Monthly Archives: April 2013

48% done with Oliver Twist

Now that there are actually some stakes for the drama to flow from, the novel is getting at least interesting.

The robbery was well described and the nature of this being a serial replete with cliffhanger endings makes the story move along with a purpose now.

I’m still not sure why Dickens didn’t leave England; he paints it as bleak, dirty and full of useless, unfeeling bums. Not very realistic.

18% done with t zero

The Origin of the Birds

I’ve been racking my brains trying to figure out some way to explain why I think Calvino chose to describe the actions in this story as if he were describing the panels in a comic strip. He’s too good of a writer to just arbitrarily use such a device, but I’ll be damned if I can figure it out.

Maybe I just don’t ‘get’ the math but I like the merging of the known and the possible worlds.

38% done with Oliver Twist

I’ll admit surprise here upon discovering that a 19th century novel written by a man has an actual well-rounded woman character surrounded by a cast of male, moronic dopes as opposed to how every other book this century typically turns out (I’m looking at you, Tolstoy).

Still, I think I’ve counted ‘the Jew’ well over 100 times so that negates any good will his well written Nancy.

8% done with t zero

The Soft Moon

I never heard of Calvino until Radiolab’s recent reading of his story ‘The Distance of the Moon’; I immediately fell in love.

This is another story of the moon, only here it appears as sort of a gooey, rogue ‘planet’ that is captured by the earth’s gravity and begins to melt out of the sky and destroys an ancient, but more advanced civilization than our own.

Trippy, organic, weird & very cool.

30% done with Oliver Twist

J.K. Rowling, who sometimes is compared to Dickens, is a far better storyteller. Harry Potter, though finding himself also at the mercy of things he didn’t understand or control, was also introduced as someone who did have the power to affect the world around him. He only needed to learn to control those powers.

Oliver Twist, however, has shown no such talents to earn my sympathy. He’s just a cliche.

22% done with Oliver Twist

“… there are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”

And this is one of them.

I wonder how many times Fagan is referred to as ‘the Jew’ in the book? Unlike Conrad whose racism was a product of the times, Dickens is just a dick.

Also, why is everyone who is poor also such a terrible human? Isn’t the point of this book to shed light on the terrible London conditions of the poor?

22% done with Oliver Twist

Oliver reminds me of kid Anakin Skywalker in the terrible Star Wars prequels – a kid who has no control over the events around him and thus making it impossible for the reader to feel any dramatic tension. We’re really just going from set piece to set piece where Oliver is mistreated and can’t do anything about it.

It’s boring. Dickens is a smart guy but not a very good writer, at least not in this novel.

15% done with Oliver Twist

Dickens’ humor of describing people as things and their actions with a scientific irony does play nicely with the way all the characters treat Oliver as a thing. Obviously this is nothing new – treating people as things hearkens back to slavery and one’s enemies in wartime – but it’s also a little overdone.

Dickens really ramps up the melodrama and everyone is such a bastard that any point he’s making is wasted.

8% done with Oliver Twist

The last time I read anything by Dickens I was probably 9 or 10 years old and while I was always a good reader, I’m sure 90% of it went right over my head.

Dickens’ sarcasm and dry wit are what really stand out (much to my pleasure since that’s my style too) but his characters so far are pretty thin (pun intended).

Granted he was writing more of a social commentary, but some of these bloaks are just laughable.

The Remains of the Day: Read from April 20 to 23, 2013

Well of course I’m going to give this 5 stars.

Interesting that a novel written in 1988 by a man who wasn’t born in England could write one of what I would consider one of the great novels of English literature. A lot of novels I’m sure have attempted to carry on the tradition of this sort of ‘novel of manners and society’, but this is probably the last, great one we’ll ever see. Fitting then that it would be about the ending of things.

For myself, a great novel (or any work of art) is one which gets you thinking about yourself. I tended to think a lot about my own missed opportunities, my age, what lies ahead, and most importantly the feeling of the people around me. I wondered how what I might assume someone I know is thinking or feeling could very well be wrong – that I’m oblivious to a great many things because I can’t see past my own nose.

Yet Mr. Stevens never seemed worried about this because he always knew his duty. His duty carried him through all things and so he never once questioned if he might ever be wrong. He’s even asked by Mr. Cardinal on the night of the great meeting if he believes what his Lordship is doing is ‘right’ and he only replies that it’s not his place to know. Right and wrong only become a concern to him when dealing with the topic of a butler serving a worthy employer.

Of course, putting aside lords and butlers, Mr. Ishiguro is obviously concerned with larger issues, chiefly the idea of allowing oneself to be led by another who may not be as moral as you would like – which is why Hitler is such a good backdrop since he took full advantage of people’s allegiance to the German state. That unquestioning loyalty seems quite dangerous against the Nazi flag, yet here we see it with the good intentions of a naive English gentleman and his loyal butler. And the price both paid were costly, but at least Mr. Stevens got some good advice about always looking forward and so his fate is not as bleak as Darlington’s.

Oh well, I could go on and on, and that’s what makes this such a wonderful novel. I’m glad I read it so soon after reading Fathers and Sons too – I feel as if I’ve read some of the greatest novels ever written and they are both stories I am very sad to have to put down.

78% done with The Remains of the Day

I think that the ‘unreliable narrator’ is probably my favorite point of view for a novel. As wonderfully as Tolstoy can convey the vastness of all human experience or as darkly as Conrad can plumb the depths, living through one character and getting to see where he goes wrong and triumphs is a vicarious pleasure.

When Stevens obviously can’t see the love in front of him, makes you wonder what you have missed too.

46% done with The Remains of the Day

Though the American Mr. Lewis seems to have lost the debate with his inglorious tactics, we do know that he was right. The world had changed. Gentlemen no longer where in charge – Germany was seeing to that. And so it goes that Mr. Stevens Sr., should die too, a relic of the past; large, imposing, dependable, but obsolete.

Europe was bleeding but nobody really knew it except those who were ready to take advantage.

34% done with The Remains of the Day

It’s very hard not to just devour this novel in one sitting and even though I’ve sen the film numerous times, it is like discovering these characters anew.

It never really occurred to me that his father represented more than just the old ways of English provincial life, but of the state of all human ‘dignity’ (as the west understood it) at large – hence his Lordships exasperation with the Treaty of Versailles.

17% done with The Remains of the Day

The scene involving the tiger and the unperturbed, ‘perfect butler’ reminds me of ‘The Hunger Artist’ by Kafka. In that story the hunger artist is replaced after his death by a savage panther, a beast full of life and vitality. The artist was pure restraint, denying himself the very essence of life.

This novel’s discussion about duty is the exact opposite of what Kafka was interested in but they connect too.

Nostromo: Read from April 06 to 19, 2013

Nostromo is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read.

First of all, the novel is not an easy read. Many times I needed to go back and revisit whole passages and even start chapters over again – and even then I still sometimes felt a little lost and would just have to trust Conrad to actually lead me somewhere, which he always did. Add in the fact the novel is dense with imagery (light and dark, sun and shade, black and white are some of the more obvious one, while others are much more obscure), and this is an all around meaty novel to sink your teeth into.

Nostromo is very dream-like, everything has a colorful, vibrant, out-of-focus haziness to it that dips back and forth in time, point of view, tone, and mood. Conrad most likely was trying to capture the essence of some South American jungle in all its complexity and savageness by intentionally being vague. Yet some of the best moments where when there was a clear sense of place and plot – the boat at night, most scenes with the doctor or Charles Gould – Nostromo in the end – and these moments feel like the stories what would have survived crossing the Atlantic back to Europe in the papers at the time. Everything else, however, is unclear, dangerous, even misleading.

The problem with all this is that while on the one hand this novel is a supreme work of art, it also suffers from exactly what it’s trying to accomplish. Because Sulaco is not clearly defined, we have a hard time feeling anchored anywhere and so have a hard time getting ‘into’ the story. Now perhaps after years of studying the novel and paying all one’s dues to in Joseph Conrad Society can we fully appreciate Nostromo, but for the normal reader the very things that make the novel brilliant also make in hard to really enjoy or even accessible.

However, this is still an amazing novel. I seriously believe much of how the west sees South America, especially her violent politics and social uncertainty, is due in no small part to Nostromo. Details such as the jarring scene of the emerald parrot or the doctor carrying the watermelon are such cliche images in film and fiction that it’s hard to believe they were ever invented or fresh. Yet here in a way is the birth of modern South America, for good or bad, here are the beginnings (in a way) of the coming magic realist fiction that that part of the world is still so famous for.

Maybe Conrad unfairly indicted all of steamy, passionate South America, or maybe he was close to the mark, I can’t answer all that. What I do know is that Conrad’s exploration of man’s greed, violent tendency, desires and failures are wonderfully captured here in Nostromo. I doubt I’ll ever read another novel quite like it.

96% done with Nostromo

Having never been left alone on a harbor island in plain sight of civilization and the love of my life all the while guarding a vast treasure of silver ingots that many a man and government would kill me ten times over to get their hands on, killing myself after only 10 days really does seem a bit … impatient.

However, the allusion of a noose in the image of total solitude as a ‘tense, thin cord’ is brilliant.

85% done with Nostromo

Meanwhile as Decoud is stuck on the Isabels with an actual curse, everyone is running around Sulaco hiding from ghosts, shadows, corpses, and the last words of a dying woman whom no priest was sent for.

Further off, in the jungles, men are fighting for some idea of revolution and democracy and even further away, in America and Europe, men await their profits from their debts.

Yet Decoud waits just out of reach.

77% done with Nostromo

I’ve always enjoy a story more when a writer doesn’t just spring a surprise on me (deus ex machina) but builds up the characters in full view of me but not from each other.

Had Nostromo just ‘turned up’ at the barracks before the doctor and the unfortunate victim, the story would have been almost silly – be we knew Nostromo was alive, how he stayed alive, and that he has other secrets from the doctor.

70% done with Nostromo

Dr. Monygham’s remembrance of Father Beron is really quite chilling. Even now, 100 years later and having become a cliche, the wicked priest who tortures calmly and asks quietly “Will you confess now?” does speak to the wickedness of men.

When Conrad speaks of primitive man’s morality being more ‘pure’ when killing each other, this scientific calmness of Beron is even more demonic in its modernity.

60% done with Nostromo

A lot of Nostromo consists of people with an agenda talking about other people with an agenda behind their back.

Maybe this is the penultimate symbolic meaning of the mine – everyone is digging to discover some riches either in the ground or in someone with an agenda (and money).

However, I do wish Conrad spent more time just putting characters in a boat in the middle of the night and letting the drama play.

48% done with Nostromo

In my opinion there are only two ways to handle symbolism in a story – either fully explore its every facet, uncover each and all of its meanings, cast it in every possible light, and let every word of the story not be wasted on anything else.

The other is to not use it at all.

Conrad does a nice job of the former and while reading Nostromo can be dream-like-confusing, it’s all for the sake of the story.

36% done with Nostromo

I’m going to assume that if one of the characters is a bandit we never see but only hear rumors of and another character possesses enough dynamite to ‘send half of Sulaco into the air’ then somehow these two facts will play an important role later in the novel.

Also, I’m glad Conrad took the time to explain how others talk about how best to take advantage of the Gould’s, even if it means ruining the country.

30% done with Nostromo

The way this story unfolds is very much like how the mail in Costaguana arrives over the mountain range – infrequently and censored by the government.

I do wonder what Conrad is getting at. He paints a fascinating, though stereotypical (by our standards) picture of South America, but the Costaguanarians are all corrupt and the English (the Goulds) are going to bring prosperity.

This gets tricky.

24% done with Nostromo

Conrad has this way of introducing a character before actually introducing them. He’ll start talking about someone before telling you their name and so you’re always sort of wondering who is who and what’s going on.

I find myself going back and re-reading passages to get my bearings but it does have the effect of feeling like I’m in a dangerous South American town and having no idea whom to trust.

16% done with Nostromo

Having spent the last few months with Russian lit., getting back to a novel written in my native tongue is like getting to eat a hearty meal cooked in my own kitchen after a long, wonderful vacation.

With the Russians there was always a translator between me and the author’s intent, but here with Conrad, even though English wasn’t even his native language I can revel in unpacking this novel’s hidden language.

87% done with Fathers and Sons

It’s funny how similar Bazarov and Pavel are, though come to it from opposite directions.

Pavel, constrained by society once tried to ‘live’ but now is pretty much a walking, wounded corpse. Bazarov knows great love but denies everything and too is a walking and wounded corpse. He’s even constrained by his own society, though he’d never admit it.

No wonder they tried to let the other kill them.