Monday, December 19, 2011

Next for The Slaves of Golconda

It was so close, but 'The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet' narrowly beat 'The Bingo Palace' I think, so we'll be reading Rief Larsen's novel next.

Thanks to everyone for voting. Discussion begins on 31st January.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

January's Choices

It’s a bit of a random list of choices for the group this month. There’s no unifying theme, it’s just a list made by an excited book gazer looking at shelves. I’m so thrilled to get to pick the list this month and I hope everyone sees something they like the look of.

‘White is for Witching’ – Helen Oyeyemi: (Publisher copy) ‘In a vast, mysterious house on the cliffs near Dover, the Silver family is reeling from the hole punched into its heart. Lily is gone and her twins, Miranda and Eliot, and her husband Luc, mourn her absence with unspoken intensity. All is not well with the house, either, which creaks and grumbles and malignly confuses visitors in its mazy rooms, forcing winter apples in the garden when the branches should be bare. Generations of women inhabit its walls. And Miranda, with her new appetite for chalk and her keen sense for spirits, is more attuned to them than she is to her brother and her father. When one dark night she vanishes entirely, the survivors are left to tell her story.’

‘The Bingo Palace’ – Louise Erditch: (Publisher copy) ‘At the crossroads of his life, Lipsha Morrissey is summoned by his grandmother to return to the reservation. There, he falls in love for the very first time—with the beautiful Shawnee Ray, who's already considering a marriage proposal from Lipsha's wealthy entrepreneurial boss, Lyman Lamartine. But when all efforts to win Shawnee's affections go hopelessly awry, Lipsha seeks out his great-grandmother for a magical solution to his romantic dilemma—on sacred ground where a federally sanctioned bingo palace is slated for construction.’

‘An Equal Stillness’ – Francesca Kay: (Publisher copy) ‘Jennet moves to London in search of a more exciting life and finds it in her new environment and in the handsome and enigmatic figure of the painter David Heaton.

When Jennet falls pregnant, her parents more or less force the two to marry. In the post-war austerity of the 1940s, the young couple struggles to make ends meet and Jennet finds that her home life is gradually eroding everything she has fought to achieve. Aware that David is becoming increasingly reliant on drink and tired of the dank and drab bed-sit in which they live, Jennet suggests they move to Spain. There, the bright blue skies, warm air and sunlit beaches give the couple and their children a new lease of life.

Jennet begins to paint again and an agent takes an interest in her work. But as Jennet's own career begins to take off, her relationship with David sours and the two enter a destructive spiral with tragic consequences.’

‘The Selected Works of T S Spivet’ – Rief Larson: (Publisher copy) ‘T.S. Spivet is a 12-year-old genius mapmaker who lives on a ranch in Montana. His father is a tight-lipped cowboy and his mother is a scientist who for the last twenty years has been looking for a mythical species of beetle. His brother has gone, his sister seems normal but might not be, and his dog - Verywell - is going mad.

It's odd, but then families are. T.S. makes sense of it all by drawing beautiful, meticulous maps kept in innumerable colour-coded notebooks: maps of the countryside, maps of his family's behaviour, maps of animal and plant life. He is brilliant, and the Smithsonian Institution agrees, though when they telephone with news that he has won a major scientific prize they don't suspect for a minute that he is twelve years old.

So begins T.S.'s life-changing adventure, fleeing in the dead of night, riding freight trains two thousand miles across America to reach the awards dinner, the fame, the secret-society membership and the TV appearances that beckon. But is this what he wants? Do maps and lists explain the world? And why are adults so strange?’

‘The Electric Michelangelo’ – Sarah Hall: (Publisher copy) ‘Cy Parks is the Electric Michelangelo, an artist of extraordinary gifts whose medium happens to be the pliant, shifting canvas of the human body. Fleeing his mother's legacy -- a consumptives' hotel in a fading English seaside resort -- Cy reinvents himself in the incandescent honky-tonk of Coney Island in its heyday between the two world wars. Amid the carnival decadence of freak shows and roller coasters, enchanters and enigmas, scam artists and marks, Cy will find his muse: an enigmatic circus beauty who surrenders her body to his work, but whose soul tantalizingly eludes him.’

Voting ends on 18th Dec and the discussion of whichever book is chosen will take place on 31st Jan 2012. Eeep, how is it 2012 already?

- Jodie (

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wild Life

Like Danielle, I had mixed feelings about Molly Gloss’s novel Wild Life. To begin with the positive, there were times in this book where I felt thoroughly engaged. It’s in part an adventure story, and the main character, Charlotte, does have some great adventures. The novel takes place in the west, somewhere around the Washington/Oregon border, in the early 20th century. It’s logging territory, and a pretty wild, uncertain place. Charlotte lives with her five children, trying to carve out a writing career. Her husband is not in the picture, but she has a woman who acts as nanny, which allows her to sneak off now and then to get some writing done. The adventure begins when the nanny’s granddaughter disappears in the woods. When search parties fail to find her, Charlotte decides she needs to go search for her herself. She takes off into the wilderness and soon enough gets lost herself. These passages were exciting. I could imagine all too well what Charlotte was experiencing as she struggled to find her way back to civilization.

The book has fantasy elements to it, but they don’t become part of the story until Charlotte gets lost: while wandering around the woods nearly starved to death, she comes across a group of large human-like creatures, frightening-looking but kind animals, who slowly adopt her into their community. The creatures’ lives are endangered by the encroachments of logging; they need space in which to wander and forage for food, but that space is quickly disappearing.

All this works pretty well, although the fantasy element comes too late in the book to feel natural and properly-integrated. The book’s structure is odd in one way — the pacing is wildly uneven — but quite interesting in another: it is a mix of several genres. The main story is told through Charlotte’s diary, but interspersed throughout are fragments of her fiction, stories that are sometimes based on her own life and so rework the material in the diary, and also Charlotte’s essay-like ponderings on what it means to be a woman writer. These materials reinforce each other by exploring themes and ideas from different perspectives, so we can see Charlotte’s life told through her diary and also transformed into fiction.

What bothered me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling although I’m not sure how fair this is, was that Charlotte felt unrealistic, too much of a fantasy figure. For her to be able to write as much as she does without a husband and with five sons seems improbable, even given the nanny. But even more so, her feminism seemed fashioned purposely to please 21st-century audiences rather than to capture a truth about the time period. I know that feminism at the turn of the last century was well-developed and that people were making arguments about women’s writing similar to Charlotte’s, but Charlotte seems just too perfect. She defies stereotypes about women at every turn, in the way she dresses and acts, in her conversation, in the way she treats men, in her writing. I am all for strong female characters who defy gender stereotypes, but I don’t want to be jerked out of the world of the story by the feeling that I’m being presented with an argument rather than a character.

All in all, it’s a pretty odd book, although not entirely in a bad way. The book’s various elements — the wild west, the fantasy, the feminism, the theorizing about gender and writing, the experimenting with structure — don’t quite cohere, but it’s interesting in parts, and it’s fun when the story finally hooks you and you absolutely have to know how Charlotte is going to make it out of the woods.

Wild Life

Wild Life by Molly Gloss takes readers to 1905 America in the Pacific Northwest when logging was tearing through forests and civilization was a small town on the Columbia River. Our heroine is Charlotte Bridger Drummond, writer of popular adventure novels, mother of five boys, and widow or abandoned wife (we never know for sure and neither does Charlotte).

When the book opens Charlotte is living a happy existence, escaping everyday to a shed in the yard to write while Melba, a woman she has hired, takes care of the house and her children. Charlotte is a staunch feminist and a woman with opinions who is not afraid to express them. She also tries her hardest to scandalize as many people as she can by her cigar smoking and riding around town on a bicycle while wearing men's pants. She is a stark contrast to Melba who is motherly and believes that cooking and cleaning and raising children is what a woman is supposed to do.

Not a lot happens for the first third of the book and I found myself disliking Charlotte quite a lot. She is so concerned about not being put down because she is a woman that she goes overboard in not allowing herself to exhibit typical female traits. When word comes down the river that Harriet, Melba's granddaughter, who was at a logging camp with her father, has gone missing in the woods, Charlotte makes light of Melba being upset and worried to the point of it being rather cruel and heartless.

When it becomes clear that Harriet really is missing, Charlotte decides she will go up to the logging camp herself and help in the search. Even though she has no experience in the woods, she figures she has written enough adventure stories that she can handle herself. Plus, even when she arrives at the remote logging camp, Charlotte still believes that somehow, even after the loggers have been looking for Harriet for a week, she, Charlotte will miraculously find the girl alive and well albeit a bit hungry and dirty.

But events don't work out that way and after several days of searching, Charlotte gets separated from the search party and quickly finds herself impossibly lost. But she has a compass and a little food and decides that she can find her way back to camp. Three days later and still lost, she has to admit that she was wrong.

Spring in the Pacific Northwest is a generally damp affair and while the season had begun drier than usual, this quickly changes. Charlotte has to contend with the wet and the cold and without food or any knowledge of what she might be able to eat in the forest, she comes to understand she is in rather dire straits.

But there is something else in the forest besides bears and dear and mountain lions. "Wild men," hairy "giants" or what we might call "Bigfoot" or "Sasquatch" are also in the forest. Charlotte comes across a family consisting of a mother and three children. She begins to follow them and eat what they eat. Eventually she becomes an adopted part of the family.

When I write it out like that it sounds stupid and hokey but it isn't. Being reduced to living like what Charlotte at first believes are simply gentle and shy animals, strips away nearly all the "human" from Charlotte. And while it is cliche to learn about what being human means from creatures other than humans, it is handled in such a matter-of-fact way without being sentimental or didactic that I liked this part of the book best which surprised me because I was expecting to not like it. Charlotte eventually returns to civilization a changed woman to say the least.

I liked the book but I didn't love it. The pacing is a bit off especially in the beginning. One thing I did really like about the book is the way it is structured. It is basically Charlotte's journal with news articles, pieces of stories Charlotte has written, character sketches, and various other documents interleaved. While Charlotte is lost in the woods she continues keeping the journal. The journal provides comfort, documentation, a lifeline, and an outlet for her voice. When Charlotte returns to the world of people, she is unable to speak for quite some time but still manages to continue writing. Charlotte's writing is the thread she holds onto throughout the story that keeps her sane, keeps her from completely losing herself.

After the book ended I found myself wondering what sort of person Charlotte would become next, how much of the wild would she retain? Could she, can any of us, keep in contact with the wild parts of ourselves? And if so, what would that mean? What would such a life look like? Any book that prompts one to think about such things is definitely worthwhile.

Cross posted at So Many Books

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Next Slaves Book is...

Wild Life by Molly Gloss.

Discussion will begin on Wednesday, November 30th.

Happy reading everyone!

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Time to Pick a New Book

Margaret Atwood is publishing a book this October about science fiction which inspired me to put together a list of books that are considered science fiction (or fantasy) that you may be surprised by. As Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide says, Don't Panic! All of the books on the list were nominated for, or won a Tiptree Award. The award is given to a work of science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores gender. The books on the list are from all along the genre spectrum from you'd-never-know-it-was-scifi-unless-someone-told-you to the "way out" and "totally bizarre" if the group feels like it wants to be daring. So without further ado...

  1. The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. From Amazon: "If I had not been what I am, what would I have been?" wonders Lou Arrendale, the autistic hero of Moon's compelling exploration of the concept of "normalcy" and what might happen when medical science attains the knowledge to "cure" adult autism. Arrendale narrates most of this book in a poignant earnestness that verges on the philosophical and showcases Moon's gift for characterization.

  2. Wild Life by Molly Gloss. From Amazon: Molly Gloss delivers a rare blend of “heady cerebral satisfactions, gorgeous prose, and page-turning adventure” (Karen Joy Fowler). Set among lava sinkholes and logging camps at the fringe of the Northwest frontier in the early 1900s, WILD LIFE charts the life — both real and imagined — of the free-thinking, cigar-smoking, trouser-wearing Charlotte Bridger Drummond, who pens popular women’s adventure stories. One day, when a little girl gets lost in the woods, Charlotte anxiously joins the search and embarks on an adventure all her own. With great assurance and skill, Molly Gloss quickly transforms what at first seems to be pitch-perfect historical fiction into a kind of wild and woolly mystery story, as Charlotte herself becomes lost in the dark and tangled woods and falls into the company of an elusive band of mountain giants. Putting a surprising and revitalizing feminist spin on the classic legend of Tarzan and other wild-man sagas, Gloss takes us from the wilds of the western frontier to the wilds of the human heart.

  3. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh. From Amazon: In its pages, we enter a postrevolution America, moving from the hyperurbanized eastern seaboard to the Arctic bleakness of Baffin Island; from the new Imperial City to an agricultural commune on Mars. The overlapping lives of cyberkite fliers, lonely colonists, illicit neural-pressball players, and organic engineers blend into a powerful, taut story of a young man's journey of discovery. This is a macroscopic world of microscopic intensity, one of the most brilliant visions of modern SF.

  4. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. From Amazon: Its clearest influences are Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy and M. John Harrison's Viriconium books, but it isn't much like them. It's Dickensian in scope, but fast-paced and modern. It's a love song for cities, and it packs a world into its strange, sprawling, steam-punky city of New Crobuzon. It can be read with equal validity as fantasy, science fiction, horror, or slipstream. It's got love, loss, crime, sex, riots, mad scientists, drugs, art, corruption, demons, dreams, obsession, magic, aliens, subversion, torture, dirigibles, romantic outlaws, artificial intelligence, and dangerous cults.

  5. Life by Gwyneth Jones. From Amazon: "Life" is a richly textured fictional biography of the brilliant Anna Senoz, a scientist who makes a momentous discovery about the X and Y chromosomes. Anna's discovery provokes widespread sexual rage and impacts cruelly on her career, her marriage, and her child. Ultimately, Anna faces a challenge that the practice of science alone cannot meet. You can also read more about the book from Nic at Eve's Alexandria

Voting will be open through Saturday, October 15th.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Golden Mean

Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean is the latest selection of the Slaves of Golconda reading group. The novel tells the story of Aristotle's life, focusing particularly on his relationship with the future Alexander the Great. It's told from Aristotle's first-person perspective, and for me, this was the chief interest of the book: imagining what it might have been like to be Aristotle. We see him disagreeing with his former teacher Plato's ideas about the nature of reality, developing his ideas about tragedy as a genre, and thinking about the danger of extremes and the importance of the middle way. We also see him dealing with a complicated relationship with his wife and facing disappointment in his career. He runs into political trouble because of his association with Athens at a time when he was living in Macedonia, Athens's enemy. All of this makes it possible to conjure up an image of life as it might have been so long ago and to think of Aristotle as a real person with regular-person worries and needs, when generally I think of him as nothing more than a brain and a set of ideas.

I found the book disappointing, though. Like Stefanie, I thought it was a little dull. The main problem is the lack of narrative tension. I don't need an exciting plot, but I do need some kind of tension to pull me through a book, or, failing that, I want some interesting ideas, beautiful writing, and/or characters I enjoy spending time with and thinking about. I didn't find enough of any of these things. There are interesting things to think about, the tension between being a warrior and a scholar that many of the characters experience, for one. I was also intrigued by the way the first person perspective makes Aristotle come across as a sympathetic human being, one who treats the mentally disabled with tremendous compassion unusual for the time, but who also owns slaves and assumes that women have limited capabilities and value. There is something fascinating about getting into the mind of a person who thinks about the world in such a fundamentally different way than we do today.

But the ideas don't seem to lead anywhere in particular. I was interested in Aristotle in a general and vague kind of way, but I wasn't worried about what would happen to him -- he was clearly going to get back to Athens eventually -- and his thoughts and observations weren't interesting enough to keep me happily reading. I think I would have preferred the book in the third person with some more insight into the culture of the time from an external narrator's point of view. The advantage of first person, of course, is getting to see the world through Aristotle's eyes, but perhaps an exterior view would have helped bring his character into sharper focus and would have allowed more commentary on the social and political values of the time. In the abstract I like the idea of historical fiction that doesn't get bogged down in explaining all the details of the time and place -- where the author isn't showing off her research on every page -- but in this case, I wanted a little more guidance.

At any rate, I started off the book with high hopes and did well at first, and then found myself less and less eager to pick it up. Other people have enjoyed it very much, though, and you can read Lilian Nattel's very positive review here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Liberties Were Taken with the Facts

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon is narrated by Aristotle and tells the story of his time spent teaching Alexander soon to be "The Great." In the process we also get some flashbacks of Aristotle's boyhood and how he came to be the great philosopher.

As with all historical fiction one must remember this is, well, fiction, and not history or biography. Curious about Aristotle's real life, I checked out his entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (a fantastic and reliable resource by the way). In the novel liberties are taken with Aristotle's timeline and just how close his relationship with Alexander was. According to the encyclopedia, Aristotle was 38 when he became the teacher of 13-year-old Alexander (my math on Aristotle's age) and taught him for only two or three years, though some scholars dispute this and say it was as long as eight years. But we do know that by the time Alexander was 15 he was already going out on campaigns with his father, Philip II. The book takes what seems to be the eight-year number approach.

In the book Aristotle sees himself as providing a balance to the martial education Philip is providing Alexander and insists that to be a good ruler, Alexander must find the "golden mean," the balance between extremes. Aristotle is presented as a pacifist of a sort, but some sources I read in addition to the Stanford article, indicate that Aristotle encouraged Alexander to conquer Asia. Whatever the case, little concrete information is known about what Aristotle actually taught Alexander and what kind of relationship they had.

A very curious change was made to one real historical figure in the book, Alexander's half brother, Arrhidaeus. In the book he is made to be severely mentally disabled and Alexander hates him. In the book Aristotle takes Arrhidaeus under his tutelage, treats him like a person, teaches him letters and music, how to ride a horse, essentially lifts him up from being an animal into being the mental equivalent of a young boy with the body of an adult. However, in reality, Arrhidaeus had only a mild mental disability and Alexander lover him dearly. On Alexander's death, Arrhidaeus became Philip III of Macedon. Granted, he was more a figurehead than anything and neither his life nor his reign lasted long, but why the big change about this in the book? It really doesn't serve any purpose to have written Arrhidaeus and Alexander's relationship to him so very differently.

Ok, so like I said, The Golden Mean is a novel, fiction, it doesn't have to adhere to reality. But even forgetting all of the historical transgressions, I didn't much like the book. When I was still in the first third of the book a coworker asked me what I was reading lately and I mentioned The Golden Mean and what it was about. She commented that it sounded interesting. I replied that I had thought so too but that it was actually a boring book. If it weren't for the fact that I read it for the Slaves discussion, I would not have finished it. It got marginally better by the end but I still didn't enjoy it. Nothing happens in the book, which isn't a bad thing, but if nothing is going to happen in a book it needs to have interesting characters. The characters should be interesting, I mean Aristotle and Alexander, but they are not. Nor is their relationship. Nor are there any secondary characters or relationships that are interesting.

Nonetheless, when I finished the book and read all the glowing blurbs on the back cover I feared I had missed something. I mean, it was a bestseller in Canada, published in six languages, was nominated for the Giller prize and won a few other prizes. Maybe the book was better than I thought? But after I did a little research on Aristotle and Alexander I began to trust my reaction a bit more. And then Rebecca didn't give it many stars on Good Reads and suddenly I feel much better about my take on the book.

But it is my take. Lots of people in Canada liked it so not everyone who reads it will come away with the same experience I did. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone though.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Golden Mean wins -- plus more books!

Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean has won the most votes, so that will be our next book for September 30th. It's available in paper in the UK and Canada and will be available in paper in the U.S. on September 6th. There are a lot of used hardcover copies available on Amazon right now, though, if you would like it sooner. Thanks for voting everyone and thanks to Lilian for choosing the list!

And now for a few more books that couldn't quite make it on the list. Lilian's editor sent these along as possibilities, but they didn't arrive in time for the voting, so I thought I would include them here for those who are curious. These are books published recently by Canadian authors that might be of interest:

I'm looking forward to the discussion in September!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Time to Choose Again!

It's time to choose the next book! Lilian has very kindly put together a list for us, this time of recent Canadian fiction. So, let's finish up voting by Wednesday of next week (August 3rd) and have our discussion beginning on September 30th. That should give everyone time to read and post on the book. As always, anyone is welcome to join the group! All you have to do is read the book and participate in the discussion on your blog and/or on the discussion board.

Vote in the comments!

Friday, July 01, 2011

Cakes and Ale

I first read Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale when I was in my early twenties and an ardent admirer of his prose style, which I admired for its supple, civilised elegance. Maugham always seemed so in control of his narrative, entering his stories behind the façade of an ironic and urbane first-person voice, a witness to the vagaries of the human condition. These he described with a sharp but sympathetic eye ever intent on pointing out the messy, less than noble reality that lies underneath his character’s attempts to dress up life as something respectable and meaningful. I liked all of that, but I was probably more attached to the lingering romanticism in Maugham’s works, that always made his characters quest after an ideal of achievement or a perfect relationship – although of course they were destined to be disappointed in both. In Maugham’s stories that’s okay, though, since experience is all that really matters in the end; to live life fully is as much about the stupidities and self-deception of ambition and desire, as it is about success and admirable behaviour.

All these things I still appreciated about Cakes and Ale when I reread it for the Slaves. But I was surprised to note that there was much about the narrative that irked this time, too. The story is told from the perspective of William Ashenden, a successful writer in late middle age who is approached one day out of the blue by another writer friend of his, Alroy Kear. Ashenden is suspicious about Kear’s motives from the start. The trouble is that Kear represents a kind of superficiality that he really dislikes. Kear has won himself a tremendous reputation in the world of letters by being a suck-up, basically, a sycophant and a social climber, trading on his bluff, hearty manner and the impression he emanates of being a sound, reliable chap, the right sort. Kear is conservative with a small c, someone who buys into the ongoing ideology, who doesn’t rock boats or wake sleeping dogs, and it’s for these qualities that he has been asked to write a biography of a now eminent Victorian novelist, Edward Driffield, a man who Ashenden knew well in his younger days.

Ashenden knew Edward Driffield all right, but not in the guise of the great writer Kear wants him to be. The Driffield Ashenden knew was a bit of a rogue and a bounder, a man who sang music hall songs accompanying himself on a banjo, who came from humble roots and wrote vulgar books that no one cared to read, and who had an attractive, easygoing wife, Rosie. It’s Rosie, in fact, whom the young William really gets to know. She is an ex-barmaid who has a reputation for being free and easy with her favours, and when William spots her one evening, arm-in-arm with the local coal merchant, laughingly known as Lord George for his pretensions, he is both shocked and intrigued. Rosie and Edward Driffield eventually depart from Blackstable under a cloud and several years pass before Ashenden, now a young man studying medicine, meets up with them again in London. And this time his relationship with Rosie will become his first love affair.

When I first read this book, I think I found all this quite satisfyingly romantic. Now, in my more callous years, I rolled my eyes a bit at the old tart-with-a-heart routine. The portrayal of Rosie seemed patronising and incomplete; she was pretty and sensual and dumb, just the kind of woman, then, who could be slept with and cast aside, idolised in later years as generous and loving but thankfully not really one’s sort. To be fair, a little historical sympathy is called for – this is the early twentieth century, a time thoroughly steeped in class divisions, when respectability was of primary importance, and working ‘in trade’, indicated a lower social standing. If women were in any way sexual, they were not suitable marriage material. Life was spent policing the behaviour of one’s neighbours, reinforcing the boundaries between castes, and urgently covering up any faults or indiscretions.

And it’s from this sort of cultural conditioning that the most interesting part of the book arose for me. What I did appreciate on this reading, was the almost anthropological depiction of the literary world. Edward Driffield remarried later in life and his second wife is determined to turn her husband into the star of literature that he deserves to be. With the help of a mentor, the deliciously formidable Mrs Barton Trafford, Driffield has risen to great eminence, and his recent death has left his widow determined to set the seal on his reputation. Literary success is dependent on social acceptability. His early misdemeanours – described by our narrator as Driffield’s genuine source of vitality and interest – must be whitewashed. There’s a gently savage attack going on across this narrative on people who prefer image to reality, who revile the warts and the blemishes of humanity when they could be seen as our most authentic and sympathetic parts. And of course, the notion that we really must have our geniuses likeable, charming, and noble is surreptitiously but repeatedly challenged. Is this a vanquished world, or do its traces live on still today? That’s the question that remained with me, long after I had finished reading.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cakes and Ale

I think I read Of Human Bondage years ago, but I have no recollection of it, so at this point Cakes and Ale represents the sum total of my knowledge of W. Somerset Maugham's oeuvre. Based on what I know about Of Human Bondage, though, it would be a mistake to attempt any generalizations about Maugham based on Cakes and Ale--so I won't!

Cakes and Ale struck me as quite an odd book. It has many passages in it that are amusing, interesting, and eminently quotable, such as the set pieces on the role of beauty in art and criticism, or on the place of the first-person singular in the art of fiction. The book is about a writer writing about a writer, narrated by another writer; between this set up and the embedded commentaries on fiction and criticism, the book overall seems as if it must be metafiction of some kind, and yet it doesn't seem so, and this is one reason I found it odd: I can't quite see how to connect all this self-referential potential with the story the novel tells about Edward Driffield and his putatively enchanting first wife Rosie, bar-maid turned society beauty turned scandalous absconder. That is, the metafictional commentary doesn't seem to be saying anything about the kind of book Cakes and Ale actually is. I suppose this means it isn't metafictional after all but incidental, just the kind of stuff a narrating writer would write about. Here's a bit from the excursus on first-person narration, for instance:

A little while ago I read in the Evening Standard an article by Mr Evelyn Waugh in the course of which he remarked that to write novels in the first person was a contemptible practice. . . . I was much concerned, and forthwith asked Alroy Kear (who reads everything, even the books he writes prefaces for) to recommend to me some works on the art of fiction. On his advice I read The Craft of Fiction by Mr Percy Lubbock, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Henry James; after that I read Aspects of the Novel by Mr E. M. Forster, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr E. M. Forster; then I read The Structure of the Novel by Mr Edwin Muir, from which I learned nothing at all.

Amusing, as I said. Ashenden goes on to conclude that the value of first-person narration is that in an increasingly confusing life, it makes sense to focus on our own limited experience, which is, after all, all we can really be sure of and hope to understand. Yet Cakes and Ale is not really about him, is it? Or, is it? If so, it does a good job effacing his part in it: he's a Nick Carraway type, significant (or so it seems) primarily as a device for delivering Maugham's gentle literary and social satire and for telling us about other people, especially Driffield and Rosie.

Driffield, too, is a fairly absent main character: in his case he seems to be there to provide the occasion for the literary commentary, as well as for some pretty funny stuff about the rise and fall of literary reputations and the dubious reliability of critical judgments. Ashenden does not admire Driffield much himself:

But of course what the critics wrote about Edward Driffield was eyewash. His outstanding merit was not the realism that gave vigour to his work, nor the beauty that informed it, nor his graphic portraits of seafaring men, nor his poetic descriptions of salty marshes, of storm and calm, and of nestling habits; it was his longevity. . . But why writers should be more esteemed the older they grow, has long perplexed me. . . . After mature consideration I have come to the conclusion that the real reason for the universal applause that comforts the declining years of an author who exceeds the common span of man is that intelligent people after the age of thirty read nothing at all. As they grown older the books they read in their youth are lit with its glamour and with every year that passes they ascribe greater merit to the author who wrote them.

Let's not start naming contemporary authors we think might be unduly revered for just this reason! Again, this is funny, with just enough sting to make it interesting too. But the novel does not give the issue of literary merit any momentum as a theme (by, say, really focusing on whether Driffield does have any genius besides longevity), and I don't think it also takes it on as a formal problem by trying to embody in its own narrative any special genius.

The only element of the novel that has much forward momentum is the story of Rosie--but to me, she was too flat a character, and too representative of a kind of male fantasy of undemanding available amoral female sexuality, to captivate me the way she (to me, inexplicably) enchants young Ashenden. So enamoured is he that even after she has run off with the coal merchant of Blackstable and started a new life as Mrs Iggulden in America, he defends her for having "carried on" behind Driffield's back: "She was a very simple woman. Her instincts were healthy and ingenuous. She loved to make people happy. She loved love." Challenged on this sappy conclusion ("Do you call that love?"), he responds,

Well, then, the act of love. She was naturally affectionate. When she liked anyone, it was quite natural for her to go to bed with him. She never thought twice about it. It was not vice; it wasn't lasciviousness; it was her nature. She gave herself as naturally as the sun gives heat or the flowers their perfume. It was a pleasure to her and she liked to give pleasure to others. It had no effect on her character; she remained sincere, unspoiled, and artless.

Well, not so artless she doesn't welcome the gift of a very expensive fur cloak from one of her lovers, and not so fond of giving pleasure to others that she hesitates before causing them pain. Her acts have little effect on her character because Maugham (or Ashenden) gives her very little character to begin with. The absence of complexity in her personality is not liberating: it's limiting, if you intend the portrait to be in any way related to reality. But maybe Rosie isn't intended to be more than an animated, good-natured fantasy figure. Or maybe there's something dimly progressive about the freedom with which she enjoys her own sexuality, and about Maugham's (or, again, Ashenden's) refusal to judge her for it--but I'm not convinced.

And yet--near the end we learn a bit more about Rosie's history, something that adds darker shades to the radiant glow in which she always seems bathed (her skin is so "dewy" that at one point Ashenden asks if she rubs vaseline on it). More interesting still, that sad past is linked to the one novel of Driffield's that Ashenden particularly admires, for having a "cold ruthlessness that in all the sentimentality of English fiction strikes an unusual note." This novel, The Cup of Life, is also the novel that drew censure down on the novelist for being "gratuitously offensive [and] obscene." The incident in the novel that so outrages the righteous public turns out to be taken almost straight from life. So perhaps there is a metafictional angle after all, and it turns on Rosie: perhaps her story, and her character, with its overt and unapologetic sensuality, is a challenge to Maugham's (or Ashenden's?) readers, to see, for instance, if they will appreciate her beauty without decrying her morality, or find beauty in her freedom from social constraints. Is the novel about the relationship between beauty and virtue? Does that help us make sense of the title? But again, I'm not convinced, because I just don't find Rosie, or the novel as a whole, for that matter, substantive enough to hang a theory on.

The novel is funny, though, if only in strange fits and starts, so to close, another of the many quotable passages, this time about a poet who becomes, for a time, the rage of London literary society:

Now that he is so completely forgotten and the critics who praised him would willingly eat their words if they were not carefully guarded in the files of innumerable newspaper offices, the sensation he made with his first volume of poems is almost unbelievable. The most important papers gave to reviews of it as much space as they would have to the report of a prize-fight, the most influential critics fell over one another in their eagerness to welcome him. They likened him to Milton (for the sonority of his blank verse), to Keats (for the opulence of his sensuous imagery), and to Shelley (for his airy fantasy); and, using him as a stick to beat idols of whom they were weary, they gave in his name many a resounding whack on the emaciated buttocks of Lord Tennyson and a few good husky smacks on the bald pate of Robert Browning. The public fell like the walls of Jericho.

Maybe fun is the key: Maugham had an idea for Rosie, he tells us in his Preface, and wanted a book to put her in, and he also had a lot of experience with the vagaries and vapidities of literary celebrity and the satirical skill to write them up elegantly. Why not put these ingredients together into a little confection of a book?

(cross-posted at Novel Readings)

Cakes and Ale

Cross-posted at Of Books and Bicycles.

Cakes and Ale is the fourth Somerset Maugham novel I’ve read, and with each book I keep changing my opinion of him. I really liked Of Human Bondage, which was my first book, and then I listened to The Painted Veil, which I loved. So far so good; I thought at this point that I should eventually read everything he wrote. Then I got to The Razor’s Edge, which I didn’t like at all. It felt dull and ponderous. I like idea-driven novels, but in that one, I didn’t care about the ideas and didn’t like how they were presented. With Cakes and Ale, I’m beginning to think Maugham may not be quite as good as I thought. There were interesting aspects of the novel and enjoyable moments — particularly the discussions of authors and writing — but I was hoping to love it and I didn’t.

The novel tells the story of the Driffields — Edward Driffield, a famous author, and two Mrs. Driffields, his first wife, Rosie, and his second, Amy. (My edition has a preface by Maugham that says Edward Driffield is most emphatically not Thomas Hardy, in spite of what anybody says, which meant that I spent the entire novel thinking of him as Thomas Hardy, of course.) It’s narrated by William Ashenden, a writer himself who knew Edward and Rosie at various points in his life. There’s another writer involved as well, Alroy Kear, who is planning on writing a biography of Edward, who in the present tense of the novel has passed away. Alroy approaches the narrator in an effort to gather information about Edward’s life, which sends him off on long reminiscences of his time with the Driffields.

The difference between what the narrator remembers about the Driffields, what he chooses to tell Alroy, and what Alroy will actually put in the biography is the novel’s source of tension. The Driffields — Edward and Rosie — were…not quite proper. The narrator first meets the couple when they move into Blackstable, his hometown. Edward’s father was a bailiff and Rosie had worked as a bar maid, which was a big part of the problem, but they also never quite followed the rules as they were supposed to, and everyone knew it. Eventually Edward’s fame as a writer comes to make up for his social deficiencies, but Rosie was always a bit of a scandal.

The novel is really Rosie’s story in many ways, in part because of the narrator’s fascination with her and her bohemian ways that stayed with him all his life. But there’s also the problem of what to do about the troublesome, sexually-suspect first wife after she is gone and the second wife is trying to establish her husband’s reputation as a respectable, important writer. How should that first wife be portrayed in the biography, and what to do about episodes such as the time the Driffields skipped town with debts and servants left unpaid? And what about Rosie’s sexual history?

It’s all a question of class, of course, about how Alroy and Amy Driffield try to transform Edward from his working-class roots into a solid bourgeois, respectable writer and how the narrator questions and resists them. It’s also about writers and writing. Alroy Kear is the object of much scorn from the narrator; not only is he going to whitewash Edward’s past in what is sure to be a bland biography, but his writing, at least according to the narrator, sounds blandly boring as well:

I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise man’s daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon. He was perfectly aware of it, and it must have seemed to him sometimes little short of a miracle that he had been able with it to compose already some thirty books. I cannot but think that he saw the white light of revelation when first he read that Thomas Carlyle is an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains. He pondered the saying. If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; and when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his works, used the word … he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a cross-word puzzle.

There is no room in Alroy Kear’s world for the exoticism that someone like Rosie Driffield can offer, and so the narrator scorns him.

I was disappointed in part by Rosie as a character; the back cover of my edition promises that she is Maugham’s “greatest heroine,” but she never quite came to life for me. It was the moment when the narrator tells us what she wasn’t a big talker that did it: I had pictured her as vivacious and voluble, and when I tried to picture her being quiet, I couldn’t do it. Then I began to doubt that I had really understood her at all. I’m also not entirely sure I like the narrator. There are times his mildly ironic tone is amusing and I can’t help but agree with his dismissal of Alroy Kear, but there’s something off-putting about the voice, something distancing. I suppose the mildly ironic tone gets a little wearying after a while. I don’t think that we are meant to read the narrator uncritically; as a writer himself, he is not exactly a disinterested observer of the fates of Driffield and Kear, and his detached, judgmental attitude toward his subjects seems self-serving. But critiquing the narrator in this way wasn’t enough to make the book a satisfying read.

Something Missing

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?

~Sir Toby Belch to Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham and I didn't enjoy each other's company all that much. It wasn't the story, I liked the story. It was Maugham. His voice rubbed me the wrong way and I hated how he would occasionally slip into using "you" in describing things, saying how "you" feel when this or that happens, or how "you" think about certain things. It makes assumptions about who the reader is and leaves the door wide open for the reader, as it did in my case, to say no, not me, I don't feel or think that way. And as for Maugham's voice, I can't say exactly what bothered me about it so much. It felt to me like it had an all-knowing and condescending sort of flavor to it, a sort of wink wink, nudge nudge quality due in part to the narrator revealing the whole story to the reader but not to the other characters in the book. That probably doesn't make sense. I could be making it all up and when I type it out it seems such a silly thing to not like a book over, but there it is.

As for the story, the narrator is William Ashenden, an author who was popular once but has now slipped to the midlist. Still quite respectable though. He is asked by his acquaintance and fellow author, Alroy Kear, who happens to be a bit of a golden boy type, to share his recollections of Edward Driffield for a biography Kear was asked to write by Driffield's second and now widowed wife. Driffield became the author of his day for his realistic portrayal of working-class people - the coal merchants, the tavern keepers, etc. Ironically, when Driffield first came on the scene, genteel readers were shocked by his subject matter. To say that there is much in this book about class is to state the obvious.

Driffield came from the class that he wrote about as did his first wife, Rosie. Our narrator Ashenden meets them when he is a boy and they move into the small town where he lives. Driffield teaches him how to ride a bicycle and both he and Rosie are kind to this teenage boy who got a transgressive thrill from sneaking to their house for tea while at the same time looking down his nose at some of their behavior and what he considered lack of manners. Things happen to cause Ashenden and the Driffields to lose touch until many years later when Ashenden is in med school in London.

Alroy Kear, the biographer, wants all the details, but he doesn't really. He only wants the socially acceptable side of Edward Driffield. Anything unsavory he sees no reason to include in the biography, though an occasional allusion might be okay. Much of what Ashenden knows about Driffield pretty much falls into the unsavory category especially as it relates to his first wife Rosie.

There are some amusing passages on writers and writing such as this one:

After mature consideration I have come to the conclusion that the real reason for the universal applause that comforts the declining years of the author who exceeds the common span of man is that intelligent people after the age of the thirty read nothing at all. As they grow older the books they read in their youth are lit with its glamour and with every year that passes they ascribe greater merit to the author that wrote them. Of course he must go on; he must keep in the public eye. It is no good his thinking that it is enough to write one or two masterpieces; he must provide a pedestal for them of forty or fifty works of no particular consequence. This needs time. His production must be such that if he cannot captivate a reader by his charm he can stun him by his weight.

Mildly amusing but not enough to make the book come alive. And that, now that I think of it, is what is missing for me. The book had no spark. It should have, all the elements are there for it, but it was only meh.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Next Read: Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale is our June read. Discussion will start Thursday June 30. Thanks for voting everyone!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

A Second Chance: The Runner-Up Round

It's time to vote for the next group read. There was an excellent suggestion that rather than coming up with a new list of books that we choose from the runners up from the last few rounds. Since these came so close to being chosen, these books are being given a second chance. Please drop your vote in the comments area. Votes will be counted on Wednesday April 13. Discussion will start Thursday June 30.

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé: "Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free rein. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence. "

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany: "All manner of flawed and fragile humanity reside in the Yacoubian Building, a once-elegant temple of Art Deco splendor now slowly decaying in the smog and bustle of downtown Cairo: a fading aristocrat and self-proclaimed "scientist of women"; a sultry, voluptuous siren; a devout young student, feeling the irresistible pull toward fundamentalism; a newspaper editor helplessly in love with a policeman; a corrupt and corpulent politician, twisting the Koran to justify his desires. These disparate lives careen toward an explosive conclusion in Alaa Al Aswany's remarkable international bestseller. Teeming with frank sexuality and heartfelt compassion, this book is an important window on to the experience of loss and love in the Arab world."

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham: "Cakes and Ale is a delicious satire of London literary society between the Wars. Social climber Alroy Kear is flattered when he is selected by Edward Driffield's wife to pen the official biography of her lionized novelist husband, and determined to write a bestseller. But then Kear discovers the great novelist's voluptuous muse (and unlikely first wife), Rosie. The lively, loving heroine once gave Driffield enough material to last a lifetime, but now her memory casts an embarrassing shadow over his career and respectable image. Wise, witty, deeply satisfying, Cakes and Ale is Maugham at his best."

Passing by Nella Larson: "The tale is simple on the surface--a few adventures in Chicago and New York's high life, with lots of real people and race-mixing events described ... But underneath, it seethes with rage, guilt, sex, and complex deceptions. Irene fears losing her black husband to Clare, who seems increasingly predatory. Or is this all in Irene's mind? And is everyone wearing a mask? Larsen's book is a scary hall of mirrors, a murder mystery that can't resolve itself. It sticks with you."

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson: "Winesburg, Ohio is Sherwood Anderson's masterpiece, a cycle of short stories concerning life in a small town at the end of the nineteenth century. At the center is George Willard, a young reporter who becomes the confidant of the town's solitary figures. Anderson's stories influenced countless American writers including Hemingway, Faulkner, Updike, Oates and Carver. "

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys: "Sasha Jensen has returned to Paris, the city of both her happiest moments and her most desperate. Her past lies in wait for her in cafes, bars, and dress shops, blurring all distinctions between nightmare and reality. When she is picked up by a young man, she begins to feel that she is still capable of desires and emotions. Few encounters in fiction have been so brilliantly conceived, and few have come to a more unforgettable end."

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Transit of Venus

I was not entirely sure what to make of Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 novel The Transit of Venus while I was reading it, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it now. I enjoyed the book very much in the way that I enjoy reading slow, demanding books occasionally, and part of that enjoyment comes from the fact that I don’t mind feeling a little bit at sea. It’s not so much the complex language that made me feel that way, although the language certainly is dense. It’s that it took me a while to figure out the mood and the focus of the book, and I’m still figuring it out.

As I read through the first half or so of the book, I kept wondering exactly where Hazzard was taking the story. In the beginning, we learn about two sisters who grew up in Australia and are now living in England. One of the sisters, Grace, is engaged to be married. She is a fairly conventional young woman who is happy to follow the traditional path of marriage and motherhood. The other, Caro, is more complicated, not gifted with Grade’s ability to please others without effort. She is independent and a little prickly. It is clear from the beginning that her life will be more difficult.

So I thought it would be a novel about the relationship of these two sisters and how Grace’s marriage affects it — which is partly what the book is about, but it’s not really the main point. Then we come to a flashback about the sisters’ childhood in Australia growing up with their emotionally manipulative and truly awful half-sister, Dora. I thought then that the book would move back and forth regularly between the past and the present, showing how the one created the other. But that’s not really what happens, either.

Instead, the book expands outward from its opening scenes, moving forward through many years to cover long stretches of the main characters’ lives. And it also shifts from character to character, moving away from the two sisters now and then to tell other stories. It expands outward in terms of place as well; there are sections in New York and in South America, as well as the flashbacks to Australia.

Ultimately, I think, the book is about relationships and the various ways they develop, mostly, unfortunately, in sad ways. Grace’s relationship with her husband, Christian Thrale, ends up complicated. Caro marries happily, but … something goes wrong there too, something entirely different from what happens to Grace. Ted Tice, a character introduced to the two sisters early on, spends his whole life longing for Caro, who is indifferent to him. And then there is Paul Ivory. He is engaged to be married to a neighborhood woman, but he and Caro begin an affair, one that reveals Caro’s depths and Paul’s harshness.

All this sounds a little soap opera-ish, and if I were to give away the entire plot, it would sound even more so. But that’s not the way the book feels. Instead, Hazzard captures the experiences and emotions of her characters with depth and subtlety. One of the most memorable sections for me is when Caro is living alone in London working as a lowly secretary to a horrible, sexist, stingy man. She is lonely and has no money. When Dora is suffering and needs help — Dora, the half-sister who was supposed to raise her and failed utterly at it — Caro raises money and sets out to help her even though it’s a huge sacrifice. Christian Thrale, Grace’s husband, doesn’t lift a finger to help, even though he has the means to do so. The depths of Caro’s isolation seem bottomless. Her life does improve, but it’s hard as a reader to forget just how bad things once were. It makes sense not to trust happiness in this book.

I’ve been discussing the book with other Slaves of Golconda readers over at the discussion boards, and the consensus seems to be that it would richly reward a rereading. There are a couple crucial moments where the narrative flashes forward, and without catching those moments, the reader might be lost at the end. But I hear there are other instances of foreshadowing that I didn’t catch the first time around that would be great to explore on a reread.

If you would like to read more about the book, there are lots of posts on it over at the Slaves site. It’s an excellent book for a group discussion!

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

A conscious act of independent humanity is what society can least afford. If they once let that in, there'd be no end to it.

--Ted Tice, in The Transit of Venus

Although I had never heard of Shirley Hazzard before The Great Fire won the National Book Award back in 2003, I was so keen to read it afterwards that I plucked it from a cart down in tech services instead of waiting for it to make its way upstairs and out onto the library floor. It turned out to be a tough read, with its "often oblique writing style, more implication than explanation," as I wrote, after finishing it, at Live Journal. Till then I'd never read such elliptical writing, and while I determined that I did want to attempt The Transit of Venus, her previous novel that she'd published all the way back in 1980, I was of the opinion that Edward P. Jones' The Known World should have won the NBA. I'm a sucker for anachrony, especially flashforwards, and Jones left me swooning with his ability to go forward, backward, all in the same paragraph.

Had I known that Hazzard would hinge the reader's comprehension of what takes place at the end of The Transit of Venus on a couple of flashforwards, I'm sure I'd have quit intending to read it--someday, when my brain's up for it-- and actually read it long before now.

The Transit of Venus requires a lot of effort, a lot of focus, from the reader. Being me, I raced through it in a weekend, pencil both asterisking and underlining excessive sentences and paragraphs for further study. I'd read enough of several reviews to know that the ending tripped people up, that a line on the first page that seemed a throwaway at the time was of vital importance, and with that heightened awareness--somehow, that dead body under the bridge, mentioned briefly in the newspaper, is going to come back up--and my own love for flashforwards, I reached the end with a fairly good big picture understanding of what had taken place. Since then, I've been going back through the pages, rereading what I'd marked and noticing many many other glints of literary gold I'd previously missed, foreshadowings and insights and sentences that made more sense now that I was looking at them from the proper angle. Not that I feel that I've mastered the material, but that I'm sure that it's worth my time to read again.

And it seems a fitting book to be reading now, when I'm also reading A Visit from the Goon Squad (another book that breaks your heart in its flashforwards), so I can think how two writers concerned with what's left out, what's told slant, manage to create characters and stories that aren't reduced to the status of second fiddle.

The Transit of Venus

Oh my goodness, I almost completely forgot about today being the day of the Slaves discussion of Shirley Hazzard's marvelous book, The Transit of Venus. It was originally set to take place on the 31st of March and then got moved to today. And all last week nearly everyday I'd think to myself, Hazzard post on Monday, you won't forget because it's your birthday. And here I almost forgot! Bookman and I had the day off from work today to celebrate (there was yummy cake!) and I sat down at my computer to write a blog thinking, hmm, now what should I write about today? And my mind began to wander along, considering different ideas, before the realization struck me right between the eyes. So now, what to say about Transit of Venus?

I loved it. I have not read Hazzard before. She is one of those authors I fully intended to read, I have The Great Fire, but just haven't gotten around to. After this, I have more incentive because I know what a treat will be in store.

The astronomical event called the transit of Venus takes place when the planet Venus passes between the sun and the Earth. It's like a lunar eclipse but because Venus is farther away than the moon, when the transit happens Venus appears as a small dark spot moving across the sun rather than an eclipse. Transits come in pairs. The first part of the most recent transit took place on June 8, 2004. The second part of the pair will happen on June 6, 2012. After that, there won't be another pair until 2117 and 2125. So mark your calendars for next June!

How the title fits the book, I haven't entirely put together. Venus, of course, is also the Goddess of Love, which does fit the book. Oh, and I just realized she is even paired. The book is about two sisters, Caroline (Caro) and Grace Bell, born in Australia and orphaned at a young age when their parents died in a ferry accident. They were raised by their half-sister, Dora, the offspring from their father's first marriage. So here we have our two Venuses. Their transit isn't across the sun though, more a transit through life and a transit through love. So maybe that's how the title fits.

Caro is the eldest of the two sisters, beautiful, but not in a conventional way. She is quiet and intelligent and observes people closely. She has a tendency to be unsettling. She also always seems so sure of herself. She is independent and practical and, in spite of being told by potential love interest Ted Tice that most people (read women) don't pass the exam for a government job at all, let alone on the first try, Caro passes it the first time with flying colors. But of course because she is a woman in late 40s and early 50s London, she can only really work as a secretary.

Grace, the younger sister, is golden and domestic and beautiful and she manages to marry young, a man named Christian Thrale, who turns out to be a tightwad and not at all Christian. At first, of course, she is in love and happy and is everything a devoted wife should be. She has children. From the outside she has the perfect life. The inside, however, does not always match the outside.

Caro, does not get married until she is into her 30s. She has an affair for a number of years with a famous playwright. Eventually she does marry, a wealthy American, who flies around the world attempting to help dispossessed groups in issues of diplomacy and political interventions. It is a happy and satisfying marriage.

Then there is Ted Tice, the potential love interest. He loves Caro from the start but she doesn't love him back. Still, he can't move on from that. Eventually he marries and has children but his poor wife knows that he still loves Caro. Will he ever get the girl of his dreams? I'm not saying.

And always in the mix is the half-sister, Dora. She is mentally and emotionally abusive and continues to hold a certain power over both Grace and Caro well into their adult lives. She is a real piece of work. An entire blog post can be written about her alone.

Transit of Venus is a rich, gorgeously written book. Not once did anything go clunk. There isn't really a plot to speak of. It is all character and all language, the kind of language that tastes like a square of extremely dark chocolate - the really good and expensive kind - melting slowly on your tongue.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

The Transit of Venus

Litlove's wonderful post goes right to the aspect of the novel that seems to me, also, most provoking: its language. Not that the story or characters or setting of The Transit of Venus aren't interesting--on the contrary, I thought the people had a superb distinctness to them; the story was elegantly constructed, with its crossings and recrossings, its mirrors and inversions and misreadings and accidents; and the settings had a fascinatingly lucid particularity in the details Hazzard used to put them before us. How well this little set piece evokes, for instance, a mildly acerbic colonial bitterness (a tone not altogether unfamiliar to Canadians):

There was nothing mythic at Sydney: momentous objects, beings, and events all occurred abroad or in the elsewhere of books. Sydney could never take for granted, as did the very meanest town in Europe, that a poet might be born there or a great painter walk beneath its windows. The likelihood did not arise, they did not feel they had deserved it. That was the measure of resentful obscurity: they could not imagine a person who might expose or exalt it.

Or, more particular yet, here's a London morning, damply unwelcoming: "At that hour all London was ashudder, waiting for the bus." We feel, as well as see, the place. I thought a lot of Hazzard's descriptions had this tactile quality.

That slightly estranging, too-poetic word "ashudder," though, is a tiny example of just how stylized Hazzard's prose is. It is, as litlove says, difficult, elliptical, opaque. There's a lot of utilitarian prose, or worse, in mainstream and especially genre fiction. Writers whose work I like nonetheless bore me with their assumption that the writer's job is to get the story told without the language getting in the way; they seem to aspire to prose that is as transparent or functional as possible. That is a safer option, no doubt, than venturing into the dangerous territory of overt artistry. It is not easy to tell a story directly and clearly, but it is far riskier to tease and play and experiment with language--riskier, because, for one thing, the measure of success becomes immediately more elusive. Hazzard is a risk-taker.

On the whole, for me, Hazzard's style was successful. One measure that I use is whether the style of the book suits what I discern as the organizing ideas or interests of the book: do the author's verbal tricks seem like sheer display, or does the aesthetic whole have integrity? The Transit of Venus is intensely interested in the degree to which people are opaque to each other, with the uncertainties of their external appearance as indicators of their thoughts and intentions. It sometimes seems that the more literally naked her characters are, the less that is revealed about them; their physical proximity exacerbates rather than overcomes their mental distances, their tendencies to misinterpret or to fill in blanks. So, a prose with gaps and omissions, precise about surfaces but constantly fraught with meaning that seems too weighty to be contained in the sentences that carry it--that seemed right. It's not a realistic mode exactly (I agree with litlove that the dialogue often strains credulity): the novel proffers a heightened reality. Does it make sense to the rest of you if I say there seemed to be something cinematic about it, not because there's a grand panoramic sweep, or a plot of secrets and revelations (though in a way, I suppose both of these things are true), but because there are a lot of effects in each scene and as they play out, you can so easily imagine the ebbing and receding of an emotional score? Music, in films, often brings out emotions that can't be easily displayed through words or actions. I felt like Hazzard's language sought to do the same, without making every thought or emotion explicit. "Everything had the threat and promise of meaing," Hazzard says early on. That threat and promise permeate both the story and the language.

Another measure I use is the balance of pleasure and annoyance. I was sometimes annoyed, reading along. I found the missing word trick (more accurately, the omitted word trick) especially annoying, even though I have offered sort of an explanation for its thematic fitness. One example: "Caro might have asked, How old. But was silent . . ." It's like a writing exercise, or an excercise in close reading: What difference does it make, to the sentence, to the rhythm, to the meaning, to our reading experience, to put "she" back in? "Caro might have asked, How old. But she was silent . . ." What is lost in that smoothing out of the syntax, that restoration to normalcy? Or, what is Hazzard doing to us by refusing us that smoother process? The immediate result for me, each time, was to force me to reread: had I just missed something? Had I not grasped the actual grammar of the sentence? These moments always made me stumble and have to gather myself up again. That's not necessarily a bad thing. And annoying as it could be, the prickly sense of irritation at what seemed, sometimes, just a mannerism was outweighed by the number of times I sighed with appreciation over a sentence that seemed pure and satisfying in its precision. Every word seemed chosen and placed (or omitted!) with such care, which is not to say that the language becomes precious, just that it has a deliberate cerebral quality that is just what you don't find in so much other fiction. And this is not to say that the book is ponderous: wit can be cerebral as well. I particularly liked this little bit, for example, on the changing fortunes of the perversely pastoral poet Rex Ivory, who keeps on writing poetry about the natural "glories of his native Derbyshire" even during and after his time as a POW:

[H]is story was soon one of the items of victory, for the newspapers took it up and he became "the poet Rex Ivory" in publications where an indefinite article had formerly done for him well, and rarely, enough. A Selected Poems went into print on coarse, flecked wartime paper, and there were no more witticisms about ivory towers. He read that he had been correct in spurning the First World War, and prescient in endorsing the Second; and he pondered the new idea that he had shown acumen. The BBC brought electrical equipment into the Dukeries in a van and a camera followed the well-known and prescient poet Rex Ivory as he walked between flowering borders with a pair of Sealyhams borrowed from a neighbour. Despite his unrehearsed analogy between the British mental asylum and the Japanese camp, the interview was a success; because, when people have made up their minds to admire, wild horses will not get them to admit boredom.

The otherwise quite dark conclusion of the novel is lit up with some fine satire on his posthumous academic prestige, marked by the publication of a "brilliant critical biography" with the spot-on title Abnegation as Statement: Symbol aand Sacrament in the Achievement of Rex Ivory: "Dr Wadding had suspended his groundbreaking work on the Lake Poets so that Rex Ivory might benfit from critical elucidation. . . . 'My task, as I see it, is to adumbrate the sources of his entelechy.'" Perhaps, with that darting stab at an entirely different order of difficulty, Hazzard seeks to justify her own degree of elusivenss, which is, at least, in the service of human feeling.

A few of us exchanged some thoughts on Twitter as we worked our way to the end, and I think we were all equal parts startled and puzzled by the revelations about Paul Ivory's past. I wonder if we were surprised on purpose, to make a point about the layers of deceit or performance that come between us and certain knowledge of each other. It works as a plot device, giving Caro a new perspective on her own choices and relationships, but still, why that particular backstory? It seemed discordant, somehow.

The Art of Being Difficult

How hard should a reader be made to work when confronting a piece of literature? At what point does an elliptical sentence become an opaque one that causes the reader to set the book aside in irritation? Or is the complex book, the demanding book, something to be welcomed like a really good mental work-out? A version of sit-ups for the brain? These questions were very much to the forefront of my mind as I was reading the latest pick for the Slaves of Golconda book group. Having wondered in yesterday’s post whether language could be too simplistic for pleasure, Shirley Hazzard’s award-winning novel The Transit of Venus, gave me the opposite experience of wondering whether language could become too weighty, too portentous, too pregnant with meaning for its own good.

The Transit of Venus is essentially a love story that spans several decades of the twentieth century, involves the romantic fortunes of a web of protagonists and moves between England and America. The main focus of the narrative falls on Caroline Bell, who, with her sister, Grace, has come over from Australia in search of meaningful experience. The Bell sisters were orphaned young, their parents drowning in a ferry accident off Sydney Bay. In consequence the girls were brought up by their older half-sister, Dora, whose vibrant negativity makes her one of the most engaging, if dislikeable characters in the novel. Dora has been required by fate to make an unreasonable sacrifice of her youth, and her revenge is never to let anyone forget it. Escaping Dora is an influential factor in Grace’s rapid engagement to a man she meets in a cinema, Christian Thrale, and when the novel opens, we are at the home of the Thrales. Christian’s father is an eminent astronomer, involved in siting a telescope in the UK. Ted Tice, displaced from his class by his mind and his education, awkward but with the strength of his own integrity, comes to stay at the house as an assistant to Professor Thrale and falls in love, deeply and irrevocably, with Grace’s sister, Caro. But Caro is not attracted to him other than as a friend; instead she begins an impetuous but passionate affair with an arrogant young playwright, Paul Ivory, who is himself engaged to be married to someone else. The fates and fortunes of this cast of characters are revealed in a series of beautifully examined tableaux that extends over many years.

The transit of Venus stands over the narrative as its guiding star. In the first pages of the novel, we are told a cautionary tale by Professor Thrale and Ted Tice, of a French adventurer who longed to see this particular, extremely rare event, when Venus partially eclipses the sun. Having been delayed by wars and misadventure that caused him to miss one transit, he waited in a form of exile for eight years until Venus should pass again, only on that day conditions were too poor for the spectacle to be seen. It would be another century before it happened again. The transit of Venus mirrors the trajectories of Caro Bell and Ted Tice, who circle each other repeatedly over the course of the narrative, but seem destined never to unite. In this first, early encounter, the love Ted feels for Caro is not reciprocated, but will he finally win her in the end? Venus, the planet of love, is notably capricious. “The calculations were hopelessly out,” Ted Tice explains about James Cook’s equally disastrous attempt to view the transit. “Calculations about Venus often are.”

The sense of complex delays that are inevitable but perplexing structures the entire narrative, which inserts into its opening scenes a seemingly casual remark about a man’s body being found after a flood. It will come back to haunt the protagonists only towards the very end. Equally gnomic is an off-hand remark about Ted Tice, accompanying the early descriptions of him, that he will one day take his own life. Perhaps if nothing else, this structure indicates the necessity for the reader to exercise great patience with the text. Hazzard slows her action down to a crawl, with each gesture and thought of her characters inviting narratorial intervention, as its significance is teased out and analysed. For the most part, I was happy to go along with this, because it produces some splendid observations: ‘nothing creates such untruth as the wish to please or to be spared something’, ‘the absence of self-delusion in itself is liberty’, ‘[i]n its first appeal, security offered an excitement almost like romance, but that rescue might wear down, like any other.’ The tone of these remarks is not so much lyrical as philosophical, but philosophical with a cosmic edge. We are given love and life through a telescope that brings us closer to these huge forces that sear through existence, but seem almost impersonal and beyond our control, spiritual in the way they inhabit us but also transcend us. I wondered at first whether the story, so focused on romance, would not be too slight for the weight of observation Hazzard brings to it, but in the end I capitulated; primary emotions, like love, desire, rage, fear, are ordinarily downplayed so we might keep living without incurring too much damage, but given their true significance, we might have to admit their overwhelming, potentially devastating importance.

However, it takes a certain kind of reading attitude to accept that characters might say things like: “She mistakes suspicion for insight.” Or, “I loathe the undernourishment of this country, the grievance, the censoriousness, the reluctance to try anything else.” Whilst the intelligence of Hazzard’s prose never falters, her protagonists risk at times becoming mouthpieces for existential insight, rather than flesh and blood people. In fact, the huge weight of significance that the narrative is made to bear makes it at one and the same time startlingly true and suspiciously artificial. We have so much contact with the discerning, interpreting writerly mind, that we can feel oddly shielded from the action, as if it takes place behind a gauze curtain of wise remarks. I passed through many emotions myself reading this; I found it surprising and profound and frustrating and sometimes disengaging and sometimes piercing. Overall it was a triumph of language, but one that came, for me at least, at the cost of emotional immediacy. But it was also a book that I longed to discuss with others, so I’m hoping my fellow Slaves will hurry up and post so I can know what they felt about it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Next Up: Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus

The votes are in, and Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus is--just barely--the winner. Discussion will begin March 31. I'm looking forward to it!

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Time to Choose Another Book!

I am honored to have been 'tagged' to choose the shortlist for our next book choice. As a relative newcomer to the process, I thought it would be a good idea for me to go back over some previous posts and see if there were any trends in the suggestions--and there really aren't! Not just the books that actually won out in the voting but all the books put on the virtual table for consideration show what a cheerfully idiosyncratic group this is. So I decided to go with the "books I happen to be quite interested in reading right now" approach and put a cheerfully idiosyncratic list up myself. I just hope there's something on it that looks good to the rest of you! I've put in links to the Book Depository in most cases, but I think they are all pretty generally available.

1. Colm Toibin, Brooklyn. I haven't read any Toibin before, but I've heard many good things, particularly about this novel. From the jacket: "Eilis has come of age in small-town 1950s Ireland in the hard years following the Second World War. When she receives a job offer in America, it is clear to everyone that she must go. Leaving her family and country behind, Elis heads for unfamiliar Brooklyn, and to a crowded boarding house where her landlady's intense scrutiny and the small jealousies of her fellow residents only deepen her isolation. Slowly, however, the pain of parting and a longing for home are buried beneath the rhythms of her new life--until she begins to realize that she has found a sort of happiness. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future."

2. Laurence Cosse, A Novel Bookstore. I read about this one in the Europa Editions catalogue and it sounds fabulous: "Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free rein. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence. "

3. Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus. The blurb: "Caroline and Grace Bell, two beautiful orphan sisters eager to begin their lives in a new land, journey to England from Australia. What happens to these young women--seduction and abandonmnet, marriage and widowhood, love and betrayal--becomes as moving and wonderful and yet as predestined as the transits of the planets themselves. . . . a story of place: Sydney, London, New York, Stocklholm; of time: from the fifties to the eighties; and above all, of women and men in their passage through the displacements and absurdities of modern life." I've read two other Hazzard novels and been very impressed with her as a stylist; this one won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

4. Alaa Al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building. From the publisher's website: "All manner of flawed and fragile humanity reside in the Yacoubian Building, a once-elegant temple of Art Deco splendor now slowly decaying in the smog and bustle of downtown Cairo: a fading aristocrat and self-proclaimed "scientist of women"; a sultry, voluptuous siren; a devout young student, feeling the irresistible pull toward fundamentalism; a newspaper editor helplessly in love with a policeman; a corrupt and corpulent politician, twisting the Koran to justify his desires. These disparate lives careen toward an explosive conclusion in Alaa Al Aswany's remarkable international bestseller. Teeming with frank sexuality and heartfelt compassion, this book is an important window on to the experience of loss and love in the Arab world." I have been interested in this for some time; then I happened across the movie adaptation and broke my "no watching before reading" rule--the movie is very good, very intense! So I'm no less interested in reading the original.

5. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath. This one may not be a great option as it is the first one in a trilogy. If we pick it and love it, of course, we could always read the other two! Anyway, here's the description: "Set in 14th-century Norway, The Wreath begins the life story of Kristin Lavransdatter. Starting with Kristin's childhood and continuing through her romance with Erlend Nikulausson, a dangerously charming and impetuous man, Sigrid Undset re-creates the historical backdrop in vivid detail...Defying her parents and stubbornly pursuing her own happiness, Kristin emerges as a woman who loves with power and passion." The trilogy was first published in 1920-22.

So--vote away! I'll tally up the responses by, say, next Sunday, and we'll aim to have our discussion of whichever one we choose at the end of March.


Thursday, February 03, 2011

'The Summer Book' - Tove Jansson

I am so late getting my thoughts on ‘The Summer Book’ up for The Slaves of Golconda readalong, because I’ve been having some external device + laptop issues in the last few days. Of course these wouldn’t have stopped me posting if I’d written this review right after I read the book at the begining of the month and pre-scheduled it, but I didn’t (no excuses I’ve been equal parts lazy and buried in other books). So instead of joining in with my own post I’ve been catching up on other people’s thoughts. Have I mentioned this is why I love small group readalongs so much? All these other thoughts appearing on a book you finished recently is kind of wonderful in its quiet bookishness. Now I’m putting my own thoughts out there, in the hope that the other members of the group (and you even if you didn’t readalong) will find something to enjoy here.

Tove Jansson’s
'The Summer Book’ is the story of of a young child called Sophia and her grandmother, who spend time together on an island in the Gulf of Finalnd, which Sophia’s grandmother has lived on for forty seven years. Esther Freud’s introduction to my edition explains that Sophia is based on Jansson’s niece and Sophia’s grandmother is based on Jansson’s mother (Freud's introduction is a short piece that combines facts, literary criticism and a personal story about her visit to the island that inspired the book, with Sophia Jansson).

The novella is made up of a series of chapters that are each a seperate, complete story. Maybe each one could be called a vignette chapter, as they’re quite short and capture specific moments of the characters life on the island. In any case, each chapter could be read independently, or out of sequence without any confusion. However, when read one after another in the order Tove Jansson has set them in, connections begin to form between the seperate stories.

As the novella progresses the pronounced seperateness of the individual story each chapter contains emphasises the gaps that surround these glimpses of life. Life outside of the island isn’t refferred to much, but the occassional detail is dropped in that suggests the characters have other complicated, full lives outside of immediate island life that the reader is not seeing. The contained way in which life is presented to the reader, as if little exists beyond the particular incident that they are reading about, encourages readers to feel that they are arriving in the middle of life, because they aren’t given any lead in, explanatory detail of what led to this moment. The third person narrator seems to presume readers are already familiar with the two characters lives, by declining to provide much detail from outside the immediate moments described. This lack of detail, not only intrigues the reader, making them hungry for every detail of the characters wider life, but also encourages the reader to care about the characters, because they are already being addressed with the casual lack of explanation that signals an intimate friendship. I always find this technique of telling the reader that they’re already involved and engaged with a story a powerful draw.

The vignette style also creates a sense of time passing, without often directly mentioning the time that has passed between each chapter. The absence of description of life outside the island, or life outside of the specific moments readers are allowed to see, as well as the way readers are dropped into situations with little introduction, suggests that other things have happened around the events that readers have been shown. At the same time Jansson creates small connections that remind you that while you haven’t been watching the characters their lives have been continuing, for example Sophia’s grandmother’s illness escalates during the novel and quick mentions of her condition inform readers she is getting worse, but the escalation seems to happen faster than it should from what the rest of the text describes. A simple couple of sentences suddenly makes it clear that she is actually ill, not just frail:

'They crawled on through the pines, and Grandmother threw up in the moss.

"It could happen to anyone," the child said. "Did you take your Lupatro?" '

but it seems as if she must have been deteriorating outside of what is described in the text for some time to have reached this severe stage. So I began to think that chunks of time must be passing outside of the text.

The contained nature of the individual stories in each chapter somehow emphasises the absence of writing around those moments. There are quiet hollowed out spaces you can almost feel the shape of, in between each story, even though they’re unwritten spaces. There’s a push, pull tension in this novel, where the completness of each story makes the reader more aware of these spaces of silence and the spaces accentuate the completness of what Jansson has written.