Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"The Picture of Dorian Gray": A Review

“‘How sad it is!’ murmured Dorian Gray, with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. ‘How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young.  It will never be older than this particular day in June…. It if were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!  For that—for that—I would give everything!  Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give!  I would give my soul for that!’” 
~ Chapter 2, A Picture of Dorian Gray

I have a major problem reviewing this book. You see, I have this weird verbal tic wherein I can’t pronounce certain names correctly, but tend to switch the first letters of the Christian and surnames, or add letters in inconvenient places.  This book is an example of the latter: I consistently want to call this guy Dorkian Gray.* 

Oscar Wilde’s novel about a young man obsessed with never aging is not so much about immortality as it is about morality and beauty. Dorian Gray is a very beautiful young man: not only in outward appearance, but his manners and education make him instantly attractive to everyone he meets. To Gray, to become old and…er…gray is a crime against his beauty, and any crime is evil. To be old is to cease to be good, because it would have destroyed the goodness of his youthful appearance. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Buried Alive: Some Historical Connections to Poe's Writings

One little-known fact of the Victorian era was their overwhelming phobia of being buried alive.  Victorians had many death rituals that to a modern person appear morbid…yet fascinating. When someone died in the 19th century, it was a common practice to let the body lay out on the bed for a few days. This served as a sort of in-home wake, as well as giving the body a chance to…revive.

Because of limited medical knowledge even among learned doctors, it was possible for someone to be declare dead when really they had only lapsed into a coma. Some people revived much to the shock, relief…and sometimes annoyance of their grieving relatives. 

The result of this phenomena was the creation of things like Bateson’s Device, a pulley-bell contraption rigged to underground coffins; the Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive (also known as the S.P.P.B.B.A); and in the case of those annoyed relatives not wanting their relatives making a comeback tour of the land of the living, special coffins with fragile glass poison caplets that would finish the job should a relative try to unbury themselves.

Considering that Victorians’ obsession with death is perhaps second to none but Ancient Egyptians throughout history, Poe at the time was possibly not seen as creepy as he is by contemporary readers.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Thoughts on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Imp of the Perverse"

This story is a lot like The Tell-Tale Heart in that the murderer’s own neurotic obsession with hiding his guilt only makes it more ostensible. Of course The Imp of the Perverse includes a lot more contemplation on the psychological impulse to do wrong “merely because we feel that we should not.”

Now, I’ve never considered murder just because I now I shouldn’t, but the psychological theory has some validity on a smaller scale. Junk food, for instance, is all the more irresistible the harder one tries to resist it. It’s like a Chinese finger torture of the mind.

Perhaps Poe, being in a more Biblically-literate society, wrote The Imp of the Perverse with Romans 7:15-20 in mind:

"For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me."
(English Standard Version)

Certainly this similarity would not have been lost on the 19th century readership, especially since Poe’s audience was primarily comprised of women, who were seen as the moral and religious centers of society.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Reviewing Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

The first time I encountered this story was on the Disney Channel. I was at a sleepover at my grandma’s house, and one of the perks of a sleepover was watching television late into the night. Unfortunately nothing of much interest to children is on late into the night, so I got stuck watching The Adventures of Ichabod Crane and Mr. Toad. I still have no inkling why these two were put together—unless it’s because both are a bit too smug for their own good—but boy! Did I get scared of the monster in that cartoon!  I’m talking about Katrina Van Tassel, of course. I was sure that girl was up to no good. Probably a Black Widow or something. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"Wuthering Heights": A Review

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like Wuthering Heights should have been titled “A Love Story that Nobody Should Try to Emulate.” Because there are a lot of bad role models in this book. It’s almost as bad as Romeo and Juliet’s “romance” in which six people die and we’re supposed to find solace in the reconciliation of two rival families, as if that makes all the needless death better.

The story opens in medias res with the narrator, Lockwood, stumbling into the midst of the real main characters like a sheep might stumble into a nest of furious hornets. His landlord, Heathcliff, is mean. Heathcliff’s daughter-in-law, Catherine, is mean.  His maybe-kinda-ward Hareton looks mean. It is, as Lockwood describes, a country for the misanthropic.

Lockwood makes things even worse by attempting to figure out how these characters are related—an endeavor which is laughable, as anyone knows who has read Wuthering Heights and still doesn’t understand why there are only about three families in the England this novel describes.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Frankenstein and Friends (the sequel to the novel)

CLARENCE*: Finally, having walked all the way across the Antarctic, traveled back to Switzerland—I always DID like Switzerland!—and taken the exact same Doctorate program in nebulous science that my creator did, I have come full circle in my existence! It’s….ALIVVVVVVE!

FRANKENSTEIN: Wait what?  I thought I died? What am I doing here? Where am—oh no. What are these cords doing attached to me? ACK!

CLARENCE: Hello, Victor.

FRANKENSTEIN: Well I can’t be in the afterlife, because I don’t believe you have a soul. What have you done, you monstrosity, you?

CLARENCE: No need to be snippy.  I just brought you back to life.

FRANKENSTEIN: What?! How could you?!

CLARENCE: It was pretty easy, actually.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Reviewing Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"

Perhaps people would be able to tell the scientist from his creation if we were more diligent in using Mary Shelley’s entire title: Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus is a character from Greek mythology, a Titan who dared to steal fire from the Olympian gods to give to humanity, and endured a very painful (and highly imaginative) punishment. 

Dr. Victor Frankenstein seeks to obtain “the principle of life” (much like Prometheus’ fire), flouting the laws of life and death for the benefit of all humanity. And, just as Prometheus suffers the consequences, Frankenstein is dogged by the results of his experiment. Literally.

Monday, February 18, 2013

"Wind in the Willows": Some Illustrations

Oddly enough, much as I love The Wind in the Willows and a few other books like it, even as a child I found anthropomorphic animals (read: white rabbits in waistcoats) confusing, unnerving, and downright creepy depending on the books they were in. 

Brian Jacques’ popular Redwall series, for instance. It’s about mice…in Britain…in the Dark/Middle Ages…that are monks…. That’s just too many factors for my literal-minded brain to handle. Re-reading The Wind in the Willows this past January brought condundrums afresh!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Some Father-Son Bonding Between Nestor and Paris

NESTOR: Welcome to Troy, population 1500.  I’m its king, Nestor.

PARIS: Hi dad, my name is Paris and I’m your younger son.

NESTOR: I immediately believe you despite lack of DNA verification. Good thing that shepherd named you exactly the same thing I would’ve named you if I hadn’t abandoned you on that mountain.

PARIS: About that, you owe me money to pay for a therapist to deal with those abandonment issues. Why did you abandon me anyway?

NESTOR: Oh, something about a prophecy that you would get us all killed and make the kingdom fall. By the way, who’s this?

PARIS: My wife Helen. I stole her from Menelaus.

NESTOR: That’s my boy! Wait, what?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Reviewing Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey"

The Trojan War is one of the most famous wars that maybe really happened. Verifying its historical origins, however, is secondary to all the literature written about it in Ancient Greece. Homer’s The Iliad is an epic where the gods of Olympus play favorites with mortals to satiate their own pride, where heroes and villains are split between the two factions until the reader doesn’t know which side to root for. 

It all starts with stealing Helen of Troy…wait, no, it all starts with the Judgment of Paris…wait, no, that’s still wrong. It all starts with the Wedding of Thetis. And, like a fairy tale, everyone knows that when you forget to invite the evil fairy, something bad is going to happen. Eris, goddess of discord, crashes the party by throwing a golden apple with “To The Fairest” engraved on it. 
(Unfortunately this was before Snow White was born, so the decision was a lot harder than it would’ve been in other circumstances.) 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sappho: A Writer Spotlight

"someone will remember us

I say

even in another time"
~ fragment 147

Sappho is the Emily Dickinson, Greek-haiku-writing poet of antiquity. Hardly anything is known about Sappho’s life. She was a woman (?), who lived on the Greek island of Lesbos (?) a mother (?) of a daughter (?) and perhaps she had a sister (?). The portraits of her were made long after her death, and so aren’t necessarily accurate depictions.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"The Epic of Gilgamesh": A Review

“…Readers will discover that, rather than standing before an antiquity in a glass case, they have entered a literary masterpiece that is as startlingly alive today as it was three and a half millennia ago.”

~ pg 2, Introduction to Stephen Mitchell’s New English Version of The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest (if not the earliest) stories recorded in human history. It is comprised of eleven books and was written in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, circa 1700 B.C.  by an unknown author in a language that was dead and buried for centuries before 19th century A.D. archaeologists and linguists dug this story out of the ground and set to work understanding it.

The story takes place a thousand years before it was written. Gilgamesh is the king of Uruk, a Mesopotamian city. Like Superman, he is strong and defends his domain. Unlike Superman, Gilgamesh is arrogant, violent, and massively flawed as a character. He may defend his scrap of civilization from outsiders, but it is a selfish sort of defense, that he may exert complete control over the citizens and subject them to his own barbarities.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Often Overlooked Lloyd Alexander

"We don't need to have just one favorite. We keep adding favorites. Our favorite book is always the book that speaks most directly to us at a particular state in our lives. And our lives change. We have other favorites that give us what we most need at that particular time. But we never lose the old favorites. They're always with us. We just sort of accumulate them."
~ Lloyd Alexander

I’ve decided to declare today as Lloyd Alexander Appreciation Day, for the simple reason that a) I want to post a bunch of stuff about him right now, and b) he’s awesome.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Heart vs. Head: And so what have we learned, children?

For the last week this blog has looked at the dichotomy between the heart (emotions, passions, intuition) versus the head (logic, reason, thought). But is there anything to be learned from these books about how we should balance our own head and heart?

From The Fall of the House of Usher: Don’t kill off your emotions (or your sister, for that matter*) or they’ll come back with a vengeance…literally. 

From Sense and Sensibility: Don’t give a lock of your hair to just anybody. 

And if you keep writing to the guy who left you suspiciously without sealing the engagement formally, a) that’s stalking and b) maybe he’s just not that into you. 

Besides, what’s wrong with Alan Rickman anyway? Tons of Snape fangirls just don’t get it.

As for you, Elinors of the world: If you keep your secret love a secret, even when his other secret love keeps inexplicably dumping her confidences on you, eventually you will prevail. Except that she’ll also prevail, having heir-hopped to the brother that is much more her type and also has recently been made the sole inheritor to the family fortune. Ugh. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Heart vs. Head: "Great Expectations" and "Hard Times

To conclude this series on the Heart vs. the Head, I’m going to look at two similar characters from Charles Dickens. Both are young women who are trained to deny their emotions, with dire implications. 

I find it interesting that of all the characters I’ve analyzed in this series, almost all of them are women. Maybe this is because women are (stereotypically) the more emotional and intuitive of the sexes, while men are stereotypically logical. If these novels were always proponents for reason over feeling, I would be led to believe that the moral would be “Stop being so emotional, woman!” But it isn’t. Almost all of these stories let the heart win, or encourage a balance of feeling and thought rather than total suppression of feeling. 

In the following two novels, Dickens explores what happens when people do suppress their emotions.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Heart vs. Head: "Middlemarch"

George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch has been called “the first novel written for adults” because of its complexity and attention to realism. The novel follows three main plotlines which intertwine at various junctures throughout the story. We’ll only be looking at one of them, which is the plotline that follows the beautiful young lady, Dorothea in her journey of self-discovery. 

Dorothea and her sister Celia Brooke are very much like Sense and Sensibility’s Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Where Celia and Marianne are impetuous and emotional, Elinor and Dorothea are deliberate and thoughtful. When Dorothea refuses the proposal of Sir James Chettam, Celia (who has been gaga over him all along) immediately snatches him up. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Heart vs. Head: "Jane Eyre"

Many Jane fans (of Austen-and-Eyre variety) will be disappointed to find out that Charlotte Brontë was not much of a fan of Jane Austen. Remember that the Brontë sisters were writing at the beginning of the Victorian Era, specifically the Romantic Period of the arts, which was directly reacting against the Enlightenment Period in which Jane Austen wrote.

Yet for all their differences, Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen were a lot alike in their presentation of women characters in literature. (Compare the titular character in Jane Eyre with Fanny Price from Mansfield Park for just one example.) The stories might have been set in societies where men ran the show, but the women are active participants in their stories, and their choices greatly affect the outcome of their lives.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Heart vs. Head: "Sense and Sensibility"


The connection between the theme of Head vs. Heart and this Jane Austen classic should be pretty well evident in the title of her novel. Sense and Sensibility describes the two main characters, sisters Elinor and Marianne, in a manner that is far more clear than her similarly titled Pride and Prejudice  (Which one’s “pride”? Which one’s “prejudice”? Elizabeth and Darcy have their moments of each!).

Also, where Pride and Prejudice names two flaws in the characters, Sense and Sensibility names one strength, and one failing. 

(Just a side note, here, for the current generation: in “olden times” the word “sensibility” was used for one’s capacity to feel emotions. I point it out because it would be quite easy to mistake the word for the similar-sounding “sensible,” which is practically an antonym. The title Sense and Sensibility means “Wisdom and Feeling” rather “Wisdom and Wisdom.” The latter just wouldn’t make…er…sense.)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Heart vs. Head: "The Fall of the House of Usher"

Warning: I’m going to spoil the “twist” of this story in the first paragraph.  The rest of the entry isn’t much better, either.

Apart from evoking images of Tim Burton’s cinematography, I admit I didn’t initially get much out of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Fall of the House of Usher It didn’t make sense that Roderick would bury his sister alive without any apparent reason. 

And so, Sparknotes to the rescue! (Sure, reading Sparknotes is no substitute for reading the real thing, but once you've read the real thing I've found it's a good source for helping you think more about the themes and connections in a piece of literature.) 

A common theme of Poe is the idea of doubles, of two people being two sides to the same coin: the same, yet also opposite. It makes sense in the context of Poe’s writing that he was using a sort of Doppelganger mythos in his stories.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Heart vs. Head: Introduction


A common theme in many stories is the dichotomy between emotions and reason. Maybe this arises because novelists need both to tell a story well: reason to craft the narrative in a way that readers can understand, and emotions to create characters that are relatable. Textbooks make us think. Novels make us feel. Great literature incites us to do both.

In my upcoming entries I plan to look at books where the characters represent these two characteristics, or where one character is presented the choice of whether to follow their head or their heart. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

"Two Are Better Than One": A Review

“The whole day felt happier because of Lester and Lynette. No wonder, of course, for that was how it had always been. You had only to put Lester and Lynette in your pocket and the dullest day turned into something special. Cordy used to say it was magic and Chrystal had believed her.” 
~ Two Are Better Than One by Carol Ryrie Brink, pp. 2-3

Allow me to introduce you to Chrystal, author-avatar for Carol Ryrie Brink (of Caddie Woodlawn and Magical Melons fame), and her best friend, Cordelia “Cordy” Lark. Their various and sundry adventures include but are not limited to walking past a state penitentiary, going to school, dealing with unsympathetic brothers, going to an ice cream social dressed as rag dolls, and writing odes and novels. Accompanying them are their muses, two “pocket dolls” named Lester and Lynette, who serve as the main characters of their novel, The Romantical Perils of Lester and Lynette. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Keeping the Book(store) Alive

After my tirade about e-readers* trying to supplant regular books in the affections of bibliophiles, I went online to see what Kindle and other ads were saying nowadays. The results on the part of the "DIE E-READER DIE" supporters was astounding. Two small bookstores approached the problem of selling physical books in a technical world with two very disparate methods. 

In ten short videos, Green Apple Books laid out the ways that books are irreplaceable. The results are undeniably biased, but also undeniably funny…and true.* 
In a show of more "positive-persuasion," Type Books allowed stop-motion animators into one of their stores at night.  In the less than two minutes that resulted, "The Joy of Books" reminds readers of the magic, the mystery, and the allure that holds us in thrall whenever we enter a bookstore.

Oops. I forgot that I was trying to be more fair to e-readers in this post. 

That should do it. 

I actually don't hate e-readers, since I own a Kindle myself and enjoy it very much. I simply think that e-readers and books need to work together to do what they do best (tell stories), rather than one trying to supplant the other because it’s more technologically advanced.***

* Yes I did just shamelessly self-promote this blog by linking to a my previous post. I take after Robert Louis Stevenson.  Got a problem with that??
**Except for the used book buying clerk being so happy to shell out money. That has never happened to me. Then again, maybe it's true at Green Apple Books. Guess I'll have to try them out.
***Because fat lot of good an e-reader will be when the aliens invade and sap all electricity from civilization to power their mothership’s big screen TV. Keep your old-school books for just such an eventuality.