Bookworming, Metarambling

Reviews of Things: North and South

Welcome, my faithful steadfast readers, all three of you. As you can see, I spent almost entire year without blogging and while it’s not been a huge hole in my life, I could use some of the public introspection that blogging provides, particularly as I hate Facebook so I can’t use that most common outlet. But, clearly I just don’t have time for the proper reviews that I meant to be writing here – what with my two jobs, kid and, you know, life. So instead I’m looking for a better formula, one that would allow me to post faster and with more enthusiasm.
Please join me for the test ride of Mildly Enthusiastic Reviews of Things with the first test subject: North and South that I finished lately. I’ll try to post a review every week of something that I found particularly interesting (though in the end if I make it every month that will be still better than my current posting rate; we’ll see though, I aim high).

er-northandsouthNorth and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Category: Books

What it is:
Classic social and romance novel. Tells the story of Margaret Hale: her perfect hair, staunch morality, bleeding heart, many unfortunate experiences and a few instant conquests. It also describes the difference between the life in the South and in the North of England during the Industrial Revolution in an interestingly unflattering way.

How I found it:
I like to read a Victorian novel every spring and once I went through all Bronte sisters and Austen’s novels, I broadened my net, finding Elizabeth Gaskell. She’s way less exciting than those ladies but she has good points, too.

Summary judgment:
It’s not a masterful work: the story is messy, with uneven tempo and almost entirely dropped storylines. But it’s a decent read for all that.

Best things about it:
I liked John Thornton. I didn’t find him realistic at all but I like a romance story to seduce me with the idealized male character. I don’t like idealized females at all but with the man if I’m to find him attractive, he should be a bit over the top. His mother, on the other hand, was a beautiful portrait in its realism.

Worst things about it:
See above for the idealized females. I couldn’t care much less about Margaret with her unsurpassed beauty, queenly conduct and always proper behavior. Also, the second half of the book is such a rollecoaster of misery that it really tired me by the end of it.

Other pluses:
It had an easy tempo for the most part of it and quite memorable depictions of various places. I liked how Gaskell differentiated between London, Helstone and Milton, all locations drawn with their own distinct colors and scenes. She also managed to keep most of the lesser characters very believable.

Other minuses:
The preaching, with the main characters speechifying about their economic beliefs. It felt like a Christian-Marxist essay put into the story – or like a story written around one.

How it enriched my life:
I guess I’m filling gaps in my English literature knowledge. I’m also tempted to use the name Thornton for a character in a Victorian RPG. It’s a good name.

Fun fact:
As I was finishing the book on a train, a guy riding next to me suddenly stopped flipping through his newspaper and asked me what I was reading – and I couldn’t remember Gaskell’s name. Admittedly, he surprised me and also I was taking breaks from Gaskell to read his newspaper over his shoulder and I think it was just his way of suggesting that I stop? Not sure. Still, that was mildly embarrassing.

I think I’ll try something else by Gaskell but not any time soon. I’ve got a lovely edition of Penguin Cranford, so that one is most likely.

Recommended for:
Patient people with taste for old-fashioned slow-budding romances or anyone interested in fictionalized history of industry.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Tabletop RPGs (maybe)


Anthropology of a Teenage Introvert

Books: I had a lot of time to kill recently so I finished King John. So not the best Shakespeare. But I’m well halfway through my Shakespeare re-reading.

Music: Some Tom Waits.

Mood: As evidenced by February’s empty archives, February was a tiresome month that left me not a drop of energy to write. Things are happening but I’m mostly rather tired for now.

er-anrhtopologyofanamericanI read Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann for the first time in December two years ago and immediately decided to read it again, which practically never happens. But this book moved me; so even though I got back to it after a year rather than immediately, this review is born of two readings. It’s a controversial book if you look at Amazon reviews: people either love it or hate it and had I seen the reviews before I started the book, I wouldn’t have picked it up. It sounds like nothing I’d enjoy: little plot, depressing and rambling? No thanks. Except, while you might argue for these things, the book is so much more.

It is a story of a girl, Eveline Auerbach, finishing high school on the threshold of the 80s, falling in love and suffering traumas. Now, I have no 80s nostalgia and the iconic literature of that time to which Anthropology is often compared – all the American Psychos and Bright Lights, Big Cities – is on my shortlist of the scourges of the world, together with head lice. But Hamann, while I suppose true to the spirit of the times, manages to make the 80s universal. She does that through a minute, obsessive vivisection of Eveline, the first-person narrator, who’s extremely introspective and prone to noting every little observation. She’s a visual artist but, as so often happens in novels, a visual artist is just a stand-in for a writer: Eveline seems more interested in words, the subtlety of their meaning, than in images. (To be precise, she’s often shown creating art but it’s the interest in language that colors her narrative.) Her observations, while based on banal everyday occurrences, are poignant and aphoristic. Every chapter holds a few phrasing gems.

The main reason why this book delighted me so is how I related to the heroine – not because I’d ever been a knock-out anorexic beauty to turn all the heads in a room but because of her attempts to put the world into words and to define it with precision. That’s how I used to imagine writing when I was a teenager harboring writerly ambitions: as always looking for striking ways to describe small things. So, while it’s not something I say often (or ever), the poesy of Hamann’s writing is what makes the book such a find.

And one more thing that Hamann captures amazingly is a teenage immature love – not the reality of it (I’m sure such romances never happen) but the concept. Eveline falls for Harrison Rourke, a substitute teacher, actor and boxer. Virile, trustworthy, protective and pretty much flawless, Rourke is not so much a character as an archetype of a man. From my point of view today I see their relationship as peculiar in its complete lack of communication: they learn crucial things about each other exclusively from other people, which often fuels the story’s drama. However, I still remember that when I was a teenager directing steamy dramas in my head, that’s exactly what they based on: the fact that their characters never properly talked to each other, which would have led to too speedy conclusions.

The first part of the love affair, with Evie in high school, admiring Rourke from afar also rang very true: the kind of imaginary relationship in which every look, every exchange grows to mean the whole world. Hamann manages to be both subtle and sexy in those descriptions of first encounters: they have an almost oniric quality. Nothing really happens (yet) but the tension is palpable.

The second half of the novel shows Evie past Rourke and past high school, entangled in a self-destructive, self-punitive relationship with devilish Mark, a true child of Ellis and McInerney. This part is more socially conscious, with the descriptions of the glamorous, empty throng that Evie and Mark hang out with. More happens here but in a way this period of Evie’s life is more of a waiting game than high school, when nothing substantial really happened.

Mark is an evil reflection of Rourke: a man without honor, manipulating the girl with money and position, sexually perverse. There’s also a third friend, Rob, who’s the de-sexualized male companion, taking on the role of a reliable friend (and also a small-time crook involved with Jersey mob). Possibly, it’s not an accident that their names can be combined to form Ro-ark because they embody certain qualities – good or bad – that Rourke lacks. Of course, I might be reading too much into it; this book invites speculation. I should also add that the super-positive image of Rourke is a direct result of the first person narration. We only see him through Evie’s eyes, and to her he’s an enigmatic perfection. I can easily imagine a negative, feminist analysis of Rourke – but I don’t really want to because Evie’s vision seduced me sufficiently to enjoy this specimen of perfect literary manhood.

There’s also a whole – important but not that convincing to me – issue of Evie’s first boyfriend; of her perplexing relationship with her parents; of friendship and betrayal, suicide, drugs, sexual abuse, pregnancy, Reagan’s politics, not to mention boxing: so it’s not a book where nothing happens at all. But the real strength of the novel lies in the subtle texture of its language and in the unapologetic introspection of the main character, which reminded me of what it felt like to be seventeen. Few books about teenage girls manage to be so true to their subject matter.


Teenagers, Murders and Secret Societies: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

er-specialtopicsEven though I don’t specifically search for stories about high school girls, I find them in the strangest places, my latest one the once-controversial Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.

This début novel tells a story of 17-year-old Blue van Meer in an unapologetically postmodernist fashion, rife with literary allusions and metaphors. Blue travels the country with her father, a professor of political science, to finally settle for her senior year in a mountain town. She gets involved with a mysterious group of pretentious teenagers led by an even more mysterious, and probably insane, teacher. It’s then that life-changing events unravel (they include hanging; and it’s not a spoiler because the book tells you on the first page).

Like a precocious teen, the book can’t decide between its two preoccupations: does it want to be extravagantly fun (as a whodunnit) or seriously ponder life questions. Sometimes it manages to merge these two, but generally it’s better at the page-turning aspect because once the revelations start coming, you can’t put the book down – even though you rightly suspect in the end you’ll be treated to an open ending.

The open ending is interestingly solved, though. The whole novel is structured like a syllabus, each chapter titled with a famous book’s title. Sometimes this casts an important light on the events, sometimes it seems more like playing with the phrase from the title itself (“Things Fall Apart,” “The Trial”). At first I welcomed the game of allusions but after a while you realize that the very amount of books referenced requires a determination of a Bible scholar and you focus less, especially as the events speed up. At any rate, the syllabus ends with a “Final Exam” where all the possible answers to the story are gathered as multiple answers to test questions. This is an interesting and quite effective way to sum up the unanswered mysteries and at least give the reader a selection from which to pick out their favorite ending.

Just like literary allusions multiply beyond reason, metaphors crowd one another. Most of them are surprising and fresh, sometimes also awkward and confusing. I didn’t mind but I only occasionally interpreted them, again overwhelmed by their amount. But not a single one stood out to me as much as this one used by this reviewer: “she seems to think that if you fling enough metaphors at your readers’ heads, their ducking can be interpreted as bows of reverence.” Pessl doesn’t usually reach this level of accuracy in her metaphoric choices.

While the elaborate story leaves us wanting for final answers, another motif gets precedence: how growing up means emancipating from your parents. Blue’s father, professor van Meer, is definitely the most interesting character in the novel that you can’t decide whether to love or to hate. He’s charming, self-assured and intelligent, treats his women like doormats, thinks himself a wonder and refuses to apologize for anything. Obviously for Blue he’s the center of the world. The mysterious teacher, Hannah Schneider, serves as a mother figure and will also turn out a disappointment. In two poignant scenes, Pessl presents them in a similar way, their faces lit orange and monster-like. This emancipation from parents is a fairy-tale motif, very Bruno-Bettelheimian. In the end, in the world devoid of competent adults, Blue will learn to stand on her own and even, despite endless bad examples, form a romantic relationship. This is the true closed ending of the novel and I actually liked it.


Queer Romance: Tipping the Velvet

er-tippingthevelvetThe first time I heard of Sarah Waters was when Atwood praised her in a review. I made a mental note to check her out and then forgot about it. Some time later I came upon her described as the author of lesbian Victoriana, which is hardly very respectful but still kind of intriguing (I love Victorian stories, did I mention that?). So when I finally got hold of her novel and it turned out to be exactly that (at least on some level), I both enjoyed that fact and wondered what else Ms. Waters had to offer.

Because if you imagine what “lesbian Victoriana” might look like, you’ve probably hit more or less on the story and feel of Tipping the Velvet. Nancy works in an oyster parlor (yes, I’ll get to that) but harbors love for music halls and it is there that she encounters Kitty, who performs dressed as a man. A pretty standard love affair follows, in which one girl joyfully embraces her new homosexual identity while the other refuses to admit to it, which obviously leads to a (quite predictable) clash – and it is only the beginning (or, you know, first half). The story itself is hardly revolutionary but interesting enough. Waters tries her hand at describing a few different environments of Victorian England: wholesome parochial community, bohemian world of music halls, debauched upper classes and poor-yet-working-for-utopia communist intellectuals. I found all these worlds sufficiently different, colorful and memorable. They also catalyze Nancy’s transformations.

Nancy’s story is a rather generic tale of coming to terms with one’s sexuality, complete with a perfect fairy-tale ending, when everyone comes together and Nancy gets to choose her perfect partner. And I’m not sophisticated enough not to love such a closed, happy ending, sorry. But the real literary wonder happens in the language. The whole story is full of seemingly innocent allusions and jokes that reference current LGBT culture. For example, once Nancy joins the act in male clothing and needs a scenic name, she, quite randomly, decides upon King. One of the characters, though not a warrior princess, is called Zena (with a Z, but still). The word queer appears many more times than statistically likely. Even the oyster parlor, though not exactly a word game, is a similar nod to the reader.

This game, however, has a second side. While modern elements of “queer” culture are, seemingly innocently, incorporated into the Victorian tale, the language of the era also appears. Because it is, I assume, meaningless to the modern reader, the appropriate expressions are explained by the characters as Nancy gets to know her new world. This includes most notably the title, which had it used a more recognizable synonym, would jump out to you from a bookshelf as rather risqué (if not downright vulgar). But because it doesn’t function in the language anymore in its Watersian meaning, we only get the joke once it’s explained by one of the characters.* Playing with slang like this is fun in its own way but also it makes an important point: homosexuality is not only a sexual orientation but also a whole culture that changes with time (even if Waters’ heroines are surprisingly modern in some of their behaviors).

I actually enjoyed this book quite a lot and am looking forward to Waters’ next novels. I have no idea how she could continue with more of “lesbian Victoriana” because Tipping the Velvet pretty much covers it all but maybe she found new ways to tell the same stories or even completely different stories to tell. If you can recommend anything, I will surely try to follow.

* Yes, I suppose you can figure out the meaning by yourself but admit, wouldn’t you, like Nancy, think rather it has something to do with the theater?


The Fault in Their Stars: The Luminaries

er-theluminariesI said I would be reading The Luminaries forever but, in fact, I already finished a while ago. Not only does it pick up towards the end but also, well, I read fast. (Careful: there be spoilers. I don’t think it matters so much in a book like this but hereby you’re warned.)

It is quite a feat of a book, not least so because the author is 28 and already got a Booker Prize for it (I can’t still get over her age – I find it somewhat disturbing). But most of all, it’s such a constructed book.

All the characters are paired with celestial bodies: zodiac constellations, planets, the sun and the moon; the arrangements of these bodies (I’m assuming real historical arrangements on given dates because that makes it even more insane) determine, more or less, which characters interact in a given chapter. This works or not, depending whether you like your books riddle-like. I didn’t mind at all and enjoyed figuring out which body each character represents. It’s not so difficult, as you are given charts at the beginning of each chapter, but there are minor challenges. And the solution of the main mystery actually lies in understanding that (spoiler, spoiler) the sun and the moon change places during the story. That made me smile but I think it also illustrates what’s not perfect in the book. I mean, the solution lies in figuring out a metaphor. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

When you hear of a book constructed to such an extent, you may well expect it to be also rather cold – and yes, I agree with you, oh observant imaginary reader. I found The Luminaries truly impressive, quite enlightening (frankly, if you’d asked me a month ago if there’d ever been gold rush in New Zealand, you would’ve found me quite evasive) but only barely emotionally moving. You don’t care very much for the characters and their plights because most of them are just sketched and never become more than pawns in the author’s game. If the whole construction came together with a moving story, I would’ve been wowed (and, honestly, perhaps a little depressed that a 28-year-old could do that). But I accept the book for what it is: a literary game.

With this assumption, you can enjoy multiple aspects of the novel. First of all, it quite adeptly fits in with the books trying to rebuild the glory of a nineteenth-century novel. With its richly drawn world and a plethora of characters, it’s almost entirely successful. My only qualm is the already mentioned one, that the characters, with few arguable exceptions, remain paper dolls. I’ll admit I even mixed them up sometimes and, geek alert, for almost a half of the book I read with a chart of their names to make sure I get them right. On the other hand, the vision of the town and its hotels stayed with me.

The second thing that works is exactly the intellectual game, which on a certain level is, well, possible to follow, even if you know absolutely nothing about astronomy and could name nothing but Orion when it comes to constellations. Even some big questions, like what happens to the blackguard Carter, you are allowed to guess through a sort of belated foreshadowing. Another novel would have told you, even if you’d already guessed. Yet another would make it so vague you would never know for sure. Me, I like exactly this kind of challenge, but then again I’m not the most exciting person to hang out with.

And I’m sure there was at least a third enjoyable thing but it eludes me. See, I felt obliged to write about The Luminaries because it’s one of the more important books I’ve recently read but when I got down to it, I discovered nothing delighted or infuriated me about this book enough to pour out in a review. It was mostly proper and writing about proper things is not that exciting.

PS. The third thing I loved is the cover. I’m not going to do much design critique here but – Is it a great idea or is it an inspired idea?


Herstory: The Red Tent

er-theredtentAnita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent poses a rare difficulty for me because there is so little about it I didn’t like that it makes reviewing it hard. After all, you can only gush so much. What you can do much longer is sit up into the night to finish the novel, even if you read partly through tears. Yes, mushy old me even teared up towards the end though, make no mistake, I’m pretty much a robot, you can ask anyone (or at least that one guy).

This is a story of a minor biblical character Dinah, Jacob’s daughter. If you didn’t know she was Jacob’s daughter, welcome to the club of Bible non-scholars. If you don’t know who Jacob is, that’s a little more shameful but easy to rectify: he’s the one following Isaac, with a plethora of sons who include Joseph, the guy with the Technicolor coat. Dinah was his only daughter whose role in the original story is secondary but does lead to treacherous slaughter: another thing I didn’t quite remember from that story because they kind of gloss over most bloody parts during Sunday mass.

Diamant takes up the bits of what we know about Dinah and weaves them into a powerful story of femininity and relationships. She invents not only the missing elements from Dinah’s biography before and after the slaughter but also a whole female-centered mythology. What I found most impressive is how the characters but also the reality of living in a nomadic shepherd tribe in the desert come to life in the novel. It might be inaccurate (don’t know, don’t care) but becomes completely believable.

Unlike 97,4% of the Bible, this version is the story of women. Men remain marginal characters who are at best weak, at worst bestial (with a few not-that-developed exceptions). It’s women who pass on traditions and oral history (herstory, I suppose but it just sounds bad) and give each other support, particularly in childbirth. Womanhood is embodied most fully in four wives of Jacob: the well-known ones, Leah and Rachel, and the often forgotten Zilpah and Bilhah. Each represents some qualities associated with femininity: strength and beauty, spirituality and compassion. But each also represents one phase of the moon, together standing for the wholeness of woman spirit that Dinah will struggle to achieve once they’re gone.

However, this is also the story of change. The world of women, with their worship of fertility goddess derived from ancient Sumerian and Egyptian cultures is more and more threatened and subjugated by the world of men. Jacob’s God demands that all other gods be forgotten. Worse still, younger generations of women don’t want to perpetuate old traditions or celebrate the wonder of femininity, becoming accomplices to the loss of power and balance between the two sexes. (And, as I suppose the theory goes, leading to the world in which women became little more than cattle, sometimes a little less.) Now, as I said there’s very little I could criticize about this book but if I insisted, I found the goddess worship a teensy bit force-fed sometimes. But that might be because I’m allergic to newageism, particularly in literature, having read a few terrible things of this inclination. Except for that, I loved the novel, both its emotional and (fake?)historical aspect and recommend it without reservations.


Pleasures of Middleness: Middlesex

er-middlesexBefore I knew anything about Eugenides’ (sort of) epic novel Middlesex I assumed without thinking much about it that Middlesex was some sort of place, like Middlemarch. A place-derived title often doesn’t promise a very interesting read but I like to check out Pulitzer winners if they don’t sound too depressing. When I started reading and figured out that Middlesex was much more literal than just a name of a place (which it also is), suddenly I expected more from the story. And generally I wasn’t disappointed.

Middlesex is a very scholar-friendly book. Not only is it rife with metaphors and allusions – it self-analyzes. It actually robs you of some of the satisfaction of feeling smart. You don’t have time to self-congratulate for noticing the, say, Homeric allusions when the narrator explains them. Hardly do you realize the importance of the narrator’s location in Berlin when (s)he informs you that all the split places attract him because of a sense of affinity.  At one point Stephanides-the narrator says he likes to draw attention to the mechanics of writing fiction and that’s exactly what happens all the time. Not all of the metaphors are explained directly but when Callie is seducing her friend in her sleep in the moonlight what movie is the friend’s brother making? A vampire movie, of course. The book constantly plays with the reader in these small ways. Personally, once I got used to how blatant it was I actually liked it a lot. Even though I’ve grown bored with most postmodernist techniques like these, I’ll still bite if the story is interesting and Callie’s story actually is.

The novel goes beyond Callie’s life to start from her grandparents’: their flight from Greece to the USA, their incestuous relationship and their immigrant difficulties. I find this part much weaker than Callie’s own story. I feel that the humorous tone, so successful in the later part, clashes with the descriptions of war violence and of the brother-sister marriage. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the first part unnecessary but I definitely did not enjoy it as much. When we get to Callie’s own life though, the story finds the right voice. Like a good postmodernist novel that it is, it welds together many different genres: social commentary during the race riots, teen romance with the Obscure Object, prep school drama, action adventure and, most of all, the mystery of how and when Callie discovered the truth about her body (to name just a few). Callie’s voice, observant, ironic, unapologetic, combines all these together, at its best reminding me of Lolita. While this is obviously a humongous praise for any novel, I believe it justified. The novels share a similar tone, flagrant erudition, the themes of European immigrants, unconventional sexuality (I’m putting it mildly), and, most of all, the double character: a teen girl and an older, “satyric” man. That they are the same character fits in great with all the other twists Middlesex adds to well-known motifs.

Hermaphroditism seems like a subject inviting certain garishness and sensationalism, which Eugenides avoids in quite an impressive way. Even when Cal almost literally works as a circus freak, he makes it sound mythical rather than cheap. This is certainly the biggest win of the novel. What doesn’t work quite as convincingly, I think, is the metaphor of middleness, which becomes forced: how being in between sexes is like, well, everything else. Immigrants are between their native land and the new home; teenagers are between children and adults; everyone is in the generation between their parents’ and children’s. See what I mean? This message is so generic that virtually useless. Despite this problem, though, Middlesex is a good read, the kind that interests you, tells you something new and makes sure you feel smart and perceptive all the way.