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>

Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

18749Blurb:

With effortless grace, celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. We experience this tumultuous decade alongside five unforgettable characters: Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy who works for Odenigbo, a university professor full of revolutionary zeal; Olanna, the professor’s beautiful young mistress who has abandoned her life in Lagos for a dusty town and her lover’s charm; and Richard, a shy young Englishman infatuated with Olanna’s willful twin sister Kainene. Half of a Yellow Sun is a tremendously evocative novel of the promise, hope, and disappointment of the Biafran war.

Review;

My most comprehensive history course took place in my first year of high school. It bore the title “Global Studies,” a cursory naming attempt to broaden “world” and liven up “history.” We started between the Tigris and the Euphrates circa 4000 BCE. By 3000 BCE we had arrived in Egypt. It was our first and last visit to Africa during the entire year. We traveled to the agoras of Greece and the forums of Rome, to the East towards China, Japan, and India, back to Europe for the Dark Ages and then the Renaissance, and then outward into the world for the Age of Exploration and subsequent colonization. During this period, in fact, we returned to Africa. But briefly, very briefly; not to visit civilizations but to collect living raw materials—black slaves—to build civilizations across the ocean.

This is both an indictment of my high school history department and a premature attempt at self-excuse for the following failure: before opening Half of a Yellow Sun, the Biafran War did not exist for me. I did not know that in the 1960s, Nigeria suffered a series of military coups which led to the persecution of the Igbo people in the country and their subsequent secession into the state of Biafra. Thanks to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, now I know. A little more at least.

She begins the story in the early 1960s, a period of slight unrest, to be sure, but relatively tranquil. During this time, she introduces the main players who originate from various social classes. There’s the houseboy Ugwu, an uneducated rural villager, and his masters, two middle class professors. Then there’s a wealthy Nigerian businesswoman and her white British partner. Their stories all eventually overlap, but it’s a brilliant mélange to use as a base. Because once the war starts brewing, Adichie is able to show how it cuts across social categories. War, for Adichie, is omnipotent.

The strength of her characters is where she succeeds. Journalists are often maligned for focusing on “human interest stories” in the shadow of a great conflict. But as a lover of literature, I become more and more convinced that the only way to understand great conflicts and to appreciate their causes and consequences is to meet the people behind them. Perhaps it’s a foible, but I struggle to care about something until I can see its face. In Half of a Yellow Sun, I saw a lot of faces. Faces of people who I would never have the occasion to meet otherwise.

Adichie is just a great humanist author. It’s special but ultimately not terribly important that she’s talking about Nigeria, a subject of which very few have a deep familiarity. Her work would shine in any era, in any context. She has a way of shining light on people that reflect this light outward until it becomes compassion and empathy and understanding and appreciation. Under her careful hand, the Biafran War is not a mere photograph of children with twigs for arms and balloons for stomachs; it’s the story of people who told their story, but no one listened, and it’s the story of people who were never able to tell their own.

All in all, it’s a great story, which for me, is real history.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

7728889Blurb:

Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City–and she is pos-i-toot-ly thrilled. New York is the city of speakeasies, shopping, and movie palaces! Soon enough, Evie is running with glamorous Ziegfield girls and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is Evie has to live with her Uncle Will, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult–also known as “The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies.”

When a rash of occult-based murders comes to light, Evie and her uncle are right in the thick of the investigation. And through it all, Evie has a secret: a mysterious power that could help catch the killer–if he doesn’t catch her first

Review:

The Diviners in a single word: atmospheric.

Although this book is ostensibly about a serial killer and a group of teenagers with supernatural talents, it’s really about the 1920s, more specifically, the Roaring Twenties in New York City, USA. The Diviners doesn’t exist outside of this setting; or maybe it would, but it would be a much different and greatly inferior story because of it. The time period becomes a character itself in this novel, and the primary conflict of the story—the efforts of a hip, young group of supernatural detectives to apprehend an ancient killer called Naughty John—can actually be reduced to a historical conflict marking this era, the dissonance between progress and tradition. Naughty John, and many people in this period, view the future as a forbidding place full of sin while our heroine Evie and her teenaged friends embrace the prospect of limitless progress. Masterfully, Bray refuses to favor one side of this conflict over the other. While the old-fashioned ways supported by Naughty John are clearly incorrect, the progress heralded by the youth is wrong as well, as evinced by Bray’s inclusion of a eugenics movement side plot. Bray perfectly juxtaposes these two belief systems and captures the mood marking their division.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book for its exploration of the aforementioned theme, but there are still a few flaws, mostly flaws of excess. There are too many characters, all of them terribly interesting, but besides Evie, I never knew whose story this was. It jumped around, and when it seemed that Bray would finally unite her characters, it was a false alarm. Bray was such a tease in a way, introducing a character with an intriguing backstory and then never discussing him or her again. Bray’s other crime of gratuitousness is the length of this tome. It’s LONG, much too LONG. In particular, as I neared the end, all I wanted was a climax. Finally, hark a climax appears! but then I had to suffer through interminable pages of denouement. I would’ve appreciated a good curtailing; there are a ton of ideas and characters and mythologies crammed in this book, and at times, it was simply too much.

Despite these flaws, I’m totally invested in this world and cannot wait for the sequel. Even though I know I’ll forget many of the finer plot details and minor characters, this read will persist for a while because of the general feeling it evoked in me. Featuring both gorgeous, authentic language—which many reviewers complained of being over-the-top but I found perfectly suitable; where else could I learn the slang term “elephant’s eyebrows”?—and the glamorous ambience of this historical era, The Diviners, in a somewhat oxymoronic fashion, both romanticizes and realistically represents New York City in the Roaring Twenties.

Readalikes: The nonfiction novel The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, which examines the work of a serial killer during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Creepy and cool, it captures the same discordance between tradition and progress.

3.5 stars

Review: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

889653Blurb: Mattie Gokey has a word for everything. She collects words, stores them up as a way of fending off the hard truths of her life, the truths that she can’t write down in stories.
The fresh pain of her mother’s death. The burden of raising her sisters while her father struggles over his brokeback farm. The mad welter of feelings Mattie has for handsome but dull Royal Loomis, who says he wants to marry her. And the secret dreams that keep her going–visions of finishing high school, going to college in New York City, becoming a writer.
Yet when the drowned body of a young woman turns up at the hotel where Mattie works, all her words are useless. But in the dead woman’s letters, Mattie again finds her voice, and a determination to live her own life.
Set in 1906 against the backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, this coming-of-age novel effortlessly weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, and real, and wholly original.

Review:

In A Northern Light author Jennifer Donnelly seemingly follows a recipe for an award-winning YA novel. Add one-part true crime, one-part coming of age, one-part romance. Mix in a clever but never kitschy framing device. And throw in a dash of racism and feminism. While these ingredients superficially bake together well, throughout the entire book a nagging feeling prevented me from declaring it a favorite and slapping it with 5 stars. A Northern Light is a case of a book that is almost too perfect, or at the very least, too ambitious.

The world of Mattie Gokey, a young woman who collects words and loves to write but must help her father and sisters in the Northwoods of New York, is richly conceived. Imagining the resorts and farms in the Adirondacks inspired me to visit there one day and made me wish I could have visited there during Mattie’s time at the turn of the 20th century. In front of this beautiful backdrop, Donnelly shows the struggles of Mattie and all women to become learned and desert their traditional wifely and maternal duties. I appreciated Donnelly’s exploration of the question: why are so many famed female writers unmarried and childless when men can be successful while having a family life? Watching Mattie choose between her family and writing, a choice that shouldn’t have to be made, carries most of the narrative and provides excellent fodder for discussions of gender. This theme is supported elsewhere with the true crime aspect of the story, which unfolds very slowly. Although the mystery of the crime supplies the overarching narrative, in truth I found it to be rather disposable.

What I most connected with, and the true strength of the novel, is the classic individual vs. society conflict. This conflict has always been my favorite because it is universal and defines my life. Mattie struggles to decide whether she should pursue what society wants for her (and what she may very well want herself) or pursue her dreams that require jumping into the abyss and abandoning her family and friends. As Mattie says, there is never any complete happy ending. A choice that may be happy for some will be devastating for others, and in seeing this conflict unfold, this impossibility becomes clear.

While these positive factors should encourage anyone slightly interested to read A Northern Light, I still couldn’t rate it five stars. It is so ambitious and full that it seemingly follows a formula. As a result, I nearly always knew what was coming next. This foresight did not ruin my enjoyment, but returning to my overwrought recipe metaphor, the addition of a bit more spice would have made this novel into a perfectly delicious meal without any doubts.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

19063Blurb:

New York Times bestseller for seven years running that’s coming to movie theaters on November 15, 2013, this Printz Honor book by the author of I Am the Messenger is an unforgettable tale about the ability of books to feed the soul.

Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.

The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Review:

In the span of two weeks, I’ve read two novels set during WWII despite hating war books. I enjoyed both of them (Code Name Verity and The Book Thief) for their unique take on the genre. The Book Thief takes place in Germany as the war effort is revving up and spinning out of control.

I appreciated Zusak’s originality. Narrated by Death, The Book Thief is full of his quips and asides, which refreshes this oft recounted tale. Characters are also multi-faceted; there is no heroic German who takes in a pitiable but hopeful Jew. I’d argue that even Hitler, a man whom history has rightfully represented as 100% pure evil, manages to demonstrate complexity. In The Book Thief, actions have consequences and choices are painted with ambiguity. Zusak does not sugarcoat the truths of wartime but he does not oversell them to the point of pity porn either. Triumph and loss are intertwined because humans can never, especially in times of war, separate the good from the bad.

I liked Zusak’s narrative choices as well. By choosing to narrate with Death, who benefits from near omnipresence and omniscience about the past, Zusak foreshadowed or in some cases outright exposed what was going to happen to characters. In normal circumstances, I’d expect the plot spoilers to mar my enjoyment of the novel, but in The Book Thief, it works extraordinarily well. We know the whats but not the whys, and discovering how things unfold leading up to Death’s announcements is the whole fun of it.

There is so much to analyze in this novel–the significance of colors, the state of childhood in wartime, the writing choices themselves–but what I’ll remember best are two themes: the power of language and the ambiguity of humankind. Liesel, our eponymous “book thief”, uses language to construct her world. Words can heal (they can make friendships; they can apologize) but they also can damage (they can start wars; they can denigrate an entire social identity). By finding the power of language throughout the novel, Liesel becomes a moral individual. But not all of her choices, nor the choices of the many other characters, are unequivocally good. In Death’s own words, he is “haunted by humans” because of their complexity of behavior, thought, and feeling. How can we be so capable of evil yet so capable of good? Countless authors have posed this question, but Zusak threads the answers (or non-answers) to this question into a broader historical and temporal fabric in a masterful way.

4 out of 5 stars

Soon to be a major motion picture! Box office prognosticators are predicting good things for the film which releases later this year, so make sure to read it before then. Here’s the trailer:

Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

10644930Blurb:

If you had the chance to change the course of history, would you? Would the consequences be what you hoped?

Jake Epping 35 teaches high school English in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and cries reading the brain-damaged janitor’s story of childhood Halloween massacre by their drunken father. On his deathbed, pal Al divulges a secret portal to 1958 in his diner back pantry, and enlists Jake to prevent the 11/22/1963 Dallas assassination of American President John F. Kennedy. Under the alias George Amberson, our hero joins the cigarette-hazed full-flavored world of Elvis rock n roll, Negro discrimination, and freeway gas guzzlers without seat belts. Will Jake lurk in impoverished immigrant slums beside troubled loner Lee Harvey Oswald, or share small-town friendliness with beautiful high school librarian Sadie Dunhill, the love of his life?

 

Review:

I am a person who struggles to accept when she is wrong, yet I am so happy to be wrong about Stephen King. After toiling through King’s The Stand, I was prepared to dismiss him. In The Stand King never stretched his storytelling skills. Everything escalated to the climax as one would expect and everything fell from the climax as one would expect. Ho-hum.

But in 11/22/63, I had moments of pity for Stephen King, since he wrote himself into character dilemmas and plot conundrums that defied conventional resolution. Nothing unrolled as expected in this book. So I pitied him. I pitied King because I knew he must have passed days and weeks struggling to extract himself from these self-created authorial quagmires. At the same time I admired him because he had actually done it: he had taken chances; he had pushed the story to uncomfortable places, places where a 10¢ resolution and a bit of deus ex machina wouldn’t suffice.

The novel is a true behemoth with over 800 pages dedicated to multiple genres. And although every genre element adds to the book, its greatest weakness is how it is simultaneously so many things. Sometimes King didn’t seem to know what the book wanted to be. Was it a simple time travel tale? a straight thriller? a revisionist piece of historical fiction? a small town love story? It is all of these things, but occasionally he lingers too long on one element, leading to some duller parts, especially around the middle. Yet it comes together splendidly in the end in the spectacular final 200 pages. By that point, the intrigue is staged, the characters are fully endeared to the reader and to each other, and King’s daringly bold plot strands have knotted into an unsolvable mess.

In the final chapters, every other page or so punches you in the heart. While the time travel bits keep you turning the pages—from the outset, you know that changing the past can only go poorly; the question is how it will go poorly—it is the character relationships that endure. For all of the bluster surrounding Stephen King as contemporary literature’s most famous horror writer, 11/22/63 is achingly romantic. It is gentle tale, which means it is King at his harshest.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: Katherine by Anya Seton

33609Blurb: This classic romance novel tells the true story of the love affair that changed history—that of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the ancestors of most of the British royal family. Set in the vibrant 14th century of Chaucer and the Black Death, the story features knights fighting in battle, serfs struggling in poverty, and the magnificent Plantagenets—Edward III, the Black Prince, and Richard II—who ruled despotically over a court rotten with intrigue. Within this era of danger and romance, John of Gaunt, the king’s son, falls passionately in love with the already married Katherine. Their well-documented affair and love persist through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption. This epic novel of conflict, cruelty, and untamable love has become a classic since its first publication in 1954.

Review: Here’s the thing about historical fiction: we already know what happened.

So the wiles of plot are nullified. There’s no reason to wonder how everything will turn out when Wikipedia exists.

Okay, then how about the writing? We may know what happens but the author can sprinkle the story with good prose and keen insights to keep us reading.

Unfortunately, most historical fiction authors try to echo the language spoken in days of yore. A good tactic, certainly, but one that is rarely successful. The balance of modern language with antiquated cadences is finicky. Too often you read sentences like this: “Yes, Sir Hugh, I’m quite alone and helpless. Have you come to ravish me?”

If the plot is useless and the writing questionable, is there any other reason to read historical fiction?

Yes! For a storyteller’s touch. A fiction writer can skim facts if it makes for a better story. A historian cannot. Yet in Katherine Anya Seton writes her fiction much like nonfiction. She is a slave to the facts, reporting in minute detail the manueverings of various Western European nobles and the birth of every new royal descendant. She should have focused solely on the romance between Katherine and John of Gaunt because it is truly an epic tale. It spans decades and plague outbreaks and political strife. It produces four bastard children–and I love bastard children! Their offspring cause the War of the Roses and basically every royal house in Western Europe has some relation to Katherine or John Lancaster. But for every bastard child, for every clandestine dalliance in a secluded castle, there are pages of overly detailed description and simplistic writing.

What a shame. True stories are rarely packaged like fiction. The story of these two medieval lovers was made for our consumption, but Seton made it rotten.

2 out of 5 stars