Ichabod is itchy

January 28, 2007

The doctor’s wife

Filed under: literature — by ichabodisitchy @ 2:15 pm

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, a Victorian novelist, wrote upwards of eighty novels in her time– and made a name for herself in ‘sensational’ fiction. Her most famous work is arguably Lady Audley’s Secret– a fantastic and shocking tale of crime, bigamy and madness.

In the doctor’s wif, Braddon tries to move away from sensation– she was known to have said that it was her attempt at a literary novel. It still has some elements of a sensation novel– secrets and adultery– but these are side-stories. The thrust of the novel is focused on how a foolish little girl full of dreams is forced into womanhood by the circumstances around her.

Braddon has borrowed a lot of the plot from Madame Bovary (although the wife doesn’t actually commit adultery in the strictest sense of the word) and tells the tale of a young girl, Isabel Gilbert, who lives with her nose permanently stuck in a romantic novel and her head in the clouds.  When she first comes across a little romance, she is carried away and ends up marrying a country doctor who, although charmed by her pretty face and peculiar ways, will never understand her.

Although quite enjoyable, the doctor’s wife doesn’t really measure up to Lady Audley’s secret in my opinion. Braddon seems to try and make the book ‘literary’ by inserting endless references to novels, plays, poems and paintings, which just didn’t quite work for me.

The most interesting character I found was a sensation novelist, Sigismund Smyth– one of Isabel’s old friends. Through Smyth, Braddon shows some of the pressures she must have been under as a sensation novelist. Smyth is often depicted scribbling away at his desk, while the publisher’s messanger stands impatiently at the door, waiting to rush the next chapter off to the printers. And when he comments on what the ‘penny public’ want, you can almost hear Braddon sigh with exasperation– “it wants bodies and plenty of them– several murders and/or suicides are essential for the penny dreadful, although one murder usually suffices for a three-decker”.

The doctor’s wife is worth a read just for Sigismund 🙂


November 29, 2006

The old curiosity shop

Filed under: literature — by ichabodisitchy @ 7:28 pm

Have just finished this (rather long) Dickens classic. I dare say that most of you know the basic story, which follows the wanderings of little Nell and her grandfather, after they have been reduced to bankruptcy and chased out of London… But I wanted to say a little something about Mr. Quilp.

Dickens does an absolutely amazing job of creating a visual picutre of the evil dwarf, Quilp.  He is completely grotesque– torments his wife, tortures his servant and is generally horrible to everyone he meets. Near the beginning of the book, Dickens describes Quilp in a passage that made me physically wrinkle up my nose at the dwarf’s evilness. But what’s funny is that the passage isn’t one that narrates one of Quilp’s underhanded actions– it simply tells us how he eats his breakfast:

” [H]e ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon till they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits, and began to doubt if he were really a human creature.”

It is paragraphs like these– so visually intense and so wonderfully effective– that make me enjoy Dickens’ work so much.

If you haven’t read it before, take the time to do so. It’s  a wonderful (and rather unpredictable) book.

November 14, 2006

Coven of one

Filed under: literature — by ichabodisitchy @ 9:30 pm

Another strong female lead– huzzah! I loved Kate Bousfield‘s (aka Minx) debut novel– the story of a woman’s journey of self-discovery.

Dorcas is a young witch who dreams of joining the coven at Masterbridge, capital of the pagan North. But when she finishes her training she is sent to Pendartha– a small fishing village in the heathen South.

At first it seems she has simply been summoned to treat the aches and pains of a hard-working community. But there is more to Pendartha than meets the eye and when Dorcas hears the tales of death and misfortune that have plagued the village for the last generation, she realises she has a bigger job to do here than healing physical ills.

It is a physical and spiritual test that forces Dorcas to search her innermost soul to find out who and what she is. It is a story of good and evil, prejudice and superstition and a story about love and magic. Wonderful.

November 9, 2006

The women’s war

Filed under: literature — by ichabodisitchy @ 7:44 pm

Now this is more like it! After my disappointment at the general sappiness of Clare in The time traveller’s wife, I deliberately chose this Alexandre Dumas book because the title promised a plethora of strong female characters. And I’m happy to report it did not disappoint.

In this new translation about one of Princess de Conde’s rebel uprisings against Queen Anne of Austria and the young King Louis XIV, Dumas paints the potrait of four formidable women. Aside from the Queen and Princess (both of whom are ruthless to the extreme), we are given the royalist Nanon de Lartigues– a dark beauty fuelled by raw ambition, who will stop at nothing to accumulate wealth and power. On the other side, we are presented with a fair-headed rebel, the Vicountess de Cambes, who is ready to sacrifice all her worldly possessions–and her soul besides–to restore the Princess de Conde to her rightful place in court.

A common weakness for both Nanon and the Vicountess is the Baron de Canolles– a charming and courageous hero who finds himself torn between the two women fighting for his love. Somehow, I was not irritated by the Baron’s inconsistency (he seems to sway towards whichever lady happens to be by his side at the time)– Dumas gives him a reality that is hard to fault.

As the story unfolds, and the Princess de Conde’s rebellion moves up a gear, the three principal characters get caught up in events beyond their control. Their commitment to their cause fades as they struggle to hold on to the people they love and, in the end, they each pay a high price for their political ardour.

As with many Dumas novels, this one was inspired by historical events and, as usual, is a wonderful blend of fact and fiction. It is packed with political intrigue and has a much-appreciated message about the futility of war. This book is a real gem.

November 4, 2006

The time traveller’s wife

Filed under: literature — by ichabodisitchy @ 6:35 pm

Spoiler alert.

I read this book by Audrey Niffenegger last week and I must admit I was a little disappointed.

I thought the idea behind the book was quite interesting– about a man (Henry) with a genetic disorder that makes him jump around in time uncontrolledly, and his wife (Clare). Clare first meets Henry when she’s 6 (whilst he’s time travelling). Henry first meets Clare in his late twenties (in real-time). The book is essentially a love story. Clare grows up knowing a 40-odd year old Henry who knows all about her, falls in love with him and then waits to catch up with him in real time. Henry meanwhile is a bit of a mess- drinking, sleeping with lots of women etc etc. When Clare finds him, the tables are turned– she knows all about him and he slowly finds his feet and falls in love with her.

Now I’ll tell you what I found so frustrating. Poor Clare sits around her whole life waiting for Henry to appear. When she’s a kid she sits around waiting for him to turn up on one of his visits. When the visits stop she sits around waiting to find him for the first time in real time. Then she sits around waiting for all the days that Henry’s not time-travelling. Waiting, waiting, waiting. While lucky Henry is off having a laugh, seducing women — seducing Clare (I found it all a bit sordid when he goes back in his early-40s for Clare’s ‘first time’ when she’s only 17).

And then (this is the spoiler) when Henry finally dies, he leaves a letter for Clare saying that he saw her once when he was time travelling and she was an old old woman. So not enough that Clare has sat around waiting her whole life for this one man. Even after he’s dead she then sits around waiting (until she’s 82!) for that one moment when she’ll see him again.

Maybe I’m just too feminist. It just really grated.

October 25, 2006

The creator of Mma Ramotswe

Filed under: literature,writing — by ichabodisitchy @ 7:57 am

My mum and dad are in town this week. They live in Mexico, so we don’t get to see them as often as I’d like and I must say that I absolutely love it when they come to stay. We don’t generally take advantage of all the wonderful things London has to offer in our usual life, so when the parentals come for a visit we always get a good dose of ‘culture’– theatres, exhibitions etc.

Last night my  mum and I went to a talk, sponsored by the hay festival, by Alexander McCall Smith– the creator of Mma Ramotswe and the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, among many other characters.

It was a true delight. McCall Smith was hilarious– an archetypal English gentleman (although born and bred in Africa). He was exceptionally ‘jolly’, with slightly mad professorial hair and a definite twinkle in his eye. He is a definite story-teller and delighted the whole audience with endless tales that often had little to do with his books or his writing, but that were, never-the-less very entertaining.

I love the Mma Ramotswe books– so simply written, yet so evocative– and full of wonderful characters. Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni is a favourite. He’s already published 7 Ramotswe adventures, but I was pleased to hear he’s signed up to definitely produce another 4…

October 20, 2006

A hero of our time

Filed under: literature — by ichabodisitchy @ 6:04 pm

I recently finished A hero of our time by Mikhail Lermontov. Am still trying to digest it and can’t make up my mind whether I liked it or not (does that seem strange?)

The ‘hero’ of the novel is certainly not a likeable character– jaded, arrogant, rude and generally insensitive to the emotional hurt and anxiety he inflicts on everyone around him.

The book is a collection of four stories, some longer than others, about the hero’s (Pechorin) travels around the Caucasus. The two principal stories are pretty good, even though you’re left with a bad taste in your mouth by the end. The middle story is somewhat superfluous (at least, it didn’t do much for me– I understood the ‘mystery’ almost immediately and was rather disappointed that there was nothing more to it).

Lermontov died very young– in a duel at the age of twenty-six. A shame really as he didn’t leave a big collection of work– a hundred or so lyrics, two narrative poems and A hero of our time. I’d have been interested in seeing what a second or third novel would have looked like.

October 11, 2006

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Filed under: literature — by ichabodisitchy @ 7:44 pm

Have just finished this classic John le Carre spy story and must confess that my preconceptions of it being an ‘airport action book’ (you know what I mean) were wrong and, to my surprise, I really rather enjoyed it.

Set in the Cold War, this is the story of British agent Alec Leamas, and his struggle against the head of the German Abteilung, ‘Mundt’. The book opens with Mundt’s heartless murder of one of Leamas’ spies as he’s crossing the border from East to West Berlin. This death, we are told, is the last in a series of killings by Mundt and now all of Leamas’ men are dead. With no-one left to run information for him across the border, Leamas’ packs up the Berlin operation and returns to London a wash out.

But ‘Control’ offer him a job. One he can’t refuse– one that will take out Mundt. He is promised a comfortable retirement when the job is done (coming in from the cold so to speak). The ‘operation’ is to feign going to pieces–drink, money troubles, rumours of embezzlement, assault of a greengrocer, a spell in prison–and bait the Germans into picking Leamas’ up as an informant. The information fed them will suggest a mole highly placed in the Abteilung and point the finger (oh so subtly) at Mundt. It is aimed at Mundt’s second in command– Fiedler–who is hungry for power and despises Mundt.

But something goes wrong. Somewhere along the way, Leamas meets a girl, Liz and falls in love. She’s in the English faction of the Communist Party– attracted, like so many in those days, by the ideals of communism without knowing how it was being put in practice. Leamas slips up and lets her know that his fall from grace is intentional. Mundt gets hold of the information and uses it against Leamas, incriminating Fiedler of treason in the process.

It’s a brutal story, and it’s brutally told. Terse language and harsh words add to the atmosphere. Leamas’ is horrific, yet likeable. His girlfriend insipid, but believable. And Mundt is pure evil genius.

There is a good twist, and it ends with a bang.

October 5, 2006

Library Thing

Filed under: literature,webTech — by ichabodisitchy @ 7:19 pm

A friend at work pointed me to a wonderful site today– Library Thing. You can build an online ‘catalogue’ of your books. Like all good Web 2.0 applications, you can tag entries, rate them, share them, get fun stats on them (e.g. an ‘obscurity index’) etc. There’s a couple of things I particularly like– tag clouds and author clouds (I know you get these everywhere, but I’m a big fan of tag clouds) and also an ‘author gallery’, which will show you visual pictures of all the authors of books in your collection.

I’ve started building mine, although have only got about 60 odd books in there (clumped by authors as is easiest to add all by the same author at the same time). But I’m looking forward to getting ‘up to date’ and being able to add one book at a time, as I read them. I also really love the idea of keeping up to date on what other people (that I know) are reading… so now I just need to convince some people to sign up.

Check it out— v cool.

October 4, 2006

A quote for novelists

Filed under: literature — by ichabodisitchy @ 7:39 pm

It seems to me that novelists are often mis-understood– you (for many of you who read this blog seem to be novelists) all strike me as exceptionally creative people, incredibly in touch with your feelings and picking up on the emotions of those around you. I think it is difficult for many ‘non-novelists’ to understand this– or to appreciate how amazing it is to always be full of new, original and often beautiful (even if not in the conventional sense) ideas.

I am reading ‘Evelina’ by Fraces Burney at the moment– a Victorian novel (what else?!) about a young girl entering society. But the theme of this book is not what I want to share. Rather, it is the first sentence of the Preface that Burney wrote, which made me smile– novelists, it seems, haven’t been fully appreciated for at least the last 150 years…

“In the republic of letters, there is no member of such inferior rank, or who is so much disdained by his brethren of the quill, as the humble Novelist: nor is his fate less hard in the world at large, since, among the whole class of writers, perhaps not one can be named of which the votaries are more numerous but less respectable.”

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