review: the valley of fear

The Valley of Fear by A. Conan Doyle (1915)

Reading The Valley of Fear, the final Sherlock Holmes novel, has been on my to do list for quite some time. Imagine my surprise when I started reading and discovered that I had at least started it in the past. I’ve got notes in the margins and underlined sentences throughout the first part of the story, but then nothing for the second part, which leads me to think that I started the book but then didn’t finish it because this is one of the Holmes novels that does that thing I don’t really like—but more on that later. Like I said, The Valley of Fear is the final Sherlock Holmes novel. In case you’re wondering, the others are (in order): A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Also, if you are a fan of the BBC’s Sherlock, the beginning of The Valley of Fear will be familiar to you, as the decoding of a cipher received by Sherlock is adapted in the series one episode titled, “The Blind Banker”.

Structurally, The Valley of Fear is a framed narrative. The story is divided into two main parts and the frame is closed with an epilogue. The use of the framed narrative is actually one of the things that turns me off about the story, and I’m guessing that it was at the start of the inner story that I put the book down. That being said, the framed narrative works for this story. At the beginning of the novel, Sherlock receives a coded message from one of the many confidential informants he’s built a relationship with over the years. The message warns of mortal danger to John Douglas, owner of an old manor house called Birlstone. However, before Holmes can act to save the endangered man, he receives a visit from Inspector MacDonald, who brings news of the brutal murder. Holmes, Watson, and MacDonald make plans to travel to Birlstone the following morning. Prior to their arrival, Watson inserts a chapter into the story that reveals the statements made by those within the house at the time of the murder. In this way, Watson provides back story and what basically amounts to an information dump, so that when the trio arrives at the manor house, Sherlock and Inspector MacDonald can begin their interrogations of the witnesses. Because Sherlock falls into the category of the “Great Detective,” it is often the case that he makes deductions, solves the mystery, and reveals the solution to readers in such a way that readers cannot themselves figure out whodunnit. The Great Detective is needed to explain the crime to us. The first part of The Valley of Fear follows this same structure, however, perhaps more than any of the other novels (and short stories), there is a heavy smattering of clues. While I wasn’t able to figure out the whole of the mystery, there were parts of it I had already deduced before the reveal of the solution. One other noteworthy aspect of the mystery itself is that it is a kind of “locked room” murder mystery, in that the manor house at Birlstone is surrounded by a moat and thus can only be accessed by a drawbridge. Douglas insists the drawbridge be raised every night, and the fact that the drawbridge was raised at the time of the murder is another puzzling fact that Holmes must take into account as he deduces the chain of events leading up to and immediately following the murder.

The opening frame ends with the presentation of the solution to the murder. The inner story then goes back twenty years into the past. Part of the function of this inner story is to further illustrate the character of John Douglas. Indeed, it is in many ways a character study. It is also there to explain the motive for murder. Part two of the story paints a vivid and engaging portrait of the man as well as the so-called Valley of Fear, explaining the source of the title. However, what I think is most notable about the second part of the story is that it meditates upon the issue of class warfare and considers the limits of what constitutes justifiable behavior in the struggle between the “little man” and the large corporation. At the same time, the inner story invites us to determine how we feel about a character who is presented as being more than a little morally grey. We have to ask ourselves how we feel about him. Do we like him? Do we abhor him and his actions? Do the ends justify the means? These questions earn greater importance as the inner story concludes, and we as readers must reconcile our impressions and judgement of Douglas in light of the conclusion to his story. The inner story is complex and pushes the reader outside of the bounds of detective fiction and into the margins of moral fiction. Read in this light, the inner story fascinates me on a level that I hadn’t quite expected but definitely appreciate.

Finally, the closing frame of the narrative calls back to the opening, where the spectre of Professor Moriarty hovers of the story as the catalytic force that sets the whole of the initial murder mystery into motion. Because The Valley of Fear was written after “The Final Problem” it is worth pondering how Conan Doyle shaped this story based upon his knowledge of how Holmes’ battle with Moriarty played out. That is, his hindsight allowed him to sprinkle in these references to Moriarty and show him to be the masterful consulting criminal who cannot fail. It could be that if Conan Doyle hadn’t written “The Final Problem” when he did, the stories and this novel that come after it would lack these elements of intrigue and insight into Moriarty as well as the struggle between Sherlock and Moriarty for supremacy.

Though the structure of the framed narrative frustrates me on one level—because I read the Sherlock stories because I want to see Sherlock and Watson in action—I have to admit The Valley of Fear commanded my attention and provoked me to think about the story on a philosophical level. Even though it took me two attempts to get to the end, I recommend reading this novel, especially if you’ve never read any of the stories or novels. You will definitely watch film and television adaptations of the Sherlock and Watson stories in a different way after you’ve read the stories that inspire them.

Have you read The Valley of Fear? What are your thoughts?

review: persuasion

Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818)

Persuasion was Jane Austen’s last completed novel, and it was published alongside Emma after her death.  Last novels have always had a special interest for me, and Persuasion is no exception.  This is the third novel that I’ve read by Austen (and it’s worth noting that I read Austen for the first time last spring at about this time), and although my introduction to the author has come much later than most people I know, I definitely understand why so many readers adore her works.  I loved Emma, but Persuasion has become my new favorite.

Like Northanger Abbey and Emma, at its most basic level, Persuasion offers its readers the typical early 19th century marriage plot.  The protagonist and heroine of the novel is Anne Elliot.  Anne is the second daughter of Sir Walter Elliot, her older sister is Elizabeth (identical in opinions and temperament to her father and his favorite) and her younger sister is Mary, who has already married into the Musgrove family who dwell at Uppercross.  No one in Anne’s family cares much about what she thinks or feels or wants, nor do they really consider her existence or her worth until she can be of some use to them.  Her mother died when she was fourteen, and so Lady Russell, a close friend of the family, has become a mother-figure for Anne. Unlike Catherine and Emma, Anne is not in the first blush of youth; instead, she is twenty-seven years old at the beginning of the novel, and she has already experienced disappointment and pain in love.  When Anne was nineteen she met and fell in love with Captain Wentworth and they became engaged; but Anne was persuaded by Lady Russell to call off the engagement because Wentworth had neither fortune nor class status equal to Anne’s.  Lady Russell persuades Anne that such a match would be a mésalliance, and that Anne would be needlessly throwing herself away.  The result is that Anne loses her bloom, Captain Wentworth goes off to naval service, and the two do not meet each other again for eight years.  The work of the novel is to overcome the intervening years so that Anne and Captain Wentworth can be finally united in love and marriage.

But there’s more to catch a reader’s interest in the novel than the marriage plot.  Another thing that is typical of an Austen novel is the preoccupation with and social commentary on the rigid class structure and class consciousness of 19th century England.  One of the wonderful scenes in the novel occurs when Austen, through Anne, challenges the ways in which male writers have been privileged to label women (here women are labeled as inconstant and fickle), without women having any ability or privilege to challenge those labels or form their own identities.  Also, those characters who are the most class conscious and concerned with issues of precedence based upon one’s position in society are revealed to be the most worthless members of society.  Men who are preoccupied with knowing only “gentlemen” and the landed gentry and nobility show that though appearances and titles identify them as gentlemen, they fall very very short of what an English gentleman should be (at least, in Austen’s opinion).  Austen is most scathing in her critique of Sir Walter’s selfishness, his idleness, and his financial insolvency arising from his sense of entitlement and necessity to enjoy all that he feels baronets are entitled to enjoy, regardless of his mounting debts.  All outward appearances indicate that Sir Walter is a gentleman, but everything beneath the surfaces provides undeniable evidence to the contrary.  Austen also aims her pen at the insistence upon precedence that determined a woman’s place within her family and within her society, and she embodies all that she sees as reprehensible in the character of Mary, Anne’s sister.  Indeed, with the exception of Anne, the entire Elliot family is held up as being the very picture of all that is wrong with the class of landed gentry in 19th century England, and Austen makes the case that although power and authority have resided in this class for decades, this class’s power and authority is no longer legitimate or even desirable, and it is significant that at the end of the novel, Anne Elliot withdraws from this old order in favor of the new order.

That new order is characterized by the rising professional class, specifically in this novel, the naval officers settling back into the domestic sphere as the war between England and France is nearing its conclusion.  In Austen’s view, these men—men like Captain Wentworth and his friends, Captain Benwick and Captain Harville, as well as Admiral Croft, who is currently renting the ancestral home of the Elliots, Kellynch Hall—comprise the legitimate center of power and authority.  These men actually have a positive and protective influence upon England, and rather than draining the country of its resources and concerning themselves with espousing and upholding a rigid class structure as a means of exclusion and flattering their vanity, they actually give something back to society.

There is something appealing about Anne Elliot as the protagonist and heroine of the novel whose constancy, intelligence, and goodness finally brings her the man she loved and lost at such a young age.  There is also something about Anne that resonates with me and that I can relate to and identify with, and maybe that’s why she is my favorite Austen heroine thus far. Though we don’t see Wentworth as much as perhaps I wanted, his words to Anne at the end and their reunion is just a feel good moment in the story.  Yes, you get the happy ending you’ve been expecting all along, but more importantly, that happy ending is deeply satisfying and actually evoked an emotional response from me.  Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely and definitely recommend it to readers who haven’t tried Austen or haven’t read Persuasion.


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: guards! guards!

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (1989)

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett is the starter novel in the City Watch story arc and the eighth book in the Discworld series.

The cast of characters in this novel is extensive, but it works because the plot itself has a lot of different layers and intricacies.  We have the characters that make up the City Night Watch—Captain Vimes, Sergeant Colon, Lieutenant Nobby and Lance-Corporal Carrot, the newbie.  Carrot and Vimes are the most interesting characters thus far.  Carrot is 6-foot-6 and is a foundling who was raised by dwarves.  Guessing that it would be better for Carrot to be with “his own kind” his father gets him a job with the City Watch, and a friend of the family gives him a rules and regulations book for the Watch and tells him to read it because an officer of the law should know the rules and regulations of the law he is sworn to uphold.  This makes for some funny shenanigans because the book is clearly out of date, and the laws in the book are no longer in force and effect; Carrot doesn’t seem to grasp this, nor does he understand the other Watch officers who look the other way and allow crime to happen.  The first thing he does is arrest the head thief in the Thieves Guild, which shocks and appalls everyone.  Captain Vimes on the other hand is a jaded, cynical man who has been “brung low by a woman” and he drowns himself in alcohol.  Eventually, though, all of the men of the Night Watch will have to involve themselves in the latest attempt at a coup d’état.  They won’t end up as “heroes” but they’ll be the closest thing to a hero you can find in the city of Ankh-Morpork.

Leading that coup is a shadowy figure called the Supreme Grand Master, whose identity we don’t learn for a long while (and I was surprised, though I wonder that I should have been).  The Supreme Grand Master wants to overthrow the Patrician and install a King that will do what he tells him to do, making him a kind of Cardinal Richelieu figure.  He thinks that the best way to do this is to endanger the city of Ankh-Morpork with a threat that only a young, future king can defeat, and in doing so will be crowned as monarch and ruler.  His plan is to summon a dragon, and he does this by arranging for the theft of a magical book from the Library of Unseen University.  Thus, the Librarian makes several appearances in this novel and embarks on a trip to L-space (where all libraries in the universe are connected).  Anyway, the dragon is successfully summoned, wreaks ten kinds of havoc on the city, and as you might guess, the dragon turns the tables and becomes the master, so that the dragon is installed as King of Ankh-Morpork. While the first half of the book is about trying to figure out how the dragon has arrived in the city, the second half of the novel is about trying to figure out how to defeat the dragon.

Meanwhile, the Patrician is stripped of his power and thrown into the Palace dungeon.  The Patrician (Lord Vetinari) has become one of my favorite recurring characters who doesn’t have his own storyline.  I just read Sourcery and he makes an appearance in that book but his appearance in Guards! Guards! is a bit more substantial.  Death also makes an appearance and is good for at least one laugh, but it’s more like a bit part than anything else.  There’s also a reference to Mort and Princess Keli from Mort.  This is one of the things that I love about the Discworld novels so far.  They can stand alone, and yet if you’ve read any of the previous books there’s a good chance there will be a reference to someone or something that is a bit of reward for being an attentive reader.

Another notable character is Errol, one of the swamp dragons bred by Lady Sybil Ramkin (she’s pretty much the only female character in the novel).  According to Lady Ramkin, Errol’s genetics are just wrong somehow, and so he’s more of a pet than a stud for her swamp dragon breeding endeavors.  So she gives him as a gift to Captain Vimes, and he becomes a kind of mascot for the Night Watch.  What’s interesting about him though is that he is a character very similar to the Luggage from the Rincewind story arc.  He doesn’t speak, but he has his role to play.  He doesn’t exactly know how to execute the part he’s supposed to play, but eventually he figures it out and helps to save the day.

The story is a playful take on the King Arthur legend which ultimately gets turned on its head, mostly because Ankh-Morpork is no place for the knights of the round table.  On one level, I liked that this was more of an “ensemble” drama that told the stories of many different people.  On the other hand, I think I prefer the stories that have an identifiable main character.  If you haven’t read any of the Discworld books, I still recommend starting with the first novel (The Colour of Magic).  If you’re like me and still relatively new to the series, I think you’ll enjoy Guards! Guards!. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite so far, but I was definitely entertained.  This book has been my “fun” reading for the last couple of weeks and it didn’t disappoint.

review: vanity fair

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)

I have now read Vanity Fair by William M. Thackeray twice.  Four years have passed since my first reading, and I was curious to see if my opinion of the novel would change after reading it a second time and discussing it with my students.  I wanted to know if they would convince me to view the novel in a different, more favorable way.  Alas, the second experience has only reinforced my response to the first reading.  Getting through the novel is certainly an accomplishment, and there is value in reading the story, but Thackeray’s masterpiece doesn’t make my personal list of must-read masterworks.

Like reading the novel, summarizing the narrative is a daunting task, and that task is complicated by the large cast of characters that populate the novel.  Probably the first thing to know is that the novel is a satire, and in terms of literary forms, it is an exemplar of that narrative form.  Although Thackeray’s subtitle claims the work to be “A Novel Without a Hero” there are a few key protagonists, the foremost being Becky Sharp.  The novel begins in the first decade of the 1800s, not long before the Battle of Waterloo, and Becky is the daughter of an artist and a French dancer, which makes her position in the class structure of English society a low one.  This is what Becky seeks to rectify throughout the novel—she aspires to move in the highest, most exclusive echelons of society, and she is willing to do anything at all to get what she wants.  She is frequently paralleled to “that Corsican upstart” (Napoleon) and she is a master of the fine art of deception.  Indeed, she is the stereotypical social climber who will kick you off the ladder if it means climbing up to the next rung.  As much as we are intended to dislike Becky Sharp, her opposite, Amelia Sedley, is equally unlikeable.  Thackeray’s narrator continuously portrays Amelia as weak but gentle, loyal to a fault, unaware of what is going on around her to the point of narcissism, and in constant need of protection and someone to take care of her.  Amelia is intended to be a satire of the sentimental heroine pervasive in 19th century sentimental romances, and her vanity is her indulgence of her son who rules over her like a tyrant and her reverence for a husband who is anything but a gentleman and decidedly unworthy of her love or her idolatry.

One of the targets of Thackeray’s satire is the institution of marriage, and after reading the novel a second time I have to wonder if there can be a happy marriage in the world of Vanity Fair.  The three male protagonists in the novel experience marriage differently, but I wouldn’t say any of them are happy.  Becky marries Rawdon Crawley, and his marriage leads to disinheritance, massive debt, and financial ruin.  The only happiness he ultimately finds in his marriage is his love for his son.  Amelia marries George Osborne, and he, too, is disinherited because of his choice of wives, but the ruin deriving from their mésalliance is ultimately Amelia’s, not George’s.  Finally, William Dobbin, after spending nearly twenty years in love with a woman who doesn’t ever requite his love and is completely undeserving of his affection or loyalty, marries the woman he has desired for years, but even he comes to realize that the woman he marries isn’t worth the years he has spent pining for her.

Much of what drives the satire in Vanity Fair is the importance and value that is placed upon individuals who are morally bankrupt, utterly false, and irredeemable, and the lack of worth that is placed upon individuals who are genuinely good and patient, and possess even the tiniest measure of humility.  Thackeray’s satire takes aim at a bevy of issues he viewed to be the vices and follies within Victorian society—class, greed, gambling, the marriage market, etc., but the thing he derides most is every form of hypocrisy and vanity that causes individuals to place their own interests and desires above those of others, regardless of the cost.  Thackeray’s world of Vanity Fair is also an endless cycle, in which people rise and fall, or fall and rise, and the second generation makes similar kinds of mistakes, and engages in the same kinds of vanity and hypocrisy.  Vanity Fair is a world without end, and it is a world in which heroes can’t exist.

This second reading of Vanity Fair has caused me to look at the novel more objectively.  The first time I read the novel I was in my third semester of a doctoral program, and my reading and work load were so heavy that the tediousness of the novel’s narrator and his penchant for moralizing, along with my strong dislike for most of the protagonists (but especially Amelia) made reading the novel a painful exercise.  It wasn’t as painful this time, but I think I was just as happy to get to the end this time (perhaps even happier) as I was the first time.  The benefit of reading Vanity Fair is that you can see how it affected other novelists and how it was engaged in the same debates as other novels written during the mid-19th century.  As I said above, the satire is sharp and penetrating, and is an excellent example of the use of satire in the novel.  Still, my life will not be incomplete if it does not include a third reading of Vanity Fair.  The novel doesn’t make my list of recommended reads, and I would feel guilty about encouraging anyone to read it.  If you do read it, I don’t think you’ll regret it, or put in your list of five worst classics, or even want to throw your book across the room. My suggestion? Reader beware.

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: the quickening maze

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds (2009)

The Quickening Maze belongs to the genre of historical fiction.  It takes actual events in the lives of its three primary characters—English poets John Clare and Alfred, Lord Tennyson and medical doctor Matthew Allen—and fictionalizes those events.  According to the back cover and the acknowledgements, the events in the novel are historically accurate.

But my first task is to summarize what the novel is about. Tennyson and his brother, Septimus, arrive in the community where Dr. Matthew Allen runs an asylum, in which John Clare is institutionalized.  Septimus is to be a patient of Allen’s and committed to the asylum, and Tennyson is there to…well, it seems that he is there to be near his brother as well as write some poetry.  This is a young Tennyson who has yet to receive literary achievement, notoriety, or the position of Poet Laureate of England.  It is six years after the death of his close friend, Arthur Hallam, and the narrative suggests that Tennyson’s time in Allen’s community, his acute grief and remembrance of Arthur, and the setting may have inspired him to write Idylls of the King.  Dr. Allen and Tennyson become friends, but Allen’s great desire is to leave behind the work of the director of an asylum and embark upon some new adventure that will make him a fortune.  He finally hits upon this adventure—he will create a machine that will enable mass production of furniture made by master craftsmen that can be sold at a fraction of the cost.  Upon designing this scheme, Allen sinks his entire life savings into the venture and also secures funding from Tennyson and his family, whose investments come from an inheritance left to them by their father.  He also secures a whole host of other investment capital (indeed, Allen is a kind of charismatic, Victorian venture capitalist). As Allen becomes more and more engaged with this business scheme, the daily running of the asylum is given to a man named Stockdale, a kind of foreman, Allen’s son, Fulton, and his wife, Eliza.  Needless to say, a series of horrors and atrocities are perpetrated within the asylum upon the patients, unbeknownst to Allen. Running parallel to this story is that of John Clare, “the peasant poet” who is slowly descending more deeply into insanity even as he longs for his freedom from the institution.  Parallel to that is the story of Allen’s daughter, Hannah, who imagines herself to be in love with Tennyson and tries to secure his affections and a marriage proposal, but a relationship between them fails to materialize.

If my summary of the novel seems to be a bit disjointed, that’s because the novel itself, at least in my opinion, is disjointed and wandering.  Part of this is a function of the narrative style, which is admittedly my least favorite. The narrative jumps from the interiority of one character to another and then another, most often taking the form of interior monologue, where we get to hear the thoughts and opinions of the character whose mind we are in at that moment.  Anyone who has read A Game of Thrones understands what I mean (though The Quickening Maze doesn’t offer the clarity of separating these transitions into chapters and identifying the name of the character who is narrating that chapter).  It appears to me that the reason Foulds has chosen to implement this narrative style is so that he can tell multiple narratives from multiple perspectives (if I were characterizing him for my students, I’d call his style postmodernist in nature). Thus the novel has many different threads—Dr. Allen’s business scheme, Tennyson’s grief and his struggle to write, John Clare’s struggle with sanity and his desire for escape, Hannah’s pursuit of Tennyson, and other threads I haven’t mentioned her for brevity.  This is what makes the novel problematic for me—there are too many different threads and I didn’t feel invested in any of them.  Additionally, the multi-perspectival narrative style prohibits me from feeling any attachment or identification with any of the characters.  In fact, I found myself turning the pages so that I could get to the end, not because I was especially interested in the ending, in any of the characters, or how their lives turned out.  I think the multi-perspectival narrative style can work (such as in Last Orders by Graham Swift) but it has to be handled well, and it isn’t handled well here.  There’s too much distance between the reader and the characters.  My thought is that this novel would have improved exponentially if there had been one unifying, omnipotent, third-person narrator.

Another complaint that I have about the novel is all of the multiple references to defecation.  Okay, I get it—the author wanted the novel to be realistic in nature, and perhaps these moments were intended to be comic relief, but I didn’t find them at all amusing, and they didn’t add anything to the narrative.  I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded reader and I’m not a prudish or snobbish reader, but after the third, fourth…eighth seemingly pointless reference, I really had had enough.

The thing is, I really wanted to like this book, and I try to find one good thing to say about every book I review.  This book has been on my to-read list for quite awhile.  The idea—fictionalizing a moment in the life of Alfred, Lord Tennyson—I thought was a brilliant one.  The execution, though, was seriously lacking, and none of my expectations were met.  As I kept reading, I kept hoping that the end of the novel would redeem itself, but instead it became more and more predictable, and more and more disappointing.  The lack of tension and conflict between characters and within the plot made for an uninteresting read.  In the end, I’m left wondering how The Quickening Maze made it to the Shortlist for the Booker Prize. If the novel is on your to-read list, might I suggest skipping it and moving on to something else.