bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #77: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

My friend S and I are both stressed-out doctoral students who wanted to do some “fun” reading over Christmas break that didn’t involve anything related to our respective research areas. We both enjoy Victorian novels, so we chose The Moonstone. I may or may not be questioning my love of Victorian novels after my experience with Jane Eyre and this novel.

So, in short: greedy colonialist soldier steals sacred (and ginormous) Indian diamond, known as the Moonstone, and wills it to his heirs. It ends up with a no-good scoundrel, whose name I have already forgotten and am too lazy to look up, who decides to leave it to his niece, Rachel Verinder, on her 18th birthday. Rachel is a Mary Sue and oppressingly boring. Rachel’s mother, Lady Julia Verinder, is convinced that the diamond is a curse and is a last middle-finger from her brother’s grave. As the Diamond makes its way to England, we learn from our first of several narrators, that three suspicious-looking men from India are looking around the estate. It must be an omen. Sidenote: I was interested in the story, but Collins’ first narrator (Gabriel Betteredge) is a servant who is absolutely Jonesing for Lady Verinder. It’s so pandering and B.O.R.I.N.G. We get about 190 pages of his absolutely sickening devotion to the family. Dude, we get it. Julian Fellowes probably read your part when he created most of the Downton Abbey servants.

Ahem. Back to the story. The Diamond arrives via Rachel’s cousin, Franklin Blake, who is in love with Rachel. A servant girl, formerly a thief and found in a Reformatory (which means she was probably also a prostitute at one time) is in love with Franklin. On top of these hijinks, Rachel’s other cousin, Geoffrey Ablewhite, arrives and is *also* in love with Rachel. Apparently, England ran out of rich women.

There’s this birthday party, in which Rachel is determined to wear the Moonstone proudly, which makes me think she probably just discovered her boobies and is even more eager to show those off, but I digress. Weird conversations happen, the party is ruined, and Franklin makes a fool out of himself. The next morning, the Moonstone has disappeared from Rachel’s bedroom. And then the mystery begins.

It’s actually a halfway decent mystery, but the setup takes forever, and Gabriel is a profoundly self-important narrator who almost had me quitting the book entirely. The resolution is interesting and not entirely out of the realm of possibility. I just may have reached the limit of my enjoyment of Victorian novels. Or maybe it’s just that I like George Eliot too much to like other Victorian novelists.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

#CBR5 Review #76: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I first read Jane Eyre as a junior in high school–I’d never read anything like it. My reading had previously consisted of a steady diet of Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables, with some Christian romances thrown in for good measure, so scandal and syphilis was deliciously new to me. Now, as a 29-year-old woman, I don’t have quite the same reaction, but I still had a good time this read-through.

If you’ve never read Jane Eyre, you really should. There are three distinct “phases” of the novel, in my opinion. In the first phase, a young Jane Eyre is a fearless, precocious orphan, living under her grudging and cruel aunt’s care, but then exiled to a sparse boarding school, where she discovers that faith is more than black-and-white, that her aunt, Mrs. Reed, may not actually represent true Christianity, and to find her interiority as a self.

The second phase is the juiciest. In it, Jane is sent to live as a governess to a young French girl who is the ward (and likely illegitimate daughter) of the mysterious Mr. Rochester. Up until this read, I was enthralllled by the Rochester. And with such depictions as these, who wouldn’t be?

RochesterHinds   tumblr_lbogn4GbAI1qa6wuzo1_500

Clearly, Michael Fassbender is way too attractive to play Rochester, but we’re not complaining, are we? No.

Rochester is strangely charismatic, though he is actually too passionate and manipulative for his own good. I used to LOVE HIM. Like, find him delicious and exciting. This time, the magic was gone. Every time the novel got gushy and sentimental, I just sighed huffily and prayed for death to take me.


Of course, it all goes sideways (inevitably), and it’s all linked to the mystery in the attic. I won’t spoil it, but it involves tertiary syphilis (not mentioned by name). Don’t google it. It’s dis.gus.ting.

So, in Phase 3, Jane runs away and finds herself in a rural village a few hundred miles away, living with the Rivers sisters and their clergyman brother St. John. I didn’t know until I watched the 1997 adaptation that you pronounce his name “Sin-jin.” Anyways, St. John is all about crucifying the flesh for the eternal glory of God. He’s determined to become a missionary in India, and he even goes so far as to snub the beautiful Rosamund because she wouldn’t make a good missionary wife (his words). I mean, this pretty girl is in love with him, and he says no to sex. What a

He is, obviously, a coldly handsome man.


I mean…

So, naturally, he sets his sights on Jane as a utility for God’s grand mission to India. He even makes her learn Hindustani. And he tries to passively-aggressively force her to marry him. Of course.


I won’t give it away, but it’s thrilling to see Jane become an individual and stand up for herself as a person worthy of some agency and independence. That, for me is the greatest part of the novel–the story of a young woman who chooses herself above all else.

This read, I found myself intrigued by the binary masculinities Ms. Brontë presents in the figures of Rochester and St. John. They actually reminded me of the poem, “Fire and Ice,” by Robert Frost:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

I think the choice in men is interesting–Rochester is this passionate, sex fiend, while St. John probably doesn’t even believe that sex is for anything except producing more missionaries. Is one choice better or worse than the other? It’s an interesting idea, and I’m not sure what I’d pick, if I was forced to choose.

I also said that the choice of Rochester and St. John reminded me of the Big-or-Aidan fanships on Sex and the City. My husband was not impressed with this comparison.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

#CBR5 Review #75: Passing by Nella Larsen

I just finished this short, powerful book this morning. I am still formulating all the words, so this may not convey accurately just what a punch it packs.

Irene Redfield is a woman of mixed race–black and white. She encounters former school friend Clare Kendry by chance on a return visit to her family in Chicago. She discovers that Clare, also of mixed race, is “passing” as a white woman in her community and is even married to a racist white man. This is obviously a very dangerous thing to do in the 1920s and Irene is very aware of Clare’s predicament. Clare herself seems to have no concern and casually visits Irene in Harlem when her husband is gone, mingling between the worlds of “black” and “white” without any concern for herself. Embedded within the novel are questions of Irene’s own family life, as we get plenty of hints that not all is well with her marriage. There are even hints of sexual orientation, though I did not see some of them in my reading this time.

Passing is still a compelling book today, because though the US has made peace with some of its racial issues, there are still many others that are being brought to the fore (hello, Cheerio commercial, much?). I think this is an excellent book for undergraduates to read, and I very well may add it to my teaching rotation soon.

You may also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #74: Bluebeard’s Egg by Margaret Atwood

I’m a huge fan of Ms. Atwood’s novels, and I really enjoy the short story, “Happy Endings.” So I thought it time to read a collection of the short stories. As it turns out, I’m not sure there’s anything Atwood *can’t* do.

Bluebeard’s Egg deconstructs family, love, and marriage in its forms. The story “Bluebeard’s Egg” is startling for the surprise it contains, especially when we’ve set up to believe the husband is a certain kind of character. I won’t say more to spoil the surprise. The stories are haunting and poignant. And, of course, beautifully written.

I like short story collections, because they are fairly simple to read. You can read a story in the evening, and pick the book up the next day. Or, if more ambitious, you can polish off several stories in an evening. I really enjoyed this collection, and if you are a fan of Atwood, then I believe that you will too.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #73: London Fields by Martin Amis

Martin Amis has been accused of being sexist in his life and literature. I can’t speak to how he views women in real life (I know he’s married), but I think London Fields provides an interesting challenge to the idea of how men view women in novels, and how their objectification makes them more and less attainable on print.

The narrator is Samson Young, an American author living in London at author Mark Asprey’s (a stand-in for Amis, as featured in other of Amis’s novels) flat, constructing a novel about the soon-to-happen murder of Nicola Six. He assigns Keith Talent, a petty criminal and local darts champ as the murderer, Guy Clinch, a rich and bored banker, as the foil, and himself as the novelist who interviews Nicola to be updated on the plot. At first, the novel is a darkly funny jaunt into the underworld of London, but it grows more twisted and complex as the anticipated event draws closer. The ending is unexpected and clever, drawing all the pieces of the novel together.

Nicola Six is one of the most interesting anti-heroines I’ve read yet. She has her vanity, but it doesn’t define her. She uses men, but even they cannot control her. She is frustrating, enticing, and utterly interesting, because she cannot be understood. London Fields is considered Amis’s masterpiece, and after reading it, I am inclined to agree. It’s at turns funny, dark, clever, and well-plotted, cutting through swathes of life and ennui in the late 1980s, critiquing the highly materialistic world we have constructed for ourselves. It took me a long time to read, but it was well-worth it. If you want to read Martin Amis, this would be an even better place to start than Money.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #72: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Everyone’s been reading this book, so I’ll keep this review short. I will say that while this was not my first Neil Gaiman experience (I’ve also read American Gods and The Graveyard Book), I think this was the one that caught my attention the most.

With the unnamed narrator, Gaiman explores the scary terrain of childhood, with  its lurking monsters and shadows, the uncertainty and the terror of being a child in a very adult world. The prose is breathtaking, and there was more than one passage where my eyes remained glued to the page, greedily absorbing the next sentence. I think the sense of time is well-expressed, and I felt the parts where memory, time, and remembrance converge is very accurate–after all, are our memories reliable? Can we recall our childhoods with anything resembling accuracy? How true are the impressions that we retain?

While this is by no means a children’s story, Gaiman retells the travails and pathways of childhood in a way that is poignant, painful and memorable. It is just the kind of tale for someone who looks back on the world with the longing of a child.

You can read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #71: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Ack. It seems like I should have been reading more than I have (but London Fields is still in progress, as is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and so help me, I had to put down Allegiant because I was just not feeling it), but at this point in the semester, any reading is good. I read Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin about nine years ago when I was a wee sophomore in college and it just My graduate department association voted this as our first book club selection, and I was curious to see how this book held up years later. As it turns out, it’s still one of my favorites.

In brief (not easy, since it’s over 500 pages long): The Blind Assassin is a multi-layered story. The outermost focuses on the ailing and elderly Iris Chase Griffen musing over the course her life has taken, in all its sordid past, regrets, and oppression. She writes down the story of “what really happened” for her absent granddaughter, Sabrina, long estranged. Embedded in that story is the novel The Blind Assassin, written by her sister Laura who drove her car off a bridge just days after World War II ended in Germany. This layer, interspersed with news clippings related to the Chase and Griffen families, tells us of two lovers engaged in an affair, with the man telling the story of the blind assassin who falls in love with a virgin about to be sacrificed in the fictional realm of Sakiel-Norn.

This description might make your head spin–and it sometimes the novel truly does–but all the stories converge in a rather thrilling finish. I love long novels (no, really), and I really enjoyed the way Atwood developed Iris so fully as to make her a rich and complex character. I also really felt that Atwood expertly depicts the sort of mid-twentieth century daring that had to accompany the mere act of writing by women. It’s a beautifully crafted novel, one that satisfied me yet again.

It’s more socially subtle and less politically driven than some of Atwood’s more popular fare, like The Handmaid’s Tale, or her MaddAddam trilogy, but it focuses on the craft of storytelling. And sometimes, that’s really all you need from a novel.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #70: The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro

Alice Munro was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, one of just 13 women to receive such an honor. So naturally, I had to read her book. My friend T recommended I start with The Love of a Good Woman, because he really enjoyed the collection. As you can see, I did.

I honestly enjoy short stories, precisely because they leave me wanting *more.* There’s a craft to writing a good, satisfying short story, and Alice Munro is masterful. The first story, “The Love of a Good Woman,” is novella-length, but it builds a fascinating tension in several angles of a story–you wonder how the town’s boys, the dead eye doctor, and a dying young woman are all connected. But by the end (which was slightly inconclusive), I was both thrilled and desirous of more. The other stories in the collection speak of longing, love, family relationships, restlessness, and so many experiences indicative of the human condition. When we think of “the love of a good woman,” we are led to wonder: is she good? Is the love good? Is the love worth it?

I am definitely going to be teaching Munro when I get to teach literature, and I am going to read all her collections. She has a way with her prose that is descriptive without being overdone, concise but not spare. The Love of a Good Woman, while delving into some heavy subject material, is so well-written that it feels like a pleasure-read.

Let me just treat you to this last image of awesomeness (thanks, Tumblr!). Munro is not able to travel to receive her award, so she and Margaret Atwood celebrated with champagne:


You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #69: A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

Full disclosure: as an Evangelical Christian (Seventh-day Adventist, to be precise), I began reading this book with certain expectations and a knowledge of the discourse. I’ve heard all the “good Christian girls keep their knees together” lectures, the “good wife stays at home while her husband earns the money” lectures and the “God’s little princess” rhetoric that makes me sick. My parents, as Conservative as they are, raised me to be independent, well-educated, and resourceful. I grew up believing I would go to college, but not sure if I’d get married–and that was okay. As it turns out, I did marry. I found a man who was a-ok with me keeping my last name, who shared my religion and most of my expressions of that religion, who supports my career goals as I support his, and believes (like I do) that gender is not restricted by highly dependent on the person’s skills, talents, and preference. So, as I read about Rachel Held Evans’ struggle to define herself as a biblical woman amidst contrasting and often harsh conversations and ideals about “biblical womanhood,” I finally felt that I met someone who really understood me–an ardent Christian and an ardent feminist, trapped in the same body.

Ms. Evans has received a lot of media attention for her book, with two equally dissenting voices: Conservative Christians who suspect that she’s making fun of Christianity (she’s not–and if they’d read the book, they’d be fully immersed into her deep love and respect for the Bible); and secular a-religious/atheist individuals who think she’s naively advocating patriarchy (again, she’s not, and her relationship with her husband is one of the clearest indicators). At face value, she seems to be copycatting A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, but she ultimately has a different quest–she wants to question her role as a Christian woman and examine biblical womanhood from a variety of perspectives. She undertakes a study of verses and stories and tackles a facet or concept of biblical womanhood each month of the year (one month, her project is purity, and she sleeps in a tent during her period and carries a cushion with her to avoid making chairs in the house impure, for example) in order to see how womanhood was viewed by God’s people in the Old/New Testaments, and how we interpret it today.

This is not a from-the-old-Hebrew kind of deep analysis you expect from a theologian. And for ordinary readers of the Bible like me, that’s okay. Ms. Evans is a witty, conversational writer who is open about her quirks as a human. Her quest for a better understanding of the Bible, along with her passion for understanding her fellow women was one of the best aspects of the book. There’s a passage where she describes mourning women who were terrorized in the Bible–raped, killed, abused, mistreated at the hands of patriarchy. That’s the sort of discourse that is missing in so many faith communities, and one that she invokes, without being cynical or too flippant.

I think my favorite part of the book, however, is when Ms. Evans reminds us that it’s okay not to have all the answers about the Bible, and it’s okay if some stories or passages trouble us or make us uncomfortable. The Bible is a complex text, and while our faith comforts and sustains us, we can’t–and shouldn’t–explain away some contradictory or troubling things. Because to do so would undermine the complexity of the Bible.

If you, like me, are a Christian and curious about this book, then you must read it. Now. I learned a lot about myself, and I gained perspective from the Bible, and grew to respect it even if I can’t answer every question I might have. If you aren’t a believer, I would still recommend it, but you may not have the same kind of cultural context that I did. But that’s okay; your perspective may be different, and that is informative for someone like me, as well.

You may read this review (or my thoughts on faith) on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #68: Regeneration by Pat Barker

I come and go on historical fiction. Really. There are some aspects that are delicious to imagine, and then ponderous writing or plot-formation that makes me crazy. I read both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and while I enjoyed both, neither changed my somewhat indifferent attitude towards historical fiction/romance/whatever. But then I read Pat Barker’s first Regeneration Trilogy novel, and maybe changed my mind.

Taking place during World War I, Regeneration is the story of the relationship between poet Siegfried Sassoon and his psychiatrist at Craiglockhart War Hospital, Dr. W.H.R. Rivers. Rivers is working on nerve regeneration and seeing young men affected by war has given him plenty of food for thought. Sassoon, having written a pamphlet decrying World War I’s continuation, is sent to Craiglockhart after a diagnosis of “shell-shock” is ascribed to his pacifist leanings and writings. Here, we also meet aspiring poet Wilfred Owen in the beginnings of his writing “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (one of his anthologized poems) and other fictional patients within the hospital.

Barker provides meaty, thought-provoking material in her work: masculinity, sexuality, war vs. peace, state-sanctioned violence and its effects on citizens, work/professionalism, and many others. I like the way she interacts with historical figures and weaves a fiction that is both beautiful and horrifying at once. Some of the soldiers’ memories of the war broke my heart and filled me with horror–how could anyone live through that and not be damaged for life? There’s also this incredible line where Rivers observes that the men he observes are at once both old men waiting to die and young schoolboys frozen in time. It’s an extremely apt way to look at victims of combat, and one that haunted me long after I finished reading.

If you’re looking for a cute, fun, fluffy historicized romance, this is not your book. But, if you like literature about literature (the poetic references might be familiar if you took British Literature in high school or college and studied the War Poets), beautiful writing, or World War I subject material, then I think you’ll like this book. It’s a slow read, but simply because I wanted to savor it as I went along.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.