Monthly Archives: April 2012

Review: Brave New World

(This contains spoilers; none of them are earth-shattering enough to ruin the book to if you haven’t read it before, but I still thought you ought to know.)

I have just finished rereading Brave New World, my first visit back to Aldous Huxley’s work since I attempted it in high school. I remembered generalities about the novel; I also remembered that I didn’t understand many of the implications of the future society Huxley envisioned. It’s a simple enough plot, but with many philosophical implications that hit uncomfortably close to home — in fact, many critics at the time of its original publishing (1931) gave it very disparaging reviews, partially because they felt it was inappropriate, partially (in my opinion) because it frightened them. Brave New World was widely denounced in the 1930s and was banned in various places around the world throughout the 20th century. Presently, however, it is very highly regarded and even holds the #5 position on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list.

Huxley begins his novel in the year 632 A.F. — 2540 in our calendar — with a tour through a Hatchery and Conditioning Center in London. The reader is introduced to the notion of a society based not on family units, but rather social castes that are entirely predetermined for each person before birth (I do not use the word individual, because the society in Brave New World firmly discourages the idea of the individual). Babies are born not of women, but of test tubes and chemicals. Scientists determine every feature of each fetus. When “decanted,” babies are raised in enormous nurseries where they have moral codes and societal prejudices taught to them throughout their childhood.

The entire society is happy, mechanically so. There is over-stimulation at every turn, personal helicopters, amusing diversions, but no greatness. People are firmly pigeon-holed as Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, or Epsilons. There is no religion other than a basic appreciation for science and technology, and the worship of Henry Ford: or, as the people call him, “Our Ford.” Promiscuity is strongly encouraged by the state; no whim should go unfulfilled. People are hopelessly self-indulgent, but this is all as it should be, according to the government whose sole concern is the citizens’ all-abiding happiness. The main characters are all the people who are for one reason or another, slightly different from the norm. Lenina Crowne, though she has had many lovers, prefers to date one man at a time, and often develops strong feelings for her partners while in these monogamous relationships. At the beginning of the novel, she is embarking on a trip with Bernard Marx. Bernard Marx is slightly smaller than the average Alpha, holds unorthodox views about the ideals spouted in society, and is unhappy with the World State. Helmholtz Watson is Bernard’s friend, also dissatisfied with the World State, and feels a disconnect from his peers due to his secret desire to channel his talent with writing towards something more meaningful than government propaganda.

The beginning of the novel is fairly slow, with a lot of description of the mechanics and philosophy of the new society under the World State. We meet not only the aforementioned characters, but also the Director of Hatcheries as well as some other higher-ups in the bureaucracy. Not much happens by way of plot until Lenina and Bernard cement their plan to take a trip to New Mexico to see the “savages.” The impending drama is foreshadowed when Bernard hears an interesting story  from the Director about a trip he took to the reservation many years ago: a trip during which his lover at the time went missing. Bernard and Lenina’s trip begins innocently enough, though the interactions between the couple become strained as each confronts the conflicting priorities of the other. It was interesting to read about some various pueblos in New Mexico that I had actually visited, though odd to hear them discussed in such a derogatory manner (to be fair, political correctness was not exactly a forte in the 1930s).

In the Native American pueblo of Malpais — use your Spanish to consider the not-so-subtle name given the impoverished settlement — Bernard and Lenina make a startling discovery. After watching a religious ceremony, the pair come across a “savage” with fair hair, blue eyes, and light skin. The young man’s name is John, and after hearing his personal back story, Bernard quickly deduces that John is the natural child of the Director and his long-lost lover. Bernard sees an opportunity to improve his societal standing, and hatches a plan to take the John and his formerly civilized, but now grotesquely obese and filthy mother Linda back to London. John has very little experience with the world outside of the reservation, save for his much-loved book of Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare’s words have informed John’s world view, as well as his ideals and emotional expressiveness. (Sidenote — it is from Shakespeare, specifically The Tempest, that the title of the novel is derived: “O wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! / That has such people in’t!” Of course, this sentiment is cruelly sardonic in the society John experiences in London.)

John’s arrival in London is a huge sensation, and both Bernard and Lenina become something of celebrities overnight. Bernard’s fame and importance go to his head, and he seems to forget his former vitriolic feelings toward his peers. He parades John around like a prize exhibit, giving no regard to John’s feelings. He also introduces John to Helmholtz, then immediately regrets and resents it when they strike up a friendship that is stronger than the relationship he has with either man. John shares Shakespeare with Helmholtz, bonding them and giving Helmholtz an ideal against which to judge his own writing, which he had already felt was drivel.

Lenina, meanwhile, finds herself unsatisfied by her string of new lovers, and harbors a secret depth of affection for John, a.k.a. “Mr. Savage.” All of her attempts to woo him and seduce him are rebuffed, however, despite the fact that John cares for Lenina and deeply desires her. The disconnect, however, comes from their societal conditioning. Lenina was raised on the merits of casual sex and impermanent relationships. John was raised in a culture that values marriage, and educated by Shakespeare, in which women are either evil whores or possess a virginal purity, with essentially nothing in between.  This disparity in John and Lenina’s expectations and desires comes to a head in a dark scene in which they both confess their wants, only to be violently rebuffed by the other. Their altercation is cut short by a phone call from the hospital; John’s mother is dying. John rushes to be with her in her last moments, leaving a bruised and battered Lenina trying to sort out how things went so wrong.

John’s mother has overdosed on soma, the pleasure-giving pill that keeps the members of society happily compliant. Linda’s death is the final straw for him, made even worse by the hordes of children gleefully watching as part of their early education “death conditioning.” John begins a riot, snatching away the soma ration as it is being handed out by an official and crying out that it’s poison. Helmholtz and Bernard arrive too late for damage control, but leap into the fray on John’s behalf regardless. The three men’s actions earn them a trip to the offices of Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller for Western Europe. Mond speaks to the men about the reasoning behind the societal sacrifices on behalf of institutionalized happiness, and shares his personal copies of banned books with Helmholtz and John. He informs them that Bernard and Helmholtz are to be banished to the islands; a fate, Mond points out, that is really not so bad when you consider that the islands’ other inhabitants are all the other people who were to individual and interesting to be allowed to stay in the society of the World State. John asks to be allowed to leave with his friends, but is told that he must stay in London in order to “continue the experiment” of the so-called savage being introduced to so-called civilization.

John decides to voluntarily exile himself to live as a hermit in a remote lighthouse on the coast of England. He seeks to atone for his perceived sins, and so adopts a routine of self-punishment that draws reporters, draws more reporters, spawns a movie, and, through the movie, makes John’s lighthouse home a tourist destination. The hordes of visiting people infuriate John, as all he wants is solitude. The tourists throw things, goad him to act, and deny him peace. It is not until Lenina comes to visit, however, that John truly snaps. She approaches him and tries to speak with him, but John cannot hear Lenina over the crowd. Even as Lenina reaches out to John, tears rolling down her cheeks, he cannot separate the reality of the woman in front of him from the civilization that has mocked his ideals and way of life, and turned him into a form of entertainment. Enraged, he slashes at her with the whip over and over. When Lenina falls to the ground, John whips himself before returning his attention to her. The crowd, unaccustomed to real emotion — especially not anger or pain — embrace it the only way they know how: with drugs and sex. John participates in the soma-fueled orgy, despite his former revulsion at the peoples’ lifestyle. When John awakes the next morning, he is horrified and disgusted by his actions. There is then a jump in the narration, fast-forwarding to his next wave of visitors; they arrive to find only silence, and John’s corpse swinging slowly on the railing from which he hung himself.

Huxley’s description of the suicide is all the more depressing for its simplicity. There is no anguish, only the people watching John’s feet as they slowly sway back and forth. John’s suicide is indicative of Huxley’s belief that such a society would be essentially inescapable. In 1958, Huxley wrote a follow-up to Brave New World. In Brave New World Revisited, Huxley wrote that the world was becoming like Brave New World much faster than he originally thought. Huxley’s fears — as opposed to those of George Orwell in 1984 — were neatly summed up by Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”

These dystopian works are very much on my recommended reading list, but too much of them can make a reader rather depressed. Do not read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World too close together; not only will it be a major downer, but the similarly bleak futures these authors envisioned will overpower the well-written nuances of each. Of course, Orwell and Bradbury would be horrified at the thought of someone dictating what others should read — so… scratch that. Do as you’d like.

Happy reading!

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Sometimes Even Bookshelves Need Spring Cleaning

This morning, I came across an essay written by Danny Heitman that immediately caught my interest and resonated with me. It begins:

“The other day, as the weather warmed and my thoughts turned to spring cleaning, I took a deep sigh and braced myself to weed my bookshelves for another year. I like that word, weeding, to describe the culling of books no longer wanted from a personal library. It reminds me that books, like an errant patch of clover or a winding strand of jasmine, are wily things with lives all their own. 

We like to think that books line our shelves because we ask them inside, but the simple truth is that they cross our thresholds whether we invite them or not. Books alight under the Christmas tree or beside a birthday cake as presents from people we love. Like a thistle hitching a ride on the household dog, books attach themselves to our palms as we walk through bookshops or rummage sales.”

I cannot say enough how much I love the imagery of my personal library as a garden, with myself as the landscaper. I have mentioned many times that I buy books at an alarming rate, shoving aside framed photos and knickknacks to make more room on my shelves. It is far rarer for me to let books go, even if I know that I probably won’t ever read them again. I will make a half-hearted effort to go through my books every now and then, but the books pulled from my shelves are few and far between. Typically, those books are immediately taken to Bookman’s and traded for new titles.

Heitman’s stance has encouraged me to do a far more thorough job in the near future. I always felt like discarding a book meant I didn’t love it, or was somehow insulting the author, but I think my view may be shifting. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, or even that I don’t appreciate it any more (though that may be true in a very few cases); all it means is that I’ve outgrown it one way or another, and I’m giving it up so that someone else can find it and experience it for themselves. Obviously, I’ll keep and cherish my favorite book “blossoms”, but I shall need to make a concerted effort to clear away the dead or unwanted plants in order to let newer, more beautiful flowers to take root. (Okay, I now seriously have this painting in mind of a book garden — perhaps I’ll try to create it on canvas!)

To read Heitman’s whole essay, which I recommend, click here.

Happy reading!

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Review: The Secret Lives of Dresses

Finally, I kept my promise to myself to read something that was — unlike my last few books — actually happy. Erin McKean’s The Secret Lives of Dresses deals with some tough issues that many readers can relate to, but balances the sad, poignant moments with humor and optimism. The novel begins with Dora (the protagonist) sobbing in her car as she drives through North Carolina to the bedside of her beloved grandmother Mimi, who has suffered a terrible stroke. Dora was orphaned as an infant, so Mimi is all she really has by way of family. Dora is introduced to the reader as a bit of a drifter; not unmotivated or unintelligent by any means, but simply unsure of her path and her passions in life. I’m pretty sure everyone can relate to this at least a little bit. (I know I didn’t truly embrace my passions and my goals in life until I was in college, and I feel like my path is still shifting as I learn and grow in the “real world.”)

When Dora reaches Forsyth she is taken to the hospital by Gabby, a relation of some sort who lives with Mimi. Gabby and Dora are very close, but even Gabby can’t ease the fear that Dora has when she considers losing the last link she has to her deceased parents. Dora quickly settles into a routine in Forsyth, centered on running her grandmother’s vintage clothing shop and visiting Mimi in the hospital. A colorful cast of characters complement Dora’s life, ranging from the exceptionally awesome Maux, Dora’s friend who also works in Mimi’s shop; Conrad, the contractor and architect who seems to be the only person truly able to comfort Dora; to Camille, Dora’s aunt and a perfectly heinous individual. McKean does a phenomenal job painting Camille as the woman in everyone’s family who everyone — whether secretly or openly — can’t stand. Camille is introduced “rolling up to the front door like an ocean liner” and quickly establishes herself as the sort of woman who immediately makes “everyone near her sullen and unresponsive.”  She named her daughter Tyffanee. Worst of all, Camille is planning on taking over Mimi’s and transforming from a vintage boutique into a horrifying tourist trap of a store, selling t-shirts, junk souvenirs, and tacky jewelry. Oh, and she tries to start that process while Mimi is still in a coma. There is no way you can read this novel without having a visceral reaction to Camille and everything she stands for.

The novel is mainly rooted in the present, but has periodic vignettes from Dora’s past. Ranging from her childhood to recent events in her college life, these memories make Dora a much more three-dimensional character as the reader learns about her youth without her parents, her awkward high school years, and her collegiate experiences. One particularly evocative moment centers on a memory when Dora was very young and her teacher had the class draw family portraits. Another child pesters Dora as to why she has no mother and father in her drawing, and my heart ached for the little girl as the teacher publicly labeled her an orphan, without regard for Dora’s own feelings. For me, especially as a teacher thinking about my own students’ often complicated home lives, few other parts of the novel packed quite as much emotional weight as that one scene.

As Dora struggles to cope with the idea that Mimi isn’t going to get better, she discovers not only her deeply buried love for vintage fashion, but also the “Secret Lives” that Mimi had been writing for the items in her store. Unbeknownst to Dora, Mimi had for years been writing stories from the dresses’ point of view about where they had come from, what they had seen, and what type of women had worn them. The stories are lovely, descriptive, and engaging: sometimes funny, occasionally shocking, and always memorable. The customers love the stories, and soon Dora falls under their spell as well, despite her feeling of betrayal about Mimi never having told her about them.

Over the course of the novel, Dora finds that she can no longer put off deciding what to do with her life. It’s a scary decision, and McKean writes it in such a way that I truly sympathized with Dora and related to all her fears and hopes. I think every reader can also relate to the feeling of being torn between one thing that you wanted for so long it seems crazy to give up on it, versus something new that you never would have guessed you couldn’t live without. This applies both to Dora’s life choices, as well as her relationship potential. I found it incredibly hard to see anything likable about Dora’s longtime crush Gary (though that may have been McKean’s point), and couldn’t believe any woman be able to resist a man like Conrad in her life.

The Secret Lives of Dresses is a fun read. It’s not always light, but it handles pain and loss in a true-to-life manner; McKean does not deny sadness or anger, but refuses to let her heroine get dragged under by them. Dora is spunky and likeable, the kind of woman that few people are confident enough to be (even Dora isn’t sure she’s confident enough, half the time). This is definitely a novel aimed at females, but I would not under any circumstances call it “chick lit” — a term I detest regardless. It’s the type of book that simply leaves the reader feeling happy and slightly mushy in the best possible way. It’s a bit like a Disney movie in that way. It also made me want to dress like a vintage goddess, but that may not be a realistic goal. Then again, however, I just might be able to pull it off. I bet Erin McKean would tell me I could.

Happy reading!

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