September 4, 2009
Reads & Reviews: The Books of August 2009
The dog days of August arrived in southern California and have culminated with the massive "Station Fire" burning something over 145,000 acres (approx. 200+ square miles) in the Angeles National Forest. It has been a smokey mess here in the LA area for well over a week now. With the weather moderating a touch, the firefighters seem to be getting the upper hand on this monster fire. Thank God, and thanks to the tireless men and women fighting this fire!
Over the past month and a half I have been 'burning' through some great books too, and having a blast doing it! I thought it might be fun to just chronicle what I've read; by title, author, and a brief description of my impressions.
As an organizational tool, for my own edification, I think I will probably do a posting like this every couple of months. So, without further ado, here's my list of recent reads--
1. Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy - I read this, in serial fashion, with my "Anglophiles Anonymous" group on-line at Shelfari.com. This was an intensely lyrical and emotional book and full of pathos, and one of my favorites by Hardy. It is such a study in human behavior, both good and bad. Instead of the 'normal' romantic triangle, Hardy sets up a plot that involves four main protagonists; Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba Everdine, Farmer Boldwood, and Frank Troy. The three men spin about, ever faster, the beautiful Bathsheba, until the horrifying climax of the novel. Normally, I find that Hardy's novels aren't what folks would categorize as 'happy' (and no pejorative is intended); but all in all, this novel ended well. An excellent novel, and one that I highly recommend (as I would any novel by Thomas Hardy).
2. Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome - This was another group read novel that my Shelfari.com group did this summer. This, not-so-well-known, Victorian novel has been described as a "travelogue." Well, it is nothing of the sort. While it generally describes a boat trip that three young bored men take late one summer, it is absolutely hysterical from start to finish. There are madcap adventures, and sidebar streams of consciousness that yield so much insight into the minds of young middle-class men in Victorian London. Everything from their pre-trip planning, to the day-by-day rowing on the river, and their nighttime camping mishaps are documented. Jerome's ability to capture the personalities of his friends (and the dog) with wit and humor makes this a timeless read. When you're feeling a touch low in spirits, this is the book for you. After just a few pages, you'll be smiling and feeling much better about things. Definitely a book to pass around among friends and family!
3. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke - This book completely blew me away! I was taken into the world of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on page one, and it was with the greatest reluctance that I turned the last page and was released to rejoin my own world. Susanna Clarke's debut novel is magical, mysterious, dreamy, witty and funny, and incredibly engaging.
The novel is set in Regency England and is a delightful mix of historical and fictional characters. Without sounding trite, the characters are Dickensian, the dialog Austenesque, some of the vision and fantasy of Lewis Carroll, and much of the prose like that of Patrick O'Brian. I can honestly say that this is one of the most unique, fresh, and original novels that I have read in many, many years; and I am already looking forward to sitting down and immersing myself again in this marvelous world that Susanna Clarke has created. If you are intimidated at taking on an 850 page tome, or want more of Clarke's marvelous writing, I strongly suggest reading her wonderful collection of short stories entitled, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories (see next entry).
4. The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, by Susanna Clarke - This is a wonderful collection of eight short stories by Susanna Clarke. This little volume was published in 2006, two years after the release of her fabulous debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I particularly enjoyed the title story, The Ladies of Grace Adieu as it expands upon one of Susanna Clarke's footnotes from the novel (i.e., Footnote 2, Chapter 43). While this collection is an excellent companion to the novel, it can also serve as a stand-alone introduction to Clarke's style, wit, prose, and imagination. Having read this collection of short stories, as well as Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, it strikes me that, above all, Clarke provides a view of what it means to be English. I think that these are amazing books, and this collection of short stories a welcome addition to her work.
5. The Mother's Recompense, by Edith Wharton - What a hauntingly beautiful novel! One cannot help but empathize with poor Kate Clephane and the life she has lived. After many, many years, Kate re-enters her, now adult, daughter's life, and the New York society she fled so long ago. The problem is that times have changed, and Kate does not well understand the social mores of the new age, her daughter's age, and this contributes to the moral dilemma she encounters.
This novel is vintage Wharton, and like much of her work, contains an intriguing plot twist that I shan't give away. In my opinion, the novel highlights Wharton's assessment of the stark differences between the late-Victorian and early-Edwardian Eras and the early period of the Roaring-Twenties and its impact upon American upper class society. This was a Wharton novel that I'd not yet read, and I'm so glad that I have now!
6. Saki: The Complete Fiction, by Hector Hugh Munro (Saki) - This collection contains all of Saki's laugh-out-loud hysterical, sometimes macabre and creepy, but always engaging short stories and novellas. Once you begin reading, you begin to eagerly look about for someone to read them aloud to. These are simply too wonderful to keep to one's self!
Each story is fabulously well-written and is a self-contained vignette of Edwardian life delivered with delicious wit, humor, satire, and sarcasm. It is such a pity that Saki (Hector Hugh Munro) was killed during the First World War (in 1916), cutting short an incredibly brilliant literary career. Read this book; you'll laugh forever, and read it again and again. Make sure you have an extra copy about to give away to deserving friends and family! Highly recommended!
7. The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy - This is a titanic masterpiece of a multi-generational story of a fictional English family that spans the Victorian, Edwardian, and post-World War I eras. For the first one-hundred pages or so, I found myself having to frequently refer to the Forsyte family genealogical chart; however, by the end of the book I knew all of the characters and their place in the family intimately. Like all families, Galsworthy has created a world of very real and human characters in the Forsyte family; a family bound as much by their name, and at times even their dysfunction. The novel's characters exhibit the full range of emotion and feeling, including: love, greed, hatred, passion, jealousy, lust, truth, honesty, betrayal, and so forth; it is all there within this family - The Forsytes. Once started, I could not put this book down easily; it is that compelling. I fully understand why John Galsworthy was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932. For those who love novels of, and about, England, The Forsyte Saga is a must read.
8. Angels & Insects, by A.S. Byatt - A.S. Byatt, with Angels & Insects, has created a rich and complex book comprised of two medium-length novellas set in the mid-1860s and 1870s, both of which address themes important to the people of the Victorian Era. The first novella, Morpho Eugenia focuses on the relationships between a family, its friends, servants, and the natural world around them in the English countryside. The tale pivots around the study of society and nature, and then there's the tension and struggle between theology and science that resonates throughout; all of which funnels to a shocking climax involving the relationships between the story's central characters. Once started, it was hard to stop reading. I have to say that not only was the plot amazing, but the prose was just exquisitely beautiful. Byatt cements her reputation, in my opinion, as a superb storyteller with Morpho Eugenia.
The second novella, The Conjugial Angel is a more complicated, but lushly presented, story of the impact of 'Loss' upon a small group of characters brought together around a seance table. The Victorian poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the relationships between Tennyson, his sister Emily, and a young poet, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died many years before the story begins, all figure prominently. Elements associated with the supernatural, a tinge of gothic horror, and the theology of Swedenborg all swirl together in this wonderful tale. Be warned though, one needs to read The Conjugial Angel slowly and thoughtfully; like a slice of pecan pie, it is rich and deserves to be savored and enjoyed slowly. Before reading The Conjugial Angel, I strongly recommend that the reader first read Tennyson's beautiful long elegiac poem, In Memoriam A.H.H.; his very personal and emotional tribute to his late-friend, Arthur Henry Hallam.
Fans of A.S. Byatt, or Victoriana in general, will not be disappointed one jot with either of these two novellas. I know that I will be back for a visit again sometime soon.
9. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde - This novel is a witty, whimsical, slightly daft, inventive and very entertaining read. This is the first novel in a series of five featuring the "literary detective," Thursday Next. While certainly not a prerequisite, it would help the reader's enjoyment to have a good reading background in British literature of the 19th Century; particularly the poetry of Wordsworth, Charles Dickens' novel Martin Chuzzlewit, and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. In my opinion, Jasper Fforde has written an engaging novel that is actually quite thought provoking. It has alternative history and interesting perspectives on the value and meaning that society places on literature. While I don't know that I will read any of the subsequent 'Thursday Next' novels, I do recommend this fun book to fans of Jane Eyre and the Victorian Era. This is just plain old good escapism and is guaranteed to make you smile more often than not.
10. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll - I have just finished re-reading both of these wonderful novels in my "Anglophiles Anonymous" reading group on Shelfari.com. These books, while they may have originally been written for young Alice Liddell and other children, almost seem to be parables on what it means to be a child, and warn against not ‘growing up’ too fast. For example, it was interesting to notice that Alice quite innocently does not respond to the concept of the ‘abhorrence of death’ the same way an adult would (i.e., when the Duchess is under sentence of death at the croquet party). Also, Alice notices, time and time again, that the creatures of Wonderland are easily offended, or quick to argue (or defend) their point. Alice is always pointing out, “It’s no business of mine!” Further, she mentions several times that “Everybody says, ‘Come on!’ here” and that she “…never was so ordered about before, in all my life, never!” All in all though, Alice is a kind-hearted and thoughtful girl, who tries to mind her manners and be respectful of those she encounters.
Maybe the real message here is that no matter what one encounters in life, all will end well if one is respectful, optimistic, uses even a modicum of common-sense, and manages to maintain an almost child-like insatiable curiosity. I think it might be useful for all of us to make a point of re-reading these two books every few years; just to reacquaint ourselves with our own childhoods and innocence. Finally, I think it is wonderful that the protagonist is a vivacious and precocious little girl; it fits with the topsy-turvey world that Carroll has created, and it also seems important that a young female is the representative human in both books.
I also think that these delightful books really illustrate Lewis Carroll’s love of all things linguistic, mathematical and logical, as well as his fabulous word-play (e.g., puns, palindromes, anagrams, repetitions, and just plain crazy-cool made-up words). There are circular arguments throughout in many of the conversations between the creatures of Wonderland and Alice. The use of numbers is prominent throughout the books. There are interesting numbered sequences of events, or counted items, all over the place.
From a literary perspective, Lewis Carroll parodies or alludes to many of the popular poets of the day, including; Tennyson, Robert Southey, Thomas Hood , and Thomas Moore. To me, it seems pretty clear that Carroll loved poetry, and that he loved to tinker with writing poetry himself. Obviously, he was quite adept at parody as well.
In conclusion, I have thoroughly enjoyed my re-reading of these two books. It had been well over forty years since I last read these books from start to finish. I was absolutely amazed at how many expressions we use, almost daily, that have their origins in these books. Most folks may not realize it, but these two books have left an indelible mark on all of us, and will continue to do so for generations to come. What a treasure they are!
“Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die.
Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?”
11. Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym - This snappy wonderful little novel was my first exposure to the writing of Barbara Pym, and it won't be my last! The novel's protagonist, Mildred Lathbury, is a spinterish woman in 1950s Britain with feelings - real feelings. She wants to 'do the right thing' and make every one around her feel good; sometimes at the expense of her own feelings and needs. This novel is Austenesque in style and prose and devilishly funny at the same time. Once you start reading this little gem you cannot help but keep turning the pages, one after the other. I can't tell you how glad I am to have discovered Pym's books, they are truly special.
12. Some Tame Gazelle, by Barbara Pym - I am in the midst of a group reading of Pym's first published novel in my "Jane Austen" reading group on Goodreads.com. It is a wonderful and witty little novel of two spinster sisters living in a quiet little country village in England. I am truly enjoying the simple earnestness of the two women protagonists and the delightful writing style of Barbara Pym.
13. Possession, by A.S. Byatt - I am in the process of a group reading of Possession in my "Victorians" reading group on Goodreads.com. It has been several years since I last read it; and I have to say that, this time around, I am seeing it in a completely new light. It is a literary masterpiece that is exquisitely plotted and written. Personally, I think Byatt takes on postmodernism via the use of parody and satire. I think she is also paying some measure of homage to the great Victorian authors and poets; and wants all of us to simply read their fiction and poetry simply for what it is, and not deconstruct it too much. She is pretty hard on the processes and techniques of present day academic research too; implying that it has become far too cutthroat and competitive.
I also spent a lot of time very carefully studying the epigraphs leading off most of the chapters, as well as all of the beautiful poetry included in the text. Honestly, I don’t know that I gave much more than a cursory glance to the poetry during previous reads. This time though, I focused on Byatt’s poetry pastiches and discovered just how much it enriched and influenced the novel’s dual plots. It really inspired me to go and seek out the great Victorian Era poetry, including that of Tennyson, the Brownings, Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Charles Swinburne.
Regarding the epigraphs, I really recommend that the reader carefully study each epigraph before reading the chapter; and then upon finishing the chapter, go back and read it again and see if you correctly figured out the true meaning of it. There are little puzzles and clues throughout the entire novel, most of them residing within the poetry sections. This novel is quite like an onion, there's layer upon layer of nuanced meaning throughout. One must pay close attention as one reads.
In conclusion, this is a beautiful love story, achieving a level of romantic passion, emotion, and anguish like that of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, but with the Byronic or Gothic touches of the Bronte sisters. It is clear, to me, why Byatt was awarded the Booker Prize for Possession in 1990; and that this novel is clearly destined to be a classic work of literature.
14. The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Robert Frost, selected by Harold Bloom - This anthology is a "must have" for anyone looking for a fairly comprehensive collection of the best poetry in the English language. Additionally, Professor Bloom leads off the volume with his superb essay, The Art of Reading Poetry. Take this book with you on a trip and try and a read poem or two each day; it is an enriching experience. Read a poem out loud to a friend or family member, and you'll enrich their life too. I have slowly come to realize that poetry is arguably the highest art form.
15. Tennyson's Poetry, edited by Robert W. Hill, Jr. - This is a Norton Critical Edition of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poetry; and is a relatively comprehensive anthology. I searched out this edition of Tennyson's poetry while reading A.S. Byatt's Possession. I have completed a careful reading and analysis of Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H. and Maud: A Monodrama, and am now just browsing about and finding 'new friends' and revisiting old friends. I plan to tackle his Arthurian epic, Idylls of the King, at some point in the near future.
16. Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by R.W. Crump and Betty S. Flowers - This volume of Christina Rossetti's poetry is simply sublime; and contains all of her superb poetry. Of course it contains the thought-provoking epic poem, Goblin Market. Some of my other personal favorites include: An Echo from Willowwood, Song, After Death, The Ghost's Petition; and one of her very best, in my opinion, The Convent Threshold. This collection includes her sonnets, her children's poetry, and all of her intensely spiritual devotional poetry; this book has it all.
Christina Rossetti was the younger sister of the talented Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In comparing their poetry though, it is my learned opinion that Christina was far-and-away the master. In fact, of all the great Victorian Era poets, I think a case can be made that she may have only been equaled by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and America's greatest poet, Emily Dickinson. I highly recommend this volume of Christina Rossetti's poetry. You will find yourself returning to it time and again. She is truly one of my most favorite poets of all time.
Well, there it is; a busy month of reading I've had, but ever so satisfying! I am planning to read some "steampunk" novels that have been awaiting me. I have two recent novels by Stephen Hunt, and three relatively recent novels by China Mieville that I have been looking forward to reading. I also want to continue with reading the poetry of Tennyson and Christina Rossetti. So, stay tuned; and I wish you 'Happy Reading' in September, wherever you are!
By the bye, the photograph I've attached to this posting is a landscape photograph that I took on April 25, 2008, early in the morning along the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite National Park, California. The massive granite pinnacles in the background are aptly named, The Three Brothers. Look carefully at this image and you'll see that it is actually a reflection, and I've inverted it too. This is one of my favorite images of the last few years; and I thought it might be nice to share this peaceful and tranquil scene with you.