2018 Reading the Bible as Literature Event

Welcome to the Sign-Up Post for the 2018 Reading the Bible Event!

About the Event: The Christian bible is one of the most influential texts in western literature. As someone who reads literature for pleasure/edification and who teaches Literature in English at the college level, I frequently re-familiarize myself with many historically rich texts from a variety of mythologies and cultures.

As such, I’ve read the Christian bible many times, but only twice from cover-to-cover. I usually revisit specific passages depending on what I’m working on at the time, or which political/philosophical debate I’m getting into, etc. For 2018, I thought another cover-to-cover read through, with company this time, would be helpful and fun!

As a special note, I will be reading the bible as literature and crafting my posts as such. This challenge is not specific to nor exclusively meant for Christians; instead, it is for readers who are interested in learning more about a very important text in the western canon. As such, I invite anyone and everyone to participate, regardless of faith or lack thereof. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Atheist, Hindu, Agnostic, Mormon, Humanist? Come along!

What I would love is a lively and spirited discussion of the stories, philosophies, history, and cultural issues. We might discuss allegory, parables, comparative religion, metaphor, and symbolism to name just a few topics. The text will be treated respectfully and the discussions will follow in that same spirit — disparaging remarks about anyone’s beliefs will not be tolerated (and therefore all comments will be moderated). We’ll do our best!

1403190609407R48R5tYI’ll be reading from The Holy Bible: King James Version (KJV), illustrated by Gustave Doré and published by Barnes & Noble, but you can feel free to read any version you’d like. There are many newer editions that are much more “readable,” in my opinion. Keep in mind, of course, some textual changes have resulted in meaning changes as well, and of course the contemporary versions lose some of the poetic qualities.

 

The Reading Plan

  • January: Genesis 1 through Exodus 40
  • February: Leviticus 1 through Deuteronomy 4
  • March: Deuteronomy 5 through 1 Samuel 17
  • April: 1 Samuel 18 through 1 Chronicles 2
  • May: 1 Chronicles 3 through Esther 10
  • June: Job 1 through Psalms 89
  • July: Psalms 90 through Isaiah 17
  • August: Isaiah 18 through Ezekiel 8
  • September: Ezekiel 9 through Zechariah 14
  • October: Malachi 1 through Luke 18
  • November: Luke 19 through 1 Corinthians 8
  • December: 1 Corinthians 9 through Revelations 22

Details:

I will be reading the above list of titles during the months given. Furthermore, on the last day of each month (so, beginning December 31st 2017 for January 2018), a list of passages will be given for daily reading. This is really just to make it easier on myself; I find I can keep up with reading the bible, especially the rather dull bits, if I do a little bit every day. So, I’ll share this list with all participants every month & will base my weekly and monthly check-in posts on those daily goals.

Every Sunday: I’ll post my thoughts on the passages that I read that week, with some discussion questions, favorite quotes, questions, literary references that come to mind, etc. I hope these Sunday posts will encourage discussion among those who are also reading along at a similar pace.

Month’s End: I will post an update with the books/verses that I read during the previous month and list the readings (chapter and verse) for the upcoming month in a “readings per day” format. My goal is to read about the same amount each day, week, and month, but you can do whatever you want! I hope these monthly posts will be another place for everyone to discuss their experience with the readings.

Details:

  • Comment on this post if you’d like to join in.
  • Read along with me in a daily, weekly, or monthly schedule (whatever works for you) and participate in discussion as much or as little as you like.
  • Post your thoughts on the bible readings somewhere on your blog, Tumblr, Goodreads account, or in the comments on any given post.
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5 Mini-Reviews: From Willa Cather to Hillary Clinton

I’ll never catch-up on all the reviews I need to write for books I’ve read in the last 5 or 6 months. That’s that. But, I am going to make an effort to catch-up on the recent and then stay current moving forward. I do not intend to write a full review for every book that I read (I just simply do not have the time for that, and sometimes I don’t think the book needs it). Instead, I might write mini-reviews, like the ones below, so that I’ve at least shared some thoughts about my recent reading with you all and so that I have some record for myself, which was the whole point of beginning this book blog almost a decade ago! So, that being said, onto my thoughts for these three most recent reads:

Origin by Dan Brown: 3.0 out of 4.0

Origin is the latest in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, following Angeles & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, and Inferno. I really enjoy this series. The premises are usually clever and interesting, and of course I love the way the stories are steeped in history (apocryphal or not) and often pit science versus religion. There’s just something fascinating about that seemingly eternal struggle and the lengths to which some people will go to protect their particular worldview (or, in the case of this series, eliminate the “competition” altogether).

That being said, I think Origin is my least favorite of the series. It seemed to me to be trying too hard, and the plot spent a long time stagnating (the “big mystery” is built up for something like 200 pages before going anywhere). This is also the rare instance where I knew from the first few chapters both what the secret was and who the villain was, which made the unfolding of it all rather anti-climactic. I did want to love this book because the topic itself is certainly timely and relevant, but I think that was also part of the problem. It was, for me, too current. It seemed like the imaginative leaps Brown had to take in previous books were unnecessary, here, so the thrill was gone. 

There were some things I did enjoy, though. Brown rather sensitively treats a non-traditional romance, for one, and he also incorporates some interesting thoughts from people like Sam Harris. On page 290, for example, he writes: “The term ‘atheist’ should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘nonastrologer’ or a ‘nonalchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive, or for people who doubt that aliens traverse the galaxy only to molest cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” This particular passage triggered a thought experiment that I haven’t had nearly enough time to ponder; it made me wonder about the natural state of human existence and whether, if left to our own devices, separate from a social environment, would individuals default to religious belief to explain things like thunder, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc? Historically, we know that many cultures have created gods to do just that, but is that a social construct or an innately human one? Dan Brown’s Origins, in this way, did leave me with plenty to think about.

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd: 3.5 out of 4.0

I received this little gem from Melissa, who knows I’m a fan of Poe. To be honest, I didn’t even know this book existed! Peter Ackroyd is a world-class biographer who has won awards for his work on figures such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and William Blake. I was curious to see what he would do with a figure like Poe, whose life and times are much more a thing of legend than fact. There are so few extant (that we know of) factual records about Poe’s life, and much of what we do know has been exaggerated over the years, in keeping with the gloomy and mysterious aura surrounding the man. The first major post-Mortem written about Poe, for example, was a scathing, hyperbolic account of his personality, addiction, and talents, written by a man whom Poe had eviscerated in the press (as he did so often, to so many). The majority of that “biography” was wildly inaccurate and totally vindictive, and yet it is on this account that many have continued to base their opinions of Poe.

Ultimately, Ackroyd relies heavily on Poe’s works and letters to attempt to uncover the “real” man, beneath the facade. He also uncovers other written accounts of Poe, testimony from people who knew the author at various stages of life, such as former teachers, lovers, school “friends” (that term used loosely because Poe really did not get very close to many people, as he so often reminded everyone), and colleagues. The problem with these records is two-fold: first, that there are so few of them; second, that they are often contradictory. Some were even written or recorded well after Poe’s death, at which point time, distance, and the fact of Poe’s celebrity would all have influenced people’s perceptions. Was the myth making the man, or the man making the myth?

This little book of less than 200-pages is divided into 11 chapters, each focusing on a particular time period in Poe’s life. With titles like “The Victim,” “The Bird,” and “The Women,” it is clear to see that Ackroyd did uncover certain themes and momentous occasions which help to explain who Poe was, what was important to him, and how he became the legend that he is today. By all accounts, Poe was very well-regarded by the literati and critics alike. He was considered, even in his time, as the father of American literature, the first true “American” voice of the new continent, wholly distinct from our British forebears. So, where does the idea come from, that Poe died forgotten, under-appreciated? Well, as Ackroyd explains, Poe himself had a whole lot to do with that final assessment. Ackroyd’s biography is, I think, a must-read for any true Poe fan. Still, someday, I dream of discovering a cache of Poe history that will help illuminate so many of the unexplained questions about Poe, his life, and especially his final days.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton: 4.0 out of 4.0

Is my affinity for Hillary Clinton coloring my review? Probably, in part. I admire this woman, I always have, and I found much to connect with and appreciate in her latest memoir about the 2016 election. But, there is so much more to it than the title suggests, and much more than the “liberal media” (ha!) suggested in their never-ending attempts to stir the pot and grab the ratings. It’s pretty disgraceful, really, to think about the way they treated the release of this book, but it’s also completely unsurprising considering the way they have treated Hillary Rodham Clinton for the last 30 years, since she first entered the spotlight as First Lady of Arkansas.

Clinton covers a number of topics in this book, things that are important to her and which should also be important to us. She has a chapter on “Perseverance,” for example, which outlines the long and arduous process of deciding to run, and run again, when she may have much preferred to stay at home with her grandchild and garden. There’s a section on women, including historical influences and current issues for women in politics. There are thoughtful, painful, crucial explanations about how our election process has been compromised by domestic and foreign influences, and warnings about the continuing danger of big money influence in our politics. She talks about the very real divisions in our country and shares some of her thoughts as to why and how these things have come to be, and how we need to self-assess before it is too late.

Finally, though, she ends with a section titled, “Resilience.” She writes about Love and Kindness. She writes about her faith and her continuing attempts to grow and evolve and do better. And she ends with a chapter titled, “Onward Together,” wherein she asks all of us to keep going and keep trying, even when all seems lost, even when we are at our lowest, because that’s when the world needs it most. She closes by quoting Max Ehrmann, who said, “Whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul” (468). I think Clinton is trying to do just that in writing this book and inviting us into what must have been a terribly difficult time and process.

People who already like Hillary Clinton are bound to like this book, and to experience the deep pain of her loss all over again. But they will also be reassured that their vote was the right one, and in more ways than most of us could have realized in the first place. People who don’t like Hillary Clinton probably won’t give this book a chance; but if they did approach it with a truly open mind and sense of fairness, I think even they would come to see that what she writes about is true and honest, that she admits to many of her failings while raising the alarm about many of our failings, and that it is indeed possible to do both of these things at the same time.

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson: 3.0 out of 4.0

I’m so thrilled to be seeing more and more diversity in YA literature, and especially titles with main characters who are transgender, bisexual, and persons of color. Philip Pullman called this one, “a life-changing and life-saving book,” and I can see what he means. For a lot of people, especially young transgender teens who are beginning to understand what their feelings mean and to articulate to themselves just how they are different, books like this are incredibly important. Representation, feeling like you are a valid and “normal” person, rather than some bizarre aberration, can certainly be more than affirming, it can be everything.

Everyone thinks David Piper is gay. He is effeminate, he likes to wear girls’ clothes, he enjoys doing stereotypical girl things. Only his two best friends realize, though, that while David does like boys, he is not gay: he is transgender. When a new kid named Leo shows up to their private school, David feels an immediate affinity for him but can’t explain why. He’s not really attracted to him, and yet he can’t seem to shake the feeling that they share something, that they should be friends. Soon enough, David (and the readers) learn that Leo is different in his own way, too.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of both David and Leo, some chapters being told from one point of view, and some from the other (conveniently labeled “David” or “Leo” to let us know). While I appreciate the subject matter and Williamson’s smooth narrative style, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, here. I think the goal was to suggest some of the very real struggles that transgender people face in their daily lives and in the transition process, while maintaining an uplifting tone and commitment to a positive and affirming message. This makes complete sense to me, but it seemed to get in the way of the story-telling, somewhat. David and Leo have their struggles, there are definitely some dark elements and disappointments, but for the most part, the characters seem constructed to fit a role rather than to develop a story. I just couldn’t connect with David or Leo, and most of the secondary characters (parents, friends, siblings) seemed there only because they needed to be there (because people have friends and families, so it’d be odd not to write them in?).

The Art of Being Normal is a quick and easy read, oftentimes sweet and sometimes maddening, and it is an important addition to the YA LGBTQ+ library as well as the YA offerings more generally. But it’s not something I would read again.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather 3.5 out of .0

Oh, my dear, sweet Willa Cather. How do I love thee? Okay, pardon the sap. I do enjoy Willa Cather so much, though. This novel was the September selection for the Classic Book-a-Month Club. I have to say, I’m still not quite sure what to say about it. I always enjoy Cather’s writing style, and this time was no different. She somehow combines naturalism with a rare, auditory elegance. Her descriptions of the land are beyond compare, so much so that her characters almost always come second to the landscape. I enjoyed this one in particular because it is set in the American southwest, a region that I love and that I just recently moved to myself; there was much to relate to. 

On the other hand, the story itself felt extremely distant this time. I just couldn’t connect with it, though I recognize it was beautiful and recounts an important history. At the center is the story of two Catholic priests who come to minister to the native people of the greater-New Mexico area. They must learn how to communicate with Native Americans and Mexicans, to tame the land, and to respect local customs while fulfilling their roles as missionaries. The book is split into nine separate sections, each with a particular focus, so that the novel reads more like an extended play with nine acts. To some extent, I appreciated this because it allowed me to focus on each individual scene, beautifully crafted, and to try to appreciate the purpose of that scene as I was experiencing it; on the other hand, unlike the dichotomy set-up by the structure of Cather’s A Lost Lady, for example, I did not find these segments particularly helpful in telling the priest’s story. And maybe that’s my issue. If I were to go back and read this again, I think I would approach it as a story about the land, and not a story about the Archbishop.

The narrative digressions, flashback recollections, and fictional accounts of actual historical figures and events added interesting context and complexity to an otherwise leisurely Cather work. I find in Cather’s works that she wants, more than anything, to tell the tale of a land, a time, and a people, and that is certainly the case here. The Hopi and Navajo people are treated sympathetically, and the recounting of the “Long Walk of the Navajo,” is both important and brave. Cather does not dull her criticism of the American government and rightly calls them to account for the way they treated our native populations, shuffling them around from one increasingly barren and uninhabitable region to the next. She also makes suggestions about the intimate and powerful relationship between religion and politics. Ultimately, I think I’m going to have to read this one again to fully appreciate it, preferably during a break when I can really sink into it.

Thoughts: Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven by Mark Twain

CaptainStormfield

 

Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven by Mark Twain
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 37

Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven is a satire of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward’s The Gates Ajar, which was published in 1868 and became widely popular at the time.  In that religious novel, the protagonist-narrator, Mary Cabot, discusses her ideas of the afterlife with her widowed aunt, shortly after the main character’s brother has been killed.  The author had lost her mother, stepmother, and fiancé in short order, during the American Civil War, and wrote the book as a sort of coping mechanism, and also as a way to reach out to women readers in similar situations.  She claimed that the book was divinely inspired (“The angel said unto me, ‘Write!’ and I wrote”), and its positive views of heaven, one wherein families and friends would be reunited (a newish concept, not based in the true vision of heaven, as explained in the Bible) would later inspire other writers, such as Emily Dickinson.

Although Twain began writing the book sometime around 1868, it was not published for the first time until 1907, just a few years before he died.  It was the last of Twain’s works that would be published in his lifetime and it clearly reflects Twain’s disillusionment with the promise of heaven and a “happily ever after.”  Twain, like Ward, suffered great losses in his life.  His wife and his daughters all died in relatively quick succession, and Twain struggled in his later years with depression and anger.  Although always a satirist, the themes in his stories became much darker, more biting and anti-religious, as his own sadness and heartache grew.

Captain Stormfield, though comic and seemingly light in tone, clearly demonstrates Twain’s darker outlook on life and the afterlife (or lack thereof).  The main character is Captain Elias Stormfield, who is traveling on a ship through space, chasing comets and other vessels from distant planets.  He becomes lost along the way and ends up at the gates of heaven.  But, as it turns out, he’s at the wrong entrance (which is realized only after much discussion with the gatekeepers, who must evaluate maps for days on end before they can locate our tiny, miniscule, germ of a planet, Earth) and must be transported to the correct gates before he can be admitted to the afterlife.

storm

Captain Stormfield was inspired by Captain Edgar Wakeman, a sea captain whom Clemens met in 1866. Wakeman’s eccentric personality made a tremendous impact on Twain, and he is the inspiration for many other Twain characters. Wakeman’s retelling of a dream he had about his own visit to heaven was the inspiration for the story.

The bottom line is this:  Twain uses humor to poke fun at how very silly are our beliefs in heaven.  The evolution of this “new heaven” came about during and after the American Civil War, when so many people were in need of comfort; they found this comfort in the belief that loved ones would be seen again in heaven.  This new heaven is the one we, most of us, think about today – so that evolution clearly held true, though Twain mocked it from the start.  Twain seems to be calling out these fantasies as exactly that: fantasies.  He had no illusions of being able to meet his wife and daughter in heaven again, and that stark view of life and the afterlife certainly affected his writing and his temperament.

But it is not just the vision of heaven he mocks, but also the way we perceive greatness in the here and now.  Nearly everyone is present in heaven, from Napoleon to Socrates, King Henry VIII to Shakespeare.  But, as Stormfield’s guide,  Sandy McWilliams, explains – those great and influential figures from history, be it the epic poet, Homer, or the prophet Mohammed, if lined up end-to-end, might still come up at the rear, behind average, everyday folks who were capable of so much but were never afforded the opportunity to be great.  Earth’s heaven is also geographically similar to the physical earth, but when a new arrival goes looking for someone to talk to in his home region, say England, he might soon discover that the majority of souls wandering that region do not speak English at all, because the history of that land is so ancient, and our perceptions of it always so “now” – so self-centered.

Captain Stormfield learns soon enough that heaven is not what he expected it to be.  Although he does don a halo and wings, and sits on a cloud playing a harp, he soon realizes that to do this forever would be madness.  How boring would it be to sit in one place for all eternity, strutting strings and smiling at people?

In this short story, Twain asks us to re-evaluate our conceptions of celebrity, fame, and power, to keep our tiny little planet and our tiny little lives in perspective – to, in effect, check our egos at the door.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  High School+
Interest:  Humor, Satire, Atheism, American Literature, History.

Notable Quotes:

“Well, when I had been dead about thirty years I begun to get a little anxious.”

“Inside of fifteen minutes I was a mile on my way towards the cloud- banks and about a million people along with me. Most of us tried to fly, but some got crippled and nobody made a success of it. So we concluded to walk, for the present, till we had had some wing practice.”

“It’s the sensiblest heaven I’ve heard of yet, Sam, though it’s about as different from the one I was brought up on as a live princess is different from her own wax figger.”

“You have got the same mixed-up idea about these things that everybody has down there. I had it once, but I got over it. Down there they talk of the heavenly King–and that is right–but then they go right on speaking as if this was a republic and everybody was on a dead level with everybody else, and privileged to fling his arms around anybody he comes across, and be hail-fellow-well-met with all the elect, from the highest down. How tangled up and absurd that is! How are you going to have a republic under a king?”

Thoughts: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

394731The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 12

Graham Greene is considered by many to be one of the most important 20th Century English writers. His novels are always highly masculine and usually carry a complicated but unambiguous Catholicism. For me, either of these “types” of literature could be highly repellant, but there is something about Greene’s ability that draws me in, something about his works that speak to me – even though I’m appalled by the misogyny and unreceptive to the religious overtones. The End of the Affair is, as its protagonist states at the outside, a story about hate. This, of course, means it is really about love – but a love which causes pain and heartache. The story takes place in England during the bombings of World War II, so there is always a sense of the uncontrollable – the powerlessness of man and the fleeting nature of life. The main character and narrator, Maurice, is a writer who falls in love (which, for him, means possession – sex!) with a woman named Sarah, who just happens to be another man’s wife. The two have a torrid affair which ends (not a surprise, considering the title of the book), but in a rather unconventional way. When it is over, Maurice and his lover’s husband become strangely close, almost coupling in a transitive way through Sarah.

The story is narrated in the first-person, from Maurice Bendrix’s point of view. Maurice’s anger and biases, as well as his own admission that he will choose what to include and what to leave out of the story, make his narration somewhat unreliable. That being said, he does come to an ultimate truth at the end and, despite his anger, admits to himself, to Sarah, and to the reader the very thing he had hoped to avoid throughout the story. Sarah, the love interest, as well as her husband, Henry, and a private investigator (Parkis), plus an atheist leader (Smythe) are all very well imagined and executed. They each have distinct personalities and their own parts to play in the story (as do other of the minor characters, such as the Catholic Priest and Sarah’s mother). For those interested in masculinity studies, for instance, one can clearly find representatives for the four principal categories of Hegemony, Complicity, Subordination, and Marginalization.

Like much of Greene’s work, The End of the Affair is a story about power and its prose matches that theme. Greene’s style and language are strong, direct, and highly “male.” He struggles a bit, I think, with the first-person narration. This was his first novel written in first-person P.O.V. and the story is also based on his own affair – the book was dedicated “To C”, which refers to his mistress, Lady Catherine Walston; so, given the first attempt coupled with the very personal nature of the story, it is not surprising that Greene may have been a bit uncomfortable. Still, the story would have been very different in the third-person – the anger may not have come across as genuine, the jealousy filtered through a narrator might not have been as raw, and certainly the condescension Maurice hold for all other males would not have been as pronounced.

What I enjoyed most about the book was its purity of sentiment. What I mean by that is, in this book, anger is anger. Jealousy is jealousy. Kindness is kindness. The book is like one raw, exposed nerved, pricked in different ways by different characters. It is also a good example of modernism, particularly in its structure (starting the story not at the beginning, but after everything has happened, the narrator trying to make sense of it all after the fact – reminding me of The Great Gatsby and The Good Soldier). Ultimately, I responded well to this book, as I did to The Power and the Glory. And, I must say, this troubles me greatly.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Adultery, Catholicism, Religion, Jealousy, Sin/Redemption, Power, Masculinity.

Notable Quotes:

“What happens if you drop all the things that make you I?”

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

“I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.”

“I refused to believe that love could take any other form than mine: I measured love by the extent of my jealousy, and by that standard of course she could not love me at all.”

“It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death: I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck.”

“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.”

“Pain is easy to write. In pain we’re all happily individual. But what can one write about happiness?”

“Insecurity is the worst sense that lovers feel; sometimes the most humdrum desireless marriage seems better. Insecurity twists meanings and poisons trust.”

“I measured love by the extent of my jealousy.”

The End of the Affair is Book #10 for my Classics Club Challenge & Book #5 for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge

Review: Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 17


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

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


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

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


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

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


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

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


Suggested Reading For:

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


Notable Quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 04 


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

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rather terrifying vision of an America wherein the government has fallen to religious (Christian) extremists, and society is forced to regress to puritanical social and cultural constructs.  First, women are forced out of their jobs.  Then, their bank accounts are frozen and their funds accessible only by their husbands or male next of kin.  Soon, women, non-believers, and sinners are being rounded up and sorted out – either to fulfill various “roles” in the new society or to be exterminated as examples of “justice” being served for violators of God’s laws.  The Jews are shipped out of America or killed.  Children birthed out-of-wedlock or born to parents who are in their second or third marriages (and, thus, unrecognized by the Church) are stolen from their parents and subjected to early indoctrination.  Offred, the main character, is a Handmaid.  She is hunted down, separated from her husband and daughter, and mercifully “allowed” the chance to serve God’s purpose, by becoming a live-in sexual servant to a Commander – one of the new society’s highest leaders.  All women are subjects, after all, and their primary purpose is to serve their men by giving birth to children (and births have declined rapidly due to toxins in the air, water, etc.).  Offred must accept, or die. But, beneath all tyrannical regimes there exists small rays of hope – freedom fighters and subversives, working slowly, quietly toward change.  Will Offred live the remainder of her life – however long or short that may be- in full service of her Commander and the will of the new regime?  Will she be tormented by echoes of the past – memories best forgotten and certainly left unsaid?  Or will she find a way out, after all? 


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The world Atwood has created in The Handmaid’s Tale is by far the most important character in it.  The plot is executed in such a way as to lend a feeling of suspense and mystery to the novel, an accomplishment which makes the book simultaneously more than just “literature” and more than just “entertaining.”  This is accomplished primarily because of the slow development of the story’s primary character, which is the world itself – the religious regime and the cloistered, domineering social structure.  They are living, breathing elements of the book – just as much as Offred, Ofwarren, the Commander, or any other character within it.  That being said, the story itself is so powerful and commanding, that it allows less room for growth and development of the traditional characters.  While there are certain changes to watch for, primarily in Offred, the Commander, Nick, and Ofwarren (and, also in Offred’s relationships with each of these characters, which also change and develop slowly, in different ways, throughout the course of the novel), the back stories of many of the characters are left untold – hinted at, but never completely explained.  This is one of those books where one might wish it had been another 50 or 100 pages long, simply to allow for more character development and interaction.  What exactly happened with Serena Joy, for example?  Or, how are Rita and Cora different – what does it mean that one is always smiling and tender, while the other is guarded and gruff?  So much, including the ending, must be guessed, assumed, inferred – this does add to the mystery of the story and allows for personal interpretation but, personally, I would have loved just a bit more guidance and clarity.  Small complaints, really, for what turns out to be an incredibly engaging read.  


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

Atwood creates a style of prose – a type of narration – which was completely new to me, and highly appropriate to the conditions in which the narrator lives.  Most of the book is narrated in such a way as to depict not just internal monologue, but a person who spends time speaking to herself.  This makes sense, considering the fact that most Handmaids had few, if any, people they could speak openly with – but how Atwood actually manages to physically narrate in such a way as to give the reader the impression of a narrator who is talking to herself, without expressly mentioning it, is beyond me.  Still, she absolutely does it.  The exceptions to this style are found in the form of brief moments of dialogue and in the epilogue.  Speaking of the epilogue – this turns out to be a transcript of a speech given at a “Gileadean Symposium.”  It is a section at the end that I almost skipped because it was labeled “Historical Notes” – just another example of Atwood’s cleverness.  To get full appreciation for the story, be sure not to miss this last section of the book! 


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

There are so many reasons to love this book:  the language and the prose; the setting – familiar but so changed; the mystery and suspense; the humor.  The best of all these, though, the reason to truly love this book, is because of the story itself.  It is terrifying in theory and would be equally terrifying in practice (allowing one’s self to admit that such practices did exist, largely, and still do exist, in certain communities, makes the sting even sharper).  Also adding to the intrigue is the understanding that societal changes such as this one are not too difficult to imagine.  How many times in the history of humankind have we witnessed the seemingly rapid rise of brutal dictatorships?  How quickly are we “re-educated” – turning in neighbors, friends, co-workers for their transgressions, in hopes of keeping ourselves, our families safe?  The situation described in The Handmaid’s Tale can be compared effortlessly to that of Nazi Germany – the treatment of the Jews, the gays, the “others.”  It is larger than that, though – there is a deep, dark element of human nature being explored here; something that is more than just racism or sexism or any form of bigotry or dominance.  It is the nature of fear and power.  What really controls us?  How can we be made to do things we would never, in our right minds, consider doing?  Fear and power.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Dystopian Society, Religion, Social Constructs, Power, Male/Female Dynamic, Fear.

Notable Quotes:

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum – Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

“Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, f or security reasons they said.  The road-blocks began to appear, and Identipasses.  Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful. “

“She is a flag on a hilltop, showing what can still be done: we too can be saved.”

“There is something reassuring about the toilets.  Bodily functions at least remain democratic.  Everybody shits, as Moira would say.”

“Better never means better for everyone, he says.  It always means worse for some.”

Brief Thoughts on 8 Books

The books listed below are those I read for last week’s Read-a-Thon.  I planned not to write a review for each, because I don’t really have time to play catch-up on 8 book reviews, particularly with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starting in two days.  I did want to get some thoughts and a “rating” down for all of them, though.

1. Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal by Anonymous (Oscar Wilde) 5 out of 5

2. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck 5 out of 5

—While I did not enjoy this one quite as much as The Pearl, it is still incredible.  The Red Pony is actually a tightly woven collection of four short stories about the same young boy and his family.  Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest storytellers, and I’m reminded anew of just how brilliant he is every time I pick up and read something by him.  The way he recreates rural and poverty-stricken American life goes beyond genuine accuracy – it is perfection.  The emotions he evokes, the nationalism (not patriotism) he inspires, and the history he harkens back to — I am never disappointed.  The story of Jody, his parents, and their farm hand is the story of every American boy and his wide-eyed American dreams.

3. The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain 4 out of 5

—Absolutely hilarious.  I almost don’t know what else to say about this book.  It is simple but imaginative.  Hilarious but poignant.  The book is a reimagining of the Creation, through the diaries of Adam and Eve.  The reader first sees the world’s creation and the discovery of all life and things, including Eve, through Adam’s eyes.  The diary entries are typically “male” – not much concern for anything but hunting and gratification (“What is this annoying thing that talks, talks, talks, and gets wet in the eyes when I ignore it?”).  Then, the reader sees the same events and things through Eve’s eyes, which is wholly “feminine” – the pretty lights in the sky that one could reach if they only just climbed a bit higher in their tree, the moon that someone steals each morning and brings back each night, the animal friends and the new babies to love and nurture (which Adam believes must be another species – perhaps bear? Perhaps kangaroo?).  Not my favorite Twain, as it is a bit simple, but it is still classic Twain – witty, cynical, holier-than-thou.

4. The Cat Inside by William S. Burroughs 3 out of 5

—For those not familiar with William S. Burroughs – he was the “godfather” to the American Beat generation.  He did a lot of drugs, had sex with a lot of boys, and shot his wife when trying to aim at an apple on her head.  He was a strange, twisted, brilliant man who had a bizarre love for cats.  He worshipped them in a way near to the adoration given cats by the ancient Egyptians.  Burroughs believed cats were the ultimate species and he allowed them to run rampant on his ranch, feeding them, playing with them, forcing friends to care for them when he had to be away.  This book is a sort of collection of diary entries about his life with cats.  It certainly tells of Burroughs and there are many “Burroughs-esque” elements to it but, overall, it’s probably one which could be skipped. Unless, maybe, you’re a bizarre cat lover.

5. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins 3.5 out of 5

—The final book in The Hunger Games trilogy, and definitely my least favorite.  I enjoyed certain aspects of the book – such as the inside-look at District 13 and how it is managed, not to mention the way it must readjust to the influx of new residents, as people from the other Districts flee their homes.  I also appreciated that this book took place in the “real world,” outside the games – and was not just all about the champions (although, largely, it was).  I was disappointed in the ending, though – it felt haphazardly constructed and unfulfilling.  Too much time was spent inside District 13, doing not much at all (even the group’s attempts at rescuing the captured champions in the Capitol is left to the imagination) – too much politics, too much angst, and too quickly resolved sub-plots.  The finale was predictable (though a bit welcome) and the fate of one of Katniss’s love-interests (and that relationship) was sadly, sadly deconstructed, as if Collins just got sick of having Katniss so indecisive so made up her mind for her.  It was an okay book, but not a great conclusion to an otherwise interesting series.

6, 7, & 8 The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides) by Aeschylus 4 out of 5

—I definitely enjoyed this trilogy more than I expected to, especially since I was reading it in the late, late hours of the read-a-thon (somewhere around hour 18).  It is hard to rate these as separate plays, since the trio really only works together in total – but they are separate plays and were written and performed separately at times, until the collection was completed.  All-in-all, I found Agamemnon to be the strongest of the set, but each of the three were interesting.  The Eumenides, in particular, with its examination of morality and judgment, a new judicial system and the struggle between old and new gods (old and new belief systems, moral structures, punishment processes, etc) was fascinating to read, particularly as precursor to modern-day judicial systems (the presence of the first ‘jury of peers’ is here).  Aeschylus and The Oresteia are definitely worth the read.


November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I will be writing my very first novel (at least 50,000 words) and would truly appreciate your sponsorship. All donations go to The Office of Letters and Light – a great charity working for a great cause! If you can spare even $5 (or more) – please Sponsor Me and help me stay energized to write my book and WIN NaNoWriMo!