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Weike Wang – Chemistry

Book Cover

In all its forms.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 209
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-60367-5
First Published: 23rd May 2017; 31st May 2018 by Text Publishing
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2018
Rating: 5/5

Our unnamed narrator has been proposed to by her fairly long-term boyfriend Eric. She enjoys her time with him but isn’t sure about saying yes, and she’s not sure why. As the days after an answer was requested continue to roll by, she muses over their relationship, her childhood and present relationship with her parents, and her situation as a PhD chemistry student, trying to work out what she should do in life in general.

Chemistry is a deceptively complex novel awash with superb characterisation.

It seems so simple – formatted in a medium-sized type face, with large margins and many scene breaks that are effectively vignettes, Chemistry presents itself as an easy and quick read; and in many ways it is, the text itself fun and straight forward, winsome. But once you look beyond the surface, which you’ll find happens naturally as you continue reading, the depth and complexity of the novel starts to pour from the spine.

And there really is a lot to this short novel. The first-person narrative, which flips about in time to slowly uncover for both the reader and also the narrator herself why she feels as she does, is told in a slightly broken English that reflects her situation as a Chinese American who, whilst having been in the country since early childhood, has struggled with her parent’s expectations, school bullying, and what is presented as gentle teasing by Eric (which of course you slowly see has had quite an adverse affect).

The writing also allows Wang to develop a strong comedic streak to the book, which, whilst not often commented on, it’s revealed the character is ‘in’ on herself.

At the gate, he goes through his repertoire of tricks – sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five, sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five. I ask him to please be dignified about this, but I have not yet taught him that command.

You might expect that, given the sense of distance – somewhat literal – that can occur between reader and text due to the nature of vignettes, the characters would feel distant, but that is far from the case here. Despite the lack of a name for the narrator, and despite the fact that everything you hear about others is told solely through her in a report-like manner, there is an incredible strength to the characterisation of everyone, even the dog. (The dog is marvelous.) Wang has created a fully-realised cast of characters that are fantastic to read about and the lack of a name for the narrator becomes a very good argument for time spent developing characters – in this case, the lack of a name is of no importance; she didn’t need one. It could be argued you get a better sense of who the person is without it, because without a name to fall back on in order to reference her (though of course you can say ‘unnamed narrator’ as the blurb says and I’ve repeated) you are even more aware of her personality. And Wang takes this concept further – the only people who are named are Eric, and the narrator’s parents. Even the dog is called ‘dog’.

There just might be a point to that separation between the named and unnamed. Something the narrator has struggled with, that you come to feel she’s starting to realise but can’t quite grasp due to her upbringing and family culture, is the emotional and somewhat intellectual neglect she’s suffered from her parents, who at once want her to be great like her father but don’t offer the more subtle things she needs in order to reach her considered potential, a potential that she receives a lot of pressure to fulfill. One of the repeated situations in the book is that of the narrator’s visits to a counselor – shrink, she calls them, pointedly – who questions how she feels in the context of her background, trying to help her see that where she feels like a complete failure at life in general, these things have largely happened as a result of what she didn’t and still hasn’t received from her various relationships.

Let’s not forget the science and the industry – Chemistry is teaming with scientific facts made easy to understand. The narrator’s knowledge and Wang’s background in the subject make for a wonderful element that is both a backdrop for the rest of the story and a huge factor in itself. The facts are woven into the narrator’s feelings and experiences, a point here, an atom of knowledge there, so that you’re always learning (or revising!), never taking a break from the rest of the story.

Refraction is why I am not invisible. It is also why things in water, like fish, appear farther and bigger than you think, and once that fish gets pulled out of the water, you are vastly disappointed.

And yes, of course, ‘chemistry’ here is also romantic.

At its heart, then, Chemistry is a story about identity, which won’t surprise you if you consider other unnamed narrators, such as the second Mrs de Winter. It’s a story of indecision, the discovery of identity and personhood in general needing to happen before the decisions can follow. And it’s a story that will grip you until the final page, where Wang both ties things up in a beautiful, contextually reflective bow, and leaves you with the ribbon hanging loosely so that you can come to a bit of a conclusion and pulls the ends tightly by yourself.

Catalysts make reactions go faster. They lower activation energy, which is the indecision each reaction faces before committing to its path.

This book is better than a whole lab of experiments.

I received this book for review.

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The Female Quixote On Historical Epic Romances, And The Value Of Reading In The 1700s

A drawing of Charlotte Lennox

As I have been compiling the notes for my future review of The Female Quixote, I came to the several highlights made of the dialogue that forms Arabella’s long-expected ‘cure’ from her romantic notions; these highlights will not be making it into my review so I thought I would collect them here; they are quite fascinating and make for a small exploration of the thoughts of 1700s people – or, at least, 1700s writers – on fiction, in particular romantic fiction (as swooning epics of the past were referred to).

Something I will likely add to my review is this statement; it’s also very relevant here:

Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote (1752) seems to join a persuasive eighteenth-century effort to dispel as “unreal” and dangerous the romance tradition that English readers had valued for two hundred years (Gordon, 1998).

Book cover

The same source goes on to say that the book ‘avoids endorsing this demolition of romance… The precise relationship The Female Quixote establishes between madness and romance needs careful articulation’. And later, ‘This critical narrative commands respect for exposing how eighteenth-century culture controlled female power and, equally importantly, how such control could be contested.’ (ibid.)

I do not know enough about the period’s literary culture to comment on it in general, but certainly Lennox’s novel suggests a background of ridicule; whilst we can’t say for certain that Lennox herself disliked epic romances, particularly given our contemporary thoughts as to viewing author and text as separate entities, the possibility is certainly there and even if not from Lennox’s own heart, it exists as someone’s opinion… quite possibly, given that Lennox was of his circle and looked up to him, Samuel Richardson.

Without further ado, then, let’s look at these extracts from the second to last chapter of the novel – which in itself is a subject of debate as some believe it to be the work of Samuel Johnson (both Samuels were in Lennox’s circle). The discourse between the Doctor and Arabella concerning the knowledge she has gained from books which she thinks contain facts (please note, quotation marks are not used in the original text):

To the names of many of these illustrious sufferers I am an absolute stranger, replied the doctor. The rest I faintly remember some mention of in those contemptible volumes with which children are sometimes injudiciously suffered to amuse their imaginations; but which I little expected to hear quoted by your ladyship in a serious discourse. And though I am very far from catching occasions of resentment, yet I think myself at liberty to observe, that if I merited your censure for one indelicate epithet, we have engaged on very unequal terms, if I may not likewise complain of such contemptuous ridicule as you are pleased to exercise upon my opinions by opposing them with the authority of scribblers, not only of fictions, but of senseless fictions; which at once vitiate the mind and pervert the understanding; and which if they are at any time read with safety, owe their innocence only to their absurdity.

Whether the above was written by or with a mind to Samuel Johnson, or whether it’s entirely the product of Lennox’s thoughts, there is a strong dislike of ‘senseless fictions’; the ‘not only of fictions’ could be taken to mean that the writer dislikes fiction in general, however, given Lennox’s interests in novels I think we can say that’s not the case. We have ‘read with safety, owe their innocence only to their absurdity’ which could be applied to Lennox’s work itself, an absurd book that readers would know without doubt is fiction and thus it is ‘safe’ to read.

There is also this, Arabella’s opinion of her past occupations once reality is pointed out to her:

What examples can be afforded by the patience of those who never suffered, or the chastity of those who were never solicited? The great end of history is to show how much human nature can endure or perform. When we hear a story in common life that raises our wonder or compassion, the first confutation stills our emotions; and however we were touched before, we then chase it from the memory with contempt as a trifle, or with indignation as an imposture. Prove, therefore, that the books which I have hitherto read as copies of life, and models of conduct, are empty fictions, and from this hour I deliver them to moths and mould; and from this time consider their authors as wretches who cheated me of those hours I ought to have dedicated to application and improvement, and betrayed me to a waste of those years in which I might have laid up knowledge for my future life.

Whilst this begins well and says good things, unfortunately, given that a long time prior to this, Arabella’s cousin and ‘lover’, Glanville, had been on the cusp of directing the servants to burn the collection, it’s likely that Lennox had in mind a mass burning of books when she wrote The End, or Finis.

On the (more) positive side to this post, on the value of reading in general and the value of novels in the 1700s specifically, Lennox includes these fragments:

…and the great use of books, is that of participating without labour or hazard, the experience of others.

Particularly, we could say, when those fictions concern killing one’s rivals in love, being taken by ravishers, and dying for the extreme amount of love one has for someone unobtainable.

Truth is not always injured by fiction. […] Books ought to supply an antidote to example.

To use words Arabella might appreciate, oh blessed relief!

The only excellence of falsehood, answered he, is its resemblance to truth; as therefore any narrative is more liable to be confuted by its inconsistency with known facts, it is at a greater distance from the perfection of fiction; for there can be no difficulty in framing a tale, if we are left at liberty to invert all history and nature for our own convenience. When a crime is to be concealed, it is easy to cover it with an imaginary wood. When virtue is to be rewarded, a nation with a new name may, without any expense of invention, raise her to the throne. When Ariosto was told of the magnificence of his palaces, he answered, that the cost of poetical architecture was very little; and still less is the cost of building without art, than without materials.

Ladies are most problematic:

Then let me again observe, resumed he, that these books soften the heart to love, and harden it to murder. That they teach women to exact vengeance, and men to execute it; teach women to expect not only worship, but the dreadful worship of human sacrifices. Every page of these volumes is filled with such extravagance of praise, and expressions of obedience, as one human being ought not to hear from another; or with accounts of battles, in which thousands are slaughtered for no other purpose than to gain a smile from the haughty beauty, who sits a calm spectatress [sic] of the ruin and desolation, bloodshed and misery, incited by herself.

It is impossible to read these tales without lessening part of that humility, which by preserving in us a sense of our alliance with all human nature, keeps us awake to tenderness and sympathy, or without impairing that compassion which is implanted in us as an incentive to acts of kindness. If there be any preserved by natural softness, or early education, from learning pride and cruelty, they are yet in danger of being betrayed to the vanity of beauty, and taught the arts of intrigue.

Given that the penultimate chapter (the one these extracts are taken from) is so different than the others, bordering on philosophical, it may indeed be the case that as some suspect, Samuel Johnson had a big role to play in its creation, though if he did, it would have been quite against his own literary tastes, as ‘Johnson had, if not a taste, at least an appetite, for the old-fashioned romances which Mrs. Lenox [sic] satirised’ (Dobson, 1892). Certainly, if not for that, there seems a sudden effort to bring in the thoughts of an intellectual in the field in ways there hadn’t been before; there is a difference between the Doctor’s dialogue and that of the Countess a few chapters before who, due to authorial devices, was unable to complete the slow suggestions she had begun to bring about to Arabella that what she had read does not reflect reality. And there is a difference between the Doctor and the historian Mr Selvin who for reasons likely, again, to do with devices and keeping the story going, did not last long in the text and indeed took the view that the lady who knew all these accounts he had never heard of, was more well-read than himself.

But however the chapter was created, it is a mini treasure trove of a few subjects – fairly generalised, but with some interesting insights into the 1700s’ reader’s mind and a few phrases about books that are quite wonderful.

References

Books

Dobson, Austin (1892), Eighteenth Century Vignettes, Thomas Nelson & Sons

Articles

Gordon, Scott Paul (1998), The Space of Romance in Lennox’s Female Quixote, Vol. 38, Issue 3, pp.499-516

 
Could There Have Been An Alternative Ending For The Awakening?

Book cover

The Awakening alternative ending.’

It came as quite a shock to me to see this phrase in the list of search queries that had led visitors to my site; I think anyone who has read the book can emphasise – the ending is a crucial element to the impact of the text. Nevertheless, I’d like to explore this possibility of a difference, and to do that I believe it’s worth first considering the intent and purpose behind such a query.

The situation that first comes to mind is that of a student, perhaps a school student rather than university where, I presume, studies of the book would be less general and more about the female agency; in a general study, such a query or consideration would be possible. Either someone wants another’s opinion, or they are looking for inspiration with which to write an ending themselves.

This brings us to possibility number two – a search for a fabled ending. Alternate endings are hardly unheard of, consider Dickens’ original ending of Great Expectations and the recommendation that he change it to something more positive… and arguably more romantic!

Perhaps however, it’s more simple: a person, very affected by Chopin’s ending, who is looking for a different one. Such intent would be categorised as personal research and furthering one’s reading. Continued interest, albeit for a reason Chopin may have not agreed with.

So to the possibility of another ending, could there be one in terms of viability? Edna could always have chosen to turn back before she became too tired but in the context of her time, arguably also Chopin’s, it would have achieved these two things:

  1. It would have made people, both fictional and factual (think of the angry reviewers of the time) think things, life, were fine as they were. Chopin would have been commended for going along with the status quo and putting the woman with the bizarre thoughts – near hysteria! – back in her place. (In this vein it’s worth considering also the effect Edna’s choice would have had on Léonce and the children.)
  2. The novel would not have achieved its full purpose and, indeed, the good work done by Chopin in the lead up to the ending would have been obliterated.

So there could have been a second ending, sure, but we would not likely still be reading the book as much as we are; it would be but a similar story to many other books. We might be looking at Anna Karenina for everything else which of course does not have the same message, albeit that there’s a similarity between the texts.

Might Edna have been okay with going back, whether literally turning around and swimming home or never going to the sea in the first place, that final time? I think we can say that she would possibly have been content but not happy. Her children would have kept her at home perhaps – or might she have left them and Léonce for good, just moving on? – but there is too much about her that doesn’t fit the socially prescribed mold. Unfortunately in this situation her children would, as much as they might also please her, remind her of her restricted life. An Edna today might have travelled the world, solo. The independence she wanted was impossible in her society.

Could Edna have had a better relationship than the one she had with Léonce, one with more freedom? Probably. Something that has always interested me is the blend in Léonce of some less restrictive elements with the then-standard socially acceptable limits he placed on Edna. He was far from the worst but still strict. Chopin surely also felt the need for her ending to support her own views and life choices, and in both of these she is more independently minded than many. She started writing after the death of her husband and her marriage was not a bad one.

If the ending were different, it would have been better at the time, the critical reviews a lot more positive, likely completely different. We know that Chopin didn’t write any more novels precisely because of the reception of The Awakening. But to have written novels that were well received may have been to compromise her values. We might remember her differently.

Chopin’s famous short story, Désirée’s Baby, sported a very similar ending, with Désirée walking into the water – she ‘disappeared among the reeds and willows’, after her husband disowns her for giving birth to a child of mixed heritage. It’s obviously a type of ending that Chopin saw good symbolism in, a firm way to get her point across. (The short story was published 6 years prior to the novel.)

To sum, I don’t think we can really contemplate another ending. The ending is there for good reason. It may have been poorly received then, but it’s considered a triumph today. Edna chose the only freedom available to her. She was stuck in ways her fictional descendents wouldn’t be now.

Your thoughts?

 
Event Report From The Host: In Conversation With Claire Fuller

A photograph of Claire Fuller

Yesterday evening saw our first event at Cobbett Hub & Library in the Bitterne Park area of Southampton. Claire Fuller joined us and told many wonderful stories including the inspiration that led to Swimming Lessons (notes she and her husband left around each other’s houses), the influence of Kate Chopin on the same book, and the story of a young boy that helped inspire Our Endless Numbered Days. (Of that book she also spoke of the way the survivalist subject was written – having discovered there were no cults in Britain in 1976, the year the book begins, she brought in a fictional American.)

We had some wonderful questions, including one that led to Claire telling us about completing NaNoWriMo with one word over the requirement, and another in which she described her method of working – writing, going back and editing, and moving on.

The library proved the perfect setting, the panelled interior and wooden bookcases full of texts providing a nice colourful backdrop; all original 1930s Art Deco. We’ll most likely be making it our long term home. Many thanks to Claire, the library, and the Friends of Cobbett Road Library.

Claire’s next book, Bitter Orange is out on 2nd August. With only a few pages left to read, I can fully recommend it.

A photograph of Claire Fuller A photograph of me and Claire Fuller A photograph of me and Claire Fuller

 
Manu Joseph – Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous

Book Cover

Or is she?

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 211
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-912-40810-8
First Published: 19th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 16th May 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

The day Hindu nationalists win the elections, a building collapses; Akhila arrives as teams are trying to find survivors and she offers to crawl through a tunnel to help a man who is still alive. The man is muttering about a person on his way to commit a terror attack. A member of the two groups chasing the man and the girl sat in the passenger seat next to him, Mukundan isn’t sure what they’re doing is right, and is sure there’s a better way of extracting the girl, but his boss bids him to wait.

Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous is a work of fiction which switches back and forth between a number of narratives as the author seeks to explore social injustice in its various forms.

This is a book that is at once an easy read, an uncomfortable read, and a hard-hitting read that requires your attention. Joseph’s use of satire and general slight humour often lures you into thinking it’s a fun novel. That may be part of the point – Joseph gets his thoughts across through via an easy writing style that’s nevertheless full of report-like phrasing.

Sometimes, the style and structure makes the book hard to follow – Joseph, a journalist away from his novel writing, has chosen to write his book in a similar style, and adds to it many different points of view. As an example, you might think that Akhila Iyer, the medical student and social media prankster who targets people in or close to the political sphere, will be moonlighting as this Miss Laila, and it takes a while for Joseph to get to Miss Laila herself wherein you have to get your head around the fact they are two different people.

Joseph’s major commentary apart from the controversies surrounding Mukundan’s story is the difference between rich and poor, high caste and low caste, Hindu and Muslim, and in the context of politics, and due to the basis of fact underlining the book. There is lots to consider here, with Joseph’s bold dialogue looking at both past and near present, holding nothing back. One person named outright is the author Arundhati Roy, who Joseph speaks of in the context of the female author’s visit to the house of a very wealthy person and her views about how much money this person had compared to those nearby; Joseph takes his Akhila Iyer to Roy’s own apartment building where she conducts an interview with a woman who says similarly of Roy’s house. (Whether this is truth or fiction this reviewer cannot say.)

So, to the narratives, you have the man trapped inside a fallen building. You have the narrative of Akhila Iyer, often told in the chapters focused on Professor Vaid as her own narrative is taken up by the collapsed building; occasionally you hear from Akhila about her family, the mother that was often away helping other people as an activist, leaving her daughter to grow up without her. (A lot of Joseph’s commentary is about activism and the way it can simply just switch people’s situations until another wave of activism is required, the once powerful becoming the powerless and then powerful again.) You have the narrative of Mukundan, who tails Laila and Jamal, and the narrative Laila’s sister tells of the days before Laila left with Jamal. And you have the narrative of election winner, Damodarhabi.

A revelation comes towards the end that may lessen the impact of what you’ve read. It’s a good idea going into this book, to consider that the non-linear timeline might expand.

Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous is a difficult book to make a call on. Some of it is excellent – compelling points, good writing – but it does come across more as an essay or piece of reporting rather than a story or study.

I received this book for review.

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