Friday, July 31, 2009

38. Persuasion by Jane Austen

Persuasion is my favorite of Austen's novels, and such a relief after Emma. The heroine, Anne Elliot, is more subdued than other heroines, she has a strong sense of correct behavior, but also a deep sympathy for romance. At twenty-seven, she is the oldest and most mature of Austen's heroines. The novel begins eight years after Anne has been persuaded to give up an imprudent engagement to a man named Wentworth. He is nobody, with no fortune, and she is the daughter of a vain baronet. One of my favorite lines describes the situation, "She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older-the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning (21)."

I catch more and more of Austen's subtle wordings, and the slightly different narrative tone of each book. In Persuasion, I think I caught a reference to the only Shakespeare sonnet I know completely by heart; "Anne could not immediately fall into a quotation again. The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by-unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness,, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory (57)." Am I wrong?

Not only is Anne my favorite heroine, but Captain Wentworth is also my favorite of Austen's heroes, he is without the pride and condescension that usually mars them, in my opinion. Socially, Anne has the highest position, and Wentworth the lowest, in the hierarchy of Austen's characters. (Emma is better off financially though). Perhaps it is his being socially nobody, but a self-made Navy man, that lets him out of the gentleman's trap. When their love story concludes with a letter, how could my heart not be wholly won?

I've heard it said that Persuasion is more melancholy and more subtle than Austen's other novels. I'm not sure I would quite agree, citing Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park for melancholy, and Emma for subtlety. Certainly, Pride and Prejudice is the liveliest and most entertaining, I will not claim those distinctions for Persuasion. I will only argue that it is more mature, and ultimately, more fulfilling, than any of the others.

Nineteenth Century Russia Never Fails Me

37. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

Pushkin makes me wish I could read Russian. I read the Penguin classic translation, translated into English by Charles Johnston, and the narrator uses such amusing language and asides as makes me sure I am missing much from the original. Johnston used rhyming verses, as the Russian rhymes, though apparently there is a non-rhyming Nabokov translation. The non-rhyming version may be more technically accurate, but Johnston contends that rhyming better captures the spirit and intent of the original. I'm inclined to agree with him, if only because I think Nabokov was a pretentious (though gifted) asshole.

Eugene Onegin is ostensibly the story of a jaded Russian aristocrat, who trades his dissipated flirtations in Moscow for a solitary life in the countryside. Our hero, Onegin, is befriended by Vladimir Lensky, who is enamoured of his youthful love Olga Larin. Lensky introduces Onegin to the Larins, where Olga's brooding older sister Tatyana falls in love with him. However, her love goes unrequited. The bitter Onegin, to force his jaded outlook on Lensky, flirts with Olga, and wins himself a challenge to a duel. Onegin kills Lensky, Olga marries another, Tatyana goes to Moscow, and the story leaves off for many years. Finally, Onegin meets Tatyana in Moscow, as his cousin's wife. Now, passion seizes him and he addresses her as she once addressed him. The poem ends with Tatyana's rejection of Onegin.

Yet Eugene Onegin's chief attraction is the narrator, who spends verses on his own opinions and hardships, describing himself as a friend of Onegin, yet careful to consistently differentiate between the two. Is the narrator Onegin, or Pushkin, or someone else? It is evident that the narrator is infatuated with Tatyana, long before "Evgeny" (a nickname for Eugene) sees her value. He speaks of Olga, "take any novel, clearly traced, you're sure to find her portrait: a portrait with a charming touch; once I too liked it very much; but now it bores me every minute (47)." After this one verse on Olga, he devotes five to her sister.

Pushkin's obvious intimacy with French and English literature of his time, and ancient Greek and Roman mythology and philosophy, is even more endearing to me. He often references Byron, as well as Tolstoy, Cicero as well as romance writers like Grandison and Lovelace. His descriptions of feasts, of people and food, remined me of Anna Karenina and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. In him, as in other nineteenth century Russian authors, I think I have found a faithful friend.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Character Only Austen Could Love

36. Emma by Jane Austen

This is only my second reading of Emma, with good reason. Though I did not despise the book or the character quite as much this time, I am very glad to be done with it (Sort of, I still have a paper to write...). Perhaps it is too long for a Jane Austen novel, or perhaps it's the fact that it's the only Austen novel where the characters remain in the same setting for the entire novel. I think it also has the smallest cast of characters. But the greatest problem is that none, or few, of these characters are likable. And if there is a villain, it is Emma herself.

My favorite characters were the ridiculous characters, the "valetudinarian" Mr. Woodhouse, and the infuriatingly talkative Miss Bates. I amused myself with their antics, particularly in the latter half, when Miss Bates' chatter gives hints to important plot development. Mr. Knightley, though I resented his Darcy-like condescension and superiority, especially in the beginning, I admit is much more of a truly kind and stand-up gentleman than Emma deserves. I warmed to Emma a bit at the end, and she is very kind to her father, but she's so selfish and prejudiced and ignorant...

This book has really only given me a great desire to see Clueless, which we watched clips of in class. It will be interesting to compare, and, I conjecture, not nearly as tedious.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Vonnegut Rises Again

35. Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

This is unlike any Vonnegut novel I've read before, and has restored my former appreciation for him. It was one of his earliest, which probably accounts for the more conventional organization. No disjointed timelines or too abrupt transitions here. Narration only skips between two small casts of characters.

It's hard not to like the discontented Dr. Paul Proteus, an engineer and manager, who watches machines he invented replace men as workers. Of all Vonnegut's dystopias, perhaps this one is most plausible. The world is inevitably quirky, but the characters have the absolute ring of truth about their behavior. I was interested in the economic system of this world, an automated socialism. The images of cities of people with nothing to do, provided for as the machines think best, is haunting.

Even more gloriously realistic is the subsequent revolution. The novel works toward it obviously, so I don't think I'm spoiling anything there. I've read enough Vonnegut that I can predict him, but this time, the characters impressed me, and so did the language. I definitely recommend Player Piano, especially as an introduction to Vonnegut, but if you just never got around to it, it's still a thoughtful read.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Short Reviews

Short reviews for these, they don't deserve (or in P&P's case) need any more.

32. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party by Alfred P. Young

This was for my History of Boston class. It's about a shoemaker named George Robert Twelves Hewes (I believe he was a twelfth child) who witnesses the Boston Massacre, is a significant participant in the Boston Tea Party, and fights in the continental army. He was poor all his life and gained recognition in his nineties for his actions in the destruction of the tea. Two biographies were written about him near the end of his life, and he finally gained fame and his veteran's pension.

Young argues that the phrase "Tea Party" wasn't in official (that is, written) use until Hewes' biographies came out. He talks about politics during and after the Revolution, and how more prominent citizens of Boston wished to forget how they used working class rabble to destroy the tea. It's all about class struggles and selective public memory and blah blah blah. Very technical. I'm interested in history, but really, this seems to me a minute and boring point of argument. I would've rather just learned about Hewes' life and made my own interpretations than having Young's complex, and I'm not sure altogether sound, opinions thrust on me. For Revolutionary historians who really like to nitpick.

33. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

What is there to say that has not been said before? I still don't like Mr. Darcy, though I may have come to see why so many women do. His turnaround at the end is at least mostly genuine, I believe. And Lizzy's feelings for him are well developed, if, I think, wrongly guided! Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine are hilarious as per usual. It was great having people to enjoy that with.

I've come to a different understanding of Mr. Bennet too. I didn't like him as much after seeing how he neglects his family, but at least he comes to realize it. Mrs. Bennet is more of a shocking fright every time. I still sympathize with Mr. Bennet over her. I liked the multiple asides on the Bennets, their relationship and interactions are almost as great as Darcy and Elizabeth's.

Well, there's your Austen gossip for the day.

34. Everything Matters by Ron Currie Jr.

Currie introduces a fascinating concept-a young boy is born with the knowledge that human life on Earth will be destroyed by meteorite when he is thirty-six years old. Knowing this, does anything matter? The optimistic answer, of course, is in the title.

I won't spoil the twist, but I will admit I was disappointed. I think the overall concept is good, but since it is a novel rather than a short story, it needed other ideas to move it along. Instead, Currie focuses on the characters, but he writes them almost one-dimensionally. The extensive use of drugs in the novel is more blase than edgy, and he doesn't even address the moral or perceived moral issues associated with drug use ( I wouldn't have cared what the stance was, I just wanted him to take one). There is just a lot of telling rather than showing, and a lack of complexity, in characters and plot, that again, would have been more appropriate to a short story.

The most amusing character, I thought, was Junior (the protagonist)'s older brother Rodney as a nine-year-old cocaine addict. When Rodney suffers a contrived brain injury from the cocaine use, he's rendered docile and uninteresting, save for his remarkable baseball talent.

Does everything matter? This book doesn't have me convinced. And after all, that's the point, isn't it? The "proof" is interesting and certainly with merit, but I would have enjoyed a more philosophical answer. I am surprised that Everything Matters was as well received by critics as it was and I don't think it deserves any 'best of 2009' awards.

Friday, July 3, 2009

31. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Over the summer, I'm taking a Major Figure course on Jane Austen. The original plan was to read all six novels, but we decided to drop Mansfield Park. I've read all of the novels before, and with the exception of Emma, which I have read once or possibly twice, I've read them all too many times to count.

I finished S&S again yesterday. I actually had a very different reaction to the novel than I've had before. Elinor, the representative of Sense, was always my favorite, but now I really appreciate the Sensibility of her sister Marianne. Austen used 'sensibility' in a very particular sense. To her, it meant an emotional and intuitive intelligence, including taste, culture, and feeling. This use of the word was evident to me from the first without having it outwardly explained, but some people seem to need the explanation. It is, however, not the meaning most people would currently associate with the word. In fact, we use sense and sensibility interchangeably.

Particularly reading Austen, I realize the extent of my literary snobbery. I am very comfortable with the material, and don't really understand when other people find it difficult. I have found different layers of meaning in subsequent readings, but I never struggled with the story or the language overmuch (I do remember learning the meaning of 'sanguine' from reading S&S). Is it really so weird or uncommon to feel this way? Is this an okay sentiment to express to the class? I feel it is not, because others have expressed such problems, but I also feel like their problems are detrimental to the erudite discussions that I want out of the class.

Oh well. It's still very interesting. So, you will be seeing plenty of Austen reviews here for the next month or so. And perhaps a larger overall review at the end.
30. Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don't Play Baseball by Jennifer Ring

As Ring prefaces her book with the story of her daughter's struggle to play baseball in an equal setting, I'm going to preface my review by talking about my sister. She is the one who introduced me to this book and generously loaned it to me. My sister is a star baseball player. She plays in a women's baseball league as well as a local rec team, where she is the only girl. She also plays softball for her high school and now on a traveling team. The softball was not her choice. It was foisted upon her because there are no girls' baseball teams in high school or college. There are no baseball scholarships for girls. There are no professional baseball leagues for women either. I have always wondered why people are so silent on this subject. I have never considered softball as equal to baseball. Its very name soft ball implies inferiority. It implies that women are not 'hard' enough for the real thing. Jennifer Ring speaks to my anger. She answers my questions, and flares up my bitterness.

Ring is often vitriolic, particularly against one man, A.G. Spalding. She blames him, one of the founders of men's professional baseball, and owner of the sporting-goods store, for deliberately excluding women. She says American women were excluded from baseball twice, first legally, along with non-white men, including Jews and Italians, and then with the advent of softball. As I've heard before, softball was originally a men's game played indoors in bad weather, but was adopted as a less violent and competitive game deemed appropriate for women and girls. Men's baseball organizations have consistently been unhelpful to female players. Little League responded to equality suits with Little League softball.

I agree with Ring in many points; women do not prefer softball by choice, men have created a society that encourages the exclusion of women, and, to remedy this, organizations need to be built from the ground up, to have baseball rec teams and school teams for young girls and then older girls. The question of professional teams for women can barely be bridged yet. I am not blind to her faults, however. I do think she places not entirely deserved brick-tons of blame at Spalding's door. Also, I was surprised that she seems to think most men would willingly exclude girls from private baseball teams, or at least never give them the consideration they give to boys (nor give anyone the consideration given their own sons), but her experiences would seem to justify this.

I was interested in her research into the origins of baseball. I always assumed it derived from cricket, but apparently it came from an even simpler game (from which cricket also derived), called rounders, with varying rules, and played by both boys and girls in England for centuries. Spalding rejected this hypothesis, and insisted baseball was the immaculate conception of the American male. I was interested to learn that Henry Chadwick, brother of Edwin Chadwick, hero of London sanitation, immigrated to the U.S. to become the hero of sanitizing (that is, formalizing rules and disciplining players) baseball.

I would definitely recommend this book, as I have a vested interest in forwarding the issue. Ring also apparently plans to write another book on the subject, based on a more intimate study of current women's baseball teams. My sister went to one of her book signings and was asked for her information, so she might be interviewed for the next book, which would be exciting. In the meantime, I'm rooting for all the girls out there in baseball right now and hoping opportunities continue to grow!