Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray

After a little hiatus brought on the craziness of my last couple weeks, I am eager to jump back into my blog and discuss another great novel.  Today, I’ve chosen The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. 

If you’re familiar with Oscar Wilde, you probably have come across his witty plays, like The Importance of Being Earnest, and his silly quotes, such as "Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative."  In this case, you might get the impression that he was a clever writer who wrote primarily for the sake of the audience’s entertainment during his time.  Yet among his many delightful poems and plays is this one novel that offers a startling contrast to most of his other work.  Oddly, this anomaly was my first exposure to Wilde, and it was years before I discovered his famous sense of humor.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an exposé of the ugliness of beauty.  This intriguing contradiction is marvelously personified in the character of Dorian, a beautiful young man with an evil heart.  At the beginning of the novel, Dorian is the epitome of naiveté and innocence, but this is quickly warped as he discovers his own aesthetic appeal.  The good-hearted painter, Basil, creates a magnificent portrait of Dorian in his youthful perfection, which awakens Dorian’s self-lust.  Gazing longingly at his own portrait, Dorian wishes that he would always maintain the perfection of the portrait and it would be the picture that would instead lose its attractiveness.  His wish is granted, thus setting him on the course to his ultimate demise.  Eventually, Dorian’s exterior self and interior self are irrevocably separated.  As he commits each horrendous crime, his portrait becomes more and more hideous, revealing his true nature.  In the end, he must make a choice regarding which image he values more – the exterior or the interior.

There are a number of worthwhile things to talk about in this book, but I’m going to cut to the end.  I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that it is one of the best endings I’ve ever read.  It just felt so fitting, so unexpected yet perfect, that it transformed my entire view of the novel.  I liked the novel as I read it, but I loved it once I finished.  And now that I’ve read it this way, I cannot image it having any other kind of conclusion.  I realize not everyone will have this response to the ending, and I don’t want to raise your expectations so high that you are disappointed.  But if you have already read it, I’d be interested to hear whether you had the same experience with the final scene.

Now I suppose I’ll retrace my steps a bit and comment on one more aspect of the novel I love.  There is an intangible yet vital level of philosophy running as the book’s undercurrent.  Particularly in comparison with Wilde’s other works, The Picture of Dorian Gray is both a thoughtful commentary and an indicting critique.  Wilde challenges the falsehood of appearances and the emphasis our society places on them.  He allows Dorian to spiral out of control through his own selfishness and the advice of Lord Henry.  Moreover, if you have some insight about Wilde’s personal life, I believe the concept of a hidden yet powerful identity takes on special significance.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mixed Feelings about Uncle Tom

In my very first entry in this blog, I promised I would take the time to discuss my feelings about Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe in more detail. My first reading of this book inspired me to devote myself fully to Classic Literature and will forever be meaningful to me for that reason. In that first reading of it, I was so immersed in the tragic story that I read most of it in one sitting. This was the first time I ever cried reading a book because I became so attached to the characters.

In addition to the story, I was also moved by Stowe's direct critiques of slavery.  One of my favorite scenes is when a stranger confronts one of the "kind" slaveowners, saying, "It is you considerate, humane men, that are responsible for all the brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because, if it were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could not keep foothold for an hour."  She regularly condemns slavery and exposes its utter cruelty both in story and in narrative.

I have also always been attracted to Stowe's novel for its historical significance.  During my first reading, I heard the legend in which Abraham Lincoln said to Stowe, "So this is the little lady who started this great war."  I like the idea that fictional literature can spark dramatic social change.  I still believe that great literature has the power to do this in some capacity or another.  I've heard that the "practical" business world tends to look down on the humanities as a "weaker" study that doesn't actually contribute to social function.  However, we have literature such as Uncle Tom's Cabin that dramatically affected social change and other literature that individually affects a person's sense of identity and purpose.  This shows me that literature not only contributes to society but can be critically impacting on both an individual and collective level.

Yet when I engaged with this novel academically years later, my initial devotion to Uncle Tom's Cabin faded.  I became aware of the legitimate problems scholarly African Americans like W.E.B. DuBois had with this novel.  I realized that a white woman really could not be expected to understand the African American struggle, and her one-dimensional characters could be patronizing.  Moreover, Uncle Tom's perfect and unfaltering spirit of grace and humility might very well have been impossible to maintain in slavery, and it would be wrong to expect African Americans to respond this way.  Richard Wright, one of my favorite authors I've mentioned before, wrote a challenge to Stowe's novel called Uncle Tom's Children.  This collection of short stories emphasizes the violence and brutality against African Americans a few generations after slavery.  It removes any trace of Stowe's peacefulness and replaces it with a dark reality.  I think it is imperative for readers to keep this in mind when engaging with Uncle Tom's Cabin, and it somewhat lowered my unbridled enamor with it.

Nevertheless, I still maintain that Stowe did a brave and good thing in writing Uncle Tom's Cabin.  I still admire her intentions and love the book for its social significance.  I just find it important to balance my understanding of the book with the components of African American struggle she neglected or inadvertently euphemized.  I think it should be seen as a building block for racial understanding and equality but not necessarily as an accurate, finished assessment.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Literary Blog Hop 3

I'm excited to again be a part of my favorite blog hop, hosted by The Blue Bookcase.  The prompt this week is: "What is your favorite poem and why?"

Literary Blog Hop

It was only a matter of time before I had to talk about poetry on my blog.  I have been avoiding it because the truth is that in general, I do not particularly care for it.  I can feel myself tensing from the potential dissent you may be experiencing, but before you write me off altogether, I want you to know that there are some poems I do really enjoy.  I have tried to avoid equating "Classic Literature" with novels because I do think some poems deserve to join its ranks. However, I do not really like sonnets, Jacobean poetry, Wordsworth, Whitman, Yeats, Dickinson... oh dear.  I realize that these authors are probably quite gifted and well loved by many, but they just lack the indefinable quality that grabs me in literature.  Anna Akhmatova is wonderfully Russian, and yet even she cannot bring me into a love for her poems.  And I loved Shel Silverstein, of course, but he doesn't qualify as "literary" for me.  I'm tempted to defer to epic poems I love like The Odyssey, The Inferno, and Paradise Lost.  And while they certainly count as poetry, that's not what I'll highlight for this blog hop.  Now after my lengthy introduction, I will tell you that my answer is.... SEAMUS HEANEY.

Ok, he's a poet rather than a poem, but any of his poems could be my favorite.  You can check out some of them on this link.  He is a master with language.  The wording he uses is brilliant, full of onomatopoeia (words whose meaning match their sound) and alliteration.  Sometimes a word dangles on the end of the line, like "crusting" or "striking" or "cooling" that pushes you to keep going.  His poems are like paintings somehow, with delicate strokes and harsh strikes.  The words he uses are also so creative.  "Death of a Naturalist" is one of my favorites and incorporates words like "gargled" and "clotted" and "slap and plop."  I can hear the noises of his scenes within the words themselves, and I can easily picture everything.  You've got to read his poems out loud.  And I think he also touches on deep and meaningful ideas embedded in the poetry.  Something that may appear simple actually has a message within it through the word choice.  Oh man, he's fantastic.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Lord of the Flies

Somehow, I have managed to go this far in my life without ever reading Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  I never had it as part of high school or college curriculum, nor did anyone specifically suggest I read it.  In fact, as I was reading it in a cafe the other day, a man near me saw me reacting to a dramatic moment in the story and asked, "Is it just as good the thirteenth time you read it?"  I had to confess it was my FIRST reading and we chatted a bit about the book.  But now I have finished it and can slap it on to my list of Classic Literature because I feel it has earned its right to be there.

Lord of the Flies is a book about children that is in no way a "children's book."  In fact, I'm glad I didn't read it in high school or sooner because it's quite brutal.  If there is anyone out there besides me who hasn't read it yet, it's about a group of children who are stranded on an island by a plane crash and transition from order to chaos, peace to war.  Before writing this post, I browsed some of my favorite book blogs for their comments on this classic and was surprised to discover a great deal of negativity surrounding this novel.  In fact, I couldn't find a single positive review of it that said more than "so awesome."  So it turns out that my discussion of this book is going to be a bit of a defense of it as well.  I believe that the Nobel Prize board knew what they were doing when they gave out this award.

This is a great piece of literature for a number of reasons, but I will highlight just two - its use of symbols and its analysis of human nature.  Lord of the Flies is written as an allegory - please keep that in mind.  I do not think that you are supposed to see any of the characters as multi-dimensional, nor do I think you are to become extremely attached to them.  It's a very short book, so Golding doesn't take the time to build the novel in order to produce this kind of result.  Instead, they each represent something important in the story.  In addition to the children, there are a number of objects that have power in the story as symbols.  For example, the conch shell and Piggy's glasses represent order that are slowly disrespected until they are destroyed.  The Lord of the Flies itself (the hog's head) haunts the characters in its first appearance in the story, foreshadowing doom and a change in the atmosphere. The invisible beast looms over the island, masterfully illustrating the power of fear.  Indeed, fear becomes a tool for gaining power and unleashing destruction, ultimately making those who are afraid become that which ought to be feared.  And the corpse trapped in the parachute marks the beginning of death as it majestically reigns over the island without anyone's knowledge of its rule.  I'm sure with some more thought and time, I could dig up several more symbols because they are the heart of the text.

Golding's analysis of human nature in this novel is bleak and tragic.  Personally, I like to think that there is a larger measure of good embedded in humanity, but Golding's portrait is nevertheless intriguing.  Using children to demonstrate this is a fascinating approach.  He's trying to break down humanity to its elementary form and show how the lust for power can overtake even those which we might be inclined to label "innocent."  SPOILER ALERT*  I kept waiting and waiting for Ralph to be able to conquer Jack and restore peace on the island, but Golding doesn't let that happen.  He proposes that violence is more powerful than reason.  The only relief is the arrival of an adult, who instantly reduces the powerful, savage creature back to nameless children.  I love the abrupt change in both description and narration at the end.  Yet it's still not quite so simple as a restoration to order, for the source of their rescue is a naval officer.  The naval officer represents the adults' kind of war and implicitly indites that as part of the evil and savage nature that escaped among the children. 

I've read that the writing is unimpressive, but I disagree.  I think it is "simple" because the point of the whole novel is to strip to the basics.  And he demonstrates his writing skills at the end when he subtly switches styles at the entrance of the adult.  I'll stop here for now; I do understand and believe that people can have different experiences with books and that's all there is to it.  So if you didn't like it, I certainly don't look down on you for that. But I hope you can see some redeeming qualities in it, and I believe it's worth a try.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Top Ten Tuesday 1

I've decided to jump on board the "Top Ten Tuesday" blog hop this week because the prompt was irresistible. I've noticed this blog hop because it seems to be highly popular among the book bloggers I've connected with and a great way to meet more. So the prompt this week is the Top Ten characters you'd like to be best friends with. As I made my list, I realized that I would not like to be friends with most of the characters in my favorite books... They're all pretty dark and depressing! I mean, I do love Raskolnikov and Jean Valjean, but it wouldn't be very fun to be friends with them. However, I did find ten characters I'd love to know, even though they may not come from my all-time favorite books. Enjoy!

1. Harry Feversham from The Four Feathers
Harry is an incredibly loyal friend who will literally go to the ends of the earth and the depth of prison to save his friends. He never holds grudges against them or resents their mistakes. And I bet he was fun when he was in a good mood as well. For more thoughts on him, check out my Four Feathers review.

2. Lee from East of Eden
Who doesn't want a wise, lovable, faithful Chinese man in their life? Lee is my favorite character in this book, and I explain that in more detail in my East of Eden comments if you're interested. I think he would make a fantastic friend and a great mentor.

3. Charles Wallace Murry from A Wrinkle in Time
I hope you all read this Madeleine L'Engle growing up and can appreciate how fun it would be to have little Charles as your best friend. He's quirky, nerdy, and just plain awesome. He's very sweet and loyal as well and is willing to do anything to save his friends and family. Plus, he seems to invite time-traveling adventures into his life, and I'd love to be a part of that!

4. Antonio Corelli from Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Corelli is a fun-loving, Italian musician with a big heart. He's incredibly gifted with the mandolin; I would love to hear him play beautiful tunes to me at night. Even in the darkness of war and in a country that resented his presence, Corelli managed to make a lot of friends. As my best friend, I'm sure he would keep me laughing and dancing in the toughest times.

5. Shel Silverstein... the author
Ok, I'm kind of cheating on this one, but I couldn't leave him out of the list. I read every single book he wrote, from Where the Sidewalk Ends to the Giving Tree. He has a fabulous sense of humor, and I bet he would keep me cheerful all the time. And if I had a bad day, he could just whip up a little poem for me.

6. Hercule Poirot from the Agatha Christie novels
I would love to be friends with Hercule! He's an odd Belgium detective with a keen sense of observation and intuition. Even when he's not trying, he always seems to come across another mystery to solve. I would like to team up with him and watch him work as the drama unfolds. Plus, he'd always be saying silly French proverbs and expressions to me - how great is that?

7. Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby
He's cool, he's rich, he's mysterious, and he throws some really great parties. Sure, he has his issues, but I would have a lot of fun with Gatsby as a friend.

8. Huckleberry Finn from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Huck would be a great friend and fellow adventurer. I'm sure I would laugh a lot with him and gain from his carefree spirit. Even as an adult, I think I would at least chuckle along with his comments and unique perspective, all of which come from a good heart.

9. Peter Pevensie from Chronicles of Narnia
So the truth about this one is that I want a way to get into Narnia. And out of all the Pevensie kids, I think Peter would make the best friend. Lucy's a little annoying, Susan's a little bossy, and Edmund has his ups and downs. So Peter it is.

10. Odysseus from The Odyssey
King of Ithaca and total badass - Odysseus rocks. He's tough, hot, and clever. He loves his family and he can out-think anyone. Sure, he might make a better husband than friend, but I'll settle for friendship. I'd get to ride his ship, traveling to the ends of the world and getting rich. Sign me up!

Thanks for reading. I'd love your feedback!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Native Son

To follow Dickens, I want to write about a novel that receives less attention in lists of Classic Literature.  Published in 1940, Native Son by Richard Wright is a phenomenal and heart-wrenching book that deserves to join the "greats" of Classic Lit. I'm not sure why this novel hasn't yet received the recognition it deserves, for there are several books published in the 1950s and 1960s that have already achieved this kind of acclaim, including several I have previously discussed: East of Eden, Catch 22, and In Cold Blood.  Nevertheless, I consider Native Son a piece of Classic Literature for a number of reasons.

Perhaps the primary attraction for me in the book is that the main character is once again a sort of "misunderstood criminal."  I don't know why this always appeals to me (such as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or Jean Valjean in Les Miserables) but I am so captivated by the protagonist Bigger Thomas.  Let me warn you - there is a lot of dark content in this novel.  Bigger murders two people throughout the course of the novel, and similar to In Cold Blood, the author never forgets or diminishes the significance of these crimes.  It is painful to read about his actions and the kind of train wreck self-destruction that follows.  The plot falls into a violent, spinning-out-of-control pattern out of which Bigger cannot wrench himself free.  I was overwhelmed with sympathy for Bigger, and my heartstrings intricately tied him up as an unforgettable character in my mind. 

There is a significant dimension of the novel that I haven't yet mentioned but you might have guessed if you are familiar with Richard Wright.  Bigger is an African American, and his struggle to grapple with his racial identity controls just about everything that happens in the story.  Wright powerfully illustrates the psychological damage that an unjust social structure can cause an individual.  Bigger does not particularly experience overtly hateful actions and slanders, but he implicitly views himself as dangerous through the stereotype whites have pressed against him.  In effect, Bigger is forced to embody the worst of the prejudices white people tend to set against him.  However, Wright also illustrates that Bigger has prejudices against white people as well, and he cannot see them as individuals.  Likewise, the psychological effects of these stereotypes affect the white people as well.  There are many symbols throughout the text that additionally suggest the oppressive roles that have engulfed black-white relationships in the novel.

Finally, I must mention the writing style, for Wright is an incredibly talented writer.  The novel moves very quickly and smoothly because of the skillful details and dialogue he includes.  Adding to the intrigue, Wright portrays the novel from Bigger's point of view and consciousness.  Bigger is an uneducated, reckless sort of character, and it is fascinating to get inside his head while he processes what happens to him.  His reasoning and self-perception create a fascinating experience for readers who would otherwise view the plot from a much more rational perspective.  There are many other dimensions of the novel that are worth studying and discussing, but I will end for now on these thoughts.  I truly believe this is a magnificent novel that is well worth your time, even though it is a difficult and depressing story to experience.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

My favorite Dickens

I feel like all lists of Classic Literature include at least one book by Charles Dickens, which draws mixed opinions from readers.  Some people love Dickens and read each and every work.  To those who fall in this category, I tip my hat to you in admiration of your devotion.  On the other hand, I know there are a lot of people who do not enjoy his writing style and tire of the long passages of description.  These people struggle to finish the lengthy novels and maintain their attention levels.  I fall somewhere in the middle.

I would not include Dickens on my list just because I felt like he is often included on these lists.  I am only going to write about the books that I believe deserve their positioning in the shelves of Classic Literature.  I don't love everything by Dickens, and I haven't read most of them, but I do think there is at least one of his novels that has secured its spot in timeless literature.  And for me, this is my favorite book by Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities.  It has an epic-feeling nature and fascinating plot, with many surprising twists to keep it interesting, along with a variety of characters and excellent writing skills.

One of my favorite things about this novel is its culture-crossing between France and England.  The characters are from both countries and move back and forth between the nations throughout the course of the story.  The languages are also frequently represented, although Dickens writes in English.  Perhaps the best example of this is the epic battle between Madame Defarge (French) and Miss Pross (English).  France has a particularly strong identity in the story because it is set during the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille.  The historical dimension this provides is fascinating to me because I enjoy the different perspectives Dickens creates on the meaning of this war.  For some, it is deeply personal, and others are torn in loyalty between the two nations.

The variety of characters is another of my favorite aspects of this novel.  I don't know that Dickens was especially skilled in the development of individual characters, but he did offer enough different personalities to provide an interesting spectrum for readers.  Madame Defarge is one of the most intriguing to me; her strength and fierceness are quite intimidating.  At times, she seems "good" and in the end we view her as "evil," but she is nevertheless a pillar of strength in the story.  I also love Sydney Carton, the tragic yet lovable character and foil of the hero, Charles Darnay.  Some of the characters provide a little comic relief, which is much-needed in this heavy tale of war and suffering.  However, the humor is more subtle than in some of Dickens' other novels, which ensures that he doesn't cheapen the depth of the emotions he has established in the characters and setting.

Before I end, I have to note the narrative style.  In this book, I never tired of Dickens' descriptions, and the various moments of pure narration are often brilliant and memorable.  There are so many great quotes to pull from this novel.  Who doesn't know the opening lines?  "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity..."  There's a reason we all know this.  The pattern it creates, the rise and fall of the words and the meaning, breathes the message of the text before we even get into it.  It may seem simple, but mastering simplicity is one of the skills of great writing and is evident throughout this novel.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Literary Blog Hop 2

This Literary Blog Hop is quickly becoming one of my favorite things in the week.  I really enjoy connecting with all you fellow book lovers and bloggers and hearing your various thoughts.  This week, the question is easy for me.  "Is there such a thing as literary non-fiction?"  Yes!

In my opinion, the very best response to this question is the book by Truman Capote: In Cold Blood.  I have already written some of my thoughts on the topic.  Please check it out HERE or you can find it in my List of Reviews tab.  This is one of my all-time favorite books, and I believe it absolutely qualifies as "literary."  The writing is phenomenal and compelling, and yet the subject matter is 100% true.  I believe it is literary because it tells an engaging story and reveals a lot about human nature in the course of the work.  It sparks thought and controversy, and I don't think I'll ever forget it.  If anyone else has read it, I imagine they'll be singing its praises today on the blog hop.  Again, I explain it better in my earlier review.

However, I think I would be cheating if I left my blog hop entry just like that.  I have no doubt that there are more literary non-fiction books out there.  It's been a while since I've read The Color of Water by James McBride, but from what I remember of it, I think it could qualify as well.  I think it's more difficult to assess non-fiction in this category, especially with the celebrities' books that seem to be pouring into our bookstores these days.  I would be cautious before I allowed an autobiography or memoir to come into the literary classification, but I do think it's possible.  I'm eager to read the other blog hops today to find out what some of the other books out there in this category are!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Old, Old Classic

I decided to head back into literary history to one of the earliest works we have on record - Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  It's a wonderful collection of stories that can be daunting/baffling in its Middle English text but well worth the effort.  To summarize quickly, the book follows a group of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of the martyr St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury.  To pass the time on this long journey, each character takes a turn and tells the rest of the group some kind of tale.

First of all, I want to say that there is no shame in reading a modern translation of Canterbury Tales.  Yes, if you have a Middle English dictionary at hand and hours to pour over the text, you will discover the genius in the original language.  But very few of us can afford to do this, and I do not think Chaucer's tales should be neglected because they are difficult to understand.  So please don't hesitate to pick up an easier version of it if that is what is stopping you from reading this great collection.

One of my favorite aspects about Canterbury Tales is that it gives us a fascinating peek at society in the late 14th century.  Particularly as an American, I feel that my sense of history earlier than the 18th century is weak at best.  I can hardly wrap my mind around the kind of life that functioned before our detailed historical documentation and instruction.  Yet covering everything from friars to cooks, physicians to sailors, Chaucer portrays myriad social classes and backgrounds, which creates for readers a sense of medieval reality.  We get a taste of so many different kinds of people and manners of life in this one collection of tales.  Each narrator is unique, with a distinct story to match his or her personality.  It certainly doesn't get repetitive.

Another of my favorite things about this collection is the audacious and dynamic Wife of Bath.  She is one of my fictional heroes.  For a 14th century figure, she is absolutely remarkable.  She openly expresses her enjoyment of sex, she unabashedly proclaims her thoughts, and she offers equality as a solution for marital strife.  I feel that Chaucer made a bold and feminist move with this character that was light-years ahead of its time.

And, of course, I cannot talk about Canterbury Tales without talking about its humor.  Some of these tales are absolutely hilarious!  I read "The Miller's Tale" in a very quiet library and had to slap my hand over my mouth to keep from breaking the silence with a loud laugh.  The tales are full of sexual innuendos and crude jokes, which get me chuckling despite my resistance.  It's really quite shocking for the 14th century.  I think we tend to assume that it has only been within the last fifty years that this kind of humor has seeped into our literature, but Chaucer mastered it long ago.  Even the research on Canterbury Tales can't hide from the jokes.  One of the funniest things I've ever discovered was a scholarly analysis of Chaucer's use of "literary farts."  It's hysterical to read someone trying to approach the issue so seriously and academically.  Chaucer knew a cheap joke when he wrote one; let's just enjoy it.

When I first read Canterbury Tales, I was in high school and severely lacked appreciation for it.  But I read the tales again within the last year or so and fell in love with them.  So if you are in a similar situation, I urge you to try again.  If you don't want to read them all, just start with "The Miller's Tale" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale" and see how you feel.  Are there any other Chaucer lovers out there?  I look forward to hearing from you!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Steinbeck's Great One

I'm moving this posting back to the top because it's one of my favorite books, and I don't want it to get buried.  The Literary Blog Hop was a huge success, and I had a great time reading other people's thoughts and conversing about The Waves.  Yet East of Eden by John Steinbeck is one of my favorites for its depth, timeline, and themes that all evoke for me the classification "epic."  It is one of those books in which you can tell that the author was proud of his work.  I can feel Steinbeck preparing for his crystallization in literature, and he deserves it.  And I want to know what you all think about it too.

I first read East of Eden by suggestion of a friend, which is part of the reason I love all the literature bloggers out here.  Recommendations from fellow book lovers rarely fail to meet my expectations.  So keep them coming!  Anyway, I know that if I don't structure myself, I will babble endlessly about all the things I love in this book.  So I will just talk about one thing: the character Lee.

To give you a quick summary, the story weaves in among several characters, but the focus is on Adam's family.  Adam, whose story we receive in flashbacks, bought a farm from the lovable Hamilton family in order to start his own family.  He marries Cathy, a cold, manipulative woman who leaves Adam as soon as she has given birth to their twin boys, Caleb and Aron.  The boys are an explicit reference to the Biblical brothers Cain and Abel throughout the story.  Lee is Adam's household help whom I will discuss in more detail in just a moment.  And I have to include the narrator among the list of characters because he brings his voice into the text from time to time, coloring our vision of the story.

Lee is my favorite character in this novel.  He is a Chinese immigrant who initially appears to fit the stereotype of an uneducated, simple servant figure.  However, Steinbeck plays on this idea by subtly making Lee the actual head of the household as well as the wise philosopher.  As we read, we discover that Lee plays up his accent to make a show of ignorance in order to meet his "master's" expectations of him.  While Adam is turned stagnant by his wife's cruel abandonment, Lee steps up to be the backbone of the household and take care of the twin boys.  Even when Adam is back on his feet, this role is never reversed.  For the rest of the novel, it seems that the underlying strength in this male-dominated house is Lee.  The boys always love Lee and look to him for guidance, but they both try to protect and delicately please their father.  In their minds, Adam is not the force of strength and steadfast love they long for.  Lee takes care of the boys, cooks, manages the household, and even studies in his spare time.  In my mind, he is the pillar of the novel, even among the characters with whom he does not directly interact because even the readers can always come back to him for support.

Yet perhaps most significantly, it is Lee who introduces the most fundamental and binding theme of the novel: timshel.  Earlier in the story, Adam and Lee looked at the Biblical story of Cain and Abel together.  Steinbeck in no way attempts to hide the allusions he makes to this text.  Yet Lee was not satisfied with their short discussion.  He dedicated himself to understanding this text, breaking it apart word by word.  He even seeks counsel from other wise, non-Christian men to share in the discussion.  He gets stuck on one phrase the Lord says to Cain.  In some translations, the Lord says that Cain will rule over sin, and in other translations, he says that Cain must rule over sin.  Ultimately, Lee looks up the Hebrew translation of this word to discover that the true meaning  - timshel - is that Cain may rule over sin.  It all comes down to choice.  Essentially, every individual person is responsible for himself or herself.  We all have the choice to do good with our lives or to do evil.  It is far too easy to blame society, a rough upbringing, or the sinful nature on our bad actions.  Lee is overjoyed at the thought of this notion.  Timshel thus becomes a beacon of hope and redemption for all of the characters in the story.  Almost every one of them does some kind of "evil" action against another person.  There are no perfect or ideal characters in the plot.  However, timshel offers them the chance to start fresh

Although I am by no means anti-Christian, I love that Lee, the character who so passionately believes in the significance of this phrase, is not a Christian.  He does not attach to this concept because he thinks it is the faultless word of God but because he thinks it contains a truth that transcends religious, race, and culture.  Steinbeck is offering freedom in the novel, but a freedom that comes with responsibility.  And once this is in our minds, we read the rest of the story in this light, right to the very last word.  It's a brilliant novel with a plethora of fascinating themes, so many that I may have to return to this book for another entry later.  For now, I just want to bask in the central concept of free will.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Literary Blog Hop!

The Blue Bookcase is hosting a really neat "event" today called the Literary Blog Hop.  What happens is they post a question for the book bloggers out there to each answer on the same day.  It's a great way to network with fellow book lovers and hear about some interesting topics.  They kindly invited me to take part, and I'm excited to share in it.

You can check it out here.  (Sorry I couldn't get an image for you!)

This week's question is: What is the most difficult literary work you've ever read?  What made it so difficult?

This is a tough one because I've been challenged by a lot of reading.  I'm tempted to say The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot because I eventually had to spend hours breaking it down line by line to really grasp its significance.  I also think of Les Miserables because it's the longest book I've ever read, but I don't think it was actually the most difficult.  (If you're interested, I reviewed it here.)  The answer would definitely be Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals but that would not make for an interesting blog entry because I would basically just say, "I don't think I get it and that frustrates me."  So where does that leave me?  I'm going to go with The Waves by Virginia Woolf.

Woolf writes in a stream-of-consciousness style, which can be quite difficult to follow when you're not accustomed to it.  There's no strong direction of plot, and it's often unclear which character is the one in focus.  I found this difficult to follow at times in To the Lighthouse, but when someone simply classified it as "stream-of-consciousness" I suddenly grasped what she was trying to do and was able to work with it.  However, she pushes this even further in The Waves.  In this book, there are no characters and no plot.  The entire story is run by six different people's dramatic soliloquies.  At first, I found this extremely irritating and confusing.  I was not interested in the text nor appreciative of any skill involved in it.  The people do not really interact with each other, and the things they are saying do not fit together in any thematic or chronological order.  They spit out their random thoughts and emotions, often in short, uninteresting sentences or fragments.  No one responds to anyone else, and yet their speeches are so intertwined that it's difficult to discern who is supposed to be speaking.  It felt like nonsense to me.

So this was a difficult read because I struggled to understand what was going on and to grasp its purpose.  I didn't like what I was reading, which always makes it harder to get through it.  Ultimately, however, I grew to appreciate it as a representation of the relationship between Self and Other.  I think Woolf was trying illustrate that these two entities are not as disconnected as we like to think they are.  The Self cannot exist outside of relation to Others.  However, I still feel like it was a pretty obscure way to reach that point.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Four Feathers

Sorry I let so much time slip away between posts.  But now it's time to introduce you (if you're not already familiar with it, of course) to one of my favorite books - The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason.  It was published in 1902, one hundred years before its 2002 movie release starring Heath Ledger and Kate Hudson.  So please keep in mind that I am talking about this great Classic novel rather than the movie.  :)

I love just about every character in this novel.  The protagonist is Harry Feversham, a young British soldier who resigns his commission when he learns that his troupe is being sent to war in the Sudan.  Seeing this resignation as cowardice, three of Harry's friends, along with his fiance Ethne, each give him a white feather as a sign of cowardice.  In 1882 in which the novel is set, a stigma like this was enough to ruin a person's reputation entirely.  To regain his honor, Harry thus begins a heroic effort to prove himself to each person who gave him a feather.  He dedicates his life to this task, spending three years in the Sudan patiently waiting for his opportunity.  Once he begins his journey, there is nothing too dangerous to stop him from completing it.

On the surface, it does appear that Harry resigned out of fear.  However, Mason provides a deeper explanation for this by starting with a scene from his childhood.  Because his father was a soldier, he grew up listening to old army men scoff and scorn those who did not fulfill their duty or acted cowardly in war.  Harry was so fearful of condemning himself by acting in this way that he thought he could avoid the problem if he didn't go to war at all.  He was also greatly worried about bringing down his fiance in this shame if that were to happen.  However, his strategy backfired on him because his resignation was seen as a cowardly act in itself.  When he is faced with danger, it ironically turns out that he confronts it nobly and bravely.  Together with his intense loyalty to his friends, all these qualities make Harry an admirable character rather than a despicable one.

Ethne is one of my favorite female literary characters in existence.  At the beginning of the novel, she seems to act selfishly and superficially.  She rejects Harry because she is concerned about the stigma his resigning will create, even though she still loved him.  Yet throughout the rest of the novel, her character grows tremendously.  She is haunted by her action and vows to make up for it.  She never ceases loving Harry, but she lets him go because he vanished.  "Two lives shall not be spoilt because of me" becomes her creed, and she dedicates her life to this at the cost of her own happiness.  She develops into a truly beautiful character with a heart of gold, and I found it very easy to connect with her thoughts and emotions.

I feel the need to take a minute and say that this is not the most well-written novel I've ever read.  It has some depth in the character development, for Ethne, Harry, and his best friend Jack each change significantly by the end of the novel.  But I don't know if I would label this one as "genius."  Nevertheless, it is a very enjoyable read.  The story takes off from page one, and I can fly through it without ever losing interest.  It's one of my favorites because it's so much fun, and it seems to appeal to everyone I know for different reasons.  I recommend it all the time because I think everyone would like it.  The plot is exciting; there are many adventures that come and go, with interesting characters mixed in.  The love story of Harry and Ethne is sweet, even though they are separated for the majority of the book.  So try it out and let me know what you think!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Wuthering Heights

In my last entry, I heavily emphasized the strengths of feminism, and then I realized that I had not yet written an entry about a Classic book by a female author.  What a crime to Classic Literature!  Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is my favorite book written by my own kind.  And since we just celebrated Halloween, the dark and eerie nature of the plot seems to fit right in with this time of year.

Every Christmas and summer for the last four years, a good friend and I have given each other reading assignments.  We have different tastes in literature, but we both love to read.  It's a great way for each of us to broaden our horizons.  When she told me to read Wuthering Heights a couple years ago, I must admit that I felt a bit reluctant.  I assumed that it would be another frilly, fluffy romance about socialites and witty banter.  I expected a predictable plot and a neat, bow-tie ending.  Boy was I wrong!  In fact, if you reverse those descriptions completely, you'll get a much better picture of this fantastic novel.

The story of Catherine and Heathcliff is the most riveting love story I've ever encountered.  I could not tear myself away from it.  They are both quite flawed characters, but that's what builds the tension.  There are so many moments in which the two just barely miss each other in some way or another.  As a reader, this can be very frustrating, and some people may view their feelings of frustration throughout the novel as a weakness in the story.  On the contrary, I think this is the strength of the story because it compels us to keep reading.  Through our frustration, we are engaged and attached.  We don't read it passively or even clouded in the bliss of peaceful reading.  It is meant to be a painful, frustrating read because it's painful and frustrating for the characters too.  It is, after all, a dark story.  Yet even when the odds are stacked against them, there's an undeniable pull you can feel that Catherine and Heathcliff have toward each other.  I will resist saying more about their relationship so I don't spoil it for you if you haven't read it. 

I especially love the character of Heathcliff.  He is so complex, full of moments that make you love him and moments that make you cringe.  He does not follow a particular framework of "good" or "evil," for he exhibits features of both almost equally.  He often acts out in anger, but there is a genuine, vulnerable sweetness deep in his heart.  And only Catherine can tap into that sweet spot.  I found myself completely forgiving of him, rooting for him, and hurting with him.  Not everyone will feel this way, but I was a sucker for him.

Now this is one book that I fully intend to reread.  I'm sure that there are layers of meaning in the text that can be found in symbolism if you look closely.  For example, the children of the story add an interesting dimension to the novel.  They get so strangely mixed up in both their names, family lines, and personalities that it can be hard to keep track of them.  I'm sure that this confusion was created intentionally, and I would love to study the children in detail to figure out what they reveal about the adults.  I also think it's a fascinating narrative structure.  The story is told through the perspective of the only character who wasn't really involved (Lockwood).  Nevertheless, he's still a character interacting with the others in the story.  Of course, this challenges the veracity of the events because we can only see them through a certain level of subjectivity.  (Familiar theme, once again).  I do not think we should be deceived into thinking that this has no relevance on the story.  Nelly, the housekeeper who dishes on the past, must be an important key in the understanding of all the characters.  Maybe I should have saved this entry for later because I don't have a great theory right now of what that "key" is. I hope you all can fill me in on some of the depth and various messages you discovered in your reading of this book.  I'd love to hear it!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Contemporary Series Part 3: A Thousand Splendid Suns

For this third segment in my mini-series, I am taking an even bolder step and adding Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) to my list of Classics.  It's just a baby in literature years, and I know many people might say that I am too quick to make this assessment.  Perhaps they're right, but there are many qualities in this book that I believe have made it earn its right to be in the list.

Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner, has thus far received more attention than his second piece.  Because of its popularity, (and the Hollywood movie I refuse to watch), I acknowledge that The Kite Runner may be placed on a list of "Classic Literature" instead of A Thousand Splendid Suns.  However, I believe that the latter novel brings in great themes and elements that the first one lacks, surpassing it in literary genius.

One of the primary features in A Thousand Splendid Suns is that it focuses on two women.  This is particularly interesting because the author is a man, and male authors do not often create female protagonists.  Yet I feel that his presentation of women is not only fair, but it displays important, third-wave feminist principles.  The first principle it presents is that women are socially oppressed.  This is particularly clear in Afghanistan from a Western perspective, but the key here is that this is NOT a Western perspective!  Earlier feminist theory would suggest that Afghanistan was in need of taking on Western culture to fix its problem of inequality.  However, the Afghan culture is maintained throughout this novel, despite the problems it presents.  In my reader experience, I did not feel that it was a condemnation of Afghan culture, but a condemnation of mistreating others.  The characters' solution was not just escape from the country all together, for - SPOILER ALERT - they returned to it after the fall of the Taliban, and they rebuilt their identity within their own culture.

The second feminist principle I see in this book is the affirmation of female sexuality.  Hosseini allows the women to have both positive and negative feelings about sex.  It's not a glaring motif in the story, for the point is not to stir up the readers' sexual emotions, but it's nevertheless important to acknowledge women's feelings in this way.  One of the characters also repeatedly experiences the heartbreak of miscarriage, showing readers the emotion in this situation that is not often seen.  I find this presentation of women to be very validating and significant in the novel.

A third feminist principle I identify is the strength of women.  Mariam and Laila cannot be narrowed down simply to the classification of "victim."  It is not just an oppressor-victim relationship, because they have strengths and courage throughout the novel.  They cannot be confined to social gender roles because they have too many depths and layers to fit in them.  There are reasons their lives came to this point, and although it is not their fault, it is also not because they were just a weaker species that succumbed to the greater.  For me, this is a refreshing perspective.

And all this coming from a male author!

Once again, I got too wrapped up in one idea to talk about the story itself.  The writing is fluent and interesting.  And the plot is absolutely compelling.  I desperately tore threw the pages, searching for some redemption in a despairing story.  I couldn't sleep until I knew whether or not there was going to be any kind of happiness for these two highly lovable and yet extremely miserable women.  I won't reveal the answer to that one for you, because I think it would take away your experience as reader.  The drama in the story is that very question: Will justice prevail??  For all these reasons and more, I think A Thousand Splendid Suns deserves to join the list.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Contemporary Series Part 2: Midnight's Children

I am ready to step into my next piece of uncharted territory and assert that Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981) ought to and one day will be considered a work of Classic Literature.  Certainly, this book has received much acclaim on its own and does not need my encouragement, but I do think it should be able to join the ranks of Classic Literature now.

Rushdie is a unique and talented Indian author who writes in English.  Midnight's Children is more of a story of India than the story of Saleem Sinai, the narrator.  The culture of India shines throughout the story, bringing out the traditions, sights, foods, and personality of the nation.  He even maintains an Indian influence in his distribution of "gifts" among Midnight's children, naming them after Indian gods and influences rather than Western ones. In addition to these cultural idiosyncrasies, Saleem offers a history of India after it gained its independence from Britain.  Nevertheless, all of this is inescapably presented through Saleem's perspective, which makes all of the "facts" and "histories" subjective.

Readers should be careful not to consider this subjectiveness a flaw, for I think it is one of Rushdie's primary, postmodern messages of the novel.  Midnight's Children is a story about the story - about the way our lives are shaped by narrative.  As Saleem narrates, he frequently interrupts his story and breaks into metanarrative, in which the act of narration itself becomes a story.  There are thus two stories in the novel - the story of Saleem's development and the story of Saleem and Padma, his faithful scribe.  The interaction between these stories is often amusing, and yet it illustrates the control that the narration-story has over the narrated-story.  The main story of the Midnight's children must stop when the narrator and scribe stop and is explicitly shaped by their will.

I've spent so much time talking about the culture and metanarrative, and yet I have not mentioned the creative and compelling nature of the story itself.  The plot of Midnight's Children follows Saleem, his family, and his friends over a number of years.  He discovers that everyone who was born on the day of India's independence has inherited a magical power of some sort, and Saleem can communicate with them all through his power of telepathy.  There are many poignant and emotional moments, which enables the readers to have a real connection with the fantastical story.  The writing style, characters, culture, and philosophy in this novel propel it into the realm of genius.  It offers so much to literature, and I recommend it to everyone.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Contemporary Series Part 1: Blood Meridian

I cannot believe I let so much time slip by between posts.  To make up for it, I want to begin a series of posts about contemporary novels.  In an earlier blog, I mentioned in the comments section that there are some contemporary novels that I think should and will be added to our list of "Classic Literature."  If we do not allow for this, Classic Literature is obsolescent and in danger of being forgotten and/or dismissed.  Great literature is still being produced today, and yet we tend to venerate only the novels written 100+ years ago as "Classic."  With time, some of the 20th century authors like James Joyce and T.S. Eliot have been added to the list, which is relatively recent.  However, there are some living authors whose works I think deserve to join the ranks of Classic Literature.

I want to start with Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985).  McCarthy has a very distinctive style, which is both unusual and fascinating.  He does not adhere to traditional sentence structure or grammatical rules; much of his writing is composed in sentence fragments.  By cutting out excess words in this way, he leaves readers with pure description, enabling them to see, hear, and smell everything in the scene without distraction.

Blood Meridian is particularly notable for its graphic violence.  This book is not for the faint of heart, and I hesitate to blindly recommend it to all readers because it is so powerfully graphic.  Some of the scenes in the novel are almost unimaginably gruesome, and if I listed them off to you, you might be horrified.  However, the genius of this book is the juxtaposition of this kind of brutal violence with some of the most beautifully written prose I have ever read.  I read several passages of the novel out loud so I could hear the marvelous ebb and flow of the descriptive words and the rhythm it creates.  His writing is just breath-taking, and it almost feels like Romantic poetry.  And yet the subject of the description is often very raw and disturbing.  The balance he thus creates in Blood Meridian between these contrasts is extraordinarily commendable.

When I finished reading the novel, I was unsure how I felt about it.  How could I use the words, "I liked it," to describe a story so brutal and heart-wrenching?  During my reading, I wasn't smiling or chuckling, nor was I wishing I could be a part of the story with the characters.  I don't plan on rereading this one over and over, nor can I even bring myself to list it as one of my favorite books of all time.  Yet I was undeniably moved.  McCarthy brought me to experience this unsettling contrast with emotions and thoughts I've never entertained.    For all of these reasons - its uniqueness, its brilliance, its disturbing content - I think Blood Meridian should definitely be considered a work of Classic Literature.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this novel.  I can imagine that it would produce different experiences for everyone.  If you are interested in reading more about this book, The Literate Man has a great review of it, which you can find here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Catch 22

I decided I should toss my catchy titles for the sake of readability.  I'm probably the only one who cared about coming up with a clever headline, and it will be easier for you guys to find the different books if you can click right on their titles.  So sorry to take away the suspense, but this entry is about Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.

I want to talk about a very simple concept in reading this book because once I grasped it, my whole perspective on the novel changed.  When I started reading it, I had no prior knowledge of the book except for a generic understanding of the way in which popular culture has coined the title phrase.  I didn't read it for a class or with a friend, so I had to process it on my own, which is never ideal.  To be honest, I had trouble getting through it.  I found it funny, of course, and often chuckled at the unique writing style and ridiculous situations.  It was my first real exposure to this idea of "black comedy" and I found it poignant and interesting.  However, there was no driving plot that kept me turning the pages.  At the end of the chapter, it was easy for me to set the book down and forget about it for a while.  This frustrated me because I found myself progressing through the book very slowly even though I enjoyed the writing style.  Sadly, this effect made me think less of the book and resist admiring it as one of the great classics.

But not anymore!!  I was studying the genre of Short Story Cycles when it suddenly dawned on me that Catch 22 makes much more sense as a short story cycle than a novel.  Each chapter is a short story, a complete subunit on its own.  You can read the chapter without reading any of the others and understand what happened.  The characters are frequently introduced, and each chapter takes turns highlighting another person.  There is not a clear sense of chronological progression, for sometimes it seems to backtrack and return to a character who has already left the plot.  When the chapter ends, it reaches a feeling of conclusion, which is why I was able to set it down for a while without that urge to keep going.  However, there are a number of returning themes in all of them.

Yossarian is the strongest common thread among them.  The story subtly centers around him, showcasing his friends and fellow soldiers in their interaction with him.  The concept of "Catch 22" also appears in several of the stories, bring unity and black humor to the pieces of the book.  There is also a list of returning characters whose stories we learn more about bit by bit.  The way a short story cycle works is that each story can be read on its own, but when you read them all together, you gain a much greater appreciation for the text as a whole.  Each story reveals something of another one without depending one another.  It's a cycle rather than a series, so they can be read in any order and still make sense.  Then when you read them together, you get a fresh understanding of each part and discover some recurring ideas and messages.  Once I viewed Catch 22 in this way, I suddenly had great admiration for the book.  In fact, it's one of the best short story cycles I've read because the overarching bond of the stories is so strong, it disguises as a novel.  But since each chapter intentionally acts as a unit, there is not necessarily supposed to be a pushing, driving plot running through them all.  If I don't expect there to be a novel plot-like feeling, then I can't get frustrated for the lack of one.

So I urge you to try it.  Pick five chapters of the book at random and see if they make sense on their own.  Read the stories out of order and see if they reveal more to you in that way.  They interact with each other in a twisting, complicated, and brilliant way.  I haven't found other scholars classifying Catch 22 in this way, but I think it is an important distinction in interpreting and interacting with this book.  And even if no one else agrees with me, this interpretation has helped me appreciate this great classic.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Great Russian Authors, 19th Century

One of my readers requested that I make a list of whom I consider to be the most influential Russian authors of the 19th century.  So here goes!

1. Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
 This one almost goes without saying.  I've made it clear that I think he is a brilliant, influential, and significant figure in all of literary history, let alone that of Russia.  You can read about my thoughts on Crime and Punishment here.

2. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
It is undeniable that Tolstoy is an incredibly significant figure in Russian literature.  He writes on an epic scale, with beautifully crafted language.  He was one of the most important figures on an international stage.  However, at the risk of offending the Russians who love him, I feel that Tolstoy is a bit more British in his style than Russian, which is a noticeable loss of flavor for me.  I added an entry about Anna Karenina here.

3.Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)
Although it is not my personal favorite, Eugene Onegin by Pushkin is undeniably an incredibly significant piece of Russian literature.  With this work, he launched Russian writing to a public spectacle and began a brilliant tradition.  He has been crystallized in Russian memory forever as a literary hero.  Even today, almost every Russian student has read Eugene Onegin and many have memorized it.

4. Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841)
Primarily a poet, Lermontov produced just one novel - A Hero of Our Time, which I discuss here.  He was the first major author to emerge on the scene after Pushkin, and his themes inspired dozens of writers who followed him.  He brilliantly introduced a psychological dimension in his characters that sparked a literary movement. (I had to add him after a suggestion by Ingrid from The Blue Bookcase).

5. Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852)
I am a big fan of Gogol, as you can see in my previous entry about Dead Souls here.  He captures what became an iconic writing style of wit, satire, and meaning early on in the literary tradition.  Don't miss out on Gogol!

6. Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)
An outspoken fan of Gogol, Turgenev is an appropriate author to list next.  He immigrated to Europe, so his novels reached an international stage as well.  His book Fathers and Sons is often recognized on lists of popular "classics," although I feel that he too is missing a little bit of the iconic Russian flavor.

7. Ivan Goncharov (1812-1891)
Goncharov, on the other hand, absolutely embodies the Russian style.  His book Oblomov was highly popular in Russia, but it may not capture Western audiences.  In effect, it is the story of a man who never gets off the couch.  How can an entire novel revolve around this small idea?  Read Goncharov to find out.  It is full of the Russian sense of humor and narration, in which the plot itself is not the main focus.  You can read more about Oblomov here.

8. Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)
I cannot list important Russian authors in the 19th century without Chekhov, even though I wasn't a huge fan of his writing.  He wrote plays and short stories almost exclusively, which I feel lack some of the depth of the novels of the time.  However, the Russians loved him and he was quite popular and influential in this era.

I have merely covered the authors I consider to be the most influential in the 19th century only.  There is a great list of Russian authors during the Soviet Era as well as other times. Let me know if you think I missed anyone significant!  I would love to add another to my repertoire.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dead Souls

As you may have noticed, I love Russian literature.  I took a course in college covering about ten Russian authors, which provided me with a sense of the idiomatic Russian style.  The satire, sense of humor, distinct narrative, and dark content are all common characteristics I love.  Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are by far the most well-known of the bunch, but there are so many other marvelous authors that should be equally recognized.  Dostoevsky is my favorite, but Nikolai Gogol is my second love, and I want to share him with you all.

Gogol actually predates Dostoevsky and Tolstoy by a couple decades with his first novel, published in 1835.  In 1842, he produced one of my all-time favorites, Dead Souls.  This novel is a funny yet poignant satire about Serfdom in 19th century Russian.  At this time in history - the same time Gogol dared to write it - a person's status in society was physically counted by the number of serfs he owned.  Serfs were much like the slaves we usually think of today, as they were forced to work the land or do the labor of their owners in bondage.  This inhumane practice was the focus of Gogol's critique.

The humor in Dead Souls can be found frequently throughout the text.  It is written in a typical Russian narrative, in which the narrator acts as the third-person omniscient but periodically breaks into the story with his personal opinions on the matter, most of which are quite funny.  The narrator is not a character in the story and never directly interacts with the people in the story line, but he certainly has a distinct personality.  Sometimes, the narrator drips with irony as he makes a parenthetical comment, such as: "But here let me remark that I do not like engaging the reader's attention in connection with persons of a lower class than himself; for experience has taught me that we do not willingly familiarise ourselves with the lower orders—that it is the custom of the average Russian to yearn exclusively for information concerning persons on the higher rungs of the social ladder."  Other times, the narrator takes a moment to mock the characters in the story, like the very confused Nastasia Petrovna.  Typical of a satire, there is quite a bit of mocking in this story of aristocratic habits.  He illustrates the frivolity and foolishness of many of their actions in his portrayal of them, which is illustrated in Chichikov's very successful use of flattery.

Another amusing facet of the narrative style is the author's characterizations of the people who appear in the story.  In a way, they represent some cliche ideas like "greed" or "wealth," but none of the characters are a bit cliche because of the peculiarities Gogol assigns them.  For example, he offers several entertaining descriptions of people in the opening of the novel.  One gentleman is "a man who, though not handsome, was not ill-favoured, not over-fat, and not over-thin. Also, though not over-elderly, he was not over-young."  In describing another man's outfit, he pauses from the description to comment, "True, bachelors also wear similar gauds, but, in their case, God alone knows who may have manufactured the articles! For my part, I cannot endure them."  One of my favorite characters is Selifan, the oft-drunk coachman who acts as the protagonist's companion.  As you can imagine, the dialogue between these characters is often equally amusing.

Behind the humor, however, is the dark, depressing nature of Serfdom.  The plot of the story is that Chichikov is a poor man working to raise himself up in society.  At this time, landowners were taxed per serf, and the census was often late in being updated, forcing landowners to pay for even the deceased serfs.  Chichikov collects the papers of people's dead serfs ("souls") to add to his collection.  Throughout the exchanges, they are always spoken of as property, never as people.  They are given no respect even in death.  Although I laughed many times in the story, I was eventually overcome by the seriousness of the matter.  The social critique begins to cry out in the text; people were actually treated this badly.  Dead Souls is thus an extremely brave and necessary social critique of the society of its time.  There are many philosophical and meaningful layers found in the text along with the appealing surface of entertainment.  It's brilliant, and I highly recommend it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Best Nonfiction Novel

I couldn't bear to leave Eat, Pray, Love at the top of my literature blog for long, so I will move on to my favorite nonfiction narrative - In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.  I absolutely loved this book.  I don't know if I've ever been so truly entranced in my reading.  I inhaled over 250 pages of it in one sitting.  In a way, it's like watching a train wreck - you don't really want to be watching it, but you cannot look away.

Capote designed this book masterfully.  In fact, the design is so perfect, so meticulous, that I could actually feel it.  He dedicated six years of his life to this book.  Before I dig in too much further, I'll give you some background on the book in case you're not familiar with it.  In Cold Blood is a true account of a case of multiple homicide.  On November 15, 1959, a modest country man in Kansas was brutally murdered along with his wife, son, and daughter.  On the surface, there was absolutely no explanation for the crime, no trace of the murderers, and no clues to get these answers.  Eventually, Dick Hickock and Perry Edward were tracked down and confessed to the crime.  Capote noticed an article about this incident in the newspaper, and he decided to go to Kansas to find out more.  Eventually, this turned into an intense, six-year process of interviewing everyone involved, including the murderers themselves.  By the end of Hickock's life in particular, Capote was the only person continuing to visit him in prison.

There's an overwhelming and undeniable sense of foreboding in the first section of this book.  In fact, this section is titled "The Last to See Them Alive."  I knew the murders were coming, but I turned the pages reluctantly, fearing that I was bringing on their inevitable deaths by moving forward.  Yet there was not enough resistance in me to stop reading.  The more Capote traced the thoughts and actions of the killers, the more I was captivated.  You may be detecting a theme in the kind of stories that grab me.  Once again, this story primarily spotlights the criminals.  However, Capote is not overly empathetic to them.  Somehow, he achieved a magnificent and delicate balance; he could not risk being too understanding of the killers nor could he be too condemning.  In my reading, I found myself coming to an understanding of their thoughts in this horrific crime, but I never came close to justifying their actions.  They did wrong; Capote does not deny or hide that.  Yet they are still people and not animals - and that is the intimate truth in this story!  I could not stop reading it, and yet I was hardly aware that I was reading.  I could see everything as it happened.  I really cannot think of a better phrase than this book "grabbed me."  It hooked me, pulled me, drew me, and I had no idea it would.

In general, I doubt that I will mention movies in this blog, although I am quite a fan of film.  However, for this story, I highly recommend you watch the movie Capote starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.  It is a fantastic companion to the book because it tells the story of Capote's process in writing it.  That is absolutely a story of its own.  I am fascinated - dumbfounded! - that Capote invested so much time and emotion in the creation of this nonfiction piece.  Inevitably, he grew to become somehow attached to the criminals, and yet he too could never get their awful crime out of his mind.  If you have this knowledge before you read the book, I think that it illuminates some interesting details of the story.  For example, Capote mentions "a journalist" at the end who becomes Hickock's only companion.  With some insight, you will realize that he is talking about himself.  The film is incredible, and Hoffman's acting in it is phenomenal. 

This book is totally unique and absolutely worth your time.  I guarantee you will never read anything else like it.  It is not for the light of heart; it can be quite dark.  But there is so much depth, intensity, and truth in the story.  I challenge anyone to find a better nonfiction novel, and it's one of my favorite classics of all time.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Fluff" Literature

Ok, I confess... I don't always choose the high quality literature for my free time reading.  For the most part, I certainly focus on books that are well known for their caliber and are widely recognized for their brilliance.  But after reading Les Miserables, for example, I was craving something light, entertaining, and easy.  So I picked up Eat, Pray, Love.

I am glad I read this book. I enjoyed it, and it's nice to be reading something current and popular.  However, I would not argue that this is an example of great literature.  It's good writing, but "good" in the sense that it's engaging and witty, not "good" like Steinbeck and Tolstoy with their grand themes and intimate characterizations.  What I most enjoyed about Gilbert's book were the descriptions of her locations.  I read the book shortly after I had come home from living in England and traveling in Europe for eight months.  I caught a "travel bug" during my time and am now always looking for my next destination.  I loved traveling along with Gilbert, taking in the beautiful sights and the exquisite tastes.  It inspired me to write about my travels as well, sharing in the ups and downs, the disasters and the phenomena, the crazy coincidences and the unexpected turns.  And because I had been in Europe, her section about Italy was the most fun for me to read.

Now since reading her book, I have talked with several friends about it.  They tend to nit-pick her writing and complain about a lack of depth, but I don't have these objections because I had a different expectation.  I didn't decide to read Eat, Pray, Love because I thought it would be full of breathtaking writing and valuable insights.  No, I read this book because I wanted to enjoy some fluff.  I love reading.  I actually think it's fun.  This may be crazy to some people, but maybe others feel the same way.  You see, sometimes working my way through a massive book like Les Miserables takes the fun out of reading.  Sure, it's immeasurably valuable, but it requires considerable effort.  Sometimes I like to escape in an easy, fun book just to escape.  It's a way for me to relax, like taking a bubble bath or camping out in front of the TV.  I try to focus on the classics, (and sometimes they are light and quick and enjoyable as well), but I give into the popular books too.

My number one guilty pleasure reading is John Grisham.  I like to read his law-related novels, even though I recognize that he will probably not be making a "Classic American Literature" syllabus anytime soon. It can be so satisfying to fly through a book.  I like to feel as though I'm making progress in my reading, and when I read his books, my mind is set to hyper-speed.  I whip through the pages without even noticing, cruising past the chapter markings without realizing it has passed.  I can get wrapped up in the story, intrigued by whichever lawyer is disillusioned and in trouble.  I see nothing wrong with this.  :)

So now, while wincing slightly from potential attacks, I will repeat one more time that I liked the book Eat, Pray, Love.  Yes, she left her husband and gave into a year of self-indulgence.  Yes, parts of it can be a little hippie-ish.  Yes, her writing is somewhat cheapened by colloquial language and crude comments.  Yes, she practically made out with a tree.  HOWEVER, I still had fun while I read it.  I chuckled at her jokes, drooled over her descriptions, and smiled at her romance.  It doesn't make my Top Ten List, but it was good for me at the time; I needed a break.  I don't ever want to get to the point that I'm so wrapped up in serious, analytical reading that I forget to have fun with it.  We need to hang on to that.  In small doses, fluff is good too.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Les Miserables

I am very proud to be able to say that I have read the entire, unabridged version of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.  In my experience reading "classic" literature, there are some novels that I can read easily and some that require a bit more discipline.  For me, they are more like projects than pleasure reading.  This is not to say that they are not enjoyable, for these novels typically have more depth and I am always grateful to have taken the time to work my way through them.  Yet although I had read lengthy novels like The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina, I had never met the likes of Les Miserables.  The edition I used was broken up into two separate volumes, with tiny print and hundreds of pages each.  For my "free time" reading, this would prove to take some time.

I was first inspired to read Les Miserables after watching the play in London.  My immediate reaction at the end of the show was, "I would love this book!"  There is such an incredibly epic feel to the story, and I love the way in which all the characters weave among one another in their subplots.  For me, this characterization was equally evident in the novel as it was on stage.  Hugo builds so many interesting, multidimensional characters, and I can connect strongly with many of them.  For example, I love Jean Valjean.  Of course I would.  He is, after all, another "uncriminalized criminal," and those characters always grab me.  On the other hand, I was fascinated by Javert, which is a bit ironic.  In a way, I should have disliked him because he was Valjean's enemy and pursued his capture until the very end.  Yet in Javert's final chapter, I was absolutely captivated by his train of thought and inner struggle, and I could feel the torment within his soul deeply.  When he committed suicide, I let out a strange combination of a sigh/gasp because I was so overwhelmed by the beauty and pain in the scene.  I also fell in love with M. Myriel at the very beginning.  Although his character may have been a little too good to be true, I believed it in the story.

However, I had a lot of trouble connecting with Marius and Cosette, which is a problem since their love story is designed to tug at my heart strings as the reader.  I don't know if I'm too cynical or too modern, but I wasn't able to appreciate the high romance that Hugo describes.  At times, I snorted at the overly passionate descriptions of tiny, insignificant interactions rather than sighing at the beauty Hugo attempted to create.  I think I was also turned off by their young age, doubting that two people so young could genuinely fall in love with as little interaction as they had.  I also felt some of my feminist defenses kick in as I read Hugo's conception of what makes a woman beautiful.  Cosette was poised to embody beauty, and her shining qualities were her submissiveness, her delicacy, her fragility, and her innocence.  I don't think I would use one of those words to describe myself.

As you can imagine, with a book this big, I have a lot to say, and I would be happy to share more.  However, I will do my best to keep my blog shorter than Hugo's novel and limit myself to just a few more points.    Although some moments made me snort, others truly did make me sigh.  There are times that his descriptions are breathtaking, and I feel like I can see, smell, and hear everything in the scene.  He also makes a lot of philosophical statements and observations, defining what he believes love, happiness, courage, honor, and other ideal virtues are.  Clearly, Hugo took his time with this novel and carefully pieced together every word.  Yes, his tangents can be ridiculously long, like the lengthy history of the Battle of Waterloo and the extremely detailed depiction of the sewers of Paris.  But overall, I enjoyed the novel, and it kept my attention.  It is truly a masterpiece, a work of art - destined to be a "classic."  I am very glad I read the whole thing, but this is one I confess I won't be rereading any time soon.  :)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Art of Rereading

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about aesthetics.  He proposed that after you have seen or heard or read a piece, you can never appreciate it and have as strong a reaction to it again.  From that moment on, the art's effect on you will change and diminish.  You may always like it, but you can never regain your first experience with it.

As I thought about this concept, I related it to literature, for that is the art with which I most identify.  In particular, I thought about my experience with the book The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.  This is one of my favorite books because of the way it has affected me.  The first time I read it, I was in high school, in the middle of an identity crisis I had been processing for about five months.  I connected very strongly with the main character's lost identity.  This loss is so strong, Ellison doesn't even give us this character's name.  All I remember from that first reading is following the character's journey from one group of people to another, seeking various ways in which he could form an identity.  At the end, he closes himself off in a large underground room with over 1,000 light bulbs.  When I finished the book, I fell into heavy contemplation about my own life.  I sat outside on the porch swing and analyzed the all the groups and activities in which I was involved that I had been using as my identity markers.  I tossed them aside one by one and searched for something unique about me apart from all these exterior things.  I grabbed a journal and wrote down everything I could understand about the individual qualities, quirks, needs, habits, and feelings that made me different from everyone else.  It was the first time I had been constructive with my identity crisis, moving forward to gain a sense of self rather than despairing over the discovery of my lack of self.  Because I connected so strongly with Ellison's character, I could see myself sharing in some degree of his ending if I didn't work through my struggles.  It was a powerful book for me, and very instrumental for that period of my life.

However, when I reread the book about three years later, I had an entirely different experience of it.  This time, I read it in an academic setting, and I was able to grasp the underlying political and social messages in the novel that I had completely missed in my first reading.  I analyzed the significance of little symbols Ellison drops in the story, symbols that I hadn't before noticed.  I still thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I didn't feel a strong emotional connection to it this time.  I appreciated the craft of the novel and the significance it had in its time period.  I researched quite a lot of academic papers discussing the book and saw it in a whole new way.

The Invisible Man is not the only book I've reread, of course, but it certainly gave me the strongest difference in reaction with a second reading.  When considering this, I began to wonder if my friend's theory about aesthetics is correct.  My first experience with the book can never be recreated, and I doubt I will ever respond so strongly to it again.  If I continue to reread it, will that diminish my connection with the book?  I am inclined to disagree, asserting that an appreciation for art can only grow stronger over time.  But this is more about the initial reaction than an intelligent appreciation.  Will the strength of the connection lose force?

First of all, when you reread a book, you will not experience the mystery of how the story will unfold because you've already uncovered it.  You know exactly what will happen and how it will end, so that driving force to discover these things will not be behind your reading the second time.  You also will not experience the surprise of shocking twists that may be in the plot.  Second, you have already formed opinions about the characters, so you may not be questioning them and empathizing with them as strongly.  Is something then lost in rereading?  Should you leave your book untouched after the first reading in order to hold on to your first connection with it?

I have come to the conclusion that the answer is NO.  There are always new things to be learned in great literature.  When I read a book multiple times, I am struck by something different every single time.  Granted, I may never have the same emotional attachment or curiosity with it, but I nevertheless find more that I love about it.  I don't think that the experience of my first reading of The Invisible Man will ever be lost, no matter how many times I read the book again.  I can always hold on to that.  Great writers put a lot of thought and care into their work, and I don't think we can ever grasp it all the first time we read it.  The emotions and the exciting turns of the plot can actually distract us from some of the implicit messages and symbols.  Thus, when those things are less affecting, we catch these underlying pieces of the novel.  I fully support and encourage everyone to reread their favorite books over and over.  I know I will.