Watched: Pride & Prejudice (1940)

I’ve just watched this because I’m interested in doing a research project comparing the various film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, since that is one of my favourite novels of all time. I thought it would be easy but wow, was it a torture sitting through this adaptation.

If you liked this adaptation, you may not want to read my review of it.

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Off Topic: I Try Epilating

OK, I know I usually post book reviews on here, but I just had to share my experience with epilating.

Ah, the woes of women and the weight of society’s expectations on us to be hairless everywhere, contrary to our natural bodily inclinations. I have used a handy razor for years as the most convenient and pain-free solution to keeping the underarm hirsutism in check, but recently, I’ve been left wanting more. I understand not everyone wants to read about feminine hairy problems, so I’ll just chuck all of this under a Read More tag.

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Done: The Woman In White

I first picked up Wilkie Collins’s The Woman In White many, many years ago under the misinformed assumption that it was a Victorian horror story. (I may also have mixed it up with Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black…) How wrong I was. After the titular woman in white appeared and after it was certainly established that she was a very real human being, I put the book away with such disappointment that I think I’ve lost my original copy.

Fast forward to the present, I have developed a better taste for classic literature and wanted to revisit The Woman In White even if it may not involve supernatural beings. I started with listening to the free audiobook from LibriVox and got so caught up in the narrative that I had to continue with the book. This time, I was very far from disappointed!

The first thing I noticed about this book is the amount of foreshadowing and suspense used. According to Wikipedia, “it is considered to be among the first mystery novels and is widely regarded as one of the first in the genre of sensation novels”, so perhaps it was the first novel that used foreshadowing in the way that we commonly associate it with today. It’s a novel told from the first-person perspective of many different characters (all somewhat unreliable narrators) in the story, and usually written at a later date, so the characters always refer to some mysterious unknown later event like: “Thank God I agreed, after what would happen later.” It made me want to just skip to the ending and find out what happened, but I persevered.

This book takes a while to warm up, though. The half, I would say, is spent mostly in expositing background story, establishing characters and just paving the way for the excitement that was to come. I don’t know if it will be to everyone’s tastes, but I enjoyed it. This is my first time reading a novel by Wilkie Collins and I’m rather taken in by his writing style. It’s humourous, it’s satirical and it’s powerful in terms of evoking emotions. Once you pass the halfway mark and when things start coming to a head, however, the book becomes a real page-turner. I took about 1.5 weeks to get through the first half (mostly by audiobook when I’m driving), and less than 2 days to finish the second half. In fact, I have to confess that I stayed up till 6.45am this morning just trying my utmost best to finish the book because I want to find out the damned ending!! (In the end, I gave up and went to bed, but finished it the next day at about 6pm)

Of the characters, my favourite has got to be Marian Halcombe. I was rooting for her from the very beginning, though Walter Hartright (our first and main narrator) described her as looking almost like a man. She is the heroine of the book, through and through. Although the mystery and adventure centers around her pretty half-sister Laura Fairlie’s interests, I felt not even half as much interest in her. Laura Fairlie came across to me as a bit of a Mary-Sue, and I would even go so far as to feel that she was a little dim-witted. The two characters that got on my nerves the most were Mr. Frederick Fairlie, Laura’s rich uncle, and Sir Percival Glyde. In Mr. Fairlie’s case, he is one of the most self-centered characters I’ve come across in a while. Other malevolent characters may also act purely in their own self-interest, but for Mr. Fairlie, he is both indolent and self-centered, which meant that he doesn’t act for anything at all. Somehow, that irritates me even more than active malevolence. At least in a book. As for Sir Percival, to list out his wrongdoings might be to spoil the plot a little so I won’t do so here. Suffice it to say that he’s the worst sort of coward.

On one hand, I would say that Marian Halcombe presented an interestingly feminist portrayal of a woman. In the Victorian times, the “ideal” woman would be someone like Laura Fairlie – pretty, somewhat empty-headed and can’t do anything to save herself. Marian Halcombe is none of these things. She is confident, intelligent, affectionate and also incredibly resourceful and courageous in adversity. This portrayal is probably why I always found myself firmly in #TeamMarian, but yet the way she kept belittling her own sex and being described by others as “being like a man” or “looking like a man” disturbed me a little. She would keep saying, “even though I am a helpless woman”, “even those these hands are a woman’s”, etc. as if to acknowledge that she is frustrated with being a woman and feels restricted by her own gender. I would like to see a woman who is comfortable with herself and her gender, and then to be independent by her own right, and not because she resembles a man, but I guess I have to make allowances for the time that this book was written, and the fact that the author was a man.

For a Marian Halcombe with an arguably feminist portrayal of a woman, there are always the Laura Fairlies and the Madame Foscos that reverse this feminist portrayal. Laura is pretty much always helpless, relying either on Marian or Walter Hartright to save the day. Madame Fosco, meanwhile, went from being a headstrong, opinionated and outspoken girl with feminist ideas that Laura and Marian remember from their childhood (she is Laura’s aunt), to being a completely submissive wife with literally no mind of her own. She always looks to her husband for instructions and is completely at her husband’s disposal and leisure. Neither kith nor kin had any hold on her if her husband said to the contrary.

I found the ending of the book satisfying, though I have read reviews from people who found it rather anticlimactic. However, keeping in mind the social context in which the book was written, I would say that the Secret is sufficiently shocking enough in that time and era, even if it may not be so today.

I also read someone on Goodreads saying that Wilkie Collins is a double-edged author. If The Woman In White doesn’t get you, The Moonstone will. Well, I have already purchased The Moonstone in readiness, as well as No Name. I can’t wait to dig into more of his work!

Spoilers ahead!

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Done: Endless Night

Usually, I write a very simple and short review under my umbrella Agatha Christie post (here), but I felt the need to post a proper length review for this one.

Endless Night is a relatively unknown piece of work from Agatha Christie, or at least it was to me. I’d never heard of it before, and I only found the title when I was desperate and searching through lists to find more interesting Christies to read. I’m so glad I did.

It’s a first-person narrative told by the main character, Michael Rogers, one of your typical young men who can’t seem to hold down a job, and simply want to spend their time as a ‘rolling stone’ (someone who floats here, there, everywhere with no goal or purpose in life). We first meet him when he is rhapsodizing about a beautiful piece of land in a small town, Kingston Bishop, with a house on it called Gipsy’s Acre. He is warned by a local gipsy, Mrs. Lee, that he has bad luck and should get away from Gipsy’s Acre as soon as possible. However, there, he meets a girl by accident, Ellie, and they soon fall in love and get married. It soon turns out that Ellie is not just a rich girl, but a tremendously rich girl, one of the richest in America, in fact.

They buy the land and house at Gipsy’s Acre, pull down the old house and build a new one, designed by his friend, Rudolf Santonix. The gipsy, Mrs. Lee, repeats her warnings to Ellie, and begins to visit Gipsy’s Acre occasionally to deliver the same threats and warnings to Ellie to leave the house and property. More and more characters begin flitting in and out of the narrative at this point, mostly Ellie’s relations though they are not related to her by blood. One of them even flits in to settle in their new marriage home, Greta Andersen, a half-Swedish Valkyrie of a girl who served as Ellie’s companion and on whom Ellie is largely dependent on. However, strange things begin to happen at Gipsy’s Acre, and Michael and Ellie begin to wonder if the curse is true.

So far, the whole premise of the story doesn’t seem to have an ounce of mystery in it. In fact, the actual mystery only comes into view rather late in the book, but it is testament to Christie’s writing that she is able to create a thick atmosphere of suspense and tension throughout the narrative despite there being nothing actually unusual happening. Every character left me guessing as to what their motives were, whether it was Ellie’s pretentious stepmother, or even her shrewd lawyer, Mr. Lippincott. Everyone seemed to be hiding secrets. Christie expertly conveyed through a narrative in which nothing much actually happens the falseness of the veneer of tranquility and bliss in the newlyweds’ country life, as well as the sense of something sinister just beneath the surface.

I felt also that Christie paid a lot more attention to character development in this book. The first half of the book or more felt like a case study on the social and psychological aftermath of a poor man who happened to fall in love with and marry a rich girl. She fleshed out the psyche of the main character, Michael Rogers, rather well. I liked that it differed from her usual style of concentrating largely on the mystery at hand rather than the characters involved. Here, I felt that I understood their human predicaments much better than her usual sort of characters. One thing to note, as well, is that Christie is a lot less censored in this book. She talks about, mentions and alludes to sex more than she usually does, and even uses ‘bitch’ a few times. It added to the freshness of the tone of this book.

But the mystery also did not disappoint! I had a fleeting idea of the true solution at some point halfway through, but had immediately dismissed the idea as impossible and had nurtured other more likely hypotheses. I was then happily bamboozled by the plot twists that came thick and fast at the last lap of the book, feeling that urge to go back and re-read certain segments of the book that would now be read in a different light now that I know the solution – and this urge is always a good sign.

This book had a very good mixture of two things: first, the comforting familiarity of Agatha Christie’s style of mystery, intrigue, as well as the reassurance that the ending is going to be something really unexpected, and therefore I didn’t feel too much like I was wandering into disturbingly unknown territory; secondly, a freshness despite the familiarity in the way the narrative was handled. It was undoubtedly an Agatha Christie style, but yet it was still surprisingly a breath of fresh air from her usual formula, which I have gotten used to by now, having consistently read most of her books over the past year.

Absolutely loved it. I wonder why it’s not more well-known!

Spoilers ahead!

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Done: Books That Changed The World

I’m not sure what made me pick up this book, so different as it is from my usual reading. However, it wasn’t a bad choice at all. Books That Changed The World is basically a comprehensive list of books that have asserted a great influence on thought and literature, and Andrew Taylor also provides concise and relevant background information regarding the time period and culture that the book was written and published in. He does not center his list around books of literary importance, also including those of scientific, philosophical and political importance.

I like that he also disclaimed in his introduction that this list was, of course, subjective and that it was his own take of what were the most influential books in history. If this disclaimer had been missing, I would have things to say about the subjectivity and Eurocentric view of history the book posits. In any case, he also provides evidence of the influence that each book enjoys and how it has altered humans’ way of thinking over time.

Confession: I did skip past certain books that I wasn’t interested in, particularly the ones on economics but also some others. Nevertheless, I gleaned plenty of interesting facts and cleared up some of my own misconceptions about certain books (especially the Greco-Roman classics which I am very unfamiliar with) along the way. For example, I never knew that the Kama Sutra was actually an unillustrated volume of text, and much like the rest of the world, I had thought it only to be some kind of kinky sex manual. I was enlightened on this point. I did not know also that before William Harvey’s groundbreaking work on hemology, men thought that an infinite supply of blood was made from the liver. I also learned that William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge paved the way for poetry as it is written today, an intimate way of looking at human experience, and that before Lyrical Ballads was published, poetry were usually story-like epics dealing with philosophy, religion or history, such as in Iliad or Paradise Lost.

The only complaint that I have, I guess, isn’t really much of a complaint – I was spoiled for Madame Bovary before I even read it! 😦 If there are any books on the list that you have yet to read and want to remain un-spoilt, I would recommend that you skip its relevant chapter in this book. Taylor provides a short synopsis of each book’s plot, which may reveal important plot points.

1. Homer – Iliad (c. 8th century)
2. Herodotus – The Histories (c. 5th century BC)
3. Confucius – The Analects (5th century BC)
4. Plato – The Republic (4th century BC)
5. The Bible (2nd century BC – 2nd century AD)
6. Horace – Odes (23 – 13 BC)
7. Ptolemy – Geographia (c. AD 100 – 170)
8. Mallanaga Vatsyayana – Kama Sutra (2nd or 3rd century AD)
9. The Qu’ran (7th century)
10. Avicenna – Canon of Medicine (1025)
11. Geoffrey Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales (1380s-90s)
12. Niccolo Machiavelli – The Prince (1532)
13. Gerard Mercator – Atlas, or, Cosmographic Meditations (1585-95)
14. Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote (1605-15)
15. William Shakespeare – First Folio (1623)
16. William Harvey – An Anatomical Study of the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals (1628)
17. Galileo Galilei – Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632)
18. Isaac Newton – Principia mathematica (1687)
19. Samuel Johnson – A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
20. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774)
21. Adam Smith – The Wealth of Nations (1776)
22. Thomas Paine – Common Sense (1776)
23. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Lyrical Ballads (1798)
24. Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice (1813)
25. Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol (1843)
26. Karl Marx – The Communist Manifesto (1848)
27. Herman Melville – Moby-Dick (1851)
28. Harriet Beecher Stowe – Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
30. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary (1857)
31. Charles Darwin – On the Origin of Species (1859)
32. John Stuart Mill – On Liberty (1859)
33. Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace (1869)
34. New Haven District Telephone Company – The Telephone Directory (1878)
35. Sir Richard Burton (translator) – The Thousand and One Nights (1885)
36. Arthur Conan Doyle – A Study in Scarlet (1888)
37. Sigmund Freud – The Interpretation of Dreams (1899)
38. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1905)
39. Wilfred Owen – Poems (1920)
40. Albert Einstein – Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (1920)
41. James Joyce – Ulysses (1922)
42. D. H. Lawrence – Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)
43. John Maynard Keynes – The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936)
44. Primo Levi – If This is a Man (1947)
45. George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-four (1949)
46. Simone de Beauvoir – The Second Sex (1949)
47. J. D. Salinger – The Catcher In The Rye (1951)
48. Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart (1958)
49. Rachel Carson – Silent Spring (1962)
50. Mao Zhedong – Quotations from Chairman Mao (1964)
51. J. K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)

One thing that I realised from reading this book, however, is that there is usually great resistance and controversy whenever a new revelation is made that contradicts everything that people at that time thought to be true, as in the case of medical experts denouncing William Harvey for his discovery of the way blood is circulated, or the Catholic Church’s anger and rejection of Galileo’s heliocentric theories on astronomy, or even the ban on D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the overturning of which paving the way for the modern attitude to sexual openness.

It makes me question the things that we consider “controversial” and defying reason in our time and age. Would they one day also become known as works of genius or progressive thought, and the rest of us derided by posterity for our backward thinking?

Done: The Case Is Closed

It was all right. I skipped over some pages with what I found to be unnecessary details. Not sure if I’m just an impatient mystery reader or if I’m just not used to Wentworth’s style of writing. I’ve been reading tons of Agatha Christie before, so while there are elements of similarity, the narrative style and plot structure are significantly different.

The mystery in itself was somewhat interesting. I agreed with the main character Hilary when she said, “Too many alibis all over the place”. A man is shot ostensibly by his favourite nephew, the case is closed and said nephew has already served his jail sentence for a year before the action of the novel begins. I found that the details of the mystery was repeated just a tad too much, though. I get that things have to be clarified and details emphasized for the reader (also so they might have a go at picking out fishy loopholes for themselves), but I found myself skipping pages because the repetitions were getting tedious and boring.

Regarding the characters, we have Hilary, who is this nephew’s cousin-in-law, and her on-and-off-again fiance Henry Cunningham, are the main characters. Hilary and Henry’s relationship dynamics tended toward a chauvinist male and trying-to-be-spunky-but-failing female which was a common enough trope in the 1940s, but it wasn’t overly irritating to me. I particularly remember a line where Wentworth described Hilary as having flashes of thoughts about the inquest: “There was of course no logic in this, but Hilary had not a very logical mind.” Couple this with the fact that Hilary is impulsive and reckless, apparently heedless of potential dangerous situations, constantly getting herself into scrapes, and then generally requiring the assistance of her man, Henry, to get her back to safety… I guess I shouldn’t expect much more from a novel from the 40’s.

Miss Silver only appears in the middle of the book. While Christie’s detectives tend to have some point of interest or memorable quirk that engages me and gives me a pleasant pattern to look forward to in future stories, Miss Silver appears to have none of these. I don’t mean to say that Christie’s detectives are the only allowable type of detective characters, but I found nothing about Miss Silver to engage me or make me interested in reading more of her cases. The plot and action really revolves around the main characters, who certainly won’t be recurring in other novels and therefore also give me no reason for me to continue.

My review sounds unfavourable so far, but the book redeemed itself in enough moments of suspense and excitement. The plot twists were somewhat good, though few in number. Though some points about the two main characters chafed me, it wasn’t to the point where I found them outright annoying and difficult to swallow. Miss Silver was almost a non-entity besides providing an input for plot twists, so while she made little impression on me, she didn’t annoy me either. I’m not sure whether I will continue to read more Miss Silver stories, I would recommend this book for those who love mystery stories from this era.

Done: The Uncommon Reader

I was struck immediately by the blurb of this quirky novella by Alan Bennett. The basic premise of this story revolves around Queen Elizabeth II (presumably, since she is never directly mentioned by name in the novel but her context and juxtaposed royal figures proclaim her to be as such) who discovers a mobile library one day while walking her famous brood of Corgis is plunged into the world of reading.

I’m completely unfamiliar with Alan Bennett’s previous works or his literary reputation, so I read this book on a very clean slate without any impressions of the author. I found that this book provided a very interesting portrait of a woman who has lived her life as a monarch, but discovers the somewhat “common” pleasure of reading in her old age. The Queen having picked up a habit of reading is, surprisingly, not welcome to her entourage of personnel. As many of us reading addicts would know, picking up one book so often leads to picking up two others, then three, and then it multiplies exponentially until we are lost in the realm of literature, the sheer number of books that are available for us to read becoming unsurmountable. But yet, we can’t wait to dig our claws into them.

Queen E experiences just such a transformation, one that she has never imagined or thought possible before. An entire life of “duty before oneself” rebels at first at this apparently meaningless activity of reading. It is not a “doing” activity, as Queen E remonstrates to herself. Soon, however, she accepts and embrace her new habit, though it is with some increasing alarm that she realises she is beginning to lose interest in every other activity.

Though I’m pretty sure The Uncommon Reader is a fictitious take on a what-if happening to a real-life personality, it gives the reader a somewhat interesting take on the life and thoughts of Queen E (though how verified they actually are pertaining to her real person, I can’t be sure). At the very least, it’s a solid tribute to the power of reading and how it enables one to exercise empathy and compassion towards people. The whirlpool of reading addiction that Queen E falls into is one that is familiar to countless readers, myself included, and it is a delight to see this reflection of our own lives in one of the most well-known personages of our time, even if the take is fictional in nature.