Thursday, May 29, 2008

Two for the Price of One

There are few things more enjoyable than coming home from a long day in the lab, propping my feet up, and imbibing from a book while sipping a cold drink.  And it's all the more enjoyable when the book and beverage are paired appropriately.  For Mark Twain, whiskey seems like the suitable drink, particularly an American whiskey like bourbon or rye.  A cosmopolitan seems appropriate for Oscar Wilde, cognac for Stendhal, and a vodka martini for Tolstoy.  So when I sat down for an hour with "Bleak House" this evening, I naturally fixed myself...a margarita!  Now, I know, Dickens is not a Mexican author, and frankly I doubt he ever made it to Mexico.  Who knows if he could have even pointed out Mexico on a map.  Yet, the margarita seemed so appropriate to me.  You see, the margarita is a unique and wonderful drink.  It's tangy with lime, sweet with triple sec, and yet has that salty rim that's such a delightful contrast.  And this reminds me so of "Bleak House".  This is a novel that's quite funny, with an oddball collection of the most, well, oddball characters around.  And yet, it's not just a barrel of comedy jokes.  It's also biting political satire, a poignant tale of human frailties and failures, full of the sorrows of dashed hopes and dreams, and an affirmation that today's often biting and cynical views of lawyers were also prevalent 150 years ago.  Like the margarita it offers up a colorful cornucopia of flavorful delights:  the sweetness of love and family, the sour bitterness of failed dreams, and the salty, tumultuous seas of human foibles.  Or maybe I just felt like having a margarita and now I'm trying desperately to justify it all.  Whatever.  My head's a bit woozy with tequila.

I have one further note on "Bleak House", brought up in the comments to the previous post.  There are two narrators in this book.  One is your typical omniscient, third person narrator.  The other is Esther Summerson.  The novel's chapters jump back and forth between the two narrators, which is pretty cool.  But I've been pondering why Dickens does this.  When I think about it with my rational, scientific mind, I realize that the omniscient narrator is essential to the story.   There are so many characters, with so many hidden secrets, that a first person narrator like Esther just could not have told the story.  The converse is not true...I don't see that Esther being a narrator is essential to the story.  The story could have been told entirely in the third person.  So why does Dickens use Esther as a narrator for parts of the story?  I think there are two reasons.  Well, at least there are two reasons that I can come up with.  The first is that Esther helps obfuscate the story.  This is a confusing tale, with lots of mystery and unknowns and fog and lawsuits that drag on so long that no one seems to remember what they're about.  And Esther adds to all of this.  She's clearly an unreliable narrator, and she also clearly covers things up sometimes.  I can't remember the exact passages now, but there are a couple of times that she starts to describe something and then stops and says something to the effect of "oh well, never mind, it's not important", when truly we can tell it is indeed important to her.  She also lies about her feelings, but not well enough so that we can't guess as to what they are.  In short, a recurrent theme of the novel is murkiness and confusion, and she helps add to that.  The second reason for having Esther narrate is to add a human element to the story.  Despite her unreliability, the reader bonds with her and feels for her, especially over her obvious despair at being hideously scarred by smallpox.  She makes the story more poignant.  Without her, the story's eccentric characters would be more to the foreground, and the reader might not have anyone to identify with.  There wouldn't be an anchor, and the story would lose some of its effectiveness, I think.  Or is that just the tequila talking?'s late, and I just can't tell anymore.  Sometimes I think that...oh, never mind, it's not important.  

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bleakly Reader

For a book blogger, I'm starting to get an inferiority complex.  It's been a month now since I started "Bleak House", and I've still got 300 pages to go (out of 850 or so).  I've been looking at some other book blogs and folks seem to either (a) read a heck of a lot faster than I do or (b) have a lot more time to read than I do.  I do find that "Bleak House" is a slower read than some of the other recent books I've read.  There are sections where I'll read a page and then realize that I have no idea what's going on.  Part of it is the language...there's something about the way Dickens writes that makes it hard for me to follow.  In other Victorian literature that I've read, and I'm thinking in particular of the George Eliot I've read lately, I haven't had this problem.  In addition to the language, there's just so many characters in this book that it can be hard to keep track of them all, especially when the book is spread out over the course of a month (and counting).  If I knew I was going to have this problem I would have made a list as I went along.

It would be hard to summarize the book so far, so I won't even try.  But here are a few random thoughts I have at the moment:

1.  This book is really funny in parts.  Some of the characters are quite amusing.  There's Mr. Turveydrop, a dance instructor of little means, but who impresses everyone by his deportment.  There's the old man Mr. Smallweed, who slumps down into his chair and must be shaken and fluffed up like a pillow by his daughter, especially after he's thrown a pillow at his wife, who's prone to ramble on in a senile manner.  And of course, the names of the characters themselves are great.  In addition to the ones I just mentioned, there's Mr. Guppy, a somewhat slimy legal aid, Mr. Vohles (a definitely slimy lawyer), and Mrs. Jellyby (a woman so involved with charity that she neglects her family, and thus fails to see that charity begins at home).

2.  Dickens definitely has a beef with the law.  The centerpiece of the story is a lawsuit that's gone on for years, and still has no end in sight.  It probably will never end, because the lawyers don't want it to...when it ends they'll stop making money off of it.  There hasn't been one sympathetic portrait of a lawyer or the legal system, at least so far.  It would be interesting to know more about the British legal system at the time, and if it's changed at all.  I think I'll look into that.

3.  The book can be very moving as well.  The main character, Esther Summerson, gets smallpox, and her face is disfigured from it. She says it doesn't bother her, with the typical British stiff upper lip, I suppose, but you can tell it does.  And who wouldn't it bother!?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Community Ecology and George Eliot

So I'm now approximately 5.63 months into my project of reading the 105 top books I need to read before I die.  It's been loads of fun, and that's not just the rye whiskey talking.  Not only has the reading been awesome, but blogging itself has been an unforseen pleasure.  It's nice to read and think and read and think and then spew out my gin-soaked ravings into the interweb, to be read by God-only-knows-who.  What I've also discovered, much to my delight and surprise, is that others out there seem to be doing the same sort of thing, and by that I mean the whole reading "the classics" and then blogging about them thing (but why do most of them never mention booze?).  I've enjoyed reading these blogs, and perhaps I'll soon figure out how to list my favorites over on the side panel of this blog.  But that will have to wait.  Because first, I want to respond to a thread posted on one of the blogs I've been reading.  Over at Novel Readings there was a recent thread, which itself was commenting on a thread from another blog (this whole blog world seems a bit incestuous) discussing why people blog about the classics.  One commenter suggested, more or less, that people shouldn't blog about the classics unless they're adding something original to the great volume of scholarly work and literary criticism, and since they're probably not doing this they should just "bugger off" (as your typical Victorian novelist might have put it).  To which I respond, "Chill out dude.  Drink  4 or 5 margaritas (on the rocks, not frozen) and get over it".  Allow me to explain, in three different, and unconnected, points (and brace yourself, for the first one's long):

Point #1:  I am a scientist by training and profession.  When I was a senior in college I took a class called "Community Ecology and Field Botany".  In this class we not only learned the names of a hell of a lot of plants, but we went out into "the field" and studied the ecology of these plants, in a highly scientific manner.  One study I remember was on a common weed called the Curly Dock (Rumex crispus).  We went to a local meadow that was lousy with Curly Docks.  It was a large grassy field, with scattered dandelions and daisies, nestled in the local mountains.  And everywhere you looked in this meadow were Curly Docks.  Curly Docks are an odd looking weed when full grown, as they turn brown and have long stems covered with seed pods.  They're ugly, in a way, yet also beautiful, in a way.  In this verdant field, they looked dead, in their seedy brownness, but trust me, they were very much alive.  The object of our study, as best as I remember, was to determine the distribution of Curly Docks in the field.  We had to measure the location of each plant, and then determine if they were randomly distributed or not, and if not, were there any clues that might describe why they were not distributed randomly...did they prefer to grow on a certain type of soil, or in the shade as opposed to the sun, or near to another particular species of plant?  So we carefully mapped out the field and the precise location of each Curly Dock within it, using highly scientific instruments such as tape measures.  I can't remember what we found, but my point is, we were really digging deep into the secrets of Rumex crispus, in order to help understand why that meadow was the way it was.  I'm sure if I looked through the scientific literature I could find lots of information on Rumex crispus...biochemical studies of its metabolism, gene sequences perhaps, things of that ilk.  All of that would be quite interesting to me, as a biologist.  And it would no doubt help me to understand even more why that meadow looked the way it did, and why the Curly Docks were spread out across that field the way they were.  Now, if a professor of English Literature were to come across that field, he or she is probably not going to be able to tell me anything about the Curly Dock, or about the genetics of the plants in that field, which will enlighten me scientifically.  As a biologist who's studied this shit for years and years, I'm naturally way ahead of them.  That professor might look at that field and say something like "Wow.  This is beautiful.  Look at the way the setting sun lights up the seed pods on those brown plants from behind.  It almost looks like a painting by Monet."  Am I to scoff at the professor and say "Hey, shut the f*#% up.  You're not adding to the scientific literature with that comment, therefore it is irrelevant and inconsequential".  No, I would be a complete jerk if I did that, and more importantly, I would be missing the point.  That professor of literature could certainly not get their views on that meadow published in a scientific journal.  Yet there is a truth there, and frankly it's part of the reason I started to study biology in the first place...because I had a naive and innocent sense of the beauty of nature, and I wanted to get closer to it by studying it.  But it's all to easy to do the opposite.  It's too easy to lose the joy and beauty in what we are studying simply by studying it too hard.  The scientist in me must never forget that.  And the literature professor must not lose sight of the simple beauties of the works they study by scoffing at those people, like myself, who read George Eliot and can only add to the world of literary criticism something like "I loved Silas Marner.  It was so wistful and poignant.  I thought I would never stop bawling my eyes out when Silas mistakes Eppie's golden hair for his lost money."

Point #2:  One of the great joys of reading other lit bloggers on a regular basis, is that you get to know their personalities, or at least their online personalities.  I really enjoy reading how they react to each book, especially if it's one I've read so I can compare their reaction to my own.

Point #3:  I'm not blogging the canon for my career.  If I wanted to boost my career, my blog would be entirely different.  I would not mention literature or booze, for starters.  My blog would be much less fun.

So there you have it.  A bit of random ranting.  Hmm, do you think I can get that published in some literary journal?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What a Difference a Day (Or Two) Makes

I find this interesting:  when I read the first chapter or two of "Bleak House" I loved it.  Then, as my reading got sporadic due to my London trip, reading it became somewhat of an effort, as I alluded to in my last blog post.  The numerous characters got all jumbled up in my head, and as colorful as those characters were, I felt they were somewhat cartoonish, which made them hard for me to relate to.  Now that I am back at home, and getting settled into my routine schedule where I can read a bit every day, I find I am again greatly enjoying "Bleak House" again.  The characters are all settled in my mind, and the humor is really jumping out at me.  I'm finding the book to be quite delightful, and I'm laughing out loud rather frequently as I crawl through the pages.  So why the change in attitude?  I'm not sure.  I suspect the stress of travel, and the large and event-filled breaks between reading sessions made it difficult to climb into the world that Dickens builds in this novel.  And it is indeed a separate world that Dickens creates here, even more so than in most novels, I think.  This novel works much better, at least for me, now that there's time to let myself walk into that world, and forget about this one.  This discovery makes me wonder:  how many books have I read that I disliked, or did not get much out of, but which I could have enjoyed if my mind had been in a more receptive state?  Are some books more suited to a particular frame of mind than others?  Louis Pasteur famously said "Chance favors the prepared mind".  Is this true for literature as well?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Back from London, Back to Bleak House

My trip to London is over, and I have returned to home, work, and jet-lag.  Fortunately, the jet-lag is now gone, and I can get back to reading "Bleak House".  London was exciting and fun and everything I hoped it would be, but it wasn't the kind of vacation where I had time for a bunch of reading.  I had hoped to do a lot of reading on the plane (it's a 10 hour flight each way) but alas, this didn't quite work out for me.  I would read a bit, but then doze off, then wake up enough to watch the movie, then try to read some more, only to fall asleep again.  Not the best "power reading" environment.  So I find myself having first cracked open "Bleak House" over two weeks ago, and I'm only about 1/3 of the way into the novel.

I have to admit that I'm not quite enjoying this novel as much as I'd hoped, at least so far.  However, I suspect that this might be due to the sporadic reading time I've had to devote to it so far.  The biggest problem I've had is that Dickens keeps introducing character after character, and it's been hard for me to keep track of them all.  Plus, Dickens keep shifting the story from one character to another, and their stories are rather unrelated.  In the past couple of chapters, this has started to change, and we see some interrelationships between the story lines of the various characters, but for the first 200 pages or so it was difficult to see where any of this was going.

As for the characters themselves, well, no one does characters like Dickens.  I don't mean he does it better than others, just different.  His characters, at least many of them, are almost caricatures.  Many have some weird and/or strange and/or comical trait, that Dickens magnifies and exaggerates.  This makes his characters memorable, which is helpful when there's so many of them...the reader can come across a character (s)he hasn't encountered in 50 pages and then remember who they are because of their particular quirk.  The characters are fun and amusing in their foibles.  Indeed, I've found myself laughing out loud several times.  And yet, this caricaturization (is that a word?) also makes them seem less human, and indeed more like caricatures (I'm in deperate need of a synonym there one for caricature?).  I can't relate to any of them in the way I could relate to Maggie Tulliver from "Mill on the Floss".  I read "David Copperfield" in high school, and I'm trying to recall if the characters in that novel were like those in Bleak House.  I think not, since my recollection of Copperfield is that there are some characters who may be somewhat caricature-like (Mr. Micawber), while others were more realistic (for lack of a better word).

Another interesting point about "Bleak House" is the narrator.  The main narrator is Esther Summerson, who occasionally seems to cover up her own feelings or thoughts, making her not so reliable.  But then other chapters are told from the perspective of an omniscient, third person narrator.  I actually rather enjoy this gives the book some variety switching back and forth, and it allows Dickens to follow story lines that Esther is unaware of.

Anyway, I'm back on track, and hopefully my more regular reading schedule will allow me to get into this novel more than I have so far.  I'm optimistic!!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Literary in London

I'm taking a brief break from blogging about "Bleak House" because...I'm on vacation in London!  I've never been here before except to change planes flying from Africa to the US, which hardly counts.  I've seen plenty of sights, enjoyed many pints of excellent English ales and bitters, seen old friends, and eaten plenty of delicious, artery-clogging food.  But in addition to this, a pilgrimage was made to one particular site of literary interest...Dr. Samuel Johnson's house!!

Right before I started this blog, I read Boswell's "Life of Samuel Johnson".  This took me awhile, as it's a very long book, but as someone interested in both literature and history, I found it a great read.  Boswell's biography is more than a conventional biography...he made great friends with Johnson, during his (Johnson's) later years, and basically wrote down most everything Johnson said when he hung out with him.  This makes for excellent reading, as Johnson was a great wit and conversationalist.  He had an outsized personality, and outsized body (he was 6 feet tall in an era when that height towered over most everyone else), yet was blind in one eye, suffered from scrofula, and also appeared to be either depressive, obsessive compulsive, or both.  In short, a fascinating character, and I highly recommend Boswell's book.

Anyway, I noticed that Samuel Johnson's house was marked on my London map, so an investigation was immediately called for.  The house is located off of Fleet Street, a busy commercial thoroughfare, tucked back in a corner between some modern office buildings.  Apparently it's one of the last remaining residential buildings of its time (mid 1700s).  Someone bought it around 1900 when it was completely dilapidated, and carefully restored it.

Johnson lived in this house from 1748-1759, which was when he worked on his great English dictionary, and before he knew Boswell.  The house is now open as a "museum", although it's not really your typical museum.  None of Johnson's possessions are there...just mostly empty rooms, with a few bits of period furniture.  But covering the walls are some great pictures of Johnson and his friends, and works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, a friend of Johnson's.  Below is one of the rooms:

They also had a 20 minute video of actors playing Johnson and Boswell, discussing Johnson's life.  Yeah, sounds corny, but it was actually quite well done.  The house had some great old details, such as a five story stairwell:

And then there was the front door, complete with hi-tech 18th century security measures:

Note the heavy chain across the door, with the corkscrew latch on one end, so that thieves couldn't put a rod down through the window above and unlatch it.  Then there are the two huge deadbolts.  And the bar over the window above the door was to prevent thieves from breaking the window and then lowering a child down inside so they could unlatch the door.  Johnson was no doubt quite worried that other great literary figures would attempt to steal his dictionary-in-progress.

But the topper (literally) was the garrett at the top of the house, where Johnson and his assistants worked on the dictionary:

It was a smallish, sparse room, probably very quiet in Johnson's day.  The huge wooden beams on the ceiling were blackened and burned from when a bomb blew up the garrett during the Blitz.  Fortunately, the fire was quickly put out before it could consume the entire building.

All-in-all it was a satisfying literary pilgrimage!  Of course, it was then time to hoist a pint of ale to this great literary figure.  We would have done so at "Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese", a nearby pub that Johnson use to frequent, but they were closed, so alas, we had to venture elsewhere to quench our bountiful thirst.