Book Review, Compilation Fiction, Contemporary, Contemporary American, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, Hanya Yanagihara, LGBT, Literature, Loss, Monthly Review

Thoughts: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This is the first formal review I’ve written for Roof Beam Reader in five months, when I reviewed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven in February. As with that book, I find, this time, that I’m unable to move onto other reading until my thoughts and reactions about this one are evacuated. It’s just one of those books. This post is bound to be lengthy, so I apologize in advance for that. But, as I set out to write my thoughts on this peculiar and devastating book, I find that I must clarify my position on two points that have significantly influenced my reaction to the novel.

Two Major Issues:

First: the book has been heralded as the long-awaited “great gay novel.” This description is not only maddeningly inaccurate, it is dangerously wrong. Despite appearances, this is not a novel about gay life, about homosexuality or coming out; it is not about sexuality or sexual identity at all. This is a book about friendship and love battling to save the life of someone who is haunted by memories of pedophilia and rape, sexual and physical abuse, psychosis, emotional trauma and sadism, and who cannot escape except through self-criticism and self-harm.

While any of these terrible things could be relevant to gay life, they are also relevant to straight life. The problem is: calling this book the “great gay novel” and then expecting readers to equate homosexuality, gay identity, with child sexual abuse and pedophilia as some kind of post hoc ergo propter hoc relationship is what gay rights activists have been fighting against for so very long. Jude St. Francis does not end up in a gay relationship because he was abused, as a child and an adult, by men. Jude St. Francis is not even gay: he is sexless; no, he is de-sexed.

The comparison that these reviewers make are perhaps unconscious, but they are all the more dangerous for that (worse: a part of me wonders if this push is due to cultural realities: it’s “time” for the great gay novel, so this must be it). I prefer the description given on the book’s own inside-flap: “An epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light.” Yes, that’s it, for the most part. Let’s hope later editions remain true to this description and not the disturbingly misleading ones that outside forces have attempted to place on it.

That being said, in an academic sense, calling this book a “great queer novel” makes a lot of sense. The difficulty is helping people understand the difference between a “gay” novel and a “queer” one. The book is wildly anti-heteronormative. There are some straight people in the book, major and minor, but the majority of the main characters are somehow “othered,” as are their histories and relationships. For example, one character is adopted as an adult, another is parentless; one character is bisexual, another is gay but struggles with it; one character is disabled, another seems able to change his body almost at will.

Gender and sexuality in this book are uncomplicatedly fluid: transgender issues come up, for instance, as does lesbianism and the cis-gendered. In this way, yes, call it a great queer novel. Call it a study of male friendship that refuses to be categorized. But do not call it the great gay novel, as the relationship at the heart of the story has nothing to do with sexuality: the main character is basically asexual and his eventual lover is basically heterosexual even though he ends up with another biological male. Most importantly, their love, their partnership, has far less to do with sexual identity than it does with non-sexual romantic friendship.

This is all my reaction to others’ descriptions of the book, however. There’s nothing the author or publisher have said (that I know of) which reflects such a flawed perspective on the story, and the story itself doesn’t presume to present itself that way, either.

Second: My personal experience reading this book might be far different from most, and that is because I intimately understand and relate to it. Because of the nature of this book, of Jude St. Francis’s life, and Willem’s, I can’t say any more than this. Suffice it to say, it is a deep struggle for me to separate myself from this story in order to review it objectively as a work of art. But I’m going to do my best.

Thoughts on the Book:

Essentially, this is a book about friendship. The characters are the heart and soul of this novel, especially the main character, Jude, who, despite his tragic past, is the core of the four friends’ lives. They (Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm) met as college freshman, although Jude was only 16 at the time. Each of the characters is special in some way: Willem the actor; JB the artist; Malcolm the architect; Jude the lawyer. They all struggle, at first, but each will eventually reach wild levels of success. One can imagine that they were able to achieve their successes only because of their friendship, although this is never specifically granted by the novel itself.

Outside their friendship are other characters, major and minor, some of whom arrive and remain (Jude’s adoptive parents, for instance, and his doctor) and others that serve a purpose and then disappear. There are not many women in the story, which has been a point of contention for some, but Yanagihara has already explained her reasoning for this (it’s a story about male friendship and the many varied ways that friendship can manifest itself) and I take no issue with the lack.

An interesting and admirable element, in my opinion, is the narrative voice which is at times third-person with varied relativity to one or another of the characters depending on whose story is being told at the time, and sometimes, much less frequently, in the first-person, as when a character is relaying things directly (usually in a kind of monologue, which I imagined as dictation or epistolary in nature, but could just as well be a character speaking aloud to himself). This narrative approach allows for two things: first, the mysterious, slow, painful revelation of Jude’s backstory; we the reader know as much about Jude as the other characters do, and only bits and pieces (first, hints; then, allusions; next, minor descriptions; finally, all of it) come through, in guesses made by other characters or in sections when the narrator is closely aligned with Jude himself. This can be vexingly frustrating, but it is also brilliant in its devotion to an honest portrayal of the main character. Second, it allows the reader to get closer to Jude in the same way that the characters do, to understand how this dynamic works, fails, strains, etc.

Less interesting, less creative, is the prose style. It’s surprisingly matter of fact. I haven’t read Yanagihara before, so I’m not sure what her writing style is in general, but I will say that I think it works well, here. Even though the prose and language aren’t particularly appealing, the pages still turn. There’s a balance, here, equal to the balance between the plot and narration. The raw, almost clinical style of writing is like the raw, almost clinical way that Jude lives his life. In moments of tension, the prose style will change subtly. In moments of affection, breakthrough, break down: the same. The reader gets to know Jude, as much as is possible, and begins to realize that Jude must make great effort, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to be the person he is: he is always, always inside his own head. Every thought has some level of darkness and pain attached to it; every action is planned, agonized over, debated.

This has been one of the most intellectually and emotionally challenging reads for me. The complexity of the novel’s themes is matched by the intricacy of the narrative, the cerebral construction of story edifice and story time that allows the present and the past to unravel, slowly but significantly, so that, at a certain point about 400-pages into the book, I suddenly felt like I was just a part of this group. For me, it was like the flip of a switch.

At the half-way mark, I hated this book. I wanted to give it up.  It is painful, horrifying, depressing, and almost gratuitous. It is without hope, without joy. It is, as many have said, a type of exaggerated fantastic allegory, where the evils laid upon man are as persistent, unrelenting, scarring as can possibly be, and the goodness of friendship and true love are as pure, unwavering, angelic as can possibly be. It is a fairy tale where the only happy ending for Prince Charming is the ending every fairy tale necessarily leaves out.

There’s very little that is pleasant about this book: it is not a beautiful story and it will not be a beautiful read. I can’t recommend this book. But I can’t deny its power, either.

Suggested Reading for:

  • Age Level: Adult
  • Interest: Friendship, Sturm und Drang, Child Abuse, Self-Harm, LGBTQI+, Disabilities, Nontraditional Families.

Notable Quotes/Passages:

  • “The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.” (210)
  • “It is always easier to believe what you already think than to try to change your mind.” (369)
  • “He had forgotten that to solve someone is to want to repair them: to diagnose a problem and then not try to fix that problem seemed not only neglectful but immoral.” (517)
  • “You don’t visit the lost, you visit the people who search for the lost.” (656)
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2015 TBR Pile Challenge, Book Review, Classics, Fiction, Korean War, Literature, Southern Lit, Walker Percy

Thoughts: The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy

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The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is loved by many with the same passion and intensity as books like The Catcher in the Rye are loved by others. And many readers find this one just as difficult to enjoy as The Catcher in the Rye, too. It is unlikely that one will get through a graduate program in American Literature without hearing this book mentioned at least a few (dozen) times. Yet, here I am, after four years of undergraduate study in English/American literature and another 5 years of graduate study in English/American literature, and I have just now read it.

The book won the National Book Award and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Best English-language novels. At the same time, it’s a darkly didactic, existential novel. Walker Percy was an enormous fan of Søren Kierkegaard, and that influence is recognizable in this work (although much more so in Percy’s later writing). Still, the heaviness is balanced, here, with a poetic narrative structure that gives some lightness to the rather despondent tone.

The Moviegoer is set in New Orleans not long after the Korean War. It tells the story of Binx Bolling, a stock-broker just about to turn 30 years old. Bolling is basically isolated from the world, though he holds a job and interacts with family and friends. Still, there is a willing distance brought on by family problems and his traumatic experiences in the war, but also by the general decline of southern tradition which is the underlying theme for the entire work.

To cope with his depression and anxiety, Bolling has taken to constant daydreaming. He enjoys routine and repetition, these are safe, and he finds meaning and comfort in movies and books rather than the real world, which is why he cannot manage to maintain any healthy or lasting relationships (even his most loving, meaningful relationship is rather disturbing).

At Mardi Gras, Bolling decides to break his routine and set out on a journey in search of his true self. This quest takes him on a rather directionless and ultimately pointless meandering around New Orleans’ French Quarter, down around the Gulf Coast, up to Chicago and back again. Although he interacts with people he meets along the way and has some insightful and poignant moments, these experiences essentially amount to little of substance. Bolling is making an effort, mostly unconscious, to maintain a vague existence. He wants to be open to life’s possibilities, or so he says, but he is basically unhappy, unsettled, and unfulfilled.

Still, though Binx is an oddball–mentally unstable, emotionally stunted, and intellectually uninspiring–he yet has a bizarre and unsettling charm, an eccentric and darkly humorous personality that is simultaneously off-putting and somehow familiar. His flaws, that he is homophobic, sexist, and racist, are not glossed; and yet, the honest depiction of this disturbed southern “gentleman” almost, almost, adds to the charm of his character.

In another place, at another time, it would be quite easy to fall head-over-heels in love with Binx and his story, for his disillusion and his complete willingness to admit that there’s just not a lot in the real world that is worth living for. We could fall for him as simply as teenage boys have, for decades, fallen for Holden Caufield’s antagonistic, self-indulgent cynicism. But, for me, I think that time has mostly passed – and for that, I am grateful. 

What is the nature of the search? Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.

Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: 21+

Interest: Southern Literature, New Orleans, American Existentialism, PTSD, Depression.

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1001 Books, 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Austen in August, Book Review, Classics, Fiction, Jane Austen, Literature, Manners, Marriage Plot, Social Drama

Thoughts: Persuasion by Jane Austen

11758566Persuasion by Jane Austen
Final Verdict: 3.75 of 4.0
YTD: 47

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

Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliot, the middle-daughter of Sir Walter and Lady Elliot, the latter of whom died fourteen years prior to the start of the book.  Elizabeth and Anne are both single, but Mary, the youngest, is married to a wealthy man called Charles Musgrove.  Sir Elliot is on the brink of ruin, having spent lavishly and recklessly for some time, but particularly following the death of his wife.  He is a vain man who must be “convinced” by a trusted family friend, Lady Russell, to limit his spending, relocate, and rent out their expansive manor (Kellynch Hall) to raise income.  Lady Russell is also responsible for Anne’s somewhat melancholy state, having persuaded Anne to reject the proposal of one Captain Wentworth who, at the time, was without name or income.  As the story unfolds, secrets are exposed, friends and family are reunited and divided, and the questions of enduring love and what it takes to create a meaningful and functional marriage are raised.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

lge_Persuasion_080606024745140_wideweb__300x300Many, if not all, of the characters in this book are important and necessary to the plot.  In Sense and Sensibility, it can be argued that perhaps not all of the Dashwood sisters were necessary to the story; here, however, each character who is introduced seems to serve a purpose – the prose, plot, and character development, then, are all concisely and purposefully crafted.  That being said, however, and while much can be found laudable in the Crofts and Anne Elliot, and even Mrs. Smith, most of the characters, even the primary ones, do not seem deeply developed in such a way as to be truly engaging – to connect the reader with their stories and lives more personally.  This could be because the larger theme of the novel is social change, rather than personal growth, but I still would have liked to have been more personally vested in Anne and Captain Wentworth’s interests.  Anne certainly is an Austen heroine – so much so that Austen herself said that Anne was “a heroine who is almost too good for me.”  She has her flaws, including being “advanced” in age and lacking somewhat in beauty, and also her openness to persuasion (hence the title of the book).  Yet, she stands above her female contemporaries by being calm, collected, and rational, not to mention constant in her friendships and affections.  She earns the admiration of not only Captain Wentworth, but also of Charles Musgrove and Mr. Elliot.

Captain Wentworth, too, is interesting as the representative of a “new gentleman.”  He has excellent manners, he is considerate of those around him, and he is hard-working, brave, and independent.  Also, instead of being born of land and title, he represents a shift in or softening of the potential for social, upward mobility in Britain at this time.  As a naval officer, he worked hard to advance through the ranks and create wealth for himself, rather than “earn” it through inheritance.  We can contrast him with Sir Walter Elliot who is largely a caricature of the very same titled, upper class nobility mentioned above.  Austen’s wit and satire play heaviest on Sir Walter – she shows no mercy, really, when describing him as a vain, imbecile spendthrift whose dressing rooms are lined with mirrors and who refuses to be seen in public with any but those who are incredibly attractive.  He is in many ways a sort of “dandy” to Captain Wentworth’s more masculine presence.

Still, although the characters do what they are supposed to, thematically, they do not reach me, personally, in the way that those of Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice have.  Of course, there are many fans of Anne and Captain Wentworth out there, and of their romance, and I certainly see them as a good match – still, a small “something” – some kind of spark, could have given the more clinical craftsmanship of these characters the personable touch I was hoping for (with the exception of the Crofts – I really enjoyed them!).


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

50336_184189786197_7310_nThe story is told in the third-person omniscient, like most of Austen’s works.  And, also like most of Austen’s narrators, this one is very closely allied with the main character, in this case, Anne Elliott.  Although the narrator is not Anne, and not directly involved in the story, she does make judgments that are similar to Anne’s, while maintaining a point of view that is separated from the story by means of free indirect discourse. Keeping the narrator separate from but close to the character of Anne allows for slightly more honesty in describing the motives and personalities of the various characters, and also some distance between Anne and the others, which is necessary in creating tension and mystery (which we found out near the end of the story is rather important, as certain schemes have been developing behind the scenes).  The narrative voice is softly satirical and at times subtly subversive, making it very interesting to compare with Austen’s first novel, Northanger Abbey, which was ultimately published at the same time (and which is much more obvious and raw in its humor and parodist tone).  Some of Austen’s most tried and true devices, such as the “big reveal” being delivered via letter (in this case, Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne; in a previous instance, Mr. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth), as well as the motif of walking to advance a character’s conscience or growth, or to provide opportunity for necessary meetings between key players, are included here again and, again, work quite nicely.


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

353px-Northanger_Abbey_and_PersuasionJane Austen wrote Persuasion in 1816, while she was extremely ill and just before her death.  The book would not be published (with Northanger Abbey) until 1818, after she had already passed away.  Like many of her stories, this one is a novel of manners.  Its focus is not so much on any one character’s growth, as would be the case in a coming-of-age story, but, instead, it is concerned with a group of primary characters who interact with one another and who are learning to navigate their lives within new rules and structures of a changing world.  Although Austen is widely, and rightly, considered to be a writer of marriage plots which lead to happy endings, what some miss in their readings is Austen’s deep concern for the complexities of gender relations and class structures, both of which were rapidly changing in the early 19th century. Persuasion, while certainly constructed as a marriage plot, is absolutely concerned with the latter interests as well.   It is clear that Persuasion is Austen’s later work, as it demonstrates great maturity and mastery of purpose and of craft.  This is evidenced in her subtle but biting satire of the upper middle classes, represented primarily by the character of Sir Walter Elliot.

Persuasion questions the idea of “Separate Spheres,” which has been a traditional way of viewing male and female roles in Britain and much of Europe.  Men would live in the public sphere, taking care of finances and legalities, while women were in charge of the private sphere, including tasks such as running the home and managing the servants.  With the introduction of the Crofts, however, Austen challenges this dichotomy and offers the option of a true marriage partnership, where husband and wife share equal responsibility in both spheres.  That the Crofts are the ideal married couple, and the one which it is presumed Anne and Captain Wentworth will evolve into, it is safe to assume that Austen, who never married, had rather progressive opinions about what a happy and functional marriage could be.

Austen is also often criticized for creating “bubble” worlds, stories which are narrowly confined to their own small towns, without concern for larger world issues.  Yet, it cannot be denied that Austen is aware of the fact that Britain is at war with America and France during this time, and her representation of the British Navy and Naval Officers both pay dues to the “real” Navy and also introduce, in literature, a mirror of what, in real life, was becoming an ideal of manliness – a new gentleman who can rise, through the military, to fame and wealth, if not necessarily to title. Austen does indeed understand the world around her and, just as with Mansfield Park, she incorporates elements of that world into her stories in ways that are so natural, they hardly stand out.  That these issues flow so neatly into the plot is a sign that Austen is an extraordinarily adept, socially aware novelist, not, as some would argue, of a writer oblivious to the world around her.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Novel of Manners; Marriage; Separate Spheres; Persuasion; “The Gentleman”; Class; Social Mobility; Family.


Notable Quotes:

“She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”

“Let us never underestimate the power of a well-written letter.”

“How quick come the reasons for approving what we like.”

“Facts or opinions which are to pass through the hands of so many, to be misconceived by folly in one, and ignorance in another, can hardly have much truth left.”

“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

“One man’s ways may be as good as another’s, but we all like our own best.”

“She hoped to be wise and reasonable in time; but alas! Alas! She must confess to herself that she was not wise yet.”

“Time will explain.”

“Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”


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1001 Books, 2013 B2tC Challenge, 2013 Challenges, Book Review, CC-Spin, Chivalry, Classics, Classics Club, Comedy, Historical, Literature, metafiction, Miguel Cervantes, Morality Novel, Parody, Romance, Spanish

Thoughts: Don Quixote, Part Two by Miguel Cervantes

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The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Part Two

by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 40


The Second Part of Don Quixote was published in 1615, exactly ten years after the first. According to Cervantes’s dedication, it was written, “in order to purge the disgust and nausea caused by another Don Quixote who has been running about the world masquerading as the second part.” Indeed, ironically, after his first part in some ways posed the question of “honesty in fiction,” another writer (pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda), without consent or collaboration, took it upon himself to write the sequel which was foreshadowed at the end of the original Part One.

Part Two begins again in La Mancha, where Don Quixote has been for some time. His friends and niece have tried to cure him of his obsession for knight errantry, but to no avail. Once again, he and Sancho Panza (who seems much wiser in this second part) leave La Mancha to wander Spain and seek adventures. Unlike the first part, though, which was primarily concerned either with the misadventures which Don Quixote brought upon himself or with the adventures of minor characters, relayed to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza at various times throughout (to bring in historical context and to add depth to the overall narrative), this second part adds two new antagonists, the Duke and Duchess, who are hell-bent on causing Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as much grief as possible, for their own amusement. Also, Don Quixote’s motivation changes somewhat, after Sancho Panza convinces him that his great love, Dulcinea del Toboso, has been transformed from the most beautiful flower of Spain into a poor, peasant girl, by an evil enchanter. Instead of scouring the globe trying to prove his love to the lady Dulcinea, Don Quixote is instead on a mission to disenchant her (which, thanks to the Duke and Duchess, will result in great grief and pain for poor Sancho). Sancho will eventually earn his governorship, though it turns out to be more trouble than it is worth, the great knight Don Quixote will be challenged, twice, and ultimately vanquished by the Knight of the White Moon, and Cervantes, in all his wisdom, will ensure that Don Quixote’s story will end on his terms (via the historian Cide Hamete Benengeli) this time.

As it turns out, the continuing adventures of Don Quixote (or Part Two) is a bit of meta-fiction, constantly interrupting itself to talk about its own story, mostly about Part One and the imposter who wrote the false sequel. Many of the characters in Part Two have read Part One and the unauthorized Part Two, so they have preconceived notions (some accurate, others not) about Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho. In addition to writing about his own writing and acknowledging the story as a story within this story, Cervantes also mentions a variety of other literary works, including plays and poetry, which help to place this particular text into a literary timeline (especially important, here, as Spain and Europe are in the midst of great intellectual changes, as mentioned in my discussion of Part One). While this allows for a conversation about literature itself, Part Two is also, in general, a deeper, more fully realized work. Unlike Part One, wherein the characters were primarily flat, Part Two sees a variety of characters with varied motivations – they engage one another in more realistic ways, although their motives are still generally suspect.

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Cervantes further builds on some of the concerns he laid out in Part One, including religious and social commentary. He is critical of Spain’s caste system and makes clear that is not one’s property or title that speaks to one’s worth, but one’s actions and beliefs. This point is elaborated on through the foul deeds of the Duke and Duchess, who, though members of the nobility, are downright nasty people. Furthermore, Cervantes makes a concerted effort to raise the wisdom of Sancho Panza (and also of his wife, Teresa) – education, goodness, and common sense are, for Cervantes, the markers of true character, wisdom and self-worth; obsessions over money, land, and practicality lead to pettiness and cruelty.

Although Don Quixote is generally published as one large work, it is clear that Part One and Part Two are indeed separate books, and not just because they were published a decade apart. Cervantes’s motivations and styles are strikingly different in the two books. Part One is largely parody, with plenty of social and historical commentary as well, but with much to be desired in terms of construction and complexity. Part Two adds, in my opinion, what Part One was missing. Although there is still a great deal of humor, it is not as slapstick or farcical as Part One (at least, not the majority of it). The work is more serious, more intentional, and well-realized. It certainly works as meta-fiction (though Cervantes’s anger at Avellaneda can sometimes overshadow the story) but also as a pioneering piece of literature caught in a time of great change and transition. It aptly pays tribute to the bygone era of romantic chivalry (the Renaissance) and meaningfully presages, perhaps unknowingly, the Enlightenment to come. The depth and complexity, and especially the character development, make Part Two quite superior to Part One. For more, see my thoughts on Part One.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Spanish Literature, Classics, Parody, Comedy, Romance, Morality Novel, Meta-fiction, Sequels.


Notable Quotes:

Don_Quixote_6“I know very well what the temptations of the Devil are, and that one of his greatest is to put it into a man’s head that he can write and print a book, and gain both money and fame by it” (Prologue to Part Two, p. 468).

“It is not pleasant to go about with scruples on your conscience” (478).

“To have companions in your troubles generally helps to relieve them” (547).

“If the blind lead the blind, both will be in danger of falling into the ditch” (548).

“So, let’s consider now which is the madder, the man who’s mad because he can’t help it, or the man who’s mad by choice” (561).

“He who reads much and travels much, sees much and learns much” (635).

“The Devil must certainly be an honest fellow and a good Christian. For if he weren’t he wouldn’t swear by God and his conscience. So I suppose that there must be some good people even in Hell” (697).

“For the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die just like that, without anybody killing him, but just finished off by his own melancholy” (937).


Don Quixote is Book #12 completed for my Classics Club Challenge
Don Quixote is Book #3 completed for my Back to the Classics Challenge 2013 
Don Quixote is Book #124 completed for my 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die Challenge


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1001 Books, 2013 B2tC Challenge, 2013 Challenges, Book Review, Chivalry, Classics, Classics Club, Comedy, Historical, Historical Fiction, Literature, Miguel Cervantes, Morality Novel, Parody, Romance, Spanish

Thoughts: Don Quixote, Part One by Miguel Cervantes

don-quixote 

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Part One

by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 40


Don Quixote is considered by many to be the first example of the contemporary novel-as-we-know-it, though I believe this is much more applicable to “Part Two” than it is to “Part One.”  The story is set in the year 1614, shortly after publication of Part One (1605) and just before the publication of Part Two (1615).  In this hilarious adventure tale, Don Quixote, a self-proclaimed Knight Errant, with his faithful squire Sancho Panza, set out on a journey to restore chivalry to the world, with a goal of defending the helpless and destroying the wicked. The two foolish men wander throughout Spain and encounter all sorts of bizarre adventures, from giants mistaken as windmills to village taverns mistaken for castles.

Sancho Panza joins Don Quixote in these adventures because he believes that his squireship will bring him riches, or at least the governorship of an isle, as that is what Don Quixote tells him has happened in all the books of chivalry (which must mean it is true!).  As for Don Quixote, he claims to be on a quest to make himself worthy of the love of his lady, Dulcinea del Toboso, and he demands that all who would challenge him must proclaim to the world that Dulcinea del Toboso is the most beautiful, most wonderful woman in all of Spain.  Of course, Dulcinea del Toboso, like Sancho’s riches and Don Quixote’s texts, is just a fiction.

After numerous adventures, wherein Don Quixote repeatedly proves just how foolish (and dangerous) he is, he and Sancho eventually meet a woman who quickly comes to understand Don Quixote’s “affliction” and uses it to her advantage, pretending to be a royal woman in distress who needs the assistance of a noble knight. What is fascinating is how very sane and, indeed, brilliant Don Quixote can be when speaking about anything other than knighthood and romances.  It is only when he is invested in his chivalric adventures (which is most of the time) that he becomes, essentially, a madman. In the end, a priest and barber from La Mancha, who had disguised themselves in order to get in with Don Quixote’s company without raising suspicion, capture Don Quixote and convince him that he has been enchanted; in this way, they manage to bring him home, where they hope to cure his insanity and obsession with fictional tales of knight errantry.

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Don Quixote is a parody of the romances of the time.  The Renaissance (15th-16th centuries) which, in Spain, had immediately preceded Cervantes’ life and the creation of this novel, gave rise to new discussions about and interpretations of art, morality, identity, and humanism; however, the popular literature of Cervantes’s era continued to be rife with books of chivalry – melodramatic fantasies about the adventures of wandering knights who slay giants, rescue damsels in distress, and battle evil wizards and enchanters.  These were highly stylized tales with shallow characters who were playing out the rules of tired, dusty old dramas.  In those dramas, the main theme was chivalry: protecting the weak, lauding women, and celebrating brave knights who traveled the world in search of good deeds to be done.

The character Don Quixote is obsessed with these romances and these knights.  He truly believes himself to be one of the greatest of knights errant, who must live and die by the code set down in these fictional texts.  Through him, Cervantes is commenting on the ridiculousness (and tiredness) of these old ideas.  He desperately wanted to bring Spanish Literature into the new age (which, though Cervantes wouldn’t know it, yet, was anticipating the Enlightenment).  All is not a joke, however.  Cervantes was a soldier and he was deeply devoted to Spain.  The country was making great advances in technology and social enterprises, and it was earning a great deal of wealth from its American colonies.  Amidst all this change, Cervantes did believe that a code of values (like the ancient codes of chivalry) could be useful for a nation confused by war with England, militarily, and also with the Muslim religion.

One of the most ground-breaking elements of Don Quixote is its narration.  The book is narrated by the author, who is commenting on a “true history” as written by a fictive historian called Cide Hamete Benengeli, a Moor who originally chronicled the adventures of Don Quixote.  Cervantes as narrator charges himself with translating the original text; thus, he narrates most of the book in the third-person, but does sometimes enter into the thoughts of the characters or into first person, such as when he is commenting on the novel itself or the original manuscript (written by Benengeli).  There are three sections to Don Quixote, the first two being in “Part One” and the third being all of “Part Two.”  The first section is largely a parody of the contemporary romance tales and is likely what most people think of when they think about Don Quixote.  The second part, however, takes a narrative shift toward historical fiction.  It proceeds episodically, is not as comedic, and is pulled much more from Cervantes’s life experiences, via third-party tales (not just the narrator telling us what is happening with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but other characters talking to our main heroes about their own histories and adventures).  In these first two sections (or “Part One”) it is Cervantes as narrator who is reporting the entire story, in direct narrative style, but this is something which will change for “Part Two.”

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In addition to the interesting narrative choices (which become much more interesting and complex in “Part Two”) there are other major themes and motifs, such as: Morality (old ideas versus new ones); a comparison between Class and Worth (Cervantes’s claim being that one’s class does not necessarily speak to their personal worth – an extremely radical idea for the time); Romance (romantic love being of highest value); Honor (the idea of being personally honorable is lauded, whereas the idea of living up to a lofty, ancient code of honor seems to be mocked and leads to sometimes disastrous consequences); and Literature (there is a raging debate about the need for truthfulness and historical accuracy in fiction, and about how much of literature can/should be expected to be honest and how much of it pure imagination).

Some of the most interesting elements of Don Quixote, are those which are drawn from Cervantes’s own life.  His fears, his biases, and his own experiences very much contributed to the themes in the book, even giving him inspiration for the creation of it.  Mistrust for foreigners, for example, is a prevalent theme, as is the tension between the Moors and the Catholics.  Cervantes and his brother were captured by pirates and sold to the Moors (Muslims), after which they ended up in Algiers.  Cervantes tried to escape –three times- but could not get away until he was ransomed in 1580, after which he was able to return to Spain.  This experience, in addition to the defeat of the impenetrable Spanish Armada in 1588, by the English, are the backbone of the tale, and make up some of its intermediary tales, such as the tale of the captive (Chapter 34).  Many of the battles Cervantes engaged in when he was in the Spanish Army are recounted somewhat in this book, through other characters’ tales, which adds depth and autobiographical history to this fantasy tale.

Ultimately, Part One of Don Quixote is historical fiction disguised as literary parody.  It is great fun, for a while, but is, in my opinion, longer than necessary; one could get the point in half the time, though what Cervantes starts to work on in the second section of Part One is definitely a shift away from the pure farce and fantasy of the first section. Cervantes does explore some interesting notions, such as cross-dressing, self-worth, female independence, and the nature of love, all of which are looked at it relatively new ways. For its autobiographical exploration, its historical significance, and its narrative uniqueness, Don Quixote (Part One) is a valuable read, but it is Part Two, in my opinion, which really stands out and, perhaps, keeps Don Quixote in the canon of important classics.  Continue to my thoughts on Part Two.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Spanish Literature, Classics, Parody, Comedy, Romance, Morality Novel, Historical Novel.


Notable Quotes:

DonQuijoteDeLaMancha-767176“I am too spiritless and lazy by nature to go about looking for authors to say for me what I can say myself without them” (17).

“And so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits.  He filled his mind with all that he read in them, with enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooing, loves, torments and other impossible nonsense; and so deeply did he steep his imagination in the belief that all the fanciful stuff he read was true, that to his mind no history in the world was more authentic” (32).

“I do not understand why, merely because she inspires love, a woman who is loved for her beauty is obliged to love the man who loves her” (108).

“I do swear, I tell you, that I will keep silent to the very last days of your honour’s life. And please God I may be free to speak to-morrow” (125).

“A knight errant who turns mad for a reason deserves neither merit nor thanks. The thing is to do it without cause” (203).

“They say we ought to love our Lord for Himself alone, without being moved to it by hope of glory or fear of punishment. Though, as for me, I’m inclined to love and serve Him for what He can do for me” (273).

“Love, I have heard it said, sometimes flies and sometimes walks. With one person it runs, with another creeps; some it cools and some it burns; some it wounds and others it kills; in a single instant it starts on the race of passion, and in the same instant concludes and ends it; in the morning it will besiege a fortress, and by evening it has subdued it, for there is no force that can resist it” (304).

“Women have naturally a readier wit for good or for evil than men, although it fails them when they set about deliberate reasoning” (308).


Don Quixote is Book #12 completed for my Classics Club Challenge

Don Quixote is Book #3 completed for my Back to the Classics Challenge 2013 

Don Quixote is Book #124 completed for my 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die Challenge


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2013 Challenges, Allen Ginsberg, American Lit, banned books, censorship, Classics, Classics Club, Drugs, Events, Fiction, Gay Lit, Giveaways, GLBT, Jack Kerouac, LGBT, Literature, Read-Alongs, Reading Challenges, Reading Event, Sexuality, William S. Burroughs

The Beats of Summer: A Reading Event! (Sign-Up Post)

Welcome to the sign-up post for:

BeatsOfSummer-ButtonThe Beats of Summer: A Reading Event!

Summertime is coming, and what better time than Summer to immerse ourselves in the works of the most rebellious, daring, and “hot” generation of American writers??

For this event, the goal is to read as many pieces of “Beat Generation” literature as you want to, from June 1st through July 14th. Audiobooks, fiction, poetry, and non-fiction all count, as long as the writer is considered to be a part of the Beat Generation.  Memoirs, biographies, essays, theory/criticism or other works of non-fiction written about The Beats are also acceptable!

Update: We are looking for volunteers to provide Guest Posts and/or offer Giveaways throughout the event. If you would be interesting in participating in this capacity, please fill out This Form. And Thanks!

What is the Beat Generation?

“In American in the 1950s, a new cultural and literary movement staked its claim on the nation’s consciousness. The Beat Generation was never a large movement in terms of sheer numbers, but in influence and cultural status they were more visible than any other competing aesthetic. The Beat Generation saw runaway capitalism as destructive to the human spirit and antithetical to social equality. In addition to their dissatisfaction with consumer culture, the Beats railed against the stifling prudery of their parents’ generation. The taboos against frank discussions of sexuality were seen as unhealthy and possibly damaging to the psyche. In the world of literature and art, the Beats stood in opposition to the clean, almost antiseptic formalism of the early twentieth century Modernists. They fashioned a literature that was more bold, straightforward, and expressive than anything that had come before.”  –The Literature Network

I will post throughout the event to  discuss different subjects related to The Beat Generation, its writers, and its influences on later movements in literature, film, and music, as well as my own reviews of the Beat Generation books that I finish.  I will also be offering giveaways, and I am hopeful that some participants will be interested in writing guest posts or hosting giveaways of their own, to make this more interactive!

Below is a  list of writers and works of The Beat Generation.  This list is by no means comprehensive, it is simply a starting point.

Major Writers:
Richard Brautigan
William S. Burroughs
Neal Cassady
Gregory Corso
Diane DiPrima
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Allen Ginsberg
John Clellon Holmes
Joyce Johnson
Hettie Jones
Jack Kerouac
Joanne Kyger
Gary Snyder
Carl Solomon

Important Works:
Dharma Bums
Gasoline (poetry)
Howl (poetry)
Minor Characters (memoir)
Naked Lunch
On the Road
Queer
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (memoir)

Affiliated Writers/Biographers:
James Campbell (This is the Beat Generation)
Carolyn Cassady (Off the Road)
Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Brenda Knight (Women of the Beat Generation)
Matt Theado (The Beats: A Literary Reference)
Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)

In the meantime, if you would like to host a giveaway or provide a guest post, please: CLICK HERE.

And if you want to sign-up to participate in The Beats of Summer (yay!), just leave a comment on this post saying YOU’RE IN! Maybe include some of the books you hope to read.  I plan to read Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, Howl by Allen Ginsberg, and Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac.

Please also post the button somewhere on your blog (in an announcement post or in your blog’s side-bar) so that we can spread the word, gather excitement, and encourage participation.  It goes without saying that this is meant to be a positive, fun, and educational event – it’s an at-will project, so negativity is a no-go!

Sign-ups are open from now through June 15th.  If you sign-up after June 15th, you can still absolutely participate, but you may not be eligible for some of the early giveaway prizes.

To Share/Discuss on Twitter, Use Hashatag #BeatsOfSummer

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2013 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Drama, Expressionism, Gay Lit, Gender Studies, GLBT, Literature, Madness, Play, PTSD, Sexuality, Tennessee Williams, Tragedy

Thoughts: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

12222A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 24

A Streetcar Named Desire is my first experience with Tennessee Williams.  Going into this work, I knew very little about it and I knew very little about the writer.  As it turns out, I may have just discovered a new favorite.  Williams was a semi-openly gay man (at the time of this publication – he did come out publicly in the 1970s) whose works, though certainly rife with queer elements, did not deal directly with gay characters or situations.  A Streetcar Named Desire, though, like The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is a perfect example of how Williams subverts heteronormative literary traditions in order to queer his text.  The play is about two sisters: Blanche, a mild, hypersensitive, and mentally disturbed/delusional middle-aged woman; and Stella, subordinate, sexual, and a symbol of the “New South.”  It is also about Stella’s husband, Stanley.  He is disturbingly sympathetic – an evil man who one can’t help but identify with.  Not since reading Lolita and encountering Mr. Humbert Humbert have I felt so simultaneously enthralled by and repulsed by a literary character.

Blanche, who has suffered two major traumas, comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister and brother-in-law for a short time, until she can get back on her feet.  It is soon discovered that these traumas have been the impetus for certain scandals which have forced Blanche out of her hometown and her career.  These secrets are revealed to Stanley through informants (he is a man of “connections” – likely due to his time in the Army and his lingering camaraderie with GI Vets), but Blanche continues to lie and tell stories right up to the end; the end being one of the most disturbing imaginable. Stanley, in all his pure heterosexuality and machismo is the source of the play’s sexual gaze.  This is a revelation for the time period and is in fact, ironically, one of the two major sources of queerness in the play.  Blanche and her history explain the second and more obvious queering.  The most interesting element of this play, and there are many, is that these two queer representations are battling each other for supremacy over the heteronormative element, which is to say – Stella.

What is particularly powerful and unique about the play, and I hear this is common for most of Williams’s plays, is that it is much more about language and character than it is about story (though that is there too, obviously).  The nature, the structure, of plays typically do not lend themselves well to story-through-language or through characterization, due to their sparseness; however, Williams tells quite a bit of his story in the stage direction, so it is easy to see why this play would be so difficult to stage successfully (and, to my knowledge, it has only been done perfectly well in one instance – with is that of the first staging, including Marlon Brando).  Williams comments on the changing nature of gender roles and sexual politics, post-World War II; he adeptly, brilliantly, exposes the new American male – the romantic but tragic and dangerous hero-come-home.  Women, who had taken up work and head-of-household positions were suddenly forced back into their homes, back into submission, and the power dynamics, social confusion, and family disruption this caused is clearly explored and sensitively, if shockingly, delivered.

He also comments on elements such as “New South versus Old South,” mental health, pederasty, post-traumatic stress disorder, class, race, gender, power, and control.  This short play packs a wallop – it is loaded with themes, yet so delicately crafted that the characters and their stories still manage to come first. While Tennessee Williams is largely considered to be a “New Realist” or “Expressionist,” and this certainly shows in the themes of this play and in its construction, I would argue that this play is a work of Modern Tragedy, particularly due to the absence of religion/morality and the inability of any character to gain redemption or find peace.  The film, though perfectly cast and lovingly produced, unfortunately changes the ending and one of the most important dialogic moments, which eliminates the modern and tragic elements of the play.  This is a great disappointment, as the play itself is perhaps perfect – which is simultaneously why it is one of the most often produced, most sought out by high-profile actors, and most disappointingly delivered.

This is one of the most moving, enjoyable, disturbing, and surprising works that I have read this year.  I am eager to read more from Tennessee Williams, hopefully in the very near future (I’m considering pursuing him as a project, after finishing with John Steinbeck).

Notable Quotes:

“They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!”

“When I was sixteen, I made the discovery – love. All at once and much, much too completely.”

“What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.”

“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And it that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!”

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

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