Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Giving a Hated High School Read a Second Chance

Creepy eyes.  I get it--I think--but I
don't like it.
The Great Gatsby.  In high school we had to read this book, and while I didn't actually hate it, I was highly irritated that my teacher was swooning over something that, to me, was depressing and didn't have a point.  And I really dislike the traditional cover, which means more to me than I often care to admit.  I prefer something that gives a better sense of the time...which is why, when I saw the audio-book version had a much more pleasant illustration, I was much more willing to give the book another go (also, being read by Tim Robbins was a great selling point).

And so I bought it.  And so it sat on my shelf for years.  Despite my grand intentions of developing my audio-book skills, the reality is that I'm very rarely alone for any substantial amount of time.  I've homeschooled at least some of my kiddos for the past four years--and those little people can talk.  But a small miracle occurred this week: I was in the car by myself for a whole 7 hours or so while we drove from Southern California to Northern California.  Understand that this is a good thing: an island of bliss amid an ever-present sea of conversation.
Now that's a cover I can love.
Can't you hear the jazz?

It was brilliant.  This book that I always thought had no point said so much.  This book that I was convinced lacked hope had wisdom mixed in with the heartbreak.  The writing was beautiful (though not so sure about that chapter-length list of names) and Robbins was a great narrator (for the most part--the girls' voices were a little odd, but the men's voices had so much character that overall it was wonderful).  There were parts that I wished I could stop and re-read and ponder, but it's hard to do that when you're driving and listening.  :)

I hadn't planned on getting to this book this year, but am glad the opportunity arose.  (I'm totally using it as one of my Back to the Classics Challenge books too!)  Have you read (or reread) Gatsby?  Did you like it?  And what about those covers?  I'm on the hunt now for a nice print copy of this book.  Nice cover is a must.  When I get back to SoCal I'm heading over to my local bookshop: Gatsby Books.  They're bound to have a copy or two, right?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Officially Calling it Quits

Throwing in the towel, waving the white flag of surrender, kaput, finis, done.  No more novellas for me.

I know...there are four days left of the month: prime reading time!  But my brain is saturated with classic writing and I'm subconsciously digging in my heels.  I want to read something simpler, more lyrical, new and fresh.

I want to read something that is not next in the stack.

So...even though there are all kinds of interesting novellas still waiting to be read...they are simply going to have to wait a little while.  I may read them intermittently through the next few months; it's just as possible I may wait until next summer to finish them up.

A Final Look: left=read, right=unread
What I've learned:
  • There are oh-so-many classic authors that are delightful to read. I've found many authors that I'm exited about, and thrilled to have exposure to so many more than I did less than a month ago.
  • Russian authors feel SO much older than their American contemporaries.  Makes sense, I guess, but still...wow.
  • My dislike for the ocean is a bit more than a preference after all.  Turns out it has the power to make words swim on the page and thoughts swirl in my head.
  • I CAN read intentionally--purposefully--and enjoy it.  My TBR shelves are no longer as intimidating as they once were.
  • I needn't be afraid of Dostoevsky.  Or anyone else for that matter.  An author's writing may not be to my taste, or the right fit for the time in my life, but that's okay because there are others who are.  I just need to stick with them.
  • Reading 28 books in a month is totally do-able.  Classic outweighs short length, right?

What's next:
First up is Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante.  This was the most recent Indispensable book, and the first page has me hooked.  There are a lot of others that I'm looking forward to as well...let's see how well I switch from a preset list to reading by whim alone. :)  As much as I'm ready to read according to my mood, I'm also feeling the end of the year encroaching already...nominations for the Indie Lit Awards open soon, can you believe it?

Other books replacing the novellas on my end table are Down From Cascom Mountain, Yeats is Dead!,  and Maus.

Thanks to Frances of Nonsuch Book for coming up with the idea, and Melville House Publishing for the brilliant collection of books, and all of you for your encouragement and support!



Saturday, August 27, 2011

#28: The Duel, Joseph Conrad


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The Duel
by Joseph Conrad
-born in Ukraine, 1852
-115 Pages
-more about Conrad (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was born in Russian-controlled Ukraine to landless aristocrat Polish parents.
- His father, a translator of French literature, was convicted of revolutionary activities for Polish independence in 1861 and the family was exiled to Russia, where both parents soon died. Josef was raised by relatives.
- After a failed love affair in 1878, he suffered a gunshot wound to the chest...perhaps as a result of a duel or suicide attempt.
- After 2 decades of sailing the world, at age 36 Conrad retired, married, and began writing tales based on his life at sea.  He settled in London, as he had become a British citizen, officially changing his name to Joseph Conrad.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
This exciting, swashbuckling thriller, based on a true story, is unlike anything else in Joesph Conrad's oeuvre.

It tells the brilliantly ironic tale of two officers in Napoleon's Grand Army, the cool-headed Lieutenant D'Hubert, and aggressive young officer on the rise, and the hot-tempered Lieutenant Feraud, a fierce warrior also known far and wide as a brilliant duelist.  Both men, it turns out, have the perfect temperament for dueling, as the discover when, under a meaningless pretext, Feraud challenges D'Hubert.  They fight each other to a standoff...until the next time Feraud sees D'Hubert, and again throws down the gauntlet.  They will fight again, and again, across warzone after warzone, as Napoleon's army marches across the continent and back.

Both satiric and deeply sad, the masterful tale treats both the futility of war and the absurdity of false honor, war's necessary accessory.  This is its first-ever publication as a stand-alone volume.

My Impressions:
My third encounter, out of five, with an "urgent affair of honour" followed suit by being another brilliant story.  At once quick to read and epic in scope, this is a tale that should really have the option to experience the extended version.  I enjoyed the contrast offered by the difference in personality of the two officers; the character's personalities were shown so plainly in so few words.
"That's amusing," said the elderly surgeon.  Amusing was his favourite word; but the expression of his face when he pronounced it never corresponded.
The view on the war (and on the sense of honor that brought the duel about) seemed to hold a good balance between respect and humor.  Conrad's serious look at the ridiculous made it possible to relate various circumstances, and caused me to reflect on those accidental encounters that can change the flavor of life.  What do we allow more control in our lives than it deserves? Is our focus in the right place?
Now that his life was safe it had suddenly lost its special magnificence.
Sometimes contrast, looking at extremes, can help us see the obvious.  It puts everything into perspective somehow.  Conrad did an excellent job of holding these contrasting lifestyles in focus, allowing the reader the opportunity to get the most out of the story.

Friday, August 26, 2011

#27: The Beach of Falesa, Robert Louis Stevenson

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The Beach of Falesa
by Robert Louis Stevenson
-born in Scotland, 1850
-116 Pages
-more about Stevenson (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)

- Robert Louis Stevenson's father was a prominent engineer, famous for building lighthouses, but Stevenson's earliest interests were literary.
- He studied law but never practiced.
- Suffering from lifelong respiratory illness, he traveled extensively in search of a beneficial climate.
- His first book was a travel book about a French canoe trip, but he soon branched out into poetry and fiction.



Synopsis: (via Melville House)
Originally censored by its British publisher, The Beach at Falesa is a scathing critique of colonialism and economic imperialism that bravely takes on many of the 19th Century’s strongest taboos: miscegenation, imperialism, and economic exploitation. It does so with a story that features a surprising and beguiling romance between an adventurous British trader and a young island girl, against a background of increasing—and mysterious—hostility. Are the native islanders plotting against the couple, or is it the other white traders? The result is a denouement that is astonishing in its violence. Told in the unadorned voice of the trader, it is a story that deftly combines the form of the exotic adventure yarn with the moral and psychological questing of great fiction.

My Impressions:
Adventure stories, in general, just aren't my thing.  I crave for deep thought, realization, conversation--that, to me, is adventure.  I like getting down to the heart of the matter: inside people's heads.  This story does expose some very deep issues, it isn't as if there aren't some layers here, but it was just way too much small-island-remote-ocean-confusing-dialect for my taste.  Most of the eye-dialect I couldn't get my brain around, though a lot of the other wording was entertaining (also somewhat baffling--anyone up to translating the bolded portions below?)
...the women of Falesa are a handsome lot to see.  If they have a fault, they are a trifle broad in the beam.
There's meat and drink in it too, and beer and skittles...
The idea of a square thing that was alive and sang knocked me sick and silly.
There's no manner of doubt that she's an A 1 wife. 
 So maybe I won't be re-reading Treasure Island any time soon; I've probably discovered the reason I don't remember much of it.  Come to think of it, I remember remarkably little of Lord of the Flies too...I'm sensing a theme.  I hope the next novella doesn't take place on an island.  They're just too...oceany.

#26: The Horla, Guy De Maupassant


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The Horla
by Guy De Maupassant
-born in France, 1850
-74 Pages
-more about Maupassant (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- After serving in the Franco-Prussian War, Guy De Maupassant studied writing with his mother's friend Gustav Flaubert (perhaps believing rumors, which persist, that Flaubert was his father).
- In 1880 he published his first story, "Boule De Suif" which was hailed as a masterpiece.
- He published more than 300 stories and 6 novels.
- In the late 1880s he began to show signs of syphilitic mental illness, and in 1891 was institutionalized after a suicide attempt.  He died in a mental asylum in 1893.


Synopsis: (via Melville House)
This chilling tale of one man’s descent into madness was published shortly before the author was institutionalized for insanity, and so, The Horla has inevitably been seen as informed by Guy de Maupassant’s mental illness. While such speculation is murky, it is clear that de Maupassant—hailed alongside Chekhov as father of the short story—was at the peak of his powers in this innovative precursor of first-person psychological fiction. Indeed, he worked for years on The Horla's themes and form, first drafting it as “Letter from a Madman,” then telling it from a doctor’s point of view, before finally releasing the terrified protagonist to speak for himself in its devastating final version. In a brilliant new translation, all three versions appear here as a single volume for the first time.

My Impressions:
Even more fun than discovering manners and customs of bygone eras (possibly because it is rarer to find) is stumbling upon the superstitions and scientific studies.  It is like the coveted behind-the-scenes look into something otherwise romanticized or villanized.  It's always fun to see that people have been pondering ghosts and aliens for quite some time:
"If other beings besides us exist on Earth, why didn't we meet them a long time ago?"
We might reason that, ever since man began to think, he has had a premonition and a dread of some new being, stronger than her, his successor in this world, and that, feeling him nearby, yet being unable to foresee the nature of this master, he has created in his terror the entire fantastic population of occult beings, vague phantoms born from fear.
What is special about this volume is that it actually contains three different versions of the same story.  What an unexpected gold mine that was for me!  I love the creative process in all its stages--the way an idea or feeling can end up in such different places all depending on a few simple decisions--so reading the same story composed in three different ways was just the thing for me.  They really were rather different and I found it very enjoyable to compare.  The writing was at times beautiful and at times [perhaps unintentionally] funny (examples below) and I flew through the book with a smile on my face.
Beautiful:
We are so infirm, so helpless, so ignorant, so small, we others, on this spinning grain of mud mixed with a drop of water.
Funny:
Why should it be surprising if our eye cannot see a new body, one that evidently lacks the property of blocking light rays?  Can you see electricity?  And yet it exists!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

#25: The Awakening, Kate Chopin

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The Awakening
by Kate Chopin
-born in America, 1850
-214 Pages
-more about Chopin (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Kate Chopin was born to an Irish immigrant father and French-American mother, and at 20 married the owner of a New Orlean's cotton brokerage.
- Widowed after 12 years of marriage, Chopin found herself left with six children and a deeply indebted business. She sold the business and moved to her widowed mother, who died soon after.
- Deeply depressed, Chopin was advised to try writing as a form of therapy and potential income.  She was quickly successful, often writing of Creole culture.
- She became a virtual pariah in her hometown after publishing The Awakening.  Crushed, she published less and less.  In 1904 she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while visiting the St. Louis World's Fair with her children, and died two days later.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
When it was first published in 1899, The Awakening was universally vilified for its frank discussion of female sexuality and the oppression of women.  Willa Cather called it "sordid," others called it "immoral," and its publication effectively ended Kate Chopin's theretofore successful career.

But this story of a New Orleans woman trapped in her marriage has also come to be seen as more than just a proto-feminist classic; it's now recognized as one of the most influential works of the nineteenth century.  In its dazzling blend of psychological acuity, complex characters, and exotic locale, it is, simply, a moving and absorbing work of literature.

My Impressions:
This book wasn't what I was expecting.  I thought I was in for a 200+ page slog through a depressing, poetic pity party; instead I found fluid writing laced with humor.  The subject matter was still rather depressing to me, but it was made better by the portrait of Creole culture and the fact that it was a pretty quick read.  A taste of the manners and humor is apparent from the beginning:
The parrot and the mockingbird were the property of Madame Lebrun, and they had the right to make all the noise they wished.  Mr. Pontellier had the privilege of quitting their society when they ceased to be entertaining.
What prevented me from really enjoying this book was the main character.  Mrs. Pontellier was shallow, and let her emotions dictate her actions to such a degree that she never really knew why she thought or felt as she did.  She couldn't properly explain why she was doing the things she was, and honestly...I felt as if she made a case for being touched with a bit of madness.  It's one thing to buck convention and know what you are doing and why, but it didn't seem to me that Mrs. Pontellier's brain ever really touched solid ground.  The clearest picture of her was towards the beginning:
In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman.  The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle.  It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened theri precious brood.  They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings a ministering angels.
Bitter much?  The idea of the mother-woman is quite similar to Dostoevsky's idea in The Eternal Husband, and it really is an idea that is worth exploring.  I can't say that Chopin did it as eloquently as Dostoevsky, (nor as subtly and expansive as Willa Cather,) but I'd hardly expect that.  So...Mrs. Pontellier knows that she desires more than she has, that she isn't content with being wife and mother: the socially esteemed domestic goddess, but she never delves into the issue much more than that.  That's what is sad.  Not that she wasn't supported in her desires and ideas, but that she didn't even really know what her desires and ideas were.  At least the writing added some levity:
Miss Highcamp played some selections from Grieg upon the piano.  She seemed to have apprehended all of the composer's coldness and none of his poetry.  While Edna listened she could not help wondering if she had lost her taste for music.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Challenge Musings: the Home Stretch

Well, I've made it through the temptation of new books, I've made it through the distractions of a very busy month, and I've found myself in the home stretch with just over a week left in the month. Up until the last few days, I'd been keeping up pace, finishing at least one novella a day.  Crazy that.  Usually weekends are the time when I'm able to get some reading done, but August has worked against me on that end--my weekends have been abnormally busy.  The month is 74% complete, and the novellas are 57% complete.  Time has just sped by (surprise surprise).


I have to admit that I'm starting to crave some simpler fare to throw into the mix.  And some nonfiction.  Last week I was thinking that I'd just continue on with the novellas until they were finished, this week I'm thinking I could use some furniture rearrangement.  There are still so many enticing titles ahead of me; I'm especially eager to read The Hound of the Baskervilles.

My pace is slowing, that's undeniable, but I've successfully delivered my girls to kids camp, so my next couple of days have extra time.  You never know what can happen with extra time.  Until my final report next week, wish me luck!

#24: The Country of Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett


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The Country of Pointed Firs
by Sarah Orne Jewett
-born in America, 1849
-158 Pages
-more about Jewett (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Sarah Orne Jewett was born in the small seaport of South Berwick, Maine, where her father was a doctor.
- From an early age she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and was unable to attend school on a regular basis.  She supplemented her education with her father's library, which led to a passion for literature and writing.
- Editor William Dean Howells was taken with her work and encouraged her to link her stories into a novel (Deephaven) subsequently published in 1877.
- She never married, but after the death of her close friend (publisher of the Atlantic, James Thomas Fields) she moved in with his widow (writer Annie Fields).  They remained together until Jewett's death, from a stroke in 1909.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
The story of an endearing, unlikely friendship between a writer and her elderly neighbor set against the evocative backdrop of a remote and beautiful coastal town in Maine, The Country of Pointed Firs is generally considered Sarah Orne Jewett's greatest work.

It is also a work of pioneering literary sophistication, a loosely structured series of linked sketches that accumulate in poignancy and power as they depict a dying bit of Americana--the fishing villages of nineteenth-century New England and the gruff and determined people who lived in them.  Their stirring fight against the hardships of isolation, and Jewett's elegantly shaped prose and unblinking perceptiveness, combine to make this, as Henry James called it, "a beautiful little quantum of achievement."

My Impressions:
I simply couldn't rush this book.  I suppose its size classifies it as a novella, but it was so whole and filling to me that it seemed to be so much more.  It is a quiet book--meaning that not much really happens plot-wise, it is more about the characters, the setting, the writing, and contemplating the ideas and themes.  The characters were quite memorable.  I loved the little stories, the histories, and how they all intertwined even while remaining quite individual.  I wanted to know Mrs. Todd with her amazing medicinal herb garden; the sights and smells conjured up from the simple words on the page stirred my heart.
It may not have been only the common ails of humanity with which she tried to cope, it seemed sometimes as if love and hate and jealousy and adverse winds at sea might also find their proper remedies among the curious wild-looking plants in Mrs. Todd's garden.
I grew up in a small, somewhat remote town, (though not compared to Jewett's Dunnet Landing,) and the glimpses into the lives of the older population of the town rang so true to me.  Even as a child I was fascinated to discover the lives held behind the older faces and shocked to find that they could even be quite funny. :)  Captain Littlepage's comments about literature actually made me laugh aloud:
"Shakespeare was a great poet; he copied life, but you have to put up with a great deal of low talk."
This is a peaceful, comforting sort of book, and the writing is beautiful.  I'm going to leave you with a few more quotes:
"Old friends is always best, 'less you can catch a new one that's fit to make an old one out of."
"It wasn't all I expected it would be," she said sadly, as many an artist had said before her of his work.
So we always keep the same hearts, though our outer framework fails and shows the touch of time.
"...if she was as far out of town as she was out of tune, she wouldn't get back in a day."
"Folks all kept repeating that time would ease me, but I can't find it does.  No, I miss her just the same every day."

Monday, August 22, 2011

#22 & 23: The Coxon Fund and The Lesson of the Master, Henry James

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The Coxon Fund and The Lesson of the Master
by Henry James
-born in America, 1843
-103 & 122 Pages
-more about James (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Henry James was the son of a theologian and the brother of a philsopher.
- He entered Harvard Law School at 19 but soon quit to write and travel in Europe, where he met Flaubert, Turgenev, George Eliot, and Zola.
- He gained International fame with Daisy Miller, which scandalized Victorian society and sold thousands of copies.
- His work increased in sophistication and was meticulously observed, which established him as the first master of psychological fiction.




Synopsis: (via Melville House)
The Coxon Fund:
Henry James examines one of his favorite topics—the artist’s place in society—by profiling a “genius” who just can’t seem to support himself. A dazzling intellectual and brilliant speaker, Mr. Saltram has become the most sought-after houseguest in England. But, as his intellectual labors slacken, it beomes harder and harder to get him to leave.

A wry, edgy comedy about the fine line between making art...and freeloading.The Coxon Fund shows off a gift that is rarely appreciated about Henry James: he can be wickedly funny.

The Lesson of the Master:
Exemplifying Henry James's famous belief that "Art makes life," The Lesson of the Master is a piercing study of the life that art makes. When the tale's protagonist—a gifted young writer—meets and befriends a famous author he has long idolized, he is both repelled by and attracted to the artist's great secret: the emotional costs of a life dedicated to art.

With extraordinary psychological insight and devastating wit, the novella asks the question of whether art is, ultimately, demeaning or ennobling for the artist, while capturing the ambiguities of a life devoted to art, and the choices artists must make. The expatriate James knew these choice well by the time he published the novella in the Universal Review in 1888, and the work reveals him at the height of his powers.

My Impressions:
I've decided to post on both of Henry James' novellas together because I really have very little to say about them.  The infinitesimal clauses in his sentences set my eyeballs swirling and put me to sleep faster (and more consistently) than Leviticus.  I didn't even finish The Coxon Fund.  I thought about reading all the words so I could say that I read it, but really, what's the point of that?  In retrospect, I should have given Benito Cereno the axe as well.

There is something about Henry James' writing that makes my mind travel to all the things I need to get done. Since starting his books I've replied to emails, come up with ideas for Christmas gifts, written a shopping list for school supplies...you get the point.  It isn't that the writing is bad--there were quite a few passages I noted--it's just that it feels so impersonal and I find it difficult to get into it's rhythm.  Reading Henry James is like being in a noisy restaurant and realizing, thanks to the accolades of others at the table, that there is good music playing somewhere of which you only hear intermittent snatches because you are constantly being distracted by your surroundings.

Another classic author that just isn't my style; I may even take The Turn of the Screw off my TBR list.  I just can't connect with his writing style, which makes it difficult for me to connect with his characters or his stories.  The Lesson of the Master revolved around literature, though, so there were a few fun bookish quotes there:
"I dare say she has read every blest word you've written."
"You talk just like the people in your book!"
"I've never seen anyone like her.  Her interest in literature's touching--something quite peculiar to herself; she takes it all so seriously."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

#21: A Sleep and a Forgetting, William Dean Howells

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A Sleep and a Forgetting
by William Dean Howells
-born in America, 1837
-112 Pages
-more about Howells (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- William Dean Howells was the son of a prominent newspaper editor and was elected clerk of Ohio's House of Representatives at 19.
- He wrote the official campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln, which later earned him a consulship in Vienna.
- Editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and later a columnist at Harper's Magazine, he championed realism and writers such as Henry James, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, and Emily Dickinson.
- He published more than one hundred books of essays, poetry, and fiction, often based on his own life or his passionate engagement with society.


Synopsis: (via Melville House)
Nowhere in the prodigious output of William Dean Howells is there an example more poignant of his heartfelt dedication to the realist movement than this achingly suspenseful novella.

The story centers on a young “alienist”—a psychologist—at an Italian resort, where he meets a young woman who, at subsequent encounters, has no recollection of him. Asked by her frightened father to help her overcome her incapacitating memory problems, the doctor launches a psychological investigation that appears to be based upon the most painful memories of the author himself.  Howells had recently experienced the loss of a beloved adult daughter (from what appears to have been anorexia) and the institutionalization of another for "emotional collapse."

The story's surprising ending reveals not only the author's deft sense of craftsmanship, but speaks movingly to his enduring faith in the sublime power of literature.

My Impressions:
The whole memory-loss/love-story kept reminding me of James Hilton's Random Harvest (although it was written over 20 years after Howells died) which put fond thoughts in my head and left me predisposed to enjoy this novella.  Howell's focus on the psychological aspect (as opposed to Hilton's focus on the personal story) added a captivating look at culture and medical views in the time period.  His writing style is very clean and straightforward in some ways, although there were some examples of humor and philosophy that hinted at how layered this work actually is.
Lanfear's question persisted through the night, and it helped, with the coughing in the next room, to make a bad night for him.
Howells considers memory as more than a vehicle for a story, he ponders it as a characteristic of humanity that--while it is something that we tend to take pride in--can often be the source of much grief.  In some instances, might we not actually be happier if we didn't carry the burden of our pasts?
I don't know why we should remember so insistently the foolish things and wrong things we do and not recall the times when we acted, without an effort, wisely and rightly.
William Dean Howells also reminded me of William Maxwell in his writing, which furthered my interest in his work.  They both seem to have a clear sense of story and theme, and they both had experience as editors--working with the major writers of their time as well as writing prolifically themselves.  Their lives overlapped by only 12 years, but I like to think that there's some connection there.  That's the romantic, illogical part of my brain at work, perhaps--although this last quote may show that it was a characteristic Howells shared in part.
I suppose we do not begin to be immortal merely after death.
This was a story that has grown on me more after reading it.  It wasn't the most captivating experience, but really got me thinking afterwards.  It left me curious to know more about William Dean Howells and his world.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

#20: The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, Mark Twain

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The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
by Mark Twain
-born in America, 1835
-128 Pages
-more about Twain (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Born as Samuel Clemens in Florida, Twain left home at 18 to travel the world.
- He returned to captain a Mississippi riverboat for 4 years before heading west on a stage coach, filing absurdist travel stories for newspapers along the way.
- Chased out of San Francisco after reporting on a police chief, he hid in a mining town and overheard a yarn he turned into a successful story.
- After fame came (due to Tom Sawyer) he wrote and lectured extensively, and also founded a publishing house.
- A failed investment sent him to Europe to avoid creditors--a trip that saw the death of his daughter. His wife died soon after, leaving Twain mourning their loss.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
Written on hotel stationery while Twain was in Europe on the run from American creditors, soon after the death of his daughter, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg is often cited as a work of bitter cynicism—a statement on America, to some, on the Dreyfus Case, to others—created by a weary author at the end of his career.

Others apprciate the work because it is, simply, Mark Twain at his best. The story of a mysterious stranger who orchestrates a fraud embarrassing the hypocritical citizens of "incorruptible" Hadleyburg. The novella is an exceptionally crafted work intertwining a devious and suspenseful plot with some of the wittiest dialogue Twain ever wrote. And like the most masterful literature, it subverts any notion of easy conclusion: is Hadleyburg ruined, or liberated? Is the mysterious stranger Satan, or a hero? Is this a book of revenge, or redemption? One thing is clear: this brilliant novella is a complex and compassionate consideration of the human character by a master at the height of his form.

My Impressions:
It's been many years since I've read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but Twain's writing still springs to life as being full of adventure and wry humor.  This novella combines delightful dialogue with an interesting story-line.  The themes and questions about character, rationalization and priorities is still applicable, though represented by near caricatures in the story.
Richards and his old wife sat apart in their little parlour--miserable and thinking.  This was become their evening habit now: the life-long habit which had preceded it, of reading, knitting, and contented chat, or receiving or paying neighbourly calls, was dead and gone and forgotten, ages ago--two or three weeks ago; nobody talked now, nobody read, nobody visited--the whole village sat at home, sighing, worrying, silent.
I can't say that the story induced deep thought in me, or that I contemplated the issues for very long, but I did enjoy the story and the writing.  I didn't find it to be bitterly cynical, although that may just illuminate my own level of cynicism more than anything else.  It has been amazing to me to find how different American literature from this era feels compared to its Russian counterpart.
...he could hear his microbes gnaw, the place was so still.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

#19: The Devil, Leo Tolstoy


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The Devil
by Leo Tolstoy
-born in Russia, 1828
-128 Pages
-more about Tolstoy (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Leo Tolstoy was born into the upper levels of the Russian aristocracy (his mother was a princess).
- After a licentious youth, he joined the army and published his first novel (Childhood) while serving in an artillery unit.  He eventually quit the military in disgust.
- He traveled throughout Europe but became disillusioned by Western materialism and returned to his family estate, got married, fathered 13 children, and founded a school for young peasants.
- In 1879, Tolstoy underwent a spiritual crisis; his extreme asceticism inspired a widespread, cult-like worship, but also exacerbated tension with his wife.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
Leo Tolstoy is known for epic novels that brilliantly dissect society, but the novella The Devil may be the most personally revealing—and startling—fiction he ever wrote. He thought it so scandalous, in fact, that he hid the manuscript in the upholstery of a chair in his office so his wife wouldn't find it, and he would never allow it to be published in his lifetime.

Perhaps that's because the gripping tale of an aristocratic landowner slowly overcome with unrelenting sexual desire for one of the peasants on his estate was strikingly similar to an affair Tolstoy himself had. Regardless, the tale—presented here with the two separate endings Tolstoy couldn't decide between—is a scintillating study of sexual attraction and human obsession.

My Impressions:
I briefly mentioned in my last review that The Devil made good companion reading to The Death of Ivan Ilych in that the latter really showcases his writing ability, while the former is more about his storytelling.  The Devil is certainly less polished than The Death of Ivan Ilych, but what do you expect from a manuscript that was hidden inside a chair's upholstery?  There's a reason that Tolstoy felt that this story was scandalous and wouldn't allow it to be published in his lifetime: it has that a-bit-too-personal feeling that can occasionally feel oddly uncomfortable.  I can see Tolstoy having just such a conflict of ideals.
During coffee, as often happened, a peculiarly feminine kind of conversation went on which had no logical sequence but which evidently was connected in some way for it went on uninterruptedly.
Where The Devil went from feeling like a current issue to an extrapolation of wishful thinking was towards the end.  There's a little Choose Your Own Adventure happening with the end, as Tolstoy gives his readers a couple of outcome-options.  They were fun options, but they both wrapped up the story quite quickly and pulled me out of Yevgeny's problem and plopped me right into the middle of Tolstoy's writing room instead.  In all, it was a fun, fascinating story that would have been marvelous to see fleshed out and refined.
The most mentally deranged people are certainly those who see in others indications of insanity they do not notice in themselves.
These two novellas together offer a taste of War & Peace: great story, great writing, interesting history and philosophy.  Only difference is the size/time commitment...these novellas are a nice place to start.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

#18: The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy


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The Death of Ivan Ilych
by Leo Tolstoy
-born in Russia, 1828
-128 Pages
-more about Tolstoy (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Leo Tolstoy was born into the upper levels of the Russian aristocracy (his mother was a princess).
- After a licentious youth, he joined the army and published his first novel (Childhood) while serving in an artillery unit.  He eventually quit the military in disgust.
- He traveled throughout Europe but became disillusioned by Western materialism and returned to his family estate, got married, fathered 13 children, and founded a school for young peasants.
- In 1879, Tolstoy underwent a spiritual crisis; his extreme asceticism inspired a widespread, cult-like worship, but also exacerbated tension with his wife.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
Written eight years after the publication of Anna Karenina—a time during which, despite the global success of his novels, Leo Tolstoy renounced fiction in favor of religious and philosophical tracts—The Death of Ivan Ilych represents perhaps the most keenly realized melding of Tolstoy’s spirituality with his artistic skills.

Here in a vibrant new translation, the tale of a judge who slowly comes to understand that his illness is fatal was inspired by Tolstoy’s observation at his local train station of hundreds of shackled prisoners being sent off to Siberia, many for petty crimes. When he learned that the sentencing judge had died, Tolstoy was roused to consider the judge’s thoughts during his final days—a study on the acceptance of mortality only deepened by the death, during its writing, of one of Tolstoy’s own young children.

The final result is a magisterial story, both chilling and beguiling in the fullness of its empathy, its quotidian detail, and the beauty of its prose, and is, as many have claimed it to be, one of the most moving novellas ever written.

My Impressions:
Some books have such an absorbing story that it's impossible to put the book down (Tales of Belkin) and others' strength lies mostly in beautifully written insight (Mathilda).  The Death of Ivan Ilych is of the latter sort, and is simply a splendid example of Tolstoy's skill and talent.  I really love how he thinks, and I'm supremely envious of his writing talent.
To say Ivan Ilych got married because he'd fallen in love with someone who shared his perspectives on life would be as wrong as saying that he got married because the people of his social circle approved the union.  Ivan Ilych got married for both reasons.
The storyline isn't very complicated.  It really is, as the description above indicates, "a study on the acceptance of mortality" and thus focuses mainly on the last months of Ivan Ilych's life.  You get right inside of Ivan Ilych's head, see his thoughts, and feel his feelings.  Ivan Ilych is not a fabulous person, but the experience of his thoughts and feelings is a fabulous experience.
What Ivan Ilych wanted most, though he would have been ashamed to admit it, was for somebody to feel sorry for him as if he were a sick little boy.  He wanted to be caressed, kissed, cried over as children are caressed and comforted.  He knew that he was an important jurist, that he had a graying beard, and so this was impossible; all the same it was what he wanted.
In this novella, as in War and Peace, Tolstoy's opening scene sets the stage for the time period and class of people by focusing on a social situation involving peripheral characters.  In War and Peace it took me a while to realize what had happened, but this time I was somewhat prepared.  If you consider the first chapter of The Death of Ivan Ilych to be a prologue of sorts, then you're one step ahead.

There are so many amazing examples of Tolstoy's writing in this novella.  If you've been curious about Tolstoy but intimidated by the number of trees that have sacrificed their lives for his major works, then this is a perfect place to get a taste of his writing style.  (As far as his storytelling abilities, the next novella, The Devil, is a fabulous example...read these two and you'll know whether you should dive into War and Peace or Anna Karenina.)  These two novellas sold me on him all the more.  I love Tolstoy. Love.Him.
Ivan Ilych looks at her, studies her from head to toe, and adds her fairness, her plumpness, and the smoothness of her arms and neck to his charges against her, then adds the luster of her hair and the twinkle in her eyes.  He loathes her with all the powers of his heart and at her touch he is smacked by a gush of surging hatred.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Challenge Musings: Midpoint

The month is halfway through, but my pretty stack of novellas has yet to even out.  I suppose that means I'm behind...but I prefer to look at it from a positive angle: you see, next week 50% of my children (the high-maintenance-females) will be at summer camp, so perhaps I'll be able to catch up? (never mind the fact that the last week in August is going to be at least doubly busy!)


I'm really enjoying the challenge still, it has been the best way that I can think of to get such great exposure to so many classic authors.  Not all of the novellas have been favorites, but I wouldn't expect them to all be right up my alley--I'm pretty thrilled to have found a few new favorites.

In other news, I won a fabulous tote and two beautiful books from Melville House Publishing!  My 12 year-old has officially (and perhaps permanently) adopted the quote on the bag as his default response, so he's pretty excited about my prize too. :)  It came just in time for me to take it to book club last night--what fun!  (Thanks, Melville House--I'm a fan!)


ALSO, as I was in the midst of typing this post, I peeked out the front door and there was all kinds of bookishness outside as well!  A few of my orders from different places (Paperbackswap, Barnes and Noble, Powells) decided to carpool, and all showed up at the same time.



On the left are some books from Powell's for my daughter's 2nd grade studies (and one about natural dyes for my 10 year-old daughter's birthday that I'd better go hide before I forget!).  On the right are my Indiespensable goodies: Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante and some appetizing Moroccon spice rub.  From PaperbackSwap, the Six Wives of Henry VIII; from Barnes and Noble (I like to diversify my book purchases :) is MAUS which I don't know a whole lot about, but I'm looking forward to reading; and finally, also from Powell's, Yeats is Dead! (thanks, Em, for bringing that title to my attention!)

I have a lot of fun new books trying to distract me, but I'm still focused on my challenge.  I'm enjoying some Tolstoy right now, and looking forward to the other novellas.  Also trying to come up with an amazing way to display my lovely novellas once I'm done...any ideas?

#17: A Simple Heart, Gustave Flaubert


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A Simple Heart
by Gustave Flaubert
-born in France, 1821
-96 Pages
-more about Flaubert (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Gustave Flaubert was born the son of a surgeon. He studied law but failed his exams and soon after began his writing career
- He had attacks of what is thought to have been epilepsy--a condition he kept secret.
- Madame Bovary caused a scandal and led to prosecution against Flaubert on charges of immorality.  He was exonerated.
- Recognized and esteemed for his meticulous and realistic writing, he nevertheless died in near-poverty in 1880.


Synopsis: (via Melville House)
With an attention to the details of bourgeois life considered almost scandalous at the time, A Simple Heart will remind many why Gustave Flaubert was acclaimed as the first great master of realism. But this heart-breaking tale of a simple servant woman and her life-long search for love meant something else to Flaubert. Written near the end of his life, the work was meant to be a tribute to George Sand—who died before it was finished—and was written in answer to an argument the two were having over the importance of realism. Although the tale displays his virtuosic gift for telling detail, and is based on one of his actual servants, Flaubert said it exemplified his belief that "Beauty is the object of all my efforts." This sparkling new translation by Charlotte Mandell shows how impeccably Flaubert achieved his goal.

My Impressions:
A Simple Heart is a simple story of a simple servant's inner life.  No doubt a unique plot approach at the time, it left me wondering what I was missing.  Flaubert's writing, a least in this story, is so meticulous it felt almost sterile--his realism means that he tells you the bare bones and everything else is up to you...or perhaps he boasts a subtlety that is so subtle it's arguably non-existent?  In either case, it didn't really suit me.

There was one sentence that I did enjoy, but the rest of it left me disinterested.  I did like how he condensed Felicite's life into such a small picture, clearly viewed.  I wonder, if that view was applied to my life, what would be apparent?
She had difficulty getting over it, or rather she never got over it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

#16: The Eternal Husband, Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Eternal Husband
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
-born in Russia, 1821
-224 Pages
-more about Dostoevsky (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Fyodor Dostoevsky was born the son of a tyrannical doctor subsequently murdered by his serfs.
- After studying engineering in school and publishing his first book (Poor Folk) to great acclaim, he was sentenced to death for being viewed as anti-czarist.
- He actually stood before a firing squad, but was given a last minute reprieve and was sent to prison in Siberia for 10 years instead.
- His novels rankled authorities for the rest of his life.  This, and devastating gambling debts led him to frequently flee to Europe.


Synopsis: (via Melville House)
This remarkably edgy and suspenseful tale shows that, despite being better known for his voluminous and sprawling novels, Fyodor Dostoevsky was a master of the more tightly-focused form of the novella.

The Eternal Husband may, in fact, constitute his most classically-shaped composition, with his most devilish plot: a man answers a late-night knock on the door to find himself in a tense and puzzling confrontation with the husband of a former lover—but it isn’t clear if the husband knows about the affair. What follows is one of the most beautiful and piercing considerations ever written about the dualities of love: a dazzling psychological duel between the two men over knowledge they may or may not share, bringing them both to a shattering conclusion.

My Impressions:
I was afraid of Dostoevsky.  In fact, my love of Tolstoy further cemented my fear of Fyodor, as I assumed that it was asking too much to have two classic Russian authors I liked.  The Eternal Husband has fixed that problem, and I'm now ready to pick up some of his lengthier works.  Dostoevsky definitely has a different feel than Tolstoy, but it was quite enjoyable in its own right.

This was the largest novella of the month so far, at over 200 pages, but the complexity of the story and the curious characters made it worthwhile.  The main characters are definitely not very sober, and perhaps not even very sane, and there were scenes that brought to mind the nightmare in Fiddler on the Roof, but for all the oddities and quirks, there is also change, growth, and development throughout.  The philosophy and humor was pretty subtle most of the time, but thankfully still present.
p15:  It is true that there are faces that at once arouse an undefined and aimless aversion.
p24:  It was always painful for him to think that he was getting old and growing feebler, and in his bad moments he exaggerated his age and failing powers on purpose to irritate himself.
The idea of the "eternal husband" on p43:
"She is one of those women who are born to be unfaithful wives." [...] "For her first infidelity the husband is always to blame." [...] To his mind, the essence of such a husband lay in his being, so to say, "the eternal husband," or rather in being, all his life, a husband and nothing more.
So is Pavel Pavlovitch an eternal husband?  Or is there something else going on?  This one would be a great one to re-read.  It's like one of those movies with a twist or two that make you want to watch it more carefully to observe the craftsmanship.  There is some definite skill going on here, and enjoyment besides.

#15: The Lifted Veil, George Eliot

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The Lifted Veil
by George Eliot
-born in England, 1819
-128 Pages
-more about Eliot (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- George Eliot was born Mary Anne Evans on an estate managed by her father.
- She left school when her mother died, but continued her education alone.  She was multi-lingual and steeped in classical literature.
- She began her work (as an editor) anonymously, for fear a female editor would put off readers.
- When nearly 40, she was published under the pseudonym George Eliot, partly because she was living with a married man (publisher George Henry Lewes) and feared being shunned by the public.
- After 25 years together, Lewes died.  Still grieving, she married their banker, a man 20 years her junior.  She died shortly thereafter.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
Published the same year as her first novel, Adam Bede, this overlooked work displays the gifts for which George Eliot would become famous—gritty realism, psychological insight, and idealistic moralizing. It is unique from all her other writing, however, in that it represents the only time she ever used a first-person narrator, and it is the only time she wrote about the supernatural.

The tale of a man who is incapacitated by visions of the future and the cacophony of overheard thoughts, and yet who can’t help trying to subvert his vividly glimpsed destiny, The Lifted Veil may easily be read as being autobiographically revealing—of Eliot’s sensitivity to public opinion and her awareness that her days concealed behind a pseudonym were doomed to a tragic unveiling (as indeed came to pass soon after this novella’s publication). But it is easier still to read the story as the exciting and genuine precursor of a moody new form, as well as an absorbing early masterpiece of suspense.

My Impressions:
Me reading George Eliot seems to be similar to me drinking a cup of Earl Grey Tea.  It's tolerable I suppose...has definite strengths and a depth I can appreciate...but I'd really just like some English Breakfast Tea instead.  There is something in [what I've experienced of] her writing that leaves me not caring overly much about any of it. (Perhaps that's why Daniel Deronda is left on my shelf only partially read?)  I'm interested in the story, I'm interested in the themes, I'm interested in the author, but not really interested in picking up the book and actually reading the thing.  Ah, well, I can live through a cup of Earl Grey now and again.

At one point Eliot talks about how the desire to predict the future, and yet the aversion to being truly all-knowing, is part of human nature.  What an idea: the element of the unknown--which we try so hard to uncover--is actually the thing that keeps us striving and trying in life.
So absolute is our soul's need of something hidden and uncertain for the maintenance of that doubt and hope and effort which are the breath of its life, that if the whole future were laid bare to us beyond to-day, the interest of all mankind would be bent on the hours that lie between; we should pant after the uncertainties of our one morning and our one afternoon; we should rush fiercely to the Exchange for our last possibility of speculation, of success, of disappointment; we should have a glut of political prophets foretelling a crisis or a no-crisis within the only twenty-four hours left open to prophecy.
I connected with this bit of exposition more than I did any of the characters or their story.  I think George Eliot would have been a fascinating person to know and talk to, I just wish that it was easier for me to connect with her fiction.  What is it that you've loved about her works?

Friday, August 12, 2011

#14: Benito Cereno, Herman Melville


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Benito Cereno
by Herman Melville
-born in America, 1819
-80 Pages
-more about Melville (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Herman Melville was born to "double revolutionary descent": a paternal grandfather involved in the Boston Tea Party and a maternal grandfather who fought at Saratoga.
- At 18 he set sail on a whaler, and later based many of his works on his travels.
- Starting with Moby-Dick in 1851, his increasingly complex and challenging work drew increasingly negative criticism.  He stopped publishing fiction after 1857.
- He eventually turned to poetry, convincing relatives to fund the publication of several volumes that did not fare well.
- Drifting into obscurity, he ended up working for the customs house on the docks of lower Manhattan and died in 1891.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
With its intense mix of mystery, adventure, and a surprise ending, Benito Cereno at first seems merely a provocative example from the genre Herman Melville created with his early best-selling novels of the sea. However, most Melville scholars consider it his most sophisticated work, and many, such as novelist Ralph Ellison, have hailed it as the most piercing look at slavery in all of American literature.

Based on a real life incident—the character names remain unchanged—Benito Cereno tells what happens when an American merchant ship comes upon a mysterious Spanish ship where the nearly all-black crew and their white captain are starving and yet hostile to offers of help. Melville's most focused political work, it is rife with allusions (a ship named after Santo Domingo, site of the slave revolt led by Toussaint L'Ouverture), analogies (does the good-hearted yet obtuse American captain refer to the American character itself?), and mirroring images that deepen our reflections on human oppression and its resultant depravities.

It is, in short, a multi-layered masterpiece that rewards repeated readings, and deepens our appreciation of Melville's genius.

My Impressions:
Yeah, you know what?  I have a self-proclaimed dislike for the ocean, and this book only helped solidify that. It also helped solidify my resolved to not ready Moby-Dick.  It also relieved me of any lingering guilt I may have felt about not giving The Old Man and the Sea a fair chance.

I'm sure Benito Cereno is brilliant, but it takes place completely on a boat in the ocean, you see?  Melville's writing is rather complex, but I felt like I was only reading words like starboard and forecastle and bulwarks and phrases like "pacing the poop".  Oh weariness and woe is me.
But the foul mood was now at its depth, as the fair wind at its height.
And that, my friends, is about as close as I'll be getting to Moby-Dick.

#13: Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville

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Bartleby the Scrivener
by Herman Melville
-born in America, 1819
-80 Pages
-more about Melville (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Herman Melville was born to "double revolutionary descent": a paternal grandfather involved in the Boston Tea Party and a maternal grandfather who fought at Saratoga.
- At 18 he set sail on a whaler, and later based many of his works on his travels.
- Starting with Moby-Dick in 1851, his increasingly complex and challenging work drew increasingly negative criticism.  He stopped publishing fiction after 1857.
- He eventually turned to poetry, convincing relatives to fund the publication of several volumes that did not fare well.
- Drifting into obscurity, he ended up working for the customs house on the docks of lower Manhattan and died in 1891.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
Academics hail it as the beginning of modernism, but to readers around the world—even those daunted by Moby-Dick—Bartleby the Scrivener is simply one of the most absorbing and moving novellas ever. Set in the mid-19th century on New York City’s Wall Street, it was also, perhaps, Herman Melville's most prescient story: what if a young man caught up in the rat race of commerce finally just said, "I would prefer not to"?

The tale is one of the final works of fiction published by Melville before, slipping into despair over the continuing critical dismissal of his work after Moby-Dick, he abandoned publishing fiction. The work is presented here exactly as it was originally published in Putnam's magazine—to, sadly, critical disdain.

My Impressions:
Well I still have no desire to read Moby-Dick, but that is due to my aversion to the ocean rather than because of Melville's writing.  It did take me a couple of pages to get into the rhythm of his vocabulary and sentence structure, but I ended up enjoying it.  There is a subtlety in the storytelling that would be easy to miss, I think.  This story is not one that swept me in and absorbed me, capturing my attention like a passing ambulance; it is one that drew me in slowly and steadily and left me wanting to know much more.
The more I thought over my procedure, the more I was charmed with it.  Nevertheless, next morning, upon awakening, I had my doubts--I had somehow slept off the fumes of vanity.
Have you ever thought about the minute human patterns that we associate with normal or healthy human behavior, and how--if those patterns are altered or absent--we immediately think something is wrong, regardless of whether we are able to define or justify exactly why the unexpected behavior is bad?  Bartleby himself is one item of curiosity in this novella, but equally interesting is how everyone else reacts to him.
But he seemed to be alone, absolutely alone in the universe.  A bit of wreck in the mid-Atlantic.
(With this novella, perhaps because of the jump from the crumbling aristocracy of Russia to the bustling busy-ness of Wall Street, perhaps because of the switch in topics from relationships to business, I feel like my reading has jumped from the past to the almost-present.  I'll soon be back in Russia with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, so we'll see if my feeling holds...America just feels much, much newer than Russia.)

I related the  story of Bartleby to my 12-year-old son (my reader & deep thinker) and the "I would prefer not to" lines had him laughing.  It's such an interesting way of looking at the world--a slight twist in typical behavior, a subtle shift that makes a huge difference.
At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable," was his mildly cadaverous reply.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

#12: First Love, Ivan Turgenev

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First Love
by Ivan Turgenev
-born in Russia, 1818
-124 Pages
-more about Turgenev (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Ivan Turgenev was the son of a chronically philandering cavalry officer and an unhappy, abusive heiress.
- Tolstoy, at one point, challenged him to a duel.
- He made a name for himself, beginning in 1852, with the short-story collection A Sportsman’s Sketches, but his seeming pro-Western philosophy led to a tempestuous relationship with his countrymen.
- His masterpiece Fathers and Sons went largely unappreciated in his home country. Disillusioned, Turgenev wrote progressively less and less, and died abroad, near Paris, in 1883.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)

While known for beautifully observed works of social realism in the decades leading up to the Russian Revolution, Ivan Turgenev, in this acclaimed tale, depicts a revolution of another kind: the electrifying transformation of a young man's first love.

One of Russian literature's most renowned love stories—a vivid and sensitive account of adolescent love, wherein the sixteen year old protagonist falls in love with a beautiful but older woman living next door, thereby plunging into a whirlwind of changing emotions that are heightened by her capriciousness, and leading to a truly heart-rending revelation.

My Impressions:
The great thing is to lead a normal life, and not be the slave of your passions.  What do you get if not? [...] a man must stand on his own feet, if he can get nothing but a rock to stand on.
I'm finding it hard to form cohesive opinions about this novella.  I enjoyed the story--it seemed to be based on a real experience, and very deeply felt--and the writing, too, was well done and enjoyable.  But nothing really spoke to me, engaged me, you know?  The book flap indicated that this was the most autobiographical of Turgenev's work, which perhaps explains the cloudy filter the story is viewed through.  It's almost as if the author himself hadn't really processed his childhood completely.  I'm curious if Fathers and Sons is a little clearer in point of view, perhaps I'll read it someday to find out.  First Love did have a lot to say, and was written with depth; the story will stay with me...just not in any conclusive way.
Meidanov responded to the poetic fibres of her nature; a man of rather cold temperament, like almost all writers, he forced himself to convince her, and perhaps himself, that he adored her, sang her praises in endless verses, and read them to her with a peculiar enthusiasm, at once affected and sincere.  She sympathised with him, and at the same time jeered at him a little; she had no great faith in him, and dafter listening to his outpourings, she would make him read Pushkin, as she said, to clear the air.

#11: How the Two Ivans Quarrelled, Nikolai Gogol

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How the Two Ivans Quarrelled
by Nikolai Gogol
-born in Ukraine, 1809
-136 Pages
-translated by John Cournos
-more about Gogol (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Nikolai Gogol sought literary fame in Moscow at 18 by self-publishing an epic poem.  It was so ridiculed he fled the city.
- After finding success with stories based on Ukrainian Folklore, his stories and novels developed a bitter realism and ironic humor.
- In 1836, he feared that one of his plays offended the Tsar and he left Russia for 12 years. When he returned, publishing essays supporting the government he'd previously criticized, he was mercilessly attacked by previous supporters and sank into despondency.
- Gogol ended up renouncing writing as an immoral activity, and in 1852 he burned his last manuscript just days before dying of self-imposed starvation.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
This lesser-known work is perhaps the perfect distillation of Nikolai Gogol’s genius: a tale simultaneously animated by a joyful, nearly slapstick sense of humor alongside a resigned cynicism about the human condition.

In a sharp-edged translation from John Cournos, an under-appreciated early translator of Russian literature into English, How The Two Ivans Quarrelled is the story of two long-time friends who have a falling out when one of them calls the other a “goose.” From there, the argument intensifies and the escalation becomes more and more ludicrous. Never losing its generous antic spirit, the story nonetheless transitions from whither a friendship, to whither humanity, as it progresses relentlessly to its moving conclusion.

My Impressions:
Without a doubt, the largest thing standing in the way of my enjoyment of this book was a conflict of styles of humor.  Have you ever been to a movie, a comedy, and noticed that you are the only one in the crowd not drowning in a puddle of laughter?  That was me in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and that was me in How the Two Ivans Quarrelled.  I can see how it is funny, I understand the humor, it just doesn't make me laugh.

The first paragraph in the synopsis (above) has it right on: Gogol uses humor to illustrate his cynicism, and--especially if your sense of humor matches his--it is brilliantly done.  The excerpt I've quoted below is probably not entirely representative of the humor...just guessing, since it's a passage I actually found funny...but it's the only one I noted, so that's all you get. :)
Where do all these scandals originate? In the same way it was rumoured that Ivan Nikiforovitch was born with a tail! But this invention is so clumsy and at the same time so horrible and indecent that I do not even consider it necessary to refute it for the benefit of civilised readers, to whom it is doubtless known that only witches, and very few even of these, have tails.  Witches, moreover, belong more to the feminine than to the masculine gender.
I love Tolstoy, and I loved Pushkin, so I was starting to wonder if I'd have a similar reaction to other Russian authors.  But it seems that there are some that just aren't necessarily my taste. Gogol was good, but not for me.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

#10: Tales of Belkin by Alexander Pushkin

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Tales of Belkin
by Alexander Pushkin
-born in Russia, 1799
-128 Pages
-translated by Josh Billings
-more about Pushkin (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Born into nobility in Moscow & educated by French tutors, Alexander Pushkin learned Russian from the household serfs.
- He was banished from the capital for writing political poems, but wrote some of his greatest work while in exile.
- After being pardoned, he married in 1831.  They became regulars of court society, and were soon impoverished.
- In 1837, scandalous rumors spurred a duel. He was wounded and died 2 days later, and the government secretly removed his body to his family's distant estate since they feared a public outpouring at his funeral.


Synopsis: (via Melville House)
The first work of prose by the man Russians call the father of Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin's Tales of Belkin was first published anonymously, due to the author's fear of the Tsar's censors.  It would prove such a watershed publication that it has become the namesake for Russia's most prestigious literary award, the Belkin Prize, given to the best novella of the year.

It is, indeed, a work worthy of a master, expanding concepts of the form even as it delivers a concise and vivid picture of 19th century Russian life by linking five tales of seemingly disparate people from every walk of life, ostensibly collected by the scholar Ivan Belkin.

The form allowed Pushkin to exploit his sense of lyricism, his gift for the portraiture and the precise, telling detail, and his expansive sense of humanism.  Presented here in a vibrant new translation by Josh Billings, it is easy to see why Leo Tolstoy called this novella Russia's finest book of prose, and urged young writers to "read and re-read the Tales of Belkin."

My Impressions:
While each of the novellas I've read so far has had something great about it, there have been a couple that have captivated me and found me declaring [mentally] that I've found a new favorite author.  Casanova, Shelley, and now Pushkin--each for different reasons.

In this case, it was the brilliant storytelling that won me over.  In fact, I didn't even write down very many quotes because I was so involved with the stories being told.  Dealing mostly with social structure, pride, and honor, these stories include people from very different walks of life.  Pushkin examines motivation, justification, and the happiness and sorrow that come to define our lives.
The Anglophile bore the criticism the same way our journalists do.  He flew into a rage and called his slanderer a bear and provincial.
Pushkin, for me, struck a perfect balance between simple and complex, between humor and gravity--exposing the superficial and genuine parts in all of us.  When you can't put it down and it makes you think...that's just about the best of both worlds.
My readers will spare me, I hope, the unnecessary duty of describing how all this ends.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

#9: The Girl With the Golden Eyes by Honore de Balzac

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The Girl With the Golden Eyes
by Honore de Balzac
-born in France, 1799
-123 Pages
-translated by Charlotte Mandell
-more about Balzac (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Honore de Balzac was born into a bourgeois family, and added the aristocratic "de" to his name in adulthood.
- Soon after graduating from the Sorbonne, he quit law and began his legendary habit of writing feverishly around the clock, fueled by dozens of cups of coffee.
- He not only wrote many successful novels, he also started many failed businesses, including a pineapple farm.
- Balzac cemented his status as the Father of Realism with his 95-volume La Comedie Humaine.
- He married a Polish countess in 1850, with whom he'd conducted a romantic correspondence for 18 years, only to die 5 months later.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
Raw as HonorĂ© de Balzac is famed to be, this daring novella—never before published as a stand-alone book—is perhaps the most outlandish thing he ever wrote. While still concerned with the depiction of the underside of Parisian life, as is most of Balzac’s oeuvre, The Girl with the Golden Eyes considers not the working lives of the poor, but the sex lives of the upper crust.

In a nearly boroque rendering with erotically charged details as well as lush and extravagant language, The Girl with the Golden Eyes tells the story of a rich and ruthless young man in nineteenth century Paris caught up in an amorous entanglement with a mysterious beauty. His control slipping, incest, homosexuality, sexual slavery, and violence combine in what was then, and still remains, a shocking and taboo-breaking work.

My Impressions:
This is, admittedly, my first encounter with Balzac; and more than that, I'm rather unfamiliar with French literature in general, apart from Dumas. (And, just so you know, all those commas--and even the semi-colon--are inspired by Balzac himself.  Boy is he on friendly terms with lists and punctuation!  There was one sentence where I counted 29 commas/semi-colons and 178 words! Wowzers!  For all of that, however, his writing is easy to understand.) Example:
No tryst had ever taken place in so decent a way, or so chaste, or even so cold, in a place made more terrible in its details, before a more hideous divinity--for this mother of hers had stayed in Henri's imagination like something hellish, crouching, cadaverous, vicious, savage, something the fantasies of painters and poets had not yet guessed.
Anyhow, I was saying that this is my first experience with Balzac.  (I say that to offer justification for how incorrect my impressions of him may be!)  He seems to take great pride in the Parisian people, perhaps especially in their faults.  He describes their grotesqueness in the way a dog lover extols the Chinese Crested. The first 29 pages of this novella were devoted to their details, and he wasted no time getting to his point.  The first sentence reads:
One of the most appalling spectacles that exists is undoubtedly the general appearance of the Parisian population, a people horrible to see, gaunt, sallow, weather-beaten.
The thing that I liked the most about this novella was not the story, (which was okay, but took a while to get going and then had a bit too much dramatic flair for my tastes,) but how the writing showed Balzac's own personality.  He is so effusive at times that I could almost hear him animatedly describing his characters, I could almost see him scribbling furiously while simultaneously downing his coffee.  He seems to be passionately in love with writing as an art form, with the romance of story-telling, and with the gritty reality of hidden behavior.  At this point I'm not putting more Balzac on my TBR list, but I am very glad to have had some exposure to him.  Here's one last example of how his personality shone through his writing and actually made me laugh aloud: (emphasis added)
He [...] went to bed, and slept the sleep of bad citizens, which, by an odd coincidence that no songwriter has yet turned to his advantage, also happens to be as profound as the sleep of innocence.
Can't you hear him wondering why there hadn't been a song written about such a profound thought?  
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