§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: June 2009

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

This one disappointed me somewhat at the end. It seemed just to end and I was definitely not ready to leave the characters: an orphaned French girl, Paulette, who'd lived her entire life in India and who, to escape her conventional British benefactor, was determined to emulate a female relative who'd passed herself off as a man and another woman, Deeti, whose addicted husband died and whose poppy crop was forfeit to wealthy landlords and money lenders--one of the victims of China's attempt to stop the opium trade. There was also Zachary Reid, who'd sailed on the IBIS from Baltimore as a ship's carpenter and ended up an officer. He was the son of a quadroon mother and a father who made sure he was free--this was the 1830s--but who's taken in India not only for a white man but a wealthy, land-owning one as well. Then there's the Raja whose extravagant ways resulted in his disgrace and imprisonment--not at all fairly though lawfully by Paulette's benefactor, Burnham who owns the IBIS as well as the finest plantation in the area, Bethel (he's a proselytizing Christian as well as ruthless businessman).

Initially, the book reminded me of Dickens--slightly memorable but somewhat improbable characters and extraordinary coincidence all in the service of social criticism. Though the "social criticism" isn't like Dickens in that Ghosh's novel is historical and if it's social criticism, it's designed to remind us of "drug wars" of the past, of China trying to stop the opium trade and ruining those in India who'd been persuaded to grown poppies instead of vegetables, and of the Opium Wars that resulted when Britain used force to sustain their export of opium to China from India--against Chinese law.

The orphaned French girl, the bankrupted Bengali farm woman, the mulatto American sailor, the disgraced Raja end up together on the IBIS which, because of the slack in the opium trade, has been refitted to move coolies (all but slaves) to Mauritius--along with a number of other colorful characters.

I didn't like this one as well as The Hungry Tide. Ghosh is skillful at handling the many characters and plot lines that converge, but Sea of Poppies doesn't bring it all together quite as skillfully. I think, also, that I expected the novel to go in the other direction--literally east toward China and the opium wars, not west toward Mauritius. I expected more of an expose of the opium trade that lead to 19th century drug wars--perhaps because of the title. Perhaps because one cannot help but consider today's "opium wars".

Friday, June 12, 2009

Still Life by A S Byatt

This is a story about brothers and sisters: Stephanie and Frederica Potter who are very alike and very different and, on another level, Vincent and Theo van Gogh who are the subject of Frederica's friend Alexander's latest verse drama. I'm fascinated, like most Byatt fanciers, by the uncomfortable relationship between Byatt and her sister (Margaret Drabble) in real life and certainly note that sisters occur again and again in her novels, even as twins recur in the novels of John Barth, himself a twin.

I just read it a second time. After rereading The Virgin in the Garden for a book group, I vowed to read the whole quartet again. This one I think I liked more than the first reading.

It continues the story centered on the Potter family in the 1950ies. Stephanie has married the clergyman, Daniel, and is soon pregnant. She's acutely aware as she goes through her pregnancy of how much what is expected of her has shifted. She was a brilliant student, got a good Cambridge degree even though she'd chosen to go home to Yorkshire to teach at her old school, but now she's called "Mother" by all the nurses in the clinic and subjected to the physical and emotional indignities all women recognize as going along with institutions that oversee reproduction. For her first delivery she yearns for her Wordsworth which is in her bag and the nurses are too busy to get it for her; for her second delivery, she's smart enough to ensure she gets her books into the labor room.

Her marriage is complicated by her brother Marcus--after his breakdown in the previous novel and need to get away from his father, he comes to live with Stephanie, as does her husband's selfish, lazy and critical mother.

In the meantime Frederica has gone to Cambridge (having successfully managed to lose her virginity beforehand) where she's anxious to be taken seriously as a scholar in an atmosphere where women are in a distinct minority--and assumed to be less than serious scholars. All of her friends are men, and sometimes her emotional or sexual needs take her in silly directions, but by and large she has a very successful university career without really understanding where she will go from there. She assumes, nonetheless, that it's about time for her to get married, without understanding how marriage and a career will work, even without understanding what kind of a husband she wants. It's not Frederica only who's confused; in the 1950ies, the way forward for an academically inclined woman is anything but clear. Women scholars in the university don't seem much like women to Frederica--living restricted and isolated lives. But Stephanie's choices scare Frederica. Her mother's life, as the ineffective peacemaker to her volatile father, is also to be avoided.

As Byatt focuses on the contradictions plaguing academic women in the Fifties, there's a parallel drama focused on the artist van Gogh. Interestingly, the novel begins in a museum where Andrew Wedderburn (with whom the schoolgirl Frederica was in love) is celebrating his latest play, "The Yellow Room", the story of van Gogh (named for a brother who died) and his brother Theo who strives to keep him sane. The Virgin in the Garden, began in the National Portrait Gallery many years after the action in the book, where Wedderburn attends an event focused on a portrait of the first Queen Elizabeth about whom he wrote a successful verse drama at the time of the coronation of the second Elizabeth. The failure of the second Elizabethan age is an theme in that novel.

Then Stephanie dies in a freak accident at home, which companions more canny that her odious mother-in-law and disturbed brother might have been able to save her from. (I can't get out of my head, a comment Byatt has made in more than one interview, that belatedly she recognizes that the characters she's killed off in her fiction are those who represent herself.) Frederica reacts badly and surrenders to a suitor outside of the academic world, one with money and a country house and considerable sex appeal. She seems, like Stephanie, to have opened a door to sexual involvement and at the same time closed the door on the life of the mind without thinking much about it.

It's the portrait of a woman for whom education is everything, but who still expects (and is expected to expect) marriage and family that attracts me to this series of novels. Less than a decade younger than Byatt's characters, I too lived with those contradictions.

PS I can't find a book cover like the one on my copy. It's a UK early Penguin paperback with a picture of Frederica as she's described going to a party and Stephanie and Daniel.... I don't approve of those with fruits and vegetables.... Maybe I'll scan mine.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Children's Book by AS Byatt

I reread Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden recently for a book group and absolutely loved it. I’d forgotten how much I liked her and vowed to reread the others in that tetralogy (including the last one which I haven’t read). Then on a trip to London, I saw in the newspaper ad in Timeout that she had a new book out so I set off for Waterstones to buy it. Then a few days later, I bought a second copy in Hatchard's—because it was signed by the author…and I’m not one for collecting signed editions.

I was not disappointed. It’s by far the best new novel I've read in years. Mature. Complex. Provocative. Thoughtful. It's about a loose collection of families and friends who are affiliated with Fabians or socialists or just liberal thinking. Some live in London (where Prosper Cain is the curator of precious metals at the new V&A and one of the brothers Wellwood (Basil) is important "in the City". The rest live in the country—in Kent. Basil Wellwood's brother, Humphrey, is married to Olive who writes stories for children (I heard she's based on E Nesbitt) and who also keeps an ongoing story for each of her many children—hence the title. There's also Benedict Fludd and his tribe. He's a brilliant but erratic potter; his wife, Seraphita, was a model for the Pre-Raphaelites and appears to have no personality except for the flowing gowns she wears and the needlework she's always set up to do sitting outside. There’s an assortment of liberal thinkers who are single: academics, vicars, woman teachers and do-gooders. Olive Wellwood (the children's author) and her sister "escaped" from the coal fields of Yorkshire where they were raised. There are also assorted artists, writers and lecturers, including some German artisans involved with puppets and marionettes and active in the Bohemian life of Schwabing in Munich. There are MANY children.

The book opens in 1895 when Cain's son Julian and Tom Wellwood (son of Olive and Humphrey) discover a dirty boy living surreptitiously in the basements of the V&A. Turns out Phillip ran away from "the potteries" where his mother, a painter of china, was slowly dying of lead poisoning. He wants make pots and is taken to work with Fludd. The back-to-nature and the arts and crafts movements and the social issues of the waning Victorian period—as well as of the hedonistic Edwardian period—are explored: "free love" being one of those issues which impacts all of these families as the children gradually learn who their "real" parents are. Education and work (not just the right to work, but "the right to know") for women is another issue. So is the "Woman question", the suffrage issue. The novel goes through the end of WWI—when all these children are young adults thrown into a world their parents had not prepared them for.

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Netherland is a book that didn’t quite work for me, though there’s much to admire in it. The writing is exceptional—clean and fresh and not smacking of MFA writing programs as are so many “well-written” novels these days. The narrative structure is brilliant; it’s a first person narrative, in which the narrator, Hans van den Broek, roams back and forth in time, but always orients the reader with the slightest nod. Hans has a touch of the naïve narrator—well handled too—in that he observes so much more than he understands—or at least deals with. He’s an interesting character: raised in Holland, educated in England and then transferred to New York where he and his family experience the 911 attacks so close to their neighborhood that they have to move out to an hotel.

It’s the 911 experience that disorients Hans and his family, and eventually his wife insists on taking the child and going back to the UK to live with her family rather than stay in the Chelsea Hotel (which I note from biographical material is where O’Neill himself lives).

The run up to the Iraq war further tears the family apart and wife, Rachel, blames Hans for staying in a country that would illegally invade Iraq. Hans, an energy analyst, collapses emotionally in the face of her criticism and becomes increasingly isolated from his surroundings. In between his trips to London to visit his family, he spends his spare time playing cricket which is how he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, transplanted from Trinidad and determined to bring cricket back to the US…has the site for his cricket stadium all picked out. He’s clearly a “mover and shaker”—in fact for the Russian mob, but Hans isn’t really paying attention.

The 911 connection fades completely for me as the book goes on, though clearly Hans is stuck in its afterglow. Ramkisson is fascinating, and the reader picks up the cues about his life that Hans does not. The marriage difficulties are not very interesting. Rachel is not particularly likeable and Hans is unable to make a decision about anything in his life and certainly not about his marriage. Cricket becomes a “safe subject” for him, though he hasn’t Chuck’s passion to bring the game to the US.

The novel ends plows on to end with a whimper. This is a tremendously talented writer who hasn't really been able to focus his talents in this novel. In the end I was bored.