2013年2月23日 星期六

Thoughts on Literature

I like the Classics.  That's Classics with a capital "C."  The Classics, I suppose, would be Literature that has stood the test of time.  I don't know how professors of English Lit would define the Classics, but I would define them as more serious/intellectual/"important" books written before World War II.  These are the books that many people find frustrating and/or boring.

Which isn't to say that I like all of the Classics.  I couldn't get through the Marquis de Sade.  I have a low tolerance for Tolstoy.  Henry James just bores me.  For all the good Classics out there, one could point out some truly excruciating books, but I like to think that the good outweigh the bad.

And I also feel obliged to say that I do read stupid books on occasion, and occasionally I even enjoy them.  I liked "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell," I like Dave Barry, and I even found Dan Brown tolerable.  I don't enjoy swimming in deep water all the time.  Sometimes I like to just wade in; I'm not looking for deep thoughts, and heartfelt commentary on the state of Western civilization.

As of now I'm reading "Hard Times" by Charles Dickens.  I like Dickens quite a bit.  The coincidences in his books are sometimes hard to take, but he wrote with a command of the English language and a feel for plot that few other authors can even approach.  I've also read "David Copperfield," "Great Expectations," "The Christmas Books," "Oliver Twist," and "A Tale of Two Cities."  Oliver Twist was probably my favorite.

My copy of "Hard Times" was published by Penguin, and is part of the "Penguin Popular Classics" series.  I own many of the books in this series.  I buy them because I usually like them, but I also buy them because they're cheap.  In the back of my book are listed all the other books in this series, about 1/4 of which I've already read.

"Aesop's Fables" is the first entry on the list.  This is a book full of strange stories that don't go anywhere, all hearkening back to the Greco-Roman world.  The mythical Aesop draws a lot of weird morals from his stories.

There are a few books by Jane Austen.  I read "Pride and Prejudice" a while back, and I also read quite a bit of "Mansfield Park."  I like the way in which Austen's characters banter, but they are often hard to sympathize with.  I realize that my being a dude is part of the reason I have trouble with Jane Austen.

Charlotte and Emily Bronte come next.  I've read both "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights."  I liked "Jane Eyre," but I found the characters in "Wuthering Heights" extremely annoying.  Again, part of the reason for this is my being a dude - I think.

Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" is OK, but I think it suffers from the treatments given to it by Disney and Tim Burton.  It's hard to filter out our modern perceptions of this book and what it should be.  It's an easy read, but the silliness of it seems kind of dated.

I can remember struggling through Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" in college.  I'd probably like it more now, but at the time it was a burden.

John Cleland's "Fanny Hill" was an entertaining read.  It's basically porn, but it's not explicit enough to be off-putting.  The descriptions of penises as "terrible machines" has stuck with me.  Unlike the Marquis de Sade, I really can't find anything offensive in "Fanny Hill."

Arthur Conan Doyle's "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" is sitting on a shelf in my house.  I haven't read it yet.  I can remember reading "Hound of the Baskervilles" in high school, however, so I imagine "Adventures" is just more of the same.  The movie with Robert Downey Jr. is surprisingly good, though I'm not sure how much it has to do with any of Doyle's books.

Many of Joseph Conrad's books are to be found in the Popular Classics series.  I have read "Heart of Darkness," "Lord Jim," "Nostromo," "The Secret Agent," and "Victory."  "Nostromo" would have to be my favorite.  I found "Lord Jim" difficult to get through, and "Victory" is strangely philosophical.  Conrad is one of my favorite authors, and he led a fascinating life.  he also had (and continues to have) a big influence over Central and South American authors such as Borges and Gabriel Marcia Marquez.

"The Last of the Mohicans" is a straight ahead adventure novel, but it's a good read.  Compared to anything by Conrad it's light reading, but that's not always a bad thing.  The movie with Daniel Day-Lewis is also good.

Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage?"  I know I've read it, but I can't remember anything about it.

Defoe's "Moll Flanders" and "Robinson Crusoe" come next.  I had a hard time with Robinson Crusoe, despite the fact that I'd been wanting to read it for a long time.  It gets very religious near the end.  I liked "Moll Flanders" much more, even though that book requires patience.  I would imagine that "Moll Flanders," written in the 1700s, scandalized a great number of people.

Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" is a famously difficult book.  I started this one three or four times before finally finishing it a couple of years ago.  I'd have to say that yes, it is a boring book, but it is also the kind of book that makes you think.  The "punishment" undergone by the protagonist is more mental/internal than anything forced upon him by society, and in the end the punishment enacted by his government serves to release him from feelings of guilt.  An inventive book, to be sure, and worthy of its reputation.

I believe F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the 20s and 30s, though I might be off by a decade.  It's been a while.  I've read all of Fitzgerald's books, and he is one of my favorite authors.  "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" has to be one of the strangest short stories ever, and I'm surprised no one has ever tried to make a movie out of it.  Much is made of his rivalry with Hemingway, but in my opinion Hemingway is highly overrated macho bullshit.

"King Solomon's Mines" was written by H. Rider Haggard.  It was stories like this one that inspired Indiana Jones.  The main character in this novel, Allan Quatermain, is often mispelled as "Allan Quartermain."  Anyone who likes more pulpy sorts of fiction should like Haggard.

I've read two of Thomas Hardy's books: "Jude the Obscure" and "The Return of the Native."  "Jude" is the story of a man who wants to live an unconventional lifestyle, but finds himself thwarted at every turn.  I enjoyed it a lot.  "The Return of the Native" wasn't as interesting to me, though it touches on similar themes of infidelity and individualism.

"The Scarlet Letter" is a good novel.  Nathaniel Hawthorne was a big influence on Herman Melville, who is also one of my favorites.  Many would point to Hawthorne as the beginning of "mature" American fiction, and I would not disagree with that assertion.

Henry James, as said above, bores me.  I had a hell of a time getting through "The Turn of the Screw."

James Joyce is fantastic, one of the truly revolutionary writers.  His first three books ("Dubliners, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and of course "Ulysses") are must-reads.  I couldn't get anywhere with "Finnegan's Wake," however.  That has to be the most obscure novel ever.

As much as I like Joyce, I might like Rudyard Kipling just as much.  Kipling was a lot earlier than Joyce, and many of his books chronicled the British Empire at its height.  "The Jungle Books" offer a fascinating alternative to the creation myth, and "Kim" is a book of unquestionable depth.  "Kim" is also one of the most "Eastern" Western books I have ever read, right up there with Herman Hesse's "Siddhartha."

I can recall reading Gaston Leroux's "Phantom of the Opera," but that was a LONG time ago.  There is a cool bit at the end where the protagonist is placed inside a "mirror prison."  Ever since I read that book I've wanted to make a mirror room in my house.

Jack London is The Man.  He was a lot more socialist than most of the other writers mentioned here, and he was also more concerned with nature and man's relation to it.  "Call of the Wild" and "White Fang" take the concept of civilization in opposite directions.

Herman Melville is THE MAN.  Probably the greatest American writer ever, and no, I don't say that lightly.  "Moby Dick" expanded my mind, and got me reading fiction again after a multi-year gap.  I've read everything he wrote except "Pierre," which I've never been able to track down.  One of the more surprising facts about Melville is that "Moby Dick" was a huge failure for him.

A long time before Melville, John Milton wrote "Paradise Lost" (and "Paradise Regained"), his epic poem about the fall of Satan.  This poem is great if you just throw the commentary it out the window.  I really enjoyed Milton's descriptions of Hell.  Critics often point out that Satan is a more sympathetic character than God in "Paradise Lost," and Blake contended that this was because Milton was a poet, and thus "of the devil's camp."

I loved Edgar Allen Poe when I was in high school, but I can't say that I like him as much now.  He definitely had a fantastic vocabulary, but many of his stories leave me a bit flat.  He was a big influence on H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories I enjoy much more.

"Ivanhoe" and "Rob Roy" were written by Sir Walter Scott.  I loved the former, and found the latter overlong.  Aside from his questionable historical origins, the real source of the Robin Hood legend is Scott's "Ivanhoe."  It's not a heavy book by any means.  It is concise, full of action, and to the point.

Shakespeare?  Well, just about anyone from an English-speaking country has had to sweat their way through "Romeo and Juliet," "Julius Caesar," or "Hamlet."  "Othello" is probably my favorite of Shakespeare's plays, primarily because it's not as overexposed.

Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" was my favorite book for YEARS, though I have to admit that it is somewhat overwrought.  Movie adaptations always fail to capture the obsessive, revengeful nature of Shelley's creation.

I read "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson not so long ago.  It is a classic adventure story if there ever was one.  His "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is a more adult-oriented work, with perhaps a more wide-ranging influence.

I didn't like Bram Stoker's "Dracula" at all.  In my opinion it is a terrible book.

Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" is, however, a thoroughly absorbing work of fiction.  A lot of people get fixated on the Lilliputians, but the "giant Gulliver" is only one part out of three in this book.  The second part describes another island of intelligent horses, and the third part describes a race of beings that live in the clouds.  His metaphors might be a bit too obvious, but he was a great writer.

"Vanity Fair," by W.M. Thackeray, is well worth seeking out.  In some ways it resembles Defoe's "Moll Flanders," but it has a much wider scope than Defoe's novel.  The protagonist, Becky Sharp, is one of the truly memorable characters in English literature.

By comparison, Tolstoy is a lot heavier.  I fought my way through "War and Peace," and while I can't agree with his views on predestination, I did like the book.  I've also read his short stories.  "The Death of Ivan Ilych" is possibly the most depressing thing I have ever read.

"Barchester Towers" was written by Anthony Trollope.  His books are somewhat comedic, and very, very British.  I found this book difficult to get into at first, but by the end I had decided that I liked it.

Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" are both interesting, and it's hard to say which of the two I like better.  I've also read "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," which offered the kind of satire common to both Twain and Swift.

"The Kama Sutra" by Vatsyayana is not nearly as sexual as the American publishing industry would have you believe.  Neither is it an especially enlightening book.  Much of the Kama Sutra discusses women as if they are just a step above cattle, and after finishing the book I felt very glad that I don't live in medieval India.  No worse than many Western books written at the same time, but not helpful for those seeking sexual or spiritual improvement.

Jules Verne is far superior, and he was far smarter than the semi-mythical Vatsyayana.  I've read all the books published as part of the Popular Classics series, from "Around the World in Eighty Days" to "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" to "Journey to the Center of the Earth" to others that aren't included, such as "From Earth to the Moon."  Verne has the best claim to being the first science fiction author ever.

I read Voltaire's Candide, but for the life of me I can't remember what it's about.

Edith Wharton, like Henry James, is just boring.  I wanted all of the characters in Ethan Frome to die in the end, if for no other reason than to stop their whining and pining for one another.

Lastly, there is Virginia Woolf, who has three books in the Penguin series.  Of these three, I have only read "Orlando," which I enjoyed a lot.  The film they made of this movie was also quite good.

All of the above covers what I've read of the Classics... at least as far as the Penguin Popular Classics are concerned.  There are really only two or three books above that I wouldn't recommend.  The rest were both good and influential.

And what about you?  Do you like the Classics?  What would you recommend?  Below are my top ten, in no particular order:

1. "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville
2. "Vanity Fair" by W.M. Thackeray
3. "Gulliver's Travels" by Jonathan Swift
4. "Ivanhoe" by Sir Walter Scott
5. "Call of the Wild" by Jack London
6. "Kim" by Rudyard Kipling
7. "Ulysses" by James Joyce
8. "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
9. "Nostromo" by Joseph Conrad
10. "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens

2013年2月22日 星期五

"Country Driving" by Peter Hessler

This is a travelogue published in 2010.  The author first moved to China as a member of the Peace Corps, later worked as an English teacher, and then moved into journalism.  The subtitle on my copy is "A Chinese Road Trip."

This book is divided into three parts.  The first part documents the author's journey along the Great Wall, and also his travels in and around Beijing.  The second part describes life in a village two hours north of Beijing, where the author rented a house.  The third part explores life in a factory town, and the difficulties attending the establishment of an undergarment factory in central China.

The first section was by far the most interesting, while the second and third sections seemed a bit too long.  The narrative detailing village life felt particularly forced, as if the author was trying too hard to make a story out of disconnected events.  All three parts were good, but I found my interest flagging near the end of the book.

I also wonder about the citations at the end.  Did the author really summon up most of this book from memory?  I'm sure it's possible, but it seems unlikely.  The citations at the end of the book are very sparse, and there are moments in the book where entire sections of Chinese text are quoted (and translated) without a citation.  Did he really remember all of those things?  Or was he writing them down the whole time?  If he was writing them down, it would seem that the personal encounters he describes weren't quite as authentic as he would have readers believe.

"Country Driving" is a good book, and offers a fascinating glimpse of life in modern China.  Reading it has only increased my desire to travel there.  I wouldn't say that it's a perfect book, but it outshines many other travel books that I've read.

2013年2月17日 星期日

"Power Systems" by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian

"The prospects are not auspicious because of the general feeling you described before that there is nothing we can do.  As long as people sit by passively and let things happen to them, the dynamics of the system will drive it in a certain direction - and that direction is toward self-destruction.  I don't think it's hard to show."

This book is a series of interviews with Noam Chomsky, celebrated writer and linguist.  The subject of these interviews is power systems and how they give shape to the modern world.

It's short, so I can't fault it overmuch.  I agree with about 80% of what Chomsky concludes on a multitude of issues, and I came away from this book with a respect for his wide-ranging intellect.  I just wish the co-writer, David Barsamian, would have argued the point a bit more.  It is fine to say something like "the citizens of the US exist in a condition of mental slavery," but where are the proofs to fortify this claim?  Where is the evidence?  Had Mr. Barsamian pushed for this kind of evidence, a more compelling case might have been made for Mr. Chomsky's description of US foreign and domestic policy.

It would be a great thing to get Noam Chomsky into a room full of economists, more specifically the economists interviewed for the "I.O.U.S.A" book I read last week.  I would love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.

2013年2月16日 星期六

Books I Read During Winter Vacation

1. More Penguin Science Fiction ***1/2

Great collection of sci-fi from the late 50s and early 60s.  Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov are among the contributors.  All of the stories are good, though some are better than others.  Suprisingly, the story by the guy who wrote "Spartacus" stands out even in this company.

2. Andromeda 2 ***

A British sci-fi anthology from the 70s.  I liked this one a lot.  None of the authors are famous, but the stories are all entertaining.  There's a great story at the end about an immortal living in a future Africa.

3. "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel **1/2

The first 100 pages of this book are tedious.  Entire chapters do nothing to advance the plot, and the protagonist, for all his New Age enlightenment, is surprisingly judgmental on a number of topics.  How does he KNOW that animals are happier in zoos?  How is an agnostic's life filled with confusion?  How are atheists devout?

It gets much better about a fourth of the way in, but 200+ pages aboard the lifeboat was still pushing it.  The shipwreck bit is good, and the ending is deftly executed, but this book is burdened with too many details, and too many similar scenes.  Had it been a hundred or so pages shorter, it would have been much better

4."The Sex Life of Cannibals" by J. Maarten Troost ***

About an American's two-year stay in Tarawa, an atoll which belongs to Kiribati.  It's quite a funny book, though it has little sex and NO cannibalism.  I don't read a lot of travel writing, but this book compares favorably to other travel books I've read.

5. "The 19th Wife" by David Ebershoff **

A mystery novel about Mormons which flashes between the days of Brigham Young and the present time.  The characters lack depth, and their actions are entirely predictable.  It's readable, but a more thorough writer could have done a lot more with the subject matter.

6. "Batman: Hush" by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee *1/2

Jeph Loeb is a good writer.  In this TPB from 2003, he picked up where he left off in the landmark "Long Halloween."  Jim Lee provided the pencils, and his art made me miss Tim Sale.  You would think that someone as famous and technically proficient as Lee could avoid copying Frank Miller.  Parts of this TPB bear an unfortunate resemblance to "The Dark Knight Returns."

9. "Batman: The Long Halloween" by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale ****

This comic book was probably the single greatest inspiration for Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy.  A mysterious killer by the name of "Holiday" prowls the streets of Gotham, and Batman, Harvey Dent, and Jim Gordon team up to track him (or her) down.  Great art and writing.  One of the classics.

10. "Saga of the Swamp Thing: Volume One" by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben ****

Alan Moore's first appearance at DC, long before he would go on to fame as the writer of "Watchmen."  I am old enough to have read some of these when they first came out, and I can remember the the effect they had - and continue to have - on me.  It might not have seemed so at the time, but comic books like this one were truly revolutionary..

11. "Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel Marcia Marquez ***

Marquez's "100 Years of Solitude" is one of the best books I've ever read.  "Love" is, as the title implies, more of a straight-ahead love story, and it lacks the sense of absurdity that made "100 Years" so memorable (for me, at least).  I liked it, but not nearly as much as "100 Years."

12. "Fight Club" by Chuck Palahniuk ***1/2

One of those books that I've been meaning to read for a long time.  The movie adaptation, starring Ed Norton and Brad Pitt, was surprisingly faithful to the source material.  If you like this book, you'll probably also like Palahnuik's "Invisible Monsters."  The movie - which just about every white, heterosexual male has seen at least twice - spoils the ending, but it is still well worth reading.

13. "Marvel Comics" by Sean Howe ***1/2

I devoured this book.  It details the history of Marvel Comics from its beginnings in the 30s to the present day.  What emerges is a story of lawsuits, betrayals, and corporate backstabbing.  I found it completely absorbing, but I don't know how interesting it would be for those who didn't grow up reading comic books.

14. "The Dream of the Celt" by Mario Vargas Llosa **

Kind of boring.  Based on actual events, this novel explores Roger Casement's life as a homosexual and Irish nationalist.  Casement learns about the horrors of colonialism in both Africa and Peru, and is later imprisoned for treason.  I can't figure out why so many people raved about this book.

15. "Foundation and Empire" by Isaac Asimov **

The second book in Asimov's original Foundation Trilogy, which was later expanded to a series of seven books.  This book introduces The Mule, a powerful psychic whose appearance casts doubt on Hari Seldon's psychohistoric predictions.  The ending is completely predictable - even if you haven't read other books in this series - and this novel left me feeling disappointed.  I would highly recommend "Foundation" and "Second Foundation," but this one was pretty weak.

16. Marvel's "Civil War" **

The complete series incorporates over a hundred individual comic books, and every title in the Marvel line.  After the New Warriors accidentally cause the deaths innocent civilians, American public opinion causes discord within the ranks of superheroes.  Iron Man wants heroes working for the US government, while Captain America (oh, the irony!) tries to protect the individual liberties superheroes have taken for granted.  It's one of the better ideas for a "crossover event" that Marvel has come up with, but 106 issues was overblown - even for Marvel.  I STILL haven't read all of them!

17. "Moll Flanders" by Daniel Defoe ***

Defoe also wrote "Robinson Crusoe," which I read some time ago.  "Moll Flanders" is less religious in tone, and there is a moral ambiguity in it that is almost entirely absent in Defoe's more famous tale of the island castaway.  It requires patience to get through, but I found this story of a "fallen woman" much more compelling.

18. "The Swerve" by Stephen Greenblatt **1/2

This inadequately titled book illustrates the rediscovery of Lucretius' "On the Nature of Things" during the Renaissance, and how this rediscovery opened the door to modernity.  It is an interesting book, but I found the author's argument unconvincing.  As something of an Epicurean myself, I think "The Swerve" would have worked better as a commentary or appendix to Lucretius, and not as a work in its own right.

19. "I.O.U.S.A" by Addison Wiggin and Kate Incontrera **1/2

A primer on the ills of the U.S. economy.  Oversimplifies a great many issues, but this is the kind of book that more Americans ought to read.  This book makes frequent reference to another book, "Empire of Debt," that I'd like to read very much.  The second half of I.O.U.S.A consists of interviews with famous economists and other financial figures, and while it's more informative than the first half, it also proves the point that economists have trouble agreeing on anything and everything.