Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Reading Women #6 - A classic novel written by a woman (Not Austen or Bronte)

Middlemarch – George Eliot 

This novel by George Eliot was famously praised by Virginia Woolf as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” It had me intrigued for a while now, perhaps was waiting for a sign from the universe to go ahead and embark on a read of this magnum opus which runs to eight books, eighty-six chapters and over six hundred pages (in my copy that is). And I did go on that incredible journey!   

Middlemarch is subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life”, and indeed it captures the goings on of a fairly large cast of characters over the period of a couple of years in Middlemarch, an unremarkable English town in the 1830s. That time period was a very interesting one in England since the impact of the Industrial revolution was still spreading throughout the land, and other reforms soon followed. Middlemarch touches on many of these issues: political reform, doctrinal religious differences, advancement in medical knowledge, the obligation of landowners to their tenants, education and the role of women in society.

The range of feeling and thought this book covers is incredibly vast – there are many plots, multitudinous characters and each with their own desires and motives. It might sound like a confusing and befuddling story, but that is probably the last thing it is! Just a hundred pages in and you will begin to see the inter-connectedness and brilliance of the ‘web’ of provincial life created by George Eliot. 

Let me sketch out a few characters here which would give you a preliminary idea:

  •  Dorothea  - young, ardent and noble-natured she is idealist and strongly feels that she has to do some good in the world, contribute to make the lives of others happier. Following her own principles she agrees to marry a man much older than her thinking it would lead to a life of service and good acts.

  •  Edward Casaubon – an aging scholar: cold, dispassionate and bitter who nevertheless feels a bond of sympathetic understanding with Dorothea which leads to him proposing an offer of marriage to her.
  • Will Ladislaw – spirited, politically ambitious and a deeply passionate young man who is a poor relative of Casaubon, and who has been financially assisted by him for some time. He understands more than anyone else the sacrifice that Dorothea’s life would become on her marriage to Casaubon.
  • Tertius Lydgate – a young idealistic doctor whose interest in advancing medical knowledge and practices ends up alienating many in Middlemarch. 
  •  Rosamund Vincy – the vain and vivacious daughter of the Mayor of Middlemarch, who is self-centred and quite spoiled. Her flirtatious interactions with Lydgate lead to gossip regarding their relationship which leads to a hasty marriage between them.

  • Fred Vincy – Rosamund’s brother and a young man who is devoted to Mary Garth, his childhood sweetheart . He is without any aim as to what profession he should get into but is guided by Mary’s love to try and become worthy of her.

  • Caleb Garth – the wise and compassionate land manager who is Mary’s father. He is a man who upholds strong values and is gentle and trustworthy. Though he is poor he is very highly held in everyone’s esteem.

Consider each of these characters having three or four other characters that are connected to them and imagine ALL of them being connected to each other. It is simply too vast to detail it out but I suppose this gives one a brief idea of what to expect.

Stills from the 1994 BBC mini-series adaptation
A lack of self-awareness in nearly all the characters creates troubles which they have to encounter and through which they come to realize what they truly desire. They don’t necessarily get what they want but learn to meet the consequences of their actions with a resolved maturity. For some their decisions cannot be changed and the only hope was in enduring it like Dr. Lydgate when he realizes too late that his marriage may have been too hasty.This book also heavily dwells into so many different marriages that it could be a seen as an intensely exceptional study of marriage itself.

Though there are some (dull in my opinion) lengthy discussions on the reform act, medical discoveries, political debates and such through some of the sections. But, it just proves how knowledgeable a writer George Eliot was. To encompass nearly all the conscious and unconscious reasons that propel an individual’s actions is no small task, but that is what she does here.

Out of the history of Dorothea's marriage and domestic life, Lydgate's marriage and domestic life, the love-affair of Mary and Fred, and the adventures of Ladislaw, a number of novels could be made for a lifetime. The style of writing is lively and witty and not one bit dipped in the sentimental romantic notions of what we commonly seem to expect in a Victorian story. One cannot but help admire the wide and in-depth understanding of human nature that George Eliot seems to craft to perfection.

This is a masterpiece like no other. And I feel it that there is a need to make this novel more widely read than it is today. In the lines of the author herself (who is commenting on Dorothea):

“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tomb.”

I hope  that if you have never read this book, this short review (hardly doing it justice) will instill a desire in you to pick it up soon. Have patience and let the pages reveal the beauty of a masterly crafted novel to you.  It is one of the greatest fictions ever.


Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Reading Women #5 A book in which the characters are traveling somewhere

A Wrinkle in Time  – Madeleine L’ Engle  (The Time Quintet Series)

“I don't understand it any more than you do, but one thing I've learned is that you don't have to understand things for them to be.”

First published in 1962, this is a children’s classic written by the American author Madeleine L’Engle  who famously stated, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” And so she did. This book is a unique combination of fantasy, science fiction and religion which had an unprecedented heroine – a young girl who liked science and math, who had glasses and braces and who was unafraid of non-conformity. For whatever else the book does or doesn’t, I admire this fact that at a time when science fiction written by women for a primarily young female audience in mind was a rarity, a book like this gave them a protagonist they could love and admire.

Meg Murry is the heroine in this tale of science fiction is an exceptionally gifted child (she can do square roots of really big numbers in her head!) which makes schoolwork tedious and boring to her. This causes her to be seen as an awkward, non-conforming loner in school. Her parents are both scientists and she is the eldest of four children. Her twin brothers are quite normal and boisterous young boys, but her baby brother Charles Wallace is keenly perceptive and is able to read her thoughts even without talking to her. The bond between them is precious.

The trouble which presents itself at the start of the book is that their father, an eminent physicist (Dr. Murry)has been missing for nearly two years and there was no news of him. This throws a shadow of gloom on all their lives. Meg also cant help but getting into small spots of trouble at school too.  The adventure begins one night when a strange old woman, Mrs. Whatsit, appears, "blown off course" while she, along with Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, was “tessering”, or taking a shortcut through time and space. This brings up the central scientific concept of the fifth dimension into the plot of the tale. The father apparently had been trying to use the fifth dimension (fourth dimension is time, fifth is space) to travel across time and space. And it seems like he may have succeeded.

Together with the strangely named ladies, Meg, her little brother Charles Wallace, and their new friend Calvin, “wrinkle” or travel across time to rescue Dr. Murry, who is a prisoner on a planet ruled by IT, a giant pulsating brain that controls the minds of everyone on the planet. Well, that is basically how the story goes. Though I myself didn’t feel the tug of this widely acknowledged classic , I do feel it will only stand to gain more popularity with the upcoming Walt Disney movie which can boast of a diverse and impressive cast.

The reasons why it didn’t work for me could be due to the fact that I didn’t read this as a child, but as an adult. It may have a certain charm for younger readers who have a central female protagonist, who is different (and not afraid to be so), who loves numbers and scientific ideas (as opposed to writing or poetry as is common), she gets into fights, gets angry, is very curious and in the end leads the way in the battle against Evil. There was also several references to other works embedded in this story including Macbeth, The Tempest, Alice in Wonderland etc. These points definitely gets this book a positive recommendation. And till I read the rest of the series, I probably shouldn’t pass a final judgment.

The book does have clear overtones of Christian analogies – like that of fighting the darkness, becoming the light and a few more. However, it doesn’t override the book in any way. The story progression is slightly confusing and even though they were traveling across space, onto different planets and moons, it lacked a certain level of excitement that could be expected of such an adventure. The ending seemed quite tame considering the build up to it. All this being said, I think a better reviewer of this book would be a younger version of me, who knows what I would see in it? :)


Friday, 16 February 2018

Reading Women #4 A short story collection

Asleep  – Banana Yoshimoto ( Translated from Japanese by Michael Emmerich)

Banana Yoshimoto is a Japanese author who has been on my radar for a while now. Her novel Kitchen is on my TBR and that’s how when I saw this book with her name on it, I decided to give it a try. 

First published in 1989, this slim volume of three novellas feature young women who are afflicted by loss and exhausted both in mind and spirit. Longing for something or someone they have lost, they have been “bewitched into a spiritual sleep”, as the blurb proclaims.

The three stories are narrated by young Japanese women, who are seemingly stuck in a temporary literal or psychic sleep as a result of trauma. Each one is in mourning one for her beloved brother's death, another at the end of a painful affair and the titular tale is about a woman deeply involved with a man whose wife is in a coma.

In the first story, ‘Night and Night’s Travellers’ two cousins Shibami and Mari are dealing with the loss of Yoshihiro ( brother to Shibami, lover to Mari) a year after his tragic death. The ghost-like presences they become, especially Mari, is conveyed via the narrator’s deceptively calm and dreamlike sequence of events. The mixing of reality, memory and dream often interweave – forcing us to be dragged along in their attempts to fill the void left behind by his death.

In the second tale, ‘Love Songs’, the narrator Fumi dreams a strange dream which makes her remember an old rival in a love triangle. When she mentions the dream to her boyfriend he tells her this dream is quite common and it indicates someone who was dead was trying to contact her. This leads her to investigate further about her old rival. It turns out that she was indeed dead, and Fumi sets out to get in touch with her. Sleep and dreams indicate an in-between state that could be used as a space for the mingling of reality and the supernatural. The way these two intermingle will leave us believing in the reality of the characters and also the supernatural presence of spirits who wait to communicate in the pauses we all take in our lives daily.

In the last tale, titled ‘Asleep’, Terako, who is involved in a romantic affair with a married man whose wife is in a coma, finds that she can’t seem to stay awake. She is also mourning the death of her friend Shiori who had taken her own life.  In each of the stories, the dead seem to exert so much of a hold on the ones who are alive that a sadness overpowers their existence. But, as they each learn to live with the darkness and the absence, the instability of ‘now’ and the transitory aspect of life becomes all the more striking. 

At the core of each of the novellas is a bond between two female characters, and in each tale this relationship is realized to be the key to the understanding of their existence. The themes of depression does strike one as a very obvious one, but it is conveyed in a surrealistic atmosphere described by the calm and cool narrators that we are left with an optimistic feeling for the future of the characters than an overwhelmingly sad one. 

I would definitely be picking up more of her writing.  Highly recommended!

Monday, 12 February 2018

Reading Women #3 – A book from a genre you haven’t read from earlier (historical fantasy fiction)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell ­– Susanna Clarke

This book probably had a lot of paradoxical hype around it that I couldn’t help but put it on my reading list. On one hand people were raving about how great this book is, a book to match the wonders of magic of none other than Harry Potter, a book that despite being nearly 800 pages long still felt like it wasn’t enough. On the other hand, I heard almost an equal number of readers mentioning that it was a tedious read, a book that failed to deliver, a book which was dull and uninteresting.  It seemed to me that the truth lay somewhere in between.  

Be prepared – this is a pretty long review.

To begin with, this is  a story set in 19th c England, when the nation is perilously perched to fight the Napoleonic Wars and is on the threshold of Industrial Revolution. The Oxford-educated author, Susanna Clarke provides us with an interesting twist on the England of that time period by bring in a fantastical re-imagining of an England with magic and magicians in it. Now this would seem like the reason it was being compared to Harry Potter, but the likeness would stop right there (well, there is a prophesy in this one too, so that can be added to the HP similarity as well  :) ).

The book is divided into three volumes, in each one, a magician’s name begins the section : Mr. Norrell, Jonathan Strange and John Uskglass. Mr. Norrell, is a practical magician, and at the start of the story, would appear to be the only such magician in England, since all the rest are magicians only in theory. He ravenously collects and buys all the books on magic that  he can get his hands on and builds a most astounding library in his home. He intends to become the single greatest magician of all time. But, there is a prophesy, and in troops Mr. Strange. Though Mr. Norrell feels threatened by him at first, he becomes delighted when he observes the talent and prodigious skill possessed by Mr. Strange. Thus they embark on a student-tutor collaboration which proves to be of utmost help for England, especially during the wartime (yes, magic is used in the Napoleonic war in this historical account).

However Norrell and Strange have strongly differing views on magic and how it should be practiced, and this leads them to part ways, and so begins the start of many dreadful occurrences –and six hundred pages in, it starts getting extremely interesting!  I couldn’t put the book down from this moment.

There are many reasons why this book is truly one of a kind. I haven’t read anything like this up till now. These are couple of my insights into what I think was fascinating in this book:

  1.   Footnotes – it is extremely odd that a work of fiction uses footnotes. Those who are in academics or fields of research may come across it more often - but to be used in an international bestseller?  Many who read it, myself included, must have felt that it is a slow read and takes way too much time. This is a deliberate and clever piece of narrative technique which the author has employed (there is a hint of meta-fiction in this, but not going into that right now) . The footnotes tell extremely interesting stories and tales by themselves and we get a little lost in finding our way back into the story. Some footnotes are referenced in footnotes of other footnotes …see what I mean?  Incidentally Mr. Norrell puts a spell on his library so that one would get lost in it, be confounded . I felt the same trick was being used here with the footnotes. If you have the time, the additional notes provided are delightful and witty. But if you are looking for a quick read, this is going to be a deal-breaker. 
  2.  Duke Wellington and Lord Byron  - since it is historical fiction this book brings to life actual people in history and these two were most delightfully portrayed. Duke Wellington or rather Lord Wellington is the leading military leader and soldier of 19th c England and I enjoyed how he is portrayed as a stern, unflinchingly brave and thoroughly sensible officer. However, he always calls Jonathan Strange “Merlin” whenever he sees him, which I found to be quite funny. The portrayal of the notoriously famous Lord Byron was even more enjoyable : “….but he reflected that it probably could not be helped since both men were famous for quarreling: Strange with Norrell, and Byron with practically everybody.”  For students of literature these references will undoubtedly bring a smile to their faces.
  3. The villain – suffice to say the antagonist of this book is probably one of the most cold-hearted and eerily creepy villain I have come across.
  4. The narrator’s tone – the tone of the narratorial voice drips with wit and veiled social criticism whether it is targeted at a region or people or manners. In many ways it has a mingling of the styles of Jane Austen’s observation and Charles Dickens’ range of social classes. At times, even when the characters are in an extremely dreary or difficult situation, there are lines that can make you laugh or smile at the situation.  Now this is again something that can vary with personal tastes. Here is a short excerpt for consideration - “But the other Ministers considered that to employ a magician was one thing, novelists were quite another and they would not stoop to it."
  5. The climactic end – the conclusion came about quite brilliantly, with everything falling into place, and not least in the way I could have predicted it.

However like I said at the start, there is another side to this novel that needs to be addressed. These were a few areas in which this book falls short : 

  •  Lack of characters you could connect to – Other than Arabella Strange, I believe I could not  bring myself to like any character in this book. Norrell is too selfish, Strange is quite arrogant. To be honest, even with a host of characters both major and minor, we wouldn’t be invested in anything that might happen to them. This is a serious drawback in the enjoyment of the novel. 
  •  Cold romance – The only romantic love we see in the whole book is one between Strange and his wife Arabella. And even though it does give him purpose and a reliable source of support, the love he has for her is never given adequate voice.  No other character seems to show any likeness of love and loyalty to anyone else(Except maybe Flora towards the end). 
  •   The book is invariably more about the magicians than the magic they were performing.  And that is perhaps why it moves so slowly.

In the end, it is a highly inventive and sophisticated novel but lacks an emotional center which would prove to be its undoing. Would I recommend this? Well, if you are a fan of studying inventive writing, or innovative fiction, then it would be a fascinating one to study and read. But if you are looking at a fast-paced tale of magic, you will be disappointed. Well, at least that’s my humble opinion. Thanks for reading!