Wednesday, January 25, 2012

4. Emma

By Jane Austen

Another ongoing reading project of mine is to work my way through Jane Austen's oeuvre. So far, Emma is only my third, having already read Pride and Prejudice (twice) and Sense and Sensibility. I had meant to read in order of publication, since I had a copy of Mansfield Park, but mistakenly picked up Emma instead. No matter. Now that I've finally read Emma, I can now say that Amy Heckerling's 1995 film, Clueless, did a great job updating the 1815 novel!

Emma, the youngest daughter of the hypochondriacal Mr Woodhouse, is a bright, attractive twenty-year-old woman burdened with a bit of idleness and boredom, being somewhat isolated in the country estate of Hartfield. She decides to befriend a younger woman of lesser status named Harriet Smith and takes it upon herself to play matchmaker for her new pet friend. When a farmer of solid character proposes to Harriet, Emma intervenes, with the heartfelt belief that Harriet, though illegitimate, is still a "gentleman's daughter" and therefore, "superior to Mr Robert Martin."

... It was a bad business. She would have given a great deal, or endured a great deal, to have had the Martins in a higher rank of life. They were so deserving, that a little higher should have been enough: but as it was, how could she have done otherwise? - Impossible! - She could not repent. They must be separated...

Emma's meddling in Harriet's affairs naturally results in unexpected consequences later on in the narrative. It is also obvious that Emma is a terribly flawed character; her well-meaning efforts to improve friend's lot in life being rife with hubris. Worse, she refuses to listen to the sagacious advice of her dear friend and neighbor, Mr Knightley. Despite all these flaws, Emma Woodhouse is probably one of the more charismatic Austen heroines I've read so far. Emma may be overbearingly conceited and unwise, but she is also admirable for her independence, self-containment and unconventionality, which is evident in her conversation with Harriet:

   '... If I were to marry, I must expect to repent it.'
   'Dear me! - it is so odd to hear a woman talk so!' -
   'I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! But I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to chance such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of the husband's house, as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man's eye's as I am in my father's.'
   'But then, to be an old maid at least, like Miss Bates!'
   ...'If I know myself, Harriet, mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources; and I do not perceive why I should be more in want of employment at forty or fifty than one-and-twenty...'

There are many character foils in relation to the titular character, which is part of what makes the novel so enjoyable. Emma seems fairly confident that she won't end up a silly old maid as Miss Bates, and she is more surely financially secure than Jane Fairfax, who is her equal in age, yet faced with a less certain future. Nevertheless, for various reasons that she confesses to Frank Churchill, Emma has always consciously avoided being friends with Jane Fairfax.

'I have known her from a child, undoubtedly, we have been children and women together; and it is natural to suppose that we should be intimate, - that we should have taken to each other whenever she visited her friends. But we never did. I hardly know how it has happened; a little, perhaps, from that wickedness on my side which was prone to take disgust towards a girl so idolized and so cried up as she always was, by her aunt and grandmother, and all their set. And then, her reserve - I never could attach myself to anyone so completely reserved.'

But it's not until she meets the vicar's new wife where Emma meets her true nemesis. It is not because Mrs Elton is the daughter of a wealthy trader (and therefore not gentry) that repulses Emma, but her utter lack of refinement and character, which induces Emma to rant:

'Insufferable woman!' was her immediate exclamation. 'Worse than I had supposed. Absolutely insufferable! Knightley! - never seen him in her life before, and call him Knightley! - and discover that he is a gentleman! A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr E., and her caro sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and under-bred finery...

Since Mrs Elton is also a social butterfly, her ubiquitous presense in the village of Highbury sets the stage for a few awkward situations which tests Emma's sense of social obligation, and force her "to be always doing more than she wished, and less than she ought! ". A good example is when Mr Weston invited Mrs Elton to join their touring party that Emma herself very much wanted to go:

Now, as her objection was nothing but her very great dislike of Mrs Elton, of which Mr Weston must already be perfectly aware, it was not worth bringing forward again: - it could not be done without a reproof of him, which would be giving pain to his wife; and she found herself therefore obliged to consent to an arrangement which she would have done a great deal to avoid; an arrangement which she would probably expose her even to the degradation of being said to be of Mrs Elton's party!

Naurally, one has found themselves in similar predicaments as our dear Emma! Fortunately (or unfortunately), the novel has a conventionally happy ending where eventually Emma learns the error of her ways and even winds up marrying a man of high character who is suitable to her status and temperament. Ah, but what else can I say that has not been said before about Emma? The novel was immensely enjoyable, but it also lacked a narrative arc that P&P and S&S had. Not only was it denser, but it also felt longer, because it got rather bogged down in the middle. Despite its flaws, Emma was still a book that I'm so glad to finally read. And I'm beginning to understand how Austen's books can inspire such a devoted, near universal following. The charming romances and comedy of manners are definitely a factor in a kind of surface appeal. But when it comes down to it, Austen was, at heart, a keen observer of every day human foibles.

Last year, the Indo-British author V.S. Naipaul caused a minor stir when he proclaimed that there was no woman in the history of literature who was his equal - not even Jane Austen. Perhaps his chauvinistic ego had ample time to inflate since 2001 when he won the Nobel prize, but he also failed to recognize (had he bothered to read any of her books) that Austen had no equal in characterizing pompous asses like himself.

Although Naipaul's declaration was nothing short of embarrassing, it did inspire a wealth of spirited responses from the literary world. One excellent article I found was this book review:
"Like it or not, the reality on the ground is that Jane Austen benefits and suffers from being associated with women, and her status as a major writer has been complicated by gender issues since her earliest readers".

Bilger's insightful review also allowed me to discover William Deresiewicz, a former Yale professor who, twenty years ago, might have wholeheartedly shared Naipaul's attitude... until he started reading Jane Austen and came to the realization that she was - surprise! - a great writer. Looking back on the writers "whose heroes he had wanted to emulate", he found them "wanting by comparison". According to Deresiewicz, "[S]he didn't need to play the same game as the big boys. Her small, feminine game was every bit as good." He then became inspired to write a book about his experiences, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter.

Great. Another book to put on my ever growing list of books to read. But not before I finish Austen's entire oeuvre!

Monday, January 16, 2012

3. House of Stairs

By William Sleator

Continuing my exploration of YA fiction, House of Stairs is a 1974 dystopian classic about five 16-year-old orphans mysteriously confined within a huge, Escher-like complex of stairs. Left alone without purpose or explanation, they come across a machine that emits voices and flashing lights, but more importantly, the machine dispenses food (meat pellets!) after the kids act, or even move, a certain way. The kids soon rely on this machine for sustenance and it gradually becomes apparent they have to psychologically torture each other in order to survive!

The title is a little misleading since the confines are much more vast than the interior of any house, yet no less claustrophobic. It’s like a reverse locked-room (white void), psychological horror story where people are trapped with others whom they grow to hate. Each character has distinct, if rather stereotypical, personality traits: Peter is socially awkward and withdrawn; Lola is rebellious and distrustful of others; Blossom is manipulative and spoiled (as well as obese); Abigail, despite being pretty, has low self-esteem and is a total people-pleaser; and lastly, Oliver is your typical douchebag jock. It's no surprise that it’s going to take a miracle for this demented Breakfast Club to get along, let alone work together as a team in order to beat the system.

As the characters converse or bicker at each other, we get pieces of information about the outside world , which seems not much better than the maze-like prison they're stuck in. In fact, America sounds eerily like North Korea except that the environment is ruined to the point where even the air is no longer fit to breathe. There are constant resource shortages where only a privileged few can live in relative comfort and society has become extremely regimented, if not authoritarian, in its control over citizens.

There are obvious, heavy-handed themes of governmental mind-control, individualism vs authoritarianism, paranoia, and behavioral conditioning that was trendy in the 1970’s. As a YA book, however, this was dealt with enough skill and respect to the reader. The author obviously had no qualms about disturbing young minds. For instance, when the cruelty escalates amongst the teenagers, a rift splits the group. One group gives into their sadistic tendencies to the point of urinating on each other. Interestingly, there are no overt portrayals of sexuality in the novel: Abigail and Oliver never go beyond the furtive kissing stage and it’s merely implied that Peter is a closet homosexual. In reviews I’ve read, there was a writer who remembered seeing this book in the “Special Permission” shelf at the high school library. So I’m sure this book was a minor shit-disturber in its day.

House of Stairs was not a terribly profound book and it felt a bit dated at times, but the story was a treat to read, as it made an absorbing psychological character study.  My only regret was not discovering this book in my youth. I was so into finding out what happened next that I even brought the book with me to work and finished it during my lunch break. Being a slim paperback also helped since I don’t like lugging thick books around when I’m commuting.

Interestingly, Dark Carnival, the genre bookstore conveniently located near my in-law’s house in Berkeley has a nice collection of William Sleator books in their YA section. It’s amazing how well-stocked their store is, it’s no wonder they still have stacks of un-shelved books on the floor. Unfortunately, thanks to me, House of Stairs is no longer in stock!

In keeping with the YA dystopia movie trend, there’s supposed to be a film adaptation planned for late 2012. Exciting!

Here is the review which made me put this book on my Xmas list.

Here’s a site which looks at the various literary tropes that Sleator used in House of Stairs.

Here’s a site which looks at 25 William Sleator books.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2. Z for Zachariah

By Robert C. O'Brien

Now this is what I’m talking about!

I have Mount Benson to thank for this, since Z for Zachariah came into my purview after seeing his review (fortunately, the copy I have has a much better-looking cover).

I was already acquainted with author Robert C. O’Brien having read Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, one of my favourite YA books of all time. It was a deceptively simple yet incredibly poignant tale. A true classic. The same quality of writing is also found in Z for Zachariah (1974). As I expected, this book kicks The Hunger Games and The Uglies in the ass in terms of being a more enriching read.*

Z for Zachariah is told in journal form by a fifteen-year-old girl, Ann Burden, who seems to be the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust that devastated America. The remote valley where she lives is somehow unaffected by the fallout. As a farmer's daughter, Ann has the skills and experience to survive on her own and maintain what's left of the crop and livestock. One day, a man appears in the valley. For weeks, he had been walking across a contaminated landscape searching for life and wearing the world’s only prototype radiation suit, which he invented just before everything went to shit. When he discovers the flourishing valley, he thinks he has found paradise. When he finally meets Ann, well... let’s just say if there is a happily ever after, there wouldn’t be much of a story. If I had to write a blurb for this book, it would be something like:

What happens when the last girl on earth finally meets the last man on earth… and he happens to be a total dick?

Ok, my summary makes the story sound rather silly, but this is far from the case. I have not read many PA books, but this is up there as one of the good ones. In fact, Z for Zachariah seems to be a favourite among readers who are selective about their PA fiction. It is not perfect, as there are a couple of logistical questions that are never fully explained. For instance, for a mountain valley to miraculously escape nuclear contamination, the mountains would have to be closely packed together and high enough to shield the valley from deadly radiation carried over by wind and storm into the valley. The Rocky Mountain range makes geographical sense. However, the novel mentions Amish communities nearby (hence the well-stocked general store), but I don’t think any Amish settlements ever existed in the Rockies. So this would place Ann’s valley somewhere in the Appalachians, the next largest mountain range, but still much smaller in scale compared to the majestic Rockies.

Anyway, logistics aside, this was still a great book. I think I would have loved this book had I read it in my youth. I would have admired the resilience of Ann Burden, how she managed to stay one step ahead of the predatory Mr. Loomis, who was not only older and smarter than her, but was not beholden to any rule of law to act like a civilized being either. This was when Ann truly understood that she was frighteningly on her own.  Pretty dark stuff!

O’Brien did a wonderful job in making the reader identify with Ann. You felt her excitement when she discovered the possibility of another survivor, as well as her naivety in wanting to like and trust Mr. Loomis. You were there with her growing sense of unease as the man she nursed back to health gradually revealed his true colours as an insane control freak. Before she knew it, Mr Loomis had managed to take everything from her.  To quote Ann:

I was in a game of move-countermove, like a chess game, a game I did not want to be in at all. Only Mr. Loomis wanted to be in it, and only he could win it.

Like Mrs Frisby, the cat and mouse game between Ann and Mr. Loomis made for an incredibly gripping read on one level, yet there were also interesting underlying themes that provoked some thought. The sexual power struggle was an obvious one (this was, after all, written in the early seventies), but even so, it did not feel heavy-handed at all (like an Ira Levin novel, for instance). There were other dichotomies going on too. Fortunately, I found this Guardian review where author Sarah Hall did a wonderful job explaining how Z for Zachariah influenced her as a writer.

Here are some other archived reviews, such as Boris and SFsite.

Robert C. O’Brien was definitely a gifted storyteller, so it's too bad he had only written four books in his lifetime. Apparently, he died before he could finish the last chapter of Z for Zachariah, but since he had left notes, his wife and daughter were able to complete it posthumously.  I'm so thankful they did.

* Note I did not say "exciting", but "enriching".  This book may not appeal to readers with short attention spans who are expecting another Enclave or Divergent as there isn't a whole lot of action until much later.  There aren't any stupid love triangles either, since there are only two characters in the entire book.

Monday, January 02, 2012

1. A Wrinkle In Time

By Madeleine L'Engle

One of my goals for 2012 is to explore more young adult fiction, with a particular focus on dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and sci-fi/ fantasy. These YA genres are all the craze these days. I've already re-read Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Long After (1989) and it still holds up pretty well more than 20 years later. I found The Hunger Games enjoyable yet forgettable and The Uglies disappointingly hackneyed. Though these two books made quick, entertaining reads, they were somehow also unsatisfying, lacking a level of substance that is important in a popular work of YA fiction. Genre books are very similar to pop music. Contemporary pop can be catchy yet highly derivative, and it is usually worthwhile going back to the source. This is not just for authenticity’s sake, but predecessors sometimes just sound better.

With books, I realize there is a whole wealth of dystopian and fantastical YA novels from decades past just waiting for me to explore. Having recently read the NYT article “Fresh Hell” also clinched things for me. I am not delving into any more contemporary YA fiction until I have read some of their (more often than not, superior,) predecessors.

First up is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. In my youth, I loved fantasy books and magic realism, but never read this classic story of time travel. Now having finally read it, I realize why I had avoided it in the past. I may have already attempted reading before, but lost interest. This is not a great book. First, the story is not very well written and rather clunky in parts. Second, the theme of good versus evil is rather simplistic and the C.S. Lewis-style religious symbolism trite. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful when a YA novel equates fascistic conformity with the forces of evil, but it's ironic that the powers of good are affiliated with God, since religion means conformity in my opinion. Finally, the depiction of the guardian centaurs as little old ladies (Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which) is too cutesy for my liking. When you begin your story with “It was a dark and stormy night”, you are either being incredibly unimaginative or too clever for your own good. That opening sentence is indicative of what a mixed bag A Wrinkle In Time is.

However, where I would have dismissed this book entirely in my youth, I do recognize its appeal as an adult. There are some really neat ideas in the book, like the fifth dimension of time travel, known as a tesseract. So instead of saying “Let’s go time traveling”, you say “let’s go tessering!”. I like how the siblings, Meg and Charles Wallace, despite their fears and doubts, rescue their scientist father, who is imprisoned on planet Camazotz. Camazotz is like a parallel universe of Earth, except that its human inhabitants are ruled by an ernormous, disembodied brain with fascistic tendencies known as IT.  IT is headquartered inside a scary building called CENTRAL Central Intelligence, which I thought was pretty funny.

The most memorable thing about A Wrinkle in Time are the characters. I liked the portrayal of the Murry family as a scientific and intellectual household and how the Murry kids are misfits who don't quite fit in at school. Meg is a geeky, awkward adolescent with an attitude problem and Charles Wallace is a preternaturally gifted five-year-old who acts dumb to avoid notice. Their neighbour, Calvin O’Keefe, is also a closet misfit, despite his appearance as a popular athlete at school, and comes out of his shell upon meeting the Murry family. There is also a good sense of kinship and love, up to a fault, as this is also what undermines the novel with the “love conquers all” ending.

You see, Charles Wallace falls under the hypnotic influence of IT.  Even though CW has extraordinary abilities, he is no match for IT.  After all, IT is a humungous brain with a whole population under mind-control.  But despite all odds, Meg is able to defeat the power of IT by the sheer force of her love for CW.

I was of two minds on this.  On the one hand, I admit I did get a little caught up in the emotional drama of Meg's rescue, but at the same time, I was like, really?  I could not help but feel disappointed by the author relying on such a copout device. 

So yeah, A Wrinkle In Time was a definite letdown. Which ain't a bad thing, since this saves me the need to read the rest of the quintet.


Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Wrap Up

Definitely could’ve squeezed out Book 42, but got caught up with the pre- and post-Xmas whirlwind of familial obligations and socializing.  Damn the holidays!

2011 was nevertheless a fantastic year for me with a new record of 41 books.  With Olman’s 61, we have a combined total of 102 in our household.  There were a few new parents in the 50-book circle, which has been very exciting, but also resulted in lower overall output and contribution.  There have been a few resolutions to get motivated again, so let’s hope 2012 will help parents find some extra time for reading and posting! 

For Olman and myself, not busy raising little ‘uns certainly helped, but I think, for me at least, I’m becoming more efficient in my reading.  And I have learned that I can write my reviews during slow times at work.  This works great because I actually look like I’m working instead of surfing the internet!

Though I was aiming to break the previous year’s record of 34 books, I really wasn’t expecting to hit the 40th milestone this year.   It was only due to the enthusiastic lending of graphic novels by a mutual friend in November that helped me get past 40 books, otherwise I would not have considered even touching comics.  But since I have read a fair number of hefty novels this past year, I felt justified in counting the occasional comic.  However, my top 5 favourite reads of the year are all novels:

  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
  Far From the Madding Crowd
  HMS Surprise
  Crocodile on the Sandbank

[I suppose it is kind of interesting to note that 4 of these novels are set (or partially set) in pre-20th century England]

I am closer to the 50 book milestone than ever before, but at the same time, don’t want to get too worked up about reaching for the gold.  I’d be happy to read 40 books again for 2012 and I have a great incentive:  to whittle down my huge, ever-expanding on-deck pile!