02/23/11 1. I remembered that I loved Jane Eyre - I even watched that stupid Timothy Dalton adaptation! - but I was slightly afraid to read it again, f...more02/23/11 1. I remembered that I loved Jane Eyre - I even watched that stupid Timothy Dalton adaptation! - but I was slightly afraid to read it again, five years after (and for class!): I was worried its charms would fade for me. They didn't. In fact, I have rather a higher opinion of it than before.
2. Imagine my surprise when I discovered I'd entirely misremembered the book.
2a. Well - not entirely, obviously. For some reason I'd retained the entirety of the plot and forgotten what I usually latch onto in books, the struggles, themes, dynamics, and characterizations. For some reason, Jane and Rochester had been reduced to their cultural status in my head. This was particularly unfortunate, as Jane and Rochester are one of literature's greatest pairs for a reason, and they are even less clichéd than they sound. Because it does sound kind of like a cliché: drab, poor governess meets brooding rich man with a secret wife in the attic, and they can only be reunited once he's been maimed by whatever catastrophe kills his mad attic wife and she's had a close call somewhere else. That's the bare bones of Jane Eyre, sure: but actually, it completely misrepresents everyone in this novel.
2b. I did remember this: reading Jane Eyre makes me want to be in love.
3. And, of course, given the timing, I was thinking about the upcoming adaptation (which has truly spectacular casting). Jane Eyre actually is a horror story, in that it's a book about people trying to trap Jane, to subdue and control her, and sometimes they come really, really close. She begins the novel this way, at her aunt's house, where she is disdained and ridiculed, and frightened so much she passes out; all because she is too passionate. At Lowood, the restraints tighten and then they loosen, slightly, but only after banking the fires of Jane's character. She's smoking when she gets to Thornfield, and eventually she gets to blaze, letting out light and heat. Rochester doesn't want to control Jane - he delights in her wildness (how often does he call her a witch, a fairy, an elf?) - he just wants to be wild with her. But not, you know, crazy. (He tried that. It didn't work out.) When she escapes, she runs straight into a man who wants to control her, he actually wants to make her into an imperial and colonial tool.
And he doesn't understand her, look how St. John describes Jane: "God and nature intended you for a missionary's wife. It is not personal but mental endowments they have given you; you are formed for labor, not for love," and: "You are docile, diligent, disinterested, faithful, constant, and courageous; very gentle, and very heroic; cease to mistrust yourself - I can trust you unreservedly." Well, he's not totally wrong, right? Not in the second statement, which does identify some of Jane's good qualities (particularly "faithful, constant, and courageous"). But he gets some very important things wrong and misses out entirely on the qualities that make Jane attractive and make her herself: her mischief, her wit, her passion. And Jane doesn't mistrust herself - the horror in the last part of the novel comes from the knowledge that St. John's will is so powerful he can almost talk her into mistrusting herself, and present her with a false idea of who she is.
Jane says, "My iron shroud contracted round me" and reading about this is the most agonizing part of the book for me. Jane is just good enough, and at this point she is close enough to despair, that St. John could take her to a point where she would not longer recognize the iron shroud for what it is, and embrace both it and the man who placed her there.
She doesn't, thankfully. Jane leaves one man blinded by ambition and ideology for another blinded by his past, but who loves and cherishes her, and recognizes their kinship. Rochester can learn from his mistakes, he's not a cool rationalist (St. John is probably the worst parts of Kantian morality combined with Christian evangelism); in fact Jane herself thoroughly embraces the emotions, and her will. She is not afraid of her desire, only that she might not be able to accomplish it.
4. Which brings me to my next point, which is that the relationship between Rochester and Jane is kind of kinky. I noticed when I watched the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine version that there was an odd subtext to a lot of their interactions. First, every sentence Orson Welles spoke sounded as if it should end with, "in my pants." Second, there seemed to be the beginnings of a serious bondage/domination relationship there (and Joan Fontaine's breathy Jane was not the submissive party). I actually think that dynamic is supportable by the text - yes, I know, I'm projecting the 21st century onto the 20th and the 19th centuries - which embraces the uncertainties, the denial and temptation, the power dynamics, and the teasing that characterizes Jane and Rochester's flirtation (and so on). Jane's even more in charge at the end of the novel, of course (she's telling the story, so she's always in charge; the end of the novel bears that out), but she has more power than I think we might realize. Interestingly . . . I think Rochester realizes that, an insight that seems to me to be rare in any relationship, let alone intense fictional 19th century relationships.
5. So, maybe my reactions to Jane Eyre are not entirely rational, but they are sincere and I hope they are at least somewhat thoughtful. I've rarely been so pleased to reread a book, perhaps never so richly rewarded, either: there were so many elements and subtleties of the book and of Jane that had faded from my mind, if I'd ever noticed them at all. The humor is just one element, it is sly in a way that lets you know Jane is not an entirely nice person. (Ferndean, where she and Rochester reunite, after Jane has rebuffed future-missionary-St. John, is "as still as a church on a week-day.") She is a prickly woman, too, which I think we can forget in our haste to remember her plainness. Anyway: this rewarded a second reading, and will presumably reward many more, and I'm no longer worried about attempting them.
02/26/11 Virginia Woolf knows what I'm talking about!
As we open Jane Eyre once more we cannot stifle the suspicion that we shall find her world of imagination as antiquated, mid-Victorian, and out of date as the parsonage on the moor, a place only to be visited by the curious, only preserved by the pious. So we open Jane Eyre; and in two pages every doubt is swept clean from out minds. . . . There is nothing there more perishable than the moor itself . . .. Nor is this exhilaration short-lived. It rushes us through the entire volume, without giving us time to think, without letting is lift our eyes from the page.
(From the essay "Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights." Woolf has a higher opinion than I do of Wuthering Heights though.)(less)
Patricia McKillip has written better books than this one. More complex, more thought-provoking. However, The Bell at Sealey Head is charming, and I ve...morePatricia McKillip has written better books than this one. More complex, more thought-provoking. However, The Bell at Sealey Head is charming, and I very much enjoyed reading it. The romance is more central than in her other novels, and it is very sweet and convincing. I also enjoyed finding pieces of her other books in this one, which makes sense because in a lot of ways The Bell at Sealey Head is a book about the love of books. I can definitely sympathize with that.
If nothing else, it's worth reading for the way McKillip writes. But if you know anything about her, you must know that.(less)
I've read four of Austen's novels, and although Persuasion is not my favorite*, I do think it is the funniest. The humor a slightly different source t...moreI've read four of Austen's novels, and although Persuasion is not my favorite*, I do think it is the funniest. The humor a slightly different source that Austen's other novels - it's a little broader (or maybe just a little bolder) and the ridiculous characters are 100% ridiculous. Anne's family have nothing to redeem them** . . . except for the opportunities they provide Austen's narrator (which I guess is Austen herself) to snark at them. And they do deserve it: when you are sucking up to your Irish relatives you are 1) pretty far down and 2) pretty stupid. But I think the different humor serves the story very well, because the nature of the romance could very easily slip into a depressing or sentimental plot. Instead, it feels quite true emotionally.
Wentworth and Anne moved me more than Elizabeth and Darcy (although not more than Cathy and Tilney, who are SO ADORABLE, I just want to wrap them up and put them in my pocket so they can flirt with each other by complaining about grammar, talking about books, and wondering at the crazy people around them). I'm not a huge fan of the "girl waits for and moons after the boy she lost" but Jane Austen is Jane Austen for a reason, and it's a plotline that fits perfectly into 1815. Even though it is not the most subtle of Austen's works, I think it is one of the truest and most convincing.
* My favorite is Northanger Abbey, which I know is not a very respectable choice. ** I know Forster said all her characters were at least capable of rotundity, but I am not sure that is the case with Sir Walter.
12/02/10 I think it's interesting that Mr. Elliot is as mixed a character - he's difficult - as Mansfield Park's Henry Crawford. This exchange, for example, gets to the heart of the book in many ways:
"My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company." "You are mistaken," said he gently, "That is not good company, that is the best. Good company requires only birth, education and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice. Birth and good manners are not essential; but a little learning is by no means a dangerous thing in good company, on the contrary, it will do very well. My cousin, Anne, shakes her head. She is not satisfied. She is fastidious. My dear cousin, (sitting down by her) you have a better right to be fastidious than any other woman I know; but will it answer? Will it make you happy? Will it not be wiser to accept the society of these good ladies in Laura-place, and enjoy all the advantages of the connexion as far as possible? You may depend upon it, that they will move in the first set in Bath this winter, and as rank is rank, your being known to be related to them will have its use in fixing your family (our family let me say) in that degree of consideration which we must all wish for."
Upon re-reading, I think Afterimage is a trifle schematic for my tastes - but I wonder if I'd think that if I read it a third time (every re...more02/15/2012
Upon re-reading, I think Afterimage is a trifle schematic for my tastes - but I wonder if I'd think that if I read it a third time (every reading is different!). Also, it's not a very long novel, and it benefits from a sustained mood achieved by reading over a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday morning, which is not how I read it this time. It has a quality I really appreciate in art (especially literature), which is that everything it achieves is on-purpose: Humphreys knows what she is doing, and so the work is controlled without being manipulative. It's an interesting book, and deserves more attention than it gets (although my library has it, so I guess a fair number of people read it?). I'd forgotten the literary allusions, and rediscovering them was really nice.(less)
These are the sort of stories I would normally really like, so I guess I must have been in the wrong mood or something when I read them. There was som...moreThese are the sort of stories I would normally really like, so I guess I must have been in the wrong mood or something when I read them. There was something just a little irritating about each of them, but I can't quite pin down what it is.(less)
Like the Morrison works I've read, it is complet...moreThe God of Small Things reminded me of two literary . . . institutions: 1) Toni Morrison; 2) Naturalism.
Like the Morrison works I've read, it is completely devastating, a portrait of people who are so tangled up in each other that they can't move without collapsing. All they do is hurt each other, but watching this inspires sorrow and pathos in us. Which is why it is a good book, I think.
As for naturalism, the thing that I'm going to remember best about The God of Small Things is the seething, malevolent natural world of Kerala. I thought including it was an interesting choice.(less)
Bleak House is a fairly bizarre novel, but this does not stop it from being extremely compelling. In fact, it probably helps.
In Bleak House, Dickens j...moreBleak House is a fairly bizarre novel, but this does not stop it from being extremely compelling. In fact, it probably helps.
In Bleak House, Dickens joins several social issues which he found particularly provoking to quests for identity and happiness. This does not sound strange, because it isn't, but the way in which he executes the novel - in particular the characters with which he populates his world - is so strange! His fascination with the grotesque is really unrivaled by anyone outside of the 1930s American South. The humor Dickens derives from these characters is truly astounding, but so too is the humanity which he can bestow on them (Guppy is, I think, the best example).
The two narrator technique was one I found interesting. Esther Summerson gets a lot of flack from critics and readers, for example: my mother started rereading Bleak House a little bit ago, but had to stop because she could not handle Esther again. I found Esther's passages much more interesting than the third person narrator, who seemed overly keen to show off his satirical scalpels and had no problem taking a cheap shot. Actually, I think the third person narrator is sort of the Dickens qua Dickens voice, which means its flaws belong to him just as much as its assets. This makes it into something of a parody of itself, as it presents a part of the narrative that is highly colored, narrow-minded, sentimental and satirical by turns, essentially masculine, convinced of its own value. Esther's drabness is welcome in comparison, if only because it promises us some shading in of those colors. Esther Summerson is not an exciting character, but she is an interesting one. She needn't be exciting - Dickens signals most of the plot developments far in advance of their actual occurrence (Richard and Ada spring to mind) - so what we need from Esther is emotional analysis. She delivers this to us in spades. What others have criticized as coyness I think is an authentic reaction to her childhood and the expression of an easily-embarrassed personality. The pains Esther takes to hide her insight matter as much as the insight itself.
I want to note that this book was emotionally successful for me, and that I think many of the flaws are 19th century flaws: I find them in many other books of the period. So long as they are books belonging to the period, they do not bother me. Contemporary literature is another matter.(less)
I don't know if I've ever read a book so infuriating and unsatisfying. (That's a lie: I definitely have, but I can't remember what it is right now.) E...moreI don't know if I've ever read a book so infuriating and unsatisfying. (That's a lie: I definitely have, but I can't remember what it is right now.) Even The God of Small Things, of which I was strongly reminded while reading Desai's novel, had some sort of fulfillment.
Still, when a book stymies me I tend to admire it, since it takes guts to ignore narrative conventions. I don't mean minor conventions like the unities or quotation marks, but major ones like the emotional journeys on which we expect a work to take us.
This is a coming of age novel in all kinds of ways. There's the traditional coming of age, undertaken and endured by the young people, Sai and Biju. And then the grappling with the modern world of the two sisters in late middle age, Lola and Noni. Held up by Gorkha nationalists hoping for contraband (or, I guess, something that can be turned to contraband) and called to account for some library books, Lola explains
"I always said," she turned to the others [her friends] in a frivolous fashion, "that I would save Trollope for my dotage; I knew it would be a perfect slow indulgence when I had nothing much to do and, well, here I am. Old-fashioned books is what I like. Not the new kind of thing, no beginning, no middle, no end, just a thread of . . . free-floating plasma . . . "English writer," she told the guard.
Now, I'm inclined to be over-generous to any self-aware piece of art (oh, Community!) so naturally I loved this part, Desai's wink at the audience. Because The Inheritance of Loss is a bit of postmodern plasma, indeed; around page 150 I was starting to wonder if the book would be any actual plot. (There is, but it's toward the end.) Not because I have any particular bias against books without plot (if you do, though, let's be Vampire Diaries buddies, because that show has more plot than it knows what to do with and not enough people watch it) but because I like to know what kind of book I'm reading in order to think about it more clearly. I mean: you don't downgrade a gymnast on the vault over the absence of a floor routine.
But I also love that part because it's such a great illustration of the ethnic and class tensions at work throughout the novel. Indian/British, Hindi/Parsi, Bengali/Gorkha, ICS/the help. Actually, the town in Uttar Pradesh is made up of all kinds of bits and pieces of ethnic groups: Tibetans, a [gay] Swiss priest, Nepalis and Gorkhas, Gujaratis, Hindi-Parsi girls educated at a Catholic convent . . . no one really belongs. (The same is true, naturally, of New York.)
I also really liked the relationship between Sai and Gyan, although only once it had soured.
Part of me wishes this had been a short story, though. It was a little bit baggy, and I think in some ways it could have been more effective as a short story.
Note: this book employs Chekhov's Dog, a term I've just made up. I have a hard time reading about animals in peril because x, y, z. Forewarned is forearmed.(less)
This is a new Hilary Mantel experience for me, I say as if I am such an expert in Hilary Mantel (I am not). I've read A Place of Greater Safety and Wo...moreThis is a new Hilary Mantel experience for me, I say as if I am such an expert in Hilary Mantel (I am not). I've read A Place of Greater Safety and Wolf Hall, which are both large historical novels and both overwhelmingly about men. Beyond Black, by contrast, is a contemporary novel with magical-realist elements (I know people say that magical-realism and fantasy are basically the same, that distinguishing between the two is genre snobbism, butttt the two genres never seem to have that much in common to me, even if the difference is difficult to articulate). Also, it is overwhelmingly about women.
Alison, the medium at the center of the novel (Mantel tricks you at the beginning into thinking it's Colette who the novel's about, but really it's about Alison) talks about how old-fashioned the dead are. Which makes sense, really. But there's something a little bit old-fashioned about Alison and Colette, too, about the other mediums, and about the whole of Beyond Black. It's an unexpectedly funny book, but the comedy's all (forgive me) black; despite this, and despite the popular lurking trauma trope, there is something kind of worn-down and worn-out about the whole thing, like the furniture you find in your grandparents' house, or in medium-range antique shops. In a good way; in an interesting and profoundly strange way, too.
I'll confess to liking the first part of the book better. The daily grind + existentialism is the kind of thing that really works for me - the kind of book where nothing actually happens. The second part involves Alison working out her childhood trauma, and ends up being kind of done, like an Inspector Lewis episode with ghosts. I have nothing against stories of self-realization/actualization, but I'm not sure the novel really was headed there organically. It kind of swerves, in ways related to plot and characterization.
Sort of like: Sula or Passing, but with a dose of Angela Carter (there are, actually, some really funny parts), and without the ... high mindedness? I'm not 100% sure that's what I mean, but it's as close as I can come.(less)
Mostly, I think Walk the Blue Fields is exquisite. And if you don't believe me, the back cover informs you that many of your favorite authors agree wi...moreMostly, I think Walk the Blue Fields is exquisite. And if you don't believe me, the back cover informs you that many of your favorite authors agree with me.
But I have a . . . reservation, all the same. I'm not quite sure how to express what it is that nags me, and I do want to stress that I think these are very fine stories. What I can't quite resolve, I suppose, is that there is a disconnectedness to them. I mean, they are all quite prosaic (although they are all full of Dark Secrets, in the way prosaic works often are) but there is an unreality to them and to the people in them that I could never quite shake. Nor, somewhat surprisingly, could I really integrate it into my understanding of the work as a whole. Although I probably only noticed this trouble because it was a collection of stories, and so similarities pop up inevitably. Perhaps I would never notice if I read these stories individually, or in smaller groups. (The other hazard of short story collections, of course, is that one goes through them much, much too quickly.)(less)
Okay, so I don't love this novel, but I do sort of admire it. I rank it above Sense and Sensibility, but below all the other Austen novels I have read...moreOkay, so I don't love this novel, but I do sort of admire it. I rank it above Sense and Sensibility, but below all the other Austen novels I have read, although I'm not sure that's fair because it's really a very different kind of novel than the others. There are similarities, of course - Mansfield Park and Persuasion could be the same book, with most cosmetic changes - but really MP isn't what we think of when we think of Austen. Or rather, it is the social-satire side of Austen, instead of family drama or comedy of manners/errors.
I will confess to not liking Fanny, but mostly because I don't think she's much of a character. She seems to basically be a pair of eyes for judging the other characters. And it's not that they don't deserve her judgment, because they really, really do. They are idiots. Even Edmund, the object of Fanny's adoration, is kind of an idiot. Perhaps Sir Thomas comes closest to avoiding idiocy, although he screws up enough to make up for that. But anyway, what bothers me about Fanny is that she doesn't seem fully realized or convincing, mostly because she doesn't say anything. She spends the whole novel listening to other people, and then Austen gives us paragraphs and paragraphs about Fanny's feelings. True, her feelings are very much wrapped up in her ideas of propriety, but they never feel like they belong to a real person. (Also true: I kind of hate books about feelings.) Since, I'm pretty sure, we're supposed to take Fanny's side, this is kind of a problem. I've heard people have problems with Fanny Price because she moralizes, but I would have been able to forgive moralizing. Mary Bennet moralizes - but what kills her for me is that she is boring. Fanny isn't boring, but she does seem to lack a sense of humor, and it's hard to value someone who takes everything seriously and is more likely to weep than laugh. It borders on self-pity, actually, and that's not an engaging character trait. (Mostly, it gives me second-hand embarrassment.)
The other characters, however, are drawn splendidly. Even if they are (and justly so!) the targets of Austen's ire, she does a magnificent job with them. Seriously, they belong in a Restoration comedy, that is how good they are. So it kind of makes up for Fanny, even though a lot of the satire is Very, Very, Obvious. (This is maybe another reason MP belongs on stage?)
Also worth noting: there's at least one really dirty joke in here.(less)
I think Emma may be Austen's second-best book (Persuasion, of course, must be the best). It's nearly the lightest in tone - the purest comedy of manne...moreI think Emma may be Austen's second-best book (Persuasion, of course, must be the best). It's nearly the lightest in tone - the purest comedy of manners, with the lowest stakes for the characters (except, perhaps for Harriet Smith) should their plans and desires remain unfulfilled, and the highest concentration of really ridiculous side characters. These things make Emma sound like a fairly inconsequential novel, and indeed it was accused of lacking plot and significance when it was first published. However, I think it's a very personal story, about a young woman's growing up and self-realization (Emma as existentialist novel?) that utilizes a great deal of social consciousness (and possible social criticism) to frame Emma's journey.
Emma is a deeply flawed character. She is selfish, prone to believing what she wants, slow to examine her own motives and feelings, spoiled . . . in short, a product of her time and class, with the added problem of having had a pampered childhood and now finding herself among people eager to fawn on her. The few people who do dislike Emma (Mrs. Elton) are even more flawed than she is, with little chance at redemption - whereas Emma is all about Emma avoiding the trap of her natural inclinations. Given her environment and responsibility, Emma already has that responsibility - and mostly she rises to it. However, she is not required to alter her character until the point at which we meet her.
Elizabeth Bennet has a similar (but not identical) journey in Pride and Prejudice, but I think Emma surpasses that one because of how thoroughly Austen commits to Emma's character and flaws. The writing style is slightly altered - it's more energetic, but Emma is a more energetic woman than Lizzy - and if Emma were the narrator we would praise Austen's use of the unreliable narrator technique. She doesn't go that far, but it's close. Instead, Emma's character saturates the narrative, without ever making her the narrator, so the reader can see her flaws and her mistakes before she does.
It's also worth mentioning that Knightley's proposal is one of the most romantic scenes in literature.(less)
One of the things I found interesting about The Story of Lucy Gault was that it's a novel of personal (family or domestic) tragedy. So much Irish writ...moreOne of the things I found interesting about The Story of Lucy Gault was that it's a novel of personal (family or domestic) tragedy. So much Irish writing links personal tragedies with the national tragedy, so that all Irish Stories can seem to be Stories About IRELAND. Lucy Gault isn't, particularly, although its historical setting is very much a part of the story (because otherwise why make it historical fiction?). Still, it's not about Ireland, but about Lucy Gault and her family, and the people who care for her - or can't care for her, depending. Trevor carefully examines the crippling effect of grief on this group of people. It's distressing to read about, but then it really should be nothing less.(less)
I get the feeling I would have loved Wilce's Flora Segunda if I had read it when I was still in the target age group. There's a heavy dose of whimsy t...moreI get the feeling I would have loved Wilce's Flora Segunda if I had read it when I was still in the target age group. There's a heavy dose of whimsy that turns a bit sour if you've reached the saturation point - like, I've already seen a Zooey Deschanel movie this month, okay? - and it can be difficult to get past the up-to-my-eyeballs-in-this-already feeling if you don't have the literary flexibility and willingness to experiment (open-mindedness, okay, I said it) that I had as a teenage reader. Because what I loved about reading as a teenager was that I was willing and able to love everything I read. I don't long for the good old pre-critical days, but ... you know. I want to be able to appreciate something like Flora Segunda wholeheartedly. Because I think it's the kind of book that is most rewarding if you engage with it in that way: openly and wholeheartedly. I think it does a lot of things well. And yet, I was very conscious while reading it that it just wasn't for me.
But I still gave it four stars? Because I think it would be really good for lots of other people. If you have a cousin or niece or younger sibling, you should give it to them. You should also give them The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. And then you should feel annoyed that these books weren't out for you, when you were the right age to read them. But don't feel too bad for too long, because after all you can poor yourself a glass of wine or make a sidecar without worrying about people finding out.
Anyway: Flora Segunda, good for lots of reasons, but not really The Right Book For Me.(less)
1. Books etc. I was reminded of while reading Cold Comfort Farm: Bleak House, The Pursuit of Love but especially Love in a Cold Climate (Flora ≈ Cedri...more1. Books etc. I was reminded of while reading Cold Comfort Farm: Bleak House, The Pursuit of Love but especially Love in a Cold Climate (Flora ≈ Cedric, also shares qualities with Fanny), Mary Poppins (and I am sure, if I'd seen it, Nanny McPhee), Under the Greenwood Tree, Terry Pratchett's witch books, Vile Bodies (not Scoop so much, despite Jill Neville's blurb on the back; Scoop is bitter in ways Cold Comfort Farm emphatically is not), The Reluctant Deubtante, I Capture the Castle (although Smith's novel is much sadder and less amusing - takes itself more seriously? - than this one), Little Dorrit, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (I hear it's a book, though I've only seen the film), and of course - Gibbons is very invested in this and makes a point of the similarities - Jane Austen's novels.
2. Cold Comfort Farm is a book about a young woman insistent on bring her relatives forward into the 20th century - or perhaps back into the 18th, you get the feeling that either destination would suit Flora just fine, but since the 20th century has amenities like daily baths, hot water, and cold champagne she'd really rather they went forward. Her goal is to bring them out of Brontë books and into Austen books - or out of tragedy and into comedy. She's rational, organized and orderly, urbane, interested in happiness rather than romance. (Not that she doesn't appreciate romance: her reshaping of Elfine is much more thoughtful and layered than it might look at first.)
3. Ultimately, it's a very funny book. Gibbons blends the pastoral with comedy and romance, and even (surprisingly and rather awkwardly) with science fiction - I think that is the book's biggest flaw for me. The science-fictional flourishes do not mesh well with the other genres, and more importantly they don't fit well with Flora herself, who seems so rooted to the time period in which the novel was written and published that it's difficult to imagine she would actually have been born after it's 1932 publishing date. I guess that's not really Gibbons's fault, since she couldn't have predicted the enormous changes that would take place in the next decade, but I still think it mars the overall atmosphere of the book.
4. But, man, the jokes are really good - especially the ones that clearly take aim at other books. There is a delicious amount of wordplay in Cold Comfort Farm, and my favorite instances were probably the ones where there'd be a lush but gloomy passage describing a Starkadder or focusing on something nature-related . . . and then Flora breaks the mood with her equanimity and cool common sense. It's a lot of fun.(less)
1. Maybe it's just because I recently read Atwood's The Year of the Flood that I noticed the striking similarities between this novel and that one, bu...more1. Maybe it's just because I recently read Atwood's The Year of the Flood that I noticed the striking similarities between this novel and that one, but on second thought, no: they are kind of the same book any way you slice it. I think I prefer Year of the Flood because, well, I'm not sure - I think Year of the Flood is a more nuanced book, although it's still pretty In Your Face. But at the same time, maybe I'm not being fair to He, She and It, maybe it's only because Atwood got me thinking about these issues and themes that I find them repetitive.
2. But at the same time, HSaI is ... sentimental. Kind of squishy. Earnest. I don't want to harp on the similarities or divergences (which seems unfair since TYotF came out about 15 years after HSaI and also Atwood has a higher profile than Piercy), but Atwood's book has a wicked sense of humor that this one lacks - it made the novel bitter rather than, well, weepy. Also, I kind of feel like the main character in HSaI was obsessed with men - rather, with the men she had relationships with; that's not a particularly interesting character to explore.
2a. I much preferred reading about Chava, whose story is perhaps the only place where Piercy strikes that balance between self-absorption/exploration and codependence: Chava recognizes the value of your community and of your self, although I don't think Shira does and I also am not sure Piercy has any idea about that balance either. 2b. The characters assert at some points that gender roles have changed, but that doesn't seem to be the case at all - and notably, single or celibate lifestyles don't seem to be viable; everyone has to pair up at one point or another. It's boring!
3. The comments on creation and motherhood are interesting, though? I guess?
4. The stuff about personhood is much more interesting. And I liked the use of parallel narratives here, which allows the book to be both kind of historical fiction and sci-fi (or speculative fiction, whatever).(less)
The Children's Book is basically Possession, except about pottery and children's literature and it's a sprawling family saga and it's not as sentiment...moreThe Children's Book is basically Possession, except about pottery and children's literature and it's a sprawling family saga and it's not as sentimental. Mostly it's not as sentimental. It still hits the sentiment pretty hard, though. I mean, I like a eucatastrophe as much as anyone, but really. Your time would probably be better spent watching Fanny and Alexander. So, I don't mean it's like Possession in the specifics of time and place and character (although it starts with the Victorians, and has roman à clef elements [a possible game: take a shower every time you tell yourself, "This is definitely about Eric Gill"], and fairy tales, and so on), but rather in its undercurrents. Probably, if you liked Possession, you would like The Children's Book.
But, I'm one of three people, apparently, who didn't like Possession. Perhaps I just don't like Byatt - I don't know, yet, she gets one more chance with me before we're quits - but I liked The Children's Book more. Although it really does fall apart at the end. Actually, at the end, it seems to get quite lazy: all of a sudden there are quotes from political correspondence, brief summaries of important historical events, characters disappear, Rupert Brooke's sex life becomes relevant . . . it is like Byatt and the novel ran out of steam and had to hurry it up in order to make a deadline. I'm not opposed to a collage of a novel, in fact I think it can be very effective, but it's not effective to suddenly switch from focusing on the lives and hearts and minds of your characters to focusing on a history lesson.
Also like Possession, the treatment of sex[uality] is frankly bizarre and unconvincing. It is like someone once told Byatt that sex was important to lots of people, and so she thought, "I guess I had better include it in my books, then." (Certainly, it was important to the Fabians and British intellectuals in the late 19th century generally.) But there is something so coy about it! Something awkward, forced, and embarrassed. Actually, there are many parts of The Children's Book that seem forced - particularly in the meta-texts that run throughout the novel and in the musings about creation. And the plot is basically a soap opera. I would put it on my trashy-but-brilliant shelf, except that it takes itself so seriously and . . . isn't really brilliant. The focus is too diffuse to be really effective, so there is very little resonance. There are a handful of really effective characters, but there are many more who never stand on their own or who owe to much to people who really lived, and so the whole thing feels a bit cheap and inauthentic.
The Children's Book deals with a lot of subjects I quite like: Arts and Crafts, World War I, sex lives of the Edwardians, class conflict, socialism. It wasn't difficult to read. It could have been quite good, but the best parts are the descriptions of lovely things. The descriptive passages make the novel almost worth it.
20 July 2012:
The other thing The Children's Book is good at is miscommunication. People in this book are always feeling one way and being thought to feel quite differently, and then everyone is alarmed by the fall-out. But in a repressed way, because this it England 1890-1919 that we're talking about.(less)
I didn't realize until I was about halfway through The Cookbook Collector that it was essentially the book I'd hoped for in On Beauty. But then again,...moreI didn't realize until I was about halfway through The Cookbook Collector that it was essentially the book I'd hoped for in On Beauty. But then again, I didn't realize it was riffing on Sense and Sensibility until I was like fifty pages in - fall makes me stupid, sometimes. So, anyway, this is a charming and thoughtful novel about two sisters and the people around them . . . and about pretty much everything that happened from 1999 to 2002 in America. It's an easy, understated read, with plenty of insight to offer. I particularly liked that, although the narrators are not unreliable (and not exactly narrators, either - it's third person/omniscient) Goodman is very clever at showing their subjectivity and mistakes, while keeping them sympathetic and (even) likeable.(less)
I read this collection in more-or-less three sittings; with somewhat sharply delineated experiences - I think how you feel about the poems depends how...moreI read this collection in more-or-less three sittings; with somewhat sharply delineated experiences - I think how you feel about the poems depends how you feel when you read them, and I had kind of an up and down, highly stressful week. But, actually, the poems were more "revelatory" early on, when my week was more stressful. But my favorite was probably "Brushing Lives," which is in the last third. The book made me think of Harper Lee, like what Harper Lee might write if she wrote poetry. There's a kind of sad youngness, an interest (sometimes an immigrant's [or first generation] interest) about the poems. They often reflect - and on death.(less)