Wednesday, December 30, 2009


"Listen to them...children of the night. What music they make!"

The vampire has existed both in literature and in folklore for hundreds of years. From the folk tales of Eastern Europe to stories like Polidori's The Vampyre, the Dead Un-dead have haunted readers all over the world. But it was not until Dracula that the vampire became ingrained in our culture.

In fact, the vampire as we know it today, the suave eastern European aristocrat, is a creation of Irish writer Bram Stoker. During his life, he was most well known for his job as personal assistant to actor Henry Irving. Today, we remember him for bringing to life one of literature's most famous villains.

The Plot:

The novel is told mainly through a series of journal entries by various characters, as well as various newspaper clippings relative to the story. The tale begins with Jonathan Harker traveling to the Carpathian Mountains to provide legal counsel to one Count Dracula. It isn't long before Jonathan realizes that his host, for all of his aristocratic ways, might just be evil incarnate. His suspicions are confirmed after he finds himself a prisoner of Castle Dracula and is almost murdered by Dracula's three vampire brides. He barely escapes the castle with his life.

The story then switches back to England. Mina (Jonathan's fiance) is a friend of Lucy Westenra, a beautiful young woman who is loved by three men. Those men are Dr. John Seward (a psychiatrist who runs an asylum), Quincey Morris (an American adventurer) and Arthur Holmwood (an English aristocrat, whom Lucy agrees to marry).
Not long after Lucy's engagement to Arthur, she begins to waste away. Dr. Seward summons the help of his old mentor, Abraham Van Helsing. Despite all of the men's effort, Lucy's life is slowly drained away. It is only after her death that the horrible truth dawns on them. The men decide to join forces to pursue the evil vampire. But as they begin their planning, it soon becomes apparant that Dracula has chosen his next victim: Mina. Now it will take all of their courage, brains, and use of modern technology to defeat Count Dracula and prevent Mina from sharing in Lucy's fate.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I wasn't quite sure what to expect going into this novel. Not being much of a blood and gore person, this novel was not even on my radar for years. It wasn't until B. J. Harrison of The Classic Tales Podcast read a short story entitled Dracula's Guest that my curiosity was piqued.

It was actually much more interesting than I had ever imagined. Stoker's use of journal entries was very well done, and it really gave all of the characters who wrote them a lot of depth. In fact, the characters who didn't write any entries are much more one-dimensional (Dracula excluded). The story itself is thrilling, horrifying, and exciting. The foreboding begins on page one, and you can simply feel Dracula's influence throughout the whole novel. Even when he isn't mentioned specifically, he casts
an evil shadow on all of the other events. At times, it was actually like having a bad dream. You realize that something evil is happening, but the other characters don't get it and you are powerless to stop it.

There were two main aspects of this novel that really caught my eye as I read it. The first was the use of modern technology to defeat Dracula. While the vampire himself is often restricted to older means of travel and communication (sailboats, letter, etc.), the others use all means of modern living to plot against him. The typewriter, phonograph, train, steamboat, and telegraph all play a role in helping the friends to speedily catch and destroy Dracula. Just imagine if they had had the internet, jet planes, and cell phones. The job would have been done in a day! The other aspect that intrigued me was the male/female relationships in the novel. The men of the novel are hell-bent in protecting Mina, even at the risk of their lives. But unlike a lot of novels of the time, Mina has brains and is often a big help in the planning. She appreciates and reveres the protection of these courageous men, but she is also a huge help to them and they all love her for it.

I don't think that I would go so far as to categorize this as "great literature". I think that it's importance lies mainly in the affect it had on popular culture, rather than the novel itself. It is, however, a thrilling read. If you want something that will spook you without being too gory, this is for you. It was definitely my most surprising read of the year.

P. S. I would like to clarify that I chose to read this novel LONG before I had ever even heard of Twilight. So for those who think that this is a sign of a secret desire to read that series, forget it.

The Movie:

There are only about a gazillion versions of this story that have hit the screen. According to Wikipedia there are 217 films that feature Dracula in a major role (that is second only to Sherlock Holmes who is in 223). In fact, it was the film adaptations of Stoker's novel that really launched Dracula into popular culture. The most popular versions include the 1931 version, the 1958 version, and the 1992 version. I have not seen any of these adaptations, so I can't really comment on them one way or another.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Lorna Doone

For, according to our old saying, the three learned professions live by roguery on the three parts of a man. The doctor mauls our bodies; the parson starves our souls, but the lawyer must be the adroitest knave, for he has to ensnare our minds.

The full title of this story is Lorna Doone: a Romance of Exmoore, and the subtitle is an exact description of the plot. R. D. Blackmore's most famous work is a story of forbidden love and the wild and rebellious area of western England in the 17th century.

Often referred to as "The Last Victorian", R. D. Blackmore was admired by such writers as Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gerald Manly Hopkins, and J. M. Barrie. Lorna Doone was (and still is) his most popular novel, becoming a favorite among both male and female readers. In fact, the male students at Yale in 1906 voted it their most favorite novel. Today, it is still considered to be a fine example of classic romance interwoven within a thrilling historical setting.

The Plot:

John Ridd is a farmer's son growing up in the western region of Exmoore. Though only 7 days ride from London, Exmoore is still a wild and somewhat lonely country, and is terrorized by a family of noble outlaws called the Doones. After his father is murded by the band, John takes on the role of provider for his family and swears undying hatred of the outlaws. That is, until he meets the beautiful Lorna Doone. Lorna has lived her life in the Doone Valley, yet she abhors the violence and hatred that is the way of life there. As time passes, Lorna and John grow to love each other passionately.

But not only is Lorna already betrothed to the heir of the Doone throne, malicious Carver Doone, she is also unknowingly a part of a much more complex plot to regain the ancient Doone lands. It will take all of John's strength, courage and love to overcome these obstacles. And even after battles are fought and risks are taken, John might still lose Lorna to a secret that has been kept for many years, a secret tied to her and a beautiful diamond necklace.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Many people compare Lorna Doone to the works of Sir Walter Scott, and in my opinion that is a fairly good comparison. Though in many ways it is simply a love story, it is actually just as focused (if not more so) on the setting, both of time and place.

In this respect, Blackmore is probably most like Thomas Hardy and his Wessex novels. Exmoore itself becomes a character in the story, with its dense fogs, windswept coast, and rolling hills. The people of Exmoore are also kept realistic by having their language written out as they would speak it. The story is simply chock full of sayings, legends, and beliefs of both the era and the region and it really helps bring that aspect of the novel to life. It is also an interesting look at an often ignored period in history. As in Captain Blood, this story is set in the time of the Monmouth Rebellion. This particular rebellion (lets face it, England's had plenty of them) centered around the death of King Charles II. Legally, it is his brother James II who should ascend the throne, but since James is a Catholic, many Protestants wanted to see the throne go to Charles' illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. Like pretty much every other rebellion in England (not counting a certain one in 1776), this one ended in tragedy. The feelings leading up to it and the horror of its consequences are played out very well in this novel. In this time, your survival depended on where your loyalty lay. Choose carefully.

While I enjoyed both the regional and historical points of the novel (to an extent), I must admit that I wasn't 100% sold on the characters themselves. Perhaps my sensibilities are a tad too modern, but I really felt that Blackmore was a trifle condescending to his female characters. Lorna is pretty and sweet, but we aren't given much us else to make us love her like John does. Annie is the favorite sister because she is also pretty and sweet and a good cook. Lizzie is the not so favorite sister because her passion is reading and writing and she speaks her mind. And the only woman who in my opinion is both sensible and kind, energetic and meek is Ruth Huckaback, and she is left as a bit of an old maid. John himself says that he would have been happy to marry Ruth if he hadn't met Lorna. Gee, that sure is comforting. Plus, John is always commenting on how women can't make decisions, are always meddling, can't be trusted, etc.
No wonder the male readers at Yale thought it was such a great novel. Anyway, that is probably my biggest stickler with this story.

All in all, Lorna Doone is a good example of many novels of the period. It is a blend of a traditional romance, historical fiction, Victorian values, pastoral tradition, and modern sensation. It is a nice little read and one that many people will probably enjoy.

The Movie:

There are plenty of film versions of this story, the earliest dating back to 1911. The two most recent films include the 1990 version starring Polly Walker as Lorna, Clive Owen as John, and Sean Bean as Carver Doone.

The other is the 2000 version starring Amelia Warner as Lorna, Richard Coyle as John, and Aidan Gillen as Carver Doone. This film was very enjoyable. The plot is somewhat streamlined allowing for a bit more romance and less history. Most of the plot is kept intact and the actors do justice to their roles, especially Aidan Gillen who plays Carver. He brings an obsession to the role that is at once disturbing and attractive. If you like BBC productions of classic novels, you'll like this one.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew. "Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmastime, when it has come round-apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that-as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!" - from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

May You and Yours Have a Blessed and Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato.

Happiness is not something that Lucy Snowe knows too much about. Her life has been a series of misfortunes with peaceful moments that are few and far between. As she fights her way through life's many trials, she learns that though there are periods of pleasure, you can't expect them to last, and that the only way to survive is to trust in herself.

The Plot:

The novel opens with young Lucy Snowe staying with her relatives, Mrs. Bretton and her son Graham, and a young visitor named Paulina Home, and Lucy observes as a peculiar relationship grows between the dashing Graham and the sweet Paulina. As years pass, Lucy finds herself in need of employment, so at 23, she travels to the fictional country of Labassecour (modeled after Belgium) and secures a position as an English governess in a school for girls.

In Labassecour, she is caught in a whirl of many different people who each affect her life in a different way. There is the handsome, English Dr. John, the flighty and coquettish Ginevra Fanshawe, the dour and spying Mme. Beck, and the fiery and passionate literature professor M. Paul Emmanuel. In this foreign land, Lucy is often forced to defend herself as a Briton, a Protestant, and a woman, and as she begins to grow closer and closer to M. Paul, fate seems to have other plans regarding her future.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

It's almost impossible to write a review of this story without doing a little comparison to it's more popular sibling, Jane Eyre. Many readers (myself included) only make it around to this novel once they have fallen for Charlotte Bronte's first novel. But, if you approach this book solely seeking a revamping of Jane Eyre, you will be dissappointed. Though there are a few similarities, Villette differes greatly from Jane Eyre on the whole. It is these differences, however, that cause Villette to shine and confirm Bronte as one of the greatest Victorian novelists.

The biggest difference is in Lucy Snowe herself. Yes. she does resemble Jane Eyre to the extent that she is a deeply passionate person who tends to hide behind a cool exterior. But while Jane treats the reader as a confidant, Lucy does not. She hides her true feelings from everyone, including us. We are forced to guess and surmise that she has romantic feelings for Dr. John(who is actually Graham Bretton, but she doesn't bother to tell us that until much later). All in all, instead of being drawn into the story until we feel like we are standing in the room (ala JE), we are held at arms length and are forced to peer into the windows. Not that this is bad, it just gives Villette a very different feeling from Jane Eyre.

I have read many differing opinions on who was the better match for Lucy: Dr. John or M. Paul. You couldn't find two men more different from each other, Dr. John being noble and tender and M. Paul being friendly yet rather demanding. But while Dr. John is a nice guy, he just doesn't "get" Lucy. He doesn't recognize her as his relative until she points it out, and constantly tries to draw her out into society when that is not exactly what she wants (which kind of reminds me of Mr. Rochester wanting to shower Jane with jewels). M. Paul on the other hand understands her completely. From the moment he meets her, he sees through her frosty exterior to her passionate soul. I love how everyone else says that Lucy should brighten up her wardrobe, but when she wears a gown of the lightest pink, M. Paul is horrified (her passion is coming out!). But M. Paul is not perfect either: he is kind when she is obviously beneath him in learning, but gets angry when her intelligence allows her to catch up with him; he forbids her from looking at a painting because she is an unmarried woman; and he loses his temper over the most insignificant things.

But even more than the men of the novel, readers differ vastly over it's ending. The ending is rather ambiguous, though you couldn't really expect anything different from Lucy Snowe. Bronte leaves room for those who want to imagine a sunshine ending for Lucy and M. Paul, but she also strongly hints that M. Paul is lost at sea. I tend to believe more along the lines of the latter. It seems to me (though I can't believe that I'm saying this) that the ending is stronger and more satisfying without the conventional happy ending. Yes, we grieve over the loss of M. Paul, but at the same time, that view seems to back up everything that Bronte says throughout the rest of the novel. Life is not sunshine and roses, and we will all face heartache, despair, and loneliness (some more than others). It is only the strong in spirit who will rise above it all and make a life for themselves amid the ruins. And that is exactly what Lucy does time and again. By the end of the story, all those who had tried to oppress her and drag her down are gone and she remains the victor in the struggle for her life.

There are so many other aspects of this novel that I would love to discuss. Bronte's autobiographical elements sprinkled throughout the story, the imagry of the nun who haunts Lucy, the Catholicism vs. Protestantism, Lucy's mental instability, I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that I now understand why scholars prefer to spend more time on Villette than on Jane Eyre. While the latter will always be my favorite Bronte novel, I can't help but feel that Villette deserves to be read, debated, and enjoyed just as much. This is a must read for any lover of Bronte or Victorian literature.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christmas Short Stories

We've all got our favorite Christmas books. You know, the ones that we read year after year while we curl up in front of the fire or by the Christmas tree. I've got plenty of old favorites that I pick up each holiday season and relish (A Christmas Carol is by far my favorite). But I also love to discover new classics that reflect the joy, the warmth, and the occasional bitter-sweetness of this season. Last year, I discovered Dylan Thomas' lyrical A Child's Christmas in Wales. This year, I was introduced to a little boy called Buddy and a wonderful old lady named Ms. Sook. Truman Capote's three classic holiday stories (all based on his own childhood) are at once funny and heartbreaking, simple and inspired, magical and real. Here is a short summary of each story:

A Christmas Memory:

A young boy is growing up in rural Alabama during the Great Depression. He lives with his unmarried great aunts and uncle all of whom basically ignore him except for one: Ms. Sook. Though in her sixties, Ms. Sook is almost like a child herself. She calls the boy Buddy after a childhood friend who died very young. The two are inseparable and each Christmas is filled with its own unique traditions that draw them even closer. Like making fruitcakes from people as varied as the local peddler to the President of the United States. Or taking one too many sips of the leftover whisky used in making said fruitcakes. Or giving each other a homemade kite every year. As a grown up Buddy reflects on those Christmases gone by, it causes you to reflect on your own childhood with that bittersweet feeling that is nostalgia.

One Christmas:

Buddy is invited to spend Christmas with his estranged father in New Orleans. It does not turn out to be as much fun as Buddy had imagined and living with his father is like living with a stranger. But as his trip comes to a close, Buddy recognizes the emptiness that is heating at his father, and gives him the one gift that will last with his father for all time. Though this was the shortest of the stories, it was by far my favorite. Capote so beautifully captures the inner desire that drives every human on the planet: the desire to be loved.

The Thanksgiving Visitor:

Buddy is horrified when Ms. Sook invites the school bully over for Thanksgiving dinner. What could be worse than to have your biggest enemy in your house during the holidays. Buddy decides to seek revenge on his tormentor as soon as possible. But when fate offers him the chance to do just that, Buddy finds that revenge is not as sweet as it seems.

This was a wonderful introduction to the works of Truman Capote and it has definitely placed more of his works on my TBR list. The writing is incredible and the characters are wonderful. I especially liked the simple yet loving Ms. Sook who brings a warmth and magic of her own to the holidays. So, if you haven't read these lovely stories, grab your coco and your blanket and snuggle up next to the Christmas tree. The beauty is about to unfold!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Masterpiece Classic: 2010 Edition

Finally! The good folks over at Masterpiece Theatre have released the 2010 schedule for Masterpiece Classic. This season seems to be a blending of old and new with many of the dramas being set around WWI and WWII. Again, we are given a heaping dose of Jane Austen with 1 new production and 2 encore presentations (and between you and me, I think that we have had enough Jane Austen to last us a couple of decades or so). But what I am most looking forward to is a Return to Cranford. Here is the complete schedule:

Cranford: Dec. 20-Jan. 3. The season kicks off with an encore presentation of Cranford. Set in a small English village on the cusp of change, Cranford stars many notable British actors including Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton, Judi Dench, and Michael Gambon. If you haven't seen this one yet, take advantage of this opportunity.

Return to Cranford: Jan. 10-Jan. 17. Old friends reunite in this sequel to the original Cranford. New faces arrive as well including Jonathan Pryce and Tim Curry.

Emma: Jan. 24-Feb. 7. Jane Austen's classic story of matchmaking gets a do-over with many faces that you should recognize from othe Masterpiece productions. Romola Garai is Emma, Johnny Lee Miller is Mr. Knightly, and Michael Gambon is Mr. Woodhouse.

Northanger Abbey: Feb. 14. Encore presentation of Jane Austen's first complete novel. Stars Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland and JJ Field as Henry Tilney. My sister is swooning already.

Persuasion: Feb. 21. Encore presentation of Jane Austen's last complete novel. Stars Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot and Rupert Penry-Jones as Capt. Wentworth.

The 39 Steps: Feb. 28. Agent Richard Hanney must battle German spies on the eve of WWI. Let's see how it compares to the Hitchcock version. Stars Rupert Penry-Jones.

Sharpe's Challange & Sharpe's Peril: March 28-April 4. Based on the novels of Bernard Cornwell, soldier/adventurer Richard Sharpe heads to India to quiet a rebellion. Stars Sean Bean.

The Diary of Anne Frank: April 11. The true story of a young woman whose life and death became a symbol of the tragedy of the Holocaust. Stars newcomer Ellie Kendrick.

Small Island: April 18-25. The season concludes with the story of a young Jamaican woman whose move to gritty post-war London proves to be less than she had imagined. Stars Naomie Harries, Ruth Wilson (Jane Eyre!!), and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Looks like this season will be quite a mixed bag with a little something for everyone. Also looks like they weren't kidding when they said that the "bonnet dramas" would be fading for a time. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, we will be treated to classics that reflect many different times gone by. Here's hoping for a great season!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Captain Blood

"Peter Blood, bachelor of medicine and several other things besides, smoked a pipe and tended the geraniums boxed on the sill of his window above Water Lane in the town of Bridgewater."

When we are first introduced to Peter Blood, he seems to be the last kind of man who would be destined to have some of the most fantastic adventures. But that is exactly where fate is leading him. He is about to be whisked away from his quiet life into a life of slavery, of piracy, and of romance.

Rafael Sabatini's 1922 classic Captain Blood made him an overnight success, and continues to delight young and old with the story of a man falsely accused who finds both freedom and revenge on the high seas.

The Plot:

After years of soldiering in Europe, Peter Blood has retired to quieter life as a small town doctor. Though he no longer concerns himself with politics, the times he is living do not allow for much neutrality. After the failure of the Monmouth Rebellion, Blood is accused of aiding a rebel and is sold into slavery in the West Indies along with many others. He is purchased by Colonel Bishop, a ruthless man who treats all of his slaves horribly. Because of his skill as a physician, Blood enjoys a slightly higher standard of living, including a budding relationship with Colonel Bishop's niece, Arabella.

During a raid on the island, Blood and many of the other rebels/slaves escape, but having nowhere to go, find safety and freedom in piracy. It is not long before Captain Blood is the most famous pirate in the Atlantic, becoming extremely wealthy off the booty of French, Spanish, and English ships. And though he is a pirate, Captain Blood is also a gentleman who treats his men and his victims gently and fairly. But there are many men who would like to see him swing from the yardarm (including Colonel Bishop and a Spanish Admiral) and he begins to realize that all the glory and wealth of piracy are nothing compared to a home and a love.

My Review (Caution-Spoiler):

There are few things that I like better than a swashbuckling adventure. And that is exactly what this story is. From beginning to end, Captain Blood is thrown into one hair-raising escapade after another, and we are along for every second of that thrilling ride.

The best part of this story is Captain Blood himself. As a character he is so vivid that he seems to leap right off of the page. He is dashing, vain, brave, handsome, intelligent, and extremely witty. All in all, he ranks right up there with Alan Breck Stewart of Kidnapped when it comes to unforgettable characters. In fact, Captain Blood is so vivid that other characters (hero and villain) tend to pale in comparison.

The writing itself is pretty quick-paced, with many wonderful moments in it. The relationship between Captain Blood and Arabella Bishop is an interesting one. It is a romance, but if you are looking for a romantic novel, this isn't it. The focus here is on the sword fights, the nautical battles and the ever changing politics of the time.

I really can't do justice to how great this book really is. So many fantastic scenes pop into my head every time I think about the novel, like when Colonel Bishop is forced to swim back to shore from his own ship, or when Don Diego is strapped to the mouth of a cannon, or when Colonel Bishop is introduced to the new Governor of Jamaica. This book is for fans of Robert Louis Stevenson or anyone else who enjoys adventure, pirates, and dashing leading men. Absolutely something that Everyone Must Read Before They Die!

The Movie:

Though you could say that movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean take many cues from Captain Blood (and they do), there is only one movie version of this classic novel so far.

That is the 1935 version starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. It follows the plot most of the time, though it is probably a bit more "romantic" the the novel. If anyone can get the swashbuckling side of Captain Blood, it's Errol Flynn. A fun, exciting, classic film that deserves to be watched. Check it out!

Trivia: Both Flynn and de Havilland were unknowns in Hollywood until Captain Blood made stars out of them. They would go on to be one of Hollywood's leading screen couples, making 8 films together.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Weekly Geeks 2009-42: Podcasts for Book Lovers

...share with us a podcast you love, preferably book related, but not necessarily so. Give us the link, of course, and share with us details about that podcast and why you enjoy it so much. If you have a couple or three favorites, share them all!

Then, as the week goes on, check out every one's suggestions, find time to listen to a few, then come back and let us know what you discovered, and if you've found a new favorite podcast.

I don't have many podcasts that I listen to. In fact, I only have one. But, it is definitely a good one. The Classic Tales is a podcast by B. J. Harrison. In each weekly episode, B. J. reads a short story by a classic author. The range from the well known like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Nathaniel Hawthorne to lesser known authors like Guy de Maupassant, H. P. Lovecraft, and H. Rider Haggard.

There are a lot of things that I love about this podcast. First off, B. J.'s reading voice is great. Not only is his style stimulating, but he is also great at character voices and accents. I love how he really gets into each individual character. His passion for the stories really shines through in every episode.

Secondly, B. J. takes the time to engage with his listeners. He sends out newsletters that give lots of background information on each story, and he also has a message board where listeners can discuss the various stories as well as request some of their favorites.

Finally, it's free. F-R-E-E. FREE! Like the majority of people, I'm not made of money. So it's always nice when you can find an enjoyable pastime that costs nothing.

Right now, B. J. has just wrapped up "Classic Monsters Month" with "Olalla" by Robert Louis Stevenson. Here are some other highlights from the past:
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • The Kiss by Anton Chekhov
  • Legeia by Edgar Allan Poe
  • Rikki-Tikki-Tavi by Rudyard Kipling
  • Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest by P. G. Wodehouse
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  • The Speckled Band by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
And though I haven't yet listened to this, B. J. also has a Classic Novels podcast where he reads full length (complete and unabridged!) novels. So far these novel include Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini, and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. These do have to be purchased, but they are priced really well. By the end of each story, you have a full length audiobook for about half the cost.

Another one that I have thought about subscribing to is Penguin Classics On Air. Here, the publishers of thousands of classic novels along with experts in the literature field, discuss various works of literature and their impact on today's society. So far they have discussed why we still love Jane Austen, the Swedish Gone With the Wind, and why vampires have endured in the world of literature.

I hope that this has sparked some interest in you. Please share any other classic lit podcasts that you might know of.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Happy Birthday To:

Fyodor Dostoevsky
November 11, 1821

"There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan's pride and murmuring against God."

-from The Brother's Karamazov

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Girl of the Limberlost

"If I am a woman at all worth while, it will be because I have had such wonderful opportunities," said Elnora. "Not every girl is driven to the forest to learn what God has to say there."

We tend to think of education as time spent in a classroom, pouring over books and listening to a teacher. But though these things are important, so is time spent in the world of nature and real life. In this sequel to her novel Freckles, Gene Stratton-Porter introduces us to a young woman who, though lacking in formal learning, has nevertheless gained a wisdom and maturity from the wild and lonely world of the Limberlost.

The Plot:

Elnora Comstock has had a hard life. Her father drowned in the Limberlost Swamp the night of her birth, and her mother has blamed her ever since. Consequently, she has been neglected and deprived of a mother's love her entire life. Her only solace has been the Limberlost, and more importantly, the many butterflies and moths that live there. Having "inherited" Freckles' flower room, she spends much of her time roaming through the swamps and soaking in its beauties. When she enters High School in the local town, she is faced with ridicule both from the prissy town girls and from her mother who sees book learning as worthless. But through it all, Elnora confidently faces her detractors and relies on her own strength and knowledge to see her through.

In the second half of the book, a young man named Philip Ammon comes to the Limberlost to recover from an illness. He spends his days helping Elnora hunt butterflies and moths. As the days pass, he is more and more taken with the intelligent and beautiful young woman. The problem is that he is already engaged to a spoiled socialite in Chicago. Now, Elnora must face her toughest challenge that no education could have prepared her for: an affair of the heart.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Though this is technically a sequel to Freckles, there are only a few hints of the previous story. Freckles and the Angel do make an appearance in the last part of the book, you can read this book before reading the others and still enjoy it.

this novel, Gene Stratton-Porter further explores the effect that time spent in nature can have on a young person's life. Elnora's life isn't as bad as it could be, simply because she has the Limberlost to turn to. It is there that she gains many of the qualities that make her such a wonderful character. Her patience, her confidence, her strength, and her knowledge all stem directly from the time that she spends wandering the swamps.

I have to say that I prefer this novel over Freckles in many ways. First off, Elnora herself is, IMO, a much more complex and interesting lead character. She has so much more depth and comes off as such a real person. The overall story itself has many more dimensions, and the romance is pulled off better as well.

I think that what I liked best was how Elnora is so different from that day's (and today's) social norms. She never attends college, but she is still extremely intelligent. She isn't stunningly beautiful, but she has an inner beauty that really shines through. She is not from an upper social sphere, but she has a grace and dignity that is very attractive. She has no plans of setting the social scene for her husband, but her simplicity makes her desirable to Philip as a wife.

This story has a magical quality about it. Whether it is Stratton-Porter's description of the beauties of the Limberlost, or the inspiring strength of Elnora as she faces life's difficulties, it is full of bewitching moments. This is a book that I wish I had read at 12 or 13 rather than 17 or 18. So if you have a young girl who is looking to break into the classics, this is a wonderful place to start.

The Movie:

There are at least 3
movie versions of this novel. There is a 1934 version and a 1945 version. I have only seen the 1990 version starring Heather Fairfield, Annette O'Toole, and Joanna Cassidy. This version only follows the first half of the novel, so all of the romance between Philip and Elnora is missing. It can give you a rough idea of the basic plot, but the book is better.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Face is Familiar

It is that time of year again. The blockbusters of summer are giving way to the Oscar candidates of October. This year, there a is film that is gaining a lot of attention, and one actress in particular. To most Americans, Carey Mulligan is an unknown who has come out of nowhere to steal the "Best Actress" spotlight. Her film "An Education" is getting rave reviews and winning awards at numerous film festivals. But those of us who who watch Masterpiece Classic have been watching Carey for a few years now, and it should have come as no surprise that she would one day catch the world's eye.

Us Anglophiles have been watching her from her beginning as Kitty Bennett in Pride and Prejudice to the sweet and beautiful Ada Clare in Bleak House to the conniving Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey.

Her sudden leap to American stardom does raise an interesting thought. With her potential Oscar nomination, Sally Hawkins' (Persuasion) Golden Globe win last year, as well as Kate Winslet's (Sense and Sensibility) Oscar win, one begins to think that the British are beginning to gain a foothold in the American film industry. And we are not talking just British actors in American films. An Education stars many faces that British Film fans will recognize like Domonic Cooper (Sense and Sensibility), Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice), Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility, The Remains of the Day), and Olivia Williams (Emma). Hopefully this will mean that I will get to see more and more of my favorite actors and actresses on the silver screen. Hmmm...Richard Armitage on the big that's worth a $9 movie ticket!

Monday, October 19, 2009


"I see soft, slow clouds oozing across the blue, me big black chickens hanging up there, and a great feather softly sliding down. I see mighty trees, swinging vines, bright flowers, and always masses of the wild roses, with the wild rose face of me Ladybird looking through. I see the swale rocking, smell the sweetness of the blooming things, and the damp, mucky odors of the swamp; and hear me birds sing, me squirrels bark, the rattlers hiss, and the step of Wessner or Black Jack coming; and whether it's the things that I loved or the things that I feared, it's all part of the day."

Gene Stratton-Porter was many things in her 61 year life. She was an author, an amateur naturalist, a photographer, and an activist. Her love of nature and it's many beauties permeated all of her work. Though her first love was writing books on the study of nature, it was her romantic novels that both funded those projects and made her famous, both then and now.

The Plot:

Raised from infancy in an orphanage in Chicago, young Freckles is ignorant of both his name and his heritage. After he runs away from the harsh family that "adopted" him, he seeks work with Mr. McLean, a wealthy timber man who, despite Freckles' youth and missing hand, decides to give the young man a shot. He assigns him to guard the valuable trees in the Limberlost, a large and dangerous swamp in Indiana.

But the Limberlost is not without its beauties, and Freckles soon loses himself in its charms. He makes many friends from the many birds in the area to the Bird Woman who documents them to the beautiful and gay Swamp Angel. As time passes, evil continuously threatens both Freckles and the Limberlost itself. It will take all of Freckles' strength, courage, and nobility to defeat those who seek his ruin and win the heart of the Angel he has come to love.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I have classified this novel as Children's Literature, though Young Adult might be more appropriate. It is fairly easy reading, but is probably most interesting for those about 12 years old and up. Though it is very clear that this novel was written in the early 1900s, you can't help but like it in many ways.

First off, Freckles is the kind of person that you just have to root for. He has had a lot of bad luck in his young life, but none of that stops him. He gives everything he has for those he loves. More than anything, he craves Mr. McLean's respect and trust and literally lays his life on the line to earn them. No, he's probably not the most realistic portrait of a nineteen year old man, but he is a character that you can look up to and respect.

What really sets this novel off though is the way the Limberlost is portrayed. Stratton-Porter's love of nature really shines through and makes the Limberlost a character in and of itself. It fact, you could almost say the Limberlost is the most developed character in the story. I love how Stratton-Porter describes it in its many seasons from bleak winter to blossoming spring. Her words really evoke a feeling that is breathtaking and hard to describe. I'm not exactly what you might call a "nature lover", but this story really makes me appreciate the beauty that I see out my window everyday.

Now, I do have a few problems with this story. I've already mentioned that many of the characters seem sort of flat, they are either 100% good or 100% evil. But my biggest beef is how Stratton-Porter works out Freckles' heritage. Yes, it's cool that he is descended from Irish nobles, but Stratton-Porter seems to argue that he couldn't have been anything else. She basically says that Freckles couldn't have been as true and noble as he was if his family hadn't been highborn and honest. That isn't necessarily true, for many people have risen above their family history to achieve greatness. I just think it would have made the story a bit easier to swallow if his family had been poor and he had risen above them. Not to mention it would have been nice to see Angel give herself to him even in his poverty.

These are not major problems, however, and the book is still a nice read. For its noble hero and for its portrayal of nature's beauties, Freckles is a refreshing story for young and old, and one that I think many will enjoy.

The Movie:

There are actually quite a few versions of "Freckles" on film, the earliest being from 1917. The 1928 version actually stars Gene Stratton-Porter herself as the Swamp Angel.

The only version I have seen was actually released under the title of City Boy.
It only takes the bare bones of the plot and not even really that. It's not a bad "made for tv" movie, it's just not a very accurate portrayal of Stratton-Porter's original.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I'm Back

Sorry for the prolonged absence everyone. Life has gotten a bit crazy around here. Anyway, here are a few tidbits of what has been happening in the past few weeks.

  • A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to spend a week in Washington D. C. We went all over and saw so many wonderful and interesting things. As a bookworm, a trip to the Library of Congress was a must, and what an amazing place it is. First off, the architecture, both inside and out, is simply stunning. The ceiling in the main gallery is beautifully painted and the names and statues of various authors are everywhere. Besides the artwork, there were some pretty amazing things on display like the Gutenberg Bible, early American maps, and books from Thomas Jefferson's library (that is what the picture in this post is of). I found Jefferson's library to be particurealy interesting. He had books from literally every genre imaginable, from medicine and theology to history and botany. I also loved how the building itself just exuded history and learning and how the marble steps are worn from the many feet that have climbed them in pursuit of knowledge. If you ever get to go to D. C., be sure to make this one of your stops.
  • Did you hear about the Winnie-the-Pooh sequel? Over 80 after The House at Pooh Corner, David Benedictus will be picking up where A. A. Milne left off with Return to the Hundred Acre Wood. Michael Brown of the Trustees of the Pooh Properties (the original books' trustees) said "We hope the many millions of Pooh enthusiasts and readers around the world will embrace and cherish these new stories as if they had just emerged from the pen of A. A. Milne himself." We'll have to see if this new book can recaptrue the magic of the originals.
  • I've got books stacking up that need to be reviewed. Be on the lookout for reviews of Freckles, A Girl of the Limberlost, and Captain Blood coming soon.
  • This week marks the 2 year anniversary of "Complete and Unabridged". Thank you so much to my readers and commenters. I am humbled by your participation. You can read my first post here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which are frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you...And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too.

-from If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

Monday, September 7, 2009

Weekly Geeks 2009-34: Reviews and Ratings

Shannon Hale (author of Austenland and The Actor and the Housewife, as well as many other books) recently posted on her blog about reviewing books. Take a moment to go read her post, in which she talks about going beyond saying simply whether or not you liked a book when writing a review.

It's funny, because the first thing that I thought of when I read Shannon's post was that line from Anton Ego's review in the film Ratatouille: "But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so." This really helps you keep your reviewing in perspective! Anyway, this is a great topic, so onto the questions.

Do you find that the anticipation of reviewing the book has changed your reading experience?

In a way, it has changed, but I'm not sure if that is due only to the fact that I am now reviewing books, or whether my maturing as a reader has also played a large role in it. I used to read for the story alone, not really paying attention to the various themes hidden within it. Now, I really try to focus not just on the plot itself, but also what the author is trying to say through the plot. This has helped me get so much more out of the books that I read.

Are you rating the book even as you read? Or do you wait until the end to sum it all up?

I have found that it is best to wait until you have finished a book before you make the final call. Some books like The Three Musketeers and Peace Like a River really have to be finished before you can fully appreciate them. There are even times when I wait a couple of days to rate a book so that I can mull it over and reflect.

Does knowing you'll be reviewing it (or rating it) publicly affect which books you pick up in the first place?

No. I read what I want to read, I just happen to review them. Since I naturally lean towards the classics, that is what shows up on my blog.

Does the process of writing the review itself change how you felt about the book?

It doesn't necessarily change how I feel about the book, but it often helps me collect my thoughts and get a clear view of what exactly I did think about it. In fact, when I reviewed The Moviegoer, it wasn't until I actually sat down and wrote up the review that I really understood what the author had been trying to say.

What is your motivation to assign a rating to a book and declare it to the world?

Though I love having readers on my blog, it is really for my personal benefit. It's a great way to look back and see how I have grown both as a reader and a reviewer. It's also a great outlet to simply write down my feelings about certain books. Also, I love discussing the books that I have read, so this is a great way to engage meaningful discussion about the different stories.

If you review a book but don't rate, why not? What do you feel is your role as reviewer?

I have chosen not to rate books here on my blog because I would hate to discourage someone from reading a book that they might actually enjoy (I do rate on but that is mainly for my reference). How often do you decide NOT to read something based on ratings when you might actually love it. I feel that my role as a reviewer is to give you the basics, tell you how I reacted to them, and let you decide from there whether or not it is something that you might be interested in. It is only if I REALLY like a book that I am going to tell you to definitely read it. I also hope to serve as a place for readers to discuss their favorite works.

The role of the reviewer is an important one. There are many books that I have read based on other peoples' reviews. But we should never say that ours is the final word. Our job is simply to say how we reacted to a work, not to tell others that they should or should not read it. There are probably many people out there who detest Jane Eyre just as I am sure that their are many who found The Moviegoer to be life changing. And that is what makes our beautiful literary world go round. Great topic WG!

Friday, September 4, 2009

As I Lay Dying

"As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades." -from The Odyssey by Homer

William Faulkner is considered by many to be one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, as well as one of the most important Southern writers along with Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, and Robert Penn Warren. His winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature brought him to the forefront of American literature, and his fifth novel As I Lay Dying consistently ranks high among the best American novels of all time.

The Plot:

Addie Bundren is dying. As she lays in her bed, her family and friends surround her, each with a different reaction to her passing. After her death, the family sets out to bury her with her kin in Jefferson. As they travel, many things impede their way from flash floods to a barn burning. The story is told through the eyes of the many characters who inhabit this novel, from the intellectual Darl to self-centered Anse to the deceased Addie herself. Will Addie ever be buried, and will it bring the family peace?

My Review (Caution-Spoilers!):

William Faulkner is one of those authors whom I have avoided out of sheer cowardice. Many critics say that he is one of the greatest American authors simply because the majority of readers have no clue what he is talking about. And at first, I was ready to agree with them.

The way the story is told takes a lot of getting used to. Like James Joyce, Faulkner is one of the pioneers of "stream of consciousness" writing. Basically, we are reading each character's thoughts as they are thinking them. This can make it very hard to follow at times, especially since many of the characters thoughts seem to have no connection to each other. But after awhile, Faulkner's writing grows on you. They cease to be random words and instead take on a beauty and flow of their own.

Basically, it isn't that the average reader is incapable of understanding, its just that Faulkner is not going to serve the meanings to you on a silver platter. You have to work for it. There is a story that a reader once approached Faulkner and said "I have read this particular novel of your three times and I still don't get it!" Faulkner's reply was "Read it a fourth time."

What struck me the most was how you could really tell that Flannery O'Connor read a lot of Faulkner's works. The style of writing, the portrayal of poor white Southerners, the grotesqueness, and the dark humor all appear in O'Connor's writing much as it does in Faulkner's.

Now, for all of the seriousness and character studies, this novel is also very funny. Not witty ala Jane Austen, but darkly humorous. Really, the whole thing is just so absurd that you can't help but laugh hysterically. The fact that Anse won't work because he believes that he'll die if he breaks a sweat? Hilarious! Addie having to be buried in her coffin upside-down to accommodate her wedding dress? Brilliant! The family traveling nine days to bury Addie only to find out that they had forgotten the shovel? I think I just squirted drink out my nose! It's moments like these that keep the work from sinking into complete darkness.

All in all, I think that I have gained a healthy respect for Falkner, though the novel did leave me with many questions. Is Darl really crazy, or is he the most sane one in the bunch? What really causes Vardaman to connect his mother with a dead fish? When is someone going to punch Anse's lights out like he deserves? I guess the only solution is to do what Faulkner himself suggested: read it again.

If you're putting off Faulkner because you are scared like I was, don't. You may like it, you might not, but it is definitely worth finding out.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Weekly Geeks 2009-33: Book Collections

Last year, I saw a movie, I think it was called Definitely, Maybe, that got me to thinking. In this movie, one of the girls was on a quest to find a particular copy of Jane Eyre, I forget now the specific reason why. But in the process of her search, she ended up with this massive collection of Jane Eyre books, from all sorts of places and years and styles. She had a shelf that went all the way around her room, filled with these wonderful Jane Eyre books.

It made me wish I had a collection like hers, a collection of one particular title, in all it's various versions.

So, Weekly Geeksters, tell us, do you have a collection, (or are you starting a collection,) of one particular book title? If so, what's your story? Why that book, and how many do you have, and what editions are they? Share pictures and give us all the details.

Or perhaps you dream about starting such a collection. What title would it be and what would it take for you to get motivated to start collecting?

Or maybe it's the works of a particular author you collect (or want to collect) instead a certain book title

Alright, so the idea of having shelves full of different versions of Jane Eyre sounds like heaven on earth to me, but unfortunately, I don't think I have the room for that as of now. Maybe one day.

Right now, I don't collect one specific title, but I do collect old books. I'm actually a sucker for them. I love going into antique stores and searching through their stacks of old books in order to find those little gems. My library has also been a great resource for finding older books for sale. Here is a glimpse at my collection:

  • 1930s-1940s Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • 1939 Captain Horatio Hornblower Books 1-3 by C. S. Forester (Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours)
  • 1923 The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • 1910-1920s The Crossing by Winston Churchill
  • 1911 Our Mutual Friend parts 1 & 2 by Charles Dickens
  • 1902 Aeneid by Virgil
  • 1896 Complete Works of Alfred Tennyson by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  • 1888 Life of Mahomet by Washington Irving
What makes these books so interesting is that you know that each one has it's own story. I especially love it when there is a name inscribed on the inside, because it gives you a sense of history. It's as if that previous owner has entrusted you with a much loved book, and expects you to love and care for it as they did. It is just another example of how classic literature can connect people through generations.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Remember These?

Unfortunately, we still have to wait about 4 more months until a new season of Masterpiece Classic begins. To hold us until then, here is an episode of another wonderful show, Monsterpiece Theatre hosted by the immortal Alistair Cookie. With such classic adaptations as "Me, Claudius", "The 39 Stairs", and "The Old Man and the C", who wouldn't love to spend the rest of the year immersed in these great stories. Here is one of my personal favorites: "1 Flew Over Cuckoo's Nest"

Friday, August 21, 2009

Gone with the Wind

"We bow to the inevitable. We’re not wheat, we’re buckwheat! When a storm comes along it flattens ripe wheat because it’s dry and can’t bend with the wind. But ripe buckwheat’s got sap in it and it bends. And when the wind has passed, it springs up almost as straight and strong as before. We aren’t a stiff-necked tribe. We’re mighty limber when a hard wind’s blowing, because we know it pays to be limber. When trouble comes we bow to the inevitable without any mouthing, and we work and we smile and we bide our time. And we play along with lesser folks and we take what we can get from them. And when we’re strong enough, we kick the folks whose necks we’ve climbed over. That, my child, is the secret of the survival.”

Gone with the Wind
may be Margaret Mitchell's only novel, but it also one of the most popular of all time and even finds itself on TIME magazine's TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list. It is a story of the American South, of the harsh aftermath of the Civil War, and of four people and how they react to the great change that rocks their world to its core.

The Plot:

It is April of 1861 and Scarlett O'Hara is the belle of her Georgia county. She is high-spirited, flirty, and extremely spoiled. Her current goal is to get nearby Southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes to marry her, and not his cousin Melanie Hamilton, whom Scarlett sees as a weakling. At a barbecue, Scarlett gets Ashley to confess a love for her, but he refuses to break off his engagement to Melanie. After their encounter, Scarlett meets Rhett Butler, a Charleston man who is no longer accepted in "good society", and who has overheard her conversation. She is furious and embarrassed, but he laughs the situation off. News then comes that war has been declared and many of the men enlist, including Ashley, who is now married to Melanie.

The rest of the story follows Scarlett through the heartbreak and terror of the war, the sickness and starvation of its immediate aftermath, and the brutality and horror of reconstruction. From the burning of Atlanta to Sherman's "March to the Sea", the Old South begins to crumble all around Scarlett, and she begins a desperate quest for survival, both for herself and for Tara, the plantation home she loves.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Gone with the Wind is one of those stories that you think you know a lot about, even if you haven't read it. I mean, if you've seen the movie, there's no need to read the book right? Wrong! While the movie is good, it lacks the depth of character that the book has. By reading the book, you are not just seeing what the characters do, but also why they do it. This can change your perception of many of the characters, and that is exactly what it did for me. If it is nothing else, Gone with the Wind is a tribute to the South, both old and new. All of the beauties and flaws of the region are displayed and personified and each of the four main characters represents different aspects of the South.

Scarlett is a mixture of both the old and the new South, and is probably the one who best personifies the region's transition from leisurely, to desperate, to opportunistic. She just might be one of literature's most complicated protagonists. On the one hand, there are times when you absolutely HATE her. She is more than willing to back-stab absolutely anybody in order to gain what she wants, and she makes her decisions without regard to either honor or kindness. On the other hand, you have to her admire her strength, her determination, and her ability to adapt. By the end of the story, you neither hate or nor love her, you simply pity her. Like Rhett, you really "don't give a d**n."

Rhett is also a mixture of old and new. He aligns himself with the "Old Guard", the speculators, the Yankees...whoever suits his immediate purpose. Unlike Scarlett, however, he still has a healthy respect for the Old South. He realizes that those days are gone and so adapts himself, but he still loves their beauties and traditions and both times that he leaves Scarlett, it is to go in search of them.

Ashley is purely of the Old South. He is the quintessential Southern gentleman. He is a great rider, a lover of the arts, and a member of an old and established family. But just as the war shatters the existence of the Old south, so does it shatter Ashley's. Like Rhett he is nostalgic over the past, but unlike Rhett, he cannot thrive in the New South. He refers to the end of the war as a Gotterdammerung ("twilight of the gods") and is unable to adapt to his new position in the world. By he end of the novel, his weakness and incompetency is obvious even to Scarlett, who realizes that it was not Ashley himself that she loved, but the comfort and glory of the Old South he represented.

Melanie represents the quiet strength and kindness of the real Southern woman. She is the strength behind everyone she meets. She is the one who keeps Ashley going after the war, she is the one who comforts Rhett after Scarlett's accident and Bonnie's death, and she is the one who protects Scarlett from the attacks of the "Old Guard". The most telling portrait of who she is is when Scarlett kills the Yankee soldier and turns to see the frail Melanie carrying her father's old sword, ready to defend her family even in her weakness. Her death causes the final breaking up of the other three characters. "She was seeing through Rhett's eyes the passing not of a woman, but a legend - the gentle, self-effacing but steel-spined woman on whom the South had builded its house in war and to whose proud and loving arms it had returned in defeat."

I guess that I should now address the subject that always pops up when this book is discussed. Racism and class distinction. Yes, it is there, but there are two things that take the sting out of it. First off, you have to remember that this book was written in the 1930s when racism was still an accepted way of life. It is also set in the south during the Civil War, so it would be ridiculous to give modern sensibilities to a society that would not have possessed them. Secondly, for every character that is generalized according to race or station, there is at least one who defies it. There is Mammy who, though "only" a slave, possess the ability to clearly see the motives of those around her and is a support to Scarlett throughout the novel. There is also Will who, though a "Cracker" (a lower-class white), is the one person who is able to help Scarlett get Tara back on its feet. He also, like Rhett, understands Scarlett and why she does what she does and neither praises nor judges her.

Gone with the Wind is definitely a classic of 20th century literature. With complicated characters, a sweeping plot, and a love for the South, it is no wonder that this story is loved by so many. It is a stunning tribute to the beauty and vitality of the American South. I'd like to dedicate this review to both my mom and my grandma, both of whom love this novel. I think that the tradition has continued.

The Movie:

Chances are that more of you have seen the movie version of Gone with the Wind than have actually read the book. It was made in 1939 and stars Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, and Olivia de Havilland. As far as movie making goes, it is a wonderful production that makes you forget that it was made so long ago as 1939. The acting is flawless, the costumes are beautiful, and the burning of Atlanta is spectacular. The only problem is that you are not really allowed to delve into the characters, many of whom are only surface copies of their novel counterparts. It is definitely worth watching and provides some of the most memorable lines and scenes in movie history.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Books For Our Times

A few weeks ago, Newsweek published an article entitled "What to Read Now. And Why." It is a list of fifty books that the people at the magazine feel everyone should read in order to gain a comprehensive view of the times we are living in. So what book was deemed to be the most important book in understanding our times? Well, it wasn't the latest Obama biography. It wasn't a book by Warren Buffett. It wasn't even written in this century. It was Anthony Trollope's classic novel The Way We Live Now.

"We know it's insane. We know people will ask why on earth we think that an 1875 British satirical novel is the book you need to read right now—or, for that matter, why it even made the cut."

To me, this a perfect example of what a classic is. It is a book that is as relevant and inspiring today as when it was first written, be it a decade ago or a millennium ago. There are quite a few classics that pop up on Newsweek's list. Here they are along with the reason they were chosen:

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope:
The title says it all. Trollope's satire of financial (and moral) crisis in Victorian England even has a Madoff-before-Madoff, a tragic swindler named Augustus Melmotte.

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor: Stories of the New South, Christ-haunted and out of control, are as scary as they were when published in 1955. "Shut up, Bobby Lee, it's no real pleasure in life."

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: There's no better season to read the Great American Poem than summer, and no better place than the outdoors for savoring its charms, both contemplative ("I lean and loafe at my ease") and ecstatic ("Mad naked summer night!").

The Mississippi Books by Mark Twain:
When Twain turned his attention to the river that ran by his hometown, what was just run-of-the-mill genius in his other books took on a special Krypton-proof dazzle. Think of these as one book, or three ways of telling the same, very American, very tragicomic story.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: In an age of bioengineering, Shelley's novel about a scientist and his creation is especially unsettling-and its message about the necessity of companionship and sympathy is especially urgent.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie: "To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world," says the protagonist of Rushdie's freewheeling, fanciful allegory of modern India. Published in 1981, Midnight's Children delivers just the opposite: the world through the life of a young man.

Kim by Rudyard Kipling: A boy orphaned in war becomes a junior spy for the English in Pakistan and Central Asia. Kipling's portrait of a quagmire is eerily contemporary.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Moviegoer

"It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace: coming for the one and receiving the other as God's own importunate bonus? It is impossible to say."

Published in 1961, Southern writer Walker Percy's first novel is also his most famous and widely praised work. The Moviegoer plays out many of the existentialist themes of writers like Soren Kierkegaard, and focuses on man and his quest to find meaning in a seemingly boring and empty life.

The Plot:

Binx Bolling is a young stock-broker in post-war New Orleans. Though he is successful in his career, other circumstances, such as his traumatic experience in the Korean War, have left him feeling disconnected from his own life. He has a hard time connecting with those around him and finds more meaning in short flings with his secretaries and watching movies than in anything else.

In the days following Mardi Gras, Binx embarks on an undefined search, wandering around New Orleans, Chicago, and the Gulf Coast at once desiring to define himself, and also to remain open and anonymous.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Walker Percy is a name that had been popping up in my world of reading a lot in the last year or so, and I found his novel to be at once intriguing and frustrating. This is not a work that is for everyone. If you are someone who thrives on plot and action, don't even bother to pick this one up. Even the climax is so laid back that I pretty much missed it. This is a novel of reflection, of searching, and of definition.

The thing that Percy seems to focus on the most throughout this story is the idea of defining oneself. It is the one thing that Binx is afraid of, as if by defining himself he is forever regulating himself to a boring and one-dimensional existence. Instead, he chooses to lose himself in movies, living many different lives vicariously through the characters on the screen. He also is apathetic about his work, his religion, his culture, and his relationships (especially with women). It is in these four areas and how they define us that Percy particularly explores.

First, there is the area of work. Binx gave up his medical and research studies because he did not want to be defined as a "researcher". Then there is religion, which Binx barely gives lip-service to because he hates being defined as a Catholic. Then we have culture. Binx is constantly trying to distance himself from the upper-class society of New Orleans as personified by Aunt Emily (indeed, Percy puts quite a bit of emphasis on the defining powers of place and society). Finally, we have relationships which Binx shirks with a vengeance. The idea of being defined as a son, a brother, a nephew and a lover almost horrifies him.

So, here we have a man who is on a search for meaning and purpose in life. He sees all of these defining elements ("everyday life") to be chains that will hold him back from discovering these things. And yet, these very elements are the things that will help him find what he is looking for. Binx is a researcher, a Catholic, a Southerner, a son, a brother, and a lover. These things are what give him purpose. And that seems to be Percy's point. Our identities, rather than holding us back, push us forward in life. We are not left aimlessly wandering through this world because the things that define us also give us direction. We will know which way to go because we know who we are.

The Moviegoer itself is light and poetic reading and clocking in at only 200 or so pages, it is a very easy to get through. But as I said, it is not for everyone. I found it to be an interesting read, but I'm not going crazy over it. I can see as how people can claim that this novel changed their life, but I'm not one of them. Is it a must-read? No, but I'm still glad that I did.