Saturday, November 19, 2011

Book Review: Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds

I have no idea why I had such a hard time with the Jewel or Jewelry entry in this year’s What’s in a Name 4 Challenge, hosted again this year by Beth Fish Reads. After hemming and hawing for months, I finally settled on Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber, but the only copy in my library was yellowed and smelled of mildew so badly that I couldn’t leave it in my bedroom. The first couple of pages didn’t convince me I wanted to buy it for myself, so I headed back to good old Goodreads, and started searching for jewels: rubies, emeralds, sapphires (man, was I annoyed that I reviewed Garlic and Sapphires last year), peridots – you name it. Still nothing. Finally I put in diamonds, and to my surprise a Victorian classic appeared: Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds. I believe I have read exactly one Trollope novel in my life (okay, I skimmed through Phineas Finn in college), so I thought this was a good opportunity to give Trollope another try.

Which is a very long introduction to explain why on earth I stuck with a close to 800 page novel that I really didn’t enjoy much.

Lady Lizzie Eustace is not a nice person. Trollope is determined that we understand that from the get-go. She is vain. And she is greedy. She is also beautiful, and she has a way of getting men to do what she wants them to do. She had a very rough childhood, and has been forced to make her way in the world with her feminine wiles. But don’t get all sympathetic or understanding. Because it’s very important you understand that Lizzie, despite her circumstances, despite her charm, despite her beauty, is an unsavory woman.

Lizzie is such a wanton woman that she would marry a man for money. Yes, men would later want to marry her for money, but that would be just a sensible shoring up the family fortunes. When the handsome but tubercular Sir Florian Eustace asked Lizzie to marry him because she was beautiful, that was noble. When Lizzie agreed because he was rich, that was very bad. In the end, Sir Florian underestimated his health. Certainly, he didn’t lie about it. He had come to realize that his wife was less than perfect. He found out she liked the money he had. Consumptive though he was, he died of a broken heart, realizing he had left his fortune to a woman who was impure.

And so it went, page after page after page of repetitive, pedantic sermonizing. In a nutshell, Lizzie was in possession of the diamonds, a part of the Eustace patrimony, upon Sir Florian’s untimely death, if you can consider the death of someone with late stage tuberculosis untimely. Lizzie’s son is the Eustace heir and could give the diamonds to her later on, but she’s a lousy mother and when the kid gets to majority he’s probably going to send her to live in one of the Eustace’s many barns. In the meantime, the Eustace family, through their obnoxious and supercilious lawyer, Mr. Camperdown, wants the diamonds back. This causes lots of problems, because Lucy rather likes having them. Lizzie loses Lord Fawn, the boring but titled man she wanted to marry, because Mr. Camperdown is his lawyer too, and Fawn is scared to pieces of him. Eventually Lizzie even loses the respect of the people whom she pays, which leads to the loss of the diamonds. Then she perjures herself, and loses the respect of everyone else. She finally marries the unsavory Mr. Emilus, a poor preacher who is rumored to be a Jew, which Trollope seems to see as some kind of divine retribution. Jiminy Cricket!

Oh, and Lizzie’s cousin, Frank Greystock, who thought more than once about marrying Lizzie for money (to shore up the family fortunes, you understand), winds up with the very poor, virtuous and milquetoast Lucy Morris, because that’s what happens in Victorian novels.

Clearly, Trollope fans are legion. I am willing to admit that I just don’t get it. His moralizing sent me up a tree. In my opinion, it could have been such an interesting story if Lizzie had been drawn with a finer brush. But there’s no grey (except for the aptly named lawyer Frank Greystock) in Trollope’s world, especially when it comes to women. I wondered the whole time I was reading it what Elizabeth Gaskell would have made of Lizzie, since she is the only Victorian author whose characterizations of women I have enjoyed!

Needless to say, I won’t be joining the 2012 Trollope Challenge if there is such a thing. But finally slogging through The Eustace Diamonds means I’ve finished this year’s What’s in a Name 4 Challenge! Hurray! What’s in a Name is the reading challenge that got me to start a book blog, and it’s kept my younger daughter interested in reading for the past two years, so I wouldn’t dream of missing it – or not finishing! I’m already looking forward to What’s in a Name 5 – the categories have already been announced at Beth Fish Reads. Hope you’ll be joining us!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

I was really happy to be asked to join a book club. And even better, I was thrilled to see the list of books the club had already decided on. Some were totally new to me, but many were already on my TBR. One of those was Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which wound up being the next book on the list. I have to admit, I thought it started slow – but in the end I found myself completely captivated by it.

We meet the widowed Major Pettigrew at a horrible moment: he has just learned that his younger brother has died unexpectedly. Mrs. Ali, owner of the local store, happens upon the Major in a horrible state. She comes to his aide, making him tea and giving him someone to talk with. And thus begins a most unlikely friendship: one human’s completely decent response to the distress of another.

As it turns out, the retired Major and Mrs. Ali have a lot in common: both have recently lost dear spouses, both honor their families, both have a sense of history and a love of books. But their friendship appears improbable because to most observers, even their dearest friends, what are most noticeable are their differences: the Major is from an old, aristocratic, English family, while Mrs. Ali is a shop keeping Pakistani Muslim.

With this premise, Helen Simonson could have written a very predictable “East Meets West” kind of story, but for the most part she didn’t. That is perhaps a function of the sensational cast of supporting characters that inhabit Edgecombe St. Mary, the increasingly suburban (and decreasingly idyllic) home to the Major’s small ancestral estate. Abdul Wahid, Mrs. Ali’s nephew, is an angry young man, trying to decide if his love or his faith is more important. Roger Pettigrew, the Major’s son, is a crass, overindulged, self-centered British Millennial who longs for wealth to match his social status. British-born Amina eschews her family’s traditional Pakistani values, but as tough as she is she still struggles as a single parent in a society that will never fully accept her or her illegitimate son, George. The Major and Mrs. Ali are also well drawn, wryly humorous and insightful, but it’s really the overall effect of the personalities converging on Edgecombe St. Mary, from the upper-crusty but highly taxed peers to the eco-terrorists next door, that set this book apart for me.

That said, I’m going to admit that the book was not entirely successful from my point of view. And that is because Simonson, an ex-pat Brit who apparently lives in the New York area, committed one of the current literary offenses that ticks me off most: employing the “stereotypical American” as symbol of all that is wrong with the world. (My little diatribe begins about here, so you can feel free to skip it if you’d like.)

Here’s the thing: Simonson’s own discussion points indicate she wanted to show that all British people are not the same. Fine. So why are all Americans the same in so many recent books that come out of the former British Empire? Note to writers – we are quite a diverse group. We put the “multi” in multicultural. We are not all hegemony-minded business majors with great teeth (okay, our teeth are usually pretty good), too much money and no manners. And we don’t all have a burning desire to buy up your country and titles. That American represents a literary trope at this point. If you can write with understanding about a misguided bunch of codgers who wouldn’t dream of allowing a Pakistani couple join their club (and to your credit, you did), I’d think you could steer your way clear to writing an interesting – and by that I don’t mean perfect, but at least imperfect in an interesting way – American. And while we’re at it, it doesn’t count to have one British person – in this case the Major’s son Roger – be just as awful as an American. I’m talking about relative levels of interest here, and not relative levels of evil. (End of diatribe; it’s now safe to go back to the review.)

For the most part this was a very successful novel. The more I got to know the characters, the more I enjoyed it. The ending is both exciting and unexpected. And it provided a great night of discussion for my book club. There was a great diversity of opinion about what Major Pettigrew’s “last stand” actually was – nearly everyone had a different take. So the book is highly recommended for readers of literary fiction and romance, diatribe notwithstanding.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

TLC Book Tour Review: Peter Sis' The Conference of the Birds

When I took Peter Sis’ The Conference of the Birds out of the envelope and paged through it, I thought, “This is easily the most beautiful book that has ever been in my hands.” The paper is textured and the colors are vibrant. A very promising start. Still, I didn’t know much about Sufi mythology—the book is adapted from a Sufi mythical poem by Farid od-Din 'Attar– so I did a web search to try to contextualize the story. If you’re interested, you can find more information about Sufism here.

The story appears to be a simple parable of all the birds in the world deciding to search for their true king, Simorgh, urged on by their leader, Hoopoe.

Come on, you brave birds!

Let’s glide, let’s fly, let’s soar.

Love loves difficult things.

We’re on our way!

But it’s actually so much more than that: The Conference of the Birds has the look and feel of a gorgeous children’s picture book, yet it tackles some of the deepest philosophical questions humans can ask: Who are we? What is truth? What is the nature of God?

The simplicity of the language and the childlike illustrations probably make comparisons to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince inevitable. And the book certainly shares a dreamy quality with that famous novella. But The Conference of the Birds lacks the character development that makes The Little Prince so poignant and touching – I didn’t bond with the individual birds enough to feel sad when they dropped from the flock, or feel joy when they reached their goal.

I think where this book really succeeds is in bringing a central concept of Sufism – the concept of God within each individual – to a Western audience. That, and in the enjoyment of Sis’ gorgeous illustrations. This book is highly recommended for readers interested in mysticism, mythology or Persian culture. And also for lovers of the book as art. And also lovers of poetry.

Well, I’m happy to say that this book puts me back on the map in the Read-A-Myth Challenge – I’m still thinking I will finish that one before December. Thanks to Thanks to JoV of Bibliojunkie and Bina of If You Can Read This for hosting. And because Peter Sis is Hungarian, this also counts for the Eastern European Challenge. Thanks to my buddy Amy at The Black Sheep Dances for hosting!

I read this book as part of TLC’s book tour, and received a copy of it in return for my honest opinion. I encourage you to check out these other stops on the tour:

Tuesday, November 1st: Bibliophiliac

Wednesday, November 2nd: Book Snob

Monday, November 7th: Sarah Reads Too Much

Tuesday, November 8th: Library Queue

Wednesday, November 9th: Savvy Verse & Wit

Thursday, November 10th: Col Reads

Tuesday, November 15th: Wordsmithonia

Wednesday, November 16th: Hungry Like the Woolf

Wednesday, November 16th: Melody & Words

Monday, November 21st: Unabridged Chick

Thursday, November 22nd: Seven Impossible Things

Monday, November 28th: Alexandra Boiger

Tuesday, November 29th: Abigail Halpin

Wednesday, December 14th: Layers of Thought