Wednesday, December 30, 2009

309. Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford

History: This book was first published in 1949. Love in a Cold Climate is a companion volume to The Pursuit of Love. The time frame of Love in a Cold Climate is the same as The Pursuit of Love, but the focus is on a different set of characters. Fanny remains the fictional narrator. Don't Tell Alfred (1960) is a sequel to the novel giving further insight into the married life of Fanny and Alfred.
Plot: In Love in a Cold Climate, Fanny narrates the story of Polly, to whom Fanny is distantly related through her father's family. Lady Leopoldina [Polly] Montdore, is the only child of the supremely aristocratic and very rich Earl of Montdore and his wife, Sonia. She is depicted by Fanny, as an avaricious, greedy snob, but not without charm. Her thrusting personality, allied to her husband's impeccable social standing, riches and political influence makes her a formidable woman. Lady Montdore, unbeknown to Lord Montdore, takes advantage of her husband's reputation to forward her own career as a hostess and manipulator of her social circle. After 20 years of marriage and no children, the result is Polly. So beautiful and so perfect, the narrator, Fanny, adores Polly, as do her parents. Fanny receives an invitation to visit the Mondores at Hampton, their country house upon the family's return from India. Fanny is torn between her affection for Polly and her anxiety about the complex social issues involved in such a visit. Her reunion with Polly is successful in that the two young women rekindle their childhood affection and establish a mature friendship. Unlike Fanny's Radlett cousins who "Told everything", Polly reveals little of herself. Slightly older than Fanny, Polly has "come out" in India and as such a beautiful and socially important debutante, is expected to have a very successful Season in London. Polly however, is not very interested in society and the London Season. She tells Fanny that when she "came out " in India, she found the whole thing very boring. Love affairs, so common in India, do not interest Polly. Lady Montdore, hoping that Polly will make an important marriage, is exasperated by her daughter's apparent indifference to love and marriage. "Important" potential suitors acknowledge that Polly is very beautiful, but find her cold and aloof. The self contained Polly reveals to no-one that she has been in love with her uncle, "Boy" Dougdale [the husband of her paternal aunt, Lady Patricia] since she was 14. Fanny and her Radlett cousins have long suspected that the sexually ambiguous "Boy" has pedophile tendencies and he is a joke amongst Fanny's cousins for his inappropriate touches and furtive, "lecherous" behaviour towards young girls. Polly marries her widowed uncle, shortly after her aunt's death, causing a scandal in her social circle and distressing her parents deeply. It is also known in these circles that Boy has been Lady Montdore's lover for many years, unbeknown to Polly. Polly is excluded from her father's will upon her marriage and she and Boy ostracised from society. They move to Sicily and away from Fanny for several years.
Polly's place in the family is filled by the heir to Lord Mountdore's entailed fortune and title, Cedric Hampton. Born in Nova Scotia to a minor member of the Montdore family, Cedric has cast off his colonial origins and has used his exceptional good looks and personal charm to establish a place within the homosexual mieu of the European aristocracy. Cedric has lived a life of luxury as the lover of rich and aristocratic men. Currently out of favour in that quarter, Cedric accepts an invitation to visit the Montdores. His natural love of beauty, innate good taste and his careful use of flattery, enables Cedric to win the affections of Lord and Lady Montdore and many others. Cedric focuses his attentions upon Lady Montdore in particular and encourages her to update her wardrobe and general appearance and revive her interest in social matters, which has diminished since the "loss" of her lover and her daughter. Lady Montdore uses Cedric's popularity and charm to reestablish herself as a leading society hostess, to Cedric's advantage.
Fanny, as a regular visitor of the Montdore's, shares with her readers all of the activities of the Montdore household and Cedric soon becomes a close friend of Fanny. Polly, heavily pregnant, returns from Sicilly with Boy. The marriage has turned sour and Fanny notes that neither Polly nor Boy is in love any more. Polly is regularly visited by the elderly Duke of Paddington while pregnant, who gifts her her with luxurious flowers. Polly reconciles with her mother after bearing a child who dies shortly after its birth. Cedric and Boy meet and fall in love. While Polly recovers from the difficult birth, Cedric whisks Boy and Lady Montdore to France, leaving Polly free to be carried off by the elderly Duke. While this outcome shocks the conservative social circles in which they mix, Fanny takes a broader minded view, pleased to see people she loves each finding happiness in their own way.
Review: This book follows the tradition of humorously depicting upper-class life and times, though with far more racy scandals. The characters are funny. The main character, Fanny, is first known among society as the daughter of the 'Bolter', because her mother continually bounced from lover to lover. Cedric Montdore is the Brüno of 1940s England. Boy Dougdale, who has a keen taste for young girls, is also a keen embroiderer.
British names of the early 1900s are so good, always: Boy Dougdale, Mrs Chaddesley Corbett, Leopoldina Montdore.. But, as much as I was loving the book, the end was so disappointing. In contrast to the rest of the book, the end is rather abrupt, neat and coy, probably owing to the fact that homosexuality was not the most acceptable topic in mid-1900s England.
Opening Line: “I am obliged to begin this story with a brief account of the Hampton family, because it is necessary to emphasize the fact once and for all that the Hamptons were very grand as well as very rich.”
Closing Line: “The Boreleys think it simply terrible,” I said.”
Quotes: “I supposed, in my simplicity that when people liked me I ought to like them back as much, and that whatever they expected of me, especially if they were older people, I was morally bound to perform.”
Rating: Good.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

308. Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald

History: It was first published in Scribner's Magazine between January-April, 1934 in four issues. In 1932, Fitzgerald's wife Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was hospitalized for schizophrenia in Baltimore, Maryland. The author rented the "la Paix" estate in the suburb of Towson to work on this book, the story of the rise and fall of Dick Diver, a promising young psychoanalyst and his wife, Nicole, who is also one of his patients. It would be Fitzgerald's first novel in nine years, and the last that he would complete. While working on the book he several times ran out of cash and had to borrow from his editor and agent, and write short stories for commercial magazines. The early 1930s, when Fitzgerald was conceiving and working on the book, were certainly the darkest years of his life, and accordingly, the novel has its bleak elements.
Plot: Dick and Nicole Diver are a very glamorous couple who take a villa in the South of France and surround themselves with a circle of friends, mainly Americans. Also staying at the resort is Rosemary Hoyt, a young actress, with her mother. Rosemary gets sucked into the circle of the Divers, and falls in love with Dick and also becomes adopted as a close friend by Nicole. Dick first toys with the idea of an affair with Rosemary at this point, which he finally acts upon years later.
However, Rosemary senses something is wrong with the couple, which is brought to light when one of the guests at a party reports having seen something strange in the bathroom. Tommy Barban, another guest, comes loyally to the defense of the Divers. The action involves various other friends, including the Norths, where a frequent occurrence is the drunken behavior of Abe North. The story becomes complicated when an unnamed man is murdered and ends up in Rosemary's bed, in a situation almost of high farce. This nearly compromises the situation with Rosemary and Dick.
Once into the book, the history of the Divers emerges. Dick Diver was a doctor and psychoanalyst and had taken on a complicated case of neuroses. This was Nicole, whose complicated, incestuous relationship with her father is suggested as the cause of breakdown. As she becomes infatuated with Dick, Dick is almost driven to marry her as part of the cure. But strong objections are raised, as Nicole is an heiress and her sister thinks Dick is marrying her for her money. However they do marry, and Nicole’s money pays for Dick's partnership in a Swiss clinic and for their extravagant lifestyle. They have a good marriage, living in France until Dick falls in love with Rosemary. They have rendevous until Dick tells her he cannot be with her because of Nicole’s fragile mental condition, and her suspicion and jealousy could cause her to have another breakdown. Dick gradually develops a drinking problem. He gets into fights and trouble with the police in various incidents and is bought out of the clinic by his partner. The opening episode almost marks the cross over point whereby Dick becomes the weaker partner, progressively failing in what he attempts while Nicole becomes stronger. The book is now told in Nicole’s point of view. Dick's behaviour becomes embarrassing as he mishandles situations with the children and friends. Eventually Nicole has an affair with Tommy Barban, and divorces Dick to marry him. Nicole survives, while Dick drifts into ever diminishing circumstances. The underlying theme is then how one person has become strong by destroying another—a point emphasized cynically by Nicole's sister, who having seen Dick originally as the parasite, finally remarks that "That was what he was educated for".
Review: We're tempted to look at Tender as the Night as a thinly-veiled gloss on the autobiographical dirt of the Fitzgerald marriage. But, Tender is the Night tries to be more than just the simple story of the characters: much is made here about class and its pretensions (Mary North and Nicole Diver's sister both defer outrageously to titles and ceremony, and in one fairly good sequence Dick Diver intimidates a policeman by asserting that the woman he's just arrested is related to America's "Lord Henry Ford"), and much is equally made about the World War and its aftermath, particularly about Dick Diver's non-role in the fighting.
Additionally, it's probably the case that Fitzgerald wants to make some point about the relationship of America to the Old World: virtually the entire book takes place overseas, from Nice to Zurich to Rome, and the most charged scenes all involve clashes between the befuddled, braggart Americans and the codified restraint (or lack thereof) of the Europeans.
Opening Line: “On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half-way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-coloured hotel.”
Closing Line: “Perhaps, so she like to think, his career was biding its time, again like Grant’s in Galena: his latest note was post-marked from Hornell, New York, which is some distance from Geneva and a very small town; in any case he is almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another.”
Quotes: "she only cherishes her illness as an instrument of power."
"So delicately balanced was she between an old foothold that had always guaranteed her security, and the imminence of a leap from which she might alight changed in the very chemistry of blood and muscle, that she did not dare bring the matter into the true forefront of consciousness."
Rating: Good

307. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – Winifred Watson

History: This book was written in 1935.
Plot: Poor timid Miss Pettigrew who has spent a blameless and latterly miserable 40 years being respectable and doing her duty as befits the position of a gentlewoman. Forced to earn her living as a rather under qualified governess and facing unemployment at the beginning of the story her situation.. Miss Pettigrew is hungry, homeless and entirely alone in the world. By mistake, she is sent to the home of Miss LaFosse, in order to be a governess. Upon entering the house, she immediately becomes friends with Miss LaFosse, and helps her with some man troubles. Then they have some drinks, and a friend comes over, and Miss Pettigrew helps her with her man troubles. Then they get dressed up and go out to a club, and Miss Pettigrew meets a man named Joe who is attracted to her. In the end, Miss Pettigrew helps Miss La Fosse become engaged to the man that will be the best to her, and also becomes her housekeeper, since she has no children.
Review: I wish I could solve my friends' problems as easily or that on the few occasions when I have succeeded, I would have reaped such glorious rewards. It was entertaining in a Seinfeld episode sort of way to watch Miss Pettigrew having her wicked fun while rescuing the flighty and indecisive Miss LaFosse from disastrous men.
Winifred Watson could be the grandmother of chick lit. Once in a while even this grandmother can be entertained reading about a woman who is having a harder time than I ever did and coming out of it better than I ever have.
Opening Line: “Miss Pettigrew pushed open the door of the employment agency and went in as the clock struck a quarter past nine.”
Closing Line: “I think,” said Miss Pettigrew. “I have a beau at last.”
Quotes: 'It's no use, we women just can't help ourselves. When it comes to love we're born adventurers.'
Rating: Okay.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

306. Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll

History: This book was written in 1871 and is a sequel to Alice in Wonderland.
Plot: Alice is playing with her kittens—a black and a white kitten, the offspring of Dinah, Alice's cat in the first book—when she ponders what the world is like on the other side of a mirror (the reflected scene displayed on its surface), and to her surprise, is able to pass through to experience the alternate world. There, she discovers a book with looking-glass poetry, "Jabberwocky", which she can read only by holding it up to a mirror. Upon leaving the house, she enters a garden, where the flowers speak to her and mistake her for a flower. There, Alice also meets the Red Queen, who offers a throne to Alice if she moves to the eighth rank in a chess match. Alice is placed as the White Queen's pawn, and begins the game by taking a train to the fourth rank, acting on the rule that pawns in chess can move two spaces on their first move.
She then meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee, whom she knows from the famous nursery rhyme. After reciting to her the long poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter," the two proceed to act out the events of their own poem. Alice continues on to meet the White Queen, who is very absent-minded and later transforms into a sheep in a shop, then they find themselves on a small boat.
The following chapter details her meeting with Humpty Dumpty, who explains to her the meaning of "Jabberwocky," before his inevitable fall from the wall. This is followed by an encounter with the Lion and the Unicorn, who again proceed to act out a nursery rhyme. She is then rescued from the Red Knight by the White Knight. He repeatedly falls off his horse, and recites a poem of his own composition to her.
At this point, Alice reaches the eighth rank and becomes a queen, and by capturing the Red Queen, puts the Red King (who has remained stationary throughout the book) into checkmate. She then awakes from her dream, holding the black kitten, whom she believes to have been the Red Queen, the White kitten being the White Queen.
Review: Whereas the first book has the deck of cards as a theme, this book is based on a game of chess, played on a giant chessboard with fields for squares. Scholars describe this book as "literary nonsense." That means it doesn't have to make sense, and it's perfectly okay to enjoy the poems and the book as they'd seem to a child - pretentious and silly.
Opening Line: “One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it – it was the black kitten’s fault entirely.”
Closing Line: “Which do you think it was?”
Quotes: “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gamble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”
Rating: Okay.

305. The Red Queen – Margaret Drabble

History: This book was published in 2004.
Plot: In the prologue, Drabble tells of the court memoirs of a Korean princess written over 200 years ago, and this novel is based on those writings. The Princess tells her story for the first half of this novel. Introduced to the court when she is a child, she is selected to be one of three candidates for marriage to the Crown Prince. When she is chosen to be his bride, she is required to abandon her own family for life in the court, marrying the prince at ten and consummating the marriage at fifteen. We hear her voice as she relates the sad changes her husband undergoes after their marriage, as he gradually becomes more and more fearful, and eventually insane, committing atrocities, including murder, and going unpunished, protected by the court itself. She was unable to stop his rampages, she felt were caused by the over bearing father, and lack of his attention. Describing her relationships with the Three Queenly Majesties (her mother-in-law, the Dowager Queen, and even the king's first wife), her training to be queen, the birth of her children and their fates, and her life in the claustrophobic court, she breathes life into her descriptions of her unusual existence.
At this point in the novel, time fast-forwards to Babs Halliwell, a contemporary scholar on a Hanbury Foundation Fellowship in Oxford, about to go to Korea to deliver a paper at a conference on globalization. Drabble creates obvious parallels between the life of the Princess and that of Babs Halliwell from the outset of Part II. Halliwell boards the plane for Korea, she brings with her a copy of the Princess's memoirs and when she reads it in flight, she is consumed by the memoir. At the conference, she becomes involved with the “star” of the conference, world famous Jan von Jost. She lets him read the memoirs, and he too becomes entranced with them. They visit the historic places of Korea together, along with Dr. Oo, who becomes their guide to Korea. Jan is married to a Spanish/Swedish woman who desperately wants to adopt a Chinese baby, and he puts a one thousand dollar deposit down on a Chinese girl, choosing her because she kept eye contact with him.
After their final night together, Dr. Halliwell awakens to find Jan going into respiratory arrest in the bed, and he dies. Heartbroken, she returns back to England, trying to resume her life, still obsessed with the memoirs, and the memory of her time with Jan. She eventually calls his widow, and together they adopt the Chinese baby, and share parenting with her.
At the end of the novel, Dr. Halliwell and her daughter Chen Jianyi meet Margaret Drabble, the novelist who will bring the Red Queen’s memoirs to the public.
Review: The first part, rewriting the memoir of a historical figure known (in the most recent of several translations) as Lady Hyegyong, is a stark and brutal drama set in the court of imperial Korea. The second is a genial contemporary portrait of Dr. Babs Halliwell, a person of swoony compulsions, struggling intellect and half-guilty but reasonably efficient ambition. I liked the comparison between historical and present, and the interweaving of the ghost like Lady Hyegyong within the heroines actions. What I didn’t like was the affair with Jan, because it was a little unbelievable, and was unnecessary, I thought. And I also didn’t like the significance given to the red feminine clothing, too superficial for such a wonderful historic portrayal of court life. And Babs was given such wonderful attributes, I just think Drabble may have been stretching it, taking herself a bit too seriously. But overall it was very entertaining to read.
Opening Line: “When I was a little child, I pined for a red silk skirt.”
Closing Line: “She hides the little red bundle safely in the back of the drawer.”
Quotes: “One of her many astral bodies is travelling restlessly, like a shuttle, apologetic, ashamed, backward and forward along an airport highway, clutching a suitcase and smelling of sweat and dirt and pressurized bodily gases.”
Rating: Very Good.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

304. The Garden Party – Katherine Mansfield

History: It was first published in the Saturday Westminster Gazette on 4 February 1922, then in the Weekly Westminster Gazette on 18 February 1922. It later appeared in The Garden Party and Other Stories. Katherine Mansfield was a short story writer, mainly writing about New Zealand, where she was born. The names Meg, Jose and Laurie may be related to Louisa May Alcott's 1868 Little Women.
Plot: The Sheridans are getting ready for a garden party. Laura is supposed to be in charge, but the workers appear to know better, and Mrs Sheridan has ordered lilies to be delivered for the party without her approval. Miss Jose tests the piano, and then sings a song in case she is asked to do so again later, the furniture is moved round, and then they learn that a poor neighbor, Mr Scott, who lives in a cottage near their main street has died. While Laura believes the party should be called off, neither Jose nor her mother agree. The party is a success, and later Mrs Sheridan decides it would be good of them to bring a basket full of leftovers to the Scotts' house. She summons Laura to do so. The latter is let into the poor neighbors' house by Mrs Scott's sister, then sees the matron herself and her late husband's corpse. The sight of his dead body brings her to tears, and she runs off back to her own house, where she sobs into Laurie's arms.
Review: Mansfield’s central concern here is with how we as human beings cope with and steel ourselves against the prospect of death and loss, and the ever present reality that everything that we care about, that we attach ourselves to in order to give life meaning, must ultimately vanish and die.
Opening Line: “And after all the weather was ideal.
Closing Line: "Isn't it, darling?" said Laurie.”
Quotes: “As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing."
Rating: Okay

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

303. Them – Joyce Carol Oates

History: Published in 1969, this book won the National Book Award in 1970.
Plot: Them explores the complex struggles of American life through three down-on-their-luck characters—Loretta, Maureen and Jules—who are attempting to reach normality and the American dream through marriage and money.
The story begins with Loretta Botsford and her brother Brock as teenagers, living in a "fair-sized city on a midwestern canal", Detroit, in the 1930s. Loretta falls in love with Bernie Malin, and sleeps with him. Later in the night, Brock shoots Bernie in the head, and Bernie dies suddenly. Loretta runs away, to her friend Rita's place. Rita lends her some clothes and she wanders off. She meets Howard Wendall, an older cop to whom she confesses the death of Bernie Malin. They later marry, and she bears her son Jules (who was hinted to be Bernie Malin's son). Loretta and Howard live close to Mama and Papa Wendall's house, on the south side of town. Soon after the birth of Jules, Howard is busted for taking money from prostitutes. The Wendalls move into the country house of Howard's Uncle Fritz, the house keeper, and Connie Wendall, Loretta's sister-in-law. Loretta bore her daughters Maureen, and Betty in that country house.
When World War II breaks out, Howard leaves his family to fight in Europe. Meanwhile, Jules grows up to be a fast, energetic child who hangs around older children, and is never still. (Maureen gets her way by being the quiet, shy, delicate girl, while Betty is always annoying) There were two scenes where Jules as a child was fascinated by fire; when he burns down a deserted barn and when a plane crashes in Detroit.
Jules, Maureen and Betty are all sent to a Catholic school in Detroit, after Loretta decided to move there to be near her friend Rita. Jules takes on the role of the "bad boy" who hangs out with kids who steal from stores and smoke at school. Howard is no longer in the picture, and Loretta is struggling with poverty, and failing as a parent. Jules leaves home, Loretta has a boyfriend Furlong, and becomes pregnant. Betty is developing into a criminal and sociopath.
The book then focuses on Maureen, a teenager now. She is quiet, and well behaved. She cooks and cleans for the family while Loretta apparently is doing nothing. She does her homework, she cares about her future, she wants to leave. To do this she needs money, so she begins to sleep with men to get money. She does this for a couple of years, until she is caught by Furlong, who beats her up. Maureen then goes into a psychotic state, and spends the next year in bed. Loretta takes care of her, and later Maureen says she has very little recollection of that year.
Jules meanwhile, meets and falls in love with Nadine, a rich girl. They leave Detroit and travel to Texas. Jules gets sick, and Nadine leaves him. He eventually comes back to Detroit. Maureen is getting herself back together, attending college. It is here when she meets the author, and tells her history. She is desperate to get married, and has her sights set on one of her teachers at school, a happily married man with three kids. It isn’t clear if they do end up together.
Nadine and Jules happen to meet at a restaurant, and take up with each other again. They spend a romantic and passionate afternoon together, take a walk, and Nadine pulls out a gun and shoots Jules in the chest, then shoots herself. Jules doesn’t die, however, but after this he seems to have cracked, more violent towards women, his life without purpose.
The book ends with the riots in Detroit, and Jules becomes involved with a group with Communistic insinuations, moves to California. Maureen has left the family, married and pregnant, probably to the teacher, it doesn’t say. Loretta is displaced by the riots, staying in a shelter, and sees Jules on TV, and cries because she thinks he’s turned into a murderer.
Review: I think Oates is a wonderful prolific writer, but this book was depressing. It was repetitive and hammered in certain scenes, but yet skipped over years and introduced characters that had no substance. The behavior is never understood. The reality of the situation creeps up on its members little by little, until years later one descendent seems to know every secret, and exhibits the same tendencies as previous generations, without their mistakes ever being discussed in the open. Families are a very complex affair, and Oates understands that implicitly. Jules character is the most complex. He is both good and bad, evil and sensitive, knowing and absolutely clueless. Oates makes the point that he is not just a product of his times, but of his family, of all the things that have happened before him that he knows or doesn't know. From the beginning of the story, the characters never resolve their actions, Brock comes back after 30 years, after killing Loretta’s boyfriend, no clue to why he did it. It becomes confusing for the reader.
Opening Line: “One warm evening in August 1937 a girl in love stood before a mirror.”
Closing Line: “He took his sister’s hand and kissed it and said good-by, making an ironic, affectionate bow over her with his head: it was the Jules she had always loved, and now she loved him for going away, saying good-by, leaving her forever.”
Quotes: “Sometimes when she was alone, walking along the street, she was taken by surprise seeing her reflection in a store window, a remote, ghostly reflection she never quite expected or recognized; it did not really seem herself.”
“Literature gives form to life.”
Rating: Good but depressing.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

302. Malloy – Samuel Beckett

History: It was written in Paris, along with the other two books (Malone Dies and The Unnamable) of 'The Trilogy', between 1946 and 1950. The novel is set in an indeterminate place, most often identified with the Ireland of Beckett's birth.
Plot: The plot, what little there is of it, is revealed in the course of the two interior monologues that make up the book. The first monologue is split into two paragraphs. The first paragraph is less than a page long, the second paragraph lasts for over eighty pages.
The first is by a former vagrant named Molloy. He’s an extremely unreliable narrator, prone to forgetting, at various times: his own name; his mother’s name; the town he lives in; and just about everything else that ‘happens’ in this narrative. He is now living "in [his] mother's room" and writing to "speak of the things that are left, say [his] goodbyes, finish dying." He describes a journey he had taken some time earlier, before he came there, to find his mother. He spends much of it on his bicycle, gets arrested for resting on it in a way that is considered lewd, but is unceremoniously releasedMolloy gets around by way of a bicycle, across which he rests his crutches. In one amusing incident, he is accosted by the local constabulary, demanding to see his papers. Molloy replies that the only papers he is in the habit of keeping are the ones he uses to wipe himself after he takes a shit. Not that he wipes himself all the time, mind you. From town to anonymous town and across anonymous countryside, he encounters a succession of bizarre characters: an elderly man with a stick; a policeman; a charity worker; a woman whose dog he kills running over it with a bike (her name is never completely determined: "a Mrs Loy... or Lousse, I forget, Christian name something like Sophie"), and one whom he falls in love with ("Ruth" or maybe "Edith"); He abandons his bicycle (which he will not call "bike"), walks in no certain direction, meeting "a young old man"; a charcoal-burner living in the woods, whom he murders with a hard blow to the head; and finally a character who takes him in, to the room.
The second is by a private detective by the name of Jacques Moran, who is given the task by his boss, the mysterious Youdi, of tracking down Molloy. He sets out, taking his recalcitrant son, also named Jacques, with him. They wander across the countryside, increasingly bogged down by the weather, decreasing supplies of food and Moran's suddenly failing body. He sends his son to purchase a bicycle and while his son is gone, Moran encounters a strange man who appears before him. Moran murders him (in manner comparable to Molloy's), and then hides his body in the forest. Eventually, the son disappears, and he struggles home. At this point in the work, Moran begins to pose several odd theological questions, which make him appear to be going mad. Having returned to his home, now in a state of shambles and disuse, Moran switches to discussing his present state. He has begun to use crutches, just as Molloy begins the novel with. Also a voice, which has appeared intermittently throughout his part of the text, has begun to significantly inform his actions. The novel ends with Moran delineating how the beginning of his report was crafted. He reveals that the first words of the section were told to him by this nascent voice, which instructed him to sit down and begin writing.
Moran forsakes reality, beginning to descend into the command of this "voice" which may in fact mark the true creation of Molloy.
Due to the succession of the book from the first part to the second the reader is led to believe that time is passing in a similar fashion, however some readers believe that the second part is the prequel to the first.
Review: Beckett’s ‘novels’ are about as far away from the conventions of characterisation and narrative as you can get. There is no real plot to the story. The two never meet like word and meaning never quite meet. They are separated which, in turn, engenders multiple meanings, diversity. Is this the mind-body separation (Molloy being the body and Moran the mind)? I personally think both of them are the same character, Malloy as a later manifestation after brain deterioration of Moran. In his movement towards Molloy, Moran gradually turns into a being suffering and continually perishing like the object of his search. The two narratives gradually move towards each other, always stopping short of totally merging into each other. I think Moran must be the worst father in literary history, however.
Opening Line: “I am in my mother’s room.”
Closing Line: “It was not raining.”
Quotes: “I tried to pull myself together. In vain, I should have known.”
Rating: Very Good.

Monday, December 14, 2009

301. A Virgin in the Garden – A.S. Byatt

History: Published in 1978, it is the first of the trilogy about Fredrica Potter.
Plot: The book centers around the Potter family, mainly Fredrica Potter, her sister Stephanie, and brother Marcus and their interactions with intellectuals working in the school their hot tempered father taught at. Both Fredrica and Stephanie are in love with Alexander, a 50 ish handsome playwright, who has written a novel about Queen Elizabeth. Marcus is a semi autistic genious 14 yr old troubled boy. Lucas Simmons, his science teacher befriends him in a questionable way, and eventually falls in love with this teenager. Alexander is having an affair with Jenny, a married woman with a baby. Stephanie begins seeing Daniel, the minister of the school church, who is madly in love with her, and they eventually get married. A baby is expected, then the story of Stephanie is droned out to Fredrica, who is starring in Alexander’s play and they develop a weird sort of flirtation. Alexander does not want her because of her age, she is only 18. In the end, Lucas Simmons goes mad because of his tormented feelings about Marcus; Marcus in turn goes mad and ends up in a semi catatonic state, living with Daniel and Stephanie, and Fredrica goes off with her friend Wilkie and loses her virginity to him instead of Alexander, who is stood up and leaves town.
Review: A densely written novel that centers around a quirky English family during the time of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. The book deals with lives of intellectuals and artists, the occult and spiritual, suffocating atmosphere of an academic village, gender dynamics and familial relationships. Byatt's characters rattle off quotes and allusions in just about every scene, but she rescues them from being mere voices of ideas by exposing their human weakness and imperfection. The portrait of the core family, besieged with problems, is utterly convincing. But she does this slowly, and the first of this three-part novel, filled with considerable background information, plods with lethargy. The ponderous pace is compounded by Byatt's habit of depicting scenes in minute details. Her power of observation is admirable, but the minutiae ultimately obscure the dramatic thread. Something must also be said about the novel's point of view: the change of focus character from chapter to chapter works well, but when this change occurs within a chapter, and often within a same paragraph, the effect can be disorienting. Byatt beautifully re-creates the half-hopeful, half-cynical atmosphere of those times. She gives us her characteristic juxtaposition of things cerebral and things visceral, obsession with Spencer, Racine, Ovid and sex. I loved her dry and the most unromantic vocabulary used for the love making scenes; probing, poking, and uneventful for the woman.
Opening Line: “She had invited Alexander, whether on the spur of the moment or with malice of forethought he did not know , to come and hear Flora Robeson do Queen Elizabeth at the National Portrait Gallery.”
Closing Line: “That was not an end, but since it went on for a considerable time, it was as good as a place to stop, as any.”
Quotes: “What makes us men is that we can think logically. What makes us human is that we sometimes choose not to.”
Rating: Good

Sunday, December 13, 2009

300. The Unfortunate Traveller – Thomas Nashe

History: Written in 1594, it is a picaresque novel set during the reign of Henry VIII of England.
Plot: The narrator, Jack Wilton, describes his adventures as a page during the wars against the French, and his subsequent travels in Italy as page to the Earl of Surrey. In his travels, Jack witnesses numerous atrocities, including battlefields, plague, and rape: at one point he is nearly hanged, and at another, he is on the point of being cut up in a live anatomy demonstration. Jack's narrative climaxes by describing the brutal revenge taken by one Italian on another, who forces him to pray to the devil and then shoots him in the throat: Jack himself escapes and returns to England.
Review: This is a pretty interesting book. It does have one major problem however, it is written in 16th century English, so it hath been writteneth in thee's and thou's. But if thou hast a reasonable command of the language thou shouldst have gotten into its own gear by about the 20th page.
Opening Line: Abovt that time that the terror of the world, and feauer quartan of the French, Henrie the eight, (the onely true subiect of Chronicles) aduanced his standard against the two hundred and fiftie towers of Turney and Turwin, and had the Empereur and all the nobility of Flanders, Holland, and Brabant as mercenarie attendants on his fulsailed fortune, I Jacke Wilton (a Gentleman at lest) was a certaine kinde of an appendix or page, belonging or appertaining in or vnto the confines of the English court, where what my credit was, a number of my creditors that I coosned can testifie, Cælum petimus stultitia, which of vs all is not a sinner.
Closing Line: “Otherwise I will sweare vpon an English Chronicle, neuer to bee outlandish Chronicler more while I liue. Farewell as manie as wish me well. _Iune_ 27. 1593.
Quotes: Prostrate as holy groutid He worship thee,
Our Ladies chappell henceforth be thou nanid.
Heere first loues Queene put on mortalitie,
And with her beautie all the world inflamed.
"Italy the paradice of the earth, and the Epicures heauen, how doth
it forme our yong master? It makes him to kisse his hand like an ape,
cringe his neck like a starueling, and play at hey passe repasse come
aloft when hee salutes a man."
Rating: Unable to read olde Englishe.

299. The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien

History: Published in 1990. The book is a collection of stories about the Vietnam war. While apparently based on some of O'Brien's own experiences, the title page refers to the book as "a work of fiction." In the short story "Good Form", the narrator makes a distinction between "story truth" and "happening truth." O'Brien feels that the idea of creating a story that is technically false yet truthfully portrays war, as opposed to just stating the facts and creating no emotion in the reader, is the correct way to clear his conscience and tell the story of thousands of soldiers who were forever silenced by society.
Plot: This book depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and of course, the character Tim O'Brien who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three. They battle the enemy (or maybe more the idea of the enemy), and occasionally each other. In their relationships we see their isolation and loneliness, their rage and fear. They miss their families, their girlfriends and buddies; they miss the lives they left back home. Yet they find sympathy and kindness for strangers (the old man who leads them unscathed through the mine field, the girl who grieves while she dances), and love for each other, because in Vietnam they are the only family they have. We hear the voices of the men and build images upon their dialogue. The way they tell stories about others, we hear them telling stories about themselves.
Review: One of the first questions people ask about The Things They Carried is this: is it a novel, or a collection of short stories? The title page refers to the book simply as "a work of fiction," defying the conscientious reader's need to categorize this masterpiece. It is both: a collection of interrelated short pieces which ultimately reads with the dramatic force and tension of a novel. Yet each one of the 22 short pieces is written with such care, emotional content, and prosaic precision that it could stand on its own. While the book is fiction, O'Brien sometimes pulls from his own experiences and even inserts himself as a character in the novel. Because of this, it was difficult sometimes to tell the difference between what was real and what wasn't. I think that O'Brien's point is that it doesn't matter. If these things didn't happen to him, they probably happened to someone during this war. He acknowledges his blurred lines between reality and fiction in his chapter, "Good Form." Other than the fact that he was a soldier in Vietnam, he notes "Almost everything else is invented."
Opening Line: “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha.”
Closing Line: “I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, doing leaps and spins, and when I take high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim, trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.”
Quotes: “They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness.”
Rating: Very Good.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

298. The House of the Borderland – William Hope Hodgson

History: This book was published in 1908. The book is a milestone that signals the leaving of the realistic nature of supernatural fiction of the late 19th century. Hodgson follows out of the ghost story and the gothic to create a newer cosmic horror
Plot: Two good friends go off to a remote village in rural Ireland. The two men - Mr. Tonnison and Mr. Berreggnog - soon discover that the people in the village are untalkative and secretive, but willing to help them on their way. They soon discover why this is. On the third day of their trip they travel in the opposite direction to the one that they had been travelling insofar, and stumble upon a large chasm with what appears to be the ruins of a very strangely shaped house in the middle of it. As they explore the house, they discover within a mouldering journal that describes the last days of the man who owned this house before it was destroyed. They go back to the camp and begin to read the strange tale of the man.
The manuscript begins with a discussion of how the man came to own the house and how he lives his daily life with his sister and his faithful dog Pepper. He confides that he is starting the diary as it will contain a record of all the horrors that he had experienced in the house. He begins describing a vision he sees of the vast plain of the demons, and of the demons he sees there and the discovery that a house exactly like his exists in the exact center of this dreaded plain. Along the way, he sees the horrible swine things that would come to haunt him in the future.
After this vision of the "arena" as he calls it, he becomes fascinated with the pit adjacent to his house, and begins to explore it. While exploring, he is attacked by the half-man, half-pig creatures that he names "the swine-things". The struggle with these creatures lasts for several nights of greater and greater ferocity, yet in the end, the man had killed several of the swine things, and apparently had driven them off.
A short time after his encounters with the swine-things, the man is sitting in his study, contemplating what was wrong, when he notices that day and night had begun to speed up, each day lasting shorter and shorter periods of time until the point where there was no definition between day and night any longer, just a never-ending dusk. As he watches, the world slowly grinds to a halt as the sun goes out after several million millennia. Once the world ends, the man winds up floating through space, watching the colossal onslaught of the Dark Sun slowly swallow up the solar system. In the midst of this the luminous souls of angelic or human creatures begin to drift past him, including the one woman the man ever loved. He eventually wakes up, and discovers that it was all a dream, until he finds Pepper had died and decomposed into dust in the time he had been on his spectral journey. Other than this, life is normal.
As he reels from the death of his beloved dog, the man is beset by another evil, a presumably large and malicious beast that is never seen, only heard as a padding in the yard. This creature wounds the new dog and infects it with some sort of luminous disease. The man shoots the increasingly suffering dog but not before becoming infected himself. The manuscript finishes with the man locked in his study as the creature is breaking down the door of his study.
The conclusion sees Tonnison and Berreggnog looking for information on the man and his circumstances, but finding out very little. They leave Kraighten and never return.
Review: The House on the Borderland is about mood, about achieving an effect of dread in the contemplation of the unexplained and the vastly unknowable. It drips with poetic passages and vivid, imagistic prose and, even if Hodgson is sometimes a bit over-zealous in administering the comma, he writes with clarity and a strong descriptive sense that balances ornateness of prose with a purposeful narrative drive. It just didn’t make sense. All fantasy novels that work, do so because it adds up, and this did not. In addition, the readers are left with a mystery as well. Hanging.
Opening Line: “And the noise of the water rises upward, and blends--in my sleep--with other and lower noises; while, over all, hangs the eternal shroud of spray.”
Closing Line: “Right away in the west of Ireland lies a tiny hamlet called Kraighten.”
Quotes: "Suddenly, although there is no noise, I am awake--wide awake. I am acutely conscious of the nearness of some mystery, of some overwhelming
Presence. The very air seems pregnant with terror. I sit huddled, and just listen, intently. Still, there is no sound. Nature, herself, seems dead. Then, the ppressive stillness is broken by a little eldritch scream of wind, that sweeps 'round the house, and dies away, remotely."
Rating: Awful.

297. Billy Budd, Foretopman – Herman Melville

History: This novella was begun around 1886 by American author Herman Melville, left unfinished at his death in 1891 and not published until 1924. The story may have been based on events onboard USS Somers, an American naval vessel; one of the defendants in the later investigation was a distant relative of Melville.
Plot: The plot follows Billy Budd, a seaman impressed into service aboard the HMS Bellipotent in the year 1797, when the Royal Navy was reeling from two major mutinies and was threatened by the Revolutionary French Republic's military ambitions. Billy, an orphaned illegitimate child suffused with innocence, openness and natural charisma, is adored by the crew, but for unexplained reasons arouses the antagonism of the ship's Master-at-Arms, John Claggart, who falsely accuses Billy of conspiracy to mutiny. When Claggart brings his charges to the Captain, the Hon. Edward Fairfax "Starry" Vere, Vere summons both Claggart and Billy to his cabin for a private confrontation. When, in Billy's and Vere's presence, Claggart makes his false charges, Billy is unable to find the words to respond, due to a speech impediment. Unable to express himself verbally, he strikes and accidentally kills Claggart.
Vere, an eminently thoughtful man then convenes a drumhead court-martial. He acts as convening authority, prosecutor, defense counsel and sole witness (except for Billy himself). He then intervenes in the deliberations of the court-martial panel to argue them into convicting Billy, despite their and his belief in Billy's innocence before God. Vere claims to be following the letter of the Mutiny Act and the Articles of War, but recent scholarship suggests otherwise.
At his insistence, the court-martial convicts Billy; Vere argues that any appearance of weakness in the officers and failure to enforce discipline could stir the already-turbulent waters of mutiny throughout the British fleet. Condemned to be hanged from the ship's yardarm at dawn the morning after the killing, Billy's final words are, "God bless Captain Vere!", which is then repeated by the gathered crew in a "resonant and sympathetic echo.
The novel closes with three chapters that cloak the story with further ambiguity.
Review: A story ultimately about good and evil, Billy Budd has often been interpreted allegorically, with Billy interpreted typologically as Christ or the Biblical Adam, with Claggart (compared to a snake several times in the text) figured as Evil. Part of Claggart's hatred comes because of Billy's goodness rather than in spite of it.
Claggart is also thought of as the Biblical Judas. The act of turning an innocent man in to the authorities and the allusion of the priest kissing Billy on the cheek before he dies, just as Judas kisses Jesus on the cheek when he was betrayed, are cited in support of this reading. Vere is often associated with Pontius Pilate. This theory stems mainly from the characteristics attributed to each man. Billy is innocent, often compared to a barbarian or a child; while Claggart is a representation of evil with a "depravity according to nature," a phrase Melville borrows from Plato. Vere, without a doubt the most conflicted character in the novel, is torn between his compassion for the "Handsome Sailor" and his martial adherence to his own authority. I am also convinced the story is questioning the purpose of death as punishment, the corporal law imposed on those who are inherently good.
Opening Line: “In the time before steamships, or then more frequently than now, a stroller along the docks of any considerable seaport would occasionally have his attention arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war’s men or merchant-sailors in holiday attire ashore on liberty.”
Closing Line: “I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.”
Quotes: “Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins?”
“God Bless Captain Vere.”
Rating: Good.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

296. Another World - Pat Barker

History: This book was published in 1999.
Plot: Geordie, a WWI veteran, is over 100, but is hanging on to life with the same stubbornness and iconoclasm that have seen him through the entire 20th century. His grandson, Nick, living in grim, contemporary Newcastle-on-Tyne, is struggling with his own life as he monitors Geordie's last days. Nick's teenage daughter from a previous marriage, Miranda, has come to stay; his new wife, Fran, with her own kid, Gareth, an emotionally disturbed games freak , has two-year-old Jasper to contend with and another baby on the way. Now it seems that their new house may be haunted by the kind of malign domestic spirit at large among Nick's little family. The house apparently was occupied by a well known family in which the small boy was murdered, and the two older siblings were tried for the murder and found not guilty. The occasional appearance of the girl keeps the novel suspenseful.
Geordie, too, has his own ghosts - a hideous war memory, long buried, that must be exorcised before he can die in peace. He tells his friend Helen, who tapes him, that he killed his brother in the war, because he had a fatal wound and was suffering, screaming. This is something he has had to live with his entire life, and dies the day after he told this to Helen. vb c
Review: The story is a good one, but the ending left me disappointed. The most uninteresting part for me was the death of his grandfather, and the most interesting part were the ghost family, which was left undone. It has an immediacy that strikes you from the very beginning. You’re introduced to characters so intimately that you feel you are halfway through the book already. The novel focusses on one family’s ability to hold themselves together. They’re each fighting social trauma in some way or other be it broken relationships, parental issues, bullying or memories of 80 years ago. And, threaded throughout this is the haunting history of a family who lived in their house 100 years before them.
Opening Line: "Cars queue bumper to bumper, edge forward, stop, edge forward again."
Closing Line: "But now, looking round this churchyard, at the gently decaying stones that line the path, he sees that there’s wisdom too in this: to let the innocent and the guilty, the murderers and the victims, lie together beneath their half-erased names, side by side, under the obliterating grass."
Quotes: "The past never threatens anything as simple, or as avoidable, as repetition. "
Rating: Good.

295. On the Road - Jack Kerouac

History: This book was written in April 1951, and published in 1957. A popular legend that On the Road was written in three weeks while Kerouac lived with Joan Haverty, his second wife, at 454 West 20th Street in Manhattan, New York, is apocryphal. It took nine years for the final copy to be published. Kerouac typed the manuscript on what he called "the scroll":[3] a continuous, one hundred and twenty-foot scroll of tracing paper sheets that he cut to size and taped together. The roll was typed single-spaced, without margins or paragraph breaks. Contrary to rumor, Kerouac said he used no stimulants during the brief but productive writing session, other than coffee. Viking Presss published On the Road: The Original Scroll in 2007. "The scroll" still exists — it was bought in 2001, by Jim Irsay (Indianapolis Colts football team owner), for $2.4 million, and is available for public viewing. This review is from the original scroll, released in 2007, not the original published book.
Plot: The book begins by introducing the catalyst for most of the adventures of the story: Neal Cassady. The narrator, Kerouac, is fascinated with the idea of humanity, and particularly his eclectic group of friends, jazz, the landscapes of the United States, and women.
Soon after Neal arrives in New York City, he meets Allen Ginsberg, Jack's closest friend in the city. Allen and Neal meet through Jack. Jack describes his fascination with these two men, and others he will meet along the road, as being part of his overall interest in otherworldly characters.
In July 1947, Kerouac is ready to begin his first foray across the continent towards the West Coast. His friend Henri Cru has sent an invitation to join him in Denver, with hints of worldwide travels aboard a ship. He sets out with fifty dollars in his pocket.
He journeys to Chicago, Illinois. He dates the narrative at 1947, marking it as a specific era in jazz history, “somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis,” and it inspires him to think of his friends “from one end of the country to the other…doing something so frantic and rushing about.” By hitchhiking, and bus rides, he ends up in Denver, and meets with his friends, Neal included. Eventually they head to San Francisco.
There, Jack takes a job as a night watchman at a boarding camp for merchant sailors waiting for their ship. His aversion to commitment and duty ensure that he does not hold this job for long, and he is soon on the road again, where he meets one of his biggest temptations.
Her name is Bee, and he meets her on the bus to Los Angeles, California. She is Mexican, and has run away from her husband. They spend “the next fifteen days…together for better or for worse.” Jack spends the better part of a week with Bee and her family in a migrant worker’s camp. The agrarian lifestyle initially appeals to Jack, but he wants to return back to New York, and Bee is left behind.
Kerouac's continued journey on the road is entwined with the making of Neal as the epic hero. Neal has spent time in prison, for stealing cars. His imprisonment, according to Jack, is when his heroic personality was solidified. Prison had the effect of fueling his obsession with the road. What makes him heroic to Kerouac is his free nature, and his reluctance to tie his spirit to social demands. The decline of Neal makes up the second part of the novel, and culminates in the end of Jack’s journeys.
The novel also depicts Neal's haphazard life with women. At the beginning of the novel, Neal is married to Luanne, a teenager, and, after they separate, he meets and lives with Carolyn, and gets an annullment from Luanne, then marries Carolyn. But then comes to pick up Jack in North Carolina (he is there with mother and sister) with Luanne in the car. They travel all over the US then, ragged and frequently running into trouble with the cops. Neal sometimes drives over 100 miles an hour, zooming across the flat plains of Nebraska.
Although Neal may have slept with Al Ginsberg during their late-night talks in Denver, he also slept with countless women on his road trips with Kerouac. The two were overly excited about any woman they came across. They had sexual thoughts and feelings towards most of them, and Cassady always seemed to be sleeping with or married to somebody. He was married to two women, Luanne and Carolyn, at the same time, and always seemed to be going across country to file divorce papers. He had children with multiple women, and was never around to take care of them because he was always on the road.
Carolyn throws Neal out several times in the novel, at one time screaming at him "Liar, Liar". But he eventually leaves Luanne too, with Jack,and goes back to Carolyn and his kids where he gets a decent job, but leaves her frequently for a girl named Diane.
Jack and Neal meet many characters on the road, and also meet up with old friends. At one point, they are staying with William Burroughs and his family in Louisiana, and Kerouac describes the couple's drug use and life style. . Kerouac, with his immigrant background has sympathy for poverty and minorities, he does not use sad descriptions when discussing minorities; through dialect and monologue narratives, and Neal, through animated exclamations, explain their excitement and appreciation for almost everything they see on the road, including minorities.
The travellers perk up as soon as they hit the Mexican border, and some of the novel's more memorable scenes depict their marijuana-infused introduction to Mexican culture, including a vivid (but expensive) sojourn to a bordello offering mambo music and underage prostitutes.
Upon arriving in Mexico City, Jack develops dysentery, and Neal leaves him behind, feverish and hallucinating.
The novel ends a year later in New York City. Neal comes back to New York to see Jack and arrange for Jack and his girlfriend to move to San Francisco with him. The arrangements to move fall through, because Neal arrives 5 weeks early and no one has saved enough money, and Neal returns to the West alone.
Jack closes the novel sitting on a pier during sunset, looking west. He reminisces on God, America, crying children, and the idea that "nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.."
Review: “On the Road” in all of its versions is the story of a series of cross-country trips made by Kerouac between 1948 and 1950 — “trips” rather than “travels,” because they are all about covering ground, whether by hitchhiking, by bus or by drive-away car. The cardinal points are New York City, Denver and San Francisco, with spikes down to New Orleans, the San Joaquin Valley and finally Mexico. The trips are sometimes motored by impatience — if only the Rockies began on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel! — but most often Kerouac revels in speed as an ecstatic medium, a way of concentrating as much experience and as many aesthetic and spiritual highs as possible into a week or less. Essential to the whole enterprise is Kerouac’s relationship with Neal Cassady (called Dean Moriarty in the novel), who is one of the greatest characters in American literature without any need for imaginative tinkering on the part of the author.
Meeting Neal Cassady, though, made it possible for him to write the mid-20th century’s answer to “Huckleberry Finn.” Cassady, with his need to move, his vast yahooing enthusiasm and his insatiable priapic drive, could have stepped out of Western legend. That he compulsively stole cars instead of guiding wagon trains and achieved enlightenment in bebop clubs rather than medicine lodges was merely a function of history. But he wasn’t a primitive, and was rather more than a found object. He read books and wrote sometimes spectacular letters, and he was more on top of the zeitgeist than his big-city admirers. He was a born hero and a euphoric lover of the world, who gave the Beats their soul, saving them — if just barely — from choking on their own mysticism.
In the six years it took for On the Road to be published, American culture changed dramatically: Elvis Presley altered the course of popular music; James Dean and Marlon Brando emerged as a new breed of brooding teenage icon; the painter Jackson Pollock came and went, his action paintings and the intense way he lived some kind of precursor to the 'nowness' that the Beats strived for in both art and life.
The novel was written so poetically, and I loved the descriptions of the landscapes and culture. Jack's positive outlook and sense of adventure was inspiring, very rarely complaining of the bad things - getting stuck in the mud, total poverty, and Neal's irresponsibility was not portrayed in a very negetive way.
I had to look past the treatment of women in the book, especially the way Neal treated his wives, and Jack's admiration of beauty and disgust of "fat" women. He seemed to see women as sexual objects. Neal called women "whores", without seeing his own behavior. But I had to get past that and see the novel for the poetic and painterly quality that to me makes it a fascinating work of art.
Opening Line: "I first met Neal not long after my father died... I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about except that it really had something to do with my father's death and my awful feeling that everything was dead."
Closing Line: "I think of Neal Cassady."
Quotes: “the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing ... but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.”
Rating: Excellent.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

294. Vathek - William Beckford

History: This was composed in French beginning in 1782, written when William Beckford was only 21. It was translated into English by Reverend Samuel Henley in which form it was first published in 1786 without Beckford's name, published with the title of An Arabian Tale, From an Unpublished Manuscript, claiming to be translated directly from Arabic. The first French edition was published in 1787.
Plot: The novel chronicles the fall from power of the Caliph Vathek who renounces Islam and engages with his mother, Carathis, in a series of licentious and deplorable activities designed to gain him supernatural powers. At the end of the novel, instead of attaining these powers,Vathek descends into a hell ruled by the demon Eblis where he is doomed to wander endlessly and speechlessly.
Vathek, the ninth Caliph of the Abassides, ascended to the throne at an early age. He is a majestic figure, terrible in anger, and addicted to the pleasures of the flesh. He is intensely thirsty for knowledge and often invites scholars to converse with him. In order to better study astronomy, he builds an observation tower with 1,500 steps.
A hideous stranger arrives in town, claiming to be a merchant from India selling precious goods. When the merchant does not respond to Vathek's questions, Vathek looks at him with his "evil eye," but this has no effect, so Vathek imprisons him. The next day, he discovers that the merchant has escaped and his guards cannot account for him. The people begin to call Vathek crazy. Vathek admits that he should have treated the stranger kindly.
Vathek wants to decipher the messages on his new sabers, offers a reward to anyone who can help him, and punishes those who fail. After several scholars fail, one elderly man succeeds: the swords say "We were made where everything is well made; we are the least of the wonders of a place where all is wonderful and deserving, the sight of the first potentate on earth." But the next morning, the message has changed: the sword now says “Woe to the rash mortal who seeks to know that of which he should remain ignorant, and to undertake that which surpasses his power”. The old man flees before Vathek can punish him. However, Vathek realizes that the writing on the swords really did change.
Vathek then develops an insatiable thirst and often goes to a place near a high mountain to drink from one of four fountains there, kneeling at the edge of the fountain to drink. One day he hears a voice telling him to “not assimilate thyself to a dog”. It was the voice of the merchant who had sold him the swords, Giaour. Giaour cures his thirst with a potion and the two men return to Samarah. Vathek returns to immersing himself in the pleasures of the flesh, and begins to fear that Giaour, who is now popular at Court, will seduce one of his wives. Some mornings later, Carathis reads a message in the stars foretelling a great evil to befall Vathek and his vizir Morakanabad; she advises him to ask Giaour about the drugs he used in the potion. When Vathek confronts him, Giaour only laughs, so Vathek gets angry and kicks him. Giaour is transformed into a ball and Vathek compels everyone in the palace to kick it, even the resistant Carathis and Morakanabad. Then Vathek has the whole town kick the ball-shaped merchant into a remote valley. Vathek stays in the area and eventually hears Giaour's voice telling him that if he will worship Giaour and the jinns of the earth, and renounce the teachings of Islam, he will bring Vathek to “the palace of the subterrain fire” where Soliman Ben Daoud controls the talismans that rule over the world.
Vathek agrees, and proceeds with the ritual that Giaour demands: to sacrifice fifty of the city's children. In return, Vathek will receive a key of great power. Vathek holds a "competition" among the children of the nobles of Samarah, declaring that the winners will receive "endless favors." As the children approach Vathek for the competition, he throws them inside an ebony portal to be sacrificed. Once this is finished, Giaour makes the portal disappear. The Samaran citizens see Vathek alone and accuse him of having sacrificed their children to Giaour, and form a mob to kill Vathek. Carathis pleads with Morakanabad to help save Vathek's life; the vizier complies, and calms the crowd down.
Vathek wonders when his reward will come, and Carathis says that he must fulfill his end of the pact and sacrifice to the Jinn of the earth. Carathis helps him prepare the sacrifice: she and her son climb to the top of the tower and mix oils to create an explosion of light. The people, presuming that the tower is on fire, rush up the stairs to save Vathek from being burnt to death. Instead, Carathis sacrifices them to the Jinn. Carathis performs another ritual and learns that for Vathek to claim his reward, he must go to Istakhar.
Vathek goes away with his wives and servants, leaving the city in the care of Morakanabad and Carathis. A week after he leaves, his caravan is attacked by carnivorous animals. The soldiers panic and accidentally set the area on fire; Vathek and his wives must flee. Still, they continue on their way. They reach steep mountains where the Islamic dwarves dwell. They invite Vathek to rest with them, possibly in the hopes of converting him back to Islam.
Vathek becomes angry and claims that he has followed Giaour’s instructions long enough. He stays with the dwarves, meets their Emir, named Fakreddin, and Emir's beautiful daughter Nouronihar.
Vathek wants to marry her, but she is already promised to her effeminate cousin Gulchenrouz, who she loves and who loves her back. Vathek thinks she should be with a "real" man and arranges for Babalouk to kidnap Gulchenrouz. The Emir, finding of the attempted seduction, asks Vathek to kill him. But Nouronihar prevents Vathek from killing her father and Gulchenrouz escapes.
The Emir and his servants then meet and they develop a plan to safeguard Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz, by drugging them and place them in a hidden valley by a lake where Vathek cannot find them. The plan succeeds temporarily - the two are drugged, brought to the valley, and convinced on their awakening that they have died and are in purgatory.
Nouronihar, however, grows curious about her surroundings and ascends to find out what lies beyond the valley. There she meets Vathek, who is mourning for her supposed death. Both realize that her 'death' has been a sham. Vathek then orders Nouronihar to marry him, she abandons Gulchenrouz, and the Emir abandons hope. Meanwhile, in Samarah, Carathis can discover no news of her son from reading the stars. She conjures the spirits of a graveyard to perform a spell that makes her appear in front of Vathek, who is bathing with Nouronihar. She tells him he is wasting his time with Nouronihar and has broken one of the rules of Giaour's contract. She asks him to drown Nouronihar, but Vathek refuses, because he intends to make her his Queen. Carathis then decides to sacrifice Gulchenrouz, but before she can catch him, Gulchenrouz jumps into the arms of a Genie who protects him. That night, Carathis hears that Motavakel, Vathek's brother, is planning to lead a revolt against Morakanabad. Carathis tells Vathek that he has distinguished himself by breaking the laws of hospitality by ‘seducing’ the Emir’s daughter after sharing his bread, and that if he can commit one more crime along the way he shall enter Soliman’s gates triumphant. Vathek continues on his journey, reaches Rocnabad, and degrades and humiliates its citizens for his own pleasure.
A Genie asks Mohammed for permission to try to save Vathek from his eternal damnation. He takes the form of a shepherd who plays the flute to make men realize their sins. The shepherd asks Vathek if he is done sinning, warns Vathek about Eblis, ruler of Hell, and asks Vathek to return home, destroy his tower, disown Carathis, and preach Islam. Vathek's pride wins out, and he tells the shepherd that he will continue on his quest for power, and values his mother more than life itself or God's mercy. Vathek's servants desert him; Nouronihar becomes immensely prideful.
Finally, Vathek reaches Istakhar, where he finds more swords with writing on them. Gaour opens the gates with a golden key, and Vathek and Nouronihar step through into a place of gold where Genies of both sexes dance lasciviously. Giaour leads them to Eblis, who tells them that they may enjoy whatever his empire holds. Vathek asks to be taken to the talismans that govern the world. There, Soliman tells Vathek that he had once been a great king, but was seduced by a Jinn and received the power to make everyone in the world do his bidding. But because of this, he is destined to suffer in hell for all eternity. Vathek asks Giaour to release him, saying he will relinquish all he was offered, but Giaour refuses. He tells Vathek to enjoy his omnipotence while it lasts, for in a few days he will be tormented.
Vathek and Nouronihar become increasingly discontented with the palace of flames. Vathek orders an Ifreet to fetch Carathis from the castle. When she arrives, he warns her of what happens to those who enter Eblis' domain, but Carathis takes the talismans of earthly power from Soliman regardless. She gathers the Jinns and tries to overthrow one of the Solimans, but Eblis decrees "It is time." Carathis, Vathek, Nouronihar, and the other denizens of hell lose "the most precious gift granted by heaven - hope". They begin to feel eternal remorse for their crimes.
Review: Vathek can be seen as a critique of the Enlightenment and of enlightened despotism, so much the rage in Europe in the late 18th century. Beckford seems to rail at knowledge being held above respect for a common humanity. Many have tried to extract a moral import and some have even described a mystique of knowledge and a system of ethics. In a more likely scenario we have a fable whimsical and indulgent, crafted as a parody of "orientalism". The author's disquietude trumps an increasing distance from the absurd drive and hedonistic tendencies of the protagonist, while we feel a sympathetic kinship laxed the more into the novella we proceed. The author wrote this fable in French and supervised the translation as best he could. The grotesque and the sublime are here married insolubly but tend to find a balance suspended over a void that derides and insinuates the emptiness of a spiritual fantasy in turmoil.
Opening Line: "Vathek, ninth Caliph of the race of the Abassides, was the son of Motassem, and the grandson of Haroun Al Raschid"
Closing Line: "Thus the Caliph Vathek, who, for the sake of empty pomp and forbidden power, had sullied himself with a thousand crimes, became a prey to grief without end, and remorse without mitigation; whilst the humble and
despised Gulchenrouz passed whole ages in undisturbed tranquillity, and the pure happiness of childhood."
Quotes: "As there were several clefts in the rock from whence water seemed to have flowed, Vathek applied his ear, with the hope of catching the sound of some latent runnel, but could only distinguish the low murmurs of his people, who were repining at their journey, and complaining for the want of water."
"Ah!" said Vathek; "and shall my eyes ever cease to drink from thine long
draughts of enjoyment! Shall the moments of our reciprocal ecstasies be reflected on with horror?"
Rating: Good.

293. Foundation - Isaac Asimov

History: This is the first book in the Foundation series. Actually, it is a collection of stories, originally published between 1942 and 1944, plus an introductory section written for the book in 1949. The early stories were inspired by Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (Asimov said he did "a little bit of cribbin' from the works of Edward Gibbon" when describing the influence of that work on the Trilogy.) More accurately, the plot of the series focuses on the growth and reach of the Foundation, against a backdrop of the "decline and fall of the Galactic Empire".
Plot: Foundation tells the story of a group of scientists who seek to preserve knowledge as the civilizations around them begin to regress.
The first story is set on Trantor, the capital planet of the 12,000-year-old Galactic Empire. Whilst the empire gives the appearance of stability, beneath this facade it is suffering a slow decay. The main character, Hari Seldon, a mathematician, has developed psychohistory which equates all possibilities in large societies to mathematics, allowing predictable long term outcomes.
Seldon discovers a horrifying truth to the Empire's decay, but his results are considered treasonable and attract attention from the Commission of Public Safety — the effective rulers of the Empire. This leads to his arrest. A young mathematician Gaal Dornick, who has just arrived on Trantor, is also arrested. On trial, Hari shares the discoveries made through psychohistory, such as the collapse of the Empire within 500 years, followed by a 30,000-year period of barbarism.
Hari proposes an alternative to this future; one that would not avert the collapse but shorten the interregnum period to a mere 1000 years. But this plan would require a large group of people to develop a compendium of all human knowledge, titled the Encyclopedia Galactica.
A still skeptical commission, worried of making Seldon a martyr, offer him the choice of execution for treason or acceptance of exile with his group of Encyclopedists' to a remote planet Terminus. There, they will carry out the Plan under an imperial decree, while Hari would remain, barred from returning to Trantor.
The second story; "The Encyclopedists", takes place 50 years after the events of "The Psychohistorians". Terminus faces the first of many "Seldon Crises". With no mineral wealth of their own, the people of the Foundation become cut off from the rest of the Empire, as a result of the breakdown of law and order in the outer regions of the Galaxy and their neighboring planets' declaration of independence.
Terminus is caught in a feud between four planetary systems which have degenerated to a barbaric state and find Terminus's location a strategic advantage. The Board of Trustees of the 'Encyclopedia Galactica Foundation', composed of scientists with no political or military training, find themselves incompetent to handle the situation as they are distracted by their work on the Encyclopedia. But the Mayor of Terminus City Salvor Hardin perceives the threat and quickly finds a solution; to play the four kingdoms off each other.
Hardin's plan is a success and then the image of Seldon appears in the "Time Vault", where he acknowledges that the "Seldon Crisis" was averted. Seldon makes it clear that the choice made was the intended one and that the Encyclopedia was just a distraction to further the overall plan.
Hardin uses this revelation to engineer a bloodless coup, taking power from the Board of Trustees and placing it in his own hands.
The third story; "The Mayors", occurs three decades after "The Encyclopedists", The Foundation's scientific understanding has given it unusual leverage over nearby planetary systems, and its control is exercised through an artificial religion referred to as Scientism. This concept allows the Foundation to share the benefits of its advanced technology, while keeping its scientific secrets. Maintenance technicians known as priests are trained on Terminus and given basic operational understanding of the technology, while being kept ignorant of the underlying scientific knowledge. Thus, the Foundation is able to quell the anti-scientific rebellions and delocalisation of knowledge which have reduced the rest of the galactic periphery to barbarism.
Mayor Salvor Hardin, as Mayor of Terminus, is the effective ruler of the Foundation. Prince Regent Wienis of Anacreon plans to overthrow the Foundation's power, and his plans are encouraged when he obtains an abandoned Imperial cruiser that he demands the Foundation repair.
Hardin foresees Wienis's plans and arranges for the ship to be repaired his own way, incorporating some modifications. Hardin then broadcasts Wienis's attempt to the people of Anacreon under the ruse of blasphemy, leading to a revolt which results in direct control over the Four Kingdoms.
Hari Seldon again confirms the actions by appearing in the "Time Vault", while also warning them that Scientism, while adequate to defend the Foundation from the immediate threat, will not be sufficient to expand its influence beyond its barbarous near-neighbors.
The fourth story; "The Traders" follows 55 years after "The Mayors". The story describes the events of Limmar Ponyets, a Trader, who is sent to retrieve Eskel Gorov from the planet Askone. Askone has refused commerce with the Foundation in fear of control through Scientism. Eskel Gorov is awaiting execution for violation of a trade law by attempting to set up trade with Foundation technology.
The leaders of Askone are adamant in not accepting any Foundation technology, but when offered gold in exchange for the prisoner, they gladly accept. During Ponyets' presentation of the offered gold, he convinces Pherl—an aspiring leader in Askone's government—to accept technology that can transmute iron into gold. Unknown to Pherl, his transaction with Foundation technology was recorded and later used as blackmail, allowing Ponyet to exchange his cargo of Foundation technology for tin, a resource needed by the Foundation.
Pherl is now forced into accepting Foundation technology, and so will strive to make it acceptable among Askone's people.
The fifth story; "The Merchant Princes" occurs only twenty years after "The Traders".
The Foundation has expanded through the use of Scientism and economics. Three Foundation vessels have vanished near the Republic of Korell, a nation suspected of technological development. Trader Hober Mallow is sent to uncover information on their technology and hopefully find the missing ships. While at Korell, Mallow convinces Korell's leader Commdor Asper Argo to purchase Foundation technology. Mallow also discovers that Korell still maintains some relics of the Empire such as atomic hand guns. But he also notes the Republic's decrepit condition and lack of modern technology.
On return to Terminus, he is considered a traitor for not spreading Scientism to Korell, although an unlikely development clears Mallow allowing him to win an election for Mayor.
When Korell goes to war against The Foundation, Mallow does not act against the Korellians and waits until dissent from the shortage of goods supplied by the Foundation allows the Foundation to virtually win.
Review: The book is split into five parts, which are five somewhat independent stories about the genesis of the Foundation and then how it developed over time. The characters are a bit unbelievable and are hard to relate to. However character development isn’t really the story, so I won’t put too much weight on that. I think I was a bit put off by the different parts being loosely connected.
Opening Line: "His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before."
Closing Line: "And so after three years of a war which was certainly the most unfought war on record, the Republic of Korell surrendered unconditionally, and Hober Mallow took his place next to Hari Seldon and Salvor Hardin in the hearts of the people of the Foundation."
Quotes: "A civilization falling. Nuclear power forgotten. Science fading to mythology - until the Foundation had stepped in."
Rating: Never again.

292. Blonde - Joyce Carol Oates

History: This book was written in 2000 and chronicles the life of Marilyn Monroe. In Blonde, Monroe's husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller are referred to as the Ex-athlete and the Playwright respectively, with their real names never mentioned. James Dougherty, Monroe's first husband, appears under the pseudonym Bucky Glazer. "R.F"- the commander of the Sharpshooter sent to eliminate Monroe. Many conspiracy theories have Robert F. Kennedy, United States Attorney General and brother of President John F. Kennedy, involved in Monroe's silencing, following her alleged affairs with both brothers. Only a relationship with the President is explored in the novel.
Plot: Norma Jean lived with her grandmother, and had a distant relationship with her mother. One of her first memories is her mother showing her a picture of her father. Her grandmother died, and she went to live with her mother. A few years later her mother had a mental collapse, trying to force Norma Jean into getting in the bath, and the child had to run naked to a neighbors house to escape. Soon after, she went into an orphanage, then to live with foster parents. She was married at age 16, and then her husband went to serve over seas. She worked in a factory, and was recognized by a photograph of her at work. She then went into modeling, and after having sex with a director, she went into acting. she got a contract with the studio, who changed her name, and she dyed her hair blonde.
Her acting career was up and down, but eventually her movies were a success. She played roles of the ditzy blank sexy goddess. In her personal life, she was not so successful. She was sleeping with Cass, Charlie Chaplin's son, with whom she was in love with, until she found him in bed with another man. Eventually, the three of them set up house together. The two men were junkies, somewhat using Marilyn for financial reasons, and when she became pregnant, she got an abortion.
Joe Dimaggio asked her out on a date, fell in love, and married her. He was controling and became physically abusive. She left him and moved back to Hollywood. Her life became a series of parties, friends, and men. She used prescription drugs. She was world famous, and sex symbol.
Then she met Norman Maillor, and they had a good relationship. She had a miscarriage though, and after that never recovered from grief, and the relationship disintegrated. Her career began to fail as she took on more serious roles, trying to move away from the sex symbol roles.
The President saw her, and asked his brother to arrange a date, and they had a rendevous in the boat house. She was invited to their estate, but he never showed up. And she was invited to sing Happy Birthday to him.
She died in her sleep soon after, a hit man (the presidents brother) snuck into her house and injected some sort of drug into her heart.
Review: The life of Marilyn Monroe is pretty well-stoked territory, if you ask me. The blonde goddess icon with the silversweet smile and figure that drove the world wild is brought back to you courtesy of that remarkably
prolific author of the American novel. Joyce Carol Oates' BLONDE is a tour-de-force that attempts to take us inside the head of the actress who suffered the slings and arrows of Hollywood life in full view of the postwar public who alternately adored and despised her.
This treatment, a novelistic approach to the celebrity biography, takes us inside the pretty head of the great star and spends its first hundred pages laying out the reality of life with a crazy mother, living close to the poverty level --- immediately, we feel for this girl. Granted, anybody who has read any of the many other tomes on Monroe's life will find this familiar territory. However, the introspective aspect of this inner monologue going on inside the girl's head, the honesty of what Oates contemplates were Monroe's feelings about her lovers, husbands, friends and associates, makes BLONDE something we haven't exactly read before.
Distorted and misunderstood, the muted voice of Norma Jeane and the grand legacy of Marilyn Monroe are also a looking glass into the shadow-world of Hollywood. While paying tribute to the elusive art of acting and moviemaking, Joyce Carol Oates depicts the chilling panorama of an industry that nourishes and devours the "pure products" of America.
Blonde offers astonishing—and often disturbing—portraits of the powerful men in Norma Jeane's life: the Ex-Athlete, the Playwright, the President, the Dark Prince.
With fresh insights into the heart of a celebrity culture hypnotized by its own myths, Blonde is a sweeping novel about the elusive magic of a woman, the lasting legacy of a star, and the heartbreak behind the creation of the most evocative icon of the twentieth century.
Opening Line: "This movie I've been seeing all my life, yet never to it's completion."
Closing Line: "Norma Jean, see. That man is your father."
Quotes: "Norma didn't have a clue who she was, and she had to fill this emptiness in her. Each time she went out, she had to invent her soul. Other people, we're just as empty; maybe in fact everybody's soul is empty, but Norma was the one to know it."
Rating: Good.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

291. All Quiet on the Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque

History: The novel was first published in November and December 1928 in the German newspaper Vossische Zeitung and in book form in late January 1929. The book and its sequel, The Road Back, were among the books banned and burned in Nazi Germany.
Plot: The story follows the experiences of Paul Bäumer, a soldier whose teacher inspires him to join the German army shortly after the start of World War I. He arrives on the Western Front with his friends (Tjaden, Müller, Kropp and a number of other characters) and meets Stanislaus Katczinsky, known as Kat. The older Kat soon becomes Paul's mentor. Paul and his friends have to endure day after day of non-stop bombardment.
The book does not focus on heroic stories of bravery, but rather gives a view of the conditions in which the soldiers found themselves. The monotony, the constant artillery fire, the struggle to find food, and the overarching role of chance in the lives and deaths of the soldiers, are all described in detail. Unlike many other war novels, here individual battles have no names and are of little significance. Rather, one after another each battle offers a new chance for Paul and his comrades to be killed. The armies fight battles to gain pitifully small pieces of land, only to lose them again later.
Paul's visit on leave to his home highlights the cost of the war on his psyche. The town has not changed since he went off to war; however, he finds that he does "not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world." He feels disconnected from most of the townspeople. The only person he remains connected to is his dying mother, with whom he shares a tender yet restrained relationship.
He returns to the front, the place he now feel he belongs, with his old comrades. He gets injured in his leg and spends time in the hospital with his friend, Kropp, who eventually has to have an amputation and falls into depression.
Back on the front, the bombing continues. One by one, all Pauls friends are killed. In the autumn of 1918, rumors abound that German will soon surrender. Paul is again injured, this time through a poisoned gas attack and he knows that this will be a permanent injury that he will not be able to fully recover from. He is again sent back to the Front Line in October 1918. This time, Paul is killed. Unusually, it was a quiet day in the trenches. The army report for that day reads, “All quiet on the Western Front.” Observers note that Paul’s expression was one of calm and tranquility.
Review: All wars are awful. The young men who fight the wars, hate them. They return home and write about how their wartime experience consisted of long periods of boredom, hunger, cold (or hot), loneliness, and terror, punctuated by brief interludes of greater terror, carnage, brutality, and death and dying. To that extent at least, every war is the same and it is the same for both the victor and the vanquished. The violence and horror are graffic in this novel, not an easy book to enjoy. But important, because it is anti war and their can't be enough anti war novels.
Opening Line: "This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession."
Closing Line: "His face had an expression of calm, as if almost glad the end had come."
Quotes: "We are not youth any longer. We don't want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing from ourselves, from our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces."
Rating: Good, but violent.

290. The Ambassadors - Henry James

History: This book was published in 1903.
Plot: Lambert Strether, a middle-aged, yet not broadly-experienced, man from Wollett, Massachusetts, agrees to assume a mission for his wealthy fiancée: go to Paris and rescue her son, Chad Newsome, from the clutches of a presumably wicked woman. On his journey, Strether stops in England, and there meets Maria Gostrey, an American woman who has lived in Paris for years. Her cynical wit and worldly opinions start to rattle Strether's preconceived view of the situation.
In Paris, Strether meets Chad, and is impressed by the much greater sophistication he seems to have gained during his years in Europe. Chad takes him to a garden party, where Strether meets Marie de Vionnet, a lovely woman of impeccable manners, separated from her reportedly unpleasant husband, and Jeanne, her exquisite daughter. Strether is confused as to whether Chad is more attracted to the mother or the daughter. At the same time, Strether, himself, feels an overwhelming attraction to Marie de Vionnet, which he suspects she might requite, and so begins questioning his commitment to return to Wollett and marry Chad's mother, despite his admiration for her.
All of these impressions of Parisian culture lead Strether to confide in Little Bilham, a friend of Chad's, that he might have missed the best life has to offer; he starts to delight in the loveliness of Paris, and stops Chad from returning to America. Moreover, Strether's American traveling companion, Waymarsh provides thematic counterpoint, by refusing to be seduced by the charms of Europe. Meanwhile, Mrs. Newsome, Strether's fiancée and Chad's mother, impatiently waiting in America, enlists new "ambassadors" to forthwith return with Chad. The most important of the new ambassadors, Sarah Pocock, Chad's sister, harshly dismisses Strether's impression that Chad has improved, condemns Marie as an indecent woman, and demands that Chad immediately return to the family business in America.
To escape his troubles, Strether takes a brief tour of the French countryside, and accidentally encounters Chad and Marie at a rural inn; he then comprehends the full extent of their romance. After returning to Paris, he counsels Chad not to leave Marie; but Strether finds he is now uncomfortable in Europe. In the event, he declines Maria Gostrey's virtual marriage proposal and returns to America.
Review: "The Ambassadors" begins in England and takes place mostly in Paris, and even though most of its characters are American, it is only referentially concerned with its author's native country. At the same time, the novel is not about Americans frivolously sowing their wild oats in exotic ancestral lands, but rather how they use their new settings to break away from restrictive American traditions and conventions and redefine their values and standards of living. The typical setting of a James novel, and the collision of American innocence with European experience. I find Henry James writing much like Jane Austen, too much, begrudging the frustratingly and intentionally thick prose. James does indeed describe intense human situations in great depth and detail: duty, honor, nostalgia.
Opening Line: "Strether's first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarah was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted."
Closing Line: "Then there we are," said Strether."
Quotes: "...don't forget that you're young-blessedly young; be glad of it on the contrary and live up to it. Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had? ... This place and these impressions-mild as you may find them to wind a man up so; all my impressions of
Chad and of people I've seen at his place-well have had their abundant message for me, have just dropped that into my mind. I see it now. I haven't done so before-and now I'm old; too old at any rate for what I see."
Rating: Bad.