Hyperion

12.20.2013

Caspar David Friedrich 028
If there is one poet whose name has come to be associated with cliches of the genre, that would be Henry Wadsworth Longfellow"You're a poet / and you didn't know it / but your feet show it / they're long fellows!"  A sad pun which sums up most critics' opinion.  I am biased the other way - after reading a substantial selection of Longfellow's poetry, I was left overall impressed, even in a comparison with Wordsworth.  That is more or less how I decided to read Hyperion (1839), one of his more obscure, prose works.

The book follows a young American, Paul Flemming, on his travels through the scenery of Germany and Switzerland.  Recently in mourning for his childhood friend (girlfriend?), Flemming finds comfort in studying the lives of the people he meets, as well as in conversing upon philosophy and religion with his various travelling companions.  His life changes upon meeting the beautiful Mary Ashburton, an intellectual Englishwoman with a talent for drawing.  For Flemming, it is love at first sight, but does Mary feel the same for him?

In spite of its rambling digressions, I find it hard to dislike Hyperion.  It is what Werther should have been, and, for all that, there are enough similarities to detect where Longfellow might have drawn inspiration from Goethe.  You have a troubled, poetic young man searching for peace in the beauty of the countryside; he falls in love, and there goes his peace of mind (or does it?).  This is a book for us Romantics, even if we are just wannabes.  Nothing recommends it more strongly than Longfellow's assurance of our actual legitimacy:
But perhaps, gentle reader, thou art one of those, who think the days of Romance gone forever. Believe it not! O, believe it not! Thou hast at this moment in thy heart as sweet a romance as was ever written. Thou art not less a woman, because thou dost not sit aloft in a tower, with a tassel-gentle on thy wrist! Thou art not less a man, because thou wearest no hauberk, nor mail-sark, and goest not on horseback after foolish adventures! Nay, nay! Every one has a Romance in his own heart.
All is not poetic and idealistic, however.  There are moments in Hyperion that bring to mind the Dark Romanticism of Hawthorne, such as Emma and the seductive Count, or the ballerina whose husband sells her talent from city to city, treating her like a "favorite horse."  Flemming is a Romantic with a heart; he does not ignore the realities around him.  He does not claim to know all the answers, either.

If you like literature and travelogues from the Romantic era, you would probably like Hyperion3.5 out of 5 stars.

2013 Reads Recap

12.18.2013

As I mentioned before, this was an unambitious year for reading.  My reading goals, such as they were:
  • The Prairie, J. F. Cooper - This was for school, so I read it and wrote a paper on it.
  • One biography - Instead of reading a biog, I randomly decided to read my sister's library book, From the Ashes of Sobibor by Thomas Toivi Blatt.  I have read Holocaust memoirs before, and they were all worth it, but this one felt additionally unique.  It describes the author's childhood in Poland, the takeover by the Nazis, and his enslavement in, and eventual escape from, the death camp Sobibor.  A depressing but eye-opening book that I highly recommend.
  • One political science book - For this I read America and the World by Brzezinski, Scowcroft, and Ignatius.  Again, this is not one I formally reviewed here, but it was interesting (though cursory regarding details).
  • One philosophy book - I read three: Meditations by Aurelius, Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky, and The Power of the Powerless by Havel.  They were all excellent; Havel's was my favorite.  You can read it online from his website.  It was written during particular historic events, yet I found it still inspiring and relevant for today, whether applied in politics or one's community or personal life.
  • Anything from my reading list - I'm glad I finally read Werther and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded!
A break from routine can be an excellent thing for resetting your perspective and enthusiasm, and I think 2013 was just that.  Now if I can just finish Hyperion over the next week or so, I'll be ready to start my 2014 lists... 

Back to the Classics 2014 challenge

12.17.2013

Updated 1/2/14
Back to the Classics, hosted by Karen

This is challenge is themed on books published during or prior to 1964.  For some of the categories, I will be overlapping with other challenges (because I'm not terribly ambitious!), but there are new to-read books on this list that I'm also looking forward to.

Required:

  1. ✓  A 20th Century ClassicThe Castle (1926, Kafka).  Alternative: 1984 (1949, Orwell) or The Great Gatsby (1925)  The Old Man and the Sea (1952, Hemingway)
  2. ✓  A 19th Century ClassicThe Masterpiece (1886), Zola  Lord Jim (18991900, Conrad)
  3. A Classic by a Woman AuthorA Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Wollstonecraft)
  4. ✓  A Classic in TranslationThe Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky)
  5. A Wartime ClassicFor Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway) - Spanish Civil War
  6. A Classic by an Author Who Is New To You:  Beneath the Wheel (Hesse) - subject to change, though I've been wanting to read Hesse for a while now
Optional Categories:
  1. An American ClassicThe Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne) - being a Hawthorne fan who hasn't read Scarlet Letter is just awkward
  2. A Classic Mystery, Suspense or Thriller: does Frankenstein count?
  3. A Historical Fiction Classic:  Mutiny on the Bounty (1932).  I read the Bounty Trilogy many years ago and enjoyed it - high time for a re-read!
  4. A Classic That's Been Adapted Into a Movie or TV Series: The Last of the Mohicans (Cooper) - set in 1757, pub. 1826
  5. Extra Fun Category:  Write a Review of the Movie or TV Series adapted from Optional Category #4 - must be a separate blog posting from #4

2014 Russian Lit Challenge

12.09.2013


An addition to my previous post - the Russian Literature 2014 challenge hosted by o.  I will be reading Eugene Onegin plus 2-3 other books (probably The Brothers Karamazov, Memories of the Future, and/or In the First Circle).  Russian lit is a significant chunk of my reading list, so this is a very exciting challenge!

2014 Books & Challenges

12.06.2013

Getting next year's reading mapped out has been fun in itself - mainly because I've read so few books this year.  It hasn't been a matter of less time or different priorities, just neglect.   That really has to change.  Approaching graduation, I want to keep the studying momentum that has been my frenemy for the past four years and transfer it to my own reading/studying in the future.

HERE GOES.

Books
  • Lord Jim - by all accounts, Joseph Conrad's best long novel. High time to read it!
  • The Magician's Nephew (Spanish trans.) - for a beginner's attempt at multilingual reading.  I know most of this book practically by heart, so this shouldn't be too hard.
Lesser priority:
  • Empty my "to-finish" list - include Bleak House.  Decide whether to finish or not finish each book.
  • Steampunk/Sci-Fi Reading List - any book(s)
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Complete Hornblower series - Hotspur and everything chronologically afterwards
  • The Little White Horse
  • Out of the Silent Planet (C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy)
  • Fairy tales collections - Andersen, Grimm, Russian fairytales, etc.

Challenges

 
History Reading Challenge hosted by Fanda

This is just the motivation I need to resume studying history!  Being a slow reader, I'm going for the Student level (1-3 books).  The first book is a must, the second a goal, and the other books are maybes:
  1. Eyewitness to History (Carey) - a collection of primary sources from many eras of history. 
  2. The Collapse of the Third Republic (Shirer) - how France fell to Germany in WWII. 
  3. *A People's History of the United States (Zinn) - famous US history textbook
  4. *A Patriot's History of the United States (Schweikart and Allen) - alternative perspective to Zinn's history.  
*I have taken many history courses and come to various conclusions about U.S. history in particular.  I'm eager to see how these books approach the same topics in contrasting ways, but hopefully one of them is focused on the facts and gray areas, not political bias/agenda.

 

For this, I would love to read For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway) and The Autumn of the Patriarch (English trans.; Gabriel García Márquez).  These are both authors I've recently wanted to read, so it's a win-win situation!

Personal challenge: The Complete Sherlock Holmes Series, in chronological order.

I have probably said it a millionty-one times, but Sherlock Holmes is my favorite character of all time. I've actually never done a comprehensive re-reading, nor read the series in chronological order (a big deal to me)!  It has to be done.  I will be blogging about this challenge on Tumblr, and perhaps occasionally here - more info to come...

Eugene Onegin Read-Along

Tanglewood's first book event!  I'm so excited to read one of my favorites with you guys.  :)

Eugene Onegin Read-Along: Schedule

11.20.2013

**1/7/13 - Edit:  Depending on how quickly we read, I may adjust the schedule to two chapters per week, instead of 1 1/2 weeks.  For example, if we have about 9 links by the 13th, I might decide to post the next link-up on the 14th.  We'll see how it goes!

I was so excited to see readers, both here and at my other blog, interested in a read-along!  The previous post was slightly inaccurate: there are actually eight chapters, and chapter ten is a fragmentary extra.  I have decided to allow 1 1/2 weeks per two chapters, which seems like a decent balance between going at a regular clip and dragging on too long.

Here is the schedule, plus a rough calendar to give the numbers more meaning:
Ch. 1 & 2 - January 7 to 16
Ch. 3 & 4 - January 16 to 25
Ch. 5 & 6 - January 25 to February 3
Ch. 7 & 8 - February 3 to February 12

The schedule is meant to be very flexible.  The link-up posts will be posted exactly on schedule, but they will remain open for at least a week.  I'm looking forward to the discussion!


Eugene Onegin Read-Along?

11.14.2013

Onegin and Tatyana
With the New Year coming up and everybody looking at their reading lists for 2014, I have thought of hosting a read-along/book club for Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin.  Would anyone be interested? There are ten chapters, all poetry, so a month would be just about right for reading and discussion.  Maybe January, February, or March?  If you're interested and would consider it, please let me know when would be the best time for you!

Free online editions: 

Hard copies:

Free audiobooks:

Sylvie and Bruno Concluded

10.20.2013

Sylvie and Bruno illustration scan 40
“But oh, Sylvie, what makes the sky such a darling blue?”
Last night I finished Sylvie and Bruno's sequel, which I had long been meaning to read (since two years ago!).  The two parts together make a truly lovely book, one I can easily call a favorite.

While the Alice books feel more linear in plot, as well as claustrophobic (and thereby cosy), Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893) continues the story's broad setting - a combination of the real world and the two mythical siblings' world.  It is both fun and surprising the way the plot jumps back and forth, and sometimes combines, the characters in the real world and those in Sylvie and Bruno's world.  On the one hand, you have young Dr. Forester, whose broken heart regains hope when he learns his relationship with Lady Muriel is not altogether over.  At the same time, there are Sylvie and Bruno who must hold onto the love, symbolized by a locket, their father entrusted to them, and do what they can to help the people around them, whether they are visible or not.  The narrator, meanwhile, is the bridge that finds the commonality between the two (and also a good deal of nonsense and contradiction nobody else seems to notice).

Interspersed with all of this is a lot of religious and social commentary by Lewis Carroll.  He would often have the various characters debating with one another, and while it left the reader to guess what Carroll was thinking, it was nice to read a relatively realistic commentary.  In some cases his opinion was very clear (e.g. what he wrote in the preface about some "stagey" church services was fascinating and quite relevant for today).  I found I often agreed with him - of course, not always - in any case, reading what actual Victorians thought is always interesting.

It's a difficult book to describe otherwise.  Because of the topics, I wouldn't recommend it for children; teens and older could get a lot out of it, though.  Honestly, it was moving at times; it's a book that really drives home what true love is, and such a pure, spiritual, unselfish love transcends the mercenary way our culture likes to divide and label it.  If you liked the Alice books, and you wish there were more brotherly/sisterly love in the world, then you really should read Sylvie and Bruno and its sequel.  

5 out of 5 stars.

Cumberbatch reads Kafka

9.06.2013

For a limited time, you can listen online to Benedict Cumberbatch's recording of The Metamorphosis.  This (only slightly abridged) version is divided into four half-hour segments.  There are commercials before each part, so you will have to skip ahead a few minutes on each track.  I just finished the whole thing, and it's super good! 

The Moon, a Violent Frontier

Méliès, viaggio nella luna (1902) 11

Previously there occurred to me an idea for a post (since scrapped), called something like "H.G. Wells, Master of Humor and Pathos."  The gist of it, which I saw again in The First Men in the Moon*, is his unique knack for combining both emotions to pull you into the scientific-adventure plots.  Though having enjoyed his other best-known novels, I had middling hopes for this one (perhaps guided by the bias that it was not included in my hardback anthology, but never mind that).  Turned out to be every bit as good.

If Cavor is the model mad scientist, then Bedford is the archetypical starving writer, whose moment of inspiration is abruptly disturbed by Cavor's customary stroll by his house.  An unexpected collaboration on creating the scientist's Cavorite (a sort of anti-gravity substance) sends them literally to the moon.  The moon, contrary to Cavor's expectations, is not uninhabited.  This sets the two inventors at odds with each other, since Cavor is quite taken by the moon people, the tentacled Selenites, while Bedford's priority is to recover their own transportation contraption and get back to earth in one piece.

Now, the reason I'm giving this 5 out of 5 stars is not necessarily due to the plot.  The plot is quite bland, especially by Trekkie standards.  The two things which made this book were Cavor and the social commentary via Bedford and the Selenites.

What kind of social commentary?  I was expecting something along the lines of anti-capitalism and pro-socialism, but Wells brings out both worldviews pretty effectively.  Bedford represents the caricatured capitalist mindset, interested first and foremost in the gold and other resources that can be found on the moon (and yes, there is gold somehow).  The Selenites, on the other hand, practice an extremely systematic and efficient type of socialism, where everyone is born, bred, and biologically altered into their life's designated purpose.  Bedford's inherent violent nature is upfront and unabashed - the Selenites keep a subtle kind of violence, even sadism, behind their peaceful aspirations.  Bedford is obnoxiously thoughtless of others, the Selenite world is insidiously so.  Both sides build up to a critical point - human life - and then the comparison just clicks into place.  In his sci-fi novels, Wells doesn't sacrifice realism for ideals.

There is humor in the gloom, though, for which we can thank Cavor.  Cavor is a delightful character, like most people a guy with good ideas stuck in the role of wannabe.  He could never reach the elevated status of Vernian or Federation scientists.  This is partly due to his own bumbling, haphazard way of working and partly due to his general lack of glam.  Poor Cavor!  If you can relate to him on any level, you will certainly like this book.

Overall - The First Men in the Moon is not quite as gripping plot-wise as The Time Machine or The Island of Dr. Moreau, but if you stick with it, the book as a whole gives you a lot of food for thought.  Recommended if you're looking for a new classic sci-fi read.



*For the purposes of multitasking I switched to Mark F. Smith's Librivox recording at around chapter ten, and happily I can highly recommend it for anyone interested in an audiobook. He does a great job of differentiating between the voices (Cavor's is a right on!), which is essential for this particular book.

Stark Munro, 13 Days, and Master of the World

8.31.2013


The Master of the World
Jules Verne
4 out of 5 stars

A sequel to Robur the Conqueror, this 1904 Verne novel is centered on one of his classic themes: a vulnerable public terrorized by unknown and indisputably more powerful technology.  Here, U.S. lawman John Strock is sent to investigate "the Great Eyrie," in what becomes a sort of Americanized version of 20,000 Leagues.  Though it is hardly one of Verne's best, The Master of the World takes you into Verne's world with very little cumbersome prose, and I found it to be a rather fun read (and the Niagara Falls scene was truly exciting!).

The Stark Munro Letters
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
4 out of 5 stars

This interesting, often humorous series of letters can be best read as a fictional Doyle memoir, based on some real events in his early medical career.  For the medical side, read Round the Red Lamp - for the personal side, read this book.  Doyle fans will like it, as will anybody researching late Victorian life.  I wouldn't be surprised, either, if the character Cullingsworth at least partly inspired the eccentric side of Sherlock Holmes...

Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis
Robert F. Kennedy
5 out of 5 stars

Exemplary history?  No.  A great historical memoir?  Absolutely.  As President Kennedy's brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was in a unique position to record the events of the crisis in Cuba.  In Thirteen Days, he gives us a firsthand account combining political and personal insights, something you can't get from a history book.  Yes, the history is one-sided and incomplete, but it is a memoir, and the original letters/speeches are included in the appendix.  Altogether, it is an invaluable resource to accompany a more in-depth study.  If you are interested in the Cuban missile crisis and/or Cold War diplomacy, this is the book for you.

Steampunk/Sci-Fi Reading List

8.09.2013

'Robur the Conqueror' by Léon Benett 48 The Master of the World (Verne)
- On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington #1, Weber)
The First Men in the Moon (Wells)
- The Sea Wolf (London)
- Frankenstein (Shelley)
- Dracula's Guest (Stoker)
- The Jewel of Seven Stars (Stoker)
- The Night Land (Hodgson)
- The Purple Cloud (M. P. Shiel)
- Arthur Mervyn (Ch. Brockden Brown)
- The Doings of Raffles Haw (Doyle)
The Stark Munro Letters (Doyle)
- The Maracot Deep (Doyle)
- The Tragedy of the Korosko (Doyle)
- The Man Who Was Thursday (Chesterton, re-read)

Two short reviews

7.20.2013

In the past, I have written these in groups of four, but today I only have two books to review.  They each get 4 out of 5 stars, so perhaps there is still uniformity to this, after all? 

Atticus and Tom Robinson in court
To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee

It would seem I should have more to say about this book, but what can I say?  You probably know the entire synopsis with or without having read it before.  I enjoyed it, more than I expected.  The writing was more vivid than the plot, painting a complex examination of prejudice and tension that even the (excellent) movie could not evoke.  Atticus and Scout were deep characters.  The ending felt somehow disappointing after the intricate buildup, hence four stars.  But the journey, rather than the end, certainly makes it a worthy classic, so if you have procrastinated as I did, procrastinate no longer.


Joseph Conrad, Fotografie von George Charles Beresford, 1904
Notes on Life and Letters
Joseph Conrad

I was reading this book for the longest time, I don't remember when I started it.  Goodreads says February.  Well, it isn't nearly as gripping as The Mirror of the Sea or A Personal Record, but it was worth it in the long run.  These "notes" were put together into one volume by Conrad himself.  Part I is a compilation of Conrad's opinions on other literary figures, which apart from Turgenev and Stephen Crane went mostly over my head.  Part II was much more interesting - the main topics being WWI, Poland, Conrad's first (and only?) flight, and his analysis of the sinking of the Titanic.  If you're geeky enough to love Conrad memoirs (as I do), and/or you are interested in a primary source for these topics, I recommend at least giving this book a try.

Werther: Sorrows, Joys, and Other Sturm und Drang

7.18.2013

Caspar David Friedrich - Riesengebirge Landscape with Rising Fog - WGA8257
Wilhelm deserves the reader's pity.  Not only is his name easily confused with the village of Wahlheim - a central location in Werther's tale - but his sole role is to play the long-suffering audience to Werther's letters of ecstasies, angst, and other sorrows.  Wilhelm listens attentively, offers his best advice to his friend, and ends his part in the story with a sense of utter helplessness and futility.  At least the audience is not alone.

Perhaps I was biased by having already known the plot of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's most famous novella, The Sorrows of Young Werther.  Even its German Romanticism, however, cannot save this book from 1 out of 5 stars.  The story centers around the title character, Werther, who is a head-in-the-clouds, rather obstinately unemployed young man, with the added misfortune of having fallen in love with a woman already engaged.  This would be Charlotte, whose fiance Albert even Werther cannot dislike, but simply envy.  Werther's friendship with Charlotte turns from joy into devoted love and, finally, his unconquerable sorrows.  He must choose an unthinkable choice: to either leave her for good, or to stay and hide his true feelings from the world.

Of course, when one is a Romantic, one does not simply hide one's feelings from anyone.

I have read better books on "unrequited love" - the obvious alternative is Eugene Onegin, though most any book by Charlotte Bronte would do as well.  My own experiences, though under different circumstances, have not been very different from Werther's.  All in all, and not even speaking here of his ultimate decision, I have little or no sympathy for Werther's self-absorbed behavior, bringing grief not only to himself but to the people around him, even the woman he purportedly loves.  He acknowledges himself that he hurt her happiness - yet he fails to see that if you actually love someone, you would sooner sacrifice your own feelings rather than hurt that person!  Love, in Werther's mindset, must be recognized and reciprocated in order to have meaning.  This belief actually makes it impossible for him to truly love Charlotte.

That said, Charlotte is no angel herself.  This is what Werther would like us to see - a sweet, perfectly domestic girl who heroically takes care of her younger siblings (also angels) after their mother's death; a virtuous maiden who shuns temptation and remains dutiful to her fiance.  The trouble is, and as the story shows, this is not the real Charlotte. What Werther took to be her innocent familiarity, I found to be a subtle sort of encouragement on her part.  She wants to have her cake and eat it, too: to marry the sense, security, and loyalty of Albert and to retain her kindred spirit Werther's friendship and devotion as well.  Until the very last minute and the verge of impropriety, she does nothing to try to minimize Werther's emotional attachment to her.  She allows him to visit her as often as he wants and even gives him one of her ribbons over which he inevitably obsesses.  At one point, she considers trying to marry him off to one of her friends in order to keep him nearby.

Charlotte and Werther deserve each other, in my opinion.

I can see no reason to recommend The Sorrows of Young Werther.  The protagonist doesn't even have Rochester's charm or Onegin's cynicism going for him.  It is a light, epistolary book, so if you have absolutely nothing else to read, it might be better than nothing. 

Reading Tag

7.16.2013

Saw this at Rosamund's blog Shoes of Paper ♥ Stockings of Buttermilk.  It looked fun, and I don't believe I've done it before - so here goes!

Do you snack while you read?  If so, favourite reading snack: 
I don't snack, but I drink tea!

What is your favourite drink while reading?
A nice large cup of tea. 

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you? 
I still have my childhood horror of writing in books or bending pages (library books, you see).  What I do is use sticky notes to mark all the passages I want to remember - after I finish the book, I type up the parts worth remembering.

How do you keep your place while reading a book?  Bookmark?  Dog-ears?  Laying the book flat open?
Bookmarks!  Though when I was a child, I never used bookmarks; I would just set the book flat open, face down.  It was one of the few family rules I broke. 

Fiction, non-fiction, or both? 
Increasingly now, I enjoy both.  There was a phase in my early-mid teens where I pretty much stuck to fiction, but before that I read many biographies and since then - mainly inspired by my first history professor, Prof. C. - I've read some essays and poli-sci/philosophical/historical books.  My goal now is to become better-read in nonfiction.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere? 
Anywhere.  Though the end of a chapter or segment is best.

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?
I might slam the book shut.  I have (very rarely) treated textbooks with even less respect, but generally not - it's never the tree's fault! 

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?
Only if it's very unusual.

What are you currently reading? 
  1. Notes on Life and Letters / Conrad - Slow read, but almost done!
  2. Eugene Onegin / Pushkin - Reading for the 3rd time.
  3. Sorrows of Young Werther / Goethe
  4. Republic / Plato - Just started.
  5. A People's History of the US / Zinn
  6. A Patriot's History of the US / Schweikart and Allen
  7. Head First Design Patterns / Freeman, et al
  8. The New Testament: Acts
What is the last book you bought?

Evita, Odyssey, Notes on the State of Virginia, and Sea of Glory.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read? 
During the summer, on a bench on the deck.  Or next to the kitchen with (guess what) a cup of tea.  I also like to read before I go to bed.

Do you prefer series books or stand alones?
I love me a good series, but I haven't found any lately.  Overall, I prefer series because they're character-driven. On the other hand, my most favorite books right now (barring Sherlock Holmes) are all standalones (I consider The Lord of the Rings to be one book).

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?
Conrad and Kafka.  Incidentally, they are authors you will either love or loathe.

How do you organize your books? (by genre, title, author's last name, etc.) 
I try to go by author's last name, except for Mass Media paperbacks and books I don't care about much, which go wherever they fit on the shelf.  Some hardcovers I place at the end, since I can't bear to see a big book in the middle of a shelf.  Overall, I'm not a stickler, so long as everything fits!

Weekend Quote: Prison

7.13.2013

At such times I felt something was drawing me away, and I kept thinking that if I walked straight on, far, far away and reached that line where sky and earth meet, there I should find the key to the mystery, there I should see a new life a thousand times richer and more turbulent than ours … But afterwards I thought one might find a wealth of life even in prison.

Dostoyevsky has been on the brain lately, which means his unhappy character Prince Myshkin is always in the background, too, somewhere.  I can understand his wish for "walking straight on" without stopping, trying to escape reality, his illness and eccentricity which separate him from the world.  It's the last line that makes it, though - finding life and liberty "even in prison."  And I think there is something even stronger than Stoicisim in those words, because he doesn't just say life, but a wealth of life.

Does Myshkin find this wealth in the prison of his life?  I don't know, but his dream is beautiful.

Meditations with Marcus Aurelius

7.02.2013


Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.

One of my methods of minimizing bias in my readings and reviews is to avoid introductions.  For Meditations (tr. by George Long), I made an exception since the biographical note was at the beginning and only a page long.  Naturally, learning that Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–180) persecuted Christians during his reign over Rome was something that inevitably altered my perspective.  (If anything, it turned out for the best, giving me a better understanding of and context for the book.)

Stoic philosophy has long interested me with its emphasis on mind and attitude vs. emotions and circumstances.  As I understand it, the overwhelming intent of Stoicism is the achievement of spiritual peace in the midst of physical/external turmoil, becoming mentally "uncontaminated by pleasure, unharmed by any pain, untouched by any insult, feeling no wrong . . . accepting with all his soul everything which happens and is assigned to him as his portion . . . " (III:4).  Aurelius elaborates on how this can be done, though his continuous repetition of the same advice suggests it is more difficult to carry out than comprehend.  Ironically, some of what he says is similar to what Jesus taught, with an important difference: while Christians believe that peace comes from God (Phil. 4:7, Gal. 5:22, Jn. 14:27), Aurelius believes you can find peace from within yourself:
It is in thy power to live free from all compulsion in the greatest tranquillity of mind, even if all the world cry out against thee as much as they choose, and even if wild beasts tear in pieces the members of this kneaded matter which has grown around thee. (VII:68)
Others of his ideas have more universal relevance: do "every act of thy life as if it were the last" (II:5), and don't covet what you don't have - instead look at what you have and see "how eagerly they would have been sought, if thou hadst them not" (VII:27).  Good words to live by.  And despite his own illustrious position, Aurelius repeatedly speaks of the folly of fame: "How many after being celebrated by fame have been given up to oblivion; and how many who have celebrated the fame of others have long been dead." (VII:6).  This freedom of mind - balanced by a consciousness of human mortality and governing of emotional instincts - is very appealing, and something which has plenty of practical use in the real world.
Young Marcus Aurelius Musei Capitolini MC279
Marcus Aurelius in his youth

Aurelius, at times, makes exceptions to his own rules.  Slaves are not allowed to practice freedom of speech (XI:30), and women are inferior to men (e.g. he uses sexist language equating emotions with womanhood).  Aurelius can rise above society's conventions, perhaps, but he is unable to think outside of the times in which he lives.

Nor outside of his personal bias.  While reading this, I could not help but be amazed at how someone with purportedly high moral and ethical standards could be capable, with the very anger he preaches against, of brutalizing a minority group.  But in reflection, as is the case with recent totalitarian regimes, it makes perfect sense.  Every dictator has had great ideals and good intentions, and to his followers these will become his glorious, superhuman legacy, however contradicted by the way he treats dissenters and other unwanted members of society.  Does this make his ideals any less admirable?  If they are noble ideals, perhaps not; nevertheless, it challenges every reader to compare that leader's words with historical reality and not disregard his actions as somehow subservient to his dreams.

4 out of 5 stars

Notes from Underground

7.01.2013


My introduction to Fyodor Dostoyevsky was through (surprise!) Crime and Punishment.  Unable to swallow its psychopathic elements, I gave up just when the story was picking up and could not, in fact, bring myself to finish it.  Fast-forward to summer/fall 2011 - I was taking History of Russia and the USSR, picked up The Idiot because it seemed timely, and found it almost as equally disturbing but vastly more fascinating than C&P.  Now, after several people have (independently of each other) inadvertently recommended him to me this year, I've returned to Dostoyevsky via Notes from Underground.
 
"I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased."  The anonymous narrator's self-deprecatory sense of humor is strangely charming, at least initially.  A retired government official, he lives now in seclusion in the "Underground" (or underworld) of St. Petersburg, talking to himself about his past youth and professional life.  Part I of the book focuses on his philosophical perspective, which, according to Wikipedia, is considered existentialist.  Part II expounds upon this with specific scenarios from his past which still haunt him.

I liked the book.  For the first two-thirds or so, I felt I could often empathize with the narrator.  He seems to have some form of social anxiety disorder, preventing him from forming close relationships, be they platonic or romantic.  His antagonists are, alternatively, the people around him and himself, and he is never quite sure which is the true cause of his failure to fit in.  This anxiety is much more intense than anything I have personally experienced, but anyone who has felt isolated in conventional society will find something here to relate to.

Pushkin's Eugene Onegin is typically cited as the novel which exemplifies how books can influence a person's life, but I would argue that Notes from Underground is an even more powerful example.  One of the narrator's great obstacles is his Romanticism (Part II, chapter I gives Dostoyevsky's definition of the Russian romantic, as opposed to the German or French romantic).  The Underground narrator dreams of duels and poetic speeches - indeed, he finds himself unconsciously talking like a book, which does not necessarily work its intended effect upon his more contemporary listeners.

But though he hates his lack of social skills, the narrator also loathes the "paltry, UNLITERARY, commonplace" reality of shallow society.  Trying to be like other people, he adopts a dissipated lifestyle, plagued all the time by the knowledge that he is not, in his heart, as low as that.  He wants desperately to be like other people, but more than that, he wants to be himself.

The last 1/3 of the book was, to me, deeply depressing, just like the last part of The Idiot.  The general themes of Notes are more significant than the story, so I cannot say the last subplot ruined the book, but it was disappointing enough to deduct some stars.  On Goodreads I gave this a 3; here I can give it 3.5 out of 5.  I recommend Notes in spite of the ending, and - being a short, quick read - it would be a great introduction to Dostoyevsky's writing.

***

A note on the translation: this was the one by Constance Garnett (am fairly sure I also read her translation of Fathers and Sons).  From what I read online, it seems her translations tend to favor readability over accuracy.  I certainly found Notes readable and happily devoid of 21st-century vocabulary.  The downside is the Britishness of Garnett's word and phrase choices - fun to read, but a bit too British for Russian literature.  I plan to read multiple translations of Dostoyevsky, as I am doing for Eugene Onegin (of course, my goal is to read the original Russian, someday!).   

Some favorite quotes:

  • I will observe, in parenthesis, that Heine says that a true autobiography is almost an impossibility, and that man is bound to lie about himself.

  • Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.
  •  
  • May it not be that he loves chaos and destruction (there can be no disputing that he does sometimes love it) because he is instinctively afraid of attaining his object and completing the edifice he is constructing? Who knows, perhaps he only loves that edifice from a distance, and is by no means in love with it at close quarters; perhaps he only loves building it and does not want to live in it . . .
  •  
  • "My face may be ugly," I thought, "but let it be lofty, expressive, and, above all, extremely intelligent."

  • At one time I was unwilling to speak to anyone, while at other times I would not only talk, but go to the length of contemplating making friends with them. 
  •  
  • He was the only permanent acquaintance I have had in my life, and I wonder at the fact myself now. But I only went to see him when that phase came over me, and when my dreams had reached such a point of bliss that it became essential at once to embrace my fellows and all mankind; and for that purpose I needed, at least, one human being, actually existing.  
  •  
  • ...man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. . . . What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.

Twice-Told Tales

6.21.2013

Central Park New York City New York 10
It is puzzling to me why Twice-Told Tales is passed over for The Scarlet Letter as required/recommended reading in U.S. schools.  I cannot yet compare the contents of the two, having avoided Scarlet Letter this far, but in the context of his other writings such as Blithedale or Seven Gables, Twice-Told Tales strikes me as quintessentially Hawthornesque writing in a more "fun-sized" format.

And Nathaniel Hawthorne, especially in Twice-Told, is more contemporary than he is usually perceived.  Born in Salem, MA, in 1804, he lived the first several years of his post-graduation life in a solitude worthy of a 20th-century existentialist.*  Hawthorne's melancholy outlook, however, is intertwined with his own religious feeling, skepticism of society, the legacy of American history, and the two sides of death: the ugly and the beautiful.  Always in his writing runs this thread of contrast between the Jekyll and Hyde characteristics of the world, in which Hawthorne hesitates to take anything at face value.

A frequent motif of both Scarlet Letter and Twice-Told Tales is that of religious hypocrisy.  Hawthorne comments on this through stories of Puritans vs. non-Puritans, such as "The Minister's Black Veil," "The Gentle Boy," and "The May-Pole of Merry Mount."  His impassioned regret (stemming emotionally, perhaps, from his relation to a Salem witch trial judge†) suggests he views this as the most damaging rift between human beings, more than isolation or even death.

Death, indeed, goes so far as to bring comfort to characters in "The Wedding-Knell" and "Old Esther Dudley."  It plays a more ambiguous role in "The Hollow of the Three Hills," in which grief drives a woman to witchcraft in search of knowledge, leaving her in return no reassuring closure. As one of the Dark Romantic authors, Hawthorne's romanticism of death is inevitable, yet fully recognizant of its meaning and not altogether untinged with realism.

A third major theme of Twice-Told is Hawthorne's New England identity.  From "The Great Carbuncle: A Mystery of the White Mountains" to "Foot-prints on the Sea-shore," the natural beauty of New England is a character in its own right.  You stand in the sunny rain of a summer shower, and wander among the sunny trees of an autumnal wood, and look upward at the brightest of all rainbows, over-arching the unbroken sheet of snow, on the American side of the Niagara ("The Haunted Mind").

A few of my favorites which I have not mentioned yet are "Sunday at Home," "Sights from a Steeple," "The Prophetic Pictures," and "The Ambitious Guest."  The first two are something like creative nonfiction, really allowing the reader to understand Hawthorne's perspective and feelings of isolation.  The third is a chilling story reminiscent of Poe.  In the fourth, Hawthorne sketches the ties that can connect total strangers when they are united by their common tragedy.

4.5 out of 5 stars.


* Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Biographical Note," in Twice-Told Tales, New York: Random House, Inc., 2001.

† "Nathaniel Hawthorne - Biography," The European Graduate School, http://www.egs.edu/library/nathaniel-hawthorne/biography/ (accessed June 21, 2013), paragraph 1.

The blog is not dead

5.24.2013

И. Шишкин. Лесное кладбище
Retreating (contentedly) into Tanglewood
Posts have been infrequent enough this year; I didn't expect to be 'absent' two months!  Real life has found ways of distracting me from books, but I am anxious to leave my post-Amerika reading rut and morph into summer "heavy" reading.

A review for Twice-Told Tales is forthcoming.  I am going through and reading the stories I skipped before, as well as re-reading a few.  While it hasn't got me out of the rut, completionism has been very worthwhile.  "The Gentle Boy" and "The Prophetic Pictures" are probably my favorites so far - the plots are novel-worthy.

Summer "heavy" reading is a tradition of mine where I read one large book over the summer.  This year, I may just go for number of books, instead of pages of one book.  I'm taking suggestions for my summer read(s), preferably something from the uber long list - please comment with any ideas of what you'd like to see! 

Orthodoxy

3.25.2013

If it is difficult to review a book that is nonfiction and follows a less-than-linear outline, then it is doubly difficult to review such a book from the Christian apologetics genre.  And, naturally, one must explain a rating of 5 out of 5 stars.

G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy is an account of how he came to hold Christian orthodox beliefs.  By the term "orthodoxy" (the lowercase 'o'), he is not referring to a branch or denomination of the Church, but rather ". . . the Apostles' Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed."

I happened to read Orthodoxy during or just after my 20th cent. Brit. History course, which included references to H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and other people of letters.  There was not one mention of Chesterton, despite his friendship with both Wells and Shaw; he does not fit neatly into the agenda presented in such a history course.  And this, even though Orthodoxy does not pose as an opposing argument to atheism or "unorthodoxy" - Chesterton's focus seems more to explain than proselytize.

In this very fact, Orthodoxy is made more persuasive than it might otherwise have been.  I think it is best read as simply one man's reasons for his Christian faith, and as such there is a lot that even non-Christians can gain from reading it.  Apart from answering the question of "Why do you believe?", Chesterton expresses some powerful points of his philosophy in really excellent writing, using his classic humorous wit and analogies.  His style does read like a rambling college lecture, but in a good way, especially for those of us who dread the typical "boring lecture" format of nonfiction.

Interestingly, Chesterton, like C. S. Lewis, did not embrace Christianity until adulthood.  His answer to "why believe?" is based greatly on his own experience and reasoning, which may or may not convince non-Christians (but again, the book is more an autobiography than anything else).  Personally, I felt like I should have read this a long time ago, not only because it is a Christian classic, but because it earned that status.  Chesterton gives a fascinating perspective on topics like logic, reason, and miracles - topics that are not always easy to dissect.  This is the sort of book I would re-read every year to fully analyze, but even on the first reading, I found that so much of my own Christian "philosophy" had already been put into solidified words in Orthodoxy.

The Apostles' Creed
I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
    And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead: He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty: From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
    I believe in the Holy Ghost: The holy Catholic Church; The Communion of Saints: The Forgiveness of sins: The Resurrection of the body: And the Life everlasting. Amen.

Kafka's Copperfield in Amerika

3.20.2013




"My intention was . . . to write a Dickens novel, enriched by the sharper lights which I took from our modern times, and by the pallid ones I would have found in my own interior." 
- Diaries (1946), qtd. in "Amerika (novel)," Wikipedia.


It is rarely my choice to read Franz Kafka all the way through.  Which is to say, I frequently express the intention of reading Kafka, and I read parts of his writings, but I tend to stumble upon reading any work of his in its entirety.  Amerika: or, The Missing Person (1927) was no exception - choosing it as my third read for the Turn of the Century Salon was a spontaneous decision, especially since I had previously determined not to read it in any case (I had very low expectations for a Kafka novel set in the U.S., rather than in Europe).

For this and many other reasons, irony is a good adjective to describe Amerika and Kafka in general.  To name one example - could anything be more ironic than Kafka writing a novel on a country he never visited?  But Kafka is Kafka, and he is one of the few who can do that and get away with it.  By some extraordinary talent - seemingly part insight and part intuition - Kafka paints a chic, rugged, ironic New York City, just after the turn of the century, with a timid self-confidence that is quite convincing.  Like Dickens's America in Martin Chuzzlewit, Kafka's America is a land of as much disappointment as fulfillment, and the influence of Europe is not so distant as it first appears.

We are introduced to Karl Rossmann, packed off to America by his parents that did not want to pay support for his child.  By chance, Karl runs into his wealthy uncle and an instant step up the social ladder, but this is not to be for long.  He eventually finds himself on the hunt for a job, with the added disadvantage of his youthful age and lack of experience.  If that weren't enough, despite his hard work and good intentions Karl earns the ill will and grudge of a host of his superiors, placing him perilously close to the wrong side of the law.

That Amerika lacked some of the Kafkaesque magic of his European novels did not surprise me.  What did (more pleasantly) surprise me was the overall lighthearted tone of the book, at least in relation to The Trial or The Metamorphosis.  One of the reasons I find Kafka worth reading is his unique approach to dark themes, but Amerika was in this sense less remote and more human.  The relationship between Karl and his parents, and between Karl and Therese, was quite likely the first positive portrayal of an interpersonal relationship by Kafka I've read, and subsequently those were a couple of my favorite parts.  My other favorite scene was the conversation between Karl and the student who works by day and studies by night ("Oh, as for sleeping!" said the student, "I shall sleep once I'm finished with my studies.  As for now, I just drink black coffee . . . where would I be without it.")

Karl is, indeed, a somewhat Dickensian hero, and though as is typical he appears to be based on the author, he is one of Kafka's more likeable protagonists.  Wikipedia describes Karl as having been "seduced" by a housemaid, but as it is actually described, it sounds like he was a naive fifteen year-old assaulted by an almost middle-aged woman.  His prospective career as an engineer being over, he has to start all over again in America; yet everywhere he turns, he is harassed and swindled by obnoxious, domineering people.  His hard work and best plans rarely pay off.  Unlike "K." from The Trial or The Castle, Karl does try his best to be successful, and I actually felt kind of bad for him. 

The translation I read is the 2008 translation by Mark Harman.  It seemed good to me.  I was particularly glad to see the conversation paragraphs (no paragraph breaks between characters' lines) preserved; at first it's a pain to read, but it's classic Kafka and essential to his style.  Something important to note that the book was left unfinished at the time of his death, so the story ends abruptly.  There is some risqué behavior by various characters, so as usual with Kafka, I give this an older readers (17+) rating.  

4 out of 5 stars for Amerika.

Wieland

2.18.2013

Wieland 1811 cover
When I chose Wieland: or, The Transformation for my history class, I was not expecting a masterpiece of plot, philosophy, or characters.  I did expect a good old-fashioned Gothic tale with a dash of melodrama, an eerie edifice, and maybe a ghost or two.  Sadly, this is the third book connected to my class that disappointed me, and while it was vastly more fast-paced, it was also quite a bit worse than The House of the Seven Gables or The Prairie.  Would I read more Charles Brockden Brown?  Maybe, someday.  Not in the near future.

Wieland introduces us to the narrator, Clara Wieland, her brother Theodore and his family, and their mutual friend, Henry Pleyel.  These characters live in a surreal sort of isolated, literati circle, centered around Theodore's home, Mettingen (which would seem to fit better in Victorian England than its actual setting: pre-Revolutionary America).  Their perfect lives become interrupted by seemingly supernatural occurrences and the arrival of a mysterious stranger, Carwin.  Tragedy accompanies transformation, as more than one character experiences hallucinations that they feel lead them to the most horrible conclusions and, in one character's case, crimes.

I give this 1.5 out of 5 stars.  The extra half star is for the writing style, which was a breath of fresh air after Cooper.  Anybody could read Brown, because his sentences are short and tend to get straight to the point.  The story moves along at a good clip, with plenty of action (the downside being, much of it is gory). 

What I did not realize when I chose this book is that it is about demonic possession and/or insanity.  It's not as disturbing as more modern works or accounts of true crime, but if it's not your cup of tea, then by all means be forewarned and skip it.  It seemed to me that the treatment of religion in this book was typical for the genre - i.e., used for effect rather than substance. And frankly, the way things were supposed to tie together did not come across as credible.  The "transformation" appeared to happen out of the blue; I was left unconvinced, which is where the story more or less lost my interest.

I will be writing a paper comparing/contrasting Wieland with The Prairie.  Two books could hardly be less alike, so my theme will probably be a comparison of female characters.  At first, I really, really liked Clara, who seems unusually independent and (on Brown's part) well-written.  Towards the end of the book she became unbearably morbid.  I think in the long run, Ellen from The Prairie is more courageous (even if she does cry more easily).

The good news?  Now I can finally devote my reading time to the Turn of the Century Salon.

The Prairie

2.13.2013

Bierstadt Albert Western Kansas
Chronologically last in James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking series, The Prairie follows the wagon train of Ishmael Bush and his family, who are journeying into the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase.  The Bushes make their own laws and shun society, even that of an old, solitary Trapper who stumbles across their campsite.  He does not fail to notice that one of their wagons is closely guarded, carrying something or someone that never sees the light of day.  A chance meeting with a Captain Middleton and a party of hostile Sioux sends events and characters into a crazy chase across the prairies, where friendships and hatreds arise from unpredictable sides.

I had high hopes for this book, assigned reading in my Early American Arts, Music, & Lit class.  Even now, I would still like to read The Last of the Mohicans, which features the protagonist - the Trapper - in his younger years.  Overall, The Prairie was like Seven Gables in that the concept was great and the execution was disappointing.

More specifically, this book was painfully slow.  Mark Twain wrote a piece called "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," and after reading an excerpt where he dissects paragraphs from The Prairie, I'm inclined to agree with him.  It's a 500+ page tome with only enough action for a book half that size.  It was published in 1827, and Cooper's style is very much conventional - no philosophical digressions as in later American works, like Moby-Dick.  Descriptions of characters and situations take up most of the time, while descriptions of the landscape (which are excellent) are given a handful of paragraphs.  The Trapper talks a lot, even in the middle of an action scene, though the actions scenes were still by far the highlight in The Prairie.

According to my professor, portrayal of Native Americans in this book was typical for the times (i.e. riddled with inaccuracies), but to Cooper's credit, it seemed to me that he tried to write villains and heroes from both groups of people (one of the worst villains is a member of the Bush wagon train).  My favorite part overall was the duel between the Sioux chief and the Pawnee warrior, one of the very best duelling scenes I've read.  The Trapper, too, is arguably closer to the Native Americans than the European Americans, which is pretty significant. 

2.5 out of 5 stars for The Prairie.  Recommended if you are looking to finish the Leatherstocking series, but I imagine there are better volumes to start with.

Paris in the Twentieth Century

2.10.2013

This is a remarkable book with an even stranger setting - written in 1863, set in 1960, and not published till 1994.  It's not such a stretch, however, to include it in the Turn of the Century Salon, as Jules Verne was writing novels up through the early 1900s, and he is always associated with the original "steampunk" genre from this time period.  Paris in the Twentieth Century is classic steampunk: a coming-of-age story combining 20th century technology with late Victorian culture.

Avenue des Champs-Élysées
By Cezary Piwowarski (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

His reputation sullied by a school prize for Latin verse, young Michel Dufrénoy comes to live with his aunt and uncle, who hope to convert him into at least an adequate banker and a "practical man."  Michel attempts to live up to his uncle's expectations, but it is soon found he is unfit for even the lowliest job in commerce and industry.  Eagerly, he resigns himself to the life of a "starving artist," gambling on his dream that Paris has left at least one corner of literature for his heartfelt, lyrical, yet unfashionable poetic writings.  

Imperfect though it is, Paris in the Twentieth Century is a book very dear to my heart.  I cannot say it is a page-turner, but Michel's eccentricity and struggle to be himself resonate strongly with me.  Verne's predictions of future technology are stunning, while the characters (except Lucy) are refreshingly unVernian.  The ending, a superb juxtaposition of 19th and 20th/21st centuries, is lovely; the melodrama is forgivable, because the tragedy feels true.

There is a lot of truth as well in Verne's predictions about 20th century society.  Commercialism and the absence of a code of honor are a couple of them.  A subtle point that I think is not quite accurate is the apparent worship of technology; it seems to me that though we today use, say, smartphones and tablets extensively, they have not really replaced the humanities as inspiration for our art.  And, while I would agree that many bestselling books are poorly written (to put it mildly), the "great" literature of today is not chemistry or math-themed.  Still, society's dying appreciation of classic literature and classical music is spot-on - how ironic, too, that artists whom Verne cites as modern (e.g. Wagner) are today considered classic.

The life of an artist, as depicted here, seems to be fairly accurate.  On the one hand, I have found that, within a university setting, non-science/math/computer majors seem to be well respected and often receive more visibility (through the campus newspaper and literary magazine).  On the other hand, it is absolutely true that making a living as an artist is difficult (sometimes impossible), and subsequently there is a bit of a stigma attached to humanities degrees.  Like Michel, most artists today must also follow mainstream trends and demands in order to be successful.

This is my second reading, and I think the main downside to the book is Michel's surprise at technology he has been exposed to all his life.  It is hard to avoid this anachronism, but it can be done (e.g. Star Trek succeeds at making teleportation look natural).  If one can suspend disbelief of his disbelief, then it is a fascinating thing to view our modern world through a 19th century perspective.  I am not one who wishes I had been born in an earlier era, but for sure, there are some things about this century that make me feel as "old-fashioned" as Michel.  5 out of 5 stars.  

"...the men of 1960 were no longer lost in admiration of such marvels; they exploited them quite calmly, without being any the happier..."

The House of the Seven Gables

1.26.2013

House of the Seven Gables (1915)

New England, early 1800s.  Hepzibah Pyncheon, a hermit-like woman with a severe face and a soft heart, lives quietly in the seven-gabled Pyncheon House.  She is rescued from poverty only when her young relative, Phoebe, comes to live with her and help her run a small shop.  Phoebe is interested to meet the other lodger at Pyncheon House, a daguerreotypist by the name of Holgrave, but more mysterious is Hepzibah's desperation to protect her brother Clifford from the influence of Judge Jaffrey, a cousin and seemingly benevolent man.  As Phoebe and Holgrave discover, the key to the Pyncheon siblings' troubles is deeply connected to the house's history, and that of its sinisterly respectable founder, Colonel Pyncheon.

I must say I found Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables to be overall disappointing, in comparison with The Blithedale Romance or The Marble Faun.  If this were a movie, I'd sum it up by saying that the concept was great and the execution was poor.  There is enough action to make it a page-turner - the problem is, the action comes at the very end of the book, and everything before it is mostly descriptions, atmosphere, and setting, with relatively little dialogue.  Knowing none of Clifford's backstory for most of the book, I failed to connect with the conflict early enough.  Character-wise, Phoebe turned out to be exceedingly bland, and Hepzibah was actually most interesting, which didn't do much for the plot.

That said, the themes really are great, and the house is a bit of a character in itself.  Initially, Phoebe is quite a modern character, leaving her unhappy home life (due to her mother's second marriage) and seeking to live independently, much like Hilda from Marble Faun.  Ironically, this leads her to Hepzibah's ancient house, just as Hilda goes to Rome.  This sort of old vs. new contrast is one of the highlights of the book and shows up in a number of elements.  Another effective part is the Pyncheon death/"curse" - pretty grisly and borderline Edgar Allan Poe.  Some of the scenes with Clifford were also interesting, since he is rather eccentric.  Historical references include the Salem witch trials, greed related to territorial expansion, and certain modern strengths/weaknesses (e.g. the railway vs. mental institutions).

I give this 4 out of 5 stars, because I'm glad I read it, even if it wasn't my favorite Hawthorne. 

Weekend Quote: The Law

"The law - 'tis bad to have it, but, I sometimes think, it is worse to be entirely without it."
- James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie
J. F. Cooper's The Prairie (1827) is the last book in the Leatherstocking series, of which his more famous The Last of the Mohicans is also part.  The beauty of this quote is that it succinctly sums up a classic theme of the Western genre - that is, lawman vs. outlaw, and the injustices done by both sides, in a time and place where towns were small and law officers were few. This comes up pretty frequently in my favorite TV series, The Virginian, which portrays both noble and corrupt lawmen, and the moral dilemmas that result.

I am only about 1/3 into The Prairie (and taking a break to focus on other homework), but so far it's been pretty good.  Cooper has a delightful sense of humor - you gotta love Dr. Battius's Facebook-style friending/unfriending: "I rejoice greatly at this meeting; we are lovers of the same pursuits, and should be friends."  On the negative side, there are some stereotypical portrayals of women and Native Americans, but apparently this is less the case in other Leatherstocking books.  The plot of The Prairie has so far followed the surly character Ishmael Bush and his wagon train, and I really can't predict what will happen next.

Have you read Cooper before?  If so, what did you think of him?

Turn of the Century Salon - a literary event

1.05.2013


Hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn.  My participation may be sporadic, but I'm going to try to fit this challenge into my schedule.  :)

Here's my answers to the questionnaire/prompts for January (Introduction):
  • What draws you to read the Classics?
Classics are works of art, unlike most contemporary fiction.  I love reading, and though I also love the era I live in, I cannot relate to it in the same way that I relate to classic lit and classic authors.  On the other hand, classics have taught me a lot about the modern world (some things never change).  I hope for there to be great authors in the 21st century, but it is looking doubtful - the books of today tend to display "quantity over quality" characteristics.
  • What era have you mainly read? Georgian? Victorian? Which authors?
19th century British lit.  It's great, but right now I'm eager to read more world literature (and non-fic)!
  • What Classics have you read from the 1880s-1930s? What did you think of them?
Sherlock Holmes, H. G. Wells, some later Jules Verne works - all fabulous stuff!  Recently I read Shackleton's South, which was extremely interesting, and within the last few years Conrad and Kafka have become two of my favorite authors.  Forster's A Passage to India was not my cup of tea; on the other hand, I loved Rebecca (1938) and Agatha Christie.  So far, I prefer Victorian works from this era, but that may very well change.
  • Name some books you're looking forward to read for the salon.
It's not set in stone, but these are on my list:
  • Verne: Paris in the Twentieth Century (not sure if it counts, but it is futuristic and Verne is very much associated with the turn of the century)
  • Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
  • Abbott: Flatland (1884)
  • Melville: Billy Budd (1888–1891)
  • Kafka (18831924): Complete Short Stories, The Castle, Diaries (maybe)
  • Hesse: Beneath the Wheel (1906)
  • Conrad: The Inheritors (1901, co-authored by Ford Madox Ford), Lord Jim (1899–1900), etc.
  • Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms (1929) 
  • Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
  • Which literary characters are you most akin to?
Marian Halcombe (The Woman in White), Tatyana Larina (Eugene Onegin), and Charlotte Bronte heroines.  Also, Sherlock Holmes and (to a certain degree) Razumov (Under Western Eyes).
  • Is your preference prose? poetry? both?
Thanks to Tolkien, I now love both.  Good poetry, however, is harder to find than good prose.

2013 Reads

1.02.2013

I have never been good at sticking to book challenges - not to mention, my reading list grows at an outrageous pace!  However, there are a few (very simple) reading goals I'd like to accomplish this year.

For sure, I will be reading James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie, required for my upcoming Early American Art/Music/Lit course.  I love Hawthorne and Melville, and I've heard good things about Cooper.  His style intimidates me, but so did that of those other two authors . . . there seems to be a trend of 19th c. American lit being hard to read (though well worth it!).  If I like Prairie, I might read the whole Leatherstocking series.

From my reading list, I would like to read at least one biography (most likely Eva Perón or Bonhoeffer), one political science book, and one philosophy book.  The sheer length of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx's Das Kapital, vol. 1 gave me a hilarious idea - what if I were to read them side-by-side?  A nice thought, if unlikely to be fulfilled . . . certainly, it would have to be scheduled. 

Basically, if I read anything currently on my reading list, that will be an accomplishment.  Especially taking into consideration school and other plans/responsibilities.  I'm excited to read others' book reviews and posts for this year! 

2012 End of Year Book Survey

1.01.2013

I saw this on Délaissé, and thought it looked fun!  Though I haven't read a ton of books this year, I'm going to give it a try:

1. Best Book You Read In 2012?
Hard to say - probably Dracula for a new book, and definitely Heart of Darkness and Eugene Onegin for re-reads.
2. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?
The Remains of the Day, The Great Enigma, and The House of the Seven Gables.
3. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2012? 
Dracula, definitely!  It was way better than I expected.
4. Book you recommended to people most in 2012?
Probably Heart of Darkness.
5. Best series you discovered in 2012?
I didn't read any series.

6. Favorite new authors you discovered in 2012?
Chesterton was awesome, and I'd read more Turgenev and Zola!
7. Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre for you? 
Chesterton's Orthodoxy, somewhat of a new genre and not a typical choice for me.
8. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2012? 
Dracula and The Ladies' Paradise.
9. Book You Read In 2012 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year: 
Eugene Onegin - I cannot get enough of this one (besides, there are many translations to try!).  Probably Heart of Darkness as well.
10. Favourite cover of a book you read in 2012? 
Most of the books I read were e-books without covers.  :)

11. Most memorable character in 2012? 
Shackleton and his expedition team in South; Van Helsing in Dracula; Mr. Stevens in The Remains of the Day.
12. Most beautifully written book read in 2012? 
Not a book, but Edgar Allan Poe's "The City in the Sea."  I have a new respect for Poe's poetry.
13. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2012? 
Shackleton's South, Dracula, and Chesterton's Orthodoxy.
14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2012 to finally read? 
Dracula, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Beowulf, and The Communist Manifesto.  I should have read all of those at least five years ago!

15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2012? 
I highlight passages (in my Nook) like you wouldn't believe.  Here's a few:
“No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream--alone.”  (Conrad, Marlow, Heart of Darkness)

“A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground.” (Shackleton, South)

“A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith. The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his logical circle.”  (Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

"Productive power, in short, is a far more important element of reality in relation to modern civilization than is accumulated wealth." (Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality)

"For in this enlightened age, when men believe not even what they see, the doubting of wise men would be his [Dracula's] greatest strength." (Stoker, Van Helsing, Dracula)

"The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal." (Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils)

"With the quality of our desires, thoughts, and wonder proportioned to our infinite littleness, we measure even time itself by our own stature." (Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea)
16. Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2012? 
Longest: Probably South
Shortest: Probably The Queen of Spades

17. Book That Had A Scene In It That Had You Reeling And Dying To Talk To Somebody About It?  Be careful of spoilers! 
Probably South

18. Favorite Relationship From A Book You Read In 2012 (be it romantic, friendship, etc). 
I love the friendship/mentorship between Van Helsing and Jonathan & Mina, in Dracula.  In Heart of Darkness, Marlow's fear/hatred/admiration of Kurtz was fascinating as well.
19. Favorite Book You Read in 2012 From An Author You Read Previously 
Conrad's The Mirror of the Sea and A Personal Record.
20. Best Book You Read That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else:
Turgenev's Fathers and Sons was recommended to me by Julia on Goodreads - it was a great read!