the fact that you were able to turn this florid, utter drek of a novel into something like La Traviata is a testament to your geniu...more Dear Signore Verdi,
the fact that you were able to turn this florid, utter drek of a novel into something like La Traviata is a testament to your genius. This verbose, hypocritical drivel is a fast read, but other than that, has no redeeming quality whatsoever. Your Alfredo and Violetta are a vast improvement upon the repulsive Armand and Marguerite, and your divine music is a much superior articulation of the emotions that the author attempted to convey with such cloying sentimentality. What works in a few lines of libretto could be interminable in pages after pages of purple prose.
M. Dumas fils might have been the original author of this tale, but I'd take your version over his any time.
For the Celebrity Death Match Review Tournament, Hamlet vs Winnie-the-Pooh
Sometimes Winnie-the-Pooh likes a game of some sort when he comes downstair...moreFor the Celebrity Death Match Review Tournament, Hamlet vs Winnie-the-Pooh
Sometimes Winnie-the-Pooh likes a game of some sort when he comes downstairs, and sometimes he likes to sit quietly in front of the fire and listen to a story. This eve- ning— "What about a story?" said Christopher Robin. "What about a story?" I said. "Could you very sweetly tell Winnie-the-Pooh one?" "I suppose I could," I said. "What sort of stories does he like?" "About himself. Because he's that sort of Bear." "Oh, I see. Well, this particular story is not about him, but it’s something that I think you both would like very much." "So could you very sweetly?" "I'll try," I said. So I tried.
Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about four hundred years ago, lived a prince called Hamlet in a castle in Denmark.
(“What is ‘Denmark’?” asked Christopher Robin. “It’s a northern European country where you pay taxes up to your nose, and where consequently you have to spend your entire working life at the Tivoli Gardens making giant LEGO figurines of Trolls and Cheese Danishes while drinking lots of beer.” “Winnie-the-Pooh isn't quite sure whether he would like to live there,” said Christopher Robin. “But I want to listen to the story,” said a growly voice. “Then I will go on,” said I.)
One night when he was out walking on the castle wall, Prince Hamlet saw a Ghost, who looked terribly like his late father, the King of Denmark. Hamlet wasn’t at all sure about what the Ghost was talking about, so he sat down at the foot of the castle, put his head between his hands and began to think. First of all he said to himself: “My father’s spirit in arms! All is not well. You don’t get all this talk about murders most foul and incestuous beds like that, just buzzing and buzzing without its meaning something. If there’s a buzzing-noise, somebody’s making a buzzing-noise, and the only reason for making a buzzing noise that I know is because there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.”
(“What is ‘incestuous’?” asked Christopher Robin. “Umm --- it’s when your mother sleeps with your uncle, instead of your father.” “What’s wrong with that?” “Uh --- grown-ups don’t like that. You’ll understand it when you’re older.” “Oh, it's one of those things. Alright. Back to the story.”)
Then he thought another long time, and said: “And the only reason for being a Prince that I know of is taking revenge.” And then he got up, and said: “And the only reason for taking revenge is so I can kill my uncle and my mother.” So he began to pretend to be mad.
He pretended and he pretended and he pretended, and as he pretended he sang a little song to himself. It went like this:
To be, or not to be—that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep—
“I forgot the rest --- it’s been awhile since I’ve been a schoolboy,” said I. “Oh, that’s alright. I don’t understand it anyway. Just go on with the story please,” said Christopher Robin. “Did he get to kill his uncle and mother?” asked a growly voice. “Well, he did kill his uncle with a sword, and his mother died drinking poisoned wine that was meant for him. But not before he made his girlfriend go mad and kill herself.” “But why?” asked Christopher Robin. “Umm --- maybe he didn’t mean to make her go mad. But he killed her father and that made her go mad. And then she drowned.” “I think this Hamlet is a bad man”, said a growly voice. “Is that the end of the story?” asked Christopher Robin. “No,” I said, “the story ends when Hamlet himself dies.” “Winnie-the-Pooh doesn’t really like this story,” said Christopher Robin. “Why? It is a good story, isn’t it?” asked I. “Because he hasn’t any brain,” answered Christopher Robin. He gave a deep sigh, picked his bear up by the leg and walked off to the door, trailing Winnie-the-Pooh behind him. At the door he turned and said, "Coming to see me have my bath?" "I might," I said. "Is that the only story that you know?" "We can listen to something more cheerful next time," I said. He nodded and went out . . . and in a moment I heard Winnie-the-Pooh—bump, bump, bump—going up the stairs behind him.
Winnie-the-Pooh votes for stories about himself against Hamlet because while he thinks that Hamlet is a good story, Hamlet himself is a VERY bad man. (less)
For the Celebrity Death Match Review Tournament, Macbeth vs The Complete Sherlock Holmes
When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes...moreFor the Celebrity Death Match Review Tournament, Macbeth vs The Complete Sherlock Holmes
When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases between the years ’82 and ’90, I happen to come upon a half-forgotten adventure that is probably the strangest of them all. My faithful readers, who are no stranger to odd going-ons involving my famous friend’s cases, would be reminded of stories such as The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Sussex Vampire. Yet, this particular case is particularly odd and as such I have never set it on writing, as its features are so fantastical that it is scarcely believable. Even after all these years, I am still not quite convinced that it really happened.
It was in the latter days of September, and the equinoctial gales had set in with exceptional violence. All day the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten against the windows, so that even here in the heart of great, hand-made London we were forced to raise our minds for the instant from the routine of life and to recognize the presence of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilization, like untamed beasts in a cage. As evening drew in, the storm grew higher and louder, and the wind cried and sobbed like a child in the chimney. Sherlock Holmes sat moodily at one side of the fireplace cross-indexing his records of crime, while I at the other was deep in one of Clark Russell's fine sea-stories until the howl of the gale from without seemed to blend with the text, and the splash of the rain to lengthen out into the long swash of the sea waves. My wife was on a visit to her mother's, and for a few days I was a dweller once more in my old quarters at Baker Street.
"Why," said I, glancing up at my companion, "that was surely the bell. Who could come to-night? Some friend of yours, perhaps?"
"Except yourself I have none," he answered. "I do not encourage visitors."
"A client, then?"
"If so, it is a serious case. Nothing less would bring a man out on such a day and at such an hour. But I take it that it is more likely to be some crony of the landlady's."
Sherlock Holmes was wrong in his conjecture, however, for there came a step in the passage and a tapping at the door. He stretched out his long arm to turn the lamp away from himself and towards the vacant chair upon which a newcomer must sit.
"Come in!" said he.
The woman who entered was cloaked in black, her head covered with a peculiar conical hat. A heavy veil hid her countenance, which judging by the sinewy and leathery appearance of her hands was not a rosy-cheeked youthful one. A faint smell of something suggestive of sulphur accompanied her. She was silent for a while, and then she spoke with an eerie, quavering voice,
“Fair is foul and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
“I beg your pardon, madam”, Holmes said, “are you here for a consultation? I am afraid that you must speak more clearly so that I can hear you.”
“I shall kill thou like the swine thou art, But I’d rather send thou sailing on a sieve To the Thane’s abode shall thou depart Here I give thee a wind!”
At the end of the sinister incantation, our rooms were enveloped in a thick grayish mist, thicker even than the fog that habitually descended upon the streets of London. The room seemed to swirl before our eyes and when the mist finally cleared, it became apparent that we were not in our Baker Street den anymore. I was too stunned to speak, but my eyes gradually became used to our gloomy surroundings. Dimly, I perceived that we were in a stone room with a high vaulted ceiling.
“Holmes!”, I cried with mounting alarm. “Where are we?”
It took some time for him to answer. “ I believe that we are in a sort of a castle, my friend, though I have no idea how we got here. Or whether this whole thing is not an extremely elaborate, albeit an astonishingly convincing illusion.”
Before I had the chance to react to this astounding pronouncement, I heard a man shouting, “awake, awake! Ring the alarum bell, murder and treason!” We ran toward the source of the commotion, our steps clattering through the cold flagstones, only to find ourselves in a great hall, evidently of a great age, filled with a number of people. They were dressed strangely, not quite a few in what appear to be kilts. They were too noisily agitated to notice us. After a while, some of them rushed into another part of the castle, Holmes and I hard on their heels.
“Holmes”, said I in an aside, “how come that there are always murder and treason whenever you come into the picture?”
“Whoever --- or whatever brought us into this place probably desperately needs my expertise, Watson. So let us dispense with rational explanations now and follow the scent. The game is afoot!”
We came into a grand room furnished with rich tapestries, in the center of which stood a heavily carved, canopied bed. In the center of that bed laid an old man in a bloodstained nightgown. He was as dead as a doornail. On the foot of the bed sprawled two young men, utterly insensible, unmannerly breeched with gore. A pair of bloody daggers were strewn upon their pillows.
“There’s the victim!”, said I. “Obviously, these lads killed him while in a drunken stupor. How vile!”
“Tut-tut! Not so fast, Watson. I believe that these were merely scapegoats --- red herrings to distract us from the real murderers!”
“And pray tell me, who are they, Holmes?”
With a dramatic flourish, his face keen with excitement like a hound hard on the chase, he pointed to a couple standing next to the bed.
“These are the murderers! The Thane of Glamis and his lady, Whose hands are stained with royal blood, A stain that shall not be washed clean Until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill Shall come against him.”
“What? Why are you speaking in such a peculiar way, Holmes?” I asked in amazement.
Because we are in the Bard’s play, Macbeth to be precise. Where everyone speak in verse, Unless they madmen or villains be.
I have not the faintest idea, Watson But anything that involves ruinous-butt Cannot be good for certain.
Thou meddling spur-galled vile worm! Thou tottering base-court bum-bailey!
There she goes again, Holmes!
[LADY MACBETH slowly brandishes a blood-stained dagger]
Let us escape while we can Here take this from my hand ---
[Throws an object at WATSON]
What is this?
‘Tis the eye of newt or toe of frog, Or perhaps wool of bat or tongue of dog. I cannot be certain of its substance I pilfered it from the witches when I had the chance, And shall it be the means of our return!
[HOLMES and WATSON escape through an opening in the wall while thick fog obscures the stage]
Did I imagine it all? Were I caught in a dream, induced by certain substances that I knew Holmes habitually indulged in during those days? We never spoke of the strange incident, and the vivid memories slowly faded, but whenever I sat in front of the fire with a volume of the Bard’s works in my lap, I habitually turned to the Scottish play. I fancy that I heard these immortal words from the doomed Thane of Glamis himself and shuddered in awe.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. (less)
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Jews are stubborn.
2. Being a Jew in Princeton sucks.
3. Being impotent sucks, especially if...moreWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Jews are stubborn.
2. Being a Jew in Princeton sucks.
3. Being impotent sucks, especially if you are in love with a beautiful woman.
4. A beautiful woman is built with curves like the hull of a racing boat. Women make swell friends.
5. If you suffer from domestic abuse, the best way to work it out is by going through as many men as possible in the shortest time, and then discard them like wet tissues once you’re done --- if you happen to be pretty enough to attract scores of them, that is.
6. The best way to work out existential angst is to drink your way through France and Spain.
7. The Left Bank sucks. Being an expat sucks.
8. Spain sucks, except for the bullfighting. Bullfights are swell.
9. Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters. Bulls have no balls.
10. People who run with the bulls are suckers.
Other Random Observations
No. of times the word “swell” is used: 13
No. of alcohol units consumed by the protagonist: Dunno. Too tight to count. Hic.
Hemingway might have perfectly captured the Lost Generation’s times, but he also succeeded in inducing a profound ennui in me, especially during the long stretches in which the characters (none who is terribly interesting to begin with) do nothing except drink (“I’m a little tight you know. Amazing, isn’t it? Did you see my nose?”) and flirt with each other. These passages are tediously repetitive, and the effect is like being trapped in a Left Bank café with a bunch of casual acquaintances who insist on regaling you with boring anecdotes from their boozy Spain road trip. After a while, your eyes start to glaze and your attention wanders: you begin to take in the Belle Epogue interior, the cute waiter, the way the afternoon sun casts interesting patterns on the white tablecloth --- anything that is more interesting than the dull main narrative. I just didn’t care for any of them, and that Brett woman is a biatch. Why is everyone so desperately in love with her? They told me that her former husband slept with a gun under his pillow, but who is she really? And I wish that everyone would stop whining and being glib for a while so that they can tell me more about that wonderful Basque country. But no, they always return to these tedious, unaffecting love triangles.
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Victory or defeat in ancient Greek wars is primarily the result of marital spats and/or pett...moreWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Victory or defeat in ancient Greek wars is primarily the result of marital spats and/or petty sibling rivalry in Zeus and Hera’s dysfunctional divine household.
2. Zeus “the father of gods and men” is a henpecked husband who is also partial to domestic abuse.
3. If you take a pretty girl who is the daughter of a priest of Apollo as war booty and refuse to have her ransomed, Apollo will rain plague on your troops. And he won’t be appeased until you return the girl and throw him a ginormous BBQ party involving hundreds of cattle at his temple.
4. If an arrow or a spear were thrown at you in battle, more often than not, it would land on your nipple or thereabout. Or alternatively, it would pierce your helmet and splatter your brain.
5. Paris is a proper guy’s name, not just a name for capital cities or bratty heiresses.
6. Brad Pitt in man skirt* Achilles is the badassest warrior there ever was.
7. Real men eat red meat, specifically: a. sheep chines; b. fat goats; and c. the long back cuts of a full-grown pig, marbled with lard.
8. The most valuable booty are (in no particular order):
a. bronze tripods (each worth 12 oxens) and armors; b. swift war stallions; and c. pretty women (each worth 4 oxens, if also skilled in crafts). Lesbians are particularly prized.
9. There is nothing more glorious for a warrior than to sack enemy cities, plunder their wealth, kill all their men, bed their pretty women and enslave their children.
10. The only men who matter are warriors, but if you are a woman, the range of roles that you could play is rather more diverse. You could be:
a. a runaway wife who sparks a cosmic battle between your thuggish hubby’s city-state and your cowardly boyfriend’s (1); b. a war booty with a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome (2); c. a manipulative uber bitch (who also happens to be a goddess) (3); d. a long-suffering wife and mother (4).
(1) Helen (2) Briseis (3) Hera (4) Andromache
But whatever role you choose to play, you will still be the bone of contention between men and the armies that they lead. All the major conflicts in the story are triggered by women, or specifically by their sexuality: Helen’s elopement with Paris launched a thousand Argive ships against Troy; Agamemnon’s desire to bed Briseis, Achilles’ lawful prize, caused a nearly unhealable rift between them; and Hector’s desire to protect his wife from the dismal fate of being an Argive sex slave inspired him to fight Achilles to the death. Homer’s mortal women might be meek and mild, but his goddesses can kick ass with the best of them, and even occasionally best their male counterparts: Zeus is not above being manipulated by Hera, and Ares the God of War actually got whacked on the head by Athena.
*Troy, Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Warner Bros. 2004.
What I find most surprising about the Iliad is the amount of graphic, X-rated violence that it contains. The violence is not the biblical slaying and smiting, but something much more voyeuristically gory:
“…the one Peneleos lanced beneath the brows, down to the eyes' roots and scooped an eyeball out --- the spear cut clean through the socket, out behind the nape and backward down he sat, both hands stretched wide as Peneleos, quickly drawing his whetted sword, hacked him square in the neck and lopped his head and down on the ground it tumbled, helmet and all. But the big spear's point still stuck in the eye socket ---."
I imagine that this kind of anatomically precise, brain-splattering, gut-spilling action scenes made the Iliad popular with the Romans, who routinely went to the Colosseum to watch gladiators hack each other to death, but there is only so much of it that I could take in one sitting, which is why it took me almost three months to finish it. It is not that I’m particularly sensitive to fictional death and dismemberment --- and after all, this book is a war book --- but the sheer amount of such scenes, as well as their mind-numbing repetitiveness made for tedious reading. It doesn’t help that many of these deaths happened to seemingly throwaway characters, barely introduced in three or four lines, merely to be summarily (and gorily) dispatched in another half a dozen lines on the same page. The Iliad is assumed to be the written version of a much older oral poem, and such characters might represent collective memories of real Bronze Age warriors, but by Zeus, hundreds of pages of them being hacked, cleaved and skewered to death almost did me in.
Now, what is the purpose of such meticulously catalogued carnage? Was Homer trying to present War with all its attendant horrors to shock his audience into pacifism? Or was the old guy just trying to write an 8th century BCE equivalent of a blockbuster action-adventure movie with enough gore to satisfy his young male demographic? The Iliad both celebrates and laments the warrior spirit: the haughty pride and terrible thirst for vengeance and plunder that set men to distant shores, intent on razing cities and putting its inhabitants to slaughter, but also the stark, tragic consequences of such acts.
I actually find the gods’ politicking and manipulations more interesting than the actual war. The Greek gods are blissfully free of any human notion of morality --- which makes the problem of theodicy much more simpler to solve than in the Judeo-Christian model. The Olympian gods do not move in mysterious ways: they are moved by caprice and petty grievances. Why did we suffer such an ignominious defeat, despite all that we had done to win Zeus’ favor? Well, it happened that just before the battle was about to begin, Hera seduced him and subsequently put him to sleep with the help of Hypnos, whom she bribed with one of the Graces. A perfectly logical and very human explanation.
The story gets much more interesting in the last five books. The Olympian gods entered into the fray and the effect is sometimes like watching WWE SmackDown:
“Bloody Ares lunged at it now with giant lance and Athena backed away, her powerful hand hefting a boulder off the plain, black, jagged, a ton weight that men in the old days planted there to make off plowland --- Pallas hurled that boundary-stone at Ares, struck his neck, loosed his limbs, and down he crashed and out over seven acres sprawled the enormous god and his mane dragged in the dust.”
Or maybe an episode of Super Friends :
“How do you have the gall, you shameless bitch, to stand and fight me here? …. But since you’d like a lesson in warfare, Artemis, just to learn, to savor how much stronger I am when you engage my power ---“
The gods are “deathless”, so you know that there won’t be any lasting harm from their catfight, but the cost of battle to all too mortal men is heavy indeed. This was a time when war was as elemental as they come: no mercy was shown to the enemy on the battlefield, save one that pertained to a warrior’s honor, which was to be buried with full honors by his family and comrades. When mighty, “stallion-breaking” Hector finally succumbed to Achilles in a strangely anticlimactic duel, his father Priam went to Achilles’ camp and
“kneeling down beside Achilles, clasped his knees and kissed his hands, those terrible, man-killing hands that had slaughtered Priam’s many sons in battle.”
Troy’s old king begged for his son’s body, and in the magnificent, poignant last book, Homer showed us the real cost of war, both on the vanquished and the triumphant. By the will of the gods, Achilles’ death would soon follow: his destiny was ultimately no different from the rest of tragic humanity, fated to suffer and die by callous, immoral gods for causes that were entirely beyond their ken.
“So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men live on to bear such torments ---“ (less)
**spoiler alert** What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Spring in Hampstead is depressing. Italian trains are always late.
2. Eatin...more**spoiler alert** What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Spring in Hampstead is depressing. Italian trains are always late.
2. Eating macaroni with a knife, even though it is of the wormy, stringy variety, is an insult to a proper Italian cook.
3. Other people’s chills are always the fruit of folly, and the worst thing that could happen is that if they are handed on to you, who had done nothing at all to deserve them.
4. Being too sexy for your own good is hazardous to your mental health.
5. Clothes that are infested with thrift make you practically invisible.
6. It is difficult to be improper without men around.
7. There were in history numerous kings who had had mistresses and there were still more numerous mistresses who had had kings.
8. You shall only write books that God would read. Books about long-dead mistresses are NOT something that HE would read.
9. There are miserable sorts of goodness and happy sorts --- the sort you’ll have at a flower-bedecked medieval Italian castle by the sea, for instance, is the happy sort.
10. A flower-bedecked Italian castle by the sea can repair the most broken of marriages and induce you to fall in love with a random person.
I liked this book until the men show up at the villa; I can appreciate how Mrs. Wilkins and Mrs. Arbuthnot have been changed by their time there, but the men just basically show up at the end of the book and suddenly (cue swelling music) IT’S AMORE. Everything is suddenly hunky-dory again between the estranged married couples, although Mr. Wilkins is still steeped in his miserly, ambulance-chasing mentality, and Mr. Arbuthnot originally came not to see his wife, but to make a grab, both personally and professionally, at Lady Caroline Dester the Flapper heiress. And Mrs. Fisher’s icy crotchetiness suddenly melts for, of all people, Mellersh Wilkins, a man who still primarily thinks of her as a walking cash cow for his solicitor firm. Briggs, the villa’s owner and perhaps the most sympathetic of the men, is incredibly fickle. Having come for Rose Arbuthnot, whom he thought to be a widow, he immediately transfers his affections to Lady Caroline once he laid eyes on her supernatural prettiness. And, despite protesting against the unwanted attention from men barely a dozen pages ago, including Briggs, the author tells us, conveniently, that it’s amore for them too.
I guess I just have difficulties with accepting the villa as a sort of deus ex machina for all the characters; or perhaps I was just having a bad day when I finished the book. Or perhaps I’m secretly a repressed housewife who desperately needs a life-restoring, love-enhancing holiday at an impossibly beautiful Italian villa on the Amalfi Coast. Yeah, that’s it. Now I’m going to pester hubby about blowing out our hard-earned nest egg on some charmingly dilapidated pile somewhere sunny in Italy. (less)
North and South is a perfectly enjoyable Victorian novel. Which is to say that it is didactic, occasionally wordy, earnestly concerned with social iss...moreNorth and South is a perfectly enjoyable Victorian novel. Which is to say that it is didactic, occasionally wordy, earnestly concerned with social issues and not entirely free from sentimentality and melodrama.
The heroine, Margaret Hale, can be a tad Mary Sue-ish at times, but she is ultimately an admirable example of resilience and single-minded perseverance in the face of constantly changing, often difficult, circumstances. It is quite astounding, and at times frustrating, that such a young girl is expected to be a pillar of strength for so many others; for her father, a country parson who quits his comfortable living for conscientious reasons but is too chicken to tell his family about it; for her mother, a fragile invalid whose terminal illness must be concealed from everyone else; for her cousin, a shallow, dependent woman whose life revolves around dinner-parties; for her brother, a fugitive from justice; and even for a family of laborers who are oppressed by the harsh working conditions of the industrial north of England. From time to time, I feel the urge to smack the weak, vacillating adults around her for reserving the right to make all the life-changing decisions and then abdicating responsibility for the consequences. And yet, Margaret herself is not without flaws, for she could be proud and prejudiced against the newly rising class of Northern self-made men, mere “manufacturers” like Mr. Thornton, who due to their affluence, is able to employ her father, an Oxford-educated gentleman, as a tutor. It is interesting that she could look down on her suitor Thornton, a wealthy man who began his career as a draper’s assistant, and yet also forms an entirely sympathetic relationship with a factory hand’s daughter, someone who is several rung under him in the social pecking order. Apparently, the lower classes are perfectly fine as objects of Christian charity but are objectionable as potential spouses.
To his credit, the equally proud, taciturn Thornton himself is mercifully free from the more vulgar traits of the manufacturing class and is zealous in catching up on his education. Through his personal acquaintance with Higgins, the laborer that Margaret befriended, he even introduces reforms in his factory that is not solely inspired by utilitarian principles.
Gaskell’s writing about industrial Milton and contemporary social issues is credible and informative --- undoubtedly derived from her first-hand experience as a minister’s wife in Manchester --- but I expected it to be more detailed. I’d be interested to see the insides of the textile factory, for instance. Or to hear more about the working conditions that spark the violent riot. We get to see the interior of the on-site Thornton home, but never get into the factory itself. The workers’ arguments are mostly presented through Higgins’ monologues, and the bosses’ side through Thornton’s reasoning. This part of the story is pretty slow for me because of the way Gaskell chose to tell it, and also because of the laborer characters, who veer towards Dickensian sentimentality but are drawn without his knack for creating memorable traits for them.
Ultimately, the book’s strength lies on the vivid evocation of Margaret’s experiences and the sympathetic, yet not wholly uncritical portrayal of its characters. Aside from the main characters, the grumpy but kindly Mr. Bell and Dixon, the chronically class-prejudiced but utterly loyal maid, are particularly delightful. The prose itself is not that extraordinary --- you won’t find Eliot’s epigrammatic wit, Dickens’ intricate plotting, or Hardy’s descriptive power in it --- but it is perfectly enjoyable, very accessible and oddly soothing, considering the numerous tragedies in the story. The ending, with its last-minute romantic reconciliation is rather abrupt, but utterly believable, and the characters feel like old friends that you have known all your life. (less)
I have mixed feelings about this book. I like how Bronte used the narrative framework, with Lucy Snowe as the not always reliable narra...moreSPOILER WARNING
I have mixed feelings about this book. I like how Bronte used the narrative framework, with Lucy Snowe as the not always reliable narrator, who alternately reveals her deepest feelings while deliberately concealing certain fact/plot point from the reader. We are both privy to her innermost thoughts --- at least those that she feels appropriate to share --- while at the same time being held at a distance by her sly opaqueness and secretive nature. Jane Eyre she ain't. How Bronte utilized this framework to both tell the story and illuminate Lucy’s complex psychological states is both subtle and brilliant, and surely ahead of her time. We get to learn firsthand what makes Lucy Snowe ticks; we see her being reticent about the tragic circumstances of her early life, pining over Dr. John --- while still making excuses for his shallowness, being amusingly sardonic about the goings-on in the pensionat (secret love letters! cross-dressing as a nun!), struggling with depression, and (in a plot development that is hard to swallow --- more on this later) learning to love a man whom she previously despised.
That said, the technique also exposes us to a lot of her internal monologues, which occasionally devolve into tedious ramblings composed of melodramatic, adjective-laden sentences that seem to breathlessly run forever. Perhaps Bronte used Lucy to explore her own dark night of the soul, but somehow my eyes tend to glaze over whenever they occur.
Another recurrent theme is Lucy’s vehement anti-Catholicism and strong belief in English superiority. I have no idea whether Bronte shared the same views, but they are an integral part of Lucy’s personality and perhaps are simply a reflection of the times that they were living in. The French are shown to be similarly afflicted with national and religious chauvinism.
Eventually, love between Lucy and her “little” Frenchman, M. Paul, conquers all --- which brings us to my major beef with the story. M. Paul is a misogynist (“A ‘woman of intellect’,… a luckless incident, a thing for which there was neither place nor use in creation, wanted neither as wife nor worker.”) and control freak (“Pink or scarlet, yellow or crimson, pea green or sky blue; it was all one: these were all flaunting, giddy colours…”) of the first order. He constantly harangues Lucy about her dress, her intellect, her manners etc. ad nauseam. Sure, the man is not entirely devoid of little gestures of kindness for the lonely English teacher, and there is that big reveal about the life-long sacrifice that he made for a bunch of ungrateful semi-relatives, but he never repents of his earlier unPC-ness, and Lucy seems to happily gloss over them once they become an item. Oh, and Lucy is supposed to be fiercely independent, but at the end it is M. Paul who sets her up financially by giving her the girls school to run. Perhaps it’s better that he never returns from that business trip to the West Indies --- we never know, because Lucy is just as reticent about the closure to her story as about her early life.
3 ½ stars (1/2 star deducted for the awkward romance and rambling monologues). (less)
**spoiler alert** Daniel Deronda is not an easy book to read. If Middlemarch is a masterpiece of 19th century realism, Deronda is something else altog...more**spoiler alert** Daniel Deronda is not an easy book to read. If Middlemarch is a masterpiece of 19th century realism, Deronda is something else altogether. Like its predecessor, the narrative follows two main protagonists: Deronda, a young Englishman of uncertain parentage, and Gwendolen Harleth, a pretty, at times vain and spoiled daughter of a well-off family. The two meet by chance at the gambling hall of a swanky European watering place, where Gwendolen is doing her best to live in fashionable dissipation. The gentlemanly Deronda discreetly helps her when she loses everything at the roulette table. He doesn’t know that she is, in a sense, a runaway, and that her reason for being so is perfectly honorable. Gwendolen may share certain qualities with the shallow Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch, but she is not entirely devoid of a sense of honor.
Gwendolen has been running away from one Henleigh Grandcourt, a rich, indolent playboy who is only one life away from inheriting vast estates and a peerage. Everyone, including her widowed mother and country parson uncle think that he is a splendid catch for her. Except that Gwendolen has secretly found out that he had fathered a number of illegitimate children with another woman, whom he is now ready to discard to be able to marry her. As long as her family remains well off, she has no pressing need to marry, and she keeps fending him off. But then all the family money is lost in a speculative bubble, and what can a pretty, essentially uneducated girl of modest talents do? She wants to sing for her supper, but is told that she is not talented and tough enough to be a professional singer. The only other alternative is to be a governess, a desperate option that she despises. She is too dutiful a daughter to let her beloved mother and sisters live poorly in a dinky cottage. Therefore, she (with a little nudge from her newly impoverished family) convinces herself that after all, Grandcourt is a suitable husband material. He seems pliable enough, and with her beauty and forceful personality, she figures out that she will have the upper hand in that marriage. She is unaware that in Eliot’s universe, marriage is a noose and a husband likes to be master. Soon, she finds herself at the mercy of the possessive, passive-aggressive Grandcourt, a control freak of the first order who is jealous of his wife’s emotional dependence on Deronda.
Gwendolen is an interesting character and her dysfunctional relationship with her husband is morbidly fascinating, but the Deronda side of the narrative suffers from the lack of character development. Deronda accidentally rescues a suicidal girl, Mirah, a Jewess who had ran away from her abusive father to find her family in London. He brings her to live with the family of Hans Meyrick, a painter friend whom he has helped in the past. In the course of searching for her long-lost relatives, Deronda develops an interest in Judaism, and under the influence of Mordecai, Mirah’s terminally ill brother, even becomes a Zionist sympathizer. But how can a goyim be a (proto) Zionist and also win the hand of Mirah the Jewess (who, despite being attracted to him is dead set against miscegenation)? Cue a letter from Deronda’s long lost mother, now Contessa Maria Alcharisi, who informs him that he IS a Jew (duh). She had given him up to be raised as an English gentleman when she decided to pursue her singing ambition.
The character of the Contessa is probably the most interesting one in the Deronda strand, although she immediately exits the stage after discharging her plot duties. Among the three women who aspire to be singing stars (Gwendolen, Mirah and herself), the Contessa is the only one who manages to succeed. But to achieve it she had to abandon her son, family and race. Success for a woman always comes at a price, often a steep one.
Deronda himself, despite being given lengthy, sometimes rambling monologues, is oddly amorphous as a character. We know that he is a rescuer of distressed damsels, and that he is almost saintly, but other than that he is a blank. Even his transformation from an English gentleman to a committed Zionist is not entirely convincing. It doesn’t help that the parts in which Eliot expounds about Judaism are perhaps aesthetically among the weakest in the book. It is mostly done through Mordecai’s rambling about ‘ruach-ha-kodesh’ and other bits of Jewish lore, as well as through scenes of a meeting, where talking heads discuss --- rather abstrusely --- proto-Zionist ideas. Eliot clearly had researched the subject extensively, but the regurgitated knowledge that she presents to the reader is patchy and quite tedious to read. Mordecai himself is so much the Suffering Jew that he virtually has no personality, a fact that holds true for most of the Jewish characters. It is surely laudable that Eliot strived to present Jewish characters in a positive light in the midst of rampant anti-Semitism in Victorian Britain, but what is gained in positive characterization is lost in the believability of the characters themselves. The Jews are too busy being model minorities to be real people.
Meanwhile, Gwendolen’s increasingly creepy husband drags her across Europe on a trip, which primary object seems to be to put the farthest distance between her and Deronda. While boating off Genoa, he accidentally drowns, thus releasing Gwendolen from the ‘empire of fear’ that he had created. Deronda, who happens to be there to meet his mother, rescues her. He notes that, while she herself did not do the deed, she actively desired her husband’s death. He also discovers that, in a vindictive move, Grandcourt had altered his will to prevent Gwendolen from inheriting the bulk of his property, bequeathing it to his illegitimate son instead. The novel’s end is inconclusive; Gwendolen learns to stoically accept her situation and Deronda, after marrying Mirah, sets off for Palestine.
Despite a happy ending for Deronda and Mirah, the tone of the novel is somber, with very little of the sarcastic wit and humor that enliven Middlemarch. At certain parts, Eliot seems to abandon realism and descends into melodrama and insipid characterization, which makes it hard to continue reading. If you absolutely have to read one Eliot novel, pick Middlemarch instead.
been married off to your first cousin at seventeen?
been thrown out of the house for "mishandling arrangements to obtain a concubine" f...moreHave you ever...
been married off to your first cousin at seventeen?
been thrown out of the house for "mishandling arrangements to obtain a concubine" for your father-in-law?
been obsessed with the idea of finding a concubine for your husband?
tried to purchase an underage singsong girl to be a concubine to both yourself and your husband?
wasted to death because you failed to arrange for a live-in threesome relationship with your husband and his concubine?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions then you might have been a protagonist in this book, one of imperial China's most romantic love story, an 18th century memoir written by Shen Fu about his wife, Yun. The circumstances might seem odd to us, but it’s not difficult to understand why generations of Chinese, repressed by thousands of years of paternalistic culture, consider it to be romantic. Shen, an itinerant scholar who was chronically unemployed for much of his working life, wrote about his conjugal life with an intimate candor that was rare for his times. No, he didn’t write about that kinky threesome with the underage concubine --- it was a scheme that never came through, though I wonder whether Yun really wanted it, since we only see her through her husband’s perspective. Instead, there are scenes of him and Yun whiling away a moonlit night by drinking wine and reciting Tang poetry. Chrysanthemums bloomed around their modest, economy-sized cottage, and the ever resourceful Yun, an orphan who raised herself and her brother by taking in needlework, contrived to make movable screens out of live flowers. Shen himself is an aesthete who could devote pages on the correct way to display flowers (“When putting chrysanthemums in a vase one should select an odd number of flowers…”) and burning incense (“Buddha’s Hands should not be smelled by someone who is drunk, or they will spoil”). These scenes are among the most charming of this occasionally disjointed, rambling memoir, though I also find it rather disturbing that Shen managed to devote so much more pages to these pursuits than to their young children (who, due to their parents’ poverty and outcast status, had to be taken away to be raised by others). Shen and Yun’s lives are tragic, and their idea of marital happiness is at odds with our modern notions, yet ultimately it is their upbringing that is the strangest thing of all. The Chinese were determined that government officials should be scholars first and bureaucrats second. One of the largest empires in the history of the world was administered by a small group of men, who had not the slightest training in administration, and who knew more about the poetry of a thousand years before than they did about tax law. Imagine the government being ran by a bunch of English majors! This idea seems to me both daft and endearing at the same time --- and the real tragedy of Shen’s life (and others like him, and ultimately imperial China itself) is that at the end this is simply just not enough. (less)
Orwell's scathing denunciation of British colonialism won't win awards for subtlety, but still a powerful, unsparing account of colonial characters an...moreOrwell's scathing denunciation of British colonialism won't win awards for subtlety, but still a powerful, unsparing account of colonial characters and their tragic foibles. The humor is of a dark variety, and as the story progresses, it feels like an agonizingly slow train wreck making its way through the fetid jungles of Burma. Virtually all the characters are unlikable --- perhaps some depth is sacrificed in the interest of illustrating the excesses of the system and the people who run it --- and it seems that there is also an element of self-loathing in the writing, as well as a certain attitude about the country and its people. At least it is an unflinchingly honest and presumably accurate account of the bleakness of life in a remote Burmese colonial station in the waning days of the British Empire. (less)
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Ancient Greeks are quarrelsome and love to waste each other’s city-states for the pettiest r...moreWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Ancient Greeks are quarrelsome and love to waste each other’s city-states for the pettiest reasons.
2. From all forms of government known to man, democracy is the best. Tyrants and oligarchs suck.
3. The Persian Empire is a mighty barbarian nation, but being cowardly, effeminate and slavish, it is eventually defeated by the quarrelsome but brave and civilized Greeks.
4. Among the Greeks, the Spartans are the bravest. Gerard Butler with a six-pack King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans heroically perished in the battle of Thermopylae. They also have the particularly icky custom of marrying their own nieces.
5. The Delphic oracles are 100% accurate, except when someone manages to corrupt the Pythoness. The Gods are, however, a jealous sort and would strike any mortal who has the presumption of calling himself happiest on earth. Therefore, one should call no man happy until he is dead.
6. Egypt is a country of wonders, but its citizens’ customs and manners are exactly the reverse of the common practice of mankind elsewhere. For example, the women there urinate standing up, while the men sitting down. The country also abounds in strange fauna, among them the hippopotamus --- a quadruped, cloven-footed animal, with the mane and tail of a horse, huge tusks and a voice like a horse’s neigh.
7. The Scythians are a warlike nation that practices human sacrifice. The Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man that he kills in battle and cuts off all of his enemies’ heads, which he must show to the king to get his share of the war booty. They also like to saw off their enemies’ skulls, which they make into fancy gold-plated drinking cups.
8. The manners of the Androphagi, being cannibals, are more savage than those of any other race. Darius the Persian smote them.
9. The Atarantians, alone of all known nations, are destitute of names. The title of Atarantians is borne by the whole race in common, but the men have no particular names of their own. They also like to curse the sun because he burns and wastes both their country and themselves.
10. In the Indian desert live ants that are larger than a fox. They like to throw up sand-heaps as they burrow, which are full of gold. This is why India is so rich in gold. In Arabia, there are sheep that have long tails, so long that the shepherds have to make little trucks for their tails. Really.
Herodotus is a consummate storyteller who had a fine eye for the fantastical, although to his credit, he always qualified his more improbable assertions by stating that they are based on hearsay or other sources that he could not wholly verify. Much of the pleasure of reading his book is found in the lush descriptions of long lost nations and their exotic customs. His 'Histories' does not concern itself solely with history in the modern sense, but it is also a book of travelogue, ethnography, zoology, geography and botany. He is an excellent raconteur, almost always entertaining, except when he drones about speculative geography. We can easily imagine him, a man of seemingly inexhaustible curiosity, interviewing Marathon veterans for firsthand battle accounts, or interrogating Egyptian temple priests about their country’s history and religion. History for him is not a dry recitation of facts and dates, but an intensely human story acted by a vast cast of monarchs, queens, warriors, tyrants, gods and ordinary citizens. Regicides and rebellions are caused by personal passions, such as in the stories of Caudales and Gyges, and Xerxes and Masistes. Dreams compel Xerxes to invade Greece. Divine intervention decides the course of epic battles.
A skein of tragedy runs through the historical drama that he narrates. The gods are so capricious and jealous that “one should not call a man happy until he is dead.” Xerxes, on beholding his massive force on the Hellespont, laments that “not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by.” Yet while man lives his short existence he is capable of epic deeds, and Herodotus chronicled them all. (less)
Should be a solid 4 star, except for those mind-numbingly dull chapters where Marlow ruminates about Jim's predicament on the Patna. He's like a drunk...moreShould be a solid 4 star, except for those mind-numbingly dull chapters where Marlow ruminates about Jim's predicament on the Patna. He's like a drunken uncle who won't go home long after the party's over. But the rest is just brilliant, though the prose could be pretty dense at times. It is also fascinating to see one's own country more than a century ago through the eyes of a Polish sea captain.(less)
I suppose that a story that is so ubiquitous during Christmas time as this one needs no introduction. I can see why it has been constantly popular for...moreI suppose that a story that is so ubiquitous during Christmas time as this one needs no introduction. I can see why it has been constantly popular for more than one hundred years. I appreciate the writing and craft that goes into the story, the social commentary, the worthy morals, and the affection that generations of readers have for it. But I hated it. Yes, it's official, I'm the Grinch and (pre-reformed) Scrooge rolled into one. I have a heart made of stone, or at least something equally hard, immune to the plight of tiny, poor, crippled tots and destitute Victorian families who couldn't afford a stuffed goose for their Christmas tables.
I found the story to be simplistic, with sketchy, largely one dimensional characters, and so drenched in sugary sentimentality that it made my teeth hurt. I can deal with sentimentality, but such a massive, industrial-strength dose of it renders me comatose, instead of being genuinely moved.
*slinking away to hide under a rock until Christmas is over* (less)