Dear Mrs. Bird - A Lovely Read for Fall

I first heard of this book from Cirtnecce at Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses & Prejudices... She wrote so highly of Dear Mrs. Bird that I couldn't wait to get my hands on a library copy.  Three months later, it finally arrived!


It's London in the middle of the Blitz, and twenty-something Miss Emmy Lake wants desperately to leave her dull desk job and become a War Correspondent.  Opportunities are scarce, especially for young women, so when she spies a job opening at The Evening Chronicle, she takes it, no questions asked.

Unfortunately, it turns out Emmy has agreed to become a typist for a ladies' magazine: Woman's Friend.  The eminent yet stringent editor, Mrs. Henrietta Bird, runs an advice column for women.  To her disappointment, Emmy has not been hired to get the scoop on the latest War developments - in fact, her job is merely to type up Mrs. Bird's responses to readers' questions, on topics ranging from the absurd to the tragic.

What seems like a simple task ultimately poses a moral challenge.  Emmy soon finds herself at odds with her supervisor's dour, sometimes unkind, advice, while any topics deemed "Unpleasant" remain shredded and unanswered.  Meanwhile, developments in her personal life lead Emmy to increased empathy for the writers of "Unpleasant" letters and an overpowering eagerness to help them.

Dear Mrs. Bird is a quite a fun novel, definitely geared towards fans of Downton Abbey and other stories centered on family, friends, and communities facing change.  Being a gray-romantic, I actually preferred the plot of Dear Mrs. Bird over your typical Downton Abbey episode, because the author AJ Pearce puts the focus platonic relationships, rather than on romance like Julian Fellowes does.  (Romantics need not fear - there's a healthy amount of it here, but it's proportional to the story.)

For a first-person historical novel, the characters' voices were very well written (although, I could have done without the profanity, even if it is era-accurate).  There is a ton of 40s slang, which really puts you in the time and place and is fun to read.  I felt the characterizations were also excellent - even the scary Mrs. Bird has a soft side for animals, which gives her some dimension.  I loved the friendship between Marigold "Bunty" and Emmy, and their camaraderie had me laughing out loud at times!

I had to deduct a star because the main conflict of the story (Emmy's secret) was resolved so very predictably, and it was kinda cringy that everything turned out "fine" in spite of the fact that it really shouldn't have.  I really dislike stories where the heroine can do whatever she wants and gets away with it...to me, your character loses integrity when that happens.  That said, I feel it's more of a stereotype than a fatal flaw in this book, so I still leave it with 4 stars.

Would consider reading more by this author in the future!

End of Season 2 - Summer Break

Ivan Shishkin - Рожь - Google Art Project

If you missed it in last Monday's episode, I mentioned Episode 30 was the last installment of Season 2.  I've also decided to take the rest of August off, as well as the whole of September, before coming back for Season 3 in October.

This break gives me a chance to make improvements to the podcast, diversify my reading, and work on other projects such as writing.  It also happens to be a good time personally, since I'm going through some sudden changes at work which will need more of my attention (and energy).

In the meantime, be sure to catch up on older episodes, suggest new books or topics, and follow me on Instagram (@classicsconsidered).  There is a lot of new content coming to this site as well, so watch for more updates in the coming weeks!

Books I Gave Up On

I gave up on Moby-Dick the first time - even after getting halfway!

Two weeks ago, I mentioned I was reading The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux.  Well...I'm still reading it, and I'm not even halfway.

For a story about a family moving to the jungle, this book is extremely slow.  I keep thinking "I'm finally getting into it!" only to get bogged down by endless descriptions of Allie's (the dad) smart-aleck comments and ego bigger than the commune he's founding.  So yeah, I'm thinking about calling it quits.

It irritates me to give up on a book...I'm a completist by nature.  Since 2012 (when I started keeping track), I've given up on 14 books, which spread out over 6 years is still more than I'd like.  On the other hand, there have been books I wish I'd given up on (Kafka's The Castle) but for whatever reason just couldn't bring myself to do it.

With that in mind, which are the 14 that made the unlucky cut?  In roughly reverse-chronological order:

    14. The Kill by Émile Zola - I talked about this a few months ago.  What started out as an interesting family drama turned into a squicky romance novel.  TMI for this reader.
      13. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald - This had some of the worst parts of The Great Gatsby (adulterous affairs) without any of the better parts (compelling backstory and interesting characters).  Couldn't relate at all.

      12. Rhett & Link's Book of Mythicality - This was a tough disappointment.  I shared some thoughts on Goodreads.

      11. The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway - The title story really pulled me with its misogynist protagonist.  /sarcasm

      10. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - I get really, really tired of Christians being the bad guys.

      9. Through a Green Lens: Fifty Years of Writing for Nature by Robert Michael Pyle - I was hoping for some interesting anecdotes, but most of the essays I read were more like lectures.  Might try it again in a decade or two, but not now.

      8. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu - Fantastic concept: Chinese history and steampunk!  Sadly, after 100 pages I did not care about any of the characters, though I tried very hard.  Needed better character building and less description.

      7. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles - This dude is supposed to be under house arrest, but he has a more comfortable lifestyle than your average college student.  After he got a girlfriend (a pushy one at that), I gave up worrying about him.

      6. On Basilisk Station by David Weber - This is book 1 in a series which is supposed to be like Horatio Hornblower meets Star Trek with a female protagonist.  My expectations must have been too high - I couldn't get past the first chapter; the characterization and settings didn't ring true.

      5. The Republic by Plato - Will probably try again someday.

      4. Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power by Zbigniew Brzeziński - Boring start.  Didn't get very far, but I've read another of his books so could sorta guess where it was going.

      3. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier - Another one that was hard to get into.  I meant to try it again when the movie came out; will eventually do so.

      2. The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark - The language/tone turned me off.  I might try it again someday.

      1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - This also started out boring, but I plan to try it again.

      Judging by this list, it looks like "boring" used to be a big factor, which means I've either got better at giving books a chance, or managed to choose books that are bound to be interesting.  I guess that's a good thing?

        Finding 'A Room of One's Own' - Episode 30

        In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf takes us through a history of women in fiction, from the unknown poets of Elizabethan times to 18th and 19th-century writers like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.  This little book is not only for feminists, but for anyone interested in the life and classic writings of female authors.

        Apologies for the intermittent background noise, near the beginning of the episode.  It was probably me leaning on my "lectern" - i.e. a white cabinet on wheels, which may not be the most stable setup...  I'll be taking extra precautions in the future!

        Sources / Further Reading:
        "Virginia Woolf Was More Than Just a Women’s Writer" - Humanities magazine
        Virginia Woolf's suicide note (Wikisource)
        Napoleonic Code (Encyclopedia Britannica)

        Clara Schumann's Lieder - A Classical Cousin

        Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own has me currently entranced with its gentle, yet poignant questions about women's history - not just in fiction, but in culture and arts generally.

        According to a Washington Post quiz (which, given its loaded questions, ought to be taken with a pinch of salt), I come under the umbrella of "Yes, but..." feminists, meaning I identify as somewhat feminist but am also critical of feminism as it stands today.  Without getting deeply into the topic - I am trying, by a thread, to stay apolitical on this blog - I would say that's a fairly accurate summary of my outlook.

        My main concern for women's rights are those basic ones which are still lacking in other countries.  In Woolf's book, I am reminded that women in the West underwent similar struggles.  For example, as lately as 100 years ago, a choice of career was limited:
        ...I had made my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten. Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918.  (ch. 2)
        More to come on this later.  (This will be Monday's podcast episode!)

        Here I just wanted to share a piece by Clara Schumann, the talented pianist and composer, best known (for better or worse) as the wife of composer Robert Schumann.  Like Robert, Clara composed lieder, or songs, which put German poetry to music.  (I picture the German gentry gathering around of a summer's evening, listening to a talented family member performing these songs, though whether that is totally accurate, I cannot say.)


        These are the lyrics, translated by David Kenneth Smith:

        Der Mond kommt still gegangen  The moon so peaceful rises
        Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884)  Op. 13 No. 4




        Der Mond kommt still gegangen  The moon so peaceful rises
        mit seinem gold'nen Schein,  with all its golden shine,
        da schläft in holdem Prangen  there sleeps in lovely glitter
        die müde Erde ein.  the weary earth below.




        Und auf den Lüften schwanken  And on the breezes waft down
        aus manchem treuen Sinn  from many faithful hearts
        viel tausend Liebesgedanken  true loving thoughts by the thousand
        über die Schläfer hin.  upon the sleeping ones.




        Und drunten im Tale, da funkeln  And down in the valley, there twinkle
        die Fenster von Liebchens Haus;  the lights from my lover's house;
        ich aber blicke im Dunkeln  but I in darkness still look out -
        still in die Welt hinaus.  silent - into the world.

        When We Were Orphans - A Study in "Meh"


        It's London in the 1930s, and Christopher Banks has what most people want: his dream job.  After a childhood of playing detective with his best friend Akira, Christopher grew up to be one of England's leading private investigators, highly sought after both professionally and socially.  In spite of his success, he can't forget the life he left behind him in Shanghai, nor the fact that his parents remain missing there and unaccounted for.  Christopher's greatest hope is to go back to Shanghai to find them, even if it means returning to a war zone.  It turns out, however, that new relationships - including his love for a lonely socialite - make committing to his past the hardest case to solve.

        This book could not have had a more promising premise.  I've raved about the nuances of Empire of the Sun (another story about an English boy in Shanghai), and I know Ishiguro can be incredibly subtle.  I also love a good mystery with a Sherlock Holmesian character.  Put all three together and what could possibly go wrong?  After hoping I'd be able to disagree with Ishiguro's own comment, that it's "not his best book," ultimately I had to go with the consensus on When We Were Orphans (2000). 

        While Ishiguro does not dwell on my #2 historical fiction pet peeve - in-your-face exposition - I'm afraid my #1 pet peeve is here, and that is anachronisms.

        For example: Christopher's voice.  There is something very post-war about Christopher's voice, and I don't mean word choice.  (The word choice is stereotypical but tolerable.)  Rather, the problem is his whole outlook and attitude.  Christopher is a strangely placid character, from his first run-ins with the irritating Sarah Hemmings to his later handling of his personal investigation.  This serenity does not translate to cool-headedness, however; he behaves irrationally when push comes to shove, even in the middle of a battlefield.  Additionally, his sense of morality has a modern tone to it, which seems unlikely coming from someone who was close to his strongly religious mother.  None of this makes sense, and I feel like I'm watching some 21st-century time traveler going through the motions of being Christopher, as opposed to an actual person with character integrity.

        As for Sarah - well, she epitomizes the cringe-worthy female protagonist.  I'll say no more.

        The plot starts out extremely well.  We get flashbacks of Christopher's youth, most importantly of his friendship with Akira - a boy torn between his Japanese culture and his life in International Shanghai.  We also get a glimpse of Christopher's mother, a fierce yet kind Victorian woman with strong Christian values.  (It's easy to trace the parallel between Christopher's altruistic career choices and his mother's campaign against the opium trade.  He's simply carrying on the work she started, but in a different sphere.)  Furthermore, we find half of his clues are just memories - foggy, unreliable memories.  This is a fantastic conflict because it's one we all encounter at some point.

        This solid beginning is gradually replaced with a let-down, first by Christopher becoming aggravating, then finally by the resolution to the core mystery.  I won't divulge spoilers, but the "solution" is horribly sensational and not particularly believable.  It reads like the first draft, or the first idea out of a brainstorming session...  I felt like Ishiguro could have done much better if he'd given it more time, and I'm puzzled that his editor approved it.

        Is there anyone I would recommend this to?  Unfortunately, no.  There's some morally questionable elements which I've alluded to, and if that didn't bother you, the characterization and plot twists are so unlikely, you won't be able to suspend enough disbelief.  1.5 stars is generous.  If you're new to Ishiguro's work, start with The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, or A Pale View of Hills instead.

        Reading and Podcasting: Behind the Scenes - Episode 29

        How did I first get into classic literature, let alone podcast about it? This week's episode features a glimpse into my reading life and podcasting journey, as well as some tips and technology which have helped me along the way.

        Opening quote is from South by Sir Ernest Shackleton.  It has no bearing on today's topic; it's just a nice quote on a topic that's been on my brain.
         
        Links:
        Classics Considered on Instagram - Follow to get sneak peeks of future episodes!
        Noonlight Reads - My all-purpose reading blog.  Links to my stories can be found here.
        RSS Owl - A free, open-source RSS / blog reader
        Lithium (app) - Useful for reading Project Gutenberg ebooks on an Android tablet
        OneNote Online