The House on Clewe Street – Mary Lavin
To read 242 pages of a book and then abandon it because of a lack of interest can breed resentment (especially if, as in this case, the print is small and the line spacing tight). Why did I waste my time? Of course, to keep me going for so long I was experiencing some degree of pleasure. The writing was nice, the characters were well-drawn, scenes had life. The pace was leisurely, but I can accept that if things seem to be evolving. It was okay for Aunt Theresa to always be a tyrant, but the novel’s main character was Theodore, and as he grew up his development was occurring with glacial slowness. More and more Lavin’s choices as to how to expend words began to strike me as misguided. For a good deal of the beginning of the novel Theodore’s grandfather is the main character; it’s his mind we’re in. After the birth of Theodore he’s alive, he’s present in the house on Clewe Street, and I wanted to know how he was getting along, what he was thinking. But he’s totally absent from the pages; even his death occurs offstage. Yet his funeral (and a farcical race to get to the cemetery ahead of a competing burial) takes up thirty pages. There are many examples of Lavin inflating inconsequential events while letting vital issues idle away or die out completely. Theodore’s predicament should be paramount; when he’s in his mid-teens he gets interested in the maid, and big changes were in the offing. But by that time I had lost confidence in the author. The point at which I called it quits was when some lady visitors are standing in the doorway in a dither about how to dispose of their scarves and hats and gloves. Lavin apparently found this scene so funny she couldn’t stop writing about it.
The Voyage of the Beagle – Charles Darwin
In 1831 twenty-two-year-old Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle in Plymouth, England and set out on a journey that would circumnavigate the world. He later cited the five year trip as the most important event of his life, one that would determine his entire career. I had owned this book for many years but didn’t attempt to read it because I thought it would be about matters of concern to a naturalist. Of course, it is, but only to a certain extent; though I found the sections about animals on land and in the air and sea interesting, those devoted to insects and plants and land formations were less engaging (and sometimes incomprehensible). Still, I was impressed by Darwin’s knowledge; I felt I was in the presence of a great mind. That I read all 400+ pages of this journal can be attributed to two factors. One is the excellence of the writing, which, besides having an efficient clarity, succeeded in capturing the personality of a young man full of enthusiasm and curiosity. The other is that Darwin gives much attention to his fellow human beings and how they lived in various environments. He doesn’t just observe and report; he thinks about what he sees and experiences and gives his opinions (notable is his abhorrence for the slavery prevalent in Brazil). Almost all the journal entries are about his time on land (he meets the Beagle at appointed ports). Darwin had many adventures, and in no way was he coddled; he roughed it, mostly on foot or horseback, and only someone with a strong constitution and mental toughness could have endured the hardships and dangers he encountered. Though the book has elements of an adventure story, on a deeper level it presents the vastness of life in all its myriad and mysterious forms. Every creature strives to survive on this earth. A “lowly” insect needs food, and it’s equipped with the means to get it; it can kill, it can defend itself; it also needs to procreate. In these respects man shares a commonality with a dung beetle. Some people that Darwin encounters (such as the residents of Tierra del Fuego) live in such a brutal environment and in such a degraded condition that he’s moved to speculate about what pleasure they can derive out of life. As for his theory of evolution, it isn’t developed on these pages; yet, in giving advice to someone considering a trip such as the one he took, he writes, “No doubt it is a high satisfaction to behold various countries and the many races of mankind, but the pleasures gained at the time do not counterbalance the evils. It is necessary to look forward to a harvest, however distant that may be, when some fruit will be reaped, some good effected.” This is the journal of a naturalist whose scientific side was combined with an enlivening humanness, and who just happened to have the artfulness to produce a classic of its kind. *
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion – V. S. Naipaul
I tend to like odd characters and situations, but this novella is odd in a way that fostered incredulity and boredom. Mr. Stone came across as inhuman, and his plan for his company to aid retirees with a program called the Knights Companion was too quirky a basis to build a plot around. Add to that an inexplicable marriage and an overly-imaginative PR man named Whymper, and I felt I was in a murky alternate universe populated by people who act without believable motivations. I groped to the halfway point before putting this novel aside. You have to wonder about the vagaries of creativity when you consider that three years previously Naipaul had written the wonderful A House for Mr. Biswas. Also a cause for speculation is his choice of the name Whymper for the PR man. Surely he knew that the words “whimper” and “why” would immediately come to the reader’s mind. Since those words have no relation to the character (who’s emphatic and upbeat), what point is Naipaul trying to make (if any)?