In my Sunday Spotlight column, I offer an excerpt from the latest edition of the Beehive Book Club. Here’s the extended entry:
Books are amazing, aren’t they? I’m in awe of them because they can be portable little worlds, all compact and self-contained, that you can drop into at any time. It enthralls me when a book wraps me up in its comfy little world as if I’m breathing its air, smelling its smells, feeling its vibrations, knowing its characters. To me, it’s the tone of a book that really sells it: If, when I’m away from a book, I actively anticipate and even crave crawling back between its pages, then it’s a winner for me.
I’ve read quite a few books since my last edition of the Beehive Book Club back in May, from classics and biographies to contemporary novels and science fiction. (Newcomers: I envision this occasional series as kind of a “virtual” club of people bound together not so much by common titles but simply a love of reading; I tell you what I’m reading, and you tell me, and we get a sense of satisfaction by knowing there are other people out there who love text in an image-based world.) The title that sticks in my mind is a definite oldie: W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage,” a wallop of a novel. It isn’t the cheeriest experience, mind you. Maugham is no hyperactive optimist. Yet this amazingly meaty, compelling story of a club-footed orphan boy growing up in late 19th Century England isn’t just doom and gloom.
Yes, Philip Carey gets some bum luck in life – from losing his parents to being called a “cripple” to getting stuck with a glum, loveless uncle. But he also gets some tremendous advantages as well: a station in life that means he won’t starve (which is something during that time in England), an aunt who loves him, the sensitivity to be able to stand back a little from life. He’s a philosopher, which some might see as a curse, but he has the self-awareness to really contemplate his place in the universe.
As we plow our way through Philip’s life story – his early years with his aunt and uncle, his tumultuous time at boarding school, his insistence on being an artist, his obsession with the young London waitress he meets, his slog through medical school – interesting themes emerge. One is truly bleak: In a reference to the slow, sordid death of his friend Crenshaw, Philip muses: “It all seemed inane … It was quite unimportant that he had lived; he was dead and forgotten … And Philip cried out in his soul: “What is the use of it?”
Another persistent theme is societal expectations. We live our lives as we think they ought to be lived, rather than how we really want to live them: “Always his course had been swayed by what he thought he should do and never by what he wanted with his whole soul to do.”
The thing that struck me most about the book is the idea of self-awareness, of stepping outside your life to analyze. The danger, Maugham seems to say, is that when you’re spending all your time analyzing, you’re not spending enough time living.
Time and again Philip demonstrates this extraordinary self-detachment. He’s reminded of a memory as a child, when he was told of his mother’s death, “and though he could not speak for crying, he had insisted on going in to say good-bye to the Misses Watkin so that they might see his grief and pity him.” It’s as if he sees himself in performance and is always aware of his “backstage” even when he’s in the moment. (All of us do this, to an extent, but with him, it seems much more pronounced.) When he’s kissing a woman, for example, he enjoys it – but what he enjoys more is witnessing the effect he has on her when he’s doing that kissing.
One might ask how Philip’s obsession with the waitress, Mildred, squares with his excessive self-detachment – and, make no mistake, he is obsessed, willing to grovel and humiliate himself and pretty much screw up his life just so he can be with a woman who barely appreciates him – but I think, again, it’s as if he’s doing a performance of obsession. He thinks this is what love is, and he’s determined to perform it to the best of his ability. He takes it too far, of course, and there’s one scene in the book that is positively excruciating: when he realizes that Mildred and his good friend, Harry, have the hots for each other, and rather than do everything he can to discourage the flirtation, Philip actively brings them together, even going so far as to suggest they take the holiday together that he and Mildred had been planning all along.
Still, with all of Philip’s self-destructive tendencies, I felt myself liking him so much — and rooting for him. I got completely wrapped up in his tight little world, and even as he dragged me as a reader through his anguish, I felt glad to know him. That’s a high
Some of the other books I’ve recently read:
** “Feed” by M.T. Anderson. A sly, subversive, raucous little book set in a very scary near future in which babies’ brains are physically linked to the Feed, the successor to the Internet. It’s a horrific world: no nature left to speak of, overpopulation, environmental catastrophe, strange lesions suffered by the majority of the population. In “Feed,” the protagonist is something of a weak-willed teenager named Titus. One night at a club on the Moon he bumps into a girl named Violet. Disaster strikes when a “terrorist” – someone who opposes the Feed – causes a weird short-circuit effect amongst the people he touches.
Violet, it turns out, is more adversely affected than Titus and the rest of his friends. She’s an odd duck anyway, home-schooled, a rebel who is always trying to subvert the incessant corporatism that has taken hold of life in the United States. The teen-age love affair that develops between the two isn’t typical, and it matches the novel’s brisk, sardonic tone.
** “The Heights,” by Peter Hedges. This adequate novel — that’s the best word I can find — is about a young Brooklyn Heights family with storybook lives. Tim Welch teaches history at an elite high school. His wife, Kate, stays home and takes care of their two small boys. While all their friends seem to be getting divorced, their marriage is rock solid.
This is a novel, after all, and there are cracks in the faÃ§ade. But this isn’t a story of extremes. Tim isn’t a killer; Kate isn’t having an affair with a priest. Perhaps the best thing about the book is its lack of hyperbole – it’s more realistic in terms of human
foibles. What the conflict comes down to is garden-variety adultery – Tim with a wealthy neighbor named Anna Brodie, Kate with an ex-boyfriend who’s now become a big TV star.
There’s great character development and descriptive writing, but I just didn’t care for the narrative flow of the book. A side plot involving Tim’s abusive father — a winning woman’s basketball coach who was sleeping with his students over the years — is
just sort of awkwardly attached. So, too, is a plot thread involving a student who has a crush on Tim. This book just didn’t click for me.
** “Theodore Rex,” by Edmund Morris. This second of a planned three-part biographical series on Teddy Roosevelt focuses on the presidential years: 1901-1909, in which an “accidental” leader (who came to power when President McKinley was assassinated. It was a tumultuous time as the “modern” era came into being, and Roosevelt was a larger-than-life character who knew how to harness the power of the presidency. The book includes Roosevelt’s great successes (the Panama Canal, the Great White Fleet, environmentalism, progressive values) and also his failures (race relations, for one, for which he could have done so much more.
** “Consider Phlebas,” by Iain M. Banks. Talk about getting burned. Amazon readers raved about this first “Culture” novel, which details a galaxy at war. I found it disjointed, plodding, inconsistent and awkwardly written. There were times during the final third of the book – when the protagonists are running around a subterranean network of tunnels trying to find the renegade “Mind” (a massive, sentient computer) – that I actually laughed, it was so slow-moving. I like many of Banks’ concepts: the idea of “Minds” so powerful they’ve far outpaced the living things that created them; the idea of thousands of inhabited planets throughout the galaxy; the idea of a game (Damage) so bizarre that players have to recruit “Lives” (which are lost if the player loses). But the storytelling here sucks. If this is “Space Opera,” then it’s not for me. I’m writing off the rest of the Culture series.
** “Rash,” Pete Hautman. In the USSA, otherwise known as the United Safer States of America, you have to wear a helmet and protective gear just to run track in school. Set 75 or so years in the future, this odd and endearing dystopian novel – written specifically for grades 8-12, and a great listen as a book on CD – is a fascinating extrapolation of what could happen if the risk-averse among us took over. It’s hard to imagine an America that bans football, or example, or makes road rage a felony, but that’s the case in the world of Bo Marsten, 16, who feels like he’s doomed because of his father’s angry genes. When Bo gets into a fight at school with another boy over a girl, he winds up doing hard labor (16 hours a day) at an isolated juvenile institution run by a warped warden who wants nothing more than to field a killer football team.
While there are aspects of the book that seem a little preachy/obvious, the kind of stuff that would give libertarians hives, what I did find more than plausible was the book’s emphasis on the prison labor complex. How long will it take for capitalists to really
grab hold of all the labor potential of our increasingly incarcerated population? In Bo’s time, unfortunately, a society has formed that practically requires all that free labor.
Additionally, a storyline involving a rogue artificial intelligence program – one created by Bo for a school project – is deftly handled, especially when it “evolves” into a super lawyer who can fight for Bo’s freedom. I found this book intriguing and insightful – and while not totally plausible, close enough to make me think twice about people calling for more prison labor.
** “The Awakening,” by Kate Chopin. A beautiful, tragic, sublimely written experience that left me in tears. It’s a simple story: A married woman with a wealthy husband and two children starts to realize, slowly and surely, that her life is less than it could be.
Edna is spending a summer at the seashore, and she spends time with a solicitous young man named Robert, the kind of guy who flirts full-time with married women. The fascinating part of the story is that it doesn’t unfold as a traditional love story. Robert is almost an accessory to the story: a prop used by Edna to cultivate her own blossoming. I’m not saying she doesn’t have strong feelings for Robert; she does. But as the author, as the creator of this little universe, Chopin molds the story in a different way. That’s especially true considering when the book was written – shocking, really, that a woman character develops a sense of purpose and sexuality.
The story unfolds with a gentle, purposeful rhythm. When Edna returns to the city after summer, and with Robert off to Mexico, she takes all her steps without a man. Her husband, off on a lengthy business trip, is slowly and methodically removed from her life – almost as if he fades away to invisibility. First Edna rebels against expected social conventions by cancelling her weekly “visiting day.” Then she declares herself an artist, starts a studio and dedicates time to herself. She sends her children away to their grandmother (double, no, triple, shocking). Then she finally moves out of her
mansion. (Interestingly, her husband pretends he’s remodeling the house.) She even starts an affair with another man – someone she doesn’t love but obviously lusts after.
The ending is tragic, of course, and it really bummed out. I was even a little angry – here, again, is the “fallen” woman who pays for her sins with death. But then I had to think of when this book was written and how daring it was. I’m still not happy about the ending, but I guess I understand it. By the way, I read this book because of the recommendations of a couple of Beehive Book Clubbers — and I thank them for that.
** “A Spot of Bother,” by Mark Haddon. This author was another Beehive recommendation, and the book was a fun romp. I’m not sure I did the right thing by reading this newest book by Haddon before his acclaimed “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” because by most accounts this later book was far different from that one. But he’s a good, snappy writer, very lean and crisp, and he managed to take a very slight family drama (older father going crazy, older mother having an affair, grown daughter contemplating getting remarried, grown son trying to find a meaningful gay relationship) and put a nice, solid spin on it. I enjoyed Haddon’s frequent viewpoint changes (all the major characters get their chance) and his no-nonsense style, and even though the plot builds toward a rather predictable climax involving a wedding in which many, many things go wrong, this is an example of how strong writing can egg the reader along to enjoyment.
UP NEXT: I’ve been eying Margaret Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood” ever since it came out, and that’s what I’m at the start of now. It’s the sequel to “Oryx and Crake,” which I liked a lot. What can I say? I’ve been on a dystopian-future kick this year. It probably has something to do with the toxic state of our nation’s discourse.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN: What are you reading? Tell me in a comment, as long or short as you want, below.