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Showing posts from 2012

The Hobbit

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In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit.


...something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. 

With this year's release of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it was one of my goals for 2012 to read J. R. R. Tolkien's book again.  The previous (and first) time I'd read it, several years ago, it had been to cheer me up after the super emotional ending of The Return of the King (the last volume of The Lord of the Rings).  I loved The Hobbit as a prequel to LOTR, but the more lighthearted storyline was difficult to appreciate at the time.

The plot, very simply, follows Bilbo Baggins, thirteen dwarves, and the wizard Gandalf as they embark on a journey to the Lonely Mountain, where they hope to kill the dragon Smaug and regain the dwarves' homeland and immense treasure.  Of course, nothing ever goes exactl…

The Kiss and Other Stories

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[I believe I read this 1915 edition, translated by R. E. C. Long, courtesy of Google books.]

Anton Chekhov was a 19th century Russian author well known for his short stories.  The Kiss and Other Stories contains fourteen of these, each like a vignette of a scene from Russian country and city life.  "The Kiss" is about soldier whose life is changed - or so he thinks - by an accidental kiss with a complete stranger; "Verotchka" is a story of unrequited love; and "The Runaway" is about a boy's trip to the local hospital.  "The Muzhiks" is the longest story, detailing poverty and life in a Russian peasant village.

There is a lot to be learned from these stories, even if you have already studied Russian history.  Most of the stories were somber, either depressing and/or very thought-provoking.  It made me think how it is easy to do the right thing when your needs are met, but if your life is a continuous desperate attempt at survival, your entire w…

Four (more) short reviews

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The Remains of the Day  Kazuo Ishiguro 4 out of 5 stars
This award-winning novel is about an English butler, Mr. Stevens, who takes a road trip in the English countryside.  Though he attempts to keep a travelogue, he ends up reminiscing about his father, his friendship with housekeeper Miss Kenton, and his former employer's role in the Inter-War/WWII era.

The book is pretty good, but I enjoyed the Anthony Hopkins film more.  His portrayal of Mr. Stevens is really moving, whereas book!Stevens is harder to like or understand.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Washington Irving 5 out of 5 stars
I knew the story already (from the Disney animated film), but it was a delight to read the original!  Ichabod is a rather egotistical, materialistic guy in the book, so one hardly feels sorry for him.
A Passage to India E. M. Forster 2 out of 5 stars
This book was really well-written, with some interesting depictions of the British Raj, but that's about it.  I didn't like the characters much, including…

Weekend Quote: Bantering

“It is all very well, in these changing times, to adapt one's work to take in duties not traditionally within one's realm; but bantering is of another dimension altogether. For one thing, how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected? One need hardly dwell on the catastrophic possibility of uttering a bantering remark only to discover it wholly inappropriate.” - Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
This is from my second reading for British history class.  I had tried Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go recently and didn't finish it, but this (more renowned) novel of his is really good so far.  It's in the form of a 1956 travelogue by Mr. Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, during his road trip in the English countryside.

Overall, the characterization of Mr. Stevens is well-done, and it cracked me up to read of his attempts to reply with "witticisms" to his American employer's jokes (bu…

Character Thursday: Mrs. Moore

It feels so long since I last posted!  Since school started, most of my reading time has been for school.  I read on the bus, at school, and at home, but there is always more...  Anyways, I managed to squeeze in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and The Hobbit (still re-reading).  For British history class, I also read E. M. Forster's A Passage to India

Mrs. Moore was, to me, the main character of that novel.  I don't know that I have ever read a book (apart from Miss Marple) where an elderly lady takes on such a huge role, and Mrs. Moore is even more unique because she does not actually "take on" any role.  She philosophizes, she talks, she visits India, but she doesn't do anything.

At the same time, I felt that she was the reason the relationships between the other characters had substance to them. She has some strange influence over them, which is never fully explained.  Dr Aziz, a young Indian doctor, befriends her, but it is never described exactly wh…

Weekend Quote: Futility

"And if he finally burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment."
- Kafka, 'An Imperial Message' This is part of a much longer paragraph about futility.  What I love about this quote is how, despite the overwhelming impossibilities, Kafka still fervently describes what could be--and what could be is still full of impossibility, and so on and so on.  In this way, he portrays the mixed feelings of a sort of defeat very effectively.  

I'm going to read "In the Penal Colony" this week, and also impatiently waiting for a book of Kafka's complete short works from the library...

The Ladies' Paradise

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The Ladies' Paradise, one of my required books for history class, was my introduction to the author Émile Zola and his twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series.  Apparently, this series may be read out-of-order, and indeed, The Ladies' Paradise works well as a standalone novel.  It is the eleventh installment and (according to Wiki) takes place in the 1860s.

Like a Dickens novel, this book encompasses the whole spectrum of society--in Paris, that is--from the wealthiest and most powerful, to the middle class, to the vulnerable and impoverished.  The Baudu siblings come to Paris to live with their uncle, only to find he has no work for them, as his drapery business is struggling to survive against the success of a giant shop across the street.  The Ladies' Paradise, run by Octave Mouret, is on the way to destroying every small, family business in this district of Paris, due to its new business methods and philosophy (including cheap prices).  Mouret chooses daring and sometimes …

Monstrous Societies

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© Brocken Inaglory
I haven't purposely adhered to the current "dystopian novel" trend, yet my three latest reads have all held striking elements of it.

First is the famous Utopia, a complete contradiction to its name.  This was a really bad book, to put it simply.  The fictitious island of Utopia is a society of Mary Sues, where everyone is so good and kind and noble-hearted.  It made me sick.  Not because I don't like nice people, but because these are phony, utterly unrealistic nice people.  Plus, they're not as nice as they look.  They think slavery and arranged families and shared houses are ok--well, not only ok, but just splendid.  The more I read, the more I noticed another disturbing trend: elderly guys are at the top, women and children (and slaves) are at the bottom.  Gerontocracy, I think.  Religion in Utopia is a bona fide mixing of faiths where everyone worships at the same church, and if your beliefs extend beyond a "one size fits all" worsh…

Character Thursday: Octave Mouret

I am three chapters into The Ladies' Paradise, by Émile Zola, and so far I love it.  Set in late-1800s Paris, it is about a clothing shop called the "Ladies' Paradise", which threatens to destroy all the other shops in the neighborhood with its business innovations, cheap prices, and unheard-of variety.  The shop is currently the brainchild of a man named Octave Mouret.

Usually, I prefer to talk about my favorite characters, but Mouret is so bad that he outshines all the other characters (most of whom are rather horrible as well).  This guy is an evil genius.  So brilliant, he can convert a nondescript corner of the neighborhood into a bright, clean, vibrant, mini shopping mall, creating jobs for hundreds of jobless people, including veterans.  So low, he would pretend to be a friend (and boyfriend) to women, simply to make business connections and improve his profits.  He is utterly shallow, and he encourages everyone around him to be the same.  Part of his power is …

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

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As hard as it has been to mentally distance myself from the Disney movie (an all-time favorite), Jules Verne's writing still has the power to leave me enthralled.  I've visited 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea all over again and found it to be a dark, Gothic, deep book (no pun intended).  Psychologically, perhaps the only other Verne novel that compares is his posthumously published work, Paris in the Twentieth Century.

The story is a simple one--three men are captured by a submarine captain, who calls himself Nemo (Latin for "no one").  Lest they tell the world the secrets of his life and technology, Nemo keeps Professor Aronnax and his friends as prisoners aboard the Nautilus, indefinitely.  Awed by all the underwater wonders they are shown, the professor and his assistant are not overly troubled by their imprisonment, but the harpooner Ned Land remains determined to escape, sooner or later.

"An underwater tour of the world" is a recurring phrase in this book, …

Nightmarish Utopia

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I believe Sir Thomas More meant well when he penned Utopia (1516), but it is quite possibly the worst book I have ever read.

Given the standard of living for the majority of human beings in the early 16th century, More's dream of a perfect nation must have sounded as idyllic as it gets.  Yet even so, 16th-century Europeans hardly lived sheltered lives.  By what reasoning, then, could More ever seriously imagine the existence of a Utopia, in either reality or fantasy?  In his world, all men have the will to be saints, and if not, then their angelic neighbors find the power to overcome all evils of society.  He speaks of shared gardens, and shared houses, and property that belongs to no one because it belongs to everyone.  He talks of quasi-elections and rulers for life, in the same breath.  Human nature, if it exists in Utopia, is easily kept in check by the noble ideals that all the citizens yearn for, as well as their continuous eagerness to work together.

I am far from finished w…

Weekend Quote: Sorrow

"Work is the best antidote to sorrow." - Sherlock Holmes, 'The Empty House'
This succinct quote has been in my head for some time.  In real life I heard someone say a variation of this, about this time last year, and then I experienced it myself.  One of the truest, most useful quotes from any book I've read. 

Character Thursday: Ned Land vs. Captain Nemo

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[It's not yet Thursday where I live, but I thought I would go ahead and post this.  :) ]

As I near the end of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I realize one thing: I don't like book!Nemo.  And it is (partly) Herman Melville's fault.

Ever since I read Moby-Dick, I have had a huge admiration of, and appreciation for, whales.  I love whales.  Thus, when Captain Nemo decides to attack a pod of sperm whales--to even the odds for some weaker, baleen whales nearby--I had mixed feelings. 
   What a struggle! Ned Land quickly grew enthusiastic and even ended up applauding. Brandished in its captain's hands, the Nautilus was simply a fearsome harpoon. He hurled it at those fleshy masses and ran them clean through, leaving behind two squirming animal halves.At this point, I knew for sure this was horrible.  A little later on, Ned Land agrees, once again demonstrating the importance of common sense:
   The sea was covered with mutilated corpses. A fearsome explosion couldn't hav…

Captain Sharkey / Within the Tides

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Pirate stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?  Great idea!  So thought I, when I decided to read The Dealings of Captain Sharkey and Other Tales of Pirates.

The first part of this book is called Tales of Pirates.  I guess I wasn't counting on serious tales of pirates. Captain Sharkey only features in four stories, but while his gory deeds are mostly referred to and not shown, I got sick of his character and was glad to be done with him.  On the other hand, I liked "A Pirate of the Land", a non-Sharkey story.

The second part is called Tales of Blue Water.  I had read four of the stories already in a different collection, but they're all good ones.  "The Striped Chest" and "The Captain of the Polestar" are especially excellent, even on second reading.  My new favorite was "The Fiend of the Cooperage"--great atmosphere, great story. 

Overall, I give this one a 5 out of 5 stars


Within the Tides may just be Conrad at his most depressing.  Stylist…

Imperialism and Identity in 'Heart of Darkness'

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This has been my second reading of Joseph Conrad's arguably most-famous classic.  The first time, I was mesmerized by it without quite knowing why.  Closer, more careful reading has given me a few more hints as to why it is a bona fide masterpiece, but I know I'll be analyzing Heart of Darkness (5/5 stars) for the rest of my life.  Each layer of the book is magnificent in itself, and together they project an enigmatic picture that changes slightly at every angle.

The book begins on the river Thames.  Marlow, the narrator, suddenly recalls another river, a river that took him through the ivory-trading business in Africa.  Marlow is just the steamboat captain, but he gets caught up in the intrigue of the ivory traders, particularly the famous Mr Kurtz.  But who or what is Kurtz, and why is he adored by so many--or feared?

Imperialism

The "heart of darkness" could be aptly attributed to the Europeans' invasion of Africa, where they exploit (and virtually enslave) the l…

Mackinder's Heartland Theory

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Who rules East Europe, commands the Heartland
Who rules the Heartland, commands the World Island
Who rules the World Island, commands the World Though they may be deemed outdated now, Sir Halford Mackinder's Heartland Theory and his writings on geopolitics offer some fascinating--and still relevant--pieces of wisdom on the relations between geography, history, and foreign policy.  My poli-sci class inspired me to do some further reading, so I read "The Geographical Pivot of History" (1904) and its follow-up, Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919).

The "Geographical Pivot" (5/5 stars) is a succinct description of the Heartland Theory, while Democratic Ideals (4/5 stars) is much slower and more intense, focusing heavily on Mackinder's historical basis for the theory.  Most of the history went over my head, but the gist of it--sea power vs. land power--provided a good argument for the eminently strategic location of Eastern Europe.

It's debatable whether the Hea…

South: Antarctica, Endurance, and WWI

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Sir Ernest Shackleton's South was my spontaneous "heavy reading" for this spring/summer.  At times, my reaction was "What did I myself get into?"  It is a long first-person narrative, stylistically tedious, and inherently repetitive--but absolutely worth the commitment.

{Note: Be sure to look through photographer Frank Hurley's book South with Endurance while you read South.  You will enjoy South much, much more side-by-side with the pictures.  Which, by the way, are phenomenal.  On top of the discomfort and anxieties of everyday survival, Hurley dedicated himself to photographing the journey, and his photos, like illustrations, truly embody the narrative/journals.  A few are even in color!}
By Finetooth, Like tears in rain, U.S Central Intelligence Agency [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or Public domain]
Autumn 1914.  The Great War is being fought, yet as Sir Ernest Shackleton's volunteering of his expedition and resources is politely refused by the British governmen…

Fathers and Sons

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Arkady Kirsanov, recent graduate of the University of St Petersburg, comes home to visit his father Nikolai and uncle Pavel at the Kirsanov estate in the country.  Nikolai is anxious to give his son a warm welcome, even if it means putting up with Arkady's new friend, the arrogant Yevgeny Bazarov.  Bazarov has abandoned social conventions and traditions while expounding upon the virtues of nihilism, which causes growing hostility between him and the conservative Pavel.  Arkady goes on to visit Bazarov's parents and begins to discover that Bazarov is not exactly what he thought he was.

Ivan Turgenev's short novel is truly an underrated classic.  Fast-paced and witty, the plot's complexity is worthy of a longer book, while the setting gives us another perspective of Russian history--neither quite Pushkin nor Dostoyevsky.  Fathers and Sons came highly rated, but I didn't know it was going to be such a page-turner, hard to put down!

Set in 1859, this book is about the ge…

The Mystery of Cloomber

General Heatherstone is not an unfriendly person, really.  He's just very, very nervous.  So nervous, in fact, that he has converted his new home, Cloomber Hall, into a fortress and keeps his family as veritable prisoners behind its walls.  His neighbor John Fothergill West has taken an interest in the Heatherstones, and John soon finds motives besides curiosity for uncovering the general's secret enemies, who seem to have superhuman powers at their command.

I had high hopes for this novella by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but I must give it an unfortunate 2 out of 5 stars.  I don't ascribe to the opinion that Doyle's non-Sherlock writings are inferior; in fact, I've enjoyed much of his other writing, which may account for my disappointment with this one.

There are some wonderful descriptions, a good dose of mysterious happenings, and a magnificent shipwreck scene.  I also felt that Doyle's portrayal of the Afridis was a sympathetic one.

However, the book's slow pa…

The Trial

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A good book, a bad book, a "love it or hate it" book.  It takes some willpower for me to review Franz Kafka's The Trial as objectively as possible, but I must give it a mixed-feelings rating of 3.3 out of 5 stars.

I believe I began reading this book last fall, before putting it aside for months and then finishing it recently.  It's the sort of book you can resume at any moment--because, apart from the beginning and the end, nothing happens.  I learned nothing and was intrigued.  It's evidently deep but reads like light summer reading.  It's a good book to read in public, because it will hold your interest despite distractions.

In a nutshell:The Trial is about a guy who, one fine morning, gets "arrested" for unknown reasons.  And by "arrest", it is not a "go directly to jail" arrest or even a house arrest--nothing so clear-cut and reassuring.  And "the Trial" is not about a trial in the typical sense, but about the trials

From Eyre to Onegin

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After reading Eugene Onegin, it struck me that it shares several essential similarities with a more famous romantic classic, Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë).



There's the Gothic side, for example.  Jane Eyre is considered to be "Gothic", and Eugene Onegin holds elements of it as well.  The letter-writing scene has a sense of gloom about it, but more eerie is the dream sequence, with its fantastical creatures and irony.  And Byronic heroes?  Enter Edward Rochester and Eugene Onegin.  Both are former socialites, now living out empty lives in empty ancestral houses.  Both despise the high society where they once distinguished themselves.  Both believe they've seen all there is to life and human nature.  

(Spoilers alert)



Tatyana Larin and Jane Eyre are hardly less similar.  Tatyana is quiet and plain, keeping her feelings very much to herself.  So does Jane.  Jane expresses her feelings spontaneously, and so does Tatyana (though more elaborately).  They're both of them r…

Dracula

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Young solicitor Jonathan Harker is sent on a business trip to Transylvania, where he must meet with an elderly count who has recently bought property in London.  So far so good, until Jonathan realizes there are some strange goings-on at Castle Dracula that defy both science and sanity.  Meanwhile, John Seward--doctor at a London insane asylum--has been noticing some weird behaviour in one of his patients.  He is only called away by the illness of the woman he loves, Lucy Westenra, in the seaside town of Whitby, where an eerie shipwreck has taken place.  As worse comes to worst, Dr Seward sends for the help of his friend and mentor Prof. Van Helsing, who alone seems to know how these supernatural mysteries tie together.


Is there anyone who hasn't heard of Bram Stoker's gothic classic?  My first real introduction was the book Sherlock Holmes Versus Dracula, which I enjoyed and plan to re-read.  (Fortunately, however, the story did not leave enough impression upon me to give me a…

Eugenics and Other Evils

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Of G. K. Chesterton's several thousand essays, the one I stumbled across most suddenly on Project Gutenberg was Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State.  I do not go out of my way to read essays, but the topic had been on my mind recently and, of course, Chesterton's nonfic is even more renowned than his novels.  I thought this would be a good place to start.

Eugenics, in short, is "the study of methods of improving the quality of the human race, esp by selective breeding" (Collins English Dictionary).  The most well-known example of eugenics on a large scale took place in Nazi Germany; however, a more historically obscure example was the support for and practice of eugenics by doctors in the US and Great Britain, pre-WWI--and, in the case of the US, even up through the 70s.

Background is key in Chesterton's book.  I must admit I was hoping for an argument that would deal with eugenics on a broader scale, for all eras and co…

The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems

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I hadn't heard of Tomas Tranströmer until last fall when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature; I placed a library request for two or three of his books, and, for various reasons, did not actually get a copy of either of them until very recently.  Needless to say, I had certain expectations.  This particular book, The Great Enigma, is in a sense "the complete poems of", because it holds all of his poems that were ever published "in book form"--Baltics, The Sorrow Gondola, Secrets on the Way, etc.  It also contains a short memoir, Memories in My Eyes, in which Tranströmer describes certain scenes from his childhood, in Sweden.

I hope it is fair to give this book 3 out of 5 stars.  I'm not well up on contemporary poetry, but I love any good poetry, regardless of style.   I've read several of the classics--Frost, Poe, Wordsworth, Browning, Shakespeare, etc.  And I've written a fair amount of poetry myself.  This is my rating, for what it's worth.

Lik…

The Club of Queer Trades

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If there's one thing that ticks me off about this book, it's this: The Club of Queer Trades is a parody of Sherlock Holmes.  From the protagonist, Basil Grant--who scoffs at facts--to his younger brother Rupert--a wannabe private detective patrolling lamp-lit London--G. K. Chesterton takes a not-so-subtle jab at the Sherlock Holmes series and the science of deduction.  Basil Grant's tools of the trade?  A touch of insanity, healthy intuition, and uproarious laughter.

In fact, I can forgive Chesterton and his maniacal character just for the laughs I got reading this book. Chesterton's word choice is very quirky and witty throughout most of the six short stories and especially the first half.  If you're looking for a light read set in Victorian London, you could give this a try. 

The basic plotline is this: Rupert, Basil, and Mr Swinburne (the narrator/Watson) never agree on who is a suspicious-looking character.  And if either Rupert or Basil sees a suspicious-lookin…

Chesterton and Conrad on Facts

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© Daniel J Maxwell
In the last few days, I've been perusing two radically different books: G. K. Chesterton's The Club of Queer Trades (a first-rate audiobook) and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (my beloved publicity copy).  The first is a humorous collection of adventures in Victorian London.  The second is a profound, psychological study set in Africa under British imperialism.  Two books could not be more unlike.  But while I was reviewing some of the more outstanding quotes today, it struck me both books have similar things to say...on the subject of facts.

It's a weird coincidence.  I have a habit of reading multiple books at once, but between books of different genre, there is rarely such a complete, simultaneous overlap of message/meaning.  If it doesn't bore you to tears, read the excerpts below and tell me if I'm just seeing things:

   "Facts," murmured Basil, like one mentioning some strange, far-off animals, "how facts obscure the trut…

4 short reviews

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Beowulf Unknown 3.5 out of 5 stars
I feel almost guilty for rating this classic of classics so poorly, but I think it's a book you either love, loathe, or feel lukewarm about.

Pros:  The historic setting, historic dialogue, underwater/cave battle, and Christian perspective.  Added 1/2 star for Beowulf's influence on Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

Cons:  Beowulf (the character) is much too flawless a fighter. He hardly seems human.  A more interesting character is Wiglaf, the underling whose courage outweighs his inexperience.


The Queen of Spades Alexander Pushkin 2 out of 5 stars
A very weird, Edgar Allan Poe-esque story about gambling and ghosts.  It's also super fast-paced, which doesn't help.  Interesting concept, however.


A Tangled Tale Lewis Carroll 5 out of 5 stars
One of the best books I've read in the last year.  This is a collection of math/logic puzzles, with continuing characters and storylines.  The dialogue is wonderfully witty and hilarious at times ("…