A Year of Reading: What I’ve Read So Far (Books 1-15)

Image by Kaboompicsfrom Pixabay

THE FIRST FEW HOURS of 2020. Like most everyone, I had grand plans for the new decade. Being an enthusiastic list maker, I wrote all those plans down. I listed, categorized, and mapped out all the wonderful things I was going to do this year. The list was lengthy, but I made sure to write down the most important resolutions first. That way, even if I don’t get past the fifth item on my list, I’d still have the most crucial bases covered.

At the very top, (the ones I felt were do or die), were these three goals:

  1. Spend more time with family.
  2. Keep traveling. (On the list were Vietnam, Japan, Cambodia, and Singapore.)
  3. Read 52 books this year.

Obviously, a lot has changed in the last few months. Most of my plans have gone out the window. Where I’m at, a simple family visit or a quick trip somewhere is a complicated affair. My city hasn’t come out of lockdown/quarantine since March 16, so non-essential travel still isn’t allowed. So that’s #1 and #2 out of the running.

This brings us to #3. Well, I’m happy to say that #3 still holds a lot of promise. Don’t get me wrong, reading 52 books is a tall order for me. See, I’m a slow reader and a lingerer. I like to read books at least twice—the first time for pleasure and the second time for reflection. Plus, I take notes and that takes forever.

                                         The book that started it all.

Thank God for Children’s Books. In my experience, these books are like sanity balms for these insane times. These books are short, sweet, and soul-saving. There’s a predictability to them that’s comforting. It also doesn’t hurt that these stories rarely stretch past the 200-page territory. Now, I’m bringing this up because you’re going to be seeing a lot of children’s books in this list. Fair warning, my friend.

As I’m writing this, I’m 35 books into my goal. I’m feeling confident about my pace and am also really excited to share my thoughts on each book with you. But because this is an ongoing list (and a really long one too), we’re turning this into a three-parter.

And now, without further ado, here are Books 1-15 in my Year of Reading.

P.S. I’ll be lumping book series together.

#1 Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix;
#2 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; and
#3 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
Rating: A
Note: Maybe it was the holidays, but last December I was in a nostalgic mood. In terms of reading, I didn’t want the excitement of new books. I wanted the steadiness and the familiarity of old favorites. So, I went on a full-on Harry Potter binge. I wanted to see if the books were as good as I remembered.

Long story short, they were. The part where Harry tells Dumbledore that he was Dumbledore’s man through and through made me cry. Hard.

Book 4: Emma by Jane Austen
Rating: A
Note: After having read Emma for the nth time, I find myself slowly softening towards Ms. Woodhouse. I used to find her insensitive, manipulative, and spoiled. I still do. But what I regarded before as willfulness, now comes across as blind optimism or good intentions coupled with botched execution.

Book 5: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Rating: A+
Note: Still my favorite book from Austen with Persuasion as a close second.  The angry exchange between Marianne and Elinor—the following immortal lines from the book… perfection.

“What do you know of my heart? What do you know of anything but your own suffering. For weeks, Marianne, I’ve had this pressing on me without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature. It was forced on me by the very person whose prior claims ruined all my hope. I have endured her exultations again and again whilst knowing myself to be divided from Edward forever. Believe me, Marianne, had I not been bound to silence I could have provided proof enough of a broken heart, even for you.”

 

I have very strong feelings about this book. Few of them are good. (But admittedly, it is a book worth reading.)

Book 6: Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
Rating: B
Note: I know a lot of people love this book, but I have very mixed feelings about it. That it is well-written is a given. D.H. Lawrence was a very talented writer. However, I also found Women in Love to be dragging at points and its characters absolutely repulsive. The rot, the deception, the pretentiousness of Gudrun, Birkin, Ursula, and Gerald just bled through the pages. They felt so much like real people who I could and would really dislike in real life.

Book 7: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Rating: A+
Notes: I don’t know why it took me so long to pick this book up and give it a go, but I sincerely wish I read it sooner. To Kill a Mockingbird is the best fiction I’ve read this year. The way it tackles such difficult and painful subjects like racism, injustice, and prejudice using a child’s perspective just doubles the impact of the work.

Book 8: 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do by Amy Morin
Rating: A-
Notes: One of the best self-help books I’ve read in the last few years. Amy Morin offers solid and practical advice for people who want to become mentally tougher. Definitely a book I’d recommend reading this pandemic.

Book 9: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Rating: A
Notes: While The Haunting of Hill House remains my favorite novel from Shirley Jackson, this is a close second. We Have Always Lived in the Castle draws the reader into the twisted world of Merricat and Constance Blackwood. And though you may disagree with Merricat’s reasonings and actions, you do end up understanding or at least following, her warped logic.

Book 10: Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Rating: A
Notes: When I was a child, I thought Charlotte’s Web was a good children’s book. Wilbur’s antics made me laugh and Charlotte’s final sacrifice made me cry, but that was that. As an adult, however, I can fully appreciate how good of a book Charlotte’s Web is. It’s heartwarming and impeccably written, although the latter is to be expected. Author E.B. White did cowrite the writing bible The Elements of Style, after all. But what I like most about this book is its delicate but truthful treatment of topics like death and loneliness. 10/10 would read to my future kid.

                            It was a summer for tomato sandwiches…

Book 11: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Rating: A
Notes: As a child, Harriet M. Welsch was my spirit animal. I thought we had a lot in common. We were both prickly, borderline rude, and awkward wannabe writers who were really close to their nannies. I liked Harriet the Spy so much that for an entire summer I snacked on nothing but tomato sandwiches. Mayo and tomato, a dash of pepper, and occasionally, a slice of cheese. Now that still makes my mouth water. Rereading the book as an adult, I see that Harriet wasn’t as nice as I remembered her to be. But she’s still my favorite spy and this is still one of my most-loved books of all time.

Book 12: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Rating: A
Notes: This was the children’s book that began the binge, (outside of Harry Potter, of course). I picked up a new copy of The Hobbit and thought it would be a good time to revisit Bilbo’s adventure. I must say, the book’s pacing was a lot faster than I originally remembered. Still a fantastic journey though. And because I’m in no rush to get to the next scene, I took my time appreciating J.R.R. Tolkien’s stellar writing.

Book 13: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Rating: A
Notes: Like Charlotte’s Web, The Graveyard Book tackles difficult topics like murder, revenge, and death. The difference is that Gaiman takes a slightly more straightforward/realistic approach. Instead of farm animals, we have a living boy surrounded by ghosts, a vampire guardian, a werewolf, and a witch. It’s a beautifully written and heartwarming book with a dose of horror and a dash of adventure to boot. In short, it has something sweet for every type of reader.

                                As important today as it was in 1949.

Book 14: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
Rating: A+
Notes: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird might be the best fiction I’ve read this quarantine, but The Second Sex is hands-down the most important book I’ve read in the last few years. Though the book was written in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir’s masterpiece is just as relevant today as it was during that period. You don’t have to be a feminist to appreciate this book, though if you are a feminist, this is a seminal piece you wouldn’t want to miss.

Book 15: Matilda by Roald Dahl
Rating: A
Notes: I can’t help but compare Matilda the book and Matilda the film. Don’t get me wrong, both are fantastic and the film does stay true to the book. But somehow, the book feels darker. Miss Trunchbull reads meaner and more despicable. The neglect that Matilda suffers and the emotional torture that Miss Honey goes through are also more palpable in print than on celluloid. I don’t know why. Either way, it’s a great book. Just fair warning, it does gets dark at times.

And that’s what I have so far. I’m currently writing the post for Books 16-30. Will be adding the link here once that post goes live.

How about you? What literary landscapes have you been exploring this quarantine? Any recommendations for me? Come, drop me a line. 🙂

Book Review: The Dowry by Margaret Culkin Banning

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Author: Margaret Culkin Banning
Published: 1954
Genre: Romance, Drama, Fiction, Social Commentary

At first glance, Margaret Culkin Banning’s 1954 novel, The Dowry, reads like a brilliantly written but simple exploration of how ambition, insecurity, and betrayal, can wreck a wonderful marriage. Our lead characters include Katherine “Kay” Ryland, a 37-year-old interior decorator with her own design firm, and her husband, Stephen “Steve” Ryland, a 38-year-old lawyer and Speaker of the House who’s on the fast track for Radisson’s governorship.

Although the two are very much in love and committed to their marriage, cracks in their 17-year union surface within the first few pages of the book. Despite Stephen’s success in his political career, Kay is their family’s main breadwinner. She earns a lot more than her husband. And while he had initially been thankful for her contributions to the family, constant reminders of this fact was wreaking havoc with his pride.

When he finds out that Radisson’s current governor is keen on passing the baton to him, Stephen realizes that taking on the 2-year governorship means that Kay would have to give up her company. As Governor Elston points out, being a governor’s wife is a full-time job. Things are further complicated when Stephen meets Lisa Bowes—a rich and beautiful widower and the niece of Governor Elston’s wife.

Stephen falls for the beautiful and manipulative Lisa. He wants Kay to divorce him, but his wife is keen on saving their marriage. Kay and Stephen’s heartbreaking story unfolds alongside the stories of a medley of well-written secondary characters.

Now, for this particular reader, The Dowry isn’t a story to be chewed lightly. A novel of this magnitude deserves a more thorough digestion. So, indulge me as I attempt to go through the most significant themes in this densely packed narrative.

Continue reading

Book Review: The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Stranger by Albert Camus

Title: L’Étranger (The Stranger)

Author: Albert Camus

Translated from French by: Matthew Ward

First Published: 1942, Libraire Galliimard

Pages: 123

*Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” Thus begins one of the most striking, complex, and widely read novels of the twentieth century. L’Étranger, translated as The Stranger, is arguably the most popular work of French novelist, author, and philosopher, Albert Camus.

The story follows the life of its main character, Mersault, as he goes from learning about his mother’s death to being tried for one of the most senseless murders in the history of literature. The novel unfolds through Mersault’s perspective, and is divided into two main parts—before he committed the crime, and after his arrest.

As a side note, let me start off by saying, translation matters.

Bear in mind that the Mersault I met was the byproduct of Matthew Ward’s translation. In reading this book under a different translator—whether it be Joseph Laredo or Sandra Smith—you may encounter a different version of Mersault—one that’s either more apathetic or sympathetic depending on who you’re reading. Though all roads lead to pointless murder and an equally ludicrous trial, these translations offer nuances that could shift your perception of the novel’s protagonist.

And on with the summary, we go…

The novel begins with Mersault’s acknowledgment of his mother’s death. It’s important to note his matter-of-fact tone, when he talks about needing to borrow a black tie and catch the two o’clock bus to Marengo, where the old people’s home was located. When he gets to the home, he refuses to see his mother for the last time, choosing to keep the casket closed. He doesn’t divulge what he feels about the matter, opting instead to offer a commentary about the wake and the long walk to the funeral. His indifferent behavior doesn’t escape the notice of the home’s director and caretaker.

The way he describes what ought to have been a tragic occurrence also speaks volumes of how his brain was wired. Mersault observes, “It occurred to me that anyway one more Sunday was over, that Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work, and that, really, nothing had changed.” (p.24)

Upon returning to the city, he immediately takes on a girlfriend, Marie, and makes friends with his neighbor, Raymond—a shady, woman-beater who is generally disliked in the neighborhood. With his help, Raymond manages to lure his mistress back into his apartment, where he proceeds to beat her up after suspecting her of carrying on an affair.

The young woman’s brother, an unnamed Arab, begins tailing Raymond. During a beach trip with Marie and Raymond, Mersault proceeds to kill the Arab. He shoots the Arab four times with such jarring apathy, with his only explanation being that he did it due to the intolerable heat. While the crime was not premeditated, his lack of motive only served as proof of his unacceptable character and his obvious guilt.

In the second part of the novel, we find Mersault incarcerated and the subject of a circus-of-a-trial. While his few friends and girlfriend testify to help clear his name, the fact that he doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t feel remorse for his crime only serves to land him a hasty “Guilty” verdict. In the midst of the trial, Mersault observes with annoyance that his fate was being determined without his participation. The reader also gets the feeling that the novel’s protagonist was being sent to the gallows for more than his crime—he was being condemned to death because of his behavior after his mother’s death. It was a trial against the protagonist’s character more than it was about his crime. As Camus puts it, “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death…the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”

The novel concludes with a breathtaking monologue that is equally true as it is tainted by choice. Faced with a chaplain attempting to salvage Mersault’s soul, our protagonist launches into an impassioned tirade about how nothing mattered, for everyone was privileged to live and be carried by the tides of fate, and everyone was equally condemned to face an end—whatever that end may be. With this statement we find Mersault taking command of his fate, for his death was merely the result of the choices he’s made. Choices that didn’t matter to the protagonist. It was simply the way his life unfolded.

Down to a personal review.

To be honest, I itch at the term ‘protagonist.’ For while it’s true that Mersault is the subject of the book, in many ways, his personality becomes the main deterrent against his freedom. But perhaps, that is the point of the whole novel. For if a man condemned to death feels that he is free, if he thinks that he is more free than the rest of the world which is shackled by societal norms and notions of convention, than are we in any position to deem him as limited, condemned, or even damned?

Here was one man who lived according to his terms, though his actions were deplorable, his thought processes, irrational. The point is that they were his, and no one else’s. With Mersault, remorse was an alien concept. He shunned introspection and worship (religion), simply because he had no time for them. To him, these were pointless activities, for what did it all matter in the end? How did such things figure into a man’s final moments?

Though I don’t subscribe to such a bleak outlook in life, I can respect Mersault’s views. I find the desire to be free, free as defined by the individual, to be completely human. Despite the character’s cold and detached nature, he was, purely and simply, a man exercising his right to exist as he saw fit.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in philosophy and existentialist and absurdist literature. Also, for a thinking piece, this one’s a surprisingly easy read that leaves you pondering the purpose of human existence.

As a parting note, here’s some trivia regarding Camus. Although he is now lauded as one of the most important existential writers, he actually rejected the idea of being thought of as an existentialist. He was very vocal about his criticism of this branch of philosophy. To Albert Camus, existentialists “deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them.

Verdict: A+

Featured Poem: Resumé by Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker

RESUMÉ

BY: DOROTHY PARKER

Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

ANALYSIS.

Unlike most poems that require extensive poring over and stringent analysis, Resumé, by the renowned critic, satirist, poet, and writer, Dorothy Parker, is written in a rather unflinching and straightforward manner. The work almost reads like a catchy anti-suicide ditty, detailing the cons of each potentially fatal method.

From the simplicity of its ABAB rhyming sequence, to its absolute brevity, Resumé is testament to Parker’s incomparable wit and mastery over words. The sparse nature of its lines, completely devoid of the shroud of metaphors, only adds to the impact of the poem.

You might as well live. Its abrupt conclusion speaks volumes of what the poem is about. While the message is positive in its attempt to dissuade the reader from offing himself/herself, it also has an undeniably sardonic edge to it. The actual message being “don’t bother committing suicide,” – as if staying alive was a sorry compensation for not succeeding in accomplishing the otherwise.

And then we have the title of the piece: Resumé—note the accent on the letter e. Remove the accent, and we have resume, which means to move on. That would make perfect sense. But resumé? A resumé, simply put, refers to a brief summary of a person’s qualifications, achievements, educational background, etc. It’s what you submit when you’re applying for a position in an organization—or when you want to reassure someone of your expertise on a particular topic or subject. So, why resumé?

I must admit, the first time I read this poem, which was back in college—eight or so, odd years ago—I had chosen to ignore the accent, thinking ‘resume’ made better sense. But upon closer study of Dorothy Parker’s life, it appeared that the title was just excellent wordplay from her end. Having survived four suicide attempts, Parker is more than qualified to discuss the merits and demerits of suicide and its various methods. The sense of disillusionment that cloaks the closing line also makes better sense upon discovering these details. In a way, this is a part of her resumé, giving us a brief glance of the chapters in her life that she’d had to live through.

Extras:

Tidbit#1: Dorothy Parker lived to the age of 73. She died of a fatal coronary on the 7th of June, 1967.

Tidbit#2: She suggested that her epitaph be, “Excuse my dust.” Another suggestion she had was, “This is on me.”

Tidbit#3: Throughout her life, Parker had been a strong believer in social justice. Having no heirs, she decided to leave her literary estate to Martin Luther King, Jr., who she had never met, but shared ideals with. When Dr. King was assassinated a year later, the estate was turned over to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Image from: Wikipedia

Thoughts on “Economy” by Henry David Thoreau

Walden

 

Title: Economy (from Walden)

Author: Henry David Thoreau

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essay, Philosophy, Memoir

First Published: 1854

 

Before starting the actual review, let me stress that this is just my thoughts on the first chapter of Henry David Thoreau’s acclaimed work, Walden. I find it necessary for us to have at least a brief overview of the main text; that way, we can have a fuller grasp of the reasonings behind the creation of this compelling piece of literature.

Now, Walden is essentially the byproduct of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘immersion’ in nature. For two years, two months, and two days, Thoreau decided to live apart from society and its stifling standards by erecting a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond—about two miles from his home. There, he sought to understand society and its workings by paring down life to its bare essentials. This act of ‘economizing’ life had tremendous impact on Thoreau and his views; and this shows, especially when the reader explores the philosophies introduced by the writer in this chapter.

These days, when we say economy, we often use it to refer to either the economic climate or conditions of a particular country or area, or to the prudent and efficient use of finite resources. In the chapter aptly titled: Economy, the reader is given both an accurate portrait of the economic mindset of early-to-mid nineteenth century America, and an extensive how-to on keeping one’s daily expenditures at the bare minimum.

Note that the previous paragraph reads: “an accurate portrait of an economic mindset,” and not an economic state. This is deliberate; because while Thoreau does touch on fiscal matters and household management, he focuses more on denouncing the notion of the common mode of living as being the only socially acceptable one. He recognizes the futility of laboring constantly to meet the living standards set by society; standards which are not so much suggested as they are levied on the common man’s head. This is a sentiment, which I still find relevant today. Let me qualify that statement by dissecting the text with you.

In Economy, Thoreau uses very strong pronouncements such as “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… but it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things (p.11),” and “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that is which determines or rather indicates his fate (p.10),” to illustrate what he thinks of man’s reasons for his laboring. Thoreau believes that man has begun to live according to lofty standards dictated, not by his personal nature, but by an external force which one can only surmise as the “popular opinion” of a society geared towards consumerist living. The following excerpt sums up the essence of the author’s beliefs regarding this particular mindset:

“When we consider what, to use the words of catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. (p.11)”

Thoreau urges the reader to reconsider this popular “meaning of life” by recognizing that “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” further stating that “With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor (p.15).”

He explains these statements by pointing out that man, like most other animals, need only fuel, heat, and shelter to survive. To attain fuel, man eats—but he does not stop at eating to nourish, he feasts to taste. To retain heat, man covers himself with clothes—but he doesn’t wear clothes just to stay warm. He must wear the latest fashion, to rise in the esteem of his peers. And lastly, he doesn’t settle for whatever shelter can protect him from the elements, he must decorate his home, lest it be deemed unacceptable by his neighbors.

Now, let us explore each category, for I fear I do Thoreau no justice with such elementary summations. [My personal thoughts contained in brackets.]

On Fashion:

“No man has ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience. (p.21)”

Though the statement may appear harsh, it must be understood that Thoreau’s views on fashion stemmed from his own experiences of having been prematurely judged based on his clothing or appearance. In Economy, he shared one such experience. While being measured for a new coat, Thoreau mused: “Of what use this measuring of me if she does not measure my character, but only the breadth of my shoulders, as it were a peg to hang a coat on?”

He offers the notion of freeing oneself from the pressures of fashion, to enjoy a certain liberty, as is enjoyed by “a man clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark…that if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.” (p.23)

[Though this particular idea may seem extreme, it’s one that I feel quite strongly about. For how many of us have been judged unfairly by our appearance or outwardly garb?  Being a woman of a particular color and stature, I cannot count how many times I have been subject to once-overs or been given a different brand of service inside certain establishments. While vanity has always been a shortcoming of mine, I have always believed in personal choice and personal style. I have always believed that if a man was to be judged, it would be according to his character, not his costume.]

 

On Shelter:

“While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. (p.30)”

In discussing the topic of shelter, Thoreau does not deny the necessity of having one, though he does make a case about how man has opted to rent “a larger and more luxurious box, (p.27)” when one of a simpler nature would suffice—such as the wigwams occupied by the Native Americans. The chapter discusses how the dwelling of the chief of a village offers little disparity when compared to the wigwams of his tribesmen; while in a ‘more civilized nation,’ less than half of the population can afford to own homes. People opt to pay annual tax to rent these luxurious boxes, ‘which would buy a village of wigwams, but now helps to keep them poor as long as they live. (p.28)”

He further illustrates this point through a poignant example of how a farmer tries to make a living using a “formula more complicated than the problem itself (p.30).” He speaks of how the farmer uses his skills ‘to catch comfort and independence,’ not knowing that he himself has been caught in his own trap.  Man thinks that by obtaining luxuries he can attain freedom from a life of strife, and yet he spends his entire life working hard to maintain what luxuries he’s got .As Thoreau puts it, “And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him. (p.30)”

 

On the Perpetual State of Discontent:

“Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have… Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less? (p.32)”

In man’s pursuit for something greater, “Men have become the tools of their tools. (p.33)” That is the truth that Thoreau preaches throughout Economy. Man’s constant state of discontent propels him into action—but it is that very action that keeps him in a rat race that can only be broken by a change in perception. This feeling of dissatisfaction and the limitations it produces extends beyond the citizen’s private life.

“Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? One piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon. (p.48)”

 

On the Practice of Philanthropy

“Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it. (p.63)”

Thoreau offers an unconventional and somewhat unpopular view on the idea of charity. With staggering declarations like “As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full. (p.60),” and “There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. (p.61),” it is easy to misconstrue what the writer is trying to say. While he expressly states that philanthropy is an exercise that is not for him, he also explains that he would not stand in the way of genuine charity. He only asks that the intentions be pure and that the acts of charity be true. He believes that goodness should not be transitory or incomplete, rather, that the do-gooder would also spend himself alongside his money and would persevere even after public or private discouragements.

 

Verdict: All in all, Economy is a solid introduction to an extremely powerful piece of literary history. The persuasive and sound nature of Henry David Thoreau’s arguments guarantees his place as one of the greatest American writers and philosophers of all time.

Book Review: Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf
My tattered copy of Virginia Woolf’s essays

Title: Three Guineas

Author: Virginia Woolf

Genre:  Essay

First Published:  1938

“Three years is a long time to leave a letter unanswered…” And thus begins Three Guineas–Virginia Woolf’s powerful essay on how the practices of the Victorian patriarchal system could be likened to the unarguable evils of tyranny and fascism. The essay is drafted as a response to the letter of an educated gentleman seeking Woolf’s opinions on how war could be prevented. Though many answers have suggested themselves to Woolf, the gentleman’s letter went unanswered for over three years.

Woolf clarifies that this is because none of these answers could be left without ample explanation. The differences in the psyche of the educated man and his sister had created a seemingly unbridgeable chasm that made immediate understanding of the reasonings of each sex near impossible. So, to answer the gentleman’s question, Woolf had to delve into the root of this ‘misunderstanding’ and find what unique and effective solutions could arise from it.

To illustrate the differences between the ways of thinking of the educated man and his sister, Woolf offers the reader the AEF or Arthur’s Education Fund. The AEF, as seen in the Pendennis, figures into household ledgers as the educational funds set aside for the sons in the family. This fund is designed to pay for more than man’s schooling, it also pays for all the other ‘essential parts’ of his education–including travel, leisure, lodging, and society. According to Woolf, the account has been in existence since the 13th century, and the educated man’s sister has paid her dues to the AEF for just as long. Though monetary contribution was out of the question–for the daughter of an educated man had no money of her own to contribute–she paid her dues through the sacrifices she was forced to make for her brother. For centuries, women were barred, not just from the professions but also the universities.

For a long time, Psychology became the only unpaid-for education available to women. This is, of course, going with the assumption that choosing a husband and making a marriage work are forms of practical Psychology within themselves. For a long time too, up until 1919 in fact, marriage was the only ‘profession’ open to women.  So you can understand how the social, physical, and educational limitations imposed on women during this period could affect her understanding of the necessity of war and violence. While a great majority of men saw war as either the ultimate manifestation of machismo or the natural expression of patriotism, out of their own shared experience under patriarchal rule, women were more inclined to question the need for war. Having been brought up to submit to fathers, brothers, and husbands, these women found no glory in violence. Faced with the possibility of war, they were more inclined to ask, “Why fight?”

Even the need for patriotism was questioned; for how has patriotism directly benefited the educated man’s daughter? During Woolf’s period, when a woman married a foreigner, she was asked to relinquish her citizenship and take on her husband’s. How then was she to form loyalties with a country that was not her own once she married outside of it? What did she owe a society that had caged her for as long as she could remember? But the possibility of war must be fought–as is made evident by the abundance of pictures laid out before Woolf. Images of homes torn asunder by bombs, the countless and faceless dead… But how to effectively prevent it?

While answering the gentleman’s letter, Woolf turns to two other documents that lie open on her desk. One is a request for funds to rebuild a women’s college, the other asks for financial support to help women gain a more secure footing within the professions. Woolf then uses these letters to illustrate how supporting these causes can, in fact, also be considered support for the anti-war movement. She addresses the gentleman:

“…But we have sworn that we will do all we can to help you to prevent war by using our influence–our earned money influence. And education is the obvious way. Since she is poor, since she is asking for money, and since the giver of money is entitled to dictate terms, let us risk it and draft a letter to her, laying down the terms upon which she shall have our money to help rebuild her college.”  – excerpt from Vintage Classic’s A Room of One’s Own & Three Guineas. p.129

And that is exactly what Virginia Woolf does. She imagines this experimental college founded on youth and poverty. This cheap college that focuses not on segregating and specializing, but a college that offers freedom from ‘the miserable distinctions of rich and poor, of clever and stupid…’ (p.133) It was, by all means, a college that did not breed vanity, competition, jealousy, and unreal loyalties. Instead, it was there to educate women, to help them earn their livings, and more importantly, to give them the freedom to have an opinion that is other than what is taught in the household, in church, or in whatever institution demands their blind loyalty…To the treasurer of the women’s college, Woolf relinquished her first guinea.

Then, it was time to look at the other letter. This one was from the honorary treasurer of a society designed to help women find employment in the professions. Here is where Woolf discusses the politics of economy as seen in the household. As Woolf puts it, ‘It seems that the person to whom the salary is actually paid is the person who has the actual right to decide how that salary should be spent…’ (p. 155) Marriage, by all descriptions, is just as noble as any other profession–but it is one that is unpaid. Woolf posits that without power over her own finances, a woman is robbed of the right to participate in such noble causes as that of the gentleman writer’s, if her husband disagrees with it. And so goes Woolf’s second guinea. As she puts it:

“…It was necessary to answer her letter and the letter from the honorary treasurer of the college rebuilding fund, and to send them both guineas before answering you letter, because unless they are helped, first to educate the daughters of educated men, and then to earn their living in the professions, those daughters cannot possess an independent and disinterested influence with which to help you to prevent war…” (p.182)

Finally, after much meandering–though it was justified meandering–Woolf addresses the gentleman fully. To his cause, she offers her third and last guinea. She explains that while she supports his anti-war effort, she cannot become a member of his society. For the fundamental differences between the male and female perspectives must remain for continued (mental, political, societal, cultural, et al.) progress to be attained.

The Verdict: A+.

Although Three Guineas was written almost 80 years ago, this supercharged polemic from Virginia Woolf is just as moving as it was back in the day. It certainly isn’t what you’d call a ‘quick read.’ In fact, if it took Woolf three years to draft this letter, it took me three months (and several shots of tequila) to write this review. Well, technically, I wrote this in one go, but the ideas have been simmering in the back burner for months.  So while it isn’t an easy read, it is one that is ‘necessary.’ There is much to glean from Woolf’s writings. That is why I’m putting this up as a ‘must-read’ for everyone. Believe me, it will do you a world of good.

Read my review of Virginia Woolf‘s “A Room of One’s Own.”

The Austen Marathon Results

jane austen collection

My month-long Austen Marathon has turned into a 4-month literary journey. In those four months, I didn’t devour Austen’s works the way I imagined I would. Instead, I went through every novel meticulously, reading and rereading specific pages. I wasn’t merely enjoying Austen’s novels, I was studying them. I was in awe of Jane Austen’s tremendous talent. I was green with envy and lily yellow with despair.

 I tried to look at each work as if I were seeing it for the first time—and I succeeded, mainly because of Austen’s terrific storytelling. Whether it’s a first-time or an nth-time read, Austen’s novels always offers something new to the reader. I suppose, that’s why I’m making some changes to my Austen list of favorites.

The following shows the results of my 2012/2013 Austen Marathon.

Top Three Works:

  1. 1.       Persuasion. I find this the most realistic and ‘mature’ of all of Austen’s novels.
  2. 2.       Sense and Sensibility. Because I will always look up to Elinor Dashwood and her tremendous strength.
  3. 3.       Pride and Prejudice. How could one not root for Lizzie and Mr. Darcy?

 

Top Three Heroines:

  1. 1.       Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility)
  2. 2.       Anne Elliott (Persuasion)
  3. 3.       Lizzie Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)

 

Top Three Male Characters:

  1. 1.       Captain James Benwick (Persuasion)
  2. 2.       Henry Tilney (Northanger Abbey)
  3. 3.       Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice)

 

Top Three Villains:

  1. 1.       Isabella Thorpe (Northanger Abbey)
  2. 2.       John Thorpe (Northanger Abbey)
  3. 3.       Lucy Steele (Sense and Sensibility)

 

Least Favorite Characters: Lydia Bennett (Pride and Prejudice)

Runner-Up: Philip Elton (Emma)

Funniest Characters: Charlotte and Mr. Palmer (Sense and Sensibility)

Runner-Up: Sir Walter Elliott (Persuasion)

Least Favorite Work: Mansfield Park. It’s no longer as bad as I used to think it was, but it’s still not as good as Austen’s other works. At least, in my opinion. 

Featured Author: Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Like many other Jane Austen readers, I first came upon Austen after seeing one of the many films adapted from her novels. I was in grade school in the late 1990s when I saw Sense and Sensibility—the film with Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and Kate Winslet. I loved everything about the movie too! The cast, the characters, the scenery, and most importantly, the plot.

Upon finding out the film was adapted from a novel, I looked for Sense and Sensibility in the school library, finished the book in two days, and the rest, as they say, is history. I’m under the opinion that one simply can’t stop with a single Austen book. Suffice to say, I was hooked. And I’ve been reading and rereading Austen since.

Austen Bio

 Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 to a country parson in Steventon, Hampshire. Her father, Reverend George Austen, was by all accounts, a supportive father. After Jane showed interest in literature, he encouraged her to continue reading the works of prominent writers like Sir Walter Scott, George Crabbe, and Henry Fielding. Apart from devouring the works of these literary masters, Jane was also interested in creating her own stories. She started with sketches of popular romance stories, and gradually progressed into her full-length novels. She wrote in secret too—in between her household chores. How she found the time to pen six of the most beautiful novels in Classic literature is beyond me!

During her lifetime, she saw four of her novels published—Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815). Two of her novels, Northanger Abbey (1818), and Persuasion (1818), were published after her death.

Austen fell ill sometime around 1816. She attempted to ignore her illness, but her health continued its slow and steady decline, until she succumbed to this illness on 18 July 1817. In the last century, many medical experts have tried to figure out Austen’s mystery illness. Some have suggested Addison’s disease, others, Hodgkins lymphoma or tuberculosis. Others still, believe that it was a type of typhus called Brill-Zinsser disease.

Either way, the disease was slow in coming and gave Austen time to continue writing. Time, however, ran out before she could finish Sanditon (1817).

Today, Jane Austen is considered one of the most prominent female novelists in history. Her writing is lauded by critics and literary masters like Somerset Maugham and Sir Walter Scott for portraying the‘real’ and ‘commonplace’ in such a remarkable manner, which makes it impossible to dismiss her writings as merely ‘romantic’ in nature. Her exemplary technique of transforming the ordinary into something worth reading shows her mastery over human emotion and the English language.

Though her works are often classified as Classic Romance novels, many believe that they are also excellent social commentaries that border on satirical at times.

List of Novels

  1. Sense and Sensibility (1811)
  2. Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  3. Mansfield Park (1814)
  4. Emma (1815)
  5. Northanger Abbey (1818)
  6. Persuasion (1818)

Book Review: Persuasion – Jane Austen

Persuasion - Jane Austen

Title: Persuasion

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Classic, Romance

First Published: 1818 (posthumously)

Pages: 254

 

Persuasion marks the last of Jane Austen’s novels—the completed ones, at least. It starts in media res (in the thick of things). In it, we follow the life of our lovable heroine, Anne Elliott. At 27, Anne is still unmarried. Her youth and bloom having disappeared early, Anne is the shell of her former self. As the story progresses, we soon learn the reason behind her resigned air and fading good looks.

About eight years prior to the start of the novel, Anne had entered into an engagement with a handsome navy officer, Frederick Wentworth. Though she loved him, she reneged on her word after her family and close friend expressed their disapproval of the ‘imprudent’ match. To them, Frederick was most unworthy of Anne. She was, after all, the daughter of a wealthy baronet, and he was a poor navy officer with little to offer. The two part ways with much ill-feeling between them.

Though the years soon pass, Anne’s feelings for Frederick remains unchanged. This becomes most apparent when the two cross paths again. But Frederick, now a successful and wealthy Captain, appears to want little to do with Anne. Will the two end up together? Well, considering this is a novel by Austen, the answer shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out. And there lies the central story of Persuasion.

Despite its seemingly simple plot, Persuasion is made interesting by its plethora of unforgettable characters. In it, we have the incredibly vain and selfish trio that composes Anne’s family—her father, Sir Walter Elliott, and her sisters, Elizabeth and Mary. We also have the scheming duo of Mr. Elliott and Mrs. Clay. But my favorite of all peripheral characters is the kind-hearted and romantic, Captain Benwick. In him, I see this sanguine personality that no amount of melancholia can completely sink. His natural disposition is to find love and give love, and though there is no disputing the appeal of the manly and handsome Captain Frederick Wentworth, there is much to love about Benwick, as well.

Beyond my usual praise for Austen’s incredible ability to infuse excitement in the everyday, what I love about Persuasion is that it showcases Austen’s growth as a writer. Many consider this final novel as somewhat unpolished compared to Emma and Mansfield Park, to me, however, the relative absence of the author breaking the fourth wall only heightens the subtlety and wit of Persuasion. Also, who doesn’t love the massive rewards delayed gratification brings?

All in all, Persuasion is a fine book which I would gladly recommend to all Classic readers and romantics.

Favorite Line: “He had an affectionate heart. He must love somebody.” – Captain James Benwick

Grade: A+

Book Review: Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

northanger abbey-jane austen

Title: Northanger Abbey

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Classic, Romance

First Published: 1818 (posthumously)

Pages: 236

 

Northanger Abbey follows the story of Catherine Morland, an unexceptional young woman from the country, who finds herself suddenly a part of the elegant and complex society in Bath. Under the ‘guidance’ of the vapid, though not cruel, Mrs. Allen, Catherine finds herself acquainted with the wrong crowd.

When she is befriended by the deceitful and coquettish Isabella Thorpe, our unlikely heroine falls under the manipulations of Isabella and her brother, John. For a while, she is bullied into participating in indiscreet activities that could make an impact on her reputation. Take note, reader, these activities are by no means as racy as the sentence might suggest. It is, basically, the reputation you get when you quite literally, ‘ride in the car with boys.’

Mercifully, she is saved from further social mishaps when she joins the company of the handsome, though somewhat unromantic, Henry Tilney, and his lovely sister, Eleanor. As would be expected, she falls for Henry, and there is reason to think that he begins to feel the same for her. The only setback lies in the meddling of Henry’s father, General Tilney. Therein, is the real story, and it starts quite late in the novel.

Although the rest of the novel is pleasant enough to read, Northanger Abbey is a lot like Emma, in the sense that the story is not as rich or eventful as Jane Austen’s other works. Notably, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. What gets the reader through the piece though, is the strength of Catherine’s character.

Yes, Jane Austen does take pains to establish how Catherine is unremarkable in almost all aspects—but she also makes our heroine incredibly interesting. Austen infuses her with youth. Catherine’s curiosity and naivety makes her relatable—and that is the mark of a good character.

Northanger Abbey is often regarded as Austen’s earliest work. This shows, especially in Austen’s immense presence in the text. The author makes her thoughts known in a very direct manner throughout the book. In her latter works like Persuasion and Mansfield Park, you get less of the author in the story.  Some critics regard Northanger Abbey as one of the keys to Austen’s mindset. With little else to go by, Austen having requested that all her letters be burnt upon her death, such personal works as this one becomes crucial to historians, literary professors and majors, and Janeites alike. This novel gives as a clue as to what Austen’s mindset was during the period when she wrote this story.

As a parody of Gothic literature, this book also succeeds in being possibly the most lighthearted and easy-to-read novel from Austen. This is why I highly recommend this book to all first-time Austen/Classic readers.

Rating: A-