2 March 2015

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

With a huge sigh of relief I am happy to report that the impromptu reading of The Moonstone with a handful of my colleagues was a terrific success!  Our private nook at The Purple Heather, a local pub, was cosy and allowed us to be as vocal as necessary without risking any steely glances from other customers trying to enjoy their night out.  Twelve people signed on to read the book - two threw in the towel early on, and one didn't want the ending ruined because she hadn't finished it, but a decent group of seven were able to make it for the discussion.  I brought my laptop and played a scene from the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation starring Greg Wise, Keeley Hawes, and a pleasant surprise for me was Lesley Sharp!

For those readers yet to discover this wonderful piece of Victorian literature (1868) it's the story of a priceless diamond, stolen from the forehead of Vishnu, a sacred statue, and the endless efforts by three Hindu priests to see it returned.  Bequeathed to Rachel Verinder on the event of her eighteenth birthday by her uncle, it is hand-delivered by a handsome Franklin Blake.  The gem is priceless to the Hindu priests but market value in the mid-1800s would be somewhere in the range of £20,000.  For perspective, that translates into something close to £2,000,000 today.  Rachel's mother, Lady Verinder, wants to hold the diamond for safekeeping but her headstrong daughter chooses to display it on the front of her dress at her birthday party.  Later that night, Rachel places the diamond in an Indian cabinet.  The following morning Penelope, Rachel's maid, reports in a state of panic that the gem has disappeared.

So begins the investigation in which Collins brilliantly presents several characters to narrate their version of the latest events.  First person narratives often prove to be unreliable so you are never quite sure if your instincts are taking you in the right direction.

I read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale when it first came out, a fascinating non-fiction book detailing the horrific murder of a child in Wiltshire, England in 1860.  This was a case that gripped the masses far and wide, in fact, Charles Dickens interviewed the lead investigator, Jack Whicher, from Scotland Yard.  The events certainly made an impression on Wilkie Collins as Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone is reportedly based on Mr. Whicher.  Another crucial piece of evidence that potentially reveals the perpetrator in both cases is a nightgown.

The Moonstone is also dotted with comedic scenes that made me laugh out loud, many of them concerning Miss Drusilla Clack and her obsession with saving people from the devil and ungodly ways...

'Here was my opportunity!  I seized it on the spot.  In other words, I instantly opened by bag, and took out the top publication.  It proved to be an early edition - only the twenty-fifth - of the entitled The Serpent at Home.  The design of the book - with which the worldly reader may not be acquainted - is to show how the Evil One lies in wait for us in all the most apparently innocent actions of our daily lives.  The chapters best adapted to female perusal are 'Satan in the Hair Brush'; 'Satan behind the Looking Glass'; 'Satan under the Tea Table; 'Satan out of the Window' - and many others.'

Equally wonderful characters are Mr Betteredge, the house steward, who relies on his pipe and a copy of Robinson Crusoe to reduce his anxious state when in the grip of 'detective-fever', Septimus Luker is the lucrative pawnbroker caught in the middle, Ezra Jennings is an opium addict described as a 'piebald' for his black and white striped hair.  He also assists Dr. Candy, an interesting moniker for one who prescribes addictive medicines such as laudanum.

Wilkie Collins excels at characterization but if I had any sort of negative comment to make it's that I wished he described the surroundings in slightly more detail.  George Gissing puts the dust of the street in your mouth and blinds the reader in billowing pea-soup fog.  Other than the frightening image of The Shivering Sands, a pit of quicksand, I didn't visualize the houses, leafy squares of London, or dress to the extent I usually like to.  But this is being persnickity...The Moonstone is a stunning read and my appreciation for what Collins has so intricately achieved continues days after I have finished the book.

None of the other women in the group had ever read anything by Wilkie Collins so it was rewarding to expand his fan base and everyone said they look forward to reading something else by him.  My next venture with Collins will be Armadale, it's about a flame-haired laudanum addict, bigamist, and husband-poisoner...irresistible!  Have you read it?

27 February 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating


They sat on the grass in St James's Park and Nazneen laid the picnic out on four tea towels.  Chicken wings spread in a paste of yoghurt and spices and baked in the oven, onions sliced to the thickness of a fingernail, mixed with chillies, dipped in gram flour and egg and fried in bubbling oil, a dry concoction of chickpeas and tomatoes stewed with cumin and ginger, misshapen chapattis wrapped while still hot in tinfoil and sprinkled now with condensation, golden hard-boiled eggs glazed in a curry seal, Dairylea triangles in their cardboard box, bright orange packets containing shamelessly orange crisps, a cake with a list of ingredients too long to be printed in legible type.  She arranged them all on paper plates and stacked up the plastic tubs inside the carrier bags.
  'It's ready,' she cried, as though calling them to the table.
  Shahana extricated a Dairy Lea and picked the foil apart.  She rolled the cheese inside a chapatti.  Bibi sat on her feet and chewed at a chicken wing.  Chanu took his time loading a plate with each item, including three crisps and a slice of the cake.  He balanced it on his knee.  'It's quite a spread,' he said in English.  'You know, when I married your mother, it was a stroke of luck.'  He gestured at the tea towels as if his luck were plainly on display.  Then he ate with a fervour that ruled out conversation.

Brick Lane

24 February 2015

Distractions From the Cold

Mother Nature is not being very kind at the moment.  We here, in my corner of Canada, are fed up with the likes of winter and bundling up just to get out of bed, never mind to go outdoors.  The mercury is waaay down the thermometer and when you add in the windchill factor we've had to endure the likes of  -36C lately.  It's uncalled for!

Thankfully there are plenty of things to distract me from the icicles hanging down from the eaves and mounds of snow threatening to block our view out the windows.  Yesterday, I finally finished my epic reading adventure of The Moonstone.  There were moments when I wavered but they were fleeting.  Far greater were the moments when the book was barely off the end of my nose as I raced through paragraphs of suspense dying to find out what would happen next.  How Wilkie Collins mapped out such a complex web of characters, multiple narrators, intrigue, laugh-out-loud humour, and romance while under the influence of so much opium he needed to string along four doctors to acquire it - is beyond me.  Reading The Moonstone with a group of colleagues from two branches of the library was my brilliant idea of a way to fend off some of the winter blues.  We're meeting this Friday to see how everyone got on and I'm a tad worried since there hasn't been much said about the whole thing this past month.  At least people don't seem to be avoiding me in the staff room which has to be a positive thing....right?

Another exciting occupation to help me forget the frigid weather is planning my trip to London.  Despite the fact that I keep telling myself I will spend more time sitting on park benches in beautiful leafy squares simply people watching or reading a book - I want to go everywhere!  Persephone Books will be having their Teatime Reading Group, the Imperial War Museum is featuring an exhibit Fashion on the Ration, the Dulwich Picture Gallery will be showcasing Eric Ravilious, Elthan Palace is hosting an Art Deco fair, Emily of EmilyBooks runs a book group with a ramble that I must email her about, and a day in Cambridge is on my itinerary, not to mention my date with Mary in Regent's Park and Bletchley Park is a possibility.  If you see a blur of a woman whipping about London this May - it's me.

Speaking of London, my neighbours have just returned home from a trip there to visit one of their daughters.  Lucky for me, I am their chief cat-sitter; with a fairly new kitten in the house it was such a delight to spend lots of time playing with him.  Lucky for my neighbours, my rates are ridiculously low.  When the house keys and instructions were dropped off I handed over a piece of paper with my fee request - a copy of A Scream in Soho by John G. Brandon.  It's one of the mystery titles reprinted by the British Library; set in London during the early days of World War II it ticks a lot of boxes and will hopefully be a fun read.  Anything to take my mind off of this....

...it's so cold that the thunderous Niagara Falls has become a frozen work of art.....sigh.

20 February 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating


People believe that dining alone will mark them as a loser or a desperate soul, one who can't find a friend in all the world to eat with them.  But the reality is that other diners hardly notice you.  And if they do, they probably think you are from another country.
  In the same way that you should get massages and take naps or meditate, you should, everyone should, make a point to eat out by yourself from time to time.  You should be kind enough to yourself to lavish your appetite with good food without the interruptions of company.
  When you are by yourself, you have the chance to read the entire menu, take in the décor, observe the theater of the place and, most important, pay attention to the food.  You can concentrate on the interplay of flavors rather than having to make a mental note to do so in between delivering anecdotes about your vacation.  (If the company is good, I often come home forgetting what wine we drank or what the spice was in the cake.) You may sit by yourself, but you are never lonely.
  Which is why some of the best meals of my life have been solitary.  In Europe, dining alone is much more common than it is here.  When I turned twenty-three, I took myself to lunch at La Côte St. Jacques. then a three-star restaurant in Joigny, France.  During the six-course menu dégustation, none of the army of waiters in tuxedos seemed to pity me.  None of the other diners in the room expressed disapproval.  The only person disturbed by the event was my mother, when she got the bill.

Cooking for Mr Latte

La Côte St. Jacques