Sunday, October 31, 2010

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Like other books I have reviewed here, Love in a Cold Climate is a story told through a narrator whose life is peripheral to the narrative and whose character is decent, kind and somewhat dull. Fanny is the conduit through which the story of Polly and her wealthy and eccentric family is told.

Polly is distantly related to the narrator and is the daughter of an aristocrat Lord Montdore, and Lady Montdore, who is a well respected and somewhat feared (and secretly hated by many) socialite of the highest standing. Polly has everything going for her—good breeding, fabulous wealth, and exquisite beauty. Lady Montdore has high hopes for her marriage, but Polly is not interested. After returning to England after years in India, Polly is now a young adult and her mother is keen to see her married. Polly, however, despite her beauty, is cold and uninterested in the social scene. Her cold attitude attracts no suitors and Lady Montdore becomes exasperated as Polly’s less-than-beautiful contemporaries are married off one after the other.

The love life of Lady Montdore herself is rather scandalous, but I don’t want to give too much away in this review.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Pursuit of Love, also by Nancy Mitford and also narrated by Fanny, which I read about a year ago, and I loved this book too. Mitford writes with a great sense of humour. I also get the feeling that she really loves her characters. Most of them have terrible flaws, but at the same time are lovable. (Uncle) Matthew Radcliffe, for example, is a bit of an ogre really—his fits of rage, hatred for foreigners and anti-social character make for quite a nasty fellow. Yet, he also cries at the drop of a hat and adores his family, and is therefore endearing. He is also homophobic, and this comes to the fore when Polly’s cousin comes to stay and ends up staying for good. Cedric’s flamboyance, love of fashion and all things beautiful, and the reactions of some of those around him are depicted with hilarity:

There was a terrible scene on Oxford platform one day. Cedric went to the bookstall to buy Vogue, having mislaid his own copy. Uncle Matthew, who was waiting there for a train, happened to notice that the seams of his coat were piped in a contrasting shade. This was too much for his self-control. He fell upon Cedric and began to shake him like a rat; just then, very fortunately, the train came in, whereupon my uncle, who suffered terribly from train fever, dropped Cedric and rushed to catch it. ‘You’d never think,’ as Cedric said afterwards, ‘that buying Vogue Magazine could be so dangerous. It was well worth it though, lovely Spring modes.’

Cedric, the extremely camp homosexual relative who comes to live with the Montdore’s after Polly has flown the nest injects some much-needed vibrancy and fun into Lady Montdore’s life. Cedric’s popularity with everyone in the story, especially the female characters made me think of the contemporary notion that having a gay guy as your best friend is really cool. Cedric was interested in fashion and beauty and gained a reputation as being good at giving women advice on how to improve their appearance. The ‘queer eye for the straight guy (or girl)’ phenomenon then is not that new!

This book pokes fun at the √©lite without being mean. It allows them all their happiness in the end. They are all able to find love, even if it’s eccentric and unorthodox. And it is! The end had me smiling and shaking my head in a ‘how delicious!’ kind of way.

The link to the penguin classics site for this book is here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

I think Nick Hornby is a great and talented writer, and I’m aware that this is supposedly one of his best novels. I honestly think this, however, is chick lit for men. I actually skipped pages of this book. Having said that, I suppose I have to admit that it goes a little deeper than most chick lit in its exploration of monogamy and love.

Rob is in his mid-30s and works in a record store. His girlfriend Laura has just left him and this has prompted him to do some soul-searching with regards to his romantic relationships. He sets out on a quest to discover the reasons for the breakdown of his ‘top 5 relationships’, believing that Laura was not one of them.

Rob is unsophisticated with simple tastes, but he’s not stupid and is actually quite romantic, though not in the traditional sense. He likes to make mixed tapes for his girlfriends. The novel has a lot of musical references which, for me, were boring and went over my head. I’m not a muso so the conversations about who’s who of the music scene were completely wasted on me.

I really enjoyed the examination of what it means to be in a committed relationship, especially the conversations held by Rob and Laura towards the end of the book. Laura is honest and much more mature than Rob. She explains to Rob that people change, and that being in a monogamous relationship means being able to deal with that. Yet, Rob hasn’t changed at all. Laura, on the other hand, has. I particularly liked the bit where Laura talks about the way individuals are not identified by their relationships, but by much more: “I’m simply pointing out that what happens to us isn’t the whole story. That I continue to exist even when we’re not together”.

Record stores are extinct now (I think?) and CD shops are even disappearing now. As I say, I’m not a muso, so I don’t really know what’s happened to them, but am I right in thinking that the record/music culture has evolved into one whose members go to gigs and follow musicians via their myspace pages?

Here is the link to the penguin page for this book.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Week 9: Love in the Time of Cholera (1985 / 1988) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This novel begins on the day that Juvernal Urbino dies. His death is unlike any other death I’ve ever read about in literature:

The novel follows Dr. Urbino on his rounds one day. That morning, his close friend had decided to kill himself on his 60th birthday to avoid getting old. At the end of the day, and just as the reader becomes attached to Urbino, the text sees him climbing a tree to capture an escaped parrot. The moment he reaches out to capture the parrot, Urbino falls to his death.

It’s an amazing way to begin a novel – to establish what the reader would presume to be the central character, only to kill him off, and in such a spectacular fashion.

The story is not about Urbino at all, but about his wife Fermina Daza.

In her youth, Fermina was perused by Florentino Ariza. Ariza continuously declared his love through secret love notes. It appeared as if Fermina responded in kind. But, when she turns eighteen, she decides to marry the more stable and respectable Urbino.

Like many of Marquez’ books, this novel takes place over several decades, chronicling the fallout of Fermina’s choice.

On the surface, it seems like a love story. Two lovers, torn apart by circumstance and chance, are eventually reunited as they reach their twilight years. But to fall for the surface plot is to fall for Marquez’ cleverly orchestrated “trick”.

The central trope in this novel is cholera. Its presence haunts the text, culminating in the final scenes where Ariza’s long awaited boat trip with Fermina is impacted physically, spiritually, and emotionally by this ever-present spectre.

My words can’t do Marquez’ beautiful prose justice, so i'll leave this review short but sweet:

This is a book that I’d encourage anyone to read – just don’t be fooled by the romance. For Marquez, love, like cholera, is a deadly illness.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

This was published in 1929 by Hogarth Press, a publishing house that Woolf and her husband founded. It is based on a lecture Woolf gave at Cambridge University. Despite being almost one hundred years old many of the themes resonate today. Reading this book reminded me (as if I needed reminding) of how far we, as a society, have to go until women are treated as importantly as men are; until women’s ideas are regarded as valid as men’s are; until women’s work is respected as much as men’s is and rewarded accordingly. Another particularly resonant theme that struck me was the poverty of women. Woolf talks about how women are collectively so much poorer than men because they have not ‘learnt the art of making money’; or more precisely, they are practically unable to earn money because of their roles as mothers: ‘Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children—no human being could stand it’. Of course women these days in Western countries do not have thirteen children. Yet women’s low wages relative to men’s is directly connected to their roles as unpaid wives and mothers. If you take the partner out of the picture, single mothers are one of the poorest demographic groups in Australia (sorry, don’t have time to give you stats - maybe I’ll fill this in later).

Woolf’s central argument is that in order for women to write, they need a room of one’s own and an income. Because women had been deprived of these things, there were few notable women writers. Woolf’s description of the possible conditions that Jane Austen wrote under made me look at Austen’s books in a new light. I had never really thought about it, but Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice etc were probably not written in an office or ‘a room of one’s own’, at a leisurely and private pace, but in little pockets of time that Austen could steal while she sat in a drawing room with other women or family members who were chatting or sewing.

Woolf notes that female characters in novels, specifically up to Austen’s days, are depicted in relation to men. ‘I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends […] But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men’. It is true that this is no longer the case, and women characters have more depth in novels. But I still think that male characters are allowed much more autonomy than female characters. I know I’m departing somewhat from novels, but I can’t help but feel this point is particularly relevant when it comes to mainstream movies. Check the bechdel test out: Next time you go to a movie, think about a) how many female characters there are, and b) whether they are independent characters or mainly depicted in relation to the more important male characters. Here is an interesting blog entry with interesting links included about this in relation to the very popular Toy Story 3.

Anyway, back to Woolf, her parting words are those of encouragement laced with criticism. Get out there ladies: learn, and write!

Here is the link to the penguins classics page for A Room of One's Own

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Week 7: Notes from Underground (1864/1918) by Fydor Dostoevsky.

Many apologies for the delay in this review! Winter colds season has finally caught up with me!

The underground man, the nameless narrator of Notes from Underground, is not a nice man to spend a lot of time with. Fortunately, Dostoevsky’s book is rather short (clocking in at around 150 pages). While he isn’t a nice man, he is definitely an interesting man, and his “notes” are well worth reading.

Dostoevsky was very deliberate to let his readers know that the underground man’s opinions were not his own. In a preface he states:
The author of the diary and the diary itself are, of course, imaginary. Nevertheless it is clear that such persons as the writer of these notes not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances in the midst of which our society is formed. I have tried to expose to the view of the public more distinctly than is commonly done, one of the characters of the recent past. He is one of the representatives of a generation still living.
Interestingly, this preface has been taken by Bret Easton Ellis and applied to American Psycho, with a similar purpose and completely different results.

There is no plot to Notes from Underground, instead, the reader is addressed directly by the narrator as he reflects upon life from his unique point of view. His self-taught wisdom includes the pronouncement that there is “pleasure in a toothache”, while lamenting a long lost last encounter with “reality” where he attempts to interact with friends at a social function, only to find himself the butt of everyone’s joke.

The narrator leaves, humiliated and meets Liza, a street prostitute. In Liza there is hope of redemption, that this utterly unlikable and uncaring man could have some spark of humanity within him. The narrator is floored by the prospect that Liza’s relationship could see him turn into a “good” man, and seeks instead to sabotage it, driving away Liza and any shred of sympathy his readers may have for him.

The stark and bleak world of the narrator’s Russia makes me want to read more of Dostoevsky’s work. I tried to read The Brothers Karamazov when I was still in High School (only because it was referenced in an episode of The X-Files), but didn’t make it more than 10 pages in.

The tone of anger and apathy are partly explained by the knowledge that Dostoevsky was imprisoned for disagreeing with the dominant political regime in Russia at the time. Although this novel was written after his release, there is no doubt that he himself felt like an underground man, on the fringes of society, with no space for his own views except in the pages of his novels.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Richard Papen is a teenager from a poor family in California who ends up going to a university in Vermont. He decides to study Greek, and in doing so joins a very exclusive group of 5 students and their lovable but elitist teacher, Julian. The students of classical Greek are a cut apart from the rest of the university—they are intellectually brilliant but arrogant and insular. The twins, Camilla and Charles are the most likeable and ‘ordinary’ of the group; Henry is a genius but cold; Francis, is gay and vampire-ish with his long black coat and startling white skin, and Bunny is bumbling, quirky and not as smart as he thinks he is. All of them, especially Henry, are extremely wealthy and Richard lies about his background to become part of the group. Much like Nick in The Great Gatsby, Richard is a conduit through which the story is narrated. Unlike Nick, however, there is little in Richard to like. The six students spend their days in classical Greek texts, far removed from the reality of college life, and events conspire that lead them to murder of Bunny.

This is not a whodunit, because Richard introduces the story by telling us that they murdered Bunny on the first page. Instead it is a story of how they reached the situation where they felt they had no other recourse but murder; of the repercussions of the murder on them, and a very suspenseful story of a group of young murderers desperate not be found out.

Logic and rationalism vs passion and nature
Henry, the leader of the group, epitomises the boundary between logic and passion. He thinks so much—his head always in a book—that he cannot connect with passion or nature that humans are supposedly meant to feel. It’s almost as though his intellect is a cage of logic from which he cannot escape. This will resonate with anyone who thinks deeply. For anyone who has at least once thought, “I wish I could just stop thinking”, there is certainly truth in the phrase “ignorance is bliss”.

The inability to escape the reality of a humdrum everyday existence—an existence so inferior to what life ought to be if you’re a thinker—drives the group to experiment in bizarre ancient Greek bacchanal. After several attempts, they succeed and manage for a few hours, to lose themselves: “Duality ceases to exist; there is no ego, no “I” [...] You have no idea how pallid the workday boundaries of ordinary existence, seem after such an ecstasy”. The bacchanal nevertheless ends in disaster, the result of which becomes the motivation for Bunny’s murder. Yet this bacchanal and the ensuing disaster as well as the murder of Bunny are, for the group, opportunities to escape the cages of logic. As Henry tells Richard one day, months later, “[...[ my life for the most part has been very stale and colorless. Dead, I mean. The world has always been an empty place to me. I was incapable of enjoying even the simplest things. I felt dead in everything I did. But then it changed [t]hat night I killed a man”. Richard is horrified to realise that he knows exactly what Henry is talking about. Henry is the only one articulate enough to explain the complex emotions, such as this one, the others, including Richard, are afraid to admit. He claims that murder allowed him, for one brief moment, to “live without thinking”. The murder and the bacchanal allowed them to transcend reality for a moment.

Reality vs transcendence
The study of Greek classics and Julian, their teacher, embody the theme of transcendence. The students’ foray into the study of classical Greek and their neglect of other university subjects represents their pursuit of the otherworldy, which is not only supported by Julian, but actively encouraged. By immersing themselves into the world of Greek mythology and tragedy, they reinforce their exclusive community and sharply delineate the boundary separating them from the life experiences of average, ordinary university students.

The description of Julian is, by Richard’s own admission, unreliable. He is painted as someone who makes Richard feel like a much better person than he knows he is. Julian seems to have achieved the transcendent state the students yearn for—he does not mix with other academics; nor does he bother teaching or learning anything outside his specialty. He shows contempt for the reality of most people’s lives but is warm and caring to his 6 students. This relationship is an allegory for the relationships between the ivory towers of academic life and the rest of the ‘real world’. In contemporary Australia, at any rate, I think this divide is disappearing. I’m not so sure this is a good thing, considering what it’s being replaced with. But that is topic for another blog...: -)

After the murder, Patrick and his friends deal with the emotional repercussions in different ways. The consumption of alcohol and pills by some of them, however, take on monumental proportions. This is in keeping with the theme of the pursuit of an existence far removed from reality.

Why I liked this book
Don’t pick up this book unless you’re prepared to become quite obsessed for the next week or so. This is a book that called my name when I wasn’t reading it. I would be in the kitchen, chopping carrots, and my mind would wander to something Henry said, and my chopping would become frantic as I decided I needed to get back to the book immediately. It had me gripped from the beginning, and the more I read, the more I wanted to read. It also had a very dark and horrible mood that haunted me for a while....I had some bad dreams involving death while I was reading it.

The suspense in the first part of the book—up to Bunny’s murder—comes from not knowing how they come to the decision to kill him. The suspense afterwards comes from wondering if they are going to be found out. It also comes from all the secrets.... Patrick is on the outer of the group for a lot of the time, and there are a lot of things that he wonders about—we are privy only to his thoughts about what is going on—not what may actually be going on.

The link to the penguin classics page for this book  is here.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Week 5: Therese Raquin (1867) by Emile Zola

I first read Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin when I was in first-year uni (which, for anyone counting, was 9 years ago). It was a set-text in a subject where we studied what I now consider to be the “greatest hits of literature”.

(Personal sidebar: my lecturer was the first person who planted the idea of a PhD in my head, so it’s all his fault, really!).

In my mind, Therese Raquin is linked to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Although Flaubert was a realist writer and Zola a naturalist (distinctions I learned about in that same class, 9 years ago), there are definitely similarities in the plots.

In both novels, a young woman (who shares her name with the title of the novel) marries a man she doesn’t love for the financial stability he provides. Soon, she finds herself dissatisfied with her oafishly-depicted husband, a dissatisfaction which is compounded when she meets a more attractive man who promises her an escape from the her mundane life.

Like Madame Bovary, Therese Raquin was denounced upon publication as “pornographic”, “putrid” and “a quagmire of smile and blood”. Unlike Bovary, whose heroine never repents of her actions, Zola’s characters live out the consequences of their every action. Either way, these novels certainly do not deserve the reputation they received when they were initially published, even when changes in morals and norms are taken into account.

Certainly, Zola depicts with relish the thrills experienced by Therese and her lover Laurent when they are in the midst of their infidelities. Zola took great pains to accurately represent the emotional life of his characters. Therese, who before meeting Laurent, lived a quiet life of silent resentment, comes alive during their affair. Zola describes how

“Her unsated body threw itself frantically into pleasure; she was emerging from a dream, she was being born into passion”.
However, this novel is not an advertisement for adultery, as it was originally (mis)interpreted. Driven wild by their passions, Therese and Laurent commit a desperate, despicable act, which turns their lives upside-down and sets the rest of the novel on a course towards its dramatic conclusion.

What makes this novel so interesting to read is how the emotional life of each character is not just described in emotional terms and words, but their emotions are externalised through their actions, reactions and perceptions. Emotions permeate the very core of each character, as well soaking through the very nature of the text, until you feel as though you’ve been living with every moment of their happiness, sadness, guilt, grief and ultimately wrath.

For Zola, Therese Raquin was an experiment, he wanted to place his characters in situations of intense emotional anguish and see how they would react. He later went on to perform a similar, more extensive, literary experiment: writing a series of novels which traced the lineage of one (fictional) family over the course of numerous generations.

More than an example of early literary experimentation, Zola’s Therese Raquin is an amazingly evocative and deeply tragic novel, and well worth a read (or two, even if those readings are over 9 years apart!).

The Penguin Classics page for Therese Raquin is here.