Monday, December 20, 2010

Soon it will be Christmas day

Current book: None
Pages read: None

It's Christmas break from literature time. You may expect me back in the new year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Look at his little face!

Current book: None
Pages read: None

Ok, so instead of starting On the Road, I just kept reading the copy of Call of the Wild that I have, because it also includes White Fang. So, mostly, I read about the antics of an adorable wolf puppy.
I am not ashamed.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Man's best friend

Current book: The Call of the Wild
Pages read: 40 - 81 (end)

Wow. Short. This might be the shortest book so far. It's kind of a weird edition, so the pages are really wide, but still.

After Buck becomes team leader, the team completes their run to Dawson, Alsaka, in record time. They're immediately sent out on another, however, which is both virtually unprecedented and very tough on the dogs and the men. By the time they return from the round-trip journey, they've traveled 1800 miles in three weeks, and the dogs are virtually spent. Since the Canadian government has no use for tired, injured dogs, they're sold to a worthless party of two men and a woman (Hal, Charles, and Mercedes) who have no idea what they're doing in Alaska. The men overload the sled and buy dogs with no experience, and Mercedes is an obnoxious citified idiot, so their trip turns into a fiasco. They end up using up the food rations halfway through the journey, which means they run the dogs starving for the rest of it. By the time they reach the frozen river they have to cross in order to finish their trip, half the team is dead and the rest nearly so. Before they cross the river, they meet a man named John Thornton camping at the water's edge. Buck, sensing that the ice on the river is rotten, lies down in the traces and refuses to rise. Hal tries to beat him to death, but John Thornton steps in and stops him. The sled goes on without Buck and crashes through the ice, killing everyone. (We're not sad. Well, a little for the dogs.)

John Thornton becomes Buck's new master, and one to whom he gives his whole self, heart and soul. Buck regains his strength and becomes an amazing specimen, both of dogdom and loyalty to his master. He saves Thornton's life in a bar brawl, wins him 1600 dollars by proving he can pull a sledge with a thousand-pound load, and rescues him from whitewater rapids. When Thornton and several other men venture into the wild to look for gold, Buck enjoys the trip immensely, feeling more and more drawn to the wilderness. He stays with Thornton, but hunts his own game, ranges far and wide, and bonds with a wolf. One day, returning to camp, he finds that Thornton and his friends have been killed by Indians. He attacks and scatters the Indians, killing some of them, and, after mourning Thornton, joins a wolf pack, becomes its leader, and roams free and wild for the rest of his days.

Well, my impressions from the first post are pretty much the same. Thematically, there's the sense that the wilderness calls to something in all of us, man or beast, and has a purifying effect on our needs and emotions. Impulses are stripped down to their raw form; the needs to eat and to fight are foremost at all times. There is also the sense, though, that the humanizing element of love, in this case Buck's for John Thornton, is the only thing that can ever override that urge to satisfy need. Buck stayed with Thornton until Thornton was gone, and even after he died, returned to the spot where he was killed each year to hold vigil. The point is not that the call of the wild is overwhelming and all-controlling, but it is a powerful force that sways us all and can be overcome only by love and loyalty.

Also, the scene where Buck has to pull the thousand-pound sledge is one of the most compelling moments in my experience of literature. I actually said, "Come on, Buck!" out loud. I was alone in the workout room, so it's all good, but really! Way to go, Jack London! (Also, it reminded me of Stone Fox, which, if you haven't read, you should. But be prepared to cry.)

Superb. Any book that makes me cheer out loud for the main character I'll call worthy of the list. In seriousness, though, I'm impressed at the depths that London plumbs in what seems, on the surface, to be a simple adventure story.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

And puppies! Lots of puppies!

Current book: The Call of the Wild
Pages read: 1 - 40

Oh, man. This book is awesome. I don't mean to sound too much like a 12-year-old boy here, but come on - the thrilling tale of a courageous dog sent into the harsh wilderness of the frozen Yukon, fighting it out against the men and savage dogs who will destroy him if he gives them half a chance? Excellent.

Buck, our heroic half-St. Bernard, half Scotch-shepherd, lives on a sunny California plantation, but is sold by his master's servant to pay off a gambling debt. He's beaten and shipped cross-country for several days with no food or water, until, finally let out of the crate, he's nearly mad with thirst and rage. His new owner, however, beats him until he at least gives the appearance of obedience, though his heart is still defiant. He learns that the only way to survive is to be constantly on the defensive, but also ready to fight for what he wants and needs. He's sold again, this time to a man who procures dogs for the Canadian government's sled teams, and is broken to the harness and educated in team-driving. Soon he learns that the leader of his team is a dog named Spitz, but the two don't get along. After weeks of fighting and badgering each other, they have it out in the snow, and Buck kills Spitz. Afterward, he becomes the leader of the team, which is passed into the hands of the mail service. Buck is a good team leader, but secretly rejoices more in the fresh outside air and the wilderness than he does in working for men.

There you go, then. Superficially, of course, it's an adventure story, and a fast-paced, exciting one at that. Underneath, however, it's a story about men as much as dogs. Dogs aren't the only ones who have to change the way they behave in survival situations, yes, but more important than that is the fact that men squabble over power, nip at each other until they're driven mad with rage, and eventually fight one another for supremacy at the cost of lives. To his credit, London never overtly says anything of the kind, but it's not hard to find it below the surface.

Books about animals are always actually about people. It's a great literary truth.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Maintiens le droit

Current book: The Call of the Wild
Pages read: None

Haven't had a chance to start this one yet, thought I'm quite looking forward to it. I actually haven't read it, which is odd, considering it's so often assigned in school. Judging by the fact that I used to love Silver Chief: Dog of the North, I'll probably enjoy it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Like a memory long since past

Current book: To the Lighthouse
Pages read: 144 - 242 (end)

Well, Woolf went ahead and shocked the hell out of me by moving the story forward ten years in a few pages. She narrates the passage of time from the perspective of the house (not in its voice, but simply as though you were in it), detailing the slow decay and empty seasons it witnesses in the Ramsey family's absence. During the decade-long gap, Mrs. Ramsey dies, as well as two of the Ramsey children.

When the family returns, it is with Lily Briscoe and Augustus Carmichael, but no one else. Mr. Ramsey decides he must take a trip to the lighthouse with James and Cam (the youngest daughter of the family). The two children are ambivalent, but Mr. Ramsey is obsessed with the idea. They go, and Lily stays on the beach, painting. On the trip to the lighthouse, James steers the boat and Mr. Ramsey reads a book. When they finally reach the island, Mr. Ramsey praises James's steering, and Cam regards it as an important moment - one for which James has been waiting a long time. Mr. Ramsey is triumphant at the lighthouse, and Lily, back on the beach, successfully finishes her painting with one distinctive stroke through its center.

Huh. That was not what I expected. I'm struggling with what the lighthouse is really supposed to represent now. The idea of success and happiness may still hold true, but it's odd, then, that Cam and James had no interest in it. Maybe it's something closer to a sense of achievement, of being finished with what life has to offer. Mr. Ramsey is desperately in need of validation all the time, so that would make sense for him. James needs Mr. Ramsey's validation, too, but is happy to get it during the journey, and doesn't need to have achieved all of his goals yet, since he is still a young man. It would mesh with Lily's contemplation of the lighthouse as well; she thinks that she knows when the Ramseys reach the lighthouse, and that's the moment when she finishes her painting. It is also the moment when she realizes she is content to be alone with herself and not to seek out a husband. It's not as though it has to be that black and white and only represent one thing, but it seems to be something along those lines.

In addition to that, there's sort of a sense that no one has really reached their true goals, since both Mr. Ramsey's and Lily's lives are clouded by the fear of failure, and James has hardly gotten started. The lighthouse, then, is a sort of unattainable ivory tower - even when James reaches it, he realizes it doesn't seem the same as when he was a child, and therefore he will never really be able to get to the place it used to be. Much as Mr. Ramsey and Lily can never rest assured that their work will make them immortal (though Lily reconciles herself to that fact upon finishing her painting), no one can truly reach the ideal, far-away beacon of the lighthouse because of the fact that it becomes a different object when one arrives at it. (Is this making sense? Shit is getting existential, is all I'm saying.) So, in addition to contentment and achievement, it has the melancholy air of the loss of what can never even be had.

Ok, Virginia Woolf. You have made me think about this for a considerable amount of time and I am still unsure of what it means. I am also, however, convinced of the importance of understanding it. This one is definitely worthy of the list.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Full speed ahead

Current book: To the Lighthouse
Pages read: 70 - 144

All right. I have considerably more patience to write today. In true Virginia Woolf form, there aren't a lot of plot events occurring, but there is a lot of internal thought that's being communicated for each of the characters.

The setting is a vacation house on the Isle of Skye, where Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey and their eight children are on holiday, along with a group of friends and acquaintances. Mr. Ramsey is a famous writer of philosophy who struggles with everyday interactions and has a tendency to become agitated when he doubts his own genius. Mrs. Ramsey spends most of her time looking after (read: worrying about) her children, but also invests a lot of her energy in facilitating smooth and pleasant social interactions amongst her guests. Also along is Lily Briscoe, an unmarried thirty-something who fancies herself a painter. Mrs. Ramsey longs for Lily to marry another guest, William Bankes, but the two aren't interested in the match. Paul Rayley, a young gentleman, is, however, in love with Minta Doyle, who is, frankly, obnoxiously ditzy, and Mrs. Ramsey is also interested in their match. To round out the party, we have a pedantic, defensive scholar and disciple, Charles Tansley, and a slightly crazed opium addict, Augustus Carmichael.

I won't reel off the names of the eight children, but the one we're most concerned with is the youngest boy, James, upon whom Mrs. Ramsey dotes, and who desperately wants to visit the nearby lighthouse (hence the title). Mrs. Ramsey promises him he can go when the weather is fine, since the trip requires a boat, and there's a steady thread, through the story, of his hope for fine weather, her indulgence of it, and Mr. Ramsey's pessimism about the next day being stormy and wet.

The first half of the book takes place over the course of an afternoon and largely features conversation between Lily and William and the Ramseys and Charles Tansley, during which we learn the facets of their characters I've already mentioned. Toward the end of the afternoon, Minta and Paul go off the the beach with two of the younger Ramseys and come back engaged. There's also a long scene of the evening's dinner, during which Mrs. Ramsey thinks about how obsessed her husband is with his work, Mr. Ramsey thinks about how obsessed his wife is with social convention, Charles Tansley thinks about how stupid everyone is, and Lily thinks about her paintings. At the close of the section, Mrs. Ramsey puts the children to bed and she and Mr. Ramsey sit up together, considering, but not discussing, their relationship.

There are some interesting themes, the most prevalent of which is probably the difference between one's inward and outward selves at any given moment. The complexity of the thoughts of each character and the careful description of them in contrast to his or her actions portrays the starkness of that difference and implies that the outward self is simply a social veneer. I'm not entirely sure it's supposed to be a negative judgment, however, since there are some characters who would be better off if they were more successful at maintaining that veneer. The second theme that jumps out at me is, I must admit, Oedipal in nature. James Ramsey clearly resents his father for using up his mother's attention, and wishes to have her all to himself. His father also represents realism and a harsh, uncompromising view of the world, while his mother promises both optimism and comfort, giving him even more motivation for valuing one over the other.

We'll see what happens with the lighthouse, which is obviously a central symbol, probably representing success and happiness (which explains why Mr. Ramsey is so pessimistic about reaching it, seeing as that's all he can think about and feels that it's out of his reach). There are a lot of ways the ending could go, but my guess is that Woolf will make it characteristically inconclusive.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Do not pass go.

Current book: To the Lighthouse
Pages read: 3 - 70

You know, I'm just not feeling writing about literature today. Rather than writing a half-assed post about a pretty good book, I'm going to wait until tomorrow and hope I'm in a better mood for it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

For better or worse

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: 500 - 591 (end)

Ok, I'm finally done! (muted cheering) This is even the last book by Henry James, which, frankly...yay.

Gilbert just gets worse after everyone's gone, especially since he realizes that Isabel's been working against his interests in the matter of Pansy's marriage. In retaliation, he sends Pansy away to the convent where she spent much of her youth. A couple of months later, Isabel receives a telegram from Henrietta telling her that Ralph is dying and requesting her presence. Isabel wants to go see him in England, of course, but Gilbert forbids it because he's a vindictive asshole. She discusses the matter with Gilbert's sister, who, though silly, has been a friend. Gilbert's sister reveals (I guess by way of comfort? It's kind of unclear.) that Pansy is actually Gilbert and Madame Merle's illegitimate daughter, not the child of a first marriage as Isabel had previously thought. Madame Merle and Gilbert are, in fact, still having an affair. Gilbert's sister also tells Isabel that Madame Merle persuaded Gilbert to marry Isabel because of her money and the fact that Isabel would be able to provide for and act as a mother to Pansy.

Isabel takes this information as permission to disobey her husband and go to England. She visits Pansy on the way out of the country and asks her to come on the journey, but Pansy, though torn, refuses out of obedience to her father. She also begs Isabel to come back some day. Isabel makes it to England and watches Ralph die. She realizes that she loves him and wishes she would have married him, but clearly it's too late. Afterward, Caspar proposes that she come with him to America and he'll help her to escape Gilbert and her unhappy marriage. She considers it, and almost does so, but in the end, decides against it and departs for Rome without saying goodbye.

Huh. It actually ended up a lot more sympathetic to Isabel than I thought it would. As I've mentioned, James tends to go all cautionary-tale on his young heroines and make it out like they're responsible for their own miseries. To some extent, Isabel is responsible for her own misery in that she could have chosen a better husband earlier on, but was stopped by her need for freedom. At the same time, though, Gilbert Osmund is clearly a punishment that far exceeds the crime. James must, therefore, be remarking upon the fact that women are powerless in their marriages, and that the level of control their husbands have can be absurd.

I'm a little unclear, though, on what the point of Isabel's going back to Rome at the close of the novel is really supposed to be. She seems to go back out of a sense of duty, to both Pansy and to the conventions of society, but I don't know why it is that that duty outweighs every shred of her personal happiness. She passes up the chance to go with Caspar in order to return to certain misery. It's true that she doesn't love Caspar, so perhaps things wouldn't improve, but it would be worth a shot considering the emotional abuse she would be escaping.

I don't know that it's worthy of the list. It's not bad, but I think there are other books that might communicate the same idea from the time period just as well. It seems sort of unremarkable. Daisy Miller is more compelling, I'd say, and also not 600 pages long.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Seriously. Filled with hate.

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: 446 - 500

So, Isabel sort of dissuades Warburton from proposing to Pansy, or a least doesn't encourage him, and he doesn't act any further, since he knows Pansy isn't really that interested in him. True to form, Gilbert is incensed that his wife would choose to disobey him in this manner, and their relationship deteriorates further. Later, Henrietta comes to see Isabel, who finally confides to her that she's in a hate-filled, punishing marriage. Henrietta is sympathetic, but it seems there's little to be done. Caspar Goodwood shows up, too, and is saddened to see Isabel in such a state. Ralph, who's been hanging around Rome in ill health the whole time, finally decides to go back to England, and everyone goes with him as an escort. (Everyone, in this case, being Henrietta, Caspar, and Warburton.) Isabel's all alone and miserable.

So, I guess the message at this point is pretty much, "Take what you can get if it seems at all reasonable, because otherwise you'll end up in a hate-filled, punishing marriage." I have to say, it's kind that no one's said "I told you so" to the poor girl yet, but clearly they're all shocked by how miserable she is.

I'll have some more thoughts after the thrilling conclusion.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Taste of India

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: None

Man, Friday is not a good day for my updating. Not that I read anything, but still - I could have at least come on here and made some excuse about it.

I did make beef curry, though, if you're at all consoled by that. No? Oh, well.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

At a fancy ball or minuet

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: 353 - 446

Well, Gilbert and Isabel get married, much to everyone's chagrin, and then we leap forward a couple of years to the future of their loveless marriage. (Yay loveless marriage!) Isabel has, in the intervening time, had a child that died at birth. Now, Pansy (oh, I didn't mention earlier, actually - that's the name of Gilbert's daughter) is beginning the rituals of courtship. First up as a suitor is Edward Rosier, a long-ago friend of Isabel's who is only just rich (as opposed to comfortably or even insanely rich). Pansy falls in love with him and he with her, but Gilbert won't permit the marriage because Edward hasn't enough money. Following Rosier is our old friend Lord Warburton. There's a bit of a problem with his suit of Pansy because Isabel thinks that Warburton is still half in love with her (which, honestly, he probably is). Gilbert, however, very much wants Warburton to marry Pansy, what with him being landed nobility and all.

The relationship between Gilbert and Isabel is clearly a complete disaster. She thinks, we learn, that he actually completely loathes her, and that, in fact, he has sort of organized his life around hating her. He's very controlling, and demands, basically, that she obey him - even more than that, sort of represent him - all the time. So, knowing that, when Gilbert tells Isabel to make sure that Warburton is the successful suitor and not Rosier, we can see where it's going. At first she's uncertain, but when she couples the knowledge of Warburton's old passion for her with the possibility of defying Gilbert, it seems her decision is easy enough. She tells Rosier that she'll give him whatever help is in her power.

This part was significantly more exciting than the previous 350 pages, I must say. It actually seemed like there was some action for once, and, though Isabel's predictably tragic marriage wasn't exactly cheery, it was nice to see her contemplate standing up to her horrible husband. The part with Warburton still loving Isabel and planning to propose to her stepdaughter was a little odd, but then, Isabel's only six years older than Pansy, so it's not as strange as it might seem. There's a nice little scene where Warburton is discussing dancing at a ball, and fails to ask Pansy to dance the cotillion because he's planning to ask Isabel instead. It's a nice little analogy for the relationship, and I have to give James a point or two for sneaking it in.

We'll see what happens. Honestly, I'd love to see Isabel go all Tess of the D'urbervilles and murder Gilbert, but it probably won't happen. Especially not at Stonehenge.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Don't go up the stairs! You moron!

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: 260 - 353

I lied about Rome and Venice; it was actually Florence. Um, sorry? Anyway, like I said, Isabel decides she likes Gilbert Osmond because he seems to know what is right and think the absolute best of himself at all times. (Which, as we the readers can see, actually makes him a pedantic asshole, but there you are. Of course, we also know that he's after her money.) Eventually he proposes to her and, though she takes a few months to think about it and travel the globe, she accepts him. Caspar Goodwood (who comes to renew his courtship) is pissed off, Lord Warburton (whom Isabel stumbles upon in Rome (no, really Rome this time, I swear)) is hurt, and Ralph Touchett (who's been hanging around the whole time) is stricken with ill health (to be fair, he was already troubled by long-term illness, but still) as a result. Everyone hates the match except for Madame Merle, which only increases Isabel's determination to make the marriage work.

It's like watching a horror movie during which you feel compelled to instruct the main character not to do the idiotic things that she's doing because of the fact that they'll surely result in her death. Unfortunately, there's nothing to be done. Some part of me wants to believe that James is trying to criticize the difficulties that society creates for women who want to be independent, but it seems to me more like he's saying that women need to accept what's good for them and settle down to marriage before they're swept off by disastrous wooers. (That's right. I said wooers.) This is probably unfair, but I get the feeling that if I had been alive at the time and had ever met Henry James, I would have found him a bit hysterical. (In the sense of reactionary, not amusing. Amusing is not really a word we use for ol' Henry.)


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