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Exploring great authors, writing, and ideas on a voyage through classic literature - spoiler free!








Wednesday Quote: Souls

G. K. Chesterton at work
“I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.”
A great Chesterton quote from a book of his I've yet to read (What I Saw in America).  It is easy enough to view people through the narrow lens of our interactions with them, but to view them in the context of their own life story is another thing.

She - A Classic, or a Trendy Tale of Obsession?

John William Godward - Atalanta

If the title brings to mind a song by the classic tenor Charles Aznavour, you wouldn't be far off from the theme of H. Rider Haggard's book.  The song's tender, yet at times worshipful lyrics could be one way to describe the "spell" which She, Ayesha, inspires in those who are privileged (or cursed) to look upon her unveiled face.  As might be expected, those who do so find their lives bound to hers, and, like a drug, she compels them to love her, in spite of her unpleasant ways.

But let's start at the beginning.  It's the late 19th century, and young Leo Vincey learns from his adoptive father Horace Holly that he is heir to a special family heirloom, comprised chiefly of an ancient piece of pottery.  The pottery is covered in writing, which tells a grim tale of Leo's ancient ancestor, Kallikrates, being lusted after and then murdered by a mysterious, white sorceress, who lives in Africa.  Kallikrates' wife urges her descendants to seek out Ayesha and avenge their father.  Leo, evidently finding life in Cambridge too safe for his liking, decides to go to Africa and see if there's any truth in the story.  Holly and Job, like the good friends they are, agree to accompany him.

She caverns

What follows is an adventure that is both bizarre and, at times, humorous (both intentionally and unintentionally).  On the one side, you have a classic premise of a search for lost treasure - in this case, lost revenge - and on the other hand, there's a reverse Sleeping Beauty twist, in which an innocent prince is to be "awoken" by a wicked witch.  This rather unique premise seemed like a good idea for a story, but personally I found its execution to be lacking, both in terms of content and message as well as in the somewhat pedestrian writing style.

In spite of its flaws, Haggard's novel and the fierce title character influenced both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, who would later create their own "queen" characters not dissimilar to Ayesha.  Fortunately for us, the less savory aspects of She - including its dated handling of race, class, and female characters - were either greatly reduced or replaced in those later works, particularly in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.  For more on that (and some other fun facts), please check out my latest podcast episode on Classics Considered, which goes into it in detail.

Overall, I would give She 2.5 out of 5 stars; it's interesting in a historical and literary context, but not a must-read.  For a stronger "lost world" novel, I'd recommend The Lost World (surprise!) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

She...Who Must Be Obeyed! - Episode 11

An ancient family heirloom - and a mother's call for vengeance - sends young Leo Vincey and his adoptive father on a quest to find a mysterious sorceress, Ayesha, or She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.  In this episode, I review H. Rider Haggard's She, a novel which influenced the fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

Sources / Further Reading:
How to Pronounce Ayesha? (Sci-Fi StackExchange discussion)
Biography of H. Rider Haggard
"The Annexation of the Transvaal" (The Spectator archives) - Haggard directly participated in this political event.
"Fawcett's Deadly Idol"
Article on Percy Fawcett's disappearance (The History Channel)
The Lost City of Z, by David Grann - My parents read and were fascinated by this nonfictional story of Percy Fawcett and his obsession with lost cities.  We also watched the movie by the same name, but it wasn't very well done... skip it and go straight to the book!

Friday Thoughts: Do You Write in Books?

Sneak-peek at an upcoming review...

Recently I found these wonderful page/line markers at the local Daiso.  For those unfamiliar with Daiso, it's a Japanese $1.50 store (only in a few U.S. states, unfortunately).  They're just the right amount of sticky to be reusable but not damaging to paper.  I've found these work great for marking lines in a book that I want to return to later.

This method of line-marking has been my habit for quite a few years now, but sometimes I wonder if I'm missing out on something by being so careful.  Is it important to keep books looking pristine, or is part of the reading experience lost by not writing notes in books?

When I was a kid, I grew up on library books and family books, so being careful was ingrained in me.  I remember one particular horror story (to my perceptions, anyway) of my mom lending a book to someone and the book being returned in, shall we say, lesser condition.  I really intended all my own books to last forever, including paperbacks, and I was going to do all I could to avoid harm coming to them.  Even cheap, secondhand books I treated gingerly, as if to make up for the hardships they'd gone through...  I viewed highlighting and dog-earing and annotating as the height of "book cruelty," because it meant someone else couldn't read the same book without those things getting in the way.  (It never occurred to me some people actually enjoy reading other people's notes, which I've since learned via the internet.)

Reading Jules Verne's An Antarctic Mystery on the NOOK.

The coming of e-readers certainly changed the way I read.  I got my NOOK Simple Touch as a high school graduation gift, and from then on I found a new and liberating world of note-taking that didn't damage any paper and could be easily erased.  More surprisingly, I found I had a lot to say, and it was quick to type down anything that came to mind as I read (including random gut reactions).  To this day, I love e-readers and tablets for reading, and I have grown used to the capability of highlighting and adding notes.

My mini note-taking notebook (any guesses what store this is from?).

Circling back to hard copies - I am starting to have second thoughts about writing in books. I have a little notebook which I have tried to use for note-taking when not using an e-reader.  It works, but to be completely honest, I'm usually too lazy to carry around two books, even if one of them is very small. Maybe I just need to make some concerted effort to do that.  Or, maybe I should just get a light pencil and start annotating.  I have the budget for replacement copies, so the only thing to prevent me from writing in books now is my aversion to it.

Fellow book readers and reviewers, what are your thoughts on this?  Do you "personalize" your books by jotting down thoughts and highlighting quotes in them, or are you like me, paranoid of your paperbacks becoming anything but well-preserved and speckless?  Maybe one of you can change my mind, or reinforce my existing feelings.  ;)

Wednesday Quote: Independence

'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea' by Neuville and Riou 027
"The sea doesn't belong to tyrants. On its surface they can still exercise their iniquitous claims, battle each other, devour each other, haul every earthly horror. But thirty feet below sea level, their dominion ceases, their influence fades, their power vanishes! Ah, sir, live! Live in the heart of the seas! Here alone lies independence! Here I recognize no superiors! Here I'm free!"
A memorable scene from a science-fiction classic, Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  This is the excellent F. P. Walter translation, which you can find on Project Gutenberg.

That said, I actually prefer the more succinct version of this quote from the 1954 Disney movie.  James Mason's suave, measured enunciation brings out the introspective side of Nemo here and less of the passionate (though that he demonstrates elsewhere in the film). 

"Think of it. On the surface there is hunger and fear. Men still exercise unjust laws. They fight and tear one another to pieces. But a mere few feet beneath the waves their reign ceases, their evil drowns. Here, on the ocean floor, is the only independence. Here I am free!"
As Nemo proclaims his confident autonomy, we see Professor Aronnax's reaction through the eyes of Paul Lukas, which is both awe and a sense of solemnity, maybe even uneasiness as he has seen how the captain's words play out in his actions.

Side note - this is my favorite movie of all time!  It's no purist's adaptation, but I love how Disney infused the themes, characters, and events into an imaginative script, which still manages stays true to the spirit of Verne's original.

The Sound and the Fury: Meeting Faulkner

TheFaulknerPortable
Faulkner's portable typewriter - Gary Bridgman
[GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Every so often (e.g. while watching Jeopardy!), I get a reality check and remember there are so many classics I haven't yet read.  As with geography, there are whole regions of classics that are entirely unfamiliar to me, or only half-explored.  This year I've taken a step in the right direction by reading an author brand-new to me, and that author is William Faulkner.

Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is one of his most beloved novels, and it seemed like a good choice for a newbie.  The story describes the decaying fortunes of the Compson family, once prestigious Southern landowners who now live in dwindling esteem in the 1920s.  What they have left to their name is essentially a whole lot of problems: a sickly, haughty mother, an aloof father, and four children with varying degrees of affection for each other and their parents.  Intermingled with these character sketches is a twisted and troubling drama of hatred, violence, abuse, and racial prejudice.  In Faulkner's signature style, The Sound and the Fury is a stream of the characters' thoughts, their perceptions of each other and society, and the bitterness that manifests itself in how they react to adversities.  As you might imagine, what has such a rough beginning does not end well.

I wanted to like this novel very much, but there was little in it I could really appreciate.  Apart from the writing style, which was indeed effective in its "impressionistic" portrayal of people and events, the book left me disappointed.  I have nothing against depressing novels - Russian literature, for example - it's just that I like to either connect to the characters or get a great message from a book. 

For more specifics, you can hear me talk a bit more about the characters in my latest podcast episode, First Impressions - William Faulkner.  Other than that... have you read anything by Faulkner?  If so, let me know which book(s) you recommend.  I still have Light in August on my shelf, which I plan to read at some point.

Friday Thoughts: Building Bridges with Books


If you're reading this, it's probably Saturday already.  Being on the West Coast, I have a couple of hours of Friday left, so... "Friday Thoughts" it is.

There has been so much sad news lately.  The Puget Sound area lost a police officer last week, and this week was his memorial.  Through my job, I help and have met many emergency responders, so the loss feels personal.  There's also the fatalities of the flu season...I can't help but worry for the health of my family and friends.  Even the Hawaiian "missile alert" last Saturday was sobering (though joked about), because people believed it.  As usual, I'm very excited for the Winter Olympics - it's one of my favorite TV events - but I'm also uneasy; is something political going to happen, like last time?

To combat these morbid thoughts, I'm striving to appreciate what I have right now and not get hung up on trivialities.

One thing I want very much to do is maintain the bridges in my life, whether that's online or in person, at work or in free time, with hobbies or with people.  If there's no good reason to burn a bridge, I see no reason to let it rot.  This week I had an opportunity to email a professor who had helped me a lot at one point.  Though some time has gone by, he remembered me and the belated thank-you was not lost.  It's just little things like that...a bridge is a bridge, and who's to say it has no value?

Even harder are the bridges that we cross everyday with the people immediately in our lives.  I try to be a good sister, daughter, and coworker, but sometimes I fall miserably short.  All too easily I fall into ruts in the bridge, and I don't reach out to people when I should, or I don't treat them with all the appreciation they deserve.  When I do, amazing things can happen.

In the last year, I discovered an older coworker of mine loves to read.  (It was Korda's Lawrence of Arabia biography on his desk that spoke to me... kind of like Goodreads's Compare Books "in real life.")  Despite the generational gap, we have had some surprisingly deep conversations on books and history that we've read.  Though few and far between, those types of discussions are the best.  I am trying to keep that bridge alive, because the only thing more delightful than talking about books online is talking about them face to face.  Not only that, but we work better together now that we've found some common ground and understanding.

To carry the analogy further - maintaining bridges is literally going out on a limb.  You don't always know how people are going to respond.  Sometimes you won't know if it's worth it till it's...well, completed.  Still, I always find you gain something in the process of bridge-building, even if you can't see the end outcome yet.  With books, you might not change someone's opinion, but you could change their perceptions.

Wednesday Quote: Life

Conan Doyle
"Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable."
I've always found this famous Sherlock Holmes quote to be very true.  The most memorable fiction tends to be based somehow on real life - most often tragedies, but also miracles and heroisms. 

In the last few years, I actually find it increasingly difficult to read fiction, just because I've finally experienced events and met people that make fiction pale in comparison.  I hope never to stop reading novels altogether, but for better or worse, it is harder to find ones that leave an impact, when life itself is "infinitely stranger."

The Prince - A Study in Expediency

Santi di Tito - Niccolo Machiavelli's portrait headcrop
Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite. 
Through much of the first half of Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince, I did not understand the reason so much malevolence is associated with the author's name.  The first seventeen chapters come across as a detailed guide or manual to being a successful ruler.  Machiavelli initially comes across as pretty fair-minded for his time; he gives examples of successful princes, discusses soldiering much in the vein of Sun Tzu (he would later write his own The Art of War), and even admonishes against tyranny.  The princes he analyzes are both contemporary and historical, and it makes for an interesting lesson.

Finally, we come to chapter 18, and here the book becomes its own punchline.  If we're to take him literally, the Machiavellian way is to appear to be good, and if it's expedient to actually be moral, that's a bonus.

Published in the early 1500s, The Prince is hardly the place one would look for ideas of a government "by the people, for the people," and the advice it contains is from the vista of a single power-holder chiefly interested in self-preservation.  The book and its author have been reviled throughout history, and today opinions remain mixed; some readers even find the entire thing a satire.  I was not overly surprised at his sometimes cold-blooded maxims, because these kinds of political decisions are not unusual and even from the nations which claim to be most morally upright.  While that doesn't make it right, I suppose modern readers are just more immunized to the ideas.  And, while "Machiavellian" has become a fancy euphemism for "bad," I feel that is almost giving him too much credit - there's no novelty in realpolitik; in fact, it's as groundbreaking as "me first."

This is one of those rare books which I would like to re-read with an annotated edition.  A lot of the historical references were quite honestly unfamiliar to me, and so it is hard to come to a complete opinion without that background knowledge.  I recommend it to anyone wanting to know what the hype is about, but don't expect to learn something new, only to be reminded of some of our less admirable history.   

3 out of 5 stars.  (Side note - if you're interested in how I choose a rating for a book, I have a new episode about this very topic on Classics Considered).

The Reviewer's Dilemma - How I Rate Books - Episode 9

Our voyage takes a detour through that hardest of decisions: how to rate a novel.  I share my four personal guidelines for rating classics and show some examples of how this works in practice.

Friday Thoughts: Bookish Rituals


It was a big deal, getting my first library card.  I was about seven and could just sign my name, sort of.  My ugly scrawl wasn't good enough for the library card, and embarrassed, I knew it.  I treasured the card anyway.

Dad took me to the little library every week on Tuesday or Wednesday for many, many years.  I always had a stack of things to pick up.  Some of them were icky, smelly books, but I saw stories inside them.  I had to go the library every week.  And when a closer branch opened up, I said I'd never go to that library because it wasn't my library...

Fast-forward to the present.  I only go to the library if I absolutely have to (late materials and items to pick up), and I just stop by the closest branch (yeah, that one I said I'd never go to).  One reason is the local libraries are very small, and I read far fewer books per month than I used to.  Also, Overdrive and Project Gutenberg now cover most of the books I read, plus those sites cut down the wait time significantly.   I can also afford to buy new books anytime, too, which up till recent years was hardly possible.  Nevertheless, I sort of miss going to the library every week and probably should get back into it. 

Something I have started in the last couple of years is buying second-hand books... a hybrid of the above options, I guess.  At Value Village (aka Savers), I scour the shelves for gently used, cast-off college assignments.  There's also a local bookstore, which, in spite of its not-too-subtle political agenda, has a pretty decent selection of used classics.  It's an exercise in self-control, and fortunately I have limited space at home.  I enjoy just browsing, in any case, because there's the element of surprise that I might stumble upon a gold mine. 

Do you have any bookish or reading rituals in your life?

Wednesday Quote: Neighbors

Kierkegaard 20090502-DSCF1495
Statue of Kierkegaard, photo by Arne List
[GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

". . . love your neighbour!  As already shown, you can easily find him; him you can never lose.  The beloved can treat you in such a way that he is lost to you, and you can lose a friend, but whatever a neighbour does to you, you can never lose him . . . it is not your neighbour who holds you fastit is your love which holds your neighbour fast."
This is from Soren Kierkegaard's analysis of "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," in his Works of Love (transl. Howard and Edna Hong).  I'd not fully realized the simple profoundness of this commandment before reading this book a couple of years ago.  Though it's a tough one to peruse, there's many such great quotes in Works of Love.

That Hideous Strength and Its Weaknesses

Disclaimer: I have a longstanding, sentimental regard for C. S. Lewis's writing.  His Narnia series was a love of my childhood, opening up a beautiful world of heroism, wonder, and bravery that's influenced me ever after.  My first fictional scribbles at a young age were a personalized plagiarism of Narnia and Carroll's Wonderland, because I just loved those stories so much.  With that in mind, if I'm a bit hard on Lewis in this review, it's because there is so much of his writing that I love, and it is impossible to evaluate this book without comparing it to the greatness he is capable of.  (For a recent example, please see Till We Have Faces.)

FieldofArbol
C. S. Lewis's names for the planets
That Hideous Strength begins in the village of Edgestow, a quaint corner of England and home to a small but illustrious university.  The protagonists are a recently married couple settling down in their new life together - Mark, comfortable in his fellowship at the college, and Jane, less comfortable in the role of housewife.  Politics are rampant at the University of Edgestow, where the sale of some land to the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) is under debate.  As Mark grows distant through his social life, Jane must confront her personal challenges alone, not least of which are the nightmares that keep haunting her, and which may have something to do with the N.I.C.E.

The last book in the Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength focuses in on planet Earth and an imminent change in the social order that governs it.  At the forefront of the conspiracy is the N.I.C.E., ironically named, and though prior knowledge of Oyarsa and the edila is useful, this book can still be read as a standalone novel, for there is more dystopia here than fantasy.  In fact, the N.I.C.E. can be seen as a partial representation of Nazism, and the fact that C. S. Lewis wrote this during WWII can hardly be a coincidence, since the two groups hold much in common.

Though I loved the fast-paced, thriller quality to this novel, I was completely let down by several key points in the story.  Some of the Christian themes were handled in a way that made me uncomfortable, and the treatment of Jane was extremely disappointing in the end.  I talked a bit more about this in my latest podcast episode, C. S. Lewis in Outer Space, Part 2.  Though the book was very entertaining and had some great moments, I cannot recommend it ultimately. 

C. S. Lewis in Outer Space, Part 2 - Episode 8

We wrap up the Space Trilogy with That Hideous Strength, Lewis's dystopian thriller which takes place on our very own planet Earth.

Friday Thoughts: Zeitgeist, Faulkner, and The Prince

Friday Thoughts... a new weekly feature where I talk about stuff.  Excited yet?

I don't know exactly where this series will take us.  Per my blogging goals for this year, I want to share more candid thoughts about reading - reading as an experience and as a part of life.  Friday, as the week winds down, seems like a good time to reflect.


This week I have been reading The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, as well as listening to The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.  Both of these are new authors and new books to me, perhaps an over-ambitious start to the year.

As I get further and further into The Sound, I seem to be learning more about myself than Faulkner, which was not at all the intent.  For example, more than ever do I dislike reading dismal fiction, a la Thomas Hardy and, in a certain sense, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (though the latter wins me over every time).  The real world is gloomy enough; why should I read novels that hit me over the head with it again?

The current zeitgeist is full of fear, no matter where you live or where you are on the political spectrum.  This realization is something that's followed me into the new year - not in a sense of personal fearfulness (it comes and goes) but rather in a cognizance of how society is operating within it.  Again, I find myself more and more seeking escapism, rather than realism, in fiction.  Is it silly to prefer fairy tale monsters over real-world ones?  I can't apologize for trying to find some respite from the ongoing, permeating atmosphere of dread.

If Faulkner's prose is harsh and provokes many a wince, then the soothing tones of Clive Catterall reading The Prince may explain my somewhat warmer reception to it.  I've long known the term "Machiavellian" to mean something Sinister and Bad; listening to this book has clarified it somewhat, since I see what is really being referred to is a kind of realpolitik - that is, making choices based on sheer logic rather than a moral code.  While Machiavelli hasn't by any means persuaded me to agree with his views, I'm at least hearkening back to fond memories of taking history electives in college, so when I say I'm enjoying The Prince, that and the LibriVox reader are really the main reasons.

A head's up: On Monday, I'll be finally sharing my review of That Hideous Strength, the last book in C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy.  In the meantime, I shall soldier on through The Sound and the Fury and, if I survive the fury, will hopefully have some more thoughts on that one in a week's time or so.  If you've read it, let me know - does it get better?!

Wednesday Quote: Work

A few years back, I used to participate in a weekly feature called "Weekend Quote," hosted by Lemon Tree at Half-Filled Attic.  I so enjoyed that feature that I wanted to bring it back this year, except on Wednesdays instead of the weekend.  There are so many great quotes to come across while reading, and not nearly enough opportunity to share them.
Joseph Conrad author
"I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself."
This is spoken by Marlow, the narrator from a few of Conrad's stories, and the context novella is his most famous one, Heart of Darkness.  As an inspirational quote, it's one of my very favorites - instead of holding up an idealism, it presents you with a different view of reality. 

Today is my first day back at work since Christmas break, so I'll be keeping this in mind.  ;)

Food for Thought in Benson's Lord of the World

A very happy new year to you all!  I can hardly believe it's 2018 already.  The number just sounds so... futuristic.

Lord of the World book cover 1907
Speaking of which, my first review for the year goes back 111 years in order to go forward to about the present day, with John Hugh Benson's futuristic-dystopian novel, Lord of the World.  I feel a little awkward for starting with such a depressing book, but it was one of my recent 2017 reads, so it's high time to review it.

The story follows a young, 21st-century Catholic priest, Percy Franklin, who struggles to remain upright amid a volatile scene of political, religious, and social changes.  Through a series of unusual events, Franklin comes into contact with a prominent MP, Oliver Brand; Oliver's wife, Mabel; and Oliver's mother, who wants to return to her faith, against her son and society's wishes.  Things come to a crisis when a mysterious American, Julian Felsenburgh, arrives in London.  His twin-like resemblance to Franklin puzzles the priest, but more disturbing to Franklin is the new world government which Felsenburgh seeks to establish.

This little-known novel I only came across very recently.  The premise was great, and Franklin was a compelling protagonist, though overall there was much of the book I could not relate to, which prevented me from rating it higher.  If you're interested, I've given it a full review in podcast form.  Recommended for those interested in early dystopian literature, particularly anyone reading from a Christian perspective.

Lord of the World - Episode 7

Here we uncover another dystopian classic: Robert Hugh Benson's little-known novel from 1907, Lord of the World.

Sources / Further Reading:
List of Dystopian Literature (Wikipedia)
Article on Benson by The Catholic World Report
Summary of papal statements (Wikipedia)
Interview with Pope Francis by Catholic News Agency (2015)
 

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