Saturday, March 27, 2010

Book #33 - Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)

I have blogged on whiskey before...both bourbon and rye. And in fact that's my normal blogging state. I've also blogged on rum, for "Treasure Island" and "Robinson Crusoe" in particular. And I seem to hazily remember blogging on absinthe as well (gee, why would that memory be hazy?). But tonight we're in unknown territory...I'm blogging on Vicodin! Woohoo! What's up with that? Well, I went to the dentist earlier this week because I needed a crown on one of my molars. So he put a temporary one on while I wait for the permanent crown to be made, and he said the tooth might hurt a bit. Well, that's the understatement of the frickin' year. The past few days it's been aching and throbbing worse and worse, which according to the dentist means I may have to get a root canal on the tooth. Oh yeah, that is so awesome. I've been taking Advil, which has so far warded off the pain for a few hours at a pop, but tonight the throbbing seems to have launched into a whole new order of magnitude. So I was faced with a choice...suffer, drink lots of booze, or take a Vicodin. I opted for the Vicodin. And guess what...this stuff works! An hour after taking it the pain has largely subsided. But of course, now I feel all lightheaded and a bit loopy, so I thought "Hey, it's the perfect time to blog!". Hopefully I won't lapse into gibberish...although come to think of it, that might make this blog a bit more interesting. Nah, but that won't happen, I'm fine. In fact I could blogsh miffleplix skjri theurkst, gs. zzzz

Woops. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, "Jane Eyre". I started this book last weekend, and I'm almost a third of the way into it. I read Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" in high school, and of course I've seen Monty Python's semaphore version of "Wuthering Heights". But that's been my only Bronte experience until I picked up "Jane Eyre" last week.

My immediate thought after just a few pages was that Charlotte Bronte is a really good writer. This book moves along snappily, and keeps me pulled in. I found when reading Dickens I would sometimes suddenly realize I had no idea what was happening, and I'd have to read over the last paragraph or page very carefully to try to parse out what the heck Dickens was talking about. There's something about the density of his wording and his use of colloquialisms that can make certain passages a bit rough going at first. But Bronte's writing just moves along, and I've had no such incidents of confusion.

And it's not just the writing style...I love the character of Jane. When we meet her, Jane is an orphan living with the Reed family. Mr. Reed had been Jane's uncle, and he took her in when her parents died of typhus. But then Mr. Reed died, and Mrs. Reed has no liking for Jane, to put it mildly. Neither do the three Reed children, who are all raving assholes. So Jane is miserable, and gets taunted and beaten by the children, and blamed for everything by Mrs. Reed. Yet Jane is not a passive victim. She's bold and assertive and independent. She's a survivor. And she can be fact, there's one scene where she confronts Mrs. Reed, standing up to her and calling her on her shit, and I immediately thought of Holden Caufield...Jane can pick out the phonies. But my favorite quote from Jane, at least so far, occurs when Mrs. Reed decides to ship Jane off to boarding school to get rid of her. The headmaster of the school comes to their home and is quizzing Jane. The conversation goes like this:

Headmaster: "No sight so sad as that of a naughty child...especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?"
Jane: "They go to hell."
Headmaster: "And what is hell? Can you tell me that?"
Jane: "A pit full of fire."
Headmaster: "And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?"
Jane: "No, sir."
Headmaster: "What must you do to avoid it?"
Jane: "I must keep in good health and not die."

God, that's funny. In that passage Jane reminds me a bit of Maggie in "The Mill on the Floss" (although Maggie was a bit crazier than Jane). These Victorian women writers can write some strong women characters, that's for sure.

Anyway, Jane goes to boarding school, where conditions are bad...Dickensian, in fact. That changes when typhus sweeps through the school, killing off many of the students, and the locals then realize how bad things are there, and thus they force improvements. So the school gets better, and Jane gets her education. She eventually becomes a teacher at the school, but soon gets bored and longs to see more of the world, so she gets a job as a governess to a girl living on an estate called Thornfield. The owner of the estate, Mr. Rochester (no, he's not from upstate New York) is rarely present. But as Jane gets settled in, Mr. Rochester suddenly makes an appearance. And that's as far as I've gotten. But I'm eagerly waiting to read soon as this Vicodin wears off and the toothache is resolved.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

All You Need is Love

Fuck you, Charles Dickens! Yeah, you heard me. I am so through with've made me cry more than any man since the second grade, when Tommy Bottomsworth (note: name changed to prevent a libel suit) pushed me down on the sidewalk. Yes, I bawled my eyes out at the end of Silas Marner, but that was written by George Eliot, A GIRL, and as we all know girls are supposed to make the boys cry. But you're a MAN, and clearly you didn't read the part of the Man Code where it says that real men don't make other men cry. NO, first you came close to making me cry in "Bleak House" when little Jo the orphan dies. But then you had to push the limits in "Hard Times", first when Stephen Blackpool dies after falling down an abandoned mine shaft, and then at the end when you omnisciently predict the future of all the characters in the novel. First you suck me in, and then you manipulate me into crying my eyes out over the plight of the poor as symbolized by a martyr. Damn you!

Whew, OK, that's out of the way. This was a good book. Just like in "Bleak House", Dickens has a number of characters whose stories intertwine, and all the stories get tied up nicely in the end. A bit too nicely, perhaps...even the old circus dog "Merrylegs" makes a reappearance. I don't think a modern novelist would tie up everything as neatly as Dickens does, assuming they had his skill. Why is that? Maybe the modern writer thinks that life is too complex and random, and that they just can't depict life as neat as that seen in a Dickens novel...? Yet people like myself still read and enjoy Dickens just the same...perhaps just because "real life" is not as neat as this and so it's satisfying to see everything wrapped up for once, even if it's just a novel.

This novel was way shorter than "Bleak House". It wasn't as sprawling as that book, and didn't have as many characters. "Hard Times" is quite good, and certainly enjoyable, but "Bleak House" is a masterpiece, and I'm not sure I'd call "Hard Times" that.

Like "Bleak House" this novel has a relationship between an old man and a very young woman, in this case Bounderby and Gradgrind's daughter Louisa. But unlike "Bleak House", where the marriage never occurs and the whole thing seems half hearted, in this case Bounderby marries Louisa. It doesn't go well to say the least. Louisa is miserable, and after a failed attempt at seduction by a young cad, she runs back home to her father. This is a pivotal moment in the book, because it's then she tells her father that the way she was raised and educated by him, which was to only go with the facts and ignore emotion and sentiment, has failed her miserably and that she is terribly unhappy. Mr. Gradgrind, who had seemed an ominous and unsympathetic character early in the book, has a total change of heart due to his love for his daughter, and realizes he's made a terrible mistake. He works to right his wrongs, as best he can, and comes to realize the importance of love and caring. In fact, this seems to be one of the big, if not THE big, take-home lessons of the book: that we need to love people more and care about them more and help one another rather than treat each other, especially the poor, like dirt. Love is all you need. Love reign o'er me. Ah, the classic rock references are everywhere...Dickens was very prescient! Somehow this all seems like a bit of a cop out, though. Dickens describes the plight of the working poor, "The Hands" as they're called in the novel, quite well, and the two Hands that we get to know best, Rachel and Stephen Blackpool, are virtuous almost to the point of sainthood. But then at the end the lesson seems to be "Love the poor" or "Love your fellow man" or "Listen to your heart and not just your head". Well, OK, but isn't that what Jesus said 2000 years ago? I mean, what's new here? I dunno, maybe as a scientist I was hoping to see a little more practical advice on how to deal with England's social woes in the industrial revolution. And speaking of which, Dickens definitely doesn't see unions as the answer. The workers are trying to form a union, but they ostracize Stephen Blackpool, and the union leader who spearheads their movement is not at all sympathetic.

Finally, let's get back to the ending that I talked about earlier. At the conclusion of the novel, not only do all the ends get wrapped up neatly, but Dickens pulls an "American Graffiti" on the last two pages and tells what happens to all the main characters after the novel ends. And basically everyone gets their just desserts. The bad guys get screwed over and/or die, the really good people get rewarded, and the people on the fence get some good and bad. The only exception is Rachel, the poor saintly factory worker, who gets to keep on working in the factory. Dickens just can't give the poor factory workers a break. But then, maybe that's the whole point.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Book #32 - Hard Times (Charles Dickens)

I'm back in the reading and blogging groove and it feels great! Immediately after finishing "The Decameron" I picked up "Hard Times" and I'm about half way through the book already. Granted it's not so long a book (280 pages) but after reading and blogging for the past year at the rate of one book per year, I'll brag about it anyway. Too bad the book isn't as upbeat as my blogging mood. But with a title like "Hard Times" what do you expect? In "Good Times" we got Jimmie JJ Walker, and in "Hard Times' we get Mr. Bounderby and Mr. Gradgrind. Mr. Bounderby (a play on the derogatory term "bounder"?) owns the local bank, is very well-to-do, and is a self-made man, having worked himself up from poverty. This last fact he never fails to remind everyone of, every chance he gets. He is not a good or kind person. Mr. Gradgrind is the local schoolmaster, who believes children should only learn facts, and that imagination and fancy can only lead to no good, and should thus be rigorously discouraged in every possible instance. Needless to say, Mr. Gradgrind's (again with the suggestive names!) students are not very happy, and his own children even less so. His daughter has the imagination browbeaten out of her, and she is betrothed to Mr. Bounderby at a young age. Her father asks her if she wants to marry Mr. Bounderby after his proposal, and she says it makes no difference. "Like, whatever" would be her words if she were alive today. And Gradgrind's son grows up to be a n'er do well. Of course. Kids today, I try to help them by berating the imagination out of them and look what happens. Goddamn punks...

There's a lot going on in "Hard Times", despite its being a much shorter book than "Bleak House". Dickens really knows how to work plots with multiple characters and multiple threads. The characters drift in and out, but you know they'll come back because Dickens knows what he's doing. As an example, Mr. Gradgrind adopts a young girl named Sissy Jupe, whose father worked in the circus but who skipped town, abandoning his daughter, because he is physically unable to perform in the circus like he used to (he also takes with him their circus dog "Merrylegs", one of the best dog names I've ever heard). Sissy is good hearted but does not do well in school, most likely because she is too fanciful and cannot abide by just the cold, hard facts, as Mr. Gradgrind would like. Anyway, as of the middle of the book, the reader hasn't heard about Sissy in the last hundred pages or so, but knowing how Dickens is so adept at juggling his characters and plot threads, I have no doubt she'll turn up again.

"Hard Times" takes place in the town of Coketown (coke is the by-product of burning coal). The England depicted in the novel is that of the industrial revolution before the advent of effective labor unions...polluted, horrible working conditions, horrible poverty, people used up and spat out as broken shells by their factory jobs. One of the themes of the book seems to be this dehumanization of the poor factory workers, and Mr. Gradgrind's vision of teaching children cold, hard facts and killing any tendencies towards imagination, dreams, and fantasy fits right in with this. We can't have those factory workers daydreaming over their machines now can we? No, of course not. Reading this book makes me ponder that it's rather amazing that society actually came through the industrial revolution, but we did, and thankfully the working conditions of the factories in the 1800s would be completely unacceptable today. Well, unless the factories are in some third world country...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Renaissance is Over!

Brace yourself, dear reader...I finally finished The Decameron! Woohoo, break out the whiskey! It took me almost (but not quite) a year to read. Not a very good pace for a so-called book blogger. One year closer to death and only one book read and blogged. Maybe I need to start "Blogging the Web", in which I blog about all the time I waste surfing the internet. Of course, that would then mean I would end up spending even more time on the internet. Damn, life is complex.

Once I put my mind to it, and got back into the book reading groove, the Decameron went pretty quickly. Funny, when I started the book A YEAR AGO I wasn't really into it, but in the last few weeks I enjoyed it much more. Well, let me qualify that: I enjoyed most of the stories, but not all of them. The book is divided up into ten sections of ten stories each, with each section representing one day of stories (see my first Decameron post) and with each section having a different theme. In some of the sections I found all the stories to be quite enjoyable. As an example, the stories from Day 8 all have the theme of tricks that men and women play on each other. These range from practical jokes to inspired ways of seeking revenge to ways of getting someone to sleep with someone else (although that was apparently not so difficult in the Renaissance). One of the stories is a great example of the ribald nature of many of the Decameron stories. In the eighth story from the eighth day, there are two great friends, Spinelloccio and Zeppa, who are both married to beautiful women. Spinelloccio starts having an affair with Zeppa's wife. One day Zeppa comes home early and finds out what's going on. He confronts his wife after Spinelloccio leaves, and tells her to invite Spinelloccio over the next day when he's not there. Zeppa will then come home, and when his wife hears him enter the house she is to lock Spinelloccio in a large chest so as to hide from Zeppa. She does so, and when Spinelloccio is locked in the chest Zeppa suggests to his wife that they invite Spinelloccio's wife over to visit. She comes over and Zeppa leads her to the bedroom where he tells her of her husband's affair, and says his revenge will be to make love to her as a form of "compensation". She is reluctant at first, but goes along with it, and they have sex on top of the chest that Spinelloccio is hiding in. When they're done, he tells her she will get a jewel as her reward, and then Zeppa has his wife come in and open the chest. Spinelloccio comes out, and he and his wife are embarrassed, but he admits he had it coming, and they suggest that they all just forgive and forget. So Spinelloccio and Zeppa become even better friends than before, and having already shared their wives they decide to continue to do so. So all four of them happily spouse swap from that day forward. Party in the Renaissance!

That story seems very ribald even to this day, and has stood up well over the past 650 years. But as a contrast, on the tenth day the stories are all about people who perform some kind of munificent or magnanimous deed, and these stories just didn't hold my interest as much as the others. And that's not just because there was not any sex in them. Well, OK, maybe it was partly because there wasn't any sex in them. But also there is something about the theme that just doesn't seem to hold up as well over the centuries. Or at least for me, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Perhaps we're just more cynical these days, and the stories from the tenth day, tales of generous knights and landowners, just aren't very in synch with these days of robber baron CEOs.

Finally, in the epilogue of the book, Boccaccio addresses the reader directly, and it is here that he explains something I wondered about in my last blog post. As I commented on, he starts off each story with a short paragraph that summarizes the story. In other words, each story begins with a complete spoiler. In the epilogue, Boccaccio explains that he put the summaries in front of each story so that the reader may read only the ones that please him or her, and not those stories which that particular reader might find offensive. The epilogue as a whole is a bit weird...Boccaccio spends his time defending his work...defending his treatment of friars, and his use of humor and wordplay, among other things. I don't know why he does this. Was he afraid of censorship, or condemnation by the clergy? Hmmm. All I know is that after ALMOST A YEAR I have finally put this one to bed. I'm ready to buckle down and read my next book much more quickly. Will I manage to do so, or will I remain a whiskey-sipping blogging slacker? Stay tuned.