review: the phantom of the opera

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1909)

This book has been sitting in my to-be-read pile for quite a long time.  I have not seen any adaptations of the novel, but I have wanted to see the Broadway musical for a long, long time.  When I picked up the book a week ago and started reading, I didn’t even read the summary on the back of the book.  Although I haven’t seen the musical or film, I thought I had an inkling of what the story was about.  Come to find out, I didn’t really know the story at all, and further still, when I finally see the musical, I’m going to be so glad that I read the book first.

I had about eighty pages left to read when a friend, who I had told I was reading the book, asked me what the book was about.  I had a hard time answering the question.  The story takes place in the Paris Opera house, and it is told to us by a “historian” who has pieced together the events that he is relating to us.  At the beginning of the story, the management of the opera-house has changed hands, and at the time of the change, the old managers provide the new managers with a copy of the lease.  The lease is standard with the exception of a few demands added by “O.G.” the Opera Ghost.  “O.G.” demands a monthly payment of 20,000 francs and sole use of Box 5 in the opera house.  Part of the story is the struggle between the new managers, who refuse to give in to the Opera Ghost’s demands, and the ghost’s retaliations.  This part of the story moves the opera-house from orderly to chaotic, and as the story progresses, returning the opera-house to order is one of the things that propels the plot forward.  The second part of the story is the love story between Christine, a singer in the opera, and Raoul de Chagny, a French noble.  Throughout Christine’s life, her father taught her about music, and as childhood friends, Christine and Raoul sat and listened as her father told them about the Angel of Music.  Christine’s father said that after he died, he would send the Angel of Music to her, and that the Angel would transform her into a musical genius.  Not only is the romance between Christine and Raoul made impossible because of his status as a nobleman and hers as a singer/actress, but it is also challenged by the presence of the Angel of Music, who falls in love with Christine, abducts her, frees her, and then abducts her again. Resolving the romantic triangle and the fates of the three main characters propels the rest of the plot to its conclusion.

The only thing I really knew about the story were the two characters of Christine and the Phantom, and that the story took place in an opera-house.  I thought that the Phantom was the protagonist of the story, with Christine being the second protagonist and heroine.  He is, after all, the title character.  Reading the story, it seems to me that instead of being the protagonist, the Phantom is actually the antagonist, and this was a real surprise.  His character also brings in the supernatural and horror elements of the story (and before I read the back cover of the book, I didn’t know that this story was categorized as horror, a so-called “chilling tale”).  On the other hand, Christine is clearly the damsel in distress and in line with the ideal of the 19th century heroine (another misconception of mine was that the story was written in the mid-1800s, so Christine’s characterization was expected).  Raoul is also the typical French male aristocrat who seeks to marry for love, regardless of his social position.  This isn’t to say that the characters aren’t likable–that is, that Christine and Raoul aren’t likable.  They are.  What is challenging about the characters is that it was difficult for me as a reader to become attached to any of them.  Further still, at the end of the story, I know that I am supposed to feel pity and sympathy toward the Phantom, and yet, he’s kept at such a distance from the reader, it was hard for me to feel those emotions.

I did like the novel. The villainy, genius, and madness of the Phantom were compelling, and thinking about it, I realize that I would have liked him to have more time on the page; and yet, it’s his elusiveness, his ability to seemingly be everywhere but not there at all is part of what makes him such a terrifying and formidable foe.  I come back to the fact that he is the title character, and that the tragedy of the novel is his tragedy.  What I mean to say is that I wanted to feel more invested in his tragedy, and this is the only real complaint that I have with the book.

From what I’ve read after finishing the novel, many of the elements in the book in terms of the architecture of the opera-house are factual, and Leroux had actual knowledge of the Paris Opera that informed his writing.  This book was a welcome change of pace, especially within the realm of “classic” literature.  I enjoyed the inclusion of music in the story, and can imagine similarities between the progression of the plot of the novel and the progression of an opera–both sprinkling in light, comic notes even as the tension continually builds, steadily moving toward the final climax. I also loved the way the historian/narrator intertwined the power of music to convey every human emotion, just as the novel possesses the same power.  I loved that The Phantom of the Opera wasn’t like everything else. If the opportunity ever comes my way, I am certain I would find a way to teach this book in a future class.  I definitely recommend this book to other readers.



book review: timequake

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

This is the first novel by Kurt Vonnegut that I have read.  To be honest, I have no idea what made me pick up Timequake, but I’m sure it has something to do with my perception that Vonnegut is one of those authors I should read.  This book has been on my bookshelf for several years now (how many, I have no idea, but it’s been awhile).  I decided to try to read the book again, this time from start to finish.  I was successful and did get to the end, but not because I was at all interested in the ending.

I’m getting ahead of myself, and that is likely because it’s time to summarize the plot, and I’m not exactly sure how to do that.  Mostly because there really isn’t much of a plot to speak of, at least not what most readers recognize as a plot.  On February 17, 2001, the entire world experienced a timequake, sending everyone to 1991 and forcing humans to relive the previous ten years of their lives.  Vonnegut (who is both author and narrator) explains that the timequake occurred because the Universe was indecisive about whether or not it should keep expanding.  The thing about the timequake is that free will has been completely erased—during the “rerun” everyone has to do the exact same thing they had done previously.  Nothing can be altered or changed, and consequently apathy has set in.   Kilgore Trout—the old science fiction writer who is one of Vonnegut’s characters—refers to that time as being on “autopilot”.  When the timequake ends ten years later on the second February 13, 2001, everyone in the world experiences “Post-Timequake Apathy” or PTA.  Humans have become so used to not having free will and living on autopilot, that they don’t care about anything and have no will to do anything.  It takes the efforts of Kilgore Trout, through the mantra, “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do,” to wake everyone up, and the mantra comes to be known as the Kilgore Creed.  Interestingly, this helps Vonnegut turn his isolated, man alone character into, if not a hero, then certainly an anti-hero.

The novel is clearly satire, and it takes aim at several topics.  One such topic is the value of books and reading, particularly as opposed to the value of television.  Vonnegut builds a thoughtful commentary upon what is at stake when books and the printed word give way to the medium of television as well as the digital age.  Another topic that he targets is the value of extended families, and not just blood relations, but families in the sense of communities, and what is lost when an individual is not part of this kind of extended family.  Indeed, part of the story as it concerns Kilgore Trout seems to be showing how he goes from being isolated to being part of a family.  Still another focus of his satire is the division of wealth and those amendments he would make to the Constitution guaranteeing what he argues are basic human rights.  There is also a compelling commentary upon religion and its value to the individual that I would not have expected to find in a Vonnegut novel.  The “Post-Timequake Apathy” adds another layer to the satire and of course is intended to prompt the reader to think about his or her own apathy and attempt to shake his readers out of that apathy.  He wants his readers to care.  He wants his readers to believe that life is worth living, but that it takes participation from everyone in society to build a better society.  Vonnegut’s novel succeeds in challenging the status quo and advocating for change.  Indeed, if I were teaching this novel in one of my literature classes, I would highlight the ways in which Timequake uses the power that the form of the novel possesses to critique social and political structures of power.

Although I can appreciate the novel on the level of satire, and at the risk of alienating Vonnegut fans, I have to admit that the novel was a disappointing read for me.  The first question I asked myself upon completing the novel was if all Vonnegut novels are like this?  Slaughterhouse-Five is on my to-read list, but now I’m in no hurry to check it off.  I don’t mind literature that uses satire to make social and political commentary; at the same time, I want my satire to have more of a story.  Or perhaps what I should really say is that my expectations didn’t match up with what I got from the novel.  I wasn’t expecting it to be semi-autobiographical, and I wasn’t expecting the first-person, almost diary-like narrative style that Vonnegut employs in the novel.  As a narrator and character in his own story, Vonnegut has an engaging voice, but at no point in the novel was I really invested in the narrative.  I finished reading the novel because my goal was to finish the book, not really because I cared all that much how it ended.  Oddly, I don’t even think I had the hope that maybe I would start to like it.

As I said above, this is my first introduction to the Vonnegut canon of work.  I will, someday, give Slaughterhouse-Five a try, and hope for a more favorable response, but someday won’t be coming anytime soon.  On a five-star scale, Timequake receives only one-star from this reader, and that’s only because zero-stars isn’t an option.

review: the talented mr. ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

I’m not exactly sure what my expectations were before I started reading The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, and I haven’t seen the 1999 film version with Matt Damon and Jude Law, so I didn’t already “know” the story.   What I can say is that I am glad I have discovered Patricia Highsmith and whatever my expectations were, I wasn’t disappointed.

The story follows Tom Ripley, a twenty-three year old man basically living in poverty in New York City. Tom is homeless, jobless, and practically friendless.  He’s an orphan who was raised by his father’s sister, but they do not have a good relationship and Tom does not like her.  She sends him checks for strange dollar amounts, and though Tom despises the crumbs that she sends him, he is also financially dependent on them.  Tom is a small-time con artist, and at the beginning of the story he is engaged in IRS tax fraud.  He’s paranoid that his petty crimes will be discovered, as evidenced on the first page, where he notices a man following him.  He wonders if the police have come to arrest him, but the man introduces himself as Herbert Greenleaf.  Mr. Greenleaf has been told that Tom and his son, Dickie, were friends prior to his son leaving the States and travelling abroad in Europe.  It is upon this friendship that Mr. Greenleaf eventually comes to ask Tom if he will go to Italy, where Dickie is currently living, and convince him to come home.  Dickie’s father owns a boat-building company and his mother is suffering from leukemia.  Dickie’s father wants his son to come home, take his place in the company as the heir-apparent, and live a “normal” life rather than the life of an expatriate artist.  Tom ultimately agrees to try to help Mr. Greenleaf and travels to Italy.  The first meeting between Tom and Dickie is awkward because they weren’t really good friends to begin with. Also, Dickie has developed a close relationship with Marge Sherwood, another American expatriate.  Tom likes and admires Dickie and wants to be his friend.  Tom looks a lot like Dickie—they are the same height and just about the same weight.  They have the same color hair and facial features.  Tom could be Dickie’s doppelganger.  Indeed, this is one of the tropes Highsmith’s novel turns upon—Tom as Dickie’s dark double who slowly begins to unravel then rewrite Dickie Greenleaf’s life.

Highsmith has crafted a wonderful anti-hero in Tom Ripley.  Tom is indeed talented—he adapts quickly, has a capacity for languages, is a consummate observer, is good with numbers, and can employ logic and reason even in the most stressful situations.  Tom went to New York because he wanted to be an actor.  That dream wasn’t realized in the States, but the life he lives in Italy gives him the opportunity to become an actor and perform for his imagined audiences.  It is perhaps the constant drive to perform that causes his thing with mirrors.  Yes, Tom Ripley has a thing with mirrors.  You can’t help picking up on this as you read the first few chapters (and I wonder if this is something the film develops).  He is always checking himself out in a mirror, looking at his clothes, his facial expression, the carriage of his body.  Along with being able to play different roles as necessary, Tom can invent plausible stories (read: lies) for the police and for others in his life as necessary; Tom believes that they are true and because of this, he is able to convince others that what he is saying is true.  No one ever seems to call Tom on any of his lies.  The other thing about Tom is that he has, until arriving in Italy, lived on the fringes and margins of society. Financial stability isn’t something he’s ever known, and one of the statements the novel is making is that the structure of society alienates and isolates men like Tom Ripley and forces them to extreme measures.  Thus, Tom views his actions as being done out of necessity, and this adds complexity to his character because as readers, we have enough distance from Tom that we don’t completely identify with him but not so much distance that we can’t sympathize with him.  Is Tom Ripley a sociopathic anti-hero? Absolutely, but that only makes him more interesting.  I’ve read statements that Tom Ripley is one of the great anti-heroes in literature and I completely agree with that statement.  He may be amoral and his actions are unconscionable, and yet…he frustrates attempts to fully condemn him, and I think that says more about me as a reader than anything else.

Though the focus of the novel remains primarily upon Tom, the character of Marge Sherwood draws my attention, too.  As a supporting character, Marge is obviously intended to be a source of conflict and antagonism for Tom.  She is also intended to highlight certain aspects of Tom’s character and thereby increase his complexity and reveal his motives.  I wonder, though, if Marge was intended to be somewhat autobiographical, too.  She is an American woman living in Europe and writing a book, and from what I know of Highsmith’s biography, she likely had similar experiences.  Marge exists on the margins of the novel; on the one hand, she’s an example of the growing opportunities available to women (like Dickie, she is travelling abroad and living alone in Europe while engaging in a form of artistic expression she hopes to turn into a career) but on the other hand, she is completely deceived by Tom. Again, she’s not the main character of the story but her placement in the novel intrigues me and makes me wonder what Highsmith might have been trying to say through her character.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I definitely recommend it to readers who like suspense, tension, and well-drawn characters in their fiction.

review: the haunting of hill house

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)

I have had about a week to think over my response to The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.   One thing that has crystallized in my mind is that apparently, I don’t like saying that I don’t like a book.  It’s hard not to erase that sentence because I realize how ridiculous it sounds, and I’m always saying to my students that it’s okay for them to not like some of the books we are reading as long as they can articulate why they don’t like the book.  Now that I find myself in that position, I’m reminded of how challenging that task can actually be.

The story is set at Hill House, a large manor house that has the characteristics of a castle and is repeatedly characterized as being sentient, endowed with human traits, and seemingly possessed of its own volition and power.  Where I think Jackson excels is the creation of a gothic-style atmosphere into which she plants her four main characters: Dr. John Montague, an anthropologist looking for proof of the supernatural so that he can gain respect and vindication from his peers in the academy; Luke Sanderson, son of the current owners of Hill House and heir to the property; Theodora, a free-spirited, witty art-type who accepts Montague’s invitation to stay at Hill House for the summer as a kind of lark; and Eleanor, a young woman who has been the primary caregiver for her ailing mother for the last twelve years, and who now is on her own and trying to experience the world and find a place to belong.  Like the house, Eleanor has been isolated from the society of others, and like the house, Eleanor is trying to connect with others.  This is another thing that I think Jackson does well—capturing Eleanor’s need for new experiences, acceptance from others, and a place to call home.  Although Hill House’s first impression is not welcoming, the four rely upon bantering with each other, playing games, and exploring the house to cope with the sense of evil and “wrongness” that seems to pervade the house.  Eventually, unexplained phenomena begin to occur, and with each page it is Eleanor who becomes more and more isolated from the group and seemingly the focus of Hill House’s negative influence.

A while back, I read and reviewed Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.  I had considered teaching that novel instead of The Haunting of Hill House, but now that I have read both, I think it may have been better to teach Hill’s novel.  It just has a more interesting plot and better use of gothic horror conventions to invoke terror.  Maybe I am jaded, but I didn’t find anything especially chilling or terrifying about The Haunting of Hill House, and perhaps this is one reason why I didn’t like the book—it didn’t meet my expectations.  I was expecting to feel ill at ease while reading at the very least, but I never did.  The novel is told through Eleanor’s point of view, but this is a problem because as readers we begin to question Eleanor’s sanity.  What this meant for me as a reader is that the novel is much more of a psychological study of Eleanor than a chilling, terrifying gothic horror novel.  The other thing that I didn’t like and that was done better in Hill’s novel is the pacing—I felt like it took a long time for story and the plot of The Haunting of Hill House to get off the ground.  I know why Jackson did this from a narrative perspective—we the readers are waiting for something to happen, just like the characters in the novel are waiting for something to happen.  I get it, but it still detracted from my overall satisfaction with the story.  The other thing that I didn’t like was that a lot of the ambiguities that Jackson weaves into her story to heighten the suspense are never fully resolved at the end of the story.  On the one hand, I understand why Jackson does this too—it’s a way of creating tension in the novel and also because she doesn’t want to tell her readers what to think.  She wants them to come to their own conclusions.  On the other hand, there were several things that were confusing and not clear to me as a reader.  Perhaps that just means that I was reading closely enough or that the story demands a second reading, but the ultimate result is that it was an additional obstacle to my enjoyment of the story.  In that vein, I might call it a bit modernist in the way that it uses ambiguity and refuses to resolve the ambiguity at the end of the story.  I think Hill’s use of ambiguity and the way she creates tension in the novel is much more effective and creates a better reading experience.  The final thing about the novel that I didn’t like was that I had a hard time getting invested in Eleanor as a character or the plot of the novel in general.  By the time I got to the end of the story I was just glad to be at the end of the story.  One of the things I want out of a good read is to care about how it ends, and I didn’t really care about how The Haunting of Hill House ended; thus the conclusion was less than satisfying.

My final analysis is that I am glad that I read the novel so that I can have my own opinion about it, but I can’t say that I would recommend it to other readers.  It’s a disappointment, too, because I chose this book to teach over Hill’s book, and my thinking now is that I made the wrong selection.  What I will take away is more awareness of what I want from a gothic horror novel.

review: i am legend

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)

In reading descriptions of this novel, oftentimes the first thing written is that I Am Legend a horror novel.  After reading the book, I would definitely disagree with the categorization of the novel in the horror genre.  I wasn’t terrified or particularly on edge while reading the book.  Sure, there is dramatic tension in the novel, but nothing that would make me fear sleeping in the dark.  To me, that’s the feeling I have after reading a horror novel.  I think the novel is more properly placed in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, and this is all to say that if you don’t like reading from the horror genre, don’t immediately pass over I Am Legend.

Summarizing the plot of the story is fairly simple, and yet my summary leaves a lot of plot points out because I don’t want to spoil the entire plot and action of the novel.  The protagonist is Robert Neville, a man in his mid-thirties living in the suburbs of Los Angeles.  The thing that makes Robert Neville unique is that he is the last man on earth—that is, he’s the last non-infected man on earth.  The story begins in January 1976, and we come to find out that at that time, Robert Neville has been alone for about eight months, and that it was only ten months before the story begins that a plague started to infect the inhabitants of Earth.  Most of those infected with the plague began to exhibit vampire-like tendencies—unable to handle sunlight, spending the day in a kind of coma, recoiling from garlic and crosses, etc.  As this plague rapidly spread across the earth and decimated the population, no one was able to come up with an explanation for the plague or a cure.  Neville’s own wife and daughter fall victim to the plague, and though he has searched long, Neville comes to realize that he is the only survivor of the plague, though the exact reason for his immunity remains a mystery for much of the novel.  Although Neville is the sole survivor of the plague (or perhaps because of this) he is the target of the vampires, particularly Ben Cortman.  The vampires come to Neville’s house each night yelling at him to come out, but Neville has secured his home so that he is safe as long as he remains inside while it’s dark, and he’s amassed all of the frozen foods and necessaries of life he needs to survive; what he doesn’t have or runs out of, he looks for during the daytime.  Also during the daytime, he hunts and kills vampires while they are in their coma-like sleep and unable to fight back.  The plot is driven by the inner conflicts that Neville struggles with (particularly his inability to fully leave behind the past and accept the present, as well as the question of what kind of future awaits him) as well as his endeavors to learn how the plague developed and spread and attempting to find a cure, and finally his struggles against the vampires.

Vampires—I know what some of you may be thinking.  Even if you have had enough of vampires to last you for the next decade, don’t immediately pass over I Am Legend.  Yes, the vampires are the threat that Neville has to fight against, but really, this book isn’t about vampires.  It’s very much a psychological study of how one man deals with the isolation and loneliness of being the last surviving member of the human race.  When one is so completely and utterly alone, how does that shift the way one thinks of morality and ethics?  When one believes himself to live in an environment whose primary rule is kill or be killed, what actions are permissible?  It delves into the consequences and constructions of a “me vs. them” mentality.  It meditates on the question of what it means to be human.  It also questions the legitimacy of using violence in order to establish and maintain order in a new society.  Further still, because of its apocalyptic setting, the novel can perhaps be read as a cautionary tale.  There is so much more to this book than the vampires that collectively act as the antagonist to Robert Neville.

In truth, I don’t think I would have picked this book up if it weren’t for my interest in teaching it in a class where the emphasis is upon novels that have been adapted into films.  If I just had the synopsis on the back cover to go by (and it is worth saying here that I haven’t seen the recent 2007 film adaptation of the novel) I probably wouldn’t have made the decision to read the book.  While I am a fan of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, this wouldn’t have really peaked my interest.  I am glad, though, that I have read the novel.  I think it’s an excellent example of the “man alone” narrative plot, and again, the psychological study of Robert Neville is something that I found to be really compelling.  He’s a man who has no other options—or, at least, believes he has no other options—and this is something that always intrigues me in terms of character, mainly because it lets me ask my students what else could he be expected to do.  The question of whether or not this is a recommended read is a difficult one to answer.  On the one hand, I had no problems putting the book down.  I do think the pacing is a little slow, and there really is only the one character to focus on—Robert.  On the other hand, I really like Matheson’s narrative style, particularly his diction, as well as the way he portrays Robert as being haunted by the past, stuck in the present, and uncertain of the future.  Final analysis: it’s a good book, but not one of my top 10 reads over the last twelve months.

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: the unicorn

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch (1963)

“Everyone here is involved in guilt.”

The Unicorn is the first novel by Iris Murdoch that I have read.  The narrative weaves in elements of the Gothic, the allegorical, and the mythical, and it does so within the framework of suspense.  There’s a lot going on in this novel, and by the end, Murdoch leaves it up to the reader to determine what it all means.  Some readers will be frustrated by Murdoch’s ambiguity and that the meaning of the story is open to a wide variety of interpretations.

The story begins when Marian Taylor, a thirty-year-old former schoolteacher, arrives at Gaze Castle to perform the duties of governess.  When she arrives, she learns that she is not to be a governess, but instead a lady’s companion to Hannah Crean-Smith, owner of the big house in what is presumably the Irish countryside.  Gaze and the surrounding lands are repeatedly characterized as being ancient, alien, and isolating, and its inhabitants and their ways are more akin to people living in medieval times, not a mid-20th century Western society.  Perhaps the epitome of this is that upon Marian’s arrival at the train station, she searches for a way to get to Gaze and someone recommends that she travel there by horse.  Arriving at Gaze is like going back in time, and it frightens Marian.  What worries her most though is the revelation that for the last seven years, Hannah has been effectively imprisoned at Gaze by her husband, Peter Crean-Smith.  The other inhabitants of the house—Gerald Scottow, Violet Evercreech, Jamesie Evercreech, and Denis Nolan—are her jailers.  Marian wants to help Hannah escape from Gaze, and the question of how to release Hannah from her prison drives much of the plot.

The narrative structure of the novel offers the events of the story through two points of view—Marian’s and Effingham Cooper’s.  Effingham (or Effie) is a frequent visitor at Riders, the only other house within miles of Gaze.  Riders is the home of Effie’s mentor, Max Lejour, and his adult children, Alice and Pip.  Alice has been in love with Effie for years, but he’s paid no attention to her though his egoism is such that he hasn’t spurned her entirely.  Effie, like Marian, is an outsider, and he fancies himself to be in love with Hannah.  Although he is an outsider, he also shares in the guilt of keeping Hannah prisoner in the form of inaction and because he likes the idea of Hannah being sequestered and shut-up, deluding himself into thinking that she is being shut-up just for him.  At last, Marian convinces Effie to help her break Hannah out of the prison-house.  The consequences of this attempt, the reasons for Hannah’s imprisonment, the meaning of Hannah’s suffering, and the ways in which the characters respond to that suffering and see it as being significant, drive the plot to its somewhat ambiguous climax and conclusion.

The title of the novel is an image that finds its figurative representation in the character of Hannah.  Through a conversation between Max and Effie, we are told that the unicorn is a Christ-like image in that it is an innocent creature that is captured and turned into a scapegoat, sacrificed to purge away the sins and crimes of others.  This is the allegorical aspect of the novel, but this is a modern allegory in that the meaning of Hannah’s suffering is not interpreted for us.  As readers we have to decide what her suffering means, if it means anything at all.  Iris Murdoch doesn’t tell readers what to think in this novel, and I like that.  On the other hand, I did find the novel a bit frustrating.  In order to leave the interpretation of the story up to the reader, there has to be a certain level of ambiguity.  It’s that very ambiguity, however, that I find frustrating.  There were several moments when I wasn’t all sure what had just happened or what was going on.  Admittedly, while this irked me, it kept me turning the page, and after finishing the novel, I still find myself thinking about it and puzzling it through and modifying my interpretation of the story.  I’ve always thought that that was one mark of a great book, so on that level the story succeeds in capturing my interest and making me think.

On the other hand, while The Unicorn made me think, I’m not sure how much I liked it.  Because we get the story through two different points of view, there’s an element of psychological realism in the novel. We get to see how everything that is happening is impacting the psyches of both characters.  We spend a lot of time in each person’s head, and so there are a lot of interior monologues throughout the novel, and less dialogue.  I found this to be a bit tedious, though why exactly I can’t say because normally this doesn’t bother me in a novel.  Perhaps I just didn’t find Marian and Effie’s thoughts to be sufficiently interesting, or maybe it’s that I wasn’t as invested in them as characters.  I understand the purpose of multiple points of view, but I wonder if I would have felt more engaged if there had only been one.  When rating this novel elsewhere I gave it two of five stars, and now that it’s time for me to decide whether or not I would recommend it to other readers, I’m still conflicted and undecided.  While I enjoyed teaching this novel in a college literature course and I got good response to it from a handful of students, I don’t think I would recommend it to friends.  In fact, I would recommend a lot of other books before even thinking about The Unicorn.  In the end, I’m glad I can finally say that I’ve read a novel by Iris Murdoch, but I’m not exactly rushing to the bookstore to purchase another.

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.



from the adventures of sherlock holmes – part two

“The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb”

Watson tells us at the beginning of this story that this is only one of two cases that he referred to Holmes during their partnership.  The puzzle begins with a man arriving at Watson’s residence in dire need of medical attention as a result of his thumb being amputated.  Victor Hatherly tells Watson that the story of his missing thumb is an extraordinary one for which he’ll need to contact the police, but Watson recommends that he tell his story first to Holmes, and Hatherly agrees, saying he is familiar with Holmes’ reputation and will pursue whatever recommendation Holmes gives him.  Once at Baker Street, it is revealed that Hatherly is a hydraulics engineer who used to be employed with an engineering firm but now is in business for himself.  He hasn’t many clients or a lot of work, so when a man appears—Colonel Lysander Stark—with a job for him which he is willing to pay Hatherly twenty guineas to complete, Hatherly instantly agrees.  However, the job is a curious one—he must appear at his client’s house at 11pm in the evening, and he must tell no one anything about the job itself.   There is also no train back to London and so Hatherly will have to spend the night at his client’s home.  Hatherly is a bit suspicious but he agrees, and as the evening progresses he becomes even more suspicious.  He does finally have a look at the machine and identifies the problem, but he also knows that the machine cannot be used for the purpose that Stark has claimed it is used for.  Revealing this knowledge puts Hatherly in danger and results in the loss of his thumb.

I think that this story is one of my least favorite stories.  Hatherly states the case to Holmes and Watson, but once he does, Holmes calls in Scotland Yard and they go to apprehend the culprit.  There’s not much thinking involved, just the resolution and reveal of the business that Hatherly has gotten himself mixed up in.

“The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”

This is the story of Lord St. Simon and the “strange” events of his marriage.  Holmes receives a letter from St. Simon, requesting his assistance in a highly delicate matter.  Holmes turns to Watson to get the backstory on St. Simon, who has been following the man’s story—both leading up to and after his marriage—in the papers.  Watson explains to Holmes that St. Simon at last finally proposes to and marries a young American heiress, and that the newspapers are up in arms because it seems that the sons of the British aristocracy have begun to select American wives instead of British wives.  Immediately after the wedding takes place, the wedding party returns for a wedding breakfast, and ten minutes into the breakfast, the bride excuses herself and completely disappears.  St. Simon hopes that Sherlock can help him solve the mystery of his missing wife.  Holmes does, quite easily, and he says that he’s known even before meeting St. Simon what the likeliest explanation was for his wife’s disappearance.

This story is similar to the one that precedes it in the collection—there is long exposition of the case and the reveal happens almost instantaneously.  This story was okay, but again, not one of my favorites.  I like it better when Holmes and Watson actually do some detecting.

“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”

In this story, Sherlock’s client is one Alexander Holder, a London banker.  This story also begins in an entertaining way.  Watson is standing at the windows and notices a man running down the snowy, icy streets of London; he thinks the man is an escapee from an asylum, while Sherlock believes that he is their newest client, and of course he ends up being correct.  Once the banker is able to calm himself, he begins to state the case to Holmes and Watson.  Just the previous day, he was approached by an incredibly prominent, important personage whose face everyone in London would recognize but whom Holder will not name for reasons of propriety and discretion.  This person asks Holder for a short term loan of 50,000 pounds, and because the banker is known for not making loans unless some kind of collateral can be given to secure the loan, this person provides Holder with the beryl coronet—a most valuable public possession of the empire.  If anyone were to find out that this person has used the possession to secure a loan, or if anything should happen to the coronet, it would be quite the public scandal.  Holder, of course, agrees to give the loan, but at the end of the day he feels uneasy about leaving the coronet in the safe in his office.  He thinks it would be better to always have it in his possession, and so he takes it home with him, where it is promptly stolen from his bedroom that very night.  In the house at the time are some servants whom Holder has the utmost faith in, save one, as well as his son and adopted daughter.  Holder’s son has a problem with gambling and getting into debt, and when Holder hears a noise that night and goes to investigate, he finds his son holding the coronet, which has been damaged and from which three of the beryls have been removed.  Holder believes his son to be guilty and has him arrested.  He has come to Holmes for help in locating the missing beryls and trying to convince his son to reveal what he has done with them.  Sherlock takes the case.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and it’s one of my favorites in this collection.  Again, Holmes has to do some detecting and looking into motives for the crime.  Holmes is notorious for donning disguises, and once again he puts on the disguise of someone who is “disreputable” merely by changing his clothes, offering further commentary on how appearances can be deceiving.  Another thing about this story is that Holmes’ favorite maxim makes an appearance: “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”  After finishing this story, I found myself hoping that Steven Moffatt would choose this story to adapt for the Sherlock series.  I can totally imagine Mycroft bringing this case to Sherlock and asking him to solve it.  This is definitely one of the must-read stories in this collection.

“The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”

The beginning of this story is wonderful.  Indeed, the first couple of pages are the best part of the story.  Holmes and Watson are home at Baker Street, and Holmes tells Watson that he tends to embellish the stories, and notes that he doesn’t write up the cases that get the greatest public attention but those cases which showcase Holmes’ powers of deduction and logic.  Feeling a bit stung by Holmes comments, Watson calls Sherlock egotistical and that it is one of Holmes’ qualities that he finds most repellent.  Holmes says “Crime is common. Logic is rare.”  He goes on to tell Watson “You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales.”  The opening is a fantastic look into the relationship between the two men.  Of course, their conversation is interrupted by a new client.  Her name is Violet Hunter, and she is a governess.  She comes to Holmes to ask if she should take a new job and tells him the story of her potential employer and his odd idiosyncrasies.  The one she finds most offensive is his request that she cut her lovely chestnut hair.  Ultimately, Holmes advises her to take the case but also cautions her that there is something wrong about the job offer and tells her to call him when she feels herself to be in danger.  She does call, and Holmes and Watson go out to investigate.  The solution to the mystery reminded me a bit of The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, but otherwise, this was one of my least favorite stories in the collection.  It’s only the beginning that redeems it.



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.