Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Teaser Tuesday (February 24, 2015)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading

Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My Teaser:

To be told repeatedly that one's future is blighted because of the possession of a silver mine is not, at the age of fourteen, a matter of prime importance as to its main statement; but in its form it is calculated to excite a certain amount of wonder and attention. In course of time the boy, at first only puzzled by the angry jeremiads, but rather sorry for his dad began to turn the matter over in his mind in such moments as he could spare from play and study.

(p. 61, from Nostromo by Joseph Conradqlp 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Classic Literature moment at the Oscars

I don't usually watch the academy awards, but for some reason I stayed up to watch it last night. All very much the same as most years, some amusing moments, some annoying, some poignant. Biggest surprise for me, Lady Gaga did an outstanding job performing a medley from The Sound of Music; Julie Andrews even seemed moved by it.

But the point of this post, there was a bookish moment. During the period when they show pictures of persons associated with the film industry who passed away in 2014, there was a shot of Gabriel García Márquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and other classic novels. Most of his books have not been adapted to film, so I was a bit surprised, but I guess he was a film critic, and screenwriter.

He was the first author I read in 2015, so it resonated.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (43 down 57 to go)

 I was the shadow of the waxwing slain ~ Opening line of a 999-line poem titled "Pale Fire", which is central to the novel Pale Fire.

This is the first time I’ve read Pale Fire. I previously started, and did not finish, a different novel by Nabokov, so this is the first by Vladimir Nabokov I have finished. Pale Fire is a postmodern novel employing metafiction, in the form of a 999-line poem also titled Pale Fire.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a unique and complex novel. In attempting to simplify, I will likely only confuse. But it is my task, per my quest, so I shall try. At first I thought this was not a novel at all, but a poem. Upon completion, I realized that combined, the foreword, the poem, and the commentary tell a story in a unique way, or metafiction. As such, it is indeed novel in the most literal sense. In fact, you could argue it is the only novel, or at least the most novel of any of the novels I have read.

Not very clear, is it? The story told by Pale Fire is only realized by reading the foreword, and the poem, and the commentary. The foreword is not a real foreword, but a fictional foreword by the fictional character Dr. Charles Kinbote, a colleague and friend John Shade, the fictional author of the poem. After the poem, the fictional Kinbote offers fictional commentary on the fictional poem, by the fictional author Shade. All three parts are actually the fictional creation of Nabokov.

And a brilliant creation. I didn’t like Pale Fire at first, or even in the middle, but almost with the very last line of the commentary, it all became clear and I was stunned. Truly the most novel novel I’ve read.

This novel satisfies square G5 of 2015 Classics Bingo: Published 1950-1999

I’d like to offer a recommendation on how to read Pale Fire. Read the poem first in entirety, it is written in four cantos. It is quite clever, and small passages make sense of a limited scene or impression, but you will probably not sense a single congruous tale. Next read the foreword. Then read commentary that pertains to Canto One, and then reread Canto One. Do the same for Canto Two, Three and Four, and then reread the entire poem.

And you’ll have the whole story. The story of an exiled King living incognito as a professor at an American University, of the King’s childhood, the revolution, his escape, and the assassin sent to track him down.

A bit more about the poem: it rhymes. It’s a bit old fashioned, but I still like poetry that rhymes.

             One ear in Italy, one eye in Spain,
               In caves, my blood, and in the stars, my brain

Also, 999 lines might seem like an untidy number. The poem is unfinished as the meter is incomplete; line 999 does not have a corresponding rhyme. Kinbote realizes the first line is also the last line, or line 1000. The poem tells the tale of the exiled King, but as Kinbote puts it (and note the play on the Novel/Poem’s title), it tells the tale with: 
Echoes and wavelets of fire, and pale phosphorescent hints,... 

The author, Shade, also wrote parts with apparent precognition of events yet to come.

Lastly, a word about the title. There is an amusing bit of irony in the commentary, where Kinbote expresses his disdain for the technique of deriving titles from some other poetic work.
See Browning’s My Last Duchess. See it and condemn the fashionable device of entitling a collection of essays or a volume of poetry – or a long poem, alas – with a phrase lifted from a more or less celebrated poetical work of the past. Such title possess a specious glamor acceptable maybe in the names of vintage wines and plump courtesans but only degrading to the talent that substitutes the easy allusiveness of literacy for original fancy and shifts onto a bust’s shoulders the responsibility for ornateness since anybody can flip through a Midsummer-Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet, or, perhaps, the Sonnets and take his pick.
The irony is that the title Pale Fire is from Shakespeare's Timon of Athens.
The moon's an arrant thief,  And her pale fire she snatches from the sun (Timon of Athens, Act IV, scene 3). 
I'm certain it was intentional.

Excerpts from the commentary:

The summer night was starless and stirless, with distant spasms of silent lightning.

Vainly does one look in Pale Fire (oh, pale, indeed!) for the warmth of my hand gripping yours, poor Shade!

All the seven deadly sins are peccadilloes but without three of them, Pride, Lust and Sloth, poetry might never have been born.

Let me close this important note with a rather anti-Darwinian aphorism: The one who kills is ALWAYS his victim’s inferior.

Quoting Shade: 
Kings do not die – they only disappear, eh, Charles?

…kinbote means regicide in your language? Asked my dear Shade.
Yes a king’s destroyer, I said (longing to explain that a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is in a sense just that).


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I, Claudius by Robert Graves (42 down 58 to go)

So, I’m Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I’ll be able to make people read my books now. ~ Claudius

This is the first time I’ve read I, Claudius or Robert Graves. The novel is written as if it is the autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus also known as Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (hereafter referred to as Claudius), the fourth emperor of Rome. It is historical fiction as Graves did his research, so the major events, personalities, and dates are considered fairly reliable, while the anecdotal details and dialogue are largely fiction.


My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies square O2 of 2015 Classics Bingo: Historical Fiction 


The story begins in 10 BC with Claudius’ birth, during the reign of Augustus who became emperor after Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. The story ends with Caligula’s assassination in 41 AD and Claudius accession as emperor.


SPOILER ALERT: This review contains some minor spoilers, mostly events that are recorded in history.


Claudius gives a first-person narration of the lives of the first four Roman Emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and himself, though the narrative ends when Claudius is made Caesar almost by accident. The sequel Claudius the God tells of his reign and succession by Nero the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.


Wait, what? Did you know Julius Caesar was not a Roman Emperor? I didn’t. He was dictator of the Republic. After Julius Caesar was assassinated Augustus’ reign marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Imperial era. Weren’t expecting history, were you? Sorry, this book is history.


Claudius is raised in and around the imperial palace as he is the grandson of Augustus’ wife, Livia, from a previous marriage. He is not much of a physical specimen in the proud family. He stammers, is deaf in one ear, limps, has a nervous tick and is sickly. His family, mother included, call him Claudius the Idiot, or That Claudius, or Claudius the Stammerer, or Clau-Clau-Claudius, or Poor Uncle Claudius. That last one came from his nephew Caligula…he’s a peach.


Augustus is kinder than most, and Claudius says of him

I could never find it in my heart to hate Augustus as I came to hate my grandmother, for his dislike of me was without malice and he did what he could to master it…


It wouldn’t seem Claudius was destined for much, had it not been for several omens. The first being a prophesy in poetic form, from a Sibyl (pagan prophetess) that hints at some distinction. On another occasion, a pair of eagles fighting in the sky, drop a wolf cub and the child Claudius catches it. An Auger (diviner of omens) tells that it signals Claudius will be Emperor. Claudius sister Livilla, who was particularly cruel scorns the interpretation

Wretched Rome, with him as her protector! I hope to God I’ll be dead before then!


The Augur turned on her and pointed with his finger

"Impudent girl,” he said, “God will no doubt grant your wish in a way that you won’t like!”


As he grows older, Claudius is excluded from official events, as his grandmother Livia fears he will embarrass the family. Free to do as he wishes so long as he keeps out of the way, Claudius begins a career as a historian. He has an excellent mind, and is a very good researcher, translator, and writer. Few take him seriously.


One who does, Polio a noted and aged historian, advises Claudius how to live a long busy life with honor

...exaggerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head and twitch with your hand on public or semi-public occasions. If you could see as much as I can see, you would know that this was your only hope of safety and eventual glory. It’s not the last time he receives such advice.


It seems to serve him well. It may indeed have saved Claudius as no one views him as a threat. Claudius has two true friends, his brother Germanicus and his cousin Postumus. Besides Claudius these are two of the few “good guys” in this story. But alas, Germanicus and Postumus were viewed as threats by their ambitious relatives.


The Emperors grow progressively worse. Augustus is fairly benevolent, but easily manipulated by Livia who is ambitious and cruel. Near the end of his life Augustus has a better opinion of Claudius and tells him

Germanicus has told me about you. He says that you are loyal to three things – to your friends, to Rome, and to the truth.


Livia eliminates rivals of her son Tiberius, until he is established as heir to the empire, and then she poisons Augustus. Tiberius becomes emperor. He and Livia do not love or trust each other, but they concentrate on mutual enemies, real and perceived, without killing each other. Tiberius begins as a decent emperor, but by the end of his life he is cruel and depraved. 


But his successor Caligula is one of the vilest leaders in human history. He is sexually perverse, gratuitously violent, hedonistic, narcissistic, and probably outright mad. No one was safe from assassination, violence, or sexual abuse. One example: Caligula orders a family executed for some imagined slight. One of the family members is a young girl, who according to the law could not be executed because she was a virgin. The guards are ordered to violate her, so they could proceed with the execution. Upon witnessing this, Claudius says

Rome you are ruined. 

He also wrote of this period: 

I felt like a man living on the slopes of a volcano… 


Caligula is assassinated and the Praetorian Guard seize Claudius and make him emperor against his wishes.


I’ll tell you one thing this book did for me: it made me feel a whole lot better about the political climate in the United States. I wondered how a nation, let alone an empire could exist under such conditions, but Claudius himself may have given the answer. During Tiberius rule, when treachery, intrigue, suspicion, greed, lust for power, and numerous other vices were the rule, Claudius observed that Tiberius and Livia actually governed Rome fairly well, it was only the inner circles of politics that were a disaster. He described it this way: 

The canker in the core of the apple – if the metaphor may be forgiven – did not show on the skin or impair the wholesomeness of the flesh….But I was living in the apple’s core, so to speak, and I can be pardoned if I write more about the central canker than about the still unblemished and fragrant outer part.


My only complaint with this book, isn’t really a complaint; just a warning. It reads so much like an autobiography and eye-witness account, it is easy to read as if it is all genuine history. Claudius reportedly wrote an autobiography, but it is lost. Graves makes a compelling, but fictional, recreation. 




…there are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth. ~ Claudius


I believe that evil is its own punishment. ~ Claudius


Film Rendition: The 1976 BBC min-series is marvelous. Very true to the book and perfectly cast. There is a second part, Claudius the God, based on Graves sequel, but I have not viewed that yet.




Teaser Tuesdays (Feb 17)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading
(though I got it from DebraB at Booking It )

Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My Teasers:

Soldiers really are an extraordinary race of men, as tough as shield-leather, as superstitious as Egyptians and as sentimental as Sabine Grandmothers. Ten minutes later there were about two-thousand men besieging Germanicus's tent in a drunken ecstasy of sorrow and repentance and imploring him to let his lady come back with their darling little boy.

(p. 181, from   I, Claudius by Robert Graves 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Bears on Wheels by Stan and Jan Berenstain: Guest book review by my Grandson Andrew

Back by popular demand, Andrew has submitted another book review. Sadly, this will be his last for a while, as his Daddy has taken a job some states away, and we won’t be reading together quite so often.

Andrew wishes to express Bears on Wheels is the story of Bears…wait for it…on wheels, as in pedaled cycles of various wheel configurations.  There is also a good deal of hopping about from one cycle to another. All very difficult to believe if one is not prepared to suspend disbelief.

Andrew felt that to call this a STORY is a bit of a misnomer though. He found the plot painfully weak and believes it is actually a thinly veiled subtext to get little tykes like himself interested in numbers and counting. As such, he felt it was a laudable effort, though largely wasted on him as he is only 8 months old and such things are incomprehensible at this point, and of little utility in his daily regimen.

Pardon me, Andrew corrects me…he is 8 months old, going on 9.

Nonetheless, Andrew thought the bears were very nice, which was a pleasant surprise; previously he thought members of the Ursa family of primates were kind of scary.

Andrew was also surprised to learn this book is not by his favorite author, Dr. Seuss. Somehow, he was under that impression, and is gratified to correct this shortcoming in his literary education.

He stated it all makes perfect sense now, because although the mixed poetry and prose was lighthearted, whimsical, and easy to follow, it clearly lacked the power and passion one is accustomed to from the good doctor.

Andrew gives it 3 and 1/2 Stars

not quite on par with Because a Little Bug went Ka-CHOO!, and certainly no Cat in the Hat.

Click HERE for more book reviews by my Grandsons and Granddaughters.


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (41 down 59 to go)

Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. ~ Mary Shelley on Frankenstein

This is the second time I’ve read Frankenstein, the first being some years ago. I think it is most commonly considered a Horror Story, but it also has elements of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, written and published in the Romantic period of literature. It is the first-person narrative of Victor Frankenstein a young scientist (not mad), his obsession with creating life, his horror at his creation, and the great calamity that befalls him for playing God.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies square I1 of 2015 Classics Bingo: Published before 1850.

Frankenstein is the most disappointing novel I have read thus far, not because it fell short of my expectations, but because I think it is a magnificent story, badly told.

I think the great conflict in Frankenstein is one of the most compelling in literature. For that, I give Shelley high marks. The story of how she came up with the plot is almost too good to be true…while staying at a Swiss chalet with poet and future husband Percy Shelley, the renowned English poet Lord Byron, and English author John Polidori, incessant rains kept them indoors and boredom drove them to share ghost stories. Someone issued a challenge for each member of the party to invent a new story. It would have been fun to eavesdrop on that party.

You are probably familiar with the premise of Frankenstein, though the novel is quite different from most movie versions. The creature does not immediately traumatize the village, in fact he never really does. Victor Frankenstein loathes his creation almost the very moment he brings it to life. Shortly thereafter the Creature flees to locations unknown, and Victor returns to family and friends almost forgetting what he has done. The Creature is highly intelligent and through some extraordinary circumstances teaches himself to speak, read and write, and something about the nature of man. He is gentle and good, but so hideous he evokes fear and hatred from any human he encounters. He accidentally kills a child, who happens to be Victor’s brother. The Creature seeks Victor out and demands a female companion, or he vows everlasting rage and terror. Victor agrees hoping it will free him from malignity of the Creature, but later repents, and breaks his vow. The rest of the story is the Creature exacting revenge against his creator.

My problem is the many shortcuts Shelley takes in telling the tale. The first is Victor’s discovery of the secret to creating life. It isn’t explained and barely takes a paragraph to proclaim that he has discovered it…from reading books. He doesn’t test it on simpler creations, and he proceeds as if there is absolutely no doubt of success. He assembles a body and brings it to life. No fantastic storm, no lightning bolt, he simply brings it to life. Now I realize she couldn’t truly explain how he did it, because it cannot be done, but even in fantasy there is generally some explanation. If this were the only “shortcut” I might forgive it. But there are MANY more.

Twice the creature just finds things lying out in the woods that are critical to his survival and development. One is a satchel of books, that teach him the nature and history of humanity…just found them…out in the woods.

Really? Couldn’t come up with something a bit more creative? 

But the most regrettable “shortcut” to me was the transformation of Victor. Before animating the Creature, Victor is obsessed. Once he brings it to life he immediately loathes it. I think this change was a brilliant development…but I dearly would have liked to have it develop. The mortal man, a creation himself, exultant over the immensity of his discovery, who then slowly realizes what an aberration and blasphemy he has created.

But no! One minute drunk with anticipation, the next minute, I hate that thing.

I still liked Frankenstein because the plot is so compelling, but I believe the brilliant story could have been told so much better. If Mary Shelley had only taken a page from Herman Melville’s book, pardon the pun, and added more detail, and Melville had in turn learned from Shelley and not included so much detail, I think Frankenstein and Moby Dick would have been two of my favorites. Or maybe I’d detest my hybrid creation.

Still, Frankenstein reminds me of Moby Dick: the mad obsessions of Dr. Frankenstein and Ahab have distinct similarities and are the ruin of both. 


…how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow. ~ Victor Frankenstein

My person was hideous, and my stature gigantic: what did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them. ~ The Creature

I remembered Adam’s supplication to his Creator; but where was mine? He had abandoned me, and, in the bitterness of my heart, I cursed him. ~ The Creature

Three books the Creature finds that educate him to the nature of man:
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Plutarch’s Lives by Plutarch
Sorrows of the Werter by Von Goethe

Film Renditions:  Prior to reading the novel, I was only familiar with the 1931 film with Boris Karloff as the creature; it’s a classic, and must see for all horror movie fans, but NOTHING like the book. There are numerous other versions to choose from, but most seem to be more influenced by the 1931 film than the book, and are therefore the worst of both worlds. However, the 1994 version, appropriately titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (implying other film versions are not Mary Shelley’s conception), is true to the book….for about 75% of the movie. For the first 90 minutes I was loving it, believing it to be one of those rare films that actually improved on the book. Without contradicting Shelley’s story, the film filled in some of the “shortcuts” that I complained of. But then, for the final few scenes, the director and/or screenwriter decided they had a better vision than Shelley. So, I can’t give it quite the praise I was prepared to, but it is the most faithful adaptation that I am aware of. Kenneth Branagh as Frankenstein, Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth, and Robert De Niro as the creature were all marvelous. There is another version I can recommend…just for fun. The 1974, Mel Brook’s film, Young Frankenstein is a ridiculous spoof and good for a laugh.


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Recap of Novels 31 - 40

Average rating: 3.6 out of 5 Stars

Jane Eyre ★★★★½
Under the Volcano ★★★
Wuthering Heights ★★★
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter ★★★
Madame Bovary ★★★½
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ★★★½
A Passage to India ★★★½
One Hundred Years of Solitude ★★★½
Absalom, Absalom! ★★★½
The French Lieutenant's Woman ★★★★

Favorite: Jane Eyre

Least Favorite: Wuthering Heights

Best Hero/Heroine: Jane Eyre

Most Villainous: Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights

Most interesting/Complex character: Sarah also known as Tragedy also known as The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Best Quotation: Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother’s love is not. From A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I had a hard time picking one, so two runners up:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. Opening line from One-Hundred Years of Solitude.

Mrs. Poulteney believed in a God that had never existed; and Sarah knew a God that did.
From The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Best Subtitle: No subtitles in this group

Best film adaptation: Right now Jane Eyre, but it may change to The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I haven’t seen the 1981 film adaptation yet, but if the reviews and award nominations are correct, that may be the best film adaptation from this group.

Worst film adaptation: None of them were terrible, so I’ll got with Wuthering Heights. A bit surprising since it stars the Greatest Actor of All Time, according to some, Laurence Olivier. But the film, not so much.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Harper Lee to publish a new novel

This is such great news. A sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, with adult Scout.

More than that, I don't want to know until I'm reading the book. I will even interrupt my quest for this.


I know the movie is even further down the road, but I can hope that it will live up to the status of the Robert Mulligan masterpiece.

So...who do you think should play an adult Scout and Jem?

My answer later, still thinking about it.