Friday, March 29, 2013

The Life and Adventures of Reading "Nicholas Nickleby"



"Nicholas Astonishes Mr. Squeers and Family" by "Phiz"
Source: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/phiz/nickleby/8.jpg
I read.  I read a lot.  I read so much that it is sometimes a danger that I might occasionally become desensitized, to read out of habit rather than for intrinsic enjoyment. 

But then there are the books that are so well-crafted, written with such passion and with characters that are so developed they have a pulse, that all my numbness is dispelled and I react with a physical, outward action.  Smiles, laughter, tears, frowning: these are all common reactions when reading such a book.  Such a book, that is, as Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. 

I was even prepared beforehand for the emotional turmoil this book put me through.  I had seen the movie where Jamie Bell dies.  Little did I suspect that this cinematic adaptation could ill prepare me for the sorrow, the exultation, the belly laughs and the angry rages I was to endure on this emotional rollercoaster of a novel.

Nicholas Nickleby enters the story as a young teen, fatherless, with a grieving mother and sister to support.  They turn to his uncle Ralph Nickleby, who is an unrepentant Scrooge with a heart as hard as the coins he misers away.  Ralph shows them “charity” by getting Nicholas a teaching position at the boy’s boarding school, Dotheboys, while sending Nicholas’ sister Kate to work as a seamstress. 

Dotheboys school is run by the villainous Mr. Squeers, a one-eyed mangle of a man with a wife as crooked and malicious as he is, a coarse and narcissistic daughter (who immediately falls in love with Nicholas) and a pig of a son (who commanders all the care packages sent to the school’s pupils).  All four Squeers have enslaved a charity pupil called Smike, who they’ve mistreated into being a malnourished cripple.  Nicholas befriends Smike, comforts him, and teaches him how to read.  He defends not only Smike but all the other poor boys against the Squeers. 

At this juncture of the plot, Nicholas Nickleby changed my life.  Smike runs away but is retrieved and tied up by Mr. and Mrs. Squeers.  Just as Mr. Squeers is about to lay into Smike with a whip, Nicholas intervenes, taking the whip from the evil schoolmaster and turning it on him.  The other Squeer family members join in the scuffle, but they are no match for Nicholas, who beats the tar out of them.

I cheered out loud.  I pumped my fist.  I shouted for Nicholas to go! Go! Go!  As he and Smike ran away and took to the road.  I smiled and nodded with approval as a passerby gave them aid. 

Who could have known that a book—mere tree pulp marked with lines and dots of ink, mind you—could have such a violent effect on my being? 

I think Charles Dickens knew.
 

Recommended Reading Age: 13+
Parental Notes: Violence, villainy, and a man tries to ruin Kate Nickleby’s reputation (he fails, and gets the Squeers Tarring Special from her brother when Nicholas returns home).
Availability: You could read it free on Kindle, I guess…but I don’t settle for anything less than an edition containing Phiz illustrations.   I prefer the Everyman Cloth Hardcover and so should you. 
Adaptations: The 2002 version is really well done considering how much material they tried to cram into two hours.  My only quibble is that Anne Hathaway’s accent slips somewhat.  Also Jamie Bell dies.  There is an 1982 stage version available on DVD called The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby which is longer but is kind of interesting to watch (since a small set of actors play several different characters each).  And finally there is a 2001 adaptation by BBC which I didn’t like as much even though it featured Tom Hiddleston being a drunken loutish extra. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

"The Blue Castle": The Search for Adequate Cover Art

So as I mentioned yesterday, I love The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery.  The problem is, I don't have a hardcover version of it, and my paperback version is getting beat up.  So I used my blog as an excuse to "research" different covers, looking for a replacement.  Unfortunately it looks like the majority of cover artists--like the majority of readers in general--have never read the actual novel. 

"Take a castle, paint it blue!" seemed to be the consensus.  Even if the results are psychedelic.

http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51Ch1LhFQ%2BL._SL500_AA300_.jpg





Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The hidden literary treasure of "The Blue Castle"

There was a point in my adolescence that I owned virtually every paperback penned by L.M. Montgomery.  (I have since grown out of that phase in my readership, and gave away most of them to other adolescent readers I knew would appreciate them.)  I read the classic Anne series, the slightly less-known Emily of New Moon trilogy, Jane of Lantern Hill (which, as I recall, has a rather good adaptation floating around out there starring Sam Waterson...but I digress) and several of her short-story anthologies.  But far and away my favorite work of Montgomery’s is The Blue Castle.  Unlike her famous Anne and Emily series, this novel is written for adults, centered on adult characters, and deals with much more mature—and, in my opinion, deeper—themes.

At twenty-nine, old maid Valancy Stirling is plain in appearance and oppressed in spirit.  Her gloriously unpleasant family taunts, teases, and maligns her at every opportunity, led by her gargoyle of a mother and her beautiful cousin Olive.  Her only reprieve from her depressing and colorless existence comes from her imagination (she has invented a fantasy world where she escapes from her family to a “Blue Castle,” is an empowered beautiful woman, and has a prince charming that loves her) and the novels of a naturalist named John Foster.

As if her life could not get any worse, Valancy secretly goes to a doctor about a pain in her chest and is diagnosed with a heart condition that gives her only a year left to live.  This is almost a relief to Valancy: she had dreaded the oncoming, tedious years ahead, and now she doesn’t have to fear that.  This freedom from the future gives her the courage to stand up to her relatives.  She leaves her mother, gets a job, and begins to associate with…well, all the “wrong types of people.”  Her job is as a housekeeper for a drunkard.  The drunkard’s ruined daughter is living with him, dying of the Victorian Cough of Convenience.  Valancy befriends both, along with the mysterious ne’er-do-well Barney Snaith, with whom she falls unrequitedly in love.

Valancy had never really lived in all her twenty-nine years at home.  Now she determines not to waste any more time.  She proposes to Barney—she knows he doesn’t love her, but she asks him as a friend to marry her for a year until she dies—and he accepts.  I can’t tell you any more: there are too many secrets that are discovered, identities revealed, and surprises in store for any reader who can get their hands on a copy of The Blue Castle.

Reading this book was a transition from me reading Anne of Green Gables to Wuthering Heights.  The Blue Castle is about remembering your mortality in order to motivate yourself to live life to its fullest, without leaving this world with any regrets.  It’s about loving others unconditionally, no matter whether Society values certain individuals or not.  It’s about honesty and sacrifice and how often those two coincide.
 

Recommended Reading Age: 13+
Parental Notes: As I said above, there is a character who is a drunkard, and his daughter became pregnant out of wedlock.  Also there is the constant threat of Valancy’s heart condition that might be too tense for some younger readers.
Availability:  The paperbacks available all have extremely goofy and misleading covers that deserve their own blog entry on their ridiculousness.  If you get the hardcover edition, though, you will have earned my voracious envy.

Monday, March 25, 2013

"The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" and how it changed my life

Sidney Paget Illustration from "A Case of Identity" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1982
Source: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_ljb67d8YG41qac76ro1_500.jpg  

My first exposure to Sherlock Holmes was probably like most children’s: I watched the Disney movie “The Great Mouse Detective.”  Then my dad—who never read the original stories--introduced me to his favorite adaptation, starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. And of course I saw the Wishbone episode about A Scandal in Bohemia and The Hound of the Baskervilles.  I’ve always been the type of person, however, who had to read the original stories any movie was based upon, and so when I found an audiobook (specifically “old school” cassettes) of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes at my library, I immediately checked it out. 

Ignorant that Doyle wrote most of his Sherlock Holmes series in short story form, I’m afraid I listened to the cassettes out of order.  The first short story I ever “read” was A Case of Identity.  And I loved it.  A lot.  Doyle does not get enough credit for how well-written these stories are: his style is conservative, clean, crisp, playing the right notes of suspense, action, atmosphere, character, and even humor with a deft and creative hand.  For that reason alone I consider his works an influence on my life: I would love to be able to write with such brilliant economy as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I’ve written before about my partiality to Dr. John H. Watson.  This doesn’t mean I in any way hate Sherlock Holmes, however.  Sherlock Holmes’ intellect was interesting, but what really captivated my readership was his compassion for his clients.  This aspect of Holmes is not evident in every story, as in A Scandal in Bohemia when he lobs thinly veiled insults at his client—but in that case, the client was boorish and his case was disgraceful.  And many times Holmes is portrayed as an emotionless Brain without any sympathy for the clients.  Stories like A Case of Identity, The Speckled Band, and The Five Orange Pips reveal a side to Holmes that gives him more facets than just The Brain, but also show his drive to help his fellow man.  Sure, he’s in it for “the puzzle,” but Holmes could always exercise his mental powers for self-serving purposes (like his arch foe Moriarty) or just seclude himself with his thoughts (like his brother Mycroft).  Instead, Holmes chooses to use his gifts to help others, even when he’s out of his depth with understanding or sympathizing with the illogical humans he takes on as clients.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes changed my life because it gave me an appreciation of intelligence but also showed me that how one uses their intelligence is what makes them a hero.  Watson is not as smart as Moriarty or Mycroft, but he is more of a hero than either because he uses what brains he does have to help others. 
 

*Word of advice: Don’t read The Valley of Fear right before going to bed unless you are a strange person who enjoys nightmares.

Recommended Reading Age: 10+
Parental Notes: The age appropriateness varies according to short story: drinking, smoking, vaguely described violence and some implied references to romantic affairs
Availability: Free on Kindle, but really you should own it in hardcover.  Normally I restrict my book collection to one of each title, but when it comes to Holmes I collect various versions (because I like collecting the illustrations, essays and afterwords as well as the actual stories):
Adaptations: For relatively faithful adaptations of the individual short stories, look no further than Granada’s television series with Jeremy Brett as Holmes.  This series adapted 42 of the 60 Holmes stories.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Thoughts Regarding "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl"

“This is a fair specimen of how the moral sense is educated by slavery.  When a man has his wages stolen from him […], and the laws sanction and enforce the theft, how can he be expected to have more regard to honesty than has the man who robs him?” (Chapter 40: The Fugitive Slave Law)
 
~ Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Chapter 40: The Fugitive Slave Law

Throughout her narrative, Jacobs argues that if the stereotype of colored people being dishonest, cunning, and underhanded is true, it’s because enslavement has forced them to develop such characteristics in order to survive. 

This seems to echo Sir Thomas More’s Utopia:

“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them?”

Both quotations are saying that those subordinate to a governing authority can’t be held responsible for their wrongdoings—it is the duty of the authorities to teach its subordinates ethical conduct, and also to enable them to follow those rules of conduct without infringing on their ability to survive.

Does this mean that if you are a criminal, it’s the government’s fault?  No, not exclusively.   But if the government is corrupt, then the people who live under its leadership will follow its example.  

Another work that comes to mind while reading Jacobs’ account is Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience.  Jacobs herself practiced this philosophy by not acknowledging the validity of slavery in the United States’ law, saying, “I regarded such laws [supporting slaveholders] as the regulations of robbers, who had no rights that I was bound to respect.”

There are two choices when we find ourselves living under the authority of laws or rules that are corrupt.  The first is to conform by becoming criminals ourselves.   The second is to risk being labeled as “criminal” by refusing to obey these regulations of robbers and living a life of personal integrity.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Emily Dickinson

Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/53/Black-white_photograph_of_Emily_Dickinson_%28Restored%29.jpg
Poets encapsulate their world in words and then spread it to others.  Emily Dickinson’s poetry is great because it’s so compact, yet so nuanced.  She’s also very hard to understand because she uses words and enjambment in such unconventional ways. 

Dickinson was able to be unconventional because she isolated herself from the world, and therefore was isolated from influences to her poetry.  (This makes one wonder if she would be the same artist were she living in today’s globalized culture.  Is it even possible—with television, telephones, and other things starting with “tele”—to be immune to globalized media in a way that will render one’s art truly unconventional?)

There is a correct and incorrect method of interpreting poetry.  Discovering Dickinson’s true intended meaning can vary from difficult to pretty much impossible.  The more I try to understand, the more I know that I do not understand. The more I read these poems, the more questions I think up.  Any answers I devise only serve to multiply said questions. 

So, when I’m presented with a poem like I cannot live with you to interpret, I inevitably get tangled up in phrases like “my Right of Frost.” To Frost makes better sense in the context of the speaker having the right to die before her lover.  But the use of “of” instead must be important—Dickinson was too deliberate to randomly conjunct.  So, what does it mean?  Fine, I’ll admit I’m not at all sure.  Maybe it’s a reference to the phrase “rite of passage” since the next stanzas deal with the afterlife, and so death could be a rite of passage to heaven or hell.


Dickinson’s love poems are interesting since as far as we know, she was never publicly involved with anyone.  Not that this would be all that unusual in her lifetime: public romance was considered improper, so basically sneaking around was considered good taste.  For Wild Nights in particular, it’s hard to pinpoint where Dickinson is going with the metaphor of ships at sea.  Is she out to sea (as Stanza III would suggest), or in sheltered harbor (in Stanza I, leaving Stanza II indeterminate)?


Dickinson imagines a funeral, the imagining of which allows some epiphany to occur, even as her mind goes numb from creating this scenario.  The box being lifted is a coffin, which is being carried in procession to the funeral.  Then a “Plank in Reason broke,” which I picture as the support of the coffin snapping, dropping the body.  Perhaps Dickinson meant that she had experience a passive existence, but then realized that she could not remain in that state of complete isolation, and so “hit a world at every plunge, / And Finished knowing—then—“


Taken literally, this poem is pretty simple—but then, we know that since it’s by Emily Dickinson we can’t take ANYTHING literally!—relating a scene of someone on their deathbed whose last image is of a fly hovering between the windows.  The “windows” in this poem represent the eyes of the dying narrator.  Looking at this poem with fresh eyes—or windows, as it were—the last stanza indicates the metaphysical meaning of the poem in general.  In this stanza, the narrator sees the fly.  Flies are associated negatively with death (and for good reason), but in this poem the negative connotation is absent.   

Even though this poem is about death, there is no desperation and little sadness in the tone.  Instead the narrator seems acceptant, released, and even interested in the actions of the fly.  The last line “I could not see to see” perhaps refers to the narrator wishing to see what the fly would do next.  Instead, the narrator is reduced to merely listening to the fly’s buzzing, which harkens back to the first lines—“I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—”

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

To Each His Own


 


“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured and far away.”
 
~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden

*
 
Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences postulates a philosophy that different people excel in different areas.
 
As a result, one individual may learn at a different speed from another.

 
 This doesn’t make one individual more or less intelligent.

 
 It only means their method of learning is as unique as their individual character.

 
 When an individual is allowed to “personalize” their education, to “step to the music which he hears,” then he is able to fully realize his potential.
 

 
Yes, I did draw these illustrations for a philosophy presentation I did on Multiple Intelligences.  The shadow at the top of some of the images is because I had to screencap them off of Windows Movie Maker (I would upload the whole video except I hate the sound of my narration).  P.S. No these aren't anorexics.  They're stick figures with clothes. 

* Yes the "belonging" is missing the B.  How embarrassing to find that mistake so many years after I submitted it to my professor for grading! 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Disobedient Patriotism

"The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one's self a fool. 
The truest heroism is to resist the doubt; and the profoundest wisdom to know when it ought to be resisted and when obeyed."
 
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance

Laws are good only insofar as they are in agreement with justice as a whole.  Problems arise when lawmakers attempt to reverse this order: to mold justice in their own image rather than allowing justice to define their laws.  When these laws no longer align with justice they cease to be valid and citizens are no longer subordinate to them.

The United States’ Declaration of Independence says that when the government usurps basic human rights and acts unjustly, “It is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government….”  Thoreau draws on the same principle when he asks for “not at once no government, but at once better government.” 

In his famous essay "On the Resistance to Civil Government" (known also as "Civil Disobedience"), Thoreau points out two forms of corruption within the American government which are  hypocritical in context of the Declaration: Slavery and Conformity.

Slavery’s contradiction is obvious: it opposes the Declaration’s assertion that, “All men are created equal.”  Conformity may be less obvious, but no less hypocritical, as it forces people to go against their consciences in favor of obeying corrupt laws.  In Thoreau’s time, people who believed slavery was wrong still did not speak out against it because slavery was a legal institution. 

Although in some ways this essay could be interpreted as anti-American, I don’t think that was Thoreau’s intention.  Rather, Thoreau was being patriotic in encouraging every American to live according to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, even if the founding fathers themselves did not.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Fluid Earth

Source: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_BpzoK_yYfuU/S8Qn4qBmy2I/AAAAAAAADOk/Cm1eTHvQYiE/s1600/4_seasons_by_vxside.jpg


“The earth is not a mere fragment of a dead history, stratum upon stratum, like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit,--not a fossil earth, but a living earth….”
 
~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden

 
I really like this quotation, not only because it is very poetic (always a plus, even with things that end up meaning absolutely nothing!), but also because it reminds me that we don’t observe the natural world in stages, but in constant transformation.  Although we categorize years by the four seasons, there is such a blending between winter and spring that it’s impossible to pinpoint where one ends and the other begins.  This passage therefore brings to mind the fluid metamorphoses which are fundamental to nature.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Don't Take Your Library for Granted!

If only we could reach back in time and pull Thoreau into the present.  Sure, he’d be horrified at the extent of “de-naturalization” that’s happened since the industrial revolution.  But he might be pleasantly surprised to see how books are so much easier to procure nowadays. 

Today we all take the accessibility of literature for granted.  But at Thoreau’s time public libraries weren’t as common, and the ones that were in existence didn’t have the selection, nor was it always easy to get to the library.  I’ve lived down the street from one library or another for as long as I can remember, and the idea of waiting for a bookmobile, or not being able to put items on hold if that particular library didn’t own it…horrific.  I’d probably go into withdrawal.

And even without access to libraries, I grew up surrounded by books my mom had collected, so there was never a lack of reading material.  I don’t think Thoreau could grasp the sheer volume of what has been written. 

Yet our wealth of books is continually overlooked in favor of other entertainment media.  Television and movies have made people so used to instant gratification that they don’t invest the time required to make use of their literacy.  People have more free time today than any other time in the course of history, yet they make no use of their ample time to read masterpieces that should be “read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Attaining the Pastoral of Thoreau's "Walden"

Source: http://www.melindabunyard.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/simplify2.jpg
“Both place and time were changed, and I dwelt nearer to those parts of the universe and to those eras in history which had most attracted me.”

~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden

After growing up in a city where the only dirt that hadn’t been covered in asphalt was littered with glass and rusted nails, I would welcome the opportunity to go barefoot in the grass.  This desire is not unique, and the reason that so many people—artists, poets, musicians—have focused on nature is that it is a universal ideal that transcends cultures and time periods, as the quotation above suggests.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Public Opinion in Thoreau's "Walden"

“Public opinion is a wake tyrant compared with our own private opinion.  What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.”
 
~ Henry David Thoreau, "Economy," Walden
A lot of what Thoreau talks about in this chapter is similar—and perhaps even directly influenced by—Emerson and his ideals of self-reliance.  As Emerson wrote and philosophize on that theme, Thoreau lived it. 

To provide a comparison with the self-reliant life he led at Walden Pond, Thoreau begins his book with a description of life in Concordian society, culminating in a sort of explanation of why he chose to go off into the woods in the first place.

Lest we be overly impressed by Thoreau’s resolution to turn hermit, it might be worth pointing out that forsaking civilization to live in communes was not unheard-of at this juncture in American history.  Books like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance recount intellectual idealists thinking that by getting back to nature would eliminate all of humanity’s foibles. The Transcendentalist movement of philosophy was a huge influence, as the works of not only Emerson and Thoreau, but Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson.  So this isn’t just some random whim on Thoreau’s part: it’s putting his philosophy into practice.  (Something we all should do in our lives.  If we say we believe something, our actions should back it up.)

What Emerson said about being self-reliant and therefore accountable only to oneself is here shown to be a two-edged sword.  I may shirk the chains of social conformity and outside influences, only to find myself enslaved by my own high expectations of myself.  There is safety in conformity, since success in society is graded on a curve…a curve that self-reliance tears away.

Many individuals of genius illustrate this point throughout history.  Leonardo da Vinci never ceased working on the Mona Lisa.  Tchaikovsky always held a terrible opinion of his music.  If such people had listened to society telling them they fit the status quo, they might never have pushed themselves to create the masterpieces for which they are so famous.  They might have been content to produce mediocre, passingly-interesting works, which would have been quickly forgotten rather than gaining the renown they maintain to this day.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Pros and Cons of Emerson's Self-Reliance

“Character is higher than intellect. 
Thinking is the function.  Living is the functionary […]
A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

The advantage of self-reliance in its purest form is obviously that you can have pride in yourself because all that you are is due to your efforts and no one else.  You are certain that all your thoughts, emotions, and opinions are your own and not due to the influence of others.

This is also a disadvantage, since every flaw is due to your self-reliance.  “You have no one to blame but yourself,” to use a cliché in a completely correct context.  Emerson doesn’t take into account that humans are naturally interdependent, social people.  Especially in our modern, global community, avoiding society is difficult…much more difficult than Emerson could have imagined in his time, when isolation was easier to obtain.

In fact, Emerson wanted people to give up travel, opining that it was an unnecessary factor of one’s “education.”  Of course it’s possible to assume that if one is well-travelled one is also well-educated—hence the stereotype of ignorant, annoying tourists.  Yet in order to be “strong to live,” one must be willing to go out of your comfort zone, to experience different cultures and use them to reevaluated the ideas you’ve been raised to accept.  This isn’t to say that you should immediately drop your childhood values just because you visit Tibet.  That would be the opposite of self-reliance.  You would be, as James in the Bible says “like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” 

Forces which inhibit scholars from learning self-reliance are the various media forms, increased globalization, and institutions that indoctrinate under the guise of open-mindedness and tolerance.  Each of these has its set of requirements in order for the individual to be considered a success—like the Oscars, which is basically Hollywood elites telling everyone else what they should consider a great film (regardless if the winners were actually seen by average theater-goers).  In the same way social mediums influence our personal tastes, globalization tells Americans their cultural identity, schools broadly define intelligence, and government dictates our moral compass.

Friday, March 8, 2013

"The Mysterious Stranger": A Review

“It was 1590—winter.  Austria was far away from the world, and asleep; it was still the Middle Ages in Austria, and promised to remain so forever.”
~Opening lines of The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain

Theodor and his two friends, Nikolaus and Seppi, live in a small village in Medieval Austria.   One day they meet a mysterious stranger, a youth named Satan.  This Stranger makes comments that lead one to suspect he is an angel—or something like an angel, as he admits he was named after his “uncle” the Devil—and he has special powers over the forces of nature, such as generating fire or constructing tiny people. 

At first the boys think he is great fun, and Theodor introduces Satan to the villagers under the name Philip Traum.  The word “Traum” is like the German verb traumen, “to dream,” which is interesting since Theodor has made clear in the opening of his story that the whole of Austria is asleep.  There is something dreamlike, surreal, and unsettling about the storyline and the writing itself. 

What started off as a friendship with an extraordinary being soon starts to decay as Satan’s disregard of human life begins to manifest itself in cruelty.  He creates tiny humans and then destroys them because he can.  He constantly points out the utter depravity and tarnished state of the human race.  He maligns the idea that humans might have a purpose other than to be controlled, manipulated, and killed.

Finally, Satan tells Theodor that what seems like a dream—this entire reality, Theodor’s whole life, in fact—is a dream.  There is no life, death, afterlife.  There are no other people, no such thing as time, no such confinements as bodies: it is all a dream.  Theodor’s dream.  He is the only thing that exists, and as it is, he is asleep:

“You perceive, now, that these things are all impossible except in a dream.  You perceive that they are pure and puerile insanities, the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious of its freaks—in a word, that they are a dream, and you the maker of it.  The dream-marks are all present; you should have recognized them earlier.”
~ Chapter 11

This is what is horrifying about this story, and this is why I have grouped it with other tales of terror.  Philosophy can more blood-curdling than the latest Halloween chainsaw flick.  The Mysterious Stranger is Twain’s following through on what Descartes concluded in his cognito ergo sum philosophy: that all I can be sure of is that I exist.  And even then, I don’t know the true nature of my existence.  Everything else that I “know” must be taken on faith. 


Recommended Reading Age: High School

Parental Notes: Traumer may be Satan.  Otherwise it’s general thematic creepiness and pessimism. Not your average Adventures of Tom Sawyer here, that’s for sure.

Availability: Free on Kindle, or $22.99 in paperback.  Since it is a short story, it should also be included in the majority of Mark Twain anthologies or short story collections.   
 
Adaptations: Yet again there is a cinematic version I didn’t find out about until I searched it on the all-knowing interwebs.  Although frankly it looks above my fear grade.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

"The Turn of the Screw": A Review

For the past few weeks I’ve been posting reviews of stories that range from slightly unsettling (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) to outright horror (Dracula).  Now I’ve come to the story that still has me spinning in circles: Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. 

It is a ghost story, told Russian-nesting-doll-style: The unnamed narrator is at a Christmas party in an old house, and a man named Douglas tells a story that was originally told to him by his sister’s governess, a heroine who thinks she is Jane Eyre but is more romantic and paranoid than Catherine Morland.

Douglas’ story unfolds thusly: a young impressionable woman takes up her first post as governess of two children, Flora and Miles, in an old country house called Bly.  The children are orphans under the guardianship of their bachelor uncle, who wants nothing to do with them.  The uncle sets the governess the task of teaching and caring for the children without involving him in any way. 

When the governess first takes up her post, the boy, Miles, is off at boarding-school.  The governess is charmed by Flora, and things seem to be going well. Then Miles is expelled from school, without any explanation as to the reason. 

Around this time the governess begins to catch glimpses of a mysterious man in the distance staring at her.  When she describes this man to the housekeeper, he is identified as the former valet, Peter Quint…who is dead.

Convinced that Quint is after Miles, the governess begins to keep a close guard on the children.  When another ghost—the former governess, Miss Jessel—shows up, the governess knows that she is after Flora.  The governess is stricken with paranoia that the ghosts are bent on finishing what they began when they were alive: “corrupting”* her charges.  Both children seem to be unaware of these specters—yet the governess cannot help but suspect that they see the ghosts, too, and are lying to her about it. 

So begins a series of nocturnal sightings, strange behavior from the children, and the governess vacillating between writing to their uncle for help, or trying to stare down the ghosts on her own.

I said at the beginning of this post that this story keeps me spinning in circles (much like the turning of a screw, actually…).  The first reason for this that I am not a fan of Henry James in general, yet I think this is a well-crafted story nevertheless. 

The second reason is that The Turn of the Screw brings up many questions about what really happened—particularly because the narrative structure is so complex, and the governess is not a reliable narrator—and there are so many interpretations that the truth cannot be determined.  For instance: is the governess really a heroine fighting ghosts, or is she insane?  Are the children innocent, or the willing pawns of supernatural evil?  Are the ghosts (if they do exist) evil, or—like some ghost folklore would suggest—are they haunting Bly because they were wronged during their life?   

Finally, the ending brings up one question that cannot be asked without completely spoiling the book: why did Miles collapse, dead, in the governess’ arms?  Some interpretations claim that she killed him via psychological badgering (or perhaps all her “caresses” were really strangling and physical abuse).  I do not completely believe this interpretation, since any governess who was deemed responsible for a child’s death would not have gotten another post—and it’s obvious that, since this governess went on to teach Douglas’ sister, she was exonerated from any guilt.

In the governess’ last confrontation of Quint, Miles dies suddenly, as if what was keeping him alive abandons his body.  So here is my completely off-the-wall interpretation that has little substantiation in the text: Miles has been dead the entire time, and has only seemed alive because it was being supported by the supernatural forces of Quint and Jessel.  This is why he is sent home from school without having done anything: he’s a corpse.  This is why he, even more than Flora, seems aware of the ghosts and the governess’ suspicions of him.  Of course that doesn’t explain Flora’s weird behavior (she is survives the novel, distraught and outraged at the governess), unless she is somehow aware of her brother’s “undead” state and is keeping it a secret from their governess because of her tendency to overreact.

*Since this is a Victorian setting, the corruption is most likely sexual rather than any other moral corruption (like lying or being “bad”).  At best Quint and Jessop carried on a love affair and the children were witnesses to it, or at worst they were child molesters, which would explain the governess’ horror and resolution not to let the ghosts near the children.  That is, unless all of this was in the governess’ delusional mind…

Recommended Reading Age: High School at least

Parental Notes: Ghosts and supernatural phenomena, sexuality, overcomplicated narrative structure, and general thematic creepiness.

Availability: Free on Kindle or hardcover.  Although I still can't believe I'm suggesting anyone read Henry James--not because this book isn't well-written; my main problem with James is that his characters lack sympathy.  They merely exist, not urging the reader (well, at least me) to root for any particular player in the story. 

Adaptations: I have only seen the 1999 version which was pretty faithful to the book (meaning it did nothing to answer any of my questions).  The 1961 Deborah Kerr movie “The Innocents” apparently is also based on the book, as well as a new 2009 TV adaptation starring Michelle Dockery, are among the other notable adaptations.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"The Hound of the Baskervilles": A Review

Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/3b/Cover_(Hound_of_Baskervilles,_1902).jpg/200px-Cover_(Hound_of_Baskervilles,_1902).jpg


It seems hardly necessary to summarize Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s best-known Sherlock Holmes novel.  Not only is it so familiar that even those who haven’t read the book can give an adequate outline of the plot, the plot itself is not the most complex of the Holmes adventures. 

The beginning of The Hound of the Baskervilles takes place, not with Holmes and Watson ‘round their hearth at 221b Baker Street, but actually outside.  I mean outside the book itself.  See, prior to writing Baskervilles Doyle had committed the perfect crime: he had murdered Sherlock Holmes in front of the entire world, right there, plain in black and white.  And there was nothing anyone could do about it.  Doyle got away, scot-free (which, since he was a Scot, explains how he knew how to do it in the first place…).

Doyle was faced with a Frankensteinian issue some authors encounter when they achieve the popularity they’ve desired for so long: their characters come to life, the public loves them more than the author, and the author can’t get on with other projects because their audience is always clamoring for more of their old characters.  Fellow mystery writer Agatha Christie had the same problem with Poirot.  L.M. Montgomery got stuck writing an entire series about Anne Shirley.  And A.C. Doyle thought his historical novels were his best works, but they were constantly being overshadowed by Holmes!  So what was he to do but to kill him off to make room for Sir Nigel and the White Company?*

Unfortunately for him, Holmes adventures meant big bucks, and he needed the money.  He didn’t want to resurrect Holmes from the dead (just yet).  So, in order to capitalize on Holmes’ name, Doyle wrote a novel set before the incident at Reichenbach Falls.  Using a story and setting that were too good to pass up, Baskervilles is set in Dartmoor, in the southern county of Devon. 

Sir Charles Baskerville has died of a heart attack, but the local doctor James Mortimer suspects some sort of foul play, partly due to a story of an ancient curse on the Baskerville clan: that a giant hound roams the moors around Baskerville Hall, seeking revenge on the entire clan for an act of violence done by one of their forefathers.  Dr. Mortimer hires Holmes to protect the new Baskerville heir from an untimely death.  Holmes sends Dr. Watson as bodyguard for Henry Baskerville as they journey into the eerie moors of his estate. 

Because Holmes is absent—working behind the scenes, as it were—for most of the narrative, Doyle allowed himself some distance from his overpopular creation.  Instead, it is almost a spinoff novel, starring Watson as the bemused and wary protector of clueless and reckless young man.  It is Watson who gathers the clues, thought Holmes puts them together in the end.  And in the end, as in every self-respecting Holmes adventure, the solution is not so much mystical as it is methodical.
 

*Doyle was wrong, by the way.  I’ve read a few of his historical fiction and, while they’re not bad, they don’t ring with the same quality prose or endearing characters as in Holmes.  His Challenger books, The Lost World and The Poison Belt, however, could have done with a few more entries, in my humbly biased opinion.

Recommended Reading Age: I started this book when I was about twelve, and made the mistake of trying to read it before bed every night. So let’s set this book at age 13, shall we?

Parental Notes: In Doyle’s own words, this story is “A real Creeper.”  Not recommended for children with a phobia of dogs. 

Availability: You can get it on Kindle for free, or for a dollar more purchase the edition including the original Sidney Pagetillustrations (A clue: spend the dollar.)  There is also a Penguin Classics Hardcover edition which isn’t the copy I own personally, but I really like this cover art that reminds me of insect specimens.

Adaptations: TONS.  I’ve seen a lot of them—even the Russian version (which I watched undubbed, but still understood every word despite not speaking Russian…because I’ve seen so many OTHER versions)—and for creepiness you can’t beat the Rathbone version  though Brett lovers will be true to Jeremy, and the Masterpiece Mystery one starring Richard Roxburgh has some good points, too, notably the portrayal of Watson.  The episode of Sherlock entitled “TheHounds of Baskerville” is more homage than a straight-up adaptation.  And then there’s the 2000 versionwhich I only mention in case other viewers like to watch Matt Frewer gnawing on scenery as much as I do.