On the Shelf: Coming Up for Air by George Orwell

This week I’ll be discussing the novel Coming Up for Air by George Orwell

My Rating: 4.5 stars

Goodreads | Amazon

SummaryGeorge Bowling, the hero of this comic novel, is a middle-aged insurance salesman who lives in an average English suburban row house with a wife and two children. One day, after winning some money from a bet, he goes back to the village where he grew up, to fish for carp in a pool he remembers from thirty years before. The pool, alas, is gone, the village has changed beyond recognition, and the principal event of his holiday is an accidental bombing by the RAF.

My Thoughts:

Whenever I encounter George Orwell, my immediate reaction is almost always a groan.  He doesn’t write happy stories and, whenever I am assigned his work, I can’t shake the dread as I open to the first page.  Every time, though, I’m blown away at how my assumptions are completely wrong.  No, Orwell isn’t a happy writer, but DANG.  That man can write!

This was my second time through Coming Up For Air.  We first crossed paths in one of my literature classes while studying abroad.  It’s one of Orwell’s lesser known novels–paling in the popularity of 1984 and Animal Farm.  I, however, have come to the conclusion that it’s my favorite.

The book, as you can see in the summary, centers around George Bowling–a mediocre man with a mediocre life.  The plot is simple: he’s deeply unhappy, reminisces about his childhood, and eventually decides to go back and revisit his home town.  To his shock, his hometown is unrecognizable.  He returns home and life continues.  End of story.

What get’s me about the narrative, however, is that Orwell perfectly captures the essence of nostalgia.  I’ve been told that we as humans are the most nostalgic during periods of incredible change–personal or social.  Orwell sets his story at the cusp of World War II–just before Great Britain enters the fighting.  Everything in society, in this moment, is changing.  George, a veteran of World War I, is painfully aware of this.  He knows exactly what is coming and what it will do to the world.  Nothing will ever be the same.

Orwell puts words to the deep longings we all have for something that never existed.  Every time he begins reminiscing of his childhood, George makes a statement assuring that what he remembers isn’t the whole of it.  He tells us that, in his memory, it’s always summer.  He knows this isn’t the case, but he remembers it anyway.

The most heartbreaking part of the novel is that even though he is painfully aware that he over-idealizes his childhood, George still convinces himself that he can go back.  And go back he does.  Or, at least, he tries.  He visits all his old haunts–his father’s shop, the old church, his favorite fishing holes.  And none of it is the same.  All has been altered and no one recognizes him.

It’s a bleak novel, but a wonderful one.  My timing on re-reading was perfect.  I’m in an enormous transition stage at the moment and while looking at everything that is changing, it’s important to remember not to idealize the past or long for things I never actually had.

Favorite Quote:

“The past is a curious thing. It’s with you all the time. I suppose an hour never passes without your thinking of things that happened ten or twenty years ago, and yet most of the time it’s got no reality, it’s just a set of facts that you’ve learned, like a lot of stuff in a history book. Then some chance sight or sound or smell, especially smell, sets you going, and the past doesn’t merely come back to you, you’re actually IN the past. It was like that at this moment.”

More book-related news…

Every summer, I listen to the Lord of the Rings trilogy on audiobook.  When you do manual labor all day, it really helps pass the time.  I started Fellowship of the Ring yesterday and, believe it or not, am already halfway through the book!  (This is what happens when you work all the time.)

I’m breaking ground in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  I have yet to breach the fifty page mark, so may not get to discussing it by next week.  I’ll get to it eventually!

Come back next Tuesday for another book discussion!  Before that, though, I’d LOVE to get some feedback for this feature.  Yes, it’s the first week, but I want to find a format that works best for the enjoyment of all.  What aspects do you like?  What would you change?  Any other suggestions?

Thanks for reading!

On the Shelf

With three literature classes, life these days is a never-ending stream of new books.  Here’s what I’ve been reading for class lately!

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

I’m reading this for my senior seminar.  It’s a biographical novel based on the life of Nat Turner, a slave condemned for leading an insurrection against his white owners in 1938 Virginia.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Styron imagines and explores the psychology of slavery and oppression.  Writing in the late 1960’s at the time of the Civil Rights and Black Power movement, he ties the cultural ideas of Nat’s time with the issues of the day.  Although it’s not something I’d read on my own, I’m enjoying getting to know Nat’s mind and delving deep into Styron’s complicated argument.

The Rape of Lucrece by William Shakespeare

In this long poem, Shakespeare takes on the classical myth of Lucrece, a chaste wife who is violently raped by Sextus Tarquin in ancient Rome.  In it, he delves deep into the minds of his characters, exploring the psychology of rape and its deeply rooted consequences.  It’s an extremely disturbing text, especially since so much of the mindsets are still so prevalent in rape culture today.  Although it left me extremely unsettled, I found myself enraptured in Shakespeare’s words and deeply moved.

Here’s a clip of an actress performing a musical rendering of the text:

The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capelanus

Commissioned by Marie, the Countess of Champagne in the late 12th Century, this is one of the most important texts in the Courtly Love tradition.  It’s written as a treatus addressed to a young man named Walter.  Cappelanus writes out the rules and guidelines of Courtly Love.  It’s a strange text, filled with discourses, rules, and statements that are shocking to readers today.  Honestly, this text was really hard to get through.  Although entertaining at points and definitely disturbing, it was really boring.

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn

I’ve been sneaking chapters of this book in my free time.  I have to write a paper on it for my senior seminar in a few weeks.  Inspired by Dickinson’s letters and poetry, Charyn imagines the life of the beloved poet.  The novel begins with young Emily studying at Holyoke seminary and follows her life and development of writing.  What’s interesting about this book is that writing isn’t the emphasis–Charyn seems much more concerned with events in Emily’s life and how they impact her consciousness.  I’m not sure what I’ll say in my paper, but I do know that I adore this book so far.  Unlike so much assigned reading, it feels like reading for pleasure.  I’m about halfway through and find it utterly delightful.

On the Shelf

What better way to spend Winter Break than by reading?  I haven’t been doing a lot of it, in light of the fact that I’m taking three literature classes next semester and don’t want to overdo it.  However, I’ve been enjoying some fun, light reads!

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

This book has been on my radar for a LONG time.  It didn’t disappoint.  Rowell creates a marvellous coming-of-age story about Cath, a fandom-obsessed introvert transitioning to college.  I related to Cath on so many levels.  Although my own fan-fiction efforts (culminating in an unfinished novel-length fic and several short one-shots) died out after a few years, I’ve been knee-deep in fandom culture since I was fourteen.  Fangirl is your typical teen-lit novel in many ways.  There’s love, family drama, a weird roommate, and lots about what it means to be a writer.  It’s a fast read and a fun one.

Yulin Kuang, a filmmaker and co-creator of the YouTube channel Shipwrecked, filmed a scene from Fangirl, featuring the incredible Mary Kate Wiles.  Definitely check it out!  (And check out her other videos as well–they’re incredible.)

Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon

This is the fourth massive novel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  Honestly, it was my least favorite.  I understand that one of the great things about these books are the depth of historical content, from larger political events to the tiny details of everyday life… but I thought she got carried away.  The first half dragged.  I think Gabaldon spent too much time with Jamie and Claire.  The Bree and Roger bits, for me, were the most compelling.  I would slog through 200 pages of Jamie/Claire story just to get to the twenty pages about Roger.  I think that the story could have been much stronger and more compelling if she had spent more time developing the younger generation.  Because, when major events began happening halfway through the book bringing all the characters together, I found myself not caring.  Why?  Because I wasn’t invested enough in Bree and Roger to actually care.  All in all, although the story is interesting, the character development was misplaced and underdone and the plot needs MAJOR tightening.  Because this book was so disappointing, it’s going to be a while before I work up the desire to finish the series.

Any Anxious Body by Chrissy Kolaya

Since its release last Spring, I’ve wanted to read this collection of poetry.  Chrissy is a professor at my college and I’ve had the opportunity to take several of her classes.  She was my guide in the basic freshman writing class.  A year ago, I had the opportunity to be in her Innovative Creative Writing class.  The class taught me that I don’t want to write creatively for a living (or for pleasure, for that matter), but gave me a deeper appreciation for those who do.  It’s always fun reading the published work of people you know, and I adored Any Anxious Body.  I’m not much of a reader of poetry collections, so I don’t really know what to say beyond the fact that I really enjoyed the work.

Before Midnight by Cameron Dokey

This is a book I will be re-reading all my life.  I’ve had my copy for about six years and have probably read it at least five times since then.  It’s a quick read–I usually breeze through it in a day or so.  It’s simplistic, easy, aimed at a lower reading level.  But, oh, how I adore it.  If you’ve been with me on this blog for a while, you will know that I adore a good Cinderella adaptation. Before Midnight fits the bill.  It’s simplistic, the characters are pure of heart without being overbearing, and centered on the power of wishes and value of love.  Dokey does a masterful job weaving elements of the fairytale with a story of her own–one that is new, fresh, and engaging.  At the end of the book, Dokey talks about the research that went into her retelling.  She discovered several old versions of the story where Cinderella’s didn’t die, but merely dropped from the story, submissive to the stepmother.  Dokey says, “If Cinderella’s father is still alive, but takes no action to save or protect her, what mights this say about both him and the woman to whom we are all accustomed to assigning the role of the bad guy?  What would happen if I put a father back into the story?”  Other questions I’m sure Dokey asked regarding her adaptation are: What if political intrigue factored into the plot?  What if the stepmother wasn’t cruel?  What if Cinderella’s new family learned to love her?

~*~

Next time I do one of these posts, I’ll be knee deep in academia.  Assigned reading, here I come.

On the Shelf

I come bearing another edition of On the Shelf, a feature where I talk about the books I’m currently reading or have recently finished.

Let’s start with academics.

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

This Victorian bestseller, along with Braddon’s other famous novel, Aurora Floyd, established her as the main rival of the master of the sensational novel, Wilkie Collins. A protest against the passive, insipid 19th-century heroine, Lady Audley was described by one critic of the time as “high-strung, full of passion, purpose, and movement.” Her crime (the secret of the title) is shown to threaten the apparently respectable middle-class world of Victorian England. (summary via Goodreads)

We finished discussing Braddon’s popular novel in my Victorian Lit class this week.  The story is thrilling, filled with masked identities, bigamy, and hidden crime.  It’s a fast-paced story for its time and has some fantastic characters–the energetic Alicia, passionate Clara, and lazy Robert.  The title character is a gorgeous mastermind who will stop at nothing in her pursuit of a better life.  Braddon presents a complex argument regarding law, crime, and gender.  Is it a feminist novel?  It easily could be.  You’ll have to read it for yourself to find out!

The one downside of this novel is that Braddon isn’t particularly skilled at writing prose.  She tends to use the same words over and over again, which gets dull.  However, my favorite sentence in the book is probably this one:

The windows winked and the flight of stone steps glared in the sunlight, the prim garden walks were so freshly gravelled that they gave a sandy, gingery aspect to the place, reminding one unpleasantly of read hair.

Sorry, redheads.  Braddon doesn’t seem to like you very much.

The Evermen Saga by James Maxwell

Remember the other day when I gushed about the pain of a wonderful first read?  I was talking about this series.  (The cover is pretty awful, isn’t it?  I’m thankful I read the books on my Kindle to avoid staring at the photoshopped monstrosity.)

In my last installment of this feature, I was in the middle of the first novel of the series.  This past week, I finished the fourth. You’re probably thinking, “Woah, Amelia.  You’re in your senior year of college and managed to finish four 500 page fantasy novels within a few short weeks?  Are you insane?”

Answer: Kind of.

I’d label it weakness, not insanity.  When I enter a well-crafted world and become attached to its inhabitants, there’s no stopping me.  I become a rabid book breather and do not stop until I hit the end.

The thing about Maxwell’s series is that, like many fantasy novels, they aren’t literary.  The characters aren’t super original and there are gaping plot holes.  Too many convenient things happen for it to be completely believable.  But the series is FUN!  As far as pleasure reads go, it’s top-notch.  The world was so compelling that all its faults are forgotten.  I ‘d go so far as saying I adore the book’s universe.  The Tingarian Empire is diverse, historic, and well-planned.  The magic in the series, based on runic lore fueled by a deadly magical liquid called essence, is compelling and fantastic.

What I loved about the series is that there is never a dull moment.  The pacing is quick, bringing us from one battle to the next.  Yes, the characters aren’t super original, but they won my heart.  I found myself rooting for them as they faced incredible odds.  Each book was more dynamic than the next, and the finale in the fourth book was splendid.

A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon

In this epic new work, the award-winning Kenyon creates an alternate 19th century with two warring continents on an alternate earth: the scientific Anglica (England) and magical Bharata (India). Emboldened by her grandfather’s final whispered secret of a magical lotus, Tori Harding, a young Victorian woman and aspiring botanist, must journey to Bharata, with its magics, intrigues and ghosts, to claim her fate. There she will face a choice between two suitors and two irreconcilable realms.

In a magic-infused world of silver tigers, demon birds and enduring gods, as a great native mutiny sweeps up the continent, Tori will find the thing she most desires, less perfect than she had hoped and stranger than she could have dreamed.  (Summary via Goodreads)

I found this book via Kindle’s Daily Deal option.  It’s my gym read and, so far, has succeeded in taking my mind of the pain of the elliptical machine.  I’m not overly invested in the characters yet and still don’t know how I feel about the story.  But the world is intriguing.  I love the idea of an alternate Victorian period where England represents cold, hard science and India embodies magic and mystery.   I’m excited to see where it goes!

What’s next?

Starting this weekend, I’ll be delving into the massive Victorian chunker, The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope.  I’m also hoping to start The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler.

What have you been reading lately?