Sarah Waters can spin a yarn. She can conjour up a world. She can keep you entertained. But what she absolutely can't do is create realistic characterSarah Waters can spin a yarn. She can conjour up a world. She can keep you entertained. But what she absolutely can't do is create realistic characters or convince me that all her creativity isn't simply an elaborate means to the banal end of trying to convince me that every woman in Victorian England was a lesbian.
From the get go, Waters creates a detailed Victorian world for the setting of this novel and here's where her strength definitely lies. She's done a huge amount of research to get such a vivid backdrop painted so well. I enjoyed this immensely, particularly areas of London which have changed so remarkably since the late 19th century.
This was her first novel though, and it really shows in the characters she creates and her storyline. The characters are pretty flat, predictable and, apart from Nancy herself, not really given the attention to detail that they deserve. There's no real explanation of their inner worlds or what has made them the way they are. If I was less cynical, I'd say that this was Waters' skill in rendering them from the perspective of a
narrator in the naivety of youth. But I don't think this was intentional at all.
And the storyline is pretty much as implausible as it gets. If it wasn't for a few astounding coincidences, Nancy would have died in the gutter about a third of the way through the novel. But, at the last minute every time, Waters has managed to come up with something to keep the wheel turning.
Nancy grows up on the north Kent coast, the daughter of a working class oysterman living a simple, traditional life that has pretty much vanished despite the continued fame of Whistable oysters even to this day. She gets a crush (her first of very, very many) on a local music hall actress who whisks her off to London and a new life that is about as alien to her roots as oysters are to people from Paraguay. This new turns out, as you suspect, to be too rosy to last and cycles of despair and elation then move you through to the heavily contrived end of the novel. Here, like a badly-written pantomime where everyone needs to be on stage for the finale and curtain call, she meets pretty much everyone in the novel (except her forsaken family) in a matter of a few hours and Waters ties everything up in Disney-esque sweetness.
However, all this can be forgiven as an author learning her ropes as she shows us that she has promise as a writer if she would just keep at it and consider her characters more. What I find less easily tolerated is the sheer fantasy of the lesbian world she attempts to portray to us.
Nancy has a crush on woman she sees on stage. She befriends Kitty and shares a bed with her in London. It takes some time before their relationship is consumated, but they become lovers. It's clear though that Kitty has issues with the lifestyle and while Waters could have grasped this and explored the clash between Nancy's assurance of her identity and the dichotomy in Kitty's mind, no sooner has this been revealed than the novel takes an almighty plot heave and Nancy finds herself in a completely different world which she simply seems to accept rather than question as it involves her in some sexual activity that most sane people, whatever their sexual orientation, would find themselves conflicted by.
It is in making her way through this alternative world and coming out the other side of it that the novel just became a bit ridiculous for me. Pretty much every female Nancy meets from that point on is a lesbian who Nancy lusts after (and I do mean lust). This gets so implausible that, a few pages before the end of the novel, this exchange occurs between Nancy and a companion:
"That's Mrs Costello," she said, "Emma's widowed sister."
"Oh!" I had heard of her before, but never expected her to be so young and pretty. "How handsome she is. What a shame she ain't - like us. Is there no hope of it?"
"None at all, I'm afraid. But she is a lovely girl..."
I'm sure Mrs Costello would be gratified to hear that she is "lovely" despite the fatal flaw of there being no "hope" of her homosexuality. It's good to know that we who apparently happen to find ourselves heterosexual have some value in the eyes of those who aren't. It's as if Waters was thinking that if she can cram as many lesbians into her novel as possible, she can convince us that as it was apparently rife in the 19th century and that I should accept it as such in the 21st. To borrow a phrase from the same era: close, but no cigar. Actually, she didn't even come close.
Thus, as a vehicle for the LBGT agenda which Waters undoubtedly intended it should be, this novel is a wreck. For a novel that really explores the issues surrounding growing up gay, study A Boy's Own Story or even the much more contemporary, although far less balanced, Oranges are not the Only Fruit. Waters may argue that she's very familiar with these novels. That's great, but she can take home what she brought to the party....more
This was not at all what I expected from the title. In fact, even having finished it, I really have no clue as to why it is called this at all, who thThis was not at all what I expected from the title. In fact, even having finished it, I really have no clue as to why it is called this at all, who the Goon Squad might be or who they might be visiting. If it happened in the novel anywhere, I missed it. Hmmmm….
What I did not expect was a kind of series of interconnected stories of people’s lives as they aged and looked back on musical relationships they’d started with, lost and, kind of reconnected with… in some kind of future vision of post-apocalypse New York. And if that sounds like a fairly bonkers plot line then you’ll realise why it wasn’t what I was expecting.
I don’t think anyone coming to this novel will expect it. The Chapter 1 kind of starts fine and you meet a character, Sasha. Then Chapter 2 starts and you wonder if you’re in a different book. It’s only towards the middle of the chapter that you realise this character, Bennie, is somehow (you’re not quite sure how loosely) connected with Sasha. Then Chapter 3 begins and we’re off again, except this time, the connection, however tenuous or significant, is with Bennie. And so on. One entire chapter is done as PowerPoint slides which I kind of liked actually.
While I enjoyed the read (and it was a pretty easy read), and I could tell you something about the characters and what happened to them, I can’t for the life of me do more than guess why Egan might have written it. Wikipedia comes to the rescue here (and for an explanation of the title too), but then Wikipedia also reports Egan as saying she was inspired by Proust. Well, certainly not in terms of style she wasn’t.
This is a novel that is fun to read and has interesting characters who you care about. It’s probably best related to when you yourself, like the characters, have lost youth, innocence and opportunitites for success to look back on. Should be just about ready for it now then, eh?...more
This is France’s answer to Catcher in the Rye and, considering it was published when Sagan was only 18, is astonishing for that. The writing shows greThis is France’s answer to Catcher in the Rye and, considering it was published when Sagan was only 18, is astonishing for that. The writing shows great maturity and insight into human character, particularly that of older adult relationships, which elude me even today, let alone when I was 18!
The story is from the point of view of an adolescent, Cecile, watching her father deal with a couple of women who want to marry him. I really appreciated the way that Sagan described the feelings that accompany this. I went through something similar although I was only 10 years old at the time. I think she gets it spot on.
Cecile has a hard time accepting the fact that her father has chosen to marry despite being happy with a string of girlfriends and living what Cecile thinks is an idyllic carefree life. The conception that there is nothing to gain in the impending marriage for her middle-aged father is, I think, a very natural one for someone in their teens who would reject anything that would tie them down.
Cecile is a complex character and although anyone writing about a teen would have to take this into account, to do it when you yourself are a teen is quite amazing I think. She is torn between greatly admiring the woman her father has chosen while abhorring the idea of her becoming her stepmother. This leads to a great deal of conflict, understandably, although most of this is psychological rather than physical.
It’s a very short book and can easily be read in one sitting and, in fact, I think would benefit from that approach so that you immerse yourself in the mind of Cecile with no distractions....more
This is a wonderful little breather from the typical weighty tome on the 1001 Books list. A lighthearted look at urban Victorian everyday life with aThis is a wonderful little breather from the typical weighty tome on the 1001 Books list. A lighthearted look at urban Victorian everyday life with a character which has had a massive influence on British comedy ever since he was created.
Mr Charles Pooter sees the world in his own unique way. No one else quite gets it nor behaves quite the proper way. This is a constant source of astonishment to Pooter who assumes that they must all be quite mad.
If you've read that and are thinking Bertie Wooster, Basil Fawlty, Mr Bean (or even, depending on how broad your appreciation of British humour is, The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass) you're now beginning to understand the influence that this diary, first serialised in the now defunct satirical magazine Punch, had on British humour. I'm sure that it's this which gives it its place on the 1001 Books list.
It's a very easy read. I don't have a progress chart for this from Goodreads because I read it in practically one sitting cover to cover. Pooter is such an amusing fellow and he manages to conjure the simplest of social affairs into sagas that lag on for days and days.
Throughout the diary is illustrated by Weedon's characterful pen and ink drawings. With a first name like Weedon, we have a clue as to where his sense of humour came from.
Anyway, I digress. This is a charming read and one which definitely has its place in the seminal history of British humour....more
I've never been inspired by novels written either by South American authors or set in South America. However, Esquivel is Mexican, and as that's veryI've never been inspired by novels written either by South American authors or set in South America. However, Esquivel is Mexican, and as that's very definitely part of North America, she didn't fall far enough south for me to approach this novel with foreboding. Reading the first few pages was enough to make me realise that there's enough originality here to inspire me to keep going.
By interweaving cooking and romance, Esquivel has definitely done something different. But while the style of the novel was original, the plot was as predictable as any Latino novel you may care to name: this is the story of Tita and the lifelong lust (sorry) love she has for a man who she is not married to.
Now, either I'm wrong about love and it is all about sex after all, or even Nobel Laureates like Garcia Marquez are selling us a huge lie. The only character in this novel who displays what I equate with love is a doctor who not only physically rescues Tita from domestic abuse, but is the only man who treats her with courtesy, respect and tenderness.
While Tita thinks this is all very well and allows a certain fondness to develop for Dr. John, she can't help feeling that a quick grope in the scullery with Pedro is actually what life is worth living for. This seems about as shallow as relationships can get for me, but Esquivel (and Garcia Marquez in particular) portray this as the epitome of love. So much so that Pedro ends up dying in the act, a kind of symbolic sacrifice of himself to sex.
Along the way however, Esquivel writes well and interweaves elements of magic realism into the story in very approachable ways for those who might not be ready for the full-blown (un)reality of Ben Okri or Toni Morrison. There's a lot of symbolism throughout and, if you're into cookery, you're going to love the way that every one of the 12 sections opens with a recipe the preparation of which leads into the story and forms part of the narrative....more
Jean Rhys was a bit of a character and this novel, set in the Caribbean she grew up in, features a misunderstood woman who falls victim to both her CrJean Rhys was a bit of a character and this novel, set in the Caribbean she grew up in, features a misunderstood woman who falls victim to both her Creole upbringing and the man she marries.
The basic premise is that this is a prequel to Jane Eyre but written 120 years after it. It’s not essential to have read Eyre before you tackle Sargasso, but it will make a lot more sense if you do, particularly part 3. In fact, it was one of the rare moments in my life where I was actually glad I’d read Jane Eyre. The others were when I realised I didn’t still have it left to read.
Anyway, this is a tragedy from start to finish and Rhys does an excellent job of creating an aura of gloom, despondency and creeping madness right from the start. There’s virtually no joy in it, and you get this sense that whatever positives there may be in the lives of the characters, it’s only a matter of time before everything caves in.
Antoinette, for that is the name of the future Mrs Rochester, has a sad childhood with a mother who is not quite there in more ways than one. As a Creole, she doesn’t fit in any category and this sense of isolation plagues her right through the novel, even when Mr Rochester finally arrives and, suddenly, we find her married.
The marriage is obviously one of societal (read, financial) convenience and what little passion there is between them soon evaporates leaving behind a thin crust of bitterness and mistrust. This is the main theme of part 2.
Part 3 sees us in England and, having shown us the world according to both Mr and Mrs Rochester, we now find ourselves seeing things from the point of view of Grace Poole, Rochester’s housekeeper, who is tasked with caring for the mad woman now confined in Thornfield House, Rochester’s residence in the UK.
I enjoyed this principally because the development of novel-writing in between Eyre and Sargasso meant that the character of Antoinette was much more fleshed out than I found any character to be in the original. For me, this has rescued Eyre for me and means that, if ever I read it again, I will do so with more insight than previously. This is a good thing, I think....more
If you're a bloke, you've got five choices: king, knight, wizard, giant or dwarf. If you're a woman, you've got two: queen or damsel. There aren't anyIf you're a bloke, you've got five choices: king, knight, wizard, giant or dwarf. If you're a woman, you've got two: queen or damsel. There aren't any normal people in this immense narrative and there are pretty much no normal places in it either. Most of it takes place somewhere called "Britain" which is nothing like the Britain you or I know. This is an Iberian Britain, as if the Spanish Armada had not only been succesful but managed to travel through time to invade 500 years earlier and, on landing, immediately decided places like Essex would sould more elaborate as, say, Estraverion. Actually, they may have a point.
But, I digress. Amadis is a Knight of knights, a boy, then a youth, then a man who can do no wrong, who wins every battle (for there are many) and rights every wrong (for there are even more of these than battles). In fact, he's really boring and predictable most of the time. Occasionally, he decides he'd be better off under a pseudonym like Knight of the Green Sword or Beltenebros. But his contemporaries must
have been pretty dim not to realise Mr. Perfect when they met him, no matter what he might call himself.
There's more jousting here than you can shake a stick at (geddit???) so if that's your thing then you'll be delirious with ecstasy. Limbs, skulls, bones, vital organs - nothing is sacred as the swords of Amadis and his cohorts wend their righteously murderous way through various nations on escapades that are more morally justified than fighting National Socialism in Krakow in March, 1943.
And the women are so very fair and so unassailably pure and so very very incapable of anything other than relying on men for their existence while the men are either paragons of Amadis-like virtue or outright scoundrels who deserve (and often suffer) having their limbs separated from their bodies one by one.
But in my cynicism, let me not forget the awesome legacy that this work of literary art has bestowed upon the world. Yes, it inspired Cervantes to write the classic Don Quixote, but much, much more significantly for humanity, Monty Python and the Holy Grail might never have been made without it.
An absolutely harrowing novel that makes you feel like you yourself have spent months tramping around the arid wastelands of what is now the US-MexicaAn absolutely harrowing novel that makes you feel like you yourself have spent months tramping around the arid wastelands of what is now the US-Mexican borderland. It's the kind of novel that leaves you feeling you need a good scour in the shower even though something tells you no amount of scrubbing will get you clean.
Leaving a miserable childhood, "the kid" wanders away from home to fall in with the infamous (and actual) Glanton Gang of mercenaries. Ostensibly hired by the Mexican government to combat the threat of marauding indigenous Apaches, the gang slaughter pretty much everything in their path knowing that those paying them bounty will not be able to identify the individual scalps.
This is not a tale of lost innocence, for there is no innocence to lose. Each and every character lives a life moulded by suffering, pain and immense cruelty. McCarthy writes scenes of what should be unutterable violence, painted with prose that is at once brutal but also, strangely, beautiful.
...the riders were beginning to appear far out on the lake bed, a thin frieze of mounted archers that trembled and vanished in the rising heat. They crossed before the sun and vanished one by one and reappeared again and they were black in the sun and they rode out of that vanished sea like burnt phantoms with the legs of the animals kicking up the spume that was not real and they were lost in the sun and lost in the lake and they shimmered and slurred together and separated again and they augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began to appear above them in the dawn-broached sky a hellish likeness of their ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses' legs incredibly elongate trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pendant from their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries carrying that flat and barren pan like cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.
No one reading this can fail to see what should be so obvious from all westerns that go before it: there is no romance in violence, and no heroism in the worlds the white man imposed on the inhabitants of the Americas. There is only fear kept at bay by the barrel of a gun and the novel speaks not only of the birth pangs of nations, but moreover their maintenance.
And the landscape watches on, imposing its own brutality on humanity with its salt flats, snow-strewn mountains and every imaginable type of desert. I was somewhat relieved to find that the landscape that McCarthy describes, despite the atrocities wreaked upon its surface and the blood that seeps into its cracks, remains inviolable and retains its purity....more
So, I work in Saudi Arabia. For two years, I lived there too. Recently though, I’ve decided life is better across the 20km bridge separating this natiSo, I work in Saudi Arabia. For two years, I lived there too. Recently though, I’ve decided life is better across the 20km bridge separating this nation from Bahrain, where I now live. The commute, which can take up to two hours on the way home, is very much worth it.
Now, I have a friend, a very dear friend, Matt, who lives somewhere many people would find even less appealing than Saudi: Cleveland, Ohio. If you want to know what Cleveland is like, you have to see the Cleveland Tourism Video on YouTube. Trust me, just watch it.
But I digress.
Matt recently sent me a book for my birthday which is set in Saudi Arabia. It’s called A Hologram for the King and it’s by Dave Eggers who I’ve never heard of let alone read anything by. But (apart from a horrible experience with the first Harry Potter book) I usually regard Matt’s recommendations in any department as very worth making note of. This was a fun read and with all the heavy stuff I read off the 1001 list, it’s been a long time since I’ve read anything so easy. It was so easy, I almost felt guilty reading it.
Was it worth it? Well, yes. Yes, I think it was, but I have to say I only think it was worth it for me because I’ve lived in Saudi and know something about it. Had I been living the last two years in, say, Burkina Faso, I don’t think I would have found this such a captivating read. And then I don’t think Matt would have sent it to me in the first place.
Alan Clay is a businessman attempting to present some hologram technology to (the now late) King Abdullah. As is typical, the trip descends into farce with delays, misinformation, more delays and adventures arising mostly out of Eggers’ imagination rather than any reality. The reality would be far, far too tedious and devoid of incident to make a novel out of.
Has Eggers captured Saudi accurately? I think he has in many ways. That quote below about the infamous homebrew spirit sid (don’t let anyone tell you Saudi has no rivers!) is absolutely spot on (apparently!) This is one example where he’s nailed it; his sequences where Alan gets hit by homebrew in the lonely cell of his hotel room are absolutely classic.
But there were many others that just didn’t work. Alan Clay complains about the heat hitting him like a hammer but has dinner on his hotel balcony. No one eats on a balcony when the summer sun is that hot. He mentions Filipinos doing gardening work on the roads, but, er, no, that would be Bangladeshis or Indians. Filipinos do office or retail/service industry jobs in Saudi. Their hosts are very discriminating when it comes to nationality. And when I read “they sped through the city,” I thought, “Ha, ha… good one!” No one speeds through Jeddah. The traffic is legendarily appalling.
There was enough in there that rang true though, but for the undiscerning, you’re likely to come away with as many false as true impressions.
What troubled me more were the fairly ludicrous plot turns: a Danish businesswoman tries to seduce him, he almost shoots someone, he drives a multi-million pound yacht, he ends up very intimately involved with a Saudi woman… and all this on a brief business trip to Jeddah. Hmmmm. There’s a distinct lack of plausibility about the whole thing that means it’s hard to take Alan seriously when you are faced with the fact that his life is a fairly sad and lamentable affair. That’s a shame, I thought.
There’s no doubt that Eggers can write amusing, entertaining prose and that he can create characters that you want to know more about. But I think because he can write and because he can create characters and entertain you, that’s what he does at the cost of perhaps communicating something a bit more meaningful and meaty. I’m either a snob, or just used to more carefully crafted novels. Maybe that amounts to the same thing!...more
Prior to this, forgetting the purile Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the only Nordic literature I’d read was also by Nobel laureates (Kristin LavransdattPrior to this, forgetting the purile Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the only Nordic literature I’d read was also by Nobel laureates (Kristin Lavransdatter and Growth of the Soil). Laxness was therefore up against some stiff competition, particularly as Growth made it into my Hall of Fame. How did he fare? Pretty well actually.
I’ve enjoyed all three of these classics immensely because all three share the same characteristics. Each focuses on one key character and follows them for decades of their life (or all of it in the case of Kristin). I was going to say that the writer explores the character but that would be to misrepresent this sample of Nordic writing. Characters remain as inscrutable as ever. This is not like the navel-gazing realism of Saul Bellow or self-absorbed David Copperfield.
Here instead, you only see precisely what the character wants to reveal to you. In the case of Bjartur, the paradigm of independent people, that’s not much at all. And it’s this inscrutability which makes the characters fascinating for me. You are constantly wondering at their opinions and reactions, decisions and interactions all the while doing your best to come up with some basis on which to form some kind of judgement of them.
So, Bjartur, determined against all that heaven and earth can throw against him, creates a smallholding from land which is regarded as cursed and raises a family and a herd of sheep and, everyone else be damned, he’ll do it his way or no way at all. But, wait a minute, how does he get this land in the first place? Oh, it turns out he’s paying off a loan. Not quite as independent as Laxness would have us believe then, despite episodes when he asks people to leave the family simply for offering him a cup of coffee later on in the book (I kid you not).
In fact, once I’d finished the book and saw that, later on still, he takes out another, much larger loan, I was not happy at all with the character that Laxness had created with Bjartur. It didn’t fit the message of the novel at all well. Not only is Bjartur quite vocal about his own independence but Laxness uses the characters to make some relatively contrived speeches about how independence is the only true patriotic approach for a loyal Icelander. The book oozes its political message in places. I did get a bit fed up of wiping this ooze off my brain when it was particularly gloopy.
Why then, after these criticisms, did I still rate this book highly enough to make the Hall of Fame? Well, it is beautifully written. Having been to Iceland, I was aware of just how accurately described the landscape and the weather is (I went in early August and it snowed!). There is a poetic lyricism that Laxness employs which perfectly matches the pace and power of the Icelandic environment. It’s a superb novel just for this.
In addition, this book is a stand-out classic in modern Icelandic literature and bagged the nation it’s only Nobel laureate. It’s heavily influenced of course by earlier Nordic writing, particularly Growth of the Soil, but because of it’s impact in its own nation, its legacy deserves to be recognised.
On top of this, there’s definitely a plot to it. You are constantly wondering where the next disaster is going to strike the family and what is going to happen to the children. All of them have plot lines of their own, some longer than others. Laxness can definitely write suspensefully; early on in the first book, there are three chapters beginning with Search which will captivate any reader and the third has an ending that is stunning. Throughout the book, the story keeps you wanting to read on but without any hyperbole or any effort to try and be clever. It’s just very, very good writing.
I’ve heard some criticise the ending, but I’ll not be doing so. It’s an intriguing one and this fits perfectly for me with the rest of the book, leaving me with many unanswered questions about Bjartur, the life I’ve shared with him and the life he’ll lead now that my part has ended. For me, that’s a great way to end a great book....more
I couldn't get the film of this little novel out of my mind while reading it. Hepburn brought the character of Holly Golightly to live so vividly thatI couldn't get the film of this little novel out of my mind while reading it. Hepburn brought the character of Holly Golightly to live so vividly that once you've seen it, you'll have a hard time not imagining her as you turn the pages.
Holly Golightly lives off men, using them to pursue a fantasy lifestyle which keeps her past at bay for most of the novel before it eventually catches up with her. She's also being used and, coupled with her past, this is what sees her disappear from the narrator's life as quickly as she arrives. She's bold and brash, gorgeous and sensual; a romantic dreamer who can change her persona whenever it suits her. She's a fighter and, just when you think she hasn't got a heart at all, she shows compassion on a grand scale.
While Golightly is a memorable literary character, I think she's only become so popular because of the success of the film. Hepburn did Capote a huge favour by bringing the character much deeper into popular consciousness. Without it, I don't think this novel would be half as well known.
Although this is a well-written novella with a memorable storyline and characters which also asks some questions about our identity, world literature has so many astonishing and much more deeply described protagonists that, on a stage shared with them, she doesn't really shine out as brightly as more positive reviewers would have you believe....more
Of course, everyone knows Salinger for Catcher in the Rye, a book I read before this blog began and so never reviewed. That book seemed to be about soOf course, everyone knows Salinger for Catcher in the Rye, a book I read before this blog began and so never reviewed. That book seemed to be about something. This does too but much less so. You have to dig a bit.
It’s a two part novel with each part focussing on a different siblings from a family of child prodigies. The two episodes take place within a short space of time of each other. The first is very short and takes place at a table in a restaurant. The secon, still short but longer than the first, takes place almost entirely in one room in the family apartment in New York. It could quite easily have been a play, I thought. This was because not only did almost all of it consist of dialogue, but Salinger goes to some lengths to describe slight movements and nuances of the situation which could easily be taken as italicised stage directions for the actors. I liked that.
There isn’t really a story. You find out a little about the backgrounds of each character involved (and there are really only four) but it’s only enough to really give you some idea of why they are the way they are. I say that, but I really only mean Franny and Zooey themselves.
Like I said, it’s a little tricky to ‘get’ this novel. I’m not sure I did. It seemed to me that Salinger was commenting on spirituality, family influences, maybe even depression and how the innocuous can reach out and slam those of us subject to it. On the whole, it was a novel that I thought went over my head but just high enough for me to grasp a couple of things from it. I’ll have to read more comments from others to see if I’m on the right track....more
A picaresque novel and as such, eminently forgettable and largely tedious. I can understand the importance of the book for the time it was written in,A picaresque novel and as such, eminently forgettable and largely tedious. I can understand the importance of the book for the time it was written in, but unless you really enjoy “adventures” and plot elements that inevitably contrive to farce, then this isn’t for you.
It wasn’t for me.
So, why are we bothering with it at all? Well, the novel at the time Fielding wrote Joseph (1742) was a fairly predictable affair. Rules that heavily defined British society had constrained the novel within it’s own particular literary rules. Fielding was particularly upset about this and the popularity of such constrained novels by Samuel Richardson in particular.
Fielding intended to break some of the barriers of contemporary fiction and if Wikipedia is any authority to go by, he seems to have succeeded. But, never lacking historical irony, the success of trail-blazing mould-breakers only inspires others to form new moulds of their own.
In particular, Fielding inspired Smollet and Peregrine Pickle is, to my mind, a much more engaging piece of work than Joseph Andrews. If you were looking for an 18th century picaresque novel to while away some time, I’d recommend you bypass Joseph’s outstretched hand of friendship and hit the open road with Peregrine....more
Not read any of Martin Amis' stuff since I started out with The Information which I rated mediocre 6 years ago. This, was far, far better.
Time's ArrowNot read any of Martin Amis' stuff since I started out with The Information which I rated mediocre 6 years ago. This, was far, far better.
Time's Arrow starts off a very disjointed read which seems to make little sense until, about five pages in, you realise that the novel is written backwards. It doesn't seem fair to criticise Amis for using a literary gimmick that isn't original. After all, writers do this all the time. In fact, Amis actually writes an afterword which reveals he was inspired by that famous passage in Slaughterhouse Five (which I've not actually read yet). Is this technique justified or just for show? In Time's Arrow, I think it is entirely justified and that Amis has used it very well indeed.
Why so? Well. First of all, we are all prone to make judgements about the characters we meet. This is as true for those we meet in a novel as for those we meet in the street, so to speak. And so, when we find ourselves viewing the inside of someone else's life, seeing the results of what that life has amounted to, we have very different thoughts from those that arise when we know the full story.
Amis keeps you in suspense throughout. The novel is very well crafted for exactly this purpose. You pick up clues along the way. There are more if you dig a little deeper and spend just a little more time thinking about what you are presented with. But by two thirds of the way in, you realise that the beginning is going to be far different from what you ever imagined at the end.
The book isn't just a story told in an unconventional way. By selecting the specific character you focus on, Amis has allowed his novel to raise questions of identity, guilt and innocence, cause and effect. We are forced to confront our own prejudices and to take a long hard look at how time both constrains and conveys us. Are we then to reach different conclusions about different people acting under the same circumstances but in very different times? This is a novel that would benefit a great deal from a second reading, once you know where it is coming from. I found myself going back to earlier passages and re-reading them in light of what I'd just discovered. By doing so, I think I was doing exactly what Amis had intended: taking a fresh look at situations and people I'd already made my mind up about and realising that I had been quite wrong. It is a powerful novel that can teach us to be more humble....more
This is a novel which should be approached and dealt with very, very carefully indeed. What Nabokov has done here remains as liable to detonate and riThis is a novel which should be approached and dealt with very, very carefully indeed. What Nabokov has done here remains as liable to detonate and rip the world apart now as it did when it was first published nearly 50 years ago.
In particular because child sexual abuse is more in the headlines that it ever has been, Lolita is a novel that is likely to divide popular opinion. In much the same way as Imre Kertesz' Fateless does, it forces the reader to face the dilemma of what you do when something so repugnant is depicted so skilfully. With such sensitivity to the protagonists in the writing, you can't help but sympathise with them while at the same time having to constantly wrestle back to the forefront of your mind the reality of what is laid before you.
Lolita is a well-known story of a man's affair with a 12-year-old girl and the escapades they go to in order to maintain the secrecy of their relationship. It is astonishingly well written. Nabokov is one of the best writers of prose I think I've ever read. Of that there is no doubt, and I am very much looking forward to reading more of his novels. But it's the fact that it's so well written that brings about the dilemma that I've mentioned and the novel is pure genius for this construction.
The novel is also genius for the fact that it is just as (if not more) relevant for us today as it was on publication. Back when this was written, it wasn't only paedophilia that was taboo. Homosexuality was also very much something people would hide from the authorities. Today, one of these has now become perfectly acceptable to popular culture in the United States, the setting of Nabokov's novel, while he other is still regarded as a criminal offence.
One might argue that homosexuality and paedophilia differ in that the former occurs, at least in society's accepted form, between consenting adults whereas the latter does not. But Nabokov also challenges this assumption. How reliable a narrator Humbert Humbert really is we will never know. But, according to him, it is he that is seduced by Lolita, not the other way around. Does this then justify it? At what age are we able to make choices about what we do with our bodies? Homosexuality in the UK used to be a criminal offence and was then legalised for consenting adults over 21... then 18... and now 16 years of age. How did this reduction happen? Have we evolved to become more mature sexually at a younger age or is this simply based on society's view of what is acceptable or not? How can sex at 15 years 11 months of age be a crime when, a month later, it is a right?
So, will 2065 see a US society that accepts a 42 year old marrying a 12 year old? Maybe it will. And if you find this repugnant, what do you think will prevent it? Why will your grandchildren not find your current 'prudish' and 'bigoted' views about paedophilia derisory and so, oh, Old Testament? When society makes its moral rules simply through democratic opinion, all you need is a majority for it to be acceptable. When Lolita was published, it was unthinkable to many that a 16 year old boy could ever legally have sex with another and yet we live in such a time. What is unthinkable to us now will almost certainly be permissible in the future. History has taught us that and the novel as an art form has been its voice.
This has not only made my Hall of Fame (the first since Growth of the Soil over two years ago), but it has equalled the highest ever rating that I've ever given a book tying with Cry, the Beloved Country at 95%. That is quite an achievement, but definitely a deserved one....more
I find Hawthorne tedious at the best of times. This was no exception.
So, there’s this utopian get together called Blithedale and it all starts off wonI find Hawthorne tedious at the best of times. This was no exception.
So, there’s this utopian get together called Blithedale and it all starts off wonderfully with everyone pulling together in the fields in some kind of kibbutz by day and listening to stirring speeches by night. But the narrator, Coverdale, seems to have his doubts right from the start and, sure enough, the wheels begin to come off as the members discover that everything would be perfect if it wasn’t for one factor: them.
The rest of the novel then kind of disintegrates as Coverdale leaves the place and then, somehow in the midst of a teeming city, seems to stumble upon key characters from the community. They appear to be involved in some kind of mystical stage show which Coverdale watches. All of sudden, we’re back in the forest where the community seems to have regrouped for some reason and the novel kind of peters out from there.
Along the way, we have various “conversations” which the author uses for some Rand-ish opportunism as he waxes forth on various opinionated views from community to women’s rights, etc. It all seems a bit contrived.
This is a shame because, as the novel began and I realised what Hawthorne was constructing, I was really looking forward to a utopian ideal self-destructing and revealing various elements of the human condition that cause us to taint everything we attempt. This didn’t materialise however. Instead, Hawthorne seems to have decided it best to introduce a plot which is convoluted at best and contains twists that the reader isn’t really bothered about when they are finally revealed.
Stick to The Scarlet Letter if you’ve never read a Hawthorne....more
And so back to Philip Roth after a long break of nearly six years and The Plot Against America which I thought was excellent. Nemesis is also, like PlAnd so back to Philip Roth after a long break of nearly six years and The Plot Against America which I thought was excellent. Nemesis is also, like Plot, set among a Jewish community of urban New Jersey. Apart from that, including it’s rating, it differs completely from the earlier Plot. I didn’t think it rated highly enough to be on the 1001 books list despite its inclusion in the latest edition.
So there’s this young Jewish guy and, because Bucky’s eyesight has prevented him from fighting in WW2, he’s doing his utmost to be the best playground supervisor he can be in the sweltering summer of 1944. His Jewish neighbourhood quietly sweats as the children gather to play baseball and skip in his playground, despite the heat.
At that time, polio stalked various communities of New Jersey (not just Jewish ones) and it’s not long before the kids Bucky knows and loves start succumbing, some of them fatally to the debilitating disease. Heartbroken and desperate to protect them, he faces a moral dilemmawhen his Jewish girlfriend invites him to take up a made-to-measure job opening in the cool hills out of the city.
I’ll not spoil if for you. Roth does plenty of that. From the title on, you know things aren’t going to end well and, before you know it, Bucky’s idyll has become the scene of terror. Quite what the terror is, I’ll leave you to imagine.
I’m really not sure what Roth was attempting with this novel. It doesn’t really do much to define its purpose. Bucky isn’t a deeply drawn character and everyone around him is barely sketched in. Even the person narrating the story only just makes it onto the scene before the brief book ends. It left me wondering why on earth it was added to the 1001 list in its most recent edition.
Perhaps it made it because it was, as declared by Roth, to be the author’s last novel. If so, it seems about time he rested....more
Lem’s account of a planet covered by what seems to be an intelligent ocean is the work not just of immense imagination but also a critically insightfuLem’s account of a planet covered by what seems to be an intelligent ocean is the work not just of immense imagination but also a critically insightful mind.
Kris Kelvin lands on a manned space station hovering over Solaris, a planet with two suns of differing colours and an ever-moving surface that resembles an ocean of immense dimensions that brought to mind some kind of galactic lava lamp. The scientists he expects to find there are not in the state he expected them to be in when he arrived: one is dead, one has barricaded himself into a laboratory and the last appears to be mad. It’s only a matter of time before Kelvin begins to grasp why and struggles himself not to succumb.
The novel is a sci-fi classic and asks deep questions of science and humanity’s quest for knowledge. In particular, it challenges the way that all human exploration, interplanetary or otherwise, is essentially flawed because of our inability to interpret anything without reference to ourselves. He’s got a point and it’s one which social sciences acknowledge and attempt to reconcile all the time.
The difference here is that Lem is challenging the pure sciences, proponents of which often look down on social sciences as lesser studies due to this very limitation. Having been involved in anthropology and sociolinguistics for some years in my career, I’ve grappled personally with the limitations of the participant observer. I’ve also debated with both of my parents (involved in medical science) that fields such as sociolinguistics are as scientific as those of haematology or parasitology. They have disagreed essentially on the basis that their sciences can prove undoubtedly that x is x and y is y.
Lem’s challenge to this idea was, ironically, published in Poland in 1961, the year both my parents were embarking on their scientific careers. I’ve never heard either of them refer to Solaris. My mother will no longer get the chance. My father will have my copy when I next visit him. It will be interesting to see if he grasps Lem’s point, let alone agrees with it.
As Kris and the remaining two scientists attempt to make sense of their interactions with the ocean of Solaris, the novel builds to its close and kept me engrossed pretty much throughout. It would benefit from a second reading actually. The novel is as relevant today as it was when it was written....more