review: high fidelity

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (1995)

An intriguing fun fact: High Fidelity is a first novel.  I read Juliet, Naked last year and thought it was okay but not great, and got about halfway through A Long Way Down before putting it down and never picking it back up.  I have wanted to love a Nick Hornby novel, and finally High Fidelity has filled that particular (strange?) bibliophilic desire.  I loved this novel.  Loved it.  The question I asked myself after finishing it was why had it taken me so long to read it?

The story is told through the first-person narrative of Rob Fleming, a 35-year-old bachelor who has just broken up with longtime girlfriend, Laura.  The first part of the novel, the “THEN” part, reads like a kind of prologue, in which Rob lists his top five breakups.  This part imagines Laura as the intended reader or as though he’s speaking directly to her.  Rob is emphatic in his declaration that Laura doesn’t make this list, but methinks the man doth protest too much.  Chapter One then begins the “NOW” section of the novel, and one of the interesting things about it is that it is written in present tense.  It’s like we’re in Rob’s head, hearing his thoughts and listening in on his conversations as they happen.  The memories of his top five breakups drive Rob into sustained self-reflection as he tries to work out why those relationships didn’t work out, even as he is trying to make sense of his relationship with Laura.

Rob also owns a record store (yes, actual records) called Championship Vinyl.  Even as he is thinking about his past, his present, and his future in terms of romantic relationships, he is also reflecting on where he is professionally.  His store is on the edge of failing, and he’s not sure that he wants to save it.  He feels that his professional life is a failed relationship and uninterrupted inertia.  Rob is drifting through life but going nowhere, and yet at the same time he’s stuck in place, unable to move forward or let go of the past.  Although he loves music, he continues to ask himself if listening to pop music makes him miserable, or if he’s miserable because he listens to pop music.  He meditates on the power of film, music, and fiction to shape our identities and expectations, and he recognizes, too, that such creative arts provide individuals with a way of expressing emotions that they can’t otherwise put into words.  Rob’s incessant penchant for making top 5 lists is driven by his inability to express himself in any other way.

I taught this novel in one of my literature courses, and I suggested to my students that one of the primary themes of the novel is letting go.  This to me is one of the main sources of tension in the novel.  Rob has held onto these breakups and allowed them to define him and his point of view, but ultimately he has to let go of the regret, the pain, and the misunderstandings because if he doesn’t, he’ll never be able to move forward and have a successful relationship.  I also don’t think that Rob’s age is a coincidence.  He’s definitely having a mid-life crisis, but what gives the narrative so much power and force is that it’s painfully, unflinchingly honest.  Rob isn’t one of those self-deluding, unreliable narrators.  He doesn’t censor himself out of some fear of discovering something within or about himself that he doesn’t want to face.  The narration is wildly funny at times and I laughed aloud on numerous occasions to the point that my eyes started watering, but at the same time I felt myself identifying with his uncertainty and disillusionment.  One of my students said that Rob is lost, and I totally agree, and the narrative is that much more affecting because I know exactly how that feels.  Rob is like so many of us who is just trying to figure out how he got where he is and where does he go now? Where does he belong and will there be an end to the loneliness he feels or will he finally find love, happiness and a lasting relationship.  There’s nothing particularly special about Rob but I was completely invested in his story and how it was all going to end.

Now, don’t get the wrong impression.  Rob is far from perfect.  He’s misogynistic, selfish, self-absorbed and egotistical.  He’s that person in your life who thinks his taste in music is superior to yours.  He’s a flawed character, and there’s no getting around it.  But…but in spite of his flaws I liked him and wanted him to finally figure it all out and make the “right” choices so that he might be able to have the happiness he wants so much.  Would I want to date Rob Fleming? Probably not. Do I see a lot of him in myself? Absolutely.  This is good and bad, but in the end it makes him a realistic and completely believable character.

Is it okay if I repeat that I loved this book? I loved this book, and I wonder if part of this is because I’m close to Rob’s age and closely identified with his character.  It’s my opinion that the effect a book has on us is sometimes dependent upon where we are in our lives when we read them.  I’m not sure that my reaction to this book would have been the same if I had read it five years ago, much less ten years ago, and so maybe it’s okay that I’m just now reading it for the first time.  Still, I highly recommend this book.  It’s a wonderful first novel that has a lot of energy, humor, and hope.  High Fidelity is definitely on my top five list of favorite reads of 2012.

review: loitering with intent

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark (1981)

I discovered Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark by accident last year when I was reviewing novels to teach in a class focused on the 20th century British novel.  I just completed my third reading of this book, and with each reading I like it more and more.

The protagonist of the novel is Fleur Talbot.  Fleur is writing her memoir, and the specific period of time she is recounting is the middle of the twentieth century, from September 1949 to June 30, 1950.  As she unfolds the events of the past, we learn that it was during this time that Fleur was writing her first novel, Warrender Chase.  Because she wasn’t yet a successful, published author, it was in September 1949 that she found herself in need of a job, and her search leads to a secretarial position with the Autobiographical Association, established and led by Sir Quentin Oliver.  Fleur explains that the purpose of the members of the Autobiographical Association is to write their memoirs and once completed, to lock them away for seventy years in order to avoid any accusations of libel.  One of Fleur’s responsibilities is to edit the drafts of the memoirs, but she takes the liberty of “livening up” the memoirs by adding events, details, and people that never really happened or existed.  Though the writers at first find the changes disturbing, they eventually allow and accept them to the point that they begin to believe fiction to be reality.  Further still, the nature of Fleur’s own autobiography becomes questionable when we come to learn of the two autobiographies she admires most—that of John Henry Newman which she calls a “beautiful piece of poetic paranoia” and that of Benvenuto Cellini which appears to embellish the truth to the extent that it is difficult to believe everything in it to be true.  Consequently, the reader questions whether Fleur’s autobiography is a piece of poetic paranoia or if it is embellished to the point of fabrication.  Or is it a little of both?  These threads of the narrative allow Spark to deliberately blur the line between fact and fiction and question the nature of autobiography.

The line between fact and fiction is further blurred by Fleur as she relates the creation and evolution of her first novel, Warrender Chase.  As the story continues, it becomes difficult to be sure if Fleur is telling us the truth when she claims that none of the characters or the plot of her novel were inspired by Sir Quentin, his mother Lady Edwina, or the members of the Autobiographical Association.  Particularly when Sir Quentin and the Autobiographical Association begin to act out some of the events that occur in Warrender Chase.  It is also difficult to determine if Fleur has not only written a work of fiction but also created the “real” individuals that populate her memoir. Throughout the story, Fleur tells her friend Dottie that she could have invented Sir Quentin, and even Dottie becomes a character type for Fleur—an English Rose—a character type that appears in her novel.  The result is that readers not only question whether or not Fleur, who is writing her memoir, is actually a reliable narrator but also what parts of Fleur’s memoir are fact and which parts are fiction.  The answers to these questions are certainly left up to the interpretation of the reader.

Beyond the questions of what is real and what is fantasy, Fleur Talbot is a wonderful example of an emerging modern woman of the 20th century.  In fact, Fleur’s refusal to submit to male dominance and traditional expectations for women makes her a refreshing character in terms of how women placed within a mid-20th century setting are typically represented.  She is career-oriented, ambitious, and focused upon success and achieving her goals, and though she is not by any stretch “perfect” and some readers will question her morality, she’s appealing as a character, and her characterization is one of the many strengths of the novel.

Another of those strengths is the way Fleur reflects upon her development as a writer.  More than once she remarks on how wonderful it was to be a woman and a writer in the middle of the twentieth century.  As I was teaching this book last week, I contemplated whether this novel fits into the category of a Kunstlërroman (“novel of the artist”).  We don’t see Fleur’s coming of age and development as an artist from childhood, so perhaps in the strictest sense it doesn’t fit this category.  And yet, I want to put it in this category.  Fleur’s recollections about writing her first novel and how she sees herself as a consummate observer of human experiences and emotions so that she can incorporate those into her fiction offers an interesting look at how Fleur understands the craft of writing (and, I suspect this applies to Spark as well).  For someone who writes, it’s an interesting look into how one person (even a fictional person) finds inspiration.

Loitering with Intent is definitely one of my recommended reads.  The story is entertaining and neither Fleur nor the novel takes itself too seriously; and yet at the same time the complexity of the interlocking narratives, the ambiguous line between fact and fiction, and the presence of a strong protagonist make it easy for me to see why this novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  I will say that getting my hands on this book proved a bit of challenge initially, but if you can find a copy, give it a try.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

review: emma

Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

Emma is the second novel by Jane Austen that I have read.  I read Northanger Abbey earlier this year, and after reading it I have to say that I wasn’t sure what all the excitement over Austen was about.  Now that I have read Emma, I finally get it.  If you haven’t ever sampled anything by Jane Austen, I would definitely recommend starting with Emma.

Not surprising, the narrative follows Emma Woodhouse, a twenty-one year old young woman.  The Woodhouses are at the top of the class structure of their little community of Highbury, and the only family on the same level is the Knightleys.  Emma has a nice little fortune—thirty thousand pounds—making her a wonderful match for some eligible bachelor, and yet Emma is resolved upon not marrying, though she enjoys playing matchmaker.  Everyone in Emma’s life—with the exception of family friend, Mr. Knightley—overlook Emma’s faults (specifically, her vanity and her arrogance) but its these faults that will lead her into making a series of miscalculations and errors that drive the plot and create tension and conflict in the novel.  At the start of the story, Miss Taylor—Emma’s former governess and all around lady’s companion—has married and is now Mrs. Weston, and Emma is looking for someone to fill the gap.  She settles upon Harriet Smith, a young woman whose parentage is unknown (making her less marriageable and much lower in social class than Emma), and begins to shape and mould Harriet and play matchmaker for her.  Along with playing matchmaker for Harriet, Emma also becomes infatuated with Mr. Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston’s son.  The cast of characters in this novel is delightful, but especially Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, who is a hypochondriac and does not like to have to leave home.  There are lots of twists and turns in the plot, but it is certainly in the tradition of a comedy of errors that ends in marriage for all of the “good” characters. Readers who want a happy ending won’t be disappointed.

Austen’s usual themes are present in the novel.  She’s interested in social class and the lives of the English gentry and middle class, and she locates the story in the English countryside.  She offers us a coming of age story for her heroine, and that heroine is intelligent but naïve and must learn her place within the structure of society.  I can see why readers would be tempted to call Austen a feminist—Emma is a strong female character who rejects the idea of marriage for herself, and because her father is somewhat of an invalid and a shut-in, she appears to have more power and agency than other 19th century female characters.  But in the end, Austen reinforces the status quo of the patriarchal society she depicts in the novel.  Indeed, the disorder and imbalance within the social structure occur because individuals do not accept or understand their place within that structure.  Only when everyone accepts their position can the social order be restored and everyone get their happy ending.  The characters who continue to resist their position and presume to a higher position are marginalized and ostracized within the community.  So it’s hard for me to say that Austen was actively challenging the oppression of women in early 19th century England.

That being said, I think the novel is delightful, entertaining, and amusing.  Emma may be a snob and selfish and self-possessed, but lots of twenty-one year olds are this way, and she does eventually “grow up” and see the error of her ways.  I loved her character, and as I mentioned above the supporting cast of characters is also strong.  I was interested in everyone’s story, and I was pulled into the various plot threads and invested in how everything was going to turn out.  I have to admit that I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would, and I would definitely read it and teach it again if the opportunity ever arises.

Emma is certainly one of my recommended reads.  It’s light and fun and entertaining, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want from a book.

 

 

 

 

review: nineteen eighty-four

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

When I started reading Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, I thought to myself “How is it that I haven’t read this book before?”.  It is, after all, responsible for several words within our common, everyday lexicon—Big Brother, the Thought Police, and double-think, to name only a handful. Now that I have finished the novel, my opinion of it has definitely undergone some change.

One thing I discovered by reading the novel is that I didn’t actually know what it was about.  The narrative follows Winston Smith, a thirty-nine year old man who lives in Oceania, one of the three “superpowers” of the world (the other two are Eastasia and Eurasia, and Oceania is constantly at war with one or the other).  Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, and his job is to alter historical records so that the “official history” of Oceania says what Big Brother wants it to say, and so that no evidence exists that could challenge Big Brother’s power.  This includes erasing all traces of the existence of individuals who are guilty of thoughtcrime—that is, having thoughts that are contrary to the collective thinking Big Brother mandates.  That the past is mutable and alterable and that people can be so completely wiped out of existence bothers Winston to the extreme, and this is exacerbated by his memories of the past, which contradict the official history.  What Winston wants is privacy from the constant surveillance he and everyone else in the Party is under, history to be fixed and unchangeable, and to possess absolute control over his mind and thoughts. He wants to know that in his own mind he is free to think what he wants with impunity, and this is exemplified in his desire to always be able to say that two plus two equals four, even when Big Brother would force him to believe that two plus two equals five.  Winston wants freedom of thought, and this puts him into direct opposition with what Big Brother wants—to control the minds and thoughts of all Party members.  In Big Brother’s mind, controlling thought is the royal road to perpetual power.  As the story unfolds, Winston falls into a relationship with Julia and forms a strong attachment to an Inner Party member named O’Brien, whom he believes to be working with a resistance movement to take down Big Brother.  As you might expect, everything that Winston fears the most and yet at the same time longs for occur, and inexorably he is brought to what can only be understood as an inevitable, hopeless conclusion.

Orwell was writing this novel in the years just after World War II had ended, and so that has to be taken into consideration when reading the novel, because otherwise the fatalistic, hopeless tone might be much harder to understand.  The novel is also a dystopia and so the world of Oceania and Winston’s life are intended to be cautionary tales to the reader.  It warns against complacency and suggests that the reward for such complacency is the kind of life that Winston lives. I was also reminded of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and its depiction of death-in-life.  That is precisely the kind of life Winston is living—he is already dead even though his body is still alive.  Perhaps one thing Orwell intends to suggest is that without privacy, without intellectual freedom, the individual is dead. Of course, this is not all Orwell is warning against.  The dangers of propaganda, favoring collective thought over individual thought, and the consequences of a society in a constant state of war are also things he is warning against.  Indeed, the world that Orwell creates in Nineteen Eighty-Four is more than bleak and inhospitable, it is hell on Earth.  Winston’s fate at the end of the novel only makes this hell more intolerable in that there is no chance or hope that anything else could have happened.

I was reading an article about this novel in which the author suggests that the novel perhaps doesn’t deserve its place as a great book that it currently enjoys in the literary canon.  I thought such a statement preposterous. In my experience so much is made of Nineteen Eighty-Four that I couldn’t imagine such a statement being true.  And yet, now that I’ve read the novel, I understand what the writer was saying.  The novel is divided into three parts, and the third part is hard to pin down. It takes place almost entirely within the Ministry of Love (in which political prisoners are tortured) and the story shows us what happens to Winston after he becomes a political prisoner; however, it seems to me that this is where the novel loses its tension.  I stopped caring about what would happen to Winston, and I can’t completely explain why, but I know this lack of tension is one explanation.  What this final section did show was the power of Big Brother and the futility in trying to defy him.  The thing is, I don’t expect a dystopia to only be a cautionary tale.  I expect it to offer some kind of hope or idea for how the kind of world that is being portrayed could be avoided.  Nineteen Eighty-Four does not offer that.  Instead, Winston capitulates, and nothing has changed.  He believes that two plus two equals five, and Big Brother has complete control of his mind and his thoughts. Big Brother has won, and we have no other choice but to believe that his reign will indeed last forever.

My final analysis is that I came into my reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four with a set of assumptions and expectations based upon what I thought I knew about the book.  Maybe my expectations were too high, and that’s why the book feels like a bit of a disappointment.  Still, I would recommend reading the book because I do think it continues to be relevant in the 21st century.

 

 

review: mort

Mort by Terry Pratchett (1987)

Mort is the first book in the Death story arc of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and the fourth book in the series overall.  If you’re new to the Discworld series, I highly recommend reading the books in publication order (though some readers will recommend reading each story arc in chronological order).  I also recommend referring to this chart that maps out where each book falls in the various story arcs within the Discworld series.   As you might have guessed from the title, the story follows the adventures of Mort, a young boy whose father thinks he spends too much time reading and thinking.  Mort’s father decides to send him out to be an apprentice and learn a trade, mostly because he doesn’t know what else to do with him since reading and thinking skills aren’t desirable in their agricultural community.  Together, Mort and his father go to the market where those wanting to be an apprentice and those looking for an apprentice meetup.  The market day ends at midnight, and at just a few minutes before the close of the market Mort is the only one who hasn’t been selected.  Then, in rides Death, who happens to be looking for an apprentice.  Of course, Death finds Mort’s name to be entirely appropriate, but as the story unfolds, no one calls Mort by his name.  Indeed, that is one of the running jokes throughout the novel and yet it is significant when the people in Mort’s life begin calling him by his name, but I won’t spoil that for you.

Since this is the starter novel in the Death story arc, it is appropriate that we learn some interesting things about Death.  He has a permanent smile on his face, it makes him angry when someone drowns kittens, his black steed is named Binky, he can operate and exist outside of Time, and he has a daughter whose name is Ysabell.  Perhaps most interesting is that Death cannot create anything, he can only copy something that already exists.  The fact that Death cannot experience any human emotions is equally important.  What Pratchett has done in this novel is put a spin on the “Death takes a holiday” motif, but he does more than that.  Death not only wants to take a few days off, he also wants to understand human emotions.  He already understands the appreciation for food—he murders a curry at the start of the novel—but he also wants to experience things like fun and drunkenness, and he also wants to know what it would be like to have a friend, to not always be avoided, hated, and ignored.  Pratchett masterfully imbues Death with all the qualities that we as humans feel toward death—such as not wanting to talk or think about it and desiring to avoid it at all costs—and then shows us how Death responds to being alienated in such a way by everyone in society.  Death is the ultimate pariah, and as the story progresses what he searches for is a release from that condition.  Death just wants to be like everyone else.

But as Death takes a holiday and becomes more and more unwilling to go back to the Duty that is his, someone has to do Death’s job, and the Duty falls upon his bumbling and completely engaging apprentice, Mort.  Mort goes out each day to escort the souls of the departed to their final resting places, but of course there is one person he can’t bear to see die—the young Princess Keli.  He doesn’t complete the Duty in her case but instead brings death to her would-be assassin.  In doing so, however, he throws Reality and History into chaos.  It was fated that the princess would die in that assassination attempt, and though she is very much still alive, everyone in the kingdom believes she is dead and consequently, even though they see her, seeing her makes them uncomfortable and they immediately forget her when they look away because History has already declared that she died in the assassination attempt.  Thus, one of the main threads of the story arises from Mort finding a way to fix Reality.  Just as the thread of the plot surrounding Death encourages readers to think about how they view death, Mort’s thread of the plot prods readers to think about how our perspectives on History and Reality can be manipulated and to ask ourselves the question: is the future really set in stone?  Is History set in stone or is it malleable and changeable?

Mort definitely falls into the category of satire, but it’s also just a fun, entertaining, and amusing read.  Mort and Death shine as the main characters, and the supporting cast of characters is quirky and well-developed.  I came to have strong opinions about Princess Keli in particular, and I loved that Rincewind (from the Rincewind story arc and whose adventures we follow in the first and second novels in the series—The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, respectively) made an appearance in the last quarter of the story.  I’m reading the novels in publication order and this one is definitely my favorite so far.  The blend of the hero’s journey, the star-crossed lovers plotline, and Death’s quest to find meaning in his life create a wonderful tale that kept me turning the pages.  I would definitely recommend this book to readers who have yet to discover the Discworld series and readers who like reading in the science fiction/fantasy genre.  I also recommend this book to readers who are skeptical of the sci/fi genre because to say that that is all this book is would be to do it an incredible disservice.  It may be set on the Discworld, but there’s a lot that we can learn from the Discworld about our own world and ourselves.

review: a scanner darkly

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick (1977)

It’s taken me some time to write this review.  I like to start these reviews by giving a brief synopsis of the novel, but getting down in one short paragraph what this novel is about has been a challenge.  A Scanner Darkly follows the story of Fred, an undercover narcotics agent living in Southern California.  Fred’s true identity is supposed to be a secret from everyone, even his handler at the police department, Hank.  In order to maintain his anonymity, Fred meets Hank in a “scramble suit” that continuously scrambles his exterior features, obtaining such characteristics as eye and hair color and other facial features from a database containing millions of possibilities.  Fred’s job is to gather information on and eventually bring to justice various drug dealers, specifically those who deal in Substance D, which alters a person’s brain to the point that it separates his or her left and right hemispheres and ultimately leads to brain death.  Early in the narrative, Hank tasks Fred with the job of conducting surveillance on a man that the police believe may be a major player in the Substance D drug trade—Bob Arctor.  Bob Arctor shares a house with two other “heads”—Barris and Luckman—and he has an unrequited love for Donna, also a drug addict.  The wrinkle is that Fred is Bob Arctor, and so his job is to conduct surveillance on himself.  In his identity as Bob Arctor, he is also addicted to Substance D.  As the narrative unfolds, Fred begins to suffer the effects of Substance D to the point that he forgets that he and Arctor are one and the same person.  One of the primary means of surveillance are “holo-scanners” and as Fred begins to watch the surveillance tapes from the scanners, he comes to see Bob Arctor—the man in the surveillance tapes—as his dark image.  It is in this way that Dick plays upon the biblical verse from I Corinthians 13 which talks of seeing “through a glass darkly.”

The wonderful thing about A Scanner Darkly is that it is making meaning on so many different levels.  On one level, it is a social commentary on how drug addicts are perceived in our culture.  Dick is exploring the ways in which drug lords are able to manipulate supply and demand in order to make money and how these drug lords ruthlessly profit from their customers, unconcerned about the life-altering affects of the drugs they push. While Dick’s commentary is on the drug trade, it can apply to so many other aspects of our contemporary life—pharmaceuticals is the first thing that comes to mind.  So this novel, though published in 1977, is still culturally relevant.

On another level, the novel is exploring questions of identity.  Fred is Bob Arctor, but his ability to remember that fact breaks down as the story progresses as a result of his addiction to Substance D.  His left and right hemispheres separate entirely and fail to communicate but instead compete with each other, so that Fred and Arctor—instead of working together to avoid capture—become adversaries.  In the last fifty pages of the novel or so, Fred receives another identity, and this further complicates his ability to know who he is as well as define his identity.  Another thing that complicates Fred’s identity is the scramble suit.  While wearing it, the image reflected in a mirror is not his own, further distorting his sense of his own identity.  For Fred, identity is fluid, changeable, and available for manipulation, and once he loses his identity as Bob Arctor, he effectively loses a part of himself.  Indeed, it seems as though Dick is playing with that “what if” question that Robert Louis Stevenson was playing with in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—what if we could divorce our “better” half from our “worse” half?  What would happen?  I wouldn’t call this a Jekyll and Hyde story, but shades of that story do resonate through A Scanner Darkly.

On still another level, A Scanner Darkly is a dystopian fiction.  The story itself is set in 1992, fifteen years in the future.  This device allows Dick to imagine how a drug as deadly and widely abused as Substance D could impact a society and have a forceful effect on the norms and values of that society.  It also acts as a cautionary tale and encourages the reader to consider how other addictions—chemical or not—effectively trap and keep its victim in bondage.

I picked up this book because I am in the early stages of planning an introductory level literature course for Spring 2013.  My initial title for the course is “From Page to Screen” and the course would give students the chance to read the text upon which its film counterpart was based.  I’m not sure I would have picked this book up otherwise, but I’m glad that I did.  Dick’s narrative style here is perfectly suited to the story that he’s telling.  We get the story (mostly) through Fred’s perspective, and as his brain begins to suffer the effects of Substance D and his ability to discern his full reality disintegrates, so too does his ability to narrate in a coherent fashion break down.  It doesn’t go into stream of consciousness, but it does alter, and as a reader I felt my own level of confusion at the same time that Fred himself (or Bob Arctor) was also confused about what was happening.  He loses the ability to know what is real and what isn’t, and as readers, we experience the same difficulty.  For me, that’s one of the things that makes this novel brilliant.

A Scanner Darkly is definitely one of my Recommended Reads.  I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it, but I do think it will make you think, and isn’t that one of the things a good book should accomplish?