Tag: jerks


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

October 24th, 2013 — 10:05am

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley was published in 1818, when Shelley was 21 years old (if you want to feel awful about your life accomplishments). Shelley began writing the book, about scientist Victor Frankenstein and his horrific science experiment, after a dream she had and as the result of a competition between her, her husband Percy Shelley, John Polidori, and Lord Byron to determine who could write the best horror story. Best. Contest. Ever.

Frankenstein_1818_edition_title_page

Frankenstein is written in the epistolary form through letters from Captain Walton to his sister. Captain Walton is sailing around the North Pole in hopes of acheiving fame. One day, he and his crew see a giant figure commanding a dog sled, and a few hours later, discover a frozen and malnourished man named Victor Frankenstein. The crew bring him onboard the ship and he stays with Captain Walton as he recovers. Victor tells Walton the story of his life as a warning against being overly ambitious and doing dangerous things in pursuit of academic fame.

As a child growing up in Geneva, young Victor is fascinated by science — at a young age, he witnesses lightning split a massive oak tree in half and becomes fixated on the power of electricity. He has two younger brothers, Ernest and William, and his parents take in an orphan, Elizabeth Lavenza, with whom Victor falls in love. Victor begins to study the science of natural wonders, and as he prepares to go to Germany to attend the University of Ingolstadt, Victor’s mother dies of scarlet fever.

When he gets to the university, Victor begins his studies and embarks on the experiment to create life. He visits graveyards to collect body parts and creates a human body; though it is an oversized body, as he decides to make the body eight feet tall in order to compensate for the minute body parts that are difficult to work with. He is disappointed that his creature, which he envisioned to be beautiful, is actually hideous — after bringing the body to life, Victor is repulsed and horrified by it and runs from the room. When he returns to the room later, the monster has disappeared.

His fear of the monster and the realization of what he has done overwhelms him and Victor falls ill. His childhood friend, Henry Clerval, nurses him back to health. After a four month recovery period, Victor is summoned home when his younger brother, William, is found murdered. William’s nanny, Justine, is found with William’s locket and is found guilty of his murder, though she and Victor maintain her innocence — Victor is convinced that his creature killed William. Justine is hanged for William’s murder.

Victor blames himself for both William and Justine’s deaths, and he goes camping in the mountains to reflect and keep harm from others. The creature finds him in the mountains and tells him what has happened to him since Victor left him abandoned in the science room. Victor is surprised to find that the creature is articulate and well-spoken, which is from his observations of humans.

When he left the laboratory, the creature was afraid of humans and found an abandoned cottage secluded from the surrounding village. A family, the DeLaceys, lived in a neighboring cottage, and the creature was drawn to them and became obsessed with watching them. He listened to them speak and found books and taught himself to read and speak. He eventually works up the courage to speak to the DeLaceys and begins with the old man who is blind. He speaks with him and gains his trust, but when the younger DeLaceys see him, they are repulsed and chase him away. The creature sees a reflection of himself and realizes that he doesn’t look like other humans that he has seen and is, in fact, monstrous in appearance. So he burns down the DeLaceys’ house. As you do.

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The creature tells Victor that, as he is responsible for the existence of the creature, he is responsible for his happiness. He demands that Victor make a companion for him, so that they may live together away from other people and be happy. He tells Victor that if he makes a female companion for him, that they will go to South America and never bother him again.

Victor agrees out of fear for himself and his family. One night, Victor has a dream that when he creates the female creature, they breed creatures that take over mankind. He creates the female creature, but destroys her after he catches a glimpse of the creature watching him through a window.

BIG MISTAKE.

The creature channels his inner mob boss and tells Victor that he had better spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder and vowing that he will be there on his wedding night, and not to enjoy a piece of wedding cake. The creature leaves and Victor, understandably shaken, goes to visit Henry Clerval; when Victor arrives on the Irish beach, he discovers Henry’s corpse and is accused of Henry’s murder. Victor is imprisoned for the murder and when he is acquitted, his father takes him back to Geneva to recover from his mental breakdown.

Elizabeth, the Frankensteins’ ward, marries Victor when he returns home. That night, Victor tells Elizabeth to stay in their room while he goes out to confront the creature, but he can’t find it. He returns to the house when he hears Elizabeth scream and he realizes that the creature did not intend to murder Victor at all. He sees the creature through the window and, as he approaches the window, the creature points at Elizabeth’s lifeless body.

At the shock of Elizabeth’s death, as well as the deaths of William, Justine, and Henry, Victor’s father dies. Victor has now lost everyone close to him and vows to devote the rest of his life to finding and destroying the monster. He follows him to the North Pole, which is where he was rescued by Captain Walton.

Walton next writes that he believes Victor’s tale and wishes that he had known him in his better days, as he is now a wreck of a man. A few days later, the ship is trapped in ice. Victor dies right before the ship is to head back to England and Walton hears a strange noise coming from Victor’s room. Investigating the noise, Walton is startled to find the monster, as hideous as Victor had described, weeping over his dead creator’s body. The monster begins to tell him of all his sufferings. He says that he deeply regrets having become an instrument of evil and that, with his creator dead, he is ready to die. He leaves the ship and departs into the darkness.

There have been many interpretations as to the meaning of Shelley’s work — is Frankenstein a commentary on the dangers of science or the importance of parenting? Mary Shelley had experienced a difficult miscarriage before writing this book, and would experience life-threatening marriages after its publication. Her husband/baby daddy, Percy Shelley, was not very sympathetic to her maternal woes, especially as he had several affairs (including an affair on his first wife with Mary, oops), leading scholars to believe that the purpose of Frankenstein was to highlight the importance of raising the children/monsters that you sire. There is a responsibility of parents to make sure that their children and fed, clothed, and not terrorizing villagers and setting their houses on fire.

Something_other_than_Frankenstein

The most famous of the movie adaptations is arguably the 1931 Boris Karloff movie, as well as it’s subsequent sequels, spin-offs, and parodies. While it is loosely adapted (Victor’s name is changed to Henry, the monster is given a criminal brain due to the incompetence of his assistant, the monster goes on a killing spree, including killing a little girl who’s throwing flowers into a lake or something, I don’t know, just a lot of killing and villagers storming the laboratory with pitchforks), it is what the general public thinks of when they think of Frankenstein — greenish skin, bolts on the neck, flattop haircut, lots of grunting. Also part of the pop culture — referring to the monster as Frankenstein. It’s wrong and you shouldn’t do it. I mean, you can do it, but you might be mocked and/or thrown into a lake.

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Module 10: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

November 14th, 2012 — 8:15am

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is historical fiction about Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of the Baltic region during World War II. It is narrated by Lina, a 15 year old Lithuanian girl, as she and her family are deported to Siberia.

SUMMARY

The novel opens with men from the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, taking Lina, her mother, and her brother, Jonas, from their homes on June 14, 1941. Her father, provost at the university, has already been taken. They’re loaded on a truck with some of their neighbors and a few people they don’t recognize. They’re horrified that the next stop is at the hospital, as one of the people they are scheduled to take is a woman who is at that moment giving birth; they load her and her newborn baby into the truck as she’s bleeding onto her hospital gown.

Lina’s father, Kostas Vilkas, helped his brother and his family escape Lithuania to Germany, which put him on the black list as an accessory. Lina’s mother, Elena, speaks fluent Russian, which allows her to communicate with the NKVD. He is taken to a different camp from the rest of the family. They are stuffed into a train with even more prisoners, including the Andrius Arvydas and his mother, the son and wife of an officer in the Lithuanian army. The conditions in the train are horrible and they’re travelling through Europe for three weeks without stopping. On the train, the young woman’s baby dies and she is shot by an officer when she’s overcome by grief.

The train finally stops in Siberia, at a camp where they are assigned to live in shacks and work as beet and potato farmers. They stay there for a while, and Lina finds solace in her art. She has always been an artist and she’s particularly drawn to the work of Edward Munch. She decides to draw pictures of people and events so that she can send them to her father in hopes that he will find them.

While they’re at the camp, Andrius and his mother live in the officers house, where they are fed and treated better than the others. Lina is upset with this special treatment, but when she confronts Andrius about it, he reveals that his mother is prostituting herself to the officers to keep the officers from killing him. She’s horrified by this and distraught with his anger, which makes her realize that she’s falling in love with Andrius; when they reconcile, it’s shown that Andrius has similar feelings. He gives her a special stone to bring her luck and to remind her of him.

The NKVD tries to force the prisoners to sign papers saying that they are criminals and acknowledging that they’re being sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor and that they will pay a war tax of two hundred rubles per person, which most of them refuse to sign. Jonas becomes sick with scurvy from the lack of vegetables in his diet and almost dies until Andrius steals a can of tomatoes from the officers house. Soon after he heals, the prisoners hear that some of them will be transported to a different location. Some people are fools enough to think they’re being transported to America, but Lina knows better.

The prisoners, which now include prisoners from other camps, are taken farther north in Siberia. The NKVD take them to an empty field and tell them that they will have to build their own shelter, and quickly, as the arctic chill begins in September. They suffer through the cold temperatures and hypothermia. It is here that Lina discovers why they’ve been deported and that she is being punished because her beloved cousin and best friend, Joana, was able to escape — she is dying to allow Joana to live. It also here that a guard reveals to them that Lina’s father has been killed in prison. Lina’s mother takes sick and she dies in the shack.

Lina and Jonas are able to hide her body from the officers so they can bury her properly. The other prisoners help them, as a testament to how much they have become a family within themselves — they need each other to survive and Lina’s mother in particular was a unifying force due to her calm demeanor and peaceful spirit. Lina paints a map to her mother’s grave so that she will never forget where it is. Lina is determined to survive the camp and now cares for Jonas.

The other prisoners all take their turns with illness — scurvy, dysentery, typhus, hypothermia. They’re dying more and more every day. Jonas becomes very ill and just when Lina is afraid that he won’t be able to survive the night, an inspection officer, a doctor, appears at the shack. Dr. Samodurov is to inspect all of the prisons to report that everything is fine and the prisoners are being treated fairly, but he tells Lina that is not going to submit false reports. He spends ten days at the prison; he helps the prisoners store fish for the upcoming storms and plot a burial yard for the dead. The doctor tells her that it’s possible that her father hasn’t died; the guards have told prisoners before that people have died, only to be found living somewhere.

Lina is determined to live to reunite with Andrius. When they left each other, they promised that they would meet again, and when Lina closes her eyes, she can imagine that they are together as she holds the stone.

The novel ends with an epilogue from 1995 in Lithuania. A construction crew has discovered a wooden box int he ground that contains a glass jar full of papers. The papers contain drawings and a letter:

Dear Friend,

The writings and drawings you hold in your hands were buried in the year 1954, after returning from Siberia with my brother, where we were imprisoned for twelve years. There are many thousands of us, nearly all dead. Those alive cannot speak. Though we committed no offense, we are viewed as criminals. Even now, speaking of the terrors we have experienced would result in our death. So we put our trust in you, the person who discovers this capsule of memories somewhere in the future. We trust you with truth, for contained herein is exactly that — the truth.

My husband, Andrius, says that evil will rule until good men or women choose to act. I believe him. This testimony was written to create an absolute record, to speak in a world where our voices have been extinguished. These writings may shock or horrify you, but that is not my intention. It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar stir your deepest well of human compassion. I hope they prompt you to do something, to tell someone. Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.

Sincerely,
Mrs. Lina Arvydas
9th day of July, 1954 — Kaunas

IMPRESSIONS

This book was incredibly moving. This was a side of the Holocaust that I wasn’t very familiar with, but it was equally as horrifying — in fact, one of the characters in the book points out the similarities between Stalin and Hitler. The horrors that people can commit to others, blindly, without cause or reason, is stunning. I’ll never fail to be amazed by the deplorable ways that people treat others.

That being said, the story was effective for several reasons. Lina’s story is told through flashbacks to events in her family, adding a dimension to the story of her relationships and her life before they were taken. I enjoyed Andrius’s character because he had his own experience that added to the plot; it didn’t feel like he was added solely for a romantic element. There were so many descriptions of Lina drawing that I began to wish that there had been reproductions of drawings to add just one more realistic element to the story. The epilogue was great, because I was a little disappointed in the ending that left Lina in the camp, so knowing that they survived and she and Andrius married was cathartic.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Sepetys’ first novel offers a harrowing and horrifying account of the forcible relocation of countless Lithuanians in the wake of the Russian invasion of their country in 1939. In the case of 16-year-old Lina, her mother, and her younger brother, this means deportation to a forced-labor camp in Siberia, where conditions are all too painfully similar to those of Nazi concentration camps. Lina’s great hope is that somehow her father, who has already been arrested by the Soviet secret police, might find and rescue them. A gifted artist, she begins secretly creating pictures that can–she hopes–be surreptitiously sent to him in his own prison camp. Whether or not this will be possible, it is her art that will be her salvation, helping her to retain her identity, her dignity, and her increasingly tenuous hold on hope for the future. Many others are not so fortunate. Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, estimates that the Baltic States lost more than one-third of their populations during the Russian genocide. Though many continue to deny this happened, Sepetys’ beautifully written and deeply felt novel proves the reality is otherwise. Hers is an important book that deserves the widest possible readership.
Booklist

This bitterly sad, fluidly written historical novel tackles a topic woefully underdiscussed in English-language children’s fiction: Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror. On June 14th, 1941, Soviet officers arrest 15-year-old Lina, her younger brother and her mother and deport them from Lithuania to Siberia. Their crammed-full boxcar is labeled, ludicrously, “Thieves and Prostitutes.” They work at a frigid gulag for eight months-hungry, filthy and brutalized by Soviet officers–before being taken to the Siberian Arctic and left without shelter. Lina doesn’t know the breadth of Stalin’s mass deportations of Baltic citizens, but she hears scraps of discussion about politics and World War II. Cold, starvation, exhaustion and disease (scurvy, dysentery, typhus) claim countless victims. Lina sketches urgently, passing her drawings along to other deportees, hoping they’ll reach Papa in a Soviet prison. Brief flashbacks, seamlessly interwoven, illuminate Lina’s sweet old life in Kaunas like flashes of light, eventually helping to reveal why the repressive, deadly regime targeted this family. Sepetys’ flowing prose gently carries readers through the crushing tragedy of this tale that needs telling.
Kirkus Reviews

LIBRARY USES

This book would be an excellent vehicle for a book talk. I would also recommend it be used in a display for Holocaust Memorial Day on May 8; it is important that the story of the genocide in the Soviet Union be told as well as the atrocities committed by Hitler.

REFERENCES

Between shades of gray. (2011). Kirkus Reviews, 79(2), 138.

Cart, M. (2011). Between shades of gray. Booklist, 107(11), 68. Retrieved from http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/58626231/between-shades-gray

Sepetys, R. (2011). Between shades of gray. New York, NY: Philomel Books.

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Module 9: Double Helix by Nancy Werlin

November 10th, 2012 — 12:40am

Double Helix by Nancy Werlin is a mystery novel for young adults. It was published in 2004.

SUMMARY

Eli Samuels is a high school senior who is not going to college after graduation — instead, he has applied for a job at Wyatt Transgenics and is planning on working for a year before going to college. He has a girlfriend he adores, Viv, and a strained relationship with his father. His mother, Ava, was an economics professor at Harvard before becoming stricken with Huntington’s disease. Eli had found a letter from Dr. Wyatt, the head of Wyatt Transgenics, which inspired him to apply for the job.

In his job at Wyatt Transgenics, there a few things that strike him as odd — Dr. Wyatt takes a keen interest in him and invites him to his house to meet a young lady, Kayla Matheson. Transgenics is the act of transferring genes from one organism to the other, which this company is doing through proteins in rabbits milk. Or something, that part was confusing, but it’s Eli’s job to take care of the rabbits.

It turns out that Eli’s parents knew Dr. Wyatt because they went to him when they knew that Ava was a carrier for Huntington’s but they still wanted to have children. Dr. Wyatt harvested her eggs and performed gene therapy to be sure that Eli didn’t have Huntington’s. Unbeknownst to the Samuels, however, Dr. Wyatt kept the other eggs he harvested from Ava and had been performing genetic experiments on them; Eli finds out through seeing a picture of her mother as a teenager that one of those eggs grew up to be Kayla Matheson, and while Eli was bred specifically to be clear of Huntington’s, Kayla has not.

Eli and Kayla sneak into a basement office where Dr. Wyatt had been performing tests on the children he’d made from Ava’s eggs (the experiments were nothing of the Dr. Mengele variety, just checking their growth and how they were developing thanks to the genetic enhancements they had as zygotes). They steal all of his files and Dr. Wyatt mysteriously vanishes after Eli and Kayla call the FBI; the epilogue reveals that the company is now called General Transgenics and Eli is enrolling in school to become a bioethicist to insure that no one else can perform genetic experiments on eggs.

IMPRESSIONS

I did not particularly enjoy this book. I found the mystery aspects to be weak. The foreshadowing in the beginning is not a shadow as much as a fore-boulder that rolls through the town, smashing everything in its path. There is nothing subtle in the set-up. Eli was also a particularly unsympathetic character to the point that I wanted to stop reading the book before I was halfway finished. This is not one I’d recommend to my students, unless they were particularly interested in biology and genetics.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

In this mesmerizing novel, Werlin (The Killer’s Cousin) adapts the medical mystery genre to explore the bewildering, complex issues surrounding experimental gene therapy. Narrator Eli Samuels, about to graduate from high school, has fired off an e-mail to Quincy Wyatt, a world-famous scientist and head of a genetics research corporation–stunningly, Wyatt summons Eli and offers him a job. Eli is thrilled, but the news horrifies his father, who, without explanation, asks Eli to turn it down (Eli takes it anyway). Eli’s father’s silence on the subject of Wyatt has many precedents within Eli’s home. Eli’s mother is rapidly deteriorating from Huntington’s disease, a hereditary illness. Eli has not told his girlfriend, Viv, about his mother nor even introduced Viv to his father. Eli has talents he hides, but somehow Wyatt knows of them and even takes pride in them. Meanwhile Eli knows that his father conceals other information–and that Wyatt has somehow been pivotal to his family. The characterizations feel somewhat incomplete, but the plot moves at a tantalizing clip, with secrets revealed in tiny increments, and hints and clues neatly planted. Werlin distills the scientific element to a manageable level, enough for readers to follow Eli as he ponders Wyatt’s work and his mother’s illness. As the author tackles bioethical issues, the story’s climax appeals to reason and love for humanity without resorting to easy answers. Brisk, intelligent and suspenseful all the way.
Publisher’s Weekly

Eighteen-year-old Eli Samuels, whose once-vibrant mother is losing her long battle with the ravages of Huntington’s disease, is hired at the Wyatt Transgenics Lab. Eli’s father is dead set against the job because of a secret he harbors concerning the lab’s owner, Dr. Quincy Wyatt, and Eli’s mother. Shortly after starting work, the teen meets Kayla Matheson, a beautiful girl who eerily reminds him of a photo of his mother when she was young. Slowly, Eli uncovers one layer after another of the shocking truth about Dr. Wyatt’s genetic-engineering experiments and their connection to his parents, Kayla, and himself. With the support of his longtime girlfriend and soul mate, he confronts Dr. Wyatt in a taut climax to the story. Werlin clearly and dramatically raises fundamental bioethical issues for teens to ponder. She also creates a riveting story with sharply etched characters and complex relationships that will stick with readers long after the book is closed. An essential purchase for YA collections.
School Library Journal

LIBRARY USES

This book would be a good book for a book talk, perhaps with other science fiction/medical books (Frankenstein or Unwind come to mind) or cross-curricular to introduce a unit on genes in a biology class. It could lead to great discussion about medical ethics and whether parents should be able to decide what genes their children have.

REFERENCES

DOUBLE HELIX (Book). (2004). Publishers Weekly, 251(7), 173.

Forman, J. (2004). Double Helix: A Novel (Book). School Library Journal, 50(3), 222.

Werlin, N. (2004). Double helix. New York, NY: Dial Books.

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Module 6: Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

October 24th, 2012 — 9:04pm

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale is a children’s book by Mo Willems. It was published in 2004 and won the Caldecott Honor in 2005.

SUMMARY

Trixie is a little girl who lives in Brooklyn with her parents and her stuffed animal, Knuffle Bunny. One day, Trixie’s father takes her and Knuffle Bunny to the laundromat. On their way back a cross Brooklyn, Trixie suddenly loses her mind and goes “boneless” and screams and cries, much to her father’s confusion. When they get back to the apartment, Trixie’s mother immediately identifies the problem — Knuffle Bunny is missing.

The family treks back through Brooklyn to the laundromat where they rescue Knuffle Bunny from the washing machine and Trixie exclaims, “KNUFFLE BUNNY!!!!” as the first words she ever spoke.

IMPRESSIONS

The illustrations for this story are cartoon drawings done on top of photographs of Brooklyn, which was very interesting and fun to look at. The story of a toddler who lose its toy wasn’t particularly compelling to me, but then again, I’m not the target audience. I also found it a little ridiculous that the father is so clueless that he doesn’t realize that Trixie is suddenly without a toy that she’s never far from. Are men truly that clueless when it comes to their kids?

On a more personal note, the idea of having to drag a screaming child across town is more proof that I do not want kids and need to renew my birth control prescription.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Trixie steps lively as she goes on an errand with her daddy, down the block, through the park, past the school, to the Laundromat. For the toddler, loading and putting money into the machine invoke wide-eyed pleasure. But, on the return home, she realizes something. Readers will know immediately that her stuffed bunny has been left behind but try as she might, (in hilarious gibberish), she cannot get her father to understand her problem. Despite his plea of “please don’t get fussy,” she gives it her all, bawling and going “boneless.” They both arrive home unhappy. Mom immediately sees that “Knuffle Bunny” is missing and so it’s back to the Laundromat they go. After several tries, dad finds the toy among the wet laundry and reclaims hero status. Yet, this is not simply a lost-and-found tale. The toddler exuberantly exclaims, “Knuffle Bunny!!!” “And those were the first words Trixie ever said.” The concise, deftly told narrative becomes the perfect springboard for the pictures. They, in turn, augment the story’s emotional acuity. Printed on olive-green backdrops, the illustrations are a combination of muted, sepia-toned photographs upon which bright cartoon drawings of people have been superimposed. Personalities are artfully created so that both parents and children will recognize themselves within these pages. A seamless and supremely satisfying presentation of art and text.
School Library Journal

This comic gem proves that Caldecott Medal-winner Willems, the Dr. Spock and Robin Williams of the lap-sit crowd, has just as clear a bead on pre-verbal children as on silver-tongued preschoolers. On a father-daughter trip to the Laundromat, before toddler Trixie “could even speak words,” Daddy distractedly tosses her favorite stuffed bunny into the wash. Unfortunately, Trixie’s desperate cries (“aggle flaggle klabble”) come across as meaningless baby talk, so she pitches a fit until perceptive Mommy and abashed Daddy sprint back to retrieve the toy. Willems chronicles this domestic drama with pitch-perfect text and illustrations that boldly depart from the spare formula of his previous books. Sepia-tone photographs of a Brooklyn neighborhood provide the backdrops for his hand-drawn artwork, intensifying the humor of the gleefully stylized characters–especially Trixie herself, who effectively registers all the universal signs of toddler distress, from the first quavery grimace to the uncooperative, “boneless” stage to the googly-eyed, gape-mouthed crisis point. Even children who can already talk a blue streak will come away satisfied that their own strong emotions have been mirrored and legitimized, and readers of all ages will recognize the agonizing frustration of a little girl who knows far more than she can articulate.
Booklist

LIBRARY USES

Definitely for a children’s story time. This can be used in a “bring your favorite stuffed animal” day or in a craft to make their own Knuffle Bunnies.

REFERENCES

Mattson, J. (2004). Knuffle bunny. Booklist, 101(2), 241. Retrieved from http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/14623526/knuffle-bunny-book

Topol, M. (2004, October 04). Book of the week: Knuffle bunny. Retrieved from School Library Journal website: http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA457411.html?industryid=47054&q=knuffle+bunny

Willems, M. (2004). Knuffle bunny: A cautionary tale. New York: Hyperion.

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56. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

October 9th, 2011 — 6:22pm

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett was published in 1930. It is a detective story that helped to popularize the “hard-boiled” private detective — the detectives are unsympathetic, detached, and determined to achieve justice by any possible means. The book is commonly associated with the 1941 movie, where Detective Sam Spade is played by Humphrey Bogart.

The novel opens with Sam Spade at his and his partner’s, Miles Archer, private eye office. A woman named Miss Wonderly comes in to hire Spade and Archer to find Floyd Thursby, who has run away with her underage sister. Miss Wonderly is of course, a knock-out beauty, and of course Spade is suspicious of her. They take the job, though, because she has cash.

Within the next few pages, Spade is awoken that night to be told that Archer, who was tailing Thursby, has been found shot at the bottom of a ditch and Spade is not exactly sad about it. You also find out that he has been having an affair with Archer’s wife. Ugh. Thursby is found shot and killed also, and the police suspect that it was Spade who shot him in retaliation for killing Archer.

The Maltese Falcon in question is a figurine of a bird that is covered with jewels. It had been a gift to the King of Spain, but has been covered with black enamel to conceal its value. Several people are looking for it and approach Spade for help finding it, including Miss Wonderly, who’s name is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a man named Joel Cairo, who is a thinly veiled homosexual, and Cairo’s boss, a large man named Casper Gutman. It turns out Gutman was the one who discovered the falcon and had sent O’Shaughnessy, Thursby, and Cairo to get it, but O’Shaughnessy and Thursby decided to keep it for themselves. Gutman is now both trying to find the figurine and kill O’Shaughnessy and Thursby.

Many people die in the events of the story, and Spade finds the figurine. When he goes to give it to Gutman (because he can pay the most), Gutman discovers that it’s a fake. After all that. What. Gutman and Cairo leave town. Spade turns in O’Shaughnessy for Archer’s murder, because, even though he wasn’t particularly fond of Archer, “when a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.” He also mentions that it’s bad for business to let the killer get away with it. What a prince.

This novel, though a good story, is frustrating on several levels. The narration tells what all of the characters are doing but doesn’t have much about what they’re thinking or feeling. In some cases, Spade is almost like a sociopath in his self-absorption. There is very little morality in any of the characters and very little discussion of emotions or feelings. Spade is having an affair with Archer’s wife, but he isn’t particularly fond of her — in fact, when Archer is killed and his wife shows up to the office crying, Spade asks his secretary if she can deal with her.

The Maltese Falcon is one of the books that helped to popularize the hard-boiled detective story, and the movie is a very popular film noir. Perhaps I’m just not the demographic that is meant to read and enjoy this novel, because the whole time I read it, I was disgusted with pretty much every character that was introduced, Spade in particular. Sam Spade is, if I may be so bold, an asshole. In fact, it took me a long time to read this because I got so annoyed with the characters that I kept putting the book down and reading other things that did not make me feel like punching the narrators in the face.

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96. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

May 10th, 2011 — 2:04pm

Spoiler alert: This is quite possibly the most depressing book imaginable. Oedipus Rex has more laughs than this book. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, then you should turn back now.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron was published in 1979. It is narrated by Stingo, a Southerner working in publishing in new York City, who befriends an extremely screwed up couple. It takes place in 1947.

The Sophie in question is Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish-Catholic survivor of Auschwitz. Throughout the book, she tells Stingo about her past — both of her parents were professors, and Sophie was married at a young age to a mathematics scholar. One day, the Germans came and took Sophie’s father and husband away to a concentration camp and shot them on New Year’s Day. Sophie was taken to Auschwitz when she smuggled ham to her dying mother. While at Auschwitz, she worked as the stenographer to Rudolf Höss and tried to convince him that her son, Jan, should be taken from the camp and put into the Lebensborn program and be raised as a German orphan because he has blonde hair and blue eyes and speaks fluent German, but Höss refuses.

Sophie (Meryl Streep) living with her Choice.

The final piece of Sophie’s story from Auschwitz is about when she and her two children first arrived at the camp. She has two children, her son Jan and her daughter Eva. On the night they arrived, a doctor makes her choose which of her children will be sent to the gas chamber that night and which one will live.When she is unable to choose, a Nazi officer said both would be sent to die so Sophie chooses Eva to die that night, because she figures that Jan would have a better chance of surviving the camp. However, after she and Jan are separated between the adult and children camps, Sophie never finds out what happened to her son; she gets a letter saying that he’s been moved from the Children’s Camp and she assumes that he was killed. She has been living with overwhelming guilt and mourning ever since the day she arrived at Auschwitz.

You can start crying now. It’s okay. I’ll wait.

Sophie moved to America immediately after the war and met Nathan, who took care of her when she was sick when she first arrived. Nathan is crazy (he’s an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic) and is abusive to Sophie when he has one of his outbreaks; it doesn’t help that he’s self-medicating with cocaine and prescription drugs that he gets from his job at Pfizer.

Unfortunately, Nathan sets his crazy on Stingo and Sophie, who he accuses of having an affair together and he attacks Sophie and tries to kill her. Stingo takes Sophie away to Virginia, where Sophie tells him the story of her children. Stingo tells her that he’s in love with her and Sophie takes Stingo’s virginity. The next morning, Stingo wakes up to find a note from Sophie; she has gone back to Nathan. Telling the story of her children has overwhelmed her with grief and she has gone back to commit suicide with Nathan, who is on his own suicidal crazy-train. Stingo returns to Brooklyn and discovers that Sophie and Nathan have poisoned themselves with cyanide.

DEPRESSING.

There are a lot of nuances to the book — the way that the narration is told in both third and first person, the jumps in time, the comparisons of the Holocaust to the American South, the focus of a Holocaust survivor who isn’t Jewish — but who cares? Not when you compare it to the heart-wrenching choice of knowing that you are responsible for the death of your child. I don’t have, much less want, children and I felt like my heart was being torn out of my chest. I didn’t think anyone could find a way to make the horrors of the Holocaust even worse, but congratulations, William Styron, you did it.

The apocryphal story of the film version of Sophie’s Choice has Meryl Streep as Sophie only being able to do one take of the “choice” scene, as she found it too emotionally draining and painful. Preach, Queen Meryl.

4 comments » | modern

79. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

April 27th, 2011 — 8:37am

A Room with a View was published in 1908 by E.M. Forster. It tells the story of Lucy Honeychurch, a young English woman who is navigating through the delicate social circles of the early 20th century, both on vacation in Italy and back home in England. It is a critique of the social hierarchy, prejudice between the classes, and the sexual repression and hypocrisy of English society. The novel is split into Part I, which takes place in Italy, and Part II, which takes place in England.

Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin/chaperone Charlotte Bartlett are vacationing in Florence, Italy. They have arrived at their hotel, the Bertolini, and the opening scene has them complaining about the hotel. They were promised a “room with a view” of the river Arno, but instead have been assigned rooms that have a view of the hotel courtyard. This is the first introduction of the repressive Edwardian English society: Lucy has Charlotte, who is older and unmarried, accompanying her on the vacation and chaperoning her propriety. Everything that Charlotte complains about has a thinly veiled contemptuous undertone and implies that as the unmarried woman she doesn’t deserve such grandeur. For example, in complaining about the room without a view: “Any nook does for me,” Miss Bartlett continued, “but it does seem hard that you shouldn’t have a view.” You know, because unmarried women are dead inside and don’t deserve a view. Or something.

The women are talking in the common eating room and one of the other guests at the hotel, a man, interrupts their conversation to tell the ladies that his room has a view and he and his son, George, will gladly exchange their rooms with Lucy and Miss Bartlett. Miss Bartlett is startled and recognizes the man, a Mr. Emerson, as “ill-bred.” She declines the offer and he insists, loudly and attracting the attention of the other well-bred tourists, to Miss Bartlett’s extreme embarrassment. Mr. Emerson refuses to take no for an answer and here is the first class clash of the novel:

“But why?” he persisted. “Women like looking at a view; men don’t.” And he thumped with his fists like a naughty child, and turned to his son, saying, “George, persuade them!”

“It’s so obvious they should have the rooms,” said the son. “There’s nothing else to say.”

He did not look at the ladies as he spoke, but his voice was perplexed and sorrowful. Lucy, too, was perplexed; but she saw that they were in for what is known as “quite a scene,” and she had an odd feeling that whenever these ill-bred tourists spoke the contest widened and deepened till it dealt, not with rooms and views, but with—well, with something quite different, whose existence she had not realized before. Now the old man attacked Miss Bartlett almost violently: Why should she not change? What possible objection had she? They would clear out in half an hour.

Miss Bartlett, though skilled in the delicacies of conversation, was powerless in the presence of brutality. It was impossible to snub any one so gross. Her face reddened with displeasure. She looked around as much as to say, “Are you all like this?” And two little old ladies, who were sitting further up the table, with shawls hanging over the backs of the chairs, looked back, clearly indicating “We are not; we are genteel.”

George Emerson, it must be said, is putting off a Mr. Darcy vibe and I love it. I see you pretending you’re not interested and don’t care, George. I see you.

Lucy recognizes one of the other tourists, a clergyman named Mr. Beebe who was the preacher at an Anglican church that Lucy and her family had attended. Mr. Beebe convinces Miss Bartlett that Mr. Emerson’s intentions are innocent and explains why he may seem strange:

“He is rather a peculiar man.” Again he hesitated, and then said gently: “I think he would not take advantage of your acceptance, nor expect you to show gratitude. He has the merit—if it is one—of saying exactly what he means. He has rooms he does not value, and he thinks you would value them. He no more thought of putting you under an obligation than he thought of being polite. It is so difficult—at least, I find it difficult—to understand people who speak the truth.”

Lucy was pleased, and said: “I was hoping that he was nice; I do so always hope that people will be nice.”

“I think he is; nice and tiresome. I differ from him on almost every point of any importance, and so, I expect—I may say I hope—you will differ. But his is a type one disagrees with rather than deplores. When he first came here he not unnaturally put people’s backs up. He has no tact and no manners—I don’t mean by that that he has bad manners—and he will not keep his opinions to himself. We nearly complained about him to our depressing Signora, but I am glad to say we thought better of it.”

The next day, when it comes time to go exploring Florence, Miss Bartlett is tired but hates to inconvenience poor Lucy. Miss Lavish, a novelist who is also vacationing at the Bertolini, offers to take Lucy and her trusty Baedeker guidebook on a tour of Florence. Miss Lavish takes her through the back streets to Santa Croce and Miss Lavish forbids Lucy to look at her Baedeker and takes it from her; rather than keep her nose in the guidebook, they will simply “drift” through town. Because wandering through an unfamiliar town in a foreign country always ends well.

Sure enough, Miss Lavish runs off to talk to someone (her “local colour-box”, whatever that means) and she and Lucy are separated in the crowd. Luckily she runs into the Emersons when she decides to continue exploring by herself. She decides that, although they are deemed socially awkward by the other guests, she likes the Emersons and their eccentric manners. Mr. Emerson speaks his mind and he and George are very intelligent, and they take her with them on a tour of Santa Croce. While in the church, George complains that his father means well, but always offends everyone. Mr. Emerson tells Lucy that his son needs her in order to overcome his youthful melancholy. But no pressure.

The next day consists of a rainy afternoon and Lucy passes the time buy playing the piano. Lucy is a passionate piano player and seems to transform through her playing:

It so happened that Lucy, who found daily life rather chaotic, entered a more solid world when she opened the piano. She was then no longer either deferential or patronizing; no longer either a rebel or a slave. The kingdom of music is not the kingdom of this world; it will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected. The commonplace person begins to play, and shoots into the empyrean without effort, whilst we look up, marvelling how he has escaped us, and thinking how we could worship him and love him, would he but translate his visions into human words, and his experiences into human actions. Perhaps he cannot; certainly he does not, or does so very seldom. Lucy had done so never.

She was no dazzling executante; her runs were not at all like strings of pearls, and she struck no more right notes than was suitable for one of her age and situation. Nor was she the passionate young lady, who performs so tragically on a summer’s evening with the window open. Passion was there, but it could not be easily labelled; it slipped between love and hatred and jealousy, and all the furniture of the pictorial style. And she was tragical only in the sense that she was great, for she loved to play on the side of Victory. Victory of what and over what—that is more than the words of daily life can tell us. But that some sonatas of Beethoven are written tragic no one can gainsay; yet they can triumph or despair as the player decides, and Lucy had decided that they should triumph.

A very wet afternoon at the Bertolini permitted her to do the thing she really liked, and after lunch she opened the little draped piano. A few people lingered round and praised her playing, but finding that she made no reply, dispersed to their rooms to write up their diaries or to sleep. She took no notice of Mr. Emerson looking for his son, nor of Miss Bartlett looking for Miss Lavish, nor of Miss Lavish looking for her cigarette-case. Like every true performer, she was intoxicated by the mere feel of the notes: they were fingers caressing her own; and by touch, not by sound alone, did she come to her desire.

Mr. Beebe sits and listens and remembers a time when he heard her playing at a performance at church. He remarked at the time, and tells her now, “If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting both for us and for her.”

After playing, Lucy is in the mood for something big and exciting to do, a sensation that conversation just doesn’t satisfy. She decides that she wants to go to the electric tram, but she has some trepidation:

Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big, and she believed that it would have come to her on the wind-swept platform of an electric tram. This she might not attempt. It was unladylike. Why? Why were most big things unladylike? Charlotte had once explained to her why. It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored. Poems had been written to illustrate this point.

So many things to say. So many.

Lucy decides that though she wants to do something rebellious, she doesn’t want to get in trouble for rebelling, so rather than go to the electric tram she goes to Alinari’s shop in town to look at and buy postcards of paintings. She still feels restless and that nothing exciting happens to her. But then someone gets stabbed by a fountain in the square and suddenly life gets a lot more interesting. She sees George Emerson through the crowd of people as she faints.

When she comes to, George is holding her — he had carried her away from the crowd. He goes back to the fountain to retrieve her photographs and when he returns they begin walking back to the hotel. As they’re walking, George throws something in the river; when Lucy inquires, he admits that he threw her photographs in the river because they were covered in blood and he didn’t want her to see them. His admission of his protective instinct towards her warms her heart. Nothing like murder to bring people together.

The next day is business as usual. Mr. Beebe invites Miss Bartlett and Lucy to go out with him and the Emersons, but Lucy insteads opts to go shopping with Miss Bartlett. She is afraid of her blossoming feelings for George, so what better thing to do than to avoid him, am I right, ladies? Their shopping excursion takes them by the fountain where the previous day’s excitement took place, where they run into Miss Lavish, who has come to investigate the murder site for her new book. Everyone is very interested in Lucy’s abridged version of the event (she left out the fainting and coming to in George’s arms, that dirty slut). They also run into Mr. Eager, a chaplain who is also staying at the hotel and who is sort of a jerk. He invites the ladies on an outing later in the week. Lucy quickly becomes jaded with her company:

This successful morning left no pleasant impressions on Lucy. She had been a little frightened, both by Miss Lavish and by Mr. Eager, she knew not why. And as they frightened her, she had, strangely enough, ceased to respect them. She doubted that Miss Lavish was a great artist. She doubted that Mr. Eager was as full of spirituality and culture as she had been led to suppose. They were tried by some new test, and they were found wanting. As for Charlotte—as for Charlotte she was exactly the same. It might be possible to be nice to her; it was impossible to love her.

This is one of the first occasions where the social hierarchy is challenged; just because you are a civilized and intelligent person doesn’t make you enjoyable to be around. Of course, this observation of her companions is juxtaposed with a conversation about the Emersons. Miss Bartlett talks about their working class background and how Mr. Emerson must have had an “advantageous marriage” but Mr. Eager confides that the marriage wasn’t all that advantageous because Mr. Emerson murdered his wife. What.

Lucy doesn’t believe Mr. Eager and the gossip doesn’t keep them from all going for a drive out in the country. The title of the chapter about the drive is Chapter VI: The Reverend Arthur Beebe, the Reverend Cuthbert Eager, Mr. Emerson, Mr. George Emerson, Miss Eleanor Lavish, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, and Miss Lucy Honeychurch Drive Out in Carriages to See a View; Italians Drive Them. Forster doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

There is a lot of talking on the carriages, mostly pretentious babble from Mr. Eager and Miss Lavish; Lucy has made sure that she is in a separate carriage from George, as she is still confused about her feelings for him. The driver of their carriage has a girl with him, whom he tries to kiss while he’s driving, which I’m sure Oprah would have thing or two to say about. This outrages Mr. Eager, who demands that the girl switch to the other carriage, and his outrage outrages Mr. Emerson, who sees harm in denying people of their happiness.

When they arrive and are exploring the wood, Lucy wanders off by herself, chaperone-less. And you know what happens when girls don’t have their chaperones:

From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.

Standing at its brink, like a swimmer who prepares, was the good man. But he was not the good man that she had expected, and he was alone.

George had turned at the sound of her arrival. For a moment he contemplated her, as one who had fallen out of heaven. He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her.

Before she could speak, almost before she could feel, a voice called, “Lucy! Lucy! Lucy!” The silence of life had been broken by Miss Bartlett who stood brown against the view.

Oh. Snap.

George and Lucy in the meadow in the 1985 movie.

On the carriage ride back, Lucy and Miss Bartlett discuss the meadow; Lucy says that she was overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment and had mistaken George in the field of violets for a hero in a book. Ooookay.

When they get back to their room (the one with the view, if you remember), Miss Bartlett asks Lucy “what is to be done” about the George situation. Miss Bartlett is convinced that George is unrefined and will talk about what happened; based on a conversation George had with another of the hotel patrons, one can assume that he is one of those young men who has kissed more than one girl. That cad! Miss Bartlett speaks of the kiss as an “insult” that Lucy needs to be defended against. Because she fears that George will talk and ruin Lucy’s reputation, Miss Bartlett decides that they will leave the next morning for Rome, to meet up with the Vyses, acquaintances of the Honeychurch family. Lucy promises Miss Bartlett that she won’t tell her mother about what happened, because Miss Bartlett is afraid that she will be blamed. They left for Rome the following morning; Lucy was unable to say goodbye to George.

Part II opens with Mrs. Honeychurch, Lucy’s mother, and Freddy, Lucy’s brother, in their home in England, awaiting the arrival of the Vyse family. While in Rome, Cecil Vyse, the son, proposed to Lucy twice and she rejected him both times. However, Cecil travels to Windy Corner and proposes a third time, which Lucy accepts.

Cecil is described as “medieval.” It is meant to describe his physical appearance, which is also like a “gothic statue,” but it describes his personality, as well. If George is portrayed as being passionate then Cecil is pretentious. He is from London and looks down upon people in the country. He doesn’t even seem to be overly fond of Lucy, but more like an idea of her:

He had known Lucy for several years, but only as a commonplace girl who happened to be musical. He could still remember his depression that afternoon at Rome, when she and her terrible cousin fell on him out of the blue, and demanded to be taken to St. Peter’s. That day she had seemed a typical tourist—shrill, crude, and gaunt with travel. But Italy worked some marvel in her. It gave her light, and—which he held more precious—it gave her shadow. Soon he detected in her a wonderful reticence. She was like a woman of Leonardo da Vinci’s, whom we love not so much for herself as for the things that she will not tell us, The things are assuredly not of this life; no woman of Leonardo’s could have anything so vulgar as a “story.” She did develop most wonderfully day by day.

So it happened that from patronizing civility he had slowly passed if not to passion, at least to a profound uneasiness. Already at Rome he had hinted to her that they might be suitable for each other. It had touched him greatly that she had not broken away at the suggestion.

Be still my beating heart.

Mr. Beebe stops by the house in time to hear the good news of the engagement of Lucy and Cecil, which he takes as a joke at first. Freddy refers to Cecil as her “fiasco” instead of “fiancé,” and I don’t know how anyone missed that portentous bit of foreshadowing. Mr. Beebe mentions that he has heard that a nearby cottage has been bought and will be rented by a Sir Harry Ottway — it’s supposed to be torn down, but he will rent it instead.

If you didn’t guess that the Emersons would be renting the cottage, you need to forget about books and watch a Real Housewives marathon. The plotlines there may be more your style.

It turns out Cecil ran into Mr. Emerson and George at a museum and he figured that they would annoy Sir Ottway, as Cecil considers him to be a snob, so he recommended they rent to cottage. Ah, how droll! When Lucy protests and yells at him for inviting “his friends,” he assumes that she objects because they are of a lower class socially. As he tells her:

No, Lucy, the classes ought to mix, and before long you’ll agree with me. There ought to be intermarriage—all sorts of things.

Be careful what you wish for, Cecil.

Lucy and Cecil go to London to visit Mrs. Vyse, Cecil’s mother, while the Emersons move in. Freddy, Lucy’s brother, meets George through Mr. Beebe and becomes friends, playing tennis and going for swims in ponds and other generally frowned upon activities. When Lucy returns to Windy Corners (their house), she discovers that her mother has invited Miss Bartlett to stay with them while the plumbing in her house is repaired.

Freddy invites the Emersons over for lunch and tennis on a Sunday when Cecil is in a particularly vile mood. While Freddy and George play tennis and the others are watching, Cecil goes on and on about the novel he’s reading. The novel is set in Florence and there’s a murder, and Lucy quickly realizes that it’s written by Miss Lavish, who was at the Bertolini with them. Cecil decides to read a passage aloud:

“‘Leonora,’” he read, “‘sat pensive and alone. Before her lay the rich champaign of Tuscany, dotted over with many a smiling village. The season was spring.’”

Miss Lavish knew, somehow, and had printed the past in draggled prose, for Cecil to read and for George to hear.

“‘A golden haze,’” he read. He read: “‘Afar off the towers of Florence, while the bank on which she sat was carpeted with violets. All unobserved Antonio stole up behind her—’”

Lest Cecil should see her face she turned to George and saw his face.

He read: “‘There came from his lips no wordy protestation such as formal lovers use. No eloquence was his, nor did he suffer from the lack of it. He simply enfolded her in his manly arms.’”

“This isn’t the passage I wanted,” he informed them, “there is another much funnier, further on.” He turned over the leaves.

“Should we go in to tea?” said Lucy, whose voice remained steady.

She led the way up the garden, Cecil following her, George last. She thought a disaster was averted. But when they entered the shrubbery it came. The book, as if it had not worked mischief enough, had been forgotten, and Cecil must go back for it; and George, who loved passionately, must blunder against her in the narrow path.

“No—” she gasped, and, for the second time, was kissed by him.

As if no more was possible, he slipped back; Cecil rejoined her; they reached the upper lawn alone.

OH. SNAP.

Later that afternoon, when they’re all preparing for supper, Lucy confronts George in the dining-room. She tells him to leave or she will have to call Cecil and George is incredulous to realize that she is engaged to marry Cecil. (Now it’s getting good. Get your popcorn. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.)

Then his words rose gravely over hers: “You cannot live with Vyse. He’s only for an acquaintance. He is for society and cultivated talk. He should know no one intimately, least of all a woman.”

It was a new light on Cecil’s character.

“Have you ever talked to Vyse without feeling tired?”

“I can scarcely discuss—”

“No, but have you ever? He is the sort who are all right so long as they keep to things—books, pictures—but kill when they come to people. That’s why I’ll speak out through all this muddle even now. It’s shocking enough to lose you in any case, but generally a man must deny himself joy, and I would have held back if your Cecil had been a different person. I would never have let myself go. But I saw him first in the National Gallery, when he winced because my father mispronounced the names of great painters. Then he brings us here, and we find it is to play some silly trick on a kind neighbour. That is the man all over—playing tricks on people, on the most sacred form of life that he can find. Next, I meet you together, and find him protecting and teaching you and your mother to be shocked, when it was for YOU to settle whether you were shocked or no. Cecil all over again. He daren’t let a woman decide. He’s the type who’s kept Europe back for a thousand years. Every moment of his life he’s forming you, telling you what’s charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly; and you, you of all women, listen to his voice instead of to your own. So it was at the Rectory, when I met you both again; so it has been the whole of this afternoon. Therefore—not ‘therefore I kissed you,’ because the book made me do that, and I wish to goodness I had more self-control. I’m not ashamed. I don’t apologize. But it has frightened you, and you may not have noticed that I love you. Or would you have told me to go, and dealt with a tremendous thing so lightly? But therefore—therefore I settled to fight him.”

Oh, swoon.

George storms off, passing Miss Bartlett, who of course has been lurking in the doorway, snooping her heart out. The two women join the rest of the group. When Freddy hears that George has left, he asks Cecil to join him for a game of tennis. When Cecil declines, Lucy realizes that he is intolerable and breaks her engagement that night. It is only when she is breaking up with him does Cecil finally see her as a “living woman” rather than a trophy wife and has a difficult time letting go.

“You don’t love me, evidently. I dare say you are right not to. But it would hurt a little less if I knew why.”

“Because”—a phrase came to her, and she accepted it—”you’re the sort who can’t know any one intimately.”

A horrified look came into his eyes.

“I don’t mean exactly that. But you will question me, though I beg you not to, and I must say something. It is that, more or less. When we were only acquaintances, you let me be myself, but now you’re always protecting me.” Her voice swelled. “I won’t be protected. I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right. To shield me is an insult. Can’t I be trusted to face the truth but I must get it second-hand through you? A woman’s place! You despise my mother—I know you do—because she’s conventional and bothers over puddings; but, oh goodness!”—she rose to her feet—”conventional, Cecil, you’re that, for you may understand beautiful things, but you don’t know how to use them; and you wrap yourself up in art and books and music, and would try to wrap up me. I won’t be stifled, not by the most glorious music, for people are more glorious, and you hide them from me. That’s why I break off my engagement. You were all right as long as you kept to things, but when you came to people—” She stopped.

The clash between Cecil and Lucy is the clash between the old and new ways of thinking. The Victorian/Edwardian age had rigid social classes, but even more so was the rigid gender structures. Lucy is seeing herself no longer as a woman but as a person who is capable of making her own decisions and choices. Welcome to the new millenium, Lucy.

Unfortunately, she feels that this new realization means that she will never marry and will join her cousin in a life of spinsterhood and cat lady-hood, especially as she tries to convince herself that she doesn’t love George.

Lucy receives a letter from the Miss Alans, the spinster sisters from the Bertolini, who write to tell her about their upcoming trip to Greece. Lucy decides that she simply must go along with them and her mother reluctantly agrees. She also convinces everyone not to announce her broken engagement to Cecil, but to let divulge it once she is safely out of England — the secret reason behind this being that she doesn’t want George to be able to do the “told you so” dance.

She goes to visit Mr. Beebe before she leaves and Mr. Emerson is in the sitting room. George has told him that he loves Lucy and tells her that George has “gone under” — George is so full of passion that he can become overwhelmed by them, and he has become overwhelmed by his love of Lucy and is resembling Romeo in love with Rosaline. He tells Lucy that George can no longer bear to be there and that they are going back to London. When Lucy reveals that she is headed to Greece — without Cecil — Mr. Emerson forces her to admit that she loves George.

Then he burst out excitedly; “That’s it; that’s what I mean. You love George!” And after his long preamble, the three words burst against Lucy like waves from the open sea.

“But you do,” he went on, not waiting for contradiction. “You love the boy body and soul, plainly, directly, as he loves you, and no other word expresses it. You won’t marry the other man for his sake.”

“How dare you!” gasped Lucy, with the roaring of waters in her ears. “Oh, how like a man!—I mean, to suppose that a woman is always thinking about a man.”

“But you are.”

She summoned physical disgust.

“You’re shocked, but I mean to shock you. It’s the only hope at times. I can reach you no other way. You must marry, or your life will be wasted. You have gone too far to retreat. I have no time for the tenderness, and the comradeship, and the poetry, and the things that really matter, and for which you marry. I know that, with George, you will find them, and that you love him. Then be his wife. He is already part of you. Though you fly to Greece, and never see him again, or forget his very name, George will work in your thoughts till you die. It isn’t possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.”

The next chapter opens with the Miss Alans in Greece by themselves. George and Lucy are back at the Bertolini; they have eloped to Italy, and, even though they may have alienated Mrs. Honeychurch in the process, they are living happily with each other and committed to their life of love.

Happily -- and sexily -- ever after.

In the end, Lucy is able to choose her own life and decide who she wants to marry, though her mother disapproves. The thought of marrying for position and social status is challenged in this novel — though there is a man of sufficient birth available, he is boring and stuck-up and utterly unappealing, yet the person who is exciting and interesting is of middle class (and works as a porter for a railway, how plebian!) .

There is an appendix that was added to some of the later publications of the book, where Forster elaborated on what happened to Lucy and George in the later years, but I choose not to read that part. I prefer my romances to end happily and without children and World War II, thank you very much. In my view of A Room with a View, George and Lucy remain at the Bertolini forever. Or at least they only emerge for food and sustenance, and possibly the occasional citrus fruit to prevent scurvy.

Comment » | classic books

2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

June 22nd, 2010 — 7:53pm

As one of my students told me, “This book goes hard.” Whatever that means.

The Great Gatsby was first published in 1925 and has been read in basically every high school and university English class ever. I personally have read it for five different classes. However, it wasn’t until a reprinting of the book in the 1940s and 1950s that it gained the monsterous popularity that it has today. It’s taught as a parable of the “American dream” and what happens when it’s acheived.


Nick Carraway is the passive narrator to the story of Jay Gatsby, Nick’s neighbor, and Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom. Nick has moved to New York from the Midwest to “learn the bond business” (spoiler alert: stay home from work in October 1929) and moves to West Egg, a community on Long Island Sound. Daisy, who is Nick’s second cousin, invites Nick to dinner with her and Tom and their friend, Jordan Baker. Tom and Daisy live a pampered lifestyle. Daisy is said to have been partially inspired by Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda; the statement Daisy makes about hoping that her daughter is a “beautiful fool” because that is all a girl can hope to be is an anecdote that is attributed to Zelda on the birth of her daughter. During the dinner, Jordan reveals to Nick that Tom has a mistress in New York City. Tom has been making frequent trips to New York where he meets up with Myrtle Wilson, who’s husband, George, is an oblivious garage mechanic.

Gatsby is a mystery to Nick for the first few chapters, until he receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s notorious parties. While at the party, Nick hears all sorts of rumors about Gatsby (that he is the nephew to Kaiser Wilhelm, that he’s killed a man just to watch him die, etc) and is underwhelmed when he finds out that a stranger he has been talking to is actually Gatsby. Nick and Gatsby form a friendship of sorts, and Gatsby tells Nick about his life as a war hero who is from a wealthy family, all the while calling Nick “old sport” more times than he uses his name.

Jordan informs Nick of Gatsby’s real story — in 1917, Gatsby was an Army lieutenant stationed in Louisville where he met and fell in love with Daisy. When Gatsby left Louisville to make enough money to support and marry Daisy, Daisy married Tom in Gatsby’s absence. Gatsby then made his fortune and bought a mansion close to Tom and Daisy, hoping that Daisy would somehow make it to one of his lavish parties.

Pause.

This is where the characters begin to infuriate me. Daisy is shallow. If she wasn’t willing to wait for Gatsby, why on earth would he think that stalking her and hanging around her neighborhood like a creeper would help win her over? And if it DOES win her over, now that he has his huge house and fancy clothes, why would any self respecting guy want to be with her knowing that the only reason she is with him is because of his money? To quote the immortal Kanye West, now I ain’t sayin’ she a gold digger, but she ain’t messin’ with no broke, broke. Get down girl, go ‘head, get down.

Anyway.

Gatsby wants Nick to arrange a meeting between him and Daisy, so Nick invites Daisy over for lunch. At first, the meeting is awkward, but once Gatsby takes Daisy and Nick to his house and Daisy has a Scrooge McDuck moment with some of his shirts:

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”

Now that Daisy is aware of Gatsby’s wealth and prestige, they become involved in an affair. Everything goes along fine until Daisy has the wonderful idea to invite Nick and Gatsby out with Tom. Tom becomes aware that Gatsby loves Daisy. Tom insists that he and Gatsby switch cars before they drive up to New York for the day, and when he stops for gas, he flaunts Gatsby’s car to George Wilson.

When they get to New York, Tom suddenly becomes a loving attentive husband to Daisy and confronts Gatsby about the affair. Gatsby acknowledges it and informs Tom that Daisy never loved him, as she had always been in love with Gatsby. The scene turns into a bit of a soap opera.

Gatsby walked over and stood beside her.

“Daisy, that’s all over now,” he said earnestly. “It doesn’t matter any more. Just tell him the truth — that you never loved him — and it’s all wiped out forever.”

She looked at him blindly. “Why — how could I love him — possibly?”

“You never loved him.”

She hesitated. Her eyes fell on Jordan and me with a sort of appeal, as though she realized at last what she was doing — and as though she had never, all along, intended doing anything at all. But it was done now. It was too late.

“I never loved him,” she said, with perceptible reluctance.

“Not at Kapiolani?” demanded Tom suddenly.

“No.”

From the ballroom beneath, muffled and suffocating chords were drifting up on hot waves of air.

“Not that day I carried you down from the Punch Bowl to keep your shoes dry?” There was a husky tenderness in his tone. . . . “Daisy?”

“Please don’t.” Her voice was cold, but the rancor was gone from it. She looked at Gatsby. “There, Jay,” she said — but her hand as she tried to light a cigarette was trembling. Suddenly she threw the cigarette and the burning match on the carpet.

“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now — isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once — but I loved you too.”

Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed.

“You loved me TOO?” he repeated.

Ohhh dear.

When they leave the hotel, Daisy insists on driving Gatsby’s car, to calm her nerves. Tom, Nick, and Jordan follow a bit later and as they’re driving, they notice a commotion at George Wilson’s garage. It appears that Myrtle has been struck and killed by a car — when she saw Gatsby’s car, she assumed that it was Tom’s, as he’d been driving it earlier that day, and ran out to meet it. Daisy, who was driving, accidentally hit her.

When Gatsby tells Nick this the next day, Nick urges Gatsby to leave. Gatsby is depressed and is waiting for a phone call from Daisy. Nick tells him that “they’re a rotten crowd” and that Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together!”

Later that day, however, George Wilson has found out who owned the car that killed Myrtle, and shoots and kills Gatsby before committing suicide. Only Nick, Gatsby’s father, and one other person attend Gatsby’s funeral.

At the end of the book, Nick has decided to return to the Midwest and reflects on the cyclical nature of past:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The Great Gatsby is often taught in school as a parable of the American dream, that someone can rise from nothing to achieve greatness. But it’s also a bit of a warning and a critique of the decadence of the time; what you want may not necessarily be what you need. Fitzgerald himself is a testament to that: after living a life of excessive through the Jazz Age, the remainder of his life was spent in financial strife until his premature death of a heart attack at age 44. His wife Zelda, was in and out of psychiatric clinics until her death in 1948. Perhaps Fitzgerald should have written a better ending.

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98. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

April 29th, 2010 — 5:06pm

This week, the students at my school are taking the state standardized test, so I had three hours stuck in a classroom with seniors who were not testing. Plenty of time to read and tell the kids not to bother me.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a crime novel (the 1946 film is a film noir starring Lana Turner) that was published in 1934 by James M. Cain. It is rather short, only about 100 pages, but those 100 pages were scandalous enough to get the book banned in Boston, randomly enough.

It starts out rather abruptly. There’s no exposition; in fact, the narrator doesn’t introduce himself until three pages in. Frank Chambers begins the novel by being thrown off a hay truck (he’s a tramp) and wandering into an “auto court” that is half restaurant-half filling station. It’s run by Nick Papadakis, who Frank calls “The Greek” for basically the entire novel and who speaks in stilted English, and his beautiful wife, Cora. The Greek offers Frank a job, since Frank knows a thing or two about automobiles, and Frank repays his generosity by sleeping with Cora, who seems to have a few screws loose herself. When Frank kisses her for the first time, a red flag goes up:

I took her into my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers………”Bite me! Bite me!”
I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

Um. Ew.

As you’d think, Frank tries to convince Cora to run away with him, but Cora has this aversion to being homeless, I can’t imagine why. So her great idea is to kill the Greek so that they can stay and run the auto court without him. What could go wrong?

The first attempt to kill the Greek involves Cora bashing him in the head with what is described as a twisted beanbag full of metal. She plans to hit him while he’s in the bathtub, to make it appear that he fell in the shower and hit his head, with the added bonus that he’ll drown if the blow to the head doesn’t kill him. But at the exact moment that Cora hits him, a cat steps on the fuse box and blows the fuses in the house, making all the lights go out and Cora panic, for some reason. Frank fishes the Greek out of the water and they call an ambulance to take him to the hospital, telling the cops and the doctors that Nick fell and hit his head. So the Greek survived and doesn’t remember being bludgeoned, so he goes back home with Cora and Frank.

But Frank and Cora! They are so in love! Their love is so true! And Cora reeeally wants the auto court. So they try the same plan in a different venue — this time, they get the Greek sloppily drunk, bash him over the head with a wrench, and then crash the car, leaving themselves with injuries. There is also a very inappropriately timed sex scene after the car crashes into the ravine and Frank has punched Cora in the eye to make it look like she was injured in the crash and it turns them both on. Cora is one twisted sister.

The police and the ambulance report to the scene, and the police are instantly suspicious of what has happened. It turns out, unbeknown to Frank, the Greek had taken out a $10,000 insurance policy two days before the accident. The prosecutor, Sackett, interrogates Frank and gets him to sign a complaint that by crashing the car, Cora attempted to kill him as well. And when Cora finds out, she is PISSED. She writes out a confession that tells everything about her affair with Frank and how he had been involved with attempting to kill Nick.

A lawyer is hired for Frank and Cora, and there is a lot of lawyerly speak involved that I think boiled down to him proving that the Greek had insurance policies before and the accident insurance was just part of the insurance package and that Cora had no idea about it. Or something. But it ended with Cora receiving a suspended sentence and no jail time — her confession was squashed by their lawyer and the prosecution never knew about it. But the fact that Frank signed the complaint and that Cora tried to point the finger at Frank sown some major seeds of discontentment at the auto court.

Frank and Cora return to the auto court, where Cora has major plans for its improvement but Frank just wants to sell it and move on. Then there was something about Cora leaving to visit her mother and Frank met and had a brief fling with a woman who trained and kept wild cats and sends Frank a puma kitten. Okay, then.

They drive to the beach together and Cora tells Frank that she’s pregnant, and they plan a life together, and on their way driving back home, boom, car accident. Cora is killed, and the description is thus:

When I came out of it I was wedged down beside the wheel, with my back to the frontof the car, but I began to moan from the awfulness of what I heard. It was like rain on a tin roof, but that wasn’t it. It was her blood, pouring down on the hood, where she went through the windshield.

UM. EW. Boston, you got this one right.

The cops arrest Frank and pin him with the deaths of both Cora and the Greek, and the end of the book reveals that the story you’ve been reading has been written by Frank in jail as he awaits news of his sentence, whether he gets the death penalty or not. He finds out that there is “no stay,” meaning he will be executed, and asks people to pray for “me, and Cora, and make it that we’re together, wherever it is.”

For as short as the novel is (about 100 pages), it was rather rough to get through. The writing style is very concise and matter-of-fact with very little details. It wasn’t really enough to keep my interest, especially since none of the characters are sympathetic.

And throughout the entire book there is no postman, ringing twice or otherwise.

Comment » | classic books

The Dirty Ginger Man

April 26th, 2010 — 4:33pm

What to say about The Ginger Man.

Sebastian Dangerfield is the ginger man in question. He is an American living with his British wife, Marion, and their baby, Felicity, in Ireland. But that doesn’t keep Sebastian from drinking his way through their finances and sleeping with any woman who will have him.

The writing, by J.P. Donleavy in the 1950s, is very stream-of-consciousness, to the point where there are places where the narration changes from third to first person without any warning.

Sebastian rolled near, pressing the long, blond body to his, thinking of a world outside beating drums below the window in the rain. All slipping on the cobble stones. And standing aside as a tram full of Bishops rumbles past, who hold up sacred hands in blessing. Marion’s hand tightening and touching in my groin. Ginny Cupper took me in her car out to the spread fields of Indiana.

There is no designation to warn you that the point of view is changing. It makes skimming very difficult, I’ll tell you that much.

Once you get past the shock of Sebastian drinking until his liver gives out and having sex with anything that moves, the book is really rather boring. Because nothing else really happens. And Sebastian is kind of a jerk. As in, he pawns Marion’s things and then spends the money to buy alcohol. Donleavy tries to alleviate Sebastian’s jerkiness by having him realize that he is a jerk, that he’s self-aware and feels bad about the things he does. But that doesn’t make him a lovable rogue. He’s almost amoral in his quest to flee from his responsibilities. There are comedic sections, and Sebastian is indeed charming at times……but he still basically manipulates everyone he knows. It’s frustrating because Sebastian doesn’t change and doesn’t seem to learn any lessons. It really honestly is mainly about a man who likes to drink.

However, I can see how the book came to inspire a chain of pubs. And I look forward to going to the one in Houston.

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