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.