Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is a parallel novel that explores perhaps one of the most interesting and mysterious characters in literature: Bertha “Antionette” Mason, the mad woman in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Upon first reading Jane Eyre, I found parts of it to be somewhat slow, particularly Jane’s childhood recollections; however, after some months to reflect, I can find little to criticize in the novel, which is perhaps why I didn’t enjoy Wide Sargasso Sea as much as I did Jane Eyre.

It was interesting to learn more of Antoinette’s possible background. I have read that Rochester comes off rather badly in Rhys’s novel, but I didn’t find this to be the case. He doesn’t come off well, but he’s certainly no worse in Wide Sargasso Sea than he is in Jane Eyre. In fact, I sympathized with him, as his account of his marriage in this novel agrees with his account in the other in one important respect: he was tricked, and he was forced. How much of his paranoia about his wife being insane actually drove her to insanity is debatable.

However, Antoinette is certainly a much more sympathetic character, as most characters are when they are able to tell their side of the story. In many ways, her past, filled with rejections from her mother and the society in which she lived, was as sad as Jane’s. She no more deserved what happened to her than Jane did. But Rochester still doesn’t quite come off the villain for me. Who is? I suppose that’s something I’m still trying to figure out for myself, too.

I did feel cheated by not seeing Antoinette’s motivation for some of her actions in Jane Eyre. Only the last twenty pages or so are devoted to events in Jane Eyre. One could argue that as Antoinette was insane at that point, and clearly fuzzy on many details of her life, she didn’t recollect what she was doing in order to tell about it. However, I still wanted to see her light Rochester’s bed on fire, rip up Jane’s veil, and stab Richard Mason. While she is told about Mason, she has no recollection and almost seems to feel she is being lied to.  I wanted to see that moment of madness and rage, rather than read yet another second-hand account.  What drove her?  What motivated her?  That piece of the puzzle was still missing.  I wanted to see whether or not she realized who and what Jane was. This novel didn’t satisfy that desire, but it was a quick read and a good book that I would recommend to anyone who enjoyed Jane Eyre.

My next book is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which I failed to finish in high school and consequently have decided to return to.

The Book of Air and Shadows

The Book of Air and ShadowsMichael Gruber’s novel The Book of Air and Shadows is the story of a lost Shakespeare manuscript and how it is found.  An aspiring filmmaker, Albert Crosetti, finds an ancient letter hidden in the binding of an old set of books that were damaged in a fire at the rare books shop where he works.  The letter alludes to ciphers, which once decoded, will point toward a lost play written by William Shakespeare about Mary, Queen of Scots.

Certainly much of Gruber’s scenario seems believable.  Conflict between Protestants and Catholics in England during the reign of James I certainly could have given rise to a plot to convince secret papist William Shakespeare to write a play concerning a controversial subject, but Shakespeare was a smart man who knew his audience.  As great as his take on Mary, Queen of Scots might have been, he never would have dared to write it with Mary’s son on the throne.  Certainly there are lost plays.  Scholars agree , for example, that he wrote a play called Love’s Labours Won that has been lost to the ages, and perhaps The History of Cardenio (co-written with John Fletcher).  But I have problems with the notion that Shakespeare could ever have been induced to write about Mary, Queen of Scots in a fairly good light (and, obliquely, about Queen Elizabeth I in a bad light).

Another problem the plot hinges upon is the dearth of evidence about William Shakespeare’s life.  Supposedly, this lack of evidence makes Richard Bracegirdle’s accounts of Shakespeare valuable in their own right, even without locating the lost play.  Well, we don’t know a lot about Shakespeare’s life, but we know about as much about it as we do about other writers of his era.  Look at it from a genealogist’s standpoint, and it becomes clear we have quite a lot of information about him.  I can’t even figure out who my paternal grandmother’s father was, but we know the name of both of Shakespeare’s parents, his siblings, his children and grandchild, and his wife’s maiden name.  A lot of folks would give their eyeteeth to know that much information about a sixteenth-century ancestor.  And that’s just a little bit of what we know about Shakespeare.  The argument Gruber makes through his characters that we know substantially less about Shakespeare than we should doesn’t wash for me.

Aside from that, I really disliked the story.  The characters, with the exception of a few minor players, had few redeeming qualities or likable traits.  It’s a novice writer who tries to make his characters too perfect.  As readers, we want to be able to relate on a human level to characters, and perfection prevents us from doing so; however, I think we also want to like something about the characters, or we don’t care.  The bottom line is that I didn’t care a whit what happened to any of the major players because I didn’t like any of them.  Gruber goes too far in making his characters realistic.  He emphasizes only their negative traits so that when it comes time to redeem them, I don’t buy it and I don’t care.  In addition, much of the plot’s forward motion is stopped by Gruber’s characterization.  Complain about Dan Brown’s wooden characters you should, but at least he moves the plot forward and doesn’t allow characterization to get in the way of telling the story. I love character-driven books, but I have to find something to like about the characters.

I like the premise of the book, and my favorite parts were the Bracegirdle letters in which the times and intrigues of early seventeenth-century England were revealed.  Even these were somewhat problematic for me, as Bracegirdle’s writing didn’t sound period.  It sounded like modern writing spelled funny.  Compared to Anthony Burgess’s well-written and very period Nothing Like the Sun, the letters sounded, well, fake.

Overall, obviously, I can’t recommend this book.  Dogged determination to find something in it to like forced me through it, I guess, but in the end, I wish I’d never picked it up.  I love the feeling of putting down a good book.  I don’t want to leave it, and the characters are people who feel like friends.  I just feel kind of dirty and thankful it’s over after putting this book down.  Steve tried to warn me about this, but the book has a pretty cover, and for once, the old adage should have been taken seriously.  It has been my experience up until now that most of the time, pretty covers have good stories inside them, too.

If I may be allowed one more minute to beat this dead horse, I have to add that I can’t figure out why a good literary thriller can’t be written.  I’ve been disappointed in each one of them I’ve read in some way or another: The Da Vinci Code, The Geographer’s Library, Codex, and The Rule of Four all had some problem or other that prevented them from being a satisfying read.  Wait.  I take that back.  I’ve read one that was really good:  Matthew Pearl’s novel The Dante Club.  Since Pearl has proven it can be done, one wonders vaguely why it isn’t done more often.

With my next book, I return to the Historical Fiction Challenge with Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea.

Nothing Like the Sun

Nothing Like the SunI’m sure Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun is like nothing I’ve ever read before.  The novel is subtitled A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-life; Burgess’s essential claim is that Shakespeare’s literary genius was borne out of his lust.  It’s an interesting thesis, as desire can be quite a motivator, and Burgess manages to convince.

The novel is rich with period detail and dialogue; indeed, it might take some time for the casual reader to become accustomed to Burgess’s use of Early Modern English.  For readers familiar with Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, the novel is a delight of allusions.  I found myself wishing I were much more familiar with Shakespeare even than I am, having taught several of his plays (and some of them many times) because I feel sure that some allusions passed me by.

Burgess crafted a plausible, entertaining narrative from the few scraps of information we have about Shakespeare’s life and in the process, held a lens up to Shakespeare’s work and times, exposing both work and times as sublime and filthy at the same time.  I would recommend this book highly to anyone interesting in learning more about Shakespeare or about Elizabethan England.

Because I am in a Shakespeare frame of mind, I plan to take a break from the Historical Fiction Challenge and read The Book of Air and Shadows next.  As always, I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Confessions of a Pagan Nun

Kate Horsley’s Confessions of a Pagan Nun has been on my to-read list for at least a couple of years, and I finally decided to take it off the shelf and read it. Serendipitously, I discovered the Historical Fiction Challenge and was able to use this book as part of the challenge.

For those of you who may have read The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier (review here) or The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, the premise of this novel is not new. Confessions of a Pagan Nun is told from the viewpoint of a woman a the crossroads in history: she is born into a pagan culture and watches, reporting her observations, as Christianity gradually subsumes paganism and druidism. Gwynneve, the narrator, longed to learn to read and become a druid as a child. She tells her story from the monastery of St. Brigit, where a confluence of strange events leads to wild accusations against her.

This book is different from The Virgin Blue and The Mists of Avalon because Gwynneve sees wisdom and beauty in both Christianity and paganism; she also sees violence and ignorance in both, and boldly reports what she sees. I was reminded that while history is written by the victors, the truth usually reveals itself, and words have the power to transmit the truth when we have nothing else. It was refreshing to read a book about the conflict between paganism and Christianity that casts neither as evil in and of themselves, but lay bare that men have used both to their own ends for the worse.

Confessions of a Pagan Nun is a quick, enjoyable read. In terms of historical fiction, I saw no inaccuracies that I could tell, having studied this time period — 6th century British Isles — quite a bit. I certainly think that should one be interested in learning about life in 6th century Ireland, this book would not disappoint.

One of these days, I need to re-read The Mists of Avalon. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. My next book for the Historical Fiction Challenge is Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess (yes, author of A Clockwork Orange). This book is about Shakespeare’s love life, a topic which never fails to inspire much speculation and not a few pretty good stories.


EclipseLast night, I finished reading Stephenie Meyer’s Eclipse, the third book in her Twilight Saga.  It has been as entertaining as the other books in the series.  Meyer has a gift for writing page-turners, and this story should leave readers anxious for Breaking Dawn.  I will not make the wild claim that these books are more than fun diversions, but I know I enjoyed reading them.  Of the three, I would have to say that Twilight is my favorite.

As I said in my review of New Moon, Bella’s self-deprecation can be annoying.  She doesn’t put herself down as much when she compares herself with Jacob, but she seems to feel so strongly that she isn’t good enough for Edward, and as much as he tries to protest, I don’t see that changing.  I wonder how she can be happy with someone when she feels she is inferior to him?  I hope Meyer can resolve this particular problem in the next book.

If you have read the other two Twilight books, you don’t need a recommendation from me to pick up the third; however, I think this book is less able to stand on its own than the other two.  I do think one could read either Twilight or New Moon without reading the rest of the saga, but this book ties in elements from both previous books that only make sense in context.  I think that’s fine — by the third book in a series, an author can expect some loyalty; J.K. Rowling waited until Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix before she gave up the pretext of thinking readers might not have read the other books first, and she certainly could have dropped that pretext earlier.

If you are looking for Literature (yes, with a capital “L”), you probably don’t want to read Meyer’s books, but if you’re looking for fun, page-turning reads about vampires and werewolves, I think you’ll enjoy her books.  It is certainly easy to see why she has become so popular with young adult readers.

New Moon

This evening, I finished reading New Moon, the second novel in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga.  I enjoyed it.

The novel picks up following Bella’s recovery from certain events at the end of the previous book.  Bella has just turned 18, and she is unhappy because her beloved Edward, a vampire, will never be older than 17.  The prospect of growing old while he remains perpetually youthful is distasteful to Bella.  The Cullens, Edward’s family throw Bella a birthday party, and an accident makes Edward decide Bella is not safe with the Cullens.  When Edward leaves Bella, she makes friends with the enigmatic Jacob Black, only to discover that he, too, harbors a dark secret.  Will he help her forget Edward and heal the hole left by Edward’s absence?  Or will Edward return to challenge his rival?

Meyer has the gift for creating a plot that will engage the reader — a real page-turner.  To me, a good test is whether I can keep from turning ahead to see what the future holds — something I consider cheating.  And I have to cheat with Meyer’s books.  Her characters are believable and likable.  If her vampires are a bit too perfect, well, it’s because they’re supposed to be.

I do wish Bella, Meyer’s main character, had a bit more self-confidence.  I think the Cullens treat her like a pet, and it’s somewhat demeaning.  She feels unworthy of their attention, so it’s a vicious cycle.  I like Jacob Black, who Meyer introduced in the first book, but fleshed out in this second book.  Meyer’s allusions to Romeo and Juliet, woven throughout the text, worked well.

I can definitely see why these books are so popular with teens.  I really enjoyed going to Stephenie Meyer’s book signing in September, and if she comes back to sign copies of Breaking Dawn, I will be there!

The Commoner

John Burnham Schwartz acknowledges in an author’s note at the beginning of his novel The Commoner that it is inspired by people and incidents connected to the Japanese Imperial family.  Empress Michiko is the first commoner to marry into the Imperial family in its 1000-year history.  As crown princess, she and her husband, the then Crown Prince Akihito also broke tradition by deciding to raise their own children rather than send them away.

The story is told from the viewpoint of its protagonist, Haruko, the only daughter of a wealthy sake brewing company owner, who meets the crown prince of the Imperial family on the tennis court.  A somewhat awkward courtship followed, and Haruko became the crown princess.  The empress, her new mother-in-law, made it clear that she disapproved of her son’s wife and made her feel like an unwelcome outsider — even to the point of appointing ladies in waiting who spied on the princess and delivered the princess her mother-in-law’s decrees regarding Haruko’s behavior and the empress’ expectations for improvement.  When Haruko tries to assert herself upon giving birth to her son, Yasu, the empress effectively breaks Haruko’s spirit.  Years later, Haruko must make a difficult decision when she sees the weight of being a part of the Imperial family crushing her own daughter-in-law.

Truthfully, though Schwartz insists this book is a work of fiction, the story differs from that of its inspiration principally in the ending alone.  Many of the events Haruko, Schwartz’s Michiko, describes really happened to the Empress as well.  In addition, Crown Princess Masako has also suffered problems similar to those of Schwartz’s Keiko.

While the novel concerns the Japanese court, it is really the story of women.  Throughout history, women of all backgrounds have been subjugated in the way Haruko and her daughter-in-law were.  Oppressed by tradition, duty, and even, as in the case of Haruko, other women, these women were silenced.  It did not matter that they were as intelligent and capable (and often more so) as the men in their lives.  Their places in society were fixed.  I was actually reminded of Princess Diana as I read.  I think it must be difficult for women who enter into marriages with men who are part of establishments like monarchies — always saying or doing the wrong thing, never able to make their in-laws happy, all their efforts focused on giving birth to a male heir.

The novel is a love letter to those women who have been unable to tell their own stories.  I really enjoyed it.  Schwartz’s symbolism is careful and appropriate.  I liked his writing style — I felt it evoked the setting well.  I do not know much about Japan.  I did read an Amazon review that picked at some inaccuracies in the novel.  If you are quite familiar with Japan, perhaps these issues will bother you, too; however, I have to say that the majority of the reviewers agree with my own assessment that the novel is moving and beautifully written.  I might not have read the book if not for listening to this radio program about it, which says more than I can in a simple review:

Download link

You can learn more about the Emperor and Empress of Japan and their son, Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife the Crown Princess Masako.

The World is Flat

The World is FlatI found Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat to be an intriguing book. Friedman’s thesis is that a series of “flatteners,” or world-changing events, converged at just the right time to make the world’s playing field level and allow countries such as India and China opportunities to compete with America and Europe. Largely, I saw very little in Friedman’s book to disagree with. He acknowledges that the same tools we use for good in this new and increasingly global economy can be used for evil. He references terrorists and has interesting insights into their motivation for destruction and the reasons for their hate. I do think Friedman’s view of what will happen as the world becomes increasingly flat, to use his term, is optimistic, but frankly, I think a lot of it would be good for us. I think Friedman somewhat dismisses the plight of American workers who lose their jobs to outsourcing, but he has a good solution — we need to learn to adapt and to make ourselves special so we are more attractive job candidates. I think that solution is more realistic than the one that seems to be favored by many others — punish companies who outsource and try to force companies into doing business the way they did in the past. Life goes on, and things change. We have to change with them, or we will be left behind.

I think one of the biggest favors we can do ourselves is invest in green technology. We are way too dependent on foreign oil. Oil is a stick that countries we otherwise would have hardly any trade relations with use against us. Their economies are dependent on oil, and when it runs out, they’re going to be in serious trouble.

I am really excited about the potential for collaboration that exists. I love it that we can work together across miles. Through this blog I have made friends from all over America and a few in other countries. We’d never have “met” if not for flat world technologies like blogs. I have learned so much from technology and have developed so much passion for Web 2.0 ideas — which are nothing more than flattening agents online — that I am pursuing my masters degree — online — in Instructional Technology beginning this fall.

I also like the idea that businesses have to be transparent. Your reputation is important, and you can no longer manage it completely. If someone isn’t happy with your goods or services, they can complain in a blog or forum, and you might lose customers. I recently complained about the spurious business practices of Urban Posters, and I had lots of feedback from other customers who were treated the same way, in addition to a hollow apology that blamed the credit card processing company from an Urban Posters representative. People were angry about their money being taken, and they said so in a public forum. Now when someone searches for information about this company, this negative feedback will perhaps prevent someone else from being taken in. I think that’s a fantastic thing to come out of the flat world.

This book is an investment. It’s long, and I think it requires a lot of reflection and thinking on the part of the reader. If you are interested in a beach book or a quick read, this book is not what you’re looking for; however, if you are interested in the times in which we live and emerging ideas and technology, this book will fascinate you.