. . . “the letter A, gules” . . . look it up!

On a field, sable, the letter A, gules.

One would think, with all of the “spare time” available in an unemployed life, I would be halfway through reading my list of 101 novels. Alas, it is not so. I am, however, happy to report that I finally finished reading Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s The Scarlet Letter, though I was apparently far too busy on vacation. Because I broke my promise to finish it while laying by the pool in Mexico, I forced myself to finish it while laying by the pool in Florida as soon as I returned, and I have something odd to report. I liked it far less than I did when I was a young adult, and I think that I have come up with a plausible reason (although it may partially be the fault of the long, drawn out period over which I read it.)

I found the long-suffering, self-flagellating Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale to be an annoyingly distasteful character, particularly since he was cast as kind of hero (or at least good guy) in the book. I cannot comprehend how a seemingly intelligent, strong, courageous woman like Hester Prynne could be so completely devoted to a sickly man of such weak character. I recognize that it was at least partially his inner turmoil that made him so physically weak, and his supposed charisma and intellect may have been blindingly appealing to Hester in the beginning, but it was his emotional feebleness that had the most effect on my opinion. Oh, I imagine that as a teenager I romanticized the ill-fated love of the couple and saw his infirmity as a sign of his deep, consuming attachment to Hester. However, now that I have a few relationships under my personal belt and I am older if not somewhat wiser, I know how unattractive that sort of weak, grasping personality can be. Maybe I lack the appropriate understanding of the religious fervor of the time. Maybe I am less forgiving and more jaded in my old age. But I would certainly not have been surprised if Hester completely turned her back on the Reverend after a time were it not for the fact that she was so utterly lonely and without alternatives . . . that and the additional fact that it would make for a fairly anti-climactic story arc.

Upon finishing the book, I also watched a DVR’d movie version of the The Scarlet Letter from 1995 which featured Demi Moore as Hester Prynne and Gary Oldham as Reverend Dimmesdale.  I have no problem, in theory, with Demi as Hester, although the old English speech did not suit her well, but Gary Oldham was a much more appealing Dimmesdale than in the actual book.  My main complaint is that the movie is such a complete departure from the story in the novel that it really should have been called something else.  It DID say at the beginning that it was “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s text, but other than the setting, character names, and basic antagonistic love triangle, it bore very little resemblance to the original story.  Robert Duval was an excellently twisted Roger Chillingworth, though.

With that piece of classic literature behind me at long last, I quickly read Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland  (commonly shortened to Alice In Wonderland) and began to search through my list for the next book I would attack.  I love crossing things off of a list, whether on paper or on a computer screen, and as I put what I considered to be a decisive black stroke through my two most recent accomplishments, I realized that at some point during my hiatus, before I began the arduous task of reading The Scarlet Letter, I had read Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon and wrote not a single word about it.  But never fear!  I will rectify this and also share my thoughts on Alice in my next post.  I’m still not sure what book comes next . . .

On being Southern

Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

The Northern Mockingbird

Last night, I finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and it was the first novel that I have read so far in this project that has felt like a contemporary popular novel:  natural feeling dialogue, dynamic characters and situations, descriptive though not overly so, a captivating plot.  I can see why the freshman novel immediately became a bestseller when it was published in 1960.  I will also be watching the movie version of the Pulitzer Prize winning book starring Gregory Peck, since it’s waiting for me on my DVR.

I must admit that I am strangely drawn to the Southerness of certain novels, since it reflects a particular culture with which I am familiar.  Seeing colloquialisms and superstitions in print is a fascinating lesson in observation.  These are things I know, but do not notice, and therefore see no need to mention them in writing because of their very prevalent nature.  But putting burlap sacks and towels over your azaleas when a frost is coming doesn’t happen everywhere, and mentioning details like that points out to me the value of the unique Southern traditions I take for granted.  It makes me oddly proud of where I come from, warts and all.  My brother has an amazing retention and recall of movie lines and can mimic other people’s personal catch phrases and personality ticks with skill.  His powers of observation are like that of a really good author, and I realize that I need to try to learn a little more of that skill from him. 

It is fascinating to me that To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s only novel.  It took her two and a half years to write and she once threw it out the window into the snow she was so frustrated with her progress.  Her publisher made her retrieve it, but tried to set her expectations low about how few people would probably read it.  Lee had sufficiently low expectations, but they were both wrong.  She has refused interviews about the book since 1964 saying that its unexpected popularity was almost worse than the quick and painless death she thought the story would die when it was originally published.  Her actual response to interview requests, apparently, is “Hell no!” 

As of yet, she has not written a follow-up novel.  It makes me wonder why.  Was it the only novel she had in her?  Did fame and acceptance jade her about the possibility of another success?  Was she afraid to try again and possibly not do as well as the first time?  Was the creation process just too difficult?  I could see any of those explanations being likely.  The title is an analogy.  When you say something is like killing a mockingbird, a bird that is not a pest and does nothing but provide beautiful song, it means that you are destroying something beautiful that does nothing but provide joy.  Predominant themes in the book are rape, racial disparity and loss of innocence, so the title obviously reflects those losses as well as an important event at the end which I will not divulge for a change.  Perhaps for Harper Lee, the fame the book achieved killed the original passion she had for writing and she accidentally killed her own mockingbird.  

This is the kind of novel I aspire to write, and being in the throes of that attempt has made the reading of this book even more interesting to me.  I found that despite my best efforts to read critically and parse the techniques used to move the plot or describe the characters, I was continually swept up in the story and forgot to analyze it.  Maybe I’m just not good at that sort of analysis.  Maybe I just pick up the few things I’ve learned about writing by osmosis.  But maybe this novel is just that good.

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.

The Blame Game

Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

President Barack Obama

 

To us it is inconceivable that millions of men should have killed and tortured each other, because Napoleon was ambitious, Alexander firm, English policy crafty, and the Duke of Oldenburg hardly treated . . . And the war would not have been had there been no intrigues on the part of England, no Duke of Oldenburg, no resentment on the part of Alexander; nor had there been no autocracy in Russia, no French Revolution and consequent dictatorship and empire, nor all that had led to the French Revolution, and so on further back: without any one of those causes, nothing could have happened. And consequently nothing was the exclusive cause of the war, and the war was bound to happen simply because it was bound to happen.   

The acts of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words it seemed to depend whether this should be done or not, were as little voluntary as the act of each soldier, forced to march out by the drawing of a lot or by conscription . . . for in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (on whom the whole decision appeared to rest) should be effective, a combination of innumerable circumstances was essential, without any one of which the effect could not have followed. It was essential that the millions of men in whose hands the real power lay – the soldiers who fired guns and transported provisions and cannons – should consent to carry out the will of those feeble and isolated persons.   

And so, Napoleon played his part as the representative of supreme power . . . He did nothing likely to hinder the progress of the battle; he yielded to the most sensible advice; he was not confused, did not contradict himself, did not lose his presence of mind, nor run away from the field of battle, but with his great tact and military experience, he performed calmly and with dignity his role of appearing to be in supreme control of it all.  

Throughout War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy expounds on his philosophy of the origins of historical events and the importance, or lack of importance, that the recognized leaders had in shaping the events. Above, I quote pieces of his philosophy which, unfortunately, are lacking because they are not in context or with the benefit of full (rather lengthy) explanation. But Tolstoy firmly believes that these men, Emperor Napoleon, Tsar Alexander, and their military commanders, had only as much to do with the events and their outcomes as any single soldier holding a bayonet on the front lines of a given battle. Essentially, the credit or blame of any particular event is a sum of the entire history of every man who went before it, and although every man personally has free will, the momentum of history is affected in only the minutest way by the actions of a single man, regardless of his position in the world.  

In my reading this past week, this particular idea has struck a chord in me because of the state of contemporary politics, the upcoming mid-term elections, and the blame that has, of late, been heaped upon the current President. Rather than making this a political dissertation and drawing conclusions for you, I leave Tolstoy’s words for you to recognize the parallels and perhaps to gain an interesting 150-year-old perspective on a contemporary quandary . . . the credit or blame that is deserved by President Obama (or any past president as an individual, for that matter.)  

Oh, and I’m almost to page 1000, so only 400 to go . . . almost as much as a whole other book, but I’m closing in on it!  

On the virtues of a hardback . . . book

Napoleon in the Battle of Moskowa in 1812. Thr...

Napoleon in the Battle of Moskowa in 1812 . . . haven't gotten to this yet.

 

Well, as I slog my way through War and Peace, I thought I should try to write a bit on my blog so as not to lose the interest of the many, many fans I have acquired (Hi, Mom!)    

As far as my current read goes, I really am pleasantly surprised.  It’s not difficult to read at all.  The language is very accessible and almost conversational at times, though granted, a conversation from a different century.  Being an epic, the cast of characters is vast, and I am having some problems remembering who all of the people are between their appearances.  The action flips back and forth from Moscow to St. Petersburg to various battlefields in Austria, and there are a number of individual story lines that occasionally cross paths in order to keep the story united.  And let’s keep in mind that after a week of reading I am not even 300 pages into this tome of almost 1400 pages, so these are preliminary observations at best.    

One special note:  Tolstoy has quite a way with his description of battle.  It’s interesting and surprising, particularly having never been under fire myself and hoping to never have the pleasure.  It’s a different kind of battling than the modern warfare of heat seeking missiles and drones, or even the early 20th century battles of bombs dropped from airplanes and every soldier with a gun.  Communications during Tolstoy’s clashes are slow or non-existent between various regiments.  There are horses and swords and guns that require packing and flint before firing.  Death tended to be slow and painful, brought about by simple infections, exhaustion and hunger, and not necessarily from the immediate result of battle wounds.  Today, people say that things seem to move in slow motion during traumatic events like car accidents or bomb explosions, but events really were in slow motion in those battles considering how instantaneously we can now transmit messages and even death.  Tolstoy’s battle scenes are an insightful peek into a different way of war.    

And speaking of technology and communication, we now live in a time where you don’t even have to own a book in order to read a literary work.  As a bibliophile, you would think that I am opposed to this sort of thing, but I actually embrace it.  In spite of my advanced age, I have had computers in my house since I was a tween . . . a word that I don’t think existed when I was a tween, by the way.  This was thanks to my father who had a fascination with gadgets and was what marketers today call a “first adopter”.  I still remember that huge Apple computer with the floppy disk drives, the tiny monitor with the glowing, monochromatic typeface on the black background.  It was fascinating to me at the time, but I had absolutely no idea how it was going to literally change the world.  Now I have more processing power in my cell phone than in that old Apple II computer, and I don’t even use a smart phone!    

I have yet to purchase a tablet reader, but I have a number of friends who use them, and I imagine that they are nearly indispensable to today’s college students.  The iPad is high up on my “to be purchased” list, along with a smart phone (sorry, Apple, I don’t have AT&T and refuse to switch) and a new pair of red high heels.  I’d really rather wait to make my tablet purchase until after it is sand and water proof . . . or at least resistant.  After all, I live at the beach, and I don’t want to destroy such a stylish and expensive piece of technology by dropping it in a sand dune, but I might have break down and buy it sooner just because.    

I foresee myself using the tablet to read periodicals and using it to replace the multiple books I usually carry when I travel.  I can’t possibly run the risk of being caught without reading materials, and an Internet connected reader will make it possible to decide at the very last minute what I would like to read next . . . an amazing convenience!  However, I can’t see entirely giving up on the printed word.  Perhaps it’s just simple nostalgia that will be eventually overcome by the progression of time and technology, but, to echo a common refrain out there, there’s just something about holding the weight of a book in your hand as you read, turning the pages, feeling your progress through the story by the location of the bookmark.    

Most recently, I have also realized the distinct difference between reading a paperback book and a hardback book, and how truly wonderful the nearly lost art of reading an old-fashioned hardback book is.  The smell of the leather cover and the crisp stiff pages, the relatively substantial heft of the book, the silk lined cover, the gilt-edged paper, the smooth gold ribbon book mark, the embossed design and lettering on the binding . . . an overall richness that lends significance and gravity to the work within before you have even read page one.  I read Crime and Punishment in a red leather-bound edition like this and it made me want to curl up by a fire with a cup of hot tea.  Granted, I am currently enduring the dog days of summer and tea is not my normal drink of choice, but I compensated by turning up the AC and drinking hot chocolate.  The mechanics of reading a hardback book make it difficult to read while lying in bed, but this too seems to add to the importance of the work.  One cannot lounge while reading, but must sit up and give full attention in order to succeed.    

I think that often I read too casually, much in the manner that I digest sitcoms or fast food:  skimming with only partial attention and very little of merit left behind when it is over.  I am the first to admit that there is a certain pleasure in French fries, but it cannot be the only food you eat and they are certainly not the building blocks that will sustain you and make you a better person.  I know that the world is headed the way of the Matrix where you shove a plug into the back of your head and upload everything you need to know, but I hope against hope that there will always remain the families that sit around a table sharing dinner and conversation as well as the people who like to curl up with a book . . . one with a cover and pages, I mean.    

On the other hand, I think I would’ve sprained my wrist by now if I were reading War and Peace in hardback . . . to each job, the appropriate tool, I guess.    

A Glutton for Punishment

Napoleon in his study at the Tuileries - 2nd v...

Napoleon in his study at the Tuileries

Before I even finished reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I knew what my next read had to be:  Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  I knew that the two were contemporaries who embodied the idea of Russia in their writings, and they appeared to have great respect for one another.  Upon hearing of Dostoevsky’s death, Tolstoy wrote, “I never saw the man, and never had any direct relations with him, yet suddenly when he died I understood that he was the nearest and dearest and most necessary of men to me.”

But I had no idea how interrelated their most famous novels are.  Apparently the two men used the same publisher to serialize their novels.  While Tolstoy was ensconced in his country estate, slowly struggling to write and rewrite his massive epic, originally called 1805, his fortunate publisher Mihail Katkov had another talented author mired in a financial crisis caused by gambling debts and desperate for income.  This other author dashed off a note with the idea for Crime and Punishment and Katkov quickly bought it.  Imagine being the publisher who featured the serialized version of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece in his journal beginning in January of 1866 and in successive publications switched back and forth between that and the ongoing saga created by Tolstoy!  It is almost impossible that these two authors were published at the same time by the same editor in the same periodical without having an impact on each other. 

It seems in my first few pages of reading that the first topic they both share is Napoleon, although Tolstoy’s idea of Napoleon almost seems to counter the “Napoleonic genius” figure of Raskolnikov’s philosophy.  At the very least, there are character viewpoints ranging from genius to fool regarding this man who is such an omnipresent figure at this particular period of Russian history.

The setting and mood of this novel, at least so far, are dramatically different.  Tolstoy’s characters move in elite circles.  They have wealth and titles and political clout.  Everybody has something that deserves complaint, but there is much more in the way of drawing room manipulation and much less crushing poverty.  It is a substantially easier read, though I don’t know if this can be attributed to the translation or the original author, but I must say I am relieved.  I don’t think I could read 1384 pages of Crime and Punishment.

Wow, that’s a long book . . .

Hello world!

Books

Ahhh, the classics

I decided, in a moment of shame and disgust combined with dash of insanity, that I wanted to read the 100 greatest books ever written.  There are four primary reasons that I decided to embark on this project and document it in a blog.

1.  I am an avid reader.  Almost always have been.  When I was very young, my mother used to complain to my father that I was staying up til all hours of the night reading . . . and the books weren’t even ones I was supposed to be reading for school.  (Oh, the horror!)  My father said simply, “At least she’s reading.”  That must have been comfort enough in a family of intellectual snobs, because I was left alone to choose my own reading materials as long as I got through the assigned stuff too.  Jump ahead about 30 years.  So this particular summer of 2010, I had just finished getting my MBA during which time I was almost entirely unable to read for pleasure.  My graduation present to myself was a trip to Barnes & Noble to purchase books that I WANTED to read.  Fastforward a bit more to August.  My extended family was enjoying the annual family reunion/bachanal at the beach where I am lucky enough to live all year.  It is no exaggeration to say that in the two weeks we stayed in that beach house, we did not turn on the television once.  Everybody, including my four teenage nieces, preferred reading to watching the boob tube.  I had run out of my own books to read and started borrowing from my extremely bookish family.  I picked one up by a well-known and successful author who focuses his fiction on the lawyer-genre.  I got about one chapter into it, and I put the book down wondering to myself, “Why am I reading this?  It’s trash!  It’s like I’m only reading it to have something to read.  There are so many amazing books out there that I have never read.  Why am I wasting my time with this?”  So, I shamed myself into making a list of wonderful books that need to be read.

2.  I am a classically trained (thanks, Dad) and highly accomplished procrastinator.  I can make this list of novels and have the best of intentions, but end up watching reruns of “Two and a Half Men”.  However, I am also extremely motivated by guilt and shame.  Proceeding on this journey on an open blog, although I can’t imagine who’s going to read it, raises the very real possibility of failing to complete my self-assigned task in a humiliatingly public way.  I am anticipating that my fear of public failure will outweigh my desire to procrastinate.  It’s nice that I recognize such admirable qualities in myself, don’t you think?

3.  I am a writer . . . or at least, I aspire to be.  It’s always tricky to make this assertion as everybody starts to critique anything you put on a page, so let’s just nip that one in the bud right now.  I don’t need stylistic and grammatical critiques on my blog.  I only say this as further explanation of the project.  I’m not going to be trying out excerpts of my novel on you.  I am really only hoping that by reading truly great works of literary art, I can recognize little bits and pieces of what makes them great.  In doing so, I’m also hoping that greatness transfers to me by proximity.  I know that’s not the way it works, really, but a girl can hope.

4.  And the fourth reason, is that I aspire to be a writer.  So I guess it’s really reason #3(b) rather than #4.  I have this amazing ability to NOT write, even though I desperately want to do so.  It’s uncanny.  It’s already taken me 2 days to put the first word on this blog.  Instead, I procrastinated by picking the theme and learning about tools & widgets & whatnot.  I am always preparing to write, but so rarely actually write.  This is the reason for the blog part of the equation.  If I can get in the habit of creative writing on a regular basis . . . writing anything! . . . I believe it will bring me that much closer to writing the great American novel.  Or at least a moderately successful piece of trash that one might read during those summer days on the beach.

And don’t kid yourself . . . I finished reading that trashy lawyer novel first.