Friday, March 29, 2013

The Life and Adventures of Reading "Nicholas Nickleby"

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. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

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

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.

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.

Monday, March 25, 2013

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

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. 

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?” 
~ 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?”

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Thoughts on Poetry by Emily Dickinson

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. 

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: Hawthorne's "The Blithesdale Romance" and Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"

"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

“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"

“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.)

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 clichĂ© 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.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Reviewing Mark Twain's "The Mysterious Stranger"

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. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Reviewing Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw"

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.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"The Hound of the Baskervilles": A Review

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 over-popular creation. Instead, it is almost a spin-off 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.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Reviewing Bram Stoker's "Dracula"

This book is best served on a dark and stormy night. Unless you, I don’t know, want to sleep at night or something. Written as if it were the combined accounts of several witnesses, Dracula begins with a young man, Jonathan Harker, who gets lost in a Transylvanian village. Finding shelter in a solitary castle with its lone inhabitant, an enigmatic Count, Harker soon finds himself in a living nightmare, captured and used as a source of food by three female vampires. Harker barely escapes the castle and rushes home.

Meanwhile Dracula senses a richer hunting ground in England than in his Romanian homeland. He ships himself—dead, in his coffin—over the channel and infiltrates London society. There he makes the acquaintances of Wilhelmina Murray (Harker’s fiancĂ©e) and her friend Lucy Westenra. Mina is an intelligent, accomplished, and modest lady who symbolizes pure womanhood. Lucy, on the other hand, is beautiful, vivacious, impetuous, and rash—all things looked down upon in a female during the Victorian Era. It is Lucy’s very immodesty that seals her fate. Dracula makes her his first victim, and slowly she herself becomes a vampire: wasting away by day and attacking children and stalking around parks by night.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Reviewing H.G. Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau"

One of the great things about science fiction is that it allows us to view our world in allegorical form. The best science fiction literature accomplishes this without heavy handed preaching or cheesy melodrama. For an example, allow me to humbly present: H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The plot opens with the narrator, Edward Prendick, getting marooned in a lifeboat and eventually coming ashore a nearly deserted island. I say nearly deserted without fear of spoiling the plot, since the name of the story gives away the fact that a Dr. Moreau lives on that island, along with a few other men, his right-hand being an oaf named Montgomery. At first Prendick is treated like an honored guest. Dr. Moreau has been on his island some time, and therefore is curious about the outside world. Prendick, however, is curious more about the strange noises and mysterious behavior of his hosts. But ignorance is bliss, and he soon wishes he hadn’t been rescued at all.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

"The Yellow Wallpaper": A Review

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is proof in black and white how a very short tale—only about fifteen pages—can develop characters, increase drama, and incite thoughtful discussion about deeper themes. In this short story, which is debated to be partially autobiographical—a young woman confined to a room with yellow wallpaper at the orders of her doctor and her husband.