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.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Great Novellas: Ethan Frome

One of the things I'd like to do with my blog in 2012 is to return to the serial posts I began in the past which could use some additions.  In August, I began a series of Great Novellas, but I only discussed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Night, and "The Yellow Wallpaper," which is really more of a short story than a novella.  To do the genre justice, I have some more to add to the series and am open to further suggestions from all of you.

I want to start with Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.  This is a perfect time of year to discuss this novel, since it is set in the winter and filled with magnificent wintery details.  Unlike many people, I praise winter as my favorite time of the year, and I bask in frostbitten narratives.  There are few things I love more than curling up on the couch in the wintertime, wrapping myself in a blanket with hot chocolate or coffee, and reading a great book.  Furthermore, Ethan Frome is set in Massachusetts, which is my favorite place of residence, and the apt description of it warms my heart.

But the content of the novella is just as worthy as its setting, and I don't want to distract from that.  It's a character study that delicately leads you to understanding a complex and pitiable man.  Most of the story is conveyed through a flashback, which is contained within a frame narrative.  The initial first-person narrator is a visitor to the town, who is intrigued by a mysterious man he encounters named Ethan Frome.  During the Introduction section, we perceive Ethan through his eyes and form a biased opinion of this gruff and disfigured man.  Yet the majority of the novella is a flashback of Ethan's past, narrated in third-person from his perspective.  We then have access to his inner thoughts and hidden desires, as well as all the conflict they spark within him.  My heart ached in sympathy for this young Ethan, and I became completely attached to the character. 

This story hooked me.  I was in the middle of a different book and intended to download Ethan Frome so I could read it after I finished the one I was working on.  Out of curiosity, I glanced at the first page, and then I couldn't put it down until I was finished.  Wharton's writing is incredibly beautiful and compelling, and I flew through the pages.  But I think the most captivating aspect of the story is how very real Ethan seems to be.  It really felt like Ethan was a real person rather than a character, as his struggles were so earnest and heart-rending.  And yet, appropriately, you can recognize that Ethan is responsible for his position and that he made these choices with which he is now struggling.  Ultimately, no one is to blame for his situation, though he undeniably had some difficult circumstances most people don't have to experience at his age.  I think this is why I found it to be so compellingly human.

Because of the Introduction, we can sense that tragedy is looming over young Ethan in the flashback, and this foreboding adds a distinct mood to the story.  Nevertheless, it is still a bit of a shock when that time comes, and we return quickly to the present-day setting of the Introduction.  I think that the structure of this story is powerful, for though the Ethan we meet in the Introduction is consistent with the one we see in the Conclusion, our perspective of him has radically changed.  This creates a powerful, heart-breaking ending, which I do not think could have been shared in a more effective way.  It amazes me how deep Wharton is able to delve into the character in so few pages, and I think she had remarkable talent to be able to pull it off.  As I said at the beginning of this series, it is arguably more difficult to write great work in shorter genres like novellas, for every single word has to count.  I believe Ethan Frome is an excellent example of successfully accomplishing this challenge.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Book I'm Excited to Read in 2012

Happy New Year!  Today, The Broke and the Bookish is hosting another one of their regular "Top Ten Tuesday" blog hops.  I only manage to participate in these every now and then, but today's topic certainly caught my attention.  What are the top ten books I'm most excited to read in 2012? 

There are a lot of things I have in mind for 2012.  In 2011, I successfully knocked off a couple of large volumes that have been sitting in my "To Read" list for years.  I am thrilled to have completed them, but the list just continues to increase.  There are many books on my agenda, but these are the ones that really pique my interest:

1. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco -- One of my good friends is a big fan of Eco, and I almost always agree with his taste in books.  But I haven't read anything by Eco at all yet and I'm eager to correct that!

2. Watership Down by Richard Adams -- A year ago, I hadn't even heard of this book, and now it seems to pop up in conversation all the time.  Then another friend of mine decided to read it and became absolutely transfixed by it.  The only thing I know about it is the general plot line, which is odd enough to make me wonder what the excitement is all about.  I'm so curious!

3. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky -- Currently, I think I can assert that Dostoevsky is my favorite author.  However, I have been working hard at sampling a wide variety of literature rather than reading all of individual authors' works.  But why should I keep doing this?  I have no doubt that The Idiot is a treasure I will absolutely love and so I'm definitely returning to Dostoevsky this year.

4. Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges -- From what I understand, Borges has a very unique and innovative style that I should certainly experience.  I think I have a big gap in my literature variety if I don't include Borges and maybe some other South American authors.

5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- I like to bring up Russian Literature all the time, but I haven't read Nabokov, one of the most famous Russian authors.  Knowing its premise, I have some mixed feelings about the story, but there are enough people supporting the book who encourage me to read it this year.

6. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann -- I don't have a detailed reason for this one, but it sparked my interest and now I can't get it off my mind.  I don't know much about it, but it has really appealed to me, and I want to check it out soon.

7. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins -- One of my friends just assigned me this trilogy, knowing that I wouldn't typically read something like this.  But I have to admit that I am curious about all the attention it is getting and looking forward to the quick read.

8. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer -- I don't know whether I'll be able to get to this one this year, but I think I would enjoy it.  It just sounds like an incredible tale and something very different than the stuff I usually read.  It would be a nice break in between some of the heavy tomes.

9. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer -- If you're catching this trend, this is yet another book that is different than the Classics I usually read and yet I'm intriuged by it.  I have only heard good things from people about this author, and the upcoming movie might be added inspiration for me to read it before I watch it.

10. ???  -- In 2011, you all - my book blog audience - recommended a number of books for me to read that I thoroughly enjoyed.  Some of the best books I read this year were ones I read in reluctance.  I didn't expect them to appeal to me, but I took the advice of friends and fellow book bloggers.  And I am so glad I did!  So this category is to say that I'm eager to read whatever books you recommend to me that I may not have considered on my own.

Wow, this has kind of turned into a New Year's Resolution of sorts.  It's going to take a lot of effort to complete all of these, but I hope to live up to the challenge!