First Impressions: The Confessions of Saint Augustine

Let the proud deride me, O God, and all whom you have not yet laid low and humiliated for the salvation of their souls; but let me still confess my sins to you for your honor and glory. Allow me, I beseech you, to trace again in memory my past deviations and to offer you a sacrifice of joy. Without you I am my own guide to the brink of perdition. And even when all is well with me, what am I but a creature suckled on your milk and feeding on yourself, the food that never perishes? And what is any man, if he is only man? Let the strong and mighty laugh at men like me: let us, the weak and the poor, confess our sins to you.1

“St. Augustine” by Sandro Botticelli.

I got it in my head about a week ago to start reading the Confessions. I can’t even entirely remember what reminded me of this book that I had heard about for so long but never attempted to read. One day, I’m not thinking about Augustine at all and the next, I have a five Amazon tabs open so I can use the previews to compare some of the major English translations. Like a lot of ancient literature, Confessions is divided into “books.” I have now read four out of thirteen of those books. Whatever the thing was that brought Confessions to my attention again, I’m glad it did. Continue reading “First Impressions: The Confessions of Saint Augustine”

First Impressions: Anna Karenina

I’ve had an unread copy of Anna Karenina in my bedroom for about two years now. Last week, I decided to start reading it, bringing to it a hazy conception of the plot and a slight sense of inadequacy stemming from my chronic neglect of Russian novels. At this point, I’ve just started to read Part 2 (of 8), and so far, I am massively enjoying this book.

The main plot of the novel, of course, centers on Anna, an upper-class woman in a loveless marriage, and her disastrous affair with a dashing young army officer, Count Vronsky. In addition, there are several subplots starring the friends and family of both Anna and Vronsky. One of the first characters we meet, for instance, is Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, whose wandering eye threatens to destroy his own family. There’s also Oblonsky’s friend Konstantin Levin, an idealistic farmer who falls madly in love with a girl named Kitty. Poor Kitty was in love with Vronsky before he met Anna, and is left all alone after Levin, stung by her rejection, goes back to the countryside.

A few preliminary thoughts:

  1. For whatever reason, I went into this book expecting Anna to be a mostly unlikeable character. I may have been confusing her with the heroine of Madame Bovary, who, by all accounts, is very spoiled and selfish. So I was surprised when I found myself really liking Anna. Though the last few chapters of Part 1 see her starting to slip, she has, for the most part, been perfectly kind and decent to everyone she meets. Her affection for her young son Seryozha, and for children in general, endears her to me as well. She seems like a sweet person now, so I’m interested to see how my perception of her changes as the story progresses.
  2. I also might be interested to compare Anna’s situation with that of her brother: both are unfaithful to their spouses, but where Anna is publicly shamed and ostracized, Oblonsky, so far, has not suffered at all for his indiscretions. It might also be interesting to compare how Anna and Vronsky are each treated when their affair comes to light.
  3. I know that Anna’s story is going to end unhappily, but I dearly hope that Levin and Kitty’s doesn’t.
  4. Despite the Slavic languages professor who said that no English translation of Anna Karenina is “actively bad,” I still have some misgivings about this one. When I bought it, I didn’t pay much attention to the translator, Constance Garnett. I’ve since learned that, despite her being loved by many an English-reader, Mrs. Garnett is often reviled by native Russian speakers, particularly for her translations of Tolstoy. (Vladimir Nabokov called her translation of Anna “a complete disaster.” So there’s that.) Of course, not knowing Russian, I can’t judge for myself whether this is a good translation or not. Just the same, I’m already planning future rereadings of this book, just to see if I get anything from the other translators that I didn’t get from this one.

Anyway, those are just some tentative thoughts on the novel, pending a full review at some undetermined date in the future. Meanwhile, have any of you read Anna Karenina? What did you think? What translation did you read? Let me know in the comments.

First Impressions: The Picture of Dorian Gray

So, this post is a bit late. I usually do my “First Impressions” posts after reading only a chapter or two of a new book, but this time, my interest in reading exceeded my patience for blogging. I am now at Chapter 8 of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which puts me near the halfway point of the book. I’m planning a full review, but for right now, I’d like to jot down a few random thoughts on this deliciously spooky little book.

This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for ages. As a little girl, before I even knew there was a book, I still knew the story because its 1945 adaptation is one of my mother’s favorite films. Nine-year-old me found the plot a bit creepy, but intriguing at the same time. Eventually, I learned of the book, realized that it was written by the same man who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest (one of my favorite plays), and decided I had to read it. My fellow bloggers concurred and here we are.

So far, it’s living up to all my expectations.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Oscar Wilde, 1882. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Since my reading lately has gravitated toward more modern fiction (modern by my standards, anyway), I forgot how much I miss the pomp and circumstance of older novels. Nowhere but in the nineteenth century do you get clouds “like raveled skeins of glossy white silk,” nor are you likely to find “the hollowed turquoise of the summer sky” in modern-day, “realistic” books. Wilde’s writing demands to be reread and lingered over. Just take for example this passage, in which Lord Henry (the main villain) starts thinking of Dorian, whom he helped to shape and whose self-destruction he finds amusing:

With his beautiful face, and his beautiful soul, [Dorian] was a thing to wonder at. It was no matter how it all ended, or was destined to end. He was like one of those gracious figures in a pageant or a play, whose joys seem to be remote from one, but whose sorrows stir one’s sense of beauty, and whose wounds are like red roses.

The passion and the verve with which Wilde wrote almost make the book worth reading by themselves.

Of course, the beautiful narration is not the only reason why I find this book so engrossing. The characters too are exquisitely drawn. Lord Henry, for instance, is about as loathsome as they come, but like all the great villains, one rather enjoys him just the same. Dorian himself is like a blank canvas waiting for someone to paint on it and unfortunately for him, that person is Lord Henry. Meanwhile, Basil Hallward is caught in the middle of these two friends of his, trying to protect one from the other and failing miserably. Wilde’s grasp of human nature is formidable, and it comes through especially clearly in these characters.

Not to mention, this book has so much to say about life, art, and morality that I could probably stay here until next week discussing it. The famous preface alone poses some interesting questions such as,

  • What is the relationship between art and morality?
  • Should artists pursue art for the sake of beauty alone?
  • In what ways does a work of art mirror the spectator?
  • What, when all is said and done, is the purpose of art?

I look forward to reviewing this book before long and hearing your thoughts on it. In the meantime, has anyone else read this already? What did you think? Are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments.

How G. K. Chesterton Changed My Mind about Detective Stories

I try to stay open to books in genres and styles that I don’t often read, but one genre that I routinely avoid is the mystery genre. Part of my problem with mystery stories is that they’re almost impossible to read more than once, and part of it is that very few of the mysteries I have read have really grabbed me. I tried the Nancy Drew series as a young girl and had to force myself through the last half of The Secret of the Old Clock. I started to read The Bungalow Mystery hoping to have better luck with that one–I read about three chapters and then promptly forgot about it. Even Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie failed to keep me interested long enough to find out who the killer was. I had all but given up on mystery stories until recently, when I took a peek inside G. K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown.

Guys, I might have finally found a detective that I like.

Image via
Image via Top Meadow

If you haven’t heard of him, Father Brown is a fictional priest/detective who made his first appearance in 1910.* He’s the star of dozens of Chesterton stories, four of which I have read and can heartily recommend.

Part of what I like about these stories is those great poetic descriptions Chesterton loves: his “dark violet distances” and his “diamonds that seemed to set the very air on fire all round them” suite my taste for ornate prose very well.

Another part of it is the humor: not that the characters are constantly saying funny things (although they do that sometimes too), but rather, the stories I’ve read have the air of a farce while also remaining serious, if that’s possible. The situations are so bizarre and they are described in such a light, almost playful sort of way that you can’t help but laugh. In many ways, these stories remind me of the venerable P. G. Wodehouse.

Last but not least, we have Father Brown himself: unlike most fictional detectives, who use science or their uncanny powers of observation to solve crimes, Father Brown relies instead on his knowledge of human nature, garnered through years of serving both the highest and the lowest in society. I suppose part of my beef with detective fiction has to do with its tendency to focus on events, locations, and methods rather than on characters. Because this detective makes the person the main object of his investigations, I received him much more warmly than I ever did Nancy Drew or Hercule Poirot. Besides, he has none of the arrogance that other famous fictional detectives (Sherlock Holmes, for example) possess. He’s kindly and agreeable, but also self-effacing: despite being brilliant enough to solve crimes that have even the police baffled, he never takes himself very seriously. Since hubris seems to be a hallmark of fictional detectives, this one is a breath of fresh air.

So far, I’ve only read the first four stories in the book: “The Blue Cross,” “The Secret Garden,” “The Queer Feet,” and “The Flying Stars.” I do plan to round out the collection (heaven knows when, though), so watch out for that review. 😉


* That places him twenty-three years after the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and ten years before Hercule Poirot.

First Impressions: Go Set a Watchman

I can’t believe I just typed that title.

Go Set a Watchman doesn’t hit the shelves until Tuesday, but the first chapter is already available to read at The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Sydney Morning Herald. Some intend to wait until July 14 to read it, but you know me: I jumped on it as soon as I realized it was available. Granted, it’s hard to tell much about a book after only one chapter, but so far, I think I’m going to like this one . . . .

The chapter opens on Scout–now twenty-six years old–returning to Maycomb from New York City, and as she does, you can feel yourself slipping into Maycomb’s regular rhythms again alongside her. The style that made me fall in love with Lee’s writing in the first place is still present in this much-earlier novel, as is her fantastic characterization. One of things I loved most about To Kill a Mockingbird is how much Lee was able to tell her readers about her characters using only their own words and actions: she does the same in Go Set a Watchman, helping us get reacquainted with the old characters and meet some new ones.

Speaking of new characters, I already like Henry Clinton, Scout’s love interest, very much. As strange as it is to think of Scout having a boyfriend, I think he’ll fit in wonderfully with Maycomb’s crew. I can’t wait to see how his story progresses, especially where his relationship with Scout is concerned.

There’s only one aspect of this chapter that I dislike: I was never fond of the sections in To Kill a Mockingbird where Lee goes into gory detail about the early history of Maycomb County, something she tends to do in this chapter as well. But luckily for me, the story quickly returns to Scout and her adventures.

I must say, being dropped all at once into 1950’s Maycomb was more than a little jarring, and while I would like to tell you that I was able to remain perfectly composed while learning of several major changes that have occurred in the Finch family since TKAM, I did everything but. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but Atticus fans, brace yourselves. Jem fans, have the Kleenex ready.

Have you read the chapter yet? What did you think? Or are you going to wait till Tuesday? Let me know in the comments.

First Impressions: My Name Is Asher Lev

I made a sort of tacit promise to myself that, so far as I could help it, I was going to read only one book at a time, at least for the next few months. I promptly threw that plan out the window when I returned from a Barnes and Noble trip with a copy of Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel My Name Is Asher Lev.

For those who haven’t heard of it, My Name Is Asher Lev is the story of a Hasidic boy growing up in 1940’s Brooklyn. Blessed with a natural talent for drawing and painting, he decides to pursue art his own way, even when his vision of the world clashes with what his family and his community believes and expects of him.

I decided I had to (mark: had to) read this book after Brenton Dickieson mentioned it on his blog A Pilgrim in Narnia. According to Brenton, one of the central debates of the novel concerns the relationship between art and truth. Nerd that I am, that was enough to entice me already, but the icing on top was this comment from one of Brenton’s readers, who, at the time, was working her way through the novel: “I already love his [Asher’s] struggle of trying to figure out what color ‘cold’ is.” At that point, I was sold. Perhaps the lingering influence of The Book Thief, which asks some equally odd questions, is to blame, but when questions like that come up in novels, I can’t help but be intrigued. So here we are.

Initially, I was only going to read the first page or two, just out of curiosity since both this author and his subject matter are entirely new to me. It only took that long for me to get sucked in.

~

Already, Potok seems to be a digressive author. For instance, on page 3 (which is actually page 1 of the narrative), we read this:

The fact is that gossip, rumors, mythmaking, and news stories are not appropriate vehicles for the communication of nuances of truth, those subtle tonalities that are often the truly crucial elements in a casual chain.

Some people are put off by authors who use their narration as an opportunity to get off on a philosophical tangent. Personally, I’ve never minded where an author takes his narration as long as it’s somewhere interesting, which this is.

Fellow book blogger Lydia Morris counts Chaim Potok as one of her favorite authors and describes his writing as “vivid and intense.” I can’t say I disagree because even after only five pages, I am in love with Potok’s writing. His style is almost lyrical, but without the absurdity and the flights of fancy of which so-called “lyrical” authors are sometimes guilty. Take for example this excerpt from page 4, in which Asher describes a dream he had about an ancestor he’s been taught to revere:

It was no joy waking up after a dream about that man. He left a taste of thunder in my mouth.

Both brilliant and unexpected. I think I’m going to like this book.

Of course, this completely throws off the reading schedule I had planned for the summer. But now that “little Asher Lev” has elbowed his way to the top of my nightstand stack, I think he plans to stay.

I Tried, Flannery. I Really Tried

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I couldn’t find a good photo of Flannery O’Connor herself, so instead, I used this picture of peacock. Because Flannery loved peacocks.

You may recall last December when I posted my intention to read the works of Flannery O’Connor in the days to come. I decided that she was worth a shot after hearing everyone–from college professors to miscellaneous bloggers–tout her as one of the greatest authors in the world. Having read three of her stories, it’s hard to disagree that Miss O’Connor had some real talent. But so far, I can’t call myself a fan.

I really wanted to like this author. Given that she was a female author from the South who was known for writing gritty, too-real-for-comfort stories about grotesque characters, I was hoping she might fill the Harper Lee-shaped void in my life caused by my already having read To Kill a Mockingbird cover-to-cover twice. I had been told that she was one of the best American authors who ever lived, so the writer in me also hoped to get a mentor out of the deal. But alas, I have yet to learn how to love Flannery.

To be fair, I’ve only read three of her short stories to completion, and considering that she wrote around thirty stories, plus two novels and dozens of essays, that’s just a small sliver of her work. But of the stories I have read, “The Barber,” “The Crop,” and “You Can’t Be Any Poorer than Dead,” none of them have had the same effect on me that they seem to have on countless other people. Each was as I expected: it dealt with imperfect, unpolished characters, it had a Southern-fried tinge about it, and it dealt with human nature and its problems in some profound ways. But the stories I finished I finished because I willed myself to; reading her work seemed more like homework than anything else.

This has nothing to do with O’Connor’s talent as a writer: I see now why people say she was a master storyteller, and I did enjoy how keenly she seems to grasp her characters and all of their tangled-up motives and emotions. But for me personally, her stories did not strike a chord.

Perhaps she’s just too different from what I’m used to. I have been reading a lot of mid-century science fiction lately, and (let’s face it) science fiction is made for people with short attention spans. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the Flannery fans were smarter, more astute, or wiser than I am (I have a dreadful feeling that some of them are). But for me, Flannery O’Connor doesn’t quite make the cut. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s another rocket about to land on Mars. 😉

Lions, Space Ships, and Lonely Dinosaurs: the Strange and Wonderful World of Ray Bradbury’s Short Fiction

For Christmas, one of the things I wanted most was Barnes and Nobles’s leather-bound collection of three books by Ray Bradbury. Well, I got it and I am a very happy camper. 🙂

The collection includes one novel, The Martian Chronicles, and two short story anthologies, The Illustrated Man and The Golden Apples of the Sun. Before Christmas Eve, I had never read any of Bradbury’s short stories (except for one I found on Project Gutenberg that the fledgling author had written at the age of nineteen). I had told my sister previously that, since Bradbury enjoyed writing short stories more than writing novels, his short stories might be even better than his novels (or at least, I might like them better). It appears that I was right.

The first story I read was “The Fog Horn,” from The Golden Apples of the Sun. It was beautiful and well-done, but it didn’t grab me the way it might have if the story hadn’t be spoiled for me by reading Bradbury’s essay “Drunk and in Charge of a Bicycle” (yes, that’s its actual title). Next, I started on The Illustrated Man, determined to read it all the way through instead of only reading a story here and there. I’ve only read the prologue and the first three stories so far, but nevertheless, they are brilliant. Quickly, here are some of my thoughts on those three stories.

1: “The Veldt”

This story is a masterpiece. It’s about a family–husband, wife, son, and daughter–that owns a “nursery” whose walls translate the children’s wishes into scenery. It’s rather like the holodeck in Star Trek: the children can turn the room into anything they wish, simply with their thoughts. In essence, the story is about what happens when virtual reality replaces what’s true. And like all good science fiction, this story is remarkable in how accurately it predicted the current state of affairs . . . sixty-four years ago. At the risk of spouting spoilers, the ending was almost chilling in how it showed the level of depravity that people can achieve when the real is no longer real to them. I’ll have to read this story a second time to fully grasp it, but what I know of it now I love.

2: “Kaleidoscope”

I feel as though I’m missing something in this story. The entire story takes place in the time that it takes seven astronauts whose spaceship exploded to crash into their respective planets or moons and die. It’s basically a long meditation on the futility of life and the finality of death, one that deserves a more thoughtful reading than I was able to give it. But nevertheless, it’s a great story, very “out there” and different.

3: “The Other Foot”

In this story, Ray Bradbury did something that only Ray Bradbury is brazen enough to do: he explored racism from the opposite angle, wondering what would happen if a group of black people had the opportunity to oppress “the White Man.” I knew that any modern day author would have his head handed to him for publishing a story like this, but the point Bradbury makes is true and important: prejudice and arrogance are not matters of color, but matters of human nature. Once again, he remains perfectly on target with the times, despite the fact that he speaking to us from decades past.

As my fellow blogger Kainzow pointed out, it might be a little awkward to write a review of a short story anthology, so instead, I may write these short reviews of each of the stories as I come to them. Sounds good?

First Impressions: The Merchant of Venice

Look at that title. Crazy, isn't it?
Look at that title. Crazy, isn’t it?

Yes, I’ve started yet another book. I had been missing Shakespeare ever since I finished Hamlet a few months ago, so I decided to add this play to my list.

It’s an odd one, I know. It’s not terribly well-known like Hamlet or Macbeth and among those who do know it, it’s rather infamous. That’s part of the reason why I want to read it: The Merchant of Venice has long been attacked in schools and universities for being anti-Semitic, however, I’ve also heard it argued (by a Jew, of all people!) that Shakespeare could not have been anti-Semitic and still include the monologue in which Shylock proclaims that Jews and Christians are and should be treated as equals. I’m familiar with the story, but I figured that the only way I could really know what the play is like is to read it myself. So I will.

I’ve read up to Scene 4 in Act 2 and so far, I’m rather enjoying it. That is, I enjoy parts of it. I once read an essay by Ray Bradbury where he said that all of the good lines in Shakespeare go to the men; apparently, he was forgetting Portia, TMV’s leading lady. Portia is what you might call a “strong heroine.” I usually don’t like to describe characters that way because often when people call a character “a strong heroine,” they mean that she uses or cheats other people and isn’t sorry for it (case in point, Scarlett O’Hara). But Portia is different. Her father is trying to control her from beyond the grave, demanding in his will that her choice of a husband be decided by a lottery. She can’t go against her father’s wishes, but all the while she tries desperately to find some way out of it. She’s witty and amusing, but never spiteful or catty. She’s exactly what I’ve been wanting from a heroine!

And once again, we have those great Shakespearean quotes. Below are just a few of the lines I’ve found so far that struck me:

“With mirth and laughter, let old wrinkles come.”

Act I, Scene I

~

“Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice. His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them, and, when you have them, they are not worth the search.”

Act I, Scene I

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“Sometimes from her eyes, I did receive fair speechless messages.”

Act I, Scene I

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“My little body is aweary of this great world.”

Act I, Scene II

Of course, some of the play is a bit off-putting: for instance, the terms of Shylock’s loan. That’s enough to make me wonder what Shakespeare was thinking, no matter what the character’s ethnic background is. I can also see how Shylock seems to embody many of the stereotypes about Jews that were common in that era (and ours, for that matter). I want to agree with those who say that TMV is nothing more than an example of the anti-Semitism that ran rampant in Shakespeare’s time, but part of me thinks I should hold off until I’ve finished the book. We’ll see where it goes from here.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

First Impressions

public-domain-images-free-stock-photos-high-quality-resolution-downloads-around-the-house-7-1000x666     I usually like to take my books one at a time, but seeing as I couldn’t help myself, I am currently chipping away at three (very good) books. One is The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, another is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis, and the other is Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. I hope to write a review for each of them once I am finished with them, but right now, let me just give you my “first impressions.”

    

    

      I haven’t read much of The Scarlet Pimpernel,  but already, it looks fantastic. Baroness Orczy drew me in with the first line: “A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear, they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.” It isn’t hard to imagine yourself in Revolution-era France with descriptions as clear and fresh as that. She also does a wonderful job of capturing the soullessness of the French revolutionaries; the picture definitely comes across clearly in your mind, but it isn’t so strong that the book becomes an ordeal to read. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here!

Continue reading “First Impressions”