Friday, May 16, 2008

Bound: A Novel by Sally Gunning - 307 Pages

Book CoverThis book was initially bewildering. Sally Gunning begins her book in a style that at first made me believe it was a work written for juveniles. She introduces Alice, a seven year old girl who is about to embark on a sea voyage from London to the colonies to begin a new life with her family. The tone and style of the writing brought to mind a young adult novel. Her choice of words assumed an air of being pared down for a younger reading audience, and the narrative style was constrained. After getting past the first chapter, it became clear that the previous chapter was meant to infer that it was written as if in Alice's seven year old perspective. I thought that this was hindering, and not very adeptly done. In my opinion, it would have been better to use one writing style continuously throughout the book. The ultimate effect was that it was jarring, and I had a hard time getting into the story as a result.

After a wretched sea voyage, in which most of her family dies, Alice is deposited on the shores of New England only to be sold to a stranger in indentured servitude by her father, who apparently didn't have enough money for the family's voyage. Alice is whisked away to the Morton household to begin her service. The book glosses over the several years that Alice gives her service to the family, who is kind to her and treats her as if she is one of them. When the older Morton daughter, Nabby, marries, Alice's indenture contract is given to Nabby's husband, and there begins Alice's strife and struggles. When Alice sees the confusion of the new household and the devastation that settles at her feet, she runs away from her new station. In her escape, she meets the Widow Barry and a man named Eban Freeman who help her and give her refuge from her misfortune. Alice, however, is hiding a secret. This secret threatens to destroy her new found life, and puts her at odds with everyone around her. As the novel progresses, Alice's problems become multiplied and she is caught in a web of deceit and danger. Alice must face extreme adversity with only the widow and Freeman at her side.

One pleasant aspect of the book was the amount of historical period detail that was given. Though it wasn't filled with minutiae, it was very informative and interesting as a whole. On the other side of the coin, I found the sub-plot involving the boycott of British products and it's political ramifications to be a dull plot contrivance. It wasn't detailed enough to be meaningful or historically informative. I believe that it detracted from other elements in the story that could have been delved into further.

Another flaw in the book was the lack of growth in Alice's character. She remained suspicious and manipulative throughout the story, and used such ill judgment at times that it was frustrating to behold. Although I can understand that her circumstances and experiences led her to behave this way, she never seemed to revise her opinion that everyone around her was a secret enemy, waiting to betray her, regardless of how kindly they treated her. It was most aggravating to see her mind work out the most negative conclusions to every trial she faced, though the hope in her situations was plain to see. I felt as though she remained closed-minded and wary to the detriment of further emotional exploration within herself.

The other characters in the book seemed very two-dimensional. The widow was mostly quiet and taciturn, and it was hard to gauge the love for Alice that prompted her to want help the young girl. It was obvious that she came to love Alice, but what were her motivations for that love, where had her love for the girl originated? Freeman was only slightly more understandable. It was clear that he was suspicious of Alice, as she was of him, but in time he began to see Alice from a different perspective. What was not clear was why he continued to trust and respect her as she went along betraying him time after time. Even in the conclusion of the book, Alice continues to act dishonestly and rashly, and he meekly forgives her without a word of dissent. Why?? I just didn't understand the reasoning behind his forgiveness and love.

Though I had many problems with this book, I was amazed at how involving it actually was. I felt compelled to keep reading and discover what fate held in store for Alice, and what she would do with it. I think most of the problems for me came in the execution of the book, as the plot was very interesting and fluid, whereas the style and character development fell flat. I wanted to love this book. In the end I only liked it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal]: A Novel by Zoe Heller - 258 Pages

Book CoverThough this novel was slight, at a mere 258 pages, it really packs a punch. It is the story of Sheba, a middle-aged teacher, who has an affair with her 15 year old student. As if this tale weren't unsettling enough, the author introduces Barbara, an older woman who befriends Sheba and begins to insert herself into Sheba's life with unexpected results.

The novel is framed as a secret journal that Barbara keeps, detailing Sheba's controversial relationship with the young boy. As the novel progresses, the interactions between Sheba and her family (as seen through Barbara's eyes) become more strained and vicious. This is saying a lot for a family who already exhibits an unhealthy set of boundaries. In addition to this, the distressing relationship between student and teacher played out in a most painfully disturbing and complex way. It was perturbing to watch a grown woman behave so abhorrently.

At first, Sheba is portrayed as a weak and unassuming person, who has trouble with even disciplining her class effectively. As time goes on, we begin to see her as she really is: a neurotic and selfish woman who has unrealistic expectations for herself and her young suitor. At times she even seems deranged. Sheba is a complex character who seems to want to go in every direction at once. She wants to be a loving wife and good mother, yet at the same time she wants to abandon it all for her boy toy. She wants to be respected as a teacher, yet be accepted by the young students. She loves and cares for Barbara, while also treating her with selfishness and contempt. She is a walking contradiction.

As for Barbara. Well. I loved the character of Barbara. At first. She was crotchety and meddlesome with no apologies, and I found her very refreshing in today's PC world. She said the things that everybody thinks, yet no one says. She never pussy-footed around delicate issues, and had no apologies for her behavior whatsoever. I felt sad and dismayed at her loneliness and her solitary life. It seemed as though she was so angry and hostile because she was alone and misunderstood. I even forgave her gaffes in etiquette towards others, believing that once she developed friendships she would be less abrasive. It seemed as though she had so much to give to a friend, and her constant wistfulness and appreciation for Sheba's friendship was stirring. I gave Barbara the benefit of the doubt, and I shouldn't have. After befriending Sheba, she quickly became malevolent and secretive. Her meanness and hostility didn't abate once her loneliness was assuaged, it only got worse. Her acts towards Sheba and her family appeared compassionate and caring, but the undercurrent was one of aggressive duplicity.

Another aspect of the book was Sheba's relationship with her husband, a much older man, and her relationship with her children. Though everything seemed rosy in the beginning, as more was revealed, the picture became darker and darker. Sheba's husband in particular exhibited some stunning lack of judgement regarding their teen-aged daughter. It was clear that the family structure was breaking down at the most fundamental levels, and Sheba's inclusion of Barbara into the family picture made it all the worse. I literally cringed, waiting for the house of cards to fall down.

One of the strangest aspects of the book was Sheba's relationship and attachment to her student/boyfriend. At times it seemed bizarre and otherworldly. It was as if she had mentally regressed back to adolescence when talking about him or dealing with him. Her behavior was so tortured and erratic that It was hard to believe that she was the same person. In my opinion, I believe that Sheba became mentally unglued sometime around the middle of the book.

Add to all this weirdness Barbara's friendship with Sheba. She gradually goes from grumbling solitary old lady to venomous witch. It was hard to realize when this happened, because at times she could be so truly needy and lonely. She began to develop her own twisted beliefs about her friendship with Sheba, and would not see that her clingy and strange behavior was not appreciated. Her complicity in Sheba's folly began to bring to light some of the awful possibilities of her character. I truly hated Barbara by the end.

This book was a departure from my regular reads, but I was fascinated by it. I tore through it in a half a day, and was so chilled by the last sentence, I was astonished. I loved the complexity of the characters, and the gradual realizations that kept me entranced. I found this book to be very entertaining, yet slightly disturbing. I thought a lot about it after it was done, and realized that though ostensibly this was a book about Sheba and her poor choices, it was really about Barbara and her cruelness. Some would even venture to call Barbara a mild sociopath. I wouldn't disagree. I think that both women showed signs of mental instability, but of very different natures.

I should also mention that there is a movie version of the book, starring Judy Dench as Barbara and Kate Blanchette as Sheba. I saw the movie, and have to say that the book was much better (isn't that always the case?) The movie took some complex issues and rolled them into a sensationalistic story. It did nothing to highlight the gradual decline of the characters, or the complexity of Barbara's evil. The end was particularly disappointing, and lacked the punch of the book. The only accolades I can give it is that the casting was superb, and the acting was great.

Overall, this was a great and engrossing read.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers by Margaret George - 944 Pages

Book CoverI have to say that I went into reading this book hating Henry VIII. I thought he was a power-mad egotist, as well as a cruel misogynist with no respect for human life. I was prepared to read the book and joyfully hate Henry as the pages flew by.

This book made me see the man behind the crown. Yes, Henry was hasty and foolish in his choice of partners. Yes, he was manipulative of the people he claimed to care about. Yes, he used the church to finagle himself out of more than one marriage, and what the church couldn't do for him, the scaffold could. All these things went pretty much along with my expectations of Henry, but Margaret George rendered her Henry on a much more fulsome background. This fictional Henry was mercurial, yet he could also be doting and affectionate. He was sometimes reverent and humble. He even had moments of intense loyalty and repentance. His relationship with Jane Seymour, in particular, was extremely touching.

As I read and read and read (and this book topped out at about 900+ pages), I became aware of Henry as a confused man who looked all around him for people to tell him the truth and to love him for himself. Although all he got was a profusion of compliments and flattery made for a king, he never stopped looking for that genuine appraisal. Yes, at times he was a petulant child, but at times he had to make and live with decisions no mortal man should ever have to. At times, the breadth of his naiveté (especially regarding his cuckolding wife) was sad.

His struggles with God were particularly moving and interesting because he never could seem to figure out what God made of him, and what he made of God. He seemed to genuinely believe that his actions (including divorce and beheadings) would somehow make God find favor in his life. He seemed to be fighting with God most of the time, either for his approval, or against his perceived cruelties.

Though this portrayal of Henry VIII was able to let the reader see the more human side of the famous king, I would be remiss to leave out the cruelty that he dealt out so generously. He seemed to have a problem with everyone sooner or later, and the easiest way for him to solve his problem was by execution. The list of the executed was so long that I lost count. It was clear that he was particularly unjust at times. Although his punishments were legendary, towards the end of his life he grew extremely remorseful and anguished by these horrible acts. Some would even say haunted. It was then that he moved me.

I found it very interesting to find Henry such a contradictory character. Most of the time, he was an insufferable bastard and a spoiled child. Sometimes though... he was a touching man who didn't ever understand his place in the world, or how he got there.

The interjections by Will, his fool, were scanty and didn't really shed a lot of light on Henry the man. Those parts of the books were irrelevant and almost pointless. It may have been better had she left them out.

I got used to having Henry around. I became accustomed to hauling him all over and reading scandal after scandal. Now that it's done, I miss the old bastard.

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