My freshmen kept talking about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. They hated it. They loved it. They thought I should read it. That was regardless of whetMy freshmen kept talking about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. They hated it. They loved it. They thought I should read it. That was regardless of whether they hated or loved it, interestingly enough. So I read it. I’m glad I did.
As I try to write this review, I fear that I’m still too close to the book to sum it up. I think about it and am transported to yesterday, lying on the carpet in my living room in the afternoon sunlight, ignoring the sounds of my dog eating his stuffed toy as I stared at the last pages of the book, willing the story to continue. It’s one of those books that is hard to leave. (And it would have lovely for the story to continue because I’m dying to know how the next few years after the novel’s resolution went. How could they go?! How easy for the author to just jump decades when his characters had to deal in seconds.)
Though unorganized, my thoughts about The Book Thief are an accumulation of positives. The fragmented style of the self-conscious narrator, though seemingly a bit rudimentary at first, grew on me and offered some poignant moments. Liesel, the girl who clings to books for company and answers, writes them and destroys them, loves them and hates them, was--of course--a lovable protagonist (and a strong-willed, fiery heroine!). So many other characters were also memorable and endearing, particularly the gruff Rosa, who threatened to be the standard stifling stand-in matriarch, but fiercely cursed out those expectations and became something better. Also, simply reading a novel about the European WWII front that generally focused on non-Jew Germans was a new experience me and stretched my sympathies in more directions. I must mention “The Word Shaker,” a book within this book, if only to say that it too is hard to leave, and may not ever leave me. I, too, am haunted by humans.
“I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.”
“There would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness, too. That was writing.”
“I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”
“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race--that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”...more
A little over halfway through Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black: A Ghost Story, I began to panic. I had been gathering her bread crumbs--little biA little over halfway through Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black: A Ghost Story, I began to panic. I had been gathering her bread crumbs--little bits here and there about feathers, a flap of wings out the window, a gossamer black, an untimely death. But so many crumbs don’t make a meal. Pages later, the story hit its climax, and I waited like an entranced fledgling, hungry for some answers--more crumbs. I was reading a story that was a story of something else, but the something else was late. My desperate panic mounted, because it all hinged on the resolution. I had stayed through pages on textile manufacturing and funeral props, feverishly transversed alleyways that led to practically nothing, and perused account books with a stern eye, and I deserved to know why. To answer that looming question, Setterfield included the last two paragraphs of her three-hundred page novel.
They were good.
But still disappointing.
Which, I suppose, is kind of the point. But I’m not going to let her get out of this that easily! I wanted more. I deserved more.
I read Bellman and Black because I read The Thirteenth Tale, and, as someone who has read The Thirteenth Tale, I naturally wanted to read every single thing that Diane Setterfield has ever written. Ah, to have The Thirteenth Tale be your first published book. (Kind of like being a football star in college… “everything afterwards savors of anti-climax”.) Of course, as you may have guessed from my previous comments, the plot and resolution of Bellman can’t compete with Thirteenth Tale. And while Setterfield’s beautiful attention to detail is still quite riveting, I’d much rather watch her prose caress a book cover and extoll storytelling than explain the dyeing process or applaud a department store. (Although, let’s be honest: her study of rooks and Victorian funeral consumerism was fascinating.)
I may be a bit disappointed, but I will still do my annual “Diane Setterfield” google search to make sure I read her next book.
“Once you said a thing, it could never be taken back and would be taken up and repeated and altered and told again, no matter how misshapen and out of true.”...more
I want John Green to write the dialogue of my life. (I would also accept Aaron Sorkin, but that's for another review.) On a really, really good day, II want John Green to write the dialogue of my life. (I would also accept Aaron Sorkin, but that's for another review.) On a really, really good day, I might have one enjoyably clever exchange, or craft one deliciously cynical remark, or be shocked by abrupt sincerity, or witness a delicate verbal dance from the painfully poignant to facetious tomfoolery. But the characters of The Fault in Our Stars live, not in the literal heart of Jesus, as one character suggested, but in words. Beautiful, witty, desperate words. It may lack verisimilitude, but I don’t care; even though I can’t believe that a sixteen-year-old could speak with the consistent awesomeness of Hazel Grace, I still want to teach her/parent her/befriend her/be her. (My love of the novel’s dialogue may have led me to occasionally overlook the fairly important detail about terminal disease.)
I know there are segments of teen culture that share books like soul-secrets, joke about semantics, and fall in love with their peers’ diction. (I teach some of them. They wanted me to read this book.) But still, what I loved most about The Fault in Our Stars is that John Green created this fantastic alternate reality where reading is cool, contemplating the nature of life, death, and reality is foreplay, and even parents manage witty rejoinders. I want to live there. Can we build this world?
Maybe it’s mortality. Maybe we need to realize that we too are staring at oblivion.
It makes me happy that my students are reading this book.
“(Witness also that when we talk about literature, we do so in the present tense. When we speak of the dead, we are not so kind.) You do not immortalize the lost by writing about them.”
“The world is not a wish-granting factory.”
“Grief does not change you… It reveals you.”
“It occurred to me that the voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better again.”
“We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants. We poison the groundwater with our toxic piss, marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths.” ...more
I'm not enthusiastic about writing my Dust review. Which sadly echoes my feelings about reading it. While the early episodes of the Wool series tuggedI'm not enthusiastic about writing my Dust review. Which sadly echoes my feelings about reading it. While the early episodes of the Wool series tugged at me, Dust became that book I had to finish so that I could be done with the series and move on to something else. Perhaps it is because the early books in the series were all mystery and questions, while this last piece tried to offer sufficient answers and sufficient closure. Both were sufficient. I just wanted more.
I did like that there was a girl who ran around clutching a puppy and a book. Howey somehow put my teacher persona into his story, so that was cool.
Now this is the review I have to finish so I can be done with it and move on to something else. So uninspired. Sorry.
"There was no going back. Apologies weren't welds; they were just an admission that something had been broken. Often between two people."
"That's the problem with the truth... Liars and honest men both claim to have it."
"Were a story ends is nothing more than a snapshot in time, a brief flash of emotion, a pause. How and if it continues is up to us." (from the "Note to the Reader")...more
One of my favorite quotes, attributed to C.S. Lewis (although apparently said by a fictionalized C.S. Lewis in the film Shadowlands--thanks for the diOne of my favorite quotes, attributed to C.S. Lewis (although apparently said by a fictionalized C.S. Lewis in the film Shadowlands--thanks for the disillusionment [AGAIN], Google!), is: "We read to know we are not alone."
That sums up the experience of reading the Hyperbole and a Half book for me. Because while I chuckled at the Simple Dog's stupidity and the Helper Dog's idiosyncrasies, I was reminded of my dog. And so much more so, as the strange, bug-eyed, triangle-haired, curve of a human Brosch shared her shame, depression, awkwardness, silliness, laziness, joys, and disappointments with me, I was freed. Someone else thinks like that too?! I'm not alone. And I laughed because Brosh exists. And wrote about it. And drew it. And I'm not alone....more
I read this book six months ago, and am reminded of why I write these reviews: they help me remember what I read. As it is, The Blind Assassin is a faI read this book six months ago, and am reminded of why I write these reviews: they help me remember what I read. As it is, The Blind Assassin is a faint memory, colored by warm regards.
This is what I remember:
I felt like a researcher, delving into archives and lovingly touching worn pages, trying to put together clues and characters.
Atwood's prose took my breath away.
This is what I marked:
"Gods always come in handy, they justify almost anything."
"Any life is a rubbish dump even while it's being lived, and more so afterwards."
"Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it's noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristly stands clear."
"What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them and existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves--our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies."
"Why is it we want to badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we're still alive. We wish to assert out existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants. We put on display our framed photographs, our parchment diplomas, our silver-plated cups; we monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. It's all the same impulse. What do we hope from it? Applause, envy, respect? Or simply attention, of any kind we can get?"
"At the very least we want a witness. We can't stand the idea of our own voices falling silent finally, like a radio running down."
"What you don't know won't hurt you. A dubious maxim: sometimes what you don't know can hurt you very much."
"People cry at weddings for the same reason they cry at happy endings: because they so desperately want to believe in something they know is not credible."
"Romance takes place in the middle distance. Romance is looking in at yourself, through a window clouded with dew. Romance means leaving things out: where life grunts and snuffles, romance only sighs."
"The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date."
"So much better to travel than arrive."
"But I like my stories to be true to life, which means there have to be wolves in them."
"That's the kind of stories I know. Sad ones. Anyway, taken to its logical conclusion, every story is sad, because at the end everyone dies."
"I am not scoffing at goodness, which is far more difficult to explain than evil, and just as complicated. But sometimes it's hard to put up with."
"An odd thing, souvenir-hunting: now becomes then even while it is still now. You don't really believe you're there, and so you nick the proof, or something you mistake for it."
"When you're young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You're your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too--leave them behind. You don't yet know about the habit they have of coming back."
"But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. Hour after trivial hour, day after day, year after year, and then the sudden moment: the knife stab, the shell-burst, the plummet of the car from the bridge."
"But thoughtless ingratitude is the armour of the young; without it, how would they ever get through life?... Without the protection of surliness and levity, all children would by crushed by the past--the past of others, loaded onto their shoulders. Selfishness is their saving grace."
"What we all want: to leave a message behind us that has an effect, if only a dire one; a message that cannot be cancelled out."
"Love is giving, marriage is buying and selling. You can't put love into a contract."
"The dying are allowed a certain latitude, like children on their birthdays."
"Nothing is more difficult than to understand the dead, I've found; but nothing is more dangerous than to ignore them."
"In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It's loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road."...more
It is not a good book to read when you're in a I-haven't-taught-in-a-month-and-sometimes-I-think-teaching-is-Things about Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar:
It is not a good book to read when you're in a I-haven't-taught-in-a-month-and-sometimes-I-think-teaching-is-my-life-force funk. Because it has some compelling shit. Plath so expertly captures and conveys Esther's descent into uncertainty, depression, and paranoia that it is not only plausible, but it is also strangely engrossing.
It presents the stifling position of (white, middle class) American women in the 1950s with the same precision and pathos as the instructional videos I watched in college (to analyze, not follow) that directed wives and daughters to freshen up before the man in their life came home from work. But knowing Esther, the protagonist, made the situation more personal and real.
Even though much of the very autobiographical novel deals with the specific circumstances surrounding educated young white women in the fifties, there were moments when the prose so perfectly gave voice to the challenges young adults face in making decisions about their futures that I wanted all of my college-decision-making students to read it, if only so that they didn't feel alone. Esther's reasonable fear that choosing one path for her future effectively eliminated her chances of traveling on any other will resonate with me, I know. Though it did occur to me that, because this is such a fundamental part of the novel, I missed the ideal time in my life to read it. Here, I saw my students, when it would have been so much more compelling to see myself.
My last comment relates to that as well. Why did it take me so long to read this? As I limped through Catcher in the Rye and sped through The Perks of Being a Wallflower--heck, I can even include A Separate Peace and Looking for Alaska here--surely some part of me had to wonder where the introspective female protagonist of a coming of age story was. And, finally, I've found her....more
Hugh Howey's Third Shift: Pact disappointed me. I fear that my expectations were to blame more than the book. But my expectations were a bit justifiedHugh Howey's Third Shift: Pact disappointed me. I fear that my expectations were to blame more than the book. But my expectations were a bit justified based on the situation. It was the last book in the Shift trilogy. And Second Shift ended with a huge development that I was excited to see play out in a climactic way worthy of the series' Return of the Jedi book. But, alas, Third Shift: Pact is just a stepping stone leading to the Dust series, so, while I was eager for intense battles driven by fear, then anger, then hate, and shocking revelations about paternity, I got a lot of ambivalent wandering by Solo and ambivalent wondering by Donald.
I may have liked the book better if I liked Donald better. (Light spoilers to follow.) I have trouble attaching myself to a character who, in general, is being blindly carried along by the current all the while muttering to himself that he hates the current. He seems to just be blundering along. Sure, he stops taking his pills. But where's the revolution?! This book handed him the opportunity for a revolution and he acted like an emotional child. And, sure, his actions and attitude in book eight make a statement about the perverse control of the Silo-plotters and explore the corrupting influence of power and highlight just how damaged he is by the system, and that's all important, but I would have more willingly accepted those themes if they had been told through a more compelling character.
Solo, on the other hand, kept my interest, particularly in his relationship with Shadow.
The last reason why the book failed to excite me as much as I dreamed it would is that the Pact--the attempt at a shocking, the reader exclaims obscenities while reading on the subway revelation--wasn't a big deal to me. Books 1-7 have sufficiently proven that the Silo plan (as we previously knew it) will fail and continue to lead to more destruction than salvation, so the great conspiracy unearthed in Third Shift has little to add....more
Let’s do away with the Robert Galbraith pretense early.
If J.K. Rowling wrote a treatise on her favorite detergent or an epic on polynomial factoring,Let’s do away with the Robert Galbraith pretense early.
If J.K. Rowling wrote a treatise on her favorite detergent or an epic on polynomial factoring, I would read it. (And I would probably like it.) So step right up for a totally objective review of her most recent novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling!
Aside from spending weeks of my undergraduate and graduate careers studying “The Purloined Letter,” reading dozens of independent novel essays on And Then There Were None, picking up The Hound of the Baskervilles in high school, and eating up any out of print Encyclopedia Brown I could find in elementary school, I have had very little experience with detective novels. (So step right up for a totally objective and knowledgeable review of The Cuckoo’s Calling!) I’m not sure, then, if the way my fingers just itched for a pen and a notebook during character interviews or the way my kindle edition just refused to shut between chapters was Rowling’s doing or the genre’s. Okay, I’m pretty sure it was Rowling’s. Either way, this character-driven reader was pretty excited by the novel’s plot development, detail, and resolution. And even though I armed myself against red herrings and the character-you-least-suspect and easy targets, I thought her resolution was the perfect combination of surprising and credible. A very fulfilling mystery.
And then there are the things that Rowling just always excels in: characters, setting, words. Even though her two main characters, Robin and Strike, initially came off as inane and abrasive, it wasn’t long before Rowling challenged the very preconceptions she produced by introducing me to their endearing capabilities and complexities. Watching their relationship develop was a blast, and it is well poised to offer sufficient room for professional growth, friendly support, and sexual tension in future Cormoran Strike books. Just as with Harry Potter and The Casual Vacancy, Rowling had me completely immersed in her world, particularly with her descriptions of the paparazzi and celebrity lifestyle. And you’ve just gotta love a writer who criticizes the scandal-driven, self-congratulatory reporting of a model’s suicide, “a morality tale stiff with Schadenfreude,” by mocking their cliched allusions to Icarus. Oh J.K. Rowling. I love your words.
“How easy it was to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.” ...more
All previous Wool comments remain: complex, credible characters; epic themes built on a story about real human relationships, a sophisticated setting,All previous Wool comments remain: complex, credible characters; epic themes built on a story about real human relationships, a sophisticated setting, well-structured plot... All still very present in Hugh Howey's Second Shift: Order. So I'll talk about the new things.
Second Shift: Order introduced Mission, a young adult whose illegal birth mandated his mother's execution. Not only did his character bring a reverberating melancholy to the story, but it also allowed for some artful prose and reflections on life, death, and burdens. He's the first character since Juliette that I really love. I was interested in other characters and definitely empathized with them, but I didn't want to be their friends, like I do with Mission and Juliette.
Despite my expectations of the second book in a trilogy, Second Shift: Order may have my favorite ending so far. The resolution is clean, cathartic, and haunting, and absolutely appropriate for the world Howey's constructed. I also enjoy that the web of relationships that he draws between characters and floors and occupations and silos--a reminder that those in power's emphasis on isolation and alienation to retain power is clever, but futile--is starting to connect generations and books.
On to the next!
(And now I'm caught up with book reviews! So maybe they'll start being good again!)
On revolution: "That word means something else, you know... It also means to go around and around. To revolve. One revolution, and you get right back to where you started."
"Predict the inevitable... and you're bound to be right one day."
"When there's only God to blame, we forgive him. When it's our fellow man, we must destroy him."...more
When I go to visit my grandparents, I know what's going to happen. They'll ask me to call when I reach the 95 and explain, again, that then they can wWhen I go to visit my grandparents, I know what's going to happen. They'll ask me to call when I reach the 95 and explain, again, that then they can watch for me and open the garage. They'll order pizza when I get there. Soon after my arrival, Pappy will, with a conspiratorial grin, show me a selection of ice creams in his freezer and chips on the shelves over his washing machine. While I'm in the middle of eating large meals--or mere minutes after--Nanny will offer me more food, including the cake that she cooked for my visit. Pappy will explain that bunnies sometimes dig holes and give birth to their young in his planters. As we play cards, as Nanny draws a card, she will say that she's "just going to hold on to this one" and "trying to get something going"; she will also lament her shortage of "funny guys" and the substandard selection of cards my husband lays down for her. The morning of my departure, Pappy will get sentimental and talk about how much it means that my husband and I visit "old people" like them and enjoy it. Nanny will tear up and mutter, "You get so excited when someone's coming to visit, and, before you know it..."
The first, most important, point of this anecdote is that my grandparents are awesome. The second, more pertinent, point of this anecdote is that I can predict what they're going to do. As the reader digs more deeply into the world of the silo in Hugh Howey's First Shift: Legacy, she realizes that the misty figures behind it all base their entire world's success on the belief that they can predict human behavior--that of the mob and of individuals--more accurately and closely than I can predict the behavior of my adorable grandparents. And they bet their world on it.
This, in and of itself, is intellectually tantalizing enough to lure me into the book. Can human behavior be so closely monitored and determined? If humans seems to deviate from that behavior--as the protagonist of one of our two time periods, Troy, does--could it perhaps surprise and upset the puppeteers or have they explored all avenues of rebellion? If human behavior can be so predicted, do humans have free will? If human behavior is so thoroughly understood, monitored, and manipulated, are humans stripped of their free will? Are those conditions (human behavior being thoroughly understood, monitored, and manipulated) only present in Howey's fictional world? (Note: Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did.) Fun stuff.
While it introduces a new cast of characters and shifts its setting a bit, First Shift continues to develop on the strengths of the first five books, most enjoyably with its mystery and suspense. The books just pull you in. I will be finishing all of the Wool books before my brain is released and I can read other things....more
This Side of Paradise was F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel. And it felt like it. I imagine that the twenty-two-year-old Fitzgerald used This Side ofThis Side of Paradise was F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel. And it felt like it. I imagine that the twenty-two-year-old Fitzgerald used This Side of Paradise first as a way to grapple with his college years and then as a way to try on different styles. Sometimes the reader was so distant from the protagonist, Amory, that it felt as if I were reading the summary of a story rather than a story. Sometimes I was reading a play. Sometimes I was reading a philosophical dialogue. Sometimes I was reading poetry. It's like Fitzgerald was like, "I like to write. Look what I can do!" It wasn't deliberately experimental in the revolutionary style of Ulysses or winking-at-the-audience silliness of Tristram Shandy; it was just a bunch of different styles stuffed into one novel. This, combined with Fitzgerald's lackadaisical, rambling structure--"And then Amory met this girl. And then Amory made this friend. And then Amory went to this place. And then he met this new girl"--surprised me, as two of my favorite elements of The Great Gatsby are its concise plot and thematic unity. Apparently Fitzgerald figured that out later.
My favorite aspect of This Side of Paradise was Fitzgerald's character descriptions. (Though not of Amory. Maybe part of my problem was that I lacked interest in the self-absorbed, entitled protagonist.) But some of Amory's friends and most of his fleeting love interests were described with such precision and elegance that I couldn't decide if I longed to be able to write that way or if I longed to be described in that way.
As I copied down the following quotes, I remembered also that the culmination of the story, which, to me, became a sort of treatise of the Lost Generation, was stirring and felt very pertinent right now.
"A man can be twice young / In the life of his sons only."
"I suppose that all great happiness is a little sad. Beauty means the scent of roses and then the death of roses."
"Summer is only the unfulfilled promise of spring, a charlatan in place of the warm balmy nights I dream of in April."
"I simply state that I'm a product of a versatile mind in a restless generation--with every reason to throw my mind and pen in with the radicals."
"As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken..."...more
There's just so much that Hugh Howey's Wool does right.
It creates characters that are believable and broken and heroic--characters that the reader groThere's just so much that Hugh Howey's Wool does right.
It creates characters that are believable and broken and heroic--characters that the reader grows to know and admire so quickly, that pull the reader into emotional investment in the story.
It sets its story in a unique, very tangible world, just different enough from our own to appropriately reflect upon it.
It is unpredictable. And suspenseful. And Howey seems most at ease as a writer when he leaves his readers with unanswered questions and with mystery, which supports his themes well but also (thankfully) departs from current lets-make-everything-explicit trends (ie: Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby).
It make tough, meaningful plot choices. (Reader, be warned.)
It changes point of views, effectively destroying an overly simplistic good vs. evil moral binary.
It deals with big issues--deception, who should have power, who should have knowledge, the ethics of utilitarian-based sacrifice, government conspiracies, revolution--but grounds them in real, complex relationships between people.
It gets you.
"Killing a man should be harder than waving a length of pipe in their direction. It should take long enough for one's conscience to get in the way."...more
I live with J.K. Rowling's characters. I had assumed it was just the magic of Hogwarts that convinced me that Harry, Ron, and Hermione were my BFFs (oI live with J.K. Rowling's characters. I had assumed it was just the magic of Hogwarts that convinced me that Harry, Ron, and Hermione were my BFFs (or, rather, Harry and Ron were my BFFs, since I clearly was Hermione). But it's Rowling's magic. As I read through her muggle novel, The Casual Vacancy, a novel about a quiet English town populated with self-important and catty PTA parents, I lived with the characters. I'd find myself brushing my teeth worrying about that poor, self-destructive, bullied girl or driving to work thinking about my friend who, though a capable, independent professional, just stupidly moved to town for her disinterested boyfriend. Her characters come to life and, although the fact that I so deeply sympathize with such broken, lost, spiteful, desperate, and dissembling characters is a bit disconcerting, it's also my favorite aspect of Rowling's writing (which I admittedly adore for many other reasons).
Apart from the verisimilitude of her characters and the poignant and humorous simile-ridden descriptions of those characters (about which I'm too lazy to write a full paragraph, but which was awesome), my favorite aspect of the novel is the pervasive motif of alienation. It must be the little British Modernist in me. By shifting points of view throughout the novel, Rowling allows her reader to experience the painful feelings of isolation of her characters (as they wage war on one another, unaware of their shared experiences), so the reader just wants to grab the characters by the shoulders, shake them, and command, "Just talk to one another! You could be friends!" Of course, as always, the characters in the book don't listen. The Casual Vacancy brings Stevie Smith's poem, "Not Waving, But Drowning" to life in each of the characters' tales, as the characters, drowning in their anxiety, insecurity, or desolation, thrash around, sometimes to their own detriment and sometimes pulling their companions under. I love literature that exposes the fundamental isolation of the human experience--the limits of self-expression and empathy, the futility of finite language to carry infinite ideas, the feelings of loneliness inherent in individuality--because, depressing as they are (and The Casual Vacancy is depressing), they are essentially hopeful: by focusing on this alienation, they draw readers together in recognition of it and defeat it.
I'm sure that J.K. Rowling will always be (to those unrelated to her) the author of The Harry Potter series who wrote some other books. But I am happy to read those other books, because they still have magic in them.
"Behind every nondescript face lay a wild and unique hinterland."
"Common sense... which is the name people usually give to their prejudices."
"Choice was dangerous: you had to forgo all other possibilities when you chose."
"But who could bear to know which stars were already dead... could anybody stand to know that they all were?"...more
Terry Pratchett, one of my favorite Dickens characters, and Victorian London? Dodger seemed like a slam dunk. Alas, it was lacking, and, while I foundTerry Pratchett, one of my favorite Dickens characters, and Victorian London? Dodger seemed like a slam dunk. Alas, it was lacking, and, while I found myself very motivated to read about halfway through the story, I'm uncertain if it was because of the story's pull or my desire to finish it and move on to something else.
With so many elements in a novel--characters, setting, tone, plot, theme, dialogue, language, etc.--most novelists, consciously or not, tend to focus their attention on a couple. (I'm guessing, from my experience, that most readers do too. I tend to focus on characters, theme, and historical/social issues.) The two areas of Pratchett's focus in Dodger seemed to be plot and setting (though he eventually brought in a cool theme about subjective truth, which really redeemed the work a lot) and, even though they were central to the novel, I found both to be disappointing.
The plot of Dodger read like a poorly written video game. "Some Nobby Lady: 'Hello Dodger, I am a new character. Here is a piece of information you need to succeed on your quest. Also, can you come see me tomorrow afternoon? I will wait for you.' Conveniently knowledgeable and loyal partner: 'Wow--you were invited to see Some Nobby Lady? Here is a piece of information about her. Before you see her, you better prepare by doing this, this, and this.'" And then we watch as Dodger does this, this, and this, is interrupted by some new character that gives a new piece of information, and then goes to meet Some Nobby Lady.
The second element, setting, was actually pretty cool. Based off the writings of Henry Mayhew (a character in the novel and real historical figure who researched and advocated for the poor), Pratchett brings Victorian London to life, with details about impoverished girls selling their hair, cool slang words like "Nobby," and a cast of historical figures, like Charles Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli, and legends, like Sweeney Todd. Why am I complaining about this? Mostly because Pratchett suffers by comparison. His Merlinesque character, Charles Dickens, wrote about Victorian London with greater detail, passion, and sentiment, and, unfortunately for Terry Pratchett, I've read Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, which pretty much makes Pratchett's attempts at historical fiction look like a joke. So perhaps those who find Dickens' writing a little too dusty or sappy and those who haven't read Stephenson or are affronted by the sheer length of his books will better appreciate Pratchett's work here.
I feel like with a bit more editing to make the plot more sophisticated and the characters more endearing (seriously, Dodger should be the perfect protagonist), Dodger could have been much stronger. As it is now, it's a read to pass the time.
"The games we play are lessons we learn. The assumptions we make, things we ignore, and things we change make us what we become."
"The truth, rather than being a simple thing, is constructed, you need to know, rather like Heaven itself. We journalists, as mere wielders of the pen, have to distill out of it such truths that mankind, not being godlike, can understand. In that sense, all men are writers, journalists scribbling within their skulls the narrative of what they see and hear, notwithstanding that a man sitting opposite them might very well brew an entirely different view as to the nature of the occurrence. That is the salvation and demon of journalism, the knowledge that there is almost always a different perspective from which to see the conundrum."
"The truth is a fog, in which one man sees the heavenly host and the other one sees a flying elephant."
"War is a terrible thing, and many return with wounds invisible to the eye."
"Money makes people rich; it is a fallacy to think it makes them better, or even that it makes them worse."
"People are what they do, and what they leave behind."
"Responsibilities are the anvil on which a man is forged."...more
I am not the intended audience of Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin's Skinny Bitch. The very title offends me. I'm not sure if their title is suggestiveI am not the intended audience of Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin's Skinny Bitch. The very title offends me. I'm not sure if their title is suggestive of the supposed bitterness and spite that jealous women feel toward their more attractive counterparts or if it's an attempt to reclaim a gender-specific derogatory term, ultimately, I think, suggesting that the only way for women to be strong and take control of their lives is to become bitches, but, either way, I find it a cheap attempt at shocking the bookstore browser or earning street cred. (As the book was a New York Times Best Seller, the cheap shock appeal apparently yielded less-than cheap returns. So, while I was not the intended audience, there's one out there.)
Why did I read it? An acquaintance-level coworker insisted on loaning it to me, triggering my feelings of obligation.
Unfortunately for me, the affected "edgy" tone suggested by the title continued throughout the text. Assuming that I was a self-loathing pig, the speaker presumed to supply me an internal monologue in which I called myself fat and lazy. She also reveled in using crude language any chance she had.
The sad part is that Skinny Bitch, which ultimately promotes a vegan lifestyle for health reasons, seems to be backed by thorough, intelligent research and weighty scientific studies. But the speaker loses all credibility with her flippant, low-brow writing style.
Or did she? Four months later, I have completely given up diet sodas and, after additional nudging from the much more academic and respectful documentary Forks over Knives, I have an exclusively whole-food, plant-based kitchen at home....more
John Green's Looking for Alaska was an interesting read for me. "Interesting" is a floppy little word, so I'll clarify. A student recommended that I rJohn Green's Looking for Alaska was an interesting read for me. "Interesting" is a floppy little word, so I'll clarify. A student recommended that I read it. (By "recommended," I mean spent about thirty minutes after school gushing about how great John Green is and showing me her favorite quotes and listing all of his books in the order that they should be read and there was something about video blogs or something...) So then, there I was, reading this book that one of my high school students recommended, transported by Green's writing into the mind of a teenager, caught up in Alaska's allure and the thrill of hiding liquor from the authorities, only to realize, Oh shoot, I'm the authorities and am reading this book on the recommendation of one of those teenagers. And then it was just kind of awkward. But also a credit to Green's writing, which reinvigorated me with a sort of angsty teenage rebellion that I didn't even really know as a teenager but which still felt so familiar.
Looking for Alaska is the combination of a lower class, more heterosexual A Separate Peace and [insert some sort of appropriate modifier because I can't come up with one since I read it during the brief review-less desert in my adult life] Perks of Being a Wallflower. Which makes me wonder how many well-written books about the teen experience are framed around a slightly awkward, introspective teen who is confronted with someone so much more charismatic/risk-taking/attractive/dynamic/cool than he is and deals with it in some consequential way. Maybe that's just how many teenagers feel, so it works.
Looking for Alaska certainly worked. Green writes thoughtfully, from his characters' mundane and/or philosophical dialogue, to the very structure of his novel. I felt like that lost teen searching for belonging and purpose and answers, and, even though I am "the authorities," I'll probably do my job much better if I'm capable of doing that.
"Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia... You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you'll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present."
"Lies are attempts to hide the truth by willfully denying facts. Fiction, on the other hand, is an attempt to reveal the truth by ignoring facts" (From an included interview)....more
Like so many others, I opened Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera as a fan of the musical, eager to delve more deeply into the mysteries of the sLike so many others, I opened Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera as a fan of the musical, eager to delve more deeply into the mysteries of the sordid, yet sympathetic Opera Ghost. Aside from a more stark presence of Western European Orientalism in the formation of the dark recesses of the phantom's sadistic sanctuary and psychotic tendencies, the novel did little to further coax the specter into my presence. It's not surprising, as surely the Angel of Music is most primarily present in his music, which the novel (not being one of those preschool books with colorful musical buttons on the side) lacked. However, the novel did make me feel for Raoul and, most especially, Christine in ways that the musical never did.
One of the most interesting aspects of Christine's portrayal is that, as reader, we often studied Christine through the eyes of others. It broadened the performance aspect of the novel, further emphasizing the uncharted land between fiction and reality as, even in her daily life, Christine was an actress subject to the conceptions and misconceptions of the male gaze. It also brought up questions of identity, and how, in the muddle of the actual and the perceived, the appearance and the authentic, intention and action, it exists, particularly for a female defined by the parts she is given (in terms of her theatrical career and familial relationships).
Notwithstanding my vague (its been months since I finished this book) reflections on Christine's identity and Orientalism, the novel stands in my memory mostly as an adventure book, packed with intrigue, mystery, and action. Though it threatened to be as ornamental and foreign as opera is (to this uncultured reviewer), it was far from it. Once it got going, The Phantom of the Opera was a fast-paced trek through the backstages of the opera house and the hidden corners of the human mind.
"None will ever be a true Parisian who has not learned to wear a mask of gaiety over his sorrows and one of sadness, boredom or indifference over his inward joy. You know that one of your friends is in trouble; do not try to console him: he will tell you that he is already comforted; but, should he have met with good fortune, be careful how you congratulate him: he thinks it so natural that he is surprised that you should speak of it. In Paris, our lives are one masked ball."
"You see... there is some music that is so terrible that it consumes all those who approach it."...more
In preparation for my upcoming Mediterranean cruise, I decided to read books that take place in the various cities I will soon visit. To start off, IIn preparation for my upcoming Mediterranean cruise, I decided to read books that take place in the various cities I will soon visit. To start off, I read Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Because nothing gets you psyched up about visiting one of the most romantic cities in the world than reading about the city itself infecting its visitors with a fatal disease that the business owners try to cover up to continue reaping profits from the stupid tourists.
Actually, despite the morbid and disturbing premise, Death in Venice is quite romantic. It follows a highly celebrated writer, who, nearing the end of his life and the anticlimax of his career, takes a trip to Venice. There, he falls in love with a teenage boy, whom he generally just observes from afar. While I don't want to underplay the protagonist, von Aschenbach's, sexual attraction to the boy by making the whole thing allegorical--there was clear, substantial, physical attraction--in so many ways, when von Aschenbach stays in Venice, he falls in love with youth, beauty, passion, life, and art--all of which are so poignantly packaged in the youth with "marble-like" skin and lips of Narcissus. That the practical protagonist abandons himself to these charms truly speaks to the romance of the city and the power of the Renaissance ideals that helped build it.
A short but powerful read, Death in Venice brings the beautiful city to life (and death), celebrating the overwhelming power of attraction, the tantalizing appeal of youth, and the liberating effects of beauty, all in spite of (or because of) their inescapable end.
"For an important intellectual product to be immediately weight, a deep relationship or concordance has to exist between the life of its creator and the general lives of the people."
"These people are generally unaware of why exactly they praise a certain work of art. Far from being truly knowledgeable, they perceive it to have a hundred different benefits to justify their adulation; but the real underlying reason for their behavior cannot be measured, is sympathy."
"All truly great works exist despite of things, despite distress and pain, despite poverty, abandonment, weakness of the body, vice, passion, and a thousand obstacles."
"Grace under pressure is more than just suffering; it is an active achievement, a positive triumph."
"Even on a personal level art is a form of heightened living. It gives greater pleasures, it consumes faster."
"Do you see that poets can be neither sage nor dignified? That we always stray, adventurer in our emotions?"...more
I looked forward to reading Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome to teach to my Honors English I class for two reasons. The first is that I love House of MirthI looked forward to reading Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome to teach to my Honors English I class for two reasons. The first is that I love House of Mirth and was, at the time, reading (and loving) The Age of Innocence, so I was excited to take my love affair with Edith Wharton on a country stroll. The second reason was that, based various conversations and groans from students in other levels of honors English, it was clear that Ethan Frome had become one of those challenging rites of passage that supplied the pretentious armor of whining and experience for students in the honors track. Any book that affects students to the point where they love to hate it (and of course the select few love to defiantly love it) piques my curiosity.
Reading Wharton when she is stripped of the confines of drawing rooms, the refinement of spangles, and the art of well-mannered language that speaks without saying was still, somehow, just as engrossing and rewarding. Perhaps it's because, even in their essential differences from the sophisticated elite, her working class, rural characters retained the complexity and conflict with which Wharton endows her creations--and often in similar ways. Instead of being confined in the artifice of an embellished brocade or assigned seating based on rank, they were trapped by snow and poverty. Instead of hiding behind words and manners, they struggled to use them. The damning limits of characters to connect to one another or to achieve their potential still vibrated through the text, like the melancholy knell of a fatalistic bell.
Carlos Ruiz Zafron's The Shadow of the Wind deserves a good review. Sadly, it will not get one here. Written months after the fact, this book review wCarlos Ruiz Zafron's The Shadow of the Wind deserves a good review. Sadly, it will not get one here. Written months after the fact, this book review will not do the clever and charming story justice.
The opening of The Shadow of the Wind reminded me of the opening of Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. Like Setterfield, Zafron discovered our shared interest and capitalized on it. Hello Reader. I see that you like books. I like them too. Now join me as I walk you along corridors lined with books and let you feel their cracked spines and smell their yellowed pages.... Well if you insist, Zafron...
And then the rest of the tale follows, bibliophile to bibliophile, weaving a story for story lovers; like Daniel Sempere, our main character, we navigate our way through the maze of the novel driven by letters and tales and interpretation and a belief in the potential of the protagonist. And it is a thrilling ride.
Engrossing, eloquent, and enchanting, The Shadow of the Wind is the perfect read for the reader.
The eloquence and brilliance of these quotes speaks more to the novel's beauty than my feeble review:
"Some things can only be seen in the shadows."
"Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens."
"After a while it occurred to me that between the covers of each of those books lay a boundless universe waiting to be discovered, while beyond those walls, in the outside world, people allowed life to pass by in afternoons of football and radio soaps, content to do little more than gaze at their navels."
"Few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later--no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget--we will return."
"There's no such thing as dead languages, only dormant minds."
"Dunces and blockheads live in a state of perpetual envy."
"I felt myself surrounded by millions of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly feeling all the wiser the more it forgot."
"Presents are made for the pleasure of who gives them, not for the merits of who receives them."
"Our world will not die as a result of the bomb, as the papers say, it will die of laughter, of banality, of making a joke of everything, and a lousy joke at that."
"The words with which a child's heart is poisoned, through malice or through ignorance, remain branded in his memory, and sooner or later they burn his soul."
"A good father... A man with a head, a heart, and a soul. A man capable of listening, or leading and respecting a child, and not drowning his own defects in him. Someone whom a child will not only love because he's his father but will also admire for the person he is. Someone he would want to grow up to resemble."
"Marriage and family are only what we make of them. Without that they're just a nest of hypocrisy. Garbage and empty words. But if there is real love, of the sort one doesn't go around telling everyone about, the sort that is felt and lived..."
"But in good time you'll see that sometimes what matters isn't what one gives but what one gives up."
"There are few reasons for telling the truth, but for lying the number is infinite."
"Money is like any other virus: once it has rotted the soul of the person who houses it, it sets off in search of new blood."
"Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you."
"Few things are more deceptive and memories."
"Destiny is usually just around the corner. Like a thief, a hooker, or a lottery vendor: its three most common personifications. But what destiny does not do is home visits."
"Those who really love, love in silence, with deeds and not with words."
"Fools talk, cowards are silent, wise men listen."
"Dead does that: it makes everyone feel sentimental. When we stand in front of a coffin, we all see only what is good or what we want to see."
"When everyone is determined to present someone as a monster, there are two possibilities: either he's a saint or they themselves are not telling the whole story."
"Never trust he who trusts everyone."
"Waiting is the rust of the soul."
"While you're working, you don't have to look life in the eye."
"Making money isn't hard in itself... What's hard is to earn it doing something worth devoting one's life to."
""Nothing feeds forgetfulness better than war... We all keep quiet and they try to convince us that what we've seen, what we've done, what we've learned about ourselves and about others, is an illusion, a passing nightmare. Wars have no memory, and nobody has the courage to understand them until there are n voices left to tell what happened, until the moment comes when we no longer recognize them an d they return, with another face and another name, to devour what they left behind."
"Time goes faster the more hollow it is. Lives with no meaning go straight past you, like trains that don't stop at your station."
"COINCIDENCES ARE THE SCARS OF FATE."
"A story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise."
"Hope is cruel, and has no conscience."
"So long as we are being remembered, we remain alive."
"A book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day."...more
After reading the uplifting Death in Venice in excited preparation for my Mediterranean cruise, I decided to keep with the light, romantic tone and reAfter reading the uplifting Death in Venice in excited preparation for my Mediterranean cruise, I decided to keep with the light, romantic tone and read Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell's account of the Spanish Civil War. Because what better way to prepare for a romantic dream vacation than reading about disease and war? "Happy anniversary, honey. Let me whisper sweet nothings about a tense standoff that occurred here in Barcelona or about Orwell getting shot in the throat." I am the queen of romance.
I read Homage to Catalonia several months ago, but some key elements resonated.
First, war is messy. Lately, Americans occasionally hear about the precision of our military drones or revel in the covert genius of Seal Team 6, but reading about the broken guns; the days spent scouting for firewood yards from the stagnant enemy line; the first casualty Orwell witnessed, which occurred when an inexperienced young soldier accidentally shot his comrade; the moment when members of the opposing side gestured to Orwell that they didn't want to shoot him, but might have to, if they get the order; the exciting advance after months of nothing that resulted in the discovery of an extremely helpful tool, a telescope, which they had to abandon to escape gunfire; and Orwell's much-deserved leave that was cut short by tensions erupting to violence in the very city in which he was resting, I was forcibly reminded that war is gritty and unpredictable and artificial and boring and terrifying and cold and messy.
Second, war is complicated. Just hearing "The Spanish Civil War" prompts the naive elementary school child inside of me, the one who wholeheartedly celebrates Columbus Day and who watches cartoons with shady villains and perfect heroes, to imagine a war between the fascists and the good guys. However, as Orwell makes abundantly clear (through his significantly less clear explanations of the various Spanish and international factions involved), there were more than two sides fighting in this war. The Spanish Civil War had battles within battles, tenuous alliances with looming expiration dates, and betrayals, all of which lacked the exciting intrigue and romance of the tales of Alexandre Dumas or George R.R. Martin simply because they were so despicably real, and tenuous alliances meant insufficiently armed troops trodding into battle or dangerous slanderous news articles and betrayals meant the imprisonment of war heroes by the very people for whom they risked their life.
Third, George Orwell is awesome. After reading 1984 and Animal Farm, I pictured Orwell as the detached intellectual, sitting in his ivory tower or independent coffee shop, scrutinizing the hoi polloi and the silly little messes they get themselves into with their political allegiances. And I respected that because, well, he was good at it. But Orwell wasn't just a thinker; he was a doer. Assigned to cover the Spanish Civil War as a news reporter and moved by the plight of the worker, he rushed headlong into the war, with the same passion and fervor of Les Miserables' revolutionary scholars, but without their idealistic naivete. He dared, he acted, he risked--but he kept his eyes open and thought critically about what he saw. It's inspiring. And that alone made wading through the inscrutable details of various political camps more than worthwhile.
"And those of us who set store by ideas and ideals have never been quite able to learn that just because they do have power nowadays, there is a direct connection between their power and another kind of power, the old, unabashed, cynical power of force." (from Lionel Trilling's Introduction")
"We tried as hard as we could to believe that politics might be an idyl, only to discover that what we took to be a political pastoral was really a grim military campaign--or that what we insisted on calling agrarianism was in actuality a new imperialism." (from Lionel Trilling's Introduction")
"It has been some time since we in America have had figures in our literature--that is, men who live their visions as well as write them, who are what they write, whom we think of as standing for something as men because of what they have written in their books." (from Lionel Trilling's Introduction")
"We admire geniuses, we love them, but they discourage us. They are great conentrations of intellect and emotion, we feel that they have soaked up all the available power, monopolizing it and leaving none for us. We feel that if we cannot be as they, we can be nothing. Beside them we are so plain, so hopelessly threadbare. How they glitter, and with what an imperious way they seem to deal with circumstance, even when they are wrong." (from Lionel Trilling's Introduction")
"This is what democracy has done to us, alas--told us that genius is available to anyone, that the grace of ultimate prestige may be had by anyone, that we may all be princes and potentates, or saints and visionaries and holy martyrs of the heart and mind. And then when it turns out that we are no such thing, it permits us to think that we aren't much of anything at all." (from Lionel Trilling's Introduction")
"One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting."
"This squalid brawl in a distant city is more important than might appear at first sight."
"I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest."
"The fact is that every war suffers a kind of progressive degradation with every month that it continues, because such thins as individual liberty and a truthful press are simply not compatible with military efficiency."
"I believe that one such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with our own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan. In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events."
"Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don't worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday."...more
Disclaimer: I'm reviewing this book six months after reading it. Sad true facts: The primary reason why I review books is so that I can remember themDisclaimer: I'm reviewing this book six months after reading it. Sad true facts: The primary reason why I review books is so that I can remember them better because I have a horrible memory for books. I also make rules for myself that I cannot break, such as, "I must review every book I've read if I have yet to review it, in the order that I read them." The sum of those true facts is this pretty poorly written review for Henry James' The Wings of the Dove, hurriedly written during my Christmas break in the hopes that I'll get through all of my other book reviews--or at least enough so that I reach the point where I remember the book I'm reviewing.
I enjoyed The Wings of the Dove much more than my first foray into the world of Henry James, The Turn of the Screw. Stripped of [potential] supernatural elements and left in public parks, private chambers, drawing rooms, and dinner parties, James's prose invites the reader into his turn of the century world (but leaves them with little guidance or direction--they must make their way in this world of introductions and dissembling and mercenary plotting all on their own).
One of my favorite--and one of the most irritating--elements of the novel is that, in a rather lengthy and sometimes verbose narrative, the unspoken is of greater import than all the words on the page. It is an appropriate technique for presenting an age shackled with an imperious system of manners, and the frustration I felt after reading five pages of meandering dialogue only to discover that the real message hid in the pauses and looks paled in comparison to my admiration of the characters' verbal prowess.
I still haven't settled my opinion on Henry James. I want to like him. He's perceptive and clever and populates his novels with credible characters living in a real world, but, so far, his themes are strikingly similar to Edith Wharton's (and her novels speak to me so much more strongly), and... he's hard. I don't know if that last detail makes me less willing to read his novels or more driven to get them. I guess we'll have to see how long it is before I crack open another. Recommendations, James fans?
"The poet essentially can't be concerned with the act of dying. Let him deal with the sickest of the sick, it is still by the act of living that they appeal to him, and appeal the more as the conditions plot against them and prescribe the battle. The process of life gives way fighting, and often may so shine out on the lost ground than in no other connexion" (Preface).
"Of course, as every novelist knows, it is difficulty that inspires; only, for that perfection of charm, it must have been difficulty inherent and congenital, and not difficult 'caught' by the wrong frequentations" (Preface).
"The enjoyment of a work of art, the acceptance of an irresistible illusion, constituting, to my sense, our highest experience of 'luxury', the luxury is not greatest, by my consequent measure, when the work asks for as little attention as possible. It is greatest, it is delightfully, divinely great, when we feel the surface, like the thick ice of the skater's pond, bear without cracking the strongest pressure we throw on it. The sound of the crack on may recognise, but never surely to call it a luxury" (Preface).
"Though a word to the wise was doubtless, in spite of the adage, not always enough, a word to the good could never fail to be."
"That's the way people are. What they think of their enemies, goodness knows, is bad enough; but I'm still more struck with what they think of their friends."
"I do everything. Everything's this... I'm doing it now. One can't do more than live."...more
So, I read this Edith Wharton book, and, in it, the two main characters were conflicted. They were torn between their love for one another and their sSo, I read this Edith Wharton book, and, in it, the two main characters were conflicted. They were torn between their love for one another and their sense of duty to a society that they simultaneously despised and admired. They couldn’t decide whether they should act on their personal understanding of integrity or the appearance of propriety. Their actions fluctuated between impulsive choices erupting from deeply-rooted feelings and calculated decisions mandated by their turn of the century-influenced egos. Their language, at times, was shrewdly cryptic, decorated with the ornaments of manners; at other times, it was inadequate and bare. Okay, that’s every Edith Wharton book I’ve read. But somehow every Edith Wharton book I read, despite its similarities to others, comes to life in its own unique way, with the vitality of its heroine echoing through its sterilized gilded halls. Such was the way with Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.
I want to be best friends with Edith Wharton, but I’m a little scared of what she’ll say behind my back. In a single phrase, she can strip away the artifice of the privileged, and, in a novel, she can demolish the facades of elite society, so that the reader is left peering onto the teetering scaffolding that’s threatening to crush them all. Yet somehow she manages, like her lead characters, to critique the society as an outsider with ruthless, cutting eyes, and as an insider, with emotional attachment and empathy. From her minute descriptions of the pressures and pleasures of a wedding day to her constant, dynamic foiling of the budding, virginal May and the worldly, questioning Ellen, which recognizes the weaknesses, strengths, innocence, and impurities of both (and the relationships between their personalities, society's standards, and male expectations in terms of the characters' development and reception), Wharton brings a keen eye and slightly broken, but still hopeful, heart to her treatment of the elite New York society. It's so crushingly human.
Edith Wharton speaks to me. I believe her characters; I feel their anxieties, triumphs, and pains. I will definitely continue working my way through her books, however similar they seem to be.
“Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.”
“The worst of doing one’s duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else.”...more
I finished reading Henry James's Turn of the Screw six months ago.
Reasons why this book review will not bReason why this book review will not be good:
I finished reading Henry James's Turn of the Screw six months ago.
Reasons why this book review will not be favorable:
I don't like being scared, so I kept a careful distance from the plot's action, avoiding the chills that the beautiful, yet mysterious children's strange actions and the sudden appearances of shady figures may have caused.
I didn't give the novella the time and thought necessary to adequately explore the cool psychoanalytic questions of whether ghosts actually appeared, what was with the governess's apparent obsession/avoidance of her male boss, how much the governess was haunted by the apparitions of her predecessors, etc. Or to consider the element of storytelling involved in a framed frame-story.
So, Henry James, it's me, not you. I hope we can put this all behind us now, since I'm started your significantly longer and (according to the introduction) more challenging novel, Wings of the Dove, yesterday....more
I thoroughly enjoyed E.M. Forster's A Room with a View. It was a leisurely, enjoyable read, both artful and accessible, with compelling characters andI thoroughly enjoyed E.M. Forster's A Room with a View. It was a leisurely, enjoyable read, both artful and accessible, with compelling characters and a thoughtful agenda.
The appeal of A Room with a View, for me, was not in its romance element. (This paragraph contains very slight spoilers, or might lead the reader to infer slight spoilers.) On the Meg Ryan + Tom Hanks romance scale, A Room with a View weighed heavily on the side of Sleepless in Seattle (the eyes meet, look of passion and meaning, meant to be, soul mate style romance) rather than on my preferred side, You've Got Mail (the compatible interests giving rise to intellectual exchange, emotional vulnerability, and mutual admiration style romance). A well-designed two suitor novel, A Room with a View had me strongly convinced that Lucy should not be with Suitor X and, by default, that she should be with Suitor Y, but I didn't close the novel (figuratively, since I read it on my uncloseable kindle) confident in my protagonist and her chosen suitor's future bliss. (Apparently some versions of the novel have an additional epilogue that gives the reader even less cause for confidence.) On a side note, I can't help thinking that, if A Room with a View had been published a hundred or even fifty years earlier, Suitor X would have been the proper choice and Suitor Y would have been universally accepted as the cad (a musing I find really, really interesting).
Where A Room with a View got me was with its well-developed motifs and social critique. I loved the way Forster alluded to the novel's title deliberately throughout the text, with well-placed closed windows or distant hills. He made me want to underline each passage and put them side by side and then write a painfully predictable paper that's been written and rewritten by undergraduates for the last century, but that begs to be written because it's there, so comfortingly and beautifully there, over and over again. And, of course, Lucy's piano playing, which provides the brief view into her generally closed-off emotional interior. I just love patterns like that, that I can trace page to page, until they form the perfect thematic map for the novel. It's so gratifying. It makes me trust in the author's vision and applaud my own.
Forster's social critique was compelling and thorough. He made the reader want to violently shake the sheep of cultured society that scoffed at genuine, unpretending kindness if it wasn't delivered in a backward, sanitized, ritualized way. He let his characters voice complaints about the confining expectations for middle-class women and then (thank goodness!) gave his protagonist a way out that wasn't a cool dip in the ocean. Lucy certainly does not spring out of the pages of A Room with a View with the charisma and fire of some of her fictional female predecessors, but she is still so worthy of a future beyond the heavily curtained parlor windows.
This review started so slowly and now I feel as if I would write more, but I'll end it here. Well, with a few quotes:
"Residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little--handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker, their one anxiety to get 'done' or 'through' and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl."
"Our phrases of approval and of amazement are so connected with little occasions that we fear to use them on great ones. We are obliged to become vaguely poetic, or to take refuge in Scriptural reminiscences."
"Passion should believe itself irresistible. It should forget civility and consideration and all the other curses of a refined nature. Above all, it should never ask for leave where there is a right of way."
"The cause of Comedy and the cause of Truth are really the same."
"You are young, dears, and however clever young people are, and however many books they read, they will never guess what it feels like to grow old."
"Passion does not blind. No. Passion is sanity, and the woman you love, she is the only person you will ever really understand."
"Life.. is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along"
"It isn't possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal."
"When I think what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love--Marry him; it is one of the moments for which the world was made."...more
I read Yann Martel's Life of Pi because one of my closest friends wanted to make it required reading for freshmen at our school, which, of course, madI read Yann Martel's Life of Pi because one of my closest friends wanted to make it required reading for freshmen at our school, which, of course, made me curious about it. Now that I've read it, I think it's a brilliant choice. The story of a teenage boy stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger is suspenseful, moving, shocking, and altogether more powerful than my review can convey.
Life of Pi has all the components of a fantastic adventure story. In Piscine "Pi" Patel, Martel has the perfect protagonist for such a tale. Pi is so gentle and loving that, as a reader, I just wanted to shelter and protect him. But then, on top of that, he is analytical, industrious, courageous, and strong-willed--a survivor. It's a great combination of qualities, first because it makes him a protagonist you want to unreservedly root for, and also because it shows that Pi truly chooses to act with kindness, gentleness, and compassion (which fits in well with the novel's carefully-constructed,-was-there-all-along,-but-then-seems-to-sneak-up-behind-you-and-grab-you theme). The story itself is full of suspense, heartbreak, and--above all--tension. Martel powerfully conveys that constant, aching, tingling-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling of the imminent pounce. Even the most relaxed moments on the raft with the tiger are enjoyed with a slight reservation; each small action--Pi collecting water, seeking shelter during a storm, relieving himself--have potentially disastrous consequences, and Pi's constant awareness of this, even if it's presented in his encyclopedia-style, analytical way, creates palpable, edge-of-your-seat tension.
But Life of Pi is far from just an adventure story. What I really loved about it is its brilliantly conveyed theme. (Martel's presentation of the theme, ironically, reminds me of John Milton's use of Satan Paradise Lost: your very reading of the text makes you complicit with the theme. It is just ingenious storytelling.) I can't write too much about this aspect though, without spoiling it for you. I'll just say that Life of Pi promises to be a story that will "make you believe in God". I wouldn't go that far. If the collection of powerful archetypal stories essential to the history of world religions haven't convinced you, Life of Pi won't. If anything, after meeting Pi and immersing yourself in his worldview, Life of Pi might make you believe in religion (which, considering the current climate of radicalism, intolerance, and dysfunction, might be an even greater leap of faith).
"That's what fiction is about, isn't it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring about its essence?"
"If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination and the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams."
"When you've suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling."
"The reason deaths sticks so closely to life isn't biological necessiy--it's envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivious lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud."
"I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he's not careful."
"A house is a compressed territory where our basic needs can be fulfilled close by and safely."
"To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."
"For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart."
"I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease."
"Survival starts by paying attention to what is close at hand and immediate. To look out with idle hope is tantamount to dreaming one's life away."
"Isn't telling about something--using words, English or Japanese--already something of an invention? Isn't just looking upon this world already something of an invention?... The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn't that make life a story?"...more
It is incredibly unfair to George R.R. Martin, the talented author of The Song of Ice and Fire series, that my reading of its fifth book, A Dance withIt is incredibly unfair to George R.R. Martin, the talented author of The Song of Ice and Fire series, that my reading of its fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, was defined by the time I spent not reading the novel. My reception of first two-thirds of the book was colored by the years I spent waiting for it. I was like an emaciated player who, weeks into Survivor, won a food rewards challenge. There, in front of me, was the dish I had been craving for what seemed like forever. I had imagined every piece of it, fantasized about tasting that first chapter, dreamed of savoring each precious bite. And here I was, devouring it, recklessly, hardly tasting it, gorging myself like a starved beast, without manners or musings. The last third was tainted by the bitterness of its limits. I knew I would be hungry again. Soon. I knew Dance would leave me reeling, feeling sick and alone, with no help in sight, and that no one--save those other poor fools who stuffed themselves--would understand.
It's unfair because, had the next book been waiting, reassuring me of my continued feast, I might have behaved in a more healthy manner. As it is, I remember the novel as a violent, gratifying, but (sadly) unfulfilling blur.
This review may contain spoilers about the first four books in the series.
Once again, George R.R. Martin dazzled me with his character development. "Character development" seems far too weak a phrase--the sort of terms we'd use to describe the changes a teenage protagonist undergoes after losing that key sports game or something--when Martin's characters are pummeled by war, slavery, torture, mortality, defeat, deception, betrayal, disfigurement, and other extremes that have the power to utterly transform them, yet in ways that, given the circumstance, feel tangible and realistic. (One character's transformation is so shocking (yet understandable), that I still swear under my breath when I think about it, weeks after finishing the book.) Martin's intrigue-laden, violent plot stretches and tugs at his characters so that they have no choice but to grow... or break. But it's not just that Martin's some sadistic story god, whose characters are "as flies to wanton boys." At least I don't think that's it. The obstacles his characters face appear to result organically from their choices, character, and world.
My biggest complaint about Dance is that it ended. As the chronology of Dance caught up with A Feast for Crows and the narrative widened to allow for the full spectrum of point of view chapters (with some notable p.o.v. characters nearly absent or missing entirely *chews fingernails*), the plot slowed. It was as if, as the reader, I was playing that horse racing carnival game, where your horse travels increments based on the score of the hole you can roll the ball into, but I was playing for every single horse, racing from stool to stool, watching them edge bit by bit, one by one, toward the finish line. Dance ends before the race is even halfway through. Whereas the first three books tended to have some plot resolutions for subplots or characters, both Feast and Dance are so concerned with building the Megaplot that Dance was pretty much Act II, rising action, with a few touches of Act III, climax. While this gives me great hope for the final two books, it also leaves me reeling, feeling sick and alone, with no help in sight, and no one--save those other poor fools who await The Winds of Winter--understands.
"A book can be as dangerous as a sword in the right hands."
"The man who does nothing also takes a risk."
"Power tastes best when sweetened by courtesy."
"A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies... The man who never reads lives only one."
"The only time a man can be brave is when he is afraid."
"Men's lives have meaning, not their deaths."...more
Not only does Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay, the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy, finally confront the real problem--the tyrannical and abusive CNot only does Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay, the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy, finally confront the real problem--the tyrannical and abusive Capitol, led by President Snow--rather than the symptom of the problem--the Hunger Games--but it does so in an action-packed, addictive, and--most importantly--sophisticated way. Throughout Mockingjay, I felt two things: devastated and impressed. This is because Collins repeatedly made decisions that were at once more difficult to take and also more mature, realistic, and admirable. I will highlight two of these such choices in my review.
It would have been easy to make Katniss special, but, instead, Collins used her final book to emphasize that Katniss is ordinary. (Now don't get me wrong. Katniss is special in her integrity, determination, courage, and compassion. She has personality traits and skills that make her a loveable protragonist and inspirational individual. But that's not really what I mean here.) First, it would have been easy to use Katniss' situation to feed into the audience's egocentrism. Generally, we cling to the idea that our suffering is different from everyone else's suffering; we are so convinced that no one understands our hardships that we often take pride in them, as if they distinguish us. Collins doesn't let us do that with Katniss. As we learn more about the plight of other tributes--Peeta, Hagmitch, and (particularly moving for me) Finnick--we realize that Katniss' seemingly exclusive suffering at the hands of Snow does not distinguish her, but instead places her within a community of (rather broken) peers. Furthermore, Katniss is not the Mockingjay because of any of her specific traits, skills, or values, but instead because of something she's grown to symbolize, something that is sometimes far removed from her identity. She's no Chosen One destined to save her society; she's a bright, strong, and resilient girl, but, as far as the rebellion is concerned, she's just a girl who became a symbol.
Secondly, it would have been easy to place Katniss in a rebel camp that was unquestioningly good: one that, if things ended right, would have a ceremony for Katniss,during which inspirational music composed by John Williams would ring throughout the sparkling new society and wookies would cheer as a princess with an unusual hairstyle placed a medal around Katniss' scar-free neck. But Collins didn't. Once again taking a more realistic (and painfully cynical) stand, Collins created a rebellion already marred by deception and corruption. In this bleak world, there is no fairy tale ending. There are, however, brave, self-sacrificing individuals working for a better world....more