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Top Ten of 2018 + Reading Goals Recap





There's three weeks left in the year, but I honestly don't expect to get much reading done till my Christmas break (beginning the 20th!!!), so I thought I would start my yearly retrospective a bit early.

These were my reading goals for 2018:
  • Bring back Book Journals - Kind of a fail. I started a book journal with Ben-Hur but lost momentum early on.  I'm still tacitly reading it, and maybe during my break will start posting about it again.
  • Read more non-fiction.  Check!  Of the 45 books I read (or partially read) this year, almost a third were non-fiction, and some of the fiction was based heavily on real life.  That's pretty good for me.
  • Escape the comfort zone.  Check.  I read a number of books this year that definitely challenged me, and some made me extremely uncomfortable.
  • Revive the blog.  Check.  While podcasting, I made an effort to write posts that complemented the episodes, and that worked out nicely.
In spite of having more or less reached my 2018 goal of 40 books, I have to admit only a fraction of the books really stand out to me as I think about it now.  Some were duds; others were momentarily entertaining but failed to leave a long-lasting impression.

Here, then, are my top ten books of the year (excluding re-reads):

10. The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating Heart Cadavers--How Medicine Is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death, by Dick Teresi
What a title... This wasn't a cheerful read, but I thought it was very educational, especially the sections on the ambiguity of death itself. 


9.  Please Look after Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin
A moving and memorable novel about family, old age, and culture.

8.  Various stories by Flannery O'Connor
Can't believe I hadn't read O'Connor before.   

7.  The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi
Disturbing, dark, and challenging to anyone who is a writer.

6.  About Orchids: A Chat, by Frederick Boyle
A sad history story about one of my favorite flowers.


5.  Embers, by Sándor Márai
Another book I couldn't believe I hadn't read before.  The ideal book for fans of the introspective, nostalgic novel, almost like something by Ishiguro...

4.  84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff
A short, poignant book to make you laugh, then cry.

3.  A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro
I don't generally like or read ghost stories, but this one is a masterpiece.  It's also featured in one of my favorite podcast episodes from this year - "What Is a Classic?"

2.  CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping, by Kerry Brown
To my own surprise, I really gravitated to this biography of a very powerful, and somewhat mysterious, leading figure of 2018.  Absolutely worthwhile.

1.  The Sea and Poison, by Shūsaku Endō
This book is a Kafkian "axe" if ever there was one.  I spent the better part of a week in shock over the book itself, as well as over my research for the episode "Doctors, Murderers."  Hard as it was, I'm glad I pushed myself and tackled a subject I was almost too afraid to talk about on the podcast.


That's it for me.  What were some of your favorites from this year?

Slowing Down with Tolkien, Lectio Divina

With all that's been going on in my life lately, I've been finding it necessary to take action to slow down.

I know, that sounds like an oxymoron.  But as a recovering perfectionist and incorrigible planner, I tend to labor over any life changes, even if it's merely the quest to find a little peace and quiet.  I have learned a few things from this methodical approach, although in reality, just the awareness of trying to slow down has helped lead me into some more practical, if unexpected, steps.

Turning off the "TV"

Prior to all of this, I had (for other reasons) decided to take a YouTube fast for three weeks this past November.  For me, YouTube is the equivalent of cable TV, except that I get to choose the content through a very personalized subscription list.  Typically, I can spend hours just trying to keep up with each channel, and I actually avoid some channels in part because I can't keep up.

Taking a break was really hard, but very good.  I did not feel particularly happy knowing I was missing out on all my favorite YouTubers, but at the same time, it forced to me do more reading.  It's probably the reason I managed to finish Kirkegaard's The Concept of Anxiety, a book which was as dry as YouTube is enthralling.

Coming back to YouTube in December, I'd been dreading the "catch up" phase. What I didn't expect was that my fast had changed my perspective.  Now I see a lot of videos I could watch, but viewed collectively, only some of them stand out as actually interesting.  I feel motivated by this to limit my viewing now and may even unsubscribe from some channels.

A Long-Expected Viewing Party

Something really exciting happened during my YouTube fast.



The local library had the full, extended-edition Hobbit trilogy.  More importantly, the DVDs all arrived for me at once.  Unheard of!

My siblings and I have been watching it over the past few weeks - it's new to us.  "Extended edition" is by definition "slow," but in a good way.  It gives you space to really savor each segment and talk about it.   

I don't know if it's the "extendedness," but I love these three films more than ever and in some ways as much as The Lord of the Rings.  It's really apples and oranges, yet I'm a child at heart, and The Hobbit especially appeals to my love of fairy tales.


You can read about my history with Tolkien here.  I have just started re-reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time.  I don't know how long it'll take me - and in the spirit of slowing down, that's ok.  I just don't want to wait for the "perfect time."

The Bible and Lectio Divina

As a Christian, I've read the Bible through once or twice, in addition to studying sections of it.  But it's been a while since I read it regularly, and I've found it difficult to get back into it.

During my break from YouTube, I listened to several episodes of The Word on Fire Show, a podcast by Bishop Robert Barron from Los Angeles.  He talks about books on occasion; I think I first stumbled across his talks on YouTube, possibly to do with Shūsaku Endō's The Silence (a book I have yet to read).  I'm not Catholic, and I don't agree with all of Barron's views, but of the episodes I've listened to, I've found the podcast to be interesting, educational, and well presented.

One of his older episodes is about "5 Ways to Pray Better Today."  In it, he talks about lectio divina, a method of prayer and Bible reading traditionally used by Benedictine monks.  It's broken down into four steps (which I paraphrase from Wikipedia):
  1. Lectio (read) - Read a passage of Scripture.
  2. Meditatio (meditate) - Ponder over what you have read.
  3. Oratio (pray) - Speak to God.
  4. Contemplatio (contemplate) - A calm silence.  Bp. Barron describes this step as "contemplative listening to what God wants to tell you."
Coming from a Protestant background, I had never heard of lectio divina before.  I tried this for the first time the other night, reading John 17

John 17 is one of my favorite parts of the Bible and certainly one of the most beautiful passages of all literature.  Absorbing it slowly and with prayer brought me so much peace.  I think I will continue lectio divina as I re-read the New Testament.

Looking to the New Year

As planned, I've read at least 40 books this year.  Much of that was for my podcast, which I highly enjoyed while I had time to do it.  I still want to bring it back next year, though it's looking doubtful if I will have the energy for it.

I've shelved Flannery O'Connor's Complete Stories and Václav Havel's Open Letters for the time being.  Same with Hawthorne's Complete Tales and Sketches.  I love anthologies, but the best way to read them is at intervals, not all at once.  (I made the latter mistake with Kafka.)

Next year remains open.  How many books will I read?  I don't know if I want to set a goal.  Ideally I'd like to avoid reading several books at once, which is what happened this year.  Focusing on one book at a time and avoiding multi-tasking - these are going to help me get more out of my reading and enjoy life.

Top Ten Classic Friendships

Haven't participated in Top Ten Tuesday in a while, but I'm excited for this week's topic: top ten platonic relationships from books.  Families, friends, and mentors - classic literature is chock-full of great examples!

  1. Davey Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart from Kidnapped (Robert Louis Stevenson) - I have to reread this book every so often.  I just love the complex dynamic between two friends who have such different backgrounds, views, and goals.
  2. Gandalf and Pippin from The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien) - Another duo who don't get along too well at the beginning - Gandalf, the no-nonsense wizard, and Pippin, who is just a bit clueless.  Nonetheless, when push comes to shove, they're on each other's side and find common understanding.
  3. Mudpuddle, Jill, and Eustace from The Silver Chair (C. S. Lewis) - Probably my favorite group of characters from the whole Narnia series!  I admir how they're all three loyal to each other and their quest.  Maybe less realistic than some of the other Narnia portrayals (e.g. Digory and Polly, whom I also love), but still great.
  4. Dorothy and Scarecrow from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum) - Childhood favorite.
  5. Holmes and Watson from the Sherlock Holmes series (A. C. Doyle) - One of the most unlikely friendships in literature, and also long-lasting!
  6. Onegin and Lensky from Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin) - There's a lot you can learn from the rise and fall of this friendship.  Even so, I don't think I'll ever fully understand what happened.
  7. Jo, Beth, Meg, and Amy from Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) - Enough said.  :) 
  8. Orual and Psyche from Till We Have Faces (C. S. Lewis) - Another great portrayal of sisters. 
  9. Jim Hawkins and Dr. Livesey from Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson) - More of a father-son relationship, this friendship is tested by events and other characters in a really interesting way.
  10. Pip and Joe from Great Expectations (Charles Dickens) - In some ways this is a father-son relationship "gone wrong," but at the same time, it's incredibly compelling and realistic.  Quite a tearjerker.
Well, that's my ten.  Who did I miss?!

Nature Walk + Thoughts for the Week

Well, it's finally come - the end of a long, much needed, and memorable weekend.

Today my family and I went for a walk at a local bird reserve.  We've been going here for over a decade; it's like visiting an old friend now.  Autumn is the best time to see it, though already a lot of the maples have lost their leaves.




After a short detour through the woods, the trail opens up to the tidal flats, home to plenty of sea gulls, mallards, and Canadian geese.  I've always thought this looks like something out of Middle Earth.




Though a cold day, it was a great way to unwind and mentally "reset" before the coming week.

Speaking of which, work has been pretty exhausting, and I'm trying very hard to stay positive.  Rapid changes and new responsibilities are the challenges right now.  I hope things will get easier by January.

To offset the stress, I've been alternating between several books:
  • The Concept of Anxiety - Kierkegaard, aforementioned
  • Open Letters - Václav Havel
  • Manalive - G. K. Chesterton.  (So far disappointing, to be honest.)
If you've never read Havel, I suggest dropping everything (as soon as is convenient) and reading "The Power of the Powerless" which you can find online.  Though a political piece, it can be read apolitically as well.  It is a call to "live within the truth" - as profound as it is simple, and as terrifying as it is essential.  I have started reading some of his other work in Open Letters and finding it just as excellent, so far.

Kierkegaard I shall soon finish; only about 26 pages to go.  It is tough to read, because in The Concept of Anxiety he is replying to a myriad of other philosophers (e.g. Hegel) and I am lost most of the time.  It seems like a book I'll want to reread in the future.

I have found one quote I like very much.  It's reminiscent of Myshkin's "even in prison" quote from The Idiot, although a little less fanciful:
But life is rich enough if one only knows how to see.  There is no need to travel to Paris and London - and it does not help if one cannot see.
It's something I believe in wholeheartedly. 

Reading, watching, and writing updates

Reading
Something not immediately evident from this blog is that I'm a recent "fan" (for lack of a more precise word) of Soren Kierkegaard's writings.  His book Works of Love changed my life in 2016, but being so profound in topic, it was not a book I felt comfortable writing a review on.  I did review Fear and Trembling, though once again, not delving too deeply as I felt myself inadequate of completely analyzing it. 

I approach philosophy as outsider, not from the "ground up," so many cross-references are a bit lost on me.  However, there's something addictive about Kierkegaard in particular that makes the struggle worthwhile.  It's like listening to the ramblings of a friend who would be incredibly obnoxious if he weren't so incredibly brilliant, even obviously to outsiders like me.   


The Concept of Anxiety has sat on my bookshelf for a while.  Right now I'm going through a great deal of anxiety (though not the worst I've ever experienced, by any means), and it just seemed like the time to read it. 

I can tell you right now I will not be reviewing this book, because once again, it is a bit over my head.  Actually, this is the toughest book of his I've read.  I don't know if it's the translator or the material itself, but it makes Works of Love and Fear and Trembling seem simplistic by comparison. 

Anyways, as far as I can discern, Kierkegaard's theme here is multi-layered, but one motif that stands out to me is the idea that anxiety preceded original sin. Maybe "uncertainty" would be a better word for this context.  Really what he's suggesting is that Adam experienced "the anxious possibility of being able [to sin]" (p. 54) before he ever actually committed sin.  This is equated to freedom or free will.

And that is the simplest takeaway I can offer from this book, thus far.  (I'm over halfway.)

Watching
The other day, I rewatched Horatio Hornblower: Duty (2003), finishing out my campaign to introduce the series to my brother. 


I'd remembered this as my least favorite episode of the eight-episode series, which follows the early career of a Royal Navy officer in the Napoleonic Wars.  Rewatching it much later, I realized it's not a weak film per se, simply misplaced as the final episode in the series (its being the final episode is clearly unplanned, if the screenplay is any indication). 

The trouble with Duty is that it shows all the faults of a protagonist we've come to admire, with minimal distraction to offset the painful human interactions.  Hornblower has never been particularly deft at "soft skills," but here he's rather abysmal for nearly the whole ninety minutes, whether he's (mis)communicating with Maria, his loyal wife, or managing his unwanted political passengers.

On the other hand, if this had merely been the middle episode of a longer series, I think its focus on Hornblower's faults would be seen as the middle of a character arc, as opposed to somewhat of a letdown.  In fact, trying to forget it was the ending to the series, I could actually appreciate the human drama. 

In other news - I'll be picking up the extended editions of The Hobbit from the library today.  Haven't seen them yet, so looking forward to binge-watching them over the weekend (or maybe next weekend).

Writing
By NaNoWriMo standards, I'm quite a bit behind, but my goal is not to reach 50k this year, just to finish my novel.


The trouble I'm having now is that I just finished a major scene but had forgotten I had an outline for it (sigh).  So I either need to rewrite/extend the scene or try to move on without those additional plot twists.

My gut feeling is to move on because I'm starting to get novel fatigue - I have been working on this for three years, so at this point it might be wise to get right to the ending and fill in details later.

Pe Ell's Polish Pioneers

Wigilia potrawy 554
Traditional setting of the Christmas Eve table in Poland
by Przykuta [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5], from Wikimedia Commons

What was life like for the Polish immigrants in Pe Ell, Washington, one hundred years ago? As told in the words of their descendants today, this book preserves their experiences; their joys, their sorrows, and their struggles to make a better life for themselves and their families as they assimilated into a new country and became Americans.

I stumbled across this book at the thrift store this past summer: Pe Ell's Polish Pioneers by Leo E. Kowalski.  It seemed really obscure but I decided to give it a try.  Lately I've been hankering to learn more about local history, beyond Lewis & Clark and Captain Cook (though their stories still excite me), and I've been interested in Polish history since encountering pieces of it in college courses.  The lesser known episodes of history are my favorite, so I thought I might like this one, which takes place in Pe Ell, WA, just two counties south of Seattle.

The story begins with an overview of Poland, ca. 1900.  The once-powerful Kingdom of Poland had, in the late 18th century, undergone partitioning by surrounding powers.  This resulted in a loss of sovereignty through the 19th century, with Russian, Austrian, and Prussian divisions left as the remainder.  Poland had once created a constitution - short-lived, but considered to be the first of its kind in Europe - so self-determination was already in the national consciousness even under the rule of Russia and Prussia.  While poverty was a factor in some of the Poles leaving in the 19th century, avoiding Russian or Prussian conscription was also a big motivator for single young men.

Kowalski is a genealogist, not a historian, and perhaps for this reason, the book is written in a very anecdotal and non-linear style, following families and themes more than a strict chronology.  Roughly speaking, it covers the arrival of Polish immigrants in the Pe Ell area in the mid-1870s up through the dwindling township of the post-WWII era.  Using anecdotes shared by other Polish-American descendants as well as his own family stories, Kowalski shows how the pioneers arrived at what was essentially a wilderness and transformed it into a community with a strong Polish character, infused with American culture and interactions with other immigrant groups.

It is hard to rate a book of this nature, so by comparison to similar books I've read, I gave it a 3.  Much of the book talks about logging, which was central to the Pe Ell economy and provided jobs to many of the men.  Perhaps this would be more interesting to non-Washingtonians, but for those of us who grow up with the knowledge in other books, it's not as engaging.  My favorite section was the chapter called "Life in Pe Ell" where we get a glimpse of everyday life for the non-loggers - mainly dawn-to-dusk farming and gardening, interspersed with festive weddings where alcohol, fiddling, and dancing covered multiple days of celebration.

The hard life these people led, quintessential to the pioneer narrative, was not lost on me, either.  What you have to surmise, reading between the lines, was that life in Poland must have been much worse, for these people to come here and embrace American life.  They were not always treated right by their non-Polish neighbors, and through the dangers of logging and farming, they experienced risk of death or injury on a daily basis.  At the same time, they took ownership of their citizenship, their land, and their town, helping each other and contributing to the community.  It's really motivating to read what they accomplished with so much less (at least, materially and technologically) than we have now.

This book was published in 2007 and makes reference to the Holy Cross Church, which had been built by members of Polish National Catholic Church.  It turns out that the church, like many others, was taken down in 2010 due to its age and apparently no funding to preserve it.  It's too bad... it was one of the last structures from this book left standing at the time.  I don't recall ever visiting Pe Ell and would have liked to have seen the church.

Lord of the Flies Revisited

William Golding 1983
William Golding - [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl],
via Wikimedia Commons
However Simon thought of the beast, there rose before his inward sight the picture of a human at once heroic and sick.
Earlier this year, I considered the question "What Is a Classic?", in part as a mental exercise and in part to determine what I could reasonably talk about on my podcast.  With a detour to Ishiguro, my general conclusion was that classics are determined by the culture, and as "the culture" in a generic sense becomes surpassed by infinite subcultures, the classics will eventually consist of whatever disparate books are revered by those subcultures.

If you're still with me... I didn't really talk about the books I, as a subculture of one, consider to be classics.  If I created a personal list of classics, it would not be equivalent to my "axes" or favorites, though there'd likely be some overlap.  I guess that's because I see the former list evolving as my values evolve, and the latter list comprising fixed milestones.  Anyways, more on that later.

I first read Lord of the Flies as assigned reading, around the age of 13, I think.  I was a faster reader back then, with a higher tolerance of grim plots, having binge-read most of Agatha Christie in my tweens.  That's not to say I wasn't disturbed by Lord of the Flies.  But the finer points of the novel were lost on me, and due to the subject matter I wasn't itching to pick it up again until very recently.

For those who don't know the premise: A massive war - either WWII or its successor - is being fought, and in the middle of this, a plane full of British boys is shot down over the ocean.  It crashes horrifically on a desert island, leaving the boys without any technology, supplies, or communication with the outside world.  To their mixed terror and delight, they are also left without any grown-ups to tell them what to do.

In an effort to survive, the boys begin organizing themselves, and soon there are two factions: the introspective Ralph, his reluctant sidekick "Piggy," and all those who follow the rule of the conch shell, versus the aggressive Jack and his loyal following of ex-choir boys.  What begins as a game morphs into a very real battle for resources, shelter, and, most importantly, power.  At the same time, sightings of an ambiguous yet terrifying enemy - known as the Beast - further divide the survivors.

Reading this short novel as an adult, I found much to unpack in the story and so many angles you can read it from.  What had been particularly lost on me as a younger reader was the buildup of horrors from the very beginning.  Something awful happens in nearly every chapter, but if you're not reading carefully, you might not realize the weight of it.

In chapter one, we have the crash of the plane and the brutal albeit "off-screen" death of the pilot.  In chapter two, "Piggy" is denigrated to being a nonperson, the object of cruel jokes, while the disappearances of several little boys - and the cause of their disappearance - is a tragedy just alluded to.  In chapter three, there is Simon, probably suffering from trauma, who goes off to hide by himself.  This is just the beginning of the book; already the moral breakdown is in motion.

Golding's style is masterful in both its approach and its execution.  The book is written in third-person but clearly from Ralph's perspective.  While we have the benefit of an omniscient narrator, we're also left with the raw, flawed lens of Ralph's experience.  That is why we are never told Piggy's real name, and why we always see Jack as if he were standing beside us, but not as if we were inside his head.  The one exception to this is Simon, through whose eyes we are confronted with the most primal horrors of the island, except at the ultimate crisis.  We are "stuck" with Ralph, and through this limitation of the narrative, feel sharply his misery of being stuck on the island.

While Lord of the Flies is a potent human drama, it's clear from the subtext this is an allegory about the world more than about an island, and about adults more than about boys.  The biggest crime in the book is there is no civilization to return to.  The physical and psychological machinery of WWII has destroyed whatever respect for human life had existed before, while at the same time, Ralph discovers the intrinsic violence of mankind, which depending on your viewpoint is traceable to either evolutionary adaptation or original sin.

Overall I was deeply impressed and still believe Lord of the Flies is a true classic.  The writing alone made me want to drop everything and read everything by William Golding as soon as I can.  Certainly, I'll be looking for other books by him in the near future.

My NaNoWriMo Inspiration


Thanks to all who expressed interest in my NaNoWriMo project!  The challenge officially starts at midnight, tonight, but I probably will start tomorrow afternoon.  My goal is not necessarily to reach 50k words, but to finish my long-running novel in progress.

Tales of Calantha is the code name for the novel - a story that originated in my head about ten years ago and which I've been seriously writing for the past couple of years.  Lately I've described it as half-spoof, half-serious combination of different Victorian tropes and themes, especially from Gothic novels. 

In this post, I thought it would be fun to go over different elements of the story and some real Victorian novels that inspired it.


Setting


Brimshaw - Inspiration:  Thornfield Hall from Jane Eyre
An old house situated on a cliff in an isolated forest.  Inside, it's a mishmash of Baroque architecture, collectibles, and curiosities...plus the obligatory secret passage! 

The Conservatory - Inspiration: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Abandoned, overgrown, and dangerously derelict, the conservatory is a character in itself.  You don't really know what (or who) you're going to meet.


The Exposition - Inspiration: The real-life Great Exhibition as portrayed in North and South (2005 adaptation)
This festive event and technology expo brings together an ensemble of characters into sort of a "calm before the storm."  Things get kind of Dostoyevskian here, with plenty of inner (or outward?) monologues and dramatic encounters.  Good times.


Characters


Sylvia - Inspiration: N/A
Eccentric and complex, Sylvia grew up ostracized from society due to her family's misfortunes, then became an unexpected heiress.  Her wealth becomes a double-edged sword, surpassing even the best of intentions.


September - Inspiration: The quintessential Victorian narrator, e.g. Watson or Walter Hartright from A Woman in White
He's well educated, well meaning, and - like all good first-person narrators - just a little bit nosy.  September has always been close to his cousin Sylvia and, after some harrowing events, begins to grow concerned for her safety.


Nicholas - Inspiration: T. E. Lawrence
A decorated colonel in disguise, Nicholas is tasked with intelligence gathering for a neighboring superpower nation.  He meets Sylvia almost by accident.

Julian - Inspiration: All the Byronic heroes, starting with Mr. Rochester
In terms of origin, Julian is one of the oldest of the characters (villains usually are).  While maintaining an outward moral high ground, he's really a scoundrel who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants.


Plot

I don't want to give away the plot, but I can say that Verne, Hawthorne, and (of course) the Brontes figure heavily in the inspiration for it. There's a voyage, a natural disaster, some strange events, and plenty of conflict on the personal and societal levels. 

I'll be honest, I still don't know precisely how it ends, just some of the scenes.


Mood

I went all classical for last year's soundtrack, and it's still a good one.  You can listen to it here.

Life Lately (Podcast & Blog Update)


Hi readers and listeners - just a quick life update...

I mentioned recently my non-blogging life has been very busy in the last month or so.  What I didn't anticipate was taking on many new responsibilities at work, very suddenly and unexpectedly.  By November, depending on how things turn out, I may not have much free time; and whatever I have, I need to spend on NaNoWriMo, to finish my novel-in-progress. 

So, in order to make this adjustment easier possible, I'll be taking another unplanned break from podcasting, starting next week, with no ETA on its return. 

via GIPHY

I plan to keep blogging, if sporadically.  I have at least one new review to share - Lord of the Flies - which should be coming here pretty soon.  Also, I don't plan to quit reading, so you can expect at least a monthly check-in with those reviews. (Reviews are much faster to publish, to say the least.)

Really sorry to anyone who's been following along with Season 3.  It's a tough choice to make...I just don't want to sacrifice the quality of content for "finishing out" the season.  I hope once things settle down, I'll be in a better place to get back into it again. :)

Reacting to "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" - Episode 34

Let's listen to Edgar Allan Poe's "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" - an eerie narrative about a man who takes a walk in the hills and comes back with a story to tell.  It's a new one to me, so I'll be sharing my candid reactions along the way.  Let me know what you think of it!

Links:
"A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" by D. T. McGregor at LibriVox (public domain)

Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon - Hourly Updates, October 2018 edition

Hour 15

Between doing weekend things (laundry, cleaning, yay) and thinking about work stuff - plus a heavy dose of LOTF - I got majorly derailed this afternoon.  My goal for the evening is to finish chapter 6 and then probably switch gears to something lighter.


Hour 11

Progress:
Read first couple of chapters of Pe Ell's Polish Pioneers by Leo Kowalski.  I don't think I've ever visited Pe Ell, WA, but pioneer stories are always intriguing.

Read "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" by Flannery O'Connor.  This one made me feel squicky.  

Continuing to read Lord of the Flies...very, very slowly.  I am picking up on a lot of things that went over my head before.  The most interesting thing is that each chapter contains some kind of horror or atrocity, just very subtly.  When you catch those references, you can fully understand the build-up to the ultimate evil in the book (which is what I remember most).


Hour 7

Joining late, but better late than never!  I always like to start things out with the Getting to Know You Survey:

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?
A damp, foggy morning in the Pacific Northwest.  (Sometimes I like to pretend it's England.)

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?
There's never a dull moment with Wodehouse.  However, I'm also eager to finish rereading Lord of the Flies.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to? 
Always ill-prepared, I don't have any special snacks.  :( Hot drinks are a must, though.  I'm sure I'll be reaching for the Alpine Apple Cider before the day's done!

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!
I write code for high-availability systems (online 24/7) which is at times highly stressful but also very satisfying.  Literature is my first love, though, and if I could make a living off of reading books of my choice, I probably would.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?
This is my fourth readathon!  My goal this year is to read a ton of different things and not try to finish any one book, except maybe Lord of the Flies.  I'll also take lots of breaks and probably work on my podcast as well, so it'll be a much milder, more relaxing readathon this year.

For pictorial updates, check out my Instagram.

Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon - TBR Stack, October 2018




It's that time of year... Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon!

This bi-yearly event is one I look forward to with zest.  It's an excuse to take all Saturday to do my favorite thing. I'm starting late - 6 hours late - but that's ok, because this is just a fun marathon (and I like to get my sleep).

Without further ado, the lineup:

The Code of the Woosters / Wodehouse
Tales & Sketches / Hawthorne
Lord of the Flies / Golding
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea / Verne
Three Men in a Boat / Jerome
The Boy in the Mask / Gyles

This time, my goal is to not get bored or fatigued.  So I might just ditch the list and do a Sherlock Holmes marathon.  Or, pick random books I own that I haven't read. 

Bringing WWI to Life - Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old

My sister shared this with me - a new documentary called They Shall Not Grow Old by Peter Jackson (director of The Lord of the Rings).  He took film footage from WWI, restored and colorized it, and added voiceover so you can get a sense of what it was really like.  Hoping this makes it to the U.S.!


Nine Creepy Victorian Short Stories - From Stoker to Doyle - Episode 33

It's October again: that time of year when you reach for a chunky sweater, a spicy latte, and, of course, a spooky book to read. In this episode, I share nine of my favorite Victorian short stories by authors such as Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, and H. G. Wells.  You probably don't want to read these at night...

Three Old Movie Reviews - Heston, Peck, Cooper, et al

So, I'm not much of a movie watcher these days, much less a reviewer.  But I've started keeping a journal of books read and movies watched, by month.  (Got this idea from Rachel!)  This month's been particularly good, so I thought I'd share a few quick recommendations:


Dad's Army (TV, 1968–1977)

This comedy is set in WWII and follows a group of Home Guard soldiers in an English town named Walmington-on-Sea.  Their leader, Captain Mainwaring, manages a bank by day and serves as an officer by night.  He takes the whole thing very seriously, determined to transform his ragtag followers - butcher, undertaker, spoiled boy, and all - into a force capable of defending against an invasion.


If you enjoy British humor, this show is likely to appeal to you.  It combines several different types of comedy, including dry humor and slapstick, into a coherent medley of laugh-out-loud moments.  My favorite thing about it is the ensemble of characters.  They're each quirky, unique, aggravating, and ultimately endearing.


The Scarlet and the Black (1983) - Heard about this one from Stephen

Based on a real-life historical figure, this movie stars Gregory Peck as Hugh O'Flaherty, an Irish priest living in the Vatican who saved thousands of people from the Nazis during WWII.  Christopher Plummer plays Herbert Kappler, the SS official in charge of occupied Rome.  His orders are to catch any POWs trying to find refuge in the Vatican, and he is prepared to do so by cruel force, twisting Rome into a police state and hounding the "white line" which separates Vatican jurisdiction from the rest of the city.


It is weird watching Plummer, our beloved Captain von Trapp, playing the enemy here.  He does an excellent job of it - better at his German accent than Peck is at his Irish.  Nonetheless, Peck does what he is best at, and that's expressing the essence of the character.  The self-conflict, humor, anger, and fear are each embodied in O'Flaherty, a very human character.  Fans of Gregory Peck and history won't be disappointed.

Overall, though I like a long historical drama, this one felt a bit too drawn out.  I felt the second half was very strong; just the first half was slow.  Still one of the best bio-pics I've seen.


The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) - Heard about this one from Elisabeth

Charlton Heston and Gary Cooper...  *mic drop*

Ok, let me try that again.  Charlton Heston and Gary Cooper star in this 50s thriller about a ghost ship, the Mary Deare.  (Fun fact: Hitchcock considered directing this movie, but decided to work on North by Northwest instead...a film I saw last year and despised.  Moving on...)  Captain Patch (Cooper) is the only one on the ship.  Salvager John Sands (Heston) thinks there's something fishy about Patch and his story about dynamite, fire, and the crew abandoning the vessel.  When Sands and Patch finally make it to shore, other people think it's fishy, too, and the drama escalates from there.


This story reminded me an awful lot of Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim and The Shadow-Line especially.)  Unfortunately, compared to those two, this story is a bit of a letdown.  It starts out with an utterly chilling opener, then takes some up-and-downs until the finale, which is fairly pedestrian.

It's a real shame, because of the cast.  Heston is great here as a reluctant hero (definitely a precursor for Chris Pratt's Jurassic role).  Cooper is fine, too, though the role is far from his best.  We even get a small appearance by John Le Mesurier, who plays Sergeant Wilson in Dad's Army

Overall, Mary Deare is an ok movie.  Speaking of Lord Jim...I would say Mary Deare is way better than Lord Jim (1965) starring Peter O'Toole.  But neither one really packs the same punch as an actual Conrad novel.

H. G. Wells on Victorian Short Stories

H.G. Wells LCCN2014701289
Lately I've been wandering down memory lane with H. G. Wells' The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911).  This collection holds, in the words of Wells: "all of the short stories by me that I care for any one to read again."  Some are new and some familiar - two of them are personal favorites, which I'll be mentioning in Monday's podcast episode ("Nine Creepy Victorian Short Stories").

In the Introduction, Wells gives us a little recap of the short story form and its writers, as far as it had evolved in the late Victorian era.  He praises Kipling, whose writing "opened like window-shutters to reveal the dusty sun-glare and blazing colours of the East."  J. M. Barrie also gets a mention, along with Henry James, Stephen Crane, Jerome K. Jerome, and Edith Nesbit.  Other contemporaries are listed, whose names are less known to modern readers.  Joseph Conrad alone is noted as having, in Wells's eyes, continued in the 20th century to write pieces comparable to his pre-1900 work.

The golden age of short stories was not critic-free, Wells recollects.  For example, there was a question of what constitutes a short story.
There was a tendency to treat the short story as though it was as definable a form as the sonnet, instead of being just exactly what any one of courage and imagination can get told in twenty minutes' reading or so.
Personally, Wells did not care to put a solid definition on what makes a "short story."  In his view, a short story meant just two general properties, and those were a) "achiev[ing] the impossible," and b) taking around 15–50 minutes to read aloud.

I have always enjoyed short stories, and to this day, I prefer them over novels.  They also appeal to me as a writer, because my inspiration tends to home in on a specific scene or piece of dialog, which doesn't necessarily fit in a longer form.

What are some of your favorite short stories (or short story authors)?

The Jungle Book: Returning to Rudyard Kipling - Episode 32

This week, I revisit Rudyard Kipling and his famous feral child Mowgli.  The Jungle Book is one of my favorite Disney stories, but I did not like the book as a child.  How does it read now that I'm older?  (And when is that new movie coming out?!)


Sources / Further reading:
My Boy Jack (2007) - Biopic
"The White Man's Burden" - Kipling's poem
"The Black Man's Burden" - H. T. Johnson's response
Mowgli (2019) - Trailer

"In the Rukh" - Mowgli's Sequel

Becque - Livre de la jungle, p42

Like many famous characters, Mowgli makes his debut in a different time frame than we are accustomed to seeing him.  "In the Rukh" shows the feral child now grown to be a young man, having some of the same traits as young Mowgli - his distrust of settlements, for one - in addition to a self-confidence and refinement of skill which awe the locals to the point of superstition.  Gisborne, an English ranger, is fascinated by his new acquaintance and is intent on hiring Mowgli on to be his assistant in managing the forest.

It's been so long since I read The Jungle Book proper, I wasn't sure what to expect in this short story.  Overall, I found it interesting, yet underdeveloped.  It could be that, being so used to the character of Mowgli as a child, I struggled to accept him as a grown-up man, and what might have made a good sequel instead poses The Jungle Book as a superior prequel (a working hypothesis; I have started rereading it and am enjoying it more, so far).

The characterizations are not terribly strong.  There are some moments with Gisborne's German boss and his Muslim servant which are supposed to be comedic, but these scenes have not aged well.  The conflict is fairly mild, and there really aren't any "aha!" moments if you know the Mowgli story already.  Mowgli himself is, well, kind of boring.  Being grown-up and having fully developed survival skills, he's lost the vulnerability which made his child self such a complex and interesting character.

3 out of 5 stars for "In the Rukh."  Not a must-read, but I'm kind of glad I read it.

Two Views of the Twentieth Century - Episode 31

We kick off Season 3 with two giants of 19th-century science fiction: Jules Verne and Albert Robida.  Both French authors, Verne and Robida crafted futuristic novels set in the 20th century, predicting changes in technology and society.  Join me in this trip to the past, which at times feels amazingly reminiscent of the digital world we live in today.

Links / Further reading:
Paris in the Twentieth Century by Jules Verne
The Twentieth Century by Albert Robida

Robida's Fantastic Drawings of the "Twentieth Century"

On Monday, the podcast returns for Season 3!  I have quite a line-up planned, with plenty of variety, so stay tuned for that.

As a sneak peek - Monday's episode features two French authors: Jules Verne and Albert Robida. Both authors wrote futuristic, coming-of-age novels set in the 20th century.  I'll talk about their predictions in the episode, but for now, check out these illustrations by Robida:

An air-yacht


Robida vingtieme siecle p69 1
A floating casino


Robida vingtieme siecle p68 1
A house in the clouds


Robida vingtieme siecle p307 1
Dueling journalists


Robida vingtieme siecle p235 1
Taking the tube

"My Kinsman, Major Molineux"

Fields Hawthorne Ticknor ca1863 byJWBlack
Portrait of James Thomas Fields (1817-1881),
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864),
and William Davis Ticknor (1810-1864).

Over on Instagram, I'd mentioned I've been getting into Hawthorne's short stories again.  He's a favorite author of mine, and when I read the collection Twice Told Tales (already five years ago, wow!), I was blown away by the craft of his shorter works.  I finally broke down and bought the complete Tales and Sketches, and for my first reading chose "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," one of the more famous ones.

The story is set up simply enough: a young man and clergyman's son, Robin, sets out one day to seek his fortune.  More specifically, he leaves the countryside and arrives in Boston in order to get in touch with Major Molineux, a relative who had once offered to help him get started in life.

It's a dark, gloomy night in Boston.  Robin goes from door to door, inquiring for his kinsman.  Everyone laughs at him, while he wanders through the streets looking for at least one towns-person who will listen to him seriously.  Finally, he meets a man who tells him to wait by the church, because Major Molineux will soon arrive.  Shortly after, Robin hears the voices of a crowd in the next street.  When they at last turn the corner, he is unprepared for what he sees.

For such a simple, subtle buildup, this story ends with a punchline I was not expecting.  I've left out the ending to avoid spoilers, but in short, it was disturbing.  At the same time, this twist opens up the story to a larger realm of questions, just as it closes this peek into Robin's life.  This is what makes Hawthorne's style so powerful, even as it seems fairly conventional on the surface.

Have you read any of Hawthorne's short stories, and if so, what are your favorites?

Ten TBR Classics by My Favorite Authors

This week's Top Ten Tuesday challenges us to come up with to-be-read books by our favorite authors...

1. Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
Yes, I probably sound like a broken record, but I still haven't read this one.

2. Joseph Conrad: Nostromo

3. Franz Kafka: Diaries
Diaries...that's a little awkward. 

4. Jules Verne: From the Earth to the Moon

5. Agatha Christie: The rest of the Poirot series
It's been over a decade since I read it, so I might just start over.

6. Charlotte Bronte: The Professor and Emma

7. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Firm of Girdlestone
This is getting obscure, but Doyle's lesser-known works rarely disappoint.

8. J. R. R. Tolkien: The Fall of Gondolin

9. Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment

10. Soren Kierkegaard: The Concept of Anxiety

My biggest takeaway from this list is that, barring Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard, I've scarcely discovered any new favorite authors in the past 6–8 years.  Pretty sad. 

Dear Mrs. Bird - A Lovely Read for Fall

I first heard of this book from Cirtnecce at Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses & Prejudices... She wrote so highly of Dear Mrs. Bird that I couldn't wait to get my hands on a library copy.  Three months later, it finally arrived!


It's London in the middle of the Blitz, and twenty-something Miss Emmy Lake wants desperately to leave her dull desk job and become a War Correspondent.  Opportunities are scarce, especially for young women, so when she spies a job opening at The Evening Chronicle, she takes it, no questions asked.

Unfortunately, it turns out Emmy has agreed to become a typist for a ladies' magazine: Woman's Friend.  The eminent yet stringent editor, Mrs. Henrietta Bird, runs an advice column for women.  To her disappointment, Emmy has not been hired to get the scoop on the latest War developments - in fact, her job is merely to type up Mrs. Bird's responses to readers' questions, on topics ranging from the absurd to the tragic.

What seems like a simple task ultimately poses a moral challenge.  Emmy soon finds herself at odds with her supervisor's dour, sometimes unkind, advice, while any topics deemed "Unpleasant" remain shredded and unanswered.  Meanwhile, developments in her personal life lead Emmy to increased empathy for the writers of "Unpleasant" letters and an overpowering eagerness to help them.

Dear Mrs. Bird is a quite a fun novel, definitely geared towards fans of Downton Abbey and other stories centered on family, friends, and communities facing change.  Being a gray-romantic, I actually preferred the plot of Dear Mrs. Bird over your typical Downton Abbey episode, because the author AJ Pearce puts the focus platonic relationships, rather than on romance like Julian Fellowes does.  (Romantics need not fear - there's a healthy amount of it here, but it's proportional to the story.)

For a first-person historical novel, the characters' voices were very well written (although, I could have done without the profanity, even if it is era-accurate).  There is a ton of 40s slang, which really puts you in the time and place and is fun to read.  I felt the characterizations were also excellent - even the scary Mrs. Bird has a soft side for animals, which gives her some dimension.  I loved the friendship between Marigold "Bunty" and Emmy, and their camaraderie had me laughing out loud at times!

I had to deduct a star because the main conflict of the story (Emmy's secret) was resolved so very predictably, and it was kinda cringy that everything turned out "fine" in spite of the fact that it really shouldn't have.  I really dislike stories where the heroine can do whatever she wants and gets away with it...to me, your character loses integrity when that happens.  That said, I feel it's more of a stereotype than a fatal flaw in this book, so I still leave it with 4 stars.

Would consider reading more by this author in the future!

End of Season 2 - Summer Break

Ivan Shishkin - Рожь - Google Art Project

If you missed it in last Monday's episode, I mentioned Episode 30 was the last installment of Season 2.  I've also decided to take the rest of August off, as well as the whole of September, before coming back for Season 3 in October.

This break gives me a chance to make improvements to the podcast, diversify my reading, and work on other projects such as writing.  It also happens to be a good time personally, since I'm going through some sudden changes at work which will need more of my attention (and energy).

In the meantime, be sure to catch up on older episodes, suggest new books or topics, and follow me on Instagram (@classicsconsidered).  There is a lot of new content coming to this site as well, so watch for more updates in the coming weeks!

Books I Gave Up On

I gave up on Moby-Dick the first time - even after getting halfway!

Two weeks ago, I mentioned I was reading The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux.  Well...I'm still reading it, and I'm not even halfway.

For a story about a family moving to the jungle, this book is extremely slow.  I keep thinking "I'm finally getting into it!" only to get bogged down by endless descriptions of Allie's (the dad) smart-aleck comments and ego bigger than the commune he's founding.  So yeah, I'm thinking about calling it quits.

It irritates me to give up on a book...I'm a completist by nature.  Since 2012 (when I started keeping track), I've given up on 14 books, which spread out over 6 years is still more than I'd like.  On the other hand, there have been books I wish I'd given up on (Kafka's The Castle) but for whatever reason just couldn't bring myself to do it.

With that in mind, which are the 14 that made the unlucky cut?  In roughly reverse-chronological order:

    14. The Kill by Émile Zola - I talked about this a few months ago.  What started out as an interesting family drama turned into a squicky romance novel.  TMI for this reader.
      13. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald - This had some of the worst parts of The Great Gatsby (adulterous affairs) without any of the better parts (compelling backstory and interesting characters).  Couldn't relate at all.

      12. Rhett & Link's Book of Mythicality - This was a tough disappointment.  I shared some thoughts on Goodreads.

      11. The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway - The title story really pulled me with its misogynist protagonist.  /sarcasm

      10. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - I get really, really tired of Christians being the bad guys.

      9. Through a Green Lens: Fifty Years of Writing for Nature by Robert Michael Pyle - I was hoping for some interesting anecdotes, but most of the essays I read were more like lectures.  Might try it again in a decade or two, but not now.

      8. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu - Fantastic concept: Chinese history and steampunk!  Sadly, after 100 pages I did not care about any of the characters, though I tried very hard.  Needed better character building and less description.

      7. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles - This dude is supposed to be under house arrest, but he has a more comfortable lifestyle than your average college student.  After he got a girlfriend (a pushy one at that), I gave up worrying about him.

      6. On Basilisk Station by David Weber - This is book 1 in a series which is supposed to be like Horatio Hornblower meets Star Trek with a female protagonist.  My expectations must have been too high - I couldn't get past the first chapter; the characterization and settings didn't ring true.

      5. The Republic by Plato - Will probably try again someday.

      4. Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power by Zbigniew Brzeziński - Boring start.  Didn't get very far, but I've read another of his books so could sorta guess where it was going.

      3. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier - Another one that was hard to get into.  I meant to try it again when the movie came out; will eventually do so.

      2. The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark - The language/tone turned me off.  I might try it again someday.

      1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - This also started out boring, but I plan to try it again.

      Judging by this list, it looks like "boring" used to be a big factor, which means I've either got better at giving books a chance, or managed to choose books that are bound to be interesting.  I guess that's a good thing?

        Finding 'A Room of One's Own' - Episode 30

        In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf takes us through a history of women in fiction, from the unknown poets of Elizabethan times to 18th and 19th-century writers like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.  This little book is not only for feminists, but for anyone interested in the life and classic writings of female authors.

        Apologies for the intermittent background noise, near the beginning of the episode.  It was probably me leaning on my "lectern" - i.e. a white cabinet on wheels, which may not be the most stable setup...  I'll be taking extra precautions in the future!

        Sources / Further Reading:
        "Virginia Woolf Was More Than Just a Women’s Writer" - Humanities magazine
        Virginia Woolf's suicide note (Wikisource)
        Napoleonic Code (Encyclopedia Britannica)

        Clara Schumann's Lieder - A Classical Cousin

        Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own has me currently entranced with its gentle, yet poignant questions about women's history - not just in fiction, but in culture and arts generally.

        According to a Washington Post quiz (which, given its loaded questions, ought to be taken with a pinch of salt), I come under the umbrella of "Yes, but..." feminists, meaning I identify as somewhat feminist but am also critical of feminism as it stands today.  Without getting deeply into the topic - I am trying, by a thread, to stay apolitical on this blog - I would say that's a fairly accurate summary of my outlook.

        My main concern for women's rights are those basic ones which are still lacking in other countries.  In Woolf's book, I am reminded that women in the West underwent similar struggles.  For example, as lately as 100 years ago, a choice of career was limited:
        ...I had made my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten. Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918.  (ch. 2)
        More to come on this later.  (This will be Monday's podcast episode!)

        Here I just wanted to share a piece by Clara Schumann, the talented pianist and composer, best known (for better or worse) as the wife of composer Robert Schumann.  Like Robert, Clara composed lieder, or songs, which put German poetry to music.  (I picture the German gentry gathering around of a summer's evening, listening to a talented family member performing these songs, though whether that is totally accurate, I cannot say.)


        These are the lyrics, translated by David Kenneth Smith:

        Der Mond kommt still gegangen  The moon so peaceful rises
        Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884)  Op. 13 No. 4




        Der Mond kommt still gegangen  The moon so peaceful rises
        mit seinem gold'nen Schein,  with all its golden shine,
        da schläft in holdem Prangen  there sleeps in lovely glitter
        die müde Erde ein.  the weary earth below.




        Und auf den Lüften schwanken  And on the breezes waft down
        aus manchem treuen Sinn  from many faithful hearts
        viel tausend Liebesgedanken  true loving thoughts by the thousand
        über die Schläfer hin.  upon the sleeping ones.




        Und drunten im Tale, da funkeln  And down in the valley, there twinkle
        die Fenster von Liebchens Haus;  the lights from my lover's house;
        ich aber blicke im Dunkeln  but I in darkness still look out -
        still in die Welt hinaus.  silent - into the world.

        When We Were Orphans - A Study in "Meh"


        It's London in the 1930s, and Christopher Banks has what most people want: his dream job.  After a childhood of playing detective with his best friend Akira, Christopher grew up to be one of England's leading private investigators, highly sought after both professionally and socially.  In spite of his success, he can't forget the life he left behind him in Shanghai, nor the fact that his parents remain missing there and unaccounted for.  Christopher's greatest hope is to go back to Shanghai to find them, even if it means returning to a war zone.  It turns out, however, that new relationships - including his love for a lonely socialite - make committing to his past the hardest case to solve.

        This book could not have had a more promising premise.  I've raved about the nuances of Empire of the Sun (another story about an English boy in Shanghai), and I know Ishiguro can be incredibly subtle.  I also love a good mystery with a Sherlock Holmesian character.  Put all three together and what could possibly go wrong?  After hoping I'd be able to disagree with Ishiguro's own comment, that it's "not his best book," ultimately I had to go with the consensus on When We Were Orphans (2000). 

        While Ishiguro does not dwell on my #2 historical fiction pet peeve - in-your-face exposition - I'm afraid my #1 pet peeve is here, and that is anachronisms.

        For example: Christopher's voice.  There is something very post-war about Christopher's voice, and I don't mean word choice.  (The word choice is stereotypical but tolerable.)  Rather, the problem is his whole outlook and attitude.  Christopher is a strangely placid character, from his first run-ins with the irritating Sarah Hemmings to his later handling of his personal investigation.  This serenity does not translate to cool-headedness, however; he behaves irrationally when push comes to shove, even in the middle of a battlefield.  Additionally, his sense of morality has a modern tone to it, which seems unlikely coming from someone who was close to his strongly religious mother.  None of this makes sense, and I feel like I'm watching some 21st-century time traveler going through the motions of being Christopher, as opposed to an actual person with character integrity.

        As for Sarah - well, she epitomizes the cringe-worthy female protagonist.  I'll say no more.

        The plot starts out extremely well.  We get flashbacks of Christopher's youth, most importantly of his friendship with Akira - a boy torn between his Japanese culture and his life in International Shanghai.  We also get a glimpse of Christopher's mother, a fierce yet kind Victorian woman with strong Christian values.  (It's easy to trace the parallel between Christopher's altruistic career choices and his mother's campaign against the opium trade.  He's simply carrying on the work she started, but in a different sphere.)  Furthermore, we find half of his clues are just memories - foggy, unreliable memories.  This is a fantastic conflict because it's one we all encounter at some point.

        This solid beginning is gradually replaced with a let-down, first by Christopher becoming aggravating, then finally by the resolution to the core mystery.  I won't divulge spoilers, but the "solution" is horribly sensational and not particularly believable.  It reads like the first draft, or the first idea out of a brainstorming session...  I felt like Ishiguro could have done much better if he'd given it more time, and I'm puzzled that his editor approved it.

        Is there anyone I would recommend this to?  Unfortunately, no.  There's some morally questionable elements which I've alluded to, and if that didn't bother you, the characterization and plot twists are so unlikely, you won't be able to suspend enough disbelief.  1.5 stars is generous.  If you're new to Ishiguro's work, start with The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, or A Pale View of Hills instead.

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