2012 Challenges, 2012 TBR Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Ernest Hemingway, Fiction

Review: Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

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Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 1

Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream was published posthumously and was expurgated by Hemingway’s wife.  A note in the preface states that she removed certain portions of the book which she felt certain that Hemingway would have eliminated himself (which begs the question: Why did he include them in the first place?).  Personally, I cannot stand when books are expurgated, particularly by friends/loved ones or editors who think they “know better” than the author.  That aside, the story is interesting and is much more like his later works, such as Garden of Eden than his earlier works.  This does make me believe that there were probably portions of the book that were rather sensitive and could have been very enlightening, particularly to those familiar with Hemingway and his tragic end.  The story is separated into three parts, including “Bimini”, “Cuba,” and “At Sea.”  Each segment explores a different time period in the main characters life, and also explores different aspects of his life and emotions.  There is one connecting thread throughout the three segments, which is family.  My personal favorite section was “Bimini,” where the main character is visited by his sons and lives with a close male friend.  Their relationship is incredibly interesting, especially considering the homosensual nature of it in contrast to the homophobic comments made by some of the characters (and by Hemingway himself, in real life).  The idea of “manly love” is certainly a main focus in part one, but suffers a bit in the second two segments, which are more concerned with grief/recover and war.

Thomas Hudson, the main character, and his good friend, Roger, are the best developed characters in the book, particularly in part one.  Thomas Hudson continues to develop throughout and his character is interesting to witness, as he struggles to grieve the loss of his loved ones.  Hudson’s sons, too, are delightful – not since Garden of Eden have I seen such lovingly, sincerely drawn characters from Hemingway.  In part two, “Cuba,” Hudson’s true love becomes a part of the story and she, too, is interesting and very similar to the woman in Garden of Eden, which leads me to believe that these two posthumous works might be his most autobiographical of them all.  The minor characters, such as the bartenders, Hudson’s houseboys, and his comrades-in-arms in part three, are all well-crafted, sound, and believable. 

One difference between Islands in the Stream and Hemingway’s other works is in the prose.  It is still raw, but not quite so sparse or bare as usual.  His descriptions are more flushed out, almost tortured at times.  There is a moment in the book where Hudson is fishing with his sons, and it is described in such detail (even better, in my opinion, than in Old Man and the Sea) and with such deep emotion that I actually found myself becoming thrilled and engaged – by fishing. Something I truly dislike.  That is the kind of magic Hemingway works with his words, his language, and his style.  It is brilliant, as usual, but, again, I found myself much more drawn to the first section than any others – it is an exposed nerve.

Personally, I try my very best to separate writers from their works; however, I do believe that, no matter how hard we try, we writers reveal bits of ourselves in our works.  Hemingway is known for his “masculine” prose – his ability to tell a story without much emotion, without much sap, without any flowery nonsense.  This leaves him, throughout most of his chronology, rather walled-off from his works.  In Islands in the Stream, however, as with Garden of Eden, I truly believe we see Hemingway exposed – there is a very sensitive, deeply troubled side to this man and that these books were published only posthumously speaks volumes to his relationship to them.  Islands in the Stream is a delicate exploration of love, loss, family and friendship.  It is a deeply moving tale of a man, an artist, fighting to wake up and live every day, despite his haunting sadness. 

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: Adult

Interest: Family, Loss, Artists/Artistry, Friendship, Sorrow, War

Notable Quotes:

“Out of all the things you could not have there were some that you could have and one of those was to know when you were happy and to enjoy all of it while it was there and it was good” (99). 

“I kept waiting for truth and right to win and then somebody new would knock truth and right right on its ass” (147).

“Hell was not necessarily as it was described by Dante or any other of the great hell-describers, but could be a comfortable, pleasant, and well-loved ship taking you toward a country that you had always sailed for with anticipation” (195).

“He thought that on the ship he could come to some terms with his sorrow, not knowing, yet, that there are no terms to be made with sorrow.  It can be cured by death and it can be blunted or anesthetized by various things. Time is supposed to cure it, too. But if it is cured by anything less than death, the chances are that it was not true sorrow” (195).

“I drink against poverty, dirt, four-hundred-year-old dust, the nose-snot of children, cracked palm fronds, roofs made from hammered tins, the shuffle of untreated syphilis, sewage in the old beds of brooks, lice on the bare necks of infested poultry, scale on the backs of old men’s necks, the smell of old women, and the full blast radio” (241).

“There’s some wonderful crazies out there. You’ll like them” (269).

 

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2012 Challenges, 2012 TBR Challenge

2012 TBR Pile Challenge – Final Stretch!

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As we head into the final few days of 2012, I wanted to post briefly about the challenge and peoples’ progress, including my own.  Unfortunately, it looks like I’m only going to get through 11 of the 12 books I need in order to “Win.”  That’s still a win for me, though, as it’s 11 books that had been sitting on my shelves for ages that I’ve finally read!  I enjoyed most of them, too.

Here are the 10 that I’ve finished (I’m working on #11, Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway, right now):

1. Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (Completed 5/18/2012)

2. Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway (Currently Reading)

3. City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare (Completed 3/1/2012)

4. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Completed 2/5/2012)

7. Nova Express by William S. Burroughs (Completed 1/21/2012)

8. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Completed 1/25/2012)

9. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (Completed 12/22/2012)

10. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (Completed 1/12/2012)

11. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (Completed 2/24/2012)

12. Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut (Completed 2/12/2012)

Alt 2. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (Completed 7/26/2012)

We do have some folks who have commented on the master post indicating that they are finished – outstanding!  Once the year ends and the 2013 challenge begins, I will be going back to check final lists & reviews, and all those who did finish and who met the challenge specifications will be entered to win the $50 Gift Card (Amazon or The Book Depository). 

Current Completers:

Jenny from Jenny & Kelly Read Books

Kelly from Jenny & Kelly Read Books

Laura at Devouring Texts

Karen of Books and Chocolate

Melissa of Avid Reader’s Musings

Bev at My Reader’s Block

Debbie at ExUrbanis

Avid Series Reader

Katzenjammer

A Hot Cup of Pleasure

Reading 2011 (And Beyond)

Rob at Loose Logic

Kathy 

So, we had 123 people sign-up for the 2012 challenge and, so far, 12 have reported as being finished. Oh, boy!   That’s certainly good odds for the prize!

 If you’re out there and you’ve finished your challenge, be sure to go back to the master post and leave a comment letting us know (or feel free to leave a comment on this post, too). 

If you didn’t finish – what kind of progress did you make?  1 of 12?  6 of 12?  Even reading one book is a step in the right direction, so if you gave it a shot – good for you!  Come back and join us in 2013 for another go!

I actually very much enjoyed almost all of these books, so it’s a shame that I had left them sitting on my shelves for so long. But that’s what this challenge is for!  Many of these (Gone With the Wind, The Woman in White, Cannery Row, and The Handmaid’s Tale) actually ended up being some of my favorite reads of the year – and maybe even of all time! 

Which books from your list did you love?  Which ones did you hate?  Looking forward to any in 2013?

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1001 Books, 2012 TBR Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Community, Depression, Fiction, Friendship, John Stephens, Literature, Loneliness, Mental Health

Review: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 54

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Cannery Row is a unique stand-out amongst Steinbeck’s works, for many reasons.  One of these is that, unlike with East of Eden, Grapes of Wrath, or Of Mice and Men, for example, there is not much of a plot.  Instead, what Steinbeck does is open up to his readers a place – typically American (and Californian)- where its people and its mood can be felt, captured, and understood.  This place is Cannery Row, a small cannery district in Monterey, California.  The people are a mix of shop-owners, layabouts, migrant workers, “girls for hire,” and others who are either genuinely worn down or who have chosen to live humbly in this out-of-the-way town, rather than move on up to the more prosperous areas.  The story itself centers on a man named Mack and his group of pals, all of whom are without work but who get by on their resourcefulness and their ability to find work when it becomes absolutely necessary.  The gang decides to do something nice for the town doctor, who does so much for the town without ever asking for anything in return.  Their first attempt at ‘thanking’ him goes terribly wrong, but they vow to make up for it and, in the end, they succeed.  Their gift to the doctor brings everyone together but, what the reader will realize, is that amongst the friendship and revelry is a deep sadness and loneliness which both the town and its inhabitants, but particularly the doctor, suffer from.

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily well developed.

Cannery Row is similar to The Grapes of Wrath in that the main story is frequently interrupted by short vignettes.  In Grapes of Wrath, these intercalary chapters served to widen the lens from the Joad family and onto the plight of the Great Depression and migrant workers in general.  Here, in Cannery Row, the interruptions often introduce the reader to minor characters – residents of or visitors to the town who emphasize certain extremities of real life, most of which are cruel in nature (dead bodies, violence, suicide, etc.).  Many readers are critical of Steinbeck’s method of interrupting the primary story in this way, but the purpose is to shape a world, to give feeling and context to a group of people, without having to focalize on one person or one family in particular.  This allows the story to be about a general community rather than individuals, which allows the conversation to be about a class or type of people, a region, rather than a character – the place, in fact, becomes the person.  This is what regionalists (like Faulkner) do best.  In addition to this, the specific characters who are introduced and witnessed, such as Mack, Doc, and Lee Chong, the shop owner, are all distinct, realistic, and purposeful.  Their interactions with one another are interesting and believable, but their internal thought processes are perhaps the most fascinating of all.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I am a fan of Steinbeck’s prose.  In this book, he opens many of the chapters with incredible descriptions – short passages that are almost poetic in their beauty.  He has a talent for not just seeing but also feeling people and places, then somehow reimagining these sensations into written language.  While Steinbeck employs an intercalary method, as mentioned above, his narrative asides and detours are brief and his description of those things taking place outside of the primary story are shortened.  While we might leave the main story from time-to-time, it does not feel, as it sometimes does with Grapes of Wrath, as if we have been completely separated from it.  Steinbeck also manages to capture mood and tone with his narrative voice and through his use of dialogue.  We learn much about the character Frankie, for instance, without necessarily being granted access to Frankie’s point of view.  Instead, we learn about him through others’ treatment of him, through Steinbeck’s description of him, and by the way his and the Doctor’s relationship is presented in the narrative – subtle descriptions and meaningful allusions.  Frankie, one single character, comes to mean much more on the narrative level.  He represents a type of person but, due to the straightforward and bare, sometimes raw, way Steinbeck approaches his descriptions, he can represent a group of people without becoming a grotesque.  Ultimately, the prose and style are generally sparse with brief interludes of poetic, almost romantic language.  The style suits the tone of the novel as well as the nature of its characters and “plot” or, more accurately, situation.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Cannery Row, unlike many of Steinbeck’s other works, is not quite as politically charged or socially sentimental.  It is still about people and place, exactly what one would expect from such a brilliant regionalist writer, but its purpose is much more ambiguous.  The emotion and pathos is still there, but the reader is allowed simply to bear witness to a community, perhaps even becoming a part of it, without necessarily being guided toward feeling one way or another about anyone in the town (even the Doctor, lauded by his townspeople, has his faults).  Certain themes from Steinbeck’s other works, such as mental health, community-families, survival, depression (economic and psychological), and labor are present again in this book, but in a much more subtle way.  For those who enjoy Steinbeck but who might be put off by his “peachiness” or heavy-handedness of politics/morality, Cannery Row might be exactly what you are looking for.  There is also a good amount of humor, counterbalancing a relatively sombre tone.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Great Depression, Community, Loneliness, Mental Health, American West, Friendship, Society

Notable Quotes:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” (5)

“Man’s right to kill himself is inviolable, but sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary.” (13)

“Casting about in Hazel’s mind was like wandering alone in a deserted museum.” (34)

“It is the hour of the pearl – the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself.”  (82)

“The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system.  And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success.  And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” (135)

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2012 Challenges, 2012 TBR Challenge, Atheism, Book Review, Fantasy, Humanism, Philip Pullman, Uncategorized, Young Adult

Review: The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 27


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting, believable and impactful.

The Golden Compass (also known as Northern Lights and/or His Dark Materials, Book 1) is the first in the world-famous fantasy trilogy by English writer Philip Pullman. This book won the Carnegie Medal in Literature in 1995, then was named the “Carnegie of Carnegies” in 2007, after a public vote on the best Carnegie-winning books of the past 70 years.  The first impression one gets while (and after) reading this book is that it is not a typical Young Adult fantasy novel, though it is often described as such.  Author Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) described Pullman as being an author “whose books have begun to dissolve the frontier between adult and juvenile fiction.”  This is certainly true with The Golden Compass.  The story tackles deeply philosophical themes and widely cherished traditions, putting its main character, Lyra, in direct conflict with two powerful schools of thought: Christianity and Humanism.  Though the main character might be a child, the dangers are very real; indeed, some scenes are shockingly adult in nature.  Largely an adventure story, Lyra finds herself companion to Gyptians (gypsies), armored bears, witches, and clockwork spies.  She sets off to save a friend of hers, who has been captured by “the Gobblers” and, along the way, learns more about the world and herself than she could have ever imagined. 


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

The only somewhat disappointing element to this largely enjoyable and thought-provoking story was its characterization.  While there are absolutely a wide-range of characters, including those of different species, different political and philosophical viewpoints, and different temperaments, none of them (with the exception, perhaps, of Lyra’s parents – who might somewhat surprise the reader, in the end) are expressly or purposely developed, including Lyra.  For some reason, it is hard to connect with Lyra, except, perhaps, in the moments when she and her daemon, Pantalaimon, are at risk of separation.  Perhaps this is intentional, considering the major conflict in this story is the idea of intercision – the separating of a youth’s physical body from their daemon, the animal aspect indicative of their soul.  In general, though, the interaction between characters was believable and interesting.  One of the most fascinating elements of the story is the relationship between humans and their daemons – Pullman truly captures what a special relationship this is, and creates certain rules that are never expressly spoken (such as the fact that all daemons are the opposite gender from their humans), but which add wonderful layers to the story and the fantasy world overall.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

After reading The Golden Compass, it is safe to say that this series may become my second-favorite “YA” (I use that descriptor very cautiously) fantasy series, after Harry Potter.  This is partially because the story itself is deep, interesting, and unique, but also largely because of how well it is written.  Pullman’s style is refreshing – it comes across as serious and important, which is sometimes lacking in the fantasy genre, particularly in fantasy for younger readers (Tolkien, Salvatore, etc. excluded).  What is genius about the prose and language is that it somehow manages to match the tone of the story, which is complex and dangerous, while also keeping in mind the youth of its main character.  Pullman has created a beautifully vivid, well-imagined world, where multiple-universes are possible, and his talent for translating that world onto the page and into the readers’ minds is superb. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

The trilogy is perhaps best known as the athiest’s answer to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series.  Pullman, a self-described “agnostic atheist” and Humanist told The Washington Post in an interview that the trilogy was not created “to offend people;” instead, he saw them as “upholding certian values that . . . are important, such as life is immensely valuable and this world is an extraordinarily beautiful place.”  He went on to say that he thought “we should do what we can to increase the amount of widom in the world.”  Ultimately, Northern Lights is the entryway for these ideas – a pursuit of knowledge, a questioning of traditional doctrine and authority figures, and a commitment to one’s self and one’s own personal growth and development.  We see these ideas at work in the main character, Lyra, especially in her bold individuality but also in her devotion to her daemon, Pan, and in her willingness to listen and to learn (if not always to obey).   


Suggested Reading for
Age Level: 13+
Interest: Fantasy, Multiple Universes, Atheism, Humanism, Spirituality, Independence, Good & Evil


Notable Quotes:

“You cannot change what you are, only what you do.”

“That’s the duty of the old,’ said the Librarian, ‘to be anxious on the behalf of the young. And the duty of the young is to scorn the anxiety of the old.”

“Human beings can’t see anything without wanting to destroy it. That’s original sin. And I’m going to destroy it. Death is going to die.”

“Being a practiced liar doesn’t mean you have a powerful imagination. Many good liars have no imagination at all; it’s that which gives their lies such wide-eyed conviction.”

“Men and women are moved by tides much fiercer than you can imagine, and they sweep us all up into the current.”

“We are all subject to the fates. But we must act as if we are not, or die of despair.”

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1001 Books, 2012 Challenges, 2012 Classics Challenge, 2012 TBR Challenge, Architecture, Art, Art History, Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Fiction, Inquisition, Religion, Romanticism, Victor Hugo

Review: Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 17


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Count Frollo, Quasimodo, and Esmeralda are quite possibly the most twisted, most bizarre, and most unexpected love-triangle in literary history.  And if their problematic involvement with one another is not enough, throw-in Esmeralda’s philosopher husband, Pierre, and her unrequited love-interest, Phoebus, not to mention the self-isolated mother-in-mourning with a sad history of her own, and Frollo’s younger, troublemaking brother Jehan, and finally the various kings, burgesses, students, and thieves, and suddenly we have an epic history in the making.  The main character, as it turns out, is not Quasimodo or Esmeralda, but Notre-Dame itself.  Almost all of the major scenes in the novel, with a few exceptions (such as Pierre’s presence at the Bastille), take place at or in view of/reference to the great cathedral.  Hugo’s primary purpose is not to present the reader with a heart-rending love story (or two), nor is it necessarily to comment on social and political systems of the time (though this is certainly a high purpose); the main purpose, though, is a nostalgic view of a diminishing Paris, one which puts its architecture and architectural history in the forefront and which laments the loss of that high art.  Hugo is clearly concerned with the public’s lack of commitment toward preserving the rich architectural and artistic history of Paris, and this purpose comes across directly, in chapters about the architecture specifically, and indirectly, through the narrative itself.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

Hugo is concerned with one character above all in this story, and that is the cathedral.  While other characters have interesting backgrounds and do develop slightly over the course of the story, none seem truly round.  This is a minor point of contention, because though the story may have a loftier sociological and artistic purpose, it loses something by not also working completely as a stand-alone narrative.  One can certainly empathize with Quasimodo’s dilemma, for instance, when he finds himself caught between the two loves of his life, Count Frollo and Esmeralda.  The sub-story relating to the mourning woman who has locked herself in a cell, weeping over a child’s shoe (and who vehemently despises the gypsies for stealing her daughter) is also moving, but ultimately unsurprising.  Count Frollo’s descent from learned man and upstanding caregiver is not entirely unbelievable (given, especially, the relationship between Frollo and his brother), but it still seems sudden and quite dramatic.  Of course, this suits the Gothic element of the story nicely and also parallels Hugo’s analysis of science versus religion & physical art versus linguistic, so it is not out of place – yet the characters seem flat in relation to the overall attempt by Hugo to re-instill, through means of Romanticism, a renewed passion for the Gothic era. In the end, the characters and there interactions are interesting and, at times, moving or hilarious.  The reader can engage with and, to a certain extent, believe them, but they are not perfect characters; this is in large part due to the fact that their stories are not the primary focus of the work.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

What moves this story along so well, even through chapters such as “A Bird’s Eye View of Paris,” which is, literally, a textualized description of the city of Paris, if looking at it from on high, and in all directions, is Hugo’s great ability at crafting words – phrases – sentences.  Although I found this story inferior to Les Miserables, which is perhaps to be expected, considering it was published 30 years prior and much of it was written under a pressing deadline, one thing the two clearly have in common is a richly beautiful and workable prose.  There were certain other “tells” of inexperience, such as Hugo’s confusing dates/places or allowing certain items to exist in the time of the story that were not yet invented (the story takes place nearly 400 years before Hugo wrote it).  Still, the language and prose are clearly masterful, almost umatched.  Hugo’s sense of humor (especially sarcasm and irony) are very well developed and leap across the page.  His Gothic elements are appropriately dark, even surprisingly so at times.   


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What is most interesting about Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris is that everyone knows the story, but few really know the story.  There have been numerous adaptations of this work, for film, theater, television, etc.  Most people are probably familiar with the story through various retellings in children’s books or movies (i.e. Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame).  Those of us who are only familiar with this story as told through the grapevine are led to believe that it is a tragic “Beauty and the Beast” type love-story, where true love rules in the end.  This explanation of the tale could not be farther from the truth. Notre-Dame de Paris is first and foremost a story about art – mainly, architecture.  It is a romanticizing of the Gothic period and a study of the time period which brought together traditional art forms and oratory with the novel idea of a printing press (and published works as artistic/statement pieces).  Yes, Quasimodo and Esmeralda are there and their story is a sad one and yes, Count Frollo turns out to be a downright despicable antagonist; but, ultimately, this, like Hugo’s Les Miserables is more than a story about its characters – it is a story about the whole history of Paris and about the absurdities of the caste system.  It is the first novel where beggars and thieves are cast as the protagonists and also the first novel in which the entire societal structure of a nation, from King to peasant, is present.  It might also be the first or most prominent work to feature a structure (the Cathedral of Notre-Dame) as main character.  Hugo’s approach, and this novel in particular, would later influence Charles Dickens, Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and other sociological “writers of the people.”  When one thinks of writers who are genius at fictionalizing the history of a people, the first who comes to mind might be Tolstoy, but Victor Hugo certainly belongs in this league.


Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: High School+
Interest: French History, Art History, Architecture, Paris, Romanticism, Epic Theatre, Alchemy, Caste, Class & Society, Gypsy Lore, Gothic literature, Religious Inquisition/Witchcraft.


Notable Quotes:

“For, even if we believe in nothing, there are moments in life when we are always of the religion of the temple nearest to hand.”

“Never has there been loose such an unruly mob of students! It’s the accursed inventions of the age that are ruining everything–the artillery, the muskets, the cannons, and above all the printing press, that scourge brought from Germany. No more manuscripts, no more books. Printing is ruining bookselling. The end of the world is upon us.”

“You can be a great genius yet understand nothing of an art which is not your own.”

“Fashion has done more harm than Revolutions.  They have cut into the quick, they have attacked the wooden bone-structures of the art, they have hewn and hacked and disorganized, and have killed the building, in its form as well as its symbolism, its logic as well as its beauty.  They have also remade it: which neither time nor revolutions have presumed to do.”

“She danced, she spun, she whirled on an old Persian carpet thrown carelessly down beneath her feet, and each time she spun and her radiant face passed in front of you, her great black eyes flashed like lightning.”

“I have not crawled all this time on my belly with my nails in the earth, along the countless passages of the cavern without glimpsing, far ahead of me, at the end of the unlit gallery, a light, a flame, something doubtless the refelection from the dazzling central laboratory where the wise and the patient have taken God by surprise.”

“I perceived, at the end of a certain time, that I was, for one reason or another, fit for nothing. So I decided to become a poet and rhymester. It’s a profession one can always take up, if one’s a vagabond.”

“To destroy the written word, you need only a torch and a Turk. To demolish the constructed word, you need a social revolution or an earthquake. Barbarism swept over the Colosseum; a deluge, perhaps, over the pyramids. In the fifteenth century everything changed. Human intelligence discovered a way of perpetuating itself, one not only more durable and more resistant than architecture, but also simpler and easier. Architecture was dethroned. The stone letters of Orpheus gave way to the lead letters of Gutenberg.”

“The press, that giant engine, incessantly gorging all the intellectual sap of society, incessantly vomits new material for its work. The entire human race is its scaffolding. Every mind its mason. Even the humblest may block a hole or lay a stone….It is the second Tower of Babel of the human race.”

“One drop of wine is enough to redden a whole glass of water. To tinge a whole company of pretty women with a certain amount of ill-humor, it is enough for just one prettier woman to arrive on the scene–especially when there is but one man present.”

“When one does evil one must do the whole evil.  To be only half a monster is insanity! There is ecstasy in an extreme of crime. A priest and a sorceress can melt in delight together on the straw of a dungeon floor!”

“Every civilization begins in theocracy and ends in democracy.”

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2012 Challenges, 2012 TBR Challenge, Book Review, Cassandra Clare, Fantasy, Young Adult

Review: City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare

City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 10 


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable.

City of Ashes is book two in the Mortal Instruments trilogy by Cassandra Clare.  This installment picks up generally where book one (City of Bones) left off.  The main characters, Clary and Jace, continue to struggle with their confusing sibling-but-not relationship, and to deal with their destructive, villainous father who is determined to crush the Clave, a secret society of Shadowhunters (humanoids with gifts descended from the angels) who are duty-bound to protect Earth from demons.  Whereas City of Bones was largely about Clary’s introduction to the Clave and the various supernatural elements which exist in the world, leading to a show-down between herself and her brother, versus their father; book two is much more of an action-adventure, most of which is devoted to the movements and machinations of Valentine Morgenstern (Clary’s & Jace’s father, a Shadowhunter-gone-rogue).  Valentine is seeking ultimate power – the likes of which can only be achieved by possessing all three of the Mortal Instruments and Valentine will stop at nothing – will sacrifice anything – to get his hands on these devices.  As in book one, the characters discover much about themselves and others as the story progresses.  Certain changes happen to the various prominent characters from the first installment – new characters are introduced, while recurring characters make their final appearances.   


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

Clare is on the cusp of great characterization and character development.  She certainly has a solid handle on teenage angst and family strife.  The interplay between Jace & Clary (and their very odd relationship) is also masterfully done – so well done, in fact, that it is actually a bit unsettling at times.  Clare manages to cast some doubts in readers’ minds about the path certain characters might take – but these doubts are shaky at best, and are soon settled, so the mystery which could have added intrigue and tension to the plot was short-lived.  Still, the development of the major characters from City of Bones is interesting to watch – particularly as their relationships grow.  There are static elements for each of the recurring characters – they do not become quite rounded but are amply oval, at least.  Lucian’s relationship with Clary, in particular, as well as the information that comes to light (again, not shockingly) about his feelings for a certain Shadowhuntress, coupled with his leadership over the Werewolf community, are examples of how a few characters become more deeply attached to the story and more intricately drawn.  Other main characters, like Jace and Alec, are largely let-downs – characters who have not changed much since the first story, except in regards to the different situations they must face.  More could be done with these characters, but they are interesting and fun to watch, nonetheless.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I have said my piece on the Cassandra Clare plagiarism issue, and I will leave it at that, for now (except to say that she ripped a J.M. Barrie quote from Peter Pan this time and changed one word of it, for originality’s sake, I suppose).  Those complaints aside, one thing I absolutely enjoy about these books so far is how well-paced and engaging they are.  Although there are still moments where Clare’s writing comes off a bit pretentious, one can look past this in City of Ashes, more so than in City of Bones, where Clare’s inexperience (and, perhaps, self-consciousness) was obvious. Her confidence has grown with book two – she seems to know where she is headed and that definitely shows.  The language and dialogue are more believable, the structure makes sense and the overall style is cohesive with the story and genre.  Some moments – mainly in the battle scenes late in the book- are a bit cliché and tiresome, being so overdone, but for the most part – the book is a fun page-turner.  A simple, enjoyable “pleasure” read.  


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

Publisher’s Weekly said that “fans of the smart/chic horror typified by Buffy the Vampire Slayer will instantly fall for this new series.”  And they are right.  What makes this book – and the series so far- such a hit is that, not only are the stories interesting and well-written, and not only do they rework dark fantasy elements into a new mold, but Clare also seems to understand what young readers these days want: to feel clever, hip, and accomplished, not in the traditional sense (where money used to be status) – now being “other” or “indie” is its own status symbol.  The book is littered with sarcasm, dry wit, uber-intelligent teenagers (especially considering they never go to school) and inside-references to other literary references, music, etc.  It’s an anti-pop/new-pop culture kid’s dream.  In addition to these devices, one can also appreciate the still blasé inclusion of non-issue issues (like having two of the secondary characters be gay – and no one takes issue with it).  As I mentioned in my review for City of Bones, having an openly (to the reader, that is) gay character in a fantasy novel – on the protagonist side- has not been exactly typical for the genre, and it is a welcomed presence.  The exploration of loss, adult/parent relationships, sibling relationships, adoptive relationships, friendships, and love (particularly “forbidden” love) are also present and add interesting elements to the major plot.   


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: MG, YA+
Interest: Fantasy, Supernatural, Angel Lore, Magic, Good vs. Evil, Family, Friendship, Coming-of-Age.


Notable Quotes:

“Honestly, Clary, if you don’t start utilizing a bit of your natural feminine superiority I just don’t know what I’ll do with you.”

“I guess it’s true what they say. There are no straight men in the trenches.”

“When you love someone, you don’t have a choice.”

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1001 Books, 2012 Challenges, 2012 Classics Challenge, 2012 TBR Challenge, Detective Novel, Epistolary, Mystery, Sensation Lit, Victorian, Wilkie Collins

Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 8 


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is widely accepted to be one of the first –and best- mystery and sensation novels.  The main character, Walter Hartright, is also considered to be one of the earliest literary detective characters – one who later inspired the development of mystery/detective genres (Hartright’s investigative techniques, for example, are later employed by private detectives in mystery novels that followed this one).  The story revolves around a few characters who are at first drawn together by chance, but then become involved in an elaborate plot of deception, orchestrated by the ingenuous Count Fosco and his cold-as-ice wife, who just happens to be the slighted aunt of our main character’s love interest, Lady Glyde.  Lives are threatened, identities are stolen, and more than one man’s (and woman’s) place in the world is in jeopardy.  How are Lady Glyde and Anne Catherick’s (The Woman in White) destinies intertwined – and why do they look so strikingly similar?  When Lady Glyde and Marian are doomed by the devious count, will Walter – a simple art teacher with no resources and no friends- manage to piece together enough evidence to vindicate the unfortunate women – before it’s too late?  


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.

The range and depth of characters in The Woman in White is impressive, to say the least.  If Collins has one advantage over Dickens, it is that his characters are a bit richer – a bit more interesting and realistic than Dickens’s characters, who often become grotesques.  Count Fosco is perhaps one of the most brilliantly drawn characters in literature – ranking along-side Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in the perverse, unpleasant yet satisfactory enjoyment he brings to the reader’s experience with the story.  Collins has a way of creating characters that are downright evil, but with intermittent, surprising bits of good – or genuinely good, with moments of badness.  He writes truly human characters, flawed but perfect in the same breath.  Drawn thusly, the mystery aspect of the novel is further richened because one can never be entirely sure that we are seeing the true nature of any character at any given moment – after a few hundred pages of wondering just how dastardly  a character can get, he suddenly surprises the reader with a moment of genuine sensitivity or compassion.   Minor characters, too, such as Anne Catherick’s mother and Mr. Fairlie, Lady Glyde’s uncle, bring additional elements – like comic relief or historical significance, to Hartright’s narrative, increasing the complexity of the story while simultaneously further committing the reader to the main characters and their destinations.  Ultimately, the dénouement –beautiful as it is – could not have been achieved without clever assembly of characterization throughout the entire story, which is finally realized in a final letter, written by Count Fosco himself.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

In my experience, 600-pages of Victorian literature can amount to one of two things:  transcendent literary genius, or a mentally exhaustive torture device.  In the case of Collins and The Woman in White, the prose was far from prosaic (Haha… get it?).  Okay, jokes aside, this is one of those pieces of literature you could recommend to someone who doesn’t read literature.  The style and language are just that good, and the story just that engaging.  The pace is well-measured, so even though there is plenty of description and flushing out of details, the story rarely, if ever, stalls.  Something in the way Collins has designed the tale (perhaps in large part due to the multiple narrators, who pick up the story as ‘main character’ while it advances) makes these 600-pages flash by as if there were half as many.  The narrative voice(s) is engaging, the language is substantive without being overwrought or lofty – finishing this book is like having enjoyed a piece of gourmet cheesecake, garnished with just the right amounts of fresh fruit and chocolate sauce, and maybe even a dash of warm caramel (getting hungry yet?).  Each bite is a delight to be savored and the story as a whole, when finished, is satisfying – so much so that the reader might be licking that dessert plate clean.    


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

First – one minor issue.  The edition I read was the Penguin Classics Clothbound edition, pictured above (which, incidentally, I won in a giveaway from the awesome Allie at A Literary Odyssey).  I love the edition and I love the footnotes (although I do much prefer footnotes to appear at the bottom of pages, rather than in the back – I hate having to flip back and forth).  What I discovered from the footnotes, though, was that Collins, while a fantastic writer and an even better storyteller, was not too concerned with historical and/or legal accuracies.  This is a common pitfall with serial novels that often needed new installments to be completed quickly, to meet magazine/newspaper deadlines.  So, there were frequent mentions of things Collins got wrong, usually because certain things he described (laws, inventions, etc.) were not yet in place at the time the story takes place.  Now, without the footnotes, I would not have known the difference – so it is a small complaint and not much to dwell on, considering none of the “mistakes” impacted my enjoyment of the story.  That aside, the elements that were interesting and which added to the story include:  the examination of the rights (or lack thereof) of women in the 19th century; perception of foreigners by English natives; isolation; identity theft and the legal process (thank goodness for the discovery of DNA!); fine arts and the craft of writing; hereditary rights to income and property; secret societies and politics; and, of course, love – revenge – and the nature of family.   What makes a good story a great story is not just that it is enjoyable or entertaining, not just that it is written well, with interesting content, but that all of these elements come together seamlessly – that the reader can learn about a time, place, or culture while also being entertained.  The Woman in White achieves all of this, and how.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult

Interest:  Epistolary novels, Victorian literature, Gothic novels, Sensation novels, Mystery/Amateur Detective novels, Law and justice.


Notable Quotes/Excerpts:

“Where is the woman who has ever really torn from her heart the image that has been once fixed in it by a true love? Books tell us that such unearthly creatures have existed – but what does our own experiences say in answer to books?”

“Our words are giants when they do us an injury, and dwarfs when they do us a service.”

“I sadly want a reform in the construction of children. Nature’s only idea seems to be to make them machines for the production of incessant noise.”

“Let the music speak to us of tonight, in a happier language than our own.”

“Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is a match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.”

“The woman who first gives life, light, and form to our shadowy conceptions of beauty, fills a void in our spiritual nature that has remained unknown to us till she appeared. Sympathies that lie too deep for words, too deep almost for thoughts, are touched, at such times, by other charms than those which the senses feel and which the resources of expression can realise. The mystery which underlies the beauty of women is never raised above the reach of all expression until it has claimed kindred with the deeper mystery in our own souls.”

“The best men are not consistent in good– why should the worst men be consistent in evil.”

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