Human Kindness & Cruelty: My Review of "Cloud Atlas"

Every now and then a book comes along that grabs you by the throat and threatens to never let go. It’s uncommon and infuriating and wonderful. When you’re reading, nothing else exists and when you’re finished, just thinking about the book sends shivers through your body again. Does no one else feel this? If they don’t, then it’s time they picked up Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

Cloud Atlas seems simple: there are six narrators each with his own memoir/diary-type section. The first is set in the mid-1800s, the second in the 1930s, the third in the 1970s, the fourth in 2001, the fifth in a not-so-distant dystopian future, and the last on a post-apocalyptic island inhabited by a tribal people. The stories are connected in that the next narrator is reading the diary/memoir/autobiography of the previous one. In the first half of the novel, each narrative stops abruptly, and in the second half of the novel, each story continues and they appear in descending order, tying up loose ends and completing the story (for the most part). And just in case this wasn’t a bit too confusing already, five of the six narrators are related in some way [I don’t want to spoil it!].

pictured: the rock I use to keep books open when I write about them

pictured: the rock I use to keep books open when I write about them 😉

There are many reasons why I loved this novel and why I think about it all the time. Obviously, with six narrators, the narrative has a lot of opportunities to become confusing, but Mitchell is such a nuanced and detailed writer that no confusion occurs. Not only does the author give each character a distinct voice, personality, and unmistakable speech habits, but also, each section of the novel is a completely different genre altogether. These aspects of the novel, coupled with the vibrance of the many settings and the elegance of the prose, elevates this story from gimmicky to profound. That’s why I was so disappointed with the movie: they kept the raw bones of the story but stripped it of what made it powerful–tragedy, loss of humanity, and humankind’s capacity for cruel and absolute power, both over the Earth and over others. They made it into a kitschy, easily-digestible story with a neat and frankly, a laughable ending. Cloud Atlas the novel is far superior and far more entrancing.

The first “novella” is the story of an American notary making his way back to San Francisco on a treacherous journey from the Chatham Islands; the second is that of a roguish bisexual composer writing to his former lover; in the third, a feminist investigative reporter in the 70s faces the scoop of a lifetime and sexism at every turn; in the fourth an aging vanity publisher finds himself [hilariously] incarcerated in a nursing home; in the fifth, a clone in a corpocratic Korea regales her executioner with stories of how she became self-aware; and in the sixth and final story, a tribe member in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii becomes acquainted with a “civilized” anthropologist.

Ewing, Frobisher, Rey, Cavendish, Sonmi, Zachry–the names all evoke in me affection and nostalgia and even vestiges of the fear I felt when reading. These are the books that stick with you and change you.

This book is about many things, and to list them all would be foolish and simplistic. Indeed, each story can hypothetically stand independent of the others, so that it’s like reading six distinct novellas, each with vivid characters and its own “point,” so to speak. But a common thread that runs through the narrative(s) is humanity’s relation to others and to the Earth. The first narrator–and the last–is a man named Adam who owes his life to a freed slave. The experience he had with the freed slave causes great changes in Adam’s philosophy and he ruminates on the structure of his current society and, essentially, how we may define humanity and how all of mankind may relate to each other:

If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being…You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the “natural” (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this:–one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the doom written within our nature?

This passage, on the second-to-last page of the novel, directly involves the reader, forcing us to answer some difficult questions about humanity’s capacity for both cruelty and compassion, kindness and subjugation. Implied on every page of this novel is the fact that people need other people to survive, and not just in societies or communities, but by actively practicing equality, compassion, and generosity. Colonialism destroys the colonizers and the colonized. A society built on consumerism strips away what makes us human and replaces it with a need for things. Indulging our basest instincts–power, greed, cruelty–can only result in the total destruction of mankind.

My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?

And the very last line of the novel reminds us that all of us, as humans, are connected in a vast web of future, past, and present, and that we are all beholden to each other to create a better world to live in.

This novel has become popular recently because of the film adaptation but I want to warn you: stay far, far away from the movie. It’s sappy and childish and the book is a world of its own. Many worlds, actually. Reviewing this book is like reviewing six, just like reading this book is like reading six. If Mitchell had released each section as a short story and fragmented each the way he did in the novel but staggered their releases, we would have a Harry Potter–release-night kind of hysteria on our hands, that’s how addictive these stories are. And it would have made a helluva marketing scheme.

References

Mitchell, D. (2004) Cloud Atlas. New York, NY: Random House

Fairy Tales Retold: "Sirena" and the Femme Fatale

I think YA literature can be a great thing. It’s gotten a bad rap in the past decade with the advent of Twilight and the phenomenon of the paranormal romance genre, but in general, YA introduces young readers to feminism, friendship, mythology, history, and most importantly, the power and beauty of the written word. All of the books I read when I was nine to sixteen years old informed my thinking and interests. From East I learned about Norse mythology. From A Great and Terrible Beauty came my passion for the Victorian era and my knowledge of the complicated nature of those sixty-odd years. Others taught me about pain and strength and courage, and all when I was quite young. My next subject for this spontaneous “Fairy Tales Retold” series follows the same lines of the others: I read this novel when I was about fifteen and it stirred in me an interest in Greek mythology and taught me about sacrifice, love, and the danger of the femme fatale trope.

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Now, Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli is not strictly based on a fairy tale. Rather, it takes place within that giant event of Greek mythology: the Trojan War. However, the main character and narrator is a mermaid (mermaid-siren combo) and given the ubiquity of mermaids in our culture due to the popularity of The Little Mermaid, and knowing details about the plot, I think it fair to say the Hans Christian Andersen tale influenced this novel in no small way.

The novel begins on the island of Anthemoëssa in the Aegean Sea, an island populated by sirens. These sirens are all sisters, the daughters of Eros and “Little Iris,” a fish–thus making this incarnation of sirens mermaids rather than the classic mythological siren who takes the form of half-woman, half-bird (though interpretations differ). The mermaid form is another reason I think pop culture influenced Napoli: mermaids are familiar and relatable in our culture, much more familiar than women who are half-bird. In whatever form, the sirens are both unable to procreate and have the potential for immortality. All they must do to live forever is win the [physical] love of a man. So they sing. They sing to lure sailors to their island and seduce them. Sound familiar?

Among the many siren sisters is the young naïve Sirena. Like her sisters, she adorns herself in seaweed and shells to make herself beautiful for any passing sailors. Her sisters’ one goal is immortality: to lure men to the island even though the sirens know that the island is uninhabitable by humans, and that their arrival means their certain death. Sirena, young and impressionable, does not question the inevitable outcome that the man who falls in love with her will die because of it. But she also does not relish it as her sisters do.

When her sisters manage to shipwreck a crew of men, the men grow mad and violent at their imminent death and in their rage, brutally murder one of Sirena’s sisters. The young mermaid is traumatized after this event and her worldview changes completely. She no longer wishes to be a siren, no longer wishes to enjoy the company of her sisters. She withdraws within herself. The stakes are raised when their de facto mother, Dora, wife of Nereus, tells her sirens about a war: “So mermaids, my ready maidens, the seas are full of Greek ships heading for Troy,” she says, after explaining about the apple of discord and how Paris “stole Helen away to Troy.” (30) Dora warns the mermaids:

You must not be stupid…You are of age, my beauties. This war is your best opportunity. One thousand ships…You must do it perfectly…If you win lovers, my seas can be graced with mermaids forever…Forever and ever. Immortality. (31)

Tempted by immortal life, Sirena nevertheless finds her sisters’ reactions to the news revolting and frankly, terrifying. Sirena implores her sister:

‘The men will die, Alma. They will die for lack of fresh water.’

‘We will sing continually. They will love us.’

‘Even if they love us, they will die.’

Alma, the sweetest of my sisters, now looks at me with hard eyes. ‘They will love us first.’ (35)

The siren’s chilling response and the behavior of the entire population weighs heavily on Sirena and she leaves her colony. She settles on the island of Lemnos, and soon meets Philoctetes, who has been marooned on the island because of a snakebite from one of Hera’s serpents (lifted directly from a legend). Sirena, who has vowed never to sing again, finds herself as a woman in relation to a man, rather than what she believed she was doomed to become: a monster.

The trope of the femme fatale has been around since the Trojan War was first conceived and earlier. Rooted in misogyny, the femme fatale trope is a symptom of the belief that a man’s lust and sexual frustration are a woman’s fault. Men want to be chaste and faithful, but women are snakes and they’re succubi and they can kill you. It’s awful and the worst part about the femme fatale image of women is its pervasion in our society, and not just by (some) men. “Femme Fatale” adorns t-shirts in women’s clothing stores and it’s perceived (by some) as something to be proud of. Femme fatale does not mean female sexuality. It means domination and control over another person, and it means being exploited and objectified because of your sex.

Sadly, “femme fatale” has become synonymous with a strong, sexy woman even though it literally means “deadly woman.” It also perpetuates this fetish-like image of a stony woman with no emotions and no weaknesses as the only desirable female type. We have come from idealizing an emotional, soft-hearted, bird-like woman to idealizing her opposite. The problem with the femme fatale archetype, and all types, is that they enforce the belief that there is a perfect kind of woman. Women, like men, should be allowed to have faults and vulnerabilities and complexity, like every normal human.

That’s the lesson Sirena learns by rejecting her role as femme fatale. It was literally laid out for her, by her “mother” and by her peers, and every single one of her sisters, even the supposedly kind ones, obeyed without question. Sirena alone knew that there was a humanity within her and a complexity she did not wish to suppress. That’s the wonderful part of reading novels like this when you’re young. That’s the power inherent in YA literature, and that’s why I have faith in it. Even when things like this happen.

Why You Should Read It:

For all the reasons mentioned already, but also for the mix of mythology and love. Napoli takes the canon myths and weaves her own story within the walls of the originals, without compromising the integrity or spirit of the myths. The result is an immersion within Greek mythology without feeling like you’re reading an encyclopedia. Characters like Thetis appear, and Oenone, and no explanation follows. Readers come to know them as characters rather than as actors on this great stage known as Greek myths. It’s also quite sophisticated. The Hercules of pop (Disney) culture becomes the Heracles of the original myth, homosexuality, immorality, and questionable birth included. Philoctetes appears as a well-rounded character before he earns his place in posterity for killing Paris. In the very first scene of the novel, the sirens attempt to lure a ship to their island but “the song of a lyre played by a master” smothers their seductive music: (4)

We sang, desperation making our songs keen, but our voices were drowned by that magnificent and terrible lyre. At one point the music stopped and we heard a shout: “Play on, Orpheus!” The music played on. No matter how much we sang, the men could no longer hear us. They passed us by. (4)

Little flashes of mythology like that appear throughout the narrative, as if Napoli is winking at those in the know, and for those less versed, she’s urging you to learn. 

The Good and the Bad:

Sirena’s voice and narration is simple and sometimes descends into juvenility. While her character and personality are complex and become more so during the arc of the novel, her voice remains stagnant. It’s a shame, because this story has a lot of potential. Another weakness of the novel is the first-person, present-tense point of view, which may be responsible for the dullness of the prose. Many of the sentences follow an “I do this” or an “I feel this” structure, which can get boring. It isn’t dynamic and it isn’t very gripping. The novel is worth a read however, and since it’s YA (intelligent YA, though it’s a shame I feel the need to use that disclaimer), it should not take long.

Read it for the pleasure of watching the Trojan War unfold through the eyes of a young siren. Read it for the pleasure of sinking headfirst into a mythological world. Read it to shift the focus on a story we’ve all read many times before, to see new perspectives, and discover new truths.

Okay, that’s it. I’m done. This was long. Please post your thoughts below if you’ve read this far.

References

Napoli, D.J. (1998) Sirena. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Fairy Tales Retold: "East" of the Sun and West of the Moon

This book is on my top ten favorite books list, and for good reason. I’ve come to realize that I very much liked fairy tales as a child, go figure, and this one is unique and enchanting. Rather than a retelling of a Grimm or a Hans Christian Andersen tale, East is a reimagining of the Nordic folktale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” It’s a bit like Beauty and the Beast in the beginning: a beast (in this case, a white bear) approaches a poor man and offers him riches in return for his daughter. The bear takes her to his castle and every night, sleeps beside her in his true form, a beautiful young prince. For a few months the girl burns with curiosity but does not look at who else is sleeping in her bed. When she returns home, her mother gives her a candle to use at night to learn the identity of her nocturnal visitor. When the girl lights the candle, she falls deeply in love with the beautiful prince, but she also drips three drops of tallow on him.

With that act, the spell on him is broken and a worse one takes effect: if the girl had waited just a year without succumbing to her curiosity, the prince would have been transformed back into a man forever. But because she had spied, the prince is now doomed to marry a princess with a “nose three yards long.” The girl asks the prince where she can find him and he responds, “east of the sun and west of the moon.” Thus the girl’s journey begins. On the way, she enlists the help of the East Wind, West Wind, South Wind, and North Wind, and eventually battles her way to the prince’s castle.

The original tale is short and sweet, and East retains many of the details but adds a rich setting, well-developed characters, and a heavy-handed dose of Norse mythology thrown in for good measure. I’ve said before how much this novel influenced my interests as I grew older. The northern atmosphere and the subtle magical setting all played upon my senses as a child and I grew up with a love for the North and a passion for Norse mythology. But back to the story.

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My favorite aspects of this novel are the main character of Rose, the way the story is woven with aspects of Nordic myth, and the author’s own fantastical inventions. Early in the novel readers learn that Rose’s mother believes in the superstition of birth directions: that the direction a woman faces when giving birth bestows on her child a certain set of characteristics–something akin to a horoscope. Eugenia, Rose’s mother, wants one child for every “point of the compass” except for north because they’re unruly wanderers, and because of a prophecy she’d heard that any north-born she bore would be crushed under snow and ice. Due to serendipitous circumstances, her last-born, Rose, is born a North and not an East, as planned. The truth is hidden from Rose and she believes she’s a true, docile East-born.

Thus Rose (whose first name is Ebba, for East) grows up an exploring child, wandering around the fjords, climbing snowy hills, and getting into mischief. She’s a headstrong child, independent and brave. Eventually, the truth of Rose’s birth is revealed, and Rose grows furious with her family (this is the part that seems far-fetched, more so than a talking bear: why was her birth direction such a big issue?). So when the white bear shows up at her door offering her family riches in exchange for her, Rose leaves in part to spite her family, and in part to gain independence.

The story is narrated by five characters: Rose, her brother Neddy, their father, the White Bear, and the Troll Queen. This structure is the weakest aspect of the novel. It falls into the trap that all multi-narrator novels must be wary of: character confusion. Though Rose’s voice is distinct and strong, Neddy and the father are difficult to differentiate past the first fifty pages or so. As for the White Bear, his mastery of English is limited because of his animal form, and his narrative reads like a very bad middle-school lit mag poem. In Pattou’s defense, I can imagine it’s very difficult to give a white bear a believable voice. The author is much more skilled at giving him a believable personality, and a royally tragic backstory to boot.

Rose and the White Bear live harmoniously in his castle for several months. Rose learns that the Bear loves music and used to play the flauto as a human. She develops a rapport with him not unlike that of Beauty and her Beast. They come to trust and depend on each other, until she grows homesick, receives the candle from her mother, and unleashes the curse.

In this point in the narrative, Rose’s voice becomes much stronger. This is my favorite part of the book. The East, West, North, and South Winds of the original story become real people: the drunken captain of a deadly knorr, a French mother and daughter, and an Inuit shaman who leads Rose into the heart of Norse legend: to Niflheim and Asgard, to the realms of the gods. Though the myths are altered to suit the story and some details left frustratingly vague, the beauty of the novel lies in the way it is entwined with spirituality and myth, paganism and magic. Set in the sixteenth century, the story almost seems possible. The descriptions of Niflheim and Asgard are haunting and even frightening at times, and thoroughly entrancing.

The second half of the book is by far the superior. Rose’s journey is incredibly perilous and readers will become inspired by Rose’s determination and her eagerness to correct her mistakes and save the prince. The narrative is layered with Inuit folklore, Inuit traditions and practices, pagan magic, allusions to Norse mythology, and even an allegory for the Jewish Holocaust. Rose, in the process of saving the prince, finds within herself courage and selflessness, and a willingness to sacrifice herself to save not only the man she loves, but all those who have been exploited, abused, and enslaved. Not your average fairy tale, I’d say.

References

Pattou, E. (2003) East. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, Østenfor sol og vestenfor måne, Norske Folkeeventyr (Christiania [Oslo], 1842-1852), translated by George Webb Dasent (1859). Translation revised by D. L. Ashliman. © 2001. Retrieved from http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/norway034.html.

Fairy Tales Retold: "Ella Enchanted" and Free Will

When I was nine years old you could find me in the corner of the B&N Children’s Section in the “L” section—for Levine—reading the same copy of Ella Enchanted. I never bought the book. I just read a little bit every time I came, until I finished it. Then I started it over again. Finally, I borrowed a copy from the library—and kept it for three years. When I finally gave it back (and somehow avoided paying the exorbitant fee) I was left bereft. It was my favorite book, and well-thumbed. Thankfully, for something like my thirteenth or fourteenth birthday my sisters bought me a brand-new hardcover copy. The rest is history.

Photo Nov 13, 12 20 19 PMElla Enchanted, a retelling of Cinderella, tells the story of a young Ella in the imaginary and magical kingdom of Frell. Her mother passes away suddenly and her greedy merchant father marries a rich woman with two young, doltish, and cruel daughters. So far we’ve got all the major ingredients of the classic tale, but Ella Enchanted has a twist: Ella is under a curse bestowed upon her by the fairy, Lucinda.

The curse Lucinda bestows upon her is a “gift” of obedience. “Ella will always be obedient,” she says. (3) This curse is an excellent plot device as it is responsible for nearly all of Ella’s hardships. Had she not been cursed, she wouldn’t have been exploited by her stepfamily or forced to give up her possessions, and her “happily ever after” would have come easily.

But Ella does not succumb to the effects of the curse without a fight. “Instead of making me docile, Lucinda’s curse made a rebel of me,” she says. (5) Ella describes how she evaded the curse by finding loopholes in the commands she’s issued. For example, when her godmother Mandy tells her to “hold the bowl while I beat the eggs,” Ella resents being ordered to do anything, and while holding the bowl, she’d move around the kitchen so Mandy would have to follow her, making it more difficult. (5) Despite her curse, Ella shows strong sense of self and a large measure of mischievousness that is apparent throughout the novel.

The curse, of course, is a metaphor for the expectations of obedience and docility that society places upon women and girls. It may also be interpreted as the feminine ideal that many fairy tales of the past and even of the last fifty years of movies and television have enforced. But what is most notable about Ella’s curse is how she finds liberties within the confines of the curse to exercise her will. Her free will, to be exact.

What is interesting about how the curse operates is that it does not strip away Ella’s free will. One of the biggest reasons why I hated the movie (there are many, the least including Anne Hathaway’s parody of a strong-willed woman) is because the curse forces Ella’s actions. Movie-Ella had no control over her actions; the spell simply took over her body and acted for her as if she were a puppet. The oversimplification of the curse robbed it of its allegorical power.

Contrarily, in the novel, the curse includes symptoms of dizziness, concentrated pain, buzzing of the ears, vertigo, and nausea if she does not obey. But ultimately, the decision to obey is Ella’s. She has free will but forces of nature and of society, metaphorically, work against her. If she does not obey, she runs the very real risk of bodily harm and it is suggested, even death. This metaphor of the curse calls attention to all the societal pressures that are packaged with the female identity and how difficult it is to resist gender norms and establish one’s identity outside of societal expectations and the feminine ideal.

Ella excels at gaining small areas of ground by disobeying while obeying the curse, as described. She’s an example of a free-thinking woman living in a patriarchal system, doing what she can to make herself happy. However, she also knows that the curse may be broken and that it can only be broken by herself, and by no one else. The scene in which she breaks the curse is poignant, powerful, and my favorite passage of the novel:

Then I lost sense of it all. I went on rocking and crying, but my thought burrowed within, concentrated in a point deep in my chest, where there was room for only one truth: I must save Char. For a moment I rested inside myself, safe, secure, certain, gaining strength. In that moment I found a power beyond any I’d had before, a will and a determination I would never have needed if not for Lucinda, a fortitude I hadn’t been able to find for a lesser cause. (226) (emphasis mine)

Ella displays such formidable strength and finds that strength wholly within herself. It is that strength which was always at her fingertips, the strength she always possessed that would have allowed her to break the curse, but she needed reason enough. For Ella, saving the man she loves is enough for her to be able to break the curse. In Levine’s estimation, love—equal, honest love—transcends social boundaries and expectations and can result in uncommon happiness despite societal norms. Stepsisters still exist, there is still a king and queen and a patriarchy, but Levine suggests that with personal strength any girl can overcome these forces. Every girl can break her “curse.”

Also notable is that Ella “refused to become a princess” even though she marries a prince. (231) Instead she opts for the titles “Court Linguist” and “Cook’s Helper,” titles that call attention to her skills and knowledge rather than to her status as a royal’s wife. (231)

One last thing:

Now it was over. Ended forever. I was made anew. Ella. Just Ella. Not Ella, the slave. Not a scullery maid. Not Lela. Not Eleanor. Ella. Myself unto myself. One Me. (228)

And now I must affirm the influence of that passage above upon my nine-year-old psyche. Strange as it sounds, ridiculous as it sounds, Ella Enchanted may have turned the pre-preteen me into a tiny little feminist.

References

Levine, G.C. (1997) Ella Enchanted. New York, NY: HarperCollins

Fairy Tales Retold: Robin McKinley’s “Beauty” and Feminism

Beauty will forever be immortalized in my memory as the first book I ever ordered on Amazon (the first of many). I was thirteen years old and I’d found Beauty on a shelf in the Children’s Section of Barnes & Noble but the edition was paperback, and I vowed to have a hardcover. Robin McKinley, I know now, was the winner of the Newbery Medal for her novel The Hero and the Crown, but back then, all I knew about McKinley’s first novel was that it was a retelling of a fairy tale. I bought it because it reminded me of my favorite book at the time, Ella Enchanted, a retelling of Cinderella, of course.

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Why I Loved It:

Beauty does what every good “remake” or retelling of a classic story should do: it elevates the story by fleshing out the characters, interpreting the events for a contemporary audience, and all the while retaining the spirit and atmosphere of the original story. I’d even argue that Beauty goes a step further. Given that it is a fairy tale, Beauty offers readers an updated view of femininity, love, and gender identity that the original, by nature, inherently lacks. Beauty is not your typical princess, and neither is Beast your typical monster.

Beauty is written in the first person by the youngest of three sisters, whose names are Grace, Hope, and Honour. Honour, a cheeky child, harrumphs at her name when she learns the meaning of the word and states that she “would rather be Beauty.” (3-4) The nickname sticks, and our heroine has an unconventional name that belies her intelligence, talent, and independence. The name also, as Beauty laments, is inaccurate in the narrator’s opinion. She’s a plain girl with sallow skin and flat, dun-colored hair. Compared to her beautiful, light-eyed sisters, Beauty feels visually inadequate and as an adolescent, devotes herself to her studies in order to compensate. She describes her evenings spent alone “translating Sophocles” and how she grew to hate her nickname because it called attention to the fact that she was not beautiful at all. (9)

Beauty’s voice is strong and self-aware. Here is a heroine immediately relatable because of her insecurities and strength. Though her sisters Grace and Hope are both well-rounded characters with autonomy and considerable brainpower, they both pursue love and marriage and “happily ever afters” like traditional “princesses,” while Beauty defies gender expectations by performing much of the manual labor on her farm and leading an intellectual life. She has little interest in men and even rejects the advances of a well-intentioned man because she’d rather enjoy her freedom. It’s interesting that Beauty expresses the opinion that physical beauty is more of a hindrance than an asset. She grows to appreciate her plainness because it unencumbers her from the male gaze.

Reading this story through Beauty’s eyes is a pleasure. She’s feisty and smart and just a touch self-deprecating. She’s also selfless and not in the tiring, feminine-ideal kind of way. When her father delivers the devastating news that a beast has demanded one of his daughters, Beauty volunteers herself, not only to save her father’s life and the lives of her sisters and nieces, but also to prove her worth apart from her family and away from societal expectations. She asks herself, “Why was I so determined? I believed that my decision was correct, that I and no other should fulfill the obligation; but a sense of responsibility, if that was what it was, did not explain the intensity of my determination.” (81) She’s a believable mix of ego and insecurity, selfishness and selflessness that is highly relatable.

Beast, too, is a surprise. Born and bred to Disney movies, readers may be expecting the gruff, impatient, even violent Beast of the animated film, but this Beast is rarely any of these things, and never violent. Beast comes across as weary, lonely, and polite, albeit a bit brusque. He also displays marked kindness toward Beauty. He repeatedly tells her she “has nothing to fear” and immediately distances himself when she is uncomfortable or frightened of him. (116) Though Beast loves Beauty quickly, the romance between them blossoms slowly and naturally, built on mutual respect and patience. Beauty gains confidence in her abilities and her appearance while away from her family while Beast becomes more human in her presence and less, well, like a beast. It’s a thin allegory for a successful romantic relationship meant to last. And it’s entrancing with the added magical atmosphere.

Instead of dancing spoons and talking candelabra, the enchanted castle manifests its brand of magic in the form of disembodied voices late at night, anthropomorphized breezes, lush, overgrown gardens, and a castle that rearranges itself to accommodate Beauty’s roaming. For example, whenever she finds herself lost, her bedroom is no further away than down a hallway and around the corner. The magical is subtle and effective, even realistic. Moreover, there is no obvious time period or setting in the novel. It may be Western Europe but it also feels British and also somehow pagan. The effect is a deliberate ambiguity that lends a sense of timelessness to the narrative.

Why You Should Read It: Read it for the feminist take on Beauty and the Beast, which I do believe is similar to Ella Enchanted’s feminist reinterpretation of Cinderella. Read it because it is a sophisticated fairy tale that nevertheless has you rooting for a happy ending, and even, dare I say, a happily ever after.

References

McKinley, R. (1978) Beauty. New York, NY: HarperCollins

You Can Call Me Queenie: My Review of “Small Island”

Having just bought another copy of this book, I found myself reopening it at random and reading paragraphs here and there, and I was absorbed yet again. Small Island is a book I probably wouldn’t have read if it weren’t assigned reading in my study abroad class in London, but now that I’ve read it (and seen the BBC adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch) I find myself thinking about it all the time. Small Island is the story of the influx of Jamaican immigrants to London following World War II. When the British economy was collapsing and good ol’ Mother England found herself in need of cheap labor, she opened her ports to the denizens of her former colonies. Small Island dramatizes the real results of this historic event.Photo Nov 08, 1 33 26 PM

A lively cast of characters propels the events in this novel. First there is Queenie Bligh, a modest woman who comes from poor beginnings in the wild North of England who marries up. Her husband, Bernard, is a proud yet cowardly man touched by bigotry who is nevertheless capable of astonishing kindness. The husband and wife come into contact with a pair of Jamaican immigrants, Gilbert and Hortense Joseph, who enter into a marriage of convenience and find that their perception of England as the kind “mother country” is far from the reality.

The foursome each take their turn at narrating this gorgeous novel, which only rarely falls into cliché. The four first-person narratives are intertwined which could easily have been confusing and tedious, but each character has such a distinctive voice and strong personality that it is so easy to get caught up in the story and become seriously emotionally invested in the characters. It’s akin to reading a very detailed diary.

Levy adds to the story, as the daughter of Jamaican parents, the use of Jamaican Patois (or Creole) in the narratives of Hortense and Gilbert. This accurate use of language lends another level of reality to the events and allows readers a more in-depth insight into the thought processes of the characters. It’s like when you watch a British movie and start thinking in a British accent (or something like that). I never felt like the author was present in the book; her voice was completely superseded by her characters’, which is the mark of a well-written first-person novel. Four first-persons, to be exact.

The novel’s poignance lies in the depiction of the reality of life for many Jamaican immigrants. Their lives were full of hardships from the second they stepped onto English soil. Many were met with violent racism, turned away from jobs because of their race, and lived in government housing with terrible conditions. Moreover, many found that their perception of England as loving “mother country” was little more than propaganda. In the novel, Gilbert says:

All we ex-RAF servicemen who, lordly in our knowledge of England, had looked to those stay-at-home boys to inform them that we knew what to expect from the Mother Country. The lion’s mouth may be open…but we had counted all its teeth….only now were we ex-servicemen starting to feel its bite. (268-269)

The novel takes you deep inside the cultural history of Britain during this time period and inspires sympathy for the characters, both black and white.

The historical setting is well presented and the characters are strong and well-developed but the real beauty of this novel is how it tugs at your heartstrings (Yes, I’m a sap, let’s move on). While Bernard is away fighting in India and briefly MIA, Queenie meets and falls in love with Michael, a Jamaican immigrant and ex-RAF soldier. The two enjoy a brief affair but Queenie is crushed when Michael leaves for Canada and does not invite her to accompany him. Unbeknownst to Michael, Queenie bears his child, a biracial child whom Queenie knows will face enormous social obstacles in his life with a white mother in a racist world. Bernard, when he learns of his wife’s infidelity and more importantly, the race of the man who impregnated his wife, surprisingly accepts the responsibility of raising his wife’s illegitimate child as his own, despite the child’s race. Queenie’s heartbroken response sheds bright light on the difficulties blacks faced in England in the 1940s:

He’s coloured, Bernard…and he’s not your son…You might think you can do it now while he’s a little baby saying nothing. But what about when he grows up? A big, strapping coloured lad. And people snigger at you in the street and ask you all sorts of awkward questions. Are you going to fight for him?….Are you going to be proud of him? Glad that he’s your son?….One day he’ll do something naughty and you’ll look at him and think, The little black bastard, because you’ll be angry. And he’ll see it in your eyes. You’ll be angry with him not only for that. But because the neighbours never invited you round….And all because you had a coloured child. (431)

I have to say, even if this book never crosses your path, take the time to watch the BBC film. The acting is top-notch and the ending will make you cry (me cry—it’ll make me cry).

References

Levy, A. (2004) Small Island. New York, NY: Picador.

The Circus of Dreams: My Review of "The Night Circus"

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Maybe I’m just a sentimental sucker. I’ve heard every criticism of this novel since I’ve read it and despite the logic of the novel’s detractors, I can’t help but love it. From the first line of the novel, nay, since I first cracked open the cover and saw the hypnotizing striped pattern of the endpapers, I was hooked.

What I initially loved about this book was the lack of explanation. I’ve reviewed another circus novel set in an historical setting in which every single detail of circus life was explained as if it were a dictionary, and the result was a complete lack of ambiance. The Night Circus has ambiance in spades. The reader feels as if he is sneakily looking through a window and witnessing events he doesn’t understand, but he can’t help but be entranced. You want to figure out what these strange men are talking about, and why is that horrible thing happening to the little girl? But let me take a step back and explain.

The Night Circus tells the story of two aging magicians and their lifelong obsession with outdoing each other. One day, Prospero the Enchanter meets his hitherto unknown five-year-old daughter and discovers her latent and hereditary magical ability. Elated by the chance of finally triumphing over his rival, Alexander, “Prospero,” whose real name is Hector Bowen, initiates a competition between his daughter and an apprentice of Alexander’s choosing who will engage in an ancient magicians’ contest, essentially a magical fight to the death. Celia and her rival, the orphan Marco are bound to each other as children and against their wills, must win the competition or die.

Then comes Le Cirque des Reves, the brainchild of eccentric artist Chandresh Christophe Lefevre, and full to the brim with enchantments and wonders. The Circus, as described in the first line, “arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements.”(3) It is precisely these amazements that form the battleground between Celia and Marco and which will ultimately decide the victor of their competition.

Laced within this larger narrative is an ensemble cast of exceptional characters: an enigmatic clockmaker, enchanting sisters, magical twins, a lonely little boy, and the magicians that are behind the scenes, pulling the strings. The entire book is as enchanting and intricate as the endpapers, perhaps a little too much spectacle and not enough substance, but ultimately mesmerizing.

So let’s address some criticism. In the way of characterization, Celia and Marco fall a bit flat. Though Celia displays a strong sense of self and exceptional courage, there is little about her that is interesting apart from her magical abilities and her independence in a Victorian world. Marco is somewhat more interesting, what with his humble beginnings as an orphan and his devotion to his studies and to his master, but his character falls into “cad” stereotypes when he jilts his lover of many years when he and Celia’s eyes meet across a crowded room.

Yes, the stereotypical, supernatural-YA-novel–esque love story is a bit of a disappointment, but the romantic in me looked the other way. Celia and Marco quickly and inexplicably fall in love, but their love is sweet and it drives the plot toward a satisfying build-up and conclusion. This novel could definitely have benefited from a more psychological approach to characterization rather than its heavy reliance on setting and imagery to form its characters. Celia and Marco are magicians. They’re talented, they’re scared of their futures and of their masters, they fall in love immediately. If I knew more about them, this would have been a five-star novel. As it is, their love seems metaphorical. But I can accept that.

The third-person, present tense point of view lends an uncommon atmospheric quality to the novel; it makes you feel like everything is happening right in front of you, albeit in a hypnotizing slow-motion. But the point of view also has the tendency to make the action feel distant and it somewhat disconnects the characters from the reader. However, the novel would not have been so successful on imagery and atmosphere if not for this somewhat unusual writing style. What the novel lacks in characterization it makes up for in setting. The overall descriptions of Le Cirque des Reves are exquisite. As I have said before, the descriptions engage every sense and make the reader ache to be able to attend the circus.

Read this book for the atmosphere, for the sense of magic, for the pleasure of sinking into the world the author has built. Don’t read it for the love story, for the love arc between the two main characters has more to do with contriving a cathartic ending than portraying an uncommon love. They fall in love because the author had written it that way, yes, but if taken at face value, the rest of the book becomes more enjoyable.

At its heart, this novel is an indulgence. It’s why I fell in love with reading as a young child; it just comforts you. The fantasy elements, the swoon-inducing love story, the inexplicable Victorian setting, the magic. It’s why many of us fell in love with stories. It’s transporting. It lets you descend into another world, slightly familiar, but ultimately surreal. It’s what a turn-of-the-century circus would be like on acid.

References

Morgenstern, E. (2011) The Night Circus. New York, NY: Random House.

"Water for Elephants:" now I'm getting mean

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I really wanted to like this book, truly I did. I love circuses and I’m a sucker for a love story (in case you haven’t noticed already) but this one was trite from beginning to drawn-out end. The only interesting character was the “villain” and his complexity was written off as symptoms of mental illness. In the hands of another writer this may have been a romantic and gripping page-turner but sadly, Sara Gruen fails to make this story interesting regardless of its setting within a 1930s circus and its story of forbidden love.

What should have been a lush, detailed landscape of a crime-ridden, Prohibition and Great Depression-touched circus train becomes simply a list of characteristics in the inexpert hands of Gruen, who seems to have copied circus facts straight from a Wikipedia entry. The result is anything but bewitching. Instead of feeling entranced by an old, faded photograph, I felt like Gruen just thought the 1930s seemed nice and picked it arbitrarily for the setting of her novel. Nothing about the era, save for the obvious aspects of the Prohibition and Great Depression (speakeasies and beggars figure prominently), is relevant to the characters’ storylines or personalities.

Jacob Jankowski, the protagonist and narrator of the story, is a twenty-three-year-old son of Polish immigrants and a student of veterinary studies at Cornell University. When his parents die suddenly in a car crash (yes, it’s that mediocre) and his home is conveniently repossessed by the bank (it is the Depression, after all) Jacob decides to jump a train, and finds, upon his graceless arrival, that he has inadvertently joined the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a second-tier circus run by a heartless gangster. All of these aspects of the plot sound great in summary, but when reading, I found them flat and dull. Jankowski is a boring character. He has no depth and just wanders through the book while things happen to him, and readers are told what he is like. “He loves animals. He is a virgin. He is naïve. He must live up to his parents’ legacy,” is what the characterization reads like. Jacob is as flat as the paper upon which his character is written.

And Marlena is just as bad. She’s a beautiful circus performer married to a paranoid schizophrenic, and Jacob falls in love with her inexplicably, possibly because she’s just as boring as he is. The characters are utterly forgettable with the possible exception of August, the aforementioned paranoid schizophrenic who suffers from bouts of intense cruelty toward animals and humans alike. August’s actions, while interesting, form the only captivating episodes of the first two-hundred-odd pages, which ramble on like an encyclopedia of a 1930s circus. The circus setting and its details are explained to the reader in an annoying question-and-answer format, with one circus veteran invariably answering Jacob’s deadpan questions without pause. I think this novel could have benefited from a third-person close point of view rather than Jacob’s first-person; the intimacy with Jacob could have been preserved and the narrative would have been more elegant.

The 1930s storyline is punctuated by the ninety-year-old Jacob Jankowski’s emotional turmoil while living in a nursing home. These parts of the book are heartbreaking, as we watch Jankowski’s mind slowly deteriorate. His wife (spoiler alert: it’s Marlena) has died and his family (children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren) rarely visit. Despite the poignance of Jacob’s sad old age, the two stories are incongruous; whereas the circus story is full of hope and a sense of expectancy, the contemporary narrative just seems like a set-up for the ending of the novel, which is juvenile.

Everything just seemed obviously contrived. There were no risks. Readers learn early in the novel, from Jankowski’s contemporary narrative, that he had married Marlena, so the ending was effectively ruined, and the only obstacle to Jacob and Marlena’s union is her husband, and he is taken care of in the most boring way possible that requires no emotional or physical effort on the parts of either Jacob or Marlena, and is therefore completely without danger. The characters get away scot-free, and everyone lives happily ever after. I hated it.

Gruen created thinly drawn characters and plunked them down in the Thirties because she liked the idea of it. Actually, on second thought, the best character was Rosie the elephant. She was stubborn, brave, and tragic all at once, displaying a depth of feeling and complexity that the human characters conspicuously lacked.

For contrast I offer another contemporary circus-oriented novel, The Night Circus, which also features forbidden love and a turn-of-the-century circus but everything about that book engages your senses; you can smell the circus, see the striped tents, taste the popcorn and caramel apples, and hear the eerie music. Water for Elephants just reminded me how awful it is to get old and to never put my parents in a home.

References

Gruen, S. (2006) Water for Elephants. New York, NY: Workman Publishing.

"The Marriage Plot" – Marry Me?

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Ah! Eugenius. Why do you do this to me? Let me preface this review by saying that this was my least favorite of Eugenides’ literary triumvirate, this book that I thought would be my favorite. That said, The Marriage Plot is only in last place because it rarely disappoints whereas The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex (favorite and second-favorite, respectively) never disappointed at all. Those are good statistics, and I’ll take a book like this any day of the week.

While reading this book I thought a lot about my opinions of the main characters and the structure of the plot and how I imagined the ending would play out. Now that I’ve finished, I find that I have something very different to say. This book changed so much from beginning, to middle, to end, that it seems like a different novel altogether from the one I began a week ago. Whereas seven days ago I was full of criticism and slightly disappointed in Eugenides, now I must willingly eat my words [thoughts]. Jeffrey Eugenius retains his title.

The Marriage Plot introduces three main characters: Madeleine Hanna, a Connecticut native with a wealthy family whose favorite authors include Austen, Eliot, and the Brontes; Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious-studies major struggling with his personal faith; and Leonard Bankhead, a fiercely intelligent, mentally ill man with a complexity that inspires love and hate from one paragraph to the next.

One of the reasons I was initially turned off to this book is one of the reasons it’s so relatable: the characters are starkly imperfect. Madeleine whines during the first one hundred pages about not being attractive to men despite the fact that every man she meets thinks she’s ravishingly beautiful, not feeling smart enough even though she’s brilliant and teachers tell her so, and generally being an insecure college student. Whether or not I found this trait exhausting because it’s familiar is too psychological for me to plumb. Nevertheless, I disliked her lack of confidence and dreaded reading about her.

Then came Mitchell Grammaticus, a thoroughly forgetful character in the first section, to the point when it became clear he was important to the plot, I couldn’t believe it. Third of the main characters is the initially dashing, problematically charming Leonard Bankhead, afflicted with manic-depressive disorder and Madeleine Hanna’s first love interest in the narrative. At first glance (even from reading the terrible back-cover description), this novel seems like a common love triangle, but if you say that at parties people will think you’re stupid, because this novel is about so, so much more.

It’s about modern relationships

The Marriage Plot is Eugenides’ most character-driven novel. It’s a novel about people. Not a suicide pact or an intersex’s memoir, just a novel about people and how they relate to each other. There are misunderstandings and emotional turmoil. There’s insecurity and unhappiness in relationships; there’s misogyny and misandry and familial discord. It’s complicated and it’s impossible to know exactly how each character is feeling at a given time because that’s how people feel—emotions are complex and Eugenides knows that.

It’s about religion

Mitchell Grammaticus, as a religious studies major and a deeply spiritual person, travels to Calcutta and volunteers for Mother Teresa. For three weeks he finds it almost unbearable to tend to the dying, finding their bodily fluids and functions revolting. As religious as he is, as moral as he is, Mitchell is not exempt from normal human weaknesses. Religion in this novel is inclusive and spiritual, spanning many cultures and many denominations, reminding us that religion is not about differences in belief but about the universality of faith and of the human condition.

It’s about mental illness

Leonard Bankhead suffers acutely from manic-depressive disorder. The manner in which his illness is portrayed in the novel makes it clear the prejudice still apparent in our culture regarding mental illness. At times, it seems as if his personality is inseparable from his illness, as if the “real” Leonard does not exist at all and he is simply a product of his manic and depressive episodes. This makes it somewhat permissible to excuse his more dubious (and at times, totally morally reprehensible) behavior as side effects of his disease, but is this interpretation fair? Do we excuse his behavior? Or do we condemn it knowing what we know about his struggle? This is the situation Madeleine is in along with the reader. We, along with her, are placed in a situation to either feel antagonism or sympathy for Leonard, which forces us to challenge our preconceptions and prejudices about mental illness.

It’s about love, in its simplest form

Not just romantic love, not just unrequited love, nor even epic love. This book is about the ability, the capacity that humans have to love and why we do it at all, as well as what to do when it ends.

It’s about self-awareness

The characters’ internal honesty sometimes had me reeling. They express the same worries and shameful desires we all have sometimes, and at points the bluntness of it made me flinch.

For example, Mitchell explores his feelings for Madeleine and discovers some selfish motivations:

How long had he been secretly hoping to marry Madeleine Hanna? And how much of his desire to marry Madeleine came from really and truly liking her as a person, and how much from the wish to possess her and, in so doing, gratify his ego? (160)

And:

It might not even be that great to marry your ideal. Probably, once you attained your ideal, you got bored and wanted another. (161)

These passages of Mitchell’s honest rumination reveals a selfish tendency that all humans possess in some amount. We are all egotistical and we all, at some point, fall in love more with the idea of something than learning and loving the thing itself, even when the thing is a person. And isn’t that the problem? We’re not objects and no one is perfect.

It’s about coming to terms with the truth, a form of inner bravery

All three characters experience a moment of anagnorisis (if anagnorisis may be allowed to be non-tragic) in which they suddenly realize some truth about themselves or their lives. These moments of clarity offer yet more psychological insight into the character and usually result in a cessation of suffering, or at least the amelioration of it. The characters, at one point, all display a huge amount of inner courage that makes them more complex and in some cases, their resultant decisions are redemptive.

About the title: “The marriage plot” refers to a form of novel common during the Regency and Victorian eras in which the plot revolves around a couple’s difficulties on their way to the altar, and ends with a marriage and a “happily ever after.” In the novel, Madeleine Hanna publishes a literary essay of the same name that takes a critical look at the marriage plot device in 19th century novels. At its essence, this novel explores contemporary relationships with all our contemporary complications: awkward or just plain bad sex, divorce, militant feminism, closeted homosexuality, and yes, marriage. But if you’re looking for a neat ending a la Jane Austen, let me leave you with this caveat: though emotionally satisfying, the ending is thoroughly un-Regency.

References

Eugenides, J. (2011) The Marriage Plot. New York, NY: Picador.

My Favorite Books: "The Lover’s Dictionary"

the lover's dictionary

The Lover’s Dictionary is one of those books that instantly becomes yours when you’ve finished. It crawls into your heart and tickles your soul, until you feel like you could have written it yourself. It’s the book we all would write if we could find the words. Part of its universality stems from the fact that David Levithan wrote the book with no gender-specific personal pronouns: no “he”s or “she”s to determine the sex of the author’s significant other; it could be a heterosexual couple or a homosexual—the language makes it clear that it doesn’t matter. This literary technique may have to do with Levithan’s own sexuality, but author aside, the book was written with the reader in mind, with the human in mind. It deals with the one of the most common aspects of human existence: love.

The novel takes the form of individual “dictionary” entries that encompass the whole alphabet. From A to Z, there are several words of each letter “defined” by how the author associates them with his significant other. “Arduous” reminds the author of sex, while “livid” sends him into a spiral of despair remembering when he was cheated on. (20,135) Some words spark memories, others conjure old emotions. The author speaks in second person, involving the reader into the relationship directly, reminding us that these feelings, these situations, these memories, are often shared among all people who have loved, or who have been loved.

When I read this book, it took me a total of 98 heart-stopping minutes. For a little over an hour and a half I lay down and was drenched in the beauty and pain of this book. Part of its charm is how unspecific it is; there is no plot, little character, only raw emotion and truth on every page. Levithan’s simple, brilliant prose takes a single moment of life and captures it as if you’re looking at a detailed photograph or a specimen in a jar. At moments, you’ll feel humbled by the truth and power of his words. (And here I am, writing in third person, urging you, whoever you are, to read this book. You will be absolutely entranced.)

The most poignant, heartbreaking entry is, appropriately, the one for love:

love, n.

I’m not going to even try. (136)

Even though the author shies away from any simple explanation of love, the reader is left with the overwhelming feeling that love has been inexplicably defined within the 211 pages of this slim little gem.

References

Levithan, D. (2011) The Lover’s Dictionary. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux