Taking the plunge . . .

Count Dracula in his castle.

If you are on my blog, you see a new background theme and a web badge for 2010 NaNoWriMo Participant.  Yes, I’m going to grit my teeth, swallow my self-inflicted fear, bite the bullet, take the plunge (and, hopefully, avoid clichés) by participating in a 30-day writing free-for-all.  At the end of the month of November, I hope to have a viable draft for my first novel.  It may never see the light of day, but I plan on owning the title of “writer” thereafter.  It certainly sounds a lot better than under-employed, even though the pay is potentially the same.

In the meantime, a quick note on the 1992 movie version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that I watched a couple of nights ago.  It has been many years since I saw this movie. I vaguely recall that I saw it when it was in the theaters, but that very well could be a false memory.  Although I have flashes of remembered scenes and impressions from the movie (such as thinking “Where the heck did the hairdo in the picture above come from?”), I was able to look at the movie with relatively fresh eyes.  I am always amazed at the liberties that screen writers and directors take with the content of a book.

The movie opens with a young Count heading off to defeat the Turks in battle, his weeping love Elizabet begging him not to go and eventually flinging herself off the castle tower because she believe the Count to have died in battle.  The victorious Count returns and is devastated by her death, renounces the church, and somehow becomes a vampire . . . the specifics are unclear except that he drinks blood that pours forth from a stone crucifix that he ran through with his sword.  Fast forward a few hundred years, and Miss Mina Murray looks exactly like the old Count’s love creating the basis for his move to England and pursuit of Jonathan Harker‘s fiance.  Considering that this love story is, in large part, the basis for the movie and the genesis of the vampire’s curse, it is completely without foundation in Bram Stoker‘s classic novel.  In the book, Dracula has no knowledge of Mina until after he has come to England and killed Miss Lucy and the band of gentlemen set out for his destruction. 

Much of the rest of the story follows the book, although large portions were left out due to the manufactured love story and the constraints of a two-hour film.  I wasn’t so much opposed to the love story being inserted into the plot, but it did bother me that the final death-blow to Dracula was delivered by Mina in the movie, rather than her husband Jonathan.

By the way, have I mentioned what a horrible actor Keanu Reeves is?  Ugh!  Beyond Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures and The Matrix movies, there is no excuse for him to speak on film.  But that’s just my opinion.

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My next step . . .

I have been a good productive girl this week and gotten a number of household projects under my belt.  As a reward, I let myself go to Barnes and Noble to browse the stacks to choose my next victim, er, novel.  Sorry.  Still have Dracula on the brain what with Halloween next weekend and all.  I wanted to move into a more contemporary novel since my first three books were written in the 1800’s and I also wanted to take advantage of some of the Turner Classic Movies that I have sitting on my DVR by reading a book and then watching the movie.  I think I’ve decided upon Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms, although To Kill a Mockingbird is still in the running since I purchased both.

I have also been given an interesting proposition that I am seriously considering.  There is a contest called National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short.  Apparently, all you have to do to “win” this contest is write a 50,000 word novel during the 30 days of November . . . and I say “all” as though that were not much of a task.  The point of the contest is pure productivity.  No editing or polishing or agonizing over the right words.  Just sit down and let the words pour forth.  I must say that there is a certain appeal to this since I tend to be nearly paralyzed by self-criticism when I seriously try to write (obviously, not in this blog, though.)  And the deadline aspect is a powerful motivator in every aspect of my life.  50,000 words translates to about 178 pages, or so their web site says.  Not sure what kind of pages they mean, but it gives a little perspective.  And just in case any of you reading wonder if there is anything other than a bunch of crap being cranked out of this contest, the 2007 best seller Water For Elephants written by Sara Gruen and published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill was a product of NaNoWriMo . . . a book I read and truly enjoyed.  I’m going to talk to my potential writing partner about it later today.  If I decide to do it, my November blog posts may be short and sweet, but I’ll keep you posted (pun intended.)

And now for some personal musing (as though that’s not entirely what a blog is in the first place) . . . I had a job interview yesterday upon which I had pinned a lot of my hopes.  Suffice it to say that although it went extremely well, the outcome was not exactly what I desired:  no position available until next March at the earliest.  Now that I’ve been searching for a job for almost 8 months (and I realize that I am not alone in this) I have some heavy decision-making to do about how and where to continue my job hunt.  I’ve decided to give myself the weekend, if not the rest of the week, to ponder it before embarking on my chosen course.  In the meantime, I’m going to a 3-year-old’s birthday party with a bouncy house, watching a couple of versions of the Dracula movie, having multiple adult beverages with good friends, dressing up for Halloween (twice), and in general, trying to enjoy my life as it is.  It’s a challenge to stay in the moment when you are a control freak like me and can see the end of the money coming, but whether I sit here at the computer enjoying a little writing time or lay in my bed crying over my potential poverty has no effect on my eminent financial crisis.  It only has an effect on my current frame of mind, and more and more often in my life, I choose to try to be happy.  It’s amazing to realize how much of a personal choice it really is, and I challenge myself, as well as my myriad readers 😉 , to try to make that choice every day.

Vampires and Werewolves and Monsters, oh my!

Gary Oldham as Count Dracula in 1992's movie "Bram Stoker's Dracula"

The next selection on my road to 101 of the greatest novels of all time is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the archetype for the modern vampire myth.   I chose this novel in honor of the upcoming holiday Halloween and have completed it with enough time to watch the 1992 movie version Bram Stoker’s Dracula this coming Saturday with a friend and the 1922 German silent film version Nosferatu which sits on my DVR waiting for me to make time for it.  These are just two of the multitude of film and television adaptations of the vampire myth.

Thanks to some quick Wikipedia research, I found that legends of what we now identify as vampires have been around for centuries if not millennia in many different forms, but they mythology exploded in the 18th century, particularly in Eastern Europe.  The hysteria surrounding this swelling mythology during this period led to the recording and publication of the folklore that became the modern vampire.

Stoker’s novel, though eventually the most popular and influential, was not the first fictional work published about vampires.  Early poems were written by notable literary figures including Samuel Coleridge, Lord Byron and Goethe.  Varney the Vampire was a popular serialized version of the story that was published in pamphlets referred to as penny dreadfuls, referring to the cost and content.  One of the first complete novels on the topic was Carmilla, a lesbian vampire story written by Sheridan Le Fanu in 1871.   Before Stoker published his work in 1897, he spent seven years researching European folklore, and it was not until the 1922 unauthorized film adaptation of his work as Nosferatu that Bram Stoker’s character gained mass popularity.  Unfortunately for Stoker, he did not follow proper copyright procedures for his novel, and in the United States and his work has been public domain since its publication.

Having read the book, I now realize how much the modern vampire differs even from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  It is interesting to imagine how much his version departed from the early folk tales and superstitions of the rural parts of Eastern Europe.  Our idea of a “sparkly”, teenage vampire would probably be unrecognizable to those that originated the stories, and not just because of the setting. 

Movie poster from 2008's "Twilight"

Throughout much of my vampire education, I thought that vampires could not be exposed to light at all, but then Dracula goes walking down the street in broad daylight in Stoker’s novel.  I knew that vampires could become bats and fly away, but I didn’t know that they were supposed to be able to become a swarm of insects or the fog or take a number of other forms at will.   And I think that the fact that Dracula had red eyes in Stoker’s novel would be too much of a giveaway for him to be able to pass among the living nowadays.

Two other items in the novel struck me as worth noting.  The first was the prevailing attitude about women, which I imagine is a reflection of the Victorian norms of the author’s time.  Impaired breathing due to restrictive corsets aside, women were seen as dramatically inferior to men in mental as well as physical capacities.  The praise heaped upon Mina Murray Harker because of her analytical abilities was almost backhanded because it was always coupled with a comparison of how like a man her mind functioned and how exceptional it was that a woman was capable of such intellect.  I know this depiction is a product of the times, but it’s a pet peeve of mine nonetheless.

The second is the narrative device that Stoker used to tell the story.  He presents the novel as a series of verifiable records:  journal and diary entries, personal correspondence, doctor’s records, and official communications all strung together to create a continuous account of a five month period in the lives of a small group of people.  Undoubtedly, this is meant to give the impression of legitimacy and truth to the tale, and is a clever device that allows the reader to see the same action from several different perspectives without confusion.

After War and Peace, I feel like I positively flew through Dracula, although I found some of the Victorian era dialect used by the characters more stilted and formal than the translation of Tolstoy’s work.  It is an exciting plot that draws you in and remains at least a partial mystery, even if you have familiarity with the idea of vampires (and really, who reading a blog doesn’t?)  Being a tremendous fan of Halloween, scary movies, and all that includes, I am completely satisfied to have finally read this book and have no hesitation recommending it to anybody that has even the slightest interest in this genre.  As a matter of fact, I would probably consider it mandatory reading.

Finally

War and Peace is "Heavy Reading"

War and Peace is heavy reading.

Finally, finally . . . I have finally finished War and Peace.  That book sure takes some stamina!

I went to brunch with a friend yesterday when I had about 50 or so pages left in the book, and she asked, “Well, was it worth it?”  And I found it difficult to give a direct “yes” or “no” answer.

On the one hand, the enormous number of characters involved, each with multiple variations of their names, made it so that I spent the first few hundred pages confused about who was who and even ¾ of the way through the book, I would still stumble across names that were vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t remember why I should know them.

Eventually, I began to get a feel for the characters and their families and how their lives related to each other as they started to intertwine.  The story began to carry me along, as good fiction normally does in my experience, but once I had the main characters sorted out, I found myself disappointed in them.  It’s not that they were bad people per se, but each had glaring flaws.   More than one was unnecessarily arrogant. One man was miserable and on a bumbling, misguided quest for the meaning of life in spite of being fabulously wealthy and respected.  One woman was obsessively religious which made her weak and timid in the face of her father’s mental abuse.  One particular woman was flighty and shallow, falling “deeply” in love multiple times with different men after a single meeting.  Another woman became the family doormat in spite of her devotion and service, just because she was adopted and not wealthy.  And she never stood up for herself.  As a matter of fact, almost none of the women did, and the exceptional ones who did, did so because they were vain and spoiled.

These character flaws would not sound so bad, normally, because one would expect, as I did, that there would be balancing positive qualities that would make the suffering admirable.  They did have good qualities, but not enough to offset their flaws and make them sympathetic and truly interesting.  Again, it wasn’t as though these were evil people doing horrible things, but with perhaps one exception (and that’s being generous,) I don’t think I would want to know or be friends with a single character in this book.  It led me to believe that the characters were almost secondary in Tolstoy’s telling of this epic story and tumultuous period in Russian history.  Certainly, future generations of Russian politicians used the book as a propaganda tool to raise morale about mother Russia, not for its insightful character analysis.

And the philosophical departures that I mentioned in a previous post . . . the ones that started out seeming so interesting and insightful to me?  Well, they soon became cumbersome and repetitive.  I recognize what blasphemy this must be, but I easily could have reduced this book from 1400 pages to about 800 pages without much harm to the character driven plot.  I have to admit that I (really) quickly skimmed the last 20 or so pages because Tolstoy, once again, went off on a lengthy rant about history and what moves nations.  I kept looking to see if he would get back to the characters at the heart of the book, but he just left them hanging out there without really wrapping things up.  I don’t normally have to have the end of a book tied up in a neat bow with a happily ever after, but to end it in a tangentially related philosophical discussion was dissatisfying to me.

Even with these criticisms, I cannot really say that I disliked War and Peace.  In general, I am a fan of the historical fiction genre to which this book more or less belongs.  I like being entertained by a story and accidentally learning some real history in the process.  In this, Tolstoy was absolutely successful.  It was not difficult material to read for which at least partial credit must be given to the translator of this edition Constance Garnett, and there were times where I was eager to get back to the book to see what would happen next.

But I have a feeling that the biggest part of my hesitation to say whether or not reading War and Peace is“worth it” was the sum total of literary history that proclaims this book to absolutely be worth it, and worth it much more than many other books that I have read and enjoyed.  My lack of ability to embrace the novel makes me wonder about myself.  All of these amazingly talented and smart people adore Leo Tolstoy and his most famous novel. 

On the cover of the book I just finished, there is a quote from Virginia Woolf that says, “There remains the greatest of all novelists – for what else can we call the author of War and Peace?”

The greatest of all novelists?  Who am I to say it isn’t so?  Certainly not a literary legend like Virginia Woolf.

But then again, this is MY blog, and in my modern American cockiness, I’m not worried about what those talented and smart people think.  In a similar way, it’s as though if I prefer to drink my red wine with ice but refuse to do it because I’m worried that wine snobs will look down on me.  Instead, I drink my warm wine and don’t enjoy it or even forego it altogether.  It’s just grown up peer pressure and that’s just silly.  Aside from the fact that I got some impressed glances from people who saw me reading it and the satisfaction that I now have in being able to say, “Yeah, I read War and Peace.” . . . my overall recommendation would be to skip it. 

Sorry, Leo.