Book Review · Books · Fiction · Novel · Summer Reading

What I’m Reading: A Room with a View by: E.M. Foster


E.M. Forster was a wonderful observer of human nature in all of its complex motivations, self-destruction, disorder, and idiocy. His works are an observation into the complexities of human nature in all of its irrational, changeable glory. Forster seems to value individualism above all else. The idea of living at the beat of another drummer’s rhythm, for people to “march to their destiny by catchwords” where the individual does not live a life they want but rather one that others desire for them, seems to lead to an unhappy life. A person who would rather live falsely than to embrace the truth is one who cannot express feelings openly and is prone to maintain unhealthy social norms. It leads to a dreary and dull life, and creates a world where moral zealousness overtakes our sensibilities, and destroys our happiness.

It’s difficult to talk about this book without giving away the whole plot. I’ve yet to see a book review which has done otherwise! I think this is due to the fact that the novel is so layered. Some people see it as a feminist study, others an untraditional romance novel, or a philosophical study of morality as it pertains to one’s freedom of choice and happiness. It is a very complex novel and, in all honesty as with most of my reviews, my interpretation of the novel is simplistic and simple and I like to relate personal experiences to the books I’ve read, so you would be hard-pressed to find me writing a feminist study or a deep study of social caste or morals.

With that said, in my opinion, A Room with a View is a book about individualism and even rebellion. Characters challenge the status quo even if it means they lose relationships, and even positions, in respectable society along the way. And in the end, it is in challenging a rigid world and leaving it behind that the characters find that they’re better served in the end. Lucy Honeychurch and The Emersons (George and his father) are in my opinion, some of literatures great individualists. They represent an alternative vision of society where individualism is valued above conformity, where freedom of choice is optimal, and even though they upset many people close to them with their choices, they all lead happier lives as individuals.

I often find myself returning to this book whenever I need to try and sympathize with the complexities of the world and the people within it. I like returning to this book because it’s a nice escapist novel, a book to take me away from the messy times we’re living in. I know, it’s not very healthy, any kind of escapism. I think about the world, how it seems more of a mess than it once was, or maybe it was always a mess and I never noticed. There seems to me this great tension in the world, a breakdown of honesty and tenderness, reality and good manners. Mostly, I find that the world is becoming a place too ingrained with a rigged morality, where people often live based on what society thinks is commonplace rather than what the individual wants. To me, it seems as though human beings are losing touch with their own imperfect, eccentric natures, the kind of natures that made this world so interesting in the first damn place.

When I was younger, I prided myself on my individualism, on the thought that people were as intellectually receptive to the ways of life and living, and that as adults people rarely grew up somber and cynical unless they’d had unrealistic expectations of life. I always stood by my own beliefs of optimal living; that one could possess optimism and knowledge, practicality and idealism and live a good existence. I looked upon the world with such zeal and excitement at that age, I still do, but I am a bit more sober with experience. I don’t regret such idealism, but I think that maybe things would have affected me less harshly as an adult if I’d also imbued some of life’s complexities into my own idealistic nature. I wish that I’d been told more about the heartbreaks. Your heart breaks, a lot. It’s painful and it can ruin the best of you, the parts of you that push you to be driven and hopeful of the future. If you’re not self-aware, brave even, it’s so easy to fall in line and be compliant with convention, to lose yourself in the safety of conformity, all because you don’t want to get your heart broken again and again.

But a bit of rebellion doesn’t have to be about being self- destructive. I’ve found that sometimes it’s as simple as having an open heart and mind, a healthy dose of self-awareness, and a good amount of empathy for others, that makes life worth living. I’m opposed to a single-minded view or idea that settles on stringent beliefs or values. My life is very unconventional, but I don’t feel as limited to experiences in life as I think I would have if I’d stuck to norms, plus, I feel good about myself. It’s this “rebelliousness” that keeps me grounded, compassionate, but also allows me to question conventions. It’s also helped me to build my confidence.

But the world is very different, the people within it, at times not as brave. Sometimes I feel like I am standing on the outside of everything, observing, watching. I see a lot of frustration, a lot of people oppressing each other, trying to contain each other’s spirit. Why is that? Fear, I think. Forster understood this fear and how it destroys people:

“[She gave up trying to understand herself, and]…the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words. The armies are full of pleasant and pious folk. But they have yielded to the only enemy that matters-the enemy within. They have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their strife after virtue. As the years pass, they are censured. Their pleasantry and their piety show cracks, their wit becomes cynicism, their unselfishness hypocrisy; they feel and produce discomfort wherever they go.”

About fear, Thich Nhat Hanh says: “People have a hard time letting go of suffering, out of a fear of the unknown. They prefer suffering that is familiar.”

Still, what I love is that Forster is unwaveringly optimistic throughout. There are no villains or good characters. Characters do not suffer for objecting to the status-quo (as so many writers of the time such as Edith Wharton and Henry James were prone to show in their novels). And even though this not very realistic, I like that Forster still believes in a happy ending. Still, happiness only comes when one has the courage to break away from convention.

So, think outside of the box, kids. And then once you’re out, take a can of gasoline, throw on it a lit match, and walk the fuck away. I say this as a metaphor, of course. Please don’t set literal fires, except to your mind, with knowledge, and a book.

© 2017 • CoffeeCupcakesKafka


Book Review · Books · Fiction · Novel · Summer Reading

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham


“The war came to an end and I went home. I’d always been keen on mechanics, and if there was nothing done in aviation, I’d intended to get into an automobile factory. I’d been wounded and had to take it easy for a while. Then they wanted me to go to work. I couldn’t do the sort of work they wanted me to do. It seemed futile. I’d had a lot of time to think. I kept asking myself what life was for. After all, it was only by luck that I was alive; I wanted to make something of my life, but I didn’t know what. I’d never thought much about God, I began to think about Him now. I couldn’t understand why there was evil in the world. I knew I was very ignorant; I didn’t know anyone I couldn’t turn to and I wanted to learn, so I began to read haphazard.”

In college, I was deeply drawn to beat writers; Kerouac, Burroughs, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, (and more modern beat writers like Henry Rollins), writers who are, without a question, some of the greats of their time. They lived by their own rules in both writing and expression, and created adventurous characters. What I love the most about their characters is that they are fucking fearless. They walk forward into the darkness, hungry adventurers crashing into every corner and avenue they can without any care for money or safety or common sense. They were always restless, always searching, never settling. I’ve always been drawn to characters like these. Perhaps it’s why I read so much, why I’m always restless and anxious to dig into the next new book!

But while reading The Razor’s Edge, I couldn’t help but to think about false happiness, mostly one’s own restlessness with life. As I read, I immediately connected to Maugham’s restless world traveler, Larry Darrell, the troubled war veteran and main character of the book. Because Larry is so worn by his experiences in the war and is so weary of the world around him, he is no longer his old self. He begins to disconnect with his old life, and wants to find meaning in it all. He travels to Europe and India, finding enlightenment in toil, meditation, and solitude. I think he speaks for the restless bohemian in most of us. Larry is a character who is always searching, both spiritually and intellectually. He is unsatisfied with the life that is before him. He is a man who does not want to settle, who wants to always learn more about it. In reality, most of us think and feel this way but do nothing about it, or in many ways, we can’t do anything. But we are trying to change things, little by little.

I think that is life’s tragedy, really. People walk around, brimming with ideas, desires and longing, they dream of being heroic adventurers but often live tragic lives. We know what happens to many of those people. Maugham knew, and in the book he doesn’t paint a rosy picture.

But what Maugham shows the reader, and what I took from his book, is that the worst way to suffer is to look upon your life with a bleak view. You see examples of this in Larry’s friends, ambitious millionaire Gray, Sophie the poet, Larry’s wealthy love interest Isabel, and Isabel’s ambitious social-climbing uncle Elliot. As Larry returns to his old life as a new person, he is on the fringe, watching from outside the circle of friends and lovers who no longer seem recognizable to him, or he to them. He returns to Paris and sees many tragedies; Sophie spiraling out of control into prostitution, drug and alcohol addiction after the death of her husband and child, Isabel has settled for Gray but still pines for Larry, Grey suffers from migraines, and because of a stock market crash, the couple is no longer as wealthy as they once were. Elliot is rich but alone, depressed, and angry. I won’t ruin the plot for you, but Larry’s old friends are miserable folks who in some cases aren’t worth a damn! In the book, as it is very much in life, good people suffer and the bad ones suffer comfortably, even if they feel trapped by their circumstances.

Are you a good or bad person? How should you live your life? What is a good/bad life? Maugham leaves it all out for you to decide for yourself.

From Maugham’s book, I was reminded that life is forever changing, and that people are always drifting. You’ll be cynical and sad on the one hand and then accepting and sympathetic on the other. The best way to embrace life is to look at it very much the way Larry Darrell does, as if you’re on a continuous quest, enlightened and experienced in the ways of life and its ills, you have to keep moving. We can explore life and its possibilities while we lament its faults. It’s how, I think, we can grow into happier people. So, even though, at this point in my life, I can’t afford to sip a glass of wine in front of the Champs-Elysse or live surrounded in a more comfortable setting, it’s the illusion along with the reality of false happiness that is the real danger. I’m starting to see that, even as you try to grasp as much knowledge as you can, to know everything you need to know that’ll move you forward, you may not grasp everything that comes your way, but the knowledge that you do possess can lead you towards happiness. I think letting go of your obsession with perfection or with what is definite is key. The way towards a satisfactory life is through contemplation and appreciation, things that can be lost when one has had bad feelings and experiences. If you can’t gain wisdom as you age, I think it can ultimately make you feel like a displaced person within the world, so you have to find a way to be excited about life.

Remain curious, pursue knowledge, get out often.

To live life with few inhibitions and restraints is the key to happiness. It seems impossible, but it starts with the little things, the smallest steps.

©2017• CoffeeCupcakesandKafka