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 Remains of the Day (1993)

After Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club chose The Remains of the Day for April 2018, I decided I was going to skip out on reading it. I read it half a lifetime ago, and remembered enough not to want to read it again. (It’s poignant, not my preferred mood for fiction.)

Among the DVDs I bought second-hand from a neighbor over a year ago was a copy of the 1993 Anthony Hopkins / Emma Thompson film version, so I figured I could just watch the movie instead of reading the book. (Normally that’s cheating, but like I said, I already did read the book. Also, it was a particularly well-made movie.)

I remembered that the book was about a butler who passed up his opportunity for love because he was too busy doing his job, and that there was something wrong with his master’s politics, such that the butler’s devotion was somehow even more thoroughly wrong-headed than it would have been otherwise.

The wistfulness of looking back on a wasted lifetime is nicely captured in a poem by Edgar Lee Masters called “George Gray”. Even more succinctly: A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.

Although I did not re-read the book, and in some ways found the movie painful to watch, I very much enjoyed the book group meetup. See below for some of the themes and scenes we discussed.

Continue reading The Remains of the Day (1993)

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

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

What if, instead of men and women, people were all just, you know, people? That’s the idea Ursula K. Le Guin explores in The Left Hand of Darkness. The people living on the bitter-cold planet Gethen (aka Winter) can only procreate when they are “in heat”, and during such periods may become physiologically either male or female. When not in heat or pregnant, they are neither male nor female (though they are referred to as “he” throughout the book because English lacks a neutral third-person singular pronoun).

This award-winning novel challenges us to think about genders, gender roles, sexuality, and their impact on culture, but much of the plot is not actually person-against-person or even person-against-society, it’s person-against-nature. The harsh climate has shaped the Gethens, culturally and perhaps biologically as well…

Genly Ai has been sent on a solo mission to Gethen to extend the locals an invitation to join the Ekumen, a kind of intergalactic knowledge-sharing alliance built primarily on technology for simultaneous communication (rather than, say, faster-than-light travel). Genly is male in the commonly understood sense, and struggles against the tendency to assign gender to the Gethens. He also struggles with the cold. Will he complete his mission? Will he even survive the political intrigues and the climate? Who can he trust? He is terrifyingly alone.

I was surprised at the proportion of the book that consisted of a trek across an icy wasteland. I felt I’d been lifted out of the sci-fi universe Le Guin had so painstakingly created and plunged back into the dangerous world of high-altitude mountaineering, which I read about nearly 20 years ago in The Climb and Into Thin Air after watching the IMAX film about the 1996 Everest disaster. I was somewhat reminded of the depressing Jack London short story To Build a Fire, a classic man vs. nature struggle that I read in a literature anthology just last year but that I remember having to read in some long-ago English class.

When and Why I Read The Left Hand of Darkness

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for November 2017. Previously, I read it in 2001.

Genre: fiction (science-fiction)
Date started / date finished:  24-Oct-17 to 26-Oct-17
Length: 304 pages
ISBN: 0044147805
Originally published in: 1969/1976
Amazon link: The Left Hand of Darkness

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Though the work could easily be seen as depressing, it didn’t frustrate me because the author doesn’t make readers stand by and watch as oblivious characters miscommunicate, misunderstand, lie, and betray their dreams time and time again. To be sure, the characters make all sorts of mistakes, but they also think about, talk about, and learn from them, which seems like a reasonable thing to expect characters (and people) to do.

If ultimately the characters fail, it is not because they kept doing the same thing again and again. The novel is also not a story of a series of lessons learned over the course of a wandering life, each new theory overthrowing the last, as in the novel Siddhartha, which I was momentarily worried Jude the Obscure would resemble. Jude moves from place to place, but the story doesn’t start over every time he does; he keeps running into the same people and returning to the same places.

I enjoyed reading the book because there’s no substitute for a good old 19th-century novel when it comes to the variety and precision of words used (epicene, suasion, quondam, bifurcation, adventitious, ashlaring, lambent).

The content of the novel was (and remains) controversial for its treatment of sensitive social themes (social class class, education, marriage, and religion). Jude says, “Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us”, but he might as well have said a hundred and fifty.

When and why I read Jude the Obscure

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for September 2017.

Genre: fiction (literature & classics)
Date started / date finished: 20-Aug-17 to 29-Aug-17
Length: 323 pages
Originally published in: 1895
Amazon link: Jude the Obscure
Gutenberg link: Jude the Obscure 

Related books

Last year I read the Mayor of Casterbridge. In 1999 I read Far from the Madding Crowd. I still haven’t read the other two famous ones.

Also related?

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The Leopard is the Gone with Wind of Sicily in that it documents the melancholy and ruinous effects on one character of drastic, unstoppable political and cultural changes in the surrounding area, changes that destroy the leisurely life of the landed aristocracy by both war and commerce.

I found the general sweep of the novel hard to appreciate because the author doesn’t describe or explain the historical context so much as suggest it. I did enjoy the style of writing, and greatly appreciated the wry humor, especially a sequence related to the priest Father Pirrone (see below).

I found these analyses useful:

Shmoop: The Leopard
Schmoop notes include plot summary, character descriptions, and explanations of themes, symbols, etc.

New York Times: Lampedusa’s The Leopard, fifty years on
The article notes that some have interpreted the novel as a defense of the aristocracy while others have seen it as a critique of the aristocracy.

See below for what stood out, as well as when and why I read the book.

Continue reading The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Roots by Alex Haley

Roots is (supposedly) a combination of memoir, genealogy, and historical fiction focusing on the enslaved African ancestor of black American author Alex Haley. While acknowledging the significance of this unprecedented, popular, and culturally important work, I must say I think it fails as a work of fiction.

I expected the book to be more like other historical epics I’ve read. Such works contain seeds of truth and the fruits of long hours of research, but are ultimately stories crafted to entertain, so they have a classic, recognizable rising-falling structure, or many such structures strung together or nested one inside the other.

While reading Roots, I kept trying to sniff out plot points, only slowly realizing that Roots is just a straightforward book chronicling people’s lives. People’s lives don’t have plots, unless you graft them on after the fact, and that’s not what Haley chose to do. You could say he “fictionalized” the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants, but the detail that he added was documentary rather than dramatic in style. From a structural standpoint, Haley’s massive work is little more than an 888-page list of who begat whom.

Sadly, if the accusations against Haley are true, the work also fails as non-fiction; the story may very well be less factual than he claimed.

See below for a summary, what stood out, and my thoughts on the authenticity of the novel.

Continue reading Roots by Alex Haley

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Who doesn’t love a good Cinderella story like Jane Eyre?

I despise spineless, aimless characters like Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caufield; Jane Eyre is exactly the opposite. She’s stubborn, she’s principled, and in the end she gets what she wants because she’s worked hard and made the right decisions. Unlike many heroines, she’s not particularly beautiful or smart; what she has is honesty and a strong sense of justice.

The setting and many descriptive details make the book moody and atmospherically (though not thematically) dark; it’s a gothic novel complete with mysterious rooms, storms, eerie sounds and the like.

Jane Eyre is discussed throughout The Weekend Novelist Re-writes the Novel, which points out that the book has an uncommonly large number of antagonists, which means it has an uncommonly large number of subplots. The book’s complexity contributes greatly to its lasting appeal.

When and Why I Read Jane Eyre

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for May 2017. I read it in 2011 but I don’t mind reading it again.

Genre: fiction (English literature)
Date started / date finished:  06-May-17 to 15-May-17
Length: 467 pages
ISBN: Project Gutenberg 1260
Originally published in: 1897
Gutenberg link: Jane Eyre

The Story of the Stone aka The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin and Gao E

Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club selected this mammoth Chinese classic for discussion at the end of January 2018. I bought the five-volume Penguin paperback edition and the 64-page illustrated version published by Real Reads. Below are the results of my research into the different available English translations.

See also: Buying books in Singapore

Continue reading The Story of the Stone aka The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin and Gao E