12

TBR Pile Challenge: The Woman in White

Thanks to the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader, I was able to cross off a book that was on the first page of my list! A book on the first page of my list (it’s in one of those Moleskine agendas) has probably been on my list for several YEARS.

This time, the book that had been waiting for a read was Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

For someone who professes to love crime fiction as much as I do, it astounds me that I only just now read one of the early examples of the genre!

womaninwhite

The plot is more or less thus: Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher, is about to take a position in Cumberland when he meets with a young woman dressed entirely in white one night. She is very agitated and asks for his help to make her way to London. He helps her and it’s only after he sees her safely into a cab that he finds out she has escaped from an asylum. He is completely unsettled by it and when he’s been in Cumberland for a day he makes a connection with the house he’s staying in and the woman in white. And that’s how Walter, his love Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe come to be ensnared in the net that Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco have set.

This book was published in 1859 and in many ways it is very much a product of its time, especially when it comes to its portrayal of women. Women are constantly described as weak and hysterical, their memories can’t be counted on, they need to be protected from really horrible news because they can’t handle it and it’s best if they just stay home and endeavor to be calm. Count Fosco does have a soft spot for calm, collected, brilliant, lovely Marian Halcombe but stops short of full admiration because, after all, she is just a woman and not actually a worthy adversary.

I think that Count Fosco must have been the early inspiration for villains in pop culture. He’s described as an obscenely fat, old man, who moves as silently from room to room as any woman. He is always impeccably dressed and he has a menagerie of pets that he trains every morning and treats as his little children. And he’s completely diabolical. Obviously. While I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of him kind of like this:

gru

It took me a while to get through this book, certainly longer than any of its modern equivalents. Collins really spins his tale and is constantly teasing the reader about what’s to come. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that, like Dickens, Collins wrote this novel as a serial publication. But I really enjoyed it. Compared to modern crime fiction, the crime that’s been committed in The Woman in White is really very tame. There was a moment of “that’s it?” for me, but I quickly admonished myself. The ideas of criminality, of what could shock audiences in 1859 and what we need to shock us now are very different. Which reminds me, I really do need to read The Invention of Murder

So there. I read The Woman in White! And I have The Moonstone kicking around now too.

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19

2015 TBR Pile Challenge: 2 Down, 10 To Go

Signing up for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, as hosted by the Roof Beam Reader (and forced by Amanda and Holly at Gun in Act One to participate) has really made a dent in my TBR Pile.

OK that’s maybe a slight exaggeration. But I’ve owned Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin for a year and now I’ve actually read it. I’m sure I would have continued to overlook it had it not been for this challenge.

I have an on and off relationship with Charles Dickens’ work. Forced to read Hard Times, I wasn’t into it. I’ve had better luck with Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol (obviously) and I loved A Tale of Two Cities. But I started and never finished Nicholas Nickleby and I’m unsure if I will ever read Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House or Little Dorritt.

That said, I was fascinated by the man. I read a biography of his children and it made me want to know more about their father.

dickens

Tomalin really delivers. This biography is a thoroughly honest portrayal of the man. Tomalin, his friends and his family readily admit that Dickens was a great man, but he was not saint. Having written another book about Dickens and his relationship with the actress Nelly Ternan, Tomalin is really familiar with her subject. Every once in a while she steps into the novel to give her opinion on some of the murkier aspects of his life, namely his relationship with Ternan, whether there was an illegitimate child (she thinks there was) and the circumstances around his death.

Here are some of the more interesting things I learned about Dickens reading this biography:

  1. He really was a champion of the poor. Having grown up poor and working his way out of poverty, he never forgot about what it was like to be poor. He raised money for hospitals ministering to child labourers, set up a Home for fallen women, and wrote countless articles and speeches speaking out for the rights of the working classes. Hard working people always felt he was on their side.
  2. He only wanted three children. He thought that a family of three children was the height of gentility and always resented the fact that he went on to have six additional children (like he had nothing to do with it). He loved his daughters but was constantly disappointed by his sons, except for Henry, the only one of his sons to make any kind of success of himself.
  3. He walked a lot. He always said that if he was unable to walk, he would be unable to write. In the prime of his life, he could walk 4 miles in an hour (!). Later in life, when he was unable to walk due to the swelling of his foot, he found himself unable to write to the same degree.
  4. He wasn’t great at writing women. Tomalin attributes his inability to write realistic female characters (they tend to hysterical outbursts, hair pulling, and tearful begging) to the termination of a relationship with Maria Beadnell, a woman he was in love with for three years in his early 20s. He always blamed her afterwards for his inability to show affection, especially to his children.
  5. He travelled extensively. He spent long periods of time in Italy, France, Switzerland and embarked on reading tours throughout America. After his first trip to America, he wrote about his less than favourable impressions. Happily, after his second trip, he was a lot more impressed with the place. Boston was his favourite American city.

I think if I had been more familiar with his work, I would have got more out of the book. It kind of reminded me of Keith Richards’ autobiography where he talks about the music, how they wrote it, what he was feeling at the time, what they were trying to achieve. That level of information is only really interesting to the die hard fans. The same could be said of this biography, going over the people, places and experiences that formed his stories and characters. I skipped some descriptions of the books, mostly to save from spoiling the endings should I ever decide to read them after all.

But overall, this was as good a biography as I could have hoped to read.

16

What Should I Read?

If you’re a book lover than I know you have the same problem as me: buying more books when there are still loads of unread books sitting on the shelves.

In an effort to get some of those read sooner rather than later, I need some peer pressure, which is where you come in.

I would like for you to choose one of the books I read before the end of the year. The end of the year probably sounds like a massive amount of time to get this reading in but actually we’re already well into October and November will be here before you know it and then the holidays will hit and I’m not heading to any cozy, log house for the holidays this year. That’s where I get my best reading done!

Without further ado, here are some of the books languishing on my shelves. Which should I read? Vote at the bottom!

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. I’ve read about his children and I’ve read some of his work and I really want to read this bio but I haven’t yet. I’ve also just found out that Tomalin wrote a biography of Jane Austen which is something I’m going to be looking into!

Carry on Jeeves by PG Wodehouse. I read a Jeeves omnibus last year and it was looooong. Which is probably why this little volume has been flying under the radar but I do love a good Jeeves story or two.

A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Survival in World War Two by Caroline Moorehead. I realized the other day how long I have been holding onto this one – Moorehead just had another book published about a village in France. I think I shy away from this one every time because I think it will be a difficult read but maybe it’s time has come?

Night Film by Marisha Pessl. When I first got this book (for Christmas) I was so excited to read it. And then every time I went to go and do just that, I would flip through it and think that maybe it was too scary for me. But Halloween is coming up…

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. I know that reading this book will kill my book stats but since there is very little hope of beating my insane 2013 reading total of 115, maybe now’s the time to take the hit?

 

8

The Mystery of Princess Louise

Once I made my way through Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, I thought it was probably a good idea to remind myself how far women have actually come.

Perusing my shelves, I decided to read Lucinda Hawskley’s The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter.

Promising title right?

If you watched The Young Victoria with Emily Blunt (I did. Loved it) you’d be forgiven for thinking that Queen Victoria was a loving, open-hearted woman who adored her family because you would be wrong. Queen Victoria adored her husband and resented anything (her children) that took her time away from him. She detested the business of actually having children and begrudged those of her children who wished to have their own lives (the nerve!).

princesslou

Princess Louise was the 6th of her children, after Victoria, Albert (Edward VII), Alice, Alfred and Helena, before Arthur, Leopold and Beatrice (when you win Trivial Pursuit because you read this, you can thank me). I will admit to being personally delighted with this book right away – Princess Louise and I share a birthday and that has never happened with any biography I’ve read before. Her mother thought she was stubborn and rebellious, although she would admit that she was quite good looking. Louise was close to her brothers Albert, Arthur and Leopold but would spend a lifetime at loggerheads with one sister or another, usually coddled baby Beatrice.

Lucinda Hawksley (a great-great-great-great granddaughter of Charles Dickens) became interested in Princess Louise after researching biographies of notable Victorian artists (like Kate Perugini, a daughter of Dickens’) and seeing her name everywhere. When she went to look into her life further, she found that a lot of the documents relating to her were locked up in the Royal Archives without access.

Bucking trends would become a lifelong habit of Princess Louise’s. She became the first royal daughter to be educated at a public school. She became a sculptor of some talent, even getting her mother to agree to setting aside studio space for her. She was very active in the artistic community of the day and was a supporter of the suffrage movement as well. These activities, especially any to do with Women’s Rights, became complicated by her mother’s total disagreement with the cause – for Queen Victoria, a woman’s place was in the home.

It would appear that before Louise married she became involved with a tutor of her brother’s and may have had an illegitimate child. According to Hawksley, this child grew up aware that she was his mother and the ties between the adoptive family and the Royal family were inexplicable otherwise.

Louise refused to marry a foreign prince, making her the first British princess to marry a “commoner” (he was a Duke) since the 1500s. She endeared herself to the British people but her family thought she was marrying down, bringing common blood into the royal family. She travelled all over the world with her husband, especially North America after he (the Marquess of Lorne, later Duke of Argyll) was appointed the Governor-General of Canada. Rumours of his homosexuality have plagued the couple for generations.

Living in Canada, I was delighted with the Canadian connections to Louise. Canadians wanted to name a Western territory after her, so she suggested they use her middle name, Alberta. After she had left, Lake Louise was also named in her honour.

Princess Louise lived a good long time – she died in 1939 at the age of 91.

Hawksley’s biography of Princess Louise is a thoughtful well researched (especially considering all of the roadblocks she encountered) account of one of the most interesting princesses of her day. Because of the secrecy surrounding so much of her life, Princess Louise has dropped off as a notable person of her day but Hawksley’s work should go a long way to bringing her back to the fore where she belongs.

10

Charles Dickens as a Dad

As you may or may not know, Charles Dickens and I have had our ups and downs. We finally came to an understanding when I read (and loved) A Tale of Two Cities but before that, aside from the delight that is A Christmas Carol, I wasn’t sure that we would ever get along. I mean seriously, Hard Times?

Dickens' kids

According to Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, his children had a similar relationship with him.

To be fair, he did have nine children (he blamed his wife for the number of children they had, like he had nothing to do with it) that survived to adulthood. Maybe he was just overwhelmed with numbers.

So he had nine children, two daughters (Mamie and Katey) and seven sons (Charley, Walter, Alfred, Francis, Sydney, Henry, Plorn). Seven sons! What Henry VIII wouldn’t have given for seven sons. He was pretty decent towards his daughters, they really had no major complaints. But those sons of his – he was a hardass dad.

I don’t know much about Charles Dickens’ childhood but I know that he basically grew up in a workhouse and through sheer determination (and a whole lot of talent) he became the most famous novelist, possibly ever. His children, growing up wealthy with little to worry them, lacked that same gumption and it really bothered Daddy Dickens. So he shipped his sons all over the world and withheld his approval.

He also separated from his wife to set up a home with his mistress, and took the children away from her. If the children went to visit their mother, he barely spoke with them. Kind of manipulative really.

Considering this book covers nine people’s lives, it’s really short. Just 239 pages. It’s well written and actually a fairly straightforward read (I read it in a day, really helped pad my reading stats) but I couldn’t help feeling like it only scratched the surface. One of his daughters (Katey) ended up becoming a rather famous artist, while one of his sons (Henry) was a well respected judge (the only one of his children he ever felt amounted to anything) but their lives are still condensed into a few pages. Two of his sons died in the navy, two made a go of things in Australia and one of them was even a Canadian Mountie!

I’d say the best thing about the Dickens’ offspring is their names. Their first names are ordinary enough but their middle names! Tennyson, D’Orsay, Fielding, Haldimand, Bulwer, Lytton, Landor and…Jeffrey. I should point out that the youngest son, Plorn, was actually called Edward but Dickens’ nickname for him stuck so he was forever after known as Plorn.

Honestly I was surprised that Charles Dickens was such a tough and critical father but I guess he was a Victorian so maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising. It’s definitely made me want to read more about him – Claire Tomalin’s biography of him has been on my list for ages so maybe it’s time to look for that one a little more actively.

Did you ever read about someone famous and come away surprised by the reality?

5

On The Shelf

For Christmas I got a whack of gift certificates to my book store of choice and despite having several books already awaiting my attention on my bookshelves, I decided not to wait to use them.

It was such a satisfying trip. I could buy pretty much whatever I wanted. The freedom!

OK but actually it was really hard. Anyone that’s ever had a glimpse at my To Read list (I carry a version around with me. It’s ok, you can mock me) will know that this was a lot more difficult than it should have been.

After the initial wave of sheer joy washed over me, I realized that I would never be able to buy all the books that I wanted. But I did my best. I decided to put together a list of some of the books that I bought (a couple I’ve already read: At Home and The Virgin Suicides) as well as some of the other books that are already sitting on my shelf waiting for me to love them. Some of them have waited a long time.

Far From The Tree by Adam Solomon. I am so excited to read this book. I’ve read a few articles about it (like this one) but in a nutshell it’s about parenting the children that aren’t exactly like us. That’s a really terrible nutshell. Let’s just say that I ran across it, read the first line and knew that I needed to read it. I don’t even have kids!

The Hidden Child by Camilla Lackberg. I don’t think I need to explain myself here. This is book 5 in the Fjallbacka trilogy I keep going on about. I think we’re finally going to get more Erika Falck after she was sidelined having a fictional baby! Not that I don’t love Patrik Hedstrom, I totally do. I just missed Erika’s take on things.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Seems a crime to leave a Dickens sitting on the shelf doesn’t it? But this one has been waiting a while. Very possibly since 2011. I always mean to grab it. And then I don’t. But since reading this I’ve decided that I really do need more classics in my life and if Dickens doesn’t fit that bill, what does?

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I read The Age of Innocence last year (first Pullitzer won by a woman what!) and I loved it so much (seriously, such a great story) that I thought I should read some more. The House of Mirth is my next choice. It also fits in very nicely with my ‘classics’ reading.

Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire. Are you obsessed by Wicked: The Musical? You are right? Who isn’t! Have you read the book? Such a great twist on a classic. And then there was Son of a Witch (great title), and A Lion Among Men. Now finally: the conclusion. I waited and waited for this to come out in paperback and then it did and I bought it and now it’s been waiting while I got distracted by other shiny reads.

Onwards: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul by Howard Schultz. I am a Starbucks addict. I’ve been trying to cut back. It’s not easy. You know why? Because when I go to ‘my’ Starbucks they are really happy to see me, they know my name and my drink. It’s hard to walk away from that. How did they do that? There’s a book that has the answers!

There you have it. A list of some of the books waiting for me to love them. What do you have waiting on your bookshelf?

3

The 2012 Review

This is the time of year when everyone looks back on the past 12 months and looks at the best and worst of etc.

I’d like to pretend like I’m different, but I’m not.

This was a big reading year for me.

I’m working through my Top 5 or other arbitrary number list in my head, but in the meantime I thought I’d look back at my reading trends and feelings this year.

Up for it? It’s happening, you don’t actually have a choice.

Like I said – big reading year for me. I make a goal for myself each year. In the past it’s been a bit lofty and I’ve handicapped myself by having to choose books that I think will get me to my goal. At the same time if I choose a goal that’s too low, it’s not going to be any kind of a challenge. This year I settled on 50. Left me room to play around with bigger books but also, 50 books is a lot.

I surpassed my goal. By a lot. As of today I’m working on finishing my 81st book. Which is the most I’ve ever read since I started keeping track of the books I read each year. And let’s face it, probably ever.

This year I discovered the delights of Agatha Christie. I never thought I was a murder mystery kind of reader but I am. I really really am. Aside from Agatha Christie, I devoured works by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and Camilla Lackberg (The Ice Princess, The Preacher, The Stonecutter, The Stranger). I even read a real life crime book about a serial killer in Paris during World War II. That book was a lot more difficult to read. Like terrifying.

My failure to read Les Miserables in time for the movie’s release notwithstanding, I did seem to be drawn to books about the French Revolution. Charles Dickens and I came to an understanding when I fell in love with A Tale of Two Cities and I gave Michelle Moran a chance to wow me (she did) when I picked up Madame Tussaud despite the awful cover. While I was fascinated by the French, I became enamoured of Russian Royals, learning all about Catherine the Great thanks to the incredible biography by Robert K. Massie. That turned into a bit of an obsession with Nicholas and Alexandra and I just picked up a book about Royal Russian women by Julia P. Gelardi (which I’m really excited about because she wrote one of my very favourite royal biographies about the five granddaughters of Queen Victoria who each became a Queen in her own right).

My book club had a big impact on my reading choices this year. Our selections ranged from so-so to downright scandalous once we started on the Fifty Shades phenomenon. I was also on the hunt for anything that might have something to do with Downton Abbey and I finished off all of the available Song of Ice and Fire books. I caved and read The Hunger Games books (which I loved), and tried my best to read War and Peace, but was ultimately foiled when my copy was missing a sizeable chunk of pages. I still haven’t managed to sort that out – when I took a copy out of the library to read the missing pages, it was a completely different version.

It was a pretty low key year for non-fiction, something I plan to work on in the New Year. I did manage to continue my love affair with Malcolm Gladwell (he kind of changed my life with Outliers this year) and was completely fascinated by the lives of the Kennedy Women (Lawrence Leamer) and members of The President’s Club.

This was also a year when I made a lot of book mistakes, which was kind of a first for me. There were a number of books that I read that I just didn’t care for. A couple that I abandoned altogether (Catch-22, Little Shadows, The Vampire Lestat) and others that I struggled through that I wanted to abandon (The Stranger’s Child, The Prague Cemetery, Bride of New France, The Firefly Cloak).

But in the end, I read almost 81 books. And that’s pretty badass.