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: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

46165Blurb:

This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s romantic and witty first novel, was written when the author was only twenty-three years old. This semiautobiographical story of the handsome, indulged, and idealistic Princeton student Amory Blaine received critical raves and catapulted Fitzgerald to instant fame. Now, readers can enjoy the newly edited, authorized version of this early classic of the Jazz Age, based on Fitzgerald’s original manuscript. In this definitive text, This Side of Paradise captures the rhythms and romance of Fitzgerald’s youth and offers a poignant portrait of the “Lost Generation.”

Review:

The literary landscape is overpopulated with insufferable egotists, often of the white male semi-autobiographical variety, but what separates the sympathetic from the antipathetic?

This Side of Paradise is F. Scott Fitzgerald playing in his usual time period with his usual beautiful words. In the booming era leading up to and following the Great War, men were being lost and found. A lucky guess on the stock market made you a millionaire and gave you a name, but battles in Europe led to a battered generation of men questioning where they were going and if it was anywhere good. Amory Blaine spends the entirety of This Side of Paradise as one of the lost until he miraculously finds himself at the end.

This joyous climax did not evoke any triumphant readerly emotions here, however, because Amory Blaine is the most hateful, undeserving character I’ve ever met. And sure, perhaps his character is a window into the minds of the Lost Generation, but if people were/are thinking like this, then I don’t want to know about it. Amory meanders through life, striving towards something indefinable, which is to say striving towards nothing. His privileged childhood and adolescence lead him to Princeton and into the arms of many delightful debutantes whose chief qualities are soft lips and the proclivity to use said lips even before a marriage proposal. Amory’s striving often looks more like stomping. In climbing upwards, he crushes these women and various other members of the underclass (in other words, anyone who didn’t spend his sixteenth and seventeenth years “prepping” in Connecticut, New York, or Massachusetts), an ascent which again, isn’t upwards, but nowards, since he has no destination except superiority.

These are legitimate words uttered by/about Amory:

Oh it isn’t that I mind the glittering caste system. I like having a bunch of hot cats on top, but gosh, I’ve got to be one of them…But I hate to get anywhere by working for it.

Amory usually liked men individually, yet feared them in crowds unless the crowd was around him.

He took a sombre satisfaction in thinking that perhaps all along she had been nothing except what he had read into her ; that this was her high point, that no one else would ever make her think.

And say all you will about unlikeable narrators—I’m certainly an ardent defender as seen here—but something about Fitzgerald’s depiction of Amory rings false. I didn’t know if I should pity him or sympathize with him, so I ended up being disgusted by him. Amory, like personages from The Great Gatsby, is a careless man. But his thoughtfulness is supposed to make him a redeemable man as well, so that we cheer when he reaches epiphanous clarity riding along the New Jersey highway in the novel’s final pages.

Yet I couldn’t cheer for Amory, I couldn’t like Amory, I couldn’t even tolerate reading his various anodyne thoughts. Insipidness is still insipidness, even if it dresses well, prepped at St. Regis, studied at Princeton, and finds itself described by the magic words of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

2 stars out of 5

Review: Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

290897Blurb:

Set against the translucent beauty of France in summer, Bonjour Tristesse is a bittersweet tale narrated by Cécile, a seventeen-year-old girl on the brink of womanhood, whose meddling in her father’s love life leads to tragic consequences.

Freed from boarding school, Cécile lives in unchecked enjoyment with her youngish, widowed father — an affectionate rogue, dissolute and promiscuous. Having accepted the constantly changing women in his life, Cécile pursues a sexual conquest of her own with a “tall and almost beautiful” law student. Then, a new woman appears in her father’s life. Feeling threatened but empowered, Cécile sets in motion a devastating plan that claims a surprising victim.

Deceptively simple in structure, Bonjour Tristesse is a complex and beautifully composed portrait of casual amorality and a young woman’s desperate attempt to understand and control the world around her.

Review:

I was lying in the sand, taking a handful of it in my hand, letting it flow from my fingers in a soft, yellowy stream. I was thinking that it was flowing away like time, which was a simple idea and that it was pleasant to have simple ideas. It was summer.

A rich, liberated young French girl lives in a villa on the Riviera for the summer with her lothario father and his woman of the moment. Her days are spent sunbathing, swimming, walking in the countryside, visiting fashionable somebodies in trendy bars, eating, drinking and drinking, wanting love, not understanding love, but most of all and always, not thinking. Her days are full of not thinking. That is to say Cécile’s days are not full at all. So when the arrival of Anne, a cold but brilliant Parisian, usurps her father’s attentions, pulling him away from pert 20-somethings and into the halls of potential matrimony, Cécile begins to plot.

The halcyon summer days on the Mediterranean, full of nothing and everything at the same time, represent Cécile’s fading childhood. At 17 she will soon become a person, and eventually a person will want to think, and eventually these thoughts, if unwieldy and untested, will destroy. And afterwards, there will no longer be a villa on the Mediterranean, or there might be, but it will be filled with tristesse, that is, sadness.

Cécile boils up a plan worthy of a third Parent Trap movie to separate her father from Anne. But at the very beginning of her machinations, she already regrets them. The relationship dynamics here are rich and confusing. There’s definitely an Oedipus complex happening here: Cécile’s father dates women not much older than her, and Cécile idolizes him, takes his advice on love as gospel, aspires to love like him…maybe because she’s in love with him? Her competitor to this crown is, of course, Anne, whom she simultaneously admires beyond belief, indeed hopes to imitate and learn from, and wants to annihilate.

There are plenty of subtly romantic moments between all the characters, the most stirring of which a mere caress of Cécile’s face by Anne on the patio. The story devolves like a match of tug-of-war that will inevitably be lost. Cécile is on the cusp of liberty and meaningfulness and thought, on the verge of adulthood. She pushes herself forward and pulls herself backward, but she will definitely fall into the future, she will definitely hurt herself there, and she definitely cannot go back.

In Bonjour Tristesse she says hello to the loss of innocence but in this short, sharp little novella, also leaves a beautiful remembrance of losing it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

168642Blurb:

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.

Review:

“I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”

How can two opposite things both be true? How can someone be a killer but not—never—be worthy of being killed himself? How can the world treat you poorly but in doing so not give you the right to treat it poorly?

The answer to these hows? A set of arbitrary human laws that we have tried to bend around the unarbitrary universe.

Murder, as a subject of debate, doesn’t seem particularly sticky. And yet we have hundreds of thousands of pages of judicial literature devoted to its consequences and hundreds of thousands of pages of fiction and non-fiction literature dedicated to its perpetrators, its victims, its sufferers, and its enforcers. The rule humans have developed for murder is as simple as the one recorded in the Bible a few millennia ago, “Thou shalt not kill,” and yet…we kill. And yet, we struggle to understand why.

The murder here is both as unfathomable and fathomable as they all are. Two greedy men stomped on by the world decide to rob a prosperous Kansas farm family for money. Failing to find a massive safe full of cash, they abandon the enterprise but still decide to brutally murder the four family members.

In Cold Blood is widely considered the exemplary work of the True Crime genre. Never before has a family’s doom been quite so picturesque. It is the most fantastic of murders, more atavistic than the “original” murder of Abel by Cain. The dead family is the family, more good, wholesome, and kind than it should be possible to be. And the killers are the killers, not entirely psychopathic but not entirely rational. They’re straight-up thugs, beat-up and blackhearted, motivated by a special blend of vindictiveness and simple desire.

What makes it even more fantastic is its hyper-realness. Verisimilitude cannot substitute for newspaper clippings, wet pools of blood, and the itch of a real rope around a real man’s neck. This all happened, Capote reminds us with every tragic detail. A family met death while the family in the neighboring farmhouse slept through the night. You can google “Perry Smith” and stare into his drooping eyes, just as the Clutter family might have stared into those eyes, tied up, desperate, wondering but probably more so knowing that they’d be the last thing they’d see. Likewise you can google “Nancy Clutter” and see her brilliantly coiffed hair paired with a genuine smile.

While the Clutters were killed, so were the perpetrators, just later and in a different way. And looking at all their faces—their real faces—it’s easy to forget those human laws and it’s hard to say whom you pity more.

4 stars out of 5

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

Review: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

4406Blurb:

Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.

Review:

East of Eden was not merely recommended but literally thrust upon me by a few friends. who consider it a masterpiece and a personal favorite. And it’s not just my friends: Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize shortly after its publication, calling it his magnum opus. It’s a decent story, but does it deserve so much praise? Is it truly so spectacular? Not really.

East of Eden is devoted to telling the easiest story, that of good versus evil. Steinbeck’s villains port names starting with C (like Cain, the original biblical murderer) and good guys port names starting with A (like Abel, the original biblical murderee). The crux of this primeval battle hinges on the Cain and Abel story in Genesis and its use of the Hebrew word “timshel.” Timshel translates to “Thou mayest”. So basically, East of Eden is a long, multigenerational family saga devoted to answering the question of good versus evil by telling us that we can choose. No one is born wearing white and no one is born wearing black; no one is born a Cain and no one is born an Abel. These are choices we make.

It’s an idea that can feel vaguely profound until you realize how underwhelmingly obvious it is. Our actions define us? We are not created but formed, molded continuously by our quotidian motions of saying yes or no? Well, no kidding.

So then why do people like it so much? And why am I still granting it three stars? Because we’re humans: simple and lazy, unmotivated to search for grander meanings when the most important sits directly in front of us. We are so occupied by the day-to-day drudgery of saying yes or no to being good or bad, that when we read we want to be entertained, unchallenged, reassured that what we know is all there is to know.

The contemporary world lacks modern epics. We no longer have Odysseys, Gilgameshes, or Beowulfs. In East of Eden Steinbeck tries to mitigate this lack. He writes in booming prose, tallying the passing decades with a hopeful yet wistful voice. It is a book that just feels good to read. It promises a story and delivers. It reminds us of what we already know. It’s surprising, however, that the author of Of Mice and Men could write something so simple. In the Salinas Valley of East of Eden everything is black or white. Where’s the grey we saw in Of Mice and Men’s tragic ending? Where are the tough moral dilemmas? For all the posturing about “Thou mayest” where is the grittiness in choosing?

You won’t find it in East of Eden. Everything comes up Cain or Abel, good or evil. Perhaps Steinbeck is saying that no grey exists: you are this or that, and even though the Bible says “Thou mayest” we’re fooling ourselves if we believe it. That’s a less simple idea and altogether more compelling. Too bad that’s not the story he wrote.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

30933Blurb:

The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.

Review:

I never quite understood what people meant when they mentioned “Catholic Guilt,” but by God, post-Brideshead Revisited, now I know!

Waugh’s novel records the dissolution of a prominent English Catholic family in the period between the world wars. In some ways, it’s just another entry in the long list of English novels about noble families failing to adjust to a new, more egalitarian era. But the Flyte family is Catholic, that atavistic, traditional Christianity that outdates even the oldest and purest English family, and it is not the new ways of the 20th century but this ancient faith that destroys them. It is especially, and almost certainly unintentionally, ironic that religion ruins the Flytes, seeing as the text seems to encourage Catholicism. The best way to make converts out of readers is probably not to show four Catholic offspring descend to depression, alcoholism, and loneliness… but okay.

I don’t confess to knowing much about religion—the only time I entered a church was to be baptized—so perhaps much of Brideshead Revisited was lost on me. In that way, the mostly secular reader will empathize with the protagonist. Charles is an outsider to the Flyte’s way of life and cannot understand how every family conversation returns to religion. Nor could I. But that’s just it—to a non-believer, faith is absolute crock; to a believer, faith is the end and beginning. Non-believers can see how Catholicism brings the Flytes to ruin; the Flytes, however, either cannot see it or see it and decide not to care.

The story takes several abrupt turns. Told in three parts, it is comical, quiet and hopeful, and then, quite suddenly, eager to proselytize. The writing is soft and beautiful, very nostalgic, since Charles recounts the demise of the Flytes from a removed future where he is no longer a part of them. Again, the singular focus on religion distanced me from the story, but its principal ideas ring true regardless: we like things that connect us to something even if they hurt us.

3 out of 5 stars