Mini Reviews: The Master, New Year's Day and Round the Fire

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Master 
by Colm Toibin

This is a slightly fictionalized account of the later years of novelist Henry James’ solitary life. He struggles to balances his social life and his desire for solitude. He represses his sexuality, never allowing anyone to become too close. He lives in the sea of regrets and guilt, blaming himself for the unhappiness of so many others. He’s never happy with all the choices he has made or the number of successes and failures he’s had. He grieves the loss of friends and family members. He avoids conflict at any cost, often sacrifices his own comfort in life to avoid confrontation. The end result is a man that’s difficult to connect to.

It’s a very cold book. It reminded me a little bit of The Remains of the Day, in which an English butler reminisces about the past. But unlike that book, The Master lacked the beautiful language that made Remains so captivating. It’s a poignant reminder that refusing to live an honest life can make a person very lonely.

BOTTOM LINE: The book may be an accurate representation of how Henry James lived his life, but it’s hard for a reader to be drawn into the world of someone who keeps themselves completely separate.

** I think that having read a lot of James’ work would add to your appreciation of the book.

Old New York: New Years Day (the Seventies)
by Edith Wharton

This little novella is part of a series written by Wharton called Old New York. There are four pieces in the series, each set in one decade of the 1800s. I wish I’d known this before reading it, because I would have preferred to read them in order as a set. The copy I have includes only the final novella.
False Dawn (The 'Forties)
The Old Maid (The 'Fifties)
The Spark (The 'Sixties)
New Year's Day (The 'Seventies)

Society is scandalized by an assumed affair between a married woman, Lizzie, and a man named Henry. Wharton seems to specialize is creating women scorned by society. In The Age of Innocence we have Countess Ellen Olenska, in The House of Mirth it’s Lily Bart. Each woman is exiled from society for one reason or another and in New Year’s Day it’s Lizzie.

Yet society never really knows the details behind the scandals and Lizzie is unfairly judged. The double standard for men and women in these situations is particularly disturbing. We find out that Lizzie had her reasons for doing what she did. Her life may not have been a happy one, but she loved her husband very deeply and when she finds out he is ill she is willing to do anything to make his final years happy ones.

BOTTOM LINE: A potent little story of regret, but I would love to read the complete Old New York series.

“…they remained in town on the first of January, and marked the day by a family reunion, a kind of supplementary Christmas.”

“The truth was, of course, that it [her chief charm] lay in her sincerity; in her humble yet fearless estimate of her own qualities and short-comings.”

Round the Fire Stories
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This collection reads a bit like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, but without the infamous detective. Quite a few of the stories had a macabre style that reminded me more of Edgar Allan Poe than of Doyle’s other work. Pot of Caviar, The Sealed Room and The Brown Hand were a few of the darkest pieces.

Other tales were easily solved with some critical thinking, similar to the Holmes books, but always with fun twists along the way. One deals with a museum break-in (The Jew’s Breastplate), an unexpected death (The Black Doctor), a visit to an eccentric relative (The Brazilian Cat), and a disappearance on a train.

BOTTOM LINE: A great collection of mysteries and ghost stories for a dark night. I missed Sherlock Holmes, but it was a treat to read some of Doyle’s other work.

p.s. This would be a great book for the R.I.P. Challenge this fall!


Sandy Nawrot said...

I am hellbound and determined to participate in RIP this year. I always get myself mucked up and don't have time, but I want to make time. So I'm keeping a list and putting this one on it! And when I read Brooklyn by Toibin I did find the prose to be stark. I liked the book but it didn't necessarily make for warm and fuzzy feelings.

Carrie K. said...

I read Toibin's Brooklyn and "cold" would be a good word for how I felt about it. I haven't had a desire to pick up anything else by him so far.

I'd love to read the Wharton stories - I love her novels.

Charlie said...

I need to start reading Toibin's work, Brooklyn has been on my TBR ever since it was published. I haven't read any of Wharton's work yet, but I like the sound of the themes you describe. I'm assuming she looks into them deeply.

Care said...

OH Edith, how I really do want to read your books but never seem to get around to...

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Sandy - I'm so surprised you haven't done it before. You read scary books and mysteries all the time! You should definitely do it this year!

Carrie K - I was more interested in the theme of the novel (Henry James) than in the author Toibin. I don't feel the need to try anything else by him soon.

Charlie - I liked Brooklyn more than this one and I hope you try Wharton soon!

Care - Wharton is really good. I'd recommend The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth.

Rebecca @ The Key to the Gate said...

All three of these selections look like good reads! I loved Wharton's The House of Mirth so I definitely need to check out the Old New York Collection. My list of To Read books grows daily...sigh. Thanks so much for sharing!
Rebecca @ The Key to the Gate

Selah said...

I will definitely add Round the Fire Stories to my "To be Read" list. I've been reading a lot more short stories lately and I've never read any of Doyle's non-Sherlock works.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Rebecca - My TBR list is so out of control!

Selah - It definitely has a similar feel to his Sherlock stories, which I enjoy!