Friday, August 22, 2014

The Picture of Dorian Gray (91st Book)

I decided to read Dorian Gray because a dear friend of mine who was coming to visit had just finished reading it and I wanted to have a good old fashioned face-to-face book discussion. I love my book blog, but nothing beats discussing a book with someone in person. I had seen the modern Dorian Gray book adaptation and like pretty much everyone in Western culture I had a vague idea of what the novel was about.

I am starting to get grumpy in my reading, but Dorian Gray is FINALLY a novel that deserved its reputation in history. It has something to say, it is a thoroughly engaging story and it was progressive for its time. And I am discovering most importantly...I enjoyed reading it!

My friend and I had a very good discussion about the book. She had bought a beautifully illustrated  copy of the original version of the novel which is quite different from the common version that most people read. Oscar Wilde received quite a a bit of flack for the original version which contained much more overt reference to the attraction and sexual obsession of Basil, the artist, to Dorian Gray. In the subsequent additions he toned it down. On the flip side my friend's version did not have the foreword which my novel had where Wilde insists that art should be art for art's sake. It emphasizes quite adamantly that if you look at a symbolic meaning in art, you do so at your own peril.

I am quite confused as to why the novel received flack for its racy content, because although the topics covered in the novel would be quite scandalous for their time the predominant message is that  the wonton things that Dorian Gray engaged in had an impact on his life. His vanity and carousing appeared on his portrait even though it did not manifest on his person. It is an extremely moral novel which shows that every action has a reaction to it.

When I was watching the film adaptation of the novel I was extremely saddened by the artist Basil who was obsessed with Dorian. His friend Lord Henry essential steals his prized possession out from under him and I was upset by the fact that Lord Henry was aware what Dorian meant to him. The novel version makes it clear, however, that Basil's extreme and obsessive love with Dorian lead to his own downfall and was  something that he regretted in the end.

This novel is extremely engaging. The story is interesting and fascinating and the plot movies quickly without bogging down. I enjoyed the whole experience of reading this book which is something I can't say for most of the books I have read lately. I am actually surprised that this book did not make the novel 100. I think when I finish this challenge and have a few more classics under my belt I will challenge myself to make a list of some of my favourite novels of all time.

I will end this blog with part of a quote that really stood out for me:

"The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion..."

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book 56- Things Fall Apart (90th Book)

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe was the 56th book I have read on the list of 100. It was a good book with a great story, but it will not become my favourite book by any stretch of the imagination. I frequently regret starting this list at the top, because the books are definitely getting mediocre as I progress down the list!

This book reminded me a lot of The Poisonwood Bible. I am always completely disheartened when I hear stories of Christians who go to foreign countries with an eye to convert the masses. It is so prideful and always has a disastrous outcome.

The first half of this book follows the story of Okonkwo who sets out to prove that he can make something of himself despite his father's lazy and incompetent ways. He gains fame as a great wrestler when he is just a young child. As he grows up he decided that he must show no weakness and always be strong. As with anyone who causes the pendulum to swing too far to the other side he discovers that there are flaws on either end of the spectrum. On a side note I watched a great Film Noir movie called Detective Story at a cute indie theatre in town this week that told the same story. In this case, the main police detective was trying to make up for his father's abusiveness by becoming a servant of justice. His black and white views on good and evil ended up being his downfall. I highly recommend the movie if you can find it because I was blown away by the fantastic story and amazingly portrayed characters. It was filmed in the 50s though so you will have to put up with a few dated elements and a bit of chauvinism.

The second half of the novel follows  the village's downfall after Christian missionaries move into the community and attempt to convert the masses. At first, it is only society's outcasts that find meaning in story of the God of love. When a few people of high society are converted and violence ensues the novels title makes an appearance and you can see that things are about to fall apart. The novel does not end on a happy note, and you are left to wonder what will become of the village that has started to unravel.

I am extremely happy that Daniel Burt chose to add novels from more than one ethnicity and community to his list. I have loved expanding my horizons as I read literature from around the world.  I struggled to place myself in the shoes of Okonkwo as he used violence against his wives and children and killed the boy he had adopted as a son. That being said it is great to look at the world with different lenses, particularly as a person of faith. Although the tribal belief system seems foreign and outdated it is great to try on different perspectives and hopefully analyze your own beliefs. I have never been one who is afraid of the questions and have always been open to dialogue. I am happy to add new literature and cultural experiences to my repertoire.

My last comment on the novel is that I absolutely adored the title. I did  a study on  the poem that it comes from when I was in high school  and was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the poem was a picture of William B. Yeats belief that the world was based on a 2000 year cycle. The words resonated with me and even though I don't believe his theories I absolutely adored his imagery and use of language. It is great that we can communicate with each other across the continents and across the centuries through the use of words.  I felt that this quote from the novel reminded me a lot of the poem:

"For whom is it well, for whom is it well? There is no one for whom it is well"
My last and favourite quote from the novel is this: "There is no story that is not true". This is my favourite part of literature. I love that whether it is told in metaphor or represents a theory that you don't subscribe to there are still glimmers of truth that resonate within you. Stories are a way of explaining the human experience and I love that we have been gifted with this method of making sense of the world around us.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Castle of Crossed Destinies (89th Book)

I picked up The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino  at my lovely local library. I have loved having a big city library so close to my house. It means that whenever I want something it is almost always on hand. This book has intrigued me since I first picked up the list of 1001 books to Read Before You Die.  The novel is basically told through a series of Tarot cards which are used by a room full of mute travellers to tell the story of how they came to be at both a castle and a tavern. I loved the concept.

The thing I found with this novel is that I liked the idea better than the execution. The stories were moderately interesting and the majority of them where stories we had heard before. I found the interweaving of the tales with Tarot cards to be a bit challenging. My reading was broken up as I looked at the pictures and compared them to the stories. I don't think I was ever really lost in the story at any given point.

I love the theme which is that all tales are based on similar archetypes and that all stories intersect with others. The story made me get on a very real level that we share a common destiny with our fellow travellers in this life. I particularly loved the Tale of the Waverer which, I believe, is the first that Italo Calvino created when he wrote the novel. The tale follows a man who can not make a decision. He is asked to choose between his two lady loves, which he is unable to do. He then journeys through a forest only to find his way barred from the City of All. "Are you admitted even into the City of All only through a choice and a rejection, accepting one side and rejecting the rest?" I love that we get to choose our path as human beings. We are in control of our destiny which is both a blessing and a curse. Somewhere in my teen years I began to see that choice was freedom and instead of being bound by the fear of making a wrong choice, I embraced the chaos of deciding. Life has never been so much fun!

This book is a very short and fun read. I look forward to picking up more of Calvino's works as several of them make up the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.

The Mill on the Floss (88th Book)

I read Mill on the Floss in two chunks: one which had me in stitches, and highly amused by the antics of this interesting family, and the other, after a long break, with quiet dedication and interest to know what would become of the characters. Somewhere in the middle I got lost and had to put the book down.

I don't know what to make of this book. I think my main struggle is that I was really looking forward to it after Middlemarch which just might be the favourite book I have discovered from the Novel 100. This book was nothing at all like Middlemarch, which is not to say it is bad. It has all the marks of great literature, I just don't love it. When ever I get stuck on a novel, only then to finish it with relative ease, I am unsure how to rank the book. It sat on my bedside table for months while I stared at it with disdain. I think I got lost in the middle because the novel was just so bleak.  Maybe it was my mood or maybe the characters were lost on me, but the middle of the novel felt like a slog for me.

When I picked the book back up again, after my several month break the pages flew by fairly quickly. I was interested to know what would become of the characters again. Strangely enough I didn't like any of them. The father was a bumbling idiot, quick to anger which led to his family's demise. Maggie was passionate and flighty and tried to stuff all her feelings down in religious piety and family loyalty. Tom was arrogant and blind to all, but his own honour and redeeming that of his family. The mother was passive and let life happen to her. If there was ever a novel that depicts hubris to a tee, this is it. The fatal flaws in both Maggie and Tom lead to their down fall.

I absolutely HATED the end of the novel, don't even get me started on it. The ending made me angry, but it did make me feel and quite passionately at that. I think that is a sign of great literature. The copy I read had a summary at the end about what the book was about and a bit of George Eliot's history. There was a quote in it that I thought summarized why I can hate the characters, but still not hate the book. George Eliot wanted readers to "be better able to imagine and feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures"

The one thing I will say for this novel is that it has a completely differ theme and feel to Middlemarch. I have often found that writers have one pet theme and one main idea and they create novels that are simply variations on the same theme. Unlike Middlemarch, this novel sets out to show the idyllic time that childhood is for a lot of people. It is also a bildungsroman as Maggie is a character that goes through a lot of development. Here is a quote that summarizes the tone and feel of the novel well:

"There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects become dear to us before we had known the labour of choice."

This novel is basically about growing up and moving away from the easy times of childhood. It is also about the ties that hold and bind us in family. Maggie loved her brother Tom and it lead to her demise. She was also someone who chose to sacrifice herself for others happiness quite a bit. Normally I would say that this is an admirable characteristic, but in Maggie's case it is an unnecessary self denial.

"We can't choose happiness either for ourselves of for another; we can't tell where that will lie. We can only choose whether we will indulge ourselves in the present moment or whether we will renounce that for the sake of obeying the divine voice within us, the sake of being true to all the motives that sanctify our lives."

That is a beautiful quote which I wholeheartedly agreed with. Maggie was an honourable individual,  but the choices she made while listening to her inner voice were awful.

I have written my review and I still don't know what to make of this novel. It certainly won't make it to my top ten, but it definitely is not the worst novel I have ever read. I am curious about George Eliot's other novels now. If they are each completely different from each other I would love to see what else she tackles. I am really glad that I didn't completely give up on it when I ran into the snag in the middle.