Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I'm willing to bet that if you read 100 reviews of this short novel, 90 would include the word "charming," and I would not be an exception. I am completely captivated by this delightful picture of life in a small English village in the early 1800s among the old maids and widows who makes up the "genteel" society. They are so affectionately portrayed, all their small faults and eccentricities being more than offset by the kindness of their hearts, that I grew quite fond of them, as if they were real people.

Structurally, the book more resembles a series of short stories involving the same cast of characters than it does a conventional novel. Amidst the depictions of daily life, we have a story of missed romance, an account of a small feud, an alarm of possible dangers from thieves, and a search for a long-lost brother. The author, through the fictional eyes of a young visitor to the village, reveals the events of small-town life to be both touching and subtly humorous. In fact, the novel is tear worthy and chuckle worthy in equal proportion.

I really love this quote from Miss Matty, a character who is an unmarried woman in her 50s: "It is very pleasant dining with a bachelor....I only hope it is not improper; so many pleasant things are!" Yes, Miss Matty, I have also found many pleasant things to be perceived as improper. But these days, perhaps fortunately and perhaps unfortunately, we do not worry about impropriety as much.

Through her account of a select group of people, Gaskell has also provided us with a glimpse into the attitudes and life style of rural England of the time, and that is certainly interesting. Yet much of the action could have taken place in the small town where I grew up, because time and place may change, but people pretty much stay the same.

I highly recommend this novel. It is charming.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

If Anne Bronte were alive today, imagine how discouraged she might be to be known mainly as "the other sister." After all, Jane Eyre, by Charlotte, and Wuthering Heights, by Emily, are universally recognized as two of the classics of English literature, while Anne's two novels are relatively unknown.

I have not yet read her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, so I can only judge by the strength of this offering, but I must say for now that I believe Anne's lack of fame to be entirely deserved. While the writing is competent and displays some flashes of humor, for the most part the plot is almost totally devoid of interest and the heroine comes across as well intentioned but insufferably preachy and whiny.

The plot concerns Agnes Grey's experiences as a governess in two wealthy families and her romance with a young cleric; the accounts of the two governess positions are considered to be largely autobiographical, since Anne Bronte did, indeed, hold two such posts. The romance appears to be fictional, perhaps a matter of wish-fulfillment on the part of the author.

A great proportion of the novel consists of criticisms of the parents of Agnes's young charges, who are indulgent to the children and give the governess no authority, while expecting her to make their offspring perfect in learning and deportment. The children in the first family are savage tyrants entirely out of Agnes's control, as they refuse to do their lessons, find amusement in torturing animals, and otherwise defeat all her best efforts to reform them. In the second family, the pupils are older and less subject to tantrums, but they, also, resists Agnes's efforts to instill knowledge and Christian values. Their parents are more distanced than indulgent, but also refuse to give the young governess any real authority. In recounting the case of both families, Agnes repeatedly expresses resentment for being treated as little more than a maid, obviously considering herself to be superior in intellect and learning to all the household.

It seems to me that Anne Bronte was very truthful in portraying her attitudes and reactions in relation to her governess positions, and thus the character Agnes seems very real and perhaps reveals more about Anne than she would have acknowledged. If this is, indeed, more fact than fiction, one can only feel sorrow for the intelligent and well-read young lady who had led an isolated life and was so shy and lacking in self confidence (and so prone to casting blame on others, a common human fault in the face of insecurity). It is doubly sad that the romance probably never materialized in Anne's own life.

Another reason for feeling sorry for Anne Bronte is the fact that her novel and Emily's Wuthering Heights were first published together. What an unflattering contrast: Anne's novel so restrained and uneventful and straight-forward and Emily's novel so unrestrained and dramatic and passionate. Almost anyone's novel would have suffered in comparison.

I would not recommend this novel as one to demand readership on strictly its own merits, but as a psychological portrait of a real person it is very interesting.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Quick Red Fox by John D. MacDonald (#4 in the Travis McGee series)

Maybe it is too soon to judge fairly after reading only the first 4 of this 21-book series, but so far it seems that MacDonald is just repeating the same book. Oh, he inserts a new mystery in each, but the case to be solved is almost incidental; instead MacDonald's focus is on Trav, his detective, who in all the books so far goes through all the same motions with very similar characters. He is always propositioned by more than one beautiful and seductive female but falls for the girl who is damaged or troubled in some way and salvages her through his compassionate lovemaking. Somehow, though, each romance falls through at the end, so that he can commence a new one with the next book. In his first-person telling of the story, he always manages to include a rant or two or three about the sad state of American society and culture and always emphasizes his status as an outsider who goes his own way. The first of the series, The Deep Blue Good-Bye, was actually very interesting, but the next three seem to be hastily written copies, and that gets a little annoying.

The plot of this one concerns a famous sex-symbol actress who is being blackmailed with photos taken of a full-on, four-day sex orgy, most of which illogically takes place outside on a terrace. In another rather illogical move, the actress sends her repressed and compulsively efficient female private assistant along with Trav as he attempts to track down the identity of the blackmailer. Guess who he falls into bed with.

This is not the kind of mystery that drops clues and red herrings. In fact, the main villain unexpectedly first enters the action in the last 25 pages of the book.

When I reviewed #3 in this series, I mentioned that I was disturbed by the apparent acceptance as normal and even admirable of a husband's paddling of his wife's behind when she misbehaved. MacDonald disturbed me again in this one, by his condemnation and ridicule of lesbianism. At one point he comments on the sad fates of those who were involved in the orgy: one is permanently mentally damaged, several have died violently, and one has (GASP) turned lesbian. Maybe this was the predominant attitude in 1964, but it still grates.

In looking at the copyright date of this novel, I see that the first four Travis McGee novels were all published in 1964. No wonder they all seem the same; he didn't have time to accomplish much. Maybe I will try one more of the series, but if it is the same I will stop.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Middlemarch by George Eliot

First, a cautionary tale for English teachers: More than 50 years ago, when I was a junior in high school, the English curriculum included Silas Marner by George Eliot. My teacher sought to combine grammar and literature by giving us the assignment of finding examples in each chapter of a compound sentence, a complex sentence, a prepositional phrase, a direct object, and so forth. We had a whole list of grammatical elements to search for. I not only completed the tedious assignment for myself, but also kindly helped my best friend. And by the end of this, despite the fact that I could find something to like in almost any book, I hated Silas Marner and avoided ever reading another Eliot novel, until now. (To be fair, my teacher was an outstanding instructor in grammar, responsible for the fact that I can still diagram a sentence in my head to figure out whether to use "who" or "whom.") The moral for teachers: At least do no harm. I surely hope that I never caused a student to hate a book.

Thus, when I have finally overcome my prejudice enough to read Middlemarch, I find myself totally surprised to discover that it is not just a good book, but a great book.

The highly interesting plot concerns itself with the doings of the middle class in England in the 1830s, particularly with three intertwined "love stories." But the actions are much more involved and realistic than in a standard marriage plot novel, involving disappointed dreams and compromise as often as fulfillment and unblemished happiness. What makes the novel outstanding is Eliot's perceptive portrayal of the characters, whose actions and motivations are entirely logical and realistic and recognizable, so that each character seems like someone you might meet. Or perhaps you might even see something of yourself. The most admirable characters sometimes reveal less than perfect traits, and the least admirable are not entirely devoid of worth. I have never read a novel with characters who seemed more real.

Eliot also excels in her depiction of the events and attitudes of the time and place, placing her characters and their actions and reactions in relation to their setting.

And Eliot is often very humorous, in a subtly ironic and satiric way. I often chuckled out loud.

For potential readers, I must say that this is not an easy book to read at all; it took me a much longer time to read than is usual for me. I don't think younger people, who want to believe that love always conquers all, would appreciate it. It perhaps requires a certain amount of compassionate cynicism.

I'll boldly proclaim that this may be the most well written book I have ever read. That is not to say it is my favorite book, but that is only because of my less-than-intellectual bent for high drama.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Children of Men by P.D. James

The premise of this 1992 futuristic novel is very intriguing--suddenly and all at once, all human sperm becomes non-viable, even that previously frozen in sperm banks. No more babies. The book opens in 2021, when the last children born are 25 years old and hope has died for a solution to the problem. The possibilities for plot development and speculation are myriad. How would people behave if they knew that humanity was doomed to extinction in 60 years or so? How might the youngest ones react, knowing that one among them may be the last person left alive? And what about the older people, as they realize that nobody may care to help them in their final years? Would civilized behavior go out the window?

Unfortunately, this novel does not examine many of those issues, concentrating instead on one middle-aged professor and his transformation from a detached observer with a seeming inability to love anyone into a loving human being capable of love and self sacrifice. Neither his abrupt change nor the actions of the other primary characters seem very logical.

For example, the most dramatic development is the pregnancy of a young woman with its implication for the salvation of mankind. Rather than revealing herself and the father with living sperm to the world, she insists on delivering her baby in secret in less-than-ideal circumstances, because she does not want the Warden of England (whom she considers to be evil) present at the birth.

And then there's the plot about the 5-person rebellion of sorts against the Warden of England, who has brought a measure of peace and order to the country, suggested not to exist in other countries. His pragmatic solutions appear to the dissidents to be evil, but most people welcome his rule and would vote for him if given the opportunity. (An examination of whether or not a benevolent dictatorship is sometimes a better solution to a dire situation than democratic chaos might have been interesting here.) Particularly illogical is the group's complaint that the mandatory government checking of male sperm is demeaning to the tested. Really? We are talking about the survival of humanity here and they find testing to be demeaning?

Ultimately, I was disappointed in this book because I believe the author could not decide whether it was a dystopian survival novel or an examination of one person's redemption through love. Perhaps these two themes could be combined successfully, but James did make either strand believable.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock

This was not the book I expected it to be. In researching the history of the Gothic novel here and there on the internet, I found this novel mentioned as a satire of the genre, written by a friend of the poet Percy Shelley, the same Shelley who sat around telling ghost stories with his friends and his wife Mary, inspiring her to write Frankenstein. And while this novel does have a mysterious female who is suspected of being a mermaid, a secret room concealed in a tower, and a brief appearance by a supposed ghost, it is more of a satire of the fashionable intellectual trends of the time. And it is quite funny, in a very sly way.

I would not have realized it if I had not read the introduction written by an academic, but this is also a gentle satire of actual people: Scythrop Glowry, the main character, is modeled on Shelley, and the two women he loves are modeled on his first wife Harriet and his second wife Mary. Other subjects of satire include characters patterned after Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron, as well as several lesser-known people of the day.

However, it would not be necessary to know the sources for the characters to appreciate the book. While a knowledge of the trends of the Romantic Movement and of the three poets satirized here would increase enjoyment, a modern reader can recognize people with these types of behavior and thinking today.

The plot here is secondary to the conversations of the residents and guests at Nightmare Abbey. The main plot element is, of course, Scythrop and the two women he loves (at the same time).

The main target of satire is the intellectual nourishing of romantic melancholy, for " is the fashion to be unhappy. To have a reason for being so would be exceedingly commonplace: to be so without any is the province of genius." Mr Flosky, the Coleridge-type character, is portrayed as being "a very lachrymose and morbid gentleman" with a "very fine sense of the grim and tearful." Mr. Cypress, the Byron-type character, says, "I have no hope for myself or for others...." and "How can we be cheerful in the midst of disappointment and despair?" Peacock ever-so-subtly exaggerates (or maybe not) his characters' dramatic personas and conversations to reveal them to be pretentious and ridiculous.

For obvious humor value, we have the amusing names of the characters, for instance Mr. Listless, who is...well, listless; Mr. Toobad, who sees everything as the work the the devil; Mr. Larynx, who is the preacher; the servants Raven, Crow, and Graves. More subtle humor pervades the whole narrative, with ironic and deadpan little asides. The most humorous incident comes when the company is discussing ghosts, and Mr. Flosky dramatically proclaims, "I see a ghost at this moment." When the door opens and a ghastly figure walks in, the reaction of the characters is laugh-out-loud funny.

I liked this novel very much, both for its historical interests and for its humor. It is still funny today. It seems that some young people still consider it to be fashionably romantic and interesting to be dark and brooding. The Byronic hero is alive and flourishing in the 21st Century.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown

Back in the olden days when I was in high school and college, I am pretty sure we were taught that James Fenimore Cooper was the first American novelist. Now a younger and more well educated friend tells me that Brown is considered America's first professional novelist. Internet research tells me that there were indeed novelists previous to Brown, but they were all women, so I guess they don't count. (Being snarky; actually the ladies were evidently not very proficient at the craft.) At any rate, Brown was indisputably America's first Gothic writer, following an English/European trend of the time.

Written in 1798, Wieland is a most intriguing and passionate account of strange and deadly events in the family of Clara, an intelligent and perceptive young lady who is telling the story in a letter to a friend. As a participant in the tragedy, she would automatically be suspected of being an unreliable narrator. She even says, "What but ambiguities, abruptnesses, and dark transitions, can be expected from the historian who is, at the same time, the sufferer of these disasters?" Included in her "letter" are two even more suspect accounts, being told second hand, explanatory of the mysterious happenings. We are purposefully left a bit unsure about whether events are explainable, of supernatural origin, or a product of a diseased mind---or a combination of all three.

Included in the catalog of bizarre happenings: a spontaneous combustion, apparently disembodied voices heard by several participants, and the murder of his entire family by a father. Ventriloquism and a suggestion of mesmerism also figure into the inventive plot. The psychological aspect must have been especially innovative at the time, examining as it does a man who truly believes that he has received commands from God to sacrifice his loved ones.

Brown has included more here than just a suspenseful story. The novel also cautions about the perils of religious fanaticism, as well as the perils of trusting entirely to one's senses.

This novel will be slow at times for a modern reader, as is common for the writing of the time. But when Brown gets going on actual events, he really gets going. If the reader will read slowly, re-reading as necessary, the tension and suspense is equivalent to watching the movie Psycho, for example. Recommended. It beats the heck out of James Fenimore Cooper.