Sunday, 25 October 2015

Deal Me In Challenge: Souls Belated by Edith Wharton


Card Drawn: 9 of Diamonds.

So much for my triumphant return in May only to make an appearance 5 months later...

To those few individuals who actually follow my blog, I offer my sincere apologies. It was never my intention to go completely AWOL but I am back for now and that is what counts, right?  Whether or not I will be able to provide new material on a regular basis is anyone's guess. Nonetheless, I figured the best way to ease back into writing reviews would be start off small to reignite my passionate enthusiasm towards literature and gradually build up momentum towards more extensive reviews. The Deal Me in Challenge is a great way to get started again. There still remains a little over two months to finish reading 52 short-stories for the year and I am determined to complete this challenge! 

Let me preface this review by saying that Edith Wharton is one of those highly-acclaimed authors whose writing never appealed to me in the least with a reputation that seemed completely undeserving of merit. In fact, prior to reading Souls Belated, I was quite certain that Wharton, along with her pal Henry James, might just be the two most overrated American writers during this particular time period. Despite its short length, reading Ethan Frome remains one of the most dull and painful reading experiences in recent memory. Both House of Mirth and Age of Innocence produced similar feelings of distaste and extreme boredom, which compelled me toss them aside after the first few chapters without any remorse. Suffice it to say, I approached Wharton with much trepidation, expecting to be  disappointed once more. Consider my surprise then to discover a wonderfully complex and emotionally compelling short-story that made me question my previous assessment of Wharton altogether. I will not go so far as to proclaim a complete change of heart but my resentment towards her as a writer has certainly subsided. I might even consider tackling one of her famous novels again sometime down the road. 

Similar to the many works of Henry James, Wharton adopts an "international theme" and sets her story in Europe rather than America. Lydia and Gannet are an American couple traveling abroad from Milan and elsewhere, all the way to France. When we first meet them on the train to Paris, an undeniable tension is brewing, ready to explode at any possible moment. They find themselves caught between their own sense of morality and the pressures of societal norms--factors which begin to cause a great strain on their relationship. What makes this story fascinating is not so much the actual story but the rich underlying subtext and emotional resonance that reaches its highest point during the climax. Wharton shows complete control of tone, influencing reader response through shifting focalization and ambiguity. The ending is purposefully left open to interpretation, carefully constructed with such vivid and meticulous descriptions that is nothing short of stunning. Rarely have I come across an author who uses the ellipsis in such a lyrical and profound way.

Wharton utilizes subtle nuances, symbolism, foreshadowing and ambiguity to emphasize some of the story's larger thematic concerns. She is critical of marriage as an institution--subverting many conventions associated with the"marriage plot" and is keen to highlight the superficiality of the upper classes. Gender politics, sexuality, male hegemony, paralysis vs. consciousness and hypocrisy are also worth paying attention to in the text. Even as a harsh social critique bound up in heavy drama, spots of ironic humor shine through Wharton's comedy of manners. The title of the story is important as well and loaded with multiple meanings associated with "souls": lost souls, spiritual souls, personal souls, soul mates, death. The standard definition of "belated" referring to lateness or delay of some sort, makes sense within the context of the relationship between Lydia and Gannet. Additionally, the word can also mean "archaic" or "old-fashioned" that further emphasizes Wharton's total disregard for traditional values and norms, which no longer have a place in the so-called "modern world." I may not be completely sold on Wharton yet but this is an excellent short story that contains a great deal of complexity and cleverly defies expectations. Highly recommended.


Wednesday, 13 May 2015

April in Review (Or How I OD'ed on Romantic Lit and Went on Hiatus)

Bender rules.
For how much longer is anyone's guess.

In retrospect, trying to read The Prelude by William Wordsworth in a single sitting may not have been the wisest decision on my part. I clearly got overzealous in my determination to do a crash-course on the Romantic Period for Fanda's Classic Lit Challenge and paid for it dearly in the end. One can never get enough John Keats and he still remains my favorite poet next to Shakespeare but I must confess: Endymion, Lamia and Hyperion gave me a lot of trouble. Let's just say that I much prefer his shorter poems. The first section of Endymion is actually quite magnificent to behold but falters in quality shortly thereafter, dragging on interminably that nearly put me into a catatonic state. Don't worry Keats, you're still a straight up OG. Afterwards, I decided to delve into the works of some underrated female writers of the period including Charlotte Smith, Hannah More and Anna Letitia Barbauld. All great poets in their own right that deserve to be recognized alongside their male counterparts but at this point in my reading, I was running on fumes. I did manage to write a brief review on Mary Wolfstonecraft's A Vindication for the Rights of Women but it was subpar at best, just barely glossing the surface. Then came Blake, Shelley and Byron, which was enough to burn me out completely. I so much wanted to write extensively on the work of these great poets but struggled immensely to say anything that was even remotely compelling or insightful. Frustrated with my own inadequacies along with the stress associated with work and the myriad of life's challenges, it was time to take that mini-vacation I spoke about at the beginning of April...

And now I'm back. I have plenty of reading challenges to catch up on and the pile of books to review is quite daunting. Not to mention, having to work 40+ hours a week does not leave much time for reading and writing reviews. After coming home from an exhausting shift, sleep takes precedence and blogging is an afterthought. Truth be told, I've been discouraged lately. It also pains me to say this but my interest in writing reviews has been diminishing for quite some time. I used to find it enjoyable and rewarding but now it seems like a chore. Not to mention, I'm not very good at it either. Granted, I have never considered myself a literary critic, just a regular dude with eclectic taste who likes to read. I'd rather leave the critical analysis to the experts and those talented bloggers out there who are capable of writing such compact and intelligent reviews.

I hope to find the time and energy over the next little while to prevent this blog from falling asunder due to neglect but make no promises at this current juncture. My goal for the month of May is to at least read one new novel and write a half-ass review for Virginia Woolf's A Voyage Out. Seems reasonable, right?


Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: All Time Favorite Authors


Oh, boy. This is a tough one. It sure would be a lot easier to list my top 10 least favorite authors. I will never be satisfied with this list because it tends to change quite often but as of this April 21, 20015, here are my Top 10 favorite authors. Drum roll, please.


 1. Virginia Woolf: For those who follow my blog, the inclusion of Virginia Woolf at the top of the list should come as no surprise. She gets the edge for having written two of my favorite novels of all time: To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. Will I ever read anything better than these two novels in my life-time? I highly doubt it. Not only was she an astounding novelist, capable of writing some of the most beautiful and mesmerizing prose I have ever encountered, but also a prolific literary scholar and influential feminist who helped to usher in the women's movement during the 1920's. She lived a fascinating but troubled life, battling mental illness which eventually lead to suicide. That reminds me, I recently finished her wonderful first novel The Voyage Out and need to write a review on that one soon.


2. William Shakespeare: The list did not specify that we had to only include novelists. As the most famous writer in the English language, the bard does not need any introduction. I adore his sonnets and his many plays, Hamlet being my all-time favorite. 


3. John Keats: Other than Shakespeare, Keats is my favorite poet so it was inevitable that he would show up on this list. It's fascinating to me that he was able to write some of the most brilliant poetry in the history of literature before his early death at the age of 25! The young man was a genius, hands down. There is no telling what he might have accomplished had he lived longer. As I have mentioned many times before, Ode to a Nightingale is indeed, my favorite poem of all-time but his letters also happen to be some of my favorite pieces of writing as well. The correspondence between himself and Fanny Brawne is breathtaking and probably the most romantic display of writing that I have ever read. ****swoons**** Time to go watch the movie Bright Star again for the 100th time.


4. Philip K. Dick: He may not be the most consistent of writers to appear on my list (some of his novels are pretty bad) but in my eyes, he still reigns supreme as the King of Science-Fiction. He is an ideas man and the concepts he comes up with for his stories are nothing short of mind-blowing. He constantly pushes the boundaries of science-fiction, often leaving readers to question the very fabric of reality. Reading PKD is often like stepping into bizarro world that is unlike anything you have ever encountered in literature before. He was a very prolific writer over the course of his life and while his novels tend to receive a lot of his attention, he tends to be underrated when it comes to short-stories: Check out "The Wub,"We Can Remember it For You Wholesale," "Pay For The Printer,"The Variable Man," "Second Variety." In fact, just get your hands on his volumes of short-stories. They are all great. As far as his novels go, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik and Valis are my favorites.


5. Saul Bellow: Another one of those authors who tends to be hit-or-miss but when Saul Bellow is on his game, there are not many writers who can match his sophistication, wit, and effusive writing style that is simultaneously compelling and challenging. I completely understand if his verbose and overwrought prose tends to drive reader's crazy but when he finds the right balance between heavy-handed philosophical discourse and didacticism, he is an absolute pleasure to read. I am still making my way through all of his writing for my "Saul Bellow Project" featured on this blog and Herzog would easily find its place at the top of all-time favorite novels list, right next to Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. His short-stories and letters have proven to be excellent as well.


6. Ray Bradbury: Everyone's familiar with Fahrenheit 451, which is a great novel in its own right, but Ray Bradbury should be receive a lot more attention for his short-stories. He is the master of the craft in my humble opinion, no one writes better short-stories than him. NOBODY. Don't believe me? Check out his famous collections "The October Country" and "The Illustrated Man." If you are still not convinced, be sure to read some of these stories: "Mars is Heaven!," "The Scythe," "The Lake" or "The Small Assassin." If you are not a convert by then, you might as well give up on Bradbury.  


7. Graham Greene:  I have been on a mission over the years to read everything by Graham Greene and he rarely disappoints. Some of his early works along with those near the end of his long writing career pale in comparison to his middle period when he was at the peak of his creative talents: The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, A Burnt Out Case, The Power and the Glory, The Comedians and Our Man in Havana are all solid. A lot of his novels have been turned into great films as well. I have been thinking about doing a Graham Greene reading event on this blog for a while now but keep putting it off for some reason or another. He's an author I wish more people would read.


8. J.D. Salinger: I still think Franny and Zooey is J.D. Salinger's best work even though it tends to always be overshadowed by The Catcher in the Rye. His short-stories are also fantastic ("A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is absolutely brilliant). Salinger will always remain a personal favorite of mine for igniting my passion for literature.



9. Guy Gavriel Kay: The only author to appear on my list who is still alive. I have even met him once and he was a really cool, um...guy. His sweeping epics offer a unique blend of fantasy and history that are so absorbing, imaginative, richly detailed and beautifully written. I would highly recommend Tigana or The Lions of Al-Rassan.


10. Jane Austen: I am not ashamed to admit that Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors. To claim that her novels only appeal to women is ludicrous--they can be enjoyed by both sexes. I expected to get some odd looks from people while reading Persuasion on the subway but it didn't bother me. Austen is one of those few authors whose works are always a delight and grow in my esteem upon subsequent readings.

To be continued...

So, who are some of your favorite authors? Please let me know in the comments section!

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Vindications of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)


“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” 

If you were a woman living during the 19th century, there were very few options available other than get married at a young age, popping out babies at a steady rate, taking care of the home and raising children. Some feminist critics would argue that not much has really changed since then because gender inequality still thrives today. I am not here to get into the polemics of gender ideologies, since endless volumes of research and critical essays have already been expounded on this subject. I'd much rather leave the debate to the historians and sociologists. My concern is simply with the literature itself, to to see how different writers of the period approached issues of gender. Additionally, I find it fascinating that only male writers of the Romantic period receive the most attention whereas female writers of the time are forgotten or ignored completely. The "big six" are all male: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Blake and Shelley. Why is it that Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah Moore, Anna Laetitia Barbauld or Charlotte Smith are rarely recognized for their contributions to this literary movement? Once again, gender politics. Therefore, I intend to take the opportunity to focus on some of these female writers who have been overshadowed by their male-counterparts.

One of the first and most influential pieces of feminist writing is Mary Wollstonecraft's The Vindications of the Rights of Women. If the last name sounds familiar it is because Mary Wollstonecraft was the mother of Mary Shelley who would go on to write Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft's lengthy treatise is her sophisticated and philosophical way of giving the middle finger to male hegemony. She calls for radical change by rejecting patriarchal interpretations of feminine virtue for being bias, inaccurate and plainly offensive. She champions female equality, passionately supports female independence and is keen to point out that men are either tyrants or sexual deviants who do not have women's best interests at heart. She provides a long and detailed account of the "history of women," highlighting the fallacy of female gender roles that have been promoted by a predominant male society. The first three chapters form the crux of the essay where she makes her main arguments that will be emphasized throughout the rest of the work:  1) Women must be educated. 2) Reason leads to virtue. 3) Marriage and vanity only lead to oppression.  4) Principles of the French Revolution should be applied to women. 5)Women must be restored to the status of human beings instead of being treated like inferior creatures by men. She is pretty harsh towards the male sex but considering the time period in which she lived, do you really blame her?

Mary Wollstonecraft deserves major props for writing such a brave and radical feminist work at a time when women possessed no rights or personal freedoms, their lives dictated entirely by men. When it comes to philosophy or critical essays, my experience is limited and what I have read has been unpleasant to say the least. I find reading this type of literature to be a real chore, dull or downright perplexing (I'm looking at you Mr. Immanuel Kant). Even though Wollstonecraft is prone to didacticism, digressions and extraneous details, she more than makes up for it by writing in an engaging style that is accessible. For those like myself who find a lot of philosophic writing to be convoluted and impenetrable, Wollstonecraft is a breath of fresh air.



Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Deal Me in Challenge: Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates

Arnold Friend has a thing for pretty young girls.
Card Drawn: Queen of Diamonds.

Such a strange title and an even stranger short-story. Since no character actually asks these two questions, to whom is it addressed? This is one of those short-stories that revels in ambiguity and is open to interpretation. Perhaps I am reading too much into the significance of the title but Joyce Carol Oates must have had her reasons for choosing it. I have come up with a few possible explanations but cannot settle on any definitive answer. My first thought was that the questions are directed towards the reader but that does not make much sense. Then I got to thinking that it must come from the female protagonist of the story, which is a little more plausible but that still feels wrong for some reason. 

Connie is a 15 year old girl going through the confusing and often difficult age of puberty:  hormones are raging, she is obsessed with her self image, enjoys hanging out at the mall with her friends, is discovering boys, likes being flirtatious and even has a rebellious streak going on towards her parents (especially the mother). Connie is discovering her own sexuality is undergoing the transition into womanhood. Even though the story is pulsating with sexual undertones, it is never explicit. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Connie is lounging around the house alone after the rest of her family have left to attend a BBQ and a mysterious car with two passengers suddenly pulls up her driveway. One of them gets out of the car and Connie thinks she recognizes him but can't quite place it. He has has a creepy look about him with shaggy black hair, tight jeans and wearing sunglasses. He introduces himself as Arnold Friend (his last name is clearly meant to come across as ironic), begins to flirt a bit with Connie before quickly going into complete pervert-mode. He wants Connie to take a ride in his car with him, offers declarations of affection, tells her they are destined to be together. At this point she is more than a little freaked out and starts to panic. Arnold Friend may not be so friendly after all. She threatens to call the cops and then...well, things get a little weird. So, going back to my initial hypothesis: is the title of the story supposed to come from Connie? If she is addressing Arnold, it seems unlikely. Such inquiries reveal a sense of personal attachment or general affinity towards the intended recipient, which Connie does not feel towards him. However, what if the title refers to rhetorical or internalized questions she would have liked to asked her parents before they left her home alone and Arnold Friend showed up at her doorstep? Maybe. The problem is, she already knew that they were going to the BBQ, therefore such questions would be irrelevant. Unless...Connie is envisioning an idealized outcome in her head where her parents come home just in the knick of time to save her from Arthur Friend. The first question would not make much sense in this particular scenario but the second one does. She realizes how much she actually misses her family and repents her foolish and insubordinate behavior: "Where Have You Been?...I was so worried. Don't ever leave me home alone again, ok? (embraces her mother). Fade to black.
 

Still not convinced. Ok, what if the title is spoken or thought of by Arthur Friend instead? See, she desperately wants to get away from him but he knows that he has the upper-hand so he asks her with a mocking grin: Where Are You Going? I cannot think of a valid reason why he would ask the second question unless it was: "Where Have You Been...All My Life? As a possible sex-offender, rapist or murderer, it is conceivable that Arnold Friend would utter something sinister like that. Yes, I am picking at straws at this point. In fact, I give up trying to figure out what the title means and if anyone out there would be so kind as to enlighten me, it would be greatly appreciated. It's bound to be something ridiculously obvious and I am going to come across as a doofus for not figuring it out from the get-go.

Title aside, I am still left with more questions than answers from this bizarre and unsettling story. Joyce Carol Oates dedicates this story to Bob Dylan. Is there any correlation between his music and the story? Arnold tells Connie that the numbers 33, 19 and 17 painted on his car are a "secret code." Of what? Arnold's companion is a weird looking kid name Ellie who also wears sunglasses and carries a portable radio. What is up with this dude? It is suggested that his relationship with Arthur is submissive but his actual significance to the story is inexplicable to me. The best I can come up with is that he is Arthur's partner in crime. They roll around the country seducing young girls, taking turns to rape and murder. Is Arthur supposed to be an homage to the unnamed misfit found in Flannery O'Connor's story "A Good Man is Hard to Find?" Both characters are creepy and twisted in their own way, justifying their obscene actions as moral. The ending is purposefully written to be ambiguous, leaving the reader to ponder Connie's fate. Is Oates making a feminist or anti-feminist statement here? Hollywood even adapted this story into a movie in 1985 starring Laura Dern. How the filmmakers managed to pull this off is beyond me.

Overall, this story left me rather ambivalent. Often anthologized and widely popular amongst readers since its publication in 1966, it surely must have generated a lot of controversy at the time but feels dated, a time-capsule of sorts that is bound to a specific time and place: 1960's America and the sexual revolution. The "show, don't tell" technique is effective enough to generate curiosity in the reader but if Oates was going for heightened suspense, the story misses the mark. The premise is a little too over-the-top to be taken seriously. To my mind, the only way to read this story and get anything out of it is to read it as a parable or allegory. What type exactly, you might ask? That depends entirely on your own interpretation. I am just trying to figure out what that damn title means.




Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Summer Tree (The Fionavar Tapestry #1) by Guy Gavriel Kay


“We salvage what we can, what truly matters to us, even at the gates of despair.”

Considering how much I adore the writings of Guy Gavriel Kay, it pains me to give his debut novel The Summer Tree a barely passing grade. It is hard to believe that this is the same author who penned such great novels like A Song for Arbonne, Tigana, and The Lions of Al-Rassan. Granted, a first novel rarely shows the author in top form; in most cases, they are still in the process of developing their craft, trying to figure out what they want to accomplish with their writing. This is the case here with The Summer Tree: Guy Gavriel Kay shows only glimpses of his superb talents that will become fully realized later on with his other novels. On the front cover of the Roc edition, Marion Zimmer Bradley praises The Summer Tree as "one of those books that changes your perception of the world forever afterward." This could not be a more hyperbolic and inaccurate statement--she was clearly paid a good deal of money to bestow such high praise upon a novel that is at best, a middling effort at high-fantasy and an innocuous homage to Tolkien. Luckily, the Fionavar Tapestry series was not my first exposure to Guy Gavriel Kay, otherwise it is unlikely that I would have picked up another one of his books.

While not a complete failure, the novel's main strength comes from Kay's exceptional world-building and detailed historical lore found in his imaginative universe of Fionavar. He shows early on of being able to create a vivid world with its unique mythology but it is the weak story and flat archetypal characters that really hurts this novel. As an epic narrative containing many interconnected story-lines and a huge cast of characters, Kay has difficulty balancing all of he different story elements and the end result is a bloated mess. If you are writing in the fantasy genre, the story has to be believable and make sense within its own governing logic. Unfortunately, Kay opts to either leave out key plot details or resorts to long-winded info-dumping where much of the story is a combination of dull and just plain baffling.

The basic premise is so poorly executed, which nearly ruined the entire story for me and other readers who are less forgiving are bound to be even more disconcerted: five students from the University of Toronto (glad to see my school and home town get some love) meet a wizard disguised as a guest speaker at a folklore conference who transports them to the magical realm of Fionavar. As outlandish and cliche as this scenario might be, I am willing to go along with it as long as there is a reasonable explanation. Sadly, Kay's set-up is half-baked and to make matters worse, when the five "chosen ones" get to this new world, there are no immediate protestations whatsoever. They all just shrug it off like it is no big deal to meet a wizard and his dwarf friend who can hurl them across the dimensions of time and space to a fantasy world where magic exists. Come on! At least show one of the characters in distress about their new circumstances, pleading to go home or questioning the Wizard's intentions for bringing them here in the first place. Nope. They just ease into their new roles without any sense of estrangement and soon find themselves entangled in a war against a "Dark Lord" that has awakened from a thousand year imprisonment underneath a mountain who is intent on destroying the land of Fionavar. It does not take long for the story to become silly and contrived with the familiar display of various genre tropes.

Despite these flaws, the story is entertaining enough if one is willing to disband all belief and accept Kay's premise. The Summer Tree is far from groundbreaking within the fantasy genre but one of its few redeeming qualities is Kay's elegant prose, which often contains a lyrical intensity and one gets the sense here that he is on the cusp of maturing into a great writer. The story boasts some interesting story-developments as well that best come through at the end but reaching these revelations is a real slog. It does seem as if Kay has a general idea of where the story is heading with the subsequent novels but whether or not he is capable of pulling it off by greatly improving on this novel remains to be determined. As a devoted fan of Guy Gavriel Kay, I will probably finish reading the series at some point but my expectations are extremely low.

On a side note: What's up with the some of the character names? One of the five friends who time-travels to Fionavar is named Paul Schafer. I kept picturing David Letterman's musical sidekick in the role. Oh, and the dwarf's name is Matt. Really? That is a human name, not a dwarf name. I thought you were well-read in the fantasy genre, Mr Kay! Even Rhioganedd Kinglyrock or Brannan Goldprospector would have been better.


Once Upon a Time IX

Friday, 10 April 2015

Friday Memes: Book Beginnings, Friday 56, Feature and Follow Friday

I have been far too distracted lately, unable to focus my attention for very long on reading or writing reviews. I have lost count as to how many books I have started and tossed aside over the last few weeks. Not to mention the plethora of half-attempted reviews. I think it is time to take a little break away from this blog and re-charge. However, I will be taking several literary works on my mini-vacation including some poetry (collection of Keats), To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (comfort reading) and some other light entertaining beach reads, which will undoubtedly include Elmore Leonard. I do not know how long I will be gone but I hope to at least finish The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton before returning.




Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Share the first line or two from the book you are reading and provide some brief impressions:

"The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset. It was built of a bright brick throughout; its sky-line was fantastic, and even its ground plan was wild."

Chesterton sets the scene for his mad-cap thriller with some strong imagery and foreshadowing. One can visualize the endless rows of identical brick houses painted in red. The adjective of "ragged" is interesting; perhaps alluding to a sense of imperfection, something faulty, unstable. I get the sense here that the  author seems to be building up towards something crazy and unexpected. Is he trying to peel back the veneer of suburbia to reveal its ugliness and depravity? Dunno.


Thanks to Freda's Voice for hosting this meme, which works nicely in conjunction with Books Beginnings. All you have to do is grab any book, turn to page 56 (or 56% in your e-reader) and share any sentence. Taken from the same book:  

"Now you must insist, and insist absolutely, on the duel coming off after seven tomorrow, so as to give me the chance of preventing him from catching the 7:45 for Paris."

Pistols at dawn! Hell yeah. I haven't gotten this far yet but color me intrigued. Someone is intent on going straight-up gangsta. 


Thanks to Parajunkee and Alison Can Read
for hosting this blog-hopping meme. Question of the week:
 

Have you ever read a book you thought you'd hate but loved or vice versa? 

More the latter. I tend to have fairly high expectations for many "classics" but have been disappointed on so many occasions. Most recently, The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Passage to India by E.M. Forster, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. The list goes on...

Catch ya'll on the flip-side.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Happy Birthday William Wordsworth!

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” 
It seems fitting to share my favorite poem by William Wordsworth in honor of his 245th birthday (born April 7th, 1770): Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour. July 13, 1798 or simply referred to as Tintern Abbey. It is far too long to post but you can read it here

One of the most famous works to come out of the Romantic period was The Lyrical Ballads by Williams Wordsworth and his pal Samuel Taylor Coleridge--a collection of works by both poets first published in 1798 with a second edition published in 1800 (includes the preface). They were both determined to usher in a new-wave of poetry that would overturn the high-brow and neo-classical traditions of the 18th century. The explicit artifice found in the poetry of their predecessors such as Alexander Pope and John Dryden would be replaced with the stark-naked truth of human emotions. In the preface, Wordsworth describes poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." He goes on to elaborate further that the mind undergoes a kind of transition from tranquility to contemplation but once that tranquility disappears, emotions take over and poetry is born. The combination of the "lyric" and "ballad" was wholly unique at the time--a hybrid genre that would take on the qualities of expressing personal and emotional feelings as found in the lyric with the oral traditions of the ballad (poems or songs narrating a story in short ballad stanzas that take on the form of quatrains). 

In order to make sense of Tintern Abbey, it is important to know a little more about what Wordsworth and Coleridge were attempting to achieve with the Lyrical Ballads. In the preface, Wordsworth describes the Lyrical Ballads as an "experiment," warning readers that the rough diction and lack of refinement may come across as strange or primitive in contrast to the older traditions. Nature and individualism take on a great importance for them. They wanted to focus on the universality of human emotions and on the lower classes to express their lives. Daily life was seen to be greater than common life; the poems often coloring ordinary situations with imagination. They wanted to bring poetry within the reach of the average person; writing in a colloquial language for the "common man" which in turn, becomes an artistic and political statement: 1) they will be original artists rather than copying others. 2) they can discuss subjects and issues that are not normally addressed in poetry such as domestic life or the rural poor. City life is viewed as problematic; the rise of consumerism and capitalism degrades the ability to appreciate nature. In a sense, Wordsworth and Coleridge see themselves as political reformers.

Now that I have provided some background information and context, it is time to jump into the awesomeness of this poem. Saving the best for last, Wordsworth decided to place Tintern Abbey as the final poem in the Lyrical Ballads. A good decision on his part. Hey, if you are going to attempt to kick-start a new literary movement, you might as well go out with a bang, right? Written in blank verse, there is a prosaic feel to this poem that is remarkable in its narrative flow, language, personal convictions, honesty and above all else, it's poetic ambitions. Wordsworth would later go on to write far more audacious works such as The Prelude along with the The Excursion, but Tintern Abbey appeals to me most for its emotional intensity and philosophical musings. No matter how many times I read this poem, it never fails to makes me fall in love with the beauty of poetry all over again. 

First off, it can categorized as a "prospect poem" which is usually bound to a particularized setting (usually outdoors) where the speaker engages in an internal dialogue with himself; putting on a hypersensitive and a superior point of view where consciousness is mediated through landscape--the unification of mind and the natural world. Such pensive contemplation and personal reflection evokes a process of memory, thought and anticipation of feeling. The speaker should achieve some kind of insight and the poem often ends where it began at the outer scene, but with an altered mood and deepened understanding. The emphasis on time is also important to the prospect poem, as evident here with the speaker reflecting on the past and the meticulous use of caesuras in the lines (pauses for dramatic effect) as a way of slowing down the flow of the verse.

As indicated by the long title of the poem, Tintern Abbey is an actual monastery that is located near the River Wye in Wales, which Wordsworth visited on several occasions throughout his lifetime. Built during the 12th century, the abbey is still standing today but is mostly in ruins. Landscape painting was all the rage during Wordsworth's time, especially in capturing the "picturesque beauty" found in nature. This particular style was advocated by many artists such as William Gilpin who sought to represent nature not in an idealized or artificial way but to show its roughness and imperfections. Ruined structures and distance between the artist and nature were of great importance to the picturesque. Looking down on the scene as opposed to looking up heightens the sense of the sublime (I can't seem to escape Kant) and we see that here in this poem. Wordsworth is not wandering around the ruins but is looking down on the Abbey from atop a hill as he composes the poem. It makes sense that Wordsworth would take some of these ideas of the picturesque in art and infuse it into his new brand of poetry.

View of Tintern Abey and the courtyard from the east.
There is an elegiac tone to this poem that is easy enough to recognize. The poem begins with the speaker lamenting the past as he returns to a familiar scene ("Five years have past; five summers, with the length/ Of five long winters!"), attempting to recapture the feelings of bliss and sense of tranquility he once experienced in nature at this very spot many years ago. He is soaking in the beauty of nature, which provides solace against all the pain and misery of the world. Similar to Gilpin's ideas of the picturesque, the natural world is being crafted by the artist, except Wordsworth is a poet and not a painter. The physical eye is connected to the mind's eye--the imagination: "These beauteous forms /Through a long absence, have not been to me /As is a landscape to a blind man's eye" (24-26). Even though he has been away from nature for so long, getting swept up in the hustle and bustle of city life, he is still able to recall their "beauteous forms" through the power of the imagination, which rejuvenates his soul (line 31: "tranquil restoration"). He proceeds to comment on being saved from absolute death through nature (lines 44-47) before making a grand philosophical statement about gaining a heightened sense of human understanding of the universe that can only be achieved through nature: "While with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things" (48-50). For Wordsworth, nature represents divine providence; where embracing nature leads to spiritual transcendence, the opening up of the mind beyond ordinary limits; a way to see the bigger picture so to speak. He admits to having doubts concerning these grandiose notions of the human mind and understanding of the universe but these wavering beliefs soon dissipate once he is able to fully commit his spirit to this greater power found in nature: "How oft in spirit, have I turned to thee / O Sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the wood / How often has my spirit turned to thee!" (57-59). 

The past and present collide as Wordsworth appreciates the scene in a new way than the first time he was here because he is now more mature (Line 84: "That time is past"). Lines 90-103 represents the fulcrum of the poem--the speaker outlines this new perception where the spiritual and divine can be glimpsed in the natural world; youth could not appreciate such phenomena or what Kant refers to as the "supersensible" feeling of the sublime. Divinity pervades all of nature; it becomes his anchor to the world, his spiritual guide, a moral teacher, showing the path to achieving a fulfilling life.

In the last stanza of the poem, the speaker goes on to say that even if he loses faith by not feeling the power of nature ("Suffer my genial spirits to decay"), he can still take comfort in his sister (122). He imagines Dorothy as this youthful and innocent being like he once was and he sees his former self through her. He makes the declaration that the social world cannot impose upon the natural world, imparting a legacy to his sister by the end of the poem--the connection and transfer from one being to another via nature. In essence, the speaker anticipates the future through his sister. While brooding on death, if nature does not renew him, he can live through the memory of his sister. The poem has now come full circle. Tintern Abbey is Wordsworth's definition of the "Greater Romantic Lyric" because poetry looks back in order to look forward.







Top 10 Tuesday: Top 10 Characters I'd Like to Check in With


This week's Top Ten Tuesday hosted by the Broke and the Bookish is a good one. Who wouldn't want to visit their favorite characters and see what they might be up to? Narrowing my list down to 10 proved to be quite a challenge.

"One man's ways may be as good as another's, but we all like our own best."
  1. Anne Elliot from Jane Austen's Persuasion: It took a while to grow on me, but I think Persuasion might be my favorite Austen and a lot of that has to do with Anne Elliot. Not going to lie, I've got a serious crush on Anne. Wentworth is one lucky guy. I wouldn't mind stopping by Kellynch Hall for dinner to see how they are getting on.
  2. The Harry Potter crew from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Series: I expect to see this one show up on many lists too. For us hardcore fans, the epilogue isn't enough to satisfy our curiosity as to what happened during those intervening years or what comes next. 
  3. Clarissa Dalloway from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway: I always wondered if she would eventually reconcile her true feelings towards Peter and leave Richard. Would she still have the same ideas about life and death in her older age?
  4. Lily Briscoe from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse: Did she ever receive any marriage proposals or remain a spinster? I wonder what happened to her painting--did it end up in the attic or perhaps put on display at the National Gallery?
  5. Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye: Bound to be a popular choice. Did he ever grow up or become a phony adult himself? 
  6. Various characters from Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana: I did not include specific names to avoid spoilers. Oh man, how I would love to return to the amazing world of the Palm in Tigana and see how the survivors of the great war are getting on.
  7. Various characters from Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan: Avoiding spoilers again. The Jaddite Kingdom is still unstable. Will death find its way to the  doorstep of those who managed to survive the previous civil war?
  8. Esther Greenwood from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar: I really hope she found happiness and met a nice guy who loved her unconditionally. I would hate to see her locked up in a psych-ward or find out she committed suicide.
  9. Moses Herzog from Saul Bellows Herzog: Did Moses ever come to terms with his own life or did his disillusionment and eventual self-destruction send him to the grave?
  10. Joe Chip from Philip K. Dick's Ubik: The ambiguous ending leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Does Joe find a way out of this crazy world or just accept this new reality?

Monday, 6 April 2015

Deal Me in Challenge: Let Me Promise You by Morley Callaghan


 Card Drawn: 7 of Hearts.

Since I don't really have much to say about this short-story other than it was medicore and completely forgettable, I made a meme instead that sums it up. Here's some interesting facts: not only was Morley Callaghan from my Canadian hometown but he was also good friends with Ernest Hemingway back in the day. Pretty cool.

 


Sunday, 5 April 2015

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth

So purdy.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When alla t once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in a sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought 
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

(Courtesy of The Poetry Foundation)

What better way to start off the Romantic Period for the Literary Movement Challenge than with a poem by William Wordsworth. I am obviously not the first person to point this out, but isn't it cool how one of the great poets from the 19th century happened to have the last name of Wordsworth. Not that a last name influences one's vocation but I always wondered if his last name were something more common like Smith. Would William Smith have gone on to become one of the preeminent figures of the Romantic Age or would have have chosen an illustrious career in Blacksmithing instead? Anwyays, I digress.

A few people have personally requested that I discuss more about poetry on this blog and while it may not be my area of expertise, hopefully I can offer some general reading techniques that have helped me to engage poetry on a more critical level, while at the same time, explain various poetic terminology along the way; taking a closer look at structure as as language, rhythm, meter, etc. that might help others who might be new to poetry and often find it difficult or intimidating. I am do not claim to be a literary critic like Stanley Fish or Cleanth Brooks with expert knowledge in poetry, capable of dissecting a poem to its bare essentials with such verve and brilliant precision. I am just a normal dude who likes to read and dabble in a bit of poetry of my own on occasion. My primary objective is to get others interested and excited about reading poetry. Therefore, it seems appropriate to start off a lovely and and relatively simple poem to see how one might pull off a close-reading. Alright, let's break it down.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud is a very famous poem but for those who may not be familiar with it, a bit of back-story. As I mentioned in the introductory paragraph, William Wordsworth was one of the forefathers of the Romantic era but how does one exactly define Romanticism? This is a difficult question to answer with any concrete explanation; thus, the focus should be on the possibilities of the genre. Some people might assume that this literary movement focuses on romance or 'love poetry' but that would be a misnomer. In a nutshell, the preceding Enlightenment period emphasized reason, science, order, constraint, a shared collective experience where rational thought supplanted superstition. Romanticism attempted to subvert these ideologies in favor of emphasizing the importance of self and personal experience; emotion/feeling, imagination, nature, freedom, inspiration--essentially, the rejection of rationalism. Obviously, having a basic understanding of the ideas and social/historical context of this or any other literary movement will be helpful to form an understanding of the poem but that is only one facet of critical analysis.

Using this poem as an example, we can see how several of these ideas are emphasized by the poet. Pay attention to the way Wordsworth shows how experience grows in the imagination ("inward eye") along with the sympathetic relationship between man and nature which is drawn from this personal experience. The subjective self is clearly important in establishing the epistemological arguments of the poem where knowledge can be advanced by shaping the imagination through the engagement of the environment. Nature--or more specifically, the daffodils--are linked to the patterns and grandeur of the universe. The poet forms a connection to the spiritual harmony of creation. In essence, the whole poem--event and interpretation--presumably comes as a presentation of real experience, preceding the act of composition, making up the materials of poetry. The juxtaposition between the actual work of a poet and his personal experience may be a very delicate and tenuous one but sometimes there is a very close correlation between the events and the poetry. This happens to be the case with this particular poem. Wordsworth lived most of his life in the Lake District, a fairly large rural area in England which is well renowned for its lush forests, rolling hills, picturesque scenery and enchanting waters. He would often take long walks around his home, soaking in the beauty of nature, using it as an inspiration for his writing. One of the end results is this poem. There is evidence that such an instance took place, recorded in the diary of his sister Dorothy, who accompanied him on one of these walks where they encountered a field of daffodils along the shores of Ullswater. Of course, Wordsworth clearly does more than merely report the scene (1802) in the poem that was eventually completed in 1804. We have the impression that the poet had the experience and then reflected on its significance at a later date before entering upon composition to write the poem. However, is not thinking about the original experience also qualify as material as much as the sight of the daffodils? 

Scansions (looking at poetic structure) is another effective way to tackle a poem--examining the aesthetics of language, meter and rhyming patterns can very useful to derive meaning. Let's look at the general structure of this poem then: it is divided into four stanzas, contains a rhyming pattern of ababcc and the meter is iambic tetrameter with slight variations (a fancy way of saying that each line contains four "feet" of unstressed/stress beats like this: da Dum, da Dum, da Dum, da Dum). How is this useful you might ask? Well, for starters, the specific rhythmic movement and cadences of language often serve to emphasize meaning in poetry. I don't want to get into the complex semantics of language but think about some of your favorite pop songs. They operate under their own specific rhythmic structure, containing a catchy chorus; particular words and lines emphasized or repeated for dramatic effect. I am not trying to suggest that "Wrecking Ball" by Miley Cyrus should be considered poetry, resembles or is in some way influenced by Wordsworth; but rather, to merely illustrate that the aesthetics of modern pop songs share a lot in common with poetic structure and form that may not be readily apparent. The use of repetition ("dancing," "gazed") personification, simile, alliteration and anastrophe (the literary device of inversion) is worth keeping an eye on in this poem. The use of specific words such as "host" (Line 4) cater to the poem's religious implications--the speaker's spiritual transcendence derived from nature with the daffodils representing the holy communion or heavenly "hosts" as angels.

Furthermore, there is a musicality to this particular poem not only in imagery (the "dancing of the daffodils") but in the actual lines themselves. Take a look at line 12: "Tossing their heads in a sprightly dance." The transition from the sight of ten thousand daffodils in the previous line (hyperbole) to "tossing their heads in a sprightly dance" produces the sense of awe in the speaker. Indeed, would could interpret his experience as witnessing the sublime in nature. Upon a closer inspection of this line, the verb "tossing" should be read as a trochee (stress/un-stress) instead of an iamb. The stress on this word is important because it highlights the specific movement of the daffodils, creating a whimsical feel through the bobbing and swaying of daffodils. One should also consider the use of dancing throughout the poem. Each stanza echoes a particular dance whether it be formal or patterned: the dance of conceptual movements--past to present, solitude to joyfulness, free-floating to grounded, ethereal to celestial, fanciful outer landscape of nature to the inner landscape of the mind and most importantly, the dance of visual observation to the powers of the imagination. The poem is a document in form and content; the speaker's intellectual movement from an observer to participant in a dance, revealing in the process, the harmonizing capacities of the imagination.


Friday, 3 April 2015

The Sorrows of Young Werner by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


“The human race is a monotonous affair. Most people spend the greatest part of their time working in order to live, and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it.”

If you thought Holden Caufield from J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was overbearing, self-absorbed and melodramatic, he's got nothing on Goethe's young Werner who makes the former seem like a normal reticent teenager, prone to the occasional solipsistic diatribe. So, this is what being emo might have been like in the 18th century. Instead of being prone to cutting one's wrists, often wearing tight jeans, black square rimmed glasses with heavy eye-shadow and side-bangs; listening to 'The Cure' on repeat, obsessed with death and posting depressing status updates on Facebook--the depressed emo kid from the enlightenment period would present internal suffering in a more intellectual and distinguished manner. One way would be through magniloquent letters to the few friends who would rather not having anything to do with them, which we get here in this short epistolary novel--a torturous affair to get through that would have been more effective as a short post-script: "Love is a bitch. Goodbye cruel world." Their incessant whining and histrionics still make for such unbearable company. It is nearly impossible to have a normal conversation with this distraught individual without them falling on their knees, looking skyward and bursting into tears for no apparent reason. The reader is only given Werner's perspective through his various letters sent mostly to his friend Wilhelm with an unnamed narrator  interjecting intermittently to fill in the narrative gaps of the young man's tragic fate, which is supposed to come across as some profound declaration of love but is really just the senseless act of a delusional and emotionally disturbed sociopath. 

It would have been a lot more interesting if Wilhelm's correspondence with Werner was provided but Goethe leaves it up to the reader to infer through context. Here is my take on Wilhelm's mindset after receiving one of Werner's final letters:

Great, another letter from Werner. I really need to change my mailing address or move to a new continent. Let's see what he has to say now about his relationship with Charlotte. Stubborn knave! I told him time and time again that someone of his status and intelligence could have his choice of any girl in the village but no, he has to focus his attentions on a married woman. For goodness sakes Werner, leave the couple alone, you're only making matters worse. Can't you see the fool you are making of yourself? It's obvious to everyone else but you continue to interfere in their privacy. In fact, you're slowly turning into a stalker.  And why are you so affectionate towards her young siblings? It's very creepy and seems like a devious ruse to get closer to Charlotte. Knock it off. This is not the way a proper gentleman should conduct himself! Pull yourself together man. On another note, why must you weep over the most trivial things? Charlotte brushed your hand absentmindedly and you break down in tears. I can only imagine what would happen if she let you see her naked. You'd probably die of a heart-attack. Ok, he seems to declare his love for nature again and goes on to expound upon some moral philosophy. See, this isn't so bad. I can tolerate these philosophical musings. Darn, that was short lived. Back to obsessing over Charlotte again. Shut up Werner. Seriously, shut the hell up. Stop rambling about nonsense. I don't give a damn about your heavy heart or wretched soul. You bring this misery upon yourself. You're a masochist who craves attention; just one step away from becoming a murdering psychopath. Now you speak of wanting to kill yourself and all because a married woman rejects your romantic advances. You ignorant fool! Learn some self-respect. Unrequited look is indeed painful and I understand what you are going through but such woes will pass, given enough time. Surely you will meet another fine lady who will reciprocate your tender affections. I implore you with all that is good in this world to put aside these juvenile antics, go back under the shade of your favorite tree and collect yourself. Wait, what is this: Will you not heed my advice as your only friend in the entire world? Everyone else has abandoned you because you are an embarrassment to society, a complete disgrace; but I, Wilhelm, have stuck by you through it all despite my better judgment. Does your selfishness know no bounds? It pains me to say this but I relinquish my faith in you. I can no longer offer any sympathy or pity towards your plight. Go ahead and get it over with; follow through with what you say, step into the void. Stop delaying and just go through it already! May God have mercy on your soul.

 

This novel also counts towards my Classics Club Challenge.