Thursday, December 19, 2013


I placed Germinal by Emile Zola on my "To Read" list quite a while ago, inspired by a fellow book blogger.  Yet for whatever reason, I felt no hurry or strong incentive to read it.  As far as I know, none of my friends have read this novel, and it wasn't coming up in any conversations.  I really didn't know much about it and had few expectations.  But as it had been sitting patiently in my Kindle for such a long time, I finally decided to get to it.  By the end of the first chapter, I was hooked, and I flew through the novel far more quickly than I anticipated, lapping up the rich details, volatile plot, and heart-wrenching emotion.

This is the story of a working-class community of miners living with and fighting against the cycles of poverty and oppression that consume them.  We quickly become aware of this cycle, as low wages and frequent pregnancies wash over the people with the consistent and inescapable pull of the tide.  The protagonist is Etienne, a young man who has fallen from his higher class position into this role as a miner.  Despite their cultural differences, the miners eventually welcome Etienne into their community, recognizing that his hard work and earnest heart overshadow the traits he lacks.  He moves in with the Maheu family, where he befriends their daughter Catherine, and falls in love with her amid a messy love triangle.  Their sexual tension burns through the pages, offering a hint of innocent purity in the midst of rampant promiscuity.

Throughout this process, the injustice of the miners' lifestyle pulses as the undercurrent of the story.  We catch glimpses of the wealthy upper crust as they collect from the miners without investing a fraction of their effort.  Even within the community, we see the families who have money take advantage of those who do not.  We watch the miners suffer physical, mental, and sexual abuse in their gritty attempt to keep living.  We observe traces of hope float in among them only to be blown out of their reach.  Their crisis steadily builds upon their labored shoulders, as one breaking point leads to another.  There is not one single event that pushes them into chaos, but a growing desperation forces out their other options.  They're determined and rash, stubborn and hopeful, generous and terrible.  Yet all of their emotions become painfully suffocated as their situation becomes increasingly dire.

Zola was able to make the descriptions and emotions so raw and realistic because he immersed himself in a mining community to research it.  The strength of this novel lies in its suffering people and their fierce desire to keep living despite the increasingly heart-breaking circumstances.  Their struggle is at times clumsy and at times brilliant, and Zola manages to polish it off with the faint sound of hope ringing in the distance.  Germinal's revolutionary and desperate spirit is akin to other stories of French revolt, such as Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities.  However, this novel was the 13th in a 20 volume series, though it has far outshone all of Zola's other writing since its original publication in 1885.  If, like me, you were waiting for someone to give you an extra push to pick up this piece of wonderful French literature, I hope my brief discussion does the trick.  You won't regret it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, is one of those well-known texts we learn in school and quote regularly, especially as we long to "live deliberately."  Yet although I was certainly familiar with this famous piece of work, I had never actually read it in its entirety.  I took ownership of it, visiting Walden Pond itself and quoting my favorite lines, but I didn't realize that the excerpts I read in school were part of a much larger work.  So when I finally sat down to read the book, I was immediately intrigued and in complete agreement with his assessments.  I felt inspired as Thoreau stressed the need to escape the mundane routines and live more thoughtfully. 

However, many passages were verbose, presenting themselves as diatribes rather than reflections.  Other parts were so intimately detailed as to be excessive in description, tempting my eyes to skim the page quickly rather than capture every word.  At times I smirked in my dissent with his views, inwardly chuckling at the pretentious nonsense he considered to be self-evident truths.  And then suddenly a passage would strike me at my core, resounding deeply through my mind and body as I encountered it. 

Allow me to give an example.  I was working through his chapter on “The Ponds,” which is full of lavish descriptions of his most beloved landscape.  However, I have seen this pond in person, and I am not nearly as impressed with its beauty as this chapter would indicate.  It’s just a pond.  You can see the whole thing quite easily in one glance, as it is not very large.   It’s quiet and still, with no evidence of teeming life and movement within its waters.  The woods surround it on all its edges except where we have now inserted a paved road.  In the summer, it is full of people splashing and swimming in it, and the autumn offers some lovely fall colors around it.  Nevertheless, it’s just a pond. Yet to Thoreau’s eyes, this was the embodiment of heaven on earth.  He had no trouble filling pages and pages with descriptions of it and sonnets dedicated to it.  He would not have had to travel very far to reach the more beautiful coasts of Cape Ann or Cape Cod, which share the same borders but offer far more extravagant views.  But nothing would have been able to surpass the quiet elegance of Walden Pond for Thoreau, and I have a feeling that no amount of persuasion could have convinced him to change his mind.

                        (This is one of my personal photos of Walden Pond)

I have seen some spectacular landscapes in the world, even within this past year.  And yet reading Walden has brought me to wonder how they truly appear outside my biased viewpoint.  When I return to the places I love the most, will they still contain all of their majesty in my eyes?  Despite his lavish descriptions of the pond, Thoreau has one moment of self-awareness in this chapter, which struck me deeply.  He wrote that despite the adjustments people had made around Walden Pond, “it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me.”

It's hard to fully explain why this line meant so much to me, particularly at the time I read it.  When I find myself traveling in other parts of the world or returning to the places I already know well, I think it's incredibly healthy to recognize that all the change is in me.  We have very little control over the circumstances in our lives, and we have to continually adjust ourselves in order to keep moving forward.  During this process, we might have the tendency to see things differently, tinged with nostalgia or bitterness, joy or heartbreak.  And while I think it is fine to prefer some locations over others, we must always remember that we are influenced by our own perspective.  Wherever we go, we have to bring ourselves along.  Thoreau's subtle insight broke through the screen I had unknowingly placed before my vision, helping me to appreciate my present situation but also look forward to the future ahead of me.  Regardless of my next step, there has certainly already been a lot of change within me, and I will bring that with me as I move forward.

There is so much wisdom in this beautiful piece of work.  Thoreau says that each man ought to make his life worthy of a person’s deepest contemplation and live it earnestly. Reading this does remind me to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” so that when I die, I may know that I have truly lived. That is why I am here and that is what I must do.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Doctor Zhivago

Brilliant, it's just brilliant.  I haven't written on this blog in a while, but I must process what I just read and take a moment to publicly sigh in appreciation of it.  I love Russian literature, as you probably know by now, but I have largely focused on the 19th century.  However, there is also a lot of wonderful work from the 20th century, such as Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, a Nobel Prize winner.

I feel like I have to tell you a little bit of Pasternak's story because it does help you appreciate this novel.  Before Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak had only published poetry and gained a fairly significant following from his work.  But during this time, he also quietly worked on his magnum opus, carefully crafting it for ten years.  When he was finished, he sent it to some Russian publishers, but they refused to publish it due to the backlash they might receive.  Ultimately, he handed his manuscript to an Italian publisher, famously telling him: "You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad."  The book was an instant sensation across Europe, bringing him international attention as well as Russian persecution.  When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was unable to attend the ceremony as he knew he would be denied reentry to his beloved country.

This story is an intimate portrayal of the Bolshevik Revolution.  We know very little of the big picture but grasp the rumors and moments that Dr. Zhivago witnesses.  There is something compelling and ingenious about this structure, even as it is irritating and confusing.  It's written in pieces, cutting in and out of the story abruptly and erratically.  Without an omniscient narrator, we have an opportunity to feel how the Russians must have felt during the revolution, unsure how each side was doing in its grueling struggle.  They could only guess the progress based on whichever rumors reached their towns, carrying in conflicting stories about the various generals and leaders.  Moreover, I couldn't tell whether Pasternak favored one side over the other, the White Army or the Red Army.  Instead, I simply felt Zhivago's earnest desire for the conflict to end, regardless of which side of the revolution would receive credit for it.

Another significant component of the novel is its wide spectrum of characters coming in and out of the text.  Throughout his arduous journey, Zhivago meets a number of different people, some of whom only interact with him in a passing moment.  He talks to people on the train, at the hospital, in labor camps, and at home.  At times, Pasternak will devote a whole chapter to introduce a character and tell his story and then never mention that character again.  I find this incredibly realistic, as we all have fleeting interactions with strangers every day.  In Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak plays with the concept of "coincidence," bringing some of these strangers back into Zhivago's life in the most unexpected moments.  I loved this, for I believe we are always connected with the people around us, whether or not we take the time to recognize it.  Some scenes which should seem important pass quickly with little description, while other nominal scenes are drawn out with great detail.  In presenting the story in this way, Pasternak is challenging the notion of which events are the most important in our lives.  Are they the big occasions such as weddings and funerals?  Or is it the everyday conversations and routines that have a greater impact on us?

In between moments of the story, Pasternak tosses in insightful commentary of human nature, society, revolution, and struggle.  I could pull out dozens of quotes that struck me and can stand on their own merit.  He beautifully weaves in descriptions as well, making the landscape come alive through his pen.  For example, the snow is an important component of the novel, appearing as a recurring motif alongside the characters.  At times it represents the heavy, depressing emotions of the ongoing war.  It powerfully crashes on the land and freezes everything in place.  Yet in other scenes, the snow is a beautiful relief, glittering in the sun with hope and beauty for those who watch it.  It reminds them of childhood play, building snow forts and snowmen.  The snow interacts with the people as one of the characters, evoking various emotions, reflecting their current predicaments, and foreshadowing the future.

I admit that it took some effort for me to get through this whole novel, as its unorthodox structure made it a little more difficult to move quickly through the text.  However, I truly enjoyed every minute of it, feeling enriched by each page.  I feel like Pasternak gave me an incredible understanding of the Bolshevik Revolution, and reading his novel allowed me to experience this piece of history in a realistic way.  Thus, I highly recommend that you read it, as it is an informative, expansive, heartbreaking classic.

For more on Russian literature, check out my lists below:
Great Russian Authors of the 19th Century
Great Russian Authors of the 20th Century

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Beautiful and Damned

In the publication of this novel, F Scott Fitzgerald managed to create a well-written and thoughtful piece of literature without a single redeeming character.  Even up until the very last sentence, I was holding out hope that one of the characters would redeem himself by the end, but I received no such compensation.  I think it would be difficult to finish this novel without feeling that it is a thoroughly depressing book, and it has taken me some time to sort out its value and insight amid this dark cloud.

Like the Great Gatsby, The Beautiful and Damned is set in New York City in the 1920s.  In our collective imagination, we tend to nostalgically think of that period as a series of glamorous parties and raucous fun.  Fitzgerald, however, challenged this perception in his novels by illuminating the darkness within the revelry.  Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert are the embodiment of this idealized image and thus are both beautiful and ultimately damned.  If this were a Russian novel, Anthony would represent the "superfluous man" - a person with no career, no generosity, and no productivity in his life.  He constantly considers things he can do for a profession, toying with thoughts of becoming an author or a banker.  He even enters the army for a period of time, with a brief opportunity to rise in the ranks of an officer.  But like Oblomov who could hardly take a step beyond his couch, Anthony never makes an effort to move forward.  Yet throughout the novel, Fitzgerald offers a number of hopeful suggestions for Anthony's self-actualization.  He has so many opportunities to change and improve himself that it becomes maddening to watch his self-destruction by the end.  Thus, I found him to be far more frustrating than any other "superfluous man" I have encountered, though his journey feels entirely (though depressingly) believable.  I can't help but feel that Fitzgerald did a great service to Gatsby by killing him at the end rather leaving him to linger in his broken and meaningless life.

Gloria's character is hardly better, as she fails to discover any deeper value beyond her appearance.  As we all know, this is a temporary gift, and its departure creeps upon Gloria like a lurking shadow of inevitable doom.  I could hardly feel sorry for Gloria in her relationship with Anthony, as they had both contributed to the demise of their marriage.  Not even their friends offer glimpses of hope and goodness, as they either abandon the couple or immerse themselves in their own clouds of self-importance.

So why should we bother with this novel?  Why am I including it in my blog?  Despite the negativity, there is a lot of truth that rings out from these pages.  In a way, I feel like Fitzgerald showed courage to create a novel that lacked redemption.  These stories exist in real life; not everything results in some hope or success.  By creating these characters, I think Fitzgerald was giving his readers a warning, telling them to guard themselves against all the frivolous indulgence that led to the characters' damnation.  There are things we can learn from their failures, lessons we can apply in our own lives.  Anthony is full of excuses, but there might be some truth in his reflection: "I've often thought that if I hadn't got what I wanted, things might have been different with me.  I might have found something in my mind and enjoyed putting it in circulation.  I might have been content with the work of it, and had some sweet vanity out of the success."

Many people have suggested that it is our failures which define us.  When we face obstacles and challenges in our life, they can become opportunities to grow stronger and more independent than we would have become otherwise.  Hemingway said that writers are forged by the injustices they experienced.  Pasternak said that the downtrodden are enviable for having something to say about themselves.  Perhaps Anthony did have the curse of getting everything he wanted.  Perhaps he needed to experience failure so that he could learn to move beyond it.  Perhaps we really are forged by the fire in our lives, though I do not remove personal responsibility to live well and deeply.

I have heard that people believe this novel to be a fairly autobiographical account of Fitzgerald's marriage, and all I can say is that I hope this is not true.  But even if it is true, I hope that we can learn from this example to consciously put meaning into our lives.  It is our responsibility to "suck the marrow out of life" and determine how we can leave the world a little better than the way we found it.  I don't think any of us want to end our lives in the way that Fitzgerald ended this novel.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Great Russian Authors, 20th Century

One of my earliest blog entries was a list of my favorite Russian authors from the 19th Century, called Great Russian Authors.  I have been surprised to see that this list has consistently been one of my top viewed posts, and the only one from my first year of blogging that maintains any attention.  Thus, there seems to be a fair amount of interest from the book blogging community and others to learn more about Russian Literature.  Because I am such a big fan, I am eager to share it with anyone who is intrigued by it as well.  So now I would like to follow up and offer you a list of the great Russian authors from the 20th Century:

1. Mikhail Bulgakov (1891 - 1940)
Early in his career life, Bulgakov discovered his great passion and affinity for writing.  He quickly abandoned his other pursuits and took on some high profile positions as a critic and a playwright.  However, he generated a lot of backlash for his writing, and many of his works were censored and banned. His freedom was increasingly restricted, and in frustration he wrote his brilliant, biting satire, The Master and Marguerita, in the last years of his life.  Yet because of its daring content, it wasn't published until 26 years after his death.

2. Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918 - 2008)
Perhaps the embodiment of 20th Century Russian literature, Solzhenitsyn revealed to the world the corrupt and violent nature of Soviet Russia.  In 1945, he was sent to a Siberian labor camp for writing derogatory comments about Stalin in a letter.  The 8 years he was imprisoned had a profound impact on his life and writing.  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich spread through the West like wildfire, but it was just the beginning.  In addition to many fictional pieces, he wrote countless articles and essays that have carried an immense impact on intellectual society.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970, but he was exiled and stripped of his Russian citizenship until 1990.

3. Anna Akhmatova (1889 - 1966)
One of the few prominent female authors in her generation, Akhmatova is most renowned for her poetry.  It is said that the women in Russia showered her with support and admiration, and the men were likewise complimentary.  Yet after a period of notoriety, her work was banned and denounced in the 1920s.  Although she escaped arrest, many of her friends were exiled and sent to labor camps.  Her ex-husband was executed and her son was imprisoned.  Nevertheless, she refused to leave her home country and continued writing poetry.  As the years continued, the themes of her poems evolved from romance and beauty to suffering and lamentation.

4. Boris Pasternak (1890 - 1960)
Leo Tolstoy was actually a close friend of the Pasternak family, and his influence is embedded throughout Boris's life and writing.  However, Pasternak's style is entirely his own; his perspective on the Bolshevik Revolution is brilliant, cutting, and totally unique.  Despite great risk and suffering, Pasternak refused to leave Russia during the tumult.  His name was added and removed from execution lists during the Great Purge.  When Pasternak published Dr. Zhivago in 1956, he knew he was taking an enormous risk.  When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958, angry threats and demonstrations broke out in the Soviet Union.  Because he would be refused re-entry if he left, he had to decline the acceptance of the award in Stockholm.

5. Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Nabokov was born into great wealth and privilege.  However, his family had to flee Russia and his father was ultimately murdered in 1922, a tragedy that irrevocably shook his life and later writing. Most of his early work was poetry, and he moved to the USA to work as a college professor in 1940.  It was during his years in the US that he wrote Lolita, his most famous and enduring piece of work.  With its success, he moved back to Europe and devoted himself to writing, though he was never able to surpass its literary acclaim.

6. Ayn Rand (1905-1982)
This may surprise you, but I want to add Rand to this list.  She was born and raised in Russia, though she eventually became an American citizen and did all of her writing in the United States.  She is a fabulously brilliant and inventive author, and her work was dedicated to philosophical reasoning and satire.  Her first novel, We the Living, is the only one set in Russia with an overt message about her native land.  However, her devotion to individualism, capitalism, and rationalism were undoubtedly affected by her years in the restrictive Soviet state.  The Fountainhead is my current favorite of her works, but I still have much more to read.

7. Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996)
Yet another Nobel Prize winner, Brodsky is most known for his poetry and essays.  It kind of amazes me how many of these Russian authors were awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature during such a prohibitive regime.  During his time in Russia, Brodsky was interrogated, thrown into mental institutions, arrested, sent to labor camp, and ultimately exiled.  Today he is one of the most celebrated Russian poets, and he was mentored by Akhmatova.  One poem I recommend was written in English near the end of his life, called "Bosnia Tune."

Though I truly believe that the 19th Century was the Golden Age of Russian Literature, the authors I have listed are also brilliant and extremely praiseworthy.  It is important to note that many of these writers produced their work in a time of strict censorship and at the risk of severe punishment.  They are also highly influenced by the Russian authors who preceded them, and they frequently allude to 19th century literature in their work.

If you are aware of another 20th century Russian author whom you believe deserves to be included in this list, please let me know in the comments!  I would be thrilled to learn of another author and happy to give you credit for the suggestion.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton has yet to disappoint me!  I loved Ethan Frome, a beautiful tragedy about snowy New England that made quite an impression on me.  So I was eager to read a full-length novel by Wharton, since Ethan Frome is really more of a novella.  The Age of Innocence is rich with layers of relationships, social critique, and class divisions, as well as an abundance of character development.

The protagonist of the story is Newland Archer, who lives on the Upper East Side of New York City in the late 1800s.  At the beginning of the novel, he is the embodiment of upper class society, making all of his life decisions to reflect the image of a beautiful, successful man.  He has proposed to May Welland, often described as being the "Helen of Troy" in the room with her magnetic beauty.  He is employed as a lawyer, though he exerts minimal effort in his position, as is proper in his circumstances.  He is fluent in all the hidden codes and meanings within his society and has perfected them.  Naturally, the plot must thicken, and so he falls in love with a woman who is deemed socially inappropriate in his society.

In all honesty, if I were reading this plot summary, I would crinkle my nose and avoid the book.  I mean, we've heard this story line a thousand times, haven't we?  Star-crossed lovers from different social classes fall in love despite the disapproval of their families.  Hell, that's even the plot of Titanic.  However, Wharton brilliantly undercuts her novel with a subtle but throbbing critique.  She uses her language brilliantly, with descriptions both humorous and tragic.  Without stating it directly, she shows us the foolishness of their chatter, their clothing, their events, and their lives.  Eventually, Newland's eyes are opened to the inane hypocrisy that we have been able to see all along, but he cannot escape it.

While immersing themselves in Wharton's New York City, readers might be inclined to wonder about the frivolity in their own lives.  How do we spend our time?  How do we spend our money?  What do we worry about?  Why do we worry so much?  I did not like this novel because I was captivated by the romantic relationship.  In fact, their relationship is erratic at best, with few swells of joy and connection.  Instead, I liked the social commentary and rich descriptions.  I enjoyed watching each of the characters change, because several of them did experience drastic transitions in their attitudes, actions, and self-awareness. And the ending had all of the ambiguity of a good Henry James novel.  Left in a climax of emotion, I stared at the book in my hands, willing it to give me a few more pages, with a sound of dismay escaping my lips.  Yet for this reason, I couldn't imagine a better ending.

I always do a bit of research before I write about the books I've read, so I have only just discovered that Edith Wharton earned a Pulitzer Prize for this novel.  Moreover, this was the first time a woman had ever won a Pulitzer.  I can't help but pause and appreciate this accomplishment, as well as the example she set for future female authors.  This novel has all the wit and gossip of a Jane Austen novel, and yet it is stuffed with an undercurrent of irony and embedded social critique.  I'm sure Wharton wanted to entertain her readers with this story, but I think she had more desire to pull the wool from before their eyes.  By design, she didn't write it so that young girls could hold the romance in their hearts and dream of their own Newland Archer.  On the other hand, she makes us aware of the decisions we make in our lives that set our path in motion and affect those around us.  And she does it beautifully.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Green Hills of Africa

“Your first seeing of a country is a very valuable one.  Probably more valuable to yourself than to any one else, is the hell of it.  But you ought to always write it to try to get it stated.  No matter what you do with it.”

This is one of the many great lines in Ernest Hemingway's nonfiction account of his time in Kenya, Green Hills of Africa.  I am currently writing this to you from Nairobi, moving in on my third week in this beautiful country.  I brought this book along with me, knowing that I wanted to save it for when I could see his descriptions with my own eyes and better grasp his message.  It was the perfect setting to read this wonderful book, as it tossed in some words I'm learning in Swahili along with the descriptions of the people, animals, and landscape that I am likewise seeing.

At the beginning of the book, Hemingway says that he wrote Green Hills of Africa to see whether an "absolutely true book" could compete with a work of imagination.  We are all familiar with his many fictional masterpieces - A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, etc - but it is entirely different to read him in this book.  In between his tales of hunting buffalo and rhinoceros, he shares the conversations he had with those in his traveling company.  In many of these conversations, he discusses what makes a good writer and a bad one.  He analyzes the breakdown between a true masterpiece and the "slop" that comes from hurry and/or arrogance.  He specifically names a number of authors, many of whom were alive while he wrote, and labels their work as good or bad.  Hemingway lived in what we may consider the "Golden Age" of writers, nestled in the community of ex-patriots in Paris.  On a regular basis, he conversed with Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and many others.  For a literature lover like myself, it is a real treat to get some of this inside scoop.

I also love this book because Hemingway truly loved Africa.  Unlike many mzungu (white) writers of his generation, he really portrays each of the Africans as real people and unique individuals.  He admires some of the Africans he met greatly, awed by their tracking skills and physical capabilities.  Others annoy him to no end, to the point that he frequently dreams of punching them in the face.  This is true of people anywhere, and I love that he doesn't blanket them in one description or stereotype.  He enjoys learning Swahili until the words sound completely natural to him, as do the tribal marks and African traditions he often encounters.  He loves the suspense and adventure of hunting wildlife, and he shares his embarrassing mistakes as well as his impressive accomplishments.  He just loves Kenya:

“I loved this country and I felt at home, and where a man feels at home, outside of where he’s born, is where he’s meant to go.”

I should note that this book does not touch on the tension in Africa, nor its problems and poverty.  Hemingway's account is quite limited to his personal experience while on a long hunting journey.  But I don't mind that he focuses on the beauty and adventure, because sometimes that aspect of Kenya gets lost somewhere in translation to the West.  As a foreign mzungu, he could never grasp the complexities of this country and fairly identify them in a short novel.  So in this case, I think it is better that he didn't even attempt to do that.  Other novels, like Things Fall Apart, are much better equipped to do it.

Reading Hemingway's perspective on his time in Kenya inspires me to want to do the same thing.  Here I am, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching these wonderful sights.  Here I am, carefully observing the people and surroundings I encounter.  Here I am, witnessing the good and the bad together.  Here I am, likewise falling in love with Kenya.  I am forming my own perspective of this country, though I realize that I may not be forming an accurate one.  But it is nevertheless unfolding before me, and it will contain value for me regardless of what I am able to do with it.  This is one of those parts of my life in which real life is greater than fiction, and I want to hold on to that and make it last as long as possible.  Like Hemingway, I ought to find a way to "get it stated."

To my fellow readers, I do think you should check out this book, but I also think you should come see Kenya for yourselves.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Season of Migration to the North

I will be traveling to Kenya in a few days, which will be my first trip to Africa.  In preparation, I have been reading a lot of African literature, and Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih was particularly beautiful, and I feel compelled to share it.

Someone actually recommended this book to me a while ago, though I only recently read it.  However, I am glad that I read it when I did, for I think I was able to better appreciate it.  It is set in the Sudan, and I have been trying to learn more about this part of the world since one of my friends moved to South Sudan last year.  He frequently writes about the cultural issues he encounters in his blog, which I highly recommend.  Over the summer, the New Yorker published an excellent article about the South Sudan that I still think about at times, as it gave a very helpful history of this new country.  But perhaps more significantly, it was a good time for me to read this as I have been preparing for my own trip.  My best friend grew up in Africa and loves the continent, and I've been asking her to help me avoid being the kind of Western tourist she hates.  Season of Migration to the North centers around the relationship that Africa has with the West and is incredibly insightful.

The novel is a story within a story, set in a kind of metanarrative frame.  The narrator is an unnamed man who returns to his hometown in the Sudan after spending several years of study in England.  Then the story temporarily switches to the narration of Mustafa Sa'eed, who reluctantly (and drunkenly) shares his life story with the narrator.  Like the narrator, Mustafa excelled in his village growing up and then spent a period of his life in England.  This short encounter between the narrator and Mustafa changed the course of the narrator's life.  He recognized many things about himself within Mustafa, and this realization immediately humbled him and threw him into contemplation.

This is one of those novels that is not primarily about the plot.  I could summarize the events that occurred, but that would not be an accurate portrayal of the story.  Instead, this is about the difficulty two men experienced in trying to discern their identities as an English-educated natives of Sudan.  As boys, they were taught that English was their key to success and the future.  If they were intelligent, they needed to leave Africa in order to "better themselves" and thus become more Anglicized.  Their fellow citizens would praise their efforts and celebrate their success, but was it a lie?  This is the question with which the narrator must grapple.  He writes:

"Over there is like here, neither better nor worse.  But I am from here, just as the date palm standing in the courtyard has grown in our house and not in anyone else's.  The fact that they came into our land, I know not why, does that mean that we should poison our present and our future?"

It is important to note that Salih does not unequivocally praise Africa and curse the West.  Rather, he highlights a number of unpleasant aspects of the Sudanese culture and shows some of its tragedy, and this blends with the challenges of post-colonialism.  There is a balance between the problems in both lands, as well as the difficulty these two men faced in trying to live between two worlds.  Mustafa often seems to be almost sociopathic in his lack of emotions, but there also seems to be a sensitivity in his self-analysis.  The narrator tries to resist the problems of the people around him, but he cannot disentangle himself from them.  As a reader, I felt increasing emotional distance from the story and its characters until a few shocking moments would instantly draw me back in.  The ending is the perfect example of this building numbness that switches to a cry of emotion, and I felt this ebb and flow throughout the entire story.

In many ways, I felt that this was actually a book of poetry.  Not only are the two main characters poets, but the language itself is beautifully written.  I could pull out quote after quote that can stand on its own merits, without the surrounding text.  There are countless beautiful passages of description that don't technically add to the plot but build upon the force of the narrative.  I am already compelled to re-read these passages to make sure that they stick with me and do not fade away.

Finally, I want to remind myself of these lessons on a personally applicable level.  I want to conscientiously enter Africa with the perspective that it is its own entity rather than a comparison of what I know in the West.  I want to avoid my tourist eyes and switch to a thoughtful observer.  I want to let Africa show me its culture without me imposing my own on it.  Is this possible?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps it would be a lie for me to assume such observational ability for a short trip.  However, I feel it is my duty to do this as best as I can and to at least be consciously aware of its healthy/unhealthy entanglement with the West.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

RIP Chinua Achebe

Two days ago, an amazing writer of our generation died: Chinua Achebe.  Strangely enough, I first heard his name as I was reading an Art History textbook.  The authors were discussing African art and culture, and they listed Achebe as an immovable fixture in the 20th and 21st century culture.  It is not often that literature is mentioned in these art textbooks, and this struck me on two levels: 1. This author must be incredibly important and talented to be referenced; and 2. Why had I never heard of him before??

I quickly corrected this and picked up a copy of Things Fall Apart, which is often referred to as one of Africa's greatest novels.  I remember reading it with interest, but I found the ending to be so profound that it thundered through me.  I couldn't move for a few moments as I considered his final words and looked through my own heart.  Somehow, Achebe managed to challenge his readers and moralize them without lecturing or condemning them.  He spoke from his heart as an African, but it is important not to limit his eulogy in those terms.  From what I understand, he was torn in his sense of identity, and I believe you can feel that in his writing.  He recognized the beauty and the darkness in his life and his world, and he did not strive to reveal one more than the other.  But his talent was so evident in his writing that he put African literature on an international stage, just as Gabriel Garcia Marquez did for the Latin Americans and Tolstoy did for the Russians.  I do believe Achebe will be immortalized in Classic Literature, and righty so.  Thus, I wanted to take a moment today to honor this great author, one who lived and wrote during my lifetime, and whose works I greatly enjoy and will treasure.

The New Yorker published a wonderful article about Achebe, which you can read here.

You can also read my full review of Things Fall Apart in an earlier blog entry.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Life of Pi

I've been torn about whether or not to promote this book ever since I first read it, and the current movie version has now pushed me over the edge.  I originally thought I might add this to my "Contemporary Lit" series since it was published in 2001.  However, I've been wrestling with whether it really contains the depth I require in order to assert that a book ought to have "Classic Literature" status.  Yes, I realize that I am being too hard on myself and my guidelines.  If I like a book, I should just write about it, shouldn't I?

Well, no.  If I want to be true to my original intention for this blog, it was to advocate for great literature.  The literature I have written about is the literature which has most shaped me, moved me, challenged me, and impacted me.  I have read every page of these books, and I believe they are largely responsible for forming who I am.  Some of them were a struggle and others were a breeze; all of them were intensely satisfying.  I write about these books because I want you to read them too.  I want you to grow in your desire to invest in truly great literature and not just the flippantly entertaining pieces.

Now here I am, writing about Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  If it weren't for the last few pages, I don't think I would be doing this.  The entire novel is an enjoyable read, and I don't want to negate the value of reading simply for pleasure.  I'm not quite so pretentious that I scorn such books or never indulge in them myself.  Yet in order for me to write about it on my blog, I needed it to be more.  And the twist at the end made me realize that it really was.

I don't think I can talk about this without slipping some spoilers, so *please stop reading* if you don't want to ruin something for yourself.  I usually avoid spoilers, but this ending is so critical for understanding the depth of the story that I cannot neglect it in my discussion.  For the majority of the novel, we are taken on a journey of magical realism and fantasy, as a young boy is stranded at sea with wild animals from his family's zoo.  In particular, we read about Richard Parker, the regal Bengal tiger which Ang Lee's movie amazingly brings to life.*  We learn that Richard Parker is neither tame nor vicious, and Pi spends months trying to connect with this animal passenger who unexpectedly joined him.  Yet most of all, this story is about survival against enormous odds as Pi and Richard Parker float in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days.

In the final chapters, two Japanese colleagues visit Pi in the hospital in order to investigate the cause of the shipwreck.  They listen to Pi's story and submit a report to the Maritime Department.  After telling them all about Richard Parker and the story we just read, Pi eventually gives them a second story, which has a number of obvious parallels.  This second story is far more tragic than the first; it's heart-wrenching and gory and shocking.  It changes everything.  Suddenly, the whole story takes on new meaning and interpretation, and it's tempting to immediately re-read the book in order to fully appreciate that.

I think that my favorite thing about this novel is that it illustrates the power of story.  I have long believed that there is a power in narrative and fiction, and that it can teach us things we wouldn't truly be able to understand otherwise.  It opens doors to our hearts and minds and allows us to access feelings and messages that we need to receive.  Martel beautifully reveals this with a compelling force of imagination and deeper meaning.

So at first, I felt that this was an adventure story but not necessarily a truly great work.  But I am challenged by Pi's words at the end:

"I know what you want. You want a story that won't surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won't make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality."

Perhaps that is what I wanted, and perhaps I nearly missed the greater story.  Perhaps my stubborn attachment to Classic Literature is inadvertently blocking me from some wonderfully imaginative pieces.  And you know what?  Life of Pi is a marvelous novel, fully deserving of its acclaim.

*Ang Lee's recent movie is a true masterpiece of cinematography.  Moreover, it is extremely faithful to the book and an excellent representation of the original novel.  I definitely recommend it!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Guest Blog: Jane Austen Overview

Thus far, I've only had one guest blogger on my site, but I want to bring this back and share some new perspectives.  So now I will turn it over to my good friend, Abigail Solberg...

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a wealthy man must be in want of a wife.”

Ah, the sentence that almost everyone who has ever visited a library or cracked open a book has heard once before.  I mean, honestly, I didn’t even have to look at the book to make sure I got it accurately.  As you can probably already deduce, this is not Amy writing. There will be too few intelligent words and many more (failed?) attempts at wittiness than what you've grown to know and love about Amy's blog. Sorry, hate to disappoint, but I'm not Amy. I didn't graduate after studying in the Oxford library, just a few dark-wood-tables-and-massive-aisles-with-ladders-and-books away from Anna Popplewell.

This is Abi, and this is what I believe to be one of Amy’s first guest blog posts! If you like what you read, you can try to follow me on my blog, The Abi Complex, but seeing as I haven't written in as many months as Paula Deen denied having T2 Diabetes, it might be a waste of time to sign up. But feel free to check it out!

As for how Amy and I know each other, that is a story that dates back nearly 6 years! It all started in the summer of ’07 when I got an e-mail while I was in Romania from some Indiana girl claiming to be my freshman roommate. She told me that her colors for her side of the room were blue and brown, AND (since picking the colors of your room seemed to me to be the most important part of preparing for college), I safely assumed that I would not like her.

What I learned within the first month of school was that me and my pink comforter would find her to be one of my closest friends through all four years. We would watch football together, talk about classes and guys, debate over movie choices, drink coffee AND talk about literature. I found Amy to be one of the only people who could excite me about reading a book! The passion that would fly across her face as she swore to me that I would love some book made me so excited to read it. We started a tradition, where every holiday we would give each other a new book to read that we had already read and loved.

Thanks to Amy, I have been exposed to The Bell Jar, The Four Feathers, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Moby Dick, and more.

Unfortunately for her, my selections have been on the girly side. Because I knew that she liked Uncle Tom's Cabin, I thought for some reason that the perfect first book to give her would be Mansfield Park by Jane Austen… because the movie version (which I'd seen more recently than reading the book) included a side story about the father mistreating his African slaves. Unfortunately, that is not in the book, and was probably the WORST book to give her to introduce her to Jane Austen.

Epic. Fail.

This is the one author that Amy and I have constantly disagreed on: “Jane Austin never writes about anything important. It’s just a bunch of lazy conversations that don’t amount to much of anything.” This is not a direct quote from her, but it is the reader’s digest version of our many conversations on the topic. So, because I will most likely not be able to post about this author again on her site, I will comment on Austen’s work as a whole, rather than one specific book - trying to spit out everything that I can before Amy catches on and kicks me out!

So let’s leave that lengthy introduction and get to the best part: Jane Austen.

Let’s think about this for a moment. What other author has had all of his or her works turned into movies, has had a film made about her life AND a film about a book club based on reading her works?! There is just no way that anyone can deny the impact she has had on the world.

I firmly believe that any woman who meets the following qualifications will benefit/enjoy reading one or all of Austen’s novels:

1. If you think you would like the Bronte sisters’ books better if they were just a touch happier.
2. If you enjoy talking with your girlfriends for hours about minute details of someone else's relationship status as well as your own and those you read in the magazines.
3. If you are a sucker for everyone in a novel getting exactly what they deserve (which for the heroine, always means the love of her life).

I will in no way deny Austen’s running theme in her stories. Nor will I try to argue that these are good novels based on a plot with an ending that can’t be deduced after the first chapter or copious amounts of action! What I will say is, you know that Austen’s novels are good because most women can read them and feel entirely engrossed even without these aspects.

I think there are 3 main things that reading an Austen novel offers:

1. It illuminates one’s character and shows how it really looks in the light of day.
Example 1: Persuasion - The character who pretends to be her friend, but advises her against an imprudent match.
Example 2: Pride & Prejudice - Momma Bennett, oh hell, the entire Bennett family - other than Jane and Elizabeth, of course.
Example 3: Emma - Unfortunately, Emma. Though you love her anyway, because you can see where her heart is… or you just see her as a pet that you can pity and love and secretly want to be - but not exactly respect.

2. It offers relief from an unfair world ruled not by right, wrong and karma, but by shades of gray, people you know, and frustrating circumstances.
Example 1: Mansfield Park - The brother and sister, who end up in relationships as shallow as the puddle on the floor of my bathroom when I step out from the shower.
Example 2: Persuasion - Captain Wentworth, of course.
Example 3: Pride & Prejudice - Lydia Bennet marrying a whore. Need I say more?

3. It’s a chatty kathy’s heaven - Tons of gossip rolled up into one nicely bound or Kindled copy.
Example 1: Sense & Sensibility – Mrs. Jennings
Example 2: Emma - That’s a hot bed of information
Example 3: Northanger Abbey - Probably the least accurate gossip of all of them

Now the degree to which I like Austen is somewhat inexplicable, but let me end this post with some opinions by other writers you may admire and see if they can sway your opinion! These all come from a book titled A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen. (See! You know she has to be great if there are books out there trying to explain why!)

Harold Bloom: “We read Austen because she seems to know us better than we know ourselves, and she seems to know us so intimately for the simple reason that she helped determine who we are both as readers and as human beings.”

James Collins: "Her ironies swirl and drop like the cast of a fly fisherman. This rhythmic motion seems to me ideal for both accepting and rejecting the ways of the wretched world while maintaining balance."

Amy Bloom: “Jane Austen is, for me, the best writer for anyone who believes in love more than in romance, and who cares more for the private than the public. She understands that men and women have to grow up in order to deserve and achieve great love, that some suffering is necessary (that mewling about it in your memoir or on a talk show will not help at all), and that people who mistake the desirable object for the one necessary and essential love will get what they deserve.”

And probably my favorite, Benjamin Nugent, writer of American Nerd: The Story of My People: “Young nerds should read Austen because she’ll force them to hear dissonant notes in their own speech they might otherwise miss, and open their eyes to defeats and victories they otherwise wouldn’t even have noticed. Like almost all worthwhile adolescent experience, it can be depressing, but it can also feel like waking up.”

Now, I hope that I have done enough justice to this author in as short a blog post as possible, as there will most likely not be another chance. AND now, all you readers, please comment and further beg Amy to read through at least 3 more Austen novels before making up her mind!!!

Friday, March 1, 2013

I Capture the Castle

Well, I completely missed the month of February, but that was because I was out of the country for most of it.  So I want to start out March on the right foot and share a great book with you!  I'm excited to bring attention to this delightful novel by Dodie Smith, called I Capture the Castle.  I had never heard of this treasure until I was browsing my favorite bookstore, Manchester by the Book, and the owner insisted that I push it to the top of my reading list.  I am so glad I listened to him because I really enjoyed reading this book.

Published in 1948, I Capture the Castle was Smith's first novel.  She later became famous for penning the original 101 Dalmatians story, which I'm sure all of you know well.  But this particular novel is a treasure in its own right and truly an enjoyable read.  It is written as the pages of a young girl's diary, filled with longing, insecurity, excitement, and extremely poignant observation.  At times, the narration reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - two books with young but wise female protagonists. In fact, some of the observations are so astute and insightful that it doesn't seem likely to have come from such a young girl.  But that doesn't bother me because the book and the character are so enjoyable.

Cassandra Mortmain is the middle child of a poor family who lives in a dilapidated English castle.  Years before the story begins, her father had gained international acclaim for writing a novel called Jacob Wrestling, but he eventually sent his family into poverty by not writing or working after its publication.  Thus, writing and literature are very important themes in the story, offering critique and praise for both.  Her father's story is basically a mystery; we hardly get any details about the story or her father for that matter.  But everyone else seems to have read it, and they all have theories and interpretations in their analysis of it.  According to the other characters, his book was written in a modern style, kind of like James Joyce with its layers and complexities.  Yet this clashes with the actual novel, I Capture the Castle, which is written in a very traditional style.  I wonder what Smith was saying with this.  Does she wish she could write like Joyce or is she presenting hers as the preferable writing style?

Moreover, it's interesting to me that we get to hear from the author himself, who hardly seems capable of writing something apparently so ingenious. He never offers an explanation of his text; the best we get is an analysis from his son.  Cassandra herself admits that she never understands it.  It makes me wonder whether we, as readers, tend to overly praise books, giving them more meaning than the author originally intended.  I never hesitate to analyze a book, criticizing or lauding it for dozens of minute influences and details I detect.  I've done just that to the 70 or so books I've already discussed in this very blog.  What would their authors think of my assessments?  I can't help but wonder...

Writing in general is an important theme, as Cassandra writes in her diary as a discipline, hoping to become a better writer and effectively express her feelings.  She frequently indicates that she has had to force herself to write about recent events, and I think she is hoping to embody her father's most praised talent.  Her sister is a big fan of Jane Austen novels, so much so that she has almost lost sight of reality in her fantasy world.  In some ways, the plot of this novel is very similar to those in Austen's stories: two poor sisters who meet two wealthy brothers and pursue them in courtship.  Perhaps I'm biased, but I think that the commentary Cassandra offers and the occasional resistance she shows add a unique dimension to the typical storyline.  However, I admit that I groaned when I saw a few cliches play out as one could easily predict.

So why did I enjoy reading this so much?  I should pause and consider this for a moment.  I typically am not drawn into this kind of plot and these characters.  I am more emotionally invested in the dark stories, the conflicted and tormented characters or the devastating change of events.  But I really did like this, and that may just be a testament to Smith's writing skill.  I wanted to hear from her characters and see what would happen, even if they didn't magnetize me as powerfully as some novels have done.  Yes, I was intrigued by her father's novel, but I was more intrigued by Cassandra herself.  So maybe I should simply stop analyzing her and just encourage the rest of you to read this for yourself.  Enjoy.