Thursday, April 30, 2009

19. Belinda by Maria Edgeworth

I can't decide if Belinda is subversive for its time or not. It was left over from my eighteenth century class reading, my professor had us buy it and then decided not to cover it. It was the last book in my room that I hadn't read. So I am now free to buy a book from an indie bookstore on May 1st!

Belinda is, of course, the main character, and the book follows very typical patterns for an eighteenth or nineteenth century novel. The style was very similar to Jane Austen's novels, although distinct in some ways as well. The characters were less interesting, but also, I think, more realistic than Miss Austen's.

Belinda is a young lady in society under the care of the dissipated Lady Delacour. And what must ladies in society do but marry for money? Only Belinda learns, quite early, that she wishes to marry for domestic happiness.

Edgeworth drags the reader through some contemporary London society, introduces her love interest, Clarence Hervey, and then distracts with a long volume dedicated to Lady Delacour's mysterious illness and subsequent reformation. The book has every element of the eighteenth-century novel, it is a "moral tale," involves the criticism of partying and gossiping, the elevation of domestic life, two potential love interests (though one is clearly favored), a "good" advisor and a "bad" advisor, and a lost child re-discovered by a convenient mole.

Edgeworth does have unusually witty, and self-aware dialogue. The characters discuss books as well as morals, there is much criticism of clergymen, and best of all, no clear-cut villains and angels. The celebrated Lady Anne Percival promotes the "wrong" love interest to Belinda, while the society cougar Lady Delacour helps Belinda find her heart. The books ends on a somewhat satirical note, with Edgeworth blasting the speed with which characters suddenly fall in love and marry at the end of a novel, as well as the notion that they will live happily ever after. Since there is much poetry (and French) sprinkled throughout, the ending couplet feels well put.

"Our tale contains a moral, and, no doubt,
You all have wit enough to find it out."

Not just for the scholars, Belinda could very well please today's ravenous Austen fans.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Everything is a Theory

18. The Theory of Everything by Stephen Hawking

First off, don't ask me to explain Stephen Hawking's theories. I did learn what he thinks is going to happen to the universe (though even he admits he doesn't fully understand), but I did not comprehend his simple but oh so baffling explanations.

The book is comprised of seven lectures. The language is concise, with simplistic examples to illustrate what is happening to the universe. Hawking provides a brief history of research into the origins of the universe, black holes, the time line, and the fate of the universe. His research, and all the modern research up to the time the lectures were published (2002), are included. At the time, Hawking believed that he and others were working toward a unified theory that would explain the origins and fate of the universe, and would combine quantum mechanics, general relativity, string theory etc.

Some of Hawkling's theories (I can't say conclusions, because science, especially physics, by its nature is never concluded), include that the universe is expanding (there is evidence for this in the spectra of stars that have been analyzed and certain radiations that have been observed), that the universe is finite but without boundary (he rejects, but still flirts with the Big Bang theory), that black holes exist and, contrary to definition, emit radiation, and that imaginary time or alternate timelines exist.

His theories are quite a bonanza for science fiction, in my opinion. What I could understand sounded logical, but most of what I could not understand sounded very contradictory. I think this is just because the breadth and depth of his theories are so intense, and well, wild. If the universe had no beginning, how can it be finite? Wouldn't it have to be infinite? And if black holes by definition suck everything in, including light, how can they emit radiation? And string theory is just crazy, crazy stuff. I'm not even sure if the strings in question are hypothetical or not. How can imaginary time exist and not exist at the same time? (And how do you define existence then...)

Hawking mentions the Creator a lot too, he is careful to include openings citing the possibility that God could still exist, but in the end he does ask where there is room for the Creator in a universe without a boundary. Hawking is not shy either, he suggests he could win the Nobel Prize if there is sufficient evidence for one of his theories about black holes. However, since it is a lecture, I could understand how many of his self-congratulations would make more sense when speaking to a class, perhaps ironically.

This is definitely something I need to read again, and something that needs to be taught in schools, until children understand it. Hawking remarks that if a unified theory could be achieved, then a simplified version of it could be available for everyone, not just specialists. Then, maybe we could use that information to improve our sense of peace with ourselves and others.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

17. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

From the author of Rebecca, there's another unresolved Gothic "mystery" novel. I'd never heard of My Cousin Rachel until I found it in a bargain pile at Barnes & Noble. I was a fan of Rebecca, so I bought it for roughly $5.

I would say du Maurier's books are actually not mysteries in the conventional sense. To anyone with a sense of intuition, it's clear from the first chapter who did it. The question is why. du Maurier is a queen of eerie setting and grey characters.

In My Cousin Rachel, there are two contrasting Great Houses. One is the hereditary Ashley home, which Philip Ashley will inherit after the death of his beloved cousin Ambrose. This home is in du Maurier's native Cornwall, a family home turned well-cared-for bachelor pad. The other home is the Italian villa of Ambrose's wife Rachel, where he dies. That home was once the scene of luxury, but was depleted to satisfy debts. Both homes are suffused with extravagant gardens, a passion of Ambrose and Rachel both.

This book concentrates on a young man, Philip Ashley, instead of a young woman. After Ambrose's death, he blames his as yet never-met cousin Rachel. But when Rachel comes to Cornwall, he can hate her no longer. Eventually, he also falls in love with her.

There are a couple interesting points to the story that make me wonder what the author is trying to say. Philip, raised by Ambrose, has never been around women much, and is a complete stranger to their ways. Much is made of this. It is clear that Rachel takes advantage of Philip, as she had of Ambrose. And yet, it is Philip who initiates his own destruction, it appears to me. Is du Maurier criticizing men or women or both? Does she believe it is dangerous for women to have power?

And finally, there is the fact that Rachel is something of a witch doctor, a particularly feminine art. Rachel is often described as "small" and "feminine.' Is du Maurier saying it is in the nature of a true woman to be destructive?

There is much to be dissected here, in a story that is obvious enough on the surface. It is true to the Gothic form, which I clearly need to study more.

Monday, April 20, 2009

16. The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay

Being suddenly immersed in a fantasy world, it's often difficult to get your bearings. Guy Gavriel Kay doesn't make it easy. He plunges the reader immediately into the action, complete with strange names, geographic and cultural references. However, there is something familiar about this tale of Northern lands and raiders, an emerging seacoast kingdom, and inland agricultural tribes.

In his Acknowledgments, Kay explains that his three peoples are based on the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and Celtics respectively. This is something I discovered for myself before too long, but I think I would have liked to have known it going in. It would have made the book immediately more accessible.

Strands of the tale are indeed reminiscent of Beowulf and the legends of King Arthur, but it has a cohesive spirit all its own. The stories seem disconnected at first, but eventually the three peoples come into contact, and the world changes. A worthy, timeless saga.

Kay's writing style also struck me as somewhat original. His language is simple and pictorial. The flow not only appears effortless (though I am sure it is not), but I hope it is a style which I could someday achieve. I would not wish simply to copy Kay, of course, but I would like to incorporate it into a way I have already been writing. The best way to show you is an example such as this;

"Hope, a licence to dream. The beginnings of these things. Men gather close around a night fire in Beortferth Hall, walls and a roof between them and the rain at last. There is one bard among them, his instrument damply out of tune. It doesn't matter. He sings the old songs, and Aeldred joins in the singing, and then all of them do (158)"

This passage is a flashback, describing the winter when Aeldred has become king after the slaughter of his father and brother by their enemies the Erlings, who are still occupying their lands. Aeldred, king of the Anglcyn, builds up a force that winter and retakes his lands in the spring. To me, the passage evokes a pre-Camelot, or Hrothgar's mead hall when tidings of Beowulf arrive.

The Last Light of the Sun is an epic of the past in a modern style, and it is fantasy at its best. Fantasy and science fiction show us who we were, who we could have been, and who we could be. The only mythical creatures in this book are faeries, and they fit in too, with the tales men used to tell. Even if it's not true, I believe it still has a meaning we can take to heart; there is so much more out there than we can ever know or understand, and Kay believes, with or without us, it will go on.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

People Stuck in the Book

15. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I wanted to like this book. And I did, to a certain extent. Geraldine Brooks imagines the people that owned and protected the legendary Sarajevo Haggadah. A good book to read during Passover. The Sarajevo Haggadah is a real artifact that originated in Spain and found its way to Sarajevo in Bosnia, part of the former Yugoslavia. It is known for its daring illustrations, made in a time when Jews were as wary of likenesses as many Muslims are still today.

The book follows the story of Hanna Heath, the book conservator assigned to the Sarajevo Haggadah (Hanna, like all of Brooks' characters, is fictional), interspersed with the tales of the people who, as I mentioned, owned or protected the Haggadah. I liked Hanna as a narrator, she had definite character. I also feel like I learned a lot about the art and field of book conservation, which interests me. The story centered a lot on her relationship with her mother, which is fine, but the mother is absolutely unbelievable. She's a completely one-dimensional job-obsessed character. Blah. That's just no fun. Obviously you have to hate her.

The problem with most of Brooks' characters is they just don't quite seem like they could exist outside of the book. They're two and a half dimensional. The Sarajevo Haggadah is born on the edge of the Spanish Inquisition, it braves the Inquisition in Venice as well, the rise of anti-Semitism in late nineteenth-century Austria, the Nazi Occupation of Sarajevo, and finally the Bosnian Civil War. The characters who fashion and shelter the Haggadah experience more than their share of cruelty and upheaval. Maybe their setting is the problem.

The reader sees these characters in pain, in sorrow, in desperation. We never see them happy or celebratory. Sometimes there is hope or strength, but I'm not sure if they're capable of being happy. And that's what's missing from this book.

The People of the Book may have a long history of persecution, but there is also a history of triumph and celebration. I understand that too often, authors tie everything up with happy endings and stray from the dark, but if Brooks wants realism, she ought to admit there's a light side too.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Boston Solidarity

I got this from the Porter Square Books blog.

Looks like I may have to break my no-book-buying vow. Or finish all my books by May 1st...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

14. The Trophy Kids Grow Up by Ron Alsop

Never say 'permanent setback' I guess. I gobbled this one up last night. My mom handed it to me, "Oh I got this book, you might be interested..."

It's about the generation Alsop calls the millenials, born between 1980 and 2001. MY generation. And it was pure characteristic narcissism that spurred me to read it, and so quickly. Besides, I'm curious what THEY'RE saying about us!

Alsop neatly sums up our generation, our parents, and how the workplace will, or already is, adapting to us. He of course points out that he can't pigeonhole every one of us, we're all individual, but certain traits that tend to illustrate us are as follows; entitled, civic minded, technologically advanced, team oriented, narcissistic, impatient, value work-life balance, and multi-tasking. He includes a chapter devoted to each of these traits, and their impact, as well as two chapters devoted to the helicopter parent phenomenon.

I think Alsop has us well figured out, for the most part. I don't fit many of the traits of our generation, but I would say I see many of these traits in my peers, and a few in myself as well. For example, Alsop explains that millenials like clear directions at work and are often at a loss without guidelines. I definitely get frustrated when my bosses don't explain clearly what I'm supposed to do, and without getting too much into that, maybe it is because of the plethora of rubrics and outlines at school (although I always got around those dumb pre-planned theses).

I would like to think that none of his criticism of our communication skills apply to me. The stories he told of incorrectly spelled thank you notes and in-office emails with poor grammar chilled my bones. Also, as much as I revel in jeans and T-shirts at home, I like dressing nicely for work. Tailored pants or skirt suits make me feel professional, and powerful. Apparently, we're turning out to be regular office slobs.

Alsop includes a list of the four generations in the current workplace and their generational traits; Traditionalists (1925-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Gen Xers (1965-1979), and of course us Millenials (1980-2001); in his introductory chapter.

Funnily enough, I think I'm straight Gen X; self-reliant, adaptable, cynical, distrusts authority, resourceful, entrepreneurial, and technology savvy. I'm everything but the last one. I would say I know plenty of people my age who are adaptable, self-reliant, and entrepreneurial, but Alsop claims we rely too much on our parents.

Trophy Kids just came out in 2008 though, and missed the worst of the recession. I think our generation's characteristics will change a lot based on that. This book has a good picture of where we were headed, but now I think the story will be tweaked. Millenials will lose a lot of that entitlement when they're just trying to make a living. I know I don't expect to get too many job offers, I'll snap up whatever I can get and put up with a lot to keep food on my table. Yes, I am one of the lucky ones who has the option to fall back on my parents, but I would be ashamed to do so. However, when Alsop says we'll bounce around and won't have company loyalty like the old folks did, that's probably an accurate assessment.

Much of the book is anecdotal, and based squarely in corporate America. It's not the whole picture, but hey, we like seeing any part of ourselves in the mirror.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A History of Humanity

13. A History of God by Karen Armstrong

I feel so successful, having just finished this tome. It's taken me far longer than anything else I've read this year so far, and it may have permanently set me back on my goal, but I am proud to have contemplated my way through it.

Armstrong starts off with a personal note, but for the most part, her book is impressively objective. She begins with the murky origins of monotheism and follows the developing paths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Her history is comprehensive, albeit necessarily condensed. Especially in the beginning, she uses Hindu and Buddhist ideas to illustrate concepts, but narrows her focus once she is past the wider breadth of ancient history. Her book takes shape as a dialogue between successive philosophers of all three faiths.

The thread from the chapters "The God of the Philosophers" and "The God of the Mystics" forms the central argument of the book. Theologians have believed in one or the other, and in many cases, a mixture, of these twin Gods. The God of the Philosophers has its roots in the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, a God who is Other, who is not concerned with humanity and is separate from that which has emanated from It. The God of the Mystics appears in Sufism and Kabbalism, as well as Buddhism. This God is a subjective experience, found within one's self,and in the eyes of Hasids and Quakers alike, in divine sparks that make up everything in the world. When these divine sparks are united, everything will be One, that is to say God, that is to say Nothingness, or nirvana, will be achieved. The God of the Mystics is Nothing, they say, because he cannot be described in any human terms.

There is a third, shadow God that lurks in these pages as well. He is a literal, pagan, personal God. Everything Armstrong negatively associates with God, she dumps into this one idea, that she thinks is eating up fundamentalists and nonbelievers alike. The God who is interpreted literally, the God we see in the Bible, who orders the Israelites to slaughter their enemies, who punishes with banishment from the Holy Land, is the one Armstrong attempts to slay.

Her final chapter, "Is There a Future for God?" describes her support of a new, mystical approach to God that would jive with the modern atheism. She believes that the fundamentalist God is in fact not the "real" God of the three monotheistic religions. She is correct, in a way. There are peaceful, positive movements within Christiantity, Islam, and Judaism. But even Armstrong admits that only a minority observe this religion. She has demonstrated throughout her history many of the proponents of this minority, all great and well-known men, like Jesus and Mohammad themselves, Isaac Luria, Moses Maimonides, Moses Mendelssohn, the Baal Shem Tov, even Shabbetai Levi. I remembered those since I've heard of them before, she also mentioned many Sufi mystics and other Muslim and Christian philosophers, as they come to my mind; Kant, Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Hegel, Ibn al-Arabi....

But my point is that Armstrong's history, while fascinating and instructive, is not a history of the religion of the majority, of the laypeople. Their God has historically been both personal and literal. And Armstrong, and I, reject that God. Where does that leave them?

The mystical God, who is Not, who is within each of us, and not a separate entity, is certainly an ancient idea. But will the majority of people ever be able to accept it?

If Armstrong's thesis is to be believed, eventually yes. They will be forced by the revelations of science (which she explains is more of a problem for Christians, who tend to be more literal in their interpretations of the Bible), to lose faith in what she terms The Old Man in the Sky. She shows us that ideas of God change with the fate of the believers. She ends with an injunction to review the history of God for yourself, and Armstrong's book is a great place to start.