Monday, October 24, 2011

Best reading for breastfeeding

Samuel Richardson, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (originally published c. 1741, available for free download at

I once read (modern-day) historical fiction described as that which painstakingly recreates the details of the historical era in question, then inserts a markedly anachronistic protagonist. This might explain the continued currency of a novel like Pride and Prejudice, whose heroine is strikingly modern in her independence of spirit. By contrast, Pamela could never be mistaken for historical fiction. It is a tale firmly rooted in the value system of the eighteenth century.

I tackled this book because I have a newborn and spend a lot of time nursing. It is possible but not ideal to flip pages while breastfeeding; so I've taken to reading free books on my iPhone, which thankfully glows in the dark during those late-night sessions. Pamela was free, and I've long wanted to read it due to its (perhaps dubious) reputation as the first proper romance novel. Really, it is a rigorous exposition of morality and manners couched in high melodrama. It is tedious, and beats every lesson stone dead.

But from an historical point of view it enlightens. Pamela, the teenage waiting-maid who becomes the object of her lord's attentions, is no less than a paragon of virtue. She repels "Mr. B"'s advances time and time again, even after he holds her prisoner and all hope for her chastity seems lost. However, her pristine character eventually wins him over, and her virtue is thus "rewarded" with marriage and entry into high society. But until then, Mr. B's uncontrollable lust makes a fool of him; he is forever lurking in closets and disguising himself in women's clothes in his attempts to surprise her in bed. These are the most entertaining bits of the book.

Richardson repeatedly reminds the reader of all of Pamela's virtues as a servant, a virgin, and eventually, a wife. But what I found most intriguing was Pamela's almost Christ-like demonstration of the one virtue that is never made explicit: grace. The unhappy virgin shows astonishing grace towards her master by ultimately accepting him, in spite of the fact that he has threatened her, kidnapped her, held her captive, and treated her with physical and verbal callousness. As soon as his intentions become honourable - when he wants to make her his wife instead of his harlot - she is all gratitude, accepting his past, present, and (it is once hinted) future indiscretions. This indiscretions are not trivial, as we learn he has a six-year-old "niece" who depends on him. The novel, indeed, is a testament to the eighteenth-century conviction that sexual innocence was at a premium for women only. I find it nonetheless amazing that this morality lecture has so little to say about Pamela's grace towards a man who is so clearly her moral inferior. She is pure, sweet-tempered, pious, clever, and courageous, while he is mercurial, arrogant, spoiled, and a libertine. Yet Mr. B's nobility alone is so compelling that it renders Pamela's act of grace nothing more than a matter of course. The novel's silence on this issue, more than anything else, makes it a fascinating window on history.

YA for OAs

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay (Scholastic, 2008, 2009, 2010)

Paradoxically, while I enjoyed the Hunger Games and its sequels, they have ended my flirtation with YA (Young Adult) fiction. Over the past several years, I, like many other OAs (Old Adults), grew interested in YA after falling hard for the Harry Potter series. After Potter, I sampled only the most celebrated, or notorious, offerings of the genre, including an age-inappropriate foray into the Twilight saga, and a much more provocative and fascinating turn with His Dark Materials. I latched onto The Hunger Games, the next flavour of the month, after the trilogy consistently appeared on lists devoted to the best youth fiction for adults.

For the story's every strength, I found a corresponding weakness that kept me from truly embracing it. To wit: Collins happily refuses to glamourize war and its effects, resulting in a far more tentative "happy" ending than one would expect from the genre. This is good. Unfortunately, she does glamourize the exploitation of the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, whose participation in the Hunger Games involves more fabulous makeovers and PR silliness than gritty hand-to-hand combat. And in theory, I appreciated the trilogy's central love triangle, which felt organic and showcased nice character arcs. Ultimately, though, I didn't care so much whether Katniss ended up with Gale or Peeta. Perhaps the film adaptations will perk up the romantic tension.

In short, this was capable YA fiction, and I burned through the three novels quick enough. But Rowling and Pullman have spoiled me with their transcendant storytelling, and ruined me for all the rest. It's back to the grown-up stuff for a while.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Back to posting

Kerry-Lynn's pick: Paula McLain, The Paris Wife (Bond Street Books, 2011).

Discussed: 9 June 2011 @ Ensemble (850 Thurlow Street, Vancouver)

I have decided to holler into the wilderness again, after a busy year during which I had no time or desire to spend my free time on a computer. But I miss cataloguing my reads - a year of fabulous reading has slipped from my brain. So without further ado, I'm back on track with The Paris Wife, though not necessarily with a bang. I applaud Kerry-Lynn for picking out new, untested fiction for book club while I gravitate toward literature with a pedigree, and in this case the literary premise was promising: a fictionalized account of the marriage of Ernest Hemingway to his first wife, Hadley, set largely in the Paris of the early 1920s. Their love was pure and intense, but sorely tested in a social world in which conventional marriage was an exoticism.

So why was the book so unfulfilling? Part of the problem was that I found the second half of the novel, in which Ernest and Hadley's marriage was failing, much more convincing than the happy first half. This is partly because it is made clear from the beginning that everything will end in tears. It is partly because Hadley's narrative voice seems fuzzy - the book is in the past tense, but is she recounting her story as an old lady? Or is narrator Hadley speaking from the perspective of now, from beyond the grave? I don't know, but McLain paints the historical backdrop in broad strokes, and the effect is impersonal and textbooky. (Would a contemporary American in Paris, especially a poor and unfashionable one, really cite Coco Chanel as the defining face of the age?)

All this is a fancy way of saying that I found the novel, or at least the first half, a little boring. I was, however, haunted by the account of open/hidden infidelity that cut Hadley so viciously. Her "good girl" persona becomes marginally more interesting when it survives the casual cruelties of Ernest and his lover Pauline. Even here, however, the story was all-too-familiar, and I found myself annoyed at having to rehash this perennial tale of woe.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Not cool

Jennifer's Pick:
Anaïs Nin, Henry and June:
From the Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin (Penguin, 2001).

January 10 @ Au Petit Chavignol (Hastings St., Vancouver)

Wow. With the possible exception of Leanne (who couldn't attend the "meeting"), we were unanimous in our infuriation with this book, which comprises one famous year of Anaïs Nin's voluble, long-running "diary." (This is the year when she met Henry and June Miller, had affairs with both, and apparently discovered herself sexually.) So I'm going to have a good time here and really tear this apart.

Allow me, right away, to quash any knee-jerk explanations for our antipathy: (1) No, we are not frigid old bats scandalized by the sexy parts. I personally enjoyed the occasional depictions of her shenanigans with the Millers. Nin wrote her share of erotica in her lifetime, and I can see why. She's good at it. They were the best parts. (2) We did not sanctimoniously object to Nin's moral choices, e.g., her taking of a lover (or two or three) and concealing them all from each other. Fiction and non-fiction, obviously, have provided far worse for the interested reader. And outright amorality (which Nin does not exhibit here) often provides the raw material for a fascinating read. (3) We are not stodgy conformists suspicious of those who throw off the shackles of societal expectation to experiment with alternative life choices.

So where does that leave us? It is pretty clear that, on a nonliterary level, we didn't like Nin. Her self-absorption is incredible, and she had an uncanny ability to recognize her frequent unkindnesses and deceptions while preserving an untarnished self-image as a pure and generous soul. Her refusal to leave her seemingly decent husband is, in her diary, the testament of her selfless goodness. Hmm... you want to run around on your husband? Fine. But don't make out like you're doing him a favour. This issue here is not with her infidelity but with her self-delusion.

This irritation may seem unfair. A friend of mine once said that he didn't like the idea of book clubs because people in book clubs were preoccupied with their personal connection to the story, the way it resonated with them, instead of evaluating it on its own merits. But in this case, I would argue that Nin's self-characterization is so conspicuous and aggravating precisely because there is so little else of enduring significance to actually glean from her musings, however eloquent.

Let's see: Do we get insights into the nature of human relationships? Not really. Nin's incessant praise of (Henry) Miller serves primarily to reflect her own stature (i.e., this brilliant, creative genius is awed by my talent, beauty, incisiveness, and ferocity). I am not exaggerating; Nin spends many a paragraph transcribing his praise for her. Her relationship with her husband, on the other hand, becomes predictably claustrophobic, and, as I've already suggested, empathy is not exactly Nin's strong point.

Does the diary deliver unaffected authenticity? A resounding no, from the whole book club. Although it is copious and was clearly a labour of love, Nin's notebooks were not vessels of private recollection; she frequently mentions how they were read by others, especially Miller, who was no doubt gratified by what he read. This is not to say that Nin falsified her accounts, but that she was catering, at this time, to a specific audience of one. And it shows. It is all too obvious from her entries, for example, that she was not about to let her husband give them a perusal.

Finally, do we get a refreshing glimpse of women's sexual emancipation at a time when, so the story goes, very few women investigated, let alone wrote about, their own sexuality? Well, okay. Maybe. But these disclosures were just glints on a deep dark pool of self-congratulation and Freudian mumbo-jumbo. The masturbating woman on the cover of the Penguin edition (above) is appropos; but please take note that Nin's brand of self-pleasuring is only incidentally sexual.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Victorian gothic

Nicole's pick: Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (New York: Walker and Co., 2008).

Discussed: 29 November 2009 @ Stella's (Commercial Drive)

Alrighty, after an extended absence I am going to powerblog through the next two entries - book club choices from the last two months - before we have yet another meeting and I fall hopelessly behind. In short, everyone enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, a true crime account of a ghastly murder that took place in a country house smack-dab in the middle of the Victorian era.

Whicher was one of England's most celebrated detectives, and he was the real-life model for many of the famous sleuths of fiction, and, arguably, for the whole detective genre. He amazed followers with his ability to nab the culprit through deductive reasoning based on the tiniest of clues. Summerscale does a capable job of describing the Victorian detective craze, but her greatest accomplishment (to my mind) is how she reveals the other side of the coin - popular discomfort with the way inspectors like Whicher quite literally rummaged through a family's dirty laundry in search of evidence. To many observers, his methods reflected a disregard for the sanctity of the family and the Victorian home, at a time when public respectability was so important. Ultimately, it was this controversy that defeated Whicher.

Basically, the whole club thought this was a fun popular history; I especially enjoyed Summerscale's illuminating etymological discussions: the Victorian evolution of words like "detective" and "clue" (or "clew"). Honestly, we didn't spend as much time deep in discussion about it as we have with other books, perhaps because of our general consensus. What fascinated me was the fact that in the end, it was not deductive reasoning that elicited a confession from the murderer, but religious conversion. What was it about this experience that, after so many years, brought about the mystery's resolution? But that, I suppose, is another history.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What your great-gran was reading

E.M. Hull, The Sheik (1919: London; Virago, 1996).

I'd been meaning to read this for a while. I first heard of it in Ross McKibbin's Classes and Cultures, an historical survey of interwar Britain. The plot: a haughty English heroine is kidnapped in the Algerian desert by a lusty sheik who rapes her repeatedly. She eventually falls for him, but, as McKibbin notes, "Her choice is not quite so shocking as it appears, since the sheik (typically) turns out to be half-English and of noble birth." It was a runaway best-seller, going through several editions in its first year and selling over 1.2 million copies. The thought of 1.2 million English ladies panting over this kind of softcore rape fantasy reduced my friend Bethany and I to tears of laughter. Needless to say, it was only a matter of time before I tracked it down for myself.

The Sheik did not disappoint, either as straight-up romance or historical artifact. The reclusive Edith Maude Hull, who wrote it as a hobby, was marvelously artless. She transmitted her sexual fancy, and her preconceptions about race and gender, with equal candour. The result is more innocent than repellent. In fact, the rich, beautiful, pampered, racist Diana Mayo is so smug in her (false) sense of superiority and self-sufficiency, you really start wanting her to be conquered by someone. Eventually, she is. And how! By the end of the book just a glance from the Sheik elicits quivers and shakes. The story's climax offers ludicrous proof of Lady Diana's utter submission. Not a feminist read, although perhaps a post-feminist one, given the unquestionable popularity of Hull's vision with interwar female readers. (And yes, I am again reminded of the Twilight saga, another piece of unliterary, unfiltered fantasy storytelling. Apparently Stephenie Meyer has responded to criticisms of her books with, "I never said that I was a writer.")

The Sheik is not a fount of political correctness. It is astonishingly racist in its depiction of Arabs, constituting a complete catalogue of stereotypical slurs; the men are dirty and violent, but easily cowed, while the women are slavish and sniveling. Diana is at one point captured by a rival sheik, described as "the Arab of my imaginings":

[...] this gross, unwieldy figure lying among the tawdry cushions, his swollen, ferocious face seamed and lined with every mark of vice, his full, sensual lips parted and showing broken, blackened teeth, his deep-set, bloodshot eyes with a look in them that it took all her resolution to sustain, a look of such bestial evilness that the horror of it bathed her in perspiration.

Ahmed Ben Hassan, the Sheik, of course, does not fit this description. "Only" his sexual cruelty towards Diana fits the racial stereotype, while the heroine is bewildered by the Sheik's meticulous grooming and cleanliness - hygiene being apparently the preserve of Europeans.

The same passion with which Hull rails against the natives, however, she injects into the romantic bits as well, and the results are perfect: "The touch of his scorching lips, the clasp of his arms, the close union with his warm, strong body robbed her of all strength, of all power of resistance." Rrrow!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Speak, blog

Amanda's Pick: Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1966). 1st revised edition. Originally published as Conclusive Evidence (1947).

25 October @ The Banana Leaf (Broadway and Carnarvon, Vancouver)

Speak, Memory is not a suitable candidate for a blog post, so I will confine myself here to a few passing remarks instead of vainly attempting to capture some kind of essence. Nabokov, I believe, would not have approved of blogging, but there it is. Lowly literary worms like myself will never produce memoirs like Speak, Memory, so we have to content ourselves with shallow, ephemeral commentary on the masterpieces.

Like Lolita, this book - an autobiography of roughly his first forty years, his European period - is mechanically faultless, with prose as crisp and fresh as I can imagine. An astonishing feat considering that English was not his first language. His command of vocabulary is, in my reading experience, unsurpassed; words as obscure as pleach, ecchymotic, quiddity, and ha-ha (look them up) sprinkle every page, but never showboat. Of course, the reader gathers early on that Nabokov was some kind of prodigy, and I was amused, even charmed, by his casual arrogance in that regard. Although he mysteriously lost his mathematical genius in a childhood fever, he seems to have taken his other gifts for granted, scoffing at the fact that his cousin discovered War and Peace at age seventeen, when he had read it at eleven. Later, he pricelessly refers to Balzac and Zola as "detestable mediocrities from my point of view."

Nabokov rarely makes explicit his own self-image, stating instead that the true aim of autobiography should be "the following of... thematic designs through one's life," but it is a pleasure when he reveals his little idiosyncrasies. Sleep, for example, he describes as "the most moronic fraternity in the world," "a mental torture I find debasing," and a "nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius." This is an eccentricity, if there ever was one. Leanne noted that Nabokov discusses his mental snaps and faraway visual memories with a resonance that few have the talent to convey. His extended discussion of the colours he has long attributed to particular letters - the "confessions of a synesthete" - was not "tedious and pretentious" as he predicted, but refreshing.

The other, more obvious fascination of Speak, Memory is Nabokov's fabulous historical background. His family was not merely wealthy; it straddled the peak of the social pyramid. Nabokov's father was a liberal and a democrat, but he made no attempt to live as anything other than what he was - an aristocrat. The Nabokovs' country estate, Vyra, maintained fifty servants, and the star on their Christmas tree touched the ceiling of their "prettiest drawing room"; there were, apparently, multiple drawing rooms from which to choose. Nabokov exhibits a fierce belief in his father's virtue and progressiveness, but he makes no attempt to efface his own privileged outlook, revealed most clearly in his juvenile lust for a local peasant girl:

"Strange to say, she was the first to have the poignant power... of burning a hole in my sleep and jolting me into clammy consciousness, whenever I dreamed of her, although in real life I was even more afraid of being revolted by her dirt-caked feet and stale-smelling clothes than of insulting her by the triteness of quasi-seigneurial advances."

Nabokov was endowed with enough riches to care little for the loss of them when the Bolshevik Revolution broke.

Everyone at our meeting admired these memoirs and were, in many ways, overwhelmed by them. One widely-voiced complaint was that reading Speak, Memory felt like "homework." Nicole confessed that her "escape" between reading snippets of the book was watching snippets of Grey's Anatomy. For Leanne, it was the Sunday paper. Only two of us read it in its entirety, and the others were not sure they'd ultimately finish it. But I would enthusiastically recommend Speak, Memory to anyone who wants to see one of the few true virtuosos at work.