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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Second Quarter in Review

The blog A Peculiar Influence was born out of a New Year's resolution I made to read a classic novel each week of 2011, and this post proves that I'm halfway done! The second quarter consisted of (from bottom to top) All Quiet on the Western Front, Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, Fahrenheit 451, Hard Times, Last of the Mohicans, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, The Grapes of Wrath, The Bell Jar, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Sense and Sensibility, Gulliver's Travels and Cranford.  If you're a new reader of this blog and want to catch up, my introductory post is here and the first quarter in review can be found here. I originally decided to start the year by reading all the books on my shelf that I hadn't read yet. Of the 13 books pictured above, I only owned 2 on January 1, 2011; so my "to read" list didn't get much shorter this quarter, but as of now there are only 7 unread novels on my shelf so I should be caught up soon. A couple of the books in the photo (Madame Bovary and Cranford) are actually stunt doubles, Madame Bovary because I sold my copy right after reading it, and Cranford because I don't own a copy so I read it as an epub...which forces me to point out that the dreaded e-reader makes its first appearance this quarter.


Basing my opinion of Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell, purely on its cover, I hypothesized that it would be something between a Jane Austen and a George Eliot novel. In order to scientifically prove or disprove my hypothesis and not be guilty of flouting the old proverb's advice, it was necessary to read all of the pages. Which I did. The whole time I was reading, my mental commentary vascillated between "where's the plot?" and "this is the book I should have read last week!"
     After reading some reviews and discussion online, I find I am not alone in noticing the lack of plot. Cranford lays out a series of mostly minor events taking place in the town of Cranford and involving a small circle of spinsters and widows. The beauty of this book lies in its character development. Elizabeth Gaskell was aware that she lived in a time of rapid social change, and she purposefully set down an account of daily life in a small town. The main characters in Cranford are fairly old women, whom Gaskell saw as "living hoards of family tradition and old custom". I loved Gaskell's little old ladies, with all their eccentricities and yet with mannerisms, habits, likes and dislikes that are not so far different from those of elderly people today.  Some people find the elderly to be difficult to understand or get along with, but these ladies are downright hilarious.  You've got to read the part about the cat that ate the lace.

Main character: Miss Matty
Secondaries: Miss Matty's posse of old ladies. It's a tribute to Gaskell's storytelling that I was able to keep them all straight with ease.
Biggest plot twist: The feature you are looking for is not available in this book. Please make an alternative selection.
There was a lot of: hats, lace crocheting, card playing, gossiping conversing, calling cards, note writing, proper visiting protocol
There should have been more: chapters
This book makes you want to: visit little old ladies and grow up to be one...someday far in the future
This book makes you glad you don't have to: be a little old lady quite yet...

Gulliver's Travels

I was feeling so refreshed after Sense and Sensibility that I decided another light-hearted choice was in order. Unfortunately, I thought Gulliver's Travels would fit the bill.  A shipwrecked castaway lands in Lilliput, a land of tiny people. Plus, it's a satire of Robinson Crusoe-style travelogues. That's funny, right? Sure, for about twenty pages. After that, it's repetitive. And did I mention it's also a religious and political satire? That might be amusing, or at least illuminating, for someone who hasn't already analyzed the flaws of various political systems and the petty religious disagreements that plague societies. But for someone as bombastically fantastic as me, well... ha! I sound like Gulliver in Lilliput!
     Okay, Jonathan Swift had a great idea.  I do enjoy the fact that he lampoons pretty much everything, but it got old after a while.  Also, Gulliver's development from an optimistic humanist into a pompous misanthrope (I stole that phrase because it's perfect) seemed unnecessarily cynical. There's a difference between accepting people with all their faults and assuming from the outset that every human is horribly degraded, although in 1726 that outlook was probably par for the Protestant course...and also par for the Irish course.  Perhaps Swift (an Anglo-Irish protestant) can be excused due to his double dose of environmental pessimism.
      My linguistics nerdiness also found the names of his imaginary countries to be irksome. All the words were English nonsense, following the phonological and morphological rules of English.  It would have been more plausible had he created words inspired by other languages.  While of these sounds more like a foreign country: Glubbdubbdribb or Ngokumbu? Brobdingnag or Zhao Shang? Luggnagg or Schnezitskoya? And I bet you can guess which continents would be likely to contain Ngokumbu, Zhao Shang and Schnezitskoya, respectively.  Still, Swift's purpose was to lampoon his own culture and not others, so I can see why he would choose English-based names at the expense of realism.  Actually, considering that he has Gulliver explore lands of minute humans, talking horses and flying islands, he obviously wasn't too concerned about realism in the first place. And lest you think I disapprove completely of all his invented words, I am quite grateful to Jonathan Swift for giving us English-speakers the word yahoo.  English is known for its belief that it's impossible to have too many synonyms for one thing.  I, for one, am especially emphatic that it is impossible for English to have too many synonyms for barbarian.  On those days when your children are wilder than philistines, and such epithets as huns, savages, beasts, boors, and feral spawn have lost their magic, you can always resort to... yahoo.

Hero: Gulliver
Anti-hero: Gulliver
Yes, it's all about: Gulliver
Why must there be so many descriptions of his: bathroom habits
The above is almost as bad as the descriptions of: the giants' bathroom habits
There was a lot of: nonsense, improbability, satire of minor political events from the 1720s which even history buffs  are unlikely to remember today
There should have been more: merciless cutting by the editor
This book makes you want to: stop reading it
This book makes you glad you don't have to: read it again

Sense and Sensibility

In mid-June (the 12th-18th, to be exact) I was starting to feel bogged down in my reading, and after reflecting upon my choices the last couple months, I decided that after the heavy seriousness of All Quiet on the Western Front, Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, Fahrenheit 451, Hard Times, Last of the Mohicans, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Grapes of Wrath, The Bell Jar,  and For Whom the Bell Tolls, I needed something light and sparkling. Sense and Sensibility was like a lemon sorbet after two months of mutton chops. (Actually, I've never eaten a mutton chop, but it sounds heavy, doesn't it?) 
     In terms of characters, I encountered some similarities with Pride and Prejudice. There were the philanderer, the hysterical sister(s), the airhead mother, the absent (in mind or body) father, the mysterious but ultimately virtuous gentleman and the humorous secondary characters. The ending is quite balanced and satisfactory, with the rational sister finding a match based on love, and the emotional sister finding happiness with a level-headed man whom she had initially rejected for frivolous reasons.  
     I think most readers prefer Pride and Prejudice over Sense and Sensibility simply because the hero of the former, Mr. Darcy, is far more swoon-worthy than that of the latter. (Sorry, Colonel Barton)  This is partially due to the differing slants of the novels.  In S&S, Austen is contrasting the two sisters and exploring the differences between them.  The various potential suitors are tools to draw out aspects of the sisters' characters and are not developed as fully.  In P&P, Austen is comparing and contrasting Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, which obviously requires more development of Darcy's character.  Another possible contribution to the differences in focus may lie in the fact that the first draft of S&S was written when Austen was only 19 (!), before she had experienced any romantic relationships, while the first draft of P&P was written two years later, after her relationship with Tom Lefroy.
      I certainly found Sense and Sensibility enjoyable in its own right, with interesting plot devices and humorous characters, although overall I must side with the majority in preferring Pride and Prejudice.

Two steps backward for feminism: Marianne
Finally, a girl who thinks: Elinor
Karma's gonna get you in the end: John Dashwood
Everything is okay ma'am, please put down the pocketbook: Mrs. Dashwood
Warning: Contains dry ice. Do not handle without protective gloves: Fanny Dashwood
Why, you evil toad of a man!: John Willoughby
Somebody please put codeine in her tea: Mrs. Jennings
And valium in hers: Mrs. Ferrars
Knight in shining...cravat?: Colonel Barton
There was a lot of: note writing, misunderstandings, descriptions of rooms, tiresome visitors, humorous situations, similarities with Pride and Prejudice
There should have been more: development of Colonel Barton and Edward Ferrars' characters
This book makes you want to: read more Jane Austen, visit interesting friends, make sure you're not an airhead
This book makes you glad you don't have to: adhere to proper 19th century English social conventions