Book Review: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

As part of the Phantom Reading & Viewing Challenge I’m hosting this year (you can still join us!) in February I reread the story that began it all, Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera.  I’ve read it at least twice (probably three times?) before, but it’s been a few years since my last read.  The first time I was entirely new to the story, and hadn’t seen or read any other version.  The second and possible third times, I was comparing to numerous other versions and also looking for ideas for my own version of the story.  This time, I found myself fascinated by how uncertain an account it really is – more than most books, Leroux’s Phantom has the potential to be completely altered depending on how much we trust the narrators, and I wonder how this influenced all those later versions.

On the surface, the story is essentially as it is in later versions, although Leroux’s focus is a little different than most, putting much more of the spotlight on Raoul.  From this angle, it becomes a story of the young nobleman trying to unravel the mystery of what’s going on with Christine Daaé, opera singer and love interest.  Raoul eventually finds himself contending with Erik, a skeletal, masked man who lives below the Opera Garnier, posing as a ghost.  Raoul’s story is intercut with the almost unrelated account of the Opera’s managers as they try to cope with the pranks and extortion of the Opera Ghost.

Most later versions shift the focus to be less on Raoul and much more on Christine and the Phantom.  And personally, I find the Phantom a far more interesting character than Raoul, so that seems like a good choice!  But in Leroux, the different focus changes how we learn some key portions of the story and, with some other narrative choices, opens up room for doubt.

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Book Review: The Red Tent

In high school, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant was on a list of optional summer reading–we had to read something from the list but not everything, and I opted to read something else.  I heard good things about the book from friends though, and it’s been floating at the back of my mind as something I ought to read some time ever since.  I’ve been reading through Genesis in the Bible recently and came to the portion about Jacob and his family–and decided it was time to finally get The Red Tent off my mental to-read list.  And after fifteen or so years…I felt mixed about the book!

I love the concept of this book so much that I’m surprised it took me this long to read it.  (Sort of.  More on that later.)  It’s the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and sister to his twelve sons (most famously, Joseph of the many-colored coat).  It retells the Biblical story of this very complicated family from the women’s perspective, focusing on Dinah and the four wives (ish) of Jacob.  Since the Bible tends to be heavily male, I love that concept–and reading through the Genesis account made me want to explore the women’s side.

But then I didn’t really love what was done with it.  The book starts before Dinah’s birth, telling the story of how Jacob met and married Rachel and Leah and (kind of) married their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah, and how all those brothers came along.  And that sounds complicated and interesting, but somehow the book wound up being very, very focused on sex, childbirth and circumcision.  And I can see how all of those would be important, but it was…very heavily weighted on those three topics.

The story improved for me once Dinah was born and it could focus on her rather than a vague omniscient story of her four mothers.  There was a lot that was interesting about the culture of the time, particularly the women’s culture.  I can’t honestly say how accurate any of it was, but at least as a possible perspective it was engaging.  I liked Dinah’s childhood probably best of any section of the book.

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Book Review: London

My book consumption, in terms of quantity, slowed down significantly in March, because I spent weeks reading just one book: London by Edward Rutherford.  1,200 pages of fairly small print, this is pretty much the definition of an epic tour de force.  It was a big undertaking (and I didn’t realize it would be so long until it arrived on the library’s hold shelf!) but it was definitely worth it.

London is historical fiction, with a little more emphasis on the “historical” than I usually like.  It begins, technically, four hundred million years ago with the formation of the Thames river valley.  It begins properly (on page 4) in 54 BC, in the Celtic village of Londinos on the Thames, where word has come of an approaching conqueror: Julius Caesar.  Starting with one family and gradually adding on more, Rutherford traces the history of London and several interlocking family trees down through the centuries.  The last chapter, an epilogue, is set in 1997, the year of the book’s writing, although the last proper story is during the Blitz.  I loved this way of telling a story, of a city and of its people.

It may have helped that I love London–I’ve never lived there, but I’ve visited five times and I miss it when I’m away.  I also enjoy British history, so most of the major developments I had some initial familiarity with.  There was still plenty in here I didn’t know and, more importantly, Rutherford brought it all to life with a beautiful balance of individual lives set against sweeping developments.

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Book Review: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Agatha Christie is one of my go-to authors for audiobooks–I’m not sure how that happened, but there it is.  The only downside to audio is that I can’t really flip back and see just what Dame Agatha said early on after a twist emerged, to decide if she lied to me or not.  Reading (listening to) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was particularly interesting because I happened to know the twist of the ending–it turned out to be fascinating to see how she built it all up.  And she definitely withheld information, but she didn’t actually lie!

This is the third Hercule Poirot mystery, the fussy Belgian detective best known (I think) for The Murder on the Orient Express.  In classic Christie fashion, wealthy Roger Ackroyd is found murdered in his study, rendering everyone else in the house a suspect.  Poirot sifts through the web of motives, alibis and deceptions with the help of Dr. Sheppard, our first person narrator for the story.  Everyone has something to hide, and the final twist truly is magnificent.

This was my favorite kind of mystery–an intricate puzzle with piece after piece gradually fitting together until the entire picture makes sense.  There are many layers of narrative here, as most characters have something going on unrelated (but we don’t always know that) to the central murder.

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Book Review: The Inimitable Jeeves

In my quest for more funny reads this year, I turned to P.G. Wodehouse and an audiobook of The Inimitable Jeeves.  I am happy to report much hilarity was found.

This is the thirdish Jeeves book I’ve read–the previous two were both short story collections and turned out to have some overlapping.  This one was more properly a novel, but still very much episodic.  The premise was much the same as it was throughout the short stories: English gentleman Bertie Wooster gets into some sort of social scrape–or has a friend in said-scrape, in this book frequently Bingo Wilcox, who falls in love a good half-dozen times throughout the book–and turns to his utterly unruffled manservant Jeeves for help.  Or, alternatively, he tries to go it alone because he and Jeeves are on the outs, probably because Bertie is making a firm stance around a flamboyant article of clothing which Jeeves disapproves of.  Either way, Bertie usually manages to make the situation worse before Jeeves ultimately solves it with an ingenious manipulation of human nature.

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