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.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Crime and Punishment

I cannot think of a better way to begin my blog than with my favorite book: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  I have never read a book so thoroughly as I have with this particular novel.  Not only have I read it in its entirety three times, but I have also read sections of it to create three different analytical essays, one of which was a long, detailed, researched thesis.  As you can imagine, I have a lot to say about this novel, but I will restrain myself and pull out the main reasons I love it.

1. The Uncriminalized Criminal
I am so fascinated by the character of Raskolnikov.  By all rights, the readers should hate him.  Within the first couple chapters, he brutally murders two unsuspecting women with an ax.  Dostoevsky does not spare his readers the gory details, but he fills our minds with the bloody mess Raskolnikov created in this scene.  Moreover, Raskolnikov's motive for this crime is very unclear, (and the inspiration for hundreds of essays, articles, and classroom discussions), which keeps us from mentally justifying what he did.  If, for example, the women had killed his fiance or stolen his life savings, we might be inclined to forgive him for this reaction.  However, Dostoevsky offers no such easy answers.  And yet - somehow! - I can love and identify with Raskolnikov.  Throughout the novel, he baffles us with a series of good deeds, selfless actions, and admirable friends.  We start to imagine him as a good man who made a mistake rather than identifying him merely with the word "murderer."  I think it is common for people to limit murderers to this title, both in fiction and in real life.  I am thus drawn to Crime and Punishment because it resists this categorization and creates a likable hero out of someone who could have been a villain.  By the end of the novel, I always find myself rooting for Raskolnikov, longing for his redemption, and hoping for a light sentence.  I don't think I'm the only reader who experiences this reaction, and I think it's the beauty of the complex character Dostoevsky created.

2. The Power of the Conscience
The title of the novel is directly related to this next aspect I love about it.  The "crime" is fairly obvious and takes up a tiny portion of the text: Raskolnikov murders two women.  The "punishment," on the other hand, could be interpreted in a number of ways, but it lasts throughout the rest of the novel.  I believe that the "punishment" Dostoevsky refers to in his title is the inner punishment Raskolnikov experiences, that is, the torture of his guilty conscience.  I find this idea equally fascinating.  Raskolnikov's guilt is so powerful that it even causes him to become physically ill, suffering fever, delirium, and hallucinations immediately following the crime.  It breaks him down from a confident, intelligent academic to a weak, whimpering man.  He wrestles with this kind of punishment for the majority of the book, agonizing over the fear and indecision that plague him.  In fact, through the character of Sonia, Dostoevsky presents an actual, judicial punishment as the relief for his internal punishment.  For me, following Raskolnikov's inner torment is positively gripping.  I can feel it with him as he struggles within himself, and I love that Dostoevsky enables readers to share in this kind of personal struggle.  It's like I've gained access to someone's secret world and am captivated by what I find.

3. Dostoevsky's Interpretation of Existential Crisis
This, as you may have guessed, was the subject of my aforementioned thesis.  I find this element of Crime and Punishment to be what makes it totally unique.  Argue with me if you will, but I believe that Raskolnikov experiences what we have come to understand as an existential crisis before he commits murder, and his confession does not sufficiently help him overcome it.  There exists a deeper layer to his motive and inner torment than the crime would initially suggest.  Dostoevsky even leads the readers to believe that it could have the fairly simple solution Sonia proposes: "...bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, 'I am a murderer!'"  Yet this proposition requires more than confessing his deed; it requires acknowledging his guilt.  The latter part of this was a much greater struggle for Raskolnikov.  At the end, Dostoevsky establishes two possible outcomes for a person who is deep in existential crisis - suicide or redemption.  Raskolnikov learns to release his dependence on pure reason, accept social morality, and synthesize himself with Something greater than himself (love, God, etc.) in order to heal the fissure in his identity and self-perception.  In my opinion, this is what makes Crime and Punishment a work of genius.  There are many, many layers and philosophies throughout the novel to unpack and consider, and I could happily explore them in much more detail.

To avoid completely turning into Polonius and making this much more than the short list of reasons I promised, I will end my summary on this note.  But this is one book I never tire reading or discussing.

Monday, September 6, 2010

My Quest

I am on a quest, a quest to be well read.  

I have always loved reading.  When I was little, my nose was always in a book.  I acquired the ability to close out the world around me and fall entirely into the created world I was reading.  Although my parents were happy that I liked to read, this particular trait irritated them when we took a trip to the Badlands in South Dakota and I was too immersed in my book to look out the window.  Yet when I was sixteen, my reading habits took a significant turn.  Up to that point, I read whatever subject was interesting to me at the time.  I went through a phase of horse-back riding books; the teen dramas of "Sweet Valley High"; an obsession with the author Caroline B. Cooney; a long mystery genre phase, encompassing everything from Nancy Drew to Agatha Christie; and various books in between.  However, near the beginning of my sophomore year in high school, I decided to read Uncle Tom's Cabin in my free time.  Although it was not the first time I had read what one could call "Classic Literature," it was the first time that I decided to do it on my own.  Once I got into the story, I was so invested in the characters and plot that I couldn't put the book down.  I read the second half of the book all in one sitting, unable to think about anything else.  For the first time in my life, I actually cried for the characters and felt emotionally attached to them.  When I finished, I had to set the book in my lap and process what I had just read through the emotions in my heart.  I was never the same reader again.

Now let me take a minute to say that my feelings about Uncle Tom's Cabin have somewhat changed through my years of academia.  My eyes have been opened to the objections to the book, and I can't bring myself to put it among my favorite books of all time because I do believe some of these objections are valid.  In a future post, I will address this in more detail and open it up for discussion because I believe it is worth discussing.  But for the purposes of this introduction, I will say no more about that now.  The important thing about this book to me is the way it changed my appreciation for literature.

Because I loved reading Uncle Tom's Cabin so much, I realized that I needed to read more "Classic Literature."  I made a commitment that from that moment forward, I would select classics for my free-time reading and set aside all the other books in which I had indulged in the past.  I thus consciously began my quest to be well read, a quest that will last my lifetime.  For every book I cross off my list, I feel like I add five more.  It has been quite a few years since that first inspirational reading, and I have conquered and enjoyed many great books because of it.  However, I do not feel like I am "well read" yet, and I continue to press on in my project.

A very important thing I have learned about my quest along the way has been the significance of sharing it with others.  Some of the best books I've read were recommendations from friends who also love to read.  I have discovered incredible authors just by talking with other book lovers.  And I don't think I can ever fully appreciate a book unless I've had an opportunity to discuss it with someone else.  So this is The Literature Quest, or "The Lit Quest."  I hope to form a network of book lovers who can join me on my quest and share in it with me.  I want to hear your thoughts, opinions, and recommendations.  I want to read and talk about literature.