review: high fidelity

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (1995)

An intriguing fun fact: High Fidelity is a first novel.  I read Juliet, Naked last year and thought it was okay but not great, and got about halfway through A Long Way Down before putting it down and never picking it back up.  I have wanted to love a Nick Hornby novel, and finally High Fidelity has filled that particular (strange?) bibliophilic desire.  I loved this novel.  Loved it.  The question I asked myself after finishing it was why had it taken me so long to read it?

The story is told through the first-person narrative of Rob Fleming, a 35-year-old bachelor who has just broken up with longtime girlfriend, Laura.  The first part of the novel, the “THEN” part, reads like a kind of prologue, in which Rob lists his top five breakups.  This part imagines Laura as the intended reader or as though he’s speaking directly to her.  Rob is emphatic in his declaration that Laura doesn’t make this list, but methinks the man doth protest too much.  Chapter One then begins the “NOW” section of the novel, and one of the interesting things about it is that it is written in present tense.  It’s like we’re in Rob’s head, hearing his thoughts and listening in on his conversations as they happen.  The memories of his top five breakups drive Rob into sustained self-reflection as he tries to work out why those relationships didn’t work out, even as he is trying to make sense of his relationship with Laura.

Rob also owns a record store (yes, actual records) called Championship Vinyl.  Even as he is thinking about his past, his present, and his future in terms of romantic relationships, he is also reflecting on where he is professionally.  His store is on the edge of failing, and he’s not sure that he wants to save it.  He feels that his professional life is a failed relationship and uninterrupted inertia.  Rob is drifting through life but going nowhere, and yet at the same time he’s stuck in place, unable to move forward or let go of the past.  Although he loves music, he continues to ask himself if listening to pop music makes him miserable, or if he’s miserable because he listens to pop music.  He meditates on the power of film, music, and fiction to shape our identities and expectations, and he recognizes, too, that such creative arts provide individuals with a way of expressing emotions that they can’t otherwise put into words.  Rob’s incessant penchant for making top 5 lists is driven by his inability to express himself in any other way.

I taught this novel in one of my literature courses, and I suggested to my students that one of the primary themes of the novel is letting go.  This to me is one of the main sources of tension in the novel.  Rob has held onto these breakups and allowed them to define him and his point of view, but ultimately he has to let go of the regret, the pain, and the misunderstandings because if he doesn’t, he’ll never be able to move forward and have a successful relationship.  I also don’t think that Rob’s age is a coincidence.  He’s definitely having a mid-life crisis, but what gives the narrative so much power and force is that it’s painfully, unflinchingly honest.  Rob isn’t one of those self-deluding, unreliable narrators.  He doesn’t censor himself out of some fear of discovering something within or about himself that he doesn’t want to face.  The narration is wildly funny at times and I laughed aloud on numerous occasions to the point that my eyes started watering, but at the same time I felt myself identifying with his uncertainty and disillusionment.  One of my students said that Rob is lost, and I totally agree, and the narrative is that much more affecting because I know exactly how that feels.  Rob is like so many of us who is just trying to figure out how he got where he is and where does he go now? Where does he belong and will there be an end to the loneliness he feels or will he finally find love, happiness and a lasting relationship.  There’s nothing particularly special about Rob but I was completely invested in his story and how it was all going to end.

Now, don’t get the wrong impression.  Rob is far from perfect.  He’s misogynistic, selfish, self-absorbed and egotistical.  He’s that person in your life who thinks his taste in music is superior to yours.  He’s a flawed character, and there’s no getting around it.  But…but in spite of his flaws I liked him and wanted him to finally figure it all out and make the “right” choices so that he might be able to have the happiness he wants so much.  Would I want to date Rob Fleming? Probably not. Do I see a lot of him in myself? Absolutely.  This is good and bad, but in the end it makes him a realistic and completely believable character.

Is it okay if I repeat that I loved this book? I loved this book, and I wonder if part of this is because I’m close to Rob’s age and closely identified with his character.  It’s my opinion that the effect a book has on us is sometimes dependent upon where we are in our lives when we read them.  I’m not sure that my reaction to this book would have been the same if I had read it five years ago, much less ten years ago, and so maybe it’s okay that I’m just now reading it for the first time.  Still, I highly recommend this book.  It’s a wonderful first novel that has a lot of energy, humor, and hope.  High Fidelity is definitely on my top five list of favorite reads of 2012.

review: guards! guards!

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (1989)

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett is the starter novel in the City Watch story arc and the eighth book in the Discworld series.

The cast of characters in this novel is extensive, but it works because the plot itself has a lot of different layers and intricacies.  We have the characters that make up the City Night Watch—Captain Vimes, Sergeant Colon, Lieutenant Nobby and Lance-Corporal Carrot, the newbie.  Carrot and Vimes are the most interesting characters thus far.  Carrot is 6-foot-6 and is a foundling who was raised by dwarves.  Guessing that it would be better for Carrot to be with “his own kind” his father gets him a job with the City Watch, and a friend of the family gives him a rules and regulations book for the Watch and tells him to read it because an officer of the law should know the rules and regulations of the law he is sworn to uphold.  This makes for some funny shenanigans because the book is clearly out of date, and the laws in the book are no longer in force and effect; Carrot doesn’t seem to grasp this, nor does he understand the other Watch officers who look the other way and allow crime to happen.  The first thing he does is arrest the head thief in the Thieves Guild, which shocks and appalls everyone.  Captain Vimes on the other hand is a jaded, cynical man who has been “brung low by a woman” and he drowns himself in alcohol.  Eventually, though, all of the men of the Night Watch will have to involve themselves in the latest attempt at a coup d’état.  They won’t end up as “heroes” but they’ll be the closest thing to a hero you can find in the city of Ankh-Morpork.

Leading that coup is a shadowy figure called the Supreme Grand Master, whose identity we don’t learn for a long while (and I was surprised, though I wonder that I should have been).  The Supreme Grand Master wants to overthrow the Patrician and install a King that will do what he tells him to do, making him a kind of Cardinal Richelieu figure.  He thinks that the best way to do this is to endanger the city of Ankh-Morpork with a threat that only a young, future king can defeat, and in doing so will be crowned as monarch and ruler.  His plan is to summon a dragon, and he does this by arranging for the theft of a magical book from the Library of Unseen University.  Thus, the Librarian makes several appearances in this novel and embarks on a trip to L-space (where all libraries in the universe are connected).  Anyway, the dragon is successfully summoned, wreaks ten kinds of havoc on the city, and as you might guess, the dragon turns the tables and becomes the master, so that the dragon is installed as King of Ankh-Morpork. While the first half of the book is about trying to figure out how the dragon has arrived in the city, the second half of the novel is about trying to figure out how to defeat the dragon.

Meanwhile, the Patrician is stripped of his power and thrown into the Palace dungeon.  The Patrician (Lord Vetinari) has become one of my favorite recurring characters who doesn’t have his own storyline.  I just read Sourcery and he makes an appearance in that book but his appearance in Guards! Guards! is a bit more substantial.  Death also makes an appearance and is good for at least one laugh, but it’s more like a bit part than anything else.  There’s also a reference to Mort and Princess Keli from Mort.  This is one of the things that I love about the Discworld novels so far.  They can stand alone, and yet if you’ve read any of the previous books there’s a good chance there will be a reference to someone or something that is a bit of reward for being an attentive reader.

Another notable character is Errol, one of the swamp dragons bred by Lady Sybil Ramkin (she’s pretty much the only female character in the novel).  According to Lady Ramkin, Errol’s genetics are just wrong somehow, and so he’s more of a pet than a stud for her swamp dragon breeding endeavors.  So she gives him as a gift to Captain Vimes, and he becomes a kind of mascot for the Night Watch.  What’s interesting about him though is that he is a character very similar to the Luggage from the Rincewind story arc.  He doesn’t speak, but he has his role to play.  He doesn’t exactly know how to execute the part he’s supposed to play, but eventually he figures it out and helps to save the day.

The story is a playful take on the King Arthur legend which ultimately gets turned on its head, mostly because Ankh-Morpork is no place for the knights of the round table.  On one level, I liked that this was more of an “ensemble” drama that told the stories of many different people.  On the other hand, I think I prefer the stories that have an identifiable main character.  If you haven’t read any of the Discworld books, I still recommend starting with the first novel (The Colour of Magic).  If you’re like me and still relatively new to the series, I think you’ll enjoy Guards! Guards!. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite so far, but I was definitely entertained.  This book has been my “fun” reading for the last couple of weeks and it didn’t disappoint.

review: vanity fair

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)

I have now read Vanity Fair by William M. Thackeray twice.  Four years have passed since my first reading, and I was curious to see if my opinion of the novel would change after reading it a second time and discussing it with my students.  I wanted to know if they would convince me to view the novel in a different, more favorable way.  Alas, the second experience has only reinforced my response to the first reading.  Getting through the novel is certainly an accomplishment, and there is value in reading the story, but Thackeray’s masterpiece doesn’t make my personal list of must-read masterworks.

Like reading the novel, summarizing the narrative is a daunting task, and that task is complicated by the large cast of characters that populate the novel.  Probably the first thing to know is that the novel is a satire, and in terms of literary forms, it is an exemplar of that narrative form.  Although Thackeray’s subtitle claims the work to be “A Novel Without a Hero” there are a few key protagonists, the foremost being Becky Sharp.  The novel begins in the first decade of the 1800s, not long before the Battle of Waterloo, and Becky is the daughter of an artist and a French dancer, which makes her position in the class structure of English society a low one.  This is what Becky seeks to rectify throughout the novel—she aspires to move in the highest, most exclusive echelons of society, and she is willing to do anything at all to get what she wants.  She is frequently paralleled to “that Corsican upstart” (Napoleon) and she is a master of the fine art of deception.  Indeed, she is the stereotypical social climber who will kick you off the ladder if it means climbing up to the next rung.  As much as we are intended to dislike Becky Sharp, her opposite, Amelia Sedley, is equally unlikeable.  Thackeray’s narrator continuously portrays Amelia as weak but gentle, loyal to a fault, unaware of what is going on around her to the point of narcissism, and in constant need of protection and someone to take care of her.  Amelia is intended to be a satire of the sentimental heroine pervasive in 19th century sentimental romances, and her vanity is her indulgence of her son who rules over her like a tyrant and her reverence for a husband who is anything but a gentleman and decidedly unworthy of her love or her idolatry.

One of the targets of Thackeray’s satire is the institution of marriage, and after reading the novel a second time I have to wonder if there can be a happy marriage in the world of Vanity Fair.  The three male protagonists in the novel experience marriage differently, but I wouldn’t say any of them are happy.  Becky marries Rawdon Crawley, and his marriage leads to disinheritance, massive debt, and financial ruin.  The only happiness he ultimately finds in his marriage is his love for his son.  Amelia marries George Osborne, and he, too, is disinherited because of his choice of wives, but the ruin deriving from their mésalliance is ultimately Amelia’s, not George’s.  Finally, William Dobbin, after spending nearly twenty years in love with a woman who doesn’t ever requite his love and is completely undeserving of his affection or loyalty, marries the woman he has desired for years, but even he comes to realize that the woman he marries isn’t worth the years he has spent pining for her.

Much of what drives the satire in Vanity Fair is the importance and value that is placed upon individuals who are morally bankrupt, utterly false, and irredeemable, and the lack of worth that is placed upon individuals who are genuinely good and patient, and possess even the tiniest measure of humility.  Thackeray’s satire takes aim at a bevy of issues he viewed to be the vices and follies within Victorian society—class, greed, gambling, the marriage market, etc., but the thing he derides most is every form of hypocrisy and vanity that causes individuals to place their own interests and desires above those of others, regardless of the cost.  Thackeray’s world of Vanity Fair is also an endless cycle, in which people rise and fall, or fall and rise, and the second generation makes similar kinds of mistakes, and engages in the same kinds of vanity and hypocrisy.  Vanity Fair is a world without end, and it is a world in which heroes can’t exist.

This second reading of Vanity Fair has caused me to look at the novel more objectively.  The first time I read the novel I was in my third semester of a doctoral program, and my reading and work load were so heavy that the tediousness of the novel’s narrator and his penchant for moralizing, along with my strong dislike for most of the protagonists (but especially Amelia) made reading the novel a painful exercise.  It wasn’t as painful this time, but I think I was just as happy to get to the end this time (perhaps even happier) as I was the first time.  The benefit of reading Vanity Fair is that you can see how it affected other novelists and how it was engaged in the same debates as other novels written during the mid-19th century.  As I said above, the satire is sharp and penetrating, and is an excellent example of the use of satire in the novel.  Still, my life will not be incomplete if it does not include a third reading of Vanity Fair.  The novel doesn’t make my list of recommended reads, and I would feel guilty about encouraging anyone to read it.  If you do read it, I don’t think you’ll regret it, or put in your list of five worst classics, or even want to throw your book across the room. My suggestion? Reader beware.

review: loitering with intent

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark (1981)

I discovered Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark by accident last year when I was reviewing novels to teach in a class focused on the 20th century British novel.  I just completed my third reading of this book, and with each reading I like it more and more.

The protagonist of the novel is Fleur Talbot.  Fleur is writing her memoir, and the specific period of time she is recounting is the middle of the twentieth century, from September 1949 to June 30, 1950.  As she unfolds the events of the past, we learn that it was during this time that Fleur was writing her first novel, Warrender Chase.  Because she wasn’t yet a successful, published author, it was in September 1949 that she found herself in need of a job, and her search leads to a secretarial position with the Autobiographical Association, established and led by Sir Quentin Oliver.  Fleur explains that the purpose of the members of the Autobiographical Association is to write their memoirs and once completed, to lock them away for seventy years in order to avoid any accusations of libel.  One of Fleur’s responsibilities is to edit the drafts of the memoirs, but she takes the liberty of “livening up” the memoirs by adding events, details, and people that never really happened or existed.  Though the writers at first find the changes disturbing, they eventually allow and accept them to the point that they begin to believe fiction to be reality.  Further still, the nature of Fleur’s own autobiography becomes questionable when we come to learn of the two autobiographies she admires most—that of John Henry Newman which she calls a “beautiful piece of poetic paranoia” and that of Benvenuto Cellini which appears to embellish the truth to the extent that it is difficult to believe everything in it to be true.  Consequently, the reader questions whether Fleur’s autobiography is a piece of poetic paranoia or if it is embellished to the point of fabrication.  Or is it a little of both?  These threads of the narrative allow Spark to deliberately blur the line between fact and fiction and question the nature of autobiography.

The line between fact and fiction is further blurred by Fleur as she relates the creation and evolution of her first novel, Warrender Chase.  As the story continues, it becomes difficult to be sure if Fleur is telling us the truth when she claims that none of the characters or the plot of her novel were inspired by Sir Quentin, his mother Lady Edwina, or the members of the Autobiographical Association.  Particularly when Sir Quentin and the Autobiographical Association begin to act out some of the events that occur in Warrender Chase.  It is also difficult to determine if Fleur has not only written a work of fiction but also created the “real” individuals that populate her memoir. Throughout the story, Fleur tells her friend Dottie that she could have invented Sir Quentin, and even Dottie becomes a character type for Fleur—an English Rose—a character type that appears in her novel.  The result is that readers not only question whether or not Fleur, who is writing her memoir, is actually a reliable narrator but also what parts of Fleur’s memoir are fact and which parts are fiction.  The answers to these questions are certainly left up to the interpretation of the reader.

Beyond the questions of what is real and what is fantasy, Fleur Talbot is a wonderful example of an emerging modern woman of the 20th century.  In fact, Fleur’s refusal to submit to male dominance and traditional expectations for women makes her a refreshing character in terms of how women placed within a mid-20th century setting are typically represented.  She is career-oriented, ambitious, and focused upon success and achieving her goals, and though she is not by any stretch “perfect” and some readers will question her morality, she’s appealing as a character, and her characterization is one of the many strengths of the novel.

Another of those strengths is the way Fleur reflects upon her development as a writer.  More than once she remarks on how wonderful it was to be a woman and a writer in the middle of the twentieth century.  As I was teaching this book last week, I contemplated whether this novel fits into the category of a Kunstlërroman (“novel of the artist”).  We don’t see Fleur’s coming of age and development as an artist from childhood, so perhaps in the strictest sense it doesn’t fit this category.  And yet, I want to put it in this category.  Fleur’s recollections about writing her first novel and how she sees herself as a consummate observer of human experiences and emotions so that she can incorporate those into her fiction offers an interesting look at how Fleur understands the craft of writing (and, I suspect this applies to Spark as well).  For someone who writes, it’s an interesting look into how one person (even a fictional person) finds inspiration.

Loitering with Intent is definitely one of my recommended reads.  The story is entertaining and neither Fleur nor the novel takes itself too seriously; and yet at the same time the complexity of the interlocking narratives, the ambiguous line between fact and fiction, and the presence of a strong protagonist make it easy for me to see why this novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  I will say that getting my hands on this book proved a bit of challenge initially, but if you can find a copy, give it a try.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

the stopping point

It’s mid-term of the fall semester.  Like the fall semester of 2011, I have elected to give my students (and myself) a day off during this week.  They deserve it, and I need it.  But to say that today has been a “day off” or that I have any expectation that tomorrow I will be at leisure to fill my time however I want, would be to tell a falsehood.  In truth, I woke up at my usual time this morning.  I had the usual two cups of coffee, checked my e-mail and spent the first ten to fifteen minutes of my day trying to get into a wakeful state.  Then, like every other weekday during the semester, I set off to work.

Let me be clear and honest–I had completely intended to work today and this isn’t a complaint about having to work.  I may not have been teaching, but I still had work to do and was completely committed to using this non-teaching day to catch up.  Read: catch up, not get ahead.  Getting ahead is an aspiration I have for Sunday (and similarly, I hope to take all of Saturday off and not have to feel guilty about not working).  Now that I’m sitting here and reflecting on the day, I feel good about all that I accomplished.  And yet…

And yet, at the beginning of the semester, I told myself that I would stop working at 6pm Monday through Thursday.  I gave myself “permission” to stop working at 6pm and actually spend my evenings doing something other than working–cooking a healthy dinner, reading a book for leisure, talking to friends and family, cleaning, etc.  All those things normal people do during their non-working hours.  Those things that make life, well, life.  For the first three or four weeks of the semester, I was good at sticking to my stopping time, but as the semester has progressed and gotten more stressful and there is more and more to be done, I find myself working past six, past seven, past eight and even on the rare occasion past nine.  So today, on this non-teaching, catch-up day, I told myself that no matter how much I felt that I still wanted to accomplish, that I would stop at six o’clock, come hell or high water.

Well, hell or high water didn’t come, and they weren’t necessary.  I settled for setting an alarm on my phone, and when it went off, I spent two more minutes finishing the chapter of the book I’m reading for one of my classes, then I closed it and turned my thoughts to non-work related stuff–dinner, playoff baseball, checking in with my online reading club.  The happy result so far is that I’ve made some delicious tomato basil soup while listening to the baseball game streamed online and enjoying a glass of one of my favorite red wines (Middle Sister Rebel Red, in case you are wondering).  Plus, I’ve also had time to hear myself think and wonder why it is that I’m not more committed and insistent upon stopping at my stated stopping time.  It’s not unreasonable to want to stop after an eleven-hour workday.  But I’m stuck with guilt–no, that’s not right.  I’m stuck with anxiety when I stop early and leave work to do the next day.  Stopping early means having to finish the next morning before teaching and worrying that I’m going to run out of time.  I have to read.  I have to prep a lecture.  I have to be ready to teach.  Those things can’t be put off for later, and I keep telling myself: “Self, stop over-prepping. Do less.”  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  And when I don’t feel prepared, I feel guilty, like I have somehow failed to fulfill my role as a teacher.

Though I usually find answers through writing, I’m not sure that there is an answer to this recurring conundrum.  Perhaps the advice I need to give myself is to just keep doing my best. I say this to my students, but I never say it to myself.   If I don’t want to remember these years of my life being spent in doing nothing other than working, then I have to make some changes. One of those changes has to be actually stopping when stopping time comes around.