Foundation by Isaac Asimov

FoundationFoundation

Isaac Asimov

First published 1951.  I read a Bantam Spectra Books edition published 1991 on my older version Kindle, so not sure how many pages. Goodreads says 256 pgs.

Guardian 1000 novels: Science Fiction.

With trying American Gods, and loving Riddley Walker, I decided to stay with the Science Fiction Guardian titles for one more for now.  This was a good idea — once again the Guardian list led me to a book I probably never would have read but am now very glad I did.

Foundation is actually only one part of a complex series of books conceived by Asimov to describe the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire — a concept that he attributed to his reading of Gibbons’ famous work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  The action in Foundation occurs after two prequel novels — and there are four subsequent works that continue the story.  I have no idea how soon I will get back to any of them, and while I liked Foundation, I have so many other reads coming up and I’m not compelled to put those aside in favor of more Asimov right now.

Foundation begins with the trial of scientist Hari Seldon, who has discovered he can predict the future through a system of mathematical formulas.  He predicts the fall of the current Galactic Empire into a dark age lasting 30,000 years.  Naturally, the powers that be are not too excited about this.  Seldon is able to convince the government that if he is allowed to gather the most brilliant minds together to work on a compendium of human knowledge, the Encyclopedia Galactica, he will be able to reduce this period of dark ages substantially.   The government powers agree and send the “Encyclopedists” and their leader to a far-away planet at the end of the Galaxy, Terminus.   This group of exiles establishes the Foundation which is the heart of all the stories — a group dedicated to create the Encyclopedia, and more — to protect and enhance knowledge in the face of the impending dark ages.

The remainder of Foundation jumps us through a series of novelettes — Hari Seldon has passed away (kind of….) — but his Foundation lives on and morphs in the way all societies grow and change.  Space pirates, aristocrats and finally, traders, take their turns at guiding the Foundation in the face of the eventual crumbling of the Empire.

A funny side-note on this book; I shouldn’t have tried to read it on a Kindle.  Because the various episodes jumped forward in hunks of 50, 80 years at a time, I would have liked to flip back into the beginning pages to remind myself of various minor characters and events — but it wasn’t really that easy with the Kindle.

I liked Foundation, I liked the big ideas it presented about the gradual fall of empire when respect for science and truth fade.  I hope I do get time to return to this Galaxy soon.

Advertisements

Mon ami, Poirot: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

StylesThe Mysterious Affair at Styles

Agatha Christie

Originally published, 1920.  I read a Bantam Books paperback, printed around 1976 (cost $1.75 at that time!).  182 pgs.

Guardian 1,000 novels.  Crime Titles.

Other books I’ve read by Christie:  And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

It’s hard to imagine a world without Hercule Poirot, especially now that I feel I know him a little better.  His rationality, little gray cells, and famous “method” all provide a feeling of safety in the face of the most convoluted, red-herring-ed murder tale.

But Poirot had to be born sometime, and it was in this short novel that Christie introduced him to the world.

It was also Christie’s first published novel.  She wrote it during WWI, while volunteering in a hospital pharmacy.  The novel was supposedly written as the result of a bet to see if she could compose a mystery where the reader would be unable to spot the murderer.  It took Christie five years to find a publisher, and proved to be one of her greatest triumphs; it has never been out of print since 1920.

The novel is set in a great country house, Styles Court, inhabited by the wealthy Cavendish family, their guests and servants.  The domineering, widowed matriarch, Emily, has recently married a much younger man who is beneath her social class.  The misalliance has created a rift in the Cavendish family, many of whom fear the loss of their inheritances.  Then, Emily is poisoned with strychnine — either in her coffee, her evening cocoa, or perhaps in her bedtime tonic.  It’s all incredibly complicated, with dozens of clues, everyone a possible suspect, several medical men with conflicting ideas, lawyers and Scotland Yard on board.

Poirot to the rescue.  Evidently Emily had been responsible for Poirot’s presence in the village:

“…it is by the charity of that good Mrs. Inglethorp that I am here…she had kindly extended hospitality to seven of my countrypeople who, alas, are refugees from their native land.  We Belgians will always remember her gratitude.”

But Poirot is no mere refugee — he is “one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police” — readily identified by young Mr. Hastings, who is recovering from war wounds at Styles Court.  Out of loyalty and gratitude to Emily, Poirot sets out to find her killer.  In his turn, Hastings becomes a kind of factotum and companion to Poirot, and is basically our stand in.  Whenever the mystery becomes incredibly complex and confusing, Hastings voices the readers’ frustration to Poirot:

“I was hardly as clear as I could wish.  I repeated myself several times, and occasionally had to go back to some detail that I had forgotten.  Poirot smiled kindly on me.

“The mind is confused? Is it not so?  Take time, mon ami.  You are agitated, you are excited–it is but natural.  Presently, when we are calmer, we will arrange the facts, neatly, each in his proper place…..”

I have to confess that at times I appreciated, rather than enjoyed, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  I found many of the characters thinly drawn, almost chess pieces moved around on a huge board by a master hand.  Or sometimes I felt like I was inside a puzzle square — the kind you try to move tiles around in a particular order, but are thwarted because you can only move them in particular directions.  If Miss Cavendish was in the library with the cocoa cup at 9:30 then she couldn’t have been the person to burn the incriminating letter in the billiard room at that time, and so forth.

But the characters of Poirot and Hastings are endearing and real.  Poirot is the meticulous detector of truth and lies and Hastings is us, stumbling behind and trying to understand what is going on.  I wonder if Christie came up with these characters and formula in response to the Great War.  Did she feel a need to bring order and meaning to the destruction of a genteel, ordered way of life enjoyed by the English upper class before WWI?  For Poirot soothes the confused, horrified Hastings who represents that class and is reeling from a horrific crime — not necessarily the death of Emily Cavendish-Inglethrop — but a much larger horror.

And no, I wasn’t able to spot the murderer.  Of course we have to leave that to Poirot.

 

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

trainspottingTrainspotting

Irvine Welsh

Norton Paperback.  1996, first published in Great Britain, 1993.  349 pgs with Scots dialect glossary.

Guardian 1,000 Novels:  State of the Nation Titles.

I’ve promised myself that the next three books (at least) are all going to be Guardian novels so I can have some hope of “moving forward” as we like to say, towards  my almost ridiculous goal of reading the 1,000 best!

So, Trainspotting.  I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like this before.  This is a series of stories about a group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1980s.  There is a core group of, well, I’m not sure we can actually call them friends, that the book follows — some of whom are addicts, some alcoholics, and all dysfunctional.  The entire book is written in Scots dialect, which after a while was okay for me, with my American English, once I got used to sounding sentences like the following out loud:

“It wis last Christmas thit Julie died.  Ah nivir made the funeral.  Ah was lyin in ma ain puke oan a mattress in Spud’s gaff, too fucked tae move.  It wis a shame, cause Julie n me wir good mates.”

You get it?

Welsh explained that he wrote this way because he wanted to speak out in the characters’ own voices; in contrast to writing with a “waspish” narrative voice that demeans and talks down to the characters.

It would be a joke for me to try to “review” this book — I have no understanding of the world these characters inhabit.  As a reader, I shifted from being repulsed, frightened, amused, grieved, angry, and once and a while, touched, by these fragments of stories.

There is no real organization to the novel.  You are simply dropped in and out of these peoples’ lives — some characters are constants, such as the antihero, Mark Renton — and some play mere cameo roles such as the tragic mom, Alison.  I found this kaleidoscopic treatment of characters often frustrating.  Everyone seems to have two or three nicknames, plus their real name — and sometimes I wasn’t even sure who was narrating a segment.  But, that was also real to me — very much like real life where people turn up at odd moments of your life.  I found that Welsh’s style worked in that respect, that all these characters were able to describe their view of this dysfunctional society they inhabited.  The chaos of the book reflected well the chaos of their experiences — drugs, welfare, unemployment, crime, violence and pointlessness.

“Basically, we live a short, disappointing life, and then we die.  We fill up oor lives wi shite, things like careers and relationships to delude oorsels that it isnae aw totally pointless.  Smack’s an honest drug, because it strips away these delusions….Eftir that, ye see the misery ay the world as it is, and ye cannae anaesthetise yirsel against it.”

This was a difficult read for me, but books shouldn’t just be pretty presents delivered up in a neat packages to open up and put on a shelf.  Trainspotting was raw,  sometimes incomprehensible, jagged and almost unfinished.  Welsh himself admitted that the heist scene at the end was just a way for him to finish the book — otherwise he’d be still writing it!  I found this insight and others from listening to Welsh’s own discussion during a 2007 BBC World Book Club broadcast.

Another book I probably wouldn’t have read, without the Guardian 1,000 list.  Not the most enjoyable, but one of the most thought-provoking.

 

Dystopian Days: Divergent

divergentDivergent

Veronica Roth

HarperCollins Publishers.  2013.  487 pgs + bonus materials section.

Other books I’ve read by Roth:  none.  Divergent is the first book of a young adult dystopian trilogy.  The other books in the trilogy are Insurgent and Allegiant.

Well, two things to say:  one, I know I am the last person on earth to read this book and two, I loved it!  That latter statement is not cool to say for a serious reader, I guess.  So I guess I’m not a serious reader –and any way I don’t care.

Just in case I’m not the last person on earth who hasn’t read this, and one of my faithful Livritome readers is….the story line is the following (don’t want to give away everything):

  • Some incredible war (or plague?) has happened and the survivors (at least in Chicago, USA!) have decided to reorganize society into groups that represent the characteristics that may help prevent a future war.
  • The characteristics, or factions are:  Erudite (intelligence), Dauntless (courage), Amity (peacefulness), Abnegation (selflessness), and Candor (honesty).
  • All 16 year-olds complete an aptitude test to help them decide what faction they should chose to spend the rest of their lives in.  This may, or may not, mean leaving their birth families and parents forever (what 16 year old wouldn’t love that??)
  • After choosing, teens train intensely for initiation into their new faction.
  • Some folks may not fit just precisely into one faction, and that is a problem.
  • Some very unlucky folks are factionless — and this is quite a state to be feared.
  • War and unrest are brewing….

The novel follows Beatrice Prior, a girl from Abnegation whose choice of faction has dramatic ramifications for herself, her family, and several other key individuals.  Not only must Beatrice square her choice of faction with the suspicion that her aptitude test results actually point towards a more troubling future choice — but she must prepare herself to take part in a greater world struggle that is lining up outside of her individual concerns.  Along the way, Beatrice meets several other young people who are struggling with their faction choice, which includes a possibility of not being accepted by the faction if they do not pass initiation — a fear Beatrice also shares.

So much has been written about why dystopias are popular.  The attraction seems simple to me, especially for younger readers.  With so many dysfunctions in our current, real world – global warming, terrorism — the possibility of the world we know devolving into some other hideous form seems quite plausible.  Additionally, I think Divergent and the Hunger Games novels resonate as classic coming of age tales.  Leaving your family behind, finding your identity, participating in a mighty struggle — aren’t those themes as primal as fairy tales and legends of the past?  Roth has just added the wrecked Sears Tower and ghostly El trains to the mix.

I also liked the love story in Divergent.  Beatrice’ love-interest turns out to be a anti-hero with a tragic, dark past that only she understands.  How classic is that theme — Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre, anyone?  Albeit with tattoos and a knack for jumping off moving El trains.

I guess it is the presence of these simple, archaic themes that sparked the criticism of Roth’s massive commercial success with Divergent.  Yes, and some of the characters are, to put it mildly, thinly drawn.  Having admitted this, I still would recommend this read.  It moved along briskly, it compelled and it presented a female hero I learned to care about.  For this non-serious reader the judgment’s on the book shelf:  I just bought the second book.

Dystopian City Falling into Ruins.  Photo Credit:  Torley Linden, Creative Commons License.

Dystopian City Falling into Ruins. Photo Credit: Torley Linden, Creative Commons License.

 

Trollope’s The Way We Live Now

way we liveThe Way We Live Now

Anthony Trollope

1875.  According to Wikipedia, The Way We Live Now was one of the last major Victorian novels to appear in serialized form.

I read a public domain version, downloaded from Amazon.  This is a very long novel — with 100 chapters.  A 2012 paper reprint counts it in at 890 pgs.

Other books I’ve read by Trollope:  none!  But the Guardian list contains at least three — and once again, thanks to the List I’ve read something absolutely fantastic that I would never have picked up.  So, more from Trollope as soon as I can get to them.

Guardian 1000 Challenge.  State of the Nation titles.

Where do I begin to try to summarize this huge, fantastic story??  First of all, Trollope’s life is interesting — an unhappy childhood dominated by broke, creative, volatile parents — his father failed taking the bar because of his bad temper and his mother actually went off to America to try to make the family fortune.  She then returned home and wrote novels to try to support them.  Despite not making ends meet, Anthony’s parents were both very concerned with maintaining their gentry status — so Anthony was sent off to the best schools where he was bullied for being the poor kid.  Then, Anthony began a long and somewhat up and down career as

a civil servant in the British Post Office.  He was said to be responsible for establishing the the famous red postal boxes.

Trollope was really upset about the financial crisis of 1873, some of which was caused by speculation—especially in railroad building.  The plot of The Way We Live Now revolves around a huge swindle concerning this very same subject.

Augustus Melmotte has come to London with his family to set up a financial house in the City. He is rumored to be a Jew, fantastically wealthy and somehow connected to the failure of a bank in Vienna — or maybe in Paris.  No one is sure, but every broke aristocrat is dying to get in good with him.  (Shades of Bernie Madoff??).  His daughter, Marie, is rumored to be an heiress worth millions — which attracts a raft of worthless, stupid noblemen hoping to make their fortunes.  Mixed in with this crowd are the Carbury’s — broke gentry who pin their hopes on son Felix (one of the most dissolute, ridiculous characters you will ever meet in fiction) snatching up Marie.  Of course Melmotte has no intention of giving his rich child over to the penniless Felix — never mind the fact that he is Sir Felix — but Melmotte is also intent on playing his own game of stocking a board of directors for his Grand South Central Mexican Railway with stupid and quiescent nobility.  So, Melmotte will use Felix for his own purposes for a while.  What Melmotte doesn’t count on is:

  • Marie’s infatuation with Felix and her own ruthless ambitions
  • Paul Montague’s nagging questions about when actual building on the railway will begin
  • Some impertinent questions from a jealous newspaperman
  • Questions from his faithful and usually complacent clerk about actually how far Melmotte is going to go this time…

This story really has everything:  greed, power, status, love, politics, finance, bigotry, a visit from the Emperor of China….I could go on and on.  There must be almost 50 substantive and fascinating sub-characters, each with his or her own story to tell.  But in the center of it all sits Melmotte.  Is he a swindler?  An anti-hero?  A fatally flawed adventurer who is merely the instrument to punish a corrupt and valueless society?  Read this fantastic story and be the judge yourself.

I have to also add that the BBC produced a luscious adaptation of TWWLN in 2001 starring David Suchet as Melmotte and Mathew Macfadyen as Felix Carbury.  I made myself the read the whole book before watching it, though, and hope you will also.

Emma, or Truth and Consequences

emmaEmma

Jane Austen

This isn’t the cover of the edition I read, but I thought it was pretty, and reminded me of Emma, herself.  Actually I read a “Borders Classic” edition (poor Borders!) with plain black cover, “copyright 2004 (huh?)”, 386 pgs.

1815

Guardian 1000 Challenge.  Love Titles.

Finally finished the last of the Austens for the Challenge read!  I’ve always had an awareness of this book:  I’ve watched numerous adaptations (love the stunning 2009 version with Romola Garai!) and of course the adorable Clueless.  But digging into the reality of Emma ended up being more of a chore for me than I expected.  That, and the numerous distractions keeping me from my Challenge reading — school, work, life — blah, blah.  Must keep reading!

Anyway, Emma.  The plot:  Emma Woodhouse is a rich and lovely young lady who lives in the quiet Surrey village of Highbury with her hypochondriac and eccentric father.  Her mom died many years ago and her older sister is married and raising a family in London.  Emma’s wealth, high status in the neighborhood, and her indulgent father leaves her plenty of resources, time and energy to meddle in the lives of her neighbors.  She fancies herself the ultimate match-maker, after having overseen the successful courtships of her sister and her beloved governess, Miss Taylor.  With Miss Taylor now married to neighboring Mr. Weston, Emma focuses her energies on a more ambitious effort:  finding a husband for a poor and clueless orphan girl, Harriet Smith.  Emma’s antics in promoting this project will have long-reaching and disastrous consequences affecting the lives of Harriet and many others.  Least of those touched by Emma’s plots will be the handsome and flirtatious Frank Churchill, mysterious and aloof Jane Fairfax and finally, Emma’s nemesis, George Knightley.

I always thought this book was going to be light-hearted and fun.  It actually was quite serious.  It had a lot to do with telling the truth and what happens when people don’t.  From the romantic “riddles” being passed back and forth by Emma and her erstwhile admirer, Mr. Elton, secret engagements, false situations created to try to throw potential lovers together,  illnesses faked to manipulate others — much of the story points to the lesson urged by Mr. Knightley:

“My Emma, does not everything serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?”

Of course, the point of the book is for Emma to learn this lesson for herself.  Also, being Austen, we get a heavy dose of the realities and consequences of adhering to the rules of society.  Finally, Emma is quite a long book and to my taste, doesn’t have the pacing and pep of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility.  Austen really takes a long time to tie all the plot lines together at the end and at one point I felt as bored and trapped as one of the characters playing an endless game of whist or backgammon with Mr. Woodhouse.  Even with that criticism, getting to know Emma was a delight and watching her grow up and embrace the beauty of truth was worth the wait.

Famous Box Hill in Surrey was the scene for the "Box Hill" outing in Emma.  Source:  This image was originally posted to Flickr by lostajy at http://flickr.com/photos/15192926@N00/164896001. It was reviewed on 1 April 2008 by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

Famous Box Hill in Surrey was the scene of the “Box Hill” outing in Emma. Source: This image was originally posted to Flickr by lostajy at http://flickr.com/photos/15192926@N00/164896001. It was reviewed on 1 April 2008 by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

January is for Jane, Part One: Mansfield Park

mansfieldMansfield Park

Jane Austen

Once again, I read a free download from Amazon.  As an aside, electronic access to these public domain works is a real boon to my reading Challenge.  Otherwise, I would be bankrupt and have my shelves overflowing with books!

1814.

According to my newly-discovered bible on all things Austen, the Republic of Pemberley website, Mansfield Park was published between Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and described as solemn and moralistic when compared to the other two works.  This is my penultimate Austen on the Challenge list.  I have already read  Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey.  Only Emma to go.  Yay, I am loving this Austen part of the Challenge!  Or as Jane put it more elegantly:

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book!  — Pride and Prejudice

Guardian 1000 Challenge.  Love Titles.

Mansfield Park, where have you been all my life?  I loved this book.  I got up at about 7:00 am this morning, and had about a quarter of the book left to read.  I could not put it down until I finished it around 11 am.

The rich family at Mansfield Park, the Bertrams, decide to invite their poor niece Fanny Price to live with them.  Fanny’s mother, Lady Bertram’s sister, had disgraced herself by marrying a low-ranked naval officer.  The Bertrams extend the hand of charity to this poor little girl and Fanny is to be raised with the wealthy Bertram children.  As a poor relation, she is treated as a sort of Cinderella character.  The kindest of the cousins, Edmund Bertram, becomes Fanny’s protector and champion.   She grows up to be a shy and self-deprecating girl, albeit with a steadfast and upright character.

When the cousins grow up,  Henry and Mary Crawford, a wealthy and dashing brother and sister,  move into the neighborhood.  Love complications develop quickly for the young people.  Much of the plot is about living within, without or falling from the strict code of conduct of Austen’s day — and what that means for the happiness of the various characters.  For example, brothers Tom and Edmund Bertram serve as counterpoints, one a wastrel and the other a good-natured young man anxious to do his duty.  You don’t need to guess who has the happier end in the story.  Making a good marriage, one that benefits other members of the family, is a priority.  Several selfish characters take it upon themselves to flout the rules to the heartbreak of others and their own eventual downfall.

Along with this “code of conduct” theme there is a wonderful flavor of understated humor in this book.  Several characters, including the lazy Lady Bertram and her busybody sister Mrs. Norris, are really funny.

“It is a very anxious period for her.”  As he said this, each looked towards their mother.  Lady Bertram, sunk back in one corner of the sofa, the picture of health, wealth, ease, and tranquility, was just falling into a gentle doze…

I also found the theme of home — or finding one’s true home or place — to be a interesting one.  One’s true home may not necessarily be the place where you were born, but may be the place where you are most needed or most useful to others.  Several of the more dissolute characters wander from fancy house to fancy estate – but are never at peace or in harmony with others.  Brilliant gardens and grounds may hide empty hearts or minds.

“Varnish and gilding hide many stains.” — Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park.

For those whose hearts are true, who long to love and serve those around them, the instinct to be at home is strong — and I believe this is the final lesson of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.  Poor, humble and once despised, Fanny is the character who is most central and most useful to all the other characters.  The story of Fanny finding her true home and true love is the story of Mansfield Park.

“I trust and hope, and sincerely wish you may never be absent from home so long again.”

E. M. Forster’s Howards End

Howardsend Howards End

E. M. Forster

I read this in a compilation published in 1993 by Gramercy Books, New York, NY.  Also contains:  A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread.  Howards End is approximately 236 pgs.

Originally published in 1910.

Other books I’ve read by Forster:  A Room with a View .  I still need to tackle Forster’s masterpiece, A Passage to India, which is the last Forster I need to read on the Guardian list.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge.  Family and Self Titles.

Forster gives us three families and uses them to illustrate several themes.  The heart of the story revolves around the intellectual and well-off Schlegals.  The Schlegals are comprised of the main character, the steady and clear-sighted Margaret who is the eye of the storm in this book, and her emotional and head-strong sister, Helen.  They have a younger brother, Tibby.  The Schlegals are involved in a variety of warm-hearted and intellectually exciting  pursuits and social circles.  They are also about to lose their London home to a developer and must find a new one.  Surrounded by books, with deep memories of the past both in England and with relatives abroad in Germany, the Schlegals represent the intelligentsia.  Money is plentiful for the Schlegals but they are not really interested in money.  This is a very feminine tribe; brother Tibby is sort of an after-thought.

The second family, the Wilcoxes are up and coming capitalists.  Pater familias Henry Wilcox made his fortune from his investments and business ventures in Africa.  Sons Paul and Charles are following in his footsteps.  His quiet wife, Mrs. Wilcox, is a representative of the older gentry and her family home, Howards End, is the center of key action in the novel.  The Wilcoxes are interested in pursuing money, houses, and cars; they move fast and they represent progress and action.  The Wilcoxes are a masculine, striving group whose feminine members are quietly repressed:  daughter in law Dolly, for example, is depicted as a simpleton and the mysterious Mrs. Wilcox is a cipher and connection to an agricultural past.  Mrs. Wilcox forms an attachment to Margaret Schlegal and her deathbed wish that Margaret inherit Howards End has ramifications that will echo throughout the lives of all the characters.

The last family, Lawrence and Jacky Bast, represent the lower classes.  Lawrence is a clerk in an insurance company and Jacky has an unsavory and questionable past.  They struggle along in a tacky apartment but Lawrence is a quietly striving person who wants more out of life.  Lawrence’s strivings bring him into accidental contact with the Schlegals — and that connection will have catastrophic consequences.  Both Lawrence and Jacky seem lost and disconnected in their world and Forster shorthands poverty for squalor and helplessness.  Jacky, for example, is the slutty “lost” woman who drags down an innocent young man.  Lawrence is weakly gullible and the action he takes based on a thoughtless remark about the stability of his insurance company by Mr. Wilcox —  filtered through the emotionalism of the Schlegals — results in the book’s climax.

Forster weaves the lives of these three disparate families together in a way to illustrate a couple of broad themes:  the loss of the natural life and the encroachment on nature by urban sprawl, second:  the failure of human beings to “connect” and be able to value, help and understand each other in order to realize their true potential and last, the differences between men and women.  It is interesting to see that while women appear to be under the thumbs of their men — Forster actually gives them the upper hand.  For example, Margaret who appears to be a complacent and subservient wife, actually leads all the characters — male and femaile —  towards the book’s resolution.  Even  Jacky, merely by showing up at the right place and time, exerts her own kind of control over imperious Mr. Wilcox.  Finally, the mysterious Mrs. Wilcox, and her doppelganger, Mrs. Avery who insists on making Howards End a living home despite the Wilcox’s vision to close it up lead us to the final realization that nature has the power to heal all wounds and bring us home in the end.  This is the ultimate power of Howards End, as Margaret realizes towards the novel’s conclusion:

She forgot the luggage and the motorcars, and the hurrying men who know so much and connect so little.  She recaptured the sense of space, which is the basis of all earthly beauty, and starting from Howards End, she attempted to realize England….

Realizing England, I believe, was Forster’s shorthand for seeing that all his characters come to grip with a right balance, or connection, between nature and urbanity, and that all of earth’s people are allowed to grow to their full potential.  This “realization” certainly is not achieved in Howards End, but Forster helps us, like Margaret, attempt to reach it.

A great read, which I’m grateful for the Guardian list in pushing me to complete.  What next???

The List … is Life. Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List

Thomas Keneally

Simon and Schuster.  1982.  400 pgs with appendix containing English translations of German SS rank designations.  Originally published in the U.K. as Schindler’s Ark.

Man Booker Prize, 1982.

New York Times Best Books of the Year, 1982.

Other books I’ve read by Keneally:  Confederates (2000).  Confederates is one of the finest novels I have ever read and it is also on the Guardian List — again, also under War and Travel.  I’m not going to blog about Confederates; I read it too long ago although its memory still haunts me.  This brilliant Australian author has written other notable works:  The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and The Great Shame, are just two.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  War and Travel titles

What can I possibly say about this master-work that has not already been said?  One point:  the Guardian 1,000 list is a collection of best novels — just as the Booker prize is for fiction works.  So how can a book about real-life Oskar Schindler’s well-documented efforts to save over 1,000 Polish Jews from the Holocaust be considered a novel?  Keneally addresses this question himself in the novel’s forward:

“To use the texture and devices of a novel to tell a true story is a course that has frequently been followed in modern writing….the novel’s techniques seem suited for a character of such ambiguity and magnitude such as Oskar.  I have attempted, however, to avoid all fiction, since fiction would debase the record, and to distinguish between realty and the myths which are likely to attach themselves to a man of Oskar’s stature.”

If you are not familiar with the book, or with Steven Spielberg’s award-winning movie based on it, the basic facts are summarized as follows.  Oskar Schindler, a German speaking Czech, and unsuccessful entrepreneur, joined the Nazi party and moved to Crakow, Poland in 1939.  He may have initially been attracted by the possibility of “renting” cheap Jewish labor from the Nazis.  Through various chicaneries, Schindler took over a bankrupt Jewish enamelware factory.  He proceeded to make a fortune in business contracts with the German armed forces.  At some point, his business venture became a rescue operation — he increasingly only hired Jews, and got them classified (and thus protected from extermination) as “essential” war employees.  Schindler played a terrifying game.  He stayed very close to key Nazis — including the sociopathic SS officer, Amon Goeth, who was responsible for the murders of thousands of Crakow Jews.  Incredibly, Schindler balanced drinking, womanizing, and partying with key Nazis and German army officers with open acts of rescue and mercy towards Jews.

Schindler’s Enamel Factory, now a museum, in Crakow, Poland. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Enamel_factory.JPG. Creative Commons license.

Many of Schindler’s well-documented rescue exploits demonstrate a complete disregard for his own safety.  He could have been executed a hundred times over.  Why his SS friends let him get away with this was a mystery — except that Schindler was a genius at keeping them bribed and amused.  And last, of course Schindler himself is a mystery.  Was he simply a risk junkie?  One of life’s dare-devils who won’t or can’t conform?  Schindler lost all of the money he made in the war and despite being honored by various governments  — died a financial and personal failure.  His much put-upon wife, Emilie remarked that:  “Oskar had done nothing astounding before the war and had been unexceptional since.”  He seemed almost to have been created for and by the purpose of saving those few and precious lives.

Oskar Schindler in the 1950’s. From: http://www.hotelsh.cz/osk_an.htm

A word about the famous list.  This part fascinated me.  Schindler did compile a real list of Jews who would travel out of Poland to safety in Moravia.  His plan was to take over 1,000 of these workers to wait out the rest of the war in another safe, obscure factory.  All remaining Crakow Jews would be sent to Auschwitz.  But a clerk who worked for the new Commandant of the local Krakow prison got his hands on the list and proceeded to take bribes from frantic would-be survivors.  Thus, instead of the heroic Schindler and his clerk portrayed in Spielberg’s movie typing the list together late at night, it appears that true survival depended on a more banal twist of evil and greed.

Of course I thought this book was fantastic.  My only issue with it was that I struggled at times because  (to my non-Polish ears) the multitude of different personal and place names were difficult and hard to keep straight.  Keneally jumps back and forth in time so some of the more intricate schemes and plots are confusing.  There are  fairly significant but secondary characters disappearing and then reappearing in the plot with sometimes apparent randomness.  In a book of this stature I would have loved to have a chart of key characters with some basic information on each so you could keep track of them all.  But these are really petty criticisms.

I’m thrilled to be able to add this one to my list of Guardian 1,000 reads.

“A view? How delightful a view is!” E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View

A Room with a View

E. M. Forster

Originally published in 1908.  One of Forster’s earlier novels, published before his first major success, Howard’s End and well before his masterpiece,  A Passage to India.   I haven’t read either of these yet but they are both on the Guardian list.

The version I read was part of a compilation published in 1993 by Gramercy Books.  It also contains Howard’s End and Where Angels Fear to Tread.  Approximately 150 pages.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  Love Titles.

Phew.  At first I thought I had run into my first Guardian 1,000 reads that I really didn’t like.  The story of a young middle class English girl who almost marries the wrong man is so full of obnoxious characters that I thought I wouldn’t be able to stomach it.

First of all, the girl herself, Lucy Honeychurch,  is so self-centered and clueless that you want to shake her.  She is completely stifled by her conventional and stultified family and friends.  The plot of the story is simple:  Lucy travels to Italy with a hysterically repressed older gentlewoman-cousin.  She meets a variety of equally parochial English folks who are barricaded in their pension hotel and only venture out with the safety of a guide-book or with fellow-English travelers.  These are all people who could travel around the world and never see a thing because their minds and hearts are closed to anyone different from themselves.

But Lucy and her cousin run into two original and free thinking characters:  a father and son, who immediately insist on changing rooms with them because the older gentleman hears the two ladies complaining that their room lacks a view.  This overture throws the chaperone cousin into a tizzy but she accepts despite her horror at this incredibly unconventional offer.

Throughout the rest of the book, the concept of a “view” comes up time and time again to symbolize how open to others, differences and new ways of thought an individual can be.  The father and son have a view but they can give it away happily because they are already in possession of open and generous hearts.  Other characters are blind to the views around them — despite how glorious the sights may be — because of their conventional and bigoted opinions.  Or for others, like Lucy’s mother, the view represents a privileged way of life:

“Very well.  Take your independence and be gone.  Rush up and down and round the world….Despise the house that your father built and the garden that he planted, and our dear view– and then share a flat with another girl.”

Lucy returns from Italy and gets engaged to a horrific prig — Cecil Vyse.  By the way, some of the names in the book are wonderful — Honeychurch elicits thoughts of sweetness and spiritual life.  A kindred spirit who helps Lucy understand herself is Rev. Beebe — and I wondered if he is meant to be the bee to her honey.  The horrible fiance, Vyse, wants to trap Lucy in a vice-like grip of conventionality and mean spiritedness.  Another character who urges Lucy to see and live more sports the surname, Lavish.  Fun stuff.

Coincidentally, the free-thinking father and son return to England and rent the villa near Lucy’s family home.  As Lucy gets closer to the son, she begins to question the view she thought she had of her future life.

So, what view will Lucy choose: the prescribed and unchanging view of her parents, the closed wall of her fiance and his clique, or the free independence of seeing the world anew and being open and loving to the opportunities it presents?  I had a fun time finding out the answer, although I can’t say the ending was a big surprise.  This wasn’t one of my favorite Guardian Challenge titles, but I’m certainly glad I read it and I know it has changed my view as well.