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.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Face Lift!

As you may have noticed, The Lit Quest has just received a much-needed face lift.  I have recently passed the 1 year anniversary of my blog, and I never expected what it has become for me.  I began this blog on a whim, not knowing if I would even keep it up or use it.  However, I knew that literature is the one topic about which I will never run out of things to say.  Once you're out of college, it's more difficult to maintain the thoughtful reading and discussion that used to be such a regular part of life, and I thought I might try this out.  I remember my excitement when my first couple of followers joined the site, and each new person felt like a huge milestone.  Now, I actually feel like I'm friends with some of you, and I still read every comment with eagerness and appreciation.  With many of you, I am reading your book suggestions and following your blogs too, and I love feeling like we're in a shared community.

So I want to thank you all for welcoming me into the book blogging community with such open arms.  I love being a part of the blog hops and various online events.  I love it when you add your opinions and suggestions, and I have learned so much from what you all have to say.  If you've been following this blog at all, you probably know me pretty well.  It's clear I love somewhat dark, psychological novels as well as lots of Russian literature.  But I have also been surprised by books I didn't think I would like at all, and I do believe that this journey is simply a life-long quest to be well read.  I may not always write very regularly, but I do want to keep it up.  Moreover, it has become important to me for my basic, gnawing need to write.

Finally, I am very pleased to be able to reformat the look of my blog in this one-year mark, for I think it represents the way it has grown and developed in my own thinking and approach to it.  I must absolutely credit my good friend Abigail Solberg, who created this design.  She is a very talented designer, and I encourage you to check out her website at

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Aphra Behn.... Who?

I want to introduce you to an author I had never heard of until about two years ago.  In the words of Virginia Woolf, "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."  Aphra Behn was an author and playwright during England's Restoration Theatre of the late 1600s.  Although she was not technically the first female playwright, she was the first woman in history to make a career of writing.  Behn was a trailblazer for female authorship, boldly presenting her bawdy work to the public.  The few women who also wrote at this time had a tendency to include an apologetic prologue in their literature, but Behn, on the other hand, exploded against criticism in her aggressive prologues and demanded that people take her seriously.  The result?  Audiences loved her.  She spit out fifteen plays, keeping up with the popular playwrights, George Etherege and John Dryden, as a dominant figure in the era.

Shredding the "docile woman" image, she wrote about twisted romances, sexual encounters, and dueling swordfights that her audience adored.  The Rover is my favorite piece, but I must confess it's also the only one I've read in full.  Some summaries indicate that the story focuses on a group of Englishmen who go to a carnival in Italy.  I think that it is more accurate to say it is about a group of women who outwit their men and (mostly) get their way.  In the beginning of the story, Florinda has been set up in an arranged marriage against her will, and Hellena has likewise been forced into a convent.  Valeria, their cousin, takes part in all their schemes but plays a lessor role to the story.  There's also Angellica, a beautiful cortezan who falls in love with the rover himself, Willmore. 

The plot is full of tricks, masks, liasons, fights, and love.  The men battle among themselves over the women, and the women deceive the men in a number of different ways.  She gives us a traditional pair of admirable lovers - Florinda and Belvile - as well as some stranger couples.  But the best part of the play is undoubtedly the witty dialogue.  I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by just how clever Behn is.  Hellena, the destined nun, is my favorite character, for I think she is easily the smartest.  But even Angellica is fascinating, and Behn adds some dignity to prostitution.  I started reading her work out of a sense of duty, but I found myself cracking up and falling in love with her style.  Allow me to share a small sampling of my favorite quotes from The Rover:

"Marriage is as certain a bane to love as lending money to friendship."  - Willmore
After forcing Willmore to make a promise she knows he won't keep, "Now what a wicked creature am I, to damn a proper fellow!" - Hellena
"[Men] have generally so kind an opinion of themselves, that a woman with any wit may flatter 'em into any sort of fool she pleases." - Lucetta

I urge you all - men and women alike - to add Aphra Behn to your bookshelves. She is funny, bawdy, and immensely significant.  And as if she wasn't already cool enough, history indicates that Behn also acted as a spy for the English government before she began her career as a playwright to pull herself out of debt.  Convinced yet?  :)

Friday, September 2, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird

It is my great pleasure to add To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee to my list of Classics.  Like many of you, I read this book in junior high, and I love it as much today as I did then. Lee came out of nowhere in 1960 with one of the most beloved novels of the century and then retreated back into hiding for the rest of her life... at least so far.  (I like to think that she will have ten more books ready for us after she dies, sitting in her library for the world to take in).  I do also have to comment that the notable exception in her reclusive ways is that she assisted Truman Capote with the marvelous work, In Cold Blood.

It seems that nearly every book blog has at least one entry about To Kill a Mockingbird.  In a way, this causes me slight hesitation and makes me wonder what I could possibly offer.  But as I've said before, this blog is really more of an opportunity for me to write my thoughts about books I love than anything else, so I will not leave out Lee's masterpiece because it might be unoriginal.  Yet knowing that you are all very well read, I won't waste your time breaking down the plot bit by bit.  If it has been a long time since you looked at it, (which was the case for me!), I'll remind you that it's a coming of age story set in the south, starring Scout and her older brother Jem.  Their father, Atticus, decides to defend a wrongfully accused black man in court, despite the severe racism in his town.  The family experiences a lot of ups and downs, and we get to see shining yet humble heroism that I think all readers can whole-heartedly embrace.

Without question, the most memorable aspect of the story for me is the characters.  I am a total sucker for any big brother and little sister story because of the amazing relationship I have with my big brother, and I love the dynamic between Jem and Scout.  Although they bicker like any siblings, she endearingly looks up to him and he unquestionably takes care of her.  Tying them all together, Atticus is a phenomenal father in the story. Who doesn't fall in love with him?  He has so many words of wisdom to pass on and such an admirable integrity.  With little Scout as the narrator, we have a whole crew of unforgettable people in the story even beyond her family, including their friend Dill, the fiery Calpurnia, the evil Bob Ewell and the legendary Boo Radley.  Lee also describes the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama so thoroughly that it becomes like one of the characters.  It is easy to imagine the heat, gossip, rumors, religion, kindness and hatred that are all part of the town. 

Another aspect of the story I adore is the courtroom trial.  I am awfully fond of legal fiction, and I confess I even like to indulge in John Grisham novels.  But there are some works of merit, like To Kill A Mockingbird, which place their climax in the courtroom itself and win me over completely.  (Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind as a great one, but my all-time favorite is definitely the trial in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.)  The whole movement of Tom Robinson's trial is masterfully crafted.  There are just so many dimensions to consider, like placement, timing, outburst, surprise, and suspense.  I love the image of Jem and Scout watching from the "colored" balcony, determined to see their father in action.  I also love the forced breaks we have as readers, when Scout leaves the courtroom with Dill and when Calpurnia drags the kids home.  Atticus presides over the room nobly, clearly revealing Robinson's innocence and garnering the respect of all the African-Americans watching from above, in the balcony.  And as the reader, I truly didn't know what the jury would decide.

Everything about this book is just thoroughly enjoyable.  Moreover, the themes of courage, honor, and what it means to enter adulthood are extremely compelling and insightful.  I think everyone walks away from the book with Atticus's words ringing in their ears and Scout's perspective sticking in their minds.  It makes you believe in goodness despite the existence of evil, as well as the ever-important lesson, that "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."