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review 2020-04-13 01:36
Fanshawe (Hawthorne)
Fanshawe - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Although this shortish novel is not bad, I can understand why Hawthorne wished to suppress it as unworthy juvenilia. It's much more laboured in construction, and much more reliant on stereotypes for characters, than his mature work. The nominal hero, Fanshawe, an over-studious type destined for an early grave, gets little or no attention for much of the book, and then roars into action (as it were) in the last two chapters, and the resultant love triangle - with a healthier but somewhat more dissipated suitor - is unusual in that our poor heroine is faced with not one but two lovers who nobly recuse themselves from the contest, albeit temporarily.


That said, Hawthorne's ability to tell a good story is already evident. His descriptions of the natural New England forest and the habitations therein in the late 18th century are already well-developed. It's already apparent, I note with amusement, that he is downright reluctant to write an outright villain; even in this early work, everybody has a backstory that gives some reason for their falling away from righteousness.


Nature and the landscape inform and drive parts of this story: the climax takes place at a secluded cave at the foot of a precipice, over which flows a waterfall. Hawthorne paints this scene very clearly for us, so that we understand the mechanics of the conclusion of his plot. I did not, however, detect very much of the other half of the beauty-and-terror Gothic equation, namely the terrifying, though there's a thunderstorm for Ellen's ill-advised departure with a strange man. Ellen herself is completely without character, other than conventional virtues and a certain lack of trust in her guardians.


Although the novel is described as being based upon Hawthorne's time as a student at Bowdoin College, there's little of that evident except in the opening scene-setting (quite comic in its description of the different kinds of students), and possibly in the description of the studious and henpecked president of that college (Ellen's guardian) who may have some attributes of a real person. I should add that Hawthorne's habit of writing in bits of local colour "as they are now" - i.e., in his time, not in his historical setting - is a bit obtrusive in this novel, particularly at the end of the penultimate chapter, where we are yanked out of the flow of the narrative to visit the grave of the villain, all illegible and overgrown.


Still, it would have been a shame if Hawthorne had in fact succeeded in completely destroying all copies of this early effort. Almost two centuries later (it was published in 1828), it passed a tedious day in a happy fashion for this reader.

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review 2019-11-18 22:39
Roderick Hudson (James)
Roderick Hudson - Henry James

This is the first novel James was willing, in later life, to acknowledge, though not the first he wrote. That in itself tells you that he thought it had some merit, even if we didn't have the long afterword explaining in those interminable late-James sentences all the various emotions and thoughts that occur upon re-reading this early work.


After a bit of not very serious self-criticism about his handling of Roderick's decline of character (James could have afforded to be more severe, in my opinion), he comes eventually to the point that is necessary to understand and enjoy the novel:

The centre of interest throughout "Roderick" is in Rowland Mallet's consciousness, and the drama is the very drama of that consciousness - which I had of course to make sufficiently acute, in order to enable it, like a set and lighted scene, to hold the play.

In other words (at least in my estimation) Rowland Mallet is a far more interesting character than Roderick Hudson. In may in fact be true, as others have posited, that the Ro-Ro pair are, unconsciously or by design, representing two facets of James' self-understanding, but if that is the case, he clearly understands the urbane, rational Rowland part far better, and was unable to make this reader, at least, as fond of selfish, lazy, self-destructive Roderick as either Mallett or James is.


I did like the foreshadowing of Roderick's fate: the two rockclimbing incidents worked very well as metaphor.


I am in two minds about the young female character, Christina Light, who appears to have rather taken over the narrative just as she took over Hudson's imagination. She is most emphatically annoying and no great advertisement for womanhood - or indeed New Womanhood, if that was part of James' intention. (I suppose the comparatively bland and underdeveloped Mary Garland was intended as her foil in that respect). But I was occasionally struck by insights into the nature and causes of her annoying and irrational behaviour; insights that resonated with my own memories of late adolescence as being surprisingly apt, especially from a male author:

She had a fictitious history in which she believed much more fondly than in her real one, and an infinite capacity for extemporized reminiscence adapted to the mood of the hour. She liked to idealize herself, to take interesting and picturesque attitudes to her own imagination; and the vivacity and spontaneity of her character gave her, really, a starting-point in experience; so that the many-colored flowers of fiction which blossomed in her talk were not so much perversions, as sympathetic exaggerations of fact.


"The many-colored flowers of fiction which blossomed in her talk" is really very good - it captures the natural spontaneity of that kind of experimental role-playing, while harmlessly chattering, in a young person. Elsewhere I'm not inclined to be quite so kind to the drunken wordiness of even this early Henry James. I laughed and highlighted this little monstrosity, for instance: "There are chance anfractuosities of ruin in the upper portions of the Coliseum..." (I do realize I'm a bit inconsistent, since I've said I enjoy unnecessary Latinate coinages when Bulwer-Lytton makes them. I think it may be a question of whether the author is being obviously playful!)


James leaves us only shortly after Roderick Hudson does, in the novel, and does not trouble to try to work out to its logical conclusion the "preferred" pairing of Mallett and Mary Garland. At the end, we are merely told that he visits her often at his cousin's house, and we are left to finish that story for ourselves how we like. I am OK with this conclusion; I'd be curious how it struck novel-readers in the 1870s.


I found this accessible, with occasional moments of real emotional interest.

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review 2019-11-18 20:48
Free Air (Lewis)
Free Air - Sinclair Lewis

This novel opens strikingly with a "modern woman" of the US East Coast in the '20s (well, 1919) fighting her very expensive convertible through the bad, muddy roads and still rather wild west (destination: Seattle) with a sick father in tow. She then has to decide what to do about the lower-class, but decidedly handy, rather intelligent and definitely persistent suitor that she attracts as she tries to deal with her car troubles. I grew quite fond of Claire Boltwood and Milt Daggett as the novel progressed and he respectfully stalked her (yes, an oxymoron) on her way. They managed to escape being just stereotypes of their social class and to show some realism (and some real humour) in how they found their way to appreciating each other's qualities.


On the whole, though, I thought the novel dropped off a bit in the second half when the road trip was over and the focus shifted to the laughable pretentiousness of Seattle "good society".


Lewis' writing is studded with little gems of wit, like "Mr. Martin was an unentertaining bachelor who entertained." He also comes up with entirely unexpected adjectives that surprise and then work beautifully in context - the example I noted was "stingy, flapping stairs". On the other hand, he is relentlessly contemporary, which means that there are references that I simply couldn't decode, like "Why did I ever get a car that takes a 36 x 6?"


Nonetheless, a surprisingly good central female character by a male author in this period. And it's a very clever title, referring both to the signs you would find in gas stations (I remember them) over the air pumps for your tires, but also to Claire's sense of liberation from her east-coast and class restrictions.

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review 2019-11-18 19:59
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (Wiggin)
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm - Kate Douglas Wiggin

"Why, mother!" cried Rebecca, clasping her knees with her hands; "why, mother, it's enough joy just to be here in the world on a day like this; to have the chance of seeing, feeling, doing, becoming! When you were seventeen, mother, wasn't it good just to be alive?"


Rebecca's mother has recently been severely disabled, and they have just learned of Rebecca's aunt's death; Rebecca's nursing of both women has forced her to give up her teaching career. This, in a nutshell, is my trouble with these positive, precocious pixie-girl stories, like this one and "Anne of Green Gables". Rebecca's optimism can be just completely tone-deaf, and in real life would be very difficult to live with - just as difficult as the stereotypical (but somehow more believable) unrelenting grumpiness and judgmentalism of Aunt Miranda.


The parallels between "Rebecca" and "Anne" struck me as I was reading, but not so very much as to make me inclined to accuse L.M. Montgomery of any sort of theft (a bit of borrowing, maybe, or flattering imitation). What Rebecca has, and Anne does not, is a relationship with a much older man which, though not sexual, is clearly intended on his part to become so eventually, and solidified from his side by multiple interventions on her behalf using his greatly superior wealth. From the vantage point of 2019, it's uncomfortable to say the least, though the author makes a decided point of having Adam take himself away at the end, saying "not ready".


All that notwithstanding, and just because, due to my advanced age, I was able to completely dismiss Rebecca as the role model she was doubtless intended to be, I enjoyed this novel a fair bit. There's quite a lot of funny incident, and despite my complaint above, I found the depiction of the workings of a girl's/young woman's mind to have some fairly realistic moments. And it's also pleasant to read a story of someone whom everyone loves (yes, even grim Aunt Miranda) and for whom everyone tries to make the world better. It's a good counterpart to the dark background of bitter and grinding economic insecurity in which Rebecca moves. The unbridled devotion of best friends and wagon-drivers, gently told, is worth a hundred positive-thinking speeches of the sort I quoted above.


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review 2019-01-17 16:30
The House of the Seven Gables (Hawthorne)
The House of the Seven Gables - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Somehow I missed this during my omnivorous reading of the 19th century gothic in my undergraduate years. I read it now from the point of view of someone who distinctly resembles fractious, unsightly Hepzibah far more than the idealized "little woman" Phoebe (though perhaps I have always been more a Hepzibah than a Phoebe). In any case, the emphasis on Hepzibah's incapabilities and infirmities, and her constant scowl, was the one truly uncomfortable note for me in this otherwise delightful excursion into Hawthorne's extravagant and oratorical chessboard of symbols and motifs. I'm aware that Hepzibah's offputting scowl, which does not at all represent her actual mood or actual morals, is the counterpart of the Judge's false and beaming smile, and both are equally insisted upon beyond any reasonable requirement for description so as to force the careless reader to consider what they actually represent. But I must admit, at the umpteenth reference to the ugly Hepzibah scowl, I was provoked into growling, "oh just give it a rest, already, Nathaniel!" Subtlety - not his forte.


Chapter 18 is extraordinary writing. I started reading it in a slightly irritated mood, because it seemed that the author was going to take a simplistic trope (the narrator doesn't realize that Judge Pyncheon is dead) and just make a chapter out of it without doing much. Instead, it becomes an absolute symphony of rhetorical, imaginative expansion of the would-haves and could-haves surrounding the mundane fact of a nasty man dead of congenital heart failure in a decaying old house.


I have a very small and select folder on my Kindle called, "read but keeping". In goes The House of Seven Gables.

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