Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category
It was difficult to choose an excerpt to properly display Woolf’s humour although they all carry an irreverence I found particularly appealing. She deals with poets very badly in this novel; I’d love to know which ones in particular ticked her off. Anyway, it’s the sort of humour that, with another writer, could have palled very quickly and earned nothing more than an eye roll. Or maybe that will be your reaction and I’m easy, but I always go for a good clichés jab. Here is our 16 year old Orlando putting his genius to paper.
He was describing, as all young poets are for ever describing, nature, and in order to match the shade of green precisely he looked (and here he showed more audacity than most) at the thing itself, which happened to be a laurel bush growing beneath the window. After that, of course, he could write no more. Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces. The shade of green Orlando now saw spoilt his rhyme and split his metre. Moreover, nature has tricks of her own. Once look out of a window at bees among flowers, at a yawning dog, at the sun setting, once think ‘how many more suns shall I see set’, etc. etc. (the thought is too well known to be worth writing out) and one drops the pen, takes one’s cloak, strides out of the room, and catches one’s foot on a painted chest as one does so. For Orlando was a trifle clumsy.
He was careful to avoid meeting anyone….There is perhaps a kinship among qualities; one draws another along with it; and the biographer should here call attention to the fact that this clumsiness is often mated with a love of solitude. Having stumbled over a chest, Orlando naturally loved solitary places, vast views, and to feel himself for ever and ever and ever alone.
So, after a long silence, ‘I am alone’, he breathed at last, opening his lips for the first time in this record. He had walked very quickly uphill through ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree. It was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty, if the weather was very fine. Sometimes one could see the English Channel, wave reiterating upon wave. Rivers could be seen and pleasure boats gliding on them; and galleons setting out to sea; and armadas with puffs of smoke from which came the dull thud of cannon firing; and forts on the coast; and castles among the meadows; and here a watch tower; and there a fortress; and again some vast mansion like that of Orlando’s father, massed like a town in the valley circled by walls. To the east there were the spires of London and the smoke of the city; and perhaps on the very sky line, when the wind was in the right quarter, the craggy top and serrated edges of Snowdon herself showed mountainous among the clouds. For a moment Orlando stood counting, gazing, recognizing. That was his father’s house; that his uncle’s. His aunt owned those three great turrets among the trees there. The heath was theirs and the forest; the pheasant and the deer, the fox, the badger, and the butterfly.
He sighed profoundly, and flung himself—there was a passion in his movements which deserves the word—on the earth at the foot of the oak tree.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
I’m back in Jamaica at least for a year or two, maybe forever. If my family has its way I’ll be back in foreign this time tomorrow.
Jamaican men are radically different from every other kind. I forgot how much.
I still read. I finished Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses a month or so ago. It defies a plot description and easy summation. At present I can say nothing more than it bedazzled, impressed, confused, amused, bewildered, pummeled….Good God are his other novels anything like it? Rushdie comes across as such a staid literary statesman these days and the reactions to his latest works never gave me the impression that the novels were bonkers in the most delightful way possible. (Except James Wood…”hysterical realism” was it? Ha ha.) Anyway, it cries out for a reread.
My blogging muscles are not yet fit enough to do a sensible summary of recent readings so I shall only mention what is presently on my plate and to what I am anticipating.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf – At the beginning I vacillated between “charming” and “trivial”. Now I’m at “hilarious, more to think about than readily apparent”. Why isn’t Woolf’s humour more heralded or am I weird? I’d try so many more of these Woolfs and Rushdies if critics eased off stressing their importance and highlighted the funny bits.
Rashomon and Other Stories by Akutagawa Ryonusuke – I knew nothing of Akutagawa’s theme or writing style before this collection. His short stories, at least the earlier ones that created his reputation, are written like fables. Very engrossing, intricately structured, and often end inconclusively. The Japanese authors I’ve read so far always build their stories on characters facing particular moral problems. How they react, what they decide forces one to consider not only the society mores of the time but one’s own personal philosophy and what it means…to be human I guess.
Here I stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton – One of my mother’s. I tried to read this when I was very young, perhaps 11 or so. I was vaguely interested in the different Protestant movements after the nun at my catholic prep school told me that my church (Anglican) formed from a royal divorce.
My brain’s a bit better at handling the content now.
Michael Manley biography – The author’s name escapes me. Manley was a former Jamaican Prime Minister both revered and despised, largely depending on how you feel about socialism and the word “comrade”.
I am dying to get my hands on Sarah Hall’s latest. Gimme gimme gimme. Besides that I need to get to those new Coetzees. Also Kwame Dawes’ poetry and Bob Marley book.
What have I been reading lately? As the end of my MA studies drew near and my thesis showed no signs of shrinking (or finishing itself) one could observe (lamentable) trends. I withdrew from almost all literary conversation — I did not blog or read any that weren’t in my RSS reader and lost desire for all lit mags, except one. The Paris Review managed to retain my affections partly because it’s a quarterly (so I felt I could read it at leisure), partly because I regard it as a curio among my lit mag/journal interests, and partly because it’s not very demanding in comparison to them (sorry PR staff). I always have reasonable excuses when the poetry befuddles me. (Btw, where the heck is my Fall issue? I miss being befuddled.)
As for books that jumped around a bit. My fantasy interested regressed. I reread The Hobbit and the entire Harry Potter series (like Jennysbooks is doing now). That was my third time with Tolkien’s first tale. The first time I was a tween and I left it with confused memories of the novel and the Rankin & Bass animated adaptation. The second time I closed it quite disgusted with Tolkien’s “children’s author” tone — a stylistic choice he later regretted. IIt’s an overly cute, somewhat artificial, self-conscious tone used by the world’s Enid Blytons. It works well enough for the right age group and then immediately loses favour. Even before I was ten I remember being exasperated with her style. For gratification I counted how many stories in a particular collection she ended with a question mark, mocking her silently.
This third time I made peace with that peeve and was able to appreciate Tolkien’s humour and the story’s rolicking air. I am now now even more worried about its fate as a film: it is fundamentally different from The Lord of the Rings but I fear that the trilogy’s success will convince those in charge that The Hobbit film must be made in its image. The “two movie” plan is very much the doubtful “epic” approach I feared they’d take. We shall see.
J.K. Rowling isn’t that skilfull of a writer, is she? I’ve mentioned many times that when I read the first two Harry Potter books I could not fathom what made it so popular with adults. (I came to the series through the fourth.) Now I think that their length and complexity are better suited to her strengths than a sprawling 700+ pages excursion. (Her best is the third in which she combines meatier content without needing endless words.) As the books got longer she had to do more dialogue…and she’s not very good at it. She overuses adverbs and seems limited to describing her characters as saying something “slowly” whenever they’re not running away from anyone. The plot heaves and gets kind of soap opera-y ie complications happen for the sake of it. She often fails at making her characters convincingly complex. Harry Potter’s teen angst phase came off as PSA-caricature to me but England does purportedly have a youth problem these days.
All the same…I did re-read the entire series, a compliment I have not bestowed on technically better writers whose books I’ve long since bartered. (Granted, I only own three of the HP series.) Rowlings quirky world creations and sympathetic characters combined with the pleasure of communal reading — it is wonderful to know one is enjoying a book with so many others and have endless opportunities to discuss it with them — are very potent. She could be an excellent author with a good editor. It is a bit grievous, though, to know that there are authors whose stories are both captivating and accomplished and yet are not half so spectacularly successful.
I like my mini-quests. My current one is to read all of Diana Wynne Jone’s backlist. Before this year I had read Howl’s Moving Castle, Conrad’s Fate, Power of Three and The Merlin Conspiracy. Since August I completed Chrestomanci Volumes I & II, The Dalemark Quartet and The Pinhoe Egg. I owned Charmed Life, the first in the Chrestomanci Vol. I, for a long time but was repeatedly put off by the first paragraph. I believe it’s one of her earlier novels, published in the 70s, and it stumbled with very abrupt, ugly sentences that did not promise the wry, elegant, tongue-in-cheek Diana I knew well.
Cat Chant admired his elder sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left him no one else to cling to.
Mayhaps I’m overreacting but they read so serviceable, plain, without art or promise. The kind of book you get in grade on when you’re learning to read. Compare it to say, the opening in The Merlin Conspiracy, a favourite.
I have been with the Court all my life, travelling with the King’s Progress.
It’s even shorter than the first example but it scans well. It gives a tantalising bit of information while making you want to know more. That the narrator is writing this down also hints his/her situation is changing which also snags my curiousity. It works, you know? Jones also write it nearly 30 years later so of course she has a better handle of how to get things going. In any case, I did manage to get over Charmed Life’s awkward start, thanks to the quest and the knowledge that the Chrestomanci series is Jones’ most popular, and became one of her many readers to fall head over heels for Christopher Chant and his flamboyant dress robes.
One of the real charms Jones’ books holds for me is how her various urban and rural settings are not modeled too far from real life. In other stories you may have the familiar setting with the fantastical world intruding or its an extreme version of reality (like in Harry Potter with the Firebolts and wizard cards and such — which I adore btw). She explores and pokes at the strange British class system and, to a lesser extent, civil service. Her Conrad’s Fate struck me as being awfully similar to Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (don’t guffaw!) in it humorous, sharp study of an upper class home’s ecosystem, from the master and mistress down to the shoe shine boy. It’s not done to make any point in particular. And…although the magic *is* necessary to the plot , there is so little effort to jazz it up that I’d recommend it to non-fantasy fans who are Anglophiles and like mysteries.
I do not love all of her books equally. The reasons escape me but I found The Magicians of Caprona less than satisfactory. I’ve noticed DWJ’s preference for male over female heroines, the latter oft regulated to the prominent sidekick role. (Unfortunately, when she does have a book with a prominent female heroine, like the third book in The Dalemark Quartet, I pretty much can’t stand it and long for all my favourite boys from the previous two.) She does have an excellent grasp of what sets a young female reading going and that made up some of my favourite moments. In The Lives of Christopher Chant there’s a young goddess named Millie who is starved for reading material. Christopher, on the advice of a male friend with experience in the ladies’ reading tastes, buys her a series that I’m sure is modelled on Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl books. Mille immediately becomes quite desperate to have girl crushes, tea time, Midnight Feasts, become a prefect and so on which mirrored my reaction exactly, except that I also wanted to wake up at ungodly hours to swim in a lake. (I still remember the illustration of the girls running towards it.) In Pinhoe’s Egg there’s a similar moment when two girls despair for a horse, plan to buy riding gear and speak knowingly of gymkhanas after taking in one of those girl + pony books. But this one felt contrived, as if DWJ was trying to recapture a moment better done before.
I’m now in the middle of Hexwood which happily has a prominent heroine (who I like) and seems to be a mix of both fantasy and science fiction, which is always nice, as long as Jones is the author. I shan’t make any promises but I also read, among others, John Banville’s Doctor Copernicus and, in order to remain a critblog in Dan Green’s standings, I shall offer you more critical fare on both that and Mill on the Floss, of course. I read a strange mid-20th century Japanese novel entitled The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Mishima Yukio. It was such a hothouse novel and stamped with Freud’s seal of approval…lots of phallic poles, edifices, ship masts, womanly flowers opening up and what have you…and so riddled with imagery…I still don’t know what to make of it. (Japanese writers rule.)
I am ready to return into literature’s welcoming bosom. As a sign that I made the right decision, the gods saw fit to give The Mill on The Floss the kind of soul wrenching end that left me sobbing. I haven’t done that since Andre Dubus’ “Rose” (a short story) which was years ago. Every one fusses about Middlemarch but perhaps one ought to take a closer look at my new favourite? I am now convinced that Eliot deserves to be immortalised in marble — I hope there’s a statue I can visit somewhere.
Middlemarch is her best so I’ll get to it some time but…is it another Fallen Woman story? My heart can’t take any more of those at present. I may swerve into Silas Marner instead. That’s another one of her books that I started to read in my younger days but never finished.
“Tell me , do you have any coloured blood?”
Mark recognized, with anger and embarrassment, the small halt in his breathing but he answered easily enough, “Of course. Why do you ask?”
“Shouldn’t I? It seems an interesting point about a man like you.”
“I suppose so,” said Mark. “But it’s not usual to hear a European ask it.”
“It worries you quite a bit, eh?”
Mark grinned…”Does it show so much?” he asked.
“You ought to have seen your face, ” Hancko said, “when I asked you.”
“It’s a queer business,” said Mark. “Being my colour and and my class in my sort of country. All your training…all your influences and most of the education you get encourages you to value one side of what you were born and to despise the other. It becomes a reflex by the time you’re about five years old.”
“What are you going to do?” Hancko asked him then.
“What [are] you getting at?”
“Everything,” he replied, looking steadily at Mark, and with the accent of his English only discernible by the faint hardness of the vowels. “Everything you want to do, no matter how complex and untidy it looks, has something specific in it that moves the whole thing. An essence that you can get at.” He closed his hand slowly, like a man grasping a sinking stone in the water before it reached the bottom. ” Every question, comes down finally to ‘What’, not ‘Why’. In our case it’s a matter of giving an allegiance to the destiny of the poor. A real allegiance, I mean, that’s almost like religious faith, but not quite. Don’t mind that, though. It’s an allegiance to them as a class, to what they have to offer, to the work you must do with them. In your country one lot of people who are white rule and prosper by using the people like you. They’re able to use you because they allow you a good share in their world, and because they’ve given you a set of values to live by that depend on the approval of that world. And the poor of your world, the blacks, they’re kept poor because you, people like you I mean, get an idea clearly in life that there will always be something irreconcilable between the white world and the black. And only the white world has any value, call it beauty if you like, for you. Is that right?”
“Yes,” Mark said slowly. “I suppose that is the way it works.”
“It’s not a question,” Hancko continued, “of starting a race war: that’s almost more stupid than the other thing. It’s only a question of taking sides. Every time history becomes urgent and a little sick, as it is now, a man has to pick a side. Especially men like you who carry both your worlds within you, in your blood.”
From Voices Under The Window by John Hearne, published by Peepal Tree Press
Hope it hasn’t been mentioned and my old eyes have deceived me, but have you seen the PBS version of Persuasion? I really enjoyed the whole PBS Jane Austen series. – Tasses
No, I’m afraid not. I tend to avoid Austen adaptations unless there’s something in the advertising that indicates the director produced something beyond the ordinary. More importantly, I’m not even sure if I have PBS. But I remember reading reviews of it online and viewers feeling much the same as you did.
With all the Wyndham you’ve been reading, can you tell us which one appealed to you most? What about him made you want to read multiple titles?
Also, re: Wide Sargasso Sea — do you have an opinion in general on the writing of “sequels” using another author’s characters? – Melanie
The Chrysalids retains its top spot because my reread revealed why images of it had stayed with me from boarding school (even if I couldn’t remember specific details). It’s also the best developed one in terms of plot and theme.
Generally when I find an author I like I seek out his other titles immediately. Penguin’s re-release of much of his backlist and the novels’ short length made it all too easy for me to gorge.
In general I lay a pox on authors who go about messing with other books in order to write pre- or sequels. I’m a huge Austen fan but I’ll never read those Darcy’s Diary claptrap. I made an exception for Wide Sargasso Sea because it’s a) considered a classic and b) Rhys wrote other novels that are also well-regarded.
On Literature and Knowledge: Is this more a theoretical book or more an op-ed from the author? Do you disagree with any of the author’s arguments? – bookchronicle
Ahhh, it’s a bit of both with the op-ed strain being a bit more dominant. She goes to some lengths to define and elucidate an understanding of “knowledge” different from the scientific and, ergo, arguing for literature’s importance as is rather than trying to torture it into the objective paradigm.
I’ve read it months ago but I do remember being sceptical about her support for the idea that literature nurtures empathetic knowledge in readers. It’s a library book though, so I don’t have a copy here to go into more details. Hope I was clear enough!
How do you think Persuasion compares to other Austen novels? Would you recommend it to someone new to the author, or would you tell them to try something else first? – Christine
Oh, I love it. Here’s my ranking, leaving out P&P because I’ve forgotten how much I like it and so must re-read to make things clear. Emma‘s first, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park and Persuasion are all tied in for 2nd place because I can’t decide which I like better, while Sense and Sensibility languishes at the bottom because it’s good Austen but I don’t see what all the fuss is about.
You know, it all depends on what kind of reader the newbie is. All of Austen’s major novels are of a certain quality that renders that issue irrelevant. NA may not have MP’s complex architecture but it has a persuasive, enchanting element coupled with Austen’s judicious eye that wins readers over, for example. It’s more about what that new reader is likely to connect with first because, despite similar themes, Austen’s novels vary in style and focus, she brings different things to the fore in her works. I suppose most would go with P&P because it’s considered THE book but that’s a boring tactic, don’t you think? Sometimes it’s neater to take a divergent path even if you end up at the same finishing point.
Thanks to everyone for the great questions!
The Lydia Millet questions
I just recently read a Lydia Millet novel. What’d you think of her? In the one I read, the characterization was brilliant, although her writing felt heavy at times.
How were Millet’s characters in the novel you read? How well were they drawn? Did you find yourself attracted to some while repelled by others? – kelskels
That’s a trickier question than you might expect. Her characterization for the kind of novel she wanted to write was excellent, IMO. In one review (via Soft Skull)– the only one you need read on this novel, btw, as the newspaper ones were pure pap for the most part — the critic wrote that “Millet delivers a novel that strips a character of all pretense, custom, habit and certitude, even of personality, to leave an entity that moves blindly forward in a world of blunt instinct.” I agree completely but it left others complaining that they weren’t the “fully dimensional”, proper rounded characters that all novelists must write all the time to be considered any good. Far be it from me to declare such critics flapping philistines with woefully limited ideas of what fiction is, may they please spare the public their editorially approved opinions but…*ahem* yes, I thought How the Dead Dream did well on that score. I too found her writing heavy at times the first time around but on a reread lost all sight of what I found problematic in the first place…until I picked up My Happy Life, another of her novels, which threw all that heaviness to the fore so I had to put it down and give myself a break.
Yes, I felt that pull and push to certain characters…did you read How the Dead Dream too or is this Millet’s general style? 😀 It’s like you’re in my head.
“How the Dead Dream” is a book I have been meaning to read for some time now.
Who this book would speak more powerfully to. Do you believe that animal lovers/owners would connect with the main character more so than non-animal people?
Did this book make you think about the differences in how people treat their human family members as opposed to their animal family?
What do you think is the main message Millet is trying to get across to her readers? – Joanne
While the main character may be more appealing to animal lovers I don’t think he would connect to them anymore than other readers precisely because he’s not a typical animal lover. Indeed for most of the novel although he becomes more conscious and concerned about others and the wider world he doesn’t develop in a clear cut, “let’s join PETA” manner.
No, the book didn’t make me think about how persons treat pets differently from relatives…. I think one of Millet’s main purposes in writing the book was to change environmentalism’s image to the average person. She wanted to sap it of its sentimental, “hobby” like status where people cry over cute pandas and instead highlight how it is as serious, and vital an issue as oil prices or health care, say, which are seen as more general “issues”. Especially when it comes to talking about animal extinction.
What’s Literature and Knowledge like? Easy to read and understand? – Maree
Ummm…I would say it’s only easy to understand if you’re used to reading university-level texts on abstract matter like theory. That being said Dorothy Walsh is meticulous in defining her terms and building her argument careful from chapter to chapter, anticipating questions and answering them well, for the most part, and avoiding silly jargon. She writes so clearly, with a touch of humour that it’s a book I’d recommend to those who wanted to dip their toes into books on literature and aesthetics but are unsure of where to start and are afraid of being overwhelmed.
Was Nick right to sacrifice his vocation (teaching, scholarship) for a life of beauty and pleasure? Why do Nick and the MP argue about Richard Strauss? – Amateur Reader
You know, I don’t think it’s a question of right or wrong since poor Nick didn’t even seem clear on what the heck he was going to write for his doctorate. He was clear about it except when he had to explain it to others — and maybe he was just shy, poor thing — but I say that if you can’t string two clear sentences together on your thesis you’re in trouble. Much easier to cut and snort. (I know that sweet Nick thought that no one would understand his oh so literary topic but I call BS.) He did get a whole (ugly) building out of it!
Nick and the MP’s musical arguments are symbolic of the British government’s oppression of homosexuals. Strauss controversially supported the Nazi regime who were famously homophobic and Gerald, a Thatcherite, no doubt supported Thatcher’s anti-gay legislation she established in the 80s.
(I went for the most outlandish explanation I could think of. How did I do?)
Have you read any of Dubus’ novels? Which form do you think he masters, or is he skillful with both? Which was your favorite story from this collection? – Dew
Dubus only wrote one novel, an early one, which I’ve rarely seen mention and so am not much interested in. He (and I) consider him to be a short story writer. It’s his son Dubus III that’s known for his novels.
My favourite story from that collection is probably the first one “Killings” which, to my surprise, was adapted into a movie.