Dec 17, 2012

Mini-Reviews Part One: Classics, Non-Fiction, and one lone Eva Ibbotson

As promised, this week will mostly be devoted to catching up, so I can begin the New Year without a huge review backlog. I took your votes and questions into account and put together two mini-reviews posts. I also cheated a little bit and ended up including two books I had planned to review in full, but don’t worry – they come in addition to, and not instead of, the titles you all voted for. I’ll start today with classics, non-fiction, and an Eva Ibbotson (who is definitely in a category of her own in my estimation), and continue on Wednesday with graphic novels, fantasy, and kid lit.

The Doctor's Wife by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
The Doctor’s Wife by Mary Elizabeth Braddon: This 1864 novel tells the story of Isabel Sleaford, a romantic daydreamer who marries a country doctor she’s not actually in love with. What follows is heavily based on Madame Bovary, but with some key differences. First of all, Mary Elizabeth Braddon is far more reluctant to punish her rebellious protagonists than most nineteenth century authors seem to be. You think you can see where things are going, but she prefers financial independence and budding female friendships to arsenic, if you know what I mean.

Secondly, this is much more of a young woman’s coming-of-age story than a tale of adultery. Nothing much shocking actually happens, and the tone is quieter and more introspective than in Braddon’s sensation novels – indeed, she goes as far as to have the narrator tell readers directly that “this is not a sensation novel”, and even pokes fun at the genre through a secondary character named Sigismund Smith.

Somewhere in The Doctor’s Wife there’s an impassioned plea for women’s education and access to public life. Although the novel links Isabel’s na├»ve and impractical romanticism to her reading, the argument is less against women reading and more against them not being giving a broad education and outlets for their intellectual interests, passions, and desires. Isabel becomes more sensible the better educated she is, and Braddon is not exactly subtle when it comes to pointing out how trapped the narrow life of a country doctor’s wife makes her feel. Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t completely let go of a simplistic “wicked women” (class interlopers, actual adulteresses) vs “virtuous girls” dichotomy – Isabel is made more sympathetic through constant references to what she hasn’t done and condemnations of women who actually cross the line. Still, like everything else of Braddon’s I’ve picked up so far, The Doctor’s Wife was very interesting and impossible to put down. For a real review, here’s Helen’s at She Reads Novel.

Maurice by E.M. Forster
Maurice by E.M. Forster: I’ve loved everything of Forster’s I’ve read to date, and this was no exception. Again, the tone was quieter than in his other novels: sparser, more subdued, without the same warmth I’ve come to associate with Forster. As much as I believe in the death of the author, it’s impossible for me not to draw on biographical information when I approach Maurice: knowing that Forster, himself a gay man, wrote this novel in the early twentieth-century but never published it made the whole experience of reading it all the more moving.

What made this novel for me was the ending: the subversive power of a happy ending is something I’m generally a fan of, and I love how this one is transgressive in terms of class as well as of sexual orientation. Here’s what Forster himself says about it in the afterword:
A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood. I dedicated it “To a Happier Year” and not altogether vainly. Happiness is its keynote—which by the way has had an unexpected result: it has made the book more difficult to publish. Unless the Wolfenden Report becomes law, it will probably have to remain in manuscript. If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors. But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime. Mr Borenius is too incompetent to catch them, and the only penalty society exacts is an exile they gladly embrace.
I still can’t read that without tearing up. Real review: A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hermingway: The real reason why I didn’t review Hemingway’s classic memoir of literary Paris in the 1920’s is because I’ve got nothing. The writing was really lovely, but by the end I wanted to read other books about the same people and time period, because I don’t necessarily trust Hemingway. Of course, this awareness of his partiality is not necessarily a bad thing – he is probably no more partial than anyone else, his perspective is still valuable, and whatever blind spots he has are probably telling in themselves. Still, I don’t want to hear just his side of the story.

Also, just the other day Jenny was saying1 she feels that Hemingway actively excludes her as a reader, and I did get that sense to some extent while reading A Moveable Feast. I don’t necessarily have to like someone to be interested in their writing, but the feeling that they would despise me, my puny mind, and any attempts I make to understand them can be hard to overcome. Try as I might, it shuts me out. I’ll probably read Hemingway again in the future, but I doubt we’ll ever be literary BFFs. Proper review: Shelf Love.

1 Probably in a comment somewhere because I can’t find it on her blog to link to properly. I’m sorry!

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter
The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter: Baxter’s memoir about his experiences as a walking tour guide in Paris was, alas, my least favourite read of the year. After a couple of chapters I was basically hate-reading it, the main reason being Baxter’s extremely off-putting tone. To be clear, I obviously don’t think privileged and well-off men like Baxter need to shut up just by virtue of being who they are – the fact that their perspective is far more common than anyone else’s doesn’t mean that each individual story they might have to tell is superfluous. But the oblivious and self-congratulatory tone of privilege, the arrogance, and the bad jokes about immigrants with menial jobs in this book were all a little too much for me to bear. There was actually a passage about how it takes great moral courage to live a life of luxury, even though most of society will judge you as shallow and spoiled, which… I don’t really have to comment on that, do I? I hate being so ungenerous, but this book and I just didn’t get along.

Don’t take my word for it, though – here’s what The Blue Bookcase had to say.

Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot

Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot: Some of you wanted to know if this was maybe a pro-essentialism book I had read in the spirit of “know thy enemy”, so I’ll start by clarifying that no, this is a debunking of the Gurians and Saxes of this world along the lines of Delusions of Gender. The emphasis is mostly on developmental differences and similarities between boys and girls, and the subtitle is “How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About it”. The research is really good, but Eliot is not quite as engaging a writer as Cordelia Fine or Deborah Cameron, so it does get a little dry sometimes.

Her tone is also much more conciliatory – personally I find Fine and Cameron really fun to read because they lose their patience over the same things as I do and are satisfyingly sarcastic about them, but I can definitely see how someone like Eliot would bring people around more effectively. At the end of the day, I’m really glad all these different books on gender and the brain exist, because different communication styles work better for different people. The more there is out there, the more effectively we can spread this information and combat the toxic notion that men and women are more different than they are alike.

The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle by Sara Wheeler
The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle by Sara Wheeler: Sarah Wheeler is a travel writer who had previously written a book on Antarctica, Terra Icognita. To write The Magnetic North, she travelled across the whole of the Arctic Circle, going west from near the Bering Strait and ending up in Russia again at the end of her journey.

Wheeler effortlessly combines travel writing, history of the regions she visits and of Polar Exploration, and observations about nature; and the result is a really great read. Two things in particular stayed with me: first, I learned a lot about the horrific treatment of native Arctic peoples by different governments in different countries across different time periods. Obviously Wheeler’s perspective is that of a Western woman, and I’m in no way qualified to tell what she got right and what she got wrong, but she writes with intelligence, compassion, and complexity. Also, The Magnetic North includes an excellent bibliography, so any reader who wants to learn more about any of the subjects Wheeler touches on will have a good idea of where to go next.

Secondly, Wheeler does not shy away from the subject of climate change, and reading this book brought back an old sense of urgency about the environment I had allowed to grow dull over the past year or so. I think the environment is too important a topic not to feel a sense of urgency about, so I’ve made a mental note to read more books that remind me of what the facts are and what I can do about them.

A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson
A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson: I was honestly surprised that this got over forty votes, since I thought you’d all have had enough of me going on about Eva Ibbotson by now. I’m very glad to find out that’s not the case after all :D

A Song for Summer is not one of my favourite of Eva Ibbotson’s romances, but that isn’t to say it’s not a good read. It’s set in Austria at the beginning of WW2 and it tells the story of Ellen Carr, a housemother at a progressive boarding school who falls in love with mysterious musician Marek. Could there be a more Eva Ibbotson-y setup? I think not.

Again, I have two things to say. First, the ending was perfect, and it just might be my new favourite ending to an Eva Ibbotson novel ever. It’s moving, bittersweet, and acknowledges all the losses of the war while still providing hope. Oh, I’m not even coming close to doing it justice – read it and you’ll see.

The other thing I want to comment on is what we learn about Ellen in the first few chapters. She’s raised in a family of suffragists who have fought for citizenship and education for women and who are dismayed by her interest in domesticity and her desire to be a cook. I’m all for Ellen’s career choice, and see no incompatibility between occupations traditionally perceived as female and feminism. I realise, however, that feminism hasn’t always done a good job of not scapegoating traditional femininity while fighting to expand the roles available to women.

Having said that, it took all my reserves of goodwill towards Eva Ibbotson to avoid seeing the portrayal of Ellen’s militant feminist aunts as a bad case of straw feminists in the closet. I would love to discuss this with anyone else who has read the novel – Jill?

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

22 comments:

sakura said...

I think I started reading Baxter's book but left it for my dad. Hmm, I didn't get far enough to realise the tone of the book so will have to revisit it. Interesting what you say about Hemingway - there certainly is a macho, male image of him (which is perpetuated by him) and I think I felt that most when reading his novels. But I really enjoyed A Moveable Feast and Woody Allen's film Midnight in Paris which I think took a lot of inspiration from the book.

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

I liked Hemingway in Midnight in Paris too, but that's because the way he's portrayed pokes fun at his macho personage - affectionately, but still :P I imagine that his fiction might be more alienating than his non-fiction, and all in all I DID like A Moveable Feast a lot, but I just... maybe some of this is due to what I already know about him, but I can't feel close to him like I usually do to first person narrators, you know?

stujallen said...

the baxter was wonderful book ,I loved his little stories of paris ,all the best stu

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

Stu: Different strokes for different folks and all that :P

youbookmeallnightlong said...

Love Eva Ibbotson! I agree with your overall opinion of the novel; it's not my favorite by her, but it's still a really good read!

Tasha B. said...

All of these seem like proper reviews to me. :) I really, really liked Lady Audley's Secret, so I will have to give The Doctor's Wife a try. I approve of financial independence as apposed to arsenic. :p

I actually started A Moveable Feast last week. Hemingway's writing drives me C-R-A-Z-Y. I forgot how much until I started it.

Helen said...

I'm intrigued that you say Hemingway's writing in A Moveable Feast is lovely because I read A Farewell to Arms recently and didn't like his writing at all. Maybe I need to give him another chance! I was interested to read your thoughts on The Doctor's Wife too. I enjoyed it but I preferred Lady Audley's Secret.

Mystica said...

The reviews are very comprehensive. My favourite is also the Ibbotson.

Jeanne said...

The pleasure of reading Hemingway, for me, is in the way he holds back from telling you what any of the characters feel that makes them act the way they do.
I listened to A Moveable Feast on audio recently and reflected that when he wrote it, the interest was in the other famous people he met--he himself was not famous at the time, although he was by the time he let it be published.
I think there's a lot less ego in Hemingway than modern people react to--what we're bothered by is that he had to create an opaque persona to make everybody else shine brighter.
My favorite part this time through was about how easily Scott Fitzgerald got drunk!

mee said...

I voted for Moveable Feast and The most beautiful walk, so am glad to see them in the list. I stumbled upon those books too when I researched about Paris, but at the end didn't get to them. I do have Siesta / the sun also rises though and hope to read that soon-ish in my preparation for the trip to Spain.

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

youbookmeallnightlong: With my favourite authors, I almost always feel that even the books of theirs I like the least are still better than most other books :P Eva Ibbotson is no exception.

Tasha and Helen: I don't know how A Moveable Feast compares to his fiction, but the writing in this had much more warmth than I was expecting, and I really liked that about it.

Mystica: I guess I got so used to writing longer posts that I can't NOT call these mini-reviews :P

Jeanne: I did wonder how much of my reaction to Hemingway was about things that are external to the text - my previous perception of him made me project, and if not for that I'd have responded very differently. I really don't like the idea of that happening, and I don't think I made enough of an effort as a reader to engage with him in good faith, as Clare so well puts it. So one of these days I'll try again, and I'll make more of an effort this time.

Mee: Where in Spain are you going? I'm hoping to make it to Barcelona sometime in 2013, which much to my shame I still haven't visited! I hope the books turns out to be a good match for you.

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

PS: This is a great example of disagreeing without being one bit disagreeable :D

Jeanne said...

Glad you received it in the spirit in which it was meant--and I really did mean the "we" because when I was younger I did have more trouble with some of the things that bother you about Hemingway. (In fact, I was, um, known for it.)

Bookgazing said...

I love Forster's books and have a biography of him that I need to get to, but I've never made it through Maurice because I got to that bit where Maurice's guy really likes the nurse and I assumed tragedy was coming so I stopped. But now I know better :D Library visit imminent.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I've loved all of Forster’s work too and Maurice is one of the only ones I haven't read. I'm so glad to hear you loved it and I still have it to look forward to.

I really loved A Moveable Feast, but I'm actually not a Hemingway fan at all. All of the fiction books I've read of his (at least 5 or 6 now) have left me cold. But I felt like Feast was different because it was nonfiction. He was somehow moer honest and the characters felt much more real. It probably didn't hurt that I read it shortly after returning from Europe. I was really missing it.

Joanna said...

I really liked A Room with a View so should read more of Forster... And classics in general, so The Doctor's Wife sounds interesting too.

Pnk brain, Blue brain I will definitely read, as well as the other authors you mention write on this topic. It's something I'm really interested in, raising a boy.

Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis said...

OOh - your least favourite read. It's always interesting to have someone's honest opinion on that score. I agree with you that this kind of attitude in an author is irritating. I read a travel book last year that was the same kind of thing: he was condescending to everyone. I wanted to smack him - and ditch the book.

Alex in Leeds said...

I have the Braddon to read next year so it was interesting to see your own thoughts and follow the link over to Helen's too. Thanks for that. The Wheeler book sounds interesting too. :)

Jenny said...

I said it in response to Stefanie's post about offensive books (this one here http://somanybooksblog.com/2012/12/05/offensive-books/). And indeed I think I got that from you! I remember you saying something like that when you were reading the Chronicles of Narnia, and I was very struck by that. It is hard to read a book by an author who doesn't seem to want you as an audience.

Quirky BookandFilmBuff said...

Great reviews, Ana! All of these books sound quite interesting to me except Song for Summer, which I've already read. However after reading your review, I'll skip The Most Beautiful Walk and I'll try Delusions of Gender instead of the Pink Brain/Blue Brain book.

I remember liking but not loving Song for Summer, and I do remember the militant feminist aunts -- very much caricatures of progressive/feminist women. I didn't follow the link, but I love the term "straw feminists in the closet" (I can work out what it means). :-) I didn't love that aspect of the book, but it didn't really bother me, because -- if I remember correctly -- the author seemed to have a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the subject.

Gricel said...

I read A Song for Summer a couple of months ago. It was my first Ibbotson and I'm looking forward to more. I had some trouble with the part between Marek's... err... situation (trying to avoid spoilers here) and the ending. Loved the ending, but found those few chapters in between a bit awkward.

I got a kick out of the feminist aunts though. I agree with @Quirky BookandFilmBuff, they read like caricatures. They represent every suffragist stereotype, but there is something ironic and silly about the way the author portrays them. I didn't take them too seriously and found their arguments against domesticity amusing.

Rebecca H. said...

I was glad to read your review of A Doctor's Wife since I have a copy of the novel, but have been reluctant to read it since I wasn't sure how appealing a reworking of Emma Bovary would be. But I'm glad to hear it's hard to put down and offers some interesting things to think about.