Saturday, February 22, 2014

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary PLUS Three Short TalesMadame Bovary PLUS Three Short Tales by Gustave Flaubert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Madame Bovary has been on my list of books to read for decades, but for various reasons I always made other choices. Then my wife decided to learn French and as part of that process read the novel in its original language. I decided to finally pick up this book because it would be fun to discuss when we were both done. I read an English translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling who was one of the daughters of Karl Marx and, following in her father's footsteps, a socialist. I didn't know Marx's background at the time I read the book, but find it interesting, since the results of Emma's decision to pursue a life of self indulgence seem to exemplify the horrors that can happen to people who seek self gratification. In other words, if you believe “greed is good” you probably won't like this book.

I read somewhere that Madame Bovary along with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina are the two greatest “adultry” novels ever written. I'm not sure how anyone can make a statement like that, since so many novels have been written about adultry. But there is definitely a connection between these two works. Anna, however, is somewhat sympathetic, being drawn to a single lover she can't resist. On the other hand, Emma's true love seems to be herself. Here's a section from the book when Emma is sitting at an agricultural fair with Rodolphe, the man she's currently attracted to, and reflecting on all the men in her life – except, of course, her husband.

Then a faintness came over her; she recalled the Viscount who had waltzed with her at Vaubyessard, and his beard exhaled like this air an odour of vanilla and citron, and mechanically she half-closed her eyes the better to breathe it in. But in making this movement, as she leant back in her chair, she saw in the distance, right on the line of the horizon, the old diligence, the "Hirondelle," that was slowly descending the hill of Leux, dragging after it a long trail of dust. It was in this yellow carriage that Leon had so often come back to her, and by this route down there that he had gone for ever. She fancied she saw him opposite at his windows; then all grew confused; clouds gathered; it seemed to her that she was again turning in the waltz under the light of the lustres on the arm of the Viscount, and that Leon was not far away, that he was coming; and yet all the time she was conscious of the scent of Rodolphe's head by her side. This sweetness of sensation pierced through her old desires, and these, like grains of sand under a gust of wind, eddied to and fro in the subtle breath of the perfume which suffused her soul. She opened wide her nostrils several times to drink in the freshness of the ivy round the capitals. She took off her gloves, she wiped her hands, then fanned her face with her handkerchief, while athwart the throbbing of her temples she heard the murmur of the crowd and the voice of the councillor intoning his phrases. He said—"Continue, persevere; listen neither to the suggestions of routine, nor to the over-hasty councils of a rash empiricism.

I loved the process of following Emma Bovary as she made selfish decisions, rationalized her behavior, and paid the consequences. There are many reasons to read Madame Bovary, including its influence on later novelists, but it is the careful, detailed exploration of Emma's character that make this novel a masterpiece.

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Saturday, February 8, 2014

The House at Midnight by Lucy Whitehouse

The House at MidnightThe House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many of the reviews posted for The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse mention other books that are like this novel in certain ways. The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier were both mentioned. (I haven’t read the first one, but loved the second.) I think finding similarities is a great way to discover new books, but hanging on to those comparisons can lead to false expectations.

The House at Midnight is about a group of friends. The house provides a place where these friends can live a lavish lifestyle apart from other people. It’s nice atmosphere, but the book’s about the people not the house. Their friendship started when some of them were in college and has continued as they’ve begun their careers. The book is written from Joanna’s point of view. She’s a writer for a tabloid and dreams of becoming a serious journalist. Lucas has inherited the house along with a great deal of money from his Uncle Patrick, the owner of a successful art gallery. He’s also inherited a number of psychological issues from a family with some serious problems. In some ways this novel is as much about memories of people who aren’t in the book as it is about the characters we get to know.

Although some of the characters, including Joanna, have real careers, they all seem happy to live and party on money they haven’t earned. Martha is the least self indulgent of the group and Lucas is the most, but all the characters have their flaws, at least all of the ones we get to know. I wouldn’t want to know most of these people, but it was interesting getting to know them in the novel.

I listened to the audio version which was read by Kate Reading (interesting name for someone who is the voice of many audio books). Her voice is sophisticated yet vulnerable and absolutely perfect for this book.

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Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Vanishing by Wendy Webb

The VanishingThe Vanishing by Wendy Webb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Vanishing by Wendy Webb is my kind of book. It's a ghost story and the ghosts are important, but the focus is more on the lead character, Julia Bishop, as she deals with rough circumstances in her life. Her husband has committed suicide after losing the life fortunes of investors in a Bernie Madoff style Ponzi scheme. He has left Julia alone and friendless since everyone she knows believes she was aware of her husband's scam. She doesn't have any options to get out of the mess she's in when Adrian Sinclair shows up at her home and offers to take her away. He claims he can hide her where the press and the people her husband cheated can't find her. And on top of that, her job will be to serve as a companion for his mother, Amaris Sinclair, a renowned author of horror novels whom Julia, also a writer, has always admired. There's no way she can pass up this opportunity.

The setting is an old, haunted manor on a large estate in Minnesota. For Julia it's like stepping back in time and into a Gothic novel. There's also romance in the form of Andrew, a handsome man whose ancestor built the estate. Drew keeps horses and likes to take Julia on rides through the woods. He also watches out for her when she needs him.

There are a couple of scary moments, but in general this isn't the kind of ghost story that will frighten the reader. Instead, this book is filled with plot twists and turns that at first seem to conflict, but work out in interesting ways. It's fun to try to figure out what's going on and to determine whom Julia should trust.

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