Wednesday, November 27, 2019

'Northanger Abbey' by Jane Austen

Jane Austen's first novel—published posthumously in 1818—tells the story of Catherine Morland and her dangerously sweet nature, innocence, and sometime self-delusion. Though Austen's fallible heroine is repeatedly drawn into scrapes while vacationing at Bath and during her subsequent visit to Northanger Abbey, Catherine eventually triumphs, blossoming into a discerning woman who learns truths about love, life, and the heady power of literature. The satirical novel pokes fun at the gothic novel while earnestly emphasizing caution to the female sex.

This is my first re-read in years, and I don't think I ever appreciated the treasure this book is. It slips under the radar so often, I can't remember ever hearing anyone call it their favourite Austen, but I might have to change that.

On the surface, a basic plot outline could sound a bit boring. A gullible teenage bookworm visits Bath for the first time, then gets to stay with new friends at their home; a restored Medieval abbey. Her imagination runs wild, and she starts fancying she's really in a creepy Gothic thriller like the trashy novels she reads, which puts her in some awkward situations. This book is so much more than its summary though. It's a brilliant, finely-nuanced character study that held my attention every second.

Firstly, Catherine is a breath of fresh air. She never picks up on hints of what's really going on, but reads a lot into what isn't. She's a former tomboy who admires high achievers but never aspires to be anything special herself. A girl after my own heart. It makes her stand out among the crowds of novel heroines who were written to be 'novel' in the most extraordinary sense of the word. Many authors seem to share the implicit understanding that main characters must be important or unusual to deserve a following. To me, Catherine Morland is unique especially because of her ordinariness. In the world of literature, super-average is super-special.

She's fun because she's so limited in her way of thinking. Catherine has only ever been around kindly, straightforward country people, who have helped shape her own character. So she meets each new acquaintance in Bath assuming they'll be just the same. In other words, Catherine thinks everyone else is looking at the world through her own good-natured lens. The gold-diggers, self-seekers and fortune hunters who cross her path are able to fool her for a long time, because she's simply too sweet to recognise their true colours. And her first friends, sister and brother duo Isabella and John Thorpe are definitely not 'what you see is what you get' type of people.

Isabella is a pretentious social climber, and expert in the art of backhanded compliments. ('Miss Andrews is so beautiful, I can't think why the men don't like her.') She's always on the lookout for the next best friend or boyfriend to boost her own image, and will dispense with the last in a flash. But Catherine, being Catherine, accepts Isabella's statements on face value and believes what she says she means rather than what she does mean, which is often the complete opposite. It's easy to form pictures of Isabella as we read. I can imagine her sweeping along beside Catherine, peering around at the same time for anyone better to impress.

And John Thorpe is his sister's male counterpart, a show-off and wind-bag who's always contradicting himself depending on the image he wishes to convey in the moment. He's a crashing bore and the suitor from hell, yet for so long, Catherine doesn't even realise he has designs on her. (She gets off lighter than her brother James, who actually gets engaged to the two-faced Isabella. James has his own case of the Morland family naivety, and manages to dodge a bullet.)

A good Regency novel has to have a great hero, and smart-aleck Henry Tilney ticks my boxes. I can imagine he might seem too big a stirrer for some. He's the master of pay-outs, and the sort of guy to set eyes rolling. But I give Henry my thumbs up for recognising Catherine's good nature. He's a sound judge of character, even if she isn't. A huge part of his dawning fondness for her is because he appreciates the way she attributes the best and purest motives to others. In a world where so many guys pursue young girls because they're 'hot', kudos to Henry for being attracted to Catherine for a higher reason!

His father is a well-drawn character too, giving off all sorts of intimidating vibes. He's a bit like Andrei and Marya's formidable dad in War and Peace, and also has something in common with the Azkaban dementors of Harry Potter. A real fun-damper and soul-sucker is this guy. But he takes a shine to Catherine for a reason we discover as we read. He and she are total opposites in every way but one. They both assume everyone looks at the world from their point of view. General Tilney guesses everyone is mercenary to their core, with pound notes for eyeballs. I love it when he shows Catherine over his property assuming she's summing up the potential value, while all she's thinking about is spooky stories.

Getting back to her passion for reading, the bookish bits are fascinating to any reader. My house is full of Harry Potter fans, but for our counterparts of the early nineteenth century, it was all about creepy, formulaic Gothic novels like Anne Radcliffe's The Mystery of Udolpho. A fan is always a fan. So Catherine and Isabella's, 'Hurry up and read the next chapter of Udolpho,' translates to, 'Have you seen the latest episode of Riverdale yet?' What cool evidence that impressionable young fan girls never really change. And it's nice that Jane Austen was actually doing a pretty good P.R. job for Anne Radcliffe. I wonder what she'd think of our current fandoms. I know J.K. Rowling has called Austen one of her favourite authors, and I'm sure Jane would return the favour.

Anyway, I loved every minute, and I'll finish off with one of Catherine's unintentional witticisms. 'I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.' I'm with you on that one, Catherine, but although she'll never be an academic waffler, she's learned a lot about detecting ulterior motives by the end of the story. .


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

'The Three Musketeers' by Alexandre Dumas

This swashbuckling epic of chivalry, honor, and derring-do, set in France during the 1620s, is richly populated with romantic heroes, unattainable heroines, kings, queens, cavaliers, and criminals in a whirl of adventure, espionage, conspiracy, murder, vengeance, love, scandal, and suspense. Dumas transforms minor historical figures into larger- than-life characters: the Comte d’Artagnan, an impetuous young man in pursuit of glory; the beguilingly evil seductress “Milady”; the powerful and devious Cardinal Richelieu; the weak King Louis XIII and his unhappy queen—and, of course, the three musketeers themselves, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, whose motto “all for one, one for all” has come to epitomize devoted friendship. With a plot that delivers stolen diamonds, masked balls, purloined letters, and, of course, great bouts of swordplay, The Three Musketeers is eternally entertaining.

I don't think Alexandre Dumas cared one whit about literary excellence or anything like that. He just wanted to tell a good yarn, full of duels, waxed moustaches, and prickly, swashbuckling heroes. It took me a chapter or two to get used to the 'slay people as soon as you look at them' mindset, but then we were off. Seriously though, wasn't life-expectancy already short enough in the seventeenth century without cutting it even shorter?

The action takes place over about eighteen months, and never stops. Our boy d'Artagnan is an 18-year-old with a super-touchy, 'Do you want a piece of me?' attitude that gets him in loads of strife. Luckily for him, he has the skillful moves to wriggle out of it, sometimes by the skin of his teeth. He leaves his father's house with the intention of making his fortune, and has a letter of introduction to Monsieur de-Treville, in whose foyer he first meets the three buddies, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. D'Artagnan manages to accidentally offend each of them separately within the space of ten minutes, but after a few hiccups, the four of them become inseparable, getting embroiled in all sorts of delicate political and romantic jams.

One of their first quests is to recover a dozen diamond studs to save their queen's honour. She'd given them to her lover, the Duke of Buckingham, and now the jealous king is onto it.

Athos is the little gang's suave, enigmatic mentor, concealing his true identity and a troubled past which has sworn him off women. Porthos is the guy with self-esteem issues, coming off as a big, brash show-off. And Aramis is the modest chap who never boasts, but quietly aces everything he attempts. And he claims his real passion is the church. He's just filling in time musketeering until he's written his theology thesis.

The story was serialised in 1844, but set in 1625. Dumas took the liberty of crafting his adventure story around the true lives of people from history. An odd 220 years was still recent enough for readers to remember stories of Louis XIII, his lonely Austrian queen Anne, Cardinal Richelieu and the English Duke of Buckingham. Yet it was far enough in the past for him to stretch the truth to snapping point without getting in trouble. That's the feeling I get anyway. I doubt the real Cardinal was quite so crafty, or the Duke such a Playboy with nerve enough to seduce a foreign queen on her own turf. (For that matter, would Anne of Austria have really given her secret lover a string of diamond studs which was a birthday present from her husband? A tacky lack of judgement, for such an elegant lady.)

The biggest villain is a piece of work known as 'Milady', who's like a composite of Queen Jezebel, Bellatrix L'Estrange and Narnia's White Witch. Those who know her never, ever mess with her, but the naive, 20-year-old d'Artagnan does, putting him at the top of her hit list. This story suggests to me the habit of teenagers going off to seek their fortune is flawed, because they aren't wise enough! A guy who knows a certain woman is a monster, yet still jumps into bed with her, because he's too amorous to run away as fast as he can urgently needs his mother's input.

The dark humour is so black a shade at times, that we get invested in quests and relationships to be taken off guard. Towards the end I was blinking and mumbling, 'Whoa, that's a bit rough.'

Overall, I really wasn't a huge fan. Slapstick and tragedy aren't my favourite genres, and this yarn is like some strange hybrid that incorporates both. I doubt I'll ever read it again, but having said that, I found myself grinning a lot all the way through. I stumbled across C.S. Lewis' opinion in a book of essays, and he mentioned that The Three Musketeers holds no appeal for him because the pace gallops non-stop at the expense of atmosphere building. For example, when they cross the channel, there's no sense that London differs from Paris in any way. Most likely, d'Artagnan doesn't stop long enough to blink and take it in. Lewis says, 'There's no rest from the adventures. One's nose is kept ruthless in the grindstone.' I get where he's coming from.

Close to the very end, Athos give d'Artagnan a piece of elder brotherly advice that's intended to help him put things in perspective and move on. In general, it's a great sentiment that's transferable to the reader. He says, 'You are young, and your bitter recollections have time to change themselves to sweet remembrances.' It was such a wise thing for Athos to say, but in d'Artagnan's case, I don't really buy it. After all that went down, I'd suggest what the poor kid needs is hours of trauma counselling for a whopping case of PTSD. But maybe that's the difference between the twenty-first and seventeenth centuries.


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Give Them Another Chance

Nobody wants to be that inflexible critic who makes a snap judgement and sticks to it, refusing to consider any further evidence. Yet as a reader, I've decided to beware of this tendency, because if there's one thing our pastime encourages it's this type of rigidity. Perhaps we read one book by a specific author, give it the thumbs down, then avoid their body of work from then on. For all we'll ever know, their other books might be fantastic. It seems generous to at least make allowances for talent development, or further improvement. I don't want my eyes to glaze over when I hear certain authors' names mentioned, so I've decided to push past a dozen one-book-verdicts, and give their authors at least a second chance.  

G.K. Chesterton
I thought The Napoleon of Notting Hill crossed a line into wacky and weird. It's so ludicrous that any John Doe can be crowned king in this version of Victorian London, let alone the uproar that followed. Chesterton stretched the concept of a sense of humour to snapping point. My verdict was 'too ridiculous for many stars but too thought provoking for few', and I didn't intend to read any more from him. But his reputation as a great mind and top theologian lingers on over a century after he wrote, so I've decided to try The Man who was Thursday.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde was a tad too predictable of course, which I admit isn't Stevenson's fault. He can't help it if everyone knows big spoilers for his story before we even turn a page. What he was responsible for though, is creating shallow characters we didn't spend long enough with to care for. For example, we only really got to know the eyepiece of the story, John Gabriel Utterson, in his lawyer capacity. And of course, Stevenson isn't an author who includes many females in his stories. Male-heavy stories are a bit... well, male-heavy. It was more than enough for me at the time, but I've decided it's too hasty to dismiss a great classic author on the basis of such a short story. So I'll try Kidnapped or Treasure Island.  

Truman Capote
The plot of Breakfast at Tiffany's didn't wow me. The whole story revolves around the charisma of Holly Golightly, but I found her to be a condescending pain in the neck. The up-in-the-air conclusion was presumably meant to intrigue readers, but I wasn't invested enough in this girl to be care what happened to her. It was disappointing after I'd built myself up to expect something enjoyable, but I've had In Cold Blood recommended to me as Capote's real masterpiece. So I'll give him another chance and add it to my reading list.

Frances Hodgson Burnett
I was so peeved by the moralistic tone and horrific subtext of The Secret Garden that the wholesome beauty, and healing nature of the garden wasn't enough to make up for it. The fact that a 10-year-old boy like Colin, with basically nothing wrong with him, could lie in bed all that time, coddled by resentful adults and thinking he's an invalid was appalling! All the author interjections about what unpleasant children Mary and Colin were rubbed me the wrong way too. Look what they'd been through! Mary was the sole survivor of a cholera epidemic! They had good reason not to be the sweet little kids everyone seemed to expect. So I finished the story feeling irritated instead of charmed, as we were meant to be. But perhaps I'll see what Burnett delivers in A Little Princess.

Alexandre Dumas
The Black Tulip was amusing and farcical, with an exaggerated cartoonish quality, but not necessarily a real page turner. I was prepared to just grin whenever I thought of Dumas in the future, and say no thanks to any more opportunities to read him. But perhaps it's unfair to judge a man on the basis of one of his less famous works, when he's written so many more big name titles. I'm going to try The Three Musketeers. 

John Steinbeck 
When I was in Year 12 at school, I had to read the tragic trio that was The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and The Pearl. The last one especially was too traumatic for my teenage heart, and upset me for ages. It was a tough year, and having to wade through Steinbeck didn't make it any easier. Writing essays about these books was a continual drain on my time and energy. It left me with a prejudice against him that's lasted for decades. But perhaps I should make allowances for the stress of the final year of school, and give him another try. I've been recommended to tackle The Grapes of Wrath again, but I might start with East of Eden.

Jules Verne
Phileas Fogg's attitude in Around the World in 80 Days simply annoyed me. He struck me as a demanding fop, plain and simple. Perhaps the fact that I'd love to travel around the world has something to do with it. Closing the train windows so he couldn't see any of the wonderful scenery that zipped past, because he was so intent on his wager, just capped it off for me. Come on man, if you get a chance to be a tourist, then see the sights! Or give the opportunity for extensive travel to someone who'll be at least interested enough to look! He was fortunate to have such a good-natured man servant as Passepartout. But I'll risk being annoyed by character quirks again and read Journey to the Centre of the Earth. 

Ernest Hemingway 
The Old Man & the Sea struck me a very easy win of a Pulitzer Prize, and Hemingway seemed very grouchy in his response to readers adulation. The book itself is short, anti-climactic, sort of uneventful, and plain depressing. But I've heard A Moveable Feast spoken highly of, so might read it.

Kazuo Ishiguro
The Remains of the Day was an okay read, but the reflective, melancholic, anti-climactic feel to the story didn't make me want to rush out and find his other works. It might be easy to never look for another one again, unless I remind myself to with a personal challenge like this. I think The Buried Giant and Nocturnes have had plenty of praise, so might choose one of them.

Chaim Potok
I simply didn't feel I was the target audience for My Name is Asher Lev. I'm not a Jew or an artist, so lots of the insight soared right over my head. When the thought of reading more of his books occurred to me, I thought, 'No, they're not for me,' literally. In other words, I meant it from Chaim Potok's point of view rather than mine. However, I can't deny there were some awesome moments in the story, and he's been spoken of so highly by many others who also aren't Jews or artists, I'll have another go. This time, I'll try The Chosen. 

Diane Setterfield
This is my bravest forage out into the field of second chances, because I really, really, many times really disliked her first book, The Thirteenth Tale. I found it melodramatic and tedious in the extreme, with an improbable and ludicrous twist readers could never foresee, stealing even the fun of guessing the mystery from us. She's one author I was prepared to never read again. But because I really want this challenge to stretch my risk factor, I'm going to read her more recent offering, Once Upon a River.    

This will be one of my personal challenges for the coming year, and I'll start already without setting a time limit. Here's some personal evidence that second chances sometimes do pay off. I found J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey rather strange, and felt like I was reading it in a smog of smoke. But I enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye far more. And Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca fell flat for me, but Jamaica Inn was more to my liking. I hope you'll keep track of my personal progress, and if you dare to try the challenge yourself with books of your choice, please join in and let me know. 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Fantastic Tom Swifty

I'm busy getting ready for my daughter's 21st this weekend, and also trying to finish the last two Uni assignments of the year, which are due next week. It'll great to have spare time again, which is my favourite state of being. To fill a space, I've dug deep into my archives, and had a laugh at this one all over again. 

Tom Swift was the hero of a series of dime novels published early in the twentieth century. He was a young scientist who had adventures with the technology he created. Ostensibly written by an author named Victor Appleton, they came from the E.L. Stratemeyer writing syndicate. Different authors, including Edward Stratemeyer himself, sat at their desks creating Tom Swift stories. Down the track, a variety of authors were employed to keep churning them out. They were better businessmen than authors, because the books were poked fun at by readers for the variety of speech tags they put in their hero's mouth. Tom Swift rarely just 'said' anything. He declared, stammered, barked, exclaimed, sobbed, ejaculated, grinned, mumbled and sang, just for a start.

No doubt the authors thought this assortment of words added colour to their stories. Even I remember my Primary School class being told by teachers to think of something more descriptive than 'said'. They never twigged what a neat little word 'said' is. It's not a sign of laziness and lack of creativity. It's a gem, which enables readers' attention to flow and not be jarred from the story with every line of dialogue. Nowadays, decent editors recommend that writers simply use 'said.' The fact that Tom Swift authors were teased about not doing so proves the point.
Tom Swift and His Giant Robot  (Tom Swift Jr, #4)

Anyway, the critics of Tom Swift started parodies of the way the characters spoke, turning sentences into double meaning puns.

'There are one hundred lollies in the jar,' Tom recounted.
'I've decided to come back to the group,' Tom rejoined.
'We've struck oil,' Tom gushed.

The art of the Tom Swifty came to include adverbs, which were also way over-used in the stories. Many editors now advise us to use them sparingly. They handicap a story to snail pace as our eyes skim over the page. We simply don't need to be spoon fed the way in which a character delivers dialogue. The mood should be evident from what was said, without having to tell us that it was spoken snidely, sincerely, tearfully, mournfully or any other way.

Tom Swifties are a great fun way of sharpening our wit, and perhaps if we come up with enough of them, it might help us to weed out our own speech tags and adverbs, seeing how silly they are when taken to the extreme. Some examples I've come across from others include the following.

Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship  (Tom Swift Jr, #3)

'Will you lend me your pencil sharpener?' Tom asked bluntly.
'I'm no good at darts,' Tom said aimlessly.
'Lay your guns down,' Tom said disarmingly.
'Careful with the chainsaw,' Tom said offhandedly.
'I don't know what groceries to buy,' Tom said listlessly.

'Who turned out the lights?' Tom asked darkly.

I came up with some of my own.

'Pass me the sandpaper,' Tom said roughly.
'I want hot fudge on my sundae,' Tom said saucily.
'You don't have to dress up,' Tom said casually.
'I enjoy parachuting,' Tom said airily.
'You forgot to water my plants,' Tom said witheringly.
'I'd better get back to the shearing shed,' Tom said sheepishly.
'I'm always last to know,' Tom said belatedly.
'These suspenders will hold up your pants,' Tom said bracingly.
'There's a snowman in the garden,' Tom said frostily.
'I need a ruler to draw this graph,' Tom said rigidly.
'I want to pat that poodle,' Tom said doggedly.
'It's underwater,' Tom said sinkingly.
'There are bugs flying around everywhere,' Tom said waspishly.
'I'm the king,' Tom said majestically.
'Someone else has stripped all the apples from this tree,' Tom said fruitlessly.

And one for Harry Potter fans.

'I want to play Quidditch,' Tom said snitchily.

Now it's your turn, assuming I've convinced you that this is not a pointless activity ('I've lost the tip of my pen,' Tom said pointlessly). Are you game to see if you can add to my list?