Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Importance of Understanding for Love

Sense and SensibilitySense and Sensibility 
by Jane Austen

“She tried to explain the real state of the case to her sister.
"I do not attempt to deny," said she, "that I think very highly of him--that I greatly esteem, that I like him."
Marianne here burst with forth with indignation:
"Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor. Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again, and I will leave the room this moment."
Elinor could not help laughing. "Excuse me," said she, "and be assured that I meant no offence to you, by speaking, in so quiet a way, of my own feelings.” 

― Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

On this day in 1811 Jane Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published.  Austen wrote romantic novels and this is one of her best and the first with several to follow. But one may ask, what is the source of Austen's genius on the subject of love? It seems that she was able to develop a comprehensive view of the philosophies of her own time, including the rise of sensibility (Earl of Shaftesbury, Hume and Smith) and develop stories about real people who lived and loved, learned and grew through their experiences. Consider the two Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility. One may contrast Marianne Dashwood, the young, beautiful, passionate, and unreserved romantic. with her older sister Elinor, prudent, pretty, and proper, with all the restraint of feelings of which Marianne had none. Their father dead, the sisters and their mother were about to be displaced from their childhood home of Norland by their half brother John, and his wife, Fanny. John "was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed," and Fanny was even worse. He might have allowed the Dashwood sisters to remain at Norland, if only grudgingly, but she was determined to send them packing, especially once Elinor had begun a friendship with her brother Edward.

Edward had a bland personality and was practically paralyzed by shyness. While he was not particularly handsome Elinor struck up a somewhat dispassionate friendship with him. Again this was a contrast with her sister who, as the result of a chance meeting, had fallen for the dashing young, handsome and elegant Willoughby. The contrast of the sisters could not be better defined than in their choice of partners. Austen's genius extends to persuade the reader that Elinor's sense of love is truer than than the passionate sensibility of her younger sister. The romantic love of Marianne turns out to be as capable of tearing her heart apart as the Eros described in classical Greek dramas and philosophy. That this is the stuff of myth, one thinks of love at first sight, is felt by the reader, but for Austen it is not true love. It lacks a foundation and is thus unsuccessful. Grace and spirit and manners---the kinds of qualities that attracted Marianne to Willoughby---are wonderful to have, but they are no substitute for the Edward-like attributes of worth and heart and understanding.  The love that has these is more likely to hold sway in the long run.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday

Tuesday Top Ten: Modern Plays

It is Tuesday, once again, and I was inspired by Nicki J. Markus to explore a top ten list.  This time, I'm sharing my favorite modern plays. While I may weight more recent plays a bit more, in my mind a modern play may be anything in the last two centuries.  

1)   Waiting for Godot - Beckett
2)   The History Boys - Alan Bennett
3)   The Coast of Utopia - Tom Stoppard
4)  The Importance of Being Earnest - Wilde
5)   Cyrano de Bergerac - Edmond Rostand
6)   A Man for All Seasons - Robert Bolt
7)   The Cherry Orchard - Chekov
8)   Amadeus - Schaffer
9)   Saint Joan - Shaw
10)   Orpheus Descending - Williams

Monday, October 27, 2014

Witches and Devils and a King

Just in time for Halloween I have chosen two Histories and a Screenplay to share - I hope you will agree that the themes are appropriate.

The Devil in Massachusetts
A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials
by Marion Lena Starkey

This is a riveting account of the Salem Witch Trials. Marion Starkey includes just the right amount of detail to portray all the elements of this horrifying story. From the hysteria spun out of fanaticism to the economic and social background that provided a fertile ground, the events unfold in a way that kept this reader spellbound. The author highlights the relationships of the people in the community and how their bonds were broken by the reactions of the accusations of the young girls. This was well before the era when hysteria was diagnosed as a psychiatric disorder, thus it seems that the townspeople had fewer coping mechanisms when the emotions went out of control. Neither Church nor Civil authorities were able to maintain control and their actions probably aggravated the crisis. There may be more recent accounts that cover more details, but this is the classic telling of this tale of witchcraft and evil. 


A Coffin for King Charles 
by C.V. Wedgwood

In January 1649 an English King was brought to trial on a charge of abusing the trust placed in him by his subjects, was convicted, and was publicly and ceremoniously beheaded, after which the Monarchy was abolished and a Republic proclaimed. Nothing like it had ever happened in European history before. For a thousand years Englishmen had been in the habit of murdering tiresome or inconvenient kings—the most recent examples being Richard II, Richard III, and Edward V—but never before had an anointed king been formally brought to book. Enter Dame Cicely Veronica Wedgwood -- a scholar of unimpeachable diligence and accuracy, she also possesses the double literary gift of lucid exposition and brilliant portrayal (In 1946 she translated Elias Canetti's Die Blendung, as Auto-da-Fé, under Canetti's supervision.). 
Her short book is a study of how and why this extraordinary event took place, by whom it was conceived and carried out, by what arguments it was justified at the time, what pressures were brought to bear, and what was the effect upon the future would be a work of the greatest interest and importance. 
Miss Wedgwood explains that “it is the purpose of this book to describe the events of those ten weeks” leading up to the execution. She tells the story supremely well.


The Doctor and the Devils
by Dylan Thomas

"Rock:  I need bodies.  They brought bodies.       
I pay for what I need.  I do not hire murderers. . . "
(The Doctor and the Devils, Sc. 73)

 The Doctor and the Devils is a screenplay that deals with death. And "statements on the way to the grave " is how Dylan Thomas described his poetry. It is a incursion into the depths of life, the business of grave-robbing, that is so low as to suggest the possibility of killing the living to provide a supply of corpses. What moved these people to do this? There was a medical need in the era that the play is set so that is a primary possibility. I am not sure what is so fascinating about this dark story, but Dylan Thomas based this drama on real life and it shows - I found the drama both engaging and poetic.

Jane Eyre Read-along: Week 6

Welcome to the sixth week of 
the 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along,
brought to you by

Introduction:  "Jane, will you marry me?"

An emotional encounter between Jane and Rochester in Chapter Twenty-three leads to a surprising request from Rochester:

""Come to my side, Jane, and let us explain and understand one another.'
'I will never again come to your side:  I am torn away now, and cannot return.'
'But, Jane, I summon you as my wife: it is only you I intend to marry.'
I was silent;  I thought he mocked me.
'Come, Jane -- come hither.'
'Your bride stands between us.'
He rose, and with a stride reached me.
'My bride is here,' he said, again drawing me to him, 'because my equal is here, and my likeness.  Jane, will you marry me?"

This Week's Discussion Questions  
for  Chapters 20 - 23

The events of Chapter 20 are very strange, yet Jane does everything Rochester asks her to do, and continues to trust him, for the most part. She does ask him some questions, but makes no demands for an explanation of what's really going on at Thornfield, nor does she seek another position, in spite of her fears and inner doubts. How can her behavior be explained?

Jane has developed a respect for authority over her short and difficult life.  That does not mean that she does not question that authority, as we saw at Lowood and before, but in spite of Mr. Rochester's sometimes harsh personality he has treated Jane fairly (thus far) and this would seem to be a factor in his favor with Jane.  She still has "fears and inner doubts" but these are overcome by her confidence in the goodness of Rochester that underlies his outward mien.  Whether her judgement shall be justified is to be seen as the story progresses.

Rochester pressures the doctor to rush Mason out of the house and away, even though the latter is seriously injured. What do you think of this action, and why he took it?

This action follows soon after Mason's unexpected arrival at Thornfield and Rochester's strange game posing as a fortune-teller.  Thus it adds to the mystery of the story as we have been given little other information about this new character.  What could Rochester's action mean?  Rochester has demonstrated bold actions before with little explanation to those around him and so this seems in character even as it leaves the reader wondering.  I am putting it in my growing file of mysteries surrounding Thornfield Hall and its master.

What do you think of Eliza and Georgiana as adults?

I am not surprised at their development, especially Georgiana who seems to be very bitter with no reasonable basis for that view other than having developed it to a level that only her habitual behavior could have maintained.  On the other hand Eliza seems to be quiet, but happy; however I agree with Jane's assessment:
"True, generous feeling is made small account of by some;  but here were two natures rendered, the one intolerably acrid, the other despicably savourless for the want of it.  Feeling without judgement is a washy daught indeed;  but judgement untempered by feeling is too bitter and husky a morsel for human deglutition." 

Do you think Jane was right to forgive Mrs. Reed in light of the important information the later withheld from Jane for three years?

What is the meaning of right - that is how should we determine what is right for Jane Eyre?  As an individual one would expect that she would have the right to be treated justly and fairly by another individual, especially someone who has authority over her like Mrs. Reed.  That was not done, but it does not mean that it was not "right" for Jane to forgive Mrs. Reed for the harm that she did to Jane.  It is Jane who ultimately must decide what is right for her. Jane seems to value the peace of others, even those who have mistreated her, over the satisfaction of holding her own notion of justice over them.  She demonstrates courage in choosing to forgive Mrs. Reed and deserves my respect for her decision to do so.  Was it right?  Perhaps, for Jane.

What does Jane's impassioned speech to Mr. Rochester, while they're in the orchard, tell the reader about her?

Her speech is prefaced by a recognition that her emotions were "claiming mastery, and struggling for full sway, and assuming a right to predominate".  This is a feeling that most of us can identify having at times, even if we may not be able to articulate it as well as Jane.  She then proceeds to declare her love of Thornfield based on a life that has allowed her to share in "what is bright and energetic and high".  This seems to be an opinion based on her previous dark and low life at Lowood and with Mrs. Reed.  Jane's experience of life is still somewhat limited.  However, she shares her feelings and especially her realization and "anguish" that she must be "torn" from Rochester.  She has strong feelings for him that she believes will not, cannot, be realized.

A terrible storm suddenly springs up, as Chapter 23 draws to a close. During the night, lightning strikes the horse-chestnut tree, at the base of which Jane and Rochester had sat earlier. The tree is split in two. Do you think this is a bad omen? If so, what do you think it means? 

What a strong and bold omen of the terrors that may be in store for our dear Jane.  This moment is one that is as momentous as almost any that I have encountered in literature.  It is comparable to Tolstoy's use of the Oak Tree as an symbol in the life of Prince Andrei in War and Peace.  
In this case the omen signals more disturbing events yet to come, even as the changes in the weather from the first lines of chapter 23 ("skies so pure, suns so radiant as were then seen . . . as if a band of Italian days had come from the South") to the last page ("the wind blew, near and deep as the thunder crashed, fierce and frequent as the lightning gleamed, cataract-like as the rain fell during a storm").  As we have seen before, the weather reinforces the emotions and actions of the characters in Jane's story in a way that is just as effective as Giuseppe Verdi's use of orchestral music in his operas. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Search for Identity

by Nuruddin Farah

"He said, 'Tell me Askar.  Do you find truth in the maps you draw?'

My mind become the blotted paper one had covered worthless writings with, but it took me nowhere, it mapped nothing, indicating no pathway to follow.  I repeated the question aloud to myself as if to be sure, 'Do I find truth in the maps I draw?' and waited to see if the coarse ink on the blotted brain would dry, and if I would be able to visualize a clearer image, of which I could make better sense myself.  All I coud see was a beam of dust the sun had stirred nearer the window.  I remained silent." (p 227)

Maps is a novel by Nuruddin Farah, a chronicler of modern Africa's sociopolitical turbulence and growth who has lived in exile from his native Somalia since 1974. The first in a trilogy of novels, Maps is rich in concept and execution, beautifully worked in the dense, intricate prose.  It tells the story of Askar, orphaned as a child, who is rescued from his dead mother's side and raised in a small village by Misra, an older woman who develops a mysterious, protective bond with him.

Eventually he moves to the capital to live with his prosperous Uncle Hilaal; however, Askar's origins continue to preoccupy him, and he grows into a serious, introspective youth fixed on the urgent question of his identity. Thus we have the central theme of this novel - identity - a theme that is woven with complexity as Askar begins with close ties to Misra, his substitute mother, and as he grows into young manhood with ties to the land, Somalia, metaphorically represented by maps which he studies and learns about first from Misra and later from Hilaal. It is with Misra that the boy Askar begins his journey toward becoming a man.

"Indubitably, she had done a most commendable job, training him in the nomadic lore of climatic and geographic importance -- that it was the earth which received the rains, the sky from whose loins sprang water and therefore life; that the earth was the womb upon whose open fields men and women grew food for themselves and for their animals. And man raised huts and women bore children and the cows grazed on the nearby pastures, the goats likewise; and the boy became a man," (p 134)

There are unique and striking images presented as Askar lives with Misra. Those of water and of blood, dreams of a future that is yet unknown. 
"Water: I associate with joy; blood: not so much with pain as with lost tempers and beatings. But I associate something else with blood -- future as read by Misra. Once I even made a pun -- my future is in my blood." (p 36)
It gradually becomes true that Askar's blood and future are indelibly connected with Somalia. But her continues his search for identity. His father had died for the future of Somalia and Askar is taught about the past:
"'Whose are the unburied corpses?' Then the man smiled. He said: 'Our memories, our collective or if you like, our individual pasts. We leave our bodies in order that we may travel light -- we are hope personified. After all, we are the dream of a nation." (p 129)

Hilaal, the cook and nurturer in his city home of Mogadiscio, is able to provide some answers for his baffled nephew on the subjects of African tradition, Somalian manhood and selflessness. Employing a poetic, imaginative style, Farah skillfully juxtaposes Askar's emotional turmoil and the struggles of his beloved Somalia under siege, as the characters try to understand why blood must be shed for territorial gain. In the end, Askar must choose between avenging his soldier father's death by joining the army, or pursuing his academic studies, but the choice is taken out of his hands by powerful external forces.

This is a poetic coming-of-age story, following in the tradition of Dickens and many others. Farah makes it new with his poetic style, a unique narrative voice using different points of view, and with the complex relationships between family, friends, and the land. The result is a wonderful tale of searching for the identity of one's inner and outer self in a difficult world.

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Quote for Today

“Literature is humanity talking to itself.”
― Norman Rush

Monday, October 20, 2014

Jane Eyre Read-along: Week 5

Welcome to the fifth week of 
the 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along,
brought to you by

Introduction:  "My cherished preserver, good-night!"

Jane is awakened by a strange laugh in the night and finds that there is a fire in Mr. Rochester's bedroom.  She wakes him and quickly puts out the fire, drenching him in the process.  After some time of assessment the following interchange occurs:   

"You have saved my life:  I have a pleasure owing you so immense a debt.  I cannot say more.  Nothing else that has being would have been tolerable to me in the character of creditor for such an obligation:  but you:  it is different -- I feel your benefit no burden, Jane.
'Good-night again, sir.  There is no debt, benefit, burden, obligation, in the case.'
'I knew,' he continued, 'you would do me good in some way, at some time;  . . . My cherished preserver, good-night!"

This Week's Discussion Questions  
for  Chapters 15 - 19
(Questions Provided by
Babbling Books)

1.) Rochester seems to be a very strong personality. Is it surprising that he would become enamored with someone like Celine Varens?

I do not find it surprising that Mr. Rochester finds the appeal of Ms. Varens irresistible.  He is not the first to be in that situation.  It is a case of his passions overcoming his reason; in his case a "grande passion" as he tells Jane about the experience.  What he lacked in elegance, so he believed Ms. Varens thought, he made up for with his masculinity.  Unfortunately the affair was not meant to end well as he found her in the arms of another;  again, not the first man to experience the pain of being spurned by a fickle woman.

2.) We find that Thornfield Hall is a place with strange servants, where demonic laughter is heard and mysterious fires are set. Are these just clever and atmospheric plot devices, or is Bronte saying something more? 

As a literary device this is part of the Gothic element in Jane Eyre.  While not an explicitly Gothic novel Jane Eyre has elements that were popular beginning in the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth (among my favorites are novels by Mary Shelley and Ann Rafcliffe).  I believe these events contribute to the mystery surrounding Thornfield Hall and its owner.  They certainly continue to provide this reader with impetus to plunge forward sharing nervous wonder with Jane.

3.) At one point, Jane rebukes herself as a result of her attraction to Rochester, and resolves to suppress that attraction. Is this a realistic reaction of a person falling in love? Do people act this way in the real world and the present day?

I see this aspect of Jane as evidence of her uncertainty as to her relative position at Thornfield and in Mr. Rochester's life.  She seems unsure whether she should be satisfied with her position as Governess to Adele, thus not expecting anything more than any employee would from Mr. Rochester, or she should reasonably consider herself a potential "favorite" of Mr. Rochester and hope for a much more personal relationship.  The process she uses thinking this through seems very real as one Jane Eyre might consider, but perhaps a little cooler than may be typical for others.  In any case I loved her description of the process:

"When once more alone, I reviewed the information I had got;  looking into my heart, examined its thoughts and feelings, and endeavored to bring back with a strict hand such as had been straying through imagination's boundless and trackless waste, into the safe fold of common sense."

She has been hurt too often in her young life, by family and those from whom she should have received warmth and caring.  I am not surprised that she carefully tries to choose the "safe" approach with regard to Mr. Rochester.

4.) Jane believes that Rochester is planning on marrying for the benefit of connections. Is she assessing his character fairly? Based upon what we know about Rochester at this point, would a man like him enter into marriage for such reasons?

This seems like a reasonable choice for a man who has been betrayed by at least one woman when he let his passions override his reason (see Question 1).  I think that alone makes Jane's assessment reasonable based on the little else she really knows about him.  The assessment may also be based on her opinion about his social class in that a choice of marriage partner is more likely to be based on connections (or money) for someone of his station in society.  She may possibly be making a mistake in her assessment because of the mystery that seems to abound at Thornfield Hall, but maybe that is asking too much of her.

5.) At one point, Blanche Ingram insults and acts cruelly to a passive Jane. Rochester allows this to go on and he takes no action to stop it. What can be concluded from his behavior?

This may be just another instance of the importance of social class overriding the more benevolent feelings that one might expect from Mr. Rochester.  He has nothing to gain with his peers from doing otherwise.  On the other hand Jane may be right about Rochester and he does not really care for her at all; not that I really believe that for a moment.

6.) Rochester disguises himself as a fortuneteller deceiving Jane and several other characters. Is this the act of a trustworthy person? In reality, can someone who acted this way ever be worthy of trust? 

This episode, for me, seems to further the mystery of the story.  It is clear that he feels a need to discover information about some of those at the party that he could not obtain in a more direct matter.  This may be a simple game;  but I rather think of it as a test of Jane in particular.  He may not feel that he has the sort of relationship with Jane (or Blanche) to do otherwise.  As for the matter of trust I would respond with a perhaps.  It would depend on the persons total character and I believe we have much more to learn about Mr. Rochester before making a judgement one way or the other.  I will look forward to learning more about his relationship with Mr. Mason in this regard.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Scientific Discovery and Time

by Gregory Benford

“Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available” 
― Gregory Benford, Timescape

This is a novel of scientific discovery that does not neglect the story of the people who make the science. It is a better novel as much due to both its fusion of detailed character development and interpersonal drama and the science fiction narrative that includes time travel, an alternate reality, and ecological issues.

The story is written from two viewpoints, equidistant from the novel's publication in 1980. One narrative is set in a 1998 ravaged by ecological disasters and is on the brink of large scale extinctions. It follows a group of scientists in the United Kingdom connected with the University of Cambridge and their attempts to warn the past of the impending disaster by sending tachyon-induced messages to the astronomical position the Earth occupied in 1962–1963. Given the faster-than-light nature of the tachyon, these messages will effectively reach the past. These efforts are led by John Renfrew, an Englishman, and Gregory Markham, an American most likely modeled on Benford himself.

Another narrative is set in La Jolla, California at the University of California-San Diego in 1962, where a young scientist, Gordon Bernstein, discovers anomalous noise in a physics experiment relating to spontaneous resonance and indium antimonide. He and his student assistant, Albert Cooper (also likely based on the author and his experiences at UCSD), discover that the noise is coming in bursts timed to form Morse code.
The resulting message is made of staccato sentence fragments and jumbled letters, due to the 1998 team's efforts to avoid a grandfather paradox. Their aim is to give the past researchers enough information to start efforts on solving the pending ecological crisis, but not enough that the crisis will be entirely solved (thus making a signal to the past unnecessary and creating a paradox). Due to the biological nature of the message, Professor Bernstein shares the message with a professor of biology, Michael Ramsey. Since the message also gives astronomical coordinates, he also shares it with Saul Shriffer, a fictional scientist who is said to have worked with Frank Drake on Project Ozma. Initially, these characters fail to understand the true meaning of the message. Ramsey believes it to be an intercepted military dispatch hinting at Soviet bioterrorism, while Shriffer thinks the message is of extraterrestrial origin. Shriffer goes public with this theory, mentioning Bernstein in his findings. However, Bernstein's overseer, Isaac Lakin, is skeptical of the messages and wants Bernstein to keep working on his original project and ignore the signal. As a result of this interruption in their experimentation, Bernstein is denied a promotion and Cooper fails a candidacy examination. The signal also exacerbates difficulties in Bernstein's relationship with his girlfriend, Penny.

In 1998, Peterson recovers a safe deposit box in La Jolla containing a piece of paper indicating that the messages were received. Meanwhile, it is clear that the viral nature of the algal bloom is spreading it faster and through more mediums than originally expected. Strange yellow clouds that have been appearing are said to be a result of the viral material being absorbed through the water cycle, and it soon affects the planet's agriculture as well, resulting in widespread cases of food poisoning. Flying to the United States, Markham is killed in a plane crash when the pilots fly too close to one of the clouds and experience seizures.

In the past narrative, now advanced into 1963, Bernstein refuses to give up on the signals. He is rewarded when the signal noise is also observed in a laboratory at Columbia University (a nod "Tachyons were the sort of audacious idea that comes to young minds used to roving over the horizon of conventional thought. Because of Feinberg I later set part of my tachyon novel at Columbia towards the inventor of the tachyon concept, Gerald Feinberg of Columbia). Using hints in the message, Ramsey replicates the conditions of the bloom in a controlled experiment and realizes the danger it represents. Bernstein finds out that the astronomical coordinates given in the message represent where the Earth will be in 1998 due to the solar apex. He also receives a more coherent, despairing message from the future. Having built a solid case, Bernstein goes public and publishes his results.

The remainder of the story involves the possibility of an alternate reality and some surprising consequences. The combination of science, the impact of the scientists' work on their interpersonal relations, and the impact of the science itself on the future made this an excellent work of science fiction. It is no surprise that it won several awards including the Nebula Award in 1980.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Jane Eyre Read-along: Week 4

Welcome to the fourth week of 
the 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along,
brought to you by

Introduction:  "Thornfield Hall was a changed place."

Jane has settled in to her life as Governess at Thornfield Hall.  However, in spite of the presence of Mrs. Fairfax and Adele with her maid, she finds the Hall a place of "stagnation" and "silence";  her room is "lonely" and Mrs. Fairfax merely "tranquil".  All this changes with the arrival of Mr. Rochester:  "I discerned in the course of the morning that Thornfield Hall was a changed place.  No longer silent as a church, it echoed every hour or two to a knock at the door or a clang of the bell.  Steps, too, often traversed the hall, and new voices spoke in different keys below.  A rill from the outer world was flowing through it.  It had a master;  for my part, I liked it better."  
Jane had yet to formally meet that master, her master; she would find even more changes about to occur.

Week 4  Discussion Questions:
Chapters 11 - 14
(Questions provided by
A Night's Dream of Books)

Jane meets her pupil, Adele Varens, in Chapter 11, and we learn more about her in subsequent chapters. How is this little girl contrasted with Jane herself, when she was a child?

Adele is also an orphan whose mama has passed on, but in many ways she is very different than the young Jane.   When we are introduced to her she is quite capable of singing and fluent in French, but seemingly undisciplined.  Jane finds Adele "docile, though disinclined to apply"  and that is certainly not like the Jane that we met in the opening chapters.  She also seems spoiled as evidenced by her preference for Mr. Rochester because he gave her "pretty dresses and toys";  but despite his kindnesses he has brought her to England and then left her there.  We later find that while she has "no great talents" she neither has "any deficiency or vice".   That Adele is willing to learn is more due to Jane's ability as a teacher than it is due to Adele's intelligence or perseverance.  

How does Bronte set the general atmosphere surrounding Jane's  awkward meeting with Mr. Rochester, in the country lane, which takes place in Chapter 12? 

It was January and "It was a fine calm day, though very cold".  Jane narrates that she offers to post a letter for Mrs. Fairfax and she shares the description of a landscape that is noted for its "utter solitude and leafless repose".  The sun is fading as the day is dying as she pauses on her journey.  
As the sun goes down the moon appears and betrays an evening calm.  This sort of solitude and calmness might not seem eerie if we hadn't been introduced to the strangeness of Grace Poole and her laugh only a page earlier.  The result for Jane is a conflation of nightmare and reality as Mr. Rochester and his horse come upon Jane.  As he passes her the realization that the black form is just a man breaks the spell, but the experience adds to momentousness of the occasion and leaves a special mark on Jane and the reader.

Jane states that she would not have offered her help to the fallen rider, had he been conventionally handsome. What does this tell the reader about Jane?

I am not sure what to make of this other than an indication of a sort of prejudice Jane has toward the outward appearance of beauty in others.  Given her experience thus far this is not surprising as she considers herself to be plain and her experience with those who flaunt their beauty such as Georgiana Reed was quite unpleasant.

What further information about Jane's personality, and her philosophy of life, do her paintings convey?

Jane's own description of the paintings reinforces her humility and her inability to translate the true power of her imagination to the painting.  That her imagination seems very dark is demonstrated by the first painting which highlights a lone cormorant and a drowned corpse. The other two paintings continue with a  theme of bleakness, cold, and in the third, an eye notable for its "glassiness of despair".  While Jane claims to have gotten pleasure out of the experience of painting these, they seem to betray a bleak outlook on life.  She claims to be tormented by her inability to realise what her mind's eye saw;  and Mr. Rochester suggests it is due to her lack of artist's skill that she only portrays a "shadow" of her thought.  What thoughts may they be?  She seems to be storing up the dark side of life in her mind so that she might better be able to handle the realities of her daily existence.  

What do you think is the real purpose of Mr. Rochester's interview of Jane? Or do you think it's the typical interview an employer would conduct, when hiring a new domestic employee?

Mr. Rochester's interview starts more as a probing of Jane's thoughts in an attempt to discern her character.  It is a strange way to conduct an interview and it tells us as much about the interrogator as it does about the interrogatee.  His is almost a teasing manner as in "Did you expect a present, Miss Eyre?  Are you fond of presents?"  He is as willing to compliment her (regarding the progress of Adele) as he is willing to criticize her (as to her piano-playing).   By the the end of the lengthy tete a tete he has a detailed picture of this young governess, but we have seen a man whose hardness, strong opinions, and harshness may be a facade hiding someone who is in search of companionship.  Perhaps there are even more secrets that he is hiding beneath this firm facade.

Do you see any hints of foreshadowing in Chapter 14? Please explain. 

Chapter fourteen seems to contain the seeds of mystery and intrigue.  Why do I say this?  We have already experienced, through Jane, the isolation of Thornfield Hall and the strangeness of Grace Poole with her even stranger, eerie laugh.  But now, we have Mr. Rochester telling his story, at least parts of it, with the admission that fate had "wronged" him and he had not the "wisdom to remain cool."  It is a story told in a way that bewilders Jane.  She says "Your language is enigmatical, sir:  but though I am bewildered, I am certainly not afraid."  What might occur in the future that would challenge Jane's present courage  we do not know;  but the idea is placed in our mind that we will find out more about the enigmatic Mr. Rochester.  He sees in Jane a "restless, resolute captive" who "were it but free, would soar cloud-high."  He on the other hand has seen better days and has only his claim to be of good intentions to give him hope for the future.  This chapter has heightened the Romanticism of the novel and suggested much more intrigue is in store.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Two by Marilynne Robinson

I have read three of Marilynne Robinson's novels.  Two of them are discussed below and Gilead which came between them, which I hope to comment on at some future date.  Her writing style is impeccable and a joy to read. I heartily recommend all of her novels to readers who love beautiful prose and thought-provoking domestic tales.


Housekeeping“Then there is the matter of my mother's abandonment of me. Again, this is the common experience. They walk ahead of us, and walk too fast, and forget us, they are so lost in thoughts of their own, and soon or late they disappear. The only mystery is that we expect it to be otherwise.”   ― Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

The housekeeping that is described in this fascinating novel from the pen of Marilynne Robinson is different than any I have ever experienced and that is part of the charm of the book. Add to that the elegant prose style of Ms. Robinson and you have all you need for a great book. The story is set in a fictional town in the Pacific Northwest that rests along a lake that casts an ominous shadow; it has the distinction of once having claimed an entire train that slid from a bridge into its dark waters one night, taking almost all on board to their deaths. Time swallows people in the same way in this seductive book (although not everyone in our book discussion group was taken with its charms).
The narrator is Ruth, a teenaged girl. She and her sister are raised, affectionately but haphazardly, by various generations of the women in her very eccentric family. This is a book about women, making homes, and leaving them. Even when the girls stay home, the days and nights pass and the plot goes nowhere in particular, but you do not mind because the author has such a masterful way with words.


Home (Gilead, #2)“He will talk to me a little while, too shy to tell me why he has come, and then he will thank me and leave, walking backward a few steps, thinking, Yes, the barn is still there, yes, the lilacs, even the pot of petunias. This was my father's house. And I will think, He is young. He cannot know that my whole like has come down to this moment. 
That he has answered his father's prayers.”   ― Marilynne Robinson, Home

Marilynne Robinson's novel, Home, is in part a variation on the theme of the prodigal son. However in this case, the father, Reverend Robert Boughton, does not role out the red carpet. 
Just as she did in her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson evokes themes from the Bible to provide thematic foundation for her narrative. As this story proceeds we begin to get a picture of a man deeply disappointed in his son and who seemingly, in spite of some words that suggest otherwise, would have preferred that his son not return after an absence of twenty years. While his daughter Glory, who is living at home caring for him, is willing to attempt to reconnect with her brother Jack as she deals with her own personal regrets, Reverend Boughton is gradually portrayed as a vain bitter old man, shorn of the more loving aspects of the Christian belief system. Doubt and distrust of his son, not altogether unwarranted, but certainly unexpected from a man of the cloth, consume the Reverend whose blood ties with this broken son do not help him overcome his antipathy for flaws that do not seem to be beyond forgiveness.
But the old man said, "Come here son," and he took Jack's hands and caressed them and touched them to his cheek. He said, "It's a powerful thing, family."  And Jack laughed. "Yes, sir. Yes, it is. I do know that."  
"Well," he said, "at least you're home." (p 176)
Others have shown some trust in Jack, but all seem to harbor doubts in this beautifully-written novel that shares its local and some characters with Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. In Gilead father and daughter remain as the rest of the family gathers to see their father through his last days, but the prodigal . . . well, read the book and find out.

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Thursday, October 09, 2014

Reading Questionnaire

Reading Connections 
& Time

I ran across the following questionnaire five years ago at kiss a cloud where it was placed in response to the original (I believe) at Savidge Reads. Connections can be found everywhere when pursuing reading blogs.  While I wrote a response at the time I thought after five years I might update my thoughts about these questions.
Anyway I think that today, with its sunny skies and and cool October weather is as a good as any one for curling up with a good book. But before I get too settled on the couch I append my answers to the "timely" questions about reading and Time with thanks to Simon and Claire. 

What time do you find the best time to read?

For me it is the first thing in the morning for about an hour.

What are you spending time reading right now?

I am beginning to read two large novels, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; the latter is for a read-along on the Web and the former is for a class I am taking at the University of Chicago.  Other novels are also on my reading docket including Maps by Nurruddin Farah and The Enormous Room by E. E. Cummings and, for another study group, The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil.  That last title is a reread and it happened to be on my reading docket five years ago.

What’s the best book with time in the title you have read?

Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time would have to top the list and it has become a favorite over the last half-decade.

What is your favourite time (as in era) to read novels based in?

While I have read and enjoyed books from the preclassical era (The Epic of Gilgamesh) to the Postmodern (Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell), the Victorian era is my favorite time with Bronte, Dickens, Eliot, Trollope and Hardy among my favorite authors.

What book could your read time and time again?

There is not one book that I could put above others in my reading experience and there are many that I have read more than once.  Several candidates for this book would include Jane Eyre, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Middlemarch, War & Peace and David Copperfield.  I should add that not a year goes by in which I do not read some Shakespeare.

What recently published book do you think deserves to become a classic in Time?

Two that might make the grade that I have read are Embers by Sandor Marai (1942 but rediscovered in 2002) and the above-mentioned Cloud Atlas  (2004). The closest to a time theme for me would be Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990).

What book has been your biggest waste of time?

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is still at the top of this short list;  being a tremendous waste of a book filled with uninteresting characters and narrated in an unnecessarily convoluted manner. So many better books have been written about India (most recently The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga).

What’s your favorite read of all time?

This would be a tie between Jane Eyre and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Who is your favorite author of all time?

Marcel Proust.

Madness of a Tragic King

King Lear
by William Shakespeare

Barbara Gaines, Director

"Howl, howl, howl!  O, you are men of stones.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack.  She's gone forever.
I know when one is dead, and when one lives. 
She's dead as earth.  Lend me a looking glass."

- King Lear (V, iii, 258-262)

The current production of King Lear at Chicago Shakespeare Theater is successful primarily due to the astonishing performance of Larry Yando as Lear.  This seems to be due not only to his fine acting but also to the direction of the play that centers the action on Lear from the opening moments - with a prologue that is not in the original play -  to the final scene.  That this production has this focus is not unexpected, after all the title of the play is "King Lear", but doing so masks some of the flaws in the production;  one that used a contemporary setting and the songs of Frank Sinatra as backdrop for the 
tragedy of Lear. 

While enjoying the production as a whole, again mainly due to Larry Yando's exceptional performance, the evening was not without its disappointments.  First the good aspects:  Joining Yando with strong dramatic turns were Kevin Gudahl as Kent, Michael Aaron Lindner as Gloucester and Steve Haggard as his son Edgar.  On the other hand the portrayal of the daughters, especially Cordelia was not as strong and at the opening scene when Lear requests their declarations of love Nehassaiu deGannes as Cordelia appeared to be tentative and ineffective.  The performance of Jesse Luken as Edmund was one that did not bring the weight and force of language necessary for this essential role that rivals Iago in Shakespeare's catalog of evil characters.  The remainder of the company performed well enough to be worthy support for the magnificent Lear portrayal in this production.  The staging, especially the thunder and lightning of the storm on the heath was, in contemporary vernacular, simply awesome.  

Overall this was another great production from CST although anytime King Lear is well performed you are hard pressed to say you enjoyed the play.  This is the darkest of Shakespeare's plays with Lear's madness and the most tragic of endings, emphasized in this production with the dead Cordelia held in the King's arms.  Still, with all the tragic darkness there is much food for thought in the many wonderful words of this, one of Shakespeare's greatest plays.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Bewitchment of the Magic Mountain

Notes on reading
The Magic Mountain
by Thomas Mann

"Yes, it's top-notch, your having come,' he said, and there was feeling in his nonchalant voice.  "And let me tell you it's quite an event for me.  First of all, just the variety of it--I mean it's an interruption, a break in the endless everlasting monotony."
"But I would think time ought to pass quickly for you all," Hans Castorp suggested.
"Quickly and slowly, just as you like" Joachim [Hans' cousin] replied.  "What I'm trying to say is that it doesn't really pass at all, there is no time as such, and this is no life--no, that it's not," he said, shaking his head and reaching again for his glass." (p 14)

Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain is very much the education of "an ordinary young man";  yet is so much more than this, with questions about young Hans Castorp's very ordinariness and his being in time.  Yes, this question of the status and nature of time is central to the story at the outset.  From the first page when we are told Hans "long trip" is  "too long, really, for so short a visit", time as experienced by Hans and the reader through the narrative's presentation is in a sort of flux.  

Hans' time is stretched out while he is on the Mountain so that a planned visit of only three weeks becomes a stay of seven years.  It is in the fifth paragraph of the novel, in the chapter titled "Arrival", that the narrator shares these words about space and time:
"Space, as it rolls and tumbles away between him and his native soil, proves to have powers normally ascribed only to time;  from hour to hour, space brings about changes very like those time produces, yet surpassing them in certain ways.  Space, like time, gives birth to forgetfulness, but does so by removing the individual from all relationships and placing him in a free and pristine state---indeed, in but a moment it can turn a pedant and philistine into something like a vagabond.  Time, they say, is water from the river Lethe, but alien air is a similar drink;  and if its effects are less profound, it works all the more quickly."(p 4)

Hans has not planned to take this short visit "seriously" but he soon finds, as he crosses the abyss between his old world and that of the magic mountain, that he is imbibing an alien air that quickly removes his inhibitions and exerts a profound force on his being.  He is experiencing what the author earlier, in his foreword, describes as the necessary time for the telling of his story, "for when was a story short on diversion or long on boredom simply because of the time and space required for the telling?  . . . Seven days in one week will not suffice, nor will seven months.  It will be best for him if he is not all too clear about the number of earthly days that will pass as the tale weaves its web about him.  For God's sake, surely it cannot be as long as seven years!" (p xii)

So we begin this modern novel with time as experienced by our ordinary young protagonist being stretched in ways that do not conform to everyday chronological time.  There will also be disease and the bewitchment of death.  Love, as well, will be present as a captive of the magic on the mountain.  Ultimately the bewitchment of the Magic Mountain will capture the reader in its "alien air".

Monday, October 06, 2014

The 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along: Week 3

Welcome to the third week of 
the 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along,
brought to you by

Introduction:  "they spoke of books:"

In the chapters for the reading this week we find Jane at Lowood School with new sights and new persons.  The best of Jane's new acquaintances are fellow student Helen Burns and their teacher Miss Temple.  After a particularly hard day (as were most days) Miss Temple invites the girls to share a small, simple repast that she had saved for them and that Jane described as "nectar and ambrosia";  but the best part of the evening was the conversation:
"They conversed of things I had never heard of;  of nations and times past;  of countries far away;  of secrets of nature discovered or guessed at;  they spoke of books:  how many they had read!  What stores of knowledge they possessed!"

Week 3  Discussion Questions:
Chapters 6 - 10
(Questions provided by
Babbling Books)

1.) What are your impressions of the way Helen Burns endures punishment and abuse?

Helen has what I would characterize as a "stoic" attitude, but one that is very much based in a firm belief in God and the Bible.  Helen tells Jane, "It is far better to endure patiently a smart which nobody  feels but yourself, than to commit a hasty action whose evil consequences will extend to all connected with you;  and, besides, the Bible bids us return good for evil."  She appears to be meek as in those "blessed" ones that are said to inherit the earth;  but in spite of her acceptance of punishment, or perhaps beside it, she is not unintelligent and thinks about both her own spirit and the impact her actions have on those around her.  She even betrays admiration for Jane in the way that she smiles and looks upon her.

2.) What are your impressions of the way that Jane sees punishment and abuse in comparison to Helen?

Jane, in comparison with Helen, is almost her antithesis.  She has a rebellious nature and is not ashamed of that, relying on her own standards of what is right rather than those of others (particularly Miss Scatcherd).   Jane tells Helen,  "I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me;  I must resist those who punish me unjustly.  It is as natural that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved."  Thus Jane is more concerned with what she considers "just" and her own natural feelings of when punishment is "deserved" and when it is not.  Unlike Helen whose reaction to abuse is to "love your enemies" Jane is focused on what is right.  Her view seems Kantian in the sense that she sees actions as being defined by rules that apply the same to everyone, and will not accept injustice based on the teachings of the Bible.  

3.) Would Mr. Brocklehurst have been a more realistic and interesting character had he been less overtly fanatical, cruel and hypocritical, and just deeply flawed, instead?

We see Brocklehurst through the eyes of Jane.  While her lens may exaggerate the flaws of his character, they highlight the attitude of Jane, reinforcing the defining characteristics of her own defiant and daunting persona.  Understood this way Brocklehurst, while a grotesque caricature, is infinitely more interesting than his slightly kinder and gentler doppelganger who does not appear in Jane's very personal narrative.

4.) Helen Burns exudes confidence and is sure of her personal beliefs. Do you find it realistic that a young person exhibits such traits?

Helen Burns' confidence and sureness in her personal beliefs seems to stem from a faith that she has developed well before Jane, and thus we the reader, meets her.  That her faith can sustain such confidence I have little doubt.  In her longest statement of faith Helen concludes with the words, "God waits only the separation of spirit from flesh to crown us with a full reward.  Why, then, should we ever sink overwhelmed with distress, when life is so soon over, and death is so certain an entrance to happiness -- to glory?" 
 These words speak of a confidence within;  a confidence that is based on a faith stronger than most of us may share.  This is uncommon perhaps, but surely realistic from a romantic point of view.

5.) Miss Temple seems to influence Jane's personality and outlook on life during her stay at Lowood. Would Jane have developed differently without her influence?

I believe this is a question for which it is too early for us to know.  As readers of Jane's narrative we have yet to see how Jane develops.  It does appear that Jane continues to be observant and admires Miss Temple tremendously.  Jane comments that "to her instruction I owed the best part of my acquirements;  her friendship and society had been my continual solace;  she had stood me in the stead of mother, governess, and latterly, companion."  
Miss Temple's leaving Lowood removed the "tranquility" that she had brought to Jane, but also freed Jane to experience the "real world" outside of Lowood.  This was the world that "awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils."  
I am unsure whether Jane would have had this courage without the influence of Miss Temple, but I am sure that she has it for now and I hope she will continue to exhibit it in her new endeavor as she leaves Lowood.