A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

A Room with a View was the Hungry Hundred Book Club book for May. The group leader, Rachel, started off the discussion at the well-attended meetup with an interesting question:

Is A Room with a View primarily a love story, a coming-of-age story, or social commentary?

Since the book has elements of all three, the answer to the question says as much about the reader’s perspective as it does about the book itself. How much people enjoyed the book depended very much on what they thought it was trying to do and what they thought it did well, thus the question served not only to kick off the discussion but also to guide and shape it.

At the end of the discussion, we rated the book. It garnered perhaps only one rating of five stars, but many of three or three-and-a-half or four, as well as a couple of very low ratings (0.5 and 2). The reason for the less-than-spectacular average rating seemed to be that Forster was undeniably good, yet didn’t measure up to other writers.

During the discussion, someone mentioned a Guardian article based on a lecture by Zadie Smith on the fiction of E.M. Forster. The article compares Forster’s work to Austen’s.

Forster ushered in a new era for the English comic novel, one that includes the necessary recognition that the great majority of us are not like an Austen protagonist, would rather not understand ourselves, because it is easier and less dangerous.

Zadie Smith, in pointing out this message in Forster’s work, is saying in part that what Forster was doing was different from what others were doing, and that he was good at it. I agree.

See below for my opinion on whether A Room with a View is a love story, coming-of-age story, or social commentary and what I got out of it. (If you’ve never read the book or watched the movie, note that this post gives away the ending.)

Continue reading A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

The Fugitive by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

I enjoyed this short, out-of-print book more than I necessarily expected to. It got off to a slow start, especially for such a short novel, but it gave me lots of food for thought.

The Fugitive was written by a highly regarded Indonesian nationalist. In writing about the book, I learned that the author’s name, though in three parts, is not a first, middle, and last name with the family name last. It’s just a name. He is referred to as “Pramoedya” (which is also spelled “Pramudya”) or just “Pram”.

Read more about the book in my Backlist books post about The Fugitive at Asian Books Blog.

When and Why I Read The Fugitive

I am reading this Indonesian novel for my Backlist books column at Asian Books Blog.

Genre: Fiction (historical)
Date started / date finished: 17-Apr-2018 / 23-Apr-2018
Length: 171
ISBN: 0688086985
Originally published in: 1950/1990
Amazon link: The Fugitive

The Movie Book

Reading The Movie Book, I got the strong impression that, regardless of its genre, every movie I like is basically the same movie: an uplifting story with a conventional structure, an admirable main character, and an upbeat conclusion. This book, in contrast, expresses appreciation of many kinds of movie, seemingly few of them cheerful.

Still, some of my personal favorites are considered great cinema; I am a fan of the quite historic Wizard of Oz, for example. In contrast, although intellectually I understand that Blade Runner is a classic, I found it largely unpleasant to watch. Oldboy was much worse. Those are two hours of my life I really wish I could get back.

Lesson learnt. Watching “good” movies—or even “important” movies—as if movies can be measured on a universal scale is not a recipe for enjoyment. Taste is personal.

Here’s an interactive list of the 116 movies featured in the book. (It doesn’t list the 88 honorable mentions described briefly at the back of the book, but this post does.) Among them are some movies I have not seen that I would like to see—some that I think I would actually enjoy (e.g., Singin’ in the Rain) and others that are not my cup of tea but would be interesting and give me a stronger grounding in the history of film (e.g., King Kong).

When and Why I Read The Movie Book

I like books. I like movies. I like checklists. Surely I will enjoy a book that consists of a checklist of movies.

Genre: non-fiction (reference; film)
Date started / date finished: 02-Apr-2018 / 17-Apr-2018
Length: 343 pages
ISBN: 9780241188026
Originally published in: 2015
Amazon link: The Movie Book

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is a masterful, discomfiting tale of slavery. I didn’t like it.

It’s literary. The writing and careful arrangement of plot elements makes the reader work hard (and keep turning pages) to piece together the sequence of events. The non-linear storytelling and ambiguously psychotic or supernatural elements may strike some as pretentious, but the novel has a powerful message effectively conveyed with consummate skill.

It’s tragic. You may think the book has a hopeful ending; interpretations vary. The ending didn’t seem hopeful to me. Regardless, the pain the characters suffered is—well—painful to contemplate. Thus, reading this story was for me more of a duty than a relaxing way to pass the time.

I didn’t like it, but I’m glad I read it. Institutionalized slavery of Africans in America is over, but it left a lasting legacy. I can trace my ancestry back to one of the founding fathers of the country, but some Americans can’t trace their ancestry at all. Their desire to connect with a past free of pain and punishment—even a fictional one—accounts for the success of the Roots the book and Roots the television series, and has contributed substantially to the success of Marvel’s Black Panther.

Toni Morrison explains the need for and the difficulty in writing such a book:

The terrain, slavery, was formidable and pathless. To invite readers (and myself) into the repellant landscape (hidden, but not completely; deliberately buried, but not forgotten) was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts.

The idea for the book came from a newspaper headline.

A newspaper clipping in The Black Book summarized the story of Margaret Garner, a young mother who, having escaped slavery, was arrested for killing one of her children (and trying to kill the others) rather than let them be returned to the owner’s plantation.

All the other details were Morrison’s own invention.

More on what I liked and didn’t like about Beloved below. Beware spoilers.

No, seriously, beware spoilers. I think the book is really better if you read it from start to finish without knowing where it’s going and where the characters have been.

Continue reading Beloved by Toni Morrison

The Third Eye by Mahtab Narsimhan

The Third Eye was written by an Indian-born Canadian woman and published by a Canadian publisher (Dundurn Books). It was supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council and won the 2009 Silver Birch Award from the Ontario Library Association.

Holding at this book, I immediately doubted it would be any good. You probably can’t tell from looking at images of the book online, but the cover image (and the author photo on the back cover) are pixelated. In other words, the publisher screwed up. The writing is similarly only okay. There’s much better stuff out there.

I would recommend, for example, the Indian fantasy children’s series by Indian-American author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni that starts with The Conch Bearer.

When and Why I Read The Third Eye

Passed to me by a friend.

Genre: Fiction (children’s fantasy)
Date started / date finished: 04-Mar-2018 / 07-Mar-2018
Length: 240
ISBN: 9781550027501
Originally published in: 2007
Amazon link: The Third Eye

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Years ago (in 2011) I read Larklight by Philip Reeve. I’d opportunistically bought Mothstorm too (but maybe not the second one, Starcross), thinking I would read the whole series. I didn’t. Larklight was as dull as an old cast-iron skillet and despite its thickness not nearly as effective as a weapon.

Months ago a friend described the predator cities series to me, and although it was written by this same Reeve, it sounded interesting. When I heard that Mortal Engines is coming to theaters this year, I was excited that yet another young adult fantasy book has been adapted for film, and, with guarded optimism, I arranged to borrow the series of four books. (Turns out, I jumped the gun… the movie isn’t out until December!)

Hours ago, I finished reading Mortal Engines. Much as not finishing the series feels like quitting, I think reading the other books would be a chore for me, so I’m not going to do it.

Did Mortal Engines win awards? Was it imaginative? Was it thrillingly action-packed? Did the characters make important decisions and change as a result of their experiences? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Not particularly.

I think my issue is one of style. The premise is that centuries from now people live in mobile cities that prey on one another in accordance with “Municipal Darwinism”. That’s an interesting premise, but the writing made the characters seem like cartoony caricatures even when serious stuff was happening. There was a lot of action, not so much reflection. The inventive details seemed like so many cheap fireworks thrown out to dazzle momentarily and then fade into nothing.

See below for more comments about the writing style in addition to a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Dystopian fiction is supposedly about the future, but it’s always tied in to the fears—and the technologies—of its own time period. Although Brave New World can claim biochemistry more advanced than ours, one of its characters boasts about information stored on “eighty-eight cubic metres of card-index” which I imagine would fit comfortably on a thumb drive.

In his Foreword, written years after the novel was published, Huxley acknowledges faults in the work, but also acknowledges that trying to fix it would be senseless meddling; the novel is and will be the same novel it always was, warts and all. (Are you listening, George Lucas? Senseless meddling!)

I didn’t enjoy it overall. The imagined setting is interesting because of the detail in which it’s described, and Huxley touches on some big ideas about what it means to be human, but it’s hard to create a new and interesting setting and handle big ideas and still have room left for characters to interact and plot events to take place, all in the space of 158 pages! Brave New World felt heavy on exposition.

Still, the worldbuilding, ideas, characters, and plot taken together, are impressive enough to make this a classic.

See below for more on all that, but beware SPOILERS. And British spelling.

Continue reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Photographically Speaking by David duChemin

I thought I knew nothing about photography. I was wrong.

True, I have little experience making photographs the way professionals do, and I know very little about cameras, my own cheap point-and-shoot included.

Still, photography is art, and creating photographs is much like creating other kinds of art. Much to my delight, the author of Photographically Speaking often draws explicit parallels with the art of writing, with which I’m somewhat familiar.

Once he establishes the thrust of the book (the importance of making conscious choices to create art), the author goes on to highlight the kinds of choices photographers can and should consciously make. Though he has a lot of specialized equipment and knows a lot about it, he focuses more on principles and concepts that you can observe in the finished image, not on which lens or filter you attach or which buttons you press.

See more below about what made Photographically Speaking such an approachable and informative text.

Continue reading Photographically Speaking by David duChemin

Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames

This blue book, Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames is a real treasure. I was ecstatic when I found it. When I was browsing in a used book shop in Melbourne, I found it on a shelf labeled “Books on Books”, but I’m not sure that’s where it belongs—or where it possibly could belong, for that matter! The whole volume is an esoteric joke aimed at native speakers of English who have studied French.

The book purports to be the publication of a mysterious manuscript of French poems the author discovered. He has annotated the poems in English with deadpan comments on the meanings of the French words.

In fact, as the author knows full well, the poems are more or less nonsense when translated from French, but if you pronounce them in French, they sound like a French speaker reciting Mother Goose rhymes! Case in point: The title of the volume, if you read it in a French accent, sounds like “Mother Goose Rhymes”.

Intrigued? There is a wonderful rabbit-hole of related phenomena you can happily fall into if you click the Wikipedia page for Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames.

If you are a social person and you want to have fun with this kind of language trick using just English, try the game Mad Gab.

Example cards from the game:

sea grit dress up ease = secret recipes
ice mail ask hunk = I smell a skunk
canoe key pace he gret = can you keep a secret
sand tack laws = Santa Claus
thigh sing gone thick ache = the icing on the cake

If you’re an introverted student of French and you want to experience the joy of deciphering Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames all by yourself, there are used copies of various editions of the book available through Amazon and Abebooks. You can’t have mine.

My 12th-grade French teacher used to write these “French poems” in a corner of the whiteboard to challenge us. I specifically remember “Little Miss Moffat”. Years later, feeling nostalgic, I looked online for a copy of a book they came from, but buying a copy of the out-of-print volume looked like it was going to be expensive, so I shelved that ambition. In 2009, HarperCollins reissued the work, but—tragically!—it went out of print again before I even noticed. To stumble across it by accident was a fantastic stroke of luck, especially given the price (AU$7) and condition (fantastic).

Maybe you already have the book, and you’ve tried to match the “French poems” to Mother Goose Rhymes, and you’re stumped. After all, the author is quite coy. Though he credits Mother Goose in the bibliography at the end of the book, he never clearly says that the poems are actually English Mother Goose rhymes, so of course he doesn’t list the answers; you are supposed to work them out yourself. If, however, you are fed up with trying to work them out yourself, and you’re here looking for the answers, then you, too have had a stroke of luck. I’ve worked them out for you.

See the answer key below for a list of the names of the 40 nursery rhymes disguised in Mots D’Heures: Gousses Rames.

Continue reading Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames