Sunday, April 24, 2011

Book 12 – I Capture The Castle

By Dodie Smith

I had only recently heard about this underrated coming-of-age classic by the same writer who wrote The 101 Dalmatians. So captured was I by the irresistible premise that I requested it last Christmas (thanks M&A). In pre-WWII England, a family moves into a castle nestled in the countryside, the patriarch hoping that the isolated setting will inspire him to write a successor to his brilliant debut novel, Jacob Wrestling. Twelve years later, the castle is crumbling and the family has no means of income because the only breadwinner has had writer’s block the entire time. The family has become so desperately poor that they only have stale bread and tea for dinner.

Seventeen year old Cassandra starts a journal as an attempt to “capture” her thoughts and chronicle the daily lives of her rather eccentric family, which consists of her father James Mortmain, stepmother Topaz, older sister Rose, younger brother Thomas and pseudo stepbrother Stephen, the son of a deceased servant who has become a member of the household. Cassandra also serves as the narrator, as we see everything from her perspective as she writes her journal entries. There are many lovely passages, such as Cassandra’s memories of her family discovering the castle for the first time and descriptions of favourite nooks where she likes to write, such as sitting at the sink by the kitchen window or climbing up one of the castle towers to seek more privacy. But there are also detailed accounts about their near destitute lifestyle.

Our room is spacious and remarkably empty. With the exception of the four-poster, which is in very bad condition, all the good furniture has gradually been sold and replaced by minimum requirements bought in junk-shops. Thus we have a wardrobe without a door and a bamboo dressing-table which I take to be a rare piece. I keep my bedside candlestick on a battered tin trunk that cost one shilling; Rose has hers on a chest of drawers painted to imitate marble, but looking more like bacon.

One rainy night, something unexpected happens which will forever change the lives of the Mortmain family. Two American brothers show up at their doorstep, their car stuck in mud. It turns out they are the sons of the landlord who had recently passed away. The older brother Simon is to inherit the land, which includes Scoatney Hall and the castle grounds, and he soon becomes smitten with Rose. Their initial meeting is awkward and plays very much like a Jane Austen novel, with the Mortmains modeled after the Bennet family and the Brothers Cotton that of Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy as the potential suitors. The analogy is not lost on Rose and our narrator:

“Did you think anything when Miss Marcy said Scoatney Hall was being re-opened? I thought of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice – where Mrs. Bennet says ‘Netherfield Park is let at last.’ And then Mr. Bennet goes over to call on the rich new owner.”
“Mr. Bennet didn’t owe him any rent,” I said.
“Father wouldn’t go anyway. How I wish I lived in a Jane Austen novel!”
I said I’d rather be in a Charlotte Brontë.
“Which would be nicest – Jane with a touch of Charlotte, or Charlotte with a touch of Jane?”
This is the kind of discussion I like very much but I wanted to get on with my journal so I just said: “Fifty per cent each way would be perfect,” and started to write determinedly.

Indeed, the novel makes a number of literary references to Austen as well as other classics of that ilk. And it doesn’t take long for all the Mortmain women to use various stratagems to put Rose and Simon together, with Rose convincing herself that she is in love with him, even though she is not.

Rose’s ethics are questionable at first glance, but after seeing the extent of their poverty vis-à-vis Cassandra, you also understand Rose’s motive for wanting to marry a rich American. She feels a certain level responsibility as the eldest to look after the family since the father appears to have relinquished his role as head of the household. Topaz, a former artists’ muse and moonlit nudist, is torn between being a free spirit and a devoted wife but the Mortmain children find her to be a kind and generous stepmother. Interestingly, the main female characters are well drawn out, but the male characters are rather two dimensional. Mr Mortmain is the distant, self-absorbed genius/father/husband, Stephen is the simple but wise country boy with a heart of gold and the brothers Cotton are primarily there to serve as love interests for Cassandra and Rose.

I Capture the Castle was originally published in 1949, but the story is set in 1930’s England. Although it plays like a contemporary update of a Jane Austen novel, it’s more like a very early precursor to a Judy Blume coming of age story. The narrator Cassandra is seventeen years old, but I don’t know if this novel was aimed at young adults when it came out in the 1940’s because some of the themes are quite mature and adult, with a very non-romantic (hence realistic) take on relationships and love. There are suspicions of adultery, a Graduate-like scenario where a shrewd, older woman from London seduces the younger, but not completely naïve Stephen, and then there is Rose eventually bailing on her fiancé to run away with his brother.

Only one out of at least three potential romantic matches work out, and the running theme seems to be that the few who do find love are the lucky ones, while most everyone else ends up loveless, with unrequited love or stuck with ones whom they don’t love.

Despite the sadness and disappointment of our narrator not finding love, this is still a lovely, lovely book. There is a blurb on the cover from JK Rowling stating that this novel has the most charismatic narrator, and she is right about that. Even though Cassandra does not find love, she does learn to love herself and find contentment in solitude.

Once I got used to the idea of being by myself for so long I positively liked it. I always enjoy the different feeling there is in a house when one is alone in it, and the thought of that feeling stretching ahead for two whole days somehow intensified it wonderfully. The castle seemed to be mine in a way it never had been before; the day seemed specially to belong to me; I even had a feeling that I owned myself more than I usually do. I became very conscious of all my movements – if I raised my arm I looked at it wonderingly, thinking, “That is mine!” And I took pleasure in moving, both in the physical effort and in the touch of the air – it was most queer how the air did seem to touch me, even when it was absolutely still. All day long I had a sense of great ease and spaciousness. And my happiness had a strange, remembered quality as though I had lived before. Oh, how can I recapture – that utterly right, homecoming sense of recognition? It seems to me now that the whole day was like an avenue leading to a home I had loved once but forgotten, the memory of which was coming back so dimly, so gradually, as I wandered along, that only when my home at last lay before me did I cry: “Now I know why I have been happy!”

There was a film adaptation from 2003, which was a bit meh. You could say that the movie captured the setting quite well, but the cast didn’t quite capture the spirit of Dodie Smith’s book.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Book 11 – H.M.S. Surprise

By Patrick O’Brian

It’s been almost two years since I returned to the most popular 50-Booker series since, if you recall, I was somewhat disappointed in Post Captain. I was spurred back on the horse (or more appropriately, ship) when Olman asked if I had a copy of the third Aubrey-Maturin book since a few Ramblekrafters were at the developmental stage for their upcoming Beat To Quarters game. And there was no way I was going to let Olman read the next installment before me! Good thing I distracted him with a sweet Hornblower hardback ;-)

HMS Surprise proved to be a significant improvement over Post Captain in terms of structure, plot and engagability, though it shared similarities in lots of dramatic exposition and character development for the bulk of the novel, leaving the exciting battle between the East India Company’s China Fleet and a French squadron (with the HMS Surprise caught in between!) towards the end.

At the beginning of the story, Stephen’s cover in Spain gets blown due to an inept person in a high political position. As a result, Stephen is caught and tortured by the French and then subsequently rescued by Jack. What's more, the Polychrest crew lose out on their prize money ( the capture of the Spanish gold ships at the end of Post Captain) due to some legal loophole so Jack can’t pay off his debts and marry Sophia. But thanks to Stephen’s fortuitous connection to Sir Joseph, some reward money is acquired for Jack so he is rescued from the sponging house and given a new post on the HMS Surprise, the very ship in which Jack spent his youth as a midshipman .

The newly crewed HMS Surprise makes sail for the East Indies with the task of delivering a rather delicate and seasick-prone British envoy to the Sultan of Kampong. Along the way, the HMS Surprise languishes in the doldroms, suffers from mild scurvy, consumes a fair amount of rats, picks up some citrus fruit in Brazil (as well as a three-toed sloth – “the most affectionate, discriminating sloth you can imagine!” according to Stephen), encounters a devastating storm around the Cape of Good Hope, and stops in India to refit. Of course, while in Calcutta, Stephen schemes to meet his old flame Diana Villiers, now mistress to the uber-wealthy merchant Canning.

It doesn’t end there. Lots of juicy things happen which I’d rather not summarize, so you’ll just have to read this installment for yourself and see. It’s interesting to note that the film adaptation Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World incorporates a few minor events from this book, such as J.A.'s initials carved in the top masthead of the HMS Surprise and Stephen’s DIY operation as he removes a bullet lodged in his own rib.

And the final battle at the end was worth it too. Perhaps I’m getting better at comprehending O’Brian’s writing, or O’Brian’s writing has improved in clarity, but this was the first time I could clearly follow the bl0w-by-blow account of the HMS Surprise’s run-in with the formidable French squadron, not to mention Captain Aubrey’s risky collaboration with the merchant ships of the East India Company’s China Fleet to deceive the aged yet cunning Admiral Linois. And it was pretty damn exciting and well worth waiting for! It took an effort not to describe any of it -- so much better to just read it for yourself, but I will say that it was another capital game of naval subterfuge.

As usual, there are many humourous and lighthearted gems scattered throughout the book.

He came forward, showing his open hands, and said again, ‘Captain Melbury?’
‘Who are you, sir?’ asked Jack.
‘Joan Maragall, sir,’ he whispered in the clipped English of the Minorcans, very like that of Gibraltar. ‘I come from Esteban Domanova. He says, Sophia, Mapes, Guarnerius.’
Melbury Lodge was the house they had shared; Stephen’s full name was Maturin y Domanova; no one else on earth knew that Jack had once nearly bought a Guarnerius. He un-cocked his pistol and thrust it back.

‘Bonden,’ cried Stephen, ‘take pen and ink, and write – ‘
‘Write, sir?’ cried Bonden.
‘Yes. Sit square to your paper, and write: Landsdowne Crescent – Barret Bonden, are you brought by the lee?’
‘Why, yes, sir; that I am – fair broached-to. Though I can read pretty quick, if in broad print; I can make out a watch-bill.’
‘Never mind. I shall show you the way of it when we are at sea, however: it is no great matter – look at the fools who write all day long – but it is useful, by land…’

Jack stepped on to the western rail and looked down into the water… ‘Come on, then,’ he said, diving in.
The sea was warmer than the air, but there was refreshment in the rush of bubbles along his skin, the water tearing through his hair, the clean salt taste in his mouth. Looking up he saw the silvery undersurface, the Surprise’s hull hanging down through it and the clean copper near her water-line reflecting an extraordinary violet into the sea: then a white explosion as Stephen shattered the mirror, plunging bottom foremost from the gangway, twenty feet above. His impetus bore him down and down, and Jack noticed that he was holding his nose: he was holding it still when he came to the surface, but then relinquished it to strike out in his usual way – short, cataleptic jerks, with his eyes tightly shut and his mouth clenched in savage determination.

Babbington looked wretchedly from one to the other, licked his lips and said, ‘I ate your rat, sir. I am very sorry, and I ask your pardon.’
‘Did you so?’ said Stephen mildly. ‘Well, I hope you enjoyed it. Listen, Jack, will you look at my list, now?’
‘He only ate it when it was dead,’ said Jack.
‘It would have been a strangely hasty, agitated meal, had he ate it before,’ said Stephen…

Stephen looked sharply round, saw the decanter, smelt to the sloth, and cried, ‘Jack, you have debauched my sloth.’

[Stephen] ‘… You must write that letter, Jack; for you are to consider, Sophie is the beauty of the world; whereas although you are tolerably well-looking in your honest tarpaulin way, you are rather old and likely to grow older; too fat, and likely to grow even fatter – nay, obese.’ Jack looked at his belly and shook his head. ‘Horribly knocked about, earless, scarred: brother, you are no Adonis. Do not be wounded,’ he said, laying his hand on Aubrey’s knee, ‘when I say you are no Adonis.’

[Diana] ‘But it was kind of him to send his compliments, his best compliments, to a fallen woman.’
[Stephen] ‘What stuff you talk, Villiers,’ he said.
[Diana] ‘I have fallen pretty low for an odious little reptile like that Perkins to take such liberties. Christ, Maturin, this is a vile life. I never go out without the danger of an affront: and I am alone, cooped up in this foul place all the time. There are only half a dozen women who receive me willingly; and four of them are demireps and the others charitable fools – such company I keep! And the other women I meet, particularly those I knew in India before – oh, how they know how to place their darts!...

[Jack] ‘… A most capital dinner, upon my word. The duck was the best I ever tasted.’
[Stephen] ‘I was sorry to see you help yourself to him a forth time: duck is a melancholy meat. In any case the rich sauce in which it bathed was not at all the thing for a subject of your corpulence.'


Thursday, April 07, 2011

Book 10 – The City, Not Long After

By Pat Murphy

This pristine 1989 hardcover has been with me since I first bought it as a teenager. I went through a fantasy/sci-fi period back then, and Pat Murphy was one of my favourite writers. Although labeled a fantasy writer, her stories tend to be grounded in contemporary reality (kind of like Charles de Lint without the faeries and goblins).

Murphy also did double-duty as staff writer at the San Francisco Exploratorium, so her urban fantasies usually involved science and art. At the time, I had already read her Nebula award-winning novella “Rachel In Love”, about a human girl trapped in a lab chimpanzee’s body and The Falling Woman, about an archaeologist’s encounter with an ancient Mayan goddess.

When The City, Not Long After came out, I remember the premise really intrigued me, as it would be my very first introduction to PA fiction. The idea of a desolate post-apocalyptic San Francisco inhabited by a motley group of artists and weirdos appealed to my youthful romantic sensibilities. Now more than 20 years later, I thought it'd be a good time for a revisit.

At first, my older cynical self was suspicious: how could a disparate group of survivors just take over an abandoned city and live peacefully among themselves? But soon enough, I was able to immerse myself in the author’s world, which was starting to make some sense, at least in the realm of magic realism. I had forgotten also that the novel was aimed at young adults. There was some sex, violence and swearing, but it was all quite PG. The themes and social commentary were also fairly simplistic (make art, not war!), but not too annoyingly so, as Murphy is a pretty good writer.

The plot is straightforward: fifteen years before, a plague devastated human civilisation, and small pockets of survivors live in scattered groups. In San Francisco, artists and misfits have taken over, since they're the kind of people who don't mind ghosts of the past haunting the empty streets. However, the peaceful existence of this rag-tag community does not last. A rural army led by a fascistic dictator nicknamed Fourstar threatens to invade the city and impose a new world order. Here the symbolism of a rural dystopia invading an urban utopia is pretty cut and dry. The protagonist is a young nameless woman whose mother was taken by Fourstar’s soldiers, who then escapes to SF to warn the inhabitants about Fourstar’s militaristic plans. While there, she explores the streets and abandoned buildings (described in vivid detail by the author who obviously knows the city well), learns how to become friends with eccentric oddballs, names herself Jax and finds love in the form of paint-can wielding Danny-boy.

[Note some SPOILERS coming up]

The climax is pretty cool. The artists may be wacky, but they aren’t stupid, so they band together and wage a war of resistance against the invading army, made up of uneducated farmers who have been trained in traditional warfare, yet are ill-prepared for non-violent guerilla tactics. Guess it’s rather fitting that this takes place in San Francisco. Radical warfare, man!

Every artist has a speciality which comes to play. Sculptors and gardeners set up creative barricades of religious statues, wrought iron and poison oak. An audio engineer rigs gigantic speakers to blast mind-numbing noise while the soldiers try to sleep. A mechanically gifted autistic called The Machine flies around in his gyrocopter dropping smoke bombs to confuse the army.

----- Spoilers end here -----

As PA fiction goes, the novel has some interesting ideas, though these ideas don’t get explored to their full potential. The ending was fairly ambiguous, never really answering whether non-violent resistance can be achieved in a post-apocalyptic milieu, and the finale also resolved itself too easily and idealistically for my cynical taste. But as PA fiction with a magic realist spin for young adults, it had some good drama and action, making for a fairly enjoyable read. I can see why I got into this in my youth.

It's interesting to note the recent crop of young adult post-apocalyptic (YA PA) fiction, such as The Hunger Games and Enclave (Razorland) series, which seem pumped full of action and violence. Pat Murphy's novel may probably seem quite tame and subtlely nuanced in comparison, so I'd have to check out these trendy new PA YA books to find out!