Reviews: B

Review: “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte [1847]

I first read this when I was eighteen for one of my university classes. I read it really, really fast and I remember that I was quite bewildered by it. Was this the same story of the passionate ‘romance’ between Heathcliff and Cathy? Romance might have been the wrong term. The second re-reading brought up so many more layers and aspects to the novel that I didn’t see before.

Set in the isolated Yorkshire moors, Wuthering Heights begins with Mr. Lockwood, a Londoner who have leased Thrushcross Grange to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Lockwood comes across Wuthering Heights and is met by the rude and grimacing inhabitants of the household – Heathcliff, Catherine and Hareton along with the two grumbling servants Joseph, a religious old man, and Zillah the housemaid. When a severe snowstorm forces Lockwood to insist on staying the night at Wuthering Heights, much to the reluctance of the inhabitants who are indifferent to the safety of Lockwood, Zillah allows Lockwood to quietly stay in one of the old rooms upstairs. Lockwood finds variations of the name ‘Catherine’ scratched upon the window sill – Catherine Linton, Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Heathcliff – and during the night Lockwood has a nightmare about a ghostly Catherine who begs him to let her in.

Once settled at Thrushcross Grange, Lockwood is told the entire story of the two doomed families who once resided in the two estates by the maid, Ellen Dean, who grew up and served at Wuthering Heights with Cathy and Heathcliff and later at the Grange. She recalls the night the elderly Mr. Earnshaw brought back an orphan he had found on the streets of London whom he later christens Heathcliff and who quickly becomes Mr. Earnshaw’s favourite. This brings friction into the household particularly between Hindley, Cathy’s elder brother, while the short-tempered Cathy and Heathcliff quickly form a passionate and fiery bond which continues into their teenage years and, really, for the rest of their lives.

During one of their ramblings on the moors, Heathcliff and Cathy come across Thrushcross Grange where Cathy in bitten by the family dog when the two are caught spying and sneaking. While she is on the mend at the Linton’s, Cathy is transformed and influenced by the Linton’s gentility. Separated from Heathcliff for the first time, Cathy realises she wants what Heathcliff could never give her while Edgar Linton can: a title and respectability. Despite the realisation, Cathy refuses to admit that she must give up Heathcliff:

‘He quite deserted! we separated!’ she exclaimed, with an accent of indignation. ‘Who is to separate us, pray? They’ll meet the fate of Milo! Not as long as I live, Ellen – for no mortal creature. Every Linton on the face of the earth might melt into nothing, before I could consent to forsake Heathcliff. Oh, that’s not what I intend – that’s not what I mean! I shouldn’t be Mrs. Linton were such a price demanded! … Nelly, I see now, you think me a selfish wretch, but, did it never strike you that, if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars? whereas, if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise, and place him out of my brother’s power.’

‘With your husband’s money, Miss Catherine?’ I asked. ‘You’ll find him not so pliable as you calculate upon: and, though I’m hardly a judge, I think that’s the worst motive you’ve given yet for being the wife of young Linton.’ – p. 82

Heathcliff overhears most of the exchange between Cathy and Ellen and leaves Wuthering Heights, returning suddenly several years later a more confident and wealthier man with only revenge set in his mind against the Lintons and Hindley. Meanwhile, Cathy has married Edgar and is the restless mistress of Thrushcross Grange who becomes torn between her husband and Heathcliff when he returns, driving herself to sickness and madness. Cathy dies an untimely death leaving Heathcliff in anguish and despair, crying out one of the most romantic and passionate monologues I’ve ever read:

‘May she wake in torment! he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning  in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. ‘Why, she’s a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there – not in heaven – not perished – where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe – I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannnot live without my life. I cannot live without my soul!’ – p. 169

Despite his almost psychotic passion towards Cathy, Heathcliff holds no mercy for the second generation of the Lintons and Earnshaws including Cathy’s own daughter, Catherine, and carries on his plan for revenge.

Throughout the story, I found almost all the characters unlikeable – Cathy hot-headed and selfish and Heathcliff brutish, violent and misanthropic. Each had very few redeeming qualities. The whole area of Wuthering Heighs and Thrushcross Grange is so isolated that we don’t hear about or from anybody from the outside except Mr. Lockwood. It is such an insular community and the slightly incestuous relationships between the two families that it made me ask who did Cathy want to impress by marrying Edgar and gaining a title?

The second reading of Wuthering Heights was well worth it. Joseph ‘s Yorkshire accent still frustrated me because of the constant flipping back and forth for the translation but it was only for a small portion. With such unusual characters (and names) and such an unconventional passionate relationship, it leaves you slightly boggled. I wonder if Emily Bronte ever experienced such a passionate and brutish relationship.

Review: “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett [1911]

There’s something so wonderfully mature about this children’s classic. The Secret Garden begins with Mary Lennox, an unwanted and isolated ten year-old living in colonial India. Her mother, a beautiful and graceful woman, is much more concerned about parties and society than about her sullen, sickly child. Left alone almost all her life with her Indian servants, Mary grows to be a spoiled and snobbish girl who has come to expect that everything much be done for her. When an epidemic of cholera wipes out most of the village including her parents, Mary is sent to England to live with her uncle.

In England, Mary lives at Misselthwaite, a relatively secluded rambling estate on the Yorkshire moors. With the no-nonsense attitude of the servants, Mary soon learns that her usual behaviour will not do at Misselthwaite and that she must learn to be independent.

“Are you going to be my servant?” Mary asked, still in her imperious little Indian way.

Martha began to rub her grate again. “I’m Mrs. Medlock’s servant,” she said stoutly … “but you won’t much waitin’ on.”

“Who is going to dress me?” demanded Mary.

Martha sat up on her heels again and stared. She spoke in broad Yorkshire in her amazement.

“Canna’ tha’ dress thysen!” she said.

“No,” answered Mary, quite indignantly. “I never did in my life. My Ayah dressed me, of course.” – p. 25.

Mary eventually warms to Martha and they become friends. While Martha works, Mary explores the manor’s vast gardens displaying a surprising affinity to nature and wildlife. While she is free to wander the grounds as she pleases, Mary soon finds out about a secret garden that has been locked up for the last ten years after the devastating death of her aunt who had loved the garden.

During one violent storm, and strong winds circling the house making the noise known as ‘wuthering’, Mary hears somebody cry. Everybody denies there is anybody else in the house but Mary hears the cries again in the next few days and goes exploring. She finds Colin, her sickly, spoiled cousin, with a temper as bad as Mary’s when she first arrived. Colin has been isolated in his room ever since his mother died in childbirth. As a sickly child, Colin was expected to die but he clung on to life and for the last ten years, everybody, including Colin himself, has been waiting for his death. To the servants’ surprise, Mary and Colin enjoy each other’s company and together with Dickon, Martha’s good willed, nature loving brother, they set out to find and restore the secret garden and in doing so, effectively restore and regenerate themselves.

One of the most loveliest thing about reading this is seeing the growth of Mary and Colin under their own direction. Both sickly, bad tempered and spoiled when we first meet them they mature into healthy and empathetic children. Mary develops an endearing quality when she attempts to speak Yorkshire to Dickon and Martha to their amazement. With minimal help from the adults, both Mary and especially Colin uses the garden and positive thinking to transform themselves. It is also interesting to read the colonial undertones. Mary is made better by the fresh, wholesome Yorkshire wind and her ramblings along the moors with the wind blowing away the sickly heat and humidity Mary acquired in an ‘unnatural’ land. There is really nothing better than retuning or finding one’s home.

Review: “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett

This is such a delightful and quirky book. I loved it from the opening passage. I know I’m a little late to the party since it was one of those books that was reviewed on every third book blog a few years ago.

The uncommon reader refers to the Queen of England who discovers a travelling library one day behind her palace’s kitchens. Out of duty and obligation, she borrows one book by the only author that looks mildly familiar: Ivy Compton-Burnett.

‘What a treat!’ She hugged it unconvincingly before opening it. ‘Oh. The last time it was taken out was in 1989.’

‘She’s not a popular author, ma’am.’

‘Why, I wonder? I made her a dame.’

Mr. Hutchings refrained from saying that this wasn’t necessarily the road to the public’s heart. – p. 9

Unsuccessful with the book, the Queen returns it and borrows another – one Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. This awakens a new and wonderful passion of books in the Queen. Always having had followed duty before personal interest, the Queen is aware that her passion for reading is an act of selfishness that excludes people, that reading is passive rather than active:

Her job was to taken an interest, not to be interesting herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer. – p. 7

Her staff also have similar thoughts and infuriatingly concoct plans to halt the Queen’s reading rampage.

When the Queen’s love affair with reading begins to slow a few years down the track, she turns to writing. Over her reading years, she had always jotted down notes and thoughts from the books she’d read. The Queen feels writing is a much more suitable for her as she had, after all, always been a doer. Most importantly, it also allows the Queen to finally find her own voice.

This book was such a fun little read, filled with wry and sly humour, about the most unlikely tale of the most uncommon reader. The portrayal of the Queen was quite tragic though and makes you wonder who this woman really is, if it is a blessing or a curse that she has been Queen almost all her life and knows nothing else. While I was also slightly wary of any subtle, incidental propaganda, this book is above all an ode to the pleasures of reading.

What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do. But there was regret, too, and mortification at the many opportunities she had missed. – p. 22

And this is one of my favourite sentences:

And it occurred to her (as next day she wrote down) that reading was, among other things, a muscle and one that she had seemingly developed. She could read the novel [Ivy Compton-Burnett’s] with ease and great pleasure, laughing at remarks … that she had not even noticed before. – p. 103

Review: “Agatha Raisin and a Spoonful of Sugar” by M. C. Beaton [2008]

This is my first book in the Agatha Raisin series and it was a such a charming and enchanting read. I have also only just found out that M. C. Beaton also writes the popular  Hamish Macbeth series. Ashamedly, I also never knew it was a book series and always thought it was a T.V. series because my rather eccentric and very funny second year History lecturer kept enthusing about Hamish Macbeth and Robert Carlyle during lectures. What’s this got to do with History? Well, Robert Carlyle also played Hitler in a film. Anyway, enough of a digression and on with the review!

Having no prior knowledge of the books and its characters, I didn’t find it at all difficult to warm to them. Agatha Raisin, a middle-aged man crazy woman and a rather excellent private investigator, runs her own successful detective agency in the quiet English country town of Cotswolds. She had escaped from London after a lengthy, and quite successful, career as a publicist. In Spoonful of Sugar, Agatha is called upon by a Parish priest to help them market their small town festival in which the jam competition is the highlight event. The campaign is successful but it is soon revealed that the jam has been spiked with LSD and several old ladies goes tripping, some literally. Among trying to solve the case of the spiked jam, Agatha also chases a handsome and charismatic widower who she is absolutely besotted with and attempts to solve his wife’s strange death that occurred a few years before.

This was really a fun and light read. I finished it in one sitting and was thrilled to bits with it. There are light twists and turns in the plot that keeps things interesting and it is a very relaxed whodunnit. It’s very much a cozy mystery and quite quaint which I liked. Agatha, which I’m sure is a play on author Agatha Christie, is somewhat of an anti-hero. Man chasing, somewhat vain, rumpled, chain-smoking and with a penchant for gin and tonic, Agatha is a great character.

I’m hooked onto the series and on M. C. Beaton. I’ve ordered the first in the series, Agatha Christie and the Quiche of Death and plan to read them chronologically. The cover illustrations by Francis Farmar are also so beautiful and befitting.

“The Lost Symbol” by Dan Brown

Dan Brown ain’t so bad:

  • You’ve got to hand it to Brown to pick some of the most obscure and unknown field areas and make them interesting enough so that you’ll google them to find out more.
  • Being a symbologist always sounds like fun. I wish it was a real career.
  • His books always read like some guide book but much more thrilling and exciting.
  • You can tell in his stories that Brown has a passion for books, its beauty and history.
  • It was quite funny to see some in-jokes about the success of The Da Vinci Code and have Brown make little digs about himself.

The Lost Symbol was a fairly decent read. I certainly didn’t feel like I wasted my time. There were really interesting stuff going on and there was good suspense. However, I think the book could have easily been shorter. The suspense kind of fizzled out after three quarters and Brown does that really annoying thing that T.V programs do when they want to draw the suspense unnecessarily – suspense, commercial, repeat the suspense, commercial, repeat the suspense again (because viewers apparently have three second memories and all day) and then reveal. This has a much more subdued tone compared to The Da Vinci Code and is not as thrilling. There were some interesting ‘facts’ with many little lectures peppered throughout the story which I didn’t mind (being the geek that I am) but at times Brown sounded far too enthusiastic about pointing how great and misunderstood the Freemasons are that made me question whether if Brown was a Freemason himself. The ending, though, was really drawn out and I ended up just skimming over it.

Edit: Changed the title from ‘review’ after I realised this isn’t really a review.

Review: “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum [1900]

We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz! Because, because, because, because …

No, that wasn’t in the book but they are the lyrics of the wonderful and catchy songs featured in the 1939 MGM classic movie of the same name. L. Frank Baum’s original book varies somewhat to the version most of us know and love. One of the significant difference is that Dorothy doesn’t wear the ruby slipper because they are actually silver in Baum’s version.

The story begins in Kansas where Dorothy, a young orphan, lives on a dry and desolate farm with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. There is nobody else for miles and the landscape and its people are tired and grey. A cyclone suddenly sweeps through the farm one day and Dorothy, who had run back into the house to find Toto, her dog, finds herself and the house transported to the land of Oz by the cyclone.

In Oz, Dorothy discovers that she is in the Munchkin land, which is filled with colour and beauty in contrast to her home back in Kansas. There, she meets the Good Witch of the North who congratulates her for killing the Wicked Witch of the East by landing her house on top of the witch. Needless to say, the young Dorothy is horrified and asks the good Witch how she can get home to Kansas.

‘The road to City of Emeralds is paved with yellow brick … so you cannot miss it. When you get to Oz do not be afraid of him, but tell your story and ask him to help you.’ – p. 25

And so Dorothy sets off along the yellow brick road and during her journey, she meets the Scarecrow, who desires a brain, the Tin Woodman, who desires a heart, and the Cowardly Lion, who desires courage. During their journey to the Emerald City, the three characters unknowingly display their desired traits without the need for the wizard’s magic.

Since this is already a well known story, there’s nothing much else to add. Undoubtedly, the book is more in-depth than the movie but also rather more philosophical about human nature and inner strength. We would like more courage, brains and heart and if only we looked a little deeper within ourselves, we would discover that we already possess them and do not need a wizard’s magic.

Review: “The Professor” by Charlotte Bronte [1857]

The Professor is the last book published, posthumously, by Charlotte Bronte. It is also ironically her first novel which was consistently rejected by publishers during Bronte’s lifetime even after the success of Jane Eyre. Having read Villette first, one can’t help but compare the similarities.

The Professor follows William Crimsworth as he attempts to make his own way into the world. After graduating from Eton, William refuses a Church living and a marriage to his wealthy cousin and is disowned by his wealthy relatives. William is an orphan, whose mother died in childbirth, and his two Lord uncles have taken care, begrudgingly, of his education. Alone in the world and determined to make his own living by his own hands, William seeks out his only other living relative, a much older brother who turns out to be quite the brute. On the advice and recommendation of his brother’s acquaintance, Hundsen, William leaves England and goes to Brussels to seek out teaching positions.

In Brussels, William quickly secures a position teaching English (the title professor merely refers to that of a teacher) in M. Pelet’s school and in the neighbouring girls schools owned by Mlle Zoraide Reuter. Suffice to say, there are a few love affairs:

“And your heart is broken?”

“I am not aware that it is; it feels all right – beats as usual.”

“Then your feelings are less superfine than I took them to be; you must be a coarse, callous characters, to bear such a thwack without staggering under it.” – p. 228

The essence of the story, however, is how William Crimsworth makes his own way through the world with nothing but his own mind and hands and with no other help other than deserved references. In a society that was so hierarchical and classed, William work ethic and determination is truly admirable and inspirational.

While I enjoyed the novel, I struggled with it particularly through the bits that had more French language than English. Constantly flipping to the notes at the back really took me out of the story but this was the same reason why I struggled with Villette too and it’s nothing to do with the book itself. Well brought up people in nineteenth century England knew both French and English. I never really warmed up to the characters except the excellent and eccentric Hundsen but I suppose the characters were the result of their situation in life. As the only novel written from a male point of view by Bronte, I think it’s an interesting book in the Bronte cannon.

For those who have read Villette – what do you think? Are they both the same books or does each have their own significance?

Review: ‘She Came to Stay’ by Simone de Beauvoir [1943]; translated from French by Yvonne Moyse and Roger Senhouse [1949]

This is one of those highly prolific books where it appears myth has surpassed the actual piece of fiction. Consistently touted as a novel written in revenge against the woman who so nearly ruined the open relationship that Beauvoir had with Jean-Paul Sartre, one would assume that this is a book of passion and sordid sex with the menage-a-trois.

This is so much more and far more complex than any blurb or summary may give you. The novel focuses on Francois, a theatre and fiction writer, and her long time relationship with theatre director and actor, Pierre. They are wholly consumed with each other and both regard each other as part of themselves – there cannot be one without the other. They are one. Xaviere, a high minded country girl from Rouen is persuaded to move to Paris by Francois who holds a deep desire to see Xaviere lead a successful and happy life. Slowly, Francois and Pierre form a menage-a-trois with Xaviere largely due to Pierre’s attraction to her. The relationship between the two women is much more ambiguous. Sullen, impulsive, sensual, self-obsessed -Xaviere possesses morals that borders on hedonistic and is wholly consume with her own satisfaction. With Xaviere remaining highly jealous of Francois’ long term relationship with Pierre, the menage-a-trois soon falls apart after the initial stage of bliss.

The character of Francois is highly imbued with existentialistic viewpoints and the novel is also about Francois attempting to discover who she is and her place within the world once everything and everyone in her life have been stripped away. Set during the eve of WWII, questions of love and life are consistently played in the mind of the characters. Gerbert , who is about to be sent off to war, is astounded to find that his long-time object of affection so easily returns his advances.

“He was filled with regret. In his life, nothing had ever had a tomorrow. He had admired afar all beautiful and passionate love-affairs; but a great love was like ambition, it would have been possible only in a world in which things were important, in which the words one spoke, and the things one did, left their mark; and Gerbert felt as if he were being cooped up in a waiting-room whose exit no future would ever open for him.” – p. 271

The novel is frustrating on numerous occasions. None of the characters are particularly likeable and everybody grates on my nerves all too often. Francois’s blindness and her constant attempts to be friends and forgive Xaviere is irritating when anybody can see how cruel Xaviere is – including Francois who tells us this herself. Xaviere is even more irritating with no redeeming features about her whatsoever. Whiny, bratty and spoilt by Pierre and Francois, I was initially horrified that Xaviere would feature prominently throughout the entire book. But, somehow, everything ties wonderfully well together. You don’t side with any characters (although I did love Gerbert so) so I suppose readers could remain somewhat objective. Nobody is perfect. The ending is somewhat surprising. I certainly did not see that coming.

This is a marvellous book – slow burning and something to be savoured and pondered. It is slightly difficult to read at times only because Beauvoir writes so eloquently about human nature that it hits so close to the heart with all those feelings and thoughts one would prefer to bury deep within ourselves.