Review: A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood

I hate it when a much-lauded book just doesn’t grab me.  I’m sure it’s me, and not the book.

A Single Man takes place over 24 hours in 1962.  George is a 58-year-old Englishman, and a university professor somewhere near Los Angeles.  Several months earlier his partner Jim died suddenly, and George is trying to put his life back together.  He goes through the motions of his daily routine, teaches his English classes, speculates on his students’ lives outside of class, chats with neighbors, and visits a woman friend.  He is haunted by memories of Jim and their life together — a life that, in 1962, was a closely guarded secret.

This book is billed as “one of the first and best novels of the gay liberation movement.” I probably don’t understand the movement’s history well enough to appreciate the significance of this work, and viewed through a 21st-century lens, it’s not as daring as it was in the 1960s.  But the blurb on my edition also describes it as “constantly funny, surprisingly sad,” and for me, it failed to delivery.  I couldn’t muster the expected emotions.  George certainly mourned Jim, but I didn’t feel his grief.  I saw him simply putting one foot in front of the other and erecting a barrier around himself, one I thought as the reader I’d be able to break through.

So the book didn’t work for me, but I haven’t given up.  It was made into a film starring Colin Firth, and I’ve just discovered it’s available from my local library.  This could be the subject of a future “book vs. movie” post!

Review: Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

In Tipping the Velvet, author Sarah Waters tells the story of Nancy Astley, a young Victorian woman who leaves her seaside village and the family business for the footlights of London’s music halls.  But there’s a twist that makes this story unique:  Nancy begins her theatrical career as dresser for Kitty Butler, who performs dressed as a man.  Eventually Nancy becomes Nan King, and part of a popular double act with Kitty.  And Nan and Kitty fall in love.  Nan is comfortable with her new-found sexual identity (but at the cost of severed ties with her family).  Kitty, however, can’t admit it to anyone else, and ultimately not even to herself.  The resulting tension has long-term effects on both Nan and Kitty.

Over the course of the novel, Waters takes Nan from the music halls and mean streets of London up to the very highest levels of society.   Her message seems to be, “lesbians can be found in all walks of life, and they’re really just like everyone else.”  Waters’ description of love between women is refreshingly candid, and shown to be pretty much the same as heterosexual love.  She also skillfully handles the stigma and fear associated with homosexuality in the Victorian era.

These themes were probably enlightening to many readers when this book was published in 1998.  In 2012, I found it all a bit heavy-handed and predictable.  At certain points in the novel, Nan would find herself surrounded by a new community of people, made up of mostly women.  I knew almost immediately where Waters would take the story.  Unfortunately, it took Nan forever to discover the lesbians in her midst.  I also wasn’t terribly impressed with Nan, who seemed to discard people right and left if they were no longer convenient, and would later have sudden epiphanies about how much those people actually mean to her.

In the end, the book was mildly enjoyable and pretty good considering it was Waters’ debut novel.  However, I recommend Fingersmith as  a better example of her talents.

Review: Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

In 1968, a baby was born to Jacinta and Treadway Blake, in a small Labrador trapping village.  The birth was attended by a few village women, all close friends.  One woman, Thomasina, noticed something unusual right away:  the baby had both male and female genitalia.  She was the only one outside the family who knew, and supported Jacinta as she struggled to accept what this would mean to them, and to the baby. Treadway decided the baby would be raised as a boy, and while Jacinta felt otherwise, she would not go against her husband.  From that moment on the baby was known as Wayne, although Thomasina often called him “Annabel” in private.

Jacinta wished she could raise Wayne as both son and daughter, and only vaguely understood the challenges this could pose for Wayne as he grew up.  Treadway desperately wanted a traditional, masculine son, and despaired at Wayne’s more feminine interests.  As a boy, Wayne was ignorant of the medical details, and knew only that he has to take special vitamins.  He felt vaguely different from the other boys he knew, and his closest friend was a girl.  While Wayne’s medical treatment was costly, the more devastating impact was emotional.  Jacinta and Treadway are unable to share their feelings with each other, and gradually this takes a toll.  Wayne found it increasingly difficult to relate to either of them, and life only became more difficult as he matured and struggled to find his true self.

Kathleen Winter drew me into this story gradually, and skillfully.  It wasn’t a page-turner, but I was surprised to find myself emotionally caught up in this book.  I despaired at Jacinta and Treadway’s broken relationship, and each response to the family tension.  My heart wrenched over the conflict between Treadway and Wayne, especially when Treadway’s fears led him to destroy something very dear to Wayne.  I also felt very sad for Wayne, who had a secret no one could understand, and coped with so much emotional trauma.  As he approached adulthood, Wayne began to understand and accept himself, and I closed the book knowing his life would never be easy, but there were glimmers of hope for his future.

Just Thoughts: Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto

I finished this book about a week ago, and I’m still flummoxed.  It’s short, only 152 pages, and is actually comprised of two stories:  ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow.’  I didn’t particularly care for it, but I am at a loss to explain why.  So I can’t really call this a review … just a few thoughts:

  • The blurb on the back cover calls Kitchen Yoshimoto’s “best-loved book … an enchantingly original and deeply affecting book about mothers, love, tragedy, and the power of the kitchen and home in the lives of a pair of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan.”
  • Kitchen is translated from the Japanese.  The writing comes across as unsophisticated, almost juvenile.  I suppose it could be the result of poor translation.
  • Both stories deal with grief and loss.  While I could understand the grief characters felt after losing loved ones, the language felt flat and neutral.  And in ‘Kitchen,’ I knew the kitchen itself, and food, were supposed to be important but the prose didn’t convey the sensuality and power of food and cooking.

I’m taking part in an online conversation about this book and held off for a while hoping to get some new insights that would help me better appreciate this book.  It hasn’t happened, and I’m ready to move on.

The Sunday Salon Review: Summer, by Edith Wharton

This was a big week in literature, with the Booker Prize announcement on Tuesday.  I also reached a reading milestone:  reading all the Booker winners through 2009.  This inspired me to write a retrospective on Booker winners, with my view on favorites and clunkers.  I’ve ordered the 2010 winner, The Finkler Question, and plan to read it in November.

This week I also finally read a better-than-average book, so I saved up my review to share with you today.  Actually, it was also a pretty busy week, so it was Saturday by the time I sat down to write my review!  But whatever the reason, here it is …

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Charity Royall came of age in North Dormer, an isolated Massachusetts village.  Her guardian was a prominent lawyer, who gave Charity a home after her mother proved unable to care for her.  Charity has led a life of relative privilege, and has no memory of life up on the impoverished Mountain.  She resigns herself to village life, and working as the local librarian.

Then one day a young architect named Lucius Harney arrives in North Dormer, to visit his aunt and sketch local buildings.  He is much more worldly than Charity; he buys her nice things and introduces her to unimaginable experiences.  Despite lawyer Royall’s efforts, the passion between Charity and Lucius culminates in a full-fledged clandestine affair.  Although Charity lacks experience, she enters into the affair with full knowledge and intentions.  The time she spends with Lucius is memorable and idyllic, and the subsequent turn of events is not entirely unexpected.  Towards the end of the book Charity has to navigate some extremely difficult situations which show her depth and strength, and her actions in the last chapter show clearly why Wharton gave this character the name, “Charity.”

Charity Royall experienced emotions and physical sensations that women in the early 1900s simply didn’t discuss with others.   Edith Wharton was a pioneer in portraying Charity as a normal, healthy young woman, creating a new view of female sexuality.  My edition of Summer included an introduction by Marilyn French that discusses this topic at length, and greatly enriched my reading experience.

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

Review: The Bell, by Iris Murdoch

The Bell explores themes of sexuality and power, like most of Iris Murdoch’s novels, and this time it is set against a religious backdrop.  When Dora Greenfield leaves her domineering husband Paul, he escapes to Imber, a lay religious community in the countryside.  As a guest he receives food and lodging, and a place to focus on his academic research.  Dora later decides to attempt reconciliation, and joins Paul at Imber.  On her way she meets Toby, who plans to spend the summer at Imber before leaving for university.

The Imber community is small, mostly male, and adjoins a Benedictine abbey whose nuns are cloistered for life..  Imber’s leader is Michael Meade, whose family originally owned the estate.  The other members are mostly misfits who have withdrawn from mainstream society.  Together they tend the estate and the market garden, and organize daily worship activities.  The community as a whole is looking forward to two significant events:  the ceremonial installation of a new bell at the Abbey, and one Imber member’s planned installation as a cloistered nun.  Dora and Toby both assimilate into the community to varying degrees.  Dora, by association with Paul, is always a bit of an outsider and finds the group’s customs a bit awkward.  Toby is young and impressionable, finding spiritual fulfillment in Imber’s natural beauty.

I first thought The Bell would be about Dora and Paul’s relationship, but it is much more about Michael and his inner struggles with sexuality and faith.  It turns out Michael is gay, and suffered early in his career when his orientation became known to others.  He also knows that a faith community will not be sympathetic.  Murdoch, on the other hand, is sympathetic, which likely went against the grain of British society when this novel was published in 1958.  Michael tries desperately to keep his desires at bay even in the face of temptation, and conceal his true self from the rest of the Imber community.  Sometimes this is almost comic, but at the novel’s climax it becomes gut-wrenching, such that what happens to Dora and Paul is almost ancillary.

This novel was full of symbolism and imagery around the bell itself, and I felt as if Dora was meant to be the heroine, but for me Michael’s story was more central and had greater impact.