The Invention of Morel – Adolfo Bioy Casares

the invention of morel

This is one of those rare occasions in which I manage to read something for a bookish blogging community event AND write about it. Said event is Spanish Lit Month 2015, organized by Richard and Stu. The timing is just perfect, as I’d been meaning to read this book. Also long story short, I have 2 copies of it (more pressure!). So when it was mentioned as a group read in their blogs I knew I had to read it then.

The Invention of Morel went to my to-read list right after I finished reading Fictions by Borges (which I loved). And this NYRB Classics version includes prologue by Borges. Apparently Adolfo Bioy and Borges have worked together a few times and Borges has only sung high praises for his friend.

The book is very short in just 103 pages, so even for a slow reader like me it felt like a pretty quick read. It is set on a fictional island, to which a man self-exiled himself. There are a museum and a chapel on top of a hill in the middle of the island – that are empty at first, but not long after he starts seeing people there. Most important among the people is this woman called Faustine, often seen staring into the sea, who the man falls in love with. Who are these people and what are they doing on the island? (I will say no more.)

I have not read a lot of South American literature, but from the few that I read, I seem to find a common theme of obsession with a female figure. In The Invention of Morel, our main character is obsessed with the image of Faustine. (It is said that the book is inspired by Bioy Casares’s own fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks. In fact the woman on the cover looks very similar with Louise Brooks.) It reminded me a bit of Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whore. In both books the men are obsessed about the image of their women, not the women themselves because they never really get to know them, but the image that they build.

I like that the book comes with a few illustrations, for example:

invention of morel illustration
Map of the island

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – I quite enjoyed reading the book. There are definitely similarities in style with Borges’s work. The unusual storyline means it might make a good movie (a movie has been made in the 70s called Morel’s Invention). Wouldn’t mind watching the movie sometime.

 

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

house of mirth

I was quite surprised with how much I loved The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I read this book as one of the recommended reads by my Penguin’s online writing class. And as I just came back from New York, I was intrigued by the dynamics of New York society in the early 1900s. I usually have little empathy for stories about high class society and their non-problems, but the story of Miss Lily Bart struck a chord in me. I believe her struggles to fit into a class that she can’t afford are still relevant in today’s society. Perhaps not as much and not as dramatic as back in 1900s New York, but especially in Asian society I find many of the aspects of the book to ring true.

The book is divided into two sections. The first one is on the slow side, as a lot of characters and the world are introduced. But the second book flew for me, and I read it quickly. By the time I closed the last chapter I was breathless and completely exhausted. I loved it. I loved it so much more than Pride and Prejudice. I have no idea why P&P should be the more famous of the two. Well, I have an inkling why. The House of Mirth was ruthless in its portrayal of the society and brutally honest. P&P feels like fairy tale compared to The House of Mirth. After reading this book, I am now completely besotted with Edith Wharton and will read more of her books.

From this section on I will talk more in depth about the book, so there could be spoilers. You’ve been warned!

house of mirth

Back to the comparison with Pride and Prejudice, both novels work on the same premise of society framework, that a woman must marry to survive, as in that period she has no other means to sustain herself. This especially seems almost the harsher for the middle class women, as the poor would just have to work, but the middle class women would be idle and concentrate all their time and effort to catching men with comparable or higher wealth and status.

I find it fascinating that Edith Wharton married young and ended unhappy while her character in The House of Mirth does the opposite and is able to avoid the trap of marriage (though it also does not end well for her). On the opposite end, Jane Austen never married, while her character finds her prince charming and fairy tale ending. Both women wrote novels as escapism but from the opposite spectrum. It just happens that Edith Wharton’s realism worked much better for me, and I found it more meaningful.

I read various people’s opinions about Selden and how they wished him to be less passive, but I disagree. This is a story of Lily Bart, and to be satisfying to the readers, SHE has to take actions, and SHE has to take her fate in her own hands. She should NOT be rescued by some prince charming (I’m very glad that the book did not go in this direction). In my opinion, Selden has done enough for someone in his position, and I thought his reactions and behaviors very realistic.

The ending did shock me. I guess we readers had to see it coming, but I didn’t want to believe it until it happened. Lily’s downfall is so believable that there seems to be no hope, while she passes all possible turning points. It’s funny that knowing the premise, you’d think there aren’t that many possible ways the story could turn, but I could not guess where it was going throughout the book.

The plotting in this book I think is nothing short of amazing, and the world building incredible. Wharton makes us understand the rules of the world this story is set in, and the stakes her characters are up against.

So I’m totally in camp Edith Wharton now. I can’t wait to go read The Age of Innocence.

Mee’s rating: 5/5As odd as it sounds, this early 20th century novel set in New York revolving around high class society has touched me like no other novels from that time period had. Miles better than Pride and Prejudice.

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

 

Tenth of December – George Saunders

tenth of december

Tenth of December and George Saunders seem to be highly acclaimed everywhere. I had not heard of George Saunders until the appearance of Tenth of December (which felt like it was just published, but apparently it was first published 2 years ago in 2013), but upon reading it I found out that he had enjoyed some literary success prior to this book. His short stories have been picked up by The New Yorker many times over. And in fact, most of the short stories collected in this book are available in The New Yorker.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I took me a while to warm to his style. I did not read the stories in the book in order (there are 10 in total), but I read the first story first: Victory Lap. Going in I was completely disoriented and did not know what’s going on. After pages, I had to go browse the internet to get a general idea of what the story was about. Three characters: a girl, a man in a van who intends to kidnap the girl, and a neighbour boy who knows the girl and will be the hero by saving her. The story jumps from inside one character’s head to another. I wasn’t completely foreign to this style after reading Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, but to have that style in a short story was exhausting to read. I’d be really surprised if average readers enjoy this story, it seems to be intended for more avid readers, and probably one that has read Saunder’s stories in the past.

The second one that I read was The Semplica-Girl Diaries, which is probably one of his most famous stories, and can be read in The New Yorker. I liked this one, and went so far as to persuade my short story club to read this story for our next meetup (We did and they all liked it – though there were differences about how we interpret/read the story). Again it took me a while to warm up to the style. The story is written in diary format, and in a very colloquial style, as if by someone who really jots down stuff in his diary in a rush manner thinking that nobody would see it ever. As the story is one of the longer ones, you have time to get into it, compared to Victory Lap for example.

To be honest by this point I started to wonder if I would finish the book at all. I decided to jump to the title story, Tenth of December, which is the last story in the collection. There are 2 characters: a sick man who intends to commit suicide by freezing himself to death in the wood, and a boy who happens to explore the same wood at the same time. The narration jumps from one character’s head to another, ala Victory Lap, which was now half as confusing than when I first read the first story. This one was alright, but not my favorite.

Luckily I found my favorite story next called Escape from Spiderhead. This is the story that I expected George Saunders to write: a slightly futuristic world or an alternate world that is exactly like ours, but with a twist. This story is set in a kind of laboratory, where they do experiments on people who’ve been convicted for some crimes and would rather be in the lab and participating in experiments, than being in normal prison.

I seemed to have read all the meaty ones first, because after that I flew through the rest, going at them in order. Sticks is tiny, a few pages long on the oddities of a father. Puppy delves into two mothers and their different style of raising a family. Exhortation is a long letter from an employer to an employee, urging him to do something that he’s reluctant to. Al Roosten is a reminiscence of Victory Lap and Tenth of December, in which the main character struggles to do the right thing. Home explores the experience of a soldier who just comes back from duty. In My Chivalric Fiasco chivalry is questioned, whether doing the right thing is always the best for everyone.

By the end of the book I realized the colloquial style of writing is really George Saunder’s voice, and not of any specific story, as it permeates in ALL stories. It fascinates me that this kind of writing style has won literary prizes, as it does not seem “literary” in its conventional meaning. That just goes to show how there’s no rule for writing style and it can go in all different ways.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5 – I like some stories more than others. The style took a while to get into (it’s my first George Saunders). Only after reading 3-4 stories (10 stories in total in the book), it started to get much easier to get into a story and I enjoyed reading it more. But at the end of the book I’m still not totally convinced by the choice of style and language. Mmm.

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