Recently Reviewed Books…

I Know This Much Is TrueI Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would liked to have given this novel five stars for keeping me engrossed and interested right through, but the excessive detail in sections and the desire to tie up all the loose ends into a happy ending sort of moved it into the Nicholas Sparks category for me – 4 stars would suffice.

Right from the opening chapter when the sweet-hearted but mentally troubled twin Thomas mutilates himself in a public library, this book grabs you with its cast of quirky characters: a mother with a harelip, a bullying stepfather, a self-aggrandizing grandfather, a sexually predatory translator, a surly Wequonnoc native, and Dominic the angry twin who is also the narrator, and a host of others. Everyone keeps secrets, some destructive when finally revealed. The incidents are equally unusual: a decapitation of Biblical proportions, an exploding TV set, Grandpa Domenico’s fantastical life story, the whodunnit search for the real father of the Birdsey Twins. Then there are the syrupy, Nicholas Sparks moments: a girlfriend suffering from AIDS, a mother dying of cancer, tragic falls off rooftops, drowning deaths, SIDS, suicides by waterfalls, tear-jerking moments of atonement between characters. It appears that Lamb took all the elements that are considered necessary for a bestseller and dumped them into this book, and it took him 900 pages to accomplish that.

The central conflict is the anger in Dominic Birdsey, born of being his schizophrenic brother’s keeper from the day they were born. Dominic hungers for his mother’s affection which she showers on the vulnerable Thomas instead. Dominic tries to stand up to his bullying stepfather, Ray, to protect Thomas, and is not always successful; the scars the twins endure from Ray spill into adulthood. Dominic tries to protect Thomas while the latter is incarcerated in mental institutions, again not always successfully. When he finally springs Thomas from the Hatch correctional centre, Thomas does not repay him as expected. Dominic’s anger also ruins his relationships; with his wife Dessa, with his girlfriend Joy, with Ray; only his friend and brother-in-law Leo, himself a colourful character who fancies himself a Hollywood actor but is only a humble car salesman, sticks by Dominic through the ups and downs. Lamb re-incarnates the same conflicts in each generation: mysoginy, betrayal, secrecy, sibling rivalry and mental illness. Dominic, the stronger and healthier twin, begins to come apart at the seams and submits to the help of a psychologist, Dr, Patel, in trying to unravel his convoluted family burden. I found the sessions with Dr. Patel were too long, almost as if I was sitting in real sessions with my psychologist.

Three story lines weave in and out of the narrative: the early life of the Birdseys from 1950 – 69 culminating in Thomas’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, 1990 and beyond beginning when Thomas self-mutilates in the library, and the autobiography of Grandpa Domenico Tempesta that Dominic is reading in dribs and drabs in the attempt to unravel who his real father is. I felt that given the book’s voluminous length, we could have ended when Domenico’s story concluded, leaving us with a hint of who the twins’ real father could have been, but Lamb went for certainty and for tying up the loose ends, and so we plodded along for another 60 pages. Given the setting, and the last half of the 20th century in America being covered, it appears that Lamb used quite a bit of autobiographical detail to plumb deep into this dysfunctional family story.

Having finished the book, I sat back and reflected on what its central messages were: that success comes after plunging through trial, that secrets destroy relationships, that love surfaces no matter how hard we try to submerge it, that the sins of the fathers and grandfathers are poignant signposts for us in life, no matter how dastardly they were, and that anger needs to be sublimated. The title seems to emphasize that Lamb wanted us to learn these lessons, because he knew them to be true.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for an engaging but long read. The writing is alternatively witty, sad, agonizing and rich in detail, and the voices are distinct.

View all my reviews

Iris Murdoch As I Knew HerIris Murdoch As I Knew Her by A.N. Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This pseudo biography should have been called “My Life at Oxford, where I met Iris Murdoch.” While we get a sort of a timeline on her life, the book focuses more on the following: the author’s challenges with his own life, his social connection with his subject and her husband that spanned over thirty years and hampered him from creating objective distance, the personalities he met at Oxford, and his attempts to understand Murdoch’s philosophy of life and its role in her fiction.

Irish Murdoch is an interesting personality: a bright soul, a philosopher, an unbridled lover of men and women, an acclaimed author, an eccentric, and an atheist who believed in Christ. A.N Wilson was Murdoch’s husband John Bailey’s student at Oxford. He affectionately calls them IM and JOB respectively. Wilson is conflicted about his decision to become an Anglican priest and is falling in and out of his faith when the Bailey’s take him under their wing, neither to encourage or discourage but to support and later promote his literary career. In the process, Wilson is exposed to the cloister-like literary and academic community at Oxford, where male professors ride their bikes to the college halls for dinner at night while their wives eat baked beans at home and look after the kids. There are tea parties and dinners organized by the Baileys which Wilson and his family are constantly invited to. Given this familiarity, Wilson finds it difficult to refuse Iris when she requests him to write her biography, and he is unable to probe behind the “affairs” she has been associated with due to his relationship with her. All he knows is that IM was a single child of Northern Irish heritage (she traded on the Irish connection a lot although she never lived in Ireland), was raised in a “trinity of love” by her parents and had no children of her own; she and JOB have an arms-length marriage, she absorbed in her work and a stream of lovers, he absorbed in his work and quite celibate, but both with an affection for each other and a bond that endures until death do them part. And it doesn’t end there, for roles reverse and JOB who had always played the support role to IM, goes onto become a successful author and IM becomes the permanent poster girl for Alzheimers victims.

Given that her sexual adventures were out of bounds (except on one occasion) Wilson turns his attention to IM’s philosophy and her literature. IM came of age when existentialism was a continental fad and when the English preferred the narrower Logical Positivism; although she denied being an existentialist, many of her novels were existentialist and she also wrote a book about Sarte. A fan of Kant and Plato, Moral Philosophy was her official beat which she taught at Oxford and London. JOB and his colleagues beat God out of her, although she claimed to be religious. She was a Marxist who fell out with Socialism after the war and became a right winger instead.

On the literary front, she meticulously outlined her novels before starting. She drew heavily from her exploits with lovers to write about people in love, usually upper middle class, educated people living unhappy lives with their spouses; extra-marital affairs were required to keep everyone grounded. She never portrayed lesbian love although that was her stronger leaning. She used family names for characters. There was usually priests and nuns grappling with their faith or the loss of it, a guru-like character who commanded his disciples (allusions to a couple of sado-masochistic affairs IM had with Elia Canetti and Professor Fraenkel) and the philosophy was sprinkled in as material that she had gathered, no different from an author who had been in the army throwing in war scenes, or a sailor adding in ships into their books. She refused to admit that she wrote philosophical novels. She refused editing and was accused of many inaccuracies. After awhile, her plots developed a sameness and she started to repeat herself. Wilson spend a lot of time in this book analysing some of the novels that made her famous and this is a strength of this biography, I feel.

The tragedy in Iris’ story is when she starts to lose it. The house starts to become a pigsty with the lack of maintenance. The cars (they had to be VWs only) smell of animals and stale tobacco. Very soon, IM is walking around, shitting everywhere and crying like a three year old. What baffles the biographer, a frequent visitor to the Baileys, is why this eminent couple, with two million pounds sterling to their name, could not have hired domestic help and a nurse to help Iris in her last days.

We are however spared the gory details that were made explicit in the movie Iris, based on the two memoirs that JOB wrote after his wife’s death, which Wilson considers resentful, misogynous and envious of IM. However, one wonders whether this was JOB hitting back for years spent in the secondary role of this power couple, for the ignominy of the “cuckold” title bestowed upon him by his free spirited and freely loving wife. We can only be humbled when we realize that this story is a great example of the frailty of life: the mighty shall be humbled in the face of death, and Iris Murdoch was not spared, just as none of us will be.

View all my reviews

Black StarBlack Star by Maureen Medved
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A dark tale uncovered by a frenetic journey through the mind of an unreliable narrator is a welcome change from the more sugar coated tomes of CanLit I have been reading recently.

Del Hanks is forty, frenetic and fearful. A kid from the sticks with an over-critical mother, she has no relationships, abhors human touch, and is maniacally focused on publishing her second book of philosophy and obtaining tenure at the university she has been teaching at for the last six years. Academia is her way out of an impoverished upbringing. She is envious of a younger faculty member, Helene LeBec, who has just arrived on the scene after publishing her first book to critical acclaim. LeBec has cultivated a social media persona and is quietly seducing the department head, Denke, who holds the reins to Del’s tenure. Gradually, faculty who don’t find favour with LeBec get fired or retire. Del finds herself coming under Lebec’s crosshairs.

Del is also drawn to a hobo, Cody, who hangs out under a stairwell in the university. Cody represents her unborn (and probably never to be born) child; he shares her loneliness, her fear of doom and defeat, and is the marginalized outsider with a dark secret just as Del is.

Driven by Del’s paranoia, the narrative circles and plumbs deeper into the past, where we discover that she has been the victim of sexual abuse. The world of academia is laid bare for its shifting flavours of the month, for its abusive faculty, for its petty politics—it is not a nice place, and yet we wonder why people pay so much and strive so much for its approbation and credentials. We also discover that Del has used her previous abuse to her advantage to advance in academia to the position she now holds. When the attraction between Del and Cody bubbles over into physical contact, the past is set to replay itself. But second chances do not mean better outcomes.

There is no hope in this book, and I wondered why we would read it. For the fresh and punchy language? For the subtle exposé of academic life? As a cautionary tale about the long term effects of sexual abuse? Perhaps. But there is no way through in this book and its dilemmas, and the narrative subsides into admitting that sexual and power abuse just leads one way: to the complete annihilation of the victim. I also found my pet peeve of CanLit prevalent here: no location is mentioned, although LeBec is mentioned as hailing from Idaho—is this clever positioning for sales in the USA?

What I took away from the device of using a frenetic and rambling narrator is that it provides an opportunity for selective revelation. Scenes can be revisited and new nuggets of information can be dropped without lapsing into contrivance. And for a book like this, where Del’s academic perseverance is at war with her inner demons of failure, that is a useful method of plunging us deeper and deeper into her scary world and creating an unforgettable character.

View all my reviews

21 Lessons for the 21st Century21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

That Yuval Noah Harari is a deep thinker and has pondered the complexities of life is unquestionable; that he is a cynic and is unwedded to any ideology, organization, religion or creed is also obvious, and yet I found his futuristic projections a bit far-fetched, and his single solution to the dilemmas of modern living—revealed in the last ten pages of the book—is unrealistic at the macro level.

He sets the stage well. Homo Sapiens (us) is a post-truth species whose power depends on creating and believing fictions; therefore all religious myths and stories are fake news. Corporations are fictions. There were three dominant stories at the dawn of the 20th century: Liberalism, Fascism and Communism. Then Fascism died in 1968, Communism in 1998,and Liberalism in 2008, leaving us, in the early 21st century, without a new story. In reaction, we are reaching for old stories that are equally redundant: dictatorship, caliphate, Tsarism, imperial monarchy, biblical law, Sharia law, and nations are dividing along tribal, racial and religious lines.

National governments were once effective at certain things, like education, healthcare, welfare and the taming and harnessing of large tributaries like the Nile that ran through many tribal lands. However, the three challenges facing us at a global level today are (a) the renewed threat of nuclear war (b) climate change and (c) technological disruption. These global challenges render national governments impotent for they can only be addressed effectively at a global level with the full cooperation of every country.

The greater part of the book focuses on the technological disruptions in store for us. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is developing rapidly to the point of learning how to manipulate our feelings. Algorithms are waiting to hack us, not our phones or laptops, and this will come about when the merger of info-tech and bio tech takes place, when technology is able to go inside our bodies and not operate at the surface level only. The rise of the robot will render us “useless.” Relearning and retraining for new jobs will exhaust us, as it’s pace will only increase. Even universal Basic Income will be useless unless it is applied across the globe simultaneously. Human-robot collaboration, something that could delay this tsunami, will ultimately swing in favour of the robot as machine learning enables the robot to learn faster and deliver more accurately than humans. On the chopping block for redundancy are doctors, engineers, equipment operators, sales people, clerks, although nurses will be harder to replace for the human empathy they bring to their jobs. And yet not much is said about why we would rush headlong along this path, knowing the devastation we will leave in its wake. Even Harari admits that “just because something can be done it does not mean it must be done.” But who is listening?

Given that he is a historian, Harari provides many examples of earlier civilizations that followed similar paths albeit with different technologies but similar outcomes. He debunks all religions, and in particular his own people, the Jews, for their “chosen ones” status. How can Judaism claim to be one of the three main religions (along with Christianity and Islam) with a mere 18 million adherents, Harari posits, when there are one billion Hindus and half a billion Buddhists standing ahead in the queue to be counted? If the Universe is 13.5 billion years old and the Jewish people only 3000 years old, they are a pretty recent happening in the scheme of things. The Christians are not spared either for giving birth to “Hocus Pocus” (derived from the Latin “Hoc est Corpus” or “This is the Body.”

He throws out a few lifelines to hang onto: science fiction will be the most important literature for the 21st century, and as the world of work will be ever changing learning the four Cs (creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication) would be more meaningful than amassing technical skills.

We arrive at the last chapter, aptly titled “Meditation,” exhausted and as cynical as the author. Everything we have come to believe in has been exposed to be a fiction by him. And then Harari delivers his messianic message: “If you want to know the meaning of life try to observe suffering.” I found this revelation a bit deflating, for “desire is the cause of suffering” is a fundamental precept in Buddhism that’s as old as… well…as old as Buddhism is. It appears that Harari is a devout adherent of Vipassana Meditation (the only form he knows), meditates for two hours a day, and goes on an annual meditational retreat to put some meaning into his life. He separates the mind from the brain, and admits that while science has made strides in understanding the brain, it has not been able to understand the mind, as only each individual understands their mind, therefore collecting scientific data on the mind will always be second hand. He holds jealously to his mind and will not surrender it to computer, as the mind is the last bastion of our sense of control of ourselves. While proposing that we all meditate as the answer to today’s problems, he also acknowledges that it would indeed be hard to get seven and half billion people on the planet to do that daily. So I had to conclude that perhaps this chapter should not have been written, for it came across as another fiction, one that only Harari and adherents of Vipassana believe in. Perhaps if we had surfaced all the questions and issues that were so well articulated in the previous chapters and left them at that, this would have been a more satisfying but frightening book.

View all my reviews

On Moral FictionOn Moral Fiction by John Gardner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Gardner’s controversial book takes no prisoners in the literary firmament. He has a barb or a laurel for everyone from Aristotle to Vonnegut; rather sassy for a relatively less acclaimed author known more for his academic experience than his literary genius. I was expecting the logical approach of the academic who takes one subject at a time, lays out its pros and cons and then sums up before moving onto the next topic. Instead, I found his approach to this book like a dog attacking a piece of fleshy meat: ravenously tossing it this way and that in no coherent order, unearthing morsels of value in the struggle and then leaving it a shapeless mass in the end.

I tried to come up with some distinct topics within his rambling treatment of this book, and thought I would lay them out in an order that made sense to me:

Art: Gardner claims that art builds, instructs, never stands pat, tells the truth, and destroys only evil. He quotes Tolstoy: “art expresses the highest feelings of man.” He claims why so much art in the world is bad today is because the artist is not well-educated, wise or careful, cannot find beauty in the world, and is thus expressing his disappointment, pain and anger. Trivial artists reflect society’s trivialities. The intermediate artist reflects his time but hints to something greater. The great artist breaks through his reality, makes a new one, a better one, and makes it stick. Gardner gives the great artist permission to drink and womanize in reaction to bad artists. Sanctimonious?

Morality: True art is moral. Morality is doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind and noble hearted, and doing it with an expectation that we won’t be sorry for what we have done. He then goes onto separate moral writers from those who have failed his test. Tolstoy, Hemingway, Faulkner, Henry James and Malamud make his cut while Mailer, Doctorow, Coover, de Maupassant, Barthelme, Updike, Vonnegut (trash culture elevated to art, per Gardner), Heller and Bellow don’t. He explains the debilitating guilt that the failed ones suffer from is caused by (a) the determinism of Freud, (b) the pessimism of Sartre, and (c) the logical and linguistic cautiousness of Wittgenstein. Love is the missing ingredient here; the moral writer needs to share affirmations of love with his reader through his characters.

Modernism vs. Post-Modernism: Being a writer and academic during the period when these two forms intersected and overlapped, Gardner sides with modernism over post-modernism. He claims that the post-modernists seem to favour language over plot, texture over structure. He levels the same charge against other art forms, i.e. drama and music of the period. I found this a bit hypocritical given Gardner’s rambling arguments delivered through complex sentences, digressions and sub clauses that go on forever. He too seems to be in the trap of the post-modernists, indulging in their Linguistic Sculpturing, as he calls it.

Fiction: This subject permeates the entire book and gets his most attention. He considers “serious fiction,” i.e. that which the writer starts off knowing what he wants to say and will not be changed in the writing of it, to be propaganda. He prefers the artist to work out of his imagination and have the work change, and change the writer upon completion, allowing him to alter course as he receives new epiphanies. Literary art is not mere language, but language plus the writer’s experience and imagination and the whole literary tradition he knows.

The Critic: “The words of a confident critic can lock up museums, keeps books from publications, and enhance the sale of things unworthy.” He claims that criticism is easier to read as it doesn’t engage as many faculties of the mind. And yet it is incumbent upon a critic to highlight the noble aspects of a work as well as to point out what has gone wrong in that work—(I hope I am doing that here!) Most critics would agree, at least privately, that an “important work of art” needs to be (a) aesthetically interesting, (b) technically accomplished, and (c) intellectually massive.

The Artist: He is kind and makes allowance for the creative artist, claiming that creativity has to do with an obsession, a wound. It is the pain of the wound that spurs the artist to do his work, and it is the universality of the woundedness in the human condition that makes the work significant. Displacement and the moving of homes, be it across countries or across the city, is common among artists and a pre-condition for success. Displacement leads to “a healthy doubleness of vision, to disorientation and emotional insecurity, the anxiety and ambivalence of the neurotic.” This argument than leads onto a discussion on “the artist and madness,” and Gardner quotes psychotherapist Jay Haley who says, “the artist is too complicated to choose a convenient madness.” The true separation between art and madness seems to be that the artist can wake up and psychotic cannot.

Overall, this is a difficult book to get through. Gardner seems comfortable in his world of moral art with nary a thought for his reader who has to drag himself along for the ride, navigating a maze of convoluted ideas and arguments, arriving exhausted and somewhat enlightened at the end.

View all my reviews

SweetlandSweetland by Michael Crummey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ever since reading The River Thieves by Michael Crummy, I’ve been looking for his next book to top that classic but haven’t found it yet. I tried Galore, came up short, and then tried this one Sweetland, and came up shorter.

This is a story about the settler community (is that the politically correct description?) living on a small island, aptly named after the principal character, Sweetland, located off the southern coast of the larger Newfoundland. Fishermen have eked out a living on this harsh coast for centuries, until the Federal Government declares a moratorium on fishing and pays to relocate the citizenry. Sweetland refuses to leave and ends up the last man standing on his isolated island.

The premise raises the question of whether it is economically viable for governments to fund one-resource towns that run out of that resource and depend of federal largesse to maintain their lifesyle and culture. Why not go to where the opportunities lie, like the many immigrants who brave the long journey to come to Canada’s shores, like the Sri Lankan boat people who flit in and out of this story?

In the process of Sweetland’s peregrinations across his island we are exposed to a host of eccentric characters: nephew Jesse is in a constant conversation with Sweetland’s brother Hollis who died 50 years earlier; Queenie, the smoking reader of romance novels; Duke who offers haircuts and shaves that no one partakes of except Sweetland; Loveless and his drunken wife Sara (now dead), another one reputed to be staying behind; Ruthie, Sweetland’s sister, who seems to be constantly visiting the Reverend; Claire, Ruthie’s daughter and Jesse’s mother, who also has her child by an unknown father; the Irish twins, the Priddles, born ten months apart and up to mischief on the island, not restricted to violating the rabbit carcasses in Sweetland’s traps and burning his stage down at the harbour. Many of these characters perish not out of old age but due to the harshness of their existence. Even the buffalo stock transplanted under sedation from Manitoba don’t survive for long. I wondered what happened to the Sri Lankans?

We go back and forth in time, to the time a young Sweetland did in fact leave the island and go to other parts of Canada to make his fortune, but his attempts ended in failure and in some cases serious bodily harm; hence his retreat to the island and never wanting to leave it’s known confines again despite the fish moratorium.

My biggest beef is that this book is so damned slow! Why do I have to be exposed to the constant daily activity of our hero Sweetland, which includes chatting with the other denizens on this island (before they take the money and run), sailing his boat to all sorts of nooks and crannies, trapping, fishing, and drinking? Is this what it means to get exposed to Newfoundland culture? Sweetland’s peregrinations get better when he is finally alone on the island and the harsh winter closes in on him. Even the seasoned Sweetland discovers that “no man is an island,” and falls into a downward spiral driven by unfortunate climate-driven events. Delusion is his constant companion, and he faces the prospect of death with no one to come to his rescue.

In Crummy’s conclusion I took away that Newfoundland is not the Wild West, it is harsher; it is no place for single white men or women; it is a place for community, and when community is destroyed the land returns to its former self: a hostile rock beset by some of the world’s worst weather and surrounded by masses of fish that tempt the greed of man.

View all my reviews

In the Beauty of the LiliesIn the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A door stopper of a book that I kept ploughing through as the author was none other than John Updike (branding helps!); and after ploughing through the first 50 pages, I’m glad I stayed.

The novel covers four generations and the middle 80 years of the 20th century in America. Patriarch Clarence Wilmot is a Presbyterian minister who loses his faith, follows his conscience, leaves the ministry and plunges into a hardscrabble life of odd jobs, impoverishing his family. Son Teddy seeks safety, will not step into a church after what happened to his father, and settles for a predictable life as a mail deliverer for the post office in a small town. Teddy’s daughter Essie breaks out of the middle class trap to become a Hollywood starlet, recreating herself many times over with husbands and facelifts to stay relevant and marketable—she is the quintessential survivor. And her son, Clark, embodies the disillusionment with the liberal-capitalist establishment, seeking his salvation in a doomsday cult. All Wilmots, irrespective of the career they pursue, are selfish, reflecting the individualistic drive of America during the ages they lived through: the two world wars, the decline of organized religion, the postwar boom of the middle class, the rise of the entertainment industry and its lure as an escape from the disappointments of real life, and public disillusionment with the American Establishment that has led to phenomena such as Trump, nationalism and walls.

Updike’s pre-occupation with building the perfect sentence is evident in this book, for the eloquence of the narrative is an attraction in itself, easing the reader’s burden when sifting through voluminous historical, social and consumer detail that is offered to paint vivid pictures of the times these characters traverse. I learned that teaching Evolutionary Theory in 1926 was a criminal offence, and that although Methodists were allowed to go dancing and to movies at that time, they were prohibited from card playing, smoking and drinking. Sleeping with one’s agent, producer and director was standard fare for a budding starlet in Hollywood in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s —Weinstein was the poor sod who got caught years later, but guys like Harry Cohn of Columbia sailed through with impunity.

Updike throws in words of wisdom along the way that makes one raise an eyebrow: “The abyss of non-attainment is Hell,” “It was for the New Testament to make known the doctrine of pain,” “The Jews could have stopped Pearl Harbour; they got us into the war because it was good for the banks,” “Business is scrupulous method and faithful repetition,” and “Money makes the man, pussy takes.” Essie’s brother, Danny, who joins the CIA, articulates US post-war international strategy: “Know what the other guy won’t stand and go to the edge, but not over it,” as opposed to the “invade and talk” strategy of the two previous world wars.

Despite the voluminous detail, the preference for ideas over emotion (the dying man, Orr, has the most lucid and credible theological debate with Clarence, when I would have imagined him doubled up in pain instead), and the pre-occupation with beautiful sentences, there are interesting story-lines associated with these four generations of characters, culminating in tragedy. While Clarence’s story is tinged with guilt, Teddy’s is by far the least interesting, but that reflects his life as the dull postman. But Teddy’s progeny Essie and Clark more than make up for it, ratcheting up the stakes of the novel to a nail biting finish.

This is a generational book with a twist on Updike’s Rabbit series, except that in this novel the generations are embodied in different characters of the Wilmot family tree rather than in the different life stages of the same man (i.e. Harry Angstrom alias Rabbit). It is a good reflection of life in middle class America during the 20th century, although certain other pivotal events like the Vietnam War, the drug-fuelled psychedelic revolution, and the Reaganomics period are left out. And other than for Clarence’s older son Jared losing an arm in WWII, the principal characters are spared involvement in any wars. I was therefore left with a question: what the heck had the title, taken from a line in “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” have to do with the novel, other than hint to Clark’s last stand in Colorado?

View all my reviews

The Fifth ChildThe Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David and Harriet are introverts in the “greedy and selfish” 1960’s; he’s an architect and she’s a sales assistant, he’s 30 and higher class, she’s 24 and a virgin and considered heading for old-maid status. They meet at an office party and instantly realize that they are meant for each other. They are ambitious and plan a lifestyle way beyond their means, secure in the fact that David’s parental money will bail them out.

The chosen lifestyle is a massive house in the suburbs with four floors of rooms (the mortgage of which is paid for by David’s rich boat-builder father, James), a desire to raise at least 6 children, and have lots of family get-togethers. The plan works up to Child #4, Paul. The four children are lovely and well behaved. Harriet’s widowed mother, Dorothy, spends a lot of time helping. David is always short of money and works two jobs with a two hour commute to the city each way (and James helps out again). The extended family drops in for Easter, Summer and Christmas vacations and the big house is always full (and James helps yet again with the grocery bills). And Harriet keeps churning babies out—all natural deliveries at home. This idyllic, indulgent and engaged life comes to a halt when the fifth child, Ben, is born.

Harriet’s pregnancy for Ben is traumatic and painful; the baby fights inside her all the time, anxious to get out. She births him prematurely in a hospital. When he is born, Ben looks like a troll, a voracious eater who sucks her breasts dry in minutes; he yells and screams at night unless sedated, and he terrifies the other children who start locking their bedroom doors at night. The family gatherings dry up. Paul, the youngest to Ben, becomes a target and develops an anxiety syndrome that will last his entire life. Ben is diagnosed as hyperactive, but otherwise normal by doctors, but he is wrecking his family with his tantrums, lack of discipline, terrifying looks, and fierce appetite. He is a late talker, but when he does talk, he begins in full sentences. Dogs and cats start dying in the neighbourhood.

The extended family convenes and, much against Harriet’s will, but with David’s full concurrence, decides to send Ben to a home for the incurables, also known as the Institution. Unable to bear this loss, Harriett’s maternal drive overcomes her and she goes after Ben a few weeks later and rescues him from what would have been certain death. What goes on in these institutions to children who are unceremoniously dumped there is frighteningly revealed. Later, Ben goes to school, but he is one of those uneducatables, the misfits of society who float up through the school system until they graduate illiterate and unchanged. The other children in the household seek the escape of boarding school and of spending their holidays with the grandparents rather than come home to Ben. In desperation, Harriet pays for Ben to keep the company of older, biker boys for whom Ben develops a passion and a loyalty. As he get older, Ben develops his own gang of older boys who drop into the now empty big house for food, to watch TV and hang out. They always have money, as news of muggings, break-ins and rapes dog the neighbourhood. It will only be a matter of time before they get caught and enter other institutions of incarceration. Harriet realizes that rescuing Ben from the Institution cost David and her the idyllic life that had been theirs, the dream that they had been living until he was born. David has never forgiven her for that and their marriage has drifted into silences and absences.

Children never quite leave their parents, and Harriet and David’s dream is that one day Ben and his gang will tire of the big house and move away, leaving them free to sell up and move away too, into smaller digs. In the meantime she waits, and waits, and wonders whether Ben is part of a Neanderthal strain that lived at a previous time, a stray gene that incarnated in her womb. She sees how lonely Ben is, as if he is on the watch for someone like him, for another stray gene that took root in some other woman…

Told mostly from Harriet’s point of view, this is a frighteningly true depiction of what can happen to a family with the birth of a child. All plans are up for grabs and can go awry depending on who emerges through the birth canal. I think Lessing was trying to say that we should be prepared to build lives around what we receive, instead of planning utopian dreams around what is desirable.

View all my reviews

A Room of One's OwnA Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Virginia Woolf developed this long essay out of two papers she delivered to separate arts organizations in 1928, and given the rambling, stream-of-consciousness nature of this piece I wondered how scattered her delivery must have been.

The central argument is that in order to write, a woman needs a room of her own and 500 pounds sterling a year, luxuries that Woolf enjoyed given the inheritance from an aunt who conveniently fell of her horse in Bombay, and the fact that she had no children and had a husband, Leonard, who owned a literary press. Money allows you the power to contemplate, she postulates, while the room gives you the power to think for yourself. Intellectual freedom depends on material things and the poor artist hasn’t a dog’s chance. She then takes on the persona of a fictitious writer, Mary Besson, who goes to a sumptuous lunch, described in elaborate detail, and settles in the reading room of the British Library to cover the works of women writers dating from the 16th to the early 20th centuries.

The state of the female writer of yore was terribly restricted: often burdened by a husband and many children, scorned for being intellectual, deliberately deprived of education, and having no money of her own or the ability to earn it (all family money belonged to the husband). A woman who chose the literary life was often shunned and banished to live on the margins of society, labelled a sorceress. “Women live like bats or owls, labour like beasts and die like worms.” Woolf cites Aphra Behn—a 17th century writer, poet and playwright—as the first woman who dared to make a living out of her writing. Woolf even creates an imaginary sister for Shakespeare and contrasts her life to the Bard’s; the latter has the freedom to leave his family in Stratford and immerse himself in the theatrical world of London, while the sister ends up the pregnant and discarded mistress of a theatre manager. It is no wonder that so many male writers wrote about women but so few women writers wrote about men. Woolf believes that Elizabethan literature would have looked a lot different if the women’s movement had begin in the 16th century instead of the 19th.

As she ploughs through the centuries at the British Library, Mary Besson (Woolf) arrives at the famous female novelists of the 18th and19th centuries: Jane Austen, the Brontes, Mary Shelley and George Elliot. These women had narrow social lives, often not venturing out of their villages and never travelling abroad. Within the house, being of middle class, they usually had to write in the single living room surrounded by domestic sounds and disturbances. Austen often hid her early work from the eyes of others. Many 18th century female writers wrote for themselves and burned their work at the end of their lives, never published. And given the relative newness of the novel at the time, they picked this emergent form to practice their art. These female writers had no formal training but were skilled in the art of observing character and in the analysis of emotion. They went deep instead of broad and would never attempt a wide canvas such as War and Peace. Woolf praises Austen for creating her own sentences and excoriates George Elliot and Bronte for trying to write like men. “It would be a pity, with all their education, if women continued to write like men. The differences should be brought out, not the imitation.”

Woolf then invents another female writer of her own time, Mary Carmichael, and suggests that in her broken sentences and sequences Carmichael is creating a new form, just as Woolf did with her stream-of-consciousness method; Woolf wants Carmichael to go further and explore the relationships between women in her novel, for up to that time women were often defined in relation to men.

In concluding her essay, Woolf urges that writers should be gender neutral in their writing, they should be “woman-manly” and “man-womanly.” I wonder whether that was why she wrote Orlando? She encourages women to write more and write from a broad canvas. She sees a time in the future when as many women as men would be writing (well, if she were living now she would find more women than men writing). And she is vehement about preserving one’s voice. “Sacrificing a hair of one’s vision in deference to a headmaster with a silver pot or a professor with a measuring rod is the most abject treachery and sacrifice of wealth.”

View all my reviews

Shane actively reads and reviews books by other authors. Below are his most recent reviews.