Monthly Archives: August 2012

On Great Expectations

My bookclub read Great Expectations this month. I just finished it and will soon post my thoughts.

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Posted by on August 30, 2012 in British Lit, classic, fiction


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Poem of the Week


by X. J. Kennedy

This funky pizza parlor decks its walls
With family portraits some descendant junked,
Ornately framed, the scrap from dealers’ hauls,
Their names and all who cherished them defunct.

These pallid ladies in strict corsets locked,
These gentlemen in yokes of celluloid—
What are they now? Poor human cuckoo clocks,
Fixed faces doomed to hang and look annoyed

While down they stare in helpless resignation
From painted backdrops—waterfalls and trees—
On blue-jeaned lovers making assignation
Over a pepperoni double cheese.

“Décor” by X.J. Kennedy, from In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus. © The John Hopkins University Press, 2007

From The Writer’s Almanac

It’s the birthday of poet X.J. Kennedy (books by this author), born Joseph Charles Kennedy in Dover, New Jersey (1929). He grew up in a working-class Irish-American family. His father, a timekeeper at the local boiler factory, recited poems to his son. Kennedy went to college, where he started reading and writing poetry, then served in the Navy for four years. He said, “I enlisted in the Navy to avoid serving in the infantry. I’d also been reading Moby Dick, and I had a rather glamorous view of the seas.” Kennedy’s first book of poetry was called Nude Descending a Staircase (1961). It was written for adults, but there were two poems in it that he intended for children. He went on to publish many books of children’s poems, including Ghastlies, Goops, and Pinchushions (1989), and City Kids: Street and Skyscraper Rhymes (2010).

Kennedy has also written poetry textbooks and volumes of poetry for adults, including Dark Horses (1992) and The Lords of Misrule: Poems 1992-2002 (2002).

He said, “I like poems where you don’t really know whether to laugh or cry when you read them.”

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Posted by on August 21, 2012 in American Lit, contemporary, poetry


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A friend mentioned WE a dystopian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin. WE takes place in the th century and think of our era as the time of the Ancients. The One State governs and all the buildings are made of glass walls so there’s no privacy whatsoever. People don’t live in families and there’s no such thing as love or romance. You have an assigned (not forced or arranged, there’s some choice or regard for preferences) partner and have pink tickets that tell you what time and day you’re scheduled to have sex. Then you can lower your blinds. Children are raised in a state run institution and don’t feature much into people’s lives.

WE chronicles the life of D-503, a mathematician. To him math and numbers explain everything and are extremely beautiful and perfect. D-503 and his best friend, a poet, R-13 share a pinkish lover, O-90 who’s not permitted to have a child because she’s too short. Thus the society, the state guarantees perfect future generations. O-90’s nice enough, but when D-503 encounters the audacious, smoking, flirty, older I-330, he can’t say no and this unsanctioned affair leads him into conflict with the all powerful One State and its leader the Benefactor.

WE greatly influenced George Orwell to write 1984, a classic and bleaker story. (Not that WE offers a happy ending.) It’s an intriguing novel and Zamyatin definitely writes well. It’s a good addition to this sub genre. The feel of the novel is quite impersonal and rather clinical, but that’s the point.

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Posted by on August 10, 2012 in classic, Russian Literature


Theme Thursday: Mirror

Theme Thursdays is a fun weekly event that will be open from one Thursday to the next. Anyone can participate in it. The rules are simple:

  • A theme will be posted each week (on Thursday’s)
  • Select a conversation/snippet/sentence from the current book you are reading
  • Mention the author and the title of the book along with your post
  • It is important that the theme is conveyed in the sentence (you don’t necessarily need to have the word)
    Ex: If the theme is KISS; your sentence can have “They kissed so gently” or “Their lips touched each other” or “The smooch was so passionate”

This will give us a wonderful opportunity to explore and understand different writing styles and descriptive approaches adopted by authors.

The theme for this week is MIRROR Glasses, Spectacles, etc.


She got up and walked over to the mirrored door of the closet. . . . From the mirror to me: a sharp, mocking triangle of eyebrows, lifted slightly, to her eyebrows.

From WE by Yevgeny Zamyatin, p. 196


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From the Writer’s Almanac

Today is the birthday of the man who said, “Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.” That’s writer Wendell Berry (books by this author), born in Henry County, Kentucky (1934), the son of a lawyer and tobacco farmer. His ancestors on both sides farmed the county for five generations. After going off to college and teaching creative writing in the Bronx for a couple of years, Berry joined that lineage, purchasing a 125-acre homestead near the birthplace of his parents, where he still farms and writes poetry, novels, and essays. From his outpost, Berry tackles the intersection of civic life and the natural world, writing that “essential wisdom accumulates in the community much as fertility builds in the land.”

His eight novels, including Jayber Crow (2000) and Hannah Coulter (2004), together with his many short stories, form a saga of a small fictional Kentucky town called Port William. Through the lives of the townspeople, Berry explores the costs of war, the effects of farm policy, and the challenges and pleasures of community.

Berry wrote: “The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”

And: “Every day do something that won’t compute […] Give your approval to all you cannot understand […] Ask the questions which have no answers. Put your faith in two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years […] Laugh. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts […] Practice resurrection.”

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Posted by on August 5, 2012 in American Lit, poetry, Writers' Almanac


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Madame Bovary, Part 2

I felt reading this time to have more sympathy for Charles (and Berthe, who pays the highest price in the end). It’s no crime to be mediocre. Actually, that’s a strength of the novel and Vargas Llosa in The Perpetual Orgy, a book of essays on his favorite novel contends that this is the first modern novel because it centers on the ordinary in a way that other novels hadn’t. Other novels dealt with ordinary characters and circumstances but always made them heroic is some way. Flaubert didn’t. Ironically, that is what annoyed me most about Emma. She was so ordinary, so overly appraised by her husband and in different ways her lovers, even Rodolph overestimates her in the beginning. I saw her like Daisy Buchanan, a pretty, but empty vessel.

Flaubert wrote a lot about the ordinary in his letters. He wrote to his lover that “Beautiful subjects make mediocre works” and “It is not in fact great misfortunes that are to be feared in life, but minor ones. I am more afraid of pinpricks than of saber blows. . . . we have no need of continual acts of devotion and sacrifices, yet constantly need from others at least the outward signs of friendship and affection, in a word, kind attentions and politeness.”

But I want to say to him, Emma’s problem was living in a society that preferred appearances and her own desire for a sophisticated life that really existed only in her dreams.

Actually, a lot was in my head as I read the book this time. I was in my early twenties the first time I read it and aside from the good style and character descriptions, I didn’t get that much out of it. I just hadn’t lived that long and I don’t think I really had any life experience that informed my reading.

Then I read it again with a book group at a Barnes and Noble. I recall our discussion as centering around the humor in the book and one guy quipped that Madame Bovary shows that reading can be detrimental. We forget how people looked down on reading novels the first century or two they were around.

This reading I still appreciated how funny parts were and how well Flaubert writes, but it wasn’t as easy to read, I had to think more about the themes and Emma and the author’s aim and I’m still mulling all this over.

Then there’s the predatory lender Lheureux, who basically bundled Emma’s loans adding to her financial troubles. Talk about timely. It’s interesting that money and love go so hand in hand in Madame Bovary.

I was harder on Emma than I had been before because now I’ve known people who’ve lived through infidelity and I’ve seen the pain it causes. I can’t trivialize it. I wanted to tell Emma, “Okay, your life isn’t what you dreamed, but nothing is. Thank God, you’re not begging in the street or stricken with a disease.”

I do think she needed community. She had no one in her corner who’d also be real with her. In part, she didn’t seem to seek that out. Was life like that in small town France? The Bovary’s didn’t live on a prairie miles and miles from neighbors. I do feel I need to know more about the culture of the day before I judge her, but she really isn’t sympathetic or heroic. I suppose as Vargas Llosa points out she’s the first anti-hero.

I wonder about Flaubert. He had a long time affair, and a few trysts, biographers now think. Emma takes a lot of people down with her and this seems so at odds with his living. I know it’s not the first time for such a tension within a person and I actually think it may be essential to having an affair, this kind of double life.

Finally, Vargas Llosa makes some interesting points about beauty and violence. He points out that there’s a lot of violence in the book, not just Emma’s suicide but the disastrous surgery, the spiritual violence of Lheureux preying on the Bovary’s “down to their last sou,” the derogatory murmuring criticizing Catherine at the agricultural fair for donating her winnings to the church when she desperately needed money, all the prejudices, envy, and intrigue presented in the book. Vargas Llosa says he really doesn’t like stories that don’t contain violence; they don’t come across as real to him. What do you think? Do you agree?


Posted by on August 5, 2012 in classic, French Lit, World Lit


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Madame Bovary, Part 1

My online book club read Madame Bovary for July. This was my third time through the novel and each time I have a different experience. I found a book of essays on Madame Bovary by novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called The Perpetual Orgy. Vargas Llosa has a real thing for this novel and credits repeated readings with saving his life. (I’ll review The Perpetual Orgy next week.)

What about Emma Bovary? Is she a heroine? Does she deserve our pity? Scorn? Sympathy? I’d say she’s an anti-hero. She’s an outsider who makes such bad choices. She is her own worst enemy.
This time around I wondered why Charles was such a weak person. I find I get drawn in more to stories where all characters are strong as they tend to be in say an argument between two Aaron Sorkin creations. Here Emma just isn’t a good match for Charles. Yet does is she justified in her infidelity? What is Flaubert’s aim here I wondered.
I did learn that Flaubert had an affair for several years and based Emma’s character on his lover,
I also found a little background information from The Writer’s Almanac:
. . . Gustave Flaubert (1821) (books by this author), born in Rouen, France. He was a notorious perfectionist in his work, and once said, “I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.” In 1851, he began what would become his first published novel, and his masterpiece. Five years later, Madame Bovary (1856) appeared in La Revue de Paris in serialized form. It’s the story of Emma, a doctor’s wife, who is dissatisfied with her life and longs to experience the passion, excitement, and luxury she has only read about in novels. She has two long-term affairs, accrues insurmountable debt, and ultimately takes her own life with arsenic.
From Madame Bovary, chapter nine: “Deep down in her heart, she was waiting and waiting for something to happen. Like a shipwrecked mariner, she gazed out wistfully over the wide solitude of her life, if so be she might catch the white gleam of a sail away on the dim horizon. She knew not what it would be, this longed-for barque; what wind would waft it to her, or to what shores it would bear her away. She knew not if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, burdened with anguish or freighted with joy. But every morning when she awoke she hoped it would come that day.”
A month after the final installment of Madame Bovary was published, the French government banned the book, and hauled Flaubert up on charges of offending public and religious morality. Flaubert and his lawyers defended the book, saying that, by exposing vice, the novel was actually promoting virtue. Flaubert was narrowly acquitted, and Madame Bovary was published in book form two months later. The publicity and scandal of the trial contributed to its success.
Flaubert wrote: “It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.”
I’ll add more tomorrow.
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Posted by on August 4, 2012 in classic, French Lit


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