Archive for September, 2010

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The House Without a Key

September 29, 2010

So, you can thank Earl Derr Biggers for my meditations on racism yesterday. Reading up on Charlie Chan before I started The House Without a Key, I found an incredibly wide range of opinions on whether or not the depiction of Chan was racist, from “of course it isn’t; he’s a good guy,” to “the broken English and the servility are both kind of massively offensive.” So of course I read the book with the intention of forming my own opinion. And I did. I formed two, actually. One is that any depiction of a Chinese-American as a main character and a good person in the mid-1920s is a really good thing. The other is that consistently having the point-of-view characters be shocked and skeptical that a Chinese man could be a detective is kind of upsetting — and kept interrupting the flow of the story for me. Also I have issues with the way Biggers has the central character duplicate all of Chan’s work.

That said, I’m really enjoying Biggers’ books. I like his plots. I like his atmosphere. I like his characters, even when they think thoughts along the lines of “I seem to be involved with three different women. Huh.” Read the rest of this entry ?

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The Agony Column

September 29, 2010

It’s really hot in London, and Geoffrey West is coping by going to the Carlton for breakfast every morning, partly because it’s a bit cooler there, and partly because it’s the only place where you can still get strawberries. The American girl who comes in with her father one morning has the bad taste to prefer grapefruit to strawberries, but she shares West’s fondness for the Personal Notices section of the Daily Mail, AKA the agony column. People use it to discreetly send messages, whether they be love letters, “fly at one; all is discovered,” or cryptic remarks about fish. And so it seems perfectly reasonable, if a little unconventional, for West to use it to communicate with the girl, with whom he has fallen in love at first sight. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Racism, xenophobia, etc.

September 28, 2010

Note: I’m not trying to criticize authors for views that were widely accepted at the time in which they were writing. Or, at least, not much. Mostly I’m trying to take a semi-critical view of my feelings on the subject.

I think I’ve talked about this here before, but I’m still not sure how to deal with racism and xenophobia when they show up in the books I talk about here. And they show up a lot.

Every time all the black characters are stupid, or the author talks about the whites of their eyes a lot, or Chinese people are conniving opium addicts, or the entire Italian population of New York lives for the opportunity to steal a white man’s job, it’s offensive. It’s never not going to be offensive. And if I’m already not really liking a book, an instance of blatant xenophobia will probably make me stop reading it.

But what about the books that have a lot going for them until the narrator takes a trip through his local Chinatown and shudders with disgust at the population?

You can’t judge an author writing in 1900 for their racism the same way you could if they were writing now. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they get a free pass, either. Read the rest of this entry ?

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David Blaize

September 24, 2010

Sometimes I read a book and know exactly what I want to say about it, and writing about it is easy and fun. Other times, it’s a struggle. I don’t know what I think of the book, and I write about five half-posts before I come up with something that says about half of what I wanted to say.

I think David Blaize falls into the latter group.  So, things:

  • I think the real problem here is the structure. There’s pretty much no plot. In the first half of the book, David goes to a school called Helmsworth. In the second half he goes to a school called Marchester. He has some friends. He gets into trouble a couple of times. He plays some cricket. At the end, he gets horribly injured, and the  whole chapter feels like it ought to be in a different book. It’s like E.F. Benson just wrote whatever he wanted about his main character, without really bothering to make sure all the parts were related in any significant way. And somehow there’s almost no narrative tension to be found anywhere. Read the rest of this entry ?
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The Tragedy of Chain Pier

September 20, 2010

I doubt anyone has been reading this blog for that long, but if you’ve poked around in the archives, you may remember Charlotte M. Brame and her less than aptly titled Everyday Life series. I really will finish reading it some day, and I am now one book closer to that goal.

The Tragedy of the Chain Pier is actually a little less ridiculously removed from everyday life than The Coquette’s Victim and Coralie. There’s only one wealthy young aristocrat and one unexpected succession to an estate, and both are fairly peripheral. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Captain Blood Day 2010

September 19, 2010

Happy Captain Blood Day! This, as you may remember, is my fairly arbitrarily designated Rafael Sabatini-centric holiday.

I’m not doing anything special to celebrate — although if you want to discuss how awesome Peter Blood is in the comments section I would be happy to join you — but I do want to set something up for next year. Namely this:

Let’s have a contest. Anyone who wishes to enter can write a piece on Captain Blood — a review, the story of how you first read it, whatever — and email it to me anytime within the next year. On September 19th 2011, they will be posted, and one will win a prize. I’ve only just thought of this, so I’m still working out the details, but I can promise that the prize will be worth having.

I want this to be super low pressure. You don’t have to write an essay. I don’t care whether I get a book review, a memoir, or a haiku. Have fun. My email address is in the sidebar.

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Reviews at EP: Dawn O’Hara

September 19, 2010

My guest post at Edwardian Promenade this month is on Edna Ferber’s first novel, Dawn O’Hara, the Girl Who Laughed.