Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mini Reviews...so I can move on

The husband is back from the frozen north, and we're having our annual winter heat wave here in southern California. The kids are settled back in a school routine, though the youngest has a particularly nasty cold. It's time for me to get back into a blogging routine. I've realized I haven't written reviews for a bunch of books I finished late last year and early this year. So I'm going to do some mini reviews, so that I don't get further bogged down. Here goes:

The Painted Veil, by Somerset Maugham. Shallow socialite Kitty marries doctor Walter Fane because she fears she will not find anyone else. She moves to Hong Kong, where Walter works, and there she has a passionate affair with Charles Townsend, the equally shallow but glamorous assistant colonial secretary. When Walter discovers the affair, he gives Kitty a choice--marry Townsend or come with him to the cholera-ridden interior of China. Townsend won't marry her, so she goes with Walter, to what she believes is certain death. Kitty gains respect and liking for her husband as she watches him work to save the Chinese cholera victims, and she finds some fulfillment working at a convent orphanage. Walter succumbs to the disease, and pregnant Kitty leaves Hong Kong for England. There she seeks to remake a relationship with her father, who she had mostly ignored earlier in life. Probably more shocking when it was published in 1925, the novel barely registers as feminist now. However, it is still an interesting examination of a woman's spiritual journey. Kitty doesn't change and grow as much as I'd like (with my modern sensibility), but she does become more self-aware, and Maugham's characters never make radical changes (especially for the better)--though they often come to see what they are. Maugham is a master of portraying human weakness and failing, and he does it very well here. I also enjoyed his comparison of how people search--through religion, work, opium, sexual infatuation--to find meaning, and to both lose and find themselves. The ending is a little disappointing--without giving it away, it's almost as if Maugham needed to find some sort of redemption for Kitty, but wasn't willing to go the whole way.

The Dearly Departed, by Elinor Lipman. Amateur actress Margaret Batten and her long-time lover Miles Finn are discovered dead in Margaret's house, victims of carbon monoxide poisoning from a broken furnace. Margaret's daughter Sunny comes home to the little town of King George, New Hampshire to deal with her mother's death, and she meets Miles's prickly son Fletcher. Fletcher is her age, and has the same type of hair she does--flyaway and prematurely gray--which makes Sunny, Fletcher and all the townspeople realize Fletcher and Sunny are siblings. Most of the story is taken up with Sunny coming to terms with her own past, and surprises from her mother's past, in the small town where she grew up. I love Lipman's quirky characters and amazingly witty dialogue. I had trouble with the lack of plot, and some inconsistencies in character, especially in the character of Fletcher, who starts off as a seemingly uptight and difficult fellow, and ends up basically pursuing Sunny as a new sibling. I found Sunny's journey more involving, and her interactions with the town's chief of police, who had been a schoolmate of hers, worth reading. I like Lipman's style, so though I don't recommend this book wholeheartedly, I do look forward to reading more of her stuff.

Purple Hibiscus: A Novel, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I loved Adichie's later book, Half of a Yellow Sun, so I really wanted to read her first novel, Purple Hibiscus. It was wonderful, too, but different in scope. Through one family's travails, Half of a Yellow Sun really tells the story of the Nigerian nation's travails. Purple Hibiscus is more of a personal story, the story of a girl's coming of age. It tells the story of 15-year-old Kambili and her brother Jaja, who are the children of a financially successful factory owner who is also fanatically religious, and who abuses his children and their mother in the name of that religion. Kambili finds freedom from the repression and abuse of her father's home in the warm and lively home of her Auntie Ifeoma, a college professor, whom Kambili is allowed to visit. As Kambili wakes to the world around her and the possibility of a different life than she's previously known, the political situation in Nigeria begins to fall apart, and the political crisis brings all the characters to personal turning points. I enjoyed Adichie's very readable writing style, and found Kambili's journey to be a very engrossing one.

Let me know if any of you have reviewed these, so I can link to your reviews!

Here is Booksplease's review of The Painted Veil, and also her review of Half of a Yellow Sun, which was a wonderful read!

15 comments:

litlove said...

I've read several novels by both Elinor Lipman (try The Ladies Man) and Somerset Maugham, but neither of these two. Purple Hibiscus is definitely a book I want to read, though. When I can find a space for it! I do like the way you write about books - your reviews are always neat and elegant.

Iliana said...

Oh I love Purple Hibiscus. I can't wait to see what Adichie comes up with next you know.

I really need to read another Lipman to see how I get on... One of her books I didn't really like (can't remember the title) but the other one I enjoyed quite a bit, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift. She seems to have quite a few books out there so it shouldn't be a problem finding another one - just finding the time :)

Glad to hear your husband is back so you can get back to your blogging schedule :)

mattviews said...

So you were quite productive with reading!

I was actually thinking about The Painted Veil, one of my top ten novels, today. reading Revolutionary News reminds me of the relationship between Kitty and Walter. What is she really looking for? Some kind of thrill that spices up life? I realize in both novels the very problem that the confront the characters is their inability to relate to another human being, and that is, love.

I have never heard of the other two books, which actually sound very intriguing as well. Glad you're sharing your thoughts on them. I'll check them out. :)

mattviews said...

Oh...if you've enjoyed Purple Hibiscus, you would really like The Little Bee by Chris Cleave. It's about the escape of a Nigerian refugee in the UK. She's telling her story in a very unique and sarcastic voice. It also interweaves the life of a couple who happened to be on vacation in Nigeria. The book is scheduled to release in Feb.

Gentle Reader said...

litlove--I love Lipman's voice--her dialogue is so witty! And Maugham is always impressive. I really enjoyed Purple Hibiscus, but if you are only going to read one book by Adichie, I'd go for Half of a Yellow Sun. Thank you for the lovely compliment. It means a lot coming from you, as I so admire your writing!

iliana--I've read three of Lipman's books so far, and have found them flawed but entertaining. I'll probably keep reading them :) And yes, thank goodness hubby is finally home--it gives me some breathing room!

matt--I agree...isn't Kitty a fascinating character? I love her journey to self-awareness, and her recognition of the importance of human connection. I read this just after Forster's Howard's End, and was struck by the similarities in theme. Definitely thought-provoking! Thank you for the suggestion of The Little Bee--sounds really interesting. I'm also planning to read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, as another essential Nigerian book that I somehow missed reading!

Dorothy W. said...

I enjoyed listening to The Painted Veil on audio -- the transformation Kitty goes through is fascinating, and I also enjoyed thinking about the colonial context and what exactly Maugham was doing with it. I'm looking forward to reading more of his work!

Bookfool said...

Oh, too bad about the ending to The Painted Veil, but I'll still read it. I have a copy of that one and I've got Purple Hibiscus -- haven't gotten to either, yet. Great reviews, mini or not!!

Gentle Reader said...

Dorothy W.--I think the colonial context was really interesting, too, and the things he wrote about religion. I read Of Human Bondage first and really loved it. Now I'm thinking of reading The Razor's Edge or Cakes and Ale...

Bookfool--Thanks! I think both books are really worth reading--would love to hear what you think!

BooksPlease said...

I enjoyed The Painted Veil and wrote about it here. And I loved Half of a Yellow Sun. Things Fall Apart is an interesting comparison. I have Purple Hibiscus but haven't read it yet. I see you found it different and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Pursewarden said...

Hello, Gentle Reader

I do enjoy your blog and have linked to it from my own (Pursewarden). Perhaps you will feel able to return the compliment.

I think you are spot on about the Painted Veil. I am a great fan of Maugham and feel he falls into the "unjustly neglected" camp.

I have to disagree about the Adichie, though this is largely a matter of personal taste and I know that other people's subjective views may be different.

I actually read this semi-officially as part of the reading panel for a novel award and it did not make the short list. For me, and I know some others agreed, it felt heavily contrived, as if the publishers had said "let's do an African novel because they're selling well at the moment" and then come up with a checklist of what it should contain. In particular, the actual writing was flat and simplistic, almost as though the author had been told "write like that because it's how Africans speak" (though, if so, that would be pretty insulting!).

Infuriatingly, unless I am getting confused because it was a while ago and I've probably read about 400 books since then, in her first book there is a sort of introduction which is beautifully written with a very unique voice, but when you turn the page looking forward to the rest of the book being like you are suddenly in the middle of something completely different.

So, my conclusion would be that this is someone who can really write very well, but is being forced to produce stuff to order by the publishing industry.

There seems to have been a real spate of African novels in recent years. I have read many of them and for me nothing compares with "The Famished Road" which has stayed with me ever since I read it years ago. "Things fall apart" is of course a classic which I recently re-read, but I'm dubious whether you can really call it a "novel" as it is so short.

Gentle Reader said...

Booksplease--thanks so much, I've linked to your reviews at the bottom of this post. I really enjoyed The Painted Veil, too, and I saw that you mentioned the movie-- while they took some major liberties with the story, it's an interesting adaptation, and the performances make it worth seeing :)

Pursewarden--hello! I'm so sorry I haven't linked to your blog before now--but I'll remedy that immediately! I understand your feelings about Purple Hibiscus. I came at it from a slightly different angle--I read her second book, Half of a Yellow Sun, first, and really enjoyed it. It's sort of the same book, in a way--a story about the Nigerian political troubles, but told through a family's experiences of them. But it has a bigger scope, and less of a personal story. So I was a little disappointed in Purple Hibiscus, as it felt like a less-realized incarnation of her later book.

Susan said...

I really like your review style,Gentle Reader! I wish I could review like that. So did my university professors and when I worked in the bookstores, my bosses!!! lol I read Somerset Maugham in college - I seem to be the only one who read all Of Human Bondage - of course, when you are 18, you seem to understand it, but if I read it now, I'd get a whole new appreciation of what you so aptly call Maugham's understanding of human weaknesses. Great reviews, Gentle Reader!

Gentle Reader said...

Susan--thank you for the compliment! I do think Maugham is one of those writers that improves with age--my age! I wish I had read him when I was younger so that I could see my own maturation after reading him now!

Lisa said...

My husband keeps trying to get me to watch the Painted Veil, but I want to read the book first. This is a great review! Thanks!!

Gentle Reader said...

Lisa--I liked the movie, too--the performances were very good--but it's definitely different than the book. I didn't mind the things that they changed in making the movie version, and even sort of understood why they made them, but I wonder if I would be so sanguine had I read the book first... You'll have to let me know which you experience first, and how that affects your experience!