Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Angel's Game

By Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Hooray! I finally managed finish the pleasure book I’ve been reading on the sly all month, sneaking in a couple chapters here and there while the heavyweights* domineering my time for J-Term weren’t looking. I resent the fact that all those people who told me I wouldn’t have time for pleasure reading in college are kind of right. It’s not that I don’t have any time for pleasure reading – believe me, I make time – but it is true that I pretty much read as many books throughout the entirety of first semester as I did in one and a half weeks home for winter break. Le sigh.

The Angel’s Game is one of those prequel-but-not-really books. It features the father of Daniel Sempere, the protagonist of The Shadow of the Wind, and gives the backstory behind Shadow’s opening scene, when Daniel is taken to the Cemetery of Lost Books for the first time on the morning he wakes to find he can no longer remember his mother’s face. In The Angel’s Game, we’re introduced to Daniel’s mother – a feisty and idealistic author-in-training named Isabella, apprenticed to David Martín.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Angel’s Game tells the story of David Martín, who has spent the majority of his life sequestered in a foreboding old tower house in Barcelona, writing an ongoing series of mystery/crime novels entitled The City of the Damned, and eternally frustrated with himself for selling out for the sake of a paycheck. When a mysterious foreign publisher, Andreas Corelli, approaches him with a commission for 100,000 francs that would free him from his enslavement-by-contract to the publishers of his pulp fiction, David cannot refuse, despite his misgivings about the sinister nature of the commission itself – to write the doctrine of a new religion.

The further David delves into his new project and into the mysteries shrouding his elusive publisher, the stronger his apprehensions become as David’s gothic home begins relinquishing its secrets and exposing uncanny connections between David, his increasingly unnerving and otherworldly publisher, and the house’s former occupant, who died under mysterious circumstances a generation before. As David reaches the completion of his work and the unraveling of the mysteries surrounding it, he’s forced to wonder just what sort of game he’s gotten himself into, and whether it’s one he can escape with his life – or his soul – intact.

The prose is beautiful, as usual. Zafón is a master at creating lurid, surreal, and captivating worlds for his stories. But the plot itself crescendoed without the satisfying forte and decrescendo of The Shadow of the Wind. Instead of coming together smoothly like the teeth of a zipper, the plot threads were tied into a ‘this-has-gone-on-long-enough-let’s-wrap-it-up’ knot. And I'm all for leaving some things ambiguous at the end of a book - there's a kind of beauty in needing to think for yourself to make complete sense of things - but I felt too ambiguous at the end of The Angel's Game. Standing alone, it might have been a five star book. But The Shadow of the Wind set the bar so high that its own companion novel couldn’t measure up.

*You know, all those archaic, dry (but kinda sorta influential) texts I’ve been reviewing lately: LivyVirgil, and this one guy named Cicero… 

Books Read This Year: 7
Top 100 Progress: 38/100

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Sixteen Satires

By Juvenal

I wanted to be super clever and start this off by saying, “Juvenal is juvenile,” but that’s not exactly the right word. What’s a word for “inflammatory, self-righteous, ranting, bitter old man*”? If you think of one, let me know.

Juvenal’s satires are a commentary on what he characterizes as the degradation of Roman society, for which he holds all his contemporaries responsible while upholding the moral and political purity of his forebears. He’s poisoned with nostalgia and thinks the golden age of Rome has come and gone; observing his city makes him feel the way I imagine I would if I were stuck in front of a TV with no remote and forced to watch MTV or South Park 12 hours a day. Or if I were trapped in a modern art museum.

Part of me almost pities Juvenal, because at times his tirades come off sounding more like those of an aging man unable to let go of his glory days or keep up with a fast-paced and transforming society than those of a sanctimonious blowhard. But then Satire VI came around relentlessly ragging on women and with its cruel pettiness cured me of any sympathetic twinges.

What I take from these satires is that, just as human nature has remained constant throughout history, we perceive our societies to be in a constant state of decline. Why is that? It seems that every generation balks at the behavior of the next while glorifying that of their predecessors. But are really we in a downward spiral of corruption that began when Eve bit into that infamous apple? Or are we simply skittish of change? Is this a phenomenon of degradation or evolution?

*Okay. So I don’t actually know if he was an old man. But that’s how I picture him.

Books Read This Year: 7
Top 100 Progress: 38/100

The Love Poems

By Ovid

The Love Poems is another example of me opening a book with the wrong set of expectations. Call me crazy, but from a book with both ‘love’ and ‘poetry’ in the title, I expected some romance. And the cover! The cover’s pretty, no? But it was not to be. Ovid is probably one of the least romantic poets I’ve ever read, if you consider an opposite of love to be a vulgarization of romance. Ovid could be described as the Roman man’s guide to Getting Girls, and the Roman woman’s guide to Getting Guys to Like Them. Forget truth or romance; according to Ovid love is all about pretense. And by all appearances, you'd think he's right. The implementation of his advice is still rampant today! Ovid's strategies for wooing women can be observed in frat houses and crude comedies across America on a daily basis, and the contrived charades women employ in their effort to be men’s “ideal” could have been pulled straight from Cosmo’s “25 Ways To Get Him Thinking About You.” A common theme is starting to emerge from all these books* for me: human beings aren’t as dynamic as we think we are. Yeah, we have more advanced technology, take up more space, and live longer than we used to, but our drives and the ways we interact with one another haven’t changed much at all.

In conclusion, I think The Love Poems is a misleading title. All ye romantics, be wary. I’d recommend Ovid only to those who identify with the serial-dating stock male lead in cruder romantic comedies (in need of the reforming powers of blossoming love for the female lead), or perhaps think ‘that’s what she said’ jokes are hysterical. I will concede, however, that although it wasn’t for me, Ovid did have a serious knack for writing poetry.** I just wish he’d channeled his talent into, you know, romantic love poems.

* The ones I’m reading for my J-term class on Romans and Christians, I mean.
** And apparently, so do I. Nice accidental rhyme, eh?

Books Read This Year: 7
Top 100 Progress: 38/100

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Aeneid

By Virgil

I’m going to try to keep this big picture and not get snagged on any of the many analytical and thematic points that came up in class - as interesting as they are - because that’s a whole different box of cookies.*

Self #1: “Repeat after me: This is a book review, not an essay.”
Self #2: “This is a book review, not an essay.”
Self #1: “Got it?”
Self #2: “Book review, not essay.”
Self #1: “Very good.”
Self #2: “Can I get back to the review now?”
Self #1: “By all means.”

I liked The Aeneid. It wasn’t exactly a pleasure read, but I liked it in the way you like arduous things (and by arduous I mean reading all 300+ pages of epic prose in 3 days) once they’re over. If you’ve ever read Grapes of Wrath maybe you know what I’m talking about. There were a lot of slow parts, many of which involved an excess of names, but there were also plenty of gripping parts that had me actually forgetting to watch the page numbers tick by as slowly as the minutes. For example, the last four books are almost entirely devoted to one long, drawn out, dramatic, and incredibly visceral battle scene. I may have cringed at least once a page, but I certainly wasn’t bored! 

Two Sentence Summary: After the sack of Troy, Aeneas escapes with a group of Trojan warriors and sets out for the shores of Italy, where he will found New Troy (aka Rome). He must first overcome the obstacles of a vindictive meddling goddess, and then conquer the land destined to become a great empire.

I’m guessing most of you have heard of The Aeneid. And maybe you’ve heard whisperings of comparisons to The Odyssey. Maybe some have you have even read it. If you a) haven’t and b) have read The Odyssey and didn’t loathe it, I recommend The Aeneid as a good companion read. It’s an excellent microcosmic example that for all the energy the Romans put into dissing the Greeks, they put at least as much or more into imitating (and in their minds, improving on) them. Naturally it’s chock full of meaty themes as well, like the conflict between duty and desire, the martyrdom of present happiness for future greatness, learning what to let go of and when, the ephemerality of human life and connection, the entanglement of place and identity... the list goes on. And Virgil wasn’t kidding around. He knew his way around a vivid description (see: incredibly visceral battle scene). I’ve never read such inventive – and numerous – descriptions of dawn. They put Homer’s lovely, if repetitive, “rosy-fingered dawn” to shame. And that’s pretty much Virgil’s goal in a nutshell**: outdo Homer. Whether he succeeds or not is up to you.

So what do you think? Did I keep the essay-writing impulse on a short enough leash? Are you thinking of giving The Aeneid a go? Or did I just resurrect old repressed memories of reading The Odyssey under duress in high school?

* I say box of cookies because I’ve never liked the creepy-crawly connotations of “can of worms.” It reminds me too much of sophomore biology and my lab partner who was determined to use night crawlers for the worm unit and then got scared of them when they reared their thick, slick, ugly pink heads and… oh. I’ve gone an opened another box of cookies, haven’t I?
** Other than, you know, establishing a mythic tradition for the founding of Rome that is. And getting paid handsomely by the emperor.

Books Read This Year: 5
Top 100 Progress: 38/100

On The Good Life

By Cicero

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Cicero’s one of those names everyone seems to recognize even if most people haven’t a clue what he’s known for (see: Plato, Socrates, Aristotle…). I was no different. Cicero, Socrates… what’s the difference? But in actual fact Cicero is nothing like Socrates.* (Thank God.) Nor Plato, aside from a minor use of monologue disguised as dialogue.

A good chunk of this book is devoted to Cicero’s essays On Duties and On Friendship. On Duties is kind of an ancient version of How To Win Friends and Influence People. Cicero claims that one must be well-liked in order to achieve much of anything, which ties in with his overarching philosophy that the human beings are inexorably intertwined with one another. We’re symbiotic, if you will. On Duties outlines how to earn and maintain popular favor, and what to do with it once you’ve got it. I’ve never been very comfortable with the whole idea of self-marketing, so I wasn’t super keen on this section, though it was interesting to read. I did like his theory that our symbiosis can be an agent for the greatest good and the fiercest detriment, however, which sort of segues into his ideas in On Friendship, where he cites friendship as the best thing one can achieve in life, but friendship gone bad as one of life’s greatest failings and dangers.

For the most part I enjoyed On Friendship – it tiptoed into the territory of social psychology, which I love – but I thought Cicero’s adamant ideals of wholly genuine friendship verged into a sort of platonic take on True Love. It’s beautiful in theory, but I’m not sure I buy the idea that there are any friendships entirely devoid of the occasional falsity and pretense. We are only human, after all. Cicero’s talk about the sincere, unpretentious, and unambiguous institution of friendship felt reminiscent to me of how Ayn Rand speaks of the Self, and I question whether it's any more practical in real life. That being said, I did enjoy his distinctions between different types of friendship, and his theories on what brings friends together and what catalysts start fraying the threads that bind. College is notoriously a period of social upheaval, and I found myself identifying with much of his commentary on these shifting dynamics. In fact, that’s the major thing that sets Cicero apart from some of our other readings in my mind – he’s relevant to modern society in a more manifest way than the Greek philosophers and their more abstract conjectures. You can underline passages and apply them verbatim to our present society, as though human beings haven’t changed as much as we think they have in the past 2,000 years. And that’s just plain cool. 

* Interesting Fact: We have no published works by Socrates. He only exists in other philosopher’s characterizations of him! Nuggets like this are why I go to college, truly.

Books Read This Year: 4

Top 100 Progress: 38/100

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Rise of Rome

By Livy

I addressed the “secret” clause in my tagline a couple entries ago, and today I address the “under duress” clause with the first in a series of books I’ve read for class in the past week. I’m in a program at school that studies the development of Western civilization by reading and discussing its great works, which inevitably includes several histories. Last semester the focus was on Ancient Greece and our major historians were Thucydides and Herodotus. This semester it’s all about the Romans. Livy does for Rome what Thucydides and Herodotus did for Greece. Of the three, Livy is my favorite. Yes, he’s a historian like the others, but unlike them he’s firstly a writer, and you can tell. Having about 100 pages of him to read a night, this was something I was very grateful for, as it made the convoluted and sometimes corrupt lineage of Romulus more compelling than it might have been in other hands. In fact, several times the English student in me took over from the student of critical thought and started underlining passages that I just plain liked, even if they weren’t otherwise significant. Which, coming off a tide of Plato, Biblical texts, and the odd appearance by Socrates,  was a nice and somewhat novel feeling. So, verdict on Livy’s Rise of Rome? Not bad. 

Books Read This Year: 4
Top 100 Progress: 38/100

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Professor and the Madman

By Simon Winchester

The Oxford English Dictionary (or OED, for those in the know) is arguably the most epic* book in the English language. In fact, it kind of IS the English language. In its current publication, the OED is a twenty-volume dictionary containing 291,500 entries on 21,730 pages, the longest of which being for the word set, whose 430 varying uses is described in 60,000 words. The first edition was published in installments beginning in 1888 and then in its entirety in 1928. This is the story of its conception, and of the men that nurtured it and brought it to life.

Amassing and cataloguing the entirety of the English language and its evolution throughout history was no small undertaking. To ease their burden and speed things along (the dictionary was begun with a planned timeline of 5 years, which it exceeded by a good 65), Professor James Murray and his team of editors appealed to the English-speaking world for volunteers to submit definitions and quotations demonstrating usage of "rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, or peculiar” words, of which they received over 3.5 million. Curiously, of those 3.5 million, tens of thousands were submitted by a single man – a certain Dr. W. C. Minor. Dr. Minor became an indispensible aid to the OED committee, and though he kept up a correspondence with Professor Murray on all things pertaining to the dictionary for well over a decade, he managed to decline or overlook Murray’s every proposition to meet. It wasn’t until Murray offered to make the visit himself that the veil of mystery around his most prolific assistant was lifted. Arriving at the return address from which so many thousands contributions had come, he found not the charming country estate of a well-off retired gentleman he expected, but an insane asylum. Dr. Minor had been an inmate at Broadmoor Hospital for the criminally insane for the previous 20 years.

Intriguing premise, no? And made all the more so because it’s true. If only the execution had lived up to it. Maybe the problem was the discrepancy between my expectations and the reality of what the book was. I was expecting a novel, perhaps focusing on the characterization of these two fascinating men and the improbable circumstances that connected them (Dr. Minor was not even an Englishman – he had been an American army surgeon in the civil war and come to England to “clear his head” before getting trapped there after the shooting that landed him in Broadmoor). I wanted the whole incredible story brought to life for me, in vivid and sometimes lurid detail. Instead, what I got was part biography, part non-fiction history book. The chapters on the lives of James Murray and Dr. Minor were impersonal and wholly lacking in sensationalism, and they were interspersed with even drier chapters outlining a recap of lexicographical** history. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never exactly mourned my lack of knowledge in that field. I know more about dictionaries now than I ever cared to, and this coming from someone who periodically browses in her free time. I will admit that I was duly impressed with Winchester’s vocabulary, though. More than once I came across words I didn’t recognize – a somewhat uncommon experience for me. He clearly spent some time curling up with the OED in the researching of this book. That being said, even though I’ll concede that things might have gone better if I’d known what I was getting into, I think the story of Dr. Minor and the OED would have made a much better novel than historical biography.

*Epic, n. Of unusually great size or extent; heroic; majestic; impressively great.
**Lexicography, n. The writing, editing, or compiling of dictionaries.

Books Read This Year: 4
Top 100 Progress: 38/100

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Fountainhead

By Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead is not so much a novel as it is a treatise on the innate power of the undiluted Self; a trial of society that strips the majority bare and finds them wanting; an anthem to the individual, stoic in the preservation and perseverance of their Self. It’s no stretch to see why Ayn Rand and her work have surpassed mere literature to become a movement. Though it might be more accurate, perhaps, to say that Howard Roark is the source (one could even call him… the fountainhead) of the movement, the infallible and unfaltering integrity of his Self being the movement’s inspiration, aspiration, and very core.

To say that Howard Roark is an architect is to say that J.K Rowling is a writer or that Mozart was a composer – technically accurate, but they are all so much more than their profession that to identify them by it alone seems a gross understatement. Nonetheless, Howard Roark is an architect. An architect who designs wholly original, somewhat austere and unnerving buildings that refuse to conform to popular style. An architect who would – and does – endure menial labor, scapegoating, unemployment, ostracism, forfeit of love and happiness, and criminal trial rather than commit even the most minor betrayal of his principles. He is uncompromising, indefatigable, and utterly without self-doubt – and for that, society seeks to destroy him. The Fountainhead is, essentially, Howard Roark vs. the World. (Of course, you have to remember that this is a 694 page book we're talking about, so it's possible I might be over-simplifying a bit. But you get the gist.)

Roark’s actions, or in some cases, lack of action, in response to this lifelong conflict showcase him to as the embodiment of Rand’s ideal person – wholeheartedly selfish. The word carries strikingly different connotations as used in The Fountainhead than we’re used to, however. Or rather, its definition is the same – self-centered, un-altruistic, close-minded, unsympathetic – but the implications differ. Where by standard usage ‘selfish’ is an insult, denoting a negative or derogatory personality trait, to Ayn Rand it implies full realization and devotion to the Self, a concept integral to the philosophy she was developing whilst writing The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Selfishness in The Fountainhead is not a vice, but the greatest virtue. It’s putting the undisguised Self forward as one’s character in society, while simultaneously shielding it from any influence of that society. It’s the refusal to lend any components of one’s Self (thoughts, talents, opinions) to others, thereby protecting their integrity from the corruption of collaboration, which compromises each individual’s contribution. It’s the derivation of self-worth, ambition, and satisfaction from the Self, not entrusted to the fickle favor of the outside world – a world which too often converts admiration into condemnation after the passing of some ambiguous, fluctuating expiration date. Above all, it’s the doctrine that an individual is at their best when living in and of and for themselves.

Just as The Fountainhead does not settle for being just a novel, its characters do not settle for being just characters. They become archetypes, vessels of ideas larger than any one characterization or plot function. The ideological intercourse that occurs when the characters interact in various permutations weaves the subtle but sturdy fabric of motives, actions, and pretensions that so thoroughly establishes Ayn Rand’s philosophy. The ideologies behind the archetypes are not so clear, however, that is possible to read The Fountainhead passively. Many of the characters’ personal philosophies become muddled or convoluted at some point or another, requiring the reader to be actively engaged in unraveling them as they read, constantly connecting the dots between actions and the motives they manifest – sometimes contradictory, when characters cannot or will not risk the effort of living up to their beliefs or their Self. The only character, in fact, whose actions and motives are never muddled or counteracted, but remain pure and focused, is Howard Roark – apt, as he is the paradigm of Ayn Rand’s idyllic selfish man, intransigent and unambiguous in the upholding of his principles.

I have a feeling that this is one of those versatile books that ought to be read at intervals throughout one’s life, because it's a novel of ideas, and we react differently to ideas depending on myriad variables to do with our personalities, knowledge, and experiences. We'll extrapolate different meanings and understandings from the text with each reading based on what we bring to it. As a college student, my reading instructed me to “go confidently in the direction of my dreams and live the life I’ve imagined*,” but I expect that if I were to read the book again in as few as four years from now I may well take something entirely different away from it. For those of you who’ve read it, I’d love to know when, what you gleaned from it, and what you thought/think of Ayn Rand’s philosophy!

*Quote adapted from Henry David Thoreau.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Anna and the French Kiss

By Stephanie Perkins


Before I begin, let’s clear the air by acknowledging what we’re all thinking: the title is lamentably lame, the cover affectedly cute, and the whole package insipidly cliché. In a bookstore setting, I probably would have dismissed this as one of countless similar books marketed to pander to the generically sentimental demographic of teenage girls. If it happened to snag my attention as I scanned the shelves, it would probably have been quickly forgotten as I moved to stroke the spines of beloved books that had already proven their worth several times over, who’s only shortcoming was their inability to spontaneously generate new releases in response to my longing.

“So what happened?” you ask. John Green (an author who’s work I avidly enjoy and admire, and whose word and opinion I respect highly) happened, as he’s wont to do. In fact, I had not even heard of this book until John enthusiastically advocated it in a recent vlog post*. John does not recommend books very often; this was clearly not to be taken lightly. I went directly from Youtube to Amazon (without passing Facebook or collecting notifications) and Anna and the French Kiss arrived in my student P.O. box two days later.

Without Further Ado:

If I could rescript my own senior year spent as an expat in Germany, it would probably go a little something like this: Anna is enrolled in the School of America in Paris (SOAP, for short) against her will (?!) because her Nicholas Sparks wannabe of a father thinks she could use some culturing around the edges. Cue The Boy: he’s fluent in French, speaks in a British accent, and has an American passport. Sound too good to be true? It probably is; but that’s what fiction is for – giving us a taste of life’s extremes, the better and the worse than our everyday lives. The book being what it is (and I can’t deny that on the surface, it is exactly what it seems), we know the moment she bumps into him – literally, of course – her first night on campus, that when it comes to Étienne St. Clair, Anna is doomed. But the road to that inevitable end is as charming, intricate, candid, and chic as the streets of Paris.

I have three favorite things about this book. One: the setting. Stephanie never once forgets that she chose to set the novel in Paris. The city is not just a backdrop, it’s a character in itself, intrinsically woven into each scene. She also doesn’t forget the nature of Anna’s presence in Paris. As an expat not speaking a word of French, Anna feels at times alienated both from the foreign city around her as well as the familiar world she left back home, feelings that ring especially true to me, having experienced them myself last year. Two: the realism. One of the ways Stephanie extricates hers story from the stereotype is by not smothering it in the perfection drivel common to so many young adult romances. Not only are the characters not perfect, they’re actively flawed – to the point that it’s their flaws alone, rather than fatalist outside forces, that forestall the Happy Ending. Three: the romance. Of course. But with a unique twist of depth. Anna and the French Kiss is as much a journey of friendship and self-understanding as it is of romance. Even as you’re swooning with Anna and Étienne atop Notre Dame (possibly praying you won’t topple off mid-swoon), picnicking in Père Lachaise cemetery, braving the crypt of the Pantheon, or reveling in springtime in the Luxembourg gardens, you know the romance owes its resonance and sincerity to the friendship founded first.

This is one of those books that so immerses you in its story and its characters and its world that you almost want to commence furious blinking when you’re forced to surface, as if emerging from a movie theater into harsh afternoon sunlight. And then you want to crawl back inside and stay for a while. If you’ve been to Paris, you will be overwhelmed with nostalgia, and if you haven’t, I’m quite sure you’ll long to book the next flight, perhaps settling to console yourself with some frozen pain au chocolat instead.

Concluding Ado:

Here’s where I meet with a dilemma I’ve sort of subconsciously wrestled with throughout my teen years, ever since my reading repertoire began to see recurring appearances by both classic or literarily acclaimed works and popular modern bestsellers. Maybe I’m the only one who struggles with this dichotomy, but I doubt it. How do you reconcile giving both a book like The Shadow of the Wind and Anna and the French Kiss five stars? Ought you to reconcile it? Should Anna be delegated to only three on the grounds of lacking the scope and innovation of Shadow? By what standards ought you to appraise them, anyway? Or should they even be judged based on the same set of standards, given how wildly different they are? I’ve come to a working conclusion that the authors put pen to paper with such different intentions of storytelling in mind that it’s not fair or even constructive to make a direct comparison. But consider this a non-rhetorical question: According to what criteria should literature be measured, and should the standards be universal amongst genres?

* Incidentally, this is pretty much every aspiring author's dream come true (or at least mine), because John Green was an idol of Stephanie's long before she had even begun Anna, and he ended up becoming of fan of hers. Wow. If you're as jealous as I am or just plain interested, she explains the story here at her own blog.

Books Read This Year: 1
Top 100 Status: 38/100