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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
Fantastic! A masterpiece! Deeply disturbing!
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.
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.
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.