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review 2016-10-20 00:00
Cakes and Ale
Cakes and Ale - W. Somerset Maugham Cakes and Ale has our narrator, as usual, a thinly veiled Maugham, reflecting on his memories and experiences with a recently deceased elder-statesmen novelist and his first wife, Rosie. When a writer of popular historical romances assigns himself the role of biographer, with Driffield's second and more respectable wife's blessing, he asks our narrator for the details of the marriage, but he isn't interested in the full story. Rosie was an out-sized character and inspired many of her husband's early writing, but she doesn't leave an appropriate impression on her former husband's legacy.

The novel was as casually elegant as I should expect a work by Maugham to be. It was also more optimistic. The positive messages in the In the The Razor's Edge and The Moon and Sixpence were undercut by the unhappiness of those left behind by their protagonists. Here, our narrator seems more upset at the inconvenience Rosie and Driffield's relationship caused himself then anything else.

Not that this should be overlooked, Maugham uses the novel to meditate on the meaning of fame in literature, how it comes about and how legacy's are maintained. The hypocrisy of the guardians of respectability is given ample room to display itself. To be honest, I most enjoyed the lingering descriptions of interiors and the Edwardian perspective of Rosie's modern attitudes towards sex and love.
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review 2016-09-19 00:00
Up at the Villa
Up at the Villa - W. Somerset Maugham A short bonbon from Maugham. Maugham himself calls it a novelette, but it's really a novella, 30,364 words (I counted them).

Anyway, a young and fabulously beautiful widow, Mary Panton, has gotten away from London and memories of a bad marriage and is living in the Italian villa of some friends, in the hills above Florence. It's a relatively idle life, filled with reading, hanging out in the garden, and parties.

Sir Edgar Swift, an ambitions "Empire builder" who is 24 years her senior, is about to be shipped off to India. He asks Mary to marry him and come along. She requests a few days to think things over.

While she is thinking, she runs into Rowley Flint, a notorious bounder. She successfully repels Rowley's attentions, multiple times, but still, apparently, some kind of bond is formed.

On the way home one night, she finds an impoverished Austrian refugee, Karl Richter, an art student. She thinks to give him one great gift, an evening of wining, dining, and herself. When Richter understands that she did it only out of compassion, and not love, he kills himself. Mary calls on Rowley to help dispose of the body and clean up the mess in her sitting room.

Naturally, there are a few more complications involving Rowley and Sir Edgar. A cute, engaging story, well worth one's time.
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review 2016-08-06 09:47
Of Human Bondage - Maeve Binchy,Benjamin DeMott,W. Somerset Maugham

This book chronicles the life of Phillip, from orphaned young boy to around thirty, set in the late 19th century and yet the story is so exquisitely told that a much longer period seemed to pass. Maugham tackles some weighty themes too, such as the meaning (or not) of life, class, death, gender, poverty, the relevance of 'moral' behaviour. There are very few books that I would consider starting again immediately, but with "Of Human Bondage", I could, safe in the knowledge that there would still be much to mull over within the text. Notwithstanding the beautiful use of language, at times the book seems quite profound and I found myself savouring some delightful passages. Certainly the themes retain a contemporary resonance and the tension between individual and wider social values continue to echo modern dilemmas. This was my first exposure to Maugham and yet this book has been elevated , on this one reading, to my personal shortlist of 'great' books. The plot appears simple and yet is intricate in the unfurling, the underlying issues are challenging and it is hard not to reflect on one's own capacity for rational behaviour. At the very least it is an interesting examination of aspects of the human condition, which everyone should have on their 'must read' list. I must read it again very soon! Simply a great read!

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1521150490
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review 2016-06-20 00:00
The Magician
The Magician - Robert Calder,W. Somerset Maugham I resented this book, because I loved Maugham's later work. It is difficult to accept that the author of [b:Of Human Bondage|31548|Of Human Bondage|W. Somerset Maugham|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1386924695s/31548.jpg|2547187] wrote this one: it's not only weak, it's bad all through.

The idea of magic is not developed at all. I know this is before all the fantasy flooding the book market these days, but surely the very admitting supernatural powers to exist puts the question of how the initiated use them and for what ends. Maugham's answer is: to shock the public and revenge small insults on a grand scale. Wouldn't a real adept rather hide the powers and take the advantages?

The plot is monstrously formulaic. All the twists telegraphed from the start and the resolution seems to hastily cut the threads instead of tying them up. As to making Arthur and Susie come together at the end, I just haven't a word to say. Well, all the characters here fall flat, so how can I object at their behaving unrealistically when they are not realistic?

And how about some moral sense, perhaps there is one? Struggle between good and evil, or between reason and chaos, whatever? Nope. Just think of the starting premise: Arthur is Margaret's guardian and one of the first men she's known, he pays her way unknown to her, and when she finds out she continues to take his money and agrees to marry him! While he magnanimously waits till she turns nineteen, the mature age for taking independent decisions, I don't think. Magic spells versus financial dependence, that's the kind of struggle to consider, and I personally know which is more dangerous in this world.

The prose style is unbelievable, there are actually words used incorrectly (at first I thought that it's meant to show us Frenchmen don't speak English perfectly, but it seems all characters do this). I don't object to the verbosity (the girl who admires Henry James and Charles Dickens hardly can), but I'd like to see some harmony in it, and there isn't.

Nothing to say for it, all in all. "Juvenilia" is no excuse, and later Maugham needs no earthly excuses.
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review 2016-03-17 00:37
Books of 1915 (Part Two)
Of Human Bondage - Maeve Binchy,Benjamin DeMott,W. Somerset Maugham
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock - T.S. Eliot
Grass on the Wayside (Michikusa) - Sōseki Natsume,Edwin McClellan
A Bride of the Plains - Emmuska Orczy
The Underdogs - Mariano Azuela
Herland - Charlotte Perkins Gilman,Ann J. Lane
Ammonite - Nicola Griffith
The Temple at Landfall - Jane Fletcher
Houston, Houston, Do You Read? - James Tiptree Jr.
The Scarecrow of Oz - L. Frank Baum

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham


It has been quite a few years since I read this novel, but I thought it was absolutely terrific and I remember it vividly. The story opens when the main character Philip is a lonely young boy with a club foot being raised by his aunt and uncle. As soon as he is old enough to get away, he moves to Germany and then France where he decides to become a visual artist. That part was extremely interesting to me, as it seemed that, although art and education and customs of every kind have changed so much in the last hundred years, the inner work and the shame of “becoming an artist” have not changed in any way. It seemed very fresh and relevant. There is a “Least Likely To” type of girl who falls in love with Philip and dies by suicide.


Phillip decides that he doesn’t have what it takes to be an artist either, so he returns to London to study medicine. There he meets a server at a restaurant who is incredibly toxic. He falls in love with her and is completely under her sway, supporting her when she gets pregnant by another man. He seriously needs to get himself to a meeting of Codependents Anonymous! I won’t spoil the whole story but let me just give you a couple of key words: “sex work” and “syphilis.” But you will be happy to know that Philip eventually finds happiness and even love.


“The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot


This poem is perfect, and I don’t even know what I could possibly say about it. The back of the copy of The Wasteland and Other Poems that I have says “Few readers need any introduction to the work of the most influential poet of the twentieth century.” So there you go. I remember when I was a kid I liked the way the poem is so interior (as in, the interior of someone’s head), and how it was about someone who was getting old, and I just liked how it sounds. My mom used to recite and read this poem to us and I can still clearly hear in my mind just the way she would intone


Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                              
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

  In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.


and then later:


  I grow old . . . I grow old . . .                                              
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

  Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

  I do not think they will sing to me.


She explained to me that when you’ve had certain kinds of dental work you don’t dare to eat a peach.


T.S. Eliot is an example of someone who was a horrible bigot but who managed to keep it out of his poetry (as far as I’m aware.) I wish Baroness Orczy and some others could be more like that. I’m psyched for more modernist poetry to come!



Grass on the Wayside by Natsume Soseki


I really enjoyed reading this. It was almost as great as Soseki’s 1914 book Kokoro. It’s about a middle-aged curmudgeon who doesn’t know how to get along with anyone, especially his wife and his family. This curmudgeon had been adopted into another family as a child, which was apparently a common Japanese custom of the period, but later the adoption was reversed and he returned to his original family. Now his onetime adoptive father has resurfaced, unsuccessful and unsavory and grasping for money, and our curmudgeon isn’t sure what the right thing to do is. According to the introduction, the story is autobiographical and the main character is supposed to be a very close match to Soseki. But I don’t understand how that can be—how could anyone who has social skills as poor as the main character have the insight to present the situation the way the author does? If the author were really as blinkered as the main character, there’s no way he could have written this book.


I’m looking forward Soseki’s next book in 1915. But oh no! It’s his last one!


A Bride of the Plains by Baroness Orczy


As you may know, I’m a big Baroness Orczy fan. This year I have to give her credit for something very special: although basically the entire world is embroiled in war, she is the ONLY author to address this. She was the ONLY one to write about war, and in Hungary in the Carpathian basin, more or less where all the trouble began. (Okay, I guess there’s also Mariano Azuela writing about the Mexican revolution. But still, props to the Baroness!) I know the production schedule for publishing a novel is pretty long, but a lot of these Edwardians wrote two books a year, and I do think some of them could have at least acknowledged in some way, even thematically, that there’s a world war going on, a pretty big deal! (PS. Are they still Edwardians? What am I supposed to call them now? Baroness Orczy ain’t no modernist!)


Anyway, no one seems to set their novels in the present day, and in fact Baroness Orczy is no exception; A Bride of the Plains is set in what seemed to me like a non-specific time in the past. But the book’s opening takes a pretty clear anti-war tone. It’s almost the day when young men in this little burg are conscripted into the army, a sad day for all:


On this hideous day all the finest lads in the village are taken away to be made into soldiers by the abominable Government? Three years! Why, the lad is a mere child when he goes—one-and-twenty on his last birthday, bless him! still wanting a mother’s care of his stomach, and a father’s heavy stick across his back from time to time to keep him from too much love-making.


Three years ! When he comes back he is a man and has notions of his own. Three years! What are the chances he comes back at all? Bosnia! Where in the world is that? My God, how they hate it! They must go through with it, though they hate it all-every moment.


By the way, I realize that there is probably a glut of war books coming down the pipe, and in a few years I’ll be very nostalgiac for the kind of books I read this year.


Anyway! This is the story of a girl, Elsa, who tries to be true to Andor, the boy she loves who’s been sent off to war. But when it seems that he’s been killed, she knuckles under to her mother’s pressure to marry the bad-tempered richest man in town. But on the eve of her wedding,

Andor returns!

(spoiler show)


The downfall of this book is the same problem that Orczy always has: anti-Semitism. Usually it’s just a few throwaway descriptions, but here the villains are an Evil Jew and Evil Jewess. Kind of ruined the book. That’s the whole thing about bigoted people; they just can’t let it go. If you hate Jews so much, Emma Orczy, why don’t you just stop writing about them? But no, she can’t help herself! Maddening. I will say that there’s a lot of suspense and action in this book, if you can get past the bad taste in your mouth.


The Underdogs (Los de Abajo) by Mariano Azuela


This interesting novel about the Mexican Revolution is cynical toward everyone concerned. The main characters are peasants who become rebels. There are a lot of funny bits. The most depressing part is how the women are treated like garbage by everyone. You get the impression that the people of Mexico will get the shaft, no matter who wins. This is the first Mexican novel I have encountered in this project and I hope I will find more.


Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman


I like Herland even more than 1911’s Moving The Mountain, and almost as much as “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which I think is one of the finest short stories. Although Gilman is famous for being a feminist, I don’t think she gets as much credit as she deserves for being a speculative fiction writer.


Three male explorers hear of a country that consists only of women, so they decide to check it out, and with great trouble make their way in. Jeff is a tender soul who glorifies motherhood and believes in being a perfect gentleman to women. Terry is a handsome man about town, kind of rapey and full of himself, and he thinks women should be pretty and serve him. The narrator, Vandyck Jennings, is sort of in-between these two and in general presents a “rational” point of view.


They are amazed to discover a beautiful utopia populated only by women, with wildly different customs from their own. In this country they don’t have poverty, they raise their children communally, they wear comfy clothes, etc. Long ago, a volcanic eruption and slave uprising led to a group of women who were cut off from the rest of the world. A few of them were miraculously able to reproduce as the result of sort of an exalted mental state, and this ability was passed down through the generations. There are so many novels about all-female societies where this happens—Ammonite by Nicola Griffith and Jane Fletcher’s Celaeno series spring to mind—but Herland must be the first.


The women the three explorers meet are all strong, intelligent, athletic, good teachers, and able to get things done. They confound the explorers’ expectations at every turn because they have no idea how to “behave like women.” Gilman takes the gender binary away and everyone becomes a person; however, she certainly has a rosy view of how nice an all-female society, or any society, could be.


The three explorers each fall in love and insist on marrying their sweethearts, which the women agree to in order to humor them, although marriage is a meaningless concept to them. All this time there has been no romantic love in the country because, well, when the men are gone, it’s just impossible! But they haven’t been missing it.


Terry and his wife Alima don’t get along. He attempts to rape her, but she kicks him in the balls and summons help from her friend in the room next door. Terry is put on trial, and the local Over Mother sentences him to be sent back to the outside world, with his word as a gentleman not to tell anyone about their country. At first Terry is obstinate.


“The first thing I’ll do is to get an expedition fixed up to force an entrance into Ma-Land!”

“Then,” they said quite calmly, “he must remain an absolute prisoner always.”

“Anesthesia would be kinder,” urged Moadine.

“And safer,” added Zava.

“He will promise, I think,” said Ellador [Jennings’ wife.]

And he did.


(This part reminded me of Houston, Houston, Do You Read? by James Tiptree, Jr.)


So Terry leaves, with Jennings and Ellador to escort him. Next year is the sequel! From Gilman’s Wikipedia page I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know about her, including the fact that she married her first cousin, and that when she was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer she “chose chloroform over cancer” (her words.)


The Scarecrow of Oz by L. Frank Baum


I love all the Oz books! This is the one in which a little girl named Trot and her sailor pal Cap’n Bill come to Oz. They meet a lot of lovable characters like the Bumpy Man and Button Bright, and they help the Scarecrow solve a problem with the monarchy of Jinxland.

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