Home – Marilynne Robinson

Book # 7b

Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

HomeThe accolades for Marilynne Robinson’s Home are splashed across and inside the cover of the copy I borrowed from my local library. “One of the saddest books I have ever loved”, said one reviewer. “A powerful piece of writing”, stated another. I wasn’t skeptical, for there are good reasons why any book appears on this list, but I will admit to being hesitant to have too high an expectation, in case Home didn’t live up to the hype.

I needn’t have been so cautious; Home left me with a rather profound sense of sadness mixed with hope, and I was disappointed when I realised I’d read the last page.

Home tells the story of Glory Boughton and her older brother Jack, who both return to their family home and ailing father. Glory is an English teacher, fleeing from a failed relationship with a disappointing man; she is the youngest of the Boughton children, determined to put the past behind her and tend to her father. Jack Boughton hasn’t been in contact with his family for twenty years. As a child, he was always getting into trouble; as an adult, not much has changed. Growing up, the two siblings felt quite separate from each other, and as the story unfolds, they begin to form a relationship and offer each other the support both need.

This is a story about family, loyalty and love, strongly woven together with faith and redemption, and the uncertain desire to make peace with the past. There is a very strong sense of spirituality and belief, which is at the heart of the Boughton family; I don’t feel qualified to comment much on this aspect of the novel, but it raises some interesting points and the characters are often found in deep theological discussion. Set in the 1950s, there are also elements of politics and race, which, while barely mentioned, prove to be important in shaping Jack’s behaviour and the situation he finds himself in.

Police were pushing the black crowd back with dogs, turning fire hoses on them. Jack said, “Jesus Christ!”
His father shifted in his chair. “That kind of language has never been acceptable in this house.”
Jack said, “I –” as if he had been about to say more. But he stopped himself. “Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry, Jack. Young people want the world to change and old people want it to stay the same. And who is to judge between thee and me? We just have to forgive each other.”

Of the eight Boughton children, we meet just three throughout the novel: Glory, Jack, and Teddy. The others are all mentioned in passing, but do not feature at all; in the beginning, I wondered when we might meet them, but the story didn’t need them to feature, and nothing would have been gained by adding more to the limited cast. The sense of separation in the family is poignant (Glory keeps in touch with all of her siblings; Jack was sought for a number of years but proved elusive), and as Jack and Glory come to rely on each other, there is a sense of uncomplicated loyalty and fondness, not marred by the opinions or experiences of the others. Their relationship is quite hopeful and the trust builds as they open up to each other, but it is full of despairing moments and tears. Glory’s tears could have come across as weakness, but she is incredibly strong and perceptive, with a tenderness and kindness that Jack feels he doesn’t deserve. He has hit rock-bottom a number of times but underneath his self-loathing there is a small spark of hope and willingness to believe he can change, if only someone will give him the opportunity to prove it.

He said, “You get used to kindness. After a while you begin to count on it. You miss it when it’s gone.”
She said, “I know a little bit about that,” and he nodded, and the lilacs rustled, and the sun shone, and there was quiet between them, a calm that came with being of one mind. So she had to say, “You shouldn’t lose hope.”
He laughed. “Sometimes I really wish I could.”
She said, “I know about that, too.”

Throughout Home, there are moments of such hope and happiness that the Boughton family seems grossly normal and successful, but there are also moments of such sadness and desperation that make them seem dysfunctional and distant. Reverend Boughton is desperate for all of his children to get along, and as his health fails further, he struggles to separate the present from the past.

She stepped into the dining room and asked Jack to play, and then she went back to help her father. “‘Softly and Tenderly’,” the old man said. “A very fine song. Is that Gracie?”
“No, it’s Jack.”
The old man said, “I don’t believe Jack plays the piano. It might be Gracie.”
She brought her father down the hallway. He stopped at a little distance from the piano, released her arm, and stood looking at Jack with puzzled interest. He whispered, “The fellow plays very well. But why is he here in our house?”
Glory said, “He’s come home to see you, Papa.”
“Well, that’s very nice, I suppose. No harm in it.”

Some might say that faith is the strongest theme of this story, but I believe it is the power of love – to support, buoy, forgive and fix, but also wound, hurt, disappoint and destroy – that is the strongest theme. The ending leaves the story wide open, but it is hopeful and almost up-lifting; Home is a simply but beautifully written story that won’t bring you to tears, but will leave your heart wishing for more.

The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

Book #770
Reviewer: Kara


The House of MirthThere is something about Lily Bart that sets her apart for everyone else in The House of Mirth. She is stunningly beautiful, which matters a lot to many of the men in the nouveau-riche turn-of-the-century New York society in which she lives. She is also extremely skilled in social situations and is able to understand people’s inner motives, hang-ups, and intentions and use them to her advantage.
As a result, many people like her and even those who don’t want her around to manipulate social situations in their favor. Both of these factors – beauty and social skill – allow her to live the life of a rich society woman, despite being nearly broke. She offers these things in return for gifts and hospitality.
Despite these things though, Lily is 29 and unmarried. It becomes clear that every time she comes close to sealing the deal she sabotages herself – because part of her really doesn’t like the money-focused society she lives in or see its value. In this belief, which is only semi-conscious for her, she finds a partner in Selden, who states it outright and begins to fall for Lily because she is the only other “society person” who seems to get the joke. Also did I mention she’s beautiful.
Selden on Lily, early in the novel:
“He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine, but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape?”
As you can imagine, Lily’s lack of money coupled with her being a single woman approaching thirty begin to cause her problems – problems that she is forced to solve in less than savory ways in order to maintain her lifestyle and status. Mid-novel, Lily has “a fatalistic sense of being drawn from one wrong turning to another, without ever perceiving the right road till it was too late to take it.” This is when things get interesting.
Wharton focuses on several themes in her withering description of upper class society and its tendency to honor the most selfish and flashy, and chew up and spit out everyone else. First, there is the way that truth is manipulated. As Lily says, “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it’s convenient to be on good terms with her.”
This is something that still resonates today, particularly in our national discussion of how people of different races and economic backgrounds are treated by the criminal justice system. Another is the need for stability in life, and the ways in which our various societies shape us as children, then sometimes fail us rather than support us as adults.
When Lily’s society turns its back on her:
“That was the feeling which possessed her now-the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spindrift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them.”
Occasionally in the novel, Lily comes in contact with young women of the lower classes. These are women who must work for a living and are surviving well enough but have none of the fancy things she has, no extra money, and no elaborate social calendar. It is one of these women who gives Lily a glimpse of what a truly satisfying and happy life could be:
“The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life, and build herself a shelter with them, seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence.”
Lily knows that this woman who has very little, has something she does not: stability. She compares the “shelter” this woman has built to a bird nest on a cliff. It’s a safe haven to be at peace and raise a family, protected from the dangers just outside its walls.

The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin

Book # 326a

Reviewer: Kara


TD

This classic novel of science fiction is the story of Shevek, a physicist from a 150-year-old socialist-anarchist experimental utopia on a moon. He has begun to see cracks in his society, and a return to the ways that the founders left their home planet to escape. He travels to that home planet, with the ultimate goal of “tearing down walls.”

Written in 1974, the novel was an instant hit and won both the Nebula and Hugo awards. The primary theme of the novel is an illustration of the merits and dangers of anarchy and socialism. These ideas, while interesting, do read a little bit like a product of their time.

What makes the novel a must-read to this day are the other universal and complex themes it also tackles, including gender equality, the nature of time, and what it really means to be free.

The discussion of freedom occurs at two levels: the freedom of the individual and the freedom of ideas. The novel clearly advocates for personal freedom and glorifies an individual’s right to determine what s/he does for a living and for pleasure, who s/he loves, how s/he lives, etc., without any caveats. The implication here is that people are genuinely good and genuinely care about each other and about contributing something positive to the world.

This freedom was so important to the founders of the society where Shevek lives that they see even having possessions or, in many cases, committed relationships, as a prison. Children are named randomly by a computer and raised in group dormitory settings. Few people have monogamous partnerships and sexual relations happen easily and often. People own little more than a set of clothes or two and go to cafeterias for food. As Shevek says to the people on the home planet when he visits:

“Because our men and women are free–possessing nothing, they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns.”

The freedom of ideas is central to the novel, and is central to Shevek’s quest: he has discovered a physics formula of great importance and wants to share it with everyone in all societies on all planets. The importance of shared ideas is stated most clearly in this passage:

“It is of the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.”

The plot moves very slowly overall, and I was more than halfway through the book before it really picked up speed. Part of this is due to the necessity of world-building, part of this is due to the non-linear structure, and part of this is due to the frequent asides on physics, philosophy, relationships, and political systems. The slow pace didn’t bother me much, but if you prefer adventure or galactic battles in your sci-fi, this isn’t going to hit the spot for you.

If, however, you’re curious what a society where freedom is the ultimate (and only) collective value might look like, this novel is fascinating. And if you’re looking for thought-provoking discussion and the occasional beautifully-written sentence (somewhat rare in science fiction!) look no further. Case in point:

“‘If you can see a thing whole,’ he said, ‘it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives … But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.'”

2015 comes to a close

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It’s the end of the year and we will be taking our usual summer break through the holiday season.  We will return with reviews in February.

In 2015 we reviewed another 19 books taking our overall total to 222 books reviewed.  We will begin 2016 with a full recap of this year’s reading, so look out for that.

In the meantime, we hope you manage to get some quiet reading done.

From us here at 1001 Book Reviews, have a lovely time and we will see you again in 2016.

Emma – Jane Austen

Book #936

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


EThe option of reading and reviewing a classic by Jane Austen is rather a relaxing entry in to a summer of 1001 Books for me.  I had read her entire canon when I was a teenager, and have revisited them sporadically ever since.  However, it has been some time since my last venture into Regency England and naturally my ideas and world view have moved on in many respects. This is now evident in how I feel about the novel after this read through.

As a teenager I was enthralled with the Regency world as described in Austen’s works. Even the work required to get around the changes in language over the centuries didn’t diminish my enjoyment.   I was a die hard fan from the outset.

Fast forward an *ahem* number of years and re-reading Emma brought along another set of experiences.  Still, the enjoyment of being immersed in a society so completely different from our own, but with a tinge of modern feminist ‘what the heck’ thrown in for good measure.

The story of the titular heroine is one of meddling, self-indulgence and, eventually, self-awareness.

Emma begins in the home of the Woodhouses following the wedding of Emma’s governess Miss Taylor, to a local gentleman, Mr Weston.  Mr Woodhouse is lamenting their loss and through this we are introduced to his nervous, almost foppish, hypochondria-laden character.  His is a difficult character to read and not want to slap from a modern perspective; but he is also the means with which the underlying behaviour of being well-mannered, courteous and generally good at heart is shown to overrule such deficiencies.

Once ‘poor Miss Taylor’ is settled in at her new abode, Randalls, Emma takes on a local girl as a protégé and companion in lieu of Mrs Weston and eventually succumbs to and indulges her own fancies of being a matchmaker.  Harriet Smith is a girl of unknown parentage, clearly a ‘natural’ child of someone wealthy enough to pay for an education but not wishing the relationship to be generally visible to society.

Mr Knightley, an old friend and Emma’s brother-in-law, sees the danger to both women.  One in being convinced that she should be elevated beyond her station in life by Emma’s encouragement, and the other in being unrestrained by a wiser companion.   He is proved right in the first instance, with Emma dissuading Harriet from the marriage proposal of an eminently suitable young man, and having her fix her eyes on a man for whom the whole idea of marrying beneath him is an abhorrence.

In to this basic plot we add two other young people, Miss Jane Fairfax and Mr Frank Churchill.  The former an accomplished young woman, of sense and character, but of a good family in financial decline.  The latter, the son of Mr Weston who has been raised by his rich aunt and uncle.  He brings pleasing manners and general merriment, but more self-interest than self-awareness.

It is the fondest wishes of Mr and Mrs Weston that Frank and Emma should become attached to each other, while society in general feels for the situation of Miss Fairfax.  What follows is a rich comedy of manners involving all those mentioned so far, as well as Miss Bates (Jane Fairfax’s aunt), Mr Elton and latterly Mrs Elton.

Only the steadfast and observant Mr Knightley seems able to calmly assess the damage and danger to all, courtesy of Emma’s self-indulgent behaviour, and tries to point them out to her. Eventually the comedy plays out and the participants go to their respective right places at the last.  But not without some trepidations.

Emma’s folly and character is softened by her own realisations, and admission of errors.  If she had remained oblivious to herself she would have become a Mrs Elton, full of pride and blind to her lack of understanding.  But that would not do for the story’s heroine; she is not fixed and unable to examine herself and her behaviour.  She understands that she has faults that require her attention, and that makes her accessible.

Although my view of certain characters has changed since my youth, I still find this an excellent novel dealing with the manners, expectations and difficulties the women of this section of Regency society had to navigate.    This is not the novel of manners / love story that we tend to see in Pride and Prejudice, so do not open this book thinking you will be reading a clone of that.  But don’t be put off.  It is still an enjoyable read, language and relative silliness of certain characters to the modern eye aside.

Happy reading !