Not at all what it seems

Book cover of Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I first tried to get through Mansfield Park many years ago but found it unreadable. After reading and liking every other Jane Austen novel, I wanted to give it another try. This time, I pushed through the sequence that stopped me last time, in which the characters put on a play. By the time I’d finished the novel, I was really confused about what Austen intended here. On its surface, this is a moralistic book about living according to higher principles. I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as any other Austen novel, and its messages didn’t seem to me to fit with the novels that she wrote before or afterward. It almost seemed as if it were ghost written by someone else–a good imitation, but not an Austen novel at heart.

After some thought, though, I’ve reassessed what Austen intended here and think this book is actually quite subversive and brilliant (warning: spoilers ahead). The story is about a girl who’s sent to be raised at her wealthy aunt and uncle’s house, where she falls in love with the only cousin who’s nice to her and, after many years, eventually wins him over with her strict adherence to the principles she learned from him.

A couple of things bothered me about the book. Fanny, the heroine, is dull and witless, and her cousin Edmund is priggish and judgmental. Austen abruptly wraps up everything at the end, neglecting to depict their coming together, which in other books she plays out before our eyes. I couldn’t understand why she’d skim over what she’d lingered over in other works. I was also struck by how the characters that Fanny and Edmund reject are treated by the couple, with a condescending disdain, and yet we are told that both had the potential to be better people had Fanny and Edmund opened their hearts to them and given them a chance. I would think that Fanny and Edmund would have been better off as well, drawn out of the insular lives they were determined to live together.

The ideas here also just don’t fit with the novels that Austen wrote both before and after, in which strong heroines buck the societal expectations and guidance that would make them miserable and wind up better off for it in the end. Instead, Fanny is sickly and weak, and does in the end what she’s learned would be best.

And finally, there’s some very disturbing subtext to this novel. Like the satire Northanger Abbey, it’s named after a place rather than a person or a principle. The title “Mansfield Park” focuses attention on the estate that Fanny goes to live on, which is built upon a fortune dependent on slaves working sugar plantations in Antigua. This is never addressed directly, but hinted at. At one point, Fanny asks her uncle a question about the slave trade, which he neglects to answer. When Edmund bring it up to her afterward, he speaks of her delicacy in handling the conversation, but neither has the character to address the much bigger and more important humanistic issue here: the appalling practice that has made this family’s fortune. Note that the book opens talking about money and status; that is what its characters are concerned with. They think and talk about principles all the time, but this family and their wealth are built on the morally corrupt practice of slavery. There is rot at its core.

Like the vapid characters the story focuses on, the novel presents us with a shallow surface sheen, but I’m convinced that Austen had much deeper intentions. What this book is really about is how the pursuit of wealth, status, and “principle” is morally corrupting. To summarize the plot another way, it’s about how Fanny and Edmund utterly destroy the people who really love them and wind up settling for each other because they are the only people who meet their own impossible ideals of virtue, giving up any chance at true happiness that they might have. Fanny’s love for Edmund is a child’s love, formed because he is the only one who was nice to her. He loves her, in turn, because he has shaped her, and no one else can meet his egotistic standards of moral perfection.

I’ve come to think of this as a remarkable, if not necessarily enjoyable, novel. However, I would read it only after you’ve read all Austen’s other novels so that you know the author well and can form your own judgments about what she is trying to do here. This is a complex and nuanced work of art, and without question her most challenging novel.

All about Grace

Grace book cover

Grace by T. Greenwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Grace is a novel about a family coming apart at the scenes and a store clerk who’s perhaps the only one who perceives it. The opening is harrowing and brilliantly done. I don’t believe in putting spoilers in reviews, but go ahead and sample this book online to read the beginning and see if you can put it down.

T. Greenwood has an uncanny ability to make you sympathize with every character in this book, even if you don’t like them. But what I appreciated most about it was its structure and how the lives of the characters are so tightly woven together. Greenwood rotates between perspectives and always seems to jump in an out in at the exact time that will keep you turning the pages. You feel almost as if you’re reading an action story and not a saga about the intricacies of family relationships.

The main thing I could criticize about this novel is how the problems are piled on–also like an action novel, it’s packed with complications. One person has a hoarding disorder, the next has crippling restless leg syndrome, another a compulsive stealing problem. Things are also wrapped up neatly and a little too coincidentally, much of it tied together through the name Grace.

That said, while these things broke the spell for me a little bit, they didn’t bother me much as I was reading, and I found this an absorbing and rewarding novel.

A visit from people you’d rather not spend any time with

Book cover for A Visit From The Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


A Visit from the Goon Squad is a series of connected stories centered around a record company executive and his assistant. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and is something of a work of writing bravado, shifting between characters and jumping back and forth in time. Jennifer Egan has a sure hand, and I particularly appreciated the moments she jumped far forward in time to tell you what happens to people in the future.

I found little else to like in this book, though, and wound up skimming and skipping ahead when I was a bit more than halfway through. I just didn’t care what happened to any of the characters, and didn’t feel there were really any insights into human nature other than that self-destructive people tend to, well, destruct. Time goes on and beats you up as you age. Okay, I get it.

I know some people love this kind of thing, but stories that are mostly about people who feel sorry for themselves just don’t hold my attention. I would try another book by Egan because she does create vivid characters and write well, but I just didn’t want to spend any more time with these people.

What to take from a pandemic

Station Eleven book cover

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Station Eleven is about a pandemic flu that wipes out most of the world’s population, but it’s very much a literary novel. Much of the focus is on a group of nomadic actors and musicians called The Traveling Symphony, and its theme is about the place of the arts in our lives and how they help to give people meaning.

This was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Some critics criticized how Emily St. John Mandel skipped over the devastation itself, not focusing more on the immediate pain of it. I had no problem with that as a reader, since I’ve read and seen this type of scenario a thousand times before; there’s nothing new to do in that realm. I thought the author handled it deftly, giving a chilling sense of how quickly the world changes without indulging in grotesque description. I found it very effective overall.

This is definitely a bit of a fantasy in its positive focus about a global calamity, but I found that it got under my skin in all the good ways, making me think of it long after I’d finished. By depicting all that is lost, Mandel managed to make me look with fresh eyes on what we have now, a great accomplishment to pull on a jaded reader like me. Maybe part of that is living through the current pandemic, but while this came out in 2014, it still seems fresh. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

A classic novel from Africa

Thing Fall Apart book cover

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is a remarkable novel about life in an African tribe and how it changes after white Christian people begin to arrive. With vivid descriptions and rich characters, it depicts this harrowing time with an artful clarity.

I’d just finished a contemporary book about Nigerian life that had gotten great reviews but completely underwhelmed me. As it referenced Things Fall Apart, I decided to pick this book up and am really happy I did. Aside from telling a great story, Chinua Achebe achieves some really difficult things here as a writer. He manages not to glorify tribal life before the arrival of the white people, nor to demonize all those who come believing they’re bringing a more civilized culture. He also creates a main character–an unsettled warrior driven by anger–that you empathize with despite the fact that he does some terrible things.

I’ve read great novels about colonial Africa written by white people, but this is a powerful book written from the other point of view. It’s also a wonderful work of literature that touches on universal human themes. It doesn’t feel at all dated even though it was published in 1958.

A nuclear fantasy

Alas Babylon book cover

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank was one of the landmark novels about nuclear conflict in the late 1950s, along with On the Beach and A Canticle for Leibowitz. These helped to raise awareness and fear of nuclear warfare among the general public. I read the others long ago, and both had a profound effect on me.

Frank’s novel charts how the residents of a small town cope with an all-out nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that leaves the civilization around them crippled. It follows the aimless Randy Braggs as he finds meaning in his life by coming to lead a small group working to maintain a civil society.

The book reads much like an action novel, moving quickly through crises, with characters that possess just the right tools at the right time to ensure survival. As much as the book aims to scare, it’s largely a fantasy. Given the number, size, and proximity of thermonuclear explosions described, it seems unlikely that everyone would be essentially unaffected by the levels of radiation in the area. The doctor gives some nonsensical explanation at one point about organisms adapting to radiation, but it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of biology and evolution.

Taken as a yarn, though, this is an entertaining read, and it certainly has its place in literary history. A word of warning to the modern reader: there are decidedly outdated notions of race and gender. Some of Randy’s thoughts about “Negroes” are patronizing, although clearly meant to be progressive and generous as everyone heroically bands together to survive. And his thoughts about women made me cringe, they were so 50s macho ridiculous. My favorite: “The more he learned about women the more there was to learn except that he had learned this: they needed a man around.” Okey dokey. If you can get past such things, it’s not a bad read, although not a great work of literature.

Like a very strange dream

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This is the first book I’ve read by Haruki Murakami. I tend to like surrealism and magical realism, and was looking forward to reading Murakami’s work. My first impression of Kafka on the Shore was, as expected, how strange it was. Murakami has a very creative mind, and I had no idea where things were going. Somewhere around two-thirds through, I was really loving the journey. But by the end, it was all a bit fatiguing and didn’t really amount to much: a creative coming-of-age story with some standard rumination on memory and regret that touches superficially on what much of Japanese and German post-war literature deals with more thoughtfully.

The writing, at least in translation, hewed closer to genre writing than I expected: crisp, straightforward prose with characters that are clearly voicing what the author is trying to get across rather than what this person, if real, would say. Just as a quick example that won’t give away any plot: musings about classical music by both a 15-year old runaway and a truck driver with no experience or education in music are clearly the author’s and not their own. But then, I’m not sure that Murakami means any aspect of this story to be realistic. It’s very explicitly the creation of a single mind. It all seems like a dream, but what undercuts this reading of the book is that there are, particularly toward the end, metaphysical explanations for just about everything that happens, which unfortunately mostly come across as silly. I would have enjoyed this novel more if all the questions it raised simply weren’t answered and were just left unexplained. It’s as if the author sat down to figure out a scheme to explain everything that happened in a crazy dream he’d just woken up from.

Still, the book was memorable and enjoyable, as long as you have a tolerance for fantasy and surrealism. It reminded me a bit of Theodore Sturgeon‘s better books, with some of Clive Barker‘s horrific fantasy creations thrown in. Would I try another book by Murakami after this? No question. Kafka on the Shore is thoughtful and ambitious, but I found it a bit disappointing in the end.

Those darned scientists!

Frankenstein 1818 edition title page

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


In the summer of 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Switzerland and became the neighbors of Lord Byron. As she tells it, after reading some German ghost stories, Byron suggested they write their own, but while the others quickly offered theirs, Shelley struggled to come up with anything. One night, Byron and Shelley were talking about the theories of Charles Darwin, speculating about the principle of life and whether it could be given. That night in bed, Shelley found herself terrified by the idea, and thus came up with her story idea.

I hadn’t ever read Frankenstein before, although I’ve loved the movie ever since childhood. My first surprise upon reading the novel was how little the movie actually took from it beyond the idea of creating a living monster from parts. The theme of scientific hubris in making something unnatural is here, and Shelley spends an awful lot of time describing scenery to emphasize the point that Nature is beautiful. But for me, the stronger theme is that of the inventor neglecting to think through the consequences of his invention and not taking responsibility for it. Victor Frankenstein doesn’t just create a living creature; he forces it, through his negligence and self-absorption, to become a monster.

As a reading experience, the book can be plodding. The structure, which at one time presents a story within a story within a story, gets clumsy. The part told from the monster’s point of view, while somewhat touching, is apt to make the modern reader laugh at points. Overall, though, the novel is very imaginative, reminding me of the work of the great German author E.T.A. Hoffmann, although Shelley is a more restrained and careful writer.

For perspective, this novel was written decades before Carmilla or Dracula. Although it’s Gothic horror in tone, it’s a purely original work and probably the first science fiction novel. Fun and very influential, Frankenstein is definitely worth a read.



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A boy’s awakening

Book cover for Go Tell It On The Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Go Tell It on the Mountain is a beautifully written novel about a boy’s spiritual and intellectual awakening. The story takes place on one day in Harlem, John’s fourteenth birthday, on a Saturday in March of 1935. After introducing John’s situation (this isn’t a spoiler, as the novel includes a table of contents laying this out) it focuses in turns on his aunt, his stepfather, and his mother. As we learn more about their pasts, we come to understand all the forces that have focused on this transformational day in his life.

The story is expertly constructed and the characters vividly drawn. While it begins somewhat slowly, it builds gradually and, in the end, becomes an emotionally powerful and thought provoking novel. Very highly recommended.



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An unusual spy novel

The Human Factor book cover by Penguin

The Human Factor by Graham Greene

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This is probably the most unusual spy novel I’ve ever read. There’s no glamour and little action. Instead, it depicts the workings of a slow, inefficient and frustratingly incompetent bureaucracy. There is a lot of tension because of the character development, and it certainly reveals the personal consequences, large and small, of doing espionage work.

But while The Human Factor kept me turning the pages, Graham Greene has covered similar territory more effectively before. I’m thinking of The Quiet American, The Third Man, and The Ministry of Fear, which were all excruciatingly tense, excellent works. In contrast, this is almost a novel of manners set in the British Secret Service.

Greene is a great writer, easily one of my favorite novelists, and I liked many of the characters he created here, but the book doesn’t really explore them in the way that his best work does. He took the approach more of skimming the surface to tell a story. This is a good read, no question, but it doesn’t come close to his best novels, like The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, or The Heart of the Matter. Still, I appreciated it and didn’t regret reading it for a second.



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