Sunday, March 31, 2013

C_Club #5 - "Arrowsmith" by Sinclair Lewis (Classics Spin)

The medical profession can have but one desire: to destroy the medical profession.
/p. 180/
I got to read "Arrowsmith" as a result of the Classics Spin event. The magical number 14 out of 20. It doesn't seem to be that widely read classics, so I hadn't seen any reviews, nor did I know much about Sinclair Lewis. And that was a good thing, as expectations can be a really, really bad thing more often than not.
From the back of the book:
Arrowsmith, the most widely read of Sinclair Lewis's novels, is the incisive portrait of a man passionately devoted to science. As a bright, curious boy in a small Midwestern town, Martin Arrowsmith spends his free time in old Doc Vickerson's office avidly devouring medical texts. Destined to become a physician and a researcher, he discovers that societal forces of ignorance, greed, and corruption can be as life-threatening as the plague.
Part satire, part morality tale, Lewis's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel illuminates the mystery and power of science while giving enduring life to a singular American hero's struggle for integrity and intellectual freedom in a small-minded world.
Boy, does Lewis have a sharp tongue pencil! There is a lot he dislikes, and he makes sure to put it out there. I was expecting some kind of a mad scientist tale, but it was not that. Martin is, to an extent, selfish, but he doesn't destroy lives. Quite the contrary. Sure, he is a very flawed character, but that only makes the story feel more realistic. And there is no "perfect" character in the book; all of them get slapped by Lewis more or less.
At first I did not like Martin Arrowsmith. He seemed to have no backspine. There were parts in the beginning where he seemed to be unable to make any decision when it came to choosing between two girls, so he ended up with an absolutely hilarious solution, summoning both girls to the lunch with him, admitting having been seeing them both and then decides to stay with the one who doesn't slap him or doesn't leave the table. It was a highly entertaining scene.
This story is timeless in the sense that the problems and dilemmas described in 1925 are pretty much the same in nowadays' world. When it comes to science - do you keep pursuing the Ultimate Medical Truth through the form of research, or do you sell out and work for people who want fast results, money and fame? Is acting like an everyday physician in a small settlement, curing people's pneumonias, broken legs and hypochondriac cases, really something that leads to new discoveries that mean something to humankind? Sure, we need doctors,  but if you have the talent and drive to spend sleepless nights and make a really big discovery that could change medicine for centuries to come, then such people maybe should focus on research instead.
The character that Lewis mocks the most is a doctor called Pickerbaugh. He is a man with political ambitions, and his daily work in the town consists mostly of mingling with the citizens, promoting health and sanitation through his VERY BAD verses, organising themed weeks such as a Write to Mother Week, an Eat More Corn Week, a Go to Church Week, Three Cigars a Day Week (?), Better the Babies Week, Banish the Booze Week, et cetera. Needless to say, Dr Pickerbaugh is highly popular among the townsfolk. Hilarious character but I'm not sure I'd want him to be my doctor.
One of the more tragic characters is Martin's wife Leora. We don't get to know much of her inside because although Martin needs her, he doesn't spend that much time at home or thinking about her and so the image the reader gets is that Leora has no life of her own, all she does is look after Martin's needs, sit with him hours and hours of nights in laboratories while he works, and never complains. She is an interesting character, although obviously criticised by Lewis for not having her own will and ways.
There are plenty more amusing and kind of over-the-top characters in the novel - I really enjoyed Lewis's take on the whole armada of different doctors, researchers, directors and families.
Lewis himself seemed to be an eccentric type as well. I already wrote here how he refused to accept the Pulitzer Prize, and that grew my respect for him; however, from the introduction of my "Arrowsmith" edition (written by Sally E. Parry) I read the following lines Lewis sent to his publisher Alfred Harcourt:
I hope they do award me the Pulitzer prize on Arrowsmith - but you know, don't you, that ever since the Main Street burglary, I have planned that if they ever did award it to me, I would refuse it, with a polite but firm letter which I shall let the press have, and which ought to make it impossible for any one ever to accept the novel prize (not the play or history prize) thereafter without acknowledging themselves as willing to sell out.
Arrogant much? :D Yea, that artsy folk sure can be eccentric.
I am totally happy I read this novel, I am pretty sure I will also read some of his other works like "Main Street" and "Babbit".

Closing the lid of March

We can has some of that? Please???
*punches the writing slump in the face* there...
March is almost over, and spring is nowhere to be seen. What gives? I'm so tired all the time that it's not even funny anymore.
Just out of curiosity (and possibly in masochistic desire to shock myself) I went through all the Brain Food posts since the beginning of January (added the books I have gotten in the past weeks and have not put into a post yet) to make a little calculation of how many books I have acquired and how many of them I have read.
Books hoarded - 35 (of which 3 I received for free, 1 is a lent book, and the rest I [or my boyfriend] have paid for).
Books read - 13.
I think it could be worse. My Classics Club project includes many of the books that come from my already-earlier-existing library, so I am not reading only the new books. Most books I have bought are classics, plus I am also going through some of the novels longlisted for this year's Women's Prize. It is also noteworthy that the classics I buy are not necessarily meant for reading right away, but they are more like long-time investment.
Anyway, back to March.
It was surprisingly good reading month, mainly because I managed to balance nicely between the classics and other stuff. I read six books - three classics and three "others":
* J. Austen "Persuasion" (for Classics Club)
* G. Flynn "Gone Girl" (from Women's Prize longlist; however, I read it before I knew that it was longlisted)
* E. Hemingway "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (for Classics Club; for Modern March event)
* S. Lewis "Arrowsmith" (for Classics Club; for Classics Spin event)
* J. Picoult "My Sister's Keeper"
* M. Semple "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" (from Women's Prize longlist)
Page count - 236+466+490+450+500+321=2463.
In April, I will participate in Zoladdiction event. Although I initially planned to go for two Zolas, I have changed my mind by now and will be reading only "Germinal". I would like to dedicate more time to Women's Prize books - I have Kingsolver's "Flight Behavior" and Segal's "The Innocents" at home, plus this week the boyfriend ordered me Atkinson's "Life After Life" (can't wait to stick my claws into that one!) and Shafak's "Honour". I also can't wait to start Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall".

Saturday, March 30, 2013

C_Club #4 - "For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway (Modern March)

Well, I don't want to be a soldier, he thought. I know that. So that's out. I just want us to win this war.
/p. 352/
I remember thinking I'll choose that Hemingway for the Modern March event, because otherwise I wouldn't find motivation to read it. Thank you, Modern March! This was such a beautiful novel.
From the back of the book:
High in the pine forests of Spanish Sierra, a guerrilla band prepares to blow up a vital bridge. Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer, has been sent to handle the dynamiting. There, in the mountains, he finds the dangers and the intense comradeship of war. And there he discovers Maria, a young woman who had escaped from Franco's rebels...
The novel takes place in restricted settings in restricted period of time and with restricted cast of characters. Setting - the pine forests in Spain, period of time - about four days and character sheet includes about 10 repeating names. There are a few flashbacks, but luckily not too many to make reader struggle with immersion. And immersed I was. It felt like I could almost smell the forest and feel pine cones under my feet.
Hemingway's style has always been source of debates. I know many consider him boring, plain, maybe too macho. I have read "Farewell to Arms", which I liked, and "The Old Man and the Sea", which I didn't like, but that was because I had problems with the story itself, not the writing. This being my first Hemingway in English, I discovered that he is very much my cup of tea. No beating around the bush! No need to constantly say things that are obvious anyway! I guess his writing smells a bit like testosterone, but it suits me fine. There are two women in the novel - beforementioned Maria and Pilar, who gives out very strong matriarchal vibe. She can cook, plan tactics, be a diplomat as well as blow up enemies, when needed. So I have so far not many problems with how women are described in Hemingway world, either. Maria was a different cup of tea, but she was a war victim anyway and I will not even pretend to understand what that may feel like.
What I liked a lot about "For Whom the Bell Tolls" was how it became more and more poetic as the story went on. There were some really, really beatiful passages, which made me raise an eyebrow thinking about all the talk I had heard/read about plain writing. Let's take a little peek into the main character's head:
You have no family but a brother who goes to battle tomorrow and you own nothing but the wind and the sun and an empty belly. The wind is small, he thought, and there is no sun. You have four grenades in your pocket but they are only good to throw away. You have a carbine on your back but it is only good to give away bullets. [...] Everything you have is to give.
/p. 384/ 

One of the central topics of the book is the flow of time, or more precisely, how it can feel very different, depending on situation. In a war situation, you only live a day, or even an hour/a minute at a time, because every next moment may be your last. I think this kind of environment causes an interesting contradiction - on the one hand, it is easier to be completely apathetic and feel like there is no future and on the other hand, all the feelings and emotions you have are way enhanced. Based on that, I found the romance between Robert and Maria believable and beautiful, but there was always a thought back in my head annoying with questions like "Would it be the same in "normal" (meaning non-war) conditions?"

"You like to hunt?"
"Yes, man. More than anything. We all hunt in my village. You do not like to hunt?"
"No," said Robert Jordan. "I do not like to kill animals."
"With me it is the opposite," the old man said. "I do not like to kill men."
/p. 42/

Also, I learned from this book that Spanish are awesome 'cos they bring whiskey. Yeah. 

490 pages

Monday, March 18, 2013

C_Club #3 - "Persuasion" by Jane Austen

How I managed to live 30 years without reading a single Jane Austen novel, I can't quite comprehend even myself, especially given the facts that 1) I have been bookworm since a wee tiny girl and 2) world literature was part of my university studies. However - it happened, I'm putting it out there, and luckily by now I have also started curing the situation, having finished my first ever Austen book, "Persuasion".
Not that I'm happy to admit it, but I was slightly prejudiced sceptic towards the whole Austen business. Somehow that idea that Austen is the chick-lit of the Regency era England had taken hold in my head (let's blame it on the hype). At least when it comes to this novel... I was wrong! And I'm glad. Austen was obviously a highly intelligent and sharp writer (let's not listen to Mark Twain*, though maybe he has a point when it comes to other novels; still, I cannot approve fist fights between dead people). When I compare this novel with "Jane Eyre", one of the three Classics Club books I have read this year, it quickly becomes obvious that Charlotte Brontë's writing is much more accessible, simpler. After having been basically away from classics for quite a number of years, it was at first difficult to get into the long, heavily constructed (though by no means not clumsy) sentences and passages. But I got into the jive fairly fast (at about 1/4 mark of the book).
The whole Elliot family (with the exception of Anne) is nuts! If you'll excuse my semi-emotional outburst. Her father's a man with shallow values, cares only about social stand, good looks and nice garments; older sister Elizabeth is clearly her father's child, and younger sister Mary is the biggest whiner I've encountered in a written word for a while. Honest, the moment Mary opened her mouth somewhere in the beginning, I got this itching in my fist and although I don't approve the concept of a fist fight between a living individual and a fictional character either, I couldn't help myself - it's a character you want to punch in the face. A lot. Because she's just so... whiny, selfish, hypochondriac, hypocritical, overall lost in parenthood and marriage of a doubtful value (her husband had first proposed to Anne, who decided to not make him a happy man).

The letter scene. Lent from here.
Was it Jane Austen's intention to picture majority of the characters in such a charicatural manner? There is also Lady Russell, the one that gave Anne the advice of calling off the engagement with Frederick Wentworth. Even though Lady Russell is the most human person of the lot when it comes to treating Anne, she makes the mistake of giving advice. Giving advice is such a dangerous thing to do, as no matter what you advise, you will be co-responsible for the outcome. And there is the thing - maybe the advice was actually good. Maybe it worked out between Anne and Wentworth in the end exactly because there was such a long time gap. But then, you never know - there is no way to know if it wouldn't have been better and less painful if Anne hadn't called off the engagement. That is why major decisions such as that should be put on the shoulders of the decision-maker; the situation is way different if only one person is responsible, no matter what the outcome is in the end.
But I digress. Anne can sometimes seem almost too good, but overall I would label her a sensible, quite rational, feet-on-the-ground person. I have read some people criticising Anne for not standing up for herself more, but I disagree, mainly because that is also where I am very similar to Anne. It's recognising the situations, where use of energy is pointless because the other people just don't get you/the idea/what they are doing wrong. Instead, Anne goes through life in quite a preserving manner, faithful to her own ideas and truths, but not trying to push these on others. Somehow I imagined her having this hopeless smile and ironic glance in her eyes whenever a family member managed to call out the drama llama again.
I don't want to say a lot about Frederick Wentworth because he stayed a bit distant for me, and let's face it, this story is all about Anne. Before reading, I had caught glimpses of some mysterious "Wentworth letter" from the blogosphere and even though I am pretty much a completely hopeless person when it comes to romantic stuff as such - I have to admit that this was well done. (Even though we all know this letter was actually written by Jane Austen, who was a woman - hehe.) Overall, I didn't mind him, and I think in many ways he was a good match for Anne.
I enjoyed "Persuasion" quite a bit. It wasn't the romance story I had feared it would be; instead, it was witty, a bit sarcastic critique by Austen on some of the silliness and shallowness that was going on at the time. There was humour and writing was very elegant. At this point, I am not scared of approaching the other works of Austen (anymore), although I might leave the most famous ones the last.
* “I haven't any right to criticize books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”  

236 pages

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Reviews (kind of): "Bag of Bones" by Stephen King, "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn

I've been suffering from a writing slump. Probably has to do with overwhelming spring tiredness. It's the middle of the March now, and this morning it is minus 20 degrees of cold outside... just made me want to run into a wall.
There are three books I have finished but haven't noted down in the blog - the two mentioned in the title and "Persuasion", which I read for the Classics Club. As for "Bag of Bones" and "Gone Girl", I decided to write down my thoughts in very short form, because neither one really moved me to the core (positively nor negatively).
"Bag of Bones" had some good things speaking for it. I like reading about literature-y people, and the main character here is writer Mike Noonan. There are piles of references to different authors and books (including a huge spoiler on du Maurier's "Rebecca" - that was bad, please don't spoil books, or at least stick a warning label on your novel :p), and I really liked reading about intelligent characters. Another thing especially praiseworthy in my book is the portrayal of a 3-year old girl. Because whether it be films or books, I tend to have problems with kids in them. Either they are shown over-intelligent and non-believable, or just total brats, or I don't know. It's just an individual thing I guess, but the kid in King's novel was a-do-rable. Super cute. I liked the way she spoke.
But, there is an odd thing that has happened to both two King books I read last. The reading process of "Needful Things" is one of the most shocking ones I ever had. I started reading it, and was soooo badly sucked in, I read it all the time and everywhere. Then, somewhere at 75% through point, there was a total halt. There were too many characters by the time, things got very messy and at the point, which was supposed to be a culmination of the story, I lost interest. The book stayed on my bookshelf for months, before I finally pulled myself together and just forced through it.
And the same kind of thing happened this time. Around 3/4 through the book, I lost a great slice of interest. I didn't give it up this time (and overall "Bag of Bones" was a lot better book as well), but I just thought if it's going to become some kind of King-curse for me. Maybe I should try some books that people have praised more, like "Stand" or "It" or "Carrie".
"Gone Girl" was kind of an experimental purchase, as I would have never picked up this one without all the buzz and fuzz in other book blogs. I was fairly certain that this is the type of book that I'd finish fast (true) and so it wasn't that huge of an investment (except money-wise, hehe).
I can't say it was a bad book. It wasn't. I think it was pretty well written, in its genre. Props to Flynn for knitting such an intricate network of twists and turns throughout all 400+ (or how many there were) pages. There were some quite clever and intelligent passages. It was interesting to observe how my opinion of the characters changed as the book progressed. I didn't like the characters but I liked how they were portrayed. At times I got nauseous (that's not all that bad thing when reading - better than feeling nothing).
However, I was right when I kind of started having this hunch that these kinds of books, let's call it "curveball prose", ain't really my thing. So much happens in short period of time that I get bored in the end (and after that 54th surprise, you know, 55th surprise ain't all that "surprising" anymore).

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Top Ten Series I Haven't Started (Yet)

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by the people over at The Broke and the Bookish and today's topic is "Top Ten Series I Would Like to Start But Haven't Yet".
I like series. I have read some very nice ones - "Lord of the Rings", "Song of Ice and Fire" (up to as much as has been published), "The Farseer Trilogy" by Robin Hobb. Nowadays the amount of series coming from publishing houses makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, because it seems like it's done for financial reasons, so that maybe explains my lack of interest towards the newer stuff.
But, there are some series I would like to read some time in future, and here they are:
1. Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. It feels odd to be what seems like the only one who hasn't read Harry Potter. After I read that the books are getting new covers, and the first one I actually like very much, I decided that this autumn when the series gets a facelift, I shall buy them and read them, and not feel left out anymore.
2. The Dark Tower series by S. King. Not being a major King fangirl (post about that coming out as well), I am interested in The Dark Tower books. No idea when I get there, though.
3. The Liveship Traders series by R. Hobb. Robin Hobb writes lovely fantasy and deserves more attention. Last year I finished her "The Farseer Trilogy", which is one of those few stories that left me weeping like a babe in the end. So I decided to continue with her trilogies. I have the first book at home and maybe I will pick it up, some time, on a whim.

4. The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. Very much intimidating, but at the same time I want to read. The bad thing is that as much as I've heard, level of quality of different books in the series is very uneven.
5. Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson. Probably less known fantasy series, this requires a lot of attention and dedication, and it can take a while to get used to the myriad of characters and the strange worlds. I have started the first book some 2-3 times, and never finished, but I'm not giving up.
6. The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide by Douglas Adams. Maybe not that kind of conventional series, but it's books, one following another, so... it's kind of series. Hopefully I can click with the humour, otherwise I guess it's pretty impossible to enjoy these. Marvin!!
7. Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. Because it's old, and classic, and dragons, and could be a fun read.
8. Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. From what I've heard, this is a series of book-bricks. (I refuse to get intimidated!) But hey. History, fantasy? Yes please.
9. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. When I was kid, and where I lived - we never had access to these books. Which is a shame. But better late than never. Should be a fun read :)

10. Anne of Green Gables books by L. M. Montgomery. Same as with Narnia, as a little girl I never knew these books existed. And I was exactly the kind of bookworm-child who would have related to Anne so much. Oh well. I do intend to read, if not all then at least some of Anne books.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Review: "1Q84" by Haruki Murakami

Here is a little example of how much I love this man's work:

That is six Murakamis on one of my bookshelves. I've read them all and loved them all. And having typed that, it grieves my heart to admit that I was not thrilled with the latest, "1Q84".
I thought the story itself was quite decent. I think majority of people who read Murakami do so mostly for his skill of combining very realistic and very magical worlds, in a very subtle way. Somehow, even his magical worlds feel realistic - strange. Once again there are kind of parallel worlds, one (which takes place in year 1984) where there is one moon in the sky, and the other one (1Q84) where the big moon has a little companion. What a cute thought. Hasn't anyone really ever thought that the moon might get bored all alone.
I was happy that the number of characters was kept very modest. The characters were odd, felt troubled and lonely - again, no surprise there whatsoever. Some of them were really spooky (Aomame); Tengo felt like "just another lonely and empty inside Murakami male character". Ushikawa was a piece of more interesting work, a clever man with hideous appearance, but his role in the story remained questionable.
All in all, I would have been happy to rate it not the best, but just another good read from Murakami. But I can't. And here is why.
First of all, this book is long - nearly 1200 pages. This itself would be fine (afterall I dig chunksters very much), but "1Q84" is definitely and most certainly needlessly long. I don't even remember how many times I said, during reading, to my boyfriend that this one is in desperate need for an editor. I would say, about 1/3 of the novel could have been chopped off, and it would only have got better. What happened there - I don't know. I do hope editors are still valued in book business. I got this book in three parts, not just one big chunk - first one went super fast, but once I was in the second, somewhere in the middle, I really thought of dropping it (the horror! dropping a Murakami!). The third part got better again, but damage was already done by this point.

Secondly, the writing felt sloppy. I would consider putting part of blame on the factors of translation, but then again, Jay Rubin is basically Murakami's body-translator, I have appreciated his work previously and I haven't got a good reason to suspect that he is the problem in this case. The problem is that given Murakami's laconic and simple descriptive style, if it doesn't get a good edit, it gets annoying really fast. So in a way the thing that he does good, can also end up easily very bad. I held my head in agony at times over all the repetitions and swore, that if I have to read the trio of words "NHK fee collector" one more time, something's gonna go bad.
There's a new novel to be published in Japan already in April. I really hope that Mr Murakami has hired a good editor for this one.

Oo, this is so accurate. Food, classical music, cats... :)
Lent from here.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Closing the lid of February

A duckie leaping towards the spring sun. Photo from last year.

This was some short month. Nevertheless, it feels like eons have passed since it was February 1st. It was a month of mixed feelings for me. Some ghosts from the past (pretty big ones) came back haunting, and aftermath can be felt for some time to come, but on the other hand, I discovered strengths and reserves in myself I didn't know ever existed. So overall, I am happy content.

Book wise, it was also an o-kay month. Here's what I read:
2626 pages in total. Statistically-technically anyway, because "1Q84" I started way back in January, it just took me awful lot of time to get through it. I shall write down my thoughts on both, Murakami and King, in near future. Happy with two Classics Club reads; if the month had had normal length, I would have been able to add "Persuasion" there as well.
So what is going to happen in March?
At first, it's the month of Classics Club event Modern March. I have picked two books - "Tender is the Night" by Fitzgerald and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Hemingway. I shall start with the latter, as it is not the book I am super eager to read.
Secondly, by April 1 I should also be done with "Arrowsmith", my outcome for the Classics Club Spin event. Apparently, Sinclair Lewis is tough cookie and can not be easily found from shops around here, so I had to order the book. It was sent off a few days ago, so I expect it to arrive some time next week.
There is another book on the TBR-shelf, which has kept winking at me for a while now - Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities", the book I lent from friend and which some Classics Clubbers have read and praised lately. Alas, be patient my eager heart - the time has not yet come for Dickens.
But first of all, I shall finish off "Persuasion" (which I am, surprisingly, even enjoying in some strange kind of level).