Monday, May 30, 2011

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain

Published: 1884
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Setting: Small towns along Mississippi River in mid 1800's
Rating: 5
Lists:  1,001 books
Review: Goodreads

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn picks up the story of Huck and Tom from where we find them at the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  Having read the two books back to back, the difference is marked.  Twain tells the stories of Tom and friends with a third person narrator, whereas Huckleberry Finn is told from Huck's point of view, putting the reader in the mind of an adolescent boy.  Additionally, in Huckleberry Finn, Twain uses several different dialects in the many scenes of dialogue.  While I typically find this tends to slow the story down, it was not the case in this book.

Between the two boys, I am more drawn to Huck.  I like him, despite his coarseness and aversion to becoming civilized and respectable.  He is honest, genuine and can see right through falsehood and hypocrisy.  He is a good judge of character, resourceful and quick on his feet. These traits come in handy while floating down the Mississippi on a raft with a run-away slave named Jim.  It is interesting to see the relationship develop between a slave with a bounty on his head and an uneducated boy.

Lest we forget, Huck is no angel for he does lie, cheat and steal but as a reader, I am sympathetic.  He only takes what he needs and tells lies to protect Jim.  The one time, however, he did lie to Jim as a joke, and saw how much it hurt him, we read:

It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn't ever sorry for it afterward, neither.  I didn't do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn't done that one if I'd 'a' knowed it would make him feel that way.
Through a series of event, Tom comes back into the picture and boy, did I not like him.  At all!  He said he would help Huck free Jim, but tried to heighten the "adventure" factor by recreating aspects from  every prison or jail break that he had read in books.  What should've been a simple and fairly straightforward task was exponentially complicated by Tom's involvement.  By the end, things work out but those were some very frustrating chapters to read!

Favorite quotes and why:

When the widow was teaching him the Bible:
After super she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn't care no more about him, because I don't take no stock in dead people.

The matter-of-fact way that Huck described the abusive relationship with his father, Pap:

But by and by pap got too handy with his hick'ry, and I couldn't stand it.  I was all over welts. He got to going away so much, too, and locking me in.  Once he locked me in and was gone three days. It was dreadful lonesome.  I judged he had got drownded, and I wasn't ever going to get out any more.  I was scared.  I made up my mind I would fix up some way to leave there. 
How Huck described Emmeline Grangerford and her room:
Poor Emmeline made poetry about all the dead people when she was alive, and it didn't seem right that there warn't nobody to make some about her now she was gone; so I tried to sweat out a verse or two myself, but I couldn't seem to make it go somehow.  They kept Emmeline's room trim and nice, and all the things fixed in it just the way she liked to have them when she was alive, and nobody ever slept there.  The old lady took care of the room herself, though there was plenty of niggers, and she sewed there a good deal and read her Bible there mostly. 
My thought - Josh's new bed is being used by his sister, but everything else is in his room.  I have set up a desk, reading chair and bookcase.  This is my place to read and write - although I don't use it as often as I thought I would.  Not sure why. 

Huck's moral dilemma - to send a note to Miss Watson that said where Jim was being kept or to try and free him.  Based on everything Huck knew from society and church, he would be giving up his soul to help Jim escape again. 
It was a close place.  I took it up, and held it in my hand.  I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.  I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: "All right, then, I'll go to hell" and tore it up.  It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said.  And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.
Final thoughts:  Why does this story resonate with me?  Because it is about a teenage boy trying to figure his way through life, towards maturity?  Trying to navigate through the sometimes silly rules laid down by well-meaning adults in society, school and church?  Adults who have forgotten what it is like to be a kid; when imagination runs rampant and all issues/situations seem bigger than life, when reasoning is crude and immature, but honest.  Is it because I ache to get "into" the mind of a teenage boy and by doing so, may get more insight to what was going on in my beloved son's head that fateful night? 

"The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain

Published: 1876
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Setting: Small town along Mississippi River in mid 1800's
Rating: 4
Review: Goodreads

While preparing to travel on business last week, I was faced with a dilemma.  Which book should I bring to read next?  Still undecided after perusing the many books on my TBR shelves, I decided to bring my Nook onto which many classics had been recently downloaded.  So while waiting to board the plane, I thought I'd choose my next book by opening up various books, reading the first two paragraphs and if hooked, I'd continue.  Three days later, I finished both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, surprised at how much I enjoyed reading about these two boys.

Tom Sawyer is "all boy".  He doesn't like school, questions rules, and is not interested in church.  He is mischievous, "cheeky" and a prankster, immortalized in the scene when he marched into his own funeral.  Always looking for adventures, he ropes his friends into pretending to be Robin Hood and his band of thieves, pirates or robbers.

Twain's well written book is a "coming of age" story where Tom wrestles with his feelings for a girl, Becky Thatcher.  His thoughts and antics, fueled by infatuation, are innocent, immature, sweet and funny.   He also struggles with his conscious, having witnessed a murder in which an innocent person was framed by the murderer and will hang.  Will Tom risk his own life, do the right thing and name the guilty person, and thereby uphold justice?

Among his many other adventures occurring in a short timeframe, he inadvertently becomes a hero by saving himself and Becky when they had gotten lost in the caves.  Hopes of their rescue had dwindled and yet due to his resourcefulness and general optimism, he found a way out.  And if this were not enough, at the end of the story, both he and Huck find buried treasure!

A highly recommended book if you've never read it (in my case) or if the last time you read it was for school.

Interesting quotes and why:

After Tom tricks his friends into whitewashing Aunt Polly's fence for him and giving him treasures to do so:
He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it - namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain....that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.
When Tom saw Becky for the first time:
As he was passing by the house where Jeff Thatcher lived, he saw a new girl in the garden - a lovely little blue-eyed creature with yellow hair plaited into two long tails, white summer frock and embroidered pantalettes.  The fresh-crowned hero fell without firing a shot.  A certain Amy Lawrence vanished out of his heart and left not even a memory of herself behind.
His view of death on a day when his "soul was steeped in melancholy":
It seemed to him that life was but a trouble, at best, and he more than half envied Jimmy Hodges, so lately released; it must be very peaceful, he thought, to lie and slumber and dream forever and ever, with the wind whispering through the trees and caressing the grass and the flowers over the grave, and nothing to bother and grieve about, ever any more.  If he only had a clean Sunday-school record he could be willing to go, and be done with it all.
Note in my journal:  A kid's view of death - very romantic.  Envies the dead - their peace, sleeping and dreaming forever.  No bother, no troubles, nothing to grieve (interesting word choice) about.  What about the grieving of those left behind?

Friday, May 27, 2011

"Classics Of British Literature" audiocourse # 2 by Prof. John Sutherland

Updated 5/27/2011

I have recently finished listening to a second audiocourse from Great Course.  If you are interested, here is the post to the first audiocourse which I would also recommend: The Art of Reading.

The introduction:
"This course could as properly be titled A History of British Literature, in that it is sequential and essentially "historical" - historical, that is, in two senses.  It follows the trajectory of literary achievement from earliest to latest times in a progressive line, and its basic presupposition is that literature cannot be (and should not be) examined outside the historical circumstances."
So while learning about Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, I am also learning about the England that he lived in.

Listening to Professor Sutherland's lectures is like sitting in his living room in front of a roaring fire and he is alternatively teaching and then getting up and reciting some of his favorite passages, complete with voice modulations and gestures (esp. when reading Shakespeare).  I listen to his lectures in the car and find myself playing them even on a 10 minute errand.  I am learning so much and will record the highlights in this post.

Beowulf (6th century)- read the 2002 translation from Seamus Heaney (2001). Origins in the 6th century, it was a work that was recited and finally penned by a monk.  Readers may find it familiar as it is echoed in the works by J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Listen to the audio recording by Heaney.

The Canterbury Tales (1380's) by Geoffrey Chaucer.  A story of a pilgrimage to Canterbury from London by an eclectic group of pilgrims. As they travel, stories are told and this is what makes up the tales.  "In writing The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer established literature in the middle level of society; after him, literature would become an important element in the emergence and progress of what we know as England."  Buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Suggested reading:The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed by Jill Mann, Penguin Classics 2005.  The Canterbury Tales by Derek Pearsall (1985). Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales by Helen Cooper (1996).

The Faerie Queen (16th century) by Edmund Spenser.  Written in the time of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen.  The subject in the work is England itself and virtues embodied in knights, who go around "on quests to set the world to rights."  The virtues are "holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice and courtesy."  Also buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Emergence of English theatre in the 15th and 16th century.  Playwright and poet, Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary of William Shakespeare but died tragically at age 29.  Professor Sutherland hypothesizes that had he lived, Marlowe, rather than Shakespeare might have been the greater poet. 

William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) - voted in 2005 on the BBC radio program Today as the "greatest Briton who ever lived."  Why?   Because "he most embodied the soul of Britain."  Since he lived and wrote in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen who did not have an heir, the question of succession was important: "How is one king replaced with another?  He explores regicide in Macbeth, usurpation in Richard II, and inheritance in Henry IV and Henry V.  He returns to this question up through his last play, Henry VIII, but never comes up with a definitive answer."  Amazingly, he masterd all genres of plays: comedies, history plays, tragedies, problem play, Roman plays and romances.

Suggested Reading:  The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare ed by Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (2001).  The Riverside Complete Shakespeare ed by G. Blakemore Evans and J.J.M. Tobin (1997).  Companion to Shakespeare by David Scott Kastan (1999).

The Metaphysical Poets (early and mid 17th century) - "metaphysical poetry was a highly cultivated brand of literature for the highly cultivated. One had to be able to write, in a sense, to be a reader. The metaphysical poets were deeply learned and above all, witty."  Such poems and poets are:
  • "The Flea" and "The Sun Rising" and "Death, Be Not Proud" by John Dunne (1572 - 1631)
  • The Temple by George Herbert (1593 - 1633)
  • "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell (1621 - 1678)
Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton (1608-1674) - ambitiously set out to explain the ways of God to man via an epic poem, "bringing together the epic project of Homer and the text of the Bible".  To do so, he devised a new sort of language, between Latin and English.  To understand this work, one must set it in context of the English Civil War.   It is "work of literature that requires us to educate ourselves in order to make sense of it.  It is an extraordinary achievement that has challenged readers of every generation."

Note: English Civil War - led to trial and execution of Charles I, the exile of his son Charles II, and replacement of monarchy with a "Commonwealth of England" under Protectorate rule, Oliver Cromwell.  This did not last long. 

The Pilgrim's Progress (1670's) by John Bunyan (1628-1688) - after the monarchy of re-established with Charles II, Bunyan, who was a Christian soldier in Cromwell's army, was imprisoned for 12 years for continuing to preach without a license.

The Augustans - Order, Decorum and Wit (18th century) - "Literature in this period was moving inexorably toward cultivation and civilization. The aspiration was to match the great cultural achievements of Rome under Augustus, which is why writers called themselves Augustans. Literature, it was believed, should be polished and should reflect the values of the great emerging British civilization".

  • Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) by Samuel Johnson or Dr. Johnson (1709-1784)
  • An Essay on Criticism and Essay on Man by Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

Suggested Reading:  The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) by James Boswell (1740-1795).  The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) by Edward Gibbon

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) - a political satirist.  The book, "like everything in Swift's life and writing, is both terrifying and wonderful.  The book makes us wonder with genuine anxiety what we are, what we have done, and whether our accomplishments as a species are as worthwhile as we'd like to think.  Much of the literature of the Augustan period entertains and even instructs us, but Swift frightens us."  By the end of his life, he was showing clear signs of madness.

Suggested Reading:  The Writings of Jonathan Swift by Jonathan Swift.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) - "first great novelist in English literature".  Rise of the first novel at this time (1719) and in this place (London) coincided with the rise of capitalism.  Opening paragraph reads like something a journalist would write and in fact, Defoe was a journalist for 30 years.

Suggested Reading:  Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.

Aphra Behn (1640 - 1689) - "first wholly independent woman's voice in literature."  Wrote during the Restoration period in British history.  Long story short, the Puritan dictatorship established by Cromwell (who executed Kings Charles I) and forced his son, Charles II and court to live in exile in France, lasted for 11 years (1949 - 1660).  During this highly moralistic time, taverns, racecourses, prostitution houses and the theatre were closed down.  Books underwent extreme censorship.

Public opinion forced the restoration of the monarchy.  King Charles II returned from France and with him came liberty and freedom.  It was during this time that women could work as actors. (In the time of Shakespeare, boys whose voiced had not changed played women roles.)  Behn wrote a number of play in this time period and finished with a masterful novella, Oroonoko.   She is buried in Westminster Abbey, the first woman writer to do so.

Suggested Reading:  Oroonoko, The Rover and Other Works by Aphra Behn.

The Golden Age of Fiction: mid to late 18th century.  Several factors led to this time period being a "huge, empty, inviting field for literary talent and innovation".  1) Growth of literacy among the masses, not just the higher classes, 2) vast numbers of women readers thirst for this genre, 3) advances in printing technology, 4) rise of publishing infrastructure (manufacture and distribution) and 5) reviews of published works.   Noted works of fiction to come out of this time period are:
  • The Life and Optimism of Tristam Shandy (1759-1769) by Laurence Stern (1713-1768).
  • Pamela (1740), Clarissa (1748) and Sir Charles Grandison (1753) by Samuel Richardson (1689-1761)
  • Tom Jones (1749) by Henry Fielding
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano (1789) - kidnapped from his home in Nigeria at 11 years old, Equiano became a slave - first as an African slave and then transported to the West Indies.  After several owners, he ultimately ended up serving Michael Pascal, a Royal Navy officer who renamed him Gustavus Vassa.  He became literate under Pascal and continued his studies under a new slaveowner, Robert King of Philadelphia.  Equiano eventually earned enough money to buy his freedom and returned to England.

Women Poets/Writers

  • Tilbury Speech and "On Monsieur's Departure" by Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603) 
  • "My Dear Grandchild Anne Bradstreet Who Deceased June 20, 1669, Being Three Years and Seven Months Old" by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)
  • The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673)
  • Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft - spoke "loud, clearly, publicly and wholly unmuzzled."
Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789) and The Marriage of Heave and Hell (1790-1793) by William Blake (1752-1827) - "to read Blake requires, first of all, to learn how to read Blake; once that trick is mastered, few writers in English literature are so rewarding."

Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet (1771-1832) - born in Scotland. Wrote poetry such as The Lady of the Lake but is known for his historical fiction works such as Waverly, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Bride of Lammermoor.

Romantic Revolution (1770-1830)
  • Lord Byron (1788-1824) was a literary genius.  Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan are his best known works. 
  • John Keats (1795-1821) wrote "La Belle Dame sans Merci" and the collection of "the Odes".
Frankenstein by Mary Shelly (1797-1851) - Mary was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft who died shortly after Mary's birth.  She wrote this gothic novel while only 18 years old. 

Jane Austen (1775-1817) - one of the most beloved English writers.  She did not enjoy personal fame until well after her death. Intensely private, not much is know of her personal life. 
  • Sense and Sensibility (1811)
  • Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  • Mansfield Park (1814)
  • Emma (1816)
  • Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818- post humously)
Suggested reading: A Memoir of Jane Austen (1869) by nephew James Edward-Austen Leigh.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) - a writer with a mission.  He believed that "the novel could make readers aware of the pains and needs of others" and that "he could penetrate the minds of his readers and change them."
  • Oliver Twist (1837-1839)
  • A Christmas Carol (1843)
  • David Copperfield (1849-1850)
  • Bleak House (1852-1853)
  • Little Dorritt (1855-1857)
  • A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
  • Great Expectations (1860-1861)
1840's - Growth of the Realistic Novel - fiction mattered like never before.  Examples are:
  • Dombey and Sons (1846-1848) by Charles Dickens
  • Mary Barton: A Manchester Story (1848) by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Sybil (1945) by Benjamin Disraeli
  • Vanity Fair ( 1848) by William Makepeace Thackery
Bronte Sisters - initially published under the pseudonyms of Currier (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell. 
  • Emily  Bronte (1818-1848) - died at the very young age of 29.  Her only novel was Wuthering Heights (1847).
  • Anne Bronte (1820-1849) wrote Agnes Grey(1847)  and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).
  • Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855) wrote Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849), Villette (1853) and The Professor (1857 posthumously).  Interested in the "portrait novel".  Jane Eyre is written in the first person. 
  • Read The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell
George Eliot - Fiction and moral reflection.  Her real name is Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880).   She did not want to be associated with the rest of the "silly novels by lady novelists".   One of the leading writers of the Victorian era. 
  • The Mill on the Floss (1860)
  • Silas Marner (1861)
  • Middlemarch (1871-1872)
  • Daniel Deronda (1876)
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) - the "undisputed Grand Old Man of English literature".  Novelist and poet.

  • The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
  • Tess of the d'Ubervilles (1891)
  • Jude the Obscure (1895)
British Bestsellers
  • Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) - major innovator of crime fiction.  Stories were published in highly popular and easily accessible Strand magazine. 
  • H.G Wells (1866-1946) - wrote science fiction such as The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898).
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) - wrote during the height of the British Empire and wrote from his experiences as an officer in the British merchant marine. 
  • Lord Jim (1900)
  • Nostromo (1904)
  • Heart of Darkness (1902) - about the dark/evil side of colonization
James Joyce (1882-1941) - giant of Irish literature
  • The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916) 
  • Ulysses (1922) 
  • Finnagan's Wake (1939) 
The Bloomsbury Group: Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and E. M Forster (1897-1970) - this group of  influential writers moved fiction out of the Victorian era to Modernism.  Woolf introduced the technique called "streams of consciousness". 
  •   The Voyage Out (1915) - Woolf
  • Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
  • To The Lighthouse (1927)
  • Orlando (1928)
  • A Room of One's Own (1929)
  • A Room with A View (1908) - Forster
  • Howard's End (1910)
  • A Passage to India (1924)
  • Aspects of the Novel (1927) - literary criticism
20th - 21st century British fiction
  • Henry James (1843-1916) - promoted literary realism with works like  The Turn of the Screw (1898), The Portrait of A Lady (1881)
  • D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) wrote Sons and Lovers (1913), Women in Lover (1920) and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928)
  • George Orwell (1903-1950)  wrote Animal Farm (1945), Nineteen Eight-Four (1949)
  • William Golding (1911-1993) wrote Lord of the Flies (1954)
  • Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) wrote A Clockwork Orange (1962)
  • Salman Rushdie (1947 - )  wrote Midnight's Children (1981), Satanic Verses (1968)
Many, many books are now on my TBR list due to this course. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Reading Lolita In Tehran" by Azar Nafisi

Published: 2003
Read: 2011
Genre: Memoir
Setting: Iran
Rating: 2
Reviews: Goodreads
Author web site

I expected to love this book so am trying to figure out why I did not.  The first few chapters drew me in - the story of a group of women, or "my girls" as she called them, that Professor Nafisi meets with once a week in her home, with the intent of discussing "the relation between fiction and reality."  My margin notes: "I would love to be in a class like this!"

Nafisi's reflection on the two years spent with these girls, placed at the beginning of her book, serves as a teaser.
"That room, for all of us, became a place of transgression.  What a wonderland it was!  Sitting around the large coffee table covered with bouquets of flowers, we moved in and out of the novels we read.  Looking back, I am amazed at how much we learned without even noticing it.  We were, to borrow from Nabokov, to experience how the ordinary pebble of ordinary life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eyes of fiction."  
She remembers laying out expectations at their first meeting:
"to read, discuss and respond to works of fiction.  Each would have a private diary, in which she should record her responses to the novels, as well as ways in which these works and their discussions related to her personal and social experiences."
Nafisi's own mantra:
"Do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth."
With chapters called Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen, I expected to learn how this group, living in the midst of a revolution and a new totalitarian government, who used religion to oppress women and society at large, would find "jewels" in these great books.  Did they find any epiphanies to help them make sense of their unstable world?  While writing in their diaries, did their reading help or not help with the confiscation of freedoms and rights, such as being able to wear make-up, jewelry, or nail polish?   The post-revolutionary government would require them to wear robes and veils in public.  Did reading fiction help or hinder submission to this mandate?

I kept reading and truthfully, skimming to find what I expected.  Alas, it was not to be.  But in any work, I can usually find something that speaks to me.

Favorite quotes and why:

From Nabokov - on readers and reading
"Readers were born free and ought to remain free." and he "expected his readers to feel in the act of reading fiction; it was a sensation that separated the good readers, as he called them, from the ordinary ones."
A good analogy of how painful memories can come upon us:
"The sky is deceptively sunny: only a handful of clouds linger here and there.  Seconds later, another drop.  Then, with the sun still perched in the sky, you are drenched in a shower of rain. This is how memories invade me, abruptly and unexpectedly: drenched, I am suddenly left alone again on the sunny path, with a memory of the ran." 
I agree completely...
"I had not realized how far the routines of one's life created the illusion of stability."
What books meant to her during a challenging time.  I feel the same way, "post-Josh"...
"If I turned towards books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was now in constant retreat."
Recommended reading list:

  • Jane Austen - Persuasion
  • Saul Bellow - The Dean's December; Herzog; More Die of Heartbreak
  • Heinrich Boll - The Clown
  • Emily Bronte - Wuthering Heights
  • Mikhail Bulgakov - The Master and Margarita
  • Italo Calvino - If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
  • Lewis Carroll - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
  • Raymond Chandler - The Big Sleep
  • Joseph Conrad - Under Western Eyes
  • Diderot - Jacques Le Fataliste
  • Henry Fielding - Tom Jones; Shamela
  • Gustave Flaubert - Madame Bovary
  • Sedeq Hedayat - Buf-e-Kuf (the Blind Owl)
  • Henry James - The Ambassadors
  • Franz Kafka - The Trial; In the Penal Colony
  • Herman Melville - The Confidence - Man
  • Vladimir Nabokov - Pnin
  • Iraj Pzeshkzad - My Uncle Napoleon
  • Jean Rhys - Wide Sargasso Sea
  • Scheherazadde - A Thousand and One Nights
  • Muriel Spark - Loitering with Intent; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  • Laurence Sterne - The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy; Gentleman
  • Italo Svevo - Confessions of Zeno
  • Mark Twain - Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Virginia Woolf - To the Lighthouse

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Cocktails For Three" by Madeline Wickham

Published: 2000
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Setting: Contemporary London
Rating: 3
Review: Goodreads
Author's site

I have enjoyed reading the Shopaholic Series and the stand alone novels by Sophie Kinsella.  They are quick and easy reads.  I saw this book by Kinsella, writing under a different name at my local library's book sale and for $1, it was mine.  Doing a bit of research on her website for this blog post, I found it interesting that Sophie's real name is Madeline Wickham and that she wrote seven novels as Wickham before writing Confessions of a Shopaholic.  She submitted the Confessions manuscript under the pseudonym, Sophie Kinsella and the rest is history.

Back to the book.  Right from the start, I was drawn in and actually read it in one sitting.  Three friends, Candace, Roxanne and Maggie gather once a month, over cocktails, to catch up on their busy lives.   As I pondered this book in my journal, the word "alone" stood out - for all three women.  For they each had secrets - ones that created doubts, fears, insecurities, and irrational thoughts -  plaguing and at times,  overwhelming.  One thinks while reading the book, "Just say it!  Out with the secret...don't keep it in... tell someone, get perspective!"  It reminds me of the quote by English poet John Dunne, "No man is an island unto himself".   In other words, we need each other.

Candice struggles with guilt.  Her father, whom she adored, was discovered upon his premature death, to be a con man.  He swindled money from family and friends.  She feels tremendous guilt for his actions and when presented with an opportunity to make amends, she pounced on it, with unexpected consequences.

Roxanne has been having an affair for the past 6 years and the identity of her married lover is a secret.  He is not free to divorce due to having a young child so she struggles with anger, jealousy, shame, hurt, longing and bitterness.  Lots of feelings to deal with on your own.

Maggie struggles with insecurity.  Being a highly successful editor of a popular magazine did not prepare her for motherhood.  After having a healthy baby girl, she felt obligated to live up to a"supermom" image.  She tries to keep up the facade but ends up feeling lost, lonely, inadequate and a failure.

This book made me think.  Writing on Josh's blog has kept me connected to others while dealing with the catastrophic loss of our seventeen year old son to suicide, over two years ago.  Without it, I could not have survived.  Yes, every post is hard to write but it has, I think, been necessary for any type of healing to occur.  For I am forced to stop, think about my feelings related to his death, and articulate it as openly and honestly as I can.  And while this has benefitted me, I hear that it has helped others and for that, I am grateful.

Friday, May 13, 2011

"The Hours" by Michael Cunningham

Published: 1998
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 5
Award: 1999 Pulitzer Prize
Review: Good Reads
Author web site
On writing The Hours

Good Reads reviews were interesting as readers were polarized - they either loved it or not. I loved it. But it was probably because of the subject matter - death, specifically by suicide. See post on Josh's blog for more.

It is the story of three women's lives: Virginia Woolf, writing Mrs. Dalloway in 1923 England; Clarissa Vaughan, preparing a party for her former lover, Richard, who calls her Mrs. Dalloway and is dying of AIDS in 1999 New York City and Laura Brown, unhappy housewife, pregnant with her second child, reading Mrs. Dalloway in 1949 Los Angeles.

My favorite quotes and why:

I love the simplicity and truth of this sentence:
"Don't we love children, in part, because they live outside the realm of cynicism and irony?"
The source of Laura's unhappiness:
"In another world, she might have spent her whole life reading. But this is a new world, the rescued world - there's not much room for idleness."
Laura wishes to live in another world - one in which she is free to read, read and read. Where she does not have responsibilities for other people like her husband or young son. Where she could stay in bed all day, if desired and read Mrs. Dalloway without interruption or guilt. In some ways, I can relate. I wish that the most productive hours of my day are not spent at work. I'd rather be reading or writing. But unlike Laura, I don't think this is an all-or-nothing proposition. I can get up earlier, before work, to read and write. And I can set aside larger blocks of time during the weekend to do so. There is time to fit in what I want to do - I just have to make it happen.

I love this description of the squalid entrance to Richard's apartment. Having lived in New York City, I can just picture it.
"Only the ancient marble wainscoting - a palomino-colored marble, veined in blue and gray with a deep yellow, smoky overlay, like a very fine old cheese, now hideously echoed by the yellowish walls - indicates that this was once a building of some consequence; that hopes were nurtured here..."
Clarissa's description of what makes Richard's friendship unique:
"...and if he insists on a version of you that is funnier, stranger, more eccentric, and profound than you suspect yourself to be - capable of doing more good and more harm in the world than you've ever imagined - it is all but impossible not to believe, at least in his presence and for a while after you've left him, that he alone sees through to your essence, weighs your true qualities, and appreciates you more fully than anyone else ever has."
In one long, perfect sentence, we know everything about the relationship between these two women:
"In another life, not very much unlike this one, they'd have been enemies, but in this life, with its surprises and perversities of timing, Laura is married to a celebrated boy, a war hero, from Kitty's graduating class and has joined the aristocracy in much the way a homely German princess, no longer young, might find herself seated on a throne beside an English king."
Virginia's thought while standing over a small dead bird. I agree.
"She thinks of how much more space a being occupies in life than it does in death; how much illusion of size is contained in gestures and movements, in breathing. Dead, we are revealed in our true dimensions, and they are surprisingly modest."
Clarissa's thoughts at the end of the novel are so poignant - on death, life and hope.
"Yes, Clarissa thinks, it's time for the day to be over. We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts, and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep - it's as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we're very fortunate, by time itself. There's just this for consolation; an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more."
A highly recommended book.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"Writing About Your Life" by William Zinsser

Published: 2004
Read: 2011
Genre: Non-Fiction
Rating: 4
Review: Good Reads
Author web site

"Writers are the custodians of memory, and memories have a way of dying with their owner."  

This sentence is one of many that are underlined in this dog-earred book.   Memories are all of I have of my beloved Josh and it is the reason why I write - in my personal journal, in weekly letters to him as I sit by his grave site and on his blog.

An easily read book that gives good, solid, encouraging direction and advice for those who have the desire to write about their own or a loved one's life.  Below are quotes that I found helpful as well as a recommended reading list.

Helpful quotes:

  • When the inner critic says "Who gave you permission to think your story will interest the rest of us?"  His answer: "Well, I give you permission.  All writers are embarked on a quest of some kind and you're entitled to go on yours."
  • "To write well about your life, you only have to be true to yourself."
  • "Think small and you'll wind up finding the big themes in your family saga."
  • "Look for the human connection as you make your journey.  Connect us to the people who connected with you."
  • "The best memoirs are frozen in a particular time and place and social or historical condition."
  • "It's O.K. to crank your personality up to a higher notch of enjoyment.  But don't exaggerate grossly; don't strain the reader's good will.  Stay recognizable underneath."
  • "If you're writing a memoir, choose one narrative that tells a coherent story and discard everything else."
  • "I think of intention as the writer's soul."
  • "Moral: Write about things that are important to you, not about what you think readers will want to read, or editors will want to publish or agents will want to sell....If it is important to you, it will be important to other people."

Recommended Books:
  • Growing Up by Russell Baker
  • The Road From Coorain by Jill Ker Conway
  • Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
  • Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
  • King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard
  • The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
  • The Liar's Club by Mary Karr
  • An American Truth by Annie Dilliard
  • Poets in Their Youth by Eileen Simpson
  • Orphans by Eileen Simpson
  • Reversals by Eileen Simpson
  • Colored People by Henry Louis Gates
  • A Drinking Life by Peter Hamill
  • This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff
  • The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison

Saturday, May 7, 2011

"Painting Mona Lisa" by Jeanne Kalogridis

Published: 2006
Read: 2011
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 15th Century Florence, Italy
Rating: 4
Reviews: Good Reads
Author's web site
US Title: I, Mona Lisa

I picked up this book on a recent trip to New Zealand.  My daughter is on a study abroad program at the University of Auckland and over Easter week, my older daughter and I went for a visit.  It is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and wonderfully hospitable countries.  A trip, especially to the South Island, MUST be on everyone's bucket list.

One of the surprising things was the number of second hand books shops we happened to find - or did they find us?   In one such shop, this book caught my eye.   I love a good historical fiction and this did not disappoint.  I will look for other books by this author.

I have no knowledge of this tumultuous time in Florence's history but am curious to read more.  The book is the fascinating story of how Lisa Gherardini, a beautiful young woman became the subject of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous painting, The Mona Lisa. 

At the beginning of the book, before Lisa's eleventh birthday, an astrologist reveals these disturbing words: "You are caught in a cycle of violence, of blood and deceit.  What others have begun, you must finish....You are fire four times over.  Your temper is a furnace in which the sword of justice must be forged.  In your stars, I saw an act of violence, one which is your past and your future."

Lisa remembers these fateful words as her life becomes intertwined with the powerful Lorenzo de Medici family, the fiery and pious priest Savonarola, and the beautiful, talented Leonardo da Vinci.  A quick read with plenty of plot twists and surprises.

Three volume historical novel about Florence during this time period by Linda Proud

  • A Tabernacle for the Sun (2005)
  • Pallas and the Centaur (2004)
  • The Rebirth of Venus (2008)
Other historical fiction novels by Jeanne Kalogridis
  • The Devil's Queen: A Novel of Catherine de Medici
  • Diaries of the Family Dracul: Covenant With the Vampire, Children of the Vampire and Lord of the Vampires
  • The Burning Times
  • The Scarlet Contessa: A Novel of the Italian Renaissance

"The Lost Years of Merlin" Series by T.A. Barron

#1 The Lost Years of Merlin (1996) Good Reads review
#2 The Seven Songs of Merlin (1997) Good Reads review
#3 The Fires of Merlin (1998) Good Reads review
#4 The Mirror of Merlin (2001) Good Reads review
#5 The Wings of Merlin (2002) Good Reads review

Read: 2011
Genre: Fantasy fiction
Setting: Fincayra- mist shrouded island in between two worlds
Rating: 3
Author's web site

I read this series as the third step in my foray into the numerous books on Merlin and the Arthurian legend.  The first was the classic by T.H. White, The Once and Future King which I loved.  Second was the challenging Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.

These books focus on Merlin and his boyhood and were recommended by my daughter.  It is "coming-of-age" story whereby a young boy with no memory must piece together who he is, where he came from, how he has the powers of a young wizard and more importantly how can he control and use them.  He learns of his fate or destiny that is related to a King Arthur in a distant land called Britannia. Along his many adventures, he meets and makes unusual friends as well as encounters villainous enemies.  He also falls in love.  Doesn't this sound similar to the storyline of the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling?

In the author's note of the first book, Barron says, " In sum, how did he become the wizard and mentor to King Arthur whom we celebrate today?  Questions such as these are not answered by the traditional lore. Nor do the words attributed to Merlin himself shed much light....My own view is that, during Merlin's lost years, he not only disappeared from the world of story and song.  Rather, I believe that Merlin himself disappeared - from the world as we know it.  This tale, spinning a few volumes, will attempt to bridge the gap.  The story begins when a young boy, without any name and without any memory of his past, washes ashore on the coast of Wales.  It concludes, when that same boy, having gained and lost a great deal, is ready to step into a central role in Arthurian legend."

The books are YA fantasy fiction and are quick reads.