Archive for the ‘Classics’ Category

I am sorry to say that I never got around to reading any of Anne Brontë’s work. Of course, I knew of her, but her books were not on the family bookshelf, as was Jane Eyre, which I read with avidity, yet some slight distaste (I can’t explain it, but there is a lingering disaffection with the work, a sense of something lurid and overwrought. That said, I admit its greatness and liked Villette quite a bit.) Wuthering Heights I read later and still appreciate for its wild strangeness and bursting of literary bonds.  Yet, I am an Austen fan, and prefer the comic subtleties of human behavior in which Austen excels, and perhaps I resent a bit Charlotte’s belittlement of Austen, likening her writing to a “carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden.” My awareness of Anne grew with the screening on PBS of “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” and then by a cartoon by Kate Beaton wherein the two older sisters are admiring brooding, rude men whom Anne calls out as arrogant dirt bags (paraphrasing here). They say to her “no wonder no one buys your books.” I guess I fell for the tall, dark and scornful type through literature (and, it must be said, trashy romances), but was saved by Austen’s real men – kind, generous, humorous and dutiful. Even Darcy who appears to be the former turns out to be the latter. Now, upon reading Agnes Grey, I find it delightfully Austenesque in the well-drawn character studies, amusing interchanges, the earnest schooling of self-interest and inclinations to the demands of duty by the main character, and the sardonic observations of the socially elevated circles with whom Agnes comes in contact while working as a governess. That said, all of the Brontës share with Austen a striking intellectual and moral rigor that seems old-fashioned, but painfully relevant to any person who aspires to a well-lived life. Austen and Anne have a touch that is lighter than that of the older Brontë sisters, but at the same time more steely (more age-of-reason than romantic). I think the morality of Anne Brontë and Austen is more brave and beautiful precisely because it exists among the humdrum of daily cares, of petty slights, of dullness and loneliness– like that of Anne Eliot or Elinor Dashwood.


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I read Crime & Punishment without effort some years ago, but I had a lot of trouble getting back to this book after starting it in 2013. Thanks to Audible.com, I spent 36 of my commuting hours listening to the whole thing, and enjoyed it immensely (the Constance Garnet version, read by Frederick Davidson, who did an excellent job with most of the voices). The first thing I noticed was the digressive style, as the narrator would often pause in what seemed to be the main thread of the novel and divert our attention to some other incident or person that we needed to know about and fill us in with all the relevant details. It all came together in the end and this style of writing resulted in a broad study of Russian characters and of the changing times. The Karamazovs (Father and sons) seemed to illustrate certain Russian ‘types,’ and Smerdiakov (also one of the brothers, it seems) was a brilliant study of the resentful peasant on the rise. The account of the trial where the lawyers for both the prosecution and defense built up their edifices of conjecture was handled masterfully, although I had a growing sense of dread as to the outcome. The reader knows the truth, but facts seem irrelevant as each person believes what they want to believe.

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I was recently thinking about Turgenev. Why, you ask? It started with a great story, The District Doctor, sent out by Short Story Thursdays some time last summer. I think I’ve only read one work by Turgenev, “A Month in the Country,” which I liked a lot. There is something about the Russian summers in literature, something like redemption. In any case, the moderator/dictator/passionate advocate for reading who runs SST, mentioned “The Torrents of Spring” as a great novel by Turgenev. I added that to my must-read list and questioned why I hadn’t thought to look into other works by this Russian Great – SST’s favorite Russian by the way. To get to the point, I finally got around to reading this and it is a great novella with a very natural tone and wonderful characters. The surprising twist it takes in the middle which sets everyone on a different path than what was expected is quite thought-provoking, especially as you get older and start evaluating choices and consequences and roads not taken and the like…

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The Future of Reading

As one who treasures and reveres books, who grew up reading and rereading the classics of childhood (Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, Little Women), I often wonder if kids will continue to read these books, or indeed any books. Thus, I was heartened by a 10-year old houseguest who came with her I-phone, of course, but also with three library books:  The Art of Racing in the Rain, Small as an Elephant , and another that she was disappointed in so I didn’t get the title. We agreed that is usually worthwhile when you enjoy an author to seek out other books by that person, but sometimes you just don’t like the other books as well.

C.L., a young person of strong opinions, was forthright about not feeling that she has to finish a book if she’s not liking it. (I should take her advice as I am still struggling through The Emperor of Ocean Park.) Despite having red hair, she was never able to get into Anne of Green Gables, and admitted to not liking “the classics.” I mentioned how all the kids have Kindles now, and she informed me that for her age group, that fad has passed. “Sure, back in third grade, a lot of kids had them, but now? No Kindles, no Nooks, they are all back to carrying regular books around.” Another of her rules for living is not to keep books. She never rereads a book, she declared, so is happy to pass them on to others. Mi caro esposo who had just moved my library of 25, or possibly more, boxes of books for me, gave me an expressive look. I am still planning to reread most of my library if I live long enough, so I was unmoved.

I read half of The Art of Racing in the Rain during C.L.’s visit, and she, saddened by my lack of a large library in my new town, generously offered to leave it for me. As it turns out, my library does have the book, so I put a hold on it and am looking forward to finishing it off, and hopefully discussing it with my bookish young friend during a future visit. In the meantime, I have a feeling that the next generation may reject some of the technological advances embraced by their elders (Facebook, for example), which may include the e-book.

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Peter Pan

Short-story Thursdays recently supplied a pair of short stories by J. M. Barrie (“A Powerful Drug” and “The Inconsiderate Waiter”). I enjoyed both, especially the latter, which is funny and charming and ultimately heart-warming.

Barrie’s whimsical writing, buoyant and sly, both cynical and not (this last insight borrowed from another SST reader), is a delight. He lets his characters show themselves, which is a writerly gift (exemplified by Jane Austen) that cannot be over-praised. So many authors pound away at their material, deadening the senses with their heavy-handed pronouncements and creaking plot machinery (sadly I’m thinking of the book I am currently reading, or enduring, “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”) In any case, thinking of Barrie got me thinking of Peter Pan and my favorite quote therein:

“What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Wendy Moira Angela Darling,’ she replied with some satisfaction. ‘What is your name?’
‘Peter Pan.’
She was already sure that he must be Peter, but it did seem a comparatively short name.
‘Is that all?’
‘Yes,’ he said rather sharply. He felt for the first time that it was a shortish name.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Wendy Moira Angela.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Peter gulped.
She asked where he lived.
‘Second to the right,’ said Peter, ‘and then straight on till morning.’
‘What a funny address!’
Peter had a sinking feeling. For the first time he felt that perhaps it was a funny address.

It makes me sad that children don’t read Peter Pan anymore, thanks to Disney, I guess.

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I read The Art of Fielding, which all the book groups seem to be reading these days. I nearly gave up in the initial chapters where Henry, by a series of fortuitous, and not entirely believable, events and circumstances is brought to Westish College to invigorate their baseball team with his skill as a shortstop. I was about to give up until the statue of Melville was mentioned, and the reason why the baseball team is named “The Harpooners” was revealed. Apparently, Melville visited the Great Lakes at one point in his post-writerly life (after the failure of Moby Dick, he spent some 30 years as a Customs inspector). I found myself invigorated by this literary link and gradually got interested in the characters.

The Melville connection was tenuous and not fully explored, which was too bad. I had expected more, but in the end I got interested in Henry, the syndrome that undermined him as a player, and his gradual healing and emergence from despair. A lot of the other plotlines felt contrived, especially the one between Pella and her father, and the decision to dig up his body: weird, tacked on and unearned sensationalism! It was news to this reader that Affenlight loved the sea that much. And there was really no parallel to Emerson digging up his wife’s body. It just didn’t fit. That said, the writing was good, and on the whole the book was enjoyable. I did like it more than I thought I would.

Given that “The Lee Shore” was mentioned as Affenlight’s favorite chapter of MD, I wanted to follow up on that reference, and in doing so, found The Big Read – Moby Dick read aloud in its entirety by 130 plus different narrators. I went straight to Chapter 23 and had a listen. It’s another of those extended metaphors, this “six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington.” If we had had some earlier premonition of Guert’s love of the sea, this would have worked, ie, “the land seems scorching to his feet,” or was it there and I missed it? In any case, the chapter was a good choice. I liked the analogy between the efforts of a boat to ride out a gale at sea, rather than be driven onto the rocks and that of the mind to maintain its freedom:

all deep earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore!

I also liked that Affenlight’s last meal was Chowder – that being one of the great chapters of MD!

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The White Whale Redux

A few years ago, I finally read Moby Dick, finding it funny, tedious, strange, bewildering, annoying and occasionally profound. As I mentioned in a previous post, the first three chapters are a delight. After that, the pace slackens a bit, but not alarmingly so. Then there are some stretches where the reader is becalmed in a limitless sea, awaiting a breath of sense to move the plot along (a friend of mine literally flies into a rage at the mention of “The Folios,” the chapter wherein Melville categorizes whales, while in my opinion “Stubb’s Supper” is an abomination). Still. We press on.

Recently, I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s panegyric to Melville’s novel, Why Read Moby Dick. It is not surprising that Philbrick would feel the need to publish such a work, but why is it needed? Has anyone written “Why Read Ulysses?” or why read, fill in the blank of any classic you choose? Yet, in this case, it does seem warranted. Perhaps it is the circumstances of Melville’s life as a writer, his difficulties and insecurities, the lack of critical acclaim for a work into which he poured everything and for which he expected nothing but praise. I remember coming away with a horror of the butchery of whaling, faithfully recounted in every particular by the author; an appreciation of Melville’s knowledge of the sea and the seafaring life; and a respect for his vision of humanity, but also feeling by the end that I too had been a long time at sea and happy to return. Philbrick claims that he has read the book aloud many times, recommending that method of accessing Melville’s prose, so I decided to try an audio version for my long commutes to and from work. After 6 weeks, I ran out of renewals and had reached Chapter 66, “The Shark Massacre,” just a little over half-way home. The truth is, I was not sorry to surrender the packet of 19 CDs and pick up something different to enliven my driving time. For one thing, I was not a fan of the narrator. His voice detracted from the prose and distracted my listening ear. But, I now feel somewhat dissatisfied and disinclined to stop. We had just reached the rather horrendous, yet horribly compelling chapters where the first whale is captured and killed. The grim “cutting in” where the whale is rendered on the deck of the ship was Melville showing the civilized world just how they got the oil to light their lamps. It’s rather like Michael Pollan describing for us where our plastic wrapped chicken parts come from.

For profundity, as promised above, the chapter entitled “The Line” cannot be beat. Here Melville describes in great detail how the line that connects boat to harpoon and ultimately to the whale is brought forward from its tub at the rear of the boat to the bow and back again so that each oarsman is looped by a line that can at any moment be stretched taut by the might of a 3 ton leviathan.

the whale-line folds the whole boat in its complicated coils, twisting and writhing around it in almost every direction. All the
oarsmen are involved in its perilous contortions; so that to the timid eye of the landsman, they seem as Indian jugglers, with the deadliest
snakes sportively festooning their limbs…..the six men composing the crew pull into the jaws of death, with a halter around every neck, as you may say

This passage wonderfully sets up the soon-to-come episode when a whale is struck, the line whizzing out like taut lightning and the boat bucketing behind the surging beast through a foaming sea. But before that, Melville adds a philosophical note:

But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their
necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.

And why read Moby Dick? That is why.

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