Monday, March 3, 2008

That's a wrap!

The challenge ended February 29th. I sincerely hope you all had a good time with it, that it wasn't one of those challenge that left you weighed with guilt at the end because you hadn't finished all the books you wanted to. :P Remember to submit your list of completed books here (or on any post you like, all come to me in e-mail) so that I can know which authors I should send on vacation and which should remain on the list for the next challenge round later this year in September 2008. Thanks to those who did, so far. Feel free to still post reviews or challenge summaries on this blog, provided that they cover books you completed before February 29th.

Thanks for the interest -- see you in six months!

Here's a nice treat to go out on. The Quarterly Conversation Spring issue features the article Over and Under in which the contributors submit their choice of overrated and underrated novels. Richard Grayson recommended the two John Galsworthy Forsyte sagas for the "underrated" category. Of our members, Becky read the Forsyte trilogies and Geranium Cat tried The Country House.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

BooksPlease - summary of the books I read

I have really enjoyed the Outmoded Authors Challenge. I have read books that I wouldn't have read otherwise and have learnt about others from the reviews by other people. Thanks to Imani, who hosted this challenge.

My initial list is here.

I read:

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. I'd never read anything by Scott before and had an idea that his books would be difficult to read. I didn't find Ivanhoe difficult at all and enjoyed reading it. My thoughts on this book are here.

The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham, another author whose work I'd never read before. I wrote about this here.

The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. I know nothing about Manning's books. I only managed to read two books in the trilogy - The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City. Friends and Heroes, the third book was listed in the library catalogue but when I tried to borrow it I found that it was no longer available because the branch library which holds it had been closed due to the library cost-saving cuts. I've been listening on Radio 4 to the trilogy so I now know what happens in Friends and Heroes, but I will read the book as soon as I can get a copy.

Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence. I had previously read Women in Love and The Virgin and the Gypsy, but not Sons and Lovers. I loved it - see here. I also read The Man Who Died - see here.

The only book I started and didn't finish was As a Man Grows Older by Italo Svevo. I knew nothing about this author. The library has a copy of this book which I borrowed. I don't often abandon a book but soon after I started to read it I thought it was tedious and I took it back unread. I did read the Introduction after I'd decided not to read the book and was dismayed when I read that he had been encouraged by James Joyce in his writing. I think I'd like to read Ulysses sometime, but if it's anything like Svevo's book that will be another book I'll abandon.

I'm looking forward to joining in again when the second challenge starts later this year.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Somerst Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence

Maugham, W. Somerset. The Moon and Sixpence. New York: Modern Library, 1919.

I love books written the way this one was, the kind of book that fools you into thinking you’ve picked up a somewhat gentle little thing that’s matter-of-factly presenting you with this quaint little story. Then, before you know it, it’s become much more than that, a book that portends wretchedness while throwing about some philosophical challenges. Suddenly, the bad thing you just knew was going to happen happens, and you still find yourself thinking, “Ohmigod, I can’t believe that just happened!” as you flip wildly through the pages of what has practically turned into a thriller, so eager are you to find out what’s going to happen next.

I found it nearly impossible to read this book without making comparisons to another book I love Budd Schulberg’s (he’s a somewhat outmoded author these days, isn’t it? Maybe he needs to be included in the next round of this challenge) What Makes Sammy Run? Both books display despicable characters, characters willing to step all over everyone in their lives in order to fulfill their selfish goals, through the eyes of narrators who find themselves drawn to them, not quite unwillingly. These narrators are, by turns, galled, unbelieving, and, at times, admiring. And they are fascinated, nay, obsessed, with their subjects, despite, on some level, wishing they weren’t.

I like to come to most of the novels I read a little bit blind, trying not to know too much about them (which isn’t always easy, especially given my obsession with reading dust jacket copy), and to be given my sight slowly as I make my way through the pages, until I get to the end, capable of fully seeing. Then, if the subject matter has piqued my curiosity enough, I might go see what I can find to read about it (or read the Introduction, something I never actually read before I read a novel). Thus, I avoided looking up anything about this book before I read it, and happily, my copy has long since lost its dust jacket, so I was completely blind when I turned to the first page. However, about a third of the way through it, I found myself just dying to know who Charles Strickland (the book’s despicable character) really was. Knowing that Maugham included Thomas Hardy, as well as himself, in Cakes and Ale, I was pretty sure he wasn’t just making up some artist off the top of his head. A quick Wikipedia check revealed that Strickland was based on Gaugin.

Gaugin may have been a genius, but if he was anything like this Charles Strickland, he certainly isn’t the sort of genius I’d want to know. That seems to be Maugham’s point, though, that most who could wear the label “genius” probably are pretty despicable. Given the little I know about Maugham (who was apparently a huge commercial success but never much of a critical one), I would guess that he was, on some levels, comforting himself. One can imagine his thoughts, “Well, maybe I’m not acclaimed the way William Faulkner is, but maybe I have more character than he does, than any of these so-called geniuses all the critics seem to adore.” A theme that runs throughout this book is: what does it mean to have character?

Personally, I find it hard to believe Maugham wasn’t critically acclaimed, and I have a feeling that it must have more to do with the literary fashions of the time than whether or not he deserved it. He wasn’t experimenting; he wasn’t jumping on the post-modernism bandwagon. He was merely telling a good story in a rather old-fashioned way: narrator as character in the book observes someone else and paints a portrait of that person through his eyes (and what more perfect way to tell a story about a painter?). I’ve always enjoyed this sort of use of the first-person in which it’s all about “him” or “her” as “I” see it, rather than the more standard (today, at least) all about “me.” However, we do get some wonderful glimpses of the narrator (whom I’d name, but I can’t recall anywhere in the book that his name is actually revealed. If anyone has read it and knows, please feel free to chime in). This comment of his is so endearing and tells us so much about him:

I forget who it was that recommended men, for their soul’s good to do each day two things they disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed. (p. 13)

You really catch Maugham’s subtle sense of humor there, don’t you? He also has some great and beautiful moments of insight, such as here:

We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side-by-side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house. (p. 235)

Don’t you just fall on your knees in admiration for someone with such writing talent? I do. And then while I’m down there, I bang my forehead on the floor over and over, bemoaning the fact that I will never, no matter how much I practice my craft, be able to compose such passages myself. After a few minutes, though, I stop banging my head, because I discover I’m hopeful. Hopeful since I’ve realized that Maugham is a good example of one of those popular, commercially-successful authors who indicates to me that maybe I shouldn’t despair over the masses, that maybe the masses aren’t really so bad (well, at least the masses of nearly 100 years ago) if they can appreciate someone who writes like that.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go see if I can find that copy of Cakes and Ale I know I’ve got somewhere. Oh yes, and I need a good biography of Gaugin. Anyone know of such a thing?

Cross posted here.

A Rebours (Against Nature) by J K Huysmans

In at the last gasp of February (good job it's a leap year!), one last Outmoded Authors read and my February My Year of Reading Dangerously book, A Rebours by Huysmans (Penguin Classics ISBN:0-140-44763-6).

I picked this for the latter challenge because of the profoundly depressing effect that I found La Bas by Huysmans had on me; it really made me not want to read any more by him. The description of this book - a book with basically one character locking himself away from the world and giving in to all his obsessions - led me to expect it to have the same effect. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it did not.

In fact I grew very fond of Des Esseintes, the main character, despite being firmly convinced that if he were a person stood in front of me I would want to slap him for his self-obsession, but from the safety of the written page I found parts of his personality to empathise with and like. He comes across as a rather pedantic, highly intellectual man with a tendancy to be a bit whiney but not essentially dangerous or unlikeable. And despite this being a major text of the decadent movement at the end of the nineteenth century, Des Esseintes' obsessions are quite sophisticated and socially acceptable - mostly ones you could talk about with your grandmother - not at all what I was expecting from the reference to the book in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The structure of the book is deliberate and slow. Here are plot spoilers for some of the main action in the book: Des Esseintes reads a book, gets a tortoise, has a drink, is ill, remembers some stuff, rearranges his library... This is not a book for thriller lovers! Each chapter looks at a particular aspect of his personality and explores it. For example, it looks at his library: why he reads the books he does, what attracts him to them, why he has turned his back on other aspects of literature. It does it in great depth and the effect is almost hypnotic. The personality of Des Esseintes surrounds you as you read and you are drawn into the hushed world he has created for himself, looking at his obsessions in detail. You may not agree with why he likes or dislikes something but you can appreciate his thought processes, and perhaps consider you own views on the subject in response.

He drank this liquid perfume from cups of that Oriental porcelain known as egg-shell china, it is so delicate and diaphonous; and just as he would never use any but these adorably dainty cups, so he insisted on plates and dishes of genuine silver-gilt, slightly worn so that the silver showed a little where the thin film of gold had been rubbed off, giving it a charming old-world look, a fatigued appearance, a moribund air.

After swallowing his last mouthful he went back to his study, instructing his man-servant to bring along the tortoise, which was still obstinately refusing to budge.

Outside the snow was falling. In the lamplight icy leaf-patterns could be seen glittering on the blue-black windows, and hoar-frost sparkled like melted sugar in the hollows of the bottle glass panes, all spattered with gold.'

Although Des Esseintes is the main character and the book concentrates on exploring his thoughts, beliefs and feelings there are others present, either in the action (such as it is) or in his memories so it does not become too claustrophobic. His servants, for instance and a doctor appear at times.

It was a self-indulgent book to read, I felt. I didn't feel that I learnt anything in particular from the discussions, although there are a few Latin authors mentioned I would like to get hold of. I enjoyed it though, similarly to the way I enjoy Proust; I like to immerse myself in someone else's life and mind once in a while.

Cross-posted at Eloise by the Book Piles

Thursday, February 21, 2008

G.K. Chesterton and Martin Gardner's (ed.) The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown

Chesterton, G.K., Gardner, Martin, ed. The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

(The original book was published in 1911.)

Warning: if you’re going to read Father Brown, please suspend all disbelief. Then, fasten your seatbelt, hang on, and enjoy the ride. A friend of mine described the Father Brown stories to me as “fun.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time, although after reading The Man Who Was Thursday, I was beginning to have a bit of a clue. Note, though, I said, “beginning to.” I had absolutely no idea just how much fun this book was going to be.

If you’re someone who loves classic cartoons, you might be able to understand what I mean when I say reading these stories is like watching a series of classic cartoons. You know how so much of what happens in a really good and clever cartoon is completely implausible and yet it tickles your imagination in such a way that you enjoy it immensely while marveling at the genius of its creator? Well, that’s Father Brown for you.

Imagine John Dixon Carr’s Gideon Fell plopped down in a fantasy world that’s as dark as the one in Pan’s Labyrinth but that portrays itself for all intents and purposes as the England or France or Scotland you know and recognize. I sat down with this book believing I was reading a collection of straightforward detective stories. I closed it wondering what genre this was: mystery? Fantasy? Horror?

So much like a cartoon was the book for me that I find it impossible to picture Father Brown as anything other than a cartoon caricature of a wise and portly monk. Chesterton didn’t provide us with much detailed description concerning Father Brown’s appearance, but we do know he had light brown hair, wore glasses, was not very tall, and dressed in the standard black of priests. However, I’ve got him in my brain as though he were a character in The Name of the Rose or something, un-bespectacled, and mostly bald. He wanders onto the scene, the voice of reason and sanity (except when he, as he often does, hypothesizes supernatural causes before discovering the real answer to the mystery) in this mad, mad world he inhabits. In this world, freshly severed heads are stolen from guillotine baskets to lead detectives astray, and small hammers are dropped from great heights in order to kill others. His solutions always sound perfectly sane and reasonable in such a world.

What made these stories even more fun was reading this annotated version. I had originally planned to read The Father Brown Omnibus, but when I went to check it out of the library, I discovered it was missing. I decided this one might be more interesting, and I’m sure I was right. The details and anecdotes Gardner provides in this edition certainly add to the enjoyment of reading it (although I will beg to differ with his statement that “the littlest priest is by all odds the second most famous mystery-solver [next to Sherlock Holmes, of course] in English literature.” I'm sure we can all come up with others who are more familiar at this point). His notes certainly helped illuminate parts of the text that would have been lost on me without them. The most delightful note he provides, though, is his explanation of who Waldo and Mildred D’Avigdor of Chesterton’s dedication are (long-time friends). Gardner includes the letter Chesterton wrote to Mildred announcing his engagement to Frances, his wife. This letter can’t help but endear any but the most stone-hearted reader to the writer (we all know that I of the marshmallow heart was completely touched). It’s too long to quote here, but I promise you it’s well worth your finding a copy of this book to read.

Those of you with less of an interest in religion than I have might find Father Brown a bit annoying at times (but you’re forewarned, at least. After all, he is a priest. I much prefer fictional priests who spout off religious dogma over fictional characters I don’t expect to do so). He definitely needs to be put in his historical place and time. The anti-Semitism bothered me the most, as it does with everything I read that was written in the early part of the twentieth century, knowing as I do what was on the horizon. However, I find his Catholic anti-Calvinism merely amusing. And you just know the atheists and cultists can’t be up to any good, right? (I will spare you my thoughts on bigoted “Christians” here.) He’s also unapologetically racist, but that, too, is nothing new for books written in this era.

My vote is that Chesterton be removed from “outmoded author” status. Let’s start a neo-Chesterton movement. I’m now ready to move on to some of the books in this edition’s bibliography, and I’m sure I’m going to start forcing him on friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers in bookstores, because, well, you know, I’m a tiny bit passionate when it comes to books and authors I love.

Cross-posted here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Razor's Edge

The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham is the first Maugham I have ever read. I've had every intention of reading Maugham for years but if it weren't for the Outmoded Author Challenge it could have been many more years before I got around to him. Razor's Edge was first published in 1944 and was Maugham's last major novel. The book takes place mostly in Europe, particularly in Paris, between the wars. All of the main characters but for the narrator are American. The narrator, a British writer who happens to be named Maugham, tells the stories of Elliott, Isabel, and Larry. There are other characters whose stories also get told, but these three are the main ones.

Elliott is a rich American who lives in Paris. His goal in life is to achieve social eminence. Appearances are everything to him. You have to be seen wearing the right clothes with the right people in the right places. Isabel is Elliott's niece and at the beginning of the story is only twenty and engaged to Larry. She is clever and pretty and is a definite product of her wealthy upbringing. She doesn't question the values of her set, nor does she consider that there might be more to life than marrying, making loads of money, having children and giving dinner parties. This of course puts her in conflict with Larry. Larry lied about his age and ran off to fly planes during World War I. During the war one of Larry's friends gave his life for Larry's. This had a profound affect on Larry who was not able to return to America and live a "normal" life afterwards.

Larry has a small income, enough to get by without working, and so spends his time "loafing" as he calls it. But he is far from loafing. He is searching for answers to life's big questions. He wants to know if there is a God and he wants to know why there is evil in the world. His loafing involves spending hours reading. When Larry turns down a job in his best friend's father's brokerage firm and decides to live in Paris for a couple of years, it pretty much spells doom for him and Isabel. To her credit she accepts his move to Paris. However, she fully expects that this is just a phase and after he is done sowing his wild oats or whatever he's doing--she doesn't understand Larry's existential crisis--she is certain he will come back to Chicago, take the job at the brokerage and make lots of money. This, as she sees it, is his duty. When the break up comes it is an amicable parting and the two remain friends.

Over the course of the book we follow Elliott who gets richer and richer and even manages to sell all his stocks and buy gold before the market crashes. He achieves the heights of society. But in the end, when he is old and near death, there are few who truly care about him.

Isabel marry's Gray, Larry's best friend and the son of the owner of the brokerage firm. Gray makes loads of money. Isabel has two daughters and gives tasteful dinner parties. They lose everything in the stock market crash. They move to Paris where they are supported by Elliott for a couple of years until Gray recovers his health. At which point they move back to America and Gray makes back all the money he lost in the market and then some. But though Isabel is fond of her husband, she wishes he were Larry.

Larry travels Europe and Asia, has some interesting experiences and reads lots. He winds up finding enlightenment in an ashram in India. Larry is happy and content and at peace. He is a good, kind, caring person. He is the kind of person we all wish we could be and try really hard to be but always fall short. He is not perfect, but he is a representation of what we might call our better selves. He is not a symbol or an allegory or anything though, he isn't a Christ figure, he's just one of those rare people who are truly and only themselves all the time.

With these three characters and all the others I haven't mentioned, Maugham shows us various lives and their outcomes and leaves it to us to make the value judgment. He does not condemn Elliott or mock Isabel, nor does he lift Larry above all as a shining example. What he does do, however, is show that we are all looking for something, our lives are all a journey toward a goal, and he shows these various lives and journeys and what it means to achieve that which is desired. No one's journey is easy.

The book was enjoyable reading. There was only one spot near the end where Larry was explaining Hinduism to Maugham that things veered into a bit of a lecture. And while I found it annoying that Maugham was the narrator and kept making comments about how he came to know certain pieces of information even though he wasn't present at the time they happened, I got used to it for the most part. Razor's Edge is not a deep, philosophical novel, it's more philosophy lite. As such, it makes the reader contemplative but not overly so. Still, it's better than a good deal of contemporary fiction that aims for the same thing Maugham did. Why he doesn't get read more often is a mystery. Perhaps it is time for a Maugham revival.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Olivia Manning - The Balkan Trilogy

I have just discovered that The Balkan Trilogy is being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as Fortunes of War. Today was the third in a series of three programmes, two programmes allotted to each book in the trilogy. It seems that Olivia Manning is no longer an outmoded author. The dramatisation is good, with Joanna Lumley taking the part of Harriet, looking back on events and Honeysuckle Weeks as young Harriet. Both are just right for the part.

I’ve read the first two books The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City, but not yet read the third book Friends and Heroes. I am waiting for it to be delivered, so in the meantime this is just perfect. I’ll be able to listen to it in the next two episodes before I get to the book.

Friday, February 8, 2008

W. Somerset Maugham

Since writing the previous post I have written a follow-up post. See it here.

The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham

I'd read one short story, Honolulu by W. Somerset Maugham before, which I had enjoyed, but I knew very little about him or his work and when I started to read The Moon and Sixpence I thought I could understand why Maugham is considered an “outmoded” author. I don’t think it has a good beginning; at first it didn’t grab my interest and make me want to read on. The first chapter introduces the main character, Charles Strickland, an artist, giving details of other articles and biographies that had been written about him, philosophising on the nature of art criticism. I nearly abandoned it to look for something else to read. But I’m glad I persevered because by the time I got to the second chapter I had got into the rhythm of Maugham’s style – long and sometimes convoluted sentences in long paragraphs - and found he had a sense of humour. This passage amused me:

“I forget who it was that recommended men for their soul’s good to do each day two things they disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed. But there is in my nature a strain of asceticism, and I have subjected my flesh each week to a severe mortification. I have never failed to read the Literary Supplement of The Times. It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate that awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its way among that multitude? … The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thoughts; and indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.”

Whilst this doesn’t progress the story at all, I began to warm to Somerset Maugham. Eventually he gets onto his subject – Charles Strickland, who was a stockbroker, a boring, commonplace man who was large and clumsy looking, “just a good, dull, honest, plain man”. This boring man then left his wife and family after seventeen years of marriage and fled to Paris, because he wanted to paint. His wife and friends would have found it more acceptable if he had left her for another woman.

I couldn’t think from the story why it was called The Moon and Sixpence but apparently the reason is that he took the title for it from an excerpt of a review of the earlier novel in the TLS in which the earlier novel's main character is described as "so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet." Strickland yearns and lives to paint so much that I don’t think he sees anything around him at all. He’s a character who lives purely for himself and, obsessed with the desire to paint, just couldn’t care less about anyone or anything else.

After some years of living in Paris painting, living on bread and milk, in poverty and nearly dying he eventually moves to Marseille and then on to Tahiti. In Tahiti his painting flourishes. In contrast to his life in Europe Strickland is accepted for what he is, “ a queer fish”. In Tahiti they took him for granted: “In England and France he was the square peg in the round hole, but here the holes were any sort of shape, and no sort of peg was quite amiss.”

After the First World War Maugham had travelled to the South Seas. His description of Tahiti paints a beautiful picture of the island:

“Tahiti is a lofty green island, with deep folds of a darker green, in which you divine silent valleys; there is mystery in their sombre depths, down which murmur and plash cool streams, and you feel in those umbrageous places life from immemorial times has been led according to immemorial ways.”

This book is roughly based on the life of Gauguin, which led me to look at Gauguin By Himself, a massive book that contains copies of his paintings, drawings, ceramic, sculpture and prints together with his written words. This is a beautiful book which I had almost forgotten was sitting on the bottom of the bookshelves, largely unread.

The photograph is of his painting The Thatched Hut Under Palm Trees (1896-7) and as Maugham had visited the place where Gauguin lived I suppose that his description of Strickland’s hut was based on this hut. In the novel Strickland paints the inside walls of his hut with beautiful and mysterious paintings, giving the impression of being in a “great primeval forest and of naked people walking beneath the trees.” Looking at Gauguin’s paintings one has the same impression.

I wondered how the book had been reviewed in 1919 and found this article in The Guardian 2 May 1919, which concludes:

“Technically the whole thing has great interest. But as an illumination of the nature of bizarre and uncompromising genius, ready to sacrifice every person and every association that stands in the way of its fulfilment, "The Moon and Sixpence" fails through its literary accomplishment and its lack of true creative inspiration.”

I disagree. After its unpromising start I think the book succeeds. Maugham has conveyed to me the passion to create beauty behind Strickland’s (Gauguin’s) life. It has revived my interest in Gauguin’s work and makes me want to read more of Maugham’s novels and short stories. In my opinion he is not an outmoded author.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Elizabeth Bowen's Friends and Relations

Bowen, Elizabeth. Friends and Relations. New York: Avon, 1980.

(The original copyright is 1931.)

Huh? Really. That’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of this book. The whole time I was reading it I felt the way I used to feel as a child sitting amongst the grownups on my parents’ front porch after dinner parties, listening to them talk. I’d have moments of understanding, pieces of conversation I could actually follow. Then the conversation would leap off the path into the thicket, and I’d disappear into my own little dream world until I caught a glimpse of it coming back into view again, just up ahead, and I’d run to catch up with it.

I’m not opposed to sparse writing, you know. I’m in love with Alan Garner, and not too long ago, I was raving about Joan Didion. However, when I start feeling that the writing is so sparse, surely words meant to be there have somehow faded off the page, that reading this book is like trying to talk to someone on a cell phone with bad reception, well, then, I’m not quite so keen on “sparse.” Likewise, enigmatic. I’m as game for a good enigma as anyone, always ready to exercise my problem-solving skills, such as they are, hoping I can surprise others by coming up with the answer. However, the fun of a good riddle is knowing that the answer is right there in front of you, hidden amongst the clues. A really good puzzle might distract the problem solver with irrelevant information, but it doesn’t present a wolf, a sheep, and a chicken only to tell you that the answer is a crocodile. Then again, maybe the problem is that I’m just too stupid to have seen that crocodile so obviously hovering right above everyone.

The back cover copy on the book notes that “the story reveals, by the most delicate means, the secret loves of Janet and Edward.” Okay, so I knew what was going to happen, didn’t I? I was aware and watching it from the get-go. Now, I know I tend to be about as delicate as a hippopotamus most of the time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a cat who can walk along a shelf of priceless crystal and leap off it with nary a sound of tinkling glass. I couldn’t find the cat here, though. He must have been black. It must have been midnight. Then suddenly, the hippopotamus rose up onto the shelf, the sound of shattering glass ringing in my ear. For a brief moment, I understood.

Janet was in London. Edward was missing. But then, huh? What the hell happened?

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t really hate the book. I just didn’t understand it. All the characters seemed as though they’d be extraordinarily interesting if only I knew more about them. Bowen, described (again, in the back cover copy. I wish I had this copywriter to put a spin on my blog) as a “novelist acutely aware of every nuance of feeling,” must have shown off this awareness in other books, because I didn’t notice any passages (maybe they were just so delicate they expired when I breathed on the pages of the book?) that allowed me to get much past the faces and into the heads of the characters.

I can’t help feeling cheated. I’ve been presented with a roomful of fascinating people, but I’m not allowed to talk to them, to ask them questions, to get to know them in any real way. When they leave the room, someone will say to me, “Hope you enjoyed meeting them, because they’re all off to Alaska now and won’t be coming back.”

Perhaps the problem is that while reading this book I also happened to be reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book that is lush with descriptions of characters’ feelings, a book that’s so much heart it beats in your hands as you turn the pages. Perhaps I’m more in the mood for that sort of book now. Maybe I’ll be better off with Bowen during the heat of the summer when I’m in need of stripping off layers of description and needless words, getting down to bare skin while sipping cold lemonade instead of hot lemon ginger tea. After all, I recently vowed to give every author I choose to read at least two chances before deciding I don’t like him or her. If someone would like to recommend a Bowen novel (Litlove, I think you might be able to do so?) suitable for this July, I will give her one more try before throwing in the towel.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Preliminary announcements

It's February and the last month of challenge. I've been so pleased with how everything turned out so far: the high level of participation, the great reviews and comments and, most of all, reading about so many new to me authors. Writers like Elizabeth Bowen, May Sarton and Marian Engel are now within my periphery of awareness when before I did not know they existed. That gratifying because at the outset this challenge came out of a selfish desire to get around to writers in which I was interested rather than any laudable notions about lifting authors from the abyss.

I've had such a good time that I've decided to make this an annual even in the hopes that at least some of you had such a good experience that you would wish to continue. With this in mind I've made some adjustments in order to keep the challenge viable.

The list of authors will be changed. All authors who garnered 3 or more different challenge readers will be shifted in order to make room for fresh additions. I know that some of us have read books without posting any reviews or commentary so it would be lovely if those participants submitted in comments the list of writers you read once the challenge ends at February 29, or before if you have a realistic idea of how many books you'll be able to finish by then. Although those authors won't be on the official list for the next challenge in September their tags will remain, of course, as will the reviews.

I will solicit new author submissions to replace those removed (and only those, I won't be making the list any longer) in August 2008. If you haven't added this blog's RSS feed to your reader you probably should if you want to keep an eye on things or have any authors in mind. I'll also be taking a look at authors suggested last year who did not make the cut.

The remaining authors will patiently wait in the list for us to try again. That way we'll have an incentive to get to books we didn't manage to this time around for lack of time or focus. (I know that my list of authors changed every other month.)

I don't know how long this challenge will last but if it has some longevity I would consider bringing back retired favourites in order for participants to have another go at them, maybe even reread to compare experiences.

Feedback, questions, ideas on improvements are all welcome. Thank you so much for making my first attempt at hosting a reading challenge such a success!

Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence

A quick note before I post my thoughts on Lady Chatterley's Lover -- I want to state for the record that I haven't written an intellectual paper since college. The following review is therefore casual and has no citations from the book. It's pure theory and opinion.

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How does one review a D.H. Lawrence novel, exactly? I've read two and they seem nearly identical to me: about men who long for but are terrified of intimacy. Lawrence's male characters are so priggish and self-congratulatory of their abilities to philosophize about relationships. It makes one wonder if these are not so much novels as private diary entries with plots grafted onto them. Perhaps D.H. Lawrence was the original blogger-turned-author?

I agree with almost everything Eloise stated in her review of Lady Chatterley's Lover. She's made some keen insights -- especially the point that the book is about three characters who are outsiders from normal society. Connie Chatterley is a middle class intellectual who's uncomfortable with her husband's cold aristocratic instincts and self-congratulatory air. Her husband, in turn, is a crippled war hero and author who's uncomfortable with his paralysis and his position as a boss overseeing miners. And Oliver Mellors, Connie's lover, is a former soldier too; educated country folk who after the war and a bitter marital separation has withdrawn from all society and feels he belongs nowhere.

But here's where I disagree with Eloise on the characters -- I don't see social isolate Mellors as sympathetic. On the contrary, to me, his setting himself aside from other people is arrogant and petulant. Mellors passes off his social isolation as the result of hard living and bitter experience, when really he's just afraid of the world, and of women, and is complacent to be alone with his cowardice.

Connie Chatterley's entrance into his life busts up Mellors' obstinate flight from society, but he's not giving up without a fight. He makes several pretentious speeches in defense of his singularity and solitude, in which he declares people to be awful creatures, obsessed with money and bent on social destruction. True as that may be, it'd be far nobler if Mellors felt this way and retreated to the woods to do his own thing, gently and benevolently and without lengthy monologues. Instead, the moment he finds an audience in Connie Chatterley, he never passes up an opportunity to deliver scathing intellectual invective against humanity, particularly women. The more Mellors theorizes, the more it sounds like so much hot air masking the simple fact that he's delicate and doubtful of his own masculinity. Why else would this man, burned in the past by love (who hasn't been?), spend so much time lamenting his difficulty in finding a woman with whom he can experience a simultaneous orgasm?

How sad for him, that women are so withholding. What a tragedy. Woe is Mellors, poorly used by women. Surely this explains everything, from his bad attitude about working for the man to his willful estrangement from his young daughter.

By modern standards, Oliver Mellors, hero of Lady Chatterley's Lover, is the ultimate nightmare boyfriend: socially isolated and isolating; highly critical of others; the type to spitefully pick fights with his in-laws; a black-and-white thinker with little ability to adapt to new situations; and a deadbeat with an attitude problem, highly likely to quit jobs or be fired. And yet Connie Chatterley is obsessed with him. She finds his vulnerabilities entrancing; she can't wait to have his child. She spends most of her time ignoring everything Mellors says, instead putting her faith in the language of the body, which to me is just a fancy of way of saying she'd rather see what she wants to see and hear what she wants to hear: the romanticized story of how she got pregnant, left her husband, and lived happily ever after.

If this sounds a little like a Lifetime movie or an average episode of Dr. Phil, perhaps that's no mistake. It could be D.H. Lawrence was both highly cynical and eerily prescient about modern romance. Perhaps this is why Anais Nin said Lady Chatterley's Lover was "... our only complete modern love story". Lawrence spends 326 pages and 19 chapters raising the one question so many self-pitying emo boy bloggers are likely to ask today: "Why are girls attracted to jerks?"

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The inability of women to orgasm with men is expressed by at least two different male characters in this novel, neither of whom stops to think the fault may lie with him; or that it's nobody's fault at all. Someone must be to blame, and blame is in both occasions assigned to women. Simultaneous orgasm appears to be a major hangup of Lawrence's, and I'd be curious to know if experts on his writing can explain why. Is he a romantic, despairing the inability for men and women to truly connect? Or is this a strain of misogyny making its way to the surface? (Mellors has some harsh words for lesbians in particular.)

In any event, I agree with Eloise -- I'm not likely to read any more Lawrence. His writing style can be a chore to read.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The House in Paris, by Elizabeth Bowen

The House in Paris / Elizabeth Bowen
New York: Anchor, 2002, c1935.

This is the only book I have yet finished for the Outmoded Authors challenge (although I have Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno started & waiting on the bedside stack). I've been putting off writing about it, however, because I'm not sure what to say. I wanted to love Elizabeth Bowen; one of my most respected history profs at university cited Bowen as her absolute favourite author and ever since then I've intended to read her. I liked this book, I even found some quotable passages which I delightedly copied out. But somehow it didn't coalesce into a Great Read, at least not for me. Perhaps I didn't quite understand the end, or perhaps the structure threw me a little. I'm not sure what it was.

In any case, the book begins with little Henrietta being met in Paris by an acquaintance of her mother's, who is essentially going to babysit for the day between Henrietta's trains. This lady, Naomi Fisher, and her stern mother Mrs. Fisher, have run a boarding house for young women for years, and are on this very day also babysitting a young boy, Leopold. It's really poor Naomi responsible for the children, as her mother is an invalid, ruling the house from her upstairs bedroom. Leopold is waiting to meet his mother, another friend of Naomi's, who is revealed to have had him via an affair and given him up. Leopold has never seen his mother, and doesn't know the true story of his life. As he and Henrietta come to terms with one another, their balanced tension ends part one of the story.

The middle section of the book is the backstory of Karen, Leopold's mother. This is the part I most enjoyed. Karen is a strange character, fairly passive and with no clear vision of the direction her very banal, suburban life should take. Staying as a student in the house in Paris, she meets a young man, Max, who visits the boarding house as a friend of Mrs. Fisher's. Although he is not supposed to talk to boarders, he does, and Karen takes him in dislike. It is through her friendship with Naomi that she meets him again a few years later, this time as Naomi's fiancé. It all goes to pot as Karen and Max begin what seems to be a rather short-lived affair. They meet once in France, and once in England (where the consequences of her actions catch up with her). She gives the child away, with no-one in England knowing about it. Strangely, it is Naomi who efficiently arranges Karen's 'trip abroad' and finds a family to take Leopold. After Karen is finally married she confesses to her long-suffering husband, who has the idea that they should bring Leopold to rejoin their family.

The affair has been precipitated by the unease Karen feels about her engagement to an earnest friend of her family, who is of the same class and will give her the same life she has always known. She begins to feel stifled by this idea and distances herself by taking a socially acceptable trip to visit her little-seen aunt in Ireland. This aunt and her odd Irish husband live in a small house overlooking the harbour, and it is when Karen first arrives that I think a very meaningful statement is made. Throughout the entire book, houses are minutely detailed. The erstwhile House in Paris, of course, but also Karen's family home, the empty house that Max and Naomi intend to purchase in England, the hotel where they have their tryst, as well as Aunt Violet's Irish home. Karen wanders alone through the living room, waiting for her aunt to come down, and thinks,

It is a wary business, walking about a strange house you know you are to know well...The you inside you gathers up defensively; something is stealing upon you every moment, you will never be quite the same again. These new unsmiling lights, reflections and objects are to become your memories, riveted to you closer than friends or lovers, going with you, even, into the grave: worse, they may become dear and fasten like so many leeches on your heart. By having come, you already begin to store up the pains of going look around is like being, still conscious, dead: you see a world without yourself.

It is this melancholy that permeates the entire novel. The setting seems blurred, a few precise houses linked by incessant travel. The characters are restless, they can't stay still.
The third section of the book then details the intersection of the first two. Karen is indeed in France, but can not bring herself to see Leopold after all. Her husband Roy goes in her stead, and Leopold, after some intense and dramatic disappointment, decides to go with Roy who on the spur of the moment takes him along when they drive Henrietta to her train. I think the idea is to go on to the hotel where Karen is staying. And that's where I'm not sure. Does Karen abhor the idea of meeting Leopold because he will look like his father? Or because admitting him into her life means she will have to acknowledge her premarital behaviour? Or simply because of the guilt of abandoning him so handily at birth? Perhaps by coming to Paris, Karen feels she is 'storing up the pains of going away'. I'm not sure her motivation is clear enough, at least not to someone not steeped in the social conventions of the era Bowen is writing about. I think I would have to reread, looking for clues carefully as I go rather than rushing to the end, thinking, does Leopold see his mother?!? And she did have me anxious about the poor lost soul.

I did find this book superbly written, in a quiet, precise manner. What I'd really meant to read was The Last September, but I couldn't find a copy at the moment I wanted it, so I picked this one up instead. It was intriguing, but I am still intending to find The Last September, preferably in the edition Eva talks about, which has a preface about writing the story, by Bowen herself. Doubly tempting. I'm glad I finally broke the ice between Bowen and I and intend many more meetings!

Cross posted at The Indextrious Reader

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D H Lawrence

This book, which I read initially for the Outmoded Authors Challenge but then added to My Year of Reading Dangerously as my January book, was one that, as I have mentioned before, I really did not want to read.
Now I have finished it, am I glad that I read it? I think so. Will I be reading any more D H Lawrence in a hurry? I don't think so.
I have very different feelings about various aspects of this book, so I'll deal with them separately.

The story.
I rather enjoyed this. It is melancholy, a story of how people can end up in situations where they feel trapped and unfitted for the world they are in. There is the literal unfitness of Clifford, the crippled husband of Constance, unhappy, unfulfilled, flitting between jealousy of his wife and acceptance that she should be with other men. There is Constance herself, who is in a marriage that is no longer right with a husband whom she gradually loses respect for; she is 'Lady Chatterley' to a town she cannot abide, with no friends to confide in.
But most of all there is Mellors the gamekeeper, and it is his character that is the most interesting. Educated and well-read, he had a successful career in the army making Lieutenant before being invalided out. He returned to the mining community where he was born but he no longer belongs there; he is caught between two worlds, not a part of the mining community but also not accepted by the upper classes, and in Lawrence's world there does not appear to be an effective middle class buffer between the two that Mellors could slip into.
This tension in his character is shown by the way he constantly slips from his cultivated 'proper' English accent into broad Derbyshire, often as a way of attempting to remind Constance that she is lowering herself by being with him. His sadness and lack of place in the world, which is alleviated somewhat by the love that grows between him and Constance, is the part of the story that I enjoyed; he is a very sympathetic character.

The writing.
I just didn't think it was that good. Lawrence is very repetitive, and his phrases and metaphors are clumsy at times. I understand that he is trying to show how deep-rooted a feeling is when he talks about bowels and wombs but it detracted from the story.

An example:
'But when she touched her steadily-lived life with him she...hesitated. Was it actually her destiny to go on weaving herself into his life all the rest of her life? Nothing else?
Was it just that? She was to be content to weave a steady life with him...'

The setting.

The setting of the story was great - it's where I live! Characters are constantly talking of popping to Sheffield for nights out, and Chesterfield and Mansfield are mentioned, and other areas with fictional names seemed very familiar. I read bits out to my husband as we tried to decide which towns the fictional ones were based on. The descriptions of the area in the novel do not make my home sound very pleasant though; it is depressing, dark and ugly, but this is an area of the country that the Industrial Revolution was not kind to. It has improved since then.

And finally, the sex.
This is the most famous part of the book, after all, and after reading it, it does seem to be the ultimate point of it, to break taboos and free literature from the restraint about talking of this natural aspect of human life. I understand the point of it, but I did not enjoy it. It is vulgar and over the top; there is no romance to it - I don't understand how Mellors and Connie fall in love, as they seem to just copulate like a couple of dogs.
The descriptions of the act are quite ridiculous and all in all, it would have been a better book with fewer sex scenes. If you listened to an audio file of me reading it, it would consist of tutting, 'Oh for goodness sake!' and at times laughing out loud - probably not the reactions that DH was looking for.

Still it did the trick, and we now have the legacy of complete openness in novels- the taboo is gone. Has this improved literature, where it seems sex scenes are obligatory in almost any new novel, regardless of the need for it in the story? Well, we all have our own views on that. I would not advise anyone to read the book for this aspect alone though. The descriptions are too ridiculous to be titillating.

So, on the whole mixed feelings. I think I will hold on to the story about Mellors and try to forget the other bits.

Cross posted at Eloise by the Book Piles

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Waverly by Walter Scott

Title: Waverley
Author: Sir Walter Scott
ISBN: 978-0140430714
Publisher: Penguin Classics/1981
Pages: 608 pages

Initially, Waverley appears to be very odd novel. This opinion is caused by comparison of it with, Sir Scott's masterpiece, Ivanhoe. The opening chapters of the novel are too explanatory, and the middle chapters, though packed with events, are monotonous. The end stands out because it is written in an abrupt manner. The text is sporadic with long departure from the subject, not bearing any direct relationship to the main story.

Scott’s narration is filled with typical British Humour, which makes it worth reading even though he tends to depart from the main story line. A few of these odd digressions are interesting despite the anticlimactic moments.

Eventually, the narration is easier to deal with then the hero, Edward Waverley. He is said to be a gentleman at a time when that term meant exactly that. He also has a certain adventurous spirit, with a fantastic surviving aptitude. Many of the novel's characters love Edward Waverly which appears very odd to me.

Taken as a story, this does not stand out. However, Sir Walter Scott gives us a very good account of 18th Century Scottish culture. This is a treasure house of language and traditions, and we are treated to the national values of Scotland. This novel takes Scotland seriously. We observe the Catholic Highlanders sending their children to study in France and Italy. Bonnie Prince Charlie lost only one battle and it was adequate to secure Hanoverians their throne. We discern that the transition was inevitable for Scotland. Historical background and facts redeem the novel. The story is forgettable but the historical facts are not. It is said that many writers took to writing historical novels after reading Waverley. Whatever said and done, my copy goes out for giving. No second reading.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw

Title: Arms and the Man
Author: George Bernard Shaw
ISBN-10: 0140450351
ISBN-13: 978-0140450354
Publisher: Penguin/80 pages

George Bernard Shaw takes the title for this play from the opening life of Vergil's epic poem Aeneid, which begins Of arms and the man I sing. Vergil glorified war and the heroic feats of Aeneas on the battlefield. However, Shaw attacks the romantic notion of war by presenting a more realistic approach.

The action takes place in Bulgaria in 1885 against a backdrop of war between Bulgarian forces and Serbian and Austrian coalition army. Raina Petkoff is the young and beautiful daughter of the Bulgarian Major Petkoff who is engaged to Major Serguis Saranoff. Serguis is out in the battles. An enemy soldier, Captain Bluntschli, takes refuge in her room and this is what makes the whole drama happen. Next morning she and her mother Catherine see him off but consequences of sheltering an enemy soldier are not to be waved off so easily. Once the war is over, he comes back, forcing each of the primary characters to re-evaluate their values and their relationships

Raina's "hero" Serguis comes back from the war with the aura of heroism, gallantry and victory along with her father, Major Petkoff. The various dimensions of human nature are poignantly depicted, the character’s masks are exposed, and each one of them is stripped down into imperfect and susceptible individuals. Serguis turns out to be a flirt and far from a contented happy model of a soldier; Major Petkoff is discerned to be a man who cannot see beyond the battlefield.

There is a vivid usage of humour and comedy to convey the futility and harm of old-fashioned social analysis. The theme is effectively that of war and love---and by extension marriage---and a combination of both. The play is replete with brilliant dialogue, flashing wit, buoyant humour and bitter sarcasms which reach their acme in this statement of Captain Bluntschli to Serguis, "I'm a professional soldier: I fight when I have to, and am very glad to get out of it when I haven't to. You're only an amateur; you think fighting's an amusement". First published in 1894, Arms and the Man is also remarkable for its explicit treatment of sexuality, which was either denied or shyly elucidated, in early Victorian literature.

Even after 100+ years, this has a contemporary feel to it and is as relevant as it was then. War cannot be anything but futile and there is no heroism in it for those who resort to it.

Do visit my blog.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Country of the Pointed Firs

I feel inadequate to the task of writing about Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories by Sarah Orne Jewett. Can I just say everyone needs to read this book and have that be enough? Of course it is not enough because you are like me and have a TBR pile big enough to last you a lifetime, so why should you add one more book?

Country of the Pointed Firs is a novella. A woman from the city is lodging with Mrs. Todd in Dunnett Landing, a small coastal town in Maine. The woman who never has a name is a writer and has come to Dunnett Landing to get away and work and get some fresh air. Over the course of the summer she becomes a friend to Mrs. Todd and all the other residents of Dunnett Landing. And as she becomes part of the community the reader feels as though they are becoming part of it too. The stories that follow the novella take place in and around the same area with a few venturing as far away as Vermont. Some of the characters in these other stories are familiar, some not. But they only serve to make the reader feel as though that neat little house with the garden in bloom just up ahead is the reader's house and you've only just been out for a visit or to gather some wild herbs and are now returning home for a cup of tea and a simple supper followed by a quiet evening of knitting next to the stove.

The people are independent Yankee folks. Most of the stories center around women and most of those women are middle-aged or older. They are women who have never married because they had spent their youth caring for elderly parents or they are widows whose husbands died at sea. But these women are strong and take care of themselves. They do not fish like the men but they can handle a sailboat just as well and when it comes to farming often manage the fields better than their husbands did. Or, in the case of Mrs. Todd, she sells cures and remedies to people made from the herbs she grows in her garden or gathers wild from the woods or one of the many small islands just off the coast.

Because it is a small community everyone knows everyone and everyone must get along even if they don't really like each other. This does not mean they can't gossip about the people they don't get along with, but there is a certain level of civility and appearances that must be kept up. And it helps to have a good sense of humor too. But even while laughing at someone it is not mocking or derisive but often gentle. Like when Mrs. Todd, her mother Mrs. Blackett, and the unnamed writer go to the Bowden family reunion, Mrs. Todd assesses the singing that had gone on there:
'There was good singers there; yes, there was excellent singers,' she agreed heartily, putting down her teacup, 'but I chanced to drift alongside Mis' Peter Bowden o' Great Bay, an' I couldn't help thinkin' if she was as far out o' town as she was out o' tune, she wouldn't get back in a day.'
I love that! The book was filled with moments that made me laugh. There were some that made me cry too and others that were so beautiful they took my breath away.

One story I especially liked was "A White Heron." Maybe it stood out because the protagonist is a nine-year-old girl. Or maybe because the girl, Sylvia, climbed the tallest tree around in order to see where the white heron lived but in the process saw the sunrise and the ocean and discovered something about herself too. She climbed the tree because a man who was studying birds was staying at Sylvia and her aunt's cabin. He asked Sylvia if she knew where the white heron lived because they were rare birds and he wanted to kill it so he could study it. He would give her ten dollars-- a lot of money to her--if she could tell him where the heron lived. But she cannot tell:
No, she must keep silence! What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? Has she been nine years growing and now, when the great world for the first time puts out a hand to her, must she thrust it aside for the bird's sake? The murmur of the pine's green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron's secret and give its life away.
I wanted to hug her for keeping silent. And I think that's why I enjoyed this book so much. I liked the people in it. I felt as though I knew them. I've sat by fires when I was a kid listening to the adults tell stories and this book brought that all back. The warmth, the safety, the comfort, the feeling that sure, bad things happen, but we get through them and everything is really alright or will be alright as long as we can stick together and watch out for each other. I think the unnamed writer says it perfectly in the story "William's Wedding"
Santa Teresa says that the true proficiency of the soul is not in much thinking, but in much loving, and sometimes I believed that I have never found love in its simplicity as I had found at Dunnett Landing in the various hearts of Mrs. Blackett and Mrs. Todd and William. It is only because one came to know them, these three, loving and wise and true, in their own habitations. Their counterparts are in every village in the world, thank heaven, and the gift to one's life is only in its discernment...'The happiness of life is in its recognitions. It seems that we are not ignorant of these truths, and even that we believe them; but we are so little accustomed to think of them, they are so strange to us--'
Country of the Pointed Firs will get you to thinking about those recognitions. When I closed the book I was sad because I felt like I was leaving home. But all I have to do to return is open the book, or look around. I know these people. I think I met one of them just the other day...

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Death of the Heart, by Elizabeth Bowen

19599946.jpg I thought I might fall in love with this book, and it turns out I didn’t, but I don’t want to hold that against it. It is a very good novel; I’m glad I read it, and I’d like to read more Bowen. There’s something cold about the book, though, that made me admire more than love it. Its subject matter is rather depressing, and although I generally like depressing books, this one … well, it left me sad and didn’t dazzle me in a way that would make me feel better. But, really, I do admire it, and I believe I don’t need to fall in love with a book to recognize that it’s quite good.

It’s a story of lost innocence; Portia, a 16-year-old girl who is newly-orphaned comes to live with her much older half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, and while she is there she learns some harsh lessons about the world. Her new family doesn’t really want here there; they took her in because it was Portia’s dying father’s request and because it seemed like the right thing to do. But Anna particularly resents having Portia in her home — the opening scene reveals that Anna has secretly read Portia’s diary and found that Portia has written some unflattering things about her and her friends. It’s as though Anna feels like she is competing with Portia; we learn that Anna had a love affair when she was much younger that ended disappointingly and it’s implied that Anna has never really recovered — now she sees Portia with her youth and beauty and attractiveness and resents the life she has ahead of her.

Portia meets a young friend of Anna’s named Eddie and the plot gets more complicated from there. The two quickly begin a relationship, but this relationship means something quite different for each of them. Portia in all her innocence believes she has fallen in love, but it’s clear that Eddie is merely interested in having some fun.

Poor Portia. She doesn’t fit in anywhere, and she clings to Eddie as the one she feels she can trust the most. She attends what sounds like a dreadful school and makes one friend there, but this friend doesn’t really satisfy, and she only gets in trouble while trying to make it through the school day. In the book’s second section, Anna and Thomas head off to France and leave Portia behind at the house of Anna’s old governess. Here, too, Portia feels like an outsider, and when she invites Eddie to visit her there, events head in a direction she never anticipated.

It’s Portia’s innocence that causes so much trouble, or, rather, it’s the world around her that causes the trouble, not knowing what to do with her innocence. Portia isn’t trained to deal with proper London society or with boys who make rash promises or with the isolation she endures. Anna and Thomas live dull, sterile lives; they have carefully cordoned themselves off from any real interaction with other people or even with each other:

Callers were unheard of at Windsor Terrace. They had been eliminated; they simply did not occur. The Quaynes’ [Thomas and Anna’s] home life was as much their private life as though their marriage had been illicit. Their privacy was surrounded by an electric fence — friends who did not first telephone did not come.

In this atmosphere Portia dries up; it’s no wonder she turns to other people, even harmful people, to try to find some liveliness and love.

Bowen is very much interested in psychological states. The back cover describes her style as Jamesian, and I think that claim holds true; Bowen describes her characters’ inner lives in depth, capturing the ebb and flow of their feelings and responses. It’s a thoughtful book, one that moves slowly — although not in a way that might bore — and tells its story with pleasing thoroughness. If you like books with emotional and psychological insight — ones that capture the complexity of character, then you may like this book.

Cross-posted here.

Lunatic Villas by Marian Engel

In a recent review of The Honeyman Festival by Marian Engel, I wrote that Lunatic Villas is a joyous book. And, after a re-read, and despite its detailing of vicissitudes of the death-and-taxes variety, I still find it so. Harriet, harassed mother and collector of innumerable children, is Engel's most indomitable heroine. After the death of her first love, Tom, a Vietnam draft dodger, she adopts three children: Simeon, the son of his ex-girlfriend and his own two daughter, Melanie and Ainslie, to grow up beside Harriet and Tom's own son, Mickle. An unfortunate marriage brings twins Peter and Patsy, children of inveterate sponger and wastrel, Michael Littlemore, while Harriet's disturbed niece Sidonia joins the family when her mother is unable to cope with her. Harriet supports her disparate brood by writing a magazine column under the byline "Depressed Housewife". Into this menagerie comes Mrs Adeline Saxe, an unexpected English visitor who is the distant cousin of someone Harriet once stayed with in England.

Lunatic Villas is a cul de sac in Toronto, inhabited by a community of neighbours who all know each other, and thus until now almost an island in the city, but soon to be integrated with the demolition of the factory at the end of the street. The inhabitants are in and out of each other's houses and know each other's business, although this doesn't preclude tensions and disputes, and occasional surprises, such as when Harriet's friend Roger's ex-partner presents Roger with their baby to bring up. Much of Harriet's past (and her present anxieties) emerges as it is explained to Mrs Saxe, while children are ushered out after breakfast: Sidonia to her psychiatrist, Mick to his speech therapist, the Littlemores to be taken by their father to the dentist (in fact, to McDonalds); only Simeon, seriously studying for university, Melanie, who is sensible, and Ainslie (who is absent visiting rich maternal grandparents) are not a constant source of worry. Constant demands are also made on Harriet by her two older sisters, Madge, eccentric and tyrannical (and very keen on proper leather shoes) and Babs, an alcoholic with money difficulties because Madge controls the family money.

Yet, throughout this book there is a sense of hope, and much to amuse. The eldest son, Simeon, is a warm and likeable character, Mrs Saxe is endearingly eccentric in her evident amusement at family events, and her obsession with bicycles – shared by Mick, which gives him common ground with someone at last – and, while there is betrayal amongst the family, there is also love, affection and a degree of reconciliation. Engel's delicious sense of humour shines through the story, the writing has an easy flow and engages at once. If the events might seem at times bizarre to the childless, every parent knows that the weird and ridiculous are part and parcel of the process of bringing up children and, the more you have, the truer that will be. I warmly commend this entertaining book to readers of Outmoded Authors and, because if you haven't you should certainly read it, to all those partaking in the Canadian Reading Challenge.

Cross-posted at Geranium Cat's Bookshelf

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Of Human Bondage

After Letty Fox: Her Luck, it was a relief to read some clear and reader-friendly prose. Of Human Bondage may not have the most likable characters you've ever seen, but within a paragraph or two of their introduction, they are unforgettable. Among them are Philip's love-starved aunt, his dour uncle and Mildred, the cheap, grasping waitress that Philip inexplicably falls for, and Philip himself, who manages to overcome his self-consciousness about his clubfoot and finds out through trial and error, where his talents lie.

Since Maugham was also a playwright, he seemed to have a tendency to write situations overlarge: Mildred is not only a bad girlfriend, she's monstrous, complete with green-tinged skin that Maugham alludes to on several occasions. Philip not only hits a rough patch; he nearly starves to death. His divorcee girlfriend and the young woman he subsequently falls for are not only agreeable, they're practically earth goddesses. Luckily, Maugham wrote so well that the reader is wrapped up in these characters and carried along.

Of Human Bondage whetted my appetite for more Maugham; I'm definitely a fan of his now. I want to read another of his novels to complete this challenge, but can't decide on which one. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Gentle Reader wrote a much better, more in-depth review of this novel at this blog on January 2. If you haven't read it yet, scroll down and see for yourself You can also view it at her enjoyable blog, Shelf Life.

Cross-posted at Naked Without Books!

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Spoilt City by Olivia Manning

The Spoilt City was first published in 1962, published by Arrow Books in 2004. 295 pages.

It is the second in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. (I wrote about the first book The Great Fortune here.) It continues the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle’s life in Bucharest during 1940. The ‘Phoney War’ is now over and the invasion by the Germans is ominously threatened causing much unrest and uncertainty.

Harriet and Guy’s ideas clash; with Harriet longing to return to England and Guy determined to stay in Bucharest. The difference in their characters is also developed. Harriet is more critical of people than Guy, who prefers to like people, knowing this is the basis of his influence over them. Her criticism troubles him, but he recognises that she is stronger than him in some ways and he is influenced by her. Harriet takes a more general view than Guy and has “rejected the faith which gave his own life purpose.”

Guy is however, pragmatic and sees religion as “part of the conspiracy to keep the rich powerful and the poor docile”. He is not interested in “fantasy” but in “practical improvement in mankind’s condition." Harriet is not so practical, but she comes to appreciate that Guy is right: “Wonders were born of ignorance and superstition. Do away with ignorance and superstition and there would be no more wonders, only a universe of unresponsive matter in which Guy was at home, though she was not. Even if she could not accept this diminution of her horizon, she had to feel a bleak appreciation of Guy, who was often proved right.”

Guy’s generosity to everyone frustrates Harriet in her attempts to survive and indeed to leave the country. They are ordered to leave but he persists in staying put as the escape routes were being blocked. As Guy argues the case for staying “ … we represent all that is left of western culture and democratic ideas”, Harriet begins to think that even though they have only been married for one year that the bonds between them are loosening.

Once again Yakimov comes to the fore, providing some comic relief. He is one of the people that Guy tries to help. He visits Von Flugel, a Nazi and an old friend in Cluj. Von Flugel thinks Yaki is a British spy, but even so he gives him 25,000 lei to return to Bucharest to buy an Ottoman rug for him. When he gets to Bucharest he finds everything has changed for the worse, the army has been called out and an attack on the palace is expected. He quickly packs up and leaves on the Orient Express for Istanbul using the money from Von Flugel.

As the blitz on London begins Harriet increases her efforts to leave the country but Guy still wants to stay. They go for a short “holiday” in Predeal in the mountains and Harriet becomes increasingly critical of Guy and feels bored in his company. As both their relationship and the situation in Rumania deteriorate Guy persuades Harriet to leave without him after their flat is raided and ransacked.

This is a bleak story and as I was reading it I thought it was not as good as the first book in the trilogy, The Great Fortune, but thinking about it now, that maybe because it is set in such an adverse situation set against the backdrop of war. I became increasingly critical of Guy and impatient for him to agree with Harriet. Perhaps that is the measure by which I should consider the book – it certainly seemed real to me and conveyed the tension and fears of living in Rumania at that time as well as chronicling the Pringles’ marriage. As with The Great Fortune there is a great deal of information about the political situation, which was new to me and at times I did find that difficult to follow, which didn’t help with my enjoyment of the book. What I did enjoy was the character development and their realtionships. I also enjoyed Olivia Manning's descriptive writing eg:

"The air was furred with heat. On the pavement the Guardist youths with their banners and pamphlets, were still trying to rouse revolt. Although a sense of revolt agitated the nerves like an electric storm that would not break, the city was lethargic, the palace dormant, its white blinds drawn down against the tedium of the afternoon. ... The height of summer was past. The dahlias were ablaze in the Cismigiu. Up the Chaussee, the trees were parched, their few leaves dangling like burnt paper, as they had been the first time she saw them. The brilliant months had gone down in fear and expectation of departure."

The story is continued in Friends and Heroes, the third book in the trilogy. The Outmoded Authors Challenge finishes at the end of this month and it's not looking as though I'll read the third book before then, but I will definitely read it before long.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Wisdom of Father Brown

Better late than never! I read this short story collection about a month ago, and mentioned it a little on my blog, but I never got around to doing an actual write-up.

This was my first experience with Father Brown, and Chesterton for that matter. The collection starts off with a great story, "The Absence of Mr. Glass" that basically mocks Holmes-style detective fiction. It opens with Dr. Orion Hood, "an eminent criminologist," in his study. His study is described in great detail, and every sentence reinforces Dr. Hood's extreme orderliness. I thought you guys would appreciate this passage:
Poetry was there: the left-hand corner of the room was lined with as complete a set of English classics as the right hand could show of English and foreign physiologists. But if one took a volume of Chaucer or Shelley from that rank, its absence irritated the mind like a gap in a man's front teeth. One could not say the books were never read; probably they were, but there was a sense of their being chained to ther places, like the Bibles in the old churches.
Then, into this eminent Doctor's day, "there shumbled into the room a shapeless little figure, which seemed to find its own hat and umbrella as unmanageable as a mass of luggage. The umbrella was a black and prosaic bundle long past repair; the hat was a broad-curved black hat, clerical but not common in England; the man was the very embodiment of all that is homely and helpless." Needless to say, this is our erstwhile hero Father Brown. The two go on to try to solve a mystery; a boarder who has fallen in love with the landlady's daughter has been found tied up in his room, with everything in disarray. Meanwhile, before this the landlady overheard the boarder arguing with a mysterious Mr. Glass, who seems to come from the sea. Whatever is going on? As Dr. Hood provides his thoroughly scientific and rational answer, Father Brown seems to be trying not to laugh. And eventually he sees through the heart of the matter.

There are twelve stories, and my other favourites was "The Perishing of the Pendragons," which deals with an old family curse that keeps causing Pendragons to be shipwrecked. It's difficult to choose however-all but one of the stories were perfect gems! Throughout the collection, Father Brown is traveling: we see him in Scarborough, Italy, Paris, London, Chicago, Devonshire, Cornwall, Essex, and Germany. I don't know if that's usual of Father Brown stories, but I found the constant change of scenery quite refreshing! I do wish I could have gotten to know Father Brown a bit better, though...there isn't much character development in this collection.

I did alude to one story that I did not like at all: "The God of Gongs." It's the ninth story, so I was quite used to Chesterton's style, when all of a sudden this story appeared and through everything out of joint. It got very muddled very quickly, and Father Brown got in a violent altercation (which is quite unlike him), and it talks a lot about "negros," (and a much nastier n-word) and uses adjectives like "insolent" when referring to them. In fact, Father Brown's friend says, "Sometimes...I'm not surprised that they lynch them." The 'solution' is very confusing and talks about Voodoo, and I'm still quite annoyed that such a racist, garbage-y story is in the middle of an otherwise perfect collection. I realise the book was published in 1913, but it just didn't seem to fit any of the other stories. Oh well!

Other than that one story, I highly, highly recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys mystery stories. I know I'll be searching out the other Father Brown stories!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham

My first book for the Outmoded Authors Challenge was Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (Signet Classics), a semi-autobiographical novel about a young man’s long road to emotional maturity. I really enjoyed Maugham’s straightforward writing style, and I was drawn into the story by Maugham’s finely detailed characterization of Philip Carey, a young man stigmatized by a clubfoot, and looking for the love he never received as an orphaned boy.

I found the book truly compelling, mostly because Maugham creates a main character that is so completely human. His failings are so easy to relate to. I found him likeable even when I was mentally urging him not to make this or that self-destructive decision. And even when I was annoyed with Philip’s choices, they were such great examples of the choices all humans are faced with, the lessons all humans learn or don’t learn over their lifetimes, that I could easily relate to them.

It is fascinating to watch a young man struggle against the conventions and expectations of his time. Philip is a sensitive young man who finds the empty piety of his native religion unbearable, and cannot find a comfortable way to be an English "gentleman". He tries to break away from these conventions of society, but cannot easily find a philosophy or way of living that works for him, or fills the spiritual void he has. And the physical world betrays him, too. He cannot find work that is meaningful to him, and at one point in the book, he nearly starves.

Philip's disastrous relationship with the cruel and vulgar Mildred shows Philip that happiness in love is not the answer to the meaning of life, either. He lets go of that expectation (as a good Buddhist would) and though it doesn't solve all his problems, he comes that much closer to a measure of freedom. In fact, I felt Maugham's presence at my shoulder at times, saying, "Let go, my child, let go." Okay, I added that for effect, but you get what I mean.

Over the course of reading it, I nicknamed this novel “Of Human Frailty”, because all of its characters are so very deeply flawed. Maugham gives us a version of humanity with no sugar coating. As I thought back over the female characters in the novel, and realized they were all either vain, simpletons, fools, cruel or just completely self-centered, I wanted to accuse Maugham of misogyny, but then I surveyed the male characters, and realized I would have to call Maugham a misanthrope instead. But as much as most of the characters were wretched human beings, when Philip does get aid and succor from decent human beings, it is as truly surprising to the reader as it is to Philip, and that makes it all the more satisfying.

With that said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Though Maugham’s portrayal of the fallibility and frailties of human beings is rather bleak, he made me truly care about his substitute, Philip Carey. Philip’s journey is mesmerizing—I found myself deeply involved in this book, and thinking about my own ideas about free will and emotional bondage. And though the ending is ostensibly a happy one, this book raises more questions than it answers, which makes it a classic and one that I will read again.

Cross-posted at Shelf Life.