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Archive for May, 2013

My disappointment with Rebecca notwithstanding, I wanted to see how, and whether, the story told by du Maurier would hold up in a modern retelling. Fortuitously, two different YA retellings were published in the last year or so:

New Girl

New Girl was written by Paige Harbison and published by Harlequin Teen in January 2012.

thorn abbey

Thorn Abbey was written by Nancy Ohlin and published by Simon Pulse on May 7. Both authors are new to me.

My overall impression of both books can be summed up in a single word: meh. I have concluded that Rebecca simply doesn’t translate well to the modern world.

Interestingly both New Girl and Thorn Abbey were set in boarding schools in New England. Why, you ask, were both of these retellings set in a boarding school? I have no idea. In both cases, Rebecca was the extremely popular girl who had disappeared the year before, leaving behind her grieving boyfriend – Max, natch – and a whole bunch of people who were pretty irritated that her place was being filled by the narrator. In both books our narrator gets Rebecca’s dorm room, and her moderately crazy roommate, the Mrs. Danvers character, who goes out of her way to sabotage the main character’s ability to fit in at the school.

So, I didn’t love either of them. I liked New Girl a tiny smidge more than Thorn Abbey, although I have a friend who preferred Thorn Abbey to New Girl. Here is why:

Thorn Abbey failed for me because the story started out as straight retelling, and then it veered into a very strange mashup of Rebecca and paranormal/ghost possession. I am fine with paranormal romance, and I wouldn’t absolutely object to a retelling of Rebecca that had paranormal/fantasy/sci fi elements (hello, I really liked Diana Peterfreund’s speculative fiction Persuasion retelling And Darkness Shows the Stars) but I want the book to be intentionally that. This felt like an after thought. As though, at some point, someone told the author: you know what would make this book really different? Ghost possession! And she was all: sure, I’ll go with that.

New Girl had it’s own problems, though, including the whole “unnamed narrator” conceit. Daphne du Maurier can get away with it because she’s Daphne du Maurier. But for me, it was just too cute and it didn’t work. Give the girl a name (before the last few pages).

New Girl also made an effort to flesh out Rebecca’s character and provide a reasonable and coherent explanation for why she was such a terrible person – she had really poor self-esteem and sought peer approval in a very self-destructive way. In the context, though, of the Rebecca universe created by du Maurier that reason is not at all consistent with the character that du Maurier created. The original Rebecca had an abundance of self-esteem as du Maurier wrote her – so much that she refused to be bound by society’s limitations on her behavior.

In the end, though, I just don’t think that the story of Rebecca works in a modern teen context. In the original Rebecca, the protagonist was married to Max and had, literally, no where to go. I don’t like her weakness, but I understand it. But in the modern retellings, the weakness of the narrator in sticking with a boy who is supposed to be in love to someone else smacks of self-loathing and cowardice. There is no reason that she would behave the way she does. All of the social boundaries that provide a structure for the original novel don’t exist in the modern world.

This is similar, in my mind, to the problems that exist when authors try to simply wholesale import Jane Austen’s world into a modern context. Today, Lizzie and Darcy would thumb their respective noses at their families and move in together. Marianne and Elinor would get jobs and marry the men of their choosing on their own terms. And Anne Elliot would never have broken off her engagement to Captain Wentworth.

Today, Max would just dump Rebecca before she disappears and move on to another girl that he could genuinely love. Retelling a story that relies upon no-longer-extant historical conventions to make sense in the modern world is difficult to do convincingly without setting up some other social structure in it’s place to explain the character’s actions. It might be possible to set Rebecca in the old West, or in a highly religious society, or in a fantasy world where there are similar social structures. An author could go backwards, and write it steampunk, or forward to space opera or dystopian, but tossing it into a 2013 boarding school in New England – well, I just don’t think it works.

So where is the flintlock fantasy version of Rebecca? Because I would totally read that!

In the end, while both New Girl and Thorn Abbey were fine in terms of writing, editing, and all of those mechanical details that are important, and there is nothing about them that would prevent me from reading something else written by the authors, the story itself just didn’t work for me.

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Rebecca has one of the most famous opening lines in literature: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Where to begin with my discussion of Rebecca. Let me begin by acknowledging that du Maurier tells a ripping good story. The book, written from the perspective of the unnamed narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter, tells the tale of her whirlwind courtship and marriage to bereaved widower Max de Winter. The second Mrs. de Winter returns to Manderley, where she is ill-equipped by birth, education or confidence to take over the running of the great home. Du Maurier builds suspense as the second Mrs. de Winter clashes with Rebecca’s former housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who makes her feel inferior and generally lurks about in a way that is extremely creepy. This part of the book was excellent, and Mrs. Danver’s obsession with the beautiful Rebecca and her contempt for Rebecca’s replacement is well-drawn and successful.

Unfortunately, I had really high expectations of this book. And, also unfortunately, it did not meet my expectations. Let me warn now – this post is likely to get very spoilery in a paragraph or two. So, if you’ve never read Rebecca, if you don’t know what the big reveal is, and if you want to experience the suspense as du Maurier created it, then stop reading now.

I mean it. Stop reading. Now.

Okay, so I am now assuming that everyone left reading this post has already read the book, and knows about the big reveal: Max murdered Rebecca as she taunted him with her infidelity, and then he disposed of her body by scuttling her boat so that it will appear that she was lost at sea. Our narrator, a singularly weak and annoying character, learns this when she weepingly acknowledges that, in spite of her love for him, she recognizes that she can never measure up to Rebecca, and that he will never love her.

Astounded by this great confession, Max disabuses the narrator of her illusions. He hated Rebecca. Rebecca was an evil, two-timing monster.

But how can we present a murderer as a great romantic hero? The narrator, far from being repelled by the confession that her husband MURDERED HIS FIRST WIFE in a hail of bullets and blood, is overjoyed. Her only thought is: he never loved Rebecca. And this brings her great comfort.

In part, I think that Rebecca demonstrates how far we have come as a culture. Because I hope that it is fair to say that it would be unlikely for a writer to write a wife-murderer as a romantic hero in quite the same way that du Maurier did. What, precisely, was the great crime that was committed by Rebecca that rendered her worthy of slaughter in the boathouse? It appears to me that her great crime was that she acted just like a man of that time period. Rebecca is set well before the days of no fault divorce. During that era men of property often maintained mistresses and engaged in other extra-marital sexual liasons without repercussions, and which were accepted by society.

Rebecca, by Max’s account (and let’s leave aside the unreliability of his version given that he is, of course, a murderer) had affairs. She was promiscuous, slutty. She tramped around, and lived life on her own terms. She was a bloody rotten wife, and it would have been totally reasonable for him to have tossed her out on her ear, cut off without a shilling, for him to have moved to America with all of his money, divorced her and dragged her name through the mud. But he didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he murdered her. And then his second wife reacts to the fact that she has married a murderer by rejoicing in the fact that he didn’t love his first wife after all.

Are you kidding me?

What makes the second Mrs. de Winter think that she won’t end up just like Rebecca if she displeases Max? After all, he’s already gotten away with murder.

Let me finish this post by saying that I didn’t hate Rebecca. It is well-written, and interesting, and a lot of fun to read. But I just can’t get behind a murderer as a romantic hero. Because, actually, Max de Winter belongs in prison for what he did. What really distinguishes Max de Winter from someone serving a sentence of 25 to life for murdering his wife? Nothing, in my mind.

So, Rebecca, you didn’t work for me. I’m just not up for a book that uses female infidelity as a justification for a domestic violence homicide. As a reason for divorce, sure. But being a woman and having an affair (or three or ten) shouldn’t be a capital crime. Not even in 1938. And certainly not in 2013.

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Classic Spin #2

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Well, I completely failed at the last Classics Spin, probably because I had the misfortune of ending up with Barnaby Rudge. I gave Barnaby a chance (well, sort of) but I just wasn’t in the mood for a book built around the Gordon Riots.

So, I’m going to give it another go. In no particular order, here are the 20:

1. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
2. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. The Maltese Falcon by Dashielle Hammett
4. Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
5. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
6. The Warden by Anthony Trollope
7. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
8. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
9. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
10. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
11. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
12. The Once and Future King by T.H. White
13. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
14. O Pioneers by Willa Cather
15. Enchanted April by Elizabet Von Arnim
16. The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
17. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
18. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
19. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
20. Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

I have tried really hard to only pick books that I am actually willing to read!

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Dorothea Brooke is a genuine creation, and a most remarkable one when we consider the delicate material in which she is wrought. George Eliot’s men are generally so much better than the usual trousered offspring of the female fancy, that their merits have perhaps overshadowed those of her women. Yet her heroines have always been of an exquisite beauty, and Dorothea is only that perfect flower of conception of which her predecessors were the less unfolded blossoms. An indefinable moral elevation is the sign of these admirable creatures; and of the representation of this quality in its superior degrees the author seems to have in English fiction a monopoly. To render the expression of a soul requires a cunning hand; but we seem to look straight into the unfathomable eyes of the beautiful spirit of Dorothea Brooke. She exhales a sort of aroma of spiritual sweetness, and we believe in her as in a woman we might providentially meet some fine day when we should find ourselves doubting of the immortality of the soul.

Originally published in Galaxy, March 1873.

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My goodreads group is reading Middlemarch for our May/June monthly read, and I am moderating the discussion, which officially began on May 6. George Eliot divided Middlemarch into 8 books – this post will discusses Book I: Miss Brooke and Book II: Old and Young.

Like many big Victorian novels, Middlemarch is character driven rather than plot driven. In Book I, we are introduced to much of the genteel Middlemarch society – from Dorothea Brooke, who is, at least at this point, one of the novel’s main characters, to Rosamunde Vincy. The bulk of Book I is taken up with Dorothea and her blossoming infatuation with the intellectual and ascetic Mr. Casaubon. By the end of Book I, Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon are married.

As I read about the engagement of the stubborn and intelligent Dorothea to Mr. Casaubon a feeling of foreboding developed. I can’t help but think that this decision is going to turn out badly for, at least, Dorothea, if not both of them. Dorothea is looking for something in Mr. Casaubon that he has no idea how to provide – she seeks an intellectual partner. Casaubon, on the other hand, seems to be looking for a worshipful, unpaid servant. Certainly he doesn’t seem capable of the kind of relationship that Dorothea is desires, and it seems highly unlikely that he will be satisfied with what Dorothea has to offer.

Book II brings us out into wider Middlemarch society, and focuses on the political and economic machinations of the men. Dr. Lydgate’s desire to improve medical science and the delivery of medicine is discussed, Fred Vincy behaves like a wastrel, Mr. Bulstrode bullies everyone with his money, and we catch up with Will Ladislaw in Italy toward the end of Book II, where he is spending someone else’s money on aesthetic idleness. By the end of Book II, the cracks in the brand-new marriage between Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon have widened into a full-fledged chasm, and it appears unlikely that they will be able to bridge the gap.

Eliot develops Middlemarch slowly. So slowwwwwwly that sometimes it seems like nothing is happening at all, while Eliot slyly shows us the character of every person in town with her well-chosen words.

One of the components of our discussion relates to the differences between plot-driven and character-driven books. Many of my co-readers have enjoyment issues because of the slow pace. I find myself rather enjoying the leisurely pacing of Middlemarch, although I can understand why other readers would find it boring. I do tend to chip away at classics, and read modern (i.e., books with a faster pace) fiction simultaneously. This probably helps.

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Taken Mage apprentices have been vanishing without a trace—and someone on the council might be involved. Alex Verus has no evidence, no witnesses, and no suspects. All he knows is that someone is keeping tabs on him. And after assassins target his own apprentice’s classmate, Alex sees that he doesn’t know the half of it—and that he could be the next to disappear…

I am all caught up on Benedict Jacka’s delightful Alex Verus series. This is a British Harry Dresden, urban fantasy from across the pond. I love wizards, I love books set in London, I love this series. This was an excellent installment, although it didn’t have nearly enough Arachne. The only downside to catching up on a favorite series is that it means I have to wait for the next in the series to hit the shelves. In this case, the title is Chosen and it is coming soon to a bookstore near my kindle e-reader on August 27, 2013.

The Curse of the Wendigo While attempting to disprove that Homo vampiris, the vampire, could exist, Dr. Warthrop is asked by his former fiancé to rescue her husband from the Wendigo, a creature that starves even as it gorges itself on human flesh, and which has snatched him in the Canadian wilderness. Although Warthrop also considers the Wendigo to be fictitious, he relents and rescues her husband from death and starvation, and then sees the man transform into a Wendigo. Can the doctor and Will Henry hunt down the ultimate predator, who, like the legendary vampire, is neither living nor dead, whose hunger for human flesh is never satisfied?

So, I read a lot of books this month. Some of them will get more extensive treatment later when I do a full series discussion down the road a bit. The Curse of the Wendigo is likely to be one of those. It is the second book in Rick Yancey’s three book series that starts with The Monstrumologist. I love this series – gothic horror written in the style of Charles Dickens. The protagonist, Will Henry, is awesome with a side of adorable. And some of the stuff in this book will turn your stomach. In the best and most literate way possible. Rick Yancey rocks.

The Edge of Never Twenty-year-old Camryn Bennett thought she knew exactly where her life was going. But after a wild night at the hottest club in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, she shocks everyone-including herself-when she decides to leave the only life she’s ever known and set out on her own. Grabbing her purse and her cell phone, Camryn boards a Greyhound bus ready to find herself. Instead, she finds Andrew Parrish.

Sexy and exciting, Andrew lives life like there is no tomorrow. He persuades Camryn to do things she never thought she would and shows her how to give in to her deepest, most forbidden desires. Soon he becomes the center of her daring new life, pulling love and lust and emotion out of her in ways she never imagined possible. But there is more to Andrew than Camryn realizes. Will his secret push them inseparably together-or destroy them forever?

I wish I could say I liked this book. Heck, I wish I could say that I found this book tolerable. Sadly, it would not be true. I hated this book. It is poorly written, the main character is annoying, and I nearly DNF’d it at the midpoint. The cover is sort of pretty, though, so there’s that. It is designated as category “NA” which should probably be renamed category “hot-bad-boy-falls-hard-for-good-girl-with-lots-of-slut-shaming-on-the-side” except that would be too long. I give up on this NA bullshit and I will read no more. If this is the future of publishing, I am going to need to find a new hobby.

The Ruining Annie Phillips is thrilled to leave her past behind and begin a shiny new life on Belvedere Island, as a nanny for the picture-perfect Cohen family. In no time at all, she falls in love with the Cohens, especially with Libby, the beautiful young matriarch of the family. Life is better than she ever imagined. She even finds romance with the boy next door.
All too soon cracks appear in Annie’s seemingly perfect world. She’s blamed for mistakes she doesn’t remember making. Her bedroom door comes unhinged, and she feels like she’s always being watched. Libby, who once felt like a big sister, is suddenly cold and unforgiving. As she struggles to keep up with the demands of her new life, Annie’s fear gives way to frightening hallucinations. Is she tumbling into madness, or is something sinister at play?

As you can see from the plot summary, The Ruining billed itself as a bit of a psychological thriller, and it started out with PROMISE. Promise of chills. Promise of thrills. Promise of lots and lots of suspense. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the book all right, and I will definitely give this author another shot. But, in the end, there was a little too much damsel in distress, a few too many convenient solutions, and a little too much girl-gets-saved-by-boy for me. I wanted more than this book ended up being. I will give a thumbs up to the author’s use of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s iconic – and psychologically terrifying – novella The Yellow Wallpaper.

Beguilement Troubled young Fawn Bluefield seeks a life beyond her family’s farm. But on the way to the city, she encounters a patrol of Lakewalkers, nomadic soldier-sorcerers from the northern woodlands. Feared necromancers armed with mysterious knives made of human bone, they wage a secret on-going war against the scourge of the “malices,” immortal entities that draw the life out of their victims, enslaving human and animal alike. It is Dag–a Lakewalker patroller weighed down by past sorrows and present responsibilities–who must come to Fawn’s aid when she is taken captive by a malice. They prevail at a devastating cost–unexpectedly binding their fates together as they embark upon a remarkable journey into danger and delight, prejudice and partnership . . .and perhaps even love.

Toward the end of the month, I was looking for a little foray into high fantasy. I had picked up Beguilement for (I think) .99 for my e-reader at some point. I’ve never read anything by Bujold except a little standalone Renaissance fantasy called The Spirit Ring a couple of years ago. I decided to give this one a try. I liked it. It is a very sweet, not at all epic, high fantasy that tells the story of Fawn, a young farm girl, and Dag, her Lakewalker lover. The course of true love never does run true, and especially NOT in high fantasy. This one was nice, though, and I will definitely read the sequels at some point.

*All italicized plot synopses taken from Goodreads under the fair use doctrine.

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First off, props to Alyson @ The Cheap Reader for this amazing blog project! Alyson was also responsible for (in a good way) Project Fairytale back in February. This was such a success that, rather than resting upon her laurels (classical reference – see what I did there?) she decided to one up herself. Hence, we have the Classics Retold project, which is so huge that it is being adminstered on five separate blogs, loosely divided by time period. The details of the project can be found here:

http://thecheapreader.wordpress.com/features/classics-retold/

What a wealth of classics there are from which to choose! I definitely wanted to do something in the medieval/renaissance period, which is being managed by Alyssa at her blog (http://bookstakeyouplaces.com/2013/04/11/classics-retold/). Still, narrowing down my selection was extremely difficult, with Robin Hood, King Arthur and all of Shakespeare to choose from! I ultimately settled on (ta-da) William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yes, it is true. Come September, this blog will be entirely taken over by Titiania, Oberon, Puck and some guy running around with an ass where his head should be.

That's not disturbing. Right?

That’s not disturbing. Right?

So, aside from the No Fear version of MSND, I am looking for retellings and spin-offs. So far, I’ve discovered a number of YA retellings, a feminist spoof (which I may or may not be able to get my hands on), a Pratchett version, and at least one award winning graphic story by Neil Gaiman. There is also, of course, the 1999 film version starring Michelle Pfeiffer as the lovely Titiana, with Calista Lockhart as Helena. I will hopefully be able to answer the age-old question of “can Calista Lockhart act” after watching this movie. I suspect that the answer to the question will be “no,” but I am attempting to keep an open mind.

If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumbered here While these visions did appear.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.

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