Thursday, January 24, 2008

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

I have a "history" with this book that goes back over twenty years ...

When I was in my third year of college, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Despite aggressive chemotheraphy treatments, in February, 1987 she fell into a coma and there she stayed for about two weeks until, one morning, she died.

At that time, I was in the process of reading Great Expectations (a cheap Bantam edition, as I recall) for the first time ... and I never finished it. Something about the book ... its cover, its story, maybe even its smell ... something about that book always struck me as distasteful, and although I've made a couple of feeble attempts to read the book since then, I've never been able to do it.

So finally finishing this book -- for my spring Newberry seminar -- is an achievement for me. It's a book that is fraught with personal feelings that I have had to overcome. Interestingly, although I finished the book today, it's taken me months of hammering away at its chapters to finally get through it.

When everything is said and done, I must admit that it's one of my least favorite Dickens novels. Apart from the great opening chapter and the delightful descriptions of Miss Havisham, I found it one of the darkest, most humorless books in the Dickens canon. Also, I suppose I'm used to Dickens giving his readers subplots, and here is the only novel written by Boz that has no subplot whatsoever (which is probably why we subject high school freshmen to it). In the villain Orlick we get an antagonist who is a genuine physical threat to protagonist Pip -- not the grotesquely caricatured villains of Quilp or Uriah Heep or even Mr. Carker, but a murderous criminal (virtually harkening back to Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, but even Sikes I recall having a somewhat humorous treatment in his exchanges with Fagin). And although Dickens has given us melodramatic death scenes in the past (can anyone say "Little Nell" or "Dora Spenlow"??), I wonder now how I would have gotten through the death scene in Great Expectations had I finished the book back in '87.

Well, at least I can finally say I've read it ...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Ray Bradbury, Farewell Summer

When was the last time you read a book in one sitting, with a smile on your face the whole time?

Farewell Summer is Bradbury's sequel to 1957's Dandelion Wine, a wonderful novel that captures the excitement of summer vacation when you're a little kid growing up in a small Midwest town in 1928. Life consists of little more than friends, pretend intrigues, lightning bugs, and the delicious feel of a summer breeze through your window. And while Dandelion Wine focuses on a "slice of life" with the residents of Green Town, Illinois (based on Bradbury's home town of Waukegan), much of the story follows the summer adventures of twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding, his little brother Tom, and their buddies.

In Farewell Summer, published almost fifty years after the first novel, Bradbury continues the story of Doug et al, now during a brief Indian summer in early October, 1929. Doug and his buddies engage in a "war" with the adults of the town, a war that becomes a metaphor for the struggle over control one feels as a teen. The stealing of chess pieces from the old men who play chess in the park, the setting-off of firecrackers in the town hall bell tower, and the awakening thrill of watching a girl and an ice cream cone all come together to capture the transitions we all make from giddy summer to the sober realities of autumn.

My guess: You will read this book in one sitting, smiling the whole time. : )

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Happy Twelfth Night!

" Twelfth Night is a holiday in some branches of Christianity marking the coming of the Epiphany, concluding the Twelve Days of Christmas, and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking'.

"The celebration of Epiphany, the adoration of the Magi, is marked in some cultures by the exchange of gifts, and Twelfth Night, as the eve or vigil of Epiphany, takes on a similar significance to Christmas Eve.

"In some traditions it is taken to mean the evening of the Twelfth Day itself, the sixth of January. This apparent difference has arisen probably due to the old custom of treating sunset as the beginning of the following day. Therefore, according to confluent ancient traditions of the tides of time, Twelfth Night would have been celebrated as occurring on the twelfth day as different to the present custom of celebrating the day prior." [...]

Here is the Wikipedia citation from which this comes.

Here is the Shakespeare connection.

And here is why you should take down your Christmas decorations by tonight.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Richard Matheson, I Am Legend

What a great book to start a new year of reading!

I Am Legend is a novella originally published in 1954 as a piece of science fiction (since the story takes place in the not-so-distant 1976). Today it is hailed as a major contribution to the horror genre. Indeed, the whole time I was reading this, I was reminded of the thrill you get when you are completely immersed in a good Stephen King or Clive Barker story!

The story itself focuses on Robert Neville, the last man on earth. A worldwide holocaust has transformed all surviving humans into vampires -- all, that is, except for Neville ... and the story follows him as he nightly seals himself into a house and fights off the vampires that walk on the roof, pound on the doors, and bellow his name! When he ventures outside during the daytime, he seeks their comatose bodies to burn, and one of the most gripping scenes in the book begins when Neville realizes -- a bit too late -- that his wristwatch has stopped!

But more than merely a page-turner, I Am Legend is also a fascinating take on the traditional vampire story in terms of offering a scientific explanation for vampirism (even going so far as to suggest that the Black Plague of the Middle Ages may have been connected to it) and a speculation on why certain aspects of the legend exist in the first place (e.g., if a Jewish person becomes a vampire, would a cross have the same punishing effect on it?).

To be honest, I don't remember much about Omega Man, the 1971 film that was based on the Matheson story, nor have I seen the newly released Will Smith film. But as a piece of fiction, I Am Legend is a thrilling read!

* This paperback edition includes ten additional short stories by Richard Matheson.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Bill Martin, Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock: 1968 - 1978

This is one of those books I'm drawn to over and over again. I read it almost ten years ago, when it was first published, and the author -- an Associate Professor of Marxist Philosophy at DePaul University and a musician who plays a choice Rickenbacher bass -- was interviewed about the book in a Chicago Sun-Times article. Being a lifelong fan and collector of Prog Rock, I devoured the book ... and have found myself returning to it countless times over the years!

When I was a kid I would travel by CTA bus down 79th Street to visit my Aunt Gene, who lived in Justice, IL. While she and my Mom would sit in the kitchen chatting for hours, I'd sit in the living room playing my Aunt's classical music albums, which gave me my first exposure to complex musical arrangements, "movements," and other such organizational patterns in music.

Later in high school, I "discovered" the music of such bands as King Crimson, Yes, ELP, Jethro Tull, and early Genesis -- bands that revelled in long, self-indulgent musical soundscapes, often using exotic instruments (anyone remember the Mellotron? LOL) to convey a medieval mood. Even later, my affinity for Prog fueled my interest in jazz (especially Miles and Monk and 'Trane), and to this day I sorta retain a soft spot for jam bands like Phish. Maybe it's the Hippie in me (I was born in 1966, after all ... and dammit, I had the Batman bedsheets to prove it!)

Anyways, Martin's Listening to the Future is a fantastic read if Prog is your thing, especially when he gets into his year-by-year guided discography that illustrates the growth and development of progressive rock from its earliest hints in the Beatles's Rubber Soul to its heyday in the early '70s -- Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells (which is today remembered as the "sountrack" for The Exorcist), ELP's Brain Salad Surgery, the Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire, Yes's Tales from Topographic Oceans, and King Crimson's brilliant Lark's Tongues in Aspic -- to its gradual dissipation and influence on such bands as The Clash and Husker Du.

For Chistmas, I received a CD of Caravan's In the Land of Grey and Pink -- a choice piece of musicianship from the prog era -- and again I return to Bill Martin's book to celebrate a time in rock history when experimentation was king ... and suites were sweet.