Archives

Jamaica Inn: Bleak

Since reading Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier a summer or two ago and falling in love with her writing style, it has become my mission to read every novel of hers I can. So far, after reading Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek, My Cousin Rachel, and Jamaica Inn, it is Frenchman’s Creek that is my favorite. Though I don’t condone the adultery implied, the tale is a gorgeous adventure for anyone who longs to escape ordinary life, if just for a bit.

As for Jamaica Inn, the tale starts out bleak and doesn’t improve much from there. Mary Yellan, whose mother has just died, goes to live with her aunt in the moors, though she knows little about the older woman’s life there. Immediately, Mary is swept up into an impossible situation that she may not escape: Her uncle Joss Merlyn is a very dangerous man, bent fully to the life of a criminal life. When she meets his younger, kinder brother, she must decide if she can trust him or not, though everyone tells her the Merlyn family has always been bad. Set in the moors and the coast of Cornwall, Du Maurier placed her tale in a time when murderers and thieves were barely kept in check by the governing authorities. For much of the story, it feels like the entire world is bleak and bad and that Mary will never escape from it.

I also took the time to watch the Acorn 2014 miniseries of Jamaica Inn starring Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) as Mary and Matthew McNulty (The Paradise) as Jem Merlyn. The adaptation was faithfully bleak, and like the book, lost my interest partway through. There just wasn’t enough rays of sunshine or enough plotwise going on to secure my interest. It took awhile for me to finish both the book and the miniseries, and though the tale ends happier than it began, it’s definitely not Du Maurier’s best work. Mary is a treat of a character, a strong woman without the author going overboard about that. The portrayal of the aunt in the miniseries didn’t fit the one in the book. The book described Aunt Patience as childlike and Joanne Whalley seemed neither afraid of her husband, nor long-suffering, thus taking away Mary’s main motivation in the book. But for her aunt, there’s no doubt she would have quite the county forthwith. McNulty was a good Jem, but Sean Harris as his older brother Joss seemed miscast. A larger, brooding, more dark-haired man would have suited better, in my opinion.

The romance in both book and miniseries was adequate, but not swoonworthy. The whole tale suffered from a real lack of adventure despite Mary being thrown in with criminals. Parts of the ending were bizarre and came out of nowhere, and would have made more sense if the mythology hinted at was threaded throughout the book, and if Mary were more religious, which she’s not. Bleakness and despair does not a good story make on its own, and it’s to her credit that as a character Mary survives what the author puts her through. At the end it’s as if she, too, is glad to be done with the story. The miniseries kind of botched the ending, and I think the error was that it was too faithful to the book. Here, a bit more Hollywood drama in both action and takes, would have improved it all around. Jamaica Inn is bleak, and neither book nor miniseries is a must-devour story.

Raskol

This week I’m reading Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky for the third time. Read it the first time in French and Russian Lit in college. Never had I ever read any of those authors before, and I was blown away. We also had to read parts of Les Miserables, which I loved also, but have never, ever managed to finish. The first two times reading C&P I read the translation by Constance Garnett. This time I’m reading the one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It’s a crackling, fresh translation, but then, any translation would be or would appear to be, because the story has a snap about it, drenched in a pathos that is somehow never wallowed in. This is the Dostoevsky writing I like, in C&P and The Idiot. Although I made it through them, I couldn’t stand Notes from Underground or The Brothers Karamazov.

Raskolnikov is relatable in the sense that from time to time we all struggle with this necessity and nuisance of having to have work and earn our daily bread. Most people, though, don’t resort to plotting murder and think of ourselves as secret kings or Napoleons above the law in order to get out of it. Incidentally, I’d forgotten Raskol’s first name was Rodion. Ugh. I’m glad he’s referred to by his last name most of the time and that it sounds like rascal. Despite being a murderer, I’ve always kind of liked him as a character. Now that I’m older, though, we’ll see if my opinion is the same.

This is a book in which character after character is given the opportunity to do the right thing, and they continually choose the opposite, at least at the beginning of the story. They do at least begin to do the right thing, but spiral downward, a very human trait. I don’t even remember whether Raskol turns himself in or not at the end, but am excited to find out. It’s also making me want to read both The Idiot and Little Dorritt again, which is by Dickens, but also about people in debt. If you’re looking for good, long stories to read this winter, check out the classics. So many are so, so good.

Everless: Playing with Time

Bending the rules of time is usually something left to the devices of science fiction, but in Everless Sara Holland makes time manipulation a part of the fairy tale world. I really enjoyed this story. The characters are a little blank, and it was hard to remember who some of the background servants were, but that’s a bit expected in fairy tales, anyway, as the story itself is usually the point. Cinderella, Snow White, Red Riding Hood–they could be anyone, any girl, even someone listening or reading.

Everless introduces us to a vaguely medieval land called Sempera, in which time has been forged into human blood as something called blood iron. This can be extracted and turned into money that people use to buy things or can dissolve in liquid to drink to add an hour, day, or year to one’s life. I’m not sure how that all works with the normal aging and death process, but it largely doesn’t matter and it was easy to suspend my disbelief.

Jules, struggling along in poverty with most of the population, decides to go work at Everless, a large estate owned by a very rich family called the Gerlings. Her father warns her against it, but she goes anyway, curious to see the estate after so many years when she lived there as a child. She’s especially interested in seeing more of what’s become of the Gerling heirs, Liam and her old friend Roan. As children she and Roan were fast friends, even if they were from different classes. As a teenager, Jules now bears a grudge against the easy way the nobles live, not having to sell their blood for time or food, and spending the long years they’ve given themselves in partying and frivolity. Her time and fate soon become intertwined with both brothers as well as the queen of the land who comes to stay for a while. Jules soon learns that she has a stunning power over time itself.

Again, as in a fairy tales, Jules passes from one scene to the next, because that’s what the plot requires, but this is novel-length story, and events often fold out a bit too easily for our heroine…until the end, of course. The romance angle was overly predictable, as were some of the twists, but I never found that to be a reason to stop reading. Everless is a lot better than some YA fantasy series I’ve tried to read over the years, and I rather like the background mythology of the world so far. Jules has the normal headstrong flaws found in any real life teenager, but she’s not annoying, and her predicament is relatable. Who wouldn’t want to know the truth about their past? Who wouldn’t be dismayed finding out they’d been tricked? By the end of the story, we fear for Jules and whoever she will come to love in the future, as it seems as if the villain holds all of the cards. I am eager to read the next installment.

My Cousin Rachel: Rebecca Redoux?

Ever since reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, I’ve been captivated by her writing style, especially her otherworldly descriptions, and plan to read as many of her works as I can. My Cousin Rachel appealed to me as the plot seemed similar to Rebecca in some ways–albeit being in a different era–and also because of the title. It’s always curious to read stories in which there are characters with the same name as one’s self.

My Cousin Rachel is narrated by a young man this time, one Philip Ashley, who has been raised by his older cousin to spurn romance and the world of women in general. Philip is only twenty-four, but is already confident that women can offer nothing in life for him, at least romantically. His estate is all men and they don’t worry so much about the niceties of society and it suits them just fine. Set somewhere in the late 1800s, it is likely that both the older and younger Ashleys can live this way because they are very rich men. As we come to see, woe to the rich men who know the ways of women very little.

Philip’s cousin Ambrose is in his forties and due to ill health, must go abroad to Italy for a time. Through letters and secondhand information, young Philip finds that his cousin has amazingly fallen in love and gotten married. Only a year later, he even more astonishingly finds that his uncle is on his death bed. Philip travels to Italy, but doesn’t make it in time, even missing out on seeing Ambrose’s widow. We get a foreshadowing of things to come as Philip gets hints in pieces of letters from Ambrose that the couple relationship was not happy in its latter days. After some time, Philip receives news that the widow, his “cousin Rachel,” will be coming to the estate to stay for a time. At this point, Philip is against her, thinking she drove Ambrose to an early grave and also that she’s upset Ambrose did not leave anything for her in his will. But as I said before, Philip knows little of the ways of women, especially beautiful women, and Rachel is beautiful and able to use it to her advantage.

To say that Philip is young, naive, and stupid is not exaggerating. He is an even more infuriating narrator than the nameless girl in Rebecca. It takes him far too long to realize he has a thing for Rachel and is amazed that everyone in town thinks of her as extraordinarily good looking. Ambrose did him no favors by leaving him so vulnerable, but it is perhaps only women that are truly skeptical of the beauty of their own sex. We are more aware of how it’s used to manipulate than sometimes men are. Philip does one stupid thing after another, and as readers we are left to wonder if Rachel even has to manipulate him at all. He completely loses his senses and seems to care nothing for the future security of the estate he has inherited, including no thought for all of the workers and servants should all the money be drained.

The signs are all there that Rachel has a spending problem, indeed a problem with constantly living to excess. She would be fast friends with The Talented Mr. Ripley in that regard, though it is left in doubt as to whether she understands this is a fault and that she has it. Du Maurier leaves an open ending: Suspicion is deeply cast upon Rachel, but it is also insinuated that she is merely misunderstood and that she herself really doesn’t understand certain kinds of men. You can’t have a one-night stand with a man who has fallen in love with you and lives in a world where people in love get married and settle down. Rachel fails to understand the sharp anger her actions provoke.

As to the question whether Rachel has good intentions or bad, I found it increasingly impossible to care in the light of young Philip’s stupidity. He seems to throw everything Ambrose taught him out the window, and I was left wondering if he cared about his cousin at all. I suppose some men have no defenses against great beauty, and as a woman, that’s rather unsettling to think about. If we are beautiful, will they really give us everything we ask for, let us do anything to anyone at anytime? When Philip finally comes to understand that he is out of control with Rachel, he makes a devastating choice. That he is sorry later makes no difference to her, and we readers are left wondering if she is a figurative angel or devil. Like Philip, we are given no definite answer or assurance.

Although Rebecca is a masterpiece compared to this, My Cousin Rachel would make for quite a drinking game: Take a drink every time Philip refers to “my cousin Rachel.” It gets so egregious that I almost stopped reading the book a couple of times. The atmosphere of the story isn’t as gothic or spooky as its predecessor, and because of the previous work, we kind of know how it will end. The biggest thing I got out of the story was how absolutely ridiculous young and rich men can be. At the end, my sympathy was far more with Philip’s guardian and his daughter than with either Philip or Ambrose. Pride goeth before a fall, and this is definitely a moral tale on two men being far, far too proud of their bachelor status, too proud to understand how weak and vulnerable they made themselves, and most importantly, too proud to understand that the fault here was perhaps not with Rachel, not with her at all. But I’m a little biased. We Rachels have to stick up for each other, after all.

Recycling Theft: The Moonstone

It was not surprising to find that Wilkie Collins was a friend of Charles Dickens. Both writers have hefty works, probably because they tended to get paid by the word, but in Collins’ case because he…likes…to…drag…things…….o…u……t. (Spoilers)

I wanted to like The Moonstone, I really did. It started well, telling the history of a cursed jewel, and setting up what I hoped would be a locked room mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie, but it was not to be. The tale starts with a butler named Betteredge, who uses Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (it rhymes!) as a bible. His retelling of the events surrounding the disappearance of the diamond from a birthday party at an English country estate are rather amusing, especially his funny opinions on women. Once we get to the day that the diamond is found missing, it seems we are headed in the direction of the not-yet-created Sherlock Holmes as they eventually bring in a celebrated police detective. Like Holmes, Sergeant Cuff is odd and unfathomable to those around him. He doesn’t get along with his fellow policeman and poo-poos their efforts because he is smarter, he is Sherlock—I mean Cuff. But Cuff is way too obsessed with growing roses and isn’t nearly as forthright as Sherlock, so he ultimately doesn’t solve the mystery, at least at that time.

This is what’s both frustrating and fascinating about the story: The mystery always seems on the edge of being solved, but then we take another turn, and throughout it all we only really have the narratives of persons who are bystanders to the main action. There’s shivering sands, women in obsessive love, mind-boggling religious maniacs, and elaborate painted doors, all of which should form an almost gothic atmosphere, but I didn’t think the atmosphere ever really appeared. It was hard to connect with the main romantic couple as we only get a third person view of them, at least until the last fourth of the tale. One of the big reveals actually got a, “huh?” from me. I am not sure if it would have been a surprise at the time Collins’ wrote it, but I had forgotten that back in the 1800s both sexes often wore nightgowns to bed. Collins did focus on the idea that the nightgown must be a female’s so it must have been intentional misdirection, but I just felt a moment of culture shock as the tale carried on.

One great thing about the story is that Collins is not afraid to write himself into a corner. I knew he was clever after reading The Woman in White, but The Moonstone is pretty much the creation of a new genre, the detective story. Only this one didn’t have as much of an actual detective to follow as I would like. It’s a curious mystery, and I can see why mystery buffs would like it. For me, the story was just too long and severely lacked action considering its length. The narrative of Miss Clack was really funny at first, but I got tired of her really quickly, as I imagine most people who encounter her would, and I longed to go back to Betteredge.

Throughout the story, the Indians, bent on getting their diamond back, popped up from time to time, and as the narratives wore on and on, I found myself rooting for them to get the Moonstone and take it back to India where it belonged. Because then the story would be over and we would know who the thieves were…er, the re-thieves. It was a bit difficult to care about this English family keeping such a diamond when the book opens by telling us how their relative outright stole it from a palace or temple in India. Stole it even knowing the jewel was cursed. I was glad the rock got to its rightful owners in the end, and that the Miss Rachel who inherited it didn’t care two bits, for she got her love at last. Happiness for all, or at least most everyone, is a good ending for any story, but I prefer Collins’ The Woman in White as being more of a spooky story, especially as it has the benefit of a clear villain. I do want to check out the BBC miniseries on The Moonstone, though, as I can imagine the difficulty of adapting this to the screen and want to see what they came up with.

In conclusion, The Moonstone was overly long and really about rightful owners stealing the diamond back–a recycled theft if you will. At times it held my attention well, but mostly it was infuriating, and I don’t think there is any way I could have guessed how the bits of the mystery would play out. Still, the story was the first or one of the first of its kind, and that in itself makes it worth reading.

Country Driving: Book Review

It’s an uncanny experience reading a Peter Hessler book about China, at least of you are a reader who also lived in China during the same period, 1999 to 2009 or so. For myself, I taught English there from 2004-2007 and miss both the country and the people often. There’s something about reading his books that speaks to that time period being a genuine collectively shared experience for whoever was in China then, both the Chinese and the foreigners living there. We were all a small part of the rapid economic and cultural changes that were happening.

For Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip, Hessler begins his trip by renting a car in Beijing and planning to drive the entire length of the Great Wall. He gives a lot of good history of the wall and the towns and villages he crosses along the way, but the best parts of that section are definitely his interactions with the car rental manager and his recounting of Chinese driving school. My experiences on the road in China were mostly in buses and often in taxis, sometimes even motorcycle taxis, but I would never try to get a license and try driving myself there. It’s a strange dance to be either a pedestrian or a bicycle rider in China. You make yourself go with the flow–he who hesitates is lost–and somehow manage not to get hit. I did get hit once, choosing to cross a street at the wrong time on my bicycle. A moped hit me and I got a nice concussion out of the incident and didn’t feel so confident on my bicycle after that. I was more successful navigating the crazy traffic and finding my groove there on foot.

Hessler’s tales about the Great Wall are part sadness, so many villages and towns are dying as the younger people move to the big cities, part reflection, the local governments are both corrupt and trying to help the people and the land, and part thrilling, women dressed to the nines appear out of nowhere wanting a ride, and in some areas the police will ask a foreigner to leave. Hessler’s keen insight to everything going on has to do with his great powers of observation as a writer, but even more essential is his fluency in Mandarin. He talks to people along the way and gets to know their stories, and he’s able to translate the messages strewn on walls or buildings in the middle of nowhere, giving helpful cultural context to his experiences.

Part two wasn’t so much a road trip as Hessler detailing his experience renting a house near a part of the Great Wall and a village that at first seems totally forgotten. Again, Hessler’s grasp of the language is key as he forges relationships with the villagers even to the extent that he becomes very involved in saving a child’s life. He describes what it’s like for a couple of people–a child and a mentally challenged adult–to leave the village for the first time, and how they adjust to their changing circumstances in heart-aching ways. Progress comes to the village, an there is more money to be made, but it’s as if the villagers are on constantly shifting sands, from on and off relations with neighbors and politicians, to rapid land deals, and to life changes of either having too little, or too much money. I can relate a little to that last part. In China I didn’t have to pay rent and even had a school cafeteria card, so had lots of extra spending money as we made a lot more than the regular Chinese teachers, yet in American dollars it was only about $500 a month, a sum that would be difficult to make it on in America. Often I spent both too much and too little, finding it strange to at once have so much money in one country, yet little in another. It was heartwarming to see how close Hessler became to his neighbors in the village, even though he often must have felt like the outsider he really was. He was really in a special time and place when he lived there.

The last part is set in Zhejiang province, a little south of where I lived. Hessler follows some men who are starting up a factory that make parts for bras. I wear bras all the time, but often forget that some man invented them, presumably for the comfort of women, though that aspect often seems an elusive one. This factory makes bra underwires and also little multicolored rings for bra straps. The venture seems a bit haphazard and slapdash, with little planning and a rented building, but as they hire workers and get going, it seems like the bra ring factory will succeed. Both the owners and workers in the factories all are characters, most of whom grew up as farmer peasants and now are trying to make their fortunes through capitalism, but capitalism is often a seesaw. One day the factory is doing well, the next it seems it will fold under, and then they get a big client. Hessler describes these workers as taking everything in stride, and with things constantly changing, what else can people do? Giving up isn’t an option.

I highly enjoyed the details of guanxi, the system of doing deals and business in China. This often involves bribes and elaborate dinners with amazing food. As a foreign English teacher there, I was clueless to this system, but soon learned that if a friend of a friend wanted to take me to a nice dinner it was because they wanted private English lessons, which I only would find out at the very end of the meal. We were often “invited” to company parties to introduce a new cell phone, or to visit an up-and-coming school so they could use our faces for advertising at the event. Sometimes people would give us money in red envelopes. These were not gifts, but bribes, hoping we’d leave our schools where we taught to come over to theirs. Our own schools often took us out to fancy dinners, sometimes as school events, sometimes to introduce us to more Chinese food, and sometimes to show us off around town. Guanxi or not, I found the Chinese people to be overwhelmingly welcoming and friendly towards us. It was humbling how much they gave of themselves to help us feel welcome there, and I will always be grateful for their efforts and still miss them all so very much to this day.

For me, Hessler’s books are now a walk down memory lane. I read his River Town while in China and found it an engrossing rendition of an experience so similar to my own. Having been away from China for over ten years, I’m not sure what it’s like now and how different it is. I hope the constant economic change has mellowed, and although I’m glad America is not losing so much money to China anymore, I do hope the average Chinese person isn’t hurting too much due to the tariff battles between China and the US. I hope and pray that both countries can thrive, whether they are competitors or collaborators. I look forward to someday reading Hessler’s other book on China, Oracle Bones.

The Lady Vanishes: Thrilling

Growing up, and having a love of mysteries, the story of The Lady Vanishes was always somewhere in the corner of my mind as something I wanted to watch. A few years ago I was thrilled to find the Alfred Hitchcock version on Netflix, but as there was no proper context to what was going on and the heroine seemed situated at the hotel for a very, very long time, I gave up on it, certain there was a thrilling tale in there somewhere but that I just didn’t have the patience to watch it through.

As I was certain the newer, 2013 version by the BBC would be faster paced, I decided to give it a try, and watched it twice because it was so enjoyable. Now I’m plowing through the book by Ethel Lina White and loving that even more! Want to read all her stuff now.

The BBC’s The Lady Vanishes stars Tuppence Middleton as Iris Carr, a young, wealthy orphan who spends her days partying and traveling with her friends. In this version, too, there is time at the hotel before the mystery on the train ride home begins, and it is so because that’s how White wrote it. The group is vacationing somewhere in Eastern Europe and happen to upset a couple of spinster sisters and a Reverend and his wife that are also from England. As someone who has lived and traveled abroad, it is somewhat disconcerting to find either yourself or your countrymen behaving badly elsewhere. We like to think we can be taken as individuals, but all too often our behavior is lumped in with all Americans, or wherever you come from, even if it’s just big city vs. little city. At any rate, Iris soon tires of her friends, sends them off ahead of her, and that is where the real story begins.

Although the movie was very exciting, there wasn’t as much background for some of the minor characters that I would have like to see and I’m happy to report that the book has a lot more on them, including explaining some actions that can’t be fully grasped by watching the movie. I say this in especial consideration of the two spinster sisters. After hearing their side in full, I am very sympathetic to their point of view not to interfere, wrong as it may have been.

Middleton did a great job playing Iris and was Iris rather than having to stretch to act as her at all. Too, Tom Hughes was very suited to play Max Hare, Iris’s helper and romantic interest, and Alex Jennings made a great professor, though the movie never really gets into his fear of hysterical females, which is quite amusing in the book. One wants to know just what he’s experienced with his students at Cambridge. The only false step in casting was perhaps making the possible villains too obvious, but then the book makes them rather obvious as well, though from Iris’s standpoint.

As to the vanishing lady, the story is simply better if you know nothing about the mystery or where it’s going, at least the first time watching. I found the film riveting a second time as I like train settings as well as movies set in the 30s and 40s, and really even if you know the truth you do wonder if Iris is really going mad. It’s fun to imagine what one would do in such a situation, how you would convince doubters to your point of view and all that. It’s funny also to think that often we don’t care about helping strangers until suddenly we do and find we will move heaven and earth if necessary. Sometimes we do act as God’s hands in saving others, even if the rest of the time we’re rather selfish.

High recommendations on both the film and the book (originally called The Wheel Spins), but I haven’t yet read the ending of the book and am curious to see if the film changed the ending. Sometimes screenwriters change the ending for no apparent reason and it irks me to no end.