Thursday, December 20, 2012

516. Whatever – Michael Houellebecq

History: This book was published in 1994 in France titled as Extension du domaine de la lutte (literal English translation: 'broadening the field of struggle'; published in English as Whatever) and is the debut novel of French writer, Michel Houellebecq. Although this word does not relate to the original French title, it connects to the protagonist's defeatist view of life. The struggle of the original title is expressly associated with class struggle in a parody of slogans made popular by the Parisian student movement of 1968, which Our Hero extends to sexual, as well as economic antagonism.
Plot: The protagonist (Harel), known only as "Our Hero" during the entirety of the story, lives a solitary life, and has not had sex for over two years. Within most of the book and film versions of Extension du domaine de la lutte, Our Hero draws on recollections of Schopenhauer and Kant to lambaste the commodification of human contact, punctuating his inner monologue with bouts of nausea and onanism. He is wracked by the implications of decisions that would seem minor to the average person, such as disclosing his lack of a sex life through the purchase of a single bed. He is teamed up with a disturbing, desperate 28-year-old virgin, Raphael Tisserand, to deliver a series of seminars on the use of IT. Raphael looks up to Our Hero for ever having been able to hold down a relationship, and listens to his musings on love with tragic, but ultimately inspirational consequences.
Review: The unnamed narrator of Houellebecq's novel is Marcuse's one-dimensional man. A single, 30-year-old computer engineer in Paris with no sex life, he suffers from a chronic passivity that, in Houellebecq's view, is characteristic of Generation X. He buys, but doesn't take joy in any of the things he possesses. He has acquaintances, but no friends. In his off hours he writes dialogues featuring an assortment of barnyard animals. When his company sends him and a colleague, Bernard, out to Rouen and La Roche-sur-Yon to consult on software, nothing much gets done. In Rouen he suffers from heart problems. Since Bernard visits him in the hospital, a bond develops between them. Bernard, cursed with a repulsive appearance and a horny disposition, makes obnoxious advances to every woman he sees and is predictably rejected. Sexual deprivation is the atmosphere in which these men exist. That both men see women only in terms of their sexual features makes their impotence even more pathetic. After breaking up with his last girlfriend two years ago, the narrator has withdrawn from the romantic arena. And yet he has developed an intricate and mean-spirited, if ill-defined, theory of sexual hierarchy. The loose narrative condenses to an action sequence when the narrator tries to get Bernard to murder a woman with a steak knife, but the incident is gratuitous. In the end, Houellebecq displays none of the novelist's eye for detail and, further, defaults on the development of a vital main character, who might have connected this series of threadbare incidents into an interesting social comment. FYI: A bestseller in France, this novel won the 1995 Prix Flore for best first novel.
Opening Line: “Friday evening I was invited to a party at a colleague from work’s house.”
Closing Line: “It is two in the afternoon.”
Quotes: “...beds last on an average much longer than marriages...”
Rating: Didn’t Understand it.

515. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

History: This book was first published in 1950 when Shute had newly settled in Australia. Jean Paget was based on Carry Geysel (Mrs J. G. Geysel-Vonck) whom Shute met while visiting Sumatra in 1949. Geysel had been one of a group of about 80 Dutch civilians taken prisoner by Japanese forces at Padang, in the Dutch East Indies in 1942. Shute's understanding was that the women were forced to march around Sumatra for two-and-a-half years, covering 1,900 kilometres (1,200 mi), with fewer than 30 people surviving the march. However, the Nevil Shute foundation insists that this was a misunderstanding, and that the women were merely transported from prison camp to prison camp by the Japanese. "Shute, fortunately misinformed about parts of her experience, mistakenly understands that the women were made to walk. This was possibly the luckiest misunderstanding of his life..." says the Foundation. 
Shute based the character of Harman on Herbert James "Ringer" Edwards, an Australian veteran of the Malayan campaign, whom Shute met in 1948 at a station (ranch) in Queensland. Edwards had been crucified for 63 hours by Japanese soldiers on the Burma Railway. He had later escaped execution a second time, when his "last meal" of chicken and beer could not be obtained. Crucifixion (or Haritsuke) was a form of punishment or torture that the Japanese sometimes used against prisoners during the war.
The fictional "Willstown" is reportedly based on Burke town, Queensland and Normanton, Queensland, which Shute also visited in 1948. (Burke and Wills were well-known explorers of Australia.)
In a note to the text, Shute makes it known to the reader that a forced march of women by the Japanese did indeed take place during World War II, but the women in question were Dutch, not British, and the march was in Sumatra, not Malaya.
Plot: The story falls broadly into three parts.
In Post-World War II London, Jean Paget, a secretary in a leather-goods factory, is informed by solicitor Noel Strachan that she has inherited a considerable sum of money from an uncle she never knew. But the solicitor is now her trustee and she only has the use of the income until she inherits absolutely, at the age of thirty-five, several years in the future. In the firm's interest, but increasingly for his own personal interest, Strachan acts as her guide and advisor. Jean decides that her priority is to build a well in a Malayan village.
The second part of the story flashes back to Jean's experiences during the War, when she was working in Malaya at the time the Japanese invaded and was taken prisoner together with a group of women and children.
As she speaks Malay fluently, Jean takes a leading role in the group of prisoners. The Japanese refuse all responsibility for the group and march them from one village to another. Many of them, not used to physical labour, die. Jean meets a young Australian soldier, Sergeant Joe Harman, also a prisoner, who is driving a truck for the Japanese and they strike up a friendship. He steals food and medicines to help them. Jean is carrying a toddler, whose mother has died, and this leads Harman to believe that she is married; to avoid complications, Jean does not correct this assumption.
On one occasion, Harman steals six chickens from the local Japanese commander. The thefts are investigated and Harman takes the blame to save Jean and the rest of the group. He is beaten, crucified, and left to die by the Japanese soldiers. The women are marched away, believing that he is dead.
When their sole Japanese guard dies, the women become part of a Malayan village community. They live and work there for three years, until the war ends and they are repatriated.
Now a wealthy woman (at least on paper), Jean decides she wants to build a well for the village so that the women will not have to walk so far to collect water: "A gift by women, for women".
Strachan arranges for her to travel to Malaya, where she goes back to the village and persuades the headman to allow her to build the well. While it is being built, she discovers that, by a strange chance, Joe Harman survived his punishment and returned to Australia. She decides to travel on to Australia to find him. On her travels, she visits the town of Alice Springs, where Joe lived before the war, and is much impressed with the quality of life there. She then travels to the (fictional) primitive town of Willstown in the Queensland outback, where Joe has become manager of a cattle station. She soon discovers that the quality of life in 'Alice' is an anomaly, and life for a woman in the outback is elsewhere very rugged. Willstown is described as 'a fair cow'.
Meanwhile, Joe has met a pilot who helped repatriate the women, from whom he learns that Jean survived the war and that she was never married. He travels to London to find her, using money won in lottery. He finds his way to Strachan's office, but is told that she has gone traveling in the Far East. Disappointed, he gets drunk and is arrested, but is bailed out by Strachan. Without revealing Jean's actual whereabouts, Strachan persuades Joe to return home by ship and intimates that he may well receive a great surprise there.
While staying in Willstown, awaiting Joe's return, Jean learns that most young girls have to leave the town to find work in the bigger cities. Having worked with a firm in England that produced crocodile- leather luxury goods, she gets the idea of founding a local workshop to make shoes from the skins of crocodiles hunted in the outback. With the help of Joe and of Noel Strachan, who releases money from her inheritance, she starts the workshop, followed by a string of other businesses; an ice-cream parlour, a public swimming pool and shops.
The third part of the book shows how Jean's entrepreneurship gives a decisive economic impact to develop Willstown into "a town like Alice"; also Jean's help in rescuing an injured stockman, which breaks down many local barriers.
The story closes a few years later, with an aged Noel Strachan visiting Willstown to see what has been done with the money he has given Jean to invest. He reveals that the money which Jean inherited was originally made in an Australian gold rush, and he is satisfied to see the money returning to the site of its making.
Jean and Joe name their second son Noel, and ask Strachan to be his godfather. They invite Noel to make his home with them in Australia, but he declines the invitation, returns to England and the novel closes.
Review: A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute is multi-layered expat novel, which was made into a TV mini-series in 1981. It has been one of my favorites for a long time, not only because of the expat themes, but because it also features a strong female protagonist who overcomes some truly daunting obstacles. Author Nevil Shute is interesting in his own right. A prolific author, with over 20 novels to his credit, Nevil Shute Norway was by profession an aeronautic engineer and pilot. Shute became an expat himself. He was born in 1916 in London, and emigrated with his wife and daughters to Australia in 1950 following World War II. His books strongly reflect his love of airplanes and flying, and his adopted country. He died in Melbourne, Australia in 1960.
Opening Line: “James McFadden died in March, 1905 when he was forty-seven years old.”
Closing Line: “I have sat here day after day this winter, sleeping a good deal in my chair, hardly knowing if I was in London or the Gulf Country, dreaming of the blazing sunshine, of poddy dodging, and blackstock riders, of Cairns, and of Green Island, of a girl I met forty years too late, and of her life in that small town that I shall never see again that holds so much of my affection.”
Quotes: “She looked at him in wonder. "Do people think of me like that? I only did what anybody could have done."
"That's as it may be," he replied. "The fact is, that you did it.”
Rating: Excellent Reading!!!

514. The Ravishing of L Stein – Marguerite Duras

History: This book was published in France by Gallimard in 1964.
Plot: At the beginning of the novel, Lol Stein (her middle initial is omitted in the English translation) is a woman in her thirties. She was born and raised in South Tahla in a bourgeois family and is engaged to Michael Richardson at 19. However, at a ball in the seaside resort of Town Beach, Michael Richardson leaves Lol for Anne-Marie Stretter, an older woman. After a difficult recovery from this shock, Lol marries Jean Bedford, a musician she meets on one of her daily walks. Lol leaves South Tahla with her husband.
Ten years later, with three children, Lol is an established woman with no time for fantasy. She returns with her family to South Tahla and moves into the house she grew up in. Lol goes on her daily walks as she did ten years before. She thinks she recognises Tatiana Karl one day, the friend who consoled her after her breakup with Michael Richardson. The man who accompanies Tatiana makes a deep impression on Lol.
Lol reestablishes her contact with Tatiana and gets to know both her husband and her lover, Jacques Hold. Lol is able to get information from Jacques about events at the ball at T Beach 10 years before. Lol reveals to Jacques her interest in him but forbids him to stay with her instead of Tatiana.
Lol spies on Tatiana and her lover but Jacques notices her. One day Lol tells Jacques that she has been to T Beach alone and plans to return with him. While doing this, Lol shows Jacques the room where she and Michael Richardson had split up. Lol and Jacques spend the night together. The next day, Jacques has one last meeting with Tatiana Karl.
The novel is seen through the obsessive eyes of Jacques Hold. The primary character in novel shifts from Lol to himself as you delve further into his pursuit of Lol.
Review: This isn't a happy book, despite Lol's protests to the contrary. The author's writing style is changeable and intricate, depicting the turbulent thought patterns of the characters. The landscape is broad and bland. Lol is lost in a desert of supressed pain and love. It is a tortuous tale, difficult to watch so much anguish. Somewhat unreal, one may come away sensing this is almost a mythical story. Some of Duras' work is notably autobiographical. One may wonder what brought this tale to light.
Opening Line: “Lol Stein was born here in South Tahla, and she spent a good part of her youth in this town.”
Closing Line: “She was asleep in the field of rye, worn out, worn out by our trip.”
Quotes: “That she had so completely recovered her sanity was a source of sadness to her. One should never be cured of one's passion.”
Rating: Not too good.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

513. Quo Vadis – Henryk Sienkiewicz

History: Published in installments in three Polish dailies in 1895, it came out in book form in 1896 and has since been translated into more than 50 languages. This novel contributed to Sienkiewicz's Nobel Prize for literature in 1905.
Plot: Quo Vadis is a novel that takes place during the time of Nero and follows the story of a patrician and military leader who falls in love with one of Nero’s state hostages who turns out to be a Christian. This is a novel of love and conversion and the struggles the young patrician encounters between his Roman upbringing and ego of deserving all he has as it meets the teachings of Christ. The novel casts it eyes on Nero, the Christian community including St. Peter and St. Paul, and then the burning of Rome and the persecution of the Christians as scape-goats. The title Quo Vadis s a Latin phrase meaning “Where are you going?” or “Whither goest thou?” taken from the legend that as St. Peter leaves Rome to escape he encounters Jesus and on the way and asks him Quo Vadis and Jesus replies “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.”
Review: Quo Vadis? has actually remained more popular over the years, in fact it is one of the best selling novels of all time, so there have been decent translations available all along, but you really should seek out the W. S. Kuniczak version if you can find it. Kuniczak, himself a novelist, devoted at least six years to updating Sienkiewicz's Trilogy and his dedication to the author's work paid off brilliantly. Though still recognizably written in the style and language of a hundred years ago, the books now read with a much more natural flow. His background as a novelist seems to have served him well, because rather than reading like someone converted Polish to English verbatim, they read like an English retelling of the Polish tale. That obviously could be cause for concern to folks who have a thorough grounding in the original, particularly if he took great license with the author's work, but as a reader, all I really care about is that his versions are terrific books.
The novel is set in Nero's Rome and is built around the stark contrast between the voluptuary decadent Romans and the ascetic Christians. Vinitius is a patrician in good standing at Nero's court until he falls in love with the Christian girl Ligia. At first somewhat reluctantly, but then with gathering fervor, Vinitius is drawn out of the moral depths of his prior life and himself becomes a Christian. By the time that Nero burns down Rome and blames the Christians, Vinitius has become a believer and is prepared to sacrifice his position and even his life to save Ligia from the Coliseum and the Games where Nero sacrifices Christians to distract the restless populace of Rome.
In addition to Bread and Circuses and the romantic tale, there are scenes of surpassing beauty centered on Christian faith. desert my flock, those whom He has given me?"
Another such scene explains the title of the book. "Quo Vadis?", means "where are you going?" and derives from a New Testament verse (John 13:36). At the core of the story lies the miracle of how an obscure religion embraced by the people at the very fringes of this society, literally hiding in catacombs to escape persecution, could rise up, conquer the Empire and reshape the world. On either plane, the physical or the metaphysical, this is an exciting story and is sure to send you scurrying to find the rest of Sienkiewicz's work.
Opening Line: "Petronius woke only about midday, and as usual greatly wearied.”
Closing Line: “Near the anciety Porta Capena stands to this day a little chapel with the inscription, somewhat worn: Quo Vadis, Domine?”
Quotes: “But I think happiness springs from another source, a far deeper one that doesn't depend on will because it comes from love.”
Rating: Difficult

512. Cryptonmycin – Neal Stephenson

History: This novel was published in 1999. Portions of Cryptonomicon are notably complex and may be considered somewhat difficult by the non-technical reader. Several pages are spent explaining in detail some of the concepts behind cryptography and data storage security, including a description of Van Eck phreaking.
Stephenson also includes a precise description of (and even Perl script for) the Solitaire (or Pontifex) cipher, a cryptographic algorithm developed by Bruce Schneier for use with a deck of playing cards, as part of the plot.
He also describes computers using a fictional operating system, Finux. The name is a thinly veiled reference to Linux, a kernel originally written by the Finnish native Linus Torvalds. Stephenson changed the name so as not to be creatively constrained by the technical details of Linux-based operating systems.
Plot: The action takes place in two periods: the Second World War and the late 1990s, during the Internet boom.
In 1942, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a young U.S. Navy code breaker and mathematical genius, is assigned to the newly formed joint British and American Detachment 2702. This ultra-secret unit's role is to hide the fact that Allied Intelligence has cracked the German Enigma code. The detachment stages events, often behind enemy lines, that provide alternative explanations for the Allied intelligence successes. Marine sergeant Bobby Shaftoe, a veteran of China and Guadalcanal, serves in unit 2702, carrying out Waterhouse's plans. At the same time, Japanese soldiers including mining engineer Goto Dengo, an old friend of Shaftoe's, are assigned to build a mysterious bunker in the mountains in the Philippines as part of what turns out to be a literal suicide mission.
Circa 1997, Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence's grandson) joins his old Dungeons and Dragons companion Avi Halaby in a new startup, providing Pinoy-grams to migrant Filipinos via new fiber-optic cables. The aptly named Epiphyte Corporation uses this income stream to fund the creation of a data haven in the nearby fictional Sultanate of Kinakuta. Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe and his daughter Amy do the undersea surveying for the cables and engineering work on the haven is overseen by Goto Furudenendu, heir-apparent to Goto Engineering. Complications arise as figures from the past reappear seeking gold or revenge.
Review: Neal Stephenson enjoys cult status among science fiction fans and techie types. According to critic Jay Clayton, the book is written for a technical or geek audience. Despite the technical detail, the book drew praise from both Stephenson's science fiction fan base and literary critics and buyers. In his book Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture (2003), Jay Clayton calls Stephenson’s book the “ultimate geek novel” and draws attention to the “literary-scientific-engineering-military-industrial-intelligence alliance” that produced discoveries in two eras separated by fifty years, World War II and the Internet age.
Cryptonomicon zooms all over the world, careening conspiratorially back and forth between two time periods--World War II and the present. Our 1940s heroes are the brilliant mathematician Lawrence Waterhouse, cryptanalyst extraordinaire, and gung ho, morphine-addicted marine Bobby Shaftoe. They're part of Detachment 2702, an Allied group trying to break Axis communication codes while simultaneously preventing the enemy from figuring out that their codes have been broken. Their job boils down to layer upon layer of deception. Dr. Alan Turing is also a member of 2702, and he explains the unit's strange workings to Waterhouse. "When we want to sink a convoy, we send out an observation plane first.... Of course, to observe is not its real duty--we already know exactly where the convoy is. Its real duty is to be observed.... Then, when we come round and sink them, the Germans will not find it suspicious."
All of this secrecy resonates in the present-day story line, in which the grandchildren of the WWII heroes--inimitable programming geek Randy Waterhouse and the lovely and powerful Amy Shaftoe--team up to help create an offshore data haven in Southeast Asia and maybe uncover some gold once destined for Nazi coffers. To top off the paranoiac tone of the book, the mysterious Enoch Root, key member of Detachment 2702 and the Societas Eruditorum, pops up with an unbreakable encryption scheme left over from WWII to befuddle the 1990s protagonists with conspiratorial ties.
Cryptonomicon is vintage Stephenson from start to finish: short on plot, but long on detail so precise it's exhausting. Every page has a math problem, a quotable in-joke, an amazing idea, or a bit of sharp prose. Cryptonomicon is also packed with truly weird characters, funky tech, and crypto--all the crypto you'll ever need, in fact, not to mention all the computer jargon of the moment. A word to the wise: if you read this book in one sitting, you may die of information overload (and starvation).
Opening Line: “… is the best that corporal Bobby Shaftoe can do on short notice – he’s standing on the running board, gripping his Springfield with one hand and the rearview mirror with the other, so counting the syllables on his fingers is out of the question.”
Closing Line: “But after Golgotha has been burning for an hour or two, underneath the shallow water, indeed right around the isolated boulder where Randy is perched, is a bright thick river of gold.”
Quotes: “Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker's game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.”
Rating: Couldn’t read it.

511. The Poor Mouth – Flann O’Brien

History: Published in 1941, this novel in Irish by Brian O'Nolan, published under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen is widely regarded as one of the greatest Irish-language novels of the 20th century.
Books of this genre were part of the Irish language syllabus in the Irish school system and thus mandatory reading for generations of children from independence in 1921. O'Nolan was in fact a great admirer of An t-Oileánach, which is widely regarded as being the greatest work of the genre, but critic Declan Kiberd has noted how O'Nolan's admiration for a writer tended to express itself as parody of the writer's work.
The Irish expression "to put on the poor mouth," ("an béal bocht a chur ort" in Irish) is mildly pejorative and refers to the practice, often associated with peasant farmers, of exaggerating the direness of one's situation, particularly financially, to evoke sympathy, charity and perhaps the forbearance of creditors and landlords or generosity of customers.
All of O'Nolan's other novels were published under the pseudonym Flann O'Brien; this is the only one for which he employed the "Myles" pseudonym that he normally reserved for his journalism. In the case of An Béal Bocht, O'Nolan altered the name slightly; the novel was published under the name Myles na gCopaleen, whereas his celebrated Irish Times column Cruiskeen Lawn was published under the more anglicised byline of Myles na Gopaleen. The suffix "na Gopaleen" is not a real Irish surname, but derives from a character named Myles-na-Coppaleen in Dion Boucicault's 1860 play The Colleen Bawn; it is ultimately derived from the Irish na gcapaillín, "of the little horses". As if to confuse matters, the English translation of An Béal Bocht is published as the work of "Flann O'Brien".
Plot: An Béal Bocht is set in Corca Dhorcha, (Corkadorkey), a remote region of Ireland where it never stops raining and everyone lives in desperate poverty (and always will) while talking in "the learned smooth Gaelic". It is a memoir of one Bónapárt Ó Cúnasa, a resident of this region, beginning at his very birth. At one point the area is visited by hordes of Dublin Gaeilgeoirí (Irish language lovers), who explain that not only should one always speak Irish, but also every sentence one utters should be about the language question. However, they eventually abandon the area because the poverty is too poor, the authenticity too authentic and the Gaelicism too Gaelic. The narrator, after a series of bloodcurdling adventures, is eventually sent to prison on a false murder charge, and there, "safe in jail and free from the miseries of life", has the chance to write this most affecting memoir of our times.
Review: The Poor Mouth relates the story of one Bonaparte O'Coonassa, born in a cabin in a fictitious village called Corkadoragha in western Ireland equally renowned for its beauty and the abject poverty of its residents. Potatoes constitute the basis of his family's daily fare, and they share both bed and board with the sheep and pigs. A scathing satire on the Irish, this work brought down on the author's head the full wrath of those who saw themselves as the custodians of Irish language and tradition when it was first published in Gaelic in 1941.
This book is an inside joke, and a classic at that. It is a grand send up of professional Irish (both at home and abroad). As example, consider a book written in Gaelic making sport of the Gaelic movement by means of a Gaelic festival. ( In ourland of the professional ethnic festival, this might serve as an effective antidote to "Irish" nights and "Scots weekends.") If you are inclined to romanticize villages of the old sod dominated by pigs, mud, rain and potatos, avoid this work.
Opening Line: “I am noting down the matters which are in this document because the next life is approaching me swiftly – far from us be the evil thing and may the bad spirit not regard me as a brother! – and also because our likes will never be there again.”
Closing Line: “I do not think that my like will ever be there again!
Quotes: “In my youth we always had a bad smell in our house. Sometimes it was so bad that I asked my mother to send me to school, even though I could not walk correctly. Passers-by neither stopped nor even walked when in the vicinity of our house but raced past the door and never ceased until they were half a mile from the bad smell. There was another house two hundred yards down the road from us and one day when our smell was extremely bad the folks there cleared out, went to America and never returned. It was stated that they told people in that place that Ireland was a fine country but that the air was too strong there. Alas! there was never any air in our house.”
Rating: Okay

510. The Hour of the Star – Clarice Lispector

History: This book was published in 1977, shortly after the author's death. Clarice used her own childhood in the Northeast region of Brazil as reference to build the protagonist Macabéa. She also mentioned a gathering of people from this region in the São Cristóvão neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, where she first captured the "disoriented look" of the Northeasterns in the city. Clarice was also inspired by a fortune teller she visited, an event upon which she bases the final part of the plot. When she was leaving the fortune teller's house, she found amusing to imagine herself being hit by a yellow Mercedes and dying immediately after hearing all the good projections the fortune teller foresaw for her future.
The novel was composed from short fragments that Lispector and her secretary, Olga Borelli, pieced together. Lispector was not aware that she was dying at the time she wrote it, though the work is full of premonitions of her upcoming death.
The Hour of the Star deals with the problems of the rural Northeast versus the urban Southeast, poverty and the dream of a better life, and, of an uneducated woman’s struggle to survive in a sexist society. In February 1977, Lispector gave her only televised interview, with Júlio Lerner of TV Cultura in São Paulo. In it, she mentioned a book she had just completed with “thirteen names, thirteen titles,” though she refused to name them. According to her, the book is "the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs. That’s not the story, though. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery.”
Plot: Narrated by the cosmopolitan Rodrigo S.M., this brief, strange, and haunting tale is the story of Macabéa, one of life's unfortunates. Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a poor living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola, and her rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marilyn Monroe, but she is ugly, underfed, sickly, and unloved. Rodrigo recoils from her wretchedness, and yet he cannot avoid the realization that for all her outward misery, Macabéa is inwardly free. She doesn't seem to understand how unhappy she should be.
Lispector employs her pathetic heroine against her urbane, empty narrator - edge of despair to edge of despair - and, working them like a pair of scissors, she cuts away the reader's preconceived notions about poverty, identity, love, and the art of fiction, taking readers close to the true mystery of life.
Review: Clarice Lispector died young but not quite unknown in Brazil, and her novels are neglected but not quite unknown internationally. Those who have read her agree that she was a thoughtful, twisted, occasionally brilliant author of short novels about very little on the surface: a woman killing a cockroach, for instance. The ingenuity lies in what Lispector did with her mundane situations: she turned them into fables of horrible psychological bullying, protestations against the weirdness and incoherence of things, dirges for the loss of magic. In Lispector's world, events are both intimately connected and entirely unconnected. Anticlimax is the norm and everywhere present. Virtue is unrewarded, but so is crime. And the great irony is that for all the darkness, Lispector's writing is still beautiful, life-affirming, enchanting.
Lispector's final novel was written before she knew she was dying of cancer. It is, nevertheless, a death book. Everything about The Hour of the Star hints at the final moment. More than the death of the body is tackled in it — the gradual death of hope and optimism. Its protagonist, Macabea, is so tragically ordinary, and painted with such violent malice by the male writer-narrator for being so ordinary, that by the end of this 90-page work this reader was left feeling sick. The tiny novel moves from incident to pointless incident without things ever turning out well for Macabea, and nobody (not her philandering boyfriend, not her workmate, not even the narrator who claims to imagine her whole life story out of a single memory of a girl he once saw) seems capable of caring about her. From the novel's opening pages — which bounce about aimlessly as the narrator flexes his muscles and indulges in all manner of philosophical trickery — to the last paragraph, wherein we are reminded, immediately after the absurd but tragic final scene, that we are in the season for strawberries, there is no drop of hope for Macabea. She is an antiheroine simply because there's nothing heroic about her, yet she is also not a villain. Macabea is the loneliest character in her world of lonely characters.
Why would anyone want to read a novel in which nothing but bad things happen to a good person? That is the mystery of The Hour of the Star. It is a difficult but moving read, and its heart is entirely compressed into Macabea. It does not matter how cruelly the narrator invents her, or how manipulatively her boyfriend toys with her feelings, or how indifferently the universe kills her off: we still like Macabea. She is anything but clever, and too naive for her own good, but precisely because of these qualities, which are so rare in the novel's universe, she stands out as the brightest light in this very dark story. In juxtaposing the senselessness of existence with the potential for good in human beings, Lispector makes her case remarkably well. Even if our narrator-creator seems self-absorbed and tyrannical and quick to bore; even if our friends are vain and try to use us for no real gain; and even if death comes suddenly and unfairly, the moments of beauty make the suffering seem a little more worth it. Macabea is this hope.
Opening Line: “Everything in the world began with a yes.”
Closing Line: “Don’t forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes.”
Quotes: “Do not mourn the dead. They know what they are doing.”
Rating: Good.

509. Against the Grain - Joris–Karl Huysmans

History: À rebours (translated Against Nature or Against the Grain) was written in 1884. Joris-Karl Huysmans is most famous for this novel Against Nature and he predicted it would be a failure with the public and critics: "but I don't give a damn! It will be something nobody has ever done before, and I shall have said what I want to say." The book created a storm of publicity; though many older critics were scandalised, it appealed to the young generation. 
The painter Whistler called it a "marvellous" book. Oscar Wilde regarded it as his "Bible and bedside book." It was to him "one of the best I have ever seen." It was reviewed everywhere as the guidebook of Decadence.
Against Nature is the "poisonous French novel" that leads to the downfall of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The book's plot dominated the action of Dorian, causing him to live a life of sin and hedonism.
The best-known example of fin-de-siècle decadence, this novel has been banned and expurgated for years. À rebours marked a watershed in Huysmans's career. His early works had been Naturalist in style, being realistic depictions of the drudgery and squalor of working- and lower-middle-class life in Paris. However, by the early 1880s, Huysmans regarded this approach to fiction as a dead end
Plot: Jean Des Esseintes is the last member of a powerful and once proud noble family. He has lived an extremely decadent life in Paris, which has left him disgusted with human society. Without telling anyone, he retreats to a house in the countryside.
He fills the house with his eclectic art collection (which notably consists of reprints of paintings of Gustave Moreau). Drawing from the theme of Gustave Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet, Des Esseintes decides to spend the rest of his life in intellectual and aesthetic contemplation. Throughout his intellectual experiments, he recalls various debauched events and love affairs of his past in Paris.
He conducts a survey of French and Latin literature, rejecting the works approved by the mainstream critics of his day. Amongst French authors, he shows nothing but contempt for the Romantics but adores the poetry of Baudelaire and that of the nascent Symbolist movement of Paul Verlaine, Tristan Corbière and Stéphane Mallarmé, as well as the decadent fiction of the unorthodox Catholic writers Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Barbey d'Aurevilly. He studies Moreau's paintings, he tries his hand at inventing perfumes, and he creates a garden of poisonous flowers. In one of the book's most surrealistic episodes, he has gemstones set in the shell of a tortoise. The extra weight on the creature's back causes its death. In another episode, he decides to visit London after reading the novels of Dickens. He dines at an English restaurant in Paris while waiting for his train and is delighted by the resemblance of the people to his notions derived from literature. He then cancels his trip and returns home, convinced that only disillusion would await him if he were to follow though with his plans.
Eventually, his late nights and idiosyncratic diet take their toll on his health, requiring him to return to Paris or to forfeit his life. In the last lines of the book, he compares his return to human society to that of a nonbeliever trying to embrace religion.
Review: Huysmans himself thought the public would have no interest in it. Chapters that do nothing more than expound upon Des Esseintes's favorite painters or Latin writers amount to little more than reader abuse, endlessly fascinating regardless. No doubt part of this was nothing more than shocked delight at the sheer perversity of the little experiment--Huysmans is actually quite a good, and Des Esseintes's whims, desires, and recollections are often so extravagantly bizarre as to be quite funny. And then, of course, there's the 'plants' chapter, which is quite probably the most grotesque and macabre thing I've ever read. It's a bit of a shame that it's stuck right in the middle of the book, as it does make the subsequent material seem a bit anticlimactic, but then again, if Huysmans had any sort of regard for narrative structure, he wouldn't have written this diabolical piece of work in the first place. If Zola was Pink Floyd, Huysmans was the Sex Pistols.
Opening Line: "More than two months slipped by before the time came when Des Esseintes found it feasible to immerse himself definitely in the peace and silence of his house at Fontenay; purchases of all kinds still kept him perambulating the Paris streets, tramping the town from end to end."
Closing Line: "Ah; but my courage fails me, and my heart is sick within me!--Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the sceptic who would fain believe, on the galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the darkness of night, beneath a firmament illumined no longer by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope."
Quotes: “Immersed in solitude, he would dream or read far into the night. By protracted contemplation of the same thoughts, his mind grew sharp, his vague, undeveloped ideas took on form.”
Rating: No comment

Thursday, August 30, 2012

508. Sexing the Cherry – Jeanette Winterson

History: This book was written in 1989.
Plot: Set in 17th century London, Sexing the Cherry is about the journeys of a mother, known as The Dog Woman, and her protégé, Jordan. They journey in a space-time flux: across the seas to find exotic fruits such as bananas and pineapples; and across time, with glimpses of "the present" and references to Charles I of England and Oliver Cromwell. The mother’s physical appearance is somewhat "grotesque". She is a giant, wrapped in a skirt big enough to serve as a ship’s sail and strong enough to fling an elephant. She is also hideous, with smallpox scars in which fleas live, a flat nose and foul teeth. Her son, however, is proud of her, as no other mother can hold a good dozen oranges in her mouth all at once. Ultimately, their journey is a journey in search of The Self.
Review: The central relationship is between Jordan and the Dog Woman. It is a savage love, an unorthodox love, it is family life carried to the grotesque, but it is not a parody or a negative. The boisterous surrealism of their bond is in the writing itself. By writing the familiar into the strange, by wording the unlovely into words-as-jewels, what is outcast can be brought home. I have also thought of myself as an outcast, but I have made myself a territory by writing it. Sexing the Cherry is a cross-time novel in the same way that The Passion is cross-gender. The narrative moves through time, but also operates outside it. At the centre of the book are the stories of the Twelve Dancing Princess, each only a page long, written as a kind of fugue. The stories aren't just parachuted in there, they are integral to the whole, in just the same way that the Percival stories are integral to Oranges. That is, they tell us something we need to know to interpret the book.
Opening Line: “My name is Jordan.”
Closing Line: “Empty space and points of light.”
Quotes: “Rule book about men.
1. Men are easy to please but are not pleased for long before some new novelty must delight them.
2. Men are easy to make passionate but unable to sustain it.
3. Men are always seeking soft women but find their lives in ruin without strong women.
4. Men must be occupied at all times otherwise they make mischief.
5. Men deem themselves weighty and women light. Therefore it is simple to tie a stone around their necks and drown them should they become too troublesome.
6. Men are best left in groups by themselves where they will entirely wear themselves out in drunkenness and competition. While this is taking place a woman may carry on with her own life unhindered.
7. Men are never never to be trusted with what is closest to your heart, and if it is they who are closest to your heart, do not tell them.
8. If a man asks you for money, do not give it to him.
9. If you ask a man for money and he does not give it to you, sell his richest possession and leave at once.
10. Your greatest strength is that every man believes he knows the sum and possibility of every woman.”
Rating: Abstract.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

507. Nineteen Seventy Seven – David Peace

History: This book was written in 2000, and is the second novel in the Red Riding Quartet Series. 
Plot: Half-decent copper Bob Fraser and burnt-out hack Jack Whitehead would be considered villains in most people's books. They have one thing in common, though. They're both desperate men dangerously in love with Chapeltown whores. And as the summer moves remorselessly towards the bonfires of Jubilee Night, the killings accelerate, and it seems as if Fraser and Whitehead are the only men who suspect or care that there may be more than one killer at large.
Review: David Peace brings the Yorkshire Ripper's story to light from the perspectives of a detective and a reporter. The year 1977 is only part of a time line in the career of a violent serial killer. Victims are tortured and mutilated, mostly targeted prostitutes. One young teenager, obviously not a “working woman” is found dead which heightens the fear of all. The characters' viewpoints of the crime investigations are even more disturbing as both become involved with prostitutes in the area while uncovering clues and searching for the killer. Lies are told to hide the affairs, a marriage falls apart.
It is painful to read about how emotionally involved the case becomes for all, and still the crimes go unresolved in the end. Nineteen Seventy Seven is part of a quartet series (1970, 1977, 1980, 1983)
Opening Line: “Tuesday 24rth December, 1977. Down the Strafford stairs and out the door.”
Closing Line: “No future.”
Quotes: Their bodies lying naked in the streets of the city.”
Rating: Horrible.

506. The Female Quixote – Charlotte Lennox

History: Published in 1752, imitating and parodying the ideas of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, and two years after she wrote her first novel, The Life of Harriot Stuart, it was her best known and most celebrated work. It was approved by both Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson, applauded by Samuel Johnson, and used as a model by Jane Austen for her famous work, Northanger Abbey. It is often seen as an expression of identity in a world governed by the rules of men. It has been called a burlesque, "satirical harlequinade", and the reality of the power of females. While some dismissed Arabella as a coquette who simply used romance as a tool, Scott Paul Gordon said that she "exercises immense power without any consciousness of doing so". 
Plot: Arabella, the heroine of the novel, was brought up by her widowed father in a remote English castle, where she reads many French romance novels, and imagining them to be historically accurate, expects her life to be equally adventurous and romantic. When her father dies, he declared that she would lose part of her estate if she did not marry her cousin Glanville. After imagining wild fantasies for herself in the country, she visits Bath and London. Glanville is concerned at her mistaken ideas, but continues to love her, while Sir George Bellmour, his friend, attempts to court her in the same chivalric language and high-flown style as in the novels. When she throws herself into Thames in an attempt to flee from horsemen whom she mistakes to be "ravishers" in an imitation of Clélie, she becomes weak and ill. This action might have been inspired by the French satire The Mock-Clielia, in which the heroine "rode at full speed towards the great Canal which she took for theTyber, and whereinto she threw her self, that she might swim over in imitation of Clelia whom she believed her self to be. A clergyman reasons with her and makes her come to an understanding of the clash of mundane reality and literary illusion, at which she finally accepts Glanville's hand and marries him. In the novel, Arabella often speaks lengthily in defense and about the novels and their heroines.
Review: The romance was the major form of literature from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Romances were epic tales full of heroism, adventure and chivalry, sometimes involving gods or legendary figures. After the Renaissance came a slow transition to shorter, less epic and less fantastic forms of literature to what we now appreciate as the "novel". By the mid-1700s, when Charlotte Lennox wrote The Female Quixote, romances were considered by many as dangerous. With a comparatively large literate population and books becoming easier to mass produce, romances lead credulous readers to think that the dream worlds of heroism and fantasy were true. Or so some thought.
The Female Quixote is the story of Arabella who has lived in seclusion all her life. With only her recluse father and a mountain of old romances as companions, Arabella grows up thinking that the world of her books is the world that she lives in. All is fine and good in her quiet abode until her uncle and cousins arrive and she is thrown into society. You can hardly imagine the trouble she gets into. Any man riding a horse is a probable ravisher. Any gardener with a literate accent is a man in disguise intending to carry her away. A small argument between two young men will no doubt turn into a bloody duel over the affections of a lady.
The story is bit sluggish at times, but always full of strange and funny episodes. Particularly funny is the history of Sir George, one of Arabella's many admirers. He recounts his life story (or what he wants Arabella to believe it is), complete with a dethroned Prince, bloody duels, imprisonment and multiple damsels in distress.
Opening Line: The Marquis of ------ for a long Series of Years, was the first and most distinguished Favourite at Court: He held the most honourable Employments under the Crown, disposed of all Places of Profit as he pleased, presided at the Council, and in a manner governed the whole Kingdom.”
Closing Line: “We chuse, Reader, to express this Circumstance, though the same, in different Words, as well to avoid Repetition, as to intimate that the first mentioned Pair were indeed only married in the common Acceptation of the Word; that is, they were privileged to join Fortunes, Equipages, Titles, and Expence; while Mr. Glanville and Arabella were united, as well in these, as in every Virtue and laudable Affection of the Mind.”
Quotes: “Alas! unfortunate Maid that I am! cried she, weeping excessively, questionless I am betrayed by her on whose Fidelity I relied, and who was acquainted with my most secret Thoughts: She is now with my Ravisher, directing his Pursuit, and I have no Means of escaping from his Hands! Cruel and ungrateful Wench, thy unparalleled Treachery grieves me no less than all my other Misfortunes: But why do I say, Her Treachery is unparalleled? Did not the wicked Arianta betray her Mistress into the Power of her insolent Lover? Ah! Arabella, thou art not single in thy Misery, since the divine Mandana was, like thyself, the Dupe of a mercenary Servant.”
Rating: Long and tedious.

505. A Maggot – John Fowles

History: This book was written in 1985. Its title, as the author explains in the prologue, is taken from the archaic sense of the word that means "whim", "quirk", "obsession", or even a snatch of music (see earworm). Another meaning of the word "maggot" becomes apparent later in the novel, used by a character to describe a white, oblong machine that appears to be a spacecraft. Though the author denies that A Maggot is a historical novel, it does take place during a precise historical timeframe, May 1736 to February 1737, in England. It might be variously classified as historical fiction, mystery, or science fiction. Because of the narrative style and various metafictional devices, most critics classify it as a postmodern novel. 
Plot: The book opens with an objective narration about a group of five travellers traveling through Exmoor in rural England. They arrive at an inn in a small village, and soon it becomes clear that they are not who they seem to be. The "maid" Louise casually rebuffs the sexual advances of the servant, Dick Thurlow, but then goes to his master's room and undresses before them both. Bartholomew calls his supposed uncle "Lacy" and they discuss Bartholomew's refusal to disclose his journey's secret purpose, as well as fate versus free will. Eventually the narration stops and is followed by letters, interview transcripts, and snatches of more third-person narration, interspersed by facsimile pages from contemporary issues of The Gentleman's Magazine. We learn from a fictional news story that a man has been found hanged near the place where the travellers were staying.
The subsequent interviews are conducted by Henry Ayscough, a lawyer employed by Bartholomew's father, who is a Duke. The interviews reveal that Bartholomew had hired the party to travel with him but deceived them about the purpose of his journey. Variations of his story are (1) he was on his way to elope against the wishes of family; (2) he was visiting a wealthy, aged aunt to secure an inheritance from her; (3) he was seeking a cure for impotence; (4) he was pursuing some scientific or occult knowledge, possibly concerning knowledge of the future. He takes Rebecca and Dick to a cave in a remote area. Rebecca's initial tale, retold by Jones, is that he there performed a satanic ritual, and Rebecca herself was raped by Satan and forced to view a panorama of human suffering and cruelty. Rebecca's own testimony admits this was a deception to quiet Jones. She says that she actually saw Bartholomew meet a noble lady who took them all inside a strange floating craft (which she calls "the maggot"). In this craft she sees what she describes as a divine revelation of heaven ("June Eternal") and the Shaker Trinity (Father, Son, and femaleHoly Spirit or "Mother Wisdom"). She also sees a vision of human suffering and cruelty in this version of her story. Modern readers may interpret her visions as films and her overall experience as a contact with time travellers or extraterrestrials. Rebecca then loses consciousness; she wakes, finds Jones outside the cave, and they leave together. She then tells Jones the satanic version of her experience. Meanwhile, Jones has seen Dick leave the cave in terror, presumably to go hang himself.
Rebecca later finds herself pregnant. She returns to her Quaker parents but then converts to Shakerism, marries a blacksmith named John Lee, and gives birth to Ann Lee, the future leader of the American Shakers. The mystery of Bartholomew's disappearance is never solved, and Ayscough surmises that he committed suicide out of guilt from his disobedience to his father in the matter of an arranged marriage.
Review: The novel's narrative technique of using letters, interviews, a fictional news story (see false document), and real historical documents harks back to, and to some extent satirizes, the conventions in place early in the history of the novel, when the epistolary novel was the most common form. (Fowles' book is set in 1736, just a few decades after the first novels in English, and just a few years before Samuel Richardson's landmark Pamela.) Originally, these strategies were intended to strengthen the illusion of reality and mitigate the fictionality of fiction; Fowles uses them ironically to highlight the disconnect between fiction and reality. At several points in the novel, the characters or narrator foreground their existence as characters in a story, further highlighting the book's fictionality. Moreover, the novel resists many conventions of fiction, such as the omniscient narrator (Fowles' narrator seems omniscient but divulges little of importance) and the drive for climax and resolution. In particular, the novel resists the convention of detective fiction which satisfies the desire for a final solution.
The novel also examines the nature of history, historiography, and criminal justice, as Ayscough represents the historian/judge trying to create a coherent narrative out of problematic testimonies. The "maggot" itself, as a possible time machine, represents historians as intruders in the past who alter it according to their own desires and needs. The power struggle between Aysough and Rebecca to create the narrative of the past problematizes the objectivity of history, making it subordinate to interests of social class and gender. In the end, Fowles uses Rebecca and Ayscough as representatives of two classes of people, one subjective, intuitive, mystical, artistic (i.e., "right-brained"); the other objective, analytical, and judgmental (i.e., "left-brained"). See cerebral hemisphere.
Finally, Fowles explicitly positions A Maggot in an era which, he claims, saw the beginning of modern selfhood (see self (psychology), self (philosophy), individual). Rebecca is a prototypical modern individual experiencing the difficulty of breaking free from the restraints of society and convention in order to be radically self-realized. In this we can see Fowles' residual existentialism, though the novel as a whole represents a move beyond existentialism. His postscript both praises the struggle for modern selfhood and criticizes it for having been co-opted by capitalism to create excessive consumerism.
Opening Line: “In the late and last afternoon of an April long ago, a forlorn little group of travellers cross a remote upland in the far south-west of England.”
Closing Line: “I mourn not the outward form, but the lost spirit, courage and imagination of Mother Ann Lee’s word, her Logos; its almost divine maggot.”
Quotes: “Shall I tell thee why they scorn?” She is silent. “Because thou dost not scorn them back.”
Rating: Difficult to follow. Needs a reread.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

504. The End of the Road – John Barth

History: This novel was first published in 1958 with a revised edition in 1967. The novel is often paired, both by critics and by Barth himself, with its predecessor, The Floating Opera; both were written in 1955, and the two novels are available together in a one-volume edition. Both are philosophical novels, with The End of the Road picking up The Floating Opera's protagonist's conclusion about absolute values, and taking the idea "to the end of the road". Both novels were written in a realistic mode, in contrast to Barth's better-known metafictional, fabulist and postmodern works from the 1960s on, like The Sot-Weed Factor and Lost in the Funhouse. Jacob Horner is one of the seven main characters in Barth's epistolary novel LETTERS, most of whom come from Barth's previous novels.
A 1970 film loosely based on the novel stars James Earl Jones, Stacy Keach and Harris Yulin in their earliest feature roles. It was rated X, partially because of a graphic abortion scene.
Plot: Jacob (or "Jake") Horner, the first-person author of this confession, suffers from "cosmopsis"—an inability to choose from among all possible choices he can imagine. His cosmopsis completely paralyzes him in the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Baltimore just after his 28th birthday, having abandoned his graduate studies at John Hopkins University. He is taken in by a nameless African-American doctor who claims to specialize in such conditions. At the doctor's private therapy center called the Remobilization Farm, Jake is given "mythotherapy", instructed to read Sartre, and to assign "masks" to himself and abolish the ego. Horner would thus get over his paralysis by inducing action through taking on symbolic roles.
As part of his schedule of therapies, Jake takes a job teaching at Wicomico State Teachers College, where he becomes friends with the history teacher Joe Morgan and his wife Rennie. Joe and Jake enjoy intellectually sparring, participating in a "duel of articulations". The philosophical Morgans have a marriage in which all must be articulated, and in which "the parties involved be able to take each other seriously".
While Joe is busy working at his Ph.D. dissertation, he encourages Rennie to teach Jake horseback riding. She does, and the two talk at length about the Morgans' unusual relationship. After returning from one of their outings, Jake encourages a resistant Rennie to spy on her husband. She is convinced that "real people" like Joe are not "any different when they are alone. No mask. What you see of them is authentic." What she sees of him is disorients her and her vison of the reality of Joe.
When Joe discovers that Jake and Rennie have committed adultery, he insists they maintain the affair, in an effort to discover the reasons for his wife's unfaithfulness. Rennie discovers she is pregnant, but cannot be sure whether Joe or Jake is the father. The Morgans visit Jake, Joe with Colt .45 in hand. Rennie insists on having an abortion, or she will commit suicide. Jake hunts for an abortionist under an assumed name, but is unable to find a doctor who will agree to the procedure, and thus turns to the Doctor. The abortion is botched, resulting in Rennie's death. Jake does not know what to feel, and "crave[s] responsibility". His relativist "cosmopsis" confirmed, he reverts to his paralysis. Two years later, as part of his Scriptotherapy on the Remobilization Farm, he writes his story of what happened in Wicomico.
Review: The End of the Road is John Barth`s second novel and it tells the story of Jacob Horner, a man that is affected by emotional paralysis. He cannot isolate or identify himself in a singular mood, or “weather”, as he calls them, and is quickly shifting between anger, happiness, or boredom, usually describing them in detail as they occur. Accompanying him are three others, the Doctor, Joe Morgan and Rennie Morgan.
Joe Morgan is the total opposite of Jacob. He is full of sentiment, he knows well enough where he is going in life and what life consists of. One might say he knows it to well thus loosing he`s humor or sense of the absurd, becoming dull. They are both intellectuals, but while Horner is lost, and cannot grasp the real meaning of the times he is living in, Morgan is not unadapted because, according to his own words, he knows all too well what is “horseshit”, and what is not.
At the center of these two characters lays Rennie, the wife of Morgan, a blank sheet of paper who has absorbed, in detail, the ideas, gestures, and ways of life of her husband. Joe has become the creator of her world, and has taken the role of God. And as a true zealot(maybe suffering of the Stockholm syndrome) she is afraid but at the same time worships him, and as a response, Morgan treats her accordingly, through a reward/punishment system.
The Doctor is a mysterious protagonist of the novel, he has no name, and he comes to balance in a way the two sides. He wants to help Jake settle he`s emotional state through a series of unconventional therapies such as sex therapy, pugilistic therapy etc. but ends up becoming some sort of Mefisto like character.
Never reaching a state of clarity, Horner unwillingly starts to wear different emotional masks, and seduces Rennie. She has sex with him, but regrets it immediately and tells Joe. At this time Joe is face with o problem, and for the first time in his life he cannot offer himself a viable explanation. In order to find one he orders his wife to continue having sex with Jake, until they could provide a satisfactory reason why they did it.
The end of the novel comes swiftly and rather dark. She gets pregnant, and not knowing for sure who is the father, the option is an abortion. She dies in the Doctor`s clinic choking on her own vomit while trying to get rid of her offspring. Horner has failed he`s treatment by causing her death, and returns to the state of paralysis which consumed him before starting his therapy.
Being a postmodern writing there are numerous references and the most important one is to Laocoon, the Trojan who saw behind the Athenians plan to conquer the city with the famous wooden horse. Later, he was blinded by Athena using two serpents(maybe the serpents are Joe and Rennie). The point is that, Horner can see behind the masks other people are wearing, even if he at one point wears one. To use a metaphor, a thief knows another, and he cannot be fooled by the empty discourses of his counterpart, Joe Morgan. And same as Laocoon, he ends up blind, trapped in a state of inability to “see” anymore, punished because he was unable to live by society`s rules.
Maybe in order to survive you must accept either compromise or create a complex system of values able to withstand the harshest of ideologies and social beliefs, but this might lead you to superficiality. Even if at some point the text is covered in a shell of humor and irony the denouement is gloomy and the message scary: the human design is of a complex nature and is proportionally frail.
But Barth is missing something, maybe it`s the straightforwardness of Roth, or the subtle humor of Vonnegut, the characters are sometimes predictable in behavior and dialogue the sincerity of the denouement is arguable and the premise from which it starts is at certain points obsolete, at least in my point of view. However, over all, it stands on its own giving a fine example of a postmodern novel tackling specific postmodern subjects.
Opening Line: “In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.”
Closing Line: “Terminal.”
Quotes: “Articulation! There, by Joe, was MY absolute, if I could be said to have one. At any rate, it is the only thing I can think of about which I ever had, with any frequency at all, the feelings one usually has for one's absolutes. To turn experience into speech - that is, to classify, to categorize, to conceptualize, to grammarize, to syntactify it - is always a betrayal of experience, a falsification of it; but only so betrayed can it be dealt with at all, and only in so dealing with it did I ever feel a man, alive and kicking.”
Rating: Difficult.

503. London Fields – Martin Amis

History: This book was published in 1989. Regarded by Amis's readership as possibly his strongest novel, the tone gradually shifts from high comedy, interspersed with deep personal introspections, to a dark sense of foreboding and eventually panic at the approach of the deadline, or "horrorday", the climactic scene alluded to on the very first page.
Plot: London Fields is set in London in 1999 against a backdrop of environmental, social and moral degradation, and the looming threat of world instability and nuclear war(referred to as "The Crisis").
The characters have few, if any, redeeming features. Samson Young (Sam), the unreliable narrator of the novel, is an American, a failed non-fiction writer with decades-long writer's block, and is slowly dying of some sort of terminal cancer. Recently arrived in London, he immediately meets Keith Talent, a cheat (small-time criminal) and aspiring professional darts player, at Heathrow Airport where Keith is posing as a minicab driver. Keith gives Sam an extortionately priced ride into town. The two converse in Keith's car, and Keith invites Sam to the Black Cross, a pub on the Portobello Road, Keith's main hangout. At the Black Cross, Sam meets Guy Clinch, a rich upper-class banker who is bored with life, with his terrifyingly snobbish American wife, Hope, and his out-of-control toddler, Marmaduke. Shortly after, the two both meet the anti-heroine, Nicola Six, a 34 year old local resident, of uncertain nationality, who has entered the pub after attending a funeral, a hobby of hers.
Later that the same day, Sam sees Nicola dramatically dumping what turn out to be her diaries in a litter bin outside the flat where he is staying (it belongs to Mark Asprey, a wildly successful English writer). The diaries tell Sam that Nicola believes she can somehow see her own future, and, bored with life and fearing the aging process, is plotting her own murder for midnight on November 5, her 35th birthday. Sam, who considers that he lacks the imagination and courage to write fiction, realises he can simply document the progress towards the murder to create a plausible, lucrative, story. He assumes that Keith, the bad guy, will be the murderer. Sam enters into a strange relationship with Nicola where he regularly interviews her and is updated on the "plot".
The novel proceeds on the basis that Keith Talent, the known criminal, will kill Nicola Six, with Guy Clinch as the fall guy necessary to provoke him into doing it (and, incidentally, to provide funds to help Talent avoid being beaten up by loan sharks, and to further his darts career so he can appear in the Sparrow Masters darts final the day before the planned murder). But there is an unexpected twist at the finale. Amis hints at a false ending, in one of Samson Young's terrifying dreams, simply to confuse the reader.
Keith regularly cheats on and abuses his wife. He regularly sleeps with an underage girl in return for cash payments to her mother. He drinks, gambles, and takes part in burglaries and semi-violent crime (although he is unable to follow through with actual violent crime). He is addicted to pornography and television to the extent that he is unable to distinguish reality from what is shown on the screen. He has raped several women in the past (including his wife).
Nicola is a self-styled "murderee", who manipulates the entire cast of characters to bring about her own murder so that she will not have to face ageing, a natural process that she hates as she fears the loss of her attractiveness and power to manipulate men, as well as the indignities of decay and old age. She describes herself as a failed suicide, who must find her murderer if she is to successfully end her life. She spins a different story to each of the three male characters (Sam, Keith and Guy). To Guy, she pretends she is a frigid, sexually timid virgin: she tells him that her childhood in a dreadful orphanage and her friendship with a tragic girl called Enola Gay who is raped by a "pitiless Iraqi" and who produces a child called Little Boy, has left her unable to form a sexual relationship with any man, but that Guy has awakened the possibility in her. Feigning love for Guy, she teases him sexually at every opportunity, pretending she is too afraid and too unready to "go the whole way" with him, until his unsatisfiable and excruciating lust induces him to leave his wife and child and to give her a very large sum of money which he believes will help her bring the fictional Enola Gay and Little Boy to London. Nicola insists that Guy leave his wife and son in order to consummate their relationship, and Guy does so, destroying his family life. To Keith, Nicola styles herself as a rich, knowing woman of the world, a former one-night-stand of the Shah of Iran, who recognises him for what he truly is - a darts prodigy and future darts and TV personality. She gives Keith Guy's money, which he spends on ridiculous clothes and accessories. Keith, a pornography aficionado (and addict) is kept keen by regular "home videos" created by Nicola, starring herself. To Sam, Nicola pretends to tell the whole truth, but in fact manipulates him as well, in a way that is apparent to the reader only when Sam himself realises - at the end of the story.
Guy is an idle, rich dreamer whose relationship with his "frightening wife" is sexless after the birth of their uncontrollable son, Marmaduke, who seems to have a violent Oedipal complex. Guy cheats on his wife, and finally leaves her and his son to be with Nicola, although at the end, when he realises what Nicola is, he goes back home.
Sam is a failed writer who selfishly uses the three main characters in order to have a chance at writing a popular and successful novel. Although he knows that Keith is abusing his wife and someone is abusing their baby daughter, he does not intervene until the very end to remove the child from Keith's care.
Review: One of the central themes of the novel is the link between reading and information-gathering, and the (un)reliability of written information, of narrators and narrative. Frederick Holmes writes that the novel dramatizes a contest for authorship. All the main characters are authors of one kind or another, supplying Sam with written material, competing with each other to shape the narrative: Nicola's diaries, Guy's short stories and Keith's own darting diary together with his cheat's brochure of goods and services. In the shadows of the novel is the mysterious Mark Asprey, whose pen-name, or one of them, is also Marius Appleby, initials MA. As Mark Asprey, he writes what appear to be highly popular fiction, translated into innumerable languages. As Marius Appleby, he writes what appears to be a true-life memoir of his seduction of a large-bosomed lady on an exotic foreign exploration. But (as we learn at every turn) the written word deceives us: Asprey prints his own translations to look impressive and Appleby's memoir is exaggerated to the point of being untrue. At the end of the novel, it appears that Asprey has appropriated Sam's narrative for his own. Asprey is not famous for writing: he is famous for being famous - for publicity. One of the protagonists in Appleby's "memoir" complains of the inaccuracies in the text in a magazine article - another gossip column, a piece of popular media, whose own accuracy we cannot trust.
Mass media has corrupted the ability to read and led to disorientation, heavy reliance is placed on gossip and tabloids, neither of which can pass any test of accuracy. When Kath, Keith's wife, wants to read "the proper papers", she has to go to the library: her husband's tabloids don't make any mention of world affairs, it is impossible to tell what is happening from them. Keith's obsession with television, and with the fast-forwarded, freeze-frame version of television that he screens nightly, and with his tabloid newspaper "The Daily Lark", is so great that he becomes confused with reality. When he stars in the darts "docu-drama" - itself implying a dangerous mixture, or confusion, of reality and TV-fiction, he is unable to cope with the concept and it is Nicola who must "translate him" for TV. .
London Fields is a park in Hackney, east London, but the novel is set in west London, like most of Amis's work. The park in which the narrator, Sam, walks with various characters — Nicola Six, Guy Clinch and Keith Talent — is Hyde Park in central London. Sam reminisces that he played in "London Fields" as a boy, and wants to return there before his death. It is not clear whether the "London Fields" he refers to is the real-life East London park, or whether it has another meaning. The title suggests a paradox: a rural or pastoral place within a modern urban setting. Sam's narrative refers again to this inherent paradox, as he remarks that in London "there are no fields", only fields of attraction and repulsion, only force fields. The title indicates to the reader the ambiguities inherent in Amis's creation of an imagined London: there is a conflict between the descriptions of London locations within the novel and their location in reality. The topography of the imagined city cannot fit exactly onto the topography of the real city. Just as Sam realises that "this is London and there are no fields", and just as he is unable to return to the "London Fields" of his childhood, it is similarly impossible for us to return to the stage of London as a field. London Fields exists simultaneously as a real place in the real London, and as an imagined and dreamed-of place "present all along" on every page of the novel, and the scene of a murder.
Opening Line: “This is a true story but I can’t believe it’s really happening.”
Closing Line: “It was me.”
Quotes: “He thought of her often – while inspecting a shop window in Oxford Street, while haring after his scattered urges in the last moments before sleep, while finishing himself off with Trish Shirt.”
Rating: Difficult and basically unreadable.

502. Wild Swans – Jung Chang

History: First published in 1991, Wild Swans contains the biographies of her grandmother and her mother, then finally her own autobiography.
The biggest grossing non-fiction paperback in publishing history, it sold more than 10m copies worldwide and was translated into 30 languages. It wasn't just a popular success appealing mainly to women (as is sometimes sniffily assumed), it was also acclaimed by literary heavyweights such as Martin Amis and JG Ballard.
Published two years after the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Jung Chang's family memoir, following the lives of three generations of women through China's terrible 20th century, arrived at just the right time to satisfy a readership hungry for information about this unknown country. For many in the west, Wild Swans was their first real insight into life under the Chinese Communist party.
The book won two awards: the 1992 NCR Book Award and the 1993 British Book of the Year. The book has been translated into 30 languages and sold over 10 million copies. Wild Swans was first translated into Chinese and published in mainland China in 1997.
Plot: The book starts by relating the biography of Chang's grandmother (Yu-fang). From the age of two, she had bound feet. As the family was relatively poor, her father schemed to have her taken as a concubine to a high-ranking warlord General Xue Zhi-heng, in order to gain status, which was hugely important in terms of quality of life. After a wedding ceremony to the General, who already had a wife and many concubines, the young girl was left alone in a wealthy household with servants, and did not see her "husband" again for six years. Despite her luxurious surroundings, life was tense as she feared the servants and the wife of the General would report rumors or outright lies to him. She was not even allowed to visit her parents home.
After his six year absence, the General made a brief conjugal visit to his concubine, during which a daughter, Chang's mother, was conceived. General did not stay there for long, even to see his daughter but he named his daughter Bao Qin meaning precious zither. During the child's infancy, Chang's grandmother put off persistent requests for her to be brought to the General's main household, until he became very ill and it was no longer a request. Chang's grandmother had no choice but to comply. During her visit to the household, the General was dying. The general had no male heir, and Chang's mother was very important to the family. Realizing that the General's wife would have complete control over her life and her child's, when he would die, Chang's grandmother fled with her baby to her parents' home, sending false word to her husband's family that the child had died. With his last words, the General unexpectedly proclaimed her free at age twenty-four. Eventually she married a much older doctor (Dr. Xia) with whom she and her daughter, Chang's mother, made a home in Jinzhou, Manchuria. She was no more a concubine, but a true, beloved wife.
The book now moves to the story of Chang's mother (Bao Qin/De-hong), who at the age of fifteen, began working for the Communist Party of China and Mao Zedong's Red Army. As the Revolution progressed, her work for the party helped her rise through the ranks. She met the man who would become Chang's father (Wang Yu/Shou-yu), a high-ranking officer. The couple were soon married but Communist Party dictates meant they were not allowed to spend much time together. Eventually, the couple were transferred to Yibin, Chang's father's hometown. It was a long and arduous trek. Chang's mother traveled on foot because of her rank, while her father rode in a Jeep. He was not aware that Chang's mother was pregnant. After arrival at Nanjing, Chang's mother undertook gruelling military training. After the strain of the training coupled with the journey, she suffered a miscarriage. Chang's father swore to never again be inattentive to his wife's needs.
In the following years Chang's mother gave birth to Jung and four other children. The focus of the book now shifts again to cover Jung's own autobiography.
The Cultural Revolution started when Chang was a teenager. Chang willingly joined the Red Guards though she recoiled from some of their brutal actions. As Mao's personality cult grew, life became more difficult and dangerous. Chang's father became a target for the Red Guards when he mildly but openly criticised Mao due to the suffering caused to Chinese people by the Cultural Revolution. Chang's parents were labeled as capitalist roaders and made subjects of public struggle meetings and torture. Chang recalls that her father deteriorated physically and mentally, until his eventual death. Her father's treatment prompted Chang's previous doubts about Mao to come to the fore. Like thousands of other young people, Chang was sent down to the countryside for education and thought reform by the peasants, a difficult, harsh and pointless experience. At the end of the Cultural Revolution Chang returned home and worked hard to gain a place at university. Not long after she succeeded, Mao died. The whole nation was shocked in mourning, though Chang writes that: "People had been acting for so long they confused it with their true feelings. I wondered how many of the tears were genuine". Chang said that she felt exhilarated by Mao's death.
At university Chang studied English. After her graduation and a stint as an assistant lecturer, she won a scholarship to study in England and left for her new home. She still lives in England today and visits mainland China on occasion to see her family and friends there, with permission from Chinese authorities.
Review: In Wild Swans Jung Chang recounts the evocative, unsettling, and insistently gripping story of how three generations of women in her family fared in the political maelstrom of China during the 20th century. Chang's grandmother was a warlord's concubine. Her gently raised mother struggled with hardships in the early days of Mao's revolution and rose, like her husband, to a prominent position in the Communist Party before being denounced during the Cultural Revolution. Chang herself marched, worked, and breathed for Mao until doubt crept in over the excesses of his policies and purges. Born just a few decades apart, their lives overlap with the end of the warlords' regime and overthrow of the Japanese occupation, violent struggles between the Kuomintang and the Communists to carve up China, and, most poignant for the author, the vicious cycle of purges orchestrated by Chairman Mao that discredited and crushed millions of people, including her parents.
Opening Line: “At the age of fifteen, my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general, the police chief of a tenuous national government of China.”
Closing Line: “There have been moments of frustration in the years of hard work, and times I exclaimed to myself and to friends, “I’m fed up,” but I am in seventh heaven.”
Quotes: “The Cultural Revolution not only did nothing to modernize the medieval elements in China’s culture, it actually gave them political respectability. ‘Modern’ dictatorship and ancient intolerance fed on each other. Anyone who fell foul of the age-old conservative attitudes could now become a political victim.”
Rating: Awesome!!

501. A Woman’s Life – Guy DeMaupassant

History: This book was published in 1883.
Plot: In the spring of 1819, Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds and her parents go to live in an old chateau, The Poplars, on the Normandy coast. Baron Simon-Jacques Le Perthuis des Vauds was left a large inheritance, but he so reduces it by his freehandedness that he is eventually forced to reconcile himself for the remainder of his days to a simple country life.
Jeanne, who spent the preceding five years in a convent, looks forward happily to her new life and dreams of the day when she will find the man who loves her.
She falls in love quickly and gets married thereafter thinking all the joy will follow as is expected. Slowly the fog lifts, she becomes aware of the person her husband is
Her husband gradually takes over the estate and all its doings and her parents placid acceptance of his misdoings turn her into a passive and apathetic being. She stops caring about the open dalliances of her husband and turns to her child and religion for emotional support.The church, in its rigidity demands a too steep price from her and the child ,in his immature ways ultimately betrays her too.
She turns totally inward and looks upon life as something which has treated her un-fair..
The journey of her life from an optimistic wide-eyed girl to a fatalistic and wounded grandmother is so vivid that you have a feeling of having lived a lifetime in the span of the book...and a sad life that is..with no hope of redemption or any hint of happy ending..what is the point of that story it seems..
Review: It is the story of Jeanne, an exuberant and imaginative girl of noble birth ,who has all the dreams and aspiration of youth - finding love and living the dream life.
She is the only child of her parents and never seen any of her wishes thwarted, cosseted and protected that she is from all the harsh realities of life.
Guy De Maupassant seems to be the greatest French short story writer of 19th century, influenced by Gustav Flaubert .
This novel is written in the naturalist style i.e portraying things as they are which might be harsh and stark sometimes i.e poverty, indifference, sexuality, prostitution etc .
 Maupassant's novel is set in Normandy, in a manor house with the surrounding countryside. It is a political and social microclimate. Paris is a very long way away, and the larger events of France, as it emerges from the turmoil of the Revolution and the Napoleonic period are not related. The novel is primarily a character study of Jeanne, the woman born of the manor, and a coterie of friends and relatives, who disappoint her, and ultimately lead her to ruin.
Philandering, political or otherwise, is not a monopoly of the United States, in the early 21st Century. It was the accepted norm of the French countryside, and even the prudent priests looked the other way. Jeanne is truly disillusioned when she realizes that even her own mother was guilty of it. Religious fanaticism? Maupassant draws a telling portrait of a priest who believes he truly is God's personal agent on earth, and manages to manipulate particularly the women in a most vindictive manner. One of the priest's classic lines, as relevant today as when it was written: "In order to be powerful and respected, we must act together. If the church and the mansion go hand in hand, the cottage will fear us and obey." A hierarchical society? As the gap between rich and poor continues to increase in the United States, accompanied by the propaganda that this is the natural course of "free markets," it's important to reflect on a society that still had serious economic disparities even after its Revolution.
Opening Line: “Jeanne, having finished her packing, went to the window, but it had not stopped raining.“
Closing Line: “After all, life is never so jolly or so miserable as people seem to think.”
Quotes: “In her heart she felt resentful towards Julien for not understanding as much, for lacking this finer sense of modesty, this instinctive delicacy of feeling; and she felt as though there was a veil between them, a barrier, and realized for the first time that two people are never completely one in their heart of hearts, in their deepest thoughts, that they walk side by side, entwined sometimes but never completely united, and that in our moral being we each of us remain forever alone throughout our lives.”
“Habit spread over her life like a layer of resignation like the chalky deposit left on the ground by certain kinds of of water.”
Rating: Depressing.

Friday, August 17, 2012

500. Roxana, The Unfortunate Mistress – Daniel Defoe

History: Published in 1724, the novel examines the possibility of eighteenth century women owning their own estate despite a patriarchal society. The novel further draws attention to the incompatibility between sexual freedom and freedom from motherhood. Roxana becomes pregnant many times due to her sexual exploits, and it is one of her children who come back to expose her, years later, by the closing scenes in the novel. The character of Roxana can be described as a proto-feminist because she carries out her actions of prostitution for her own ends of freedom, but before a feminist ideology was fully formed.[
The novel concerns the story of an unnamed "fallen woman", the second time Defoe created such a character (the first was a similar female character in Moll Flanders). In Roxana, a woman who takes on various pseudonyms, including "Roxana," describes her fall from wealth thanks to abandonment by a "fool" of a husband and movement into prostitution upon his abandonment. Roxana moves up and down through the social spectrum several times, by contracting an ersatz marriage to a jeweler, secretly courting a prince, being offered marriage by a Dutch merchant, and is finally able to afford her own freedom by accumulating wealth from these men.
Plot: Roxana or The Fortunate Mistress was published in 1724. It is supposed to be a biography of one Madamoselle Beleau, the lovely daughter of French Protestant refugees, brought up in England and married to a good-for-nothing son of an English brewer.
Roxana's husband squanders his property and abandons his wife and five children. She enters upon a career of a mistress, first to the landlord in whose house she and her husband were renting, and then to a series of wealthy aristocrats and businessmen in three countries, England, France and Holland. She acquires her name of "Roxana," traditionally given to stage actresses, after she had returned to London from Europe, and become a famous courtesan.
She is accompanied in her adventures by a faithful maid, Amy, a very lively, attractive and intelligent woman. After many adventures with many men and women, most of whom amazingly, are good decent people who do not take advantage of a beautiful abandoned woman in distress (hence the title of the story—"The Fortunate Mistress"), she finally marries a Dutch merchant who has been her long time lover and friend and even the father to one of her sons. However, in a rather a hurried end to the story, the husband discovers the deceitful and immoral life his wife has led and dies shortly after leaving a her a small sum of money.
Interestingly, the ending of Roxana is shrouded in dispute. In Defoe's original version the protagonist does notdie, but repents for the life she has lived, and that too—according to Roxana herself—only because she comes to an unhappy end after the death of her husband. However, the book, because it was published anonymously (as was often the case with fictitious histories in those days) and then went through several questionable editions, later interpolators gave the story various endings, all of which has the protagonist die repenting her life full of sins. In fact, no less an authoritative encyclopedia than the Oxford Companion to English Literature says that at the end of the book Roxana dies repentant. In Defoe's 1724 version, she does not.
This controversy has led to interesting discussions among scholars regarding the moral purpose of the story of Roxana.
Review: Lady Roxana is one of 4 novels written by Daniel Defoe. The story is about the life of lady Roxana, narrated by herself. The plot is quite simple. Roxana is a beautiful woman who becomes an upper-class prostitute to save herself from poverty. She travels a lot and gives birth to 12 children. Still, the book can exercise a special power over the reader - at least, that's what happened to me. Actually, one of the reasons why I really love it is not in the subject but in Defoe's attitude regarding his protagonist. He is a man: an Eighteenth Century man. He writes about a woman involved in prostitution, murder, and her inability to have motherly feelings. Still, he never judges Roxana as a character. He just comments and judge actions in general and all the other characters - but there is always a sort of protection toward Roxana.
When I read the book for the first time it was after getting passionate for another of Defoe's novels, Moll Flanders. Again, the story of a woman who uses her body to save herself from poverty. However, it's important to point out that Moll, unlike Roxana, chooses a "legal and moral way", that is to say marriage. Roxana is harder to read, maybe because of the major themes, and probably because of the fact that the writing isn't as fluent and "easy going" as in the previous novel. Still,Roxana attracts me more.
As a modern reader and, most of all, as a woman, I guess at times the book pretty much seems, to me, to be of a special kind. Obviously, prostitution is not to be encouraged (both men and women would agree with that) but it's the way Defoe deals with his character that makes the book "special". A man whose description of a woman is based on a "being positive all the time". She is as beautiful as an angel. She is pure - it's others who make her guilty!. She is intelligent and able to improve her abilities (Roxana becomes very good in administrating her fortune, ability which is particularly important considering the century and the central role given to economics). Furthermore, the idea of men that emerges from the book is totally negative (if not totally, then 90%).
The decision of writing a book for women as if he was a woman himself sounds even more interesting to me considering the fact that at the end of the previous century Defoe wrote a sort of "feminist pamphlet", "An Academy for Women" in which he expresses many of the ideas that, long time after, feminist writers will. For example, the necessity for women to have a proper education and become independent from everybody (including husband and father!).
I guess the only argument Defoe didn't deal with in a credible "feminine" way is motherhood. Actually, Roxana has 12 children but she seems to be totally incapable of feeling real affection for them. She just gives birth to them and, soon after that, stops mentioning them. The only one she talks a lot about is also the one who will be killed: Susan. I confess this sounds particularly curious to me because of the fact that Defoe himself had several children and is often described as a good caring father.
Opening Line: “I was born, as my friends told me, at the city of Poitiers, in the province or county of Poitou, in France, from whence I was brought to England by my parents, who fled for their religion about the year 1683, when the Protestants were banished from France by the cruelty of their persecutors.”
Closing Line: “And having, as she believed, made her peace with God, she died with mere grief on the 2nd of July 1742, in the sixty-fifth year of her age, and was decently buried by me in the churchyard belonging to the Lutherans, in the city of Amsterdam.”
Quotes: "At about fifteen years of age my father gave me, as he called it in French, 25,000 livres, that is to say, two thousand pounds portion, and married me to an eminent brewer in the City. Pardon me if I conceal his name, for though he was the foundation of my ruin, I cannot take so severe a revenge upon him…”
Rating: Entertaining.

499. The Colour – Rose Tremain

History: Published in 2003, this book is set in New Zealand. 
Plot: Joseph and Harriet Blackstone, and Joseph's mother Lilian, are immigrants from England on the SS Albert into the South Island of New Zealand in 1860s. After settling the two women into accommodation in Christchurch, Joseph travels to the foothills near the Okuku river to build their Cob House. Joseph returns to Christchurch once the house has been built and the three of them set off to start their new lives on their farm.
The harsh first winter brings with it problems which threaten the viability of their farm, but Joseph's chance finding of gold in the nearby creek changes the situation. Not telling Harriet about the find, Joseph abandons the farm and travels by boat to Hokitika on the West Coast of the South Island where major gold strikes have occurred.
After Lilian's death, Harriet also travels to Hokitika and delivers that news to Joseph. The search for gold, the 'colour', goes on in difficult conditions. Joseph's encounters with Will Sefton, a young man whom he met on the boat bringing them to the West Coast, and Pao Yi, a Chinese gardener befriended by Harriet, add flavour to the dynamics of the searching couple's relationship which has become distant and strained. Joseph's guilt surrounding events in England prior to their emigration impact on this separation.
Review: The Colour finds oneself on the edge of survival in the bleak plains of New Zealand's South Island, with Harriet and Joseph Blackstone and his mother Lilian. Newlyweds from England, the Blackstones know nothing: they do not understand the land they have come to, and they certainly do not understand each other.
Joseph, apparently 'rather an ordinary man', has left England of necessity, having done something mysterious and terrible; Harriet, on the other hand, is an adventurous sort, who always longed to go 'beyond the boundaries society had set for her' during her 12 years as a governess. While they are jointly occupied in scraping a living from the inhospitable soil of their farm, their marriage seems sturdy enough, despite a series of disasters, but when Joseph glimpses a way of literally scraping a rather easier living - when he finds gold dust, or 'the colour', in their creek - their shared dream begins to rupture.
Tremain has said that she was moved to write about the mid-19th-century gold rush in New Zealand by the desperate flimsiness of the prospectors' tools, which she saw in a museum there, and she is particularly good at describing optimism in the face of overwhelming odds. The novel is about hope, or the point at which hope becomes destructive or turns into madness. Joseph dreams of gold, which he believes will allow him to atone for his disgraceful secret; Harriet dreams, more reasonably you might think, of 'land and children': but neither dream looks likely to come true.
In pursuit of their dreams, and later of each other, they pit themselves against some of the island's most hostile terrain. These are the sequences in the novel that will stay with you. Buildings collapse without warning in the heat, or are entirely scoured away by drought and wind. Terrible snows and floods arrive suddenly, with disastrous consequences.
A passage around Cape Farewell in an old steamboat is evoked in painful detail: nausea, spray, cold, terror, the bruises caused by the rearing up of the ship's rail. Such is the care and pace of her writing that Tremain has at her disposal a range of special effects that would tax Hollywood technicians. To say it is an exciting read makes The Colour sound old-fashioned, but there are shocks on another level, too: a nasty anal rape, a botched abortion, and an incident of drug-fuelled sexual ecstasy which the Literary Review's bad sex panel may like to investigate.
Other characters made similarly vulnerable by hope cluster around the Blackstones - their apparently secure neighbours, Dorothy and Toby Orchard and their young son Edwin, and Edwin's nurse, Pare, whose Maori mysticism furnishes one of the weakest strands of the novel. Arriving halfway through is a Chinese market gardener, Pao Yi, who sells his produce to the desperate, bedraggled prospectors. Since Pao Yi is only character entirely reconciled to his situation, having few expectations beyond his neat, colourful patch of vegetables, it is inevitable that he too will find his life turned upside down by nature's random intervention.
It's an engrossing novel, an adventure story with a sensitive side; Robert Louis Stevenson with a fit of the vapours. Since Tremain's writing is celebrated for its richness, its sensuousness, it's a relief to report that the comparatively muted colours of The Colour are no obstacle to her readability. If anything, they allow it to shine even more brightly.
Opening Line: “The coldest winds came from the south, and the cob house had been built in the pathway of the winds.”
Closing Line: “When she came to the place where the cob house had stood, she saw that the tusset grass was long and green, and it had come clustering around the old range, as if to hide this embarrassing invention, so that the winds would no longer see it, no longer try to destroy it, only howl around it and pass on.”
Quotes: “She felt his hand on her brow, and the touch of this was the most beautiful thing that Harriet had ever experienced.”
Rating: Very Good.