Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

I will be reading more of Joseph Conrad's work. English was his third language after Polish and French, and his writing is superb.

Heart of Darkness tells a story about colonialism in the Congo, but it is so much more than that. It is more about men's 'hearts of darkness' and what they become after they leave 'civilization'. Marlow is a steamship captain in search of Kurtz, who is one of the best ivory traders The Company has. It is said that Kurtz has become ill and The Company does not want to lose him because of his high productivity in obtaining ivory. But just how does Kurtz maintain his high productivity?

Kurtz isn't the only one to leave his morals behind when he leaves 'civilization'. The actions of The Company Men leave moral questions as well. Is it only the ladies, as Marlowe states, who try to uphold society's mores, or are they just deluded in thinking society, left to itself, has any morals?

It's queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset.
This book is short but very complex. It is one that I'll definitely read again at some point to try to understand it a bit better. I'm still trying to figure out "The horror! The horror!"

Some interesting passages:

I let him run on, this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.

No, I don't like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don't like work -- no man does -- but I like what is in the work -- the chance to find yourself. Your own reality -- for yourself, not for others -- what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.

The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage – who can tell? – but truth – truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder – the man knows, and can look on without a wink.

I assure you to leave off reading was like tearing myself away from the shelter of an old and solid friendship.

The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words -- the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.

When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness. Of course you may be too much of a fool to go wrong -- too dull even to know you are being assulted by the powers of darkness. I take it, no fool ever made a bargain for his soul with the devil; the fool is too much of a fool, or the devil too much of a devil -- I don't know which. Or you may be such a thunderingly exalted creature as to be altogether deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Then the earth for you is only a standing place -- and whether to be like this is your loss or your gain I won't pretend to say. But most of us are neither one nor the other.

Whether he knew of his deficiency himself I can't say. I think the knowledge came to him at last -- only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vegeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude -- and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core....

But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had -- for my sins, I suppose -- to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one's belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it -- I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.

1902, 80 pp.

Rating: 5

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

This book took me a loooong time to read, but I'm really glad I read it. It is so well-written and a really good mystery. I did guess some of the plot elements, but I still was very engrossed and wanted to keep reading to make sure my guesses were correct.

The "woman in white" is Anne Catherick, who has escaped from an asylum and knows, or think she knows, a Secret about a nobleman. This nobleman wants to marry Laura Fairlie, but she is in love with her art instructor, Walter Hartwright. Marian Holcomb is Laura's half-sister and is always looking out for Laura's interests. The two are inseparable. Will Laura marry the nobleman--Percival Glyde--the man her father wanted her to marry? Or will she marry Walter Hartwright, the love of her life? Who is really after her money? Is Count Fosco just a charming foreigner or a "foreign spy"? Whose interests is he looking after? These questions and more will be answered when you embark on this wonderfully written gothic tale--a classic mystery that should be read by all.

1860, 569pp.

Rating: 4.5

Thursday, February 15, 2007

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

Wow! What a fantastic book. I don't know why I've never read this before. I really thought I already knew what it was about--a girl's father defending a black man for r*ping a white woman. It is about so much more than that, although of course that plays an important part.

Scout and her family live in Maycomb, Alabama. In the beginning of the book, Scout is going into the 1st grade and her brother Jem is going into 5th. Her father is an attorney, her mother died when she was 2, and her caregiver is a sweet, smart black woman named Calpurnia. The family relationship among all members is strong--very strong. Scout and Jem play together at home (but not in school--Jem insists). Scout and her father always read together in the evenings. This is a point of contention with Scout's teacher Miss Caroline. Some of my favorite passages come from this section and they are hilarious to me as a former teacher who now homeschools.

The teacher asks if anyone knows what the alphabet is, and then. . . I read the alphabet a faint line appeared between her eyebrows, and after making me read most of My First Reader and the stock-market quotations from the Mobile Register aloud, she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading. [...] "Now you tell your father not to teach you any more. It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I'll take over from here and try to undo the damage--"

The Dewey Decimal System consisted, in part, of Miss Caroline waving cards at us on which were printed "the," "cat," "rat," "man," and "you." No comment seemed to be expected of us, and the class received these impressionistic revelations in silence. I was bored, so I began a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline caught me writing and told me to tell my father to stop teaching me. "Besides, she said. "We don't write in the first grade, we print. You won't learn to write until you're in the third grade." I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.

I don't want to give away too much of the story, so from here I'll be brief. Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill (said to have been inspired by Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote) spend a lot of time together in the summer trying to see Boo Radley, a neighbor who is a recluse. In fact, they are obsessed with this endeavor. Atticus Finch, Scout's father, takes on the r*pe case. The fallout from the case is felt by the Finches from the community as well as from their extended family. The book ends well, though, with a very satisfying conclusion.

To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 and was made into an Academy Award winning film starring Gregory Peck. It is the only novel Harper Lee ever published.

I listened to parts of this book on Audio CD read by Sissy Spacek. Highly recommended.

Caution: There are a few curse words and adult themes in the book. I would recommend this book for high school level and up.

1960, 281 pp.
Pulitzer Prize 1961

Rating: 5

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

It is said that Robert Louis Stevenson revised A Child's Garden of Verses and wrote Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a time span of under two years--if only all of us could be so productive! This is a very short book and can easily be read in a few hours, so I encourage you to read it if you have not. I was very surprised I waited this long myself.

It tells the story of how Dr. Jekyll conducted an experiment to separate the evil and the good in his personality. Mr. Hyde was the result of his evil side coming out. Dr. Jekyll's appearance was so altered that he was unrecognizable--both in appearance and actions. What was very interesting to me was that the experiment was done not just for "scientific research", but because Dr. Jekyll admitted to actually enjoying his more sinful side. He wanted to separate the two personalities, in other words, so he could participate in the evil activities while still considering his "real self" to be essentially good. Of course he eventually loses control of the experiment with disastrous results. This simple tale teaches us the true nature of good and evil and our propensity to desire sin. It should be read by all!

Favorite passages:

First, because I have been made to learn that the doom and burthen of our life is bound for ever on man's shoulders; and when the attempt is made to cast it off, it but returns upon us with more unfamiliar and more awful pressure.

I could have screamed aloud; I sought with tears and prayers to smother down the crowd of hideous images and sounds with which my memory swarmed against me; and still, between the petitions, the ugly face of my iniquity stared into my soul.

I was once more tempted to trifle with my conscience; and it was as an ordinary secret sinner, that I at last fell before the assaults of temptation. There comes an end to all things; the most capacious measure is filled at last; and this brief condescension to evil finally destroyed the balance of my soul.

I became, in my own person, a creature eaten up and emptied by fever, languidly weak both in body and mind, and solely occupied by one thought: the horror of my other self.

1886, 54 pp.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, February 9, 2007

Silas Marner - George Eliot

Silas Marner is a weaver who has cut himself off from the world because of a severe wrong done to him. He becomes a hermit and a miser who only cares about his gold. When his gold is stolen from him, he is devastated. However, losing the money actually wakes him up a bit because he has to converse with his neighbors about his loss, whereas before he would only talk "business".

Soon a little girl comes into his life that opens up his heart and soul. Their love for each other as two "castaways" is truly heartwarming. Highly recommended classic.

Favorite passages:

Minds that have been unhinged from their old faith and love, have perhaps sought this Lethean influence of exile, in which the past becomes dreamy because its symbols have all vanished, and the present too is dreamy because it is linked with no memories.
The yoke a man creates for himself by wrong-doing will breed hate in the kindliest nature; and the good-humoured, affectionate-hearted Godfrey Cass was fast becoming a bitter man, visited by cruel wishes, that seemed to enter, and depart, and enter again, like demons who had found in him a ready-garnished home.
Favourable Chance, I fancy, is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in...Let him forsake a decent craft that he may pursue the gentilities of a profession to which nature never called him, and his religion will infallibly be the worship of blessed Chance, which he will believe in as the mighty creator of success. The evil principle deprecated in that religion is the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind.
Formerly, his heart had been as a locked casket with its treasure inside; but now the casket was empty, and the lock was broken.
The fountains of human love and of faith in a divine love had not yet been unlocked, and his soul was still the shrunken rivulet, with only this difference, that its little groove of sand was blocked up, and it wandered confusedly against dark obstruction.
As the child's mind was growing into knowledge, his mind was growing into memory: as her life unfolded, his soul, long stupefied in a cold narrow prison, was unfolding too, and trembling gradually into full consciousness.
In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child's.

1861, 151 pp.

Rating: 4.5/5

Friday Foreign Film Review

Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring
Adapted from Marcel Pagnol's novel Manon des Sources

Actors: Yves Montand, Gérard Depardieu
Director: Claude Berri
Language: French
Rated: PG for both
Length: 233 minutes combined

Words cannot describe how much I love these films, which really must be seen together. The review below from Amazon sums up the storyline. The emotional impact these films had on me was huge. They haunted me so much I couldn't sleep the night I watched them. I thought about them for weeks afterwards and still have even throughout the years. The cinematography is gorgeous (it's France!), the acting is superb, and you will never forget the characters you will meet or the fate that befalls them. Available through third party sellers on or through Netflix.

#94 of the Arts and Faith Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films

Rating: A+

Editorial Review ~ ~ A truly impressive French film destined to become a modern masterpiece, Jean de Florette is an evocative adaptation of the highly regarded French novel. Two 1920s farmers engage in a bitter rivalry as one tries to tend to a plot of land and the other deviously undermines his efforts in order to conceal a valuable spring. The peasant farmer (Gérard Depardieu) who comes to the countryside to tend the land he has inherited is a naive and trusting soul seeking only to provide for his wife and daughter, while his neighbor (Yves Montand) is intent on doing whatever he can to discourage and demoralize the farmer so that he can take the land for himself. This simple tale unfolds in a wrenching fashion to a tragic conclusion, bringing forth questions about human nature and the prevalence and price of greed. Along with its follow-up, Manon of the Spring, this film will leave an indelible impression on anyone who sees it. --Robert Lane --[This text refers to the VHS Tape edition.] Officially licensed South Korean release features original FRENCH audio with Optional Subtitles in English, French, Spanish and Korean.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The Black Pearl - Scott O'Dell

Ramon Salazar is 16 years old and lives off Baja, California. His father is in the pearl diving business, and Ramon is eager to help him by being a diver. He finds a very expensive pearl that ends up bringing a lot of trouble to his family and community. Or does it?

This was a Newbery Honor book in 1968. I enjoyed the story very much, but it is hard to write a review on a book so short without giving too many details away. It is a brief, but very enjoyable read. Scott O'Dell also wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins, a Newbery Award winner.

1967, 96 pp.

Rating: 4.5

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Birds - Aristophanes

Well, it's late and I just finished reading this play by Aristophanes. It's about two guys who go to the birds to set up a utopian city in the clouds so they can "oust" the gods from Olympus. Supposedly the birds were created before the Titans and were more worthy of being worshipped than the Olympians.

I guess this is supposed to be a parody of utopianism. It is funny in places, though some of it was bawdy. I'm glad I read this play because it's a "classic", but I probably wouldn't recommend it to others. I do think it's cool that a play can survive over 2000 years after it was written, though.

414 BC, 48 pp.

Rating: 2.5

Peace Like a River - Leif Enger

This is a wonderful story about faith and family. The characters are likable and strong, and their faith is even stronger. This family perseveres through tragedy and danger--all the while leaning on God for guidance and direction and each other for hope and comfort. Swede is a hoot! Very well written. Excellent story. Read it!

2001, 311 pp.

Rating: 4.5/5