Saturday, April 27, 2024

What I'm Reading Now

 Not much that I can share with you, because I'm reading for reviews. But here are a couple!

Michiko Aoyama, What You Are Looking for Is in the Library

This is a short and charming novel, translated from the Japanese, about five characters who separately interact with a local librarian and have their lives changed. The characters interact with one another occasionally, but their stories are more like short stories, all connected through the library and the librarian.

Besides being five stories with five different happy endings, this novel also gives a fascinating look at life in contemporary Japan. Obviously I don't know how accurate the portrayal is, but we're shown a culture and a civilization that works, with trains that come every three minutes and libraries as well as community resources that are well funded, and people who are able to start small businesses without worrying about things like health care costs and paying back student loans.

Aoyama Michiko's work reminds me a bit of the novels written by Fredrik Backman and Alexander McCall Smith -- kind of sweet, maybe a little sappy, but wonderful characters and careful observations of how people live and function, without any high drama or murders or abuse. If you're looking for a pleasant read on a rainy afternoon, you'll like this one.

Percival Everett, James: A novel

This is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, told from the point of view of Jim, who you will remember is the slave Huck ends up rafting down the Mississippi with. I'm a sucker for novels which retell other novels, giving us a new lens with which to read the source text, and in that regard this one succeeds.

It doesn't really bring much new to the table, though. Though I may just think this because I know so much about the history of enslaved people in the U.S. Consider, in contrast, Jo Baker's Longbourn, which retells Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants in Longbourn. I like that one a lot, because it shows me things I didn't already know about working class life in England at that date. Here in Everett's novel, I know most of the things he's showing us -- code switching; why black people at the time acted stupid around white people; how enslaved people were treated; what Jim might have felt in dealing with young white boys in that place and culture. So none of that really felt fresh or interesting to me.

Also, I really don't like the original source text, Twain's novel. Despite Hemmingway's claim that this is the first American novel, it's badly structured and most of it is just Twain amusing himself at the expense of the actual narrative. Also I don't think Tom Sawyer is cute or funny, so it always annoys me when he shows up on the page. 

Still, this is an interesting and readable text, and if you want to look at Twain's novel from a new perspective, this one is worth your time.

Funder, Anna, Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell's Invisible Life

Here, Anna Funder writes about the wife of George Orwell (Eric Blair), demonstrating that Eileen O'Shaughnessy was instrumental in the creation of Orwell's major works, not just in editing and reading and typing drafts, but in supplying many of the ideas and passages that end up in Orwell's work. Despite this, O'Shaughnessy has been -- continues to be -- nearly erased from any biographies and critical studies of Orwell and his work. Using tactics borrowed straight from Orwell's Politics and the English Language, the biographers and critics manage this by using passive tense, and by simply omitting to mention that, for example, O'Shaughnessy was in Catalonia with Orwell while he was writing Homage to Catalonia.

Funder intersperses her observations about Orwell and O'Shaughnessy with observations about her own life, and the lives of the woman around her, demonstrating how women are encouraged to erase themselves in favor of acting as support staff for the men in their lives. This is an interesting read, with lots of chewy points to consider.

George Orwell, A Clergyman's Daughter

I read this after I read Funder's book. Except for Animal Farm and 1984, this is the only book my public library has by Orwell. It's from 1935, and so an early book. His second novel, Wikipedia tells me. It's very odd, though you can see the influence of his research for Down and Out in Paris and London. There's a whole section where the daughter. Dorothy Hare, spends part of a summer with hop pickers, living like a migrant worker. And an overarching narrative has to do with why Hare never marries: she is terrified of having sex. (According to Funder's book, Orwell disliked and was disgusted by sex.) This terror limits her life. 

Structurally, the book is a mess. If I were his editor, I would have made him cut the entire hop section, and make that a different book. He would have had to think about Hare as a character, though, and I don't think Orwell thinks women are really people. Anyway, the book is really two separate tales: the one in which Hare runs her father's house and deals with church affairs, all the while being kept criminally short of money by her father. Then there's a section about Hare after she has a sudden and unexplained bout of amnesia. She wanders the countryside, takes up with the hop pickers, returns to London and lives on the streets, finds and takes a job as an underpaid instructor in a dreadful girl's school, and eventually returns home to take up life as her father's daughter once again.

Orwell shows us the life of migrant workers, of homeless people in London, of how terrible small schools run for a profit can be, and how grim the life of a technically upper class but actually impoverished clergy can be. The only thing holding all this together is the putative main character, who doesn't really take action so much as she is acted upon.

I mean, I read the whole thing. But it's a mess.

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