#36in12 – The Roots of Romance

I spent 2012 in the arms of classic literature – acclaimed pieces that may or may not have captured my attention during my sketchy literary career. It has been a good project and #theLIST will continue to appear periodically throughout 2013. However, I judge my mind sufficiently improved for the moment and want to spend a year exploring the roots of the romance novel.

The romances I want to visit or revisit are, for the most part, not of the modern era. These are romances that captured either literary or popular attention probably no less than 30 years ago, with a few exceptions. My list is evolving but I have spent some time coming up with clever titles for my entries. In 2013, I am planning on putting together 1 review per month focusing on a particular romance style or author, some of whom I cannot live with and some of which I cannot live without.

As a tease, here are my clever titles for the year:

Austen City Limits

Bronte-Saurus

Historica Gothica

Medieval Times

Let Your Heyer Down

Queen Mary

The Cruel War

Fantasy Land

Runaway Train Wrecks

Americana 

Oh Very Young

Guilty Pleasures

Really, I spent a long time making this stuff up. It is a lot of reading but it is reading that I will, for the most part, enjoy. That whole Train Wreck thing is going to be hard on me, though.

Hop on board for a light meandering that is designed to soothe my tired soul.

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The Year of Reading Dangerously – A Retrospective

Atrix 12-28-2012 377

So, 2012 was the Year of Reading Dangerously and I read #theLIST with, at times, sheer dogged determination. The question remains, was it a noble quest that has improved me as a person, or is it just a completed check box?

First, I will list the memorable highlights from #theLIST:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

What did this book do for me? It made me, for the first time in 30 years, turn off the movie Blade Runner. It made me think about what is life, exactly, and why do we cling to it. Everyone in that book is doomed to die, decaying into the kipple that will be the last remnants of human kind. Why distinguish whether it is an artificial life? All will perish. It’s just that simple.

Cat’s Cradle

It’s Vonnegut. He looks at the world in a different way. He is sad, weary, and resigned – but he is going out with the last bitter laugh.

Revolutionary Road

This is beautiful and terrible truth that we try to deny – the relationship between men and women when divorce and birth control were unavailable. These gaps led countless people into relationships that are mercilessly exposed in Jack and April Wheeler. Merciless. Everyone and everything is merciless and could, so very easily, be repeated. A cautionary tale that could be a mirror, if one were not careful.

The House of Mirth

There was nothing at all funny about Lily’s descent from the brink of social success to inevitable poverty and shame. But Wharton was a brilliant artist, dazzling us with glittering prose and leading us into ruin, one step at at time.

Now for the Also-Rans:

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Too much science, not enough fiction. A surgical removal of the fish lists would have vastly improved this read.

Atonement

Overwrought prose almost completely obscured a really interesting concept. If stubbornness had not kicked in, I would have missed it because I would have abandoned the book less than halfway through.

Overall, I read about half of #theLIST this year and will continue on that journey. I have taken on a new appreciation for science fiction, thanks to Androids and Fahrenheit 451. I have reminded myself that one can laugh at a disaster, even if the laugh is cynical and sad. I have gone on adventures and seen myself in some not so flattering lights.

Other notable reads this year:

The Hobbit

The Shining

The Things They Carried

The Casual Vacancy

As for next year, I get a new tag: #36in12. After improving my mind so much, I’m going to the romance genre. I owe myself a bit of mind candy. There may also be a #10thGradeEnglish, too, since I read whatever my daughter reads for her literature class. Antigone, anyone?

Quite A Fish Story – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

200000leagues

I really wanted my last entry for 2012 to be a rip-roaring adventure. I have virtuously wound my way through serious literature – I mean serious literature. I have, at times, been depressed, but I will get to that tomorrow. Today, I must take exception to the scurrilous trick played on me by Classics Illustrated Comics in 1972. Gracing the pages of the graphic novel was a rousing adventure under the sea, led by this man:

 

 

captain nemo

Captain Nemo.

Ah, no. Such was not the case. The creator of the science fiction novel, Jules Verne, concentrated entirely too much on the science and not nearly enough on the fiction.

I read this on a Kindle, so I have no real clue as to how long this book is. It reads like it’s about 500 pages. And parts of it can be traced back to my Classics Illustrated experience. The battle with the giant squids is not to be missed. I mean, really – the dude is out there, slashing off tentacles with an ax. Truly the stuff of adventure!

The adventure part of the book, including the exposition, rising, and falling action, can easily be relayed in 200 really solid pages. The other 300 pages, however, are an author fancying himself a taxonomist, listing every fish, eel, whale, seal, penguin, starfish, and all flora in long, long passages full of scientific terminology. Our hero, Professor Aronnax is a chronicler of the first order and his mission is to catalog all the species of flora and fauna he encounters in his 20,000 league adventure. Sears and Roebuck actually stole this idea for their early advertising, I am pretty sure. This catalog experience blew the promise of adventure out of the water, until I learned to recognize when Verne was about to start listing, at which point I started skipping.

I was also disappointed in the lack of characters. In effect, there were four characters:

Our good Professor, with whose every thought the reader becomes intimately acquainted;

Captain Nemo, about whom we learn little, if anything, other than he has a dastardly side that only reveals itself at 99% finished;

Conseil, the professor’s servant who serves only as an echo and refers to his employer as “Master” – ‘Nuf said;

And finally –

Ned Land, an energetic harpooner who happens to be dragged along for the ride.

500 pages. Fish. And four characters.

No wonder it took me a month to finish it! (I do claim a slight reprieve for having the ‘flu and the holiday season.)

I am not sorry I read it. It is an interesting side trip into the genre that ultimately yielded the disturbing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But it does explain a lot about why they invented Classics Illustrated.

So, while I cannot love this book, nor will I be anxious to venture into Verne again, I must give it 6/10 hearts. If they had ruthless editors in Verne’s time, this would have been a much better story.

#Winning with Wharton – The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome

I had never read any Edith Wharton until this year, when I took a left turn into literature and tried to ferret out the undiscovered gems that would make me a better person, or at least a better-read person. Wharton was uncharted territory, miraculously having skipped all of her body of work in my dogged pursuit of English literature. Wharton, ever the American, did not fit into my undergraduate Brit Lit agenda and I dismissed her in favor of Austen and Dickens. I admit it. I was a fool.

When I opened The House of Mirth, an unhappy tale in a supposedly gilded age, I was enchanted by her writing style. Beautiful phrases trickled from the page, bringing me deeply into the underbelly of “getting ahead in society” when “society” had a capital “S”. So beautiful was the language that I almost forgot to notice the steady, downward decline of our heroine Lily Bart. Poised on the brink of social success, meaning marrying into money, she makes a small mistake – hardly noticeable. Well, except that everyone notices. Her prospects shrink accordingly, incrementally over time, leaving her to an inevitable end. Wharton couches the unblinking skewering of societal expectations about the nature and behavior of women in the most beautiful language. As I lose myself in her simple descriptions of snowfall and tears, I almost forget that an ugly, ugly fiasco is taking place before my eyes. She encapsulates the feel of the age – gilded with gold and glitter – with stark reality – not all that glitters is gold. Lily’s gold is lost, and Lily along with it.

Entranced with Wharton, I moved on through The Age of Innocence and finally to Ethan Frome. Wharton’s voice is still clear and she finds magic in the ordinary. Unlike The House of Mirth, she begins with a tragedy that ends with a worse tragedy – it is almost unbearably bleak. This time, Wharton moves away from the society of privilege to the society of poverty – a small, snowbound town in New England. Here, where people “go funny” after a while, Ethan Frome lives out his misery. The story, told by a passing stranger who happened on the town tragedy, is one of unuttered longing and dreams deferred. The triangular relationship between Ethan, his wife Zeena, and her poverty stricken cousin Mattie pops from question to conclusion to question with the regular bounces of an old-fashioned pin ball machine. One minute, the reader thinks one thing. The next minute, the reader thinks another. Step by step, in true Wharton fashion, the characters tread the path of inevitability as surely as they tread the path to the grave. Actions and consequences are astoundingly sharp and the bite of the pain stings even a reader sitting in a comfortable recliner removed in time and place from Ethan. Wharton’s unmerciful pen has created a dark, depressing story in which there is no resolution – and therein lies the tragedy of it all.

Wharton was apparently not at all interested in a happy ending. That is probably why she is overshadowed by Austen and Dickens, who were interested in a happy ending. Her voice is clear, insightful, and rapier-sharp. Her words cut through pretense and posturing to lay bare the souls that mirror our own longings and ambitions. Holding the mirror, she shows us how we may fail and that spectacular success is only balanced by spectacular failure. No one is #Winning in Wharton. I know I will return to Wharton’s world again and again. I will return even knowing that I will walk away with paper cuts on my hands, eating lemons.

9/10 Hearts. I love a disaster.

There is Nothing Casual About This – The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling

Like almost every other person on the planet, with the exception of my own daughter, I devoured the Harry Potter books, pre-ordering and waiting with ill-disguised impatience for the next installment to arrive. I realized that Rowling had ended the logical extension of the series with The Deathly Hallows. So, I went back and forth about pre-ordering The Casual Vacancy. I even put off reading it, because it was Rowling and not Potter.

After pulling an all-nighter to get to the end of The Casual Vacancy, I realize that Rowling’s magic still exists. It exists in her ability to set up characters in such a way that the ending is almost as unbelievable as it is inevitable. She creates a new world, only it’s not new. It’s the world we don’t often like to see, especially when we see ourselves. Rowling is a master of revealing character by actions and inactions and she creates a world in which both adults and teens have an interior life. Those interior lives guide the actions of all involved, for good or ill.

Mostly ill.

On this day after the United States presidential election, we have been stunned by the amount of campaign rhetoric that has bombarded us. In the town of Pagford, following the unexpected death of Barry Fairbrother, a popular Parish Council member, factions of residents must decide if they will stand for his seat. The adults are in a tizzy of ambition, partisanship, and family pressure.

Ah, but they have forgotten that little pitchers have big ears, and therein lies the tragic flaw of the story. The youth of the villages have their own agendas and they act on their agendas as inexorably as their parents. The characterizations of the youth in the novel are where Rowling reminds us of her writing genius. They are flawed. They are products of both nature and nurture and they all – every one of them – act out in response to societal and school pressures.

Rowling skips nothing – prejudice, bullying, disillusion, failure, success, rejection, mental illness, drug addiction, and tragedy. All of it weaves together to create a world that we all know but, out of an intense desire to be polite, we ignore. But that world exists and, by not acknowledging it, we condone it.

There is an ineffable sadness to this work because we see ourselves in a variety of mirrors and we don’t much like it. There is redemption, if we choose to take heed of our reflection. The only question remains – will we act or will we stand silent? Silence, in this case, is a synonym for death.

If you are looking for Harry Potter and wands and wizards, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for outstanding character development, gritty realism, and the idea that you will see yourself and your children in the residents of Pagford and The Fields, read this book.

Read this book. Read it with an open mind and an open heart. You will be better for it. I know I have plenty to think about now.

10/10 Hearts. This is a must read that will stand the test of time.

Sometimes, “Sorry” is Just Not Enough

I had to give Atonement a few days to percolate. There are two sides to this coin and both sides carry equal weight. Like a football captain, I stand on the field and call heads or tails. On each side of the coin, there is a valid argument for why this books is a literary masterpiece and why it is a slog from hell.

Because I like to end on a positive note, I will start with why this entry on #theLIST could be considered an unbearable slog. The major issue, to me, is the interminable (but extremely lushly written) exposition, which lasts for half the book. That’s right. Half the book. McEwan spends the first half of the book on a day or so in the lives of the later main characters. He sets up the characters, inch by inch, revealing by their actions their interrelationship with each other. Sadly, none of the characters are particularly likable, with the exception of Robbie. It is also difficult to wade through the winding, image-laden prose, to the main character points that must be borne in mind for the second half of the book. My entire book club, all of whom made it through The 19th Wife, another story altogether, gave up before getting out of book one. That is when you know the exposition is too long and the prose overwrought. I admit, I had strong thoughts about giving up during Book 1 myself. It seemed as if nothing would ever happen.

And then, something did happen – an action which permanently altered the course of lives. Book 2 moves through World War II years, when Briony and Cecelia become nurses. Ever competitive, the two sisters move through the war, struggling to work out their relationship and balance that with other relationships. Minor characters disappear, except being mentioned in passing, inserting events that would later prove to be important and insightful. This is where Atonement starts earning its accolades. McEwan is a master of dropping a hint, here and there, that leads inexorably to a conclusion that is as unsatisfying as it is realistic. And here is where Atonement earns its literary kudos – in the unfulfilled desire to make amends that can never be made.

On the positive side, I have read a lot of overwrought prose in the last year and McEwan, at least, does it really well. He concentrates on sights, smells, and literary metaphors that play out – like bridges between the past and the present. His writing style feels heavy and sometimes very burdensome, but he creates a world that cradles its people with perfect synchronicity. If you can wade through the jungle of adjectives, you find the core idea. If you cannot wade through the adjectives, you throw the book at the wall and head straight back to whatever you were reading before you started this piece.

Love it or hate it, the realism is gritty, even if it is buried in the appearance of beauty. No one really ends well here, nor should they, if we discount fairy tale endings. The ability to wring so much regret is a great gift. I just wish he would make the payoff a little easier to achieve – when five out of seven avid readers throw the book aside in disgust, it screams for a bit of restraint.

7/10 hearts – and that is only because I finished the book. Had I not made it past Book 1 through sheer, dogged stubborn will, I would probably have given it 4/10.

In Which a Book is Added to #theLIST

Why The Good Earth did not make #theLIST is beyond me. Perhaps I had forgotten, in these many years since high school, the masterful novel following the arc of life for Wang Lung, the poor Northern Chinese farmer. In a revised list, The Good Earth becomes a must – it is a book one should read before one dies.

Much has been written about the main plot points of the story, which begins on Wang Lung’s wedding day to an unseen slave from the House of Hwang, O-Lan. It begins with Wang Lung thinking that his wedding morning would be the last morning that he would be responsible for lighting the fire and heating the plain water that greeted the start of each day for him and his father. And it was the last day that he undertook a task in the household. Thus began the long road of change for Wang Lung. It seems that many reviewers get lost in Wang Lung’s relationship with O-Lan, who is a masterfully drawn sympathetic character. She probably speaks less than twenty lines in the entire work, but her presence is Wang Lung’s first step out of grinding poverty. Where Wang Lung dreams, O-Lan acts. Her stoicism seems admirable and her realistic appraisal of their situation is necessary to move Wang Lung to action.

Early on, Wang Lung is intimidated by the House of Hwang and has little respect for the Old Mistress and Old Lord – particularly the Old Mistress, who is lost in opium addiction. Little by little, Wang Lung raises his family from poverty – even through a stint of fleeing a famine that leaves his first daughter profoundly retarded. He toils in the city as O-Lan , his children, and his father beg. For a year, they make no progress, but fortunate turns of events in a revolution give him and his family the means and opportunity to return to a barren land. There, Wang Lung fills his spirit with working the land, and fills his pride by educating two of his sons. As his prosperity increases, he is able to hire laborers and turn his attention to those things that idle men do. He gives no real thought to the consequences of his actions on the family; he is led astray by prosperity.

Over the course of time, Wang Lung rises to the level of the Old Lord, living in town, in the courts of the House of Hwang, and generally at the mercy of his better-educated sons. Like his father before him, he lays in the son and attends to his fool, the profoundly retarded daughter O-Lan gave birth to during the famine. He strays from his love of the land to grow fat and oily while his sons quarrel and their wives quarrel and his servants quarrel. All his life, Wang Lung searched for peace. The only time he really ever had peace was in his early years with O-Lan and his final years with Pear Blossom. Peace comes hard for Wang Lung, and the final encounter with his sons does nothing to promise him peace in death.

Many reviewers stop with the death of O-Lan, who is the sympathetic character. But it is Wang Lung’s story. His journey from peasant farmer to wealthy Lord is both a testament to the value of work and a caution against losing sight of core values. Wang Lung follows his sons in their paths away from the earth, only to desire nothing more than to return to his earthen hut on the farm to die. Wang Lung seeks peace but there is no peace to be had.

This is not some panoramic epic set against the backdrop of revolution. To the poor, revolutions really have no meaning. The system of government barely scratches the surface of Wang Lung’s life. This is also no love story – this is real life, where love shifts and changes over time. This is no story of rags to riches or the emptiness of worldly wealth. There are a lot of things this story is not. In my eyes, it is the story of a man in a place and time. His joys and his sorrows are laid bare before the reader; his follies and mistakes are matters of fact, not tragedy. This is a story of a soul, not the story of a body. There is no judgement; there is only what is. I saw the world through Wang Lung’s eyes, from their youthful clarity to the aged filminess. And, at times, I saw myself. I am not horrified; I am edified.

Buck’s style is supremely clean – spare but rich. It comes as a breath of fresh air as I have waded through so many works that excel in rolling periods of prose. Buck’s simplicity in style reflects the simplicity that is Wang Lung. The Good Earth is the first in a trilogy that I must complete. As for #theLIST, I hereby evict Jules Verne and welcome Pearl S. Buck as a must-read.

10/10 Hearts. Everyone should read this. We will all see ourselves somewhere along the line, and not always as we would have liked.