Category Archives: classics

The Madwoman Upstairs

9781501124211_p0_v2_s192x300With the mystery of Jane Eyre and the force of a modern romance, Catherine Lowell creates a satisfying plot in The Madwoman Upstairs.

Samantha Whipple, new student at Oxford University, is the last living descendant of the Brontë sisters.  Home-schooled by her father, Tristan Whipple, a scholar who “spent his entire life trying to deconstruct” the writings of his famous relatives, Samantha, at twenty, is well-versed in the famous novels.  Lowell generously sprinkles excerpts from the well-known Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as well as the less famous The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

At her father’s request, Samantha’s residence at Oxford is an isolated tower, often the site of campus tours.    When her father’s copies of the Brontë  books mysteriously arrive on her doorstep, encrypted with her father’s obscure notes referring to her inheritance, a collection of writings and paintings, including the “Warnings of Experience –  that may have been left to her by her father, she enlists the help of her tall, dark, handsome Oxford tutor to help her decipher the clues.

If you are a fan of the the Brontë  sisters, the references to the famous novels, and Lowell’s dissection of some of the plot lines may prompt you to reread the original texts.  References to the Brontë  treasure may have been inspired by the recent uncovering of a lost book containing poems and snippets from the Brontë  children –

“The Brontë Society has recovered the treasure for £170,000 from a seller in America where it has been for more than a century…it was originally sold following the death of their father Patrick Brontë  in 1861″…the Telegraph, 2015

If you are a student of literature, you will enjoy Lowell’s notes on literary criticism and intellectual pursuits:

  • “The great reward given to intelligent people is that they can invent all the rules and equate any dissent with stupidity.”
  • “…what everyone wants: meaning. Happiness in some sense, is irrelevant.”
  • “…the interpretation of a novel depends on the reader far more than it does on the text or the author’s intent…”
  • “Reading teaches you courage. The author is trying to convince you something fake is real…”

If you have never read a Brontë book – or only seen one of the many movies – and are looking for a romantic interlude with the trappings of an intellectual discussion, The Madwoman Upstairs has a story to keep you reading, while you sigh through the passion and try to decipher the mystery.

 

The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots

Oh Joy!  A new Beatrix Potter book has been discovered.  Beatrix Potter would be 150 on July 28, 2016, and her writing lives on.  Her latest book – The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots will be published in September.

“The tale really is the best of Beatrix Potter. It has double identities, colourful villains and a number of favourite characters from other tales (including Mr Tod, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Ribby and Tabitha Twitchit)”. An “older, slower and portlier” Peter Rabbit also makes an appearance.”  from Jo Hanks who discovered a letter Beatrix Potter had sent her publisher about the manuscript in 1914, leading to the search for the book.

clip-art-beatrix-potter-336805Although she died in 1943, Beatrix Potter is still one of the world’s best-selling authors. She wrote and illustrated 28 books.  How many have you read?

Provence

Reading about Provence can never replace being there, but Peter Mayle’s “Provence in Ten Easy Lessons” is a good way to remember the best of that beautiful area. After tasting my first pastis and gorging on cheeses and croissants, shopping in the open markets, and practicing my fractured French with a patient shopkeeper, I could connect with Mayle’s top ten list. He never mentioned the the rocky climbs rewarded with breathtaking vistas, the emerald green clear water, or the Mistral wind blowing hard enough at times to whip a landscape into a frenzy – but this was a short book – and Mayle has written so much about Provence in his other stories.

Learning to cook bouillabaisse with a master chef was an experience I’ll never forget. No wonder Julia Child fell in love with French cooking. I found myself intoning a sing- sing “bon appetit” often and looking for more recipes. Elizabeth Bard’s second memoir of her life in France, “Picnic in Provence” offers her recipes from the area – some worth trying.

A companion book I brought along – J. I. M. Stewart’s vintage book, “The Use of Riches,” was set in Italy, not France, but the story of the tortured artist and his vision reminded me of Van Gogh when I visited the asylum where he painted so many of his masterpieces. Stewart’s classic is initially confusing but worth the extra attention and the wait for the slow reveal; nevertheless, you must be persistent to connect. Languorous afternoons in the countryside of Provence may be the perfect setting to read it.

As I reluctantly retune my ear from French, Provence stays with me, and I found myself grinning when I greeted the American flight attendant with a hearty “bonjour.” She smiled back.

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The Book That Changed My Life

Anne Rice, whose latest addition to her ghoulish repertoire is Prince Lestat: The Vampire Chronicles, responded in an interview that “the book that changed {her} life” was Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.  Pip was her favorite character, and inspired her “lifelong struggle to be a writer…”

A quick google search yielded a book with the title – The Book That Changed My life: 77 Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them.  “For Doris Kearns Goodwin it was Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which inspired her to enter a field, history writing, traditionally reserved for men.”  And the National Book Foundation, home of the National Book Award, has “The Book That Changed My Life Project,” a website linking authors to a life-altering read; for Stephen King, it was  The Lord of the Flies.

Although the question seems to be straight out of a Sunday supplement magazine, it had me thinking.  I have enough trouble remembering the books I have just read – a major reason for this site.  You could find me in a bookstore anytime, book in one hand, iPhone in the other, searching my site for the title that sounds vaguely familiar.  But one book from childhood is a still a favorite memory – although I’m not sure it9780385015837_p0_v1_s260x420 changed my life – D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. Beautifully illustrated and full of adventure, I remember going back to reread the stories of my favorite heroes and heroines.  It’s been awhile and this might be a good time to lose myself in it again.

Do you remember a book from childhood that may have “changed your life”?

An Old Classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books – the The Secret Garden Inga Mooreone I remember rereading over and over. Best known for her children’s books including Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Little Princess, Hodgson was also a prolific writer of adult books. When I recently read a review of Hodgson’s 1896 book, The Shuttle, and found I could download it for free, I finally found a way out of my reading slump.

shuttle_1205Because The Shuttle focused on the lives of two sisters who would have lived in Hodgson’s time, I was anxious to know more about the author herself, a woman who like some of her contemporaries (Louisa May Alcott) actually supported herself by writing. Just as Little Lord Fauntleroy had shades of her two young sons whom she kept in long curls, Hodgson’s shuttling between America and England, and her second husband’s reliance on her income may have influenced this book.

Although the text is long and the plot complicated, like other Hodgson books, the story combines history with romance and adventure. Rosy marries an Englishman (the villain), who needs her fortune to shore up his aristocratic life and Betty is the sharp younger sister who is determined to outsmart all those Victorian men who would keep her from her potential.  Twelve years after newly wed Rosy left for England, a grown-up and self-possessed Betty sails to find her sister at the run-down mansion, struggling to survive with her hunched back son, while her erstwhile husband is off spending her fortune on himself.

Despite long descriptive passages of the countryside, the drama held my attention, with the strong female heroine fighting against the surly despicable villain, while restoring the village, the English garden, and her frail sister.   The tall beefy red-headed lord of the neighboring manor helped too. Like watching an old black and white movie, reading The Shuttle was a treat and a comfort.

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