The best novels I read this year are: Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald, The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa, The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen, The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar, Tumbledown by Robert Boswell, and The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.
Young Harold Transome returns to England from the colonies with a self-made fortune, then scandalizes his district by running for Parliament as a Radical. In this elaborately plotted and entertaining novel first published in 1866, George Eliot contrasts the opportunism of Transome with the true radicalism of Felix Holt, who fights a lonely battle to educate the working class.
However, while Transome and Holt are the movers of the action, it is the women who are the novel’s soul. Like working people, women of all classes are damaged by poor education and thwarted by social limitations. Mrs. Transome, Harold’s mother, is handsome, imperious, and weighed down with a secret. Until the moment of Harold’s return, she has found some satisfaction in running the family’s estate, but Harold immediately takes over all decision making and sets his mother aside in a little drawing room with new clothes and new decorations‒ chosen by him.
Felix Holt’s mother is a comic version of Mrs. Transome. Mrs. Holt has earned her living by making and selling patent medicines. Then Felix returns and insists that the medicines do more harm than good. Thus he too denies his mother her life’s activity.
The novel’s other central character, however, Esther Lyons, has the enormous advantage of being young and beautiful. She has not yet settled on her destiny‒ which, for an Englishwoman of her era means choosing a husband. The choice for the romantic, undereducated, and overrefined Esther is between Felix Holt’s hard life among the lower classes and Harold Transome’s wealth.
Like Mrs. Transome, Esther has a secret, but Esther’s secret elevates her. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel is how this good-humored but frivolous young woman grows serious and thoughtful as she is given opportunity and experience. Late in the novel, she even speaks in a public courtroom to testify in favor of Felix, who has been falsely accused of rioting during the election. Felix Holt has many meandering, exotic pleasures, including the convoluted plot, the wonderful minor characters, and the splendid descriptions of England in the 1830’s.
It is a novel whose politics downplay the value of strikes and public demonstrations. The hero Felix Holt is all about education, not direct action, but it still repays the reading with insights that expand our understanding of our own scattered and shattered era.
This review by Meredith Sue Willis first appeared in the Ethical Culture Review of Books.
Shelley Ettinger’s Very First Novel! is now available and getting superb reviews! Shelley Ettinger, co-founder of Politerature.com, has just had her first novel published by Hamilton Stone Editions. It is getting fantastic reviews! For example, Library Journal says:
Other comments include:
Vera’s Will is a beautifully written family saga with a twist that tells the parallel stories of a woman and her granddaughter who are both lesbian. Their intersecting stories, one that begins a hundred years ago in Czarist Russia and the other that begins in suburban America, re-create in vivid detail their historical epochs. One is a story of self-sacrifice, the other is a story of liberation; the author’s great gift is to show us how they intertwine. Michael Nava, author of The City of Palaces
Vera’s Will is a novel of tremendous insight, and tremendous import. Shelley Ettinger moves expertly between two compelling voices, between the recent and distant past, between the personal and political, writing with clarity and heart. Too many stories are lost to history, too many voices are silenced, often the stories and voices we need most. Vera’s Will is not only a deeply moving book, but a gift, and a kind of rescue. Justin Torres, author of We the Animals
Vera’s Will spans the twentieth century and three generations, taking us from Russian pogroms to immigrant struggles, from family-ravaging homophobia to GLBT resistance. Ettinger’s captivating story is rich with social and cultural detail, alive with generously-drawn characters, and unflinching in its political passion. Ellen Meeropol, author of On Hurricane Island
Great article about how the FBI surveilled (and influenced) Black writers from 1919 to 1972. I’ll bet it goes beyond ’72. Am I cynical or have I just been paying attention?
This just goes to show how political writers (literary works) are. Even the ones who don’t think they are: because to not engage with politics is a vote for how things are.
In light of this article, should writers seek out FBI personnel to critique their manuscripts? Retired FBI people could set themselves up a little critique business: writers send in their manuscripts to be assessed for political potency. The highest praise of a manuscript would be: “Likely to start revolution.” The lowest: “The government (or perhaps more accurately, the 1%) has nothing to worry about.”
Excerpt from the article, but recommend the whole thing:
… said Maxwell. “I knew Hoover was especially impressed and worried by the busy crossroads of black protest, leftwing politics, and literary potential. But I was surprised to learn that the FBI had read, monitored, and ‘filed’ nearly half of the nationally prominent African American authors working from 1919 (Hoover’s first year at the Bureau, and the first year of the Harlem Renaissance) to 1972 (the year of Hoover’s death and the peak of the nationalist Black Arts movement). In this, I realized, the FBI had outdone most every other major institution of US literary study, only fitfully concerned with black writing.”
Maxwell’s book about his discovery, FB Eyes: How J Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, is out on 18 February from Princeton University Press. It argues that the FBI’s attention was fueled by Hoover’s “personal fascination with black culture”, that “the FBI is perhaps the most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African American literature”, and that “African American literature is characterised by a deep awareness of FBI ghostreading”.
Princeton said that while it is well known that Hoover was hostile to Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, Maxwell’s forthcoming book is the first exposé of “the extent to which the FBI monitored and influenced African American writing” between 1919 and 1972.
… The academic told the Guardian that he believes the FBI monitoring stems from the fact that “from the beginning of his tenure at the FBI … Hoover was exercised by what he saw as an emerging alliance between black literacy and black radicalism”.
Richard Wright’s ditty is wonderful:
“every place I look, Lord / I find FB eyes / I’m getting sick and tired of gover’ment spies”
It seems like Amazon.com is always in the news. Is Amazon the AntiChrist? What is it doing today to/for writers and small publishers?
For a long time, I’ve been putting a note on my newsletter for readers and writers suggesting alternative places to buy books (the unionized Powell’s for example, and all the local brick-and-mortar book stores).
A while back, Jonathan Greene, publisher of Gnomon Books, made the point that, on balance, Amazon has done more positive than negative for small presses. On her blog “ReadWriteRed,” Shelley Ettinger has several posts offering thoughts on monopolies and Mom-‘n-Pop books stores from a left perspective: See http://readwritered.blogspot.com/2009/11/neither-mom-nor-pop-nor-monopoly.html and http://readwritered.blogspot.com/2009/11/sorry-mom-pop.html. She also talks about the essential selfishness of many of the Big Writers , with more here.
And finally– only because it’s the most recent post chronologically– I have a post about why International Octopus is what you get under our politico-economic system, but at least Amazon carries my books.
Let us know what you think.
Regretfully, I must demur from the general adoration of the short fiction of George Saunders. I try and I try, I read story after story, collection after collection, and what I find every time is a fiction of bleakness, hopelessness, and above all cynicism. Sure he knows there’s such a thing as social classes, sure he rues inequality, poverty, etc., but really, is that such a huge deal, am I supposed to be so impressed with what is after all a minimal accomplishment, acknowledging the ills of this so very ill society? These ills are obvious to one and all. If there is to be a fiction that delves deep down into them, rubs the ugly all over itself, the delve alone does not justify the fiction.
The fiction must by my lights redeem its own ugliness somehow, whether with a streak of hope even if subtle or a nod toward struggle or a kick in the reader’s teeth so hard it makes the reader get off her/his ass and do something about it all. Without any of this–and Tenth of December is indeed wholly without any of this–writer and reader merely wallow together. Well this is what so much contemporary fiction is all about, and I am just unmoved by some slight extra cleverness in the art of the wallow on Saunders’ part. The cleverness grates by the time we’re a couple stories in, and by the way does no one else find an ever heightening sameness to all the stories, a one-note bag of tricks and faux-funny tics to the cleverness, a dare I say juvenile look-at-me-Ma quality? All of which constitutes a fiction that strikes me as exceedingly cynical and pointless.
OK, I’ve tried and I’ve tried, but I won’t be fooled again.