Well, this was quite the anti-Semitic rag. Even for the norms of the time, which were notoriously lax about this sort of thing, and a publication date...moreWell, this was quite the anti-Semitic rag. Even for the norms of the time, which were notoriously lax about this sort of thing, and a publication date perilously close to the Dreyfus affair, this book has a... kick in it, shall we say.
My favourite moment of that Antisemitism was when the villain - a Jew to end all Jews, of course, although not religious, unwashed and naturally cowardly - noticing the hero all alone and dejected and "being an Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew, could not help but spit at him." Wow, tell me more! Could you find another racial noun to add into that not-at-all-redundant chain, perhaps?
Being a Jew, or a non-Jew, or a part-Jew, is a big deal in this book in general. The author's attention to Jewishness is worthy of a strict rabbi right before a wedding. One of his protagonists, in an attempt, perhaps, to forestall claims to prejudice, is described as having a "small part of that blood which, in isolation..." well, you can imagine, "but without which no beauty is possible," or something like that. Thanks, author! Your universal acceptance is fortifying and encouraging. Whereas a Jew alone is like an ugly bulldog, you need someone in your family somewhere to have consented to tolerate one of these in order to provide, suitably diluted, many generations down the line, a good sample of a fighting dog. Yup. No racism there.
Fortunately for my conscience, the book possesses many more virtues, such as, for example, half a section - not a chapter, note, a section - in which the protagonist monologues incessantly to a dog. And, as though to remind us that it is the dog he is monologing to, uses his (the dog's) name every other sentence. The most noted part of the woman in the centre of the story, the eponymous Trilby, is her foot, of all things, being, apparently, the most perfect appendage in the universe and sufficient for the "sensitive, brilliant painter" to fall in love with her for ever. Well, I suppose one cannot expect in a book from 1893 to have a woman's merits considered, rather than her feet.
The book does have a few moments of grace to it, for example, like the author's surprising tolerance for women of the "lower" sort who sit nude for sculptors and painters in portraits of all sorts. I guess he realises that if all women were of "unimpeachable virtue" artists and sculptors of the time would be in severe trouble. There is also occasionally the glimmering of a sense of humour in there, somewhere, as when talking about the French aristocracy and attitudes towards them at the fin-de-ciecle period. But, on the whole, the fact that this was a bestseller is cause for much eyebrow raising and concern.(less)
Nabokov is the only author I know of so far who, by some trick of genius, managed to make me like an extremely unlikable narrator. I am not sure how h...moreNabokov is the only author I know of so far who, by some trick of genius, managed to make me like an extremely unlikable narrator. I am not sure how he does it, but I manage to both fully understand that the author disapproves of his narrator entirely, and enjoy the narration. In the case of Pale Fire, Kinbote is altogether unlikable and at the same time wholly enjoyable as a narrator, in a way that leaves me jealous and impressed.
Initially Pale Fire may seem unreadable or at least extremely challenging. Just think of the description! "This book consists of a 99 line poem, and the commentary upon said poem." One has to wonder just how one is to keep track of it all, and what sort of story could possibly be told in such a manner. However, Nabokov being Nabokov, he does manage to tell a story, both in the poem alone, and in the aforementioned commentary, which I rapidly rechristened as "The Book on How Not to Write a Commentary, Ever."
It does require keeping in mind at least the general outline of the poem's narrative course, and taking everything said in the commentary with extremely large grains of salt - or, preferably, keeping firm hold of a saltshaker - but, unless you have some form of literary OCD (which, I admittedly cannot guarantee you do not) I would advise against obsessing too much with the precise return to each line and constant jumping back to the point. I feel it's missing the point, but that is just my opinion.(less)
Apparently reviewers of the time called this book "honest but dull." I can't help agreeing. It was, in no more words than that, honest, but exceptiona...moreApparently reviewers of the time called this book "honest but dull." I can't help agreeing. It was, in no more words than that, honest, but exceptionally dull. The first part, especially, was so incredibly tedious, in both its writing and its plot, that I was ready to give the book one star and chuck it.
Luckily for my sanity the next three parts actually picked up - or maybe I got used to the tedium - and became somewhat more bearable to read, putting the book in the realm of 'inoffensive'.
I think that my problem with this book's two protagonists was not a lack of events, but a lack of personality. Sophia's "individuality" was more of an informed ability; it was mentioned an awful lot, and had consequences for the story, but I never saw it with my own two eyes. Constance didn't even have the author reminding me every two minutes how much of a personality she is.
Essentially, in terms of the characters, the book fails in the issue of 'show, don't tell'. It tells quite a bit, but shows relatively little. It probably provides a fairly accurate description of the way women behaved and perhaps thought - though who could say? - at the time the book was written, but it's not really a surprise that nowadays it is relatively obscure. it didn't seem to age well.(less)
A short and surprisingly sweet - for a given sense of sweet - kind of book where nothing much happens, but the nothing much still manages to be engagi...moreA short and surprisingly sweet - for a given sense of sweet - kind of book where nothing much happens, but the nothing much still manages to be engaging just the same.
This is the story of Portia who is given a last name in the book, but ho remembers it? She's about sixteen, naive, used to living in hotels, and completely clueless, even for a sixteen year old. After the death of her parents she is packed off to live with her fraternal brother and his wife in their high-strung, nervous household, because at least it's better than boarding school.
The descriptor on the book says it is the story of innocence betrayed, and perhaps it is, but that is not quite the feel I got from it. It felt more like everybody was busy betraying everybody, in minor and extremely annoying ways. Sort of like living with a lot of internet trolls all in one house.
Unlike many books of the time period, this one is written in a plain, more or less comprehensible way, that doesn't leave the reader searching for more or floundering in elliptical dialogue. A nice and not overbearing look which does leave something to be desired as a bidungsroman because, frankly, while Portia does become disillusionment and comes to understand life and society better, there isn't much growing up done by any of the parties involved.(less)
Sadly, I found this book to be, not to mince words... dull.
The narrator's unlimited satirical egotism was dull, the plot plodded along and was dull,...moreSadly, I found this book to be, not to mince words... dull.
The narrator's unlimited satirical egotism was dull, the plot plodded along and was dull, the rambly writing was dull. If this were an 18th century novel, perhaps I could forgive it more of its dullness, but it really was not, so I couldn't.
The book is supposed to be psychologically insightful, and profound, but, frankly, and maybe this is just me, I could see no insightfullness r profundity in it. The psychology seemed trite, the relationship towards Africa downright patronising, and I got no impression at any point that it was possible to see beyond the trite shallowness of the narrator towards anything much.
Obviously, Bellow is not Nabokov, and can't by his writing give me to understand precisely what he thinks of his narrator while at the same time leaving him almost entirely without redeeming qualities. In Nabokov's work it is possible to glimpse beyond the facade of the narration - in Bellow's it is not. I don't have a great deal of tolerance for this sort of style and plot, and knowing I will have to read more Bellow in the future is disheartening.(less)
Warning: In order to enjoy this book, you have to be Jewish. But not too Jewish. And definitely not an Israeli.
Preferably, you will be a well-educated...moreWarning: In order to enjoy this book, you have to be Jewish. But not too Jewish. And definitely not an Israeli.
Preferably, you will be a well-educated, liberal, possibly somewhat traditional reader, who is rooted in his knowledge of, if not Judaism, then Jewish culture, so that you can understand all those parallels and parables the author throws at you. But not too rooted, because then you would know just how implausible some of the situations portrayed by Englander and acted out by his characters really are.
I'm not talking about haredi Jews taking drugs and drinking - there's nothing implausible about that. I am not talking about settlers being bitter, nasty, or petty - there's nothing implausible about that, either. I am talking about a family walking i to their hosts' house - people they'd never met before - and beginning to spout interminable Israeli cliches. Do I say the sort of thing that the two visitors from "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" spend the first four pages of the story saying in order to further ingratiate themselves upon the host - and the reader? Actually, yes, yes I do. Do I make an ass of myself by doing so the first time I meet someone in their own house? What sort of idiot do you take me for.
Englander's Hidden Design is so obvious, it's practically painful; look, here are these two moral paragons of religion, who are completely disgusting and inhuman until they get drunk and stoned and shed their superior morality to show that they, too, are just as human as the secular man who, despite everything, managed a better, more fulfilled, more genuine life. It's a well known cliche, but old, so old, old enough that its white beard is dragging on the ground, and it's easily recognizable to every reader.
Or how about Sister Hills, where a court scene is staged and lasts for ten pages in order to show that adherence to religious law and principle must perpetrate an immoral and perverted outcome, and that the myths settlers and religious Jews uphold if genuinely looked upon and interpreted must reveal full on their ugly and wrong nature, which in reality would have been solved with exactly three sentences, and dismissed, with no impact to religious life whatsoever? How about a 27-year-old who puts up no active resistance against being bound to a woman she cares nothing for against her will for the rest of her life?
Englander's characters go out to prove a point, with clubs in their hands which they smack over the readers' heads, and appear to be devoid of agency, of personal drive, or of independent motivations. They are created to prove a point, and that point gets proved.
In many ways, the look Englander gives at everything is the look of the outsider. I do not know when and on what terms he departed from Orthodoxy, but the efforts to distance himself, place his adult, thoughtful life on the other side of the fence, are apparent, and they hurt. It will always be a question as to whether it is possible for an outsider to write a true portrayal of a society, and whether by being an outsider that portrait may even be improved, but, I feel, in the cases where said portrait is truly improved, the outsider has a sense of his own outsidedness. He knows he is an outsider, and is humble before that disconnect, perhaps even struggling against it - in every portrayal of a society by an outsider there is an attempt to come closer and to become part, while knowing that it is, in fact, impossible.
Englander is exactly the opposite. he is an outsider who thinks he's still in, a person who attempts to cosset an 'inside look' at a world while trying to detach himself, morally, emotionally, and cognitively, from it. He cannot hope to being to be the conscience of the Jewish world, because he is no longer part of its moral dilemmas.
One thing more and I am done. I know that, when reading this review, people are likely to say that, being Orthodox, being a settler, I am unable to face up to Englander's 'sharp, insightful criticism'. That my objections stem from an attempt to live in an idyll, or close-mindedness, or bias. So let me tell you this: Englander's criticism scares me not at all, most especially since it's neither all that sharp, nor necessarily insightful. We - the Orthodoxy, the Jews - have faced worse before. Englander is neither the Karaite movement, nor the thinkers of the Enlightenment, nor Spinosa. We've looked at these criticisms, and have taken them into ourselves, and become better, stronger, more versatile for it. I am thankful for these critics, the apostates of the past.
Englander is simply not one of them. His critique is based upon shallow cliches, little vignettes, cornered people with no thought of their own. His stories are not a mirror, or at least, it is a mirror reflecting darkly, not brightly. His criticism is his own, of course, and I would never rob a man of it, but distorted criticism makes for poor writing, and Englander's sin, as a writer, is one I find hard to forgive.(less)
Maybe I just don't enjoy post-colonial existential angst. I don't know. perhaps this sort of thing doesn't age as well as other subjects, but I can sa...moreMaybe I just don't enjoy post-colonial existential angst. I don't know. perhaps this sort of thing doesn't age as well as other subjects, but I can say I didn't enjoy The Stranger very much, and i found this book to be ultimately extremely boring.
I find it hard even to put down precisely which parts had bored me more than others, but there was a sense of complete offhandedness in the way the book was written that I found basically put me to sleep while reading. Port and Kit were glorified tourists with almost no depth or emotional lives, who tended to do silly things, assume silly assumptions - though I suppose that was the point - and have rather obnoxious conversations.
I can't fault the writing with much, except for its inherent lack of.. I don't know, energy, emotional depth... something that transfers like a spark between the reader and the writer and serves to communicate the author's passion, the author's investment of self. I felt like this book was written without any investment of the author's self, and for that reason it was flat.(less)
This is the second novel I am reading this year in which women's lives are saved, somehow, by science. That is not an unremarkable coincidence because...moreThis is the second novel I am reading this year in which women's lives are saved, somehow, by science. That is not an unremarkable coincidence because science is seen as one of the most quintessentially "male" occupations out there.
Of course, of all sciences, biology in its more concrete forms - botany, entomology, lepidoptery, ecology - is seen as somehow more "appropriate" for a female, but this is, thankfully, not the angle either of the books takes.
Kingsolver rebounds, too, in my opinion, from her previous book, which was a bit of a disappointment to me, and manages to captivate once again without overindulging and overburdening. This is very important, because her stress on all topics environmental and Global Warming related could potentially turn this book into unreadably preachy. Even as it is, it's somewhat heavy-handed in driving the point home; fire, flood and metal trumpets abound. But she manages to be just graceful enough that I, the reader, don't feel utterly put off by political diatribes. What's more she manages to drive said environmental issues home without ridiculing the population sector among which the book is set, which is a truly endearing, to me, note. She is criticizing without being condescending, and that's a big deal.
As usual, Kingsolver leaves us with a somewhat unsatisfying conclusing, with many foreshadowings dispelled with a single stroke of the pen, though it is obvious that that anti-climactic resolution is on purpose, and not a failure of the author. The one thing that saddens me and is, I think, a flaw, is that the events leading to the conclusion are all off-screen. We simply see their results, but we don't see the events themselves occurring. It could be claimed they are not central to the story, but I was left with a desire to have actually seen them, not just heard about them in passing in retrospect.