Monday 20 January 2014

Making up for Monday: Character Fun

This is a weekly meme held by Tiffany over at An Avid Reader. She asks: If you could be any character in any book, who would be and what would you do as them in their book

Oh, that's an easy one: Gully Foyle from The Stars My Destination. The ability to 'jaunt' or teleport across time and space would be a godly super-power to have. So much of outer-space has been unexplored and I would spend my days trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe, hopping around from one galaxy to another, having a front row seat at the magnificent beauty of astrological phenomena such as supernovas or enjoying an afternoon tea party on distant planets. Yeah, that's the life me.

Saturday 18 January 2014

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”

I wrote an extensive review but blogspot failed to save it properly and now its gone. AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

Anyways, here's a shorter review instead: 

Considering that To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway are two of my favorite novels of all time, my expectations were set extremely high for The Waves, which, unfortunately, left me with mixed emotions. This work is definitely not recommended for Virginia Woolf initiates since it will likely discourage one from reading anything by her ever again. It requires a great deal of patience from the reader and encourages deep reflection. Her experimental stream-of-consciousness style of writing is sublime as much as it is dense and overwhelming. Woolf takes a sledge hammer to the traditional narrative form leaving scattered fragments of memory bursting with poetic language. The primary focus here is on exploring human consciousness and inner experience. The novel follows the lives of six friends from childhood as they mature into adulthood but only presents their individual inner monologues. Life, death and everything in between is contemplated and analyzed by these characters to form a gestalt of human thought patterns. 

This is poetry in novel form. One does not simply read The Waves like any ordinary novel-- it must be experienced. I found it more rewarding to pick out a random page and slowly submerse myself into the text, letting the majestic beauty of Woolf's prose wash over me, carrying me along in a current of ebbing and flowing thoughts towards transcendence or life-altering epiphanies. Many critics and people whose opinions I trust on the subject of literature declare The Waves to be Virginia Woolf's crowning achievement. Perhaps they are correct in this assessment because it is the quintessential novel that fully immerses itself in the innovative stream-of-consciousness style that made her famous as a writer. Nonetheless, I did not find it nearly as accessible as To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway and often struggled to establish a connection with the material. She is operating on a much higher intellectual level that proved very difficult to comprehend at times, often leaving me cold and distant. However, Woolf's ability to capture moments of truth and profound insight of what it means to be human is uncanny. Her prose is absolutely mesmerizing in its beauty and innovative use of language. There is a great novel buried somewhere within this perplexing work but it is going to take me a life-time to even begin a thorough understanding of its many layers.

This novel is part of the Classics Club Challenge.

Friday 17 January 2014

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”

"It was a pleasure to burn." Wow, what a great opening sentence that immediately hooks the reader; or at least that was the effect on me and I was unable to put the novel down for very long before the nagging compulsion to start reading again became almost too much to bear. I sneaked in some reading during work hours, took several "washroom breaks" and even missed my stop on the subway line home. A testament to the power of great literature--the capability to capture the reader's imagination, inspire, inform and enlighten. Ironically, the plot of this novel involves an oppressive state that is intent on the total destruction of the written word for some of those very reasons. It is easier to control a society if free-will and independent thought is marginalized.

Ray Bradbury was a true visionary. Here is another novel that has been on my radar for many years but never got around to picking up. I am ashamed to admit that it took so long to finally read this brilliant literary work. I have often praised his talents as a short-story writer but after finishing Fahrenheit 451, I can proudly declare him to be one of my favorite authors that I have had the distinguished pleasure of ever reading. He possesses such a wild imagination, overflowing with so many fascinating story-ideas and cannot be pigeon-holed into writing in the same genre or becoming anachronistic. Despite how bizarre the story may be, his works remain distinctively human--that is to say, there often exists an underlying subtext regarding various aspects of humanity and social order that keeps his ideas relevant. He always remains fresh even though some of his novels were written more than half a century ago. He is fully capable of writing some of the creepiest horror stories or can spin frightening dystopias such as this novel, which takes place in a world where firefighters no longer put out fires; rather, they are responsible for starting them with their main prerogative being to burn books. With increased dependence on technology and brain-washing by the media, most individuals are living in a fog of illusion. Doesn't this sound eerily familiar in today's technologically obsessed world?

I find that what places him far and above other writers (regardless of genre) is that he is a master story-teller and has the literary talent to back it up. Anyone can write a story but to tell a good story with purpose, style and conviction that leaves the reader shaken up and wanting more is rare. He is the type of writer that I aspire to be one day. It still saddens me to reflect on his passing, but much like in this novel, the preservation of his memory through the many literary works he has left behind will hopefully not be forgotten.

This novel is part of the Classics Club Challenge.

Brideshead Revisted by Evelyn Waugh

“Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there's no room for the present at all.”

Please forgive me if I don't put on my black-and-white evening tail coat and join the dinner party gathered in the 'Tapestry Hall' to raise a glass of vintage 1906 Montrachet wine in admiration of Evelyn Waugh's much beloved novel Brideshead Revisited. Don't get me wrong, the novel is very disappointing in many aspects (especially in regards to the weak story and banal characters) but it does still contain some substantial merit. I do not mean to come across as impertinent towards Mr. Waugh. Indeed, I would actually be glad to make a toast to his elegant writing style that can be most clever and delectable to read when he does not fall into the habit of going overboard with the flowery prose. For example, the way Waugh has the narrator Charles Ryder describe one of his sexual experiences is most ingenious: "It was as though a deed of conveyance of her narrow loins had been drawn and sealed. I was making my first entry as the freeholder of a properly I would enjoy and develop at leisure" (248). Who would have thought a blue-print construction metaphor could be both funny and titillating? Nonetheless, I cannot fully praise Evelyn Waugh's virtues as being one of the 'great novelists' of the 20th century--at least not on the basis of this particular work or Vile Bodies which I read last year and happened to enjoyed a great deal more for its brevity, biting satirical humor, snappy dialogue and twisted revelations. In contrast, Brideshead Revisited is the more ambitious novel but at 350 pages, the narrative is a tedious chore to get through that revels in superfluous detail and leaves much to be desired. Although the story deals with several important issues such as religion, class, marriage, alcoholism and most importantly the changing social structures at the beginning of the 20th century, Waugh only seems to gloss the surface. Or, perhaps his attempt at subtlety were lost on me. He is successful in wrapping up the novel with splendid irony but takes far too long to get there. Furthermore, as much as I enjoy his writing style, I can only seem to handle it in small doses before losing patience. 

Divided into three sections, the novel is narrated by Charles Ryder, a middle-aged British officer who recollects on his early years as a young Oxford student where he meets the flamboyant and eccentric Sebastian Flyte--an important figure who has a major influence on his life's trajectory--and continues to reminisce all the way up until the present time when he is deployed to fight in WWII. It is worth noting that the secondary title of the novel is called "The sacred and profane memories of Charles Ryder." Once again, Waugh displays his clever use of irony, with particular emphasis on the novel's central focus: religion. Charles is sharing some of his most personal and harrowing experiences, which in effect can be perceived as sacred to him; that is to say, his memories are regarded with much nostalgia and reverence as one might bestow upon a deity. Here is a striking passage that illustrates the novel's focus on memories and sentimentalism: "I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember" (26). If only Waugh could have included more profund moments such as this one to give the story a much needed boost in emotional resonance. For Charles, the past serves as a time of bliss containing youthful dalliance, drinking and wistful languor but it also serves as a painful reminder of loss. His life's story is 'profane' because Charles is a self-proclaimed agnostic and his decision to live a secular life has dire consequences, especially when it comes to love. Ironically, Waugh seems to be making the argument that love serves as a precursor to faith, religious belief system (in this case, Catholicism) and ultimately, salvation.

Despite my criticisms towards this novel, I am not giving up on Evelyn Waugh just yet. There are still plenty of other works in his oeuvre such as A Handful of Dust and Scoop which might help to redeem his stature in my eyes but he will likely take a seat on the back-burner before I get around to reading anything else by him.

This is the first novel I have read for 2014 and part of my Classics Club Challenge.