October 27, 2009

LOST GIRLS by Alan Moore

Thanks to a good friend of mine who graciously/ wickedly lent me her mammoth copy, I just read Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls. For those not in the know (wink, wink), this graphic novel - very graphic graphic novel - places Wendy (of Neverland), Alice (of Wonderland), and Dorothy (of Kansas) together in a European hotel around the time of the outbreak of WWI. While there, they form relationships that lead them to explore their pasts and towards all kinds of sexual awakenings. To be honest, I really don't know what to write about it at the moment, as I'm still trying to take it all in. All I know is that these stories that I have loved so well have been completely changed for me. We'll see how that develops.

For a much better look at Lost Girls, and - even better - the source material, I direct you to said friend's examination of it. She does far better than I could hope to (especially as my mind is still reeling from the shock of the book).

October 25, 2009

In Honor of St. Crispin's Day...

...I bring you the St. Crispin's Day speech at the Battle of Agincourt from William Shakespeare's Henry V. Enjoy!

What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

October 24, 2009

NOCTURNES by Kazuo Ishiguro

I love Kazuo Ishiguro. Love. So I was very excited to hear about this newest book, which is a collection of five stories “of music and nightfall.” As per usual, Ishiguro crafts his stories beautifully and (appropriate considering their themes) lyrically. Ishiguro is certainly an international writer, as he has proven with his novels (given their varied settings) and continues with these stories. He comfortably and convincingly places his stories and characters all over the world, ranging from LA to Venice to rural England, while using common human themes and passions to unite them. These different backgrounds and settings of the characters ultimately expose how similar they actually are in their relationships with people and with music.

Music is at center at each of these stories in different ways, from the aspiring musicians to the music lovers to the singer past his peak. The importance of music to each of these characters, however, is used more as a starting point to explore their relationships with or observations of others. In more than two (in fact most) stories, we see a marriage at its breaking point and the attempts of those involved to salvage it. We see the progression of friendships and family relationships, and the strains they can cause. Many of the characters attempt to reconcile following their dreams with accepting reality, often with the help of strangers. There are the musicians who relied on music and other musicians to escape from behind the Iron Curtain, both literally and figuratively. But if all this makes Nocturnes sound like a dark collection of stories and heavy meditation on human nature, I have been misleading. I found the stories overall light and pleasant – little glimpses into these musical lives, with their tragedies, oddities, and all. They are often humorous as well – Ishiguro seemed to enjoy exploring the frequent absurdity of life by placing his characters in situations that somehow involved a trophy-stuffed turkey and the boiling of an old boot. Along with these ruminations on life, music flows continuously throughout the collection. The progression within each story, and from one story to the next, has a musical quality to it. Little things, whether it is a character or an idea, come back like a refrain. At the risk of extending the musical metaphors too far, each story seemed to me like a bit of a song heard from a distance, blurry and dreamlike.

With all that said, however, I can understand why, for example, my mom didn’t care for the book. What I love so much about Ishiguro’s novels, aside from his masterful writing, is that I become so invested in them. That didn’t exist for me in Nocturnes. The nature of the short story (as great a literary form as it is) doesn’t lend itself as easily to that feeling as that of a novel. Though his characters were reminiscent of what I loved about those in his novels, particularly with the tone of their narration and reflections on memory, none of them stuck with me like his others did (I’m thinking especially of Never Let Me Go – read it). And yet, I definitely enjoyed Nocturnes. It was nice to see a change of pace from Ishiguro and experience his writing in another form – but I’ll be anxiously awaiting his next novel.

October 15, 2009

October 13, 2009


I only recently fell for Philip Roth, having read and loved Goodbye, Columbus over the summer. I came across The Dying Animal in my favorite DC used bookstore (Books for America) and figured it was as good a place as any to continue with my Roth education. I was then unaware, however, that it is actually the third book in the trilogy of Professor David Kepesh novels. To appreciate The Dying Animal it is not necessary to read the other two books first – though (as I have not yet read them and do not know for sure) it may very well be that each book is more complete with the others as context. Regardless, on its own Roth’s short book provides a meditation on innate human nature and the nature of relationships between men and women.

In what could be called the book’s thesis, Professor David Kepesh insists that “No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you’re not superior to sex.” Kepesh, a product of the sexual revolution of the 60’s and longtime proponent of the freedom that it espoused, both proves and refutes this statement as he recounts his obsession with Consuela, a student of his. In his mid-sixties, he has spent his many years as a professor and public television personality bedding countless students and believing himself in control of his sexual life, until Consuela consumes him. Is it love? As he reflects on the jealousy that plagues him and his inability to stop thinking about Consuela, never does he admit to loving her – he always speaks of her in terms of a sexual obsession. Is this because he truly is only obsessed with her, or because the idea of love doesn’t fit in with the worldview he has practiced and promoted for so many years? Kepesh is on many counts – as an ex-husband, father, and teacher – an unlikeable man. In his world, women exist purely as sexual beings. Yes, he sees them as examples of beauty and acknowledges the intelligence of certain women he has known, but for him they exist primarily in terms of their sexuality. I wouldn’t accuse him of misogyny, however – both sexes exist purely as sexual beings in his view. Through Kepesh’s opinions on sex and the progression of his relationship with Consuela, the novel brings up many questions concerning love, sex, and human nature.

Though I often found myself angry at Kepesh, I think the questions he brought up are interesting and helpful in trying to define relationships (if they can be said to be definable). I am interested to read the other Kepesh novels (particularly The Breast - in which, apparently, he is metamorphosed into, of all things, a breast), though I will not be recommending this book to my parents any time soon, as it is certainly the most explicit book I’ve ever come across. A nice little surprise: I realized about halfway into the book the origin of its title. Like so many great things (Things Fall Apart, No Country For Old Men, Slouching Towards Bethlehem…) The Dying Animal takes its very appropriate title from a W.B. Yeats poem. “Consume my heart away; sick with desire And fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is…

October 11, 2009

Poetic Inspiration

When I Was One-And-Twenty
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
'Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free."
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
"The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue."
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.

-A.E. Housman

October 10, 2009

84, CHARING CROSS ROAD by Helene Hanff

I came across this delightful little book in the bookstore, where I read it in two (rather spaced out) short sittings. It is a collection of letters between Helene Hanff, an American television writer in New York, and Frank Noel (and friends), an Englishman working in an old bookshop in London. The letters begin in 1949 when Helene requests a rare book she is unable to locate in New York, and continue through 1968 upon Frank’s death. I picked it up half expecting a romantic letter-driven love story, but was actually glad to see it is not that at all – it is the progression of a unique friendship that spans the Atlantic Ocean and years.

Aside from being simply a pleasant short read featuring a whole cast of real people, the letters are interesting in that they offer a genuine view of Britain (and, to a lesser extent, America) at the time. It’s post-World War II that the staff of Marks & Co. Booksellers live in, complete with rationing, the death of a king, the ascent of Queen Elizabeth, and, eventually, the popularity of the Beatles. All these events and more are alluded to as the years advance, as such things are in letters between people of any time. Culturally the progression of the friendship between the two is funny to see, with Helene the brassy outspoken American and Frank the typically reserved Englishman writing such different kinds of letters. Helene teasingly berated Frank and his coworkers so often for neglecting to send her books that I often want to tell them, don’t worry! She’s only teasing! (but fear not, I think they knew it). Case in point: about her visit to London that all involved parties always hoped for, she wrote, “I’m gonna climb up that Victorian book-ladder and disturb the dust on the top shelves and everyone’s decorum”. Despite their differences in manners and writing styles (or probably partly because of them), their friendship and letters lasted for years – thankfully, because now we can read them.

What I took away from the book most was the desire to read more. With all their discussion of old English playwrights, poets, and writers – from Shakespeare to Donne to Austen – all I wanted to do was curl up in a library of old books and learn. In that sense, the book was inspiring and, despite its small size, packs a big punch. Apparently the book was made into a play and a movie, which I’ll have to seek out. And, perhaps even more than making me want to read, 84 Charing Cross Road made me lament the decrease in letter-writing. WHY don’t we write letters anymore?

October 09, 2009

BLACK WATER by Joyce Carol Oates

With the explosion of newspaper and magazine articles that inevitably accompanied Ted Kennedy’s death this summer, I came across an editorial by Joyce Carol Oates that really got me thinking. Chappaquiddick has become part of the public consciousness and the mythology of the Kennedy family, sometimes even referred to as part of the ‘Kennedy Curse’ (which I think is absurd as it implies Ted was a victim in the event, when he in fact directly caused the death of Mary Jo Kopechne). In the article, Oates reflects on what the years following the event meant for Kennedy, and what they mean now that he is gone. Is, as she asks through the words of John Berryman, “wickedness soluble in art” (or ‘good deeds’)? [Side note: this question seems especially relevant again these past few weeks, what with reemergence of the case on Roman Polanski. Ah, to be above the law like these men.] Now, I don’t know that she herself comes to a conclusion on this, or if his life has been filled with ‘good deeds,’ or even if there is a conclusion to come to; what I know is that the article moved me to read Oates’ very thinly veiled roman a clef, Black Water.

The novella tracks a day in the life (the last day) of a young woman, ‘Kelly Kelleher,’ as she attends the Fourth of July party of a friend and meets her political idol, ‘The Senator’. Oates opens the book in full force as the car the drunken senator had been driving begins to sink into the swampy water. It continues as Kelly’s mind jumps back and forth through her life as she attempts to understand what is happening to her in the time (reportedly about 4 hours at Chappaquiddick) between the moment the car entered the water and the moment of her eventual death. The book plunges us into Kelly’s thoughts as they drift in and out of coherency; her often unintelligible associations flow, from her memories and images of death to her imagined rescue, making her last hours all the more tragic. As she continues to hope and believe that the senator will return for her, even hallucinating that he does (rather than call his lawyer), I hoped alongside her while knowing the outcome and wishing it were different. Reading Black Water, one hopes this isn’t really how it happened; that the senator didn’t really use the woman’s body as a platform to propel himself to safety, that he didn’t really wait 8 hours before calling for help, that he didn’t really leave her for dead. But, sadly, we know at least some of these are true.

This is the only book I have read (so far) by the famously prolific Oates, and I find it easy to believe that is considered among her best. The unique writing style makes the story all the more tragic as we haltingly follow Kelly’s disjointed and rambling thoughts. In reading the mind of Kelly Kelleher, we are made to think of what Mary Jo Kopechne would have been thinking that night; it is there that, with Black Water, Oates makes her strongest impact.

October 06, 2009

Photographic Inspiration

COMMENCEMENT by J. Courtney Sullivan

Every time I entered a bookstore for much of the summer, J. Courtney Sullivan’s debut novel called to me from the new releases display. Recently, I finally gave in and got my hands on it (with the help of my library, where the abundance of readily available free books will never cease to amaze me) to see what kind of wisdom a book seemingly about commencement could impart upon a recent college graduate. It proved enlightening in more ways than one, as I found myself both identifying with its characters in familiar settings while being challenged to think about where to take my education from here and what it means to be a woman today.

The story of four close friends from Smith College, Commencement chronicles, often nonlinearly, the progression of the girls’ friendship from the start of their freshman year through their mid-twenties. I was, before I read the novel, pretty unfamiliar with Smith and its customs and hierarchies. But Sullivan paints such a vivid picture of the college – I imagine it must be a unique experience for an actual Smithie to read the book – that, upon its end, I almost felt a connection to the school. I think, however, this connection comes less from Smith itself than it does from Sullivan’s main theme: modern feminism. (Disclaimer: I have never actually studied feminist schools of thought and am speaking purely from the perspective of a female, so take this how you will.)

What the book is really about, I think, is the feminist movement in its many forms and divisions in modern America, and what this current generation of young women (myself included) can and are doing with our abundance of choices. Just as every woman is a unique representation of modern feminism in the real world, each of the girls in the book is a different kind of feminist, from the apathetic Southern belle to the radical anti-men activist. At times these different takes on feminism in the book could be isolating and even infuriating; there were times in the book in which I actively disliked some of the characters and was angered by their choices and opinions. I think, however, it was necessary for Sullivan to make her characters and their actions so polarizing, as they thus represented all sides and extremes of the debate (feminism is, after all, still a polarizing issue). All of this discussion of feminism and its place in America is only that – discussion – until we see it put onto action. As the four girls leave Smith for the ‘real world’ they each take their vastly different meanings of feminism to become very different kinds women, thus calling for reflection on the tangible effects of their kind of education and feminist thinking.

The book does not go on to explore what kind feminist idea makes a ‘successful’ woman - I don't think this is the point of the book. For all its big ideas and meditations on modern society, the heart of the novel is in the friendships of the four girls. I may not have gone to Smith, but I did go to a lovely all-girls high school and fully appreciate the unique friendships that come out of all-girls education. Still, it wasn’t the idea of Smith or any kind of all-girls school that made Commencement powerful for me. It was the exploration and admiration of the kinds of friendships that women share.

October 04, 2009

An Introduction & Mission Statement

Welcome, adorable friends and friendly strangers, to my self-indulgent exploration of the wonderful world of literature. Another blog about books, you say? But why? Well, hypothetical reader, I’m aware that there are countless other blogs out there concerning the same thing and that I will be one droplet in the proverbial Internet ocean; I have, however, many reasons – both selfish and selfless – for the existence of this blog. After I finish a book, I take to the Internet to read as much as I can on the book – critics’ reception, peoples’ opinions, any available critical analysis. Here I hope to actively contribute to this conversation rather than be a silent spectator, while also providing another outlet for people looking to do the same. On a personal level, this shall be a multi-purpose blog: To keep me reading (though admittedly I don’t need a blog for that). To keep me thinking about what I am reading. To keep me writing about what I’m reading (a part of me misses the endless college English papers, if not the all-nighters that accompanied them). And to hone my critical reading and writing skills. I tend to like most things I read, though of course to different extents. It is my hope that if I am actively thinking about what made me like or dislike a certain book, I will, with practice, get better at truthfully criticizing or praising said book – and therefore further the literary education I developed with my degree in English. And, finally, I am here to explore (in the words of a Mr. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow),

“The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books”