Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ahem. Apologies for a prolonged absence.

My dearest blog enthusiasts,

After several conversations which have convinced me that there are those in the internet world who actually read and enjoy this blog with some regularity, I realize that I should explain the reason for my absence.

Just in case you were terrified that I was NOT going to finish my task, FEAR NOT! I am merely on hiatus. I am in the process of applying to graduate school (dual degree programs in law and public policy, in case you're interested) and have had to study for and take the GRE and the LSATS in the last six months. After the LSATs, I was hard at work on my applications, and now I am finally ready to return to my lovely books.

I have just finished Great Expectations and will be blogging about it soon - perhaps tonight, perhaps later in the week.

So for those of you who have missed my blogs, look forward to a new one soon. In other news, I'm looking for fellow book-lovers to do "read-alongs" with me in the coming weeks so that I can have reading partners and they can share alternate perspectives. They're welcome to share a blog entry alongside mine, or just thoughts and ideas. I've got takers for A Tale of Two Cities and War and Peace but I'd love for anyone to join me for any of the other ones coming up on my list.

Off to a crackling fire, back in a jiffy!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

You see, there's a responsibility in being a person. It's more than just taking up space where air would be.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
We have two families - the Trasks and the Hamiltons. Cyrus is the father of Adam and Charles, and he's married to Alice. Alice is the mother of Charles - Adam's mother died. Alice is sweet, but sick, and dies fairly soon after the novel begins. Charles and Adam have a tenuous relationship growing up on a farm in Connecticut, and Charles almost kills Adam once after they both give their father a birthday present and Cyrus seems to reject Charles' present. Cyrus was in the army briefly, but he becomes a war hero and gets moved to Washington to consult after he fabricates an extreme knowledge of all things war-related. Adam is sent off to fight in the war with the Indians (sorry, really don't know what war they're referring to, or if it has an official title) though he is sweet and tender and doesn't want to fight. He is eventually discharged from the army, but doesn't know what to do with himself, and he ends up re-enlisting, and then he ends up getting arrested for being a vagrant after he refuses to go home. Charles continues to work the farm, Adam eventually returns home, and their father dies. Adam and Charles discover a girl who has been beaten within an inch of her life at their doorstep, and despite what everyone will say (and perhaps think) they take her in. (We know that she's a crazy girl who burned her parents' house down (while they were in it) and then became a whore and then got good with the pimp and then cheated him and broke his heart and then he tried to kill her, but they don't know any of this). Adam falls in love with her (of course) and moves with her out to California. Cathy (the woman) gets pregnant, tries unsuccessfully to abort it (did I mention she slept with Charles before she left?) and then gives birth to twins. She is creepy and clearly very unhappy, and she up and leaves after the twins are born. (Well, to be precise, she shoots her husband, Adam, and then goes into the city to become a whore again.) Adam is both nearly dead and heartbroken, but he manages to survive with the help of Lee, his Chinese servant, and Sam Hamilton, his neighbor. The twin boys are named Caleb and Aron, and Adam ignores them for about 10 years before he finally comes back to life. Everyone in town eventually figures out that Cathy is the new whore in town, Kate, and Kate eventually murders the existing madam, Faye, and takes over the whorehouse. Caleb (Cal) and Aron grow up and have a similar relationship to Adam and Charles. Oh, and Adam is rich because Charles dies and leaves him lots of money from the farm, and he also got money from his father's death. Adam eventually finds out that Cathy is whoring in town, and he confronts her but he's over her. Caleb has some trouble finding his place as he grows up, but he eventually figures out how to be a good son, and falls in love with his father (and his brother's girlfriend, Abra). Aron decides to go to college and go into the ministry, but returns from college unhappy and confused. Cal tries to win his father's love (after Adam loses a large portion of his income through an experiment with ice trucks to transport fruit) by making 15,000 dollars through selling beans and futures, but his father sees the money as stolen, and Cal is heartbroken. In his sorrow, he takes his brother Aron to see their mother (Cal knew she was in town, but Aron thought she was dead) and, heartbroken by this discovery, Aron joins the army and disappears. Cal feels guilty, but doesn't tell his father, Adam suffers some kind of mini-stroke, and eventually they get a telegram that Aron has died. Adam has another stroke, and in the last scene of the book, Lee asks Adam to forgive Caleb for sending his brother to war.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Well, this book was incredible, and though I was a little overwhelmed by the Cain and Abel metaphors that happened TWICE in the book, it has hands down some of the most exquisite figurative and descriptive language that I have EVER read.

In case you didn't catch this from the plot summary (I didn't catch it until almost the last minute with the second round) there are two Cain and Abel metaphors in the story, Charles and Adam, and Caleb and Aron. (Get it? C & A, C & A?) Each story includes a moment where the C brother (Charles/Caleb) "kills" or almost kills his A brother (Adam/Aron). And to top it off, the second set of boys have a father named Adam.

For those of you not familiar with the Cain and Abel story, here's the version from the Bible:

"And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD. And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.

And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;

When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me. And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden."

The book also deals heavily with the translation of the lines about sin - Lee, the Chinese servant and philosopher ends up studying the lines and translating the Hebrew to mean not "Thou Shalt" conquer over sin, nor "Thou will" conquer over sin, but "Thou mayest" conquer over sin, meaning that man has the opportunity to prove himself and his worthiness, even after he "kills" his brother. I like this idea that we aren't just pre-destined to fix our mistakes, but that we have the opportunity to prove ourselves after we've made them. I thought the metaphors were more interlaced and less hit-you-over-the-head earlier in the book, but I was a bit disappointed that they became so overt at the end.

Some of my favorite parts:

- The language and lyricism of Steinbeck. Case in point: "Adam Trask grew up in grayness, and the curtains of his life were like dusty cobwebs, and his days a slow file of half-sorrows and sick dissatisfactions, and then, through Cathy, the glory came to him." What lovely turns of phrase.

- The relationship between Lee and Adam and Lee and Sam Hamilton is fascinating. (By the way, I apologize to the Hamiltons, who I've pretty much left out of the plot summary. They aren't unimportant, but Sam is really the most important, and his large family (wife Liza, kids Olive, Una, Mollie, Lizzie, Dessie, Tom, Will, George, and Joe) are characters, but not really major players in the story. Aside from the fact that John Steinbeck is the son of Olive Hamilton. ahem.) Lee pretends to speak only Pidgin English in the beginning of the novel, and when Sam Hamilton finds out he can speak perfect English, Lee tells him that he prefers Pidgin because that's what people expect him to sound like, and they're confused when he speaks normally. He slips in and out of Pidgin for the rest of the novel, but each moment is interestingly depicted when he slips back into Pidgin.

- When Adam is completely lost after his wife shoots him, Sam comes over and visits, and he says this to Adam:

"Act out being alive, like a play. And after a while, a long while, it will be true."
"Why should I?" Adam asked.
Samuel was looking at the twins. "You're going to pass something down no matter what you do or if you do nothing. Even if you let yourself go fallow, the weeds will grow and the brambles. Something will grow."
Adam did not answer, and Samuel stood up. "I'll be back," he said. "I'll be back again and again. Go through the motions, Adam."

I thought this was an extremely poignant conversation. I think we've all had moments where we just need to go through the motions, and Sam really keeps Adam connected to the world during his moment (that happens to last 10 years).

I also like it because it reminds me of one of my favorite lines from "Sleepless in Seattle", when Tom Hanks is on the radio show talking about life after the passing of his wife:

Doctor Marcia Fieldstone: People who truly loved once are far more likely to love again. Sam, do you think there's someone out there you could love as much as your wife?
Sam Baldwin: Well, Dr. Marcia Fieldstone, that's hard to imagine.
Doctor Marcia Fieldstone: What are you going to do?
Sam Baldwin: Well, I'm gonna get out of bed every morning... breathe in and out all day long. Then, after a while I won't have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out... and, then after a while, I won't have to think about how I had it great and perfect for a while."

- There's a fascinating comparison of churches to whorehouses. Steinbeck writes, "While the churches, bringing the sweet smell of piety for the soul, came in prancing and farting like brewery horses in bock-beer time, the sister evangelism, with release and joy for the body, crept in silently and grayly, with its head bowed and its face covered. You may have seen the spangled palaces of sin and fancy dancing in the false West of the movies, and maybe some of them existed - but not in Salinas Valley. The brothels were quiet, orderly, and circumspect. Indeed, if after hearing the ecstatic shrieks of climactic conversion against the thumping beat of the melodeon you had stood under the window of a whorehouse and listened to the low decorous voices, you would have been likely to confuse the identities of the two ministries."

Steinbeck really has a way with words, and his comparisons and metaphors and similes are just unparalleled.

- This is for anyone at work who happens to be reading this, but I was thrilled to find an example of SAY-SEE-DO teaching in the book. When the twins and their father get their first car, a Ford, they're taught how to use it by a man who tells them the step, points out the car part, and then the whole group is asked to respond chorally the name of the part. They continue to start the car using this choral memory response throughout the book. It's been around for ever!

- Tom Hamilton blames himself for the death of his sister, Dessie, who dies of a stomach illness (unfortunately many of the Hamiltons die throughout the course of the book). It's a very sad moment, but I loved the conversation Tom has with himself, and the way Steinbeck describes it. Tom is also talking to his father (who has passed away at this point).

"Tom ignored his father. He said, "I'm busy greeting my friends," and he nodded to Discourtesy and Ugliness, and Unfilial Conduct and Unkempt Fingernails. Then he started with Vanity again. The Gray one shouldered up in front. It was too late to stall with baby sins. This Gray One was Murder."

Last, but not least, I'll share this quote that I liked, as I think, in particular, my mother will appreciate it, as it relates to her thesis work:

"We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is."

Off to England, Pip, and Magwitch!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The friends of today are the enemies of tomorrow.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Count of Monte Cristo is a tale of romance, adventure, vengeance, sorrow, and redemption. Our story begins with a young sailor named Edmond Dantes in Marseilles, a city in southern France. Edmond is kind, generous, loves his father and his bride-to-be more than anything in the world, and has just been promoted by his boss, Monsieur Morrel. Everything seems to be going his way. While he is on leave between voyages, he is to be married, and his friends and family flock to the pre-nuptial feast. On the very moment he is about to leave for the church with his blushing bride, Mercedes, however, he is arrested and accused of Bonapartist activities. We as readers (and in this case, omniscients) know that three men (Caderousse, a greedy neighbor of Edmond's; Danglars, the ship's mate, who is jealous that he was passed over by Morrel in favor of Edmond; and Fernand, Mercedes' cousin who loves her passionately and wishes Edmond's death if it means he can be with her) made a pact to mail a letter revealing Edmond's supposed revolutionary activities. Edmond did, in fact, deliver letters on the orders of M. Morrel (who was in, fact, a Bonapartist) but he was unaware the extent of the letters and was, on the whole, blameless. We think at first that the procureur du roi (kind of like the D.A. of the time), Villefort, will be sympathetic to Edmond, as he has just come from his own wedding. It turns out (in an evil twist of fate) that Villefort's father has been implicated in the letters that Edmond received after stopping on Elba, and in order to cover up this heinous shame, Villefort condemns Edmond to the Chateau D'If, an infamous prison just off the shore of Marseilles. Edmond is imprisoned for over a decade, without even knowing the particulars of how or why he was accused. He despairs and almost kills himself by starvation, but meets a man, the Abbé Faria (a fellow inmate) by digging a tunnel and intercepting his. They hoped to escape, but their attempts are thwarted by various natural obstacles in the foundation of the prison. They maintain a great friendship, however, and the Abbé teaches Edmond all about literature and science and everything a sailor of the time would have no reason to know. The Abbé talks of a mysterious treasure that he has discovered, but Edmond (like everyone else) believes the Abbé is mad. He is finally convinced one of the last few times he sees the Abbé, and the Abbé informs him that he is dying. He suffers several strokes, and Edmond is able to save him with a few drops of a potion the Abbé created, but the last one is too much, and the Abbé dies. Edmond is heartstricken at the death of his only friend. In a deft maneuver, however, he switches places with the Abbé's body and sews himself into the sack meant for the Abbé, planning to dig his way out of the grave and escape to freedom. To his horror, the men who remove the body pitch him off a cliff with a cannon tied to his legs, chuckling about the sea being the grave of the Chateau D'If. Edmond manages to extricate his legs and escape notice due to the darkness. He swims to shore and encounters a fishing boat. He serves as a pirate in their smuggling crew until he manages to get himself shored on the Isle of Monte Cristo. He discovers his treasure and returns home to Marseilles, swearing vengeance against Danglars, Fernand, and Villefort (he found out in prison that they were responsible for his imprisonment). He finds, much to his horror, that his father has died of starvation, poverty stricken. Mercedes is gone. The story picks up again with Edmond (now styled the Count of Monte Cristo) in Rome, where he meets Albert de Morcerf (Mercedes' son with Fernand) and Franz D'Épinay, a friend of Albert's. They enjoy carnivale, Albert gets himself captured by Italian bandits, and the Count gets Albert freed because he's an old pal of the head of the bandits, Luigi Vampa. The Count and Albert become friends, and the Count hatches a number of plots to bring down the men who wronged him. It's a long story (and I won't share all the details) but Fernand kills himself out of shame when it becomes known that he was a traitor to France while fighting in Turkey (for a man who turns out to have been the father of Haydée, the Count's "slave"/ward) and after his wife and son leave him. The Count was going to fight Albert and kill him (when Albert found out that his father was accused of treason by the Count) but then the Count was going to lose on purpose (aka die) because Mercedes begged for his mercy (and she was the only one who recognized him from the get-go) but then Albert apologizes for challenging the Count when he realizes that his dad is basically a total tool. Danglars abandons his wife after his daughter runs off to pursue her singing career after his daughter almost married a man who turned out to be a thief and a murderer and who was actually (DUN DUN DUN) Villefort's son with Danglars' wife through an illicit affair. They don't realize this until the man, Benedetto, is on trial for murdering Caderousse (after he and Caderousse tried to rob and kill the Count - big mistake). Oh, and the Count basically bankrupted Danglars, so Danglars peaced out with the receipt from the Count and planned to make bank and leave the hospital (who was going to receive 5 million francs from Danglars) penniless. But of course the Count makes him pay by getting his Roman bandit friends to capture Danglars and starve him until he paid all the money back for food and then finally the Count reveals himself to Danglars and Danglars escapes with 5000 francs and gets to live because the Count is feeling a little over-vengeancy at that point. Oh, and Villefort's wife (it turns out, unrelated to the Count's vengeance agenda) has been poisoning his entire family (successfully killing Villefort's former mother-in-law (his first wife died) and father-in-law and his father's servant, and HE THINKS, his daughter Valentine, who the new wife didn't like because she was her stepdaughter, and we all know how stepmothers hate their stepdaughters when large amounts of money are involved that could be going to their darling little sons named Edward) and when Villefort tries to make her pay after he finds out by telling her she better kill herself before he throws her in jail, he goes to court only to have it revealed that Benedetto, the murderer and thief and almost hubby of Eugénie Danglars (he was called Andrea Cavalcanti and everyone thought he was a prince (thanks to the Count of course)) is his illegitimate son. Crazed, shamed, dishonored, and potentially in legal trouble, Villefort returns home, only to find the Count there (who reveals himself in another AHA moment) and his wife and son Edward dead at her hand. The Count is kind of horrified by the level of trauma at the Villeforts, though he secretly helped Valentine fake her death to save her life - and did I mention that the Count saved the Morrels from bankruptcy way back when and M. Morrel's son Maximilian and daughter Julie and her husband Emmanuel are the only people the Count loves and who love the count and that Maximilian falls deeply, madly, hopelessly in love with Valentine but she's engaged to Franz D'Épinay, and she only gets out of the marriage when Noirtier (Villefort's dad, Valentine's grandfather) [who happens to have suffered a stroke and speaks only through a series of blinks] reveals to Franz that he KILLED FRANZ's father back when Noirtier was a badass Bonapartist (but the death was from a duel of honor, not an ambush, like Franz thought). Oh, but then Maximilian thinks Valentine is dead (only the Count and Noirtier know) and he is sooooo sad and the Count keeps telling him to give him a month and then when he thinks he's dying because the Count offered to help him commit suicide (but really it's just a perception-altering hallucinogen, of which the Count has many), the Count reveals Valentine to him on the Isle of Monte Cristo and they stroll on the beach and Haydée reveals that she Loooves the Count and the Count decides maybe he doesn't have to die now that his vengeance is over and they disappear into the sunset.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

WHEW! That was exhausting! Well. Now I know for SURE what is in the unabridged version. I am glad that I got the full experience, though 1462 pages is quite a lot to take in. I think it would have been a real thrill to read it in serial form as it was originally published, but alas, it was not to be.

Have you read the complete version? See here for my notes on a comedy of errors...

I loved this book, though I admit I did balk at the sheer enormity of the tome. I liked Edmond, and Dumas is truly a craftsman when it comes to merging descriptions and imagery with swashbuckle and romance. Ultimately, I got a little mired down by all of Edmond's various plots to complete his vengeance, and I felt that the three separate reveals to his accusers were a little much. But then again, the whole book has a very over-the-top adventure feel to it, so I shouldn't have been surprised.

Since the book is so long (and there really are a lot of great parts that I don't want to ruin for you if you haven't read the unabridged version - which, apparently, you probably haven't, since they don't sell it in that many places and the average book store thinks you CAN'T HANDLE IT) I'll share my feelings in a few choice quotes.

This one is from a conversation between Edmond and the Abbé Faria, toward the beginning of the book:

Edmond: "If you thus surpassed all mankind while but a prisoner, what would you not have accomplished free?"
Dantes: "Possibly nothing at all; -the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; it needs trouble and difficulty and danger to hollow out various mysterious and hidden mines of human intelligence."

I thought this was a fascinating concept, but also quite poetic. I'm not sure whether imprisonment would drive me to moments of brilliance or sheer insanity, but I suppose when one is imprisoned alone and when one is fully aware of one's innocence of any crime, the situation is rather different. Also, I think I probably could have handled 19th century prison better than I would handle the prison of today. What do you think? Not that I'm planning to go to prison or anything, but Edmond wasn't really planning on it, either.

Edmond to Mercedes: "From good-natured, confiding, and forgiving, I became revengeful, cunning, and wicked, or rather immovable as fate."

What would you do if three people in your life - not necessarily friends, but acquaintances who didn't really seem like they had any beef with you - just up and accused you of a crime, and you not only got arrested, but you were jailed for 14 years afterward? Would you be able to come out with a heart of forgiveness? Or would you let the rage fester and find a way to make them pay, like Edmond did? I like to think I would find a way to forgive them, but I really don't know if I could - especially if the deal included losing the one I loved and my closest kin.

I think the really heartwrenching thing about this novel is when Edmond starts to question the extent to which he's playing God. He truly believes that he is acting on the behalf of Providence for a large portion of the vengeance gig, but after Villefort's son and wife die, he seems a little overwhelmed. I mean, I guess after the three men ruined his life, he feels he has the right to ruin theirs, but he ruined at least 5 lives, where they only tampered with one. I don't know; I get the whole maligned feeling Edmond channels during his vengeance, but I don't know how he is so driven by vengeance and devoid of love and real happiness. How much of his life did he spend ruining the lives of others? How much good could he have done in his own life and other people's lives instead? Maybe no one wants to read that book.

I'll close with this quote from the Abbé to Edmond, after the Abbé has helped Edmond to piece together the details of how he came to be imprisoned: "Is there anything I can assist you in discovering, besides the villainy of your friends?"

Adieu! I encourage you to tackle the unabridged version, just remember to bring your stamina and your patience for intricate, incestuous plots. I'm on to North of Purgatory. Or something like that. ;)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I am still working, but I require a brief respite.

Dearest blog enthusiasts,

I'm not sure whether any of you have been waiting with bated breath for my next entry, but I am writing (alas) to inform you that it will not be coming in the immediate future. I am taking a brief hiatus to focus on preparing for a prestigious fellowship for which I have been selected as a regional finalist. I don't know what to expect, or if I have even the slightest chance of advancing, but I want to give it my full effort. This means I am not, therefore, giving my full effort to the poor Count of Monte Cristo.

I will, however, share a brief story about my efforts to procure a copy of the novel.

I was thrilled when I realized I would be reading The Count of Monte Cristo. I read the book (or so I thought) in 8th grade, and remembered loving it. I happily dug around my room for the copy I'd purchased around Christmastime from Borders. When I sat down and opened the cover, however, I was shocked (dismayed! horrified!) to discover that I had unknowingly purchased an abridged edition.

I promptly announced this shocking discovery to my roommate, who is also an avid fan of the Count. She happily offered to search for her personal copy of the book. She trundled away to her room and dug in the abyss that is her living space, emerging triumphantly with a smaller, but thicker, copy of the book. We opened the cover together excitedly, only to find that this copy was ALSO abridged.

I remembered that another one of my roommates had recently landed a crate full of classics from a coworker who had stopped loving them. I ran downstairs and rifled through the pile, triumphantly discovering yet another copy. Alas, this third copy was also abridged. I now found myself in a quandary; had I really read the book at all? How much had each of these copies removed from the true tale?

Thoroughly angry with Borders for having sold me a copy of the book that was abridged without telling me, I marched back to the store (without a receipt. or (ahem) even a price tag) and demanded an unabridged version. The clerk reluctantly (and in an extremely bored tone) offered me store credit toward the purchase of the unabridged version. I happily accepted, and ran to the "literature" section to find an unabridged version. I yanked out a copy and started walking back toward the front desk. Halfway there, I checked the page count of the unabridged version - a whopping 1462 pages! As I purchased the new version, I joked with the clerk about them trying to cheat me out of a thousand pages. "Look how much more there is! I would seriously have missed out with that abridged version, eh?" (To which she offered a small forced chuckle, which was followed immediately by the return of her completely blank stare. You work in a book store and you don't enjoy creepy book patron jokes? Come on!)

So, needless to say, the unabridged version is taking me some time. I'm over the 900 page mark, and I'm certainly enjoying it, but it's going to take me some time to finish it.

I hope you enjoyed this little tale, and I'll do my best to get back to this blog as soon as I can.

Happy St. Patrick's day! Ta ta!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad?

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Wuthering Heights is a story of torrid love, violent hatred, revenge, passion, and one very small community in England. The story is told from the perspective of Mr. Lockwood, who is renting Thrushcross Grange (the neighboring estate to Wuthering Heights) from Heathcliff. Mr. Lockwood pays Heathcliff a visit at Wuthering Heights, and is astounded by the rudeness with which he is received. Heathcliff is a rather savage man, and the only other occupants of the house are a servant (Joseph), a gruff young man (Hareton), and Catherine Heathcliff, a young woman who we discover was married to Heathcliff's son, who is now dead. After Lockwood's horrendous visit to Wuthering Heights, he returns home to Thrushcross Grange. The housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange, Nelly, used to work at Wuthering Heights, and when Lockwood falls ill after his return, Nelly relays the story of Heathcliff's torrential past in full to Lockwood.

Wuthering Heights used to be owned by the Earnshaw family - Mr. Earnshaw and his daughter Cathy, and his son, Hindley. The family is getting along well until Mr. Earnshaw returns home from a trip with Heathcliff. Mr. Earnshaw found Heathcliff, a boy of seeming gypsy heritage, on the street with no family and decided to adopt him. Mr. Earnshaw spoils Heathcliff, to Hindley's dismay, and breeds discontent in the family. Cathy loves Heathcliff, and they frequently play together. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley relegates Heathcliff to the position of servant in the house, much to Cathy's dismay. Cathy continues to rebel with Heathcliff, spending most of her time contemplating running away with him. After Cathy and Heathcliff get caught out in bad weather, Cathy is taken in by the neighboring house (the Lintons) who own Thrushcross Grange. While there, Cathy develops a friendship with Edgar and Isabella, the Linton children.

Heathcliff disapproves of Cathy's new friendship, and resents Edgar. Cathy confides to Nelly that she has been seeing Edgar, and that she has accepted Edgar's marriage proposal, and Heathcliff overhears. He disappears for two and half years. Cathy and Edgar are married. (Hindley married a woman, Frances, but she dies after giving birth to their son, Hareton. Hindley resents Hareton because he is too grieved by the loss of Frances, and refuses to educate Hareton or bring him up as he should.) Nelly follows Cathy to Thrushcross Grange after the marriage, and Heathcliff suddenly reappears. After a few weeks of renewed friendship and passion between Cathy and Heathcliff, Isabella falls in love with Heathcliff. Cathy is jealous and resentful, mocking Isabella and revealing Isabella's feelings to Heathcliff. Edgar is horrified at this news, and almost comes to blows with Heathcliff.

Cathy is distraught after the confrontation between Edgar and Heathcliff, and she starves herself into a fever. Isabella runs off with Heathcliff and they marry. Edgar disowns Isabella and shuns Cathy for a few days. Too late, it is discovered that Cathy is dying, and just before her death, she gives birth to a daughter, Catherine. Heathcliff is distraught after Catherine's death, and Isabella bears the brunt of his grief. Heathcliff savagely maintains Isabella as a prisoner, treating her with malice, not affection. Isabella eventually succeeds in running away, and she gives birth to a son, Linton Heathcliff. 12 years later, Isabella dies, and Edgar is called to London to her deathbed and to retrieve Linton and raise him.

Edgar brings Linton back to Thrushcross Grange and Cathy meets him briefly, but the very next day, Heathcliff takes Linton away from Edgar. Catherine is restless with her confinement (as per her father's orders) to the Grange, and eventually discovers and befriends Linton, much to Edgar's dismay. They sort of fall in love, and exchange a series of very passionate love letters. Edgar disapproves of the match, but Heathcliff forces them together for his own financial benefit and to punish Edgar. He captures Nelly and Catherine at Wuthering Heights and forces the marriage. Edgar dies, and Catherine escapes from the Heights just in time to say goodbye. She is then forced to return to the Heights, where Heathcliff delights in making everyone miserable. (Hindley drank himself to death earlier in the story, leaving himself completely indebted to Heathcliff, ergo, Heathcliff is now master of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.) Linton (who was sickly for his whole life, and of a very delicate disposition) dies. Catherine and Hareton strike up a bond (she tries to help him educate himself, after having scorned him and made fun of him for years for not being educated) and eventually fall in love. Heathcliff dies (Finally) after starving himself during an illness, and Hareton becomes master of both the Heights and the Grange. Lockwood returns after a few months away to hear the end of the story from Nelly, who is delighted at the way things have turned out. The book ends with Lockwood looking at the side-by-side graves of Edgar, Cathy, and Heathcliff.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Let's see... First impressions of this book were excellent. After reading Ulysses I was thrilled at the dark humor of the beginning of the story, and overjoyed to find a storyline that followed a generally clear narrative arc. As the story wore on, however, I found myself frequently confused by the various generations and near-incestuousness, not to mention a little bored with the "who's passionately in love with who" now details. On the whole, I did like it, and would recommend that others read it, as it certainly has a unique style and parts of it are truly enjoyable.

- I really kind of hated the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff. I mean, they had all of this unrealized potential, but they never truly dated, and Cathy was SO condescending toward Heathcliff as the story wore on. Not to mention the fact that Cathy and Heathcliff are both TOTALLY BONKERS. (Which they are. Completely off their rockers.) I mean, Cathy is a complete spoiled brat, who starves herself or throws herself into fits of hysterics every time she doesn't get her way, and Heathcliff just threatens to kill people or ruin their lives every time he doesn't get his way, and together they are just a whole kettle of crazy. If the book was about the two of them falling in love and getting married, who knows what their children would have been like, or if they would have killed each other before they got that far. I just didn't believe Cathy when she claimed that "If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it." That's a lovely turn of phrase and all, Cathy, but the fact of the matter is, you seemed to get along just fine with Edgar when Heathcliff disappeared for 2+ years. Oh, and when you follow up those statements with things like, "My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary."

Um... that's really not what I'm hoping for in life - a love that is "a source of little visible delight, but necessary". What a winning description of passion! Cathy goes on to say, "It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now" as well as "He does not know what being in love is". I'm glad she has such high opinions of the man she claims to love so desperately. On the whole, I found Cathy to be a woman not worth desiring.

- Heathcliff, as mentioned before, was equally with faults. He imprisons women (with some frequency, I might add) abuses them physically, appears incapable of loving anyone but Cathy, and even there he seems to love with a sort of voracious and parasitic passion, and spends most of his life trying to make everyone around him absolutely miserable. I liked Heathcliff in the beginning of the book, but found very little to redeem him in the later chapters. I felt no true empathy with his character, and could not even mourn Cathy's loss with him.

- I think my biggest complaint about this book would be that there seem to be so many "stock" characters - the tenant/narrator, the tried and true servant who is right throughout the novel but to whom no one listens, the staid husband who is boring but loving, the silly fool of a little sister who makes a big mistake. Cathy and Heathcliff (though mostly detestable) were truly the only interesting characters in the whole book. I found Cathy Linton (or Cathy 2, as I like to call her) to be in some ways, even worse than her mother. She was spoiled completely rotten, and though she cared for her father, Nelly, and even Linton, she was such a jerk to everyone at the Heights that even Hareton's attempts to befriend her went unnoticed until the very end of the book because she was too busy feeling sorry for herself.

- I wanted to like this book because (a) it's so dark and twisted and gothic and cool and (b) because there are SO few women writers that got published at that time, but it was really mostly a let-down for me. I've got to reiterate what I said in my last post to Joyce - if you're going to write women, write them well or not at all. I'd rather be left out than misrepresented.

Also, on a random note, there are usually anywhere from 3 to 6 quotes in contention for my post titles. This was the first book where I spent over an hour just to come up with one, and I wasn't even really wild about the one I chose. It's from a letter Isabella writes to Nelly after she's returned to Wuthering Heights married to Heathcliff.

- Oh, and seriously. Does no one else live in the whole country? We have to marry the next door neighbors, and then our children have to marry each other? And what's with Cathy 2 and Linton Heathcliff? Now we're just reusing our last names and our first names - no originality allowed, eh? And what is Heathcliff (the elder)'s first name? We never get it. Nor do we ever get his back story. Or his medical history, which would most certainly have clued us in to those anger management issues.

Well, sorry this blog's not more enthusiastic. Like I said, I wanted to like this one. Also, I really need to get better at noticing the clues for these 19th century "oh my goodness by the way the characters were pregnant and then POP out comes a baby" moments. Reminds me of when I missed the rape in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Mom told me it happened, and I was all, "Really? But there were just some long paragraphs about flowers and seeds? Where did the rape scene happen?"

But that's later on in the list! Off I go, to the Count of Monte Cristo!

With a swash and a buckle, tah tah.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Longest way round is the shortest way home.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
So, I'm not entirely sure I can say with any certainty what "happened" in this novel. Here's my best assessment of events that actually happened/facts that I garnered. The book begins with Stephen Dedalus, a young man in his 20's, in Dublin, Ireland. He lives with his friend Buck Mulligan and another friend, Haines, in an abandoned castle. After they have a little breakfast, Stephen goes off to work. (He's a teacher.) We leave Stephen here and join up with Leopold Bloom, our true protagonist. Leopold Bloom has just woken up when we encounter him, and he goes out to get some food for breakfast for his wife, Marion. While he's out, we learn that he and Marion have a daughter, Milly, and that he's having an affair with a woman named Martha (or at least that's what he knows her by). He's using the pseudonym Henry Flower. (Haha, get it - Bloom? Flower?) Bloom then goes to a funeral - Paddy Dignam's - and meets up with a few friends, other middle-aged men from the city, including Simon Dedalus, Stephen's dad. We find out that Stephen and his father are sort of estranged (Stephen's mother has recently died of cancer, and for some reason Stephen feels responsible. I think he was in Paris when he found out she was sick, and didn't immediately return.) We find out later on that Stephen has several sisters, and that his family is very poor. Stephen does not live with them. We also find out at the funeral that Bloom's father, Rudy, commit suicide, seemingly after the death of Bloom's mother. Bloom also had a son, Rudy, who died. (I'm not sure how. Not sure whether we find this out or not.) Bloom also sells advertisements for a living. Bloom goes to work for a bit, then eventually we rejoin Stephen as he debates philosophy and Shakespeare with his pals. Bloom gets it on with a girl who is lame (Gerty) [note, lame as in physically disabled, not lame as in uncool] and may or may not have relations with a widow named Mrs. Breen. I can't say for sure. Bloom also goes out drinking, he has a wild and crazy dream sequence, and then he eventually makes his way home with Stephen. They talk and debate for awhile, and then eventually Stephen goes home. Bloom sleeps with his wife for the first time in over 10 years (since Rudy died) and the story ends with Marion's recollection of the day when Bloom proposed to her.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Caveat: Heads up, readers - this book was pretty bawdy, so I will be making some references and allusions that are not so kid-friendly. If you are of a sensitive nature, feel free to skip this entry.

Well, hello, blog enthusiasts of mine! Guess what? I finished it! I actually finished reading Ulysses! Now granted, I had a little help from nature, what with the 4 snow days I had last week, but still - this was no small challenge. I'd like to take a moment to thank all of the people who encouraged me to continue reading. This was definitely the hardest one to get through so far, and I couldn't have continued without the support of a few key people.

In terms of gut responses to this novel, I would say that I alternated between loving, hating, and being utterly confused by this book. I'm not sure what Joyce wanted us to get out of it, but I'm happy to share what I got out of it. Also, I want to recognize the fact that I did not use any additional sources (other than the occasional dictionary reference) to understand the book. I recognize that this limited my ability to understand it, but I also wanted to experience it as a "traditional reader" would. I know I missed some of the Ireland/Dublin political references, and I didn't even TRY to get the references to the Odyssey, because, let's face it, I just didn't think they were obvious.

Things I liked about this book:

- I loved the dream sequence. It was trippy as hell, and I really don't know what it was supposed to represent, but Bloom is accosted at various points by different women he sleeps with (including, at one point, a group labeled the "Sluts and Ragamuffins"), he's named King of Ireland at one point, he's put on trial by all of the women, and there's basically just an overwhelming amount of hilarity and completely bizarre occurrences. Bloom also undergoes frequent imaginary costume changes, which are extremely detailed and completely absurd.

- I enjoyed the "Budget for 16 June 1904" that he created. It includes all of his various expenses for the day, and also tells the story of the entire day from beginning to end.

- I loved the dialogue between author and reader at the end of the book, where the narrator started asking questions and answering them. He asks questions like, "What object did Bloom add to this collection of objects?" (Answer: a 4th letter received by Henry Flower) and follows up with questions like, "What pleasant reflection accompanied this action?" (Answer: That three women liked looking at his face that day (Mrs. Breen, Miss Callan, and Gerty, the lame one)

- I liked that Joyce used so many different literary forms to express the contents of one single day in the life of Leopold Bloom. He writes in stream of consciousness from Bloom's perspective, in play form, in question and answer format, in descriptive narrative, in lines of music, and in a completely uninterrupted stream of thought from Marion Bloom's perspective.

Things I did not like about this book:

- I did not like that it was so unbelievably difficult to understand.

- I did not like when he stopped using punctuation entirely in the last chapter. I suppose there was some purpose to this (letting us feel the complete flow of ideas from Marion as she, I'm not sure about this, but I've been told it's the case, orgasms) but I just didn't really get why he did it.

- I did not like that there were long sections of the novel where I understood what was going on only because my parents have cultivated an insane vocabulary in my brain, as well as provided me with an understanding of most allusions. I recognize that I am by no means "normal" in this regard, and I kind of resented understanding those passages, as my idea of a great author doesn't include trying his absolute hardest to make sure only the "academic elite" understand what you're trying to say. I'm all for elevating people's vocabularies, but I just felt like I was part of some "old boy's club" of Joyce's, and I didn't really enjoy the entry requirements.

- I did not enjoy the fact that much of this book is about a bunch of Irish men and their attitudes on life, and that their wives are often depicted as crazy, needy, or a lot obnoxious. This is a common problem in the classics I've read so far. Even the women writers tend to box our sex in - unnecessary! I am not to be defined by a few lines or a sweeping generalization, thank you.

Things I thought were intriguing/did not understand completely in this book:

- I thought that the deaths were intriguing (and really defined the relationships between people, in that the funeral was what brought Bloom in contact with Simon Dedalus and his other buddies) but didn't really get explained or probed in the book. Bloom lost his father and his only son, Stephen lost his mom, Simon lost his wife, and I still don't really know much about how any of those characters felt. I mean, we get glimmers here and there that reference moments or feelings, but I found that Joyce's writing style made character development difficult to comprehend as a reader.

- Like I mentioned before, I had a really hard time fitting any of the Odyssey onto this book. (1) I wasn't really sure if it belonged there. I know the book is called Ulysses, but it's also Joyce's book about Leopold Bloom. I didn't want to plop a huge allegory on the novel while trying to get a feel for Ulysses. (2) It's been a while since I read the Odyssey, so I'm rusty on the details. (3) I get that Leopold Bloom was on a "journey" through Dublin, and that he gets drunk and hangs with his buddies, and kind of comes home with his son (Stephen Dedalus isn't his son, but there's a paternal feeling toward him and he's about the right age to be his son, if a little old), kind of like in the end of the Odyssey when Telemachus and Odysseus initiate Odysseus' return to Penelope. And I suppose the whole not having relations with Marion for 10 years is like the 9 years that Odysseus spends away from Penelope, and the fact that she ultimately decides to remember when he proposed to her instead of thinking of leaving him (which she considers, as I think she's having an affair with Blazes Boylan, a friend of Bloom's).

I feel like I'm mostly just muddling further into the mire here, so I'm going to stop analyzing and wrap it up. Basically, I didn't hate it as much as I thought I would, but I still don't think that it's accessible as a novel AT ALL, which severely lowers it in my esteem. I don't think every person should be able to read every book, but I also don't think you should write books for a handful of people. It's snotty.

In closing, I would like to add that I don't believe I am suffering from "the deficient appreciation of literature possessed by females," Mr. Bloom, (and Mr. Joyce, for that matter) I think I'm appreciating literature just fine. I'm sure that I could read this book over and over and get more out of it, but this particular blog is about giving each classic their one shot. Maybe when I'm done with this challenge, I'll return to the ones that merit a re-read. Maybe not.

This was the other quote in contention for the title of this posting, but it was too long to fit. Onwards to the olympics and Wuthering Heights.

"Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Alexis's point of view on 'Brave New World'

Lexie (for those of you who don't know, my older sister) sent me her blog posting from when she read Brave New World last April. Again, for those who don't know Lexie, she was a little over a year into her Peace Corps service in Sénégal at the time. I thought it was intriguing to see the difference in perspective, as well as the similar thread at the end. We're quite the family of bookreaders, eh?

from Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"Sunday I spent the whole afternoon doing nothing but reading Aldous
Huxley’s “Brave New World,” which I picked up from the regional house
library. After finishing the book, I was struck by how unsettled it
made me, as reminiscent as it was of certain aspects of my Peace Corps
experience. The “civilized world” versus the “savage reservation,” the
triumph of the mechanical over the emotional, the power of
conditioning trumping instinct… all of it echoed with a strange
parallel to the reality I am now living. Huxley’s description of the
“savage reservation” in comparison to his futuristic “civilized
England” made me think about the typical, fresh-out-of-college
American PCV when he first sets foot in a remote African village, how
like the Alpha Bernard Marx when he first sees the pueblo on the
reservation, how like Beta Lenina Crowne when she witnesses their rain

And how strange it is that I should still feel this way in 2009, that
we should have such disparity between the “developed” and “developing”
worlds. Huxley wrote in the 1930’s that he had projected this dystopia
for 600 years in the future. It’s more than scary then that not even a
century has passed since his vision, and the world is already in such
a divided state of advancement.

But progress is a relative term. Huxley’s words narrated by the Savage
resonated with me, as he spoke of “really living” and of claiming the
right to experience joy and sorrow, passion and pain, even though in
the “civilized” world those emotions would be a recipe for disastrous
“instability.” In this fictional far future, everyone is conditioned
(from the earliest stages of fetal life) not to have strong feelings
about anything or anyone, keeping everything in a “perfect” state of
balance and stability. But I agree with what Huxley was saying - that
you can only feel true joy if you’ve been to the depths of sorrow, can
only experience real passion after temptation and self-denial.
So as tragic as it was, I understood how the Savage could not continue
to live in the “civilized world” - because being a feeling person in
an unfeeling world is living torture.

If progress means losing all sense of what it is to be alive, then I
too would rather be “savage” than “civilized.” "


Back to Ulysses! 10 pages in - can't go back!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Was and will make me ill, I take a gramme and only am.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Brave New World is about a dystopic utopia. It describes a world in which everyone is conditioned from birth (after being genetically engineered) to believe that they belong in their specific caste (Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma, Epsilon) and therefore should perform certain duties and live a certain way. In this world, people are also encouraged to have sex often with multiple partners, medicate with a drug called "soma" each night and sometimes during the day, and do whatever is necessary to ensure that they are never alone. Bernard Marx feels out of place in this world, as an Alpha who "looks more like a Beta" and actually enjoys spending time alone. He even (gasp!) wants to be in a monogamous relationship with one of the women he dates. Lenina (the woman Bernard wants to be with) is pretty "normal" according to this society; she takes soma often, she spews the phrases she was conditioned to believe from childhood, and she sees little to worry about. She travels to New Mexico with Bernard because she likes him (despite what everyone says about him) and they travel to a "savage reservation". The reservation consists of people who were deemed "not worth civilizing" according to the government, and seems to strongly resemble a Native American reservation. Bernard is fascinated by the crassness of the reservation, while Lenina seems merely repulsed. While on the reservation, Bernard meets Linda and John. Linda was formerly a Beta, and she was left by the now-Director (back in London) when they were on holiday because he thought she died. Turns out, she not only wasn't dead, she was knocked up, and because she gave birth to a child (completely taboo now that everyone is born in a science centre from a petri dish, not in a woman's womb) she could not attempt to return to London and rejoin civilized society. Bernard loves this story because the Director (his boss) is trying to get him kicked out of London and moved to Iceland (because he thinks Bernard is weird). So when they return to London with John and his mother Linda, the Director tries to get Bernard moved to Iceland, and Bernard whips out "the Savage" and "his mother". Everyone is fascinated/horrified, and the Director is disgraced. For a while, Bernard is happy, finally achieving recognition and fame in the society which previously shunned him. He shows off "the Savage" as he refers to John, and Linda takes so much soma that she eventually dies. John eventually refuses to let Bernard keep showing him off. After the death of his mother, John attempts to make everyone realize how odd their lives are. He tries to stop the distribution of soma, and Bernard (and his friend Helmholtz) stave off the crowd, but John is ultimately unsuccessful, and his cries are drowned out by the microphone blaring a message of calm and goodness and the "police" spreading fumes of soma to calm everyone down. In this state of delirium, John, Bernard, and Helmholtz have a discussion with Mustapha Mond, the head honcho. This conversation reveals that Mond used to be a dissenter of the society, but was given the option of either being deported to an island or being promoted to Controller, and he chose the promotion. Bernard and Helmholtz are deported to an island, but they are not really upset, because the island contains all sorts of dissenters and non-believers and interesting people. John wants to go with them, but the Controller won't let him. John decides to live on his own and repent for having let his mother die from taking all that soma and attempts to live on his own from society. He is quickly the object of great attention, however, as his monkish existence and propensity for self-flagellation are observed by lurking reporters and distributed widely to the populace. John gains more and more unwanted visitors who want to see "the whip", in other words, they want to watch him whip himself. Eventually Lenina arrives (who, by the way, loves John. I forgot to mention this. Also, she tried multiple times (unsuccessfully) to have sex with him, but he only wanted to read her Shakespeare and talk to her, which she found quite distasteful and odd) and John, who associates her with smuttiness and all that is bad with society, whips her (and, I think, though I'm not entirely sure) kills her. The crowd that had appeared eventually abates, and when they return the next morning, they see only his feet dangling, evidence that he has, presumably in despair at killing his love, hung himself.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

You know, for some reason I think these plot summaries are getting longer, which is not my intention. I think I'm just having a harder time weeding out what details are important and what details are secondary.

I really didn't like this book. I won't go so far as to say that I hated it, as I did see some merit in it, but I just really didn't enjoy the experience of reading it, nor did I feel that I learned some crucial lesson from reading it. Now perhaps my view is sullied by the 75 odd years separating me from the original copyright date of the book, but if it's truly meant to be a "timeless classic" I think the book should still feel relevant.

Maybe I've just read too many dystopia stories back to back (1984, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies) but this one just didn't feel scary, or funny, or really anything at all. I felt no connection to the characters, particularly as the novel went on, and not only did I not like the society, but I didn't care what happened to any of the people in or out of it.

I will discuss some things I found intriguing, as any "classic" always possesses some intriguing qualities, even if I cannot give it a smashing review.

- Soma. According to Google, soma is "a muscle relaxer that works by blocking pain sensations between the nerves and the brain." The drug description also suggests that soma is extremely addictive, and therefore should be avoided by anyone with an addictive personality or a history of drug addiction. I thought the soma was interesting, mostly when Huxley described the soma as a way to keep people from ever really thinking about their existence or about the existence of a god. I also liked the weird nursery rhymes and songs focused on soma, like the one in the title that Lenina recites.

- Huxley describes various games and sports in the novel that the people are encouraged to play, such as Obstacle Golf, Musical Bridge, and Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy. Supposedly the sports are created so as to force people to consume as many products as possible in playing them, so simple sports with a single ball or a racket and a ball are eliminated. I thought this was pretty funny. I'm not sure what Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy looks like, but it sounds kind of fun.

- One of the major features of society is "the Feelies". Sorry if I'm about to offend anyone here, but the Feelies are basically 3-D porn. John attends them with Lenina, and is completely horrified. I suppose this is indicative of simplifying our society to the most brainless and purely pleasurable activities possible (sports and sex) but I really think that reading and alone time aren't valued highly enough. Besides which the Feelies sound pretty messed up.

- Everyone is "death conditioned" from an early age, so that they will view death as a normal part of the world. Children are exposed to the dying and offered treats on "dying days", like chocolate soma creams and scavenger hunts. When John comes to see his mother Linda as she's dying, the nurse is (1) confused that he wants to see someone who's dying, as it's so normal there's no reason anyone should be near anyone else when it happens and (2) worried that he will mess up the conditioning of the children. He ends up yelling at several children when they appear behind his mother's bed, chocolate creams smeared on their faces, and ask dopily, "is she dying?" The funny thing is, I'm not sure children really get dying, so the concept of death conditioning at an early age seems nonsensical to me.

- The idea of conditioning everyone not only not to be equal (they tried an island of all Alphas and they killed each other) but to be pleased and happy with their various levels in the caste system is simultaneously brilliant and morbid. But what I think was odd was that there was not only no real system of punishment, no fear that anything truly bad would happen at the hands of the government, but that there seemed to be no one pulling the strings. In Animal Farm, the pigs are all ruled by Napoleon, in Lord of the Flies, it's first Ralph, then Jack, but here, there seemed to be no one leading this complex system. Everyone was complicit in the continuation of the society, but no one person stood out. Maybe because I didn't really hate anyone, I didn't really like anyone either.

- Ford is used to replace God in every context. Presumably this is in reference to Henry Ford, the creator of the modern assembly line, and therefore an icon in a world where people roll off the assembly line in the factory. Characters frequently say things like "Oh, Ford!" and "Our Ford" throughout the novel. I'm sure Bernard Marx is supposed to be a reference to Karl Marx, Lenina a reference to Lenin, and many more I can't recognize or don't care to.

The back of my copy of this book says that Huxley was "unquestionably the most brilliant social satirist of his time". Maybe it's because I'm not "of his time", or maybe I just don't get social satire (which is entirely possible) but I was not wowed by this one. If others have read it and remember strong feelings about it, please please share them. I'd love to hear what you think and perhaps be enlightened about what Huxley was hoping to convey. I mean, I get the whole, "watch out! our society is so amoral and we're heading somewhere crazy and if you don't wake up we'll just get worse and worse!" thing, but doesn't that ever get old? And maybe I just don't believe him because I live in the 21st century, and the Feelies don't really exist (as far as I know) any more than they ever did, and we're not all playing Obstacle Golf or sleeping with everyone we see. And we're certainly not all genetically engineered to be happy little Alphas or Betas or Gammas or Deltas or Epsilons.

Ugh. Now I just feel frustrated and annoyed. I am not amused, Aldous. If you hadn't died 47 years ago, I'd write you a letter and ask what you meant by this book. I suppose I could read various literary criticisms and studies, but I want to know what you meant, Aldous, not what they think you meant.

Ah, such is life. I may take two weeks for this next one, that ultimate challenge, Ulysses. I'll let you know when I come out on the other side.

I'll leave you with this - a conversation between Mustapha Mond and the Savage.

"We prefer to do things comfortably," said the Controller.

"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."

"In fact," said Mustapha Mond, you're claiming the right to be unhappy."

"All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy. Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind." There was a long silence.
"I claim them all," said the Savage at last.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. "You're welcome," he said.

Okay, I'll admit it. I liked that part. ;) Maybe I did get it. Happiness without suffering is shallow and empty. Our trials define our triumphs.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

by J.K. Rowling

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

Book 1:
Harry Potter is our protagonist, along with friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. He finds out at the age of eleven that he is a wizard and not only does he have magical powers, but he is famous in the wizarding world. His parents were killed by one of the most powerful (and evil) wizards of all time, Lord Voldemort. Lord Voldemort attempted to kill Harry after killing his parents, but was unsuccessful. Harry escaped at the tiny age of 1 with just a small lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Voldemort was presumed dead, disappearing from the wizarding world. He has not been seen or heard from since Harry's parents were killed, so Harry is viewed as both a celebrity and a hero by most of the wizarding world. Harry has been raised by his dreadful aunt and uncle, Vernon and Petunia, and co-habitates with their son Dudley. They despise him and the fact that he is a wizard (they are Muggles, aka non-wizards) and they are happy to send him off to Hogwarts, a school for wizards to which Harry is accepted. Harry meets Ron (who is from a large and somewhat poor family of wizards who have bright red hair) on the train to Hogwarts, and they become best friends. Later on, they become friends with Hermione, who is Muggle-born, but an extremely talented witch. Too many things happen in this book to list here, but the relevant parts are that the threesome befriends Hagrid, the gamekeeper, and, we find out later, a half-giant. They also get into a bit of trouble here and there, they are all in Gryffindor house (there are four houses at Hogwarts, Gryffindor (for the brave and loyal), Slytherin (for the sly), Ravenclaw (for the wise and intelligent), and Hufflepuff (all the rest - I know, stinks for Hufflepuff, eh?), they hate Draco Malfoy (in Slytherin) and they also hate Snape (Professor of potions). They like the headmaster, who is simultaneously quirky and sage, Albus Dumbledore. It turns out that the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Quirrell, has been harboring a non-human form of Lord Voldemort, and Voldemort is trying to steal the Sorcerer's Stone, a powerful object that will give its owner eternal life, so that he can be fully restored to human status. Harry thwarts him in this plan (along with Ron and Hermione) and he defeats Quirrell (and Lord Voldemort) forcing Lord Voldemort to flee yet again. Harry is shocked by this (oh, and Harry is the Seeker for the Gryffindor Quidditch team, a magical sport played on broomsticks) but recovers decently well, and the book ends.

Book 2:
Harry starts out at Vernon and Petunia Dursley's house. He meets a house elf, Dobby (house elves are enslaved by wizards, sort of like indentured servants), who appears in the Dursleys' home. Dobby tries to get Harry not to go to Hogwarts, but won't tell Harry why. Harry refuses not to return, as Hogwarts is his only real home. Ron rescues Harry from the Dursley's clutches with his father's bewitched flying car. When they get to King's Cross train station to catch the express to Hogwarts, Rom and Harry can't get through the magical gate to Platform 9 and 3/4 and they rashly decide to fly the bewitched car to Hogwarts. They are very nearly badly injured, but they make it there. As the book progresses, several scary things happen - a cat is petrified, followed by a few people, and finally, Ginny, Ron's sister, disappears. The walls bear messages in blood about the Chamber of Secrets being reopened by the heir of Slytherin. Harry hears voices that no one else hears, saying things like, "Rip, tear, kill." He is disturbed by this, but tells no one but Ron and Hermione. Harry discovers a diary that writes back to him, and he finds out it belonged to a Tom Riddle. Harry sees Tom Riddle's memories, and believes that Hagrid opened the Chamber of Secrets when it was opened decades before. Hagrid is well-meaning, but harbors a love of dangerous creatures. Eventually, Harry finds the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets and enters it with Ron. (Hermione gets petrified as well. No one is killed, it turns out, because the basilisk (aka giant snake) didn't look anyone directly in the eye (mirror, water, ghost, etc)) Ron gets stuck behind a rockslide, and Harry is forced to battle the basilisk and the ghost Tom Riddle. It turns out Tom Riddle is Lord Voldemort when he was younger, and the diary was an attempt for Voldemort to return to human existence (yet again). Harry escapes, Ginny recovers, and it turns out that the Malfoys placed the diary in Ginny's bag earlier in the year and Voldemort possessed Ginny to write on the walls, open the chamber, etc. Harry heard voices because he is a Parseltongue (aka he can talk to snakes). Dobby was the Malfoy's house elf, and so he knew about the plan, and was trying to save Harry's life. Harry gives him a sock at the end of the book (elves generally don't get clothes unless their masters are trying to set them free) and Dobby is free of the Malfoys.

Book 3:
Harry returns to Hogwarts, only to find out that a mass murderer, Sirius Black, is on the loose. Harry finds out Black is after him. He is later informed that Black betrayed his parents and led Voldemort to them, after being James' friend for years and years. Harry is befriended by his new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (the last one had his memory obliviated in the second book in the Chamber of Secrets, which is good, because he was a bit of a prat) Remus Lupin. Harry learns how to fight dementors (creatures who suck out happiness from you and try to steal your soul, which happen to be stationed at Hogwarts to keep Black out) from Lupin, and creates a Patronus, or a spell that sends dementors packing. It was thought that Black killed Peter Pettigrew, another of James' friends, right after he had sold out Harry's parents to Voldemort, then blew up the street and disappeared. He was caught and imprisoned in Azkaban, the wizard's prison, but escaped somehow. At the end of the book, however, we find out that Peter Pettigrew is really Ron's pet rat, Scabbers. Pettigrew, James, Lupin, and Black were all good friends and they all became Animagi (they could turn into an animal - they never registered though, so no one knew). They did it because Lupin is a werewolf (taboo in the wizarding world) and so they could hang out with him when he transformed. Harry, Ron, and Hermione end up in the Shrieking Shack (the house where Lupin used to transform when he was at Hogwarts), where they find out that Peter Pettigrew was the one who betrayed Harry's parents, not Sirius. Sirius was framed! Sirius is also Harry's godfather, and Harry bonds with him immediately (after finding out that he was innocent). Pettigrew escapes (by accident) and Sirius is captured (no one will believe that he is innocent since Pettigrew is gone and wasn't registered as an Animagus). Harry and Hermione turn back time (using Time Turners) and manage to free Sirius, but they are unable to clear his name.

How are we doing? Still there?

Book 4:
Harry and Ron go to the Quidditch World Cup, which is a blast, until Death Eaters appear, torturing and humiliating Muggles (from under their hoods and masks) and the Dark Mark appears in the sky. Winky, a house elf, is blamed, but something seems amiss. Once back at Hogwarts, Harry is mysteriously entered into the Triwizard Tournament (which is supposed to be for only wizards over 17). It is a competition between three wizarding schools: Beauxbatons (in France), Durmstrang (in eastern Europe), and Hogwarts. Harry is the mysterious fourth champion, and duplicate from Hogwarts (Cedric Diggory of Hufflepuff was already chosen). Fleur Delacour represents Beauxbatons and Viktor Krum (star of the Bulgarian quidditch team) is the Durmstrang champion. Harry is bewildered as to why he was entered, but participates just the same. He defeats a dragon to get a golden egg in the first task. He deciphers the story of the egg and realizes he will be underwater for the second task. He saves Ron and Fleur's little sister from the merpeople in the lake next to Hogwarts for the second task, not realizing that it was only magic, and that no one would really have been trapped at the bottom of the lake. He receives high marks in both tasks. For the third task, he enters a maze full of wizarding enchantments. Harry receives help with the tasks from Hagrid, Dobby, and Mad-Eye Moody, a former auror (person whose job was to fight the dark arts), who has been teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts. Viktor dates Hermione, by the way. In the maze, Harry makes it to the end (just barely) with an injured Cedric. They decide to take the cup together, but the cup is a portkey (a magical portal) that transports them to a graveyard. Cedric is killed immediately upon their arrival, to Harry's horror. Peter Pettigrew uses Harry's blood to revive Lord Voldemort (by the way, Harry had been getting visions from inside Voldemort's head throughout the book) and Lord Voldemort takes corporeal form once more. He tries to kill Harry (because he's furious that Harry has managed to survive against him, the most powerful wizard in the world) but their wands connect, and Harry is saved by a spell that brings forth the ghostlike visages of his parents, who tell him what to do. Harry returns to Hogwarts with Cedric's body and announces that Lord Voldemort is back. Dumbledore believes him, though most everyone else doesn't, and Mad-Eye Moody steals Harry away. It turns out that Mad-Eye Moody is really Barty Crouch Jr., the son of a Ministry of Magic official who used to be a Death Eater (sorry, one of Voldemort's followers). It's extremely complicated, but he was impersonating Moody to help Voldemort return to power. He is discovered, but before he can testify, the dementors suck out his soul. Harry is extremely disturbed that Voldemort is back, and back to full power, and the book ends.

Book 5:
The Order of the Phoenix is reformed (the secret rebellion against Lord Voldemort that Harry's parents used to be a part of). Harry is transported to their secret headquarters (which is Sirius's old house, 12 Grimmauld Place) and he is all angsty and upset because (a) he got attacked by dementors in the Muggle world, at his aunt and uncle's house, and he might be expelled from Hogwarts for using magic outside of school (though it was an emergency) and (b) no one has been telling him about what's been happening with Voldemort, and he's terrified Voldemort will appear and kill him at any moment. They return to Hogwarts only to find that Dolores Umbridge, a witch from the ministry, is the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. She is an extremely evil and nasty witch, and the Ministry refuses to admit that Voldemort has truly returned. Umbridge gets increasingly more powerful at Hogwarts, and eventually overtakes Dumbledore and is appointed Headmistress by the Ministry of Magic. Harry forms the D.A., or Dumbledore's Army, and helps many of his fellow students learn and practice defensive magic (because Umbridge refuses to teach them anything and makes them sit and read the book rather than doing spells). Harry has visions of a dark corridor (which it turns out are coming from Voldemort). He sees a snake attack Mr. Weasley while guarding something for the Order of the Phoenix, and Harry's vision saves Mr. Weasley's life. Frightened by this connection, Dumbledore has Harry take Occlumency lessons from Snape (to learn how to keep Voldemort from invading Harry's thoughts). Harry hates Snape, though, and fails miserably at Occlumency because of this. Harry is tricked by Voldemort into going to the Ministry of Magic (the dark corridor) and the Department of Mysteries, because he thinks Voldemort has Sirius and is torturing him. Evil Umbridge tries to stop Harry and his friends from going to the Ministry, but they lead her into the forest and she gets attacked by centaurs. Harry and Hermione are saved from the centaurs by Grawp, Hagrid's half brother who is a giant. It turns out Voldemort was using Harry to go to the Department of Mysteries to get him to steal a prophecy that concerns the two of them. Harry battles Voldemort's Death Eaters (with the help of some of Dumbledore's Army) and the Order of the Phoenix arrives. The prophecy gets smashed (much to Voldemort's dismay) and no one hears what it says. Sirius is killed by his cousin, Bellatrix Lestrange, a Death Eater, in the battle. Harry is horrified and feels responsible. Dumbledore battles Voldemort, but Voldemort disappears. Harry finds out that the prophecy says that he and Voldemort cannot both live while the other one survives. (Aka, he has to be the one to kill Voldemort, and no one else, OR he will die at the hands of Voldemort).

Book 6:
Harry is depressed after Sirius's death, but he returns to Hogwarts and begins to deal with his grief. Horace Slughorn is hired to teach Potions and Snape becomes the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. (Snape, by the way, is a double agent, working for the Order of the Phoenix and Voldemort. Unclear where his true loyalty lies, though Dumbledore trusts him completely.) Harry takes private lessons with Dumbledore, during which he learns about Voldemort's past. Harry learns that Voldemort has created 6 horcruxes, which is to say that he has torn his soul into 6 pieces after violent acts. He stored those pieces of soul in extremely powerful magical objects so that no one can kill him without first destroying those 6 pieces of his soul. The diary from Book 2 was one (Harry destroyed it with a basilisk fang). Dumbledore discovers a ring that belonged to Voldemort's family (by the way Voldemort killed his dad and his grandparents because (a) he's evil and (b) his dad left his mom after the love spell she put on him (she was a witch, he was a muggle) wore off and after giving birth to Tom, she died.) and destroys it. Harry goes with Dumbledore on a journey to discover a third Horcrux, by traveling to a distant cave where Voldemort traveled as a child. Harry and Dumbledore barely escape from the cave, and Dumbledore is severely weakened, but they have a locket, which Dumbledore believes is the third Horcrux. Harry suspects that Draco Malfoy is up to something during the whole book, and on the night he goes to the cave with Dumbledore, he asks Ron and Hermione to watch out for Draco while he's gone. We also know (as readers) that Snape took an Unbreakable Vow to protect Draco and fulfill his mission if Draco cannot. We don't know what the mission is. When Harry and Dumbledore return, the Dark Mark is set over the castle (which traditionally meant that Voldemort's Death Eaters had committed a murder). They rush back the castle, and Dumbledore puts a freezing spell on Harry as Draco bursts from the top of the Astronomy tower and disarms Dumbledore. Harry is hidden under his invisibility cloak. We find out Draco used a vanishing cabinet to transport Death Eaters into Hogwarts and his mission is to kill Dumbledore. He is unable to do it, and when Snape arrives on the scene, to Harry's horror, Snape kills Dumbledore. The Death Eaters are battling with students and members of the Order of the Phoenix downstairs. Harry tries to chase Snape, horrorstruck at Dumbledore's murder, but is unable to capture him. Many are injured in the battle, but no one is killed. Bill Weasley (Ron's brother) is attacked by a werewolf, but he doesn't completely become a werewolf. He is scarred for life, but Fleur (his betrothed) still loves him. Dumbledore's funeral is held at Hogwarts. Harry realizes that the locket is a fake, and there is a message from R.A.B. saying that he has stolen the real Horcrux in an attempt to destroy it. Harry doesn't know who this is, and is horrified to find that despite his battle with Dumbledore to get the locket, he is missing yet another Horcrux. Harry realizes he's in love with Ginny in this book, but he has to break up with her because he doesn't want Voldemort to use her to get to him. He tells Ron and Hermione that he won't be returning to Hogwarts because he has to keep on looking for the Horcruxes (a secret only he and Ron and Hermione know). Ron and Hermione promise to accompany him, and he decides to allow them to help him in his battle against Voldemort.

Book 7:
Harry works to destroy the Horcruxes while on the run from Voldemort with Ron and Hermione. They remain constantly hidden and narrowly escape the Death Eaters and Voldemort several times. They discover that R.A.B. was Regulus Black, Sirius's brother, and with the help of Kreacher (a formerly treacherous house elf) they find the real locket. They are unable to destroy it, but they carry it with them. Ron deserts Harry and Hermione because he is too depressed and hungry and downtrodden by their lack of a plan, but he returns (using a gift from Dumbledore's will, the Deluminator). He helps Harry discover the sword of Gryffindor, which Ron then uses to destroy the locket. While on their journey to find Horcruxes, Harry, Ron and Hermione learn of the existence of the Deathly Hallows, three extremely powerful magical objects which, when united by one owner, can defeat death. Harry is tempted to search for these (one is his invisibility cloak, which he owns already, he is convinced one has been left to him by Dumbledore in a locked Snitch (piece of Quidditch equipment), a Resurrection Stone, which brings people back from the dead, and the last is the Elder Wand, or the most powerful wand in the world, which will defeat any other wand.) Harry makes a decision not to go after the Hallows, though he knows Voldemort is close to finding the Elder Wand. Harry also goes through a crisis of faith about Dumbledore, having been told many disturbing stories about his past, and not being able to verify with Dumbledore as to their veracity or lack thereof. This plagues him throughout the book. Harry, Ron and Hermione are captured by the Death Eaters after a mishap, Hermione is tortured using the Cruciatus Curse, but they escape with Dobby's help. Dobby is killed in the escape, to Harry's utter despair, and Harry buries him. They discover (from the Death Eaters) that Voldemort is hiding something in Bellatrix Lestrange's vault in Gringotts, a wizards bank. They hatch a plan and break in. They make it into the vault (Hermione is disguised as Bellatrix) and they find Helga Hufflepuff's cup, which is another Horcrux. They narrowly escape with their lives (riding a dragon out of the depths of the bank's caves) and they have the cup, though no way to destroy it. Harry realizes from a vision that Voldemort now knows that Harry has been destroying Horcruxes. Harry discovers that (other than Voldemort's snake, which we now know is a Horcrux) the last one is at Hogwarts. Snape is headmaster there (to Harry's disgust) and Harry, Ron, and Hermione break back in with the help of Neville and Luna (former members of Dumbledore's Army). Harry discovers the last Horcrux, which is Rowena Ravenclaw's diadem, which Voldemort has hidden in the Room of Requirement, a magical room that conforms to the needs of the wizard's demands. They manage to destroy it (accidentally, using Fiendfyre, a dangerous curse set off by Crabbe, one of Malfoy's lackeys) and they save Goyle (another lackey) and Draco in their escape from the fire. Harry, Ron and Hermione follow Voldemort to the Shrieking Shack in an attempt to kill the snake, but they watch Voldemort murder Snape. It turns out that Snape had killed Dumbledore as part of a master plan. Dumbledore was already dying because he accidentally cursed himself by putting on the second Horcrux, Voldemort's ring. He knew he had only a few months to live, and by asking Snape to kill him, he hoped that the Elder Wand (which we finally realize Dumbledore had won in a duel against Grindelwald, another powerful but evil wizard) would pass to Snape, thereby keeping it from Dumbledore. Voldemort kills Snape so that he can become the true owner of the Elder Wand. As Snape dies, he offers Harry his memories. From these memories, Harry learns that Snape loved Harry's mother, Lily, from when they were children. He turned on Lord Voldemort when he found out his plans to kill Lily, and he spent the years after her death trying to protect Harry in secret. Harry also finds out from Snape's memories that he has to let Voldemort kill him, as part of Voldemort's soul is in Harry because of the curse Voldemort tried to perform on him as a child. So long as Harry lives, Voldemort still lives. Harry approaches Voldemort and Voldemort kills him. Harry sees Dumbledore in his dreams (and or/heaven) and discusses things with him. He discovers that he has not really died, just the part of Voldemort's soul in him died. Harry wakes up but plays dead, letting the Death Eaters show off his body with Voldemort to the rest of the wizards doing battle. Voldemort believes he has won, but while he tortures Neville, Neville breaks free and kills Voldemort's snake. The battle continues, and Harry eventually reappears, to everyone's triumph. He realizes that Draco is the true owner of the Elder Wand (because he disarmed Dumbledore BEFORE Snape killed him) and therefore Harry, who dueled Draco's wand away from him when the Death Eaters captured him earlier in the book, is the True and rightful owner of the Elder Wand. Voldemort tries to kill Harry and Harry casts a spell to disarm Voldemort. Voldemort dies from the rebound of his own curse and the Death Eaters are defeated. Ron's brother Fred dies in the battle, along with Remus Lupin and his wife, Nymphadora Tonks, who just gave birth to their child Teddy and named Harry godfather. Harry is extremely dismayed by all of the tragic deaths, but Voldemort is defeated. The book lurches forward 19 years, and we find that Harry is married to Ginny and has three children (Albus Severus (Snape's first name), Lily, and James). Ron and Hermione are married (did I mention they date from the end of the 6th book on?) and their children are friends with Harry's kids as well as Teddy, Lupin's son. And Voldemort has never returned, which we know because Harry's scar hasn't prickled in 19 years.

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Whew! Did you make it? I sure did. My hands actually hurt from all this typing. Sheesh! Well, to my lovely blog enthusiasts and devotees, hello! I'm sure you missed me. :) I got caught up in the holidays, as well as in the adventure of the Harry Potters. Ragina, my roommate, yelled at me for saying I was "bogged down" in the Potters, which is truly blasphemous. They are a magical journey, a wild ride, and every minute is joy when I read them. I know that some people will insist on arguing that they are not classic, but if we define classic as "something with lasting worth or a timeless quality", then Harry Potter had better be on the top of that list. Rowling writes with eloquence, humor, compassion, creativity, anger, fear, and delicacy. She handles issues of racial inequality, questions of good and evil, children forced to mature at an alarming rate, and lifelong struggles with demons. And she does it with style.

I don't want to blog too long on these, because, though I love them, I don't want to give them away. I know I'll read them many times in my lifetime (in fact, I already have) and I want to rediscover the magic each time. I told my roommate Ragina that I couldn't really remember the 7th one, and she said, "Well, well. You're in for an adventure. I wish I could go on that adventure with you." And I said, "But surely you can! We must have more than one copy of the book!" To which she replied, "Oh no. I will never be able to read it as if for the first time again. I remember it too well." And it made me think of the children in Narnia, when they can't return to Narnia after a certain age. There is a profound, and sometimes for me, a truly desperate sort of sadness that follows the end of a truly great book, or series of books. And to be able to grow up with the Harry Potters, to follow them as they were physically in the process of being created, was such a pleasure, and one that cannot ever be truly replicated now that the series is complete. Rowling's series were the holders of a magical energy, and now that they are available in a complete set, a tiny bit of that magical energy is lost. I suppose I could hide the books from my children and make them hunt for the later books, but it's really not the same as knowing that the next book in the series doesn't even exist yet.

Now seems like an appropriate time to share this story. Many of you have already heard it. I studied abroad in France the fall of my junior year in college, in 2005. The 6th Harry Potter was released in the summer of that year, I think in June. I read it voraciously, and wept at Dumbledore's death (SORRY - spoiler!). I thought little of the book once I got to France, until I found out my family were huge Harry Potter fans. My host brother was learning the saxophone, and would frequently squeak out the few bars he knew of the Harry Potter theme song from the movies (bum Bum bumbum Bum bum Bum, Bum, Bum bumbum bum, bum bohmmmmm). This was much cuter than my host sister, who frequently practiced the Bach double (right next to my room). She was not so cute.

Anyway, after months of trepidatious dinners, during which I responded only to direct questions from my host mother, I understood an entire dinner conversation. My family had guests over, and they were fervently discussing "arree pottair." I realized what was going on, and proudly waited for my host mother to ask for my opinion. She did, and I declared, triumphant, "Moi, je ne pense pas que Dumbledore est mort. (I don't think Dumbledore is really dead.)" There was a deafening silence at the table, after which my host sister mumbled, "Dumbledore n'est pas mort. Non, Sirius est mort, oui. Mais Dumbledore? Non." (Dumbledore isn't dead. Sirius is dead, but not Dumbledore.) Mortified, I stared blankly into my plate. Conversation sputtered back to life, and I didn't speak at the table again for several weeks. On my way to class several days later, I walked past a book store. I glimpsed a huge Harry Potter sign, scanned it, and then came to an abrupt halt. I stared at the poster again, just to be sure, but there was no denying it. The poster advertised the release of the 6th Harry Potter. The book was to be released in France in two weeks. I had ruined the ending for my entire host family. I find this to be one of the funnier stories from my time abroad now that I can reflect on it, but I'm fairly sure my host sister never looked at me the same way after I so neatly destroyed her potential enjoyment of HP 6. Ah well. I never really liked her anyway, after that terrible violin playing.

Okay, well I'm hungry and I want to watch the Office in 9 minutes, so here are my two nuggets.

I love fantasy because it makes me feel alive in a way that nothing else does. I cry, I laugh, and I feel completely at one with the characters. This will always always always be my favorite genre, and no one will ever convince me otherwise.

I realized that I love fantasy because it allows the characters to become heroes in the battle against evil. In most of the fantasies, there is a somewhat clear line between what is good and what is evil. Sometimes evil is represented by monsters, sometimes by dark magic, and sometimes by humans who have "gone bad." In real life, the line is never so clear. In fact, I think the lines between good and evil have never been so muddled before in the history of time. What I know for sure is that we are all humans, and we all share common things. It may not seem like it, but it is absolutely the case. I can never feel assured that I am "battling evil" because I refuse to believe that anyone or anything is truly the purest form of evil. I, like Anne Frank, will choose rather to believe that there is good in everyone.

I cried like a baby at the end of the 7th book. I'm damn proud of it. I'm proud that I can feel things so acutely, that I can express true joy and true sorrow in the same half hour, and I'm proud that I can enjoy and savor and love the written word. People who don't read fantasies, especially ones that are written as well and as painstakingly and as carefully as the Harry Potters are REALLY MISSING OUT. I'm telling you. If you haven't read the books, or if you've "read a few lines of one, and a few lines of another", go give them a try. They really are masterpieces.

Words can't express my feelings of effusive enthusiasm for the books enough. And if you've read the Harry's, by all means, read them again. Don't you dare get bogged down in them. Get mired in them. Dig deep into the world of Hogwarts and magic and mystery and delight, and after you've drowned in the sumptuous wonder of Rowling's creation, resurface for air, and enjoy the sunlight in the sky, the wind on your face, and the pure mastery of life and existence in this world where evil (a murky and often faceless evil) stands ready to be defeated, battled, and, often, endured.

And I forgot! The title is from Potterwatch, a secret radio station that supporters of Harry create in the 7th book. It's the signoff that Ron, Hermione and Harry hear just before they are captured by the Death Eaters.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

But truly, truly it's not my fault, or only my fault a little bit...

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Anna Karenina is the story of a family. It follows Anna, her brother Oblonsky and his wife Dolly, her sister Kitty and her eventual husband Levin, Anna's husband Karenin and her lover Vronsky, and Levin's two brothers, Koznyshev and Nikolai. Dolly's husband (Anna's brother) has a few pre-marital affairs, and in the beginning of the novel, Anna comes to reconcile Dolly with her brother after one of those affairs. Dolly and Oblonsky remain semi-happily and semi-unhappily married for the rest of the novel. Anna, however, meets Count Vronsky while visiting her brother, and ends up starting an affair with him that turns into a long-term relationship. She leaves her husband Karenin after several months of seeing Vronsky, but is unable to obtain a divorce from her husband, and unable to obtain custody of her son, Sergei. She becomes pregnant with Vronsky's child during their affair, and takes the child, Annie, with her when she runs off with Vronsky. Levin is a friend of Anna's brother, and he wants to marry Kitty from the beginning of the novel. Kitty is dating Vronsky at the novel's start, however. Kitty falls ill after Vronsky deserts her for Anna, and it is only after a long recuperation period that she and Levin end up getting engaged. How are you doing? Lost yet? I know I'm not doing the best job I could. Sorry! Levin works on a farm and loves it, maintaining an odd relationship with the peasant/worker class of people he employs. He works alongside them, attempting to eradicate the hierarchy between them, but is fairly unsuccessful, and comes up with a rather muddled argument as to where he stands on their rights. Anna ends up greatly shamed by her friends and society when she runs off with Vronsky, especially because she thinks she's getting a divorce and moves to Moscow, back into society, only to find out that her husband will NOT grant her a divorce. She constantly second-guesses her relationship with Vronsky, wondering if he could possibly still love her, and she gets consumed by fits of jealous rage and irrational thought. She eventually throws herself under a train (in part because she's severely unhappy and in part to spite Vronsky). Vronsky is devastated and joins the army, hoping to give his life for a valiant cause. Kitty and Levin are together, and they have a lovely son Mitya. (Levin's brother Nikolai does not make it to the end of the novel - he dies from consumption. Oh, and Levin has a huge crisis of faith, but he manages to overcome it and realizes that he truly does love his son. He didn't love him at first because the child caused so much pain to Kitty, and Levin feared that the child would kill the woman he loved so much. Levin also sort of gets over his overwhelming fear/confusion about death and the meaning of life. Emphasis on the sort of.) THE END!
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Well, I have good news and bad news for you, blog readers. Which do you want first? The bad? Okay, I like hearing the bad first, too. The bad news is, I FORGOT Anna Karenina in my mother's car at the end of my holiday break. I know, hello, dummy! Ready for the good news (now that we've dispensed with the bad)? (I'm not really sure where the parentheses goes or where the question mark goes in that sentence. Whoops!) The good news is, I GOT A NEW COMPUTER! After several months of saving (following the untimely decease of my previous model) I have finally managed to purchase a lovely, brand-spanking new white MacBook. When I went into the store, I asked for a PowerBook (which was the model before the iBook, for anyone who remembers. Hagh!)

So I'm writing this blog on my very own computer for the first time.

Since I'm without Anna, I'm going to change pace a little and write a slightly different blog entry from my usual ramble. I'd like to talk briefly about two of the characters, the two I identified with the most: Anna and Levin.

I thought I'd identify with Anna the most, because, well, the novel is seemingly about her. I found myself much more in Levin, though, particularly as the novel wore on. Just as a backstory for those who don't know, I was assigned to read this book around the time of my existential crisis at the end of my study abroad in France. We were supposed to read classics at an insane pace (funny coming from me, I know) and Anna was the last assigned book. I regret to say that I resorted to reading the SparkNotes for the book at that juncture. I thought reading it might be hard, might bring back memories from that time. Somehow, though, it was totally different than I expected. Here's why.

- Anna sees the world in a very particular way. She makes decisions that baffle me (perverse and often baffling - see "This American Life" w/Malcolm Gladwell - hilarious) and they make it virtually impossible for me to see her point of view. For instance, she doesn't leave her husband for an Incredibly long period of time, then she decides she will leave him, then he sort of offers her a divorce, then she doesn't take it, then she wants it and he won't offer it. She can't find a way to love her child with Vronsky because she's so blinded by her affection for her son Sergei, but she barely tries to retrieve him, and rather spends most of the book in a strangely cloaked state of utter despair. She carries on her normal life, but everyone can see she's deeply troubled. I guess what really got me was that she's totally dissatisfied at every juncture. She's not happy in the beginning (she doesn't really like her husband OR her son - they bore her) she's happy when she's with Vronsky in the affair, but unhappy that she's making things confusing around her son, and then she's unhappy when she's finally with Vronsky full time because she wants to be recognized by society and she wants her son and she wants a potty she wants a teddy, me, me, me, My, My, My, Now, Now, NOW! (Sorry, the "Hook" quote overwhelmed me. Had to put it in.) I guess what I'm trying to say is that Anna seemed like a completely selfish being to me. She didn't want her son with her because of his happiness - she wanted him because he made HER happy. And though she says she loves Vronsky, she's Constantly claiming that he's with other women, or convincing herself that he doesn't love her anymore, and I get that she's in a weird situation because she's not married to him, and I suppose there's an argument to be made that she's actually mentally unhinged, but I guess I just didn't see it. I didn't truly believe that Anna was mentally unstable, ergo, I didn't sympathize with the poor choices she made and the people she hurt along the way. And maybe Tolstoy's point wasn't for us to side with Anna, but it seems to take away from the poetic brilliance of her death if it serves only to make us feel that Anna was simply saying to everyone, haha! joke's on you! Which is really what it felt like to me. It felt like she killed herself out of spite, not out of true desperation.

- Levin, on the other hand, is an extremely intriguing character. He makes mistakes, too, I'll give you that, but he really seems like he's trying. He's really one of the only characters who seems to truly be giving social hierarchy some thought, and though I don't always (or often) agree with the arguments he makes, I give him credit for arguing at all. I loved the rustic quality of his existence (perhaps because my family had a farm for many years, and I have a longstanding nostalgia for the idea of a family farm) even though he was still very much a wealthy man living in a country house that was run by his peasants, and not by him. But what I liked about Levin was his honesty, his willingness to question conventional thought without fear of retribution. He wonders quite openly about the existence of God, about what happens after death, and whether his life is truly imbued with any meaning. And when his son is born, he doesn't feel the standard affection for him, instead feeling an overwhelming sense of repulsion. Don't get me wrong, I'm not condoning feeling revulsion towards your offspring, just recognizing that it can happen, and that feelings other than the status quo are to be discussed, not shoved under the rug. Just so you know, Levin freaks out when he thinks that Kitty and the baby have been squashed by a falling tree in a lightning storm, and it is after this moment that his love and affection for his son resurfaces. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the world could do with more Levins, and probably also with fewer Annas. But then again, maybe this is exactly how Tolstoy wanted this book to be read. Maybe this was all part of his master plan. Too bad we can't read his blog.

By the way, the title of this blog is a quote from Anna, after she's stolen Kitty's love (Vronsky) away from her at a ball.

Well, I'm off. I'm falling disastrously far behind with the Potters, and must catch up. Have to fly, have to fight, have to crow. Have to save Maggie, have to save Jack.

Hook is back.