Sunday, October 20, 2019

Review: The History of Mr. Polly by H.G. Wells (Classics Club Spin #21)

This book is on my Classics Club reading list and it came up on the Spin List (#5) this last time around. My heart most definitely did NOT leap up when I beheld this title come up for reading, but I decided to give it a whirl.

And let’s just say…. Low expectations are wonderful. You’re never disappointed, and frequently surprisingly pleased.

I would venture to say that most people (including me) have never heard of this book, so a little background is in order. The History of Mr. Polly is a comic novel published by H.G. Wells in 1910. It’s actually a late novel for him, coming after his more famous works. And the word “comic” is the tiniest bit misleading, for this is definitely not a slap-your-knee funny kind of book. But it is amusing in an often farcical kind of way. It’s also interesting because it’s supposed to be semi-autobiographical, based on Wells’ early years as a tradesman. So it’s definitely worth your time.

The novel opens in medias res, with Mr. Alfred Polly at a crisis point in his life. He’s middle-aged, fat and unhappy. He’s trapped in a loveless marriage and an unsuccessful business. So the first part of the novel is to merely show how he got to this point of desperation, and to be honest, the story is very slow to take off. I had to keep prodding myself to keep going with it and not give up prematurely.

But it did, in fact, take off eventually. Part of it is just getting used to Mr. Polly himself. He’s a dreamer, a little bit of a ne’er-do-well, and the type of person that gets into situations before he even knows what’s going on. A prime example of this is his marriage to Miriam, a cousin whom he doesn’t really love. In spite of this, he finds himself proposing to her before he knows what’s happening. And things don’t get any better after the wedding, as you might expect. To wit:

Miriam combined earnestness of spirit with great practical incapacity. The house was never clean nor tidy, but always being frightfully disarranged for cleaning or tidying up, and she cooked because food had to be cooked and with a sound moralist’s entire disregard of the quality of the consequences. The food came from her hands done rather than improved, and looking as uncomfortable as savages clothed under duress by a missionary with a stock of out-sizes.

I gradually realized that Wells injects a great deal of humor via Mr. Polly’s view of the world. Likewise, Wells uses a kind of running gag throughout the book in Mr. Polly’s propensity for making up words or misusing words he thinks he knows:

A man whose brain devotes its hinterland to making odd phrases and nicknames out of ill-conceived words, whose conception of life is a lump of auriferous rock to which all the value is given by rare veins of unbusinesslike joy, who reads Boccaccio and Rabelais and Shakespeare with gusto, and uses “Stertoraneous Shover” and “Smart Junior” as terms of bitterest opprobrium, is not likely to make a great success under modern business conditions. Mr. Polly dreamt always of picturesque and mellow things, and had an instinctive hatred of the strenuous life. He would have resisted the spell of ex-President Roosevelt, or General Baden Powell, or Mr. Peter Keary, or the late Dr. Samuel Smiles, quite easily; and he loved Falstaff and Hudibras and coarse laughter, and the old England of Washington Irving and the memory of Charles the Second’s courtly days. His progress was necessarily slow. He did not get rises; he lost situations; there was something in his eye employers did not like; he would have lost his places oftener if he had not been at times an exceptionally brilliant salesman, rather carefully neat, and a slow but very fair window-dresser.

Things get worse and worse for Mr. Polly, until we find him in the circumstances with which the novel opens. And it’s here that he decides he will set fire to his shop and commit suicide at the same time. Of course, he bungles the whole thing horribly, but then his fortunes finally take a turn for the better, and he eventually experiences happiness and redemption (not in a sappy way, but in a completely genuine and compelling turn of events that leaves the reader highly satisfied).

The final word should be given to Mr. Polly:

I’ve never really planned my life or set out to live. I happened; things happened to me. It’s so with everyone.

I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Polly here, but it is the perfect summation of his approach to life, and the reason I enjoyed this book as much as I did. I’m glad I read it and would probably re-read it.

Just FYI, interestingly there have been a few movie and TV adaptations of the story, including one as recently as 2007. So I’m thinking that may be worth a look as well.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Popcorn and candy bars, or filet mignon -- which do you prefer?

Of course that’s something of a ridiculous question. If you’re like me, you love both, and they both are excellent treats, not meant for daily consumption. However, sometimes popcorn and candy bars make more sense, and junky food like that is what you want, and at other times filet mignon is what’s needed to make your soul complete.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from this sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (THT). It was a good read, and I raced through it, but it felt like eating popcorn and candy bars, whereas reading THT feels like eating filet mignon. The author, Margaret Atwood, is undoubtedly in a very different place now (along with the entire world) than when THT was written back in the 1980’s, and I have to imagine that has something to do with it, but The Testaments (TT) feels very direct and plot-driven, whereas THT was more poetic and ambiguous. Some of that may have to do with the story itself -- June’s story in THT was created under circumstances that leant themselves to hiding, ambiguity, and even poetry and lyricism, whereas the accounts of the three women in TT are much more direct, having been made either from a place of power, both known and secret (Aunt Lydia) or from a place of relief and retrospectiveness (Agnes and Nicole).

Hopefully this is not too much of a spoiler at this point (in case it is, you are warned now). TT consists of the “testimony” of three pivotal characters from the world of Gilead:

  • Aunt Lydia, who it turns out, is a mole working against the power structure of Gilead by orchestrating the movement of information and refugees across the border into Canada;
  • Agnes, formerly known as Hannah, who is June Osborne’s first daughter, and who reluctantly but surely is breaking away from the iron grip of Gilead’s society and norms; and
  • Daisy, a young Canadian girl who eventually realizes that she is Baby Nicole, the long-lost pawn of the Gilead government in their media and propaganda attacks on Canada, who continues to be used as a pawn, but now by the resistance inside Gilead (being led, not incidentally, by Aunt Lydia).

Atwood beautifully begins the three stories as independent tales, but slowly begins to intertwine them in sometimes predictable but also surprising ways. Unlike THT, there is more of a real conclusion to the story in this book. It’s so definite that I would be tremendously surprised if there was a third book in this series. It also ends with another Gilead research symposium transcript as at the end of THT, which serves to flesh out even more of the ending of the story. However, I wonder if Atwood was being a little sneaky here -- did anyone else notice that these Gilead researchers were spending part of their time playing with Gileadean things, such as the Recreational Gilead Period Hymn Sing and the Period Costume Reenactment Day? It struck me as odd, and I have to wonder if this was Atwood’s way of warning us that even seemingly beneficial fascination with, and study of, historical periods can be like playing with fire, risking planting the seeds of repeating history. It just sounded too much like things like Civil War reenactors and all of that worship of the Civil War era, which is still very much with us.

Also, I was glad to see that Aunt Lydia really did have a soul in this book. We have gotten glimpses of that in the TV show, of course, but I always felt that there was more there, and TT gives some pretty satisfying answers to her motivation, although still on the popcorn level and not that of the filet mignon. The passages recounting the way in which Aunt Lydia became one of the founders of Gilead’s version of a convent were some of the most fascinating and satisfying in the whole book.

I think an interesting experiment now may be to reread both THT and TT in sequence. That might not be a good thing, because I don’t think Atwood really intended for that to be a thing, necessarily, but I’m just curious if the books would actually feel related in any way, or do you really need the TV show to fill in some of the mental gaps? Because I’ll be honest, while I was reading TT (and rereading THT a while back), images from the TV show irresistibly popped into my head while I was reading and colored it -- mostly in good ways, I think. But still. That’s a danger for a reader, and may be the source of the “popcorn” feeling with TT that I described earlier.

All in all, this book was well worth the read and I enjoyed it immensely.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Classics Club Spin List - September 2019

Greetings and salutations!

I know I have been gone for a month of Sundays or more, but I am back and ready to tackle some focused reading. Nothing focuses the reading urge better than a Classics Club reading list that has been withering on the vine lo these many months and (dare I say it) YEARS.

To add insult to injury, I looked at my self-imposed deadline for finishing the list -- AND IT'S A LITTLE OVER EIGHT MONTHS AWAY.



Never let it be said that I shirk from a challenge. Since I have done virtually NO reading on this list, there's no way to finish it. But how far COULD I get with it? If I started now?

A good way to start now (other than just starting, duh) is to participate in the Classics Club spin which is coming up next week. Here's the way this works: I pick 20 of the books on my list that I haven't read yet (BOY THAT WAS EASY) and list them here. To wit:

  1. Hadrian the Seventh -- Frederick Rolfe
  2. The Scarlet Letter -- Nathaniel Hawthorne
  3. The Call of the Wild -- Jack London
  4. Of Human Bondage -- W. Somerset Maugham
  5. The History of Mr. Polly -- H.G. Wells
  6. The Good Soldier -- Ford Madox Ford
  7. Vanity Fair -- William Thackeray
  8. Gulliver's Travels -- Jonathan Swift
  9. Dracula -- Bram Stoker
  10. Kidnapped -- Robert Louis Stevenson
  11. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy -- Laurence Sterne
  12. The Rainbow -- D.H. Lawrence
  13. Frankenstein -- Mary Shelley
  14. Mrs. Dalloway -- Virginia Woolf
  15. Three Men in a Boat -- Jerome K. Jerome
  16. Nightmare Abbey -- Thomas Love Peacock
  17. The Golden Bowl -- Henry James
  18. The Wind in the Willows -- Kenneth Grahame
  19. Sybil -- Benjamin Disraeli
  20. Babbitt -- Sinclair Lewis

Then, next Monday, the Classics Club moderators will post a random number from 1-20, and that's the book I read from the above list. Simple! And Terrifying! I will NOT want to see some of those books on the list popping up to be read, but that's the fun part of this, I suppose.

Good luck to everyone participating (and me!!)!


UPDATE: The spin number has been released and it's 5. That means my book will be The History of Mr. Polly by H.G. Wells. SIGH. I can't say I am even remotely enthused about this one. But I will soldier on and trust that there's something valuable there.

According to Wikipedia:

"The History of Mr. Polly is a 1910 comic novel by H. G. Wells. The protagonist... is an antihero inspired by H. G. Wells's early experiences in the drapery trade: Alfred Polly, born circa 1870, a timid and directionless young man living in Edwardian England, who despite his own bumbling achieves contented serenity with little help from those around him. Mr. Polly's most striking characteristic is his 'innate sense of epithet', which leads him to coin hilarious expressions like 'the Shoveacious Cult' for 'sunny young men of an abounding and elbowing energy' and 'dejected angelosity' for the ornaments of Canterbury Cathedral."

Image result for wut meme

This was actually one of Wells' later works, written after his more famous novels such as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, and others. So maybe it will be good. There are apparently more than a few people who regard it as one of his best works, so we'll see.

Monday, February 11, 2019

DMI2017, Week 29: "Mister Yummy" by Stephen King

nine of spadesBazaar

This week’s story, brought to us by the Nine of Spades, comes once again from Stephen King’s newest (I think) collection of short stories, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. One of the things that makes this collection so interesting (besides, of course, the excellent stories themselves) is King’s short preface to each story, wherein he gives some background or insight into why he wrote the story or where he got the idea for the story.
For the story “Mister Yummy,” King recalls talking to a friend about wanting to write a story involving gay men in the era of AIDS. His friend told him that he probably didn’t have anything new to say about AIDS, especially as a straight writer. But King strongly disagrees, and this story bears out the validity of his viewpoint. King says that the power of the human imagination is such that anyone should be able to write a story about anything. He points out that when we talk about imagination, we’re really talking about empathy — it all just boils down to understanding what it’s like to be someone else. If we as a society have lost the ability of empathizing with others in our world, then there’s no hope for us. I completely agree with King here.
The other thing I liked about this story was King’s use of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” as a sort of counterpoint to the events of the story. I took the opportunity this week to re-read that story, so in case you haven’t read it, here’s a brief synopsis: despite the best efforts of Prince Prospero to protect himself and everyone in his castle from the menace of the Red Death, he fails. One night during a masquerade ball, The Red Death sneaks in — disguised, oddly enough, as the Red Death.
In “Mister Yummy,” King turns the tables on Poe’s idea. In this story, Death appears as a beautiful, sexy, and utterly desirable young man who shows up one night at a gay bar in the era of AIDS. The story is being told many years later by Ollie Franklin, an elderly gay man living in an assisted living facility. Ollie and his friends nicknamed this young man “Mister Yummy,” and now Ollie is reminiscing about him because he has seen him in various places around the retirement home. The odd thing is, Mister Yummy looks exactly as he did the night Ollie first saw him, decades ago. He begins to think that Mister Yummy is really Death, and is coming for him soon. Every time he sees Mister Yummy, he’s closer and closer, and eventually he will show up in Ollie’s room, and that will be the end.
He tells all this to his friend, Dave, who is more or less incredulous. However, Ollie is insistent that he’s going to die soon, and wants to give Dave his most treasured possession, an antique pocket watch, so his good-for-nothing younger brother won’t get his hands on it. Dave agrees to take it, and soon after, Ollie is discovered in his room, having died peacefully in his sleep.
Dave, of course, has his own “Miss Yummy” that he remembers from his youth, a beautiful young redhead with a too-short skirt that had the propensity to ride up at opportune moments, and it’s not too long before he sees her standing next to the fountain outside the nursing home.
There’s not a whole lot more to the story than that, plot-wise, but this is a beautifully written story that definitely rewards the reader. I also found it a bittersweet meditation on aging and memory, as Dave thinks about his life in the retirement home, and what it all means.
Rating: 5 stars; I have a feeling this is a story I’ll be re-reading many more times.
Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

DMI2017, Week 28: "Pit Stop" by John Floyd

Another week, and the Seven of Clubs is keeping me in the pages of Mississippi Noir, but honestly I feel like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch with it, so I'm good. (Bonus points for catching the reference there.)

And just for fun, here's a different take on the obligatory playing card image for this week:

This week's story, "Pit Stop," is told from the viewpoint of Anna McDowell, a young mother traveling with her two young children. They're on their way to Nashville to visit Anna's sister-in-law and they make a pit stop at a quickie mart. While there, they are accosted by a carjacker, but Anna has the wits and the self-defense skills to outsmart and overcome her attacker. The policeman who comes to get the information about the attack turns out to know Anna from years before, and he makes a cryptic remark: "Lightning can strike twice in the same place." Anna's daughter Deborah is intrigued by this remark and wants to know what it's about.

Anna tells a story about a Saturday during her college years, when she drove from Jackson, Mississippi to Starkville in order to attend a football game. She was traveling with her boyfriend Woody, but it was an uneasy trip because there was a serial killer (nicknamed the Night Stalker) on the loose. Worse, all the killings had taken place on the highway on which Anna and Woody were traveling. Before leaving Jackson, they see a policeman friend of theirs, Jack, who convinces them to take a hitchhiker named Mary with them. Mary turns out to be a nun (at least, she says she's a nun), and Anna is uneasy about this as well, because no one knows if the Night Stalker is a man or a woman. Maybe it's Mary...

During the trip the three of them happen to stop at the same quickie mart at which the story starts, and a series of unsettling events begins to take place. Mary suddenly disappears, but leaves behind a bracelet that she said she never took off. Woody tells Anna something that she knows is a lie, but is he purposely trying to lie, or just misinformed? Woody travels along this highway often for his job, and he's big and strong -- is he perhaps the Night Stalker?

I'm definitely not giving away any spoilers, but suffice it to say that this is a well-written story with lots of twists and turns. Of course Anna and Woody do meet up with the Night Stalker on their trip, and the explanation of who it is, is suitably satisfying. The story-within-a-story also gets wrapped up in a satisfactory way.

Rating: 5 stars, for the excellent writing and plotting.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

High Summer Readathon Plans

As she does every year, Michelle at Seasons of Reading is hosting the High Summer Readathon beginning today and running for the next two weeks, culminating in a 48-hour Christmas in July readathon the last weekend of the overall readathon. Well, this sort of thing is completely irresistible to me, so of course I signed up.

High summer means different things to different people, I suppose. Where I live, it means the onslaught of near-100% humidity, mosquitoes, and hurricane season. Other places it means the weather is finally getting nice. Here's how Matthew Arnold put it (from the poem "Thyrsis"):

Soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on,
Soon will the musk carnations break and swell,
Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,
Sweet-William with his homely cottage-smell,
And stocks in fragrant blow;
Roses that down the alleys shine afar,
And open, jasmine-muffled lattices,
And groups under the dreaming garden-trees,
And the full moon, and the white evening-star.

And here's even more summery Arnold goodness, from "The Scholar-Gipsy":

Here will I sit and wait,
While to my ear from uplands far away
The bleating of the folded flocks is borne,
With distant cries of reapers in the corn—
All the live murmur of a summer's day.

When you've said that, you need say no more!

But enough of that -- what am I reading during this readathon?
  • I will be finishing Sense and Sensibility for the Jane Austen Read-All-Along at James Reads Books;
  • I will be finishing The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins for my Classics Club list;
  • If I finish those two (which will be a feat), I'll use a random number generator to pick another title off my Classics Club list, since I am quite a bit behind on it.
  • For the Christmas in July weekend, I plan to read:
    • The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James (just four stories, so this should be entirely manageable)
    • And something from my obscenely long TBR list on my Kindle: Christmas is Murder by C.S. Challinor
I'll keep you posted on my progress!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

DMI2017, Week 27: "Moonface" by Andrew Paul


For this week's short story, the Six of Clubs served up a mildly disturbing story by Andrew Paul, from the collection Mississippi Noir. Seems as if I'm having something of a run on stories from this collection, as often happens with Deal Me In, but I certainly don't mind because most of the stories in this collection are quite good.

The story's action centers on a man nicknamed "Moonface" by the kids at the school where he works on the cafeteria serving line. His real name is Yitzhak Cohen, and he's a Holocaust survivor. They call him "Moonface" because of the ugly circular scars visible all over his body. The unnamed narrator of the story, a high school kid, has multiple run-ins with Moonface, because as it turns out they both have their eyes on Nicole, a senior cheerleader.

After one too many humiliations at the hands of both Moonface and Nicole, the narrator decides that Moonface needs to go. He makes his way to Moonface's trailer on the edge of town, with no real plan in mind, and finds out that he has already lost Nicole -- Moonface and Nicole are clearly in an intimate relationship, one which her father then finds out about. So now there's ANOTHER person who has it in for Moonface, and the story spirals downward from there. As it turns out, the narrator does indeed play a pivotal role in getting rid of Moonface, but not at all in the way that he might have envisioned.

Rating: 5 stars; this is one of those stories that gradually sucks you in and begins raising the suspense as you watch the characters make one bad decision after another. An excellent read!

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.