The Hobbit

12.13.2012

In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit.


...something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. 
 
With this year's release of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it was one of my goals for 2012 to read J. R. R. Tolkien's book again.  The previous (and first) time I'd read it, several years ago, it had been to cheer me up after the super emotional ending of The Return of the King (the last volume of The Lord of the Rings).  I loved The Hobbit as a prequel to LOTR, but the more lighthearted storyline was difficult to appreciate at the time.

The plot, very simply, follows Bilbo Baggins, thirteen dwarves, and the wizard Gandalf as they embark on a journey to the Lonely Mountain, where they hope to kill the dragon Smaug and regain the dwarves' homeland and immense treasure.  Of course, nothing ever goes exactly as planned.  There are many evil creatures between the Shire and the Mountain, and many warlike people with agendas of their own.  Bilbo's own journey is one of self-discovery, along with the discovery of a magic ring.

Being able to visualize The Hobbit through photos from Jackson's movie has really helped me view it in a context more similar to LOTR.  And, proportionally, The Hobbit may be lighter reading than LOTR, but for a fairytale there is still much to learn from and marvel at.  You don't have to be a child, either - if you enjoy fairytales, fantasy, and/or adventure stories, I highly recommend The Hobbit5 out of 5 stars.

The pines were roaring on the height,
The wind was moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.

The Kiss and Other Stories

11.24.2012

Shishkin DozVDubLesu 114
[I believe I read this 1915 edition, translated by R. E. C. Long, courtesy of Google books.]

Anton Chekhov was a 19th century Russian author well known for his short stories.  The Kiss and Other Stories contains fourteen of these, each like a vignette of a scene from Russian country and city life.  "The Kiss" is about soldier whose life is changed - or so he thinks - by an accidental kiss with a complete stranger; "Verotchka" is a story of unrequited love; and "The Runaway" is about a boy's trip to the local hospital.  "The Muzhiks" is the longest story, detailing poverty and life in a Russian peasant village.

There is a lot to be learned from these stories, even if you have already studied Russian history.  Most of the stories were somber, either depressing and/or very thought-provoking.  It made me think how it is easy to do the right thing when your needs are met, but if your life is a continuous desperate attempt at survival, your entire worldview and moral standards are easily affected.  You can read about some of these characters and feel you'd never act the way they do, but the fact is, few of us could even imagine what it is to be born into those kinds of circumstances, let alone what we would be like if we were.

4 out of 5 stars. 



Four (more) short reviews

11.12.2012

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane
The Remains of the Day 
Kazuo Ishiguro
4 out of 5 stars

This award-winning novel is about an English butler, Mr. Stevens, who takes a road trip in the English countryside.  Though he attempts to keep a travelogue, he ends up reminiscing about his father, his friendship with housekeeper Miss Kenton, and his former employer's role in the Inter-War/WWII era.

The book is pretty good, but I enjoyed the Anthony Hopkins film more.  His portrayal of Mr. Stevens is really moving, whereas book!Stevens is harder to like or understand.

 
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Washington Irving
5 out of 5 stars

I knew the story already (from the Disney animated film), but it was a delight to read the original!  Ichabod is a rather egotistical, materialistic guy in the book, so one hardly feels sorry for him.

 
A Passage to India
E. M. Forster
 2 out of 5 stars

This book was really well-written, with some interesting depictions of the British Raj, but that's about it.  I didn't like the characters much, including but not limited to Mrs. Moore.  (By comparison, Conrad's Heart of Darkness was a lot deeper and more vague, yet somehow easier to understand.) I'm not exactly sure what was the point of A Passage to India, although as an illustration it is ok.


Kafka's Selected Shorter Writings
from ManyBooks.net
 5 out of 5 stars

This is a nice read for Kafka fans or readers who just want to sample his work.  The stories are very short (in fact, I believe the Gatekeeper story is an excerpt from The Trial).  Recommended if you have a half-hour to spare!

Weekend Quote: Bantering

10.20.2012

“It is all very well, in these changing times, to adapt one's work to take in duties not traditionally within one's realm; but bantering is of another dimension altogether. For one thing, how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected? One need hardly dwell on the catastrophic possibility of uttering a bantering remark only to discover it wholly inappropriate.”
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

This is from my second reading for British history class.  I had tried Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go recently and didn't finish it, but this (more renowned) novel of his is really good so far.  It's in the form of a 1956 travelogue by Mr. Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, during his road trip in the English countryside.

Overall, the characterization of Mr. Stevens is well-done, and it cracked me up to read of his attempts to reply with "witticisms" to his American employer's jokes (but as for his characterization...why are Americans always portrayed as informal and jokey?).  Some may see Mr. Stevens as paranoid, but I feel the same way sometimes, truly terrified of having possibly said the wrong thing!

The book makes me even more depressed about the class system, though.  It seems like Mr. Stevens feels like he has to constantly prove himself worthy and constantly maintain "dignity."  And I can see how somebody in his position could come to feel undignified or ridiculous, which is sadder still. 

Character Thursday: Mrs. Moore

10.10.2012

It feels so long since I last posted!  Since school started, most of my reading time has been for school.  I read on the bus, at school, and at home, but there is always more...  Anyways, I managed to squeeze in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and The Hobbit (still re-reading).  For British history class, I also read E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, which I blogged about at my personal blog

Mrs. Moore was, to me, the main character of that novel.  I don't know that I have ever read a book (apart from Miss Marple) where an elderly lady takes on such a huge role, and Mrs. Moore is even more unique because she does not actually "take on" any role.  She philosophizes, she talks, she visits India, but she doesn't do anything.

At the same time, I felt that she was the reason the relationships between the other characters had substance to them. She has some strange influence over them, which is never fully explained.  Dr Aziz, a young Indian doctor, befriends her, but it is never described exactly what they have in common or see in each other.  Finally, her influence causes one of the characters to make a vastly important decision, where another character's honor and career are at stake.

I've got to say that, for all that, I did not like Mrs. Moore (or the book, for that matter).  Her "powers" were vague and unsubstantiated, and I felt like the book promotes turning to people (e.g. Mrs. Moore), instead of God, for ultimate spiritual and moral guidance.  Also, it doesn't help that Mrs. Moore takes a sort of indifferent view of morals altogether and hardly cares what happened or might have happened to her potential daughter-in-law.  This was what particularly stopped me from warming up to her character.

Weekend Quote: Futility

9.23.2012

"And if he finally burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment."
- Kafka, 'An Imperial Message'
This is part of a much longer paragraph about futility.  What I love about this quote is how, despite the overwhelming impossibilities, Kafka still fervently describes what could be--and what could be is still full of impossibility, and so on and so on.  In this way, he portrays the mixed feelings of a sort of defeat very effectively.  

I'm going to read "In the Penal Colony" this week, and also impatiently waiting for a book of Kafka's complete short works from the library...

The Ladies' Paradise

9.19.2012

The Ladies' Paradise, one of my required books for history class, was my introduction to the author Émile Zola and his twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series.  Apparently, this series may be read out-of-order, and indeed, The Ladies' Paradise works well as a standalone novel.  It is the eleventh installment and (according to Wiki) takes place in the 1860s.

Like a Dickens novel, this book encompasses the whole spectrum of society--in Paris, that is--from the wealthiest and most powerful, to the middle class, to the vulnerable and impoverished.  The Baudu siblings come to Paris to live with their uncle, only to find he has no work for them, as his drapery business is struggling to survive against the success of a giant shop across the street.  The Ladies' Paradise, run by Octave Mouret, is on the way to destroying every small, family business in this district of Paris, due to its new business methods and philosophy (including cheap prices).  Mouret chooses daring and sometimes brutal methods, trusting that his shop's careful advertising, huge variety of goods, and magnificent display will seduce women into spending more and more money there.  And he's right.  Thus, he fears no one, not even the woman whom some predict will ultimately wreak revenge upon him.

This was a fast read.  Zola writes wonderfully; his style is accessible and keeps you interested.  I will definitely be reading more of his books, especially to gain more knowledge about 19th-century France.

I think the two points of this book are 1) Old vs. new, and 2) Survival.  Mouret's store is truly a modern "machine", with all the positive and negative connotations of the idea.  The Paradise expands beyond what was imaginable at the time.  It turns a rundown neighborhood into a clean and sophisticated area of the city.  It creates thousands of jobs for the jobless, including veterans.  It's an excellent example of 19th-century efficiency and "keeping up with the times."

And yet the Paradise takes away the livelihood of the small family shops, and their specialties (draper, milliner, florist, etc.) are special no more.  It breaks up family life, so that each member of a family working at the Paradise spends his/her free time wrapped up in his/her individual hobbies and vices.  And a certain amount of gambling, particularly as involves advertising, is a normal part of Mouret's business strategy.

Rings a bell?  These pros/cons still exist today, for better or worse, with our modern-day superstores.

Interesting historical fact: the Paradise was largely based on the Bon Marche (the Parisian original, not the American Bon/Macy's). I thought the book's descriptions, of which there were many, were very interesting.  In a way, the Paradise is so much simpler than stores today, and in another sense, it is so much more elaborate!

I didn't care much for the characters.  While at first it was refreshing to read about protagonists who weren't altogether conventional, it grew old after a while.  The heroine, Denise Baudu, is a survivalist, with elements of Mary Sue that rubbed me the wrong way.  It is difficult to believe that Denise's goodness and grace come from within herself, without any mention of a spiritual or even worldly inspiration.  Why is she who she is?  It is never told.

The other thing that bothered me was how (as I mentioned previously) a lot of the characters are obsessed with sex.  I realize that Zola was using it to a make a parallel with commercialism, but it also got old quickly.  There is a lot of focus on this, and it isn't helped by the fact that nobody in the book seems to understand what true love is (e.g. deeper than just physical/emotional attraction).  Mouret's character arc is particularly convenient and, therefore, really doubtful.

3 out of 5 stars, and recommended if the topic interests you.

Monstrous Societies

9.15.2012


I haven't purposely adhered to the current "dystopian novel" trend, yet my three latest reads have all held striking elements of it.

First is the famous Utopia, a complete contradiction to its name.  This was a really bad book, to put it simply.  The fictitious island of Utopia is a society of Mary Sues, where everyone is so good and kind and noble-hearted.  It made me sick.  Not because I don't like nice people, but because these are phony, utterly unrealistic nice people.  Plus, they're not as nice as they look.  They think slavery and arranged families and shared houses are ok--well, not only ok, but just splendid.  The more I read, the more I noticed another disturbing trend: elderly guys are at the top, women and children (and slaves) are at the bottom.  Gerontocracy, I think.  Religion in Utopia is a bona fide mixing of faiths where everyone worships at the same church, and if your beliefs extend beyond a "one size fits all" worship service, you have to complete your worship at home.  The tip of the iceberg was the part where the women and children must fall on their knees before their patriarch and confess their sins to him, before going to church.  (And he is always the saintly member of the family, I suppose?)  This is just a sample of Utopian joys.  By the end of the book, it really was like a bad dream.

To quote Wikipedia, there is a lot in this book that seems "to be polar opposites of More's beliefs and the teachings of the Catholic Church of which he was a devout member."  Some reviewers of Utopia say you must read it as a joke; I would at least label it as such, but at this point in history the humor is gone, and there is little in the book as a whole that leads me to think it isn't serious.  It gets a generous 1 out of 5 stars.

Moving on to Zola's The Ladies' Paradise.  This book zeros-in on a segment of Parisian society in the late 1800s, chiefly greed-driven businessmen like Octave Mouret, owner of the Ladies' Paradise, and a number of his employees and customers whose lives are also governed by their materialism.  As if this form of self-indulgence weren't enough, many of them are also obsessed with sex or using it to obtain quick fortunes.  Mouret is a nasty pervert.  Madame Marty also makes me furious with her addiction to spending, which forced her husband to get an extra job.  I will be so glad to get away from this group of characters (only four chapters left!).  The only character I particularly like is Monsieur Baudu, a small-business owner and the uncle of the heroine (Denise Baudu).  He's not perfect, but he seems to recognize some fundamental values (like family life) that other people avoid.

The third lovely society I stumbled across is Edgar Allan Poe's "The City in the Sea," read by Basil Rathbone.  Perhaps those other two books made me understand this poem, which depicts the ruin of a (apparently) corrupt city.  It is rather depressing, but the poetry is magnificent, and so is Rathbone's recording of it.  It increases my eagerness to re-read Poe's poetry, too.


Character Thursday: Octave Mouret

9.12.2012

I am three chapters into The Ladies' Paradise, by Émile Zola, and so far I love it.  Set in late-1800s Paris, it is about a clothing shop called the "Ladies' Paradise", which threatens to destroy all the other shops in the neighborhood with its business innovations, cheap prices, and unheard-of variety.  The shop is currently the brainchild of a man named Octave Mouret.

Usually, I prefer to talk about my favorite characters, but Mouret is so bad that he outshines all the other characters (most of whom are rather horrible as well).  This guy is an evil genius.  So brilliant, he can convert a nondescript corner of the neighborhood into a bright, clean, vibrant, mini shopping mall, creating jobs for hundreds of jobless people, including veterans.  So low, he would pretend to be a friend (and boyfriend) to women, simply to make business connections and improve his profits.  He is utterly shallow, and he encourages everyone around him to be the same.  Part of his power is rooted in his charisma, which can ensnare both women and men.  He loves no one but himself.
They all belonged to him, they were his property, and he belonged to none of them.  When he had extracted his fortune and his pleasure from them, he would throw them on the rubbish heap for those who could still make a living out of them.
As an aside, I find a lot of parallels between this book and modern-day life (particularly the discontent and greed).  I don't know what to think of the small, old-fashioned shops vs. the new superstores, but it's an interesting topic that still comes up today.


Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

9.10.2012

As hard as it has been to mentally distance myself from the Disney movie (an all-time favorite), Jules Verne's writing still has the power to leave me enthralled.  I've visited 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea all over again and found it to be a dark, Gothic, deep book (no pun intended).  Psychologically, perhaps the only other Verne novel that compares is his posthumously published work, Paris in the Twentieth Century.

The story is a simple one--three men are captured by a submarine captain, who calls himself Nemo (Latin for "no one").  Lest they tell the world the secrets of his life and technology, Nemo keeps Professor Aronnax and his friends as prisoners aboard the Nautilus, indefinitely.  Awed by all the underwater wonders they are shown, the professor and his assistant are not overly troubled by their imprisonment, but the harpooner Ned Land remains determined to escape, sooner or later.

"An underwater tour of the world" is a recurring phrase in this book, and it is totally accurate.  There is a lot of info-dumping about oceans and sea life and the submarine, and most of the book reads like a Victorian travel blog.  On the other hand, I absolutely admire Verne for writing about things he had never seen and gathering what data he could find, on all manner of topics related to the sea.  It takes either great patience or "great genius" to write such a book, and Verne was probably both.

I have written about the characters elsewhere (both here and here).  By the very end of the book, I felt that they had become much more dimensional.  Aronnax and Conseil have nobler feelings and loyalties apart from their love of science, and Ned Land is much more of a hero than he appears to be.  Nemo is a character I both despised and pitied.  He claims to stand for individualism and liberty, yet he deals out cold-blooded, collective vengeance.  His hatred is insecure and not altogether blind; his evil actions are like a disease that kills him slowly. 

There is something very profound about tragic endings written by Verne.  He was an author who wrote many happy endings to many light adventures, but here in 20,000 Leagues we have an ending almost surreal in its horror.  The sequel to the character of Captain Nemo is found in Verne's The Mysterious Island, which I might have to re-read, one of these days.

5 out of 5 stars, particularly for F. P. Walter's excellent (if anachronistic) translation.

Nightmarish Utopia

9.09.2012

Utopia.ortelius
I believe Sir Thomas More meant well when he penned Utopia (1516), but it is quite possibly the worst book I have ever read.

Given the standard of living for the majority of human beings in the early 16th century, More's dream of a perfect nation must have sounded as idyllic as it gets.  Yet even so, 16th-century Europeans hardly lived sheltered lives.  By what reasoning, then, could More ever seriously imagine the existence of a Utopia, in either reality or fantasy?  In his world, all men have the will to be saints, and if not, then their angelic neighbors find the power to overcome all evils of society.  He speaks of shared gardens, and shared houses, and property that belongs to no one because it belongs to everyone.  He talks of quasi-elections and rulers for life, in the same breath.  Human nature, if it exists in Utopia, is easily kept in check by the noble ideals that all the citizens yearn for, as well as their continuous eagerness to work together.

I am far from finished with this book, but already it's a struggle.  The overdose of either extreme naivete or wishful thinking is hard to read. 

Weekend Quote: Sorrow

9.08.2012

"Work is the best antidote to sorrow."
- Sherlock Holmes, 'The Empty House'

This succinct quote has been in my head for some time.  In real life I heard someone say a variation of this, about this time last year, and then I experienced it myself.  One of the truest, most useful quotes from any book I've read. 

      

Character Thursday: Ned Land vs. Captain Nemo

9.05.2012

[It's not yet Thursday where I live, but I thought I would go ahead and post this.  :) ]

As I near the end of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I realize one thing: I don't like book!Nemo.  And it is (partly) Herman Melville's fault.

Ever since I read Moby-Dick, I have had a huge admiration of, and appreciation for, whales.  I love whales.  Thus, when Captain Nemo decides to attack a pod of sperm whales--to even the odds for some weaker, baleen whales nearby--I had mixed feelings. 
   What a struggle! Ned Land quickly grew enthusiastic and even ended up applauding. Brandished in its captain's hands, the Nautilus was simply a fearsome harpoon. He hurled it at those fleshy masses and ran them clean through, leaving behind two squirming animal halves.
At this point, I knew for sure this was horrible.  A little later on, Ned Land agrees, once again demonstrating the importance of common sense:
   The sea was covered with mutilated corpses. A fearsome explosion couldn't have slashed, torn, or shredded these fleshy masses with greater violence. We were floating in the midst of gigantic bodies, bluish on the back, whitish on the belly, and all deformed by enormous protuberances... The waves were dyed red over an area of several miles, and the Nautilus was floating in the middle of a sea of blood.
   Captain Nemo rejoined us.
   "Well, Mr. Land?" he said.
   "Well, sir," replied the Canadian, whose enthusiasm had subsided, "it's a dreadful sight for sure. But I'm a hunter not a butcher, and this is plain butchery."
Vingtmillelieue00vern orig 0034 1
This whole episode reminds me of a news article from earlier this year, about the government's attempts to save spotted owls by killing barred owls.  The success of this kind of approach is debatable.  I personally believe it is wrong, both ethically and logically.  The end result is theoretical enough, and can we say that it justifies the means?

On another subject, I wonder who can be called the real antagonist: Ned Land, or Captain Nemo?  Ned stands in the way of Professor Aronnax and Conseil's adventures on board the Nautilus.  Ned would even rebel and take over the Nautilus, were it possible.  But Nemo--in spite of any good intentions he may have--defies everyone, that he may take matters into his own hands and attain his ideals the way he sees fit, like a dubiously benevolent dictator.

I like James Mason's portrayal of Nemo in the Disney movie.  While he is still the antagonist, he doesn't strike me as one who would enjoy slaughtering whales, as long as they hadn't bothered the Nautilus.  Book!Nemo, in contrast, truly comes across as someone aspiring to rule the sea, with an iron fist if "necessary".  Perhaps the book version, like the book version of Moby-Dick's Captain Ahab, is a more realistic--if darker--character.  However, I think the movie versions do better at portraying Nemo and Ahab as anti-heroes, for whom you might feel some amount of sympathy.

Captain Sharkey / Within the Tides

8.29.2012

Pirate stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?  Great idea!  So thought I, when I decided to read The Dealings of Captain Sharkey and Other Tales of Pirates.

The first part of this book is called Tales of Pirates.  I guess I wasn't counting on serious tales of pirates. Captain Sharkey only features in four stories, but while his gory deeds are mostly referred to and not shown, I got sick of his character and was glad to be done with him.  On the other hand, I liked "A Pirate of the Land", a non-Sharkey story.

The second part is called Tales of Blue Water.  I had read four of the stories already in a different collection, but they're all good ones.  "The Striped Chest" and "The Captain of the Polestar" are especially excellent, even on second reading.  My new favorite was "The Fiend of the Cooperage"--great atmosphere, great story. 

Overall, I give this one a 5 out of 5 stars

Mary Celeste engraving

Within the Tides may just be Conrad at his most depressing.  Stylistically, his writing here is brilliant as always, but the stories are pretty dark.  "The Planter of Malata" and "Because of the Dollars" bookend this little collection with the most dreary plots involving murder and/or suicide, and "The Partner" is a close third.  The last one, "The Inn of the Two Witches", is my favorite, more creepy than depressing.  Altogether, I wouldn't recommend this book unless you enjoy morbid stories or you're a Conrad completionist.  3 out of 5 stars.

Imperialism and Identity in 'Heart of Darkness'

8.10.2012

VingtAnnees 286
The word "ivory" rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed.  You would think they were praying to it.
This has been my second reading of Joseph Conrad's arguably most-famous classic.  The first time, I was mesmerized by it without quite knowing why.  Closer, more careful reading has given me a few more hints as to why it is a bona fide masterpiece, but I know I'll be analyzing Heart of Darkness (5/5 stars) for the rest of my life.  Each layer of the book is magnificent in itself, and together they project an enigmatic picture that changes slightly at every angle.

The book begins on the river Thames.  Marlow, the narrator, suddenly recalls another river, a river that took him through the ivory-trading business in Africa.  Marlow is just the steamboat captain, but he gets caught up in the intrigue of the ivory traders, particularly the famous Mr Kurtz.  But who or what is Kurtz, and why is he adored by so many--or feared?

Imperialism

The "heart of darkness" could be aptly attributed to the Europeans' invasion of Africa, where they exploit (and virtually enslave) the local people in order to reap ivory/profits.   
Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech - and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives - he called them enemies! hidden out of sight somewhere.
Creeping along the river through the jungle, Marlow alone finds another perspective:
It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.
Some view Heart of Darkness as a racist book, but I think it is exactly the opposite.  Conrad was writing for an audience where racism was accepted and openly practiced, yet again and again, Marlow--a character that would otherwise be typical--is seen to be of a different mindset, one who recognizes the connection between all people and essentially asserts that we are all equal.  His overall respect for the African people increases, while his opinion of his fellow white men (whom he dubs "the pilgrims") becomes increasingly disgusted and sardonic.  Kurtz gains Marlow's fascination, but that, too, turns into horror.

Identity

Heart of Darkness  And who is Kurtz, the king of ivory trading?

The Manager of the Central Station has no respect for Marlow, but a great amount of respect for Kurtz, resulting naturally in the opposite reaction from Marlow.  A few pages later, Marlow is defending Kurtz, whom he has not even yet met, defending him as if he were defending "inhabitants in the planet Mars."  He wants to believe in him.  Curiosity and expectation have given Marlow (and the reader) a vague, apprehensive picture of Kurtz, but still he remains a mystery, attractive by his name, enigma, and energy alone.

Finally making some progress down the river, Marlow contemplates a future verbal showdown between him and Kurtz, ending in "What did it matter what any one knew or ignored?  What did it matter who was manager?"  Nothing has changed, but psychologically, steamboat captain Marlow has progressed to the position of a central character, zero to not-quite-hero--filling in, as it were, the emptiness left by Kurtz's absence.  Maybe the real question is: who is Marlow?  How/why does he become a key figure in the story?

Marlow, at any rate, is horrified by Kurtz's collection of heads outside his cabin.  The closer Marlow comes to Kurtz's cabin, and symbolically Kurtz himself, the more accurately Marlow sees who Kurtz is beneath his fame.  Even those who had backed Kurtz up before are not as eager to do so now, though they are also unwilling to leave his ivory behind them.  Kurtz is a centralized, magnified look at brutal imperialism, and Marlow doesn't like what he sees.

Yet Marlow is the only person in the world who knows him, and it is Kurtz's "magnificent eloquence" and fighting spirit that make Marlow remain inwardly loyal to his memory, however horrible a memory.  Marlow ends up where he began, with an understanding, an inexplicable empathy--rather than sympathy--towards Kurtz.  And Kurtz's Pyrrhic victory. 
The vision seemed to enter the house with me—the stretcher, the phantom–bearers, the wild crowd of obedient worshippers, the gloom of the forests, the glitter of the reach between the murky bends, the beat of the drum, regular and muffled like the beating of a heart—the heart of a conquering darkness. It was a moment of triumph for the wilderness, an invading and vengeful rush which, it seemed to me, I would have to keep back alone for the salvation of another soul.
The wilderness being sin, and "another soul" being Kurtz's girlfriend, to whom Marlow must convey his parting words.  He has not the ability to tell her that Kurtz was a fiend, that he (as I hypothesize) took advantage of another woman for the sake of ivory, that he lived in "The horror! the horror!"

Rather than going through a character arc, Marlow comes full circle, to live again without the presence of Kurtz hovering over him.  Marlow comes home.  Could it be, then, that Marlow and Kurtz are one and the same character?  That Kurtz personifies everything Marlow fears, despises, and runs from in himself?  For only Marlow really knew Kurtz, to his own grief.
You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget.
Yet Marlow ultimately chooses to tell a lie, rather than let anyone else in the world know Kurtz, so terrible is Kurtz's "heart of darkness".

Mackinder's Heartland Theory

8.09.2012

Heartland
Who rules East Europe, commands the Heartland
Who rules the Heartland, commands the World Island
Who rules the World Island, commands the World
Though they may be deemed outdated now, Sir Halford Mackinder's Heartland Theory and his writings on geopolitics offer some fascinating--and still relevant--pieces of wisdom on the relations between geography, history, and foreign policy.  My poli-sci class inspired me to do some further reading, so I read "The Geographical Pivot of History" (1904) and its follow-up, Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919).

The "Geographical Pivot" (5/5 stars) is a succinct description of the Heartland Theory, while Democratic Ideals (4/5 stars) is much slower and more intense, focusing heavily on Mackinder's historical basis for the theory.  Most of the history went over my head, but the gist of it--sea power vs. land power--provided a good argument for the eminently strategic location of Eastern Europe.

It's debatable whether the Heartland Theory holds true today: new technology and increasing globalization have certainly altered geographic advantages/limitations.  If nothing else, however, Mackinder masterfully demonstrates the kind of critical thinking and analysis that people (not just politicians) would do well to use today.  Democratic Ideals was written in December 1918, and already Mackinder was hinting at the possibility of WWII, if peace treaties and the League of Nations were not effective.  He also predicts aspects of the Cold War, as in the following quote:
It may be the case that Bolshevik tyranny is an extreme reaction from Dynastic tyranny, but it is none the less true that the Russian, Prussian, and Hungarian plains, with their widespread uniformity of social conditions, are favorable alike to the march of militarism and to the propaganda of syndicalism.  Against this two-headed Eagle of land-power the Westerners and Islanders must struggle.
The last two chapters of Democratic Ideals are the most worthwhile, dealing with the potential success or failure of the League of Nations (and, theoretically thereby, world peace). This is also where he presents additional arguments on certain subtopics, such as the importance of nations' "balanced development" and local vs. international organization.

There are a few problems in the book.  One is the term "democratic", which he uses rather loosely.  Secondly, some of his opinions/perspectives seem to be negatively biased by the era in which he lived (though this is unsurprising for a book 100+ years old).  Thirdly, there is his idea of reorganizing/locating certain people in Central Europe.  [Of this last, it is unclear to me whether he really supports the idea (as it seemed to me), or is simply illustrating his low expectations for peaceful relations in that area.]  Read with a grain of salt.

I highly recommend "The Geographical Pivot of History" (online PDF) to anyone, and poli-sci enthusiasts will want to check out Democratic Ideals and Reality as well.

Favorite quotes:

"To the eighteenth-century ideal of Liberty, and the nineteenth-century ideal of Nationality, we have added our twentieth-century ideal of the League of Nations."

"Productive power, in short, is a far more important element of reality in relation to modern civilization than is accumulated wealth."

"You may strike at the two flanks of your enemy, the right and the left, but unless your force is sufficient to annihilate you must decide beforehand which stroke is to be the feint and which the real attack."

"The end of the present disorder [in Germany] may only be a new ruthless organization, and ruthless organizers do not stop when they have attained the objects which they at first set before them." (Nazi Germany foretold)

"...the lessons of History are not to be learned from a single instance."

"Civilization, no doubt, consists in the exchange of services, but it should be an equal exchange."

"...most people today are very open to 'suggestion', a fact well known to the experienced in elections, who rarely stop to reason with their audiences."

"Why were Athens and Florence the wonderful founts of Civilization which have made them the teachers of the world?  They were small cities as we now count the size of cities, but they were sovereign cities both in the political and economic sense."

"...his [the Londoner's] life of ideas is detached from his responsible life, and both suffer infinitely in consequence."

South: Antarctica, Endurance, and WWI

8.07.2012

TheEnduranceInFullSail

Sir Ernest Shackleton's South was my spontaneous "heavy reading" for this spring/summer.  At times, my reaction was "What did I myself get into?"  It is a long first-person narrative, stylistically tedious, and inherently repetitive--but absolutely worth the commitment.

{Note: Be sure to look through photographer Frank Hurley's book South with Endurance while you read South.  You will enjoy South much, much more side-by-side with the pictures.  Which, by the way, are phenomenal.  On top of the discomfort and anxieties of everyday survival, Hurley dedicated himself to photographing the journey, and his photos, like illustrations, truly embody the narrative/journals.  A few are even in color!}
 
By Finetooth, Like tears in rain, U.S Central Intelligence Agency [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or Public domain]

Autumn 1914.  The Great War is being fought, yet as Sir Ernest Shackleton's volunteering of his expedition and resources is politely refused by the British government, he has embarked upon his planned expedition--south.  He has two ships:  the Endurance and the Aurora.  Beginning on the Ross Sea coast, the group from the Aurora is to set up depots with supplies at key points on the Antarctic continent.  From the Weddell Sea, the Endurance is to bring Shackleton to the point where he will lead the first ever crossing of the continent.
Endurance Final Sinking
But the Endurance never makes it.  The Weddell Sea proves increasingly unnavigable, until the ice begins to crush the ship slowly.  Shackleton and his men have no goal left except to find a way home through minus freezing weather, with only what provisions they find or what things they can salvage from the dying Endurance.  Radio signals are nonexistent, and they are left to imagine how the Aurora fared and how/whether the War had ended.

This book earns the 5 out of 5 stars.  It was not a pageturner, but it was overall enthralling.  As a serious survival story, it covers every small step of the voyage in great detail.  Yes, it was often boring.  Still, I felt a tremendous amount of respect for Shackleton's conscientious narrative, and I'm sure the public, as well as friends and family, must have appreciated his in-depth account.  It also gives the reader a good sense of time/scale and immerses you in the story by not sugarcoating the reality.

Additionally, this in-depth style increased my appreciation of their perseverance through the tedium and mental fatigue, which could come all too easily.  This is, after all, a huge part of what survival is about.  Every day, the same food, the same monotonous jobs, the same painstaking attempts to keep clothes dry or find safe shelter.  Shackleton recognized the power of morale and took it into consideration while making many decisions.
Shack-endurance
Obviously, a first-person narrative is unavoidably biased towards the author.  With a grain of salt, I really admired Ernest Shackleton: he came across as what a leader and survivor should be.  Circumspect, caring for his expedition members, totally self-confident and focused on his goal, not letting anxiety get the upper hand.  “A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground."  I can imagine what he went through when he, in a sense, failed before he began, but whatever disappointment went through his mind, it didn't seem to affect his resolve.

Shackleton was tough. . .I get the impression he had high standards/expectations of people, wouldn't tolerate anything like moping around or giving up.  And he lived up to his own standards (as good tough people do).
Frank Worsley
In this book, there is a little confusion at first as to "who's who"--another reason to look at the Hurley book; it explains everything and some.  Shackleton was not the captain of the Endurance; the captain was Frank Worsley, a very talented, dependable guy, who went on to become a WWI hero.  He wrote his own accounts of the expedition, which I hope to read in the future.

To call South an extraordinary story is an understatement.  Over and over again the men are saved in the nick of time or by the most incredible circumstances (the lost/found rudder!).  Shackleton openly acknowledges that God was watching out for them.  Regardless of your religious beliefs, you can't help but be moved by their narrow escapes from death.
Hurley shackleton at camp
I loved the (all too-infrequent) personal side of the story--the soccer games on the ice pack, the huge importance of the portable stove, and the cookbook which both comforts and torments the half-starving men.

South reads like a very modern story, with one gigantic piece of another world: a wooden ship.  They have science, and a little technology, and an increasingly 20th-century way of thinking, but there is that great, beautiful, wretched wooden ship sinking in the distance.  Just seeing that and living amid 21st-century technology, I felt nearly from the beginning of South that it was a hopeless voyage from the start.  How could anyone have believed that a wooden ship, steam or no steam, could live long enough through Antarctica ice?
Endurance sink
There is this quote in the Preface, where Sir Ernest outlines his motives and objectives:  
...my mind turned to the crossing of the continent, for I was morally certain that either Amundsen or Scott would reach the Pole on our own route or a parallel one. After hearing of the Norwegian success I began to make preparations to start a last great journey—so that the first crossing of the last continent should be achieved by a British Expedition.
Rings a bell?  Shackleton, here and elsewhere, makes it clear that he views the expedition as almost a subcategory of WWI, indirectly related if nothing else.  This, to me, is one of the greatest tragedies of the Endurance expedition.  It wasn't enough to want to cross Antarctica--no, Britain must be the first.  And so fifty-six men suffered hellishly for this cause.

It does not matter that it was a British expedition or that Shackleton wrote those words; the sentiment is typical of many nations' mentalities which led up to WWI.  The symbolism is striking, and again, depressing.  Add to that an irony: it is likely that fewer men died on the expedition than would have been the case if they instead fought side-by-side in WWI (as many of them later did).

Is nature, then--at its most extreme--a kinder opponent than our own fellow human beings?

Fathers and Sons

7.31.2012

Axel Kulle 1846-1908-Den förlorade sonens återkomst
Arkady Kirsanov, recent graduate of the University of St Petersburg, comes home to visit his father Nikolai and uncle Pavel at the Kirsanov estate in the country.  Nikolai is anxious to give his son a warm welcome, even if it means putting up with Arkady's new friend, the arrogant Yevgeny Bazarov.  Bazarov has abandoned social conventions and traditions while expounding upon the virtues of nihilism, which causes growing hostility between him and the conservative Pavel.  Arkady goes on to visit Bazarov's parents and begins to discover that Bazarov is not exactly what he thought he was.

Ivan Turgenev's short novel is truly an underrated classic.  Fast-paced and witty, the plot's complexity is worthy of a longer book, while the setting gives us another perspective of Russian history--neither quite Pushkin nor Dostoyevsky.  Fathers and Sons came highly rated, but I didn't know it was going to be such a page-turner, hard to put down!

Set in 1859, this book is about the generational gap between "fathers and sons" (and uncle), but it is also about generational similarities.  Ironically, I found what Nikolai and Bazarov shared most in common was their immorality (stemming from pride), narrowmindedness, and male chauvinism.  Some things don't change, I guess.

My favorite characters were Pavel and Bazarov, the polar opposites.  Pavel is a Byronic/Romantic/Pushkin-era dandy and former ladies' man, who entered middle age with a broken heart and an old-fashioned sense of style.  Bazarov is different in every way--young, full of himself, could care less how he looks, and apathetically ambitious (he studies medicine, but he doesn't "believe" in it).  I like Bazarov's honesty, and I think Pavel is actually the most conscientious character in the book.

I also liked Bazarov's parents, Vasily and Arina.  They struck me as two people who--while not asking many questions or pushing many conventions--try to do their best where they're at.  Really, the book is full of realism and grey characters; if you like reading books about "real" people, then you would probably like Fathers and Sons.

I guess what disappointed me about this book was Bazarov himself.  Turgenev was about forty-four when Fathers and Sons was published, and I think the book reflects that.  Bazarov doesn't come across as very true to his cause, nor does he seem to live for anything or anyone but himself--his selfishness and arrogance, not his beliefs, are his chief attributes.  I do not promote/agree with the nihilist movement, but if a character is supposed to represent something, then their perspective should be examined clearly and not merely in vague expressions.  At least, the generational contrast/comparison would have been more effective if Bazarov had been more sincere, like Nikolai and Pavel.

4.5 out of 5 stars.  The plot is excellent (and the ending is tragic).  Recommended!

The Mystery of Cloomber

7.28.2012

General Heatherstone is not an unfriendly person, really.  He's just very, very nervous.  So nervous, in fact, that he has converted his new home, Cloomber Hall, into a fortress and keeps his family as veritable prisoners behind its walls.  His neighbor John Fothergill West has taken an interest in the Heatherstones, and John soon finds motives besides curiosity for uncovering the general's secret enemies, who seem to have superhuman powers at their command.

I had high hopes for this novella by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but I must give it an unfortunate 2 out of 5 stars.  I don't ascribe to the opinion that Doyle's non-Sherlock writings are inferior; in fact, I've enjoyed much of his other writing, which may account for my disappointment with this one.

There are some wonderful descriptions, a good dose of mysterious happenings, and a magnificent shipwreck scene.  I also felt that Doyle's portrayal of the Afridis was a sympathetic one.

However, the book's slow pace and final conclusion ruined the story for me.  Doyle is an interesting author in that he could direct a weird story towards either a supernatural conclusion or a scientific conclusion.  In the Mystery of Cloomber, many strange things happen that the narrator concludes act as evidence for occult powers.  Can the reader find scientific explanations for them?  Yes, easily, but that is not the ultimate theme of the book.

If you are looking for more Doyle to read, then by all means check out The Lost World or Brigadier Gerard, etc.  I can't say I recommend this one.

The Trial

7.05.2012

Franz Kafka's signature

A good book, a bad book, a "love it or hate it" book.  It takes some willpower for me to review Franz Kafka's The Trial as objectively as possible, but I must give it a mixed-feelings rating of 3.3 out of 5 stars.

I believe I began reading this book last fall, before putting it aside for months and then finishing it recently.  It's the sort of book you can resume at any moment--because, apart from the beginning and the end, nothing happens.  I learned nothing and was intrigued.  It's evidently deep but reads like light summer reading.  It's a good book to read in public, because it will hold your interest despite distractions.

In a nutshell:  The Trial is about a guy who, one fine morning, gets "arrested" for unknown reasons.  And by "arrest", it is not a "go directly to jail" arrest or even a house arrest--nothing so clear-cut and reassuring.  And "the Trial" is not about a trial in the typical sense, but about the trials Josef K. suffers just trying to get to the bottom of it.  Keyword:  trying.

Having been awed by The Metamorphosis, I am hesitant to write The Trial off as pure nonsense.  In both of these works, I believe Kafka exaggerated and examined the paranoia, corruption, and bizarre situations in real life to make a point, or to at least bring them to people's attention.  The sudden, unexpected, strange moments of our lives when people are incomprehensible, when society seems ridiculous, aloof, vulgar, perhaps crazy--this is a huge aspect of the Kafkaesque, the meat-and-potatoes of Kafka's themes in The Trial.  The oddities of everyday life and the mind-numbingly tedious, unbelievable processes that are necessary for things to be accomplished in a legal system (this is not entirely fantasy either--think of how many years, even decades, it can take for a person to legally become a U.S. citizen!).  Kafka appeared to be haunted by these things; how much of it arose from just his own perspective, I can only conjecture.  I think he emphasized many truths people don't often think about, but you have to wonder at what point do the obscure truths stop and the imagination begins.

The other highlight of The Trial is what might be called "Kafka logic."  In this book, it's something like a mixture of math, Alice in Wonderland, and arguments.  Different characters ramble on and on and on about Josef's case; my favorite was the lawyer's monologue in Chapter 7, a prime example of how to optimistically give depressing news.  I personally enjoy reading about "Kafka logic"; again, it seems to me to depict some real-life truths in a very remarkable way.

Unfortunately, the protagonist "Josef K." is the thorn in the side of his own book.  Like the "K." of Kafka's The Castle (which I have not finished yet), Josef comes across as an ultimately spineless, hypocritical, gullible loser.  Josef's biggest enemy is his own anxiety--much like Richard in Charles Dickens' Bleak House--and while I sympathized with him at first, it seemed to me later that he could have conquered his anxieties by simply trying to live a normal life and keeping busy with his work.  Instead, he drives himself crazy trying to outsmart the system, while still finding time to have romantic relationships with total strangers (despite condemning the judges as "woman-chasers").  Josef doesn't even have the guts to get out of long, boring, painful conversations with people who are unable or unwilling to help him.  Spoiler in white:  At the end, he is about to commit suicide, before he is murdered (or executed, depending on how you look at it).  His last words are to feel sorry for his hurt pride.  Pathetic. 

The other characters comprise one of the creepiest sets of characters I've ever come across.  There is "the whip-man", the most blatantly sinister.  The others give the appearance of being nice, but most are conniving, hostile, or simply apathetic.  The majority are either realistically unpleasant or cardboard cutouts literally devoid of personality.

Due to Josef's "love life" and the shocking ending, I would say this book is for older readers (17+).  I don't recommend it necessarily.  Give The Metamorphosis a try, and if you dislike it, I can almost guarantee you'll hate this book.  On the other hand, if you are fascinated by the Kafkaesque, you'll find plenty of that in The Trial.

From Eyre to Onegin

7.02.2012

After reading Eugene Onegin, it struck me that it shares several essential similarities with a more famous romantic classic, Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë).

Lord Byron 1804-6 Crop

There's the Gothic side, for example.  Jane Eyre is considered to be "Gothic", and Eugene Onegin holds elements of it as well.  The letter-writing scene has a sense of gloom about it, but more eerie is the dream sequence, with its fantastical creatures and irony.  And Byronic heroes?  Enter Edward Rochester and Eugene Onegin.  Both are former socialites, now living out empty lives in empty ancestral houses.  Both despise the high society where they once distinguished themselves.  Both believe they've seen all there is to life and human nature.  

(Spoilers alert)

Dracula

5.17.2012

By Adymark (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-ro], 
 via Wikimedia Commons
Young solicitor Jonathan Harker is sent on a business trip to Transylvania, where he must meet with an elderly count who has recently bought property in London.  So far so good, until Jonathan realizes there are some strange goings-on at Castle Dracula that defy both science and sanity.  Meanwhile, John Seward--doctor at a London insane asylum--has been noticing some weird behaviour in one of his patients.  He is only called away by the illness of the woman he loves, Lucy Westenra, in the seaside town of Whitby, where an eerie shipwreck has taken place.  As worse comes to worst, Dr Seward sends for the help of his friend and mentor Prof. Van Helsing, who alone seems to know how these supernatural mysteries tie together.

Eugenics and Other Evils

4.17.2012

Berlin Naturkundemuseum DNA
By LoKiLeCh [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Of G. K. Chesterton's several thousand essays, the one I stumbled across most suddenly on Project Gutenberg was Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State.  I do not go out of my way to read essays, but the topic had been on my mind recently and, of course, Chesterton's nonfic is even more renowned than his novels.  I thought this would be a good place to start.

Eugenics, in short, is "the study of methods of improving the quality of the human race, esp by selective breeding" (Collins English Dictionary).  The most well-known example of eugenics on a large scale took place in Nazi Germany; however, a more historically obscure example was the support for and practice of eugenics by doctors in the US and Great Britain, pre-WWI--and, in the case of the US, even up through the 70s.

Background is key in Chesterton's book.  I must admit I was hoping for an argument that would deal with eugenics on a broader scale, for all eras and conceivable counterarguments, but Chesterton--wisely, for his purposes--limited his audience to Britain in the 1920s.  He does not hide his contempt for eugenics, and some of the "other evils" he discusses are socialism and, even more so, capitalism. As with many ideologies, it is impossible to judge them in the past by what they are in the present.  Likewise, Chesterton's opinions need to be read in context--the British class system was still alive and well, ca. 1922, and Keynesianism, a more benevolent form of capitalism, would not gain popularity until years later.

I felt that Chesterton rambled a lot more in the second half of the book, hence 4 out of 5 stars.  The first part of the book was much more focused, interesting, and brilliantly written.  Two excellent arguments that particularly stood out to me were the idea that a government could become anarchic (sounds like an oxymoron, but actually makes sense) and also that two "perfectly healthy" people may not necessarily have "perfectly healthy" children.

This latter point was also a doubt of H. G. Wells, who nevertheless supported eugenics.  Chesterton pointed out that even eugenists could not answer this question, and he berated them for holding overall very vague ideas of what they wanted done.  He also questioned the notion that there could be anyone qualified to evaluate other people's so-called "feeble-mindedness".

In summary, I recommend this book, but more on a historical than universal basis.  There are definitely some arguments that can be applied today, but as a whole, Chesterton was writing to a more specific audience.

Favorite quotes:

"...evil always takes advantage of ambiguity."

"...there has in all ages been a disastrous alliance between abnormal innocence and abnormal sin."

"They cannot believe that men in hats and coats like themselves can be preparing a revolution; all their Victorian philosophy has taught them that such transformations are always slow."

"The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal."

"But as a vision the thing is plausible and even rational.  It is rational, and it is wrong."

"The chief feature of our time is the meekness of the mob and the madness of the government."

"We are everywhere urged by humanitarians to help lame dogs over stiles--though some humanitarians, it is true, seem to feel a colder interest in the case of lame men and women."

"Thus Midas fell into a fallacy about the currency; and soon had reason to become something more than a Bimetallist."

"They have now added all the bureaucratic tyrannies of a Socialist state to the old plutocratic tyrannies of a Capitalist State."

"We can no more analyse such peace in the soul than we can conceive in our heads the whole enormous and dizzy equilibrium by which, out of suns roaring like infernos and heavens toppling like precipices, He has hanged the world upon nothing."

The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems

4.04.2012

The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems
I hadn't heard of Tomas Tranströmer until last fall when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature; I placed a library request for two or three of his books, and, for various reasons, did not actually get a copy of either of them until very recently.  Needless to say, I had certain expectations.  This particular book, The Great Enigma, is in a sense "the complete poems of", because it holds all of his poems that were ever published "in book form"--Baltics, The Sorrow Gondola, Secrets on the Way, etc.  It also contains a short memoir, Memories in My Eyes, in which Tranströmer describes certain scenes from his childhood, in Sweden.

I hope it is fair to give this book 3 out of 5 stars.  I'm not well up on contemporary poetry, but I love any good poetry, regardless of style.   I've read several of the classics--Frost, Poe, Wordsworth, Browning, Shakespeare, etc.  And I've written a fair amount of poetry myself.  This is my rating, for what it's worth.

Like many poets, Tranströmer wrote some real gems, but I personally did not enjoy the great majority of his poems.  [The English translation, by Robin Fulton, seemed quite good, so I don't think it's that.]  The Great Enigma spans 1950s - 2004, with the first half being slightly better than the second half.  Overall, the parts I liked best were the memoir--a short but fascinating read--and the short prose pieces, prose poetry, if you will.  The poems I like are as follows:
  • Prelude
  • The Stones
  • Secrets on the Way
  • Noon Thaw
  • Espresso
  • In the Nile Delta
  • Allegro
  • Summer Plain
  • To Friends Behind a Frontier
  • Schubertiana
Tranströmer has a true gift for analogies.  Often you'll stumble across an analogy so unique, so perfect you wish you had read it before.  Some of these are very quirky (if you listen to Adam Young, think "Alligator Sky").  Some are just so obvious you'll start thinking about them henceforth--i.e., traffic lights = eyes.  I'd recommend the book for the analogies alone.

Are they depressing poems?  Well, yes and no.  "Death" is a common keyword.  Religion is vaguely present, but not prominent, and there is little or no sense of the "light at the end of the tunnel."  The poems' settings are typically a city, village, the sea, or the forest--each with a sense of sadness or something not being right.

Yet while the author's mood is easy to infer, the poems themselves were too emotionless to provoke much sympathy in me.  They are so "blank", so to speak; even Kafka is emotional compared to this book.  Additionally, much of the imagery in The Great Enigma is so hard to decipher you eventually give up trying to understand.  I realize that it probably makes perfect sense to the author, but self-expression is no longer self-expression if an author doesn't get their point across.  Perhaps I should have been depressed by this book, but I wasn't.  Inversely, I was not encouraged or inspired.  It made no net emotional impression on me whatsoever.

That said, Tranströmer's poems are still a worthwhile read if you want to read more contemporary poems, while avoiding the angst and profuse immorality so typical in most contemporary writing.  He obviously drew a lot inspiration from nature, and his few "romantic" poems are more decent than most.  The Great Enigma certainly met some of my expectations, and I can recommend it for that.

The Club of Queer Trades



If there's one thing that ticks me off about this book, it's this: The Club of Queer Trades is a parody of Sherlock Holmes.  From the protagonist, Basil Grant--who scoffs at facts--to his younger brother Rupert--a wannabe private detective patrolling lamp-lit London--G. K. Chesterton takes a not-so-subtle jab at the Sherlock Holmes series and the science of deduction.  Basil Grant's tools of the trade?  A touch of insanity, healthy intuition, and uproarious laughter.

In fact, I can forgive Chesterton and his maniacal character just for the laughs I got reading this book. Chesterton's word choice is very quirky and witty throughout most of the six short stories and especially the first half.  If you're looking for a light read set in Victorian London, you could give this a try. 

The basic plotline is this: Rupert, Basil, and Mr Swinburne (the narrator/Watson) never agree on who is a suspicious-looking character.  And if either Rupert or Basil sees a suspicious-looking character, they are determined to hunt them down and catch them red-handed in their crimes.  Much awkwardness ensues when first impressions turn out to be a far cry from the truth.   I think my favorite was "The Painful Fall of a Great Reputation", involving "the wickedest man in England" (apparently not Charles Augustus Milverton).

Rupert, by the way, is a great character, for all his "erroneous conclusions." I mean, if this were a typical detective story, he'd be a good detective.  The true solutions, however, turn out to be so fantastically absurd that Rupert fails before he begins.

4 out of 5 stars for The Club of Queer Trades.  Recommended even for Sherlock Holmes devotees, like me.  There's a free, excellent audiobook by David Barnes at Librivox, which I listened to for the first 1 1/2 stories.

Chesterton and Conrad on Facts

3.10.2012


In the last few days, I've been perusing two radically different books: G. K. Chesterton's The Club of Queer Trades (a first-rate audiobook) and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (my beloved publicity copy).  The first is a humorous collection of adventures in Victorian London.  The second is a profound, psychological study set in Africa under British imperialism.  Two books could not be more unlike.  But while I was reviewing some of the more outstanding quotes today, it struck me both books have similar things to say...on the subject of facts.

It's a weird coincidence.  I have a habit of reading multiple books at once, but between books of different genre, there is rarely such a complete, simultaneous overlap of message/meaning.  If it doesn't bore you to tears, read the excerpts below and tell me if I'm just seeing things:

   "Facts," murmured Basil, like one mentioning some strange, far-off animals, "how facts obscure the truth. I may be silly—in fact, I'm off my head—but I never could believe in that man—what's his name, in those capital stories?—Sherlock Holmes. Every detail points to something, certainly; but generally to the wrong thing. Facts point in all directions, it seems to me, like the thousands of twigs on a tree. It's only the life of the tree that has unity and goes up—only the green blood that springs, like a fountain, at the stars."

* * *

    "But, after all," I said, "this is very fanciful—perfectly absurd. Look at the mere facts. You have never seen the man before, you—"
    "Oh, the mere facts," he cried out in a kind of despair. "The mere facts! Do you really admit—are you still so sunk in superstitions, so clinging to dim and prehistoric altars, that you believe in facts? Do you not trust an immediate impression?"
- Chesterton


   For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long. Something would turn up to scare it away. Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech -- and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives -- he called them enemies! -- hidden out of sight somewhere.

* * *
I believed it in the same way one of you might believe there are inhabitants in the planet Mars. I knew once a Scotch sailmaker who was certain, dead sure, there were people in Mars. If you asked him for some idea how they looked and behaved, he would get shy and mutter something about 'walking on all-fours.' If you as much as smiled, he would -- though a man of sixty -- offer to fight you. I would not have gone so far as to fight for Kurtz, but I went for him near enough to a lie. You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies -- which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world -- what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose. Well, I went near enough to it by letting the young fool there believe anything he liked to imagine as to my influence in Europe. I became in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims. This simply because I had a notion it somehow would be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time I did not see -- you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything?
- Conrad

4 short reviews

3.03.2012


Beowulf
Unknown
3.5 out of 5 stars

I feel almost guilty for rating this classic of classics so poorly, but I think it's a book you either love, loathe, or feel lukewarm about.

Pros:  The historic setting, historic dialogue, underwater/cave battle, and Christian perspective.  Added 1/2 star for Beowulf's influence on Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

Cons:  Beowulf (the character) is much too flawless a fighter. He hardly seems human.  A more interesting character is Wiglaf, the underling whose courage outweighs his inexperience.


The Queen of Spades
Alexander Pushkin
2 out of 5 stars

A very weird, Edgar Allan Poe-esque story about gambling and ghosts.  It's also super fast-paced, which doesn't help.  Interesting concept, however.


A Tangled Tale
Lewis Carroll
5 out of 5 stars

One of the best books I've read in the last year.  This is a collection of math/logic puzzles, with continuing characters and storylines.  The dialogue is wonderfully witty and hilarious at times ("Equilateral! And rectangular!").

As far as the puzzles themselves go, this is serious stuff.  Mathematically, pretty much all you need is algebra.  The logic is the tough part.  I tried solving several of them, but was only able to solve one on my own: "Petty Cash".  Even this involved Victorian British currency and some convoluted systems of equations.

Needless to say, you will be staying up very late at night trying to solve these.  They look horribly simple, even on your second or third attempt.


A Personal Record
Joseph Conrad
5 out of 5 stars

Another memoir by Joseph Conrad, this book gives fascinating insights on what his early life was like, how he became a seaman, and how--comparatively late in life--he became a writer.  Highly recommended for Conrad fans and people interested in the lives of great authors.

The Mirror of the Sea

2.17.2012

Sharing Our Bookshelves @ In the Bookcase


Caspar David Friedrich - Küste bei Mondschein

With the quality of our desires, thoughts, and wonder proportioned to our infinite littleness, we measure even time itself by our own stature.
The Mirror of the Sea is a fascinating work.  I was struck by several things--one, it is nonfic that reads like a novel; two, it is a very personal book; and three, the writing is pure art.

I'll admit, I'm biased.  As of the last year or so, Joseph Conrad (along with Hawthorne) has been the author I've most admired.  His thoughts and observations are profound in a perfectly down-to-earth way, without being too self-conscious or egotistic.  He never expects anything of the reader except their willingness to listen.  It is as if he understands, inherently, how to express his mind in the truest way, and convey it through, not beneath, the prose.

The Mirror of the Sea is, of course, about the sea.  Conrad alternates between personal anecdotes and deep, lengthy descriptions, with the frequent psychological aside.  It is a slow book, much like Moby-Dick.  Unlike the fictitious Ishmael, however, Conrad never seems to forget the reader.  The hint of conversational style holds your interest and makes The Mirror of the Sea perfect escapism for anybody who loves the sea.  I'm seriously disappointed that I've finished it already--it was my go-to book for levelheaded, relaxing reading. 

An overwhelming theme in the book is that of wooden ships versus steamships.  Conrad's life overlapped both, and it is the source of much nostalgia in this book.  He seemed to consider himself the witness of the end of an era, and in The Mirror of the Sea, he studies how this has or will change sailors and the British Navy.

Speaking of which, the book ends with some chapters on Lord Nelson.  These chapters feels slightly out-of-place compared to the other topics, but it is interesting to read Conrad's huge esteem for the Admiral.

Overall, I give it 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it if the topic interests you.

Lensky's Idealism, and Why Onegin Fought a Duel

1.18.2012

Yevgeny Onegin by Repin
Last night I finished my first re-reading of Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin).  The plan is to use a different translation for each re-read--this time I used Henry Spalding's, which you can find at Project Gutenberg.  While I didn't stumble across any words like zen, I found parts of the translation to read awkwardly, as if a thesaurus had been referenced once too often.  On the positive side, it is overall a very readable translation, and it rhymes. 4.5/5 stars for the Spalding translation.

As for the re-read itself.  Much has been made of Tatyana's bookish dreams, but I'm convinced now that the poet Lensky is the only idealist, the only dreamer in the whole book.  His last thoughts were what really stood out to me this time.  I understood better where he was coming from, and I actually felt very sorry for him.

(Spoiler alert)

"The Mystery of Uncle Jeremy's Household"

1.16.2012

A couple of years ago, I found an interesting book at a thrift store:  The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  It is a collection of stories, essays, etc, related to Sherlock Holmes, and almost all of them are entirely written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I skimmed through the book; some of the stories I had read before, but others were quite new to me.  My favourite was "The Mystery of Uncle Jeremy's Household", which I certainly hadn't ever heard of before.

This story, though not strictly a Holmes story, has a few things in common with the Holmes series.  Firstly, it is a mystery; secondly, it has two characters who are much like Holmes and Watson.  Hugh Lawrence is the "Watson" character, and John Thurston is the "Holmes" character.  Interestingly enough, it's Lawrence who does the detective work.  Thurston has a similar personality to Sherlock Holmes's, but he is more interested in his chemical experiments than in solving a mystery.  Still, even in the context of a short story, he was such a great character and so like Holmes, that I wish there were more books about him.

The mystery is a classic example of a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle short story--he establishes a great setting, builds up suspense, and brings the reader right into the story through the first-person narration. And while the mystery itself may not be as complex as some of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, it still keeps the reader interested in "what happens next".  If you've read the Holmes series and want to read more, you might want to give this one a try.

"'Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,' said Stamford, introducing us."

"Who is Sherlock Holmes?"

    Few people ask this question, because almost anyone could give an answer to it.  Sherlock Holmes is one of those unusual literary characters who lives outside of his stories; ask that question, and most people will be able to tell you that he's a detective, distinguishable from other detectives due to the accessories of a magnifying glass, deerstalker hat, and pipe.  He is as well-known by name as Santa Claus, Frankenstein, or Dracula.  He is, as others have put it, "the world's most famous detective"; he's the detective to whom nearly all other fictional detectives are compared.  Before we ever "meet" Sherlock Holmes in the books, we have an idea of who he is.  But does this idea truly answer the question?
   Interestingly, we're not the only ones who think we know Holmes before we've met him.  In the very first chapter of A Study in Scarlet, Dr John H. Watson is a wounded soldier just returned to England; and, by chance, he hears of Sherlock Holmes through an old acquaintance, Stamford.  Contrary to what you'd expect, Watson does not ask "Who is Sherlock Holmes?"  Instead, he assumes he already knows what kind of person Holmes is ("'A medical student, I suppose?'"), and he would probably have stuck to these assumptions, were it not for Stamford's apprehensions ("'You don't know Sherlock Holmes yet'").  When later he finally meets Sherlock Holmes himself, Watson learns that Holmes is far from being the quiet medical student he expected him to be.

* * *

   The entrance of any great character is usually a turning-point in the story, and often a representation of who the character is or what they do.  On the surface, there is something surprisingly un-Sherlockian about Watson's meeting Holmes; and yet, simultaneously, there are elements in this introduction which are definitive of Holmes's character, as well as of Watson's role as friend and biographer.  One of these elements is the subject of Holmes's "first lines", as it were.

   "'You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.'"

This sentence is often thought of as Holmes's first line in the series; however, it is really his third.  His first line happens to be "'I've found it!  I've found it'".  These words are significant in many ways, but most especially interesting is the parallel (intentional or unintentional, I don't know) between Holmes and Archimedes--the mathematician who is famous for supposedly having cried "Eureka!" after finding "a method for determining the volume of an object with an irregular shape" (Wikipedia)Eureka translates to "I have found it" (Wikipedia).  This is the first of at least three comparisons between Holmes and geniuses of Ancient Greece.  Later on, in Chapter 2, Holmes is compared to Euclid, and again in Chapter 1 of The Sign of Four.  Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that these parallels are made in the first two books of a very long series, before Holmes is shown to be a genius at solving numerous cases.  And yet he lives up to it.  He is a character who enters the story with perfect self-confidence, independent of Watson or the readers' approval.

   Holmes's second line is very simple, and one which does not instantly seem important:  "'How are you?' he said cordially".  Its importance is, however, underlined by the fact that Holmes almost instantly resumes his previous exclamations regarding his chemistry experiment and discovery.  In a way, one wonders why eccentric Holmes bothered with this formality at all, when he was in the middle of a momentous experiment and the deduction about Watson having been an army doctor.  But was it just a formality?  After all, judging from other stories, "How are you?" is not a typical greeting from Holmes.  I can't help but wonder if, maybe, he really meant it, knowing as he did (via his deductions) that Watson was in poor health.  If so, this would be the first of countless instances in which we see Holmes's philanthropic side, that part of his personality and principles which proves that we can't think of him as just being a cold, scientific "machine".  Nor is he constantly depressed or stoic, either:

"'Ha! ha!' he cried, clapping his hands, and looking as delighted as a child with a new toy. 'What do you think of that?'"



[The Holmes book quotes are from A Study in Scarlet