Saturday 1 October 2011

The Small Assassin by Ray Bradbury

Baby fetus kinda does look like an alien.
I really miss the summer when there was so much extra time to sit around curled up with a great novel. Now that the new school year has arrived, leisurely reading is not altogether pragmatic, considering the large amount of assigned readings and essays to write for my classes. Nevertheless, there is no way that I can simply abandon my reading addiction and now I just have to acquire a certain level of moderation. Instead of reading three novels a week like during the summer, I can read a bunch of short stories and perhaps one novel a month to fill the void. That sounds reasonable.  Hence, the short-story reading meme held on Wednesdays by Bread Crumbs Reads is ideal for me. 

After discovering that one of my fellow book bloggers Sophia is reading October Country by Ray Bradbury, I felt the sudden urge to take out my worn-down copy and read a few stories in the collection before going bed last night. Perhaps not the wisest decision on my part since I ended up having trouble sleeping afterwards. Bradbury is often associated with the Science Fiction genre (and for good reason) but his writing style often contains elements of horror and boy howdy, can he tell a creepy story. "The Small Assassin" showcases Bradbury's mastery of the craft with brevity, style and imagination. The problems that I have with most short-stories is that they feel incomplete on some level or just come across as a formal exercise without any significant purpose; that is, they tend to be completely forgettable. With Bradbury, this is rarely the case. He understands that he is working within a specific narrative framework and there is no time to waste with superfluous detail as opposed to a novel where it possible for the author to digress without harming the narrative. The same cannot be said for the short-story and Bradbury understands this impediment but he uses this constraint to his advantage instead of succumbing to literary self-indulgent trivialities. Thus, he is assiduously economic in his prose and as a result, the story flows consistently through its compactness, effectively building tension towards a shocking conclusion. Bradbury does not make the mistake of under-writing or writing too much, his stories are the perfect length. I have always associated Bradbury's writing with that of a classically trained musician who is able create a beautiful piece of music through the relationship between rhythm, tone and meter. I do not mean to suggest through this analogy that his stories always follow a set pattern with a beginning, middle and end with a satisfying conclusion where everything is wrapped up in a neat little package. He leaves plenty of room for interpretation but there is an underlying precision, rhythm and cadence to Bradbury's use of language; allowing him to maintain control over the material while slowly constructing fear and overwhelming tension throughout his stories.

I have not managed to discuss anything about "The Small Assassin" itself but giving away the plot details would ruin the fun of discovering this story on your own. However, I will say that few literary works have managed to creep the hell out of me. It also contains some very startling implications and convincing possibilities about its subject matter. It is a shame that Bradbury seems to have fallen into obscurity over the years and I'm on a mission to revive his extensive body of work so that more people can be exposed to his genius. Do yourself a favor and read this story (or anything by him for that matter) to understand why he deserves such high praise as one of the best short-story writers around.

Friday 30 September 2011

I'm still here...sorta.

I sincerely apologize for the inconsistent lack of posts this month although my absence is largely in part due to settling back into college life again and working extra hours at my dead-end job. Talk about hectic! The first couple of weeks have gone by exceedingly fast and now that my schedule is more-or-less settled, I can hopefully devote more time to updating this blog. On a somewhat related note, in one of my classes we are going to be reading both Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Score! 

I had trouble sleeping last night and actually did manage to whip up a review on Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (posted below) and curious as to what others have to say about this polarizing novel. Or if you have not read it and just want to leave a comment, that's cool too.

Here are a few novels that I intend on reviewing soon:

Have a great weekend, everyone!

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

"Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo..."

This novel has left me utterly conflicted. On the one hand, it stands as one of the most challenging pieces of literature that I have ever read (there were certain sections where I felt the urge to pull my hair out by the roots) and yet, there are so many aspects to admire in this richly ambitious, complex work: the re-writing of Irish history, religious discourse, powerful imagery, the intricate structure and style of language that reflects Stephen Dedalus's state of mind as he matures in age, the clever use of irony, along with Joyce's striking ability to write some of the most beautiful epiphanies. It is no surprise that plenty of my favorite novels tend to revolve around the "coming-of-age" story or to get technical, the bildungsroman: narratives that depict the emotional and psychological development of a young protagonist entering adulthood--Catcher in the Rye, A Clockwork Orange, Harry Potter, Franny and Zooey to name a few-- and now I can add James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to that list. Unfortunately, I feel inadequate in my abilities to thoroughly analyze this complex novel and my review will only gloss a tiny portion of the surface. Hopefully I am successful in formulating some coherent thoughts that serve to confirm the greatness of one the most important novel's of the 20th century. 

Before I proceed, let me just state outright that it will be detrimental to one's enjoyment or appreciation of the novel without having a general understanding of the historical context because otherwise, one is bound to be extremely confused. The Penguin edition does a great job of providing helpful footnotes. Considering much of the novel focuses heavily on Irish nationalism and Catholicism, having quick access to this information will be one less problem to overcome in order to better access this perplexing work. Not to mention, Joyce is fond of using Latin and making plenty of obscure references to classical works that may not be familiar.

Joyce begins his epic narrative by using the Icarus and Daedalus myth from Ovid's Metamorphoses as an overarching metaphor for the artistic journey of his young protagonist Stephen, whose last name clearly resembles the latter: "And he applies his mind to obscure arts." For those unfamiliar with the myth, Daedalus is the father of Icarus and designs a pair of wings to escape from the Cretan labyrinth that houses the vicious Minotaur. In a tragic turn of events, Icarus flies too close to the sun, melting his wings and he falls into the sea to his death. Connecting Stephen to the classical artist of Daedalus is just one of ways in which Joyce develops his protagonist's romantic conception of the aesthetic self who is free from the forces of the external world and can finally assert triumphant artistic expression as in the famous closing lines, to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscious of my race" (276). Joyce is fond of using very selective and representative moments or more specifically, synecdoches to chronicle Stephen's transformation. The slice-of-life naturalism contrasts with Stephen's inner experience. Joyce lays down the conditions to be an artist in such a profound way through the use of language. Stephen's discovery of his artistic vocation; the ecstasy of standing outside himself as he soars like Deadalus into the unknown is inspiring as much as it is ambiguous as to whether or not he will achieve success. One could certainly make the argument that Stephen's rebellious actions and declaration that "I will not serve" is an allusion to Satan's pride, which let to "The Fall" found in Milton's Paradise Lost. Joyce sets up Stephen's martyr complex as ironic.

Joyce's narrative structure and use of language is worth examining more closely. Initially, it is difficult for the reader to get a clear sense of Stephen's character. As the novel progresses these hazy impressions become more vivid as Stephen matures himself. The subjective and objective world collide, causing the specific use of language to change. It is only at the end of the novel where Stephen finally rejects Irish conformity and the Catholic faith that he can emerge with his own voice instead of being a prisoner to the omniscient third-person narrator. A most clever literary technique effectively used by Joyce. Stephen is the focalizer and the novel charts the growth of his mind over a period of time. However, Joyce's use of free-indirect discourse complicates matters because Stephen is not always the verbalizer; placing an ironic distance between the objective narrator and the protagonist. Thus, the impersonal narration produces an extensive amount of ambiguity. Is Stephen an artifice trying to escape a labyrinth society? Are the epiphanies he experiences authentic or ironic? Is his theory of art an aesthetic gospel or just egotistical nonsense? Is the villanelle indicative of artistic genius or just pretentious drivel? Is the novel progressive or ironically cyclical where Stephen rises from the epiphany only to fall? Most importantly, is Stephen successful as an artist? The overwhelming contradictions and irony in the text makes it difficult to conclusively answer any of these questions. Perhaps it would help if Stephen was not ambiguously distant but with no authorial intrusion, the novel is confined only to his perspective. 

Joyce is intent on complicating matters further by using a dialogical framework with different types of language: Childhood fragmentation, schoolboy slang, dramatic action of dialogue at the Christmas dinner over politics and religion, formal rhetoric of Jesuit sermon, elevated language of epiphany, intellectual colloquialism of college students, magical language of folklore, formal discourse of Stephen's aesthetic philosophy and ending with the fragmented diary entries. It's no surprise that many reader's find the novel intimidating and downright baffling to fully grasp. Believe me, I feel the same way too. This is not one of those novels to read on a whim. It demands a dedicated investment of time and effort on the part of the reader. I would be hard-pressed to recommend this novel to just anyone because it seems to be haughtily directed towards a specific type of intellectual audience. If one can get passed Joyce's ostentatious style, there is actually a great novel here. However, if you happen to like a challenge or just happen to be curious to see what all the hype is about, by all means, take the plunge. Just don't come back and say I didn't warn you.

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.

Monday 5 September 2011

It's Monday! What are you reading?

Much thanks to Book Journey for hosting this weekly meme, which provides the opportunity to plan out a tentative reading schedule for the upcoming week and to visit other book bloggers to see what they have lined up as well. 

This last week has been somewhat unproductive on the reading front because of work and other obligations. Nonetheless, I managed to finish Graham Greene's Brighton Rock and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, bringing my grand total to 50 books read this summer. I am incredibly behind on my reviews and have been rather discouraged in my inadequate ability to offer any sort of insightful literary criticism. I don't intend on being the next Cleanth Brooks and nor am I trying to please anybody -- indeed,  it is just difficult to shake the feeling of dissatisfaction with my writing. On a certain level, I do feel slightly burnt out from my intense reading experience this summer and also seem to have temporarily lost the ability to write anything of substantial value. Thus, this week I am going to take a slight breather to relax my mind a little but so that I can get over this writing dry spell. Instead of overburdening myself by reading multiple books at once, I will just focus on one book this week:

Incredibly dense and not nearly as inviting as To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway but Woolf's prose is still mesmerizing and keeping me interested to continue reading. 

What is everyone else planning to read this week?

Sunday 4 September 2011

Summer is over...

It sure went by super fast, huh? Much of my time was spent working and reading so it wasn't too miserable. On a positive note, I'm actually proud of myself for managing to read 50 books this summer as part of my Literature Frenzy Challenge, phew! Considering that my previous reading habits consisted of maybe three or four books a year (and this is being generous), I have really stepped up my game and don't plan on quitting the pace anytime soon. I was a little apprehensive at starting this blog a few months ago and still consider myself a newbie to the blogging world but I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience so far. Not to mention, it has provided the opportunity to connect with other cool and like-minded bloggers who share a passion for literature. I'd like to thank everyone who has ever took the time to read my blog and especially those few devoted followers. Feedback is much appreciated and your comments mean a lot to me! I have been swamped with work lately and sincerely apologize for the lack of new posts but for those who actually care, I have a few new reviews lined up that will be up in the next few days. In the mean time, I thought that it would be appropriate to showcase my Top 5 favorite books that I read this summer. Enjoy!
  1. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  2. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  3. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  4. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
  5. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Tuesday 30 August 2011

My Top 10 Books TBR this Fall!

This is the first time that I am participating in the Top Ten Tuesday meme held by The Broke and the Bookish. I've decided to go back to school in September and with the heavy course load, it is doubtful that I will have the time to enjoy some leisurely reading but we'll first have to see how the school year unfolds. Let's do this:
  1.  The Waves by Virginia Woolf: She is quickly becoming my favorite author and I am eager to read everything she has ever written in her lifetime. 
  2. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: Recommended by Satia, I desperately need to read more culturally diverse literature and this novel seems right up my alley.
  3.  The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: I've put off this one for far too long.
  4. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene: Another one of my favorite authors and whose work I turn to whenever struggling what to read next or need inspiration to write my own stuff. I plan on hosting a challenge devoted to Greene, so stay tuned!
  5. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene: See above.
  6. Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky: I've got a crush on Emma Watson.
  7. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway: I'm not giving up on Papa H, just yet. Besides, it's short enough that I can likely read it in between all of the other laborious texts assigned by class.
  8. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Rich American yuppies living it up in Paris? Plus the protagonist's name is Dick Diver. 
  9. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer: The Jewish diaspora and self-indulgent post-post modernism. Sounds like a winning combo. 
  10. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin: After reading the excellent Go Tell it on the Mountain, I have a feeling that that Mr. Baldwin will climb the ranks of my favorite's author's list in due time.
What does everyone else plan on reading?

Saturday 27 August 2011

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

"There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense." 

After numerous failed attempts over the years to read this novel , I can now finally proclaim that the task has been completed without falling asleep or abandoning it half-way through! Phew. Upon further reflection, my initial lukewarm response has slowly developed into a general appreciation of the text. However, it still baffles me as to the exact reasons why Jane Austen's writing or more specifically, Pride and Prejudice has gained such popularity amongst modern day readers considering the estrangement of Austen's 17th century England. Her prose is delectably florid containing a wry sense of humor and clever irony although the style of writing is excessively ornate. A common criticism is that the narrative is often tediously dull (a fair argument that I agree with to a certain extent). In addition, the central love story between Elizabeth and Darcy along with the relationships between the other romantic couples comes across as  insipid because they are based entirely on social decorum; thus, there is a severe lack of genuine emotional affection existing between the respected partners. From a modern perspective, the relationships in the novel must seem incredibly banal and antediluvian but one must take into consideration of the cultural milieu pertaining to Austen's time. Marriages were rarely based on romantic affection whereas other factors such as economic inheritance and the potential opportunity to move up in social rank took precedence. Austen keenly emphasizes various tensions between the established social hierarchy and the intrusively mobile class of the bourgeoisie. Much of the novel concerns itself with the dichotomy between old and new wealth -- the emergence of a more liberal society and the creating a new cultural identity that is shaped by all of England as opposed to just being inherited by the aristocracy.

How can modern readers even possibly enjoy reading this novel without a firm understanding of the historical context and cultural milieu of Austen's generation? To only focus on the various romances while disregarding the invariably social, political and economic concerns of the text is bound to leave the reader rather disappointed. It seems reasonable to suggest that many find amusement in the aberration of reading Pride and Prejudice as an entertaining fairy-tale romance where a middle-class woman is able to challenge social conventions by winning the affections of a rich and powerful man of the landed elite. As a result, Austen's pre-industrial England becomes a type of fantasy: a fashionable and elegant society where the only concern is to achieve a respectable marriage. With the lush and verdant countryside serving as the backdrop, beautiful women of modest means attempt to marry into wealth; they attend fancy balls held in luxurious mansions with the hopes of meeting and falling helplessly in love with Prince Charming, whom in due time will propose (in which the intended female will accept the offer with alacrity) and they will live happily ever after at his massive estate whilst enjoying the many privileges of the aristocratic way of life. Of course, the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy is far more complicated and does not unfold in this ideal manner as conflict arises between the social barriers between them as well as their own misconceptions of each other.

Pride and Prejudice is a deceiving novel because the charming heroine and the impressively lavish England she inhabits coaxes the reader into an imaginary world. The extravagant Pemberly estate is awe-inspiring to both Elizabeth and the reader. Consequently, it is a comfort to indulge in escapism, overlooking the perplexing underlying subtext. An important question to ruminate after reading the novel is, what does the union between Elizabeth and Darcy suggest? The juxtaposition between a feminist and conservative interpretation seems clear but which perspective holds merit? My viewpoint on the matter is that Austen cunningly manages to propose both simultaneously; that is, Elizabeth's radical independence and control over her own consciousness ironically affirms the propriety of social hierarchy, thus allowing for a new national identity to materialize.

Read from August 22 to 25, 2011

Note: Reading this novel completes several challenges:

Literature Frenzy!
Books I Should Have Read by Now
Bout of Books Read-a-Thon!

Monday 22 August 2011

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's that time again and you know the drill. This meme is hosted by Sheila @ Book Journey.

Despite having to work 50+ hours last week including the entire weekend, any free time to sit down and read has been greatly diminished. I managed to finish Faulkner's As I Lay Dying but was hoping to get through Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye as well. Unfortunately, I had to return the novel to the library because it was overdue, bah. To redeem myself this week, I am currently reading several novels:

It is embarrassing to admit that I never read this much beloved American classic before and only getting around to it now. I blame the inadequate English department during my high-school years for not bothering to teach this novel. My lack of initiative to read this on my own time is also at fault.

Jane Austen is one of my literary downfalls and I have lost count as to how many times I have started and abandoned P&P. Surprisingly, this time around my feelings of trepidation has drastically subsided and I am actually enjoying the novel a great deal. Austen's prose can be haughtily stylized but the use of irony and social witticisms are humorously entertaining. Hoping to finish this in the next few days.

Graham Greene can do no wrong, in my humble opinion. Even his lesser works are still brilliant and Brighton Rock is shaping up to be one of his best. Pinkie is one of the more fascinating characters I have come across in fiction.

What else is everyone reading? Let me know below in the comments section because I am always looking for recommendations. Happy Monday everyone!

Sunday 21 August 2011

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene

 "I feel discomfort, therefore I am."

In my reluctant haste to read as many novels as possible this year, I severely fell behind on writing reviews. Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case is a fascinating literary work that warrants an extensive review but alas, right now I can only provide some haphazard thoughts before any recollections of this novel slip completely from my mind.

Set in the harsh, isolated African wilderness of a Congo leprosy commune, the story revolves around a famous architect named M. Querry (an odd, if not deliberate emblematic name) suffering from a mid-life crisis who decides to abandon his old privileged life to start anew in a dangerous unfamiliar third world country where he can furtively remain an anonymous foreign stranger, or so he thinks...

The comparison of this novel to Conrad's Heart of Darkness is inevitable: the moral and psychological journey of a white man traveling by steam-boat up the Congo river into a world of  the "unknown" governed by colonialism, but this is where the similarities end. Greene is a master story-teller and is intent on telling an exciting adventure story with an intricate plot and engaging characters. That is not to say that the novel lacks any substantial depth, on the contrary -- spirituality and metaphysical philosophy is a recurring thematic concern for Greene and forms the central crux of the narrative. Querry is one of Greene's most psychologically complex and memorable characters. His very name alone bears an uncanny resemblance to the word "query" and reflects the prodigious skepticism and doubt he feels towards the Catholic faith. Despite claiming to be an agnostic, his altruistic behavior in the leprosy camp seems contradictory: rescuing his black servant Deo Gratis lost in the treacherous underbrush, tending the sick with Doctor Colin or building a church  raises the suspicions of the various Catholic clergymen who become convinced that Querry is an agent of God's work. His refusal to accept this point of view leads to extensive polemical religious discourse that is at times a little overwrought but does not detract from the flow of the story. A common motif in Greene's novels is to place his characters struggling with their faith as they desperately attempt to deal with the consuming guilt and regret from the past. Querry certainly falls into this category and whose past has a way of catching up with him no matter if he decides to isolate himself half-way across the world in a small leprosy camp in the Congo.

In contrast, Conrad's novel is far more politically motivated and overtly metaphorical in approach; exploring the nebulous depths of humanity through narrative innovation. Heart of Darkness may be admirable in aesthetic technique but it is incessantly dense. A Burnt-Out Case does not suffer from any of these hindrances and is enrapturing from start to finish -- a cynical reflection on morality and the endurance of the human spirit. Greene's keen insight into human psychology and the perception to understand our inherent flaws and desires is awe-inspiring; his uncanny ability to tap into the essence of what it means to be human with such pithy sophistication is unprecedented. He proves once again why is a master of story-telling craft and one of the best author's of the 20th century.

Read from April 12 to 14, 2011

Bout of Books Read-a-Thon!

As if I didn't have enough on my plate right now... 

Hosted by Amanda from On a Book Bender, I came across this challenge through happenstance and thought to myself, what the hell -- this is far too alluring to avoid participating. Besides, this event is a great opportunity to meet fellow book bloggers and learn to better manage my extra reading time around the hectic work schedule. Not to mention, this challenge provides incentive to reach my goal of reading 50 novels for the summer. Only 4 more to go! Here is a tentative list of what I plan on reading:
  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  2. The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark (re-read)
  3. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene 
  4. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer 
  5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Let's see how I do.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

My mother is a fish.

------ Possible Spoilers! ------

On the surface, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying appears as a solemn reflection on death and yet, through the use of dramatic irony, the novel also takes on the form of a dark twisted comedy. The story involves a family from the deep American south who decide to make a dangerous journey across the county with the rotting corpse of their dead mother in a wooden coffin (to fulfill a dying request to be buried in her home town). However, each family member seems to have their own motives.

Faulkner delivers a fragmented narrative that is more-or-less linear in structure; unfolding much like a dreamy haze where the reader must work through the ambiguity to comprehend the story elements through the given context. Faulkner's aesthetic is highly influenced by impressionism -- skillfully engaging in subtlety, focusing on brief confounded glimpses of conscious or unconscious thought and using elusive perceptions to create rich layers of underlying subtext. The emotional and thematic weight of this novel rests heavily with what is left unsaid or buried beneath the surface. Hemmingway's theory of the "ice-berg" technique of story-telling seems to be persistently employed by Faulkner far more effectively.

Faulkner's use of sardonic humor and irony serves two distinct purposes: social commentary by establishing verisimilitude of the rural south and intimately exploring various character's perspectives of death as they deal with their grief over the mother, Addie Bundren. It is safe to suggest that the members of the Bundren family are not entirely psychologically stable and prone to questionable behavior. Even though they often portrayed as country bumpkins, they also happen to be hard working farmers with humility living an austere life. Placing a value on the importance of family, the Bundren's intentions may not always be rational although they remain genuinely sound from their own individually flawed perspective. However, their obtuse and fallacious logic is a source of great comedy, leading to many humorous situations. For instance, When the Bundrens and their friend Tully attempt to cross a deep flowing river, their treacherous escapade unfolds much like a slapstick comedy: the wagon tips over and they struggle to keep Addie's coffin from being swept away by the current, one of the sons named Cash breaks his leg, he loses all of his precious tools in the water as the other men attempt to retrieve them and the mules end up drowning in the process. Throughout the entire fiasco, the youngest son Vardaman is on the other side of the shore feeling inadequate to help his family and suffers an anxiety attack. To accuse Faulkner of cruelly mocking these characters is debatable but in their arduous struggle against adversity to bury their dead mother, empathy is generated.

Furthermore, portraying the Bundren's as humble and simple-minded folk, Faulkner sets up the juxtaposition between the rural and urban demographic of Southern life. The traditional southern values are constantly under attack by outside influences. The author is an ardent defender of the struggling impoverished farm laborers and is rather blatant in his position. Cora, one of Addie's closest friends, is swindled in a business transaction to sell her cakes in town and yet, remains unperturbed over the incident because she believes herself to be a dignified Christian woman, saying: "The Lord can see into the heart. If it is His will that some folks has different ideas of honesty from other folks, it is not my place to question His decree" (8). Despite having wasted a large amount of eggs in the process, which happen to be a precious commodity during this slow farming season because snakes and possums have been repeatedly attacking the hen houses, Cora refuses to take offense to the rich town ladies change of heart to buy the cakes. Regardless of wealth or social status, God knows who is truly honest in the ways of the Lord and he will be the one to pass judgement for those who stray from the path of righteousness. Her friend Kate feels different and is critical of the upper-classes: "But these rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks can't" (7). Social hierarchy benefits the rich and powerful; it is commonplace for those of power to oppress and exploit the lower-classes to maintain their status. Faulkner's social commentary becomes even more prominent once the Brundens enter the small towns on their journey to Jefferson and interact with the wealthier middle-class. Upon arrival, they feel utterly estranged as country folk in this urban environment. Immediately treated with vehement disapproval and condescension, the towns people are appalled by the Brunden's social decorum of carting around a decomposing corpse on the back of their wagon. At one point, the daughter of the family named Dewey Dell, enters the town pharmacy with ten dollars looking for a doctor to perform an abortion. In her naivete, she expects to receive genuine kindness but instead, one of the employees attempts to deviously take sexual advantage of her as payment for carrying out the abortion.  Thus, Faulkner is keen to emphasize the tensions between the innocently modest rural country laborers and the morally corrupt urban township.

The narrative is divided into 59 chapters; each focuses on a different character's perspective and not only from those of the Brunden family. Minor characters are also included such as Doctor Peabody (overlooking Addie's illness), Reverend Whitfield (had an affair with Addie and fathered Jewel) Cora, Armstid (a fellow farmer who provides shelter to the traveling family) and even MacGowan, the sexually deviant pharmacist. Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness style is far less disorienting as found in his other work The Sound and the Fury, allowing the development for a rich tapestry of psychological depth along with the establishment of a convincingly vivid depiction of Southern life with its diverse inhabitants. The effective use of Southern vernacular with heavy slang and broken English aids in creating a specific sense of place. Instead of relying on a heavy-handed meditation concerning mortality, Faulkner takes a different approach -- infusing the narrative with sardonic humor and irony to explore various interpretations of death. One of the famous lines in the novel and quite possibly one of the shortest chapters in 20th century fiction, is a perfect example of Faulkner's skill to compellingly probe the consciousness of his characters: "My mother is a fish" (79). Vardaman is the youngest Brunden child and cannot fully process his mother's death. Having caught and gutted a fish the same day that Addie dies, he ironically equates her with the dead fish. A droll sentiment but also profound in its metaphorical conceit; an accurate psychological representation of a child who does not fully comprehend the complex ramifications of death. Another humorous irony takes place later on when Vardaman innocently drills holes on the top of the wooden coffin so his dead mother will be able to receive light instead of being trapped in total darkness.

The other family members have their own perceptions of death and ways of dealing with the grieving process. Darl represses his feelings until he eventually has a mental break-down, Jewel is hot-tempered and prone to animal cruelty to vent his frustrations. Dewey Dell feels the burden of being the only female of the family now that Addie is gone, is distraught over her unwanted pregnancy and turns desperately to God for help. Cash is only concerned with the proper building of Addie's coffin for her permanent resting place. The father, Anse, feels obligated to carry out his wife's final request but also has other intentions to visit Jefferson. Ironically, he also believes that she is better off dead instead of having to suffer being alive as an impoverished farmer. Faulkner even devotes a chapter to the dying Addie who who gladly welcomes death: "I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time" (161). As much as Faulkner seems to be championing the rural south, it can be argued that perhaps death is generous deliverance from the hardships of such a life.

For those who find Faulkner intimidating or just downright insufferable at times (myself included), As I Lay Dying is an accessible introduction to the author's writing style and extensive oeuvre. The novel's ambiguity is challenging but leaves plenty of room for analysis and self-reflection concerning human mortality. This is the kind of novel that deserves to be read more than once to fully appreciate the subtle complexities and considering it is a great novel, I look forward to revisit it in the future.

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

 "We perished, each alone."

The empty and decaying country house. Mrs. Ramsay's green shawl idly swaying upon the horrid skull on the wall of the children's room. The kitchen table lodged in the pear tree. Mr. Ramsay's boots. The drawing room-steps. Lily's blurred painting with greens and blues attempting to capture some kind of profound meaning. These are only a few vivid images from Virginia's Woolf's To the Lighthouse that will haunt me forever. Like a translucent dream or an impressionist painting that overwhelms the senses, this is one of those inimitable novels of such complexity, beauty, perception and pathos that transcends time; an unequivocally singular vision of insurmountable depth; a plaintively ambitious and insightful exploration of the human soul and consciousness.  Thus, in my humble opinion, establishing itself as the apotheosis of great fiction and rendering the majority of literary works as painfully mediocre in comparison. Just the mere reflection on this novel causes tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat -- not that the story is depressing (although there is a pervasive melancholy of loss and uncertainty that permeates much of the text) but rather, Woolf has miraculously captured the perplexing essence of life itself with such insight, narrative innovation and poetic craft. This is not a novel to be rushed. Woolf's elegant prose and stylistic virtuosity of language should be savored. 

My attempt to write a review of this novel seems like a futile endeavor and perhaps after subsequent readings, I will return and write more extensively on it. After reading To the Lighthouse, it is difficult not to view the aesthetic possibilities and the power of fiction in an entirely different way. Make this novel a top priority and you can thank me later.

Saturday 6 August 2011

Curse you procrastination!

It is one of my great sins; causing nothing but guilt and anxiety. Ok, time to take more initiative and starting getting things done. Well, it is getting late now -- so tomorrow it is then!

Yes, I'm incredibly lazy when it comes to writing reviews. I also blame my strenuous perfunctory job for interfering with my reading and writing schedule. After getting home from an exhausting day, I'm far too mentally drained to do much of anything other than pass out. Nonetheless, I do apologize for those very select few who might be wondering when the hell I am going to post anything new. Unfortunately, I have to work this whole weekend but I will try my best to get a new review up by Sunday evening. Here is sneak-peak at some upcoming reviews:

Mind = Blown.


You've redeemed yourself Joyce, for now.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Teaser Tuesdays! (02.08.11)

It's that time again...this weekly book meme is hosted by Mizb from Should Be Reading and anyone can play along. You know the drill!
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
I put aside D.H. Lawrence's Son and Lovers for the time being in order to read more from Mrs. Muriel Spark who is severely under-appreciated as one of the great authors of the 20th century. My teaser this week comes from her novella The Driver's Seat:

"One might be killed crossing the street, or even on the pavement, any time, you never know. So we should always be kind" (55).

This quote by the female protagonist lacks context but suffice it say, Lise is proving to be an utterly strange and fascinating character.

Friday 29 July 2011

The Comforters by Muriel Spark

"I think she's too ignorant to be a witch."

Muriel Spark's debut novel The Comforters is an utterly bizarre and whimsically ambitious meta-fiction that is structured around the literary equivalent of the Chinese box technique: a novel within a novel, within a novel. Paradoxically, Spark is keen to emphasize the fictional aspects of fiction itself; utilizing a variety of literary tropes such as irony, satire, religious parables, parody and metaphorical conceits to playfully break the fourth-wall -- not only between the author and the reader but also with several of the characters of the novel (more specifically, Caroline) and the omniscient narrator. 

Caroline is an educated woman and just so happens to have studied literature in college, possessing a thorough knowledge of the structural principles pertaining to the novel form. After leaving a Catholic convent, she begins to mysteriously hear voices in her head but these are no ordinary voices -- they take the form of a chanting chorus and the clicking of a type-writer, objectively writing down her exact thoughts at specific moments. Is this phenomena a religious miracle of God speaking through her or just plain delusion? Spark is purposefully ambiguous in answering this question, whereas madness takes on thematic relevance as many of the characters are fervently concerned with their sanity. At one point, one of the characters named Baron Stock, makes a profound observation about madness by asking a rhetorical question: "Is the world a lunatic asylum then? Are we all courteous maniacs discreetly making allowances for everyone else' s derangement?" (204). This is a question that the reader should keep at the back of their mind. Not only is the narrator unreliable but are all of these characters suffering from a mental derangement and if so, whose perspective can the reader trust with assurance?  How do we really know that our perception of what constitutes so-called "reality" is true? There tends to always be a lingering doubt that everything is not as it seems. Read the daily newspaper or step outside and perhaps it is not far-fetched to believe that most people are utterly insane, operating under the false surmise that they have complete control of their mental faculties and are living in a sane world.

Caroline soon comes to the conclusion that she exists within a fictional realm of an unknown author's imagination. She perceives herself and everyone else around her as characters in a story:  “The characters in this novel are all fictitious” (105). The concept of free-will and predestination is cleverly explored within this narrative conundrum as Caroline attempts to deceitfully outsmart the narrator's intentions by contradicting her thoughts and choices. During one such occasion, she initially decides to take the train to travel with her on and off again boyfriend Laurence Manders to visit his grandmother in the countryside. However, in an act of defiance against the narrator who is supposedly pulling the strings and dictating the exact trajectory of her life, she decides to take the car with Laurence instead. Perhaps it is ironic or an act of fate that the couple are involved in a serious car crash. Could this tragic incident represent one of Spark's many religious parables throughout the novel about the consequences of not placing faith in God? Maybe, maybe not. Similar to the works of Graham Greene (another great Catholic novelist), it would be reductive and downright misconstrued to classify Spark's work as evangelical just because of the strong religious overtones. She is a Catholic writer but her concern is not to create religious propaganda but to rather question, ruminate and examine the Catholic faith within the context of narrative fiction. 

The outrageous plot is charmingly comical as much as it is baffling in its incongruities. The Comforters is a social drama and sardonic comedy of errors; a part detective and crime novel that even dabbles in mysticism. Laurence even suggests that Caroline has involved herself in a otherworldly story, abandoning Catholicism for a new religion commonly referred to as "Science Fiction" (184). His criticism is obviously meant to be hyperbolic but it seems as if Spark is cleverly winking at the estrangement of this novel: diamond smuggling, witch-craft, blackmail, conspiracy, superstition, Catholic dogma, homosexuality, incest -- this novel purposefully contains a plethora of plot devices that make for a wild and intriguing story. However, Spark is inclined to undermine narrative conventions; blending different literary genres, teasing the reader's expectations for a logical and close-ended story where all of the loose plot threads are resolved with a satisfying conclusion. To reiterate, she perpetually emphasizes that this novel is a work of fiction, exposing prominent and arbitrary conventions while ironically, attempting to ascertain a higher truth -- realism. With irreverent wit and a penchant for writing crackling dialogue, Spark not only focuses heavily on religion but also branches off into gnosticism, inner human consciousness, illusion and the precarious nature of reality. Spark frantically bombards the reader with a convoluted plot whilst juggling a host of perplexing ideas that is not always effectively balanced, although she redeems herself with the climax of the story that is craftily delightful. The Comforters is far more impressive as an experimental novel as opposed to a thoroughly enjoyable work of fiction with empathetic characters and an engaging story. 

Read from July 26 to 28, 2011

Book Blogger Hop: 7/29-8/1


It's that time again, put on your dancing shoes and groove to the Blogger Hop! This is a wonderful weekly meme hosted by Crazy For Books that brings together fellow book bloggers. Unfortunately, I have neglected to participate in the event for the longest while and now it is time to jump back on the bandwagon. This week's question:

“Highlight one book you have received this week (for review, from the library, purchased at the store, etc.) that you can’t wait to dig into!”

After reading Mrs. Dalloway and having my mind-blown to shattered fragments by its sheer awesomesomeness, I have been obsessed with Virginia Woolf and super excited to give To the Lighthouse another chance considering that my previous attempt 10 years ago ended in failure. Since then, I'd like to think that I have matured intellectually to appreciate and critically analyze literature. I feel confident that this time around, my experience with this novel will be much different now that I am more familiar with her style of writing. Thanks to the library, my weekend vacation to cottage country just got better.

Monday 25 July 2011

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Prior to picking up this novel, my only exposure to Virginia Woolf was a short-story for a college course years ago entitled Kew Gardens (in which, I possess no recollection of whatsoever), the film Orlando staring the always wonderfully eccentric Tilda Swinton (an utterly bizarre story taking place during various time periods with strong feminist ideologies and focusing on gender identity) along with a halfhearted attempt to finish To the Lighthouse, only to give up rather quickly in frustration. In retrospect, it is astonishing how much my reading habits and writing skills have improved since those troublesome early years of university life when I remained completely indifferent towards my English courses out of frustration to comprehend the material; bitterly struggling to tackle challenging authors such as Virginia Woolf and in retaliation, stubbornly resorting to insubordination. Ironically, only after dropping out did I begin to take an avid interest in literature and through intensive self-study, my passion for the written English language has manifested into pure obsession. If Mrs. Dalloway had been assigned by one of my classes back then, I most certainly would have tossed it aside as rubbish. Oh, what a daft buffoon I was back in those days!

For the longest while, I have purposefully avoided writing a review because without a second or even third reading, it is difficult to compose anything substantial that can possibly do this magnificent and profound novel justice. To simply reflect on the text produces a lump in my throat and brings me close to tears. What is it about this novel that is so intensely moving? A monumental literary achievement, Mrs. Dalloway renders the majority of fiction as perfunctory in comparison. The masterful prose, use of imagery and innovative style are contributing factors but the emotional power of this novel goes beyond mere aesthetics. Woolf takes on the ambitious task of burying deep into the amorphous and perplexing core of human consciousness in order to achieve metaphysical transcendence.

Similar to Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway is experimental in prose; appropriating a "stream-of-consciousness" literary aesthetic to explore the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters but the latter is far less alienating,  maintains a tangible sense of intimacy and deeply emotional resonance that is not readily accessible in the former. Impressionistic and elusive in its narrative approach, Woolf is ambitiously subversive in technique; she radically departs from the conventions of form and structure typically associated with the novel -- ushering in a dazzling innovative reconstruction of narrative fiction. It is no surprise that she is often considered a revolutionary author. From the very first page, it becomes apparent that Mrs. Dalloway is not going to be a typical novel that plays by the rules. Woolf cleverly introduces the reader to the title character who decides to go out and buy some flowers because she hosting a party at her extravagant home for friends and distinguished guests of the English aristocracy. In a direct and simple way, she wily adheres to conventional story-telling: the female protagonist has an object of desire and in she will need to encounter various forms of conflict (inner, social and external) to finally achieve her goal. Yet, Woolf has no concern for a linear plot contrivances; life and human consciousness is far too complex to be restricted to stringent literary parameters. She is far more interested in examining the interior landscape of the human psyche; eschewing with the established objective worldview and plummeting directly into the jostled consciousness of her female heroine:

'What a lark!  What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was int he early morning; like the flay of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, "Musing among the vegetables?" -- was that it? -- "I prefer men to cauliflowers" -- was that it?" (3).

The style of writing accurately reflects the ebb and flow of conscious thought. There is a specific rhythm to the words and syntax as the protagonist is overwhelmed by the capricious ruminations of flooding memories from the past. The extensive use of punctuation (Woolf is a big fan of the semi-colon, bracket and line-break where sentences can stretch to a full page) is effectively implemented to serve as a type of mimetic articulation of the wandering inner thought-process. A pervasive melancholy of nostalgia and loss is prevalent in these lines, which also permeates throughout much of the text. Mrs. Dalloway sentimentally mourns her youth and first love with Peter Walsh when she lived at Bourton. She even questions the dubious nature of memory ("was that it?"). Woolf tactfully explores the fallibility of memory and her descriptions of the past are vivid as much as they are beautifully elegiac. Thus, her style of writing can be disorienting in its perplexity because the unstable psychological construction of past,  present and future intertwine simultaneously. Although the novel can be appreciated on the surface level for its unique aesthetic merits, the narrative is built upon layers and layers of subtext that is difficult to absorb on a first reading. To further complicate matters , the novel is structured around interconnected sub-plots with  Clarissa Dalloway serving as the main focal point. The inner lives of other characters is also examined with precision as their thoughts flow into one another. Hence, my earlier trepidation of reviewing this intensely complex work, which is overflowing with an intricate tapestry of thoughts and ideas that can be interpreted on so many different levels. 

Much attention has been given to Woolf's social, political and economic commentary pertaining to England soon after WWI, with particular emphasis on the strong underlying feminist ideologies of the text. Personally, the most fascinating aspects of the novel is its philosophical interpretations, deeply rooted in ontology and the exploration of human consciousness. With intimate sensitivity and profound wisdom, Virginia Woolf has astonishingly managed to write one of most beautiful and life-affirming novels that I have ever read. It is strange how I find it much easier to write about a literary work that I disliked as opposed to one that completely floored me such as this novel where I can no longer view fiction in the same way ever again. Virginia Woolf possesses a profound grasp of humanity and understands life as ephemeral and fleeting. The dejection of unrequited love, loneliness, rampant insecurities, the difficulties of actually truly knowing anyone, the regret associated with the past and its influence on the present, the disconnection to the outside world, death--essentially, she understands what it means to be human--flawed, self-conscious, desperately seeking happiness in a cruel indifferent world, searching for some kind of meaningful connection with others. She speaks to me in a way no other author has ever done so before. Within these 200 pages, Woolf compacts the stuff of life through the power of language. She was ahead of her time and reading this novel was an enlightening experience.

I could probably quote the entire novel but here are just a few favorites:

"It was to explain the feeling they ad of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known. For how could they know each other?" (152).

"It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death,  allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all skepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death... perhaps - perhaps" (153).

"She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day."

All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was!-that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant . . ." 

"Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely? All this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?" 

"Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the center which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death" (184).

"For she had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying -- what one felt. Cleverness was silly. One must say simply what one felt" (191).

A masterpiece.

Read from July 20 to 22, 2011