Character Auction

Ran across this article on CNN.com the other day. What a fun idea! Anyway, a group of authors auctioned off the right to have a person, place, or thing named after them in an upcoming book by one of a number of famous writers. Amy Tan, Lemony Snicket, John Grisham, Stephen King and more participated. Proceeds go to "the First Amendment Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting freedom of information, expression and petition."

The only think like this I had seen before was the booknaming contest Janet Evanovich does every year. (The link came out of a site that makes heavy use of frames, so it may not work right.) Anyway, Evanovich asks her readers to send in their suggestions for the title of the next book. In the past, if your suggestion was picked, you got to be a character in the new book.


Two Books in a Weekend

Since I finished Great Expectations last wednesday, I've finished two more books. Man, is is fun to be back with 20th century authors.

The first book I read is Boris Akunin's The Winter Queen, the first Erast Fandorin novel. It's a fun mystery in a Russia that is a refreshing change from something Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky would have created. Good, original mystery with fun and interesting characters. My only complaint is that the plot is a little twist-happy. I felt like I was going to get whiplash in the last chapters of the book.

The second book I read is Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide, which is exactly what it sounds like. And it's funny--in a completely (un)deadly serious way. This guide is guaranteed to see any B-actress through a zombie flick. Fun reading...or scary if you forget the joke.


Great Expectations, Part V

I'm not sure if I'm dissapointed or relieved at the ending of Great Expectations. On the one hand, I was kind of expecting a happy ending--with all the loose ends tied up, events explained, and possibly, a marriage. But if I had gotten all those things, I might have been inclined to write the whole book off as conventional and convenient. So it goes.

I did enjoy the last hundred pages or so of the book. I finally got plot! Stuff happened! There were chases, escapes, deaths, fires. Good final act. I was almost sorry to see it end. (But after nearly 600 pages of Pip, I was ready to be done.)

One thing I did like about the ending--though it was a little moralistic--was Pip's redemption. He grew up into a fine person in spite of his expectations. He finally gave credit where it was due and learned to care more about others than about himself. I am also glad that Estella and Havisham got their chances at redemption, too. Estella finally found her heart and Miss Havisham finally realized what she had done to the people around her and tried to make amends.

Overall, I liked Great Expectations. I liked enough to attempt another Dickens some time--probably David Copperfield. But not right away. :)


Some Favorite Book Funnies

I know that the book world can be pretentious sometimes (okay, a lot of the time--especially when the Booker lists start getting published). So I like book page features that can poke fun at it. Some features I look for reguarly include:

The Digested Read, at the Guardian. This column summarizes popular books in such an entertaining way that expertly skewers their faults and pretentions. I often read this at work and have to stifle my snort of laughter. There's usually a new Digested Read every other week or so.

David Baddiel's column on the London Times Book page. Baddiel has this wonderful, roundabout way of writing that I think only Brits can pull off. Each column is fun and smart. Look for him every other week.


Great Expectations, Part IV

One of the more interesting themes that has come up in reading Great Expectations is revenge. The way I've been reading this book, there are two big revenges: Havisham's revenge and Magwitch's "revenge." One's a very negative, very nasty revenge scheme and the other is a more positive revenge (if that's possible).

Havisham's revenge is directed at men. And she uses her creation Estella to make men fall in love then then break their hearts. It's worked on Pip. But it has also destroyed Estella. Because of how Havisham reared her, Estella is incapable of love; she can only be cool, calculating, and callous. Because of Compeyson, Havisham has to take some form of revenge against everyone around her. She uses people without remorse and it's had serious psychological repercussions on the people she has had access to since they were children--Estella and Pip.

And then there's Magwitch's revenge on society. He took Pip and has elevated him into a gentlemen, so that he can show the world that he isn't a dangerous ne'er-do-well. It's kind of a positive revenge--but again it uses a child who didn't know they were going to be used.

So the message I see in all this is that adults corrupt children, adults don't care about psychological damage (probably because there was no such concept in 1861). Children are pawns if you use them that way. This is, probably, a theme that Dickens uses in all his books from Oliver Twist to this one. This theme could be trite in another author's hand, but what I like about Dickens is that he can make the children more than unaware, naive little wiafs. In Dickens, the kids are people, too, just smaller and less aware of the world. I think it would be hard to write something like this without turning it into a movie of the week thing.


Great Expectations, Part III

I am about half way through Great Expectations and I think I am finally starting to get the hang of this book.

Most of the books I read have a clear, fairly linear plot. I may not always be able to predict the outcome, but I know roughly were things are going to end up. Great Expectations is not like that for a large chuck of the book. I am starting to get an idea of where things are going, but this book mostly seems to be a Hogarthian, or maybe Fielding-esque (whatever the adjectival form is) trip throung 1861 England. The most interesting things are not what happen to Pip, but the character portraits of the odd-balls he meets, such as Mr. Wemmick and the lawyer Jaggers. It's a lot of fun, and it makes a very amusing and refreshing change from the very orderly worlds of the Brontes and Austen.

Some time, I am almost positive that Dickens liked writing these little sketches more than he liked moving the rest of the book forward.

Meanwhile, back in the main plot, Pip is still vascillating between shame and snobbery and regret and gratitude. He still persists in admiring the seriously deranged Miss Havisham--who I was prepared to sympathize with until I realized how vindictive she was. The one thing I like about Pip, apart from his sometimes snarky commentary, is that he is still doing his best to educate himself. If he knows nothing else, he at least knows to take advantage of that opportunity. Otherwise, he seems rather on the road to becoming just another useless member of the gentry.

More next time when, hopefully, something happens.


The Dilemma of the Historical Novel

I have long been a fan of historical fiction--when it's good. But I know there are problems with it. Today I read an article in Slate that talked about the two big problems with historical fiction.

The first problem mentioned in "Marching Orders," was the problem of when to be accurate and when to just make it up. (It is fiction, after all.) It seems that this problem has been with historical fiction writers for more than 200 years now. J.D. Connor, the author of the article, sums the problem up this way, "If you didn't embellish your material, the result was just history; but if you made things up and didn't tell the reader, you were perpetrating a fraud."

Which is true, I admit. But the lengths some writers go to, as described in this article, I think are just irritating. I don't know about most readers, but I find it annoyed to be constantly thrown out of the narrative. While I read to learn, I also read to escape. It's hard to stay involved when I can't escape into the book.

The second problem Connor identifies is the existential problem of historical fiction, as I call it. It's the problem with the reason people write and read historical fiction. In essence, some people read and write it to escape into another time, to learn what life was like, etc. and some people read and write it to see our own society and issues reflected in another time--either to see how our ancestors might deal with the problem or just to abstract the issue enough to deal with it.

Interesting stuff. I find myself agreeing with positions somewhere in the middle of the extremes. To me, good historical fiction strikes a balance between history and fiction. It is accurate and unanachronistic. But there is enough fiction in it save it from being a textbook. And I think a good author can do this in such a way that we don't see the seams, as it were. As for why we read and write historical fiction, my position is "Can't we do both?"


Curious George Escapes the Nazis

Saw a really interesting article in The New York Times online version, "How Curious George Escaped the Nazis." Having worked in a library, I saw dozens of Curious George books, but I didn't know the author's story. I always had a vague impression that H.A. Rey came from South American somewhere, or maybe Spain.

Turns out, H.A. and his wife Margaret, were German-born Jews. (Rey used to be Reyersbach.) Anyway, this article talks about a new book about the Reys called The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H. A. Rey and gives a pretty good summary of the Reys' story.

This is right up there with the time I learned the Theodore Geissel (aka Dr. Seuss) used to draw propaganda cartoons during WWII.


Great Expectations, Part II

It's never a good sign for a book when you start to get irritated with the narrator. For me, a sympathetic narrator is necessary for me to enjoy a book. Otherwise, I find I just don't care about what happens to them or any of the other characters in the book.

I enjoyed Pip for the first hundred pages or so--until he let Estella make him feel ashamed of his "commonness". After that, Pip find him self frequently embarassed by his family, his job as an apprentice blacksmith, and even the way he talks and dresses. Of course I've been embarassed by my family (who hasn't), but I dislike people who are constantly embarassed by them. Eventually, I think, you need to stop thinking that other people's behavior reflects on you. Granted, Pip's family are no picnic, but I've seen worse in my own life.

Still, I have gone far enough into the book that I am still curious to see how it all turns out.


Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, Part I

I haven't posted in the last couple of days because I was waiting to see if I would find Great Expectations interesting enough to keep reading. I had picked up a very old copy (printed in 1942, with reproductions of what I think are the original illustrations) at my public library, but I didn't get around to it until last Thursday.

So, here I am, reading Dickens. I have read A Tale of Two Cities, but that book is a outlier from the rest of Dickens' work--meaning there aren't any orphans, a surplus of silly names, and is only about 300 pages long. I started Great Expectations because I am curious as to what it's all about. My only exposure to it so far is from Jasper Ffforde's books, where Miss Havisham is a character.

One thing I was surprised to find is the humor. It's funny and, moreover, it's snarky. Dickens has a really great way of effortlessly skewering his characters and making the reader chuckle at the same time. I wonder, did families reading this book when it first came out snicker like I did when they read:
Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt kept an evening school in the village; that is to say, she was a ridiculous old woman of limited means and unlimited infirmity, who used to go to sleep from six to seven every evening, in the society of youth who paid twopence per week each, for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it. (51)
I think I know how I got the wrong impression of Dickens, though: Oliver Twist. Waifish orphans, cruel adults, musical numbers in the film versions, ugh. It all struck me as very...trite, I guess. I may read the book now, to see if it's as bad as all that, but not any time soon.

Back to GE, I'm enjoying myself so far, even though I don't have a clue where the plot is going. I love the way Dickens recreates how Pip's family and their friends talk. (It's analogous to Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where he wrote dialects as they sounded.) Magwitch has been saved--but recaptured. Miss Havisham and her bizarre habits were introduced. And Pip is in the middle of all these adults, trying to grow up.


Jane Eyre, Part VI

I am done. Yeah!

I love the ending of this book. Jane and Rochester, reunited and married. I'm so glad Jane managed to put St. John off long enough to get up her courage to go back to Thornfield and look for Rochester, even if he might still be married to Bertha.

A couple of things about the end of the book. The first thing is when Jane hears Rochester call her name after another head-to-head with St. John. It's physically impossible, so I have two ideas to explain it. First, it's Jane imagining it. She's under such emotional stress that her subconscious may be trying to get her out of it. What puts the kibosh on this is that Rochester later admits that he called out for her one night at Ferndean, and heard her answer. So, solution number two, it was a kind of magic. Something, Jane thinks Nature (nature personified) wants them to be together, and lets both Jane and Rochester know of each other's longing.

Second thing about the end of the book: I forget where I heard this, but someone once said that Rochester's maiming from the fire is a natural conclusion for a Byronic hero. And Rochester has all the hallmarks of a Byronic hero--moody, dark, has a love of lonely places and a certain disregard for the rules. According to that person, a Byronic hero has to fall.

I kind of agree, but I think this idea puts the emphasis on the wrong thing. I think Rochester's personality had to change before he and Jane could have as significant and as lasting a relationship as they have. Like Jane points out, he would always have been the dominant one, dressing her and decorating her like a doll, parading her around. He would have made her change, and that would have made her unhappy and, eventually I think, angry. But after the fire, Rochester is much humbled, and that makes him able (more likely forced) to set aside and let someone else take charge.

So, that's all for Jane Eyre. It's always a fun read. The next book I might tackle is Dicken's Great Expectations, but I may take a break and read some popular fiction first.


Jane Eyre, Part V

What is is about clergymen in literature? They never come off well--Revered Dimsdale from The Scarlet Letter, Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, Revered Price from The Poisonwood Bible. None of them a likable. Some are sleezy, others are criminally ambitious, others are divided by their desires and inhibitions, and some are just nuts.

St. John's problem, I think, is that he is torn between what he wants and what he thinks God wants him to do. Plus, he feels guilty about wanting something other than her perception of God's plan. So, he tortures himself and says that that is what he really wanted in the first place. I enjoy the psychological tension. I've always been interested in how religion can have an affect on the mind and the personality. I makes for good books.

But what I don't like about him is how he treats Jane. It's one thing to torture yourself, but expect someone to leave their home and their country and be your self-torture buddy--especially after the things he said to her. At one point St. John tells Jane, "you were formed for labour, not love." Later, when she understandably refuses to marry him, he tells her, "it is not me you deny, but God." Ugh. I can somewhat see St. John's point that they need to marry if they're going to go to India--to avoid the scandal of a thirty-year-old man traveling with a nineteen-year-old--if nothing else. But I don't see how he can push the point after they both made their positions abundantly clear to each other.

The difference I see, with what Jane and St. John do to each other, and what Jane and Rochester did to each other, is that, even though it was violent and mean at times is that Rochester and Jane loved each other, underneath it all. There was caring and respect and love there. With St. John, things were much more cruel, and there was no love between them.

I never liked St. John Rivers.


Jane Eyre, Part IV

I have always believed that how sympathetic you are to the characters depends a lot on who's perspective you get the story from. And it's very rare that you get to hear both sides of a story in literature. Bertha Mason's story is one of the few exceptions to this.

A year or so ago, I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. In it, you get the story of Rochester and Bertha's courtship and marriage from her perspective. It's very much different from Rochester's poisoned recounting of the story when he tries to explain to Jane why he tried to marry her, even though he was already married to Bertha. In Wide Sargasso Sea, it's Rochester who's the villain. He's a cold, unsympathetic, colonial oppressor and Bertha's a misunderstood free spirit who may or may not be insane.

I could never really buy the premise of Sea, though. And I think it's because I got to hear Rochester's side of the story first. It's rather amazing how having one side of the story can so shape your impressions of a character or a situation. For me, I'm afraid, Bertha will be the mad thing pawned off on a naive Rochester by unscrupulous parents.

The other issue that came up as I read this last section was how fact Jane forgives Rochester's attempted bigamy. I had thought that bigamy was a pretty serious crime, then as now. But, after Jane has a time to mourn, she forgives him unreservedly. I would have been absolutely furious, myself. Perhaps it's just more evidence of how deeply they are in love with each other. Rochester loves her so much he's willing to break social and moral laws to be married to her, and Jane loves him so much that she can forgive him for doing it.


Jane Eyre, Part III

This is a ways off the beaten path, but are Rochester and Jane in a dominance/submission type relationship?

I know Jane would never have turned into a typical bride to be, but I didn't think she would go that far to keep from turning into Rochester's rags-to-riches project. Let's back up a little. Soon after the night Rochester proposes (one of my favorite sections of the book), he goes into deliriously happy mode. He promises to buy her jewels, dress her in the finest fabrics, &c., &c. Jane protests that he's trying to change her so much that she wouldn't be the Jane he fell in love with. And this makes a lot of sense to me, but what Jane does next really surprises me.

Jane starts to needle Rochester to the point that:
when I appeared before him now, he had no such honeyed terms as "love" and "darling" on his lips: the best words at my service where "provoking puppet," "malicious elf"...For caresses, too, I now got grimaces; for a pressure of the hand, a pinch on the arm; for a kiss on the cheek, a severe tweak of the ear. (260)
And what does Jane think of her plan now? She says:
It was all right; at present I decidedly preferred these fierce favours to anything more tender. (260)
I am really starting to be reminded of Secretary.

Jane and Rochester had kind of been playing this game for most of the book. And it's not a traditional d/s relationship (if there is such a thing). But when Rochester calls Jane in the first night after they meet, she needles him. As they fall in love with each other, Rochester purposely hurts her by making her think he's going to marry Blanche Ingram. About the time of their engagement, Jane and Rochester get into an interesting power struggle, where one tries to get in a position of power over the other and vice versus. They negotiate their relationship.

Jane clearly does not want a traditional kind of love. All through their engagement, she struggles to keep things the same as they were before the engagement. She refuses to give up her governess position and even refuses to eat dinner with him. The reason she give Rochester for this is:
For a little while you will perhaps be as you are now--a very little while; and then you will turn cool; and then you will be capricious; and then you will be stern...I suppose your love will effervesce in six months or less. (247)
She's probably right. It's like they need some uncertainty, some illicitness to keep the spark burning. But I wonder that she has to go to such lengths to keep the status quo--which is probably the best thing to keep the relationship going. Jane picks on Rochester more than she used to. One might think that she's pushing him too far, and that he'll think that maybe she isn't the right one for him. But when Jane asks, "Do you, sir, feel calm and happy?" he replies, "Calm?--no: but happy--to the heart's core" (266).

I wonder what the hell Charlotte Bronte was thinking when she wrote this unorthodox courtship. It might be interesting to pursue this topic further--the s/d dynamics in Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester's relationship. If only they had taught this book when I was in school.


Jane Eyre, Part II

I am about halfway through chapter 21 now, and I am discovering things that I missed when I first read this book in High School.

First, I had remembered Jane as very prim and proper after her stay in Lowood. I have used the word Quakerish to describe her, because that's a word that's often used to describe her in the book. But as I said in Part I, Jane has a very strong personality underneath her public face. A large part of the chapters between 11 and 21 are Jane's thoughts about restlessness, her fierce love of Mr. Rochester, and her imagination. I used to be surprised that Mr. Rochester could fall in love with Jane, but I'm not surprised by it any more. She is the perfect foil for him.

Second, and I was probably not educated enough to spot this before, but this book is a lot more than a Gothic romance with a loony in the attic or a proto-Dickensian work about an orphan who triumphs. There's a lot of Romanticism here. For one, Rochester and Jane both share a love of wild and lonely places. Rochester and Jane, our protagonists, have strong wills and passions. Rochester in particular is willing to throw off society's rules in pursuit of his goals. Some of the least sympathic characters in this stretch of the novel are the characters who are all artifice and no soul--notably Blanche Ingram. The characters who have my sympathy are the ones who feel mostly deeply--Rochester and Jane.

More fun next time, when I will probably get to the bit where the shit hits the fan.

Orhan Pamuk Charged

I caught this one on author Neil Gaiman's blog this morning.

Orhan Pamuk, a very well reviewed and respected writer from Turkey, has been charged with "public denigrating of Turkish identity". Click here for the whole story. The off-limits topics he discussed were the 1915 Armenian genocide by the Ottoman government and the continuing fighting between the Turkish military and Kurds--very real issues that don't get near enough attention.

He may have to serve up to three years in prison for his comments.

Free Orhan Pamuk!


Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. Part I.

I am about eleven chapters into Jane Eyre, now. Ordinarily, I am totally sympathetic to Jane, who is much abused by her Aunt Reed, her cousins, and the directory of Lowood Institution. I admire her will and passion in the face of people who want to remold her into a docile creature who takes whatever they choose to give her.

I still admire Jane, but this time through I was more struck by an idea that Jane summarizes as the "doctrine of endurance." Helen Burns, Jane's saintly, tuburcular friend at Lowood introduces this idea when Jane wonders to her why Helen puts up with so much. Essentially, Helen says that there are somethings in life you have to endure--like the dislike of others--in order to achieve your goals. In addition, life is much too short to was it hating people back.

One might argue that this is just another way of saying that people should just accept what others dish out, but I don't think so. Just accepting it is to be beaten down by life and other people. But enduring it, I think, is to rise above it. And, in this book, I really like that Jane can learn to endure and to forgive, but that she always retains the spark of passion that she shows from the very begining. Helen Burns didn't have that spark. But the fact that Jane has it saves this book from being a manual for saintly martyrs. Well, that and what she and Mr. Rochester get up to later in the book. But that's another blog posting.