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.