Fat Books & Thin Women


Classics Club: Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield

David Copperfield is not the first book by Charles Dickens that I’ve read, so I’m not sure how I maintained my (wildly incorrect) ideas about Dickens’s writing up to this point. Four or five years ago I read and loved A Tale of Two Cities, but because I was reading an electronic copy (this was before e-readers, kids!) in my spare moments (usually while bored and tired) I held onto the notion that Dickens’s writing was valuable mostly as a sleep aid. I read bits and pieces of something-or-other by Dickens in a high school English class, and while I found the writing over the first pages to be surprisingly energetic and funny and modern, those impressions faded away as I began, hopelessly, to count up the number of pages I had left to read.

Enter, now, David Copperfield, purchased because at the bookstore here in Tirana, the Oxford World’s Classics cost about a third as much as other paperbacks. ($9 vs $25.) David Copperfield follows its titular character from birth to…well, not to old age, but to maturity – to marriage, to children, to career success. Copperfield’s world is populated by people drawn in sometimes hilarious strokes, from villanious characters like Murdstone (the second husband to David’s mother), Uriah Heep, and David’s school friend Steerforth; to the vapid Dora; to the well-meaning but constantly indebted Micawber; to those few characters who are true and constant: Peggotty (his mother’s housekeeper), David’s aunt, and Agnes, daughter of the lawyer to David’s aunt, and always available for advice and commiseration.

Even to someone, like me, who knows only the broad outlines of Dickens’s life, it’s obvious that there are autobiographical elements to David Copperfield. (It helped that this was frequently pointed out in my copy’s footnotes.) David runs through a string of careers. In his youth he goes from being a schoolboy to a child laborer to a vagabond, back to a schoolboy. He embarks on several careers as an adult, seemingly unable to rest once he has mastered and become respected in one arena, eventually ending as (hey!) a writer of fiction.

Because I’m not well-versed in Victorian fiction and don’t want to make a fool of myself, I’m going to skip the traditional review this time out and focus, instead, on how wrong my expectations of the book were. This is always fun!

1. Dickens never knows when to stop writing, and I will die of boredom before finishing the book.

Granted, there are many instances when it is obvious that Dickens was being wordy because the book was serialized – the more he wrote, the more he got paid. (I couldn’t help suspecting that Uriah Heep’s habit of declaring himself “umble” about five times per sentence was meant not only as an amusing quirk, but to pad Dickens’s word count.) I was hesitant to read this novel because it is so long, and I suspected that I would finish David Copperfield with a sense of being tricked into reading a story that could have been told in half as many words.

And, honestly? It probably could have been, but I’m glad now for all the verbosity and introspection and introduction of characters with bizarre quirks worthy of a chapter’s examination. Because it’s so wordy and so driven by its characters, rather than by plot, David Copperfield became a book I could sink into. It is (prepare yourselves for this insight!) a good read for the same reason that serialized TV dramas are so much fun to watch: you’re able to return to the same characters day after day, and follow the sometimes meandering course of their lives. (Most people say that The Wire is Dickensian. I, apparently, say that Dickens is The Wire-ian.)

2. Everyone says Dickens is funny, but he probably isn’t.

No, Dickens is pretty funny. The humor comes largely from the characters – after spending eight hundred pages with them, you can predict how characters will act in certain circumstances, and it’s funny to see how true they hold to the central tenants of their being, even in the most ridiculous moments. (See, for instance, the chapters leading up to the Micawber family’s departure for Australia, and how many times other characters have to pay off Micawber’s debt to prevent him from being shipped off to jail just as he seems about to escape it all.) Dickens even manages to make the death of David’s mother briefly, darkly, funny, as Mrs. Creakle strives to break the news gradually.

“When you came away from home at the end of the vacation,” said Mrs. Creakle, after a pause, “were they all well?” After another pause, “Was your mama well?”

I trembled without distinctly knowing why, and still looked at her earnestly, making no attempt to answer.

“Because,” said she, “I grieve to tell you that I hear this morning your mama is very ill.”

A mist arose between Mrs. Creakle and me, and her figure seemed to move in it for an instant. Then I felt the burning tears run down my face, and it was steady again.

“She is very dangerously ill,” she added.

I knew all now.

“She is dead.” (117-118)

3. Dickens’s work is the airport fiction of the 1800s./900 pages of Dickens will be too hard to read.

These are opposing points, I know, but I mention them both to further illuminate how stupid our ideas about certain authors, genres, periods, whatever, can be. To the first, I now say: yeah, Dickens’s writing is pretty light; David Copperfield is not a novel that leaves me feeling a need to examine and critique its structure, though there were moments when I was surprised to see Dickens playing with things like the question of how David’s memory influenced his writing. There’s one moment, about halfway through the novel, when David’s present knowledge takes physical form in his record of the past:

A dread falls on me here. A cloud is lowering on the distant town, towards which I retrace my solitary steps. I fear to approach it. I cannot bear to think of what did come, upon that memorable night; of what must come again, if I go on. (436)

Moments like this, and the humor and comic timing of other passages, elevate this novel, but it is, at end, a novel that was written for the masses. As someone who believes there is a real art to writing novels that are light and entertaining but still engaging, though, you know that I liked this.

As to the other point: 900 pages of Dickens is hard to read mostly because the book is unwieldly. You can’t really read David Copperfield while you’re laying in bed, and if it weren’t for the fact that I were donating the novel, today, to the library here in Tirana, I am pretty sure I would have ended up pulling the binding apart to make smaller, more manageable sections. But, er, I meant the actual reading of the novel – and, no, this Really Long Novel was not hard to read.

4. Dickens will put me to sleep.

Occasionally, yes. But Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins put me to sleep just last week, so clearly I am an equal opportunity employer when it comes to these things.

This was the first book completed off my unreasonably long list of classics I plan to read over five years. Woo hoo! For a real review of the novel, I recommend reading Adam’s take over at Roof Beam Reader.

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Review: Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a wide-ranging chronicle of a Southern town and its inhabitants, a novel that reminded me at times of To Kill a Mockingbird, if it had gone more broadly over the lives of its characters. McCullers follows the lives of five people: a mute, Singer; a thirteen-year-old girl, Mick; a black doctor, Dr. Copeland, and his family; a “Red” agitator who travels from town to town, Jake Blount; and the owner of a cafe, Biff Brannon. All these characters are seeking a way through the misdirections of life to some true purpose, but McCullers is unflinching in her portrayal of their failures.

McCullers opens the novel by writing, “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together” (3), a fitting opening given Singer’s eventual role as an imbiber of the stories of others. After his friend, the other mute in town, is sent by his cousin to an asylum, Singer becomes a confessional for those around him. It’s not that Singer offers advice – he doesn’t – but that, in a world that is never silent, that never allows a person the chance to be what he sees himself as being, he stands as a sort of reflecting pool, showing back to people just the version of themselves they wish to see. The room he pays for in Mick Kelly’s house becomes one of the most popular in the building, with the other major figures in the book streaming in and out of his space over the novel’s course. As Jake Blount might put it, Singer is one who “knows,” a man with a vision beyond his day-to-day life. What makes Singer such an attractive figure to the town is that he can be whatever they want him to be, can think whatever they imagine he thinks, for the simple reason that he can’t explain himself. Singer operates in a world that he often seems to find cryptic, and he is never able to understand the reason for his innumerable visitors, only to sit as their “faces crowded in on him out of the darkness so that he felt smothered” (384).

What makes Singer such an appealing figure to so many of McCullers’s characters may be that he, unlike them, is not a part of the town. Having lived there for years without their notice, secluded in his apartment with his friend Antonopalous, it is as if he comes out of nowhere after his friend leaves and he begins eating at Biff’s restaurant. He is at the same moment from everywhere and from nowhere, living his life separate from that of the town despite the claims people make on him: “The Turk at the linen shop who flung his hands up in his face and babbled with his tongue to make words the shape of which Singer had never imagined before” (385).

In giving her characters a confessional in Singer, McCullers makes their lives clearer to the readers; not just their day-to-day, their hopes and aspirations, but, through what they make of the mute, those parts of themselves they are unable to admit even to themselves. “Owing to the fact he was a mute they were able to give him all the qualities they wanted him to have.” McCullers’s vision of the town sometimes reads as a cold one; she is not gentle to her characters, she doesn’t shield them from sorrows that include a failing business, a dead spouse, a dead friend, a jailed and then disfigured son, growing up, and racism. Despite all that her characters go through, though, McCullers has a light hand that never seems to be guiding the plot, that never falsifies the lives she shows.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an extraordinary novel, one that highlights not just life in the 1930s South but life, as a whole. There are characters here – Mick and Biff and Singer especially – that can’t be forgotten even months after finishing the novel. This is one of those rare novels that, first, demands reading; and, second, is able to give us at one time the feel for a specific time in a specific place, and the feel of our country as a whole.

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30 Day Book Meme, Day 14
August 15, 2011, 5:54 pm
Filed under: 30 Day Book Meme | Tags: , , , , ,

Favorite book of your favorite writer:

A few months ago I was talking books with some people when someone mentioned he’d read Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor. He thought Nabokov was out of his prime and that the novel was little more than an overblown love story.

Nothing gets my hackles up like someone dissing Ada. I am not known for being the kindest or most understanding person, and hearing someone bash my favorite book had me aiming for a smackdown. If nothing else, this is a sign that I do indeed like Nabokov too much. Any other author and I would’ve been thrilled the guy had read this book; I know that Ada isn’t topping many people’s to-read lists, because it’s longer than any of Nabokov’s other books and on about a Pale Fire difficulty level. But this is Nabokov, so I had to tell him he didn’t understand the book, and I’m only now realizing I should never talk about Nabokov in public again.

So, my defense of the book: yes, Ada is a love story (of Ada and Van Veen). Yes, the characters are unlikeable. But the book is also an exploration of time and memory and suggests a non-linear nature to time that makes exploring the book almost a puzzle. What I like about it so much, I think, is that Ada and Van’s time never ends for the reader. The book is left unfinished, and on rereading you can locate the disjointed or incomplete sections of the book, the idea of the primacy of memory (even when it fails [but then, what does it mean to say “memory has failed”? Simply that it is not fact?]). It’s the idea of “the logical impossibility to relate the dubious reality of the present to the unquestionable one of remembrance” (251) that I like, that memory is more permanent and more real than the present moment.

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people would’ve read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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30 Day Book Meme, Day 13
August 14, 2011, 8:35 pm
Filed under: 30 Day Book Meme | Tags: , , , , ,

Your favorite writer:

If you read my blog, ever, you know the answer to this one: Vladimir Nabokov.

I’ve read most of his books multiple times. I had my parents ship my copies of Ada, or Ardor, Pnin, and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight to me in Macedonia, and talked them into pre-ordering The Original of Laura to send me. I picked up all of Brian Boyd’s books on Nabokov and his works, and that I’m going to be humping those books around with me for the rest of my life is the surest sign I can think of that my love for Nabokov is the real deal: it even extends to books that aren’t by him, but that are about him.

Nabokov is the one author I can’t bear to read others’ thoughts on. Too many people read Lolita, dislike it for some moral reasons rather than the quality of the book itself, miss everything Nabokov did there, and dismiss the rest of his work – if they even realize it exists. I get pretty worked up about this, as this paragraph alone may demonstrate, and I do my best to stay in my little Nabokov bubble (that is, me and Nabokov’s books) because when I emerge, it’s usually to tell someone that they have no right to comment on the man’s writing if they can’t even pronounce his name correctly. (I stand by this, though, and also: it’s “nuh-BOW-kof,” not “nab-o-kov.”)

That said, I’m always curious when someone is able to critique (even negatively, yes) his work in a thoughtful way. There are criticisms of his work, that there’s something cruel in it, or that his fiction is too exactly designed, that he seems too much to be playing with the reader, that I can understand; but to me, he is and always will be the best.

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people would’ve read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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30 Day Book Meme, Day 12

A book you used to love but don’t anymore:

Okay: I know I’ve written more about Harry Potter in the past two weeks than in the past eleven months of this blog combined. But this will be the last time, I promise. (I am pretty sure.)

When I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone I was totally entranced. So many exciting things to take in: flying motorcycles, Hagrid, dragon’s eggs, Voldemort, Gringott’s, running through a wall to get on a train, Harry’s miraculous first broom ride, Dumbledore being wise. And I read it again, and again, and again, so that I no longer have any clue how many times it’s been. Seven? Eight? Nine?

Whether it was reading the first book too many times, since I reread all the books before each release in addition to maybe three back-to-back jaunts through the first three books when I started reading them, or from the writing being not as good or more geared at younger readers than the text of the later novels, or that the battle with Quirrell/Voldemort is definitely the lamest closing fight of the series, I don’t want to read this one anymore. Listening it to on tape while I wash my dishes or whatever is fine, but I won’t even open the copy that was donated to my school’s library but loaned out to my host mom, that’s been sitting in my house for the months since she finished. I don’t have a whole lot of interest in reading about Harry’s discovery of Hogwarts and chocolate frogs and all the other delicious foods and drinks of the magic world because I already know all that crap. I want him to quit playing quidditch, quit drinking butterbeer, and get on with all the awkward romance and world saving of the next six books.

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people would’ve read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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30 Day Book Meme, Day 11
August 12, 2011, 1:51 pm
Filed under: 30 Day Book Meme | Tags: , , , , , , ,

A book you hated:

In November I read, and fell in love with, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Otranto is widely recognized as the first gothic novel and opens with a man being crushed by a giant helmet that falls from the sky. It gets more ridiculous from there and the book reads as a high-energy romp through scenes that could easily form the basis for a Monty Python sketch. I had read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey years before and didn’t understand most of the Gothic parody so, in a burst of inspiration, I decided to further educate myself on the Gothic before rereading Austen’s novel, starting with M.G. Lewis’s The Monk.

It’s been at least six, seven months since I started the book and I still don’t want to admit that I’m never going to finish it. Not because I can see a glimmer of hope in the book, because I think I’ll come around when I read its last chapters; rather, because the book is so irredeemably bad that I don’t want to think about all the time I blew reading the first 70%, without even managing to knock the damn thing off my shelf for good.

Lewis’s story, about an irreproachable monk, Ambrosio, who falls off his pedestal once he starts sleeping with his pupil, Matilda, who has disguised herself as a boy (and, even better, posed for a portrait of the Virgin Mary hanging in Ambrosio’s vault so that she would appear to be the embodiment of Jesus’s mother). Like all men, once he’s bagged Matilda Ambrosio is ready to move on, and he falls further and further into depredation as the novel progresses. The plot’s motion is halted repeatedly by Lewis’s jaunts into other stories, like one about a nun’s ghost and another about a romance between Antonia (the woman Ambrosio sets his sights on after Matilda) and Lorenzo.

Lewis wrote The Monk in ten weeks, and I gotta say: it reads like it. Actually, what The Monk reads like is the first NaNoWriMo novel, with Lewis aiming for those 50,000 words and busting with pride when he manages to overshoot that count by his innumerable digressions into God Knows What.

In theory, The Monk is an appealing book: one of the earliest Gothic novels and very transgressive in having a monk as its villian. In practice, the book is a fine sleep aid.

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people would’ve read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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30 Day Book Meme, Day 10
August 11, 2011, 5:32 pm
Filed under: 30 Day Book Meme | Tags: , , , , , ,

Favorite Classic Book:

Today’s prompt…so hard to answer. I used to not be a lover of the “classics,” however you’re defining them, but in recent years I’ve come around. Sometimes it’s exhausting reading contemporary fiction, the stuff that’s been published in the last year or five years, the stuff that got some buzz when it came out, that people praise when you ask what they’re reading, but that ultimately feels lackluster. With the classics, all the hard work of weeding the books has been done for me, and I feel secure in my (totally awesome) idea that when I’m reading a classic, there’s a better chance I’ll end up loving it than if I’m reading, I dunno, the latest Booker winner.

Let’s take the plunge, though, shall we? E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. I grew up watching this movie once or twice a year with my parents, and slowly fell in love with them, first George, then Lucy, Mr. Beebe, and finally, more recently, Cecil – or that one moment with Cecil, when Lucy tells him she’s not going to marry him (quoting George the whole time). The book has turned into a near-yearly read as well. I can’t get too deep with this book or even consider going all literary on it, because what I love about Forster’s novel is the relationship between George and Lucy, between George and his father. Every time I read it or watch the movie, it’s excruciating to watch Lucy come so close to letting go of this chance she has for real love rather than a fitting connection with the sort of man who won’t play lawn tennis but instead walks around all day with his nose in a book. (That sounds like me, actually. Maybe I should work on how I present myself to potential suitors.) George and his father, Mr. Emerson, are the two characters in A Room with a View who act without regard for the social structures of the day, and I always feel a nearly desperate longing for Lucy to quit diddling about and just do what she wants, which would probably look a lot like what happens when George does what he wants:

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.

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people would’ve read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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