Saturday, January 23, 2010

6. The Dante Club

The Dante Club, a novel written by Matthew Pearl, is a riveting, twisting murder mystery centered around several Boston poets-turned-detectives: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell, and their publisher, J.T. Fields. When a murderer is stalking through the streets of Boston, committing crimes in imitation of the punishments described in Dante's Inferno, the police are more or less helpless and these literary men are the only one who realize what is happening and can work to stop the murderer.

It's set in 1865, and I must say, I enjoyed the historical details immensely. The social attitudes, the city landmarks that are still familiar and recognizable and those that are gone - all of these are brilliant reading for anyone who loves Boston. Likewise, the lives of the poets are excellently rendered, so that they are no longer mere historical figures or Great Literary Men, but mortal men who mourn their wives, argue with their sons, and listen to their daughters' prayers before bedtime. It's richly textured and almost bewitching.

That said, in places the novel is rather too richly textured. This is a murder mystery, after all, not a historical drama, and some of the murders are quite gruesome. The plot is so gripping that it can be quite hard to put the book down, even when the reader is squirming in empathy with the unfortunate victims - in short, this is not recommended reading during mealtime or just before bedtime!

Nonetheless, if read in broad daylight and far away from shadows and suspicious corners, this is definitely a book I'd recommend. The characters were wonderfully drawn, the setting was marvellous, and the plot was ingenious - all in all, quite the enjoyable read!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

4. Darcy's Story and 5. The Confession of Fitzwilliam Darcy

Both Darcy's Story and The Confession of Fitzwilliam Darcy are (as one might glean from their titles) retellings of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from Mr. Darcy's point of view. Pride and Prejudice has been so well-beloved by readers for generations that it is perhaps hardly surprising that there are so many adaptations and reimaginations of the story; I have also read and enjoyed Pamela Aidan's trilogy, which is written with the same premise, and there are many other examples, including both retellings of the story from Darcy's point of view or continuations of the story after the ending that Austen gave it.

Given that any retelling of the story from Darcy's point of view is limited by Austen's original text, it seems unfair to ding Janet Aylmer's Darcy's Story by criticizing it for a lack of originality ... but it's simply impossible not to do so. Aylmer copies large parts of her text from Austen's novel, particularly the dialogue, and her Darcy is the same reserved, uncommunicative gentleman that we meet in Pride and Prejudice. In other words, I don't feel any closer to Darcy for having read this - apart from one or two details about Georgiana, Darcy's Story doesn't add anything to the characters that is not present in the original text.

Especially compared to Austen's wit and writing style, the passages that Aylmer has written suffer in comparison. The text drags on, perhaps especially because sections of it are extremely repetitive - and especially when Aylmer repeats quotes from Austen's text, it's unnecessary, as the large majority of her readers are Austenites who are familiar with the fact that Mr. Darcy is a reserved gentleman who envies others their ease at social interactions.

Mary Street's The Confession of Fitzwilliam Darcy is a much better read - she doesn't quite manage to capture Jane Austen's language, or write with the same wit that Austen uses, but her version of Darcy is a much more interesting character. He isn't a cardboard silhouette of the original Pride and Prejudice Darcy, as Aylmer's character was - there are scenes that didn't occur in the original novel and there are new insights into Darcy's character. Darcy here is much more passionate, and the break that comes in his character after Elizabeth's refusal of his first proposal is quite convincing, and almost as painful to read as it must have been to experience.

Instead of leading the reader through the story step by step, as Aylmer does, Street's novel works very well for the reader who has already read Pride and Prejudice and knows the story from Elizabeth's point of view - several of Darcy's misapprehensions are diverting on that basis. Likewise, Street does a better job of managing dialogue, and while there are some lines that are direct quotes from Pride and Prejudice, she manages to paraphrase or work around having to repeat entire speeches. In some cases, this style works better than in others - juxtaposing Austen's words with Street's doesn't make for a seamless, perfectly flowing narrative - but on the whole, I found it infinitely preferable to wholesale quotation of large portions of text.

As a confirmed Austenite, I don't expect that I'll ever find a rendition of that pleases me as much as the original. Pride and Prejudice. Darcy's Story is one that I would skip, if I had the choice of reading it again, but on the other hand, I did find The Confessions of Fitzwilliam Darcy to be an engaging read. It brought something new to the narrative, instead of casting the story from a slightly different camera angle, and I had pleasure in the insights into Darcy's character that I gained from reading this book.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

3. Whitethorn Woods

I usually find Maeve Binchy's books to be an enjoyable read, and Whitethorn Woods is no exception to that. Binchy shines at voice and characterization, painting a vivid picture of small town life in Ireland. In Whitethorn Woods, she unites seemingly unconnected characters by their common interest in a proposed new road that would pass through the site of a sacred well where villagers bring prayers to St. Ann.

However, I don't feel that she unites the characters quite as well in this book as she does in some of her other works, perhaps because she's dealing with such a large cast of characters that are going in many different directions - everywhere from Israel, Italy, New York City, or England, and back to Ireland. Many of the characters are given only a short section in the book, and especially when it comes to some of the more disturbed characters - the murderess, the extortionist brother, the woman who steals a baby - it seems almost sensationalist because it lacks the space to thoroughly explore the characters and their motivations.

Rather than being a novel, it's more a collection of short stories, and some of them are more satisfying than others. I'm still not convinced by the murderess who arranged for a taxi driver who was contemplating suicide to take her boyfriend's newest fling with him, but I enjoyed many of the other stories a great deal: Father Flynn, who struggles with finding a place for himself as a priest in modern society, Maureen and Rivka, the friends who only ever had one secret from each other, Neddy who is "not the sharpest knife in the drawer" and likes it that way, and sixty-year-old Vera who goes on a singles vacation with twenty-year-olds. Their stories are charming, vivid, and real - Binchy, as always, is a master at capturing human emotions on the page.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

2. A Natural History of the Senses

Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses is a guided tour of the range of human experiences as perceived through our five senses. Ackerman proceeds through each sense in its turn, discussing the biology of perception and giving examples or anecdotes. It is meant to open the reader's senses and encourage the reader to experience the world more vividly and in a sense, it succeeds. However, the narrative is so laden with Ackerman's own point of view that it is more of an exploration of her senses and experiences than anything else. Her worldview and morals intrude and impinge on her message, as do some prolonged, almost rambling, navel-gazing passages.

My main complaint with the book, however, is its superficiality. There are paragraphs full of unconnected sentences - for example, speaking of hair, Ackerman goes from lockets, to courtly love, to the etymology of kaiser and tsar, to Samson and Gilgamesh, to World War II, to orthodox Jews and Rastafarians, to modern hair styles and the changes in hair styles through the decades - all in a two page, thirty sentence paragraph. Ironically, she uses footnotes to share "unrelated" pieces of information, such as the etymology of a "lock" of hair ... but in fact, most of this book is more suited to be footnotes. If you want a cocktail party conversation starter, or if you just want the thrill of reading a book that discusses topics as diverse as the Empress Josephine's perfume, Christ's foreskin, and Stradivarius violins ... this is the perfect book to read. If you want a book that gives more than simple, cursory explanations and factoids ... this is not the book for you. Ackerman breezes past everything too quickly to do anything justice.

Her facile treatment of subjects shows especially when it comes to the science she discusses. For example, she points out that milk protein reacts with the tannins in tea, blocking their absorption by the body, and then goes on to say that esophageal cancer is higher in Japan than in England, where milk is added to tea. Milk may in fact be the key factor in the lower cancer rates, but it is by no means the only possible explanation. Ackerman doesn't discuss the differences in environment and heredity or any other factors that could have an effect - in this, and in other instances, she presents the obvious answer and that is apparently the end of the story, as far as she is concerned.

The science of the book is not necessarily worth reading, either. Ackerman shows a cursory understanding of evolution, and in many cases, the information she presents is overly simplified or outdated. Moreover, while she cites the authors and historians that she quotes, she very rarely gives credit to the scientists who performed the research that she cites. She occasionally does cite names, but for the most part, it's "researchers in Japan" or "a neurologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine." The implicit bias against scientists is disturbing, and makes it more difficult to easily check her claims or do more research into the topic.

By and large, A Natural History of the Senses is a throw-away book. While the idea of exploring the world to its limits and truly appreciating the information given to us by our senses is appealing, Ackerman's treatment of it is not. She oversimplifies complex topics, rushes through subjects with hysterical, overwrought prose, and indulges in more navel-gazing than is palatable.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

1. Angels & Insects

Angels & Insects is by A.S. Byatt, who is perhaps better known as the author of Possession, and is the compilation of two novellas, Morpho Eugenia and The Conjugial Angel. The two novellas stand in clear contradistinction to one another, with the first exploring themes of science and faith and the second, spiritualism and the supernatural. As in Possession, she presents stories against a richly textured historical background, setting these in Victorian England, with Darwin's work informing the biological sciences explored in Morpho Eugenia and Swedenborg's writings influencing the spiritualists in The Conjugial Angel. These two novellas provide distinctly different glimpses into Victorian England, but ones which are perhaps complementary in their approach to questions of faith and belief.

William Adamson, the shipwrecked, penniless naturalist who is the protagonist of Morpho Eugenia, observes English society as something of an outsider, having spent a decade in the Amazon and being separated by class barriers from the family where he is staying, the Alabasters. At the same time, he observes the social lives of insects, particularly ants, and often draws parallels between their societies and the human ones that he has experienced. While modern scientists might hesitate to draw such clear analogies between insect and human societies, Adamson's musings were appropriate for the era, and function in the larger context of his debates on Darwinian evolution versus creationism with his patron, Harald Alabaster.

In The Conjugial Angel, Lilias Papagay and Sophy Sheekhy are working as mediums to the spirit world for a group of people who wish to make contact with the departed. This novella features some discussion of the theology of spiritualism, but devolves in several places into long, lyrical passages of poetry. The effect of contact with the spirits of the departed is explored primarily through two characters: Mrs. Hearnshaw, who had lost five children, and Mrs. Jesse, who married another man after her first love died tragically. There are several very vivid encounters with the spirit world, primarily through Sophy, who has disturbing visions of Mrs. Jesse's dead betrothed, but in the end, Byatt throws shadows of doubt on the truth of these contacts with spirits and the focus of Lilas and Sophy is brought back to the world of flesh and blood.

Throughout both novellas, Byatt's prose is lush and beautiful, as sensual as the language of the poets she praises. Her narratives, however, sometimes are obscured by the beautiful language, instead of being enhanced by it, and her plots overall (in both these novellas and in Possession) suffer from long interruptions of other poetry and prose, whether it beby quotations from William Adamson's treatise on the ants or quotations from Tennyson's poems. In these interruptions, the story seems more like a term paper written for a college course, heavy with citations and block quotes, and the plot drags on limply through the interruptions. In spite of this, however, Byatt's style is somewhat reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor's - her writing style is not the same, but like O'Connor, she uses the twist of a surprising ending to great effect. Because of these surprise endings, there are no real pat answers, and both novellas are full of food for thought, and rich with human nature and questions of philosophy and religion.