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.

498. The Water Babies – Charles Kingsley

History: The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby is a children's novel. Written in 1862–1863 as a serial for Macmillan's Magazine, it was first published in its entirety in 1863. The book was extremely popular in England during its day, and was a mainstay of British children's literature for many decades.
Plot: The protagonist is Tom, a young chimney sweep, who falls into a river after encountering an upper-class girl named Ellie and being chased out of her house. There he dies and is transformed into a "water baby", as he is told by a caddis fly—an insect that sheds its skin—and begins his moral education. The story is thematically concerned with Christian redemption, though Kingsley also uses the book to argue that England treats its poor badly, and to question child labour, among other themes.
Tom embarks on a series of adventures and lessons, and enjoys the community of other water babies once he proves himself a moral creature. The major spiritual leaders in his new world are the fairies Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, and Mother Carey. Weekly, Tom is allowed the company of Ellie, who drowned after he did.
Grimes, his old master, drowns as well, and in his final adventure, Tom travels to the end of the world to attempt to help the man where he is being punished for his misdeeds. Tom helps Grimes to find repentance, and Grimes will be given a second chance if he can successfully perform a final penance. By proving his willingness to do things he does not like, if they are the right things to do, Tom earns himself a return to human form, and becomes "a great man of science" who "can plan railways, and steam-engines, and electric telegraphs, and rifled guns, and so forth". He and Ellie are united, although the book claims that they never marry.
Review: In the style of Victorian-era novels, The Water-Babies is a didactic moral fable. In it, Kingsley expresses many of the common prejudices of that time period, and the book includes dismissive or insulting references to Americans, Jews, blacks, and Catholics particularly the Irish. These views may have played a role in the book's gradual fall from popularity.
The book had been intended in part as a satire, a tract against child labour, as well as a serious critique of the closed-minded approaches of many scientists of the day in their response to Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution, which Kingsley had been one of the first to praise. He had been sent an advance review copy of On the Origin of Species, and wrote in his response of 18 November 1859 (four days before the book went on sale) that he had "long since, from watching the crossing of domesticated animals and plants, learnt to disbelieve the dogma of the permanence of species." and had "gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore and pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made", asking "whether the former be not the loftier thought."
In the book, for example, Kingsley argues that no person is qualified to say that something that they have never seen (like a human soul or a water baby) does not exist.
"How do you know that? Have you been there to see? And if you had been there to see, and had seen none, that would not prove that there were none ... And no one has a right to say that no water babies exist till they have seen no water babies existing, which is quite a different thing, mind, from not seeing water babies."
In his Origin of Species, Darwin mentions that, like many others at the time, he thought that changed habits produce an inherited effect, a concept now known as Lamarckism. In The Water Babies, Kingsley tells of a group of humans called the Doasyoulikes who are allowed to do "whatever they like" so gradually lose the power of speech, degenerate into gorillas, and are shot by the African explorer Paul du Chaillu. He also (controversially, nowadays) likens the Doasyoulikes to the natives of Africa, by mentioning that one of the gorillas shot by Du Chaillu "remembered that his ancestors had once been men, and tried to say, 'Am I not a man and a brother?', but had forgotten how to use his tongue."
The Water Babies alludes to debates among biologists of its day, satirizing the Great Hippocampus Question as the "Great hippopotamus test." At various times the text refers to "Sir Roderick Murchison, Professor (Richard) Owen, Professor (Thomas Henry) Huxley, (and) Mr. Darwin", and thus they become explicitly part of the story. In the accompanying illustrations by Linley Sambourne, Huxley and Owen are caricatured, studying a captured water baby.
Opening Line: “Once upon a time there was a little chimney-sweep, and his name was Tom.“
Closing Line: “But remember always, as I told you at first, that this is all a fairy tale, and only fun and pretence: and, therefore, you are not to believe a word of it, even if it is true.”
Quotes: “The most wonderful and the strongest things in the world, you know, are just the things which no one can see.”
Rating: Not entertaining.

497. The Floating Opera – John Barth

History: This novel was published in 1956. It chronicles one day in the life of Todd Andrews, a day on which he makes a very important decision. It was Barth's first novel.
Plot: Todd Andrews, a middle-aged lawyer living alone in the Dorset Hotel in Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, narrates this loosely structured account of his life and its most important occurrences. An expensive dresser, cigar smoker, and chronicler of his own life, he suffers heart and prostate trouble. He fancies that he resembles actor Gregory Peck. 
Never married, he enjoys an intimate relationship with Jane Mack, his best friend’s wife. He claims he is not a philosopher, yet he makes a habit of applying his own eccentric notions to his own and other people’s lives, often with grim results. Though Andrews frequently jumps backwards and forwards through time, he always comes back to a momentous June day in 1937 – the day in which he decided to commit suicide. Yet, as he discloses to the reader in the first chapter, he ultimately chose not to kill himself. Therefore, the novel is framed as an investigation of what made Todd Andrews desire to commit suicide in the first place, and then what made him change his mind.
Review: John Barth's first novel will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary of publication in 2006 (I read the 1967 revised edition, which Barth rewrote primarily, he says, to restore his original ending). Should this almost 50 year-old book, whose protagonist was born in 1900, still be read in the 21st century, by people who may not have even been alive when Barth wrote it? Emphatically, positively, yes!
The Floating Opera serves as an excellent introduction to the body of work of one of the 20th century's greatest writers (time will tell), and also stands on its own as an engrossing, amusing, thought-provoking tale. It establishes many of Barth's common themes and settings: the flawed, cynical (yet also fun-loving) protagonist; impossible quests; the absurdities of society's structures and laws; philosophy and morality; coastal Maryland and boating on the Chesapeake. Barth's later works are longer and much more intricate, so TFO is very much like Beethoven's first symphony: a simpler work than his later masterpieces, but which still shows definite signs of genius, originality, and timelessness.
The storyline, like Barth's other works, is quirky and highly original. It describes the lead-up to an event that, because of the way the book was written (in the first person), the reader knows cannot have taken place. Barth openly explains the disjointed nature of the book's structure (which is just one way that the floating opera of the title is important to the story), and everything holds together in the end.
TFO's protagonist, Todd Andrews, is a lawyer who has developed a detached, cynical view of the world. His mentality is perfect for his profession, and he wins his cases by crafting intricate technical loopholes that reduce his cases to absurdities. Thirty-five years before the Johnnie Cochran's poetic words in the O.J. Simpson trial, Barth prophetically describes a similar situation of the "bon mot" winning out over the "mot juste". But this is just one of the amusing vignettes in TFO. Barth also describes the challenges of an open love triangle, different ways to approach old age and death, the drawbacks of various outlooks on life, and an intense father-son relationship. Comic relief is never too far away, especially when the various crusty old men in the book are speaking.
Opening Line: “To someone like myself, whose literary activities have been confined since 1920 mainly to legal briefs and Inquiry-writing, the hardest thing about the task at hand-viz, the explanation of a day in 1937 when I changed my mind-is getting into it.”
Closing Line: “This clean, I made a note to intercept my note to Jimmy Andrews, stubbed out (after all) my cigar, undressed, went to bed in enormous soothing solitude, and slept fairly well despite the absurd thunderstorm that soon afterwards broke all around.”
Quotes: “May I recommend three Maryland beaten biscuits, with water, for your breakfast? They are hard as a haul-seiner's conscience and dry as a dredger's tongue, and they sit for hours in your morning stomach like ballast on a tender ship's keel. They cost little, are easily and crumblessly carried in your pockets, and if forgotten and gone stale, are neither harder nor less palatable than when fresh. What's more, eaten first thing in the morning and followed by a cigar, they put a crabberman's thirst on you, such that all the water in a deep neap tide can't quench --- and none, I think, denies the charms of water on the bowels of morning? “
Rating: Couldn’t read it.

496. The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi

History: This book was published in 1990, and it won the Whitbread Award for the best first novel. It has been translated into 20 languages and was also made into a four-part drama series by the BBC in 1993, with a soundtrack by David Bowie.
Plot: The Buddha of Suburbia is said to be very autobiographical. It is about Karim, a mixed-race teenager, who is desperate to escape suburban South London and make new experiences in London in the 1970s. Gladly, he takes the unlikely opportunity when a life in the theatre announces itself. When there is nothing left for him to do in London, he stays in New York for ten months. Returning to London, he takes on a part in a TV soap opera and the book leaves its reader on the verge of Thatcherism.
The suburbs are "a leaving place" from which Kureishi's characters must move away. To Karim, London—even though it is geographically not far away from his home—seems like a completely different world. Therefore his expectations of the city are great.
In The Buddha the move into (and later through) the city is like an odyssey or pilgrimage. On the first page Karim introduces himself as follows: "My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost". This motif is reinforced throughout the novel.
Pop music is an important theme in Kureishi's novels. One could even say that his novels have a soundtrack. London itself is associated by Karim to a sound. "There was a sound that London had. It was, I'm afraid, people in Hyde Park playing bongos with their hands; there was also the keyboard on The Doors' "Light My Fire". There were kids in velvet cloaks who lived free lives".
Through his work with two theatre companies, Karim gets to know new people from completely different backgrounds, like the working-class Welshman Terry who is an active Trotskyist and wants him to join the party, or Karim's lover Eleanor who is upper middle-class but pretends to be working-class. Through the latter group of people, surrounding Eleanor or Pyke (a strange theatre director), he realises that they are speaking a different language, because they received a good education, which was not valuable in the suburbs.
In The Buddha other characters and their struggle to make it in London are described, too. Kureishi portrays Eva, as a social climber at war with the city: "Eva was planning her assault on London. […] she was not ignored by London once she started her assault. She was climbing ever higher, day by day. […] As Eva started to take London, moving forward over the foreign fields of Islington, Chiswick and Wandsworth inch by inch, party by party, contact by contact". Later in the novel the main character's father (an Indian immigrant, a boring bureaucrat living with his family in a grey London suburb) is suddenly discovered by the London high society, that is hungry for exotic distractions, and so he becomes their Buddha-like guru, though he himself does not believe in this role. His son does not believe in him either and, at the same time, has his first erotic experiences.
Within the problems of prejudice and racism lies one of the themes of initiation novels: the question of identity. Furthermore, London seems to be the perfect setting for the protagonists' "often painful growth towards maturity through a range of conflicts and dilemmas, social, sexual and political." (Bart Moore-Gilbert, 2001, 113) These characterisations mark Kureishi's novels as examples of Bildungsromane and novels of initiation.
Even though The Buddha is set in the 1970s and ends just before the Thatcher era begins, Kureishi was writing it under the direct influence of the outcome of Thatcherism. It is not surprising then, looking back, that he can see the roots of conservatism already in the '70s.
Review: It has been in print for less than 20 years, but Hanif Kureishi's debut novel remains an important time capsule for teenage life in 1970s London, confronting racial politics at a time when immigrants were treated as intruders on British soil.
The book's teenage protagonist Karim, a "hybrid" of Asian and English blood, is searching for sex and a sense of belonging in the suburbs. He is torn between wanting acceptance from two camps: white supremacists and alienated immigrants. Meanwhile, his father, the book's most memorable character, is on a similar path, teaching Buddhist discipline to a generation of ageing hippies, while Karim indulges in drugs and mutual masturbation behind closed doors.
As Thatcher's Tory reign approaches, and punk rock explodes onto the underground music scene, Karim finds his place working in the theatre, among other working-class misfits from a range of cultural backgrounds. The plot is hardly labyrinthine and there's no neat resolution, but Kureishi's blunt treatment of race, politics and sexuality is sure to grab the reader's attention as he confronts uncomfortable home truths about British attitudes towards foreigners.
Reissued with a handsome retro cover as part of the Faber Firsts series, The Buddha of Suburbia was awarded the Whitbread Award for best first novel in 1990 and three years later was adapted as a BBC mini-series, soundtracked by David Bowie. It remains a fresh and timely read today as a new generation of teenagers struggle to find their place in another recession.
Opening Line: “My name is Karim Amir, and I’m an Englishman born and bred, almost.”
Closing Line: “I thought of what a mess everything had been, but that it wouldn’t always be that way.”
Quotes: “Someone to whom jokes are never told soon contracts enthusiasm deficiency.” 
Rating:  Awesome

495. Fingersmith – Sarah Waters

History:  This book was published in 2002.
Plot: Sue Trinder, an orphan raised in 'a Fagin-like den of thieves' by her adoptive mother, Mrs. Sucksby, is sent to help Richard 'Gentleman' Rivers seduce a wealthy heiress. Posing as a maid, Sue is to gain the trust of the lady, Maud Lilly, and eventually persuade her to elope with Gentleman. Once they are married, Gentleman plans to commit Maud to a madhouse and claim her fortune for himself.
Sue travels to Briar, Maud's secluded home in the country, where she lives a sheltered life under the care of her uncle, Christopher Lilly. Like Sue, Maud was orphaned at birth; her mother died in a mental asylum, and she has never known her father. Her uncle uses her as a secretary to assist him in compiling a dictionary, and keeps her to the house, working with him in the silence of his library.
Sue and Maud forge an unlikely friendship, which develops into a mutual physical passion; after a time, Sue realizes she has fallen in love with Maud, and begins to regret her involvement in Gentleman's plot. Deeply distressed, but feeling she has no choice, Sue persuades Maud to marry Gentleman, and the trio flee from Briar to a nearby church, where Maud and Gentleman are hastily married in a midnight ceremony.
Making a temporary home in a local cottage, and telling Maud they are simply waiting for their affairs to be brought to order in London, Gentleman and a reluctant Sue make arrangements for Maud to be committed to an asylum for the insane; her health has already waned as a result of the shock of leaving her quiet life at Briar, to Gentleman's delight. After a week, he and Sue escort an oblivious Maud to the asylum in a closed carriage. However, the doctors apprehend Sue on arrival, and from the cold reactions of Gentleman and the seemingly innocent Maud, Sue guesses that it is she who has been conned: "That bitch knew everything. She had been in on it from the start."
In the second part of the novel, Maud takes over the narrative. She describes her early life being raised by the nurses in the mental asylum where her mother died, and the sudden appearance of her uncle when she was eleven, who arrives to take her to Briar to be his secretary.
Her induction into his rigid way of life is brutal; Maud is made to wear gloves constantly to preserve the surfaces of the books she is working on, and is denied food when she tires of labouring with her uncle in his library. Distressed, and missing her previous home, Maud begins to demonstrate sadistic tendencies, biting and kicking her maid, Agnes, and her abusive carer, Mrs Stiles. She harbours a deep resentment toward her mother for abandoning her, and starts holding her mother's locket every night, and whispering to it how much she hates her.
Shockingly, Maud reveals that her uncle's work is not to compile a dictionary, but to assemble a bibliography of literary pornography, for the reference of future generations. In his own words, Christopher Lilly is a 'curator of poisons.' He introduces Maud to the keeping of the books—-indexing them and such—-when she is barely twelve, and deadens her reactions to the shocking material. As she grows older, Maud reads the material aloud for the appreciation of her uncle's colleagues. On one occasion, when asked by one of them how she can stand to curate such things, Maud answers, "I was bred to the task, as servants are."
She has resigned herself to a life serving her uncle's obscure ambition when Richard Rivers arrives at Briar. He familiarises her with a plan to escape her exile in Briar, a plan involving the deception of a commonplace girl who will believe she had been sent to Briar to trick Maud out of her inheritance. After initial hesitation, Maud agrees to the plan and receives Sue weeks later, pretending to know nothing about the plot.
Maud falls in love with Sue over time and, like Sue, begins to question whether she will be able to carry out Gentleman's plot as planned. Though overcome with guilt, Maud does, and travels with Gentleman to London after committing Sue to the asylum, claiming to the doctors that Sue was the mad Mrs Maud Rivers who believed she was a commonplace girl.
Instead of taking Maud to a house in Chelsea, as he had promised, Gentleman takes her to Mrs Sucksby in the Borough. It was, it turns out, Gentleman's plan to bring her here all along; and, Mrs Sucksby, who had orchestrated the entire plan, reveals to a stunned Maud that a lady, Marianne Lilly, had come to Lant Street seventeen years earlier, pregnant and alone. When Marianne discovered her cruel father and brother had found her, she begged Mrs Sucksby to take her newborn child and give her one of her 'farmed' infants to take its place. Sue, it turns out, was Marianne Lilly's true daughter, and Maud one of the many orphaned infants who had been placed on Mrs Sucksby's care after being abandoned. By the decree of Marianne's will, written on the night of the switch, both girls were entitled to a share of Marianne Lilly's fortune. By having Sue committed, Mrs Sucksby could intercept her share. She had planned the switch of the two girls for seventeen years, and enlisted the help of Gentleman to bring Maud to her in the weeks before her eighteenth birthday, when she would become legally entitled to the money. By setting Sue up as the 'mad Mrs Rivers', Gentleman could, by law, claim her fortune for himself.
Alone and friendless, Maud has no choice but to remain a prisoner at Lant Street. She makes one attempt to escape to the home of one of her uncle's friends, Mr Hawtrey, but he turns her away, appalled at the scandal that she has fallen into, and anxious to preserve his local reputation. Maud returns to Lant Street and finally submits to the care of Mrs Sucksby. It is then that Mrs Sucksby reveals to her that Maud was not an orphan that she took into her care, as she and Gentleman had told her, but Mrs Sucksby's own daughter.
The novel resumes Sue's narrative, picking up where Maud and Gentleman had left her in the mental asylum. Sue is devastated at Maud's betrayal and furious that Gentleman double-crossed her. When she screams to the asylum doctors that she is not Mrs Rivers but her maid Susan, they ignore her, as Gentleman (helped by Maud) has convinced them that this is precisely her delusion, and that she is really Maud Lilly Rivers, his troubled wife.
Sue is treated appallingly by the nurses in the asylum, being subjected to beatings and taunts on a regular basis. Such is her maltreatment and loneliness that, after a time, she begins to fear that she truly has gone mad. She is sustained by the belief that Mrs Sucksby will find and rescue her. Sue dwells on Maud's betrayal, the devastation of which quickly turns to anger.
Sue's chance at freedom comes when Charles, a knife boy from Briar, comes to visit her. He is the nephew, it turns out, of the local woman (Mrs Cream) who owned the cottage the trio had stayed in on the night of Maud and Gentleman's wedding. Charles, a simple boy, had been pining for the charming attentions of Gentleman to such an extent that his father Mr Way had begun to beat him, severely. Charles ran away, and had been directed to the asylum by Mrs Cream, who had no idea of the nature of the place.
Sue quickly enlists his help in her escape, persuading him to purchase a blank key and a file to give to her on his next visit. This he does, and Sue, using the skills learnt growing up in the Borough, escapes from the asylum and travels with Charles to London, with the intention of returning to Mrs Sucksby and her home in Lant Street.
On arrival, an astonished Sue sees Maud at her bedroom window. After days of watching the activity of her old home from a nearby boarding house, Sue sends Charles with a letter explaining all to Mrs Sucksby, still believing that it was Maud and Gentleman alone who deceived her. Charles returns, saying Maud intercepted the letter, and sends Sue a playing card—the Two of Hearts, representing lovers—in reply. Sue takes the token as a joke, and storms into the house to confront Maud, half-mad with rage. She tells everything to Mrs Sucksby, who pretends to have known nothing, and despite Mrs Sucksby's repeated attempts to calm her, swears she will kill Maud for what she has done to her. Gentleman arrives, and though initially shocked at Sue's escape, laughingly begins to tell Sue how Mrs Sucksby played her for a fool. Maud physically tries to stop him, knowing how the truth would devastate Sue; a scuffle between Maud, Gentleman and Mrs Sucksby ensues, and in the confusion, Gentleman is stabbed by the knife Sue had taken up to kill Maud, minutes earlier. He bleeds to death. A hysterical Charles alerts the police. Mrs Sucksby, at last sorry for how she has deceived the two girls, immediately confesses to the murder: "Lord knows, I'm sorry for it now; but I done it. And these girls here are innocent girls, and know nothing at all about it; and have harmed no-one."
Mrs Sucksby is hanged for killing Gentleman; it is revealed that Richard Rivers was not a shamed gentleman at all, but a draper's son named Frederick Bunt, who had had ideas above his station. Maud disappears, though Sue sees her briefly at Mrs Sucksby's trial and gathers from the prison matrons that Maud had been visiting Mrs Sucksby in the days leading up to her death. Sue remains unaware of her true parentage, until she finds the will of Marianne Lilly tucked in the folds of Mrs Sucksby's gown. Realizing everything, an overwhelmed Sue sets out to find Maud, beginning by returning to Briar. It is there she finds Maud, and the nature of Christopher Lilly's work is finally revealed to Sue. It is further revealed that Maud is now writing erotic fiction to sustain herself financially. The two girls, still very much in love with each other despite everything, make peace and give vent to their feelings at last.
Review:   It's a thriller, yes, but it's also a love story - a sexy, passionate and startling one. I hesitate to call it lesbian, because that seems to marginalise it far more than it deserves. Suffice to say, it is erotic and unnerving in all the right ways. And modern - though Waters makes full and sensuous use of gloves, stockings, rustling skirts and heaving breasts, her ear for the crunch of language, her knowingness and her unceasing impulse for physical honesty turn every potential cliché into something up-close and fresh.
I was occasionally aware of Waters's unstoppable appetite for detail, her determination to draw out every moment. Could it, should it, perhaps have been edited a little? But if the writer and critic in me asked these questions, the reader never did, not for a single moment. In fact, the last 50 pages are so sensationally tense that you read them naughtily, one eye on the sentence in hand, the other attempting vainly to cheat and flick ahead.
There are always novels that you envy people for not yet having read, for the pleasures they still have to come. Well, this is one. Long, dark, twisted and satisfying, it's a fabulous piece of writing, but Waters's most impressive achievement is that she also makes it feel less like reading, more like living: an unforgettable experience.
Opening Line: “My name in those days was Susan Trinder.”
Closing Line: “She put the lamp on the floor, spread the paper flat, and began to show me the words she had written, one by one.”
Quotes: “I suppose I really seemed mad, then; but it was only through the awfulness of having said nothing but the truth, and being thought to be deluded.”
Rating: Good