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review 2017-10-07 18:29
Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, by Herman Melville
Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories (Penguin Classics Edition) - Peter M. Coviello,Herman Melville

Well that took me long enough! I've been desperate to read some horror, but these Melville stories have been hit and miss, his prose sometimes impenetrable. This is my second encounter with Melville (I read Moby Dick some years ago), and it's been a while. I was prompted to pick up this collection of his shorter works by recent references to both "Bartleby" and Billy Budd.


I began with "Bartleby, the Scrivener," which turned out to be my favorite. Melville is an excellent comic writer, and this portrait of a law office made me laugh out loud. Yet it's also incredibly poignant. The narrator is a lawyer who hires Bartleby as a scrivener (a copier); Bartleby joins three other employees, hilariously nicknamed Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. Bartleby goes about his copying, but when the lawyer asks him to read aloud his copy to proofread, he simply says he "prefers not to." From this point he "prefers" not to do all sorts of things, including leave when his boss attempts to fire him. The lawyer is non-confrontational and fancies himself a good man to the point where he actually changes the location of his office to avoid dealing with Bartleby (who is also found to be living there) further. Yet the problem of Bartleby persists.


Why does Bartleby "prefer not" to comply with requests made of him? Melville does not offer a black-and-white answer. The introduction likens Bartleby to a Wall Street occupier, someone who occupies spaces of capitalism without using them for that end, but the quote I found most insightful describes Bartleby as a man of preferences rather than assumptions. How much does our daily behavior and actions depend upon assumptions? As with other Melville works, a queer reading of the text is also possible: the relationship between the lawyer and Bartleby involves exchanges and behavior not dissimilar to those made in romantic partnerships.


The stories I liked next best were "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids." The former is a series of sketches by a sailor who has been to the Galapagos Islands; some sketches are more engaging than others. The language in the first few is lovely as Melville describes the hostile, lonely island landscape. The latter is a pair of tales told by the same American narrator, first in London then New England--a lawyer's club and paper mill, respectively. These are apparently based on Melville's own travels. I preferred the second piece, which I read as feminist and potentially Marxist. There's some fantastic prose detailing the paper machine, the women, and their work. 


There are five other stories, but the last I'll mention is the novella, Billy Budd, which Melville was working on at the time of his death. It's become key evidence for those who feel Melville may have been bisexual or simply held progressive views on gender and sexuality. Billy Budd is a "Handsome Sailor" who is conscripted to serve on a British naval ship. Everyone likes him, as he's pretty and good-natured. But one (also good looking) sailor envies his beauty and goodness, and it leads to tragedy. The most interesting thing about this tale for me was the fact that this is a story often told about women, to illustrate their vanity, jealousies, and pettiness or cattiness. In this context, in a time after two serious mutinies and during hostilities between Britain and France, such personal jealousy results in catastrophe.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-04-04 14:16
Transgression and Punishment
Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky,Susan L. Rattiner,Paul Negri,Constance Garnett

Crime and Punishment is a novel of ideas, a philosophical and psychological story. These tend not to be my favorite reads, though I do respond to the psychological (I loved Notes from Underground). Characters can feel like they exist to defend or attack particular philosophies rather than experience a journey on which the reader is taken. This is not to say (most) characters in C&P are two-dimensional; they can surprise you. There are also many moments of high tension that are compulsively readable, and the entire last third of the book (minus the epilogue), when themes, characters, and events come together after building up throughout, pays off.


The novel was originally serialized, and you can feel the remnants of that in its structure. It came out in monthly installments, which blows my mind. The closest we have to that today is serialized television (slowly dying or binge-watched, generally written by a whole team of writers) and work-in-progress fanfic (WIP). Knowing where you're going and where you've been as you write is paramount, though evidently Dostoevsky's vision for the story changed at the beginning, and the journal editor(s) initially rejected a portion, which was re-written. There's something Dickensian in the serialized feel, cast of characters, and morality, not to mention depictions of the lower class and city life. It was unexpected. Doestevsky's use of third person omniscient was also unusual for the time and place.


I struggled with the characterization of Sonya, the hooker with a heart of gold--she's that very archetype, forced into prostitution by her family's circumstances yet good and pure; she's the one most directly responsible for Raskolnikov's confession and fate. There's been some debate about the need for or tone of the novel's epilogue, where we learn everyone's fate, including Raskolnikov's time in Siberia and his eventual spiritual awakening, inspired by Sonia's love and an almost pastoral scene he witnesses. Like the epilogue to Harry Potter (yeah, I'm making this comparison), there's little we can't predict, but here not knowing the details would make the story feel incomplete. The shiny, happy, hopeful tone at the end is a bit much to swallow, however.


Raskolnikov's sister, Dounia, on the other hand, was a favorite and the most interesting character. She's smart but has a sharpness and aloofness shared with her brother. That mix was intriguing. I'd love one of those books popular lately where an author takes a side character from a great novel and expands on their story. 


According to the bit of reading I did about the book, the title in Russian translates more closely to "transgression" rather than "crime," a border being crossed or going out of bounds. This matches the theme, the spirituality, of the book much more closely, but is less catchy, I suppose. ;) In the novel, it's not so much breaking the law that's the issue as sinning. This is why the book doesn't simply end with his imprisonment in Siberia.


Speaking of translations, I do wish I had a more recent one; the language can feel antiquated. I had no problems with the Garnett translation of Anna Karenina, so perhaps it's more a difference in style.


So, not a favorite, but I'm glad to have read it.



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quote 2015-04-18 16:19
This novel has a story, after all. The date is June 16, 1904. The setting is Dublin. And the hero is Leopold Bloom—a devoted husband to his wife Molly, with whom he has one daughter. Jewish by race, Christian by baptism, and atheist by inclination, Bloom is really a believer in reason and science: he is the everyman of the democratic twentieth century. He works in the newspaper world as an advertising salesman. Calmly he goes about his business on this sunny day in June—cooking breakfast, attending a funeral, having lunch, negotiating with a client, sitting on the beach—wandering in Dublin, just as Ulysses once wandered in the Mediterranean during his long journey home.

The difference is that this Ulysses is avoiding his home: for he knows that Molly has an appointment that afternoon with the dapper Blazes Boylan—ostensibly to discuss a singing tour, but probably to consummate their flirtation. And so he pauses in pubs and bars, encountering a cast of kibitzers and schlemiels that includes, in particular, Stephen Dedalus, student of philosophy, with dreams of literary glory, whom the avant-garde reader would remember from A Portrait of the Artist, just as that reader would recognize many characters from Dubliners, Joyce’s collection of short stories.
Ulysses - James Joyce

"It's Still a Scandal!," by Adam Thirlwell, NYRB (4/23/15)


You CAN summarize Joyce's Ulysses. This is the best one I've seen, and now I want to reread the book.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-08-09 18:12
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Brontë

Gah, why had I not heard of this book until only a few years ago? Why is it not read as widely as the books of Charlotte and Emily? It appears one explanation is that Charlotte prevented the novel's re-publication after her sister's death at 29. That's a shame because it was apparently successful when first published and is an early feminist novel.


Comparing this book with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, it feels the darkest, with its then shocking portrayal of a bad marriage where the husband is an alcoholic and sleeps around. The central portion of the novel is brutal as Helen Huntingdon records the downward spiral of her life with Arthur Huntingdon. As a person of great faith, she does all she can to support him and withstand his profligate ways. Once she sees the influence he and his friends have on her young son (also Arthur), and after he continually abandons her to, essentially, party in London or wherever, and brings a lover to their home under the pretext of being a governess, she takes the unheard of step of leaving her husband and taking her son with her. Her brother, Frederick, helps establish her at the titular Wildfell Hall, though it's kept a secret that he's her brother, leading to rumors in the new town.


This book is very textual and layered structurally. Its frame takes the form of a letter from the narrator for most of the book, Gilbert Markham (who's an inhabitant of the new town to which Helen moves), to his friend and brother-in-law, Halford. He writes of the events leading to his present life in which he is married to the former Helen Huntingdon (though we don't know the outcome of events as readers). This means the whole story takes place in the past approaching the present, except for the few moments when Gilbert updates Halford on the fates of several other characters.


Eventually, Helen gives Gilbert her diary (with the end torn out) when their affection has grown and the latter has come to believe the rumors about her (that she and Mr. Lawrence--actually her brother--are carrying on). The diary shifts the point of view to Helen's and takes up a large central portion of the book, ending with her tenancy at Wildfell Hall just starting.


After the diary's conclusion, we're returned to Gilbert's pov, but later there are letters between Helen and her brother that we are privy to.


I like nested or embedded narratives, and the first two sections of the book read like a mystery as we wonder about Helen's behavior and then how exactly she came to Wildfell Hall. The latter portion of the story feels like a romance as Gilbert is left wondering if he has any hope with Helen now that her husband has died, and everything ends happily.


Speaking of the ending, I was somewhat surprised that it was so happy. For the most part, this is not a happy story. But the fact of Helen's faith is a huge source of optimism in the book. While at times it keeps her away from Gilbert, it sustains her and affects her attitude toward others; she believes in the possibility of salvation for everyone.


I wasn't too keen on Gilbert for much of the book, which is another reason I wasn't sure how I felt about the ending. He's kind of douche-y here and there, especially when he assaults Helen's brother (though he doesn't know that's who he is). But he makes fairly good in the end as he's hesitant to intrude upon Helen's new life or disturb her peace until he learns she still loves him and want to marry him.


This book made me understand why the future Temperance Movement was a woman's issue as we see the effects alcoholism has on wives and families during a time when divorce was unlikely and women were at a disadvantage status-wise. It also made me lament anew the fact of marriage as a certainty for women or else.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-07-25 16:33
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina (Signet Classics) -

I love the feeling of accomplishment after finishing a huge book, not to mention one from the literary canon I'd hoped to read for a while. Even better is finding out said book is pleasurable and earns every bit of praise and prestige heaped on it.


This book had me from page one and never lost me. Though its title names a single character, the novel encompasses two families, essentially, which intertwine. Matthew Arnold (I think?) said Anna Karenina was a piece of life rather than a work of art, and though I don't find the two to be mutually exclusive, I see exactly what he means. The narrative spans years and both the formation and dissolution of a few relationships (namely Anna, her husband, and her lover, Vronsky; Levin and his future wife, Kitty; Anna's brother, Stepan, and his wife, Dolly (Kitty's sister)). Characters cheat, they get married, they separate, have children, witness loved ones dying, and, in Anna's case, die themselves. It's such a full book.


The novel sets up a contrast between the passionate relations of Anna and Vronsky and that of Levin and Kitty, who get married and have a child and are surrounded by and help family. There's also Stepan, who continually cheats on Dolly (the book opens with that fact and with Anna reconciling the two--temporarily). Levin has a spiritual awakening (this is how the book ends, after Anna has killed herself), so there's a privileging of spirituality in life and love.


Still, the great tragedy owes a lot to the different ways men and women are treated in society when having an affair (which continues to this day). Vronsky can still go out among Russian society; Anna cannot and loses friends--it's even frowned upon to visit her or receive her, especially if a woman. As the end of the book nears, she and Vronsky are constantly at odds, and I found myself upset with Anna's jealousy and mood swings. At the same time, what can she do? Her feelings are natural, and you do feel Vronsky's attitude has changed. They've trapped each other.


I had no favorite characters, and that's a compliment. I cared about everyone and understood everyone. Tolstoy is amazing at portraying the inner life of people; no one else I've read has captured it the same way. That's saying something. I've read a couple of his shorter works ("The Death of Ivan Ilych" and The Kreutzer Sonata), and now I can completely imagine undertaking War and Peace.

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