Saturday, May 31, 2014

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Second reading; first read in the 1960s.

There's a chapter in this classic 1848 English novel titled "A Cynical Chapter." I would venture to say that the whole novel could be classified with this subtitle; it's a most cynical and satiric look at English society at the time, in particular, and at the essential nature of human beings, in general. The actual subtitle of the novel is "A Novel Without a Hero," and that's also very accurate, as it soon becomes apparent that all the characters are guilty in varying degrees of human failings. Not one character escapes Thackeray's cynical analysis and comes out as entirely admirable. Some are foolish and self centered, some are shallow and self deluded, some are hypocritical, and some turn out to be what we now term as sociopaths.

The central character, Becky Sharp, is the most despicable, and yet she is the most interesting. She is smarter, more manipulative, more pragmatic, more self-aware. She has the attractiveness of many a subsequent literary and cinematic anti-hero; we perhaps secretly admire her even while realizing her guilt, just because she is successful in winning the game. (This human tendency -- to admire the winner -- is an additional testament to the accuracy of Thackeray's assessment of human nature.)

The plot follows Becky, the daughter of an impoverished artist and a Paris dancer, as she strives to advance her fortunes and her position in society, mainly through the seduction of various men. The secondary plot follows Becky's kind (and naive) friend Amelia, whose good qualities are obscured by her blind devotion to an ideal rather than to a reality.

This is undoubtedly one of the most well executed novels in the English language, accomplishing flawlessly its goal of a realistic examination of human motivations and failings. Thackeray was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, and the contrast is immediately apparent. Dickens specialized in idealized good characters and blacker-than-night bad characters. In Thackeray, all the characters are pictured in varying shades of gray.

This is yet another novel which I re-evaluated after many years between readings. When I read this in my twenties, I perceived it as excessively cynical. Now, I believe it to be an accurate depiction of the human condition.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Barren Ground by Ellen Glasgow

Third reading; first read in the 1960s.

A funny thing happened in the 50 or so years since I first read this novel -- its message changed dramatically. Since I am pretty sure that the book itself has not magically altered, I can only conclude that age and experience caused me to perceive it differently.

This is the story of Dorinda, beginning in the 1890s in a defeated and barren South and following her story through to her middle age. Betrayed and left pregnant by her fiance', she rebuilds her life and learns to live "without joy," as the author herself puts it. When I first read this, I thought it a very sad story about learning to live without love. I felt that Dorinda had allowed the loss of her lover to ruin her life; although she became successful as an independent farmer and businesswoman, she never again found passion. Now, these many years later, I see the same story as one of triumph; Dorinda suffered a defeat, but she refused to allow it to destroy her. She determined her own destiny rather than depending upon someone else to determine it for her.

As to her loss of passion, age and experience have taught me that passion (sexual attraction) is not always equivalent to love that endures through good and bad. Toward the end of the book, Dorinda marries a man whom she respects and trusts, and I would venture to say that he improves her life more than her grand passion would ever have. The type of "joy" Dorinda experiences in her young adulthood seems to me to be fleeting under most circumstances, and the challenge to all, both male and female, is to adjust to a more mature viewpoint and recognize that excitement is a transient state, that bad things happen to almost everyone, and that life must go on.

Just a word about the writing: This novel puts most modern writers to shame. It is precise while being non-theatrical, and conveys a place and time and a woman with unflinching accuracy.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Divergent by Veronica Roth

This wildly popular young adult novel was recommended to me by my 13-year-old granddaughter, and I always try to read books she especially likes so that I can discuss them with her. In reading background on the Internet, I discovered that a great many adults also appreciated it, so this is kind of a two-audience review.

For Adults -- While it is true that a really well done children's or YA's novel can be read with equal enjoyment by adults, this is not one of them. An example of excellence would be the Harry Potter books, which are well crafted and portray a believable alternative world which is entirely logical within its created framework. In contrast, the writing here is extremely simplistic, and the author does a very poor job of world building, creating a society which makes no logical sense even if the basic premise is accepted, which is a stretch all by itself.

Unfortunately, book publishers, particularly in the Young Adult category, seem to be afflicted with the copy-cat mentality so prevalent with television producers -- if one entertainment becomes ultra-popular, copy it and copy it again for sure hits. The Twilight series sold books, so let's have novel after novel about vampires and other supernatural lovers. Then came The Hunger Games and its dystopian world. Now we have a whole new premise to imitate. I would say that this book is a second-tier rip-off of The Hunger Games, which was itself something of a rip-off.

For Teenagers -- While this novel is not very well written and pretty thin on logical action and characters, it is a fast and easy read with some intense action and a fairly believable budding romance. Go for it; I'm pretty sure you will like it, particularly if you are a girl. Its message of female empowerment definitely slants it toward the female reader, but its message about finding your true self pertains to all genders.

As an adult reader and former teacher, I encourage young people to read anything (almost) that catches your interest. If you read widely, from many levels of excellence, you will begin to find that you can more easily distinguish the best from the "currently popular." And that's a good thing.

I did not include a plot synopsis here, as it has been summarized so widely on Amazon and other book sites, and is now portrayed on screen at a theater near you!

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

I have loved all the previous Angela Carter novels I have read, but this one...not so much. Here's the difference: The others were beautifully written; contained interesting references, allusions, and symbols taken from mythology and fairy tale; were absorbing as to plot and character; and had a feminist subtext that was supported by the rest. This one takes the subtext and turns it into an AGENDA (with all caps), slights plot and character, and slams the reader over the head with the symbols. It is still beautifully written, in flowing and baroque prose, and that is its saving grace.

Set in an apocalyptic America, the bizarre plot concerns the forced sex change of the British male Evelyn into a female, a new Eve capable of bearing children, by a many-breasted fertility goddess. Obviously, this is not a plot to be taken literally, and that's OK for me under most circumstances. But when every single twist and turn and symbol and myth reference reiterate the same message, I want to shout, "I GET THE POINT ALREADY!"

To whom would I recommend this book? To scholars familiar with the symbolism found in mythology, folk story, and fairy tale--I'm sure I missed many references. To those highly interested in gender issues. To those who can enjoy a book just for the way it is written regardless of content. To those who don't mind being preached to. To all others I would recommend instead that they read Carter's Nights at the Circus or Wise Children.

The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor

This is yet another Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner (in 1959) which I had not heard about before, and that's a bit surprising, as I found it to be very interesting and enjoyable. It's the journal account of a young teenager's journey with his dreamer of a father in 1849 from Louisville, Kentucky, to the gold fields of California, many of the reported events purportedly taken by the author from an actual journal housed in the Yale Library.

Young Jaimie experiences one adventure after another, including capture by both murdering outlaws and bloodthirsty Indians. So many events are included, in fact, that the account begins to seem a tall tale, which takes away any suspense, of course. However, the narrative voice, which is lively and engaging, and the character portrayals, which are believable and skillfully accomplished, make up for the lack of narrative tension.

Whether or not the reader appreciates this novel on a literary level, it certainly should appeal on a historical level. Even if it is not believable that one boy experienced all these hardships and dangers, it is certain that some gold seeker or another encountered similar difficulties. The most interesting aspect is the picture it provides of the many differing kinds of people willing to leave the populated East and endure uncertainty, discomfort, and danger to reach the promise of California.

Just a note -- some have compared this novel to Huckleberry Finn. While it is true that both feature young male narrators on a journey, the similarity ends there. Twain's novel is so much more than just an adventure story, while that's basically what this book is. It's fun to read (though a bit too long, I think), but it will never be considered a classic.