Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Man-Booker Prize 3: And here it is...

The longlist comprises:

A S Byatt The Children's Book (Chatto)
J M Coetzee Summertime (Harvill Secker)
Adam Foulds The Quickening Maze (Jonathan Cape)
Sarah Hall How to Paint a Dead Man (Faber)
Samantha Harvey The Wilderness (Jonathan Cape)
James Lever Me Cheeta (Fourth Estate)
Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate)
Simon Mawer The Glass Room (Little, Brown)
Ed O'Loughlin Not Untrue & Not Unkind (Penguin - Ireland)
James Scudamore Heliopolis (Harvill Secker)
Colm Toibin Brooklyn (Viking)
William Trevor Love and Summer (Viking)
Sarah Waters The Little Stranger (Virago)

I've read the Byatt, so I'm rooting for her currently. Many of the books have not yet been published in the U.S., so this further limits my vote. Coetzee's Summertime is being published in September or October, and that's a book I could get excited about - though he's won twice already, and perhaps someone new should get a try. Really, there's no time to read current contenders when there's still 12 or so past winners to read. Seems a hopeless business when you think about it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Man-Booker Prize News 2

And I keep thinking: London is, what, nine hours ahead of Pacific Time? Or eight? So, at the very least, it should be Tuesday 28 July already in England and the longlist should have been released. Perhaps the British are much better behaved and waiting patiently to receive the news. I on the other hand, am hopping around from foot to foot waiting to see who's on and who's not.

Man-Booker Prize News

The longlist for the Man-Booker Prize for Fiction 2009 is coming out tomorrow. Watch this space...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Murderous Madmen

Finished American Psycho yesterday, and am more terrified than ever to go down to our hole-in-the-wall basement laundry room with the eerie lockers that I am convinced contain bodies and flies and bones and chain saws. American Psycho is a horrifying novel, not only because of the gruesome, explicit, senseless actions of the psychopathic Patrick Bateman, but because of the meticulously artificial approach to life – the Evian bottles, the restaurant reservations, the manicures for men, the fake tans, Rolexes, the conversations about cummerbunds and waistcoats and cocaine and “hardbodies” etc.

I can not read it again, but I could not put it down. I think that Bret Easton Ellis’s portrayal of Western decadence and societal disintegration is pitch perfect, and there are moments that Patrick breaks through his materialistic psychobabble to confront his painfully pampered and heartless way of life, the human disconnect which enables him to sever all bonds with humanity, and these are moving and genuine and make Ellis’s method masterful.

I’m not sure it matters to the reader whether the horrendous crimes are real or Bateman is hallucinating and insane – both are frightening. The amount of slips and confessions – accidental and intentional – that Bateman makes but people mistake, mishear, and shake off nervously, makes the novel extremely ironic. So, at last I have had my introduction to transgressive fiction. Bukowski seems like a harmless ferret compared to Ellis. But, on the other hand, I don’t think American Psycho is autobiographical. Oh man, I hope not.

In other news of more bloody exploits, Kristin and I saw Othello at the Intiman last night. It was a cast from New York with Sean Patrick Thomas (of Save the Last Dance fame) as the Moor of Venice. The play launched straight into Rodrigo’s argument with the villainous Iago, and they were both so immediately heated that Kristin and I wondered if they were speaking Venetian. Fortunately, the dialogue slowed and clarified and we were able to understand.

Othello is a fantastic play to see, as my Folger Pocket edition says, because instead of Shakespeare toying with micro-plots and several crises at once, there is one narrative arc in this play and it thuds steadily on towards the final scene on Desdemona’s bed. Thomas did well as Othello, though infinitely better when he was raging than when he was happy. I saw Othello once before at the Globe in London, and it is hard to best that. At the Intiman I was a spectator, at the Globe I was a participant, and the fellow playgoers in the audience wept out loud (which I had always thought was hyperbolic when others told stories of people wailing in theatres, but I saw it happen). I did like John Campion’s Iago – raspy and gruff and loud and nearly always shouting. His manner of overacting made me feel like I was encountering a foreign man in a foreign port, not a smooth, honey-tonged Shakespearean actor. His portrayal was immediate and lustful, and there was no misunderstanding his intent by tripping over the Elizabethan syntax.

Additionally, Othello has some great lines, some of which I intend to pull out at dinner parties – things like “I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking” (Cassio).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

First Books

The first book I remember reading besides the book teaching me to read (F-O-X) was the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I was five and my mother was pregnant with my youngest brother Joel, on bed-rest and bored. I can’t remember the act of reading, although I know I did read it, so much as looking over my mother’s shoulder at one of Pauline Baynes’ illustrations of Aslan awaiting his death at the Stone Table, surrounded by the Witch’s minions. It still gives me the creeps just thinking about it.

After that, I was hooked on the Chronicles of Narnia and would go every day to the dinky little library Holy Cross Convent had. This was where I discovered Enid Blyton, queen of books about boarding schools, Wishing Chairs, Magic Faraway Trees, British mysteries for children, and - of course - Noddy, a spacey Pinocchio-like doll who American children may not know about but a figurehead that formed a very large part of our cultural literacy as South African kiddies. Noddy is still used as a pejorative: (Oh Tracey, you Noddy.) It’s true that her books are formulaic and her characters are all freshly scrubbed, reasonably mannered, either-good-or-bad-with-nothing-in-between, middle-class, white British children with names like Sue, Tom, Fanny, and Dick, and idyllic childhoods, but we didn’t care about that then. I suspect it was Enid Blyton that first made me feel that I did have some sort of attachment to England, which many Commonwealthers do (deep-down).

Last Friday, I found a copy of an Enid Blyton book, Five Go To Mystery Moor, at Ophelia’s Books in Fremont and as it was only $2, had to buy it to commemorate my childhood. Her boarding school books are largely why Hogwarts felt so familiar to me when Kristin introduced me to Harry Potter after our freshman year of college. I’m excited about opening this one, circa 1954, as I see that it’s about gypsies.

This past Monday, I bought 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith (with a deplorable Walt-Disney cover) at Magus for $1. I read 101 Dalmatians in primary school, but had very shadowy memories of it until I opened this one. The drawings were familiar, (What is it about illustrations that make you feel as though you were five or eight or ten again? It’s like hearing songs that take you back to being fourteen - coughBackstreetBoyscough), and it was only years later that I put together that the author of my favorite novel, I Capture the Castle, had written 101 Dalmatians (which is much better than the movies).

Though I didn’t remember reading it, several paragraphs seemed to resound:
“Like many other much-loved humans, [the Dearlys] believed that they owned their dogs, instead of realizing that their dogs owned them. Pongo and Missis found this touching and amusing and let their pets think it was true.” 101 Dalmatians was a landmark for me as it taught me how to pronounce the word “Colonel.” How was I supposed to know you say it “kernel” like the corn? Completely illogical. I suspect that many people had this same Colonel epiphany.

I finished 101 Dalmatians yesterday, and now I go on to a very different sort of book, American Psycho.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Thought had while making bed

Question: Should good literature - good, true writing - transcend gender, like some say androgynous Shakespeare did? Or should it remain true to one's own experience? (ie. Jane Austen is writing clearly as a woman; Cormac McCarthy as a man.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mischief Managed

Just try and keep us away from a Harry Potter opening night. This past Tuesday night, a few friends and I rushed downtown to brave the crowds to watch the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Dressing up was half the fun. The last one was during my sophomore year of college. We're such dorks:

Less of us this year, but still excited, and exhausted. Still dorks.

Fawkes, the phoenix.

Hephzibah Smith (a memory in the book, does not make it into the film), collector of trinkets, murdered by V.

Bellatrix Lestrange - you should have seen her Dark Mark.

Merope ( a memory in the book but not making an entrance in the film), heavily pregnant with Voldemort. Pillow was wonderfully comfortable to hold in the theatre, though it made driving very difficult. Also walking up stairs. Being pregnant is hard, man!

We saw several Gryffindor students, some Harries, Hermiones, a Professor Trelawney, Death Eaters (whose masks were terrifying), a house elf or two...

So by and large, we approved of the movie (though were somewhat nonplussed by some extra and not entirely canonical scenes). And now - hooray! - just another year or two until the next one.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Death in the City of Dreaming Spires

Zuleika Dobson (“zuleeka”) is the Oxford novel, alongside Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I had been looking for a copy ever since I was in Oxford and eventually, I found one several months ago in Magus Books (best place to shelter from a hail storm, haven for out-of-print books and scholarly texts).

A woman, the eponymous heroine, comes to Oxford to visit her grandfather, the warden of the fictional Judas College. She is an amateur conjurer and a professional enchantress, having never failed to captivate a man. Wherever she goes (Berlin! Paris! New York! San Francisco!) she drives men to utter distraction, but it will be in Oxford that she reaches her heights: “A new city was a new toy to her, and – for it was youth’s homage that she loved best – this city of youths was a toy after her own heart.”

Zuleika is in love with no man but the man who is indifferent to her. As no man can be indifferent to her, she is constantly thwarted in her desire to find love. What a predicament. Being snubbed by the cold, dandyish Duke of Dorset [“John, Albert, Edward, Claude, Order, Angus, Tankerton, Tanville-Tankerton, fourteenth duke of Dorset, Marquis of Dorset, Earl of Grove, Earl of Chastermaine, Viscount Brewsby, Baron Grove, Baron Petstrap, and Baron Wolock, in the Peerage of England”] creates an overwhelming feeling of love for him, which, succumbing to her wiles, he cannot help but return. She is repulsed by his affection and leaves him in disgust.

Frustrated and devastated by his unrequited love, the Duke resolves to die for Zuleika publically at the boat races during Eights Week and it is to his chagrin that all the undergraduates of Oxford join him in his pledge. He spends his remaining hours wavering over his rash decision, but when he decides he must, he tries to evangelize the undergraduates and save them from a thankless doom. Unsuccessful, mass carnage at the river follows, and Zuleika – rather than being abashed – is displeased by being stripped of her admirers (even by herself), moves on to Cambridge. Humorously, and perhaps unexpectedly - the dons are not all that upset by the deaths of their students – “…and now, all of a sudden, in mid-term, peace, ataraxy, a profound and leisured stillness. No lectures to deliver to-morrow; no “essays” to hear and criticize; time for the unvexed pursuit of pure learning…”

Published in 1911, Zuleika Dobson was described by its author, Sir Max Beerbohm, an Oxford man himself, as a “fantasy” perhaps because it is so outrageous a story, and contains additional portents, Fate, muses, the ghosts. The morning of his death, the Duke steps outside his lodgings and

“…he gazed up at the steadfast thunder-clouds…One of them, a particularly large and dark one, might with advantage, he thought, have been placed a little further to the left. He made a gesture to that effect. Instantly the cloud rolled in position. The gods were painfully anxious, now, to humour him in trifles.”

This ironic, black-humored novel is a lovely ode to Oxford. Pithy (“Death cancels all engagements”) and written with relentless, elegant hyperbole. In the middle of the novel, Beerbohm stops to apologetically explain how he – as historian, patronized by the muse Clio – is granted by the gods the power to see into the characters’ minds, which is generally a novelist’s trick. Beerbohm’s most cheeky insertion is a self-referential discussion between the Duke and Zuleika:

“…Your way of speech has what is called the ‘literary flavor’.” (Duke)
“Ah, that is an unfortunate trick which I caught from a writer, a Mr. Beerbohm, who once sat next to me at a dinner somewhere. I can’t break myself of it. I assure you I hardly ever open a book.”

I laughed out loud several times and I can understand why Beerbohm, Wilde’s sillier heir, was called the “incomparable Max.” I think Zuleika is still in print, definitely in the expensive scholarly imprints, but I have not found it on the shelves anywhere but at Magus.

I’ve been imagining Zuleika Dobson as a film, and trying to cast the title character. Anne Hathaway is pretty enough, though she may be too sweet to drive a generation of students to their extinction. A young Catherine Zeta-Jones would be perfect. Erin nominated a young Lawrence Olivier for the Duke of Dorset. Hollywood, with its rash of books to movie adaptations, should get on that.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

No More Waving at Mailmen

Maybe this is common opinion, maybe this is my own hang-up, but I think Charles Bukowski is an idiot. I wanted to like him. This week I checked his first novel, Post Office, out of the library because
a) I’d never read him
b) The books are attractive
c) I might be harboring the dream of being a postman (or woman, I suppose. Post-person)

This was a mistake because now

a) I know he’s an idiot
b) The books are still attractive but I can’t justify buying one
c) My dreams of being a post-person have been squashed

In the novel, a thinly-disguised autobiography, Henry Chinaski gets a job at a post office and keeps it on and off for the next eleven years. At the beginning the job is promising – “But I couldn’t help thinking, god, all these mailmen do is drop in their letters and get laid. This is the job for me, oh yes yes yes” – this quickly changes to apathy, and then to hatred. Though he hates his job, he can’t save enough to leave it (but he ultimately does). Bukowski’s Chinaski is racist and treats women terribly. He rapes a woman on his mail route. He is never committed or ill enough not to be ogling women. He is constantly drunk and hung over and petty. Let’s be fair: he is funny. His use of capital letters is hilarious. But not funny enough (for me, at least).

In the same way my theology professor at college suggested that the efficacy of sacrament was not based upon the person administering it, I think that the beauty and efficacy of a work of art (music, drama, novel, whatever) is not based upon the artist’s personality. If we give any credence to the movie Amadeus, it is Salieri’s downfall that he cannot equate the man he sees as being favored by God to have the soul of genius when Mozart is such a buffoon.

Thus, I might be more understanding of Chinaski’s decrepitude had there been redemption or artfulness in the novel. I read Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son last week and that, also, presented narrators at their worst: an addict, a weak individual, a man who hits his girlfriend, a man with a gun. Johnson’s language, however, begun slowly and heavily and then suddenly, time stops and the grim scene is brilliantly illuminated in a sudden burst of wonder. Bukowski does not have this glow.

I see why Bukoswki is valuable in literature: he presents the opposite to Bloomsbury. He is low-brow art. He is rough and honest and seems to shock for shock’s sake; he makes us feel like we have company in our lowest moments. But I suspect he was also a terrible person. Perhaps that is not a huge crime by itself, but combining with this novel, it might be.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

English Ladies

This week I began my acquaintance with two grand dames of British domestic literary fiction from the first half of the twentieth century: Ivy Compton-Burnett and Barbara Pym. Both have the advantage of being ironic, witty novels that move briskly along and are each roughly one-sixth the size of Middlemarch.

A House and its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett (1935) involves the sequence of tragedies that befall the Edgeworth family through nature, folly, and convenience. Duncan, the Head of the Edgeworth house, is the petty dictator that governs with great opinion the smallest dealings and conversations of the home. He rules over wife, Ellen, his daughters Nance and Sibyl, his affable philandering heir and nephew Grant, and the servants. Following his wife’s death, Duncan unexpectedly leaps into a second marriage with unexpected results.

Duncan responds to the female influence in his house with his very liberal views - “Women talking, women walking, women weeping…Doing all they can do…Your chatter can wait, as it is what the day holds for you.” His last word in the novel is indicative of his constant attitude: "You are all at my hand to be taught."

Though the novel begins in insubstantial detail on Christmas Day following the Edgeworths to church, the cutting dialogue between the characters, the constant sarcasm and sparse descriptions (even of characters coming and going, which makes the novel difficult to dip in and out of) create a baroque drama. Compton-Burnett’s characters seem to be aware of their appearances in a play: “I will take that cue, and leave without a word,” says Oscar; “I will follow” one man promises his wife as she exits. The Edgeworths make asides, soliloquies, and are never without sharp irony or the capability of both banal cruelty and evil intent.

Though the novel is placed within a late Victorian/ early Edwardian context, I think the modern sensibilities of Compton-Burnett’s time assert themselves, with characters voicing “It must be nice to marry without losing one’s name” and “it would be rather nice to be involved in romance without any trouble for oneself.”

Though requiring careful attention (at least for me), Compton-Burnett’s tirelessly clever conversation and macabre drawing-room drama makes a House and its Head a worthy read. I am on the lookout for more of her works.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (doesn't her name suggest "prim"?) was published just over twenty-five years later in 1952. Excellent Women is a “wintry comedy” as A.N. Wilson says in his introduction, but not as dark and chilling as Compton-Burnett’s novel. The novel asks what does constitute a full life when one's story does not promise an ending of a wedding and the Austenesque "happily ever after"? Pym's heroine, Mildred Lathbury, is on the shelf in her thirties. Mildred is practical, church-going, contented with her solitude, and quick to offer a cup of tea. Wilson is quick to call her repressed, the signs being her aversion to sudden expenditures on flowers, indulging in celebratory wine, and exuding a sense of sexlessness. Mildred is a product of her times: she is cosseted in the social fabric of post-war Britain where thrift is a virtue, clothes are shabby, luxuries small, and one is served flavorless macaroni for dinner.
Mildred finds that she cannot escape her role as an "excellent woman": one of those women that men depend upon but could never marry. Her friends and acquaintances are constantly on the look out for a romance for Mildred, including setting her up with her priest, Father Julian Malory, though she is more of a Charlotte Lucas than an Elizabeth Bennett and not particularly romantic. Mildred is self-aware enough to begin the novel by warning “…I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.”

Mildred’s narrow life of the church circle – its bazaars and services – and her work for destitute gentlewomen is enlarged when she gains new neighbors and the glamorous Mrs. Helena Napier, an anthropologist, moves into her building. Helena is Mildred's opposite: a sexy, flirtatious, working woman, and a poor house-maker. Helena is disparaging to Mildred and her church-attending and good works - “You put yourself too much in other people’s places…To be free and independent, that’s the thing.”

Mildred is won over by Helena's handsome husband Rockingham, who had been stationed in Italy to charm Wren officers. As Helena is presently in love with a fellow anthropologist, Everard Bone, Rocky is more than willing to spend his time wooing Mildred. Marital difficulties, anthropological meetings, and Father Malory’s sudden engagement to a beautiful but suspiciously charming widow complicate Mildred’s serene life of self-preservation and she finds herself wondering how her happily ever after will be scripted.

Barbara Pym has been called the Twentieth-Century’s Jane Austen. Philip Larkin, Pym's friend and admirer, was partially responsible for bringing Pym into the public eye, and since I like Larkin, I thought I should give her a try. I think Iris Murdoch’s husband John Bayley (Author of Elegy for Iris) read Pym as a comfort while his wife died, which can only be high praise.

But just as reading Jean Rhys was detrimental last year when I was not yet employed, I would advise against reading Excellent Women if one is feeling sensitively single. If one is not, however, please read it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Familiar Faces

Ever thought about the characters you liked? Not just like – but Like?
So many of my favorite books, when subjected to a microscope, have very few characters to Like. The books are enjoyable because they involve specific people doing specific things in a specific world at a specific time. The book’s flavor, scenery, dialogue, and the artfulness of the writing combine and contribute to its being beloved. But however much I love Mrs. Dalloway, I think Clarissa is too…Clarissa to truly Like her. Virginia Woolf's books are prized for their phrases, for her shimmering technique, but I don't particularly care about Mrs. Dalloway, or Mrs. Ramsay, or Lily Briscoe.

There are characters which are likeable: Charles Ryder from Brideshead Revisited, Elizabeth Bennett from Pride & Prejudice, Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet, etc; but we are expected to like them. I feel too strongly led to believe I am acting of my own inclination. For example, one cannot escape the feeling that Liking Harry Potter or Ron or Hermione as characters is lame because one naturally likes them. They are likeable. We see ourselves reflected in them, and they are our friends as well as each other’s. Of course, I can’t help but admit that I happen to Like several characters that I find kinship with. So perhaps it’s entirely arbitrary - but here’s a list anyway. (I love lists.)

Cassandra Mortmain – I Capture the Castle

Odysseus - Odyssey
Hector - Iliad (ironic, these first two)
Earl of Kent – King Lear
Viola – Twelfth Night
Sunny Baudelaire – Series of Unfortunate Events

Marianne Dashwood – Sense & Sensibility
Emma Woodhouse - Emma
Isabel Archer – Portrait of a Lady
Dorothea Brooke - Middlemarch
Provincial Lady – Diary of a Provincial Lady
Edmund Pevensie – Chronicles of Narnia
Winnie the Pooh (and also Eeyore)

Peter Pan
Moomintroll – Moomin books
Mole (also Toad) – Wind in the Willows
Dumbledore and Sirius Black – Harry Potter

Oscar Wilde in any incarnation in his works (eg. anything played by Rupert Everett in the film versions)
Mary Katherine Blackwood – We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Ralph – Lord of the Flies (who doesn't love how he stands on his head when he's happy?)
Guinevere Pettigrew – Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

And I'm sure there are much more that should be on this list and I've forgotten them. I'm sure they'll pop their heads in from time to time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lost Libraries Found

Several days ago I came across Aaron Lansky's Outwitting History. It looks so much like the A.J. Jacobs book (The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World) in which Jacobs spends attempts to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Both books have a single towering (leaning?) stack of books on their front covers; both have long subtitles. Lansky's is "The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books." (Note: I have not actually finished either book.)

The subtitle piqued my interest and I began to read Lansky's introduction in which he describes his adventures as a young graduate student, how he became interested in the culture slouching towards extinction, and began his Yiddish studies. A scholar estimated that there were only 70,000 remaining works in Yiddish, and Jacobs made it his mission to rescue those works, illegible to many and regarded by few, and preserve them on behalf of the culture he found rich and necessary.

At the time of the book's publishing, he had collected (as the subtitle suggests) over one million books in Yiddish and begun a movement of preserving the Yiddish language, literature, and culture. Many books were donated, found in attics and basements and next to garbage dumps, were hand bought or given by people who passed down their stories as they handed over the items their ancestors had prized. Lansky also founded the National Yiddish Book Center, one of the "largest and fastest- growing Jewish cultural groups in the world."

Just dipping into his experiences as he races against time, the weather, and financial concerns moved me. That one person is able - with significant dedication, determination and passion - to enact such a change makes me feel capable somehow, or promised capability. If only I had a cause, something which stirred such fierce determination and direction that I was able to make a literary and cultural difference, or preserve that which desperately needs preservation - I would do it.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Reading on the 66

Despite being hot (for Seattle), crowded (holidaymakers), skint (typewriter's fault), Saturday was the day that my car could no longer run on no oil and no engine coolant - which is both fair and mechanically sound but quite inconvenient. I should have changed the oil weeks if not months ago, but it's hard to go out and do something unless you have done that something before and can picture yourself doing it again (at least, that's how I work.) When I started the car, it began to shiver and squeak and I decided to leave it in the driveway, and I have thus ridden the bus to work for the past two days.

This riding the bus business can be entertaining: I feel as though I am being chauffeured around (with another 25 people). But these pleasures wear off quickly, especially as sweating is the result of the heat and the close ratio of people to bus. I do, however, read on the bus which enables me to transcend the body odors and move forward on my reading list. Lately I've been reading Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World, a history of Western Philosophy thinly disguised as a novel. I avoided philosophy in college and have recently (just this week) recognized this to be a mistake.

Last week on the bus to tango, I slowly and painfully finished George Eliot's Middlemarch. I say slowly and painfully because the font was small and the characters plentiful, not because of the text which, although heavy to a twenty-first century reader, is so centered on relationship, social impulses and consequences, that we are able to transcend the 125 years separating us from Eliot and find kinship with the characters.

The "moral" of Middlemarch could be "All things seem like a good idea at the time, but one should get a second opinion." Or perhaps, "Like should marry Like." Both Virginia Woolf and Harold Bloom have praised Middlemarch despite the novel's faults. I experienced the novel as the love child of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell (hmmm) though its heroine, Dorothea Brooke, is the sister of James' Isabel Archer (Portrait of a Lady), one of my favorite characters. Both Dorothea and Isabel are young women who blunder into captivity led by their ideals, passion and blind vision. Isabel Archer desires travel, experience, self-knowledge. Dorothea Brooke, aflame with religious and social conviction, wants an education.

Middlemarch is like a social map, and the characters introduced are conveniently or fortuitously (or unfortunately, in the case of Mr. Bulstrode and the vagrant Raffles) connected. The book is named for the provincial town of Middlemarch which forms the set for our drama. Dorothea and her Celia are of marriageable age, and though Sir James Chettam wants to marry the elder Miss Brooke, she sees him as a friend and fellow social sympathizer. Chettam is cast aside (into Celia's arms) with the appearance of the august (and skeletal) Edward Casaubon, a gentleman theologian and scholar who is working on his book, the Key to All Mythologies. Dorothea sees Casaubon as a gnostic guide/potential soul mate and marries him, eager to be taught and to aid Casaubon in his lifework. She discovers too late that she will never be admitted into his confidence and their marriage is based on neither warmth nor mutuality.

At the same time, Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor eager for medical reform, comes to Middlemarch to begin his practice, to the community's cautious distrust and consternation. He strays from his single-minded plan of research and development to marry the beautiful Rosamund Vincy. Despite Rosamund's initial willingness to be a doctor's wife, it becomes evident that Lydgate's vision for his practice and Rosamund's expectation for a comfortable and ornamented life as Lydgate's wife are at odds, and both suffer for it. Marriage has never looked so enticing as Eliot can present it.

Throw in Rosamund's aimless brother Fred; the object of his affection, Mary; the rich old man Fred looks to for an inheritance; the pompous evangelical-with-a-past, Mr. Bulstrode; political involvement; community disagreements; and handsome, passionate Will Ladislaw, who meets Dorothea and Casaubon in Rome on their honeymoon and changes the course of Dorothea's marriage. The rich social landscape is too plentiful to boil down to a few paragraphs, and like Dickens's Bleak House, the plot of the novel (while long-winded) is worth slogging through, so I will give no more away.

I'm taking the bus to St. Mark's Cathedral for Compline this evening, so I think I'll buy and begin reading a copy of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women. So here's to reading on the bus.