Category Archives: Classic

*** The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I was enthralled by The Woman in White, a 19th century novel that reads like a mystery novel and features a forced wedding, a dastardly aristocrat, an illegitimate birth, a kidnapping and internment in a psychiatric asylum, the torching of a church, and  twists and turns until the very end. I just loved it, all 700+ pages of it, for its non-stop action, its clever use multiple narrators, and its  very modern picture of a strong woman character (alongside a conventional, overwhelmed, powerless woman, whom she rescues).

Pick it up for your summer reading. It’s a gem that deserves recognition (and there’s a free version for Kindle users!) I am planning to read Collins’s other books and I am puzzled by why he is not better known.

 

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** Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker

Miss Hargreaves is a reprint of a 1939 novel with a heart-stoppingly intriguing premise: a young man invents an old woman, Miss Hargreaves, and after he writes to her on a lark he is stunned to discover that she will travel to meet him, and she’s just like he made her up to be, down to her pet parakeet. Unfortunately, we never get even a hint of how the imaginary could ever match the real so the story is rather tiresome and frustrating past the initial stunning reunion, despite good supporting characters, including a remarkable absent-minded bookseller father.

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Herland by Charlotte Gilman

Herland‘s subtitle is “A lost Feminist Utopian Novel” and the story is indeed contrived: three would-be explorers, men, find a small country hidden away in the mountains that is populated only by women (who apparently reproduce through parthenogenesis, one of the many unbelievable feature of the story.) they are welcome but keep imprisoned by the women and slowly come to appreciate the many virtues of an all-women society, which seem to consist mainly in (1) clothes that are very comfortable and easy to move in (2) a well-organized set of villages, roads, and fields that make the most of the land and always look pristinely clean and well-kept and (3) an educational system from birth that yields healthy, polite, learned adults.

Other, darker aspects of this ideal society seem to be entirely brushed under the rug (poor housekeeping, horror!) For instance, all women must give birth to exactly one child, the thinking being that the more the merrier, but in order not to overload the land there is a limit of one per. And those women deemed “not worthy” may only birth the child, but not raise her (all children are women, naturally) so all children can benefit from a great upbringing. Negative traits such as stealing have been “bred out” over time. And those apparently perfect children have never wanted to explore outside their small land or had the gall to want to do something other than prescribed by society, including inventing any new technology. I’m not sure I’d like to live in this conforming, Communist, Luddite  world with my one daughter despite the pretty villages and the comfy clothes.

The book was originally published in 1915, which explains some of its madness. Aren’t women destined to a little more than children, clothes, and order?

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A death in the Family by James Agee

A Death in the FAmily is an unfinished novel but don’t let that prevent you from reading it: there is a strong story even if some of the narrative fragments don’t quite fit together. The book follows a family whose father dies in a car crash in the early 20th century and is told mostly from the perspective of the young son, who is captured perfectly in what matters to him (such as his new, spiffy cap) and what doesn’t quite make sense (why can’t he play outside on the day his father dies). There’s a great tenderness in that family, reminiscent of The Blue Boy, with many instances of adults taking great pains to be kind to the children, such as the family friend who makes sure the children can see their father’s coffin being carried away. Adults are also kind to each other: the book opens with the father being called to his father’s bedside in the middle of the night, and the mother insists on cooking him breakfast even though it’s clear he could do without while he makes the bed so she can be warm when she is done.

It’s not a perfect family: there are drunks, religious fanatics, and marriage problems. But the book will make you appreciate the formidable strengths of extended families.

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The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

Encouraged by Travels with my Aunt, which I reviewed a few days ago, I thought I would try a classic Graham Greene next.

The End of the Affair tells about an affair between a married woman and a novelist, Graham Greene’s alter ego, who is a friend of her husband. The first part of the book is told from his perspective and only a long plane ride with no other reading materials could encourage me to push through it. Fortunately, the middle part is told from the perspective of the woman and shows interesting convoluted feelings about love, long-term marriages, and religion. The last part is what happens after her death between the people who had loved her. There’s action so it’s tolerable but what happens is hard to believe (would a lover really move in with his ex-lover’s husband? I think not.)

The whole book is steeped in mid-20th century England with discussions of KBE and OBE, the English civil service, and maids and other accoutrements of upper-middle class. It’s all quite dated but perhaps romantic in its other-wordliness.

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Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene

A classic (originally published in 1969) and evocative of many other “goofy” novels to come, Travels with my Aunt follows an English retired bank manager and dahlia enthusiast through worldwide travels with his elderly aunt, or perhaps his biological mother, who has a sorted past, lovers of all ages, and little desire to abide by the law.

Although it’s impossible to believe all the coincidences and wild adventures in the book, Mr. Pulling proves to be a wonderful reading companion with his copious luggage, outdated courtesies, and belated longings for Miss Keene.

A perfect book for your next long flight.

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