Saturday, June 19, 2010

Cranford: A Final Review

Since I will be leaving shortly on my Venice and the Italian Lakes adventure, and my blog will officially be on vacation, I wanted to finish up my review of Cranford before leaving. I apologize in advance for not being around to participate and comment, but I will pick up where I left off when I return:

All in all, I grew to love the novel, even though the beginning was difficult for me. I grew to love the little village, and long to find a place just like Cranford to put down roots with my own family (although my husband would come along! hopefully, he wouldn't be intruding). I think the following quotation is a good representation of the novel:

"But to return to Miss Matty. It was really very pleasant to see how her unselfishness, and simple sense of justice, called out the same good qualities in others. She never seemed to think anyone would impose upon her, because she should be so grieved to do it to them. I have heard her put a stop to the asseverations of the man who brought her coals, by quietly saying 'I am sure you would be sorry to bring me wrong weight'; and if the coals were short measure that time, I don't believe they ever were again. People would have felt as much ashamed of presuming on her good faith as they would have done on that of a child. But my father says, 'such simplicity might be very well in Cranford, but would never do in the world'."

Yes, I believe that too, at least not in my world. I love Matty's simplicity and good faith and her love of children is very telling. She is like a child in both her innocence and belief in others, and if only everyone could learn from her example, how this world would be a better place!

So far, I have yet to find a place like Cranford, but I will keep looking. I will always have this novel at least to read over and over again to keep my own faith in humanity going.

I am changing my rating to 5 stars for this very unique and touching novel, and I hope to continue reading more of Gaskell's work in the future. Happy Reviewing!

A Bien Tot!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Everything Austen II Challenge

I am so excited to be starting up a new challenge. Stephanie's Written Word Blog is hosting this challenge beginning July 1st and running until December 31st 2010. You just have to pick six Austen related books, shows, films, or anything else to read or watch or take part in before the end of the year. I am still in the process of compiling my list. There is so much to choose from! Definitely will be choosing the TV series "Lost in Austen"!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Cranford: A Review of the First Half

Up until a couple of days ago, I had been dreading writing this review. This is my first official blog read-along and I really, really did not want to hate the book and so give it a negative response. It wasn't until I was well into the second half of the book that my attention was caught. The chapter called The Panic was so hilariously funny, I decided to go back and re-read the whole thing! I figured that I wasn't really giving the novel my undivided attention (which I really wasn't), since I was in the middle of reading 4 other novels.

I think the main problem was, in my case, that I had seen the Cranford BBC mini-series, and was expecting quite a different novel. I did not realize that the series was not only based on Cranford, but other short stories by Gaskell as well. I loved the Cranford film, especially the male characters, so when I get to the book and all the male characters die in the first few chapters, I was really disappointed to say the least, not to mention the complete absence of the young doctor, who really made the series to me. It took me a while, but I eventually forgave Gaskell for not combining all her writing into Cranford. A novel that is about mostly women and their contained lives within a small town in mid-nineteenth century England does have some redeeming qualities, after all.

It is at times very dark and very real, at times heartbreaking and other times awe-inspiring, and still others times, rip roaringly funny. There is quite a good amount of death happening, and most of it is so very sudden, without much commotion corresponding to the event. It is almost as if, since death happens so often and so easily at this period in history, people are more accustomed to the aftermath. I actually like that it is written in a mostly vignette form with very little plot continuity. It enables the reader to sit down and read a chapter whenever he/she feels the urge. It definitely helped me after I decided to re-read the whole bloody thing. (I cannot tell a lie--I did skip over some of the vignettes the second reading. Some are really just too boring and too filled with inconsequential details.)

Miss Matty is by far my favorite character in the novel. I love her naivete, her caring attitude towards others, her sense of doing what is right and what is honest, and her acceptance of people for who they really are. She honors the memory of her sister Deborah in her healthy sense of propriety, but at the same time, she does eventually move on to live her own life after her death. Miss Matty tries to hold on to the traditions of her sister, but because of Matty's strong sense of, not necessarily a moral code, but a strong sort of empathy for others, she does let many of the senseless (though she herself would never call them that) rules go in favor of a more caring, make-everyone-happy approach. I also love how the narrator, Miss Smith, and her observations and contributions really increased the depth of compassion that we feel towards Miss Matty. I think Miss Matty made the novel for me. I entirely felt her pain and understood her softness amidst her sister Deborah's authoritarian rule. She respected her sister and many of the other characters in this small town. Miss Matty is definitely a character to whom I can relate.

I don't wish to say too much, since I am only reviewing the first half of the novel, so I will finish my first review with a tentative 4 stars for this novel, with more to come next week for the review of the final half. (I am subtracting one star, not for any fault in Gaskell's writing, but in the fact that there are times that my attention flagged and the book did not sustain my interest.)

My Thoughts on Writing for a So-So Monday.......

I like the fundamental act of writing. The act is done independently, yet it is a conversation among many-those that have come before and are now gone, though their work remains, those that are writing in the present, and those of many cultures and backgrounds. Writing excludes no one with the ability to read and write. It even includes those who have yet to start, the young, and those who haven't touched earth yet. The conversation is eternal and ongoing.

I have been thinking about writing as a form of characterization. A character itself can be a sort of description of a feeling long lost. You can place a character within a memory and allow them to feel what you feel as you reflect on this memory, but also allow the character to experience things differently and make their own choices, perhaps in ways in which you yourself wish to have experienced them.

For instance, some kind of solitary experience--like my first trip to Europe. I was alone, so my own experience was very solitary and very personal. How many others have felt like me? Are there others with the same thoughts or feelings as myself? With the same values and past experience? If there are, how I would love to find them and reach out to them. Have a conversation with them. What kind of people are they? What are their hopes and dreams? How would a character that I myself have created react to this same experience? How I would love to have a conversation with this fictional character, and many others in the history of literature.

This is the conversation that I am always speaking of. Reaching out to someone in the vast reaches of humanity to share an experience. The best way that I know of is to contribute to this conversation created by writing, and reading about the experiences of others through writing of their own.

In the words of Gilbert Highet:

"These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves. From each of them goes out its own voice... and just as the touch of a button on our set will fill the room with music, so by taking down one of these volumes and opening it, one can call into range the voice of a man far distant in time and space, and hear him speaking to us, mind to mind, heart to heart. "

Friday, June 11, 2010

"Through the Wormhole" and E. M. Forster

Last night, as I was wracking my brain over writing this post on the writing style of E. M. Forster, my husband put on this program, hosted by Morgan Freeman (click on the link for a short video):

Through the Wormhole: Your Second Life

The program was a commentary about science's ability to determine the presence or absence of a creator. Of course, I ended up staying up long past my bedtime thinking about the theories that were discussed. And somehow, in my crazy mind, I established a connection between this idea of perpetual questioning with E.M Forster's A Room with a View.

The final theory in the program is explained in the above link. A jet propulsion scientist is questioned regarding his idea that, 50 years from now, we will surpass the human brain's thinking capacity. So, are we really becoming the deities, creating a bigger version of our own universe? If so, then who is operating us? And are we just some computer simulation, being programmed to feel a certain way by some master computer programmer somewhere beyond "the window of our own universe"?

Of course, since my own mind is programmed to completely go off track and apply any knowledge that I have attained to something completely unrelated (or not!), and since my mind was trying to get wrapped around the writing of E. M. Forster, I established a connection between this TV program and Forster's novel.

More specifically, I remembered Mr. Emerson's conversation with Lucy Honeychurch over his son George's melancholic disposition. Mr. Emerson talks about how "things won't fit" for George. The universe is all questions, but no answers. Mr. Emerson explains, "We know that we come from the winds, and that we shall return to them; that all life is perhaps a knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothness. But why should this make us unhappy? Let's love one another, and work and rejoice. I don't believe in this world sorrow." Miss Honeychurch assented. "Then make my boy think like us. Make him realize by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes--a transitory Yes, if you like, but a Yes." I think if we observe science's never-ending search to find answers, we also need to step back and say, "Does it all really matter after all? We are only aware of our present existence from our birth (kind of-we are not really aware because we don't really remember) to our death (and this we may not be aware of either, if we are sick or mentally diseased), so let's just make the best of our time here and find out what is important about our existence in the here and now.

Wow! I just realized why I love writing and books so much. It is this exploration of our existence that I speak of, and why we read novels and watch films and recite poetry and sing songs. So, while I enjoy exploring science and its fascinations, I also understand that it really may not even matter in the whole scope of things. What matters is the here and now, and who we are and how we treat others, work together for a common good, and learning to love.

So to conclude, and to finally comment on Forster's writing style, the reason why E.M. Forster has always been the pinnacle to me of writing is not because of his amazing ability with language (he writes very simply, not as simple as Hemingway, but he doesn't really sway too much from the point), or his wit (which he does have), it is because he attempts to get right to the "quick" of humanity, our source, our reason for being and living. He exhibits a depth of characterization within this emphasis on the resounding "Yes". Who in his novels is willing to really "live", and to live with integrity, not because of societal expectations, or even to purposely rebel against society?

To me, this is the goal of us all. Breaking away from illusion. And for that to happen, I believe, education is the key, specifically a humanities-based education. I give this a resounding Yes, and a Yes, and a Yes!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Coming Soon

My review, thus far, of Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell.  I am reading and doing a book review for a Cranford Read-Along that the blog, A Literary Odyssey, is hosting.  Deadline is Tuesday, June 15th for a review of the first half of the novel.  Stay tuned for my thoughts...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

On Point: Top Young Fiction Writers

I wanted to post this On Point radio show segment from NPR.  The segment is a discussion with 4 of the Top 20 writers over 40 from The New Yorker magazine (June 14&21).  It is very pertinent to writers coming to the forefront today.  I love what these writers have to say about the future of writing and books in the digital age.   In the program, they portend that fiction in 20-30 years will be read as much as poetry is today.  I have to disagree.  I think the format of fiction (and writers themselves) will just have to keep up with the times i.e. appeal to the new reader who has an attention span of about two seconds ;).  Seriously, there is hope in the future for fiction. I am sure of it and will never give up hope.


Writing Styles: Why I Like Jane

For next week's writing group meeting, the subject is writing styles and what styles attract us. I have been going through my favorite books, trying to find passages which exhibit the best examples of a particular author's style. When trying to pin down Jane Austen, I started to go through some different scenes and dialogues which I thought expressed who she was as a writer. One particular scene that came to mind was Mr. Collin's proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. I love the interplay and dialogue that occurs both between these two characters and between Elizabeth and her parents, as well as the difference between how these different characters choose to express themselves. Her language reminds me of a person talking themselves into a kind of circle. There is a circular rhythm to this very formal, polite language that she is both expected to write at the time, and the way she chooses to use this language to express what she is trying to say. The language and words, when read, create a kind of symmetry. The sentences are very neat, but not concise. They definitely can go on for a long time, but not without goal or intent. This is what I enjoy. I love her rhythm and ability to say things in a way, not to shortchange her ability with language, but to create a structure of depth and changing intensity. Also, let's not forget her witty asides, and her ability to interject her own voice within the story. Austen never offends and always remains proper, but at the same time, she has the ability to really get to the heart of the implications of the situations she writes about.

I wanted to include a quote from Anthony Trollope from a lecture in gave in 1870, giving his opinion of Austen's writing:

"Miss Austen was surely a great novelist. What she did, she did perfectly. Her work, as far as it goes, is faultless. She wrote of the times in which she lived, of the class of people in which she associated, and in the language which was usual to her as an educated lady. Of romance,-what we generally mean when we speak of romance-she had no tinge. Heroes and heroines with wonderful adventures there are none in her novels. Of great criminals and hidden crimes she tells us nothing. But she places us in a circle of gentleman and ladies, and charms us while she tells us with an unconscious accuracy how men should act to women, and women act to men. It is not that her people are all good;-and certainly they are not all wise. The faults of some are the anvils on which the virtues of others are hammered till they are bright as steel. In the comedy of folly I know no novelist who has beaten her. The letters of Mr. Collins, a clergyman in P&P;, would move laughter in a low-church archbishop."

I second that Mr. Trollope!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

E.M Forster

"Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer." — E.M. Forster

Please, let's talk....

"Yes, for we fight for more than Love and Pleasure, there is Truth. Truth counts. Truth does count." spoken by Mr. Emerson from A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

While I understand that the nature of a blog is to express my own thoughts, I also acknowledge and encourage my readers to engage in a conversation with me because that's the only way to get even close to the truth, and truth is ultimately what I am looking to attain with this blog, and my writing for that matter. So, please do not be afraid to comment.   About, anything, absolutely anything.  Truth does count, you know.

I am going to try to fix this blog's format so that all comments will appear under each post. Wish me luck!

James on Venice

I wanted to include another quote by Henry James, and his impressions of Venice. I like to see the conversation that happens when we compare different writing:

"Exquisite hours, enveloped in light and silence, to have known them once is to have always a terrible standard of enjoyment. Certain lovely mornings of May and June come back with an in effaceable fairness...the sea and sky themselves seem to blossom and rustle. The gondola waits at the wave washed steps, and if you are wise, you will take your place beside a discriminating companion."

I could not have said it better!

Venice at Night: A Prelude (an essay written in 2004)

In the words of Henry James, "The only way to care for Venice as she deserves it is to give her a chance to touch you often-to linger and remain and return." This summer, I will be returning to Venice, after an absence of six years. My first visit was in May of 2004, newly married and 5 months pregnant with my son. I wrote the following essay upon returning:

Plato wrote of human existence as being like the inside of a cave with a fire burning. Most of us have our backs to the world, facing the wall, only seeing the shadows of the truth flickering on this wall. For those who travel merely to view the notable sights and then go home, Plato's analogy runs true. If you travel to see the Eiffel Tower, not for the experience, but just to take a photo to prove that you were there, you are only seeing those shadows on the wall.

When a tourist travels to Venice with this attitude, a true tragedy occurs. Venice has the ability, if you allow it, to transform all of us permanently and irreversibly no matter who we are or where we come from. It is one of the few remaining sacred and spiritual places on earth, not for any icon or relic, but for who we are when we are there, and for what we see within ourselves and our souls.

I've been dreaming of Venice for years and years. Although I've travelled extensively all over the world, I had always saved Venice for a special time. I did not want to rush through the experience without having the ability and, I see now, the maturity to enjoy it. Learning that we were expecting a baby in October, my husband Stephan and I decided that this May was as good a time as any to finally see Venezia. We signed up for a cruise of the Adriatic-Venice, Dubrovnik, The Greek Isles, Athens, and Kusadasi, Turkey. Unfortunately, we weren't lucky enough to gaze from our hotel balcony over the Grand Canal, and, I'm embarrassed to say now, splurge for the 100 euros for the gondola ride, but we didn't need to. All we really needed was a general map (nothing too detailed-you get lost regardless), comfortable shoes, and time to explore.

The first day we arrived, we began our expedition in the dim light of evening at the main vaporetto station which I later learned was the entrance to the Grand Canal. Little did I know what I would be about to experience. Since I have absolutely no sense of direction, I had no clue where we were or even what direction we would be going. As we embarked, Stephan and I grabbed seats in the rear in order to be outside in the night air. After about three minutes, I realized we were already on the Grand Canal, and the buildings began to pass by, one after another. Except for the occasional noise of the vaporetto's motor and gear grinding, the city was dark and silent-not eerie, but mysterious and inviting. Each building was more and more magnificent, and we were able to catch glimpses down all of the smaller canals, full of darkness and glittering water. We would pass an occasional gondola still lingering, but for the most part, the Grand Canal was empty and serene.

I remember sitting there with the wind blowing in the nighttime silence and the whooshing of the water. Every building in Venice looks mysterious at night, even those that are unremarkable by day. If unremarkable buildings can look magnificent, what about the others? Well, no words can describe their beauty at night-their silence, their knowledge of what has been and will be. the memories they hold within their damp stone walls, perfectly cut with the love of a people who truly appreciated the beauty of their craft. The water may infiltrate the presence of these buildings , but it is a part of who they are and their very existence. Without water, after all, Venice would not be Venice. If Venice sinks, it is because it was Venice's fate to sink, being so united with the water. Why is Venice the one place in the world that has not been pinned down and become known for something other than what it is? Because Venice is Venice, that's all.

The more we try to pin it down, the more it escapes us. One can write infinitely about Venice, but her story is never complete. The history of Venice seems to go on, all at once. Venice is the one place that contains true ghosts. Not some specter waiting to be released from its earthly horror, but spirits who live amidst this city who would never think of leaving. Spirits who millions of tourists have felt, but never really realized. The spirit of the place will not let this happen. It's strength encompasses you wherever you turn, and you somehow become part of it. It can never be conquered, only joined and merged with. I think sometimes its power overwhelms people and so they try to ground it in some way, saying it is too smelly, or crowded, or hot, or too labrynthine. It's this fear of the unknown that does this to people. It is a natural human defense mechanism to fear what they cannot control, or conquer.

As we passed the Ca d'Oro, it was brilliant at night. You can actually imagine yourself back in the Venetian Gothic period, passing by this newly built opulent palace. It must have recently been cleaned because it is immaculate. The water leaps up onto its porch, striking a union between man and Nature in its embrace. There were other very beautiful notable buildings and private residences, but there was a general feeling of mystery, pleasure, and sensuality found here. The water gives the atmosphere a floating, gliding, and ethereal quality and slows everything down, allowing us to "taste" Venice in all its deliciousness.

When we reached our final stop, Piazza San Marco was a short stroll away. Everyone we saw here was strolling, which tells us a good deal about the nature of this city. There are many couples here, also, and most of them are Italian (contrary to the reputation of Venice being too touristy). These couples seem to be embracing their own new found romance while experiencing the one place where all inhibitions are discarded and forgotten. For some reason, I expected Venice to be a place of masked revelry and non-stop celebration, but not on this night in May. This more authentic Venice is a place of quiet, repose, safety, and a kind of watery embrace to all those who enter her fluid arms. There are very few parties, but the ones we do see are quiet and sophisticated. As we enter the Piazza, we hear only the musicians playing and the beating of pigeon wings. You could actually explore Venice at night without seeing more than a handful of people, if you stay off the beaten path. To me, this is the true beauty of Venice. Not only are you exploring Venice one-on-one, you are exploring your own soul and that of your soul mate, if you are lucky to have brought them with you, as I was this beautiful evening. The canals and pathways twist and turn, and there is something new and more mysterious around every corner.

The only smell I noticed here was the beautiful smell of the sea, and how it permeates throughout every corner, alley, building, and piazza. Walk a little, get off the overpriced gondola, take the city at face value, not just the value that others have thrown at you. Experience Venice with your heart and soul simultaneously. You will never return. You will leave a piece of yourself there, becoming one with this island of souls. Venice is the place where truth lies and will remain: the real truth of who we are and why we exist. It is a place in which to discover our faith in each other and the greatness of our race. It has been said that Venice is the perfect union of God and man. I will go one step further to say that it is not the union, but proof that God does exist within man, and that everyone has access to this power. Go to Venice and allow your own truth to begin and take hold.

Just as I will never be the same after Venice, anyone who has ever submitted to this powerful and deep city, releasing themselves to its pure essence, will never be the same. In the words of Henry James, "But it is hard, as I say, to express all this, and it is painful as well to attempt it-painful because in the memory of the vanished hours so filled with beauty , the consciousness of present loss oppresses." I will miss you, my Venice, but I will return, there is no doubt.

We are home now, contemplating naming our son Marco as we prepare for his birth. I am glad we waited to see Venice because, to me, it was the perfect time in my life and in our marriage to experience this amazing city, La Serenissima, the most beautiful, magical place in the world.

Back to 2010: Keep in mind that our son is now 5 years old and his name is Tristan Alexandre. I guess at some point we came to our senses ;)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Very Busy!

I have been very busy, frantically reading four novels, so I like to post quotes that I find important and speak to me. They are all very important to me, and to life in general. I will be getting back to writing very soon. I just need to catch up! And, weekends are not the time to do it!

Henry James

Henry James definitely gets right to the core in this quote:
"My idea is this, that when you only love a little you’re naturally not jealous-or are only jealous also a little, so that it doesn’t matter. But when you love in a deeper and intenser way, then you’re in the very same proportion jealous; your jealousy has intensity and, no doubt, ferocity. When however you love in the most abysmal and unutterable way of all – whey then you’re beyond everything, and nothing can pull you down."
Henry James (The Golden Bowl)

It makes me want to re-read The Golden Bowl, but no, I am not even going to go there. 4 books is quite enough!