Saturday, October 30, 2010

Weekly Geeks 2010-35: Where Have You Been All My Life?

Once in a while I read a book I have had for years and I think “How the hell did I miss this one? Why did I not read this one before?

Is there a book that has hang around your reading pile for far too long before you got to it, A book that probably got packed away until you accidentally got to it or a book that you read a few pages in and never got back to.

If so share or ask your readers about that book that really made an impression on them (good or bad) after having it or hearing about it for far too long?

There aren't too many books that sit in my "TBR" pile for very long. Usually, I read books pretty soon after I hear/think about them. But there are some that lingered. Books that got pushed to the side because I had something else I was dying to read or because I wasn't so sure that I wanted to read them at all. And yet, many of these books have become instant favorites:

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. I had many friends recommend this one to me and I STILL never took the time to actually sit down and read it. In fact, it was only because it was included in The Classic Tales Podcast that I even took the time to listen to it. I kinda knew what the plot was about and since the French Revolution had never been exactly my favorite era, I pushed it to the side in favor of other things. I wish I hadn't. I absolutely loved everything about this story. The characters, the adventure, the was all so good. Should have read this a long time ago.

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkein. I had my own personal reasons for putting off this story. I'm still not sure exactly what made me decide to actually read it. Maybe it was because I wanted to see the movies and I try to read the books before I watch the adaptations. Anyway, I was hooked. Tolkein's rich and complex story is really as good as everyone says it is. If you haven't read this one, don't make the same mistake I did. Read it NOW!

Daphne du Maurier Novels. Ok, so this one isn't entirely my fault. I had never heard of Daphne du Maurier until I began watching a lot of Hitchcock films. This is somewhat surprising since I love Gothic type novels like the Brontes. Anyway, I've read both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel and thoroughly enjoyed them. If you are a lover of Gothic lit, do yourself a favor and grab anything by Daphne du Maurier. You won't be disappointed.

How about you? Is there something you put off reading only to discover a new love when you finally did?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Complete Brother's Grimm

Long ago, when wishes often came true, there lived a King whose daughters were all handsome, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun himself, who has seen everything, was bemused every time he shone over her because of her beauty.

Many of us are very familiar with the fairy tales compiled (and often tweaked) by the Grimm brothers. They have been a part of the childhoods of generations of people around the world. They are so much a part of our culture, that they bleed into other mediums like movies and television. One has to wonder if the Grimms realized that when they were compiling these stories they were creating what W. H. Auden would call one of the founding works of western culture.

The Plot:

Though each story is unique, most of them follow pretty similar plots. There is a princess who must be rescued, younger sons who must prove their worth, witches to be outsmarted, and giants to kill. Some are long and some are short, but each has little magic and wisdom of its own.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

to self: never ever ever read 700 pages of Fairy Tales in one go. Ever. By the end, I had started rooting for the witches. Death to the beautiful princesses and the smart aleck princes! But I digress.

Seriously, these are great tales to read, but you should never try to read them without a break. My biggest problem was that, except for the well-known tales, most of the plots were recycled over and over throughout the collection. You would read four or five stories in a row that were almost exactly the same. This made parts of it extremely tedious.

Of course, the characters are all one-dimensional, but there were a few surprises in there. You wouldn't believe how many princesses outsmarted the gazillions of guys seeking their hands. Of course, one really smart guy outwitted them in the end, but these aren't exactly your typical damsels in distress. There are some tough woman in this book. You also wouldn't believe how many guys would fall for a girl only to forget about her the minute she was out of sight and try to marry someone else. Typical.

One thing you should be prepared for before reading these to your kids is the violence. These are not the cute Disney versions. Some of these are seriously disturbing and frightening. They are really a great glimpse into German and East Europe culture and what they considered frightening. Woods filled with witches, devils, wolves, and giants. Heads chopped off, eyes poked out, and children sold. Probably the most disturbing story was "The Juniper Tree". Wow.

None of this is to say that I didn't enjoy any of the stories. I found many of them to be fun reads. Of course, the famous one are the best, like "The Frog Prince", "The Sleeping Beauty", "Rumpelstiltskin", and "Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs". But my most favorite was "The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces". Twelve princesses who disappear every night to dance with the twelve cutest guys in the kingdom. Nice.

So, my advice to you is, purchase a "Selected Works" edition of the stories. That should give you all of the popular ones without having to wade through the not so fun one. But definitely read them. They are a fascinating glimpse not only German culture, but Western culture as a whole.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Literary Prizes: Helpful or Detrimental?

It's "Oscar" season in the literary world. With the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Man Booker Prize both being given out within the past week, many readers are being introduced to the works of authors who were previously a bit of an unknown outside their respective spheres. This means that many of them will be rushing out to read/buy one of these author's works to keep up with the literary times. This is a great thing, right? Maybe not.

In his article for Newsweek entitled "The Trouble with the Nobel", Malcolm Jones discusses how the Nobel and other major literary prizes might just have too much control over what the world reads.

Prizes do sell books. They can make reputations. At the same time, the Nobel and all the other literary prizes encourage a kind of laziness among readers. They create a false sense of what’s great, and that’s a decision that individual readers ought to be making on their own.

So what do you think? Do prizes help more than they hurt? Or do we as readers rely too much on the recommendations of remote committees that we know little to nothing about?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The English Novel

Last week I wrapped up my third audio lecture series from The Teaching Company. This one was entitled "The English Novel", and it traced the history, not just of the great works themselves, but also of the novel form itself as found in English literature. It is a great back-up to the "Classics of British Literature" series that I finished back in April.

Our professor for this course is Dr. Timothy Spurgin, the Bonnie Glidden Buchanan Professor of English Literature and Associate Professor of English at Lawrence University. Though perhaps not quite as witty and conversational as Professor Sutherland from "COBL", his lecturing style is easy to listen to, follow, and comprehend.

This series comprises of 24 lectures tracing the evolution of the English novel from its earliest beginnings of Fielding and Richardson to its culmination in Joyce and Woolf. Each lecture is a fantastic blend of biographical info on the author, plots and themes from the story, and the theory of the novel form. Though I was familiar with most of the authors and stories, I learned a lot through this course. It helped me recognize patterns throughout the English novel tradition ( it's obsession with courtship and marriage, and it's penchant for "comedic" endings), and learn to draw parallels between what we are reading in the novel and what was happening in the world at the time. I also really loved the part where Dr. Spurgin discusses how the rise in translations of foreign literature forever changed the English novel tradition.

If you love English novels, or like learning the history and theory of literature, I would definitely recommend this course. It is enjoyable and informative. I must warn you, however, your "to read" list will grow by leaps and bounds!

Sunday, October 3, 2010


She had, unconsciously, the feeling that any trait of hers, no matter of what kind, was a family tradition and therefore worthy of respect.

In 1929, German writer Thomas Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, mainly for his two epic novels The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks. Based on his own family history, Mann's first novel explores the battle that goes on between art and business, duty and desire. One family at the pinnacle of success in 19th century Germany finds itself in a downward spiral that circumstance and their own shortcomings make impossible to stop.

The Plot:

When it comes to success, the Buddenbrook family has it in spades. They are the center of the bourgeois business and social life in their town. Their family firm is thriving and opportunities abound for the four young Buddenbrook children: Thomas, Antonie, Christian, and Clara. Unfortunately, life does not quite turn out the way the way any of them had planned.

After the hard work and prudence of the older generations, the younger ones now live in an age of decadence and extremes. They have known no other life but that at the top of society and it seems incredible to them that that kind of life might come to an end. As the story progresses, we watch each member of the family slowly decline due to pride, ignorance, and intemperance.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

As I set out to read my first Thomas Mann novel, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. It is a long book and I was afraid that I might find myself mired down in 700-800 pages of romanticized language and uninteresting characters. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The first thing that I loved about this novel was how accessible it was. I was immediately sucked in to the world of the Buddenbrook family and had a hard time tearing myself away. Not only is Mann's writing style easy to read, but his characters are engaging and interesting. Each one has it's own distinctive personality and complexity and you won't find a single cliche among them. You may hate them, you may love them, but you definitely care about them.

It is also a fascinating glimpse into a time period that I know very little about. Though most of the outside events are given only a mention here and there, there are some major historical events going on. The Revolution of 1848 and it's demands for the freedom of the press are seen through Morten Schwarzkopf, and the Austro-Prussian War and German unification are also touched on. So often when I hear people talk about Germany, it is in the negative light of the world wars. If anything, Buddenbrooks is a glimpse into the true richness and complexity that is German culture.

I read somewhere that in Buddenbrooks, Mann was creating a bridge between 19th century realism and 20th century symbolism. I find this to be a very accurate description. On the one hand, this story is written with all of the frankness of, say, Madame Bovary. Nothing is romanticized and nothing is pathetic. However, it is chock full of symbolism as well. Mann is attempting to portray the ultimate demise of that decadent and glittering society that his parents grew up in. As the story progresses, we see the result that this decadent lifestyle has lead to which is sickness, madness, and death. And it is not just the richness of the lifestyle itself that Mann mocks, but the very basis of it. Throughout the novel, the family and the firm are treated as one and the same. Each personal decision comes down to how that choice will affect the firm. Tony's marriages are all products of trying to help the firm, and Thomas' outward vanity is all a show of the power of the firm. But no matter how hard these characters try to mold their lives around the success of the firm, it all comes to nothing. The firm is dissolved and they meet ends as terrible and lonely as those characters who tried to ignore it. Mann seems to hammer home the idea that some things in this life are inevitable.

Of all of the German literature I read this summer, this one was my absolute favorite. If you're looking for a place to begin in either German lit or Thomas Mann, I would definitely give this one a try. It is a wonderful story that after 100 years is still so relevant to our own times.

The Movie:

As fascinating as this story is, you'll never many (if any) adaptations of it outside of Germany. There are two main versions that I will mention here. The first is the 1979 miniseries that was screened here in the US as part of Great Performances. I was able to see about 4 episodes of it (youtube took it off while I was in the middle of watching it) and I really enjoyed it. The acting and screenplay were spot on with the novel and was really like watching these characters walk right off the page. It is in German, so you will need subtitles, but it is still great watching. I will probably have to break down and get the DVD so that I can finish it.

The other one is the 2008 film version. I haven't seen any of this version, but the trailers make it seem like a glossier version of the story. If you have seen it, please let me know your opinion.