A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Category: Book Review

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition by Paul Watson

Paul Watson has given us a page turner of a tale!

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition begins with the preparations and 1845 departure of the Franklin Expedition to the Arctic in its quest to find the Northern Passage.  The author paints a vivid portrait of the type of men who embarked upon a journey of daring and discovery hoping to return  to a triumphant hero’s welcome.  The expedition had the blessing of the Queen and was enthusiastically followed by the British public but by 1848 it was clear that HMS Erebus and HMS Terror had run into trouble as they had disappeared without a trace.  129 men perished in one of the greatest naval mysteries of all time. Ice Ghosts

For more than 160 years, numerous missions were sent to find evidence of survivors or ascertain what had happened to the two ships and the men aboard.  Lady Franklin, Sir John Franklin’s widow, skirted around madness and nearly bankrupted herself in her single-minded crusade to find out what happened to her husband.  It was nearly a decade before she even acknowledged he was dead.  And for over a century it continued to be an obsession to find the two wrecks.

The story is frustrating not in its telling but because of the arrogance and overconfidence of the white men.  The poor response by the Admiralty, the condescending and stubborn refusal to acknowledge the expertise of the Inuit who had been surviving in those unforgiving conditions for centuries, and the conceit and sole reliance on modern technology of 20th century explorers.

And then the story becomes even more interesting.  Soon after the disappearance of the expedition the Inuit began telling stories of mysterious ships that would appear on the horizon, contact with men crossing the ice with makeshift sleds, of groups of men (and a dog) living on a ship, and burial sites.   It is a fact, that the Inuit have known of the fate of the doomed Franklin Expedition for over a century. And yet no explorer took any of the stories, so important to the oral tradition of the indigenous peoples living above the Arctic Circle, seriously; they were dismissed as the superstitious yarns of a primitive race.  The real hero of this story, in my opinion, is Louie Kamookak, the man who connected the Inuit oral history to the known facts of the Franklin expedition.  Check out his website https://www.louiekamookak.com/.  He tenaciously continues to document the oral histories and Inuit place names so they will not be lost!  (Follow his blog and social media; he’s amazing!)

It wasn’t until the 21st century that explorers, scientists, marine archaeologists, and Inuit historians, and others began to combine their efforts leading to the eventual discovery of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.

Watson gives vivid descriptions of the extreme cold, hostile, and isolated environment of the far north with its unceasing whiteness and where the atmosphere can play tricks on a person’s senses.  He depicts the lure of overcoming odds and the testing of endurance that mankind has sought in this unforgiving environment.  This is a story that weaves all the nuances of past and present together and brings closer the divide between disparate groups of people to tell a heroic tale of sacrifice, boldness, and persistence.

Beach Reading 2012 Part 2 Reviews

All of the these books share a common trait:  they are unputdownable!

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

A charming story.  What a wonderful narrative about women coming together and supporting one another.  A strong character-based story with civil rights strife as its background.  Very strong and inspirational.  I miss the Pink House and the bees.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Shares the enigmatic atmosphere of Henry James’s Turning of the Screw, one is never sure if its malevolent spirits or madness responsible for the goings-on at the dilapidated mansion, Hundreds Hall.  Frightening either way.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

It may not change your life or convince you of the presence of god but this story will move you if only for the sheer beauty of the storytelling and the presentation of fortitude in the face of death.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  Not surprising that it won the Man Booker Prize.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquirel

Like reading a Frida Kahlo painting!  It was magical.  The Mexican culture with its intermingling of cultures, the pre-Columbian indigenous people with the Spanish colonists, influences their storytelling.  It is vibrant, passionate, and dreamlike.  A lovely quick read.

Sharpe’s Fortress by Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell does it again!  By far, one of the best historical fiction writers out there.  Richard Sharpe is a well-rounded character set amongst a colorful and vivid historical backdrop.  Cornwell certainly does his homework.

Knights of the Sea

In the midst of my beach reading I opted for something more serious, a history book.  Knights of the Sea:  The True Story of the Boxer and the Enterprise and the War of 1812 stands out amongst history books in that it was a page-turner.  David Hanna has the gift for making history come alive, there is not a dull moment throughout the narrative.  The War of 1812 is not a greatly understood war, aside from certain high points like the British burning Washington, the USS Constitution’s defeat of the HMS Guerriere, and the Battle of New Orleans I did not know too much about “Mr. Madison’s War.”  This book clearly states the reasons for the war (impressment of American sailors and expansion of American territory) while focusing on two captains of the American and Royal Navies and how their destinies came together in one sea battle fought off the coast of Maine and the brotherhood and genuine respect of sea-going men.   It was a war that the fledgling United States had no business declaring and that Britain, amidst their war with France, underestimated.

Highly enjoyable book from which I gained much knowledge.  It reads like fiction and presents history as powerful and vibrant.

Beach Reading Reviews 2012 Part 2

Here’s the second half of my beach reading reviews.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

A simply monstrous story, a young man trades his soul for eternal youth and leads a sordid dual life, indulging every impulse and desire maintaining all the while a gentleman’s facade.  As Dorian Gray’s portrait exhibits the sins of his sinful life he moves on to ever more unspeakably and horrifying transgressions.  A page-turner and frightening.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

A beautiful story of a man’s struggle against nature written in Hemingway’s characteristic style free of superfluous words.  He simply and elegantly the old man’s determination in the face of defeat.  Powerful!

The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After by Elizabeth Kantor

Absolutely awful.  Nonsensical clap-trap about how to achieve happiness in love by following the example of Austen’s heroines.  Preachy, thus annoying.  Not recommended.

A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

Despite being over 1000 pages long, an engaging tale.  This is the fourth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series relating the quest for domination of the Seven Kingdoms.  If you are a fan of the fantasy genre definitely a must-read.

Beach Reading Reviews 2012 Part 1

A short time ago I posted my list for beach reading.  I have been plowing right along and thought I would share my opinions.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day  by Winifred Watson

An absolutely joyous read.  So pleasurable and full of verve and good humor; fun from cover to cover.  It depicts a day in Miss Guinevere Pettigrew’s life; she is desperately in need of a job and presents herself for a position as governess to a glamorous young woman, Delysia Lafosse.  And then everything goes awry in the most charming and vibrant way.  1930s London nightclubs and dangerous men abound.  It is a wonderfully charming Cinderella story with hilarity at every turn.

Miss Timmins School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy

A suspenseful love story and murder mystery.  It is beautifully told and takes place at a girls school in India founded in the British mode.  But it’s the 70s and there is sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  It is a coming-of-age tale dramatically written and explores adolescent angst and uncertainty, the still prevalent antagonism of colonialism, and the quest for one’s place in the world.  It is moody, the monsoon rains adding to the oppressiveness.  I could not put it down.

Summer by Edith Wharton

A coming-of-age story told in the indomitable Wharton way depicting the sexual awakening of Charity Royall.  The young girl experiences her first romance and quickly learns that love can be sweet, passionate, and heartrendingly painful.  The difference is she is wide-eyed about it.  When published in 1917 it was shocking in its depiction of female sexuality.  A not-to-be-missed classic and as significant today as it was then.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

Terrible!!  Mildly titillating and abhorrently annoying.  The writing is cheap.  Characterization is shallow, plot is deficient. This book reinforces all the most horrible stereotypes of why women fall for bad men. Mindless schlock for the beach or a long plane ride; not to be taken seriously at all. Fan-fiction gone horribly wrong!!!

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See: A Novel of a Chinese-American Experience

The novel Shanghai Girls is ultimately about two women who must survive their new reality in America while remaining grounded in their Chinese origins. The story is divided into three themes important in Chinese society – Fate, Fortune, and Destiny – each representing a phase of struggle and renewal in their lives.

The Theme of FATE

It is Shanghai 1937 and two sisters, Pearl and May, have their world turned upside down. Two “beautiful girls” who pose for artists who depict them exuding the energy, excitement and beauty of the modern Chinese woman. Their lives are changed overnight when their father loses all his wealth and he, in an effort to save the family, sells the girls into arranged marriages to Gold Mountain Men — American-Chinese husbands. The truth is far darker when they discover that it is not ordinary debts which have thrown these two women back into a feudal age but poor judgement and dealings with the dreaded crime syndicate the “Green Gang”. All this as Japanese bombs begin to fall decimating the city the girl’s know and love. They escape the city, traversing the Chinese countryside witnessing first-hand the cruelty and atrocities of the conquering armies.

The Theme of FORTUNE

These women manage to make it to Hong Kong and passage to Los Angeles where they arrive at Angel Island, the “Ellis Island of the west”. Here Pearl and May learn that prosperity is not so easy to gain and the streets of America are most definitely not paved in gold. For the next 20 years these resourceful and strong women maintain their dignity as they endure blatant racism and government-sanctioned discrimination. The years find them ever loyal and supportive to one another as they carve a niche for themselves and their families while constantly straddling the two divergent cultures of China and America. Pearl and May cope through WWII carrying special registration certificates proclaiming they are “members of the Chinese race”, and selling war bonds to prove they are loyal Americans.

The Theme of DESTINY

It is the 50s and the women see Congress finally repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act but at the same time the Communist threat once again enmesh them in a world that does not trust them and does not want them. Their future is to be forever part of the American experience, never to return to China. Pearl and May strive to raise the American-born generation to be American but find themselves dismayed when that generation doesn’t exhibit any of the qualities of traditional Chinese culture.

The novel which depicts emotionally difficult subjects common in the Chinese-American experience is not an effortless book to read but Lisa See develops each character with a deep understanding of the Chinese psyche that obliges one to read on. Ms. See portrays these extraordinary women in an unsentimental way and yet one is compelled to like them and even care for them. She does not embellish them with grand heroic acts or self-martyrdom; instead these women are portrayed as real in all their selfishness, suffering, forthrightness, petty jealousies, rivalries, and mostly love for one another.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (New York: Random House, 2009)

Death Comes To Pemberley by P.D. James

P.D. James who is better known for her mystery novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh, a poet policeman, has written a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. 

I have to say I don’t love this offering.  It did have some high points but despite re-introducing favorite characters it lacks a certain appeal.  The characters never come to life as they do in the original.  Darcy is broadened as an individual but Elizabeth is relegated to a secondary character; no more is she the charming and witty young girl of Jane Austen’s novel.  With every turn of the page I am expecting her former personality to reveal itself and it never does.  It’s almost as if marriage has made her dull.

P.D. James states in an interview that she had been dwelling on combining her two great enthusiasms, the novels of Jane Austen and writing detective fiction, that she longed to write of Elizabeth and Darcy happily married, with children in the nursery, and everything going well and peaceful and to disrupt such orderliness with a ghastly murder.  Sounds like a great premise except the murder is trite, there is unnecessary commentary on the Napoleonic wars, a plot-line with a character which is introduced and ended in a very unsatisfactory manner, and there is a very forced and unimaginative explanation for the murder.

The only parts that were of great interest were the scenes taking place during the inquest and during the trial in the courtroom.  P.D. James is clearly comfortable writing these and it is here that the narrative gains momentum.

Bravo for P.D. James for her attempt but in the end it wasn’t the best “sequel” I’ve ever read.

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World is Claire Harman’s straightforward and satisfying contemplation of Jane Austen’s larger than life appeal nearly 200 years after her death. Ms. Harman does not delve into the oft-repeated litany of biographical references but rather focuses on Jane Austen as writer. She focuses on the woman who wrote of “three or four families in a Country Village” and how she became a figure of such immense impact in the 21st century.

By a Lady

Ms. Harman contends that “part of the reason [Jane Austen] pleases us so much now is that she was, for years, pleasing only herself.” Jane’s early writings were for her and her family’s amusement; private musings that were carefully kept and returned to. But this is not to say she wasn’t ambitious and motivated for more than her family’s praise. She was disappointed when in 1797 the publisher Thomas Cadell declined an early version of Pride and Prejudice. And further rejections of her work did mortify her.

But she maintained her determination and the rejections allowed her to re-write, describing to her sister, Cassandra, the editing of Pride and Prejudice “I have lop’t and crop’t so successfully, however, that I imagine it must be rather shorter than Sense and Sensibility altogether.” The delay in publication allowed her to be bolder and more experimental and the end result are the novels that are so popular to this day.

But finally she did publish, albeit anonymously, and in letters she expressed a sense of accomplishment and pride. Not only was she in print but she was earning money. But “her children” Sense and Sensibility followed by Pride and Prejudice were gaining quite a following and her brother Henry could not help but divulge her name to those who remarked on the books. The publication of her next books, Mansfield Park and Emma were looked forward to with anticipation. Despite this she only had moderate success in her lifetime and gained very little personal fame or fortune.

Mouldering in the Grave

After her death, the Austen family preferred to focus on Jane Austen’s sisterly fidelity and domestic pursuits. Although her death notice acknowledges her writing and mentions all four published novels, her tombstone in Winchester Cathedral fails to mention her writing. A glaring wrong and one that led to bewilderment to the hapless verger when inquired of by Austenite pilgrims in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1818 the posthumous publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey as a set accompanied by Henry Austen’s Biographical Note sold well. Sales declined and the remaining copies were pulped in 1820. She remained out of print for 12 years. Then in 1832 all six novels were published in a handsome illustrated edition. Jane has never since been out of print.

Divine Jane to Jane Austen ™

Her fame steadily grew. As the members of the Austen family who intimately knew her died off, letters and manuscripts became available and were highly sought, especially by Americans. Her popularity grew more so after the publication of the biography by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, entitled A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870.

In the early 20th century Jane Austen’s books were read and admired as a chronicle of what life was like in a less turbulent time. Her books were soothing and were recommended as appropriate reading material for shell-shocked soldiers from the trenches of WWI. Despite having been written during the Napoleonic Wars, Jane’s books never broach the subject.

Her fame has grown exponentially. Now nearly 200 years later, one can peruse the book shelves of any bookstore to find a variety of Jane Austen books; biographies, the novels in various editions, scholarly analyses, and graphic novels. She has even inspired a whole industry of sequels, spin-offs, soft-porn literature, and even film. She is translated into every conceivable language. Her appeal seems endless and with internet sites devoted to her Jane-ites can have all Jane, all the time.

Ms. Harman has written a biography sure to satisfy the cravings of Jane Austen’s devoted fan base. She writes truthfully that “the further Jane Austen recedes from our time the closer she feels to us”. This seems a truth that can be universally acknowledged judging by current state of mass intimacy the world has with Jane Austen.

Harman, Claire. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009)

Lady Vernon and Her Daughter

Lady Vernon and Her Daughter by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway is the cleverly developed and expanded story of Lady Susan by Jane Austen. Austen’s posthumously published melodramatic and insufficient novel depicts “the most dangerous coquette in England”, a self-serving and selfish heroine. The title character, Lady Vernon, is redeemed in this well-written and researched adaptation.

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Jane Austen (1775-1817) probably wrote Lady Susan between 1793-4 during the same period she wrote Elinor and Marianne and First Impressions, her first attempts at what would become Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Lady Susan was written in the epistolary style, or in the form of letters, popular during the 18th century. This faulty mode of expression is problematical as it is unable to establish nuances in characterization and storyline being limited to the letter writer’s particular point of view. This may explain why Jane Austen abandoned the form and never sought publication of the story although she did take the trouble to make a fair copy in 1805. It was published in 1870 by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh along with his memoirs of his aunt.

The heroine is one of Austen’s most egotistical, self-serving, and narcissistic; a deliciously established villainess. She blatantly revels in her actions which go against all of society’s observations and rules. She is a young and beautiful widow who prowls for a suitable gentleman to marry her daughter to while simultaneously and heedlessly attracting the attentions of men to herself. Like Catherine, or The Bower this story serves as a link between Austen’s Juvenilia and her later books. Her writing still tends to be exaggerated but begins to display the subtlety and maturity of characterization familiar in her later published books.

Adaptation in Lady Vernon and Her Daughter

In the adaptation Lady Vernon and Her Daughter the authors’ abandon the letter-writing format. The story they tell preserves Jane Austen’s original plot but because it is no longer restricted to the epistolary framework they are able to establish the character’s motives and sentiment beyond what is written in letter form. The third person narrative satisfactorily expands the story beyond the affected and limited conventions of Lady Susan and allows for a satisfying unfolding of action devoid of melodrama.

Lady Susan, now correctly titled Lady Vernon (as established by the English conventions of given titles), is still a vibrant character. She maintains all her strong-willingness, recklessness, and maliciousness but the justification of her actions in the end absolves her of any truly unethical motives. She is a widow and mother who realizes the importance of prudent marriage for herself and her daughter to avoid penury, a theme cultivated and consistent in Austen’s later novels. The selfishness and self-serving of the original novel survives simply as misunderstanding, conjecture, and malicious gossip.

What Would Jane Have Done?

In most of Jane Austen’s published novels her heroines, although beloved, are not the “pictures of perfection” that made Austen “sick and wicked” but rather each has her flaws. In each of the mature novels the young women eventually achieve a self-awareness and overcome their shortcomings. The back drop to these realizations are most commonly formed within a quest for one acceptable object – a suitable marriage.

Rubino and Rubino-Bradway rehabilitate Lady Vernon’s seemingly mercenary behavior by emphasizing her comprehension of the realities of her world. They endow her with the understanding that advantageous marriages for her and her daughter will save them from a life of poverty and humiliation. This does not mean that the character believes in an attachment devoid of affection. In true Jane Austen fashion Lady Vernon pursues marriages but only if accompanied by similar sentiment and love.

This adaptation is well researched and written and reads as Jane Austen herself may have envisioned and re-worked the story had she lived longer. We’ll never know what Jane Austen had intended for her heroine but adherents to her novels will enjoy the efforts and understanding offered by the authors of Lady Vernon and Her Daughter.

Primary Sources: Austen, Jane. Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1974); Rubino, Jane and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway. Lady Vernon and Her Daughter. (New York: Crown Publishers, 2009)

Secondary Sources: Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2002); Poplawski, Paul. A Jane Austen Encyclopedia. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998)


The Rape of Nanking December 13, 1937

Cover of "The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgot...

Cover via Amazon

Today marks the 74th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking, an event so horrific that to even peripherally think on it brings feelings of anger, sadness, and horror to me.  Growing up as an American with Chinese ancestry I never heard of this “forgotten” atrocity.  It wasn’t until college when I took an Imperial Chinese history course that I began to delve into the history of my mother’s country and even later than that did I happen upon Iris Chang‘s seminal book on the subject of the massacre in Nanking which began December 13, 1937.

The Rape of Nanking:  The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II tells of the massacre and atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army after the fall of the former capital of the Republic of China, Nanjing (Nanking).  Iris Chang, in writing and publishing this book, brought to light a neglected bit of history and opened my eyes to the horrifying events that took place.  The book is written in three parts:  the first, telling of the events leading up to and during the massacre; the second, describes the aftermath and western perception and reaction to these events; and the third, chronicles Chang’s theories of why this extreme barbarism committed by the Japanese still does not make it into the public consciousness.  This is some intense reading.  It has been some years since I’ve read this book but the memory is still very vivid of the detailed descriptions of rape, mass murder, live burials, mutilations, and torture.  I remember reading this book with feelings of intense horror and most of the time found myself weeping.  I kept asking myself why and how humans could commit such cruel acts on other humans.

And my disbelief doesn’t end with the tragic particulars of this dark part of Chinese history but the continued revisionist history coming from the Japanese government.  In 1995, the Prime Minister and Emperor offered speeches giving apologies for Japan’s merciless role but there has never been a formal written apology by Japan for the Nanking Massacre where approximately 300,000 Chinese were brutally murdered.  In 2007 Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party flat out denied the massacre ever happened, arguing that the events in Nanking are a fabrication.  The controversy continues to this day.

This book stands as a touching memorial, a strong testament, to those Chinese men, women, and children who were murdered during the Japanese occupation of Nanking.  These gruesome events are not to be swept under the carpet and denied, to forget would be a disservice to the victims dehumanized in a time of war.  I, for one, am reflecting on the victims and their murderers because to forget dooms us to repeat such savagery.

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