The House on the Strand

For my Classics Club Spin, I ended up with Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand. I knew nothing about it going into reading the book, except that I’ve enjoyed other du Maurier works and assumed it would probably be a slightly creepy, atmospheric read.

While The House on the Strand has a little less of the horror about it than some of her other books, there is still a sense of creeping dread and the protagonist certainly makes some questionable decisions. The sense of dread increases as you approach the end….

The novel is a first person account of a restless and rather impressionable man, Dick Young, who has come down to Cornwall to his friend Magnus’s house for a holiday.

Dick is in between jobs and is at the house a few days before his new-ish wife, Vita, and two stepsons are due to join him. Magnus has allowed Dick to use his house for free, but mentions that he (a scientist) has an experimental drug that he wants Dick to try. Mangnus assures him that he’s taken the drug himself and it’s perfectly safe. Sounds like steep rent to me.

Dick reluctantly agrees to help and finds himself transported mentally back to 14th century Cornwall following a man called Roger, steward of a local landowner. While Dick can follow and observe, invisibly, any attempt to interact with the 14th century jerks him back into the 20th, nauseated and confused.

As time goes on, Dick becomes more and more fascinated with the 14th century and the people there and less interested in his own life and relationships, which causes a bit of marital strife when Vita shows up a day early and wants to talk about their future.

Both the past and present stories were interesting, and I appreciated the way Dick was characterized and the way he convinces himself that everything is totally under control and he can stop any time he wants to (he just doesn’t want to yet).

I enjoyed this book, though I don’t know if it’s the best du Maurier, and it kept me intrigued to find out what happened in the end. Speaking of the end, I don’t want to spoil it, but I’d be glad to talk about it with you if you have an interpretation.

In a funny turn, I read both this and Blake Crouch’s Recursion back to back, which was more weird time travel than I was expecting at once!

★ ★ ★ ★

Sense & Sensibility

“Marianne, who had the knack of finding her way in every house to the library, however it might be avoided by the family in general, soon procured herself a book.”

I bought the Audible version of this book read by Rosamund Pike earlier this year and promptly forgot about it. I think I wasn’t in the mood, or maybe it was while I was reading War & Peace, so I re-discovered it in my Audible library again this summer. Summer is a great time to read Jane Austen, so I pressed play and enjoyed Pike’s mellifluous voice (the word is fancy, but Pike as a narrator does live up to it).

As is usual with Jane Austen, her wit and keen observations are on full display here. No one escapes completely unscathed, and the number of ridiculous characters is high.

In case you want a plot refresher… when Mr. Dashwood dies, he leaves–by law–nearly everything to his son John, with a parting plea to look after his wife and daughters (John’s stepmother and three half-sisters). John is (easily) influenced by his greedy wife, Fanny, and does nothing for them (in a masterful description of willing manipulation early in the novel).

The widow Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, move to a small cottage near some relatives and adventures ensue. Attractions, secret engagements, differences of temperament, and different ways of handling disappointment make up the rest of the story.

The sense and sensibility of the title come primarily from Elinor and Marianne who behave in nearly opposite ways when confronted with romantic disappointment:

[Chapter 23] “…when she joined them at dinner only two hours after she had first suffered the extinction of all her dearest hopes, no one would have supposed from the appearance of the sisters, that Elinor was mourning in secret over obstacles which must divide her for ever from the object of her love, and that Marianne was internally dwelling on the perfections of a man, of whose whole heart she felt thoroughly possessed, and whom she expected to see in every carriage which drove near their house.”

The minor characters in an Austen novel are always a delight as well. Lucy Steele in particular this time struck me as one of her great villains. Lucy is sharp enough to notice that Elinor has attracted the attention and admiration of Edward Ferrars (whom Lucy hopes to marry), and forces her confidence upon Elinor in a scene that is enraging but oh-so-polite. She depends (rightly) on Elinor’s good character,fortitude, and manners to inflict pain.

[Chapter 24] “I was somehow or other afraid I had offended you by what I told you that Monday.”

“Offended me! How could you suppose so? Believe me,” and Elinor spoke it with the truest sincerity, “nothing could be farther from my intention than to give you such an idea. Could you have a motive for the trust, that was not honourable and flattering to me?”

“And yet I do assure you,” replied Lucy, her little sharp eyes full of meaning, “there seemed to me to be a coldness and displeasure in your manner that made me quite uncomfortable.

If there were an Austen heroine I feel I’m most similar to, it’s Elinor Dashwood. She’s quiet, calm, and practical, but she’s also deeply sensitive. She shuts herself down before expressing emotion; it’s clear she has strong emotions like her sister, but while Marianne allows herself full expression (and maybe some wallowing) Elinor tamps hers down to not cause others pain.

Both sisters need to learn from one another and meet a little more in the middle, which they do a bit by the end of the novel.

There are varying opinions on the ending, and I agree that when we do get to the end tying things up seems a bit hasty. While I’m not completely sold on the ending like I am the ending of Pride and Prejudice, I still appreciate the characters and the journey, and Austen’s style of writing and keen observation never cease to delight me.

★ ★ ★ ★

Up Next: Classics Club Spin #21

As part of my reading life, I have a goal of reading 50 classics in 5 years (well, a little under 4 years at this point), and the challenge is always which one to pick up next!

I have a couple of reviews that I need to finish writing up from books I read this summer, and then I need to choose some fall reading. To that end, the Classics Club has helpfully launched another Spin, which is where the reader lists 20 books on their TBR (to be read) list, they pick a number and the corresponding book is the one to pick up next.

I’m currently listening to Great Expectations on Audible (I have 16 hours and 25 minutes remaining, so that should keep my ears busy), so I won’t include that in my spin possibility list. But for a physical book to read next, here’s my list:

  1. Acehbe, Chinua: Things Fall Apart
  2. Bronte, Charlotte: Villette
  3. Camus, Alber: The Stranger
  4. Collins, Wilkie: The Woman in White
  5. Du Maurier, Daphne: The House on the Strand
  6. Du Maurier, Daphne: My Cousin Rachel
  7. Eliot, George: The Mill on the Floss
  8. Hemingway, Ernest: A Moveable Feast
  9. le Carre, John: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold
  10. L’Engle, Madeleine: Many Waters
  11. L’Engle, Madeleine: An Acceptable Time
  12. Marquez, Gabriel Garcia: Love in the Time of Cholera
  13. Orwell, George: Animal Farm
  14. Sayers, Dorothy: Gaudy Night
  15. Shakespeare, William: Richard II
  16. Sophocles: Antigone
  17. Trollope, Anthony: Barchester Towers
  18. Undset, Sigrid: Kristin Lavransdatter
  19. Waugh, Evelyn: Brideshead Revisited
  20. Wilde, Oscar: The Picture of Dorian Gray

I’ll update this post next Monday with the winner.

Update: The winner is #5, The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier. Excellent! I feel like du Maurier is an author best read in the fall or winter due to her atmospheric novels, so I’m looking forward to reading this one.

Quick Reviews: Atomic Habits, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Eyre Affair

While totally unrelated, I read these three books this summer and wanted to log that I’ve read them.

Atomic Habits, by James Clear

I borrowed this book from the library but I think I would have been better off buying it so I could take better notes to implement his suggestions.

Clear’s basic premise is that when we try to change habits, we start too big and we don’t change cues in our environment to encourage good habits and discourage bad habits. I’d be curious to try some tiny habit changes and see how they work, but I’ve misplaced my notes and forgotten a lot of the book (which I was distracted while ready), so although this counts toward my books read, it’s kind of a fail in books retained!

★ ★ ★

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

I’d seen this book on various lists and in bookstores, but finally I dove in and listened to the Audible version (which was excellently narrated) earlier this summer.

This book is about the intersection of science (specifically medical research) and the subjects of research (and racial and educational divides). It’s about the titular Henrietta Lacks, whose unique cervical cancer cells created a medical scientific sensation and provided the basis for so much research done over the past 60 years.

I thought Skloot did a good job of detailing a lot of the important research that having these cells has enabled, while acknowledging the disparity between the scientists who do research, the drug companies that create drugs based on the research, and the families whose biological samples provided the basis.

Medical research has a murky and sometimes unsavory history. I’m so appreciative of the ways I benefit from modern medicine, but I know that this came at the cost of many vulnerable people. I can appreciate the difficulties in getting consent for experiments and research, while being horrified at the way some scientists took what they wanted from less educated (and often minority) populations.

Skloot became close to the Lacks family–to Henrietta’s daughter Deborah in particular–over the 10-year process of writing the book, and her careful relationship-building as well as research really shines. Details about Deborah and the process of learning more about Henrietta are woven between more heavy scientific descriptions, which keeps the book moving for a layperson.

A fascinating and eye-opening read.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

The plot: in the book’s reality, if someone manages to get their hands on an original manuscript and alter anything in it, there is a cascading effect where all subsequent printed versions of the text change with the manuscript. All changes to the original change every subsequent copy (if someone murders a Dickens character, that character disappears from the text). The only way to remember the pre-change original is just to remember it.

Thursday Next (yes, the character’s name) is a book detective, essentially, and it’s her department’s job to protect original manuscripts. When Acheron Hades (yes, the character’s name) steals manuscripts and threatens great literary characters, only Thursday can stop him….

In general, I should say that I don’t care for retellings or modern authors getting their hands on classic characters and squeezing them into modern stories where they don’t fit well. It feels like they make too many changes to the characters while trying to tell a different story, and I don’t care for it. The characters don’t sparkle the same way, and I feel disappointed that they’ve misunderstood or angry that they failed to understand the character and bring them to life properly. Essentially, I dislike book character forgeries!

While I was cautious, I’d heard this book was fun, so I gave it a try (also, I purchased it for $1 at a library book sale, so the investment wasn’t huge).

So back to this book. Though it’s called The Eyre Affair, Mr. Rochester and Jane do not appear a lot (a feature, to my mind). But nearly every character name in the book was a pun or literary allusion (examples: Millon de Floss; one antagonist’s name is Mr. Schitt), which got a bit grating, and in parts of the book I could feel the author’s effort to be clever in ways that didn’t advance the story.

An interesting conceit of the book is being able to jump into a manuscript and interact with the characters and environment created. However, the characters in the book all 1) know they’re in a book and 2) keep re-living the events of the story over and over the way the author wrote it, despite how they may actually feel upon the 200th time re-living the events. I kept thinking “no, it shouldn’t work that way” (preposterous–I’m not the author, but it felt wrong) and was also horrified for these characters that they are trapped in endless loops that they know about yet can do nothing to change.

Another frustration was that most of the book was about Thursday’s mundane life and the parallel-universe the book is set in. Fforde spent more time detailing how the UK was still involved in the Crimean War than time jumping into books. The first two-thirds it’s Martin Chuzzlewit that’s in danger, but as it’s difficult to find something that rhymes with Chuzzlewit, Eyre had to do instead.

This was a solid “meh” for me. Overall I thought it was trying too hard to be clever and literary, and much like Charlie Lovett’s The Lost Book of the Grail, which had a similar feel to me, I think I need to stay away from books of this type.

While the conceit is fun (you can jump into books and interact with the characters!), the execution left me a bit cold.

★ ★

Books Read in 2019: Uprooted

In general I’m a sucker for fairytales and fairytale retellings, so I expected to enjoy Uprooted. I first tried borrowing the e-book from the library when we were on our trip, but the waiting list was long so I just waited to check out a paper copy when we got back.

I’m so glad I did. This book sucked me in and didn’t let go until I finished. It’s got great world-building and magic and Polish names and the creepiest Wood.

Agnieszka (ag-NYESH-ka)–I think it’s a Polish name?–is a girl who lives in a village near the Wood, and her best friend Kasia is destined to be taken by the nearby wizard who protects them from the Wood’s evil influence. But of course when the wizard actually chooses a girl, he doesn’t take Kasia (I mean, if he did, Kasia would be the narrator, right?).

“Our dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tall outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man…. “

Agnieszka learns about magic and the larger political forces at play in her small kingdom, all while the Wood looms large, sending its poisonous roots out to corrupt the villages.

I loved the atmosphere and the Wood was creepy and ominous. Everyone who entered it was given up for lost, and if they did emerge, they were changed and corrupted and probably would be killed to stop the spread of the corruption.

Parts of the story were somewhat predictable, but it’s a dark fairytale, so I’m ok with guessing some of the plot since it was well-written with an interesting world.

I especially liked the two types of magic cast by the wizards/witches, and the way they worked together (or didn’t, depending on several factors). Our protagonist was the right person for the challenge, and she was rooted (pun slightly intended) in her land and community to fight the evil.

If you don’t care for fairytales, or if you’re looking for lots of twists that you absolutely don’t see coming, you probably won’t like this book. But if dark fairytales with atmosphere and magic appeal to you, you might like this as much as I did.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★