Sunday, 30 January 2011

[013] Death in Venice - Thomas Mann

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

Death in Venice tells how on a visit to Venice the writer Gustav von Aschenback encounters a young boy by whose beauty he becomes obsessed. Bewitched and agonized, he desires to please ...

Using the stifling atmosphere of Venice to heighten the unbearable sense of oppression, Thomas Mann has created a sensitive and haunting portrayal of blind passion.

Why I Picked It Up:

Although (to be honest) I had never heard of it before, it looked like a book I should read, perhaps one of those classics I was trying to discover. It was also thin and did you read that back cover? Sounds super interesting. Or weird.

What I Think:

Despite the image I try to perpetuate about myself, there is one deep dark secret I hold, something that should never be uttered as an English major: I think most of the "classics" tend to be rather boring. 

I think, deep down, a lot of English majors probably agree with me; I know A does. Of course, after I read a few essays on them or discuss them in a large group, I usually come to at least respect the novel, if not actually see the good points and kind of like it. However, on my first read-through, there is a good chance I'll shrug it off with a "meh." 

In my defense, there are a lot of classics that I do adore and loved upon first read (A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind) but there is also an alarming number (in my mind, at least) that did not pass muster. This short story, as I don't think it's long enough to be even a novella, belongs to the second group.

Venice tells the tale of an old author who goes to Venice on a spur of the moment vacation. While on this trip, he encounters a young boy in his hotel that he becomes fixated on. Although they only interact fleetingly, his entire viewpoint becomes centered on this boy and while Venice slowly comes to pieces around him, he contemplates his life in relation to what he idealizes this boy to be. 

Regardless of whether you consider it a good or bad story, it is most definitely interesting, in plot at least. The idea of this old man forming a connection, if one-sided, to a young boy which throws his life into disarray, is a stunning image. When I think about it, I picture an old man in the foreground, perhaps sitting on a chair, watching an young boy in one of those 1900s bathing suits prancing on the beach. It is a fantastic visual.

The only problem, for me at least, is that there doesn't seem to be much story connected to the idea. I couldn't really tell you much of the actual plot because I seem to have forgotten it. I remember the writer and the boy, I remember the slow descent of death upon Venice but I don't remember anything anyone actually did. This is a bad sign. 

There is an amazing amount of symbolism in this story. So much so, in fact, that sometimes I felt more like I was reading a parable than a story, something I didn't want. Now, I take my symbolism with a grain of salt, normally. It's in every book and sometimes it's interesting and sometimes it's over the top but for the most part, it's easy to get past or focus on, depending on which you feel like. There was too much to wade past in this story which was annoying enough. It became even more annoying once I looked up some essays and notes on the story after finishing.

This story is sort of autobiographical. The author actually went on vacation to Venice around the same time as the fictional author and did, indeed, stay at a hotel (with his wife!) that was also attended by a family with a young boy with a strikingly similar name to the main boy in Venice. In fact, researchers managed to track down who the boy was and shared with him the story, based vaguely on him, when he was older. He was only eleven at the time of the Venetian vacation.

Finding out that the story was semi-autobiographical makes the symbolism even more aggravating to me. I don't mind symbolism when everything is fictional but I hate when people try to make facts into symbols. I appreciate what the author was trying to do but it always turns me off when I can go "or the man just happened to have red hair and you remembered it like that." Not very English major-y of me, I admit but I am a human with limits.

I think I will end this review with one of the bullet points I have in my notes. I take notes after I finish books in case I can't write the review right away (I'm writing this one about three months after finishing the book) and sometimes I think my bullet points are wittier than these blog entries are. In any case, I think this quote sums all my feelings up perfectly:

"No sympathy for any characters, if you can call them that. Reading it is like knowing something big and dramatic is going on but not really knowing what or caring."

Agreed, Past!Molly. Agreed.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

[012] The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

"Imagine a medieval castle run by the Benedictines, with cellarists, herbalists, gardeners, young novices. One after the other half a dozen monks are found murdered in the most bizarre of ways. A learned Franciscan who is sent to solve the mystery finds himself involved in the frightening events ... a sleuth's pursuit of the truth behind the mystery also involes the pursuit of meaning - in words, symbols, ideas, every conceivable sign the visible universe contains ... Umberto Eco has written a novel - his first - and it has become a literary event." 

-New York Times Book Review

Why I Picked It Up:

I had read some of Eco's theory papers last year and had grown to like him. Surely his fiction would be easier to read, though?

What I Think:

The reason I picked up this book has become some sort of strange paradox in my mind. My senior year of college I took English 170 (Problems in Literary Theory), perhaps the hardest class I have ever taken in my life, and my professor had centered the class on Medieval literature. That is how I met dear Mr. Eco. The very first theory paper we read was one of his and although my classmates got rather annoyed with it very quickly, I actually really enjoyed it and proceeded to write my first paper for that class based on his theory's differences to another theorist's ("Thinking Outside the Box: The Rift between Eco and Dinshaw"). I did rather well on that paper and thus, a love for Umberto was born. True story: I even dressed as him for our Halloween class for extra credit. Because that is how cool English majors at my college were. And that's not sarcasm; we actually really enjoyed ourselves.

So, when I was perusing the shelves one day, my eyes alighted on the bright gold name of Umberto Eco. After reading the back, I could only think "Eco? Monk murder mystery? Sounds amazing!" and happily checked it out. 

At this point, I think I should mention what it was that annoyed all of my classmates so much in Eco's theory paper. One flaw that Eco indeed has is that he thinks (and rightly so) that he's smarter than everyone. He knows everything about everything, whether it be religious, theoretical, philosophic. Seriously, just look at his Wikipedia and see how many different types of things he's done in his life. This man is a genius and he knows it. As such, he enjoys throwing in references and information without explaining anything. Because, if you don't understand the reference, than you really shouldn't be reading his work in the first place. 

That was really rather apparent in Rose. There were so many things going on at any given time but, at the same, really nothing much happened. The basic plot is of a young novice monk, Adso, travelling with his mentor, William of Baskerville. They are sent to a monastery that is very soon to be host to an important religious debate in order to investigate a series of murders, as William is kind of the church's top detective, so to speak. They meet all different personalities of monks and others around monastery as the murders continue, taking one man of faith after the other without so much as a clue as to what is going on. 

Now, that all sounds very interesting, in my opinion. The problem is that Eco knows so much about all of the medieval history that this story is so grounded in that he goes off on tangents about major historical events and issues of the time, the kind of throwaway facts that are not typical stored information in a normal reader's head. Whole paragraphs might be written in Greek or Latin. There are lots of references to the Great Schism and other various fourteenth century Catholic historical events. If you don't know the littlest about these, then you're kind of screwed.

The plot itself is rather interesting. I'm a big fan of mysteries and the way he weaves the tale of murder, revenge and scholarship is very fascinating. There are even some good action sequences, something I'm not usually a huge fan of. Adso, the novice who is our narrator for this story, is a bit of a wet blanket (even if he does have a crisis of sexuality at one point) but William is a great, dynamic character who really pulls the story forward. 

And thus, we return to why I feel reading this story was a paradox. I wouldn't have understood probably 80% of this novel had I not taken English 170. However, I probably wouldn't have picked it up in the first place if I hadn't met Eco originally in that class. It's a strange, self-sustaining paradox. All in all, I'm happy I read it and enjoyed the plot itself. It just tends to get bogged down in pages and pages of philosophy and extraneous details that can be hard to muddle through. 

On a side note, apparently it was made into a movie staring Sean Connery at some point. I have not seen the movie, but if they took out a lot of the deep philosophy and historical details, it could be pretty exciting. Plus, you know, it's Sean Connery...

Sunday, 23 January 2011

[011] Lord of the Flies - William Golding

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

At the dawn of the next world war, a plane crashes on an uncharted island, stranding a group of schoolboys. At first, with no adult supervision, their freedom is something to celebrate. This far from civilization they can do anything they want. Anything.

But as order collapses, as strange howls echo in the night, as terror begins its reign, the hope of adventure seems as far removed from reality as the hope of being rescued.

Why I Picked It Up:

This is the first in what will become a recurring series: classic books that I never actually read in school

What I Think: 

Lord of the Flies is one of those books that everyone has read. Even if you haven't actually sat down to read it, you've probably seen the movie or, at the very least, you know the basic plot: boys crash on a desert island, slowly go crazy, become savages. It's Hobbes's theory of the nature of mankind played out in a fictional parable. It's also, I've discovered, widely exaggerated.

Now, I'm beginning to wonder how many people in the world have actually read this novel. I went into it thinking that I knew exactly what was going to happen but, upon reading the last few pages, I discovered that my idea of the plot was more savage than what had actually happened in the book. In my mind, the boys became savages and cannibals. I very surely had it fixed in my mind that they ate Piggy. I don't know where that idea came from originally, but upon talking to A over Skype after finishing the book and relaying the story, she said "But they do." And she had read the book before. No cannibalism appears in the story but it seems that most of the world somehow got it in their minds that it happened. 

Maybe that's just more proof that this story is a classic: everyone thinks they know it and somehow embellishments have become some kind of warped canon that doesn't actually exist. Or maybe it's just a view into the minds of man and how they view this fable about boys returning to their most natural forms--it becomes something much more terrifying than it truly is. This isn't to say that terrible things don't occur in Lord of the Flies because they do, but it says something about society that we all seem to think they cross that last taboo.

The book itself is marvelous. It took me about ninety or so pages to really get into the plot but it quickly became a page turner. I don't think I could really summarize it any better than the back of the book did itself so I won't even try. All of the characters are fairly obvious tropes and personifications but they have enough individual personality that, despite knowing that Ralph stands for civilization, you still like Ralph as a person and that's a hard barrier to overcome in other works (I'm looking at you, Pilgrim's Progress). 

Of course, the symbolism is rather heavy handed but considering how often this book is taught in high school, it was honestly expected. However, despite the sometimes "hit you over the head with it" imagery, it was bearable to wade through. The story was interesting and exciting enough to stand on its own and pull you through.

I read the last four or so pages of the novel standing on the platform waiting for my train home after work one day and I admit that I was a little misty-eyed when I closed the book. I had never heard how the story ended, despite all I thought I knew about the plot, and the last few images the novel wove on that forlorn beach must have touched something I hadn't even realized. Despite being well known and almost cliche in modern society, there is something deeper in this book that hits on aspects of the human spirit and I don't think it would hurt, if you have some extra time on your hands, to sit down and give it a read-through. Just to see what you think.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

[010] Ever After - Wendy Loggia

Ever After by Wendy Loggia

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

By the time Danielle is eight years old, her mother and father have died and she has been left in the care of her new stepmother, the Baroness Rodmilla of Ghent. Twelve years later, the baroness and her two daughters have made Danielle their servant, giving her the nickname Cindersoot and order her everyday to chop firewood, tend the grounds and clean the manor house.

When Prince Henry of France begins a search for a wife, the baroness intends to make sure her beautiful daughter Marguerite becomes his bride. But when Danielle and the prince meet by chance one day, sparks fly. The baroness will do everything within her power to keep her servant from becoming the Queen of France.

Based on the classic story of Cinderella by Charles Penault, Ever After is a historical romance that is certain to charm and delight modern readers.

Why I Picked It Up:

I honestly don't know.

What I Think:

Now, I can't say that I normally read novelizations of movies. It's a very strange genre of book. It's not quite a book because it is very obviously drawing upon another source and usually, if you're reading it in the first place, it's because you saw the movie. While some might see this as a drawback, I do have to say that there is one nice thing about them, one advantage that they have by simply being what they are. 

The novelization can draw upon a reader's prior knowledge of the plot and leave a lot of obvious information by the wayside to dig deeper. The reader knows who the characters are and why they're doing what they're doing; what they maybe don't know is what's driving a character, what their inner dialogue is during key points of the plot. This is a chance to make the movie more into a fleshed out story instead of a screenplay. 

Ever After did not do any of this.

The movie Ever After, if you aren't aware, is a historical romance retelling of the Cinderella story. The heroine is a plucky girl named Danielle (played by Drew Barrymore) who is an orphan living with her stepmother and two stepsisters who treat her like a servant. Despite all this, however, she tries to live happily, making friends with the servants, going into town, and eventually accidently meeting the prince and pretending to be a gentlewoman so she can continue hanging out with him. Leonardo Da Vinci is even a side character in all this tomfoolery and I could honestly not tell you why. 

The novel was a basic retelling of the story with lines lifted directly from the movie. After checking the Amazon reviews (always a hilarious thing to do with bad books), I found that, apparently, a lot of lines had been changed but to some sort of oddly worse interpretation. I didn't think that was possible. 

The author is a romance novelist for teens and it shows. Now, to be fair, I know I'm not really the target audience of this book but give a girl a break: even at thirteen, I think I would know drivel when I read it. The whole point of the movie is that it's a more modernist perspective on Cinderella, where Danielle is a stronger character and a personality to play off of the prince, rather than just wait for him to show up with a shoe. This is all thrown by the wayside in the novel, where Danielle is entranced by his dreamy looks, even if she does discuss a little bit of politics and Thomas More with him. 

The story is virtually identical in the movie (as, I suppose, it should be) so if you liked the movie, then you will probably not mind this book. It's a quick read; I think I read it in a day, on the train to work and then home again. If you're looking for something to take up an afternoon, then this could easily be it.

To be honest, I'm a little disappointed in myself. I loved this movie the first time I saw it when I was eleven. I watched it again at nineteen and realized that it was kind of crap. For some reason, however, I saw it at the library and thought "Oh, this could be good." I don't like the movie. Why did I pick it up?