The Accursed King

The Accursed King

Okay, The Accursed King is not the name of a book. If it is, it’s not the one I’m reviewing. I have another duel post today, and first I’d like to talk about The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates.

The Accursed cover
The Accursed cover

“A major historical novel from ‘one of the great artistic forces of our time’: an eerie, unforgettable story of possession, power, and loss in early 20th-century Princeton, a cultural crossroads of the powerful and the damned.”

This novel was very interesting. I did not understand its format, at first, and an apparent “historical” quote about a Curse in Princeton, NJ near the turn of the 20th Century confused me. This quote is, of course, part of the novel and made by a fictitious character. But it was intriguing for the author to introduce a fictional character in a place where most novelists put relevant, real quotes by real authors.

This blending of history and fiction sets the trend for the entire novel. Many of the chapters are actually diary entries or memories of characters. Interspersed with fictional names are some very recognizable real ones: Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, and more. It made the story interesting, to read about these historical figures and the supernatural events that only happened to them in this novel.

This is the first novel by JCO that I had ever read. I really enjoyed her style. It’s eloquent, detailed, and, at least in this novel, satirical of the upper class (always a favorite of mine). This novel was also just creepy enough to keep me guessing and just a little afraid, but not so creepy as to keep me up at night. I believe I read this one around Halloween, and it was the perfect read for that time of year! I’d really recommend this novel.

The Once and Future King
The Once and Future King

“T.H. White’s masterful retelling of the saga of King Arthur is a fantasy classic as legendary as Excalibur and Camelot, and a poignant story of adventure, romance, and magic that has enchanted readers for generations.”

The above blurb is not really sufficient to describe what this novel encompasses. This is one of my favorite books of all time. It is a masterful work that imagines the life of King Arthur from beginning to end. If you’ve ever seen the movie “The Sword In the Stone” you will recognize the first book of this novel (it’s divided into four books; you can also buy the first book as a separate volume).

I wrote a paper on this novel in college and actually had it published in our literary journal. I am a big fan of Arthurian literature and legend, and what really speaks to me about this novel every time I read it is the way it links identities formed by events in childhood to their contributions to the story in adulthood. It very clearly connects issues with self-confidence or emotional control in Lancelot, Gawaine, or other popular characters directly to their actions as adults and the ways in which they contribute to the downfall of Arthur’s kingdom.

But this is English-major-nerd speak. Why should someone who isn’t examining every word of this book for connections read it? First, it’s funny. White wrote it decades ago, but the quirky, whip-smart humor holds up. I often find myself laughing out loud and trying to explain to the people around me what’s so funny, but no one understands. What I really need is for someone to also read this novel, love it as much as me, and then talk about it with me all the time.

It’s also an emotionally manipulative masterpiece. I’m not sure how White manages to make me laugh while I’m also crying, but he does it more than once. He makes me grit my teeth and wring my hands and completely stress about what is going to happen. He makes you love even the worst of the characters (with one notable exception) and wish more than anything that they would stop digging their own graves.

I daresay Arthur’s story is one of the greatest legends of all time. It has endured more lastingly than any other, I think, and this novel is a beautiful tribute and contribution to the canon. T. H. White’s interpretation of the legend is my favorite out of all the texts I’ve read (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon comes pretty close, too). Even if it doesn’t become your favorite interpretation, I highly recommend you read this novel.

Thanksgiving in Peru/My Thoughts About The Outsiders

Thanksgiving in Peru/My Thoughts About The Outsiders

As usual, I have been remiss in writing, especially about books. I am so caught up in the passive role of reader that I struggle to take an active role as writer. There is so much going on here in Peru that I often don’t have time or energy for either reading or writing. I live in an apartment full of people who know each other and who are all friends. There is always someone coming or going from the apartment, so solitary activities are often interrupted. Plus I don’t want to miss anything though I do often make the choice to stay home due to my introverted and quiet nature. Sometimes people are just too much.

Last night was Thanksgiving, and despite it being a lot of work and a lot of stress, it was such a delightful evening that I wish I could repeat it. Having taken on most of the work of planning and set-up along with one of my roommates, organizing a dinner for what ended up being about 23 people was a challenge, but one that I enjoyed very much. Everyone brought something to contribute, so we had plenty of food and drink. I managed to find some (rather unattractive) tablecloths, made a candle holder out of a large water bottle, and had candles and fresh-cut flowering vines on each table. The result was actually rather charming, and everyone seemed very happy with the atmosphere.

So much food on our buffet line!
So much food on our buffet line!
Drink cart
Drink cart
The main table with cloth, vines, and candles
The main table with cloth, vines, and candles
My fellow hostess and I with Ferdinand the turkey
My fellow hostess and I with Ferdinand the turkey
My friend Stacey and I
My friend Stacey and I
My table!
My table!
Guests enjoying the party
Guests enjoying the party
More
More
Candid of people having fun
Candid of people having fun

I remember looking around me once we cut the turkey and the party got truly started and feeling my heart fill with love and gratitude. There’s something immensely satisfying about watching people enjoy themselves when you’ve worked so hard to create something nice for them. We even invited several of our Peruvian friends to share our feast with us, and it was nice to share a piece of our culture with them, as they have been so accommodating in sharing theirs with us. The party lasted long into the night, I ate and drank entirely too much, but I couldn’t have asked for a nicer evening. Though I was sad being away from family and friends and most things “traditional” at Thanksgiving, I think the novelty of spending the holiday in a new place, as well as the sweat of my labor that helped make it a success, made this my favorite Thanksgiving yet. I hope my family won’t take offense to that! I do hope to spend the holiday with you guys again next year, and I can’t wait for Christmas!

The Outsiders
The Outsiders

Now, as for my reading list, I’ve racked up quite a few titles in between this post and my last. I read The Outsiders almost entirely on my train ride back to Cusco from Machu Picchu, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I couldn’t put it down. Despite its reputation as an excellent novel, I’d never been tremendously interested in it. I found it in a tiny used bookstore in Cusco and I wanted to give them some business so I bought it (and actually gave it back to them without asking for a refund so they could sell it again–gotta support local bookstores, no matter where you find them!).

The story, for those living under a rock or in stubbornness, like me, is a coming-of-age tale about a young greaser who gets in just a little over his head. There’s a surprising amount of tragedy for such a small volume, and for all its simple and dated language, it packs a powerful punch. I believe my favorite part is the relationship Ponyboy has with his brothers. While I have an amicable and loving relationship with my siblings, the brothers in this book are all alone in the world and rely on each other for everything. They have their moments of disliking each other, but the love between them runs swift and deep. Perhaps my least favorite part was that I was never able to suspend my disbelief. It had an almost fable-like quality to it with its narrow misses, its loose ends neatly tied up at the end, and the “aw shucks” moments in which all the boys learn a valuable life lesson. Still, it’s a good little book and I definitely recommend it for those who have not read it yet. It’s only the reading of an afternoon–it takes very little time at all, so read it between two greater works of writing.

Thanks for reading! I’ll be flying to Texas on Tuesday and I am not working while I’m there, so I will hopefully get more writing done and have more updates and book reviews for you guys!

 

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

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I expected to hate this book. Of Mice and Men was really overwhelmingly “meh,” and I’ve never had a particular fondness for American literature. So when I cracked the spine on this one and found that I was actually really drawn in by Steinbeck’s prose and the story of the Joads, I was sort of blown away with delight.

First, let me preface this by saying that, as a former literature major, I am the type of person who simply must read the introduction. I can’t skip it. It’s just not possible for me. The fact that this introduction was 46 pages long was really irritating to me, because I was ready to jump straight into the story.  However, if you read this book, I recommend reading whatever introduction might be included, no matter how long. It really helped with the reading of the book to learn so much about how he wrote it. For instance: I learned that Steinbeck spent years researching the book, spending time among migrant workers in run-down camps, learning what it was like to live their lives. He began several projects about the plight of the migrant worker before he finally sat down and wrote The Grapes of Wrath start to finish in a matter of a few short months. The introduction also prepared me for the structure and style that he wrote the novel in, and knowing that gave me a better appreciation for the novel.

Because there are so many things in this novel to potentially talk about, and because this is not a college essay, I will briefly mention some things I loved, and allow you to decide if you feel it is worth reading.

  1. The prose is a work of art. Even the dialogue,written in a very thick country dialect, has, at times, a surprisingly lyrical quality to it:
    1. “She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials….She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall.” 
    2. “Funny thing how it is. If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it’s part of him, and it’s like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn’t doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is him, and some way he’s bigger because he owns it. Even if he isn’t successful he’s big with his property. That is so.’
      ‘But let a man get property he doesn’t see, or can’t take time to get his fingers in, or can’t be there to walk on it – why, then the property is the man. He can’t do what he wants, he can’t think what he wants. The property is the man, stronger than he is. And he is small, not big. Only his possessions are big – and he’s the servant of his property. That is so, too.”
    3. “But you can’t start. Only a baby can start. You and me – why, we’re all that’s been. The anger of a moment, the thousand pictures, that’s us. This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us. We can’t start again. The bitterness we sold to the junk man – he got it all right, but we have it still. And when the owner men told us to go, that’s us; and when the tractor hit the house, that’s us until we’re dead. To California or any place – every one a drum major leading a parade of hurts, marching with our bitterness. And some day – the armies of bitterness will all be going the same way. And they’ll all walk together, and there’ll be a dead terror from it.”
  2. The story is important. More important today than it was back then, I would argue. I saw in this novel a primary document that describes the beginning of the decline in quality of our food in this country. When Big Ag began to take over, and the little guy got bulldozed or run off his land. By reading this novel, you are witnessing the course of history changing, ad you can still see its effects today.
  3. The structure of this novel is unique and keeps the story rolling. Each long chapter detailing the story of the Joads is separated by one or two chapters that described the larger situation in some way. These short, descriptive chapters set the scene for the migration from the Dust Bowl to California, or provided details of the squalor of Hoovervilles. They show the similar circumstances which forced families from their homes, or the underhanded dealings of the car salesmen who provided the broken-down trucks which they used to travel west. Steinbeck wrote these chapters in a very fable-like way, often using grand and mythic language to describe something truly awful.

This novel is beautiful. It’s full of sorrow, sacrifice, determination, love, and pride. It is the story of an American family who refuses to break. In some ways, it almost seems a precursor to the dystopian, post-apocalyptic novels that are so popular now. The Joads must face every obstacle with ever-decreasing resources, and dwindling hope. But their story is an inspiring one, sad as it is, and I highly recommend this novel to readers young and old.  

13.15–Anna Karenina

13.15–Anna Karenina

Sadly, I read the movie edition. It’s what the library had.

I did it!! I made it through a Russian novel! And believe me, I am definitely patting myself on the back.  I’ve never been able to make it through a Russian novel before (much too long and rambling, and too many names!), but while Anna Karenina had the same elements that make me dislike every other Russian novel, the story was enough to redeem it.

There is so much to this nearly-thousand-page novel that it is difficult to cram it all into one blog.  There are two main stories (and countless little side-shows) that occur over the course of the novel–the messy drama between Anna, her husband Karenin, and Count Vronky; and the story of Kitty and Levin.  It is interesting that the novel is named after Anna because there are a great many characters that feature prominently, and perhaps even make more appearances than Anna does.  In fact, Anna’s story is the most interesting, and I wish that Tolstoy had spent more time on her and paid less attention to Russian politics, agriculture, and peasantry.  It’s an interesting glimpse into the time period, but seems completely unnecessary (and totally boring).

The novel tells the story of Anna’s doomed love affair with Count Vronsky.  She is married to Karenin, but falls in love with Vronsky almost the moment they meet.  I was surprised at how quickly the events moved in their story line.  I expected the subterfuge to last longer, I suppose because it was such a long novel, and I did not know that there was an entirely different story happening simultaneously.

Where one story is tragic–that of Anna and Vronsky, a family torn asunder, a woman driven to madness by jealousy and insecurity–the story of Kitty and Levin is almost fairy-tale-esque in nature and seems to suggest that by “following the rules,” so to speak, of society and religion, one may find happiness, contentment, and security.  I will say that Kitty was perhaps the most enjoyable character of the novel for me.  She is kind and sweet, though she’s often given to fits of womanly airs.  Anna, however, becomes more and more disagreeable as the novel progresses.  I’d say that the reader feels pity for her, but it is difficult to like her. And even by the end, my pity had evaporated as I became increasingly more irritated with her digging herself into a deeper and deeper hole.  And yet…

Tolstoy has a way of capturing the nuances of life that other authors seem to gloss over.  He has an eye and attention to detail that at times can be tedious but, more often than not, is quite interesting.  More than once I found myself thinking about a characters actions, I do that too!  It is fascinating to read about the subtleties of your own character in a book over a hundred years old.  In Anna, I saw a little of myself.  She often reminded me of myself in high school, when I too felt that panicky feeling in my gut at the idea of losing the person I (thought I) loved.  She seems to live in constant fear that Vronsky is falling out of love with her; is seeing other women; is mocking her in his face and tone of voice.  I recognize that fear and madness in myself, and it was quite a disturbing mirror.  I can’t say I enjoyed the feeling, but it was impressive the way that Tolstoy is able to capture the emotions of a woman so well.  And somehow, it is comforting to know that I’m not the only woman who felt this way.

I confess, only parts of the novel held my attention.  Especially in Levin’s parts, I found my eyes glazing over, and I realized I had gone through a page or two without registering anything that had been said.  And I was strangely okay with this, because it didn’t detract from the story at all.  I say, don’t feel guilty for skimming.

The story is worth reading, for sure.  It is a classic, and with Tolstoy’s eye for detail when it comes to minute human traits, it is easy to understand why.  Though the politics and technologies of the book are now long out-dated, the themes, events, and feelings are things that could very well happen today, tomorrow, or a hundred years in the future.  It’s a novel that takes several different views at what it is like the be a human in any stage of love, and it’s quite beautiful.  I definitely recommend reading this book to the very end.

I’ve heard from numerous sources that this is the translation closest to the original Russian. READ THIS TRANSLATION.