Monday, July 20, 2015

The Grand Sophy

The Grand Sophy
by Georgette Heyer

When the redoubtable Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy is ordered to South America on Diplomatic Business he parks his only daughter Sophy with his sister's family, the Ombersleys, in Berkeley Square.

Upon her arrival, Sophy is bemused to see to see her cousins are in a sad tangle. The heartless and tyrannical Charles is betrothed to a pedantic bluestocking almost as tiresome as himself; Cecilia is besotted with a beautiful but quite feather-brained poet; and Hubert has fallen foul of a money-lender.

It looks like the Grand Sophy has arrived just in time to sort them out, but she hasn't reckoned with Charles, the Ombersleys' heir, who has only one thought - to marry her off and rid the family of her meddlesome ways.

My Reaction:
This is an enjoyable Regency read.  If read chiefly as a love story, it will most likely disappoint, for it's very light on the romance.  Think of this more as an amusing Regency romp and you'll be better prepared.  Humorous, joyful, and entertaining.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- "...What misery for my dear aunt and those poor children to have that Friday-faced creature setting them all to rights!"  Evidently, to be "Friday-faced" is to have a sad, solemn, or mournful expression.  It's in reference to Good Friday.

--  "magniloquently"-- pompously or boastfully.

--  One element of Regency life that has come up in at least two of the few Heyer's Regency novels I've read so far-- and which I find utterly uninteresting-- is boxing.  What a bore!  It certainly doesn't make me think more highly of the hero to learn that he's a boxer.  It's just... essentially unappealing.  In fact, I have to sympathize with Eugenia's opinion that boxing is "a peculiarly low form of [sport]." 

--  When Sophy pulls out a pistol... Ha!  As if it wasn't bad enough, her bringing a monkey as a gift for the children!  She's also a gunslinger!  This book doesn't have the  most realistic tone, is what I'm saying.  ;o)

--  Sophy must cast some sort of spell over Charles, to induce him to fire the pistol inside his home (just to prove his markmanship).  Of course, Sophy fires the pistol inside, too, later in the book... I guess it's less of a worry to do so if you are fabulously wealthy and have servants to take care of whatever mess you might make.  (As long as you aren't worried about ricocheting or the bullet going through a wall and hitting some innocent person.)

--  I find it interesting that some of the characters judge others so harshly for not wanting to risk catching whatever illness it is that afflicts Amabel.  I mean, yes, someone needs to care for her-- but why should strangers/acquaintances feel obliged to come into a known sickhouse, when they can't do any real good?  And why is it automatically a sign of cowardice for Eugenia's mother to not want Charles to potentially bring the germs into her own home, on a visit?  Seems like common sense to limit exposure.  No offense, Charles, but no, I don't want to catch your sister's terrible fever, if I can help it.

--  It seems that some people don't like it when-- or at least don't understand why-- some readers compare Heyer's Regency novels to the works of Jane Austen.  I'm of the group that feels it is impossible not to think of Austen when reading a Heyer Regency novel.  This work in particular feels like a riff on Pride and Prejudice.  There were so many times when something in The Grand Sophy recalled a character, conversation, or event in P and P.  Obviously it's a very different book-- and the two authors wrote in very different ways and for different purposes-- but that doesn't mean it's unreasonable to compare the two or find one reminiscent of the other.

-- "divagation" = a departure from the subject under consideration.

--  I was surprised to learn that Mathilda had not "the least notion of cookery", considering that she's the only female at Sophy's family home and must be responsible for feeding not only herself, but also her husband (the caretaker) and probably the man who keeps the stables.  How could she not know how to cook?!  However, later on it seems that she does indeed cook, but just not up to the standards expected by Sophy and the rest of her class.  How wonderfully snobbish!  They can't settle for just one simple meal fit for mere country-folk?  And yet we're expected to believe that the indolent, wealthy Sancia is familiar with cooking chicken and eggs?  I'm skeptical. (Or did I forget something that would explain this?  Maybe Sancia was not always well-to-do...)

--  The romantic conclusion felt more comedic than steamy, dreamy, sweet or any other word more typically descriptive of romance.  It was inevitable that those two should wind up together-- and I was cheering it along all the way through-- yet somehow, the actual coming together was merely so-so.

--  It seems that one mustn't read Heyer for romance, because it's generally spread so thin as to be a mere condiment instead of a real dish.  Her novels make for a tasty meal, but (based on what I've read so far) the principal flavor is humor-- not romance.

Friday, July 10, 2015

"The Gardener"

"The Gardener"
by E.F. Benson

While staying with a friend and his wife (in the hopes of getting in a few rounds of golf), our narrator experiences a (quite literal) brush with the supernatural-- featuring "planchette".

My Reaction:
This was a shared read with Donald, which is unusual, as we don't regularly choose short stories-- much less "creepy" stories-- for our read-aloud material.  We'd just finished one book and had yet to settle on the next, so a short story was a good temporary fix.

Though it isn't a breath-taking effort, I liked the story pretty well.  There were a couple of decently chilling moments-- particularly those where Margaret uses the planchette.  However, because the book we'd just finished reading was (Benson's own) Lucia in London, which features planchette in a very humorous, winking manner, it was maybe the tiniest bit difficult to take it completely seriously.  (Well, as seriously as we ever could...) 

Monday, July 6, 2015

More Short Stories

This time, it's more audio-format short stories.  All are from the same LibriVox collection-- Short Ghost and Horror Collection 010.  (Note: I'm skipping some of the more familiar stories in this collection-- such as a couple of Poe's-- unless the mood to revisit them strikes at just the right time...)

"The Oval Portrait"
by Edgar Allan Poe

I don't remember reading this one before; it must be one of Poe's lesser-known tales.  The idea of an artist capturing someone's essence so perfectly that you sap the very life from their veins is not a completely new one, by modern standards, but it might have been more startling when this was written.  If nothing else, it's a quick story... but I doubt it will linger long in my mind.

After finishing the story, I heard echoes of old literature lectures-- specifically regarding Poe's obsession with beauty and death and most particularly the death of a beautiful woman.

From a more rational, skeptical point of view (one that is admittedly probably best left out of things altogether when reading this type of thing), that book the narrator was reading-- with the histories of the paintings in the room-- was exceptionally detailed! ;o)  The artist himself must have either written it or at least passed along a full account of events. 

"The Hand of the Mandarin Quong"
by Sax Rohmer

I listened to this one in two sessions, because I dozed off in the middle.  (Oops!  Someone needed a nap...)

This story makes use of a creepy classic horror motif-- the disembodied hand in search of vengeance.

There are a few "product of its time" moments (including a racial slur) that might offend, trouble, or otherwise bother modern readers-- but honestly, when reading old books/stories, it helps to remember that things change, and most likely, no particular offense was meant by the author.  (And of course you don't have to read it.) 

"The Golgotha Dancers"
by Manly Wade Wellman

This story makes use of a different classic horror motif-- the "haunted"/possessed painting.

Pretty creepy (though the last line made me laugh because it seemed so unnecessary and out of place).  The description of the painting brings to mind surrealist works, and it's interesting that the narrator was in the museum to see the works of Goya (if I remember correctly), several of which are themselves disturbing.

"The Stone Coffin"
by B

...Shall we continue telling which "classic horror motif" is central to each story?  Or make a switch to "the moral of this story is..."?  Let's just leave it at this: If you happen upon a mysterious coffin, it's wise to treat it (and its contents) with respect. 

"The Dead Valley"
by Ralph Adams Cram

This is one of my favorite stories in the collection, thus far.  Perhaps I was biased from the beginning, as I'm always interested when the main character turns out to be Swedish, as in this case-- but there's more to it than that.  There's just enough mystery and just enough detail-- all supplemented with oodles of Weirdness.

I missed the name of the author at the beginning of the story, and as I listened, wondered if it might have been written by Algernon Blackwood, because aspects of it reminded me so strongly of some of his works. 

I don't want to give away too much, but-- that little dog!! 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Lucia in London

Lucia in London 
by E.F. Benson

Using her best social-climbing instincts and refusing to be embarrassed, Lucia sets out to conquer London and mingle with the beau monde. Soon a secret group of "Luciaphiles" springs up; the social climbers who make up its rank never tire of watching her get into and out of all kinds of trouble.

My Reaction:
This go around, I'm reading this series aloud with Donald, and I believe I'm enjoying them even more than the first time I read them!  They're just wonderful.

For much of this book, Lucia feels less like the main character, while Georgie takes on a bigger role-- but no matter who's the focus at the moment, there are always plenty of laughs.

SPOILER to follow...

Knowing what's coming next (in Mapp and Lucia) made parts of this book a little bittersweet, which feels almost strange, considering how amusing they are... But as much as I look forward to a return of the Tillingites, it's a bit sad to think of leaving behind "poor Daisy" and (most of) the rest of Riseholme-- and when Pepino becomes ill near the end of this book I can't help but remember a certain event described in the beginning of the next book...  ~sniffle~

(There.  The SPOILER's all done!)

...But all that aside, I'm looking forward to seeing Miss Mapp and Lucia meet (again).  It's been long enough since my first read that I've forgotten a lot of it.  We'll read at least a book or two by a different author before returning to this series-- but I'm already anticipating Mapp and Lucia!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Come Along With Me

Come Along With Me
by Shirley Jackson

In her gothic visions of small-town America, Jackson, the author of such masterworks as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, turns an ordinary world into a supernatural nightmare. This eclectic collection goes beyond her horror writing, revealing the full spectrum of her literary genius. In addition to Come Along with Me, Jackson's unfinished novel about the quirky inner life of a lonely widow, it features sixteen short stories and three lectures she delivered during her last years.

My Reaction:
Shirley Jackson's unique style shines through here-- more so in some pieces than others.  My favorites from this collection would probably be Come Along With Me (though of course it's unfinished), "The Summer People" (though I skipped it this time, as I'd read it fairly recently), "A Visit", "The Rock", "A Day in the Jungle", "The Little House", and "The Bus". 

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--Come Along With Me
I enjoyed this unfinished novel more than any of the short stories.  Memorable.  Amusing, but also curious, with a good seasoning of the bizarre.  What a shame that it will never be finished!  

-"He looked at me; I must say I like it better when they look at you; a lot of the time people seem to be scared of finding out that other people have real faces, as though if you looked at a stranger clearly and honestly and with both eyes you might find yourself learning something you didn't actually want to know."  ...It depends on how I'm feeling.  I think I used to make eye contact and smile more often than I do now-- unless I'm in an especially good mood.  These days, I'm more likely to be one of the people avoiding that connection.  Sometimes, you just don't want the stress of human interaction.  If I can help someone by speaking to them/answering a question, I'm glad to do so, but to make eye contact with every stranger I pass... No, it doesn't hold much appeal.

-"'I've just buried my husband,' I said.  'I've just buried mine,' she said.  'Isn't it a relief?' I said.  'What?' she said.  'It was a very sad occasion,' I said.  'You're right,' she said, 'it's a relief.'"

-On having the second sight:  "I could see what the cat saw." 

-"If more people kept more things to themselves this world would be a better place."  ...Good thing you didn't live in the Internet age, lady.

-Mrs. Angela Motorman's dislike of department stores-- and enjoyment of a good fight with them and the telephone company-- reminded me of some of Jackson's other works that I've read.  Trouble with/dislike of department stores seems to be a theme with her!

Wha...?  I don't think I completely got this one.  Maybe there's nothing to get, beyond a feeling of deep unease over the disconnect between Janice's cheerful, casual manner and the troubling nature of what she's saying.

-- "Tootie in Peonage"
Ugh, M'Tootie is one of those characters that you can't help but hate.  (Or at least that was my reaction to her.)

--"A Cauliflower in Her Hair"
Another that was an exercise in frustration.  Mr. Garland needs a good slap across the face, but Mrs. Garland irritates, too.   ...Still, I reserve my finest dislike for Mr. Garland.  Irk irk irk!

--"I Know Who I Love"
This one... I was sad for Catharine, but at some point it felt a tinge too melodramatic.  And then the end... Sad, again.  Emptiness.

--"The Beautiful Stranger"
I don't know what to think!  Very, very odd-- and oddest of all, that ending.

--"The Summer People"
I've read that one before, so I skipped it this time.

We're probably "supposed" to sympathize more with Mrs. Montague than Miss Oakes... I have sympathy for both, but the part of the story from Mrs. Montague's perspective just tires me.

--"A Visit"
After starting this one, I recognized it as one I'd already read, but I decided to stick with it, as it's an intriguing story. 

--"The Rock"
This one leaves me with questions-- which is true for just about all of Jackson's stories, I think.  Is the mysterious Mr. Johnson Death?  (He's come for one of the two lady visitors-- "It had to be one or the other of you..."-- though he doesn't care which he gets.)  Or is he the Devil?  (He seems to spend most of his time sowing seeds of discontent and suspicion-- trying to stir up doubt in Paula's mind about her relationships and her future.  He casually suggests that parts of the house could be at risk of fire, but she'd be perfectly safe in this room... Hint, hint.)  Why can the landlady, Mrs. Carter, see and hear him?  Is she a ghost?

--"A Day in the Jungle"
After starting out as the story of a woman fleeing an unhappy marriage, this tale suddenly veers off to a very odd place.  On a short walk through the city, the protagonist suffers from a series of bizarre fears, one following closely on the heels of another-- and by the time she reaches her destination, where she's meeting with her estranged husband, she seems to have forgotten why she left him at all, in her relief at the safe familiarity he represents.  Is she using his familiarity as a crutch?  By staying with her "safe" husband, is she settling for the devil she knows?  Or is her husband perhaps not so bad after all?  Maybe this mental/emotional instability/unreliability is the norm for her.

--"Pajama Party"
This brought back memories of elementary school slumber parties and sleepovers.  Yes, there's a lot of truth in this story.  However, the father seems like a grump.  (Of course an eleven-year-old can handle a party with four of her friends!  Good grief!)  And the older brother seems to think he runs the joint... But aside from that and the rather ridiculous "dueling record players" segment, I enjoyed this jaunt down memory lane.

-"When Jannie came home from school I made her lie down and rest, pointing out in one of the most poignant understatements of my life that she would probably be up late that night."

-"Linda's party dress was of orlon [acrylic], which all of them simply adored.  Linda said if she did say it herself, the ruffles never got limp."

 --"Louisa, Please Come Home"
We never really learn why Louisa has run away (since apparently it's not all due to her trouble at college), but I found it easy enough to just focus on what she does tell us (how she made her way) and not think about the family she's left behind-- until the end.  ...And then it's all very strange.  It feels like Louisa herself may not know why she left.  The fact that she was an adult-- 19--when she ran away makes her actions all the more bizarre.  At that age, why not just tell your family that you want to move out and live on your own?  I'm sure her parents wouldn't have been pleased, but legally, they couldn't have stopped her.  Though she took money from her father when she ran away, it doesn't seem that she actually needed much of it, since she got a job and was supporting herself in very short order.  This is an odd one. 

--"The Little House"
Thinking back on this story, I enjoyed it... but at the time, I found parts of it a little melancholy.  All the things left behind by "Aunt"-- everything just where she last set them down before her death... We lost Granny L. in January, and I find myself thinking about her a lot, these days... That aspect of this story hit close to home, so I was (unreasonably?) angry with the niece for her increasing callousness toward her Aunt's home and belongings.  On one hand, I understand that she needs to make the house her own.  It shouldn't remain exactly the same.  It's not a museum.  On the other hand, there are ways of making the house your own without being disrespectful of the woman from whom you've inherited it.  ...And so, yes, I approve of the "busybody" neighbor women and their (blatantly false) insinuation that there's a murderer who keeps an eye on the place.  (Heh heh heh... (g))

--"The Bus"
This one feels like a nightmare from start to finish.  Is Miss Harper stuck in some sort of Twilight Zone loop?  Is the Ricket's Landing roadhouse her own childhood home in some alternate reality?   What's up with the young voice on the bus-- the one who says she's running away?  The doll's rejection of Miss Harper ("Go away, old lady") feels particularly poignant...

--"Experience and Fiction"
An interesting essay on fiction-writing-- specifically, how an author's real life experiences can translate into effective fiction.  I was especially intrigued by the tidbits about The Haunting of Hill House.  Also, this: "Let me just point out right here and now that my unconscious mind has been unconscious for a number of years now and it is my firm intention to keep it that way.  When I have nightmares about a horrid building it is the horrid building I am having nightmares about, and no one is going to talk me out of it; that is final."

--"The Night We All Had Grippe"
Jackson wrote that this was the most direct "real life to short story" translation she'd penned (if I remember correctly).  Though it had several amusing anecdotal moments, most of it felt like a too-detailed description of a game of "musical beds".  The payoff wasn't quite high enough for me. 

--"Biography of a Story"
The story in question is Jackson's most famous-- "The Lottery".  There's some fascinating background information here-- and I loved the snippets from the mail readers sent in-- but at some point, those snippets became repetitive.  Paring them down slightly to include just the best might have helped.

-"One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers."

--"The Lottery"
I skipped it this time, since I've read it multiple times in the past.

--"Notes for a Young Writer"
It's always interesting to get a glimpse into how a successful author approaches writing.  Many of these tips will be familiar to anyone who's ever read anything about writing fiction, but they still provide insight for those curious about Jackson's particular style.

-Jackson indicates that she wrote these notes at least partially for the benefit of one of her daughters, who had expressed interest in writing.  I wonder if that daughter went on to do much writing...

-"It is not enough to let your characters talk as people usually talk because the way people usually talk is extremely dull."

-"Also, if your heroine's hair is golden, call it yellow."  Ha!