The Guide: A #Diversiverse Review

The GuideJust two days after his release from prison, a man named Raju is sitting cross-legged by an ancient shrine when a man named Velan approaches him seeking advice. His sister is supposed to be married, but she has run away. Raju doesn’t know Velan or his sister, nor does he care much about them, but he’s in the habit of giving advice after years as a tour guide. And he’s used to his advice being appreciated, even when it’s completely off-the-mark. So he gives advice and gains a devotee.

This 1958 novel by R. K. Narayan tells the story of Raju’s various rises to power—and what that power does to him. One storyline, told in the third person, shows Raju, the ex-con, winning disciples almost in spite of himself. This narrative alternates with Raju’s first-person account of his life as a tour guide and the relationship that eventually landed him in prison.

The juxtaposition of the two narratives makes the book difficult to follow at first, but it helps to show just how Raju operates—and he is an operator. He may not look for opportunities to be deceitful, but when opportunities arise, he takes them. He plays the part that people expect of him, passively at first, but once he sees an angle the benefits him, he fully immerses himself in the new persona.

But being a spiritual guide is not the same as being a tour guide, and soon the role is out of his hands, and the people are in charge. It’s at this point that the narrative reverts almost entirely to the first-person flashback, as Raju tries to make a clean breast of it and reveal to his most devoted disciple who he really is.

It’s at this point that we sees Raju’s third guide persona, when he takes on the task of guiding a beautiful dancer named Rosie to her future. The relationship began as one of lust but turned into yet another opportunity to play an angle. Raju uses Rosie’s talent to build his own fame and fortune, but he didn’t know when to stop. And so he lost what he had gained.

Raju presents himself as charming and pleasant and oh, so helpful, but in truth, he’s only out for himself. All his efforts to help others are ways to serve himself. He gives little thought to what people actually want, only how he can make them appreciate his efforts. Sometimes his efforts do some good. He gave many tourists the holiday they wanted, and he gave Rosie massive success although whether Rosie was happy is an open question—and it’s evident that to Raju she’s a possession, not a person. His advice to spiritual seekers isn’t necessarily bad, but that’s mostly because it’s vague enough for people to apply however they see fit.

The book ends with Raju’s final role coming to an end, and readers are left to wonder why he chooses to end his work the way he does (or seems to). Is he repentant and trying to be the guru people want? Is he in despair over the way things turned out? Or is he hoping for greater glory? I can’t quite make up my mind on this point. He seems utterly humbled by the end, but I’m not convinced his final act is one of humility.

DiversiverseI’ve had this book on my shelves for years, but I made a point of reading and reviewing it this week as part of Aarti’s #Diversiverse event. R. K. Narayan is a noted Indian author whose career spanned much of the 20th century. This is the first of his books that I’ve read.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 1 Comment

Meeting Sarah Waters

One of the advantages of living just outside a major city like Washington, DC, is that lots of great authors come through town. If Politics and Prose were around the corner, I’d be there often because they get lots of authors I’m moderately interested in, but driving all across DC requires more than moderate interest. It requires an author to be among my very favorites. It requires an author to be someone like Sarah Waters.

Waters was at Politics and Prose to promote her new book, The Paying Guests, which I thought was quite good, although not a favorite. I’ve liked it more and more as I’ve reflected on it, and hearing her discuss it made me even more appreciative of the characters.

Her visit was set up as an interview with Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress. I have mixed feelings about this set-up. I can see its value in that it keeps the author from having to prepare remarks that could seemed canned after a while. But the last author event I went to (Jhumpa Lahiri) involved an interviewer who gave away multiple plot points to an audience of readers who had only bought the book that night. Blake was much more cautious about what she revealed. At one point her question got kind of long as she waxed eloquent about how great Waters’s books are, but for the most part, it was a good conversation, and there was plenty of time for audience questions.

Sarah Waters reads from The Paying Guests

Sarah Waters reads from The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests was apparently a challenge for Waters to write because she knew less about the period than she did for her previous books. Much of the literature of the time focuses on the upper classes, and she decided she wanted to write about ordinary people. A couple of well-known murder trials from the period gave her the idea of what the story could be. But as she worked on the book, she got stymied about what kind of book it was. Her agent thought it seemed like a crime novel complicated by love, and she realized from that comment that what she wanted was a love story complicated by crime. That latter insight helps me wrap my mind around the ending a bit better. I’m much more of a crime novel reader than a love story reader, so I was looking for a crime novel ending.

Perhaps my favorite moment from the talk was when she mentioned that she started with the end in mind when she wrote The Little Stranger. This is perhaps my favorite of her books, mostly because of the ending. That final paragraph is breath-taking. It sends a chill down my spine to even think of it. I had gone back and forth about whether to bring The Little Stranger or Fingersmith to the signing, so that comment made me especially glad I’d decided on The Little Stranger. (Politics and Prose does not require those attending a signing to buy a book, so I usually bring my favorite book by that author and buy something else if I don’t want or already have the book being promoted.)

2014-09-19 21.28.14When I brought my book to the table I told her how I love it, especially the ending. She seemed pleased to hear it and remarked that she’s gotten lots of complaints from readers who are confused about what was going on. When I told her that I’ve suggested people reread the last paragraph, she said that’s basically what she does too. That was a pretty awesome fangirl moment for me! (Really, the last paragraph unlocks the book. It doesn’t settle every question, but it answers the main one.)

The whole event was a delight. I only wish all my favorites could come to DC. Lucky for me, next month brings Marilynne Robinson. And Stephen King. Marlon James and Colm Toibin might be worth the cross-town trip too. And Stephen Pinker could be pretty interesting. Well, there goes my October!

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

we-have-always-lived-in-the-castleHere’s what I knew about this novel by Shirley Jackson before I started reading it. It’s creepy. There’s an old house and some sisters, maybe some ghosts, and lots of secrets. And it’s really very creepy. So not much. I’ve seen it mentioned on a lot of blogs, but either I’ve been forgetting the reviews as soon as I read them or the blog reviews are scant on details. (Given that I mostly remember books by blogging about them, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to learn that the blog reviews I’ve read explained the premise in detail but that I forgot. Maybe I need to start a book blog blog so I can better remember reviews.)

Anyway, my review will not be particularly scant on detail, but I will try to avoid big spoilers. I say try because the nature of these characters’ story is revealed slowly, and some people will consider early reveals to be spoilers. I do not.

So I was right in thinking that this book was about sisters. Two sisters. Merricat Blackwood, our narrator, is the younger sister. She’s the one who runs errands into town so that her older sister, Constance, doesn’t have to. Merricat tell us early on that most of her family is dead. Her wheelchair-bound uncle, Julian, still survives and lives with Merricat and Constance. The townspeople have viewed the family, especially Constance, with suspicion ever since the rest of the Blackwoods were poisoned with arsenic that had been mixed in the sugar bowl.

The deaths are the first of the terrible things to happen to the sisters—the terrible thing that happened in the past. But some other terrible thing is looming. Merricat hints at it when the novel opens:

The last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue, and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones which would stand forever on our kitchen shelf. We rarely moved things; the Blackwoods were never much  of a family for restlessness and stirring.

The Blackwoods seem to live by routine. The routine keeps them safe. It enables them to care for each other. Staying at home is one way to preserve the routine and keep out the suspicions and demands of the outside world. Shirley Jackson was herself agoraphobic, and the Blackwoods’ sense of safety in the home feels both absolutely right and horribly wrong. The world is terrifying, especially when the neighbors are cruel and suspicious. But the world will not be easily turned away.

For the Blackwoods, the world comes to the door in the person of a cousin, Charles. His arrival brings to the surface Constance’s feeling that their current isolation cannot, perhaps should not, last forever. Isolation may be safe, but what would it cost to preserve it?

Of course, a great cataclysm eventually occurs, but I think the bigger cataclysm is internal. Actually, it may be the lack of cataclysm that’s the biggest thing. However you might look at it, the drama of this book is internal. Death and destruction pale in comparison to the breaking of a mind. It’s not houses or neighbors or routines that imprison, it’s minds. It’s minds that are creepy. It’s minds that contain ghosts. The terror of this book is all in the mind.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 20 Comments

A Kid for Two Farthings

Kid for Two FarthingsThis 1953 novel by Wolf Mankowitz is set in a Jewish neighborhood London’s East End, where a little boy named Joe lives with his mother, His father has gone to Africa for reasons that aren’t fully explained (to work in the mines, I assumed), and so Joe’s mother supports them by working in a milliner’s shop. Their downstairs neighbor, a tailor named Mr. Kandinsky, is a central figure in Joe’s life, eating meals with Joe and his mother and keeping a friendly eye on Joe when his mother is away at work and Joe is left free to wander the neighborhood.

It’s Mr. Kandinsky who tells Joe about the power of unicorns to grant wishes, and Joe, who wants to see him and his neighbors all get the things the want, decides that a unicorn would be a much better pet than the day-old chicks he regularly buys at the market only to have them die soon after. So Joe heads to the market in search of a unicorn, and at the end of the market, he finds one. Its horn hasn’t grown in, and its legs are twisted, but Joe must have it. The little goat unicorn, soon named Africana, becomes Joe’s constant companion, as Joe imagines them going to Africa together, finding their parents, and having great adventures.

This is a light little book, meant, I think, to be charming and sweet while also revealing some of the difficulties of working-class life—a celebration of the imagination and innocence of children and the power of hope even in hard times. I, however, couldn’t quite connect with it. Some scenes were amusing. Joe’s imaginings about his African adventures were fun. And the ending, involving a marriage proposal and a bittersweet farewell. And I appreciated the way the adults generally handled Joe’s fantasies with kindness. Yet…

I think part of what was going on for me is that I needed more context. The Bloomsbury edition offers no introduction or background information. Joe’s father’s journey to Africa may have been a common sort of thing at the time of the story, but given the adults’ tendency to feed Joe fantasy, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Africa story was a euphemism for some other abandonment.

I also couldn’t stop fretting about Africana. He’s a sickly baby goat living under a table in a tailor’s shop! Several characters do express concern about his health, observing that a “unicorn” like him should be lively and “full of beans,” but it takes them much too long to do anything about it. I know that standards around animal treatment vary across times and places, and there’s no actual cruelty here. Still, Africana was suffering, and I wanted someone to help, and my worry about him kept me from sinking in to the rest of the story. (Things turn out well on that score—or as well as can be expected.)

Have you ever had niggling worries like this that take you out of a story?

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 8 Comments

Tell It to a Stranger

Tell It To a StrangerThe short stories by ElizabethBerridge explore the many facets of suffering that come from years of war. Families are fractured, not just through death but through difference of opinion and attitude. And homes are destroyed by bombs while time and deprivation cause others to fall slowly into ruin. There are few opportunities for unadulterated pleasures, and those that come often bring a price. These are hard stories because they depict hard times. But they don’t just catalog the usual pains and privations.Berridge puts spins on her characters’ pain that show how suffering isn’t the same for everyone.

Much of the conflict involves differences within family. The family in “The Bare Tree,” for example, are divided because the son wishes to go off to war while his pacifist parents consider such an action disgraceful. The grandmother, for her part, quietly revels in the conflict, remembering the conflict a generation ago when she pushed her idealistic daughter down a more practical path:

The old lady shook her head. That’s the way it goes, from generation to generation, she was thinking. The young setting up new values which are old as the sun, kicking away from the parents as a child kicks from the womb. She listened to the angry, disjointed talk and remembered Pauline at eighteen. Yes, she had forced her into a bank. She had only wanted security for her. Only that. Old letters, interviews, strings being pulled; these things danced through her mind, doors kept shut when life was joyous and the eyes far-seeing. Now wit their dimming came the treacherous beckoning of memory. I was right then, she thought, but now I know that the young must find their own way.

Of course, it’s easy for the grandmother to support the young in going their own way when she loathes her daughter and appreciates her grandson’s conventionality: “An old woman at the end of her life, seeing all things, at last the pattern fitted. … We, the people, endure, she thought.”

These are not stories of people heroically making a stand against fascism, keeping a stiff upper lip and accepting what comes. Berridge exposes the pain in people’s hearts as they rail inwardly—and thus silently—against what they’re facing. She digs underneath the facade her characters put on, revealing thoughts and feelings that seem petty in such times but are all too human. The main character of the title story is oddly happy when her London home is ransacked because it will give her something to tell the other boarders at her temporary country lodging. Miss Morton, the main character in “To Tea with the Colonel,” longs to talk with someone about her own experience getting bombed, but it makes people uncomfortable.

Miss Morton is one of several characters in these stories who moved to the country during the war. In the country, the war seems distant and the massive country homes excessive, especially when they house only a remnant of the great families who built them. Berridge notes that problem while also showing that the people in those homes are not necessarily mere greedy exploiters of land and people.

One of the strengths of these stories is that, especially when combined, they show multiple perspectives on the issues of their day without coming down strongly on one side or the other. Berridge’s stories aren’t always flattering to her characters, even people who seem like obvious heroes of the day. A mother who throws herself into war work is too self-congratulatory, pointing out to her soldier son that he gets to go on leave, but those on the home front don’t get a break. When her son, disgusted, leaves for London early, missing out on the day she’d set aside to spend with him, she doesn’t seem all that disappointed to get back to her war work and the pats on the back she’ll receive for it. Yet, despite her arrogance, there’s something real and significant to her pain.

Sometimes, though, this lack of position makes the stories hard to grab onto. The opening story, “Snowstorm,” shows a female obstetrician at work in a temporary hospital where pregnant women delivered their babies away from the London bombs. One young mother seems unconcerned about the coming birth, and her attitude troubles the doctor. I couldn’t work out who, if anyone, we were to sympathize with here. After reading all the stories, though, I wonder if the answer is both … if it’s everyone. Because no matter the reason for the characters’ pain, it’s real and worthy of compassion, even when it brings with it an ugly side. In Berridge’s stories, people are a mix of good and bad. Sometimes the bad drowns out the good, sometimes a differing perspective hides it, but both sides are there, and people shouldn’t be discounted just because they’re flawed.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 4 Comments

The Paying Guests

Paying GuestsSarah Waters is one of a handful of authors whose books I will always read, and she’s not so prolific that it’s impossible to keep up. I’ve been looking forward to her new book, The Paying Guests, since its publication was announced. It didn’t even matter what it was about. I’m always excited about a Sarah Waters novel. The book was published last week in the U.K., but we’ve got a couple more weeks to wait in the U.S., where it’s being published September 16. I was lucky enough to get a copy from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and my birthday present to myself this past weekend was to spend a day reading it.

Set in 1922, this novel is the story of Frances Wray, a spinster who lives with her mother trying to keep up their large London home now that the men in their previously well-to-do family have all died. To earn some extra money, they decide to rent out some of their rooms to a young couple of the clerk class, Leonard and Lilian Barber. Almost as soon as the new tenants arise, tension begins to build. At first, the two families must struggle to figure out how to share space. When should they engage in small talk, and when should they ignore one another? How close are they supposed to be? The class differences add to the complications, as old-fashioned Mrs. Wray doesn’t entirely approve of the Barbers, especially Lillian, whose decorations are altogether too fanciful and housekeeping habits too slovenly. Frances, who has few friends aside from her former lover, Christina, is drawn to Lilian.

Waters excels at tension, and the story spins out slowly, with the first half of the novel depicting a building romance as Frances and Lilian get to know each other. There are misunderstandings and fears, but the two women cannot deny their growing passion. Frances finds herself hoping that she can find a way to build the life with Lilian that she gave up with Christina when her family found out about their relationship. Lilian’s marriage is an obstacle, and so is Frances’s mother, but they begin making plans and looking for a way through to happiness.

Around the mid-point of the novel, the story changes direction, turning into a crime and courtroom drama. An unplanned confrontation leads to a violent tragedy, and the two women must adjust their plans to protect themselves, always hoping that they will find a way through to the other side. Yet the path to their future seems to require that someone else be sacrificed, and neither women says she wants that.

This last half of the book felt at times like a Barbara Vine novel, which is a tremendous compliment coming from me. The tension here is plot-related: What will happen? Will their secret be discovered? Will the guilty pay? But it’s also character-related: Can Frances really trust Lilian? Can Frances even trust herself? The courtroom scenes in particular are loaded with consequence as Frances watches the police build the case they want to build. Certain people are obviously guilty; there’s no need to look further. The press is more interested in a story of sex and scandal, yet they’re blind to the story that’s right there in front of them.

Many of Waters’ books involve some sort of revelation or ambiguous elements. You don’t always know what’s happening when reading Sarah Waters. The Paying Guests is more straightforward than that. There are times when I wasn’t sure what a character was going to do and what certain characters thought, and there were some secrets revealed as the book went on, but there’s no big twist or huge unanswered question. The mysteries and tensions that drive the book are those of the human heart. What does love look like? How can we do right in a world that’s against us? What will we do to be happy? Lots of fiction explores these kinds of stories, and Waters does it well here. But readers who are looking for her trademark twisty plots might come away disappointed.

I’m not sure myself how I feel about the end. It’s not the ending I expected, but if I were reading another writer, I might have loved it immediately. In fact, it might be the very best ending for this book. This might be a case where the least risky ending is the riskiest one of all.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 13 Comments

The Scorpio Races

What it’s like is a battle. A mess of horses and men and blood. The fastest and strongest of what is left from two weeks of preparation on the sand. It’s the surf in your face, the deadly magic of November on your skin, the Scorpio drums in the place of your heartbeat. It’s speed, if you’re lucky. It’s life and it’s death or it’s both and there’s nothing like it. Once upon a time, this moment—this last light of evening the day before the race—was the best moment of the year for me. The anticipation of the game to come. But that was when all I had to lose was my life.

Scorpio RacesFor four of the last six years, 19-year-old Sean Kendrick has won the annual Scorpio Races in the island town of Thisby. His special connection with his horse, Corr, makes them fast and focused, even when surrounded by the predatory capaill uisce, the predatory water horses whose fierce hunger makes them monsters, as well as the best mounts a racer can imagine. Sean loves the capaill uisce, especially Corr, but he knows better than to trust them. It was nine years ago when he saw his own father die in the Scorpio Races, torn from Corr’s back by a grey stallion mid-race.

Puck Connelly lost her parents to the capaill uisce, but they weren’t racers. When the water horses are on the move, no one is safe on the water, and Puck’s parents were attacked by wild capaill uisce when they were out on their boat. Now, she and her two brothers are eking out a living, avoiding the races entirely. Until Puck gets the idea that running the race could keep her family together just a little longer.

My sister Kelly, who knows Maggie Stiefvater, introduced me to her books last year, urging me to try The Raven Boys, which I enjoyed but not nearly as much as I did The Dream Thieves. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should perhaps also mention that Kelly put me in touch with Stiefvater for a work project  after I’d read the books, so we’ve exchanged a few e-mails about her writing career.) The Scorpio Races is actually Kelly’s favorite of her books, but she thought I’d like The Raven Cycle books more. But as I eagerly await the publication of Blue Lily, Lily Blue, Kelly’s love of this book, along with Ana and Jeanne‘s reviews, got me to give me a try.

Jeanne notes in her review that if you’ve read any horse books, you probably won’t have a lot of trouble figuring out how this story is going to go. And that is true. The set-up gives us a weary champion in Sean and a plucky upstart in Puck, the first woman to run the race. The champion draws resentment for being great, especially when his greatness eclipses that of his employer’s son. The upstart draws resentment for bringing change, not just in  herself but in her choice of horse. The stakes are high for them both. Sean is running for Corr. Puck is running for her home. Some elements of the set-up are implausible. Puck’s initial reason for joining the race makes little sense, although a later development makes her situation more desperate and the race more important and likely. Her brother Gabe’s plans make sense, but his silence surrounding them makes him into a jerk—and a jerk I couldn’t believe in, when telling his family would be not just a courtesy but a practical necessity. So I had to get past some stuff. And I could.

The thing is, even within the not entirely unpredictable outline of the horse book with a dash of romance, there are a lot of things that could happen. The question of which of those things will happen is where much of the book’s magic lies. The race-day sequence is almost unbearable because no outcome could be wholly happy. The first-person narration throughout alternates between Puck and Sean, and during the race, the shift point of view keeps readers just enough in the dark about each of them when, in the chaos and blood, they lose sight of each other.

Thisby is a small community, losing people every year to the mainland, where there is more money and no monstrous horses. But home is not always safe, and neither is love. And what’s safe for one person is deadly peril for another. Each person has to know him- or herself and work out how to bring desire and need and talent together to create the best possible life. Both Puck and Sean are racing toward their futures, the sand flying under their horses’ hooves. They push their horses forward at a breakneck speed, yet they’re still figuring out what they want their destination to be. Much of this book concerns itself not just with winning a race but with knowing what the race’s goal is, knowing what you want and weaving your own desires with those of others. A complete win for everyone may not be possible, but the possibility is there, and so there’s a reason to race.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 11 Comments

Life at Grasmere and Reading Other People’s Diaries

LifeatGrasmereSeveral years ago, I subscribed to RSS feeds for the diaries of Samuel Pepys and George Orwell. At the time, it seemed like a brilliant idea. The feeds updated on dates recorded in their diaries with the entry for that day, so readers could experience the years along with them. It would be like reading their diaries in real time.

I subscribed to those feeds for months, and in all those months, nothing of interest happened. Pepys went to meetings and dinners with people I knew nothing about and then came home and went to bed. Orwell gathered eggs, keeping a count of how many he gathered each day. I’m sure something of interest happened eventually because both of these men led interesting lives and are good writers. In fact, I’ve read Pepys riveting diary entries about the great fire of London in 1666. But weeks of boredom meant I often marked the diaries as read in my feed reader without even looking at them. If something interesting happened—and I know it did—I missed out. It turns out that random diary entries aren’t necessarily interesting, even when the diarist’s writing is generally worthwhile.

I remembered those diaries when reading this little book from Penguin’s English Journeys collection. The book is mostly made up of diary entries by Dorothy Wordsworth from May to November 1800, when she and her brother William lived in Dove Cottage at Grasmere. I picked up the book on my last trip to London (four years ago!), during which I actually visited Grasmere. It seemed like a nice keepsake to have.

Dorothy’s diary—at least in the entries preserved here—chronicles daily life at Grasmere, mostly focusing on walks she took alone and with her brothers or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a frequent visitor. She mentions visits they make and visitors they receive and some of the poems they read and write. And she notes some of the cooking that she does. It’s a simple account of ordinary life, with little additional introspection. It’s the kind of thing that might interest a Wordsworth biographer or someone studying daily life in the 1800s. But as a general reader, with limited interest in Wordsworth, I didn’t find much here, especially given that the small volume contains hardly no notes or explanatory text putting these months in the context of the Wordsworths’ life. In fact, I didn’t realize until well into the book that the John she mentions so frequently is another brother.

The poems scattered through the book are perfectly fine poems, if you’re a lover of Wordsworth, which I’m not. I don’t dislike his poetry—I just find it rather dull. The poems appear when they are mentioned in the diary, usually because Dorothy copied the poem out or because William read the poem to her. Only in a couple of cases do we learn more about the writing of the poem.

I don’t think this book is meant to be in-depth in any way—it’s a small, keepsake-type book. But it raises a question in my mind about what I’m looking for when reading a diary. The form appeals to me very much, but I can think of hardly any diaries that I’ve read and loved. In truth, I think I like fictional diaries like that of Bridget Jones.

The trouble, I think, with actual diaries, is that daily life is not inherently interesting—it’s the telling that makes it so. A record of daily activities is valuable to an anthropologist, but becomes little more that a repetitive list of activities to those without a special interest in the topic. A more introspective diary could provide some insights into a person’s mind, but when I consider the own unpolished and introspective journals that I used to keep, I can see how that sort of thing can become just as repetitive. (I used to pick away at the same dilemmas and worries for weeks and months on end—I gave up journaling because the thought patterns bored me!

It occurs to me that diarists are not necessarily writing for an audience, and so they aren’t trying to be interesting or avoid going over the same things again and again. Diarists write for their own purposes—to get their thoughts out or maintain a record. Writing for an audience changes the writing. Anne Frank revised her diary over the years with a future audience in mind. And even when a diarist isn’t considering, editors may prune out the extraneous material or offer some explanatory notes to enrich the dull bits.

So what do I want when I read a diary? I want a vivid and compelling voice, first and foremost. I love learning about times and places that I couldn’t otherwise experience, but that may require a diarist (or later editor) to fill in gaps that wouldn’t be filled in a personal, private diary. Rougher writing, with less context might be acceptable in the work of a someone whose thinking I’m highly interested in. But that could be a stretch. I read unpolished writing on blogs regularly (and I write it myself!), but blogs are written for an audience. Someone has to consider the audience.

What do you think? Are there diaries you find particularly wonderful? What makes them so great?

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry | 27 Comments

Civil War: A Marvel Comics Event

Civil WarI’ve written before about my tentative steps into the world of comics after years of interest that was always stifled by intimidation. As I’ve explored superhero comics, I’ve so far stuck with new titles that stand alone, like Hawkeye and Ms Marvel. But with the growth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve come to love Captain America and Black Widow and several other characters from the movies. And I’m curious about other characters and potential storylines. I might enjoy some of the classic books, but then I’m back to the whole question of where to start. When a friend mentioned that a civil war storyline exists that would be a great potential storyline for the third Avengers movie, my interest was piqued. It turns out my library had a copy of the omnibus that collects all seven issues from the 2006–2007 story arc by Mark Millar with art by Steve McNiven. (This edition does not include any of the other related titles that connected to the main series, such as the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four Civil War arcs.)

The story begins with the New Warriors a group of young superheros with their own reality TV show coming across a supervillian hideout. Even though the Warriors know these guys are out of their league, they choose to go after them, hoping for a ratings boost. The ensuing fight concludes with an explosion near a school that kills hundreds. Outraged, U.S. citizens ask the government to take action against costumed vigilantes, and the Superhero Registration Act is born. All superheros must register, and those wishing to fight crime need to be trained and licensed.

This is, of course, a controversial measure that ultimately pits superheroes against each other. The pro-registration group, led by Tony Stark/Iron Man, is given the task of hunting down those in the anti-registration group, led by Steve Rogers/Captain America. As the story goes on, characters shift their allegiances, massive battles are fought, and ultimately one side does face defeat. The war doesn’t just cause rifts between colleagues and friends; it splits up families. And not every hero survives.

Civil War SidesI’m sure that fans of Marvel Comics got a kick of the massive panels showing dozens of characters preparing to face off. As a relative outsider, I didn’t know a lot of the characters, but this did work as a quick introduction to lots of characters I didn’t know at all, like Hank Pym and Sue Storm. And I got a kick out of seeing Kate Bishop/Hawkeye turn up, although Clint Barton/Hawkeye was not part of the war because he was, I think, dead at the time. Plus, the central characters, Cap and Tony, are well-known from their own movie franchises.

One impressive aspect of the comic is that it avoids making either side the villains. Both have valid points to make. Cap is on the side of freedom, and Tony on the side of safety. Yet Cap believes in safety and Tony in freedom. You could make lots of parallels to recent political debates, like those surrounding gun control or the Patriot Act, but none are a perfect parallel. This is fantasy, after all. The storytelling seems to tip slightly to Cap’s side, but his choices aren’t above criticism.

Some of the characters choose their sides not out of ideology but out of loyalty. And some shift their allegiances because they object to certain tactics. The whole thing becomes a huge mess, as war does. And the ending, while startling and unsettling, is excellent.

Personally, I’m not sure that Cap’s position was articulated as well as it could have been. My gut was on his side, but my head says that vigilantism is not a good thing. And one thing that didn’t come up was the difference between people who have actual powers, often powers that they didn’t choose to have, and people who are just highly skilled. Spider-Man and Kate Bishop seem like different categories of hero to me, but the series puts them all in one box. Mutants are another thing altogether, and at this point in the Marvel storyline, they’re all monitored, and they remain neutral in the war. I’m not sure how Spidey and the Fantastic Four are, practically speaking, all that different from mutants, even if the means of acquiring powers are different.

The hardcover omnibus includes scripts and commentary from the Millar and others involved in the series. I enjoyed learning a bit about how this storyline bled into others, and I was interested to read about some of the struggles the team had in coming up with an ending and Millar’s own opinions about who was in the right. There’s also a highly entertaining edition of the Daily Bugle.

This book was fun to read, but I doubt it’ll lead me on a deep dive into the Marvel archives. I’m mildly curious about the X-Men arc that led up to this and the Captain America storyline that came after, but Google will answer a lot of my questions. Still, I’m figuring out that reading comics is not that different from reading any other kind of book. You get recommendations of books both new and old, see if you can find copies, and read. With comics, the books may be part of an even bigger series, but you don’t have to read them all to enjoy them.

Posted in Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments

Adam Bede

Caveat: I discuss the ending of this book in this review, so if you haven’t read it, you might not want to read my entire review. Nutshell version: it’s fantastic and I recommend it.

* * *

adam bedeHere’s an odd thing: while I was wrapped up in Adam Bede, three or four of my friends asked me what I was currently reading. When I told them, they gave me a look of surprise (one of them as close to aghast as a person gets about a 19th-century English novel) and said, “Haven’t you read that yet?”

Well, I have, actually. I read it in 10th grade, which in my school system was British literature, and I didn’t understand it well or like it much (though I won’t enumerate my painfully lame complaints for you), and besides that’s [mumbles, counts on fingers] 27 years ago now. Time for a re-read, surely?

This novel takes place right around the turn of the 19th century (that is, about 60 years before George Eliot was writing it) in a rural village called Hayslope. The plot mostly follows four characters: the young, extremely pretty and self-centered Hetty Sorrel, her unacknowledged suitor Adam Bede, the young squire Arthur Donnithorne (also unhappily smitten), and a fervent, virtuous, and gentle young Methodist lay preacher named Dinah Morris. This brief overview doesn’t give even a hint at the complexity of the novel and its many minor characters, or the deep relationships that tie the community together, or the humor underlying many of its scenes, but stay with me, okay?

Almost the first thing that struck me about Adam Bede (despite the title) was the primacy of the female characters. Several characters try to convince Dinah that she ought to move away from her home in Stonyfield, because she doesn’t have family there and could be more comfortable and happy in Hayslope. One or two characters try to intimate that her Methodist bonnet is unflattering. No one during the entire novel, so far as I can remember, tries to convince her that her vocation is invalid, tells her that her sermons are stupid or too emotional, or shows her a Bible verse that says women should be silent in church. Mrs. Poyser, Dinah’s aunt, is outspoken (particularly about men) to a degree that ought to be offensive or even impossible, but her husband is manifestly proud of her and of the way she runs their dairy. She speaks up even to someone who ought to be her “better” (the old squire Donnithorne), and never considers herself too unworthy to have a voice. Even Hetty may be young, vain, and foolish, but she’s not an idiot. In Eliot’s hands, no female character is a caricature, and every one has more resilience, strength, and wisdom than it first appears.

One of the most interesting things about the book is the intertwining of class, gender, and religion in the power relationships that form and re-form. (George Eliot: intersectional since 1859!) Adam Bede is older than Arthur Donnithorne; he taught Arthur what he knows about carpentry and cabinetmaking when Arthur was a child. Now, Arthur is offering Adam a good job on his estate, and Adam is properly grateful — no upsetter of the status quo, is Adam. When Arthur trifles with Hetty’s affections (and worse — the scene in which Arthur puts a pale pink neckerchief in the waste basket is heartbreaking), however, Adam has no second thoughts. Honor takes precedence over gratitude, old friendship, and social class. It’s the same with Dinah. She is perfectly content to sit quiet and unnoticed, and has no aspirations to be a gentlewoman. But when some soul needs her, she simply assumes that her calling is a password anywhere she wishes to go, barriers of class, gender, power, education, and religion notwithstanding. The scenes of actual education are interesting in this regard: grown men struggling to learn their alphabet or the basics of arithmetic. What arcane passwords are they learning, in the face of the established order?

As with the other novels I’ve read by Eliot (Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss), the prose in Adam Bede is glorious. She uses a rural dialect for characters like Adam and Mrs. Poyser, which slowed down my reading a bit, and I was glad to be slowed down when I got to passages like this first description of Dinah:

There was no keenness in the eyes; they seemed rather to be shedding love than making observations; they had the liquid look which tells that the mind is full of what it has to give out, rather than impressed by external objects. She stood with her left hand towards the descending sun, and leafy boughs screened her from its rays; but in this sober light the delicate colouring of her face seemed to gather a calm vividness, like flowers at evening. It was a small oval face, of a uniform transparent whiteness, with an egg-like line of cheek and chin, a full but firm mouth, a delicate nostril, and a low perpendicular brow, surmounted by a rising arch of parting between smooth locks of pale reddish hair. The hair was drawn straight back behind the ears, and covered, except for an inch or two above the brow, by a net Quaker cap. The eyebrows, of the same colour as the hair, were perfectly horizontal and firmly pencilled; the eyelashes, though no darker, were long and abundant—nothing was left blurred or unfinished. It was one of those faces that make one think of white flowers with light touches of colour on their pure petals. The eyes had no peculiar beauty, beyond that of expression; they looked so simple, so candid, so gravely loving, that no accusing scowl, no light sneer could help melting away before their glance.

But I could have chosen any passage, really: a description of a birthday feast for Arthur, a description of Hetty decking herself in her cheap finery to look pretty for a fair, a description of the July landscape. It’s all precise, detailed, beautiful, full of symbolism and small connections with the reader.

I think it would be easy to get lost in that skillful prose, that beautiful rural landscape, and forget that this book is a tragedy. Hetty’s terrible journey while extremely pregnant, to find the father of her child and find out what to do next, is horribly painful to read. The sequel, when she is seeking suicide but is too firmly alive to find the requisite despair, is worse; the finale of that journey, when she murders her child instead of herself (and is persecuted by the child’s cries, which can only be in her mind) is chilling unto the bone. The scene in the prison when Dinah brings back a mentally and emotionally traumatized woman to the land of the living through the power of love, is (in my view) the most moving of the novel, only marred by Arthur Donnithorne’s hero complex. No Arthur, you do not get to be the savior today.

I remember when I was in 10th grade, I didn’t understand the logistics of why Hetty disappeared. Now I do — her sentence was commuted — but I still think it is taking the easy way out. Either she should have died, or she should have come back to her community, so that everyone could face the pain and grief. “Out of sight, out of mind” for both transgressors is a little too simple.

But by saying that, I don’t want to take away from also saying that this was a wonderful novel, layered and beautiful and complex. The fact that I wanted there to be even more of it is a testimony to how good it was. I don’t know why I haven’t read all I can of Eliot by now (perhaps that’s what my friends were really asking me? I’m not sure.) But I will. Oh, I will.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 17 Comments