Friday 28 June 2013

Neglected Review #6: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”

It may have been over two years since I last read Northanger Abbey, in which several of the plot details are a little fuzzy but this novel still resonates with me today because it completely altered my opinion of Jane Austen as a writer. I struggled to read Pride and Prejudice for many years (I quickly lost interest or it put me to sleep) and after finally finishing the novel, it did not exactly change my nonchalant disposition towards Austen. Sure, I found the social critique of gender, class and power to be compelling enough to keep me reading but the narrative and style of writing did not exactly bowl me over. It was not until I decided to give Austen another chance with Northanger Abbey and about half-way through the novel something in my brain just "clicked"--one of those Aha! moments that much to my surprise, turned me into a huge fan of her work.

The scene where the female protagonist of the story Catherine Morland and her love interest Henry Tilney take a trip into the country to admire the picturesque landscape, completely convinced me that Jane Austen is indeed a great writer. In what appears to be a simple romantic excursion between the two main characters, Austen drops subtle indicators that allude to much more going on beneath the surface. She craftily highlights the division between male and female gender roles in which women's lives are being constructed by a higher power. As the highly educated male, Henry goes on to instruct Catherine on a wide variety of subjects, corrects her use of language and claims her taste as "natural"--a chauvinistic label that subtly alludes to Austen's way of criticizing the construction of female identity that is shaped by a male hegemonic society. Catherine does not know how to "see" without Henry and he creates a lens in which for her perceive the world. He represents male culture, upholds patriarchy by claiming women to be inferior to men, constructs what history is and dictates the dominant ideology. Thus, the role of women is socially constructed but Austen also seems to be deconstructing the ideological framework of civility through parody. Henry Tilney is playing the role of a perfect "gentleman" and he places Catherine in the form of a "lady." Ironically, Tilney adopts the role of Catherine in various ways (ex: he keeps a diary and yet makes fun of women's love for letter writing) and as he tries to fix Catherine's identity, he quickly slides between roles. Even though he mocks her, he is also trying to build himself up in her favor. 

The fact that Austen is capable of packing so much subtext into one scene is absolutely remarkable. This is a common trend in her writing, which makes her novels so thematically rich, allowing many interpretations. She is so clever in her aesthetic approach to narrative and there exists a tremendous amount of intelligent discourse that is not always discernible. To simply approach her novels as entertaining romances would be a serious blunder because there is far too much going on underneath the surface that deserves attention. Furthermore, other striking aspects of the novel include its excellent use of parody towards the Gothic genre and Austen's interest in blurring the line between truth and fiction. She plays with the readers expectations in terms of genre and gender roles. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that she attempts to redefine the conventional Gothic heroine. She challenges patriarchy by writing "a history of the domestic woman" and champions the novel form as being more truthful than history. Go feminism!

It was not long after finishing this wonderful novel that I went back to read Pride and Prejudice for a second time and absolutely loved it. By approaching the text more critically, paying more attention to the use of irony and contradiction, I was now able to fully appreciate Austen's craft as a gifted writer. I have not come across many authors who are able to incorporate so much wit, style and social critique so effortlessly into their writing. 

This novel is a part of my Classics Club Challenge.

Thursday 27 June 2013

Winners of the Literary Blog Hop!

Thanks to everyone who visited my blog and participated in the event! I honestly did not expect much interest but the turnout was a lot more than initially anticipated. Thus, I have decided to extend the amount of giveaways to a total of six winners. Those who come in 1st, 2nd and 3rd get three books each and those in 4th, 5th and 6th win one book from their list.

Once again, thank you Leeswammes for hosting this Blog Hop and it was a lot of fun.

Now it is time to declare the winners. Drum roll please....
1st: Shelly Hammond
2nd: Deb Nance @ Reader Buzz 
3rd: Satchmo
4th: Athira
5th: Guiltlessreader
6th: Laurie C

Congratulations to all of the winners and I'll be sending out an email soon so please answer it within the next 3 days.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Neglected Review #5: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks.”

This will be less of a formal review and more of a short personal reaction to the novel, which will probably not earn me any brownie points. I understand that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those towering American classics--according to most surveys, it reigns as the quintessential American classic--but I recall feeling very underwhelmed. Don't get me wrong, I don't think it is a terrible novel that lacks substantial merit but it failed to leave a profound impression on me. Having never been forced to read it during high-school (it still eludes me why it was never assigned as part of the curriculum--perhaps it has something to do with the trifling Canadian education system), I took the initiative three years ago to read it myself and see what this overwhelming praise is all about. Unfortunately, it left me cold and indifferent. Soon afterwards, I even watched the movie and found it mediocre at best. Is it sacrilegious to claim Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel as overrated? I would definitely have to read this novel again and come up with substantial evidence from the text in order to back up such a contentious assertion but solely from a personal stand-point, I found the characters to be stereotypical and flat; the prose clunky and dull; the story uneven and torpid in its pacing. The "white savior" narrative undermines any critical analysis on anti-black racism, segregation, race politics and slavery. 

 I was able to find my initial response written three years ago after finishing the novel:

"Childhood innocence clashes with racism and social idealism in the American south during the 1930's. Perhaps my expectations were a bit too high but this novel did nothing for me--it is far too black and white, literally." 

I think that one of my biggest problems with the novel is that it deals with race in a far too simplistic manner. Perhaps that is what I meant by it being too "black and white" but since the story is told from Scout's perspective, maybe she only understands race through a confined and naive childhood lens? I don't know. Maybe I failed to fully grasp the novel's true intentions and purpose. 

For those of you who love this novel, I would be very curious to know why you feel this way. Or perhaps you can try to explain to me why I must be crazy for not thinking this is one of the greatest American novels, ever. :P

Monday 24 June 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's been a while since I last participated in this weekly meme hosted by Sheila from Book Journey so it's time to get back into the swing of things. Also, feel free to participate in my Blog Hop Giveaway for the chance to win some book prizes!  

Ok, back to business:

I started this one today on my lunch-break at work and so far it is pretty good. I really enjoyed The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald's writing style is elegantly sophisticated as to be expected. Looking forward to reading more later tonight. Has anyone else read this?

Saturday 22 June 2013

The Literary Giveaway Blog Hop!

Shout out to Judith at Leeswames for hosting this cool event where you can discover new book blogs, make new friends and have the opportunity to win cool prizes!

I will be giving away several books for this blog hop with a grand total of three winners. First place chooses 3 books, second place chooses 2 books and third place gets to chose 1 book. Make sense? Good. Here are the prizes:

One of my favorite novels by Graham Greene. You can read the review here.

A hilarious and wacky take on the detective genre where dinosaurs live amongst humans.

More prizes:

The Rules.
1. Anyone can enter. You do not need to have a blog.
2. You need a post-office recognized address anywhere in the world, where you can receive packages.
3. You do not have to be a follower or become a follower, although if you like my blog I hope you will! You can follow by email.
4. Fill out the comments box below letting me know which 3 books you would prefer and your email address.
5. You can enter the giveaway until Wednesday 26th June. I will close the giveaway at 9pm (EST time). Winners will be randomly picked using
6. Note that double or invalid entries will be removed.
7. I will notify the winners by email. The winners need to answer my email within 3 days, or I’ll announce a new winner.
8. The books will be sent out by me as soon as possible.
9. That’s it! Good luck and thanks for playing.

Don’t forget to hop on to the other participating blogs! You will find the complete list on Judith’s Leeswammes’ blog. Have fun and good luck with all the giveaways. 

Friday 21 June 2013

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

“After all, damn it, what does being in love mean if you can't trust a person.”

I tend to get into the bad habit of procrastinating when it comes writing reviews and when the time does come around to try and crank one out, my mind often goes blan
k--too much time has elapsed since finishing said book and my memory is terrible. Perhaps the planets are fully aligned or it is some kind of miracle but today seems to be an exception. Rarely has a novel sneaked up on me like Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies and it seems appropriate to get some thoughts down before I get easily distracted and fall into my familiar pattern of delaying.

In an earlier post today, I expressed a sense of ambivalence and mild aversion to this novel but after finishing it this evening, I have undergone a complete change of heart. Granted, I still have a few minor quibbles but they are indeed minor and stem mostly from my own personal interpretation of the text. For starters, the novel contains a lot of abrasive interjections from random characters who only appear briefly and contains absurd digressions or subplots that I found frustrating because they do not seem to fit properly within the novel's narrative framework: The new Prime Minister named Mr. Outrage, Father Rothschild, the Evangelical Mrs. Ape and her choir of angels (young women wearing wings and only referred to by their pious names such as Chastity, Prudence, etc), Agatha Runcible, the drawn-out motor car race scene to name a few. With the exception of Agatha, these characters are introduced at the beginning of the novel with the implication that they will serve a greater purpose later on but it is still unclear to me how they connect to the over-arching story. Perhaps one could make the argument that Chastity's appearance at the end of the novel serves some purpose (Waugh's attempt to remonstrate sexual promiscuity to achieve virtue by abstaining from a life of obscenity?) but I am still unsure how she fits into the bigger picture. Also, I found the interspersed blunt racism to be slightly offensive. For example: "He didn't mind niggers, Ginger said; remarking justly that niggers were all very well in their place, but after all, one didn't come all the way from Colombo to London just to see niggers" (100). Or, when Agatha's dancing is described as possessing a "negro rhythm" (159). I understand that racist attitudes were a lot more prevalent during the early 20th century and it was considered normal for rich white folk to perceive minorities with haughty derision but it all seems very unnecessary here. 

However, it is Waugh's irreverent satirical edge, his elegant writing style that is largely driven by snappy dialogue and sardonic wit, which makes this novel such an enjoyable read. Here is one of many examples that displays his aesthetic charm:

"The effects of their drinks had now entered on that secondary stage, vividly described in temperance hand books, when the momentary illusion of well-being and exhilaration gives place to melancholy, indigestion and moral decay" (149).

I love it. Anyone who has ever had too much hard liquor can certainly attest to this particular feeling. Moreover, it is a surprise none of these characters actually die from alcohol poisoning or liver disease considering they drink incessantly!

When the novel focuses on the character of Adam Symes and his on/off again relationship with Nina, the novel truly shines. They are both part of the "Bright Young Set" of London which I suppose is akin to young, privileged rich celebrities and pop stars like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus of today's generation (ugh). Waugh purposefully satirizes this post-First World War group as being in a perpetual state of ennui, dissolution, prone to heavy alcohol consumption, romantic dalliances and partying. In one of the funniest scenes of the novel, Adam and Nina engage in sex for the first time together (gasp!). Witness this humorous exchange:

"And you said that really divine things didn't happen," said Adam in the middle of the night.

"I don't think that this is at all divine," said Nina. "It's given me a pain. And -- my dear, that reminds me. I've something terribly important to say to you in the morning." (68)

Nina obviously experiences an unpleasant sexual encounter with Adam but the way Waugh amusingly underscores Adam's sense of embarrassment purely through dialogue by having her bring up another subject of disappointing revelations (which will then transition to the next scene where they discuss the faulty check given to him by her father as a loan for the marriage) perfectly showcases Waugh's clever playfulness. 

Although one can easily appreciate the the novel for its brisk pace, witty dialogue or as a purely entertaining romp, there is a lot going on beneath the surface that may not be fully apparent. While it clear that Waugh is unflinching in satirizing the rich upper class, he also provides a social critique of the media and celebrity culture (focusing on newspapers and gossip tabloids which were the most popular forms during his day). The frequent use of paradox is also worth noting, especially in relation to the novels exploration of sexual relationships (even the title "vile bodies" can be argued to be paradoxical considering that there is very little "sex" in the novel and its treatment of the subject matter is remarkably tame) and the presentation of the "Bright Young Set" group as being sophisticated but also very immature. It might also be interesting to note the way the novel plays with repetition, not only stylistically but thematically as well. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but this recurring motif seems most profound in the novels preoccupation with doubling and the way history has a tendency to repeat itself, i.e. war.

One of my initial problems with the novel is that it is difficult to form any sympathy towards these characters because of the satirical distance and the novels disparate structure. It is only at the apocalyptic climax (the closing chapter is ironically titled "the happy ending") where everything begins to makes sense and the novel finally achieves a powerful emotional resonance. This is one of those "holy crap" kind of endings that sheds a new light on everything leading up to this pivotal moment and makes you want to read it again because now there seems to be so many subtleties that were initially overlooked. It seems those minor characters and digressions may not have been meaningless after all.

This is a wonderful novel and I will definitely be reading more from Evelyn Waugh in the near future.

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.

Book Beginnings on Friday: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

It's that time of the week again! Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this event where you share the first line or two from your current read and then offer some brief thoughts about any initial impressions. This will be my second time participating in this meme, which reminds me that I still need to write a review for Saul Bellow's Herzog that I finished a few days ago but have found myself delaying based on a variety of circumstances (mostly, lack of confidence and the fact that I lost an extensive amount of my notes on the subway, ugh). Anyways, getting back to business:

"It was clearly going to be a bad crossing."

This opening line did not particularly hook me with much force but as I continued reading, it did not take long to find myself intrigued by Waugh's flowery and posh writing style, which is very reminiscent of Fitzgerald at times. I find his sardonic humor and use of satire to be most amusing in mocking the upper class of England during the 1920's. However, the story (or lack thereof) and characters are so over the top and silly that it is difficult to take anything seriously. Thankfully, the book is relatively short in length and the light prose is allowing me to breeze through it without much difficulty other than forcing myself to reach the end. This is my first experience reading anything by Waugh but he does not seem to be an author that I am anxious to read more from anytime soon.

If anyone has read this one or is a fan of Waugh's other works, I'd love to know what you think! Or if you have never heard of this book or author and want to leave a comment, that's cool too. :)

Thursday 20 June 2013

Neglected Review #4: Utopia by Thomas More

“A pretty face may be enough to catch a man, but it takes character and good nature to hold him."

It would seem that many authors of the science-fiction genre who write about dystopian or utopian societies owe a tremendous debt to Thomas More. Considered to be the first fully fledged work during the renaissance, Utopia has been highly controversial since its publication that can be interpreted from a wide variety of perspectives (political, economical,sociological, philosophical) and still remains a dangerous text for social reform. It would not surprise me that this text was likely influential for Karl Marx--the narrator Ralphael identifies private property as the central cause of social problems. However, one of the many questions the reader must acknowledge is whether More is to be taken seriously in his depiction of an "Ideal Commonwealth" or if it is only a satire. Personally, I think that it is important to read the text as a "literary work" that is a satire on More's own culture--an imaginative response to Plato's Republic where its central ideas are built on the foundation of paradox. He adopts this particular mode "to play seriously" or another way to put it, he delivers a joke that has serious intentions. After all, Utopia is Latin for "no place." Perhaps this was his cunning strategy to avoid execution since it directly challenges the long traditions of monastic sovereignty.

A little background information on Thomas More and historical context will perhaps help to illuminate some of the ideas explored in the text. He was born in 1478, the son of a lawyer and an Erasmus humanist thinker, influenced by the Latin theologian Desiderius Erasmus. His friendship with Erasmus is important because one can make the argument that he is portrayed as the allegorical figure of Raphael, who relates the story of his journey to a utopian society to the narrator. In a nutshell, Erasmus believed that the essence of Christianity is the philosophy of peace, he was highly critical of war and held reason as the divine spark within man that would allow humanity to prosper. Without the power of reason, humanity was bound to destroy itself through conflict and war. He also suggested that greed and pride are negative agents that lead to the abandonment of reason since it involves trying to grasp things that go beyond human understanding. He viewed creation as a  hierarchical structure (God at the top and then in descending order: angels, man, animals and at the bottom is chaos) where man is born helpless but most importantly, man is unique among god's creatures and born to live in peace by his physical nature because he possesses reason.

Getting back to Thomas More, he is deeply religious but conflicted with the split between the contemplative and active life (similar to Erasmus). He spends two years in a monastery but soon afterwards becomes a popular member of court. In 1518, he becomes one of King Henry VIII's most important advisers. Remember now, he is living during the protestant reformation, which is a very dangerous time period because of the heated conflict concerning religion that is spreading across England through Martin Luther's attacks on the Catholic faith. So, what does all of this have to do with the text? Well, for starters, all of these humanist ideas are advocated by this Utopian society and Ralphael often comes to stand for and against More. For example, he defends contemporary European philosophy, which More opposes. 

The text is framed by a series of letters where truth and fiction become entangled in a complicated, antithetical relationship. Book 1 consists of a dialogue and engages in learned discussions. For instance, the responsibilities of intellectuals is a topic of interest: should a learned man be subject to a Prince? There is also a debate on the question of "punishment" where Ralphael believes there is a place for philosophy within the courtship of the king. In essence, Book 1 contains expanded rhetorical examples while Book 2 is an example of the problems. The use of satire complicates the reader's relationship to the narrator. The question of satirical distance must be taken into account; there exists shifting patterns of proximity between what Ralphael says and how the reader is intended to interpret it. There is no real vantage point for the reader.

The Utopians obviously live in a different type of society than England especially when it comes to private property but the big question remains: is Utopia an ideal society? It protects and fully provides for its people but at the cost of personal freedom and individuality. Thomas More is purposefully ambiguous here and leaves it up to the reader to form their own conclusions. This is not an entertaining read by any means but still remains an important historical literary work that should appeal to those with some interest in early British literature or for those hardcore Marxists out there.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

“But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."

It seems like a pointless exercise to write a review on this widely popular dystopian classic that has been analyzed to the point of no return and has been required reading for most high-school students over the many decades since its publication in 1932 (unfortunately, I was not provided this luxury). Not to mention, a lot of the story details have escaped my memory but I clearly recall being fascinated by the sociological ideas presented in the novel  along with Huxley's accurate depiction of advanced technology and its negative effect on future human civilization. He was simply, ahead of his time.

Even though the novel is prone to heavy doses of pedantic discourses (especially during lengthy conversations between Mustapha Mond and the Savage) and the characters themselves are often perceived as caricatures (then again, one could argue that this is intentional since individuality has been eradicated from society) for Huxley to use irony, satire and even allegory to express his ideas, this narrative approach does not diminish the novel's power to engage the reader to think critically about a wide range of important issues that are still, if not, more relevant today than ever. Technology is moving at such a rapid pace and can be dangerous in influencing the way people think and conduct themselves; the media has become such a dominant force in most cultures and social conditioning  is becoming an all too real concept. In Huxley's futuristic society, a hallucinogenic drug named "soma" is used to control the masses and numb people into a state of complacency; they become slaves to the system. At one point, Mond explains that "unorthodoxy" is dangerous because it strikes at the heart of society itself so in order to achieve stability, individual identity must be squashed out. A scary premonition but one that is all too plausible with the influence of technology and the media. False consciousness tends to distract people from the reality of their situation. For me, the most interesting approach to the novel is from a sociological perspective. I've barely scratched the surface of this complex work--the concept of free will vs. predestination along with the contrast between Marxist and capitalist ideologies deserves a much thorough analysis.

On a side note, I was fascinated to learn that on his death bed, Aldous Huxley requested that he be given LSD to ease the pain--an ingenious idea!

Tuesday 18 June 2013

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

"It isn't beauty that we love, he thought, it's failure--the failure to stay young forever, the failure of nerves, the failure of the body. Beauty is like success: we can't love it for long."

Despite being an unabashed Graham Greene fan-boy who absolutely adores many of his novels and style of writing--elegant prose, vivid descriptions, the use of irony, pithy aphorisms, accomplished story-telling with interesting and complex characters--it pains me to admit that I found The Heart of the Matter (1948) to be extremely disappointing. Don't get me wrong, it is not a terrible read since there are some redeeming qualities (the writing is superb, as to be expected) but this is one of the author's weakest efforts, which often comes across as a trite platitude about religious hypocrisy and colonialism--two recurring motifs that appear frequently in his works. 

The story revolves around a veteran colonial officer named Scobie (I kept calling him Scooby-Doo, heh) who works in an unnamed West African colony during WWII. Bound to his duty as an officer and Catholic faith, he is unhappily married to a snobbish wife and yearns to send her away so that he can finally achieve peace of mind in perpetual solitude. She tends to be only concerned with socializing with other foreign elites, drinking a lot of gin (then again, most of the characters in the novel are always drinking gin or some alcoholic beverage) and flirting with other men. On the other hand, her husband works long hours maintaining order in an "uncivilized" land where crime and deviance is abundant, especially diamond smuggling. The story finally picks up some steam when Scobie gets himself tied up with a garrulous and devious Syrian named Yusef in order to get the necessary funds to send his wife away. Good riddance. Perhaps it would have been easier for him to get a divorce but Scobie is a Catholic and this religion has some very strict marriage doctrines. Soon after his wife is out of the picture, Scobie finds himself attracted to a young female convalescent and they eventually start an affair. The horror! Adultery is a terrible sin and similar to other Greene novels, the protagonist finds himself torn between love (or is it merely lust?) and his faith. Unfortunately, just as Scobie and his new lover are beginning to get serious with each other, his wife suddenly returns. Surprise! Now Scobie finds himself caught between two women, overwhelmed with guilt and sin. Not to mention, that devious Syrian won't get off his back and there is something very strange about the new government official in town named Wilson...

Greene sets up a very entertaining premise but the story is tedious, stagnant without any meaningful progression; the characters dull and uninspired. Much criticism towards Greene has been directed towards his misogynistic portrayals of women and while I do not always agree with this particular sentiment, this novel unequivocally depicts women as feeble and completely subservient to men, especially the character of Helen, Scobie's mistress. At one point she even agrees to be his "whore" if it will make him happy (her words, not mine). Even though Greene will likely never win over feminists anytime soon, his depiction of hyper-masculinity should be considered within the historical time period that he was writing: even though women from the 1940's had gained a tremendous amount of rights and independence than the previous generation at the turn of the century, they still lived in a male hegemonic society (perhaps one could argue that this is still true today in the 21st century but that is another can of worms). Please let it be noted that I am in no way defending the use of gender inequality often found in Greene's writing but merely stating the importance of historical context. 

Since the protagonist and the rest of the characters are poorly developed and unconvincing in their respected roles, it is difficult to form any sympathy towards them at all. Thus, the story is rendered inconsequential and drowns in its own sententiousness. Only two minor characters seem to be have any remote semblance of  authenticity: Harris and Wilson. This would be a much better novel if these two gentlemen were the main characters instead of Scobie since they were one of the few delightful aspects that actually made the story tolerable. Their distinctive personalities compliment one another, they each have interesting back-stories that are not fully explored and their relationship together is comical. Also, is it just me or is Harris subtlety portrayed as a homosexual in his flamboyant behavior and strange attraction towards Wilson? So, the story would then be a buddy comedy about a British government agent and his gay best friend fighting crime and corruption in Africa during WWII. Sounds like a blockbuster to me! 

Furthermore, Greene is unable to effectively tie together all of the loose narrative threads, which left me scratching my head in confusion and disbelief. Not to mention, the climax of the story is baffling in its absurdity. Scobie's marriage, his love for Helen and Catholic faith all hang in the balance but I will not spoil the ending. Let's just say that his "final decision" is ludicrous and laughably unwarranted. If only Greene had the decency to give Scobie the foresight to solve his mid-life crisis sooner so that the reader does not have to suffer through interminable pages of him wrestling with his inner demons. I actually had to force myself to finish the last section of the novel but at least there was a sense of relief at the end: I could finally move on to read something else now. Perhaps I am slightly bias but despite all of these faults, I cannot bring myself to give this book less than two stars because Greene saves it from being a total disaster with his captivating writing skills. Nonsensical plot aside, he has the tendency to infuse the prose with profound metaphysical maxims of philosophical ideas and ruminations about love, relationships, death, religion: life. Here are a few:

"He had a dim idea that perhaps if one delayed enough, things were taken out of one's hands altogether by death" (23).

"The word 'pity' is used as loosely as the word 'love' : the terrible promiscuous passion which so few" (159).

“Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, selfishness, evil -- or else an absolute ignorance.” 

“We are all resigned to death: it's life we aren't resigned to.”  (242)

I wonder if this novel will grow on me with time, but as of this moment, it remains a middle-tier work by an otherwise consistent author and not one that I would not recommend to those unfamiliar with his body of work.

This novel is part of the Classics Club Challenge.

Friday 14 June 2013

Book Beginnings: Herzog by Saul Bellow

This will be my first time participating in this meme hosted by Rose City Reader! The task is to share the first line or two from your current read and provide any first impressions. Sounds like fun! Here's mine:

"If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog."

This is one of those opening sentences that completely hooked me and I immediately got that wonderful and exciting feeling that this was going to be an awesome novel. Ever since starting it yesterday, I have been unable to put it down and my initial impression has been correct so far. It's scary how much I see myself in the character of Moses Herzog: neurotic, philosophical, quirky, compulsive, self-depreciating, trouble establishing relationships with women, the list goes on. The writing is incredible--funny, intense, witty, provocative and full of compassion. Where have you been all my life Saul Bellow? I have a good feeling that this novel might become one of my all-time favorites. 

Has anyone else read this or anything else by Bellow? 

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Neglected Review #2: Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

“This was hell then; it wasn't anything to worry about: it was just his own familiar room.” 

Sorry, but I honestly can't remember much about this one other than it was dull, silly and my least favorite novel so far from one of my favorite authors: Graham Greene. It was one of his first novels (1938) and it seems as if he was still in the process of developing his writing style and thematic concerns as an author, which might help to explain the rough, inconsistent pulp-fiction aesthetic employed here. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that in this novel, Greene lays out the foundation for specific subject matter and an artistic vision that will dominate the rest of his long writing career: hyper-masculinity and Catholicism. 

From what I recall, the plot involves a rebellious and violent teenager named Pinkie (such a funny name) who belongs to a gang, commits a violent crime and then a prostitute becomes determined to bring him to justice. Several bizarre incidents take place and outlandish characters show up that borders on preposterous. The story begins to make very little sense, coming across as a cheesy B-film noir with a weak script and hammy acting. Surprisingly, it was even adapted several times into movies so I am curious to see how the filmmakers utilized the source material. 

Similar to most of Greene's protagonists, Pinkie struggles with his faith and sense of eternal damnation. Even though he is sociopath and not deserving of any sympathy, Greene explores morality by linking it with the traditional good vs. evil theme but fails to reach the profundity found in his later works. He also attempts to provide some social commentary concerning a rebellious youth culture, although only seems to gloss the surface. Additionally, Pinkie is a likely influence on the character of Alex in "A Clockwork Orange" who also has no respect for the law and relishes in committing violent crimes. Pinkie has the potential to be a very interesting and complex character but seems to lacks depth. In fact, much of the novel seems underdeveloped and inadvertently comes across as a trifling farce. Despite being disappointing in many aspects, I believe that this novel is a stepping stone that Greene uses to later write some of his best novels. Besides, everyone has to start somewhere to master their talents in order to achieve greatness.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Teaser Tuesday (June 11)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. The idea is to open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences.

"The heat between the walls of rain, the musty smell of his companion, the dim and wayward light of the kerosene lamp reminded him of a vault newly opened for another body to be let down upon its floor. A grievance stirred in him, a hatred of those who had brought him here" (175).

A very disquieting scene that took me by surprise. I am almost done reading this novel and will hopefully have a review up in the next few days!

Monday 10 June 2013

Neglected Review #1: The Dubliners by James Joyce

During my reading binge days, I often found myself falling behind when it came to writing reviews and figured that it might be appropriate to go back and try to at least offer some brief, albeit, scattered thoughts about these literary works from my list. Do not expect a thorough or insightful analysis here because many of these "neglected reviews" will contain fragmented reflections--after all,  it has been several years since reading these texts and my memory is faulty at the best of times (I can barely remember what happened yesterday!). Nevertheless, I owe it to myself to finish what I started.

"His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Oh James Joyce, what am I going to do with you? Ulysses is probably one of the most baffling and excruciating novels that I could not bring myself to finish. I read the first  page of Finnegans Wake only to laugh in disbelief at how elitist and obscure the prose was--I remember thinking: "F-- this, life's too short to force myself into reading this nonsense." Then I decided to give Mr. Joyce another chance with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and thought it was absolutely fantastic (you can read the review here). Now we come to Dubliners, a collection of short stories written over the period of 1904-1907 and then finally published in 1914. Although he tends to have a huge ego that can be annoying (ok, we get it, you are the Milton of early modernism and smarter than the rest of us), it is difficult to dispute his writing talent and influence during this period. When he shows restraint, focuses on everyday experiences and avoids his usual ostentatious style, I can actually tolerate and even come to highly enjoy his work: The Dubliners falls under this category.

Joyce was interested in writing a "moral history" of his native Ireland and believed the country was in a state of paralysis--the majority of the stories found in this collection deal with this thematic concept in different ways. He explores childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life in relation to this pervasive sense of paralysis in which the many characters eventually experience an epiphany that radically changes their perspective on life. For Joyce, the "epiphany" is a complex issue that crops up a lot in his work and often reflects a manifestation of the divine.  

Overall, the stories are consistent in quality; of course, some are better than others but most of them are worth reading. They are not intimidating or impenetrable like his 'epics' and for those new to Joyce, one can garner a sense of Joyce's style and artistic vision. The stand-out ones include: "An Encounter," "A Painful Case," "Two Gallants", "Clay" and of course, "The Dead" which is probably one of the greatest short stories written in the English language. There is plenty of dazzling prose to absorb here, rich in underlying meanings with profound social and cultural commentary.

Even if you can't be bothered to read anything from this collection, at least do yourself a favor and seek out "The Dead" because it really is one of those masterful literary works that contains some of the best use of imagery I have ever encountered. Not to mention, Gabriel's monologue at the end of the story is so achingly beautiful, haunting and unforgettable.

Creative Writing Challenge #1

I know that my blog is strictly devoted to focusing on book reviews/literary analysis but since I am currently in the process of reading several novels, it might be a while before I post anything new. However, I recently joined a writer's circle for people who want to dabble in a bit of creative writing and thought that I'd share my first entry with you folks. Considering that I have never really attempted to write any kind of fiction before, this was quite the challenge. Not to mention, the rules stipulated that the entry could not exceed 500 words and each member was given a genre to work with picked at random. I ended up being the recipient of the fantasy genre, in which I happen to not be particularly crazy about; nor do I possess the imagination to effectively deliver something interesting that isn't totally cliche. Anyways, feel free to let me know what you think and any feedback would be greatly appreciated!

The Snake-Dragon of the Aegiads

By Jason C.

It was January in Samos. The clouds came up across the bay—they massed blackly and then tore up the sky, climbing vertically. The rains had persisted for six days, gusting along the ramparts with relentless ferocity and flooding the small village. Heavy rainfall was not totally uncommon here but this particular storm was a different beast entirely: the sea port was sinking into the ocean, the bare masts of abandoned vessels stuck up like tooth-picks, houses and buildings were destroyed with the muddy waters rising up to waist level. Authorities had implemented an evacuation plan by organizing the villagers to travel high up into the Ampelos Mountains to seek refuge but others were stubbornly reluctant to abandon their homes and crops. However, many simply refused to leave based on the ancient myths surrounding those mountains: it was said to be cursed and those brave enough to venture into its midst were never seen again.

Father Jerome stood outside of his dilapidated monastery staring intensely down the ridge at the procession of people making their ascent up the rocky cliffs. Handfuls of rain poured down on him; he was drenched to the bone but remained completely indifferent to the cold winds and smothering dampness. He grizzled face had the look of contempt and indignation. Night was quickly approaching and he knew that the villagers would have to stop and make camp very soon. After what seemed like hours, he was surrounded by pitch darkness but could still see the dim flickering of torch lights moving here and there like fireflies.  He thought: This is impossible—they should have perished by now, yet, seem determined and keep moving at a steadfast pace towards the summit. But that would mean…

He turned hastily around and ran back inside his small manse built of crumbling laterite brick. The tin-thatched roof prevented most of the rain from leaking through but in spots that needed repairs, he meticulously set up large clay pots to catch the dripping water. The interior smelt like rotting leaves and was rather barren: a small bed in the corner, kitchen area, writing desk, stone hearth, dusty bookcase. He took of his soaking robes and swiftly moved towards the hearth to poke at the embers to get the fire going. He then perused his bookcase until he found the heavy tomb he was looking for: Δυστυχώς αυτό είναι αργά. He then took out a large silver pendant from around his neck that was shaped like a snake-dragon, held it firmly and began to recite an incoherent incantation from the book. A cloud of grey smoke began to swirl violently around him and suddenly a small devilish fury with golden wings appeared through the thick vaporous clouds. His pupils were fully dilated and rolling back into his skull as he spoke to the creature: “The Oath-breaker approaches Limia. The river Lethe is no longer safe. Warn the goddess immediately."