Classic Lit Challenge: Heart of Darkness

Here’s one of the rarely discussed facts of fiction. Whether we’re writing an alien-filled sci-fi adventure, a sprawling fantasy saga, or a historical epic, all these stories are ultimately a reflection of the specific writer’s society, worldview, ethics, and morals. If you want a true representation of the past, don’t turn to historical fiction.

Turn to fiction actually written in the past.

Warning, though. Often their ethics and sensibilities are vastly different from ours. Sometimes disturbingly so.

If you want to be disturbed and unsettled, then read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In it he depicts a world that is cruel and brutal and blatantly racist. And, yes, heartless and dark.

This is a controversial book, because of its unvarnished description of 19th century European colonialism. But if it’s going to be an accurate portrayal of that time period, how could it not be?

Heart of Darkness book cover

Heart of Darkness is a short book that recounts the story of a less than reliable, and possibly slightly insane, sailor named Marlow, the narrator in Conrad’s sprawling and ambitious Lord Jim, as he tells of his journey into the Belgian Congo to retrieve the mysterious Kurtz for his trading company.

Along the way Marlow travels deeper and deeper into the mysterious heart of so-called wild Africa. The writing has a dreamlike quality throughout that’s a testament to Conrad’s skill. It moves at a fast clip and doesn’t let up. Sometimes it moves too fast for me–especially in the scenes where he finally arrives at Kurtz’s renegade compound I wanted Marlow to slow down and tell us more. But we get what we get.

Heart of Darkness is a compelling read, and I highly recommend it. It was the inspiration for the movie Aopcalypse Now (which I have to rewatch now), so much so that Marlon Brando’s character is also named Kurtz, and he utters the famous line from Conrad’s book.

“The horror, the horror.”

I read commentary on Heart of Darkness captured from writers throughout the 20th Century, and they all dissected it based on where they sat in time and place. I am too. For me, Heart of Darkness was an indictment of the 19th century European colonial enterprise into Africa. The people in London who run the company are presented as cold. The European men in Africa come across as casually cruel. The Africans in their employ are first seen as brutally treated. Conrad does not spare these details. He doesn’t present the Africans as fully human. He does the Europeans, which does them little favor.

Heart of Darkness shows how, rather than “civilizing” Africa (the thin sheen of respectability placed on an enterprise that was really about plunder), European colonialism corrupted those involved.

It made their own hearts dark.

Classic Lit Challenge: The Europeans

I’m back on my classics kick. Part of it is having read one too many contemporary novels that is way too formulaic. Same old tropes whipped out again and again. I don’t mean to knock them too hard. I’m guilty of the same sin. But sometimes you just want something different. And that involves going back a hundred years.

So here I am. With Henry James and The Europeans.

I’ve never read James before. I’ve heard of him (and his famous brother the psychologist William James). In my mind Henry was the stuffy writer of stuffy period slash costume pieces.

Not my thing.

But this book is short! Only a hundredish pages long, depending on what edition. I can handle a hundred pages. No problem.

Right?

Well, actually, yes.

The Europeans wasn’t nearly as painful as I thought it would be. In fact, it was kind of interesting.

Damning with faint praise? Not quite. Like I said, costume dramas about manners are not my favorite. What The Europeans served up, though, was a clash of civilizations writ small. Who doesn’t love a little war? (And Europeans, after all, perfected war, right??)

The basics: Eugenia (a baroness) and her brother Felix come to America to grift their American cousins, the Wentworths, a goodly Puritanish people in the Boston area. They don’t say out-and-out grift, but that’s basically what they’re doing. Seems Eugenia and Felix’s mother was Mr. Wentworth’s older half sister. She met some European dude, converted to Catholicism, and ran off to Europe. And here we are, 30 plus years later. Like many immigrants before them (my ancestors included), Eugenia and Felix are seeking their fortune in the new world.

Much is left out of The Europeans. Why did their mother leave? What was their life like in Europe? None of that seems to matter to Henry James, because he never tells us. What he does tell us, though, is details about what the Americans, and the Europeans, are thinking. If there’s one thing that Henry does excellently, it’s hopping from head to head to reveal what each character is thinking at any given time. Sometimes it’s interesting. Other times, eh. (I’m looking at you, Clifford Wentworth).

I expected a bigger clash. I expected fireworks. I expected a little inadvertent comedy. There wasn’t much of that. Instead what I got was an awkward overuse of the phrase “making love to” — used in a way VERY different from modern times. And a lot of first cousin love. Seriously. I guess first cousins marrying each other was a thing in the late 1800s.

I got through this “comedy” of manners fairly quickly, maybe because I was expecting more. That more never arrived. Still, it was fun to slip into the heads of these lightly scheming characters. A hundred pages I could handle. Four hundred I would have felt cheated.

At least Felix got his happy ending.

Five for Friday

1. Mama Bruise by Jonathan Carroll

mama bruise
Tor.com is the home to free short speculative fiction, always great. This short story, Mama Bruise, by Jonathan Carroll not only features great writing–the prose is intimate and clean–it’s also not at all what I expected. It’s billed as a story about a dog with issues. I was expecting something Cujo-esque. Instead it was stealthily heartbreaking and thoroughly unsettling. Read it.

2. Vietnam by Jon Grant


“Your silence is a weapon. It’s like a nuclear bomb. It’s like the agent orange they used to use in Vietnam.”

Jon Grant is one of my favorites. His musical style isn’t easily classifiable, but his voice is honey and his lyrics are mostly about heartbreak. He’s got a talent for employing strange and sometimes awkward metaphors. They don’t always land but they’re fun to listen to. In this song, he equates a bad relationship to the Vietnam war. It sounds like a stretch but it works. The video does, too. It’s just him, there, being filmed. It’s awkward to look at, which is the point.

3. Villanelle and the knitting needles in Killing Eve

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Killing Eve is addictive, over the top, and pure fun. I love watching Sandra Oh’s Eve chase and be chased by the psychopathic assassin Villanelle. Even more than that, I love watching Villanelle get in and out of trouble. A recent example is when she’s holed up with a creepy older dude who has an obsession with dolls. Of course she escapes, and of course creepy older dude doesn’t fare too well. Thanks to knitting needles.

4. The Modfather

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Why???

5. The rustling hair in Game of Thrones

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The Battle of Winterfell will go down as the second-best episode of Game of Thrones to date. Despite its darkness, both literal and figurative, it was a tour-de-force of writing, acting, and production. I could go on about how awesome a plotting job the writers did in getting Arya to the eventual place where it felt completely natural and earned that she would be the one to take down the Night King. I’m not. Instead I’ll focus on one brief moment of brilliance. Just before Arya stormed seemingly out of nowhere to attack the Night King, the hair of one of his minions is rustled. You think it’s the wind. It’s not. It’s Arya leaping in for the kill.

Five for Friday

My top raves of the week:

1. Quentin Coldwater in the Season 4 finale of The Magicians

the-magicians-quentin-alice-penny

The Magicians Quentin Coldwater a strange case. In the books he was meant to subvert the trope of the savior; instead of being super special, he was an average, depressed dude with a marginal talent for magic. In the show he always wanted to be the hero but kept getting outshined by the other characters. The season 4 finale of The Magicians was all his. He became the hero in every sense of the word, but most especially the tragic one.

2. Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone

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I just finished Two Serpents Rise, Max Gladstone’s second book in his fantasy Craft Sequence series, about a world full of living and dead gods, and mortals who use a complex system of rules to keep both magic and gods in check. While no book is perfect, he did a great job of creating a wholly unique world very loosely based on Aztec and Mayan legends. His prose is intense (and intimidating from a writer’s standpoint) and his characterizations are effective. Most of all, this book was fun, which is what any reader really wants.

3. Karmacoma by Massive Attack

Once upon a time videos were close to art. I don’t know if I’d put this video in that category but what I love about this throwback is how it spins stories in the viewers mind. Welcome to the weirdest hotel outside of the one in The Shining. What the hell is going on? The guy hunting his tiny double? Why did that other guy get shot in the stomach? The kidnapped kid? The weird homeless dude? The random nosebleed woman? Plus the song holds up after a couple of decades. Hard to beat.

4. Florida Man Aggressively Eats Pasta

florida spaghetti

In Florida (of course), a crazed Jesus hipster looking man, looking beat to hell, was arrested at an Olive Garden for aggressively eating pasta (spoiler: he was drunk). I could eat this story up forever.

5. Dany Targaryen’s bloody coat in Game of Thrones

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I’m not much for fashion. but this coat? I couldn’t look away. Give the costumers an Oscar right now. Fur the color of pure snow, but hidden beneath were lines of red. Blood and snow mingling beautifully. Nothing subtle about this foreshadowing. I can’t wait for the blood!

 

New Doctor Who Ups the Stakes

My ongoing obsession with the BBC classic series Doctor Who continues.

Doctor WhoLast week the 11th season of the (new) Doctor Who began. This season features three big changes: a new Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker, a new head writer, Chris Chibnall, and three new companions.

Having seen the first episode, I can’t wait to see how the new season develops with Whittaker in the title role. Whenever an actor assumes the role he (and now she) brings a fresh take on the Doctor. Usually it takes a few episodes before they find their footing. Chris Eccleston’s loopiness sparked right away. David Tennant and Matt Smith both brought a boyishness to the role that took a little time to grow on me. I never ever warmed up to Peter Capaldi’s overly dour take on the Doctor.

Whittaker was thoroughly charming. There were some rough parts to the season opener–she’s overly giddy at times–but she has a warm confidence that telegraphs a strong future.

There’s one other change that’s more subtle but I think more important. The Doctor’s companions often serve as an audience stand-in. The companion, usually female, is full of wonder and amazement and learns and grows as she travels the universe with the Doctor, surviving one harrowing adventure after another. Danger is at every turn, but no companion in the new Who era has ever truly died.

Rose was exiled to an alternate earth (still alive).

Martha became a Torchwood soldier (still alive, I think).

Poor Donna Noble survived, though only because she had her memories of her adventures erased.

Amy Pond and Rory both survived, though they were banished to the past.

Clara Oswald, well, she died. But then the Doctor did his timey-wimey stuff and snatched her away just before the moment of her death. I didn’t get it either but I loved Clara so I was happy.

And then there’s Bill Potts. Turned into a Cyberman. That’s death, right? No. Another timey-wimey thing where she becomes an immortal puddle or something.

With each companion the danger and risk is heightened, but true consequences are denied.

Not so in this season’s first episode. We were presented with a cast of four potential companions: police officer Yasmin, determined bike rider Ryan, his grandmother Grace, and Grace’s husband Graham. While fighting the big bad tooth-faced monster with a name that sounded like Tim Shaw, one of those four potentials dies.

Like, really dies. Buried and all.

Not only that, it was the FIFTH human death shown in just this one episode.

Doctor Who is nominally a children’s show. Yes, characters die, but less often than you’d think. And never, until now, a (near) companion.

Does this mean that any of the three remaining companions could die this season?

Hopefully, and not because I want to see them die, but because I want to see stakes that matter.

 

 

 

Classic Lit Challenge 6: Saturday

This one was a test.

For my classic lit challenge I’ve been choosing novels that have weathered decades. As in at least five. My reasoning: among the ocean of books, only quality literature will survive the currents of time.

I deviated for Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. It was only published in 2005. Not enough time has passed to tell if it will be floating around used book sales a hundred years from now.

220px-SaturdayMy verdict: I don’t think so.

First, why I picked it up. I’d read Enduring Love by him a few years ago and I liked it a lot. I’d seen the movie Atonement, which is based on a book he wrote, and I liked it even more. I remember when Saturday came out and it got rave reviews. So, there it was, on the tables of Grace Van Vorst Church’s book sale, for just a buck.

The good: I read Saturday in a single day (a Sunday, not a Saturday). I was still in a wickedly off-kilter state of mind so I wandered into Manhattan and read chapters at various places along the Hudson riverfront, and I kept on doing so until Saturday (the book) had ended.

I NEVER read a book in a single day. Saturday, however, was fluid and seamless and kept me going.

So what’s it about? It follows a well-off and well-regarded middle-aged London neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, during the course of a single day: February 15, 2003. As Henry navigates his unimpressive Saturday routine he ponders such things as the love of his family (very devoted all around), fears about terrorism, the looming Iraq War and his general place in life. In a lot of ways it reminded me of James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in that it focused intensely on one person’s life confined to a single day. But Joyce and Woolf pulled it off. McEwan fell short. I think I know why.

Henry Perowne has no memorable flaws. He’s skillful and dutiful and faithful and even tempered. He’s boring. There were opportunities to delve into his psyche, burrow into his past, but the earliest we get is adolescence, and one that is fine enough. I wished McEwan had used the Joyce/Woolf example and dug deep into Henry’s shit.

Nope. None of that.

Another problem hearkens back to why Saturday was so praised when it came out. Way back in 2005 the contentious Iraq War was underway. Saturday takes place during a massive British anti-war rally, and Henry spends many pages ruminating on the merits of the war. He gets into an impassioned argument with his daughter Daisy (most of the passion was on her side), which mirrors the arguments of the day, almost in a textbook fashion.

Topicality can be awesome. But what happens when, with the passage of time, that enormously world-changing event ends up not being such a big deal? A decade plus on, the Iraq War seems as consequential as the Boer War in popular culture, so the debate over its merits before the fact have zero tension. Time moves that fast. McEwan is one of today’s literary heavyweights, but I’m guessing if he wrote this same exact novel today, it wouldn’t get published.

There’s much to like about Saturday. The writing is great, and the action, especially toward the last quarter of the book, was unexpected and shocking (if not totally believable). Like I said, I read Saturday in one day.

Will it last a hundred hears on? I’m guessing McEwan’s Atonement will earn that honor.

Next up, a classic that made my skin crawl.

 

Classic Lit Challenge 5: As I Lay Dying

My history with William Faulkner isn’t a positive one. I remember having to read one of his books in high school — I can’t remember whether it was Light in August or The Sound and the Fury. It didn’t go well. Then again, what 16 year old can comprehend stream of coverconsciousness?

My second attempt came when I was living in upstate New York, a four-hour drive from my family in Jersey, and I’d gotten my hands on a Faulkner audiobook — one of the two aforementioned novels. I can’t recall which one, and again it doesn’t matter, since listening to Faulkner while driving along the New York Thruway is even more pointless than reading it.

Oh, and I’m not a fan of early 20th century southern gothic. It’s become a huge cliche.

Nevertheless, as part of my one dollar, 300 pages or less challenge, I boldly chose Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (not to be confused with the excellent thrash metal band of the same name, which I am listening to as i lay dyingas I write this).

Ok, a bit of a rewind — last year, my friends Sara and Stephen both convinced me to read their favorite book of all time: James Joyce’s Ulysses. So I did, chapter by chapter, and we’d get together over beers to discuss and dissect. It was a challenge, but I finished it. Ulysses is considered the blueprint of modern, stream-of-consciousness writing. Joyce was the pioneer, more or less. Once I slogged through Ulysses, I was at ease with stream of consciousness. Reading Faulkner was now much, much easier.

(Though I did cheat a little; wikipedia helped me sort out the large cast of characters.)

A quick summary of As I Lay Dying: Addie Bundren, the matriarch of the rural southern Bundren clan, is dying, and her last wish is to be buried miles away among her own people. A simple journey tale, right? No. Not so simple. Everything that can go wrong hauling her decaying corpse miles and miles and miles in the southern heat does go wrong. Almost comically.

What makes As I Lay Dying both effective and frustrating is the rotating cast. The book is told in a first person point of view. Not just one, though. Fifteen, including Addie’s toothless husband Anse, her oldest son Cash, another son, the insightful Darl, dutiful daughter Dewey Dell, the secretly illegitimate son Jewel, and the youngest boy Vardaman. Other POVs include neighbors, doctors, etc etc.

You can get whiplash from the constant stream of murmuring voices.

Faulkner does a great job of carrying the reader along, even in places where the reader (me) feels almost lost. That’s because he keeps things interesting throughout.

Given my history with Faulkner, I liked this book way more than I thought I would. One thing that stood out for me was the character of Darl. The story of carrying a decaying body clear across the state is batshit crazy. Darl realizes this. In fact Darl is the only character who can see through all the secrets and lies of the Bundren clan. This eventually becomes his undoing.

Or maybe he’s the one who is batshit crazy.

When you’re the sane one in a crazy world, does that make you crazy in comparison?

The other thing that stood out for me was the title character (well, title POV character). The book is called As I Lay Dying (which is an allusion to the Odyssey, which inspired Joyce to write Ulysses, which clearly inspired As I Lay Dying. Boom!). Addie is the one who is laying dying when the novel opens, so she’s pretty damn important.

But we only get a single chapter from Addie’s POV, which comes in the middle and is out of time with the sequence of events.

That doesn’t matter though. It’s one of the most powerful chapters of the book. We find out who Addie really is. Turns out she’s a mean, nasty, violent woman who has no faith in the world or her family or her marriage or herself. There’s been tons written about Addie, and some consider her a feminist of sorts. I think she’s the story’s villain. It’s because of her that all this madness occurs.

But if it wasn’t for her villainy, we’d have a boring short story about a loving matriarch being buried in the backyard. Who wants that?

Next up: a deviation from the “classic” challenge, where I tackle a more modern literary hit.

 

Classic Lit Challenge 4: Pride and Prejudice

After this post I’m expecting hordes of furious Jane Austen fans at my door.

So when I was at the used book sale I spied Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. Of course I’m familiar with Austen. She’s one of the biggies. She basically invented the romance genre. And who doesn’t love the movie Clueless (which is loosely based on Austen’s Emma)?

prideprejudice423x630I’d never read anything by Austen, though I know many writers and readers who practically worship her. Romance isn’t my thing, but not wanting to consider myself a literary snob, I handed over the dollar and set to reading.

When I was younger I had it in my head that I had to finish every book I started. As I got older and time became more precious, I tossed that useless rule. With this literary challenge, though, I told myself I’d at least read until page 50. If I still couldn’t take the torture, I’d tap out then.

For Pride and Prejudice I made it to page 38.

I don’t know what it was exactly that made me quit this book.

Was it the ridiculous, over-the-top language?

Was it the horrible stage direction, which always had me confused as to who was saying what?

Was it the fact that the most interesting scenes were being described off-camera?

Was it that the only character I liked was Mr. Darcy, who is considered the villain (as far as romances go)?

Maybe it was all of those.

I’m guessing our hero Elizabeth Bennet blossoms into a character who is 1) interesting and 2) not annoying, but I didn’t have the patience to wait for her metamorphosis. I also didn’t have the patience for the wide cast of characters whose sole purpose was to gossip and pile on the unnecessary dialogue.

Call me overly proud. Call me prejudiced. But I couldn’t find the charm in Pride and Prejudice.

Maybe I should give Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a shot instead. Who doesn’t love zombies?

Next up: a book that’s the polar opposite of a romance, and one I actually finished.