Thursday, December 29, 2011

The e-Reader Debate

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas and is still reveling in holiday spirit.  This is my favorite time of year, and I wish you all have some of the joy I have been feeling.  And while things have been extremely busy in my life lately, I have not given up on this blog.  I hope to come back with new energy in January!

But before we discuss specific books and authors again, I want to open a little debate.  I imagine that the Kindle was a popular present this year, and since so many of you love reading, it's likely that you received one (or another kind of e-reader).  However, many book lovers are resisting the emergence of e-readers out their loyalty to books.  I know this because I was once staunchly opposed to reading tablets. 

I love books.  Let me make that as clear as possible.  There is nothing that compares to holding a book in your hands and feeling the significance in its weight.  I love turning pages forward to feel the progress I'm making but also flipping back to ones I've already read to find the connections.  (Or when I'm reading Russian works, I need to flip back to remember all the names!)  I like penciling in notes in the margins or underlining a passage I want to be able to quickly find again.  I adore antique books that have soft leather covers and that delightful musty smell of old pages.  Some of my most prized possessions are volumes I have from the 1800s, such as my first-edition copy of The Portrait of a Lady.  A reading tablet could never be a legitimate substitute for something like that.

Another objection I had to Kindles was a commercial they had on TV.  In it, a guy and a girl have a short "debate" about Kindles versus books.  I can hardly bring myself to call it a debate because the arguments are absolutely pathetic.  The only defense the girl offers for books is that she feels satisfaction turning down a page.  I don't think there's a single book lover who would say that is the primary reason he or she enjoys holding a book.  In fact, I imagine that many adament book lovers would never dream of damaging the page by folding it down.  I was so irritated with the completely inadequate defense of books that I formed a negative opinion of Kindles in general.

Thus, when my parents surprised me with a Kindle last spring, I was not thrilled with the gift.  I glared at the small tablet like it was my enemy, threatening the extinction of something I so greatly love.  I could barely muster a polite "thank you" for their generous and well-meaning gift, because I was waging this internal battle.  But since I now owned it, I reluctantly begin to play around with it and observe its capabilities.  In almost no time at all, I was hooked.

That's right, I am absolutely a fan of the Kindle.  I can't argue as adamantly for other e-Readers because this is the only one I really know.  But I now carry mine with me wherever I go.  By far, the most useful aspect of a Kindle for me has been reading it while I use public transportation.  When I get on the T, (subway in Boston), it can be so difficult to balance my purse, coffee, newspaper, and book, especially when I still need a free hand to hold on to the pole.  As you can imagine, I feel awfully clumsy when I try to use two hands to turn the pages and keep track of a bookmark to save my place.  With my Kindle, however, I can have my purse on my shoulder, tuck my coffee in the crook of my arm, and hold the Kindle with just one hand, leaving the other free to hold on for dear life.  I can also easily slip it in and out of my purse, which is too small to fit actual books but has plenty of room for my beloved Kindle.  Just think how many books you could have with you on vacation!

My other favorite feature is that you can download almost every classic for free.  You heard me - FREE.  I have not yet paid one penny to put a book on my Kindle, nor have I run out of memory space.  Now, it's a piece of cake to check out books that people recommend to me.  In just seconds, I can have a free copy in my hands that I don't have to worry about finding or returning to the library. 

Finally, the internet feature has been helpful to me.  It is certainly not the easiest internet browser, but it's functional.  Yet because I don't have internet on my phone, my Kindle has helped me out in a few tight spots.  If I want to do something fairly simple, like look up the weather, a restaurant's number, my email, etc., my Kindle does the job.  The iPad clearly has a much better internet system, and people unfamiliar with my Kindle tend to struggle with using the online feature.  But remember that the Kindle is designed for reading, and the internet is just a handy addition.

HOWEVER, I still love books, and I still believe that there is no replacement for them.  If I'm just sitting on the couch, I would rather read a physical book.  I miss being able to flip through past pages when I want to make a connection or check something out.  I miss penciling in notes for passages I want to be able to quickly reference.  I don't feel like I'm making as much progress when I am looking at a percentage number rather than feeling the weight shift as the finished pages surpass the ones yet to read.  And as I said earlier, I adore antique books with their soft leather covers, golden trim, and musty book scent.  A Kindle can't reproduce this, and thus it could never extinguish books.  But I've learned that it does have its advantages, and I can heartily recommend it, especially to those who use the subway!

But I want to hear from you!  What do you think of e-readers?  Do you like them?  Hate them?  Did you get one for Christmas?  Can you understand my internal struggle?  I look forward to your thoughts!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The French Lieutenant's Woman

I've been wanting to share this next one with you for some time now, and it's the perfect follow-up to my post about Metanarrative.  It's been a while since I read The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles, but I still remember how much I loved it upon my first reading.  I've now reexamined the story and am eager to add it to my list of Classics.

The main character of the story is Charles Smithson, a Victorian gentleman who begins the story with a suitable fiance.  The title character is Sarah Woodruff, a social outcast due to her past relationship with a lieutenant who abandoned her and tarnished her reputation.  As fate would have it, Charles is captivated by this mysterious woman and eventually enters into an affair with her.  In many ways, the characters and setting of the story fit into a typical Victorian design.  Based in England in 1867, it is reminiscent of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and other authors of that era.  However, Fowles is clearly satirizing Victorian literature and fashioning a Postmodern work of brilliance in this Victorian mold.

The primary method of satire is Fowles' unique and amusing narration.  The narrator constantly breaks in and out of the story in metanarrative, dispelling the fantasy.  Eventually, he confesses that he is actually writing the story in 1967, yet he claims to have no authority over his characters.  In a truly unique move, Fowles actually places himself temporarily in the story.  Near the end, he describes a man who is sitting on the train across from the main character and studying him quizzically.  He reveals that he, the narrator, is the mysterious man on the train and as he looks at Charles, he says, "What the devil am I going to do with you?"  Then, he proceeds to weigh the possible outcomes of the story.  Memorably, he eventually settles the matter by offering three alternative endings, which he suggests are all equally valid.

I thoroughly enjoyed this narrative style.  I love the ways he poked fun at Victorian literature, and I often chuckled at the narrator's subjective comments that balk from a tradition of "narrator as god."  He also filled the text with countless literary allusions, which I, as a fellow lit lover, absolutely loved.  Every chapter begins with at least one quote from a famous piece of literature, and at times he directly explains its connection to the story.  His characters are equally well read and frequently refer to various works of their time, such as Madame Bovary and Persuasion.

Another important aspect of this story is the ambiguity, which plays a critical role in the novel.  Fowles pushes readers to consider that things cannot always be separated into distinct categories.  It is not always a matter of right or wrong, good or bad, yes or no.  Sarah is the best example of this in the novel.  Through gossip in the town, we hear many explanations and opinions about her relationship with the French lieutenant, but none of them are ever confirmed.  Moreover, the shame she bears from this relationship is presented at times as her source of victimization, and at other times, it's her source of power. But perhaps the greatest ambiguity of all these possible motives is that they do not necessarily contradict each other.  It is conceivable that they may all be true, or at least partially true.  Moreover, there is an implicit suggestion that one explanation does not exist, that there is not one “true” reason for Sarah’s actions.  This essentially borders the Postmodern theory of "truth" and "untruth," in which there are multiple dimensions we perceive rather than one set guideline.

Publishing this in 1969, Fowles was ahead of his time.  I believe that his work was monumental in the transition from Modern to Postmodern literature, and his brilliance is even more striking in consideration of the innovation it brought.  The French Lieutenant's Woman is about so much more than its plot.  In fact, the plot is the least memorable aspect of the story for me.  Instead, Fowles challenged the boundaries of what a story can be and ushered in a new era of writing.  This novel is lightly entertaining and deeply philosophical at the same time, which is not an easy thing to accomplish.  I highly recommend it to all!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Literary Analysis, Part 3: Metanarrative

I'm sorry for taking so long before writing a new post.  Although this series takes more work for me to write, I am finding it to be really valuable, and I am motivated to continue.  However, I am walking in some territory beyond my expertise, so please read this as a discussion rather than an official instruction.

Metanarrative is another really fascinating lens of literary analysis.  It comes from Postmodern philosophy, which is based on the idea that definitive absolutes - such as Truth - are either extremely elusive or nonexistent.  Inherently, this also makes it difficult to define postmodernism, since it balks against definitions.  Nevertheless, there are theories within postmodernism we can understand and which shed light on the literary subset of metanarrative.

According to this philosophy, everything we experience is subject to our interpretation of it.  We cannot evaluate anything from an objective standpoint because we unavoidably make assumptions based on our interpretations.  Even if we tried to avoid this by taking what is written to be meant literally, this is still a subjective decision.  For this reason, postmodernists believe that our conception of Truth is relative because it is subject to our interpretive limits of "true" and "untrue."  Some postmodernists will go so far as to suggest that there is no definitive Truth at all, but others (like myself) argue that it must exist, though we will never have the assurance that we know it.

Authors who incorporate metanarrative in their writing explore this postmodern idea. To start simply, metanarrative is a story within a story.  These texts are not written with a third-person, omniscient narrator who exists outside of the characters in the story.  Instead, they have active narrators who openly insert themselves in the stories they are telling and are self-conscious of their own narration.  If the narrator appears as a character in the story, the author may take a break from the main storyline to say what the narrator is doing in real time.  This creates a metanarrative by acknowledging that there are two simultaneous things happening - 1. The events of a previous experience from a retrospective point of view, and 2. The present events occurring while the narrator is telling the story.

If the narrator does not appear as a character in the story, he will break the traditional framework to reveal that he is incorporating his personal opinions to the story.  By doing this, the author openly acknowledges that the events of the story should not be taken as factual, unwavering Truth.  A metanarrative identifies that there is a narrator behind the story and not an omniscient, inerrant god.  This emphasizes that the reader's understanding of the story will be affected by the narrator's presentation as well as her own interpretation.

Another aspect of postmodernism that often appears in metanarrative is frequent allusions to past works.  Again, this is meant to illustrate that we are wrapped in the context of various stories which impact our understanding.  The author of a metanarrative is extremely self-aware and wants readers to challenge their own interpretations as well. 

Why would I want to know this?  How will this affect my reading?

Because we are so accustomed to omniscient narrators, we may be baffled the first time we encounter metanarratives.  I find that it is helpful to understand the purpose behind these unusual narrations so that we can scrutinize what the author is conveying.  Of course, if you believe in the heavy subjectivity our interpretation brings, then we should never expect to really understand what the author had in mind.  I find that this makes the piece of writing much more fluid and welcomes readers to entertain various interpretations.

Examples in Literature:

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Honorable mention: Frankenstein, Turn of the Screw, and Dracula are all layered with multiple narrators to play with interpretations among the characters of the story and those of the readers

Useful Explanation:

Purdue University's Guide to Postmodernism
I'll try to find more for this later, but let me know if you have a useful site at hand!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I am Thankful

In the last several months, I have grown to be very thankful for so many of the wonderful things in my life.  When something bad happens, it is very easy for us to ask the heavens, "Why??"  However, we rarely question why the good things happen in our lives, though they are equally unexplained.  For example, why should I have been born in a loving family?  Why should I have been encouraged to read as a child?  In fact, why should I have been educated at all?

Because these things are equally beyond our control, the only proper response we can have is to be thankful.  And since this blog is my only real forum for thoughts like this, I'll indulge in my thankfulness within a literary perspective.

I am thankful for all the nights my mother read to me while I was tucked in bed.

I am thankful for all the libraries that loaned me countless books free of charge.

I am thankful for all the books my family and friends gave me as presents over the years.

I am thankful for all my English teachers who encouraged my reading and writing.

I am thankful for all my undergraduate studies that opened my mind to the world of literature.

I am thankful for Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Ellison, James, Hardy, Faulkner, and so many others who chose to publish their beautiful thoughts and stories.

And I am thankful for all of  you who take time out of your day to look at this little blog.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Literary Analysis, Part 2: Feminism

"Feminism" is a highly charged word.  Immediately upon hearing it, we experience a number of different feelings and impressions.  For a long time, I must admit that I had a negative association with the term.  I (falsely) assumed that to be a feminist, one had to be anti-man.  In my mind, feminists were women who felt that they were unfairly judged in society and thus they must overcompensate for this by elevating all women and pushing down men in the process.  I am happy to say that I am no longer of this opinion and that furthermore, I can proudly label myself a feminist.  So what does this mean?  Once again, I intend to address this solely from a literary perspective.  I have not studied feminism in nearly enough detail to be able to offer a comprehensive definition of the term and its status over time.  However, I want to open the discussion to share what I think and to learn more from all of you.

The history of feminism is usually divided in three waves.  To start with a disclaimer, I want to say that I am aware there were some prominent female figures who appeared on the scene for hundreds of years before the first wave.  However, the first recognized movement for women's rights took place in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The key issues they focused on at this time were suffrage, education, and public voice.  The leaders of the movement wanted women to attain all the rights of men and gain the respect of being seen as autonomous and intelligent human beings. 

The second wave reached its height in the 1960s following the Civil Rights Movement.  Rather than focusing on the legal constrictions against women, they revealed the detrimental assumptions and expectations that pervaded society.  In an effort to broaden the perception of "feminine" actions, many of these women boldly challenged traditional roles by their loud and determined protests.  Another significant component of this movement was redefining a woman's sexuality in society, which was minimally addressed in the previous wave. 

The third wave started in the 1990s and took on a new perspective.  Most of the privileges the leaders of the first and second movements sought were achieved at this point, and the new focus was on the underlying gentrification.  They resist the dichotomy of mutually exclusive categories of "men" and "women."  Instead, they argue that sexual identity should not be constrained by any categories or definitions.  The transgender identity, a previously unheard voice, was a significant part of this movement.  They also highlighted that one's identity as a woman was inextricably linked to her race, social status, and culture, and it would thus necessarily differ and conflict among the population. 

Why would I want to know this?  How will this affect my reading?

If nothing else, making an effort to read work by female authors will provide you with a different literary perspective.  Although I will readily acknowledge much of the value of a feminist perspective, I have to admit that the majority of the authors I read are men.  However, women do have a different kind of voice, and it's particularly beneficial to read those who are intentionally revealing these feminist issues.

The feminist authors of the first wave illustrated the oppression women faced without the ability to represent themselves, even within their own homes.  The feminist writers of the second wave explored their unique perspective outside of the traditional roles of "wife" and "mother."  Finally, the material in feminist literature in the third wave plays with gender assumptions and challenges the notion of a dichotomy.  Please let me know if you can think of other pieces of fiction that should be included in my list!

Feminism in fiction literature:

Before any "Waves"
The Rover by Aphra Behn

First Wave
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Second Wave
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Third Wave
The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

Feminist theory:

Overview: This PDF is a wonderful summary and easily accessible.

A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollenstone Craft
- This is a beautifully written piece and was a huge landmark in its era.  It's fairly short, and you can read the full text here.  I highly encourage you to check it out.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
- I have only read samples of this, but it was very influential in the era it was published.  In the text, Beauvoir revealed the nature of women as "other" for the first time.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
- I have not read this, but it is universally acknowledged as one of the foundational texts of the second wave of feminism.

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
- This is one of the most fascinating feminist texts.  Butler analyzes feminism from a fairly objective perspective of gender roles and offers remarkable insight.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

For the last several days, I have been working on various drafts of other parts to the Literary Analysis Series.  But I haven't felt good about posting the next one yet, and so my heavy thoughts on existentialism have been sitting at the top of my blog much longer than I intended.  Ultimately, I have decided that although I am not finished with the series and I do still find value in it, I will space it out with literature reviews in between.  After all, this blog is based on the literature itself, and I don't think anyone (myself included) would be eager to read a whole group of posts on analysis all at once.

This brings me to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  I'm not entirely sure why it has taken me so long to write about this one.  I think that there is a part of me that resisted listing it among the "Classics" because I felt it wasn't serious enough.  But the truth about Huck Finn, and the reason it deserves this status, is that it is full of mature and thoughtful themes in the guise of a children's story.  This is not the only piece of literature that does this so well.  I have already discussed To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies, both of which have children as their protagonists and are often considered to be children's stories.  Nevertheless, these stories each contain a great deal of stimulating insight and can provoke thoughtful discussion.  I really enjoy stories that have protagonists with an unusual perspective, and these authors all present intriguing themes by writing from a child's point of view.

In school, I had to read this novel in eighth grade and then again in my senior year of high school.  When my teacher told us we would read this in our 12th grade AP English class, I must admit I was a little skeptical.  However, my experience with the story was remarkably different in the later reading.  Not long ago, I said that Classic literature is remarkable for its ability to make us grow in our appreciation for it in successive readings.  Well, I think there are many subtle messages in Huck Finn that can only be found in repeated study.  In fact, it would be a great shame if people only read the story when they were children and missed out on all the adult content.

I want to back up for a minute and note that Twain published Huck Finn nearly ten years after The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  I think this is an important fact to keep in mind because he invested a lot of time in this sequel.  If you read the stories back-to-back, I think you will be able to feel the difference.  First of all, the most obvious difference is that the sequel is written from Huck's first-person perspective and is presented in his vernacular. I absolutely love that Twain wrote the story in this way.  In general, I am fascinated by writers who play with dialect in their writing, for I believe it can be used to make powerful yet subtle statements within the text.  In Twain's usage of it, we readers find the messages of the story on our own rather than having them dictated to us.  For example, Huck memorably decides he'd rather go to hell for protecting Jim than do the "right thing" and turn him in.  There's something sweet and compelling about this thought process that I think would be lost if an omniscient narrator (or an adult character, for that matter) explained it.  It is precisely because he is a child that Huck is able to distance himself from "civilized" adult society, thus revealing the hypocrisy that actually exists within it.

Another significant difference in Huck Finn is that Twain really delves into some mature and controversial themes.  We should keep in mind that he published the novel in 1885 when racism was still quite strong in the States.  Recently, people have sought to remove the racist language Twain includes, and I understand their desire to omit it.  However, the overall message of the story is clearly anti-racist, and the language illustrates the culture Huck lived in and yet overcame.  In addition to race relations, Huck encounters a number of other moral dilemmas he must evaluate through his own judgment and conscience.  These questions about society and morality that surface make this piece of literature amount to far more than a child's adventure story.

The vernacular writing and the child's perspective regarding moral dilemmas were innovative contributions to literature.  The reading is enjoyable and thought-provoking at the same time, and it is accessible to readers on multiple levels.  Thus, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn most certainly deserves to be listed among the great literary Classics, and I hope children and adults alike continue to read this novel for generations to come.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Literary Analysis, Part 1: Existentialism

I want to begin this analysis series with existentialism from a literary perspective.  I have attempted to explain this philosophy in a couple of different posts now, but I have not yet been able to fully engage in its definition, as I have clumsily defined it and applied it to a particular book at the same time.  Now, however, I will dedicate that time, but strictly from a literary perspective.  I repeat this because I want to emphasize that I am not at all equipped to approach existentialism as a purely philosophical construct and will leave that job for true philosophers.

The best way I can sum up existentialism is to say that it is the examination of one's Self in essence, separate from Self in context.  What does this mean?  We all have a tendency to define ourselves by our personalities, our skills/talents, and by the activities in which we are involved.  When we meet someone for the first time, our get-to-know-you questions are always directed in that way: What do you do for a living?  (Or for college students, What is your major?)  What do you like to do in your free time?  There is an undeniable emphasis on doing and little interest in being.  Although I don't think it's wrong to ask those surface question upon first acquaintance, they tend to pervade our private thoughts as well.  How do you define yourself?  I am smart.  I do/did well in school.  I play sports.  I write, I create, I compute, etc.  Again, none of these definitions are actually reaching a person's self in essence.  They are based on personality, activity, and social standing.

According to existentialists, every single person has this divide in his/her identity.  Existential crisis arises, however, when a person becomes aware of this divide.  When he realizes that he has a Self which is distinct from these surface definitions, he is likely to abandon his value in the identifications which now appear superficial.   Thus, he must now determine whether there is anything of consequence which is crucial to his existence.  This often results in a person withdrawing from relationships and activities in order to objectively examine the chasm in her identity.  However, it is an inevitably painful and intimidating process, as the person loses the security of her previous identifications.  Moreover, the rift in identity can seem so irreparable that it leads to the pervading attitude of, "What does it matter?" 

Once a person has reached this stage of existential angst, he may experience profound futility in his existence.  A despairing existentialist is unable to bridge the gap between one's true essence and the social qualifications of one's existence.  At this point, he retreats from responsibility and social guidelines, including a moral code.  In literature, the character in existential crisis often acts destructively at this point, challenging society's limits of appropriate behavior in order to offset the despair with some kind of dramatic action.  According to Kierkegaard, a personal in existential angst can ultimately respond to this in only two ways: 1. Resolution of the divide in one's Self, or 2. Irreparable Despair/Suicide.

Why would I want to know this?  How will this affect my reading?

If you are wondering this, (or gave up on reading this post long ago), this is a completely valid question.  But the beauty of literature is that it illuminates real issues of human existence.  I believe that existential crisis is a real and prevalent problem people experience.  Literature can allow us to access this problem if we have not personally experienced it or find relief if we are in the midst of it.  (Although, unfortunately, not all authors offer a positive resolution).  A number of authors have brilliantly portrayed existential angst in their work, and if we are not looking for it, we may miss one of the supreme messages of the text.  If we cannot relate to the characters on this level, we may be irritated with their listlessness and misunderstand its source.  We may likewise be put off by the conclusion, especially if we are not aware of the problem at the core of the text.  If we read existential literature without considering existentialism, we may experience the piece to be slow and exasperating rather than compelling and insightful.  In this way, existential literary analysis can greatly increase our appreciation for the work of literature.

To see existentialism in literature, check out:

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

For more on existentialism, check out:

Existentialism by the Literature Network
Feminism and Existentialism by the ladies at A Year of Feminist Classics
Sickness Unto Death by Soren Kierkegaard
The Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Literary Analysis, Introduction

Recently, the Blue Bookcase hosted a blog hop about analytical reading.  It sparked a great deal of conversation among the bloggers who participated, and I personally spent a considerable amount of time reading the various posts and comments.   In fact, the comment sections were unusually full of conversation, and I found the discussion beneath them every bit as interesting as each person's initial posting.  There was quite a bit of variety in the responses, ranging from detailed instruction about a specific literary theory to somewhat worried concerns. 

I think that one of the key components directing the discussion was that "literary analysis" is so vague that we all responded based on our various understandings of that term.  Is analysis the purposeful application of one of the Norton Anthology's specified theories of criticism?  Is analysis breaking down the work minutely in order to study each word that passes?  Is analysis pinpointing the way that the reading impacted you personally/emotionally?  Is analysis thinking about the book for a few minutes while writing a review?  Is analysis studying the work as a whole to find a subtle undercurrent?

I don't think that there is a definitive answer for these questions, and I won't attempt to create one.  However, I want to pursue this for a little longer using my individual understanding of analysis in the hope that it may be interesting or helpful to any of you readers.  At the same time, I hope that this series will allow you all to teach me more about each of the measure of analysis I will mention because I am certain you all have insight I could use.  Reading through your thoughtful comments in the blog hop assured me of that, if nothing else. 

So my plan is to present a couple of the primary literary philosophies I consider when I am engaged in analysis.  I will refer to specific books I've reviewed in the past that should help provide examples.  Please note that I am not a literature professor and do not pretend to have the authority to present this series as such.  I am not writing this to act as a teacher but to continue the discussion we have already begun.  Moreover, I am hoping that you will all teach me more in the process.

Ok, let's begin...

Part One: Existentialism
Part Two: Feminism
Part Three: Metanarrative

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Dickens, Revisited

Moving forward, I'd like to discuss Dickens again.  A while ago, I wrote about A Tale of Two Cities, which I said was my favorite of his works.  I really enjoyed reading the mixed responses in the comments of that post, as you all offered interesting insight.  In response, (particularly to Adam's suggestion*), I have now read Great Expectations and would like to reopen the Dickens discussion.

It seems to me that there are more people who dislike Dickens' style than there are fans of it.  And before I get going, I want to say that I do understand that.  Everyone knows that he is wordy, and I can't pretend that isn't true.  But I have to admit that I honestly didn't even notice it while I was reading Great Expectations.  I read several blogs about this book before writing my own post now, and people almost unanimously have said that the beginning takes way too long and says much more than is necessary for the story.  However, I really didn't have that experience.  I was completely wrapped up in Pip's story, and I felt like the whole thing was essential in order to reach the conclusion that it did.  What makes me impatient is when authors spend time on long tangents that have nothing to do with the story itself, (i.e. Hugo and Melville).  Everything that Dickens built was faithful to the development of the story, and this becomes increasingly clear as the book progresses. 

Moreover, I absolutely ate up some of those descriptions.  I believe that in Great Expectations, Dickens has created some truly memorable scenes that will stand in my mind long after I have read this tale.  I love the opening scene in the foggy graveyard, with this young kid who is manipulated by a crook.  I thoroughly sensed how Pip felt growing up with Joe and his autocratic sister, with the never-ending taunt of "raised you by hand" ringing in his ears.  And really, who can ever forget the image of Miss Havisham in her dusty room, dressed in her faded wedding gown with just one shoe on and all the clocks stopped?  This is the magic that Dickens can create.  He may take a few extra words than some authors, but in faithfully pinpointing specific characterizations, they are easily imaginable.

I also want to point out that Dickens is actually quite funny.  I didn't particularly remember that from previous readings, and I don't know whether I simply forgot about it or it was just less prevalent.  But during Great Expectations, I frequently chuckled and smirked as I read.  His descriptions can really be rather playful and satirical, and I was quite entertained.  I think my favorite example of this is during Pip's first dinner with Herbert, as Herbert patiently interrupts himself every few moments to correct Pip's table manners.  If Dickens cut out some of this for the sake of shortening the story, I think a great deal of its charm would be lost.

Finally, I'll wrap it up to say that I found the plot extremely satisfying.  I read in someone else's post that every character gets precisely what he or she deserves.  I think that is a great way to explain it.  By the end, it was all just so fitting that I closed the book with a smile.  Mind you, there is a significant difference between a story that ends happily and a story that ends fittingly.  I much prefer the latter.  And though it was fitting, I don't think the story was overly predictable.  There were a number of little twists along the way which kept me guessing.  Personally, I wouldn't change a thing.

So I hope this has offered you a different perspective on Dickens with more specific features to look for if you generally do not care for him.  I know he's not for everyone, but I do think he ought to be admired for the skill that he undeniably possessed, as well as the significant contribution he made to literature.

*Adam blogs at Roof Beam Reader and has covered an incredible scope of literature, including five other works by Dickens.  (But Adam, where's your commentary on Great Expectations?)  Anyway, you should all do yourself a favor and check out his reviews!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Literary Blog Hop

November is upon us, and I am sorry that I lost steam at the end of October.  There were other books and stories I was hoping to fit into my October reading, but I guess I'll just have to save them for next year.  I enjoyed the October reading season, but now I've been in a bit of a slump.  So when I saw that The Blue Bookcase is doing another one of their blog hops, I thought this might be a perfect solution!

It's been a while since I've participated in one of these, but I always love them when I remember to tag along.  This week's question is a great one for me:

"To what extent do you analyze literature? Are you more analytical in your reading if you know you're going to review the book? Is analysis useful in helping you understand and appreciate literature, or does it detract from your readerly experience?"

Literary Blog Hop

To what extent do I analyze literature?  A great extent.  An overly thoughtful extent.  Maybe even an obsessive extent.  Is this for better or for worse?  Honestly, I'm not 100% sure.

There's no doubt in my mind that analyzing literature can reveal the depth and insight of a story in a totally unique and rewarding way.  I believe that literature makes a huge impact on our society by showing us innumerable facets of human nature and implicitly teaching us about our own lives and the people who are in them.  Careful analysis illuminates the exceptional messages within great literature so that we can really recognize what the author is offering and learn from that.  Moreover, in-depth analysis reveals things we don't recognize during our first reading, illustrating the multilevel nature of great work and opening the potential for even more of it.

When I first finish reading a book, it usually takes me some time before I am able to form a real opinion about it.  I often have to think of the work as a whole and weigh the significance of what it had to say.  I take this time to ponder the author's original intentions for the story, and I am almost always inspired to look up more details about it in research.  There have been many times where I have developed a much greater appreciation for a piece of literature because of the analysis I have conducted.  Even if I don't initially love the book, I may grow to admire the author's unique skill or message.  So I do love analyzing literature and uncovering the great things in it that I initially overlooked.  There are a handful of books I've read that I felt were quite strange or even unpleasant while I was reading them but I have since grown to admire.  This is only possible with analysis.  As for the books I already knew I enjoyed, a thoughtful analysis almost always broadens the scope and depth of the piece and makes me like it more.

So in a way, I think heavy analysis can be a test to literature.  If you can break it down and analyze it from a number of different angles and still love the piece, then it is a Classic.  Without contest, I have analyzed Crime and Punishment more intensely than any other book I've read.  I have written numerous papers and read it cover-to-cover three times, in addition to rereading multiple passages.  And I can honestly say that for me, it has not lost one ounce of its flavor or appeal.  In fact, I love it even more.

However, some books are so amazing, I don't need a minute to think about them.  When I have just finished reading a truly magnificent piece, I close the book with an instinctual sigh of deep contentment.  There's something beautiful about literature that is so magnificent that I don't have to even think about it; I can just feel it.  And this is why I say that I can see how being analytical about reading can detract from your experience.  When I read something that is so thoroughly enjoyable like that, I am instantly aware of how much more satisfying that feeling is than intensive study.  Somehow, I think we must find a balance between appreciating literature on its analytical level and letting go in order to just enjoy it for what it is.  I definitely err on the side of taking it too seriously at times.  I need to be able to also sit back and enjoy.

I'm looking forward to reading what the rest of you think about this question!

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Another wonderful tale to add to this October collection is the short story by Washington Irving, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."  Yet again, this story has permeated popular culture, and we are all very familiar with terms like "The Headless Horseman," even if we don't know its source.  This story is well-known, full of great description, and a fun and easy read.

Irving first published "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in 1820.  Apparently, he did not invent the Headless Horseman but borrowed the character from German folklore.  Nevertheless, I do believe Irving is responsible for making it such a popular haunted figure, and the long, lean, awkward Ichabod Crane was certainly his own creation.  In a twist among "horror stories," the narrator does not present the story very seriously but maintains a sense of humor in the undertone of the text.  Rather than trying to convince readers to be terrified of Ichabod's fate, he instead hints at its incredulity.

I just love the narration of this story.  Similar to The Turn of the Screw, the characters in the story love to sit around and swap their best ghost stories.  (I have to wonder, does this happen anymore?  Where are these storytelling parties by the fireplace?  We know even Lord Byron and Mary Shelley did this in real life.  I would love to be a part of a ghost story competition.  Anyway, I digress...)  Once again, this is not a standard third-person narration in which the voice of the text is detached and omniscient.  Instead, the narrator offers an interesting perspective because he engages with the story enough to have visited Sleepy Hollow but not so intimately to consider himself one of the people.  With his detailed description and amusing commentary, he can convince us that his story is true, but we can almost see the twinkle in his eye as he doubts its supernatural implications.  Moreover, the story itself is said to be "found among the papers of Mr. Knickerbocker," who records the story but does not narrate except for a comment in the postscript.  Thus, the theme of multi-level narration in October stories continues.

As I said, the narration of the story is rich with description and amusing.  We do not need a movie to picture the skinny, long limbs of Ichabod spilling awkwardly around the old horse, as he rides gallantly to woo the pretty girl.  We can likewise smile to ourselves as we imagine this grasshopper-like man bounce energetically around the dance floor and sweep everyone away.  The narrator also offers funny commentary about men and women, and sets up the rivalry between Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones - such great names! - with the ironically silly comparison of combating knights.  Yet at the crux of the story, we can also feel Ichabod's panic as he encounters the terrors of the darkness, and we are left in suspense without truly knowing what happened.

In my opinion, this is a perfect story to read in the fall.  To avoid spoiling anything, I'll stick to these descriptions rather than focusing on the plot too much.  We are exposed to all the sensory joys of a crackling fire, a brisk autumn wind, crisp warm apples, and an enormous feast of seasonal food.  In fact, the narrator nearly collapses into himself as he details the myriad meats, fruits, cakes, and pies which are "all mingled higgedly-piggedly" in a grant feast.  As I drooled through the descriptions, I found myself eager for Thanksgiving and my own fair share of pumpkin pie and an excess of side dishes.

I don't want to spend much more time on this story because I want it to keep this post as light and fun as the story itself.  Truly, this should not be taken too seriously, and I would be remiss if I skipped the humor in an attempt to dig too deeply.  So if you like autumn-themed descriptions and famous old tales, take a few moments to read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" for yourself.  In fact, here's a convenient link for a full online version.  Now if only I had some pumpkin pie right now...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dracula - Group Read

I am so glad I finally read Bram Stoker's Dracula!  Friends have been telling me to read it for a while, and when I saw that Allie at A Literary Odyssey was hosting it for a group read, I just had to participate.  I didn't think I would necessarily like a story about Transylvanian vampires, but I completely misjudged it.  Dracula is well-written, thoughtful, and exciting.  It's just a really fun read, and I can't remember the last time I read a book for pure enjoyment.  I usually spend so much time analyzing books and searching for all the significance within the content that I don't often get swept up in the plot.  But Dracula did take me away and remind me that reading Classics can be fun as well as thought-provoking.

Once again, this October-themed story was not written in the traditional perspective of a third-person omniscient narrator.  I am so intrigued by the fact that Frankenstein, The Turn of the Screw, and Dracula are all written in the form of letters/diaries.  What is it about horror stories that inspire authors to write in this form?  I guess it must be the best way to maintain the suspense, for the narrator doesn't know what's going to happen either if he or she is part of the story as it is happening.  Likewise, it allows the author to jump in his timeline and withhold information which a different kind of narration might require.

The real skill of this book is Stoker's incredible ability to continually provide climactic points that keep you interested.  First, we have Jonathan Harker trapped in Dracula's castle.  This interaction becomes increasingly intense, as Jonathan realizes how serious the situation is and then acts courageously to overcome it.  As time ticks by, Jonathan knows a showdown is coming, and I couldn't believe it was the day before his face-off with Dracula a mere 24% into the story!  (I read this on my Kindle...)   Yet when Stoker suddenly switches to Lucy's story and leaves Jonathan hanging, I found I was equally interested in her predicament.  Once again, I thought this would be the main plot, but after another intense climax, this portion of the story also ends.  So he follows up by creating a new challenge, and it is time for the epic hunt for Dracula together with the danger surrounding Mina.  If I heard about these developments without actually reading the story, I would probably assume that the writing was unskilled and the transitions to multiple climaxes would be clumsy and sudden.  However, Stoker weaves them together seamlessly, and they interact and overlap to create one continuous, action-packed story.

But my favorite thing about the novel is the vampire-fighting dream team.  I can't think of another story that so successfully puts together a team of equal contributors who band together to defeat their foe.  (Ok, ok, I can hear Lord of the Rings fans screaming in my ear, but I personally enjoyed the teamwork of these vampire slayers better.)  Arthur, Quincey, John, Jonathan, Mina, and Van Helsing form such a great team.  I love the characterization Stoker gives to each person, and I especially love that he includes Mina as a vital and intelligent member.  Keep in mind that this was written in 1897, long before "Buffy" and female characters who were capable of discussing such a dangerous adventure, let alone acting in one! 

And yet, I'm not sure I can say that Mina is my favorite.  I love the good, brave heart of Quincey Morris and was thrilled to see him give Americans a good name.  All of the characters balance each other in wits, looks, skills, and personalities so that they form a fairly eclectic crew.  But I think my favorite of all is Professor Van Helsing.  I just love that the leader of this group is an old Dutch professor who has the tenacity and intelligence to do what needs to be done and conquer Count Dracula.  (I also couldn't help thinking that he and fellow professor Indiana Jones might be great friends...)

With eloquent writing and stimulating descriptions, Stoker creates a fascinating story which was destined to survive countless generations.  My heart was pounding as I neared the end of the novel, and it sets up such a perfect final image to conclude the epic tale.  So please, do yourself a favor and read Dracula this month for an exciting October Classic.  And be sure to check out the other posts in the group read!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Turn of the Screw

The next book I have chosen for my October reading is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.  This well-known novella is a classic ghost story that people seem to love or hate.  It begins with a group of people swapping scary stories around a fireplace when one man claims that he knows a story so horrible that nothing else could possibly compare to it.  The group convinces him to share the story, and he reluctantly retrieves the ancient diary of a once-loved governess and begins to read.

The setting is perfect for a ghost story - a young, naive governess is sent to a mysterious and isolated English country home that is wrapped in mystery from the day she arrives.  She is told never to communicate with the legal guardian and attends to two recently orphaned children with only the housekeeper for company.  The children themselves are so beautiful and so well-behaved that it is suspicious, and she constantly guesses at their real thoughts and motivations.  Before long, she begins to see two eerie apparitions and then spends the rest of the story fretting about what to do as they repeatedly appear. 

I recently read James for the first time with Portrait of a Lady, but the only similarity I see in his writing is the ambiguous and sudden ending.  However, I think this is an extremely important thing for James, and so I want to concentrate on the concept of ambiguity in this story.  The main debate readers have with this tale is whether the ghosts were real or the governess was imagining them.  Truly, there is a legitimate argument for each interpretation.  It is never obvious that other people see the ghosts, and yet it is strongly suggested that she is not the only one.  She is able to perfectly describe the deceased people she claims to have never met, but it is conceivable that she may have known them or heard them described before.  Nevertheless, no one in the story doubts her, and we are largely inclined to believe that this is a straight-forward ghost story.

But there are still a few hang-ups, particularly in the character of the unnamed governess.  I don't think the readers are ever fully compelled to like the governess and embrace her as a heroic protagonist.  James certainly has the ability to create a lovable hero, (such as Isabel Archer), but I think he purposefully avoided that for the sake of the story.  One clear method of doing this was to keep the governess unnamed, thus hindering our connection with her.  Furthermore, she is quite emotional, and her speed in becoming attached to people questions the depth and validity of it.  In only two interviews with the guardian, she falls in love with him.  After just a few days with the children, she begins to refer to them as "my children", "my Miles", etc., which I personally find a bit disturbing.  She never comes across as particularly strong, and yet in her few moments of strength, she congratulates herself, thus diminishing our admiration.  Indeed, I have read some of book bloggers express their frustration with this story and their dislike of the protagonist.  But again, I think James did this intentionally.

Because we don't particularly like the protagonist, we are able to doubt her and maintain our suspense about the ending.  We never really trust her to do the right thing, nor can we predict her actions very well.  And the governess is certainly not the only source of ambiguity.  It is never really clear what the exact relationship was between the children and these two servants who are now haunting the premises.  It's also never clear why Miles was expelled from his school or even what happened to their parents in India.  And, of course, there's the ending.  What on earth happened?  More importantly, how did it happen??  All of these uncertainties can be very frustrating for readers who like everything to be spelled out, but James seems to think that the reader's imagination is more capable of creating scary and creepy plot lines than a detailed narrator could be.  I tend to agree with Henry James...

So yes, I liked The Turn of the Screw.  I like the fact that I don't really know what happened.  I like it when books compel me to keep thinking about them after I've finished.  I like that the protagonist may actually be the antagonist.  And I like reading a Victorian ghost story in October.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Masque of the Red Death

A literature lover cannot fully embrace the October reading season without devouring work by Edgar Allan Poe.  He truly captures a dark and suspenseful mood in his writing, and his eerie articulation is equally chilling and fascinating.  I will probably bring up more than one of his works, but I want to start with his short story, "The Masque of the Red Death."

I first read this story in high school, and even when I started to forget the details, I never forgot the essence of the story.  There was something about this story that really stuck with me, though I have never studied it closely or previously written about it.  But it's a quick read and easily accessible, so I reread it recently and encourage you to do the same.

In my opinion, Poe's real skill is his word choice.  He seems to carefully select every word in his writing so that it delivers precisely the feelings and connotations he wants to convey.  I am willing to bet that a remarkable number of the words he uses are only mentioned once each, thus creating a rich and diverse text to explore.  He is also a master of description, incorporating color, lighting, and sounds so thoughtfully that it delivers a distinct mood to readers.  In this story, Poe describes the eccentric castle of Prince Prospero, which is made of seven unique and symbolic rooms.  Each room is a different color and situated so that guests can only see one at a time.  The black room with blood-red windows is the most ominous, and everyone avoids it until they are forced to go there in retreat.

The setup of the story is that the country in which Prospero lives has been ravaged by the "Red Death," a plague gruesomely affecting a significant portion of the peasant population.  Yet rather than trying to help his citizens, Prospero hosts a masked party to cover up the ugliness with food, drink, and merriment.  He has invited all the important officials of the country and sealed off the walls of the castle so they can pretend the plague isn't really happening.  However, the Red Death enters the party amongst them and takes them all.  The final line of the story is awesome:

"And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."

However, this story is not good just because it is creepy and dark.  I would not include it in my blog if I thought its only merit was to offer a little October fun.  It is actually a thoughtful satire, and I think Poe sends a riveting and important message.  The easiest way to read this is to conclude that those in the highest class should share in the pain and desperation of the rest of citizens rather than pretend that they are immune to the country's problems.  (Maybe I'm overly exposed to "Occupy Wall Street," but this sounds eerily relevant right now.)  The Red Death invades their superficial pleasure-seeking and rips the false sense of security away from them in a stroke of righteous justice. 

Although I recognize this condemnation of the rich and selfish, I want to take this to a more personal level.  I think that this is actually the way we all live our lives.  We can easily fool ourselves into thinking that we have control in our lives, and it gives us a sense of security.  We build our own castles around us, made up of school, work, friends, family, and endless future plans.  However, the reality of life is that something can creep in among all of these things we have built and take them down in an instant.  I have had this happen a couple times in my life already, and it shows me just how vulnerable I am to circumstances outside of my control.  Moreover, we can also easily present ourselves with a mask on our faces, painted to look like the person we wish others to see.  I am often no better than the partiers in Prospero's castle, as I laugh nervously whenever hints of trouble sound around me and dive back into comfort and ease.  But then a time comes when we can no longer ignore the striking clock and must face the Masque of the Red Death or whatever it is that gets in our way.  Despite the morose nature of this, I think it is useful to recognize how true this can be so we can humble ourselves and appreciate the depth in the things we have while we do have them.

This is turning out to be kind of a strange post for me, as I can feel myself being influenced by the current cultural movement as well as some things going on in my personal life as I write this.  If I had created this post just a month ago, I'm sure I would have said something much different.  And while I feel a little more exposed than usual, I'm going to post this anyway, because I think it's cathartic and there's a chance it may be relevant to someone reading this as well.  Nevertheless, I can still appreciate this story as a creepy addition to a collection of October reading, and I hope you can too.

Friday, October 7, 2011


Yesterday, we learned that Tomas Tranströmer is the new Nobel Prize for Literature winner.  Because he's a poet and I know nothing about him, I will happily note it but move on.  I'm excited to be able to launch into the October reading season with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  During a blog hop several months ago, I asked you all what I should read next on my book list.  The majority of votes went to Sons and Lovers, which I dutifully read and enjoyed, and then the second highest vote was Frankenstein.   So I read it, liked it, and saved my comments for October. 

In some ways, I'm surprised it has taken me this long to read this classic.  It's one of those famous titles that absolutely everyone knows, even people who never read.  Yet in general, we have the wrong idea about the book.  In high school, I remember being surprised to learn that it was written by a woman and the character Frankenstein was actually the scientist and not the monster.  Yet because I knew these details, I considered myself to be adequately familiar with what I would expect in the text, and that was certainly not the case once I began reading.  Somehow, despite its presence in pop culture, I didn't know how the story was going to end and none of the plot twists were spoiled for me.  It's not like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, which has a twist ending that is nearly impossible to be ignorant of.  Moreover, I did not realize that the story was written in a sort of metanarrative, with at least three layers of narrator perspective. 

I don't think I would be spoiling anything to discuss this last concept.  The story is written in correspondance, as we read letters that Captain Robert Wallace wrote for his sister.  Captain Wallace is on a voyage to explore the North Pole when he discovers Frankenstein, the miserable and ailing scientist.  Wallace then relates Frankenstein's tale in his letters from Frankenstein's first-person perspective.  Thus, most of the story seems to have Frankenstein as the narrator, but the true narrator is Wallace.  However, since it is written in letters, the actual narrator is the recipient of the letters - Wallace's sister, or more profoundly, us.  Moreover, there is also a fair amount of text that is directed from the monster's first-person narration, tossing us even further down this spell of shifting perspectives.  I think this is a crucial element of the story, predating the post modern metanarrative philosophy we are experiencing now with writers like Salman Rushdie.

Because I think this is the greatest merit in her novel, I want to explain what I mean a little further.  (Plus, this also allows me to discuss the story without ruining any plot lines.)  The basic premise of the story is that Frankenstein created a living being out of nothing, left it on its own, and this creation unavoidably turned to evil.  I find this to be a pessimistic critique of human nature, saying that our most natural instincts lead us to evil, much like Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, and other similar works.  In fact, I read somewhere that Shelley referred to the monster as "Adam," alluding to the original fall of man.  With the character of the monster, Shelley continuously shows us that people's perspectives subjectively shape their perception.  Even when he is trying to do good, people assume that the monster is evil because his appearance is so ghastly.  They don't allow a moment's hesitation to consider that he might have pure intentions.  Eventually, he becomes so embittered by this reception that he feels the need to fulfill their expectations of him and match the horror of his looks with the horror of his deeds.  In the end, the monster reveals that not even Frankenstein, his creator, understood him as well as he supposed.

Yet the monster is not the only misunderstood character in the novel.  There are similarly very few moments in the story when characters truly understand Frankenstein's actions.  Because he keeps his creation a secret to everyone, no one understands the source of his suffering.  To compensate, each person imagines a different cause for it and ineffectively attempts to alleviate his pain.  Following this theme, I would suggest that we probably don't understand what Frankenstein's family and friends really feel, nor do we receive a complete view of Wallace.  After all, Wallace is writing to his sister and may very well try to present himself in a fashion that least worries and disturbs her.

I think Shelley wanted to play with the dimensions of perspective and show us the ways it can be misconstrued and distorted.  Naturally, I realize she also wanted to produce a good horror story.  (According to research, she penned Frankenstein in a contest with Lord Byron and others for the best ghost story).  It's quite possible I'm over-thinking this, but I cannot read these dynamic perspectives without finding them to be essential to the meaning of the text.  Moreover, a fairly obvious theme is the way that one's appearance affects people's judgment of him or her.  I don't think it's unreasonable to push this a bit further and note that even "normal" appearances are subject to one's individual interpretation, which makes us all liable to misunderstanding.  Perhaps Shelley is suggesting that we incontrollably act to meet people's expectations.  Frankenstein may only have been a scientific genius because he was striving to meet his parents' and colleagues' view of his intellect.  In some way or another, every character is a slave to his or her perceived destiny, even Wallace in his desire to achieve famed exploration of the North Pole. 

I realize that I am getting a bit carried away here, and I hope I haven't lost you.  As I am writing this, I am uncovering more depth to this story and getting increasingly interested in what it may represent.  However, I will spare you from further ramblings and continue the musings on my own.  If you want to continue the conversation, feel free to comment below.  Happy October, everyone.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Nobel Prizes: A List of Greats

If you are following the Nobel Prize excitement, you may know that they have finally set the date for the literature announcement... and it's tomorrow!  Thursday, October 6 will welcome a new author to join the ranks of the Nobel legends of the past.  Part of the reason I find this exciting is because I'm really not very good at keeping up with contemporary literature.  It's easy to concentrate on the beloved literature of past eras, and I find it difficult to wade through the plethora of books that are being published today.  Yet I do believe that contemporary literature can be just as brilliant and valuable as that of the past, though it is more difficult to identify.  Time is quite helpful in highlighting great work of the past and gives us a clue as to what we should read.  Nevertheless, I think it is so important to keep our eyes open for today's generation of remarkable authors. 

So when the Nobel panel announces a contemporary author worthy of this prize, I will pay attention and add him or her to my list of authors to read.  They seem to have remarkable foresight, as many of their winners in the past are tightly bound in the tome of Classic Literature.  About a year ago, I did a short series on Contemporary Literature that I think will or should be recognized as great literature for years to come.  The series has turned out to be very popular, and I am planning to continue the series in November with a few new ones.  The only way I've found any of these contemporary authors it through suggestions of friends, so I want to return the favor in the blogosphere.  In the meantime, I would be very excited if Cormac McCarthy or Salman Rushdie were announced tomorrow, but I'm not holding my breath. 

Before we add a new member to the select Nobel Laureates, let's take one more day to reflect on those of the past.  Initially, I intended to discuss Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Samuel Beckett, two past winners I've never mentioned, as part of the series.  However, when I was looking over their material, I realized that I will need to completely reread their work before I can adequately discuss it.  And since I have a lot planned for October already, this will have to wait.  But stay tuned...

Anyway, if you have Nobel Prize fever, here are links to past winners I've previously discussed:

Seamus Heaney (1995) - Poetry in general; it was actually a blog hop

William Golding (1983) - Lord of the Flies

Alexander Solzhenitzyn (1970) - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

John Steinbeck  (1962) - East of Eden

William Faulkner (1949) - As I Lay Dying

T.S. Eliot (1948) - The Waste Land

Although he didn't win it for literature, Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Prize in 1986 and I have actually discussed two of his works:  Night and The Trial of God.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Nobel Prizes: Albert Camus

Today marks the first announcement of the 2011 Nobel Prizes!  And it is already up and running with controversy.  In case you haven't heard, they awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine to a man who passed away a few days ago, unknowingly breaking their rule against posthumous awards.  Whoops!  It will be interesting to see how this turns out.

When I wrote my first Nobel Prize entry, I thought it was a nice idea that would move us toward the upcoming awards.  But then I had an extremely busy week and I've sort of missed my chance to do this in a timely manner.  But I'm hoping you are a forgiving audience and will let me discuss at least one more Nobel laureate I haven't mentioned before.

So, I am going to talk about Albert Camus.  In the past, I thought I would omit Camus from my Classics collection, as I have only read The Stranger and I have mixed feelings about it.  However, I do recognize that he is a notable author and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 for "his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times."  Furthermore, I am fascinated by the concept of literary existentialism, which I think Camus embodies in his writing. 

The protagonist in The Stranger, (named Meursault), is rather disturbing.  The story is written from his first-person perspective, and his tone is utterly chilling.  At the beginning of the story, he receives word that his mother has passed away, and yet he shows very little emotion about it.  This unfeeling tone is steady throughout the novella and become increasingly more disturbing as the drama in the story intensifies. 

Before I go on too much further, I should probably take a moment to address the fancy pants term "existentialism."  I am not your best source for information about this, as I gain my understanding primarily from Kierkegaard, who is just one contributing philosopher.  Yet although my knowledge is a little shaky, I will try to explain it as best I can.

Existentialism is the examination of one's Self in essence, separate from the characteristics and personality we usually rely on for definition.  In this evaluation, the existentialist almost universally experiences despair, for he or she struggles painfully to find whether there is anything of consequence crucial to one's existence.  When he separates Self from Other, (such as society, family, and social roles), he is likely to experience a great chasm in his life and resort to despondent thoughts and reflection.  This often results in a person withdrawing from intimate relationships and past activities with the pervading attitude of, "What does it matter?"  When he thus identifies the futility of existence, he retreats from responsibility and social guidelines, including the acceptance of a moral code.  This is what is known as "existential angst."  A despairing existentialist is unable to bridge the gap between his true essence and the social qualifications of one's existence.  According to Kierkegaard, a personal in existential angst can only respond to this in two ways: 1. Resolution of the divide in one's Self, or 2. Irreparable Despair/Suicide.

It's a rather grim philosophical concept, but I cannot help being fascinated by the literary characters who show evidence of this angst.  Because I love character depth in stories more than anything else, I am taken in by the fascinating journey of a person working through his or her existential anxiety.  Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment is my favorite example of this, and he falls into Kierkegaard's first category of response.  However, Meursault in The Stranger falls into the latter response, which is probably why I am uncomfortable with the story despite my fascination with existentialism.

Meursault's despondent behavior, which I believe is stemming from existential angst, is so contrary to our view of "normal" feelings and actions that he becomes an absurd "stranger" to readers.  He helps his friend Raymond set up a girl for the sole purpose of beating and raping her because he fails to see a reason to do otherwise.  He is unable to meaningfully connect to his own girlfriend, Marie, though she is kind and loving to him.  And in the most bizarre action of all, he murders an anonymous man, though he was carrying the gun in order to prevent Raymond from acting in violence.

As if this weren't enough, he never shows remorse for any of these actions.  He fails to believe that it is significant and doesn't even try to defend himself in court.  Through his narration, he expresses that the only reason he shot the man was because he was uncomfortable with the sun beating down on him and blinding his vision.  However, I think it is imperative to note that he proceeded to shoot the man four more times after the initial firing.  I believe that this was his dramatic action, which had been steadily building during his prolonged period of listless despondancy.  Once he took an action, he was swept up in the impact of it and kept shooting to maintain the feeling of finally acting out.  Yet his indifference in court prompts the jury to swiftly convict him.  Notably, when he receives this sentence, he shows us the first sign of emotion and is surprised by the result.  Ultimately, he draws his comfort from embracing the "benign indifference of the world" and retreats again from reconciling his feelings and thus his existence.

So why is this a Classic?  Why does this win the Nobel Prize?  I think Camus offers us something interesting and greatly stimulating.  He challenges the idea of one's conscience and resists offering a pleasant solution for it.  The Nobel committee praised Camus for his "earnestness" and the "illumination" of problems in humanity.  I agree that he embodies these things quite profoundly, and thus I suppose I too can add him to my shelf of Classics.  However, it is equally depressing as it is thought-provoking.  Let's hope that reality offers more hope than Camus does.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Nobel Prizes: Ernest Hemingway

We are quickly approaching the announcement of the new winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2011.  Although the date has not been set, the rest of the Nobel prizes will be distributed in the first week of October.  In honor of this occasion, I have decided I will write a short series on previous Nobel laureates I like.  To be honest, I am not familiar with many of the past winners, so this series will not be as long as it potentially could be.

I want to start with Ernest Hemingway, who won in 1954.  Hemingway is known for the directness of his writing, as he intentionally tried to express himself in as few words as possible.  You will certainly not find any long, sweeping passages of description or tedious anecdotes in his prose, as some other famous authors are known to include.  I have to confess that I know I do not have Hemingway's gift for brevity, which may be why I admire his skill so much.  Somehow, he still gives us enough detail to fully imagine the scene and grasp the story, but without wasting our time on it.  He also carefully selects each word so that they express meaning succinctly without needing extra phrases.  Like the language, the content of his stories is also direct and pointed.  He writes with an embedded cynicism and a twinge of darkness about the edges.  Although I don't find him to be hopelessly depressing, I do come away with the sense that the world is imperfect and doesn't usually work out as we wish it would.

Regrettably, I have only read three of his works and I will just discuss A Farewell to Arms this time.  Maybe I'm mistaken, but I think this is his most popular novel today, though it may not be his meatiest.  Set in World War I, the story follows the plight of Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver serving the Italian army.  I always think of Catch-22 and A Farewell to Arms as a pair, for they both strip the glorious notion of war and give us the gritty reality of WWI.  While Heller does this with a black sense of humor, Hemingway uses a fateful love story. 

The object of Henry's love is Catherine Barkley, a Scottish nurse who cares for him as he recovers from extensive knee surgery.  I like the way that she doesn't fit into any stereotypes, for she is not just a beautiful, sweet girl who is swept away by the glamour of a soldier.  Instead, Catherine is a woman who has already experienced great heartbreak and has clearly removed the wool from her eyes.  She has a bit of spunk, though her craving for affection and love is very strong and real.  The two fall in love, and I find the imperfections of their relationship very endearing and realistic.

However, Hemingway did not write a simple love story.  A Farewell to Arms is primarily a story focused on the realism of war.  The violence and deaths that occur seem utterly senseless.  All of the characters indulge in different ways to escape the realities of war.  Even the romance between Henry and Catherine is a kind of escapism, along with ever-present alcohol.  A great disillusionment works its way over the story and seeps into readers' hearts as well.  Although he entered battle voluntarily, Henry loses his motivation and yet is filled with guilt.  The crumbling effect that starts to take over the storyline continues until the very end, making this a dark and memorable novel.

I think that the Nobel Prize commissioners must have appreciated Hemingway's directness and realism.  I really enjoy his writing and the depth he pours into his characters.  Unfortunately, Hemingway did not feel deserving of his award and eventually committed suicide.  However, he left us with a number of phenomenal pieces of literature to read, and I am glad that he is forever marked in the halls of Classic Literature.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Books to Movies

I recently checked out the movie version of The Portrait of a Lady since I just finished the book.  I was curious how it would work as a movie, and when I saw that Nicole Kidman was Isabel and Christian Bale was Rosier, I was hopeful that it might be really good.  Those two are excellent actors and the story is incredible, so what could go wrong?

I probably should have known better.  Once again, I was disappointed.  I don't blame the actors; this time, it was the directing that I didn't like.  (If you've seen it and wish to defend it, be my guest!)  Everyone knows that the book is always better than the movie, but does this mean that the movie is always terrible and disappointing?  There's no denying the fact that it is difficult to be satisfied with a movie that comes from a book you already love.  I could waste everyone's time by listing a dozen such movies that disappointed me, but I would rather focus on the positive.  So I'm going to list some suggestions based on books I've already reviewed.  I'm going to give you the links to my original reviews in case it is useful, but I certainly don't expect you to look over all of them.

In my opinion, the best positive example I've found is The Four Feathers starring Heath Ledger and Kate Hudson.  Of ccourse, there are important things the movie doesn't capture, such as Ethne's inner thoughts and conflicting emotions.  It is also missing the sense of the significant amount of time that passes during Harry's exile.  The movie greatly adds to the character of Abou Fatma, but I actually like the character they create.  So I do recommend you watch it.

Probably my second favorite movie adaptation is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest starring Jack Nicholson.  I am so impressed with how faithfully the writers stuck to the text of the novel.  They truly captured all of the personalities remarkably well and delivered the plot precisely as Kesey wrote it.  I think Nicholson and all of the characters played their roles perfectly.  This is another one that is definitely worth checking out.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention To Kill a Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck.  I like the black-and-white style, and I do think the story was portrayed beautifully.  I'm not alone in this thought, as it took home three Academy Awards that year.

Although this is slightly different, I think that Capote starring Philip Seymour Hoffman is an excellent companion to In Cold Blood.  I watched the film before I read the book, and I think it really enhanced my experience of it.  The movie helps you to understand what was going on with Capote while he spent years writing this brilliant yet disturbing piece of nonfiction genius. 

And maybe this doesn't count, but the stage production of Les Miserables is phenomenal!  The creators magically captured the grand and epic nature of the story on stage.  I am still amazed at their ability to incorporate the enormous scale of the piece and the number of vignettes in a stage performance.  Wow!  I haven't watched the Liam Neeson movie, though.  Anybody want to recommend it one way or the other?

Now, I am eagerly looking forward to the upcoming Great Gatsby movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Toby Maguire.  Baz Luhrmann is directing, which will definitely add some spunk to the story, for better or worse.  I also want to highly recommend Midnight in Paris starring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams to all you book lovers.  Trust me, you will drool a little bit.  It is not based on a particular book, but it is definitely targeted to book lovers like me.

Please do not hesitate to send me some movie suggestions! 

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Portrait of a Lady

A little while ago, I confessed in a blog post that I am not a fan of Jane Austen.  In the comments, Kathy of The Literary Amnesiac suggested that I might like Henry James for all the reasons I do not care for Austen.  I had unfairly avoided reading James, but I picked up The Portrait of a Lady because I was intrigued that comment.  Well, Kathy, you were absolutely right!

To quickly sum up the story, the plot follows Isabel Archer as she ventures to Europe after the death of her parents.  She originally stays with her aunt and uncle in England, but she later spends a considerable amount of her time in Italy.  However, the story does not aim to recount her travels but instead focuses on the relationships she makes along the way.  James brings in an interesting collection of her old friends from America together with her new friends and family in Europe.  About three or four years transpire throughout the story, and Isabel experiences a number of significant changes and events in her life.

Most importantly, The Portrait of a Lady is a fascinating character study.  Isabel is now one of my favorite fictional characters ever, and James offers so many dimensions to her personality that it was nearly impossible to predict what she was going to do.  Nevertheless, all of her actions make sense when considered with the most intimate values she evinces, even though I don't always agree with her.  One of my favorite things about Isabel is that she is always an independent and deeply thoughtful woman, and the men around her admire that immensely.  She is the opposite of the kind of Romantic heroines of the past, such as Cosette of Les Miserables, who drive me crazy.  (Please know that this does not mean I dislike Hugo's masterpiece!)  Isabel's key qualities are strength and intelligence rather than naivety and compliance.  Nevertheless, James still slipped in one of those old-fashioned heroines in the form of Pansy, who reminds me so much of Cosette that I picture them identically in my mind. 

However, I am not annoyed by this character because it adds dimension to the story.  In fact, each of the key women in the story is remarkably different and unique, and I love that.  Henrietta Stackpole takes being opinionated and independent to a far greater extent than Isabel.  She constantly argues what she believes and pushes until she gets what she seeks to achieve.  And although there are times when this makes her irritating, James shows us near the end that she has a good and true heart.  We get to see a compassion that feels so genuine that it's hard to believe it as fiction, and her choice at the end shows that she is able to adjust even her most ardent views.  Madame Merle also has a strong presence in the story, gliding in and out of the chapters with an air of both elegance and mystery. 

But let's not forget the men either.  Ralph Touchett, Isabel's cousin, is my favorite, and their relationship is simply beautiful.  There is something so sweet in their interaction, and its complexity only adds to its quality.  I likewise adored Mr. Touchett, Ralph's father, for similar reasons.  Lord Waterburton is the quintessential English hero, full of honor, loyalty, and romance.  However, nothing about his role in the story is cliche, and I was so glad James was able to carry that through the novel successfully.  For me, the biggest surprise among the characters was Caspar Goodwood, who made me completely change my mind about him at the end.  And I can't get away without mentioning Gilbert Osmond, but I want to carefully avoid spoiling anything.  I will just say that I don't think I've encountered another character like him in literature, and yet it is not because he has any extremes in his personality.  On the contrary, it is his subtly that is most penetrating. 

Finally, the ending of The Portrait of a Lady is one that I will never forget.  It is now engraved in my mind as masterfully ambiguous and intriguing.  I think I frantically reread it three times before I believed that's how it ended, and I have no doubt that there are a number of different opinions about it.  It made me feel somewhat frustrated, confused but alert, and wildly desperate for more.  What more could a writer possibly accomplish with an ending?? 

In short, I was enraptured by The Portrait of a Lady from the very first line until the final punctuation mark.  Nothing happened as I assumed it would, which is a wonderful quality in my opinion.  I admire Isabel, and I feel invested in her as though she were real.  Somehow, I find to her to be incredibly relatable and modern even though her character was created in 1880.  Needless to say, I highly recommend this book and am extremely grateful for Kathy's recommendation.