Monday, August 30, 2010

Sorry, full review later

And the biggest disappointment of the year (at least for me) is this book:

After reading it, I couldn't help but think -- WTF! I won't review it yet, since a lot of you haven't even finished the book. Who knows? Maybe someone will convince me to re-read it and have a different view of it altogether later on.

Monday, August 23, 2010

What it's like in prep school

Just looking at the cover of Prep and you'd think that this novel is chick lit. The pink and mint green belt is a giveaway, yes? You couldn't be more wrong. As a novel, Prep works in so many different levels: as an exploration of social class, race, and gender in contemporary America, as a coming-of-age account of a very misunderstood character, and as a wonderful story about love, friendship, and life in high school.

So there I said it: Prep isn't chick lit. If you're looking for clueless, rich girls who are out looking for the perfect bachelor, Prep isn't for you. (I have nothing against chick lit though. I read quite a few. It's just sometimes, you drown in all the cheesiness.) Still, if bookstores categorize this wonderful debut novel by Sittenfeld as chick lit, I would still recommend it to my chick lit-hating friends. Interestingly, I found Prep in the chick lit section of the bookstore.

So when I think of an American prep school, the image that comes to my mind has always been New Englad in the fall, like this:

Who wouldn't want to live in that area? It's so picturesque, idyllic, and highly conducive to studying, no? I do wonder why most prep schools in the US and also majority of the Ivy League institutions are in New England.

Prep is set in Ault School, a prestigious prep school in Massachusetts, and it's protagonist is one Lee Fiora, an angsty teenager who always finds herself like a fish out of water among the rich and spoiled upperclass kids. You see, unlike most of her classmates, Lee is on financial aid, and she came from a public elementary school, choosing to apply to Ault to leave her family and early childhood life in Indiana.

In Ault, Lee becomes a very mediocre student, which is a far cry from the girl that she was in Indiana, where she graduated with top honors. She doesn't go to the mixers, prefers to stay in room most days doing nothing, and barely makes an impression among her classmates and teachers in Ault. Since she can't really relate among the rich social circles that pervade in Ault, it's as if she has decided to be unremarkable even in academics as well. Our Lee has chosen to become an observer.

To be honest, the reader can feel very challenged to like Lee from the start. She's too awkward and it feels that, sometimes, she's asking for it. She's naive too in the ways of flirting and making out. When Cross Sugarman, the male prefect who's the object of Lee's desires, decides to have a fling with her, Lee becomes the personification of the sexually unaware teen.
He leaned down to reach for the hem of my nightgown -- it was white and calf-length, those were the kinds of nightgowns girls wore at Ault -- and as he started to push it up (was he planning to take it off me completely?) I stiffened.
"It's okay," he said. "I want to make you feel good."
"Why?" he repeated. "What kind of question is that?"
So I'd said the wrong thing; really, it had only been a matter of time. "Never mind," I said.
Sittenfeld writes beautifully. Through Lee's character, Sittenfeld has given us a portrait of prep school in all its polar extremes. We see how the education that you can get in a prep school can be truly exceptional. But we also see the ugly truth: teenagers taking for granted their money, status, and privilege. In Ault, the more the students don't talk about money, the more it becomes evident that money is what got them there. Heck, they don't even talk among themselves as to who's on financial aid; all you have to do is just look at their stuff. (If you're sheets don't have a thread count of 200, they'll assume that you're probably on scholarship.)

I've now decided to look for Sittenfeld's other novels. I already have American Wife, which is a bit of a novelization of the life of Laura Bush. I've heard rave reviews about it, and if it's half as good as Prep, it still would be a wonderful novel, I'm sure. Sittenfeld's characters are people you can relate because of their honesty. They speak to you. And you end up loving them, despite their flaws.

Read this book if:
  1. You've always wondered what it's like in prep school.
  2. You felt like an outsider in high school.
  3. You love Salinger and Plath, whom Sittenfeld has been favorably compared with.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

One silent novel

So what makes a novel "silent"? Is it the lack of a plot? Is it the boredom that pervade among the characters in the novel? Is it the total ennui that you feel when you read it, which would make you rush to the nearest bookstore and buy the current best-selling thriller? Or is it perhaps the restrained but beautiful writing that permeates throughout its pages?

Adam Foulds's Booker prize shortlisted novel, The Quickening Maze, is indeed a silent novel, but boring it is not. Foulds is primarily a poet, and this is his first attempt at a novel. Naturally, his poetic inclinations are evident in The Quickening Maze. The result is a beautiful and wonderful work of fiction, one that will make you reread some of the passages for their lyrical narrative. Just read the paragraph below and you'll get to see how poetic this novel truly is.
Eventually the singing stopped and a little while after that he felt a blanket placed over him. He opened his eyes to see the rosy fire still breathing at the heart of white sticks. An owl cried its dry, hoarse cry and the bats still scattered their tiny beads of sound around him. He loved lying in its lap, the continuing forest, the way the roots ate the rot of leaves, and it circled on. To please himself, to decorate his path into sleep, he passed through his mind an inventory of its creatures. He saw the trees, beech, oak, hornbeam, lime, holly, hazel, and the berries, the different mushrooms, ferns, moss, lichens. He saw the rapid, low foxes, the tremulous deer, lone wild cats, tough, trundling badgers, the different mice, the bats, the day animals and night animals. He saw the snails, the frogs, the moths, that looked like bark and the large, ghost-winged moths, the butterflies: orange tips, whites, fritillaries, the ragged-winged commas. He recounted the bees, the wasps. He thought of all the birds, the drumming woodpeckers and laughing green woodpeckers, the stripe of the nuthatch, the hook-faced sparrowhawks, the blackbirds and the tree creeper flinching up the trunks of trees. He saw the blue tits flicking between branches, the white flash of the jay's rump as it flew away, the pigeons sitting calmly separate, together in a tree. He was the fierce, sweet-voiced robin. He saw the sparrows. [page 51]

If you're wondering why the paragraph above has a seemingly endless inventory of flora and fauna, it's because The Quickening Maze centers on John Clare, the great nature poet who the English sometimes refer to as the "peasant poet." Set in 1837, The Quickening Maze recounts Clare's stay in a mental institution called High Beach. The institution is run by Matthew Allen, together with his family. We get to read how Clare, in his madness, can't seem to tell reality from fiction. One moment he's Lord Byron; the next, he's Robinson Crusoe. We see how this great poet spirals into madness at the book's closing pages.

John Clare, the peasant poet

Foulds's novel is much about Clare as Matthew Allen, his wife, and his children. Allen's wife, Eliza, is unhappy and dreams of better things for herself. Eliza, one of his younger children, becomes enamored with another poet, Alfred Tennyson, whose brother has just been confined to High Beach. Apparently, having two poets in the institution is big news for the Allens, even though one has gone mad and the other is just a guest accompanying his brother.

One of the things that struck me as I was reading this novel is how some people look down on the poetry of John Clare. Yes, he did write about woodland creatures. And yes, he did touch on mundane topics such as the changing of the seasons, the earth, and indigenous fauna. But does one's choice of a theme in poetry impact the poet's popularity. Unfortunately, it somehow seems so. The Allens and pretty much everyone in High Beach have a higher regard for Tennyson's poems than Clare's. Maybe Tennyson was indeed a better poet than Clare. After all, he is more popular and his collections have never been out of print. I'm not big on poetry, so I'm not going to pass judgment on this topic.

The novel also challenges the reader's perception. On the sections of the book that are about John Clare, one has to be quick to discern whether what you're reading is in fact truth or all part of the madness that is happening in Clare's mind. Sometimes, Foulds offers no distinction and leaves it on the hands of the reader. This technique, I believe, is brilliant.

Despite the novel's tranquil mood, The Quickening Maze remains an enjoyable novel. It's something that you take your time reading. If you're after a thick plot, then you might as well skip this one. But if you're after beautiful prose, intense characterizations, and a rich setting, I'm sure you'll regard this novel as one of the best you've read.

Read this book if:
  1. You're into poetry.
  2. You've always wondered if you're going mad.
  3. You'll read anything that's Booker shortlisted.