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.