Sunday, November 25, 2007

On Revolution by Hannah Arendt

I think this book is fantastic. Arendt attempts to provide a theoretical framework for reading revolutions using both the American and the French Revolutions. In addition to her useful distinctions between liberation and freedom, Arendt usefully and skillfully draws examples from history and literature. Literate, engaging, and articulate, Arendt makes you feel like you're engaging in a great conversation with a smart friend.

The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

This novel, the third in the Earthsea cycle, offers an ending to the first three books. It's about the line between death and life, and the necessity of death to make life meaningful. It's also a coming-of-age story, as Arren grows into his kingly self. Le Guin takes the story as far as it needs to go and doesn't waste a lot of time wrapping it up or writing epilogues (although she has written three Earthsea books since this one ended the trilogy).

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Zofloya by Charlotte Dacre

This gothic novel is not as compelling as The Monk; the plot comes together too quickly--which is to say, it starts with the destruction of a family of four, narrows its focus to the sister, and then brings the brother back in halfheartedly at the very end. Indeed, the book becomes more interesting for its flaws than for its successes. Although there's a seduction by the devil, the bargain is never explicitly Faustian--and the devil, Zofloya, isn't introduced until Victoria is already well on her way to wickedness.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita

Although this novel seemed a bit too pat, too forced at times, I enjoyed reading it. Yamashita has arranged her story over the course of a week, from the perspective of seven characters, and each character has a chapter a day. Everything seems to converge, or almost to converge at the end, and while she doesn't tie everything entirely up, there were moments when I felt like the deck was stacked against the reader. Otherwise, I enjoyed following angels, oranges, and maps across the apocalyptic landscape of Los Angeles (almost a character in its own right).

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

It was an unequivocal pleasure to return to this book after nearly a decade. I found it more intriguing and more tragic than ever. One cannot help loving Tess, even as she remains veiled from Angel and from her readers. This time through, I found the series of bad omens and the investigation of inheritance and family particularly compelling.

The Quest for Middle-earth by Dirk Vander Ploeg

I am having a hard time thinking of anything kind to say about this book, unless kindness consists of warning readers away. Its sloppy grammar, inconsistency and inaccuracy in its citations, and wildly ineffective and inappropriate transitions make the act of reading difficult. As one wades through the bad prose, one realizes that the content is even worse. Vander Ploeg's selective use of a broad range of mythic, scientific, Biblical, archaeological, historical, and fictional sources demonstrates his poor understanding of all of these sources at best, and a deliberate attempt to construct evidence which simply does not exist at worst. Save yourself the hassle and enjoy Tolkien himself instead.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

I really enjoyed this gothic novel. Although there are definitely campy moments (and Lewis was only 19, after all, when he wrote the book), the books is a lot of fun to read. I particularly enjoyed the story of the Bleeding Nun. There's an obvious vein of the Faust story running through the text. Even the supposedly "happy" bits of the ending are quite disturbing and the final image is no less than a reversal of the creation story in Genesis. Overall well worth the read.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Angels in America by Tony Kushner

These plays are powerful. In the two parts, Kushner creates a fractured, but resilient community among a variety of people uncomfortable in their own bodies living in New York City in the mid-1980s. Although these people are more and less self-absorbed, egotistical, and harmful to one another, Kushner has created a work that highlights dignity, decency, and respect by the end. While fully acknowledging the imperfections of this world, the plays ultimately joyously affirm life.

Phoebe Junior by Margaret Oliphant

This novel started slowly for me. However, by the time I reached the end, I was impressed by how neatly the plot fit together. I found Phoebe a bit mercenary for my tastes, and I was sorry she came out firmly in favor of class over family. Overall, though, quite an entertaining read.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Clarissa's Ciphers by Terry Castle

This analysis of Clarissa struck me as very smart. Castle opens with the fragmentation of Clarissa and draws a striking parallel between Clarissa's body and Mrs. Sinclair's as each woman dies. The majority of the book dealt with letters, signs, and readers. The book builds well on itself.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

When I first picked up this book with the intention of reading it, I quickly gave up: it was hard to follow and tedious. Coming back to the book after several months, though, I cannot believe what I was missing. The very parts I found boring and irrelevant are actually wildly funny. One has to be patient with the digressions--indeed the novel is more digression than anything else--but everything comes together much more neatly than one might expect. I also love the innovation in terms of the printing process: Sterne inserted a black page, a marbled page, several blank pages, and "tore out" a chapter. Further, he has very unconventional typesetting, dashes, and other printers' marks. This book demands its readers learn how to read again, and the fruit of the labor is well worth the work.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

The second installment in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle, while less epic than the first, solidly continues the themes and expands the world of the first novel. This novel is set entirely in the Kargad lands, which we discover are barbaric in their religion; they worship the dark powers of the earth--powers akin to the shadow Ged loosed and the stone in Oskill. In the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, Le Guin gives a token that works as a reverse of the One Ring of Tolkein (offering unity and wise rule) and like the Sword that Was Broken, in that it must be reforged. Ged appears, but the story focuses on the development of Arha (the one that was eaten) back into Tenar.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Occasional Form by J. Paul Hunter

In this assessment of Henry Fielding's career, Paul Hunter situates Fielding's plays and four novels (Shamela, Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, and Amelia) in the context of Fielding's culture and society. He pays particular attention to the various models Fielding uses to construct his stories, while still affirming Fielding's particular place in the development of the novel. He includes some particularly felicitous readings of Tom Jones. Although this book was written in the 1970s, many of its arguments are worth pursuing.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Sundays with Vlad by Paul Bibeau

Part travelogue, part cultural analysis, this book analyzes the forms and transformations of the myth of Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Count Dracula. The tone was often light and humorous, but Bibeau addresses more seriously questions of the movement of culture and intellectual and cultural rights to various figures. At times the writing comes out a bit stilted, as if it were overwritten, but this book is generally a pleasure to read, and often quite funny. I would have appreciated a little less of the modern-day vampire culture and a little more of the historical and literary underpinnings, but I suppose there are other books to read for that.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

This novel takes the whole of a town in provincial England just before the passage of the Reform Bill as its subject. Eliot exposes the egotism of most of her characters, while offering both idealist (Dorothea Brooke) and realist (Mary Garth) alternatives to a self-centered way of living. This time around, I kept getting the feeling that if they had met each other a little bit earlier Dorothea and Lydgate might have been good for each other.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

I really enjoyed returning to this novel after several years. Earthsea is beautifully realized, and its magic is properly limited (for if magic can do anything, no stories are necessary). This particular story mixes elements of the epic lay and the allegorical, as it tells the story of a young man coming to trust in himself and to accept mortality.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Mrs. Spring Fragrance by Sui Sin Far

I found this collection of short stories incredibly compelling. The stories address the problems of being and remaining Chinese in America around the turn of the last century. There are moments of great beauty and also of shocking violence. The stories affirm the validity of self-determination, even if that determination is to negate the self in accordance with non-democratic cultural norms.