Sunday, October 23, 2011
The Book Jacket Blurb:
It's the early 1980's -- the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafe of College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.
As Madeleine tries to understand why "it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France," real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead -- charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy -- suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old "friend" Mitchell Grammaticus -- who's been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange -- resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.
Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory in Cape Cod, but can't escape the secret responsible for Leonard's seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.
Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding and understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it read like the intimate journal of our own lives.
What Hooked Me:
I finished reading this book a few days ago, and equally pondered as many days on what rating I would give it. I knew I liked it a lot. I was not sure I loved it. Having just posted Middlemarch a few weeks ago, a book which impressed me exactly as a book that explored the various facets of marriage, I found the depiction of the contemporary marriages in this book much more difficult and sad. And marriage as a plot seemed secondary to the three major characters' search for themselves and their paths shortly after graduating from college. In the end, the book won me over for its marvelous writing and not its plot. I continue to love the way the author gently forces me to take my time and read each word, just so I don't get lost when he mentions and expounds on it a few chapters later. I also love that this book has encouraged me to put the book, A Lover's Discourse, on my TBR.
'To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters.'(opening lines)
'She's become an English major for the purest and dullest reasons: because she loved to read. The University's British and American Literature Course Catalog" was, for Madeleine, what its Bergdorf equivalent was for her roommates. A course listing like "English 274: Lyly's Euphues" excited Madeleine the way a pair of Fiorucci cowboy boots did Abby. "English 405A: Hawthorne and James" filled Madeleine with an expectation of sinful hours in bed not unlike what Olivia got from wearing Lycra skirt and leather blazer to Danceteria. ... And yet sometimes she worried about what those musty old books were doing to her.'(20-21)
'Books aren't about 'real life.' Books are about other books.'(28)
'My theory is that the problem Handke was trying to solve here, from a literary standpoint, was how do you write about something, even something real and painful -- like suicide -- when all of the writing that's been done on that subject has robbed you of any originality of expression?'(28)
'Whereas Madeleine was perfectly happy with the idea of genius. She wanted a book to take her places she couldn't get to herself. She thought a writer should work harder writing a book than she did reading it.'(42)
'And it was during this period that Madeleine fully understood how the lover's discourse was of an extreme solitude. The solitude was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, that most solitary of places.'(65)
'A Lover's Discourse was the perfect cure for lovesickness. It was a repair manual for the heart, it's one tool the brain. If you used your head, if you become aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental, if you recognized that being "in love" was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from it's tyranny.'(79)
'People don't save other people. People save themselves.'(124)
"It's a funny thing. You're born in America. You grow up and what do they tell you? They tell you that you have a right to the pursuit of happiness. And that the way to be happy is to get a lot of nice stuff, right? I did all that. Had a house, a job, a boyfriend. But I wasn't happy. I wasn't happy because all I did was think about myself. I thought that the world revolved around me. But guess what? It doesn't."(215)
'That was when Leonard realized something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up.'(254)
'As he answered the doctor's questions, Leonard felt as though he were being interrogated for a crime. He tried, when he could, to tell the truth, but when the truth didn't serve his cause he embellished it, interpreting it as either favorable or unfavorable, and shifting his next response accordingly. Often he had the impression that the person answering questions from the scratchy armchair was a dummy he was controlling, that this has been true throughout his life, and that his life had become so involved with operating the dummy that he, the ventriloquist, had ceased to have a personality, becoming just an arm stuffed up the puppet's back.'(255)
'One thing I learned, between addiction and depression? Depression a lot worse. Depression ain't something you just get off of. You can't get clean from depression. Depression be like a bruise that never goes away. A bruise in your mind. You just got to be careful not to touch where it hurts. It always be there, though.'(259-260)
'The worst part was that, as the years passed, these memories became, in the way you kept them in a secret box in your head, taking them out every so often to turn them over and over, something like dear possessions. They were the key to your unhappiness. They were the evidence that life wasn't fair. If you weren't a lucky child, you didn't know you weren't lucky until you got older. And then it was all you ever thought about.'(283)
'When you talked about marriage (I mean in the abstract) you had a theory that people got married in one of three stages. Stage One are the traditional people who marry their college sweethearts, usually the summer after graduation. People in Stage Two get married around 28. And then there are the people in Stage Three who get married in a final wave, with a sense of desperation, around 36, 37, or even 39.'(324-325)
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, First Edition
Book qualifies for: 100+ Reading Challenge
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Frances Hodgson Burnett 1904
The Book Blurb:
Ten-year-old Sara Crewe wasn't really a princess. But she seemed like one when she first arrived at Miss Minchin's London boarding school. Her father had given her all sorts of beautiful clothes before he had returned to India, as well as a pony, a French maid, and a wonderful doll named Emily. Sara wasn't spoiled, though -- almost everyone wanted to be her friend.
Suddenly a terrible misfortune left Sara penniless -- and she thought, forgotten. She had to wear old rags, live in a dingy attic, and work for her living. It wasn't a very happy life for a young girl. The mysterious changes begun, showing Sara she had never really been all alone.
What Hooked Me:
I needed a dose of a straight-forward, old-fashioned children's story with a happy ending.
'Once on a dark winter's day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.'(opening lines)
"I am not in the least anxious about her education," Captain Crewe said, with his gay laugh, as he held Sara's hand and patted it. "The difficulty will be to keep her from learning too fast and too much. She is always sitting with her little nose burrowing into books. She doesn't read them, Miss Minchin; she gobbles them up as if she were a little wolf instead of a little girl. She is always starving for new books to gobble, and she wants grown-up books -- great, big, fat ones -- French and German as well as English -- history and biography and poets, and all sorts of things.'(9)
"Things happen to people by accident," she used to say. "A lot of nice accidents have happened to me. It just happened that I always liked lessons and books and could remember things when I learned them. It just happened that I was born with a father who was beautiful and nice and clever, and could give me everything I liked. Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all, but if you have everything you want and everyone's kind to you, how can you help but be good-tempered? I don't know" -- looking quite serious -- "how I shall ever find out whether I am really a nice child or a horrid one. Perhaps I'm a hideous child, and no one will ever know, just because I never have any trials."(33)
'Of course the greatest power Sara possessed and the one which gained her even more followers than her luxuries and the fact that she was "the show pupil," the power that Lavinia and certain other girls were most envious of, and at the same time most fascinated by in spite of themselves, was her power of telling stories and of making everything she talked about seem like a story, whether it was one or not.'(42)
'Never did she find anything so difficult as to keep herself from losing her temper when she was suddenly disturbed while absorbed in a book. People who are fond of books know the feeling of irritation which sweeps over them at such a moment.'(58)
'If Nature has made you a giver, your hands are born open, and so is your heart; and though there may be times when your hands are empty, your heart is always full and you can give things out of that -- warm things, kind things, sweet things -- help and comfort and laughter -- and sometimes gay, kind laughter is the best help of all.'(63)
'Everything's a story. You are a story -- I am a story.'(114)
'Perhaps kind thoughts reach people somehow, even through windows and doors and walls. Perhaps you feel a little warm and comforted...'(142)
'On this very afternoon, while Sara was out, a strange thing happened in the attic. Only Melchisedec saw and heard it, and he was so much alarmed and mystified that he scuttled back to his hole and hid there, and really quaked and trembled as he peeped out furtively and with great caution to watch what was going on.'(162)
'Imagine, if you can, what the rest of the evening was like. How they crouched by the fire which blazed and leaped and made so much of itself in the little grate. How they removed the covers of the dishes, and found rich, hot, savory soup, which was a meal in itself, and sandwiches and toast and muffins enough for both of them.'(196)
First Harper Trophy Book edition 1987
Book qualifies for: 100+ Reading Challenge
Sunday, October 9, 2011
The Book Jacket Blurb:
William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a thicket of wild supposition arranged around scant facts. With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.
Bryson documents the efforts of earlier scholars, from today's most respected academics to eccentrics like Delia Bacon, an American who developed a firm but unsubstantiated conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was the true author of Shakespeare's plays. Emulating the style of his famous travelogues, Bryson records episodes in his research, including a visit to a bunkerlike room in Washington, D.C., where the world's largest collection of First Folios is housed.
Bryson celebrates Shakespeare as a writer of unimaginable talent and enormous inventiveness, a coiner of phrases ("vanish into thin air,""foregone conclusion,""one fell swoop") that even today have common currency. His Shakespeare is like no one else's -- the beneficiary of Bryson's genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.
What Hooked Me:
There is no better author to make the daunting task of relating William Shakespeare's life so reader-friendly than Bill Bryson. The author's ever enlightening, organized and systematic telling of major known occurrences in Shakespeare's life, the 17th century England (and interesting people) of his days, and his enormous contributions to literature and the English language itself is highly satisfying.
'Before he came into a lot of money in 1839, Richard Plantagenet Temple Nugent Brydges Chandos Grenville, second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, led a largely uneventful life.'(opening lines)
'So we are in the curious position with William Shakespeare of having three likenesses from which all others are derived: two that aren't very good by artists working years after his death and one that is rather more compelling as a portrait but that may well be someone else altogether. The paradoxical consequence is that we all recognize a likeness of Shakespeare the instant we see one, and yet we don't really know what he looked like. It is like this with nearly every aspect of his life and character: He is at once the best known and least known of figures.'(7)
'It is because we have so much of Shakespeare's work that we can appreciate how little we know of him as a person. If we had only his comedies, we would think him a frothy soul. If we had just the sonnets, he would be a man of darkest passions. From a selection of his other works, we might think him variously courtly, cerebral, metaphysical, melancholic, Machiavellian, neurotic, lighthearted, loving, and much more. Shakespeare was of course all these things -- as a writer. We hardly know what he was as a person.'(19)
'Shakespeare's early life is really little more than a series of occasional sightings. So when we note that he was now about to embark on what are popularly known as his lost years, they are very lost indeed.'(44)
'Shakespeare's genius had to do not really with facts, but with ambition, intrigue, love, suffering -- things that aren't taught in school. He had a kind of assimilative intelligence, which allowed him to pull together lots of disparate fragments of knowledge, but there is almost nothing that speaks of hard intellectual application in his plays -- unlike, say, those of Ben Johnson, where learning hangs like burning on every word.'(109)
'Anyway, and obviously, it wasn't so much a matter of how many words he used, but what he did with them -- and no one has ever done more. It is often said that what sets Shakespeare apart is his ability to illuminate the workings of the soul and so on, and he does that superbly, goodness knows, but what really characterizes his work -- every bit of it, in poems and plays and even dedications, throughout every portion of his career -- is a positive and palpable appreciation of the transfixing power of language. A Midsummer Night's Dream remains an enchanting work after four hundred years, but few would argue that it cuts to the very heart of human behavior. What it does do is take, and give, a positive satisfaction in the joyous possibilities of verbal expression.'(110)
'He coined -- or, to be more carefully precise, made the first recorded use of -- 2,035 words, and interestingly he indulged the practice from the very outset of his career. Titus Andronicus and Love's Labour Lost, two of his earliest works, have 140 new words between them.'(113)
'Among the words first found in Shakespeare are abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, critical, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany, and countless others (including countless). Where would be without them?'(114)
'His real gift was as a phrasemaker. "Shakespeare's language," says Stanley Wells, "has the quality, difficult to define, of memorability that has caused many phrases to enter the common language." Among them: one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, bag and baggage, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, to be in a pickle, budge an inch, the milk of human kindness, more sinned against than sinning, remembrance of things past, beggar all description, cold comfort, to thine own self be true, more in sorrow than in anger, the wish is father to the thought, salad days, flesh and blood, foul play, be cruel to be kind, blinking idiot, with bated breath, tower of strength, pomp and circumstance, foregone conclusion -- and many others so repetitiously irresistible that we have debased them into cliches.'(115)
'After his death William Shakespeare was laid to rest in the chancel of Holy Trinity, a large, lovely church beside Avon. As we might by now expect, his life concludes with a mystery -- indeed, with a small series of them. His gravestone bears no name, but merely a curious piece of doggerel:
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare.
Bleste be the man that spares the stones
And curst be he that moves the bones.'(178)
'There is an extraordinary -- seemingly an insatiable -- urge on the part of quite a number of people to believe that the plays of William Shakespeare were written by someone other that William Shakespeare. The number of published books suggesting -- or more often insisting -- as much is estimated now to be well over five thousand.'(181)
'When we reflect upon the works of William Shakespeare it is of course an amazement to consider that one man could have produced such a sumptuous, wise, varied, thrilling, ever-delighting body of work, but that it is of course the hallmark of genius. Only one man had the circumstances and gifts to give such incomparable works, and William Shakespeare of Stratford was unquestionably that man -- whoever he was.'(closing lines)
HarperCollins First Edition book
Book borrowed from the library
Book qualifies for: 100+ Reading Challenge
Saturday, October 1, 2011
George Eliot 1874
The Book Blurb:
Middlemarch is a town on the rise. With its old country gentry, middle classes, and tradesmen, it is ever growing and changing with the times, circa 1830. Vast and crowded, rich in irony and suspense, the novel Middlemarch is richer still in psychological insight. One of the best loved works of the nineteenth century, it introduces two of the era's most enduring characters -- Dorothea Brooke, a passionately idealistic woman who traps herself in a loveless marriage, and Tertius Lydgate, an ambitious young doctor betrayed by his wife's egoism and his own weakness -- and explores the complex social relationships in a town that moves and breathes with a life of its own.
What Hooked Me:
I was astounded as to how much this classic, which explores the many facets of marriages in the provincial town of Middlemarch amazingly parallels the different marriages that still exist today: the Rosamonds who seek the prestige of marrying a man like Lydgate to find wealth and inch up higher on their social standing; the Dorotheas who remain trapped in a loveless marriage, married to a man like Mr. Causabon; and the Harriet Bulstrodes who stand by their husbands amidst scandals and ruined reputations. Truly timeless and worth the time you need to invest on reading it's almost thousand pages! I also particularly love the unique foreshadowing of each chapter with fabulous quotes from both the author and other famous writers.
'Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of St. Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand in hand with her still smaller brother to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors?' (Prelude, opening lines)
'We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinnertime, keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, "Oh, nothing!" Pride helps us, and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts -- not to hurt others.'(64)
'After all, people may really have in them some vocation which is not quite plain to themselves, may they not? They may seem idle and weak because they are growing. We should be very patient with each other, I think.'(86)
'She is grace itself; she is perfectly lovely and accomplished. That is what a woman ought to be; she ought to produce the effect of exquisite music.'(99)
'Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae in her hand.'(100)
'That basket held small savings from her more portable food, destined for the children of her poor friends among which she trotted on fine mornings, fostering and petting all needy creatures being so spontaneous a delight to her that she regarded it much as if it had been a pleasant vice that she was addicted to. Perhaps she was conscious of being tempted to steal from those who had that she might give to those who had nothing and carried in her conscience the guilt of that repressed desire. One must be poor to know the luxury of giving!'(179-180)
"Don't you think men overrate the necessity for humouring everybody's nonsense till they get despised by the very fools they humour?" said Lydgate ... "The shortest way is to make your value felt so that people must put up with you whether you flatter them or not."(185)
'I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight -- that; in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.'(209)
'Art is an old language with a great many artificial, affected styles, and sometimes the chief pleasure one gets out of knowing them is the mere sense of knowing.'(220)
'Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure.'(237)
'It is an uneasy lot at best to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy; to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small, hungry, shivering self -- never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dimsighted.'(299)
'Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know no speck so troublesome as self.'(446)
'Was never true love loved in vain,
For truest love is the highest gain.
No art can make it: it must spring
Where elements are fostering.'(497)
"I still think that the greater part of the world is mistaken about many things. Surely one may be sane and yet think so, since the greater part of the world has often had to come round from its opinion.'(570)
"You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work and think it would be more honourable to you to be doing something else. You must have pride in your own work and in learning to do it well, and not be always saying there's this and there's that -- if I had this or that to do, I might make something of it. No matter what a man is, I wouldn't give twopence for him... whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher if he didn't do well what he undertook to do.'(595-596)
'News is often dispersed as thoughtlessly and effectively as that pollen which the bees carry off (having no idea how powdery they are) when they are buzzing in search of their particular nectar.'(635-636)
'The terror of being judged sharpens the memory: it sends an inevitable glare over that long-unvisited past which has been habitually recalled only in general phrases. Even without memory, the life is bound into one by a zone of dependence in growth and decay; but intense memory forces a man to own his blameworthy past. With memory set smarting like a reopened wound, a man's past is not simply a dead history, an outward preparation of the present; it is not a repented error shaken loose from the life; it is a still quivering part of himself, bringing shudders and bitter flavours and the tinglings of a merited shame.'(653-654)
'In marriage, the certainty, "She will never love me much," is easier to bear than the fear, "I shall love her no more."(693)
'Who can know how much of his most inward life is made up of the thoughts he believes other men to have about him, until the fabric of opinion is threatened with ruin?'(733)
'Ou deeds still travel with us from afar,
And what we have been makes us what we are.'(748)
'... an old friend is not always the person whom it is easiest to make a confidant of: there was the barrier of remembered communication under other circumstances -- there was the dislike of being pitied and informed by one who had been long wont to allow her the superiority.'(795)
'Men and women make sad mistakes about their own symptoms, taking their vague, uneasy longings sometimes for genius, sometimes for religion, and oftener still for a mighty love.'(801)
'Oh, all the troubles of all people on the face of the earth...'(825)
"Trouble is so hard to bear, is it not? How can we live and think that anyone has trouble -- piercing trouble -- and we could help them, and never try?"(844)
'Marriage, which has been bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. It is still the beginning of the home epic -- the gradual conquest of irremediable loss of that complete union which makes the advancing years a climax and age the harvest of sweet memories in common.'(883)
a Signet Classics Edition, December 2003
Book borrowed from the library
Book qualifies for: 2011 Victorian Literature Challenge
100+ Reading Challenge