Friday, August 30, 2013

The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Hello again everyone, and welcome to the first of a series of reviews on The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. This past spring I took a class on Dante in which we read the entirety of The Commedia. After taking some time to think and digest this massive poem, I think I am finally ready to write my review. I will write one review for each canticle, starting with The Inferno, Dante's trip through Hell.

At the opening of the poem, Dante awakes to find himself lost in a dark wood. Unable to leave the valley, he is greeted by the shade of Virgil, who tells him that he has been sent by Mary and Dante's dearly departed Beatrice to guide Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and eventually to the highest parts of Heaven. Although Dante is initially reluctant to go, he eventually follows Virgil down into the mouth of Hell. 

While the idea of reading such a long old poem seems daunting, the language and imagery that Dante uses makes it as compelling and fresh as if it were written yesterday. It is, first and foremost, a journey, and the sights the pilgrim sees on his journey to the bottom of Hell are described in vivid and sometimes gross detail. Hell is a very physical place, full of bodies and bodily functions, and Dante doe snot skimp on the imagery. But as often as his language is crude, it is at times stunningly beautiful. There were similes that absolutely stopped me in my tracks with their perfection and beauty. If you want to read the Inferno for the first time, read it like a novel. Jump in, enjoy the story, gawk at the imagery, and stop to relish the beautiful passages.

Just as Dante the pilgrim takes Virgil as his guide through Hell, Dante the poet uses Virgil as a poetic guide in his attempt to write an epic that encompasses religion, politics, history, and the human experience. In each circle, Dante meets a new group of sinners who are in Hell for different reasons. The first thing to note about the damned is that they seem to be mostly from Florence. Seriously, sometimes I think Dante wrote this just so he could shove everyone he didn't like into the fiery pit. But in all seriousness, Dante's goal wasn't just to describe the afterlife, he was also trying to describe life on earth. By putting people from Florence in Hell or Heaven, Dante was commenting on what was happening in Italy at the time. Most important for Dante was the corruption he saw in the church, so there are entire cantos of the Inferno devoted to religious leaders, especially Popes, and especially Boniface, who was Pope at the time Dante was writing.

Farinata, a very persuasive shade
The other thing to note about the damned is how relatable they are, at least in the beginning. When you meet Paolo and Francesca in Canto V and listen to Francesca's story, you can't help but be drawn in and pity her. Dante the pilgrim pitied her too, and swoons (again, seriously, he spends like the first 10 cantos swooning left and right) due to his empathy for them. Again and again the pilgrim pities the damned, but as the canticle goes on this happens less and less. By the end of the canticle he has stopped pitying the shades at all, and instead feels that their damnation is deserved. Why did Dante the poet make the pilgrim transforming such a way? Just as the description of Hell also serves as a description of Earth and of the nature of the human soul, the pilgrim's journey through the afterlife mirrors the soul's journey from the dark wood of sin and error to enlightenment and salvation. Dante is at first taken in by the sinners because he is not wise enough to see through their excuses. He is too much like them to do anything other than pity them. As he goes through Hell, he learns more and shakes off the darkness of the wood, so that by the time he gets to the bottom he no longer pities the damned. Still, even in the lowest circles, the shades are all deeply human, and their stories of how they ended up in Hell are incredibly compelling.

Dante the poet shows again and again how similar the pilgrim and the damned really are. He constantly explores sins that he could have committed or paths that he could have taken, exposing his own weaknesses and confronting what would have been his fate if Beatrice and Mary had not sent Virgil to save him. I think it speaks to his bravery as a poet that he insisted on exposing not just the weaknesses in society, but also the weaknesses in his own character.
Dante the poet is also brave, I think, for tackling some very serious theological, political, and psychological issues. When Dante the pilgrim walks through the gate of Hell, the inscription on the gate says that the gate and Hell itself were made by "the primal love" of God. Here, Dante tackles one of the greatest theological questions; how can a just and loving God permit something as awful as Hell? While the real answer doesn't come until the Paradiso, Dante was brave to put that question in such stark and paradoxical terms. 

Dante's constant indictments of the political and religious leaders of his day show bravery, intelligence, and a good degree of anger on his part. Before writing the Inferno, Dante had been exiled from his home city of Florence for being on the wrong side of a political scuffle. He was never able to return home, and his anger at the partisanship that caused his exile mixed with his longing for his home make the political themes of the poem emotionally charged and interesting to the reader, even now.

Virgil, our guide and friend.
Lastly, Dante shows both bravery and a great deal of literary skill in his treatment of Virgil. Virgil is Dante's guide through Hell and, later, Purgatory. He leads Dante every step of the way, teaching him like a father would, protecting him from daemons and even carrying him on his back at one point. It is clear that Dante admires Virgil, and in some ways the poem is like a love song to him. Virgil, living before Christ, was obviously not Christian, so Dante's choice of Virgil as a guide through the Christian afterlife is really quite extraordinary. It shows that wisdom can be attained from the ancient world, and that the light of human reason, which Virgil represents, is necessary for the attainment of enlightenment and salvation. Dante believed strongly that reason and faith were not opposites, but partners, and his choice of Virgil as a guide is a perfect illustration of that principle.

But, despite Dante's love of Virgil, Virgil is, to me, one of the most tragic characters in literature. Virgil, as a pagan, cannot go to Heaven. He resides in Limbo, the first circle of Hell, home of the virtuous pagans. There, he and the other shades (including Homer, Plato, and others) receive no punishment except for their constant yearning for Heaven and the knowledge that they will never see the light of God. Virgil, at the request of Mary and Beatrice, leads Dante toward a salvation that he can never have. Human reason can only lead a soul so far; to understand the mysteries of Heaven one has to rely on faith and theology. Virgil's fate is the great tragedy of this otherwise comic poem, and the knowledge of that fate haunts the first two canticles. And while it makes sense thematically and in terms of the plot, Dante makes you love Virgil so much that his departure in the Purgatorio never really feels fair. I still miss him.

The Inferno is a long and complex poem, filled with vivid imagery, vast psychological depth, scathing social commentary, and deep theological questions. It is also a journey, a real adventure in a way, and a pleasure to read. Though the real fulfillment of Dante's themes does not come until the Paradiso, the Inferno is well worth reading on its own. Even if you don't go on to read the other two canticles, reading The Inferno is time well spent.

Rating: 5 stars
Recommendations: Read it. Skip the boring parts if you want to, but just read it.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Giving Up and Moving On: DNFs in Spring 2013

Hello again everyone. A lot has happened since my last post. The semester ended, summer started, and I graduated from college. That's right everyone, I now officially have my BA in English, so that makes me qualified for... something. I don't know. Actually, I'm still unemployed. Like I said, BA in English.
Anyway, before I tell you about my summer reading, I want to catch you all up on what I read for classes last semester. And, since I'm too lazy to write a real review still enjoying my vacation, I thought I'd start out with the books I didn't read. (That's right, even we high-and-mighty English majors skip out on our assigned reading every now and then. Just don't tell my professors.) So, without further ado, here's the list of books I was supposed to read this semester but just couldn't finish.

North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell
I really had good intentions with this one. It was assigned for a British novels class I was taking, and I honestly enjoyed most of the books we read. Besides, I'd heard that it was about the working class and had a strong female protagonist. It sounds like exactly the kind of book I'd love, right? Yeah, well, about that. First of all, the structure is pretty awful. Admittedly, this is partially because it was originally serialized. Gaskell had to meet certain guidelines, so I don't blame her entirely, but it's still a pretty awkwardly-paced book. Secondly, the characters just aren't as good as Austen's or even Bronte's. Thirdly, the romance is completely unbelievable and feels contrived. Lastly, at this point in the semester I was really tired of books that focus on compromise. The whole book is a compromise between North and South, labor and the masters, poverty and wealth, etc. Just for once I'd like to read a British novel that doesn't end with "I think we all learned a valuable lesson about first impressions and compromise," especially when it comes to working conditions for the working poor, and especially when that compromise means that no-one really has to change in any meaningful way. I love that Gaskell tackled issues like industrialization and working conditions. I just wish she had actually committed to it instead of only going halfway.
Reasons for Leaving: bad pacing, mediocre writing, flat characters, annoying plot.
Likelihood of Resuming Someday: Maybe when I haven't just finished four better similar novels.

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
This book was also for that British novels class. (I promise I'm usually a better student than this.) I'd always assumed that the people whom I'd heard complaining about Dickens were just not classics lovers. Surely I would be different. After all, my favorite books include The Odyssey and Persuasion. Well, I managed to get about five chapters into this one before wanting to stab my eyes out with a rusty metal file. After that, I refused to read any further, and relied on Sparknotes for everything except the last few pages. Seriously, how on earth is Dickens so popular? Like, what kind of bookish crack is the literary world on that makes people want to read this? I don't know, but I will try everything in my power to never read another Dickens novel again for as long as I live.
Reasons for Leaving: boring, bland, torturous writing. I thought I was actually going to die.
Likelihood of Resuming Someday: Never again, oh goodness please no.

The Song of Roland - Anonymous
This one was actually for a Medieval History class, which was about as enjoyable as you could expect a 9:00 a.m. lecture class to be. To be honest with you, I read the beginning and end of this one. Since the middle was mostly a list of all the people our heroes killed ("and then he killed this guy, and then that guy, and then about 1000 more) I figured it was safe to skip it. The beginning and end had some interesting bits that made for a useful final exam essay, but that's about all I got out of it. (Sorry, Eric.)
Reasons for Leaving: The middle was tedious and repetitive.
Likelihood of Resuming Someday: It's an interesting and useful source for the time period, so maybe? We'll see.

Well, that's what I've been not reading this semester. Soon I'll tell you about what I actually finished. Hint: it was pretty awesome. See you soon!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Ulysses by James Joyce

The Gabler edition of Ulysses.
This is the edition you should read.
Last semester I took a seminar class on James Joyce, and of course no class on Joyce would be complete without reading Ulysses. We spent the last half of the semester on Ulysses, and now that I've reviewed both Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist, I think it's finally time for me to talk about my experiences with Joyce's most famous/infamous novel.

Ulysses picks up approximately one year after Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ends, and begins with our old friend Stephen Dedalus, who is navigating the world of Dublin, working as a teacher, and still trying to be an artist in a place that continuously leaves him feeling isolated, alone, and without a home. While the first three chapters focus on Stephen, the rest of the book focuses on a new character, the famous Leopold Bloom, a Dublin Jew who, after eating a breakfast of mutton kidney, leaves the house to go about his daily business, all-the-while knowing that his wife, Molly, is planning an affair later that afternoon. That knowledge, the isolation he feels from his fellow Dubliners, the death of his young son ten years ago, and many other things weigh on his mind as we follow him about the affairs of his day. His path crosses and recrosses that of Stephen, and eventually the two outcasts finally meet and have a real conversation. Taking place in slightly less than 24 hours, Ulysses is an epic of the ordinary, a single day that contains every conceivable high and low.

Now, if you've ever heard anything about Ulysses, I'm sure you've heard that it's nearly impossible to read. It has gained a nearly mythic status in the bookish world as an impenetrable wall of stylistic experimentation and dense allusion. The only hope for the intrepid reader is to consult many guides and source-books that will lead them through the labyrinth. To be honest with you, this is partially true. There were plenty of times when I didn't know what was happening, and I assure you that I missed most of the allusions and references to historical events. And yes, I did use a guide when I read it, which was a big help. More importantly, I also had a class full of people to discuss each chapter with and to keep me on schedule. (I do recommend reading this book with a friend. It's more fun that way.) But I want to make one thing very clear:

The myth is only partially true.

The only guide I used.
Because while I did not catch many of the allusions and references, I mostly understood what was happening in terms of plot and location. While I may not have understood the meaning of every sentence, I did understand the meaning of most paragraphs. And while I didn't always see exactly how each stylistic invention connected thematically to Bloom's journey, I could certainly appreciate the beauty and craft of Joyce's writing. Reading Ulysses is like being at the ocean; you have to let the waves of text wash over you without trying to analyze every single piece of sand. Understanding every single allusion is not necessary to enjoy the novel as a whole. You might miss a few of the jokes, but I promise you will be ok. The guide I used and which I would highly recommend, James Joyce A to Z, had brief summaries of each chapter in terms of plot and any major thematic elements, and that is all I needed in order to thoroughly enjoy myself. I think that oftentimes we as readers get too caught-up in "getting" the book that we forget to really read it. Ulysses is, first and foremost, an experience. If you get too caught up in trying to "understand" it, you'll miss all the fun.

Ulysses is on my list
Fun? Yes, fun, because Ulysses is a deeply funny, witty, engaging, and beautiful book. First of all, Joyce is a phenomenal writer, and it would be a challenge to find a novel with more beautiful or more varied writing than this one. Some passages are just heart-stopping in their elegance. I literally stopped and reread some passages just so I could hear them again; they were that beautiful. Others were incredibly technically impressive, showing Joyce's amazing command of the English language (and others). Joyce's amazing skills as a writer mean that he is capable of making the wittiest puns and the funniest satires I have ever read. No, really. From the pub to the graveyard, from political arguments to  prostitution, from the romantic novel to the epic catalog, there is nothing that Joyce can't laugh at. I never thought I would say this, but Ulysses literally made me laugh out loud. But of course this novel isn't all fun and games. There are tender, honest moments here more touching than nearly anything else put into print. There is heartbreak here, not of the cheesy faux-tragic kind that you find in a Nicholas Sparks novel, but honest emotion felt by ordinary people in situations that are all too real. Though Ulysses very often made me laugh, on a number of occasions it also made me cry. It touched me, because it spoke to that part of me (and, I think, of many of us) that knows what it's like to feel alone, regretful, and lost. That realism, that honesty of emotion and situation, is what sets Ulysses apart. The strange style, the encyclopedic allusions, the weird diversions, all of these serve to represent reality in all of its complexity, beauty, and sadness. Ulysses is funny, crafty, beautiful, and heartbreaking, but it is all of those things because it is real.

If you've ever read my reviews before, you'll notice that this one is rather different. This time I haven't talked very much about technique or writing style, though really this would be the perfect novel to do that. And part of me does want to pull out my analytical brain and tell you all about Joyce's tricks and techniques and themes. I would feel accomplished for breaking down such a complex novel, and you would maybe feel like you learned something. But I don't think I'm going to do that this time. This time I think I'm going to focus on other things.

A first edition copy of Ulysses.
Because despite all the intellectual enjoyment I got from untangling and discussing the themes and techniques, and despite the aesthetic enjoyment I found in Joyce's language, what struck me the most about Ulysses was its emotional honesty, especially in the characterization. For the first three chapters I felt nothing but empathy and pity for Stephen. I wanted to be his big sister, to comfort him, to let him know that he wasn't alone and that he could make it. And then I met Leopold Bloom, and slowly, cautiously, not without reservation, I fell for him, completely and utterly. Not in a romantic way, but as a human being, an all-too-real human being who had emotions and quirks that I could see and understand like those of an old friend. I fell in love with the way that he always tries to figure things out, to calculate, explain, and reason, even if his explanations are often incorrect, more pseudoscience than real science. I fell in love with his desire to please everyone, to make everyone happy, to avoid conflict wherever possible. I love that he maintains his optimism despite everything that happens to him. I love the way he always walks on the sunny side of the street, is conscientious about his money, and loves to eat good food. I wanted nothing more in the world than for him to actually meet Stephen, because I needed to see what would happen when these two characters whom I cared so much about finally met. And yes, sometimes Bloom creeped me out a little with his thoughts about sex or bodily functions. Sometimes I got annoyed with him for being so passive, and I yelled at him to stop being such a pushover already. But when he had the chance to finally show some courage, I cheered him on with all of my heart, and when he stood up for Stephen my heart nearly burst I was so proud of him. Leopold Bloom was so lonely, so hopeful, and so real, and in the end it was the force of his character (and, to a lesser extent, Stephen's) that really made Ulysses shine.

Ulysses is a novel that takes place in a single day, and yet somehow seems to encompass the whole world. It's strange and difficult and sometimes frustrating, and to be honest I wouldn't recommend it to those who don't like their books to be a puzzle or who get frustrated when they don't understand what is going on. But if you do like a challenge, then I think you'll find that every frustration in Ulysses is paid back a thousand times over in beauty and enjoyment. I promise that you won't catch everything on your first read-through; I know I didn't. But that did not take away from my enjoyment of the novel in the slightest. I know I'll come back to it some day, maybe a chapter at a time here or there, and that no matter when or how often I return it will always have something new to offer me.

Rating: 5+
Recommendations: Don't get too weighed down with guides. Just read it and enjoy it, and check chapter summaries or historical events if you get lost. Ulysses is an experience, so just dive in.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Most Surprising Classic: February Classics Club Meme

Hello everyone, and welcome to the Classics Club meme for February. This month's question (submitted by yours truly) is "What classic has most surprised you so far, and why?" I'm looking forward to seeing which books you found to be surprisingly good (or surprisingly bad.)

This year has been a very surprising reading year for me, so there are lots of books I could choose. I was expecting Dubliners to be just a boring book I had to read before I could get to Ulysses, but it turned out to be one of my favorite books of all time. I was surprised that Ulysses, which I expected to be completely impossible, was actually a really enjoyable reading experience, even if there were times that I wasn't sure what was going on. (Stay tuned for a review of Ulysses; I promise I will write it eventually.) I was surprised by the emotional honesty of The Plague, the density of Yeats's poems, and the pure enjoyability of Othello. It's been a year of surprises, but when it comes to the most surprising book I've read so far, there's really no competition. Hands down, the winner of that award is The Odyssey.

What's so surprising about The Odyssey? Basically everything. I was expecting The Odyssey to be one of my least favorite books on the list. It's old. It's a long poem. Everyone thinks it's super boring. Let's just say I wasn't exactly excited to start it. But once I finally decided to pick it up I fell in love with its quiet beauty and emotional resonance. I was expecting a tale of adventure and daring deeds, but what I got was a warm, tender story bathed in the loving glow of home and family. In each place that Odysseus stops, the beautiful descriptions of home life made me understand exactly why he wanted to get back to Ithaca. I yearned for home with Odysseus, and was elated when he and his wife were finally reunited. I never expected an epic classical poem to strike such a chord in my heart or to be so emotionally resonant, but it absolutely was. On top of that, the poetry was incredibly beautiful, no doubt partially due to Fitzgerald's translation, so I forgot my original fear of reading a long poem and sank into the beautiful language and the engrossing story. I never expected to like The Odyssey, so my sadness at putting it down was totally surprising.

What books have surprised you so far, either good or bad? I look forward to reading your posts and your comments.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

As I mentioned in my review of Dubliners, I recently took a seminar class on James Joyce. After we finished discussing Dubliners, our next book was Joyce's first novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Filled with lyrical prose and vivid imagery, this semi-autobiographical story of Stephen Dedalus’s "intellectual and religio-philosophical awakening" and "passage from university student to independent artist" is an excellent first glimpse into the experimental style of Joyce's mature works.

Portrait of the Artist is, first and foremost, a portrait of the Stephen Dedalus. It is, in many ways, a traditional coming-of-age story, following our hero from his youngest school days through college and his budding life as an artist. What separates Portrait from other coming-of-age stories is the style. To give the reader a proper portrait of Stephen, Joyce uses a free-indirect style in which the narrator is colored by Stephen's perception and knowledge. The descriptions, imagery, and style all reflect Stephen's mental and aesthetic development. This allows the reader to see the world as Stephen sees it. When Stephen is very young, the descriptions and ideas expressed by both Stephen and the narrator are the kind of thing that a young child would notice. The dramas of school life, the stories told to him by his parents, and family arguments over politics all loom large in Stephen's mind. As he gets older and his mind is occupied by religious uncertainties, the style becomes more like a sermon and religious imagery creeps into normal descriptions. As he looses his faith and becomes more interested in poetry and aesthetics, the style becomes more luminous and lyrical, images become symbols, and the words themselves are filled with poetic beauty. The limited narrator and the matching of style, word-choice, and imagery to Stephen's mental state make reading this book the closest thing to plunging into a character's consciousness that you can get short of Ulysses.

Portrait was one of my Classics Club books.
Portrait of the Artist isn't just an incredibly realistic coming-of-age story; it is also filled with social, political, and religious commentary. One of Stephen's early memories is of his family arguing about Parnell and Irish revolutionary politics. In this one scene the reader is shown the conflict between Ireland and the colonial power of England and the way that the Catholic church becomes tangled in the political struggles of the time. These themes, Irish nationalism, English oppression, and Catholicism, come back throughout Joyce's work, and make up a realistic (if not always flattering) portrait of Dublin. Stephen's time in a Catholic school, his brief desire to join a monastery, and  his eventual loss of faith show the many ways in which people could react to the Irish Catholicism of Dublin. His encounters with Irish revolutionaries and his reluctance to join them provides a commentary both on British colonialism and on the occasional dogmatism of the Gaelic movement in Ireland. These themes, along with other Joycian themes such as loneliness, paralysis, and alcoholism, recur throughout his works, and add yet another dimension to this already multifaceted book.

Portrait of the Artist is a very different kind of book than Dubliners. Unlike Dubliners, which had a mostly traditional realistic style, Portrait of the Artist represents Joyce's first real move toward the experimentation with style for which he is famous. As such, it is the perfect choice for those who have read Dubliners and want to read more. While Portrait of the Artist was, admittedly, not my favorite of Joyce's works that I read this semester, this is possibly only because of how much I enjoyed both Dubliners and Ulysses. If you are interested in reading Ulysses (hint: do it) you should definitely read Portrait of the Artist first, because Stephen comes back to play an important role in Ulysses. But even without the connection to Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an impressive book in its own right. With lyrical prose, psychological depth, and social commentary, it is truly an impressive first novel.

Rating: 4 Stars
Recommendations: don't try to catch everything at once, just enjoy it. Read it slowly when you have enough time to concentrate. Enjoy the prose and the plays on words.

If you're interested in Joyce, take a look at my review of Dubliners  and stay tuned for my upcoming review of Ulysses.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dubliners by James Joyce

This semester I have been lucky enough to take a seminar class on James Joyce. We spent the semester reading and discussing as much Joyce as we could, and it was absolutely wonderful. Now that the semester is over, I want to tell you all about Joyce, starting with his early collection of short stories, Dubliners.

Dubliners is, at first glance, an unassuming book. It is written in a largely realistic style, with none of the experimental stylistic elements for which Joyce is famous. Despite that, Dubliners is a truly unique book with just as much depth, detail, and resonance as the best full-length novels. The returning themes of paralysis, alienation, and political oppression are so embedded in the characters, dialogue, and action that they never feel preachy or overdone. Since Joyce returns to many of these themes in his later novels, Dubliners is a perfect introduction for anyone interested in tackling Joyce for the first time. Its emotional honesty, thematic resonance, and beautiful writing make it a worthwhile book for any reader.

Though Dubliners is a collection of short stories, these stories are all connected by setting and theme, as well as a few recurring characters. The city of Dublin, with its many pubs, shops, dirty streets, and busy port, is practically a character, and the gravitational pull it has on the characters holds together the collection, making it a unified and coherent whole. The stories are also connected by theme, the most striking of which are isolation and paralysis. Many of the characters in these stories are lonely or disengaged from society, trying but unable to make meaningful connections with other people. In many stories, a character seems to have a chance at escape from their lonely or unfulfilling life, but at the crucial moment find they themselves unable to act and end up remaining exactly where they were. Some realize the chance that they miss, while some are unaware of having a chance of freedom, and still others are even unaware that they are trapped. Dublin, and the paralytic unhappiness that Joyce saw there, seem for most an unbeatable force.

Dubliners was one of my Classics Club books.
Despite all of that, Dubliners does have some brighter moments. Many of the stories end with epiphanies, in which the characters have realizations of either good or bad things about themselves, Dublin, or humanity. These epiphanies are written in the most beautiful and luminescent prose, and whatever their subject, were always rewarding to read. In fact, all of the writing in Dubliners is detailed and beautiful, meaning that despite the depressing subject matter, I never once got bored. Joyce is not only a talented writer, he is also a subtle one. Each word and phrase is carefully chosen to contribute the the mood, theme, or characterization, meaning that each story has nearly infinite reread value. Of course, Joyce uses his craft so well that I often didn't even notice it, making the stories that much more enjoyable to read.

While of course some stories are better than others, all of the stories in Dubliners are of at least good quality, and most of them are really great. Despite the overall high quality of the book as a whole, there is one story that stands out from the others as truly exceptional. "The Dead" is the last story in the collection, as well as the longest. It starts out quietly enough, with a middle-aged man named Gabriel going to a Christmas party held by his two elderly aunts. The rest of the story chronicles Gabriel's thoughts and actions at that party. It could be argued that not much happens in this story, and yet the ending, with Gabriel and his wife talking back at their home, is by far the most moving epiphany in Dubliners. This story shows Joyce's skill at writing better than any other. Somehow, Joyce manipulates the seemingly-mundane elements of the story to create a conclusion in which even simple phrases become charged with emotion and meaning. Though I don't usually comment on my own feelings in reviews, I feel the need to tell you all that this story moved me to tears and left me utterly speechless. Even now, as I think over the story, the phrase "Snow was general all over Ireland" gives me chills. If the only thing Joyce ever wrote had been "The Dead," he would still be a great writer. It's that good.

"The Dead," with its perfect structure, subtle descriptions, and moving ending, is a truly great short story on its own, but it gains so much more from being placed at the end of such a well-written and honest collection. The themes and images from the earlier stories only enhance and expand the ideas in the last story, while that story serves as a coda and a commentary on the others. The conversational nature of this relationship, and the relationship of any story to any other story or to the whole, makes reading Dubliners truly worthwhile. Whether you've already read it twenty times or you've never picked it up before, reading Dubliners will be a rewarding and fulfilling experience.

Rating: 5 Stars.
Recommendations: Read it, and if you can't do that, at least read "The Dead." I promise you won't regret it.

Stay on the lookout for my upcoming reviews of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Odyssey by Homer

If you looked over the kinds of books I tend to read and review, you might be surprised to learn that I had never read The Odyssey. To be honest with you, I've always been a little scared by classical literature, so I put off reading this for a long time. But finally I decided to put it on my Classics Club list and tackle the thing once and for all. Now that I'm done, I don't know why I waited for so long to read this wonderful book. The Odyssey is a truly lovely and beautiful poem, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I didn't know a lot about The Odyssey going in to it. I knew it was the story of Odysseus from the time he leaves the Trojan War to the time he arrives home in Ithaca, and I knew about some of the monsters and goddesses he ran into on his journey, but that was about it. Because of this, I was expecting a story filled with action, daring feats, horrible danger, and crafty escapes. While all those things were there, I was surprised at how much of the book takes place in a domestic setting, focusing on things like food, clothes, bedding, and talking. Homer seems to linger over the details of the places that Odysseus visits, giving beautiful detail to the feasting and sacrifices, the fruitfulness of the lords' gardens, the women's talent in weaving, the color of the wine, the comfort of the beds, the beauty of the gold dinnerware, and the hospitality of his hosts. This was probably my biggest surprise while reading The Odyssey, but it also turned out to be my favorite part of the book. The descriptions of these domestic pleasures are all so loving and so beautiful that the reader feels a true love for the comforts of home and understands exactly why Odysseus wants so badly to get back to Ithaca. I wanted nothing more than for Odysseus to get back to Ithaca and experience the joy of being at home again. The care and love that Homer put into those descriptions made even everyday things seem truly lovely, and that warm loving glow was by far my favorite part of the book.

Another thing that surprised me about The Odyssey was how much of the story is given to us after the fact, told by Odysseus to his hosts. I thought this was an interesting device, because it puts the reader in the same place as Odysseus's host. We know who he is, but we're waiting for him to tell us what happened to him. Once we get caught up on the action and Odysseus makes the last leg of his journey and arrives in Ithaca, we see even more of his storytelling skills. He goes into disguise, and makes up stories about who he is and where he's from to many people before he kills the suitors and reveals his identity. These stories seem to be a way of fleshing out Odysseus's character. The fact that he can make up these stories on the spot shows that he is smart and cunning. The way he varies the length of his stories and the details he includes depending on who he's talking to shows how he feels about these people. The degrees to which people believe him and the way they react to his stories serves as a means for character development for them as well. I think the different kinds of stories and storytelling that happen in The Odyssey are incredibly interesting, and I intend to pay closer attention to them next time I read it. 

One of my favorite little things about The Odyssey was the emphasis on hospitality and generosity to strangers and travelers. I knew that hospitality was an important part of early Greek culture, but I was constantly struck by the difference between the reception that Odysseus gets and the way we treat strangers in our society. When Odysseus came to a place, he was bathed, given a cloak to wear if he didn't have one, brought to the table, and fed like a member of the family. All this happened before they ever asked him his name or where he was from. When they knew his name and heard his story, they gave him gifts and treasures and helped him to get home. He was always given a warm bed to sleep in and more than enough food to eat, and was treated with respect. I know that this is just a story, but I still found it to be incredibly refreshing. I wish that our society would focus a little more on hospitality and generosity like they do in The Odyssey.

I've heard many people complain that they found The Odyssey boring, with dry descriptions and long stretches where nothing happens. It may just be that I read a better translation than other people (my boyfriend, who has often picked The Odyssey as his favorite book, recommends the Fitzgerald, and I agree) but I didn't have any of these problems. I found the pacing to be very good, with most sections moving on to other sections in a timely and satisfying manner. The ending, when Odysseus and Penelope are finally reunited, is absolute perfection, and I would not have changed a single word of it. The descriptions are vivid, colorful, and utterly lovely in every way. Though I was intimidated by classical literature and afraid of being bored, within the first few chapters The Odyssey had completely won me over. I am glad that I finally read this thoroughly lovely and enjoyable book.

Rating: 5 stars
Recommendations: Beautiful descriptions, interesting plot, iconic characters. Highly recommended. Contains some violence. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Favorite Classic: August Classic Club Meme

Hello dear readers, and welcome to the first of the new monthly Classics Club memes. The Classics Club now has a dedicated blog, and they are hosting monthly questions so that all of us members can discuss the classics with each other. If you're a Classics Club member, welcome to the blog! My list is here. I look forward to reading all of your lists and learning about your favorite classics. If you're not a member, go check out the blog and make your own list!

This month's question is:

What is your favorite classic book? Why?

As I'm sure everyone else will say, this is a nearly impossible question to answer. How can you really pick one favorite? Since I don't think it's possible to compare works across genres, I've decided to pick my favorite classics in a few different categories. I'm picking based only on my personal favorites, not necessarily the books I think are the most well-written or most important. These are the books I want to hug and keep with me forever. Each of them has a story behind it, and each of them has done something to make me the reader I am today. So, without any further ado, here they are.

Favorite Classic: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I know that everyone picks this book as their favorite, but bear with me. This book is one of the first books to get me back into the classics. I read this for the first time during my Junior year of high school, and I must have read it three or four times that year. I started off just loving the story, connecting with the characters, and swooning at the romance. But after a while I started focusing more on the beauty of Austen's writing and her subtle but ever-present social commentary. All on my own, I was slowly learning to really read a book from multiple angles. Now, having read two other Jane Austen novels and many other classics, I can honestly say that reading Pride and Prejudice all those years ago got me off to the right start.
Honorable Mentions: Frankenstein, Persuasion, The Odyssey

Favorite Modern Classic: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
So, remember how in my introduction I said that these are all books I want to hug? Well, lied a little bit. I do not want to cuddle with Heart of Darkness. This book is utterly strange and terrifying, and I want to study it much more than I want to hold it. It is, in short, a hell of a book. So why is this my favorite modern classic? Because it is endlessly fascinating and infinitely re-readable. I read Heart of Darkness in two of my classes in the past year. Analyzing and discussing this book in two of my favorite classes helped me realize that I need to go to graduate school and got me interested in various forms of literary criticism. Because of those memories I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Heart of Darkness.
Honorable Mentions: Mrs. Dalloway, Paradise, The Great Gatsby.

Favorite Classic Poem: The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
If I had to pick one poem to read for the rest of my life, this would probably be it. There is something about this poem that just knocks me off my feet. First of all, the language is just beautiful. Eliot is a virtuosic poet, and it shows here like nowhere else. There are parts of The Four Quartets that absolutely grab me by the heart and play with my emotions, others that appeal to my analytical brain, and still others that engage my love of words and language. I read this poem the summer after my first semester as an English major, and it absolutely changed my life. I started studying poetry on my own, took more poetry classes, and met with my professor to ask for extra help. If it weren't for T.S. Eliot and the professor who introduced me to him, I might not have ever considered going to graduate school, and I certainly wouldn't be reading poetry the way I do now. For me, The Four Quartets will always remind me of that exciting time.
Honorable Mentions: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock, Sunday Morning, The Lake Isle of Innisfree.

Favorite Children's Classic: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
When pressed to pick an all-time favorite novel, there have been many times when I've picked The Hobbit. The Hobbit and I go way back. My mom used to read it to me when I was little, and when I got old enough I eventually started reading it myself. I read this book so many times that I used to have the first page memorized. This book lead me to read The Lord of the Rings, which in turn lead me to eventually collect and read all of Tolkien's works, learn Elvish, and generally become a complete dork. I have The Hobbit to thank for over a decade of fond reading memories, and for that it will always be one of my all-time favorite books.
Honorable Mentions: To Kill a Mockingbird, Watership Down, A Wrinkle in Time.

Favorite Classic Play: Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Ok, it's confession time. I totally watched the movie of this before I read it. In fact, I read this play mostly because I loved the movie so much. But, no matter its form, Much Ado About Nothing is a great play. It is incredibly witty and unbearably funny, but it certainly isn't light. There is an interesting commentary on relationships and trust in this play that makes it compelling again and again. It also features one of my favorite literary couples, Beatrice and Benedick, who make me incredibly happy. I watched this movie for the first time during my Junior year of high school, and it got me interested in Shakespeare all over again. Even now, if I'm having a bad day or need a pick-me-up, I still turn to Much Ado About Nothing.
Honorable Mentions: The Flies, Romeo and Juliet, The Crucible.

So there you have it: my totally cheating list of all my favorite classics. Do you have a favorite classic? Do you have a book that shaped your reading life? Let me know about it in the comments. And make sure to go to the linky list over at the Classics Club blog and check out everyone else's favorite classic. I look forward to reading all of your posts.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Top Ten Tips for Reading Poetry

Hey everyone. It's been a long time since I've done Top Ten Tuesday, but since this week is a choose-your-own-topic sort of week, I thought this would be the perfect time for a post I've been wanting to write recently. As someone who loves poetry, it sometimes makes me sad to see that most people, even bookish people, almost never read poetry. One of the complaints I hear a lot is that people "don't understand" poetry, so I decided to give my Top Ten Tips for reading, analyzing, and enjoying poetry, in hopes that more people would decide to pick up a poem every now and then. So, without further ado, here is my list.

Emily's Top Ten Tips for Reading Poetry

1. Just enjoy it. Really. I hear a lot of people saying that they hate analyzing novels, that they prefer to just read them and enjoy them. But for some reason when it comes to poetry, those same people get so caught up in analyzing that they forget to just read the poem and enjoy it. Poems may be in an unfamiliar format, but they are just as lovely and enjoyable as novels. So get lost in the language, the story, and the images, and leave the analyzing for poems you already enjoy.

2. Paraphrase it. This might seem like the simplest thing, but for me this is always the first step when I look at a poem. Think up a simple paraphrase that describes the action of the poem. Try to leave out all metaphors or interpretations; just tell yourself what literally happens. Depending on the poem, this can be harder than you think. You'd be surprised how much this can help you get a clear picture so you can move on to later steps.

3. Look at the road map. The first thing I look at after I paraphrase a poem is where it starts and where it ends. This can give you a sense of the poem's trajectory and help you see what some of the themes may be. The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats, for instance, both starts and ends with the speaker in a city dreaming of Innisfree, with the middle being the specifics of his dreams. This makes the poem rather circular, starting and ending in the same place, and shows us that the speaker never really gets to that cabin. Innisfree is a daydream, a goal that the speaker never fulfills. This poems is a poem about yearning and longing more than it is about Innisfree itself. We get all that just from looking at the road map. (Did you listen to the recording at that link? That's Yeats reading the poem, and it's fabulous. Go ahead, I'll wait.)

4. Look at the map of each stanza. Once you've looked at the overall road map, look at the map for each stanza or section. In Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, the first three stanzas start with something belonging to society (the owner of the woods, the horse, the bells) and end with the woods. The last stanza reverses that pattern, starting with the woods that the speaker desires and ending with the speaker's obligations in society. This structure shows us the constant pull and tug between our love for beauty, solitude, idealism, or even death, and the obligations of society, practicality, and real life. Each stanza, by nature of its structure, gives us that conflict in miniature.

5. Look for the oddities. Is there are part of the poem that stands out as different from the rest? An image that doesn't seem to fit? A part where the meter or rhyme-scheme breaks? A part that rhymes in a non-rhyming poem? Does the poet repeat lines? These are all oddities, and they are all good places to ask yourself "Why is this here?" Why, in Emily Dickenson's I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died, does the last line repeat the word "see?" Why, in Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening does Frost repeat the last line? These are great questions to ask yourself as you are reading, and they can often yield the best insights.

6. Look at the extras. When reading a poem, don't forget to look at the extra things, like the title, epigraph, or dedication. My favorite example for this is The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot. The epigraph is a quote from Dante in which a damned person in hell tells Dante that he will only confess his story to him because he knows that no-one will hear it, since no-one can ever leave hell. What does this mean for our poem? Is Prufock in hell? Does he think that no-one will ever hear his monologue? And how does this fit the title, which calls the poem a love song? Clearly, the title and the epigraph give us a lot to think about. Similarly, the epigraph in The Waste Land references the Sybil, a prophetess, who is an old shriveled husk of a person who only wants to die. If that doesn't give us a way to interpret the poem, I don't know what does.

7. Look at the images. This may seem obvious, but it's surprising how many people forget to really look at the images and take them seriously. Even the simplest things can be helpful. Is the poem set in a city, or in nature? Are the images realistic, or idealized? Are there stereotypical images, like a rose or the speaker's beloved? If so, are they described in a traditional way, or does the poet play with our expectations? Let's go back to The Lake Isle of Innisfree for a minute, and look at the second stanza. In the description of Innisfree, the speaker says "There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow." Look at that imagery for a second. Is there anything weird about that? Why is midnight glimmering and noon purple? Don't those images seem a little backwards to you? I take that description to be the first truly dreamlike description in the whole poem, a hazy and imprecise image that reminds us that the speaker is not in Innisfree, but is only imagining it.

8. Read for connotation. This is, to me, the most interesting and fruitful thing that you can do after you've looked at the big picture. Pick an important word in the poem, and ask yourself, why did the poet choose that word rather than a synonym? As a hint, in good poetry the answer is almost never "because it rhymed." Instead, the poet is using the word's connotative value, the value that it has outside its literal dictionary definition. So, in In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound, why does he use "apparition" instead of "appearance" or any other synonym? Apparition connotes a ghost or some other spiritual phenomena, and gives the image an otherworldly nature that "appearance" wouldn't have captured. It also gives it a sense of time, as an apparition is something that appears and fades relatively quickly. In such a short poem especially, the connotative value of each word is very important.

9. Look at the form. As you're looking at each stanza, you should notice if the poem follows some regular form or if it is in free verse. If it is in a regular form, the poet probably chose it for a reason. If the poem is a sonnet and it wasn't written around the time of Shakespeare, maybe the poet is trying to connect with tradition or prove their skill as a poet. If it is in a ballad meter, maybe they are trying to reference typical ballad subjects or themes, or have been influenced by hymns. If the poet is using an envelope stanza (quatrain with abba rhyme scheme) they could be referencing In Memoriam by Tennyson, and the poem could be a kind of elegy or memorial. Looking at these traditional forms can give the reader a hint as to what the poet might have been thinking.

10. Do minor research. Now, I know this sounds scary, but stick with me here. If a poem references something or someone who you don't know, look it up. You'd be surprised how helpful that can be. While you don't need to know the source of every single allusion in The Waste Land, it is good to know who Philomel is. If you're reading Leda and the Swan by W.B. Yeats, you should make sure you know who Leda is. But beyond that, it's sometimes interesting to look up the authors of poems and learn a little bit about them. I looked at The Waste Land completely differently after learning about T.S. Eliot's awful marriage and mental breakdown. W.B. Yeats was involved in the Irish revolt against England, and that shows up a lot in his poems, as do his unusual spiritual beliefs. Sometimes it's helpful to look up what school or movements a poet is associated with, and see how their poems fit with and diverge from those ideas. Sometimes it's interesting to read a poet's poetics and see how they apply to their actual poetry. Research doesn't have to be scary. Sometimes it is incredibly helpful and surprisingly fun.

As you can probably tell, I could talk to you about reading poetry forever, but I think these ten tips are a great place to start with a poem that confuses you, delights you, or makes you want to look at it more deeply. And remember, the most important thing about reading poetry is to enjoy it. Enjoy the beautiful language, vivid imagery, and interesting ideas, and use these tips only to further your love and appreciation for good poetry.

Happy Reading!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

If You Want Me to Stay by Michael Parker

I am not a big fan of the summer novel. I tend to read exactly the same kind of novels during the summer as I would any other time of year. That said, I honestly think that If You Want Me To Stay is the perfect book for summer. It's one of the rare books that manages to be exciting and readable without compromising on quality. Full disclosure: Michael Parker is one of my professors at UNCG, and his class on the contemporary novel was one of my favorites. It was partially because I loved his teaching that I decided to pick up his collection of short stories (review here) and then one of his novels. I can tell you now that I have not been disappointed. Set in North Carolina during a hot summer (much like the one we're having now), If You Want Me to Stay is a luminous example of the power of voice in creating a truly enjoyable reading experience.

In Michael Parker's new novel, Joel Dunn Jr. tells the story of how he did everything he could to save his family after his mother left and his father's tenuous hold on sanity unraveled. On a journey from the town of Trent, North Carolina, to the coast, Joel and his little brother Tank thread their way back to their mother, fueled by potato chips, Coke, and the soundtrack of the powerful soul music that their daddy taught them to love. Always keeping the faith that their mother is waiting for them, they move from one kindly stranger to another on their odyssey, Joel ever certain they are being guided to her door: "I was being passed from person to person," he says, "on my way back into her wide open window." Caught between the endless idealism of childhood and the sobering tests of adulthood, Joel and Tank bravely negotiate their way through a landscape of love and beauty, abandonment and betrayal, to learn that the one sure thing is often right by your side. (GoodReads)

Narrated by a 14-year old boy, If You Want Me to Stay is above all an incredible example of the effective use of narrative voice. Joel Jr. is an incredibly interesting narrator with a voice that is both unique and believable. Having lived in North Carolina for a good portion of my life, I can tell you that I have met boys who talk exactly like Joel. He is sometimes funny, sometimes cynical, almost always honest, and completely real. But Parker's use of voice goes far beyond the simple mastery of dialect. Where Parker really shines is in how he gets into Joel's head. If You Want Me to Stay starts with a sort of free narrative style, with Joel as the narrator. He tells the story, but with little asides, thoughts, and observations thrown in that make it feel like a real person talking or thinking. What I really loved about the style was that as the novel progressed Joel's narration became more stream-of-consciousness than not. The last few sections are in a nearly impressionistic style, painting the images Joel sees and mixing them with his thoughts, feelings, memories, and the music that courses throughout the novel. It's a great device, because the narrative gets more stream of consciousness as the boys get more tired and confused, making the style match the content and theme of the novel. Parker's use of voice and narrative style was by far my favorite part of If You Want Me to Stay, and I would recommend it for that alone.

Michael Parker
As I mentioned in my review of The Geographical Cure, Parker is also incredibly talented at building setting, able to put readers right into a place without a lot of exposition or superfluous description. If You Want Me to Stay is no different. In this novel, Parker creates the perfect atmosphere of central and coastal North Carolina; the muggy summers, the boggy forests, and the beach towns all come to life in a way that is both delightful and unobtrusive. Having lived in North Carolina for a majority of my life, I can tell you that he absolutely nailed the setting. But what's great about Parker is that while he makes the place a real and integral part of the story and of the characters, he doesn't hit you over the head with it. Instead, the setting is woven into the story in much the same way as it is woven into our lives. It is important in that it is always there, but not so important as to steal the scene from the characters or themes. Instead, it creates a kind of atmosphere that I found very effective and enjoyable to read.

Now, there were a few things that I thought could have been better about this novel. While I loved the way that Parker weaved music into the story, I thought that it was occasionally too much, especially towards the end. I understand why he chose to use the music, and it worked very well thematically, but sometimes it was so much as to make Joel's character seem unrealistic. No-one thinks about music that much, no mater what they've been through. Since Joel was otherwise an incredibly lifelike and well-drawn character, this stuck out a bit and bothered me. Also, while I found the story be be generally well-paced and well-structured, there was a part just before the end that went on for too long, and that threw the structure off and made it drag a bit. Other than those two things, the book was very well put together and flowed perfectly from one scene to the next. Those two problems were more slight annoyances than real issues.

Overall, If You Want Me to Stay was a thoroughly enjoyable novel. It was fast-paced and interesting without sacrificing good writing or round characters. While it isn't something I'd call a modern classic, it is definitely something I would recommend to anyone who wants their summer reading to be both enjoyable and intelligent. I can assure you that I will be picking up another of Michael Parker's books again in the near future.

Rating: 3.5 stars
Recommendations: Realistic characters, great setting, a great summer read. Some profanity and violence.