Monday, May 30, 2011

I Was Going to Review Sense & Sensibility, But Then...

My big, exciting plan for Memorial Day night was to FINALLY (sorry friends) post my Classics Circuit review of Sense & Sensibility and Little Dorrit (which was derailed by an awful flu-like illness...I if I haven't been sick enough this year...), but then a tornado watch was announced for my area.

And this was not just any tornado watch; phrases like "high risk" and "perfect tornadic conditions" and "perfect storm situation" were tossed around, and I proceeded to freak out. Having grown up in southwestern Minnesota, I know a wee bit about tornadoes, and I am, to this day, irrationally afraid of any sort of severe weather. Even intense thunderstorms freak me out (just ask my old roommate about the story of when I called her and her then-roommate to see if I could spend the night on their couch because I couldn't handle being alone during the bad weather...sad but true...).

Given the impending doom and destruction barrelling down on my city, I will not be writing my review. Instead, I will be trying to distract myself with some knitting and chocolate overload, eyes glued to the tv, trying not to use the paper bag that I have already located for hyperventilation purposes. See you on the flip side.

Update: we did have a tornado/tornado warning. There is some damage here, but all is well. I met some of my neighbors, and I was able to help one woman with her two young children, which helped distract me from my terror quite nicely. I hope that this is not an indication of the summer to come!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Iliad Readalong: Post 1 (Books 1-12)*

Here's a few housekeeping items to get out of the way before I start my review:
1. I am unabashedly Team Hector.
2. I will try to be fair to Achilles.
3. I am reading the Robert Fagles translation of The Iliad (it's so pretty!)
4. Consequently, I love Robert Fagles.

I have been wanting to read The Iliad ever since I read (and enjoyed immensely) And Only Deceive, by Tasha Alexander. And Only to Deceive is a Victorian mystery that plays off The Iliad and Ancient Greek art quite a bit; in fact, large portions of The Iliad are quoted in the novel. I read parts of The Iliad for a World Literature course in college, and I taught part of Book 6, all of Book 22, and part of Book 24 the last five years at my previous school, but I had never read all of The Iliad. Reading the quoted parts of The Iliad in And Only to Deceive proved to be the final prod needed to get me to read The Iliad in its entirety.

While The Iliad is many things, at its core, it is a story about war. We see the many effects of war, and Homer is not shy about giving us the nitty-gritty of hand-to-hand combat and battles that hinged off the strength, drive, and determination of a few key individuals. As Sarpedon says to Hector, it is "the toils of war . . . the mesh of the huge dragnet sweeping up the world" (5.559-560) that have captured the attention, men, and means of two great countries, Greece (Achaea) and Troy, for ten years. The war may have started when Paris stole Helen from Menelaus, but now, ten years later, fighting to the end and to victory (which both sides concurrently believe will be theirs) has become a matter of honor and glory; the war cannot be abandoned easily (even when all seems lost, even when the war appears futile) because honor and glory cannot be discarded easily. Honor and glory are breath, bread, water, life for the men of Greece and Troy, and this determination, this unerring pursuit of victory, is what makes reading The Iliad exhilerating, haunting, and disconcerting all at the same time.

It is particularly chilling to read of the great fighters for each side because they all acknowledge that ultimately they have NO control over the outcome of the war; time after time, Agamemnon, Diomedes, Great and Little Ajax, and Odysseus for the Greeks and Hector, Aeneas, and Sarpedon for the Trojans vow to fight their best, win glory, accomplish superhuman feats of strength and courage all the while knowing that it is the favor of the gods and the decree of fate that will determine who wins this war. It is clear that men on both sides of the battle grow weary, but it is only Achilles, who is angry beyond reason, honor, and his own character at how he has been betrayed by Agamemnon, who contemplates sailing for home before the war is over. Every other Greek and Trojan, to the man (with the possibly exception of the clueless, preening, despicable Paris) will stay and fight and die for the cause they pledged themselves to ten years before.

In addition to the human players in this story, we also read and learn about the immortals who are fighting in the Trojan War. To be fair, it's really the immortals who started this war, and much as it kills me to be fair to a numskull like Paris, it has to be said that if Zeus had manned up and named who was fairest when the golden apple showed up, then Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena wouldn't have needed to try to bribe Paris to name them fairest, Paris wouldn't have chosen Aphrodite (who conveniently failed to mention that Paris' prize, the most beautiful woman in the world, happened to already be married), then Helen would never have been stolen, Menelaus wouldn't have needed to seek revenge, Agamemnon wouldn't have sacrificed his daughter for smooth sailing, and lots of pain and heartache could have been avoided. Needless to say, however, this would not have made as good a story as The Iliad! Homer is not shy about showing the Greek gods (particularly Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Ares, and Aphrodite in Books 1-12) in all their glory, pettiness, and capriciousness, and the gods' inability to make up their minds adds to the reader's sense of futility. Even when a god proclaims a favorite, his or her favoritism has very little affect on that god's actions. Case in point: Zeus claims to favor Troy (and especially Hector), but there are several points in the first twelve books where we find him actually fighting for and supporting the Greeks. He made a promise to Achilles' mother to repay the Greeks for shaming Achille (Agamemnon claimed Achilles' prized woman, Briseis), so he must act for and support the Greeks. There are many other instances of gods flip-flopping back and forth between sides, and, again, capricious is a word seemingly invented for the Greek gods!

The Iliad opens in the tenth year of the war, so we are immediately thrown into a conflict that has twisted and knotted and become complex beyond its original cause. Families, cities, and countries are caught in the web of constant fighting, constant loss, and constant uncertainty. Characters are made or broken in these situations: while Andromache weeps and begs Hector to command his troops from the wall of Troy, Helen spurns and despises Paris, wishing he was a better, braver man than his cowardly self; Diomedes and Odysseus volunteer to brave almost certain death to scout out the Trojan troops threatening the very lives of the Achaean force while Dolon, a foolish Trojan scout, plunges ignorantly into the darkness to scout out the Achaen camp and even more foolishly begs Diomedes and Odysseus to spare his life and demand a ransom. True characters and personalities, of mortals and immortals, are shown in The Iliad because the ten long years of war (and the future years of war stretching out before everyone involved) have chipped away at pretense, deceit, and falsehood, leaving the characters exposed and raw, shown for who and what they really are.

The Iliad is utterly compelling. The story is rich and vivid, and Fagles' translation is breathtaking and brilliant. Fagles' art alone makes The Iliad well worth your time.

*this is a reposting of the post I wrote for the Ancient Greeks Tour over at the Classic Circuit.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


I just have to share: I passed my big, scary, future-determining licensure tests! I'm so happy, and a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders.

In honor of this happy event, I am going to do the meme that Simon at Stuck in a Book started. Apologies in advance for helping perpetuate the ever-growing TBR piles.

1. Book I am currently reading: Sense and Sensibility (for the Classics Circuit Author duel), The Iliad (for Allie's readalong), and I am listening to Dragonfly in Amber

2. Last book I finished: South Riding. It was amazing; I am in literary love with Winifred Holtby; drop everything and read it now!

3. Next book I want to read: Um...The next one I will probably start is The Idiot (which I am reading for another of Allie's readalongs); I really want to read The Name of the Wind and Violets in March. I'm also itching to reread The Hunger Games series. Clearly I can't decide.

4. Last book I bought: Does a free book count? I downloaded Passage to India for my Kindle; the last book I paid money for was The Idiot.

5. Last book I was given: I won Children of Scarabaeus in Angie's giveaway and The Lost Summer of Louisa Alcott over at Devourer of Books.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

South Riding: An Unexpected Book with an Unexpected Message

There are many things that I love about PBS' Masterpiece; one is that the program often inspires me to read things that I wouldn't otherwise read. I discovered Little Dorrit this way (but I would have found it eventually, given the fact that it was written by Charles Dickens), and I just finished South Riding, by Winifred Holtby, which I REALLY wouldn't have found if not for the BBC/Masterpiece series.

Friends, I have discovered a new literary love. It is so pleasurable to read something so completely embued with a love of place (in this case Yorkshire) and so reflective of a community of people. I can't really talk about this book and my thoughts on it without giving away major plot points, so consider yourself warned.

Sarah Burton is the new headmistress of the Kiplington High School (confession: there are three towns in the South Riding, and I never quite figured out which was which. Throw in another village, and I was geographically-confused most of the time. I still really enjoyed it!), and she is as modern as they come. She is strong-willed, outspoken, passionate, dedicated, and completely convinced of the importance of her mission to show her students (all girls) that there can be more to their future than marriage and babies. It doesn't take long before she clashes with the more traditional, staid members of South Riding, especially Robert Carne, a gentleman farmer and father of one of Sarah's more interesting students.

Sarah's fight against the traditionalists is a small piece of the larger conflict between tradition and progress that the novel focuses on. We are introduced to idealistic preachers, cheery self-made men, poverty-stricken families struggling to survive, the aristocracy, the working class, and everything in between. All these characters are deeply flawed, but most of them are also deeply likable. While it at first seems that most of the inhabitants of South Riding have very little in common, it becomes clear by the end of the novel that they are bound by community, and, as Sarah so eloquently realizes, "'we all pay,' she thought; 'we all take; we are members one of another. We cannot escape this partnership. This is what it means--to belong to a community; this is what it means to be a people.'"

South Riding takes place as England teeters on the edge of war with Germany. Reminescences and horrors of WWI loom large in the minds of many characters, and the cost of the War to End All Wars is still being paid. Even as the inhabitants of the South Riding strive to recover from that horrific conflict, they are forced to prepare for and reconcile themselves to what will become another bloody, draining conflict. I was deeply moved, especially, by Sarah's memories of the wars and her reactions to things as simple as patriotic songs that were sung during WWI. These remembrances serve to highlight all the more starkly the foreboding nature of the war about to break.

Even though there is a huge cast of characters in the book, in the end, really, it is Sarah's story. I had a few jarring moments as I was reading this book: the first came when Sarah realizes her love for Robert Carne. She is a strong, independent woman, so far ahead of her time, so to hear her acknowledging that she would give anything to have one night with Robert, even if he was so drunk that he thought she was his mentally unstable wife, was a bit shocking and disappointing. Her declarations of love (never to him, of course, but just to the reader) were beautiful and moving, and Holtby intentionally alludes to Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester as she introduces Carne, shows us how Sarah falls for him, and even in the way that Sarah and Carne interact.

The thing that almost took away my love for this book was the death of Robert Carne. Holtby makes it fairly clear that Carne will die because of heart problems, but the manner of his death still shocked me. I will admit to being quite the romantic; I wanted Sarah and Carne to be together, and finally, after 400 pages, it seemed that Carne was starting to acknowledge the possibility of feelings for Sarah. He is a wounded, damaged man, distraught over the loss of his wife to mental illness, wracked with guilt over his perceived fault in driving her to insanity, and determined to sacrifice everything (even his ancestral home, himself, and his pride) to see that Muriel (his wife) is cared for. I freely admit that there are few things more appealing to me than the wounded suffering hero, and to see him, after so much pain, and strife, and hardship, catch a glimmer of hope and change in Sarah was beautiful and exactly what my mushy little heart wanted to see.

And then he has a terrible accident, dies, and leaves behind speculation of fraud, suicide, and cowardice.

He dies.

And I found myself thinking, "WHAT THE.........!!!!!!!!!"

It was not a pretty moment in my reading life. This character, who I had become so deeply invested in, is cast off without seeming thought or care from his creator.

Sarah, naturally, is destroyed by her guilt, grief, and regret (in true repressed, angsty fashion, they never discussed their feelings), and she is at a loss, almost paralyzed by what she sees as the game-changer of her life.

I will admit: I was angry at Winifred Holtby. True, Sarah eventually finds out that Carne did feel the same for her, and she has several almost transcendant revelations about herself, her purpose, and life in general, but it wasn't until I read the epitaph that Holtby's good friend Verra Brittain wrote that I understood.

Winifred Holtby wrote South Riding as she was fighting her final battle with terminal kidney disease; she finished the novel a month before she died. And I understood that Robert Carne had to die because Holtby, like Sarah, was reconciling herself to the reality of death; she was coming to grips with her own death, and to have Robert Carne die in the way that he did was a fitting testament to Holtby's resolution about her own death. South Riding shows Holtby's belief that "the world, with all its beauty and adventure, its richness and variety, is darkened by cruelty. Death, if it ends the loveliness, the adventure, ends also that. Death balances the picture. It completes the pattern. It makes even cruelty fall into place. It is completion."

Brittain wrote:
"This tale of universal values mirrored in local experience is not only an achievement of the mind; it is a triumph of personality, a testament of its author's undaunted philosophy. Suffering and resolution, endurance beyond calculation, the brave gaiety of the unconquered spirit, held Winifred Holtby back from the grave and went to its making. Seed-time and harvest, love and birth, decay and resurrection, are the immemorial stuff of which it has been created. In it lies the intuitive rather than the conscious awareness of imminent death. Its lovely country scenes go back to the earliest memories of the Yorkshire child who, thirteen years ago, came as a brilliant Oxford graduate to London, as though she returned to her beginning because some instinct told her that beyond the brave struggle for life and for time, the inevitable end was near.

This knowledge has given to South Riding a wisdom and maturity beyond its author's years. With the clear enlightenment born of her own peril, she understands the men and women who already belong to those dim regions where the living walk as strangers, yet who hide from their friends their consciousness of encroaching doom. She realises that the death which swoops down from the sky or roars upward from the sea may sometimes appear a mercy and a release; she knows the reassurance brought to the soul tormented with griefs and problems by the certainty that life is not endless nor sorrow everlasting."

To have written a book that is about death that is so vibrant, full, refreshing, and beautiful is a true accomplishment. I will definitely be seeking out more of Winifred Holtby's work.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Perfect Girl"

Attachments*, by Rainbow Rowell, tells an odd love story with perfect comic timing, beautiful writing, and an innate understanding of what real love and relationships are all about. Here's the summary from Goodreads: "Beth and Jennifer know their company monitors their office e-mail. But the women still spend all day sending each other messages, gossiping about their coworkers at the newspaper and baring their personal lives like an open book. Jennifer tells Beth everything she can't seem to tell her husband about her anxieties over starting a family. And Beth tells Jennifer everything, period.

When Lincoln applied to be an Internet security officer, he hardly imagined he'd be sifting through other people's inboxes like some sort of electronic Peeping Tom. Lincoln is supposed to turn people in for misusing company e-mail, but he can't quite bring himself to crack down on Beth and Jennifer. He can't help but be entertained-and captivated- by their stories.

But by the time Lincoln realizes he's falling for Beth, it's way too late for him to ever introduce himself. What would he say to her? "Hi, I'm the guy who reads your e-mail, and also, I love you." After a series of close encounters and missed connections, Lincoln decides it's time to muster the courage to follow his heart . . . even if he can't see exactly where it's leading him.

Written with whip-smart precision and charm, Attachments is a strikingly clever and deeply romantic debut about falling in love with the person who makes you feel like the best version of yourself. Even if it's someone you've never met."

Kiss me
Photo Credit

Attachments achieves that rare thing of having characters that are completely relatable, real, and likeable. Lincoln is a quiet man who feels things deeply and lives a very insular life. It takes him a long time to realize that he needs and wants to change his life, which includes everything from moving out of his mother's house and having a job that doesn't break down his spirit and sense of right and wrong to admitting his feelings for the one woman who he thinks he can never have.

Lincoln is a sensitive, kind soul, but he still comes off the page as completely real and believable. I even found myself falling for Lincoln just a little bit, even though I knew he was a character in a book. In many ways, Lincoln is an idealized yet completely realistic man: he loves long and hard (seemingly challenging Anne Elliot's claim that women love longest when all hope is gone), he falls in love for all the right reasons, he is honest, compassionate, and tender, and he has a refreshingly frank and simple approach to himself and his life; on the other hand, he does some incredibly stupid things, he is a bit slow on the uptake, his confidence in himself is almost nil for most of the book, and he can be complacent, hesitant, and altogether too passive. All these things, however, combine to paint a romantic hero more boy-next-door than idealized prince.

As I was reading the email exchanges, with Lincoln, between Jennifer and Beth, I felt like I was reading the emails of real people. These two women are self-confident, brash, rude, kind, silly, and supportive, and I kept thinking to myself, "I want to be friends with them!" I also kept thinking about my former roommate and I. We didn't email at work nearly as much as Jennifer and Beth, but when we did email, they were epic, and I knew that, more often than not, I should NOT read them while students were in the room because I would probably end up laughing uproariously. She has similar stories. We would, however, email while we were at home; there was one particularly memorable time when we facebook messaged each other back and forth for thirty minutes while sitting in the same ROOM! Some might find this disturbing or pathetic; I prefer to think of it as charming and adorable. And while we may not have talked about the same things that Jennifer and Beth did, our emails and messages always had the same comradery, deep affection, and caring as Jennifer and Beth's even when they, like Jennifer and Beth's, were at their snarkiest. Rowell captures the tones and nuances of friendship between two smart women perfectly, and you can't help but root for both of them.

Jennifer, Beth, and Lincoln were all wonderful, and I could totally understand all three of them at various points throughout the novel. Even the quirky characters (Lincoln's mom and sister, Lincoln's Dungeons & Dragons buddies, Lincoln's co-workers, and the oh-so-appealing but oh-so-despicable Chris) are real and just jump off the page.

I know that many have classified this book as light reading or weekend reading, but I found it profound, insightful, and meaningful. The writing was wonderful, and I found myself doing two things that I almost never do while reading: laughing out loud and crying. Reading is a highly internalized experience for me, which is why I think I so rarely have external reactions to what I am reading. I may smile internally or think, "that's funny!"; I may feel my stomach twist because something I just read is almost unbearably sad, poignant or touching; for these experiences to leap accross that divide between my most internal experience of a book and my external interactions with the world, they must be extreme: extremely funny, extremely moving, extremely horrifying. Attachments did this: it was so visceral and real that I couldn't help but experience it beyond the internal.

This is one of those books that I want EVERYONE to read; I want to buy lots of copies and indiscriminately give it away; I want to email everyone I know and tell them to read this book. This is the first book of the year that I KNEW, as soon as I finished it, would make my top reads of the year. Considering it's only May, that is high praise indeed.

So please. Do yourself a favor. Check out this quirky read, be pulled into the world of The Courier, and enjoy the ride. But set aside some time: once you start it, you won't want to put it down.

Thanks to Wallace for reviewing this! I never would have found it otherwise!