Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Coming Soon - Honolulu by Alan Brennert

In 2003, author Alan Brennert published a book titled Moloka’i that became a surprise best seller, especially with reading groups and book clubs. Set on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, the book told the story of a Hawaiian girl who grew into womanhood at the island’s one time leper colony of Kalaupapa, where she falls in love with a Japanese man whose disease has brought shame upon his family.

In March 2009, Brennert will publish his second novel, Honolulu. Honolulu takes place in 1914, and explores Hawaii’s capital city through the eyes of a young Korean “picture bride” named Jin (which means “Regret”). (“Picture brides” were women selected by Asian [usually Japanese or Korean] immigrant workers through their photo only to be their wives.)

However, when Jin, who left Korea with such high hopes, arrives in Honolulu, she finds things are not as she expected and instead of joy, much sorrow and disappointment await her.

While I don’t like to categorize books, some people feel it’s necessary. So, with that in mind, Honolulu would fall into the category of historical fiction. And it sounds like very good historical fiction. Moloka’i was a beautifully textured novel, capturing all the sights, sounds, smells, etc. of the Hawaiian Islands. Honolulu promises to be just as good, if not better.

Yes, there are a lot of books about the role of women in Asian culture – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Snow Fox, The Kitchen God’s Wife, Wild Swans, and on and on. What makes Honolulu so memorable is the high quality of Brennert’s writing and the reader’s personal relationship with Jin. We really do see Honolulu and the Hawaiian Islands through the eyes of the young Korean bride. We learn much when we read Honolulu, but we’re also entertained as well.

Honolulu promises to be a best seller, just as Moloka’i was. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, one certainly has to admit the book was written with passion and love, and when you get right down to it, that’s the only way to write.

Learn more about Alan Brennert at his Web site:

Interview - Iris Murdoch on Philosophy and Literature

An interview with the wonderful and fascinating Iris Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea) on philosophy and literature.

“Literature does many, many things, and philosophy does one thing.”

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Book Review - The Sea by John Banville - "...all of life is no more than a long preparation for the leaving of it."

The Irish novelist, John Banville, is well known as one of today’s greatest prose stylists. Although his early books – Doctor Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton – all featured scientists, his later books have explored the world of criminal aesthetes and art experts, and most of them employ the fascinating, though sometimes frustrating, device of the unreliable narrator. This is true of his fourteenth novel, the 2005 Man Booker winner, The Sea.

The protagonist of The Sea is sixtyish art historian, Max Morden (names are always very significant in Banville’s novels). Plunged into a deep and seemingly endless sea of mourning over the death of his wife, Anna, from untreatable stomach cancer, and alienated from his only daughter, Claire, Max returns to Ballyless, a small town on the rugged Irish coast where he once spent a life altering childhood summer. Although as a child, Max stayed in the simple, inexpensive, and rustic “chalet,” the adult Max has ensconced himself in the far grander boarding house known as “The Cedars,” a place that, fifty years ago, was the summer home of a family the young Max worshipped, the Graces.

Although Max found Carlos Grace, the head of the family, to be nothing more than an arrogant boor, he was mesmerized by Constance Grace, Carlos’ wife, and later, by Chloe, Constance’s eleven-year-old daughter. (Fascinatingly, Chloe’s twin brother, Myles, is a constant presence through the book, though he never utters a single word.) It is Max’s recent tragedy – the loss of Anna – that has caused a much earlier tragedy – one directly involving the Graces – to haunt both his waking and his sleeping hours.

Like many of Banville’s protagonists, Max Morden is disparaging to the point of sheer exasperation. Stalled in the monograph he’s writing on French painter, Pierre Bonnard, Max describes himself as:

…a person of scant talent and scanter ambition, greyed o’er by the years, uncertain and astray and in need of consolation and the brief respite of drink induced oblivion.

Many times during the reading of this gorgeous book, one must stop and ask himself if Max is victim or predator. Perhaps he’s both. It’s rather difficult to tell because Max is so intent on inhabiting a world of ghosts – Anna’s and the ghosts of the Graces, for example – that he becomes rather ghostlike, himself, losing form and substance and becoming something of an amorphous shapeshifter, much like the sea, itself. This comes as no surprise. Anyone familiar with Banville’s work knows that ghosts are one of his favorite literary devices. They flit and flutter through his fiction like moths to a flame – melancholy, lonely people searching for a past they want to believe in, but sadly, a past that never really was.

As Max attempts to recreate his past at Ballyless, or what he believes to be his past, the major themes of The Sea – memory and loss – begin to emerge. The storyline is a simple one, though the structure of the novel is subtle and complex, always moving back and forth, back and forth, in and out, in and out, rhythmic as the tide. Max’s voice, though at times infuriating, is, more often than not, mesmerizing. The message of this book, I think, can be summed up in one sentence, a sentence uttered by Max:

…all of life is no more than a long preparation for the leaving of it.

From The Sea’s very beginning, readers can tell they are in for some tragic soul searching, albeit exquisitely beautiful soul searching.

As already mentioned, John Banville is a prose stylist par excellence. He’s as Nabokovian as Edna O’Brien is Joycean. And, though his novels are, without a doubt, unspeakably sad, and feature sometimes mortally wounded protagonists, they are written in prose that keeps us glued to the page, prose that’s luminous, glittering, beautiful, lyrical, and hypnotic. Banville’s books often wound emotionally, but they’re difficult to impossible to put down.

Some people mistakenly call Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, Jose Saramago, a “difficult” and “demanding” author. While Saramago’s sentences can continue for pages and pages, once a reader “falls into” the cadence of the narrative, the reading flows as quickly and as easily as a snowball down an Alpine mountainside.

If any author’s prose is difficult, it’s Banville’s, gorgeous though it is, and this may be the book’s only shortcoming, if it can be considered a shortcoming at all. The Sea contains many mythic allusions and numerous embedded quotations from Yeats, Keats, Milton, Tennyson, Conrad, Shakespeare, Eliot, and Stevens, as well as recurrent analogies from the world of art. Some readers will love this, however those not familiar with the above authors names as well as the art world, won’t be able to unravel The Sea completely. Still, it’s going to be a life-altering read.

Sometimes, Banville’s prose seems a bit too gorgeous. It’s possible for a reader to find himself paying too much attention to the excruciating beauty of the metaphors and too little to Max. However, considering the tragic beauty of The Sea and its overall impact on the reader, this is but a quibble.

Most people believed Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George would win 2005’s Booker, or if not Arthur and George, then Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful exploration of cloning, Never Let Me Go. And both, of course, were worthy contenders. However, considering the violent beauty, the exquisite tragedy, and the depth of crystalline clarity contained in The Sea, it’s obvious this autumnal elegy was the right choice.

As Banville, himself, wrote in the glorious Gothic novel, Birchwood:

We imagine that we remember things as they were, while in fact all we’ll carry into the future are fragments which reconstruct a wholly illusory past. The first death we witness will always be a murmur of voices down a corridor and a clock falling silent in a darkened room, the end of love is forever two cigarettes in a saucer and a white door closing.

So it is in The Sea, only more so.


Recommended: Definitely, especially for those readers who love literary fiction.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Book Review - The Classics - Great Expectations by Charles Dickens "Great Expectations Fulfilled"

Great Expectations, a bildungsroman that spans approximately thirty years, yet still has an imitate feel, is the story of Philip Pirrip, or Pip, as he prefers to be called. Actually, there are two Pips in Great Expectations – the first is Pip the protagonist and the second is Pip the narrator, two distinctly different voices, since Pip is narrating his story many years after its events have been concluded.

Orphaned soon after birth, Pip was adopted by his sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, and her husband, the local blacksmith, and “brought up by hand.” (Though Pip’s sister seems to take great pride in this fact, it’s not something I’d wish on any child.)

We first meet Pip in the marshy morning mists of a village churchyard, staring at the graves of his parents. In just a few moments, Pip will come face to face with the escaped convict, Abel Magwitch, the person who, more than any other, will define the course Pip’s life will take.

Another defining moment in Pip’s life occurs when he is whisked away to the manor home known as Satis House at the behest of its owner, Miss Havisham, ostensibly to entertain Miss Havisham’s ward, a beautiful and self-possessed girl named Estella. Little does Pip know that Miss Havisham has other, sinister motives in mind. It is after meeting Estella that Pip makes the firm decision to change his lot in life and develops his “great expectations.”

Although not a particularly long book, Great Expectations follows Pip into adulthood, to London, where he becomes the best friend of Herbert Pocket, joins the ranks of the idle rich, and finally learns the deepest, darkest secrets of Estella, Miss Havisham, and Magwitch, and how their lives are inseparably intertwined. It comes full circle when, in the mists of the village at evening, Pip meets with the one person who has tormented his days and nights for years, and finally lays to rest the ghosts of the great expectations Estella awakened so long ago.

Although I’ve read and loved many of Dickens’ other books, I’ve never loved one with the passion and intensity I feel for Great Expectations. I thought this was a beautiful book and one that was perfectly constructed. At the suggestion of his friend, the author, Edward Bulwar-Lytton, Dickens changed the original ending. Many critics, including George Bernard Shaw, as well as Dickens’ biographer, Edgar H. Johnson, believed the original ending to be more consistent with the theme and tone of the book. Others, including John Irving, who wrote the Introduction to the edition I have, believe the revised, second ending is the more perfect. When you get ready to borrow or buy an edition of this book, please make sure both endings are included since they are very different.

Although definitely not as autobiographical as David Copperfield (and definitely not as sunny), Great Expectations’ Pip can surely be seen to represent Dickens, himself. And perhaps the two endings can be seen to represent (1) actual events in Dickens’ life, and (2) events as he might have wished them to be.

As with most superlative books, Dickens’ doesn’t spell everything out for the reader. I wondered why Dickens gave Pip’s sister such abominable characteristics, why he made her so hard and unloving, not only towards Pip, but toward her own husband as well.

The character of Miss Havisham is, of course, totally unforgettable. A woman whose life “stopped” the day her lover left her at the altar, Miss Havisham never removed her frayed and yellowed wedding dress, and her large wedding cake still occupies its place of honor on the dining room table, despite the fact that it’s riddled with spiders, beetles, and even rats. Although many people can’t see beyond Miss Havisham’s manic, obsessive cruelty, she’s a truly complex character, and the sophisticated reader can both sympathize with and dislike her at the same time. We understand her and why she’s doing what she’s doing, but we certainly can’t like it.

The theme of Great Expectations is, of course, the futility of looking outside of oneself for happiness, and for this reason, the main characters undergo profound psychological changes, something that doesn’t happen in other novels written by Dickens.

There has been so much criticism of Dickens for both his sentimentality and his use of coincidence to drive the plot of his novels. Sentimentality is one of the reasons I read and love Dickens, and in particular, Great Expectations. Dickens was an emotional writer rather than an intellectual one. He appealed to the heart of his readers rather than to their head. Victorian emotionalism (and they were emotional) appeals to me far more than does postmodern intellectual architecture. I think so many authors today try so hard to keep sentimentality out of their novels that their books and characters are almost devoid of humanity.

The plot of Great Expectations does contain several huge coincidences, so if you simply can’t tolerate that, then best forget about this book, wonderful though it is. It probably wouldn’t be tolerated by today’s major publishing houses, though I certainly didn’t mind the use of some coincidence. I read fiction to be entertained, to be transported to another world, to get to know the characters and their world. As long as the coincidence adds to the story rather than detracts, I’m okay with it.

Great Expectations, though a story about mistakes, broken dreams, and painful personal growth, nevertheless contains much humor and wit. Personally, I found it a far more “human” book than A Tale of Two Cities, often seen as Dickens’ masterpiece.

I loved Great Expectations more than any other book I’ve read this year. Absolutely nothing about it annoys me, not even Herbert’s strange propensity for calling Pip “Handel.” For me, Great Expectations is the epitome of nineteenth century literature, and its characters, especially Pip, Estella, Miss Havisham, and Magwitch, are truly unforgettable.


Recommend: Definitely, one of Dickens' very best.