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Month: November 2012 Page 1 of 2

The Female Eunuch

femaleunuchReading The Female Eunuch now feels to a certain extent like reading a pamphlet from the Suffragist movement; the arguments are clear, but the backdrop is somehow distant and faded. How much that changed backdrop is a result of the efforts of people like Germaine Greer is for the historians to say, but this book clearly earns its place on the bookshelf as one of the most important works in the women’s liberation movement.

Despite being written in 1970, there is nothing stale about this book. Greer’s writing can be very punchy, at times witty, and the threads of her argument are clearly and logically set out. For a book that has sold over a million copies, she is extremely eloquent, at times even a touch grandiloquent, and her choice of words sometimes had me reaching for a dictionary. That aside, the book is fairly easy to read for its subject matter.

Nevertheless, it is not Greer’s arguments or her choice of phrasing that are difficult to understand, but the context in which they were written. It is difficult for anyone born after that time to comprehend how much society has changed in that period, at the most fundamental, interpersonal level. In this light, Greer’s arguments can seem overdramatised, perhaps even alien to someone reading them today, but there is plenty which bears relevance to understanding how we got where we are today, and perhaps knowing what we have yet to go.

Greer covers the whole gamut of the female experience, from birth and childhood, through sex and marriage, to the workplace and public sphere. In covering this massive range of subjects, from the most tangible in terms of jobs, wages and taxation, through to more esoteric notions of imagery in language and psychology, one gets a clear notion of Greer’s ideal vision. Although there are far more criticisms of the status quo than overt recommendations for change, in questioning some of the core units of society, it leads all of us to critically appraise our modes and ways of life.

Many people who haven’t read this book, and men in particular, assume it must be written by a man-hater, an irrational and fiery-hearted misandrist nailing her theses to the church of patriarchy. In truth, the book is a deep and basic criticism of that day’s society, pointed as much at women as at men for perpetuating a system which essentially encouraged contempt for half of the population, in many ways treating them as second-class citizens. There is an important distinction here between sexual equality and women’s liberation, for Greer argues for fundamental changes as a way to improve the lives of everyone. This is not a call to gender war in a Marxian vein; in fact, although Greer has a clear leftist bent, it seems she did not put faith in the class revolution to put society on the correct footing.

There are just a couple of criticisms I have about this edition. The first is that there is no index, which I feel would have been a useful addition. Although Greer divided the book into well arranged and clearly labelled chapters, it is still difficult to find references without having to guess under which subheading you might find them. Secondly, as part of a Flamingo’s Seventies Classics Series, this really should have come with an introduction. Printed over thirty years after its initial publication, with so much having changed in the intervening period, a simple outline of the society in which this book was written, and an overview of its reception and responses, would have been an extremely welcome addition.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Thunderbolt KidThis was definitely a case of judging a book by its cover. Although I’ve devoured a number of Bryson’s other books, the title and topic of this one just didn’t appeal to me. But when a thumbed copy turned up in my household, I decided to have a read of the first couple of pages, and found myself only putting it down again half-way through.

Part-memoir, part-history of a mid-western US state in the 1950s, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is a humourous look at Bryson’s early life growing up in Des Moines, Iowa. There are dozens of amusing anecdotes about the vagaries of his family, his school and home life, his holidays, and his unending quest to catch a bit of ‘female epidermis’ in the flesh. The memories of his own life are interspersed with more general comments on the changes going on in America, with talk of economic growth, changing social mores, anti-Communist witchhunts, racism and the space race. Certainly, some of the things Bryson mentions happens before he was born, or the changes run on long in the 1960s, but it’s still interesting to see a take on life in this baby boomer generation. Whilst there’s a lot here that’s surely unique to the America of the 50s, there’s enough that is so simplistically human that I think most people will find passages reminiscent of their own trials and tribulations of youth. Ironically, despite being born a few decades later, I felt that a lot of the developments Bryson talks about in 1950s American society were the same ones I experienced as a child in rural England!

All of this is delivered in Bryson’s typical affable and humourous style, which if you’re a fan, you’re sure to lap up. Some readers have quite justifiably complained that Bryson’s reliance on hyperbole and silliness to sweeten his anecdotes is a bit tiring, and makes it at times difficult to separate truth from fiction, but that’s simply his style. I’ve always been inclined to link Bryson with Wodehouse in the way he wrote slapstick humour, and felt vindicated to read that he had readily gobbled up Wodehouse as a child. For me, this is classic Bryson. Some have pointed out that Bryson’s labelling as a travel writer is going to have change with the latest additions to his oeuvre. But for me, he was never a travel writer, but a writer who travelled. After all, anyone attempting to travel across a continent armed only with the appropriate Bryson volume was merely arming themselves for a few giggly embarrassing moments on public transportation, nothing more. There are certainly enough laugh-out-loud moments here, and plenty of smiles in between, that you wonder sometimes it doesn’t come with a warning sticker on the front.

That said, one criticism that I must agree with is the book’s design. There are quite a few pictures in the book, including some family photos, which are sadly captionless and only breezily explained in the footnotes at the back. The typeset is rather widely spaced, which whilst making it easier on the eyes, is just an excuse at padding. There’s also a preview chapter from Neither Here, Nor There: Travels in Europe taking up space at the back, which makes this book despite its heightened page count one of Bryson’s shorter volumes.

Ultimately, this is a book for established Bryson fans. It isn’t as well written as the best of his travelogues, and in terms of being informative, there isn’t much here that isn’t already widely known, but for a bit of light, nostalgic reading that is sure to put a smile on your face, it easily fits the bill.

The Time Traveler’s Wife

Time Traveler's WifeThe gimmick in this book is deliciously simple. The lives of two lovers, Henry and Clare, and bound together by destiny. They meet, fall in love, get married, have a child… so far so normal. The interesting bit lies in the opening of the book describing their first meeting: she first meets him in her parents’ garden when she is 6 years old; but he first meets her in a library when she is 20.

Welcome to Audrey Niffenegger’s quirky science fiction romance. Henry suffers from a genetic disorder that causes him to move around in space-time, usually to the past, occasionally to the future. There’s no grandfather paradox here, but a very deterministic view of space-time that would probably irritate physicists and philosophers alike. When Henry meets Clare for the first time, she has already known him most of her life, essentially forming the basis for his future trips to her past.

There’s a lot of potential for confusion here, with sometimes multiple versions of Henry appearing in the same scene, and a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing in time, but there’s nothing overtly complex about the storyline. The book is really well structured, to keep the little bits of information dripping, looking at events from different perspectives, and gradually driving the story to its inevitable conclusion. Because of its nature, I imagine the book would make a lot of fun to read a second time.

Many other reviewers accuse the book of being dull and overhyped. Both charges are merited. On the first count, if you took out the time travelling and straightened out the storyline, there wouldn’t be very much to tell. This may seem like unjustified criticism – like suggesting that Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs would be a humdrum version of The Swiss Family Robinson – but the novel really doesn’t have very much substance. There are a couple of violent episodes, a few deaths, and lots of sex, but otherwise the plot can be summed up on the back of an envelope. The time travelling pretty much revolves around their love story, and the rest of the world turns in blissful silence. In fact, the one time our protagonists act to watch something from Henry’s future, it’s that gag-inducing must mention of the 11th of September attacks.

Nevertheless, for an ’empty’ novel of 500-odd pages, it is extremely entertaining. The author has delivered a touching, times heart-rending love story with an interesting twist, and presented it well. As long as you don’t open this book expecting mind-altering philosophy or sky-splintering fireworks, you should be pleasantly surprised.

Aspects of the Novel

Aspects of the NovelThere is something unerringly endearing about Forster’s way of expressing himself that makes this series of lectures on the makeup of the novel so easy to read. His disarming admission of his own unscholarly nature (“True scholarship is incommunicable, true scholars rare. There are a few scholars, actual or potential, in the audience today, but only a few, and there is certainly none on the platform.”) puts him firmly on a par with the reader, and his conversational, nay chatty style, opens this little book to anyone who appreciates a good read.

These series of lectures were not an investigation into the history of the novel, nor a prescription of how to write good prose, but an attempt to describe the novel as an art form. Starting from the rather open definition of the novel as “a fiction in prose of a certain extent”, Forster tackles a different component each lecture. The story, that satisfies our thirst to find out what happens next, is covered distinctly from the plot, which is the embodiment of our curiosity as to why things happen. He covers a novel’s characters, explaining how they can be ‘flat’ or ’round’, and how they differ from real human beings. The realm of ‘fantasy’, the author’s rights in his own universe, are considered, as are matters of pattern, rhythm and viewpoint, with one particularly interesting heading of ‘prophecy’.

In terms of whether the book is still relevant, Forster ended his lecture series with some conjecture on what the future may hold for the novel form, whether television would eventually make it even disappear altogether (thank goodness for Riepl’s Law). His conjecture that whilst history and society move on, art remains static, is extremely interesting in light of the fact that these lectures were being given at the height of the modernist period, and pertinent works are only lightly touched upon. Furthermore, whilst he provides plenty of written examples, there are of course many references to classic works, which it probably helps to have read, but also references to authors who have been buried by posterity or are no longer so accessible.

On the whole, however, Aspects of the Novel remains fundamentally readable today. It is not a high-brow scholarly affair; rather a well-thought out observational piece, taking a broad look at that vast field of literature we call the ‘novel’. Forster makes some extremely astute remarks, and his witty and conversational style bring these across in an easy and comfortable way, that makes you feel his observations are frankly obvious. He does not encompass the full gamut of literary inquiry, but instead picks and chooses to highlight his points and support his argument that there are no fast and steady rules for what defines ‘the novel’. This is probably required reading for students of English literature, but it’s easy accessibility and thought-provoking titbits should appeal to just about all keen readers with a fascination for the novel form.

A Passage to India

Passage to IndiaIn a world far removed from the one in which Forster was writing, is there any place for a novel like A Passage to India other than as an idle curiosity of a bygone era? Written based on first hand experience of the British Raj, this open critique of colonialism caricatures the Anglo-Indian in his element, questioning the morality and justification of the British presence in the subcontinent.

A Passage to India is built upon its characters, who are the led through a fairly mundane plot, a jejune stage for the actors to perform upon. Yet through their actions, we discover this world of Empire, where Anglo-Indians hold themselves aloof from the population, where relationships are grounded on the basis of ruler and ruled. Forster challenges the British Raj as it was then. But he also poses questions relevant to our everyday lives: can the cultures of East and West ever truly understand one another? is it possible even for two individuals to truly understand one another? can anything good ever come from a relationship in which one party dominates the other? and what can we really understand about ‘identity’ through the prism of nationhood?

There is no doubt much in this book which can be analysed and overanalysed to the nauseating degree that only a literature class can provoke, and I can imagine that many who studied this novel in a classroom environment learned only to hate it. Where the simplicity of the plot provides only a thread for the characters to follow, the imagery of India’s weather and terrain, her townships and cultural diversity, combine to provide symbolic tapestry lending itself to interpretation. Alone the echoes of the Marabar caves and its allegory in the evil of Empire doubtless provide enough discussion for a few hours of lessons. Yet there is no need to take a magnifying glass to this book to see its implications. Similarly, there has been plenty of criticism about using a work by an English author and mere traveller to the subcontinent as a lens through which to view the British Raj and colonialism in general. Whilst this may be for true scholarship a half-way justifiable charge, it retains its relevance as a novel and for providing insights into the British mindset of the time.

Finally, a quick comment about the style. Some other reviewers have complained that the book hasn’t aged particularly well, and that the writing gets a bit muddled in conversation. On the former point, it would seem fair criticism, in as far as that this book clearly has more in common with books written in the half century prior to its publication than after it. That doesn’t make the book’s style particularly less readable today, but the content might need some occasional explanation.

Despite his modest assertion that he was ‘not a great novelist’, A Passage to India lives up to its reputation as one of the more important works related to British colonialism. Alone for its historical portrayal, the book is worth a read, but the questions posed (and the answers Forster subtly implies) with regard to issues of cultural identity, acceptance and understanding, are still as relevant today as they were at the height of the Raj.

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