Middlemarch & other updates

I’m still trying to put into words everything that I want to talk about with respect to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. All sorts of things are being brought up to the surface in the process, and I don’t yet know if/when I’ll be done writing it!

In the meanwhile, I’m in the middle of Middlemarch, as I shall continue to be, till about mid-July! This book is the perfect mixture of plot, and ideas, and characters whom I love and characters whom I want to smack some sense into, and a place that feels as if it’s straight out of real life. Basically, I WAS RIGHT TO BUY THE BEAUTIFUL PENGUIN EDITION OF THIS BOOK WHEN I CAME ACROSS IT! Thank you Valancy & Laila, for reading along with me!! I hope you guys are enjoying Book 3! Oh, and anyone who’s on the fence about joining us—please do! There’s still time for you to catch up—as  you can see, we are a very leisurely sort of a readalong!

I’m also half-way through The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and I think part of the reason that I am enjoying it so much is because the story that this book is telling ties in very well with some of the things that I’ve been thinking about in relation to The Argonauts. I love what Becky Chambers is doing here.

Additionally, I started Ismat Chughtai’s The Crooked Line. She’s an Indian-Pakistani author who’s supposed to be the doyenne of Urdu literature. To be honest, I’m not sure if/when I’m going to finish this because I began this one to get a feel for her, and to tide me over, till her collection of short stories arrives at my doorstep.

These are all the books currently in the house. (Hubs had a fit of spring cleaning.)

I’ve read only a few pages so far but Reader, SHE IS CRAZY. No, SERIOUSLY. There’s this INSANE current of energy underlaying her words that is like nothing I’ve read before. The best approximation I can think of is Diana Wynne Jones. Her stories crackle with a similar energy, but Chughtai’s do so even more! She’s just weird. I can’t help feeling that she was cackling the entire time she was writing! Here, see for yourself:

No sooner did she appear all dressed up and clean than everything around her seemed poised to attack her spotless clothes. The red mud in the fields and the whispering sand on the edge of the pond tantalized her, the moist, fragrant grass in the stables pursued her with open arms, the dirty, foul-smelling chicken coop drew her to itself as if it were a bride’s flowery bed.

And another one:

The two girls went behind the cow’s stall and strolled with their arms wrapped around each other. Sometimes they tossed about in the sand like rolling pins. Then they pitched fistfuls of sand as if it was water they were scooping up in their hands, until finally the two of them began to resemble grotesque mud statues. Sand penetrated their very beings, but still they had not had enough of sand and mud. Making spoons out of dried leaves, they scooped up sand and swallowed mouthfuls; they devoured it as if it were delicious caudle. Like pregnant women, they relished the aroma of mud.

What do you think? (That second quote makes me think of magical realism for some reason.)

Sarah Morgan’s Some Kind Of Wonderful is what I picked up for my romance fix. I’d lapped up her O’Neill brothers’ trilogy and Some Kind Of Wonderful has a trope that’s one of my favorites—second chances! I don’t dig much of the contemporary romance out there but Morgan is always an exception. I REALLY like how Zach, the hero, has some heft to him. Yes, he walks out on his marriage of ten days, but Morgan is in the process of showing why he did that (I’m still reading it!). I can’t wait to see how the two leads work their way through to their happy-ever-after. (And speaking of romance, I have Dixie Browning’s Cinderella’s Midnight Kiss on hold—I HAD to read it after Valancy’s epic post).

Then there’s Alok Jha’s The Water Book that I simply MUST get around to given that that too is an ILL that I’ve already got extended once. Plus, I don’t know if it’s really come from there but on the front page it says it’s FROM THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF NEW ZEALAND! ZOMG!!! NEW ZEALAND! A BOOK CAME TO ME ALL THE WAY FROM NEW ZEALAND?!! :O

If you think I’m being too ambitious WITH SO MANY IN-BETWEENIES, YOU ARE RIGHT. Because, this is just the TIP of the ice-berg!! There are eleventy-one other books checked out as well with very little hope of any of them being completed before they need to be returned! My in-laws’ visit begins tomorrow and continues for the next few weeks and I have no idea how much reading and reviewing I’ll be able to manage while they’re around. So expect a slowdown here on the blog. The only thing I’m certain to follow-through on is Middlemarch. (I do feel a sense of obligation on that one given that I was the one to put the whole readalong into motion!) I’m also hoping to make inroads into my omnibus edition of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days for Deepika’s readalong in the first two weeks of May but we’ll see how it goes!

So that’s me! What’s up with you guys? What’s on your reader radar for the next couple of weeks?

The Summer Before The War, Helen Simonson: DNF

The stone terrace already looked older than the house, softened to a pleasant mossy gray under the relentless dripping of English rain, its stone balusters pressed by fat shrubs and draped in twisting vines of honeysuckle, wisteria, and the teacup-sized pale green flowers of a clematis. White roses climbed up the house from beds filled with brilliant blue agapanthus. Beatrice stooped to cup in her hands a waxy blue flower head as large as a hat and to wonder if plants ever sensed how far they were from home . . . Beyond the terrace, a croquet lawn fell away on its farthest edge to a lower terrace of rolling grass . . . Below, the stacked red roofs of Rye poked up from its flat skirt of marshes, and beyond, the sea formed a broad, glittering swath under the wide blue bowl of the sky.

I definitely did NOT think that I would be DNF-ing The Summer Before The War. So certain was I of this that I kept reading, and persisting, and pushing through till I ended up finishing 267 of the 473 pages. It was at this point that I realized I had way too many other books that I actually looked forward to picking up!

I’m not completely sure why I’m DNF-ing this. I remember enjoying Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and have been thinking about re-reading it at some point. This one has a small town as its setting, and has the kind of microscopic focus that I generally enjoy—lives of ordinary people with all its complexities, and ordinariness. This is also a kind-of-coming-into-her-own story of a 23-year-old female who chooses independence over marriage in Edwardian England.

That Beatrice, the 23-year-old, is going to fall in love with Hugh, and he with her, is obvious from the start. That Daniel, Hugh’s cousin is gay, and will most likely meet some sort of heartache is also obvious. I don’t have a problem with predictability. If anything, I like knowing the lay of the land. But in this case, the predictability made the story boring.

The Summer Before The WarAgatha Kent is Hugh’s and Daniel’s aunt, and is along with Beatrice, Hugh, and Daniel, one of the epicenters of the story. She’s the one who gets Beatrice appointed as the Latin teacher in the local school amidst much uproar. She’s a progressive but is not given to crossing boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. She’s also a veteran at navigating the waters of social niceties and its inherent politics and power struggles.

Hugh is a nice young man, and Daniel is a temperamental poet. Agatha’s characterization is compelling but she’s flat as a character. She has the potential to be interesting as when she is “forced to consider whether her sympathetic interest in her staff’s families might have more to do with appearing generous than any willingness to be inconvenienced by their actual problems,” but such bursts of realizations are few and far between.

Beatrice’s character shows promise, and one can see the way she is evolving through the course of the story. Her uneasy alliance with Mr. Poot who’s a sort-of-adversary, and in fact the revelation of Mr. Poot as not just a character inserted for the purposes of foiling Beatrice’s appointment as a teacher, but as one who while sort of flailing around, is also a person in his own right, caught my attention. However, Beatrice gets only a part of the limelight. (And Mr. Poot is there in just a scene or two).

Writing this, it occurs to me that one of the reasons I could not find myself sufficiently engrossed in The Summer Before The War is because of what-felt-to-me the lack of any development in three of the four major characters. They remain at Page 267 pretty much as they were at page 1.

I do want to point that there’s some good stuff in there too. Simonson’s especially skilled at capturing both the rhythms of a small town life, and at evoking the Englishness of her setting. There’s also bits and pieces about war and its paraphernalia that provide some food for thought (and that may perhaps increase in the second half of the book, now that the stage’s been set). Nonetheless, I’m happy with my decision to DNF this, and instead proceed with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Middlemarch and maybe also All The Birds In The Sky!

Middlemarch Readalong: Onwards! (Book 3)

“Waiting for Death” is the title of Book 3. Whose death? Literal death? Or a metaphorical one? What will happen to Mary Garth? And the feckless Fred Vincy? Will Celia make an appearance again? Will Lydgate repent his choice for the chaplaincy? How will Rosamond reel Lydgate in? How will Dorothea engage herself upon her return from her honeymoon? Will Casaubon become even colder and drier? So much to find out! We have till April 30th, ladies!

Here’s Book Two reviews:

Valancy
Juhi
Laila

Middlemarch Book 2: “Old and Young”

Valancy’s review of Book 2: Middlemarch: Book II, Old and Young (Or, not everything is coming up roses…)
Laila’s review of Book 2: Thoughts on Middlemarch Book Two: Old and Young

~~~~

I continue to fall more deeply in love with Middlemarch and George Eliot. She’s perspicacious in ways that is both funny, and sublime. The way she articulates these sentiments and structures them into sentences feels new to me, different from anything I’ve read before. I like that she doesn’t write in staccato bursts but instead meanders, goes-around, and sometimes draws out a single sentence into a full paragraph:

For surely all must admit that a man may be puffed and belauded, envied, ridiculed, counted upon as a tool and fallen in love with, or at least selected as a future husband, and yet remain virtually unknown—known merely as a cluster of signs for his neighbours’ false suppositions.

She’s obviously erudite and her story reflects her knowledge of the advances in arts, science, and politics of her time.

Part of what makes me giddy with delight is the scope of Eliot’s story. There’s a large number of people in Middlemarch, and all of then belong to this story. They are such a balance of unique individuality and universal humanity that I can’t help feeling as if this is an account of real people rather than characters who’ve been drawn up to tell a story.

The first book chiefly concerned Dorothea Brooke. In the second, we are introduced to more of the citizenry, the chief amongst whom seems to be Tertius Lydgate. Lydgate is a newly arrived doctor in Middlemarch and is one of the “young” of the title. He reminded me of Dorothea in pretty much every way. He’s high on idealism but without a clue on how to translate that idealism into ordinary, everyday practice. Like Dorothea, he’s not particularly self-aware. It’s yet to be seen if his first brush with conflict will result in any realizations about the disconnection between his notions and the reality of “social conditions, and their frustrating complexity.” He’s intellectually passionate and rigorous about his chosen field of study and profession:

bringing a much more testing vision of details and relations into this pathological study than he had ever thought it necessary to apply to the complexities of love and marriage, these being subjects on which he felt himself amply informed by literature, and that traditional wisdom which is handed down in the genial conversations of men.

Like Dorothea, he looks to be on the brink of an unpropitious match—both Lydgate, and Rosamond, who’s sure to rope him in soon enough despite his plan to not marry for another five years, are ambitious. But, on the face of it at least, their ambitions seem to be incompatible. Rosamond feels like someone who can turn out to be pretty catty but we’ll have to wait and see.

We don’t get to know a lot about Mary Garth. She’s treated like dirt by Mr. Featherstone to whom she’s a companion, and is much admired by Fred Vincy. However, she sees Fred for the wastrel he is and refuses to be impressed by him, even though one gets the sense that she’s not completely immune to him.

At the end of book 1 Fred Vincy appealed to his father to intercede on his behalf with Mr. Bulstrode, his uncle. The intercession leads to the revelation of Mr. Bulstrode as being a man whose chief motive would appear to be to “further the glory of God,” and of Mr. Vincy as a shilly-shally kind of man. Bulstrode is further revealed to be someone who wields considerable power over his neighbors by virtue of his “charities.”

There’s also Reverend Camden Farebrother, the Vicar of St Botolph, (who’s also the cause of the conflict that Lydate faces), and for whom I can’t help but feel a soft spot. He’s just SO. NICE.:

The Vicar of St Botolph . . . by dint of admitting to himself that he was too much as other men were, had become remarkably unlike them in this—that he could excuse others for thinking slightly of him, and could judge impartially of their conduct even when it told against him.

Dorothea, and Casaubon make an appearance in the last third of the book. They’re in Rome on their honeymoon, and Dorothea’s disillusionment has begun. Casaubon treats “what to her were the most stirring thoughts” in a “matter-of-course” manner, and in a “tone of dismissal.” Given Dorothea’s earnestness, that’s almost like kicking an enthusiastic little puppy. And yet, it’s very difficult to cast Casaubon as an outright villain. Partly, it’s because Casaubon did not force this marriage on Dorothea, and partly it’s because we see just enough of his vulnerabilities to see him as a really stupid, and vain old man—one who married Dorothea to possibly get a new lease of life but who’s only now realizing that he’s too ossified for even that—than a contemptible one. (Though I’m a little puzzled by his aversion to physical touch—whenever there’s a mention of Dorothea touching him in some way, he seems to become uneasy). As for Dorothea, you can’t help feeling for her—made as she is, to feel, as if there’s something fundamentally wrong in being the creature of feeling and passion that she is.

Into this morass wades Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s cousin whom we met in Book 1. He’s the antithesis of Casaubon and doesn’t see “the world’s ages as a set of box-like partitions without vital connections.” He’s enchanted by Dorothea, and in sharp contrast to Casaubon, “discussed what she said, as if her sentiment were an item to be considered in the final judgment even of the Madonna di Foligno or the Laocoon.” As the epigraph in the last chapter foreshadows, he proceeds to fall in love with her. On her part, Dorothea, whose “heart. . . had always been giving out ardour and had never been fed with much from the living beings around her,” feels a “new sense of gratitude” for Ladislaw.

I love the thoughts that Eliot conveys on art, and history in the last third of the book. Here’s a thought on art:

Art is an old language with a great many artificial affected styles, and sometimes the chief pleasure one gets out of knowing them is the mere sense of knowing.

And another one on enjoying art:

“I supposed I am dull about many things,” said Dorothea simply. “I should like to make life beautiful—I mean everybody’s life. And then all this immense expense of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it.”

“I call that the fanaticism of sympathy,” said Will impetuously. “You might say the same of landscape, of poetry, of all refinement. If you carried it out you ought to be miserable in your own goodness, and turn evil that you might have no advantage over others. The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight—in art or in anything else.”

And here’s one which reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s hivers in A Hat Full of Sky (I don’t have the book on hand, else I’d have juxtaposed this with the hiver quote):

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

The third book is titled “Waiting for Death.” Has to be Casaubon, right? OR! Oh No! Is it going to be some metaphorical horror inflicted on Dorothea? Or Mary Garth? Or Rev. Farebrother? Or Will Ladislaw? Argh. What are you up to George Eliot?

P.S. You can find all the links related to the Middlemarch Readalong on the upper right hand corner of this page.

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn is set in the same world as Pride and Prejudice but the story it tells is a very different one. We get to know the “downstairs” in Longbourn but this is not just a “downstairs” story. Longbourn is a story about another side of Pride and Prejudice—another side of Longbourn, another side of Mr. Bennet, another side of the sisters, Hill the housekeeper, and even another side of Mrs. Bennet, and Mr. Collins. There’s a sense of the characters being fleshed out more fully, and of Jo Baker bringing to light another dimension of these well-known characters.

longbourn jo bakerSarah is the heroine in our narrative and is one of the two house maids in the Bennet’s employ. She wonders why anyone would want another human being to be satisfied with the emptying of the chamber pot and the washing of other peoples’ underthings. She wants another life for herself, a life where she wasn’t “so entirely at the mercy of other people’s whims and fancies.” She doesn’t want a life that’s a facsimile of those she serves; her dreams, her thoughts, her desires are all her own.

Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, is the other star around which Longbourn revolves. She is the one who keeps everything running smoothly. That she has far more sense than Mrs. Bennet is obvious. Contrast Mrs. Bennet’s joy at seeing Lydia married to Mrs. Hill’s reaction: “Mrs. Hill felt at once desperate for her, and furious: what a poor, poor bargain she had made of herself.” Life has given her a short shrift, and yet she finds it within her to be more forgiving of Mrs. Bennet than anyone else perhaps:

She was a wearying, anxious being, was Mrs. B.; she was always so eager to solicit interest in her sufferings. But if her husband had loved her as a husband should—contentedly, generously, and without reserve—would she then have found it necessary to keep on seeking proofs of love, only to keep on being disappointed?

Baker takes Austen’s characters and looks beyond the surface of who they are.

And so, Mr. Collins, instead of being a pompous fool, is shown to be just another nervous young man who’s eager to impress:

Mr. Collins could not help his awkwardness. He could not help where he had come from, or what chances natures and upbringing had given, or failed to give, him. And if he did not know the by-laws of the household, it was because nobody had told him; he was expected to intuit them, and then was blamed for his failure.

Baker does this again, and again. She shifts her perspective of the characters ever so slightly that it seems to be in keeping with who they are, and yet, it also presents them in an all new light—some appear more mellow than they originally had, while others make you wince at their casual thoughtlessness (Looking at you Jane, and Lizzie!). This was one of my favorite parts about Longbourn and it really drove home the point that perspective matters a lot in story-telling—change the lens and you might be telling an all together different story.

Longbourn details the drudgery of the life of the servants in the 19th century, and yet at no point did this make for a dismal read. One reason for this is the writing which is really lovely. Baker is a perfect example of a writer who believes in showing rather than telling, and nowhere is this more evident than in Mrs. Hill’s reveries which though emotionally sparse are brimming with meaning.

Here’s another example of what I mean—I love that anger makes Sarah “rearrange” herself:

Sarah was bristling now; she rolled her shoulders, planted her feet, rearranging herself.

And here is James’s discovery of being in love with Sarah (he’s a footman hired by the Bennets, and is the “hero”):

His thoughts lit in turn on the immediate causes—Netherfield’s being shut up, Ptolemy Bingley’s departure for London—and then bundled into a downhill helter-skelter, through the chances of her happiness, fears for her safety, the dangers of the world beyond, her ignorance of them; and then on into an image of this place without her, without a glare or shrug or roll of her eyes, without a glimpse of her slim figure slipping round a corner; without her unyielding, breathing flesh beside him in the room—to arrive at the shock of a full stop: he loved her.

And here’s a description of a noisy metropolis:

Despite her tiredeness, she could not sleep: the noise—the sheer depth of it, layer after layer of sound—cabs rattling along the street in front, drays rumbling down to the docks, cats fighting or mating in the alleyways, the creak of rope from the wharves, a dog barking, a clock, and another clock, and another still more distant clock chiming out hour after hour of the night, into the darkness, as the Gardiners’ housemaid snored oblivious in her bed, and Sarah twisted and turned and tangled herself up in blankets that smelt of someone else.

Last one, of Mrs. Bennet:

Mrs. Bennet was not one to tiptoe around the edges of disaster, with one eye to the abyss and another to her own comportment: she plunged headlong in, and as she fell, took pains to enumerate of the discomfort and the inconveniences of the fall.

Jo Baker’s tale overlaps with Austen’s account of the Bennets but in Baker’s own words, “it inhabits a very different world.” I’m glad that this rendition of that account exists as well.

Middlemarch Readalong: Check-in 2

I hope everyone’s still reading along! I’ve still got about 1/3rd of the way to go for Book 2! So far Book 2 seems to be about Lydgate (with a little bit of Fred Vincy thrown in) and is it just me or does Lydgate seem like Dorothea’s masculine counterpart to you guys too?! In his zest, and his zeal, he reminds me SO MUCH OF MISS BROOKE!!!

I’m sure I’m over generalizing but I can’t help thinking that Middlemarch seems to be peopled with types of characters. So far, we have—

Mr. Bulstrode, who’s (apparently!) the fervent, religious type
Mr. Lydgate, who’s our science man
Mr. Vincy, for whom trade and commerce and money is what defines everything else
Fred Vincy, who looks to be the representation of the idle, young gentleman
Rosamond, who’s the picture of traditional womanliness

Did anyone else notice this typ-iness too?

And do you guys have any favorite quotes so far? Here’s two that I enjoyed a lot:

One’s self-appreciation is an untaxed kind of property which it is very unpleasant to find depreciated.

~*~

Our passions do not live apart in locked chambers, but, dressed in their small wardrobe of notions, bring their provisions to a common table and mess together, feeding out of the common store according to their appetite.

Bits from John O’Donohue’s Four Elements: Reflections on Nature

From “Breathe as Prayer”

Breathing has its own rhythm. Breath comes in ebb and flow. Through breathing you come into the rhythm with your self.

From “Space as Welcome and Possibility”

The generosity of air allows each object to merge and to be. Air gives space. Without space individuality would be impossible. Form is the secret of individuality. And form is a line cut into space.

~*~

Sometimes we are so used to looking at objects that we hardly ever look at space.

~*~

But in the air there is an unbroken emptiness which extends everywhere and admits any and every shape.

~*~

All our words reach out into the air. It may be the case that all the words that we have ever used are still somehow in the air. Maybe the wind ferries them in different direction and weaves them with words from foreign places and times. Who knows what tapestries of sound the silent air hides. Maybe in years to come they will be able to retrieve these words that we once sent out from us.

From “The Ocean as Immense Divinity”

If rhythm is a form cut into time, then individuality is a form cut into space.