Saturday, August 30, 2008

Irene Dische/THE EMPRESS OF WEEHAWKEN

Elisabeth "Mops" Rother is a Catholic German matriarch of the first class, in every possible way. Born at the turn of the 20th century, Frau Doktor Rother allows herself to be married to a formidable Jewish surgeon (who converts to Catholicism for her, of course), is thus spurned by her aristocratic family, and finds herself in some uncomfortable situations as the Nazi grip starts to close over Germany.
I was not interested in politics. I didn't listen to the radio. I didn't like our Uncle Adolf. I didn't want to hear his voice. When we turned on the radio and he was giving a speech, I liked to say, 'There he goes again, screeching like a middle-aged woman going through the changes!' (26)

She is, however, indomitable, and successfully moves her tiresome family--her husband, her daughter, and her maid--to Weehawken, New Jersey. This is her story, and that of her daughter, Renate, and her grandaughter, Irene--or, as it were, the novel's author.

The voice of the German Matriarch is, for most of the book, nearly flawless and very often laugh-out-loud funny. For this triumph alone the book is worth reading. But the fictionalized and supremely sin-conscious Frau Doktor Rother would have diagnosed her own creator, her granddaughter, Irene, with the Sin of Self-Indulgence. At least 50 pages narrates the exploits of Irene in a voice it is difficult to hear as a grandmother's. There is simply too much Irene, at least 50 pages too much Irene, without esplanation and in too close detail, in a story that should have been about Elisabeth. Meanwhile, we lose decades of Elisabeth's own story as the narrator's focus shifts. Furthermore, the tone of the Irene narrative is so self-celebratory that it dismantles the careful character construct Dische had wrought for her indefatiguable narrator, Elisabeth Rother. To celebrate oneself at the cost of one's narrator's integrity: a grave Literary Sin indeed. A sad detraction from an otherwise highly enjoyable novel.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Kathleen Duey/SKIN HUNGER



This book is about a boy who goes to wizarding school!
Um... but it's the antithesis to Harry Potter. For example, the boy wizard of this book is not able to eat until he figures out how to produce food magically. And learning magic is far from easy.

This book is also about a girl who can talk to animals!
But they're definitely not of your cuddly variety. The girl's story takes place when magic is forbidden, and the boy's story takes place generations later, when magic is taught only to an elite few. By the end of the book, the correlation between their experiences is revealed.

Skin Hunger is a dark and unsettling tale for older teens. The plots are rather simple, but also meaty and satisfying. I found myself completely caught up in the characters' miserable circumstances. The end is a bit unresolved because this book is the first in a planned trilogy. I'm going to have a hard time waiting for Book 2.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Zoey Dean/HOW TO TEACH FILTHY RICH GIRLS


All Megan wants is to work at a top New York magazine, but when she can't get her dream job right out of college, she finds another way to pay off her student loans--tutor twins Sage and Rose Baker, notorious for being rich, wild, and more than a little dumb. If she can help them get into Duke, their grandmother will take care of Megan's financial woes and then some. After meeting the catty and less-than-academic twins, Megan doesn't think she has a chance on earning her paycheck. But she has another plan up her sleeve--write an expose on the rich and shallow.

The book's theme of turning into the very thing you scorn isn't exactly original, and the plot is somewhat predictable, but both Megan and the twins are well-fleshed out characters. Megan's transformation from geeky tutor to Palm Beach hottie is fun to follow, but the ending was a bit over-the-top, in my opinion. Overall, it was a fun read.

This novel is the basis for the new CW show "Privileged," which seems to be aimed at teens, but this novel is maybe a bit too sexy for that age group.

Sophie Kinsella/THE UNDOMESTIC GODDESS


Samantha is about to become partner at a top law firm when a huge mistake costs her her career. In a daze, she flees to the countryside. When she stops at a house for directions, she doesn't realize the owners think she's interviewing for the position of housekeeper. Once it dawns on her that she's accepted a job as cook and cleaner, she decides this might be just the respite that she needs.

The premise is a little hard to swallow, but it's a lot of fun. Samantha goes from the stress of securing loans to the stress of learning how to cook, clean, and locate the ironing board. Her employers are hilarious--demanding yet clueless, even trying to help Samantha tap her potential for getting a higher education. A love connection with the gardener adds even more tension and prompts some nice character development.

The ending was more satisfying than most I've read in this genre, encompassing more than just "she gets what she really wanted all along," even if it was a bit drawn out. Fun and satisfying read.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Taking: Not for keeps but can give you the creeps

As a firm believer in extraterrestrial life and that we will have visitors from another world, I didn't like the "negative character" of the "Beings" in "The Taking" by Dean Koontz. The picture of the apocalypse was discomfiting. And yet it was thought provoking - the psychological angle pertaining to our fears and trysts was quite poignant. The references to quotes by T.S. Eliot, and also the Biblical references makes me think that The Wasteland provided inspiration to the author (I may be wrong in this inference, as I have not actually read T.S. Eliot at length.)

The scientific logic of the "how's" and "why's" of the alien control was also well-devised. The book was rambling in descriptive sections but the author was trying to create a picture in the mind's eye and play on the emotions to evoke fear. The central theme of the novel was based on Darwin's theory of Natural Selection to cleanup the World of the evil in mind, heart and spirit, and then re-generate human life with newfound wisdom and experiences. It was like "clean the slate to write anew" with a sprinkling of Christain philosphy.

It's commendable how the author has moved away from the cliché
of the "green-skin-slanted-eye-oval-head" visitor from outer space, and has created a more awe-inspiring concept of the forces from another world, including biological and psychological angles.

I wouldn't say that I liked the book, or would mark it as my favorite, but I can assure that some images will remain in your mind. The next time the skies overshadow and pour down, you may very well fear doomsday, as imagined by Dean Koontz. What I liked about this book centered on dark characters and dark images, and the perpetual "purple glow" in the skies, is that it envelopes hope and survival instincts, along with human philanthropy.

Read it on a rainy day for maximum impact, if you like science fiction with a bit of the X-Files factor. The book would make a perfect script for a Hollywood thriller with lots of special effects. For interested friends, I don't mind lending my copy of the book, because it's not actually a book for keeps, though it can give you the creeps.

Read an
excerpt.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

A gripping, chilling tale, based on one of the most awe-inspiring characters in world history and literature, the Dracula, or Vlad, the Impaler. In THE HISTORIAN, Elizabeth Kostova expertly weaves history and mystery to give us a book that is a compelling must-read. Based on eight years of research, the book reflects the author’s hard work and passion for a subject that has inspired many a folklores and many researchers.

Kostova's own passion for the central character in this book is almost contagious, and the avid reader with the love of history, geography, fantasy and occult, will find it hard to keep this book down without reading it from cover to cover. Poignant in its expression of the father-daughter relationship; spine-chilling in the unveiling of the mysterious tale of the supernatural; breathtaking in its scenic description, and scholastic in the portrayal of history, customs, politics and the academic fraternity across global boundaries.

The writing style is so convincing and the facts and fiction woven so intricately, that as the patterns in the book evolve, the reader is persuaded that the story is true and alive. This book is a masterpiece of a debut novel, especially as the author effortlessly weaves through the past and the present, through characters, geographies and situations, not giving the female protagonist a name… until the end…
__________________________________________________________
From the Jacket

"To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history...."Late one night, exploring her father's library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters. The letters are all addressed to "My dear and unfortunate successor," and they plunge her into a world she never dreamed of—a labyrinth where the secrets of her father's past and her mother's mysterious fate connect to an inconceivable evil hidden in the depths of history. The letters provide links to one of the darkest powers that humanity has ever known—and to a centuries-long quest to find the source of that darkness and wipe it out. It is a quest for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the legend of Dracula. Generations of historians have risked their reputations, their sanity, and even their lives to learn the truth about Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. Now one young woman must decide whether to take up this quest herself—to follow her father in a hunt that nearly brought him to ruin years ago, when he was a vibrant young scholar and her mother was still alive.

Read an excerpt.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sonali Mehta and the Art of Chaki Peesing

After you read a book as huge in content, thought, events and descriptions as Shantaram, you deserve a quick and preferably a light-hearted read. I found the perfect comic relief in an off-beat book by an Indian author - Sonali Mehta. What attracted me to the book was the title - Millennium Moms and the Art of Chaki Peesing. The title was self-explanatory - I knew it would talk about the 21st century Super-Mom-Syndrome, and it carried the promise of explaining how to master the art of becoming an Alpha female.

The book is a series of essays, written in a very casual, rib-tickling, “blogging” style with generous and unabashed use of “Hinglish” and also Hindi words. Needless to say, it’s targeted primarily for an Indian audience. Had Sonali Mehta not found a publisher, the series of essays encompassing the myriad trials and tribulations of the “damsel-turned-dame” (rather, “dome” with reference to the ever-increasing girth of the married Indian woman), she could have very well created an absolutely hilarious blog.

Mehta is witty, wise, and is able to find a reason to laugh even in the most weird and worrisome of scenarios.She discusses various aspects in an Indian woman’s life - from the “arranged marriage” scenario, to the travails of a new bride, a new mom, a new “school-going-kid’s ” mom, to an in-depth analysis of joint families, television serials, hard-to-keep-pace-with fashionable moms, and the role of the Indian male in a household. Sonali has an eye for detail, and the details usually manifest in a hilarious satire of sorts.

A quick and hilarious read, this book may not provide an actual solution to handle the “daily grind” but it will provide you solace to learn that you are not alone in your battle of the bulge or competition for the title of “my mommy best-est”. What gives this book a thumbs-up is that my hubby, who doesn’t like reading, flipped through some pages, and found the writing style easy and buoyant, and he told me, “Lend this book to me once you are through!” I said, “Sure, will.” and I now am wondering how he will handle all the male bashing (and MIL bashing) that the book entails! You see, sometimes the truth is hard to digest, even if sugar-coated, as done by Sonali Mehta.

A must-read that falls in the genre of Indian-Chic-Lit, the only difference is the Chic is a Hen (Mom).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A fugitive and a maverick: Shantaram

It is a world in a book; rather many worlds in a book. I purchased Gregory David Roberts’ “Shantaram” long time back but was overwhelmed by the size of book (it’s has nearly 1000-pages). I, however, took to reading this one on Aug 1, 2008, when I had no other new book lined up for reading. I dusted the book-cover and settled down to read, and soon I was hooked.

Shantaram is a novel influenced by real events in the life of the author, filled with realistic, yet mostly fictional adventures. It is the story of a convicted Australian bank robber and heroin addict who escaped from maximum-security Pentridge Prison and fled to India where he lived for 10 years. In Mumbai, he got a glimpse of village life, learnt to speak Hindi and Marathi, lived in the slum and spent a lot of time in improving the medical conditions in the slum, made friends with local people and also with other foreigners. With time he got involved in illegal activities, suffered another spate of heroin addiction, a torturous four-months in Mumbai’s Arthur Road Prison, ironically not to serve punishment for getting on the other side of law, but as a revenge unleashed by someone he has messed around with, and finally he got involved with the Mumbai underworld, and even joined the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan.

A roller-coaster ride, written with amazing insight, detailed descriptions, a lot of clever one-liners (mostly voiced by the perpetually drunk Didier, or the female protagonist Karla), with discussions on the philosophy of pain and sorrow, and even the Big Bang theory, Shantaram has touched many aspects of life and living that is so unknown to the common man. For some interesting quotes, you can visit: http://www.shantaram-forum.com/shantaram-quotes.html and
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Shantaram


The bulky book is divided into five parts - the first two parts being the best of the four. There is a lot of laughter and fun in these two parts, courtesy the magic of characterization. Prabhaker, with his “solar smile” provides an amazing and often hilarious description of the Mumbai way of life, and introduces the author to a world of the Mumbai slum, and many friends, that he cherishes forever. Prabhaker was a loyal friend and guide and he warned Linbaba, as the author’s character is known in the book, to be careful of the company he keeps, and to maintain a distance from the underworld dons, who beckoned Lin into their world. Even Karla, in her mysterious ways tries to stop Lin from treading paths unknown. But Lin’s life was meant to be crazy and it got crazier by the minute after he entered the world of Abdul Kader Khan, the Afghan mafia don.

Turn to part three of the book, and the fun-reading is replaced by some serious stuff. Part three of the book is slightly difficult to cover as it describes at great length, Lin’s harrowing experience in the Indian prison. It’s heart-wrenching and scary and yet it’s an important part of the story that unfolds, since it makes Lin move away from the slums of Mumbai to the underworld. Part three is a reflection of the protagonists’ grit and determination to survive, even if it diverted his life further in the direction of the unrighteous. It’s the author’s way of justifying his need for revenge and his obligation to the tough men of the underworld.

Part four is again nowhere in the league of part one and two, but is easier to read than part three. The narrative is still very dramatic, but it helps to unravel the final mysteries surrounding the happenings in Lin’s life since he landed in Mumbai. What initially seemed a roller-coaster ride, ends up being driven by a cause and by a set of people! From losing his loved ones, and even the woman he loved, Lin realizes the lost cause in which he has come to be embroiled, and yet the gritty man stands steadfast with his Afghan fighters, and it is his fate that gives him just another lease of life. Part five is the concluding part that ties the strings together and brings the life and circumstances of Lin to a full circle.

The vivid descriptions in the book and the real-life characters and events, especially the deep and sensitive portrayal of Mumbai and its street life, have made readers believe that the book is autobiographical. However, the book cover puts it in the genre of “Literary Fiction”. An interesting debate has ensued over the years regarding whether the book is a biography or fiction. The author himself has been non-committal on the nature of the book, and even the fact file on the official website of the author is in league with the events in the book.

Looking at the book from a critical angle, it’s evident that the bad and the ugly have been glamorized in this novel. The protagonist is shown defending his illegal activities with moralistic debates and even with the good deeds that he performs for the less privileged. He is a fugitive, and yet, he tries to show that is just a spoke in the ever turning wheel of crime, and is actually good at heart. It’s a personal defense, a justification, rather a written hope that someone somewhere will see the goodness in the junkie and the fugitive, and in the criminal. Each reader to their own opinion about Lin, the central character of this book, but the fact is that he is not a Robin Hood and he cannot be glorified. His story, however, makes a good read, and has many colors, and vistas. I can assure you an emotional roller-coaster read with all the nine rasa, which are the essential parts of worthwhile literature.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Natsuo Kirino/OUT


Four Japanese housewives work the grueling graveyard shift at a lunchbox factory in order to scrape by. Each one is on the edge for her own reasons: Yoshie, a middle-aged widow, lost her husband's income when he died, but didn't lose the responsibility of caring for his bed-ridden mother or their two irresponsible daughters; Kuniko, a childless 33-year-old with a taste for designer goods, is up to her neck in credit card debt; Masako, a 42-year-old mother of 1, was displaced from her job at a credit bureau after 20 years of loyal service when she pointed out to her bosses that she hadn't been promoted or given raises while all her male associates had, and now lives in a lonely spiral of alienation and depression. Yayoi, the prettiest of the four, is the one who drives them all into a state of desperation when, in a fit of rage, she strangles her gambling, cheating husband to death. Suddenly, the four women, colleagues and (after a fashion) friends, have a body on their hands. Naturally, the situation isn't as simple as it looks, and the complications begin to tear down the women's lives as they know them.

The premise of OUT is an interesting one, and one Kirino has rendered through disturbingly human lenses. It is discomfiting to read about the hardships and stupidity of the four women's lives, and to follow the practical logic that leads them through the urban underworld. While there is some intensely graphic detail, Kirino also has some sophisticated observations and insights to offer, and the book is rather more than a gory fluff-piece. The originality and page-turnability have been duly recognized; OUT was the winner of a number of crime fiction prizes, including the Japanese Grand Prix. It was also an Edgar Award finalist.

The biggest setback in treating OUT as a successful crime novel is, unfortunately, the language in which it was originally written. Japanese fiction is almost never rendered into natural-sounding English, and there are times when the English text of OUT comes off as dawdling or overly-literal. Stephen Snyder, who translated, has done a commendable job with a difficult task, but at 400 pages the book is a little too long and struggles to keep the tension in some places. But with some judicial skimming, this book is an absorbing read.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Douglas Preston (with Mario Spezi)/THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE

Cover: The Monster of FlorenceI don't read many "true crime" books. Couldn't bring myself ever to open Vincent Bugliosi's HELTER SKELTER, for example, although for a time it seemed as if everyone else was reading it. But there's one variety of this genre that I do like. If I had to put a name to it, it would be "literary true crime."

Think, say, of John Berendt's MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL: a writer moves to an exotic, almost gothic locale (Savannah, GA, in Berendt's case). As he settles into his new community, soaks up its history, its mythology, he learns of some spectacular crime, most often a murder, which took place years ago. He learns that citizens are still willing to discuss it -- with reticence, in whispers. Fog, and dark (sometimes moonlit) nights, play a significant role. Gradually, in the writer's head, a story takes shape: one with universal, operatic overtones, a creepy setting, and a cast of wild, exaggerated personalities.

That's THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE, as well.

Background: Over a period of decades, from 1968 to 1985, a series of murders occurred in the vicinity of Florence, Italy. All the victims were couples found in or near their cars, parked in rural or wooded areas (and thus presumably surprised, mid-tryst, by the killer). In all but one case, each pair of victims consisted of a man and a woman. (The exception, two homosexual men, is believed to have surprised the killer: certain signs indicated that he panicked when he realized this wasn't going to be his typical adventure.) The male victims were more or less obstacles to be disposed of, and shot in their cars; the women were all not just killed but mutilated. (There were no signs of rape, however.) All the murders involved the same gun; the bullets, indeed, all came not just from the same manufacturer but from the exact same box of bullets.

The killer came to be known as the Monster of Florence. Over the years, the arc of the Monster's history was covered, especially, by Mario Spezi, the award-winning Italian journalist who was Douglas Preston's co-author.

With each killing, the Monster story picked up steam as sensational news. The matter eventually would come to the attention of Thomas Harris, author of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS; Harris would go on to use much material about the case (and about Florence itself) in the sequel, HANNIBAL. For instance, Harris's fictional Hannibal Lecter works in Florence on the curatorial staff of a Florentine count and his family; the actual count's house was used as a setting not just for the novel, but for the HANNIBAL film. Preston interviewed that charming count numerous times, even becoming something of a friend and visiting the house and the main reception area, "where Hannibal Lecter plays the clavier."

Obviously you don't pick up a book like this expecting a lot of laughs, or even simple comfort in any vague form. If you pick it up at all, you steel yourself for some ugly moments, and you expect to encounter some nightmarish personalities.

But as in the Berendt book, the central horror is mitigated with little baroque curlicues of comic relief scattered throughout, swirling around some of the lesser characters and events.

Probably my favorite oddball from THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE was... well, I won't use her name, lest The Book Book be subjected (thanks to Google) to a barrage of "The X-Files" Lone Gunmen-style rantings. Let's call her Madam X. She would probably describe herself as a journalist. Her principal media outlet, though, is neither print nor broadcast, but the Internet; she runs a conspiracy-theory Web site, on which she "published" many of her interesting theories about the Monster: who he was, why he killed, what psychic or other dark forces might be involved in motivating -- or unmasking -- him.

Here's an excerpt from an email Madam X sent to Douglas Preston, one of many he received after she learned he was writing a book on the murders:
Know that even while I write you, I am thinking that I am speaking not just to you, but also to your wife, and to those you love and that I know well how much they mean to your life as a man, beyond that of a journalist and writer, but simply a man, a friend, a father... I have embarked on this battle, this search for the truth, I do it only to maintain a promise I made to the Good Lord and to my Spiritual Father, a famous Exorcist, Father Gabriele... Dear Douglas, I have the photographs of every crime, when the victims became aware of the Monster, and screamed, their scream was photographed by a minicamera given by the secret service...

And I found, dear Douglas, in Japan, a document that I think is useful, which would prevent the Monster from killing someone close to you. I am undertaking investigations of this document...
And so on.

All of which could be dismissed as the feverish and... and interesting contribution of an outsider to the storyline. Except for one thing: for years, Madam X's speculations fueled the official investigation by Italian authorities into the Monster's crimes. It's not clear to me exactly how she got involved in this investigation to begin with. But once the connection was exposed, the authorities -- like authorities almost anywhere might, I guess -- dug in their heels, steadfastly refused to be embarrassed, hinted at "other" evidence which would support the conspiracy theorist's imagination.

(The strange twists of this imagination would eventually lead to Mario Spezi's imprisonment for being the Monster of Florence (!), and also to Preston's heavy-handed interrogation by the police as a possible accessory. One result of which was to chase Preston completely out of Europe, back to the US.)

With some justification, you might wonder if the Monster was ever caught. No. Everyone accused in connection with the case was eventually exonerated, often by judges horrified by prosecutorial behavior so grotesque that "misconduct" doesn't begin to cover it.

Was the Monster ever even identified?

Well, no, not officially. But Spezi and Preston make an outstanding case for one individual. I'll leave it to you, if you're interested, to pick up the book -- yes, steeling yourself -- and get to the heart of that mystery.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Samuel Beckett/ WAITING FOR GODOT






"Do you know how devil tortures souls in hell?" Carl Jung's uncle once asked him. "He keeps them waiting"

Waiting for Godot is a play where the characters undergo the same feeling. the characters Vladmir and Eastrogen wait for some Godot, who never arrives. It is a play with minimal characters and no action, plot or setting. you are left waiting for something to happen in the play and it doesn't happen.

you might end up regretting having wasted one good hour at something so silly and meaningless. but wait. this is exactly the feeling the play aims to communicate.

waiting for Godot belongs to Theatre of Absurd, a genre that is applied to works of art that have in common the sense that human condition is essentially and ineradicably absurd. it is the representation of meaninglessness of life where we are subjects to the sheer contingency of our world. such plays draw are in constant wait for something which may or may not happen. such plays draw material from philosophical ideologies like Existentialism, Nihilism.

but who is Godot? how Vladmir and Eastrogen know him? how do they communicate with him? does he really exist? these are questions that are left unresolved. once the director of the play Waiting for Godot asked Beckett who did he think Godot is? Beckett simply said "i would have shown it if i knew". the answer is intriguing and so are all the interpretations that have come of it.

the play is meaningless, absurd, complex and a difficult read. like Vladmir and Eastrogen you find yourself trapped in the plethora of possibilities, what could that mean? why this and not that? why don't the two leave the place and go? you'll often see yourself asking. but to look for meaning in Beckett's absurd universe is to misunderstand it. it can solve and explain nothing, it only describes and experience. the play, like the absurd universe is not meant to be apprehended.

the best part of the play is its prose. filled with monologues, cliches, double entendre, misunderstandings..you can have a good laugh. the language seems unwanted, unable to carry any sort of communication, it is simply there.

read it at your own risk. but before that do care for a review.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Phyllis Rose/PARALLEL LIVES


PARALLEL LIVES tells the stories of five high-profile Victorian marriages. At least one member of each of the couples was a renowned writer (although in many cases both members might have been famous). Each of the relationships is extraordinary for one reason or another.

For example, the famous art critic John Ruskin and his wife, Effie Gray, were married for six years, from 1848 to 1854, but never managed to consummate their marriage, alas for at least one of the parties. There are a number of psychosocial reasons behind this problem, most of them stemming from John's warped brain, but at least part of the issue was the Victorian policy of abomination of and misinformation about sex before marriage. Oops.

John Stuart Mill lived for twenty years in a platonic friendship with the love of his life, Harriet Taylor, who was meanwhile platonically married to her husband John; somehow this arrangement seemed at least mostly satisfying to all parties involved until John Taylor obligingly died and JS and Harriet were able to legitimize (and possibly consummate, although the jury's out on this one) their marriage of equals. At that point, both of them entirely retreated from the world, which they found tedious compared to each other's company.

Charles Dickens, meanwhile, is famous now for his great works of moral Victorian literature, but toward the end of his life he was also rather famous for the two public essays he published trying to explain away the midlife crisis that caused him to abandon his faithful wife of 24 years. Among Catherine Dickens's unforgivable sins: her fertility! She did, after all, strap him with 10 children he needed to support (as if, Rose points out, he wasn't involved at all). Furthermore, she got old and fat. Eventually, he moved out of Catherine's house and in with his 19-year-old mistress (who was not [yet] after all old and fat). Most sadly, Victorian law and custom supported Dickens, and even his children didn't start taking their mother's side until long after both parents were dead.

George Eliot (Marian Evans), meanwhile, was condemned to spinsterhood and had basically realized that by age 33, when she happened to fall deeply in love with a married man, George Lewes. Lewes had a wife and six children, but only three of them were his--his wife had been openly having an affair with his married neighbor for years and had ended her emotional relationship with Lewes, but Lewes, being good-natured and a believer that rational behavior (whatever that means) might get them through this strange arrangement, stayed on. The result? For more than 20 years, Marian Evans lived with George Lewes, out of wedlock, and helped raise the children he, his wife, and his wife's lover had created. When Lewes died, leaving Evans not a widow, she was heartbroken. Her weight dropped to 103 pounds. Then, a year later, she married a man 20 years her junior, and boy did they get on.

The connecting marriage Rose uses as a backdrop to all the others is that of Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle. Jane, a charming drama queen and social entertainer, played up in her diaries and letters the many ways she sacrificed in order to further her husband's literary career. From Rose's account, it seems that their marriage, at least, was a functional one, a balance of two partners who got along in their own ways. However, after her death, Carlyle read all the complaints in her diaries, became plagued with guilt for mistreating her, and made their "failed" marriage a public topic of conversation for which he has been remembered ever since.

The book looks at these marriages specifically, but Phyllis Rose maintains that her study is not salacious.

We tend to talk informally about other people's marriages and to disparage our own talk as gossip. But gossip may be the beginning of moral inquiry... We are desperate for information about how other people live because we want to know how to live ourselves, yet we are taught to see this desire as an illegitimate form of prying. (Prologue, 9)


As for why she's chosen these five prominent writers and their respective spouses, Rose makes a point that (ahem) at least some of the people who read this blog might be able to vouch for:

I have chosen to write about writers not because they live more intelligently--or less so--than other people, nor in the belief that they are representative. I expect, quite the contrary, that writers, like other people who must push their psychic development to extremes, are less able than most people to live comfortably within the constraints of the customary. But, however they live, writers tend to report it more amply than most people. (Prologue, 17)


The marriages were each fascinating to read about because of the sheer perceived outlandishness of some of the parties' behavior. However, as Rose points out, there's nothing in the world that says a) outlandishness is actually unusual, and we aren't liable to perpetrate equal or greater outlandishnesses in our daily lives and relationships, and b) there's nothing to be learned from looking at what we're allowed to know about other people.

A couple of points were of particular interest to me.

1) The relationships that were unfailingly loving were the ones that removed themselves from any outside contact with society. Marian Evans, unfortunately, was effectively forced to retire from society when she took up with a married man. However strange his living arrangement, George Lewes was still invited places, but Marian was not. Rose posits that the adversity the couple faced might have in fact been the glue that made their "marriage" a happy one (221).

The Mills, meanwhile, retired from the world quite by choice; they found no need for it anymore once they were officially able to have each other. I am a little troubled that the world's two greatest proponents of Utilitarianism--the greatest good for the greatest number--would choose to basically remove from themselves any stock in how the world did, anyway.

Furthermore, Mill, who was famous for his even temper, began to lash out at friends and relatives and cut them away from his life after his marriage. It makes me upset to think about a blissful and idealistic loving union that functioned so sublimely from the interior that the exterior--that is, everyone else in the world--became irrelevant. On the one hand, I'm jealous of the Mills in this particular variety of love, but on the other hand, I am not jealous at all. And on either hand I am sorry for the ex-friends and -relatives, like JS's abandoned brother, who suffered.

2) At least three of these partnerships--Mill and Taylor, Carlyle and Welsh, and Evans and Lewes--began with two partners with great literary potential and ended with one partner retiring from the literary scene and pointedly sacrificing his or her own career so that the other might flourish. Does it follow, then, that a dual literary partnership is out of the question? Is one or another member of a duo always going to be the secondary player?

It might be said then here that the great works of one of these writers, Mill, Eliot, or Carlyle, are in fact all co-authored arrangements. Mill and Eliot both claimed profusely during their lifetimes that any creation on their parts at all would have been completely impossible without Taylor and Lewes, respectively. So you might make the argument that in fact a literary partnership where one talent is eclipsed or subverted is merely a sacrifice in the name of an even greater literary career and affect. And maybe it is.

But I have to second-guess that. In the case of Mill and Taylor, JS claimed that his ideas were all Harriet's, and that he was merely her pen, since she was not a writer. But Harriet was an activist, a well-liked, highly respected, and well-spoken one. What might she have written if she had had to write because she didn't have a "pen"? (Rose cleverly sites Jane Welsh's teenage "pen" envy.)

Furthermore, Harriet disagreed with JS's conclusions, he would biddably change his entire thesis to please her, at the price of the integrity of his work, as was the case with the argument on capitalism/socialism (129-130). Did their "perfect partnership" cost him in directions he might have taken, or works he might have produced?

George Eliot and George Lewes, the gender inversion of some of the rules that apply elsewhere in the book, may be seen to have had careers of fate. At the beginning of their marriage, Lewes was by far the brighter star, and he took her success on very well as his own happiness, which he whole-heartedly supported. But otherwise there is a theme in these as in other literary partnerships where a woman's career becomes second to a man's, often for reasons of biology (I can think of three such contemporary relationships off the top of my head--I won't name them here, but go ahead, I dare you to try and I bet you'll come up with some, too). About this Rose makes a clever point:

Marriage and career, family and work, which so often pull a woman in different directions, are much more likely to reinforce one another for a man. Dickens provides a good case in point. Professionally, his marriage helped him. His household was arranged for him. His needs for sex and companionship were satisfied. No time-consuming courtships, no fretting about rejections, no hunting around, no wasteful fantasizing. Most important, he had a reason to devote himself wholeheartedly to work. Not only was he working for his own advantage and to satisfy his own ambition, he was working for her, for them, for their children. The guilt a woman artist might feel in removing herself from her family in order to create is less likely to trouble a man, a man who imagines himself--as Dickens did--working for his family. (151)


Is this true? I'm inclined to agree with the idea that society, at least, reinforces this by putting more pressure on a woman to feel bad for emotionally neglecting their offspring, but I always felt, growing up, that my dad felt bad about how much he had to work and about being away from his family at all.

About equality in a marriage, Rose has to say the following:

Equality is to sexual politics what the classless society is to Marxist theory: the hypothesis that solves the problem...Despite the number of people who pay lip service to this ideal, few have been able to pin down exactly what it means or describe how this desirable state may be achieved. (266)


Which is unhelpful but very nicely put.

I'll admit to having taken this book a little bit personally. I'm at the kind of age right now that there are an awful lot of ambient weddings--my roommate and I, between us, will be attending four this summer--and there are also the ambient pressures to take a stance on why you're either doing it or not doing it. PARALLEL LIVES certainly wasn't much in the way of a self-help guide, but it did come back to that most important point: there are no right answers. We get out of life what we make of it.

[this review appears, nearly identically but with some discussion, on Editorial Ass.]