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Category Archive for 'England'

After I remarked to some book friends that one of the joys of having finished my schooling and my teaching career was that I would never again have to read a novel by Henry James, both of these friends responded that I really should read The Beast in the Jungle (1903), which they found to be quite different from many of his other works. Though I admit to having loved some of the films of James’s novels, I did not love reading any of the six novels I had had to read for classes, and I have always found James’s prose style to be so contorted, by today’s standards, and so artificial, that I have often had to reread and self-translate it into less formal English in order to come close to understanding what James is saying. My friends persuaded me by their enthusiasm, however, and I decided to try reading Henry James again after so many years of avoiding him. Voluntarily returning to his company, it turned out, was a mixed blessing. I admired much of the book and, for the first time, I really began to feel as if I were beginning to know who Henry James really was as a man, not just as a writer. The Beast in the Jungle parallels what we know of his life very closely, and it feels so autobiographical that the reader cannot help but believe that it is based on a very real inner turmoil in his life and may also explain some the mysteries which have always surrounded him.

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Written as a biography, not of Arthur Conan Doyle’s life but of the specific influences on his life which led to his successful creation of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as fictional heroes, Michael Sims presents a fully documented and carefully researched study of Arthur Conan Doyle and how he eventually achieved success as the author of the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes novels. Doyle began his career as a novelist in 1886 in Edinburgh, Scotland, when he was only twenty-seven years old. In private medical practice in Portsmouth, England, at this time, Doyle had been out of medical school for five years, and as he had always enjoyed writing, he had been spending his spare time writing stories of mystery, adventure, and the supernatural as a way to augment his income. Focusing primarily on A Study In Scarlet, his first novel, written in 1887, Sims documents how Doyle made the detective’s methods unique for the time, and, in the process, made his mysteries huge successes. Five years after this novel, Doyle was able to begin writing full-time. Great and unusual information here shows how one man became a success in this genre.

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On a New Year’s Eve in rural England, one would expect the cold to keep most people inside doing their celebrating, but Becky Shaw, a thirteen-year-old whose family has come to town for the holiday, has decided to go out. Leaving one of the “barn conversions” in the village, where she is staying, she suddenly vanishes. At dusk, her family comes running into town, shouting for help, and by the time the New Year is ushered in, a helicopter has been out searching for hours. The mountain-rescue teams, the cave teams, much of the village, and the police have found nothing, and a “thick band of rain [i]s coming in.” With this dramatic opening, author Jon McGregor paves the way for his primary story – the more internal, domestic activity which accompanies the search for Becky Shaw. The whole town is involved in trying to find her, but as time passes without any clues, her disappearance gradually becomes a backstory to the life which continues within the community, a story which features many characters each of whom is trying to make a living and find happiness, despite sometimes ominous odds. Love stories blossom and glorious descriptions of nature provide both irony and context for the lives of the characters here, as McGregor refuses to elevate humans and their lives above animals and their instincts.

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Having announced that this book will not be a “costume drama,” author Fay Weldon sets her story between 1922 and 1939, the period between the two world wars. While this is not a pure drawing room comedy, neither is it a story of postwar darkness – a story of families dealing with the deaths of their fathers and sons and the difficulties in supporting their families. Here Weldon’s characters are the elite and educated survivors from that Edwardian period, which shaped their thinking, behavior, and pocketbooks and which has left them out of touch with the real world as they now live in the war’s aftermath. Both satiric and ironic, the plot proves also to be very funny and cleverly revealing of social values. Sir Jeremy Ripple now runs a publishing house but likes to think of himself as a communist. Angela, his wife, the granddaughter of a Princess and niece of an Earl, is the money behind his company, and she still adheres to all the habits and behaviors of the upper class. Only Vivvie, their daughter, “large, ungainly five foot eleven inches tall, and twenty years old,” seems to have much realization of how the world works – and her conclusion is that small, pretty girls are the ones lucky in love. When Vivvie decides to propose marriage to a Douglas Fairbanks look-alike, the action begins, and it never quits. One of Fay Weldon’s best books to date.

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A purple swamp hen from the famed mural of Pompeii is the speaker of the first story in this collection of short stories by Penelope Lively. As the hen describes, the garden was unlike anything any of us have ever known, hosting “fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm – and that’s just Quintus Pompeius, his household, and his associates.” And, the hen states, the humans were far more imaginative than the fauna, which “simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction.” Clearly establishing the satiric tone of this and many other stories in her new story collection, her first in almost two decades, author Penelope Lively continues to prove that great writing – elegant, precise, completely attuned to nuance, and committed to using exactly the right word and not one word more – still exists for lovers of fine prose. She further shows that fine writing need not be stuffy or effete, that humor is an integral part of life, and that satire may be more effective in conveying ideas than polemics and criticism. Best of all, she shows that stories, though short, may convey big ideas and that collections of stories may represent different times and different forms and still develop a broad thematic unity within the collection.

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