Rustication, by Charles Palliser

Rustication, by Charles Palliser
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0393088723
327 pages, hardcover
Published November 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

In British usage, rustication refers to a suspension from university; in the case of this historical mystery novel the rusticated is Richard, the opium-addicted, seventeen year old protagonist, fraught with the sexual urges of youth and the disappointment of his family. Richard’s banishment from school forces him to return to his recently widowed mother and hostile sister, in their newly acquired isolated home in the country.

Mysteries and uncertainties abound for Richard upon his arrival, the mysterious behavior of his mother and sister, the state of the home, the uncertain circumstances of his father’s death. Keeping his own secrets of what transpired at his school to precipitate the rustication, Richard struggles to deal with separation from the poppy and the hostility of his family and their neighbors. Coupled with the strife of family and social relations, the community soon finds evidence of a deranged mind or minds – mutilated animals, and vulgar, cruel letters sent to women. Richard’s troubles and his prying into the oddities of his family and the community eventually throw him into suspicion.

Written as a ‘found’ diary by Richard, one of the aspects of “Rustication” I did appreciate was his voice and character. He is a finely and subtly rendered seventeen year old of the era – or any era for that matter – in that he is extremely inconsistent. At moments he is vulgar, at moments he is a gallant gentleman, at times he is striving to do his best and help his family, at other moments he gives into the euphoria of the opium. And above all he is inconsistent in the objects of his desires, full of hormones, yearning and imagining sexual liaisons with near every eligible female who crosses his path, turning from infatuation to disappointment and disgust, and back to infatuation. Given the remainder of the characters are only seen through Richard’s eyes, they remain rather flat, and unreliably represented throughout. This is unavoidable with the construction of the novel, and I didn’t mind too much, given Richard himself was fascinating to me.

The book is also written with a lovely period Gothic tone that I enjoyed. However, these weren’t enough to bring me anything more than a mild entertainment through reading it. The plot is slow to start, focusing on family conflicts and the social games between various Houses (families) until half way through when the crimes begin to occur. The letters are vulgar indeed, but after one, you get tired of reading their depravity, obviously intentional bad spelling, and you say enough, get on with it. The story ties together the family issues, Richard’s history causing the rustication, and the crimes into one overarching series of scandals, cover-ups, and machinations. It ends up feeling like too much, and yet too little. The perpetrators of the crime don’t come particularly surprisingly and the lack of any other resolution leaves things feeling empty in what is already even a short novel.

Three  Stars out of Five

Make Good Art, by Neil Gaiman

Make Good Art, by Neil Gaiman16240792
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 0062266764
80 pages, hardcover
Published May 2013
Source: Goodread’s First-Reads

I had not heard this commencement speech, though it is available to view online. I was just interested in anything Gaiman-related. The book arrived  in the mail and I opened it to look over only, yet found myself sucked in, reading it through rapidly. The content of Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech is a healthy mix of personal stories/insight with familiar advice (à la ‘do what you enjoy’), and is buffered throughout with Gaiman’s typical brilliant humor.

The text of the speech is laid out by graphic designer Chip Kidd. At times the layout breaks up the flow of Gaiman’s thoughts in an odd fashion, or arranges the words in a way that takes a moment or two to decipher, much as in a poem. This translates Gaiman’s speech into Kidd’s interpretation of Gaiman’s speech, which then is further interpreted by how the reader processes the text. On the whole I found this a positive trait, contrary to some other reviews I’ve seen. Kidd’s design produces an interesting and engaging complement to listening to the speech, and allows new discoveries to be made in the message as one goes through it in this new form, even after multiple times. (Which is an important consideration if buying this slim volume) Adding to its value, the book is physically quite sturdy and well-constructed.

I assume this is intended to be a nice ‘gift book’ for people to give to recent graduates. One wonders whether if after a reading or two the book might just sit and gather dust on a shelf. For many it may, but personally I think it is a message one would do well to revisit again through the years. These words are not just for the graduate, but long-before and long-after such an event as well. As someone who isn’t an artist, but rather a scientist, I found it noteworthy that the message is just as appropriate for people in other fields and passions.

Four Stars out of Five