2015 comes to a close

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It’s the end of the year and we will be taking our usual summer break through the holiday season.  We will return with reviews in February.

In 2015 we reviewed another 19 books taking our overall total to 222 books reviewed.  We will begin 2016 with a full recap of this year’s reading, so look out for that.

In the meantime, we hope you manage to get some quiet reading done.

From us here at 1001 Book Reviews, have a lovely time and we will see you again in 2016.

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Emma – Jane Austen

Book #936

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


EThe option of reading and reviewing a classic by Jane Austen is rather a relaxing entry in to a summer of 1001 Books for me.  I had read her entire canon when I was a teenager, and have revisited them sporadically ever since.  However, it has been some time since my last venture into Regency England and naturally my ideas and world view have moved on in many respects. This is now evident in how I feel about the novel after this read through.

As a teenager I was enthralled with the Regency world as described in Austen’s works. Even the work required to get around the changes in language over the centuries didn’t diminish my enjoyment.   I was a die hard fan from the outset.

Fast forward an *ahem* number of years and re-reading Emma brought along another set of experiences.  Still, the enjoyment of being immersed in a society so completely different from our own, but with a tinge of modern feminist ‘what the heck’ thrown in for good measure.

The story of the titular heroine is one of meddling, self-indulgence and, eventually, self-awareness.

Emma begins in the home of the Woodhouses following the wedding of Emma’s governess Miss Taylor, to a local gentleman, Mr Weston.  Mr Woodhouse is lamenting their loss and through this we are introduced to his nervous, almost foppish, hypochondria-laden character.  His is a difficult character to read and not want to slap from a modern perspective; but he is also the means with which the underlying behaviour of being well-mannered, courteous and generally good at heart is shown to overrule such deficiencies.

Once ‘poor Miss Taylor’ is settled in at her new abode, Randalls, Emma takes on a local girl as a protégé and companion in lieu of Mrs Weston and eventually succumbs to and indulges her own fancies of being a matchmaker.  Harriet Smith is a girl of unknown parentage, clearly a ‘natural’ child of someone wealthy enough to pay for an education but not wishing the relationship to be generally visible to society.

Mr Knightley, an old friend and Emma’s brother-in-law, sees the danger to both women.  One in being convinced that she should be elevated beyond her station in life by Emma’s encouragement, and the other in being unrestrained by a wiser companion.   He is proved right in the first instance, with Emma dissuading Harriet from the marriage proposal of an eminently suitable young man, and having her fix her eyes on a man for whom the whole idea of marrying beneath him is an abhorrence.

In to this basic plot we add two other young people, Miss Jane Fairfax and Mr Frank Churchill.  The former an accomplished young woman, of sense and character, but of a good family in financial decline.  The latter, the son of Mr Weston who has been raised by his rich aunt and uncle.  He brings pleasing manners and general merriment, but more self-interest than self-awareness.

It is the fondest wishes of Mr and Mrs Weston that Frank and Emma should become attached to each other, while society in general feels for the situation of Miss Fairfax.  What follows is a rich comedy of manners involving all those mentioned so far, as well as Miss Bates (Jane Fairfax’s aunt), Mr Elton and latterly Mrs Elton.

Only the steadfast and observant Mr Knightley seems able to calmly assess the damage and danger to all, courtesy of Emma’s self-indulgent behaviour, and tries to point them out to her. Eventually the comedy plays out and the participants go to their respective right places at the last.  But not without some trepidations.

Emma’s folly and character is softened by her own realisations, and admission of errors.  If she had remained oblivious to herself she would have become a Mrs Elton, full of pride and blind to her lack of understanding.  But that would not do for the story’s heroine; she is not fixed and unable to examine herself and her behaviour.  She understands that she has faults that require her attention, and that makes her accessible.

Although my view of certain characters has changed since my youth, I still find this an excellent novel dealing with the manners, expectations and difficulties the women of this section of Regency society had to navigate.    This is not the novel of manners / love story that we tend to see in Pride and Prejudice, so do not open this book thinking you will be reading a clone of that.  But don’t be put off.  It is still an enjoyable read, language and relative silliness of certain characters to the modern eye aside.

Happy reading !

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie

Book #695

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


TMORA

I will put my cards on the table right at the start.  I have loved Agatha Christie’s work since I was a teenager, when I owned pretty much her entire works in secondhand hardbacks.  That made it a no-brainer for me to re-read this classic of detective fiction.

The novel was first published in 1926, having previously been serialised in the London Evening News. It is a fabulous piece of fiction featuring her now famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who in this novel has recently retired to the small village of King’s Abbot.

The story itself is narrated by Dr James Sheppard, the local GP, and opens with news of the death of a prominent local woman, Mrs Ferrars.  She is one of two owners of the ‘big’ houses in the village, the other being Roger Ackroyd.

A scant twenty-four hours passes between the death of Mrs Ferrars and that of Roger Ackroyd.  We are drawn in to the village gossip through the doctor’s sister, Caroline, who appears to be the central hub to whom rumours are brought and then dispatched outward in to the community.  Poisoning, romances, and scheming are all grist for the gossip mill.

The key characters cover both ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ in the Fernly Park home of Roger Ackroyd.  A widowed sister-in-law and her daughter Flora, a wayward step-son Ralph Paton, a big game hunting friend Major Blunt, a private secretary and a number of his household staff all become embroiled with secrets aplenty to hide between them.

In to all of this enters the retired detective, Hercule Poirot.  Taken away from his quest to grow the perfect marrow by Flora Ackroyd, the niece who is quietly engaged to Roger’s step-son, Poirot is tasked to find the truth of the murder.   Ralph Paton is the prime suspect, being always in a scrape and wayward with his money.  His footprints are found, he is spotted not long before the murder is committed and then he disappears as though in hiding for the crime.

Poirot and his ‘little grey cells’ are not fooled by the many red herring trails available, and tracks down each in turn.  Step-by-step he exposes each person’s secret until we finally arrive at the murderer.

Ahh, if it was just so simple.  The writing and plot are beautifully executed.  There is no delving in to the deep psychology of the criminal, only the actions and behaviours are exposed.  There are plenty of opportunities to spot the outcome, but will you as a first time reader?  Probably not.
The answer to the crime is available, but through subtle use of language much is disguised and only becomes clear once the story concludes.

One thing this novel is noted for is the use of a twist ending, and perhaps that is why first time readers don’t always see the outcome before the last few pages.

If you go away and read this for the first time, do come back and let me know if you saw it coming? Just remember to leave out the answer for those who haven’t read it yet.

As a long-time fan I have no reservation in recommending you read this novel, and all of her others.  The ease with which they are read is a testament to her skill as a writer.  As Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing”, and Ms Christie has definitely done the ‘hard yards’ to clear the way for us to enjoy the clever plot.

Out of Africa – Isak Dineson (Karen Blixen)

Book # 614

REVIEWER: Kara


OOAOut of Africa is a memoir of the author’s 17 years living on and running a coffee plantation in Kenya from 1914 to 1931. She describes animals, plants and scenery, the “Natives” who work for her, and various events that happen while she’s there. Highlights include all-night dances the locals host, shooting lions, flying over the land with pilot friends, and trying to protect the crops from grasshoppers and droughts.

As far as the author’s language and writing style, this is a beautiful book that does an excellent job of painting a picture of a coffee plantation in Africa in the early 20th century. The author has a keen eye for detail, a knack for description, and an obviously very deep love for her subject. All this is why we still read this book 85+ years after its publication. And it’s worth a read!

However, it IS written by a white person who went to Africa in the early 20th century as a colonist. In order to keep her farm running, she employs the local “Natives” who are allowed to remain living near the farm so long as they work (without pay) for the author 180 days out of the year. This is just one element of the colonist’s mentality that pervades the book. It very much dampened my enthusiasm.

For the era, it may be that the author had a pretty liberal attitude towards the African people. She is, after all, a kind and benevolent employer; she helps those who work for her with food and medical attention, and has an attitude that ranges from wary tolerance to authentic appreciation when it comes to their culture. She also professes to like them:

“As for me, from my first weeks in Africa, I had felt a great affection for the Natives. It was a strong feeling that embraced all ages and both sexes. The discovery of the dark races was to me a magnificent enlargement of all my world.”

But from where I sit here in the early 21st century, her writing about the people of Kenya is cringe-worthy over and over again. I got a real sense that she subscribed to the “noble savage” mentality. Additionally, she constantly compares the “Natives” to animals, and I mean CONSTANTLY. To be fair, she also occasionally compares a white person to an animal, but with the Natives, it’s disturbingly incessant. Here’s a quotation that sort of encompasses both of these aspects of her attitude toward Africans:

“Sometimes on a Safari, or on the farm, in a moment of extreme tension, I have met the eyes of my Native companions, and have felt that we were at a great distance from one another, and that they were wondering at my apprehension of our risk. It made me reflect that perhaps they were, in life itself, within their own element, such as we can never be, like fishes in deep water which for the life of them cannot understand our fear of drowning. This assurance, this art of swimming, they had, I thought, because they had preserved a knowledge that was lost to us by our first parents; Africa, amongst the continents, will teach it to you.”

The author is at her best when she’s describing the beauty of the land or a deeply personal experience and the feelings that these things give her. For example, on the glorious activity of flying in a plane above her plantation she writes:

“It is a sad hardship and slavery to people who live in towns, that in all their movements they know of one dimension only; they walk along the line as if they were led on a string. The transition from the line to the plane into the two dimensions, when you wander across a field or through a wood, is a splendid liberation… but in the air you are taken into the full freedom of the three dimensions; after long ages of exile and dreams the homesick heart throws itself into the arms of space.”

The beauty and euphoria of passages like this one make Out of Africa worth a quick read. If you do dive in, be prepared to endure much that is written with the narrow vision of a white colonist. 

What I Loved – Siri Hustvedt

Book # 18

Reviewer: Kara


WILThis novel is narrated by Leo Hertzberg, an art historian in New York City, who tells of what he’s loved (and lost) in his life. The story begins when he buys a painting by Bill Wechsler that he loves so much that he helps to launch Bill’s career. Both men have sons of the same age, one of whom dies tragically in childhood. The bulk of the novel is about the other son, Mark, who is passed from home to home and adult to adult, and how this affects him psychologically.

I was thoroughly astounded by Hustvedt’s undertaking here. In What I Loved she has created at least half a dozen depthful, realistic characters that I came to care about. The story Leo tells us of what he has loved and lost in his life kept me up at night a time or two and left me aching for him.

The most interesting theme is duplicity. Early on, the Wechsler and Hertzberg families are each other’s double. As struggles and tragedies impact the families, they change in different ways and look less and less like mirror images. The novel takes advantage of this opportunity to show two different outcomes of the events, two different ways that the characters are impacted, two different reactions.

Hustvedt also adds amazing and wonderful detail to her prose. She has clearly done thorough research on many topics: hysteria at the turn of the 20th century, psychological disturbance and psychopathy, eating disorders, and art. In particular, I loved the detailed descriptions of Bill’s works of art, which are very creative and interesting. They give fascinating insight into the fictional story, but they are also imaginative, beautiful, and sound very much like something that could actually be seen in a modern art gallery or museum. I wished several times, but most especially when Bill was working on the series of 101 doors, that I could go see his work in real life. The details are so precise and visual that it seemed to me this art must exist!

During the more action-packed sequences of the novel, such as when Leo chases Mark across the Midwest, the prose gets a little news-y; by this I mean that it reads like a feature article in a magazine more than a novel. However, this strikes me as a much better way to keep these sorts of scenes exciting than the usual way authors do it: by dropping any semblance of character continuity or growth.

Overall, this isn’t a happy book but it is an impressive one that has left me a lot to think about. Hustvedt has successfully mined love and loss to write a beautiful novel. There is also plenty to learn here about several other themes, including art, mental disorders and hysteria, and the effects of violence and drugs on a teenager and his family.