Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Anna Karenina: Part Three

Title: Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Published: 1878
Translated by: Constance Garnett, 1901
Introduction and Notes: Amy Mandelker, 2003
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Number of Pages: 803

He felt sorry for her, and he felt he could not help her, 
and with that he knew that he was to blame for her wretchedness, 
and that he had done something wrong.
- Vronsky

In Part Three Tolstoy delves deeper into the lives of his characters. We get to see more of the motivations that drive them, more of their thoughts on their families, their friends, their work. We see what it is that impels them to make the decisions they make.

Part Three
Konstantin Levin is unhappy and uncomfortable. His half-brother, Sergey Ivanovitch Koznishev, is staying with him in the country over the summer. They have differing views on country life, peasants, and social responsibilities and often, they have debates on these subjects which leaves Levin feeling that, somehow, he is wrong, but mostly, he feels he is only unable to put his thoughts into words. At the beginning of the summer, when Dolly Alexandrovna, Stepan's wife, and her children remove to her country house, Ergushovo, Levin goes to visit them at Stepan's invitation, to offer them his help. Stepan was to have arranged things so that his wife and children could be received with very little inconvenience, but when Dolly arrives she finds things in disorder. Her husband has once again shirked his husbandly and fatherly duties. Only through a servant's help does Dolly get things managed. From Dolly, Levin learns that Kitty is better and will be staying with Dolly in the country during the summer. While Levin is on his sister's estate conducting business, he sees the carriage that is carrying Kitty to Ergushovo and realizes he is still in love with her.

On his way back to St. Petersburg, Alexey Alexandrovitch Karenin meditates on what his wife, Anna, has revealed to him: her affair with Vronsky. Because a divorce would lead to a very public scandal, something he wishes to avoid for the sake of his position as an official, he decides a divorce is not in his best interests. Upon arriving home he writes her a letter detailing his decision and the conditions under which their marriage will continue: her and her son will be treated coolly, and she must give up Vronsky. He sends the letter to their country house where Anna is staying. Meanwhile, Anna is happy she has just told her husband about Vronsky. At least, she thinks, she is no longer deceiving him. In the morning, though, she is not as happy about the situation she is now in. She writes a letter to her husband, informing him she is leaving his house and taking her son with her. Before she can pack up her belongings his letter arrives and, after reading it, she is unable to provide an answer to him. She visits her friend, Betsy - Princess Tverskaya - in the hopes of meeting Vronsky.

The day after the Tsar's races, and Vronsky's misfortune, he sits down and puts his money affairs into order. He knew that with the way things stood with Anna, and her pregnancy, he needed to know how much he had. It wasn't enough; he decides to sell his race horses and borrow money from a money lender. He then sits down to determine what must be done about Anna, their love, and their child. Should he retire from the army and give up his ambition to rise, or should he remain in the army and keep his current position? That afternoon he attends a party for his friend and general, Serpuhovsky, who asks him to retire from his regiment and pursue independence, more prominence in the world and in the army, with him. He doesn't give Serpuhovsky an answer. Vronsky receives a letter from Betsy, which Anna has added a postscript to, and meets her at Betsy's house. Anna tells him her husband knows of them and shows Vronsky her husband's letter. They part as Anna is returning to St. Petersburg that day. Anna and Karenin discuss the letter in his study when she arrives at home. Anna tells him she cannot return to a life with him, but no definite decision about how to proceed is reached between them.

Back at Pokrovskoe, Levin reaches conclusions about why his farm is not as productive as it could be. In disgust, he hands over management to his bailiff and leaves to visit a friend, Nikolay Ivanovitch Sviazhsky. On the way there he stops for a rest at a well-to-do peasant's house and finds himself very attracted to the peasant's daughter. While visiting at his friend's, he decides upon a new course of action for running his farm. Once home, he implements this new course and by the autumn, things are running slightly better. Not long after, his older brother, Nikolay Dmitrievitch Levin, who is dying, comes to visit, but due to his irritability is unable to get along with Levin and leaves very soon thereafter. Levin, after seeing his brother in such poor health, becomes obsessed with death.

This part focuses heavily on Levin and the work on his farm. He's exasperated by the peasants who work for him; they want the work to be easy, merriment to be plentiful, and resist improvements to their methods. Levin is aware that the peasant's work habits results in heavy costs, low product, and very little profits. But he is at a loss as to how to motivate the peasants to change.
To Konstantin the peasant was simply the chief partner in their common labor, and in spite of all the respect and the love, almost like that of kinship, he had for the peasant... still as a fellow-worker with him, while sometimes enthusiastic over the vigor, gentleness, and justice of these men, he was very often, when their common labors called for other qualities, exasperated with the peasant for his carelessness, lack of method, drunkenness, and lying.
Eventually, after much disgust and debate with other people, Levin believes he has lighted upon a solution to his problems: giving the peasants a share in the farm. He's hoping that once the peasant sees that profits will increase with hard work, they will be motivated. By the end of Part Three that is what is happening.

Work is discussed by Vronsky with his old friend, Serpuhovsky. Serpuhovsky believes that more men like Vronsky is needed. He wants Vronsky to resign from the regiment and follow him to bigger and better things. But he leaves Vronsky with a warning about women, which is a subtle hint about Vronsky and Anna's affair. It's one of the best conversations of Part Three, and is full of sense.
... in getting to know thoroughly one's wife, if one loves her, as some one has said, one gets to know all women better than if one knew thousands of them... Women are the chief stumbling-block to a man's career. It's hard to love a woman and do anything.
This is true for Vronsky: his "love" for Anna has limited him (somewhat, although not as much as her "love" for him has limited her choices). She is married and therefore his choices cannot be as many as if she were an unattached woman. Still, though, Vronksy is responsible for Anna and must act according to those responsibilities. The end of Part Three leaves Vronsky in a state of limbo. He has made no definite decisions regarding his future in work or love. Even Anna engages a little in thoughts on work. She tells a lady friend, who is complaining about how boring her life is, "To sleep well one ought to work, and to enjoy oneself one ought to work too." At the very end of this part Levin is left in a depressed state because of his brother's illness and eventual death, but he clings to his work despite the darkness he feels filling his life.

Stepan, meanwhile, continues in his selfish ways. He is distracted by his affairs and unable to fulfill his duties towards his wife and six children.
In spite of Stepan Arkadyevitch's efforts to be an attentive father and husband, he never could keep in mind that he had a wife and children. He had bachelor tastes, and it was in accordance with them that he shaped his life.
The most shocking parts of this section are Anna and Vronsky. In chapter XV, Anna is recovering from revealing to her husband her affair with and love for Vronsky. She was glad "there would be no more lying and deception." She gives no thought to her cheating and how that might make her husband feel, the betrayal he must have felt, and how it is still sin on her part, but only to the fact that she was no longer a liar and deceiver (how deceived she is!). Vronsky too, when he sits down to contemplate what must be done, goes over the "code of principles" he holds. These are shocking, seriously lacking in morals, and full of holes.
This code of principles covered only a very small circle of contingencies, but then the principles were never doubtful, and Vronsky, as he never went outside that circle, had never had a moment's hesitation about doing what he ought to do. These principles laid down as invariable rules: that one must pay a cardsharper, but need not pay a tailor; that one must never tell a lie to a man, but one may to a woman; that one must never cheat any one, but one may a husband; that one must never pardon an insult, but one may give one and so on. These principles were possibly not reasonable and not good, but they were of unfailing certainty, and so long as he adhered to them, Vronsky felt that his heart was at peace and he could hold his head up. Only quite lately in regard to his relations with Anna, Vronsky had begun to feel that his code of principles did not fully cover all possible contingencies, and to foresee in the future difficulties and perplexities for which he could find no guiding clue.
How sad and deluded they both are. They move through the world with such morals and ethics. It is no wonder they have made such a mess with their lives, each other, and the people around them. Is there hope that sense may prevail in their lives?

Friday, April 19, 2019

Anna Karenina: Part Two

Title: Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Published: 1878
Translated by: Constance Garnett, 1901
Introduction and Notes: Amy Mandelker, 2003
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Number of Pages: 803

For the first time in his life he knew the bitterest sort of misfortune,
misfortune beyond remedy, and caused by his own fault.
- Vronsky

Is this quote about Vronsky's misfortune and the fate of his "favorite" mare a foreshadowing of events to come?

Part Two
The Shcherbatsky family is unhappy; Kitty is unwell and not responding to prescribed remedies from her doctor. She is unable to tell them that she is simply heartbroken over Vronsky's abandonment. It is eventually decided that the family will go abroad for the sake of Kitty's health. Her sister, Dolly, has given birth to a little girl and suspects her husband, Stepan, of infidelity once more. In St. Petersburg, Vronsky continues to pursue Anna. She is, at first, displeased by his pursuit, but also thrilled by it. Anna's husband, Karenin, in his insipidness, is unable to see or understand his wife's actions. It is only other's reactions to Anna that alerts him to the inappropriateness of her relations with Vronsky. He tries to warn her, but the result is a closing off of her heart to her husband and his to hers. After some time, Vronsky and Anna fall in love and consummate their relationship. It leaves Anna crushed under the weight of her shame: "She felt so sinful, so guilty... Looking at him [Vronsky], she had a physical sense of her humiliation... There was something awful and revolting in the memory of what had been bought at this fearful price of shame."

Levin, at his country house, still disappointed by Kitty's rejection, is busy with spring planting and improvements on his farm. Stepan comes for a visit and agrees that Levin's life is good and peaceful in the country. From Stepan, Levin learns that Kitty is not married and the family is traveling abroad for her health. At the Tsar's horse races, Vronsky races his favorite mare, but through his mishandling he causes the mare to break her back and is forced to put her down. Earlier in the day, before the race, he learns from Anna that she is pregnant with his child. He urges her to tell her husband everything, even though she resists doing this. After the races, and after Anna's strong public emotions over Vronsky's misfortune in the races, her husband confronts her and she tells him their marriage is over; she is in love with Vronsky and has become his mistress. In Germany, the Shcherbatsky family has traveled to a "watering-place." While there Kitty makes the acquaintance of Mademoiselle Varenka, whose goodness she admires and tries to emulate. Kitty finds out that goodness must come from the heart and not just be an action one does. But the result of their visit and her new friend is that she comes to view Moscow and her disappointment there of less consequence than she once did.

Again, Tolstoy explores the themes of family, betrayal, work, and friendship in Part Two. The Shcherbatsky family worries over their own and does what it can to heal a sickness in their favorite member. Family continues to mean nothing to Vronsky as he continues to pursue Anna even though she does not encourage his advancements at first. Karenin does what he can, although he doesn't do it very well, but he at least desires to keep his family together and warns Anna away from her improper behavior. Levin maintains his desire to one day be married and have a family.

Betrayal is explored further by Stepan's behavior and thoughts on his adulterous life; he persists in his selfishness:
"What am I to do? I'm made that way. And really, one does so little harm to any one, and gives oneself so much pleasure..."
Anna and Vronsky betray and deceive those around them, especially Anna's husband and young son, although the truth about their relationship is known publicly.

Work, again, is shown in a positive light by Tolstoy. Levin takes much delight in managing his farm. He tries to be well-organized, and thoughtful towards his employees. He revels in new advancements that will make the farm run smoother. Karenin continues to work hard at his job, probably the best thing he could do since he is a man without strong feeling or imagination, yet he feels that working hard is a good thing.

But friendship becomes the most important in this Part. Dolly is sad that Kitty will be going away since Kitty is not only her sister, but "her dearest friend." Levin and Stepan spend a pleasant evening together in the country dining on good food, shooting birds, and doing business. Kitty makes a good friend in Germany where she is vacationing, a good woman who does good works and sets a good example for others through her kindness. Anna and Vronsky, though, are guided towards nefarious deeds by their "fashionable" friends. Vronsky, especially, has friends whose influence should be questioned:
He was very well aware that he ran no risk of being ridiculous in the eyes of Betsy or any other fashionable people. He was very well aware that in their eyes the position of an unsuccessful lover of a girl, or of any woman free to marry, might be ridiculous. But the position of a man pursuing a married woman, and, regardless of everything, staking his life on drawing her into adultery, has something fine and grand about it, and can never be ridiculous...
How can one be friends with others who think of adultery as a game? Who treat it as something "fine and grand?" Shouldn't there be warning bells going off in Vronsky's head when he's realizing this? Is he really this stupid? Or is he vain? Selfish? Unfeeling? This is the man for whom Anna is throwing away her life!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Anna Karenina: Part One

Title: Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Published: 1878
Translated by: Constance Garnett, 1901
Introduction and Notes: Amy Mandelker, 2003
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Number of Pages: 803

Happy families are all alike; 
every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The best first line of a novel I've read since Moby-Dick's "Call me Ishmael." or Pride and Prejudice's "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." It is also the main theme of the novel: families, especially unhappy ones.

I chose to read Constance Garnett's 1901 translation of the novel instead of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation that my local library carries. Since I had such a hard time with the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Crime and Punishment, I figured I would steer clear of it: I associated them with bad writing. Of course, there is probably nothing wrong with their translation, it's just that I didn't like Dostoevsky's stream-of-consciousness writing style. I much prefer Tolstoy's straightforward narrative style. It's easier to read, plus, this story is just good.

Part One
The Oblonsky family is unhappy. Stepan Arkadyevitch's betrayal has been discovered by his wife, Dolly, and the household has fallen into chaos as a result. At work, Stepan is visited by his friend, Konstantin Levin, who has traveled to Moscow from the country for one purpose: to ask Kitty Shcherbatsky, Dolly's sister, to marry him. But she refuses him when he asks. She is in love with another suitor, Count Vronsky. Levin returns to his home, Pokrovskoe, in the country with a heavy and disappointed heart. Meanwhile, Anna Karenina, Stepan's sister, has arrived in Moscow from St. Petersburg to help reconcile her unhappy in-laws. She is successful and happy marital relations are restored between them. Later, at a ball, where Kitty expects the majority of Count Vronsky's attention, she is slighted by him for Anna, whom he is quite taken with. The next day Anna returns home. Count Vronsky follows her to St. Petersburg, hoping to win her heart, even if she is married.

Tolstoy presented us with several themes in Part One, themes that he will continue to explore in the rest of the novel. The most important theme is family. Right away we are pulled into the private details of the Oblonsky family: Stepan has been caught cheating on his wife and no one, not even the servants, know what will happen as a result. Levin has come to Moscow with the sole purpose of starting a family: the first step being a proposal to the woman he loves and whom he believes loves him. The Shcherbatsky family, at least the mother, is concerned about getting her youngest daughter Kitty married well. And finally there is Count Vronsky, who was courting Kitty with no intention of marrying her:
Marriage had never presented itself to him as a possibility. He not only disliked family life, but a family, and especially a husband was, in accordance with the views general in the bachelor world in which he lived, conceived as something alien, repellent, and, above all, ridiculous.
Another theme is betrayal. Stepan has betrayed his wife in the most intimate and damaging way. And Kitty is betrayed by Vronsky when he slights her for Anna at a society ball. Work is another important theme in Part One. We follow Stepan to work on the morning the novel begins and we see how important his work is to him and how unimportant it seems to Levin. Levin is more concerned with agricultural work: he runs an estate and farm in the country and that work is what he holds important. Alexey Karenin, Anna's husband, is a well-organized official who takes his duties and responsibilities seriously, even if they appear to be superficial. And finally, friendship. Stepan and Levin have been friends for a long time; good friends in spite of their different views on family, work, and life. The families of the Levins and Shcherbatskys have been friends for even longer. We even get to see Vronsky and his choice of friends and whom he finds honorable: people whose moral character are questionable. This large cast of people, with their differing views and ways of navigating the world, are the ones who populate Tolstoy's vast novel.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Sharp Objects

Title: Sharp Objects
Author: Gillian Flynn
Published: 2006
Publisher: Broadway Books
Number of Pages: 254

This is the novel I chose to take with me the week my husband and I were in Georgia for our neice's wedding, but since we were on the go almost constantly I didn't get to read very much of it. Surprisingly, it was when we were staying in a rented house with our family (twelve of us: seven adults, five kids), that I was able to read the most. Among that many people it's easy to go unnoticed; something I like: living in the background, letting others take the foreground.

I knew the story from watching the HBO series last year, but like any thing visual, it couldn't take the place of what was written. I enjoyed the novel more than the series. I found the main character, Camille, to be more approachable on the page than on the screen. She's conflicted, damaged, and had an insatiable need to submit to anyone; anyone except her mother, which turned out to be a good thing. A thing which saved her life. I won't go into any more details about the plot or characters. Like all Flynn's novels, layers are peeled back slowly. A device I find highly satisfying. A device that keeps you reading.

After reading all three of Flynn's novels, I have to say that Gone Girl is the most compulsively readable, yet Sharp Objects is the best story-wise. Perhaps it was the best for me since I identified with Camille's brokenness more than any other character Flynn has written. I understood Camille. I couldn't understand Amy or Nick from Gone Girl. Camille wants to fix her brokenness, get better; Amy and Nick are stuck in theirs, and Amy, especially, has no desire to be any different than what she is. So I recommend all three novels and you can decide for yourself which is the best.

Chapter Fourteen:
Camille: I have known so many sick women all my life. Women with chronic pain, with ever-gestating diseases. Women with conditions. Men, sure, they have bone snaps, they have backaches, they have a surgery or two, yank out a tonsil, insert a shiny plastic hip. Women get consumed. Not surprising, considering the sheer amount of traffic a woman's body experiences.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Dark Places

Title: Dark Places
Author: Gillian Flynn
Published: 2009
Publisher: Broadway Books
Number of Pages: 350

I stayed up past my bedtime last night to finish the last little bit of this novel I had begun a week ago and now I'm paying for it. This is a lesson I haven't been able to learn: don't stay up late to finish a book, even if you are near the end. You never feel good about it the next day. I'm tired and cranky now and my day is full so I won't have any time to rest or recover.

I liked this book in spite of how I began it. Libby, the main character, is not a likeable person, in my opinion. But, after the novel progressed, and we learn what happened to her and her family and where and who she came from, I began to like her. It was then that I relaxed and got into the story.

Just like Gone Girl, Flynn's characters are not people you would choose as your friend, and in some cases, even an acquaintance. She takes her characters and puts them in the most outrageous circumstances and we get to watch how they react to them. Through their reactions we get to know them; who they are, what their character is, what their flaws are. In Gone Girl, they were not good people; in Dark Places, I was surprised that most of them turned out to be good people, even if their character flaws were deep and destructive to those around them. So, I would have to say my biggest reaction to this novel was surprise.

Plus, the ending was a surprise to me as well. I can usually guess what is coming as I get near the end of a book (a gift, thanks to The Well-Educated Mind and the novels I've been reading from that list), but this one came at me without warning. Perhaps by that point I was too tired and sleepy to figure it out since it was two plus hours past when I was supposed to be asleep. However, I have to say that if the novel itself had any flaw it was this surprise ending. It felt too rushed. Like it was pulled out of the author at the last minute and slapped on the page. Overall, though, I'd say it's a good read and I recommend it.

If you're interested, the novel was made into a movie in 2015, starring Charlize Theron, and is available now on Netflix streaming. I plan on watching it with my husband this weekend.

I also plan on reading Flynn's first novel, Sharp Objects, next. I checked it out of the library at the same time as this one. Last summer my husband and I watched the limited series on HBO, starring Amy Adams, and it was then that I added it to my reading list. I know I'm reading Flynn's novels backwards, but I can see that so far, her writing talent was best in Gone Girl.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

On The Road

Title: On The Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Published: 1957
Publisher: Penguin Books
Introduction: Ann Charters, 1991
Number of Pages: 307

With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life
you could call my life on the road.
- Sal Paradise

Two months ago I was standing in a large second-hand bookshop reading the first paragraph of this novel I had heard so much of, thinking, hmmm... it's time I read Kerouac, especially since I've done so much traveling on the road myself. It was that first paragraph that convinced me to pay the five dollars the seller was asking for the book (a little too much money, in my opinion, for a second-hand book).

This autobiographical novel has become a classic, especially for young people and those searching for something different than what has been handed down to them from society, but I think I missed it. I should have read the book in my twenties, not in my forties. In my twenties I would have identified with the free-spiritedness of Dean and Sal and the rest of the gang. I could have identified with the need to hit the road for no other reason than to just experience it all. In my forties, I don't have those same desires. I hit the road now for different reasons than I did in my twenties. In my twenties, I liked not knowing where I would end up when I began. In my forties, when my husband and I itch to have some quality alone time together, we plan a road trip and execute it. We plan, but there is still a sense of mystery to it all because we ride the back roads, roads we've never been on in the hopes of finding something we've never found before, never seen before. We stop in strange places and roam just to see what is there, what we can experience when we find it.

Okay... so maybe there is some of the spirit of Kerouac's On The Road in me still.

In spite of that spirit being in me I quickly became disillusioned with the novel. As I read elsewhere, the novel can be "enervating." It leaves you drained of energy. Sal Paradise, the narrator, wasn't such a bad guy, even though he was obsessed with Dean Moriarty, a man I considered a cad. The string of women and children, and sheer irresponsibility that Dean leaves behind him is shocking. Yet everyone loved him! How could anyone love a man who claimed to know and get IT, yet never got it, really? Again, I think I'm responding this way because I'm in my forties, not my twenties. In my twenties, a bad boy was appealing to me, so I probably wouldn't have read Dean the way I do now.
Only a guy who's spent five years in jail can go to such maniacal helpless extremes; beseeching at the portals of the soft source, mad with a completely physical realization of the origins of life-bliss; blindly seeking to return the way he came. This is the result of years [of] looking at sexy pictures behind bars; looking at the legs and breasts of women in popular magazines; evaluating the hardness of the steel halls and the softness of the woman who is not there. Prison is where you promise yourself the right to live. Dean had never seen his mother's face. Every new girl, every new wife, every new child was an addition to his bleak impoverishment.
Dean is considered the hero of Kerouac's novel, but it is Sal himself that I feel is the most important person in the novel. We see everything through his eyes, and sometimes we think he's a little crazy. Sometimes I questioned his sanity altogether, especially when he was around Dean. Sal's aunt, who he lived with when he wasn't traveling, knew who Dean really was. She was always a voice of reason for Sal when he couldn't always see it for himself.
My aunt - a respectable woman hung-up in this sad world, and well she knew the world... She knew Dean had something to be ashamed of, and me too, by virtue of my being with Dean, and Dean and I accepted this sadly.
My aunt once said the world would never find peace until men fell at their women's feet and asked for forgiveness. But Dean knew this; he'd mentioned it many times. "I've pleaded and pleaded with Marylou for a peaceful sweet understanding of pure love between us forever with all hassles thrown out - she understands; her mind is bent on something else - she's after me; she won't understand how much I love her, she's knitting my doom."
"The truth of the matter is we don't understand our women; we blame on them and it's all our fault," I said.
"But it isn't as simple as that," warned Dean. "Peace will come suddenly, we won't understand when it does - see, man?"
For all Sal's exertions that Dean understood things, Dean never really did. Did Dean really understand what Sal's aunt was trying to say? Sal said he did, "But Dean knew this; he'd mentioned it many times." But what Dean says just after this proves he didn't. Dean was the one who didn't get it, who used his "madness" as an excuse to come and go as he pleased, leaving behind chaos and disappointment.

We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind
and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!

The purity of the road.

The real spirit of the novel, though, is not in Dean, or it's "beatness." The spirit of the novel is in the road, Sal's experiences of the roads he takes and the places he visits. Part One of the novel is Sal's first trip West. Denver is his destination and hitchhiking was his means of getting there. When he accepts a ride from a truck driver he gets his first vision of the road and where he's going. The description is one that all road trippers have had and can identify with.
Now I could see Denver looming ahead of me like the Promised Land, way out there beneath the stars, across the prairie of Iowa and the plains of Nebraska, and I could see the greater vision of San Francisco beyond like jewels in the night. He [the truck driver] balled the jack and told stories for a couple of hours, then, at a town in Iowa where years later Dean and I were stopped on suspicion in what looked like a stolen Cadillac, he slept a few hours in the seat. I slept too, and took one little walk along the lonely brick walls illuminated by one lamp, with the prairie brooding at the end of each little street and the smell of the corn like dew in the night.
But for Sal and Dean, and everyone else who rode the roads in the novel, traveling wasn't just about traveling, there was a spiritual element about it too. It wasn't often in the novel that Kerouac wrote explicitly about the spiritual side of it, but when he did, it was deep, the deep things that we ponder in our youth, but don't have answers to until we're older, if we ever get the answers at all.
Something, someone, some spirit was pursuing all of us across the desert of life and was bound to catch us before we reached heaven. Naturally, now that I look back on it, this is only death: death will overtake us before heaven. The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate to admit it) in death. But who wants to die?
So, do I recommend this book? Absolutely. If you're in your teens and twenties, I say read it now. Do not put it off. If you're older, and not a road tripper, like myself, then it's one you can skip. You may not grasp the sense of the novel, what Kerouac was trying to capture.

From Part One, Chapter 10:
Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk - real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.

From Part Four, Chapter 1:
I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents have lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, or actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road. All of it inside endless and beginningless emptiness. Pitiful forms of ignorance.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Jane Austen: A Life

Title: Jane Austen: A Life
Author: Claire Tomalin
Published: 1997
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Number of Pages: 341

"She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, 
the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, 
& it is as if I had lost a part of myself."
- Cassandra Austen

I was not as impressed with this biography as I thought I would be; however, I did believe that it was very readable, with the exception of the multitude of names, most of them the same (there were lots of Janes, Cassandras, James', James-Edwards, Elizabeths, etc). Even with the Family Tree at the back of the book, I had a hard time keeping them straight.

It wasn't Jane Austen's story I found so readable in this book. It was the biographer's comments on Austen, her talent, and her work that I found the most fascinating. Early on, in Chapter 1, I was intrigued by how Tomalin viewed Austen through her letters.
The most striking aspect of Jane's adult letters is their defensiveness. They lack tenderness towards herself as much as towards others. You are aware of the inner creature, deeply responsive and alive, but mostly you are faced with the hard shell; and sometimes a claw is put out, and a sharp nip is given to whatever offends. They are the letters of someone who does not open her heart; and in the adult who avoids intimacy you sense the child who was uncertain where to expect love or to look for security, and armoured herself against rejection.
She described Austen's talent in a way that I related to; in the same way that I think of Jane Austen and her ability to write not just a good story, but characters that come alive on the page.
By whatever process of inner composition or redrafting, her characters rarely fail to speak to one another like real people, not in set speeches but as though they are actually exchanging information, exploring or undermining one another's views or feelings, putting one another down, flirting, deceiving, or simply expressing the life with which she has endowed them...
But it was when the biographer came to Austen's works itself that the book became not just readable, but enjoyable. In considering Sense and Sensibility, Tomalin was able to succinctly describe Austen's purpose in writing it, saying "Austen is considering how far society can tolerate openness, and what its effect on the individual may be." We see that in Marianne's inability to restrain herself, to express everything she thinks and feels, no matter its consequences to herself, her family, or others.

The description I love the best is about Austen's last full length, fully developed novel, Emma:
Emma, with its far from faultless heroine, is generally hailed as Austen's most perfect book, flawlessly carried out from conception to finish, without a rough patch or a loose end... It springs a real surprise the first time you read it, so that, as has often been pointed out, the pleasures of a detective story are added to the study of human psychology. Every reading increases understanding and appreciation of its structure and subtlety; like a string quartet or a sonata, it grows in the mind with each new encounter.
I have certainly found that to be true about Emma. Every time I read it, it surpasses another of Austen's novels in my mind.

I recommend this book to all who love Jane Austen's works as much as I do. While the conclusion is that beyond facts, there cannot be much more known about her (many of her letters were burned by her sister, Cassandra, and a niece). However, what remains of Austen, her novels and writings, are the most intriguing part of her life. What she must have had to sacrifice (a husband, children, and a home of her own) to write them, to get them published. And what she must have had to sacrifice once they were published and their authorship became known (anonymity, and scorn that she was an author of "mere" novels). Without those sacrifices, we would not have six of the most wonderful and fascinating novels in the English language.

From Chapter 15, Three Books:
Fiction can accommodate ambivalence as polemic cannot.

From Chapter 25, Postscript:
On the other side of the academic fence, many readers feel strongly that she is their personal property, not to be tampered with or subjected to questions or theories.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

My Name Is Lucy Barton

Title: My Name is Lucy Barton
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Published: 2016
Publisher: Random House
Number of Pages: 193

It took me only one day to read this thin book. And frankly, I was disappointed with it. After reading her other novels, with the exception of The Burgess Boys, which I hope to get to soon, I had come to see Strout as an author that never disappoints. Amy and Isabelle was poignant, Olive Kitteridge was deep and stunning and broad. But, Lucy Barton was pulled in, small. Small in view, small in details, small, just like Lucy herself.

However, I did identify with Lucy in many ways. Her life was defined by the loneliness she carried with her. Her childhood was filled with poverty and abuse, the result of which made her feel isolated and detached from those around her, even into adulthood, even though she yearned for nothing more than to be connected.

The ending left me yearning for more. Nothing was resolved. And though Lucy's life changed over the course of the novel, I felt that Lucy herself didn't change. The novel was simply a portrait of her life, at a certain time in her life, and how what happened to her was shaped by events in her past, most of which she never delved into. I finished the novel feeling that I didn't fully understand Lucy or her purpose in writing down this event in her life. She said she felt a need to write it down, but never explained the why. I needed the why.

Strout's next book is Anything Is Possible, a collection of short stories, one of which is about Lucy Barton. So, the only good thing about reading this novel is that when I get to the short story about Lucy, I'll know her already. Perhaps the short story will explain her more for me.

Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.

Many of us have been saved many times by the kindness of strangers, but after a while it sounds trite, like a bumper sticker. And that's what makes me sad, that a beautiful and true line comes to be used so often that it takes on the superficial sound of a bumper sticker.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Crime And Punishment

Title: Crime and Punishment
Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Published: 1866
Translated by: Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky, 1992
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Number of Pages: 564

To be very honest, I thought this novel would never end. I understand why it is on The Well-Educated Mind's reading list; I can see the ideas that Dostoevsky brought forward and examined in his novel, and I can see the importance of them, but I felt that the novel was not for me. If it hadn't been on TWEM's list I would never have picked it up on my own.

To be very, very honest, I think I would have benefited more from an heavily annotated version of the novel. Because there were so many ideas, for example mid-nineteenth-century Russian progressivism, I would have liked to have known more about it so that I could have better understood the characters and the views they discussed and represented. Even though I didn't like the novel, if I ever come across a good annotated version, I'll pick it up and read it.

So, in conclusion, I'm going to have to suspend judgment of this novel until I can think more fully about it and wait until I can read it again and understand things on a deeper level.

Part One, Chapter III:
Pulcheria Alexandrovna Raskolnokov:
"... if one wants to know any man well, one must consider him gradually and carefully, so as not to fall into error and prejudice, which are very difficult to correct and smooth out later."

Part Six, Chapter II:
Porfiry Petrovitch:
"Because suffering, Rodion Romanovitch, is a great thing... but I do know... that there is an idea in suffering."

Epilogue, Chapter II:
Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov:
Existence alone had never been enough for him; he had always wanted more. Perhaps it was only from the force of his desires that he had regarded himself as a man to whom more was permitted than to others.

Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov:
This alone he recognized as his crime: that he had not endured it, but had gone and confessed.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Summer Sisters

Title: Summer Sisters
Author: Judy Blume
Published: 1998
Publisher: Bantam Books
Number of Pages: 410

I first picked up Summer Sisters in the fall of 1999, at the public library in Georgia, after a hard day at work. I went home, sat down on the couch, opened the book, and didn't put it down until I forced myself to go to bed at 11 o'clock that night. I got so into the book I skipped dinner and skipped my nightly chores. The next day after work I did the same thing: came home, began reading, but I didn't stop that night until I finished the book. I couldn't wait to finish it, then when I did, I felt a huge loss. I missed Victoria, the main character, so bad over the next few days. In only two nights, Victoria had hooked me as her best friend, but in a way she felt more than that to me: to me, she was my alter ego. We had so much in common that I felt like I was reading my own story. Her best friend, Caitlin, was like my own best friend that I had had since I was fifteen. I couldn't believe how much the story mirrored my own.

Since 1999, I've told everyone, especially girlfriends, female work colleagues, and casual female acquaintances about my favorite novel and have urged them to read it. I tell them, It's compulsively readable, so schedule some time, cause you won't be able to put it down. A friend of mine borrowed my copy and when she returned it she told me she had read it and when she finished she immediately turned back to the first page and started reading again. She didn't want to be without Victoria and Caitlin, either. If you're looking for a new best friend, Summer Sisters, or rather Victoria, is it. Read this novel. You won't be disappointed.

Over the years, as I have changed and gained new and different life experiences, I've gained new perspectives on the story as I've re-read it. But, to this day, I've never fully understood Caitlin and the choices she made. I've never understood her final choice. I'm not sure that Victoria, Caitlin's summer sister, ever understood those choices either. Caitlin remained an enigma throughout the entire novel. Interestingly, Caitlin is the only character in the novel whose inner thoughts we never get to hear. Everyone else (except Victoria - the novel is told through her eyes) gets a paragraph, or page, here and there. Caitlin, while she is beautiful and privileged, is damaged and jaded, but never easy to figure out. It's been twenty years for me, and I still don't understand her.

This version of the novel, by Bantam Books, includes an essay by Blume about her own summer sister and how their lives, while not mirroring Victoria and Caitlin's, was nevertheless the inspiration for the story. This was new for me. I had only previously read the novel with its original cover - white, with two adirondack chairs in the sand, one overturned. This version I picked up at a book store a couple of years ago, specifically to read the extras that were included in it. I didn't get to it until this year. I use to read this novel once every year, but I purposely abstained from it for five years. I wanted a newness to be there when I re-read and I got my wish. Just like always, I consumed the book in two nights (this time the nightly chores were done beforehand). And when I was done, I read Blume's essay and found additional insight into my favorite fictional characters.

I highly, highly recommend this novel to women. However, I caution that if you're squeamish about explicit sex scenes, don't pick it up. The novel is typical Blume. Victoria's story begins when she's twelve, during puberty, right when she and Caitlin's, and every girl's, sexual awakening begins. Blume traces Victoria and Caitlin's sexual experiences throughout their life in detail. While there's not a lot of sex, it's only included as part of the story, I can see how some might not want to read it because of that. So, I'm giving you warning and you can decide for yourself. There is also strong language, but again I'll tell you, Victoria's story will draw you in and make you a friend for life.

From Part Two, Chapter 16:
Vix [Victoria] liked the idea of being invisible, of watching and listening without anyone knowing.

From Part Three, Chapter 31:
Victoria: But she was a master at keeping it all to herself. She'd learned at the feet of an even greater master, hadn't she? Deny... deny... deny...

From Part Five, Chapter 42:
Victoria: Caitlin isn't someone to get over. She's someone to come to terms with, the way you have to come to terms with your parents, your siblings. You can't deny they ever happened. You can't deny you ever loved them, love them still, even if loving them causes you pain.