Top Ten Tuesday: “Literary Best Friends”

I have to admit … some of these top ten lists are irresistible.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  Today’s list is top ten “Fictional BFFs”  I’m sure I’m leaving out a lot, and also as usual this list is slightly biased toward what I have read recently, but here goes…

10. Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) she has to get on the list if for no other reason that she willingly went to visit her friend Charlotte even after the latter had married Mr. Collins. I rest my case.

9. Diggory Venn (Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy) Kind of a minor character, but unwaveringly loyal to his lost love, Thomasin Yeobright, even though he had “lost” her to another.

8. Damon (or Pythias) from Classical Mythology. (you knew I had to get at least one classical reference thrown in here) Kind of an overt Tale of Two Cities theme, where Damon takes the place – as a prisoner – of his condemned friend Pythias so that the latter can make one final visit to his loved ones before being executed by the tyrant Dionysius. In this case friendship was rewarded when Pythias – though delayed – arrives just in time before his friend Damon is executed in his place.  The tyrant is so impressed with his loyalty he lets both go free.

7. Helen Burns (Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte) She was Jane’s steadfast friend from the dismal Lowood Years.  Who among us was not heartbroken with her passing? Resurgam!

6. Nicholas Nickleby (Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens). Have to get at least one Dickens character in here.  I will stand by any person who demonstrates such loyalty and compassion as he did with the beleaguered Smike…

5. Basil Hallward (The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde) Another rather minor character, but Dorian’s downfall cannot be blamed on his painter friend, who made efforts to stop him and to save his soul.

4. Samwise Gamgee (the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein) He would follow a friend to the end of the earth – or at least to the top of Mount Doom, as he did for Frodo.

3. (any of) Harry-Hermione-Ron (from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling) This triumvirate endures seven volumes and has become synonymous with friendship after being ‘randomly’ thrown together in the first book.

2. George Milton (from Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck) A “controversial” pick within my own mind, but how he takes care of Lenny – even to the extremest of measures – earned my respect.

1. “Charley” (from Travels With Charley by Steinbeck). I’d hate to rate one human character as better than the rest, so I’ll stick with man’s best friend. Charley’s constant companionship and work as the author’s ambassador in his travels around the country earn him my top spot. And what about his reaction upon seeing the bears in Yellowstone? Here’s a friend who would fight to the death on your behalf!

Well, that’s my list. What about yours? Did any of mine make your list?

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“The Signal” – a reading ritual from younger days…

I am fortunate enough to have grown up in an environment where reading was encouraged and highly valued.  I was taught to read earlier than most of my schoolmates and – probably not coincidentally – usually tested out at a higher “reading level” than my classmates.  One family tradition I remember fondly (and this may not be peculiar to my family; I’ve never asked anyone else if they had similar rituals – until now ) is that, upon completing a book my dad would open the book up to roughly the middle (and this works better with hardcover books, naturally) then kind of “slam” it shut, making a satisfying “clap” of a noise.  As kids, of course, we ate this up (all kids like to make noise, I think), and fell for it hook, line and sinker as a dangling carrot at the end of a book we were reading.  Plus, the loud clap of a book slammed shut was a kind of public self declaration of achievement in our family (“I finished another one!”).  I particularly remember those little blue-covered “Hardy Boys mysteries” books made good fodder for this practice with their thick hard covers – AND their brevity.  I could knock off one of those in an afternoon in my young reading years…

 I’d be interested to hear if others are familiar with this – or had other – family rituals that encourage reading.

Literary Blog Hop!

The Literary Blog Hop is Hosted by The Blue Bookcase.

Welcome Literary Blog Hoppers! My blog is an eclectic one, but I often read and comment on classic works and authors, and am happy to discover other bloggers who do the same.  Thanks to The Blue Bookcase for hosting the “LBH”  🙂

Today’s question involves Contemporary books that are Literary Classics…What makes a contemporary novel a classic? 
Discuss a book which you think fits the category of ‘modern classics’ and explain why.

(Note: For the purposes of discussion, I considered “contemporary” to mean an author who is still living and writing.)

Hmm… that’s a tough one, as it involves predicting the future.  Very few of the ‘contemporary’ books I’ve read in the past few years even made it to my ‘candidate’ list.   A few that did might be The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, and maybe The Book Thief by Markus Zuszak.  The last is usually sold in the “young adult” sections of bookstores, but it is certainly a book that countless adults have read and enjoyed as well, and I can see it being “One of Those Books I Read in School” many years from now.  Cold Mountain wasn’t my cup of tea, but the writing was beautiful (Heck, it won the National Book Award, didn’t it?  It must have some merit).  The Kite Runner was a good story and excellently written as well.  I see all three of these books being part of the libraries of the “culturally literate” many years from now.  What do you think?

Finished Reading “Darkside” by P.T. Deuterman

This was my book club’s book for November. We’re meeting tonight – our 50th(!) meeting – to discuss. This is the kind of book I think the other members of my club will really like, while I will be forced to give a “minority opinion.”

***Spoiler Alert!!***A brief summary of the plot: A plebe at the U.S. Naval Academy plunges to his death from a tall building in the opening pages. Suicide? Murder? Accident? We don’t know, and we won’t know even at the end. We assume murder. The curious thing is that the plebe was wearing the underwear of a female “firstie” (“academy speak” for senior) Julie Markham, who is the daughter of another main character, Everett (“Ev”) Markham, a teacher at the Academy. Ev, a widower, retains the services of a thirty-something attorney, who also happens to be a bombshell (surprise!) who happens to be attracted to him (surprise again!). Investigating the case are Jim Hall, from the school’s security, and two NCIS agents, one of whom bites the dust early so his bombshell (surprise!) partner can work with and hook up with Hall.

Julie Markham denies any involvement with the dead plebe, and admits only to working with him some during the normal course of events at the academy. The administration of the school (the titular “dark side” as they are referred to by the midshipmen) wants the investigation to go quickly and with the desired conclusion of “accident” rather than the less palatable alternatives. While the investigation is going on, we also get glimpses into the thoughts and emails of the ‘presumed killer’, a sociopathic senior star swimmer nicknamed the Shark (I pictured a young Greg Norman on steroids… Not really). For kicks, The Shark sneaks around in the vast tunnel network found beneath the academy (this network is loosely based on fact, but greatly exaggerated for the purposes of the novel), using it for clandestine trips into town, where he hangs out with some young girls in the “Goth” crowd using them to lure victims whom he would attack while wearing a vampire get up(!)

Hall and Special Agent Branner (the tough as nails bombshell NCIS officer) learn about The Shark from Hall’s familiarity with the tunnels and The Shark’s graffiti, and from Julie’s ex-boyfriend who reveals that she once had a fling with Dyle (The Shark’s real name – I’m tired of typing “The Shark”). The last hundred pages go really fast as Dyle clearly becomes known as “somehow responsible” for the plebe’s death. Meanwhile, the administration – at the Insistence of the secretary of the navy, apparently – decides to close the case, with a judgment of suicide. Hall & Branner continue to investigate on their own and in a climax scene clash with Dyle in the tunnels, which end up flooding with water, apparently drowning Dyle.

Of course he shows up later, popping out of the water like a dolphin, to terrorize Markham some more. He is finally killed, however, and Julie graduates with the rest of her class. THEN, at the very end of the book, we watch as she sneaks down to one of Dyle’s lairs in the tunnels to retrieve and destroy her own “goth gear”, shockingly indicating she was much more involved with Dyle than we’d been led to believe for four hundred pages. The end.

Now, I enjoyed reading it, and it was a page turner, but I found it kind of weak in many areas, especially the awkwardly cliched “twist” of an ending. We have the “Big Sigh of Relief Because It’s Safe Now” when the villain is presumably killed in the flooded tunnels, after which all the hard-boiled investigators suddenly lose their doggedness and incredibly accept that he is dead. Even a dull reader like me knew he would be back. Then, even worse, when he does come back and is about to kill Ev Markham, we also are treated to the obligatory “Well, Now I’ll Explain Everything To You Since You’ll be Dead And It Won’t Matter” scene (this happens to James Bond a lot too) which I found annoying.

I DID like the interludes early on where the reader is treated to glimpse of the killer via entire sections of italicized text, revealing his thoughts and motives (at least partially). I did NOT like all the sections of the book where Hall & Dyle (and others) were playing hide and seek in the tunnels. I found it hard to picture this “landscape” to the point that all these sections seemed the same to me. I really found these scenes tedious.

I also did not particularly like the early characterization of Ev Markham, just turned fifty, as kind of a ‘grumpy old man’ caricature. Perhaps this was done, however, to additionally emphasize how his relationship with Liz DeWinter (the thirty something attorney) breathes new life into him. Much of their relationship I found less than credible, though. I couldn’t believe that she taped her conversation with Julie, then played the tape back for him (doesn’t that violate some “lawyer code” or something?) Fortunately I have two attorneys in my book club. Maybe they will explain this to me. It also seemed too “convenient” to me that this guy Markham just ends up with this successful, stylish, sexy, attorney thrust in his lap by the author. Although, as a middle aged guy myself, I have to admit this sort of thing “happens to me all the time”…NOT.

What else did I want to gripe about? Oh yeah, the chapters were VERY long, providing few natural breaking points for the reader. I’m not sure why the book was done this way, but I’ve rarely seen a book with chapters this long. I also got annoyed at the use (overuse?) of academy jargon, often without explanation. Sometimes, the jargon was explained via context later, but in the case of one term that I remember (“hundredth day”) it’s referred to for pages and pages without explanation until finally a character admits he doesn’t know what it island we are finally clued in. What’s up with that?

OK, so overall a negative review, which is somewhat rare for me. I don’t regret reading it though. As part of the “creed” of my book club we are bound to read books outside out normal comfort zone, and legal thrillers/mysteries are out of mine. I expect a backlash from my club for this harsh review, but maybe it will generate some lively discussion.

Literary Villains! – Top Ten Tuesday

This is a weekly meme run by The Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s top ten list is:  “Top Ten Villains/Criminals/and other Nasties”  Sounded like fun, so here’s my contribution. My list is somewhat biased towards books I have read recently, but here we go…

10) Simon LeGree
From Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; I have to include a character whose name has become synonymous with evil…

9) Ellsworth Toohey
From Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. He is not a physically dangerous character, but the more insidious type. A schemer. A behind the scenes troublemaker. He made my skin crawl…

8 ) Mrs. Danvers
From Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier. My view of this character may be somewhat corrupted by having seen the movie version of this book, where the character is portrayed perfectly by Judith Anderson.

7) Madame DeFarge
From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. This character is quite evil and bloodthirsty. As with number seven, my view may be tainted by the movie portrayal and Blanche Yurka’s grinning malignity..

6) Saruman
From The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein. (honorable mention from this same work goes to Sauron, but I gave the nod to Saruman, since he is a human – it could be argued – and should know better; and he’s a traitor to boot…)

5) Voldemort
From The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (who doesn’t know that already?). He’s not really human, or I would’ve ranked him higher, as his evil spans across several volumes and thousands of pages…

4) Edward Hyde
From The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve blogged once before about the murder scene where he dispatches Sir Danvers Carew. Absolutely chilling.

3) Assef
From The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini. An evil sadist. As a kid. As a man. He never grew out of it.

2) Wackford Squeers
From Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. An evil schoolmaster. I’ve always particularly hated those who victimize and terrorize children or other people who are helpless or weaker than themselves. He is a piece of work.

1) Bill Sikes
From Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. The quintessential villain/criminal to my mind. This may be because I read this book when I was younger and more impressionable, thus burning his image into my brain forever. The murder scene involving him is in my top two along with the one from Mr. Hyde…

Honorable mention that I also considered: Lord Henry Wotton (The Picture of Dorian Gray), President Snow (from The Hunger Games), Catherine deBourgh (Pride and Prejudice), Martin Vanger (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo); I’m sure there are countless others but I spent a finite amount of time on this… 🙂

Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy

Every so often we hear in the news of the discovery of a hitherto unknown masterpiece – or I should more properly say a hitherto unknown work of a master. Whether it be art, music, or literature, there is a certain magical feeling accompanying the revelation. “What? A never before released track by John Lennon? Wow. I can’t wait to hear that!” It may turn out to be unknown for a reason, but the anticipation of something “new” and wonderful from a favorite artist is always intoxicating. The thing is, for me at least, with artists who are deceased, there is naturally a finite number of their works to discover and enjoy. In the case of Thomas Hardy for example, it’s not as though we’re sitting around waiting for his next novel to be published, like we are able to do for contemporary writers.

I remember having a similar experience when I “discovered” Humphrey Bogart movies years ago and realized I was a fan. I began to devour them as soon as I could find them, but later, in a moment of panic, realized I would soon exhaust the supply – as there certainly weren’t going to be any new ones coming out. I began to ration them, saving them so that I would not “run out,” etc. What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that I would discover other chunks of art that I would feel the same way about, and would never, truly have a shortage of not yet seen/read works overall.

Now, of course, in the case of this Thomas Hardy novel, it’s not like it really was unknown. It was just unknown to me. I’d read the “major” Hardy novels (Return of the Native, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge) years ago and gained an appreciation of him. But I’m no scholar, and lazily did no research into his other work. These were probably just the books that were readily available in bookstores and were most often talked about, and I in my naïveté kind of assumed “that was it.” Then a few months ago, thanks to my lurking around book blogs, I heard of this “minor” Hardy work, on Chris’s blog, ProSe. (Very good and worth checking out, by the way).

Two on a Tower is another tragic love story from the author. It’s the story of a married but lonely noblewoman, Lady Constantine (whose husband is absent) discovering that a local young man, Swithin St. Cleeve, has surreptitiously been using an old “tower” on her property (Hardy is said to have based the setting for the novel on the actual Carborough House & Tower in Wessex, pictured above and below) as a makeshift observatory, as he plans to one day become a famous astronomer. she is smitten, but he is “an innocent” and inexperienced (a 19th century “nerd” – I was hooked already!). The reader knows immediately that the two will end up together, but in typical Hardy-esque fashion, there are many obstacles to overcome, including her being already married, and their being of different classes in a class conscious society.

I really enjoyed the book, which is one of my favorites I’ve read this year, but at the same time, I can see why it was considered one of Hardy’s “minor” works. The characters feel a little thin to me. I never really got in Lady Constantine’s corner, although I sympathized with her situation. The book feels a little like Hardy had this great plot (and the plot, with its twists and turns really is magnificent) but didn’t quite find great characters to equal it.

This is beginning to sound like a negative “review,” though, and I don’t really mean it to be that way. I recommend the book, especially if you are a fan of Hardy’s writing style and of his other works. I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Next Year’s Project/Progress Report

PART I

I need help! Suggestions, input, recommendations, anything. You see, each year I try to have a personal reading “Project” where I focus on a particular author or genre or subject. Like 2008’s “Project: Shakespeare” or this year’s “Project: Civil War.”. I have a few ideas for next year but nothing definite yet. Some things I’ve kicked around:

1) Project:Kerouac (or would that more appropriately be called “ProJack Kerouac?”) I almost did this a few years ago, but wasn’t organized. On the down side, I’ve already read a lot of his books (not that I wouldn’t enjoy reading some again). On the upside, I would really, really enjoy it, as I love his writing.

2) Project:Scotland (or Project:Sir Walter Scott) where I focus on Scottish authors or books set in Scotland, or even Scottish History. I really enjoyed the Sir Walter Scott books I’ve read this year, but on the downside, they were very tough going for me. Worth the effort, but I worry that I will lack the perseverance to slog through some of his work. On the upside, I’ve become really interested in Scotland of late and am eager to learn more…

3) Project: History of England – here I would make it a point to read several books on English History, which is a relatively weak spot for me (often pointed out when I’m watching Jeopardy! on tv, or participating in Buzztime trivia at the local bars). Downside: reading non-fiction is not as entertaining as reading fiction. Would I stick to it? Upside: I’d really like to fill in this embarrassing gap in my knowledge of history and this might “force” me to do it.

4) Project: Epic Poetry. Now this would be really ambitious. Read or re-read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and maybe throw in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Song of Roland, the Epic of Gilgamesh (I’m not sure all of those would qualify, but how cool would it be to be able to say I’ve read all of those?) downside: how HARD would it be to read all of them?!?

Help me out with some recommendations please. 🙂

PART II

I need to get cracking if I’m going to complete my “required reading” for this month. I have two books to read for book club commitments. The first is Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, form which we are having a meeting next Thursday, 11/18. At this point I am still hopeful that I can attend (I’ll read the book whether I do or not, though) as I have some software training related to a systems upgrade at work. The training is currently scheduled for 11/15-11/18, so I would have to miss part of the final day’s session and I’m not sure how that would fly at the office, or even if I should ask to be excused from it. I guess I’ll kind of play it by ear and see how things look next week. I would really hate to miss a meeting, though.

The second is for my personal book club’s meeting on 11/23. For that we’re reading P.T. Deuterman’s Darkside, which is 407 e-pages long. My fellow book club members assure me it’s a quick read, though, so hopefully I can knock it out out late next week and weekend.

Completing those two would give me four books for the month (my “par score”) and I would feel pretty good about my November reading accomplishments. What’s missing is my 11th Civil War book, though. My goal of finishing one Civil War-related book per month in 2010 may be in jeopardy. The book I’ve chosen has been ordered from Borders, but I may not receive it for another couple weeks. Hopefully I’ll get it in time to read over the long thanksgiving holiday weekend. Well, I guess I’m working that Friday (sometimes it doesn’t pay to be a banker), but I’ve been toying with the idea of taking Monday the 29th off. That would give me “plenty of time” to read my Civil War book. We’ll see…

In the home stretch of Two on a Tower…

I almost finished this book yesterday, but ended up still about an hour short of the finish line when I was forced to put it down in order to run out and watch the Colts game with some friends (let’s not talk about how that went…)

This book is a lesser known novel of Thomas Hardy, who is more famous for books such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Return of the Native, and Far from the Madding Crowd – all of which I’ve also read, but many years ago. Reading more ‘obscure’ classics such as this always sets me wondering. Wondering if anyone else in the world is reading this book “right now.” Wondering how many people read this book in a given year. Wondering about all those who have read it before me, especially those who might have read it near the time it was written. As I’ve been enjoying this novel, and all the twists and turns of the plot, I cannot help but picture some Victorian Era reader sitting on a ‘window seat’ or in some salon or drawing room of the 19th century delighting at these same twists and turns that I am navigating.

Am I the only one who wonders about things like this while reading? Surely I mustn’t be… I posted earlier this year about how – after reading Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering – I later read in the non-fiction Civil War book, Company Aytch, how one of the soldiers was carrying around this same book in his knapsack, which I think is just the coolest thing ever, linking me with another reader of another time – more than a century ago.

I can’t remember exactly where I read it, but one time an author wrote about how books were like time machines. You open them up, and author (often long since dead) begins speaking inside your head. I think this is a very neat – and accurate – description of what I sometimes feel is going on when I read “the classics.”

Thomas Hardy

Finished reading The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Yes, I’ve now read a “Zombie Book.” I saw an intriguing post on this book on another book blogger’s blog and thought I should give it a try. It’s another YA book, and I found it a quick and easy read. I wondered I would suffer “nightmares” populated by shuffling hordes of the undead after reading it, but that didn’t happen. Suspension of disbelief was almost impossible for this book too. I mean, if one lived in a fenced in compound, with zombies (or, in the parlance of this book, “The Unconsecrated”) constantly trying to claw their way in, I’m sure the constant stress would drive one mad and no “civilization” would be possible.

The book reminded me sometimes of Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” which I read earlier this year. I.e., a small band of survivors struggling on against the outside world, which has ‘turned zombie’ or ‘turned vampire.’ But all of this is just the backdrop for the story of Mary, a member of the village just coming of age and dealing with all the accompanying angst & choices involved. In her case, things are turned upside down by the death of her mother, the appearance of a girl from “outside,” and then the breach of the village’s defense by the hoard of the unconsecrated, forcing Mary and some companions to flee.

I read this book in just a couple of days, and certain passages were high entertainment of the thriller variety, with zombies closing in on our heroes several times allowing them – or most of them – to make narrow escapes. There’s a second book in the ‘series’ that I will likely read. (I’ve already downloaded it so, I guess that makes it even more likely). This book certainly wouldn’t be for everybody, but I enjoyed it for what it was.

Orphan Stories from the Monkey House

It’s been almost a week since the meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book club (or KVMLBC I’m going to call it from now on), and I’ve never commented on how the meeting went – until now. Once again, there were ten attendees. Nine were repeats from last month, and we had one new attendee to make up for the one person from last month who didn’t show this time. One poor member had read Mother Night by mistake – that’s the book we’re reading for this month (meeting Thursday, November 18th at 11:30 am). He stayed and listened in anyway, though.

Of course, it’s hard to talk about 25 different stories in just about an hour of meeting time and, after I left, I began to think “Hmm… let’s see… which ones did we not talk about at all?”. As near as I can tell, we “left out” seven of the stories, which I’m calling The Orphans of the Monkey House.

For a couple of the stories, I didn’t find it particularly surprising. “Where I Live” and “New Dictionary” were not too deep compared to the others, though there was some worthy humor in both. Another that was left out that I didn’t care about was “Adam” – a story about contrasting expectant fathers. There were a couple more that were decent enough stories, but perhaps not worthy of discussion at the expense of the other stories in the book. In that group, I’d put the stories “The Kid Nobody Could Handle” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.” The latter of those two, however, was a tough call. It’s about a future where life expectancy has been drastically extended, and the consequences thereof. This would be considered more typical Vonnegut fare, but it didn’t “make the cut” either.

Now, however, we come to two stories that I really enjoyed but were still orphaned by our group. First, there was “The Foster Portfolio.” This was a tale that dealt with a kind of financial advisor and his newest client who, on the surface at least, seemed rather poor and “a waste of effort” for the advisor. This turns out not to be the case at all, however, as the man (Foster) is so much more than meets the eye. I really enjoyed how, as the reader, I was introduced to the multiple layers of this character. Sadly, though, this story didn’t make the cut either.

The last “orphan” was one of my favorite stories in the book, “Deer in the Works” (which I’ve already blogged about in an earlier post). I don’t know why we didn’t get to this one. It may have just been a victim of the number of stories there were to cover. I certainly hope it’s not due to a perceived lack of merit by my fellow members.

For my part, I always seem to pick a few stories out of any collection to designate as “favorites” or at least standing out among the rest. If I pick up any short story anthology from my bookshelf at home and look at the table of contents, there will always be few stories marked with an asterisk (sometimes two!) which I know are worthy of reading again.

Have you read Welcome to the Monkey House? Which were your favorites? If any of my fellow KVMLBC members are reading this, how did you feel about which stories were discussed and which were not?

-Jay

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