Contemporary Literature

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Unknown

by: Helen Simonson

I picked this book up on my last bookstore outing, off the Valentine’s Day display.  I’m been thinking about reading it for a while (mainly because “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” is one of my favorite movies ever. Which has absolutely nothing to do with this book, except they both include the name Pettigrew and are set in England.)

Anyway, this is a fabulous novel.  It’s the story of Major Pettigrew, retired, a widower who lives in a village in the English countryside.  He develops a friendship with local shop owner and widow Mrs. Ali, and the book centers around that relationship.  Much attention is also given to his relationship to the village in general and his son.

Several of the critics have referred to this as “Austen-like”, high but well-deserved praise.  Simonson uses a dry, biting wit to examine racial and generational tensions, with beautifully developed characters and a quiet story the evokes rather intense emotions.

Generally, the book is poking fun at our inherent expectations of society, some common to both Americans and the British, some specific to English village. Reading as a southern American, much of the absurdity of the British-only cultural norms was exaggerated.  I didn’t have to question my learned behaviors and reasonings; I just found it amusing that such behaviors were a thing.

The class prejudice in the book is way more complex than what I’m used to seeing as an American. In America, it’s talked of in terms of tax policies and educational opportunities.  Socially, it would be the extremely poor and disadvantaged, especially those on governmental help, that would be expected to face prejudice. An upper class person prejudiced against the middle class would be viewed as spoiled and out of touch with reality. But in this book, at least, there was prejudice from the social upper class, without regard to economics, against the working middle class. The veiled, and then not-so-veiled, disdain for Mrs. Ali as a shopkeeper was especially interesting to me.  My parents own their own successful shop, and I’ve never had a negative reaction when disclosing that, regardless of socioeconomic status of the person I’m talking to. In fact, the most common reaction is admiration.

Other themes of the book were more broadly applicable.  Mrs. Ali is a British citizen of Pakistani descent, and the book deals quite well with a more subtle version of racial tensions.  It quite excelled at showing people reasoning away their racism, showing a more subtle but prominent side of prejudice.  The Major never has any overt moments of racism, but he often acquiesces to others’ flimsy concealed prejudice while feeling vaguely uncomfortable. Watching him become aware of how this attitude can harm those around him was one of my favorite parts of the story.

There was also a great deal of attention paid to the generation gap between the Major and his son.  Parts of the gap were inevitable, due to changing technologies and social norms, and experiencing the Major’s confusion at this change was often bittersweet.  If you’ve helped an older relative as they struggle to adapt to a changing world, the Major’s feelings were certainly resonate with you. Simonson does a wonderful job of depicting a perfectly competent person bewildered by the changes that come late in life.

The main focus of the book was the beautifully sweet love story between the Major and Mrs. Ali.  It’s absolutely wonderful; it is both intensely joyful and heartbreakingly sad. There’s a certain dignified charm only found in the romance of those past middle age, and Simonson captures it perfectly. And since it’s not a romance novel, the ending could go any which way the author pleases. Though it touches on many a serious topic, the book feels like a light read and doesn’t demand a terrible lot from the reader in return for enjoyment of the story.  Much like Jane Austen’s book, the story, writing, and humor are enough to read the books; all the social commentary, while wonderful, is extra.  It is the perfect book to read in the sunshine, with a parasol and ducks in a nearby pond.

The characterization, plot, and writing in this story were all fantastic.

If you want a lovely story for Valentine’s Day, if you’re interested in a modern-day Austen-type novel satirizing and revealing uncomfortable truths about society, or if you’re a sucker for old people love, than this is the book for you.  If you like your books about social issues to be heavy and hard-hitting, if you’re not a fan of (mostly) quiet stories with a touch of the absurd about them, or if you don’t enjoy British humor, than, alas, this may not be the book for you.

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Difficult Books

I stumbled across this lovely post from A Striped Armchair, which made me smile as it took me back to American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  I truly love Gaiman’s work.  I’ve read Anasazi Boys, American Gods, and, of course, Good Omens.  I have Neverwhere on my shelf and I’ve been meaning to get to it.

But Gaiman is really difficult for me to read. I don’t know why; I’ve always finished his books with a sense of satisfaction and a head full of thoughts.  I enjoy the experience of reading them; it just takes a good deal more effort than most other books I’ve read.

I’m going to be honest and say I’m pretty talented at reading.  I have excellent reading comprehension skills, I’ve an extremely fast reader, and I read way above my grade level all throughout primary school. (To make up for that, I’m absolutely terrible at geometry, have the visualization skills of a sickly gnat, and really struggle with memorizing anything.)  There are styles that I dislike – Cormac McCarthy comes to mind – but rarely do I find something that is actually difficult for me to get through.

Gaiman, of course, is a struggle – all the details, maybe? Perhaps the way every sentence has more than one meaning and I have to carefully consider every element from multiple angles? – and David Foster Wallace is kickin’ my ass with Infinite Jest. (I’m so lost, guys! So very, very lost!)

And the thing is, I’ve read tons of “difficult books.” I’ve read wordy nonfictions and pretentious articles; academic papers seemingly designed to confuse the reader; weighty tomes with long passages and a confusing array of characters.  I struggled less with The Master and Margarita than I do with either Wallace or Gaiman.  Sure, I don’t understand everything or catch all the nuances but the ease of putting the story together was always there.  I wasn’t constantly flipping back because I knew there was a detail I wasn’t remembering or stopping every five minutes to consciously puzzle things together.

A small part of me is glad I can challenge myself not just with ideas but with the actual act of reading and reminds myself that it’s lucky I’m easily able to do something I enjoy so much.  A much less adult part of me just wants to pout and go “It’s not fair! It’s so hard!” as I work my way through their books. (It’s good for you, adult me mutters.  It’ll build character. Stop whining.  Many people struggle with reading. Yeah, toddler me whines, but I bet they didn’t have to spend a whole summer in the Wal-Mart parking lot practicing parking before they got it right.)

What about you? Do you read with ease or with effort? Is there an author or book you love but struggle with?

 

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Book shopping

Do y’all have that thing where you go in the bookstore for just one book and then leave many books richer but many dollars poorer?

This happens to me all the time.  It’s why I don’t visit bookstores very often. I can walk out with no books or I can walk out with 4 or more.  And nothing in between.

Yesterday I stopped by my local bookstore (how lucky I am, to live in a place with a local bookstore!) to pick up The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss’ sequel to The Name of the Wind.  That’s it, thought I.  Just the one book, a quick in to the fantasy/sci-fi section and out through the cash registers, past the Hot Books! stand I never buy anything from.  Easy peasy.

Yeah, right.  I walked out with The Wise Man’s FearAnna KareninaSlaughterhouse 5, and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Two of them were on my to-read list for the year that I found in the general fiction and classics section.  I was led there by an intriguing Valentine’s Day display, holding not only classic love stories but humorous tales of love gone wrong and Elizabeth Barring and Robert Browning’s love letters. Oh, and a copy of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand with a glowing review by one of the employees.

And even if I go to a Barnes and Noble (with no employee reviews or sneakily devised book displays) I get caught up in their nonfiction sections or romance sections.  Half-price is even worse, because I convince myself that I’m getting such a great deal! (I mean, I am. But that usually doesn’t lessen the amount of money I spend.)

The library helps, but as I have no patience, it doesn’t help my need to read my favorite authors’ new books the minute they come out.

I don’t have that many extraneous expenses, but I also don’t have that much of a paycheck.  Bookstores, however, are my greatest weakness.

How do you get your books? Borrow, lend, buy? Have the same self-control problem at bookstores? Let me know below!

 

Fantasy

The Name of the Wind

by: Patrick Rothfuss

This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while and finally got around to this past week.  And it’s so very excellent. If you like any type of high or epic fantasy, I would highly recommend this book.

It’s set up as a story within a story.  The outer story is very slow and takes up minimal space in the book, but the reader can feel that it is headed somewhere important. (This book is the first installment of the Kingkiller trilogy.) The inner story, told by the main character, Kvothe, is his life story. Kvothe, however, is still a young man and I would bet that he is the main character in the outer story as we get to the third book – which is, I imagine where the inner story will take back stage to the outer story.

The story is set in a fantasy world, based loosely on various European cultures of the 1600s or so. There’s magic, of course, which a select few can wield.  There’s dangerous creatures and daring adventures and even a journey or two.  It has everything a good fantasy needs.

The pacing in the book is excellent. The first few pages were a bit difficult to get through, but after that it was nearly perfect.  I was completely absorbed in the story and nothing flew by so fast I couldn’t understand it, but neither did I find myself skimming over bits to get to the next good part.

I really liked the main character.  He was intelligent and flawed; since he is telling his own story, there is reflection on his youthful arrogance or stupidity.  Kvothe is both likable and charismatic; even if I didn’t particularly like him at certain points in the book, I was still invested in what happened next.

Rothfuss excels at world building.  Since we follow Kvothe from a little boy, the reader is present as he learns about magic and the rules of his world.  Often, we’re given information as Kvothe uses it to puzzle something out – Jim Butcher uses a similar technique in his Harry Dresden series, though Rothfuss has a much greater mastery over it. (Sorry Jim! I still love your work!)  There is nary one instance that felt like info dumping.

I didn’t like Kvothe’s love interest, but I did appreciate how Rothfuss used her as a gentle remainder of challenges specific to being a women, especially in the cultures/time periods he’s pulling from.  A lot of authors will build their characters into worlds with significantly different gender roles but not specifically acknowledge the problems that presents their (female) characters; it’s really nice when an author takes a few sentences and does acknowledge them.

Also, I just liked the writing in general.  It was clean and engaging as a whole; the writing itself was easy to follow, though the plotline and content added a welcome complexity to the overall story. Rothfuss is one of, if not the, best fantasy writer I’ve read in a long, long time.

My only critique would be that the inner story is so focused on Kvothe – it is from his perspective, after all – the some of the side characters are not as well developed as I would like.  Several of the characters that he spends a great deal of time with aren’t as well fleshed-out as they should be.  The reader doesn’t get any sense of them beyond their role in their life and maybe one or two defining characteristics.  A bit frustrating, though they still read as believable people. 

This book is really excellent. If you like high or epic fantasy, if you crave Tolkien-esque adventures, or if you’re looking to try out a classic fantasy adventure, this is definitely the book for you.   If you only read the best-of-the-best in any genre, this book is for you.  If you avoid fantasy at all costs, then this, sadly, isn’t the book for you.

Contemporary Literature · Fiction

The Things They Carried

by: Tim O’Brien

I’ve read the short story by the same name once or twice in high school.  I actually didn’t care for it all that much, but when I saw Tim O’Brien was at the Texas Book Festival, I decided to go ahead and give his book a shot.  I picked up it up with the intention of getting it signed, but I didn’t make it because I was standing in line to get Dav Pilkey to sign Captain Underpants for a friend of mine. Pilkey is a really nice guy and made sure to spend a couple of minutes with each of his fans to draw a picture and talk to them.  Sad for me, but great for all the little kids in line!

I finally sat down and read the book while taking the bus down to see my best friend and her husband (a former Marine who was on active duty in Iraq, oddly enough).  I really enjoyed it.  O’Brien has a straightforward style, not quite as simple as Hemingway’s but to somewhat the same effect; there are a few instances when it feels almost like a modern take on Hemingway.  The Things They Carried is a collection of short stories, arranged somewhat linearly with respect to time, and centering around the Alpha Company platoon’s experiences during the Vietnam War.  Be warned, O’Brien makes no attempt to shield the reader from the realities of war and it contains graphic descriptions of death and violence.

The oddest thing about his books is his use of what Wikipedia describes as verisimilitude. (An incorporation of himself and his life into his work.) Though this is a work of fiction, Tim O’Brien is often the main character and, the reader assumes, at least some of the stories are pulled from his experiences in Vietnam.  It makes the narrator even more unreliable – and O’Brien invests some words into the unreliability of the narrator – and threw me off-balance. It worked to pulled me deeply into the story.  I couldn’t trust the narrator; I couldn’t trust what I was reading and therefore experiencing.  For me, it became a subtle reflection of the uncertainty of the characters. As they were unsure of what they were doing and experiencing, so was I.  It also differentiated between the truth of what happened – the horrors of war and universal experiences of the soldiers – from the facts of the stories.  In nearly any other format, I don’t think I would have finished the stories, but here it adds layers of depth and meaning to the story.

Tim O’Brien is, of course, one of today’s most brilliant writers.  His work is consistently praised and part of many a school curriculum.  The Things They Carried is accessible and easy to read, so if you’re a bit hesitant about diving into a modern-day classic, this would be a great one to start with.  (And if you’ve read the short story but didn’t quite care for it, give the book a go. It’s surprisingly different in style from the short story – more broken up and with dialogue.)  The characters are well-written, the plot(s) are gripping, the pace well-designed, and as a cohesive unit of short stories or a very odd novel, it works beautifully. While O’Brien gives space to the actions and daily life of soldiers, my main take-away from the novel was the emotional and psychological difficulties faced by the soldiers.

If you’re looking for a modern-day classic, a war story that looks beyond tactics and austere descriptions of people, or a portrayal of the emotional and psychological experience of fighting in Vietnam, than this book is for you.  If you’re looking for a history book, are adverse to blood and gore, or if you don’t like the author messing with your sense of perception throughout the book, then, alas, this may not be the book for you.

Classics

Les Mis (Part II)

I’ve been toying with the idea of adding a quick update on my thoughts on Les Mis after view the movie – something along the lines of “only after seeing the movie did I really appreciate how Hugo’s thoughts and opinions on the social structure, ect.. of the time tied the novel together and gave it depth and meaning that no movie version could achieve” yadayadayada…

And then today, whilst browsing book reviews on WordPress, I ran across a really interesting review on Les Mis.  Interesting because the author read the book in a completely different way than I did.

First, the author read it from a Christian perspective – the blog picks out books that are good for Christian children.  She recommends teenagers read it with their parents.  Well, I lack any Christian perspective, so that’s a huge difference right there.  Also, I wouldn’t really recommend this book from teenagers – I wouldn’t discourage them, but this is a book that really requires some thinking.  I’d like to believe that my college education makes me a better thinker than the majority of teenagers, and even so, I think there’s a lot to be gotten from this book that I’m simply not getting.  Right off the bat we have a serious disconnect.

Anyway, onto the book itself. Jean Valjean came off, as me, as a commentary on social injustice; the ridiculousness of 19 yrs’ – or even 5 yrs’- sentence for stealing a piece of bread! More importantly, the absurdity of placing the poor in untenable positions, with no assistance, and more importantly, no education; no way out of their situations; and then punishing them for acting as is natural.  (To the point where he had never seen true kindness until he met the bishop!)

She read Valjean as an example of God’s grace helping one overcome sin, that one can rise from the ashes of one’s mistakes to become a better person.

I read Fantine as another example of social injustice; though more so on the part of society’s attitudes than resources.  That a man could callously abandon a child and mistress with no second thoughts; then, that, so rightly afraid of others’ judgments and so desperate to keep her child safe, Fantine eventually ends up prostituting herself to pay for her child, whom she’s left with virtual strangers (there’s a lot to be said about education of young girls here, as well).

She read it as Fantine being punished for her promiscuity.  And invites the reader to raise the question of whether Fantine choose to prostitute herself, or whether there was another choice.

I didn’t pay much attention to the historical aspect of the novel, outside of reminding myself that it was the 19th century and attitudes towards women were quite different then, but she invites you to consider the difference between the French and American revolutions and wonder if maybe it had something to do with the godliness of the countries? (May I remind you that, at this time in history, the Americans were still very invested in the institute of slavery, and the French were much more enlightened, though still prejudiced, in their treatment of people of African descent.)

Okay, the thing is that none of the observations she brings up are bad observations to make, per say. But leaving them outside of the social context, ignoring everything but the religious implications, without consideration of the obligation society has to offer people at least a chance at a decent life, is doing a disservice to Hugo’s brilliant work, especially if you’re suggesting a teenager reads it.

Hugo, at least in my mind, isn’t trying to push a religion where thieves are punished and whores villianized before their oh-so-generous-redemption, but rather a view where religion is meant to step in where society has failed.  When society offers neither resource nor understanding, religion offers charity and grace.  Where society punishes others for its own failures, religion gives them means and a chance to better one’s self.  Society is harsh and imperfect, oblivious to its own flaws.  Religion is gentle and aware, and seeks to fill the need that society has created.

My point is, please don’t read this book and then ask how it fits into your world view.  Read it and let it change your world view.  Truly, it is a much more rewarding experience that way.

Also, because I did not develop the author’s views as fully as she did, which may mean that I am oversimplifying her arguments – here’s the blog link.

http://nancyellenhird.wordpress.com/2010/10/06/les-miserables-a-review-part-1-by-jeanette-hanscome/

It’s a three part review.

Which interpretation do you agree with? Mine? Hers? Neither?