Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Let the Great World Spin

I certainly agree that it is "the most wonderful time of the year," but it also tends to be the busiest.  Lately, updating my blog has not been high on my priorities list, but I always find myself missing it when I've let too much time go by.  The most recent push that is bringing me to write this post is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.  I first read it about a year ago per the suggestion of a good friend, and I just urged one of my other friends to pick up a copy.

For me, one of the immediately remarkable things about this book is that it was written in 2009.  If you have been following my blog, you are probably aware that I am typically at least 60 years behind and often return to pieces from the 19th century.  However, as I have stated before, I do not think books are good only if they are old and labeled "Classics."  There are still great pieces of literature being produced today, though it can be more challenging to filter through them.  I have listed five other works in my Contemporary Series and am happy to now add McCann's book to my list.

Let the Great World Spin is in the form of a series of vignettes and could perhaps be defined as a short story cycle.  It is set in New York City in 1974, centered around one day in which Philippe Petit walked between the Twin Towers on a tightrope, thousands of feet in the air.  This part of the story is a true event, and the story has been documented on film (Man on Wire) and in writing.  However, this tightrope walker is not the protagonist of McCann's book but rather an interweaving theme that peripherally appears in the lives of a variety of New Yorkers on that day.  His daring walk across the high-risers of NYC is symbolic of the emotional precipice so many of us balance in our daily lives.  But the difference with Petit, and what makes him extraordinary to all the observers in the story, is that he leaps and dances his way across.

These characters represent the melting pot of New York City, ranging from prostitutes in South Bronx to housewives on Park Avenue, and everything in between.  Their stories paint a colorful picture of the range of struggles, achievements, heartaches, and motions that can take place on one day in one city.  They remind us that we are all connected, even when we are wrapped up in our individual worlds.  Their stories are both heart-breaking and heart-warming, and they beautifully illustrate the differences even in our shared space within each of our minds, hearts, and lives.

McCann has brilliantly crafted these stories, and some of the connections are so subtle that I had to flip back through past stories to confirm them.  For this reason, I highly advise against reading this book on an e-reader, though I myself am an avid Kindle user.  There are some ways in which an e-reader will never be able to measure up to physical books, and this novel highlights those differences.  I believe your reading experience will be much richer if you continually check back on past stories and piece the vignettes together. By the end of the novel, you will find that they all function in a circle, and to appreciate them individually, you must appreciate them as a whole.

For the New York Times review of Let the Great World Spin, click the image below:

Monday, November 12, 2012

Manchester by the Book

In the coastal Massachusetts town of Manchester-By-the-Sea, there is a small bookstore called Manchester By the Book.  Around the shop are local coffee stores, a small market, and a white New England church at the corner.  The ocean hugs the back of the store, and the distinct smells of fish and seaweed lightly waft in the sidewalk by the door.  As soon as you enter the shop, you are greeted by the smell of ancient pages, and the owner catches your eye behind the stacks of books lining his checkout counter as he quietly reads and chats with his customers.

If you step through these doors, you have just entered the best bookstore I have ever encountered.  I have traveled a fair amount in my life thus far, always checking out the local libraries and even studying within the grand halls of Oxford's Bodleian.  I have browsed through New York City's Strand Bookstore, famous for its size and collection.  I have wandered into the basement of city shops to find even the most obscure used bookstore in its premises.  Yet in all my wanderings, I have never been to a better place than Manchester by the Book.

Mark Stolle, the owner of the bookstore, has hand-picked every single item on his shelves.  He may not have read every book he sells, but he knows of all of them and can spout off a tidbit of information on each author.  The store is so stuffed that books have piled up into heaps on the floor and are overflowing in the shelving, but every single book is of a high caliber.  I have watched him first-hand look through books customers try to sell to him and turn them away because they do not meet his standards.

Because he is nestled in this historic New England town, he has gathered an amazing collection of First Edition copies of classics.  One treasured moment in the store for me was holding in my hands a First Edition copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  To this day, I still kick myself for not snatching it up!  Not all is lost, however, as I have acquired a First Edition copy of A Portrait of a Lady and beautiful, leather-bound early editions of Heart of Darkness and Dostoevsky's diaries.  Stolle has made himself known in the area, so he is frequently called to local homes to scan their bookshelves and discover these treasures.  He doesn't even need to go to auctions anymore, as he has developed a reputable clientele at this point.  There are always treasured copies in his store, I guarantee it.

Although the setting and quality of the books are remarkable on their own, the real treasure is Stolle himself.  He is incredibly well-read, and I am awed by his knowledge at every visit.  However, his spirit is amazingly humble without even a hint of pretension in his voice.  If you give him the slightest window, he will happily engage in literary dialogue.  He gently probes your knowledge and develops a sense of the kind of books that appeal to you.  I am very conscious of my literary taste when I'm around him, and though he seeks it without judgment, I can't help sensing that he is testing me.  What does this girl like to read?  Is she really the right customer for this store?  Although I frequently have to say, "No, I've not read that one" and "Actually, I've never even heard of that author," I think I have passed his test because he envelops me in warmth and discussion.  When I purchased Dostoevsky's diaries, he said with a silent nod of approval, "I am glad to see these going to a good home."

If you visit frequently enough, Stolle recognizes you and eagerly shows off his latest acquisitions.  He knows that I love the First Editions and offers them for me to comb through even when he knows I can't afford to buy them.  And if you give him an opening to talk about his life, you may find out some incredible personal history.  Stolle was personal friends with John Updike, so much so that Updike actually bequeathed his personal library to Stolle in his will upon his death.  But in all his humility, you would never guess that he made such a connection with the famously introverted author.

I have just stepped away from this wonderful store, visiting it for the first time in about a year.  I no longer live in Massachusetts, though days like today motivate me to move back soon.  On this visit, Stolle was so caught up in our conversation that he gifted me with two additional books simply because he was eager for me to read them.  I tried to pay for them, but he pushed it away and said, "That's just the kind of store this is."

Precisely.  That is just the kind of store it is.  If any of you have even the slightest appreciate for quality literature, you must make a pilgrimage to this bookstore.  You can check out its website at but it doesn't even begin to capture the treasure you will discover inside.  Do yourself a favor and come to this bookstore.  Talk to Stolle and take his reading advice.  It will be well worth your time.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Lately, I've found that I keep mentioning A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith in conversation, and I think it's about time I review it for my blog.  Written in 1943, this Classic novel covers events of the early 20th century from the perspective of a young girl named Francie Nolan.  Born in a poor Irish family, Francie grows up through family struggle, awkward adolescence, hard work, and endearing hopefulness.  It's a beautiful story, and I quickly flew through the pages in captivated interest.

In some ways, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  In both stories, readers experience the world through a young girl who demonstrates an equal portion of naivete and maturity in her interactions.  However, Smith's novel covers a much larger scope and depth with her characters, spanning several decades and giving insight into several characters' minds.  Francie's mother Katie is one of the more significant characters, and she is a wonderful combination of strength, stubbornness, and romanticism that readers can both embrace and pity.  Her aunt Sissy is another colorful character, one who gives love so freely that it costs her reputation and breaks her heart.  And, of course, there's an interesting dynamic between Francie and her father, a sweet one of a daughter's unadulterated love despite his flaws that nabbed my heart.

Francie's story could easily be described as a "Coming of Age" novel, and I loved following her through the years.  Her childish insecurities are never fully overcome, but they convincingly form her in her later years.  She is smart and has her mother's stubbornness, but she also has to deal with the hole in her heart that desires to be cherished. Smith weaves through her tale in flashbacks and foreshadowing, but it seamlessly forms a lovely narrative.

There are so many themes in the novel I could address, such as growing up in struggling, grasping one's sexuality, persevering through grief, forming a community, etc.  But if I step back and think about the novel as a whole, my primary impression is the disparate ways family members relate with one another.  The characters never quite express themselves clearly, and they all show their love in different ways.  They are protective of one another and support each other, but they also take advantage of one another.  They celebrate in their victories and share in their griefs.  Francie is often ostracized and ignored, but deep down she knows of her family's love.  At times, she is eager to please, but she also reserves some personal thoughts and feelings tightly in her heart.  There is something so realistic about the characters' struggles, flaws, and shortcomings that it makes their loving gestures even more powerful.  It's a great book and certainly deserves the status it has achieved as a piece of Classic Literature.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Idiot: A Mixed Review

Some of the best books I've ever read were written by Fyodor Dosteovsky.  Notes from the Underground is a fascinating narrative of fragmented, conflicting thoughts.  Crime and Punishment explores the conflict of a tortured yet lovable man who commits a heinous act of violence. The Brothers Karamazov brilliantly presents various philosophies in character dialogues, offering both fascinating and conflicting insight in important aspects of human nature.

Thus, when I finally nestled down with my copy of The Idiot, I eagerly anticipated what was coming in the pages.  I trustfully pushed through the initial confusion that always comes with Russian texts as I tried to sort out the characters in my mind and grasp the scenes.  I waited patiently as Myshkin bumbled his way through the St. Petersburg social scene, anticipating some kind of dramatic character development that would absorb me.  And remembering past Dostoevsky pieces, I fully expected a twist and a dramatic ending.

There were some moments that I loved, and the ending was as unexpected as I had expected.  (If that makes any sense...)  However, the novel as a whole disappointed me.  It's just simply not as good as the others.

To be fair, there are certainly some strengths to this piece.  The irony of the title is ever-present and adds a significant dimension to the story.  Prince Myshkin is generally considered an idiot by the characters, but the readers can clearly see that he is highly intelligent but also highly naive.  Myshkin has spent most of his life in a small town in Switzerland being treated for epilepsy, a disease whose seizures often disturb and bias those who witness them.  All of his seizures in the novel come at pinnacle moments in the story, and it would be interesting to do a study of each of these events.  But there is nothing wrong with his cognitive ability, despite the title of the novel.  He is incredibly compassionate and becomes highly invested in the people he meets in a short amount of time.  His innocence is often met with cynical disdain by those around him, which feels extraordinarily modern to me.  Most of us, especially those of us from the city, would treat someone with such a blind trust in others with similar prideful derision.  In fact, I'm not convinced that Dostoevsky really wants us to admire Myshkin, despite the fondness we might feel for him.  Nevertheless, he is an interesting character in theory.

However, I think that Myshkin's nature is also the primary reason I did not enjoy this novel as much as the others.  For various reasons, I am far more drawn by flawed characters than "perfect" ones.  I just don't think that Myshkin had enough depth to successfully carry the weight of the story.  If The Brothers Karamazov had been all about Alyosha, for example, there's no way I would have enjoyed it as much as I did.  Alyosha provided a valuable dimension to the story, but Ivan and Dmitri were necessary to give the novel its proper balance and ingenious complexity.  The Idiot simply lacked that.

To add my own balance to this review, I want to include another aspect of the story that I did like.  The scene that I will remember the most was the long-awaited confrontation between Nastassya and Aglaya.  Both women have their flaws, and there are certainly aspects of their characters I dislike from a feminist perspective as well.  However, it's not often that two women so remarkably overpower a man in 19th century literature.  As they battled openly in front of Myshkin, I felt the swell of their tension as well as their equal intelligence.  Both women are beautiful, headstrong, opinionated, and romantic at heart, and I felt this combination was incredibly unique among female characters of this era.  Moreover, there are two of them in this one story!  Poor Myshkin was frozen by their confrontation and could hardly react.  I think that one of Dostoevsky's greatest strengths is when he engages in a lengthy dialogue between two characters.  This scene between Nastassya and Aglaya is just as memorable for me as some of the dialogues in his other brilliant works.

It has taken me several months to come to terms with the fact that I did not love this book.  I was so sure that it would impact me the way Dostoevsky's other writing has done.  It helps me to identify the strengths in the novel and to recognize that perhaps my expectations were unrealistic.  Now, all I have left to read of Dostoevsky's masterpieces is Demons.  I may save this one for a while, holding out hope that I will find it to be as brilliant and fascinating as some of the others.  But having now read The Idiot, I think I will lower my expectations and try to keep a more open mind before I begin.  I still consider Dostoevsky my favorite author, and I look forward to reading this last novel someday before too long.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Literary Heroines

Alright, so it's not actually Tuesday today, but try to withhold your objections.  I was browsing my blogger feed just today when I saw that this week's Top Ten Tuesday by the Broke and the Bookish was about Literary Heroines.  Kimberly spouted off a list of "Kick Ass" heroines, and over 200 people have already participated in the Blog Hop!

Immediately, I wanted to join in this discussion.  This is actually a tough one for me, which bothers me on a number of levels.  I confess that most of my favorite literary figures are men and written by men.  The feminist in me balks at this, so I decided I needed to take the challenge and gather up my favorite fictional females.

OK, starting in reverse order with Number 10...

10. Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games

Katniss probably shows up in a large percentage of the blog hops for this one, so it's incredibly cliche for me to include her as well. However, I really do like her as a character so I'm jumping on the bandwagon.  I love that she's stubborn, independent, focused, and a major badass.  Plus, I like that she doesn't moon over the love triangle or over-analyze those relationships.  She's a great example for the YA readers.

9. Meg Murry in The Wrinkle in Time Series

Yet another YA choice, I decided to add Meg to my list.  She was definitely a literary hero to me back when I read these books.  She's smart, bookish, and awkward and yet manages to cross time continuums, save her family, and fall in love.  As a smart, bookish, awkward girl reading this, it was inspiring to me.

8. Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Who doesn't love Scout?  She's curious and sweet, a little tomboy who loves her big brother.  She doesn't always understand what's happening, but she has a good heart and absorbs a lot of it.  We sort of get to experience her growing up, and there's an endearing juxtaposition of maturity and naiveté.

7. Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I haven't written a review of this one yet, though I will do so soon.  It actually reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird, for we follow a young girl's perspective.  But there is a lot more character development with Francie, and the story covers years of her life.

6. Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's

First, I want to emphasize that I am referring to the Pulitzer Prize winning novella, not the movie.  Having said that, I also want to say that the movie is remarkably faithful to the original story and tells it beautifully.  Holly is so easy to love, for characters, readers, and movie-watchers.  She is quick-witted and flighty, and we see just a hint of the hurt and vulnerability underneath.  If you haven't read the novella yet, you really should.

5. Mariam in A Thousand Splendid Suns

I chose Mariam as my literary hero, but Laila is also worthy of being mentioned.  This book is remarkable for its relationship between two women who face intense suffering.  They are both married to the same abusive man, but it creates no jealous or bitterness between them.  Instead, they draw strength from one another, and their story is absolutely inspirational.

4. Mina Murray in Dracula

I doubt many people would pick her out of this story, but I loved her.  Mina really was a badass, particularly considering the era in which this was written - 1897.  Unlike Lucy, she is not the damsel in distress of the story.  She is actively involved in chasing Dracula, offering intelligent and brave participation.  She's like a 100-year precursor to Buffy.

3. Ethne Eustace in The Four Feathers

I feel like I've always lauded Ethne as one of my absolute favorite literary heroines.  I adore this book, and Ethne is a big part of the reason.  Although she acted rashly and pridefully at the beginning, she spends the rest of the novel in pursuit of redeeming herself.  She has extremely high standards for herself, but doesn't act like a martyr for it.  I think you have to read it to understand what I mean.

2. Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady

I love Isabel!  She is admired for being intelligent, independent, and adventurous.  She is always hungry to learn and listens carefully to other people's perspectives.  Rather than following the path of her sisters, she strikes out on her own and embraces the uncertainty.  Even when her life takes an unexpected turn, she holds her head high and works through it.  I could read this book over and over again.

And the winner is...

1. Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales

I couldn't resist listing her as my favorite.  Keep in mind that this was written in the 14th century!  The Wife of Bath gets more attention than just about any other character.  She comments on other people's tales throughout the collection, but her own is one of the most memorable.  She's not bashful about her sexuality or her sense of humor.  I'm sure there are a number of feminist objections one can make, but I still like her and think she's pretty awesome.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

October Reading

Dear Book Friends,

I absolutely love the fall.  I eagerly jump into the season by wearing jackets and sweaters, drinking apple cider, and eating all things pumpkin-flavored.  The trees are finally starting to change colors, and the air at its best smells like leaves and campfires.  I love the crispness of the wind on my cheeks when it starts to get cold, and I celebrate the little shivers down my spine.  I've already visited the apple orchard, walked through a corn maze, and brought home a pumpkin.  The mulling spices I bought are just begging to be made into mulled red wine.

So now I ask for your help...  I want to echo my love for the fall with my reading choices as well.  Last year, I decided to get into the spirit of October by reading a lot of famous spooky, eerie, and/or autumn-themed books.  I posted my reviews of them throughout the month and saw many of you doing similar reviews and read those as well.  I've noticed a recent surge of readership on these posts again this season, so I'm hoping you have been able to get into the spirit again and are checking them out.  Before then, I had never read these amazing books before, and I was pleasantly surprised that they were quality literature in addition to good October reads.  So I'm hoping you can help me continue the tradition and recommend some to try this year.

Here was last year's list:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Dracula by Bram Stoker

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

Now I know the month is nearly over, and I should have asked you sooner.  But I can always put them aside for next year, so don't hesitate to suggest something even if the month has passed.  Remember, they must be considered Classic Literature or worthy of such status, so please don't try to suggest Twilight or something.  *shudder*  (Yes, I am a book snob.  Don't act too surprised.)  However, I am not opposed to books written recently or ones that are obscure, so long as they are written well.  It doesn't have to be old or famous to be good.  It also doesn't have to have a Halloween theme, so long as it takes place in the fall.  A Room of One's Own, for example, has tons of references to October even though it isn't in narrative form.  So feel free to surprise me.

I hope to hear from you!  Happy October!!

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Room of One's Own

When I wrote my earlier post about Feminist Literary Analysis, I didn't have this book listed among my recommendations because I hadn't read it yet, and many of you were quick to point out the obvious hole it left.  But once I grabbed a copy, I absolutely loved it.  In fact, I've already read it twice.

A Room of One's Own is an elongated essay by Virginia Woolf, written in her characteristic stream-of-consciousness style.  She had been asked to discuss women and fiction, and her conclusion, in brief, was that each woman needs her own source of income and a room of her own in order to write freely.  Because she was writing in 1928, the obvious female examples who came to mind were Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters.  These women had successfully produced fiction that society embraced and valued.  The 1920s had been boosted by the surge of the first wave of feminism, and Woolf took this opportunity to continue moving it forward.  Yet in order to do so, she studied the history of women and fiction, and she emphasized the need to be conscious of the tradition we have inherited.

Nestled in a library, Woolf researched the history of women and fiction.  Yet as she did so, it became clear that we have an unfilled heritage and are missing many potential heroes of our past.  Her famous example of Shakespeare's fictional sister stands out in our mind to represent centuries of women whose voices we will never get to hear.  So when she finally reaches Aphra Behn, I am filled with appreciation and longing to lay a flower beside her grave.  (I did try to do that once when I visited Westminster Abbey, but I couldn't find it!  I am still kicking myself for not searching longer, and I hope to go back someday to fulfill this mission.)

I have read several of Woolf's novels in her stream-of-consciousness style, but I think this essay is my favorite use of it.  We feel as though we are working through every thought with her and experiencing her discoveries, surprises, and realizations in real time alongside her.  She gets distracted and side-tracked at moments, but the whole piece blends together as one continuous thought.  The chapter breaks seem unnecessary and out of place, as though the thought process should not be broken or stopped.  It made me read the book very quickly each time I read it because I felt carried by the wave of her words.  This time, it was especially fun to read it in October because of her description of this season in her writing as well.

I think that one of the most remarkable things about this book is its tone.  There is no trace of anger or bitterness when she discusses women's past oppression, and she does not indicate that men must be pushed down in order for women to surge forward.  At times, she certainly evinces some hurt caused by men and the way they have treated women.  But she states:

"I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me.  I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me.  So imperceptibly, I found myself adopting a new attitude towards the other half of the human race.  It was absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole.  Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do.  They are driven by instincts which are not within their control."

Repeatedly, Woolf says that anger against men and their poor treatment of women is yet another obstacle in the progression of the female race.  Good writing is marred by traces of bitterness and contempt.  She praises the four famous novelists specifically for "writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching."  She insists that every woman must write for herself, not in reaction to others or in order to make them feel a certain way.  The best writing is based on truth and honest feelings without hidden (or obvious) agendas.

Now, I have to add a small footnote and say that I do not agree with everything Woolf says in this book.  The last chapter in particular contains some theories I do not fully support, dichotomizing things as masculine and feminine in perhaps an unhealthy light.  However, Woolf was far ahead of her time and made great strides for the feminist movement, so I do not criticize her at all.  Many leaders in the third wave of feminism have since picked up this idea and pursued its implications, and Woolf helped us get to this place.

And so, I will end my post with Woolf's wise words.  She has an amazing sense of humility underneath her brilliant wisdom and advice.  I can easily start believing that I know good literature apart from bad literature, and this blog is my soapbox to preach my taste.  But I want to keep in mind that reading is an individual experience, despite all the ways we can form community around it.  And I'll let Woolf have the last word this time.

"Here I would stop, but the pressure of convention decrees that every speech must end with a peroration.  And a peroration addressed to women should have something particularly exalting and ennobling about it... I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else.  Do not dream of influencing people... Think of things in themselves."

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Fountainhead

This is the reason I had to restart my blog.  This is the book that demanded conversation.  In fact, I am writing this within minutes of reading the last line, desperate to prolong the experience and allow it to set its roots in me.

Reading Anthem as your only book by Ayn Rand is a crime to literature, a crime that I was guilty of for quite some time.  As you can probably tell from my blog, I like to sample literature like a buffet, tasting just a little bit from a wide selection of different authors and periods.  In many cases, I've read only one piece by an author before moving on to someone else.  But although Anthem is an interesting novella, it does not even begin to do justice to Ayn Rand.  She is absolutely brilliant, and the way she carefully crafts and unfolds a long story is almost breathtaking.

I cannot bring myself to give you a plot synopsis for The Fountainhead because it doesn't even begin to capture what the story is truly about.  If you absolutely need to know, I'm sure you can find one online somewhere.  To be honest, I didn't have much interest in reading this book at the beginning.  I had heard so much about Rand's philosophy and politics that I thought it would make for a dry and serious novel.  But now I am kicking myself for avoiding this book as long as I did.

Nearly halfway through the novel, I wondered why everyone emphasized her philosophy so much and yet I had heard nothing about the plot.  I felt that it was a story about architecture and unique characters, with the philosophy running merely as an undercurrent.  Now that I have finished the novel, I understand how everyone seems to forget that.  I acquiesce that every page mentions some form of the word "architecture" or "building."  The descriptions are dripping with succulent care.  There's a love and brilliance in the presentation of the buildings, and the man who is Howard Roark.  But by the end of the novel, one recognizes that it is not about these things.

Ayn Rand is the Howard Roark of literature.  She was a genius in her craft and clearly had a clear vision for what she meant to convey.  However, this book has received its fair share of controversy, and I can hear the objections ringing in my mind - that it's long, that it's indecent, that it's unrealistic, that it's pretentious, that it's boring.  Even though I absolutely love this book, I will not recommend it to friends as freely as I do with others, and yet I quiver at these objections.

So what is it that makes this book so great?  Why does it stand immortally in the shelves of Classic Literature?  I believe she offers a voice that is not heard in other pages.  Truthfully, I do not fully agree with her feelings about individualism and collectivism, but it doesn't matter.  I still benefit from hearing her perspective, and I feel like a stronger person because of it.

Only great literature can make you feel like a better person for having taken the time to read it.  There are a few books that have done this to me before.  Crime and Punishment, Invisible Man and East of Eden immediately stand out in my mind as works that have made a lasting impression on me and deeply fed a need.  But I have spent this past year being torn down by a number of unforeseen obstacles and curveballs.  I have been broken and lost and aimless.  I have pushed through pain and fought to maintain a healthy and positive attitude.  I have started rebuilding myself from the rubble of this past year, and The Fountainhead pushes me to make this new version more wholly me than any model of the past.

In my opinion, the most interesting concept in The Fountainhead is a redefinition of the words "selfish" and "selfless."  Immediately, a swarm of associations come to mind with those words.  But Rand defines "selfless" literally, as the lack of a sense of self.  Selfless people are the ones who have built their identities on what they believe other people desire and admire.  If pressed, they probably could not identify any of their choices as ones which truly came from their own desires.  I understand this concept because I have lived it.  Selfish people, on the other hand, know exactly who they are, and nothing could make them change it.  There is nothing so valuable to them that they would compromise who they are and what they believe.  Not public opinion, not personal comfort, not great success.  Howard Roark is the embodiment of this kind of selfish person, and it is fascinating to watch him wage war with the rest of society.

Interestingly, I don't love this "hero" of the story.  I would venture to say that Rand didn't even want readers to love him.  But I do admire and respect him.

Finally, I can't help but note that one of the most surprising things I discovered in this novel is that it is romantic at its heart.  By no means is it romantic in the most common sense of the word, but there is a powerful, underlying theme that there is someone for everyone.  The key relationship is strange, insensitive, and unnerving, but they fit as though they were built to be together.  There's something so romantic in the unexpected aspect of this, and I'm afraid that often gets lost in the typical discussion of this book.

If you have read my entire post, thank you for taking the time to listen.  I welcome your thoughts in the comments below. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Time to Come Back!

I would like to return to the world of blogging.  It has been quite a few months since my last post, and I have missed it.  This past year has quite possibly been the most difficult one I have ever faced.  In March, I shared with you my grief over the loss of my father.  But the hits just kept coming, and I could never have imagined the curveballs I experienced even after that. I reached a place of discouragement, and I was hardly even reading anymore, let alone writing about it.  However, I have slowly risen from the ashes and moved forward.  I feel that I am in a better place now than I have been for a year, and I do not take that for granted.  And part of coming back to being myself is coming back to this blog.

Writing this blog has been an unexpected joy for me.  I started with very low expectations and wasn't feeling too strongly that I would have something to say.  But with time, I came to depend on this blog as my connection to stimulating thought and conversation in an otherwise monotonous routine.  I found that the blog kept me accountable to continue reading good literature and expressing my thoughts about it.  I discovered that it filled a big part of the void created after I left college and all those delightful literature classes.  Significantly, I started to write the blog solely for myself.

Don't misunderstand me; the responses from those of you who read this blog were a big part of the unexpected joy.  Many of you made book recommendations for me based on my entries, and I found some amazing pieces of literature through you.  You also pushed me to think about the books I had read in a new way, and you pushed me to keep reading and keep writing.

Likewise, I greatly enjoyed reading many of your blogs as well.  I was amazed to discover this huge blogosphere of book lovers.  I started to view some of you as my friends, even though we had never met.  I am eager to get back into the habit of checking out your thoughts and joining your blog hops.

When I read a good book now, I crave a way to express and share it.  Not all of my friends are interested in talking about books, and I often have to keep my mouth shut.  But I believe that books are meant to be shared, and you can learn much more in doing so.  I am so humbled to have an audience who is actually interested in what I have to say!

So I am going to try to come back, though I don't know how frequently I will be able to post.  But there are several books I'm itching to share, and I'm also ready to hear some new suggestions.  If anyone is reading this, thank you.  I know that I may have lost some readers in this time away, but I want to press forward again anyway because I know it is good for me, whether I have readers or not.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Watership Down

I often have some preconceived ideas about books before I read them, especially since I almost exclusively read classics or suggestions from friends.  But I think that I have never been more wrong than I was with Watership Down by Richard Adams.  Before I read the book, I had only heard people's reactions to it and not a summary of it.  One of my friends told me that she was completely entranced and swept up in the story.  Another friend told me that it had tremendous symbolic implications, including deep religious insight.  Another friend indicated that it was an exciting adventure story with a plot that moved along quickly.  And the title itself - Watership Down - sounded ominous and full of heavy implications to me.  So what is it?  Well, it is the journey of a group of rabbits, written from their perspective.  That was not what I expected.  But were my friends wrong?  No, I think they were right on target.

In a way, I am reminded of Lord of the Flies when I think of this book because it is another story that appears to contain children's content but is not written for children.  This is not the Velveteen Rabbit or the Peter Rabbit stories.  Each of the rabbits in this story have depth in their character, and they represent a variety of viewpoints.  After a dangerous encounter, Adams sums it up well: "There was no more questioning of Bigwig's strength, Fiver's insight, Blackberry's wits, or Hazel's authority."  Again, each of these traits is very important to the characters and plays a critical role in the story.  I think it's especially meaningful that the characteristics are divided up among several rabbits and not devoted to one all-powerful leader.  Yet although the characters are enjoyable, I don't think that adequately explains why adults like the story so much.  We can feel strongly about characters without praising the story quite so highly.  So why do we love Watership Down?  Why do we get hooked into their story?

A significant aspect of the novel's depth exists because Adams was very thorough when he created the world of these rabbits.  He established a history for the warren, a language unique to the rabbits, and a number of mythological stories shared in the rabbit culture.  The hero of these stories, El-ahrairah, is an interesting piece of the story and should not be overlooked.  The rabbits have a deep connection to these stories, and they listen with their whole hearts.  The legendary stories provide them with courage, humility, and loyalty when they need it most.  I think that's the underlying message of Watership Down in general: a story can move us.  We are inspired by rabbits, the most meek and quiet creatures, and we can get attached to their story.  Even fictional stories hold great power, for they can often be the best way for listeners to really hear wisdom and truth.

Moreover, the implications of this story go far beyond the novel itself.  Thus, I was surprised to read Adams write in his introduction: "I want to emphasize that Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable.  It is simply the story about rabbits made up and told in the car."  Yet whether he meant to do it or not, the story contains powerful symbolism that has fascinating connections to various philosophies, theologies, and components of pop culture.  Renowned theologian Stanley Hauerwas has extensively studied Watership Down for its reflection on the Christian life.  Often comparing it to Animal Farm, many read it as a political allegory that exemplifies the problems of leadership made of pride, over-indulgence, and totalitarianism.  The brilliant TV show Lost references the book multiple times, and there are some fascinating comparisons and clear influences from it.  When I read about District 13 in Mockingjay, it immediately reminded me of Efrafa, the underground community whose inhabitants are given strict schedules and heavy limitations for their own "protection."  I could go on with many more examples, but I don't want to overdo it.  I am simply amazed by how many people are drawn to this story and connect with it on so many different levels, especially since Adams never intended for it to be more than a good rabbit story.  I believe that it has deeply embedded itself in popular culture, but I don't think we are fully aware of it.

I think that Watership Down exemplifies the power of great literature.  Somehow the work itself has far exceeded the author's ambitions for it and impacted people on a grand scale.  This story seems so unlikely to hold such great influence, but I believe in the power of narrative.  Even though the plot is about a group of rabbits who face trials and start their own warren, we connect with it.  We may not have to fight off cats and foxes, but we have our own challenges.  And we must reflect on our own race when we witness the terror that man can bring.  Watership Down is one of the most unlikely classics, and yet I think that is precisely why it makes for an extraordinary piece of Classic Literature.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Hunger Games Trilogy

I know this is supposed to be a Classic Literature blog, but I have to write about the Hunger Games trilogy for a moment.  I just read them... No, let me rephrase: I just devoured them.  In general, I like to savor things.  If I love something, I want to make it last as long as possible.  I don't want to read all of the books from my favorite authors at once because I like to save some for later.  I don't want to watch a TV series straight through when I could instead drag it out.  I eat my dessert slower than all of my friends and drive them crazy.  But with the Hunger Games, I swallowed them whole in just a few days.

I think there are a number of reasons I had this reaction.  First of all, it is an engaging story, and I don't think anyone can deny that.  It's action-packed, and it's easy to fly through the pages to find out what will happen.  I genuinely did get caught up in the story and could feel myself rooting for Katniss.  However, I think I read them so quickly because I so rarely read YA literature.  In fact, I can't even remember the last time I read something this light and easy.  Not even my "fluff" literature can be read this quickly.  Half of the temptation for me was the knowledge that I could finish the whole thing in a day if I wanted to.  I never read books in a single day anymore!

Regarding its literary merit, I'm not quite as enthused.  Although I was greatly wrapped up in the story, I did notice some cracks and places that could have used some added depth.  For example, there were a few plot lines that felt shallow, and the Panem history could have certainly benefited from more detail.  However, I don't hold these things against Suzanne Collins because I don't think that's the purpose of the books.  The purpose is to engage young adults and get them excited about reading, and I think she successfully accomplished it.  If it doesn't rank well in literary scholarship, that's not a problem.  She created some characters we can truly root for and attach ourselves to.  Moreover, I think she created great role models for young adults, and I was thoroughly impressed with the way she presented the "love triangle" as merely a small part of the story and not at all the focus of it.  I think it's good for young readers to see that Katniss was way more focused on surviving and protecting those she loved than getting wrapped up in young romance.  But, of course, a young romance is practically necessary for YA literature, and I forgive the trilogy for its shallow moments.

I also like dystopian literature in general.  I wrote a short series I called "Apocalyptic Literature" you can find in my "Serial Posts" tab, and I focused pieces that contain a bit more depth.  But in the Hunger Games, I enjoyed that dimension of the story, and I am impressed with Collins' creativity in crafting it.  I don't think I could ever come up with some of the scenarios she invented.  Again, I want to only judge the trilogy for what it is, and I think it fully succeeded in its genre.  Will I add it to my list of Classics?  Well, no.  But did I enjoy reading it?  Absolutely.

Finally, I'm grateful to this fun YA trilogy because it reminded me how much I love to read.  I have to admit that I've been bogged down lately and unable to get excited about reading.  A lot of things have changed in my life in the last several months, and somehow I lost some of my reading energy.  But as I pictured this story in my head and eagerly followed Katniss' journey, I remembered that books are such a wonderful source of entertainment.  The feeling you get when you read a good book cannot be replaced by any other activity.  My mind just lights up in its imagination, and my fingers tear through the pages to eat up whatever is coming.  And when it's done with depth and sincerity in those really phenomenal Classic Literature novels, it makes me feel stronger and wiser at the end.  Yeah, I love that, and I'm ready to dive back in.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Contemporary Series, Part 5: White Noise

Continuing with the Contemporary Series, I want to discuss White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo.  I feel confident about adding this one to the list because I am convinced it will be recognized as a "Classic" for a long time to come.  In fact, many scholars have already given it this status and devoted extensive analysis to the novel.  When I read it, I was immediately impressed by the unique and intelligent writing style, and I could sense its depth even before I recognized the central message of the text.

In my opinion, the story is meant to be a portrait of Middle Class America.  The family is not particularly special or even all that likable, but they are believable.  The husband and wife have each been through multiple marriages before this one, and their family is mixed with their children from previous relationships.  They live in the Midwest, and Jack, the protagonist, is a professor at a local college.  The only thing that immediately feels odd about the family is that Jack specializes in Hitler studies, a branch of academia which he actually invented.  We learn this in the first chapter, and it raises a red flag about how Jack chooses to focus his thoughts.  Nevertheless, their interactions at the beginning of the novel are fairly mundane, and it's difficult to predict how the plot will turn and demand our attention.

I must take some time to discuss DeLillo's writing style because I was in awe of it from the beginning.  Although there is not a lot of action at first, he mixes in so much stream of consciousness, sensory description, and intriguing juxtaposition that I was thoroughly engaged anyway.  Perhaps the title "White Noise" tipped me off, but I have never been more aware of a writer's descriptions of sound than in DeLillo's novel.  He often records the odd, discordant sounds that are present wherever the characters are.  It truly builds the reader's sense that we are drowned out by the white noise around us, which we breathe in without even noticing.  Even alarms and sirens fail to awaken the characters' energy and spark action.  We get the sense that we push the world away from us and refuse to look beyond ourselves, or even within ourselves for that matter.  

Most of the chapters end with fragments or short sentences that delicately make the thought linger before moving on.  Sometimes, these ending thoughts seem to depart from the action immediately before them, but they are weaving together a grander narrative.  This is perhaps the greatest illustration of DeLillo's brilliance.  The little phrases that hardly seem essential to the text build up a powerful message by the end: we are all obsessed with death.  We are afraid of it and fascinated by it.  The family communes together by watching the disaster news on TV and living through the Airborne Toxic Event.  Somehow, I didn't pick up on this theme right away, but it is clearly the heartbeat of the text from the very beginning.  People die, and the characters emotionally distance themselves from it until they are in direct and personal contact with it.  And unfortunately, it brings out the worst in them.

It's actually a pretty depressing book.  The family members talk at each other, but no one really expresses how they feel, nor do they listen.  They exist in overlapping circles, carrying on with their lives and individual fascinations.  They question "my truth" versus "your truth," and they lie to themselves even more than they do to each other.  The problems build up slowly and subtly; we can hardly predict a crisis moment.  They embrace the distractions and challenges to death, but they reject personal responsibility.  Perhaps the worst part of all this is that it is terribly convincing.

This is a fascinating story.  It can be poetic and mundane at the same time, and the throbbing undercurrent eventually pushes itself to a dramatic climax.  I don't like any of the characters, and I actually felt beaten down by the underlying message.  More importantly, I don't agree with DeLillo's assessment of the human race.  I think there is more goodness and sincerity than he suggests.  Nevertheless, I was captivated and moved.  I can sense the insights that would come from re-reading it, and yet I don't know if I ever will.  I am actually concerned for people who would devote hours to studying and analyzing the story, and yet I have to admit that it is a stimulating read.

Before I finish, I want to add a word of caution to potential readers.  I don't think you should read this book if you're going through a dark period in your own life, especially if you know someone who is facing his or her death.  This is a bit of a SPOILER, but Jack believes that because of toxic exposure, he has brought on his death much sooner than he expected.  With this knowledge, he acts out in selfish, lawless ways and disrespects the people in his life.  I read this while my father was dying, and there were times that I had to set the book aside because it was weighing on me so heavily.  I do not believe that this is how we all feel about life and death deep down.  My father did not approach his death this way at all, and I think there is more goodness in humanity than DeLillo portrays.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Contemporary Series, Part 4: Captain Corelli's Mandolin

Ok, it's time for me to sit down and write about a specific book again.  I have been unsure what to do with this next one for a long time now.  I can be so strict with my definition of a "Classic" that I wasn't sure if I could justify including this one.  But I just recently recommended it to a friend yet again, and I decided I must include it on my blog.  It is a wonderful and well-written story, and since I'm the sole writer of this blog, I'm going to stop being quite so strict!

I'm attaching this book to my Contemporary Series, which I started over a year ago.  It is called Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (1994). I still find this series rather intimidating, as I recognize that I may be stepping out on a limb since it is too early for a group of literary scholars to agree with me in this classification.  The biggest difference with this book is that I'm not convinced literary scholarship will one day recognize it, but I am becoming more convinced that it deserves the "Classic Literature" status nonetheless.  It is truly an epic tale, as it spans several decades and covers such major themes as history, war, and love.  De Bernieres wrote beautifully, at times filling my heart with joy and at times breaking it.  His characters are unforgettable, as are the images he creates within the story.  It has a grandness reminiscent of Les Miserables, though I do not pretend de Bernieres quite reached that scale.

This novel is set in Greece, beginning in 1943.  The Italian army has invaded their island during the occupation of World War II.  The mood in the air is full of suspicion and resentment as the Greek people adjust to feeling jailed on their own island.  Yet we also get to know a few members of the Italian army, and we discover that they have mixed feelings and discomfort as well.  Each chapter is written in the perspective of a different character, which provides wonderful variety and depth to the tale.  If I could only pick one aspect I like about this novel, it is that every single character deepens as the story continues.  Their superficial layers are peeled back, and we get a glimpse of genuine and exposed hearts, for better or for worse.  Our initial impressions of them change as the story develops, which adds to the epic feel of everything at the end.

As it often happens in real life, some of the best relationships in the story are complicated.  Corelli is the leader of the Italian unit, who would be much better suited to play in a band than work in the army.  He wants to carry fun and light-heartedness around him, but we also see the courage and loyalty that is at the base of it all.  Pelagia is arguably the heroine in the book, and I have much love for her character.  She makes mistakes but also learns from them, and she sacrifices for the most important people in her life.

Yet Carl, the quiet Italian officer, is possibly my favorite character.  He perfectly exemplifies what a book can do that a movie never could.  He doesn't speak many lines, but we have access to his private thoughts.  During his chapters, we learn of his character, integrity, and pain.  A movie can never let you inside a person's head like a book can.  It reminds me of Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  It's as though we have obtained a pass into someone's heart, and it feels so very genuine and real.  When Carl's shining moment came, I was enraptured and subconsciously had my hand over my heart, even though I was sitting in an airport terminal.  In a book, the quiet people can be the most captivating.

I am always most drawn to the character development in stories, which means that I can love a book even if it does not have a lot of action.  However, there is endless action in Captain Corelli's Mandolin, so I am confident it will be interesting to just about everyone.  It is one of those books that I don't hesitate when I suggest to others, and it passed around my group of friends very quickly.  I'm not sure that the scholars will mark it as a Classic in the future, but I think it would deserve the status if it ever achieved it.  Happy reading.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Ones I Wish I Liked

Before I jump back to a specific book, I want to get something out there.  From time to time, I will read a famous book that everyone seems to love.  I will hear overflowing praise for its depth, insight, writing style, etc., and eagerly pick up the book to find out what everyone is talking about.  And on those rare occasions, despite my best effort, I just don't really care for it.  I may ask my friends to explain why they like it so much, and I can even understand their perspective, but I can't seem to change my feelings about it.  Maybe this has happened to you too.

These are the pieces of literature that I really wish I could make myself like.  (I actually feel that way about a couple of movies too, but that's another story).  These are the ones that lit-lovers are really disappointed to hear that I didn't enjoy.  On the other hand, sometimes I don't mind disliking certain books because I truly don't think they are written very well or contain a lot of depth.  That is a different category and not what I'm talking about.  Ok, enough already... I'm stalling.  Here's my list of The Ones I Wish I Liked:

1. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein - Remember the category, ok??  I absolutely recognize the intense amount of work Tolkein invested in this series.  I am in awe of the depth he reached by providing detailed historys, varied characters, and new languages.  I can feel the epic nature of the series; he created a whole world!  But, I just didn't really like it.  I couldn't feel attached to the characters, (most of whom felt one-dimensional), and I felt myself reading out of duty rather than interest.  And the second half of The Two Towers nearly killed me.  Is there anyone who actually enjoys those endless pages of Sam and Frodo walking through the mountains with the obnoxious Gollum at their tail?  But I'm sorry, I tried!!

2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville - So many people love this one.  With the bad taste of Billy Budd in my mouth, I had no intention of investing in this massive Melville text.  But after enough friends pushed me to read it, even going so far as to buy me a copy and place it in my hands, I gave in and read the entire, unabridged version.  I would have loved to tell everyone, "You were right all along!  I am so glad you made me read this!"  Sadly, though I am glad to have read it, I can't say those words whole-heartedly.  Again, I recognize the aspects of it that people love.  The beginning is almost poetic, and I genuinely did enjoy the first portion of the text as Ishmael felt his call for the sea and headed toward Nantucket.  Moreover, the ending of the story was captivating, and I have never felt like an ending was so well anticipated.  It was so satisfying to face Moby Dick in the boat after pages and pages of waiting in the sea without catching a glimpse of him.  But OH MY GOSH I did not want to know that much about whaling!!  I cannot get over that; I'm sorry.  I really don't care to know about each knot on the boat and how to make use of every little part of the whale.  There are so many chapters that have nothing to do with the plot that felt like a major chore to get through, and no matter what happens at the beginning and the end, I can't embrace the book for that dreadful middle section.

3. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad - I really want to like this one.  When I first read it in high school, I was happy to toss it aside in my dislike of it.  However, as I continued in my literary studies, I repeatedly heard people praising this novella as one of the best pieces of literature in its time.  Reluctantly, I finally re-read it, hoping that my years of literary training and analysis would bring me to love the book as so many of my peers do... It didn't work.  I have talked to friends and read essays about all of the symbolism, and I guess I can understand that.  But I can't shake the fact that I don't really like it, and I think it's over-rated.  I didn't feel like the admiration of Kurtz was fully explained or deserved, and the meeting certainly didn't meet the buildup the rest of the story had created.  I couldn't connect with the characters, and I wasn't even sure the messages were very strong or insightful in the text.  Oh, "The horror!  The horror!"

I'll stop here.  There are actually a few more, but I read them so long ago that I'm hoping a re-reading will make me change my mind, (even though it didn't work with Heart of Darkness).  I'm sure this is more than enough to make many of you yell at your computer screens and object to my bad taste.  But please remember that I am not insulting any of these texts.  I am putting them on this list because I DO recognize their merit, but I nevertheless can't bring myself to like them.  And I have no doubt that many of you feel the same way about some of the books I love the most.  I can accept that, though I would feel a little disappointed just as many do with me for the books I just listed.  To each his own...  :)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Getting Personal

Hi, Everyone.

You may have noticed that I have not updated my blog in quite some time.  I have been debating whether I should open up and share my personal life on this whole blogosphere because I wonder if this is the right setting.  I have dedicated this blog solely to literature and done my best to limit my personal life.  However, I have come to think that there may be someone out there who would benefit from me getting a little personal, at least this once.

On February 1, my father passed away.  The cancer he had three years ago came back and metastasized in his bones, which was a painful and debilitating challenge.  I moved into my parents' home to help take care of him in his final days, and I am so grateful I could be there for that precious time.  I am writing about this because I know I'm not alone in grief, and many of you may be experiencing this in some capacity as well.  Although I have no intention to go into detail with this beyond today's post, I do want to share a few things I've learned with you.

To those who are grieving:
First of all, you are not alone.  For some reason, I find comfort in knowing this.  I certainly don't wish that my friends would suffer loss, but I am more comfortable around the people who know how I feel.  One of my good friends lost her father just three months before mine passed away, and we have clung to one another as people who get it.  I hate that she lost her dad and I wish I could take away her pain, but I am grateful to have her support right now.  Someone explained to me several months ago that when you lose a dearly loved one, you become part of a kind of club.  It's so difficult for outsiders to know what to say or understand how you feel, but those within the club give you a knowing look and outstretched arms.  I find it easier to talk to other people about their grief and their struggles because I know what to say, and I appreciate those who know what to say to me as well.  I still have a long way to go, but the best way to approach it is with as much vulnerability and openness as possible.  Let yourself feel the emotions that come to you and follow your heart as you restart your life.

To those whose friends are grieving:
You may have no idea what you should say and feel unable to do anything for your friend.  That's ok; we don't fault you for that.  We know that it's difficult for you too, and we appreciate any way you reach out.  We need to be reminded that people love us in addition to the one we lost.  So make time for us, and let us talk about ourselves more than we talk about you for now.  Don't try to "cheer us up" because we don't want that.  We want to be able to grieve around you and with you.  The number one thing you can do is to just listen. But, I need to add that it is different for every person, and you should listen to the needs of your friend and not just my suggestions.

To help you, here are a few things that I personally did and did not want to hear:
1. "Don't cry."  If your friend is crying in front of you, that is because he/she feels comfortable enough to let out those feelings in your presence.  If you try to soothe him/her with "don't cry," that takes it all away.  If you friend is crying, let him/her cry and don't say anything about it.  We need to feel safe doing it around you.

2. "It's going to be ok."  Death is the most permanent thing in the world.  There is no reversing it, no way to fix it, and thus, no way for it to be "ok."  Instead, we have to learn to redirect our paths and redefine our relationships in this new reality.  You can't get over something like this, nor do you want to... and that's ok.

3. "I can't imagine how you're feeling right now."  This may be true, and you can certainly have these thoughts in your mind.  If you say it once to your grieving friend, that's ok.  But we are most comforted by those who do try to understand how we're feeling, who want to listen to our feelings and take on some of our pain with us.  If you repeatedly say you can't imagine it, it feels like you don't want to try to connect with us and that may create some distance.  So try to imagine what we're feeling, and we will be grateful for that.

4. "Don't worry; you'll see him again in heaven."  This is a common response, particularly from caring, religious people.  You may think that this is the greatest comfort, but that may not be the case.  Even if the person in grief believes in heaven, this "reassurance" is not going to change anything right now.  Let us keep those thoughts to ourselves if we have them.  It doesn't take away the reality of pain and feeling his/her loss now.  We feel like you are dismissing our grief if you tell us this, as though we shouldn't feel sad about it now.

5. "You made the right decision."  I needed to hear this one over and over again.  You can never say that too many times.  There is so much insecurity that comes with loss, especially if it is sudden or of a person much too young.  If your friend has had to make some big life decisions and adjust for this, assure him/her that it was the right thing to do.  Encourage your friend so he/she still can feel like a strong person, despite all the feelings of weakness and powerlessness that may be overwhelming him/her.

6. "Your dad was a great man."  At a time of grief, we want it to be about the person we lost, not about ourselves.  Take time to say good things about the person who has died, even if you never met that person.  In that case, you can say something like, "From what I know from you, your dad was an amazing person," and that is music to our ears.  Compliment the person who passed away, and do not be afraid to bring up that person in conversation.  We want our loved one to continue to be a part of the conversation; it's not an off-limits name we can't handle.  We want to know that he/she will be remembered.

These were all my personal thoughts, but there are many who speak more eloquently about grief than I do.  Since my audience is primarily made of avid readers, I want to include some things to read.

sunset soon forgotten is a young woman's journey of grief.  She herself is very insightful and often includes references to other to articles I can relate to as well.  She regularly says the things that I carry in my heart and wonder if other people understand.

The "Good Grief" series is written by a theologian who recently lost his daughter.  In contrast to many Christian writers, I find his words poignant and comforting.  He is good about saying the things we need to hear and wish we could say to others as well.

If you have been comforted by other grief blogs, please let me know and I'll include them in the list.  The great thing about blogging is we can realize that we are not alone in our experiences.  I am also planning to read a few books on grief at some point, so please let me know if there are any that have spoken to you in the past.  So far on my list are A Grief Observed by CS Lewis and The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen.

Again, I don't intend to say more on this subject on my blog, but feel free to contact me privately if you are moved by any of this and want to talk.  You can find my contact information in the left column, and I'm here if you need it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Guest Blog: Umberto Eco Overview

One of the new things I'm going to do this year is host some Guest Blogs.  Thus far, you have only heard about books on here from my perspective.  But I have a lot of incredibly insightful friends whose thoughts I want to share with you as well!  And I'm excited to begin with my good friend, Andrew Shaughnessy:

I’m not quite sure what I was thinking when I agreed to write about Umberto Eco when Amy asked me to write a guest post for her blog. I have so much to say, too much to say, in fact. Eco is one of my favorite authors, but his ideas and books are so complex that I scarcely feel qualified to say anything about them. Eco is the kind of author who is best discussed over a heavy stout or a strong coffee, when one can throw ideas around with less commitment than print. Oh well. Here goes….

The Name of the Rose, perhaps Eco’s most famous book, is an oft-cited, endlessly and differently interpreted work of postmodern fiction. The story, at its most basic level, concerns William of Baskerville, a Sherlock Holmes-like monk, who employs all of his powers of empirical and deductive reasoning to get to the bottom of a series of murders in a medieval monastery in Italy. At a deeper level, the story is largely about the fragmentation of reality, knowledge, and interpretation. These are primarily illustrated in a labyrinthine library in the monastery, which Eco employs as a symbol of the labyrinth of human experience and the search for knowledge. The very title of the book speaks to this semiotic disconnect. The rose, like much that appears to have meaning in the book, has come to symbolize so many different things that it has essentially lost any and all meaning.

This idea of the fragmentation of symbols, reality, and interpretation of both reality and fiction are recurring themes across Eco’s works. Eco is the master of showing the convoluted interplay between fiction and reality. For example, Foucault’s Pendulum tells the story of three publishers who, after reading a great deal of conspiracy theory literature, decide to invent a conspiracy of their own. The result is a web of complex symbols, numerology, and overlapping cults and conspiracies, which ultimately boils past its creators’ control when people begin to believe their fictions and act on them. Essentially, the fiction has become the reality. I tend to describe it to friends as Umberto Eco reading a Dan Brown novel, laughing at it, and saying: “I can beat that.”

This blurring of lines between fiction and reality springs up again in Eco’s latest book The Prague Cemetery, which was just released this year. Here, the protagonist makes a living as a forger of documents, creating or altering false personal letters, books, and political correspondences for profit. The “hero” makes his forgeries believable by drawing from, or even plagiarizing, novels. The end results are fictions so powerful, cast as they are in the guise of printed truth, that they are utilized in the rise and fall of nations, espionage, and even fomenting widespread revolution, nationalism and the beginning of European anti-Semitism.

Another interesting thing to notice with Eco is the clear influence of other writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges in particular.  The world-changing potential of fiction of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Prague Cemetery recalls Borges’ short story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, while the labyrinth of The Name of the Rose is a recurring image throughout Borges’ short stories.

I have scarcely done justice to any of these works, or even ideas. Eco is brilliant - there’s no way around that – and it is undeniable that his books are at times dense and complex to the point of confusion. Yet, their saving grace, and one thing I for one very much appreciate, is that Eco manages to place these complex and fascinating ideas inevitably within an entertaining frame story, something which Eco acknowledges he learned from G. K. Chesterton, (referencing The Man Who Was Thursday, which simultaneously works as a spy-thriller and an examination of God, life, and beauty).

The Name of the Rose is at heart a murder mystery. Foucault’s Pendulum is a conspiracy thriller. The Prague Cemetery is centered around espionage and political machinations in the 1848 upheavals in Europe. This makes them fun, but does not take away from the fact that his books are somewhat difficult to work through. That said, the effort is well worth the result.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Great Novellas: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

I'm really eager to introduce this next novella in the series because it's less known than most of the other ones.  In fact, it might be the most obscure one I've discussed so far, but I really love it.  The book is The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson.  It was originally published anonymously in 1912, a time when few African-American writers were publishing their work.  But during the Harlem Renaissance, a publisher reproduced the work, and it gained some momentum and popularity.

Despite the title, this is actually a fictional story, though Johnson may have based the characters on people from his life.  The protagonist, who is never named, was born of a white father and black mother.  His skin tone was light enough that he could feasibly "pass" as white without garnering suspicion.  I am sorry to admit that I was unfamiliar with this concept before reading this book and a similar (and also very good) book called Passing by Nella Larsen.  I can hardly imagine how difficult it would be to feel torn between cultures and yet uncomfortable in both.  I can only imagine the temptation to pass for the privileged ethnicity but the intense guilt that would accompany that.  Because this is so far outside of my experience, I think it is important to read stories like this that expose another aspect of the human condition and struggle.  This is the power of fiction - we are able to put ourselves in another person's shoes and take insight from his or her experience.  But I digress...

I find it very powerful when a protagonist is never named in the story.  Immediately, I think of Inivisible Man by Ellison, but there are a handful of others who incorporate this in their stories.  It subtly represents the identity struggle of the narrator, who is able to share his/her story and yet cannot establish a concrete identity.  However, I do not want to overdo the "identity crisis" interpretation because I don't think that is the central component of his story.  Instead, I think that the narrator is a keen observer of his environments and the people in them.  The entire piece is a close observation of human interaction, cultural differences, and social impressions.  Clearly, the narrator is highly intelligent and delivers some very interesting insights.  In addition, he also makes countless allusions to literature, music, and history which were important in the time this was written.

One of his more notable observations is the class division among African-Americans.  Before Johnson wrote this novella, people didn't usually distinguish between the various cultures within African-Americans but clumped them all in one category.  Yet the narrator, who grew up in a wealthier environment, discusses the significant differences in the various cultures he experiences.  In particular, he focuses on their various dialects and explores how their language affects their interactions.  His observations are so astute that they are still very relevant 100 years later.  The narrator is interested in language in general, taking time to learn Spanish and French as well, and I really like his linguistic analyses.  This is something I didn't appreciate the first time I read the story, but it has lately intrigued me.

In the story, the narrator transitions from a wide variety of environments, including suburban life, warehouse work, New York jazz club, and world-traveling musician.  Although he was impacted by each of these settings, he experiences two particular life-changing moments.  The first one inspires him to dedicate himself to his African-American heritage and contribute to the betterment of those people.  The second one reverses this decision and causes him to choose to deny that heritage for the rest of his life.  I think you must read the book to really understand how this is possible, how he became an "Ex-Colored Man."  His reasoning is sensible, but he cannot shake his guilt.  Because we are aware of his intellectual capabilities, we understand that he wouldn't make a decision like this without a great deal of thought.  But I think the story illustrates that the most significant decisions we make in our lives are rarely easy ones.  Life is not clearly separated into black and white.

I reread this novella while I was preparing to write about it in this blog post, and I was reminded all over again why I had such a good impression of it.  I really think it is a gem, and though it is small, it contains vast insight.  There are a number of ways to interpret the story, and yet it doesn't offer clear answers.  This perfectly illustrates the purpose of focusing on novellas, because it shows that authors do not necessarily need length in order to portray fascinating stories with thoughtful messages.  So I really want to encourage you to read it, and it won't even take you very long!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Great Novellas: Animal Farm

Continuing with the novellas series, I want to be sure to include George Orwell's Animal Farm on the list.  This was a precursor to his more famous work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and you can certainly see traces of that masterpiece in this smaller text.  However, this is distinctly a satire about the Soviet Union, which was equally as risky as it was relevant, rather than a prophesy of an apocalyptic future.  Typically, we think of the Russian authors who wrote in the dangerous Stalin era, such as Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn. But Orwell, who was passionate about his political beliefs, openly hated and criticized the Soviet Union as well, particularly for its corruption of socialism.

Many of the connections to the Soviet Union are very clear: the pig dictator, Napoleon, represents Stalin; Snowball represents Trotsky; the violent confession scene represents the purge trials; the Rebellion represents the Russian Revolution, etc.  If you aren't familiar with these historical references, you might appreciate and enjoy the novella more if you looked up some of this Soviet Union history. But I think it's important to recognize that Animal Farm has value beyond its cultural connections to the time.  Orwell took the form of the Soviet Union in this particular novella in order to illustrate a larger injustice.  This injustice is found in every form of oppression.  It's the injustice of manipulating the weak, exploiting the underprivileged, and lording power over the helpless.

At the beginning of Animal Farm, the animals overthrow the humans from the farm.  They paint a picture of their autonomous rule, which will be defined by equality, peace, and mutual respect.  Although they initially work as a team in this harmonic way, they eventually create a new tyranny within their independent rule, which is arguably even worse than the rule of the humans.  The pigs take over command, instilling new rules and rewriting history to serve their purposes.  They are blinded by their desire for power, and Napoleon eventually knocks everyone out until he has supreme command of the farm.

Orwell wanted to reveal the vast disparity among economic classes as it contributes to oppression.  The pigs represent the wealthier, educated class, above the horses, cows, and others, with the sheep on the bottom. Much of the pigs’ ability to control the rest of the animals comes from their exploitation of the other animals’ inability read.  Through this, Orwell also shows the incredible power of words, which is something he likewise emphasizes in the totalitarian rule in 1984.  He thus illustrates the importance of education and is sensitive to the poor and underprivileged who don't have access to it.

I also want to be sure to note that Orwell never blamed the animals for standing up for themselves; that was a proper reaction to the oppression they faced from the humans. Instead, the problem is in the new leadership of the pigs. It's really a rather pessimistic view of governance. It would appear that all revolutions are necessary, but all leaders of such revolutions will inevitably be corrupted. Yet delivering this message in the form of an allegory allowed Orwell to expose the evils of totalitarianism in a less frightening and intimidating way.

There are so many messages packed into this novella.  In addition to exposing the terrors of the Soviet Union, Orwell illustrated the groundwork of all political oppression.  And although it appears to conclude negatively, I think that the final image offers a glimmer of hope.  The novella ends with all of the animals looking through the window as they recognize that the pigs and humans have become indistinguishable. Then the story abruptly ends, and Orwell doesn’t provide the animals' next step. Instead, I think that he is inviting the readers to take that next step now that they’ve seen the corruption he illustrated. It is now our responsibility. The only chance for a positive outcome is to respond unselfishly to the totalitarianism and injustice we encounter, which Orwell himself so strongly detected and opposed.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Great Novellas: Of Mice and Men

Moving on with the Great Novellas, I want to talk about Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.  I absolutely adore East of Eden, (you can see my thoughts here if you're interested), but I haven't actually read very many other works by Steinbeck.  After feeling guilty about this for some time now, I finally settled down to read Of Mice and Men, and I certainly wasn't disappointed.

I think it is important to evaluate this as a novella, for this adds challenges and strengths to the piece.  Because he decided to write the story in a shorter form, we do not get a long history for the characters, nor is there time for them to really develop and grow.  Yet in a few words, Steinbeck delivers a profound message about friendship, dreams, prejudices, and hard times.  People have written countless pages of study to analyze this story, and we can find interpretations of it from innumerable angles.  But without diminishing the value of analytical study, I do want to say that I think we must admire this novella for its simplicity.

I read somewhere that Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men so it could be easily translated as a play.  The dialogue is more significant than the descriptions, and the setting is contained within the realms of a stage.  Again, this emphasizes the simplicity that reigns in the story without taking away from the messages embedded within it.  There is nothing to distract us from the interaction between the characters and the huge changes in the plot that occur.

The relationship between George and Lennie is beautiful.  Its uniqueness has become the source of dozens of pop cultural references, for it is equally inspiring as it is heartbreaking and as strange as it is enviable.  The two men are not bonded by blood, but their loyalty to one another is unbreakable.  They don't merely enjoy each other's company, but they have built a need for one another.  We don't know why they started traveling together, and I think it would have bogged down the text if Steinbeck had tried to explain it.  Instead, it is more moving that we simply are aware that they are friends and that they have a shared dream.  Loneliness swarms around them; it is palpable on the lips of Candy, Crooks, Curley's wife, and everyone else they encounter.  Because of this, the other characters obsess about the unusual relationship of George and Lennie.  Whether they are mocking it or questioning it, they are intrigued by this friendship.  Moreover, Lennie himself is intriguing.  He exists as a paradox, a lion with the heart of a lamb.  He has the physical capability for any feat of strength, but his mind and his heart have limits.  Lennie is drawn by softness, and his affection for small animals is touching.  Yet part of his paradox is that he ends up killing them by showing his affection too strongly.  Sadly, this characteristic is a harbinger of his fate.

There are so many things we could learn from Lennie, such as accepting people without judgment and staying loyal to your friends.  I love his scene with Crooks, the African-American of the group who has been completely shut out by everyone else.  Crooks is the one who wisely delivers the most famous line: "A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody. Don't make no difference who the guy is, long's he's with you."  But Lennie has his problems, and we can't idolize him.  I think Steinbeck sought to write honestly more than anything else, free from fairy tales and sugar-coating.  It's hard, it's unfair, it's disappointing, and it's so very real.

Of Mice and Men packs in so many aspects of human nature in so few pages.  It swells in moments of hope and friendship, and it twists through an impossible decision at the last.  It's no wonder that so many people have devoted time to study this slim novella.  I can't help but think about this in context of Steinbeck's magnum opus, East of Eden, which he produced 15 years later.  I can see some themes that are more fully developed and a perspective that has radically grown.  But Of Mice and Men has accomplished exactly what it could have hoped to do: it has sealed two unforgettable characters into our minds and our popular culture forever.