#CBR6 Review #23: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Oh, this book. This. Book. I just finished reading The Remains of the Day about 10 minutes ago, and I find myself feeling beautifully sated by gorgeous prose, and also deeply, deeply melancholy. The premise is simple, but the novel itself packs such a punch that I found myself reading slowly to soak it all in. I’ve read it before, but since this is making up half of my next dissertation chapter, I went through another read.

The novel opens with Stevens, the butler at Darlington Hall, about to embark on a road trip to see his former colleague, the former housekeeper Mrs. Benns, nee Kenton. As he motors throughout the English countryside, we find that while he is now in the employ of American Mr. Farraday, he used to, in fact, be the butler for Lord Darlington, a true English noble who had rather questionable taste in foreign policy. Through the narration of Stevens, we find a dark underbelly of sympathies exercised towards the nascent Third Reich and a sense of anti-Semitism that spoils even the most benevolent and generous of men.

I realize the premise seems dull. But really, the prose is incredible. Ishiguro completely inhabits the figure of Stevens in order to critique the hierarchical systems that undermined countless men and women and upheld an impossible class system that was based largely on the illusion of authority. He also creates a man so bent on becoming the perfect professional that he does not realize until it’s far, far too late that he has passed up his lone chance of personal domestic happiness.

It’s gut-wrenching stuff. And also one of my favorite books of all time. It’s deceptively simple but crazily complex. If Downton Abbey ever made you nostalgic for the “good old days,” Ishiguro posits a deeply unsentimental counterpart in the sentimental guise of Stevens. How is that not completely brilliant?

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#CBR6 Review #22: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Two weekends ago, I heard that Kazuo Ishiguro was coming out with his FIRST novel in ten years. Unfortunately, I have to wait almost another year until it’s released, and Amazon doesn’t have a pre-order option yet. So…I decided to revisit a favorite in the meantime (and sometime this next month, I’ll also be going back to The Remains of the Day for dissertation work–hooray!).

Never Let Me Go is Ishiguro’s turn at dystopic fiction, and he really should do it more often (spoiler alert: he’s quite good at it). We meet the first-person narrator, Kathy H, a young woman who serves as a “carer.” She notes that her days of caring for others will soon be over, as she will begin her “donations” in the next year. We find out what these mean all in good time. She also spends a great deal of time reminiscing on her school days at an English country boarding school–Hailsham. There, she pieces together her past to try and find the clues of when she first realized that she and her companions were different than the teachers and how their identities came together.

As a tale about the value of human life, Never Let Me Go is simply crushing. It’s devastating to think that we value some life over others, particularly for self-interested reasons. Ishiguro raises some highly interesting questions about what it means to be human and how we identify ourselves as such. But he does so in a way that’s not preachy or moralistic. Rather, he creates a compelling narrative and lets the story do the work for him–that’s probably why he’s one of my favorite writers of all time.

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#CBR6 Review #21: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

I’m apparently on this 20th century British women’s literature kick (never a bad thing), because I followed up the splendid Jane and Prudence with Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, a novel that gets mentioned A LOT when you think about 20th century British literature or contemporary British literature. I figured after hearing about it from several scholarly sources that it was high time I read it, right? Right.

As it turns out, Hotel du Lac is also a smashing novel. We first meet Edith, a disgraced single novelist (we don’t know why at first, and I won’t tell you, so you can be unspoiled) who is sent to this obscure hotel/watering area to think about what she’s done. While she’s there, Edith meets several other people in various stages of her life–the mysterious woman who’s always sneaking food to her dog, the elderly woman who seems in and yet not of the group, a mother-daughter duo who seem young and old all at once, and the polite but dispassionate Mr. Neville who tries to force Edith out of her routine. As a novelist, Edith tries to create the lives of the others around her, while simultaneously trying to write her book, as well as her own next chapter of life.

Brookner eloquently captures the sort of scandalized responses that emerge when a woman doesn’t exactly behave, and she also accurately depicts the kind of rigid sexual molds that women are expected to fill. Edith is an interesting, sympathetic, and engaging character. I liked her development throughout the novel, and I liked how it ended. I won’t say more, since you really need to read it.


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#CBR6 Review #20: Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

Last November, I went to a reading and book signing by No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series author Alexander McCall Smith. During the Q&A, he recommended Barbara Pym to a reader wanting a recommendation, since she’d read all his books, naturally. I took note of her name, because I’d heard it before. In my own current research, I’ve looked at the novel of manners as a genre and Pym’s name came up. So, I finally got around to reading Jane and Prudence on Saturday night and gulped the whole thing down in less than two nights.

My first thought on beginning reading the novel was, “How quaint.” And it seems to be. Pym tells the story of two women brought together by their time at Oxford–Jane is a 40-something clergyman’s wife who abandoned her emerging literary scholarship to marry and is the former tutor of Prudence, a 29-year-old working for a scholar she’s hopelessly in love with, and unhappily single. Pym fools you into thinking this is one of those fluffy, cutesy books “for girls,” and neatly sneaks in a critique of the gendered stereotypes of middle-class women. It’s quite cloak-and-dagger, really. I underestimated the skill with which Pym would go to criticize the way gender roles and the kinds of lives women could lead in the mid-twentieth century and was thus unprepared for how awesomely the novel would end. Prudence works in a neatly-worded barb reminiscent of Ms. Jane Austen herself, throwing out the idea that a woman is no mere doormat, but, like Prudence herself, can live in a world of possibility.

Truly, I can’t get over how much I freaking LOVED THIS BOOK. I would definitely recommend this over Nancy Mitford, because while it’s less obviously satiric, it is more subtle and more elegantly plotted. Plus, Prudence and Jane are both interestingly complex and sympathetic characters in their own right. While Pym’s writing is less barbed than Austen’s, there is something of the astute observer of people in her, and the matchmaking plot reminded me a bit of Emma. It’s elegantly written and it neatly takes down the idealized 50s housewife novelized by less skillful writers.

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#CBR6 Review #19: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

I know that JSF is a polarizing author. You either love him or you hate him. You find his fiction avant-garde or too pretentious. I liked him a lot in college, though since my exposure to contemporary fiction has widened, I don’t LOVE him the way I used to. But I’m still in the favorable camp towards his fiction. But I think Eating Animals may be his most compelling work to date.

When he found out he was going to be a father, Foer went through a period of self-analysis, including the methods and systems of food that he bought into. He describes himself and his wife as vegetarians who sometimes ate meat,” a statement that really resonated with me, since that describes my relationship towards meat pretty perfectly. He then decided to figure out what stories we tell about our food, why we eat/don’t eat certain foods (why do we factory farm our chickens but refuse to eat the family dog? for instance), and how our meat comes to us.

For me, the most engaging part of the book comes from his argument for eating dog. He makes a fairly convincing case. I’ve taught that part of the chapter to my composition class, and it’s really fun to watch my students bellow with OUTRAGE over eating the family dog. Last semester, however, one young woman took up his cause and wrote a fantastic defense of his position. See? Polarizing. Foer is a charismatic writer who will either electrify you or piss you off.

I’ve read critiques about his self-righteousness, but I honestly don’t see where that comes from. Unless people are bristling about his call to action against purchasing meat that has been factory farmed. That’s got to be something each of us wrestles with on our own, so I won’t jump on any high horse here. Rather, I will say that since I relinquished almost every meat from my diet (for reasons varying from religious practice to I-just-get-really-sick-from-beef), Foer’s conclusions seemed like preaching to the choir. And the one thing I am loathe to give up, orange chicken from my Chinese restaurant, is not really because of the chicken–nope, if they could glaze that sinfully yummy sauce all over some well-braised tofu (and some places do) or seitan, I would never need to taste chicken in my mouth again.

What Foer has left me with on this re-read is a call to intentionality, to better practices, to make a better world. Do I dare disturb my universe? is the question I’ve been asking myself since I began blogging–coincidentally, a month after I got married. My husband and I already eat vegetarian at home, and are even flirting with part-time veganism. Is giving up meat a huge sacrifice in the scheme of things? If I can create vegetarian or vegan foods that are yummy, nutritious, environmentally sustainable, and affordable, does that mean I don’t need meat?

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#CBR6 Review #18: The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta

First of all, I owe it to Fiat.Luxury’s excellent Cannonball Review  for even reading this book. I read the review myself, and was like, “MUST READ.” I will not retread the grounds already covered by this excellent review, so you should read Fiat.Luxury’s review first and then come back.

Back? Okay. Let’s talk. I really liked that this book was so candid, even if it was uncomfortable and heartbreaking. It challenged me to think beyond my very comfortable Westernized view of being a woman, and it showed me how truly lucky I am to have access to an education and birth control. As a feminist, I may argue that we need certain rights, but at the end of the day, does my philosophy put food on the table? But enough about me.

Nnu Ego is a very sympathetic and compelling character, and Emecheta’s skillful prose really illuminates the constant struggle that parenthood can be, particularly if you are (A) pressured to bring sons in the world and (B) so poor that eating every day is a continual struggle. But Emecheta is not manipulative or sentimental in her prose–rather, she matter-of-factly lays out these events as usual and not at all out of the ordinary for an average Nigerian woman. That’s what makes this such an effective novel, in my opinion.

Another reason this book is so compelling is that it chronicles the incredible changes being wrought in society through the end of colonization and the beginning of World War II. Through Nnu Ego, we see a Nigeria that is no longer the family-oriented agrarian society, but one that is being Westernized through colonial influence and forcing families to become Western without considering the kinds of structures that will be irreparably damaged.

If I ever get the chance to teach a class on global feminism or maternity or depictions of femininity in literature, you bet your buttons this book will be included. It’s short but powerful, and it packs a subtle punch that has stayed with me long after reading.

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#CBR6 #17: The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

In the final chapter of her World War I saga, Pat Barker really turns the screws. You’ve become emotionally invested in several characters, while knowing that, since this story is about the war, it’s not going to end well. The Ghost Road, told in the waning, but most urgent, year of the War, really questions the notion of war, choosing to return to an almost-certain death, and the psychological traumas beyond war that can plague us.

William Rivers and Billy Prior are again major characters, while we have other minor characters floating in. Siegfried Sassoon is only mentioned in passing, but Wilfred Owen and Charles Manning are again peripheral figures. Sarah Lumb, Prior’s fiancée, again makes an appearance, while the investigatory plot Prior embarked on in The Eye in the Door, seems to have vanished. Nonetheless, several soldiers and Rivers are haunted by “ghosts” of the past–whether fallen comrades, bad memories, or even uncertain memories they can’t make sense of. There’s an interesting subplot of Rivers’ journey to a Pacific Island and learning a new language in order to study an indigenous tribe. Prior returns to France to fight at the front, putting off marrying Sarah until he can return. Sassoon and Owen return, as well.

With some explicit description about war injuries, Barker really questions the idea of valor in fighting and a glorious death. Particularly if the “glorious death” involves horrific wounds and a slow, agonizing wait to die alone on a field away from home. She de-romanticizes war and questions how we glorify fighting for something that seems silly or worthless in hindsight. I think the Regeneration Trilogy is powerful, if only for this idea (but it’s great writing and storytelling, on top of that!), and it’s worth reading from start to finish.

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