The Woman in White

Finally finished The Woman in White.   It took me sooo long to get around to reading it and then it took me sooo long to read it.   Not because it’s bad, but I think it’s just harder to read long 19th century novels.   I need a break from them.   Or a readalong to make me keep up.   Wilkie Collins though is an excellent writer.   I’m not sure why he doesn’t rank up there with Dickens except I suppose Dickens managed more novels and more important ones, but Collins’ characters have a depth and subtlety I don’t think is found in Dickens or if so, not much.  Even his maidenly, soppy heroine has a bit of a steel in her.   Not a lot, but she perks up every now and then.   That our hero chooses her over Marian is a sad thing.   But it’s still true that big blue eyes and pretty blond curls will win over people for no good reason.

I had expected to enjoy Woman in White more than The Moonstone, but a large chunk of it takes place during an abusive marriage in which our pretty blonde heroine is bullied by a lout of a husband and this I don’t enjoy.  Her too-lazy-to-be-truly-evil uncle is quite funny, especially during his portion of the narrative — like Moonstone, WiW is a collection of documents from different perspectives to tell the story — but I think not as funny as Drusilla Clack with her pamphlets and Betteredge was much more entertaining than Hartright, which now I look at the dates, makes sense.   Moonstone was eight years after Woman in White.   The Count is a wonderful character, so vividly drawn throughout.  His sentiment, his culture, his attachment to his little pets, all lend him a complexity seldom found in villains and certainly not found in his partner.   More Pesca would have been good and another scene or two with Hartright’s family I think would not have gone amiss, although it’s certainly a long enough book.   Both main narrators are exceedingly thorough in their narration.


And the long and short of it is, if you only read one Collins, I would recommend The Moonstone over The Woman in White, but they are both worth reading, so why choose only one?   I believe I will read more of him in the future.   He was a great writer, lively, entertaining and far less cloyingly sentimental than Dickens.   I need to go back to Our Mutual Friend, but the brother is becoming a jerk, so I find it tough to go back.  I forgot I have one complaint:  showing a gloomy lake, perfect for a crime scene, and then not having a body show up there is just wrong.  Oh, and the ending is very conveeeenient, but that happened a lot back then.

Passenger to Frankfurt

Time sure do fly.   I meant to write up Christie’s Passenger to Frankfurt before leaving on a long weekend, but I didn’t and here we are at the 21st already.  I think I finished it the 15th.  I’ve almost read all of her novels.  Then I read some reviews of it trying to discern why it spent 27 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.  Mostly people thought much the same as me, although most of them seemed even more confused.   The one who said much of what I would was Furrowed Middlebrow.  He even posted the Robert Barnard quote I would have from Wikipedia.

The book does have a plot, sort of.  It’s pretty much the same plot as in all her other “spy” novels.  A mysterious cabal of rich people have gone all Pinky and the Brain and are trying to take over the world.  This time using rebellious youth in all countries and a music festival.  It starts off all right with a mysterious woman asking Sir Stafford Nye to borrow his cloak so she can get back to England in an unkilled state.  He goes along with it and is swiftly embroiled in The Plot.   Any time they or his great aunt are involved, the book is fairly readable, but when they aren’t, it’s a bunch of government committee members rehashing the plot and updating its progress in the vaguest, most repetitive way possible.  Sadly, this is likely owing to dementia on Dame Agatha’s part, but that doesn’t explain 27 weeks on the best seller list.  Did it come with a free TV?

About 3/4 of the way through, there is an actual idea revealed which I don’t wish to spoil for anyone who’s a completist and feels the need to read this.  This idea makes the plot slightly less ridiculous, but should have been revealed much earlier and then thwarted later by the actions of our heroes rather than sort of dismissed through work already done.   I think there’s an actual book in this muddle, it just needs serious rewriting, more suspense, more suspicion, and a lot less vagueness and repetition.   Cover’s not bad though.


Hallowe’en Party

I know I shouldn’t write two in one day.    I should spread the wealth such as it is, but I have time and inclination to catch up, so catch up I will.  I have not been doing so hot on reading more things.    I was reading the Woman in White (still am, actually) and with two days left and only 40% in, I decided to go to Agatha, my old standby, especially as Hallowe’en Party was next in line and it was the day before Hallowe’en.  Sadly, I did not make it.   I finished it on the 2nd.   Dame Agatha is clearly losing it at this point.   It starts with the titular Halloween party for teenage children.  Ariadne Oliver is attending while visiting a friend.  They are decorating for the party during the day: there will be games and the girls can look in mirrors and see there true loves, bobbing for apples and something called Snapdragon which I had to look up on the internet.   Wonderful thing, the internet.  Snapdragon is a holdover from Victorian times, why anyone still plays it is a mystery.   In a pan you put raisins and brandy, then set the brandy on fire and take turns trying to reach in and grab the raisins.  Losers get singed knuckles, winners get singed knuckles and raisins.   Worst. Game. Ever.

Lovely blue color though.

At the party set up one of the children, Joyce, brags about having witnessed a murder once.  Before the night is through, Joyce is dead and Ariadne Oliver is off apples for life.  Ariadne brings in Hercule and then, most unlike herself, largely disappears from the book.   Hercule walks around town in his too tight shoes interviewing everyone and I had part of the solution from the get-go.   I honestly have no idea if I read this before or not.   It rang no bells, but it was a long time ago and I’ve forgotten a lot, but I really think it did not have the usual pool of possible suspects.   It went on and on about how people who should have been in asylums no longer are, though there was no one in the book who would have been in an asylum in olden times either.  Somehow though even if I guess part of the solution to a Christie book, that doesn’t mean I guess it all and I didn’t.   Though whether that’s because it was ludicrous is a fair question.   At least I now know to avoid any parties where Snapdragon is on the schedule.

TL, DR:  Don’t bother unless you’re a Christie completionist.

This was an R.I.P. read and I’ll probably post it, even though it’s late.   It is too recent to count for Bev’s scavenger hunt.   I have gone back to Woman in White so there may not be more reviews for a while.  I’m also planning to read 50 pages of The Waves for the Woolfalong.   I mean, I’m planning to read the whole thing, but I keep getting not very far in these Woolf books.   Even the diary and I like diaries.  I find it interesting though that even though I’ve only read the beginnings of Night and Day, Lee’s biography and the vol 1 of the Diary they all sort of resonate and reinforce each other.    Especially N&D and the biography, but there’s a better understanding of each because of the others.  I did finish To the Lighthouse and Monday and Tuesday.  I like this Woolfalong idea and would like to do something like it in future years.    Maybe read all of Proust one year.   Or pick another author and do the 4-5 works and a biography like this.   A project which lasts the year, but doesn’t shut out everything else.   Though I probably should have shut out a few more things and done better on Woolf.

Once more vowing to step up my game and finish the year with style and aplomb.  Hoping to finish Woman in White, the Waves, and maybe some other stuff I started earlier.  There’s enough of it to last the rest of the year, sad to say.

Master & Margarita: Non-Spoilery General Review

As some people already know, I did a readalong with Alice of Reading Rambo of this book in October.   It also fit in for the R.I.P. which I hadn’t realized until I started it, but it’s got the devil, witches flying around and demons, so that counts, I think.   Plus I’m counting it as my classic in translation for the Back to the Classics challenge.   Not published until 1966, it was written by Bulgakov from the late 20s until his death in 1940.   It’s quite a wonder it survived at all.   He burnt the first version.   Could have been arrested for writing it at all.   His wife carefully kept it until things relaxed a bit in the 60s and it has been a huge hit in Russia ever since.   Bulgakov has become one of their most celebrated writers although for the most part he seems to have mostly befuddled our little group.   In Moscow, there is a sign near Patriarch’s Ponds:


“Don’t Talk to Strangers” which is exactly how the book begins.   Berlioz, an editor, and Ivan, a poet, are discussing an article Ivan has written about Jesus which Berlioz is unsatisfied with because it made Jesus seem too real.   The goal is to discredit the existence of Jesus, God, the Devil and any other religious or superstitious figures.   Unfortunately for Berlioz, at that moment, the Devil himself introduces himself to the conversation.   The two do not realize exactly who they’re talking to, although his strangeness is immediately apparent.  In addition to looking a bit odd, he seems to be claiming to have known Kant and then Pontius Pilate.   From here, things just get more and more bizarre.   The devil and his cohorts, a couple of strange, demonic men and a humanoid cat cause all sorts of trouble, driving men mad, transporting them to Yalta, getting them run over by streetcars…   It is a wild, prankish, entertaining ride that makes you think maybe LSD was actually invented much earlier.

Then there is a parallel story of the crucifixion which is told first by Woland, the devil, and then later as part of a book which is central to the story of the Master and Margarita who don’t show up until much later.   Pilate’s story and Yeshua’s is quite different from the one that has come down to us.   As I read somewhere that I can’t figure out where,  ‘the devil is there but not that devil and Jesus is there, but not that Jesus’ which seems to be about as well as it can be put.   Woland is only sort of satanic and Yeshua is sort of like Jesus and the whole story seems to mean something important which I can’t guess.  But although more than half our group was pretty much ‘wtf?’ about the whole story, I highly recommend it.   I don’t get it, but I don’t think you’ll read anything else like it and many people have loved it.  In its absurdity, I think it captures something about living in Soviet times that could not be captured any other way.

There are quite a few translations of this book.   I went with the Burgin and O’Connor after looking up a couple websites which posted comparison sentences.  I’m not sure they had all the versions though.   Here’s an article definitely not recommending Pevear and Volokhonsky  It is not about Bulgakov, it is about Tolstoy, but reveals P&V’s attitude toward translation and why their work might be “like singing or piano playing by someone who is not musical.”

Master & Margarita Readalong Roundup

Major spoilers.   Will write a non-spoilery review soon.

So, I finished the book on time – even early – and I’m still posting late.   I discovered when I finished it that there were a lot of notes at the back not linked.   So, thanks for that, Overlook Press, nice work.   The notes are by a woman named Ellendea Proffer and while some are ones I even tried to look up on my own, like Woland’s name, others are…  of dubious helpfulness like when she specially points out all the people disappearing “although the casual reader might not really focus on it.”   Leaving aside the fact that that’s all I think happened in the Soviet Union under Stalin – people were disappeared and shot or sent to gulags – how could anyone miss all the disappearances referred to in the beginning of this book?   An entire building empties out.   You’d have to be more than casual to miss it.   More like comatose.

Reading all the notes at once — not optimal.   I did learn a few things, one of which is how many names mean other things.   I knew about Bezdomny meaning Homeless from other readers’ blogs, but I didn’t know many others and I think if I were translating it I would give them the translated names.   He’d be the poet Ivan Homeless, not Bezdomny.  Bengalsky is good, except never in a million years would I associate a tiger with that feeble emcee. I suppose it’s irony.   I don’t see the point of keeping the Russian word when it is not so much a name as a translatable word.  Apparently Behemoth is the Russian for Hippopotamus.   I think I would call him Hippopotamus.   Otherwise, I think the translation was good.   At least, from what one can tell.   It was readable.   I didn’t get confused by it, though I was frequently confused by the text.   Or maybe bewildered is better.   What was happening was clear, why it was happening not so much.

This book certainly made me feel undereducated — my knowledge of Manichean principles is pretty much non-existent.  The idea that the whole Jesus story was made up by Pilate after the crucifixion to… assuage his guilt?  … is bizarre.  I don’t really imagine Pilate felt all that guilty, but even if he did.   How does murdering Judas and inventing the idea of his suicide help that?   Ha-Notsri seems like a nice guy, but seems to have otherwise done almost none of the things Jesus did before his death, let alone the things he’s supposed to have done after.  He is not Jesus, he has no disciples, just one crazed follower getting everything wrong.   I thought at first the Levi Matvei would be the one to retell the whole story so it comes down to us as the Gospels, but that doesn’t seem to be what was happening.

And Woland.   What up with him?   They all fly off into the night and live happily ever after?   Sadly, Behemoth is no longer a cat.   He was my favorite.   I meant to read some articles which might explain it all somehow, but I was supposed to be finishing my fourth R.I.P. book, so that didn’t happen.     When Woland says that if there were no God nor Satan no one would be running things, that should mean that everything that happened was according to plan, but what sort of plan was it?   Why was Margarita able to make a deal with the devil and come out just fine?   Everyone else who got near him or his cronies generally wound up in an institution.   Why is the book called the Master and Margarita when the Master is, well, pretty much a feeble hanger on who does almost nothing?   When he steps into Ivan’s room (Enter the hero) you think, maybe this guy will stop Woland, but he doesn’t do a darn thing.   He has the keys to the hospital and neither leaves, nor lets anyone else out.   He writes a peculiar novel about Pilate and seems to have something important to say, but what is it?  Or is it a joke and the whole Pilate part is meant to show that people can invest themselves thoroughly in clap-trap?  And who stops Woland?  No one.   He stops himself after a while and rides off into the sunset like a hero.  And Margarita is a boss.  Not at all what you expect from the earlier description of  her.   She’s a witch and she revels in it.   The only one

I do think it gives a good idea of what it was like to live under a Soviet dictatorship — the uncertainty, the random arrests, the accusations out of nowhere, just as often in order to get something you had, like an apartment, as for any other reason.    Any feeling of security such as Berlioz possessed was false, no one knew where they would be that evening when they woke up that morning (of course, that’s always true, but to a lesser extent in a civilized society.)   Some people did well out of the system, some did well for a while, then very badly, others just got shipped far away and never heard from again.   I have long meant to read more Bulgakov, maybe this time I will.   I did see a Young Doctor’s Notebook which is also trippy as hell, but very good.    But then, I might be the only one on this readalong who enjoyed the book.   No, I can’t explain it, but I do love it, and think one day I’ll read it again.   Thanks to Alice for hosting this readalong!   They’re always great!