Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book 4- "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket" by Edgar Allen Poe

I didn't have high expectations for this book. Really. I mean, the name of the book itself takes awhile to read and isn't that interesting, so you can see where I was coming from. However, I am a huge Poe fan (and any Poe fan that hasn't gone to Poe Evermore at the Mount Hope Estate should really go...) so I decided to give it a whirl. I like a lot of his short stories, so I figured maybe I could get into this.

I didn't do any preliminary Googling (as I am trying to avoid with all of these books), so I had absolutely NO idea what it was about. About 2 pages in, I figure out it's about sailing. Crap. Not a sea-interested person, so this was strike 2. But I've made it through all my other books so far, so I decided to press on.


It should be stated at this point to that, for those of you who don't already know, I am also a huge Stephen King fan. Huge. As in celebrity-i-would-give-anything-to-meet kind of fan. As in I have a huge signed artists print of the cover of the last Dark Tower novel hanging in my living room kind of fan (despite everyone asking me "what's with the cowboy holding the rose?"). This story, though very obviously in the writing style of Poe, was very much like diving into a King novel, and made it clear to me that just the general "he wrote horror stories" point is not the only reason King lists Poe as an influence. ANYway, I thought this was important to note, just to let you know that my love of this book might be slightly biased.

Arthur Gordon Pym is the narrator of the story. He is away at school when his friend Augustus takes him sailing while extremely intoxicated, and predictably they almost die when the ship capsizes. This incident does nothing to deter Pym from a love of the sea, nor does it weaken his faith in Augustus. Thus, when Augustus suggests that Pym stow away on his (Augustus) father's whaling boat, remaining below deck in the stowage area until they are too far from Nantucket to turn around, absolutely no warning bells go off and Pym agrees immediately. Augustus leaves him with food, water, candles, etc. in a large shipping box, with a promise to check in whenever he can and bring more provisions as needed. This goes horribly awry, however, when the ship's crew mutinies, the captain is set adrift in a small boat, and Augustus is very nearly killed along with the ship's 40 or so other loyal crew members. Somehow, Augustus is spared, but is unable to check on Pym for several days. By this time, Pym has been below for days without water and nearly dies, but miraculously Augustus manages to locate him in the dark and save his life. Augustus, during the time Pym was suffering below deck, has befriended a man named Dirk Peters, who is doubting the leadership of the mutineers and considering a second mutiny (I know, crazy...). Augustus confides in Peters about the presence of Pym on the boat, and the three of them devise a plan to overthrow the gang of mutineers. The plan naturally works (obviously, since Pym IS the titular hero of the story.) Only one of the mutineers, Parker, is spared. When the ship ends up completely destroyed by a storm and they are left at the mercy of the currents, with no sails, Parker's luck runs out. He suggests that one of them sacrifice himself for the good of all (cannibalism, for those who didn't follow...) and unfortunately draws the short straw (since this is not "The Narrative of Parker.") He is killed and eaten. Augustus was injured during the second mutiny and dies of malnutrition/infection, leaving only Peters and Pym alive.

After nearly dying (again!) Pym and Peters are saved when they are discovered by the crew of another whaling ship. This ship sails really really far south to explore the Antarctic waters, runs into a group of natives who convince them they are friendly, lures them to their home island, and to make a long story short, everyone is killed. EXCEPT (you guessed it!) Pym and Peters. Pym and Peters survive a short time on the island, long enough to come up with an escape plan, which involves them slaughtering THOUSANDS of natives and escaping in a huge canoe. (I never said this story was believable. I said it was awesome.) They take one of the non-slaughtered natives on board with them as a hostage, but after several days adrift and due to some rather extreme behaviors on his part (refusal to drink/eat, fear of the color white, etc.) he dies. Peters and Pym drift further and further into really eerie conditions, where the water is white, cloudy, and uncomfortably hot to the touch, and they finally encounter what is described as being a very large figure of a man, with completely white skin.

This is where the book ends. There is a "note" at the end of the book, stating that Pym survived this trip but was somehow killed in an "accident" before he could finish his narrative. The writer of the note also indicates that Peters is alive and living in Chicago, but was unable to be located to fill in the last few chapters. So the reader never finds out what exactly they encountered at the South Pole; for my part, I was left with a feeling that whatever it was left both Pym and Peters cursed, since one died and the other went "missing" shortly thereafter.

Though some of the sentences ran on into forever and there where whole pages of sailing explanations/jargon that I literally just had to skim over or my head would explode, this was an incredibly interesting story with a plot that kept the reader interested (however unrealistic it may be.) The way Poe blends horror into reality makes the really horrifying parts seem believable in relation to the story... you don't get the feeling that he's trying to inject terrifying images that don't fit into a normal story, and the "horror" aspects aren't really a stretch (although much of the plot is. I mean, really... 2 men against thousands? And the 2 men win?) It was a book I will likely read again someday (really!) and I would recommend it to anyone.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Book 3- "The House of Seven Gables" by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The third choice of my list of classics leaves me somewhere between the first two-- I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it, either. (Which just made me hear Mitch Hedberg in my head saying "You either love it, or you hate it. Or you think that it's ok.")

"The House of Seven Gables" starts out with Hepzibah Pyncheon (I know, could he have come up with a more awful name to read over and over again? I mean, I get that it's Biblical... but so are Esther, and Sarah, and Abigail, and any other number of names that sound a heck of a lot less like someone clearing their throat), an "old maid," opening a shop in her supposedly cursed ancestral home because she is left with almost nothing to her name. Hepzibah has been a recluse for approximately 30 years, the entire time that her brother Clifford is in jail (which you don't find out about until about 3/4 of the way through the book.) On her second day as a shopkeeper, a distant cousin, a young woman named Phoebe, shows up to stay with Hepzibah (something about her widowed mother taking a new husband.) Phoebe breathes new life into the seven-gabled house, as well as enriching the lives of both Hepzibah and her brother, when he is released from jail a feeble-minded old man.

As the story (slowly) progresses, the reader uncovers, piece by piece, the history of the Pyncheon family. At the beginning, you learn that the Pyncheon land (on which the house of seven gables is built) was immorally taken from a man by name of Maule, who, upon refusing to give up his land to the much wealthier Colonel Pyncheon, is arrested, tried, and executed for witchcraft. On his day of execution, he exclaims, "God will give him blood to drink," referring to Pyncheon. This leads to the belief that the house is cursed/haunted, especially when several members of the family die a sudden death coughing up blood (a result of a hereditary disease, not a curse, but no one seems to draw a distinction...) Fast forward to the current (well, current in the story) generation, in which Hepzibah inherited the home from an uncle who died (and who's (natural) death was painted as a murder by another cousin, Jaffrey, who then frames Clifford for the murder out of jealousy and a desire to inherit his uncle's wealth, which had been bequeathed to Clifford.) (What a family.) In present day, Jaffrey, now a prominent judge, kind of taunts Hepzibah and Clifford, knowing that they hate him but pretending that he loves them anyway.

**Spoiler alert** Eventually, the Judge threatens Hepzibah, claiming that Clifford knows a secret to hidden wealth that he should have inherited upon his uncle's death, and threatening that if she does not convince Clifford to tell him, he will have Clifford put in a sanitarium. When she goes to get Clifford, the Judge conveniently succumbs to the family sudden-death disease, and Hepzibah and Clifford flee, sort of on a crazy celebratory vacation Clifford prods Hepzibah into. The body of the Judge is then discovered by Phoebe, who was away for a few days but returns to the home after its owners have left. She is let into the otherwise-locked home by Holgrave, a 22-year-old who had been renting out one of the gables from Hepzibah. He declares his love for Phoebe, she declares her love for him, and all the while the corpse of the Judge is just sitting in a chair in the other room (ew.) Luckily, Hepzibah and Clifford return just in time to avoid suspicion for fleeing so suddenly after the Judge's death, they all inherit a crap ton of money, and they live happily ever after. Oh, and predictably (to me, at least), it turns out that Holgrave is actually Matthew Maule, a descendant of the original Maule who cursed the Pyncheon family... you're left with a vague idea that the 200-year-old curse has been lifted by the death of the Judge and the union of a Maule and a Pyncheon.

My opinion of the story is this: the story itself (the plot, characters, etc.) is pretty good. Not knock-your-socks-off amazing, but entertaining. The problem is that it was horribly boring to read. Honestly. I literally dozed off today about 3/4 of the way through it... that's never happened to me before. He is WAY too descriptive for my taste... he will literally spend 8 pages describing a room in detail that is absolutely not in any way imperative to the plot. He spent quite a few pages describing the behavior of a couple of chickens, and ended the rambling with something like "but we need not waste our time talking about chickens, as they have no bearing on the story." (Ok, not those exact words, but something similar.) (Even HE thinks he's overly descriptive and a bit boring.) (And this happens several times throughout the book.)

Although there is an obvious plot to the story, it is not a plot-driven story; by which I mean that you are compelled to keep reading only to finish the book, because the plot moves so slowly that it doesn't really grab your interest. And when you're reading a 3 page description of a rug, it is (apparently) easy to doze off.

My recommendation? I know there have been several movies made of this book-- might be in your best interest to just try one of those.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Book 2- "Rebecca" by Daphne Du Maurier

Writing this particular entry is going to be difficult, though not in the same way that the last one was. The entry for "The Beautiful and Damned" was hard to write because I thought the book was kind of awful. "Rebecca", however, was amazing. Couldn't put it down. And now I have to try to write about it without giving anything away, because I think everyone should read it.

"Rebecca" starts out with my second favorite opening line of all books I've ever read: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." (For those of you who are now curious, my favorite opening line of all time is to "The Gunslinger," the first of the 7 Dark Tower novels by Stephen King, which opens "The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.") The first chapter is largely the main character/narrator (who is never actually given a name) recounting her dream. She then talks of present day life, with her and her husband having left Manderley, never to return, and the emotions that are stirred by memories of their former home. She leads the reader into the idea that something evil and or tragic happened there, without being too blatant or bold and without giving anything away.

Most of the book is spent recounting the relationship and marriage of the narrator and Maxim de Winter, the millionaire owner of Manderley, a renowned estate in England. He is somewhere around 20 years older than the narrator, and their relationship begins innocently enough, but after a short period of spending a lot of time together, he proposes and then marries the narrator. She is his second wife; the first wife, Rebecca, is believed to have drowned a year prior.

The narrator, who is from here on out referred to only as "Mrs. de Winter", moves to Manderley with Maxim after a long honeymoon in Italy, and is completely out of her element. She is an orphan and was raised very simply, so suddenly becoming the head of an estate is a complete culture shock. She relies heavily on Mrs. Danvers, who serves as the head of the house staff, despite Mrs. Danvers' obvious dislike of her. Mrs. de Winter, upon meeting the staff, family, and friends of her husband, starts to feel more and more in the shadow of Rebecca, and inadvertently begins digging around in Rebecca's past, trying to learn more of her life and more about her death. Her husband is reluctant to speak about Rebecca at all, so much of what she learns about Rebecca is from the staff, the devoted Mrs. Danvers, and local acquaintances, all of whom paint a picture of a regal, personable, beautiful woman who is greatly missed. But there are hints throughout that there is more to the story of Rebecca, and that there is more than meets the eye.

I'm not going to say much more about the plot of the story, because I don't want to reveal anything about the ending-- you'll have to read it for yourself (and are welcome to borrow my copy.) I began reading it Monday morning and finished it very early Tuesday morning, unable to go to bed without finding out what happens to everyone (which is a problem I have with books in general-- I have a hard time knowing when to stop.) I have to admit, after "The Beautiful and Damned" it would have been hard not to like ANY book that followed, but "Rebecca" was truly a fun, interesting, exciting read, and my week 3 book now has a hard act to follow.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Book 1- "The Beautiful and Damned" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

When I am presented with a plate of food, whether at home, at a restaurant, or at a family gathering, I like to eat my least favorite thing first and my favorite last, so that when I am finished and full, the taste of the least favorite thing has been sufficiently smothered by the lingering taste of the favorite thing. That’s the way I approached my book list—I combed it for something I was fairly certain I wouldn’t like first, just to get it out of the way. Thus, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In high school, I was tasked with reading “The Great Gatsby.” All I heard was how prolific, how symbolic, how classic “Gatsby” was, and I was completely let down. What a droll, self-indulgent, BORING piece of literature! So when I came up with the idea of reading 52 classics in a year, my mind went back to Fitzgerald. Although I couldn’t force myself to reread “Gatsby”—I was old enough when I read it the first time to know that I won’t like it any better now—I chose another of his well-reviewed books, included in one of the “50 Classics” collections on my Nook.

“The Beautiful and Damned” is about Anthony Patch, an orphan raised by his very wealthy grandfather. He is largely a loner growing up, and maintains only a small group of friends when he goes to Harvard, who remain friends into his adulthood. He decides not to work after college, feeling that there is nothing worth doing because life is meaningless; he instead decides to live off of the interest money he collects from his dead mother’s estate. This continues until he meets Gloria, a very self-centered, self-indulgent debutante from Kansas. A match made in Heaven, they eventually marry, and flit around the country spending money, drinking, and partying. After several years, they are discontent in their marriage and would probably have divorced, had Anthony not been drafted; the year they spend apart while he is in the military reawakens their interest in one another and when he returns, they pick up where they left off. The economy, however, has taken a dive, and the interest money is no longer enough to sustain their lavish lifestyle. Anthony “looks” for a job but finds nothing— instead, he turns once again to drinking, and at this point in the story becomes a pretty serious alcoholic. His grandfather, a Prohibitionist, cuts Anthony out of his will and then dies; Anthony and Gloria contest the will, lose the case, appeal, lose, appeal, etc. All the while, Anthony’s alcoholism is getting worse, Gloria is finally growing up but is reluctant to leave Anthony because she does not want to have to work, and the two continue partying every night to forget their problems, then resenting each other the next morning. Finally, at the end of the book, they win their court case and Anthony is awarded millions of dollars from his grandfather’s estate, but his alcoholism has taken its toll and he has basically gone mad. The book ends with Anthony as a 30-something wheelchair bound nutcase and Gloria operating basically as his very, very well paid nurse.

So I get it. The moral of the story is two-fold: money can’t buy happiness, and love built solely on beauty doesn’t last. Two very valid points, but two points that Fitzgerald fails to hit on hard enough to give the reader the “a-ha!” moment of realization; instead, I was left depressed, angry, bored, and disappointed. It’s hard to stay interested in a story with two completely unlikable main characters; Anthony is grumpy, selfish, and judgmental, and Gloria is dimwitted, narcissistic, and bossy. The beginning of their marriage is full of indulgence and entitlement, and after only about two years their marriage is full of resentment, bitterness, and bickering. I never had that moment where I felt bad for them, or felt that they had a moment where they realized what their selfishness had cost them; even in the moments where they admit to themselves and each other that they are the cause of their own ruination, you never get the feeling that they actually regret anything but the money drying up.

Really, Fitzgerald? I see what you were going for here, but I’d kind of rather have the six or so hours of my life back.