robert, arrives the next day and hears what happened, he is so remorseful and realizes how much he is to  blame for Miss Elliot’s destitution he, too, makes a vow to repay his father for the money used for his debts. A few days later, Robert informs his father that a friend has asked him to assist him in his fruit business and he is leaving for California right away.

With nowhere to go, Gertrude visits an old friend on Long Island, who has been asking her for a visit. Phronie is her family’s former housekeeper. While Gertrude doesn’t tell Phronie the details, she reveals her dire financial situation and asks her for help. She reminds Phronie how she used to follow her around helping in the kitchen and with simple jobs throughout the house. “Surely, I could go out to work for a family as a head house keeper?”

Most of the action, then, takes place at the home of her new employer, Mrs. Young and her two teenage daughters. Mrs. Young has reservations with Gertrude’s age and lack of experience, because she isn’t much older than her daughters. But Mrs. Young has recently let go of an incompetent head housekeeper who left a dirty house, a chaotic schedule and a slovenly staff in her wake. She is desperate to fill the position and is swayed by Gertrude’s competence, kindness and willingness to work hard as is the skeptical cook and maids. Only the head butler has reservations and his bad attitude continues until he is let go.

Gertrude never lets her bad luck affect her moral compass. She stays positive and accepts that this is her fate. She doesn’t let petty squabbles or negative thoughts steer her down an evil path like so many of the people she is surrounded by. In fact, it is just the opposite; her compassion and genuine love for all she meets makes people see their calculating and self-centered acts, embarrassed to even to think bad thoughts!

It is as if she is put in these situations to make people better. Robert Dexter, will change his wild ways, learn the fruit trade and come back to New York on a promotion to supervise the fruit business from that end. And when he is surprised by a large inheritance from an aunt, he gives it all to Gertrude. When the butler, who has hated Gertrude from the beginning and wants her out, schemes against her to make it look like she is stealing Mrs. Young’s jewels and furs, he gets caught. Gertrude asks that he not be punished as his unsuspecting mother is coming to live in a little house he bought for the two of them. She tells him, “I cannot bear to have her come and find you in prison,” at which point he breaks down in sobs.

And finally, the oldest of the Young children, Hugh Spencer (from a previous marriage), was a college classmate of Robert Dexter and has held a revengeful rage against him all these years, which grows when he finds out Dexter and Gertrude are old family friends and maybe more.  He has found the means to ruin both Robert Dexter and his father and has been waiting to witness their fall. But Gertrude, upon hearing such fury and anger in the plan presses upon him the importance of love and justice, which challenge his devious revenge.

…every time one yields to temptation to do wrong one is weakened, morally and spiritually; and, Mr. Spencer, until you learn to substitute love for hate, honor for dishonor, justice for injustice, you will never attain the standard of true manhood. When you do this you will find that you have no enemy upon whom you desire to be revenged…It is not my theory; it is no human axiom; but it is the command of One who said—‘Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself.’

 

Good Wins!

Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible is very much a morality tale. The high principles of love, justice and honor that Gertrude unwaveringly lives her life allows all she comes into contact with to be affected by these highest of ideals and in turn shine them on to others. Though people do bad things to each other, they lie, they steal, they hold incredibly long resentments bent on revenge that eat them up for decades, no one is unredeemable.

This was a complex novel full of intricate story lines and complicated relationships. I am inspired to read more of these novels and to research their affect on those who read them.

And in case you want to know, everyone who falls is raised up and everyone finds love in the end, including Gertrude.

I can honestly say, if I lived during this serialization I WOULD be waiting each week for the next installment!

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My Edition
Title: Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible
Author: Mrs. George Sheldon Downs
Publisher: G.W. Dillingham Co.
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1908
Pages: 308

Challenges: Classics Club

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures, The Library of Congress (2017)

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Opening a drawer and flipping through the well-worn cards, many handwritten and filled with marginalia containing valuable information not to be found in an Internet search, leaves one with a sense of awe at how catalogers distilled so much information onto simple 3-by-5 index cards that still sit neatly filed, waiting to reveal the treasures hidden in the hundreds of miles of Library stacks on Capitol Hill.

 

 

 

The library card catalog. I spent my college career rifling through those long drawers, sticking pencils between cards to save my place when class notes or a professor’s recommendation drew me to another drawer. I remember having to wait when another student was in a drawer I wanted, impatient while they jotted down the title of the material and its location. I took my book-hoard to ‘my’ study carrel on the second floor next to the vine covered east windows where the sun dappled the desk. I did a history degree with the card catalog, volumes of the ‘subject index’ and an electric typewriter!

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures traces the history of the card catalog and the various methods of organizing library materials, while celebrating the creation and the vast holdings in The Library of Congress.

History

It is fascinating to think that even though we are highly digitized at this point, we still use the same, but expanded foundation Zenodotus, the first librarian at the library of Alexandria developed when the proliferation of scrolls needed some kind of organization. After inventorying the scrolls and arranging them alphabetically he attached a tag at the end of each scroll to indicate the author, title and subject.

Once people started writing on velum and bound the pieces together at one end and put a cover on them creating a codex or book, it made better use of space. One could write on both sides of the material, number the pages and put information on the spine making for quicker reference.

 

A Library for a Nation

The Card Catalog details the evolution of the Library of Congress, the trials and tribulations of deciding what books to purchase (James Madison had an idea), how to collect and purchase them (British firm of Cadell and Davies), how the War of 1812 damaged most of the nascent collection and what the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s private library did to expand the future of the collection.

While still an undergraduate at Amherst, Dewey was obsessed with bringing order to the school’s library, and he recounted that while day dreaming during a long lecture one day, “without hearing a word, my mind absorbed in the vital problem, the solution flasht over me so that I jumpt in my seat and came very near shouting ‘Eureka!'”

Into the early years of the 19th century, there still remained the problem of standardization, but that changed when Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey developed his classification system which was adopted at the first meeting of the American Library Association in 1876. To make it easier for public and university libraries, the ALA Supplies Department became the shopping source for all materials related to the card catalog. So, with Dewey’s system in place and a one-stop shop for cabinets, cards, stamps and so on libraries and a patron’s experience were standardized.

By the 1950s, the main card catalog at the Library of Congress had more than 9 million cards. As computers came on the scene and began to digitize this data December 31, 1980 was declared the end of the printed card.

The text of this book is written by Peter Devereaux of the the Library of Congress Publishing Office. The narrative is fast paced, colorful and full of photographs that help the reader visualize the history of the card catalog from the discovery of the of the first card catalog made from clay tablets (a listing of 62 literary works, including The Epic of Gilgamesh) up to the present with online catalogs available in every public, private and university library.

Highlighting materials from its collection, each item has its cover photographed on one side with its catalog card on the opposite page. Many of the cards are handwritten with information not found on the Internet when the cards were digitized. It was fun, instructive and a bit nostalgic to read through this book.

For me the card catalogue has been a companion all my working life. To leave it is like leaving the house one was brought up in. Barbara Tuchman, 1985, The New Yorker.

 

Some examples below.

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English Bible. Selections, 1788. The card reads in part, “Select passages in the Old and New Testaments, represented with emblematical figures, for the amusement of youth; designed chiefly to familiarize tender age, in a pleasing and diverting manner….” In other words, keeping kids interested in the Bible is an age-old problem!

 

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This is the title page of the 2nd edition that includes the words, A Romance. My edition, a Signet Classic published in 1980, doesn’t have that either on the cover or anywhere in the front matter. I wonder when that changed?

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The card reads, The library of the late Harry Houdini on magic, spiritualism, occultism and psychical research, bequeathed to the Library of Congress in 1926, may be consulted upon application to the Custodian of the Rare Book Room.
Houdini said his library of psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology and evil spirits contained material going back to 1489. With this bequest, the Library added 3,988 volumes to its collection.

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Some editions are simply gorgeous, like this title-page font for Robert Frost’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection, New Hampshire. The card reads, “Of this edition, three hundred and fifty copies only have been printed. This copy is number 187.” Signed by author.

 

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Another gorgeous cover, but there is no “The Legend of….” on the cover, although the card catalog gives it. Did editions in Irving’s time add that or is it modern? This must be a beautiful edition, because the catalog card also mentions the “ornamental borders” on the title page and within the text.

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The cards can indicate a name change.

 

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The cards can also indicate how subject designations change.
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I enjoyed reading this book. And I think the original cover art is the best I have seen on any other edition.

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My Edition
Title: The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures
Author: Library of Congress
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Device: Hard cover
Year: 2017
Pages: 224
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

A Walk with Jane Austen, Lori Smith (2007)

Austen

I hope that somehow this proximity to Jane’s life will help me understand my own.

 

This was the perfect book to cap my first Austen in August experience.  A work of nonfiction, A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith helped with much of the back story to Jane Austen’s life and times that I mentioned in my Mansfield Park post and filled in some of the etiquette and culture gaps that perplexed me.

The Premise

Lori Smith is at a painful and difficult time in her life. Thirty-three years old she is unfulfilled in her job, frustrated that she is still single and though she does not doubt her Christian faith, she is struggling to make sense with all that is not working in her life. But the most difficult impediment is the profound fatigue and debilitating symptoms of an illness doctors cannot diagnose.

She learns to cope with the on again off again pattern of the illness and makes the decision to quit her job to become a full time writer. Long an admirer of Jane Austen, when a medication for an imbalanced thyroid gives her a reprieve from her symptoms, she books a trip to England with the goal of healing and reinventing herself through the life and works of Austen.

Everything in my life was dark, stifling. I needed light and air….In some ways, those of us who love Austen look to her to escape into another world. When our own is complicated and stressful, hers is tea and careful conversations and lovely dresses and healthy country air.

A Travel Guide

Starting with a course at Oxford and by reading through all of Austen’s novels, Smith is armed with maps and tips for visiting cities and landmarks that figure in Austen’s life as well as in her novels: Steventon, Chawton, Lyme Regis, Winchester, Bath, Box Hill and more. She quotes passages and ponders their connections to her own life.

Though I still have two more books of Austen to read (Pride and Prejudice and Emma) it was easy to follow the parallels of Austen’s life with her novels that Smith points out (for example, at Steventon, she sees the barn where Austen “threw rousing family theatricals with her brothers,” and I just read Mansfield Park!)

Some of the Austen family material Smith shares was helpful to me, too, in knowing two of her brothers were in the Navy (William in Mansfield Park, Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility and Captain Wentworth and others in Persuasion), that one of her brothers was adopted into another family (Fanny in Mansfield Park), that James second wife was mean and jealous (Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park) and Chawton Great House as the model for the Tilney home in Northanger Abbey.

This is a book for those new to Jane Austen and for the confirmed Janeite. For anyone planning a trip to England and their own walk with Jane Austen, consider this a comprehensive model.

Romance?

Finally, does Smith find romance? Of course, she does! Youth, England, summer, a course at Oxford. On her first day at the University she meets an American man studying for the summer who is kind, Christian and seems friendly. She falls head over heels, obsesses appropriately, has her future with him all planned out, but sadly, the feelings are not reciprocated. Although there are few resolutions for the issues Smith begins her trip

My days are still small. But the light is beginning to return. Just a couple of weeks ago I started being able to laugh at the world again, and that felt very good–soul healing laughter. I want more of it, to enjoy life, to love the people around me…I hope I will be healthy again.

And in health and all aspects of her life, I wish her well.

 

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Lori Smith has written several books including, Jane Austen’s Guide to Life: Thoughtful Lessons for the Modern Woman.

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My Edition
Title: A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith
Author: Lori Smith
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2007
Pages: 235
Full plot summary

Challenges: Mount TBR, #AusteninAugustrbr

 

 

 

 

 

Penguins and Golden Calves, Madeleine L’Engle (1996) #BloggingTheSpirit

An icon should give us glimpses of our God who is both immanent and transcendent, knowable and unknowable. If an icon becomes more important to us than what it reveals of God, then it becomes a golden calf….

 

pengguinsPenguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places describes L’Engle’s trip to Antarctica when she was 74 years old and the encounters she had with the small, crested Rock Hopper Penguins. She uses the image of the golden calf and her experience with the penguins to illustrate the difference between idols and icons. Like the Israelites, who turned the golden calf into idol worship instead of the worship of God, the penguins became to her an icon that opened her up to experience of God; an icon is the window to that connection.

Madeleine L’Engle, who died in 2007, was a well-known believer in Christ, who often ran afoul of ‘establishment’ Christianity by continuing to question and to seek that which made her uncomfortable in her faith. But her nonfiction has always struck a chord in me, as I am attracted to believers of all kinds who struggle to make sense of their tradition and especially, like L’Engle, see a bigger picture. Books like this mirror my own questions and struggles with spirituality, religion and belief.

It is not flippant for me to say that a penguin is an icon for me, because the penguin invited me to look through its odd little self and on to a God who demands of us that we be vulnerable…Whatever is an open door to God is, for me, an icon.

Because L’Engle uses penguins (penguins?!) as an icon to God, I was intrigued from the beginning and it articulated for me why I find it so easy to connect to God in nature and not in a building. I am never so connected to the experience, love and beauty of the Creator than when I am walking the bluffs overlooking the ocean, hiking the trails of the nearby mountains or when watching a lizard slither across a huge rock in the desert.

There are parts of liturgical services that in the words and rituals, I do see beauty and sincerity. I love getting caught up in words, in turns of phrase, of ideas written just so. And in a moment of public prayer or thanksgiving, I am often caught up in a sea of emotions. But once I leave the building, they are gone. And once I glimpse a hummingbird flitting over a flower or a flock of birds in v-formation it is only then that I can sincerely praise God.

I think we have totally complicated God and what it means to worship. The first thing God did, according to the Bible, was to create the world. Pagans stopped there, while the rest went on to create golden calves, complicated and alienating ways of worship, erecting walls of concrete to hold services, and sadly, making theologies with a total disregard for the Creator’s creation. How ironic!

So, even if we understand that praying through icons is not idolatry, why do we mortals need icons? Icons are not adequate, nor are sunset and moonrise and star-filled skies, though they are icons of God’s creation. Perhaps we need icons because of the very inadequacy of our ability to understand God….

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My Edition
Title: Penguins and Golden Calves
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2003
Pages: 271
Plot summary

#BloggingTheSpirit

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen (1814)

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The nonsense and folly of people’s stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves makes me think it right to give you a hint, Fanny, now that you are going into company without any of us; and I do beseech you and entreat you not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion as if you were one of your cousins…Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last….

 

Fanny Price is taken from her working class family to live with her more affluent aunt and uncle. Lady Bertram is her mother’s sister and it is suggested by her mother’s other sister, Mrs. Norris that taking Fanny in would relieve their sister of the burden and expense of raising another child. Fanny is 9 years old and a quiet and frightened child when she comes to Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram and their four children at Mansfield Park. For the next decade, while she is given everything material she could need, she lives a liminal life, sometimes included in the activities of her cousins and sometimes treated like a servant; decisions are made for her without her consent and criticisms of her thoughts and behavior are discussed by her aunts and uncle as if she isn’t there. Edmund, the younger of the two brothers, is her constant champion amidst the crassness and criticism of her Aunt Norris, who regularly reminds her of her humble place, regardless of how the Bertrams treat her or what they give to her.

Most of the action takes place through Fanny’s eyes and especially through her moral compass. Her cousins, the neighbors in the parsonage next door, are seen through her world view, which is exacting, unsentimental and harsh.

A Rigid Social Structure or is it just Fanny?

I don’t quite know what to make of Fanny Price. She has an unrelenting moral code that is so rigid and unforgiving it impedes her social interactions. With her delicate constitution she is forced to sit on the sidelines of many of life’s events, so she becomes the observer, the critic and the conscience-filter through which the motivation of each of her family and friends is measured. They ‘commit,’ what seem to me, infractions of the slightest intent or the folly of teenagers, yet to Fanny they are so grievous she cannot forgive.

I think there are subtleties of right and wrong, of etiquette and behavior during this period I am just not familiar. For instance, Fanny’s discomfort with Mary Crawford, which feels like plain old jealousy (over Edmund), yet I think even if she had not been Fanny’s rival, she would have found fault. Each person Fanny comes into contact with—Maria and Julia, her aunts, the Grants—can never live up to her impossibly high standards.

Who is Fanny, Anyway?

Edmund, from her first days at Mansfield Park, shows an almost 6th sense to Fanny’s material and emotional needs and comfort. He makes sure she is given a horse to ride every morning for her health, gives her a chain for the necklace her brother William gave her so she can wear it to the ball. Sir Thomas as well shows immense kindness to Fanny, especially once he returns from his business abroad. She accepts all of this with the appropriate gratitude, embarrassment and deference. But after the downfall of Maria and Julia, the break-up of Edmund and Mary Crawford, and Henry Crawford’s demise and finally, her triumph in winning Edmund, her quietude and deferential demeanor become something else. I see her as a conniver, who bides her time until she gets what she wants. Am I just mean, jaded or am I missing the point entirely?

I think there is a subtlety in this world that is foreign to me. For example, as loathsome as Mrs. Norris is to Fanny and everyone else at Mansfield Park, she is the least subtle and feels the most familiar. Her meanness comes from her own liminal life as a widow without a purpose or a place. She is a busy-body and treats Fanny abominably and tries to force the rest of the family to do her bidding often with disastrous results. She unnerves the Bertrams who want her gone from Mansfield Park; at Maria’s downfall, they get their wish. Yet, she is obvious in her brutishness; no one would expect anything different.

Austen 101

I would love to understand the details of this society; those minute cues and subtle looks that set Fanny off. If there is such a book that would explain it all to me, please let me know!

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My Edition
Title: Mansfield Park
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Books
Device: Paperback
Year: 1814
Pages: 427
Full plot summary

Challenges: #AustenInAugustRBR, Classics Club, Mount TRB

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen (1817) #AustenInAugustRBR

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….there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them….

 

Catherine Morland is seventeen when she accompanies her wealthy neighbor Mrs. Allen to Bath where her husband has been ordered to take in the healing waters for his gout. Catherine has lived a happy, physically active, carefree, but insulated life with her large family; her imagination developed through the mostly Gothic books she reads. She has never had a suitor, “never seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility,” never “having inspired one real passion….” On her first excursion away from her family and the familiarity of village life, Bath exposes her to the complex society of her peers and widens her perspective on friendship and romance, with comical, frustrating and finally, joyful, results.

I really enjoyed reading this book, although it often had me on the edge of my seat. Austen puts poor Catherine through the ringer with her gullibility and worldly inexperience. She is completely unprepared morally to doubt the sincerity of Isabella Thorpe, the first ‘friend’ she meets at Bath and was not only goaded and duped several times by Isabella and her brother John, even her brother James took advantage of her naiveté. Catherine makes all kinds of gaffes in her friendship with Henry and Eleanor Tilney and could not stand up for herself in other situations and yet, I felt myself pulling for her after each blunder and felt relieved when she found the strength of character to make her own decisions. It is a good thing this is a short novel because it was all I could do to keep from going to the back pages and skimming the end!

One of the more interesting aspects of this book for me concerned Bath as a destination, not for healing, but for socializing during ‘the season.’ When I visited Bath and toured the Roman Baths, I do not remember this aspect of its history being told to us, just that it was an important example of Roman architecture and culture that capitalized on the therapeutic properties of the water. In Northanger Abbey, I do not recall the mention of anyone beside Mr. Allen in Catherine’s sphere who went for that reason. The young people met in the Pump Room, the Upper and Lower Rooms at the “fashionable hours” for tea, for meals, to socialize and to plan trips to the theater and outings throughout the countryside. That Austen herself lived for a time in Bath explains how she created the atmosphere and the details of the variety of people who would have spent time here.

Another aspect of the book I enjoyed is the intensity with which Catherine becomes obsessed with a well-known Gothic novel, called The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe to the extent she cannot put it down eschewing social engagements and asking her friends if they have read it. Of course, they had and Isabella recites a list of other ‘horrid novels’ Catherine will enjoy after she finishes Udolpho. “…but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”* Catherine is hooked.

Austen uses the haunted house aspect of The Mysteries of Udolpho as the lens throughnorthabbey which Catherine imagines Henry Tilney’s home. After she befriends Henry’s sister, Eleanor, and is invited to their home for an extended stay, Catherine’s obsession becomes fodder for a great bit of teasing by Henry when it is mentioned they live in an abbey. Catherine is excited to think “it is a fine old place, just like what one reads about.” Henry asks her if she has a stout heart and “nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?” She is not concerned since the home has never been uninhabited for years with the family coming back unawares and without giving notice “as generally happens.” Henry leads her on with a definitive description of a haunted house:

…you must be aware that when a young lady is introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the home, she is formally conducted by Dorothy the ancient housekeeper up a different staircase, and along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before. Can you stand such a ceremony as this? Will not your mind misgive you, when you find yourself in this gloomy chamber—too lofty and extensive for you, with only the feeble rays of a single lamp to take in its size—its walls hung with tapestry exhibiting figures as large as life, and the bed of dark green stuff or purple velvet, presenting even a funereal appearance?

How fearfully will you examine the furniture of your apartment!—And what will you discern?—Not tables, toilettes, wardrobes, or drawers, but on one side perhaps the remains of a broken lute, on the other a ponderous chest which no efforts can open, and over the fire-place the portrait of some handsome warrior, whose features will so incomprehensibly strike you, that you will not be able to withdraw your eyes from it. Dorothy meanwhile, no less struck by your appearance, gazes on you in great agitation, and drops a few unintelligible hints. To raise your spirits, moreover, she gives you reason to suppose that the part of the abbey you inhabit is undoubtedly haunted, and informs you that you will not have a single domestic within call.

(This passage goes on, reminding me of the Haunting of Hill House and just about any horror book or movie with a haunted house I have ever seen. It can’t be a coincidence)?

Henry continues highlighting every stereotypical element of a haunted house, forcing Catherine to insist she is not afraid. And so with this conversation fresh in her mind and her obsession firmly implanted into her imagination, she is lead to her room. Where, of course, she experiences almost everything Henry just described.

However, the days pass and most of what originally scared her finds a reasonable explanation in the light of day. Though many angst-filled events conspire to keep Henry and Catherine apart, it was a relief to finally end the book knowing they would be together.

_________________

*As I was doing a little research about this novel, I came across some discussions of that list of ‘horrid novels’ Isabella mentioned above. It was thought Austen made up the titles until they were rediscovered in the early 20th century. Valancourt Books is publishing them all in affordable new editions.

My Edition
Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Penguin Books
Device: Paperback
Year: 1817, 1972
Pages: 252
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, #AusteninAugustRBR, TBR

Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman (2017)

Norsemyth

 

The last root of the world-tree goes to a spring in the home of the gods, to Asgard, where the Aesir make their home. Each day the gods hold their council here, and it is here they will gather in the last days of the world, before they set out for the final battle of Ragnarok.

 

I loved reading this book. It took me almost a week to finish it, because it begged to be read out loud. At least that was my response. Gaiman’s well-drawn stories of the Norse pantheon are made to be recited around a campfire, in a long house, or a cozy modern living room.

Two caveats: I have never read anything by Neil Gaiman, so I can’t compare this to anything he is known for. And secondly, I have only an elementary knowledge of the tales of the Norse Gods, Ragnarok and the Norse mythological end times. As Gaiman states in the introduction, he has had a life-long interest in the Norse Gods, but this is a retelling. I don’t know how ‘purists’ have reacted to this book. But I just know his prose is vivid, deep, poetic, humorous and that I was sometimes brought to tears by it.

Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya

All the traditional stories are here, how Thor gets his hammer, Balder’s beauty, how humans were created from the spit of the norsemyth2Aesir and Vanir, Loki’s shenanigans and his final betrayal of the Gods, Freya’s constant misuse as a bargaining chip between the Gods and their enemies and the creation story of the Gods and the land, and the ash tree Yggdrasil that connects the worlds.

 

The various sections tell the stories of the conflicts between the Gods and the giants, ogres and dwarfs. At the heart of almost every dispute is Loki, who by his selfishness or disregard puts the Gods in peril. And while he begrudgingly resolves the issue someone often dies, has a body part cut off or puts Freya in the awful position of marrying someone, well, awful, so Thor can take back his hammer.

‘Freya’s Unusual Wedding’

Freya’s hands were squeezed into tight fists. The necklace of the Brisings tumbled from her neck to the floor. She did not appear to notice. She was staring at Thor and Loki as if they were the lowest, most unpleasant vermin she had ever seen.

“What kind of person do you think I am? Do you think I’m that foolish? That disposable? That I’m someone who would actually marry an ogre just to get you out of trouble? If you two think that I am going to the land of the giants, that I’ll put on a bridal crown and veil and submit to the touch and the …lust of that ogre…that I’d marry him…Get out. What kind of a woman do you think I am?

But. My hammer,” said Thor.

“Shut up, Thor,” said Loki.

“She’s very beautiful when she’s angry,” said Thor. “You can see why that ogre wants to marry her.”

“Shut up, Thor,” said Loki again.

The Gods as presented here are a sometimes bumbling, bargaining, conniving lot, full of the bravado you’d expect mythical defenders of their people to be. Though they outwit their enemies with fraternity-like pranks, mistaken identity and witty word games, in the end they step up to take the mantles of their destiny and defend their world to the end. And while there are definitely scenes of violence and questionable ethics, there are universal morals here that would benefit adults and older children alike.

Ragnarok, The Last Battle

The final section is the death-battle Ragnarok, the end of the Gods. It is vivid and personal as each God is paired with his evil counterpart as they fight and die together; Tyr and the “nightmare dog” Garm, Odin and Fenrir the Wolf, Thor and the Serpent and so on.

The end times begin with a winter that never ends, not broken by spring, summer or autumn.

This will be the age of cruel winds, the age of people who become as wolves, who prey upon each other, who are not better than wild beasts. Twilight will come to the world, and the places where the humans live will fall into ruins, flaming briefly, then crashing down and crumbling into ash and devastation….the sun in the sky will vanish, as if eaten by a wolf, and the moon will be taken from us, too, and no one will be able to see the stars any longer. Darkness will fill the air, like ashes, like mist.

There will be earthquakes and flooding as the seas rise and surge onto the land. There will be no more life in the oceans…The rotted corpses of fish and of whales, of seals and sea monsters, will wash in the waves. At this time Loki will rise from beneath the earth and lead his legions of Hel, who died shameful deaths, who will return to the earth to fight once more…determined to destroy anything that still loves and lives above the earth.

The modern parallel is striking as it must be with every age, period, epoch that shares in a similarity of end times, of doom, of uncertainty, which is why these old stories never really get old and why telling them out loud, reciting them or acting them out connects us with each other as well as with the past.

norsemyth4

 

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My Edition
Title: Norse Mythology
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2017
Pages: 299
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love, What’s in a Name

 

Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles (1981)

Peacebreaksout

 

But no men got killed by the enemy, not one, on United States soil…They never got here. Do you realize what that saved the American psyche from? Think how we would have felt if we’d seen Germans parading down Fifth Avenue in New York, locking up President Roosevelt, pasting up orders on buildings telling what time we had to be home, what we couldn’t read, how much we’d be allowed to eat, if anything…What if you’d seen your house blow up, with your mother inside, and your baby sister, and your little dog.

 

This is a sequel to the young adult classic, A Separate Peace published in 1959, although it is a stand-alone book and does not require any knowledge of the first book.

The story takes place at Devon School, a prep school for boys in New Hampshire, just after WWII. The war factors into both books with profound effects on the character and aspirations of the boys. In A Separate Peace military service was inevitable due to the draft and affected how the boys interacted with each other and themselves, as well as their plans for the future. In Peace Breaks Out, the graduating class is the first in many years where the young men can look forward to a ’normal’ future. But they feel cheated that they aren’t going to be able to ‘do their part’ in fighting the bad guys ‘over there,’ so instead, they fight them at school.

The school becomes a microcosm of the fear the larger world feels in the aftermath of the war over Russian domination and Nazi sympathy. A cabal develops among the boys led by the editor of the school newspaper, Wexford, who plot against German apologist Hochschwender with disastrous results.

Pete Hallam, war hero and recent alum, who has come back to Devon school to teach history and physical education sees what is happening and tries to intervene. But suspicions on both sides are impossible to break through. When a stained glass window honoring the students who fought and died in the war is broken, the damage Wexford has done to Hochschwender’s character has dire consequences.

Knowles has a gift for enfolding the reader into the life of the school through seasonal changes which dictate the rhythm and activities of the boys. I found this to be true in the first book as well. Winter especially, when it is brutally cold gives the boys little time for physical activities, but a lot of time for scheming and plotting. And like the boys in this boarding school who are only able to leave with permission, we also are forced to stay and grapple with their fear, anger and suspicion of each other.

While there are some weak plot lines, Knowles has a gift for creating memorable characters and as in the first book, that aspect is strong in the second.

**********

My Edition:
Title: Peace Breaks Out
Author: John Knowles
Publisher: Bantam
Device: Mass market paperback
Year: 1981
Pages: 178

Challenges: TBR

The Moonstone Castle Mystery, Carolyn Keene (1963)

drew3

 

Bess and George were always interested in observing Nancy’s sleuthing procedures. They often wondered whether it was her charm, her straightforward manner, or her businesslike approach that unfailingly gained her entrance to offices and officials. Now, with little explanation on her part, the girls were ushered into the president’s office.

 

I am house sitting for my sister while she and my brother in law are in Massachusetts welcoming a new grandchild, who is now overdue, refusing to vacate the premises voluntarily. So, I am in San Diego a lot longer than I thought I would be!

While going through my sister’s bookshelves I found she has many of our old Nancy Drew books and since one of the book challenges I signed up for this year calls for a building in the title, I decided to give The Moonstone Castle Mystery a try. Like many girls of a certain age (ahem), Nancy Drew “girl detective” was a popular series along with Cherry Ames “nurse detective” and the Little House books.

As I began to read, I wondered how dated this would feel and if it had any relevance to me, now, or for today’s young readers.

Nancy lives with her lawyer father and housekeeper, Hannah Gruen (her mother died when she was a baby) and often helps her father with his cases. This is book number 40, so Nancy is a young woman at this point, with many cases under her belt. She is a skilled, confident and bold investigator and easily puts together answers from the clues she and her trusty girlfriends, Bess and George, find.

In this particular case, her father has asked her to go to the town of Deep River to find the whereabouts of a missing child as he suspects the heiress of a fortune is actually a fraud and the missing child in Deep River the real heir. With Bess and George, Nancy drives her beloved convertible to Deep River.

As in many mystery stories that start out with a simple question, Nancy and friends are soon caught up in something much bigger than a missing child. Someone is on to her and does not want her to discover the truth.

drew2In the course of the trip she is followed by an unknown man, her car is stolen, while boating a crazed man rams her boat, she is briefly kidnapped, spied upon, chased and then is the chaser, figures out how to keep the drawbridge at the castle from rising, she interviews creepy people and decodes their answers and discusses the next move with Bess and George.drew1

In short, nothing daunts Nancy Drew. She is not shy or hesitant. She does not question herself and willingly goes into the unknown. With Bess and George, who have accompanied her on many cases, these young women have honed their investigative skills and are game for any challenge. When more than one lead has to be tracked down at once, the young women divide up the duties, meeting later to discuss what they found.

So it was a real shock when Nancy invited their boyfriends, who happened to be counselors at a camp nearby, up for the weekend to help with this case. From the moment Ned, Dave and Burt arrive, Nancy defers to Ned with questions she had already gone over with Bess and George, letting Ned take the lead when she is perfectly capable of figuring out things herself.

Thankfully, the young men are only there for the weekend, because they all get into more scrapes and dangerous situations while the men take charge! In fact, Ned is the reason Nancy is kidnapped while they are checking out the castle. His, “wait here while I go down to the cellar, because it is too dangerous,” left Nancy alone where she is drugged and pulled into a closet. Nancy would never have balked about going down to the cellar herself.

When I asked myself if the original Nancy Drew is still relevant, despite the obvious awkwardness above, I found the actual mystery held my attention. Though some of the language and concepts are dated and obsolete (think doing detective work without computers or cell phones, getting a busy signal at the hospital because ‘the wires are crossed’ and referring to someone as queer, but not in reference to their sexuality), it is a good story with complex and layered clues leading to even more complicated situations.

These books have gone through many reprints and some modern updating since they were first published in the 1930s, but their portrayal of young women who are smart, confident, think for themselves, work together and trust each other is timeless and universal and certainly relevant in the 21st century.

Have you read any of the Nancy Drew mysteries as an adult?

 

************

My Edition:
Title: The Moonstone Castle Mystery
Author: Carolyn Keene
Publisher: Grosset and Dunlap
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1963
Pages: 178
Full plot summary

Challenges: What’s in a Name