Friday, December 31, 2010

Favorite Music of 2010

I have a theory that all the best music is released on odd numbered years. There are exceptions, of course, but in my experience, the even numbered years seem to be down years in music releases.  This year is one of those exceptions.  It has been quite a good year for music, but especially the latter half.  Since tomorrow the year is ending--and with some high expectations for 2011, music-wise--I thought I'd post a list of my favorite music of 2010.  Maybe you'll see something you'd never heard of before.  I highly recommend all of the music on this list, but especially The Gaslight Anthem, Endor, Frightened Rabbit, Midlake, The Forecast, The Tallest Man on Earth, The Reign of Kindo, The Last Call, The Guggenheim Grotto, Lightspeed Champion, and Gregor McEwan.  If you haven't checked those out, do it.  Do it now!

American Slang by The Gaslight Anthem
Endor by Endor
The Winter of Mixed Drinks by Frightened Rabbit
This is What Happens by The Reign of Kindo (and the Nentendo remix of the album called This is Also What Happens)
Invented by Jimmy Eat World
The Forecast by The Forecast
The Courage of Others by Midlake
Life is Sweet! Nice to Meet You by Lightspeed Champion
You Already Have A Home by The Last Call
Bad Books by Bad Books
Volume Two by She & Him
Vagabonds by The Classic Crime
LOVE by Angels & Airwaves
My Dinosaur Life by Motion City Soundtrack
Houses and Homes by Gregor McEwan
Weathervanes by Freelance Whales
Disappearing World by Fair
Terrible Things by Terrible Things
Dark is the Way; Light is a Place by anberlin
The Wild Hunt by The Tallest Man on Earth
Death in the Park by Death in the Park
Let It Sway by Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
Devil’s Made a New Friend by Jarrod Gorbel
Sunrise by Foreverinmotion
Bird in the Tangle by Brett Detar (the country and folk solo album by the lead singer of The Juliana Theory.  Excellent album)
White Crosses by Against Me!
Love It to Life by Jesse Malin & the St Mark’s Social
Monitor by Titas Andronicus
Steel Train by Steel Train
Doesn't Play Well With Others by Joey Cape
The Optimist by New Young Pony Club
Anybody Out There by Rufio
Of Men and Angels by The Rocket Summer
Suburba by House of Heroes
Year of the Black Rainbow by Coheed & Cambria
Teen Dream by Beach House
The Fool by Warpaint
The Happiest Lamb by Audra Mae
Women and Country by Jakob Dylan
Somewhere on the Gold Coast by The Henry Clay People
Blue Giant by Blue Giant
Go by Jonsi
The Universe is Laughing by The Guggenheim Grotto
The Upsides by The Wonder Years
Eggs by Oh No Ono
OMNI by Minus the Bear
To the Secrets and Knowledge by Number One Gun
Played in Space by Something Corporate (a greastest hits, but still awesome)
28 B-Sides and Rarities by The Juliana Theory (It's just what it says it is.  "Walk Like Johnny Walker" is a must for anyone who ever liked The Juliana Theory.)

Here are some EPs that deserve an honorable mention:

Simple Science by The Get Up Kids
Rock & Roll by Frank Turner
Abnormalities by The Spill Canvas (My wife thinks "Good Graces, Bad Influences" is cheesy, but I enjoy it.)
Realities by The Spill Canvas
Formalities by The Spill Canvas (This has eleven tracks, but since most are on Abnormalities or Realities, and the one that aren't are mostly acoustic version of songs that are on those EPs, I consider it an EP and not an album.)
Ep, Part I by Lovedrug
Ep, Part II by Lovedrug
The Connection by Ride Your Bike
Walking Far From Home by Iron & Wine
Broken Dream Club by Girls
The Last Place You'll Look by We Were Promised Jetpacks
Without the Help of Sparks by Endor (technically a single, but "For the Love of Yamamoto & Ogawa" is one of my favorite songs of the year.)
Yearbook--October, November, and December EPs by Sleeping At Last
Caravan by Rush
Assailants by Lydia
Line 'Em Up by States

Sorry it was so long.  Like I said, it was a good year for music.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Another Another List

16. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
      First published in 1764, this is one of those books that most people read for historical purposes.  Horace Walpole essentially started, not only the Gothic movement, but the age of the novel. Of course, it is not the first novel, but that does not belittle it's effect.  You can see it stretch all through the Gothic movement it started, but also through literature of the 19th century and into 20th century horror novels.  Granted, reading it now, it's not so scary as it might have been.  The image of a man being crushed to death by a giant helmet is always a shocking one though.
17. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
      Moving nearly two hundred years in the future, we find A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the most influential science fiction novels, and easily the most influential post-apocalyptic novels of all time.  The story is devided into three parts: "Fiat Homo," "Fiat Lux," and "Fiat Voluntas Tua."  Each piece, while taking place in the future, in a world changed by nuclear destruction, represents a period in history.  The nuclear holocaust that preceded represents the Fall of Rome; "Fiat Homo," the Dark Ages; "Fiat Lux," the Renaissance, and "Fiat Voluntas Tua," the Modern Age.  Shortly after the "Flame Deluge," came the "Simplification," when "Simpletons" burned every book and piece of writing they could find, for that, they thought, was the cause of the destruction before.  Isaac Liebowitz created an order dedicating to hiding books and preserving knowledge.  The story follows important instances during the life of this Order of Liebowitz and deals heavily with the notion of recurrence.  It is easily the best science fiction novel I've read.
18. Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
       Tennyson's blank verse retelling of the story of King Arthur and his knights is often seen as an allegory for Victorian society, which is easy to understand; however, they can be just as enjoyable if read simply as stories of the greatest mythic hero in British history.  While the poetry is not always as good as some of Tennyson's other works, it is easy to read and understand, which is essential when telling a story, whether in prose of verse.  Another thing to keep in mind is that Tennyson did not sit down and write all of these one after the other.  They were written over a period of over twenty years, which really only means that each poem can be read separately and understood just as well, so long as some basic knowledge of the Arthurian legend is had beforehand.  My personal favorites are "Gareth and Lynette," "Balin and Balan," "Lancelot and Elaine," and "Pelleas and Ettare."
19. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
      Before the miniseries of this novel came out two years ago, it was not common to hear it discussed except by die hard Dickens fans.  It was heaped among the lesser read Dickens novels such as Martin Chuzzlewit, Barnaby Rudge, or Hard Times.  While it may be less read, it is not less fantastic than his other works.  Chesterton described Little Dorrit as the saddest of Dickens novels, which I would have to agree with.  It really is a melancholy novel, which I realize is not uncommon with Dickens; however, Little Dorrit lacks something even the most melancholy Dickens novels have.  Really, the only way to explain it without saying far more than I have room for right now, would be to recommend reading David Copperfield and then Little Dorrit simply to compare the characters.  With these two novels, Dickens shows the reader two sides of the same coin.  What I find most interesting is that I don't think he intended to do it.
20. Caleb Williams by William Godwin
      The other title to this 1794 novel is Things As They Are.  William Godwin, the husband of pre-feminism feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and father to Mary Shelley, was writing with a very distinct purpose.  That purpose was to show how things were in England, and if his word is to be trusted, things were not perfect.  Divided into three volumes, the first tells the tale of country gentry Mr. Falkland and his rival.  When his rival turns up dead after publicly insulting Falkland, one can only assume what happened.  Caleb Willaims is a well-educated but poor servant in Falkland's house, and after hearing the story, he grows curious.  A little too curious for Falkland's comfort, and soon, he is accused of thieving and lying.  He throws the accusation back at Falkland and is quickly hated by all of England. One word I've heard quite often to describe this story is "fierce." It's a good term for not only the story, but the concept Godwin was trying to express. Justice is a fierce thing, but no where near as fierce as injustice; and that's truly what this story is driven by: injustice. Mr. Falkland evades justice and Caleb cannot seem to find it. Caleb becomes a criminal, hunted for a crime he did not commit.   It is a intense look at the justice system of England, as Godwin saw it, in the late 1700's.  My only complaint is that Godwin's style is that of a philosopher, not a novelist, and it can some times be distracting.
21. Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy*
      Academically speaking, there are two good reasons to read this novel.  Firstly, it displays Hardy's early style and is foreshadows his later works.  Secondly, Hardy shows a wonderful depiction of rural English life through the characters of the Mellstock choir, or quire.  Some consider this last part the strongest part of this work, and I will admit, I find his depiction of country life highly enjoyable, but it is a common element in most of his novels and short stories.  The main reason I read the novel again was for the love story.  Thomas Hardy's novels are always full of tragic love stories, and often times with multiple characters in play.  In Far from the Madding Crowd, for example, Bathsheba Everdone has three men in love with her.  One is murdered by the another one who is clearly insane, and the last one she marries quietly after her pride and spirit are broken. In Under the Greenwood Tree with Fancy Day and her three suitors, things play out much less tragically.  In fact, this novel stands out among Hardy's work for it's relatively happy atmosphere and ending, though it wouldn't be a Hardy novel if there wasn't some cloud on the horizon, right?
22. The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain
      For those who are only familiar with Twain's earlier works, The Mysterious Stranger might come as a shock.  It was his last attempted novel, which he tried to write three times.  The copy I read is the heavily edited edition by Albert Bigelow Paine.  It is mainly an edited version of Twain's first draft, The Chronicles of Young Satan, with the ending to the last draft, No. 44, the Mysterious Stranger.  Let's go back to that Young Satan thing.  The tale of is set in 16th century Austria, where three boys meet--you guessed it--a mysterious stranger.  This stranger reveals himself to be an angel named Satan, nephew to the fallen angel of the same name.  Throughout the novel, he teaches them the value of man and human life: nothing.  It is a very dark message.  When Satan explains that all of our choices are determined the very second we're born due to circumstances set in motion the day earth was created, I had to reanalyze my entire philosophy.  I'm an advocate for free will, but there's something to be said for this argument of circumstance.  Our choices are our own, but they are effected by outside sources beyond our control.  Even our thought process is effected by circumstances we did not choose.  But I'll not digress further.
23. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis*
      This seems like a good follow up to The Mysterious Stranger, but if I remember correctly, I started reading The Monk first, but finished this rather quickly.  I've read this book at least seven times, and by now I should know it backwards and forwards, but it had been nearly five years since I last read it.  There's something wonderful about re-reading a book by an author you've come to read quite thoroughly.  It gives a new appreciation of the work.  While the work is full of spiritual insight and the token Lewis humor, reading it now, shows me different elements of Lewis that I didn't see when I first read it.  On it's own though, the work is obviously a masterpiece, which can be appreciated by Christians and atheists alike, and it has been over the years.  While Lewis' devils are, of course, representative of real devils (he believed in the devil, like any legitimate Christian), the way he displays them is also an attack of bureaucracy, where each person is only ever unselfish for selfish reasons.  It is highly recommended to anyone.
24. The Monk by Matthew G. Lewis
      The Monk is the climax of Gothic literature. That's not to say anything after isn't good or even better than it, but everything after was on the down hill side of the movement.  That's not even to say The Monk  is the best piece of Gothic literature, but it seems to be an amalgamation of everything everyone had done before, with a little bit of a twist.  Matthew Lewis was not opposed to showing the reading the atrocities his book is about.  It's essentially the difference between a horror film and a thriller.  And The Monk is frightening is certain places.  Dull in others, though.  It is the story of lust destroying an otherwise holy man, and as a consequence, destroying many people around him.  Ambrosio's lust is on full display, as well as the objects of his lust.  You won't find your Victorian descriptions of women here.  It is sexual and horrific, like a modern horror film teens go to in the Summer to see breasts and gore.  For that reason, I would say, it lacks heavy intellectual merit, but considering Lewis wrote it in a matter of ten weeks before he was twenty, it's brilliance makes any of the failings seems rather small.
25. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
      Having never read any Nabokov, I felt Lolita was a good place to start.  Let me first say, I don't think the book is bad.  Far from it, in fact.  Nabokov's use of prose is spectacular, but it can also be confusing.  Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, however, as I pointed out in an earlier post, tackles the same concept with the efficiency and bleakness one would expect from a German.  Humbert Humbert's account seems unlikely, though possibly, which I think is the point; but he, like many intellectuals, has a tendancy to ramble--a trait Mann's Aschenbach does not share.  The main difference is that while Nabokov's story is convoluted and uniquely phrased, there isn't much underneath the prose beside one pervert's love for a young girl.  Mann's story is told in straightforward manner, but it hides a deeper aspect.  I would recommend reading both, but I would definitely recommend Death in Venice before Lolita.
26. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
      What is there to say about Sherlock Holmes other than he's f**king Sherlock Holmes.  Seriously though, Holmes is perhaps the biggest badass in all of literature from the last hundred, maybe two hundred years.  That's considering James Bond was created within the last century.  There's been a resurgence of Holmes lately, though he never went out of style, and this is easily my favorite collection of Holmes stories.  It contains my favorites: "The Adventure of the Yellow Face," "The Gloria Scott," "The Naval Treaty," and--of course--"The Final Problem."  The last is the infamous introduction of Professor James Moriarty, and also contains what was meant to be the death of Sherlock Holmes.  This is a wondrous collection of stories, but then again, aren't all the Sherlock Holmes collections?
27. The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
      Samuel Butler is one of those few people who thought they would only fully be appreciated after their death and happened to be right.  His magnum opus, written over a period of about ten years (1873-1884), was not published until 1903, one year after Butler's death.  The Way Of All Flesh was quite popular and is today considered one of the most influential novels of the 20th century.  I must say, there's good cause for all the praise.  It is a harshly written attack on Victorian values, and while I found the style to be unique and enjoyable and the story quite interesting, my major complaint is all of his complaints.  He seems to be shooting with a scatter-gun.  Mr. Overton--the narrator--seems angry about everything.  He would attack one thing and then criticize Ernest's attack against the same thing.  Also, his attacks on Christianity--while understandable considering the strict Calvinism he was dealing with--were lacking in any real merit.  Anyone with a half-thorough knowledge of theology could tear down his arguments, but like I said, I understand why he was attacking it.  Still, I'd recommend reading George MacDonald's--also a Victorian--criticize of Calvinism instead.
28. The Golden Legend: Selections by Jacobus de Voragine
      For those who are not aware of one of the world's first best sellers, The Golden Legend is a collection of the lives of the Saints.  Technically, Voragine did not write it, but merely collected the information from other sources, though he deserves more credit than a simple compiler.  I'll not focus on that, however, and move on to the work itself.  Being raised Baptist, we did very little study of the Saints, aside from the big ones--the Apostles, Mary (Magdalene, not the mother of Christ), early Christian martyrs, et cetera.  So, aside from wanting to read more Medieval literature, I was naturally interested in the lives of the lesser known--or sometimes well known but Catholic--Saints.  I read about most Saints on his or her feast day throughout the year, reading more sometimes and less sometimes, and finished in late November.  The tales in here are at times quite fascinating as well as fantastical.  Some of them read like fairy tales.  Take the Seven Sleepers, for example--a story I've blogged about before.  What is especially interesting is reading the historical account of a saint--say, Thomas Becket--and the Church's version.  I'm sure the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I'm quite eager to get the entire collection, rather than just selections, but I would recommend starting with this.
29. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
     I already blogged extensively on this novel, so I will say very little here.  If anyone is truly interested in my thoughts upon the book, read my blog from December second.  All I'll say here is that I could easily see myself reading this again, and look forward to reading Where Angels Fear to Tread.
30. The Song of Roland by Anonymous
      Ah, The Song of Roland, first of the chanson de geste--is there really anything I can say about this that could actually express the pure badassery of it?   This is the Medieval equivalent to Die Hard, and might also remind modern readers of the plot to 300.  I'd have to say though, even John McClane and King Leonidas wouldn't stand a chance against Roland and Olivier.  Here's the basic idea: Charlemagne has been invading Spain for a while now, and decides to leave after Saracen king Marsile promises peace.  It's all a trap though, and when Roland, twelve peers--including his best friend Olivier--and twenty thousand soldiers head up the rearguard, they are ambushed by Marsile's army of four hundred thousand.  They fight to the last man--that being Roland, of course.  Roland previously refused to sound his horn to alert Charlemagne, but now does so, bursting his temples from the blow.  He dies on a hill, facing the enemy land.  Charlemagne comes, and long story short, is mortified, but not so much that he can't heap a horrible vengeance on his foes.  Based on historical events, but probably about as reliable a historic document as 300, The Song of Roland is easily the greatest epic poem from the era.  There's a lot more I could say about it, but I'll limit myself.  Maybe I'll talk about it some other time.

Well, that is my finished list of the books I read this year.  Hopefully next year's will be longer, but at least it's not shorter than last year's.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Charles Dickens and Christmastime

For those who know and love the works of Charles Dickens, it's hard to separate him from Christmastime.  Christmas--when looked at properly--has an other worldliness about it, and Dickens is not without this aura as well.  He is like a second Homer, breathing life into pagan gods. But the gods of Dickens--the Pickwicks and Wellers, the Traddles and Micawbers--are not without their Christianity.  If this blending of Paganism and Christianity seems odd to anyone, let us not forget that many of our most cherished traditions of Christmas are pagan traditions.
None of his works seems to exude this feature more so than his Christmas books.  Even The Battle of Life, which is the only one of his Christmas books that contains no elements of the supernatural, is ripe with this other-worldliness, this Pagan Christianity.  Reading the story, it is hard to not picture these characters worshiping their household gods.  One could transpose the entire story to Ancient Rome and find little need to change a thing.
I would say though that the Dickens' other-worldliness is best exposed in two scenes, two of his Christmas books, A Christmas Carol and The Chimes.  The scene wherein Scrooge holds conversation with his former partner Jacob Marley has always held a sort of awful presence in my mind.  It is one of the most real scenes in all of literature to me.  I can hear the bells, the rattle of chains, the woeful voice of Marley as he talks of Scrooge's "ponderous chain."  But no part of this is more set in my mind than when Scrooge is at the window.  Of course, Dickens' views on the afterlife seem more influenced by folklore than actual religion, which, though he would not have liked to admit it, was more Medieval than it was Victorian.
This scene at the window in very similar to a scene in The Chimes, when Trotty Veck is in the bell tower, viewing goblins, all over the country side, comforting lamenting souls and tormenting sinners, until the bells stop ringing and they all disappear.  They are the spirits of the bells working on the souls of men.  It is a perfect example of his Pagan Christianity.  Then the true spirits of the bells appear, "a bearded figure. . .a figure and the Bell itself."  They are described as "mysterious and awful."  Yet, even these Bells, he says were Baptised.  He links fairies with the Church, combining folklore with religion.  This is actually very common among the British.  Even today, many devout Christians of the Celtic countries hold to beliefs in the fairy folk.
Christmastime is as well a link between folklore and religion.  One the one hand, we have the Virgin Mary giving birth to God made flesh, born so that through His death he might rescrue His creation.  On the other hand, we have such folklore as Sinterklaas (the true name of Santa Claus), Father Christmas (a seperate entitity from Sinterklaas), yulelogs, mistletoe, and even elves, though for the life of me, I can't figure out how they fit in.  While I am the type of Christian who prefers to make Christmas about Christ, I'm also an enthusist of fairy tales.  I might not tell me children that Santa Claus is real (I might mention Sinterklaas because I'd like to tap into my Dutch herritage), but they'll certainly learn about Father Christmas (who is simply an embodiment of the Christmas spirit) and of course we'll have a Christmas tree and all those other ornaments that owe their origins to Pagan tradition. 
Christ did not come into the world to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.  We are to cast aside the parts we do not need, and keep only that which is pertinant to the Christian faith.  In the same regard, I think Christ did not come into the world to destroy Paganism, but to complete it.  We can throw aside the harmful beliefs, but there are many aspects that need not be eliminated simply because of their connection to false gods.  The early Church knew this, but many movements since have feared the harmful effect of Paganism, not realizing that Christianity has rendered Paganism impotent.  It was because of this that Puritains abolished Christmas.  Even America was founded without Christmas, and if not for such writers as Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, Christmas might have gone out into obscurity.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Another List

Well, since December has reared it's cold, white-bearded head, I suppose it's time again to make the list of books I've read this year.  Sadly, just like last year, it's at thirty.  But at least it's not less than last year.  And just like last year, I'm not including Dickens' five Christmas books that I read every year in December.  I'm currently reading a small collection of essays by William Hazlitt, but I doubt I'll get it finished before January, so it's not included.
I've devided the list into two lists of fifteen (just like last year), and, of course, and asterisk next to the name means I've read it before.  Prepare to judge me harshly.

1.  The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
     I first read The Princess and the Goblin in 2006.   It was the second novel I read by MacDonald and the first one I enjoyed all the way through.  I checked all the book stores in town for the sequel, but not finding it, I let it slip from my mind.  I wish I hadn't, because the two should really be read back to back.  They compliment each other in the sense that Goblin is the feminine story while Curdie is the masculine.  Of course, the two are ripe with Christian metaphors, though like most of MacDonald's works, they are never preachy.  It is definitely a classic I'll read to my kids one day.  (My future children, not my future baby goats.)
2.  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
     I had intended to start the year off with this novel.  This was to be my year of reading novels everyone should read.  I made a dent in that list, at least, and I started with this book.  I've already said how I rank the Brontes in an early post, but I'll say again: Anne is my favorite.  That's not to say Charlotte is a bad writer, but having read two of her novels, I find them somewhat trite.  Jane Eyre specifically, I found to be predictable--I knew little to nothing of the story--and often boring.
3.  In a Glass Darkly by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
     Le Fanu is a little know Irish author from the Victorian movement who was stuck in the Gothic period.  This is in no way a bad thing.  In a Glass Darkly is a collection of short occult mysteries, taken from the papers of one Dr. Martin Hesselius, an expert in metaphysics and the occult.  He appears very little throughout though, which is due to him being merely a pretense to publish these all together.  They were most of them, if not all, published separately beforehand.  While the five stories were all interesting and entertaining, the best was certainly the novella length vampiric tale Carmilla, the story of a lesbian vampire's obsession with an English girl living in Western Europe. Not your typical Victorian romance.
4.  Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
     This is a powerhouse of a story.  Like many novels written in the Victorian era, it spans a large time frame and includes a large cast of characters.  Despite that, it is highly memorable and entertaining.  It's easy to see why it was so influential.  What's not easy to see is why Becky is so beloved.  She was the least likable character in it, but feminists see her as a strong woman.  I've never thought being amoral makes you strong.  But again, I think most people miss the point in the same way Blake missed the point about Milton's Satan.
5.  Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
     For those who don't know Jonathan Swift's famous story, it is the tale of a traveler who apparently has the worst luck when he finds open water, and finds himself four times stranded on islands with strange inhabitants who just so happen to lampoon and attack the flaws and foibles of the day.  Of course, this is why Swift is considered by many to be England's greatest satirist.  I would go so far as to estimate that this fictional travelogue is one of--if not the most influential book of the last three hundred years.  It's effected not only literature and film, but also the English language.  Not to the extent of Shakespeare, but certainly you've never met someone who didn't know the word "yahoo."
6.  The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
     Like many people who read a lot of classic literature, this was recommended to me because I'd like the subject matter and the references.  Sadly, it takes more than a mention of Martin Chuzzlewit to get me to like a book.  Do I doubt Fforde really enjoys classic literature?  No.  But this book is trying way to hard to not only make that point abundantly clear, which, by the way, it does not do; but it is also trying way to hard to be eccentric.  Oh, it's kinda cute that Thursday Next has a Dodo named Pickwick, but that doesn't fix the weak points in his plot or dialogue.  I'll probably still read the second one in the series though, since I own it.
7.  David Copperfield by Charles Dickens*
     David Copperfield is my favorite novel.  It's not Dickens' best work.  No, that title would go to Bleak House most likely.  But David Copperfield has sentimental value.  It also helps that some of Dickens' best characters are displayed in this novel.  The wonderfully positive Thomas Traddles, the clearly bipolar and perpetually impoverished Wilkins Micawber, the simple yet lovable Dora Spenlow, the conniving and dastardly Uriah Heep, and the stiff but gentle Betsy Trotwood--and the cast goes on.  Dickens displays his knack for making eccentric characters better in David Copperfield than in any other work.  And it's this knack for the eccentric that I've always loved about Dickens, ever since I first read A Christmas Carol.
8.  The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
     The thing about Beagle is, he looks like a fantasy author.  More than that, he looks like a fantasy reader.  In some ways, this is a good thing.  One can tell from reading The Last Unicorn that Beagle knows his fantasy, especially high fantasy.  The problem is though, The Last Unicorn is high fantasy in a low fantasy body.  (For those who don't know the difference, click on the links.)  Granted, I think I was looking for something a little bit more William Morris, and what I got was more Diana Wynne Jones.  I like both authors, but I felt this book could've been something so much more than it was.  As it is, I found it somewhat forgettable and boring in many places.
9.  Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
     I like Vonnegut, but I think I like him in smaller doses than a whole novel.  I've read many of his short stories and never been let down.  Slaughterhouse-Five was, sadly, not as good as I'd expected it to be.  It wasn't science fiction, for one.  That's a mislabel.  I think we all know Billy Pilgrim didn't go into space.  He suffered quite a bit as a prisoner of war, and eventually, he snapped.  That wasn't my issue.  I just got nothing out of the book.  Most of the Vonnegut stories I've read I highly enjoyed and they stuck in my mind long afterwords.  This, once I got to the last page, was out of my head immediately.  Maybe I'll read Cat's Cradle next time.
10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
      By the time an American reaches the age of twenty-five, if he hasn't read The Great Gatsby, most people assume there's something wrong with him.  It might surprise some, but my school never required me to read it.  I'm not too fond of American literature in general, so I put it off.  I'm glad I did.  I'd already read Fitzgerald's Tales of the Jazz Age by the time I got to this, which added to what I got out of it.  I will say though, I felt it was a bit over-lauded.  It was good, but there were many British writers from the same period attacking the same social ills and doing it better.  I look forward to reading more by Fitzgerald though. 
11. It’s Too Late to Say I’m Sorry by Joey Comeau
      I've already expressed my enjoyment of the works of this crazy bastard once before, so it should come as no surprise that I read this collection of short stories in a few hours.  Comeau lends himself to easy reading though.  He's never too deep, but never too shallow.  He tows the line.  I read his darkly hilarious epistolary novel Overqualified last year and I've been reading his webcomic A Softer World even longer, so I knew what to expect from this collection: horror, romance, and a little bit of philosophical musings.  Throw in a little bit (or a lot) of perverted humor and you've got Joey Comeau.
12. The Mill On the Floss by George Eliot
      This is probably not what one would expect someone to read after Joey Comeau, but somehow it happened that way.  I was in the mood for some Victorian idyllic stylings, something like Thomas Hardy.  And who's more like Thomas Hardy than George Eliot?  (I suppose I could've just read Thomas Hardy, but here we are.)  Let me just say, I enjoyed this novel, but it was so slow.  It was like walking up a steep hill the entire time, and then, out of no where, falling into a crevice.  It just ended, and I did not see that ending coming.  After thinking about it, it makes sense, but at the time I was highly confused why she'd end it like that, so suddenly.  I know many people studying Victorian literature usually read Middlemarch, but I'd highly recommend this instead.  It is a biting, but also sympathetic, attack on many aspects of Victorian country life.
13. The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
      I remember that while reading this, I enjoyed it, but I remember very little from it.  I mean, I understand what it was actually about, what the intellectuals say it's about.  Maybe if I were someone who never thought of death and the afterlife it would've struck home more.  It's a very well done novella, but I can list on one hand all the novellas that have changed my life.  There's nothing wrong with it, and I'm glad I read it.  I'd even recommend it to anyone interested in the subject, the author, or Russian literature.  I suppose though, there's rarely a reason to not remind one's self of life's temporariness and the need to live right.
14. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen*
      I first read this in 2007 because a girl I liked told me to read Austen.  I'm glad I did because Austen is a necessity.  I read it at a ridiculous singles conference my church went to. I don't think they meant for me to spend the conference in a stairwell reading alone, but there you have it.  I feel like that's where Cathrine Morland would've been.  Northanger Abbey  is Austen's Don Quixote.  In fact, the earlier novel The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox was used as a model for Norrthanger Abbey.   But anyway, Miss Morland is perhaps my favorite Austen heroine.  She is, I believe, the most eccentric, which to a certain extent means the most sincere.  Naivety is a good sign of sincerity.  And rather than feel sorry for her when she makes her outrageous mistakes, I feel nothing but comradely.
15. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
      While this is barely more a short story, I've added it here because it's classified as a novella.  If you ask the average reader, they'll tell you Death in Venice  is paled by Lolita, but in my opinion, this is the superior work.  His use of the Apollonian life struggling against the Dionysian life, resulting in the end with a failure and Aschenbach falling victim to Dionysus, seems to me far more interesting than the concept tackled in Lolita.  In fact, I'd say, without Nabokov's unique use of prose, Lolita would be nothing special.  Of course, I only see this now after reading Lolita and comparing the two.  But I'll get to my views on Lolita in the next and final list.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

December Nostalgia

On the 19th I'll be driving to my parent's house to watch my dad in his church's Christmas cantata.  I'm excited for this for one main reason.  I love driving on December nights.  I have ever since 2001, the first December I had a license and the first December I had a broken heart.  I'm not going to wax nostalgic for a love than never was.  Obviously, things turned out for the best.  It wasn't the last heartbreak I'd suffer.  I'm sure it won't be the last.  But there's something interesting about the first of things.  It defines the experience to a certain extent.  I mean, this girl I'd wanted to date for three months choosing some guy she'd barely known over me hurt quite a bit for sixteen year old me; but let's be honest, my fiance who I'd been dating for nearly five years leaving me and immediately moving in with some random guy hurt far worse.  And if my wife were to leave me, I'm sure that would be unimaginably worse still.  But the first time seems stuck in my brain as the example the others follow.  Everything before that seems like childhood to me.  Everything after was. . .something else.  Certainly not manhood.  I don't know when I first described myself as a man, but it definitely was not nine years ago.
But back to my first point: driving on December nights.  Hell, let's just say December nights specifically.  Sure, I had fifteen Decembers before 2001, but somehow I never appreciated them until December 7th, nine years ago.  The fog and the snow, mixing with the glow of the streetlights.  Driving through the park a dozen times to see the the faintly viewed Christmas lights in the park.  The soundtrack: Something to Write Home About by The Get up Kids.  I listened to "Long Goodnight" for the better part of the night, and I seldom listen to it to this day for that reason.  Why?  Because some girl didn't pick me.  Now, I scoff.  If I were telling this story instead of typing it, one would hear a distinct "pfft."  But it's a part of me.  Sometimes I wish it wasn't.  It's why I get depressed every year come December.  It's why Something to Write Home About is my favorite album. . .OF. All. TIME.  If that hadn't happened, maybe my musical taste would've become much different.  I was at a crossroad at the time.  I'd just discovered Dashboard Confessional, but I'd also just discovered BoySetsFire.  Who knows?  Maybe I would be horribly into hardcore right now if not for that night.  Thank God for near misses, right?
Still, I've thought about it, if I never went through that first heartbreak, I might never become so close to the girl I was to date for four and a half years, nearly marry, and eventually be betrayed by as well.  If I had not met Rachel, Chandler and I probably wouldn't have become such close friends and I would've never met my currently wife (also named Rachel.)  It's hard not to look at these things and wonder about fate and chance.  Maybe that is the true reason I get depressed around December.  It's not the cold.  I love the cold.  It is invigorating.  But maybe I'm simply chained to memories.  Firsts can be highly definitive.
It's easy to see why they're a good thing though.  Without them, this picture of my wife and I would never exist.  The girl who broke my heart back then is happily married with a child and another on the way--or she already had the baby.  As for my ex-fiance--I'll not speak about that more than necessary.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I'm an existentialist. Of course I don't believe in Italy

I've been reading E.M. Forster's A Room with a View for nearly a week now.  I'll probably finish it today or tomorrow.  (I'd be done sooner if I hadn't thrown The Song of Roland into the mix.)  It has been an interesting read, to say the least.  Forster is one of those authors that I had a natural aversion to before I'd read anything by him.  Often, I follow my instincts and avoid that author and his works.  Sometimes, however, I force myself to read something by him--usually the shortest work.  This is, of course, one such occasion.  Other similar instances involved such authors as James Joyce, J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, and even Charles Dickens
Now, forcing myself to read an author I don't want to read isn't always such the resounding success as my foray into the world of Dickens.  Take Salinger for an example: I had never read anything by him but always knew I'd hate his works; I found Franny and Zooey for a dollar and read it in a couple of days, only to find my original opinion was an understatement of my true hatred for that man's works. 
Luckily, Forster is not turning out so bad as all that.  I'd not say he's turning out like Dickens did though by any means.  It's a nice middle ground.  I like the story he's crafted and the characters he's populated it with, but his writing leaves something to be desired at times.  Some brilliance does shine through though.  Through dialogue mostly.  A wonderful example of this is this quote by George Emerson: "It is Fate that I am here.  But you can call it Italy if it makes you less unhappy."  I love that quote. Another highlight is the conversation between Cecil and Lucy wherein Cecil explains that when he thinks of her he thinks of a view, and when she thinks of him, she thinks of a room--a room without a view.  It's also said later that there are two types of men in the world: those who remember views and those who don't.
This room and view comparison is, in my opinion, a metaphor for two types of people.  The first being people who are closed off within society, with no access to the aesthetic life.  The view is that aesthetic life, but it is also the future--a wide open expanse with limitless possibilities.  You'll find none of that back in the room.  And so, it is a conflict between the passed and the future.  Which is interesting, considering the title: A Room with a View.  Obviously, this is a combination of both the passed and the future.  The societal safety of an enclosed room with the aesthetic freedom of a view.
There is another aspect of the room and view comparison.  It is stated at a certain point that Lucy says to Cecil, "I won't be stifled, not by the most glorious music, for people are more glorious, and you hide them from me."  This is easily a call-back to the notion that Cecil is a room without a view, and he would bring Lucy into the room if she would let him.  He would surround her with beautiful things--books, art, music--but he would keep her from people.  People are the one thing Cecil cannot stand.  He grows tired of every person he meets in the book.  Forster isn't saying we shouldn't surround ourselves with these beautiful things, but we should never remove people--the view--because people are the most beautiful things.  (As a misanthrope, I'm a little inclined to disagree, but I'm just stating what I think Forster was saying in the book.)
George Emerson seems to embody this notion.  His father is obviously a radical and a very strange man.  George takes after him somewhat, though he is different in many aspects.  He's described as "ill-bred" and that he "didn't do," but he is easily the most likable character and  obviously has better morals and understanding than the well-bred Cecil, who finds amusement in putting everyone down, so long as they hold nothing for him to gain.  George seems like what one would get from a cross between a country squire and a liberal-minded aristocrat: he is philosophical and gentlemanly, but he'll kiss the girl he loves regardless of her fiance being present not a minute earlier, because he "loves passionately."
I think this is what Forster was hoping for the future gentleman to be like.  Free of many Victorian restrains, replacing them with true morals and true philosophy rather than hypocrisy and regurgitated knowledge.  (I must point out that I do not hold the Victorian lifestyle to be nearly as bad as many of Edwardians and Modernists did, but that's neither here nor there.)  If Forster had understood the Medieval mind better, he would've called George medieval rather than that cold and cynical Cecil.
Or maybe I'm over-analyzing the whole damned thing, and it's just about a girl growing up and falling in love.