Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

A World of Love (1954) by Elizabeth Bowen

Book Review
A World of Love (1954)
by Elizabeth Bowen

   I honestly thought I'd covered all of the Elizabeth Bowen titles on the original 1001 Books list.  No author more encapsulates the values of that original list than Bowen, a moderately well-known Anglo-Irish novelist who placed no fewer than six titles in the original edition of 1001 Books to read before you die.  This dramatic over-representation of her work, cut in half in the first revised edition, is precisely in line with the weaknesses in that original edition:  An over-representation of English and Anglo-Irish voices at the expense of non-Western, or at least non-English options.

    But I ain't mad at them.  I've genuinely enjoyed the minor classics of 20th century English literature, particularly the female voices, which the editorial staff of 1001 Books seemed particularly concerned with representing in their original book.   Bowen, with her six titles during the early to middle 20th century, is a strong element of the over-all list during those decades.  Like The Last September, A World of Love is actually set at a country house in rural Ireland (her other titles are set in London, with the exception of A House in Paris (Paris).   Even at the beginning of her career, the "country house" novel was a cliche, and rarely showed up in sophisticated literature, except for appearances in genre and social comedy.

   A half century later, the fact that Bowen was writing country house novels in the 1950's means nothing.  What matters is whether A World of Love is a good country house novel.  While it lacks the large cast of characters that a reader traditionally expects from high exemplars of the genre, A World of Love makes up with loving craft and attention to detail.   At 150 pages, A World of Love is spare to the point of minimalism.  There is no excess, and A World of Love is a fine example of traditionalist author working in the twilight of her career.

Surfacing (1972) by Margaret Atwood

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Canadian poet-novelist Margaret Atwood as a young woman.
Book Review
Surfacing (1972)
 by Margaret Atwood

   Surfacing is Margaret Atwood's second novel.  Atwood started by writing poems in the 1960's, but it wasn't until the early 1970's that she emerged as a novelist.  She is notable not only for her beginnings as a poet, but also for her nationality, Canadian, where she is the most well-known native novelist in the country.   She is best know for her mid-career tour through speculative fiction.  Her novel, The Handmaid's Tale, which explicitly explores a future obsessed with reproduction, is one of the better known works of 1980's speculative fiction.  The Blind Assassin, published in 2000, won the Booker prize and was successful to the point where my copy of Surfacing has "Booker prize winning author of The Blind Assassin" written beneath her name on the cover.

 Surfacing doesn't have the speculative angle of The Handmaid's Tale or the dazzling historical meta fictional tack of The Blind Assassin.  Instead, it's a quiet work of regional (Canadian) fiction, that balances the personal concerns of her narrator (a youngish Canadian woman) with some larger issues about the relationship of Canada to America and women to men.   Once you learn that Atwood was a poet for nearly a decade before she turned to fiction, describing her prose as "poetic," but it seems safe to observe that she writes about the landscape, here a remote island in northern Quebec, with an eye towards timelessness.

  This is contrasted with the concerns of the main characters, the narrator, searching for her missing father, her partner and another couple, all of whom evince various degrees of anti-Americanism towards the sportsmen who are the main consumers of the wild life around them.  There isn't much in Surfacing, besides the quality of the writing itself, to mark Atwood out for what she became, but Surfacing is an enjoyable read, and not too long at under 200 pages.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley

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Brave New World was published in 1932, a decade and a half before George Orwell wrote along similar lines in 1984.

Book Review
Brave New World (1932)
by Aldous Huxley

  Brave New World was published 17 years before George Orwell's 1984.   Huxley's depiction of a futuristic totalitarian state may have been the first techno dystopia in fiction or non fiction.  His future dystopia is a combination of mass production and "pure" communism, with a benevolent oligarchic dictatorship ensuring that babies are properly grown in test tubes, the five classes of humanity- alpha through epsilon- are properly indoctrinated via hypno/sleep suggestion and that every has an adequate supply of soma, a drug that sounds pretty much like morphine.

  Compared to Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World is a fairly benign place.  Orwell, of course, was writing with full knowledge of the horrors of World War II, where Huxley was writing during the interwar period where many English intellectuals flirted with totalitarianism of both right and left varieties.   Huxley's most penetrating observations surround his depiction of the pleasure seeking consumer society that wasn't even beginning in the 1930's.   The idea of cheap drugs and free sex began to resonate deeply a generation after Huxley published Brave New World.   Like Herman Hesse, Huxley wrote books in the early part of the 20th century that only fully resonated with it's largest audience decades later.  In this way, he falls into the same category as Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters.

  Although Huxley's techno-dystopia was prescient in many ways, his writing style is more or less derivative of H.G. Wells.   That is nothing to be ashamed of, but the plot and the writing in general is not equal to Orwell in 1984.  Orwell was very deeply involved with the language of totalitarianism, to the point where he generated his own argot for 1984.  Huxley, on the other hand, relies on Shakespeare, from where Huxley derives his title. 

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The Magus (1965) by John Fowles

Book Review
The Magus (1965)
 by John Fowles

   The Magus is another book I read, and loved, in high school.  Now I find it mildly embarrassing.  Both the book itself, which is still regularly considered a "top 100 novels of the century" type of book, and my admiration for it.   The Magus is the sort of book you read in college in the United States or England.  It is a popular example of "metafiction."  It's also a good example of just how popular and successful a work of meta-fiction could be in the market place.

  It is also, in my opinion, a very good example of just how tedious metafiction can be.  The Magus is nearly 600 pages long, and it winds through so many fun-house-mirror type twists that I was left only vaguely intrigued by the end of the book.   I'm sure some of my attitude was engendered by my prior familiarity with the narrative.  Like other novels from this time period on the 1001 Books list, the narrative appeals to a young person questioning his or her place in the universe.

 Really though, The Magus is a work of popular fiction, not a piece of trailblazing literature.  It's not both of these things, either.  In fact, I very much doubt The Magus would be on the list at all if it hadn't sold so many copies over the years.   The Magus isn't simply a top 100 title else where, it is one of the two (of four) Fowles titles on the original 1001 Books list to make it to the 2010 edition.


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