Sunday, April 22, 2012

A midnight poetry reading

I have tried to love T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. I have read it several times over the past 13 years. I have listened to university lectures on Eliot, on his contemporaries, on The Waste Land itself. I have read articles, study guides, reviews by readers who know what they're talking about, and some by those who don't. I picked it up again, thinking that perhaps it's an acquired taste. If so, I still haven't acquired it.

As I drove through town last week I consoled myself against my Waste Land failure with the fact that I've always liked poetry; I'm just having a hard time with this particular poem. Yes, I told myself, I've always liked poetry, ever since...since when? What was my first experience of real poetry (Itsy Bitsy Spider doesn't count)? And as I waited at a red light, that memory came back to me in its entirety, and it was a moment of history being reinterpreted in light of later events. Of course, at the time I had no idea a formative event was taking place. Looking back, I now see that I've summoned that night repeatedly over the years as I rifled through long library shelves and used book bins, searching for a book, a page, a line that would bring back that rhythm, that feeling, that night. Now you're wondering... was it a poetry reading? Perhaps a schoolwide literature event? Maybe a tv special in which an actor recited a poem with perfect diction and feeling? Nope.

The evening began with me spending a 2 hour car ride with my grandparents. They brought along a bag of popcorn for us to share as a snack. This story taking place in 1980s rural Alaska (which was noticeably microwave-free), the bag of popcorn was a large paper grocery sack, filled with air-popped, buttered, and salted popcorn. I'm very sure I ate more than my fair share, because I then spent most of the night vomiting into a garbage can in my aunt's bedroom. My aunt was 15, and already resigned to her fate of enduring a population boom of nieces and nephews.  She sat up with  me and read aloud Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. Even during my stomach's most prolonged episodes of rejecting the popcorn, she continued to read without pausing midline. Only in retrospect, as the poem kept returning to me, did I come to appreciate its enduring quality. If one of your best memories involves throwing up into a bucket all night, you know the soundtrack must have been pretty good.

By the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, daughter of the moon, Nokomis

Later I learned that for this epic narrative poem Longfellow used the meter of Elias Lonrott's Kalevala. Those Who Want To Get Technical call this trochaic tetrameter, but it's sometimes called Kalevala meter or Kalevala verse, after its most famous example. You can feel the similarity even in the English translation:

Westward, westward sailed the hero
O'er the blue-back of the waters,
Singing as he left Wainola,
This his plaintive song and echo:
Suns may rise and set in Suomi,
Rise and set for generations,
When the North will learn my teachings,
Will recall my wisdom-sayings,
Hungry for true understanding.
Then will Suomi need my coming,
Watch for me at dawn of morning,
That I may bring back the Sampo,
Peace and plenty to the Northland.

This is straight up oral narrative verse, recorded by Lonrott from interviews with Finnish folk singers and poetry reciters and plain old village people, and then arranged into one long work. Longfellow wanted to replicate this idea of a heroic narrative, but using traditional stories from the New World. I think the meter complements the substance of these narrative poems well. It gives an expansive, striding feel to the story, as though the listener is following the hero down a long and winding path. I am ever grateful that my introduction to this genre was through hearing it, not through reading it. These poems were meant to be read aloud, not unlike Homer's Odyssey (which is my main event this month; The Waste Land was supposed to be a supplement).

Maybe I should stop reading The Waste Land and try reciting it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

In Which I Emerge Victorious

Since we last met, I continued working through my stack of short stories for the month of March. Next up were: 
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Body Snatchers and Markheim by R.L. Stevenson
I liked all of these.
The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura
Not short stories, not even fiction, but languishing on my beside table. This one was interesting and will be reread in the future.
Shipley's Dictionary of Word Origins
Don't ask. I probably spend a couple hours a month in this book. I have a strong desire to find out where words and phrases come from. This book has some interesting answers.
The Smith of Wooton Major by J.R.R. Tolkien
I read this one aloud to some family members while on a road trip. Kids and adults both liked it. You don't have to be familiar with Tolkien's longer works to enjoy this.
Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad
YES! I met my past, made it my present, and allowed it to affect me and thus my future. Heart of Darkness was perfect in its structure and provocation of thought. I really should give it a separate blog entry so I won't go into it much now. It seems a shame that high schoolers are forced to endure it though; the issues that Conrad explores would have been vastly under-appreciated by my 17 yr old self (and I was no flighty teen).

In celebration of this mental milestone, I went to the library and hauled home a bag of graphic novels. I think I read them all in 3 days. Unfortunately it was sort of like eating a case of Doritos in 3 days. I couldn't stop myself, but I felt a little woozy afterwards. Here's the list:

Ultimate Iron Man by Orson Scott Card
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Formic Wars: Burning Earth by Orson Scott Card
The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger
The Tales of Alvin Maker: The Red Prophet volume 1 by Orson Scott CardFeynman by Ottaviani & Myrick

The last one in that list was a biography of physicist Richard Feynman. It was so fascinating that I got distracted from my short stories plan and spent all my free time for the next 3 days or so watching quantum physics talks online. Physics is a recurring amateur obsession that I return to every couple of years, spending a couple weeks compulsively watching college lectures and pop science vids online before moving on to something else.

After the physics mental download I moved on to my volume of Edgar Allan Poe and read:
The Fall of the House of Usher (my favorite)
The Tell-Tale Heart (I had read this one and the next one previously. Still good though)
The Masque of the Red Death
The Balloon-Hoax (Sort of Jules Verne-esque. May have inspired Verne's 80 Days)
The Spectacles  (really funny)
The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether
The Murders in the Rue Morgue  (a little sinister, a little Holmes-ish. The first detective story!)

Poe was a great way to end the month, and he is the author who wins a spot on my bookshelf. The other volumes were released into the wild (aka Goodwill) to be discovered anew by other readers. And if we're going to continue with the Hunger Games/gladiator metaphor, it seems fitting that Poe's book killed off the others. Though I didn't know it when I began reading Poe this month, I was about to have the opportunity to visit his home in Philadelphia. I was there a few days ago and had the privilege of gently rapping, rapping at his chamber door. It was a perfect ending to a perfectly dark and disjointed month.

After all this Stevenson, Conrad, Poe and sci fi, I am feeling a little morbid. I'm not sure if April's selection will lift the doldrums or compound them. April will be spent reading Homer's Odyssey and, if I have time, a few other works inspired by The OdysseyThe Wizard of Oz, Watership Down, "Ulysses" by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot. I'm also going to watch two Odyssey inspired films, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Ones That Got Away

*cue melancholy violin solo*
On those dark, winter evenings, when I sit alone in the twilight, memories come flooding back of books I once held fondly in my hand: books I intended to read, but which slipped from my grasp before I had the chance to waltz my fingers through their pages. Fate was against me and these books, the ones that got away.

What, that never happened to you? Well what if it were even worse, and these books were literal baggage, being carted with you from attic to basement, state to state, country to country, every time you moved? These words on the screen cannot express the the nightmare of my experience when I tell you that I have been haunted by Joseph Conrad. For thirteen years.

Yes, it's true. Like a carefree lass in a cautionary tale, I thoughtlessly picked up a paperback of Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer at a book sale, planning to read it "sometime soon", little knowing how this devil's deal would alter my future...  You think I'm being melodramatic? I've been staring at a bad 1960's cover illustration of Charles Marlow FOR THIRTEEN YEARS. It's bad, people. Very bad. And it ends now.

March's theme is modern short stories and novellas. This is a mixed bag of books that need to leave my home (did I mention that I'm downsizing my books? Fully 25% of them are on their way to new homes. Except for Heart of Darkness, that one can rot in book hell. Which would be what, an accordion store? A hot tub showroom? Spring break in Miami Beach?)

Anyway. I've been at this for 8 days now, with a 3 day digression to read The Hunger Games series, because I wasn't disturbed enough already. Of course, I didn't start with Heart of Darkness. I'm working up to it with a bunch of other short stories/novellas that I don't have room for either. I'm going to read them all, and the best volume wins a spot on my shelf. The others are off to the accordion store, just in time for Polka Demo Tuesday.  So I guess this is a Hunger Games for books, except they don't even have the decency to kill each other off. I always have to do everything myself around here.

So far I've read the following:

-Jonathan Livingston Seagull: It was alright. Not mindblowing for me, like the cover quotes would have you believe, but if you haven't thought about human potential before, then it could be revelatory.

-"The Kreutzer Sonata" and "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Tolstoy. I preferred "The Kreutzer Sonata", but I probably would have appreciated them both more if a) I had waited until I was in the mood to read Russian lit, but alas, time waits for no book and b) if my copy didn't smell so strongly like the basement of a thrift store. Next time I'll remember to pick up a linen copy hand-lettered by Milla Jovovich. (I know, she's Ukrainian.)

-"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Devil and Tom Walker" by Washington Irving. I actually liked these a lot more than I thought I would, especially the last two. They had a dreamlike quality to them, and they were definitely early American, which stood out strongly in contrast to all the Brothers Grimm material I read last month.

-"The Bottle Imp" by Robert Louis Stevenson. I liked it. A little bit suspenseful, definite folk-tale feel, surprise ending!

Still on tap for this month are:

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", by Robert Louis Stevenson
Tortilla Flats, a novella by John Steinbeck
a volume of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe
and of course, my nemesis, 3 ounces of yellowed paperback:

Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer 
by Joseph Conrad

Okay, maybe a little melodramatic.

Wait, that was February?

Yes, I am still alive, but fresh out of snappy intros. For some reason, all that comes to mind is, "Once upon a time..."

I finished volume 1 of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales. That was 100 stories: some well-known, some weird, some sinister, some trippy, some repetitive. I also finished the 2 volumes of fairy tale criticism I was working on, Jack Zipes' Fairy Tale as Myth and Myth as Fairy Tale and Maria von Franz's The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. The former author approached the genre from a Marxist/feminist socio-historical perspective, while the latter was working from the discipline of psychology.  I swear, people who buy trippy herbs are wasting their money, because a similar psychedelic effect can be had by reading works of jarringly different perspectives one after another. Or, better yet, alternating chapters between the books late at night (lava lamp optional).

Besides these books, which fit my theme of the month, I also read a couple others that had been languishing on my list forever:
Winter: A spiritual autobiography (a collection of winter-themed poetry, essays and short stories. meh)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: text and criticism (I read the text in December. I read the criticism in February. Basically a collection of reviews and critical essays. Pretty interesting, and offered a variety of perspectives)

Was that really it? Five books? What did I do for the rest of the month? Oh, that's right, instead of spending my evenings parked on the couch with 200 pages of literary luxury, I spent half of them digging through boxes in the office, and the other half finishing projects unearthed from said office. But that's from the non-superhero part of my double life and, thus, not fodder for this blog. Well, except for the previous 2 sentences. And that last one. Okay, I'm stopping now.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Labyrinth of the Film INCEPTION

Besides reading books, I do watch films from time to time. Maybe it's a little unorthodox to write about one on a book blog, but there is a literary tie in, as you will see. If you haven't seen the film, I highly recommend watching it, and you should not read this post until you do so. You might want to watch it twice, because it's a little confusing at first. Let this serve as my SPOILER ALERT!

Inception retells the myth of the minotaur in the labyrinth, and discusses other themes as well. Here's a brief recap of the original legend:

The labyrinth on Crete was built to house the Minotaur, a half-bull, half-man monster which was born as a result of King Minos's greed, greed which prevented him from sacrificing a particular white bull to Poseidon, as he had originally promised. From this bull and a woman was born the Minotaur, (Mino from Minos + taur from taurus, the Greek word for bull) a half-human monster that, as a living reminder of King Minos' greed, devoured human sacrifices. The hero Theseus comes from across the sea to enter the labyrinth and slay the Minotaur, but he faces the problem of being able to find his way back out of the labyrinth. The king's daughter, Ariadne, gives Theseus a ball of thread that he unravels on his way to the center of the labyrinth; after slaying the Minotaur he follows the string to find his way back out.

In the film Inception, the protagonist, Cobb, is  unable to come to terms with his wife's death and let her go. This results in the birth of a shadow figure of his dead wife, Mallorie, in his subconscious. The Jungian idea of a person's shadow, those aspects of the subconscious which haven't been integrated, is a nice parallel to the Minotaur, as a person's shadow can be seen as part human and part inner beast, untamed by the civilizing aspect of personal consciousness. Each time Cobb attempts to enter his subconscious, his plans are thwarted and his companions are attacked by this violent shadow, born of his inability to sacrifice/let go. In the film Cobb must go deeper, deeper into the layers of dream mazes in order to confront and slay the monster, his own inner demon which his desire-to-hold-onto (greed) has created. Or, in Jungian terms, he must descend into the depths of his subconscious in order to integrate his shadow, which he has personified as Mallorie. This is especially difficult for him because the shadow appears to him as his deceased wife. (One's shadow may be composed of sacrosanct symbols that the individual is loathe to disturb.) As Cobb sleeps and descends to the realm of pure subconscious, he washes up from the ocean onto the shore of the dream world his subconscious has constructed, like Theseus sailing across the sea and landing on the shores of Crete, ready to brave the labyrinth and slay the Minotaur. The character Ariadne, like the Ariadne in the myth, helps the hero navigate the labyrinth and emerge victorious.  The totem which Cobb uses to ascertain whether he is awake or dreaming and to find his way out of a dream corresponds to the ball of thread, and slightly resembles a ball of thread as well. The fact that the top spins and the ball of string was spun from fiber is also a fun piece of wordplay.

The film questions whether our motives are composed of the pure cause and effect that we ascribe to them, or whether they stem from a deeper will in the subconscious, perhaps one that another person or being has placed there. From whence come the ideas that take hold within us? We, our left brains, our Interpreters, invent causes that may or may not have brought about the effects. Tesla believed that humans are meat machines, mere stimulus and response, and if all possible factors could be known, all outcomes could be accurately predicted. Like him, Kant saw the cause and effect, the phenomenality of time and space. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, saw the will in nature, the one consciousness that wills all things. Einstein says it another way, "A human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants." Ambiguity results when these two are integrated, as in Nietzsche's writings . For Nietzsche, the Apollonian individuating principle and the Dionysian energy of the will are balanced. Life eats life,and when ego dissolves and the dynamism of the will is experienced, rapture results. For Nietzsche, amor fati (the love of fate) is the goal. In other words, if you criticize one detail of your life, you've unraveled the whole thing (Joseph Campbell). This is depicted at the end of the film: from the time that Cobb and Saito awake on the plane, it is impossible to tell whether they are dreaming or not. At the end, when Cobb spins his totem but then walks away, the viewer sees that he has stopped analyzing and questioning his reality, and  has instead chosen to live it. This is the equivalent of Theseus setting down the ball of yarn and walking away. The reality Cobb chooses to live is that which he desires most: life with his children. Cobb has accepted and internalized his fate, but interestingly, he may have chosen that very fate as well by choosing not to recognize and leave a dream world.
     The film's end is ambiguous. So... has he embraced his fate, a reality that he could not control, or has he willed his own reality? How do you perceive the ending? Which idea has taken root in your own mind? I think that question, the question of our own perception and not that of Cobb's, is one of the most interesting aspects of the film.
     The other point of interest for me is the concept of shared dreaming. Is it possible for a group of people enter into another's dream? Can we gather in darkness and watch the images and narratives that another has constructed? Surely film is this shared dream-state.

p.s. Sometimes I, like Saito and Cobb, become lost in the labyrinth of my own thought world. Someday, you might have to send someone to bring me back. Or maybe I should just carry a ball of thread.

January: Fairy Tales

Yes, I've had my eye on Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm for a while, so I spent January reading about ogres, princesses, talking animals and cruel parents, step- and otherwise. I have volume 1 of The Complete Tales of the Brothers Grimm (which is 2 volumes) and I made it about half way through that, meaning I read 50 of their 200+ tales. There were well-known ones and ones I'd never read before. Of course, these were the real deal, not the sanitized Disney versions. Cinderella's stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to make the shoe fit, birds peck out people's eyes and a young man visits hell and tricks the devil. My two favorites so far were The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs, which reminded me of Jack and the Beanstalk for some reason, even though it contained no beanstalk, no ogre, no magic treasure to steal. Then in reading up on the tales I was gratified to find that the Grimm brothers also categorized those two tales together, so I must have been making the right connections. Having recently read some Norse myths, it was also interesting to see some parallels in the Teutonic fairy tales, and in following my hunch I found online articles and blog entries discussing the similarities between Jack's beanstalk and the Germanic world tree Yggdrasil. It's been refreshing to switch to thinking about myths, after spending most of 2011 in the 19th century.

I also read The Owl, the Raven and the Dove: the religious meaning of the Grimms' magic fairy tales by G. Ronald Murphy, which offered some interesting historical and cultural criticism. I started The Interpretation of Fairy Tales by Marie-Louise von Franz, but haven't finished it, and Jack Zipes' Fairy Tale as Myth/Myth as Fairy Tale is still on deck. The only Hans Christian Andersen tale I read so far is The Little Mermaid, which had a lot of interesting symbolism that I missed when reading it as a child, although I did read the original version and not the Disney one. So, since I'm enjoying this and I still have a lot that I haven't gotten to read yet, I'm going to extend the fairy tale theme through February, and then I'll be done; I promise! That is to say, even if I haven't finished reading all the tales available to me, I'll probably be ready for something else. of the reasons that I didn't finish the above mentioned books is that I read a bunch of other stuff as well: 

Icons: Masterpieces of Russian Art by Olga Polyakova
Tesla: Man out of time by Margaret Cheney
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
Goliath by Scott Westerfeld
Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card
Look Homeward, America by Bill Kauffman
The Complete Moomin Collection: volumes 1 and 6 by Tove Jansson
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Criticism edited by Chester G. Anderson

Now that I've gotten all of those...ahem...pressing volumes out of the way, I'll have more time for Hans, Jacob and Wilhelm. Ooh la la.

2012: The Big Reveal...

...and it's only a month late! I took stock of 2011, what worked and what didn't, and have made modifications for 2012. Here are my thoughts coming out of 2011:

-The main problem with reading a novel a week is that it's just not sustainable long term. This was an entire year without a break. Ever. Even jobs usually give you time off once in a while. I'll be honest; it was really hard to keep on track all year. Some weeks were insane and I had to choose shorter books. During 2011, I traveled out of the country twice-once for a funeral and once to visit family, had eye surgery,  worked at a farmers market and had a 2,000 sq. ft. garden in the summer, took care of my two kids, and had house guests for at least 11 weeks (I lost track). And every Sunday I said to myself, "What am I reading this week?" That's not going to happen this year. I am going to have some breathing room.

-If I kept this up forever, I'd also never get to read long works like War and Peace, and would rarely have time to squeeze in short stories either.I would be limiting myself to one form (the novel), and only novels of a certain length.

-Intellectually, I go on little jaunts where I obsess over a theme for a few weeks and then move on to a different one. This lends itself to reading thematically rather than structurally, which also brings me to my plan for 2012:


It sounds all gourmet, doesn't it? Like those clubs where you sign up and they send you a pound of coffee or chocolate or cheese or escargot (not really) each month. Yes, I know they have book of the month clubs, but I'm definitely going to be reading more than a book a month. I' will, however, read on a certain theme each month, and I'm only going to choose the theme at the beginning of each month. No long-term commitment here. Right now I might think that November will lend itself to all-Shakespeare-all-the-time, but when month #11 actually rolls around, I might be thinking Isaac Asimov. Or novels about jungles. Or short stories. Or Greek lit. Who knows. And I'm not going to put a quota on my reading either. One month (maybe July...aah..vacation) I might whip through 10 books, another might see me battle with one or two. Doesn't matter. I'll pick the theme and see how far I get. If the theme is somehow extra-awesome, I might be inspired to stick with it for another month. I'll probably end up reading some nonfiction and non-theme-related books too, which I may or may not blab about on here. So here's to 2012, which will be spent meandering through many categories.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Fourth Quarter in Review

From bottom to top, the books I read in the last three months were Bleak House by Charles Dickens, The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Persuasion by Jane Austen, A Hero of Our Time by Mikhael Lermontov, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, The Professor by Charlotte Bronte, Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, The Pearl by John Steinbeck, Middlemarch by George Eliot, and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.

The books that are turned around so you see the pages instead of the spine are stand-ins for books that I read on an e-reader and don't own a hard copy. This last quarter I relied most heavily on the e-reader, as I had finally read most of the books I already owned but hadn't read yet, and was moving on to books I wanted to read but didn't own.  In the end, I really found that there are a lot of great books that I enjoyed reading, but will probably only reread once or twice in my life. It's not worth it for me to keep a book for years just because I might want to read it again someday, and these classic novels can be found in any library, or for free online since they're in the public domain.

Which brings me to the e-reader. I got an e-reader in June, and it was very handy when traveling and when reading really long books that would be heavy to hold for hours on end. However, because I'm a fast reader and the screen is fairly small, I have to turn the page (technically, refresh the screen) every 30 seconds or so, and this creates a short delay that jars me out of my mental reading zone every. single. time.  Because of this, I found that I read a lot slower using an e-reader than I do using a book, so I still prefer reading a book when possible. That said, I do not regret my e-reader purchase at all.  It's great for the purposes I mentioned above, and it's also more convenient to quickly load a new book onto it than to make a 30 minute round trip drive to the library.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

December 26th, 2011 dawned, as mornings tend to do...but this day was different. It was the first day of the last week of 2011, the day I would pick up my last novel of the year. It was exhilarating, yet a little sad, as I approached the end of an era (if I can pretentiously use the word "era" to describe a one-year-thing). I had chosen Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I found fitting for reasons I'll get to in a minute. It was a short book. After the previous week's monster, Middlemarch, it was going to be a piece of cake to whip through the 250-odd pages. So as the birds chirped merrily and the sun's rays shone upon the "December 26" page of my page-a-day calendar, I did not pick up the book. Instead, I ate leftovers and stayed in my pajamas, because I was on vacation. Sort of. This repeated itself for five days. It was like an acute but unexpected case of senioritis, where the finish line is so close that you expect momentum to carry you through. Of course, on December 30th I realized that this book wasn't going to read itself, and what was worse, I now had only 48 hours to perform the literary equivalent of chugging a $500 bottle of champagne. Sorry, Joyce. But I did it!

After reading most of the book on December 30th, I picked it up again the next day but got distracted when company arrived. Then I was making food and conversing wittily until I realized that it was 11:15 pm and I still had a couple of chapters left. I sat down to finish, cursing myself for my completely typical procrastination, but in the end, it worked out. I had the privilege of reading the last page at 11:45, ringing in the new year with one of the best lines ever written still fresh in my mind: "Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."  I really could not have planned a better way to end 2011.

I saved this book for the end in part because it is the coming of age story of a young artist. The main character, Stephen Dedalus, is a fictional version of Joyce. Through Stephen, we see Joyce's intellectual and artistic awakening. I wanted this book to close my year of 52 classic novels because, as the months went by, I saw that this year and all its accompanying blog posts have become a portrait of me as a young (-ish) artist. I look back on these posts and see my development as a reader, and I look through the notebook and computer files I've created this year and see my development as a writer. This isn't to say that I have now reached a particular stage and will remain static. Any portrait is only a partial portrait. But this is my partial portrait, and I'm pretty happy with it. A new year lies ahead of me, with a different reading strategy and new ideas to explore. When I look beyond 2012, I see the years before me like shining pearls on a string, waiting to drop one by one into my hand. And you, reader, have your own jewels to gather. Look around you. Greet your life with an open hand.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Middlemarch by George Eliot

I tried to read this novel for three months before actually managing to do it. I got it for my birthday in September, and I thought to myself, "Awesome! I'm going to read this next week!" Well, the next week shaped up to be hectic, and Middlemarch is over 700 pages, so I put it on deck for the following week and bumped up a shorter work from my list. The following week arrived, and the scenario repeated itself. For six weeks. I was starting to fear that Middlemarch was going to become some kind of literary nemesis, or the one that got away, and I would descend into madness like Captain Ahab, taking my family down with me in my struggle to FINALLY READ THIS BOOK!!!

Then the week before Christmas arrived. One group of company had just left, another was due to arrive in six days. Gifts were bought and wrapped; packages sent; cookies baked; house decorated; programs attended; functions contributed to; cards mailed; menus planned... it was the calm before the storm. I pulled out the giant book. I sat down. And I FINISHED IT! Well, not in one sitting, but in one week. After such a build up of anticipation, one might fear an anticlimactic letdown, a mental "meh..." during the epilogue. Fortunately we're talking about one of the greatest English novels of all time here.

I would describe Middlemarch as detailing a set of character portraits and the intricate web of relationships that grows between them. Some of the characters are initially misunderstood by other characters. After some time the mistaken character realizes (at least partly) the true nature of the other character. Some characters change and grow over time; others are fossilized and refuse to change. The work tracks a community over the course of time, and therefore its detail and length are necessary. In some ways, the first two thirds of the novel functioned as set up for the final third. Because of this I found it to have a slow start and to be more difficult to get into. Upon finishing it, I wasn't really sure how well I liked it, but after taking time to think it over, I appreciate it more. As the web of relationships grows between the characters, over time the book grows on the reader. Middlemarch is well-written, with a lot of social commentary and character development. Beyond that, I'm a little paralyzed about how to review it or what to say. After all, it's Middlemarch.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

The Pearl is Steinbeck's sixteenth published work, and the third that I read this year (following The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden). It is based on an oral Mexican-Indian story he heard while traveling in the Gulf of California. It is a short work with a very folktale quality.

The protagonist, Kino, is a pearl diver who finds an immense and unusual pearl, which had been referred to in local legends as The Pearl of the World. He believes that the discovery of this pearl will bring happiness and prosperity to his family, but instead it brings tragedy. Technically, the pearl itself is neutral and has no effect on Kino, but the way other humans react to his discovery brings tragedy. The pearl symbolizes the American Dream, and Steinbeck is making the point that, while pursuit of the American Dream itself is neutral, our world makes it impossible for it to function as intended.

Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Gah! Yes, I am still alive. No, my fingers were not chewed off by fire ants, making it impossible to type. And this 7-yr-old laptop, although a triceratops among Arabian stallions, is still plodding along. There has been absolutely nothing standing between me and the blogosphere... except a series of houseguests interspersed with illnesses and various commitments which my duty-bound sense of knightly honor compelled me to fulfill. So, you know, there was some life I had to live. I do apologize for leaving with a cliffhanger, four weeks from the end of the year, my loyal readers waiting to discover whether I held up for the final month and fulfilled my new year's resolution! So here is the next installment, as the great saga of 2011 drew to a close...

The title Notre Dame de Paris is often translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which I found to be unfortunately misleading. The book isn't entirely, or even primarily, about the hunchback Quasimodo, although he is an important character. The title refers to the cathedral of that name, around which the book revolves and in or near which all the major action takes place. I had previously read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, so I went into this book expecting it to be historically focused, descriptive and detailed. It was. I did not realize, however, that Notre Dame was so intensely focused on architecture as an art form, the eventual decline of architecture due to the development of the printing press, and the architecture and evolution of the city of Paris itself. I found these sections of the book to be the most fascinating, and they enabled me to look at art, architecture and the growth of a city through new eyes. I would recommend the book for these sections alone.

The plot, which follows the unfortunate lives of several people who exist on the fringes of society, explores themes of fate and social conflict. The story arc of Quasimodo's affection for Esmeralda gives the book an additional tragic slant, and when combined with the tragedies of the decline of architecture and the cathedral and of the ill-fated lives of Esmeralda and Claude Frollo, the overall effect is sombre, dark and gothic, like the Notre Dame cathedral itself.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis' satirical novel is set in the fictional Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. The novel is very descriptive, and although coastal dwellers may find the descriptions of a small midwestern town amusing, I found it a little creepy to read a nearly exact description of the hamlet in North Dakota in which I spent much of my childhood. Lewis isn't lying. For better or for worse, this is small-town America. Now, as Lewis was writing satirically, he accurately skewered most of the negative aspects of living in a small town. I'm sure other writers have written on the positive aspects of small town culture, and for the sake of balance I should probably read one...but I won't do it anytime soon. I'm still enjoying shaking my head at Gopher Prairie.

The main character, Carol Kennicott, moves to Gopher Prairie, her husband's hometown, after her marriage. She struggles for years as a person whom the townspeople perceive as an outsider, although she wants to be considered an insider. I too moved to a small town and was mystified at the insistence many people had upon labeling me a newcomer. Even after two years of attending the small school, I was referred to as "the new girl". After two years of being the new girl, the prospects of ever being considered an insider were bleak. I can sympathize with Carol. Unlike Carol, however, I turned 18 and left. If I had been born into the place, had been accepted as one of the community from birth, I may have been happy to come back after college and make a life in that small town. In that way, I can understand the residents of Gopher Prairie and the residents of my own small town, and their enjoyment of their community. Unfortunately, their protective instincts toward their community are a double-edged sword, as they use those instincts to excuse their reticence to accept people who genuinely want to belong.

Oh, and last week I went to Minneapolis. I'll admit that I imagined the residents of Gopher Prairie, admiring the sleek Euro designs as they wandered through Ikea, or buying trendy clothes at the Mall of America just to impress their friends back home. And then I went back to my house, in a town that is not tiny, where people do not tell me that I don't belong.

The Professor by Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë wrote The Professor before she wrote Jane Eyre, but it was published posthumously. I found the plot interesting and the characters enjoyable, while the entire work was much less intense and serious than Jane Eyre. After Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, The Professor revealed a lighter side to the Brontë sisters. Although there were serious and occasionally tragic events, the ending allows the protagonists to find permanent happiness.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

I finished this book in mid-November, but I'm currently chipping away at a six week lag between time of reading a book and time of blogging about it. Unfortunately, because of this book's location in the murky recesses of the foggy prehistoric past of my memory...I may have forgotten some of my initial impressions.

Dead Souls ends abruptly, Gogol having destroyed part of it shortly before his death. The plot follows the anti-hero Chichikov as he tries to increase his social standing in a cynical and unorthodox way, meeting caricatures of Russian peasant characters along the way. Having read several other Russian authors this year, I would say that Gogol fits comfortably among his peers in terms of style, character development and choice of subjects. In other words, the book's pretty Russian. I read the Constance Garnett translation and enjoyed it, although the choppy ending left me wondering about Gogol's intentions. Was he planning to make more revisions to the work? Gogol is well-loved by Russians as one of their country's best writers, but after taking several weeks to digest this novel, I've come to the conclusion that I need to read some of his other works in order to appreciate him better. Dead Souls alone is not enough to evoke the appreciation that Dostoevsky (my current favorite Russian author) has gained from me.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I read this novel in early November, but it would have been great for Halloween. Because the author isn't completely explicit with details, he builds suspense and leaves the reader wondering about the exact nature of the  ghost and its interaction with the children. I enjoyed The Turn of the Screw and The Woman in White for similar reasons, in part because they rely on suspense and ambiguity to keep the reader psychologically off balance. I recommend this book for readers who enjoy mystery and suspense, possibly even psychological horror.