Recommended Reading: Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym

photo (9)A few days ago, one of my very best friends and I talked a little about Philip Larkin, the dean of depressed and depressing (though wonderful) twentieth century poets. While I’ll be happy to revisit Larkin soon, the conversation reminded me of a book I’ve been meaning to review for months: Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women.

You see, Barbara Pym wrote a string of successful novels during the 1950s and early 1960s, including Excellent Women (1952), and then her career came to a standstill. Her publisher, and others, rejected all her manuscripts, declaring them too old-fashioned.

In 1977, however, Philip Larkin and David Cecil (a prominent historian) named her the most underrated writer of the century, and she catapulted back into broader recognition.

It’s recognition I didn’t share, I regret to say; I’d never heard of Barbara Pym until I was browsing through Classics Club lists in 2013 as I put together my own. She kept popping up, and then I found a copy of Excellent Women at a used bookstore in western Massachusetts, and that is the long and short story of how I came to read it.

Set in what was then contemporary post-war London, Excellent Women is the tale of Mildred Lathbury (excellent name, isn’t it?), an unmarried woman living in a flat. Like other “excellent women,” she keeps an eye on her neighbors and the local curate, and the affairs of her small social circle take up much of her time.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (3)

If you’re hearing bells that peal “Jane Austen” now, I’m not surprised; this novel is full of subtle and barbed social commentary, its heroine an Elinor Dashwood figure with no Edward Ferrars on the horizon, and no Marianne to fuss over.

The plot, which involves the disintegrating marriage of a neighboring anthropologist and her rakish husband, a highly suspicious widow with her sights set on a vicar, jumble sales, unsuitable matches, and many cups of tea, is really not so important as the characters and Mildred’s observations, which are simply a treat to read. Here are some of my favorites:

‘Now Julian, we don’t want a sermon,’ said Winifred. ‘You know Mildred would never do anything wrong or foolish.’
I reflected a little sadly that this was only too true and hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing. (44)

On the bus I began thinking that William had been right and I was annoyed to have to admit it. Mimosa did lose its freshness too quickly to be worth buying and I must not allow myself to have feelings, but must only observe the effects of other people’s. (76)

I was so astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion. (205)

And finally, of excellent women themselves, Mildred says,

‘They are for being unmarried,’ I said, ‘and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state.’
‘Poor things, aren’t they allowed to have the normal feelings, then?’
‘Oh, yes, but nothing can be done about them.’

One gets the feeling that Mildred was fond of Jane Austen.

By the way, I suspect that a book that’s coming out later this spring (I haven’t read it) would be very interesting to read alongside Excellent Women. It’s called Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, by Katie Bolick.

I’d certainly like to read another of Barbara Pym’s novels, and I’d be delighted if you could recommend one to me.

Classics Club Spin # 7

Classics Club Spin #5 — which landed me with Great Expectations — was, to my surprise, a great success, and I liked reading The Iliad for Spin #6, so I’m throwing my hat into the ring again. Same list, just swapped in a new number 1.

Here’s my (randomly chosen) list, from my larger List o’ 51, for the Wheel of Fortune to choose from on Monday:

  1. Homer, The Odyssey
  2. Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
  3. Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey
  4. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  5. Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
  6. Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
  7. Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
  8. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
  9. Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio
  10. Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels
  11. Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology
  12. Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
  13. Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White
  14. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
  15. Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea
  16. James Baldwin, Another Country
  17. Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
  18. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
  19. Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
  20. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

Wish me luck!

Once More into the Breach, or, Re-reading The Iliad After Ten Years Away

photo 101When the Fates — or, the lovely people who choose Classics Club spin numbers — plunked The Iliad in front of me last month, I was neither pleased nor displeased. I’d put The Iliad on my list because it seemed like a sensible thing to do; having read it many years ago, I was due for a re-read, but I wasn’t looking forward to it the way I’m looking forward to reading Villette or Lilith’s Brood.

I bounced around looking for the right edition; the one I had in my reference section (yes, I have my own reference section) was too modern, as was another edition I found in the library. I prefer poetry to be translated into poetry, so that nixed the prose versions. Finally I settled on the verse translation by Robert Fagles, with an introduction by Bernard Knox. If you’re planning on reading The Iliad, I highly recommend this edition; the introduction is thorough, organized, and insightful, and the translation moves rapidly and flows easily. (Notes and a section on proper names are included after the text.)

The Iliad is the preeminent poem of war, and it felt somehow appropriate to be reading it while I was thinking about the poets of World War I for my weekly poetry posts. For all its focus on glory and honor — and especially the physical manifestations of those qualities — the poem doesn’t shrink from the realities of violence. It’s quite gory, and since Homer often gives us a brief bio of the fighter about to be speared, the violence is intensely personal, inflicted by one specific man on another specific man. Here’s an example (and with a poppy, too):

The archers loosed a fresh shaft from the bowstring
straight for Hector, his spirit longing to hit him–
but he missed and cut Gorgythion down instead,
a well-bred son of Priam, a handsome prince,
and the arrow pierced his chest, Gorgythion
whom Priam’s bride from Aesyme bore one day,
lovely Castianira lithe as a deathless goddess . . .
As a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,
drooping its head to one side, weighed down
by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower,
so Gorgythion’s head fell limp over one shoulder,
weighed down by his helmet (8.342-53)

As Bernard Knox writes in his Introduction, Homer’s use of the word “friend” between combatants “is sincerely meant; it is a recognition of equality, the equality of men of war, all of whom must face violent death” (37). In The Iliad, even kings and gods can be injured.

I think just about everyone knows the plot of the poem, so I’ll refrain from supplying it and just touch on a few things that struck me through this reading:

Bernard Knox elucidates one of the poem’s great conflicts — fate vs. free will:

[. . . ] in fact the coexistence of these irreconcilables is not a phenomenon confined to Homer’s imagined world. In any civilization which makes a place in its thought for free will (and therefore individual responsibility) and pattern (and therefore overall meaning), the two concepts –fixed and free–exist uneasily cheek by jowl. The only escape from this logical contradiction is the prison of rigid determinism, a pattern fixed from the beginning and not subject to change, or on the other hand, the complete freedom and meaningless anarchy of an unpredictable universe. And Greek thought, like ours (or those of us at least who still live in the humane traditions of the West), tries to embrace the logical contradiction of freedom and order combined. (40)

The sensitive portrayal of Andromache and the portrayal of fierce goddesses vs. the relentless objectification of women: The poem begins, of course, with Achilles’s rage when Agamemnon carts off Briseis, one of Achilles’s war prizes (though he claims later “I loved that woman with all my heart / though I won her like a trophy with my spear” [9.416-17]). At the funeral games for Patroclus, one of the prizes Achilles offers is a woman worth four oxen, “and skilled in many crafts” (23.785). Throughout The Iliad, women are regarded as prizes and slaves (the Greeks plan to enslave the Trojan women once the city falls); rape and enslavement are weapons of war (and still are).  Andromache herself is captured by Achilles’s son Pyrrhus (who slaughters her baby son) after Troy falls, and is enslaved as his concubine. This treatment of women is highlighted by Homer’s sensitive portrayal of Andromache, and the machinations and deep feelings of the goddesses who preside over the conflict, especially Hera, Athena, and Thetis (Achilles’s mother).

Unexpectedly moving passages: Given The Iliad‘s ancientness and its stylistic patterns, I expected to be interested by the poem, to appreciate it, but I didn’t expect to be truly moved. The grief of Achilles for Patroclus, Andromache’s scene with Hector, and Priam’s determination to recover Hector’s body were stand-out exceptions. All made me want to walk over to my bookshelf and take down Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles — which I read twice in a row when I received it for Christmas in 2012. If you haven’t read it, please do. It is beautiful and illuminates The Iliad like nothing I’ve ever read before.

Epic lists: The Iliad is well known for its Catalogue of Ships, but there are other lists in the poem, of course. My favorite is the list of the Nereids which appears in Book 18.

Robots: Well, almost. As Hephaestus sets about forging a new shield and armor for Achilles, “Handmaids ran to attend their master / all cast in gold but a match for living, breathing girls. / Intelligence fills their hearts, voice and strength their frames, / from the deathless gods they’ve learned their works of hand” (18.488-91).

And with robots, Dear Readers, I leave you with a question: what do you think of The Iliad?

What Larks!: Dickens Re-evaluated

My fourteen-year-old self is going to think I’m Madame DeFarge. And not just because I learned how to knit a few years ago. No, it’s more the face-of-evil-betrayal thing.

I liked Great Expectations.

Horror of horrors: it appears that Mr. Dickens and I have come to an understanding.

I last read Great Expectations in the ninth grade — fifteen years ago, give or take. The following photo (64)year brought A Tale of Two Cities, which I will never read again thanks to truly irritating Lucie Mannette and her golden thread, and then I had a long break from Dickens until Hard Times popped up in a graduate seminar six or seven years ago, a break punctuated only by sporadic forays into David Copperfield.

Before this reading of Great Expectations, my major Dickensian complaints consisted of: Dickens’s long-windedness, his lack of subtlety, the tidy way that characters prove related to one another. Seriously. It felt like reading a nineteenth-century version of Crash sometimes.

Honestly, I put Great Expectations on my Classics Club list not from any noble intention to re-evaluate my own notoriously long-lived literary grudges (see: Steinbeck, Faulkner), but because at the time I thought I might like to read Havisham (still haven’t gotten around to it), and I like to read literary reimaginings with the original text firmly in mind. (Why I wanted to read Havisham is a story for another post.) When I decided was peer pressured into participating into the Classics Club Spin selection, I popped Great Expectations onto the spin list in position number 20, dead last, never thinking for a moment that it would really be picked.

I suppose I’ll be taking 5% chances more seriously from now on.

Great Expectations is Dickens’s penultimate completed novel, and though my edition clocks in at 484 pages (excluding notes and introduction), it’s one of the shortest of Dickens’s novels (which may halfway explain my change of heart). Unrequited love, the pursuit of wealth and status, the plight of the poor, and the nature of guilt are themes traced through the novel.

On the bleak marshes of Kent, Pip, a young orphan, has no expectations at all when the novel begins, except perhaps a slap upside the head from his sister, or a kind word from her blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery (the pair are raising him). A chance encounter with a runaway convict causes Pip no end of fright and guilt, until those emotions are eventually crowded out by his love for and anxiety over Estella, the cold and contemptuous ward of the ghastly Ms. Havisham. Notified one day that a mysterious benefactor wishes Pip to become a gentleman, Pip leaves his home, Joe, and Estella behind, setting out for London and the issuance of his “great expectations.” Once there, however, the new wealth that confers upon Pip the status of gentleman also separates him from the people he loves, and, often, the best parts of himself. Great Expectations is largely concerned with the forces, both internal and external, that shape Pip’s character.

The novel’s narration is an older (and perhaps wiser) Pip, who looks on his childhood self’s foibles and his adolescent self’s willful errors with an uncompromisingly honest eye. His narration is wry, emotional, often funny. Pip meets a typical cast of Dickensian characters on his road: Jagger, the unscrupulous, clever, perpetually hand-washing lawyer; Joe, the gentle blacksmith, unfailingly tender-hearted, too convinced of his own unworthiness to correct Pip’s faults; Mr. Wopsle, the ridiculous cleric-turned-actor; Miss Havisham, withering and decaying in her own bitter memories.

And Wemmick, my favorite character in the novel. Wemmick is, I think, Dickens’s embodiment of modernity and practicality. While tender-hearted and thoughtful at home, caring for his deaf father (“The Aged Parent”) and sneaking his arm around proper Miss Skiffins’s waist, Wemmick transforms into an entirely different creature at Jaggers’s office, where he works as a clerk. He remonstrates with clients, ignores their tears, and carries out his duties without any regard to the suffering around him. It’s as if he shuts down his emotions as a form of self-preservation; otherwise, how could he bear what he sees every day? I suspect that this is Dickens’s commentary on the kind of person one must become to survive in — though not change — the modern world.

I know I didn’t appreciate Wemmick fifteen years ago because he came as a total surprise to me. What I also failed to see as a fourteen-year-old was Dickens’s marvelous sense of humor — abundantly evident in caricature studies, if you will, but here particularly in bleak, black humor. The novel’s second paragraph, after Pip explains the origin of his name in the first, is an extended joke. Pip explains how he derived a sense of his parents’ characters and his siblings’ physical attitudes from their tombstones:

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, “Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,” I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine,—who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle,—I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.

The tragic death of five infant boys transmuted into the image of children born with trousers on, relaxed and jaunty — how strange, how macabre, how childishly innocent!

Take, then, the next paragraph:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

Pip introduces us to his child-self at the moment of self-realization, at the moment when he places himself within the context of his surroundings. And we learn what remains, for most of the novel, Pip’s defining characteristic: fearfulness. As a child, Pip fears his sister and her abuse, fears for his own safety once he’s met the convict, fears Estella’s coldness, fears becoming trapped in his provincial town with a respectable profession. Later he fears what people will think of him if acts a certain way; he even fears the boy he hires to be his valet. And of course he fears losing Estella, and fears that his convict will not forget him.

Though Pip-the-narrator never excuses his own (sometimes deplorable) behavior, in the background Dickens always seems to be saying, “consider the circumstances!”; take, for example, the paragraph I have just cited. Dickens emphasizes that Pip’s parents and brothers are dead; the churchyard overgrown with nettles suggests that the church (or religion) will be of little help to Pip (and indeed religion plays little role in the story); and the bleakness of the physical environment suggests that even nature will not be a comfort to Pip. Great Expectations provoked more marginalia for me than any other book this year — just look at the layering of adjectives that describe Pip’s surroundings: raw, bleak, overgrown, dark, flat, low, leaden, distant, savage. A fearsome environment for a “small bundle of shivers.”

Here’s part of Dickens’s description of the convict: “A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars.” Textbook “good” writing — all action verbs — but the convict is the object of the actions; all these things have happened to him. What wonder then that he wants to become a man of action, to make things happen himself? What wonder then that he acts savagely to instill fear in a mere child?

(The characters for whom Dickens reserves real contempt are those who lack circumstances dire enough to mitigate their behavior: the second convict, Pip’s sister, the pompous bully Pumblechook, Herbert’s non-maternal mother.)

I’ve rambled on and only covered the first two pages of the novel — as you might imagine, the rest provoked plenty of commentary in the margins. I couldn’t help but think, as I read, that I must be missing things that would be obvious to people who specialize in Victorian literature (hi, Joanna!), people I’ve regarded with incredulity for years because they make a regular habit of reading Dickens. I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to remake Wemmick’s acquaintance, and Joe Gargery’s, and I plan on reading Great Expectations again.

But don’t count on me reading Tale of Two Cities anytime soon.

A final aside, Dear Readers, for those who’ve read Milton and those who are considering the plunge: here are the last lines of Volume I, as Pip is about to embark upon his “great expectations”:

We changed again, and yet again, and it was now too late and too far to go back, and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me.

Compare these passages, from Paradise Lost, Book XII:

from the other hill
To their fixed station all in bright array
The cherubim descended, on the ground
Gliding meteorous as evening mist
Ris’n from a river o’er the marish glides
And gathers ground fast at the laborer’s heel
Homeward returning.


The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way

See what Dickens did there? Pip may be off to find his great expectations, but Paradise is behind him. And then, we must ask, what kind of paradise was it?

Recommended Reading, Classics Club Edition: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass

This slim volume, published in 1845, was one that I should have read years ago. Sure, I’ve Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglassread excerpts from time to time, but really, at 106 pages, this should be required reading in high school American lit classes. It’s powerful, not only for its depictions of the myriad cruelties of slavery, but also for Douglass’s tour de force rhetorical performance.

I think it’s also important to find the right edition of this text (I read an Oxford University Press edition), since context is so important to the narrative. I found the introduction, chronology, and background notes especially helpful when I’m reading autobiography — which is, no matter how truthful, always a literary production, with an intended audience and an agenda.

In this case, for example, it was helpful to learn from the notes that while Frederick Douglass was noted later in life for his support of women’s suffrage, black women are nearly voiceless in his narrative. For example, his fiancee (and later wife), Anna Murray, helped him to escape, but he doesn’t credit her at all in the Narrative. And that, I think, is because the rhetorical strategy Douglass deploys is one that insists on his independence, which is signaled from the book’s original title and authorial designation: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, American Slave, Written by Himself.

It’s shocking just how much Douglass overcame to reach a free state, and the Narrative is often difficult to read due to the many scenes of brutality. It’s impassioned, frank, and blistering in its indictment of slaveholders. It’s a must-read.

Recommended Reading: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

To the LighthouseAttempting to write a review of To The Lighthouse makes me feel rather like Lily Briscoe about to take up her brushes:

Where to begin?–that was the question, at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still, the risk must be run; the mark made. (157)

It’s been about ten years since I read To The Lighthouse, and I’m glad it’s found me again just now. I’m a devotee of Mrs. Dalloway to such an extent that I know the page numbers of certain passages in my copy (I’ve taught it three times at least), and there’s a family joke that the correct answer to any question is probably Mrs. Dalloway.  I want that kind of familiarity with To the Lighthouse.

I read Persuasion while I was reading To the Lighthouse, and what struck me as I read was the startling interiority of Persuasion, and the way it almost leads up to Woolf’s style “Stream of consciousness” doesn’t do Woolf’s writing justice because she creates and chooses such fascinating characters whose consciousnesses to follow. Woolf in this novel is primarily concerned with women’s perceptions, making visible the unseen and silent struggles of women’s everyday interactions.

The first section of the novel often floats in the currents of Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts. If Mrs. Dalloway is the perfect hostess, Mrs. Ramsay is, outwardly, the model of the Victorian “angel in the house” (an ideal Woolf satirized in an essay) — she’s a wife, mother, mistress of servants, and anticipator of others’ needs. But Woolf shows us the turmoil under her deferential demeanor. Here’s Mrs. Ramsay after her husband dismisses the notion of a trip to the lighthouse the following day, ruining their six-year-old son’s hopes:

To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilisation so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said. (32)

So she doesn’t say anything, and seethes.

Though she is a doting mother, kind and sensitive to the needs of her eight (!) children of varying ages, Mrs. Ramsay recognizes the need for her own time. My friend Katie wrote a funny (and spot-on) post recently about how difficult it is to find portrayals of life with small children in fiction. I think this passage, though, captures what it’s like for parents, especially at-home parents, to sit down at the end of a long day:

No, she thought, putting together some of the pictures he had cut out–a refrigerator, a mowing machine, a gentleman in evening dress–children never forget. For this reason, it was so important what one said, and what one did, and it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of–to think; well, not ever to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless. (62)

“The range of experience seemed limitless” — that’s a good way to describe this book. The novel is broken in three sections: “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse” — but it’s difficult to convey the plot. A family and visitors gather at the family summer home before the First World War. After that last summer, some people drift away, some die (including a major character, in one sentence at the end of a paragraph), and the war happens. Ten years later, a few of the guests and a few of the family gather again at the house. I haven’t made it sound like much, but somehow, the novel is about art and life, men and women, children and parents, love and death, and above all, change. It’s brilliant and beautiful and never, ever sentimental.

Lily, as the artist, solitary and devoted to her work, seems to stand in for the author at times. In this passage, which I’ll leave you with, her description of life itself could describe To the Lighthouse:

And, what was even more exciting, she felt, too, as she saw Mr. Ramsay bearing down and retreating, and Mrs. Ramsay sitting with James in the window and the cloud moving and the tree bending, how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach. (47)

Recommended Reading (and a Classics Club Checkmark): Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber, by Diana Gabaldon

photo 1 (14)About two hundred pages into Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, it occurred to me that somewhere out there is an HBO executive repeatedly berating himself or herself for not acquiring the TV rights to the seven (soon to be eight)-book-long series. Sex, violence, accents, great costuming possibilities, episodic structure, and a huge built-in audience of (largely female) fans? Good grief. It’s a series just waiting to happen. And it will happen, on Starz, this summer. Someone please offer to get me cable, because Ronald D. Moore is producing, and I think we all know how much I loved his Battlestar Galactica.

Before I get into the Claire & Jamie festivities, a funny story: A couple months ago, my friends (who also happen to be neighbors) were talking books at our consciousness-raising rap group (aka Wine Night), and Elena mentioned Outlander, and gave a rough outline of the plot. This rang a bell. Well, two bells, actually. Outlander had appeared on a best-of-classic sci-fi list, so I’d added it to my in-progress Classics Club list over the summer. But that’s not what came to mind first.

As a teenager, I came across Dragonfly in Amber, the first of Outlander‘s sequels, in the local library. I liked the title, and had no idea it was part of a series, so I just started flipping through. Oddly enough, the book kept falling open at some pretty steamy scenes (I’m looking at you, patrons of the Bertram Woods branch). Despite the fact that my parents never once in my life stopped me from reading a book, nor hovered over me while I read or browsed books, I was too chicken to check it out. So, rebel that I was, I’d pop by the shelf from time to time while I was in the library to read a chapter or two. I was a couple hundred pages in when someone took the book out, and I never found out what happened to Claire and Jamie. In fact, I forgot all about the book until Elena and a glass of pinot noir shook it loose from my uncooperative memory.Dragonfly in Amber

Onto the books. As per usual, I will give you advance warning of spoilers, which in this case appear at the end of the post.

Both Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber are door-stops: 850 and 947 pages, respectively (my editions are the mass-market paperbacks). And they’re tricky to classify by genre; let’s go with 55% historical fiction, 35% romance, and 10% SF-F.

The premise: Claire Beauchamp Randall, a former army nurse, is on holiday with her husband, Frank, in the Scottish Highlands. Frank’s a historian with a particular interest (which Claire doesn’t share) in the Jacobite risings of the eighteenth century, so naturally he finds plenty to occupy his time on their trip. On an outing, Claire, an amateur herbalist/botanist, gets too close to a circle of standing stones, only to find herself transported to 1743 — two years before the disastrous Jacobite Rising of 1745 (Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that). Disoriented and confused, it takes her some time to discover when and where she is. As an Englishwoman, she’s an “outlander,” a sassenach, and her position is most precarious.

Which is not to say that 1743 Scotland doesn’t have its perks: adventure, intrigue, professional pride (Claire quickly gains a reputation as a skilled healer), and an extremely good-looking young man named Jamie, who has his own set of problems (price on his head, a sadistic English army captain interested in him, etc.). Needless to say, events conspire to put Jamie and Claire very much in each other’s way as they attempt to navigate through the Highlands’ natural and political terrain. Much danger (and sex) ensues as Claire is forced to choose between her past and her present.

Outlander follows the pair to the end of 1743; Dragonfly in Amber picks up where Outlander leaves off, and includes a long foray into France (happily, Claire and Jamie both speak perfect French.) as they try to stop the Rising before it begins, with the help of Claire’s foreknowledge. But time is tricky stuff, as any good sci-fi fan knows.

Ms. Gabaldon doesn’t write literary fiction, and that’s just fine — because she does write rollicking adventure with excellent pacing. Near the end of Outlander, the tension was so extreme that I had to put the book down and catch my breath. The historical detail is intriguing, especially since the reader makes discoveries alongside Claire. If there’s a woman perfectly suited for dangerous time travel, it’s Claire: she’s quick-thinking, brave, very intelligent, and possessed of numerous practical skills thanks to her training as a nurse. She’s pleasant company as a narrator. Jamie’s a puzzle at first; he has all of the attributes you’d expect (strong, tall, brave, loyal, suitably appreciative of heroine,etc.), but he’s also very young and, for the most part, respectful toward women. Actually, sometimes I thought he seemed too much like a thirty-five year-old man, rather than a twenty-three-year-old; the author’s point that people grew up faster in centuries past is well taken, but sometimes Jamie’s emotional maturity is no verra believable, ye ken?

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Won’t happen again.

Bottom line: these are deliciously entertaining and diverting books, but if you prefer your fiction free of gore and bodice-ripping, look somewhere else.

Spoilers Ensue. Also, TW: sexual violence and child abuse.

Both novels include scenes of rape and attempted rape, and Dragonfly in Amber has a particularly horrifying account of a child being raped. In all cases the rapists (eventually) meet the eighteenth century version of justice, and in all instances rape is not glorified or glamorized, but shown as brutal and causeless. The victims are not blamed.

The villain in  Outlander is the aforementioned sadistic English captain, Jack Randall (just to complicate matters, he’s Frank’s ancestor.). Randall’s particular interest is the sexual debasement and torture of men (though he’s perfectly happy to beat Claire, and attempt to rape her too) — and he’s got his eye on Jaimie. I’ll get back to that in a second, but first, here’s my major philosophical issue with the books: Jack Randall is described, by Claire in 1968, as a pervert, and it’s not clear to me that what she’s describing is his sadism, rather than his homosexuality (which is referred to more than once). For that matter, why does the only gay character in the two books have to be a pedophile, rapist, and sadist? I realize that homosexuality wasn’t even a term in use in the eighteenth century, and that Outlander was published in 1991, but c’mon. Of course, I haven’t read the next 5,000 pages of the series, so maybe I’m speaking too soon.

UPDATE: Kay from WhatMeRead tells me that there’s a non-vilified gay character in another of Ms. Gabaldon’s books.

UPDATE 2: I’m happy to be wrong — please scroll down in the comments to read Ms. Gabaldon’s (!) clarification on this point.

Anyway. True to conventional romance tropes, Jamie rescues Claire from attempted rape at least twice in Outlander alone, but at the end of the book, something I’ve never seen in fiction happens. Jamie, condemned to hang, is in prison, and Claire’s first rescue attempt fails. Jack Randall is about to have her raped by one of his minions and then killed, but Jaime trades her life for his acquiescence to Jack Randall’s predilections. Basically, he consents to be raped and tortured to save Claire’s life.

And that’s exactly what happens. There’s no last-minute saving of his “honor.” Claire does manage to organize a rescue, but Jaime suffers for hours first. The last act of the novel is Claire’s struggle to help Jamie heal, physically and psychologically, from his experience (he does). These scenes are excruciating to read, but I was impressed by Ms. Gabaldon’s turning a romance trope on its head.

Checking Off My Classics Club List: The Big Sleep

Forget Brangelina. Forget Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. The best on-screen/off-screen chemistry of all time goes to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The Big Sleep

Seriously. Watch the first half-hour of To Have and Have Not (1944) and you’ll be floored when you hear Bacall deliver her first line (it was her first movie, at 19). Wow-za.  Plus, you can feel that you’re doing something literary, since the film is based (very loosely, I admit) on Hemingway’s novel of the same name, and the screenplay was co-written by William Faulkner. Yeah, THE Faulkner.

Anyway. I love all the Bogie & Bacall movies, but The Big Sleep (1946) is far and away my favorite. It’s dark, it’s scary, it’s engrossing. So naturally I put Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), his first novel, on my Classics Club list.

I knew the contours of the plot from the movie, but I was surprised just how much darker in tone the novel is.

Here’s the set-up:  A dying millionaire calls in private detective Philip Marlowe to investigate some “gambling” debts accrued by the younger of his two wild daughters, Carmen. Marlowe’s investigation spins outward to include men and women caught up in blackmail, pornography (the movie elides this one — thanks, Hollywood censors!), murder, gambling, and disappearances. Nobody’s innocent.

Marlowe’s a great character: a cynic trying to do the right thing, curious to a fault, more interested in solving a puzzle than preserving his personal safety. A perfect fit for Bogart. Marlowe narrates, and the prose matches his style — keenly observant, hard-boiled, thorough. Never, ever florid or sentimental.

There’s some squirm-inducing material from this vantage point, nearly seventy-five years later. Marlowe isn’t overly fond of women, for one thing. Carmen may be a psychotic, drug-addled brat, but slapping her around just seems wrong. And the novel brings up homosexuality (very well hidden in the movie), but only in the context of scorn (“queen” and “fairy” is standard language in the novel). Unpleasant, very unpleasant. Here’s a telling line: about a character who’s committed murder and who was another man’s lover: “He was afraid of the police, of course, being what he is” (110).  Homosexuality is clearly coded as deviance, as “other,” as part of the criminal underground that Marlowe finds himself caught up in.

These issues aside, it’s a great crime novel, great writing, and highly recommended.

Because I Love a Bandwagon: The Classics Club

One of my goals for this fall (and winter, because, really, let’s not kid ourselves) is to make a list of my (ridiculous number of) books and try to put a schedule together to read the unread ones.

So naturally, I’m sidetracking myself by joining the Classics Club. And I love a full bandwagon, so maybe you could join too?

Here’s the idea: Make a list of at least fifty classic books you’d like to read, and then commit to reading them in five years, at most. More than fifty books? Great! Your classics are all sci-fi/nineteenth-century/YA/poetry? Go right ahead and list them (but seriously. YA? Really?).

My list, as you’ll see, is rather a smorgasbord. I’m trying to fill gaps in my education (and, you know, try to stomach a few things from the eighteenth century) and refresh my memory and remedy my shocking lack of under-the-belt sci-fi classics.  You’ll also notice that there’s nary a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century work to be found on my list, because I spent five years in grad school chilling with my pals Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne, Middleton, Cavendish, Milton, Marvell, Jonson, and Lanyer. I feel like we can stay in touch via Facebook for at least a few more years.

Start Date: September 13, 2013

End Date: September 12, 2018

Here’s my list o’ 51. I did not alphabetize it. Please still hang out with me.

Well Before the Eighteenth Century

Homer, The Iliad

Homer, The Odyssey 

Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji


18th Century 

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe


19th Century 

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey

Elizabeth Barret Browning, Aurora Leigh

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

George Sand, Indiana

Charlotte Brontë, Villette

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

To Revisit:

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (last read 2008)

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (last read 1998)

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (last read 2010ish)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (last read 2000 or 2001)


20th Century 

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels

Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology

Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End

Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Barbara Pym, Excellent Women

Ernest Hemingway, To Have and Have Not

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood

Ursula Leguin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Octavia Butler, Lilith’s Brood

Diana Gabaldon, Outlander

Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea

James Baldwin, Another Country

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

To revisit:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (last read sometime in the late ’90s)

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (last read sometime in the early aughts)

So, what did I miss? What would you have added? Are you already a member? How’s it going?