Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: The Ladies' Paradise - Emile Zola

Original Publication Date: 1883 Genre: Nineteenth Century Literature Topics: Human behavior, love, shopping (!)

Review by : Liz Inskip-Paulk (

As we’ve been enjoying the PBS Masterpiece series on Sundays featuring “The Paradise”, I picked up Zola’s book upon which this series was based. (To be honest, when I first started reading the original version, it became pretty confusing as there are some significant differences between the book and the TV version [naturellement], but with the names kept the same… I got it sorted out after a bit, but at first, it was really perplexing.) In the end, I decided that the TV series based was based only slightly on the original – there were loads of differences from one to the other, but both are good in different ways.)

This book is a long multi-volume series that Zola wrote about a family (and its offshoots) as it goes through generations in France in the mid-nineteenth century. (However, this volume works well as a good stand-alone story as I hadn’t read any of the original set prior to this.) The plot revolves around a large department store in Paris, and was based on the real Bon Marche store, one of the first department stores in real life at that time. (Previously, most stores only specialized in one thing: umbrellas, bread, tailoring, milliner, butcher etc.) When the Industrial Revolution arrived, it led to factories mass-producing cheaper goods which also contributed to the downfall of these very small shops.

As the book progresses, The Ladies’ Paradise as (the department store is named) is growing with Mouret, the young manager at its helm. Alongside him are his employees, his suppliers, and of course his customers, all of whom intersect and around whom the story evolves. Mouret is deeply ambitious and wants to grow his business as to be as big and successful as he possibly can, often putting business before other considerations (including his love life). In fact, business to Mouret is seen through a parallel lens as others viewed religion:

His creation was producing a new religion; churches…were being deserted by those of wavering faith, were being replaced by his bazaar…”

Mouret often espouses his goal of using his business to reach the end result of “owning Woman” through his strategy of selling almost every product possible that “Woman” would want. This huge selection of wares attracts all classes of women from around Paris and afar, and via the old theory of Supply and Demand, Mouret takes their money whilst still leaving them wanting for more. Perhaps not the newest idea nowadays, but back then, it was legendary and new and this was the first time that the city had seen all these things available for sale under one roof.

Along with Mouret’s desire to be a very successful businessman, his other desire is for women and in particular, one specific woman – Denise Baudu. But can his money and business acumen convince her to love him back?....

Zola was a writer (and the self-proclaimed leader) of the Naturalist school of thought which was all about writing very clearly and realistically about social problems facing people who lived in the city: poverty, slums, filth, sickness… Zola really saw his writing as a focus to bring attention to problems that the typical reader would rather not look at – a verbal written documentary of a kind, you might say.

Despite this serious tone, the plot rattles along with the speed of the train and with the machinations of a soap opera and, if I’m honest, there are places which are terribly overwritten at times. Despite this, the writing seems to work as it could be argued to reflect the gilded extravagance of the shop and the idea of over-the-top luxury it sells as needs to its customers. The description of the store as it grows over time are gloriously detailed (reminded me of Dickens’ writing at times), and, when combined with the drama of the store stuff and that of the local neighborhood inhabitants, makes a very rich story indeed.

So, in case you haven’t picked this up so far, I really enjoyed this read. As mentioned before, this volume is part of a huge long series, but as I’m not a series kinda person for most of the time, that’s not for me. However, I would pick up another stand-alone volume by Zola at some point in the future.

One note: there was a character in this volume called Madame DesFarges which I found *slightly* confusing as the Mme. Desfarges that I kept seeing in my head was the rebellious she from Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities (1859). Zola’s was written in 1883 so he must have been aware of this character.

1789 – French Revolution with storming of the Bastille

1789 – Queen Marie Antoinette gets guillotine

1803 – France sold Louisiana to USA

1804 – Napoleon comes to power

1815 – Battle of Waterloo (marks the start of almost 50 years of peace throughout Europe as there had been loads of wars all over the place up until this point)

1815      Napoleon sent to exile; King Louis XVII comes to power.

1831 -    First clearly defined worker uprising of Industrial Revolution

1848 – French revolution against monarchy à Louis Napoleon Bonaparte starts as President of French Republic

1851 – Louis Napoleon Bonaparte becomes dictator

1863-56 – Crimean War (France and Britain against Russa)

1870 – Franco-Prussian War (start of ongoing war with Russia for ages). Paris captured by Prussian forces à Napoleon outed and goes into exile. Much general unrest due to Republicanism vs. Monarchism parties.

1871 – Riots in Paris streets over resentment against right-wing government à new President (Adolphe Tiers).

1883 – This was when The Ladies Paradise was published. Zola was politically liberal which led him to be against the tough right-wing government.

Download The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola at Project Gutenberg/Unavailable at Librivox.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Leo Tolstoy (1886)

Original Publication Date: 1886
Genre: Fiction, classic, nineteenth century, Russia
Topics: Dying, death, family, doctor, Russia, medicine, illness
Review by: Liz Inskip-Paulk (

I dug this title up as it was mentioned in my recent read of Atul Gawande’s On Mortality book, and I’m all about following down the rabbit holes of different books and topics sometimes. Although somewhat intimidated by Russian authors (although not sure why), I picked this up with trepidation and then relaxed. It was going to be a good read.
Gawande’s reference to this Tolstoy novella meant that I knew that the plot was about a man dying, but the actual details were vague for me (which I was happy about). I opened the book one morning and then finished it that evening and it was a great read. The plot itself is pretty simple: a man works hard in his career, get married with kids, falls off a ladder and gets slightly hurt, and then ends up dead. (And I’m not giving the game away here. This is what the story is famous for, after all.) However, it’s a lot more than that as Tolstoy (via his lead Ivan Ilyich Golovin) ruminates on the process of dying and how it may affect one’s thinking.
Ivan Ilyich feels that he has done all the “right” things in his life: he has worked hard on his career rising in the legal ranks of the municipal court, he has married well, and has a good family. So why is he so uncomfortable dying in this way? And that’s what most of this work is about – how the dying process evolves for both this particular participant and the family around him/her. It’s really quite fascinating especially after that recent read of Gawande’s book (which also focuses on death and dying). Sounds desperately morbid (doesn’t it?) but it’s not. This dying thing happens to everyone, and as with almost anything else, the more you know the better. (At least that is how I’m approaching things).
Using the POV of Ivan Ilyich himself, the story follows his thinking process as his life winds down. His pain in the side (originally triggered by an accidental fall at home) worsens, and as it progressively gets more and more painful, he visits a few doctors trying to get his diagnosis. However, the doctors are unable to agree and give him a final diagnosis (let alone a cure) and so Ivan struggles on, unable to talk about his concerns about dying with no one, not even the medical professionals let alone with his family.
And I find this to be so relevant with attitudes towards death today. In my experience, I've noticed that when one has a difficult illness, people usually don’t mind acknowledging it at first when everything is mostly normal, but as time progresses and one’s prognosis worsens, many people would prefer to talk around it than actually address it face on (a la elephant in the living room). This is how Ivan Ilyich’s family and friends handled the situation, and so the reader learns about the frustrations, struggles and the sheer loneliness of the person who’s doing the dying. I really don’t think that this is an untrue situation for a lot of people, but I wish it wasn’t that way.
Gawande mentioned that this novella was taught in med school in a class about death and dying, but I’m not sure how common that is across the nation. (Anyone know?) However, common or not, I think this is an excellent novella about a very common natural human process which is frequently denied or skirted around as people are uncomfortable with it (for whatever reason).
A provocative read about a pretty ordinary guy who is going through a totally natural process. Although the subject may be dark, this is extremely well written, not maudlin at all, and is a good demonstration of something that happens but most people would prefer not to talk about. It was an excellent read when paired with reading the Gawande book. Recommended.
Download The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy at Project Gutenberg Consortia Center|Librivox|

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review: THE BLACK MOTH by Georgette Heyer

book cover Original Publication Date: 1921

Genre: Historical, adventure

Topics: Love, honor, betrayal, #eighteenthcenturyaristocratproblems

Review by heidenkind:

Several years ago, Jack Carstares took the blame when his brother, Richard, cheated at cards. Now Richard manages the family estates and Jack, exiled in shame from society, roams the roads of England as the most bespoke and gentlemanly highwayman in the land. What earthly force could possibly make Jack leave behind his life of adventure, admit his brother was the actual cheater, and return to the fold? Love of course!

The Black Moth was Georgette Heyer's first novel, and is the only one of her books in the public domain. It's also the first Heyer novel I've managed to read (I tried one or two, but I have to admit my heart wasn't in it and I returned them to the library unfinished), and I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. I was expecting it to be a rather dull romance novel, but it's not—it's an adventure that is SUPER DRAMATIC.

Heyer wrote The Black Moth to entertain her brother during a long illness, and if his taste in books was anything like mine is, she definitely succeeded. The Black Moth has EVERYTHING: kidnapping, highwaymen, cheating, a villain you love to hate because he's the only character with a sense of humor, secret earls, a shrieking harpy of a wife, heiresses, star-crossed lovers, duels, sword fights, fashion, a put-upon manservant/sidekick, love affairs... I could go on. Is it crazy over-the-top? YES. Does it go too far at times? YES. Do I think it's Heyer's best work? I certainly hope not. BUT—did I enjoy the hell out of it? YUP.

My favorite character by far was Tracy Belmanoir, the eponymous "black moth" and brother-in-law to Richard Carstares. It was Tracy who discovered Richard cheating at cards, and he's been using that knowledge to coerce Richard into all sorts of things ever since. It's also Tracy who drives the action through much of the book. He's a boss! He gets all the best lines and mopey Richard hates him so much it's hard not to be fond of the guy.

The way women are presented in The Black Moth is also pretty refreshing. You've got Lavinia, Richard's wife, who's a nitwit and constantly talks in exclamation marks. It's! Very! Annoying! But you also have several women characters who are powerful and smart and get things done, like Lady O'Hara, who's very sexually aggressive and awesome. Diana Beauleigh is the damsel in distress, but she's also willing to press the issue of Jack's affections. Her aunt, Elizabeth, is a super-smart older lady who could give Miss Marple a run for her money.

Is The Black Moth a perfect book? Hells no. But if you can enjoy it for what it is—a fun, silly historical romp—you'll get a kick out of it.

Download The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|University of Pennsylvania Library

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche

Original Publication Date: 1886
 Genre: Nonfiction, Philosophy
 Topics: Philosophy, Religion, Morality
Review by : Becca Lostinbooks
Download Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

“To recognise untruth as a condition of life; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil.”

In this work, Nietzsche lays the foundation for thought that the Christian notion of good and evil is based on a simplified yet hidden slave morality.  Nietzsche, instead, claims that the philosophy of “will to power” (I got tired of this phrase by the end of 158 pages, let me tell you) is all the morality that an individual needs.

Nietzsche talks of good and evil not as opposites, but basically as on a spectrum that all people lay somewhere on and often drift along at different times in their lives because of various experiences.  He also argues that religion is not the basis for morality, an argument that is still being fought today.   The concept of “will to power” is a complex one, but can be simplified as the main driving force in humans, whatever that force may be, because “a living thing seeks above all to discharge its own strength – life itself is will to power.”
He argues who are we to suppose that there is an essential opposition of “true and false”, or good and evil?  “There is no such thing as moral phenomena, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.”  I found myself at turns confused, disagreeing, and nodding along in agreement while reading this.  One thing Nietzsche does is make you think and consider and you will be a deeper person for having read him.

Nietzsche is not easy to read.  I had to take my time, read along with the Librivox recording, and then re-read it again.  I took notes as I read and after finishing the book, I took some time off before going back and re-reading my notes.  It has taken me a long time to even figure out how to write a review of Nietzsche’s philosophy.  The task is as daunting as you would expect.  I recommend just giving him a try because as daunting as Nietzsche is, I feel better for having taken up the challenge.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: Barks and Purrs by Colette

barksandpurrsOriginal Publication Date: 1904

Genre: Dialogue

Topics: Pets, cats, dogs, home, France.





Review by : Chrisbookarama

Ever wonder what goes through your pets’ minds? What do they worry about? What makes them happy?

Colette’s Barks and Purrs (aka Dialogues des Bêtes) translated by Marie Kelly is a delightful series of dialogues that will charm any pet owner. I enjoyed it so much I listened to the audiobook twice, something I never do. I had to make sure I didn’t miss a thing.

Barks and Purrs covers the daily happenings of Toby-Dog (a French bull dog) and Kiki the Demure (a Maltese cat).  He and She (the owners) have small parts to play. Toby-Dog and Kiki must endure such travesties as a late dinner, a storm, a train ride, and the illness of She. These events upset their schedules and cause much devastation for the poor animals. There are times of comfort as well, like resting in front of a warm fire. 

Barks and Purrs could have been twee but this is Colette so it definitely isn’t. The animals aren’t too anthropomorphic. They don’t wear pants or help solve mysteries. They are just pets doing pet things. Colette doesn’t shy away from the realities of nature either. Kiki says:

One bound at exactly the right moment and my feeble prey is panting under me. Oh, the ridiculous effort of a weak animal—its tiny ineffectual claws and pointed wings beating against my face! My jaws will open to the splitting point and my perfect nose wrinkle ferociously, for the joy of holding a living, terrified body. 

The animals’ attitudes toward humans are about what you would expect. Toby-Dog wants to be loved all the time: I love—Her and Him devotedly, with a love that lifts me up to them. It suffices to occupy my time and heart. While Kiki only wants to be worshiped: A cat is a guest in the house, not a plaything.

The dialogues are full of rich descriptive prose.

How beautiful you are, Fire! Out from your ruddy center shoot tatters and shreds of gold, sudden spurts of blue, and smoke that twists upwards and draws queer shapes of beasts ... Oh, but I'm hot! Gently, gently, sovereign Fire, see how my truffle of a nose is drying up and cracking, and my ears—are they not ablaze? I adjure thee with suppliant paw. I groan ... ah ... I can endure it no longer! ... (He turns away.) Nothing is ever perfect. The east wind coming under the door nips my hind-legs. Well, it can't be helped! I'll freeze behind if I must, provided I can adore you face to face.

Who would imagine their dog thinking of fire in such a way? It’s gorgeous!

Now let me tell you about the audio! What an excellent production by Librivox volunteers. The narrator, Sandra, has a lovely accented voice. Bob Gonzalez is Kiki the Demure and his rich, smooth voice is perfectly suited for a spoiled cat. Toby-Dog is played by Troy Bond who has the best playful bark. The other players are excellent as well. I was very impressed. Bravo!

For fun, here is Henri the French Existentialist Cat, who is a lot like Kiki the Demure.

Download Barks and Purrs by Colette at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review: The Grey Woman by Elizabeth Gaskell

Original Publication Date: 1861

Genre: Gothic short story

Topics: Marriage, murder, secrets, on the run, gender bending.

Review by : Chrisbookarama

The Grey Woman is an excellent Gothic story with a Bluebeard twist. There’s a castle, a damsel in distress, and a husband with a secret. However, the hero of this story isn’t a dude on a white horse but a bad ass older woman: Amante.

A traveller visits a mill/coffeehouse in Germany and notices a portrait of a pale lady.
“It was that of a young girl of extreme beauty; evidently of middle rank. There was a sensitive refinement in her face, as if she almost shrank from the gaze which, of necessity, the painter must have fixed upon her.”
The traveller asks to know her story. The owner replies, “Well, it just so happens that she was my great-aunt Anna and she wrote a manuscript explaining how she ended up so white. Here, read it.” As you do. The traveller sets down to read it, then the story is told in The Grey Woman’s own words.

When Anna was a young lass, her father remarried and the new lady of the house was anxious to get rid of her. Instead of marrying a local yokel, Anna accepts an invitation to her rich friend Sophie’s estate where she meets a handsome French stranger. Monsieur de la Tourelle appears to be a gentleman. He has his sights on Anna. She dances with him at parties when he asks. She’s too shy and overcome by his charms to say no.

Anna, you in danger girl!

One day Sophie’s mother tells Anna that she’s written to her father about her impending engagement. Anna is shocked! How could she be getting engaged and not even know it?! She’s informed that it’s too late for protests now. Anna received Monsieur de la Tourelle’s attentions without complaint and that means she’s given herself for life to a perfect stranger. Oh well, what can you do when it’s 1789 and women have no rights. *shrug*

So Anna marries her Frenchman and he ships her off to some castle in the middle of nowhere with no friends or family. He immediately exhibits signs of an abuser. He demands that she keep to only one area of their home where he can keep an eye on her. He’s jealous of even her love of her family and she is never allowed to visit them. Unsurprisingly, she becomes depressed.

In an uncharacteristic act of compassion, Monsieur hires a lady’s maid to keep her company. Amante “tall and handsome, though upwards of forty” instantly takes on the role of Anna’s bodyguard. She runs interference between Anna and the surly servants. Amante is especially helpful now that Anna is pregnant.

Amante discovers that Anna isn’t getting her mail and the two hatch a plan to break into Monsieur’s apartments to retrieve them. In the process, Anna learns her husband’s secret, a secret so terrible that it sends Anna and Amante into hiding!

Amante is The Boss! She’s quick thinking and always one step ahead of the bad guys. She protects her mistress with her life, even changing her identity to protect her. The pair have many hair raising close calls but Amante keeps her head. Talk about a Strong Female Character! Amante is it.

mrs s
Amante: Possible prototype for Mrs S of Orphan Black? 

As for Anna, I’m not sure why she inspires such devotion but the heart wants what the heart wants, I guess. Perhaps it was because of the baby. Amante did love that baby.

Part of why I love blogging for Project Gutenberg Project is discovering long lost gems like this The Grey Woman. Sure, it’s soapy and melodramatic with a Villainous Villain but it’s pure entertainment with some feminism thrown in. Anna and Amante, a disobedient wife and a maid, outwit and outrun ruffians. Courage and cleverness rule the day.

This was another Librivox recording I took in. Jane Greensmith narrates the short story.

Download The Grey Woman by Elizabeth Gaskell at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Friday, August 22, 2014

Review: THE DOCTOR'S WIFE by ME Braddon

book cover Original Publication Date: 1864

Genre: Sensation, kinda.

Topics: books, temptation, good vs. evil, society, love, marriage

Review by heidenkind:

Isabel Sleaford is an usual young girl who reads copious amounts of sentimental poetry and fiction, and rarely cares to venture into society. It is this very quality—and also the fact that she's really pretty—that attracts the attention of George Gilbert, a lower-middle-class country doctor who proposes marriage after he discovers Isabel's father is dead and she's been forced to take up employment as a governess. Isabel doesn't exactly say yes, more like, "Mmm, that doesn't sound too bad." But then she marries George AND IT IS THAT BAD, IT TOTALLY IS. Bored out of her mind, Isabel escapes even deeper into the world of books. Her favorite book of all the times is an obscure collection of (objectively bad) verses titled The Alien, which she thinks are just soooooooooooooooo romantic. I bet you can guess what happens when Isabel meets the author of The Alien, Roland Landsdell, who just happens to be young, brooding, dark, handsome, and exceedingly rich.

It's something like this.

I loved every trashy, soap opera-y minute of Lady Audley's Secret, so I thought The Doctor's Wife would probably offer the same entertainment value. Boy, was I wrong.

The Doctor's Wife is a much different novel from Lady Audley's Secret. It has all the elements of a sensation novel—adultery, criminals, curses, back-stabbing bitches—but they feel like a minor part. Overall, The Doctor's Wife is much more self-consciously literary than one would expect from a sensation novel. According to all the synopses I've read online, this is Mary Elizabeth Braddon's response to Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Perhaps if I'd read Madame Bovary I would appreciate it more, but I haven't and have no intention of doing so in the foreseeable future.

Even aside from The Doctor's Wife literary inspiration, there's a lot of book talk going on in the novel. Isabel an insatiable reader, her and George's mutual friend, Sigismund Smith, writes penny dreadfuls; and Roland is of course a writer. The characters talk and think about books a lot, how books should be and what their ideal book is. Braddon takes pains to show us how the books Isabel reads affect her view of the world, what she expects from life and how she interprets people's actions—if she ever takes a moment from her reading to notice other people, that is.

I actually liked that part of The Doctor's Wife. The novel is also a lot more cynical than Lady Audley's Secret. There are no good guys or bad guys, love doesn't conquer all, and there's no such thing as happily ever after. This is not a romantic novel, either in the literary or genre sense.

I kind of liked that part of The Doctor's Wife, too. As for the characters, Isabel would probably annoy some people, but personally I found her likable and extremely sympathetic. Partly because Braddon spends a considerable amount of time and energy making her so, but also because I recognized a lot of Teenage Me in Isabel, too.

So with all these points in the book's favor, why did I not enjoy The Doctor's Wife that much? First of all, it is WAY too drawn-out for what it is. It is a long walk getting to anyfreakingthing in this novel. For example, we know pretty early on that there's a secret about Isabel's father that she's trying hide (that's the plot, basically), but Braddon kind of forgets all about it until the very very end, when it's employed as a deus-ex-machina to get Roland out of the picture. In the meantime, Braddon's concerned with explaining Isabel's woeful life to us, but here's the thing: I might like and sympathize with Isabel, but she's not terribly interesting. I don't need to spend THAT much time with her to get a good picture of her psychological makeup, you feel me? Even the death scenes were dragged out to the inth degree. Where's the homicidal Lady Audley when you need her??

buffy the vampire slayer death
Just die already, dude.

As for the whole adultery thing, MOST BORING LITERARY LOVE AFFAIR EVER. Like I get that love really isn't the point of this whole exercise, but I would think some sort of emotional resonance or stakes would only help make Braddon's point, not to mention keep me as a reader engaged. Instead, George was a saint and I hated the oblivious bastard, so I didn't care about Isabel betraying him at all. But I also didn't feel like Isabel loved Roland in any substantial way. She loved what he stood for and his lifestyle, but as far as wanting him sexually or even as a friend, no (and speaking of sex, I have my doubts George ever went there. He seems like the type of Victorian guy who would marry a girl and then neglect to mention the whole sex thing because he'd see it as indelicate). Likewise, Roland seemed to "love" Isabel only because she thought he was a literary genius and because she was pretty. Sigh and yawn.

I didn't hate The Doctor's Wife, but it was a bit of a haul with not much of a payoff. If you want to jump into the Victorian sensation genre, I'd recommend starting with Lady Audley's Secret or Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, instead.

Download The Doctor's Wife by ME Braddon at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|Girlebooks