Emma, or Truth and Consequences


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.


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!


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.”

A Challenging Year: 2012 Guardian 1000 Reading Progress

tree with books2012 is come and gone and I’m evaluating my progress towards reading the Guardian 1000 best novels.

How did I do?

The facts:  104 titles read.

Don’t be impressed:  only 14 were read this year.

When I started the Challenge in early 2012 I decided to give myself credit if I had read the book and remembered it so well that I could have written a review if I wanted to.

So, more on the titles I’ve given myself prior credit for in a minute.  What about the 2012 reads?  Here’s a quick summary of my impressions:

  • Most surprising:  probably the two books by Elizabeth Gaskell.  North and South and Cranford were both wonderful, modern, fresh and totally unexpected.
  • An author I’d never heard about but loved:  definitely David Lodge.  All three of his books were witty and wise.  I always judge a book by how much it makes me think and I’m still thinking and smiling about Nice Work.  Angela Thirkel was also unknown to me.
  • Most overrated:  Lucky Jim  Maybe it just hasn’t aged well.  An unlucky choice by the Guardian editors.  I also felt a little of the P.G Wodehouse novels were over the hill at this point.  Oh, well.
  • Books I’m glad I read but struggled through:  both the E.M. Forsters.  I have great trepidation about A Passage to India.

So, on the whole its been a good year but I really need to step up.  If I only read 14 titles a year, I won’t live long enough to finish the list.  Is this even doable?  Is it worth it?  This year has brought real delights when I read a book that I never would have except for the Challenge, but is that a good enough reason to carry on?  I might be having a moment of darkness in my soul for the Challenge, so bear with me.

As I mentioned above, I have given myself credit for the following titles from the Guardian list:

  • Read in School :  Great Expectations (Dickens), The Sound and the Fury (Faulkner), The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce), Pride and Prejudice (Austen), Jane Eyre (Bronte), Wuthering Heights (Bronte), The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne), A Farewell to Arms (Hemingway), The Plague (Camus), Les Miserables (Hugo), The Jungle (Sinclair), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twain), The House of Mirth (Wharton), Heart of Darkness (Conrad), Lord Jim (Conrad), The Red Badge of Courage (Crane), For Whom The Bell Tolls (Hemingway), The Call of the Wild (London), All Quiet on the Western Front (Remarque).
  • Yes, I was a Weird Kid Who Read A Lot:  The Wind in the Willows (Grahame), And Then There Were None (Christie), To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee), Little Women (Alcott), Villette (Bronte), Rebecca (du Maurier), Gone With the Wind (Mitchell), Oliver Twist (Dickens), Animal Farm (Orwell), Black Beauty (Sewell).
  • I Read Because I Wanted to Read “Everything” By the Author: Breakfast of Champions  and Slaughter House Five(Vonnegut), Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden (Steinbeck), Of Human Bondage (Maugham), The Man of Property (Galsworthy), Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Hardy), Babbitt, Elmer Gantry and Main Street (Lewis), The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night (Fitzgerald).
  • I Hid These From My Parents:  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Spark), The Godfather (Puzo), Rubyfruit Jungle (Brown), Love Story (Segal), Valley of the Dolls (Susann), The Painted Bird (Kosinski), Sons and Lovers (Lawrence).
  • Laugh Out Loud Funny:  The Uncommon Reader (Bennett), Bridget Jones’ Diary (Fielding), Cold Comfort Farm (Gibbons), Catch-22 (Heller), The Confederacy of Dunces (Toole), The Witches of Eastwick (Updike), The Loved One (Waugh), The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (Weldon), The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Age 13 3/4 (Townsend), The Shipping News (Proulx), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Kesey).
  • Made Me Cry or Made Me Mad:  A Time to Kill (Grisham), The Secret History (Tartt), The Daughter of Time (Tey), Middlesex (Eugenides), The God of Small Things (Roy), A Suitable Boy (Seth), The Color Purple (Walker), The Mill on the Floss (Eliot), Madame Bovary (Flaubert), Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), Vanity Fair (Thackeray), The Corrections (Franzen).
  • War Books:  Cold Mountain (Frazier), The Tin Drum (Grass), The Kite Runner (Hosseini), From Here to Eternity (Jones), Andersonville (Kantor), Confederates (Keneally), Tales of the South Pacific (Michener), Suite Francaise (Nemirovsky), A Town Like Alice (Shute), Maus (Spiegelman), Sophie’s Choice (Styron).
  • Weird Stuff:  Jurassic Park (Chrichton), The Bell Jar (Plath), The Bluest Eye (Morrison), The Golden Notebook (Lessig), Quarantine (Crace), The Human Stain (Roth).

For now,  I’m definitely going to carry on with the Challenge.  Thanks for reading this blog this year and please send me any thoughts — even if you just think I’m crazy to try this.

Happy New Year to you and may you find your Challenges — planned and unexpected — fulfilling in 2013.

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

NorthangerAbbeyNorthanger Abbey

Jane Austen

I read the free Amazon Kindle version.  The introduction describes it as the Signet Classic Text edition.  182 pgs.

Austen wrote Northanger Abbey in 1797-98, referring to it as both “Susan” and “Miss Catherine.”  In 1803 she sold the manuscript to the London publisher Crosbie & Co., but the book was never published.  In 1816, Jane bought the book back from Crosbie and made some revisions to it, but put it “on the shelf.”  Her brother Henry finally had the novel published in 1817, the year of Jane’s death. 1.

Other books I’ve read by Austen:  Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility.  These masterpieces were written well after Northanger, and I noticed immediately how undeveloped this novel is when compared with the later works.  Perhaps Austen knew best when she “shelved” it in 1816.  I still need to read Mansfield Park and Emma to complete all the Austens on the Guardian list.

One other bibliographic note.  The main character, Catherine Morland, is a big fan of the gothic novels of her day, especially the works of Ann Radcliffe.  Radcliffe’s 1794 block-buster, The Mysteries of Udolpho (also on the Guardian list!), serves as both a point of discussion for the characters in Northanger and a sort of counter-plot.  The theme of literature (as in, what is good?  are novels bad?) winds throughout Northanger.  Remembering that this book is really part of Austen’s juvenalia, I could almost hear the young Austens enthusing about the horrors of Udolpho and urging sister Jane:  “You could write something even better!!!”  Fun thoughts.

Guardian 1000 Challenge.  Love Titles.

Now, the plot.  Our heroine, Catherine Morland, is a young, innocent and earnest young lady who is taken on a pleasure trip to the resort town of Bath by kindly Mr. and Mrs. Allen.  Catherine’s function is to act as a companion to the flighty and clothes-obsessed Mrs. Allen.

To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanities of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid.  A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.  — Northanger Abbey.

Catherine’s brother James, who is on holiday from Oxford,  joins the party in Bath, and the two younger people are soon caught up in what I would imagine would be equivalent to a modern U.S. spring break in Daytona Beach — but with long dresses, chaperones and a big emphasis on drinking Bath’s medicinal waters instead of Bud Light.  Catherine and James form a sudden and intense friendship with brother and sister Isabella and John Thorpe.  Isabella is on the make for a rich husband and her maneuverings are obvious to anyone a mile away — except for the innocent and gullible Morlands.  John Thorpe is just a crazy maniac whose talents are limited to gossip and bragging.  At the same time, Catherine also meets the refined and fascinating Tilney family — brother and sister Eleanor and Henry, and their father, doughty General Tilney.

Bath from Beechen Cliff

City of Bath, view from Beechen Cliff. Source: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/945985. Creative Commons license by Derek Harper.

Catherine is very attracted to the handsome and kind Henry Tilney, and anxious to get away from John Thorpe.  She finds that Henry enjoys reading as much as she does and endorses her love of the gothic novels of Mrs. Radcliffe.

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.  — Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey.

Catherine is excited to think that the Tilneys live in an old Abbey, and imagines lots of mysterious adventures there.  She is ecstatic to be invited to stay at  Northanger Abbey for a kind of extended sleepaway party by Eleanor Tilney.  Once installed at Northanger, Catherine has several “gothic” adventures based more on her over-heated imaginings rather than any real hauntings.  She is brought soundly back to earth by some real-life gothic horrors that haunted young ladies of that day:  the powerlessness of poverty, the inability to find true love when one’s reputation is questioned, and the cruelty of so-called gentlemen.  Austen does provide a happy ending, but not after some true mysteries are brought to light.

I enjoyed this read, despite its rather skimpy plot.  Several main characters (Eleanor Tilney and General Tilney, for example) hardly ever speak, and their motivations are somewhat clumsily described second-hand by Austen.  Austen’s satiric gifts are present, but they will be more fully displayed in her later work.  For example, the ridiculous characters of Mrs. Allen and John Thorpe seem almost frantically portrayed; they will reappear skillfully drawn as Mrs. Bennett and Cousin Collins in Pride and Prejudice.  The gothic theme is carried through about three-fourths of the novel, but then abruptly dropped after Catherine is lectured by Henry about her imaginings.

Fun fact:  Northanger Abbey contains the first known reference to the sport of baseball. 2.

Northanger Abbey was another title that I probably would never have read, except for the Guardian Challenge.  I’m not sure I’m up for following this with The Mysteries of Udolpho, although that would make sense.  We’ll see!

Notes 1 & 2:  The Republic of Pemberly, http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/janewrit.html#northabbey.

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???

Only connect….a hiatus and a status report…

I have missed my Livritome blog so much!  Even more, I’ve missed reading my lovely Guardian novels.  Here’s the explanation:

  • Got bogged down in Howards End.  I mean, really bogged down as in I hated it.  I hadn’t come up with a contingency plan to deal with a long, weighty Guardian read that I hated….so didn’t know what to do.  Blog about the hate?  Keep drudging through?
  • In early October I started a MBA program.  Since I also work full-time, every spare minute has been spent reading business cases instead of Guardian titles — and certainly all drudging through Howards End came to a halt.
  • Conclusion:  got an A in my first MBA course!  I have a two week’s break and so the other day picked up Howards End off the pile and plunged back in and guess what….I’m seeing my way through it after all!  I think I’m actually now looking forward to finishing it and blogging about it very soon.
  • Strategy:  in addition to finishing Howards End, pick some very good, Guardian read that is SHORT — so I can finish before the end of my break.  Would it be possible to sneak in another non-Guardian, like book two of the George R. R. Martin series?  Or at least, March, by Geraldine Brooks, which I’ve already dipped into?
  • Question:  would Livritome readers be interested in business books, as well as novels?

Nice Work by David Lodge

Nice Work

David Lodge

Penguin Books.  1988.  277 pgs.

Man Booker Prize Shortlist, 1988.

Other books I’ve read by Lodge:  the wonderful Deaf Sentence and Changing Places.  Nice Work is the third Lodge book  about fictional Rummidge University — a stand-in for the University of Birmingham, UK.  If I give myself a break from the Challenge soon, I’d like to slip in another Lodge — possibly Small World, which is another Rummidge book.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  Comedy titles

Vic Wilcox, an industrialist and Robyn Penrose, a university professor have been coerced into participating in a feel-good university-community project that has Robyn spending each Wednesday shadowing Vic at his gritty factory-foundry.  Vic and Robyn are as about unlikely a couple as can be:  Vic is a non-nonsense “buy British” sort of guy with a Polytech background; Robyn drives a Renault and is an untidy intellectual who teaches Womens’ Studies and specializes in Victorian Industrial novels.   Robyn hates Vic’s factory and her visits turn everything in his world upside down.  She nearly incites a strike among the workers and wages a campaign against the girly calendars that are posted throughout the plant.  As you might suspect, the sparks flying between these two characters eventually ignite something else and Vic and Robyn’s overnight trip to an industrial trade show in Frankfort, Germany turns out to be one of the high-lights of the book.

This is one of the most entertaining novels I think I have ever read.  I had the added delight of tracking Lodge’s clever parody of Gaskell’s North and South — with Robyn as Margaret Hale to Vic’s John Thorton.  Thanks to my Challenge reading I actually appreciated all of Lodge’s allusions.  Another pleasure was the cast of  great secondary characters:  I particularly enjoyed Vic’s valium-popping wife, Marge, and even his spoiled and bratty kids.  Robyn’s crowd over at Rummidge U included  a doddery and eccentric Philip Swallow, who we met in Changing Places, and a crew of other roundly-satirized academics.  Add in Robyn’s refined and genteel parents (aka Mr. and Mrs Hale) from the South of England, a Victorian ex deus machina twist that pulls the plot together and a surprise visit from the famous Prof. Maurice Zapp from Changing Places to help Robyn make up her mind on an important matter — and you have the perfect ending.  Although the writing is so good and Vic and Robyn’s characters so memorable you just don’t want this one to end.

Lucky to be on the Guardian List?

Lucky Jim

Kingsley Amis

Penguin Group.  1953.  251 pgs with forward by David Lodge.

I decided to run to the top of the Guardian 1000 Comedy titles list for my next read.  I knew absolutely nothing about Kingsley Amis, but I figured his “classic” campus novel/comedy would provide some amusement after Schindler’s List.  Lucky Jim was touted as a modern classic about life in 1950’s British universities, been translated into many languages and even been made into a movie.  How could I go wrong?

After finishing this dreary little volume I have one word:  huh?  Here’s our plot:  Jim Dixon is a probationary lecturer in an second-string British university.  His specialty is medieval studies — but he has no real interest in it, or interest in any sort of scholarship.  Jim’s main energies are focused on ingratiating himself with his department chairman, Prof. Welch, sorting out his quasi-relationship with a female lecturer, Margaret, carefully rationing his cigarettes and drinking as much liquor as he can.  Prof. Welch invites Jim to an arty weekend at the Welch home where Jim meets the Welch’s obnoxious son, Bertrand, and Bertrand’s pretty girlfriend, Christine.  Jim figures the weekend is a good opportunity to shine, and cinch his permanent employment with the University.  Unfortunately, due to a fair amount of liquor consumption, Jim fails to shine.  The book’s climax involves Jim giving a public lecture to a huge campus crowd on the topic of, “Merrie England.”  This also turns out to be an incredible disaster, which I guess is supposed to be humorous.

Sir Kingsley Amis Novelist and poet

Sir Kingsley Amis Novelist and poet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve now done a little bit of reading on Kingsley Amis, to try to understand the context of this novel.  Amis was part of the “Angry Young Men” movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  These writers and playwrights represented a lower class view of English society and expressed disenchantment with traditional British morals and literature.  At the time of Lucky Jim’s publication, it was haled as an altogether new kind of writing. It also was the first of the “campus novels” that were further developed by writers like David Lodge.  So, ok, historically this was an important and I guess, very unique and special work.

I just didn’t find any thing funny about it, nor did I find the plot particularly engaging. I was also bugged by the book’s strident misogyny.   The two principle female figures are troubling:  Margaret is a neurotic and an emotional blackmailer.  Her worse crime is not being very pretty.  Sexy Christine, is hauled around by both Jim and Bertrand and eventually fought over in a Cro-Magnon style encounter between the two men.  Last but not least, I couldn’t have cared less whether Jim was lucky or unlucky in the various entanglements he was involved with.

So….that’s it for me on Lucky Jim.  Let me go back to the Comedy titles for another try….this one was a bust.

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.

Two by David Lodge: Changing Places and Deaf Sentence

Changing Places:  A Tale of Two Campuses

David Lodge

Penguin Books.  1975.  251 pgs.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  Comedy Titles

This is the story of two very different English professors:  one English and one American, who participate in an exchange program requiring them to switch campuses and teaching duties for a semester.  The English professor, Philip Swallow, is a quiet, repressed sort without a particular drive to succeed in his career, or in his life.  His participation in the exchange program is actually manipulated behind his back through some complex campus political chicanery — actually the poor guy is being screwed out of a promotion and his department head figures he won’t notice while he’s over in America.  The American professor, Morris Zapp, is the antithesis of Swallow.  As Lodge describes him:   “His needs were simple:  a temperate climate, a good library, plenty of inviting ass around the place and enough money to keep him in cigars and liquor….” Zapp’s motivation to switch places with Swallow is his need to get away from his wife, Desiree, who is threatening divorce and getting involved with Women’s Liberation.  Zapp figures his trip to England will provide the cooling-off period he needs to get Desiree under control.  It’s not as though Zapp loves his wife so much, but he doesn’t care to be humiliated by her or have his comfortable life disturbed.

The rest of the book is a funny comparison between the thinly disguised University of Birmingham (U.K.) and University of California, Berkeley, circa 1969.   Both professors have to deal with the madness of campus unrest and social revolution — layered against the funny cultural differences of being an American at a U.K. campus and a Englishman at an American campus.  Throw in a heavy dose of sexual adventures on both sides of the Atlantic and this must have been a very amusing and daring novel when it was published in the mid-1970’s.  There’s a great deal of literary cleverness in it, too.  Prof. Zapp’s specialty is Jane Austin (he named his two children Elizabeth and Darcy) and there are amusing Austin references in the book.  The problem I had with Changing Places is that none of the main characters are particularly likable.  In sum, this was an interesting anachronism that I wouldn’t have read except for the Challenge.

Deaf Sentence

Penguin Books.  2008.  294 pgs. with acknowledgments.

The same author, over 30 years later!  What a difference.  I totally loved this book.  It was not part of the Guardian Challenge, but I think it should have been.

What’s the same:  Lodge is still dealing with academic life — the main character is a retired linguistics professor.

What’s different:  the big themes of mortality and aging.  From what I’ve read, I suspect some of the book is autobiographical.  The main character, Desmond Bates, is struggling painfully with his encroaching deafness — and David Lodge is also dealing with that disability.  In addition, Prof. Bates is acting as care-taker to his feisty, but rapidly disintegrating, elderly father.  The elder Mr Bates — Harry — an unforgettable former band musician, is evidently modeled on Lodge’s own father who was a musician in and around London in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  I’m wondering if the reality of all of this is what gives the book its strong, true and even tender, nuances.

This may all sound a bit depressing.  The pain of deafness is described with heart-breaking reality.  Desmond’s relationship with his wife is difficult due to his depression, the impact of aging on his sexuality and her impatience with his inability, or unwillingness to take action to improve what he can change.  For example:  Desmond hates wearing his hearing aids and when he “forgets” various horrendous — and sometimes funny — mistakes occur.   The sorrow of his Dad’s mental and physical breakdown is described realistically and painfully.   Despite these struggles, the book has an upbeat quality.  In the end, it takes a death, a birth, a “fatal attraction” relationship and a trip to Poland for Desmond to realize that his life has meaning and that happiness is worth striving for.  I found this book touching, lovely and very real.  Unlike Profs. Swallow and Zapp, Prof. Bates will live in my memory for a long time.

There’s another book by David Lodge on the Challenge list:  Nice Work.  A friend is bringing that to me next week so I’ll be reporting on it soon.