And I Guess I’m Back?

Oh yeah, this thing I was doing.

I’d like to say I’ve been meaning to come back to this project.  I’d like to say it was always in the back of my mind as I read a book.  But really, I just forgot.  After a while, this thing just totally left my brain-box.  And that’s a shame.  Mainly because it gave me a place to talk about books…my favorite thing…ever.  So, as a general update…

The Unread Books Currently on My Shelf:

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Between Parantheses by Roberto Bolaño

The Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 1

The Instructions by Adam Levin

Stephen Hero by James Joyce

The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Misadventure by Millard Kaufman

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton

Anna Karenini by Leo Tolstoy

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Remembrances of Things Past by Marcel Proust

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

The Cave by José Saramago

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Wow.  I’m sure there are actually more but it is late and I am tired.  I was reading Joyce’s Dubliners, making great progress then I decided to go to graduate school and  I have read no fiction in a month.  A whole month.  My brain is changing form to process dense textbook and philosophical material and I am going nuts.  I have been a reading machine in the least year plus and if I am able I’ll try to remember what exactly I have read in the last 18 or so months.

But for now, I’ll just say, I’m back.  I think.



Since I last wrote I have read:

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano.

Ulysses by James Joyce.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Antwerp by Roberto Bolano

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

and I am currently reading Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges.

I devoured Monsieur Pain in a day and the attacked Ulysses with all the zeal of a yet to be disenchanted college student.  I kept meaning to come back and discuss Ulysses but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  As I read the book I always had a pen in hand, taking notes, underlining names, places, bits of Latin, French, slang that I did not understand.  I went back after every chapter and researched by notes.  I wanted so badly to understand this book.  I needed to.  If I was going to read Ulysses, I was going to do it right.  I cross-referenced each chapter with its corresponding chapter in The Odyssey.  And the result?

I think I get it.  Sort of.

Ulysses is one of those books that I imagine I’ll revisit several times before my death.  Is it a favorite?  No.  Did I enjoy the experience?  Yes.  By and large I appreciated what Joyce was trying to do (Faulkner was really trying to do the same thing [playing with narrative styles, changing voice, using the stream of consciousness narration] but I feel at times Faulkner had more substance behind his words) with his varying narrative styles.  I feel very proud and accomplished that I have actually read this book but at the same time, slightly embarrassed.  You can’t really casually drop “Yeah, I just finished Ulysses last month…” without people thinking you are a dick or a liar.  Yes, I have read Ulysses but this is just the beginning of my relationship with the novel and certainly with Joyce.  Hell, I still own Portrait and The Dubliners and haven’t read those yet.

The other day at work I was asked the age-old desert-island book question.  I chose Ulysses not because it is one of my favorite books but because if it was the only book I ever got to read for the rest of my life, I would finally understand it.

So next up, Borges, I suppose…

A Tale of Two Cities: Day 4 part 2

A Tale of Two Cities is one of the best written stories I have ever read.  I know I’ve said this time and time again but this book is so well crafted it blows my mind-grapes.  Right after I wrote that last piece, literally, one page later, Carton reappeared and made sense of his role in Dickens’ story.  Just when I was wondering what had happened to him, fearing he had disappeared in some Wiseau-like fashion, he comes right back and answers all my questions.  I must say, the ending is predictable a good 70 pages or so out but I don’t think that is the point here (in fact, I rarely thing the ending of a story is the most important part.  Unless, of course it is a mystery and the plot is the most important thing in the book… or the only important thing in the book.  Unless we are speaking of Holmes, Marple and Poe, I guess…).  The world and characters are so well done, the predictable ending is a moot point.  But are the characters so well done?

In my last post I griped a bit about Darnay and his lack of depth.  I stand by that claim 100%.  If you use that argument that the Protagonist of a story is the character that changes the most, you would have to argue that Carton, not Darnay is the Protagonist.  But he isn’t.  The book isn’t A Tale of Two Gentlemen. Much like Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna, the protagonist is not a person but an entire village.  Or a city.  Or cities, in this case.  No, let’s say city.  Paris changes the most in this story above all else… London?  Eh, we don’t really get a good feel for what happens to London during the course of this novel.  The book should be called A Tale of a City or Paris: A REVOLUTION!

Back to Darnay.  He is one of the only major characters that lack depth and psychology.  Manette, Cruncher, Pross, Carton, Lorry and Stryver are all “better” characters than Darnay.  It seems that the only two bland and 2-dimensional characters are Darnay and Lucie… a boring man and his boring wife.  Sure, they’re pretty and noble and honorable and full of love but they’re like 2 ingenues in a musical: I don’t care about them.  If this were Les Miserables they would be Marius and Cosette, two boring characters that pale in comparison to Eponine and Enjolras (and Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine and… Gavroche).  And, Dickens does not do a great job of making Darnay and Carton “rivals.”  Maybe I’m just stupid, but I did not get the impression that Carton was as in love with Lucie as he was. It felt forced.  It was necessary for his final redemption at the end of the novel but it didn’t seem real.

And surprisingly, that was the only thing in the novel that seemed forced to me.  All the other little threads and connections, the way that all of these characters are so intertwined beyond their knowledge (like some 1990’s “edgy” film…) and control came off so well.  None of it is trite or forced.

I blame my shitty english teachers in High School (really, just one.  9th grade.  Mr. Turner) for dumbing down my literary diet when it comes to the classics, thus my complete ignorance of Dickens (and most of the classics for that matter).  Nevertheless, this is my post-grad education.

Up Next: Monsieur Pain

A Tale of Two Cities: Day 4

The past day or so I’ve been blazing through A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps it is because the novel is unrelenting in its story and fascination-factor… and perhaps it is due to the fact that the new Bolano is sitting idly by, waiting to be read. And so is Ulysses.

I’d like to speak briefly on the edition of A Tale of Two Cities that I am reading.

A little over a year ago I picked up the Oxforrd World’s Classics edition. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book from this series before, but it has turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and thorough reading experiences I have had in a while. Andrew Sanders, the gentleman who edited, introduced and annotated the book, has done an incredible job of fleshing out the already solid work Dickens has done. We get a nice introduction, a chronology of the life of Charles Dickens, the novel, the serialization dates of the novel’s original publication in 1859, a chronology of fictional and actual history surrounding the story of the novel and a very thorough explanatory notes section. All for only $6.95! Probably cheaper if purchased from Amazon or used! What a gem! What a steal!

The novel is clipping along nicely.  We have been in Paris for quite some time, living out the trials and tribulations of Darnay and Manette’s attempts to save him from the Revolution.  Darnay, certainly a noble and likable fellow, can certainly be considered the (or a) protagonist of this story but he is very bland.  So far he has not done much other than be an all-around good guy.  We haven’t gotten a good glimpse of what he is like a whole human being, as a complex, living, breathing creature.  Dickens has painted him with such broad strokes that I feel like I don’t really know the guy.  The back of the book (again, I know I should never put too much trust into the back of a book…) claims that the novel is about:

Two cities, and two men caught up in the terrifying events of the French Revolution.  In London, French aristocrat Charles Darnay and dissolute English barrister Sydney Carton fall in love with the same woman.  Unwillingly drawn to Paris, Darnay faces the revolutionary anarchy of the Terror; Carton, too, his destiny entwined with that of his rival, daces his ultimate test in the French capital.

What?  So far (and I am 80 pages away from finishing this thing) Carton has been a minor character.  At best!  If it weren’t for that description I would have shrugged Carton off as an unremarkable lout merely thrown in to give a foil to Darnay.  His appearances are few and far between and so far, his impact on the story is almost nonexistent.   My biggest curiosity now is, who dies at the end?  Is it Darnay, condemned to death by the Republic?  Or is is Carton?  Will he stand in the place of Darnay to satisfy Lucie, the woman he loves (although I don’t see how this will happen, we haven’t heard much from Carton in over 5 years it seems…)?  I know the novel ends with a character saying “It is a far, far nobler thing I do now that I have ever done before” (or something along those lines) who says it?  I seriously don’t know and am excited to find out.

A Tale of Two Cities: Day 3

I really appreciate the fact that Dickens doesn’t waste time on the mundane.  A Tale of Two Cities is so intricate and so jam-packed with character and story and inter-woven lives and deaths and plots, he barely has time to waste on things like weddings.  I, for some naive reason, assumed that when Lucie and Darnay finally got married about halfway through the book, that there would be a scene describing it.  When it arrives, Dickens packs all the characters into a chariot, sends them to church and then announces that Lucie and Darnay were married at said church and the characters return home for breakfast.  Amazing.  This guy knows when to elaborate and knows when to keep his mouth shut.  Yes, he focuses entire chapters on seemingly small instances but they are of such importance.

Example: Soon after the wedding, when Lucie and Darnay head off on the first 2 weeks of their Honeymoon, Dr. Manette, Lucie’s father and former prisoner, relapses into his primal, uneducated state that he was in at the beginning of the novel, 6 years ago, before he met his daughter.  He locks himself in his room, speaks to no one and makes shoes.  Shoes for a young woman.  After 9 days he emerges, as Dr. Manette, confused and unaware that 9 days has passed.  Manette and Lorry (his representative, confidant and part-time caretaker) enter into a ten-page psychological discussion whereupon Manette explains and justifies his fugue state.  Just from this discussion and the juxtaposition of Manette as civil being and Manette as prisoner we learn so much about this character, and the mental state of Man in general.  The Doctor reverts to this state to survive.

To think, Dickens wrote this in 1859, when Sigmund Freud was 3 years old.  The Merck Manual wouldn’t be published for another 40 years.  What amazing insight!  Manette is not just a living creature that has ideas and beliefs but his entire being and personality is shaped by his surroundings and life experience.

A Tale of Two Cities: Day 2

Alright, Dickens, you are starting to make sense.  Sometimes I can really be simpleton… I’ve been wading around in post-modern-meta-literature for far too many months and my brain has been a little unfocused.  It has taken me over 100 pages and countless footnotes but I am starting to see why people think Dickens is such a big deal.  He is a master.  Crafting little bits of information, building up a plausible and livable Paris, dropping characters in here and there and then fast-forwarding five years where we pick up with the same characters in London.  This is the mess that is the British Judicial System circa 1780.  This is what the upper-class think about George Washington and the burgeoning United States.  And back to Paris, where we get a greater understanding of the abuse of the peasants and are reintroduced to a character we spent a brief moment with five years and 100 pages ago.    A nasty French aristocrat who is bound to make a difference in 100 more pages… I get it.

A Tale of Two Cities is, so far, one of the most well-crafted and well-written novels I have read in a while.  In his preface for the novel, Dickens mentions that the idea for the story first came to him when he was acting in a play with his children.  I do not know if Dickens had much (if any) previous acting experience but it is very interesting to see how much theatricality he interjects into his narration of A Tale of Two Cities.  He speaks of characters as if they were actors (upon life’s stage, dare I say?), and hints at theatrical terminology here and there.  It is not overdone, it is very subtle and well-placed.  Or maybe I’m looking into this too far.

Call me Johnny-Come-Lately on this one, but, man!  What the Dickens!

A Tale of Two Cities: Day 1

I am well versed in dramatic literature from the ancient Greeks to present day.  I know the Beats.  I know the Futurists.  I know Camus (not so much Sartre).  Vonnegut.  Bolano.  Some Steinbeck.  Some Hugo.  Some Melville.  I must admit that my literary education is fairly lacking when it comes to the classics.  Part of it is lack of trying and part of it is fear.  Yes, I stare into the face of Ulysses and Moby Dick and I wet myself.  Goethe makes me uneasy and for some reason the word Dickens puts me to sleep.  I assume it is just ignorance and laziness but I am trying hard to correct this and I swear that by December 31st 2010 I will have finally conquered my Joyce fear.

Or not.

I’ve been slowly making my way into the world of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and while I tell myself that “it’s just really hard to get into,” I know that is bullshit.  The only other Dickens I have read is A Christmas Carol (in middle school, I believe) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood which hardly counts because it is unfinished.  A Tale of Two Cities is a little slow-going to get to the main story, I suppose, but none of it seems superfluous or rambling.  I think.  Perhaps my general lack of knowledge of the time period (and therefore my constant flipping to the appendix to read the explanatory notes) is what is slowing me down but I have had this problem before.

I am going to make it through this book, if it kills me.

A Tale of Two Cities meanders a bit at the beginning but as the second book starts, things start to make more sense.  The first book is a bit of a prologue, giving us a few characters, the climate, location and a vague sense of direction.  It also gives us that famous opening line, which Dickens uses to set the stage and remind us that he is writing a history.  The second book (which is the largest of the 3 books) begins to add more characters, develop London a little better (both geographically, historically and socially) and move towards the lives of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, who, according to the back of the novel, are the central characters of the book.  I couldn’t tell you for sure, I have yet to meet them.  Although I assume Darnay is just around the corner…