Tuesday 5 January 2010

Review Post 1 - Religion, Sex and Cross-Dressing

Welcome to Year 2 of my little blog, dear reader. There'll be something old (the jokes), something new (the reviews), something borrowed (any decent opinions I can steal from other people) but nothing blue (not my style - sorry). Don't worry: this isn't a proposal...

There will be a few changes around here for 2010 though. 2009 saw me read and review 91 books in, at times, exhaustive depth, something which will be beyond me this year (unless I only read books longer than 600 pages in length). Instead, I will be blogging at regular intervals with summaries of what I've been reading, with the occasional full, in-depth analysis. Unless, that is, I change my mind. It's my blog, and I'll do what I want to.

So, taking advantage of the fact that I will not be blogging like it's 2009, I started the New Year by looking at a lovely style of book, but one I avoided a little towards the end of last year for fear of having to write a full review every twelve hours: the novella. The exact definition of a novella varies, but I believe it is any book which you look at and think "Well, I'm glad I didn't pay full price for that". As alluded above though, there is one problem with novellas; you tend to get through them very quickly, which is why I find myself about to tell you about my first three books of 2010 - after three days. I really need to slow down...


My first book for the year is an old friend and the first in a series which I will be rereading over the first half of 2010. Anthony Trollope's delightful book, The Warden, is the first of his Chronicles of Barsetshire, the series which brought him fame. I first came across this book when living in Japan (now about ten years ago - how time flies...), stumbling across it in a second-hand English bookshop in Kobe, reading it voraciously and then scouring the shelves for the other books in the series. I was put off reading it when I went through my first real bout of classic literature reading in England by the description of its taking place in a rural clerical setting, but despite the prominence of Bishops, Archdeacons and Prebendaries, it has very little to do with religion and everything to do with the church.

The core of the book is an attempt by an over-zealous reformer, John Bold, to look into the management of an almshouse for poor workers, run by the Anglican church in the fictional city of Barchester and overseen by a warden, Reverend Septimus Harding. Bold, with the aid of a cunning solicitor and the greed of some of the almsmen, manages to set the national newspapers onto the poor unsuspecting warden, who stands accused of profiting from money set aside originally for the benefit of the poor of the city. The full might of the Church of England (in the shape of the formidable Archdeacon Grantly and his father, the slightly less formidable, but much nicer, Bishop of Barchester) gathers itself to see off the challenge from London and the secular world, but these legal machinations go over the head of the sweet old warden, for whom the question is not so much of proving himself to be right as of being so. What follows is a sketch of a good man trying to stay true to his conscience in the face of opposition from family, friends, employers and public opinion: can the warden throw away his livelihood merely to ease his conscience?


Our second book also deals with matters of character, albeit of a slightly less noble kind. 'On Chesil Beach' is the shortest of the three books reviewed today, 162 pages long but with the kind of font size last seen in a teenager's deluded attempt to convince their teacher that they had fulfilled the word count criteria. If you're going to charge full price for that, you'd better make sure that the book is good, and McEwan doesn't disappoint; this is well worth reading (especially if, like me, you get it second hand). Edward and Florence are two English newlyweds, dining in a hotel on their honeymoon, ready to start their lives together. This being 1962, however, what should have been a pleasant meal is, instead, fraught by sexual tension and fear: you see, the wedding night will be the first time for both of them...

McEwan masterfully sketches out the nervous behaviour, suppressed sexual urges and contradictory actions of the confused young couple, interspersing his running commentary on the lead up to the main event with flashbacks to the couple's early lives, their chance meeting in Oxford and their long, slow courtship. As the reader is allowed to witness what led to the current moment, the two move off to the bedroom to consummate their marriage. This may sound slightly voyeuristic (if not pornographic - and there are a couple of extremely memorable scenes), but it is, in fact, a highly moving and somewhat sad portrayal of the complex courtship dance of two creatures trapped in a traditional society, where matters are not discussed until the last possible minute.


To say more would detract from the enjoyment of the book, so I'll just leave the young couple in the bedroom and move on to the next story - which is a very different kettle of fish indeed. If only Edward and Florence had been around in the twenties heyday of the Bloomsbury group of writers, there would have been little embarrassment in bedroom matters (although there may well have been a third party present, something which might have soured the wedding night somewhat). Virginia Woolf, feminist icon, genius writer and general woman about town, was not backward about coming forward and was a solid believer in her group's relaxed attitudes towards relationships. So much so, in fact, that she created the trans-genre (and trans-gender) work Orlando as a tribute to her lover, Vita Sackville-West (nicer than the usual box of chocolates, but a little more effort).

Orlando is a young nobleman, born in Elizabethan times, who somehow manages to end the novel in 1928 - a pregnant, married woman. Over the course of the 160 pages, (s)he engages in various affairs, attempts to write plays and poetry, ponders the meaning of life, travels to Constantinople (where the world's first sex change - without surgery - takes place) and makes the acquaintance of three centuries worth of monarchs and literary icons. It's all a bit daft at times (and Woolf herself thought of it as a recreation from her usual writing), but this traveller's tale, reminiscent of Don Quixote or Candide (Woolf also meant it as a bit of a tribute to Defoe, drawing on the style of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders) does have a serious side.

In addition to the thinly-veiled allusions to Sackville-West, the 'biography' looks at the evolution over the centuries of attitudes towards women and the societal constraints forced upon the fairer sex. On reentering civilisation as a woman, Orlando becomes aware of the many barriers separating women and free will, suffering especially under the stifling atmosphere of the 'moral' Victorian era which compels her to adapt and conform to the prevailing norms. Well, as much as a trans-gender, cross-dressing nobleman/woman is able to anyway...

The book is a quick and easy read, and the plot fairly races along, despite the more serious issues threaded around the hilarity. This would be a very good introduction to Woolf before diving into her more usual stream-of-consciousness style, even if it is one of her slighter and more whimsical works!

All for now; I hope I haven't disappointed my readers by fitting three reviews into one. As for my next review, I'll leave you now with a little clue. There was an Englishman, an Australian and an American with a confused Tory on the beach... No idea what I'm talking about? Then you'll just have to wait until next time...