The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is one of the great science fiction writers of the last century, and it is easy to see why. He created loads of different worlds, both futuristic and contemporary, for readers to enjoy, which (like all good science fiction) reflect back on our society. At least two of his books, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and A Scanner Darkly have been made into films. Today’s review, The Man in the High Castle, won a Hugo award in 1963 for best novel. I want to stress from the outset that I admire Philip K. Dick and his work a great deal. But for some reason The Man in the High Castle  just was not for me.

The Man in the High Castle
The premise of the novel is very interesting. It is set in an alternate universe in which the Axis powers won WWII. America has been divided between the Germans and the Japanese, with a small buffer zone in the mountains. There are several different plotlines going on: more political ones including a German man who is attempting to give German secrets to the Japanese, and very everyday ones such as an antiques dealer who realises that many of the antiques he has been sold are fakes. In addition, many of the characters refer to a book within the book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, by Hawthorne Abendsen. This novel is supposed to be about an alternate reality to the one in the novel, in which the Allies won the war, but in a different way to that which actually happened. Meta.

You can tell a lot of people like this book by the work that has gone into mapping it out.

You can tell a lot of people like this book by the work that has gone into mapping it out.

I found a lot of things about the novel interesting. For one, the majority of the action happens in the Japanese section of America, rather than the nazi-occupied section. This was quite interesting to me partly because in the UK we tend to learn a lot more about the European aspects of the war and partly because it is a culture which I am just starting to learn things about, and would very much like to know more. Philip K. Dick also places a lot of emphasis on the I Ching’s ability to tell the future. In this universe, it works, and the characters who use it have absolute confidence in it.

However, I had some problems with the novel. It follows the tendency of some science fiction to make all reality quite bleak: none of the characters seem to have actual relationships with one another, instead using one another to obtain their own desires. I would suggest this is due to the cultural differences which are being imposed upon the characters, but it is no different with Julia Frink, a character set in the US zone, and it is a style which the author has also used in the other book of his I have read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. This makes it quite hard for me to have empathy for the characters; they feel more like chess pieces than people.

The ending also felt very rushed and a little confusing. It is difficult to tell whether, by the end of the novel, anything is actually achieved, or whether the author merely intended to give his readers a glimpse into this world.

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The Abundance, by Amit Majmudar

Mala and Ronak are adults now. They’ve married, begun their own families and moved away from the suffocating world of their first generation immigrant parents. But when they learn that their mother has only months to live, the focus of their world returns to her home.

Having shown little interest in the Indian cuisine they eat at every gathering, Mala decides to master the recipes her mother learned at her own mother’s knee. And as they cook together, mother and daughter begin to confront the great divisions of their lives, and finally heal their fractured relationship. But when Ronak comes up with a plan to memorialise his mother, the hard-won peace between them is tested to its limits.

The cover also attracted me: it was possibly the most colourful book I could find.

The cover also attracted me: it was possibly the most colourful book I could find.

When I bought this book, from a W.H.Smith in Victoria station, I was tired. I was tired, a little grumpy from travelling and the extra one-and-a-half hours I had yet to travel on Southern Rail, and I was just looking for a simple and gentle read. Besides, I had already picked out another book, and it was buy one get one half price.
The blurb was what attracted me to this book: it looks like a typical women’s bonding book. You know the sort of book I mean: women come together and learn empathy and such. Now, this is not by any means the kind of book I actively enjoy, but it’s a safe choice for a relaxing read and a destraction from my growing terror of travelling via train.

Having made these assumptions, I was a little surprised by the actual contents of the book. First of all, I thought that it would be written from the perspective of the daughter, or in the third person, whereas actually it is written from the perspective of their mother. This makes it a great deal more interesting, especially because of the sympathy which Majmudar has for his main character. She is an Indian-born woman living in America. She is firm in maintaining her traditions, most of all the tradition of the mother literally nurturing the family through food. While I am not familiar with Indian traditions myself, Majmudar manages both to be sympathetic to his narrator and to her children (who pursue a far more Western lifestyle).

While I initially thought that The Abundance would be about a mother and daughter bonding over food and cooking, it is in fact about a family. The impending death of the mother through cancer is used as a catalyst for her to reflect on their lives together, as well as the death of her own mother. Mala and Ronak are both interesting characters as we see them grow up, especially when they are seen through the mother’s eyes – she learns things about them, which were originally hidden, all the time.

This was a beautiful book to read, one of those which feels somehow nurturing to the soul. It encourages readers to think about the way others behave with compassion, rather than judgement. I would recommend it to anyone with a horrendous train journey, or a stressful day, ahead of them.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar was Sylvia Plath’s only novel, originally published under a pseudonym. Its title refers to the feeling which the narrator has of being trapped under a bell jar, and unable to breathe. Credit for this artwork goes to lazykitsuneReading The Bell Jar was a very odd experience for me. It begins with Esther Greenwood, the main character and narrator, recalling her experiences in New York. She is a poor girl, who won an opportunity to live in a hotel in New York, working at a magazine. The beginning chapters of the book are all, in my opinion, terribly dull – tales of dinners that Esther attends, her friends getting up to no good, steering her down the wrong path and so on. Frankly, it reads like a kid’s TV show with a moral to it.

Then, the tone changes. Esther returns home from New York, and finds that her life lacks direction and meaning. It was at this stage that I realised the first chapters had not, in fact, been an after-school special, but had been dull for a reason. Esther’s unhappiness and depression was, to an extent, present the whole time, and can be read from the beginning.The rest of the book, detailing Esther’s downward spiral, is wonderful. It details the experiences of depression in an incredibly realistic manner – as might be expected, given that Sylvia Plath suffered from depression, and tragically killed herself a month after The Bell Jar was first published in the UK. Sadly, the book’s theme, that of a young person being depressed, has made it a symbol of teenage angst, and a quick search on google shows that this is not entirely unfounded.

This could be a good thing, or a bad thing.

This could be a good thing, or a bad thing.

One of the reasons why it stikes such a chord with the angsty teenage crowd, among others, is because it reflects the ways in which so many people can feel alienated, and find difficulties with life’s demands. It is far from a cheerful read. Indeed, it so vividly portrays the detatchment of depression that the reader is at risk of becoming detatched and gloomy themselves. It would not make for good bedtime reading, but for a greater understanding of the mind, and the serious problem of depression with which a number of people today still struggle, I believe that no book written can match it.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowleged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
There is something about a really beautiful beginning to a book which just makes me smile. Same goes for The Odessey. And the wonderful thing about the beginning of Pride and Prejudice is that it is one of those quotes that everyone knows, or at least recognises. Type it into Google, incidentally, and it links to the Wikipedia post on Irony.

It’s going to be hard for me to write about Pride and Prejudice and say anything bad about it, because it’s been almost an ever-present novel for me ever since I was eleven years old and watched the BBC miniseries.

Yes, this adaptation.

Yes, this adaptation.

Soon after that I read the book for the first time, watched the miniseries a lot more times, was bombarded by references in popular culture (a Lot in Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is based on Pride and Prejudice), and was baffled at the speed with which Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen got through their lines in the 2005 film adaptation.

Needless to say, I like it. A lot.

The basic plots of Jane Austen novels are more or less identical. I say this lovingly – she took one basic formula and added on characters and situations which make a massive difference so that you can’t easily confuse her novels. The formula goes like this: a middle-class, Regency-era young woman meets, or is already friends with, a man. She gets a crush on another man, who turns out to be horrible in some way, or lying to her. The first man saves the day, she realises she has loved him all the time, and they marry. Then the dramas of additional characters are added on.

In Pride and Prejudice, our young woman is Elizabeth Bennett, who is one of five daughters. Her father is not wealthy enough to give them all dowries (money to recompense their husbands for the expense, basically), and because of what is basically the Will of an ancestor, they are not going to inherit their father’s estate after his death, because they are all female. Her First Man is Fitzwilliam Darcy, who has a large estate in Derbyshire and is very rich, but is also a bit rude. Darcy has a wonderful character – he is rude, but in part it seems it is because he is shy, or things come out the wrong way sometimes. Elizabeth casts her eye instead on Mr Wickham, who claims to have been wronged by Mr Darcy. Mr Wickham turns out to be a nasty piece of work, who seduces 15 and 16 year old girls to get their dowries.

But he's not as seductive as this...

But he’s not as seductive as this…

Mr Wickham proceeds to seduce Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Lydia. In those days, and for the middle class, this meant that a woman was shamed for ever – and her chances of marriage would be gone. Luckily Mr Darcy saves the day by paying a dowry for Lydia and forcing Mr Wickham to do the right thing and marry her. He proposes to Elizabeth, who accepts (he also did this earlier, but was a bit of an arse and she turned him down).

Jane Austen was a very witty and cynical woman, and this is really shown to its best in Pride and Prejudice. From the very beginning we are shown her sarcasm in the form of Mr Bennett, Elizabeth’s father, her ability to create ridiculous yet realistic characters in Mrs Bennett, and one of her strongest heroines in Elizabeth.

To continue Jane Austen month, next week’s review will be on Emma.

Have another Mr Darcy in a wet shirt.

Have another Mr Darcy in a wet shirt.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a novel with a message.

That message is “you are living life wrong”.

Urgh.

D. H. Lawrence frowns on your fakeness!

So, the novel is most famous for its sex scenes. These, and the fact that the main characters swear, led to it being a banned book. This led to the most famous British obscenity trial ever, in which it was claimed that the novel is not obscene.

In my mind, that does not prevent Lady Chatterley’s Lover from being really truly horrible.

The novel focusses on Lady Chatterley, also known as Connie. She married Lord Chatterley because she found his mind interesting, and he was then disabled in WWI (and can no longer have sex). She grows depressed, then has affairs – first with a playwright and then with the gameskeeper. She and the gameskeeper fall in love, and she leaves her husband.

Connie is originally built up pretty well. She is a young woman interested in getting interesting experiences in life, and not that interested in sex. Her marriage to Clifford (Lord Chatterley) keeps her from anything new – she is more or less trapped in an industrial part of the country which horrifies her, and has little access to anyone other than her husband, who she realises that she doesn’t care for. Once she starts her affair with Mellors, the gameskeeper, however, she changes to become somewhat selfish and unfeeling, not appreciating anything in life and thinking that everything and everyone is fake and tacky.

The character of Mellors is almost impossible to like, from my point of view. It is also a bit of a problem: he is supposed to be a Real Man, unlike most other men. So far, so good, but that means that he must express himself as he pleases – and he generally wants to be unwelcoming. I can understand that the point is that he is not subservient to those who consider themselves above him, but when this means being generally standoffish and speaking in his vernacular rather than the more generic English he normally speaks, it feels as though he is trying to put peoples’ backs up and thus make himself superior to them. And is that the point? He also gives endless speeches on how no real men or real women exist anymore, and people fool themselves into thinking that things are real. He alone knows the secret to be happy, and despite that he himself is not happy, nor is he trying to improve anyone else’s life. Also he never tells Connie that he loves her, not even when she asks him to say it.

Finally, a word on the sex scenes, since they must be mentioned.

They are not very sexy. Unless you like the idea of naming your genitalia and chatting to it (his is called John Thomas), and unless you think that sex should be quick and animal-like, this may not be the book for you. Oh, also, if you have any friends who are fans of Sean Bean and want to torture them, you can find extracts of the adaptation in which he plays Mellors on Youtube.

We came off together that time… it’s good when it’s like that.

Reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover made me quite sad. It has such a gloomy vision of the world, one in which the human race is only getting worse, where the working classes care about nothing but money and the upper classes care about nothing at all, one in which only this one couple truly care about one another. It may be a great work of art, but I just can’t see it.

A Tale of Two Cities

All the Dickens novels I have reviewed so far can’t really be described as having much in the way of plot. That’s not the point; they are studies, examples of life’s hardships, and thus don’t really need more than a few coincidences to keep moving along. When I did my (minimal) research to get an idea of which Dickens books to write about, most people said that their favourite was A Tale of Two Cities, but that they didn’t think it really counted as a Dicken’s novel – it doesn’t seem like the others they know.

Having looked at it, I think they’re right. A Tale of Two Cities is different. Published between 1860 and 1861, and thus one of Dickens’s later novels, it is actually somewhat exciting. It’s also different because unlike most of Dickens’s novels it’s set in the past (for Dickens as well as us), which means that although we still get a lot of Dickens’s morality towards the poor, it’s more of a theme rather than preaching.

The novel looks at the French Revolution, with the two cities being London and Paris. I have to warn you that I have only the vaguest ideas about what exactly happened during the French Revolution, so Dickens’s interpretation might make the greater history buffs out there cringe. We follow one family as they escape from the cruelties of the French prison system, and eventually become trapped in France following the Revolution. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but it involves literal self-sacrifice, unrequited love, PTSD (probably), plotting, scheming and nearly-identical strangers. The ending is beautiful, involving a change in character which has been foreshadowed since nearly the beginning of the novel.

Vive la Revolution!

This marks the end of our Charles Dickens season, but don’t worry – he’ll be back at Christmas with A Christmas Carol. Next week, I take a break from modern(ish) classics and we’ll look at a Real classic – The Odessey.