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review 2017-06-01 21:38
The Bronze Eagle (Orczy)
The Bronze Eagle - Emmuska Orczy

This is very much a Scarlet Pimpernel novel in disguise. The setting is France, but France twenty years after the Pimpernel, during Napoleon's abortive return to power up to and including Waterloo. An Englishman who is not what he claims to be (Bobby Clyffurde) moves between the sides aiding the anti-Revolutionary cause as best he can. As with Percy Blakeney before he was shackled with a wife, Clyffurde is pursuing a romantic passion as well as political aims.

I'm thinking this may actually have been a more comfortable period than the Revolution for Orczy to work in. Bobby's spy work against Napoleon (he's on the payroll of the British government, as opposed to Percy's amateur status) allies naturally with his national interests and does not involve any slavish attachment to the fortunes of the spoiled and haughty French émigrés. In the Pimpernel novels, there was always a bit of tension between on the one hand the narrator's conventional historical stance that the French aristos were a deplorable lot who brought much of their fate upon themselves, and on the other the wholehearted dedication of Percy and his band to rescuing those same aristos as victims. In this novel, while there is some ambivalence about Napoleon himself - Orczy again echoes her own contemporaries in admiring his "genius" - there is none about his movement, which was against English interests and therefore deserved all-out opposition from Clyffurde. So, while Clyffurde does his share of aristo-rescuing, his motives are less pro-aristo than anti-Bonaparte. They are, of course, especially pro-Crystal, his ineffable blonde French-born English-raised love, for whom he make the expected hyper-honourable sacrifices up to and including rescuing the less than honourable aristocratic rival he believes her to be in love with.

Crystal herself is a classically maddening Orczy female. She has both complete deference to her family's interests and a spontaneous spunkiness when enforcing ideas of "honour" on her trio of suitors (the third is a Bonapartiste, exposed on their affiancing day). Amongst the suitors only Clyfforde has the same sort of ideals as she does, including the bizarre habit of working against one's own self-interest as if it were some sort of virtue in itself to do so.

By contrast, there is an elderly aunt figure (or fairy godmother), full of common sense and good works, whose only failure as a character is that she seems always just a little too infallibly right about what everyone is thinking, doing and about to do. She is entirely necessary to the happy ending for the lovers, who otherwise would no doubt have contented themselves with a single swooning rose-perfumed waltz at the ball before Waterloo.

Baroness Orczy had clearly done her homework about the Battle of Waterloo and wanted to show it off. The battle section of the book is therefore about two chapters too long, though the incidents involving her fictional characters are fairly well distributed. She did write one very striking scene of Napoleon grimly leading his horse back in the direction of the battle, not to take up arms but to find his peers and plot how to use the swings on the London Stock Exchange, consequent on changing reports of the battle's outcome, to rebuild his fortunes!

I'm not sure why I keep coming back to these romances of the first decades of the twentieth century, when those of the twenty-first century leave me cold or worse. Perhaps it's just that Baroness Orczy writes very good fairy tales that do not pretend to be more, and I can appreciate them as such.

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review 2017-06-01 20:27
Babbitt (Lewis)
Babbitt - Sinclair Lewis

I was wary of this novel of 1920s America, given what very little I knew of it, which was only that its title has become a metaphor, now fairly little-used, for an entirely conventional and complacent middle-class man. I thought that it would be very satirical, and very much of its time and place, and both of these things are true. However, though some of the zing may have gone out of particular references, there is a clear and universally comprehensible movement of the spirit of the central character into attempts towards more liberal attitudes both personal and socio-political, and then back into his cage, but with more self-awareness. It is that self-awareness that helps him in the last chapter to deal with his (mildly) non-conformist son.

At first I found the plan of the novel a little too methodical. At least up to the 60% mark, the chapters seemed just to be ticking off satirical bullet points: Babbitt's conservatism and conformity at home; Babbitt's conformity at his real estate workplace; Babbitt's conformity with his "Booster Club" associates; Babbitt's conformity at church; Babbitt's conformity with the rough fraternity of commercial travellers on the train, etc. etc. However, seeds were planted: Babbitt's best friend Paul is given the role of foil, a man profoundly unhappy in those same circles - and it is a violent incident involving Paul that sets Babbitt off on his hesitant journeys into self-determination.

A man is at the centre of this novel, and its women, although not unsympathetically portrayed (except for obvious caricatures) will not give any great joy to the modern female reader's heart. The wife and the mistress are both essentially mirrors for particular aspects of Babbitt's character and aspirations; indeed most of their value to him appears to be in how well they listen to and mirror him. One minor character actually calls herself a feminist, but she is given no platform. To be fair, most of the supporting male cast are there to reflect back aspects of Babbitt too (or, fitter-in that he is, to provide something for him to reflect), so I didn't find the novel misogynistic in any way.

I was a little startled by the sudden end of the novel (Babbitt's eldest son elopes with his girlfriend and drops out of college in favour of a manual job - and in the very last sentence Babbitt is about to support him in the face of conservative family wrath). But actually I think Lewis was right to stop there, point made. A Babbitt may not be able to change himself, but at least he can learn a little and support the next generation.

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review 2017-05-12 23:12
The Awakening, and selected stories (Chopin)
The Awakening and Selected Stories - Kate Chopin

I read this in the edition that's free from Kindle, which unfortunately omitted the scholarly introduction advertised on the cover, probably for copyright reasons. Though I would have read it afterwards, it would have been nice to have a single essay to situate the importance of "The Awakening" instead of my inevitable after the fact googling.


The fact that I was unaware of this novel suggests either that my degrees in literature were deficient in American and feminist works (possible) or, more likely, that Chopin's work has been "found" and celebrated as proto-feminist since I ceased my active studies. That said, I found it both well-written and enjoyable in a sad sort of way. I did feel the unhappy ending - I should hope I am not spoiling anyone by mentioning that a nineteenth century story about an adulterous woman doesn't have a happy ending - was in some way imposed upon the novel by an author who saw no hope of its critical survival with any other outcome. Adulterous women pretty much had to be doomed in the 19th century, just like their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters a few decades later. Even so, the samples of contemporary critical reaction I found are rife with phrases like "not a healthy book" and "sad and mad and bad." It's really the only false step in an otherwise very well-depicted psychological journey: from an adolescent crush on a performer to a loveless marriage, to an attraction that "awakens" her romantically/sensually during a Louisiana beach summer, to a sexual liaison (the contemporary critics, used to decoding 19th century language, found this unambiguous, and so did I) with a substitute love object, and finally to a feeling of despair in the face of indubitable responsibility to her children after her romantic lover returns and pushes her away. But this last, the despair, was the least convincing and least fleshed-out aspect of the progression.


The little group of short stories added in with the novel are fairly insubstantial but interesting in their depiction of race and gender issues in that place (Louisiana) and time (the Civil War and just after). There's one story that was clearly picked just because it depicts - not in nearly so much detail of course - a woman making the opposite choice to Edna's in The Awakening, namely deciding to preserve her marriage rather than give in to a romantic attraction to another man. Another one that sticks in the mind is a rather nasty tale of a marriage between an aristocrat and a woman of unknown origin; he throws her out when her baby's skin tone appears to demonstrate that she is part Black, which he cannot under any circumstances accept. The last sentence of the story (it's a revelation about him and his own parentage) is quite a telling twist.


Reading fiction about "the woman question" in other centuries never fails to put me in a grateful frame of mind for the freedom of action and thought I enjoy.

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review 2017-03-17 22:57
Redshirts (Scalzi)
Redshirts - John Scalzi

By all rights this light-hearted riff on the "redshirts always get killed" trope from Star Trek should have given me a headache. After all, time travel plots always cross my eyes, and muddle that in with a crossover between fiction and "reality" - well, it's just as well that the cheerful flippancy of the book's tone encourages one to float along happily without demanding much in the way of either rigorous plot logic or depth of characterization.


Not at all by accident, I suspect, the "3 codas" referred to in the novel's original subtitle ("a novel and three codas") are where we get the most psychological depth. These three codas provide 3 denouements, rather preciously told in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd person respectively, for three of the main "real" characters (i.e. roughly contemporaneous with us, and outside the quasi-fictional space narrative). The first of these "real" characters is a screen-writer whose rather incompetent narrative for a Star Trek-like TV show is intermittently invading the so-called "real lives" of the main novel's characters. Rather than getting a headache from it, I enjoyed this playful adventure in (bad) narrative and meta-narrative. I can see why that playful cleverness earned a Hugo.


I'm not at all sure, however, that I'll remember anything about this book but the cleverness. Perhaps that's enough.

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review 2017-03-10 21:21
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Rowling)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling

The extra star (my fairly rare fourth star) for this last item in the Harry Potter series reflects my satisfaction at a successful wrap-up of what had become by the end an exceedingly complicated multigenerational tangle of motives and magic. Just as we had the explication of Voldemort's past in Half-Blood Prince, we had a lot of visits to the past lives of Dumbledore and Snape here. However, I thought these inset narratives were a bit more gracefully handled in this novel.


That said, I'm not entirely convinced it was necessary to introduce an entire counterquest (the "search for 3" - the 3 Deathly Hallows artifacts that conquer death) in addition to the completion of the main quest (the "search for 7" - the 7 Horcruxes, including Harry himself, which contain the evil which must be killed). Just as Harry's self-immolation seems a bit redundant when we've already had Dumbledore's on the same altar, so too the extra quest seems rather heavy freight just for the sake of reinforcing the theme of the novel - that evil, not death, is the ultimate enemy.


That said, the King's Cross Station out-of-world vision was well worth it - quite probably the most affecting scene in the entire series.


Rowling takes us back to ground zero, Hogwarts, for the final battle between good and evil. I resented this slightly - as I had already been doing in some degree since Order of the Phoenix - as Hogwarts' safety and impregnability crumbled completely. There's something very distressing about a school that's not safe, especially when you have an author who, like Rowling, doesn't flinch at killing off her secondary leads.


Even had we not had Rowling's later clarification in an interview, I would have suspected that Dumbledore's infatuation with the evil wizard Grindelwald had a sexual element to it. But this comes from someone with a half a century of gleeful subtext detection under their belt.


I found Ron's desertion of Harry and Hermione when they were doing their enforced and very bleak on-the-run camping trip a bit under-motivated, but I was glad to see him return in a blaze of quasi-heroic glory, rescuing Harry from strangulation by a magical nasty in an icy pond. If there's a character-based summary for this novel, "Ron grows up a bit at last" might be it. I don't have problems with the Ron/Hermione pairing, but I am a little surprised that Rowling chose to pair Harry off as well (with anybody at all). I'd expect him to be noble and single, as Dumbledore was. Nonetheless, for me, the much-maligned epilogue was a matter for a shrug; why not give the main characters a mundane domestic future as a reward for surviving all that trauma?


It fascinates me what a massive influence this series has had on the popular culture of a generation a couple of decades behind mine. I was trying to think of a similar phenomenon for my own generation, but even "Star Trek", with all its well-known characters and catch-phrases, doesn't seem to me to have penetrated into all corners quite the way Harry Potter has with the millennials. I enjoyed the reading of this series purely for its own sake - I hope I've made that abundantly clear - but I also think I'm now going to reap the ancillary benefits of understanding what is almost a second language of allusion and emotional shorthand.


I'm not sure I would have enjoyed this experience (or not in the same way) if it had been spread across the decade of the original publications, with a new thick book every so often. Having it all focused into a few weeks, and through the rather sensually barren medium of an e-reader to boot, was, I think, the right way for me. Definitely one my most delightful reading projects of the last few years.

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