Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wednesday Verse

A Bookmark
by Tom Disch

Four years ago I started reading Proust.
Although I'm past the halfway point, I still
Have seven hundred pages of reduced
Type left before I reach the end.  I will
Slog through.  It can't get much more dull than what
Is happening now:  he's buying crepe-de-chine
Wraps and a real, well-documented hat
For his imaginary Albertine.
Oh, what a slimy sort he must have been--
So weak, so sweetly poisonous, so fey!
Four years ago, by God!--and even then
How I was looking forward to the day
I would be able to forgive, at last,
And to forget Remembrance of Things Past.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Just Finished: The Island of Dr. Moreau

H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, my Science Fiction/Fantasy pick for Mixing It Up, and also on my list for the Classics Club, turned out to be a great pleasure.  Although I was interested in reading this book, I was not expecting to be as impressed as I was. 

Set in 1877-1878, the novel opens with a man named Edward Prendick found drifting in a lifeboat in the south Pacific.  His story, told in flashback, forms the bulk of the book.

He claims to be suffering from amnesia because he knows that he will be thought insane if he tells what he experienced during the eleven months between his shipwreck and his escape from the island of the title.  He does write his story, which is found by his heir and eventually published.  The setup of this book is reminiscent of Frankenstein, which opens with a traveler on the Arctic ice, near death, picked up by a passing ship, who tells his fantastic story before he dies.

That opening, needless to say, is not the only parallel between Dr. Moreau and Frankenstein.   Published at opposite ends of the nineteenth century, each book features a scientist determined to create human life.  Each man's creation ultimately destroys him.  Both books pose large questions about the ethical boundaries of science.  

Dr. Moreau differs in its outlook, though,  from Frankenstein.  It doesn't have that novel's heartbreaking pathos or its strong religious sensibility;  rather, it offers sly social satire.  Moreau's grotesque creatures ape human behavior, speaking, wearing clothing, and walking upright, taught to abhor going on all fours and lapping at streams.  Prendick, the narrator, even begins to find them beautiful, thinking his own shape awkward.  Yet they gradually revert to animal states after Moreau's death ends his iron control of them.  One creature, trained by Moreau as "the Sayer of the Law," harangues the others like a preacher in a pulpit, repeating meaningless phrases he calls "Big Thinks."  But the Big Thinks are eventually forgotten, too.  On Moreau's island, the trappings of civilization and religion are artificial and fall away when they are no longer imposed by force.

I'd suggest reading both Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau;  each takes the same fascinating subject in a different direction.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wednesday Verse

by Dorothy Parker

In the pathway of the sun,
In the footsteps of the breeze,
Where the world and sky are one,
He shall ride the silver seas,
He shall cut the glittering wave.
I shall sit at home, and rock;
Rise, to heed a neighbor's knock;
Brew my tea, and snip my thread;
Bleach the linen for my bed.
They will call him brave.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Classics Club

A Room of One's Own is hosting The Classics Club, not so much a challenge as a long-term project.  This kind of thing is catnip to me--I absolutely cannot resist (not least because it seems a good way to work through the TBR pile).  The challenge/project is to read 50 to 200 classics in five years.

This project is so very ambitious, that I've decided to take a prudent approach:  I will read 50 classics in five years.  That puts my end date at March 15, 2017.  Here is my tentative list:

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (response here)

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (response here)
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (response here)
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
The Assault by Harry Mulisch (response here)
Animal Farm by George Orwell
The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells (response here)
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (response here)
Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald (response here)
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (response here)
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte (response here)
My Antonia by Willa Cather
The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (response here)
David Golder by Irene Nemirovsky (response here)
In the First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (response here)
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Middlemarch by George Eliot (response here)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (response here)

Story Collections:
The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (response here)
Five Women Who Loved Love by Ihara Saikaku
Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories by M. R. James (response here)
Dubliners by James Joyce
Selected Stories of O. Henry by O. Henry
Selected Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant (response here)
The Lady With the Dog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (response here)
The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Stories by H. P. Lovecraft (response here)

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
The Revenger's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur (response here)

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare (response here)
The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (response here)
Lysistrata by Aristophanes
The Trojan Women by Euripedes

Ancient/Medieval Literature:
The Aeneid by Virgil
Inferno by Dante
Metamorphoses by Ovid
Bhagavad Gita, by Anonymous
Ramayana, by Valmiki (retelling by Narayan)
The Legend of Seyavash by Firdausi
The Recognition of Sakuntala by Kalidasa
The Sunjata Story by Anonymous
Njal's Saga by Anonymous
The Five Books of Moses by Anonymous and Everett Fox
Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho (response here)
The Niebelungenlied by Anonymous

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (response here)

The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (response here)
Tagebuch by Anne Frank (response here)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Just Finished: Something Fresh

Something Fresh is the first of P. G. Wodehouse's Blandings novels, and it's my pick for the Mixing It Up challenge, Humor/Journalism category (I went for humor).

Being a huge fan of Wodehouse's Jeeves books (quite possibly the most sublimely funny stories in existence), I went into Something Fresh with pretty high expectations.  Alas.  It wasn't bad, it just wasn't what I expect from Wodehouse.  The Jeeves stories are effortless and inspired;  Something Fresh felt forced and unoriginal.

Set in Blandings Castle around the turn of the twentieth century, it has all the elements of the period great-house farce:  a country estate, dim-witted aristocrats, eccentric collectors of antiquities, romantic entanglements, adventure-seeking impostors, and a priceless missing scarab.  Misunderstandings, both above and below stairs, mistaken identity, and nocturnal sneaking in and out of rooms abound.

With Wodehouse's gift for the absurd, and fluency with words, this should really be a lot funnier.  Not to belabor the point, but I generally chuckle my way through Jeeves and Wooster's carryings on.  Something Fresh, on the other hand--I found myself wanting to love it, but just not getting there.

Wednesday Verse

by Jack Gilbert

Imagine if suffering were real.
Imagine if those old people
      were afraid of death.
What if the midget or the girl
      with one arm
really felt pain?  Imagine how
      impossible it would be
to live if some people were
alone and afraid all their lives.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The New Book Review

My review of An Artist of the Floating World has been posted at The New Book Review, a book review and promotion website run by Carolyn Howard-Johnson, an instructor at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program.  It's worth a look; anyone (writers, reviewers, bloggers, readers) may post reviews of anything there.  Please go check it out (and leave a comment on my review if you feel like it).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Just Finished: An Artist of the Floating World

Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World was not originally my pick for the Modern Fiction category of the Mixing It Up challenge, but I have just finished reading it for the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston's book club, and it is modern fiction, so I am applying it to the challenge. 

Set in postwar Japan, it's the story of an artist, now elderly, coming to terms with his decision to use his art in support of the militaristic regime coming into power in the decades leading up to the war.  The phrase "floating world" refers traditionally to Japan's pleasure districts--neighborhoods of restaurants, bars, theaters, and brothels.  Much of the artist's remembered past takes place in the bars of the floating world, drinking, arguing, and discussing art with his mentors, his peers, and later with his students.  His art, and that of his contemporaries, focused on depicting the people of this floating world.

This is a very subtle and unusual story.  The first thing we learn about the artist is that he gained his house as a result of his good character and reputation.  He treats his family well and is respected and admired. That there is something wrong with his past we only learn gradually and indirectly.  His younger daughter's marriage negotiations end abruptly when the other family suddenly and inexplicably pulls out.  A new suitor appears, and his elder daughter suggests delicately that he visit certain old associates to make sure that they do not tell the suitor's family anything "unfortunate."  The oblique Japanese style of discourse, in which nothing is stated baldly, but only approached in stages, makes a wonderful mirror for the artist's thought processes.  The impression is that he would prefer not to name, even in his own mind, the deed of which he is ashamed.

The central portion of the book is taken up with these visits to former associates and students.  With each conversation, the picture of the past becomes a little more detailed.  We come to understand that the artist, gradually becoming enamored of the belligerent, militaristic mood of the new regime in the prewar years, changed his style of painting and began producing propaganda art.  In the process he alienated some people, including his beloved teacher, and influenced others to join him.

Eventually, the artist calls on a man who refuses to see him.  This man and his refusal are the link to the deed that the artist has not named.  When he names it, and we learn it, the story has gone from vague and indirect to, finally, direct and specific. 

There are no shocks here, really.  This isn't a suspense story in which the point is to find out what the terrible act was.  Rather, it's a man's process of facing his past actions from the vantage point of a now very different (floating?) world, and the good and bad effects of that confrontation, delicately and subtly told.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Wednesday Verse

Stepping Out of Poetry
by Gerald Stern

What would you give for one of the old yellow streetcars
rocking toward you again through the thick snow?

What would you give for the feeling of joy as you climbed
up the three iron steps and took your place by the cold window?

Oh, what would you give to pick up your stack of books
and walk down the icy path in front of the library?

What would you give for your dream
to be as clear and simple as it was then
in the dark afternoons, at the old scarred tables?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Theme Thursday: Names

Theme Thursdays is hosted by Reading Between Pages.  The rules are simple:
  • A theme will be posted each week (on Thursdays)
  • Select a conversation/snippet/sentence from the current book you are reading
  • Mention the author and the title of the book along with your post
  • It is important that the theme is conveyed in the sentence (you don’t necessarily need to have the word)
This will give us a wonderful opportunity to explore and understand different writing styles and descriptive approaches adopted by authors.

Theme: NAME
(The first name you come across while reading)

My snippet:

"Oh, that's just Maan, he's Pran's younger brother."
"Really!  But he's so good-looking and Pran's so, well, not ugly, but, you know, dark, and nothing special."
"Maybe he's a dark Cad," suggested Lata.  "Bitter but sustaining."

(From A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth)