Review: A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

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Blurb:

One of E. M. Forster’s most celebrated novels, A Room With a View is the story of a young English middle-class girl, Lucy Honeychurch. While vacationing in Italy, Lucy meets and is wooed by two gentlemen, George Emerson and Cecil Vyse. After turning down Cecil Vyse’s marriage proposals twice Lucy finally accepts. Upon hearing of the engagement George protests and confesses his true love for Lucy. Lucy is torn between the choice of marrying Cecil, who is a more socially acceptable mate, and George who she knows will bring her true happiness. A Room With a Viewis a tale of classic human struggles such as the choice between social acceptance or true love.

Review:

I have not been known to spend my money on particularly pragmatic things. There was an heirloom apple tree native only to New England that I absolutely had to plant in my Midwestern garden. The old-tymey homemade ice cream maker that I vowed to use every summer, which ended up meaning one summer, the very summer I received it, used it, and stored it. But one day, with any extra cash lying about, I would love to sponsor a study at a statistical research institute about love triangles. Mostly about the verisimilitude of love triangles. Walk into a library and select a novel at random, and I’d bet your chances of picking up a book with a love triangle inside hover around 33%. But in real life, not Literature, does the population have a lifetime love triangle percentage of 33%? I doubt it, and yet, in books, those creative factories meant to mimic, comment, and critique “real life” insist on this romantic concept. Love triangles everywhere, love triangles abound! E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View is not an exception.

Why does this authorial obsession for love triangles exist? For one thing, it might not be an entirely authorial preoccupation but also readerly: writers can say all they want about Art, but they are almost always just giving us what we want. Love triangles are schematics. An easy way to capture a complex thing. So here, the three-sided polygon between Lucy, George, and Cecil is about the future. Cecil is labeled “medieval” which makes George the “modern” man. It’s up to the woman to decide which way the wind is blowing—forward? Or backward? Cecil can promise her a cloistered life like her mother lived; she will live happily but in the background. Life will unfold like a masterwork painting before her eyes. George can promise very little except for one very big thing: the possibility to step into the painting and become a masterpiece herself.

It’s a really clever book and somehow manages to dismantle the manic pixie dreamgirl trope way back in 1908, that is, 97 years before the facile term was coined. So it’s even more impressive in its own historical context. For a good chunk of the novel, I was unsure if I was reading a deeply sexist book or a deeply feminist book. All becomes clear by the end, in fact, if not for the final chapter, this could have entered the annals of feminist literature.

Yet I’m surprised to see that some readers sighed over this like a true romance. Forster’s sardonic, detached narrator made such a reading impossible for me. Instead of presenting the facts through Lucy’s loveshocked eyes, he allows us to experience the events at a distance. It is worth noting that this distance is undoubtedly located above: the narrator and reader are above Lucy; we see her faults while she fails to. This choice creates an interesting effect, indeed, an effect at odds with the early feminist message Forster otherwise promotes. Again and again, Lucy says that only women can speak for women and that her thoughts, far from being ideas projected on to her by men, truly exist. Thus her back-and-forth between the two suitors is an attempt to find independence in the midst of a marriage that will undeniably rest upon dependence. She, not a man, will speak for her own hand. But Forster’s superior narrator who suspends us just above the intrigue, dangling like a chandelier in the English parlor at teatime, allows us to observe and share in his judgments (I use “his” because there is no question that Forster’s narrator, mostly an authorial stand-in, is male). The consequence being that even as women exit the Victorian era and claim greater autonomy, even in a novel that celebrates this social change, they remain objects of Art, decorous and meaningful, so long as this meaning is recognized and capitalized by a man. In short, an imperfect, funny little book that undermines itself.

<h2>3 out of 5 stars</h2>

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Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

22522805Blurb:

“You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know. But it’s time now to think on it anew. There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…”

The Buried Giant begins as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years.

Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in nearly a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge, and war.

Review:

Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant, a fablelike quest story set in the decades after King Arthur’s reign, I was struck by a desire for something I never wanted to see again after receiving my high school diploma: a reading guide. I wanted an old-fashioned English class worksheet full of questions that used to make me rage (What does the titlesymbolize? Can we describe the novel as a modern-dayallegory? Why or why not?). This vintage wish is not masochistic but simply necessary: there is allegory and symbolism and motifs and all sorts of nitty-gritty literary stuff to unpack here, so much so that I needed a guide. Or maybe just a fellow reading discussion partner to accompany me.

Alone, as a piece of storytelling, The Buried Giant fails. As a motor of thought, however, as a tool to provoke meditation, it succeeds. Which, using my personal calculator, says that as a literary work, it fails overall. The problem here is that the story doesn’t stand up. Essentially, Axl and Beatrice set off on a journey to find their son’s village. Along the way they meet a Saxon knight and start to grapple with the “mist,” no mere British meteorological phenomenon but a dastardly (or beneficent?) haze that fades the memories of all the medieval inhabitants. There’s also a dragon, of course.

Normally I’d be quite keen on any “literary” author’s attempt to retell legend, but the result here is flat, from the plot to the dialogue. (Brace yourself: one of the protagonist’s repeatedly calls his wife “princess.” And by repeatedly I mean every.single.time he has dialogue.) There’s excellent and timely stuff here about grudges and forgiveness, both after a lover’s quarrel or a bloody war, and if moving on really means moving forward, which means leaving the past firmly in the past. But the dull story inches toward an ending that we can predict, even if the final pages are on par with other masterful Ishiguro endings à la Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day.

The Buried Giant is evidence of Ishiguro’s continued fascination with memory. Is memory valuable or nefarious? Does it push us onward or pull us backward? Are we the lives we’re living or merely the lives we’ve lived? He’s normally a maestro with these topics, but it didn’t shine through here. With Ishiguro, however, my memory is merciful and short.

2 stars out of 5

Review: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

 

2619Blurb:

Dickens’s magnificent novel of guilt, desire, and redemption
The orphan Pip’s terrifying encounter with an escaped convict on the Kent marshes, and his mysterious summons to the house of Miss Havisham and her cold, beautiful ward Estella, form the prelude to his “great expectations.” How Pip comes into a fortune, what he does with it, and what he discovers through his secret benefactor are the ingredients of his struggle for moral redemption.

Review:

In Great Expectations Dickens takes Pip, a young orphan of modest means, from a marshy graveyard to London high society, twisting his fate again and again to ask the question: who makes a man—himself? Or everything and everyone who builds him up? Is the importance of living a good and true life only discovered in the highs and lows? Can great expectations be given or must they be earned?

The actual plot, while frequently entertaining with its sharp turns and interlocking character backstories, is too fantastic to properly address these questions. Pip’s journey is long but the significant bits, places where he learns the value of money, the visage of true love, the treasure of friendship, and the loyalty of familial love, are short and subsequently seemingly unearned.

The characters, fortunately, are sharp and bright as stars on a clear night. We have the youthful tragics of Miss Havisham that have left her cold and frozen, icing the heart of her beautiful ward Estella, and eventually that of Pip’s as well. Joe, sweet Joe the blacksmith, whose accent was practically unreadable at times but never failed to shine as a beacon of humanity. And of course, the unforgettable Wemmick, a law clerk who has built a castle in London for himself and “the Aged,” his death father whom he communicates with either by cries and cannonball firings.

It’s a good story but one that failed to seam together for me. Reminiscent of Maugham’sOf Human Bondage and plenty of other bildungsromans, yet heavier on plot and lighter on epiphanies gained through growing-up.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: One Day by David Nicholls

9395692Blurb:

15th July 1988

Emma and Dexter meet on the night of their graduation. Tomorrow they must go their separate ways.

So where will they be on this one day next year?
And the year after that?

And every year that follows?

Review:

One Day was a novel endowed with a very important task: to occupy me during six hours of train travel. And what do you know, it did its job, not overwhelmingly well but just well enough that it will always be a fond memory, a solid 3-star read.

Smartly composed and occasionally insightful, One Day still undeniably belongs to that genre some are determined to label “chick-lit.” But it’s literary, and although it gives us what we want, we have to work for it. The going is tough before the much-wanted, inevitable relationship gets going. Nicholls is realistic if not a bit ruthless about love. He reminded me that two people can love each other to infinity and beyond and still make each other bleed with nasty words. And that’s why if this is “chick-lit” it’s definitely of a superior rank. Love, while still lovely, is not entirely rosy under Nicholls’ pen; for him love is beautiful 90% of the time, but the other 10% is lived in darkness and suffered in sharpness.

The conceit of the story is that its told on the same day—July 15—over twenty years. Emma and Dexter meet in the 80s and the story ends in the new millennium, when they’re a bit fatter and greyer, but wiser too. Vast swaths of time are lost because as readers we are only privy to the happenings of one day per year. The novel is accordingly obsessed with time, ticking and tocking me until I was struck by the mundane but true realization of how long a year is, how much change 364 days can offer.

Some stories give us exactly what we want but they don’t suffer for this predictability. If these stories surprised us, they would have, in some way, violated a contract between the reader and writer: I read certain genres to be lightly entertained when embarking upon a six-hour train journey. With One Day I was not shocked; I was not made to think; and for this I was contented.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox

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Blurb:

When they were young, Juana’s and Katherine’s futures appeared promising. They had secured politically advantageous marriages, but their dreams of love and power quickly dissolved, and the unions for which they’d spent their whole lives preparing were fraught with duplicity and betrayal. Juana, the elder sister, unexpectedly became Spain’s sovereign, but her authority was continually usurped, first by her husband and later by her son. Katherine, a young widow after the death of Prince Arthur of Wales, soon remarried his doting brother Henry and later became a key figure in a drama that altered England’s religious landscape.

Ousted from the positions of power and influence they had been groomed for and separated from their children, Katherine and Juana each turned to their rich and abiding faith and deep personal belief in their family’s dynastic legacy to cope with their enduring hardships. Sister Queens is a gripping tale of love, duty, and sacrifice—a remarkable reflection on the conflict between ambition and loyalty during an age when the greatest sin, it seems, was to have been born a woman.

Review:

Although I normally find it reductive or even counterproductive to proclaim how far feminism has come in mere centuries when things like this still exist, after finishing Julia Fox’s biography of two Spanish queens–Juana the Mad and Katherine of Aragon–I have to say, oh my GOSH, isn’t it great how far feminism has come in mere centuries?

Because these women suffered. And even though sometimes their suffering equated to “I might have to sell my bejeweled golden plate because my prince husband widowed me and now my father-in-law, the King of England, won’t pay for new dresses (#royalproblems),” they still suffered acutely simply because of their gender. But as I’ve observed again and again in pre-feminist times, women found subtle ways to fight back.

By examining the cases of these two sisters—the younger daughters of famous Spanish power couple Ferdinand and Isabella—we find many of the textbook sexist tactics used to deny women their personhood. From birth, princesses are told they ought to have been princes, a nasty bit of belittling caused by ridiculous male primogeniture laws. But no matter, princesses can also serve the kingdom by marrying foreign princes. They are raised as such, to recognize that their supreme role is to move to a faraway land, sometimes as young as 14, to marry a man, sometimes much older, that they’ve never met, and to abandon their home country likely forever and always.

It stretches the limits of my imagination to even consider that: packing up at age 14 saying goodbyes that will last forever.

Once married, the women must breed breed breed. Produce as many princes and princesses for the kingdom; princes are, of course, de rigueur, a job that Queen Juana does magnificently well as the consort in Burgundy and a job that Queen Katherine fails at miserably. The queens must watch as their husband inevitably chooses one of their ladies to be his mistress and must pretend not to be offended by any bastard children given titles.

Sometimes, if all the boys in the family happen to die (literally the WORST thing these people could imagine happening in the entire UNIVERSE—European royals of the sixteenth century are wonderfully dramatic), a queen will inherit actual power. Normally, however, one of her own relations—a male cousin, a father, even her own son—will attempt to wrench control of the power from her, as happens in the case of Juana, who is imprisoned and labeled “loca” to invalidate her claim to the crown. Calling a woman crazy to deny her autonomy…Sexist Playbook Rule #1, although the Hapsburg kings were not the first to use it nor would they be the last.

There’s a terrible amount of death. Dozens of miscarriages, perfectly healthy bridegrooms keeling over in under a week, heads rolling for questionable allegations of treason. Widowed queens marry their widower nephews. This time period is literally incomprehensible to me. Again and again throughout the story of these two tragic Spanish queens, I had to stop to wonder, “Why the hell did these people care? Who cares about ruling Castile when you already rule half of Spain, Navarre, Sicily, and Naples? WHY?”

This time period is incomprehensible to me, not only in terms of outdated gender ideologies but governmental and religious ideologies as well. It’s frustrating and confusing and crazy stupid fascinating, and I was so glad to try to understand it (for I will never actually understand it) via the stories of these two regal but oh-so-very-doomed women.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

3711Blurb

Epic and intimate, hilarious and poignant, White Teeth is the story of two North London families—one headed by Archie, the other by Archie’s best friend, a Muslim Bengali named Samad Iqbal. Pals since they served together in World War II, Archie and Samad are a decidedly unlikely pair. Plodding Archie is typical in every way until he marries Clara, a beautiful, toothless Jamaican woman half his age, and the couple have a daughter named Irie (the Jamaican word for “no problem”). Samad —devoutly Muslim, hopelessly “foreign”— weds the feisty and always suspicious Alsana in a prearranged union. They have twin sons named Millat and Magid, one a pot-smoking punk-cum-militant Muslim and the other an insufferable science nerd. The riotous and tortured histories of the Joneses and the Iqbals are fundamentally intertwined, capturing an empire’s worth of cultural identity, history, and hope.

Zadie Smith’s dazzling first novel plays out its bounding, vibrant course in a Jamaican hair salon in North London, an Indian restaurant in Leicester Square, an Irish poolroom turned immigrant café, a liberal public school, a sleek science institute. A winning debut in every respect, White Teeth marks the arrival of a wondrously talented writer who takes on the big themes —faith, race, gender, history, and culture— and triumphs.

Review

Part of the problem of spending more than a year in a country that doesn’t speak your native language is that you start to speak zero languages perfectly. My English, planted and watered from age zero, no longer blooms: the whistly interdental “th” in words like thistle and think occasionally exits my mouth as “z”; my prepositions have gone to absolute shit—a sentence like “I go in London” sounds completely acceptable to me until an American friend points it out; and my vocabulary has dwindled depressingly, so much so that it took me 30 seconds of searching—“dwe, drin, drendle…”—to find the word “dwindle.” My French suffers similarly but also rears its obnoxious Gallic head at the most inopportune times. On the phone with my mother I can’t find the words to say, “You’re being ridiculous,” so I’m forced to pronounce, “N’importe quoi,” even though her Anglophone brain will certainly not understand. And likewise I’m finding it difficult to find the proper English words to explain my dislike for Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, though I can say in French that it was her “déjanté” (possible translation: nutty?) tone that put me off.

Kinda funny then—in French, I would say “assez cocasse”—that this entire novel is about the feeling of unbelonging culturally and religiously told from the point of view of various Jamaican and Bangladeshi immigrant and immigrant children in London. The older generation, exemplified by the phony Muslim Samad who complains about his sons’ ungodliness while engaging in adultery with his red-headed English mistress, clashes with the younger generation, led by three British-born children of immigrants who don’t have time to care about their ancestors or culture or religion because they’re too busy trying to find cigarettes to smoke.

It’s hilarious at times, particularly when a certain character drops repartee that is just dripping with sarcasm and/or hypocrisy. It shines brightest when the characters aren’t aware how ridiculous they’re being. But after a certain point, Smith trips and falls into parody. It becomes so ridiculous that it’s impossible the characters don’t realize how ridiculous everything is.

Like learning a foreign language and like adapting to a new culture, writing a book that is comic yet not comical is a difficult balancing act. You must push envelopes but never blow them wide open. Unfortunately what Smith does in Act II of White Teeth, her debut novel, is tantamount to taking a bomb and exploding the envelope to smithereens. It’s over the top, and she loses the characters, the story, and, worst, the reader. Stories should be inventive and exciting and new, and Zadie Smith is certainly a welcome break in the somewhat stolid line of British literary tradition, but I also advocate mostly coloring inside the lines, simply moving envelopes and not destroying them, respecting the old ways while also giving heed to the new.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

949797Blurb

Of Human Bondage is the first and most autobiographical of Maugham’s masterpieces. It is the story of Philip Carey, an orphan eager for life, love and adventure. After a few months studying in Heidelberg, and a brief spell in Paris as would-be artist, Philip settles in London to train as a doctor.

And that is where he meets Mildred, the loud but irresistible waitress with whom he plunges into a formative, tortured and masochistic affair which very nearly ruins him.

Review

I’ve come to the conclusion that in my life I’ve done a lot of waiting. Waiting for a school bell to ring, waiting to leave for vacation, waiting to go to university, waiting to hear back about that job, waiting to see a friend I haven’t seen in months: in short, waiting to live. Because implicitly, any act of waiting is an act of not living. That is, unless authors like Somerset Maugham write epic bildungsromans like Of Human Bondage and force us to remember, or at the very least to acknowledge, that our lives are lived in the waiting.

It’s a message I couldn’t wait a single moment more to hear, a message for me right here, right now. Because currently I’ve been waiting too much, thinking more about how my life could be than contenting myself with how my life is. I have taken to studying calendars. I count weeks and make fantastic calculations: only 79 days until I know whether I’ve gotten into grad school, which is equivalent to a childhood summer vacation; only 38 days until I go to Berlin, equivalent to the NFL postseason.

Philip Carey, Maugham’s vaguely autobiographical protagonist, does a lot of waiting too. Orphaned and club-footed, he spends a childhood waiting for adulthood, and once he arrives, he spends his early adulthood waiting for something better, the thing he had actually dreamed of. In one heartbreaking sequence early in this serious chunk of book, Philip spends months praying nightly for God to cure his clubfoot. The miraculous day arrives and Philip jumps out of bed, only to walk to breakfast limping as usual. Philip feels that these nightly calls to heaven were wasted. And in a way they are. But Maugham also warns us against simplistic thinking: nothing is wasted if it makes us who we are.

I love nothing more than some good retrospection, and 80% finished with the book, I paused, awed at how far Philip had come. We follow him across Europe, through various failed relationships, and discarded career attempt after discarded career attempt. The most simultaneously unsatisfying/satisfying component of the novel concerns Philip’s frustrating and illogical love for Mildred, a fickle, dull, and rude woman who never returns his sentiments. Although it seems that Philip never learns and that he will wait forever on a woman who will never love him, we can see, eventually, once Philip himself sees it, that love is toxic, but the most wonderful thing we know. It’s an answer. With Philip we learn, as his life unfolds like a tapestry, that beauty is an answer. Happiness may be fleeting but beauty is not, so we must search not for happiness but beauty.

For anyone susceptible to waiting too much and too long, I suggest reading a bildungsroman. There’s nothing like it to bring you through everything, up and down and out again. Life goes on. We get through things. Waiting can be the most important thing you ever do if you realize that it’s not really waiting.

4 out of 5 stars