Book Review, Classics, E.H. Gombrich, Fiction, Historical Fiction, History, Mario Puzo, Non-Fiction, Potpour-reads, S.E. Hinton, Young Adult

The Outsiders, The Godfather, and A Little History

In this fourth “potpour-reads” post, I put together some thoughts on three classics, including two works of fiction and one of non-fiction. The first fiction classic is classified by Penguin as a “modern classic” and is sometimes categorized further into “young adult,” although I don’t think that is necessary. The second fiction classic is notoriously known for being simultaneously the author’s least successful stylistically but also the most successful commercially. Finally, the non-fiction classic is an adult adaptation of a history book that was originally written for children, then updated many years later. Each of these books was read in June, 2018, and the covers shown are for the editions that I read.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

This is a book that I have had on my “TBR” shelf for probably 20+ years. I honestly have no idea what took me so long to read it, especially considering how many people love it. Perhaps that was part of my apprehension, actually, because who wants to be “that guy” who hates a book everyone else finds so amazing? Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. The story takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1965. At the heart of the story is its narrator, Ponyboy Curtis (yes, that’s his real name) whose parents have died and left him and his elder brother Sodapop in the care of their eldest brother, Darry. The three teenagers are members of the lower-working class and belong to a type of gang called “Greasers.” Their rivals are the wealthy gang from the better part of town, called the “Socs” (short for “Socials”). One of the more gripping elements of the novel is the intimate look at family and friendship, and especially the way that young men take care of each other when they have no parents or guardians willing or able to do the job. The boys often refer to each other with terms of endearment usually restricted to romantic partners, which provides insight into how close they are and how much they would be willing to risk for one another. They are “boys,” though, and masculine stereotypes abound: duty, honor, manhood, etc. These “values” get the young men into plenty of trouble, from gang fights to murder, to a questionable suicide. What makes the almost clichéd nature of it all (a girl named “Cherry”?) worth it is the complexity of character that so many of the Greasers have, especially the sensitivity of the poet and the artist, Ponyboy and Johnny. By the end, almost without realizing it, I had begun to root for these kids, just as many of the townspeople do. This is a book that has certainly “stayed gold” after all these years. (I’m killing myself after learning that Hinton wrote the book when she was in high school and published it when she was 18 – my god!)

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

This is another book I have been meaning to read for years, ever since I discovered that it was a book and not just a movie. The Godfather trilogy is my favorite film series of all-time; so, much like The Outsiders, I suppose I was subconsciously reluctant to read it because I wondered if it would withstand my close scrutiny. I mean, I basically grew up on this movie! Unlike The Outsiders, though, Mario Puzo’s book was just “okay,” for me. It is one of those rare instances where the film really outdoes the original material, and I think a lot of that is thanks to the genius of Francis Ford Coppola and the many incredible actors hired for the film(s). The novel itself is interesting and I did enjoy it, and probably would have even if I weren’t already so familiar with the story. Some of the positives, in fact, include the detailed sub-plots that did not make it into any of the movies, such as the storyline for Johnny Fontaine. At first, I wondered why he was getting so much page time since his character was so insignificant in the film, but the book does more than make it work. I also enjoyed reading this as an American immigrant story. Even though Vito Corleone’s back story does not get nearly as much attention as is provided in The Godfather II, there are enough recognizable bits of it. I was reminded, while reading, that this is one of the few books in college I was assigned to read but never did. The point was to read it as an immigrant novel, and I think having done so (in an academic setting) would have been interesting. Instead, I focused on other things while relying on my knowledge of the film to get me through discussions. Whoops! I did find that the book was fairly well written, though not the kind of evocative prose or description I was expecting. Puzo himself expressed that he wrote this book for money and in desperation, so I’m confident that he would agree with me that this isn’t a stellar work. Still, it’s a good one and it lent itself perfectly for the franchise it would birth.

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich

This book is, well, how can I put it other than to say, it is darling. Who knew a history book could be precious? As it turns out, Gombrich originally wrote the book in German and for children, and it was a wild success, until World War II happened and the Nazis banned it. Many years later, he rewrote and expanded the book for adults and translated it himself into English for a bigger market audience. One can tell by much of the phrasing that it was originally written for children, but I did not find this a distraction. The history is accurate and thorough enough (though very concise) for an adult reader to appreciate it, and yet there is a strong sense of wonder and awe in the prose and style. Gombrich invites the reader to engage with multiple historical events as they happen concurrently, which has always been my favorite way to approach the study of history (otherwise I can never remember what was happening at the same time as whatever else). In this way, it is one of the favorite pieces of popular history I have ever read. That said, it is clear that Gombrich studied art (his doctorate was earned in art history), because he spends a lot of time focusing on the artistic elements of each event and looking at what was happening in history through an artistic lens. Many of his analogies have to do with art or music. This style might not work for everyone, but it was fine for me. I also appreciated two important features: first, Gombrich writes about the many religions with equal respect and detail. This is really uncommon in many popular histories, and even academic ones, so call it a pleasant surprise! He also treats religion as the historical feature it is, within the context of each culture, yes, but also in relation (drawing the lines between Christ and Mohammed, for example.) I found this beyond helpful, and so fascinating! The second important feature is that he corrected information in previous editions. Where he had made an error, he explicitly pointed it out and amended that information for the new edition. In both ways, he demonstrated a trustworthy ethos–always important, but even more so these days. This is a book that will remain on my shelf permanently.

 

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Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Coming-of-Age, Fantasy, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Horror, Middle Grade, Mythology, Potpour-reads, Rick Riordan, Stephen King, Thriller, Young Adult

A Garden, A Maze, A Sematary*

In this second “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in May. The Secret Garden was a title on my Classics Club Challenge list. The Burning Maze is third in the Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan, and I read Pet Sematary because a new film adaptation is supposedly in the works and I tend to get caught up in that sort of thing. 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I recently read The Secret Garden as part of my Classics Club Challenge, after many years of seeing it come and go from my various TBR lifts and shelves. I’ve been meaning to read this book for years but have always put it off, probably because, subconsciously, I thought of it as a children’s book – a sorry excuse indeed because why should that matter? How many children’s books, especially classics, have I read and loved? Nevertheless, I have these tendencies, as I’m sure all readers do, to approach my reading with certain prejudices, and this being both a “child’s” book and a “girl’s” book, I wondered, isn’t it likely to be well beyond my interest at this point? Of course, then I actually started reading the book and couldn’t stop myself thinking, where has this book been all my life? Confession time? I guess I’m a bit of a reading diva, and it’s pretty stupid.

Anyhow, The Secret Garden begins in India under British colonial rule. We are introduced to the protagonist in this way: “When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too.” Hilarious. Who begins a children’s book by dissing the main character’s appearance!? Something about that opening, and the honesty of the narrator throughout, drew me into the story and had me feeling equal hatred and empathy for little Mary and even little Colin, her cousin, both of whom are really rather terrible little brats at the beginning. But then a farm boy named Dickon starts to come around, and the secret garden is discovered, and the magic of humanity found in friendship, childish wonder, and the natural world begins to do its work. And it’s stunning and romantic in the best way imaginable.

For some reason, I thought this book was going to be more of a magical realism/mystery/fantasy kind of tale. It is actually firmly rooted in naturalism and realism; it is a coming-of-age tale that expresses magic in the everyday experience, and in the way children, even horribly disagreeable ones, can grow and change into wonderful people, given the right environment, the best challenges, and some great friends. I wasn’t expecting this kind of story, but it was exactly the kind I needed at the time of reading it. And Dickon, the nature sprite who is all things dirt and animal, plant and hill, is now one of my favorite characters of all-time. If Burnett had written a sequel from Dickon’s perspective, I could easily imagine it becoming a favorite of mine. The other characters, including the adults, are human enough and just present enough to matter without getting in the way of the children’s’ tale, which is and should be front and center. There are some very adult themes, a truly underlying sadness, and some dark commentary on colonialism, which makes reading this one as an adult all the more interesting and moving.

Now the real question: Should I watch the movie? Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0.

The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan

The Burning Maze is Book Three in the Trials of Apollo series. Apollo has been sent to earth in the form of a pudgy, pimply teenage boy, largely without any kind of godly power at all, and is tasked with helping the Roman and Greek demigods fight the horrors of the Triad: three evil, dangerous, and powerful former Roman Emperors with plans to take over the world. Beneath their plot, even, lies the power of Apollo’s most feared antagonist, Python, the god of snakes. As is typical with Riordan’s books, the pace is fast and the plot is fun. There is a lot to learn regarding roman mythology, especially, and that is always exciting for me. There is also a bit of tragedy in this third book, one that the reader is somewhat eased into but that is nevertheless difficult for those who have been invested in the two Roman series’ so far.

In this third installment, we learn much more about Meg, the twelve-year-old demigod who is essentially Apollo’s “master,” and her background. Some old and familiar characters from other books in this series, as well as the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series’, reappear. As with many of the other books, this one follows a certain formula that readers of Riordan’s books should come to expect; Burning Maze even revisits one of the original Percy Jackson battlegrounds, the Labyrinth, but in this case the visit is short and sweet, and the maze then becomes an underlying menace rather than a place of action for the entire plot.

Riordan has also taken more and more chances with his books over the years, something he began with (I think) the Heroes of Olympus series and then carried over into the Magnus Chase books (I have not kept up with the Kane Chronicles, unfortunately, so I can’t speak to that one). Riordan is an outspoken LGBTQ ally, for example, and a number of LGBTQ+ characters have been written into the stories, some major and some minor. This has been extraordinarily exciting to witness in the middle grade genre, and it has been particularly effective, I think, because Riordan does a nice job of delicately handling the reality of “coming out” with the kinds of reactions his queer characters receive from other characters, mostly accepting but sometimes with shock, wonder, curiosity, etc. The humor is still excellent, as are the character relationships. One of the most interesting and rewarding elements is the way that Apollo is growing from book-to-book. One of the themes of all the Riordan novels is how flippantly the gods take their relationships with humanity and their human children. The fascinating piece of this series is that we have a god who has been made human and who is now experiencing all that it is to be human, which is changing him in very profound ways. It is a smart and meaningful take on the modern myth series. Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I was going to check my Goodreads account to see how many King novels I have read so far and where this one falls in that line, but I realized it would take more time than I’m willing to give it. We’ll just say, I’ve read a lot of Stephen King. The reason why I like King so much is actually not because I like horror/thrillers (it’s quite frankly not a genre I read very often). Instead, I like King because he has so much to say about the human psyche and human instinct. Pet Sematary is considered to be one of King’s most chilling horror novels and, while I don’t think it’s really his scariest or goriest or any of that, I can agree with the assessmentbecauseit treats the human condition in such an honest, and horrible, way.

The book is about Dr. Louis Creed and his young family, all of whom move to Ludlow, Maine so that Creed can take a job as a University physician. The majority of the novel is background, character building, and scene-setting. Almost all of the real action, the terror, takes place in the third and final section, which is much shorter than the first two. This helps create a false sense of security throughout most of the book while simultaneously allowing the ending to be much more dramatic and exhilarating, even unexpected (if anything from King can be considered unexpected – maybe that’s silly!) The horror begins when Creed’s daughter’s cat is killed and Creed’s neighbor, perhaps against his will, shares a secret that is better left unknown. This sets forth a series of ominous events that increase in impact and effect, until at last, a force beyond anyone’s control grips Ludlow, especially the Creeds, and begins to pull all the strings.

Pet Sematary was written between 1979-1982 and then published in 1983. King was reluctant to send it out to his publishers because he himself was so concerned with what he wrote, and it is not hard to understand why. Few popular novels that I can think of at this time so honestly and deeply addressed the lengths to which a person will go in order to ease an unthinkably painful emotional and psychological burden. Creed is suffering the worst pain imaginable, as is his wife, and his grief causes him to be compelled further and further down a path he knows is horribly dangerous and morally wrong. How can a man be driven to make all the wrong steps? In small increments and through tiny justifications and false ratiocination (as Poe would call them), until, without realizing what is happening, the decisions have been made and the actions have been taken, and all hell has broken loose.

Pet Sematary reminded me very much of King’s other most popular of horror novels, IT. The ominous force is even described as “IT” –an unnamed thing—and various points in the novel. I wonder if King was already working on that idea as early as 1979, even though IT itself did not appear until 1986. There are so many similarities, but the most prominent is the theme of evil as an uncontrollable force of human nature: good and smart and decent people being compelled to do terrible things. What is scarier than that? Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0. 

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2018 Bible as Lit, Christian Bible, Christianity, Classics, History, Mythology, Old Testament

Ruth 1 – 1 Samuel 20 #2018BibleRBR

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Thirteen: Ruth 1 – 1 Samuel 20

Reading Ruth and 1 Samuel together is interesting because, in the first case, we have a book that is almost assuredly made-up some 700-years after the fact by post-exilic writers who were attempting to inject some sanity into the Israelites’ methods of rebuilding their culture and society; and in the second case, a return to an increasingly reliable history, at least in terms of the establishment of monarchy, the lineage of kings, and the tension between the priestly Yahvist sects (anti-monarchs) and the tribal order of kings. To be sure, certain elements of 1 Samuel are likely fiction, or strongly embellished histories, but the dichotomy between the pastoral idyll of Ruth and the history of Samuel is a fun trip to take.

Ruth: In the Hebrew bible, the Book of Ruth is found in a division called “The Writings,” which are treated as literature rather than history. In the Christian bible, however, Ruth is ordered with its chronology. The events take place during the time of Judges, so Ruth is placed right after the Book of Judges. It is likely kept apart from the preceding book because it acts as an important segue to the next four books of kings, and because it is meant to stick out to Christian readers. We learn that Ruth is the great-grandmother of the future King David, which means, of course, that she is also an ancestor to Jesus. It would be extremely important for this information to be highlighted by the early Christian priests, for their early Christian readers; so, even though the book is short, it earns its place as a segmented section. The story of Ruth is also probably made up. At the time it was written, about 700 years after the events and not too long after the return from exile, the Israelites were re-establishing their cultural and societal expectations. One of these was strict exclusion of intermarriage. Whoever wrote this book clearly objected to that policy and intended to demonstrate that not only was conversion to the faith possible, but potentially vital. Ruth, a Moabite woman, being written as the ancestor of David and Jesus, would be a powerful testament to the possibilities in conversion and inter-marriage, especially given how earlier parts of the bible treated Moabite women (as rather salacious seducers of Israelite men).

Samuel and Saul: God raises up Samuel as high priest and judge (a kind of king or ruler, as we learned in the last book) of the Israelites. He is born to Hannah, who had been barren until she promised god that if he would give her a son, she would devote him to god. Over the course of the early chapters of 1 Samuel, we learn that the Israelites and Philistines are still engaged in war, and that the Philistines far outmatched the Israelites in numbers and technology. They eventually manage to rout the Israelites and steal the Ark of the Covenant, in large part because the Israelites had again returned to polytheism and sinful living (adultery, lust, idolatry, etc.). This part of the bible also suggests that it is Samuel who manages to eventually defeat the Philistines permanently, but that cannot be accurate because, later, Saul and even David would still be at war with the Philistines (and they were the ones who would end Philistine rule forever); so, the priestly bias that has appeared in earlier books likely comes into play here, too, in the tension between the power of Samuel (priest and prophet) and Saul (the peoples’ king). Saul, indeed, is anointed king by Samuel, first, but is crowned a second time by the tribes. This dual crowning is likely another priestly invention that attempts to put two histories (one favoring priestly selection/anointing of rulers and the other favoring Benjaminite tribal tradition of selecting a king from among the people) into alignment.

Jonathan and David: I have always loved the story of Jonathan and David. Their “friendship,” as some call it, is rather unique in the bible, and in the old testament in particular. They are really soul mates, as is reiterated on multiple occasions in 1 Samuel: “And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam 18). This love is spoken of again and again, and in their later parting, they weep and kiss each other. Some readers of certain persuasions have taken this to hint at a romantic relationship. A more accurate reading is probably a political one, where Saul’s heir-apparent to the throne, Jonathan, has allied himself with the handsome, accomplished, and charismatic general, David, with a view to the future. And perhaps it is both. It’s probably impossible to say for certain, either way, what the nature of their relationship was, but we can admit that it is rather special to them in biblical context.

OTHER INTERESTING BITS

Judah: At this point in time, Judah is a border territory under control of the Philistines. And yet, it suddenly makes a strong appearance in these two books, where it had been largely ignored to this point. Why? It’s interesting to compare it to Macedon, a border town in Greece that was largely under control of the Persians. At a certain point, Macedon was not only able to overthrow the Persians, but they took brief control over all of Greece. Judah, too, will do the same by overthrowing the Philistines and taking control of Israel. This is perhaps why writers began to insert certain levels of importance to this tribe, which had been, until then, rather plagued with misfortune (Bethlehem-judah has been mentioned a few times to this point, but always in rather dire circumstances).

Ark of the Covenant: The Israelites take the Ark of the Covenant into war, thinking it will save them because it is the physical embodiment of god’s power. But instead, they lose the battle and the Ark is stolen. This seems to suggest that god’s power is not meant to be wielded by the arms (or whims) of man. It’s also important to note that the Ephraimites, who had been carrying the Ark, never see it again. It will be tribe Judah that recovers it – no coincidence, given their other recent rises in fortune?

Which David Story?: There are two competing origin stories for David which are laid out basically side-by-side and without comment on the tension. The first is that David is selected by god (through Samuel) to be the next King of Israel. Samuel somehow manages to get David into King Saul’s favor, likely through an amenable/pro-Samuel courtier. David then becomes Saul’s harpist and arms-bearer. The other story is that David comes to Saul’s attention after slaying Goliath. David, the youngest in his family, was running supplies for his three elder brothers, who were in the army. When he sees Goliath stomping around, threatening everyone, and yet no one is willing to fight him, he takes the task upon himself. When he wins, Saul tries to find out who he is, which family he comes from, etc., and then he takes him into his court. Again, we seem to have one anti-monarch/pro-Yahvist perspective (Samuel, the prophet, selects the new king) and one pro-monarch perspective (Saul, the king, sees his own successor). 1 Chronicles 20:5 and 2 Samuel 21:19 both seem to suggest that what is really known about Goliath is that he was slain by some unnamed Bethlehemite. So, perhaps a later writer, wanting to elevate David even further and add an element of emotional romance to the story, conveniently reshapes the history into a useful fiction.  

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Ancient Greece, Classics, History, Marcus Aurelius, Philosophy, Stoicism

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180. Marcus Aurelius was known as one of the “Five Good Emperors” and was, indeed, the last of those. Having followed such Emperors as Caligula and Nero, Marcus Aurelius, a stoic general, fair but fierce, was well-respected in his time and remained so afterward, although his son Commodus thought he was weak (mistaking patience, poise, and temperament for weakness). My edition is the Penguin Classics Clothbound, which has both a brilliant introduction and exceptional end notes. 

The Meditations are essentially a collection of diary entries. Marcus Aurelius takes a philosophical and introspective approach to assessing his own personal and political life, including his relationships with family, friends, and teachers. He treats his daily and his whole life as a constant work-in-progress. One of the more unique aspects of this text is that they were never meant for public consumption, so one might argue that they have a rare honesty  and vulnerability in comparison with other classical texts.

When I first read the Meditations, I took them one at a time. This was a slow process, as each entry tends to be just a few lines in length, and there are hundreds of them. This time, I read them rather quickly, as a refresher/re-introduction to Stoic philosophy, which I am practicing much more practically and conscientiously this year (I am reading a variety of stoic writings but also engaging in a year-long daily stoic reading and writing exercise). Reading Marcus Aurelius was a helpful start because, like many of us (and probably more than most), as an Emperor and general, he was an extremely busy man. He felt the weight of the world on his shoulders and had to spend a lot of time on others’ needs. As a stoic, he often reminded himself to distinguish between what is necessary and what is frivolous, what he could control and what he could not; and he maintained perspective by writing daily, whenever he could find the time (usually in the morning or the evening).

In that spirit, I have been doing the same: reminding myself to control what I can, and to let go what I cannot. It has also been important to find time to write every day. Most of Marcus Aurelius’s writings seem to be reflections, which means he probably wrote them at night before bed; I have been trying to write briefly in the morning, pondering a particular stoic teaching and beginning my day with it in mind, and then writing briefly at night, reflecting on where I was successful or where I could do better. The exercises have been helpful in my personal and professional life so far, and thinking about them in context with one of the original and most prominent stoic philosophers has been an interesting experiment.

The Meditations are separated into twelve books, each with its own theme (sometimes tightly woven, sometimes a bit looser). They range from reflections on politics and his role as Emperor, to lessons learned from the important people in his life, to thoughts on religion and spirituality, atheism and the afterlife. Whether taking a single entry at a time, or one book at a time, or any combination thereof, the Meditations reveal the perpetual process of a thoughtful man determined to live a good life, to treat others better (though that was a daily struggle), and to find peace in the chaos.

Some of my particular favorite entries:

“It is ridiculous not to escape from one’s own vices, which is possible, while trying to escape the vices of others, which is impossible.” (7.71)

“Vanity is the greatest seducer of reason: when you are most convinced that your work is important, that is when you are most under its spell.” (6.13)

“Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny – what fraction of that are you?” (5.24)

“Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you – but your love must be genuine.” (6.39)

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2018 TBR Pile Challenge, Aristotle, Classics, Criticism, Essay, Philosophy

Aristotle’s Poetics

What can I say about Aristotle’s Poetics that has not already been said, and by those much more capable? Certainly, despite being just a collection of drafts and journal entries, this is one of the most significant, relevant, and pervasive pieces of literary criticism in the western tradition. It continues to influence readers and scholars alike. While some have said the work is difficult to read and understand, I thought the Malcolm Heath translation (Penguin Classics 1996) was excellent, and the Introduction even better.

Heath takes Aristotle’s Poetics chapter-by-chapter, explaining what each of the core concepts is in any given part of the text, then elaborating with details, explanations, and contemporary context, which makes the original text much more readable. It was particularly helpful to read the introduction because the translation itself dropped some of the original language, without reference. For example, mimesis, hamartia, and katharsis, three incredibly important terms in literary criticism (including the study of rhetoric, drama, and narrative), are addressed by descriptions of their functions, only, and the translated terms (imitation, error, and purification) are what is given in the text itself. This is one of the few flaws I found in the translation because, presumably, anyone reading this text is doing so for edification on the topics of literary study and should hopefully be aware of the Greek terms that we continue to use in conversation of these topics, even 2,000-plus years later.  

That slight blip aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Aristotle’s Poetics. The majority of his musings are about dramatic tragedy, particularly in comparison to dramatic comedy, which he finds a lesser art form. That said, much of what he describes also applies to the study of narrative fiction and storytelling more generally. His methods of analysis, too, are fascinating in that they illustrate how one might go about “doing” the work of literary criticism, not to mention that his insights provide excellent food for thought regarding the dramas he analyzes himself (such as works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer). Of the utmost interest is the idea that readers (more appropriately: audiences) derive pleasure from what are often painful emotions related to tragedies: fear, anger, loss, disappointment, etc. This, of course, leads to Aristotle’s explanation of catharsis and supports his argument that the cathartic experience of reading emotional works or witnessing an emotional play (of a specific type, at a specific sophistication, and for a certain privileged kind of audience) is the reason why storytelling is so powerful and effective.

One of the most unique and compelling aspects of Aristotle’s analysis, for me, has to do with the study of character, and what makes a “good” character. Aristotle claims that the character needs to be moral, but not perfect. He should be believable in his purposes and his struggles, but should also be “better” than we are, so that we can look to him as one to admire and so that we react rightly when said character falls. I think of the kinds of books I most often respond to, and they do indeed tend to have characters that are flawed but noble, that often fail but do great good (either actually or didactically/philosophically). In treating my thoughts on characterization in book reviews, I will try to consider Aristotle’s perspectives a bit more closely.

Aristotle also explains the function of plot and describes which are better or worse, depending on their constructions and outcomes. He describes “ordered structure” for example, and the idea that even in chaos, there must be some kind of realistic expectation for the events that are occurring. In other words, a character/reader/audience might be surprised by something that happens, but whatever it is that happens must be probable to the situation at hand. This is somehow both an obvious observation but also a profound one: how many plots have run afoul because the author seemed to throw in some plot device or tangent that made no sense and that could have been removed without influencing the story whatsoever? Everything must have a purpose. Whereas I found the exploration on character interesting from my perspective as a reader, I find this analysis of effective plots invaluable when thinking about my work as a writer.

The last element I found most fascinating, though I am skipping plenty that is interesting for the sake of brevity and because I simply did not conduct an academic reading on this text, is the idea of language. Aristotle criticizes some of his contemporaries who balked at the fact that some poets were using colloquial language. He writes that “the most important quality in diction is clarity, provided there is no loss of dignity” and adds that “the clearest diction is that based on current words” (36). He argues that the best language is that which is “some kind of mixture” of diction that is both clear and out of the ordinary, traditional and inventive. In many ways, I think this argument presages what Shakespeare would do in retelling familiar stories but couching it in the language of the people, even going so far as to invent much of the language he needed because it simply didn’t exist yet (or didn’t fit into his rhyme scheme). It is heartening to think that Aristotle, one of the foremost minds in all of western philosophy and an authority on language, was not an old fuddy-duddy.  

Aristotle’s Poetics is book 2 completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

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Book Review, British Literature, Classics, Favorites, Thomas Hardy

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

After reading Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge in college, I certainly appreciated Hardy and was grateful to him for truly piquing my interest in the classics. Now, after reading Far from the Madding Crowd, I can absolutely call myself a fan. It is no wonder that Hardy has multiple entries on the infamous “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die” master list, including Far From the Madding Crowd. This story revolves around a love-triangle (or love-square, really) between Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful, resourceful young woman who comes into ownership of her Uncle’s farm, another farmer from a neighboring town, Gabriel Oak, who finds himself ruined and goes to work for Bathsheba as a shepherd (after having met and courted her previously, before she became owner of the farm), a dashing young soldier, Sergeant Francis Troy – whom, had the term existed then, would have been known as a “player,” and, finally, Bathsheba’s neighbor-farmer, Mr. William Boldwood, whose mild manner and temperance masks an inner-passion and danger that only Bathsheba can unleash –unwittingly and, ultimately, remorsefully. The three men court Bathsheba in their various ways, and the town goes on around them, filled with the regular gossip, up-and-down seasons, and mild mysteries and adventures. 

The two things that first made me fall in love with Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge were its style and its characters. Far from the Madding Crowd is no different. Although the story does not move along at a rapid pace and although the majority of it is rather mild and calm in nature (though there are some surprises and moving moments, for certain!), Hardy has a way of making everyone and everything so very interesting, as if we the reader are a part of the plot, rather than an observer of it. The characters, from major to minor, are original, unique, and distinguishable from one another. The poor desolate Fanny, beautiful but tragically ruined, is a sideline character, but one of utmost importance. The workers, Jan Coggan, Joseph Poorgrass, and Cainy Ball are exactly the type of men you would hope (and assume) to find on a prosperous but familial farm. Liddy Smallbury, Batsheba’s maid, is sweet but mildly devious, and the aptly named Pennways, Batsheba’s former bailiff (accountant) is fittingly slimy. These minor characters move the story along and interplay with the primary characters and themes in a way that is subtly intricate. Most importantly, all of the characters are realistic both in their flaws and in their strengths, which strengthens the genuineness and believability of the story as a whole. 

As I mentioned above, one of Hardy’s great strength is his writing, including prose and style. He has the ability to engage his readers in stories which are interesting, but not necessarily enthralling. Although much of the story is about everyday life, with love’s toils interspersed throughout, the book is never boring. Much of this is thanks to the interestingly drawn and loveable (or despicable) characters, but the principal reason for the story’s success is that Hardy is such a fantastic storyteller. His narrative voice is interesting and distinct from the main characters’ tones; they, too, are independent of each other, and the dialogue is wonderful. The descriptions are lovely and lucid, without being overwrought (e.g. Proust, Radcliffe), so they complement the story without overshadowing it. 

Simply put, Far from the Madding Crowd is a story about love and life. It is a story about growth and maturity, and how true maturity only comes about through experience. Each of the characters in this story, excluding perhaps Gabriel Oak, have made grave mistakes, and each character must suffer in his or her way for the choices they have made. Some, like Bathsheba, do seem to learn from what they have experienced and grow into better people. Others, like Troy, seem to be so immature and self-absorbed that little growth can be expected from them. And still others, such as Mr. Boldwood, are doomed to suffer from choices instigated by the follies of others.  The themes of independence, self-worth, female leadership, and human companionship are explored.

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“It is safer to accept any chance that offers itself, and extemporize a procedure to fit it, than to get a good plan matured, and wait for a chance of using it.”

“It appears that ordinary men take wives because possession is not possible without marriage, and that ordinary women accept husbands because marriage is not possible without possession.”

“There are accents in the eye which are not on the tongue, and more tales come from pale lips than can enter an ear.”

“She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made.  She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises.”

Background on the Title:

“Far from the madding crowd” means, essentially, safe from the crazies. It refers to a quiet and rural place.  Hardy took the line from a passage in Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchard, 1751:

“Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”  –Thomas Gray

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CBAM2017, Classics, Emily Bronte, Events, Read-Alongs

December’s Classic: Wuthering Heights #CBAM2017

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As we wrap-up November and our latest classic, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, it’s time to start planning for December! This time, I chose a popular classic that I have read just once before, many years ago, but that was due for a re-read and seemed “just right” for a winter read: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë!

This is the last month of the Classic Book-a-Month Club for 2017. I have not decided whether to bring this club back again in 2018. There didn’t seem to be much participation or interest this year, so at the moment it doesn’t seem like it would be worth it. That said, I am certainly open to doing this again next year if there’s enough interest. I have already thought of about 6 out of the 12 books I would like to have the club read, but would take suggestions for the other 6.

In addition, whether or not this Club returns, I am hosting The Official TBR Pile Challenge again in 2018, as well as a year-long Bible As Literature challenge, where we will read the Christian bible cover-to-cover and from a secular, literary perspective. 

About the December Selection:

Wuthering Heights is a wild, passionate story of the intense and almost demonic love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by Catherine’s father.

After Mr Earnshaw’s death, Heathcliff is bullied and humiliated by Catherine’s brother Hindley and wrongly believing that his love for Catherine is not reciprocated, leaves Wuthering Heights, only to return years later as a wealthy and polished man. He proceeds to exact a terrible revenge for his former miseries.

The action of the story is chaotic and unremittingly violent, but the accomplished handling of a complex structure, the evocative descriptions of the lonely moorland setting and the poetic grandeur of vision combine to make this unique novel a masterpiece of English literature.

Schedule:

  • December 1st: Begin reading
  • December 15th: Mid-point Check-In
  • December 31st: Final Thoughts

Feel free to read at your own pace, post at your own pace (or not at all), and drop by to comment/chat about the book at any point. The schedule above is just the one I plan to use in order to keep myself organized and to provide some standard points and places for anyone who is reading along to get together and chat. Don’t forget: We have a Goodreads group! And we’re using #CBAM2017 to chat on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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