Two short reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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.  
  • 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.