Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

Four of the last nine novels I've read have been Russian, which is a record for me. Before September, my only foray into Russian lit had been two nonconsecutive weeks with Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov). Lermontov has some similarities with other Russian authors, and the byronic hero is a common character. We see him in Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, again in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, and now in A Hero of Our Time's main character, Pechorin. Lermontov was conscious of Byron's influence on his writing, and Byron is mentioned or alluded to several times in this novel.  

A Hero of Our Time sets itself apart from the other Russian novels I've read recently in part due to its incredible descriptions of the Caucasus and its people. There are around fifty languages spoken in the Caucasus, and it's not possible to generalize about one culture type or people group exemplified by the region. However, it's safe to say that the peoples of the Caucasus aren't Russian, either in their mother tongue or their culture, yet they were part of the Russian Empire.  For Russia, the Caucasus represents both the self and the other, and an interesting discussion of the role of the Caucasus in Russian literature can be found here.

I wouldn't say there is a lot of in-depth character development in this novel, but the byronic hero is meant to be read as a type, not as a complex individual, and the author accomplishes what he sets out to do. I would recommend A Hero of Our Time as a softer introduction to Russian lit than Dostoevsky. Lermontov also captures the senses of romantic longing, appreciation for nature and inescapable ennui just as Pushkin does in Eugene Onegin, but with a more active plot. If you want to read about horses and samovars and Russian scenery, this is the book for you. On the other hand, if you want to read about thwarted characters or characters for whom life has lost its meaning...this is also the book for you. Finally, if you don't have a lot of time and you're looking for something under 300 pages but with more intellectual weight than a plot-based current bestseller, this is the book for you too! And if, upon finishing, you find yourself casting about for something even more deep, dark and delicious, well...there's always Dostoevsky.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Persuasion by Jane Austen

The fourth Austen novel I've read this year, Persuasion follows Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Persuasion was Austen's last novel, and her only one featuring a heroine who is far past her youth.  The novel has great merit as a love story with social commentary, and while Austen's comedic sense is at times apparent,  the overall effect is not as humorous as that of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility.

Although I've heard critiques of Austen on the basis that she is a product of her time, the complaint is both obvious and disingenuous. Austen could no more write from the viewpoint of a postmodern feminist than I could write from a viewpoint that will be common in 2315 CE. I personally find it valuable to have access to works written from earlier viewpoints. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to understand history without authentic documents, which include letters, biographies, newspapers and, of course, works of fiction.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

This book will knock you out and leave you for dead in Mexico. Or at least, if you're rather flighty and nervous like me, it will keep you at the edge of your seat, with occasional heart palpitations. The Woman in White, written in 1859, is one of the first mystery novels and has earned its reputation as one of the best. I do have to say, at the risk of opening a can of feminism, that the plot is probably creepier to a woman reader, since it concerns the manipulation, threatening, drugging and forcible confinement of women by two plotting men. I'm sure a feminist critique would yield much about nineteenth century gender relations and power differentials. I'll get right on that...when I have a moment...  Also interesting is a point brought up by Michael Chabon's essay "Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes" in Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, in which Chabon explores the changes in attitudes toward novel genres such as mysteries and science fiction. A hundred years ago, a novelist could write a mystery or science fiction novel and still be considered a serious writer of literature. This is not generally the case today. Chabon asks, if Conan Doyle had written A Study in Scarlet today, would it come to be considered a classic, or would it be buried in the "mysteries" corner at the bookstore, dismissed due to its genre label? That fate could have come to The Woman in White if it had been published a hundred years later. I'm glad it wasn't. But I plan to take a second look at the mystery or sci fi section in my library. Perhaps I will find an author who explores universal themes, or who writes incredible prose, or who makes characters come alive. Perhaps I'll find a book that shouldn't have been judged by its cover.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper

I know, I'm just a blogging fiend today. I've got to get all these books out of my head so I can think about the next ones. The Prairie is the third of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales that I've read this year, the others being The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans. There are five Leatherstocking Tales, and I originally intended to read all of them this year, but I just don't know if I can do it. Now, The Last of the Mohicans was pretty good, and The Pioneers had some good parts, especially the end. (No, not because it was the end). The Prairie was my least favorite so far. Again, the ending was the best part. The novels seem to drag at various points, with plot and dialogue being uninteresting, but they always pick up at the end. That is Fenimore Cooper's greatest strength. After three novels' worth of Nathaniel Bumpo fighting Indians, protecting damsels and waxing eloquent about nature, I feel like I'm reading the same thing over and over. As an aside, Mark Twain wrote a satirical essay called Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences, which I found quite humorous. He describes Fenimore Cooper's writing style more critically than I would think accurate, but it's eight pages of satire, it's funny, and it's free at Project Gutenberg. Check it out. Maybe check out Fenimore Cooper first, so you know what you're laughing at.

Hero: the trapper aka Hawkeye aka the Deerslayer aka Natty Bumpo aka Leatherstocking
Bad guys: the Tetons and some lawless white settlers
Good guys: the Sioux and some nice white settlers
Two-dimensional plot devices: the females (as Fenimore Cooper calls them)
There was a lot of: tracking, shooting, spying, sneaking up, escaping, capturing
There should have been more: plot. I really shouldn't have read Twain's essay before writing this entry. hee hee
This book makes you want to: fall asleep (help me, I can't stop myself)
This book makes you glad you don't have to: die alone in the wilderness without family, step on dry twigs an inopportune moments, read the last two books in the series, although I probably will anyway

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

In which I make a gross miscalculation, and am saved by the power of public domain.

I was at a book sale. I bought a volume entitled "Charles Dickens, The Complete Works, Bleak House, 1"  I understood this to mean that Bleak House was the first novel in the set; maybe they were arranged alphabetically?  Alas, no. When I reached the end of the volume, page 435, I was obviously nowhere near the end of the novel. None of the plotlines were near resolution. This was definitely Bleak House volume I of II. And to make matters worse, it was Sunday, and I was supposed to start reading my next book on Monday. Help!  Hurray for the Gutenberg Project. I went online and downloaded a pdf of Bleak House, plowing through the rest of it on Sunday and Monday. Phew...

This was the fourth Dickens novel I've read this year, the previous ones being Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Hard Times. In the past I have also read A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol. So many people have said that Bleak House is their favorite Dickens novel, that perhaps my expectations were too high. When I initially finished it, my opinion was lukewarm. Now, the plots were excellent, as were the characters. This book is full of people you will love to hate. The two parts I wasn't thrilled about are as follows. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

First, the character of John Jarndyce seemed one-dimensional. He was very important to the plot, but the reader doesn't really get to know him or sympathize with him. Because he is wealthy and benevolent, many of his actions have a deus ex machina appearance. When the other characters are in a bind, Jarndyce will help them out. I couldn't see much motive or internal conflict in him although, to be fair, the novel is like that in its treatment of the other characters too. I guess because he is a major character I wanted to see more of his internal life. Secondly, the death of Richard appears very Victorian and hysterical to me, a 21st century reader. He becomes mentally consumed by the court case and ends up contracting a fever and dying of consumption. I know the idea of people driving themselves to illness and death through emotional turmoil was more common then, but this particular scenario didn't satisfy me.


Now, don't let my two disappointments cause you to think that the book wasn't worth reading, or that I didn't enjoy it. I certainly liked it better than Hard Times (my least favorite by Dickens so far) or Oliver Twist. A Tale of Two Cities is my old favorite, but I haven't read it in so long that I don't think I can rightly compare it with these. At this point I'm not sure whether Great Expectations or Bleak House is my favorite, but after having read six of his works I definitely have a more multidimensional view of Dickens as an author. I know I've said this before, but I strongly recommend reading multiple works by a single author before formulating your opinion of him/her. If I had only read Hard Times, I would have a very different opinion of Dickens than if I had only read Bleak House. 

Narrator, heroine: Esther Summerson
Bored to death: Lady Dedlock
The wards of the state: Ada and Richard
Telescopic philanthropist: Mrs. Jellyby
Fool you love to hate: Harold Skimpole
Prototypical detective: Inspector Bucket
Benevolent guardian: John Jarndyce
Sleazy lawyer: Mr. Tulkinghorn
Funny fop: William Guppy
Unfortunate victim of spontaneous combustion: Krook
There but for the grace of God goes Oliver Twist: Jo
There was a lot of: lawyerly ridiculosity, letters, meetings, dialogue
There should have been more: plum puddings.  just kidding.
This book makes you want to: mind your own business, clean out your closets, avoid lawyers
This book makes you glad you don't have to: sue anybody if you don't want to, be illiterate

Third Quarter in Review

From top to bottom, my third quarter of 2011 consisted of: The Hound of the Baskervilles, Emma, The Brothers Karamazov, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Little Women, East of Eden, Lady Chatterley's Lover, The Return of the Native, Around the World in Eighty Days, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Fathers and Sons, Eugene Onegin, On the Road. 

I'm 75% of the way to my goal! Not quite ready to start walking around with a sign that says, "the end is nigh"...better get through another 10 books first.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

After three Russian novels, I was looking for something different. Enter Kerouac. I got this book for a dollar at the farmer's market. After three weeks of watching youthful Slavs visit the picturesque countryside, only to slowly waste away under a grim fog of sourceless Russian ennui, I caught a ride with young Kerouac as he hitchhiked across the country, stayed with friends in rundown apartments and generally experienced life, liberty and the pursuit of consciousness, occasionally frequently with chemical assistance. This book is truly iconic in its description of the Beat generation, and only slightly disturbing was my discovery that Jack Kerouac's altered states of consciousness weren't all that different from my usual states of consciousness. 

For example:
        "For just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven. I could hear an indescribable seething roar which wasn't in my ear but everywhere and had nothing to do with sounds...I realized it was only because of the stability of the intrinsic Mind that these ripples of birth and death took place, like the action of wind on a sheet of pure, serene, mirror-like water."

I can dig that. Even without benzedrine. But Kerouac insisted that his novel detailed not a drug spree but a religious journey. In his words, it "was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him. I found him in the sky, in Market Street San Francisco (those 2 visions), and Dean (Neal) had God sweating out of his forehead all the way. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY OUT FOR THE HOLY MAN: HE MUST SWEAT FOR GOD. And once he has found Him, the Godhood of God is forever established and really must not be spoken about." 

I know what you mean, Jack. There's a certain threshold that, when you cross it, you leave the world of words behind, and what is beyond there can't really be spoken about. It can't be brought back into the land of speech, incarnated into a body of grammar, without being torn apart as it enters the dimension of duality. So it stays out there, and when you try to talk about it part of your mind has to go out there to think about it, and then the person you're talking to realizes that you're not all here, and they're right. You're not. But it's not the benzedrine talking, it's the beatific vision. I've been there too, Jack, just over the threshold, at the place where Beat was born.

Related explanatory facts: Kerouac wrote the novel in three weeks, typing continuously onto a 120-foot roll of teletype paper. This led to Truman Capote's well-known zinger, "That's not writing, that's typing".   

The Beat Generation is often seen as a space-holder between WWII and the turbulent sixties, but without the Beats, the sixties as we know them would not have happened. The Beats influenced Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and, of course, the Beatles. They demystified drug use, explored multiple spiritual traditions, fought censorship, pursued ecological viewpoints, opposed the military-industrial complex and appreciated idiosyncrasy over conformity. "Nobody knows whether we were catalysts or invented something, or just the froth riding on a wave of its own. We were all three, I suppose." - Allen Ginsberg  

Kerouac himself describes Beat as "(being) watchful, catlike, the street but not of it. ...It's a sort of furtiveness, like we were a generation of furtives. You know, with an inner knowledge there's no use flaunting on that level, the level of the "public,"a kind of beatness-I mean, being right down to it, to ourselves-and a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world... we're a beat generation." Kerouac saw his generation as the beatific generation; the generation that would see God, but in the end his vision was a hopeful projection onto his generation, and did not manifest in reality.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Eugene Onegin

First of all, it's pronounced oh-NEG-in, not ON-again. Now that we've gotten that out of the way...

Pushkin, the great Russian romantic poet, wrote his novel Eugene Onegin completely in verse. I like poetry although I don't know much about its different styles and eras, and I enjoyed this novel's plot, themes and meter. This week marked three Russian novels in a row for me, and they were all extremely different from each other.

     Throughout the novel Pushkin mentions, and sometimes satirizes, current events that weren't familiar to me, but the end notes explained these references. Make sure you read an edition with explanatory notes; I used the Oxford World Classics edition that I paid 80 cents for in a clearance section. Clearly, Iowans aren't stampeding to read Pushkin...but they should be!


     The title character, Eugene Onegin, is a bored dandy who has constructed himself out of current social conventions, specifically, the Byronic anti-hero popular at the time.  He moves to the country and befriends his neighbor Lensky, a romantic poet.  Lensky falls in love with Olga, and Olga's sister Tatyana loves Onegin but he doesn't return her love. Eventually the two friends quarrel, and then duel, with a tragic outcome.  Onegin and Tatyana meet again years later in Moscow; this time he loves her but she is married to a Russian aristocrat and rejects him.

      Tatyana is a personification of Russia. Her personality, likes, dislikes, even her childhood home in the country are carefully chosen as the embodiment of Russia. She is initially attracted by Western social customs and institutions, but she eventually chooses the dignity and stability of Russian ways.  Onegin is a character of no real substance; he is a mere social construct. As such, his tragedy is to live in loneliness, unable to participate in a real relationship. Sadly and ironically, Pushkin himself was killed in a duel, a victim of his own internalization of social conventions.

Eponymous anti-hero: Onegin
Romantic poet, a younger version of Pushkin: Lensky
Quintessentially Russian heroine: Tatyana (she is likely the heroine in Russian lit most beloved by Russians)
There was a lot of: character thoughts, satirical asides, parties, traveling
There should have been more: food. I know; I'm predictable.
This book makes you want to: analyze your motives and the conventions you have accepted
This book makes you glad you don't have to: shoot somebody simply because they demand satisfaction.

Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev, may be the first modern Russian novel (the other contender being Gogol's Dead Souls, also on my list for 2011). Published in 1862, Turgenev's work focuses on the conflict between the liberalism of the 1830s/1840s and the nihilism of the next generation. In Russian, the title is Fathers and Children, but was translated as Fathers and Sons because the translators thought it sounded more lyrical and titular.

     The book follows two young men and their fathers, contrasting the ideals of the younger generation with those of their elders, but also contrasting one father/son relationship with the other. Intergenerational conflict was nothing new even then, as the two aging fathers drily observe that they once rolled their eyes at their own parents' backward ideas as well. However, the marked contrast between the attitudes of the two young men demonstrates that one doesn't have to reject relationships with friends and family who hold different philosophical ideals than one does. Bazarov drives his family and friends away because he finds their liberal bourgeois ideas inferior to nihilism. Arkady, on the other hand, treats his father and uncle with respect and affection, enjoying their companionship despite their philosophical differences. In the end, Arkady embraces life while Bazarov indifferently wastes away, although, because it wasn't clear to me to what extent Arkady modified his nihilistic beliefs, I can't say how much of his eventual fulfillment was due to his relationships and how much was due to his (possible) rejection of nihilism.

     Turgenev definitely has a different style of writing than either Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn, the other two Russians I have read this year.  Dostoevsky was a Slavophile and Turgenev was a Westernizer, so the two disagreed through most of their lifetimes but eventually reached reconciliation after Dostoevsky's Pushkin speech. Dosteovsky's style is much more psychological, while Turgenev is more socially oriented.

     More fun facts: Turgenev and Tolstoy were close friends, and Turgenev also influenced writers of the next generation such as Henry James and Joseph Conrad. He is ranked among the top nineteenth century Russian prose writers, along with Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekov and Dostoevsky. Fathers and Sons was an interesting book, touching on important themes such as transgression and redemption through love. Although Turgenev was a Westernizer, advocating social reform, the abolition of serfdom and the integration of Enlightenment ideals into Russian culture, in this work he appears nearly Slavophilic in his portrayal of Arkady's fulfillment through returning to his father's way of life. I say nearly Slavophilic because he doesn't depict religion as an important element at all, whereas for Slavophiles it is a central part of the equation.

Just because you're a nihilist, doesn't mean you have to be a jerk: Arkady
Or wait, maybe it does: Bazarov
Uncle, your cravat is stylish but your ideals are not: Pavel
Dad, seriously, you're embarrassing me in front of my friends: Nikolai
Eventually overcame class differences: Nikolai and Fenichka
Kind old fossils who deserved a better son: Vasily Bazarov and Arina Bazarova
Who invited him? Sitnikov
There was a lot of: discussing, disagreeing, traveling, condescending
This book makes you want to: take time to discuss things with friends. These guys were quite productive in their philosophical explorations. It probably helped that they didn't have cell phones, tvs or the internet to distract them.
This book makes you glad you don't have to: Stringently live according to your class' particular responsibility, travel long distances on a dirt road in a wagon with no shocks.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Ivan Denisovich, written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and published in 1962, chronicles a day in the life of a fictional Soviet gulag prisoner. Solzhenitsyn was well-qualified to write such a work, as he himself spent eight years in a gulag in the Siberian steppes of northeastern Kazakhstan. His crime? Referring to Stalin as "the master" and "the boss" in a letter to a friend.

The book was originally published in the Soviet Union with Khrushchev's approval and with some censorship, and was the first account of Stalinist suppression to come from within. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich led to Solzhenitsyn's deportation from Russia, and to his reception of the Nobel Prize.

The reader of Ivan Denisovich will follow the protagonist through a breakfast of thin gruel, repeated searches, forced marches, heavy labor, biting wind, thin clothes, shorted rations, incredible bureaucracy and cruelty and dehumanizing treatment at the hands of prison guards. Through it all, the heroic triumph of the indomitable human spirit...just kidding. It's pretty bleak.

(But you should definitely read it. There aren't any gory or disgusting parts, so it would be suitable for anyone old enough to understand it.)

Protagonist: Ivan Denisovich
The Baptist: Alyosha
The foreman: Tyurin
The snivelling worm: Fetyukov
Old deaf guy: Senka
There was a lot of: freezing cold, wasting time for Soviet protocol, inhumane conditions
There should have been more: food. seriously, grass seed gruel and 200 g black bread isn't enough to lay bricks on
This book makes you want to: support free speech and human rights
This book makes you glad you don't have better be obvious...

Curious Confessions of a Literary Nature

A recent commenter asked me if I have a list of all the books I've read. Unfortunately I don't have a list, but the comment sent me trudging through the backwaters of my brain, recollecting my evolution as a reader. And since this is my party and I'll blog what I want to, here's a post on my literary life.

     My mom says I learned to read when I was three. The first word I read (and I remember this) was the word ICE written in large red letters on an ice freezer outside a gas station. I enjoyed reading and my skill improved over the next few years. I don't remember going to libraries much at that point, but we didn't live near libraries then. My brothers and I had lots of children's books at home, and we often received books as gifts for Christmas or birthdays. Our parents read us bedtime stories at night, even after we could read well on our own. When I was in first grade I received a paperback set of 22 Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions, which I read repeatedly. These are classic novels abridged for a young audience, and I wore some of them out. My favorites included Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, Little Women, Black Beauty, The Call of the Wild, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, The Wizard of Oz, and Sherlock Holmes.  These books were my first exposure to classic literature, and although they were extremely abridged and very adapted, I consider them fundamental to the development of my enjoyment of classic novels. You may notice that I have read a few of these titles and blogged on them this year; that is because I don't consider having read a 50 page adaptation to be equivalent to reading the novel itself.

     By third grade I was established as one of the better readers in my class, which established a positive feedback loop. From that point I was placed in the more advanced reading classes and given assignments with more difficult content. I can see how children who struggle with reading and are forced to read technically simple but content-poor assignments would not grow to love reading unless adults continued to read to them and expose them to new and interesting material.  Unfortunately, I must point out that most of what I read during reading class wasn't worth remembering. So many reading textbooks are cobbled together from little snippets of texts taken out of context. Teachers would do better to expose students to entire works. If that means sticking mainly to short stories, so be it. I don't know how many excerpts I read, never knowing how the story began or ended. No wonder some of my classmates were frustrated and found it to be a meaningless exercise. Starting in fifth grade, our classroom had a little lending library, just a couple of shelves, but it kept me busy. We didn't have video games at home, and we often didn't have a tv either, so I read a lot during my free time too. I was also somewhat introverted and didn't live near many of my friends anyway, so books were a great way to pass the time. By the time I finished elementary school, I had read many classic kids' series, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Little House on the Prairie, and Anne of Green Gables, to name a few.  When I was in junior high, my mom bought me the Dover Thrift Editions volume Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. These Dover Thrift Editions were a dollar at the grocery store. This was my first exposure to poetry, and was, in retrospect, certainly instrumental in shaping my preferences for 19th century over that of any other. Currently I would say that Longfellow, Tennyson, Frost and Whitman are my favorite poets.

     As the oldest child, by the time I reached high school, I had outgrown the kids' books in the house and didn't have any older siblings to provide me with young adult books. My parents had their college textbooks, a set of encyclopedias, and a few other nonfiction books such as a Readers' Digest book of curious facts in American history. They also had some fiction, mainly western novels by Louis L'Amour. I read a Louis L'Amour novel but wasn't interested, so I read some of the college textbooks and other nonfiction, as well as random encyclopedia entries that interested me. Yes, this was long before home internet access! Then I read more of the college textbooks, including some of Goethe's Faust, although I was only about 14 at the time so a lot of it probably went over my head. My mom also had one volume of the Readers Digest abridged classics, in which I read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck multiple times, as well as The Scarlet Pimpernel. Our high school library was pretty spare too, consisting mainly of donations of current romance novels and American young adult fiction from the 1930s-1960s. After I got my drivers' license at age 15, I started frequenting the town library.  In our town of 1,500 people, I didn't actually need a library card, and the library itself was only a few bookcases of fiction and a few more of nonfiction. Still, over the next three years I read Michael Crichton, John Grisham and some other random fiction. My crowning achievement at that point was probably reading  Les Miserables unabridged at age 15, although it took me nearly all school year. I had taken it out of the public library, and there were no renewal notices or overdue fees, so I had it for about six months before returning it. In eleventh grade I took two English electives with Mrs. Rusten: Fiction and American Literature. In our fiction course we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, A Tale of Two Cities and one other novel, the name of which unfortunately escapes me at the moment, but Fitzgerald and Dickens made a deep impression on me.

     When I went to a small rural college in southern Manitoba, I encountered the largest library I had ever seen. If you're thinking it wasn't actually very big, you're right. It was a research library consisting mainly of nonfiction, and I got my money's worth. During my four years there I read a lot.   <---understatement     Most of the books I read were related to my assignments, and I read fiction in the summers. I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland between books on linguistics and sociology. After graduating, I went to Kazakhstan to teach English for seven months, which was a challenging but enjoyable experience. I spent a lot of time planning lessons, but my four western housemates and I also had a lot of downtime. We didn't bring any books with us for leisure reading, and English reading material in that city was hard to come by.  At times my brain felt like it was gasping for intellectual air. (Okay, some of that may have been culture shock.) The American embassy had a small lending library for expats, its contents made up of whatever books visiting Americans had brought with them and then decided not to bring home with them. Now think about this. "The book was so bad that I can't spare 8 oz of luggage weight to bring it back, so I'll leave it at the embassy." That's right.  I read a lot of so-bad-it-was-fortunately-forgettable sci-fi, but the one rose among thorns, so to speak, was Orson Scott Card. I picked up Xenocide, not knowing it was third in a series, and couldn't put it down. Imagine my disappointment upon getting to the end and discovering that the last 30 pages were missing. I didn't find another copy of Xenocide until eight years later, but it was worth the wait. I then proceeded to read eight Orson Scott Card novels in about 10 days. He is now well-established as one of my favorite authors. After I got back from Kazakhstan, I stayed with my grandparents for two months while finding an apartment. I immediately proceeded to check out 20 books at a time from the library, sit down and read them in five days, and then take them back and exchange them for 20 more. I had to make up for lost time, you know.  (Of course, my reading slowed down considerably after I found a job.)

     After 4.5 years of marriage, our first child was born, followed by a second two years later. Thus began a period of very little reading which lasted about four years. With two small children and a job, I just didn't have time. We only lived a block from the public library, and I took the kids there a couple times a week to pick out new reads for them.  I would usually get a couple novels for myself, but only had a chance to open them during the kids' naptime, if at all.

     Now that my kids are school-age and can play by themselves without drowning or electrocuting each other, I make time in the early morning or in the evening to read. This is also made possible by them sleeping through the night, allowing my brain to maintain more than two synapses at once. Last year I noticed that, although I was reading a lot, I was often choosing books that weren't very challenging and books that were in the "new releases" section of the library, as that section is located near the front. I had a lot of classic novels on my shelf that were always getting put off to some later (unspecified) time. Remembering my past enjoyment of Dickens, Hugo, Fitzgerald and others, I finally decided to tackle the volumes languishing on my shelves, and in the process I have been led down various rabbit trails to wonderful books that I wasn't even aware of two years ago. Although I won't be reading a classic novel a week next year (the rule necessarily limits the length of books I can read this year-no War and Peace for me), I will continue to set out a syllabus month by month and keep to it.  The fact that I'm still excited about this after nearly a year tells me I'm doing something right.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Around the World in Eighty Days

It was the last week of August and I wanted a fast-paced adventure to send summer off. Jules Verne didn't let me down. The premise is simple, but leaves plenty of room for plot twists. Phileas Fogg, a man of mechanically precise routine, wagers a large sum that he can travel around the world in eighty days. Accompanied by his loyal but occasionally bumbling servant, he embarks on a journey which allows no room for delay or missed connections. Fogg is pursued around the world by Detective Fix, who believes Fogg to be a bank robber and has vowed to arrest him as soon as the warrant arrives. Will Phileas Fogg's mathematical precision bring him back to London in time, or will natural disasters and human error result in his forfeit of £20,000?
     This novel was originally published as a serial, which is obvious by the cliffhanger at the end of nearly every chapter. Part of the appeal for Verne's original audience was the descriptions of exotic countries and of various steamers and railway lines. The reader could truly become an armchair traveller as s/he followed Fogg's progress in a biweekly French magazine.
     I was struck by Fogg's mathematical precision and imperturbable calm in the face of repeated delays. No matter how difficult the situation appears, Fogg remains unruffled. If he loses time in one leg of the journey, he is confident that he will make it up at a future time. In his mind, all delays and mishaps are foreseen and prepared for. This brought a smile to my face one day while I was sitting at a red light, 13 minutes away from a destination at which I was due in 7 minutes. Fogg remained placid in the face of a major financial loss; why should I chafe over a few minutes?
     Plot movement depends heavily on weather developments, local occurrences, human ingenuity and pushing the limits of mechanical performance. Throughout the novel we see industry and nature bump up against each other, sometimes with thrilling resolutions. Verne's opinion of industry and modernity remains resolutely positive throughout the book.  The railway doesn't trample nature or destroy the livelihood of peasants, it slips quickly through forest and plains, avoiding dangers and inconveniences along the way.  This positive view of modernity and industrialization contrasts sharply with the opinions of D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, the authors I read in the two weeks preceding this one. At first I thought that part of this could be attributed to Verne's location in the 1870s, versus that of Lawrence in the 1910s-20s: perhaps Lawrence saw effects of industrialism that Verne never anticipated?  But this hypothesis is faulty as Hardy was a compatriot of Verne's, publishing in the 1870s as well.
     Despite the positive outlook of Around the World, I don't wish to paint Verne as a saccharine optimist; some of his other works show a much darker point of view.  The most famous example is Verne's lost novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century. Verne wrote it in 1863 but his editor suggested he set it aside for 20 years (do most editors take such a long view of things?) because it was too dystopian and technologically unbelievable. Verne put it in a safe, and it was discovered by his great-grandson in 1989 and published in 1994. That's right, just 17 years ago.  Oh, and some of the unbelievable things Verne predicted? Gasoline-powered cars, mutually assured destruction, electric chairs, calculators, computers, the internet, high-speed trains and skyscrapers. Nothing about Wonder Bread though...perhaps too dystopian for a Frenchman.

mathematicalicious hero: Phileas Fogg
goofy manservant: Passepartout
warrant-less stalker: Detective Fix
Fogg's pasttimes: reading newspapers, playing whist
there was a lot of: trains, steamers, generous tips, exotic locales, delays, improvisations
there should have been more: adding more description would have slowed the plot down too much, so I will excuse the general lack of  food (I really need to start eating something before I write these blog entries!)
this book makes you want to: be prepared, pay attention, keep calm and carry on, visit a place you've always wanted to see, not freak out when your precious schedule encounters a slight delay
this book makes you glad you don't have to: sit on a steamship for 21 days to get from Tokyo to San Francisco or be cremated alive with your deceased husband in an Indian suttee, everything else sounds pretty good...well, except for the opium den. And the railroad tracks ending in the middle of a jungle. And the typhoon. Also being captured by Indians and dueling on a moving train.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Return of the Native

The Return of the Native is the second novel by Thomas Hardy I've read this year, and I have to say I enjoyed it much more than Tess of the D'Urbervilles, despite the latter's fame. This strengthens my resolve to delay forming an opinion of an author until having read more than one of his/her works.  Tess seems to be problematic and depressing for current readers, in part due to its unfair treatment of a victim of circumstance by the other characters. The Return of the Native presents a very different plot and structure, while retaining Hardy's sense of place and modern perspective.
      Slightly controversial when published due to its modern themes, The Return of the Native brings to life a deeply flawed heroine who, along with the other characters, must navigate sexual politics, unfulfilled desire, and conflicting demands of nature and society.  Throughout the novel, the omniscient narrator points out cultural vestiges of pre-Christian agricultural society which still survive on Egdon Heath, and the heath is portrayed as a place where time runs more slowly, but the reader sees that the modern world is already trickling in and will someday carry off the old ways in a flood. If you want to read about mumming, small beers, Nov. 5 bonfires with pre-Guy Fawkes origins, omens, barrows, effigies and folk cures, this book gives them a mention but doesn't dwell on them; they are almost taken for granted. Some characters understand the heath and love it as their home, accepting their place in nature. To others, who want to leave nature behind for culture and society, the heath is a prison. There is a sad nostalgia as Hardy describes Egdon Heath, as one would experience when contemplating a dear friend whose days are numbered. In other words, this book is a big plate of modernity, with a side dish of modernity, washed down with a tall glass of... classical tragedy. Wait..what? That's right.
      Hardy originally planned to structure the novel into five books, which is the classical tragic format, but he adapted his work to the tastes of the public by adding a happy ending for Diggory Venn and Thomasin in a sixth book, Aftercourses. In Hardy's original version, Venn remains a reddleman (seller of red ochre for marking sheep) and Thomasin lives out her days as a widow. In addition to the classical tragic structure, Hardy employs unity of time, place and action (also requirements of classical tragedy). This means that the plot occurs in a single place and with a main course of action (subplots were discouraged). Traditionally the unity of time meant that a classic tragedy took place in a single day, but Hardy's novel covers a year and a day.  To further emphasize the classical nature of his work, he chooses for its setting an ancient heath steeped in pre-Christian history and creates a chorus consisting of the heathfolk.
     The setting itself, Egdon Heath, is imbued with enough life to be considered a character in its own right. Hardy is known for his masterful treatment of place and his literary landscape of Wessex, the semi-fictional region in which his novels take place. Hardy drew maps of Wessex; he loved its wilds and mourned its industrialized areas, and in this he shares some similarities with Tolkien, although he did not provide a backstory for Wessex complete with cosmology and languages, as Tolkien did for Middle Earth.  The composer Gustav Holt wrote a piece called Egdon Heath, inspired by Thomas Hardy's description. You can listen to it here.
     Because I mentioned Thomas Hardy in my last entry about D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, I would like to complete the circle this time by including Lawrence's view of The Return of the Native. An anonymous contributor has put it so eloquently on wikipedia that I would like to directly quote a that too shocking?  Really, who's going to spend time editing the wikipedia article on The Return of the Native? Probably only academics and lit geeks, either of whom are qualified enough to do so. SPOILER AHEAD. Here's the paragraph:

"Some critics—notably D. H. Lawrence—see the novel as a study of the way communities control their misfits. In this view, Eustacia dies because she has internalised the community's values to the extent that, unable to escape Egdon without confirming her status as a fallen woman, she chooses suicide. She thereby ends her sorrows while at the same time—by drowning in the weir like any woman instead of floating, witchlike—she proves her essential innocence to the community."

The titular native: Clym Yeobright
Promethean heroine: Eustacia
Babe in the woods (er, on the heath): Thomasin
Fox on the run: Damon Wildeve
The reddleman, hero of the heath with a dash of magical realism: Diggory Venn
Leading character: Egdon Heath
There was a lot of: walking on the heath,  heath-en customs
There should have been more: I wouldn't have minded more descriptions of heathen customs, but that wouldn't have been as realistic. The novel is a largely accurate portrayal of Wessex life at that time.
This book makes you want to: embrace your little corner of the world, not resent it
This book makes you glad you don't have to: be shunned by a small community for being different

Monday, September 5, 2011

Lady Chatterley's Lover

When I first chose this book, I was aware that it had originally been banned due to charges of obscenity, but this didn't bother me because I had already read Madame Bovary, which had the same fate despite its apparent quaintness to modern eyes. Well, times certainly changed between 1856 and 1928. D.H. Lawrence purposefully used certain unprintable words about ten times in this book, with the intention of reclaiming them so they could be used as common, even romantic words. Based on society's past and current opinion of the book, I have to wonder if he made a tactical error. Not only have the words not been reclaimed, but now they are the only thing most people think of when D.H. Lawrence comes to mind. If the reader can follow the plot without giving undue weight to these sections, s/he might be surprised to find that Lawrence has more in common with Hardy and Tolkien than with Ovid.
     The relationship between Connie and Mellors takes place in the East Midlands, against the backdrop of a region which has recently been transformed by the development of the coal mining industry. Critics rightly see in Lawrence's focus on the coal-mining town the important themes of social conflict and the class system. I also saw echoes of Hardy's ache of modernism (see my discussion of Tess) and Tolkien's orcs- beings who are slaves to industry and mechanization, slowly losing their humanity. The coal mine is depicted as an ugly aberration which destroys the beauty of the land and the lives of the people.
     D.H. Lawrence uses the dichotomy of agriculture vs. industry to discuss the theme of mind and body.  Clifford Chatterley, after his paralysis, becomes a writer and an industrialist, living completely in his mind. The coal miners live completely in their deformed bodies, seeming to have very little mind at all. Only Connie and Mellors are able to escape this fragmentation, as their relationship brings them into a life of integrity and wholeness. Lawrence believed that true relationships can reverse the brokenness that life visits upon individuals.
     I am in search of another author who will take this idea a step further back in time and point out that it is only through the brokenness brought by modernity that society (including D.H. Lawrence) has come to view the individual as its smallest unit. Pre-industrial societies did not (and do not) see individuals as their building blocks. Rather, for them, the family is the smallest indivisible unit. I am not talking solely about New Guinean or Andean tribes either: indigenous Europeans viewed life in the same way. The current culture of mechanized, consumerist individualism is not "Western culture". Rather, Western culture was the first to be torn apart by its own juggernaut. Native Americans are right to mourn the loss of their cultures, and to work to preserve and reconstruct them. But they would not be completely correct were they to state that their cultures had been overwhelmed by Euro-American (or Western/Anglo) culture. Rather, both Native Americans and indigenous Europeans have witnessed the erasure of their cultures by industrialism and its functions of individualism and materialism. Western cultures brought industrialism upon themselves, and for them the damage is more complete. Can we even imagine what indigenous European cultures would look like had they survived untouched into the 19th century, as did Native American cultures?  They actually did survive that long in rural areas, and vestiges of early Anglo-Saxon culture are depicted in Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, published in 1878 and the subject of my next blog entry.

Protagonist: Constance Chatterley
More machine than man: Clifford Chatterley
Working class by birth, noble in deed: Oliver Mellors
Creepy sycophant: Mrs. Bolton
There was a lot of: descriptions of the forest, private conversations, characters' thoughts
There should have been more: I don't know. I wouldn't mind reading Lawrence's thoughts on balance and wholeness, but then it would have been an essay instead of a novel.
This book makes you want to: live an authentic life (don't a lot of good books do that?)
This book makes you glad you don't have to: be a coal miner. or a game keeper. or a paralytic. or one half of a dead marriage.

Monday, August 29, 2011

East of Eden

Between this book and The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.  This is partly because I like his style of writing, of describing people and places in a way that really lets the reader see inside them. I also appreciate the fact that his books aren't just about the storyline, or about the lessons the characters learn, but the storyline is also used to reveal deeper truths. In this book, Steinbeck uses symbolic characters which are meant to be types, not necessarily actual people who are a mixture of different types. In the end, the story and its deeper meanings hinge on the choices and actions of Cal, who is the everyman. East of Eden is ultimately about choice, the human power to choose one's actions, which means one is able to stand against one's environment, one's genetics and family and one's personal past when necessary. Even Cal, with so much stacked against him, has within himself the power to make the right choice. The reader doesn't learn what Cal and his father ultimately choose until the very end of the novel.

     This story of two brothers is dedicated to Steinbeck's two sons; it is a double-narrative which, in his words, will tell “the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness” — the mutually-dependent pairings out of which creativity is born. Steinbeck considered this book his masterpiece, with his previous works leading up to it. East of Eden is a portrait of the artist as a mature man. He says, "But in this book I am in it and I don’t for a moment pretend not to be”. The book is thus a vehicle for what he is or believes himself to be. To use a term that is common in classifying archetypes found in fairy tales and myths, this book is Steinbeck's soul jar. A soul jar is just what it sounds like: a container or object which holds all or part of a person's soul (or life, or heart); which makes that person immortal. A fairy tale example would be Koschei the Deathless, who kept his soul in a box buried in the ground. Literary examples include Sauron's ring, the picture of Dorian Gray, and Lord Voldemort's horcruxes. (I know; these are all bad guys...don't draw a similar conclusion about my opinion of Steinbeck!) The soul jar appears in film in The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, in which Davy Jones keeps his heart in a wooden chest instead of the more common thoracic chest cavity generally used by humans for cardiac storage. Now, all this is not to say that East of Eden contains Steinbeck's soul in some kind of Cali-voodoo way. Rather, through this book, Steinbeck will live forever in that his name and reputation will never die. He put so much of himself into this book that it can be considered a metaphorical soul jar.  Myths and fairy tales, including those mentioned above, remind us that the price of immortality is our humanity. Those who chose to literally live forever slowly ceased to be human. With Steinbeck, the exact opposite has taken place. By embracing, analyzing and internalizing his humanity, he gave birth to East of Eden and his own literary immortality. To quote the Havamal, an Old Norse wisdom poem, "Cattle die, kinsmen die, the self must also die; but a good name never dies, for the one who is able to achieve it."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Little Women

Little Women has an excellent but inaccurate reputation as a children's novel.  Alcott's work is a classic bildungsroman (coming of age story), which partially accounts for its enduring appeal. It is better classified as a young adult novel than a children's book, and society's reliance on simplified versions results in ignorance of much the book has to offer. Alcott explores issues of identity, loyalty, class, women's roles, personal development, death and the definition of success, among others, but much of this exploration takes place in dialogue between the characters, through narrator musings or within an individual character's thoughts, rather than through plot devices. Perhaps it is the style of presentation of these major themes of discussion which doesn't lend itself well to screen adaptations.
      The author's transcendentalist upbringing is obvious in some of the musings. Alcott's father, Bronson Alcott, was a founder of the transcendentalist movement, and Louisa was tutored by noted transcendentalists and writers including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Fuller. Considering her education, it is no surprise that her writing talent flourished. Can you imagine being tutored by Emerson and Thoreau?! Ah, if only... 
     The book is so well-written, and the characters so believable, that it's no wonder it became an instant classic.  This is a story of four average teen girls (well, average for 1868) experiencing average challenges, relationships, failures and successes. Even in abridged or adapted versions, the appeal shines through (but I still recommend reading the original).  While teaching English in Kazakhstan, I taught a unit using an adapted version of Little Women, and I was surprised at the students' enthusiasm for the story.  The enduring themes and issues mentioned above remain salient across time and cultures. I think of Alcott writing in her attic, and wonder what she would have thought had she known that, 130 years later on the other side of the world, her description of a well-loved character's death would bring tears to strangers' eyes.

Tomboy writer: Jo (based on Louisa M. Alcott herself)
Girly-girl painter: Amy
Shy violet and homebody: Beth
Mother figure: Meg
Honorary brother: Laurie
Curmudgeonly aunt: Aunt March
Setting: New England during the Civil War
There was a lot of: discussions, noble deeds, funny mistakes, unfortunate illnesses, poverty
There should have been more: food. This book would have lent itself well to a Beatrix Potter-type tea cosy effect, with characters sharing toast and tea, meat and potatoes, bread and cheese, etc., around a roaring fire. Or maybe I'm just hungry.
This book makes you want to: show kindness to others, be the best you can be, take the bad times in stride, for they come to us all
This book makes you glad you don't have to: knit all your own socks, fear death from common communicable diseases, work as hard for independence as women did at that time

Sunday, August 7, 2011

20.000 Leagues Under the Sea

If you're looking for a novel that's smart yet fun, this is it.  Jules Verne is known as one of the fathers of science fiction, and while reading this book I tried to imagine the reception of his work by an unsuspecting public in the 1860s.  His contemporary readers were delighted by descriptions of incredible inventions, unusual animals and exotic places. I would have been too, after spending the day scrubbing clothes on a washboard or shoeing horses.

     20,000 Leagues Under the Sea chronicles the adventures of Captain Nemo and his incredible submarine. The narrator, Professor Arronax, specializes in marine biology, and some of the descriptions of marine life forms tend toward extremely detailed scientific categorization. I know a conch from a coral, but he lost me at Carcharodon carcharias (great white shark). Despite this, the book contains enough adventurous episodes, scientific niftiness and intriguing oddities to hold the attention of most readers.  I, for one, am now interested in making anemone jam...but living in a landlocked state, I can safely remain at the stage of armchair speculation.

     Verne's work isn't all sunshine, however.  Even though his editor removed most of his pessimistic and dystopian slant, it is still visible in the brooding, vengeful character of Captain Nemo. Nemo was partly based on Odysseus, the title character of  Homer's Odyssey. After tricking Polyphemus by saying that his name is "nobody" (Nemo is Latin for "nobody"), Odysseus wanders the seas for ten years, tortured by the deaths of his crew members. This parallels Captain Nemo's name and experience. Nemo is also a champion of the oppressed, and throughout the novel he assists those suffering from war and colonial oppression. Verne points out that the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution have done nothing to alleviate the potential for cruelty humans embody. On the contrary, in many cases human cruelty, like travel and manufacturing speed, is multiplied by technology. In the words of Captain Nemo, "It is not new continents the earth needs, but new men."

      Analysts often point out Verne's prescience in describing future inventions such as gasoline-powered automobiles, submarines, electric lights, even the internet (a worldwide telegraphic communications network). Scientifically-minded people are often able to make accurate predictions (hypotheses), but could a few of these correlations be a matter of causation, in which readers were inspired to pursue precisely the discoveries and inventions that were detailed in his books? Is it possible that some polar explorers, pioneering oceanographers or rocket inventors were Jules Verne fans? Let's see.  Admiral Richard Byrd said on the eve of his polar flight, "Jules Verne guides me." William Beebe, one of the first men to explore the depths of the sea in a bathysphere, became interested in oceanography after reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Robert Goddard, the father of rocketry, was an avid Verne reader as a child. As the author of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, observed, "...we are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne." And lest you think all the good ideas have been scooped, Verne described some technologies that haven't yet graduated from fiction to fact (Captain Nemo's salt water-derived electricity comes to mind). So introduce your child, younger cousin or neighbor kid to Verne, and you may find yourself in the audience thirty years hence as s/he accepts the Hubbard Medal or the Nobel Prize in Physics (under stage lights using Nautilus-inspired power, of course).

Byronic hero: Captain Nemo
Narrator: Professor Arronax
Faithful sidekick: Conseil
Token Canadian: Ned Land
Source of all food on the Nautilus: the seas
Savage humans: are found even in "civilized" countries
There was a lot of: scientific descriptions, mysterious happenings, dangerous adventures
There should have been more: this book was well-balanced; I wouldn't change it. On one hand I would like more back story on the crew and how they came to sail with Nemo, but that would have taken away from the mysterious atmosphere
This book makes you want to: learn more about marine creatures, travel the polar seas, live according to your personal code of honor, help those who need help, remember that you can't fully understand a person's actions without knowing that person's history
This book makes you glad you don't have to: live on a submarine forever, fight a giant squid, listen to Ned Land obsess about eating meat, be haunted by the desire for revenge

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Brothers Karamazov

After five lovely servings of salad, I found my plate heaped with kolbasa and boiled potatoes with sour cream. Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov certainly has a rightful reputation as one of the world's finest works of literature.  My only regret was that, in order to follow this year's parameters, I had to read it in a week. That was the equivalent of downing the aforementioned meat and potatoes in seven bites.

Dostoevsky is a philosophical author, and in this work he addresses reason, madness, law, justice, subjectivity, faith vs. doubt, free will, moral responsibility, love and redemption through suffering. Each of the brothers represents a different aspect of humanity: Smerdyakov is physical, Dmitri is emotional, Ivan is intellectual and Alyosha is spiritual. Throughout the course of the novel, the reader sees how these character types respond to and experience life. *MINOR SPOILER* As the four brothers face the reality of their father's murder, they each have a different perspective on where (or if) guilt lies and on how the guilty party should be treated. In a short blog post it is only possible to touch on the important themes of a novel on which theses have been written, but I certainly encourage any thoughtful reader to take up this book, allowing ample time to read, contemplate and, possibly, be changed.

protagonist: Alyosha Karamazov
antagonist/villain: that's subjective
Tiny Tim with a Russian ending: Ilyusha
wise elder: Father Zossima
semi-fallen woman: Grushenka
quotational window into Dostoevsky's mind: "Some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education."
there was a lot of: wandering and repetitive dialogue, tragedy, suffering, redemption
there should have been more: background...maybe. I would like to know more of what made these characters the way they are, but the novel was already of considerable length. Dostoevsky intended it to be the first of three but died before the others could be written, so perhaps more clarity would have been gained during the following two works.
this book makes you want to: ponder, refrain from judging other people
this book makes you glad you don't have to: try to talk sense to a drunk

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Emma by Jane Austen

The summer  lit-fest continues! July 10-16 was spent with Emma, my third Jane Austen novel of 2011. Austen isn't the only author I've revisited this year; she and Charles Dickens are tied so far with three novels each. I've also read two each by James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. So far Dickens and Austen are two of my favorites, so I haven't minded reading multiple works by them, but these choices are more a reflection of what I had on hand than of anything else.

Emma Woodhouse is in many ways a different sort of heroine than Elizabeth Bennet or Marianne Dashwood. If you have only read P&P and S&S and you fear that Austen only retells the same story under different names, read Emma.  There are, of course, many similarities, but both the characters and the plot are unique. Emma Woodhouse has no sisters, is very well-off with no financial worries, and she doesn't wish to marry. Rather, Emma prefers to set up romances for other people, and throughout the novel this results in many situations that are alternately hilarious and awkward.

That said, Emma does have similarities with other Austen heroines, and with Austen herself.  Emma is an intelligent young woman without the ability to change her living situation or her everyday life. She doesn't have much to do, and she has few companions her own age. Critics who point out that Austen's heroine's often live lives of little substance should thank Austen for accurately transcribing the safe but meaningless fate of middle- and upper-class women in the early 19th century.

Spoiled but smart and lovely: Emma
Aptly named dark horse: George Knightley
Juvenile flirt: Frank Churchill
Nemesis turned friend: Jane Fairfax
Airhead: Harriet Smith
Love to hate: Augusta Elton
Don't eat that!: Henry Woodhouse
There was a lot of: parties, calling, outings, letters, notes, coach rides
There should have been more: descriptions of food. Fluffy novels never talk enough about food.
This book makes you want to: examine the evidence a la Sherlock Holmes, not a la Emma, surround yourself with people and activities of substance
This book makes you glad you don't have to: go calling on people, adhere to severe social protocol, eat thin gruel every night with Mr. Woodhouse

The Hound of the Baskervilles

Yes, I continued my mental sabbatical with another easier read for the week of July 3-9. The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third of four full-length Sherlock Holmes mystery novels written by Sir A. Conan Doyle, and it is quite delicious.  Although I stated in my introductory post that I wouldn't be using audio books, I ended up listening to the last 3 chapters since I had lasik surgery during that week and couldn't read for a couple days afterwards. If you use audiobooks regularly, keep in mind that English speakers (including the readers of audiobooks) speak about 150 words per minute. If you read faster than that, reading to yourself is a more efficient use of your time unless you are doing something else while you listen to the book, in which case your concentration is divided and you will probably miss much of what the author is trying to say.  That's not a problem when you're listening to an action-packed Sherlock Holmes mystery, but I personally would never try to listen to, for example, Dostoevsky as an audiobook. That said, very old works such as Beowulf were meant to be spoken aloud, and when I read Homer's Odyssey in 2012 (teaser!), I will definitely seek out an audio version at some point.

But, unlike Holmes, I digress.

One of my favorite aspects of this book was the setting.  Dartmoor is a land of wind-swept moors, the remains of Bronze Age stone huts,  rocky granite outcroppings (tors) and a menacing bog. It is the perfect location for a mystery in which a supernatural hound appears to fulfill an ancient family curse. Having read this book, I would love to wander through the region and take it all in.

The novel opens with Sir Charles Baskerville discovered dead among the yew trees on his estate. (Yew trees are often found in church cemeteries, and are a symbol of sadness.)  It is quickly ascertained that Baskerville died of a heart attack, an event which has lent its name to "The Baskerville Effect", a statistical observation discovered in 2001 by researchers at UC San Diego. The Baskerville Effect states that mortality through heart attacks is increased by psychological stress.

The plot contains Conan Doyle's usual twists, turns, red herrings and Holmesian attention to detail. As in his other novels, Holmes' character is extremely well-developed while the other characters are less so, and at times even two-dimensional. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it allows Holmes' logical prowess, encyclopedic knowledge and attention to detail to take center stage.

Always brings his top game: Sherlock Holmes
Esteemed colleague: Dr. Watson
Unfortunate victim of family curse: Sir Charles Baskerville
Next in line for the axe (or in this case, hound): Sir Henry Baskerville
Original suspect(s):  can't tell you that
Actual villain: can't tell you that either
Perfect setting: Dartmoor
Is it supernatural, or flesh and blood?: the hound
Can anything good come from: Grimpen Bog
There was a lot of: weather, natural features, analysis of persons, telegrams
There should have been more: development of the villain's character
This book makes you want to: establish an ancestral home, live in a stone house in a wilderness area, pass on an excellent legacy to your descendants (or nieces and nephews), observe people more closely
This book makes you glad you don't have to: be pursued by a hound from hell (duh)

p.s. How could I forget to mention that the dreaded hound of the Baskervilles has its modern counterpart in Fahrenheit 451?  What evil deeds bring on the curse of the mechanical hound? How does a person become part of that line of sinners pursued by Ray Bradbury's hound? I leave that for you to deduce, my esteemed colleague.