Literature blog

Back to main blog

I've read a lot of good books in my life. But I only started this blog in 2019. So you'll have to make do with my thoughts on books I've read since then.

By author:
By title:
By date:

Jane Austen

Thoughts on Mansfield Park

16 January 2020 — Read time: 14 hrs.

I found Mansfield Park, Jane Austen's third novel (not counting Northanger Abbey) to be sort of boring overall. It didn't quite contain the sophistication of Emma, the subtlety of Persuasion, or the fun-ness of Pride and Prejudice. That said, the ending of the book really brought things together, and I'm now convinced that Mansfield Park is predominantly a biblical novel. The estate at Mansfield park is clearly a microcosm of the world. The sinners, Maria and Julia, are banished from Mansfield for their misdeeds. Julia is allowed back only after repenting, while Maria ends up having to spend the rest of her life living in isolation with Mrs. Norris (i.e. hell). Sir Thomas realizes that he hadn't advocated "the necessity of self-denial and humility" (pg. 400) enough as a father, which led to his daughters' lack of virtue. To add to that, he recognizes Aunt Norris (the devil) as "an hourly evil...a part of himself that must be borne forever" (original sin), and that Julia was spared over Maria due to "her having been less the darling of her Aunt Norris" (pg. 402). The good and moral people, Fanny and Edmund, are of course rewarded for their virtues and are accepted and provided for (heaven) by Sir Thomas (the Heavenly Father). Mr. Crawford can be seen as the embodiment of sin and temptation itself: he takes many forms over the course of the novel, tempting each character with the sin they are most vulnerable to committing (lust for Maria, envy for Julia, etc.). Anyways, that's just my interpretation. I've compiled my favorite passages here.

  • Fanny is the poorest protagonist in all of Austen's books. She is also the most quiet and reticent. Emma, on the other hand, is the richest and perhaps the most outspoken (besides Marianne). There seems to be a correlation between a character's economic status and how free they feel to speak their mind and draw attention to themselves. The spectrum of poor to rich aligns with the spectrum of seeing and being seen (see discussion on pg. 62).

  • Pg. 95-97: my favorite passage in the whole book; an interesting discussion about the church and the value that clergymen provide to society.

  • Fanny is terrified of being seen; of being perceived by society. Example: her reluctance to lead the ball (pg. 244).

  • Mansfield park is clearly well-written, indicating a maturity in Jane Austen's writing that wasn't quite there in Sense and Sensibility. But while the characters each have their good moments, they are all, on average, sort of annoying and boring. Either they are vain and mean people (e.g. Mr. Crawford, Ms. Norris) or reserved and uninteresting (e.g. Fanny, Edmund, to some extent). To add on to that, the plot is slow and rambling, with only occasional events that are exciting to read about.

  • Vol. 3 ch. 13 is written almost wholly in terms of letters that fanny receives from Mansfield. Sort of interesting in the way it conveys the inescapability of the mansfield drama.

  • Vol. 3 ch. 14: Fanny really needs to get off her high horse.

Thoughts on Persuasion

6 October 2019

This is the third Jane Austen book I've read this year. I'm not quite decided yet, but I think this is my favorite. It's either this or Emma. I'm going to switch up my literature review style and, instead of posting my general thoughts on the book and its characters, just post some of the notes I jotted down while reading it.

  • Anne in contrast with Emma? It seems like Austen is experimenting with a new kind of character. While Emma might be Austen's crowning achievement, Anne is sort of a response to that. Where Emma is confident, outspoken, and overassuming, Anne is timid, knowledgeable of her social place, but wise and socially adept. See the excerpt from pg. 106 for evidence of this.

  • Anne seems to be living in a sort of dystopian landscape where everyone around her is terrible. It's funny how everyone dismisses her opinions and actions and doesn't think twice about her, even though she's smarter, cleverer, and more interesting than any of them. Sir Eliot is vain, Elizabeth has a superiority complex (but has nothing to feel superior about), Mary is jealous and always wants attention. Well, I guess it's only her family that sucks. Lady Russell is cool, Captain Wentworth is cool, Charles Hayter is cool. There's something sort of surreal about the social landscape in this book; it feels more exaggerated and less real. That's a good thing though.

  • Is the fact that Anne loses her senses (reality blurs, etc.) whenever she interacts with Wentworth a sort of ironic feature? None of Austen's other heroines let themselves be affected by their man to such a degree, and in most regards, Anne is the wisest and most collected of all Austen's heroines. If it were sincere, this fact would be very uncharacteristic of Anne and would read as a sort of affirmation of the superiority of Wentworth and of Anne's susceptibility to his masculine charms. I don't think Austen is making that point. See the excerpt from pg. 84 as an example of the reality blur that happens.

  • Per usual, I've compiled a list of my favorite passages from the book, attached here.

Thoughts on Sense and Sensibility

20 July 2019, 12 PM

This is the second Jane Austen book I've read this month (the third in my lifetime), and I have to say I'm liking her writing more and more. I found this book a bit harder to read than Emma -- I guess I forgot to write a follow-up post to my last entry saying that I finished it -- but once I got a hundred pages in I got used to it. Overall, I really liked Sense and Sensibility: the characters were interesting and the plot was original and surprising. So many twists and turns. Favorite female character would have to be Marianne or Mrs. Jennings, mainly because anytime they made an appearance you just knew some drama or gossip was about to go down. Favorite male characters were Willoughby (even though he's a self-proclaimed "rascal", which, in my understanding, is the 19th century equivalent of a major douchebag) and Sir John, who was always so good natured and fun. Obviously, I hated Fanny and John Dashwood. For anyone who's read the book, no explanation should be necessary on that front. Although I liked Elinor as the protagnist, Jane Austen was so concerned with portraying her as the golden standard in sensibility that Elinor was a bit boring to read. To quote Emma, no one can love a reserved person. Also, her relationship with Edward felt completely flat to me, as she never expressed strong feelings about him until the moment he asked her to marry him. Anyways, here are some of my favorite passages:

  • "'Brandon is just the kind of man,' said Willoughby one day when [Marianne and he] were walking together, 'whom everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and nobody remembers to talk to.'
    'That is exactly what I think of him,' cried Marianne." (pg. 42) - 1) That's one of the most devastating insults I've ever heard, and 2) this makes it all the more surprising that Marianne ends up with Brandon in the end (albeit, she does go through some major personal growth).

  • "'You are mistaken, Elinor,' she said warmly, 'in supposing I know very little of Willoughby. I have not known him long indeed, but I am much better acquainted with him than I am with any other creature in the world, except yourself and mama. It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy; it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others. I should hold myself guilty of greater imporpriety in accepting a horse from my brother than from Willoughby. Of John I know very little, though we have lived together for years; but of Willoughby my judgement has long been formed.'" (pg. 49) - Marianne to Elinor explaining why she feels okay accepting a horse from Willoughby.

  • "To your sister I wish all imaginable happiness; to Willougby that he may endeavor to deserve her." (pg. 145) - Colonel Brandon to Elinor when he hears a rumor about an engagement between Marianne and Willougby. Another semi-savage insult, this time directed at Willoughby from Colonel Brandon though.

  • "A man who has nothing to do with his own time has no conscience in his intrusion on that of others." (pg. 171) - Marianne, about Colonel Brandon.

  • Not a passage, but on pg. 210 Jane Austen speaks in the first person for the only time in the whole book. Sort of interesting.

  • 'Elinor made no answer. Her thoughts were silently fixed on the irreparable injury which too early an independance and its consequent habits of idleness, dissipation, and luxury, had made in the mind, the character, the happiness, of a man who, to every advantage of person and talents, united a disposition naturally open and honest, and a feeling, affectionate temper. The world had made him extravagant and vain. Extravagance and vanity had made him coldhearted and selfish.' (pg. 280) - Elinor reacting to Willougby's explanation of his behavior after he came over upon hearing Marianne was sick. One of Elinor's greatest strengths is exemplified in this passage: her ability to see through people's bullshit and understand what makes them the way they are. She's the only one who isn't affected by Willougby's charms, so she treats him the way he ought to be treated. It's natural then, that when Willougby finally has a reckoning of sorts, he seeks out Elinor to confide in, knowing that she understands him better than most.

  • "I considered the past; I saw in my own behaviour since the beginning of our acquaintence with him last autumn nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave. (...) Had I died, it would have been self-destruction." (pg. 293) - Marianne to Elinor on one of their walks after Marianne recovered from her illness. I like this passage because it highlights how it is expected for women to suppress their emotions in favor of 'elegance'. For Marianne to trade her vibrancy for sensibility seems, to me, to be sacrificing her best qualities.

  • "That [Willougby] was forever inconsolable, that he fled from society, or contracted an habitual gloom of temper, or died of a broken heart, must not be depended on; for he did neither. He lived to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself. His wife was not always out of humor, nor his home always uncomfortable; and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity.
    For Marianne, however, in spite of his incivility in surviving her loss - he always retained that decided regard which interested him in everything that befell her, and made her his secret standard of perfection in a woman; and many a rising beauty would be slighted by him in afterdays as bearing no comparison with Mrs. Brandon." (pg. 323, the last page) - Willougby's story was the most tragic of all, and therefore one of the most interesting.

First thoughts on Emma

29 June 2019, 1 PM

I'm 250 pages into Emma by Jane Austen, so a little more than halfway through. I'm liking it a lot so far. I found it a little hard to keep track of all the characters at the beginning, but then someone told me that the movie Clueless is a modern-day retelling of Emma, and since then I've been using the movie to help me keep track of who's who. The analogy worked well for the first hundred or so pages, but after that it fell apart a little. Clearly Emma is Cher and Miss Taylor (AKA Mrs. Weston) is Dion. I will say, though, that Emma is quite a bit smarter than Cher, although their views on social class and matchmaking are remarkably similar. Mr. Elton is, well, Elton, and Mr. Martin (who I thought was a nice guy who Emma screwed over) is Travis, the stoner guy in Clueless. Harriet, Emma's pet project for the first quarter of the book, is clearly Tai, and Mr. Knightly (my favorite character) is Josh. And of course, Frank Churchill is Christian. I'm looking forward to seeing what the 19th century equivalent to being gay is (i.e. what prevents Emma from marrying Frank). Based on my intuition and on the plot of Clueless, I'm fairly confident that Emma is going to end up with Mr. Knightly. After all, he is the only one who matches her in both intellect and wit. Plus, Emma was so repulsed by the thought of him marrying Jane Fairfax (who, as far as I can tell, has no analog in film), that it must be the case that she is into him. I also hope that Mr. Martin ends up with Harriet, as Travis does with Tai, since Mr. Martin seemed like a cool dude.

Some of my favorite quotes/passages so far:

  • "Success supposes endeavor" - Mr. Knightly roasting Emma when she claimed that she succeeded in matchmaking Mr. Weston with Miss Taylor

  • "These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good. How trifling they make everything else appear. I feel now as it I could think of nothing but these poor creatures all the rest of the day; and yet who can say how soon it may all vanish from my mind!" - Emma, in regards to poor people. Probably her most Cher moment thus far.

  • [Emma] "To be sure, our discordancies must always arise from my being in the wrong."
    [Mr. Knightly] "Yes," said he, smiling, "and reason good. I was sixteen years old when you were born."
    [Emma] "A material difference, then," she replied; "and no doubt you were much my superior in judgement at that period of our lives; but does not the lapse of one-and-twenty years bring our understandings a good deal nearer?"
    [Mr. Knightly] "Yes, a good deal nearer."

  • "I do not know whether it ought to be so, but certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly. It depends upon the character of those who handle it." - Emma, trying to convince Mr. Knightly that Frank Churchill traveling to London just to get his hair cut isn't as ridiculous as it seems. The takeaway: if you're going to do something ridiculous, own it.

George Eliot

Thoughts on Middlemarch

14 September 2019

Due to the length of Middlemarch -- some 700 pages for the Wordsworth Classics edition that I read -- the number of passages that I found significant was so great that, when I transcribed them, it came out to over 3000 words. To post these quotes like I did for Emma and Sense and Sensibility would make for a very unreadable webpage, so I've decided to attach them in a separate PDF and leave the remainder of this blog post solely for my thoughts and analysis.

Frankly, I'm feeling too much with regards to Middlemarch to put it all into a single post. Even if I were to write multiple posts, I couldn't come close to expressing all the ways in which this book has affected me. Its story is as vast as its characters are deep; it's an ocean -- it crashes over you like a wave, jumbles up your life with the lives of its characters, and leaves you drenched on the shore, struggling to extricate yourself from the fictional world you've gradually adopted into your own soul. A few minutes ago, someone came up to me and said "I've heard that Middlemarch is this really boring book where nothing ever happens." That's certainly one way to look at it -- a bland, majorly-missing-the-point way to look at it. You can't half-ass Middlemarch; clearly, this person did. If you don't make the emotional investment up front, you might as well not even read it. The statement, "nothing ever happens," is categorically false; life happens. That's one of the key features of the book. Like a fine brutalist building, Middlemarch beats you over the head with the everydayness of life. It's a book about a mundane small town, rife with gossip and petty local politics. There are several character arcs in the book that are centered around the fact that nothing ever happens in the town of Middlemarch. Yet Dorothea, in her small town way, is one of the bravest, most courageous characters I've ever read. In the face of ubiquitous darkness, she constantly searches for a higher, sacred ideal in which to believe. In my opinion, Middlemarch is worth reading just for a glimpse into Dorothea's mind.

I had planned to write a long and exhaustive blog post about all my favorite characters: Ladislaw, Lydgate, Casaubon, Celia, Fred Vincy, Mary Garth, Mr. Farebrother, Bulstrode, and the tragic yet redeemed Rosamond. But I don't think that writing any of this would benefit you, the reader, nor me, the author trying to come to terms with a Middlemarch-sized hole in my heart. Dorothea said it best: "No, dear, you would have to feel with me, else you would never know." I'm sad because my own thoughts and emotions are fleeting, and I feel as if I owe it to George Eliot, as a mark of respect, to stay in my affected state for as long as possible. A part of me would like to write down all my thoughts so that I could look at them in the future and be transported back to my current state of mind. But what I'm feeling now is emotional rather than academic, and I know the only way I can return is through the words of Eliot herself. My own compilation of favorite passages will suffice for the time being. And even long in the future, when my typed up passages no longer do it for me, I am consoled by the fact that the text will always be there for me, ready to be reread again and again.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Thoughts on The House of the Dead

25 October 2020 — Read time: 11 hrs.

The House of the Dead isn't one of Dostoevsky's better known or more popular novels, but, according to the forward in my copy, it marks the beginning of the height of his career. This period includes works such as Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamozov, and The Idiot, all of which draw from material and techniques explored by Dostoevsky in The House of the Dead. I enjoyed this book, but I didn't love it. The story was dull at points, and the moments that captured my attention weren't quite enough to redeem the novel as a whole in my eyes. I don't have a whole lot to say on this one ... I guess that's indicative of my feelings towards the book. Below are some passages which I liked.

  • Suppose a prisoner has lived qietly for several years and by good conduct won certain privileges. Suddenly, to the astonishment of his superiors, he becomes mutinous, plays the very devil, and even ventures upon some capital crime such as murder, violation, etc. All wonder at the cause of this extraordinary conduct on the part of a man believed to be incapable of such a thing; but it is simply the convulsive manifestation of his personality, an instinctive melancholia, an uncontrollable desire for self-assertion which obscures his reason. ... Reason, however, has no part in this convulsion. It must not be forgotten that almost every act of self-assertion on the part of a convict is regarded as a crime. (pg. 81, Everyman Library edition)

  • What exasperates convicts above all is the manifestation of contempt or repugnance in the behaviour of their officers. Those who think it is only necessary to feed and clothe a prisoner, and to treat him strictly according to law, are much mistaken. Howeverso debased, a man instinctively demands respect for his humanity as such. Every prisoner is well aware that he has been condemned as a reprobate, and knows the distance which separates him from his superiors; but neither branding iron nor chains will make him forget that he is a man. He must, therefore, be humanely treated. Humane treatment may raise up one in whom the divine image has long been obscured. The unfortunate, above all men, needs a light hand. It is his salvation, his only joy. I have met with some officials kind and indeed noble characters, and I have seen what a beneficent influence they exercised over the poor, humiliated men entrusted to their care. (pg. 111)

  • The most striking characteristic of the Russians is their conscientiousness and love of justice. There is no false vanity, no sly ambition to rise without merit: such faults are alien to our people. Take them from their rough shell, and you will perceive, if you study them closely, attentively, and without prejudice, qualities which you would never have suspected. Our philosophers have very little to teach the common folk. I will go further and say that those sages might even take lessons from them. (pg. 153)

  • The struggle between authority and the prisoner is very bitter on both sides. What in great measure justifies the criminal in his own eyes is his conviction that the people among whom he has been born and has lived will acquit him. He is certain that the common people will not consider him a renegade, unless, indeed, he has sinned against persons of his own class, against his brethren. In that respect, his mind is quite at rest: supported by his conscience, his heart will remain tranquil, and that is the principal thing. He feels himself on firm ground, and has no particular hatred for the knout when once the punishment is over. He knows that is was inevitable, and consoles himself with the knowledge that he was not the first and will not be the last to receive it. Does the soldier detest the Turk whom he fights? Not in the least! Yet he sabres him, hacks him to pieces, kills him. (pg. 185)

  • As for the official executioner, he is a convict chosen for this purpose. He is apprenticed to an old hand, and as soon as he knows his trade he resides in the prison, where he lives alone. He has a room, which he shares with no one. Sometimes, indeed, he has a separate establishment, but he is always under guard. A man is not a machine. Although he whips by virtue of his office, he is sometimes maddened, and beats for pleasure. Although he entertains no malice towards his victims, a desire to show his skill in the art of whipping may sharpen his vanity. He works as an artist; he knows well that he is a reprobate and that he excites universal dread. That very fact is bound to influence him and arouse his brutal instincts. (pg. 195)

  • No man lives, or can live, without having some object in view, and without making efforts to attain that object. But when there is no such object and hope is entirely fled, anguish often turns a man into a monster. The object we all had in view was liberty, the remission of our confinement and hard labour. I have tried to separate the convicts into sharply defined classes and categories, but it cannot be done satisfactorily. Reality is a thing of infinite diversity, and defies the most ingenious deductions and definitions of abstract thought, nay, abhors the clear and precise classifications in which we so delight. Reality tends to infinite subdivisions of things, and truth is a matter of infinite shadings and differentiations. Every one of us in that prison had his own peculiar, interior, strictly personal life which lay altogether outside the world of regulations and official superintendence. (pg. 257)

Henry James

Thoughts on Daisy Miller

30 October 2020 — Read time: 2 hrs.

I don't usually read the introductions to books. I don't read them afterwards, typically out of laziness, and I don't read them before because I don't want the book spoiled for me, either thematically or in terms of plot. I did read the one for Daisy Miller however, because I could sense a depth to the novel (or novella) of which the subtleties weren't immediately apparent to me. I'm glad I did, as there was sentence in the introduction that helped me to understand what I was feeling: "Daisy Miller, ultimately, is story about America, about a way of life which made its children as different from Europeans as chalk from cheese." It was a very familiar feeling to me — after all, both Portrait of a Lady (PoL) and The Ambassadors (TA) were about Americans in Europe. The theme of the American national identity in contrast with that of Europe is a common thread throughout many of James' novels, tying together his early works (DM), his middle works (PoL), and his late works (TA). Of course, as the introduction to DM points out, James is not one to stop at declaring broad generalities; he is a master of the specific, and each of the aforementioned novels are unique in the way they analyze and diagnose the American and European sensibilities. The character of Daisy Miller felt to me like an unrefined prototype of Isabel Archer. Both are certainly children of the American individualist ideal, but where Isabel confronts Europe with a deep curiosity, tempered with intelligence and a quiet skepticism, Daisy seems fully sure of who she is and the cultural expectations of Europe do little to influence her personality. This isn't to say that Isabel is unsure of herself — if anything, she has the strongest sense of self of any of James' characters I've read — but rather her capacity for spiritual and intellectual growth seems greater than Daisy's, and she travels to Europe not as a tourist but in the way a pioneer might have approached the western frontier. For Isabel, Europe is a sort of social proving ground, upon which she examines and refines her personal belief system. But I'm not here to talk about Isabel Archer. For all her immaturiy, Daisy is as much a substantive character as any. Her belief in personal liberty, echoing the transcendentalist belief that anyone, not just the chosen elite, can attain spiritual salvation, clashes with Winterbourne's sense of convention. The setting of Geneva, an early center of Calvinism, looms large in the background for the first half of the novel. While both protestantism and transcendentalism call for personal agency in spiritual matters, the differences between the two philosophies are captured in the American expatriot community's desire to distance themselves from Daisy's alleged impropriety. The protestant attitude of social conformity pervades European society, but, as Daisy is quick to realize, there is a certain element of performance to it. At the end of the book, even Winterbourne is able to sense the degree to which high society's outraged reaction to Daisy Miller was fake. Well, too little too late.

Thoughts on The Portrait of a Lady

5 December 2019

I read The Portrait of a Lady within a month of finishing Middlemarch, which made it all the more interesting because James does something similar to Eliot. There were a lot of parallels between PL and M, both thematically and in terms of characters. My main takeaway from PL was that Henry James is a master of the english language and a brilliant story crafter. I feel like, since reading him, my own writing has improved immensly as I now try to emulate him. Isabel Archer was one of the most fascinating heroines I've ever encountered--right up there alongside Dorothea Brooke and Emma Woodhouse--but that she had an especially sophisticated and nuanced set of social skills that set her apart from the others. James excels at writing dialogue, and every conversation between his characters reads as a rich lesson in how to be socially adept and an interesting conversant. Per usual, I've compiled my favorite passages which can be found here. Below are some notes that I jotted down while reading the book.

  • Lots of talk of national identity. James makes a point of saying where each character is from and how that affects their characteristics, as well as describing the stereotypes of being from a certain place. He seems to be exploring the idea of an American in Europe, or more generally, countrymen out of their country (English in France, French in Italy)...the idea of foreigners plays heavily.

  • The notes in the back of the book keep pointing out imagery of mother figures: Madonna, the use of the word "mere" when addressing nuns, etc. How is the idea of motherhood used in the novel? Idk.

  • Lots of talk about what people do for a living. Lost dreams and unrealized ambitions. See madame Merle's description of osmond on page 249 for an example. Comparison between free will and destiny; choosing ones own course of action so as to achieve ones goals (pg. 120, 186) vs. having ended up not achieving them all the same.

  • Chapter 42 was insane. It's essentially one continuous description of Isabel's thoughts on her marriage, her husband, and her life, uninterrupted by any sort of dialogue or break. It was mentally exhausting to read, but definitely requires careful consideration. Lots of parallels between Isabel's feelings towards Osmond and Dorothea's feeling towards Casaubon. A bit of faith talk, lots of disillusionment talk.

  • Contrast between control (Osmond) and freedom (Isabel) is exemplified in chapter 50, when Isabel chillingly describes Osmond's sending pansy to the convent as a "finishing touch" to his careful orchestration of her life. She thinks about how he regards Pansy as a work of art, and how he made her to be the heroine of a tragedy. Osmond had never really become a villain until this point, or maybe it was just that Isabel had never realized how terrible he was until this point, and James writes the book through her eyes. Idea of martyrdom under a tyranical hand shows up here.

  • I wonder whether Isabel was ever really free to begin with. Mrs. Touchett conspired to introduce her to Madame Merle, Madame Merle conspired to marry her to Osmand, Osmond made it his goal to control her life. All of Isabel's perceptions of independance were an illusion. Of course, Isabel has Ralph in her corner to put "wind in her sails."" The tone of the novel takes a turn for the dystopian in the second half, but it took me until almost the end of the book to realize how much the world was trying to put Isabel down. Really brilliant story crafting on the part of James.

Thoughts on The Ambassadors

25 September 2020 — Read time: 19 hrs.

I've been putting off writing this post for a few weeks now because this book really did a number on me. It wasn't like Middlemarch, which took my heart on a roller coaster ride, and it wasn't like Portrait of a Lady, which stuck with me by virtue of it being a masterfully constructed novel. Rather, The Ambassadors threw my mind into a state of confusion and uncertainty, partially from the impenetrability of the text itself and partially from the complexity of the content. I'm going to hesitantly say that the book was good and that I liked it. Another part of me, however, says that I'm not qualified to hold such an opinion because I don't think I fully got the book. Sure, I read it, but it was more like when you read something and then realize that you weren't actually reading it — your eyes scanned the page but your mind was elsewhere — but for the entire book. Most of the time I felt as if I were wading about in murky water, being pushed and pulled in one emotional direction or another by the events of the novel. Periodically, my head popped above the surface and I was able to appreciate, in complete clarity, some truly beautiful passages which pushed my mind and spirit to an identifiably wonderful place. See, it's funny that I'm using water imagery because James uses water imagery a ton throughout the novel. In fact, most of the passages that engendered the aforementioned feeling of beauty were such water-related metaphors. Maybe I did learn a thing or too after all. There are a few things I can say with certainty about the book: it's characterization of Paris was unlike any I've ever seen and now I really want to go there and I want to be Chad Newsome; the beginning of the book sets up a Heart of Darkness type scenario, though I had a hard time deciding who was Kurtz, until I ultimately came to the conclusion that no one was Kurtz and that maybe The Ambassadors wasn't really like HoD; the title of the book seems to refer to the many ways in which various characters act as ambassadors, as people who act on behalf of others and whose motivations aren't their own — James seems generally interested in the various ways people can be not free.

Update 10/30/20: I can now see how The Ambassadors reaps the harvest of the seeds which Daisy Miller sowed. Imagine the astronaut meme: "wait, it's all America vs. Europe?", "Always has been."

  • "She [Maria Gostrey] gave him however for the hour, as she had given him the previous day, no further sign than to show how she dealt with boys; meeting them with the air of old Parisian practice that she had for every one, for everything, in turn. Wonderful about the delicate daubs, masterful about the way to make tea, trustful about the legs of chairs and familiarly reminiscent of those, in the other time, the named, the numbered or the caricatured, who had flourished or failed, disappeared or arrived..." - (pg. 147-148, Penguin Classics edition)

  • "Waymarsh himself, for the occasion, was drawn into the eddy; it absolutely, though but temporarily, swallowed him down, and there were days when Strether seemed to bump against him as a sinking swimmer might brush a submarine object. The fathomless medium held them — Chad's manner was the fathomless medium; and our friend felt as if they had passed each other, in their deep immersion, with the round impersonal eye of silent fish." - (pg. 181)

  • "This note indeed the next thing overflowed for Strether into a quiet stream of demonstration that as soon as he had let himself go he felt as the real relief. It had consciously gathered to a head, but the reservoir had filled sooner than he knew, and his companion's touch was to make the waters spread. There were some things that had to come in time if they were to come at all. If they didn't come in time they were lost for ever. It was the general sense of them that had overwhelmed him with its long slow rush." (pg. 214)

  • "She had trusted him, liked him, and it was to come back to him afterwards that she had told him things. She had dipped into the waiting medium at last and found neither surge not chill — nothing but the small splash she could herself make in the pleasant warmth, nothing but the safety of dipping and dipping again." (pg. 248)

  • "It was as if he had found out he was tired — tired not from his walk, but from that inward exercise which had known, on the whole, for three months, so little intermission. That was it — when once they were off he had dropped; this moreover was what he had dropped to, and now he was touching bottom. He was kept luxuriously quiet, soothed and amused by the consciousness of what he had found at the end of his descent. It was very much what he had told Maria Gostrey he should like to stay on for, the hugely distributed Paris of summer, alternately dazzling and dusky, with a weight lifted for him off its columns and cornices and with shade and air in the flutter of awnings as wide as avenues." (pg. 455)

Thoughts on Washington Square

1 August 2020 — Read time: 6 hrs.

Nice and short, compared to Portrait of a Lady. I liked this one very much, though I found the first half to be more interesting and enjoyable than the second. The characters are all rich and well developed, and the premise of the book was classic James — all about the money. While reading Washington Square, I noticed that HJ is skilled at playing with different time scales. Most of the book is written minute-by-minute (i.e. we experience conversations of the characters in real time), but, when he needs to, James is fluent at writing day-by-day or even month-by-month. This allows the plot to move at a pace appropriate to the action, and lets us not have to spend time reading in detail about things that are undeserving of such close examination. In effect, James' ability to seamlessly transition between different time scales is what allows Washington Square to be as short and concise as it is. I appreciate the efficiency; it shows a great respect towards readers. Anyways, here's some passages that stuck out to me:

  • "To her mind, there was nothing of the infinite about Mrs. Penniman; Catherine saw her all at once, as it were, and was not dazzled by the apparition; whereas her father's great faculties seemed, as they stretched away, to lose themselves in a sort of luminous vagueness, which indicated, not that they stopped, but that Catherine's own mind ceased to follow them." - (pg. 19, Arcturus Publishing Limited edition)

  • [Dr. Sloper] "He [Morris Townsend] is not what I call a gentleman. He has not the soul of one. He is extremely insinuating; but it's a vulgar nature. I saw through it in a minute. He is altogether too familiar — I hate familiarity. He is a plausible coxcomb."
    [Mrs. Almond] "Ah, well, if you make up your mind so easily, it's a great advantage."
    [Dr. Sloper] "I don't make up my mind easily. What I tell you is the result of thirty years of observation; and in order to be able to form that judgement in a single evening, I have had to spend a lifetime in study." - (pg. 54)

  • "This attack was unexpected, for Mrs. Penniman was not used, in any discussion, to seeing the war carried into her own country — possibly because the enemy generally had doubts of finding subsistence there. To her own consciousness, the flowery fields of her reason had rarely been ravaged by a hostile force. It was perhaps on this account that in defending them she was majestic rather than agile." (pg. 168)

  • "She [Catherine] continued to look at him, however, and as she did so she made the strangest observation. It seemed to be he, and yet not he; it was the man who had been everything, and yet this person was nothing. How long ago it was — how old she had grown — how much she had lived! She had lived on something that was connected with him, and she had consumed it in doing so." (pg. 232)

Jon McGregor

Thoughts on Reservoir 13

21 July 2020 — Read time: 8 hrs.

This book was not at all what I expected based on the title and cover (I guess I just discovered the true meaning behind "never judge a book by it's cover"). I loved the book, don't get me wrong. The description on the back makes it seem like it's gonna be a mystery novel, but really it belongs to a whole new genre of fiction that I don't even know what to call. For starters, there aren't really any main characters. Rather, the novel follows a whole town of people — about 30 people specifically — as they go about their daily lives following the disappearance of a thirteen year old girl (which happens in the first few pages). The missing girl is mentioned periodically throughout the book, but overall this plot point plays a very small role. McGregor structures the book into thirteen chapters, each covering exactly one year. The title refers to the thirteen reservoirs that are located near the village, and where the village people often go for walks. There's a lot of 'thirteen' symbolism (imagery? not sure the appropriate literary device) throughout; it's difficult to identify the end that this serves though, aside from being a cool little feature of the writing. McGregor is a good writer and the book was easy to read, although it did take me a few chapters to get used to his short sentence style. There's no overarching plot to the novel: it just starts at one moment in time and ends at another, having narrated the lives of a handful of people along the way. The conclusion is anti-climactic, but that's not at all a bad thing. It's fitting with the theme of "everydayness" that is found elsewhere in the book. One of the most interesting things about Reservoir 13 is that it includes characters of all different ages. Over the course of things, we see each of these characters age thirteen years, witnessing all the different phases of life. I'd highly recommend this one, especially cause it's a fairly easy read compared to some of the other stuff I've read this year.

Leo Tolstoy

Thoughts on short stories

13 August 2020 — The Kreutzer Sonata — Read time: 3.5 hrs.

I'm going to tentatively say that I liked this one. As with the other two stories, the writing was good, but for some reason it didn't flow as well for me: it was so dense that I often spaced out while reading and had to reread large portions of it. There were three passages that I marked, but I don't think they're worth repeating here. I liked that the story was told with a framed narrative (like Heart of Darkness), and that the context of this frame was a moving train. Very topical, considering I took a class on trains in literature this past spring. Also very topical given the millions of times I saw a moving train used as a reference frame in my physics classes. There's a lot to be unpacked (yikes, what is this, a freshman seminar?) with a framed narrative. In this case, the narrative is twice framed: once, when we encounter our narrator riding in train car with several strangers, and again, when Pozdnischeff begins to tell his story to the narrator. While the train literally transports the characters from one spatial location to another, Pozdnischeff's story transports the reader to different moments in time. In a sort of reversal, however, space is the dimension that marches on unyielding—as a consequence of the characters' entrapment on the train—while time is easily manipulable. Side note: as a great admirer of the theory of general relativity, I absolutely love any theme remotely related to space and time. Pozdnischeff shares with the narrator many interesting thoughts on the natures of concepts like love, servitude, labor, and art. Then the train stops, he finishes his tale, bids the narrator goodbye, and the story ends. Space and time cease to exist.

9 August 2020 — The Death of Ivan Ilyich — Read time: 1.5 hrs.

Fantastic! A masterpiece! Deeply disturbing!

7 August 2020 — How Much Land Does a Man Need — Read time: 30 mins.

Not much to say here. This story was quite short and really was more of a parable about the endlessness (and futility) of human ambition. Moral of the story: how much land does a man need? 6 ft. Ok, not exactly the moral, but rather the literal ending. The moral is probably something like, "the quest for more land, wealth, and property leads only to further unhappiness" or "material pleasures are not the secret to a good life." Reading this in 2020, this kind of story seems a bit overdone (even though it was well crafted), but perhaps it was still original when it was published back in the nineteenth century.

Edith Wharton

Thoughts on The House of Mirth

15 November 2020 — Read time: 11 hrs.

A few scattered observations relating to The House of Mirth (HoM). I'm ashamed it took me this long to discover it, but I recently realized that my favorite works of Austen, James, Eliot, and Wharton are all novels of manners. I've been feeling for a while that there was some underlying connection between the books which attracted me, though I haven't been able to put my finger on it until now. Right, they're all a social history of sorts. Fascinating. Perhaps it was a surface-level understanding of this fact that made me initially lump HoM into the same category as the television show Gossip Girl: glitzy pop-culture. I quickly realized, however, that only someone who didn't understand how books work would hold such an opinion. If any comparison does exist between the two works, it's simply that GG takes the shallow facade of HoM and mines it for six repetitive seasons. Such analysis need not be taken any further for fear of insulting Wharton herself.

Indeed, HoM has depths to match the best of James. Wharton's execution of American realism paints a brilliant picture of a society characterized by conspicuous consumption, a term I never fully understood until now. The "society" is in fact a sham: they're nothing but a shiny spectacle, devoid of substance; they're blind to their own foolishness, ignorant to their destructive tendancies; they're bad actors in an awkwardly-written play (see passage on pg. 175, below). The lack of authenticity is incredible. But, out of the mess, we gain hope that real value exists in Lily Bart. Unfortunately, that hope is slowly crushed over the course of the novel. One self-destructive choice after another slowly degrades Lily's position in society, as conflicting components of her soul battle one another for control over her actions. See the passage from pg. 307 below for a discussion on the nature of heredity, a concept which is fitting with the larger elements of naturalism in the novel. Seeing how Selden is often used as a mirror or looking glass for Lily, I prefer to think of him as a physical manifestation of one side of Lily Bart's personality, rather than as an independant character. In contrast with the drugs she becomes dependant on at the end of the book, Selden provides Lily with clarity at the expense of internal peace. He, or rather the component of her he represents, fights violently for an idealistic (i.e. unattainable) spiritual authenticity. In the passage on pg. 307, Wharton describes Lily's anscestors as "rootless;" I interepret this description as being close in meaning to the word "inauthentic" or "not real." Strength, apparently, is derived from earthly attachments, but the society of the novel is the epitome of detachment from reality. What it means to have real beliefs in the context of the gilded age is unclear, although the book tells us for certain that they are out of place.

In observing the text itself, I noticed that Wharton employs the M-dash to an interesting effect. In fact, I've observed this before in Middlemarch. Compare the passage from pg. 307 (below) to the passage from MM on pg. 655. In both cases the repeated use of an M-dash creates a rising tide of emotion; the various abrupt clauses build on one another like the bubbles in a pot boiling over. The fact that each thought is cut just short of a full sentence adds a sense of urgency to the passages, which stands out against backgrounds of composed and considered prose. The pacing of this prose is carefully calibrated to reflect the restraint of social propriety; this restraint is shattered by the excited nature of the M-dash-laden passages.

  • Lily mused. "Don't you think," she rejoined after a moment, "that the people who find fault with society are too apt to regard it as an end and not a means, just as the people who despise money speak as if its only use were to be kept in bags and gloated over? Isn't it fairer to look at them both as opportunities, which may be used either stupidly or intelligently, according to the capacity of the user?" (pg. 66, Bantam Classic Edition)

  • The quality of the air, the exuberance of the flowers, the blue intensity of sea and sky, produced the effect of a closing tableau, when all the lights are turned on at once. This impression was presently heightened by the way in which a consciously conspicuous group of people advanced to the middle front, and stood before Selden with the air of the chief performers gathered together by the exigencies of the final effect. Their appearance confirmed the impression that the show had been staged regardless of expense and emphasized its resemblance to one of those "costume-plays" in which the protagonists walk through the passions without displacing a drapery. The ladies stood in unrelated attitutes calculated to isolate their effects, and the men hung about them as irrelevantly as stage heroes whose tailors are named in the programme. It was Selden himself who unwittingly fused the group by arresting the attention of one of its members. (pg. 175)

  • ...Selden's general watchfulness began to lose itself in a particular study of Miss Bart. It was one of the days when she was so handsome that to be handsome was enough, and all the rest — her grace, her quickness, her social felicities — seemed the overflow of a bounteous nature. But what especially struck him was the way in which she detached herself, by a hundred underfinable shades, from the persons who most abounded in her own style. It was in just such company, the fine flower and complete expression of the state she aspired to, that the differences came out with special poignancy, her grace cheapening the other woman's smartness as her finely-discriminated silences made their chatter dull. The strain of the last hours had restored to her face the deeper eloquence which Selden had lately missed in it, and the bravery of her words to him still fluttered in her voice and eyes. (pg. 205)

  • Since [Lily] had been brought up to be ornamental, she could hardly blame herself for failing to serve any practical purpose; but the discovery put an end to her consoling sense of universal efficiency. (pg. 286)

  • It was indeed miserable to be poor — to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle-age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house. But there was something more miserable still — it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years. That was the feeling which possessed her now — the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spindrift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them. And as she looked back she saw that there had never been a time when she had had any real relation to life. Her parents had been rootless, blown hither and thither on every wind of fashion, without any personal existence to shelter them from its shifting gusts. She herself had grown up without any one spot of earth being dearer to her than another: there was no centre of early pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others. In whatever form a slowly-accumulated past lives in the blood — whether in the concrete image of the old house stored with usual memories, or in the conception of the house not built with hands, but made up of inherited passions and loyalties — it has the same power of broadening and deepening the individual existence, of attaching it by mysterious links of kinship to all the might sum of human striving. (pg. 307)

Elizabeth Wurtzel

Thoughts on Prozac Nation

19 January 2020 — Read time: 9 hrs.

I picked up this book because Elizabeth Wurtzel just died and I encountered her obituary in the New York Times. Prozac Nation is a memoir that documents Wurtzel's lifelong struggle with atypical depression, a subject matter that I certainly wouldn't have opted for had I not been fascinated by the story of the author herself. The writing was superb for the most part — there were a few 'awkward transitions', as the person who borrowed this book from the library before me so curteously noted — which made all the difference in a book that relies on detailed descriptions of warped mental states, stream-of-consciousness hazy recollections, and plot points that repeat themselves over and over. In a less well-written work, these literary features would have become tedious and irritating. I could've done without the stats-referencing call-to-action that was the epilogue, but overall I enjoyed the book; evidence for this being that I read it in only four days, which is unusually quick for someone of my reading speed. I didn't save any good quotes that I found mainly due to it being a library book so I couldn't dog ear the pages like I normally do, but I think even if I had had my own copy I wouldn't have found any sentences or passages to be worth writing down out of context. There were plenty of ideas and pieces of language that stuck with me, but all of it requires the rest of the book to have an emotional effect.