Anne Tyler is one of the more underrated writers, despite the Pulitzer. The Accidental Tourist is tightly written with the ability to introduce unique...moreAnne Tyler is one of the more underrated writers, despite the Pulitzer. The Accidental Tourist is tightly written with the ability to introduce unique, yet believable characters. She fleshes out characters so well, so quickly. Just an excellent read (and an excellent movie -- stays close to the book).(less)
This book disappointed after rereading it from many years prior. I'm a Percy fan, having reading all his novels and many essays, but suddenly this boo...moreThis book disappointed after rereading it from many years prior. I'm a Percy fan, having reading all his novels and many essays, but suddenly this book seems dated. While the structure seems clumsy, Percy still handles the basic questions of who we are are and how we fit in society better than most. A Catholic convert, he has a critical yet sympathetic way of challenging the faith in a way that would make most Christians squirm. In short, he takes on the tough questions and is resolved to not understanding he answers.(less)
Housekeeping is one of those island books..."if you can take five books to an island..." I first read this book nearly 15 years ago in grad school, an...moreHousekeeping is one of those island books..."if you can take five books to an island..." I first read this book nearly 15 years ago in grad school, and it has never been far away since. My copy is so old I cannot even find an image of the cover! But the cover to the left is good since the railroad bridge plays a central role in the novel.
Robinson's book fits in with the long tradition of great American novels, but I will not pursue that thought here. Instead, as I consider using this novel for a college-level English writing course (in which we also read!) I want to explore the idea of approaching life. This short book is loaded with themes (memory, water, transience, death, existence, family, role of women, and the list goes on) that I could write a series of entries on this book alone.
The plot is deceptively simple. Ruth and Lucille are two young girls dropped off on the porch of their grandmother (whom they have never met) while their mother goes to drive a car off a cliff and into a lake. This same lake took the life of their grandfather when the train he worked on went off the bridge "like a weasel sliding off a rock." They are raised by their grandmother until she dies, and two spinster great aunts jump in but eventually recruit the girl's Aunt Sylvie to handle raising them. Sylvie is "a drifter" who is fond of riding in boxcars, only laughs when asked about her husband, and seems in no particular interest to move forward. Lucille eventually leaves the two to live with a teacher so she can be like other girls, but Ruth decides to stay with Sylvie.
Sylvie's approach to life, that of a transient, is reflective of how life truly is. It sounds cliche, but we are just passing through. Sylvie's life is one of working with that direction instead of fighting against it. "Housekeeping" is the attempt to bring order against this transience, but Sylvie shows no desire to fight against nature. In fact, nature itself begins to take over their house, which Sylvie accepts (but does not necessarily welcome or discourage). Her whole life revolves around her ability to move along with where life leads her. Perhaps because her father (Ruth's grandfather) dies when she is young, she understands the transient life. And she does not fear the end of that existence. At one point Sylvie and Ruth spend the night in a rowboat on this lake which has claimed their family and below the bridge which offers escape, yet also death (and the two are often intermingled). As Ruth dips her hand in the water and thinks about how easily they could capsize, Sylvie tells her "There is nothing to be afraid of...Nothing to be worried about. Nothing at all."
Of course, Sylvie draws the attention of the well-meaning townsfolk who do not follow nor understand this transient approach to life. They want her to conform to society, if not for her sake than at least for Ruth's, and for a short time Sylvie tries this approach. But it is not in her, and Ruth sees no reason for the struggle either. Lucille also does not understand their approach and thus goes into traditional society. One way in which this book rises above others is Robinson does not set up flat characters which make it easy for Sylvie to rail against society. Instead, both Ruth and Sylvie seemed awed by the way others can master the rules of society and live in an orderly way. We also see how Sylvie must look to others, with 14 cats living in the parlor with half eaten birds, cans piled to the ceiling, and window panes missing. At times Sylvie seems to wake up and see herself, but her attempts at fitting in are short lived and bound to fail.
So how should we approach life? Of course, Robinson does honestly think we should jump in boxcars and eschew our home and communities. But should we fight the transient nature of our existence? Is there a way to balance this awareness of our mortality with "housekeeping?" The answer may lie in community and relationships, which are also central to the novel. Sylvie may be a transient, but there is a whole community of transients who depend on one another. Ruth and Lucille are torn between two communities, but each makes a conscious choice on how to live. What binds them are those current relationships and the memory (another major theme) of old relationships.
This could go on for a while, so I'll stop. To put it simply -- read this book. Not only is the plot incredible for many reasons, Robinson's prose is, well, poetic. In fact, I remember being told she published parts as poetry before publishing the novel, but that may be grad school enthusiasm. However, the book received an endless amount of praise when it came out and showed up on more than one 100 best books of the century lists in 2000. It was almost 25 years before Robinson's next novel came out a few years ago and won the Pulitzer (and I have a signed copy from when I met her on campus for a reading!). She is a remarkably brilliant yet humble person who spent much of her "time off" educating herself, although she managed to publish two non-fiction works in between the novels. Anything she has written is worth reading, and as you may have figured out, she has not written all that much. But with any luck, she'll continue at a faster rate.(less)
Hard to go wrong with Jane Austen, but this reread of the novel confirms its place as my least favorite. Austen is mocking the gothic romance novels o...moreHard to go wrong with Jane Austen, but this reread of the novel confirms its place as my least favorite. Austen is mocking the gothic romance novels of her time, and she does so with usual biting humor and wit. However, it gets old and predictable (like the novels she is satirizing) because it lacks her original touches. (less)
Jane Austen fans will lovingly quibble over which of her novels is the best. "Pride and Prejudice" is a universal favorite (and my personal choice), w...moreJane Austen fans will lovingly quibble over which of her novels is the best. "Pride and Prejudice" is a universal favorite (and my personal choice), while "Sense and Sensibility" has a strong following behind it. But scholars often point to "Emma" as her finest work. It is her longest work and she excels at using dialogue as the vehicle for telling you the most about her characters. Seemingly unimportant conversations are essential at showing you the motives, the tenancies, the strengths, and the errors of her characters. I’ve read this book several times and now spend more time on these character-driven sections than in the past. It is truly some amazing writing.
But what has held me, and perhaps others, away raising the "Emma" flag too often is, well, Emma. Austen herself famously wrote in a letter prior to starting the novel that “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” I must say, I’ve always felt she hit it on the mark. Emma is a manipulative person who feels she knows what is better for everyone else than they do themselves. When her attempts at matchmaking fail, she shows temporary guilt, and then unconsciously moves on to the next matchmaking attempt. She grooms one young lady like a puppy, and then sets her up for one fall after another (unintentionally, but still!). And then (PLOT SPOILER) in the end she gets all that she wants. Clearly, if you are familiar with Austen you expect a happy ending, so that is not much of a spoiler, especially she does not figure out what she wants until near the end of the novel.
Perhaps the most damaging mark against Emma comes close to the end when she makes an accurate, but hurtful, comment toward a woman who talks too much. The “Box Hill Incident” shows Emma at her worst in that she seems unaware of the influence she has on others. Only when she is taken to task by her friend, Mr. Knightly, for her comment, does she begin to understand the damage she has done. That she is unable to immediately undo the damage gives her time to consider the consequences. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this scene because, to put it simply, it is uncomfortable. You watch helplessly as one person makes a fool of themselves and then makes it worse by her cutting remark. However, reading it this time, I was uncomfortable because it is a great shot — she is right on mark and she is funny. That line to one person may have returned with an equally adept shot, but in this case she hits a person who is defenseless in so many ways. Mr. Knightly highlights this in his censure of Emma’s actions.
Which brings us to the underlying issue of class distinction found in the novel. What makes Emma’s comment so wrong is not the comment itself, but the person she hurt. It is someone beneath her social circle, someone who has seen her social stature drop, and someone who will not see it rise. She is down and Emma has kicked her.
Emma should have see the fault because she is very conscious of class. But as Mr. Knightly implies, that is simply a matter of birth. While she will have advantages that others will not, that only makes it more important for her to reach out to others.
Austen shows the breaking down of the social classes in the early 19th century. Wealthy tradespeople are buying property and asserting their social demands — think of it as the New York battles between “old” and “new” money seen in Edith Wharton’s novels. In "Emma" we see the blurring of these lines, especially in a small society, but the lines are still there. By the end of the novel the lines have been broken in one case, but maintained in two other relationships. Austen blesses them all with happiness.
As for Emma, she is unlikable in that she is really like us. She is a flawed character. Austen does not present too many stereotypes, and, in fact, Pride and Prejudice relies on our character flaws for driving the novel forward. But Emma is more flawed, more realistic, than most of Austen’s characters. It may be that glimpse in the mirror which has driven me away from "Emma" since I first read this novel many years ago. As I get older I find I’m more comfortable acknowledging my faults. Perhaps that is why I’m now more comfortable with Emma.
A final note. I read the “Annotated” version by David Shapard. This is the third of these editions I have read and I enjoy them immensely. On the left hand page is the text and on the right hand page are Shapard’s notes, which at times are reflections on the text, at times clarifications of definitions, and at times insight into time-specific elements (such as what the different carriage styles signify). For a first-time reader I would recommend focusing on Austen, but then be sure to return to one of these versions for a fresh look at a classic.(less)
I've long been a P&P fan, but this most recent rereading of S&S has me reconsidering my favorite Austen novel. Of course, in the end it does n...moreI've long been a P&P fan, but this most recent rereading of S&S has me reconsidering my favorite Austen novel. Of course, in the end it does not matter since they are all outstanding. I was again amazed by Austen's subtle wit on display throughout the book. Hardly anyone is free from her barbs, but they are done with such humor that even the victims would have to smile.
Elinor is a great character in that she is 3-dimensional. Austen avoids creating the perfect people, so even the heroines (and heroes) have their faults. Her commitment to others and her willing to sacrifice for them make her enduring.
Faith, something that does not always play a role in this preacher's daughters work, makes some small appearances. Most notable is Marianne's recognition of her need to repent to God and live a more humble life. Of course, Elinor marries a minister, but you never actually hear of Edward's faith in and of itself.
Just some general comments. At some point in the future I'll read it again and write something more substantial. (less)