Villette is not so well known as Jane Eyre, but it has much in common with it and is every bit as interesting. Our heroine and narrator is a young womVillette is not so well known as Jane Eyre, but it has much in common with it and is every bit as interesting. Our heroine and narrator is a young woman called Lucy Snowe: poor, possessed of no special talents, and left to her own resources, she takes a startling gamble with fate by sailing to France, and there finds a living as a teacher in the eponymous town. To avoid spoilers, I'll say only that we are much concerned with the men she meets.
Lucy Snowe is a well named, for she hides her extraordinary passions beneath a cool exterior. Her nature is contrary, elusive and contradictory, puzzling even to those closest to her: even we, her readers, are but qualified confidantes, often left in the dark by her reticence. Whilst doing what she must to make her way in the world, Lucy somehow remains uncompromising, aloof and self-sufficient, earning respect even from those she most confounds. She is perhaps the most intriguing female character I've ever read about.
Just as in Jane Eyre, Charlotte leans shamelessly on coincidence to work her plot, but a little cunning telegraphy sweetens the pill, providing this reader with a satisfying oh-I-see! moment. Just as in Jane Eyre, different kinds of potential suitors for our narrator are juxtaposed and contrasted; and different styles of womanhood are presented, demonstrating what Lucy is not. But the arc of this book is less obvious than in Jane Eyre: we are very far along before we even understand what kind of story this is (and the saucy intrusion of classic gothic elements keeps us guessing).
Speaking of technique, Charlotte's prose is superbly controlled, whether lofty and fanciful or sharp and deft, as here:
...it was not my godmother's habit to make a bustle, and she preferred all sentimental demonstrations in bas-relief.
It's also frequently a novel of high humour, through Lucy's dry observations. Here we catch her in catty mood:
[I was] paired with Ginevra Fanshawe, bearing on my arm the dear pressure of that angel's not unsubstantial limb - (she continued in excellent case, and I can assure the reader it was no trifling business to bear the burden of her loveliness; many a time in the course of that warm day I wished to goodness there had been less of the charming commodity)...
I could have done without swathes of dialogue conducted in French, but I suppose Charlotte was not to know that half-educated barbarians like me might paw at her books a century later!
Villette is an impressive achievement, beautifully constructed, relentless in its focus, concerned with the affections and interior lives of complex and atypical people, and with much to say about both religious disagreement and transcending those disagreements. It insists on its own careful, measured pace, even as it treads through the most surprising situations and revelations, and sure enough it arrives punctually at its intended, yet long unsuspected, destination. Excellent stuff.
(Incidentally, the Gutenberg/Kindle freebie edition has lots of typos, mainly wayward punctuation; but I would be fascinated to observe "Madame Beck's fist classe"!)...more
It begins in Isfahan, Persia, at the end of the 16th century. Nat Bramble is a downtrodden youth in the sTake-home message: this is a wonderful novel.
It begins in Isfahan, Persia, at the end of the 16th century. Nat Bramble is a downtrodden youth in the service of the ruthless opportunist Sir Anthony Sherley. Bungling a dangerous speculation with his master's money, Nat throws caution to the wind and embarks on an expedition to find oil, dreamed up by his new friend, the lovestruck poet Darius Nouredini. Their bold adventure sets in train a sprawling journey across Europe and through the birth-pangs of a British Empire built on far-flung commerce of dubious morality.
The tale is rich in the authentic details of its setting, yet wears its research lightly: I was particularly charmed to learn of the custom by which wedding musicians were paid - you'll have to read it to find out! The writing is fine indeed, but style does not overpower the story. In Newman's previous (also excellent) novel The Fountain At The Centre Of The World, the prose was startlingly sharp but denser: I found this a much smoother, more accessible read, and couldn't stop turning the pages. An example of this expressive, intelligent, yet fluid writing: Darius flounders in arguing with his mother:
Home was the place where Darius hardly knew himself. When he wasn't in this airless cavern he could clearly describe the full horror of this violation, but here he lost all his powers of persuasion. Even when he did place a solid gold argument in the family's crooked scales it somehow carried less weight than his mother's brassy rebuttal.
Note the working in of mercantile metaphors: although it is fascination with the characters that draws us along, this book is actually a serious (though often funny) meditation on trade. The 'secret' of the title is spelled out at one point; but there is another unspoken one that we infuse from the tale just as Nat inhales qaveh fumes, to do with trade as the manifestation of mutual trust between individuals, and not as an end in itself. Again and again, worlds turn on the carrying of messages to engender such trust, via pigeons and poetry; for it is fragile and not easily achieved.
The endlessly colourful adventures at length separate the lifelines of Nat and Darius, and I wondered if this might weaken the ending; yet the closing page reconnects the two strands with immaculate delicacy. Here and elsewhere I was reminded of the respectful elegance of Guy Gavriel Kay's books. The Trade Secret is a history lesson, a radical course in economics, a travelogue, a comedy, a romance and an adventure. If that's not a bargain well made, I don't know what is!...more
On Being is a wonderful little book. Atkins goes through a handful of Big Questions: the origins of the universe and of life, the nature of reproductiOn Being is a wonderful little book. Atkins goes through a handful of Big Questions: the origins of the universe and of life, the nature of reproduction, the end of life and the fate of the solar system and the cosmos. For each, he skims across the quaint stories offered by religions before expounding the realities unearthed by the diligence of science.
There's not a word wasted in 100 pages of crisp prose, nor anything that will tax the general reader. Occasional passages of more technical detail are in small print, and the reader is invited to skip them. Don't: they're fascinating, and his expositions of mitosis and the chromosomal square-dance of meiosis are absolute models of clarity.
Another delight is that Atkins has a dry, understated wit that is sharper than a serpent's tooth. On every page there is something worth quoting:
Those who promote the spirit might claim to know in their hearts that there is more to the world than the physical, but hearts are unreliable organs of knowledge.
Abstraction is taken to its limits in the Hindu Rigveda and Chandogya Upanishad, when being was achieved by the negation of non-being; but that is perhaps not a wholly satisfying explanation to every Western ear, coming as it does within an ant's fingerwidth of being a cop-out.
Although this splendid little volume slots neatly onto the shelf of recent atheist texts, it is less a polemic than an affirmation: Atkins does not so much attack the absurdities of religion as simply dismiss them, laying out instead the marvellous range and depth of scientific understanding. It's an elegant and glorious celebration. ...more
This is a thrilling book. Lane picks 10 milestones in evolution and explores their biochemistry. These landmarks are: the origin of life, DNA, photosyThis is a thrilling book. Lane picks 10 milestones in evolution and explores their biochemistry. These landmarks are: the origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness and death. He presents the problems, the research, the contending hypotheses and his careful conclusions, all in a depth of detail that flatters the reader's intellect (this reader's anyway!), yet remains eminently comprehensible throughout. The arguments and explanations are bang up to date and constantly surprising: it was a real delight to me that despite my reading any number of popular texts about evolution, there was still almost nothing here that I already knew!
The premise requires covering certain inevitable subjects, and so I approached the dull-sounding chapter on photosynthesis, for example, as a necessary evil: yet who could have expected that the molecular processes involved could be so exciting? Similarly, the unpromising topic of the mechanical operation of muscle fibres turns out to be fascinating. I found the chapter on consciousness comparatively weak, but it asks a lot for a biochemist to crack that one!
The book's apparatus includes illustrations, an annotated bibliography and extensive index. There are also endnotes: these contain commentary rather than citation, so are better read as one goes along (footnotes might have served the reader better).
This book passes my 'bus test': it made me want to get on the bus to work, so that I could continue reading it!...more
I loved this when I read it 20 years ago, and I loved it all over again with knobs on when I re-read it last year to record it as a free audiobook forI loved this when I read it 20 years ago, and I loved it all over again with knobs on when I re-read it last year to record it as a free audiobook for librivox (listen here). It's a magnificent fantasy, peopled by larger-than-larger-than-life characters who engage in impossible deeds, tumultuous wars and high adventure. It's written in prose of opulent splendour and it's a soaring, glorious and wildly original work.
On the other hand:
* The apparent protagonist is simply abandoned by the author about 50 pages in.
* It's set, oddly, on Mercury, but its habitat and peoples are perfectly Earth-like.
* The nations are eccentrically named (Demonland, Impland, Witchland, etc) even thought they're essentially all populated by humans.
* The wonderful prose style will be off-putting to those seeking a lighter read.
These little foibles do not impact significantly on this reader. It's a classic and a masterpiece. (And if you read it and agree, seek out his tragically incomplete Zimiamvia trilogy. Woof!)...more
This is about the sole survivor of a ravaged planet, taken in hand by the benign galactic society. He is placed in the care of another man who, the coThis is about the sole survivor of a ravaged planet, taken in hand by the benign galactic society. He is placed in the care of another man who, the computers reckon, is sexually and romantically matched to him to umpteen decimal places. Their love and lust are instantly kindled.
It's a book whose exotic setting and emotional intensity would not compensate for having way too much middle; except that the closing passages are 20 pages or so of the most moving prose I've ever read: extraordinary. Also the title is to die for.
(I believe there was a sequel projected, The Splendour And Misery Of Bodies, Of Cities, but it never appeared.)...more
Five stars are not enough. This is an intricate, moving, funny, warm, wondrous, delicate filigree of a novel.
It's a family saga over the course of a cFive stars are not enough. This is an intricate, moving, funny, warm, wondrous, delicate filigree of a novel.
It's a family saga over the course of a century, set largely in a house and estate in upstate New York called Edgewood. This rambling home is indeed on the edge - it seems to intersect with the land of faery, though there is nothing twee about these fairy-folk. Characters drift uncertainly between one world and the other. Deals are made, enormous yet murky plans move forward.
Our principle protagonist, Smoky Barnable, marries into this world and finds himself unable to buy into the family's quietly-held beliefs, just as he is unable to fix the perpetual-motion machine in the attic. Ariel Hawksquill, a memory-witch, seeks to unravel the mysteries of Edgewood in the mansions of her mind, while Smoky's poor old friend George Mouse and Smoky's love-torn son try to escape them in New York.
It's difficult to convey the sprawling themes of this generous and luminous fantasy (deeply immersed, as John Clute put it, in A Midsummer Night's Dream), but it carries the reader gently into a place of wonder. The prose is as finely crafted as old lace and the internal design of the book has the feel of something antique and intricate. (Crowley wanted a still more lush presentation, and recently (2009) an expensive illustrated collector's editon was released.)
Everything by John Crowley is a gift the world hasn't earned, but if you only read one of his books, this is the one....more