Wednesday, December 12, 2012

There and Back Again... Again

Currently Reading: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

My first exposure to The Hobbit came when I was probably around six years old. I was somehow forced to watch this version:

Bilbo Baggins in the cartoon version of The Hobbit

Naturally, I decided that hobbits were some of the creepiest creatures ever imagined and I began to believe that Tolkien had a rather twisted mind. To this day, I find this cartoon version of The Hobbit to be one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. Its on par with The Last Unicorn cartoon, an animated movie that has scarred every person of my generation.

The first time I actually read The Hobbit, it was assigned reading for my 8th grade English class. And it was one of the most miserable reading experiences of my life.

It was a Sunday in September. In fact, it was my 13th birthday. I was still floating on the high of spending my birthday weekend with my friends, giggling and having fun in the obnoxious, immature way that only 13 year-olds know how to. We’d gone to see Sweet Home Alabama and during the movie, I had successfully held hands with my crush du jour, making me silly with butterflies until that Sunday. My weekend had been one of my more perfect birthday celebrations and I had absolutely no interest in coming down from my high, especially not on my actual birthday.

My English teacher evidently had had other plans for my birthday weekend. She had piled us with homework that weekend. I don’t remember all of the specifics of the assignments, but I do remember that assignment was plural and that at the center of my suffering was – you guessed it – Mr. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I believe we were expected to read something like ten chapters over the weekend on top of two other assignments. Again, the exact parameters of the assignment escape me now. The irrational anger and extreme agitation I felt, do not.

I’ve always been a rather slow reader and at the time I was much slower given that I was, well, 13 and my attention span for reading even slightly challenging books was not particularly high. The ten chapters took me all day. I’m pretty sure I settled into our living room couch around noon and didn’t finish the assignment until about 6 PM.

And I couldn’t even breathe a sigh of relief. I still had all the rest of my homework which to contend. Never mind all of my other classes. I still had English homework to complete. The glow of my lovely birthday weekend was extinguished entirely by the obscene amount of schoolwork I was forced to do on my actual birthday.

The injustice of it all!

In my self-centered 13-year-old brain, I was still convinced that the world should have the decency to stop and relax in observance of the holiday that was my birthday. Shouldn’t teachers know not to assign any work on my birthday? Seriously, my birthday girl rights were being violated.

Guess I was doing my best impression of this girl.

To add insult to injury, the next day I arrived in my English class, completely disgruntled, only to hear my teacher proclaim:

“I realized over the weekend that I assigned an unrealistic amount of homework, so if you didn’t get through all The Hobbit reading, it’s OK.”

My classmates exhaled a sigh of relief. “Thank God!” they whispered, “I only got through about half the reading!”

I was dumbfounded! Even more than that, I was furious. My birthday had been wasted and it didn’t have to be?? I didn’t have to suffer through all that reading??

I’m fairly certain I saw red.

At the center of my rage sat The Hobbit. If that damn Tolkien hadn’t written such a tedious, wordy book with ridiculous songs and riddles, it wouldn’t have taken me so damn long to read it and birthday bliss could have been mine!!

And for years, this has been the impression of The Hobbit that I’ve carried around. I have firmly hated it and have believed it to be long winded with uninteresting characters and a plot that dragged. In a way, this belief has kept me from reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy, despite the knowledge that they are by far my mother’s favorite and most re-read books. I just couldn’t forgive Tolkien for “ruining” my 13th birthday.

Now, 10 years later, I feel terrible about the abusive reviews I’ve given this novel.

I’m so glad I re-read this novel because the second reading has completely changed my opinion of it. In fact, I’m stunned by my previous assessments now, particularly my firm belief that the novel was incredibly slow paced. I could not disagree with this conclusion more. The story actually progresses at an extremely quick rate. This makes sense given it’s a children’s book and a fast pace is key to maintaining a child’s attention. But still, the speed of the plot floored me initially. I mean Bilbo is on the road beginning his adventure by the end of the first chapter for Pete’s sake! In an adult book, it would have taken at least twice as long! Additionally, I was somewhat surprised to discover that every chapter had a key plot point in it, another writing choice hardly ever made in adult books. In fact, every chapter almost had a stand-alone story within it, making it easier for a parent to read one chapter aloud before bed – as my sister pointed out. I guess given my choice of reading material these days, I had forgotten what it was like to read a book targeted for a much younger audience.

That wasn’t the only thing I’d forgotten.

Honestly, I had forgotten pretty much the entirety of The Hobbit’s plot. I remembered the bit with the trolls discussing the various ways to kill Bilbo and I vaguely remembered the part in which Bilbo meets Gollum, but other than that, I realized I remembered almost nothing. I’m fairly embarrassed at how new the book felt, despite the fact that I was reading it for the second time. I guess I didn’t really absorb much of the book through my indignation the first time around since the parts I remember occur in the third and fifth chapters. Apparently, I might as well have enjoyed my birthday for the amount I actually read.

But I’m glad I’ve read it again. It’s reading experiences like this one that remind just why it’s not a waste of time to re-read a novel. Yes, chances are my “to-read” stack of books will always be piling up towards the ceiling, but sometimes, it’s worth it to revisit something in the “already-read” pile. If I hadn’t, I would have continued to believe that I hate Tolkien when really, I now understand why he’s so beloved. I can’t wait to finally read The Lord of the Rings now!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Book Recommendations for Your Reading Lists

Currently (Re-) Reading: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

So I know I’ve overloaded everyone with blog posts in the last week, but I’m absolutely determined to meet this goal of nine posts in November! Probably because I have a bad record for following through on goals I set for myself. However, I’ve decided to use this last November post to give some recommendations and summaries of my favorite books as an easier read from which you will hopefully benefit.

Or maybe I’m just copping out because I have actually caught up with blogging on all the books I’ve read since I started Novel Ideas and I didn’t leave myself enough time to write a worthy post on another book-related topic… You can be the judge.

Here are three book recommendations for you with the summaries from their back covers.

1. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

“Barcelona, 1945: A city slowly heals from its war wounds, and Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son who mourns the loss of his mother, finds solace in a mysterious book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julian Carax. But when he sets out to find the author’s other works, he makes a shocking discovery: someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book Carax has written. In fact, Daniel may have the last of Carax’s books in existence. Soon Daniel’s seemingly innocent quest opens a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets – an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love.”

Yes, I’ve mentioned this book recently and yes, it is so good it’s worth bringing up once again. Like I’ve said, it’s a gripping story that has one hell of a shock ending. Plus, Zafon’s writing is just beautiful! He has an unbelievable ability to create imagery that’s so vivid and originally described. It makes me pea green with envy because I will never be able to write that well. His writing is even more impressive because this book was originally written in Spanish. That’s right. You’re reading a translation. Makes me wish I could read Spanish just so I could get the full effect of his writing. I highly recommend this book and the other novels in the set, The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven.

2. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
(My copy doesn’t have a summary on the back cover so this is my brief summary)

Jacob Jankowski is a student at veterinary school about to finally earn his degree when he receives the devastating news that both his parents have been killed in a car accident. His life is further turned upside down by the discovery that they left Jacob with a mountain of debt that forces him to sell his father’s veterinary practice and his childhood home. In the midst of a breakdown, Jacob drops out of school and runs away, eventually jumping on a train. He is surprised to find the train belongs to the circus troupe called Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. The ringleader, Uncle Al, learns Jacob has veterinary training and hires the dropout to treat the circus animals. While traveling with the performers, Jacob discovers that behind the colorful, fanciful and spectacular show lurks a dark and dangerous world and Jacob unwittingly places himself in the thick of it when he falls in love with Marlena, the show’s star and the wife of the hot-tempered head-trainer, August.

It’s a fascinating look into the circus culture and a beautiful love story to boot. Furthermore, Gruen’s writing is effortlessly smooth, making it easy for the audience to become thoroughly absorbed in the novel. Another excellent read to add to your own list.

3. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

“By her brother’s graveside, Liesel Meminger’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Grave Digger’s Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.
But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up and closed down.
In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak has given us one of the most enduring stories of out time.”

The last sentence really says a lot about what it so wonderful about this book. It truly is intense and “superbly crafted.” Zusak also makes one of the most unique writing choices I’ve ever encountered and tells the story from the perspective of Death. It sounds like it should be incredibly morbid to read a story told by Death, but he’s a surprisingly entertaining narrator. Warning, this is one of the most amazing, beautiful stories I’ve ever read, but it’s also one of the saddest. If you’re emotional at all, have a box of tissues ready while you read.

These are just three books to add to your own reading lists. Happy reading!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Big Brother is Watching! … His Facebook and Twitter Feeds Now

Currently (Re-) Reading: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

When my Uncle John came to visit while I was reading 1984, he commented that I might find it unsettling how close the state of our country is now to 1984’s dictatorship Oceania. However, I have to disagree with him for the most part.

I’m sure he’s right to a degree that there’s a whole seedy under belly to our government that I don’t know much about – although how he would know, I’m not really sure. It seems likely that the government, along with big commercial companies, monitors our actions and thoughts to an extent. It also seems likely that anyone exhibiting actions consistent with those of a terrorist are apprehended and dealt with probably in a manner that’s a little too similar to the way thought criminals are dealt with in Oceania.

He was also right that both societies lack a severe amount of privacy. However, I would argue that the reasons behind this lack of privacy are so vastly different from each other that it actually makes our society almost the polar opposite of Oceania.

Because instead of keeping our private lives and thoughts as closely guarded to the vest as we can, we revel in sharing everything. And I mean, everything. Between Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, and Twitter, it is almost possible to know literally every thought and bit of personal information about a person. Sometimes, I really wish I couldn’t. I mean, really, do we need to know every single move someone makes in a day? Most likely not.

Also, I recognize that I’m just as guilty as most of my generation and that I participate in this potential over-sharing. My guilt stems more from over documenting via pictures and, of course, via this blog.

But man! Can’t you imagine the Party just drooling at the thought of everyone having a Twitter?

The significant difference between our country and Oceania, though, is the choice to share every bit of privacy with the public. While George Orwell’s characters’ privacy is forcibly taken from them, we just give ours away. We don’t keep our thoughts secret; we share them with people who are often only acquaintances. In fact, our country prides itself on the freedom to speak one’s mind, even if one’s thoughts disparage the government. I point your attention to the most recent presidential election, as evidence. Anyone with a Facebook could see free speech exercised in all its wonderful, angry glory. Statuses like the ones I saw would certainly not fly in Oceania.

The thing is, however annoyed I was with the incessant candidate trashing or the play-by-play statuses, after reading 1984 I’ve come to appreciate it a bit more. There’s a reason this country covets its right to free speech. It’s because it’s so damn important. Without it, a society like Oceania would be possible; a society in which thoughts are not only monitored, but punished and then controlled to the point that a governing force can convince a person almost completely that 2 + 2 = 5, not 4.

On this topic of thought control, the concept of doublethink and the philosophical argument of the nature of reality were some of my favorite parts of the novel – and, in my opinion, the most terrifying. After taking a few sociology and psychology courses in high school and college, this flexibility of reality was actually something I started to wonder about. After all, doesn’t a large part of reality stem from consensual agreement that it is in fact true?

This became especially clear to me in high school when we began learning about the desire to conform in my sociology class and – weirdly – color blindness in my psych class. It dawned on me just how crazy a color blind person must feel until he realizes he’s color blind. I mean, in his reality, red is green or what have you. It’s only from the agreement of everyone around him that he comes to know that his perception of the world is distorted.

But what’s to say he’s wrong about the state of reality? Technically he isn’t, because it’s what’s real for him. Yet at the same time, he is wrong because it’s not the agreed upon reality.

What’s horrifying about this – and what Orwell taps into in this novel – is just how easy it is to change reality given that it apparently exists outside of a person. Think about it. If suddenly an entire school decided to gang up on one student for some sadistic reason and unilaterally decided that 2 + 2 = 5 or that yellow is purple, how long do you think that single student could hold on to his conviction that yellow is yellow or 2 + 2 = 4 before cracking under the social pressure or simply cracking?

Messes with your head, right?

I can’t even imagine how Orwell was able to dissect the topic long enough and clearly enough to write about doublethink and the pliability of reality. It makes me officially retract every negative comment I’ve ever made about him after over-studying Animal Farm. George Orwell, you are indeed impressive.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Real Horrorshow Post About A Clockwork Orange

Currently (Re-) Reading: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

The “Currently Re-Reading” section today is technically not true… I’m not sure I can say “currently” if I haven’t actually cracked the book open yet. I guess I’m in book limbo since I just finished 1984 last night and haven’t started The Hobbit yet. Either way, here’s hoping I finish re-reading it before the movie comes out.

I have a second somewhat tangential topic to discuss before diving into my A Clockwork Orange experience. Between Jane Eyre and A Clockwork Orange, I actually read two other books. These books were pseudo sequels to one of my all-time favorite novels, The Shadow of the Wind. They center on the same characters and the same mysterious library called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Barcelona, but supposedly they can stand alone i.e. you don’t have to read the others to understand or enjoy one of them. Following The Shadow of the Wind, the author, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, wrote The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven. After reading all about the epic romance of the passionately moral Jane Eyre, I thus entered the mysterious, dangerous streets of Barcelona with the tormented David Martin in The Angel’s Game and then The Prisoner of Heaven.

I’ve opted not to dedicate an entire blog post to either of these Zafon novels, despite how thoroughly I enjoyed them because the topics I wanted to discuss would have revealed far too much about these keep-you-guessing, twisted stories. I’ve used spoiler alerts, but I don’t know how effective they are and frankly, most of the time I expect the people reading my blog to have already read what I’m discussing since they are classic English class reading. With The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven, I don’t expect as high a readership and I absolutely would not want to ruin these books because if you haven’t read them or The Shadow of the Wind, you definitely should. They are gorgeously written and are intriguing, compelling, lovely, and disturbing stories with lots of surprise twists. I would hate to deprive anyone of the experience of reading them without knowing what will come next.

That being said, if you have read any or all of these books, I would love, love, love to discuss them!

Moving on…

WARNING: this post contains spoilers for A Clockwork Orange. If you haven’t read it, you should probably stop reading.

Now, there is a reason I mentioned the Carlos Ruiz Zafon novels even though I don’t intend to spend a full post on them. Besides wanting to recommend them to the world, these books definitely colored my reading of A Clockwork Orange.

Allow me to elaborate.

With most popular or classic novels, it’s hard not to hear something about them before reading them. In the case of A Clockwork Orange, everything I heard about it was how disturbing a story it was. I was actually fairly nervous about reading it because I don’t have the strongest of stomachs nor do I have nerves of steel. Therefore, I was convinced that A Clockwork Orange would be more than I could handle, pathetic a confession as that may be.

However, I was both relieved and disappointed to discover that it didn’t live up to my gruesome expectations.

I firmly believe that I wasn’t as appalled as most by the atrocious acts in A Clockwork Orange because I had just finished The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven. Crazy as it may seem, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s story was so twisted and messed with my head so much that Anthony Burgess could hardly top it. However, I don’t know if this was one of those instances in which the reality couldn’t possibly live up to the horrible imaginings I had envisioned or if I was somewhat robbed of the real experience of reading A Clockwork Orange.

Admittedly, A Clockwork Orange was really disturbing, even if my previous reading lessened the level of disturbance. What surprised me was that it wasn’t so much the gratuitous violence and sexual abuse that appears primarily at the start of the novel that was upsetting. I mean, it was upsetting, but the truly disturbing part of the story was the idea driving the protagonist’s “reformation.”

In some ways, the theory behind the protagonist’s tortuous process of “reform” sounds reasonable. Plus, the end result is certainly desirable. I mean, why is it so unreasonable to condition a person in such a way that they are physically ill at the sight or even the mention of violence or depravity? After all, isn’t that the “normal” reaction of a person we would consider sane? And it’s just an intense learning technique, right? Why is this so much more horrible than something like putting foul-tasting nail polish on to condition yourself to stop biting your nails? Plus, don’t the ends justify the means? The end result, in theory, is a peace-loving society that literally finds brutality and aggression revolting; everyone would behave like a “good” person in this world.

So where’s the bad?

Sure, it all sounds great… until you find out more about the means to the end. The method of “reformation” is both horrifying and dehumanizing. The reformers strap the person being reformed into a chair and restrain him entirely, including his eyelids, and then force him to watch the most awful, gruesome images available while he’s induced with a medicine that makes him physically ill to the point of torture. The reformers condition the reformed to a point where he will castrate himself at the foot of an aggressor rather than fight or even think about fighting. He’s in so much anguish that he literally throws himself out the window to escape his torment.

Is this really a solution? And more importantly, if someone simply behaves well in society out of a desire to avoid physical pain rather than out of a desire to behave well and do good things, is he really considered a good person? What makes someone good? The good actions/lack of bad actions he does or the choice he makes to do those actions? It’s a fascinating question to examine and I think Anthony Burgess does a great job looking at all the angles.

One of the most interesting and controversial components of A Clockwork Orange, though, is actually connected to this integral question. This is the final chapter of the novel.

As some may know, the final chapter of the book was not included in the American publication of it. Weirdly, the movie adaptation of the novel was based on this incomplete version despite the fact that the director was British, so many people believe that this was how the book was intended to end. The final chapter was also another aspect of the novel I’d heard about and that turned out to be quite the surprise for me. I’d always heard that the final chapter completely changes the message of the whole book and this is, in fact, true. What stunned me, though, was that I firmly expected the extra chapter to leave the novel with a depressing and dark ending and that the American version left it out because it was too awful to subject the more conservative American population to. I honestly always thought the final chapter was the reason for all the censorship of the book.

I could not have been more wrong. In fact, the final chapter was completely the opposite of what I expected. Instead of leaving the reader with a dark, gloomy feeling like A Brave New World, the final chapter proposes a more positive outlook on life. Without the final chapter, people are fundamentally evil and there’s no hope of changing them. With it, an obsession with violence and aggression is simply a childish pursuit and eventually people grow up and recognize the fundamental goodness that’s been dormant in them until then.

I was so surprised that the American editor thought the book was better without it!

Finally, I have to say that I’m surprised this whole post wasn’t mean ranting about the made up slang. Although it initially read like a MadLib gone terribly wrong, I really did get used to it and actually came to find it impressive. So don’t let it turn you off to the book! 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bizarre Life - of Pi - Decisions

Currently Reading: 1984 by George Orwell

I’m committing Novel Ideas treason a little bit today and discussing a movie rather than a book.

The reason I find this mini act of betrayal excusable is that the movie is a film adaptation of one of my favorite books, a book I’ve actually mentioned more than once in my blog to this point, it’s been that significant to me.

Again, this post includes spoilers, both of the book and of the movie so... you've been warned!

On November 21st, Ang Lee released his film adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, Life of Pi. This past holiday weekend, my best friend and I saw it.

As strong lovers of the novel, we both knew we were going to see it at some point, if only out of curiosity. However, we entered the theater with a healthy dose of skepticism, a habit of most avid readers who attend movie versions of their cherished novels given that 9 times out of 10, the movie is far inferior to the book.

This inferiority isn't usually the movie creators’ fault, though. A lot of what makes novels better than movies is that they can provide a more detailed, extensive, and personal experience that no movie can based on logistics alone. Aspects of the story almost always have to be cut in a film adaptation because almost no one will sit through a five-hour movie – even if it meant every loved plot point and character could be included. Furthermore, a movie immediately becomes less personal since it doesn’t allow for imagination; the faces of the characters, the way a monster looks, the landscape are all given instead of created within the individual’s mind. Therefore, if a plotline you love is removed from the movie – I’m looking at you The English Patient – or characters don’t look the way you envisioned them – that’s right Weasley twins from Harry Potter – it’s a lot harder for you to love the movie with the same fervor you loved the book.

In short, the film creator is at a severe disadvantage since his audience is much more critical of his work.

While Life of Pi was not nearly on the level of movie adaptation catastrophe as, say, Ella Enchanted (which I will never forgive that director/screenwriter for!), it still had some directorial choices that I just don’t understand. So I’m venting here.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s not a tremendous amount of action in Life of Pi so I recognize that Ang Lee and David Magee (the screenplay writer) were limited in how action-packed a movie they could make. However, it seemed to me that they decided to spend a disproportionate amount of time on the less interesting aspects of the story. It felt as if Ang Lee was so focused on creating breathtaking visuals that he lost the story. I mean, instead of including the pivotal hallucination that’s actually important to the plot – the first hint that there’s more to the story than first meets the eye – Lee decides to create a fanciful, crazed, glowing vision of fish and zoo animals culminating in a woman’s face and then the wrecked ship at the bottom of the ocean.

Why?? Yes it was beautiful and a good break to the somewhat monotonous scene of Pi in the lifeboat on the ocean endlessly, but why??? Why choose to create this hallucination instead of the one in the story that’s actually relevant?

Then to add to the frustration, after spending about an hour on the repetitive story of Pi’s life at sea, Lee zips right through one of the most fascinating and mysterious parts of the story in about ten minutes. Of course, I’m referring to the illusive meerkat island, the element of the novel that has sparked endless amounts of discussions with my best friend in which we analyze and dissect all the possible meanings for hours. I wish I were exaggerating. Actually, when I heard they were making a movie, I somewhat held on to the fleeting hope that maybe Lee would have gotten together with Martel and be able to explain this bizarre plot point. 

Nope. Lee not only offers no new explanations, he creates absolutely no build up to the big reveal, the fact that the island is carnivorous. Plus, Pi and Richard Parker spend weeks on this island in the novel, but in the movie, they only spend a single night there. Thus there’s no real recovery period and no discovery.

Again, why??? You finally have a great visual and exciting plot point with which to work and you choose not to spend any time on it? Ugh!

My final complaint, and then I will silence myself of the subject, is about Lee’s (or Magee’s, I don’t honestly know who made the choice) addition to the cast of characters. Before leaving India, Pi suddenly has a little love story that appears absolutely nowhere in the novel. In the movie, he becomes bored with his life and then his love, Anandi, brings the change he’s looking for and reinvigorates his life. None of this is necessary in the book because, in the book, Pi’s life is plenty full from his passionate love of religion and God. What’s extra irritating about this addition is that it actually isn’t an addition in any sense to the story. Anandi pretty much never comes up again in the movie. Her relationship with Pi barely impacts his life in the long run and the love story itself doesn’t really add to Lee’s overall message. So why did Lee/Magee decide to waste time on this unimportant, uninteresting puppy love story instead of spending that time explaining meerkat island or adding in the important hallucination or visually explaining the seedy under belly of the story instead of simply having Pi relate it in a monologue?

Overall, the movie wasn’t a gross deviation from the book, which is always a relief, but I’m fairly certain it would be a bore for those who haven’t read the novel or who aren’t fascinating with new visual effects. Therefore, I'm not entirely sure if I would recommend it...

I just don’t understand these choices.

And even worse, I still don’t understand those damn meerkats.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Jane Eyre - the Good and the Bad

Currently Reading: 1984 by George Orwell

First impression of Jane Eyre: my God this book is a lot longer than I always thought it was!

Lasting impression of Jane Eyre: I’m incredibly jealous of Jane Eyre and greatly admire her. However, I am also glad that I don’t live in an era with the same levels of religiosity, propriety and deficient psychology knowledge.

WARNING: This blog post contains some major spoilers so if you haven’t read Jane Eyre, you should probably stop reading now.

I’m jealous of Jane Eyre in two senses. The first is that she is a brilliant role model and has numerous character traits that I wish I also had. She has such an intense fiery spirit that initially makes her slightly volatile and prone to outbursts of restlessness. Yet she eventually masters this fire so that it’s no longer aimlessly raging and instead becomes the fuel necessary to maintain the inner strength required to hold to her convictions and sense of self no matter what. I envy her steadfastness and her ability to remain true to herself and her beliefs in any circumstance, even when it upsets others. I find her constant hopefulness, her discipline, and her goodness admirable and it makes me long to be more like her. I’m jealous of her for not being wishy-washy or overly concerned with others’ opinions, traits she outgrows yet that I cannot shake.

The second reason I’m jealous of Jane Eyre is because of the love she shares with Mr. Rochester. Sorry to be a girl, but I really hope someone loves me the way Mr. Rochester loves Jane Eyre someday. I want to find a relationship like theirs that’s based on respect and shared intellect; a relationship in which we understand each other for who we really are, strengths and flaws included, and love each other for all of it. I hope I find a love like theirs in which it really feels like finding your soul mate. I’m envious of their passion for each other and their ability to not lose themselves entirely in each other while maintaining this passion – a balance I haven’t always been great at striking.

In these ways, I adored reading this novel about growing up and finding your great love.

However, in other ways, this book just reminded me how glad I am that I live in a different time period.

Throughout the story, I was surprised by the large role religion played. Perhaps it’s because my exposure to other novels of this genre – i.e. Wuthering Heights and all of Jane Austen’s novels – largely did not have particularly faithful characters, but I really did not anticipate Jane Eyre to be so religious. I was taken aback when she spent so much time in a repressive, religious school and came out of it with an intense love of God. I was further surprised that she very nearly became a missionary’s wife out of a sense of duty, even though she loved another man. I was stunned (and honestly, a little disappointed) that the last character mentioned in the novel is the overly religious missionary - a character whose faith is intense to a point that Charlotte Bronte does not condone. Despite the fact that he isn’t introduced until more than half way through the novel and that he isn’t ever seen as especially likeable, he’s the one with the last word in the story? It didn’t seem fitting to me. Maybe it was a bothersome element of the novel to me because I’m simply not religious at all, but I’m glad that religion isn’t such a dominant and prevalent force in my life that I feel compelled to throw all my happiness away for the chance to do my duty to God.

I’m also glad that I wasn’t born in an era when propriety was so important. There’s a specific instance in the novel when this became overwhelmingly clear to me. It came after Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester became engaged. Mr. Rochester describes the life he envisions for them, including extravagant adventures to show her all the places she’s wanted to see, showers Jane with gifts, and insists that she will spend more time with him once she’s his wife. To me, and I believe to most women of my era, this sounds incredible!

However, Jane insists that none of this would be proper. She insists that even after they are married, everything should continue as it has been, with her still acting like his inferior rather than his equal. She firmly believes it wouldn’t be proper to do otherwise. Honestly, this sounds insane to me. She wants to get married and not have anything change? She wants to continue acting like her husband’s inferior even though he’s repeatedly told her he finds her to be his only equal (I’m paraphrasing here)? I’m so relieved that I didn’t grow up believing that this was proper.

The last aspect of the novel that made me really, really grateful that I live in the time period I do is Mrs. Rochester.

Again, I repeat that this is a big time spoiler! Just want to make sure you’re warned.

On the day that Jane and her beloved Mr. Rochester are to finally be married – which only comes halfway through the novel so you know something is going to go wrong – Jane discovers the horrifying truth about her betrothed. Turns out, he’s already married and his wife is still alive, living like a caged animal in the attic of his house. When Mrs. Rochester is introduced, she’s an obstacle keeping the protagonists from happiness. She’s a terror, vicious and both homicidal and suicidal. Her character makes Mr. Rochester more sympathetic and makes the reader greatly pity the poor, unknowing and crushed Jane Eyre.

However, I have to admit that I bizarrely felt terrible for Mrs. Rochester. As a sufferer from a mild anxiety disorder (not even close to the ranks of Mrs. Rochester’s illness for the record), I have great sympathy for people who clearly have mental illness in a time when mental illnesses were not understood at all, beyond that it meant they were crazy and broken. Mrs. Rochester appears to suffer from schizophrenia or some other equally intense mental illness and to be treated the way she is seems so dehumanizing. She’s trapped and ignored and literally treated like a rabid animal when she’s suffering in the most awful way possible. I mean, her mind is essentially attacking itself, that’s pretty unbearable. Thus, even though I know that Mrs. Rochester is supposed to be seen as a psychopath – which she is – I still feel sorry for her because if she lived in a different time she’d be viewed very differently.

So… overall impression of Jane Eyre? The good parts outweigh the bad and it’s a wonderful novel worth reading.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"Book Candy" Explained

Currently Reading: 1984 by George Orwell

That’s right! I finished A Clockwork Orange! The slang really did get less challenging, which was an exciting discovery, so I was able to zip right through once I got the hang of it.

What I’d like to discuss today, though, has pretty much nothing to do with A Clockwork Orange… except maybe that they both involve a food analogy…

As many of my close friends know, I’m particularly fond of coming up with really excellent and accurate analogies. Usually, this is a practice I reserve for sorting out relationship troubles or complicated feelings that I can’t quite pin down with a single descriptive word. However, there is one analogy that I use frequently that has nothing to do with boys or angst. This analogy has now become a term I use for novels that fall into a certain category. The term is “book candy,” which I’d now like to take a moment to explain.

Book candy books are the novels that most wouldn’t generally consider “great literature.” They include the novels you find in the bookstore of an airport or in the reading material section of a CVS; the formula books of prolific mystery or fantasy writers; and the trashy romance novels read on the beach or by the pool. Usually, these are the books that are driven more by plots and characters than by ideas. For example, The Da Vinci Code (a piece of book candy) was not written to explore the complex ethical and political dilemmas that arise from the implications of the mystery Robert Langdon discovers about the Catholic church. No, the driving force of the writing is how Robert Langdon discovers the mystery. Again, it is a book that’s about plot more than anything.

Essentially, the common characteristic of book candy is that it’s not all that challenging; it’s effortless, yet enjoyable reading. Some may call them trashy books or what have you, but I proclaim them to be book candy.

Because here’s the thing, these books really are just like candy, but for your brain. They’re satisfying and addictive, but probably not all that good for developing your mental faculties. Plus, for most, these books are especially desired at a younger age because they are so much easier to read, just like candy is more desirable because it’s more delicious. For me, my childhood book candy included the Tamora Pierce books, the Bunnicula series, and the Mercedes Lackey books when I got a little older. I pounded through those series and couldn’t get enough of them, just like when I eat a bag of Skittles.

Now, the reason I prefer “book candy” to “trashy novels” is that I find it to be a much less derogatory term. I don’t believe that most of these books are horribly written or not worth reading. At the very least, they are gloriously compelling and sometimes the plots are quite clever, so to call them “trashy,” I believe demeans the author, which pains me to do as a pathetic-attempt-of-a-writer myself. To call them candy is much better because, let’s face, who doesn’t like candy?? No one abstains from sugar entirely and I firmly believe no one should. Candy is a great treat and comes in so many delectable flavors (although it’s a rule that grape flavor always sucks)! And sometimes, candy is exactly what you need.

It’s the same with book candy. The three series I mentioned and The Da Vinci Code are some of my absolute favorite books – including Bunnicula even though I’m far too old for it now. They were just as great a treat for my mind as candy is for my stomach.

However, part of the reason I like this analogy so much is because it continues to the cautionary side as well. Neither type of candy should be the sole basis of your diet (mental or physical). Candy, delicious and awesome as it may be, will not sustain your body. It will rot your teeth and make you fat if you have too much of it. Likewise, book candy is not enough to sustain your brain. It will make your mind sluggish and rotten if you have too much of it. Thus, you should only consume both types of candy in moderation.

As a kid, I could handle a lot of book and regular candy and, while I still have a pretty impressive sugar tolerance, college caused some pretty big changes in my mental and physical palates. In college, candy and junk food were super accessible and often preferable to the “real food” options. At first, this was amazing! I could eat a bag or two of Runts every day without anyone giving me grief for it! I could consume chocolate mints all through my all-nighters with no one to tell me I couldn’t! Hello freedom!

But the longer you’re in college and away from nutrition, the more you crave real food. There came a time when getting take out from my favorite restaurant – a meal consisting of cilantro-lime chicken, green beans, and buttery-smooth mashed potatoes – was far more satisfying than any sweet I could get my hands on. I came to appreciate real food more than I ever had and to this day, I often would rather fill myself up with my meal and forego dessert.

Similarly, I came to appreciate more savory reading in college. The analogy falters here a bit since in college, book candy was much harder to come by than actual candy. Most of the time you had for reading was occupied by your required reading and book candy hardly ever was consumed. However, the analogy holds because the end result was the same. In being exposed to this banquet of great literature, I came to realize how much more satisfying it was than the easy reading.

However, part of the reason I started this reading project is that it’s really easy to fall back into bad eating/reading habits, especially when you’re working and feeling lazy. This project makes my mind stay sharp and healthy, the same way having a workout regiment or a calorie counter does.

Though don’t be fooled into thinking I won’t indulge in my mental sweets from time to time. After all, candy is still pretty awesome. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Tender Reading

Currently Reading: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Side note: I promise I will make progress on A Clockwork Orange. I’m hoping that it will be one of my November blog posts, but that may have been more ambitious than I had anticipated. It seems it is a novel that is too challenging to begin on the metro – breaking one of my own rules. The fake slang is just really hard to get adjusted and re-adjusted to.

Moving on….

Confession: I actually completely forgot I had read Tender is the Night. I did have the nagging feeling for a while that I had read one more book over the summer than the ones I’ve already blogged about, but as no name or distinct reading memory came to me, I assumed that I was simply thinking of my failed attempt to read An Invisible Man (which is still on my list!). It wasn’t until I was discussing my reading project with a co-worker yesterday and she mentioned that Tender is the Night was on her reading list that I finally remembered that I had, in fact, read it and recently.

I believe the source of this literary amnesia is partly due to an inconsistent reading schedule with far too many breaks and distractions to absorb much of what I read. However, I firmly believe that the more important reason is that the takeaway from Tender is the Night has very little to do with plot and so much to do with the feeling the writing evokes in the reader.

To clarify, I should probably summarize the book a little bit. Full disclosure, I had to look up some summaries before writing this for a bit of a refresher as I could remember the characters and bits of plot, but large chunks of the storyline escaped me. Tender is the Night mainly focuses on the lives of three characters: Rosemary Hoyt, a beautiful, young, and rather sheltered new Hollywood actress, and Dick and Nicole Diver, a seemingly blissfully happy, successful, and charming couple whose marriage contains more tortured and twisted secrets and relationships than appear on the surface. Chief among these secrets are Nicole’s relapses into breakdowns brought on by mental illness she has battled since she was sixteen. The story begins when Rosemary meets the Divers while they are all vacationing in France and she promptly falls in love with Dick and becomes Nicole’s close friend. It then progresses to a flashback sequence that reveals the darker aspects of the Divers’ lives.

The reason I argue that the plot is secondary in this novel is that there are several events that would be massive incidents in other novels, that would stick with me more after reading it, that are basically glossed over in Tender is the Night. Someone is murdered, someone is molested by their father, someone drives her car off the road purposefully, and more than one character has an affair. Again, I barely remembered any of these plot points, plot points that would easily be described as exciting incidents in other novels. I mostly remembered one of the affairs and only because it had such a long build up and then was so anti-climatic when it happened. Instead of feeling any release or excitement or guilt or anything at giving in to his long-standing attraction, the character is almost numb. He's so defeated and broken that nothing can evoke emotions in him any more.

And this emotion was so prevailing throughout the novel, that that's what lingered after I finished reading it. The story didn’t matter. What mattered was the devastating and bleak, yet bittersweet feeling with which it left you. The Divers’ story was especially heart wrenching to experience as both the caregiver and the cared for are so run down and tormented by their situation. Yet they are so in love with each other that breaking free of their dependence – while necessary for Nicole’s mental health – is excruciating even if it is liberating.

These were the powerful aspects of the novel. The “exciting incidents” were completely dwarfed by these overwhelming emotional journeys.

In refreshing my memory, I found information that made these emotions even more poignant for me. It turns out that this novel was much more autobiographical than I had realized. I knew that Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, had suffered a mental illness (schizophrenia), but I’d never really thought about how this must have influenced his life as well. I never knew how broken and defeated Fitzgerald was in the end of his life and how much he thought of himself as a failure. In reading Dick Diver’s story, I had a revealing look into the author’s life.

Which just makes this so much sadder.

Perhaps the real reason I forgot that I read this was self-preservation...

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Art of Reading on the DC Metro

Currently Reading: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Although I’ve been riding the DC metro all my life, most of my experiences with the transportation system have been limited to trips to the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo. However, in the last four months, I have entered into the world of regular metro commuters. Granted, I still don’t ride every day – which is fortunate for my wallet – but I still ride often enough to have acquired some valuable knowledge about how to make the commute less painful. My most effective method for passing the time? Reading a book, of course! Allow me to share what limited insight I might have into the art of reading on the DC metro.

Let me put a disclaimer on this first and say these are hints that are useful for me. Some of them may be useful to you and some of them may make you think I’m crazy. However, I thought I’d share my experience just in case.

For me, like working out, riding the metro without music is excruciating! I swear it makes the trip feel three times longer than it actually is! Now, I recognize that some people are flabbergasted as to how I can read while listening to music, but in as noisy an environment as the metro, it’s a necessity. For me, it’s the white noise I need in order to focus on my book. While classical works for some, it immediately puts me to sleep. However, whatever style you listen to, I just recommend that you don’t choose new music for your reading accompaniment since it will most likely be more of a distraction than the noise you’re trying to block out.

Beyond noise cancellation, there are other important steps to ensuring the optimal environment for your metro reading enjoyment.
  1.  Try your hardest to get a seat! Especially if you have a long commute (i.e. more than 30 minutes). I’m not sure if I just have tremendously terrible balance, but personally, I just cannot read a novel while standing up on the metro. Without fail, I get jostled around a hell of a lot more, which pretty much guarantees that I will lose my place constantly in my book, rendering the attempt at reading utterly useless. Another note on getting a seat: you will be infinitely more comfortable and your personal space won’t be invaded if you get a window seat. Believe me, it’s a lot nicer than occasionally getting jostled right into someone’s butt or crotch.
  2. Before choosing a car on your train, if possible, do a quick survey of the passengers getting on the same car. Avoid the man or woman talking on his or her cell phone because once the train is moving, they will have to essentially yell to be heard – a really unfortunate distraction. Also, avoid small children with all your might! While your music may be able to drown out cell-phone-man to an extent, there are certain pitches that children’s voices hit that just cannot be blocked out by anything. By this, I mean the whine and the shriek, inexplicable noises that a human will never be able to reproduce past the age of 10. Even if the children are mute, they are sure to fidget, a distraction for your eyes.

Now to delve into tips for choosing your reading material. When making this decision, there are a few factors to consider.
  1.  How long is your commute?
  2. How likely is it you will be standing for most of your trip?
  3. How far along in your reading material are you?
  4. How challenging a read is your material?
If you have to stand or if you have a short commute (under 30 minutes), I believe it’s better to read magazines or newspapers. They are thin and easier to hold – provided you know the proper steps to make your newspaper small. Plus it’s more possible to read and comprehend an entire article in either of these media outlets than it is to pick up the flow of a novel enough to truly absorb what you’ve read.

It’s not generally advisable to start a new novel on your commute. This is especially true of more challenging novels, like Jane Eyre or Les Miserables. Again, it’s a matter of getting sucked into the book enough to retain what you’ve read and avoid extensive re-reading.

One of the exceptions to several of these guidelines is when the book is an easy read, like a heavily plot driven book or something written for a younger audience. (Don’t scoff! The Book Thief is one of the most fascinating, beautifully sad books I’ve ever read and it’s written for a young audience.) The other exception is if the book is a sequel to something you’ve read recently since it’s essentially like continuing the same novel.

When the conditions are right, the metro ride can be a good way to make a dent in your novel. It’s a solid 45 minutes to an hour to yourself that would otherwise be wasted staring out into space. Instead, it’s the opportunity to have a mini reading binge twice a day, giving you something to look forward to when you have to drag your butt out of bed extra early and when you have an hour between finishing work and your sweatpants. Maybe someday I’ll even master reading while standing up.

Last note on this topic: STAND to the RIGHT, WALK to the LEFT on the escalators! Avoid pissing off everyone behind you that way. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Decrypting Descriptions in The Scarlet Letter

Currently Reading: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess 

Before I dive into this long overdue post, I’d like to apologize once again for how long it’s been. I never really imaged that I’d have a procrastination problem with a hobby, but I guess I underestimated my extensive procrastination skills. However, in this case, I believe a large part of the problem stemmed from a lack of inspiration. I wasn’t really moved one way or the other to write about The Scarlet Letter yet I felt obligated to write a post about it before moving on to anything else. But I’ve decided to bite the bullet and just write it!

Secondly, for those who don’t know (i.e. those who don’t write or have writer-friends), November is National Novel Writing Month. In case it isn’t obvious from the title, NaNoWiMo is, according to the all-mighty Wikipedia, “an annual internet-based creative writing project which challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and 30.” Apparently, I’m not the only writer who needs a fire lit under her butt to get work done.

The reason I bring this up is not because I intend to write a novel – if I could come up with a remotely original idea, maybe I would – but because I’d like to use it as an opportunity to similarly motivate myself. Thus do I embark on my own personal project for the month:

Nine New November Novel ‘Ntries 2012.

Believe me, I hate myself for the “ ‘ntries,” but I really wanted to keep up the alliteration. But that’s right! I have been bad and lazy enough! And now I’m setting a very modest goal for myself of completing nine new posts (including this one) by the end of the month beginning today!

Don’t be surprised if I post eight more entries on November 30th…

Anyways, ambition and apologies aside, time to finally share my thoughts about The Scarlet Letter. Here’s hoping they aren’t a let down given the wait.

First, I have to say that this is one of the top novels that I was always stunned I didn’t read in secondary school. It seems like such classic high school reading. After all, pregnancy out of wedlock and forbidden love that’s punished; social groups ostracizing one or two individuals; and an intense message of abstinence all seem like exactly the kind of book high school officials would want in the hands of hormone-crazed teenagers. But apparently not.

Initially, I was relieved I didn’t have to read this book because man! Does Nathaniel Hawthorne enjoy his descriptions! I mean, was it really necessary to describe the “ghosts of bygone meals” (pg. 19) of the patriarch of the Custom-House in such crazy details? Did I need to know about the “tenderloin of beef, hind-quarter of veal, a spare-rib of pork, a particular chicken or a remarkably praiseworthy turkey” (pg. 19)? Or about how “the chief tragic event of [his] life… was his mishap with a certain goose… which, at the table, proved so inveterately tough that the carving-knife would make no impression on its carcass” (pg. 19)? This isn’t even that prominent a character and he gets three solid pages of description, one of which is just about the feasts he has enjoyed! Seriously Hawthorne?? Why??

Don’t get me wrong! I’m all for a well-crafted descriptive paragraph! Sometimes I find they are the best part of the novel – like in Their Eyes Were Watching God. In fact, when people tell me they often skip over the descriptions in books, it bugs me quite a bit. After all, the author deliberately put in those descriptions and I like to believe they serve some purpose beyond allowing the author to self-indulge. The only exception I can come up with for this is Steinbeck. Read The Pearl and try to argue with me that all those descriptions serve a purpose other than putting the reader into a comatose state.

But I massively digress! My point is that the more I read The Scarlet Letter, the more I realized just how telling Hawthorne’s descriptions often are – extensive/excessive as they may be. In particular, I found the passages about Hester Prynne’s daughter, Pearl, the most fascinating. Perhaps this is because Hawthorne seems to develop a theme that has Nature and civilization somewhat at odds with each other and Pearl is the embodiment of the cross-over: a child naturally born from love, but born into a strict society that instantly makes her an outcast. 

Nature is free and untamed as “that wild, heathen… never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth” (pg. 203), making it both wonderful and dangerous. Meanwhile, Hester's story shows how civilization is the opposite: it is organized and comforting, yet restrictive and miserable. Thus Hawthorne explores one of the most complicated puzzles of humanity: is it better to be dangerously wild, but free in Nature or miserably restricted, but safe in society? 

It’s a fact that humans are social beings and therefore have a biological need to be part of a group. However, humans also need structure and hierarchies once the group reaches a certain size or all will fall into chaos. The latter world of structure and rules is the one in which Hester Prynne and her lover the Reverend Dimmesdale reside, miserable out of the group and miserable within it. However, their daughter Pearl appears to reside more in the former world. Ostracized from the womb, she’s never known what it is to belong and feels “gentler [in the forest] than in the grassy-margined streets of the settlement, or in her mother’s cottage” (pg. 205); she aligns more with Nature. She is repeatedly described as “elfish” (pg. 154), “an airy sprite” (pg. 92), and a “nymph-child” (pg. 205). Yet Hawthorne also depicts her as somewhat devilish in her elfishness. She is both natural and completely unnatural since she is free from society. It makes her somewhat wild and dangerous like the forest, but it interestingly, makes her the happiest of all the characters.

It seems that Pearl embodies the human free from civilization and her mother and father are the humans completely imprisoned by civilization. While the parents seem more noble and admirable characters, the daughter appears much happier. So which is the more desirable situation?

Personally, I’d rather not live in a puritanical society, but it’s hard to say whether Hawthorne agrees.