Saturday, January 31, 2015

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles (40 down 60 to go)

We all write poems; it is simply that poets are the ones who write in words.

This is the first time I’ve read The French Lieutenant’s Woman or John Fowles. The book is a third-person narrative, and although it is a post-modern novel, published in 1969, it reads more like a Victorian era romance. This is no accident; the narrator makes repeated references to Victorian mores and makes it clear he is looking backwards in time, from his own post-modern vantage point, to the Victorian era. This is only one of several unusual techniques Fowles employs.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies square B4 of 2015 Classics Bingo: Romance Classic. 

For starters, it was captivating. I read the final 200 pages in a single setting. Second, it was quite unpredictable. At several points, I was certain I knew where things were going, and I was wildly off the mark. Third, it challenged me: intellectually, emotionally, and morally.

The story takes place in the coastal British village of Lyme Regis, 1867, a long-time home of the author. The protagonist, Sarah Woodruff, is known to the villagers as the French lieutenant’s whore. She is also known as Tragedy, for the heartbreak and disgrace she suffered by the unscrupulous French sailor who was briefly stranded in the village. The villagers believe Sarah is heartbroken, hoping for the lieutenant's return, and perhaps a little mad. None of which is true, except just perhaps, the madness, though she is quite lucid and highly intelligent.

The title is a bit of a misnomer in my opinion, not because it uses a more delicate description of Sarah, but because the lieutenant is only a memory. The love affair in this novel is between Sarah and English gentleman Charles Smithson. Charles encounters Sarah when visiting Lyme Regis with his fiancé, Ernistina Freeman. And now the conflict is obvious, but only the very tip.

Charles is in conflict before he ever lays eyes on Sarah, though she brings his discontent into sharper focus. His fiancé is pretty, sensitive, sweet, wealthy, not terribly spoiled or vain, but she is not Charles' intellectual equal. 

This gives only the slightest glimpse of the turmoil pulling at Charles. He is something of an amateur naturalist and espouses the evolutionary theories of Darwin. This is allegorical to one of Charles greatest recurring dilemmas: he feels trapped in the roles and duties of an English gentleman. Both the narrator and Charles wonder from time to time, if the aristocracy is not doomed…that natural selection will not winnow them out to be replaced by fitter, more productive men of action and ability. Charles feels the urge to change, to evolve, but he feels restrained by the customs of English nobility.

He is, as you might guess also agnostic, but his life reaches such crises, he resorts to prayer on several desperate occasions.

As the reader, I was conflicted on more than one issue. Early on, the reader learns to love Sarah. She needs mercy and compassion from her fellow villagers, and they give her scorn and disgust. She bears it with humility and grace. The reader learns what an elegant mind, compassionate soul, and incorrupt spirit she possesses, and sees what a perfect match she and Charles would make. But remember, Charles is promised, and to no unworthy shrew. And yet, Sarah pursues him. Where now is her compassionate soul and incorrupt spirit? I was torn between wishing for the match, and wishing for Charles to do the right thing, flee from Sarah and honor Ernistina.

There were practical impediments as well. It is hard to imagine today, but it was nearly impossible for a gentleman like Charles to marry a peasant girl, let alone one with dubious past. This is where Fowles’ backwards look from postmodernism entered the narrative.

Fowles also employed an unusual technique of providing alternate endings. Although this is not unheard of, he made it a little extra unusual with three alternates: one sterile, one blissful, and one dismal. I don’t like it when authors do this. I want to know what really happened.

Which is kind of funny…it is fiction after all.

And one more technique, Fowles injects himself, the narrator/author into the story. He rides in a train compartment with Charles and studies him while he sleeps, trying to determine as the author what Charles will do. Fowles eventually flips a coin, not to decide which path, but to decide which alternate ending to narrate first…conceding the reader will tend to remember the last and conclude it is the “real” ending. 

Overall, I liked The French Lieutenant's Woman for challenging my thoughts and emotions. I was quite hooked; I couldn’t put it down in the end. 

The novel is filled with references to classic literature, such as:
Louisa Musgrove from Persuasion
Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair
Sam Weller from The Pickwick Papers
Sancho Panza from Don Quixote
Homer author of The Iliad and The Odyssey
Starving heroines lying huddled on snow-covered door steps – undoubtedly refers to Jane from Jane Eyre
Lying fevered in some bare, leaking garret – help me out, I don’t know
Uriah Heep from David Copperfield
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy…and many, many more references to Hardy
I’m sure there were others I missed.


So the rarest flower, forgiveness, was given a precarious footing in Marlborough House….

Mrs. Poultney believed in a God that had never existed; and Sarah knew a God that did.

His statement to himself should have been, “I possess this now, therefore I am happy,” instead of what it so Victorianly was: “I cannot possess this forever, and therefore am sad.”

His listener felt needed, and a girl who feels needed is already a quarter way in love.

Old doctors and old priests share one thing in common: they get a long nose for deceit. 

Narrative describing a scene when Sarah is weeping alone in her room, and note the question mark after the second sentence:

Two moments later she was kneeling by her bed and weeping silently into the worn cover. She should rather have prayed? But she believed she was praying.

Narrative regarding Charles impression of a pair of Americans he meets:

They were not the stupid Yankees the Victorian British liked to suppose were universal in the States.

Comment by one of the Americans:

In general back home we say what we think. My impression of London was – forgive me, Mr. Smithson – heaven help you if you don’t say what you don’t think.

Narrative regarding Charles thoughts on America:

…he even glimpsed, though very dimly and only by virtue of a Darwinian analogy, that one day America might supersede the older species.

Film Rendition: 1981 version Starring Meryl Streep as Sarah and Jeremy Irons as Charles, was nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Actress for Streep and Best Adapted Screenplay, et al). I didn’t love the film. It was a fairly faithful rendition, but in spite of Streep’s nomination for the Oscar, and winning the Golden Globe, I didn’t care for her as Sarah. I’m probably prejudiced; my mental image of Sarah did not resemble Streep.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Because a Little Bug went Ka-CHOO! by Rosetta Stone, illustrated by Michael Frith. Guest book review by my Grandson, Andrew

I was reading with my Grandson Andrew, and he decided to contribute a book
review to my blog.

To the best of my ability, I have transcribed Andrew's thoughts on the subject. He does not use actual words just yet, but I am confident I have inferred his views accurately.

Because a Little Bug went Ka-CHOO! is the story guessed it, a bug who sneezed and the resultant mayhem.

Some have argued the story is a discourse  regarding the cogency of fatalism vs determinism, but Andrew is dubious of this explanation.  He sees it rather as an apology for the interconnectedness of life. He felt, that as far as the story goes, the events make a compelling argument, without making an unnecessary leap to the mystical concept of universal oneness.

A sample of the chronology goes like this: A bug sneezes causing a seed to drop and hit a worm on the head. The worm gets mad and kicks a tree causing a coconut to drop on a turtle's head. The turtle falls in water, splashing a hen. The hen gets mad and kicks a bucket. The bucket flies up in the air and comes down Farmer Brown's head, where it remains stuck for the remainder of the story.

The rationale for the fatalist preference is obvious at this point: angry creatures kicking objects, objects falling on other creature's heads, seemingly for perpetuity. However, Andrew sees this as something of a White Rabbit, with the greater theme being the unstoppable chain of events that transcends the whole objects falling on someone's head motif.

Andrew felt that Farmer Brown is the central character and an archetype of Donne's "No Man is an Island". He is both affected by, and affecting on those around him.

Send not for whom the bucket falls for thee.

We never see Farmer Brown's face; he's got a bucket on it after all. While some believe the bucket is a metaphor, for the public face we wear to conceal our true selves, Andrew felt it was simply a deliberate device of the author, to allow the reader to empathize unprejudiced by emotions the reader might otherwise perceive in Farmer Brown's expression.

Besides the bug, worm, turtle, hen, and Farmer Brown, other characters include: policemen, leisurely yachters, circus performers, and Andrew's favorite...Mrs. Brown (because she reminded him of Gramms).

Although most of the characters were quite believable, Andrew found the yachters a bit esoteric and the hen a bit stilted. His only serious complaint though, was the worm. Andrew has no objection to suspending disbelief, but he was incredulous at the aspect of a worm kicking a tree.

This aberration aside, Andrew found the worm to be a true villain. The worm's myopic worldview and total disregard for the tragic consequences of his actions, unleashed a chain of events, which according to the author may still be....going on yet.

Andrew thought the third person narrative was marvelous, the prose was hauntingly beautiful at times: Everyone, everyone started to yelp. And Mrs. Brown called on the phone for more help; and ingeniously comic at others: Because he got bopped, that turtle named Jake fell on his back with a splash in the lake. With the exception of the clowns, Andrew thought the illustrations were delightful. He thought the clowns were kind of creepy, and the kind of thing he will one day fear is hiding under his bed.  Overall, Andrew enjoyed Because a Little Bug went Ka-CHOO!, though he is no Cat in the Hat.

Andrew gives it 4 Stars.

Click HERE for more book reviews by my Grandsons and Granddaughters.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner (39 down 61 to go)

But the king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son! ~ 2 Samuel 19:4

This is the first time I’ve read Absalom, Absalom!, and the third novel I’ve read by William Faulkner. It is a southern-Gothic, modernist novel, told by numerous narrators, several of them unreliable. It is the history of the Sutpen family, taking place in Mississippi before, during, and after the American Civil War.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies square B1 of 2015 Classics Bingo: written by a Nobel Laureate.

The title is derived from the Bible passage quoted at the beginning of this review. The passage describes King David’s reaction to the death of his son Absalom, who rebelled against his father and tried to usurp the throne.

It is a heart wrenching passage of scripture and Absalom, Absalom! is similarly tragic. The central character is Thomas Sutpen who has a single-minded ambition to raise himself and his heirs to prominence and respectability.

Like most Faulkner’s novels this story takes place in and around Jefferson Mississippi. Quentin Compson, a significant character from The Sound and the Fury, is the chief story teller in Absalom, Absalom!, though there is no other connection between the two stories.

Thomas Sutpen was born in 1807 to a poor family in West Virginia. They move to coastal Virginia when he is 10 or 12, he does not know his precise age. Thomas is sent on an errand to a Virginia manor, and is treated with contempt by a slave, and told to never come to the front door. This insult serves as the motivating force the rest of Thomas’ life. He determines to raise himself, and his progeny, to the level of a southern gentleman, and never be mistreated again. He runs away to the West Indies, where he believes that a young man of courage and wit could make a fortune.

Thomas once described his plan to a friend:
I had a design. To accomplish it I should require money, a house, a plantation, slaves, a family, incidentally of course, a wife. I set out to acquire these, asking no favor of any man.

In the West Indies, he begins his fortune and then moves to Haiti, where he marries, has a son, and all is going as planned...and then the plan begins to unravel. He learns his wife is one-eighth Negro or octaroon (that was a new term on me). That would not do, so Thomas divorces his wife, but leaves her and the child well provided for. He then moves to Mississippi to start again, believing he has left the past well behind him.

He cheats some Native Americans out of 100 acres of land, now known as Sutpen’s Hundred, builds an ostentatious mansion, finds a respectable southern wife, has a son Henry, daughter Judith, and again feels things are going perfectly.

And then the past rears its head. Henry befriends Charles Bon at college. He brings Charles home, and Judith and Charles become engaged (bit more complicated than that…but I’ll leave it at that). None of them know at this point that Charles is actually Henry and Judith’s half-brother from Thomas’ earlier marriage.

And you can see how that might just set awry the best laid plans of mice and Thomas.

As King David’s son Absalom sought to end his father’s reign, Thomas’ son, his two sons actually, succeed in dooming his carefully planned dynasty.

It is an intricate web of intrigue, ambition, deceit, murder, and despair. I think it would have been a great story except for one thing…the infernal stream of consciousness that Faulkner loves. It’s a pet-peeve of mine I know, but I believe this story would have been much better narrated in third-person.

It’s an opinion; it’s mine and it’s my blog…so I’m entitled. The stream of consciousness, and the biased, unreliable narrators make it very challenging to know precisely what is happening. To get the clearest idea of the story, I think I would have to re-read Absalom, Absolom! now that I’ve read the differing points of view. I’m certain it would make better sense the second time through…but yeah…moving on.

That’s essentially my complaint with stream of consciousness. You have to work very hard, go back, re-read, re-reference, or use commentary to understand what’s happened. I read for the STORY…not for the challenge of figuring out what the story is.

That’s why it annoys me so. I think this was a magnificent story that suffered in the telling. I know…Faulkner…American literary legend…who am I? Just a reader.

Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, said Faulkner was
Seeking out the nature of man. 
I think that’s an astute appraisal.

And Faulkner is a great writer. I’m not denying that in the least. Below are a couple quotations that I won’t attempt to put in context. They demonstrate his turn-of-phrase.

Trivia: According to the 1983 Guinness Book of World Records, Absalom, Absalom! contains the longest sentence in literature...nearly 1,300 words.


…the father who is the natural enemy of any son and son-in-law of whom the mother is the ally, just as after the wedding the father will be the ally of the actual son-in-law who has for mortal foe the mother of the wife.

Quentin hearing without having to listen as he read the faint spidery script not like something impressed upon the paper by a once-living hand but like a shadow cast upon it which had resolved on the paper the instant before he looked at it and which might fade, vanish, at any instant while he still did...


Thursday, January 8, 2015

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (38 down 62 to go)

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. ~ Opening line


This is the first time I’ve read One Hundred Years of Solitude or Gabriel García Márquez. When I began this quest, there were eight living authors on my list. Now there are only seven. Gabriel García Márquez passed away in April 2014; may he rest in peace. The novel is of the magical realism genre set in the fictional South American country of Macondo, which is almost certainly a metaphor for Colombia. As you might guess, the novel covers 100 years in the postcolonial era, in this case from the 1820s to 1920s. It is considered a seminal work in Latin American literature. Some have said that One Hundred Years of Solitude is to Latin America, what Don Quixote is to Spain.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This novel satisfies square B5 of 2015 Classics Bingo: winner of a foreign literary prize. García Márquez won the 1972 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature.

This is a most unusual story. It covers seven generations of the Buendía family. It is fascinating, though difficult to follow at first. The generations of the Buendía family overlap and names are often repeated from generation to generation. The repeated names, are likely an intentional device of the author to highlight the fatalist theme of the book.


The patriarch, and founder of Macondo, José Arcadio Buendía, marries his cousin Ursula, and they have two sons: José Arcadio, and Colonel Aureliano Buendía as well as a daughter, Amaranta, who never marries or has children. Subsequent generations who bore variations of the José Arcadio name were somewhat impulsive and of great stature and strength, while Aurelianos were typically more introspective, deliberate, and a bit less physically imposing. The one anomaly in this pattern is a set of twins: José Arcadio Segundo and Aureliano Segundo. Early in life they mischievously trade places to confuse others. When they are older they exhibit characteristics of the opposite namesake, and Ursula believes they changed roles so often they confused themselves and actually assumed the wrong names. Ironically, after they die on the same day, probably the same instant, there is a mix-up at the funeral and they are buried in the other’s grave…which if Ursula was correct…actually set things right.


That’s just one sample of the fantastic elements of the story. Other elements were odd, but not completely implausible such as a room that was shut for years, but once opened was found without dust or cobwebs and with fresh, clean air. Other events were completely miraculous such as a young woman, of unequalled beauty, who simply floated into heaven one day while folding sheets, never to be seen again. Throughout the story characters frequently have conversations with the ghosts of deceased family members as if it is perfectly natural.


As you might imagine 100 years and seven generations provides the setting for numerous themes. One stood out: solitude. García Márquez uses the word “solitude” repeatedly, far too many times to be accidental. It was obviously deliberate, and although I didn’t keep track, I suspect he used it in some context to describe every major character; I know he used it for most. 


For example: 

Colonel Aureliano Buendía could understand only that the secret of a good old age is simply an honorable pact with solitude.


The Buendía family members were rather self-absorbed, not utterly unsympathetic toward others, but usually unaware that anyone else might have dreams, passions, desires, or needs.


And then there was Macondo, isolated from the rest of the country, physically cut off for much of the story, and figuratively distinct throughout.


The cycle of solitude seems to be broken near the end. One couple seems to find true love; that alone was exceptional. They also see the struggles of other family members and work to help

they lamented that it had cost them so much of their lives to find the paradise of shared solitude.


Happily, this exception is passed on to the next generation, but then, fatalism again intervenes.


Other themes include: love, war, pride, greed, lust, familial loyalty, jealousy, incest, rebellion, revolution, marital infidelity, gender roles, and children born with the tail of a pig.


And finally, there is a surprise dramatic ending.


I am ignorant of Colombian history, so where the story serves as metaphor, I’m certain I missed it. As simply a story, it was quite enjoyable. The Buendía family members were hopelessly flawed, often pitiable, sometimes lovable, seldom despicable, and highly amusing. They were each one solitary and at times, their own worst enemies. The story necessarily moves quickly, covering 100 years, and doesn’t get bogged down in details. It was in a word, interesting. If it is to be compared to Don Quixote, I liked One Hundred Years of Solitude much better. 


Closing line: 

…because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.




Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2015 Classics Bingo Challenge

**2015 Classics Bingo**
from Catching Up on Classics (and lots more) at Goodreads

I was able to make most of these match up to my 100 Greatest Novels Quest (exceptions being: N2 Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and O3 Picnic at Hanging Rock)

My choices are:

B1: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
B2: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
B3: A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
B4: The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
B5: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

I1: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I2: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
I3: Dune by Frank Herbert
I4: The Trial by Franz Kafka
I5: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

N1: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
N2: Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome
N4: The Call of the Wild by Jack London
N5: Emma by Jane Austen

G1: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
G2: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
G3: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
G4: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
G5: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

O1: American Pastoral by Philip Roth
O2: I, Claudius by Robert Graves
O3: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
O4: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
O5: Beloved by Toni Morrison